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Chapter twenty-three: T’kamen

There has never been equality in the Weyr, and there will never be equality in the Weyr. These are facts of human, as well as draconic, nature.

But some forms of inequality are more just – more tolerable, to more people – than others.

There are more of us than them.

– Excerpt from a speech by Wingsecond S’leondes

26.04.22 (26TH TURN, EIGHTH PASS)
MADELLON WEYR

T'kamen (Micah Johnson)

“What do you mean, Madellon doesn’t have a Weyrleader?” T’kamen asked.

“Well, it doesn’t,” said M’ric. “Hasn’t for Turns. Not since the very beginning of the Pass.”

“Then who’s in charge?”

M’ric grinned. “The Weyrleaders.”

T’kamen gave him a hard look. “Talk sense, or don’t talk at all.”

“Fine,” said M’ric, but he still looked like he was enjoying himself far too much. “The Weyrleaders are Weyrwoman Dalka; R’lony, the Weyrmarshal; and Weyrcommander S’leondes.”

“Then there are two Weyrleaders?”

“Kind of. The Commander leads Tactical. The fighting Wings. R’lony’s just in charge of Strategic, so the Seventh Flight and a few other riders.”

“The Seventh Flight,” T’kamen repeated.

“Bronzes, browns, a couple of fat blues,” said M’ric. “All the ones too slow to fight.”

T’kamen stopped so abruptly that he nearly tripped over his own walking cane, and M’ric carried on several paces before he noticed he’d halted. “Bronzes and browns don’t fight Thread?”

“Of course not,” said M’ric. “They’re too big and they can’t turn fast enough.” He looked askance at T’kamen. “You hadn’t figured that out?”

T’kamen realised that he should have. He’d noticed that blues and greens always flew separately from browns and bronzes on their way in and out of Madellon, but he’d assumed that was to do with relative speeds on long straight flights. “Then who’s leading the fighting Wings?”

“The Commander and his Flightleaders,” said M’ric.

“And they’re…”

“Blue and green riders, yes. Keep up, T’kamen.”

T’kamen was too thrown by the revelation to pull M’ric up for attitude. He could feel Epherineth turning the alien concepts over in his mind, too. Without between, big dragons would be very vulnerable to Thread, the bronze said at last. The blues and greens of this time are faster and more agile than any dragons I’ve ever seen.

T’kamen thought about the weyrling drills he’d watched from his ledge, young dragons practising the sort of breakneck acrobatics that would get them suspended in the Interval: dead stops, barrel rolls, breakneck dives and plunges. “Who anchors the formations?”

“The bigger blues,” said M’ric. “But they have to be able to break off and evade, too. There’s no room in the Wings for a dragon who can’t dodge.”

“What about Trebruth?” T’kamen asked. “He must be the smallest brown here.”

“He is the smallest brown,” M’ric said, with pride. “He’s going to be the first fighting brown in over twenty Turns.”

“But Epherineth won’t be able to fight,” said T’kamen.

“Well, obviously,” said M’ric. “He’s bigger than Levierth. He wouldn’t last two minutes.”

Of all the Passes in history, we have to come to the one where we can’t fight Thread. T’kamen kept the thought between himself and Epherineth. “So what will we be doing?”

“You’ll be assigned to the Seventh,” said M’ric. “I mean, I still have to take you to see the Commander first, but it’s a formality. He’ll give you to R’lony.”

“Tell me about them,” said T’kamen. “The Commander. S’leondes? And R’lony.”

“R’lony’s Dalka’s weyrmate,” said M’ric. “He used to be Weyrleader, Turns ago, and he’s still bitter that he isn’t any more.”

“And S’leondes?”

“The Commander,” said M’ric. “You always call him the Commander.” He straightened his shoulders as he spoke. “He changed everything in the early Pass, when everything was going to shit because the Weyrs hadn’t figured out how to fight Thread without between. He was seventeen Turns old. He’d only been out of the Barracks a Turn.”

“Precocious,” said T’kamen.

“If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t even be here,” M’ric said. “Pern would be nothing but Thread by now and everyone would have starved to death.”

T’kamen tried not to smile at M’ric’s vehemence. “And his dragon?”

“Karzith. He’s blue.”

“The Commander doesn’t sound like any blue rider I’ve ever known.”

“Then you haven’t known any proper blue riders,” said M’ric. “He’s the best rider in the Weyr. He’s the best rider on Pern.”

“You’re doing him a disservice, M’ric. No one could possibly live up to that kind of hyperbole.”

“It’s not hyperbole,” M’ric insisted. “You’ll see.”

“If you say so.”

“You’ll see.” Then, as they came to a stone bridge that spanned one of the Bowl’s new streams, M’ric suddenly caught T’kamen’s arm. “Wait.”

“Why?” T’kamen asked

Two green riders were approaching the bridge from the other direction. “We give way to fighting riders,” M’ric said. He straightened slightly as the two young men, neither much older than M’ric himself, crossed the bridge. “Green riders.”

They ignored him, and for a moment it seemed as if they would ignore T’kamen, too. Then the taller of the pair paused, looking hard at him. “Hey, you’re that bronze’s rider, aren’t you?”

T’kamen didn’t need to glance at M’ric to sense how the weyrling was willing him to respond respectfully. He shifted his weight more comfortably onto his good leg, then extended his right hand towards the green rider. “T’kamen, bronze Epherineth’s rider.”

The green rider looked at his proffered hand as if amazed. Then he spoke to his companion. “Can you believe this, K’bard? This piece of northern shit thinks I’ll take his hand?”

“T’kamen’s not a northerner, C’don,” M’ric said quickly.

“Don’t talk back to me, weyrling,” said C’don. “I’ll have you –”

“No, he’s right, C’don,” K’bard said. “They said something about it at Wing muster this morning.”

C’don looked disappointed. “Oh. I missed muster. Handrinth’s flight, you know.”

“I noticed,” said K’bard. “Anyway, it seems this guy really is some old Weyrleader of Madellon from, like, five hundred Turns ago.”

“Five hundred Turns?” C’don asked incredulously.

T’kamen had lowered his hand, taken aback by the exchange. “Only a hundred and twenty-five or so.”

“A hundred and twenty-five,” said C’don. He looked him up and down scathingly. “Well, he’s still a bronze rider. I’m not shaking his hand.” He pointed a finger at M’ric. “And you should watch your mouth. Come on, K’bard.”

As the two riders moved off without a backward glance, T’kamen looked at M’ric. “What in the Void was that?”

“Ignore them, they’re idiots,” M’ric said. “C’don’s always had it in for me.”

“Does he have it in for bronze riders he’s never met, too?”

“Oh, you know what green riders are like,” M’ric said. “Come on.”

T’kamen resumed following him, though he was still perplexed. The previous evening, Dalka had asked him to stay in his weyr for just a little longer, until confirmation of his identity could be communicated around the Weyr. “I don’t want you being abused any more than you deserve,” she’d said, so aridly that T’kamen had assumed she was being ironic.

