Chapter twenty-six: Sarenya
Herdbeast ear tattoos indicate ownership and transit history; the left ear is marked if the animal is sold, and the right when it is moved across Hold or territory borders. In this way the individual beast’s origins and movements may be recorded. The preservation of clear and accurate tattoos is one of the most critical duties of the Beastcraft. During outbreaks of disease, the ability to discern the origin and recent movements of any given animals quickly and accurately can mean the difference between culling only those beasts likely to be infected, and the enforced slaughter of entire herds.
Runnerbeast tattoos, applied to the pink skin of the inside upper lip, mark only ownership. A runner that has been bought and sold many times – known colloquially as a green-lip – is often head-shy, as it recalls only too well the discomfort of its many lip tattoos.
– Beastcraft Tattoos and Brands, apprentice edition
Sarenya was checking snares in the feed room when the clop of hooves against the stone flags of the yard alerted her to unexpected movement. She shook the limp carcass of a tunnel-snake free of the noose that had strangled it and hooked the wire back to reset the trap. “Ingany, has something got out?”
That wasn’t Ingany. Sarenya stepped out of the feed room, dead snake in hand. One of the Kellad herdsmen who’d escorted the beast drive was standing beside his runnerbeast in the stableyard. “Gadman,” she said, surprised. “Something I can do for you?”
Gadman, a weathered and bandy-legged drover who could have been anywhere in his fifth, sixth, or seventh decade, squinted at her. “Was ’specting Tebis.”
“We’ve changed assignments,” Sarenya said. “He has the Hatchery now. Master Arrense has me on the stables. Is there something I can help you with?”
“S’pose you could,” said Gadman, after a long moment’s pause. He jerked a thumb at his runnerbeast. “Thissun’s gone lame on way up t’passes.”
Sarenya tossed the tunnel-snake carcass onto the muck heap. “Walk him up the yard for me?”
Gadman clicked the runner on with his tongue. The hitch in the chestnut’s gait was clear enough. “See?”
“The off-fore,” said Sarenya. “Will he stand for me?”
“Oh, aye, Bovey’s a goodun,” said Gadman.
Sarenya approached the gelding, taking care not to move too quickly or suddenly. Goodun or not, she didn’t know Gadman’s runner. “All right, there, Bovey, you’re all right, aren’t you?” She touched the runner’s shoulder, then stroked his neck. Bovey turned his head towards her, nostrils flaring inquisitively. He had a broad white stripe running down his long face. Sarenya let him sniff her hand and kept up the soothing talk for several moments, until she was confident that the runner was calm. Then she ran her hand over his shoulder and down his foreleg. She’d barely reached the fetlock before Bovey lifted the foot. “There’s a good boy. Let’s have a look.” She brushed loose mud and bits of tithe-road gravel away from the inside of the hoof. “When was he last shod?”
“T’weren’t but a sevenday gone,” said Gadman.
“It looks like there’s a nail missing,” said Sarenya. “Maybe it worked loose and pricked his foot.” She took the worn hoof-pick from its sheath on her belt and used it to scrape away dried mud. The frog was warm but not hot, and there wasn’t a visible wound on the sole of the foot, but that didn’t rule out a puncture. She lowered the foot back to the ground and felt gradually up the leg, joint by joint. Then she stepped back. “Walk him up again, please?”
Gadman obliged, but while Bovey stepped out smartly enough that the short herdsman had to break into a jog to keep up, the gelding’s gait was still uneven. “Ain’t right, is he?” he said, sounding dismayed.
“There’s no heat in the leg, and nothing obviously wrong with the foot,” said Sarenya. “He’s probably just bruised his sole on that missing nail. I’d like to keep him here overnight and see if he’s sound by the morning.”
“Ah don’t want t’be making him no worse,” Gadman said doubtfully, “but Ah were s’posed to set back home with t’others.”
Sarenya rubbed the chestnut’s forehead. “You can borrow one of ours until the next drive. We’ll keep your fellow safe until you’re here next.”
“Obligated to ye, journey,” said Gadman. “T’wife, well, you know thattun. She always has summat t’say if Ah’m not back as Ah say Ah’ll be.”
“I know you need to get back to her,” said Sarenya. Casendie, Gadman’s wife, had a badly twisted foot, and while she could get around well enough in their cothold, she couldn’t bring in their livestock alone. “I don’t have anything as nice as this to offer you on loan, though. Hannser took it into his idiot head to dare some of the other apprentices to ride up the Water Tank yesterday. I have one lame behind, another who threw both front shoes, and the other two out in the paddock getting over the trauma.”
Gadman chortled, tucking his thumbs into the loops of his belt. “Boys’ll be boys,” he said. “Prentices bin riding up yon gorge since long afore t’Weyr were here.”
“Prentices and journeymen,” Sarenya said ruefully. The other Beastcrafters had cajoled her into riding the steep ravine – named for the rusted-out water tank wedged halfway down it – at the end of last summer. Once had been enough. It might be a much faster way to get from the high pastures to the foot of the Weyr than riding around the gentle curves and gradient of the tithe road, but it was punishing on the runners – not to mention terrifying. She glanced along the row of stalls that comprised Madellon’s modest stables. “Will Crawler do? He’s not the fastest, but if yours doesn’t come sound before you’re next up here, he’ll keep you going on your rounds.”
“T’will do fine,” said Gadman.
“This fellow’s very nice,” Sarenya said, rubbing Bovey’s nose. “Is he new?”
