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Chapter twenty-seven: Sh’zon

When Lord Coffleby of Long Bay Hold died suddenly in the fifty-ninth Turn of the Seventh Interval, it was widely feared that the struggle to succeed him would consume the wealth he had spent twenty Turns accumulating for his Hold. While Coffleby had sired seven healthy children on his wife in the decade of their marriage, all were still minors. Coffleby’s two adult heirs – his younger half-brother Coffadan, who had served indifferently as Coffleby’s steward, and their nephew Arcollen, a sea captain of uncertain character – seemed likely to plunge the holders of Long Bay into protracted disarray in their efforts to be confirmed as Lord Holder.

Coffleby had not been buried a sevenday when Coffadan was found dead in his bed – apparently of the same heart weakness that had claimed his older brother. His supporters cried foul play, accusing Arcollen of complicity in this most convenient turn of events. Arcollen, at sea when the news of Coffadan’s death reached him via fire-lizard, immediately turned his ship around to return to Long Bay, presumably to claim the now uncontested Lordship.

He never set foot on land again. In spite of calm seas and fine weather, Arcollen went missing one night from the deck of his own vessel. No one saw him go overboard but, after a thorough investigation, that was presumed to be the only explanation for his disappearance.

In the absence of any adult males of Coffleby’s line, his widow, the Lady Gianna, was quickly confirmed as Lady Holder. Although she was Long Bay only by marriage, not by blood, Gianna took the name Lady Coffleby, and pledged not only to protect her husband’s lands, but to raise his children so that any and all of them would prove equal to the task of succeeding her.

– Masterharper Hennidge, Chronicle of the Seventh Interval

100.03.15 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
MADELLON WEYR

Sh'zon (Micah Johnson)“We don’t have the firestone for it, T’gat,” said H’ned. “I don’t know how many times you need me to say it. We’re short, and I can’t conjure more out of thin air.”

“My riders haven’t flown a hot drill in almost a month,” said T’gat. “Not since S’ped and Peyanth joined. I told T’kamen I’d hold off until Schanna went on birthing leave, but she’s been on the invalid list for nearly three sevendays now, and we still haven’t had clearance to take stone from the bunkers.”

“There just isn’t –”

“Hold on just a moment there, H’ned,” said Sh’zon. He’d let the pair of them argue over firestone without interrupting, but T’gat wasn’t taking H’ned’s refusal for an answer, and the two were like to come to blows. He knew the pair of them had history. “T’gat has a point. West Low’s gone the longest without a flaming drill of any Wing in the Weyr.”

Thank you,” said T’gat, turning towards him with an air of relief. “That’s what I’ve been trying to say.”

“And I’m not denying we’re tight,” Sh’zon went on, ignoring H’ned’s flat stare. “We are. But maybe you could have a little stone from my Wing’s allocation. A little from H’ned’s. Maybe not enough for a three-sack drill, but we can scrape together enough so you can singe S’ped’s ears, eh?”

T’gat still didn’t look happy. He rubbed his temples in a way that, Sh’zon thought, wouldn’t do anything but accelerate the rapid retreat his hair was making there. “I suppose that would be better than nothing,” he said, at last. “But something has to be done about this. My riders are getting restless.”

“Yours and mine both, T’gat,” Sh’zon said. “Leave it with me. I’ll see you get your stone.”

“I wish you hadn’t done that,” H’ned complained, when T’gat had left.

“Done what?” Sh’zon asked. “Sent the man away happy?”

“T’gat’s never happy,” said H’ned. “And you bought a temporary respite from his whingeing with my firestone!”

“It’s Madellon’s firestone,” said Sh’zon.

“And there’s not enough of it to go around,” said H’ned. “What with the confounded Ops Wing laying claim to half of what we do have…”

“You’re not raiding that.”

“…and most of the rest stockpiled up on the Rim…”

“You can’t have that, either,” said Sh’zon. “Not unless you want Southern to come in all dragons blazing.”