“What about M’ric?” he’d asked. “Is he un-grounded?”

“Yes.” Dalka’s expression had been coolly amused. “The Weyrlingmaster will be thrilled.”

The events of the previous day still seemed like a fever-dream, nightmarish and hopeful by turns, but the conspicuous absence of Recranth and Salionth from their guard post below Epherineth’s ledge that morning had been a tremendous relief. T’kamen hadn’t realised how much he’d come to loathe the sight of the two Pass bronzes, although some of that antipathy was probably Epherineth’s. He never had liked other bronzes very much. Are the other dragons letting you in now?

Slowly. A little. I’m still an outsider.

This was your Weyr before it was theirs, Epherineth.

I know.

T’kamen craved the society of his peers nearly as much as Epherineth did, but he was grateful enough for Dalka’s intervention on his behalf to respect her wishes. He’d shaved and dressed carefully, intending to make the best possible impression, and then paced his weyr through the crawling hours of forenoon until M’ric had arrived with orders that he report to Madellon’s leaders.

Just being allowed to walk the Bowl was a pleasure, although less so with his still-fragile leg than would otherwise have been the case. “Slow down a bit,” he told M’ric, as the boy’s long legs began to outpace him. “I don’t want to overdo it and end up weyr-bound for another month.”

M’ric checked his stride, fractionally. “I just don’t want you to be late.”

“Your Weyrleaders have had a month to meet me,” said T’kamen. “They can wait another ten minutes.” He squinted across the Bowl, then pointed towards the structures built almost totally out of glass. “Tell me about those.”

“The glassfarms?”

“Glassfarms.” The name made sense. “They’re Thread-proof?”

“Yes. Well. Mostly. I mean, if one of them took a direct hit from a Thread-bomb, it would probably break the glass, but that’s never happened as far as I know.”

“A Thread-bomb?”

“You know – well, you don’t know, of course – but it’s when a load of Thread gets wrapped around itself in a big dense knot.” M’ric put his two fists together to demonstrate. “So it falls really fast, and then when it hits something…” He opened his fists abruptly, spreading his hands to mime the ball of Thread bursting.

T’kamen grimaced at the thought. “I’ve never seen a building made out of glass before,” he said. “I don’t think they’d invented anything strong enough to make big spans like those in the Interval. Smaller panes, and coloured glass for decoration, but nothing you’d want as your only barrier against Thread.”

“No one’s supposed to take shelter in the glassfarms when Fall’s over the Weyr,” said M’ric.

His tone made T’kamen smile. “But you have?” At the brown rider’s look, he added, “I was a weyrling once, too, M’ric.”

M’ric shrugged. “All the new weyrlings dare each other to do it when they’re stuck in the Weyr during Fall. It’s kind of exciting, watching the Wings fight through the glass. Scary, but exciting. Though if the Weyrlingmaster catches you doing it, he’ll tear you up worse than Thread.”

As they crossed the Bowl, M’ric described each of the unfamiliar buildings. “Weyrling barracks,” he said. “There, there, and there. You move barracks as your dragonets grow, so you don’t stay in one place any longer than about six months.” He pointed to a large, low building. “Stock barn, stables; all that Beastcrafty stuff.” T’kamen tried not to let the name of the craft make him flinch. “Speakers’ platform there,” M’ric went on, as they passed something like a permanent Harper stage, a dais facing a semicircle of stone benches. “And this is Command.”

Command was the imposing slate-roofed stone building that dominated the western end of the Bowl. It rose three storeys high, with smaller two-storey wings making three sides of a square. The flat roof of each wing was obviously intended for dragons to be able to land, drop off passengers, and take off again. Bronze shutters were folded back from rows of wide windows that spoke again to the advances in glass-making that the Pass enjoyed. The building fronted onto a broad paved terrace that overlooked the largest of the weyrling training grounds. “When was this built?” T’kamen asked.

“Back end of the Interval, I think,” said M’ric. “Before the Weyr split into Tactical and Strategic, anyway. This is where are the important decisions are made.” He pointed to the top floor. “The Commander’s office is up there, with the queen riders and the Council chamber. Middle floor is all Wingleaders, and the ground floor has offices for the Strategic staff, the big reception room for when Lords Holder visit, and the kitchens and storerooms.”

The fact that the Marshal and his officers shared a floor with the service areas gave T’kamen an uneasy feeling as M’ric led the way towards Command’s double doors. He slowed his limping pace. “M’ric…”

“Don’t hesitate now, for Faranth’s sake,” M’ric said. “The Commander can see us from his office, you know. You don’t want to look like you’re messing around out here when he’s waiting for you!”

T’kamen sighed and followed him in.

The girl who met them in the foyer of Command was even younger than M’ric – fifteen, perhaps sixteen Turns, T’kamen thought. She wore the green and indigo rank cords of a Madellon weyrling, but with an extra knot on the trailing end that T’kamen didn’t recognise. “Bronze rider T’kamen,” she said, with a crispness that belied her tender Turns. “I’m to escort you to Commander S’leondes. Please follow me.”

“I can take him to the Commander’s office, Fraza,” said M’ric.

The green rider let her eyes alight upon him for the merest fraction of an instant. “I have my orders, weyrling.”

“And I have mine,” said M’ric. “T’kamen’s not going anywhere without me.”

“The Commander instructed me to bring the bronze rider to him,” said Fraza. “He didn’t say anything about you.”

“Then he didn’t say I couldn’t come along too,” said M’ric.

Fraza narrowed her eyes at him, as if trying to determine if it was worth arguing. Evidently she decided it wasn’t. “Very well,” she said, turning smartly on her heel, the ruthlessly straight and neat braid of her dark red hair whipping behind her. “Follow me.”

“A friend?” T’kamen asked M’ric quietly, as they followed the girl up a flight of stairs.

“Her?” M’ric snorted. “Hardly.”

Stairs still weren’t easy for T’kamen, and he sensed Fraza’s impatience with his slow progress as she stopped on the landings of each floor and looked sternly down at his careful climb. M’ric, curiously, had lost his urgency, instead walking solicitously at T’kamen’s elbow, ready to catch him if he stumbled. T’kamen couldn’t decide if he found that reassuring or patronising.

“This way,” said Fraza, when they reached the second landing.

She led them through a small anteroom containing a desk and chair to an ornate set of double doors that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Lord Holder’s apartments. The polished brass plate beside the left-hand door bore an engraved inscription:

S’leondes
Weyrcommander

 Fraza knocked, waited a breath, then briskly turned the carved bronze doorknob.

“…and if you can be sure your offside flank can support…” The speaker broke off as they entered. He was a big man, in height and in muscle, black-haired and black-bearded. He and half a dozen others were poring over a broad table in the centre of the room. “Fraza. Report.”

“This is bronze rider T’kamen, Commander,” Fraza replied. “And weyrling M’ric.”

“Thank you, Fraza.” S’leondes pointed at a couple of chairs along the wall. “Wait there while we finish this.” Then he turned back to the table and the other dragonriders. “Your offside, Querenne. Is it still strong enough to support this kind of assault, or do you need another anchor?”

