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Chapter thirty-three: Valonna

Naventh of Ista and Haxath of Benden were both young queens in their prime when they moved south to co-found Western Weyr. Naventh was first to rise, and in being caught by M’dellon’s bronze Tiuth, became the first senior queen of the new Weyr.

Being Istan, Naventh was not a large queen, and Tiuth, while hailing from the High Reaches, was noted as one of the smallest bronzes on Pern in the early Seventh Interval. They flew consistently well together, though, and Tiuth caught Naventh in seven straight flights. When he failed to catch her in her eighth flight, the heart went out of Tiuth. He did not live to see Naventh lay her final clutch, by bronze Paith, but no dragon of that Hatching ever went on to catch a queen, and to this day, dragons with Tiuth’s light-framed, speedy conformation still dominate Madellon Weyr’s Wings.

– From Bloodlines of Madellon Weyr by Weyrwoman Fianine

100.03.19 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
MADELLON WEYR

Valonna (Micah Johnson)Sh’zon met them on Shimpath’s ledge. It was hot outside of the comfortable shade of the weyr, but he, like Valonna and H’ned, wore his dress blacks. They were obviously new, and Valonna wondered fleetingly why Sh’zon had chosen to have his blacks sewn in the Peninsula style when he so frequently complained of still being regarded as an outsider at Madellon.

Then two dragons appeared in the sky above the Bowl, followed after a moment by a third. The watchdragon reports they are Ipith and Suffath of the Peninsula, and Tezonth of Southern, said Shimpath.

Tell Santinoth they may land, said Valonna. Are the Southern weyrlings in hand?

Yes.

Keep them close.

It was rare for dragons of all three southern Weyrs to come together. Valonna had almost forgotten how much smaller and sleeker Madellon dragons were by comparison to their Southern and Peninsularite counterparts. Tezonth was colossal, but even H’pold’s bronze Suffath was noticeably bigger and burlier than most of Madellon’s dragons. Ipith, the Peninsula queen, wasn’t as large as Grizbath had been, but she was bigger than Shimpath, and older, and more senior. She was the largest dragon in all of southern Pern now, and she was awe-inspiring, even if she and her rider had been the Peninsula’s senior pair barely a Turn longer than Shimpath and Valonna had served as Madellon’s. But Madellon was Shimpath’s Weyr. The two hundred and more dragons watching from their weyr ledges were hers, however magnificent the foreign queen in their midst. And in Shimpath’s present frame of mind – controlling, as she was, two feuding juvenile queens, half a Wing of semi-friendly Southern weyrlings, and a fractious adult green – she had small interest in showing deference to the queen of another Weyr.

Certainly I do not, Shimpath said, mantling her wings fractionally at the very notion. And neither should you.

Valonna drew on her queen’s conviction, suppressing the fearful part of herself that wanted to flee to the depths of the lower caverns and stay there until all this was over. As the three foreign dragons landed below Shimpath’s ledge, she descended the steps to meet them. It took all her will to resist looking over her shoulder to make sure H’ned and Sh’zon were behind her. “Welcome to Madellon, Weyrleaders,” she said, once all three had dismounted. “I hope you’ll –”

P’raima’s rasp stopped her. “Spare me the farcical pleasantries.” He ripped off his smoked-glass goggles and glared at her with burning dark eyes. “This isn’t a social visit.”

Valonna hadn’t expected him to be friendly, but the brusqueness of his tone took her aback. It had been some time since anyone had spoken to her so rudely, and for all the recent troubles between Madellon and Southern, she hadn’t seen P’raima himself since Shimpath’s last Hatching. The open aggression dented her fragile confidence. She felt herself beginning to look instinctively to Sh’zon for guidance.

And then H’pold, the Peninsula’s Weyrleader, stepped forwards slightly, blocking P’raima’s confrontational approach. He was a tall man in his forties, impressive in his dress tunic, and handsome in a severe way, but his smile revealed more teeth than warmth. “You mustn’t criticise Valonna’s courtesies, P’raima,” he said, and then he turned his attention to Valonna. “Weyrwoman.” His eyes, glacier-blue, raked her from head to toe and back again. “You look well, under the circumstances.”

He grasped her wrist rather hard, and Valonna had to school herself not to wince. “Thank you, Weyrleader H’pold,” she said. “And these are Madellon’s Deputy Weyrleaders, H’ned and Sh’zon.”

H’pold barely glanced at H’ned, but when he looked at Sh’zon his eyes went, if possible, even more frosty. “Yes, Weyrwoman; we’re acquainted.”

Valonna’s heart sank. Sh’zon’s enmity with the Weyrleader who’d engineered his transfer away from the Peninsula was no secret, and although Sh’zon had vowed to keep his conduct professional, she dreaded him breaking the promise. The Peninsula’s willingness to broker this meeting had not been a given, and the last thing Madellon needed was for H’pold to take against their position before discussion had even begun.

It was Rallai, H’pold’s Weyrwoman, who glossed over the awkwardness, stepping forwards to embrace Valonna gravely. Rallai was nearly as tall as her Weyrleader, and, in long divided riding skirts and a beautifully tooled riding jacket, effortlessly elegant. Valonna envied her on both counts. “Welcome, Rallai,” she said, with gratitude.

“Valonna,” Rallai replied simply, but the quick squeeze she gave to Valonna’s forearms as they parted was unambiguously supportive.

It gave Valonna the courage she needed to look P’raima in the eye. She didn’t extend her hand in greeting, and neither did he. “Weyrleader P’raima,” she said. She was aware, gratefully, of Sh’zon and H’ned flanking her. “Please accept my condolences for the loss of your Weyrwoman.”

He glowered down at her. “You have a nerve.”

Valonna lifted her chin. Shimpath’s irritation was bleeding into her mood. This is my Weyr, she reminded herself. “I admired Margone greatly,” she replied. “Her death was a blow to all of Pern.”

“Enough,” said P’raima. “If you don’t have the common decency to restore my weyrlings to their rightful place of your own volition, then you’ll at least do me the courtesy of not wasting my time with platitudes.”

“Margone was an example to us all,” said Rallai. Smoothly and skilfully, she took P’raima’s arm. “We would be remiss to forget her graciousness and gentility at this turbulent time. Valonna, perhaps you’d lead on?”

P’raima seemed momentarily wrong-footed by Rallai’s gesture. “Before we go anywhere, I want to see my weyrlings.”

