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Chapter forty-one: Sarenya

Regarding your query about staffing, I suffer from an embarrassment of riches in that sense; each time I lose one competent crafter to another assignment, the Hall has five more lined up to take his place. I have nothing but praise for your journeyman, and should further references be required you must not hesitate to ask, but regrettably I have no vacancies at the present time, nor the likelihood of any arising unclaimed in the foreseeable future.

– Letter from Master Beastcrafter Kaddyston to Weyr Beastcrafter Arrense

100.03.26 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
LONG BAY HOLD

Sarenya (Micah Johnson)Climbing aboard Hushith, a rather small green dragon, had been the easy part; dismounting from her, wedged as Sarenya was between Hushith’s rider in front and her Master behind, proved somewhat more of a challenge.

In the end, Garlan extricated herself first, clambering over her dragon’s fore-ridge to give her passengers room to move. “Faranth,” Arrense swore, “I’m getting too old for this.”

“It’s not you, Master,” Garlan apologised, slithering nimbly off her green’s neck. “Hush isn’t the biggest. We can usually jam a couple of candidates in behind me, but…” She made a face. “Sorry.”

“Not at all, green rider,” said Arrense. “We appreciate the lift. Saren, do you want to get down?”

Sarenya swung her leg forward to dismount to avoid kicking her Master in the belly. It was only a short distance to the ground, not even as far to slide as when she dismounted Trebruth, but she steadied herself with a hand on Hushith’s smooth neck as she touched down.

The green dragon turned her head sharply to regard Sarenya with one bright blue eye as Arrense jumped down. He landed lightly in spite of Hushith’s sudden twist, with a runner rider’s instinctive balance, but Garlan looked mortified. “Oh,” she said, pushing her dragon’s nose away, “Hush, stop being a nuisance. I’m so sorry, Master.”

“You really don’t have to be,” said Arrense. “We’ll get out of your hair. Thank you for the courtesy.”

“We’ll be here waiting for you at the beginning of evening watch,” said Garlan. “Or pass a message through to Hushith if you get a lift back with someone else.”

“Thanks, Garlan,” Sarenya added. “Thank you, too, Hushith.”

You’re welcome.

Sarenya had already begun to walk away. The unexpected response made her miss her stride. She looked uncertainly back at Hushith, but the green was preparing to take off again, clearing the landing space for another dragon.

“Something up?” Arrense asked.

“No, just…” Sarenya shook her head. “Nothing.”

Arrense raked her with the glance that could assess a herdbeast in half a second flat, but he either didn’t discern the reason for her distraction, or chose not to mention it. Either way, Sarenya was grateful. She and Garlan had bunked together as candidates – at least on the few nights when Sarenya hadn’t been in T’kamen’s weyr. But Garlan was also one of the Wingseconds in M’ric’s Ops Wing, and in the handful of times they’d encountered each other Garlan hadn’t made any reference to their brief earlier acquaintance. Sarenya had no desire to drag up ancient history in her Master’s presence. Arrense knew about her failed candidacy – Sarenya’s Craft record noted that she’d been Searched as an apprentice – but he’d never brought it up, and neither had she.

Instead, Arrense asked, “Did you happen to notice where the Craft enclave was when you were here yesterday?”

“Far side, I think,” said Sarenya. “Do you want to go there first?”

“No. We’ll walk the paddocks, and you can point out these Gartner-branded steers before they’re all sold. Then we’ll see who’s in from the Hall.”

Long Bay’s Gather meadow was looking worn and dusty. The buzz of excitement that had permeated the first day of the Gather seemed more muted. Though it was almost noon, a fair number of people still looked rumpled and dazed from the previous night’s drinking. Sarenya herself was feeling almost normal again, but she was glad she’d visited the Gather while everything was still fresh.  The stalls had a jumbled, picked-over look; the Harpers playing at the corner platforms didn’t sound as accomplished as they had yesterday; and when the wind blew from the direction of the latrines, the smell suggested that the temporary facilities weren’t coping with the demand. Even the society of fire-lizards seemed to have lost its allure: Sleek, who had flown off in search of company again the instant Hushith had brought them into the sky over Long Bay, came hurtling back down as Sarenya and Arrense approached the stock pens, opening his wings at the last moment to effect a hurried landing on Sarenya’s shoulder.

“Ouch, not so tight,” she said, as his talons dug uncomfortably hard into her skin.

Sleek hummed contritely, shifting his grip on her arm, and bumped his nose against her cheek in apology.

“I’d have thought you’d be with Agusta,” Sarenya said, disentangling his tail from around her neck and flipping it down her back instead. “Are she and Trebruth here?”

Sleek merely echoed back the image of M’ric’s queen and dragon that Sarenya offered without contributing anything. That meant they weren’t at Long Bay. It was puzzling. They certainly hadn’t been at Madellon. Sarenya wondered where M’ric was. Probably off on some errand for Sh’zon. He’d been on boisterous good form last night, but Sarenya had still been rather glad when he’d left the party.

The beast pens were looking depleted. Some of the closest paddocks had notices affixed to them, declaring that their occupants had won this prize or that in the show ring, but many enclosures stood empty but for heaps of dung. The Beastcraft paddocks, though, were full of bawling stock. “Looks like they’ve done all their buying early,” Sarenya remarked to Arrense as they paused by a packed enclosure. “There weren’t anything like this many animals in the Hall’s pens yesterday.”