H’ned sighed. “I’ll remind you that I was opposed to the Southern business on principle.”

Sh’zon snorted. H’ned had lent his support quickly enough once Valonna had claimed ownership of the operation. “There’s no calling back that flame.”

“I suppose not,” said H’ned, with resignation. “I just wish I’d known how low our stocks had gone. Frankly, Sh’zon, I always thought T’kamen was over-extending when he promised to increase the frequency of flaming drills. There was a reason why L’dro cut it back to the minimum. Madellon’s always been thin on decent firestone mines.”

“Then Madellon’s going to have a problem a hundred Turns from now.”

“They’ve found deposits in southern Jessaf,” said H’ned. “It’s just that sinking the shafts takes time and labour. And there’s tin and copper there, easier to mine out – and of more value to the mineholders, at this point in an Interval.”

“No good ever came of mineholders getting greedy over copper,” Sh’zon said hotly. Then he controlled his instinctive reaction to that tender old nerve. “Dragons need to flame.”

“Dragons need to go between, too,” said H’ned. “I just hope L’stev has an answer this afternoon.” He frowned down at a document on the cluttered surface of the Weyrleader’s desk. They hadn’t been able to agree on who should get to use the office in T’kamen’s absence, and working out of their own weyrs was inefficient when they had so many Weyr affairs to discuss. Valonna had suggested they just put another desk in the room, and that was what they’d done. Sh’zon had ceded the hulking skybroom edifice to H’ned in favour of the new one. The chair was much more comfortable. “Look, about this luncheon that T’kamen and Valonna are supposed to be attending at Long Bay.”

“Lady Coffleby’s shindig,” said Sh’zon.

“Assuming T’kamen’s not reappeared, one of us will need to take Valonna,” said H’ned.

Sh’zon looked across the room, unblinking. “Aye, we will.”

“Who else is going to be there?”

“Well, Madellon was invited, so I’m guessing Southern will have been, too,” said Sh’zon.

“Faranth,” said H’ned, “that’s going to be uncomfortable. ‘Sorry we stole your weyrlings and humiliated you in front of your whole Weyr, P’raima. Pass the salt?’”

“Wouldn’t surprise me if he didn’t turn up at all,” said Sh’zon. “Southern has no investment in Long Bay. P’raima won’t care how much offence Gianna takes if he and Margone snub her.”

“Gianna?”

“Lady Coffleby,” said Sh’zon.

“You know her well, then?”

“Probably fairer to say that she knows me,” said Sh’zon. “Long Bay’s the Peninsula’s richest Hold. Any time the Lady wants a ride somewhere, you’d best be sure you send a bronze. Kawanth and I did our fair share of flying her about when we were younger. She knew every Peninsula bronze rider by name and every bronze to look at. Had opinions about ’em all, too. Some she wouldn’t have, even if it meant waiting for someone else to be summoned. She would have made some Weyrwoman, let me tell you.”

If H’ned was impressed by Sh’zon’s familiarity with Long Bay’s formidable Lady Holder, he didn’t show it. “H’pold and Rallai will be there, presumably.”

“And Sirtis,” said Sh’zon. “The Peninsula’s Weyrwoman Second, and whoever she’s weyring with at the moment.”

“Sirtis is the pretty one, isn’t she?” asked H’ned.

“Oh, she’s pretty, all right, but she’s all ash between the ears,” said Sh’zon. “Now, Britt, the other queen rider – she’s never going to be a beauty, but she’s bright. Doubt she’ll be at this do, though. She’s still a weyrling.”

“Well, I wasn’t going to press too hard, Sh’zon,” said H’ned, “but now you’ve mentioned Sirtis, I think I should be the one to represent Madellon with Valonna.”

“You do, do you?” Sh’zon asked, frowning.

“You’ve been at Madellon less than a Turn,” said H’ned. “You still sound like a Peninsularite. And it’s going to be inflammatory enough, having P’raima and Margone there, without throwing your little rivalry with H’pold into the mix.”