“I’m sure you saw them as you flew in,” H’ned pointed out. His tone, Valonna was glad to note, was politely neutral. “We have no need to hide them.”

“You misunderstand me, Wingleader,” P’raima said. His inflection was contemptuous of H’ned’s rank. “I don’t doubt that they are here. I wish to verify that they are whole and undamaged.”

Even H’pold looked taken aback at the implication, and Valonna couldn’t quite prevent her own sharp intake of breath. “Oh, you’ll find they’re whole, all right,” Sh’zon said. “Every one of ’em still alive, would you fancy! And no more damaged than they were when we relieved you of their care!”

“Wingleader!” Valonna said quickly, and at the same instant, Rallai said, “Sh’zon!”

They looked at each other. Rallai’s face betrayed an instant of contrition that she’d allowed her mask of serenity to crack, and then she made a tiny motion of her head to acknowledge Valonna’s precedence. Valonna cleared her throat to cover her surprise, and then spoke directly to P’raima. “I can promise you that your weyrlings are well and healthy in the care of our very experienced Weyrlingmaster. You will, of course, be welcome to inspect them to see this for yourself…after our discussions have concluded. I believe it would be disruptive for them to see you before plans for their future have been decided.”

“I’m inclined to agree with Valonna, P’raima,” H’pold said, before P’raima could object. “The welfare of the weyrlings is, after all, of paramount importance to all of us, is it not?”

The question, posited as though the answer were self-evident, gave Valonna hope. She doubted if the welfare of the weyrlings were nearly so important to P’raima as reclaiming custody of the sole living Southern queen. But P’raima couldn’t dispute H’pold’s remark without damaging his own moral position, and in placing the well-being of the Southern weyrlings, rather than P’raima’s sovereign rights over them, at the heart of the issue, H’pold was already setting a tone that would favour Madellon’s position.

P’raima had arrived at the same conclusion. “I can see this is going to be an exercise in futility. Am I supposed to believe the Peninsula unbiased, H’pold?”

“The Peninsula has no quarrel with Southern,” H’pold assured him. “And no special love for Madellon.” The smile he directed at Sh’zon gave the truth to that. “And would you sooner have brought the north to bear on southern Pern’s squabbles?”

That made P’raima’s face harden, but it also sent a chill through Valonna. H’pold was very good. It made her worry that he had an agenda of his own. “Please, Weyrleaders, let’s repair to the council chamber.”

“Of course, Valonna,” said H’pold. He took her hand and placed it firmly – over-familiarly, perhaps – on his arm. “Lead on.”

Valonna was relieved just to be getting their interactions out from under the eyes of the whole Weyr, but she realised, with a feeling of dread, that H’ned and Sh’zon had been excluded from the show of inter-Weyr cordiality. It made Valonna feel very exposed, and very alone.

Don’t be ridiculous, Shimpath told her distractedly. I am here.

But Valonna didn’t have a chance to reply. H’pold had leaned slightly down to speak in her ear. “You would have done better to sit Sh’zon out of this one, Valonna. Better still to allow the Peninsula to host it.”

She didn’t want to disagree with him about Sh’zon, in part because she couldn’t. “It was kind of you to offer, H’pold, but I couldn’t take Shimpath away from Madellon with two young queens in residence.”

“Ah,” said H’pold, as if that explained everything. He chuckled with what sounded more like amusement than sympathy, and squeezed her arm conspiratorially. “So this is a matter of pride over principle.”

Valonna looked at him, aghast, but H’pold just laughed, as if they’d shared a joke, displaying all his very white, unnaturally sharp-looking teeth. She was grateful indeed when they reached the council chamber, and she could remove her hand from his arm without causing offence, although she had to make herself resist scrubbing her fingers on the leg of her wherhide trousers.

The Madellon council chamber had been seldom used in Valonna’s time as Weyrwoman. Even in Fianine’s day, Madellon’s Council had preferred to use the more convenient ready room off the Weyrleader’s weyr for conferences. The council room was located off the upper level of the Hatching Grounds, in a hollow that had once formed a spur of the big cavern. Madellon’s early masons had partially bricked in the opening to leave a colonnade that afforded a precipitous view down to the Sands, and built a steep staircase leading up from below. The long table must have been assembled in situ – it couldn’t possibly have fit through the door in one piece – and seated ten to a side, with the heavy Weyrleader’s chair at one end and a smaller, more ornate seat for the Weyrwoman beside it. Most of the Wingleader chairs had been missing for Turns, appropriated for one use or another, and Valonna had agonised over restoring them all for this crucial meeting. Crauva had tracked down fifteen of them, and fourteen of those were spaced rather widely, seven to a side. Water, wine, and klah waited in pitchers on the table, placed there at the last possible moment to keep the hot drinks hot and the cold ones cold; there was a bowl of fruit that nobody was expected to touch; and expensive scented candles burned in a cluster, mellowing the harsher glow-light, and casting flickering shadows over the portraits of past Madellon Weyrleaders and Weyrwoman that stared in sightless judgement from the walls.

Under any other circumstances, the Weyrleader would have taken the big chair at the end of the table, with Valonna beside him, and the visiting Weyrleaders seated to either side. Had T’kamen left just one deputy, he would have taken the Weyrleader’s seat. But neither H’ned nor Sh’zon would give way to the other; they couldn’t both sit in T’kamen’s place; and the nature of this particular conference made the arrangement unworkable anyway. Valonna had decided to yield the Weyrleader and Weyrwoman’s chairs to H’pold and Rallai. As they were the neutral party, it made sense for them to sit at the head of the table. P’raima would sit to their left; Valonna and her Deputy Weyrleaders to their right. It was an unorthodox seating plan, but then, it was an unorthodox move, to invite the leaders of another Weyr to mediate a peace. Valonna still hoped it had been the right decision.

