Chapter thirty-seven: Sh’zon
Haeith’s breeding days are done. Everyone knows it – and still Larvenia refuses to step down. “Older queens slow down,” she keeps saying, as if anyone believes her.
Well, I don’t. Soon it’ll have been five Turns since Haeith’s last flight, and then she’ll have to cede precedence to whichever of Ranquiath and Ipith rises next – and Ranquiath’s due first.
K’sorren doesn’t think the Peninsula would accept him as Weyrleader. I told him that the Peninsula’s tired of weary old leaders, and new blood is exactly what it needs. He wouldn’t be the first nineteen-Turn-old Weyrleader in history; not even the first nineteen-Turn-old Peninsula Weyrleader!
And what’s the alternative, if Ipith becomes senior? That oaf Sh’zon as Weyrleader? Ugh! Perish the thought!
– Excerpt from the personal diaries of weyrwoman Sirtis
“I’ll take him from here,” said Sh’zon, seizing C’dessa’s arm in a firm grip and heaving him to his feet.
“You’re hurting my arm!” C’dessa complained, but neither Sh’zon nor the grim-faced Gather steward who’d had previous custody of him paid any attention to that.
“I’ll have to write this up, Wingleader,” said the steward, frowning from beneath the bristling beetles of his eyebrows. “My Lady Coffleby made it very clear that all offences should be recorded, no matter the identity of the culprit.”
“There’s no call for that,” Sh’zon said. “You’ve had back what he took, and no harm done. The Weyr’ll deal with him.”
“I’m sorry, but as I said I’m required –”
Sh’zon cut smartly across him. “That truly won’t be necessary. Now.” He grasped the steward’s hand, pumped it vigorously so the man could feel the shape of the mark piece in his palm, then released hand and coin at the same moment. “Will it?”
The steward looked perplexedly at the marker in his hand. “What’s this?”
Gah, Sh’zon said to Kawanth, has the man never seen a sharding bribe before? “Just a token of the Weyr’s appreciation for your services,” he said. “Chasing down mischief-makers like this one’s thirsty work on a hot night. You might like a cold cup of wine or two at the end of it.”
Comprehension dawned in the steward’s eyes. Sh’zon waited, hoping he wouldn’t need to add a second coin to overcome some misplaced sense of morality. But then the steward blinked. “I, ah, well, um…yes, yes, Wingleader, perhaps that would be pleasant.”
“Good man,” Sh’zon said, clapping him on the shoulder. “Much obliged to you, sir. You enjoy that drink, now.”
He propelled the reluctant C’dessa rapidly away from the small lock-up where he’d been detained, keen to remove the blue rider from the steward’s vicinity before anyone else saw him there.
“Want me to double back and lift that mark off him for you?” C’dessa enquired hopefully.
Sh’zon gave him a shove between the shoulder-blades that nearly took the blue rider off his feet. “I’ll be having it back out of your pocket,” he told him. “Now keep your flapping mouth shut. And your sticky fingers to yourself.”
Kawanth was waiting nearby with C’dessa’s Murroveth and the lean brown Inorath. S’rannis, Inorath’s rider, stepped out from the shadow of his dragon as they approached. “What did I fardling tell you not six hours ago, C’dessa?” he growled.
C’dessa held up his hands. “All right, all right!”
“‘Don’t sharding nick anything’! And do you take a blind bit of notice?”
“I’m sorry, Wingsecond,” C’dessa said, with nothing resembling contrition. “I didn’t think he’d even notice. It was only a poxy little necklace.”
“And to get caught at it? At a Gather?”
C’dessa shrugged, though this time he did look ashamed. “I got distracted. Sloppy. I’m out of practice.”
“You’re a sharding disgrace, is what you are!” S’rannis barked. “Get on your dragon!”
“Are we going to be grounded again?”
“Grounded’ll be the least of your worries by the time we’re done with you!”
C’dessa sighed bitterly, as though reconciling himself to a tremendous injustice, and trudged over towards his dragon. Murroveth, Sh’zon noticed, wore the long-suffering expression of a dragon who was no stranger to his rider being in trouble with their superiors.
“Thanks for pulling him out,” S’rannis said to Sh’zon. “I swear, I took my eyes off him for two minutes, and he slipped me.”
“Aye, well, no harm done,” said Sh’zon. “Maybe cooling his heels in his weyr for a month or so’ll make him think twice about doing it again.”
“Doubt it,” said S’rannis. “Don’t think he can help himself. He’d steal anything not nailed down, and come back with a pry-bar for what is. We do a sweep of his weyr once a sevenday to get back everything he’s pinched. Fair do, he never sells on his wingmates’ stuff.”
“Can you not control him?” Sh’zon asked. “Have Inorath or Izath sit on his dragon till he stops doing it?”
“Doesn’t seem fair to the blue,” S’rannis replied. “The wretched beast gets it in the neck all the time. It doesn’t change C’dessa’s ways.”
Sh’zon shook his head. “Take him home. H’ned’s probably on his way here now, but you let him know he’s in disgrace.”
“I always do,” S’rannis replied forbearingly. “Thanks, Wingleader.”
Sh’zon went over to Kawanth as S’rannis climbed aboard his brown. “Is Izath coming?”
Kawanth tracked Inorath and Murroveth with his eyes as the two dragons bore their riders upwards, towards a safe between altitude. Soon.
Some of the other bronze riders had argued that the ongoing requirement for them to stay on high alert at Madellon was no longer necessary. That was their natural sloth talking, Sh’zon thought derisively; that, and a wilful refusal to consider that P’raima and Tezonth were still a danger. They hadn’t been there when the Southern Weyrleader had made his threats, scarcely veiled at all. This isn’t over.
But L’mis had argued, in that pompous way of his, that Southern was queenless, isolated, impotent. P’raima’s angry refusal to accept a Peninsula queen was simple obstinacy from a man whose long tenure as the leader of Southern was limping to an end. The other bronze riders of Southern would overrule him as soon as the emptiness at the centre of their Weyr’s society became unbearable to their dragons. When the new queen rider arrived – whether the Peninsula’s Sirtis, or a northern weyrwoman if Sirtis proved unacceptable – the bronzes of Southern would quickly fragment into factions vying for her favour. P’raima had outlived two Weyrwoman, but his bronze was surely too old to outfly the younger dragons of Southern. He was finished, done, spent.