“New acquisitions, then,” said Arrense. “Not even Craft-stamped yet.” He walked slowly along the fence-line, scrutinising the origin tattoos on each left ear. “Plenty of Birndes stock, Saren, but I don’t see any with Gartner marks.”

“You don’t think I’m reading more into this than there is, Master?” she asked. “I mean, there could be a perfectly good explanation for the steer I saw yesterday having come here via Gartner.”

“Such as?”

Sarenya tried and failed to think of a reason. “Maybe it was just a mistake? Some dozy apprentice putting the wrong tattoo on.”

“And what would a dozy apprentice at Birndes Hold be doing with the tattoo imprint for Gartner?” Arrense asked. “Those stamps don’t leave their home Holds. I suspect you’re right in principle, though. It probably was a mistake. A Gartner transit mark is as clear a sign that a beast’s crossed the border as a Kellad or Jessaf origin tatt. If you were moving livestock cross-territory illicitly, the last thing you’d want to do is shout about it.”

“But it was definitely marked with Birndes as the origin,” Sarenya said. “If it really came from Madellon, it can’t have been tattooed correctly when it left its home holding. The herders all know their own marks. If animals were being moving around Madellon territory with Birndes tattoos in their ears, everyone would know about it.”

Arrense frowned: a forbidding expression rather than a puzzled one. “Have a walk along the fence. See if you can spot any other Gartner marks.”

They moved in opposite directions to look at the bullocks. Sarenya was struck again by the quality of the livestock. They were prime steers – the Craft wouldn’t put its own mark to anything less – but it made her realise how accustomed she’d grown to handling lame food animals, bad-tempered wherries, and broken-down runnerbeasts at Madellon.

“Saren!”

Arrense’s summons interrupted her contemplation. Sarenya walked back down the fence to him. “Have you found a Gartner mark?”

“No,” he said, “but that big Keroon has as nice a case of river itch as I’ve ever seen.”

Sarenya followed his gaze to the beast in question, a substantial white-faced bullock grazing half a dragonlength from the fence. Even at that distance, the pockmarks on its flanks and neck were clearly visible. “What about its tattoo?”

Arrense put his foot up on the lower horizontal of the fence. “Let’s have a look.”

Sarenya followed him into the corral. Some of the closest herdbeasts scattered as they passed, but the big Keroon just raised its head to look at them, chewing unconcernedly. “It’s not a stranger to handling,” she remarked, as they walked up to the bullock.

“No.” Arrense approached the Keroon carefully and quietly, taking care to keep his shoulder turned to it. The steer blinked as he touched its scarred flank, but it didn’t shy away. “Definitely river itch.”

“And a Birndes mark on the ear,” said Sarenya. “No sign of a Gartner transit. But…” She frowned, studying the tattoo. The Birndes Hold tattoo had been stamped there, a pattern of dots in black ink that showed green through the skin on the inside of the herdbeast’s ear, but the short, fine white hair was an odd colour, too.

“What?”

“It’s green,” she said.

Arrense came up beside her. “What’s green?”

“The hair on the inside of its ear.” Sarenya checked the unmarked right ear. “Just the left one. Pale green. That’s not grass stain.”

Arrense inspected the ear for himself. “No it’s not,” he said. He put his hand lightly on the bullock’s broad forehead. It didn’t flinch, continuing to chew the cud in its placid way. He scratched the beast between the eyes, then moved his hand casually up to its left ear. He rubbed the steer’s ear rim between thumb and forefinger, and then looked at his hand. A faint greenish stain had come away on his fingertips.

They looked at each other.

“If you were going to falsify a beast’s origin,” Sarenya said, “you’d need to mark it in a way that looks genuine, but that you could remove later.”

“Like a vegetable dye,” said Arrense, “that would wash off when you were ready to stamp a beast with a real tattoo.”

“We must be getting this wrong. If the tattoos are actually being faked…” Sarenya trailed off, unwilling to even say it out loud.

Arrense was less reluctant. “Then Beastcrafters are doing the faking,” he said, with the resigned air of someone who’d already come to that conclusion and sought only confirmation. “Here and in Madellon territory.”

“Shards, Master,” Sarenya said helplessly. “They can’t be!”

He gave her a look. “We both knew that this was the most likely thing. The Hall’s always overseen the tattooing of beasts. Any falsification had to come from there, too.” He paused, then added, “Not that it’ll stop there. Madellon’s holders are making marks by selling good stock instead of tithing it; the Peninsula holders sending poor steers back are getting a market for their spare sub-standard animals. Gartner’s making an eighth on every extra steer that passes through.”

“Bovey,” Sarenya said suddenly. “That gelding of Gadman’s I’ve been riding,” she said, when Arrense frowned. “I don’t know why it hasn’t occurred to me sooner. He’s much too good a runner for a mountain herder to be riding. Gadman implied he had temperament issues, but he’s been perfectly well-mannered for me. That must have been his way of covering for having such an expensive runner. Shards.

“This scheme’s making marks for everyone,” said Arrense. “All at the Weyr’s expense.”