As they settled into their seats, Valonna watched P’raima covertly. He tolerated the polite motions of holding out chairs, the offering of wine and handing round of fruit which no one took; but impatiently, refusing each courtesy with a terse shake of his head. She’d met him only twice before, she realised: both times at Shimpath’s Hatchings, which he and Margone had attended even though they’d never reciprocated the invitation. She recalled how curt and unhelpful he’d been at the Wildfires’ Hatching, when first Bronth and then Indioth had gone between. She didn’t remember him making her feel this uneasy. Of the four bronze riders in the room, P’raima was both the oldest and physically the least impressive, and yet as wary as Valonna was of H’ned and Sh’zon, and as objectionable as she found H’pold’s calculated smarm, P’raima unsettled her the most. His gaze, still narrowed even in the soft light of the council chamber, never rested long in one place. He sat  straight-backed and motionless in his chair, in wherhides cut to such a restrictive pattern that they looked desperately uncomfortable, yet he gave no indication that he was ill at ease. And he emanated a relentless self-certainty that made H’pold’s easy confidence seem superficial, Sh’zon’s crude, and H’ned’s non-existent. P’raima was a man accustomed to being obeyed, a man who carried his authority as though it ran in his blood, a man on whose face the effort of containing and channelling that force had left its mark in grimness graven deep. It was no new aspect, Valonna saw; no recent addition brought on by the death of his Weyrwoman. Perhaps it was merely the inescapable consequence of having led a Weyr for over three decades. Perhaps P’raima’s face was the face all long-serving Weyrleaders would inevitably come to wear as the job ground them down, and they struggled to stay a step ahead of being consumed by it, unwilling or unable to relinquish control.

Control, said Shimpath. She sounded uncomfortable herself, as if even sharing Valonna’s thoughts on the subject was distasteful to her. I cannot understand why Grizbath’s rider allowed him to control her for so long.

Valonna could. Because it can be a relief to let someone else, someone competent, make the decisions.

Even when those decisions are wrong?

She managed to prevent the shudder that prickled her skin from manifesting. Sometimes you don’t know if a decision is wrong or right until it’s too late.

“Very well,” said H’pold, when everyone had a drink. He looked casually at ease in T’kamen’s chair. “Weyrleader P’raima has made certain requests on behalf of Southern; requests that Madellon is not willing to meet –”

“Not requests, H’pold,” said P’raima. “Demands. Madellon will release the weyrlings it abducted from Southern.”

“They weren’t abducted,” Sh’zon countered, leaning across the table.

“Not abducted?” P’raima dismissed Sh’zon’s assertion with a flick of his hand. “They were dragged from their beds in the dead of night. They were taken without permission, by subterfuge and coercion, to be held hostage at a foreign Weyr.”

“They are not and never have been hostages, Weyrleader,” Valonna said. “They’ve been our honoured guests –”

“You stole my weyrlings, Madellon,” said P’raima. “You snatched my dragon’s young and spirited them away, and when we came to reclaim them you drove us off with firestone.” His voice vibrated with disgust. “You bade your dragons stoke flame to use against other dragons.” He looked at H’pold, who was listening with a carefully dispassionate face. “Remember that, Peninsula, when they try to claim the moral high ground.”

“It’s not for me to decide who holds the moral high ground, P’raima,” said H’pold. “I’m not sitting in judgement.”

“Perhaps you should be,” said P’raima. “Lest Madellon Weyr take a dislike to your decisions and take it upon themselves to snatch away your weyrlings.”

“We didn’t snatch your weyrlings,” Valonna said before H’pold could respond, putting as much firmness as she could gather in her voice. “We acted only on the request of your Weyrwoman. Margone bade us take your surviving weyrlings into our care.”

“The ones you didn’t kill when you sent ’em all between,” Sh’zon added. “The ones you were going to force to try again, when half their friends had already met their deaths in the cold.”

“The deaths you covered up, P’raima,” H’ned put in. “That you deliberately concealed, when telling the rest of Pern might have spared our weyrlings!”

“So that’s your justification, is it?” P’raima asked. “You took Southern’s weyrlings in some misguided attempt at vengeance for the ones you lost?”

“It wasn’t about vengeance,” said H’ned. “You must have known something had gone wrong with between!”

“I knew no such thing! I only knew that calamity had befallen my weyrlings! And that could only be a failing of their training! I should have had my Weyrlingmaster replaced Turns ago, but my Weyrwoman insisted he was still fit for the job!”

“So now you’re blaming your Weyrlingmaster and your poor late Weyrwoman, rest her between?” demanded Sh’zon.

“With no evidence to the contrary, where would you have me put responsibility?”

“You might have taken it on yourself,” H’ned said, “as our Weyrleader did, unfounded though that was.”

Valonna knew instantly that mentioning T’kamen had been a mistake. “Your Weyrleader,” P’raima echoed. “And where is he, this paragon of accountability?” When none of them replied, he leaned forward. “You don’t know, do you? I’ll tell you where he is. Gone. Fled. Run away from your Weyr and all his responsibility.”

“You don’t know that,” said Valonna, and found herself struggling to keep her voice level.

“I saw him that day,” P’raima went on, ignoring her. “He came mewling to me. A Weyrleader of Pern, come cap in hand to Southern for help –”

“Perhaps because he wasn’t so swollen with conceit that he put his pride before the well-being of his weyrlings!” Valonna cried.

And that did get through. “You preach to me of pride, little girl?” P’raima snarled. “What vanity, what self-righteousness, drove you to flout the sovereign right of another Weyr to govern itself?”

“The righteousness of a queen of Pern!” Shimpath’s anger was in Valonna’s voice, and its force rippled through the other dragons of Madellon like a stone dropped in water.

“Enough!” H’pold interjected, and in the same breath spoke to his Weyrwoman. “Rallai!”

Rallai had already put her hand on Valonna’s wrist. “Let us keep this between us and our dragons, Valonna. There’s nothing to be gained by upsetting your whole Weyr.”

Shimpath made a strange, surprised little sound in Valonna’s mind, but her anger was suddenly muted, like a muffled bell.

P’raima’s burning eyes betrayed satisfaction that Ipith had quelled Shimpath. “Bring your queen to bear against Tezonth if you wish, Valonna,” he said. “But know that you may regret it.”

There was something foul in the invitation, some barely-veiled intimation that made Valonna’s skin crawl, even as she found herself unable to look away from P’raima’s stare.

Sh’zon thumped his fist on the Council table, breaking the spell. “You’ll not threaten our queen in her own Weyr, Southern!”

“Now, don’t overreact, Sh’zon,” H’pold said silkily, sounding very much like he’d been waiting for an opportunity to slap his old rival down.

P’raima finally looked away from Valonna. “This is all so much wasted breath,” he said. “You’ll hand over the weyrlings, or your queen be blighted; I’ll return with every dragon in Southern stoked for flame.”

“And what was that you were saying about the moral high ground, P’raima?” H’ned asked.

