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Chapter eight: C’mine

All dragonets share a special bond with their clutchmates. It is not always a friendly connection – sibling rivalries often turn out to be the most bitter of all – but every class of weyrlings forms its own semi-exclusive community within the Weyr’s society. As the dragonets mature and begin to interact with older dragons, becoming part of the Weyr’s wider consciousness, their juvenile bonds become less central. But dragons under one Turn of age are still heavily reliant on each other, and very reluctant to allow outsiders into their private club.

– Weyrlingmaster K’dove, On Dragonet Development

100.02.23 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
MADELLON WEYR

C'mine (Micah Johnson)Wing drill was cancelled.

The word came down from Valth, F’halig’s brown, near the end of the morning watch, when most of the riders of the Weyrleader’s Wing – most of the riders of Madellon – were probably still lost to the world, still sleeping the sodden sleep of the grief-stricken, the heartsick, and the intoxicated.

That he was probably the only sober rider in a drunken and mourning Weyr struck C’mine as both ironic and absurd, but – as Darshanth kept reminding him, long beyond the point at which his short dragon memory should have forgotten all about it – a promise was a promise.

He lay in bed, awake, as he had all night, with his face to the wall, and the question his treacherous brain had been turning over and over for hours still plaguing him. What hurt worse: the deaths of three weyrlings, or the keening for another that their loss so painfully echoed?

Madellon didn’t lose dragonriders very often. There’d been no serious sickness in Turns, and the Weyr’s Healers were good at treating the coughs and colds of the changing seasons. The riders who made it to retirement in their seventh and eighth decades didn’t often stay at the Weyr when there were other, more temperate places they could go to see out their last Turns, away from the bitter winters and stifling summers of Madellon territory. The loss of Janina and Amynth, elderly though they’d been, had come out of nowhere, and that aside, yesterday’s triple tragedy had been the first time the dragons of Madellon had keened one of their number between in months.

Since Hatching day.

C’mine knew he should have been more affected by the loss of the weyrlings themselves, but when Darshanth had supplied their names – Danementh, Saperth, Nedrith – he hadn’t recognised any of them. He couldn’t put a face to any of the dead. He hadn’t known them. They’d been born and lived and died without his knowing them. Now he would never know them – and yet the world still turned. The sun had still risen at its allotted hour. C’los and Indioth were still dead.

He didn’t know what time it was – certainly well into forenoon, though the changes of watch had taken place in sombre silence since the accident – when a dragon landed on the ledge outside with a snap of wingsail and the scrape of talons on rock. It even took him several moments to realise that it was a visitor. Darshanth had gone up to the Rim to catch the morning sun, and the dragon who had just touched down on the ledge was much bigger and heavier than a blue.

There was only one dragon at Madellon whose rider would ignore C’mine’s widely-acknowledged desire for privacy in his weyr.

Epherineth, Darshanth confirmed.

Alarm banished C’mine’s dismal torpor as nothing else could have. Shards! He rolled out of bed and onto the floor, snaring himself in a crumpled sheet. Untangling it cost several precious seconds. And he’d only just had time to yank the curtain across the other sleeping alcove, concealing the star charts and maps and notes tacked to the wall and strewn all over the bed, when, without invitation, T’kamen came striding in.

“So you are awake,” he said, and then halted, looking oddly at him. “Faranth; put some clothes on. I nearly sent Valonna over.”

“She would have knocked,” said C’mine, but he found a pair of shorts on the floor and pulled them on.

T’kamen was looking around the weyr, taking in the details C’mine hadn’t wanted anyone to see. “It stinks in here,” he said. “I’ll have Crauva send someone up to clean –”

“No, T’kamen,” C’mine said quickly, “don’t. Please. I don’t want anyone touching anything.”

“Why not? It’s not like you’re preserving it as it was when he was here. Even he wouldn’t have let your weyr get this disgusting.” T’kamen turned over a pile of discarded riding leathers with one foot, uncovering a plate containing a half-eaten, half-rotten meatroll. “This is foul, C’mine. You’re lucky you haven’t got vermin.”

C’mine had twice found tunnel-snakes in his weyr, but he wasn’t about to admit to that. Darshanth, at least, had disposed of the evidence. “I didn’t think there was Wing drill today.”

“There isn’t. Faranth knows I don’t need hungover riders killing themselves in close formation manoeuvres. It’s not why I’m here.” T’kamen pointed at the alcove where, in another lifetime, C’mine’s clothes had hung clean and neat and tidy. “Get dressed. I’ll be in the other room. And don’t take all day about it.”

