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Chapter forty-five: L’stev, Sh’zon, C’mine

When timing, there is no act more dangerous than encountering yourself. The risk that you will become entangled with the thoughts and emotions of your other self – and your other self’s dragon – increases exponentially with physical proximity. In such situations a rider can lose his sense of self, his orientation in time, and ultimately, his very sanity.

– Excerpt from the personal writings of Weyrlingmaster L’stev

100.03.26 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
MADELLON WEYR

 L'stev (Micah Johnson)L’stev was writing the conclusion of his sevendaily report when Vanzanth suddenly said, Shimpath asks if Megrith is well, and wants to know if the bronzes are still on watch.

Tell her Megrith’s fine, and the bronzes –

Kawanth has just asked for a report too, Vanzanth interrupted.

L’stev put down his pen. The weyrlings had been squeaking all morning, tussling and play-fighting with each other as dragonets left at leisure were apt to do, and he’d been ignoring the noise accordingly. Is everything in order out there?

Berzunth and Megrith are quiet. Vidrilleth is on watch with Redmyth, Kidbeth, and Santinoth. None of them are asleep.

Then tell Shimpath and Kawanth that all is well. L’stev paused, then added, And ask Shimpath what’s happened to worry them.

Her rider is still worried that Tezonth’s rider could try to take back Megrith.

L’stev snorted aloud. He’ll touch her over my cold dead corpse.

I have told her so.

You told Shimpath that? L’stev shook his head. You daft old wher.

She seemed glad to hear it.

L’stev picked up his pen again and scowled down at his report. It was already six pages long, and he didn’t want to start a new sheet for the sake of a few lines. He’d already made his writing smaller, trying to squeeze in the last couple of sentences before he ran out of space. He turned the page sideways and began to write up the edge of the hide.

He still hadn’t finished when the blood-curdling shriek of an angry queen sliced through his selective deafness.

Megrith? he asked sharply.

Berzunth, Vanzanth replied, even as the rest of the dragonets’ voices rose in response to their queen’s cry.

L’stev pushed his fingertips against his temples, looking down at the report he’d so nearly completed. Then, decisively, he shoved back his chair. Is it Megrith who’s set her off?

No. It’s her rider.

“Her rider?” L’stev asked, surprised enough to say it aloud as he stepped out onto the ledge. Vanzanth was up on his feet, angled intently at the training grounds below. Berzunth was on her hind legs, trumpeting her agitation to the world, and the other Wildfire dragonets had surrounded her in a protective circle. Megrith and Heppeth were on the fringe, looking only slightly less distressed. “What the shaff could Tarshe be up to that would bother her?”

Even as he said it, he thought of several things that would upset an eleven-month-old dragonet, but none that he could imagine Tarshe doing. She was more level-headed than any Weyrlingmaster could hope a queen weyrling to be. Vanzanth turned his head briefly to him, his eye whirling with heightened tension. She says she can’t hear her. Vidrilleth wants to know what the commotion is about. Izath too.

“Vidrilleth and Izath can shaff off,” said L’stev. “What does Berzunth mean, she can’t hear her? As if Tarshe’s blocking her, or she’s unconscious, or what?”

She won’t answer me, said Vanzanth. She’s too upset to listen.

“Then make her listen. And for Faranth’s sake, tell the others to wind their shaffing necks in. One kicking off is bad enough without the whole lot joining in.”

The dragonets’ cries began to cut off as Vanzanth exerted his authority over them, though not with the abruptness L’stev would have expected. It worried him. As the cacophony dwindled to just a couple of counterpoints to Berzunth’s squalling, Vanzanth said, Berzunth’s demanding to see her rider.

“I knew I shouldn’t have let them out to that shaffing Gather,” L’stev growled, annoyed with himself. “See if you can get Darshanth’s attention at Long Bay. Tell him to find Tarshe, report on her status, and then get her back here. I’m not having this.” Then he noticed that only one other weyrling was still wailing. “Is that Jagunth?”

The green dragonet couldn’t compete with Berzunth for volume or effect, but there was no mistaking the sincerity in her voice. Yes, Vanzanth replied, sounding increasingly troubled.  Jagunth can’t hear her rider either.

