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Chapter forty-two: T’kamen

Fetch!

‘Fetch!’ by Emily Holland (find her on Tumblr)

Just when I thought T’kamen couldn’t do any more to alienate the rest of the Weyr.

Fire-lizards. He brought back fire-lizards.

It’s as if he’s deliberately trying to make everyone hate him and that cocky little shit of a brown weyrling.

Maybe he wants to be exiled? Maybe he fancies that Westisle would be more fun for him than Madellon Weyr?

Well, at the rate he’s going, he might not actually be wrong.

– Excerpt from the personal diaries of Weyrmarshal R’lony

26.06.21-22 (26TH TURN, EIGHTH PASS)
MADELLON WEYR

T'kamen (Micah Johnson)M’ric broke his promise to stay away from T’kamen only once, on the last night of his weyrlinghood.

T’kamen had just handed over to V’lerk, the green rider assigned to the morning watch. The lonely and tedious dark watches seemed to be manned almost exclusively by dragonpairs on punishment detail – certainly, V’lerk was up there far too often not to be in disgrace himself – but any mutual commiseration T’kamen might have hoped for was sadly not forthcoming. Whatever offence V’lerk had committed, it wasn’t bad enough to incline him to solidarity with a real pariah like T’kamen.

He and Epherineth returned to their weyr in the total quiet of the pre-dawn hour to find M’ric sitting outside, dangling his legs over the edge of the ledge. “What are you doing here?” T’kamen asked, as Epherineth crouched low to let him dismount clumsily. “You should be in bed.”

M’ric shrugged his left shoulder so as not to disturb his fire-lizard, who was coiled up with her eyes closed, on the right. “Couldn’t sleep.”

T’kamen pulled out his cane from where he’d thrust it through the fore-strap of Epherineth’s harness. “It’s the big day tomorrow, isn’t it?”

“Today, technically,” said M’ric. He glanced up towards the Star Stones, where V’lerk’s Caliburth had taken Epherineth’s post. “We start at the beginning of forenoon.”

“You’re going to be a wreck by then if you don’t get some rest,” T’kamen said. He unbuckled Epherineth’s harness. “And C’rastro would kill you if he knew you were here.”

“I know,” M’ric admitted.

T’kamen sighed. “Why don’t you come in and have some klah before you’re spotted?”

M’ric paused to greet Epherineth. “Your face isn’t looking nearly as bad as it was,” he observed. “Not as swollen. When are they taking the last stitches out?”

“Another few days. They tried taking some of them out yesterday but the wound started pulling apart again, so they put them back in. The neck ones are out already, though he’s still covered in ging sap under that dressing.”

M’ric poked gently at Epherineth’s lip. Epherineth accepted it with the peculiar tolerance he’d always shown for the boy. “His teeth are always going to show like this?”

It still made T’kamen’s guts freeze when he thought about it. The right side of Epherineth’s face was never going to look as it had before. The slash running from beneath his eye down through his top lip was slowly healing, but it would leave a seam, and the damage had drawn the split flesh permanently upwards, partly exposing the teeth and gumline. It made him look like he was perpetually snarling, and it interfered with his eating. He slobbered and dribbled helplessly over his food now. Epherineth, once one of the handsomest bronzes on Pern, now made people recoil from his ruined face. The only comfort T’kamen could take was that his eye had escaped serious injury. “So they tell me,” he said, without any inflection.

“He’s going to look fierce when it’s all healed,” said M’ric. “No one’s going to argue with him on the feeding grounds.” He paused. “And he’s still good-looking on the left side.”

It was small comfort, and T’kamen didn’t have the heart to respond to it. He released the last buckle on Epherineth’s harness. The rig slithered to the ground.

He would have left it there, but as he limped slowly and painfully towards the interior of his weyr, he heard M’ric pick it up. “You don’t –”

“I’m just going to hang it up,” M’ric said. He heaved the heavy leather onto the rack in Epherineth’s chamber. “See?”

T’kamen pushed through the leather drape into his weyr. “Thank you.”

M’ric followed him in. “You’ve changed everything around in here,” he said, looking around.

“I don’t have much else to do with my free time.”

“El’yan brought the chessboard?” M’ric asked, nodding towards the table, where a match was in progress.

“He thrashes me three times a day,” T’kamen said. “Which he calls schooling me.” He nearly smiled at the thought of the old man, one of the few riders of any colour who didn’t seem to care about T’kamen’s disgrace.

“Suppose he knows all about having a limp,” said M’ric.

There’d been a time when T’kamen would have given him a hard look for the glib remark. Now, though, he knew M’ric well enough to know he was trying to cheer him up. It wasn’t working, but T’kamen appreciated the effort. “Suppose he does.”

As he approached the hearth, Fetch opened one sleepy blue eye from where he was curled up in his basket. He acknowledged T’kamen with a yawn before shaking out his wings and humming at M’ric’s queen. Agusta lifted her head from M’ric’s shoulder, regarding Fetch imperiously. “Let me make it, Kamen,” M’ric offered, moving quickly to intercept. “You should sit down.”

T’kamen didn’t stop him. He lowered himself tiredly to sit in one of the chairs by the banked fire, lifting his stiffly unbending leg  onto the footstool. Fetch, unfazed by Agusta’s cool scepticism, fluttered up to perch on T’kamen’s good knee. He knew to avoid the other one. T’kamen stroked his fire-lizard’s head idly as M’ric took the kettle off its hook and went into the bathing room to fill it with water. “Do you know who’s going to be assessing you tomorrow?”

“It’ll be a panel of eight,” M’ric replied, poking at the banked embers to wake the flames. He replaced the kettle on its hook and swung it over the heat. “The Commander, five of his officers, R’lony, and either Ch’fil or G’bral.”

“I think it’ll be Ch’fil,” said T’kamen. “He said he’s been neck-deep in weyrling files all sevenday.”