Sometimes there was no reasoning with T’kamen. C’mine dressed in silence. But when the first few notes, picked experimentally and slightly out of tune, floated through from the living area of the weyr, anger and outrage surged up in a flood that made Darshanth, even at his physical and emotional remove, flinch away from him.

C’mine rushed through, his shirt still half unbuttoned. “Put her down!”

T’kamen looked up from where he’d rested C’los’ gitar on his lap, unmoved. “You’ve let her go out of tune.” He turned two of the tuning heads, strummed a chord, readjusted the high E-string and played the chord again. “Do you know how long it’s been since I picked up a gitar?”

“Put her down,” C’mine repeated. He could feel the blood pulsing through the veins in his temples. “Put her down now.”

T’kamen just looked at him from over the beautiful gitar that had cost C’los more marks to have crafted than most dragonriders made in a Turn. Then, unhurriedly, he rose and placed the instrument back on its stand. As he turned back towards C’mine, he wiped dust from his hands. “Sit down.”

“You have no right –”

“I said sit down.”

C’mine sat.

T’kamen glowered down at him. He wasn’t a tall man, or a big one, but he had a black, black temper when provoked, and braver riders than C’mine had quailed beneath his glare. “I’ve had enough of this whershit from you. Enough of tiptoeing around you, enough of worrying what you’re going to do to yourself, enough of not even saying his name because I’m afraid of what new pit of despair you’ll hurl yourself into if I do. Do you hear me? I’ve had it up to here!” He took a breath, and then he said it. “C’los is dead, C’mine. He’s dead, and I’m sorry, and I wish there was something I could do, but he’s gone and no amount of self-indulgent breast-beating is going to bring him back!”

C’mine recoiled from the truth he’d wanted never to hear from T’kamen. He wasn’t even aware of the words that came from his own mouth until he heard them. “I can’t live without him, T’kamen!”

“Yes you can,” T’kamen said. It was cold, hard. “And if you have an ounce of decency you’ll go grovelling to Darshanth for forgiveness right now that you could even think such a thing. Faranth’s shaffing teeth, C’mine. We lost three weyrlings yesterday. Six lives ended before they’d barely started. I have a fourth kid unconscious and his dragonet terrified that he’s never going to wake up. And you sit there, a dragonrider, Darshanth’s rider, and say you can’t live without your precious sharding weyrmate.” His lip curled with disgust. “If it’s so unbearable, why don’t you just take yourself between and be done with the whole thing?”

The callousness of it shocked C’mine. “Darshanth wouldn’t –”

“You’re shaffing right he wouldn’t. And thank Faranth that one of you still feels some duty of care for the other. Darshanth doesn’t deserve what you’re doing to him. He’s done nothing wrong – except choose you, in the first place. He could have had anyone that day. Any one of us out of thirty, forty kids. He chose you. He wanted you. And this is how you’re repaying him. With neglect and with abuse.”

“I’d never abuse him!” C’mine protested.

“You already are! Do you think he enjoys sharing your despair? Do you think he wants to be pitied by other dragons? Do you think he likes having Valth bite his head off over your conduct? You’re so self-absorbed, so wrapped up in your own misery, that you’ve forgotten that you’re responsible for his happiness as well as your own. It isn’t fair. You can’t ask a dragon to understand that kind of grief. Faranth, C’mine, Darshanth doesn’t even remember him. As far as he’s concerned, C’los is just the name of the vortex that’s been sucking your joy and your energy and your life for as long as he can remember.”

C’mine wanted to deny it. He wanted to deny all of it. But Darshanth had been listening silently, and when he appealed to him for support, he didn’t respond. He simply, sadly, radiated agreement with everything T’kamen had said.

Despairing, C’mine dropped his head on his forearms. A moment later he felt T’kamen’s hand land hard on his shoulder. He looked up at him, seeing the concern and frustration that lay beneath his oldest friend’s anger. “What do you want me to do, Kamen? I can’t just…turn it off. I can’t forget him. I can’t pretend he was never here. And the only thing I can do to make the pain go away is –”

He bit off what he was about to confess. T’kamen’s grip tightened on his shoulder. “Drink yourself into unconsciousness?” he asked. “Send Darshanth after every other green? Is a few hours’ relief worth the price you’re paying for it? You found some peace once, C’mine. You need to find it again. I know it hurts when another dragon dies. I know it’s like losing him all over again. But you’ve let this go on too long. And so have I.” He glared down at C’mine, and the set of his jaw became determined. “As of right now, you’re no longer required at Wing drills or meetings.”