“Faranth’s tits and arse!” L’stev snapped. “What the shaff have those two girls got themselves into?”

Vanzanth didn’t reply – L’stev could feel how his mental agility was being tested, split as it was between reaching to Darshanth at Long Bay and attempting to calm the pair of frantic dragonets. It was almost a relief when Vidrilleth, standing watch up on the Rim, suddenly abandoned his post to head towards the barracks. L’stev didn’t have much time for F’yan, but the authority of his bronze would be welcome in helping to settle Berzunth.

F’yan was shouting before he’d even dismounted from his dragon. “What in the name of the First Egg is going on with the queen?” he bellowed from Vidrilleth’s neck, fumbling to release his safety. “She’s broadcasting to the whole Weyr that she can’t hear her rider!”

“There’s some overreaction going on,” L’stev said aridly, reflecting that the whole Weyr comprised only a couple of dozen dragons besides the weyrlings themselves; almost everyone was out at Long Bay.

F’yan frowned. “Well, have you recalled her rider?”

“C’mine’s on the ground at Long Bay,” L’stev replied, and after pausing to let Vanzanth pass along Darshanth’s report, he added, “He’s looking for the two girls now.”

“Two?”

“One of the greens is upset too,” L’stev said, pointing out Jagunth.

Faranth,” F’yan swore. “Sharding ash-brained teenage girls. I suppose they’ve decided to mimic the rest of the dragonriders in this Weyr and take the opportunity to pour as much booze down their throats as they can at the Gather.”

It was the most likely explanation – even adult dragons could be distressed by that kind of overindulgence – but it still didn’t ring true. “I don’t think so,” L’stev said. “There are kids in that group I could believe would misbehave, but not Tarshe, and not Carleah.”

“Perhaps you don’t know your weyrlings as well as you think you do,” said F’yan. “Carleah – she’s C’los’ brat, isn’t she? Her father wasn’t exactly known for the soundness of his judgement. The egg doesn’t roll far from the clutch.”

L’stev said, coolly, “And it’s bad luck to speak ill of the dead.”

F’yan ignored that. “Can’t Vanzanth shut her up? That noise is going right through my skull.”

“Have Vidrilleth ask her.”

“Don’t give me orders, L’stev,” F’yan told him. “In case you’d forgotten, I’m in charge here.”

“How could I forget,” said L’stev. “I’m going to have Vanzanth check in with Kawanth, and then I’m bringing the rest of the weyrlings home.”

“Did you not hear what I just said?” F’yan asked, incredulous. “I’ll decide what’s to be done! I’m the ranking rider here!”

L’stev was running out of patience. F’yan had always been an idiot, right back as far as when they’d been weyrlings together. “And I’m the sharding Weyrlingmaster. When weyrlings become the responsibility of a Wingleader who’s only minding the Weyr because everyone else is away, you’ll be welcome to make decisions about them. Until then, if you want to make yourself useful, have your dragon control that queen.”

F’yan drew himself up to deliver a retort, but then Vanzanth and Vidrilleth, in uncanny unison, adopted a listening pose of such urgency that the words never came. What is it? L’stev demanded of Vanzanth.

And as the Bowl began to echo with the cries of alarmed dragons, Vanzanth said, Something has happened at Long Bay.

What?” L’stev barked.

Something has happened. The queens cannot hear their riders.

“What do you mean, ‘the queens can’t hear their riders’?” F’yan snapped at Vidrilleth, almost at the same moment.

“Can you reach Kawanth?” L’stev asked Vanzanth.

After a moment, Vanzanth replied, Kawanth cannot hear his rider, either. There is uproar. They – He paused, listening, and then continued. They have been told to do nothing, to stay calm and quiet.

“Told? Told by whom?”

By Tezonth’s rider. He has taken the Weyrleaders hostage. He has taken Berzunth’s rider, too. Vanzanth shifted his attention back to the training grounds; automatically, L’stev followed his gaze to Berzunth, frozen now in horror.

“He wants to trade them for Megrith,” F’yan breathed. He’d blanched to a deathly pale hue, and Vidrilleth was whining, his eyes gone yellow and white with distress. He almost staggered, catching himself against his dragon’s leg. “Faranth, he has our queens. What can we do? What can we do?” He looked up at L’stev, his eyes glazed. “We have to hand her over, L’stev.”