“But if drovers like Gadman are involved, then it’s probably just a few rogue journeymen from the Craft itself, isn’t it?” Sarenya asked.

Arrense looked at the peacefully-cropping bullocks all around. “The Hall is doing very well out of the glut of good beef in the Peninsula,” he said quietly.

Sarenya didn’t like the implications of that at all. “What are we going to do?”

Her Master stared at the white-faced Keroon bullock for a long time, his jaw set. “Well,” he said at last, “we’re going to go to the Craft  enclave.”

“What are we going to say?”

We aren’t saying anything,” said Arrense. “And I mean that, Sarenya,” he added, with more than the usual authority in his voice. “From now on you don’t know anything about this herdbeast business, do you hear?”

“You’re just going to let it drop?”

Arrense shot her a searing look. “Of course not.” He clapped her on the shoulder with a display of heartiness that she knew wasn’t genuine. “Come on. We’ll check in with the Craft.”

As they walked back towards the Gather, Sarenya fretted over Arrense’s sudden decision to exclude her from the matter. Perhaps he wanted to protect her from any censure that uncovering profiteering in the Craft would attract. But as uncomfortable as she felt about being involved personally, she liked the thought of Arrense investigating alone even less. She knew he had enemies in the Hall. He’d never spoken about the circumstances of his assignment to Madellon, but Sarenya had heard enough about it from Jarrisam to know that it had been unexpected. Arrense had been due to take over the important Mastery at Hoffen Hold in Southern territory before being rerouted to Madellon – a much less prestigious posting – at the last minute. Jarrisam, who’d served under the last three Weyr Beastcrafters, claimed that every Master assigned to Madellon had been sent there in punishment for some slight against the Masterherder. If that held true for Arrense, Sarenya worried about what exposing corruption in the Beastcrafthall would mean for her uncle’s career.

But a Master’s knot still carried weight. The Long Bay stewards manning the entrance to the Craft enclave greeted Arrense courteously by rank, and directed them to the Beastcraft. “Turn left, and it’s just past the Farmcraft,” one of the stewards said. “If you get as far as the Miners, you’ve gone too far.”

Most Gathers offered some sort of private area for crafters to congregate away from the clamour of the public squares. That usually just meant a pavilion reserved for Hall personnel only. This being the largest Gather of the Turn, though, each Craft had a tent in a fenced compound equipped with firepits, facilities, and even its own Harper platform – and the area was heaving. Journeyman knots like Sarenya’s predominated, but there were plenty of Masters in their Gather best, with the jewelled pins of their rank on display.

The Beastcraft’s pavilion was easy enough to find, flying the bull’s-head banner. Within, they found a gathering of crafters such as Sarenya had rarely seen outside the Hall itself. As she and Arrense made their way through the crush, she caught snatches of conversation on subjects as diverse as the milk yield of Hogener hill-stock, the relative merits of shoeing runners versus leaving them barefoot, and a new wonder-herb from Southern’s rainforest that had supposedly all but wiped out mud fever in the Peninsula lowlands. They passed a Smith journeyman showing off a contraption he claimed would reduce the mortality rate of breech-delivered calves, and two Masters having a loud and vehement argument about the best techniques for wing-clipping wherries. Sarenya even spotted Kaddyston, her former Master, through the throng, with his queen fire-lizard Bacca on his shoulder, but Sleek didn’t react. He’d been a faithful member of Bacca’s adoptive fair at Blue Shale, but evidently his loyalty now belonged to Agusta.

Arrense led the way to where a message board had been nailed to a couple of the pavilion’s supporting posts. Several Beastcrafters were scanning the notices written in chalk on the board, and one journeyman was busily scribbling his own in a spare space. Terrier pups for sale, one of the messages went. Proven snaking bloodlines, dogs and bitches, enquire Cafford Hold Canines, square two. Hall discount applies. Another read, Position sought for hard-working lad, 12, with knack for runners (apprenticeship not feasible owing to simple-mindedness). But most of the notices were social in nature: FRENKO!! come and join us in the Hall beer tent when you get off shift – Penny & Parditon. And then Sarenya noticed the message her Master had obviously come to find. Arrense. Will be at Pen. West stables before racing begins. Benallen.

“Friend of yours?” Sarenya asked.

“A very old one,” said Arrense. “We apprenticed in the same intake. He beat me to journeyman, but I made Master first.” He casually wiped the message off the board. “If he’s only going to be around until the start of racing, best I go over and see him now.”

“But what about the herdbeasts?”

He gave her a look. “What herdbeasts?”

“Master…”

“I do have other business while I’m here,” Arrense went on, ignoring her protest. “Benallen being part of that. You don’t have to tail me. You may as well go and enjoy the Gather.”

Sarenya was less interested in enjoying the Gather than she was in getting to the bottom of the livestock scam that she felt responsible for uncovering, but she knew how stubborn Arrense could be. “I spent all the marks I’d like to yesterday.” It wasn’t strictly true, but she’d only brought a couple of eighths with her, which wouldn’t go far.

Arrense regarded her with that direct blue stare of his, scratching his beard with his thumb. “Then you may as well come and meet Benallen. You can talk racing with him, anyway.”