M’ric shook dried klahbark into two cups, then sat back on his heels to wait for the water to boil. “How’s H’juke been working out?”

T’kamen noticed the hint of defensiveness in his tone. “Any rider who’s tailed for Ch’fil isn’t going to be anything but excellent.” He paused just long enough to give M’ric an instant’s resentment, and then added, “But he’s not you.”

“Am I that transparent?” M’ric asked ruefully.

“Yes.”

M’ric sighed. “Your hair’s growing back in white. You’re going to have a stripe.”

T’kamen lifted his hand reflexively to the stubbly patch on the left side of his head where Alanne’s fire-lizard had ripped a strip out of his scalp. “They said that might happen.”

“You look like you’re walking a little better, though.”

“I’m not sure I’d go that far. I still can’t bend my leg.” The stiff leather brace on T’kamen’s right knee saw to that. “But I’m mobile enough to hobble about at C’rastro’s beck and call. Slowly.”

“Faranth,” said M’ric. “What does he have you doing?”

“Every demeaning job he can think of,” said T’kamen. He decided not to go into the graphic details of brimming chamber pots and dirty bedfurs. “Epherineth’s not enjoying it much, either. He’s meant to offer everything he hunts to Prerth first. Which means Prerth mauls it around, eats the best bits, and then gives it back to Epherineth half-chewed.”

“Every weyrling brown and bronze goes through that,” said M’ric. “It’s supposed to teach them respect for the smaller colours.”

T’kamen gave him a look. “It’s making Epherineth murderous.”

M’ric grinned. “C’rastro’s such a tail-fork. If I were in your position, I’d piss in his bathing pool.”

“What makes you think I haven’t?” T’kamen motioned at the hearth with a jerk of his head. “Water’s boiling.”

M’ric wadded up a cloth to protect his hands from the hot handle of the kettle, and poured water into the two mugs. He picked up the sweetener jar, looking around. “Have you got a spoon somewhere?”

“It’ll be in my bathing room,” T’kamen said, and then, as M’ric began to rise from the hearth, “Don’t get up.” He put his hand under Fetch’s chin, looking him in the eye. “Go to the bathing pool and find the spoon, Fetch. Bring it back here.” He visualised the item he wanted clearly, and felt Epherineth reinforce the instruction. “Go on, Fetch. Go and get it for me.”

Fetch chuffed obligingly and took off from T’kamen’s knee, swooping towards the archway to the bathing area in a flutter of wings. A few moments later M’ric watched, openly impressed, as Fetch returned with a spoon clutched tightly in his forepaws. “Faranth. Now I understand the name. You have him trained already!”

“Something else to fill the time between watch duty and shovelling dragonet shit,” said T’kamen. “And Epherineth’s been very involved in the process. That’s a good boy, Fetch; bring it to me. That’s right.”

Fetch deposited the spoon obediently in T’kamen’s lap, and accepted a fragment of meatroll in return, which he ate with relish, staring at M’ric’s queen as he did. “I didn’t realise they’d be so trainable,” said M’ric. “I haven’t really done anything with Agusta.” He looked at Fetch speculatively. “Has he gone between yet?”

T’kamen handed over the spoon. “I’ve been careful not to ask him. You shouldn’t push her, either.”

“I won’t,” said M’ric. “I wouldn’t. Shards, I get enough dirty looks just having a fire-lizard on my shoulder, without having her disappearing and reappearing all over the Weyr.”

“Has she got you into trouble?”

M’ric shrugged. “C’rastro wasn’t impressed. Excusing the pun. But there’s not actually a rule against having fire-lizards. It’s just that no one does.” He shrugged. “She’s still sleeping a lot, so I leave her with Trebruth. I’ve only just got her to start riding on my shoulder. I’m getting called all sorts of names, but I’m used to that.” He put his hand absently up to Agusta. “But they will be able to, won’t they? Go between?”

“Alanne’s could, so I don’t see why ours shouldn’t, when they’re older.”

“They must have tripled in length already and they’re only a couple of sevendays old,” M’ric said. “How big will they get?”

T’kamen studied Fetch. “Saren’s bronze was about two-thirds the length of her arm, so yours a little bigger than that, mine a little smaller.”

M’ric passed him up a cup of klah, then seated himself in the second armchair. He looked pensively into the fire, curling his fingers around his own mug. “How did they assign you to Wings when you were a weyrling? I mean…” He trailed off, the lines between his brows deepening in a frown. “What difference did it make, how fast your dragon could turn or how far he could flame, in the Interval?”

T’kamen thought about it. “None, I suppose,” he replied, after a moment. “Not in the life-or-death way that it matters now. Although there was always that one weyrling no Wingleader really wanted. There was always as much negotiation over who’d take the worst dragonpairs as there was squabbling over the best.”

“But you didn’t have to fight Thread,” said M’ric. “Best or worst, what did it matter?”

“We still flew hot drills,” said T’kamen. “Between or not, catching a wingful of live flame will kill you just as dead as a Threadscore.” He thought briefly of Sejanth, wondering what had happened to him and D’feng. “But fighting ability was only one of the things that made a rider desirable, or not, as a wingman. Search sensitivity, a dragon with a knack for assessing firestone, a background in certain Crafts – even being related to an influential Holder could spark a fight over a rider.”

M’ric gave him a disapproving look. “I thought you said a good Wingleader had to consider all the factors carefully before placing a new rider in a Wing. What you’re describing sounds like runner trading.”

“It was,” said T’kamen, “or it could be. It depended on who was Weyrleader when a newly-graduated class was ready to be posted out. I was only involved as a Wingleader myself once, and I was a very junior Wingleader then, so I didn’t have many favours to call in.”

“Did you get stuck with someone useless?”

T’kamen laughed. “Actually, I got a brown rider no one wanted.”

M’ric sat up a bit. “Why did no one want him?”