“What are you…?” L’stev began, and then broke off as he realised why F’yan and Vidrilleth seemed so poleaxed. It was a colour thing, a manifestation of the bond between a Weyr’s queens and bronzes. A glance up at the Rim confirmed his theory: the three bronzes on watch there looked just as stunned and dismayed as Vidrilleth. L’stev had never seen the phenomenon so clearly illustrated outside a mating flight. “Pull yourself together, man,” he said roughly. “No one’s handing anyone –”

And then behind him, Karika’s tremulous voice blurted, “We’ll go.”

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

Sh'zon (Micah Johnson)Outside, dragons roared.

More than one glass on the table toppled over as every rider in the room started at the furious vocalisation. Sh’zon thought he heard Kawanth among the chorus of bellows, but without direct contact he couldn’t be certain. The realisation horrified him.

P’raima looked only mildly irritated at the commotion. “You,” he said, pointing at the wine steward. “You’ll go and tell the servants and guards outside this room that no one is to try to come in and no one is to try to leave.”

The steward looked uncertainly at Coffleby. Gianna’s face was a mask of contained fury. “And what power do you think you have over me, P’raima? I have no dragon for you to hold to ransom.”

“Your grandson does,” said P’raima.

Coffleby looked sharply at G’kalte. Her nostrils flared. “Ervaughn,” she said to the wine steward, “do as you’re bid.”

“L’dro,” said P’raima. “If you ever want to be able to hear your dragon again, you’ll make it your personal responsibility that neither Lady Coffleby nor her servants do anything reckless.”

L’dro blinked stupidly for a moment. Then he stood up so quickly that he tipped over his chair. “You and you,” he said, gesturing at the two servers who were standing by the wine cabinet. “Get over there by the window.”

“This is ridiculous, P’raima,” said Rallai. “What do you think you can possibly gain?”

P’raima ignored her. “Sh’zon,” he said instead. “You can tell every dragon at Long Bay to be silent if they want this to go smoothly.”

“What?” Sh’zon exclaimed.

“You’ll then return to Madellon, where you’ll personally arrange for the transportation of Karika and Megrith back to Southern.”

“I’ll do no such blighted –”

“Once my queen has been returned, I’ll reunite Berzunth with her rider,” P’raima went on. “And once each of you has signed a treaty swearing that no dragon of either of your Weyrs will spread wings over Southern Weyr’s territory ever again, I’ll also provide you with the cure for your dragon-deafness.”

“You can’t possibly think that Pern will let you do this, P’raima,” Valonna said faintly.

“You’re in no position to be worrying about me.” P’raima gestured peremptorily at Sh’zon. “Go. The sooner you facilitate Megrith’s return, the sooner this will be over for all of us.”

Sh’zon wanted to go – more than anything, he wanted to get to Kawanth – but the notion of leaving Valonna and Rallai as P’raima’s hostages was unthinkable. “I’m not going anywhere, you miserable piece of shit!”

P’raima looked at him with unveiled contempt. “I must have misjudged your love for your cousin. You must know I put no value on a Madellon queen.”

“Aye, no value except as a bargaining piece!” Sh’zon roared. “Kill Tarshe and you have nothing to trade to us for Megrith!”

“Who said I needed to kill her?” P’raima asked. “A queen only requires her rider to be alive.”

The threat hit Sh’zon like a punch in the gut. He found himself groping futilely for Kawanth again, seeking his reassurance. His absence was like a missing tooth that the tongue couldn’t help but probe. “You wouldn’t hurt her,” he said, barely able to muster more than a whisper. “She’s just a girl. You wouldn’t.”

“Do as you’re told, and I won’t need to,” said P’raima.

“Sh’zon,” Valonna said, grasping his arm. Her face was pinched and white. “Sh’zon, please, go. At least you can tell our dragons we’re all right.”

“You shaffing go,” L’dro said roughly, from across the table, “and you shaffing well send that girl back where she shaffing came from! You should never have taken her in the first place!”

“I don’t take orders from you!” Sh’zon snarled.

“Enough!” Rallai said, her voice cutting across both of them. “L’dro! Be silent!” She met Sh’zon gaze squarely. “Sh’zon. You need to act for both our Weyrs in this. Go to K’ken.”