What? Darshanth demanded.

C’mine heard himself echoing his dragon. “What?” He stared at T’kamen, thunderstruck. “You’re throwing us out of the Wing?”

T’kamen folded his arms. “You’ve been a liability to yourself and to the rest of us for sevendays. You’re not turning up on time, you’re not paying attention when you do deign to appear, and the last thing I need is another Sejanth. The responsibilities of a fighting blue rider clearly aren’t enough to make you concentrate, and I won’t have that kind of attitude in my Wing. Any of my Wings.”

C’mine had thought he couldn’t feel any worse than he already did, but the shame of being dismissed from the fighting Wings proved him wrong. “You’re sending us out to watchride for a Hold.”

“That’s one alternative.” T’kamen regarded him with neither sympathy nor mercy. “There’s another possibility.”

“The Ops Wing?” C’mine asked, seizing on the idea. “We could do that. Darshanth wanted to. We could –”

“No.” T’kamen cut him off. “I might not like M’ric, but I’m not about to inflict you on him, either.” He paused. “Do you even know which of the weyrlings died yesterday?”

It was too incongruous a segue for C’mine to follow. “Darshanth told me their names,” he said. “I didn’t know them. They weren’t any of ours.”

“That makes it all right then,” T’kamen said. His voice was sharp with sarcasm. “Well, maybe this will put things into perspective for you. The brown rider, N’jen. He was Jenavally’s son.”

“Oh,” C’mine said. “Oh, Faranth.”

“He was fourteen Turns old,” T’kamen went on relentlessly. “Just a kid. Now he’s a dead kid. Perhaps you’ll have some idea of how Jena’s feeling right about now.”

If Jenavally’s grief for her son was anything like C’mine’s for C’los, then he had a very good idea of the anguish she could expect in the coming sevendays and months and Turns. “Is she all right?”

“No,” said T’kamen. “She’s not all shaffing right.” He let that truth have a moment to sink in, and then went on. “You know she was L’stev’s assistant.”

C’mine remembered that much from before Hatching day. Jenavally had been the Weyr Singer for Turns, but she’d been excited about helping to train the new group of weyrlings. He remembered discussing her appointment with C’los, remembered how they’d lamented that their informal band, already diminished by one with T’kamen too busy to play with them, would probably be reduced to their two gitars and A’len’s drums. “Yes.”

“She’s in no state to continue right now. She probably won’t be for a while. And I can’t leave L’stev unsupported at a time like this.”

T’kamen’s inference registered with C’mine all at once. “You want…me…?”

“It might just be the most idiotic idea I’ve had since I became Weyrleader,” T’kamen said coolly.

“L’stev wouldn’t have me,” C’mine said. He couldn’t let himself consider the prospect seriously. “If he found out what I’ve been…”

“Don’t be naïve,” said T’kamen. “L’stev’s not stupid. He’s well aware of what you’ve been up to.”

C’mine doubted that, but he went on anyway. “He wouldn’t let me anywhere near them. He’s always been protective of his weyrlings.”

T’kamen gave him a hard look. “Stop objecting on his behalf and tell me if you’re interested or not.”

Yes, Darshanth said. There was something that might have been hope in his voice. Maybe even excitement. Yes. We could work with the weyrlings. We could be good at that.

“Darshanth wants to,” C’mine said.

“That doesn’t surprise me. Darshanth’s still a reflection of the rider he chose when he Hatched.” T’kamen’s tone was caustic. “What about you?”

C’mine raised his eyes to T’kamen’s, stricken. “What about Leah?”

“What about her?”

“She’s his daughter.”

“There was a time when she was as good as yours, too,” T’kamen said. “But if she’s a problem, then this conversation ends here, and you’re going to Jessaf.”

“No,” C’mine said quickly. Then he hesitated for a long moment before continuing. “No. She’s not a problem. It’s just…”

“It’s just what?”

“What if something happened to her, too?”

“Wouldn’t you like to be in a position where you can try to make sure it doesn’t?” T’kamen let out his breath, and for the first time C’mine noticed how tired he looked. There were bluish-black shadows under his eyes, and he was holding his shoulders straight only with conscious effort. “We don’t know what went wrong yesterday. The weyrlings who couldn’t go between are traumatised, and the rest of them are terrified out of their wits. L’stev needs an assistant, but more importantly than that, the kids need support.”

