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Chapter thirty-one: Valonna

When preparing for a dragonrider to give birth, as much consideration must be given to management of the dragon as to the labouring woman. A green dragon, frightened by shared discomfort, can be more hindrance than help to her rider, and her distress will upset the rest of the Weyr. She should always be supported by a more senior dragon – preferably a queen, and never the father’s dragon, who may find himself abused most fiercely when woman and green alike are seeking a convenient target to blame for the most gruelling transitional phase of labour.

– Excerpt from Childbirth and the Dragon Rider, by Weyr Healer Lenoya

100.03.19 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
MADELLON WEYR

Valonna (Micah Johnson)It was barely light when Crauva came to Valonna’s weyr to tell her that Schanna was in the early stages of labour, but Valonna was already awake. She’d been up late the previous evening, and what sleep she had snatched had been sporadic and restless and plagued with half-formed nightmares. Rising had been a relief.

The news of Schanna was half welcome distraction, half extra worry. “When’s the baby likely to arrive?” Valonna asked, as she accompanied Crauva down towards the birthing rooms.

“It’s hard to say with any degree of precision,” said Crauva. “I’ve helped with dozens of deliveries, and no two have been quite the same. But this is Schanna’s fourth, and her last two came along fairly speedily. That’s why we’ve moved her down to the birthing room now. I didn’t want her having to get down from her weyr in a panic if she progresses more quickly than last time.”

The early architects of Madellon had thoughtfully situated the birthing rooms on the Bowl side of the infirmary, where a dragon could stay as close as possible to her labouring rider. Etymonth, Schanna’s green, was sitting just outside, flexing her talons into the rut that a hundred greens before her – and a few queens, Valonna didn’t doubt – had scored while waiting for their riders to give birth. Her eyes were spinning at a fractionally faster rate than standard, but they were still mostly blue, with only occasional facets flashing orange with agitation.

Inside, Schanna was walking gingerly around the soothingly-lit birthing room, rubbing her lower back with one hand. She was a tall woman, and she carried her advanced pregnancy well, but Valonna still didn’t envy her the discomfort. “How are you feeling, green rider?”

“Like I want to get this over with,” said Schanna. “I always forget how – oooh!”

She stopped, putting her free hand to the wall for support with a grimace. Outside, Etymonth made a strangled keening sound.

“Oh for Faranth’s sake, Etymonth,” Schanna said. She straightened, her face relaxing, and then resumed her walking. “You think she’d never been through a labour with me before.” She paused, frowned, and then said hotly, “This is your fault, you know!”

“How far apart are your contractions?” asked Crauva.

Schanna glanced over towards the water-clock. She sighed. “Still about six minutes.”

“Is there anything we can get for you?” Valonna asked. “Some breakfast? Your weyrmate?”

“Keva said she’d sit with me, but her Wing’s on manoeuvres this morning.”

“I’ll ask the deputy Weyrleaders if she can be excused,” said Valonna.

“I don’t want to be a nuisance,” said Schanna. “I know you have a busy day ahead.”

“But you do, too,” Valonna told her. “If Etymonth wants to bespeak Shimpath at any time, please tell her she must.”

Schanna smiled wearily. “That’s very kind of you, Weyrwoman.”

Crauva walked back outside with Valonna. “I suspect Yarayn’s going to deliver today, too,” she said. “It’s going to be a busy day for everyone.”

“At least Yarayn doesn’t have a dragon to worry about,” said Valonna. She looked at the restless Etymonth. “Do you think it’s likely she’ll be delivering while the other Weyrleaders are here?”

“Newborns aren’t known for picking convenient moments to make their appearance,” Crauva said, with a wry smile. “The baby will come when it comes, and if Etymonth’s howling – well, even Southern must understand that a rider can’t help when she gives birth.”

Valonna had her doubts if P’raima would be understanding of anything, but she didn’t say that. “I’ll ask Shimpath to keep her calm, if necessary.”

“The other Weyrleaders are still due around noon?” Crauva asked.