“Rallai –” H’pold protested.

“No, H’pold,” she told him. “Give him your Weyrleader’s knot so K’ken knows he’s acting in our stead.”

It was a token of just how desperate the situation was that H’pold only hesitated a moment before untying the rank cord from his shoulder. He flung it angrily across the table at Sh’zon. “Don’t scorch this up,” he said, his icy eyes boring into his.

“I’ve got more reasons than anyone else here not to,” Sh’zon said, picking up the knot and thrusting his arm through it. He looked down at Valonna. She looked back at him with mute entreaty. Sh’zon didn’t need her to say anything to know what she was asking of him. He only hoped he’d be able to deliver it. “G’kalte,” he snapped at the brown rider sitting beside her. “You’re responsible for the Weyrwoman’s safety in my absence.”

“Yes sir,” G’kalte replied immediately.

“Enough of this posturing,” said P’raima. “I’ll expect Megrith back at Southern within the hour, Sh’zon. And just remember, when you and your riders are trying to think of a way around my demands. I have your cousin. Play games with me, and you won’t be getting her back in one piece.”

Sh’zon fixed his stare on P’raima, feeling rage boiling up inside him. Only the painful knowledge that Kawanth would have tamped it down stopped him from expressing it. “I’m not like to forget, P’raima,” he said instead, and with a final glance around the table, he left the room.

Ervaughn was among the cluster of guards and stewards engaged in an urgent conference directly outside. “Wingleader!” the guard captain said, moving as if to stop him.

“Out of my way!” Sh’zon jostled past him, and barely felt the impact of his shoulder against the captain’s mail-clad torso. “I’m under orders, same as you!”

“But, sir,” the guardsman said, trailing after him, “the Gather’s in disarray. The dragons are frantic –”

“You think I need telling that, you shaffing deadglow?”

“But what should we do?

“You guard that Thread-blighted room and you don’t let anyone in or out until further notice! Faranth’s shaffing teeth, man, out of my way!”

As he took the stairs down from the upper level of the Hold two and three at a time, he heard raised voices from below. More guards and stewards had congregated in Long Bay’s foyer, surrounding a smaller knot of dragonriders from Madellon and the Peninsula. Both sides were shouting at each other, and whatever they were saying was lost in the general cacophony, but Sh’zon could guess. Every dragon on the continent would have picked up on the queens’ distress by now.

L’mis was one of the Madellon riders arguing with Lady Coffleby’s men, but the old Wingleader broke off his angry tirade when he saw Sh’zon. “You!” he shouted. “What in the Void is going on? Where’s Valonna? What’s happened?”

“P’raima’s taken leave of his senses,” Sh’zon snapped. “L’mis, this is important. Tell Pelranth to tell Kawanth to come here, to the main courtyard.”

“But why –”

“Tell him now!”

L’mis, normally the argumentative type, recoiled, visibly taken aback. Then he nodded. “Pelranth’s passed it on,” he said. “Kawanth’s on his way. Sh’zon –”

“Have him find Trebruth, too, and have him and his rider get here this minute,” Sh’zon said. He stabbed a finger at a Peninsula bronze rider – a Wingsecond – who was the highest-ranking representative of his Weyr amongst the group. “J’gorra, is K’ken at the Gather?”

“Y-yes,” the bronze rider said, with creditable promptness, his eyes flicking to the Weyrleader’s rank cord looped over Sh’zon’s shoulder.

“Get him here,” Sh’zon ordered. Then another thought occurred to him. “Where’s Britt?”

“Back at the Weyr,” said J’gorra. “Do you want her to come here too?”

“No,” Sh’zon said sharply. “She’s to stay there. And make sure any bronzes there too are on the highest alert.”

“Is she in danger?” J’gorra asked.

“Yes,” said Sh’zon. “Pass it on!”

The great double-doors of Long Bay Hold were massive and substantial things, but Sh’zon shoved through them as if they were barely there. The bright sunshine hurt his eyes, but the sight of his own dragon gliding over the heights made his heart leap in his breast. Kawanth called out as he backwinged to land, a weird, low, ululating cry that made the hair on the back of Sh’zon’s neck stand up. He reached instinctively towards his dragon to reassure him, but the unnatural barrier that had come down between them thwarted him. “Kawanth!” he shouted instead, and barely waited for him to touch down completely before barging up to him and pressing his hands hard against his neck. “Kawanth, my boy, what’s been done to us?”