T’kamen was grateful to sit down – the stairs had tired his leg. M’ric sat beside him, but Fraza removed herself to the other side of the door, where she stood at attention, her eyes fixed on the Commander.

“So this is the famous S’leondes?” T’kamen asked M’ric quietly.

“Ssshh!” M’ric hissed. “I told you, you always call him the Commander!”

“I’ll call him what I sharding well like, M’ric.”

“It makes me look bad if you’re rude to him,” M’ric said. “Faranth, haven’t you done my reputation enough damage?”

“Fine,” T’kamen said shortly.

He let his eyes roam over the room and its occupants, taking it in. The wide windows that dominated one wall looked straight down the Bowl. S’leondes would have a superb view of the training grounds and a direct line of sight to the watchdragon from this vantage. Two of the other walls were painted black and covered in chalked names and assignments: Madellon’s Wing rosters. T’kamen would have found the resemblance to the black-painted wall in his own office comfortingly familiar, except that Pass Madellon’s Wing list was almost three times the size of his own. He counted six Flights, eighteen Wings, a fighting complement close to six hundred. That would exclude the browns and bronzes, he reminded himself, so Madellon was probably flying at its intended Pass population of seven hundred dragonpairs. He found a certain satisfaction in that small evidence that, whatever else had gone wrong in the Interval, at least his Weyr was at strength.

He lifted his head slightly to try and get a better look at the table around which S’leondes and the other riders were standing. He could see several sets of glass shelves of different heights, each supporting a number of small models of dragons. It took him a moment, and the sight of S’leondes and some of the other riders moving this shelf or that around the table, to realise what they were doing. The table’s surface must be a map of terrain, the models indicative of fighting Wings at different elevations. He was as impressed by the innovation as he was fascinated to see it in action. It took him some effort to resist getting up for a clearer view.

He satisfied himself with studying the riders around the table instead. There were four other men besides S’leondes, and two women. They were blue and green riders, all of them, from the colours in their shoulder-knots – and ranking ones, from the tailed and tasselled complexity of the braiding. The eldest might have been forty, the youngest in their mid-twenties. S’leondes himself looked to have no more than a few Turns’ seniority over any of them, though the light glinted off silver hairs in his beard and at his temples. If these were the senior fighting riders of the Weyr, T’kamen thought, they were much younger than he’d have assumed. Some of them would barely have been weaned when the Pass began.

“Are these Wingleaders?” he asked M’ric quietly.

“Not just Wingleaders,” said M’ric. “Flightleaders. These are the most important riders in the Weyr.” He shifted in his seat, clearly excited. “I can’t believe they’re actually letting us sit in on a Tactical briefing!”

“This isn’t going to give us enough cover from the south,” one of the blue riders, a stocky man with shaggy blond hair, was saying. “We flew exactly this formation last Fall, and I swear, if we’d had to go another half hour with the Fifth –” he glared at one of the female green riders, “– letting through all that crap from above, I’d have lost two or three more dragonpairs.”

“Don’t blame the Fifth, G’sol,” said the green rider. “We were flying our asses off trying to thin out those tangles. I’d be happy to trade levels with you if you think the Third could do a better job –”

“The Third is doing the best it can!” G’sol snapped.

“Enough, G’sol, Jweta,” S’leondes interjected, as the two riders squared off. “G’sol, I was sure you knew what you were taking on with the Third when I made you Flightleader. Have I asked too much from you? Do you need more help?”

“No, Commander,” said G’sol, without hesitation. “I can rally the Third. If we just had a few more fast blues to replace the ones we’ve lost these last two months…”

“A fast blue would be wasted on the Third,” one of the other green riders muttered.

“Speak up, M’redd,” said S’leondes. “I didn’t quite hear that.”

M’redd looked discomfited. “It was nothing, Commander.”

“You can speak ill of the Third when the Sixth makes it through a Fall unscathed,” S’leondes told him. “Look to your own Flight.”

“Yes, sir,” M’redd said, bowing his head contritely.

“If you believe that fast blues will solve the Third’s problems, G’sol, then so be it,” said S’leondes. He nodded to each of the other Flightleaders. “I want each of you to nominate a good blue from your Flight. I’ll select three of them to move to the Third, one for each Wing. Those of you who lose a blue in the transfer can have first pick of the next group of weyrlings to replace them.”

The Flightleaders nodded, some more enthusiastically than others – but none objected. T’kamen couldn’t see how they could. S’leondes’ solution seemed both reasonable and fair. The way he allowed his Flightleaders some latitude, but reined them in when their disagreements became personal, was both deft and admirable. Blue and green riders or not, Madellon’s fighting Flightleaders were clearly men and women with strong opinions about how their Wings should be deployed – but all of them submitted to the Commander’s authority. That was really the baffling part. S’leondes was clearly a natural leader: compelling, charismatic, and competent. Why hadn’t he Impressed a bronze? T’kamen had nothing against blue riders, but he hadn’t known many whom he thought would make good Weyrleaders. S’leondes didn’t seem like the sort a typical mild-mannered blue would choose.

By the time the Commander and his Flightleaders concluded their meeting, T’kamen was full of questions, and itching to study the map table. His own theoretical forays into inventing and modelling formations had instilled him with a keen interest in Thread-fighting tactics that had no outlet in the Interval. Even if Epherineth was too big to fight in this between-less Pass, the idea of seeing Madellon’s Wings meeting Fall was a stirring prospect.

M’ric jumped up beside him as the Flightleaders began to leave. T’kamen followed his lead, wondering if he should introduce himself. The encounter with the pair of green riders outside had made him wary. But while each of the senior riders looked hard at him as they passed – with varying amounts of curiosity – none of them stopped to speak to him. T’kamen wondered if that was out of respect to him, or to S’leondes. The latter, he thought wryly.

The Commander was still standing at the map table, his hands planted far apart on its edge, shoulders squared, as he stared down at the modelled Wings and Flights of Madellon. As the last Flightleader left, he looked up from his preoccupation. “Fraza, would you wait outside?” he asked the green weyrling. “M’ric. You too.”

“Commander, sir,” Fraza answered promptly.

“Yes, sir,” M’ric added. He sounded marginally less crestfallen than T’kamen would have expected.

As the door closed behind the two weyrlings, S’leondes stepped around the table to meet T’kamen. He was even bigger and more impressive at close quarters than he had been from across the room, more than half a head taller than T’kamen, and two hands broader across the shoulders. He was a striking fellow – handsome, T’kamen supposed – made more striking by unusual gold-flecked brown eyes. That curiously tawny gaze, somehow reminiscent of an agitated dragon’s orange-eyed stare, fixed upon T’kamen. He raised his head slightly to meet it. Long moments passed as they regarded each other, silent and – out of mutual stubbornness, it seemed – unblinking.

He is only a blue rider, Epherineth observed.

The observation didn’t make T’kamen blink, but it did compel the corner of his mouth to twitch.