“Aye, new,” said Gadman. “Bucks like a mule, though, thissun. Weren’t none wanted a bucker. Lip’s as green as grass. Mild as milk to do, but them bucks…”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Sarenya. “Now, where’s that girl…Ingany!”
Ingany popped her head out from a stable. “I’m here, journeyman!”
Sarenya unbuckled Bovey’s girth and lifted the saddle off his back. “Here. Put up Gadman’s rig for me, and then saddle Crawler.”
“With this saddle?” Ingany asked uncertainly.
“With his own.” Sarenya glanced over her shoulder at Gadman. “If you’re happy for us to look after your saddle as well as your runner, that is? It’s only that Crawler’s not so high-withered as your fellow here.”
“Aye, aye,” said Gadman. “S’fine.”
Sarenya led Bovey into a vacant stall, took off his bridle, then checked to see if there was water in the bucket. There wasn’t, so she crossed the yard to the tank. It was almost empty. “When you’ve done that, you can refill the cistern,” she shouted after Ingany, lugging the full bucket back to Bovey’s stall. “And give Sunny that new hay-net; it’s soaked long enough now.”
She groomed Gadman’s gelding herself, enjoying the opportunity to handle a runner of quality. Madellon kept a limited string, just twelve runnerbeasts in total. There was one three-Turn-old, whose training Sarenya had taken over from Tebis, and Master Arrense’s personal mount, the bad-tempered Franc, but the rest were phlegmatic old plodders, surefooted on drives, and inured by long exposure to the proximity of dragons. Bovey, by contrast, was almost nice enough to have been a Holder’s mount, but by the row of ownership tattoos that Sarenya found inside the chestnut’s upper lip, he’d changed hands rather a lot. Even the best-looking runner would be sold if it wasn’t a mannerly ride.
She’d almost finished brushing the chestnut when Sleek chirruped a greeting from his favourite basking spot on the slate roof of the stable block. Another fire-lizard responded, and a moment later M’ric appeared at the stable door with Agusta clinging to his shoulder. “There you are,” he said. “I wondered where you’d got to.”
“Shards, is it noon already?” Sarenya gave a final swipe to Bovey’s neck, then racked the brush and let herself out of the stable. “I’m so sorry, M’ric. I’ve been running late all morning. Jarrisam got on the end of a kick in the milking shed, so I had to ride down to meet the drive in his place, and then Gadman’s runner came in lame –”
“It’s fine, Saren,” M’ric interrupted. “There’s no rush. But this one just turned up, and I thought you might like to take a look at her before she disappears again.”
Agusta had been missing for a couple of days – not unexpectedly, all things considered. “Been off laying eggs, have you?” Saren asked the little queen.
“She wouldn’t tell you if she could,” M’ric said wryly. “Likes to keep it a secret; don’t you, Agusta?”
“She’s just doing what’s instinctive,” Sarenya said. Bovey had put his nose over the stable door to nibble the sleeve of her tunic. She pushed him off. “Let me just finish up here, and we’ll take her into the cot.”
“No rush,” M’ric repeated. He nodded at the chestnut runnerbeast. “He’s friendly.”
“He’s not one of ours,” said Sarenya. “He belongs to one of the regular herdsmen from the beast drives. He’s rather nice, actually. If he comes sound before the next drive I’ll probably have to ride him. He’ll go mad standing in his box.”
M’ric looked at the runnerbeast with that classic dragonrider disinterest in any creature that didn’t have wings. “Handy for you to have a runner for a patient, though, just as you’ve taken over the stables.”
“Don’t you start,” Sarenya said, without rancour. “It’s bad enough that Arrense and Vhion have ganged up on me.”
“It’s good that they have,” said M’ric. “You’ve been saying you need to do more with runnerbeasts.”
“It does beat Hatchery duty,” Sarenya admitted. “I’m still not likely to get much useful runner experience in Madellon’s stables, though.”
“And you need runner experience for your Mastery?” M’ric asked.
“I need it to even qualify to begin advanced studies,” Sarenya said. “I just wish everyone would stop nagging me about Mastery. I’m not even thirty yet, and no one makes Master before thirty-five.”
“I don’t mean to nag,” said M’ric. “I’m sorry, Saren.”
“It’s all right,” she said, touching his arm. “It means a lot that you care.”
Still, she felt faintly harried as she raced through the remainder of her stable rounds. She did want to make Master one day. Not every crafter did, and there was no shame at all in being content with a journeyman’s knot, but Sarenya had always aspired to Mastery of the Beastcraft – out of pure bloody-mindedness as much as anything. She’d been encountering resistance to her Craft ambitions since even before she’d apprenticed. The Beastcraft, she’d been informed by any number of people over the Turns, was no place for a girl. Even after seven Turns as a journeyman she was still hearing that. A female Beastcrafter would never be as strong as her male counterparts, she’d been told; she wouldn’t be able to control headstrong studs or calving cows; she’d never command the respect of backwoods holders; she’d probably get pregnant and then be useless on all counts. It made Sarenya irritable. She might not have the raw brawn required to pull an overlarge calf from its mother, but muscle was easy to come by – an understanding of when to intercede and when to let nature take its course wasn’t. No one, not even her burly uncle, could make an angry bull or stallion do anything by brute strength, but skilful management and gentle handling could keep a stud calm and avert the need for force. Backwoods holders often didn’t respect Beastcrafters male or female. And as for the accusation that she might fall pregnant; she’d been taking measures to prevent that for Turns.