The afternoon’s racing was still hours away, and the tiered stands at the racecourse were almost deserted. The detritus of the previous day’s spectators – discarded food, empty wineskins, and hundreds of losing wager slips – had been cleared away. Cleaners armed with brushes and buckets were sweeping in a desultory fashion at the paved paths just this side of the track, where dust and clods from the galloping runners had been flung over the running rail.

Behind the stands stretched the racecourse stables. The runnerbeasts competing at a Gather of this size and stature would have come from all over Peninsula territory – and from even farther afield, if the jockeys’ colours Sarenya had seen yesterday were any indication. Long Bay’s coastal location made it easy for runner-trainers with designs on Lady Coffleby’s generous prize purses to transport their charges by ship. Most of the animals would have been brought up from their home holds by road, though, and any hailing from holds more than a few hours away would have come in days before. Long Bay boasted an impressive rank of permanent stables – fifty or so stone-built boxes – and at least a hundred more temporary structures constructed of wooden uprights and stout canvas sheeting that would be taken down and stored away when the last runners left at the end of the Gather.

The maroon-and-white banner of Peninsula West drooped in the still air above a run of four canvas stalls. Three were occupied by runners, each animal shifting about with the restless energy of the racing breed. The door of the fourth stood open, and its occupant, a hulking bay, was being trotted up in hand by a stable lad for the benefit of a short, barrel-chested man with the Peninsula West badge on his sleeve and a lightweight racing plate in his hand.

“It won’t do,” the short man said, holding up his free hand to halt the sweating lad’s progress. “Put him back in his box, and run down to the farrier. If he can fit in a re-plating in the next half an hour, fine; if not, I’ll do it myself.”

“Faranth forbid it should come to that, Ben,” said Arrense. “As I recall your farriery, the poor beast will be lucky to have a foot left once you’ve finished nailing a shoe to it.”

The stocky man swivelled on his heel. “Arrense, you old bastard!”

The two Masters greeted each other with much thumping of backs and pounding of shoulders that made Sarenya wince. She knew how strong her own Master was, and Benallen didn’t look any less muscular, for all that he was nearly a head the shorter.

“So this is your journeyman,” Benallen said, looking at Sarenya. “She looks like you. The breeding tells, hmm?”

“Saren prefers not to acknowledge that we’re related,” said Arrense.

“Don’t shaffing blame you, girl,” said Benallen. “Suppose I shouldn’t call you that, should I? Journeyman. Or are you one of those who prefers journeywoman?”

He said the last with a touch of scorn. “Journeyman has always suited me fine, Master,” Sarenya replied.

“Did you breed any of these, Ben?” Arrense asked, walking along the line of stables.

“Those two,” Benallen replied, nodding at the first two stables. “Not the dark bay, or the one who spread a plate.” He snorted. “And that’s the one with the best chance, not that you heard it from me.”

“Saren’s the racing enthusiast,” said Arrense.

“You never did develop a taste for the track, did you, Arrense?” Benallen asked. “Too busy beating the ever-living snot out of Hold lads who fancied themselves in the ring.”

Sarenya looked at her Master, mystified. “You were a boxer?”

Arrense shook his head, looking pained, but Benallen chuckled dirtily. “Boxing’s a gentleman’s sport, girl,” he said, “and you don’t need me to tell you that your uncle’s no gentleman. He wasn’t a boxer. He’d take all his Hall knots off and go looking for fights in the bare-knuckle pits.”

“Shards, Master,” Sarenya said, torn between admiration and horror. She’d heard stories about the unofficial fighting pits that operated on the fringes of big Gathers –  illegal for both organisers and participants. “Don’t people get killed in those?”

“I never did,” Arrense said. He gave Benallen a dark look. “It was a long time ago.”

“Don’t know why you’re so ashamed of it,” said Benallen. “You made more marks fighting than I ever did riding. And you didn’t break many more bones doing it.”

“Flat or jumps?” Sarenya asked, tactfully steering the conversation away from the past that Arrense clearly preferred not to discuss.

“Mostly flat,” Benallen replied. He slapped both hands against his belly. “Too fat for that now. Don’t suppose you get to many race meetings, being at the Weyr.”

“Not many,” said Sarenya. “I was spoilt for a couple of Turns when I was assigned to Blue Shale.”

“Now, that’s a racecourse. Takes a proper runner to come up that hill with something still in hand.” Benallen narrowed his eyes. “A Weyr’s a step down from a plum post like Blue Shale. Who’d you piss off?”

The sudden change of direction threw Sarenya for a moment. She glanced towards Arrense in a mute appeal for support, but he was inspecting the stabled runnerbeasts. “No one, I don’t think.” She didn’t imagine Benallen would be impressed with the real reason for her unexpected reassignment to the Weyr, so she said, not untruthfully, “Madellon’s starting to breed its own food beasts. Master Arrense needed another journeyman to help.”

“And what did you breed at Blue Shale to recommend you?” Benallen nodded at Sleek, quiescent on Sarenya’s shoulder. “Those?”

“We never talked about breeding fire-lizards so much as trying to influence them. They’re not very cooperative in that sense.” Sarenya paused. The conversation had turned unexpectedly interrogative, but she didn’t want to embarrass Arrense by objecting to it. If he meant to show her off, Sarenya intended to do him credit. “Woolbeasts, mostly, though for meat and milk more than for the fleece. Some mountain-type herdbeasts. Blue Shale’s too craggy for the quality breeds. Herding hounds, too.”

