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Chapter thirty-nine: Valonna

All goods and services required by the Weyr must be obtained via the Holds and Halls of its own territory. The Weyr may not undermine extant inter-territory trading agreements by brokering its own purchases, nor interfere with the supply lines of the Weyrs of other territories. Any goods or services that its own territory cannot provide must be bartered for through Hold or Hall intermediaries whether such goods and services form part of the agreed tithe, or if they represent needs over and above those already pledged in support of the Weyr.

– Excerpt from the Western Territory Charter

100.03.26 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
MADELLON WEYR

Valonna (Micah Johnson)The riders of Madellon Weyr were feeling delicate on the morning of the second day of Long Bay’s Gather. Everywhere Valonna went, people were nursing hangovers. There was a glazed sort of hush in the dining cavern, where even the softest clink of mug against klah pitcher caused visible pain to the riders slumping at the tables with their heads in their hands, and the inadvertent scraping back of a bench elicited moans of abject misery.

When Valonna made her pass through the kitchens, Galyann, one of Crauva’s section leaders, reassured her that everything was in hand. “There’s double sweetening in the klah, a pinch extra salt in the cereal, and all the booze is locked up tight,” she said, casting a withering look out at the wretched residents of Madellon. “And Master Isnan has provided a restorative tonic, although since we started serving it we’ve been going through buckets and rags like you wouldn’t believe.”

The suffering wasn’t confined to the dragonriding population. The apprentice who came with a message from Master Arrense looked barely half alive, and when Valonna arrived at the Beastcraft paddocks it became clear to her that the sickly-looking lad wasn’t the only member of his craft feeling the effects of Gather overindulgence.

“I’m catching a lift over to Long Bay myself in a bit, but I thought you’d like to hear Sarenya’s preliminary report,” Arrense said, clapping his journeyman a bit too heartily on the back.

Sarenya winced. She didn’t look quite so green as the riders in the dining hall, but she was paler than usual under her tan, and there were dark rings beneath her eyes. “Master Arrense asked me to have a look at the stock pens,” she said. Her voice was faint and hoarse. She coughed, and added, “Sorry. Lost my voice.”

“All in a good cause,” said Arrense. “I knew I should have given you more than one miserable mark. Not that I’m condoning wagering, you understand, Weyrwoman.”

“You had a good day on the runners, then?” Valonna asked.

“Not bad,” Sarenya replied, “and then far too much Benden white celebrating in the evening. Fortunately not before I walked the paddocks. I saw lots of Peninsula-bred bullocks from the local holds. Very good beef. Not like the bags of bones we’ve been getting in the drives from Kellad and Jessaf recently.” She glanced at Arrense, and he motioned for her to continue. “In fairness, no one’s going to take inferior stock to a big Gather, so I didn’t expect to see animals of the standard Madellon gets in tithe.”

Valonna could sense the qualifier. “But?”

Sarenya looked at Arrense again. “Carry on, Saren,” he told her.

“I did some asking around for prices on the good stock. Not the prime beasts, but animals probably a third to a half as heavy again as these things.” She gestured at the handful of bullocks grazing in the paddock. “The going rate seems to be about seven marks a head; a little less for wholesale purchases. And there was a sense of…” She hesitated, searching for a word. “Desperation, amongst the herders I spoke to. They really wanted to sell at seven a head.”

“Herdbeasts like Saren’s describing should be closer to nine marks than seven,” said Arrense. “From the herders, anyway; before the Hall buys any in and marks them up.”

“What’s driven the price down so in Peninsula territory?”

“Surplus, almost certainly. If there’s a glut of animals of a certain grade, it depresses the market. There are only so many buyers.”

“But we’ve been having to pay just under six marks a head for supplementary animals from Jessaf and Kellad,” said Valonna. “Are you saying we’ve been gouged?”

Arrense and Sarenya exchanged a glance, mirroring each other so uncannily that, under different circumstances, Valonna would have been amused. “There’s more to it than that,” Arrense said at last. “What we’re getting is what there is. It seems you have to go a long way in Madellon territory to find a herdbeast you might call acceptable. Unless you know where to look.”