“And you think I’d be able to give it to them?” C’mine asked. He couldn’t keep the incredulity out of his voice.

“I know you’re able. I just don’t know if you’re willing. Or if you’d rather sit on a fireheight and feel sorry for yourself.”

Yes. Darshanth spoke to both of them. Yes. We’re willing. We will try and more than try. We will help the weyrlings.

T’kamen winced, putting a hand to his temple. “Could you ask him not to do that, C’mine? No offence to Darshanth, but it goes through my skull like a toothache when someone else’s dragon talks to me.”

“I’m sorry, Kamen.”

He shook his head. “Is he speaking for you both?”

C’mine realised that he didn’t know. “Maybe it’s time he did.”

T’kamen narrowed his eyes. “You need to make this work, Mine. If L’stev won’t have you, or if he decides you’re not fit to be around the weyrlings, I will have H’ned roster you out to Jessaf. I don’t think it would make you any happier, but I don’t know what else to try. Leaving you alone doesn’t seem to have done you any good.”

“I never wanted to be a burden to you, T’kamen.”

“Then don’t be. L’stev’s expecting you. It’s up to you to convince him you’re the right man for the job. You understand?”

Perhaps it was just Darshanth’s optimism, bleeding through their bond, but for the first time in a long time C’mine felt as if a narrow sliver of sunlight had slipped through a crack in his despair. “I…understand.”

They walked together out onto the ledge. Darshanth had come down from the Rim, and he and Epherineth turned their heads in unison to watch them. The two dragons didn’t look at all alike, but they were clutchmates who had hatched within minutes of each other, brothers who had always been close, and in that instant their expressions were identical. It gave C’mine’s a moment’s pause, and he looked again at T’kamen. He understood Darshanth’s anxiety for him, but Epherineth looked no less concerned about his own rider. “Are you all right, Kamen?”

T’kamen laughed. “Do I look all right?”

“Not really,” C’mine said.

“Imagine that.” T’kamen passed a hand over his face. “I won’t be around much for a couple of days. There’s no precedent in our records for what happened yesterday, so I’m going begging to the other Weyrs. But when I’m back…” He sighed. “When I’m back, we’ll talk. You and me. Like we always used to. You’re not the only one who needs to spend more time with other people.” He turned to mount Epherineth, then addressed C’mine from over his shoulder. “And get this place cleaned up by then so I don’t have to pull rank with Crauva. Her women have enough to do.”

“Yes sir,” C’mine replied meekly.

“Keep the ‘sirs’ for L’stev.” T’kamen stepped onto Epherineth’s forearm, took hold of the fore-strap, and vaulted up to his place on the bronze dragon’s neck. “You’ll need them.”

C’mine stood back, and Darshanth swung his tail out of the way, as Epherineth launched himself off the ledge. He spread his wings, found a thermal to lift him, then banked away at a dramatic angle towards his own weyr.

Darshanth watched him go, then swivelled his head around to look at C’mine. His eyes had gone a blue only a few shades darker than his hide. Vanzanth is waiting.

For an instant, the doubt returned in a rush. “Should we even be –”

Yes. We should. Darshanth pushed C’mine towards his weyr with his nose. Get dressed. Vanzanth is not yet angry with me. I would like to keep it that way.


Shimpath was on the training grounds, surrounded by dragonets. One especially piteous brown lay almost across her forepaws. The others, even the young queen, huddled close, taking comfort from their mother’s presence. And behind them, nearly indistinguishable from the moss-covered outcrop of rock that had been his observation perch for as long as C’mine could remember, Vanzanth watched over queen and dragonets with a morose expression.

The brown dragon didn’t turn his head, but Darshanth reported, He says I may land beside him.

Darshanth’s respect for Vanzanth comprised equal parts loyalty, awe, and fear, and no amount of maturity or seniority was ever likely to change it. He wasn’t alone. Vanzanth had trained every dragon hatched at Madellon for the last fifteen Turns. Even Epherineth still deferred to the grizzled brown who could make queens and bronzes cower with a single censorious look.