“And runnerbeasts?”

“Heavy draft types and hill ponies.” Sarenya looked at the athletic racing runners poking their noses out from the temporary stalls, and heard her tone turn wistful. “Nothing like these.”

“Carters or ponies, you have to have an eye for the standard,” said Benallen. He took a halter down from a peg on the closest stable door as he spoke. “Here. Take a look at this colt and tell me what you think.”

It was more a challenge than an invitation, Sarenya thought, as Benallen led the race-runner out of its stall. She stole another glance at Arrense. Her Master had quit the pretence of indifference and was watching, his thumbs tucked into the loops of his belt, from a short distance away. She wondered how adversarial his relationship with Benallen had been. She didn’t really want to get in the middle of a pissing contest. She took a deep breath. She’d spent plenty of time looking at the conformation of food beasts in the last Turn – picking out likely cows and ewes to be bred – but runners were a different thing altogether.

The colt was a dark bay with a narrow white stripe running crookedly the length of its nose. Sarenya took a step back to look at it, then moved to its head to inspect its teeth. She ran her hand briefly down each leg and picked up each foot to examine the hoofs. “Will you walk him up?” she asked Benallen, standing back again.

Benallen regarded her shrewdly, then shook his head. “No. Tell me about him from what you’ve seen of him standing there.”

“All right.” Sarenya hesitated, ordering her thoughts. “He’s four or four and a half Turns old. He’s been well-handled and he’s well-mannered for an entire. He has decent bone in front and behind, and his feet are good, so he’s likely to be sound –”

“A first-Turn apprentice could tell me all that,” Benallen interrupted. “Tell me about the animal. Sprinter, stayer, or middle-distance? Would you buy him? Would you breed from him?”

Stung, Sarenya started to answer the three questions in curt succession, and then she hesitated. “I’d say he started out as a sprinting prospect,” she said. She pointed at the runner’s near foreleg. “The rounded profile of the forearm muscle, the upright pasterns, the short shoulder-blade. I’d guess he was a decent two-Turn-old. But then he grew, didn’t he? Between his two and three-Turn-old seasons. He put on length in the cannons, his neck lengthened out, but his back didn’t…all the growing went up, not out. So you have a runner with the musculature of a six-furlong sprinter, but a short back and a shoulder that slopes more like a mile-and-a-quarter runner. He can’t go with the fast runners any more, but he doesn’t have the muscular flexibility or the depth of chest to step up to a mile and a half, or even ten furlongs. I wouldn’t like him over more than eight, and that division is fiercely competitive for a runner who should have been sprinting.”

She paused for a breath, not looking for Benallen’s reaction, then went on, “Would I buy him? No. If I wanted a sprinter I’d buy a sprinter, and if I wanted a middle-distance runner I’d buy something built to stay twelve. He’s good-looking, but physically he’s neither one thing nor another. Some Lord with no knowledge of bloodstock would bid him up to more than he’s worth because he takes the eye, and I’d save my marks for something else. Would I breed from him? Based on his conformation, no; I’d be concerned he’d get more like him that were useful at two and tripless at three. He’s slightly toed out, although I’d always rather that than toed in, and I’d need to see him move to know if it’s a problem. But I’d look at the form book, because Faranth knows there’ve been champion racers with cow-hocks and goose-rumps and worse, and if conformation were everything in a racing runner then you could pick your stakes winners just by following the colts who’ve gone for top mark as Turnlings.” Something else occurred to her then, and she added, “But maybe this fellow is more talented than his physique suggests. Otherwise you’d have gelded him at three.”

She fell silent. Benallen just looked at her. The colt, unconcerned by her scathing assessment of his quality, tugged on his lead rope.

“He won a stakes sprint as a two-Turn-old and came third against older runners the same season,” Benallen said at last. “He’s been finishing mid-field in sprints and tailed off over eight-to-ten furlongs since. And he’s owned by Lady Justine of Peninsula West, who won’t hear of having him cut because he was the last runner her late husband bred before he died.”

Arrense chuckled. “Told you she knew her runners,” he said to Benallen, coming closer to inspect the bay colt for himself.

Benallen didn’t answer. Instead, he said, “Pen-West has been breeding moderate racers since the Pass. They brought one good stallion from Nerat when the territory was settled, and every Studmaster has been stubbornly back-crossing to that line ever since. It’s played out. That’s why I’ve been stuck training the likes of this one, these last ten Turns.”

“When do you take over at Kirken?” asked Arrense.

“Not for a couple of months yet. Though I can put down Lord Essoric’s bid on any decent broodmares I see at the sales before then. He’s starting from nothing with the racing side of the operation. Suits me. I’ll have control over the lines I’m breeding instead of having things like this foisted on me.”

The stable lad trotted back then. “Farrier says he can re-shoe Merry Trip now,” he reported. “And I passed Krondin on my way back. He said he wants to talk to you about the ride on Whetstone later.”

“I’ll wager he does, after he unshipped last time,” said Benallen. He shook his head. “Precious shaffing jockey. I’ll be as glad not to have to work with him as to be free of training Justine’s nags. I’d best see to this, Arrense. Will you be here all day?”