Sh’zon disagreed. Until Southern had some other controlling influence, P’raima was the only leader it had – the only leader half its riders had ever known. And no bronze rider held onto a Weyrleadership for the best part of three decades without having a formidable talent for overcoming most any obstacle in his path.
Fortunately, H’ned was in agreement with him. Sh’zon had to give the man some credit for that. A different bronze rider might have used the opportunity to create a conflict between him and his chief rival in a play for political capital. Sh’zon wanted to hold off that inevitability as long as possible. He didn’t covet Madellon’s Weyrleader Regency like H’ned did, but he didn’t want to come out on the wrong side of the fight for it, either. When you didn’t want to win and you couldn’t let yourself lose, the only alternative was to stall.
Still: as long as he was Madellon’s Deputy Weyrleader, Sh’zon intended to do his duty. Including bailing out idiot blue riders with light fingers. The thought of C’dessa’s casual larceny irritated him. Riders drinking too much, riders getting into fights, riders tumbling the wrong Holder’s daughter: those were to be expected; but a rider wilfully pilfering from Gather-goers left Sh’zon disgusted. There’d been a dearth of the more traditional offences so far, at least, which he put down to the presence of twenty or so Wingseconds, all stone cold sober and bad tempered enough with it to be vindictively unforgiving of any infractions. Not many riders wanted to run afoul of a Wingsecond whose day had already been ruined. The fact that C’dessa had managed to elude their scrutiny spoke less of their watchfulness than it did of his ability to perform his petty thieving unseen.
But the real reason for putting the Wingseconds on duty at the Gather had, thank Faranth, failed to manifest. Madellon’s common riders knew even less about the quarrel between Madellon and Southern than the Council did, but no dragon of any colour would lightly forget the trespass of Southern’s bronzes on the night Madellon had liberated the weyrlings. Dragonriders were as quick as any other men to hold a grudge, and if Madellon and Southern riders clashed on Peninsula soil it would damage the standing of all three Weyrs. Perhaps P’raima had reached the same conclusion. The Wingseconds Sh’zon had questioned were reporting that there were very few Southern riders at Long Bay at all, and those who had been seen had kept themselves to themselves. They might yet get through the Gather without incident.
Of course, it wasn’t just a Gather. Lady Coffleby had ruled Long Bay for forty Turns – the longest tenure of any ruler in the south – and marking the occasion with any less than gala extravagance would have diminished the Hold’s prestige. The public dancing squares had been swarming with people since sundown, but a more select celebration was taking place in a pavilion in the courtyard of the Hold proper: a celebration involving better food, better wine, and better music than any of the commoners’ squares could boast. Word had quickly got round that entry was at the discretion of the Long Bay stewards manning the entrance to the marquee. Any rider with a Wingsecond knot or better could expect to be allowed in; anyone with less would need to be exceptionally beautiful or exceptionally glib to achieve the same. Sh’zon had already come across one young blue rider trying to tie a Wingsecond’s knot in his rank braid in an attempt to get in. If it had been a brown rider Sh’zon would have admired his gall, but just the thought of a blue rider trying to pass himself off as a Wingsecond had made him laugh hard enough to get a bellyache.
Izath comes, Kawanth reported, lifting his head.
Above, a patch of the star-jewelled sky was abruptly blotted out by Izath’s dark shape. Several of the dragons clustered on the Long Bay fire-heights bugled a greeting, and Izath bugled back as he descended sharply to land beside Kawanth.
“Thought you weren’t coming,” Sh’zon shouted up to H’ned.
H’ned released his safety and jumped down. “Nearly couldn’t sharding get away,” he said. “B’mon came back three sheets to the wind. Had to get a couple of buckets of klah down him before he could even form a sentence, let alone go up on watch. I thought we’d have to stand in for him, but L’mis volunteered to take the post.”
“Don’t envy B’mon the bollocking he’s going to catch tomorrow,” said Sh’zon.
“Nor me. Say what you like about L’mis, but he takes responsibility for his riders,” said H’ned. “All’s been quiet here, I gather.”
“Aye, save your C’dessa’s brush with the stewards.”
H’ned shook his head. “I’m sorry you had to deal with that.”
“Kept it off the record, and that was my chief worry,” Sh’zon said. “Valonna decided not to come?”
“Never thought she would,” H’ned replied. He took off his gloves and shoved them under his belt. “She’s asked me to escort her to the luncheon tomorrow.”
Sh’zon exhaled through his nostrils. “Suppose it’s for the best,” he said at last.
H’ned looked surprised that he wasn’t arguing. “She just thinks I’d make her less a target for H’pold’s barbs,” he said, almost apologetically. “And you’re the first to admit that you and H’pold aren’t exactly bosom pals. This luncheon needs to go off smoothly, and Valonna doesn’t have a chance if you’re thumping skulls with him.”
“I resent your implication!”
H’ned looked dubiously at him, and Sh’zon wondered if he’d gone too far. “Look, it’s not exactly going to be a fun day out, isn’t it? Faranth knows Valonna would rather she didn’t have to go.”
“She said that?”
“Of course not.”
She wouldn’t have needed to, Sh’zon conceded. Valonna had far too stiff an upper lip to dream of making such a remark, but she was easy enough to read. “You probably are the best man for the job,” he said, grudgingly. Then, he added, “On this occasion, anyway.”
“Thanks for that ringing endorsement.” H’ned loosened the buckles on Izath’s harness. “Now, where’s this vaunted party? I’ve not had a bite all day and I’m famished.”
They walked around the edge of the Long Bay garrison towards the courtyard and the pavilion. As they approached the marquee the sound of music, and the buzz of voices, grew louder. The two stewards in Long Bay brown and blue standing before the tented entrance glanced only momentarily at Sh’zon and H’ned’s insignia before stepping aside to let them pass. “Good evening, Wingleaders,” one of them murmured.
“Aye, it’d better be,” Sh’zon replied.
He and H’ned moved for the entrance at the same time, and there was a disagreeable moment when it seemed they’d both get wedged in the narrow doorway. H’ned extracted himself deftly. “After you, Wingleader.”
“No, by all means, Wingleader, after you,” Sh’zon said, with forced magnanimity.
“If you insist.”
Sh’zon glared at H’ned’s back as the other Deputy preceded him inside. Well, he’s got his tail up and no mistake, he remarked to Kawanth.