Kawanth’s forepaws came around Sh’zon in a cage, almost too hard; he turned his head down, whining anxiously. There was, Sh’zon realised abruptly, no way for him to reply. Even as the thought occurred to him, L’mis – who had trailed Sh’zon out of the Hold – uttered a surprised yelp. “Faranth, Sh’zon,” he said, “your dragon just spoke to me!”

Sh’zon thumped Kawanth’s forepaw encouragingly, proud of his initiative. “Aye, and what did he say?”

“He said he…” L’mis cleared his throat, evidently embarrassed as well as discomfited by the imposition of another man’s dragon on his mind. “He says he doesn’t want you to ever leave his sight again.”

“It’s all right,” Sh’zon said, turning back to face his bronze. “I’m here, Kawanth, I’m with you, I’m not going anywhere.” He screwed up his stinging eyes, trying to organise his thoughts. P’raima, the queens, Tarshe, Karika…it was all too much.

“Sh’zon,” L’mis said, sounding baffled, “what happened? The queens started screaming that they couldn’t talk to their riders. Can you…not hear him?”

“Get Pelranth to soothe the queens,” Sh’zon said, ignoring the question. “Tell them their riders are fine, but they have to stay calm. Get the other bronzes to reinforce if you have to. The queens have to stay calm and quiet.”

L’mis’ face, gradually draining of colour, betrayed his alarm, but to his credit he didn’t query the order. As he communicated with his bronze, wearing an expression of intense concentration, Trebruth arrowed in. Kawanth was already taking up most of the room in Long Bay’s inner courtyard, but the little brown turned nearly on a wingtip before squeezing himself into the small amount of space left. As M’ric dismounted, Sh’zon saw Essienth, K’ken’s distinctive bronze, settle just outside the courtyard.

“Kawanth,” he said, pushing at the forepaws his dragon had linked around him. “I need you to let me go. I won’t leave your sight, I promise, but I have to talk to these riders.” He put his hands on his bronze’s muzzle, looking up into his nearside eye, spinning agitatedly orange-red. “Do you understand?”

“He says he does,” L’mis said, behind Sh’zon, even as Kawanth grudgingly unclasped his grip. Having Kawanth’s remarks filtered through another rider was a deeply unsettling thing.

K’ken strode over from his dragon at a long-legged lope that belied his usual steady temperament. “What in the Void is going on?”

Sh’zon held up a hand. “Let me talk,” he told the Peninsula’s Deputy Weyrleader. He glanced around the group: L’mis, J’gorra, K’ken, the captain of Long Bay’s guards, and finally at M’ric, whose expression gave nothing away. He took a deep breath. “P’raima of Southern has taken Lady Coffleby and the Weyrleaders of Madellon and the Peninsula hostage. They’re unharmed,” he went on, cutting across the round of oaths that greeted his statement. “They’re all fine. But P’raima must have put something in the wine he brought.” He hesitated, glancing back at Kawanth, hating to say it out loud. “Now none of us can hear our own dragons. That’s why the queens have been going mad.”

“What –” K’ken tried again.

“Questions later,” Sh’zon snapped. “Listen to me. P’raima said he’s also had Tarshe taken captive here at the Gather. Madellon’s weyrling queen rider.”

“Faranth!” L’mis swore. “He wants to exchange her for Megrith?”

“Aye,” said Sh’zon, grimly. “He says he’ll hand Tarshe over if we send Karika and Megrith back to Southern. And he’ll give us an antidote to whatever he gave us that’s made us dragon-deaf if we pledge never to interfere with Southern Weyr again.”

L’mis shook his head incredulously. “Blight it, Sh’zon, I said nothing good would ever come of taking those weyrlings from Southern!”

“Be that as it may, we can’t change it,” Sh’zon said. “P’raima has us by the balls. He has Tarshe, and he has our Weyrleaders. And your Lady,” he added, glancing at the guard captain.

“But he has to be bluffing,” L’mis objected. “He’s a dragonrider. He wouldn’t hurt a weyrling. That…that would mean Exile. It would mean…Separation.