The lapse clearly wasn’t lost on S’leondes. The Commander’s eyes narrowed. “Bronze rider T’kamen,” he said.

The omission of T’kamen’s title could only have been deliberate. He considered repaying it in kind, but sense got the better of his annoyance. “Commander S’leondes.”

“Your dragon cannot go between.” S’leondes spoke bluntly. “Is that correct?”

T’kamen had at least expected to be questioned about that. “It would seem so,” he said cautiously.

“What does that mean?” S’leondes asked.

“Something seems to have affected his ability to see his way through between,” T’kamen said. “He won’t risk going in if he can’t see how he’s going to get out again.”

“And you cannot compel him to try?”

“I wouldn’t if I could,” T’kamen said. “Epherineth’s the expert when it comes to between. If he thinks it’s unsafe, I’m not going to overrule him.”

“Yet you came between from the Seventh Interval,” said S’leondes. “A time when dragons went between freely.”

“Something had started to go wrong just before I left,” said T’kamen. “My first weyrlings had just begun their between training. Half of them died in the attempt. The other half wouldn’t try.”

“But the adults were unaffected?” asked S’leondes.

“So it seemed. I don’t know. I was trying to figure out what was happening when I ended up…here.”

He didn’t want to go into the details of how his slip through time had occurred; fortunately, it seemed that S’leondes wasn’t interested. “Then your arrival in the Pass was, what, an accident?” the Commander asked. “An anomaly?”

T’kamen kept his tone neutral. “Most likely.”

“And you’re genuinely as incapable of going between safely now as any Pass rider?”

S’leondes’ question had an incredulous ring that T’kamen didn’t like. He decided to confront the barely-veiled accusation directly. “We didn’t stage yesterday’s demonstration,” he said. He wouldn’t call it a failure. “Why would we? If Epherineth could still go between we’d only be one solid visual away from getting back to the Interval where we belong.”

“Where you belong,” S’leondes repeated. He said nothing for a long moment, his eyes boring into T’kamen’s, as though he could divine the truth for himself if he only looked hard enough.

“I didn’t choose to come here, S’leondes,” said T’kamen. “I left behind a Weyr and a Weyrwoman of my own. All I’ve thought about for the last month is getting back to them. If we could have gone between yesterday, we would have. We couldn’t. We didn’t. I don’t know if we ever will.”

At last, S’leondes nodded. “I believe you.”

“I have no designs on your Weyr, S’leondes,” T’kamen said. “I don’t want to interfere. I’ve seen how everything has changed since my time. This isn’t my Madellon.”

The Commander nodded again, mollified. “I’m glad you appreciate that.”

“But…”

“But?”

T’kamen stole a glance sideways at the map table. “If I am trapped here – if there’s no way for me to get back – then I’d like to be useful.”

S’leondes regarded him evenly. “Useful?”

“I don’t have combat experience, but I did study the histories. I led flaming drills. I even developed some patterns of my own –”

“You led flaming drills,” said S’leondes.

“I know it’s no substitute for actual experience,” T’kamen went on, gamely. “But if Epherineth and I can’t fight, then at least we can help.”

“Stop,” said S’leondes.

There was enough raw authority in his voice that T’kamen did.

The Commander’s face hardly moved as he stared at him. For four long breaths, only the slightest flare of his nostrils escaped his control. “I’d nearly forgotten,” he said, at last. “I thought the days of bronze riders patronising me were a thing of the past.”

“I didn’t –”

“But then that describes you, doesn’t it?” S’leondes went on. “A thing of the past.” He took a deliberate half step towards T’kamen, closing the space between them. His big frame was angled to intimidate, but T’kamen wouldn’t cede ground. “Who do you think you are, that you’d condescend to offer help to me? Do you think anyone cares that you played at being a dragonrider when Pern’s skies were clear? Do you think the colour of your dragon’s hide still entitles you to power and privilege? Do you think that the histories and the drills and the made-up patterns of a man who’s never risked himself in live Fall mean anything to anyone?”

Too late, T’kamen realised how his offer must have sounded; too late, he realised how catastrophically he’d failed to grasp how deeply the changes of this time ran; too late, he realised how he’d blown his chance to make a good impression on this most powerful rider of Pass Madellon. He cast about desperately for a way to retrieve things.

Too late.

“What you once were, you no longer are,” said S’leondes. He hadn’t yet raised his voice. It made it even worse. “Now you’re just another rider with a dragon too big to fight. You call yourself a Weyrleader. It means nothing. You mean nothing. You’re a relic of an era that no longer exists, and I won’t allow your anachronistic sense of self-importance to be indulged.” Then he did raise his voice. “Fraza!”

The door flew open – too promptly – and Fraza appeared as though from between. “Yes, Commander?”

“Escort this bronze rider to the Marshal,” S’leondes told her. “I’m releasing him to the Strategic branch.”

T’kamen was frozen in place, gripped not only by his own almost paralysing fury and outrage – but by Epherineth’s. He could feel his lips curling back from his teeth, but he couldn’t be certain if the snarl was his or his dragon’s. Red rage raced through his veins, pumped by his pounding heart, filling his head with fire and his eyes with crimson.

Only the urgent contact of a hand on his arm – a wing across Epherineth’s neck – stayed the explosion that seemed the only possible outcome of that pent-up wrath. “T’kamen!” M’ric hissed, with a yank that upset T’kamen’s unsteady balance. He staggered, his cane poorly placed to support him, and M’ric shoved a shoulder under his arm. “Come on!”

S’leondes had already turned away from them. The Commander’s disinterest enraged T’kamen nearly as much as the barrage of slights had, but M’ric was already hauling him out, and for all T’kamen’s angry energy, the boy was strong.

It was Fraza who slammed the office door. She stared at T’kamen, wide-eyed, for a moment, and then seemed to recall her studied composure. “If you’ll come this way…”

“Just leave it, Fraza!” M’ric told her. “I’ll take him from here!”

“But the Commander told me –”

“To escort T’kamen to R’lony,” M’ric said. “So you delegated the escort to me.” He threw an exaggerated salute. “Yes sir, whatever you say sir!”

“What in the Void just happened?” T’kamen asked, as M’ric heaved him towards the stairs. “What in the shaffing Void…?”

“Calm down!” M’ric told him. “You have to calm down. Faranth, I really thought you were going to go for the Commander then! What the shaff were you thinking?”

“Go for him?” T’kamen repeated. “Did you hear what he said?”

“Not really,” said M’ric. “We couldn’t hear much through the door. Why, what did he say?”

Epherineth’s anger was already bleeding away, and some of T’kamen’s with it. He shrugged M’ric off, gripping his cane more determinedly, but S’leondes’ unexpected, unprovoked attack – spoken so evenly and calmly – kept repeating in his head. It means nothing. You mean nothing. He’d been disrespected before, as dragonrider and civilian, but never with such casual contempt from a complete stranger. “I didn’t expect deference for being a Weyrleader of Madellon, but I didn’t expect to be insulted for it, either.”