L’stev didn’t instil quite the same instinctive submission in Madellon’s riders as Vanzanth did in their dragons. When he had no weyrling class to terrorise, he was genial company. His withering sense of humour was tempered by the deep compassion that ran beneath the brusque and grumpy surface, and by the wisdom gathered over forty Turns as a dragonrider. He and C’los had enjoyed a vitriolic acquaintance, baiting and bickering, deliberately antagonising each other, that C’mine had never completely understood. C’los had been like that. C’mine’s friendship with L’stev had always been more conventional. He liked him, and he trusted him, as a man and as a rider. But he wondered now, as he slid down Darshanth’s shoulder, if L’stev would still like the man or the rider that C’mine had become.

L’stev was leaning against Vanzanth’s elbow, his arms folded. “Thought you’d still be sleeping off a wineskin,” he remarked as C’mine approached. “The rest of the Weyr is.”

“I’ve stopped with that,” C’mine said.

“Really.” It was flatly sceptical.

“I promised Darshanth,”

“Been getting in a bad way, have you?”

L’stev’s question sounded casual, but C’mine knew it wasn’t. He also knew there was no point in lying. “Yes,” he said. “That’s why I’ve stopped.”

“Completely?”

“Yes.”

“This job’s driven me to drink more times than I like to remember,” said L’stev. “But I’ve always been able to stop. If total abstinence is the measure you need to take, then total abstinence is what I’ll expect from you.”

“I understand, Weyrlingmaster.”

“And this chasing of greens. Can you get control of Darshanth’s appetites?”

Darshanth’s appetites weren’t the problem. “If I need to.”

“Oh, you’ll need to, C’mine,” said L’stev. “If I’m going to trust you with my weyrlings, I need to know your mind’s on them, not on every green dragon who twitches her tail at you.”

C’mine hesitated, reluctant to commit to a second type of abstinence.

L’stev snorted. “What, you’re worried it’ll shrivel up and fall off for lack of use?”

I don’t have to fly greens for a bit, Darshanth assured him earnestly. Although they will miss me.

Evidently he’d been speaking to Vanzanth as well as to C’mine, because the brown dragon snorted, and L’stev barked a laugh. “Well, there’s nothing wrong with him, is there?” He regarded C’mine charily. “And what else have you been up to?”

C’mine hoped that his guilt didn’t show in his eyes, hoped that a different admission would satisfy L’stev’s inquisition. “T’kamen says I’ve been distracted in Wing drill.”

“And have you?”

“Yes.”

“Well at least you have the sense to be honest about it. So let me see if I have this right. You’re a drunk, depressed, indiscriminate liability. T’kamen doesn’t know what to do with you. Your dragon doesn’t know what to do with you. You don’t know what to do with you. And the solution to all those problems is setting you on my weyrlings.” L’stev rolled his eyes. “What could possibly go wrong there?”

C’mine looked away, feeling his face burning. “I shouldn’t have come. I’ve wasted your time.”

“Oh, don’t be so shaffing sensitive, C’mine.”

“But you’re right,” C’mine said. “I’m not fit to be responsible for anyone.”

“Whershit,” said L’stev. “Whershit. Faranth, T’kamen was right. He has been too soft on you.” He poked C’mine in the chest with a thick finger. “Are you a dragonrider or not? Well? Are you?”

C’mine recoiled, taken aback. “Yes, but –”

L’stev prodded him again, hard. It actually hurt. “Are you a Madellon dragonrider?”

“Of course I am, but –”

“Then for the love of every dragonet that ever lived, start shaffing well acting like one!” L’stev made a fist and drew his hand back. As he let the punch fly, C’mine instinctively swayed away from it. “Ha! You do still have some self-preservation left.”

“I couldn’t stand it if I let the weyrlings down –”

“Then it’s very simple,” L’stev said. “Don’t.” He stuck out a warning finger, and C’mine flinched back in anticipation of another jab. “This isn’t about you, C’mine. T’kamen might have delusions of fixing you by making you my assistant – I’m not interested in making you better – but he was right about one thing. What I need is the C’mine Vanzanth and I trained. The C’mine who kept a hand on T’kamen’s arm before he had the brains to know when to hold back. The C’mine who took the Weyrwoman and made her realise she had value beyond her dragon’s hide.