“There was nothing much to recommend him,” T’kamen said. “His dragon, Hishovath, was the smallest brown in the group, and they’d never distinguished themselves at anything. B’ward was about your age, but he looked five Turns younger; you’ve never seen such a weedy dragonrider. He’d been sickly all the way through training. Even the Weyrlingmaster didn’t think much of him.”

M’ric made a dismissive sound. “Weyrlingmasters.”

“L’stev wasn’t like C’rastro,” said T’kamen. “L’stev cared about every single weyrling he ever trained. He’s the one who urged me to take on B’ward, not because he saw hidden potential, but because the kid had to go somewhere, and the alternative would have made him miserable.”

“What happened to him?”

“He limped through half a Turn of sub-par performance, constant sick days, and me on his back about it all the time. Eventually I got tired of it and sent him to the Healer Hall at Southern Hold with orders not to come back until he was healthy. My Flightleader thought I’d lost my mind, but the kid wasn’t any good to anyone carrying on the way he had. He was there three months. They did every kind of test on him to try to figure out what was wrong with him. And then some clever Healer did. It turned out he had some sort of reaction to grain – wheat and barley, mostly. As soon as they tried him on a diet without any bread or cereal, he stopped feeling sick all the time and started putting on weight.” T’kamen smiled, remembering. “He came back a completely different rider and started making up for all the time he’d lost puking his guts out. Eventually he became my Wingsecond. I’ve never known anyone with a better sense for matching flying patterns to weather conditions.”

“He was lucky to have you for a Wingleader,” said M’ric.

T’kamen shrugged. “He probably didn’t think that at the time. I rode him pretty hard.”

“But you took him seriously,” said M’ric. “You didn’t just assume he was being lazy.”

“I’ve known lazy riders,” T’kamen said. “None of them loved idleness more than they hated being on my shit-list.”

M’ric gave him a sidelong look, and then laughed. “I bet you were a real bastard.”

“I had to be,” T’kamen said. “I was very young when I was made up to Wingleader. Epherineth was only six. Most of my wingmen had been riding their dragons longer than I’d been alive. Being taken seriously was more important than making friends.”

“They made you a Wingleader when you were only four Turns out of weyrling training?”

“Four and a half,” T’kamen said. “But yes. That was the path bronze riders took in my day. Straight into the first available Wingsecond position to get us used to command and into Wingleader stripes as soon as you’d proved you weren’t completely inept. It depended on who was retiring, and every time the Weyrleader changed there’d be a shuffle of the Wings, but you really had to be a deadglow to ride a bronze and not rate at least a Wingsecond knot.” He thought about it, then added, “Though some of the bronze riders I knew almost put the lie to that. There were a couple of Wings that wouldn’t have held together at all if not for the efforts of hyper-competent Wingseconds.”

“So why weren’t they promoted over the useless bronzes?” M’ric asked.

“It just wasn’t done,” said T’kamen. “I know. From where you’re sitting it seems ridiculous. But that was the accepted wisdom. Any boy who Impressed a bronze must be suited for command, because a bronze wouldn’t choose a rider who wasn’t.”

“That’s putting far too much trust in the judgement of a newborn dragonet.”

“It is,” T’kamen agreed. “I’m not so rigid in the beliefs I was brought up with that I can’t see that, M’ric. But I still think that the way Madellon is divided along colour lines is at cross-purposes with dragon hierarchy. It might be feasible for a man who rides a blue to be a good leader, but a blue doesn’t have the authority to match. How much more effective would a man likes S’leondes be if he’d Impressed a bronze?”

“Not very, in the fighting Wings,” M’ric pointed out.

“But only because dragons can’t go between.” T’kamen looked down at Fetch, snugged in his lap. “Which brings us back to them.”

“Not soon enough to help me tomorrow.”

T’kamen studied him for a moment, unsure of the best way to respond. Perhaps it would have been kinder to prepare M’ric for the inevitability of a Seventh Flight posting, but he hated to crush the small, hopeful part of him that still dreamed of being a fighting dragonrider of Madellon. “Trebruth’s exceptional and you’re more than competent, M’ric. You don’t need help.”

“Not help,” he said. “But a miracle would have been nice.” He sighed. “What would you do, in my position?”

T’kamen laughed. “In your position, and at your age, anything at all.”

“Anything?”

“Sucked up to every senior rider, elbowed every potential rival out of the way… I’d probably have traded Epherineth’s tail for a chance to fight Thread.”

“And you wouldn’t think less of me for doing that?”

“I know what you’re up against, M’ric,” T’kamen said. “If you really want to be posted to Tactical, and you really think kissing some ass will get you there…”

“We both know it won’t,” M’ric said glumly.

It was almost a relief to hear him so morosely resigned to the reality of it; still, T’kamen felt a wrench. He drained his klah. “Go to bed, M’ric.”

“I’m not going to be able to sleep.”

“You might not. I, on the other hand, am too sharding old to stay up all night like I used to when I was a weyrling.”

“Being a hundred and fifty Turns old will do that to you,” said M’ric.

“Go between,” T’kamen said automatically. Then he winced. “Not literally.”

M’ric snorted. “Good night, T’kamen.”

“Good night, M’ric. And good luck for tomorrow.”

It was a while before T’kamen actually worked up the energy to move from his chair to his bed. Even when he did, and as tired as he was, he still lay awake for a long time, listening to the disturbed rasp of Epherineth’s breathing, and to the restless turning of his own thoughts, before sleep finally claimed him.


He was up again less than a watch later, breaking his fast – and feeding Fetch on the scraps – in the relative peace of early morning before going to the infirmary for his check-up. Once Ondiar had poked at his healing wounds and proclaimed them marginally improved upon yesterday, T’kamen made the long, slow trip across the Bowl to Command for the morning’s Flight briefing with R’ganff, Ch’fil being tied up with the weyrling assessments.