Sh’zon almost pointed out that there was nothing little about his rivalry with H’pold. “Are you questioning my loyalty to Madellon?”

“Of course not,” said H’ned. “But the Peninsula’s going to be well-represented. Your Lady Gianna might appreciate a little more Madellon flavour with her luncheon.”

Sh’zon grumbled. He couldn’t really argue with H’ned’s logic. “Don’t go calling her Gianna unless she tells you to,” he said. “She doesn’t hold with that kind of familiarity.”

“T’kamen had made a note here about sourcing some wine of a decent vintage to take along,” said H’ned, looking down at his document. Then he folded his arms atop the hide, looking thoughtful. “Do you think he did it on purpose?”

“Did what?”

“I mean, what with our supply issues, and the primary tithe negotiations coming up; and then losing the weyrlings…”

Sh’zon stared hard at H’ned. “You think T’kamen walked out on Madellon deliberately?”

“You saw how he was letting the business of the Weyr consume him, even before the weyrlings died. It was eating him alive. And that’s probably why he appointed us as his deputies, but he wasn’t throwing anything serious at us. He kept all that for himself. Maybe it just all became…” H’ned spread his hands. “Too much.”

Sh’zon hadn’t known T’kamen well, but with what he knew about the Weyrleader’s disappearance, he hated to see aspersions cast on his character. “You want to mind what dirt you sling in T’kamen’s direction,” he said. “You’ll rile his riders. They admired him a fair bit.”

“Well, of course they did,” said H’ned. “He promised the junior colours all sorts of concessions when he was building up support before Shimpath’s last flight. If he’d stayed around another Turn or two, with half those promises unfulfilled or revoked, some of the shine would have gone off him. Look, I liked T’kamen, Sh’zon, but he wasn’t realistic about how far the Weyr’s largesse can spread this deep in an Interval.”

“Maybe that’s so, but it still doesn’t make him a coward,” Sh’zon insisted. “I didn’t know him long, but I knew him long enough to know he’d never have abandoned his Weyr. Or his Weyrwoman.”

“There’s no sense in us arguing the toss, I suppose,” said H’ned. “But you can’t think he’ll be back, can you?”

“Faranth, H’ned, he’s not been gone three sevendays yet!”

“I’m not suggesting we do anything hasty,” H’ned said. “There’s not much precedent for a Weyrleader just vanishing, but there is a convention that the Council can select a Weyrleader Regent in the event of a serving Weyrleader being unable to fulfil his duties.”

“And I suppose that piece of Madellon legislation just fell into your lap, didn’t it?” Sh’zon asked.

H’ned had the grace to look slightly embarrassed. “Sooner or later, Madellon’s going to want the stability of knowing who’s the Weyrleader. I’m not saying that it should be me, necessarily. But it has to be someone.”

Believe that, you’ll believe anything, Sh’zon thought. “Let’s have at least a month of clear air between T’kamen’s disappearance and anything that official,” he said. “Give the man a chance to turn up again. Faranth knows, I wouldn’t like to be sitting in his chair, wearing his knots, if he does walk back into Madellon one of these days!”

It wasn’t that Sh’zon coveted Madellon’s Weyrleadership, or even that he wanted to block H’ned from claiming it. If it came to it, H’ned would probably do as good a job as any of Madellon’s bronze riders. It was only that he felt some small amount of responsibility for what had happened to T’kamen. Not enough to make him turn M’ric in – but M’ric was his Wingsecond. He wouldn’t even have been at Madellon if Sh’zon hadn’t brought him from the Peninsula. He wasn’t accountable for M’ric’s actions, but he did feel he owed it to T’kamen to fend off H’ned’s ambitions – until the Weyrleader’s seat was cold, at the very least.


The classroom in Madellon’s weyrling barracks took Sh’zon back. The Weyr might be different, but the room, with the rows of desks defaced by generations of bored weyrlings, and the arse-numbingly hard benches that prevented the same weyrlings from ever getting comfortable enough to fall asleep, could have been the same as the one in which he’d spent too much of his weyrlinghood. He had to make a conscious effort not to take a seat at the back. He sat down in the second row, where Valonna and H’ned had already seated themselves.