Then H’ned stopped abruptly, and Sh’zon almost collided with him. “For the love of –”
“Sorry, Sh’zon,” H’ned apologised, gazing around. “Faranth’s teeth, but look at this place.”
Sh’zon stepped up beside him and looked about. The pavilion was bigger than he’d thought, a full three dragonlengths long and nearly two and a half wide, fashioned of billowing cream fabric and accented with Coffleby’s brown and blue. The poles supporting the tented ceiling had been wound fussily round with leafy vines and studded with individual glow-grains that glimmered amidst the foliage. More glows had been threaded along the swooping strings of blue-and-brown bunting that draped the ceiling, but most of the light came from dozens of carved wooden sconces, each festooned with candles burning in blown glass bubbles. Small tables lined the long sides of the pavilion, each bearing a dish of dimly-shining glows surrounded by yet more leaves and flowers, and in the centre of the marquee an expensive planked wooden dance floor had been laid down. No one was dancing yet. A raised platform at the far end accommodated a Harper orchestra with fiddles and harps and horns and other instruments Sh’zon couldn’t have named, all sawing and plinking and honking away, but the noise they were producing didn’t match any dance he knew. Most of the people thronging the ostentatiously-appointed pavilion clustered around tables, or lined the vintners’ counter four-deep in search of refreshments. Dragonriders in dress wherhides were much in evidence: Madellon, Peninsula and even one or two from Southern; but they were far outnumbered by men in gaudy Peranvo brocades, and by the many lovely ladies of Hold, Hall, and Weyr.
Well: the ones that caught Sh’zon eye first were lovely, anyway. There were plenty whose charms were better hidden, ladies of middle Turns and worse, and plenty of those had clearly ambushed unaccompanied and unsuspecting dragonriders. Sh’zon saw N’gair – a Wingsecond whose weyrmate rode a blue in Sh’zon’s own Wing – trapped in the betaloned clutches of a vast lady in scarlet, looking as dumbly petrified for his life as a herdbeast snared by a dragon.
“Blight it,” he muttered, as several more single and ageing females began to drift in his and H’ned’s direction, obviously scenting fresh prey. Then, making a split-second decision, he pushed past H’ned. “Ladies!” he exclaimed, seizing the hands of the two front-runners: one whose elaborate coiffure might charitably have been called ash-blonde, the other suspiciously dark of hair for her apparent Turns. “Thank Faranth we got here before you’d been claimed!”
“Why, Wingleader,” the blonde said, putting her free hand simperingly to her mouth, “aren’t you just a sweetling!”
“Oh, the pleasure’s all mine,” said Sh’zon. “I only wish I could stop a spell and escort you both myself, but my lady-love might have a word or two to say in my ear about that.” He jerked his head vaguely in the direction of the densest group of people.
“Oh,” said the other woman, visibly crestfallen.
“Have no fear, my lovely missies,” Sh’zon cried. “I’d sooner lose an arm than leave you to spend the evening alone!” He wheeled, sweeping the two Hold ladies with him. “My very fine friend H’ned is all alone here tonight, and you’re just the company he needs!”
H’ned, who had still been admiring the handsomely-appointed pavilion, was utterly unprepared for the two hands Sh’zon delivered firmly into his grasp. “I…wait, what?”
“Now I want you to behave yourself, sir!” Sh’zon told him. He gave the two delighted Hold ladies a broad wink. “And you girls be gentle with the Wingleader here! Don’t be breaking his heart!”
The blonde tittered girlishly, and her friend, who looked like a tunnel-snake who’d got into the larder, cried, “Oh, we won’t, Wingleader!”
“That’s my girls,” Sh’zon said. He planted a kiss on each cheek. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll leave you in H’ned’s very capable hands.”
He flashed H’ned a grin even as the two ladies closed in on their victim. H’ned shot him a look of utter betrayal before finding a sickly smile. Sh’zon swallowed the hoot that threatened to burst free and turned quickly away in search of a refuge from further advances, wiping the stale, chalky taste of face powder from his mouth as he did.
Izath says his rider’s going to kill you.
Sh’zon grinned. Tell Izath I thought his rider would like some practice at Hold diplomacy before tomorrow.
He says he’s going to kill you until you’re dead.
Sh’zon moved as quickly through the pavilion as the press would permit, sweeping the faces for an unaccompanied female he knew to give him sanctuary. That was the problem with a Wingsecond-and-above entry requirement, he thought sourly: any female rider who’d made it inside would be either on an officer’s arm already, or pretty enough to have been snapped up by some rich Holder.
Then his eyes did single out a familiar face, although it took him an instant to realise that the slender, elegantly-gowned brunette sitting at one of the little round tables was M’ric’s Beastcrafter girlfriend. Good enough, Sh’zon thought. He made his way over, realising as he did that her name had gone right out of his head. “Journeyman!” he greeted her instead.
She looked up, then rose to meet him. “Well, good evening, Wingleader,” she replied.
Sh’zon gripped her hands and kissed her on both cheeks to discourage any Hold ladies who might have been creeping up behind him. “You’ll call me Sh’zon, I insist,” he told her, sitting down at the table.
“Of course, Sh’zon,” she said, then added, “and please, call me Saren.”
Sarenya, that was it. “And aren’t you just far too beautiful tonight, Saren!”
“Thank you,” she said, smiling. “It’s nice to have the opportunity to wear something new and pretty.”
It was a nice dress, Sh’zon thought, but his flattery wasn’t empty. M’ric’s girl did look pretty. Her hair had been caught up at the sides and left long at the back, the rich blue fabric of her outfit contrasting rather attractively with her tanned complexion. And there was a sparkle in her eyes that he was sure owed more than a little to a glass or two of decent wine “It’s a lovely frock, Saren, but a nice frock can’t turn a watch-wher into a dragon.”
“This one would have a pretty good try,” she replied good-naturedly.
“And where’s that good-for-nothing brown rider of yours?” Sh’zon asked. “Surely he’s not abandoned you here by yourself?”
“He’s getting more drinks,” she explained, glancing in the direction of the vintners’ bar. “He’s been a while. I think there’s a queue.”
“Well, he can get me a beer while he’s about it.” Hear that, Kawanth? Tell Trebruth to tell his rider to get me a beer while he’s about it.
I heard. I will tell him.
“He can afford to stand you a drink or two, that’s for sure,” Sarenya said, shaking her head. “He had quite an afternoon on the runners.”
That made Sh’zon pay attention. “Oh, aye, he did, did he?”