Valonna struggled to overcome Shimpath’s outrage. “We took in your weyrlings because Margone feared for their safety,” she said, stressing the point that had been lost in Sh’zon and H’ned’s barbs earlier. “She came to me, one Weyrwoman to another, and asked Madellon to protect them.”

“Margone was weak,” P’raima replied flatly. “She would have cosseted our weyrlings –”

H’ned interrupted, “And you’d have forced them between to die!”

“And what use is a dragon who can’t go between?” P’raima snapped. “In a hundred Turns, when the Red Star passes, do you think Pern will thank us for pandering to the fears of an ineffectual Weyrwoman –”

“Her fears were well founded!” Sh’zon shouted. “Between’s wrong; between’s been going wrong for centuries, and driving the children that pass for weyrlings in your Weyr to their deaths won’t change that no matter how you slice it!”

“You have no evidence –”

“We have evidence,” H’ned said. “High Reaches Weyr –”

“Afraid to risk their own weyrlings, I’ll wager.”

“High Reaches doesn’t have any weyrlings young enough to be affected,” said Valonna. “Telgar will be next, then Igen.” She slid her gaze sideways to H’pold. “And then the Peninsula.”

The only sign that H’pold found the prospect troubling was the infinitesimal narrowing of his eyes. “Weyrleaders,” he said. “Perhaps we’re digressing from the point of this congress…”

“But we’re not,” said Valonna. “Weyrwoman Margone entrusted her weyrlings to me. And until P’raima can guarantee that they’ll still be safe back at Southern, my conscience won’t allow me to release them to him.”

P’raima had clearly been about to speak over her again, but he closed his mouth with an audible click of his teeth. Plainly, he hadn’t missed her implication. Before he could answer, H’pold interjected again. “Then you’re prepared to return the weyrlings to Southern if P’raima pledges to keep them safe there?”

“That’s absurd,” said P’raima. “There are a dozen ways for a weyrling to be injured or killed in training.”

“The cause of death for the twelve you lost was the same in every case, P’raima,” Valonna said.

“Dragons must go between…”

“Dragonets can’t go between! Don’t you understand, Weyrleader? No amount of bullying or coercion will do anything but get them killed! Between is broken, and until we know more about how and why, forcing any weyrling between is a death sentence!”

P’raima glowered at her, but he couldn’t rebut her argument. At length, he sat back in his seat. “So you’d have me swear not to send my weyrlings between. Is that your price?”

“It’s hardly a price,” said H’ned.

P’raima ignored him, staring at Valonna. “Well? Is that what it’ll take?”

She hesitated, then nodded. “If you’ll vow to suspend between training until we understand more about the problem, I’ll give my permission for them to leave.”

P’raima looked for a moment as if he would find some other objection, but then he pounded his fist down on the table. “Fine. So vowed. Stand down your watchdragons. My bronzes will be removing the weyrlings within the hour.”

Valonna took a deep breath as P’raima rose from his place. Shimpath’s presence steadied her for what was coming. “There’s just one thing, Weyrleader,” she said. She lifted her eyes to P’raima’s, and tried not to quail beneath his suddenly renewed suspicion. “Not all of your weyrlings want to leave.”

For a long, hideous instant, no one spoke. Next to Valonna, Sh’zon and H’ned sat in mute solidarity. Rallai let slip the barest surprised intake of breath. H’pold tilted his head. And P’raima stood staring down at her with a look of abhorrence so caustic it could have seared Thread from the sky.

When he spoke, he did so very deliberately, enunciating each word with staccato precision. “What do you mean?”

Valonna wanted to break his gaze, intimidated by the malice in it, but Shimpath was there, like a wall behind her, forbidding her to escape. “Two of your weyrlings have expressed a wish to remain at Madellon Weyr.”

“You said you’d send them back,” P’raima said. His voice was still soft. The anger was there, the anger was building – but he had it under control, as if clenched in his two fists.

“The Weyrwoman said no such thing,” Sh’zon said, with ill-timed glee in his voice. “I think you’ll find she said she’d give ’em permission to leave.”

Valonna could have kicked him, but reprimanding Sh’zon wouldn’t have pacified P’raima. “Which ones?” he asked. “Which of those silly children have decided they prefer this farce of a Weyr to their home?”

Make sure the dragonets are well protected from Tezonth, Valonna warned Shimpath. “Blue rider T’gala,” she said. Then, because she couldn’t put off the inevitable any longer, she continued, “And queen rider Karika.”

P’raima recoiled – staggered, stupefied – and then he lunged so violently at Valonna that Sh’zon leapt up beside her to fend him off. “You’ll not have my queen, you conniving spit-bitch!”

The room erupted.

Valonna was aware of the deputy Weyrleaders pulling her back out of P’raima’s reach; she was aware of H’pold, on his feet, trying to calm the shouting bronze riders on both sides of the table; she was even aware that Rallai was calling for calm. But she was aware of all those things only through the red-tinged lens of Shimpath’s rage, and when she spoke it was with her queen’s words and with her queen’s authority. “Be seated, rider of Tezonth,” she commanded. The words reverberated with Shimpath’s voice in her own ears.

“Be seated,” Rallai echoed, and Ipith’s power rang in her voice too.

The effect on P’raima was immediate. He pitched back into his seat as if physically shoved. He may as well have been. The pressure of two queens on a mind even as powerful as Tezonth’s must have been devastating. For an instant P’raima blinked up at Valonna, visibly dazed.

She pressed her advantage while it lasted. She placed her hands on the table, and the part of her that was most tightly woven with Shimpath’s consciousness wanted to sink claws she didn’t possess into the hard wood. She shook loose of it, trying to reclaim her own voice. “T’gala and Karika will stay at Madellon for as long as they both wish,” she said. She still didn’t recognise the authority she could hear in her words.

P’raima lifted his head slowly to stare at her, as though the very action of moving took an immense effort. “Keep the blue rider,” he said labouredly. “Keep them all and be blighted. But I want my queen. Southern needs its queen.”

“Weyrwoman,” H’pold said quickly, before Valonna could respond. “Weyrleader. Please.” He glanced between them. “Valonna. You have every right to be concerned for the weyrlings, but P’raima’s given you his word that they won’t be made to go between, and you agreed to let them go.”

“To let them go, yes,” Valonna replied. “Not to send them away against their will. Karika has explicitly requested to stay at Madellon.”