“My weyrlings are in pieces. Pieces. They’ve lost their friends, they’ve lost Jena, and they’ve lost their nerve. If there’s only a tenth part of the old C’mine left, those kids need him. They need his compassion, they need his perception, they need whatever sixth sense he had for a soul in crisis.” L’stev glared at him from beneath fiercely-knit eyebrows. The corners of his mouth, always downturned, had fixed into an even more twisted rictus than usual. “Maybe there’s a hole in your chest where your heart used to be, C’mine, but I defy you to look at Carleah and not feel the love for her that her father did. And if that love can’t bring your world back into focus, if it can’t make you devote your every breath to protecting her, if it can’t shock you out of this pathetic half-life you’ve made for yourself, then you might as well take an enormous shit on every memory you have of C’los, because as vain and as reckless and as downright shaffing idiotic as he was, he would never have wilfully abandoned everyone who cared about him or everyone who needed him.”

C’mine looked out at the juvenile dragons. The spots on his chest where L’stev had poked him throbbed slowly, but his pain went beyond that small physical discomfort. He felt mauled. Even T’kamen’s angry words hadn’t been so stiletto-sharp, or so precisely aimed at his tenderest places. He heard himself say, “I don’t even know which dragonet is hers.”

L’stev pointed. “Jagunth. The pale green between Moth, the small blue, and R’von’s bronze Oaxuth.”

C’mine only had a few scattered memories of Hatching day, all of them bad. What recollection he had of watching the Impression ceremony had been lost along with the rest in the herbal fog that had filled the first couple of sevendays that had followed. “I don’t even know all their names.”

“Lucky for you that you’ll only have twenty-two to learn, then, not twenty-five.”

C’mine winced. L’stev’s sense of humour always had tended to the darker side of black. “What happened?”

“Still don’t know,” said L’stev. “Not really in a position to investigate until a few more days have passed and the dragonets have forgotten the worst of their fright. By which time they’ll also have forgotten anything that might be useful.”

“Is it between?” C’mine asked.

“Not as far as Vanzanth and I can tell. We’ve made a dozen jumps since it happened, absolutes and blinks, and nothing seems amiss.” L’stev stared dourly at the youngsters. “There are some things we can try. We have to, don’t we? It’s not as if we can just not teach them to go between. What good are dragons who can’t go between? About as much use as tits on a watch-wher. No.” He said it with finality. “We’ll get to the bottom of this. We have to. But first we have to get those kids through the next few days. The leave-taking for the ones we lost is tonight, and that’s going to be hard on them. It’s going to make it real. Some of them are going to cry. Some of them are going to rage. I can deal with those. It’s the quiet ones who worry me. The ones who keep it inside. Vanzanth can’t be standing over all of them all the time. And that’s where you, for all your myriad issues, come in. You and that blue of yours. I could bring in a bronze to make them talk, but brute force won’t help the vulnerable ones. I need a dragon who can draw them out. A dragon they’ll accept into their society. A dragon who’ll listen.”

“A Search dragon,” said C’mine.

“Exactly,” said L’stev.

And now it came clear. A good Search dragon needed more than just the ability to detect potential. That was why almost all the best ones were blue. Subtlety was as important as sensitivity where nascent candidates were concerned – a dragon who barged into an unprepared mind could do more harm there than good – and blues were the mildest of all the dragon colours. Darshanth had an exceptionally light touch as well as a keen sense for finding prospects. And it was that very delicacy, the non-threatening gentleness that he possessed, that might enable him to inveigle himself into the weyrlings’ collective consciousness.

“Darshanth isn’t the only Search dragon at Madellon,” C’mine said.

“True,” L’stev agreed. “And if I thought there was a better prospect than you, I’d be looking at them right now. But what are my options?” He started ticking them off on his fingers. “T’reno’s older than me. S’rius is older than dirt. I don’t trust H’restin with young girls. Garlan’s still half a weyrling herself, J’kel’s not had a candidate Impress in the last three Hatchings, and I’d resign before I endorsed W’har as being good for anything. No. He,” and L’stev pointed at Darshanth, “he’s the one to do it, C’mine. You know why? He Searched Tarshe. Berzunth owes him for finding her rider. And Berzunth’s the key to their society. Can he do it?”

I can do it, said Darshanth.

“He says he can,” C’mine replied softly.

“So what about you?” L’stev asked. “Can you do this? Can you pull your finger out of your arse and commit to looking after my kids? Because if you can’t, I’d rather you didn’t let them get attached to you. And if you don’t fly by my rules, I’ll run you out of my barracks so fast your head’ll spin. Everything you do will be an example to them. Everything. If you’re late, they’ll think that being late is acceptable. If you get on your dragon without a safety line, you can bet one of them will copy you and fall off and kill himself. They’re going to be watching you all the time, C’mine, and if you ever fall short of the standards I’m trying to beat into their heads, they’ll pay the price for it. You’ll never be off duty. You’ll never get a rest-day. Night and day, you’ll be there to hold their hands and dry their tears and wipe their backsides if that’s what they need. You’ll get them up in the mornings and you’ll tuck them in at night, and if you have the energy to do anything but fall into your own bed in between, you’ll know you’re not trying hard enough. It’s the worst job in the Weyr, C’mine, and the best, and it’ll chew you up and spit you out if you’re not equal to it.”