“You can’t take it personally, T’kamen,” M’ric said.

T’kamen looked at him disbelievingly. “How else am I meant to take it?”

“The Commander doesn’t have much time for big dragons or riders who can’t fight. You’re a bronze rider, and Epherineth’s huge, and that wouldn’t have mattered if you’d been able to go between, but…”

“But we can’t,” T’kamen finished for him. “That’s it? That’s why he just ripped into me? Because he’s disappointed Epherineth can’t go between? No. That wasn’t all. That was personal.”

“You have to look at it from where he’s standing,” said M’ric. “A bronze rider from the past who might have been able to show dragons how to go between again is one thing. A bronze rider from the past who can’t is…just another bronze rider.”

“Madellon’s scarcely overpopulated with bronzes,” T’kamen said, irritated anew by the implied insult to Epherineth’s colour.

“Most people consider that to be a good thing,” said M’ric. “Look. I have to take you to R’lony before Fraza gets in trouble. Will you calm down? You don’t want to make a bad first impression if the Commander’s officially released you to Strategic.”

“Should I brace myself for a fresh round of insults?” T’kamen asked.

“From R’lony? Probably not. He’s a tail-fork, but he doesn’t have a problem with bronze riders.”

Still, T’kamen seethed all the way down the stairs of Command. It’s not your fault that you can’t go between, he told Epherineth. And you deserve respect, between or not. You’re Shimpath’s mate and Berzunth’s father. That shaffing blue rider probably has you to thank for his dragon being born in the first place!

On the ground floor, M’ric led the way past a succession of rooms much smaller than the Commander’s sprawling office, if the space between doors was any indication. There were no brass nameplates; instead, slates hung by each door, chalked with unfamiliar names and unfamiliar ranks. They passed Crewleader Ch’fil and Watchleader G’bral, and then M’ric stopped at another antechamber like the one preceding the Commander’s, though smaller.

The burly young man sitting at the desk looked up. “All right, M’ric.” He nodded to T’kamen. “Bronze rider.”

“B’nam,” M’ric replied, neither deferent nor scornful. An equal, then, T’kamen thought, looking at B’nam’s shoulder-cords. He was another brown rider, and another weyrling but, like Fraza, he had an extra knot on the trailing end that M’ric lacked. M’ric nodded towards the inner door. “Is he ready for us?”

“Has been for a while,” said B’nam. “We didn’t think you’d be so long with the Commander.”

“We sat in on the end of the Tactical briefing,” said M’ric, with just the slightest hint of a preen.

“Uh huh.” B’nam didn’t sound sceptical so much as unimpressed. “Well, you can go in. The Marshal’s waiting.”

T’kamen let M’ric precede him inside. The room they entered was more modest than S’leondes’, less well-lit and with smaller windows, but still larger and lighter than the office off the Weyrleader’s weyr in the Interval. There was no map table, but one wall was dominated by a large painted chart of southern Pern, banded with chalk-marked diagonal stripes that could only be the footprints of Threadfalls, each one colour-coded and annotated with dates and names and notes.

“Sir, this is T’kamen, Epherineth’s rider,” M’ric said to the man sitting behind the desk at the windowed end of the room. “T’kamen: Weyrmarshal R’lony, Geninth’s rider.”

The Marshal was a substantial man of perhaps fifty Turns with big shoulders, iron-grey hair and a close-cropped beard to match, and deep-sunk eyes that raked T’kamen briefly before settling on M’ric. “Out, weyrling,” he said, with a jerk of his chin.

“Yes, Marshal,” M’ric said with a sigh, throwing T’kamen an aggrieved look before withdrawing from the room and closing the door behind him.

R’lony pushed away a document he’d been studying, then rose stiffly to his feet. “Take a seat, if you like,” he said, gesturing at one of the chairs before his desk.

“Thank you, but I’ll stand,” said T’kamen, crossing both hands on the hilt of his cane. R’lony’s shoulder-knots distracted him. “Weyrmarshal R’lony,” he added.

“T’kamen,” R’lony replied. He raised a heavy eyebrow just slightly, adding, “I’m at a loss for the appropriate title, so you’ll forgive my familiarity.”

“Four sevendays ago it would have been Weyrleader,” T’kamen said. “Four sevendays and a hundred and twenty-six Turns.”

R’lony made a short sound in the back of his throat, lowering himself back into the seat behind his desk. “You’ll find that honorific has lost something of its weight in the intervening decades.”

“So I’ve just learned,” said T’kamen. He looked, more pointedly, at R’lony’s rank cords. “You’re a brown rider.”

“And that surprises you,” said R’lony. “Well, I suppose it would.”

“M’ric said that you’re the Weyrwoman’s weyrmate,” said T’kamen, leaning on his cane. “So is Geninth…?”

“Donauth’s mate?” R’lony tipped his head up, a glimmer of satisfaction in his pale blue eyes. “Yes. And has been since the Interval.”

“He must be exceptional, to outfly Madellon’s bronzes,” T’kamen said.

R’lony laughed. “Bronzes? You are a packtail out of water, T’kamen. No bronze has been allowed to rise in a Madellon queen’s flight since before Geninth was shelled. And you’ll obey that law now that your fellow has regained his fitness. Donauth and Levierth are off-limits to you. Is that clear?”

The snap of command made T’kamen’s hackles rise. I’ve already been dressed down by a blue rider. Now I’m meant to take orders from a brown rider?

Can you blame him for being afraid of me? Epherineth asked reasonably.

His complacent assumption of his superiority soothed T’kamen’s irritation. He recalled only one anecdote about a brown rising to chase a queen – some northern dragon who’d fancied himself too much, only to come off much the worst in the bruising jostle of a pack of randy bronzes. And you have your own queen, he told him.

Indeed.

He schooled himself to answer R’lony politely. “If that’s the law, then Epherineth will take no part in your queens’ flights.” Then, intrigued enough to overcome his annoyance, he said, “Then this is why your dragons are so small compared to Epherineth. They’re all sired by browns.”

“Small is the point,” said R’lony. “The Weyrs of Pern were breeding for that long before bronzes were barred from chasing queens. But brown-gold matings began to produce a better size of dragon much faster than the restriction of flights to smaller bronzes ever did.”

“There are no other consequences?” T’kamen asked. “What sort of clutch size do you see?”

R’lony looked hard at him for a moment, and then smiled. “Ha, you were a Weyrleader, weren’t you? If you were any other rider, standing there interrogating me about the quality of my dragon’s offspring…but I guess I’d be asking the same kinds of questions if I were in your position. Well, let me answer. Look out there.” He gestured towards the window with a wide sweep of his arm. “Browns sired most of the dragons you’ve seen at Madellon. Do they look any the worse for their parentage?”

“Smaller,” T’kamen replied. “But not worse.”

“Tell me,” said R’lony. “In your day, was your Epherineth considered among the best because of his size?”

“Because of his size?” T’kamen asked. “No. Epherineth’s a long way from being the biggest bronze Interval Madellon ever bred.”