“What do you mean?”

“Gartner Hold,” said Sarenya.

Valonna visualised the territory map. “On the border with the Peninsula? In the mountains?”

“Right. Which is why I couldn’t understand why one of the beef steers I saw at Long Bay yesterday had a Gartner transit tattoo when it supposedly came from Birndes Hold. You’d never drive beasts from Birndes to Long Bay via Gartner. And there’s something else. I had a good look at a lot of Peninsula-bred Keroon Reds yesterday. The breed as a whole is susceptible to river itch – it’s a skin condition caused by a reaction to the bites of certain types of midge. We’ve seen a lot of it in Madellon territory this Turn with the dry weather we’ve been having. Midges thrive on stagnant water, so when there’s drought, and the rivers run low, they multiply and our steers get bitten. It doesn’t really affect their condition, but you’d be hard pressed to find a Keroon in Madellon territory without river itch scars. On the other hand, I didn’t see any Peninsula-bred Keroons with river itch – except that one with the Gartner ear mark.”

Valonna looked at her. Then she looked at Arrense. “You think that herdbeast came from somewhere in Madellon, not Birndes?”

“Yes,” said Arrense. “And where there’s one, I’d wager there’ll be more.” He folded his brawny arms. “Peninsula territory is awash with quality livestock, Weyrwoman, while the herds being driven here to Madellon are made up of the third-rate and the half-dead.”

It was becoming unsettlingly clear to Valonna. “Then Madellon’s quality animals are being sold to the Peninsula through Gartner Hold? And low-grade Peninsula herdbeasts are being passed off as Madellon animals?”

“That seems to be about it,” Arrense replied.

Something in his tone told Valonna that he wasn’t telling her everything. “There’s more?”

Arrense sighed. “Weyrwoman, I appreciate how serious this is, and how much you’ll want to address it –”

“We’re being cheated out of our rightful tithe by our own holders!”

“And there’s more even than that at stake here,” said Arrense. “Yes, someone’s lining their pockets to Madellon’s detriment, and yes, that’s a grave crime in itself. But if someone is perpetuating a deliberate fraud against Madellon Weyr, and worse, falsifying the origins of livestock that’s being moved around the continent, then I can’t express how serious this is. If we had an outbreak of disease, like the red-hoof epidemic in Southern ten Turns ago…”

“Shards, Master,” said Sarenya, sounding sick.

Valonna looked uncertainly at the two Beastcrafters. “Red-hoof?”

“A disease,” said Arrense. “Infectious, and often fatal. It affects beasts with cloven hoofs. Weyrwoman, it could be catastrophic. We wouldn’t be able to trace back the genuine origins of infected animals, so any quarantine we imposed wouldn’t be effective. Best case, it could lead to mass slaughters to contain the outbreak. Worst, if the sickness got out into the wild population…Pern wouldn’t be able to feed its dragons.”

Valonna licked her lips. Her throat had gone dry. “I see,” she said, trying to maintain a calm she didn’t feel. “What do you propose we do, Master?”

“For now, nothing,” said Arrense. “We’re still theorising based on a single suspicious bullock at the moment.”

“But you’re sure it’s more than that.”

“Too many things add up for me to dismiss it.” He sounded fearsome despite the carefully neutral words. “I’m Gather-bound shortly, and I’d like to verify Saren’s findings myself. Not that I have any doubts about her judgement, but there may be more clues that will help us follow this back to its source, now that we suspect what’s happening. If I’m to take this to the Hall I need all the evidence in hand.”

“You’ll take it to the Beastcrafthall?”

“This contravenes Beastcraft rules as well as Weyr law. The Craft needs to know what’s been going on.”

“What recourse do we have if the Holds have been falsifying their supply?”

Arrense looked grim. “That depends on the wording of the tithe agreement,” he said. “You may need to consult Madellon’s charter for the specifics of the responsibilities the Holds have regarding supplying the Weyr. And much depends on how far and how deep the fraud goes.” He paused, then added portentously, “There are a lot of marks at stake here.”