She liked her Craft. She liked working with animals. She liked being outdoors most of the time – but she enjoyed the mental challenge of studying, too, the reading that extended her knowledge of beast-medicine beyond what she could get from practical experience. She liked teaching apprentices – and even non-Craft helpers like Ingany. She was good at it. Her Masters over the Turns had all commented that she had a feel for the work, an instinct that guided her intellect, a touch with the animals. She was realistic enough about the ingrained gender-bias of the Beastcraft to know that she probably wouldn’t have earned her knots if she were merely competent. She knew she should be grateful that both Arrense and Vhion were pushing her. And she wasn’t afraid of the Turns of hard work and learning that she’d need to put into achieving her Master’s topaz. She was just afraid of what she’d have to give up to do it.
Once the stables were in order, Sarenya took M’ric and Agusta into the Beastcrafters’ cothold. Master Arrense was making himself a cup of klah in the common room when they passed through. “Wingsecond,” he greeted M’ric laconically, and then, “Shouldn’t you be off shift by now, Saren? You’re down for the afternoon off.”
“I am, Master,” she said. “But Agusta’s in clutch, and I’d like to give her a once-over. I was going to use the examining room, if that’s all right.”
“You know where it is,” said Arrense. Then he pointed at M’ric with his mug. “Don’t let her get side-tracked. She works too much as it is.”
“Master,” Sarenya protested.
“We’re going to get out of the Weyr for a few hours once we’re done here,” said M’ric. “Absolutely no work, I promise.”
Arrense nodded grudgingly. “Carry on.”
M’ric was smiling as Sarenya showed him into the room they used to examine their smaller patients – stable cats, spit dogs, and the odd fire-lizard. “What?” she asked, glancing at him as she opened the shutters to let in more daylight.
“Nothing,” he said. “It always just tickles me, how correct you are around your Master.”
“What, because I’m not correct around anyone else?”
“It’s not as if it’s a secret that he’s your uncle,” said M’ric. “And anyone who didn’t know would soon figure it out. You only have to look at the two of you together.”
Sarenya paused as she washed her hands, giving him a stare of mock-horror. “With the beak he has on him? Faranth forbid anyone would see that and think of me!”
“Not the nose,” said M’ric. “But you do have the same eyes as him.”
“Technically I have the same eyes as my dad,” said Sarenya.
“Who was your Master’s brother.”
“I don’t want there to be any accusation that he gives me special treatment. Tebis is really put out that I’ve got his assignment. If there was even a hint that Arrense gave me the stables because we’re related…”
“There’s nothing wrong with a bit of favouritism towards family members, Saren,” M’ric told her. “It makes the world go round.”
He was teasing her. Sarenya knew it, and he knew she knew it. “Not my world, it doesn’t,” she told him ominously, playing along. “All right. See if you can get Agusta to stand on the balance there.”
Agusta refused at first, shaking her head irritably and gripping onto M’ric’s shoulder harder as he tried to coax her down onto the brass plate of the scales. She’d been short-tempered, disobedient, and ravenous for several days before her recent absence. “She always gets like this before she clutches?”
“I’ve always presumed that’s what it’s all about,” said M’ric. He finally managed to disentangle Agusta’s tail from around his upper arm, and set her firmly down on the balance. “She goes off for a few days, comes back to eat everything in sight, then vanishes for a few more days. It goes on for seven or ten days and then she’s back as if nothing ever happened. And completely unrepentant about her behaviour, aren’t you?”
Agusta rustled her wings defiantly at the censure as Sarenya read the weight off the scale. “And you have no idea where she goes to clutch?”
“She’s been coming back sandy, but apart from that… Oh, and this was stuck to her foot this morning.” M’ric took a ribbon of desiccated purple-green seaweed, crusted with salt, from his pocket.
Saren took it off him. “Deep greenwrack, isn’t it?”
“You’re the seaholder,” she told him. “Don’t you know your sea plants?”
M’ric shrugged. “It’s been a long time.”
“It may narrow down where she’s been laying, anyway. Greenwrack’s seasonal. It only washes up in the summer if there’s been a storm to bring it up.”
“I didn’t know you were a botanist as well as a Beastcrafter, Saren.”
“I was five Turns at Blue Shale. After fish and fire-lizards, seaweed is probably their most important resource. This stuff’s quite tasty if you know how to cook it.” Sarenya frowned at the frond of seaweed. “I hadn’t heard there’d been any bad weather along the Madellon coast. But then Agusta isn’t a Madellon fire-lizard, is she? She’s not even a southern species.”
Sarenya gave him a hard look. “You never have told me how you got your hands on a queen before you were even a dragonrider.”
“I can’t,” M’ric said, with an unconvincingly guileless expression. “I’d…compromise your integrity if I did.”
“Did you steal her?”
M’ric pulled a comically shifty face.
“And you got away with it?”
“I didn’t exactly go unpunished.”
Sarenya shook her head. “I can’t imagine you as a delinquent, M’ric.”
“A lot of Turns separate me from the boy I was when I Impressed Agusta,” he said. He cocked his head. “Why do you say she’s not southern?”
“Too many ridges on her tail,” said Sarenya. “Let me see if I can get Sleek in here to show you what I mean.” She sent an insistent thought to her blue, who’d gone back to sleep on the stable roof. “These last two ridges at the base of her tail are fully developed. If she were from a southern strain, they wouldn’t be. They’d still be the short type that run between her wings. She’s bigger than a southern queen, she has a more pointed muzzle, and her trailing edges attach farther down.” She thought harder at her own fire-lizard. “Come on, Sleek, you lazy wherry!”