The fact that C’rastro was also out, overseeing the process, didn’t exempt T’kamen from his daily penance, but it did at least mean that the Weyrlingmaster wouldn’t be breathing down his neck. It made him feel slightly less dismal about the whole business. S’hayn, one of C’rastro’s assistants, was drilling younger weyrlings out on the training grounds, and curtly told T’kamen that C’rastro had left instructions for him to clean his weyr, empty the night-soil bins in the barracks, and dump the outside midden bunkers. It was pure drudgery, or at best the tedious and dirty scutwork that weyrlings ought to have done themselves, and he couldn’t even do it efficiently with his braced leg slowing him down, but T’kamen was blighted if he’d be seen to complain.

He set the Weyrlingmaster’s weyr to order first. C’rastro was both ostentatiously untidy – to the point where T’kamen assumed he left his quarters in a state on purpose – and excessively fussy about everything having its place. T’kamen had learned to pay attention to how C’rastro liked his shirts folded, and which drawer the socks went into, and the exact way he wanted the furs on his bed arranged. The mud-caked boots that T’kamen found awaiting his attention must have been deliberately fouled, given that it hadn’t rained in three days, and C’rastro had apparently done nothing but walk back and forth around his weyr in them for hours by the amount of dirt tracked into the rushes on the floor. T’kamen cleaned and spit-shined the boots, replaced the muddy rushes, made the bed, folded and put away the scattered clothes, and tidied the bathing room. M’ric’s remark about pissing in the pool came back to him as he changed the water in the washbasin. T’kamen wondered how he and Trebruth were getting on.

Stratomath says most creditably, Epherineth volunteered. The other assessors are contorting themselves into knots trying to find fault with Trebruth’s flying.

Then they haven’t been eliminated from the formation flaming exercises yet?

No. Epherineth sounded pleased. Though one blue has already been stood down.

Tetketh?

Yes.

T’kamen felt a pang of sympathy for Tetketh’s rider. As little respect as the brown and bronze riders of the Seventh enjoyed from the rest of the Weyr, the blue riders assigned to Strategic because they’d failed to make the cut for the fighting Wings were even less well regarded.

Once C’rastro’s weyr was clean and neat, T’kamen started in on the really dirty work. Fetch, who was content to ride his shoulder unobtrusively most of the time, fled his perch in disgust as soon as T’kamen opened the door to the utility shed where the wheelbarrows were kept. For all his obliging nature, Fetch’s nose was easily offended. Even Epherineth didn’t complain as much as Fetch did when T’kamen was mucking out the weyrling middens.

Shovelling dragonet dung was a noxious necessity of early weyrlinghood that T’kamen hadn’t thought he’d ever have to endure again. Like all young animals, dragons didn’t develop control over their bodily functions straightaway. It was one of the reasons L’stev had never liked weyrlings sleeping with their dragonets: dragon crap was nearly impossible to wash out of bedfurs. Most weyrlings got their dragonets barracks-trained within the first couple of months, but it wasn’t unusual for juvenile dragons to leave night-time deposits long after the point at which they’d learned to go outside in the midden pits. Clearing out the night-soil bins, where sleepy weyrlings dumped their dragonets’ dung in the middle of the night, was an especially distasteful task that the weyrlings normally had to do themselves. Naturally, C’rastro had assigned it to T’kamen every day since he’d begun to work his sentence.

As he limped into the barracks, pushing a creaky wheelbarrow in front of him, the thin, hopeless wail of a dragonet in distress rose to greet him.

They’re still keeping her in? he asked Epherineth.

So it would seem.

T’kamen winced. He pushed his barrow as far as the first night-soil bin, and pulled up the sliding front panel. Dragon dung tumbled out in an unlovely heap, and he began pitching the mess into the barrow with quick, economic motions, trying to filter the smell out of his nostrils with the same concentration he applied to ignoring the crying of the lone hatchling green dragonet curled up in a coil of perfect misery on her couch nearby.

Both of the green-laid clutches on the Sands had Hatched a sevenday ago: Ceduth’s slightly late, and Ferrelth’s somewhat early. The synchronisation apparently wasn’t unusual in clutches laid around the same time. Ceduth’s eggs had yielded two blues and a green; Ferrelth’s, three greens and two unhatched duds. They, T’kamen gathered, had been considered an ominous portent for the vigour of the surviving hatchlings, even before it became clear that Sabbith, the smallest of Ferrelth’s already undersized brood, wasn’t right at all.

T’kamen hadn’t gone to the Hatching. Even if he’d been off-duty when Epherineth had mentioned that the green-laid eggs were cracking, which he wasn’t; even if he’d had the freedom of the Weyr, which he didn’t; he doubted he’d have been able to get across the Bowl in time. Green clutches, C’rastro had remarked, hatched with much less warning and much less ceremony than their queen-laid counterparts, and you had to act quickly just to get your candidates there on time. T’kamen could get around with just his cane now, but he wasn’t quick, and he likely never would be again.

The weyrlings had already started calling him names – mostly behind his back, though T’kamen thought that was more to avoid retribution from one of the Weyrlingmaster’s assistants than out of any fear for him. The age-old taunt of mocking an injured man’s impairment didn’t seem to have lost any of its appeal. Given that T’kamen had been walking with difficulty ever since he’d arrived in the Pass, he supposed he couldn’t complain of slander. Lame Kamen was as accurate a moniker as any. It even had a certain irresistibly alliterative ring.

He shovelled up the bulk of the dung, brushed the last few bits of reed and straw into a pile, and scooped that up too. He closed the sliding door of the bunker, laid brush and shovel over the top of his barrow, and wheeled it outside. Epherineth was waiting by the smelly tarpaulin that was used to transport the dragonets’ dung out of the Weyr. The rope threaded around the edges of the big piece of waxed canvas allowed a load to be carried in a dragon’s talons, although dumping out the resulting package wasn’t an easy or clean process. Epherineth had worked out a way to do it without making too much mess, but after several loads he invariably came back filthy and stinking. The bronze always swam immediately after finishing the job, and H’juke came every afternoon to help bathe him properly, but it still wasn’t satisfactory to T’kamen’s mind that he had to leave his dragon dirty all day.