Valonna noticed how sharply Sarenya looked at her Master, but the significance escaped her. “I don’t want this to go any farther than us, Master,” she said. “Not to your other crafters. Not even to the Deputy Weyrleaders. Until we know more, this mustn’t get out.”

“Of course. This won’t go beyond Sarenya and me.” Arrense paused. “I may need to be able to call on a rider for conveyance. Someone you can trust to be discreet.”

Valonna was reminded of Rallai’s parting advice to her. Find riders you can trust and keep them around you. She hadn’t made much progress in that direction yet, but she nodded. “I’ll assign someone reliable. Do you have transportation to Long Bay?”

“I was just going to scrounge a lift with someone,” said Arrense, “unless…” He looked at Sarenya.

“I don’t know where M’ric is,” she said, glancing up at the northern face of the Bowl. “I haven’t seen Trebruth this morning. I wasn’t expecting to go back today.”

“I’ll have the watchpair assign you a lift,” said Valonna. “Are you ready to go now?”

“I have a few things to do first,” said Arrense. “Saren, do you still have duties with Vhion?”

“No, Sejanth’s all done for the morning,” she replied. “I’m ready when you are.”

Arrense nodded. “If you could give us half an hour, Weyrwoman, that would be perfect.”

“I’ll set it up,” Valonna promised, passing the request through to Shimpath to put to the dragon on watch.

Arrense took his leave with a nod. Sarenya remained, leaning on the split-bough fence of the paddock, staring at the bullocks with tired eyes. Valonna knew she should go – her own appointment at Long Bay Hold was fast approaching – but she lingered. “Is everything all right with you, Saren?”

Sarenya quirked the corner of her mouth into a smile. “You mean other than this business with the herdbeasts? And the stinking hangover that’s no one’s fault but my own?”

“It must have been a good night,” Valonna said, hearing the wistful note in her own voice.

“The main thing I remember from it is that matching drinks with dragonriders isn’t prudent when you have to get up the next morning.” Sarenya pressed her fingertips to her temples with a shudder. “It was the sharding dancing. It was such a hot night, and it was heaving in the pavilion, and M’ric kept buying me drinks, and by the time I realised I’d been having a cup of wine after every dance…well, I couldn’t undrink it, could I?”

“I suppose you couldn’t,” Valonna agreed sympathetically.

“It’s a sharding marvel any of us could climb on a dragon to get home,” Sarenya went on. “Thank Faranth Trebruth’s so small. It took three strong men to hoist H’ned back onto his bronze.”

Valonna blinked, not sure if she’d heard Sarenya correctly. “H’ned?” she asked. “H’ned got drunk last night?”

“Just a bit. It’s not like he was the only one. There were Wingleaders and all sorts reeling all over the place. We did make sure he got back to his weyr safely.”

Shimpath, ask Izath if his rider is awake. “But he wasn’t supposed to drink too much,” Valonna said anxiously. “He’s meant to be representing Madellon with me at this fardling luncheon with Lady Coffleby.”

Sarenya looked slightly taken aback at Valonna’s oath. “I’m not sure he’ll be up to that,” she said. “Unless he has a dragon’s constitution. He was in quite a bad way last I saw him.”

Izath says no, but would I like him to wake him?

No. Tell him I’m coming up. “I’d better go and see what state he’s in now,” said Valonna. Then she added, “They’re serving a tonic in the dining hall to help with the hangovers. That might make you feel better.”

“Thank you, Weyrwoman,” Sarenya said, “but I’ve already had half a pint of the Beastcraft’s remedy. It’s very effective. I was much worse than this about two hours ago.”

“What’s in it?”

“You don’t want to know.”