The word made every rider present flinch. “I don’t reckon he cares,” said Sh’zon. “He seems to think he has nothing left to lose. Or at least, a lot shaffing less than we do.”

“Why did he let you out?” K’ken asked.

“To arrange Megrith’s return to Southern,” said Sh’zon. Even saying the words made him bristle. “That’s what I’m meant to be doing right now.”

L’mis looked at him incredulously. “You’re not going to comply?”

For the first time in the months Sh’zon had known L’mis, he felt a jolt of respect for him. L’mis had voted against bringing the Southern weyrlings to Madellon in the first place, and he’d been an antagonistic voice on the bronze rider Council ever since Sh’zon had joined Madellon. But the man knew when to show solidarity, and that gave Sh’zon heart. “Do what that murderous bastard of a Southern watch-wher tells me to? You’re shaffing right I’m not!”

“Shards,” K’ken murmured.

Sh’zon grabbed the Weyrleader’s shoulder-knot H’pold had given him. “See this?” he asked. “H’pold and Rallai authorised me to act for the Peninsula. Can I trust you to respect their appointment?”

K’ken paused only for a moment before nodding. “You can.”

“Good man,” Sh’zon said. “Everything I need from the Peninsula will go through you.”

“What do you need?” K’ken asked. “What are you going to do?”

Sh’zon risked a glance at M’ric, hoping he knew what he was thinking. Faranth, but it was frustrating not being able to communicate via their dragons! “We have to get to Tezonth,” he said. “If we can get him, we have P’raima.”

“Essienth says he’s not here,” said K’ken.

“Of course he’s not here,” Sh’zon said. “P’raima’s mad, not stupid. He knows Tezonth’s his weakness, same as we do, so he’s stashed him away somewhere we won’t easily find him.”

“Someone else at Southern has to know where he is,” said K’ken. “He can’t possibly be acting alone.”

“On the contrary,” said L’mis, shaking his head, “I’d be amazed if he weren’t. He’s always run Southern tighter than a watch-wher’s tailfork. Never liked to delegate anything important to anyone. It may have been a few Turns since I was Madellon’s Weyrleader, but I doubt P’raima’s leadership style has become more inclusive since then.”

“Then who’s spirited away your queen weyrling?” asked K’ken. “You’re not telling me she’s still here at the Gather? No. Someone at Southern knows something.”

“D’pantha,” Sh’zon spat. “He was meant to be here in P’raima’s place. We get over to Southern now, we put the squeeze on him –”

“And who’s going to do the squeezing?” L’mis demanded. “Bronze against bronze is a stalemate, and all the queens are out of commission!”

“Not all of them,” K’ken contradicted him. “Tynerith’s at the Peninsula.”

L’mis snorted. “She’s still a weyrling! No juvenile queen can exert an influence over the bronzes of another Weyr until she’s risen for the first time.”

K’ken frowned, obviously unable to counter the validity of L’mis point. “Then we petition the North’s queens to intervene.”

“The North won’t get involved,” L’mis said dismissively.

“P’raima’s completely out of line –”

“And some argued that Madellon was in taking Southern’s weyrlings in the first place,” L’mis cut across him. “They’re not going to send a queen to wade into this Thread-storm.”

“But –”

“Stop flapping your gums at each other!” Sh’zon barked, losing patience with the debate. “Queen or not, we can’t be rolling up at Southern empty-handed. We try to put any pressure on a Southern dragon, you can bet P’raima’ll be the first to know. I’m not having him getting twitchy with Tarshe’s well-being!”

K’ken and L’mis both looked askance at him, and then K’ken winced. “Faranth,” he said, “she’s your cousin, isn’t she?”

“My cousin,” said Sh’zon. “My Weyr. My responsibility.” He took a deep breath, then looked between L’mis and K’ken. “Can you both get your Weyr’s dragons calm? Queens included?”

L’mis nodded, and a moment later, so did K’ken, adding, “What about the Southern dragons?”