He went back into the barracks to empty the next bunker. He was barely through the door when Sabbith’s wail started up again. It was a harrowing sound, cutting through him like a knife, and reminding him of nothing so much as the heartsick moan of a unmatched hatchling wandering the Hatching Sands. T’kamen had never known a dragonet to fail to find a rider, and Sabbith was no exception. She’d chosen a Weyrbred candidate, a boy called Glarnon, and all had seemed well at first. Then the newly-dubbed Gl’non had left Sabbith’s sight for the first time, at which point the dragonet had screamed bloody murder until he was restored to her.

The Dragon Healers had declared there was nothing materially wrong with the hatchling green. Prerth could find nothing lacking in her link with Gl’non. Still Sabbith cried and cried when separated from him. No young dragon ever liked being apart from its rider, but physical separation was something they quickly came to accept. Sabbith just seemed to lack any capacity to cope without line of sight to her rider.

“She’ll learn or she won’t,” C’rastro had said, with the lack of compassion T’kamen had come to expect from him. “Better to see which it’s to be now than six months down the line.” And that was the brusque basis on which Sabbith was being left in the barracks, deliberately isolated not just from Gl’non, but from the other dragonets of her group.

T’kamen looked at the wretched green for a long time. He wasn’t supposed to talk to any of C’rastro’s weyrlings, dragon or human, and given their mockery of him that suited him fine, but Sabbith’s pain was a tangible thing. Finally, he left his wheelbarrow and walked slowly and carefully across the barracks to the dragonet’s couch. “Hey,” he said aloud. “Sabbith. It’s all right. You don’t have to cry.”

The dragonet lifted her head off her forearms to look at him with yellow-flecked eyes. She didn’t seem afraid of him, but she didn’t stop whining, either. Her throat must have been raw with the effort. Epherineth, can you console her?

Sabbith twitched, as if startled, and blinked her mournful eyes at him, but kept on crying. Not easily, said Epherineth.

What’s wrong with her?

She misses her rider.

But surely she can sense him wherever he is?

That seems not to be enough. Epherineth paused. She has never spoken to a bronze.

She’s a sevenday old, from a green-laid clutch. She’s probably never seen a bronze. Can you stop her crying?

I could make her stop, said Epherineth. But she wouldn’t be any happier for it.

T’kamen looked down at Sabbith. You poor pitiful thing. He smoothed his hand over the dragonet’s tiny head.

“What are you doing?”

Audette stood at the entrance to the barracks. T’kamen resisted the urge to jump back from Sabbith, though the crisp authority in Audette’s voice certainly demanded obedience. Audette, one of the Assistant Weyrlingmasters, was a striking rider in her forties: dark-skinned, dark-haired, and slightly mannish of feature, although there was a calm wisdom in her eyes that softened the harder lines of her face. T’kamen let his hand drop from the dragonet’s headknob. “She’s alone and in distress,” he said. “I wouldn’t be much of a dragonrider if I didn’t try to comfort her.”

The sceptical look on Audette’s face said quite plainly that she didn’t think him much of a dragonrider regardless. Still, of all C’rastro’s assistants, she was the one who treated T’kamen with the most courtesy. “It’s for her own good,” she said. “She has to learn to be apart from her rider.”

“What if she doesn’t?”

Audette inhaled a breath through her nostrils, and then let it slowly out. She walked across the barracks to Sabbith’s couch. “You must think us very cruel.”

“My Weyrlingmaster would never have left a dragonet suffering alone,” said T’kamen. “At the least she should be out with her clutchmates.”

“She can reach out to them for companionship from here,” said Audette. “It’s the best way to teach a pining dragonet to rely on what she can sense, not just what she can see.”

“This has happened before,” said T’kamen, and when Audette’s gaze flickered, he knew he’d hit the mark. “How often?”

“Not often,” Audette said. Then she admitted, “But yes. Other dragonets have…struggled to find their place.”

“Always green-laid dragonets?”

She looked at him sharply. “You’ll add disparaging our dragons to your list of crimes, bronze rider?”

T’kamen smiled without a drop of mirth. “I might as well. You must be running out of ways to punish me by now.” He let the expression fade. “I don’t mean it as an insult, Weyrlingmaster. But if there is a link between a dragonet’s parentage and its inability to thrive…”

“Sukerath won’t be allowed to fly Ferrelth again.”

Sukerath was one of the fast fliers in G’bral’s Watch section. “Then you’re blaming the sire?”

“We can scarcely give up a fertile female,” Audette said. She sounded resigned. “However…flawed…her offspring.”

T’kamen wondered what word Audette would have used to describe Sabbith had she not been addressing a bronze rider. Imperfect? Damaged? Defective? He decided to see how far he could push her. “How long did you and your green fly in the Fighting Wings before you were appointed a Weyrlingmaster?”

Audette eyed him searchingly. “Fourteen Turns, eleven months.”

“That’s an impressive service record,” said T’kamen. He meant it. Given the average life expectancy of a fighting dragonpair, Audette and her dragon must have been both very competent and very lucky.

“What of it?” Audette asked, with a hint of impatience; perhaps assuming he sought to flatter her. “C’rastro flew nearly sixteen Turns, S’hayn and R’nie not far short of twelve each, and even K’lem had nearly reached his decade before Manskith’s injury.”

“Then all Weyrlingmasters are chosen from the most experienced riders?”

Audette’s eyes narrowed. “That’s a rather facile question from a man who led a Weyr, even in an Interval. Of course we have to be experienced. You wouldn’t put a novice in charge of training your weyrlings, and we were all Wingleaders or Wingseconds at least. Where are you going with this, bronze rider?”

It was a clumsy segue, T’kamen conceded, so he took a more direct line with his next question. “Who was your green’s dam?”

“Levierth.”

“And Prerth’s? Manskith’s?”