“Yes,” Valonna replied.

She thought she’d done a good job of hiding the dread in her voice, but the tiny crinkles of concern around Crauva’s eyes told her she was wrong. “Keep your chin up, Weyrwoman,” the Headwoman told her, in the low, firm voice that always steadied Valonna. “Don’t forget that this is your Weyr.”

“I won’t forget. I’ll be in my office, if you need to find me.”

“Good.” The note of approval in Crauva’s tone made Valonna straighten. “Your new outfit will be in your weyr by the time you need to change. And be sure to look in a mirror before the conference.”

Valonna smiled ruefully at the reminder that she had attended the Headwoman’s last section meeting with an inky smudge on her cheek. “I will.”

Could you ask Izath if H’ned would excuse Keva and Freanth from their Wing practice this morning? Valonna asked Shimpath as she crossed the Bowl back towards their weyr.

Several moments passed before Shimpath replied. Izath wants to know why.

Tell him Schanna’s having her baby, and Keva’s going to keep her company.

Izath asks why Freanth’s rider and not the child’s father.

I don’t think Schanna knows who the father is, said Valonna. She was beginning to find the interrogation intrusive. Just tell him, Shimpath!

I will.

Shimpath sounded tetchy herself. Valonna wondered how much of her own annoyance with H’ned was reflected from her own dragon. Then she noticed that the dragonets were down at the killing pens. Are Berzunth and Megrith at it again?

Yes.

The two dragonets were at opposite ends of the paddock, but physical distance alone still wasn’t soothing their mutual antagonism. The bullocks in the pen were in a panic, stampeding blindly from one side to another as the young queens locked stares above them. They’re running that herd to death. Even as Valonna said it, Darshanth glided over from the direction of the barracks, humming a gentle chastisement. Both queens instantly turned their heads to look at him, and Darshanth shrank back a little. Back Darshanth up. If they’re not going to kill something, they can get away from that paddock. We’re too short of livestock to have them worrying it to bone.

A moment later, Megrith reached out and grabbed a herdbeast, then lifted off towards the barracks with it dangling from her forepaws. Berzunth took a steer of her own and carried it to the other end of the training grounds. They each crouched over their kills, tearing into still-kicking herdbeast with far more viciousness than necessary.

Valonna sighed. Thank you.

And I have told Izath that he may have an opinion on what a mother needs when he can produce eggs of his own.

That made Valonna wince. That was a bit rude, Shimpath.

What does a bronze know of clutching? Shimpath asked. Although I fail to see why Etymonth is making such a fuss. Her rider has only a single hatchling to birth. How would she like to deliver a clutch of twenty?

“I think it’s a bit different for humans,” Valonna said, as she climbed the steps to their weyr. Shimpath was on the ledge, arranged in a tidy coil of neck and tail, but her eyes gleamed irritably orange. Valonna extended her hand to her as she passed, letting her fingers trail along the golden flank. “We have to present a united front today. Maybe you should…”

Apologise to Izath? Shimpath asked, and snorted.

“Those blighted dragonets,” Valonna said. Shimpath was usually an even-tempered dragon, but the constant low-level hostility being emitted by the two juvenile queens had really begun to wear on her nerves. It’ll probably be over by the end of the day.

She’d intended the thought to be private, but Shimpath overheard. Only if you allow it, she said, with a sharpness that owed less to her weary irritation than it did to her impatience with Valonna’s doubts.

It was a testament to the strength of Shimpath’s character that she had put Valonna under no pressure to capitulate to Southern. Returning Megrith to her native Weyr would be the easiest way to restore harmony to Madellon. But what was easy and what was right were seldom the same thing, and the grim expression that shadowed Karika’s young face whenever they discussed a return to Southern was still enough to stop Valonna from ceding to P’raima’s demands.