Sleek didn’t come. M’ric laughed. “Never mind, Saren. I believe you.”
“One of these days I’m going to have to make another run at training him to obey,” said Sarenya. “I can’t even get him to wear a message band. He just eats them. Which reminds me…” She opened drawers until she found a packet of wherry jerky. “Will Agusta be all right with me handling her?”
“Trebruth will control her,” M’ric said. “She won’t scratch you.”
Sarenya fed the queen a piece of wherry to sweeten her. “See if she’ll jump down onto the table for me.”
Agusta looked disapproving, but she didn’t scream or struggle or disappear when Sarenya started her inspection. It was a scaled-down equivalent to the dragon nose-to-tail that she did with the weyrlings. Pinching up the hide to check for hydration – a test that took both hands on a dragon – could be done between thumb and forefinger on a fire-lizard. The pulses were lighter and more rapid. Agusta allowed her to open her wings one at a time, and then to lift each foot and, applying gentle pressure, splay out the individual toes. The queen’s hide was healthy, her eyes bright, all her limbs straight and sound. Her teeth were good and her breath neutral, if not exactly sweet. Sarenya placed a hand on one side of the lizard’s belly. Agusta mantled her wings at that, but only for a moment. “Well, she’s definitely in clutch.”
“She doesn’t look it,” said. M’ric. “Not like an egg-heavy dragon does, anyway.”
“I’ve never examined a gravid dragon,” said Sarenya. “So all my knowledge of dragon gestation is from Vhion’s apprentice notes. Queen dragons carry their eggs much longer than fire-lizards do.” She pressed her fingertips lightly against the other side of Agusta’s abdomen. “In fact the whole cycle is longer. With fire-lizards, it’s usually only forty-five or forty-six days between mating and hatching, and the eggs will all be laid by day thirty-four. And a queen dragon will lay twenty-something eggs over two or three days without a break. I’ve seen fire-lizard clutches with as many as thirty eggs, but they won’t all have been laid at the same time. They just don’t have the internal space to carry that many fully-developed eggs at once. Take her on your arm a moment?”
M’ric persuaded Agusta to hop onto his wrist with the enticement of another bit of meat. “So she’ll lay her clutch in batches?”
“Yes. She’s carrying six or seven mature eggs now from what I could feel, which is consistent with her weight. She’ll lay these, then start forming the shell for the next batch, and so on until she’s laid all the young she’s carrying, over a sevenday or so. That’s why greens only produce small clutches. They don’t have the bodily resources to sustain more than one laying, so any extra young get reabsorbed.”
“Reabsorbed?” M’ric asked, with a grimace.
“Hold her up for me?” Sarenya peered at the queen’s underside. “She’s already laid at least one set. See the cloacal swelling back between her hind legs?”
“That may be more than I need to know about female fire-lizard anatomy, Saren.”
“You shouldn’t be squeamish about it,” Sarenya told him. “She could get egg-bound. It’s the most common cause of death among domesticated green and gold fire-lizards. But she seems fine. She’s hydrated and bright. What’s she been eating?”
“Just the usual meat scraps from the kitchens,” said M’ric.
“She’s probably hunting for herself along the coast, but it wouldn’t hurt to feed her something to help her replace the minerals that are going into her hatchlings and their eggshells. Spiderclaws would be best – something with a semi-hard shell for her to eat.” She frowned. “What happens to the shells of dragon eggs after a Hatching? Does the queen eat them?”
“I’m not really sure,” said M’ric. “I had a bit of Trebruth’s eggshell as a keepsake, but I lost it a long time ago. I don’t know what happens to the rest. Is that what a fire-lizard would do, eat them?”
“It’s what wherries do,” said Sarenya. “The hens eat the eggshells once they’ve hatched. Along with any young they don’t like the look of.”
“There’s nothing like a mother’s love.”
“That’s why we incubate wherry eggs in the Hatchery,” Sarenya said. “Otherwise we’d lose half of them. In theory, fire-lizards would do the same, but in practice, they don’t often get the chance. A hatching fire-lizard clutch attracts too much attention to make it safe for a wild queen and her fair to stick around for long. As soon as there’s the least sniff of a wherry or a snake, they abandon the eggs and any hatchlings that aren’t strong enough to follow. Sometimes all of them.”
“It’s a good thing dragons aren’t put off so easily,” said M’ric.
“I suppose that comes of having no natural predators.” Sarenya went back to the sink to wash her hands again. “And human intervention never hurts.”
“So why is it that Agusta won’t tell me where she lays her eggs?” asked M’ric. “Wouldn’t it make more sense for her to do it where I can protect them?”
Sarenya dried her hands on a towel. “Well, what happens if two queen dragons have eggs on the sands at the same time?”
“They –” M’ric paused, looking thoughtful. Then he continued. “It doesn’t really happen. They rise so infrequently in the Interval, and they mostly seem to sort out their own cycles so they don’t coincide with each other. But I did hear a story once about two queens sharing Hatching sands. The senior waited for the junior to go out to hunt, and while she was away, she, ah, ate some of her eggs.”
Sarenya winced. “Well, that’s something they have in common with fire-lizards. And that’s why Agusta keeps her eggs hidden from you. She’s concerned that you’ll eat them.”
