Chapter thirty: C’mine
South Cove, on the Southern/Peninsula border, is nominally neutral territory, open to dragons of all the southern continent Weyrs who have retired from active service for reasons of age or infirmity.
It was pledged when the community was founded that queens of all three southern Weyrs should make regular visits. Even the oldest and vaguest dragon takes heart from the sight of a golden hide, and from knowing he is still counted as a subject of his own Weyr’s queen. Any dragon sickens and pines if divested completely from the reassuring authority of a queen.
Yet in recent decades, this practice seems to have fallen into disuse. Southern has not sent Grizbath in ten Turns, and Fianine of Madellon has been caught up in her constant change of Weyrleaders. The Peninsula alone sees to the pastoral care of southern Pern’s elderly dragons. In this, I pledge that Haeith and I, and whichever of our junior queens succeeds us, shall never be found derelict in our duty.
– Weyrwoman Larvenia, A History of the Southern Weyrs
“T’gala,” S’terlion said, and then, gripping her arm, more urgently, “T’gala!” He looked helplessly at C’mine. “What should I do?”
C’mine didn’t have an answer. He was paralysed, useless beneath the smothering protection of Darshanth’s mind, and the scene played out like a Harper’s tale, and him no more than a passive observer.
The Southern weyrlings were reeling. Some of them swayed where they sat; some of them had collapsed. All were weeping, the tears running helplessly down their pinched young faces. L’mern bent over suddenly to be sick, bringing up his lunch on the workshop floor.
C’mine couldn’t react. Darshanth was all around him, blocking out everything, shielding him so aggressively from the brutal onslaught of grief for Grizbath’s death that he couldn’t move or think or feel.
The Wildfire weyrlings looked upset and confused, but not traumatised like their Southern counterparts. Across the workshop, Soleigh gave herself a little shake, and then lunged to seize L’mern’s shoulders before he could pitch over. Carleah had grabbed Karika and was half hugging the younger girl to her, looking bewilderedly around for guidance. V’ranu struck aside the hand that R’von extended to him, raging and shouting, as tears streamed down his face.
And still C’mine could do nothing, say nothing, feel nothing.
LET HIM GO!
The roar sliced through his mind like talons raking through flesh. Darshanth yelped and pulled away, and the returning force of the raw emotion reverberating around the Weyr hit C’mine like a tide. He’d been frozen; now he was drowning again, drowning in grief, past and present.
Pull yourself together! The voice wasn’t Darshanth’s. It was alien, jarring, wrong, like chalk screeching on a slate. It was Vanzanth’s. See to the weyrlings!
C’mine started moving before the echoes of that angry roar had died away. He reached clumsily for T’gala, but she was already clinging to S’terlion. His head swam. “S’terlion,” he said. His voice sounded thick, distorted. “Hold her.”
Too late, he realised he’d called T’gala her, but no one seemed to notice. C’mine staggered to his feet, looking around, trying to decide what to do. All around the room, Madellon weyrlings were comforting Southerners. He caught a glimpse of the scene outside: dragonets crying piteously, crawling towards each other, seeking reassurance. Adult dragons crowded the Rim, white-eyed with sorrow and calling queries back and forth. A queen of Pern was dead, and every dragon alive grieved her loss.
And then the door slammed back and L’stev strode in. “All right, weyrlings,” he said. “It’s all right. It’s all right.” His tone was soothing, calming, a balm; the polar opposite of Vanzanth’s fury. Weyrlings began to turn to him. He stepped quickly around the workshop, gripping a shoulder here, grasping a hand there, and everywhere he went some of the tension and shock went out of the weyrlings’ faces. “Stand down, son,” he told V’ranu, who’d bunched his fists, ready to fight. “It’s over now. It’s over.” Then he turned his head. “C’mine.”
C’mine stumbled around the workbenches. The echoes of the death cry were dying away, but he still felt like he’d been punched and strangled and mauled, in that order, and Darshanth was quailing beneath Vanzanth’s displeasure. Somehow he mastered his thoughts. “What happened?”
“Go to Isnan,” L’stev told him. He spoke softly. His glare was anything but soft. “I want enough sedative to put a dragon down.”