Listening to the rise and fall of L’stev’s voice as he held forth transported C’mine irresistibly back to a time when Darshanth had been no bigger than any of the blues on the training grounds now – and Indioth, always beside him, smaller still. L’stev had loved making speeches then, too. “I don’t know if you’re trying to persuade me or deter me, L’stev.”

“Both. Neither. It’s your decision, blue rider.” L’stev fixed him with a final searching look. “Well?”

Can I do this? C’mine asked the question of himself privately. Darshanth, already convinced, could hardly answer without bias. He turned away from L’stev, looking unseeingly out at the Weyr.

He thought about the tailspin that had comprised the last few sevendays of his life, ever since Amynth’s suicide had shattered the fragile equilibrium he’d found in the months after C’los’ murder. He’d known all along that it was selfish and stupid and wrong. He didn’t need F’halig’s contempt or T’kamen’s disappointment or L’stev’s censure to tell him that. The one truth he hadn’t faced about his self-destructive behaviour was the most absurd. It hadn’t helped. The drinking and the sex didn’t make him feel any better. They just distracted him briefly from the contemplation of his misery and hopelessness. When he sobered up from a drunk, or came to from a flight, the all-consuming cancer of despair was waiting for him, as black and malignant as ever.

Darshanth hated what the drink did to him. He didn’t mind going after greens; that, at least, was a retreat from the world that they could seek together. But C’mine couldn’t put a name to what his dragon felt when they used their third means of escape from reality: eager dread? acceptant reluctance? frightened certainty? All he knew was how he, himself, longed for it in a way he never longed for a drink or a flight, because when they timed it into the past, C’los was still alive.

C’mine didn’t take timing lightly. He was always careful. He checked and re-checked his research, he never stayed long, and, after the first time, he’d abided by Darshanth’s fierce admonition that he wouldn’t try to change anything. The past will not be changed, Darshanth had told him, on that first occasion when they’d slid back through the Turns, unseen and undetected, to steal a glimpse of a very young C’los, and C’mine had almost called out to him. Time protects itself.

And that incontrovertible truth justified every trip into the past they’d taken since. If the past couldn’t be changed, then each time C’mine and Darshanth slipped back two Turns or five or ten, they weren’t changing it. They were accomplishing it. They had to time it, because by the mere fact that they had done so successfully, they already had.

Their trip back ten Turns to Peranvo Hold, in the winter of 89, was a perfect example. C’mine remembered that Gather because he hadn’t been there. He’d been on watch that night and C’los had gone to enjoy Peranvo’s ever-spectacular midwinter celebrations without him. But there it was, in C’los’ concise handwriting, the entry he’d written in his journal for that night. Mine made it for one drink. He professed ignorance this morning – probably because if R’hren ever finds he slipped out on his watch he’ll rip him a new one – so I’ll take the hint, and We Shall Never Speak Of This Again.

C’mine hadn’t slipped out on his watch, not for a moment. He’d never abandoned a post in all his Turns as a dragonrider. But C’los’ journal made it clear. Mine made it for one dance. And the prospect of one drink, one precious drink, with C’los had been too great for C’mine to resist. That impossibly young, carefree C’los hadn’t noticed the hair C’mine had lost or the scars he’d gained. At night, beneath the shifting light of the colourful Gather lanterns, and deep into Peranvo’s potent mulled wine, C’los had only seen what he’d expected to see. By timing it back to that winter’s night, C’mine had made sense of something that would otherwise have been nonsensical.

And the Peranvo Gather wasn’t the only anomaly. There were other inconsistencies in C’los’ diaries, references to things C’mine knew he’d never said, accounts of things he knew he hadn’t done in places he’d never been. Some of them might have been mistakes or misunderstandings, or even things he misremembered himself. But when he came across one, he marked it, and when it coincided with a reason why C’los might not have detected anything strange about C’mine – distance, or drink, or distraction – he saw an opportunity.