“Prerth, I haven’t the least idea,” she said. “He Hatched ten Turns before my time. Manskith I believe was out of Donauth. I don’t recall the sire, though she’s certainly not Geninth’s get; you only need glance at her to know that.”

“And what about S’hayn and R’nie’s blues?” T’kamen pressed.

“I see where you’re leading now, T’kamen,” said Audette. She shook her head. “Vendrelth is one of Donauth’s, too, but R’nie’s Gardoth is a son of Ceduth. A son of a green.”

“Ceduth,” said T’kamen, thoughtfully. “Trebruth’s mother.”

“Not everyone considers that an accomplishment.”

T’kamen looked at Audette carefully. “But you do.”

Audette sighed. “Much as some fighting riders would hate to admit it, we’d be lost without brown dragons. Blues have never met with a great deal of success as sires. Much has been said about young M’ric’s attitude to dragonriding, but no one can suggest that there’s anything lacking in that brown of his. You might keep that in mind when you insinuate a deficiency in the quality of green-laid dragonets.”

“But there is a deficiency,” T’kamen said. “Isn’t there?”

Audette pressed her lips disapprovingly together, but her frown lacked conviction. The almost fanatical colour prejudice common to most of Madellon’s fighting riders was muted in her. She was, T’kamen sensed, too fundamentally fair to obfuscate the truth, even when that truth might be considered heretical. “If the queens would only consent to care for the eggs!”

“Then you think the problem is on the Sands?” T’kamen asked.

Audette made a frustrated gesture. “We can only guess at how they should be turned. Have you ever watched a queen tending her eggs?”

“Yes,” T’kamen said, and found himself surprised by the amount of emotion his voice betrayed. “I have.”

She paused, her discerning gaze sweeping over him. “Of course you have.” There was almost sympathy in her tone. Then she continued, “So you know how unfathomable it is. Some eggs they move constantly, some they hardly touch at all, but it’s rare for a queen-laid clutch to turn up a dud or a…or a Sabbith. There’s no pattern or system we can detect from watching them to apply to green-laid eggs.”

“The queens can’t be persuaded at all?”

“Even if they could, we couldn’t trust them to hold to the promise,” said Audette. “A queen would sooner eat a rival’s eggs than brood over them.”

“If you had more queens…”

If,” said Audette, stressing the one word. “Queens aren’t conjured from thin air. And even if they were…” She shook her head. “You’ll make no friends, scorning the contribution of our fertile greens.”

“I don’t have any friends now,” T’kamen said. “I didn’t know popularity was such a vital part of being a dragonrider in the Eighth Pass.”

“You were a Weyrleader,” said Audette. “You must have understood the importance of having your riders on your side. We’re proud of those seven fertile greens. If you were Weyrleader now, if such a position existed, you’d be mindful of that pride.”

“If I were Weyrleader now,” said T’kamen, “I’d expect my riders to be more interested in a breeding programme that produces consistently healthy dragonets than one that throws damaged and short-lived hatchlings in the name of green rider self-esteem.”

It came out harder than he’d intended, and Audette’s nostrils flared. “You are a relic, bronze rider.”

“Perhaps I am. But if so, then I’m a relic from a time when riders of all colours had reason to be proud of their place in the scheme of things. Green riders might not have been hailed as heroes then quite the way they are now, but at least they could hope for a life expectancy of more than five paltry Turns.”

Audette was more than capable of snapping back a retort. The fact that she didn’t spoke more to her honesty than to the brilliance of T’kamen’s argument. He knew that there were reasons for all the things that he hated about the Pass; some good, some not. But it gave him the faintest glimmer of hope that one green rider, at least, was fair-minded enough to see the merit in his position. Audette clearly wished she could dismiss him completely as an anachronism with nothing of any relevance to contribute to the modern Madellon, but she couldn’t. It was mildly gratifying to know that some of what he had to say still had resonance. He left Audette with Sabbith and resumed his slow and unpleasant work.


It was late afternoon, and T’kamen was halfway through Epherineth’s bath, when the weyrlings returned. Every dragonpair looked pale and spent from the day’s exertions – the unfortunate Tetketh most off-colour of all, glumly grey and downcast – but even the smallest greens looked as tired as if they’d flown a full Fall. T’kamen paused in soaping down Epherineth’s near-side hind leg, watching the weary young dragons alight on the other side of the lake. “Do they always push them to exhaustion on an assessment day?” he asked H’juke.

Ch’fil’s tailman was up on Epherineth’s back, scrubbing dutifully along the shortened ridges between his wings. He looked over at the line of weyrlings, rubbing a stray streak of soapsand lather from his face. “Not to exhaustion,” he said. “Those dragons look much more tired that they usually do.”

T’kamen wondered if something had happened during the assessment flights. “So what happens now?”

H’juke hesitated before replying in the way that T’kamen had discovered was his habit. He was about the same age as M’ric, but there the similarities ended. H’juke was shorter and slighter, with fair curly hair and an earnest manner. He answered every question as if being asked to report to a superior, carefully relaying the facts and omitting any personal speculation of his own. “The Commander decides which dragonpairs will be posted to Tactical and which to Strategic,” he said. “Then he and his Wingleaders will decide on the placement of the new fighting pairs. It’s announced at dinner – tonight, if all the assignments have been finalised.”

“And the weyrlings who don’t make the fighting Wings?”

“Anyone who’s left over once the Wingleaders have finished tapping fighting riders joins the Seventh’s table.”

T’kamen frowned. “That’s all? They just join the Seventh? R’lony doesn’t go and tap them?”

“No,” said H’juke. “But most of the weyrlings who join the Seventh know that’s where they’re going. Like Bularth and me will be in about six months’ time.”

T’kamen supposed he shouldn’t be surprised that a Seventh Flight assignment should merit so little fanfare. H’juke was certainly phlegmatic enough about his prospects, though as the rider of a bronze dragon, and not a particularly small one by Pass standards, he would have known from the moment of Impression that his future lay in Strategic. M’ric’s determination to be recognised as a prospect for Tactical was, after all, his own personal crusade, unshared by his fellow brown weyrlings. It just seemed unnecessarily crass to treat any weyrling who didn’t get a fighting assignment as an afterthought.