Valonna left Sarenya queasily contemplating the bullocks. As she crossed the Bowl towards H’ned’s weyr, she tried not to let this latest crisis panic her. In one sense it was a relief to know that the food beast shortfall wasn’t an issue of Weyr mismanagement – and that someone could be held accountable for deceiving Madellon out of its rightful portion. In another, it was shocking to think that anyone would hatch such a plot against the Weyr. And Valonna couldn’t even take advantage of the low price of beef animals in Peninsula territory. The charter that codified Madellon’s commitments to its holders made it clear that any wholesale purchases of supplies over and above the tithe must be sourced internally. Of course, the same charter also forbade precisely the sort of profiteering that had left Madellon’s herds in such a desperate state, but until she knew more about who was behind it, Valonna couldn’t start reneging on the Weyr’s obligations.

She made herself put it out of her mind. The long-dreaded luncheon at Long Bay was the more pressing concern. It had been looming as a vaguely unpleasant duty ever since the invitation had arrived, but between the loss of their weyrlings, T’kamen’s disappearance, and the crisis with Southern, the prospect of dining with the other Weyrleaders of the south filled Valonna with trepidation. She couldn’t imagine that P’raima would be any less than openly hostile towards her, and she shuddered at the thought of contact with H’pold. He, at least, might be more concerned with maintaining civility in the presence of his Weyr’s most powerful Lady Holder, but that was assuming Valonna could rely on her escort not to provoke him. And if H’ned was half as worse for wear as Sarenya had implied…

She hurried up the steps to H’ned’s weyr. Izath was lying on the ledge, blocking entry to the inner chambers, and looking rather subdued. “May I go inside?” Valonna asked him.

H’ned’s bronze shifted unhappily.  He says you might not want to, Shimpath conveyed.

“Is your rider unwell?” Valonna asked. “Does he need to see a healer?”

You don’t have time for this, said Shimpath, reflecting as impatience the anxiety Valonna felt about her appointment at Long Bay. I will tell him to move.

Before Valonna could dissuade her, Izath gave a start that shifted his significant bulk far enough to the right to clear the way into his rider’s weyr. “Sorry, Izath,” she apologised, as she moved past him and inside.

The reek of vomit hit her before she was even halfway through Izath’s sleeping chamber. Valonna recoiled, lifting her sleeve to cover her nose. It struck her that she might step in something without seeing it, and she snatched down the glow-basket hanging outside the archway into H’ned’s living quarters, opening the aperture to spill light on the floor. Mercifully, it was clean. But the smell only intensified as Valonna pushed through the half-drawn curtain into H’ned’s weyr.

M’ric, or whomever had seen H’ned safely home, had only hefted him as far as the couch. He lay snoring in the limp, boneless sprawl of deep unconsciousness, one arm flung over the edge of the seat, the hand bent awkwardly back on itself against the floor. There was a puddle of sick not a handspan away from his fingers. Both his dress jacket and his shirt had been unbuttoned, revealing an alarming quantity of bright red chest hair.

Valonna didn’t want to get any closer than she had to. “Wingleader,” she tried, and when that didn’t elicit a response, she raised her voice. “Wingleader H’ned!”

H’ned stirred, his snores interrupted. He muttered something unintelligible, then turned over on the couch, mashing his face against the seat cushions, and collapsed back into insensibility.

Would you like me to have Izath wake him up? Shimpath enquired.

I don’t think there’s any point. Valonna dithered for a moment. She didn’t like to leave him so obviously sodden – he might choke – but nor did she want to be the one to clean him up. Is Kawanth in the Weyr?

He is on watch duty.

Ask him to send his rider to Izath’s weyr.

Valonna met Sh’zon out on Izath’s ledge. He hadn’t taken long to respond to her summons, but she had no desire to stay in H’ned’s noxious weyr any longer than necessary. He bounced up the steps, looking relaxed and alert. “What can I do for you, Weyrwoman?”

“It’s H’ned.”

“Oh?”

“Go and see.”

Sh’zon obligingly strode into the weyr. A few moments later, he emerged again, looking amused. “See what you mean. I thought the man could take his liquor!”

“Did you know he was drinking at the Gather last night?” Valonna asked.

“Me? No. Knew Kawanth had watch to stand this morning, so we turned in early.”

“I can’t believe he let himself get in this state,” Valonna fretted.