Up at the front, L’stev had been conferring with B’reko, the fat Weyrlingmaster from High Reaches. Now, the brown rider turned to them. “Weyrwoman. Wingleaders.” Without further preamble, he went on, “We don’t know much about how dragons go between. It’s something we’ve always just taken for granted that they can do. And yes, it’s always been dangerous for weyrlings learning about it, and yes, even an experienced rider can bugger up a reference and get himself lost; but our weyrlings didn’t die because of novice error or carelessness.

“Something fundamental has changed with between itself. That much seems plain. Beyond that, Weyrlingmaster B’reko and I have been trying to figure out the answers to three questions.” L’stev had already written them on the blackboard; as he spoke, he underlined each one. “What has changed. Why did it change. And how can we fix it.”

B’reko took over. “First question seems simple. It isn’t. Lots of talk that this affects only dragonets. Fallacious thinking! Plenty of dragonets on Pern going between. Mine, Peninsula’s. Older than yours or Southern’s. So, it affects only younger dragonets, yes? Seems logical. Still fallacious. Issue has manifested only with ten- and eleven-month-old dragonets because that’s when they first start going between. Experience, not age, is key. Dragons who have not gone between before meet with difficulties.”

“Difficulties,” said Sh’zon. “That’s a delicate way to put it.”

“The problem manifests in more than one way,” said L’stev. “Hence difficulties. Madellon lost three dragonets who went between well enough, but didn’t come out again. The fourth, Kinnescath, went in and came out after several minutes had passed, by which time his rider had suffered serious brain damage from lack of air. The remaining three dragonets expressed a specific and consistent reason for refusing to even try, namely that it was not safe.”

“Southern dragonets have introduced additional insight,” said B’reko. “All Southern weyrlings attempted between simultaneously. Twelve of twenty-one went between. None emerged. Remaining nine refused. Cited similar reason. Unsafe to do so.”

“But weren’t they just reacting to the fact that some of their clutchmates had already gone between and were in trouble?” asked H’ned. “We all know how juveniles pick up on each other’s feelings.”

“This was our first assumption,” said L’stev. “We posited that the ones who jumped and died were just slightly more confident, and those who remained and ultimately refused to jump were responding to their distress.” His eyebrows descended. “But it didn’t make sense. If you have a bronze in a group, he’s usually the first to jump, almost without exception. Oaxuth certainly didn’t lack for confidence. I remember thinking it was odd that he’d let a brown beat him to being the first between. One of the greens we lost, Nedrith, was probably the least confident of that group.

“When I spoke to the three riders who survived that day – R’von, S’terlion, and B’joro – they all said something very similar. Their dragons were uneasy before any of the others even went between. Now, B’joro is one of those young riders who thinks and feels everything his dragon thinks and feels, all the time. He told me that as soon as Vanzanth gave the command to go between, Lovanth was terrified. B’joro thought it was just because it was their first time, and he told Lovanth not to be such a coward. Lovanth wouldn’t have it, thank Faranth for stubborn dragonets.”

“Then he already knew something was wrong with between,” said Valonna. She was writing notes, recording the meeting.

“And so did Oaxuth and Nerbeth,” said L’stev.

“Others didn’t,” said B’reko. “So, new question. Why did some know, others not?”

“Vanzanth’s spoken to all the dragonets,” said L’stev. “He asked each of them to think about between, and how they would feel about making a jump.” He tapped the left-hand side of the blackboard, where the names of the Wildfire dragonets had been listed in two columns. “These ones expressed no specific concern, even when they were reminded that some of their clutchmates had died going between. But these ones all said something familiar. ‘It’s not safe.’

“Dear Faranth,” said H’ned.

