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Chapter forty-six: L’stev, Carleah, Valonna

The rainforests of Southern territory have yielded hundreds of species of heretofore unknown herbs, roots, and fungi with extraordinary properties. The advances we have been able to make in the development of medicines since the Southern Continent was first settled have transformed the work of the Healerhall beyond all recognition. We must, therefore, continue to invest resources and personnel into the exploration of Southern’s botanical riches – whatever political capital must be expended to guarantee our crafters unrestricted access.

– Letter from Southern Masterhealer Tuvender to Northern Masterhealer Knoriam

100.03.26 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
MADELLON WEYR

L'stev (Micah Johnson)Kawanth incoming, Vanzanth reported, and a moment later Sh’zon’s bronze appeared in the sky above Madellon, his eyes glowing an unsettling shade of purple-red even at that distance.

Call him down, L’stev told Vanzanth, and held up a hand to Karika and T’gala, who had joined her Weyrmate. “Give Sh’zon a moment to get here,” he told them. “You shouldn’t have to do this twice.”

Karika looked sick, having already been asked to hold her peace once, to allow H’ned to stagger his way over to the barracks. Even stinking of booze and looking like shit, Izath’s rider engendered slightly more trust in L’stev than F’yan did, but neither man was his idea of a safe pair of hands. At least Sh’zon wasn’t hungover or hysterical. If he’d had more time, L’stev would have been ashamed of the calibre of Madellon’s bronze riders, that a foreigner should be their most viable leader in a crisis.

But Sh’zon looked shaken, a shadow of his overbearing self. Berzunth, her hide gone an almost chalky shade of its normal pale gold, reared over him as he approached, shrieking accusations, and Sh’zon cringed back, holding up his hands. “I’ll get her back, Berzunth! I swear, I’ll get her back!”

“Berzunth!” L’stev snapped at the young queen, and felt Vanzanth reinforce the command. “Let him by!”

Berzunth subsided just enough to let Sh’zon pass. Between his own distress and the intimidation of a queen dragon’s rancour, Sh’zon looked barely capable of locomotion, let alone leadership. L’stev abandoned protocol, pulling the three bronze riders a little way apart from Karika. “Report!”

Sh’zon almost looked grateful for a command to follow. “It’s P’raima,” he said. “He’ll do anything to get Megrith back.”

“The facts, Sh’zon,” L’stev told him crisply.

To Sh’zon’s credit, he seemed to pull himself somewhat together. He outlined the state of affairs in concise, staccato sentences: the kidnap of the weyrlings, the hostage situation in Lady Coffleby’s dining room, the terrifying disconnection P’raima had somehow engineered between riders and dragons. And then P’raima’s demands: the immediate return of Karika and Megrith, and the binding oath of the other Weyrs that Southern would henceforth be exempt from all outside interference.

“P’raima’s lost his mind,” said H’ned. “He can’t hold Karika or any of us to an oath sworn at the point of a knife.”

“The point of a knife positioned over our queen weyrling’s heart!” said F’yan. “No one’s denying that P’raima’s lost his grip on sanity, but that’s all the more reason not to call his bluff!”

“So we give in to the demands of a rider who doesn’t scruple to kidnap weyrlings or forcibly separate dragons from their riders?” asked H’ned. “What message does that send to Pern, that Madellon will roll over to a madman?”

“The message that we place our queens’ welfare above everything else!” F’yan snapped. “We can’t play games with Berzunth’s life! Sh’zon, the girl’s your cousin; won’t you at least see sense?”

Sh’zon’s face was an agony of conflict. He glanced at Karika. “If we don’t send Megrith back to Southern within the hour…I don’t know what P’raima will do to Tarshe.”

“He can’t kill her,” said H’ned. “If he does that he has no hand left to play.”

“He threatened to harm her!”

H’ned recoiled at the implication. “He couldn’t,” he said, though he sounded less certain. “If he hurt her, Berzunth would find Tezonth and tear him into wherry-bait, oath be scorched.”

“He doesn’t have to hurt Tarshe,” L’stev said. He pointed at Jagunth, huddled in misery between Berzunth and Megrith. “He has Carleah. And if he’ll threaten a queen rider, he sure as shaff won’t hesitate to harm a girl who rides a green.”