M’ric looked at her. “My own fire-lizard thinks I’m going to eat her offspring?”
“Don’t take it personally. When a lizard queen’s in clutch, all the learned behaviours that she’s developed as your companion are superseded by her natural instincts. It’s a very artificial state, really, for a lizard to be attached to a human. In the wild, a fire-lizard that hatches with its parent fair in attendance effectively Impresses to the dominant queen, and by extension the rest of the fair. The fair’s entire purpose is to protect its dominant queen and her eggs. When a juvenile queen – or even a green – reaches maturity and lays a clutch, the dominant queen can’t allow her fair’s attention to be divided – it would put her own eggs in jeopardy. So the dominant queen and her bronzes will find the lesser clutch and eat the eggs. Just as that senior dragon queen did to the junior’s eggs.” She paused. “What happened in that situation?”
“The junior transferred out,” said M’ric. “I don’t suppose she’d ever have forgiven the other queen, even with a dragon’s memory.”
“Fire-lizards queens are the same,” Sarenya said. “Greens don’t care, but a junior queen won’t tolerate it. She’ll usually leave the fair of her own volition, though sometimes she’ll challenge the dominant queen for seniority. The younger queen generally loses, unless the dominant is sick or injured. Assuming she’s not killed in the fight, she’s then on her own until she can either form her own fair of unattached lizards or successfully challenge an established dominant queen for her fair. And when one queen is ousted by another, the new queen’s very first priority is to find and eat all her predecessor’s eggs.”
“They’re not nice, are they?” M’ric asked.
“Fire-lizards?” Sarenya laughed. “Not particularly, no. But they’re just trying to survive, like every other creature on Pern.”
“All right,” said M’ric. “But I still don’t understand why Agusta thinks I’m a threat. I’m not a rival queen.”
Sarenya feigned shock. “And all this time I was labouring under the misconception that you were!”
“It’s a mistake many have made,” M’ric admitted. Then, quite gravely, he stuck his tongue out at her.
“Didn’t you mother ever tell you not to make faces, M’ric? If the wind changes, you’ll be stuck like that, and then you’ll be sorry.”
“It might be an improvement,” he suggested.
“Now you’re just fishing for compliments.”
“I’ll take whatever I can get.”
Sarenya rolled her eyes at him. “You can have her back, by the way,” she said, indicating Agusta. “She’s all done.”
M’ric patted his shoulder, and after a moment’s hesitation, Agusta consented to flutter up and perch there. “But she should know that too, seeing as I’m neither gold nor a fire-lizard.”
“But you are the dominant individual of her fair,” said Sarenya.
“Trebruth would have something to say about that.”
Sarenya grinned. “You’re the closest thing to a senior queen. The relationship doesn’t map exactly, but like I said, being Impressed to a person is an unnatural condition for a fire-lizard, so she’s just acting on her instincts as best she can fit them to her situation. She won’t leave you outright – the lizard-to-human Impression bond is too strong for that – but she won’t let you near her eggs if she can help it, either.” She looked regretfully at Agusta, who’d wrapped her tail around M’ric’s neck. “Unfortunately, the outcome’s the same for her clutch. She’s a lone queen without a fair to help protect her eggs, and no way of gathering one since Impressing to a human seems to shut off a fire-lizard’s ability to make Impressions to other lizards. She can’t be with her clutch all the time, and even if she could, she’d be powerless to stop a wherry from taking them. Or even a rival queen in the same area, for that matter. I hate to say it, but her eggs probably don’t even get as far as hatching before something gets them.”
M’ric turned his head to look at Agusta. “You’d really be a lot better off if you’d just trust me, you know.” Then he looked back at Sarenya. “I suppose that’s why she won’t tell Trebruth, either.”
“You’re the first dragonrider I’ve known with a queen, so I can’t say for sure, but I suspect she considers him to be part of your fair, too, and therefore just as untrustworthy as you.”
“You wouldn’t know it with the way she tries to boss him around sometimes.” M’ric tilted his head fractionally, then added, “Trebruth says that ‘tries’ is correct, but ‘tries and fails’ would be more correct.”
“Tell him his supremacy over a creature the size of his left nostril is noted.”
M’ric grinned. Then he shook his head. “All these Turns I’d just assumed she was seeing to her clutches and that I should mind my own business and leave her to it. I’m a terrible owner.”
“You’re not,” said Sarenya. “There’s not much you can do that the Beastcrafters at Blue Shale haven’t already tried. It would be very convenient if domestic queens would just lay on their handlers’ hearths, but they never do.”
“So how do you know where they have clutched?”
“Educated guessing,” said Sarenya. “We’re fairly certain that the first instinct of human-Impressed lizards is to try their clutching ground first – wherever they were clutched, not where they hatched. But the best places tend to be in the territories of established fairs. A loner like Agusta would either be chased off or come back to her clutch site and find her eggs gone. That’s another reason why queens lay in sets, by the way – it gives them a second chance if the first laying is eaten. So then she’d try to move on to somewhere else suitable nearby. If that place works out, she’ll start to revisit it in future, at least until she’s chased off again. If you knew where her egg was actually laid, you could search nearby. But I’m guessing you don’t know, given that she must have been laid on a northern beach.”
“Would it always be a beach?”
“Fire-lizards are coastal,” said Sarenya. “They don’t live inland; not wild ones, anyway. They need to eat oily fish – sea fish – to keep their hides healthy. They don’t have the benefit of humans to oil them whenever they need it!”