“But I just –”
“Go now, C’mine,” L’stev snapped. “We’ll talk later.”
It was much later when he responded to Vanzanth’s summons – via Darshanth, mercifully – and presented himself in L’stev’s office. The weyrlings had all settled down, riders and dragonets, sedated and subdued. Madellon’s dragons had resumed their normal evening activities. But the fires would burn on for hours yet in the dining hall, where the people of Madellon still drank in honour of the dead Southern queen, and the glows would shine late into the night in Valonna’s weyr, where she and the deputy Weyrleaders argued on about the ramifications of Margone’s death.
She was old. She’d been sick. C’mine had heard the Southern weyrlings saying it. He’d spent the afternoon with them, keeping himself occupied, trying to make up for how badly he’d let them down. She was taking medicine. She was old. They comforted each other with tales of Margone’s illness, of Grizbath’s age. She hadn’t been looking well. How old was she, anyway? They rationalised their Weyrwoman’s death, even as they ignored the fact that she’d been younger than P’raima. But now there’s no queen at Southern. And inevitably, eyes had turned accusingly to Karika.
L’stev was behind his desk. He didn’t even look up when C’mine came in, not even to glare. He looked greyer and wearier and older than C’mine had ever seen him before. “What a shaffing disaster,” he said, and poured what clearly wasn’t his first shot of whiskey into his klah mug.
C’mine watched him toss it back. “Do you mean –”
“I mean everything,” L’stev said. “Name me one shaffing thing that hasn’t been a complete shaffing catastrophe today.”
C’mine sat down across the desk. He knew his own reprimand was coming, but he still hoped to delay it a bit longer. “We didn’t lose any weyrlings,” he said. “And Atath can go between.”
“Atath,” L’stev said. “Great. The last shaffing dragonet on Pern who can go between.” He banged down his mug and scowled at it. “So much for my theory that blinks might still work. That shaffing anything might work. P’raima was right. What shaffing use are dragons that can’t go between?”
“But he still wants them back,” said C’mine.
“Of course he does,” said L’stev. “Especially now Margone’s dead. No Weyr can be without a queen. It’s a marvel only the one Southern bronze turned up this afternoon and not the whole shaffing Weyr.”
The Madellon bronzes on watch had reacted dramatically to the single Southern dragon who’d appeared above the Rim shortly after the keen for Grizbath’s death. “Karika said that was a rider called D’pantha,” said C’mine. “P’raima’s deputy.”
“I’d imagine P’raima himself is too busy keeping Southern from tearing itself apart to leave right now.”
“Did he ask for all the weyrlings back, or just Karika?”
“All of them, and he didn’t ask,” said L’stev. “But I’d wager Southern would compromise at having her and leaving the rest.”
“Karika’s the one who doesn’t want to go back,” said C’mine. “More so than ever now.”
“Why more so than ever?”
“Since Megrith failed to go between today.”
“She didn’t fail,” said L’stev. “She refused. I doubt even Tezonth could force her into a suicidal attempt. And why would he? A live queen who can’t go between is better than no queen at all.” He frowned. “It can’t be that she’s worried Tezonth has plans to fly Megrith when she’s old enough. I can’t believe that Southern would have it. It’s one thing for an old queen like Grizbath and a weak Weyrwoman like Margone to keep letting the same bronze win them. It’s quite another with a strong young pair like Karika and Megrith. And a Weyr full of Tezonth’s sons who’ve been denied the least sniff at a queen for decades. You saw that bronze of D’pantha’s today. Tezonth’s image, twenty Turns younger.”
“Karika must have her reasons,” said C’mine.
“Karika might,” said L’stev. “But Karika’s feelings on the matter weren’t why Valonna agreed to bring them here. That was between her and Margone, Weyrwoman to Weyrwoman. Now Margone’s dead, and there’s no other queen rider at Southern, responsibility for the weyrlings reverts to the Weyrleader. P’raima will say that Margone’s agreement with Valonna died with her. And I’m not at all sure he’d be wrong.”
“But we can’t send Karika back against her will,” said C’mine.
L’stev didn’t reply for a moment. “We can if that’s what Valonna and the Deputies decide.”