“Until evening,” Arrense said. “Our dragon home won’t be ready before then.”

“Then I’ll see you in the Hall enclave after racing.” Benallen cast a sideways glance at Sarenya as he spoke. “And we’ll speak of affairs then, hmm?”

That look made a sudden suspicion dawn on Sarenya – a suspicion she could barely credit herself until, as she and Arrense walked back towards the Gather proper, her Master said, “He’s a contrary old cove, is Ben, but there’s not a better runner-man on the continent. He’s always been sceptical of female Beastcrafters, but there aren’t many I’d trust more than him, either.”

Sarenya stopped and turned incredulously to him. “Are you saying what I think you are?”

“I don’t know,” Arrense replied. “What do you think I’m saying?”

“Was that a job interview?”

“I wouldn’t call it that exactly.”

She stared at him, so astounded that words failed her completely for a long span of moments. “You’re dismissing me?”

“No one’s being dismissed,” said Arrense. “Not if I can help it.”

“I don’t believe this,” Sarenya said, half to herself. On her shoulder, Sleek stirred, disturbed by her outrage, and mantled his wings. She waved him away irritably, and he took flight. “You said extending my contract wasn’t a problem –”

Arrense’s expression wasn’t contrite in the least. “It’s no position for a journeyman to be in, never more than a month away from getting sent back to the Hall.”

“Sent back to the Hall?” Sarenya was horrified. “Master, if you haven’t been happy with my work –”

Sarenya,” Arrense barked, with a force that made her take a step back. “Pull yourself together and listen to me.” He glared at her with the contained blackness he usually reserved for reprimanding apprentices. “I have to reduce my staff. I have to cut one journeyman and at least one more apprentice.”

“But we’re already short-handed!” Sarenya protested. “You can’t possibly run Madellon’s livestock with only six apprentices!”

“Why do you think I’ve been foisting those kids from the Weyr on you? Ollen and Ingany and the rest? I don’t need apprentices to milk the dairy herd or escort the drives.” The tone of his voice betrayed nonetheless how he felt about the substitute of unskilled labour for trained Beastcrafters. “But how I’ll manage with fewer apprentices is my problem, not yours. The hard fact is, I have to lose a journeyman. I’m blighted if I’m going to just turn someone out, so that means finding one of you a good berth somewhere else. And you tell me, Saren: if you were in my position, which one out of you, Jarrisam and Tebis do you think has the best chance of a soft landing, coming out of a Weyr contract?”

“You can’t make Tebis leave,” Sarenya said. She felt more outraged at that notion than at the prospect of her own dismissal from the Weyr. “You can’t. Madellon’s not his post; it’s his home.

“And he would be lost anywhere else,” Arrense replied. He sounded dry. “What about Sam?”

“He has seniority. And he’s been at Madellon longer. On that alone he has the right to stay over me.” She knew how bitter she sounded. “Last in, first out, right?”

“The sharding place only keeps running because he’s holding it together with spit and baling twine,” said Arrense. “No one else wrangles the apprentices more productively. And that’s not a slight on you or Tebis, Saren. If I’m honest, Jarrisam’s better with people than he is with animals. The fact he let that evil old milkbeast boot him across the shed is proof enough of that.” Arrense shook his head. “He’s never going to make his Mastery, Saren. Not Sam, nor Teb. I’d be amazed if either of them ever expressed a wish to pursue it.”

“But you think I should.”

“I think you shouldn’t be at Madellon.”

“It wasn’t my choice!”

“It wasn’t mine, either,” Arrense said, “and if I’d had the least say in the matter, it wouldn’t have happened. You should never have been posted to any Weyr, and least of all Madellon.”

That was the closest he’d ever come to mentioning Sarenya’s past. She was too upset and angry to be circumspect. “Because I was a candidate?” she asked. “A candidate who failed to Impress?”

“For that reason,” Arrense agreed, “among a number of others.” His intense blue eyes bored into her as he went on, holding her gaze, though Sarenya would have liked to look away. “Weyrs are where Beastcrafters’ careers go to die. You can trust me on that. Wing-clipping wherry hatchlings, driving half-dead cattle through the passes, nursing along broken-down plug runners – that’s not work for a crafter with a future. You’ve learnt nothing under me that you didn’t already know.”

“That’s not true –”

“You know it’s true. Why else do you think I ceded so much of your time to Vhion? At least what he has to teach has held your attention. But I think that’s been a mistake, too. Mine, not yours. It’s time I corrected my errors.”

“By sending me away?” Sarenya heard her voice break on the words.

“By doing better by you than I have.” Arrense took her shoulders in his hands. “Saren. I know you’ve never wanted me to treat you differently because of our relationship. I have anyway, or I’d have done the right thing and got you out of your dead-end post with me long before now. I’ve kept you with me for selfish reasons, not for your benefit. And that’s why I want to get you out of Madellon, away from the sharding dragons and dragonriders, away from all the reminders of what you went through on Hatching night last winter. And yes, away from having what might have been if you’d Impressed eight Turns ago rubbed in your face every time you turn around.” He shook her, not hard, but emphatically. “There’s nothing for you at Madellon but bad animals and worse memories.”