“Shaffing Faranth,” Sh’zon groaned. “I didn’t realise he had another girl too.”

“What about his own riders?” H’ned asked. “Do they even know what P’raima’s doing? Would they really tolerate a Weyrleader who’s kidnapped and threatened to hurt weyrlings?”

“Southern’s riders have become a queer lot in the last ten or fifteen Turns,” said F’yan. “Suspicious, clannish. And Tezonth’s been outflying the other bronzes long past the point where physical prowess alone would guarantee him victory. We have to assume that P’raima’s riders support his actions. If he’s promised them their queen back…” He glanced between Sh’zon and H’ned. “We all know the sort of pressure a desperate bronze can put on his rider.”

“You’d just have us hand Karika over, F’yan?” H’ned asked with disgust.

“I’d do a great deal to preserve the health of our queen weyrling,” F’yan said, bristling. “And P’raima’s not so unreasonable in wanting Megrith back. She’s Southern’s only queen!”

“Karika begged Valonna not to send her back!” Sh’zon shouted. “Megrith threw herself on Shimpath’s mercy!”

“And did she ever say why she was so afraid to go home?” F’yan asked.

“I think it’s time we found out,” L’stev said. He looked over towards the two Southern weyrlings. “Karika. T’gala.”

The two girls came to join them, both looking stricken. Karika repeated her earlier statement. “We’ll go, Weyrleader.”

“We both will,” T’gala added.

“No one’s going anywhere,” L’stev told them.

“I said we’ll go,” Karika insisted. Her voice was resolute, but it shook beneath the determination. She wiped at her eyes with her sleeve. “Don’t make this harder!”

“But why –” H’ned began.

“Because he has Tarshe and Carleah, and they shouldn’t have to suffer because I’m a coward!”

H’ned looked taken aback; F’yan, whose eyes had lit at Karika’s sudden acquiescence, crestfallen. Sh’zon, though, still looked grim. “Why?” he asked, moving closer to Karika. He put his fingers under her chin, lifting her face to make her look at him. “Why did you want so desperately not to go back to Southern?”

Karika looked aside from him, her eyes angry and ashamed, though she didn’t pull away.

“Is it P’raima?” Sh’zon asked. “Has he threatened you?”

She shook herself angrily free of him. “You don’t understand.”

“Has he threatened you?” Sh’zon asked again, more urgently. “Or said he will? Karika, please. You have to tell us.”

“Karika,” L’stev said. “Is it to do with Megrith’s mating flight?”

She turned her head sharply; confirmation, then. L’stev forced his instinctive anger back down, and kept his voice level. “Has he told you that Tezonth will fly Megrith when the times comes?” He steeled himself, feeling the strain emanating from the other three adult riders. “Has he done anything to you?”

“No,” Karika said, and then more fiercely, “No! I know what you’re asking, Weyrlingmaster, but he hasn’t touched me!”

A little of that awful tension loosened. L’stev felt his shoulders begin to relax. Then Karika went on, barely in a whisper, “He doesn’t need to. When Megrith rises, Tezonth will fly her.”

“It’s not likely, Karika,” L’stev told her. “Tezonth’s not a young dragon any more. He’ll be even older in a Turn or two when Megrith’s ready to rise, and Southern’s full of stronger, younger bronzes. He doesn’t have a chance against them –”

“They don’t have a chance against him!” Karika shouted. “You don’t know anything about Southern! About P’raima!”

And then T’gala asked her Weyrmate, sounding baffled, “But he takes it like they all do, Karika; we’ve seen him!”

Karika shook her head. Tears had come to her eyes. “He has a way around it,” she said, in scarcely more than a whisper. “That’s how Tezonth kept flying Grizbath. Not because he’s the best bronze, like we’ve been told for Turns and Turns and Turns. P’raima found a way around it.

“But…” said T’gala, and then trailed off. “How could he have?”

“Weyrlingmaster?” Sh’zon asked doubtfully.

L’stev gave the tiniest shake of his head, as confused as any of them. “Karika, T’gala,” he said, interrupting the furious conference between the two. “What is it you’re talking about?”