“Leave them alone,” Sh’zon said. “I don’t want to give P’raima any excuse to claim we’ve been threatening his riders. K’ken, I need Britt and Tynerith briefed on the situation. She doesn’t have the authority of a mature queen, but she’s the closest thing we have. If it comes to a face-off with Tezonth we’re going to need her.” He turned to L’mis. “I need you on point here, L’mis. Get hold of C’mine and find out what in the Void happened with Tarshe. And –”

“It’s not just Tarshe,” L’mis said suddenly. “There are two weyrlings missing.”

“Two?” Sh’zon demanded. “P’raima didn’t say anything about there being two!”

“Vanzanth’s reporting that one of the green dragonets can’t hear her rider, either,” said L’mis. “Jagunth’s rider, Carleah.”

“Find out what happened to them,” Sh’zon said. He pointed at Coffleby’s guard captain. “You, bring in your stewards. Two weyrlings can’t just have disappeared in the middle of a Gather. Someone must have seen something.”

“Straightaway, Weyrleader,” the captain replied. He looked grateful to have an order to follow.

“You report to L’mis, here, you understand?” Sh’zon told him.

“Where are you going?” asked K’ken.

“Where I’m supposed to be going,” said Sh’zon. “Madellon. Now go. Go!

The other men scattered to their tasks. Sh’zon gave them a count of ten to disappear around Kawanth’s bulk before turning to squint at M’ric. “Where, M’ric?”

M’ric returned his gaze. “Where what?”

“Where is she?” Sh’zon asked. He ground the words out. “Tarshe. Where does P’raima have her?”

“I don’t know, Sh’zon.”

“Then where’s Tezonth? Where is he, blight it?”

“I don’t know that, either –”

Sh’zon raised his hands in an involuntarily motion, itching to grab M’ric by the front of his shirt and rattle the truth out of him. He thought better of it, and clenched his fists instead. “Tarshe’s been kidnapped,” he said, through teeth gritted so hard his jaw hurt. “Rallai and Valonna are P’raima’s hostages. I can’t hear my own dragon. This isn’t the time for you to be shaffing coy.”

“I’m not being coy, Sh’zon,” M’ric insisted.

“Then tell me what to do!

It was the appeal Sh’zon had never spoken, the plea he’d always refused to voice; the entreaty his pride had never allowed him to make. He’d always listened to his Wingsecond’s advice. He’d often acted on the unnaturally privileged insights M’ric shared with him. He’d certainly profited from them. And perhaps he’d never thanked the brown rider as sincerely as he ought. Perhaps he’d not rewarded him adequately for his services over the Turns. Perhaps he’d taken him too much for granted. Because even as Sh’zon begged him for guidance, as he’d never begged him before, the implacable look in M’ric’s sharp dark eyes didn’t flicker. “Please. M’ric, please.”

“I can’t help you this time, Sh’zon,” said M’ric. “Not the way you want me to.”

“What do you mean, you can’t? Between with can’t! Get on your dragon, jump forward a couple of days, and –”

“Don’t be a shaffing idiot,” M’ric said, in a tone he’d never taken with Sh’zon before. For the first time ever, Sh’zon saw something dark and frightening in M’ric’s eyes. It shook him. “It doesn’t work that way.”

“What are you talking about? You’ve been going between times your whole life!”

“Not by choice,” M’ric said curtly. “Never by choice. I’ve done it because I’ve had to, because I already have. Not because I want to. Faranth knows there are times I’ve wished I hadn’t. Time isn’t my servant, Sh’zon. I dance to its tune.”

It was the most Sh’zon had ever heard M’ric say about his timing, and among the most impassioned sentiments he’d ever heard his calm and unshakeable second express, but he still didn’t understand. “I’m not asking you to interfere,” he said. “I just need a hint. A clue to where I can find Tarshe. Faranth, M’ric, after all we went through to get her on Berzunth, why would you do this to her?”

“I’m not doing anything to her –”

“But P’raima will!” Sh’zon cried. “You didn’t see him, Malric; he’s lost his mind! He’ll hurt her! I know he will!”

“Then send Megrith back,” said M’ric, with brutal bluntness. “Or don’t, and find another way. I’ve already done more than I should have. The rest is on you.”

Sh’zon stared at him, incredulous, but M’ric’s face was like stone. “You treacherous sack of shit,” he said, and grabbed the rank cord that looped M’ric’s shoulder. He ripped it off, threw it at his feet, and spat on it. “You’re no Wingsecond of mine!”