“She’s just a child, L’stev! She’s not equipped to be a Weyrwoman. She’s twelve Turns old, for Faranth’s sake!”
“Thirteen, next month,” L’stev said. “Which would make her less than two Turns younger than Valonna was when Fianine died.” He was silent for a long moment, and then his expression contracted with revulsion. “Would you listen to this whershit,” he said. “I wouldn’t send my worst enemy back to the snake-pit that Southern’s become. And here I am trying to justify it to myself.” He splashed more whiskey agitatedly into his cup. “It’s not just Karika. It’s not even between. Nothing about how those kids behave is normal. The age they are. The arrogance of them. The blind devotion they have to P’raima. Southern’s all they’ve ever known. And even after a taste of freedom here, they still want to go back.”
“Except Karika,” said C’mine.
“She’s as arrogant as any of them are about Southern’s superiority,” said L’stev. “And she still won’t talk about why she’s afraid to go back. Not to me; not even to Valonna.”
“What if I could persuade her to talk,” said C’mine. “If Darshanth could work on Megrith…”
L’stev raised his eyes from his whiskey. “After your performance today?” he asked quietly.
C’mine steeled himself. There was no more putting this off. “It was the keen for Grizbath. I wasn’t expecting it. It took me unawares…”
“You froze,” said L’stev. His eyes bored accusingly into C’mine’s. “I left you in charge of thirty weyrlings, and you froze.”
“I’m sorry, L’stev,” C’mine said. He knew it sounded feeble. It was feeble. “I just –”
“And not only that,” L’stev went on, the volume of his voice rising, “Darshanth helped you! He consciously, deliberately shut you down!”
C’mine wished he could look away. “He was protecting me.”
“Protecting you,” L’stev said, “at the expense of the weyrlings that you should have been protecting! Do you know what it took for Vanzanth to get through to you? Do you have any idea what it cost him to punch through Darshanth’s walls! Blight it all, C’mine, when I took you on as my assistant I thought it was the drink I had to look out for! I didn’t think your own dragon would be the problem!”
“It’s not Darshanth’s fault!” C’mine insisted.
L’stev stared at him. “Do you know what, C’mine? I don’t think it matters. I can’t make use of him without you. And I can’t make use of you without him. I don’t know if what you can contribute outweighs the risk of a repeat of today’s performance. I don’t know if I can trust you.”
“I wasn’t expecting Grizbath to die –”
“Don’t make this about Grizbath! We both knew we could have lost another weyrling today! Are you telling me you’d have been fine if that had happened!” L’stev slammed his fists down on the desktop. “Dragons die, C’mine! If you can’t hold yourself together, then how can I ever trust you with my kids again? What if you were out with a group and one of them made a mistake and got himself killed? Could you get the others home safely, or would you and Darshanth just curl yourselves into a ball of misery and leave them to fend for themselves? Are you going to fall apart every time the dragons keen for the rest of your life? Well?”
Please don’t let him dismiss us, Darshanth said, in barely more than a whisper.
“I don’t know, L’stev,” C’mine said faintly. “I just don’t know.”
It wasn’t L’stev’s anger that hurt so much. It was his disappointment. “Get out of here,” he said at last. “Take the evening off and think about if you’re really up to this job. We’ll talk in the morning.”
Darshanth was on the ledge outside, looking small and dejected in Vanzanth’s disapproving shadow. C’mine climbed slowly onto his neck. Let’s go home.
He’d forgotten how little his weyr felt like home any more. In the couple of sevendays since he’d become Assistant Weyrlingmaster, he’d spent the barest minimum of time there. Returning to it now just reminded him of how dirty and inhospitable he’d let it become. It was dark and smelled stale, and there was nothing to eat. And while he supposed he could have gone down to the dining hall for some food, the knowledge that it would still be full of riders using the death of a queen as an excuse to get roaring drunk put him off.
Faranth, how he envied them.
It was a mark of how unhappy Darshanth was that the thought didn’t rouse him immediately from his gloom. C’mine buried the idea before Darshanth did notice, but buried didn’t mean banished. As he moved around his weyr, opening a couple of glow-baskets so he could see, the notion tugged at him from that private corner of his mind. He needed a break, just a short one, a break from knowing and feeling and caring so much. Nothing serious. Just a respite. Just a few hours.