“Maybe I should feed Trebruth some fish,” M’ric said ruefully. “I seem to spend my whole life putting oil on that scaly patch of his.”
“It would take an awful lot of fish to feed Trebruth,” said Sarenya.
“So there’s really no way we can find out where Agusta’s clutching?”
“Not really,” said Sarenya. “We can narrow it down to a beach in the north –perhaps somewhere that’s been stormy recently, going by that greenwrack – but that’s about it. If I still had Tarnish…” She sighed.
“He’d have known?”
“He might have. The handlers at Blue Shale have had some success in that respect. That’s assuming he’d sired the clutch.”
“He would have,” M’ric assured her.
“He flew a couple of queens, but he was young, and the older ones usually beat him. He wasn’t always wily enough.”
“Wily or not, he’d have caught Agusta,” M’ric said. Unhurriedly, he lifted his hand to Sarenya’s brow to stroke her temple. “They respond to connection, you know.”
Sarenya turned her face into his touch, smiling slightly. “I’ve heard that,” she admitted.
“It’s true,” he told her. “I’ll show you.”
He bent his head to her. Sarenya still had to stretch up a little to accept his kiss. On M’ric’s shoulder, Agusta emitted an unambiguous croon of endorsement, and their kiss dissolved as they both laughed at the fire-lizard queen’s imperious approval.
“See?” M’ric asked. “I bet that’s one thing you never learned at Blue Shale.”
“No,” Sarenya agreed. “Strangely, in between all the hours I spent lying in sand dunes, watching wild fairs and getting sunburnt in some sensitive places, it wasn’t.”
“Sunburnt?” He gave her a slow, frank look , up and down. “In sensitive places? How sensitive?”
“Pretty sensitive,” Saren told him. “It’s all the sand, you see. It can really…chafe.”
“Saren,” M’ric said reprovingly. “And I was having such a nice mental image.”
“Can’t have that,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to upset Trebruth as well as Agusta.”
He laughed. “Believe me, Trebruth’s a long way from upset. Come on. I promised your uncle I wouldn’t let you work any longer than you needed to. Let’s get out of Madellon.”
“What did you have in mind?”
M’ric spread his arms wide. “All of Pern is at your disposal.”
“I do have to be back for evening stables,” Sarenya reminded him. “And to see to Sejanth. And –”
“Stop thinking about work,” he said. “And don’t worry about the time. We won’t be late. Trust me. I’m a dragonrider.”
“Well,” Sarenya said, contemplating it, “the Blue Shale beaches are nice at this time of Turn.” She waited to see M’ric’s grin broaden, and then added, “And the sevenday market will be open down on the harbour. We could go and get Agusta some spiderclaws so we don’t have to spend all afternoon wading through rock-pools.”
“That,” M’ric said, “sounds like a plan.”
Even after more than a Turn at Madellon, Sarenya still found dragon-flight exciting. She spent more hours on runnerback in a sevenday than she likely ever would aboard a dragon. Since she’d been seeing M’ric she’d ridden more regularly – he and Trebruth took her out of the Weyr every couple of sevendays – but even then she could have counted the trips she’d made between without reaching much higher than twenty.
So it was with enjoyment of the privilege that, having rushed through a quick bath and change of clothes, she accepted M’ric’s hand up to her place behind him on Trebruth’s neck. The brown was the smallest dragon she’d ridden, and he would have been the most comfortable, if not for his fondness for precision flying and breakneck manoeuvres. M’ric double-checked that Sarenya was strapped in correctly, but once he had, she hardly had a chance to do more than grab onto his flying belt before Trebruth kicked aloft and, a single downstroke later, took them between.
They emerged above Blue Shale, the busy seahold where Sarenya had spent five Turns as a junior and then senior journeyman. She hadn’t been back there since being reassigned to Madellon, and she felt a weight lift from her. The Weyr had become such a gloomy place since the loss of the weyrlings and T’kamen’s disappearance. Even the heat that had been so stifling at Madellon was leavened here by the prevailing breeze from offshore, and the briny smell of the ocean was welcome, and familiar, and invigorating.
As Trebruth banked across the bay, Sarenya sighted the sevenday market by the harbour. “There!” she shouted in M’ric’s ear, pointing towards the bustle of people.
He gave her a thumbs-up, and Trebruth spiralled to land on the end of the quietest pier. The handful of fishermen coiling ropes and mending net along planked walkway still stopped to watch. Sarenya supposed that, even with a blue assigned to watch duties at the Hold proper these days, dragons were still a rare sight down by the docks.
“Feeling at home yet?” she asked M’ric as they dismounted, Sleek and Agusta fluttering down to their respective shoulders from where they’d hitched a ride with M’ric’s dragon.
He shook his head. “I’ve been a dragonrider for too long for anything but a Weyr to feel like home.” He paused as Trebruth turned his muzzle down to him. “Go on, then, if you must.”
Trebruth snorted, a distinctly offended sound, and then loped towards the end of the pier. Sarenya thought he was going to belly-flop into the sea, but while the brown flung himself off the planks with every appearance of pure indolence, he spread his wings and soared effortlessly upwards without touching the water with so much as a toe.
“He’s such a show-off,” Sarenya told M’ric.
“It makes him happy,” M’ric said casually, although the hint of a smile belied his nonchalance. “Lead on.”