But Shimpath wasn’t the only Madellon dragon who would benefit from Megrith’s relocation. Valonna paused before she stepped into the dimness of her weyr, raising her eyes to the Rim. The bronzes on watch – increased to six since Grizbath’s death – still kept their vigil over the Weyr. They’d be grateful to stand down. H’ned would be glad to get the stockpiled firestone back. The Wildfire weyrlings would be pleased to get rid of their Southern counterparts, and L’stev and C’mine would likely be relieved to see the back of them, too.

In fact there probably wasn’t a rider in all of Madellon who wouldn’t be happy for the Southerners to go home. There’d been incidents between Madellon riders and Southern in the sevendays since the rescue, but the unpleasantness had escalated sharply since Grizbath had gone between. Southern’s riders didn’t stray from their own territory very much, but some contact was inevitable with the Crafthalls of southern Pern so distributed between the protectorates. The watchrider at Kellad had reported an intimidating encounter with two Southern browns visiting the Woodcrafthall. Sh’zon had upgraded a courtesy flight for Lord Zinner from green to bronze to forestall any possibility of the conveying dragonpair running into a more senior dragonpair at Noone Seahold. And all brown, blue, and green riders had been told to travel in company, for safety. That wasn’t a popular order, even if most did recognise its necessity. But Sh’zon and H’ned had both reported the undercurrent of dissatisfaction amongst Madellon’s riders at the continued presence of Southern’s weyrlings. They were eating too much, disrupting Madellon’s own youngsters, and upsetting Berzunth. And now that Grizbath was gone, the prevailing opinion was that keeping Megrith from her own Weyr could no longer be justified.

The very fact that P’raima had sent his deputy, D’pantha, to reiterate his demand for the return of the weyrlings was eloquent evidence of Southern’s disarray. Obviously, P’raima had felt he couldn’t leave his Weyr himself in the immediate aftermath of Margone’s death. It was the only upside to the whole situation. It had given Madellon precious room to breathe, H’ned – under Sh’zon’s advice – time to reach out to the Peninsula, and Valonna the chance to formulate a plan. A long, glow-lit night in the Archives had finally yielded what she needed. Now, there was nothing more to do but wait for noon, and the other Weyrleaders of the south, to arrive.

Well, Valonna corrected herself: that wasn’t strictly true. She had plenty to do. More than enough. And while the stack of work heaped on T’kamen’s desk caused her worries of its own, it was a welcome distraction from fretting about the day ahead.

She sometimes worried that T’kamen would be furious with her for interfering with his office. After the first few times she’d gone looking for a document and found it only after a lengthy search, she’d come to the unhappy conclusion that T’kamen’s filing system – if it could even be called that – wasn’t working. She’d spent two full days kneeling on the floor of his office, surrounded by scrolls and slates and folders, sorting every record she could find into something that resembled a sensible order.

It wouldn’t have taken her quite so long if she hadn’t found herself reading everything. She’d been hesitant, at first, to pry into the affairs of the Wings – training reports, disciplinary records, performance evaluations – but in spite of her best intentions, she’d been sucked in. After one morning of reading, she knew more about the character of each of Madellon Wingleaders than she’d learned in seven full Turns as Weyrwoman. A’keret’s reports were always terse to the point of unwillingness; D’sion’s by contrast, so verbose that he used more hide than any three other Wingleaders put together. T’gat delegated the writing of his reports to one of his Wingseconds, only initialling the bottom of each one. Some Wingleaders left contentious issues to the very last paragraphs – perhaps in the hope that the Weyrleader wouldn’t read all the way to the end. Valonna doubted if that had ever worked with T’kamen. Still, it could be startling to find, after two pages of turgid prose on the minutiae of a cold drill, an offhand mention that blue rider H’wat was still complaining of an itchy rash in the nether regions, and was therefore suspended from mating flights until it cleared up.