Both girls looked at him with an expression he knew well: the look of weyrlings who’d revealed a confidence they ought not. Then Karika swallowed hard, and said, “Felah.”

“Karika!” T’gala hissed at her.

Felah?” asked Sh’zon.

“We swore we’d never talk about it,” T’gala said, looking even more distressed. “It’s Southern business!”

Between with what we swore,” said Karika, though the colour that had come suddenly to her cheeks suggested that she was breaching some terrible taboo.

“What’s felah, Karika?” L’stev asked.

“It’s a…a drink,” she said, darting a look at T’gala, who looked horrified by her confession. “That all the adult riders have.”

“And what does this…drink…do?” Sh’zon asked. His voice had taken on a sort of sick comprehension.

“It makes it so that when dragons rise to mate, their riders aren’t so…” Karika hesitated, her eyes flicking from L’stev to Sh’zon, and over to H’ned and F’yan. “So…out of control.”

“Out of control how?” L’stev asked.

“It’s so green riders don’t get hurt,” T’gala blurted out. She, too, was flushing scarlet.

“It makes the – the flight-merge – less strong,” Karika said. “So that when the riders in a flight, when they…you know…do what the dragons are doing…they don’t hurt each other. They have more control over themselves, because they’re not so deeply linked. It helps them remember who they are instead of just…being their dragons.”

“It’s because of what happened with B’nain,” said T’gala, clearly feeling she was as committed now to telling the story as Karika. “The other blue rider who was…like me.”

“What do you mean, like you?” asked Sh’zon.

T’gala took a deep breath, and raised her head defiantly. “A girl,” she said. Her voice broke on the word. “I’m a blue rider and a girl.”

Faranth alive,” L’stev heard F’yan breathe.

Sh’zon looked only momentarily perplexed. “Well, what’s that go to do with anything?” he asked T’gala. “What happened to B’nain?”

“Her blue won a mating flight,” T’gala said. “And then he and the green dragon both went between and died. Because their riders were both girls.”

H’ned had looked startled by T’gala’s confession, but now he just looked baffled. “Why should that matter?” he asked, glancing at L’stev.

“Happens with two lads together if they’re not ready for it,” L’stev said. “If they’ve not been prepared for the possibility, if they can’t figure out how to make it work, if it breaks them out of the merge…”

“But how in the…” H’ned began, until Sh’zon cut him off with a curt gesture.

“This felah,” he said, looking from Karika to T’gala and back. “It interferes with the connection between a dragon and rider?”

Karika nodded. “So the dragon’s feelings can’t overwhelm the rider’s.”

“Can it stop a rider talking to his dragon completely?” Sh’zon asked.

“I…” Karika said uncertainly. She glanced at T’gala,  but she shook her head, just as unsure. “I…suppose it could. If it was strong enough.”

“Faranth,” Sh’zon said, half to himself. “Faranth.”

Felah,” said H’ned. “It sounds like a derivative of fellis.”

“It was in the sharding wine,” Sh’zon said. “That shaffing sherry P’raima brought to the luncheon. I thought it was bitter for a Southern sticky. It was the Thread-blighted fellis I could taste!”

“So that’s why you can’t hear Kawanth,” said H’ned. “P’raima must have put a massive dose in your wine to block him off completely.”

“Not completely,” Sh’zon said. He looked towards his dragon, shading his eyes with his hand, and put his fist to his chest. “I can still feel him here.”

“Is there an antidote?” L’stev asked Karika.

“I think P’raima has one,” she said. She swallowed, and said faintly, “Margone warned me, the night we left Southern…I think he must.”

“Which would be why Tezonth kept winning Grizbath’s mating flights all these Turns,” said H’ned. “If P’raima’s in full flight-merge and all the other bronze riders are partly blocked by this felah stuff, it’s no wonder Tezonth has an edge.”

“How long does the effect last?” Sh’zon asked. “It must wear off eventually?”

“Our riders – Southern’s riders – take it every day,” Karika said. “But I don’t know if that’s just because they get upset without it.”

“Upset?” asked H’ned.