“What poison have you whispered in her ear?” P’raima breathed. “What lies, to turn her against the Weyr that bred her, raised her, that gave her a queen?”

“Do you think a queen’s rider could be so readily swayed, P’raima?” Valonna asked.

“She is a child. She is twelve Turns old. She has no right to deprive her Weyr of its only queen!”

“Valonna,” said H’pold. “P’raima’s point is valid. Karika is Southern’s Weyrwoman. By Weyr law, no Weyrwoman may abandon her Weyr without a replacement –”

“No,” said P’raima. “Karika is not Southern’s Weyrwoman.” He narrowed his eyes at Valonna. “You hope to claim that your agreement with Margone carried over to Karika on her death, don’t you?”

Valonna just looked at him, saying nothing, waiting. She felt Sh’zon and H’ned shifting uncomfortably beside her.

“Karika is not Weyrwoman until Southern’s Council confirms her as such,” said P’raima. “She wields no such authority over herself. Your agreement with Margone died with her. In seeking to keep Karika from her rightful Weyr without even the flimsy protection of such an agreement, you contravene every law of Weyr autonomy that Pern possesses. Any Weyrleader found guilty of seeking to destabilise the leadership of another Weyr is subject to removal from his or her position by the other Weyrleaders of Pern.” He quoted the wording with a triumphant flourish. “Are you willing to sacrifice your own position to defy me, Weyrwoman Valonna?”

Valonna lifted her head. “Karika may not be Southern’s Weyrwoman, P’raima,” she said quietly. “But she is a weyrwoman. She is a queen’s rider. And queen dragons are not subject to the laws of men.” Valonna took a breath, then quoted her own excerpt from the law books. “The will of a queen dragon of Pern supersedes all other authorities, except her rider’s and her Weyrleaders’.”

“You can’t possibly expect to cite that,” P’raima said scornfully.

“Karika is a child. She is twelve Turns old.” Valonna hadn’t meant to throw P’raima’s words back at him, but they came so easily. “Until she is older, she is subject to Megrith’s will, and she does not want to return to Southern. Last night, Megrith came to Shimpath to beg asylum for herself, and for her clutchmate, and Shimpath granted it. I will not overrule Shimpath, and Karika is incapable of overruling Megrith. Karika is not Southern’s Weyrwoman, and so you are not her Weyrleader. My Weyrleader is absent. No authority exists that can deny the agreement between Shimpath and Megrith.”

Not even H’ned or Sh’zon had known exactly how Valonna would manipulate Weyr law to protect Karika. She hoped their faces didn’t betray their lack of foreknowledge, even as she hoped that Rallai would support the interpretation. She needn’t have worried. Though H’pold looked uncertainly to his Weyrwoman, Rallai’s tiny nod confirmed it.

“You scheming she-wher,” P’raima said softly, and sat back in his seat, staring at Valonna, as though he’d never dreamed she could defy him so inventively.

H’pold cleared his throat. “If Shimpath and Megrith are in agreement, then nothing we can say will change their minds,” he said. There was, perhaps, a trace of admiration in his tone. “But this still leaves Southern Weyr without a queen. I’m sure we can all concur that the situation is untenable.” He barely paused for breath before going on, with a bright, cold cheer. “Luckily, we have two junior queens at the Peninsula. Tynerith is still a weyrling, but Ranquiath is a proven queen, and Sirtis well-trained and very capable. I can arrange –”

P’raima lurched out of his seat so abruptly that his chair tipped over. “This is what you wanted all along, wasn’t it, H’pold? To infiltrate Southern with a Peninsula queen? To pollute the only pure lineage in the South with mongrel blood? Did you expect me to be grateful?”

For the first time, H’pold looked genuinely off-balance, as though he’d never contemplated the scenario of P’raima refusing his offer. “Be reasonable, P’raima…”

P’raima didn’t let him finish. “Southern doesn’t want your charity. Or your inferior queen. This has been a charade from start to finish. I should never have entertained the possibility of this being anything but a farce!” He looked around at each of them with burning, hate-filled eyes. “This is not over.”

“Weyrleader –” Rallai began.

But P’raima brushed her aside, and strode, seething, from the council chamber.

Would you have me break Tezonth in two? Shimpath asked Valonna.

Valonna wasn’t completely certain if she meant the question seriously. No. Let them go.

Sh’zon was the first to recover from P’raima’s explosion. “Yeah, why don’t you get the shell out of our Weyr!” he shouted after him.

Valonna closed her eyes briefly. “H’ned, Sh’zon, would you make sure P’raima finds his way out?”

“Weyrwoman?” H’ned asked, glancing at H’pold and Rallai.

Sh’zon didn’t looked happy about leaving her with H’pold either, but then neither of Valonna’s Deputy Weyrleaders could have known how resolutely Rallai had backed her throughout the council. The Peninsula Weyrwoman’s impassive demeanour gave so little away. “Please, Wingleader. I don’t want him making any…detours…on his way home.”

“Well,” H’pold said, when Sh’zon and H’ned had gone after P’raima, “I suppose I’ll have to tell Sirtis she isn’t to be Southern’s Weyrwoman after all.”

He sounded mildly piqued. Valonna looked at him. “You wanted to offer a queen to Southern?”

“Two breeding queens are manageable, Valonna,” H’pold said. “Three could be…costly.” He smiled at her with all the warmth of a winter blizzard. “As you’ll no doubt discover for yourself in the Turns to come.”

“H’pold,” Rallai said reprovingly.

“Don’t be so prickly, darling,” said H’pold. “You’d have been as pleased to see Sirtis otherwise assigned as I. And likely she will be before the season is over. Southern won’t abide being queenless for long, and if P’raima can’t provide what the Weyr needs…well, then Southern won’t abide him for long, either.”

“What’s made him so vile?” Valonna asked, helpless to hold the question back.

“Who knows,” said H’pold. “Perhaps there’s just something about the Southern climate that twists a man.” For a moment, his eyes revealed a depth of revulsion that belied his dismissive tone. “But well played, Weyrwoman. I’d wager your T’kamen wouldn’t have shown half your restraint. Or cunning.” He smiled again. “Your outfit becomes you in more ways than one.”

After P’raima’s loathsomeness, H’pold’s merely slimy remark hardly registered against Valonna’s sense of outrage. Indeed, she thought, with a grimness she hadn’t possessed an hour ago, he was more right than he realised. The martial aspect of her new wherhides had contributed nearly as much to the mask she’d worn as Shimpath’s fierce backing had. She certainly couldn’t imagine facing down P’raima in satin and lace.