I’ll sober him up for you,” Sh’zon offered brightly. “Dunk his head in the lake, lots of strong klah…”

“There’s no time,” said Valonna. “We’re supposed to be at Long Bay in an hour. You’ll have to come with me, Sh’zon.”

“Are you certain that’s what you want?” he asked. “Sure you wouldn’t sooner take D’sion or P’keo?”

Given how stridently Sh’zon had argued to be Valonna’s first choice for the Long Bay banquet, she thought he was being a little disingenuous in suggesting other candidates now. “Will you come, Sh’zon?”

“Aye, course I will, if that’s what you want,” he said. “I’ll need to find another bronze to relieve Kawanth. Can’t have the vigil left under-strength, especially with Shimpath out of the Weyr.”

“Then there weren’t any incidents with Southern riders at Long Bay?” Valonna asked.

“Most of ’em stayed away,” he told her. “Don’t think P’raima’s too happy with the Peninsula.”

“Do you think he’ll make a scene at the luncheon?” Valonna asked.

Sh’zon’s eyes narrowed a bit. “Between me and you, Valonna, I don’t think he’ll come.”

Valonna looked at him, taken aback. “But Lady Coffleby…”

“P’raima’s not going to give a trader’s cuss for what she thinks of him. Not his territory, not his problem. But that’s not to say that Southern won’t be represented.”

“Then you heard something at the Gather yesterday?”

Sh’zon nodded sagely. “Word is that D’pantha’s making a play. He’ll represent Southern at the luncheon. The Peninsula will send him home with Sirtis. Cuts P’raima right off at the knees.” He joshed Valonna with an elbow. “There you go, Weyrwoman, that’s cheered you up already, hasn’t it?”

Valonna couldn’t deny that it sounded hopeful, but Sh’zon’s bumptiousness was a little overfamiliar. “Will you find someone to clean up H’ned? I don’t want him to choke if he’s sick again.”

“I’ll send somebody up,” Sh’zon assured her. “There’s plenty of sick being shovelled around the Weyr today, I’ll tell you. Oh. Reminds me. I was keen for my cousin to see the Gather.”

“Do you think it’s safe for them?” Valonna asked.

“Don’t see why it shouldn’t be,” said Sh’zon. “Not for Karika or the other one, maybe. That might be rubbing Southern’s face in it. But where’s the harm in letting ours amuse themselves?”

“It’s really L’stev’s decision,” Valonna said. “And they’ll need conveyance.”

“I’m sure I can scare up ten or twelve riders to take ’em over,” said Sh’zon.

“Sober ones?”

He chuckled. “Aye, sober ones. Wouldn’t put my cousin in anything less than safe hands!”

“Find those riders,” Valonna told him. “I’ll see if L’stev will let the weyrlings go.”

“Right away, Weyrwoman,” Sh’zon agreed, starting off in the direction of the steps.

“And don’t forget someone to see to H’ned!” Valonna called after him.

Sh’zon waved a hand in acknowledgement as he strolled cheerfully away.

At least one of us is happy about going to that luncheon, Valonna remarked to Shimpath.

The weyrlings were breaking their fast when she arrived at the barracks. They rose from their benches when she entered the dining hall – some of them more quickly than others – looking at her with varying degrees of hope and expectation. Automatically, Valonna looked for Tarshe and Karika, and found the two queen riders sitting together. The sight was unexpected – and heartening. She hadn’t asked them to become friends, but both young women had been making a concerted effort to get along, even if their dragons still didn’t much care for each other’s company.

“Please, do sit down,” she told them. “Could I have a word, Weyrlingmaster?”

“Tell me there’ve been fistfights and orgies galore, and sending my weyrlings over is completely out of the question,” said L’stev, when they’d stepped outside.

“The opposite, by all accounts,” said Valonna. “It’s been well-managed and well-mannered. And hardly a Southern rider to be seen. Sh’zon’s all for letting the weyrlings go.”

L’stev sighed. “I was afraid you were going to say that.”

“The decision’s still yours,” said Valonna. “You know them best. Are their dragonets ready to be left alone for an afternoon?”