While the terms of T’kamen’s sentence didn’t ban him from the dining hall during mealtimes, he’d nonetheless taken to avoiding the place during its busiest hours. He found the ever-present stares and muttered insults of the fighting riders more tiresome than distressing, but the negative attention made him an undesirable tablemate for his Seventh Flight colleagues, too. He usually went down at the beginning of first watch, when the caverns staff were clearing up, and made himself a plate from whatever was available. Given the size of the Weyr, and the abundance of supplies it enjoyed, he never went hungry. The kitchen staff let him help himself from what was left on the big serving platters, although occasionally one of the cooks would offer him an untouched loaf, or a fresh slice off a joint that hadn’t made it out to the hall, and once even a whole stickleberry pie that had been left in the oven only slightly too long. Fetch, curiously, had gone mad for that.

But in the light of H’juke’s remarks, T’kamen decided to make an exception. M’ric might not be his tailman any longer, but he owed it to him to be there, if only to commiserate his assignment to the Seventh. He was unlikely to get much of a welcome otherwise. R’lony had never made a secret of the fact that he didn’t care for M’ric or his dragon, and T’kamen suspected that many of the other Seventh riders would take issue with a weyrling who’d tried so hard to avoid being posted with them.

There was already enough of an anticipatory buzz in the dining hall when he made his way there at first evening watch that his presence didn’t make much of a ripple. T’kamen took a seat at the end of a bench on one of the Seventh Flight’s tables, far back in a corner, as much to give himself the space to stretch out his leg as to spare his wingmates his company, but as the tables filled up the spaces around him were soon taken. A brown rider he knew only vaguely, one of G’bral’s reports, sat next to him, and immediately turned his back on T’kamen in favour of talking loudly to the rider on his right, but the two riders who sat down opposite made his heart sink just a fraction.

“Well look who’s showing his face,” R’ganff said, staring across the table at T’kamen. “It’s the Weyrleader, come down from on high to shower us in his reflected shaffing glory.”

“Where’s your shoulder-snake, T’kamen?” asked Br’lom. “Or is the carrion stink too much even for your esteemed nostrils?”

“Someone ought to wring the verminous little bastard’s neck before it gets a taste for living flesh as well as dead and starts chewing on our bloody dragons,” said R’ganff.

Someone should have wiped them out Turns ago,” Br’lom added.

“Nothing that Haggerth and a belly full of firestone couldn’t solve,” said R’ganff. “It’d be a service to Pern.”

“Proper service,” added Br’lom.

T’kamen didn’t react to the barbs, though he was tempted. Fetch attracted a lot of negative attention around the Weyr – almost more than T’kamen did himself – and bringing him into the dining hall would have been pointlessly inflammatory. Seeing what he’d seen, T’kamen understood the visceral objection that most dragonriders had to fire-lizards, but Fetch had never touched a dead dragon and – Faranth willing – never would.

So he just ignored the two old bronze riders, denying them the satisfaction of getting a rise out of him, though he couldn’t entirely tune out their conversation. When the nineteen riders of M’ric’s class filtered into the dining hall to assigned places near the front, clad in full dress blacks to distinguish them from the more junior weyrlings, Br’lom craned his neck to look, and R’ganff leaned back on his bench, remarking, “Here comes the Thread-bait.”

T’kamen recalled his own acceptance into the Wings vividly, though much of the evening that followed was lost in an alcoholic haze. There hadn’t been final tests or a single day of graduation when he’d been a weyrling; just a period of a sevenday or so during which the senior weyrlings lived in tortured suspense at every dinnertime, waiting for one Wingleader or other to approach with the stripes and knots of a full wingrider in his hand. T’kamen had been lucky to be among the first of his class to be tapped, and by the Weyrleader of the time. R’hren had not, perhaps, been the most competent bronze rider ever to govern Madellon, but he’d always been highly respected as a Wingleader, and T’kamen had learned much about leadership while under his command. By contrast, he remembered how C’los had agonised over being left unchosen almost till last before he’d been claimed by F’yan’s Wing – a respectable posting, if not exactly one that a weyrling would dream of. Turns later, when T’kamen had found himself on the other side of the assignment process, he’d realised that being tapped early was no particular mark of esteem, and being left hanging until late was sometimes just a consequence of Wingleaders being unable to come to an agreement on a particularly sought-after weyrling.

Dinner had been served before anything noteworthy happened, although the meal itself – roasted fowl, a delicacy T’kamen hadn’t had in decades – was lavish enough to mark the occasion. The first Wingleader to rise from the Commander’s table almost went unseen amidst the enthusiastic gnawing of drumsticks and licking of greasy fingers, but then an expectant silence rippled outwards from where nineteen weyrlings sat in tormented anticipation of their fates.

The Wingleader – a green rider T’kamen didn’t know on sight – walked at a leisurely pace down one side of the weyrling table, slapping a rank braid casually against the palm of her hand as she went. T’kamen was too far away to see the colour of the secondary cord, but all the blue weyrlings suddenly looked more desperate than their green and brown classmates. The Wingleader stopped between two lads, both of whom were almost hovering above their seats with barely-contained expectation. Then she put her hand down firmly on the shoulder of the younger weyrling. “D’roven, the Commander has allowed you and Boskoth to fly with me. Come and join your Wing.”

As D’roven sprang delightedly from his place, and the hall erupted into applause and cheers for the newly-dubbed wingrider, T’kamen mused that the ritual hadn’t changed so much from his day. The wording was different – the emphasis went on how the new wingman would be serving at S’leondes’ pleasure, rather than on the connection between rider and Wingleader – but the theatrical build-up, the suspense, and the relief and release of the announcement, were much the same. D’roven left his classmates to sit with his new Wing, and from the round of toasts that rang out shortly after he’d taken his seat, T’kamen suspected that the excessive drinking that traditionally accompanied graduation was still a fixture, too.