And yet as tedious as they could be, the Wing records had brought the fighting life of Madellon Weyr into vivid focus in Valonna’s mind. She’d never been part of a Wing, never gone out with dragons on manoeuvres, never learned the formations or tactics that every fighting rider knew by heart. Once the dragonets of Shimpath’s weyrling group had mastered going between, Valonna had begun to spend less and less time with her classmates and more and more with the failing Fianine. She hadn’t learned as much in those sporadic, difficult sessions with the dying Weyrwoman as she should have, but she’d been taught even less about how the fighting Wings worked. R’hren, Fianine’s last Weyrleader, had been too absorbed in his duties to teach her anything; L’dro, Valonna’s first, had told her she didn’t need to concern herself with such things.

The echo of that dismissal still had the power to constrain her. This isn’t my business. Valonna had returned every document pertaining to the Wings to T’kamen’s shelves – albeit it in a place that made some logical sense. But not every record strewn around the office dealt with fighting matters. At least half of them concerned tithes, supplies, staffing, accommodation, stipends – all the affairs that should have been the Weyrwoman’s responsibility. The realisation of how little T’kamen had truly entrusted to her caused Valonna a different kind of guilt.

She’d dealt with it by transferring all the domestic records to her own office. That had been a daunting task in itself, and when she’d stood looking at the single set of shelves that furnished her office she’d realised she needed more space. Crauva had sent up several additional storage cabinets, and Valonna had quickly repeated the filing exercise from T’kamen’s office. She’d also procured a strong lock from Magardon, the Weyr Smith. It secured the stoutest cabinet, where Valonna had stowed T’kamen’s strongbox, the Weyr Ledger, and several other documents of a sensitive nature. She had the only key. Sh’zon and H’ned had both asked for copies – separately and together – but Valonna had evaded their requests. Neither of them was the Weyrleader. It didn’t seem proper.

Still, she wondered if she’d done the right thing. T’kamen had been gone almost a month, and no one had recently volunteered an opinion that he might yet return. And he had thought well enough of both Sh’zon and H’ned to make them his deputies. Valonna just didn’t know if she really trusted either one, especially given the undercurrent of rivalry between them that bubbled just beneath the surface.

Never forget that they are bronze riders first, Shimpath said, as Valonna stared thoughtfully at the locked cabinet. They certainly won’t.

Do you have a preference? Valonna asked.

Izath thinks too highly of himself.

But he did almost fly you.

Almost is a long way from in fact.

What about Kawanth?

Kawanth, Shimpath said meditatively. She didn’t continue for a long time. No, I don’t care for Kawanth, either.

Do you like anyone?

Shimpath sniffed delicately. Do you?

I liked L’dro, Valonna said. And that was a mistake. It doesn’t matter who I like. It matters who would make a good Weyrleader.

She felt like a traitor as she said it. T’kamen hadn’t been gone that long. It was far too soon to be thinking about a new Weyrleader. Shimpath wouldn’t rise for Turns yet. Even if the bronze rider Council endorsed one of the deputies over the other as Regent, it would be a long time before Valonna’s preference or lack of it, had any influence on the leadership.

She put the thought out of her mind and turned her attention resolutely to the task at hand; or, at least, the biggest one.

The date for the primary tithe renegotiation was approaching fast. In less than two months, Madellon would need to present its supply requirements for the next five Turns to the Lords of the protectorate. Valonna had only a vague understanding of how the last negotiation had gone. She remembered the frequent meetings between D’feng, L’dro’s Deputy, and Adrissa, the previous Headwoman. She remembered how bad-tempered L’dro had been about having to attend many of those meetings. And she definitely remembered how he’d discouraged her from getting involved. She’d been relieved, in fact. The memory of that relief was yet another source of guilt.

It was staggering how the Holds of Madellon had nibbled away at the edges of the 95 primary agreement in each Turn’s interim adjustment under L’dro’s leadership. The tithe agreements cited poor harvests and a downward trend in Madellon’s dragon population as the reason for reducing what the Holds were required to supply to the Weyr. T’kamen had tried to redress the balance in the 99 adjustment, with only partial success. The addition of twenty-five extra dragonets had caused more consternation than celebration among Madellon’s Lords Holder, and even Berzunth – who should have been a point of pride for the territory – had been declared problematic, given that two breeding queens would increase Madellon’s already excessive Interval population even more quickly than one.