“They should be, by now,” L’stev said. “At this age, a little geographical distance shouldn’t trouble them. I’m more concerned about how the riders behave. They’ve been trapped here now well past the point at which they should have started going between regularly across the territory, practising their social skills. Let them loose at a Gather, and who knows what nonsense they’ll get up to.”

“If you don’t think it’s appropriate…”

“No. No. They should go. And not only because they need to start learning to conduct themselves outside the Weyr. They’ve been through so much in the last few months, and they’re still mostly children. They deserve a couple of hours of fun.” He grimaced. “Much as you know how I disapprove of that.”

“Sh’zon felt that Karika and T’gala should stay behind,” Valonna said.

“Did he?” L’stev sounded surprised. “Caution, from that one? Well, he’s not wrong. With everything you’ve done to make sure Southern can’t snatch them back from here, it would be farcical to let them parade around Long Bay.” He grinned nastily. “Not that they’ll like it.” Then he sobered. “There’ll be rules for the others, and if you could have Shimpath pass it to the rest of the Weyr that the weyrlings are to be watched…”

“Of course,” Valonna replied.

“What about transportation?” L’stev asked. “Atath aside, they can’t get to Long Bay themselves.”

“Sh’zon said he could find enough reliable dragonpairs to convey them.”

L’stev snorted. “I’d like to know who he considers reliable. Vanzanth will speak to Kawanth.”

“Do they have enough spending marks?”

“I’ll let them have a few quarters and eighths from their stipends. Not so much that they can get themselves in trouble.”

“Sh’zon and I will be there most of the afternoon,” Valonna said. “So if there is a problem, we’ll be close by.”

L’stev’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Then H’ned’s in charge back here?”

Valonna hadn’t thought of the onward chain of command. “Oh…oh dear.”

“Unconscious in a pool of his own puke, is he?”

“How did you know?”

“I’ve known him since he was a boy. He has no stomach for hard liquor.”

“He was supposed to come with me to Lady Coffleby’s luncheon today,” Valonna said miserably. “Sh’zon’s stepping in, but I’m afraid he’ll cause friction. He and Weyrleader H’pold have an old rivalry.”

“An old rivalry? Between two senior bronze riders?” L’stev laughed. “Inconceivable!”

“I’m not sure who’s next in seniority,” Valonna went on. “Who is in charge once Sh’zon and I leave Madellon. Especially with half the Wingleaders out at the Gather themselves.”

“P’keo, F’yan, D’sion, L’mis, R’yeno, T’gat, V’stan, A’keret, E’dor,” L’stev replied, rattling off the names without hesitation. “That’s the order of seniority. So, in theory, the first one of those who’s actually here.”

Valonna mentally reviewed the watch roster, and made a face. “That makes Vidrilleth the most senior bronze on duty.”

“Better hope that nothing comes up while you’re in Peninsula territory, then,” said L’stev. “F’yan wouldn’t know what to do with a crisis if it bit him. You’d better let him know he’s in command, though.”

For the second time that morning, Valonna thought of Rallai’s advice about surrounding herself with riders she trusted. She’d never asked T’kamen his opinion of the two Wingleaders he’d installed as his deputies. Now, having read through T’kamen’s notes on his senior bronze riders, she thought she understood. He hadn’t truly trusted any of them: either as ineffective relics of Fianine’s era, or men who had been far too keen to reap the benefits of being prominent members of L’dro’s Council – or both. Valonna supposed that it was only natural for bronze riders to distrust each other, but even in her limited experience, she found it hard to disagree with T’kamen’s low opinion of his fellow riders. The thought of leaving F’yan in charge of Madellon, even for a short time, filled her with anxiety.

“Couldn’t you…” she began.

L’stev cut her off. “Absolutely not.”

“But the Weyrlingmaster is ranked equal to a Wingleader,” Valonna protested.

“As the most junior Wingleader,” he corrected her, “and even that’s a courtesy. I’m only actually a Wingsecond. Never even got round to taking a third stripe when T’kamen changed the insignia. You can’t leave me in charge.” Then he muttered, “Thank Faranth.”