He sounded choked. It took Sh’zon a moment to realise why. He’d already found Berzunth’s name in the second list. Something M’ric had said floated back to him. Tarshe was never in any danger. But when he ran his eye down the first column, he saw why H’ned had reacted. Ellendunth, his son’s bronze, was listed there. Sh’zon reached over to thump H’ned reassuringly on the shoulder. “Breathe, man,” he said. “It didn’t happen.”

“I see you’ve all grasped the meaning,” said L’stev. “If all of our dragonets had tried to go between together, those in this first list most likely wouldn’t have returned.”

“The lists are almost the same length,” H’ned protested. “We’d have lost half the class!”

“As Southern did,” said B’reko. “More than half.”

“And there’s no obvious pattern,” said L’stev. “The colours are split almost down the middle. There seems to be no correlation between the dragonets I’d call the more sensible or intelligent and the second column. Berzunth, you’ll notice, would have refused to go between, but both of the other bronzes are in the first column.”

“Have developed a theory,” said B’reko. “Matter of procedure. Like making klah. Always need a cup. But some people, water first, then milk. Others, milk, then water.”

“Who the shaff puts milk in the cup before the water?” Sh’zon asked incredulously.

I do,” said H’ned.

Sh’zon looked askance at him. “Remind me never to let you make the klah.”

“Result is the same,” said B’reko. “Cup of klah. No difference.”

“And under normal circumstances, the same would apply with going between,” said L’stev. “The visual always comes first. That’s the cup, if you like. Then the dragon has two more steps. The actual jump from here into between, and navigation to the destination.”

“Jump is milk,” said B’reko. “Navigation is water.”

“Then you’re saying that some dragons put the milk in before the water?” asked Valonna.

“Exactly,” said L’stev. “They have a visual. They jump between, and only then worry about how they’re going to reach the destination.”

“Others navigate first,” said B’reko. “See the way through between first. Then jump.”

“They’re the ones who refused,” said H’ned. “Because they couldn’t see a way to their destination.”

“That’s the principle of it,” said L’stev.

“But why do some do it one way and others the other?” asked Sh’zon.

B’reko shrugged his vast shoulders. “Why are some people left-handed?”

Do you jump first or navigate first? Sh’zon asked Kawanth.

I go between, said Kawanth. He sounded baffled. I don’t think about how I do it. I just do it.

“It hasn’t mattered up until now,” said L’stev. “Or, anyway, it hasn’t killed off dragonets at a rate of fifty percent of every clutch. But now it does matter, because something has changed between.”

“Dragonets unable to navigate,” said B’reko. “Between inscrutable to them. Dark.”

“But not to adult dragons?” asked H’ned.

“Because adult dragons can already navigate their own route between,” said L’stev. “Even when it’s pitch black in my weyr, I can still find the way to the facilities if I need to take a piss in the night. Because I already know the way.

“And there’s something else. We don’t know if it’s connected, but it’s taking longer than it used to for dragons to go from one place to another between. We’re only talking a matter of two extra seconds in seven hundred Turns, but it’s another piece of evidence that between is changing – that it can change. Whatever between actually is, it’s not static. The changes might happen slowly, over hundreds of Turns, but it does change.”

“What about M’touf?” asked Valonna. “Weyrlingmaster, you said that he told C’mine that he and Atath had gone between, without permission.”

“That’s right,” said L’stev. “It wasn’t M’touf’s fault, loath as I am to admit it. Atath blinked. A relative jump, like a dodge in Threadfall, rather than an absolute.”

“You don’t need a reference for a rellie,” said Sh’zon. “Is that what this is about? Rellies work, but not absolutes?”

“No,” said B’reko. He flicked his fat fingers at Sh’zon in something like disgust. “No, no, no. Still a reference. Don’t go anywhere without a reference. Dragon has the reference. Absolute jump, rider supplies. Can’t rely on dragon to remember arbitrary place, arbitrary time. Relative jump, reference is there relative to here. Same formation, farther on. Relative to this dragon, that mountain, those lakes. Still a reference. Always a reference. But dragon does it without rider guidance. Still has to navigate between.”