But the effort of maintaining that front for so long, at so high a level, had drained her. Now, with P’raima gone, and the nervous energy that had sustained her through the confrontation sapped almost to nothing, she wanted nothing more than to hide herself in her weyr and let the Deputies manage things for a while. It was only a matter of how she could ask H’pold and Rallai to leave without seeming rude. Valonna nearly laughed aloud at herself. Given the nature of P’raima’s exit, it seemed absurd to be worrying about being thought discourteous.

Rallai, again, was her saviour. She rose from her place. “We’ll not presume on your hospitality any longer, Valonna.”

H’pold looked as though he might have liked to stay longer, but after an instant’s hesitation he too stood up. “Yes, I suppose you have rather a lot on your plate, what with two weyrling queens and no Weyrleader.” He paused, smiling in that perfectly insincere manner of his. “And will you take a piece of advice?”

“Of course, Weyrleader,” Valonna said, wishing he’d kept his counsel to himself.

“Come the Long Bay Gather at the end of the month, bring H’ned as your escort. Lady Coffleby has grown irritable with the Turns, and I don’t think Sh’zon’s quite well-trained enough to keep his mouth closed as often as he should.”

Valonna had expected H’pold to make some sort of direct dig at Sh’zon, so it was the almost imperceptible change in Rallai’s expression – the tiny, incredulous flick of her eyes in H’pold’s direction – that she noticed. “Thank you, Weyrleader.” She made it neutral, though the insult to Sh’zon was as good as an insult to T’kamen for appointing him. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

She walked with them back down to their dragons. P’raima and Tezonth had gone, though the bronzes up on the Rim – Kawanth and Izath included – still looked unsettled and ill-tempered.

The Deputy Weyrleaders were waiting near Suffath and Ipith. “I’ve briefed L’stev,” H’ned told Valonna quietly, falling into step beside her. “The ones who are going back are ready to go as soon as P’raima’s bronzes get here.”

“Good. Ask the Weyrlingmaster to have Karika and T’gala come to my weyr once the Peninsula Weyrleaders have gone. And…ask Tarshe if she’d come, too.” Then Valonna turned, with a smile she didn’t feel, to H’pold and Rallai. “Thank you for coming, Weyrleader. I appreciate that you didn’t have to mediate this dispute.”

“But of course, Valonna,” said H’pold. “Preserving the harmonious state of relations between the Weyrs of the south is in all our interests.” In the moment it took for Valonna to marvel at the disingenuousness of that statement, he leaned a little closer. “And I’m sure there’ll be an opportunity for you to return me the favour at some time in the future.”

Valonna didn’t like the sound of that at all. “I’m…sure there will be, Weyrleader,” she said, just desperate for him to go away.

As H’pold turned to mount Suffath, Valonna clasped hands with Rallai. The other Weyrwoman squeezed her wrists meaningfully. “I’m sorry about H’pold,” she said, low and rapid. “He can be truly foul when it comes to Sh’zon. Please don’t let it colour your opinion of the Peninsula.”

“Of course not, Rallai,” Valonna assured her. “Thank you for all you’ve done.”

“You’re a Weyrwoman alone, Valonna,” Rallai said. “In some ways I envy you, but your lack of a Weyrleader makes you vulnerable. Be careful. Find riders you can trust and keep them around you.”

Valonna hesitated over the question she really wanted to pose, and then modified it. “Can I trust Sh’zon?”

“To keep a cool head, or bite his tongue, or rise above an insult? No.” Rallai’s frustration was tinged with a fondness that answered the question Valonna hadn’t asked. “Flawed as he is, there’s no badness in him. But he is a bronze rider. Never forget that.”

“I won’t,” Valonna promised.

“And keep your bronzes on alert,” said Rallai. “P’raima’s going to have an angry Weyr to contend with when he gets home. That may play into your hands, if he’s deposed sooner rather than later. I take it Karika’s reluctance to go home stems from P’raima personally rather than Southern generally?”

“I think so,” said Valonna. “She hasn’t been forthcoming with an explanation.”

“She’s Southern, all right,” said Rallai. “But if she’s willing to go back once the other bronze riders topple P’raima, she should seriously consider taking Sirtis too, even if only as a temporary measure. No twelve-Turn-old girl should have to bear the weight of a Weyr alone.” She glanced over her shoulder. H’pold was looking down from Suffath’s neck. “I should go. If there’s anything you need, have Shimpath bespeak Ipith. If Margone’s death has taught me anything, it’s that we queen riders need to look out for each other more. Goodbye, Valonna. And good luck.”

Valonna stood back as Rallai stepped gracefully aboard Ipith. Her remark about Margone troubled her. Was there something more she could have done to help Southern’s late Weyrwoman?

As the Peninsula dragons made altitude above the Bowl and disappeared, she heaved at last the enormous sigh that she’d been longing to express and turned towards her own weyr. Inevitably, H’ned and Sh’zon, standing nearby to see the Peninsula Weyrleaders leave, eased towards her. Valonna could have screamed. Can’t you make them go away, too? she begged Shimpath. Just for five minutes?

Shimpath didn’t respond, but first Sh’zon and then H’ned looked suddenly alarmed. “Ah, could we debrief after you’ve spoken to L’stev?” H’ned asked, glancing urgently towards Izath.

“After would be better,” Sh’zon agreed, also shooting a startled look up at his bronze.

“Certainly,” Valonna said, mystified. “I’ll have Shimpath call your bronzes when we’re ready for you.” What did you do?

Don’t ask.

Shimpath was still looking mysterious by the time Valonna reached her ledge. She raised her head from her forearms. You did very well, Valonna. Epherineth’s rider would have been proud of you. As I am.

Valonna put her hands on Shimpath’s forearm, drawing strength from the contact. The mention of T’kamen caused a wobble that she hadn’t expected. She suddenly missed him dreadfully. Not as a lover, which he’d never been to her; nor as a friend; but as a Weyrleader who’d tried, in his own determined way, to make their coalition work. Their relationship might not have been close, or even especially warm, but he’d never belittled her, never insulted her, never disrespected her. The reality of what Margone must have had to endure as P’raima’s Weyrwoman horrified her, and even the thought of being in Rallai’s place, required to tolerate H’pold’s sly smarm, made her grasp exactly how lucky she’d been with T’kamen. Would have been? she echoed, suddenly realising what her queen had said. Shimpath? Are you saying…

I don’t know, Shimpath replied sadly. I’m sorry. She lowered her head. The weyrlings are within.