“Sort of…jumpy,” said Karika. “Jumpy and bad-tempered.”

“Of course they get upset,” L’stev said disgustedly. “It’s made with fellis. Fellis is a narcotic.”

“Faranth’s teeth,” said H’ned. The last vestiges of his hangover seemed to have evaporated. “That’s how P’raima’s been controlling Southern all these Turns. He’s got them all addicted.”

For a moment they all stood there in silence, each struggling to absorb the magnitude of the revelation. “Weyrlings,” L’stev said at last, “go back to your dragons. We need to discuss what’s to be done next.”

As Karika and T’gala crossed the training ground back to their dragonets, F’yan said, “None of this helps us get Tarshe back.”

“Well I’m blighted between if I’m sending either of these girls back to Southern now,” H’ned said hotly. “Something has to be done about P’raima.”

“No question, but he has us by the balls,” said L’stev. “And if we don’t –”

Darshanth’s on his way in, Vanzanth reported. His rider has news.

Darshanth’s broadcast must have reached Vidrilleth and Izath as well; F’yan and H’ned both looked up expectantly. Only Sh’zon didn’t react. It was a nasty reminder of his current condition.

Then Darshanth came out of between in the Bowl itself, barely two dragonlengths above the ground: too low, too erratic, and much too fast. “Vanzanth!” L’stev bellowed, but he was already in motion, and Kawanth not much more than half a length behind him. As Darshanth veered crazily towards the ground, his profile all wrong for his speed and altitude, brown and bronze leapt to meet him. Vanzanth sprinted with quick, short wingbeats to get below the careening blue, but Darshanth was dropping too fast for a catch. Instead, Vanzanth ducked his head between his forearms and thrust up towards the blue’s underside. L’stev felt as much as heard the impact as his brown rammed Darshanth from below with his shoulders, checking his fall without arresting it completely. An instant later, Kawanth was there. Vanzanth dipped a wing and rolled away, and Sh’zon’s bronze lunged down to grab Darshanth from above as if catching a green in flight.

“Shaff!” Sh’zon bellowed, as Kawanth backwinged ponderously to deposit Darshanth safely on the ground.

L’stev could feel how shaken and bruised Vanzanth was. Well flown, he told him. Get a hold of Darshanth. He’s a wraith.

H’ned and F’yan hauled C’mine down from his shuddering dragon. “What in the Void were you thinking, C’mine?” H’ned shouted.  “You know better than to come in that low!”

“Giskara Basin,” C’mine muttered. “Giskara Basin. That’s where they are.”

Sh’zon grabbed his arm. “What?”

“That’s where he has them,” C’mine said weakly.

“What are you talking about? How do you know that?”

“It doesn’t matter how I know,” C’mine said. His face was drawn with more than just anguish: he looked sick. “Just please believe me. Carleah and Tarshe are somewhere in Giskara Basin.”

Sh’zon exchanged glances with H’ned, then turned to L’stev. “Weyrlingmaster?”

But L’stev was scanning C’mine’s face, recognising a certain disturbance in his expression, a febrile mania in his eyes. “C’mine,” he snapped. “Did you time it? Is that how you know?” He pushed Sh’zon roughly out of the way to seize C’mine by his shoulders, staring down into his face. “Faranth’s shaffing tailfork, man, did you meet yourself?” When C’mine nodded jerkily, L’stev shoved him hard, enraged. “You shaffing Thread-struck idiot!”

“Doesn’t matter,” C’mine said. His voice was a rasping whisper. “I don’t matter. Giskara Basin. Please. We have to get her back.”

Ordinarily, a rider caught going between times would have been a serious disciplinary matter, but the three bronze riders barely seemed to blink at the provenance of C’mine’s intelligence. “Can’t you be any more specific?” Sh’zon asked him brusquely. “Giskara Basin’s twenty miles across.”

“It’s thick jungle, besides,” F’yan added.

“And the sun’s going to start going down soon in Southern territory,” H’ned said. “Fast, this time of Turn, and that far north.”

“Do we even know what we’re looking for?” asked Sh’zon. “He’ll hardly have them out in the open.”