“And this leads to the second question.” L’stev rapped his knuckles against the board again. “Why did between change? We think we know when it did. Atath’s foray was on the sixth of last month. Our dragonets made their attempts on the twenty-first. And in between those two dates, the Southerners’ first between was on the tenth.” He paused, and added, “The night we all heard that immense crack.”

“Faranth,” said Sh’zon. He’d almost forgotten that night. “That? I thought it was just the mountain shifting!”

“Heard it in the Reaches,” said B’reko. “Heard it everywhere. But only dragonriders.”

“We think that was the moment that between went dark,” said L’stev. “And that it corresponds to the moment when the Southern weyrlings tried to go between, and failed.”

No one spoke for long minutes.

At last, Valonna said, “Do you mean that they caused it?”

L’stev and B’reko looked at each other. “We don’t know,” said L’stev.

“Correlation, causation, not the same,” added B’reko.

“Well, have the Southern kids said anything about what happened when they tried to go between?” asked H’ned.

“Nothing that makes their experience much different to what happened with ours,” said L’stev. “All the survivors – all those we brought here from Southern – fall into this second column. They refused to go between.

“Could be scale,” said B’reko. “Twenty-one dragonets all at once. Twenty-one new paths to find through between. Overwhelming. Maybe.” He shrugged. “Guesswork.”

“We just don’t know enough about between,” said L’stev. “Which is to say we don’t know shaff-all about between.”

“Then how are you going to fix it?” asked H’ned.

“Can’t,” said B’reko. “Between is between.”

“We’re theorising here,” said L’stev. “We can only compare it to things we understand a little better. Take air currents. Our dragons use them to fly; they use thermals to rise easily; they can ride airstreams to go faster in certain directions. But they’re all conveniences we take for granted. If all that interaction of weather and temperature stopped, we couldn’t fix it.”

“What would we do?” asked Valonna.

“Walk,” said B’reko.

“Dragons who had already gone between before the tenth of last month can still go between,” said L’stev. “If B’reko and I are right, that includes Atath.”

“She’s not listed in either of those columns,” said H’ned, looking at the chalkboard.

“She’s a special case,” said L’stev. “As was Kinnescath, for a different reason. Plainly, he found a way through between in the end; only too late for G’dra.”

“Dragon can survive minutes without air between,” said B’reko. “Rider can’t.”

“But you must have asked Atath how she feels about trying to go between again,” said Sh’zon.

“Atath’s very sanguine about it,” said L’stev. “M’touf less so. But if we’re right, they’re the one weyrling pair we can expect to succeed. I just don’t think it’s going to be much help to the others.”

“You can’t make any of those weyrlings try,” said Valonna. “We took the dragonets from Southern because Margone was afraid for them. If we force a single dragonpair between without knowing it’s safe, we’re no better than P’raima.”

“No one’s going to be forced, Weyrwoman,” L’stev told her. “The moment I start suggesting anything of the sort, you can shaffing well send me to South Cove with the gibbering dribblers. As it happens, there’s no need to force anyone. We have volunteers. There are some brave kids among the Wildfires.”

“You’re not experimenting with my son,” H’ned said immediately. “I don’t care if he volunteered.”

“As a matter of fact, he did,” said L’stev. “But he’s not top of my list. Ellendunth’s  nearly as long as Vanzanth. It’s going to be much safer to do this with a smaller dragon.”

“Do what?” asked Sh’zon.

“Inexperienced dragonets can’t navigate between,” said B’reko. “Experienced dragons can.”

“So you mean to show them the way,” said Valonna.

L’stev actually smiled. “That’s exactly it, Weyrwoman.” He circled a name from each column with a flourish. “Bristath is one of the ones who didn’t want to try jumping; Rementh wasn’t concerned. Soleigh and M’rany are both old enough to know their own minds, and their dragonets are still small enough for Vanzanth to manage. So he’ll carry them between. See if taking them in there with him will give them the experience they need to find their own paths through.”