“He puts down silly money on a sixteen-to-one outsider in the first race, with a Beastcraft wagerman, no less. The colt turns the race into a procession –”
“Bolted up,” she agreed. “So I have to take M’ric back to the wagerman to relieve one of my Craft colleagues of – well, a lot of marks – which I’m never going to live down. And at that point, you’d think he’d consider he’d had his share of luck for the afternoon and stop.” She sighed, clearly exasperated. “He goes and sticks twice the stake he had on his winner on a twenty-to-one shot in the second.”
“Did it win too?”
Sarenya laughed. “It came dead last. Four marks he may as well have fed to his fire-lizard!”
“That’s a shame,” Sh’zon commiserated.
“He’s a terrible judge of race-runners,” Sarenya said. “I had a couple of runners placed for each-way money, and the winner in the last at nine-to-four, but over the afternoon I think he lost about half of what he won on that first ridiculous winner.”
“Still puts him up about sixteen marks or so, though, eh?” Sh’zon asked.
Sarenya looked askance at him, wariness suddenly overriding her wine-fuelled loquaciousness.
“Oh, don’t worry, missy,” Sh’zon told her, patting her hand. “What the man does with his own marks is his own business. So long as he doesn’t grudge his Wingleader a cup of wine to toast his fortune.”
“So long as it’s not sherry!” Sarenya said, as if suddenly remembering something.
“M’ric said you’re to keep off the sherry!” She laughed at the absurdity of it. “He says sweet wine doesn’t agree with you!”
Sh’zon shook his head, mystified, but Sarenya’s laughter was infectious. “He’s been telling tales!” he declared. “He promised to take the secret of my passion for sherry to his grave!”
The Harper ensemble came to the end of the tedious air they’d been tootling out, and struck up a more lively number. From the cries of delight, it was a popular tune, and the dancing square quickly filled up as men and ladies led – or dragged – their partners onto the floor. Sh’zon glimpsed H’ned in the melee, clinched to the formidable bosom of the ageing blonde, and allowed himself a single guffaw.
“What’s funny?” Sarenya asked him.
“H’ned,” Sh’zon replied. “He’s not been so besotted since the day he met his dragon.” He leaned to the left to watch as the other Deputy trod gingerly through the steps of the dance, but in the crush of bodies it was hard to keep him in view. It was too delicious a sight not to savour at closer range. He leapt up and put his hand out to Sarenya. “Come on, Sarenya, come and have a dance with me.”
“Me?” she asked.
She looked surprised and, Sh’zon thought, flattered. And, why shouldn’t she be? “Aye, you,” he said. “Pretty girl, lovely new dress; that waste-of-space Wingsecond of mine’s wrong in the head to be leaving you to sit alone here where any dirty old man could come and bother you.”
“You’re not that old, Sh’zon,” she replied archly.
“Ha, and you’re not as tipsy as I thought you were, missy!”
She made a face. “Tipsier than I should be.”
“Ah, and where’s the harm in that?” He crooked a finger at her peremptorily. “Come and dance with old Sh’zon.”
“Do you know this one?” she asked.
“Nah,” he said, “but that doesn’t matter. I’m a great dancer. You just follow my lead!”
Sarenya half rose and then, visibly reconsidering, sat down again. “I’d love to, Sh’zon,” she told him, “but I did promise M’ric I wouldn’t dance with anyone else tonight.”
“Oh, you did?” Sh’zon exclaimed, outraged. “That mean, miserly watch-wher of a –”
He broke off. The throng on the floor had parted, the dancing momentarily suspended to allow someone to pass through. Sh’zon could only think of one couple that would rate such deference in a crowd of this calibre, and he felt his good humour drain away as H’pold and Rallai, both half a head taller than most of the other guests, made their stately way through the crowd.
Sh’zon had seldom seen Rallai looking less than exquisite – in Gather gown, riding wherhides, or nothing at all – but she’d surpassed her own high standards tonight. Rallai was a vision in sea green, a colour that had always set off the muted fire of her glorious hair; her gown was long and elegant and would probably have left her incapable of movement if not for the dramatic slit all the way to mid-thigh, through which her equally long and elegant leg showed as she walked. She wore gloves that reached nearly to her elbows, and over them a pair of jewelled bracelets that were clearly of a set with the gold-and-emerald choker that clasped her lovely throat.
Sh’zon wanted to be able to scoff at H’pold’s inadequacy beside Rallai’s majesty, but he was denied even that satisfaction. He settled instead for scorning the foppish vanity of a bronze rider who clearly sought to outshine his Weyrwoman. H’pold wore a tunic in some shimmering black fabric, embroidered richly across the shoulders with copper thread whose hue matched almost perfectly the colour of Rallai’s hair. His belt-buckle was an elaborately crafted dragon, and even his boots, high and polished, were studded and buckled with copper. He wore no jewellery except the heavy signet of Peninsula, drawing the eye as it flashed gold on a finger of the hand he’d placed proprietorially on Rallai’s arm.
Blight him, Sh’zon thought, as H’pold responded to some holder’s compliment with a gracious smile and a squeeze of Rallai’s elbow. Blight him, blight him, blight him.
As though attuned to being the focus of unfettered hostility, H’pold turned his head to meet Sh’zon’s glare. A tiny smirk curled the Peninsula Weyrleader’s lip for an instant. It vanished as he dismissed Sh’zon with a flick of his icy eyes; then H’pold leaned closer to Rallai for a moment to speak in her ear with an easy intimacy that made Sh’zon’s teeth grind painfully together.
That was what she would have seen, Sh’zon realised, when the Peninsula Weyrleaders had swept past. Rallai’s gaze had settled on him only for a moment, but in that moment he knew his face had been frozen in a snarl, his hands balled into fists, his shoulders hunched like a mantling dragon’s. Faranth, what he’d give for a chance to wipe that odious smirk off H’pold’s face!
The elbow that knocked into his ribs broke him out of his fixation. “What, what is it?” he exclaimed, turning on his heel to face M’ric.
“I said, your beer’s apt to go warm if you don’t take it off me now,” M’ric said, proffering a mug so full it was almost overflowing.
“Took you long enough to get it,” Sh’zon said. He snatched the beer stein from his Wingsecond and took a couple of good gulps, wondering as he did if M’ric had seen his exchange with H’pold and Rallai. Probably. The thrice-seared brown rider saw everything. “And it’s already warm.”