After that, a new wingrider was made every few minutes. Some Wingleaders were crueller than others, keeping the weyrlings guessing as to who would be called next; one especially unkind blue rider even passed by one drooping weyrling only to backtrack moments later. As the group of weyrlings dwindled, T’kamen got his first clear look at M’ric. He was sitting alone, the spaces either side of him widening as more and more of his classmates left the bench. He looked perfectly miserable. The three other brown riders – B’nam, P’levan, and N’krie – were sitting together at one end of the table, laughing and joking, obviously unperturbed by their lot. Even F’sta, Tetketh’s rider, looked more resigned to his situation than distressed by it.

T’kamen felt his shoulders start to ache with indignant tension. This process of honouring the riders who made it to the fighting Wings and leaving the rejects to slink away uncelebrated to the Seventh was nothing more than a ritual humiliation. From every report Epherineth had received from Stratomath, M’ric and Trebruth had performed at least as well as most of their fellows in his assessments today, and better than many. T’kamen knew how hard M’ric had worked to match and surpass his classmates; he’d seen him practising manoeuvres over and over again, in his free time, of his own volition. The sheer prejudice of S’leondes, and of every other fighting officer in the Weyr, in discriminating against a passionate and talented young rider whose only fault was the colour of his dragon’s hide, made T’kamen seethe.

Epherineth, he said, abandoning caution, tell Trebruth to tell M’ric to straighten his shoulders. This isn’t his fault.

As Epherineth relayed the message, T’kamen saw M’ric lift his head and scan the Seventh’s tables, the wan hint of a smile touching his mouth. T’kamen realised that the boy hadn’t even realised he was there, in his distant corner of the hall. Trebruth said they tried very hard, Epherineth reported back.

Tell him we know they did, and we’re sharding proud of them both, and when this harper’s farce is done I’m going to get him so puking drunk he won’t even remember this whershit graduation.

“Here, T’kamen,” said R’ganff suddenly, from across the table, “Haggerth says you’re talking to that tail of yours. You’ll stop that right now or he’ll make that runt of a brown cower for a sevenday.”

T’kamen had forgotten that R’ganff’s bronze was still listening in on M’ric’s brown. “Take your dragon off Trebruth.”

“I’ll do no such blighted thing!”

T’kamen slid his eyes unblinkingly from weyrling to bronze rider, and had the satisfaction of seeing R’ganff recoil slightly. “Take him off,” he repeated. “He’s not a weyrling any more.”

R’ganff composed himself quickly, probably remembering that T’kamen was too slow and crippled to do him any harm. “He is till he’s sat his arse down at this table. Though that one probably thinks his precious buttocks are too good for a Seventh Flight berth, the arrogant little spawn.”

“Speaking of precious buttocks,” Br’lom chipped in, staring across the hall at the latest girl to make wingrider. “I’d tap that, by the Egg, see if I wouldn’t!”

“Best get to it fast,” said R’ganff. “They’ve been dying like flies in the Third all winter. What’s his name, G’sol, is a total incompetent, and the other two aren’t much better. Two marks says that piece of tail will be cold between before you ever get a turn at it.”

They continued in that vein, ignoring T’kamen, for the next couple of minutes. He distracted himself by hacking with more than necessary force at the remnants of the fowl carcass on his plate. Aggravation didn’t make for the best accompaniment to such a rare treat, but he found he’d lost his appetite anyway.

There were only a few weyrlings left when S’leondes rose from his place at the head table. T’kamen wondered if the Commander would announce that the remaining riders had failed to make the fighting Wings – it seemed just the vindictive sort of thing he would do – but instead he walked over to the weyrling table, pulling a shoulder-knot from his pocket. “Oh, here we go,” R’ganff said, over the expectant hush. “Which favoured little turd gets to fly with his nose shoved up Karzith’s tail-fork?”

Surveying the depleted weyrling table, T’kamen guessed that the turd in question would be Fraza, S’leondes’ tail. M’ric spoke – grudgingly – of her Spalinoth as the nimblest dragon in the class, and for all his complaining, T’kamen suspected that he nurtured a fearsome crush on Fraza. She’d been starting to look rather fraught, as any weyrling might when left in the company of one hopeless classmate and a clutch of brown riders bound for the Seventh. S’leondes, at least, didn’t prolong her agony. His massive hand dropped onto the girl’s shoulder. “Fraza, come and join my Wing.”

Fraza’s squeal of delight broke the tension in the room, and whatever response she made to the Commander was drowned out by laughter. She put her hands to her cheeks in blushing embarrassment, and when S’leondes gave her a gentle push towards his Wing’s table she almost ran to the cover of her new wingmates.

But the Commander didn’t follow her there. He paused, looming tall above the seated riders all around him, and put his hand in his other pocket. As he withdrew a second shoulder-knot, T’kamen saw F’sta sit bolt upright, his eyes so wide with hope that the whites showed all the way across the dining hall.

“The greedy bastard’s double-dipping,” Br’lom said to R’ganff. “Querenne hasn’t had one weyrling, nor K’bell, and the Commander’s taking two?”

“I can’t believe he’s tapping that blue rider,” T’kamen said aloud, too incensed to be circumspect. I thought you said Tetketh washed out, Epherineth!

He did.

“Oh, is that the blue that G’bral said he’d be getting?” asked Br’lom, at the same moment. “The one who couldn’t turn without needing half a Bowl’s width to do it? Because I heard…”

And then Br’lom, along with everyone else in the dining hall, fell silent, as S’leondes walked past F’sta to stand beside M’ric.

M’ric stared down at the wingrider’s knot that the Commander flipped onto the table in front of him.

“You, too, M’ric,” said S’leondes, into the stunned silence. “Welcome to the fighting Wings.”

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