“But we already brought the Southern dragonets between,” said Sh’zon. “Shouldn’t they be able to do it?”

“The Southerners had just been snatched from their beds in the middle of the night,” said L’stev. “They probably had other things on their mind than the mechanics of between. Vanzanth will talk Bristath and Rementh through the process as he goes, make them aware of whatever it is a dragon needs to be aware of to navigate.” He shrugged. “Whatever that is. He doesn’t seem to be able to explain it to me, but he says another dragon would understand.”

“So Vanzanth carries these dragonets between,” said H’ned. “What next?”

“Next, Vanzanth and Bristath jump between together, connected by a tether,” said L’stev. “Vanzanth isn’t carrying Bristath at this point. The tether merely maintains a connection, so if Bristath still can’t navigate once she’s between, Vanzanth still has a physical link to her and can bring both of them out again.”

“Istan technique,” B’reko noted. “Used when weyrling is very nervous. Like holding a child’s hand.”

“If Bristath can navigate under her own power, then we repeat the experiment without the tether,” said L’stev. “Vanzanth will still jump alongside her, so he’ll be between with her for encouragement. And assuming that’s successful, the final step is for Bristath to jump alone.”

“That…” Sh’zon exchanged a glance with H’ned. “That does sound like a reasonable approach. And if Bristath cracks it, what happens next? You repeat with all the rest?”

“Precisely,” said B’reko.

“What if Bristath still doesn’t want to go between after he first trip aboard Vanzanth?” asked Valonna.

“Then Rementh takes her place,” said L’stev. “He’s already demonstrated he’s willing to go between.”

“Couldn’t we potentially have a situation where half the dragonets will go between and half won’t?” asked H’ned. “I mean, if you’re wrong about some planning before they jump, and actually it’s just that some of them are too scared to try.”

“Dragonets, not intrinsically cowardly,” said B’reko.

“And Berzunth’s in that second column, H’ned, so I’ll thank you for not calling my cousin’s courage into question, either,” said Sh’zon.

“Right now, getting one weyrling between and out again in one piece would be progress,” said L’stev. “Though if we’re not successful with Bristath and Rementh, we’d need to expand the experiment to include the other dragonets. Wildfires and Southerners.”

Valonna looked troubled. “Are you certain this won’t put them at risk?”

“Certain?” L’stev asked. His fleshy face was morose. “No.”

“Weyrlings, always at risk,” said B’reko. “Good Weyrlingmaster hopes – plans – for the best. And prepares for the worst.”

“What is the worst?” asked Sh’zon. “We lose another weyrling?”

“For Faranth’s sake, don’t let it be one of the Southerners,” said H’ned. “Not that I want to lose one of ours, either,” he added, when Sh’zon and Valonna both looked accusingly at him. “But we’re in a precarious enough position with Southern as it is. If we got one of their dragonpairs killed, I doubt if all the firestone on Pern would keep P’raima from our doorstep.”

“When do you propose to begin these flights, L’stev?” asked Valonna.

“As soon as you’ve approved them. There’s not much point in waiting.”

“Maybe we could all have a little time to give it some thought,” said Sh’zon, when Valonna frowned. “Think it over. Get comfortable with it.”

L’stev looked briefly irritated. “I serve at the Weyrwoman’s pleasure.”

“Only a little time, Weyrlingmaster,” said Valonna. “Perhaps until the morning?”

He shrugged grudgingly. “I’ll need at least that long to make preparations I suppose.”

“And would you send the two weyrlings to me?” Valonna asked. “Soleigh and M’rany?”

L’stev agreed to do so, and they dispersed back to their various duties. Sh’zon took a moment to thank B’reko for coming from the High Reaches. It was at least reassuring to have a second Weyrlingmaster’s opinion.

But he didn’t return to the Weyrleader’s office. Instead, he crossed the Bowl towards the main firestone bunker, sending Kawanth a request as he went.

The heavy metal doors were bolted but not locked. Sh’zon shot the bolt back, wondering idly as he did if they should start locking up Madellon’s firestone stocks.