He hunted methodically through drawers and under furniture for what he told himself was nothing in particular, right up until the moment he thought he’d found it. When, searching through a chest of plates and cups, his fingers encountered the cool, curved surface of a glass bottle, he pulled it forth with a giddy surge of triumph…and found it was empty.
He stood there for a moment, looking at the long-drained brandy bottle that someone – someone – had put away when they should have thrown it out. Sudden rage rushed up through his body, down his arm, into his hand; he hurled the bottle savagely at the nearest wall where it exploded into tiny shards.
No! Darshanth’s fury bludgeoned him before the shattered pieces of glass had even come to their tinkling rest. You promised!
The anger left C’mine as quickly as it had consumed him, leaving him in the grip of a familiar gut-twisting shame. He sank to a crouch, covering his face with his hands. L’stev was right. I can’t be trusted. Not even by my own dragon. I can’t do this alone, Darshanth!
Darshanth shoved his head through the archway into the inner weyr. His eyes were yellow with agitation. You are not alone!
“That’s not what I mean!” C’mine cast about for the right way to explain. “You don’t understand! I can’t just forget things like you can! It’s always here, always hanging over me!”
You want to go away. Darshanth’s accusation was pitiless.
“I just want a break,” C’mine pleaded. “From knowing he’s gone.”
Then find a when when he isn’t, Darshanth said. I will take you there.
C’mine knew he should have refused. If he timed it and L’stev found out, he’d be finished with the weyrlings. But he couldn’t face the prospect of an evening alone with his thoughts, with his shame, with his grief. Not when Darshanth could give him back C’los for a few priceless moments.
He crawled across the floor to the alcove where he kept all his records, and pulled one of C’los’ journals down into his lap. It was interleaved with scraps of vellum where he’d found a likely entry, an anomaly, an opportunity. Feverishly, he turned to the first of them. Kellad Hold, nearly five Turns ago; Carleah’s tenth Turnday. They’d both got very drunk that day, he and C’los. C’mine had fallen asleep on Robyn’s kitchen table, and C’los on the floor, and they’d both woken up the next morning with howling hangovers. C’los’ journal mentioned how Robyn had said she and C’mine between them had carried C’los onto her bed. That was why C’mine had marked the entry – he had no recollection of it. Maybe the him who’d helped Robin had been his future self? But now he read back through the account, he couldn’t believe he’d seriously considered it. It was far too tenuous, far too vague. He’d been drunk; of course he didn’t remember properly.
He flipped to another reference. C’los had written of a punishment watch he’d stood one night when they’d only just graduated, and how C’mine had come up and joined him for part of it. C’los had done cold watches on more than one occasion as a young wingrider when he’d been Disciplined for some minor infraction – disrespecting his Wingleader, usually – and C’mine had sometimes sneaked up to the Star Stones to keep C’los company. But C’los had remarked on this occasion that C’mine had stayed only briefly, and seemed distracted. C’mine couldn’t recall the precise occasion, but it would have been dark enough that C’los might not have noticed if his visitor had been an older C’mine than the one he was expecting. But he didn’t have a good enough temporal reference for that night. C’los’ account mentioned it had been overcast, so C’mine couldn’t use the stars or moons for a visual. Try though he might, he couldn’t find a way to reach that moment in time.
That was how it went for the next hour. He took down more volumes of C’los’ journals, flicking through the familiar pages, finding opportunities and ruling them out, then piling the discards beside him, until the stack of leather-bound books towered twelve high. His eyes hurt from poring over C’los’ handwriting in the barely-adequate glowlight. He pressed the heels of his hands into his eye sockets, trying to relieve the strain.
He wondered if the Wildfire weyrlings had asked L’stev why he hadn’t been in to put them to bed for the night. He hated feeling that he’d abandoned them, today of all days, when they needed him the most. He worried that Karika would be lying awake in her weyr, fearing she’d be sent back to Southern. He worried about T’gala, too, and how she would cope with returning to Southern’s unsympathetic treatment. He worried about Jhilia and Sia, who would be so young when their greens rose to mate in a few months’ time. First mating flights were never easy for the riders of female dragons, and –
C’mine opened his eyes, blinking, as the thought tripped something tantalisingly like an idea in his brain.