It felt like his brain was on fire with fury as he turned back to Kawanth. If the bronze had grasped the ferocity of their exchange, it didn’t show; his eyes were agitated orange-red, but no more so than they had been already. “Shaffit!” Sh’zon swore. He grabbed his dragon’s jaw. “Kawanth, I need you to take us to Madellon!”

Kawanth rumbled with what Sh’zon hoped was assent. It occurred to him, as he vaulted to his place between the ridges, that he would have to trust his dragon’s courage and intelligence as he’d never had to trust it before. And his own. Because with Kawanth cut off, M’ric turned traitor, and the weight of Pern upon his shoulders, Sh’zon had never felt so lost, or so alone, or so afraid.

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

C'mine (Micah Johnson)The daze had come over C’mine even before the queens started screaming. His heart began to thump painfully hard in his chest; Darshanth’s increasingly panicky reports resounded in his brain; everything he’d eaten roiled queasily in his belly. He felt himself take one staggering step, and then the ground rushed up to meet him.

It was only as he lay there, staring at the worn stubble that had once been grass, with people converging on him like wherries on a carcass, that he comprehended what was happening.

C’mine crawled to his feet, striking away the helping hands that grasped at him. Weyrlings. He saw their pale faces as if through a fog, hazy, distorted, as K’dam and K’ralthe helped to heave him upright. J’kovu looked white-faced, shocked. There were others. He knew he should gather them. He was surprised to find that part of his brain was still capable of counting and tallying, but that part seemed far removed from the small, tight kernel of focus at his centre. So did the portion that comforted the distraught Maris as she stammered a bewildered account of where they’d last seen Tarshe and Carleah; the portion that noticed the five letters, freshly tattooed and still bleeding, on Soleigh’s bare arm, B-R-I-S-T – her dragon’s name, incomplete; the portion that felt Darshanth’s distress at being interrogated by Pelranth.

But the voices still echoed in his head, and overlapping images still shifted and eddied confusingly in front of his eyes.

More weyrlings arrived, escorted by adult riders. Someone was talking excitedly about a Southern rider who’d been found and detained and questioned. Someone else said that Shimpath had landed in the main Gather square, scattering people and destroying stalls. One of the youngest weyrlings was crying for his dragon.

He is coming, said Darshanth.

He is close, said Darshanth.

Darshanth’s voice reverberated queerly, as though coming from two directions simultaneously, and a fresh wave of nausea turned C’mine’s stomach inside out. He clutched at his belly, fighting to keep everything contained, in his head as well as in his gut. Darshanth – both of him – whined unhappily.

And then C’mine saw himself. Not his double, but himself, surrounded by frightened weyrlings, holding his stomach as though it were about to rip open. As he looked around to find the source of the vision, struggling to discern his own reality from his other self’s, his eyes fell upon a figure wearing  an unseasonable foul-weather cape, a cape whose hood had been pulled down to shadow its wearer’s face. C’mine looked at himself looking at himself, like an image bounced endlessly between two mirrors, and the sheer unnatural wrongness of it pressed down with implacable weight on his mind.

He walked towards himself, helpless to resist. Each step that closed the distance made the unspeakable pressure intensify, as if there were only sanity enough in the world for one C’mine to exist at a time. Both Darshanths were groaning now in an infinite loop of misery. And C’mine wondered, as he teetered on the brink of a metaphysical abyss, if to touch his other self would be an offence against the natural order of things so egregious that it would at a stroke obliterate them both from existence, or else tear the universe itself apart.

He stopped an arm’s length from the second him. He saw, beneath the shadow of the hood, a dim, sickly light reflected in his eyes. “Is she alive?” he croaked, with a throat gone dry.

“Giskara Basin,” said his future self, in a voice that echoed weirdly.

“Is she alive?”

The hooded figure shook his head. “I can’t tell you what I didn’t tell you. I wish I could say more. He never meant for this to happen.”

“Who?” C’mine pleaded. “Please! For Leah’s sake! Who?”

“I’m sorry,” the other C’mine said. “I can’t.”

Please!” C’mine cried, and grabbed at his double.

Both Darshanths screamed.

When consciousness returned, the other C’mine was gone.

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