“Overpriced, too,” said M’ric, “but that’s Gather beer for you. Especially in a place like this.”
“The Benden’s cold,” said Sarenya, holding up her cup of white wine.
M’ric shrugged, taking a tellingly restrained sip of his own drink.
Sh’zon set his beer down. “You mind if I just have a few words with him?” he asked Sarenya, dropping his hand meaningfully on M’ric’s shoulder. “Wing business, wouldn’t want to bore you with it.”
“Wing business, it’s always Wing business,” Sarenya replied, with an exaggerated sigh. “Fine. Take him. But you bring him back.” She gave M’ric an affectionately gentle push in the chest. “You didn’t buy me this dress to see me just sit around in it, and I’ve already turned down one dance on your say so.”
M’ric caught her hand, raising it to his mouth to kiss her fingers. “I won’t let him keep me,” he promised.
“She’s a good girl,” Sh’zon said, as they moved to a quieter spot at the edge of the pavilion, near one of the leaf-twined pillars. “Good for you.”
“Yes she is,” M’ric agreed, with an melancholy half-smile.
“Has a sparkle when she’s this side of a glass of three of Benden white, too.” Sh’zon went on. He stopped, and halted M’ric with a forearm across his chest. “You shouldn’t have pulled the ignorant punter act in front of her. If you slip up, she knows too much about racing not to notice.”
M’ric nodded, accepting the rebuke. “I know.”
“Don’t know why you couldn’t have used one of your go-betweens like usual,” Sh’zon went on. “Or did you think you’d impress her?” He snorted derisively. “That’s not a woman who’ll get her head turned by your beginner’s fortune routine.”
“I know that, too.”
Sh’zon waited expectantly, and with a resigned sigh, M’ric stuck his hand in his pocket. “That’s all?” Sh’zon asked, looking with disappointment at the three worn bullmarks he handed over. “The way I heard it, my end should be the fat end of six!”
“Did you really want to shake me down here?” M’ric asked, without rancour.
Sh’zon grumbled, but he pocketed the coins. “Just don’t get sloppy. There’s too much up in the air.”
“No one knows that better than me. Why else do you think Saren’s the only one on the Benden?”
“I thought you looked unenthusiastic. Watered beer?”
“Water,” said M’ric, “and just enough whisky rubbed around the rim to make me smell like I’m having a good time.”
“Well, since you’re probably the soberest man this end of the territory, why don’t you tell me what you’ve seen and heard today?”
“Nothing we hadn’t already predicted. Most of the indignation I’ve overheard has been in response to Southern rejecting the offer of Sirtis and Ranquiath.”
“Not from dragonriders, I’d wager,” Sh’zon said. “There was a sharding good reason Larvenia waited till after Ranquiath’s flight to step down in 94.”
“Several, as I recall,” said M’ric. “Not least that, on all known form, we’d have ended up with a Weyrleader still in his teens. But there’s nothing wrong with Ranquiath, and a lot of outrage that P’raima called a Peninsula queen inferior.”
“P’raima calls any dragon not hatched at Southern inferior,” said Sh’zon, with derision. “You’d think the man would have noticed that it took Margone being at death’s door for Grizbath to squeeze out a queen egg.”
“There’s none so blind,” M’ric agreed.
“What about Madellon’s part in it?” Sh’zon asked. “Any mutters that we did wrong letting the two Southern kids stay?”
“Not wrong, exactly. Peninsula opinion is that Madellon’s being greedy, hoarding weyrling queens when Southern has none. The Madellon folk I’ve spoken to are more concerned that the extra queen will be used as a stick to beat them with come tithing time.”
“They have that right enough,” said Sh’zon. “Especially if Megrith’s still at Madellon when she and Berzunth get to clutching age. And what about Southern?”
“The holders are anxious,” said M’ric. “Unsurprisingly. But not as angry as you might have thought they would be. There’s not much more interaction between Southern Weyr and its holds than there is between Southern Weyr and anyone else. And I’ve scarcely seen half a dozen Southern riders today to form an opinion of how they’re feeling. It’s been a quiet day.”
M’ric smiled humourlessly at the insinuation in Sh’zon’s voice. “Don’t know.”
“You might have made it worth the risk of an excursion,” Sh’zon complained.
“Still could,” M’ric replied. “I haven’t done it yet. But if there’d been anything startling I’d have passed the word back along with the name of that winner.”
Sh’zon found that only partially reassuring. “Still don’t know if I’m happy to let the weyrlings come tomorrow,” he said. “Tarshe’s never been to a Gather, but… I don’t know.”
M’ric considered it. “I wouldn’t let the two Southerners out,” he said. “But I can’t see why Madellon’s kids shouldn’t come. Those dragonets are old enough to be left alone for an hour or two. Ferry the weyrlings over with chaperones, and if their dragonets start getting upset it won’t take much to get them home again.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Sh’zon said. “I’d dearly love to see my cousin’s face when she lays eyes on a Gather square for the first time.” He made a disgruntled sound. “Though I’ll have other fish to fry tomorrow.”
M’ric looked at him. “Coffleby’s luncheon?”
“Valonna wants H’ned to go with her,” Sh’zon said. “Says I’d antagonise H’pold too much.”
“She has a point.”
“Oh, don’t you start in on me.”
“So we need to deal with H’ned,” said M’ric.
“Already set in motion,” said Sh’zon. “Though if you can keep the wheels oiled I’d be obliged to you.”
“You have other plans?”
Sh’zon didn’t reply for a moment. “You saw Rallai tonight.” He didn’t phrase it as a question.
“I saw you did. Though by my reckoning you looked harder at H’pold than you did at her.”
“H’pold,” Sh’zon said, spitting out the name. “Strutting in like a sharding wherry-cock with his arse-feathers up. I don’t know how she can stomach him.”
“Looks like mostly she isn’t.”
Sh’zon followed his gaze. Across the pavilion, H’pold and Rallai still stood out in the crowd, but while the Weyrleader was taking gleeful advantage of being surrounded by well-dressed holders eager for their piece of his time, Rallai wore the distant, polite expression that Sh’zon knew to be a mask for her loathing of public occasions. “Can’t exactly swoop in and snatch her out from under his nose, can I?”
“Why not?” M’ric asked. “It’ll be good practice for when you do it for real.”
“H’pold’ll make a scene.”
“Not if he doesn’t see you.”
“I’d be pretty hard to miss, M’ric, especially with a Weyrwoman in hand.”