T’kamen had clearly decided to reassess Madellon’s needs from the ground up, discarding all previous calculations, but – just as clearly – the size of the task had daunted him. Valonna could trace the many times he had begun working on his plan, abandoned it, then resumed, by the different shades of ink on many half-finished documents. She couldn’t blame him for feeling overwhelmed. She, with her recently-acquired knowledge of Madellon’s lower caverns, felt woefully ill-equipped to pick up where T’kamen had left off. Yet the primary demand must be drafted. L’dro was gone, T’kamen had disappeared, and D’feng was certainly too ill to help. Valonna didn’t think either H’ned or Sh’zon would be capable of grasping Madellon’s complex supply needs in time to be much use. And so it fell to her.

Crauva had been a tremendous help, as she was in so many aspects of Madellon’s management. “He had the right idea, but his understanding of what we really need in the caverns is rather skewed,” the Headwoman had said, when she and Valonna had sat down to review T’kamen’s list of requirements. “But then he’s a man. And a bronze rider. He hasn’t been trained for this.”

Valonna turned to the list T’kamen had begun beneath the heading Quarters. He’d written only a few items: bedfurs and glows and the nebulous sundry furnishings. Valonna supposed he’d been going by his own rather austere way of life. T’kamen’s weyr was bare of all but the most basic of comforts. He was one of those riders oblivious to luxuries beyond a warm place to sleep, a clean place to wash, and perhaps a place at least passingly soft to sit down.

Harraquy, the steward for Quarters, had given Valonna a far more comprehensive list of his needs, and furniture was the least of it. Indeed, bedframes and chairs and tables were in relative abundance in Madellon’s storerooms – so long as a rider didn’t object to third-hand pieces with scuffs and scratches from previous hard use. It was the consumable items, those that were used up, or wore out, or got broken, that were most critical. Paint, limewash, varnish, wax. Glows, certainly, but also glow-baskets, and candles, and matches, and spills. Towels, washcloths, sweet oil. Coarse sand and rushes for strewing. Rugs, tapestries, bed linens and blankets. Curtains and curtain rails and curtain rings. Hooks, hangers, pegs, nails. Glue, caulk, mortar. Brushes, buckets, cleaning rags. Vinegar, soda, wood-ash, lime. Plates and cups. Pitchers and ewers. Chamber pots. The list went on and on.

She was copying items from slates onto hide, keeping her writing as small as possible to save space, when Shimpath made a noise on the ledge outside. There is a man.

That meant someone who wasn’t a dragonrider, or Shimpath would have reported the visitor as so-and-so’s rider. Valonna put down her pen. Show me?

Shimpath shared her sight with her. Valonna didn’t recognise the dust-covered man her queen could see for a moment – at least until she saw the intricate braid of a Weyr Master on his shoulder. “Master Arrense,” she called out. “Please, come in.”

Arrense stepped inside her office, but he didn’t move far from the entrance. “I’ve brought half the trail with me. I don’t want to leave it on your floor.”

Since neither Sh’zon nor H’ned ever troubled to wipe their boots before tramping dirt onto the floor, Valonna didn’t suppose that Arrense’s dust would make much of a difference. “It’s really no bother,” she said. “Can I get you a drink? You must be parched.”

“I’d be glad of one.”

Valonna kept juice and water in the cooler. She got up to pour Arrense a glass, using the moments to compose herself. The Beastcraft Master had always slightly intimidated her. It wasn’t just that he was a big man – although he was burly, and he towered over Valonna. It was his stern, no-nonsense demeanour that made her nervous. Arrense had penetrating blue eyes and an intense stare that she found hard to meet, over a bent prow of a nose and a fierce moustache. Valonna had seen him at work, handling runners and herdbeasts with an absolute assuredness that many Wingleaders would have envied. Some of Madellon’s Masters left the hard labour to their subordinates, but Arrense seemed to relish it. She’d once come upon him throwing a huge horned bull that had come up in one of the cattle drives, demonstrating to his apprentices how it was done. Sarenya had been standing nearby, looking rueful. “Not a hope,” she’d said, when Valonna had asked if she ever handled livestock in the same way. “Come gelding time, I always get the knife, not the rope.”