“What about my friends?” Sarenya cried. “What about M’ric?”

“What about him? He’s a dragonrider, Sarenya. You’ll never be a tenth part as important to him as his dragon is. You don’t deserve to be second in someone’s affections. Nobody does.”

She shrugged off her Master’s grip and turned away, distraught. Her eyes burned as she stared out across the racecourse, not seeing anything.

“Of all my journeymen, you’re the one who’d be best served by leaving,” Arrense went on, behind her. Sarenya wished she could ignore him – wished she could walk away – but she couldn’t not hear what he had to say. “And the one with the most to offer. Benallen isn’t the only Master I’m seeing today about a place for you.”

That made her angry enough to turn on her heel. “So now you’re selling me off to the highest bidder?”

“I’m trying to give you a choice,” Arrense told her. “I’d return you to Blue Shale if I could. Kaddyston was the first Master I contacted. He’d have had you back in a moment, but he won’t have a place for another Turn. There might be a position opening up at Southern Hold, and one at Rosken, but they’d be less specialised roles. Benallen’s starting a racing stud operation from the ground up, Saren – breeding and training. There are enough cows and sheep at Kirken for you to keep your hand in, but you’d be spending most of your time planning matings and working with youngstock and designing training regimes. You couldn’t ask for a better post for a journeyman in your position.”

“And what if I don’t want to go to Kirken?” Sarenya asked, though it was a weak protest. The outfit Arrense described would have tempted anyone. “Or Southern, or Rosken?”

“Then the Craft will reassign you somewhere,” said Arrense. “But you’ll go to the end of the list for postings. You could end up back at the Hall for months before they find you a place back out in the field.”

“And what about this business with the herdbeasts?”

Arrense looked at her ominously. “Why do you think I want you safely posted somewhere else before that Thread hits the ground?”

“But you’ve been planning this for a long time.” Sarenya said it quietly, but the thought made her feel sick. She lifted her eyes to his. “You really want me out of Madellon.”

“You’re a big girl, Sarenya,” he told her. “You think about it with this –” he tapped the side of his head, “– rather than this –” he thumped his fist over his heart, “– and you’ll draw the same conclusions I did.”

There wasn’t much else to say. Stiffly and in silence, Sarenya walked beside her Master back to the main Gather square. When they reached the edge of the racecourse enclosure, Arrense stopped. “Do you need some marks?” he asked, putting his hand in his pocket.

“No,” Sarenya said shortly.

“Suit yourself. If you’re going to get a lift back to Madellon with someone else, leave me a message at the enclave.”

With that, he left her.

The Gather that had been so lively and exciting yesterday had lost most of its allure. Sarenya found a klah stall close to the racecourse, full of Gather-goers discussing the form of the previous day’s races. Some of the runners who’d competed yesterday would run again today. It seemed as good a place as any to sit and think undisturbed.

She spent a sixteenth on a strong cup of klah and a spiced pastry, and took a place at the end of one of the long trestle tables, feeling numb. As often as she’d complained to M’ric about the limited nature of her work with Madellon’s livestock, she hadn’t thought she’d be forced out by her own Master. For all Arrense’s justifications, his decision to evict her from her post felt like a complete betrayal of the trust she thought they’d developed since she’d come to Madellon. He might at least have told her!

She sat there unhappily, nursing her drink, and picking without interest at crumbs of the greasy pastry. The worst part was that Arrense was right. He had to get rid of a journeyman, and she was the logical choice on every front: the one with the briefest tenure, the one with the shortest contract, the one with the fewest ties. But she did have ties at Madellon. What was she to say to M’ric? To C’mine and Valonna? To Sejanth?

Yet Arrense’s assessment of M’ric, bluntly and brutally stated, replayed in her mind. He’s a dragonrider. You’ll never be a tenth part as important to him as his dragon is. And she found it hard to dispute the truth of it. Her closest friends at Madellon were dragonriders. The people she valued the most all enjoyed the companionship of their dragons – a companionship that, for a brief time, Sarenya had dared hope would be hers, too. That hope had died when the infant Shimpath had looked at her, locked eyes with her, and then turned away to choose Valonna. Sarenya wasn’t the first candidate to have been left standing on the hatching sands of Madellon Weyr. But now, she wondered if the pull she felt towards dragonriders wasn’t to the riders themselves, but to the reflected brilliance of the Impression bond that had been denied her. Why else would she still feel such a thrill, such an unearned sense of importance, whenever a dragon spoke directly to her? Why, if not because, deep down, she still felt she’d been cheated of the dragon that should have been hers?

And Arrense recognised it in her. You should never have been posted to a Weyr. Any Weyr, least of all Madellon. Not just because a Weyr was a dead-end post for a Beastcrafter, but because she was still unhealthily fascinated by dragons; fascinated by them like a moth was fascinated by flame, heedless of the damage caused by the heat and brightness. Arrense had never approved of her relationship with T’kamen, but Sarenya had always thought he was concerned with the consequences of her entanglement with the Weyrleader, not the dragonrider. His disapproval of M’ric was less apparent, but now Sarenya thought on it, Arrense’s cordiality towards him had always fallen on the cool side of friendly.