But…

He is not here. You are. Madellon goes on, and so must you. The weyrlings, dearest one.

Valonna let her shoulders sag, feeling the weight of Madellon pressing down on them. Then she straightened up, forced her face into a composure she didn’t feel, and went inside.

The three weyrlings were waiting in her office: three girls, two of them scarcely into adolescence, the third only slightly younger than Valonna herself. She wondered if the Turns she felt she’d aged that day would show on her face. Karika and T’gala, watched her come in with a kind of pinched apprehension; Tarshe – older, wiser, and far less invested in the outcome of the conclave – merely watched quietly. “Karika,” Valonna said. “T’gala. You can both stay at Madellon.”

T’gala’s features went slack with relief, and Karika covered her face with her hands. “Thank you, Weyrwoman,” she said, sounding choked. “Thank Faranth, thank you.”

“Thank you,” T’gala echoed, in the softest hint of a whisper.

C’mine had come to Valonna with T’gala’s request to stay only the previous evening. “She’s very conflicted,” he’d told Valonna. “She still feels loyalty to Southern. But the other Southerners have treated her terribly for having Impressed a blue. She’ll do better here.” He’d paused, and added, “I’ll feel better, for keeping her here.”

Valonna knew that L’stev had concerns about the practicalities of a girl riding a male dragon. She knew he had concerns about the long-term impact of having two juvenile queens at Madellon. But those were problems for another day. For now, Valonna could at least take some satisfaction in extending her protection over two vulnerable young women.

“Blue rider,” she said to T’gala. “Would you please go back to the Weyrlingmaster, and tell him Tarshe and Karika will rejoin you very shortly.”

“Yes, Weyrwoman. Thank you, Weyrwoman.”

As T’gala hastened out, Valonna eased herself onto the edge of her desk. She was exhausted, but Rallai’s words had resonated with her in a way she felt bound to act upon. “Karika,” she said, “Tarshe, there’s something I need from you both.”

“Of course, Weyrwoman,” Tarshe replied soberly.

“Anything,” promised Karika.

Valonna opened her mouth to begin, but the words that came out weren’t the ones she’d planned to use. “We’re so few,” she said instead. “There are only six of us in the south. Fewer than twenty in the world.”

Tarshe said, “You mean queen riders?”

“Yes,” said Valonna. “We’re party to secrets and mysteries that even other dragonriders will never understand.” Incongruously, she wondered again what Shimpath had done to distract Izath and Kawanth. “We share the minds and the lives and the love of the mightiest creatures on Pern. It’s the most breath-taking privilege…and the most overwhelming responsibility. From the moment we all Impress, we’re made aware of our accountability to our dragons, to our Weyrs, to our world. But we have another obligation: one that isn’t taught to us, because it can only come from us. We have a duty to each other. To every other woman of Pern who rides a queen. Whatever differences we may have, however jealous our queens may be, we’re the Weyrwomen of Pern and we should be allies, not enemies.”

She found herself repeating something Shimpath had said. “Bronze riders will come and go. Weyrleaders, too. We’re the ones who remain. We’ll always be the focus of intrigues and agendas that aren’t of our choosing. But we can choose to support each other. We can and we must.” She looked at Karika, at those dark, defiant eyes, huge in the childlike face. “Margone was alone in a way that no Weyrwoman should have to be. I don’t want either of you to ever find yourselves in that situation. Faranth. I don’t ever want to be there myself!” She stared at the two weyrlings. “But if you two persist in quarrelling – if you can’t set your differences aside – then you put me, and Shimpath, in an impossible position. We have to stand together. We have to pull together. Not just for Madellon, but for ourselves. United, no force on Pern can compel us. Divided, we’re at the mercy of the P’raimas of this world.”

She stopped to get her breath, looking from one to the other. Karika looked every bit like the girl she still was, caught between defiance and vulnerability. Tarshe, though, looked aside from Valonna’s gaze, as if ashamed to have disappointed her, and it was she who spoke first. “I’m sorry, Weyrwoman,” she said softly. “I never meant to make things difficult for you.” She turned her head to look at Karika. “But Berzunth and Megrith…”

“They don’t like each other,” Karika completed, when Tarshe let the sentence trail off. “They don’t like having to share.”

“Of course they don’t,” Valonna replied. “They’re queens, they’re immature, and they’ve been forced together without notice or preparation. There’d be something amiss if two juvenile queens did like each other.” Then she let her tone take on the gravity she felt. “But you two aren’t juveniles. Even you, Karika, even as young as you are; you gave up your right to conduct yourself according to your age when you Impressed Megrith. And neither of you would have Impressed your queens if you didn’t have the strength to control them. They may not like each other; they may resent each other’s very existence; but it’s down to you to make sure they respect each other’s right to be here. If you can’t, the burden falls on Shimpath, and Shimpath already has so many calls on her attention. Please. I need you both to support me.”

Karika looked ready to pledge her obedience, but Tarshe still looked troubled. “Weyrwoman,” she said. “I don’t mean to be uncooperative, but…Berzunth’s younger than Megrith. It’s an issue of…” She glanced again at the younger girl. “Seniority.”

“I understand, Tarshe. And I hope you do, too, Karika.” Valonna took a deep breath. “Karika. You and I need to talk about the future. If things change at Southern, you may still want to go back.” Karika nodded slowly. “But if things don’t change – or you don’t want to go back – and you’re here at Madellon permanently, then we have to consider seniority. While you’re both weyrlings, you’re equals, not matter whose dragonet is older. But,” she went on, raising her hand to forestall their objections, “when you graduate, Tarshe will be Weyrwoman Second.”

“But –” Karika protested.

“She is your elder by six Turns, Karika,” Valonna told her. “But more importantly, Berzunth is a Madellon queen. Megrith is still a stranger here, and while that may change over time, Madellon’s dragons will be happier for having one of their own take precedence.”

Karika heaved a great sigh that poignantly illustrated the youth Valonna couldn’t afford to indulge. “Very well,” she said. “I suppose…I suppose I’ll explain it to Megrith.”

“Good,” said Valonna. “And you, Tarshe?”