M’ric regarded him with infinite resigned patience – the do I have to think of everything for you expression that always raised Sh’zon’s hackles. “Then get her out of here and to someplace where no one’s expecting a Weyrwoman to be.”
M’ric rattled off a list. “Public square, Harper tent, fried wherry stand.” He raised an eyebrow. “Under the stands at the racecourse.”
Sh’zon laughed. “You’re a sight more optimistic about my chances of getting lucky with her tonight than I am, M’ric. Last time I tried it on with her she sent me home with blue balls.”
“And the promise of a kiss,” M’ric noted, “which just goes to show she still cares.”
Sh’zon had to give him that point. After nearly three Turns of cool indifference, the kiss Rallai had almost allowed him when he’d sneaked into her Weyr in the dead of night had been the first hint of a thaw. He’d come away with a swollen jaw instead, from H’pold’s angry fists, but it had been worth it.
“Blight it all,” he muttered. He stabbed a finger at M’ric. “You’d better have my back if this goes badly.”
“I always have your back, boss,” M’ric said amiably.
Sh’zon left him to find his own way back to his Beastcrafter girlfriend. He formulated his plan as he shoved through the press of people. Physically grabbing Rallai wouldn’t do; even if H’pold didn’t notice, someone else would remark on the Wingleader in Madellon knots who’d spirited his Weyrwoman away. Rallai wouldn’t thank him for the ripple that would cause. Instead, as he approached the knot of people clustered around the Peninsula Weyrleaders, Sh’zon called on Kawanth. Is Suffath close to Ipith?
No. Suffath is behind the Hold; Ipith is on the heights.
That was telling enough in itself, Sh’zon thought. He knew H’pold hadn’t shared Rallai’s weyr since the early days of his Weyrleadership, but a queen wouldn’t tolerate the company of a bronze she didn’t like no matter how good a show of cordiality their riders put on.
The timing was crucial: Rallai had to notice him, but H’pold absolutely could not. Sh’zon stepped behind a pillar for a moment as the Weyrleader turned in his direction to talk to a Master in Vintner purple.
“Oh-ho, Wingleader, good evening to you!”
Sh’zon swore under his breath and turned, plastering a fixed and possibly deranged grin onto his face. “P’keo,” he said, “how are you enjoying the Gather?”
The fat old Wingleader had a cup of wine in one hand, a plate of food in the other, and stains hailing from both on the front of his tunic. “Very much indeed, oh, yes,” he said, “but not quite so much as H’ned seems to be.” He chortled delightedly. “The fellow is incandescent with you!”
“I’ll buy him a beer,” Sh’zon said. He felt painfully exposed: there were plenty of senior Peninsula riders around who knew him, most of them on good enough terms with H’pold to remark on his presence so close to Rallai. “Now, P’keo,” he said, suddenly inspired, “I was meaning to ask you about the Wingleadership of North High in T’kamen’s absence –”
P’keo looked as horrified as Sh’zon had hoped he would. “Dear man, you can’t be meaning to talk business at a Gather?”
“I couldn’t be more serious,” Sh’zon replied, fixing P’keo with his most penetrating stare. “If you could give me your thoughts on the comparative merits of the senior Wingseconds in North Flight, and then I thought we might discuss some of the other officers across Madellon who might be ready for a step up to Acting Wingleader –”
“Oh, you’ll not trap me into this, Wingleader, no, you won’t!” P’keo declared, backing away. “Good evening to you!”
Sh’zon chuckled, and turned his attention back to the Peninsula Weyrleaders. H’pold was talking to a new admirer, his back to the pillar where Sh’zon loitered. From that angle, Sh’zon noticed how the Weyrleader’s glossy dark hair was thinning noticeably at the crown of his head. Reflexively, he ran a hand through his own thick blond hair. Then, moving with purpose, he stepped out from behind his concealment, heading for Rallai.
She was speaking courteously, if without enthusiasm, to the bevy of Hold ladies who’d attached themselves to her almost as tightly as H’ned’s dance partners had to him. Sh’zon didn’t stop; he barely even slowed down, but as he passed, he caught and held Rallai’s eye. “Kawanth sends his best to Ipith, Weyrwoman,” he said, with a polite nod, and continued on, as if making his way towards the vintners’ counter.
He kept going, resisting the urge to look back for Rallai’s reaction. He wasn’t sure she’d even properly heard what he’d said. That might be even more effective. And a moment later, Kawanth confirmed the success of his ploy. Ipith says her rider wants to know what in the Void was that about.
Tell her if she’ll shake off these sharding wherry-hens and meet me out the back of this snobby party, I’ll explain.
I’m not saying that.
Just give her the gist.
Kawanth was right: Ipith was quite a touchy queen. She would have been irritated to have a bronze speak to her uninvited, even the bronze who’d caught her in two of her junior flights. Sh’zon trusted his dragon to rephrase his invitation with suitable deference. He’d always been good with females.
Well? he asked, when Kawanth didn’t respond.
She has passed the message on.
Sh’zon worked his way to the closest doorway and ducked out of the pavilion. After the oppressive heat of hundreds of bodies crammed into the space, the night air was pleasantly cool. He only wished he’d brought his lukewarm beer with him.
She made him wait. He’d expected that. He’d have thought less of her if she’d come out before he’d been there long enough to wonder if she’d come at all. He paced up and down a bit, then made himself stop. When she did come, he didn’t want her thinking he’d had any doubt.
So he waited. The odd guest still came and went from the pavilion, but no one he knew, at least not as moving shapes in the dark. Up above, the rustle of wings and scrape of claws on masonry gave away the presence of the dragons clustered on Long Bay’s fire-heights. Sh’zon craned his neck, but he could only see a few tail-tips dangling past the highest windows of the Hold.
“There’s no room for him up there.”
Sh’zon let himself grin. Then he composed himself and turned. “Who?”
Rallai walked slowly from the pavilion doorway. “Kawanth. The queens up there would eat him alive.”
“He’s been sweet-talking them?”
“More than you know, evidently.” She crossed her arms. “Did you have a good reason for luring me out here in the cold?”
“I had a reason,” said Sh’zon. “Might not have been a good one.”
Rallai regarded him with that inscrutable look she wore so well. Then she sighed, “Faranth, Shai, I’m too grateful to be out of that ghastly tent to pretend otherwise. Take me somewhere else before H’pold sends one of his lackeys to find me.”