“Faranth,” R’lony said, shaking his head, “there were bigger bronzes?”

“Certainly,” said T’kamen. He thought about it. “I suppose there was the inclination for bronze and brown riders to boast about their dragons being the biggest of their colours. I can’t say I ever noticed much correlation between the size of the dragon and the quality of the rider, though.”

R’lony snorted. “We may prize small dragons now when once large were considered desirable, but the lack of correlation still holds true. That weyrling, M’ric, thinks he’s just about the finest brown rider that ever Impressed, based on his dragon being not thrice the size of a watch-wher.”

“M’ric seems very capable,” T’kamen said, carefully.

R’lony made a dismissive noise. “Do you want him?”

“Want him?”

“To tail you. Only until he graduates, but maybe it’ll distract him from his fanciful notion that he’ll be tapped to Tactical.”

T’kamen frowned. “Why shouldn’t he be? Trebruth’s smaller than a lot of the blues I’ve seen –”

“Trebruth is brown,” R’lony said, “and S’leondes wouldn’t accept a brown dragon into his precious fighting Wings if it was the size of a green and twice as fast.”

T’kamen was taken aback. M’ric had sounded so certain. “That doesn’t seem fair.”

“Don’t talk to me about fairness,” R’lony said, darkly. “Truth is, I’ve been hoping Trebruth would put on a couple of hands in height and be of use to me once the boy graduates, but it doesn’t seem likely he will now. I’m scored if I know what to do with him. Tailing you will keep him out of my hair – and out from under S’leondes’ feet. I don’t need a brown rider making a nuisance of himself around Tactical.”

Keeping M’ric close seemed like a wise idea, given how pivotal it seemed he was to T’kamen’s chance of returning to the Interval. “I’d be glad to have him as my guide. There’s so much I still don’t know about this Pass.”

“So I imagine,” said R’lony. “As I’m sure you appreciate that there’s so much we still don’t know about you, and why you’re here.”

“Is that why you kept me in quarantine for a month?” T’kamen asked.

“We didn’t know who you were. Your story made no sense.”

“And it was better to keep the Weyr thinking we were northerners than let them know we were time-travellers from the Seventh Interval?”

“Madellon’s riders have enough to think about without being distracted by Harper tales. Of course, the wherry’s out of the snare now.” R’lony sighed. “When M’ric and Dalka found verification of your story, I thought you might have been what we’ve been waiting for all these Turns.”

“Because of between,” said T’kamen.

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry to have disappointed you in that respect. Epherineth has no explanation for why he can’t navigate between in this time.” The recent memory of S’leondes’ contempt for the failure still stung, and T’kamen added, “Or else I lack the ability to comprehend him. Dragons understand between in a way that we don’t. And even they couldn’t account for what had gone wrong with our weyrlings when I left the Interval.”

“M’ric reported that you said you think your weyrlings were the first,” said R’lony.

“We always lost a few weyrlings, learning to go between, but not like this,” said T’kamen. “Out of seven, three wouldn’t even try, three died, and one emerged late and his rider unconscious. There was no precedent for it. Not in Madellon’s records or any other Weyr’s.” He stared at nothing. “I thought there must be a fault in their breeding.”

“Then they were Epherineth’s offspring?” R’lony asked, as if only then making the connection between T’kamen’s rank and his weyrlings. When T’kamen nodded, the Marshal went on, “Unless your weyrlings went on to have an influence on every bloodline on Pern, I think not. No. As I understand my history, no dragonet Hatched after the hundredth Turn of the Interval has been able to traverse between safely. They can get between when they’re still young, but it’s a one-way trip.”

“I don’t know if that makes me feel better or worse,” T’kamen admitted.

“How it makes you feel is irrelevant. The fact remains that your Epherineth is the only dragon on Pern today who has ever gone between and emerged with his life. The difference that would make to us…” R’lony shook his head.

“Browns and bronzes would be able to fight Thread again,” said T’kamen. Then another realisation struck him, so obvious that, for an instant, he was astounded that he hadn’t thought of it before. “You can’t just jump anywhere, can you? You have to fly straight to wherever Thread is falling.” He looked over his shoulder towards the chart on the wall. Madellon’s protectorate was huge, and it wasn’t even the biggest of the southern territories. “Just flying to Jessaf…and how does the Peninsula protect its south and west?”

“With difficulty,” said R’lony. “The borders were renegotiated a number of times in the latter half of the Interval. Peninsula ceded some of its westernmost territory to us.”

“M’ric mentioned that Sixer – Fiver – Hold is part of Madellon now.”

R’lony nodded. “We took on most of Redyen’s holdings. They’re closer to us than the Peninsula, as the dragon flies. Still, anything farther than six hours’ flight from a Weyr or Weyrstation puts us at a stretch.”

“A Weyrstation?”

“Well, you could hardly expect the Wings to fly ten hours non-stop, and then immediately fight a six-hour Fall without rest or food. They’d all drop dead of exhaustion. We stage our more distant Falls out of the Weyrstations. Madellon West, where you were found, is just south of Jessaf proper; Madellon North is near Mirshen Seahold; and Madellon South is a way southeast of Buckmore Minehold.”

That made several things make more sense in T’kamen’s mind. “I understand.”

R’lony waved his hand at the window to indicate the whole Weyr again. “It’s a rare day when all of Madellon is home. There are six fighting Wings flying down to cover off the Fall over Little Madellon this afternoon. Only a partial – there’s not much populated land to protect – so they’ll be back later tonight. But we’ll be sending out nine more in the morning to stage at Madellon West and meet the Fall over eastern Jessaf the day after tomorrow.” He squinted at the document in front of him. “Then we’re clear the day after that, but the following day we have a half Fall to pick up from the Peninsula over the border east of Gartner Hold, and I misremember what’s next, but…well. You get the idea.”

The scale of the operation made T’kamen’s head hurt. The sheer amount of organisation required to position hundreds of dragons across thousands of square miles of territory, with no way to get them there but flying every dragon straight, would be overwhelming. “And it falls to you to deploy the Wings.”

R’lony smiled so thinly that it was barely a smile at all. “To deploy them, yes. The riders of Strategic branch scout the predicted footprint of the Fall and report back on the terrain and weather conditions. The Commander uses that intelligence to decide how many fighting Wings he wants to fight the Fall. Then I see to it that his dragons are there in good time, rested and fed. I keep the Weyrstations manned and supplied. I field enough dragons of the Seventh Flight to resupply them, to catch their fallers and to deal with their injured. And to burn on the ground what they miss in the air. And then I get everyone home, and ready to go out to the next Fall to do it all again.” His voice increased in volume and vehemence as he spoke. “And if that doesn’t sound exciting or glorious to you, T’kamen, then you’d be right – it’s hard, grinding, thankless work. But if the riders of Strategic didn’t do what they do, then S’leondes’ heroic and valiant and fearless Tactical riders would be a heroic, valiant, fearless shambles.”

The bitterness of R’lony’s words was so hot and rank that T’kamen could almost taste it. He wondered how long R’lony had served as Weyrleader, and how the title had been taken from him. “You don’t care for the Commander, I take it.”