Tarshe’s mouth curled in a strange half-smile. “It’s odd,” she said. “I was never much of one to bother about rank and precedence before I Impressed Berzunth, but now it seems like just about the most important thing in the world.” She turned to Karika, held her hand out, and asked, “Weyrwoman?”

Karika looked surprised at the form of address. Then, stiffly, some of her imperious composure regained, she grasped Tarshe’s wrist. “Weyrwoman.”

As the two weyrlings took that first critical step towards peace, Valonna felt a great weight lift from her shoulders. She thought at first it was the immediate lessening of the tensions between Berzunth and Megrith that had so vexed Shimpath, but then her queen corrected her. No. Etymonth’s rider has laid her hatchling. It is a male.

Valonna had completely forgotten about Schanna’s labour. “It’s a boy?” she asked, delighted enough by the small and timely piece of good news that she spoke aloud.

Yes.

“Who’s a boy?” asked Karika.

Tarshe was quicker to put Valonna’s exclamation in context. “Someone’s had a baby?”

“Green rider Schanna,” Valonna said. “She went into labour early this morning.” I didn’t hear anything from Etymonth!

Of course you didn’t, Shimpath said indignantly. I all but sat on her.

“Can we go and see it?” Karika asked, brightening.

“I don’t know…” Valonna said. Then she stopped, reconsidering. “Well…all right. If Schanna doesn’t mind. And then I’ll show you both how to record the birth in the Weyr Book.”

Etymonth looked as tired and happy as if she’d borne the infant herself where she sat outside the infirmary. Valonna smiled up at the green dragon as she led the two weyrlings past. Crauva met them at the entrance. “They’re both fine,” she said. “You girls can go in, but you’d best wash your hands before you touch the babe,” she added to Tarshe and Karika.

“Has Yarayn delivered?” Valonna asked, letting the weyrlings go ahead.

“No; she’s still moaning and groaning away,” Crauva replied. She regarded her searchingly. “You look as though you’ve flown a five-hour Fall, Valonna. We all saw the Southern bronze leave in high dudgeon. I take it he didn’t go satisfied?”

Valonna shook her head. “I’m not sure anyone truly did.”

“Go in and see Schanna’s baby,” Crauva told her. “And then you’re to go and have half an hour’s time to yourself.”

“After I’ve debriefed H’ned and Sh’zon.”

Crauva gave her a sharp look. “Well, I’m sending some food up to your weyr. You’ll need every bit of strength you have.” She paused, then added, “You do look quite extraordinary in those wherhides.”

Tarshe and Karika were on either side of Schanna’s bed, inspecting the green rider’s newborn. Schanna was sitting up, propped against a pile of pillows, her baby cradled against her breast. She smiled tiredly as Valonna came in. “I swear, Weyrwoman, my first thought once he was out was that Shimpath wouldn’t have to squash Etymonth anymore.”

“I’m quite sure it wasn’t,” Valonna replied, as she washed her hands in clean hot water. She crossed the room to Schanna’s side and looked down at the infant in the green rider’s arms. He was tiny, red and wrinkled, with a fine dusting of gold-blond hair. “He’s beautiful, Schanna.”

“He is, isn’t he?”

“Have you chosen a name?”

Schanna gazed at her son. “Well. Now he’s here, I’m almost certain he’s F’gellin’s.”

“Almost certain?” Valonna asked.

“The fair hair, you see, and Hestyath did fly Etymonth three times in a row last winter.” Schanna gave a little one-shouldered shrug of distaste. “Anyway, Etymonth and I were thinking to call him Etyschan.”

“That’s a lovely name,” Valonna said politely. “Would you like F’gellin to acknowledge him?”

“Faranth, no,” said Schanna. “Put him down in the Weyr Book, but I swore off getting the fathers to acknowledge them after my first. It gives them ideas.”

“Of course,” said Valonna. “And have you thought about a foster-mother?”

“I’ve asked Yarayn. All being well with her babe, at least. She has this one’s brother already, and it would be nice for them to grow up together.”

Valonna glanced at the Headwoman. Crauva nodded. “The timing couldn’t have worked out better, and Yarayn’s never happy unless she has at least two babies on the go.”

“That’s settled, then,” said Valonna. She reached out and stroked the wispy golden hair on the infant’s tiny head. “Welcome to Madellon Weyr, Etyschan.”

Being among the first to hear the names of the children born to Madellon’s women was one of the few privileges of being Weyrwoman that Valonna genuinely enjoyed. After the day she’d had, the safe and sound arrival of little Etyschan was a welcome balm, and taking Tarshe and Karika to the Archives to record it strangely satisfying. “Would you get that volume down for me, Tarshe?” she asked, pointing out the shelf.

As Tarshe – taller than Valonna by half a head – obliged, Karika asked, “What did that green rider mean? About not getting her baby’s father to acknowledge him?”

Valonna opened the heavy book. “Some women prefer not to get the fathers of their children involved,” she said. “Perhaps because they don’t like them, or if there’s a weyrmate involved that they’d sooner not upset.”

Karika looked outraged. “But how will that baby know who he’s related to when he’s older?”

“Many children of green riders don’t know who their fathers are,” said Valonna. “When Etyschan’s older, he’ll be able to ask to see his birth record in the Weyr Book and find out if his father’s name is mentioned.” She turned the pages of the book until she reached the appropriate entry. “Schanna has three other children, all by different riders. A little girl, Annami, by blue rider A’min – see the notations here, confirmed means Schanna was sure he was the father and acknowledged that he accepts her as being his daughter. Then another girl, Chetyian, marked speculated and unacknowledged – Schanna thought she was probably blue rider C’tan’s, but it was a guess, and he wasn’t asked to acknowledge her. And then her son…”

She trailed off as she read the record for Schanna’s elder son, born a little more than two Turns ago. “What about him?” Karika asked, craning her neck to look.

Tarshe crowded in too to look at the entry that had made Valonna’s words dry up. “Oh!”

“Not a word to anyone,” Valonna told them both quickly. “It’s very important that we respect Schanna’s wishes. Now, let’s write in Etyschan.”

But she couldn’t stop her eyes from drifting back to the entry above, and every time they did, she smiled.

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One response to “Chapter thirty-three: Valonna”

  1. Charis Hayward says:

    Oooh, I bet the son is T’kamen’s and the future Weyrleader of Madellon, the one the greenrider mentioned. I bet!

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