Sarenya had never asked for any special treatment from Arrense. She’d gone out of her way to avoid any suggestion that he favoured her over his other journeymen. And yet by his own admission he had treated her differently. Anger overtook her desolation. How dare he judge her for her choice of friends and lovers! How dare he presume to know what was best for her! How dare he take it upon himself to tout her around to other Masters behind her back!

“Oh, it is you! I wasn’t sure it was!”

Sarenya started out of her dark thoughts at the unsolicited address, and looked blankly at the man who’d just seated himself opposite her. His face was familiar, but it took the green-and-ochre knots on his shoulder to remind her of who he was. “Ah,” she said, trying to recall the name, “green rider, ah…”

“S’rebren,” he replied, evidently unconcerned by her misremembering of his name. “And you’re journeyman – wait, don’t tell me, I never forget a name – journeyman Sarenya.” He looked pleased with himself. “M’ric introduced us yesterday.”

“Yes, I remember,” Sarenya said. She managed a smile that she didn’t feel. “I’m sorry. I met a lot of his Peninsula friends yesterday, and I’m terrible with names.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said S’rebren. “I was looking at you for an age trying to decide if you were the same girl. You look different today.”

“I was off-duty yesterday,” she said. “I came with my Master today.”

“M’ric’s not here, then? I didn’t spot Trebruth, but there are so many dragons it’s hard to say.”

“I haven’t seen him,” said Sarenya. “But I would think he’ll be somewhere. Most of the Madellon Wingseconds are about.”

“Not as many as there were,” said S’rebren. “You couldn’t take a dump yesterday for having a Madellon brown rider glaring at you, making sure you washed your hands afterwards.”

“I know he’d want to thank you if he were here,” said Sarenya.

“Oh?” asked S’rebren, sipping from his mug of klah. “Why’s that?”

“The colt you tipped him yesterday. He did quite well, backing it.” When S’rebren looked confused, Sarenya went on, “The one that hacked up at silly odds in the first. M’ric made a fistful of marks.”

“I’m glad he did,” said S’rebren, “but I can’t take the credit for it, more’s the pity. I had a calamitous day. Couldn’t have picked the winner of a one-runner-race. Still, here I am, back again, to make the wagermen even richer.”

“I’m sure he said the tip came from you,” Sarenya said, baffled.

“He probably just picked it up from somewhere,” said S’rebren. “Sharp enough to cut himself, that one. Not much gets past him.”

Thinking about M’ric, and the prospect of leaving him behind at Madellon, made Sarenya miserable, but she could hardly spill her preoccupations to a strange green rider, however friendly S’rebren seemed. Instead, she mustered her manners, and asked, “You said you’ve know M’ric a long time?”

S’rebren laughed. “The longest time,” he said. “If there’s anyone on Pern who’s known him longer, I’d like to meet them.”

“Then you were Seahold-bred, too?”

“Me?” He shook his head. “No, I’m Weyrbred through and through. Seahold-bred, is that what he told you?”

“Isn’t he?”

“Search me. He’s always been cagey about where he was from, and –” S’rebren stopped himself, eyeing her charily. “Well, if you’re his weyrmate, maybe you know more than I do.”

Sarenya returned the look blankly. “I don’t think I understand.”

“What’s he told you?” S’rebren asked. “Did he say where he Impressed?”

“The Peninsula, of course.”

“Ah, but did he say that, or did you assume it?”

Sarenya blinked. “He –” She stopped. “I suppose I just assumed, him being a Peninsula rider…”

“You see, you can’t assume anything, when it comes to M’ric’s past,” S’rebren told her, joshing her elbow cheerfully. “I’ll tell you now: he didn’t Impress at the Peninsula.”

“But he’s always said he was a Peninsula rider,” Sarenya protested.

“He is. Or was, before he transferred out, but wherever he Impressed that funny little brown of his, it wasn’t from a Peninsula clutch.” S’rebren tapped his own chest with a finger. “We found him, my green and me. I mean, we’re going back twenty-odd Turns, here – he and Trebruth weren’t much more than weyrlings. Lost, in distress, and very confused. It was days before he’d speak to anyone.”

Sarenya was taken aback. “He’s never said anything about this to me!”

“It was a long time ago,” said S’rebren. “And it can’t have been a happy time for him, being displaced like that.”

“Then where did he come from?”

“That’s the question, isn’t it?” He shrugged. “Best guess is he made a bad jump between. It wouldn’t be the first time a weyrling’s got his wits addled from being between too long. The cold does funny things to a man’s brains. But as for where he’s from – that’s anybody’s guess. If he knows, he’s not telling. Perhaps you can pry the secret out of him, hmm?”

“Perhaps,” Sarenya said weakly. She looked at her half-finished klah and the oily pastry, and found she had no appetite left for either. “I should go…my Master’s going to be waiting…”

“Of course,” said S’rebren. If he detected the lie in her words, he was too courteous to allude to it. But he caught Sarenya’s wrist as she rose to go. “And, journeyman, don’t be too hard on M’ric, for what he may not have told you. Losing your past to a weyrling error – that’s not a feat any man would like to dwell upon, twenty Turns after the fact.” He patted her hand comfortingly. “Don’t worry. If you know M’ric at all, you know he’s a good man, and whatever his deep, dark secret really is, it’s ancient, ancient history.”

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