“That would be an understatement,” said R’lony. “And I can assure you the feeling is mutual.”

“Then we have that in common,” said T’kamen. “He was…extremely rude…to me.”

“I’d expect no less,” said R’lony, with a snort. “There’s nothing he despises more than a bronze rider. Except me, of course.” His grin was toothy and savage, almost gleeful at the idea that he was what the Commander hated the most.

“How did he become Commander?” T’kamen asked. “I take it his dragon hasn’t been flying any queens.”

R’lony laughed. “The day we breed a blue dragon who can catch a queen in flight hasn’t come quite yet. But S’leondes doesn’t need Karzith to fly a queen to be Commander. He only needs to convince the swarming masses of Tactical that he’s the best man for the job.”

T’kamen made himself consider what he’d seen of S’leondes’ Flight briefing dispassionately. “He seemed to be managing his Flightleaders well enough, from what I saw.”

“He knows how to play a clutch of bickering blue and green riders off each other,” said R’lony. “He knows how to inspire a Weyr full of kids too young and stupid to know better to go out and get themselves killed for him. I’ll even allow that his dragon’s smart and fast enough to still be alive after twenty Turns fighting Thread. But if it were up to me, S’leondes wouldn’t wear a Wingsecond’s braids, let alone the Commander’s.” R’lony shrugged his bulky shoulders. “It’s not up to me. Tactical will have who they’ll have, and while S’leondes still draws breath, no one will stand against him come ballot time.”

“Ballot time?” asked T’kamen. “The Commander is chosen with a vote?”

“Of course,” said R’lony.

It was yet another outlandish concept. “Where I’m from, the Weyrleadership derives entirely from the senior queen’s flights.”

“I’m familiar with the custom,” R’lony replied with perfect aridity. “And time was, even not so long ago, when flying a queen was a good enough test of man and dragon to ensure the faith of a Weyr’s riders. But not any more.”

His resentment oozed from him like pus from an old injury, toxic even Turns after it had been inflicted. And all of this for want of between. “I wish I could help you, Marshal,” T’kamen said.

R’lony looked at him, a searching sort of look, as if trying to discern if he was sincere. Then he pointed at T’kamen’s cane. “Have the Healers told you when you’ll be rid of that?”

“They say another two sevendays. I  can ride better than I can walk.”

“For Faranth’s sake, then, sit down.” R’lony pointed peremptorily at one of the chairs. “You’re man and rider enough to face me on your feet, and I appreciate that, but your point is made. You’re still healing. Sit.”

Grateful for R’lony’s understanding, T’kamen sat down, leaning his cane against the side of the chair. “Thank you.”

“What about your bronze?”

“His wing’s as good as new,” said T’kamen. “He’s not fit, but we can build that back up.”

R’lony regarded him critically. “You want to help?”

“What I want is to get back to my own time,” T’kamen said. “I’d like to do some investigation of old records at the other Weyrs, or maybe the Harperhall. If I find evidence that I make it back to the Interval, that means Epherineth will be able to go between again, and if he can go between, perhaps he can teach your dragons to do it.”

“All right,” said R’lony. “But I’m hearing a lot of ‘if’ and ‘maybe’ and ‘perhaps’. What if you don’t find what you’re looking for?”

T’kamen took a breath. There had to be a key to unlock the problem, or M’ric wouldn’t have made it back to the Interval, but he didn’t want to tell R’lony that. “If Epherineth and I are trapped here, then we’ll do whatever it is that a bronze dragonpair does in this Pass. If you’ll keep us. If you won’t, I guess we’ll petition the Peninsula, but…”

“But?”

“I’m a Madellon rider, R’lony,” he said. “Epherineth’s Madellon-bred, and the sire of Madellon dragons. He fathered a Madellon queen. He could be the ancestor of some of the dragons here today. So even if we can’t reach our own time, we’d at least prefer to stay in our own place.”

“Well,” said R’lony, scratching his short grey beard, “far be it from me to deny a man a place in the Weyr of his dragon’s Hatching. You’ll have your opportunity to seek records of your return. But I’d be doing you a disservice amongst your Weyrmates if I just cut you loose.” He leaned back, his eyes calculating. “Join the Seventh Flight. Fly with the browns and bronzes of Madellon. You’ll take a Seventh rider’s shoulder-knot, you’ll draw a Seventh rider’s pay, and no one will question your right to hunt your dragon from our herds or to sit at Strategic’s table in the mess.”

Yes, Epherineth said immediately.

T’kamen didn’t hesitate any longer than his bronze had. “I accept,” he said. “Although I may not be of much use until I’m fit again.”

“Fit, and retrained,” said R’lony. “The Seventh’s operations won’t bear much resemblance to whatever you learned in the Interval.” He reached for a pen and a clean piece of what looked like very thin vellum. “Let’s formalise this. I suppose technically you’re not a transfer, but I don’t think there’s much precedent for a rider resuming his post after going on hiatus for a century. Let’s begin with you. Who were you before you were T’kamen of Madellon Weyr?”

“Taskamen of the Frankon trader train, Madellon territory,” T’kamen replied. “Born Seventh Interval 67, Searched to Madellon and Impressed 85. Dragon bronze Epherineth out of Cherganth by Staamath. Bronze Staamath, that is. Graduated 86. Made up to Wingsecond 88. Made up to Wingleader 91. Dropped back to wingrider 94.”

R’lony looked up from recording T’kamen’s service history, raising his brows. “What happened?”

“New Weyrleader. He wasn’t an admirer of mine.”

“Ha!”

“I became Weyrleader in 98,” T’kamen went on. “My Weyrwoman was Valonna, Shimpath’s rider. Epherineth sired a clutch of twenty-five, including a queen, Berzunth, Impressed by Tarshe.”

He noticed R’lony mouthing twenty-five, with a small shake of his head. “And what happened to your great friend the previous Weyrleader?”

“L’dro. Bronze Pierdeth’s rider. He transferred to the Peninsula.”

“Was it a voluntary transfer?”

“It wasn’t involuntary.”

“Well, sometimes the best thing to do with the needlethorn in your side is to stick it in someone else’s.” R’lony continued to write. “How much does Epherineth eat?”

“Four head a sevenday, or five if they’re scrawny.” T’kamen laughed briefly. “They’ve all been scrawny for a while. The Holds weren’t over-enthusiastic about their tithes.”

“Four a sevenday?” R’lony asked. “Is that all?”

“He’s never been a glutton.”

“Well, he’ll eat more once he’s in full work. I don’t know what toll going between takes on a dragon against flying straight, but flying and carrying makes a dragon hungry.” R’lony looked pensive. “He’s the biggest bronze I’ve seen in length and height, but he’s light-framed compared to ours. Let him eat his fill. We’ve no shortage of food beasts.”

“Really?” T’kamen asked. “Even with Threadfall?”

“Dragons have to eat,” said R’lony. “No one complains about that.”