He looked down at the book that lay open on his knee. 94: much too late. The piled journals at his elbow weren’t in any order, but he knew them well enough now to take a stab at the right one. The faded grey cloth covering one of the earliest caught his eye. 86 – that would be right. C’mine pulled it from the stack and flipped to the last quarter, then skimmed the entries, looking for the one he wanted.
C’los had always been as verbose in his memoirs as he was in his speech. C’mine had often returned to their quarters to find him sitting at the table or sprawling on the couch, scribbling furiously in his latest journal. He’d learned very early in their weyrmating not to disturb C’los when he was writing, or, far worse, to touch one of the diaries. C’mine had once moved a couple of volumes off the floor when tidying up, and that had earned him a full day of chilly ostracism. The memory made a dull ache start in his chest.
But the long passages written in C’los close, efficient script were interspersed with shorter excerpts in cipher. At a glance, it looked like Harperhall shorthand, a sequence of lines and dots, but it wasn’t. C’los, Carellos, had invented the secret code one summer when they were boys at Kellad, and he’d often boasted it was impossible to crack. C’mine wasn’t sure anyone had ever actually tried. The symbols represented groups of letters, but the letters themselves then had to be decoded using a keyword. Carellos had taught the cipher to Taskamen when the Frankon train arrived for its winter layover in Kellad’s Gather meadow, and the three of them had spent the season writing elaborate coded messages to each other – to the irritation of the other boys of Kellad Hold.
C’los had never stopped using the code in his personal diaries, and even T’kamen had still used it from time to time when he wanted to keep something secret, but C’mine hadn’t been fluent in the cipher for Turns, and the encrypted parts of C’los’ journals had been opaque to him at first. It had taken him a while to recall the trick, and even then he’d realised after several hours of struggling that C’los had used a different keyword to encode his private thoughts. He’d made several guesses – Indioth and Carleah and even Cairmine – before he’d hit on the right one. Naverik had been – was still – the finest instrument-maker at the Harperhall. C’los’ precious gitar was his work, and the old Master had left an inscription on the back of the headstock. For when even you can’t find the right words.
None of the encoded fragments were easy reads, in any sense. The least of them were angry rants, pouring scorn on the competence, intelligence, and legitimacy of the various riders who’d served as C’los’ superior officers over the Turns. Others were lengthy discourses on the injustice inherent in the lowly status of a green rider. Still more were complaints about C’mine himself. Those were very difficult for him to read, even when the grievances C’los had raised were unreasonable or outright untrue. And a few were so painful, so harrowing, that C’mine had had to force himself to translate them to the bitter end.
The ciphered entry dated to the spring of 86 was one of them. Even someone who didn’t know the code could have guessed at the frame of mind C’los had been in when he’d written it. The lines had been slashed black and spiky, the dots stabbed so hard that they’d pierced through the thin vellum pages, and in places the ink had been smudged – washed out, almost – by the fall of helpless tears.
She’s asleep now. Finally. Thank Faranth. I don’t know how much longer I could have kept it from her. Still don’t know what I’ll do when she wakes up again. Guess she’ll probably have forgotten it all by then anyway. It’s fine for her. This was what she wanted. Not like I got any shaffing say in the matter, is it?
Isnan’s signed me off for two days. Two days and a pot of numbweed, that’s all a green rider gets. I even had to take the sick note to Low-Brow myself. And he was so sympathetic, wasn’t he? Asked if I was all right. Yeah, I said, Weyrlingmaster, I’m great. Just shaffing wonderful. Hadn’t H’ben told him just how delightful an experience I’d had?
He said H’ben hadn’t said anything and was there something I wanted to tell him.
What was I going to say? That I don’t think I can do this four times a Turn? Six times a Turn? Oh, Faranth, because I don’t think I can. I don’t know how anyone can.