C’mine had found a dozen narrow windows to slip through, each a chance to snatch a few moments with C’los and then melt away. Three times, now, Darshanth had taken him between into the past, using references C’mine had pieced painstakingly together from sky charts and records and C’los’ own detailed journals. It was never easy. It was much simpler to fall into a bottle or find another green to chase, but seeing C’los, hearing his voice, even touching him, however fleetingly, eased the pain in C’mine’s soul in a way that nothing else could.

But he knew in his heart that he couldn’t keep doing it. Even if he wasn’t caught and Disciplined for timing in direct violation of Madellon’s laws, and even if he didn’t make a mistake and get lost between, sooner or later he’d run out of place-times to go. The brief solace he felt after visiting C’los in the past would be lost to him for good. He had to hoard the opportunities, to store them up. He had to make them last.

And in between them, he needed something else to live for.

Vanzanth grumbled deep in his throat, jolting C’mine out of his thoughts, and on the training grounds the dragonets raised their heads almost as one. The weyrlings were filtering out of the barracks, a sad and silent throng. Master Isnan, the long-jawed Weyr Healer, and two of his staff followed close behind. “That took less time than I expected,” said L’stev. “Suppose there’s not much more to be said about losing three than losing one.”

C’mine recognised the two journeymen. Benner and Nial specialised in treating sicknesses of the mind and heart. He’d been their patient in the sevendays following Hatching day. Even seeing them brought those desperate days unhappily back. “There’s nothing that can be said.”

“There’s plenty,” said L’stev. “Whether or not it helps is another matter.”

The weyrlings fanned out to their dragonets. C’mine found he hardly even recognised the ones Darshanth had Searched. The girl who went to the silvery-gold queen bore little resemblance to the sun-tanned, sun-bleached teenager they’d brought back from a remote tropical island what seemed like Turns ago. But as the youngsters dispersed, there was one he did recognise. One he’d always recognise. And as she walked towards the pretty, light green dragon L’stev had pointed out as Jagunth, C’mine found his chest suddenly constricted, and his throat suddenly tight, and his eyes suddenly pricked with moisture.

She wore her riding leathers like her father always had, the lapels of the summer-weight jacket buttoned back to show off the bright green lining. Her tumble of glossy dark curls had mostly grown back from the traditional weyrling haircut. And even from a distance, even in her share of the dejection that hung over the weyrlings, her bright black eyes snapped and sparkled. Leah wasn’t just her father’s daughter. She was his image.

Darshanth made a curious little sound in his chest, and Leah turned to look in his direction. Her stride towards Jagunth faltered and stopped. She took one step, and C’mine saw her speak. “Mine?”

And then she was running towards him, and C’mine found himself scrambling down the side of Vanzanth’s bluff, careless of the steep gradient. She ran to him: the child C’los had fathered in that last desperate summer before they’d left the turmoil of Kellad Hold for Madellon Weyr; the daughter they’d indulged and cherished all her fourteen Turns; the girl he hadn’t seen, hadn’t wanted to see, since the day she’d become a dragonrider. She hurled herself into his arms, weeping, repeating his name over and over.

“Oh, girl,” C’mine told her helplessly through his own tears, clasping her crushingly tight to him. “Oh my Leah. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“But you came,” she sobbed. “You came, you came.”

Darshanth voiced a single cry that matched perfectly the bitter-sweet joy and sorrow in C’mine’s heart, and Jagunth warbled uncertainly in response, and then Vanzanth’s deep warning rumble cut through both their voices.

“All right, Carleah, put him down,” L’stev growled from atop the crag.

He scowled down at them as C’mine gently, reluctantly released C’los’ daughter. Leah looked up at him, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “I’m s-sorry, Weyrlingmaster,” she said. “I know he’s not supposed –”

“He gets a pass this time, Carleah,” L’stev said. “Under the circumstances.” His glower was completely unconvincing. “Blue rider?”

“It’s all right, Leah,” C’mine told her. He hadn’t yet regained control of his own breathing. He drew a deep breath into his lungs, trying to level his voice. “The Weyrleader sent me.”

Leah looked searchingly at him, then at Darshanth, then up at L’stev, and either one of the dragons tipped her off, or she was just as good at making connections than her father had been. “Is this…because of Jenavally? Because of N’jen? You’re going to be our Weyrlingmaster? You and Darshanth?” She clutched C’mine’s arm. “Tell me you are, C’mine! Tell me you are!”

Something else to live for.

“Of course we are,” he said.

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