“That’s refreshing,” T’kamen said. “Epherineth’s never been a burly dragon, but he’s not at his fighting weight right now. Or whatever you call optimal weight now. I suppose I can’t call it fighting weight.”

“Call it what you like, so long as you don’t let a Tactical rider hear you say it,” said R’lony. “I don’t suppose you know what Epherineth’s working range is? His top load?” T’kamen shook his head, but R’lony didn’t seem fazed. “We’ll find out soon enough. Any past illnesses, injuries, or weaknesses?”

“Not that you don’t already know about,” T’kamen said.

R’lony made an assenting noise. He continued to make notes for several minutes. T’kamen wished he could read what he was writing. Then R’lony looked up at him. “You’re not the first rider to dislocate a hip, so no one’s going to look askance that you’re taking your recovery cautiously. The Weyr Healer has no bedside manner whatsoever, but he does know how to get a rider back fit, so do as he says.

“I’m assigning you to Crewleader Ch’fil for training. He’ll get you up to speed on what you should be doing.” R’lony wrote several lines on another piece of vellum and signed it. “Have your tail take you to Kanessa, the Headwoman. This chit will get you assigned a weyr and whatever clothes and oddments you need. Today if you’re polite to her, and next sevenday if you’re not.” He cocked his head. “Something amusing?”

T’kamen realised that a smile had crooked his mouth. “Not amusing. It’s comforting to know that keeping the right side of the Headwoman is still important. At least one thing hasn’t changed.”

“Thread,” said R’lony. He pushed the requisition chit across his desk. “Thread never changes.”

T’kamen picked it up and began to tuck it into the breast pocket of his jacket. Then he paused, recognising the unfamiliar texture of the material. “What is this?” he asked, rubbing his fingertips against the smooth surface of the sheet. “It doesn’t feel like hide.”

“It isn’t,” said R’lony. “It’s wood-pulp paper from Kellad. Didn’t they have that in the Interval?” He shrugged when T’kamen shook his head. “Oh, and you’ll need…” He rummaged in a drawer and finally came up with a braid of indigo and bronze. “This. Here. I’d put it on now if I were you. It won’t protect you from stares or stupid questions, but it legitimises you.”

The cords were knotted in an unfamiliar way, but the simple double-twist reminded T’kamen so strongly of his defiantly sloppy old wingrider knot that for an instant his longing to go home to his own time, his own Madellon, choked him. He took a deep breath, aware of Epherineth crowding suddenly close in solidarity, until the moment passed. Then he looped the rank knot over his arm and secured it to the shoulder strap. “Thank you, Marshal.”

“Things are very different now for brown and bronze riders than they used to be,” said R’lony. “Even within my lifetime. It’s not how I’d like it to be. It’s not how it should be – but while Threadfighting is the sole province of blues and greens, and while S’leondes leads them, it’s the way that it is.” His nostrils flared for a moment. “You were a Weyrleader, and I’d like to say you’d be respected for that, but in this time, this Pass, you won’t be. You’re a bronze rider, and however the dragons organise themselves, their riders no longer concur. Every Tactical rider in Madellon, however young or callow, outranks you. They can’t command you to do anything unless they have officer rank, but you’ll be expected to step aside for them, and if they’re rude to you, you have no right to seek satisfaction. There are those who will make sport of provoking Strategic riders and then having them Disciplined for colour intimidation. If that happens to you – and I have every reason to expect it will – don’t rise to it. Bite your tongue, block your ears, and most of all, restrain your dragon. It’ll go poorly for you if you don’t.”

The vague and undefined sense of unease that T’kamen had felt about Pass Madellon had been coming slowly into focus, and now, R’lony’s words snapped it into hard-edged clarity. “That’s going to be difficult for Epherineth,” he said carefully.

“I appreciate that, T’kamen,” said R’lony. “But you’re a Seventh rider now, and I can expect no less from you than I would of any other rider of mine. It would reflect badly on both of us if I were to coddle you with special treatment. Keep your bronze in hand. Don’t let him dominate on the feeding grounds. And don’t allow him to chase a green unless you’ve been invited by that green’s rider.”

T’kamen swallowed, hard. “I will…do my best.”

“Do better than that.” R’lony spoke flatly. “The balance between Strategic and Tactical is a delicate thing. Just your presence here threatens to upset it. Best you keep your head down and become part of the landscape as quickly as possible.” Then his tone lost something of its severity. “T’kamen, if it were up to me, I’d offer you all the privileges that a former Weyrleader of Madellon deserves. Giving you M’ric as your tail is as much as I can do. I’m sorry, but it’s the way it is.”

“I don’t have much use for privilege,” T’kamen said. “I won’t miss it.” He let out his breath. “We’ll keep our heads down, R’lony.”

“Thank you.” R’lony extended his hand to him, and T’kamen rose awkwardly from his seat to clasp his wrist. “M’ric won’t have gone far. Have him take you to the caverns and then show you around. But don’t be afraid to put him in his place when he warrants it. He’s an intelligent boy in his way, but he can be very stupid, and no good ever came of a clever rider thinking himself too special.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” T’kamen said.

“Good.”

R’lony turned his attention back to his work, but T’kamen hesitated before taking his leave. “One question, before I go.”

The Marshal lifted his eyes. “Go on.”

“You thought Epherineth and I were from the north when we first arrived.”

“It was the most obvious explanation for a strange bronze appearing in Madellon territory,” said R’lony. “But I suppose you want to know why we’d isolate a northern dragonpair.”

T’kamen nodded. “What’s happened between the north and the south to make a northern visitor so suspicious? M’ric’s talked about me being a spy, about recruiting, but he hasn’t explained what that means.”

“The northern Weyrs do things differently,” said R’lony. “Some of our riders think they’d like it better there. Some of their riders like to nudge them along that path of thinking.” Contempt twisted R’lony’s lip. “It’s not tolerated.”

“Then you thought we’d come to lure some of your riders to the north?”

“You would not have been the first northern rider to try. Or to succeed.”

“I see.” He didn’t, really – the thought that a rider would defect from his own Weyr  was inexplicable to him – but in deference to R’lony’s obviously strong feelings on the matter, he didn’t push. “Thank you for explaining. And for offering me the assignment to the Seventh.”

“Just stay out of trouble,” said R’lony. “Bronze rider.”

That was a definite dismissal. T’kamen found he didn’t resent it. By contrast to S’leondes, R’lony had been gracious indeed. He’d given T’kamen much to think about, and answered many of the questions that had been burning him up with frustration since his arrival in the Pass.

But something was wrong at Madellon. Badly wrong. It twisted T’kamen’s guts to think how the loss of between, the loss that had started with his weyrlings, had turned the natural order on its head. Because in a Weyr where blues and greens led the fighting Wings and browns flew the queens, what was left for bronzes to do?

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One response to “Chapter twenty-three: T’kamen”

  1. Charis Hayward says:

    Nice, right on both accounts! I’m curious to see if women kept impressing blues once in a blue (ha) moon, or T’gala’s alone on that count.

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