The weariness in her voice troubled Sh’zon. “I’ll take you anywhere you want to go.”
That sounded more like the Rallai he knew. Sh’zon took her arm. “Come this way.”
It felt just as good as he’d imagined to be by her side again, to have her arm linked with his, to catch the faint spicy scent of her perfume. Sh’zon matched his pace to hers, solicitous of the long gown restricting her movements, and walked her as briskly as he thought he could from the vicinity of the pavilion.
Rallai’s silence made him realise he hadn’t given any thought to what to say to her. He hadn’t expected her to capitulate so quickly to his scheme; there should have been an argument first, an exchange of blows – verbal, not physical – a moment where he genuinely thought she’d turn him down once and for all, and then the sweet segue from loaded half-jests into the old familiar familiarity. It was a routine they’d danced together, on and off, for fifteen Turns; off much more than on in the five since she’d been Weyrwoman, but no less heart-stopping for the infrequency.
Then she did speak. “I know what you’re trying to do.”
“Oh,” he replied. “Well. That’s going to save me a heap of explaining.”
“You don’t change,” she said. Then she stopped, arresting his momentum, and looked hard at him. “And that’s the problem, Shai. You don’t change.”
“And he has?” Sh’zon demanded, jerking his chin towards the pavilion.
“He doesn’t know any better,” Rallai retorted. “And I don’t expect him to learn. Not the way I’ve been expecting you to all these Turns.”
“So we’ve jumped straight to this part of the conversation?” Sh’zon asked. “Faranth, Rallai, you usually let us have a little fun first.”
“Fun?” she asked, shaking her head. “You’re even worse than I thought.”
“You know what I mean –”
“I know exactly what you mean,” she retorted. In the darkness, silhouetted as she was against the bright lights of the public Gather squares, Sh’zon couldn’t see her eyes, but he knew they’d be snapping with anger. “And it won’t work. You should know by now that I won’t choose a Weyrleader based on his ability in the furs.”
“Aye, I know that,” Sh’zon replied, “or you’d never have chosen H’pold!”
“And that’s what I mean,” she said. “That inability to stop yourself coming out with whatever ill-judged retort enters your head first. You did it twenty Turns ago and I hated it then. You did it five Turns ago, and yes, for better or worse, I chose H’pold. And blight it, Shaizon, you were still doing it not a sevenday ago, with all that’s at stake for every dragonrider in the south!”
“I was defending my Weyrwoman!”
“You were being a hothead! Trying to score points off P’raima just as you have off every other bronze rider who’s ever made himself your enemy! Faranth, Sh’zon, Southern and Madellon are at each other’s throats, and you’re still acting like this is all a game you can win by shouting the loudest!”
Sh’zon felt his cheeks burning with anger, and he was glad it was too dark for Rallai to see the flush. “You saw P’raima! Reasoning with him doesn’t work.”
“Neither does provoking him,” Rallai snapped. “As poor Margone would attest, if it hadn’t taken her to her death.”
He blinked, momentarily unable to comprehend the implication. “What are you saying, Ral? Margone was sick before we ever laid a finger on a Southern weyrling.”
“Sick,” Rallai agreed, “not dying. Not that fast. Not that conveniently.”
“You think P’raima had a hand in her death?” Sh’zon asked, hearing the disbelief he felt reflected in his voice. “His own Weyrwoman? Are you out of your ever-loving mind?”
Rallai didn’t react to his incredulous rudeness. “I just wish she’d come to me,” she said softly. “Larvenia never trusted her; always said Margone was a sorry excuse for a queen rider, let alone a Weyrwoman. I suppose Madellon must have seemed like the only possible place she could turn. And even then it took the deaths of half her weyrlings to give her the courage to go behind P’raima’s back. She knew him better than anyone. She would have known what it would mean for her.”
“Faranth’s teeth,” Sh’zon swore. “We have to get the murdering watch-wher. We have to make him confess. We have to –”
“You’re doing it again, Sh’zon,” Rallai said, though the crackle of irritation had left her tone. “Charging at the problem like a herdbeast at a gate. P’raima will never confess, and we’ll never prove he was involved. He’s far too clever for that. Even under a queen’s compulsion, Tezonth can only confess to what he knew about, and you can bet P’raima wouldn’t have shared a plan to get rid of Grizbath’s rider with him.”
“Then how can you be sure he did it?”
“I can’t,” she replied. “But it was convenient, don’t you think, how Margone contrived to perish not a month after defying P’raima for the first and only time in twenty Turns? Convenient how her death suddenly made P’raima’s demand to have his queen weyrling returned sound completely reasonable. You’ll have heard the buzz. Most of the Peninsula thinks Madellon should have sent the girl back.”
“But not you,” Sh’zon surmised.
“And put a twelve-Turn-old child in the power of a Weyrleader who’s been crushing his Weyrwomen’s spirits for the last three decades?” Rallai dismissed the notion. “You may not like H’pold, Shai, but even he saw the folly in that.”
“Then your plan was always to offer him Sirtis?”
“Yes,” she replied, “and not just because I’d sooner have her out of my hair, although I’ll admit that would be an agreeable side-effect. Sirtis is many things, but she’s not weak. She’d never let a bronze fly Ranquiath whose rider she didn’t want in her bed, and she’s as repulsed by P’raima as the rest of us. She gets the seniority she always felt she was cheated out of at the Peninsula; Southern gets a new Weyrleader for the first time in thirty Turns.”
Sh’zon shook his head. “You must have known P’raima would turn her down.”
“Of course. He’s not an idiot. Tezonth’s big, and he’s wily, but he has too many Turns behind him to start winning new queens on merit alone. P’raima knows his only chance of clinging to the Weyrleadership is a Weyrwoman he can dominate into choosing him, and a barely-adolescent girl fits the bill nicely.”
“‘Nicely’?” Sh’zon asked, revolted. “He has designs on that little girl?”
“It’s hardly unprecedented,” Rallai said grimly.
“Well, I think he underestimated that one,” said Sh’zon. “She’s a firebrand, twelve or not. She wouldn’t have him if he was the last bronze rider on Pern.”
“And yet she’s stood up to considerable pressure to return,” said Rallai. “As if she doesn’t have faith in her own capacity to resist him placed back in his domain.” She hesitated, then added thoughtfully, “Or as if he’s holding something over her there that he can’t at Madellon.”