Hand in hand, they walked down the pier towards the market. They passed skiffs and fishing trawlers, coastal rafts and river barges, and two of the great ocean-going three-masters that braved the open seas, fierce currents and temperamental weather conditions that lay between the southern continent and the north. A fast clipper sailed in as they watched, slicing through the chop of Shale Bay with her great sails billowing, then heeling sharply as she entered the protection of the long breakwater, her crew swarming the masts to lower the canvas.
The sevenday market stretched the length of the quayside. Blue Shale’s inland holders set up their stalls on the wharves, while the trawlermen and line fishermen displayed their catches in crates and kegs on the decks of their vessels. Marks did change hands, but barter was just as common: an inlander might trade a barrel of flour for a netful of fingertails, or a sack of tubers for a dripping basket of rock mussels. The dock rang with the competing shouts of fisherman boasting about their catch.
There were fire-lizards everywhere. At this hub of the trade in their eggs, few shoulders were bare of at least a green or blue. Many of them wore collars or leg cuffs of braided cords, identifying their owners or their owners’ ships. “Keep Agusta close,” Sarenya told M’ric. “If she goes for anything in a box or a bucket, you’ll have to pay for it. Anything that touches the ground, though – ah – see?” She pointed to where half a dozen squabbling lizards had converged on a yellowtail that had fallen from a clumsily-lifted crate.
“She understands,” M’ric assured her. “Sleek’s behaving himself.”
“He was hatched here,” Sarenya said. “He knows the rules.” She rubbed her blue fondly under the chin with her knuckles. “And he also knows I’m not going to bring him here without buying him something.”
“I’d say the same for you,” M’ric said, “but I’m not sure you’re in the market for a seven-pound redfin. How about I buy you lunch?”
They found a stall with a cookfire set up, selling strips of fish dipped in meal and fried crisp in sizzling hot oil, a treat Sarenya had enjoyed many times in her Turns at the Hold. The stallholder, a wizened and tiny old lady whose hands flashed lightning-fast as she turned the frying whitefish slices in their pan, dished two portions onto clay platters for them, but refused the eighth mark piece that M’ric offered her. “Don’t charge dragonriders,” she croaked. “Nor a dragonrider’s girl.” She flapped her hands at them. “Go. Eat.”
M’ric looked like he was about to object, but Sarenya gripped his arm in warning. “Thank you, grandmother,” she said gravely. “You’re more than kind.”
Trebruth had found a good place overlooking the bay to bask in the sunshine. They climbed up some rocks to join him there. “You should have let me pay, Saren,” M’ric told her, setting the plate of fried fish down between them.
“She would have been horribly offended,” said Sarenya. “You don’t ever refuse a kindness from a grand-matriarch of the Seacraft like that.” When M’ric looked inquiringly at her, she returned the look with a frank one of her own. “Didn’t you see her gansey? She was a Master Fisher in her own day, and she has great-grandchildren in the Craft now. There’s probably no one more respected in the whole harbour.”
“It’s just been a long time since I’ve expected a free lunch just for being a dragonrider,” said M’ric.
“She was probably born in the Pass,” Saren said. “Or not much after it ended, anyway.” She bit the end off one of the fish strips, still almost hot enough to burn her mouth, and rolled her eyes. “Faranth, I’d forgotten how good fresh fish tastes. It’s one of the things I really miss at Madellon.”
M’ric fed a bit of his to Agusta before taking a bite himself. “Do you miss a lot of things, at the Weyr?”
“I miss this place,” Sarenya said frankly. “Blue Shale was a prize of an assignment. And I was longer here than I’ve been anywhere since I left to apprentice out. Madellon’s still a post, not my home.” She looked out to sea. “Do you miss the Peninsula?”
“Sometimes,” said M’ric. “But sometimes I think it’s as well to be away from a place with painful associations.”
Saren almost laughed – what was Madellon to her, if not a place with painful associations? – but she controlled the reaction in time. M’ric had lost a weyrmate and a daughter at the Peninsula, and she had no desire to make light of his grief. Instead, she said, “Dragonriders never seem to talk much about their lives before they Impressed.”
“I suppose we don’t,” he replied.
He didn’t elaborate, chewing pensively on his fried fish. Sleek begged and creeled on Saren’s shoulder until she broke off a piece and gave it to him. Sarenya studied M’ric in profile. The keen dark eyes that saw so much gave nothing away. “You were a very different person then, weren’t you?”
“Weren’t we all?” he asked. “You weren’t Craftbred, were you?”
Sarenya shook her head. “I was born at Lanen Hold. So I’m no more a Madellon native than you are.”
“Western Peninsula, though,” said M’ric. “It’s not as if you’re one of those incomprehensibly-accented easterners.”
“Sh’zon used to be almost incomprehensible,” said M’ric. “He’s rubbed off the sharp edges. When did you last go home?”
“To Lanen?” Sarenya asked. “Never. Not since I apprenticed out.”
“Do you want to? It’s only a hop between for Trebruth.”
“Not really.” Then Sarenya considered how that sounded. “That came out wrong. I don’t mean to imply that I had an unhappy life before I went to the Beastcraft. I didn’t. Unremarkable, perhaps, but not unhappy.”
“Then we’re more alike than you realise,” M’ric said. He cocked his head. “It wasn’t the family craft, then? The Beastcraft?”
“Other than my uncle, no. And I hardly knew him before I came to Madellon. He took me to the big racing festival at Peninsula West, once, when I was very small.” She smiled. “I don’t remember, but supposedly I went through the card. Picked every winner. And then I ate too many pies, and threw up on his shoes.”