He swung the door open, and the strong phosphine stench hit him like a miasma. Sh’zon sneezed explosively, then reached inside to open the closest glow-baskets. Their light revealed the firestone sacks piled against the walls. The weyrlings had broken it up and graded it by colour. There was no raw stone at all. Sh’zon frowned at the modest heap of sacks marked with the Z that indicated they’d been graded for bronze. He took down the requisition log that hung on the wall inside the door, and flipped through the first couple of pages, wondering when someone had last checked the record against the actual stock.

The crunch of boots on gravel alerted him a moment before M’ric stepped into the doorway. “You’re blocking out all the light,” Sh’zon complained.

M’ric came fully inside, letting sunlight shaft in again. He coughed on the firestone dust that hung in the air. “Trebruth said you wanted to see me?”

“How much stone have you been taking for Ops?” Sh’zon asked, comparing figures.

“I have a record in my weyr,” said M’ric. “But none this sevenday.”

Sh’zon sneezed again. He fished a handkerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose noisily. “I think we’re short in here. Someone’s been pinching stone without logging it.”

“Not to tell tales, but it’s probably A’keret,” said M’ric.

“How’d you reach that conclusion?”

“Trebruth flew B’vel’s Senvarth the day before yesterday. They absolutely reeked of firestone. I didn’t think East Low had a hot drill scheduled.”

“That’d be because it didn’t,” said Sh’zon. He hung the record back on its hook. “I’ll be having words with A’keret. Sneaky bastard.”

“It’s probably not the first time it’s happened,” said M’ric. “Maybe you should get a padlock for this door.”

“Maybe I should,” said Sh’zon.

“Did you get me down here to talk about firestone?”

“We do need to skim enough off everyone’s quota to give T’gat enough for a drill,” Sh’zon said. “But no. That’s not why I wanted to see you.”

M’ric leaned against the door frame, folding his arms. “What is it?”

“Soleigh and green Bristath. M’rany and blue Rementh.” Sh’zon looked expectantly at M’ric as he said the names. “Mean anything to you?”

“Should they?” M’ric asked. He shook his head. “They’re weyrlings. I don’t know much more than that.”

“You’re sure? Nothing at all?”

“What’s significant about them?”

Sh’zon narrowed his eyes. “You knew that those three Wildfire weyrlings were going to die.”

“And you’re asking me if the same’s going to happen to these two?”

“Well, is it?”

M’ric nudged a stray bit of firestone along the floor with the toe of his boot. “I’ve told you before, Sh’zon, these fishing expeditions won’t get you anywhere.”

“T’kamen’s gone, M’ric! I’m in charge here now! If more kids are going to die on my watch, I want to know about it!”

“And what if you did?” M’ric asked. “What if I told you that, yes, those two weyrlings are going to die?”

“Faranth, Malric, are you saying they are?”

“Sh’zon, I have no idea. I don’t know anything about those two weyrlings. Or any two weyrlings, for that matter. I don’t know everything. I don’t know a fraction of everything.”

Sh’zon glared at him. “I need your insight more now than ever. This is serious business!”

“If I had anything, I’d bring it to you,” said M’ric. “But I don’t know anything about those weyrlings. Why? What’s happening?”

“The Weyrlingmaster has this plan, to try and get them going between,” Sh’zon said. He sighed. “But if they’re just going to die, I’d sooner he didn’t do it.”

M’ric was silent for a minute. Then he said, “L’stev’s pretty sharp. I’m sure he wouldn’t risk them lightly.”

“Suppose we don’t have much choice,” Sh’zon said gloomily. “We have to do something to get to the bottom of this between nonsense. It’d be nice if we could pack those sharding Southern weyrlings back home before the Long Bay Gather.”

M’ric cocked his head slightly, frowning, as if he’d just recalled something.

“What?” Sh’zon demanded.

The lines between M’ric’s brows smoothed out again. “Long Bay,” he said. “We should talk about Long Bay.”

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