Sh’zon frowned. “Whatever it is, she’s not talking. But if you knew he’d refuse Sirtis, why’d you offer her? What’s the end game?”
“Sooner or later, the other bronze riders will mutiny,” Rallai replied. “Southern might have been trumpeting their superior bloodlines since dragons first set foot on this continent, but that’s hollow comfort when a Weyr has no queen.” She pointed upwards. “Ranquiath’s been on the heights all day. There may not have been many Southern riders here, but those who came won’t have missed her. Every Peninsula rider’s been talking about how ridiculous it was for P’raima to reject a dragon who’s already clutched a gold egg.” She laughed shortly. “I even let Sirtis make free with Peninsula marks to decorate herself.”
“Fertile queen, pretty rider: yours, for the insignificant price of disobeying your increasingly irrational Weyrleader,” said Sh’zon. “And H’pold benefits from the prestige of installing a Peninsula queen as senior at Southern.”
“He’s not the only one who benefits,” Rallai said quietly. She paused, tilting her head slightly, as though considering whether to go on. At last she said, “D’pantha met with H’pold.”
“P’raima didn’t sanction the meeting. Of that I’m quite certain.”
“Then D’pantha’s turning on P’raima?” Sh’zon shook his head. “They must be desperate at Southern. That man’s had his tongue wedged up P’raima’s arse since we were weyrlings.”
“The bronzes want a queen,” said Rallai. “And Sirtis is ready, willing and…well, she’s ready and willing.”
Sh’zon snorted. “D’pantha likes himself as Weyrleader in P’raima’s place, then? How does Sirtis fancy the match?”
“She fancies a Weyrwoman’s knots,” Rallai said. “But D’pantha’s no great prize, so she’ll need to see he’s her route to them. Tomorrow, at Gianna’s luncheon.”
“Is that wise?” Sh’zon asked. “Playing this out in front of Gianna?”
“She wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Rallai. “You know she’s always relished a good plot. And it’ll unruffle H’pold’s feathers, to have brokered a solution to the Southern problem.”
Sh’zon stared at her with disbelief. “You’d let him take credit?”
“If there’s one thing I learned from Larvenia, it’s that working with one’s Weyrleader is more effective than working against him,” she replied. “Even at the cost of personal pride.”
“How can you bear it? You always despised him.” Sh’zon paused. “That’s what hurt the most. Both times.”
“You didn’t leave me an alternative, Shai.” The anger was back in her voice, low and controlled. “You know what was at stake when I became Weyrwoman. You know I had to make the right choice in Ipith’s seniority flight, or I’d have been no better than Sirtis.”
“I was the right choice, Ral! I was then, and blight it, I still am!”
“I wish I could believe that. Faranth, I wish I could! But from everything I’ve seen, even half a Turn at another Weyr hasn’t made that explosive young man you’ve been since your teens grow up.”
“I thought you had changed,” Rallai went on, not letting him finish. “Last time, I thought you’d finally learned the lesson I meant to teach when I let H’pold become Weyrleader over you. And then you let him get wind of who you were.”
“I didn’t let him,” Sh’zon protested. “I don’t know how he found out about that!”
“But he did,” said Rallai, “and once he had that, you blundered straight into his hands. Faranth, Shai! You knew that just association with kin as notorious as yours would be bad enough. What on Pern possessed you to try to justify what they did fourteen Turns after the fact?”
“Because they’re my kin!” he shouted. “My own flesh and blood! And half the rumours H’pold spread weren’t even true! What would you have had me do?”
“Think before you reacted,” said Rallai. “Think about how it would sound, how it would be taken, how it would affect your reputation. Think about how it would look for the Weyrwoman to be sharing her weyr with an apologist for mass-murder.”
“I never defended what they did!”
“You spoke for them. It’s a mark of how much credit you had with the rest of the Weyr that you didn’t lose your Wing. But how could I have let you become Weyrleader with that hanging over you?”
“H’pold set out to sabotage me!”
“As you should have known he would,” said Rallai. “The connection alone wouldn’t have been enough to destroy your credibility. How you handled the situation was. If you could have bitten your tongue –”
“And let H’pold smear my family’s name even more?”
“Yes,” Rallai said. “If you really knew what it would take to be a good Weyrleader, you’d have distanced yourself from their crimes and held your peace. Whatever it cost you personally.”
Sh’zon broke off from her, storming several strides away: furious, stung, shamed. He spun back to face her in the darkness. “If you knew how many times I have,” he began. “If you knew… Why’d you think I took the transfer to Madellon? Why’d you think I gave up everything I’d built at the Peninsula? I can walk away, Ral! I already have!”
“Then prove it to me!” she told him. “Prove you can think before you act”
“How in the Void am I meant to do that?”
“Tomorrow,” she said. “Gianna’s luncheon. D’pantha, H’pold, Sirtis – they’ll all be there. You want to show you could be a good Weyrleader to me? Be a good Weyrleader to Valonna. And if a single slight or slur or insult so much as passes your lips –”
“It won’t,” Sh’zon said. “I’ll show you. You’ll see!”
“Don’t think I don’t want to.” She’d lowered her voice. She stepped closer to him, and suddenly her gloved hand was on his face, her fingertips soft against his cheek. “Shai. Don’t make me have to choose H’pold a third time.”
Sh’zon raised his hand to cover hers, suddenly afire with hope. “I won’t let you down this time. I promise.”
He would have kissed her, but she got there first, overwhelming his senses: sweet and strong and demanding.
“I never stopped, you know,” she said, when they broke apart.
“Neither did I,” Sh’zon replied.
Rallai leaned her head against his for a moment. Then, briskly, she straightened, taking a step back. “I’d better go back to that sharding tent,” she said. “H’pold’s wondering where I am. And you should make yourself scarce before he makes the connection.”
“That’s all I get?” he asked. “One kiss?”
“Sacrifices have to be made, bronze rider,” she told him. “Walk me back.” She laughed, the low, throaty chuckle that few people ever heard. “If you can still walk, that is.”
Continue to Chapter thirty-eight: T’kamen
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Dragonchoice 3 news
- The end is nigh posted 8 February 2017
- Happy (nearly) birthday, Dragonchoice 3! posted 5 October 2016
- Venn diagram posted 25 February 2016
- Don’t let me Rosebud; or, why your feedback matters posted 17 February 2016
- Dragonflight: early instalment weirdness a-gogo posted 7 February 2016