Now, Arrense’s resemblance to his niece was somewhat obscured by the quantity of dust coating him from head to foot. He scrubbed a hand through his hair as he accepted the drink from Valonna, releasing a cloud of fine powder. “Thank you,” he said, and quaffed half the glass in a single long swallow. “I wouldn’t normally come up to you wearing ten pounds of road, but I know you’re concerned about the situation with our tithed stock.”

“What is the situation?” Valonna asked.

“I rode the corrals at Jessaf before joining up with the drive. The five hundred head we brought up are broadly representative of what’s in those pens. The steers this summer are just poor all round. The best of them are underweight by three parts in ten. It’s not that anyone at Madellon is overfeeding. The dragons are just having to take more animals to meet their needs.”

It tallied with Valonna’s own experience. Shimpath, who had never been a greedy dragon, seemed to have been going back to the killing paddocks once or twice more than she used to these days. “What do you recommend, Master?”

Arrense laughed. “More beasts in the tithe would be the obvious solution, but I suspect that’s not an option.” He rubbed his chin, dislodging dust that had found its way beneath the bandanna knotted around his neck. “The breeding programme we began last Turn is looking promising, but it’ll be Turns before we see any significant returns, and that’s assuming we can continue to add decent stock to the breeding herds.”

“What about the wherry hatchery?” Valonna asked.

“We could increase production there,” said Arrense, “much as my staff wouldn’t thank you for it – but only by a little. Between the wherries and the swine, the kitchen and garden refuse can only go so far, so we’d have to buy in feed, and that’s expensive, too.”

He lapsed into silence, but Valonna sensed he had more to say. “Is there something else?”

Arrense began to shake his shaggy head, and then he stopped himself. “There is,” he said. “But the Weyrleader didn’t like it when I put it to him, and I don’t imagine it’ll be much to your taste, either.”

“Go on,” Valonna prompted him.

“It’s a simple equation. Energy out  requires energy in. The more work you demand out of a body, the more food you need to put into it. That law holds whether you’re a man, a runnerbeast, or a dragon. Just being a man, a runnerbeast, or a dragon takes a lot of energy. But if I send my apprentices on an all-day drive, or if I’m training a runnerbeast to race, they’ll need more food by evening than they would if they’d been at rest all day.”

Arrense left his analogy there, but Valonna didn’t need him to complete it, just as she didn’t need to hold his uncomfortably direct gaze for long to understand that he was ill at ease with even the unspoken suggestion. Something T’kamen had said the morning after the first weyrlings had gone between came back to Valonna. Do less drilling with firestone. Do less drilling in general, to save on harness hide. And more than harness hide, Valonna thought. T’kamen had known then what Arrense was implying now.

“I see,” she said. She wondered if she should add, You’ll need to discuss that with the Deputy Weyrleaders. Decisions about the frequency and nature of Wing drill weren’t hers to make. But the words stuck in her throat. Having asserted her ownership of Madellon’s lower caverns, she was loath to cede a resourcing issue to someone else. If there was a common thread that tied all the bronze riders who had been her Weyrleaders – actual and acting – it was that they relished the fighting drills upon which their position was predicated. With the Pass so distant, and Pern’s reverence for the Weyr at so low an ebb, it was the closest any of them would ever get to feeling like real dragonriders. Valonna knew from the Wing reports that several Wingleaders were complaining about the recent cutbacks in hot drills, where firestone was deployed. Any suggestion that even cold manoeuvres needed to be restricted would be taken even worse. She felt certain that H’ned and Sh’zon would take it personally, as an emasculating blow at the very heart of their identity as bronze riders. That Arrense had already dared raise it with T’kamen spoke to the magnitude of his concern – and to his trust in T’kamen’s rational pragmatism. L’dro would have dismissed a Weyr Master for less.