“I have more confidence in you than I do in F’yan,” Valonna said.

“Not how it works, Weyrwoman,” he replied, with finality. Then he relented. “I wouldn’t worry. You’re not far if anything does happen. And it won’t. The dragonets will be asleep, the queens are behaving themselves, and the watch bronzes won’t let anyone in.”

Valonna nodded reluctant assent. “You don’t think Berzunth will be upset that Megrith’s rider is here and hers isn’t?”

“No. It’s time they started spending some time apart anyway. It’s not as if they won’t be able to talk to them from Long Bay.” Then L’stev frowned. “While you’re here, Weyrwoman. Have you heard anything from Jenavally?”

“Not recently,” Valonna said, feeling guilty for the oversight. “She’s still rostered out to Teller Hold.”

L’stev grumbled. “I was hoping she’d be well enough now to consider coming back. I know she took N’jen’s loss hard, but the others need her. C’mine isn’t working out.”

“Oh,” said Valonna. She wasn’t sure what to say. “Do the weyrlings…not like him?”

“They like him,” L’stev replied. “He’s just not as stable as he needs to be. I’m keeping him on for now, but it’s only a matter of time before something sets him off again.”

“Is there anything we can do?”

L’stev shrugged. “Not unless you can bring the dead back to life. Losing C’los crushed him. That green rider was his whole world long before Darshanth ever came into the picture.”

“I didn’t know they knew each other before they were Searched,” said Valonna.

“Oh, yes. I remember thinking Alyss was pranking me when she presented them to me as candidates. Those two and T’kamen, whatever they called themselves then; I misremember. Three kids with black eyes and busted mouths and the lot. They said they’d been in a fight, but it wasn’t until later that I found out what it was about. Some of the other lads at Kellad had found out about C’mine and C’los. They sharding near beat C’mine to death.”

“Faranth,” Valonna said softly.

“It was C’los they’d really been after, but he was attached to the Harperhall,” L’stev went on. “Harder for those thugs to get at him there. But C’mine was vulnerable. In more ways than one.”

“Were they ever caught?”

L’stev made a dismissive sound. “You know how the Holds can be. No one at Kellad would have been interested in defending a lad who’d been outed as a deviant.” He looked distant. “I’d just been made Weyrlingmaster, and Search was difficult around that time. Not many kids the right age, in the Weyr or out, and nowhere much interested in giving up the able-bodied youngsters they did have. Except the rogues. Kellad was happy enough for us to take them. So we wound up with a dozen problem cases. Malingerers and malcontents, mostly. A couple of deviants like C’los. And one hot-headed trader boy who’d supposedly led them in separating several right-thinking Kellad youths from all their front teeth. The most motley band of candidates I’ve ever had to wrangle.” He paused. “Faranth help us, most of them Impressed. It’s no wonder Madellon’s in the state it is.”

“T’kamen was the trader?” Valonna asked.

“He was quite the specimen,” L’stev agreed dryly. “Outlandishly dressed, barely half civilised, and furious with the world in the way that only directionless young men can be.”

Valonna couldn’t quite picture her grim and self-possessed Weyrleader as an angry young man. “But you saw something in him.”

“Vanzanth did,” L’stev replied. “Apparently T’kamen reminded him of me.” He shrugged. “I liked how quick he was to defend his friends. C’mine was a gentle sort, and C’los – well, C’los was as irritating as a youth as he was fully grown – so even at the Weyr, they were always going to get themselves in trouble. T’kamen wouldn’t have it. He was never big, but he was the kind of nasty, dirty fighter no one in their right mind wants to take on. After he’d bloodied a few noses, the other kids lost interest in tormenting C’los and C’mine. It’s a good thing they did. I was this close to kicking him out of the Weyr. Lads with short tempers don’t generally make good dragonriders. As it was, I dreaded him Impressing a green or blue. Even a brown would have frustrated him. Lucky for him, Epherineth never looked like choosing anyone else. Impressing a dragon can’t change who you are, but T’kamen was sorely in need of a focus for his intensity. Becoming a bronze rider gave him that. Brought out his best qualities, and taught him to control his outbursts. And pull his punches.”