M’ric laughed. “Maybe you’ve suppressed the memory on account of the pies.”
“Maybe,” Sarenya said. “It would account for why I can’t stand the sharding things.”
“And you haven’t seen your family in fifteen Turns?”
“I last saw my dad about eight Turns ago.” Then, self-consciously, she clarified, “You know, at the Hatching.”
An expression of sympathy briefly crossed M’ric face. “Of course.”
“But he’d remarried not long before that,” Sarenya went on. “My mother died a couple of Turns after I apprenticed to the Beastcraft. I suppose I have some half-siblings at Lanen now as well as my brothers.” She shrugged. “It’s like I said. I didn’t have a tragic childhood. It’s just…in the past. The Beastcraft’s been my home and family for longer than Lanen was.
“And I do want to make Master, M’ric.” She looked up at him. “Arrense knows I do. So does Vhion. That’s why they’re starting to put pressure on me.”
“To give up your work in the dragon infirmary?” M’ric asked.
“It’s not just that,” Sarenya said. “I need to spend two or three Turns somewhere…well, somewhere that isn’t Madellon. There’s a limit to how much I can learn at a Weyr. But leaving Madellon…when so much of what matters to me is there… You, for starters. Sejanth. C’mine and Darshanth.”
There was another name that she wanted to add, but it caught in her throat. T’kamen had been gone more than a fortnight now. Gone. Not dead: Sarenya wouldn’t entertain that unthinkable explanation for his disappearance. Valonna had told her that Shimpath would have known if Epherineth had died. The opinion of a queen dragon was good enough for Sarenya, no matter what anyone else said. And there was plenty of talk Sarenya would rather not have overheard.
“When you talked to him that night,” she began, and then stopped, realising she’d spoken without context.
M’ric understood anyway. “T’kamen? I didn’t talk to him. Trebruth spoke with Epherineth.”
Sarenya stared out at the bay. A small boat, the harbour pilot, was leading one of the big three-masters back out to sea, guiding it through the deep channel. “Sam thinks he saw Trebruth on Epherineth’s ledge.”
“Jarrisam. He was up early for the drive that morning. He said he saw a dragon on the Weyrleader’s ledge. Small. Dark.” She looked sideways at M’ric, then past him. “He said it could have been Trebruth.”
M’ric met her look candidly. “We were at Rift Valley with the Ops Wing. T’kamen was going to join us there, but he never turned up. I didn’t put any significance on it until the next day. I just assumed something else had come up.”
“Then you didn’t see him? Sarenya asked. “Before he disappeared?”
M’ric shook his head. “I was out with Ops. I couldn’t very well be in two places at once. Maybe there was another dragon on Epherineth’s ledge. Trebruth’s not the only small, dark dragon at Madellon.”
“But if there was someone else with T’kamen that night, why haven’t they come forward?” Sarenya asked.
“Maybe it was a green rider.”
“What green rider?”
M’ric shrugged apologetically. “Any green rider. Maybe he had a girlfriend, and she hasn’t said anything because he wanted her to keep it private.”
Little as Sarenya liked to hear it, that did have the ring of truth. She’d been on the sharp end of T’kamen’s desire for discretion herself. “I just wish whoever it was would say something. I mean… How can a dragon go missing? Just disappear like that, without being…”
She stopped. She wouldn’t say the word.
“I don’t know,” M’ric replied softly.
Sleek made a mournful sound, picking up on her sadness. Saren put her hand up to him, stroking the velvety hide. “You’d tell me, wouldn’t you? If you’d heard anything? If Sh’zon told you?”
“Of course I would, Saren. I know what he means to you.”
“I’m sorry,” she said miserably. “I know you’re probably sick of hearing me talk about him. It’s just that he…”
“You don’t have to apologise,” said M’ric. “Or explain. I understand.”
He put his arm around her, and Sarenya leaned against his shoulder until the wretched moment passed.
M’ric eventually succeeded in disposing of his eighth mark piece in return for a bucket of live spiderclaws from one of the fishing boats moored against the quay. Agusta swooped on them gleefully, seizing them in her forepaws two at a time and gobbling them down. She’d gorged herself on more than half of them before she let Sleek close enough to snatch a couple of his own.
They walked some of Blue Shale’s beaches – without Agusta, who’d disappeared between as soon as she’d had enough spiderclaws – and returned to Madellon as the light was fading. Sarenya had M’ric drop her off at the dragon infirmary. Sejanth would be waiting.
As she turned to go inside, the great golden form of Shimpath, landing on her ledge, caught Sarenya’s eye. Even at dusk, the queen shone, almost glowing. A Turn at the Weyr hadn’t completely softened the old jolt of regret Sarenya felt when looking at the dragon who might have been hers. But she would have welcomed the second jab of loss, the one that had always come from seeing Epherineth on his weyr ledge beside Shimpath’s.
I just have this feeling, T’kamen had said, that last time they’d spoken. Something’s coming… Nothing good.
Sarenya turned, deliberately, to look at the indistinct forms of the ghosts that stood silently by the infirmary archway. Still just two of them. They reassured her. If something terrible had happened to T’kamen, if he’d died – she hated even thinking the word – then surely his shade would have joined them there. It hadn’t. He wasn’t dead. He’d be back.
She had to believe that, even if no one else did.
Continue to Chapter twenty-seven: Sh’zon
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