They look at me and think, just because I’m eighteen and not thirteen, this is going to be easy. That I’m old enough that it’s nothing to me to come round with a man on me, in me, who I never asked to be there. That it’s not going to hurt me because I’m clearly experienced. Well they’re wrong. I’m not. There’s only ever been Mine, and never like that, never…he’s never hurt me. Wouldn’t, couldn’t. Why couldn’t it have been him today? Why didn’t Darshanth win?
What if he had? Would it be any different? Would it have been any better if it was him I’d been…him who’d.…
I don’t know why H’ben was there. He sounded mad when he dragged O’zer off me. I didn’t think anyone was meant to interfere while the dragons were still involved, even once the merge is broken.
Thank Faranth he did.
He said it’ll get better. But he never told us the truth before, did he? He or L’stev. They wriggle around it like tunnel snakes avoiding a snare. ‘You have to give yourself to your dragon’. ‘It’s part of being a dragonrider’. ‘The dragon decides, the rider complies’.
‘Complies’. Not ‘consents’. Because there’s nothing shaffing consensual about it. When Indy gets mated, so do I. No ifs or buts. No choice of when, no choice of who.
He said it would be better next time. Next time…oh, shards. How could it be better? What if it’s worse? What if I’ve not healed by then?
I love that girl so much. Faranth, I’d do anything for her. I know she’d do anything for me. And I know she can’t help it. I know she’s a slave to her own urges. I know if she had any say in the matter she wouldn’t put me through it.
But there’s a word for what it is, a word they’ll never use, never mention when they talk about mating flights. I can’t even write it myself. Not even in code
Because if I do, if I use that word, if I write it down, then it becomes real, and I don’t think I can face the prospect of this being my life for the next sixty Turns.
It was the final sentence that broke C’mine’s heart: C’los’ assumption that he had a long span of Turns ahead of him. Would that you had, Los, he thought despairingly. But even knowing that C’los had come to terms with being at the mercy of Indioth’s mating urges; that he’d found ways to make her heat less arduous on himself – C’mine had never entirely shed the guilt of his and Darshanth’s failure in Indioth’s maiden flight. They’d been there – of course they had – and he remembered the day with perfect, painful clarity. He remembered exactly which dragons had joined Darshanth in the chase: Ruorth, Belserath, and Wiverth from their own class; Hozrath, Jekilth, and Herroith from amongst the older dragons. He remembered the weather and the time of day and the direction in which Indioth had flown, screaming with lust.
It had been their first chase, and C’mine had always thought that accounted for the hesitance at the crucial moment that had allowed O’zer’s Jekilth to slide past Darshanth to claim Indioth. He’d always thought his own confusion during and after the flight had been down to the shock of being subsumed completely into Darshanth’s consciousness for the very first time. He’d always taken at face value C’los’ account of how H’ben, who’d been L’stev’s assistant during their training, had stormed into the flight weyr to haul O’zer away when his participation had turned excessively rough.
But what if he’d been wrong?
Darshanth’s indecision hadn’t manifested in a flight since. C’mine himself had never again felt that same muzzy disorientation when merged in pursuit of a green. And H’ben, their phlegmatic Assistant Weyrlingmaster, had always professed complete ignorance of the intervention C’los had attributed to him. H’ben had always been an compassionate Weyrlingmaster, apt to gloss over minor embarrassments, so they’d assumed he was merely pretending that he hadn’t been involved to spare C’los any further discomfiture.
But what if H’ben hadn’t been pretending?
L’stev had said something in their conversation about timing. Go back to a time you’re already in and you get slow and stupid.
What if Darshanth’s hesitation hadn’t been a symptom of his youth, but a reaction to the echo of another Darshanth?
What if C’mine’s fogginess hadn’t been caused by the unfamiliar flight-merge, but by the nearby presence of his own older self?
And what if C’los, in his own confusion, had been mistaken in identifying H’ben as the blue rider, the Assistant Weyrlingmaster, who’d come to his rescue?
C’mine looked down at his sleeve, at the chevron of his Weyrlingmaster rank that was sewn there, silver edged in blue.
“Los,” he said aloud, and heard Darshanth rouse in the chamber next door. “Los, I’m coming for you.”
Continue to Chapter thirty-one: Valonna
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