L’stev fell silent, looking morose. Then he went on, “He was a good one, Valonna. But he was wrong to appoint C’mine as my assistant. We were both wrong. He has the compassion, but not the resilience. The weyrlings need someone with both.”

Valonna tried not to let his dismay for C’mine colour her tone. “Do you have someone else in mind?”

“I wasn’t overflowing with candidates the first time, or I wouldn’t have gone with C’mine. I’ll think of somebody. I don’t want to push Jena if she isn’t ready yet, but she’s a difficult rider to replace, and I don’t want to make another mistake. The kids could do without the disruption.” He shook his head. “Faranth knows what we’ll do when those two queens mature. Even accounting for how their cycles will lengthen, there’ll be more than one clutch every three or four Turns like we’ve been used to, and I’m not getting any younger.”

Valonna looked at him in horror. “You want to retire?”

“Never,” he replied, glowering at her. “But I’m nearly sixty, Valonna, and I’m starting to feel it. It’s only a matter of time. Having more than one class of weyrlings in training at the same time will be hard work, especially if we don’t find a solution to whatever’s gone wrong with between. It’s past time I had a viable successor, not just a competent assistant, and the two aren’t necessarily the same thing.”

The thought of any rider but L’stev as Madellon’s Weyrlingmaster was disconcerting. He loomed so large in Valonna’s consciousness that the notion of someone else filling his shoes seemed ludicrous. But he was right. With three mature queens, Madellon would be producing more frequent classes of weyrlings, and while Valonna had already started to worry about feeding a bigger juvenile population, she hadn’t considered the additional call that multiple weyrling groups would have on L’stev’s time and energy. “I…see.”

“I know you do,” L’stev said. “Don’t let it worry you too much. I’m not going anywhere yet. But better to own the problem now than hitting your head on it in five Turns’ time when you’re overrun with dragonets and I’m a drooling senile.” He glanced over his shoulder. “I’d best let the kids know the good news. They can feed their dragons early, and that will keep them sleepy while the riders are away this afternoon. One less thing for acting Weyrleader F’yan to worry about.”

Valonna gave him a stricken look.

“Look on the bright side,” he told her. “At least Sh’zon’s sober. If he wasn’t, F’yan wouldn’t be in charge here – he’d be escorting you to Long Bay.”

“L’stev!”

He chuckled darkly as he let himself back into the weyrlings’ dining hall.

Valonna took a moment to compose herself. As if she didn’t already have enough to worry about, with the luncheon, and Southern, and tithe requests…everyone she spoke to seemed to have a new issue to bring to her. Had T’kamen been so inundated with problems?

He was the Weyrleader, said Shimpath. Of course he was.

Valonna sighed. I’m coming back to the weyr now. Would you ask Vidrilleth to have his rider meet me there?

It only occurred to her when she was halfway across the Bowl that L’stev and Shimpath’s remarks on the Weyrleader had had something chillingly in common.

He was a good one, Valonna.

He was the Weyrleader.

They’d both referred to him in the past tense.

You know he’s not coming back, don’t you?

T’kamen hadn’t been missing a sevenday before H’ned had put that blunt question to her. Now he’d been gone for a month, gone without trace, gone without any explanation whatsoever for his whereabouts, and for the first time Valonna wondered if she was the only one left who still believed he would come back.

And then she wondered if she even still believed it herself.

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One response to “Chapter thirty-nine: Valonna”

  1. Alexis says:

    I’ve read all of these Dragonchoice novels. If I had known you weren’t done at the beginning, I wouldn’t have started! I don’t know how people did it, with Dickens, because you’re killing me. You do an amazing job of giving the world a texture and depth that it lacked under Anne. Love her, love her characters, but the things you think of make it real. Thanks for writing. Not trying to rush you, but COME ON! I’m hoping there’s a happy ending, somewhere, for T’kamen.

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