Arrense was still looking at her, waiting for a response. He was a shrewd crafter as well as a capable one. No Hall ever sent a Master who couldn’t engage with Weyr politics to be its representative among dragonriders. Valonna wondered if he thought she was the guileless girl that most of Madellon still did.

Let them all believe as they will, Shimpath advised softly. But this one recognises more in you than most.

Because of Sarenya? Valonna asked.

Perhaps. He is not unlike her. But he may begin to doubt his own good opinion of you if you delay your reply much longer.

Valonna lifted her head to cover the pause. “Thank you, Arrense,” she said. “I’ll take what you’ve said into careful consideration. If there’s anything else you think I should know about…”

“I’ll bring it to you directly,” said Arrense. He inclined his head briefly. “Weyrwoman.”

It wasn’t until Arrense had gone that Valonna realised she’d forgotten to be nervous of him. The insight gave her a brief feeling of accomplishment, which Shimpath silently reflected back on her.

One of the primary tithe documents she’d taken from T’kamen’s office concerned the Beastcraft’s needs. It only took Valonna a moment to put her hand to it. T’kamen had written a summary of Arrense’s staffing requirements. Two journeymen, six apprentices. Valonna hesitated. Only two journeymen? Arrense currently had three: Jarrisam, his right-hand man; the Weyrbred Tebis, whom Valonna had known briefly when they’d both been candidates; and Sarenya. And the Beastcraft had already lost two of its nine apprentices to other assignments recently, without replacing them. The loss of yet another would reduce their strength by a full third.

There wasn’t a crafter in the Weyr who didn’t fear, to some degree, for his job. T’kamen had been asking the Weyr Masters to allow contracts to lapse for several months. Even Valonna knew that crafters were expensive. But T’kamen’s plans for the Beastcraft staff made Valonna uncomfortable, lingering in her thoughts long after she put the document aside to focus on Harraquy’s budgetary requirements. How could Arrense be asked to let a journeyman go when one had never known a home outside the Weyr, another was his indispensable deputy, and the third was his own niece?

She was almost relieved when the angle of the light reflecting into the office from outside told her that it was time to set aside her work and prepare for the conference. She rose from her desk, rubbing the back of her neck to relieve the tension that always plagued her after a long session struggling with the business of the Weyr, and stepped through the archway into her living quarters.

As Crauva had promised, Valonna’s new outfit was ready. It hung from the privacy panel that screened off the dressing area of her quarters: the first complete suit of fighting leathers she’d owned since she was a weyrling. And they were fighting leathers, cut deliberately to evoke the style of a Wingleader’s dress blacks, not the more casual look of everyday riding clothes. The hide had been dyed in the formal brown-black, but the lapels and cuffs and the facings of all the pockets had been edged in Madellon’s indigo. Madellon’s emblem had been sewn to the sleeve in hide, not cloth, of the same colour, above the stylised gold dragon badge representing Shimpath. And gold thread had been used liberally in the complex braiding of the Senior Weyrwoman’s rank knot, and in the figuring of the two five-point gold stars that decorated the epaulettes on both shoulders.

Crauva had come up with the idea to dress Valonna in the style of a fighting rider. H’ned had questioned it, but Sh’zon thought it was a stroke of genius. Master Mannis, the Weyr Tanner, had been delighted with the challenge of designing and producing a one-of-a-kind set of wherhides for Valonna, and he and his most talented journeymen had cut, sewn, and finished the set in the course of a single day and night. The resulting outfit was certainly dramatic.

And Valonna still hated it.

She’d always found the dragonrider’s uniform of form-fitting leathers hot and confining and exposing. Valonna was the youngest daughter of Holder Televal of Peranvo Hold, and as such she’d dressed in the fine goods of that prosperous Hold all her life. She was still most comfortable in the kind of long gown and elegant fabric that she would have worn if she’d been married to a son of Lord Winstone instead of being Searched to Madellon. Not all of her dresses were long, and she usually wore divided skirts to ride, but she’d never truly overcome her uneasiness with a dragonrider’s wherhides.

“And that’s the problem,” Crauva had said to her, in private, before they’d put the plan into action. “The Weyrleaders of Southern and the Peninsula will look at your fine Peranvo satin and lace, and they’ll see the Valonna they know: a girl who still pines to be Lady of the Hold, rather than a Weyrwoman to be respected.”

The ruthless insight had stung. “But they’ll laugh at me if I dress like a fighting rider,” Valonna had protested.

“You won’t be dressed like a fighting rider,” Crauva had said. “These will be a Weyrwoman’s dress blacks. But there’ll be enough martial accents to make them reconsider their preconception of you. And you might just distract them enough to keep you half a step ahead in the negotiations.”

That had unnerved Valonna still further, but she’d bowed to Crauva’s wisdom. Now, though, she grimly set about the task of dressing in the brand-new wherhides – feeling, she imagined, like a dragonrider gearing up to face her first Threadfall.

The thought reminded her of Schanna. How’s Etymonth doing?

She’s still pacing about. I don’t think her rider has clutched yet.

You’ll keep an eye on them?

Of course.

Mannis had done an exceptional job, Valonna thought, when she’d buttoned the jacket to the top. The hide was beautifully soft and, despite its newness, so supple that it barely whispered as she moved. The new boots had a slight lift built in to raise her height an inch or so, and the cut of the jacket forced her shoulders back and down, obliging her to adopt a confident posture. When she stepped out to regard herself in the full-length looking glass, she hardly recognised the woman reflected back at her.

Shimpath reminded her softly, Your hair.

Valonna raised her hand to her head with a start. Of course. She began to unpin her intricate braids. They, too, Crauva had intimated, smacked too much of the Holds. Valonna let them all down. Unbound, her hair reached more than halfway down her back in soft pale-gold waves. That wouldn’t do, either. She picked up a brush.

Izath’s rider comes.

Valonna did a quick check to make sure there were no ink smudges on her face. Let him in.

She was still brushing her hair when H’ned came into the weyr. He was wearing his own dress blacks, and he’d polished every brass button and buckle to a high sheen. “Weyrwoman, are you –”

He broke off halfway through the sentence. Valonna turned anxiously to him, fearing she’d forgotten some crucial part of her attire, but H’ned was just blinking at her. “Is there something wrong, H’ned?”

“Ah. No. Nothing wrong.” H’ned seemed to give himself a little shake, but his eyes remained fixed on Valonna. On her hair, she realised suddenly. “I, ah, just came to see if you’re ready.”

The attention was disconcerting. “I’ll only be a moment,” Valonna said. She turned away from H’ned, but as she smoothed her hair back and then began to braid it, fishtail-style, she could feel his eyes on the back of her head. She tamed a few unruly locks with a couple of pins, and only then turned back to H’ned, forcing a smile she didn’t feel. “Does that look all right?”

He still looked bemused. “Weyrwoman, you look…” He groped for a moment, and then finished, lamely, “Really nice.”

“But I don’t want to look nice,” Valonna objected, perversely cross with the assessment. “I want to look formidable.

At any other moment, the adjective would have struck her as an absurd way to describe herself, but H’ned just shook his head. “You’re spectacular.”

The naked admiration in his voice almost left Valonna speechless, but she made herself gather her wits. “Well,” she said, trying to keep her tone businesslike. “Is the council room ready?”

“It’s all as you want it,” H’ned replied.

Ipith and Suffath have departed the Peninsula, Shimpath said suddenly.

Izath must have received the same communication, because H’ned tilted his head fractionally. “The Peninsula Weyrleaders are inbound,” he said. “Which, assuming P’raima won’t trouble to announce himself, means that he and Tezonth won’t be far behind.”

Valonna straightened her shoulders, although in the new wherhides she already felt rigid. “Very well. Let us receive them, then.”

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