C’mine just shook his head. “Giskara is all I know,” he said. “It must be enough or he…I…wouldn’t have… Please, we’ll go; Darshanth’s night vision is –”

“You’re not going anywhere,” L’stev told him. “You’re grounded until I say otherwise.” He stabbed a finger into C’mine’s chest. “And we’re going to have a conversation when this is over.”

“F’yan,” said H’ned, “have Vidrilleth get Darshanth a herdbeast, and take C’mine to the infirmary. Isnan needs to check him over.”

“Wait a moment!” F’yan objected, looking outraged. “The Weyrwoman left me in command!

“And now I’m relieving you of it!” Sh’zon snapped. “Do as you’re shaffing well told!”

F’yan threw a mulish look at both Deputy Weyrleaders. He grabbed C’mine’s arm and yanked him into motion. “Come along, blue rider!”

“We need to get the Ops Wing in the air,” H’ned said, as F’yan half led, half dragged C’mine away. “Sh’zon, how quickly –”

Sh’zon cut him off. “No.”

H’ned looked at him as if he were crazy. “What? Aerial survey of difficult terrain is exactly what Ops was created to do!”

“I don’t care!” Sh’zon’s face had darkened. “I said no and I mean it!”

“Did you have a row with your sharding Wingsecond?” H’ned asked. “Thread blight it, Sh’zon, you pick your moment!”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about! I am not authorising that Wing’s deployment!”

“Well, I sharding well am.”

“You’re still drunk!” Sh’zon shouted, turning on him. “You’re a Thread-blighted disgrace!”

“And you can’t hear your shaffing dragon!” H’ned shouted back. “Faranth knows how that concoction P’raima’s fed you is affecting your judgement!”

“There’s nothing wrong with my judgement!”

“You left Valonna in that snake’s den!” H’ned roared, and suddenly his voice rang with rancour. “You left her there, you sharding coward!”

Sh’zon looked dumbstruck by the accusation. “I didn’t have a choice!” he protested, suddenly on the back foot.

“You always have a choice! Faranth, Sh’zon! She’s still half a girl!”

“I didn’t –”

“Why don’t both of you shut your shaffing mouths,” L’stev suggested, in the rasping growl that had cut through a hundred weyrling quarrels. “You can cross-examine each other’s fitness to lead after this business is resolved. Squabbling over who’s more at fault isn’t getting me my shaffing weyrlings back. Faranth alive, that Madellon’s in the hands of you two tail-forks!” He aimed a finger at Sh’zon. “You’ve clearly had a falling-out with your Wingsecond. That doesn’t excuse him from his duties.” He moved the finger to point at H’ned. “Have Izath order Trebruth to muster the Ops Wing.”

“Blight it all, L’stev, P’raima’s threatened to hurt Tarshe if we try anything,” Sh’zon protested. “If he finds out we have dragons surveying Giskara…”

“All the more reason to use Ops,” said H’ned. “They’ve been drilled in stealth and silent manoeuvres. Or haven’t you read your own man’s training reports?”

Sh’zon looked trapped. “But we’re running out of time,” he said. “P’raima wanted Megrith back within the hour. There’s no…no time!”

“Don’t either of you even say it,” L’stev barked, as both bronze riders glanced in C’mine’s direction. “Nothing good ever came of timing!”

“What, then?” H’ned asked. “We can’t send Megrith back to Southern. Not now.”

We can’t send a queen anywhere she doesn’t want to go, said Vanzanth.

Not for the first time in his life, L’stev thanked the serendipity that had brought him a brilliant, pragmatic, and humble brown dragon, rather than a hysterical bronze.

“No,” he said, feeling a dragonish grin stretch his face. “We can’t.”

100.03.26 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
GISKARA BASIN, SOUTHERN TERRITORY

Carleah (Micah Johnson)She didn’t think she’d ever actually lost consciousness, not completely, but there was still a moment of awakening, a passing from vagueness into clarity, when the indistinct fog in her head thinned, and the world began to come back into some manner of focus.

But it was a while longer, as Carleah lay there, aware mostly of a thick sour taste in her mouth, and a buzzing roar in her ears, and a jabbing discomfort between her ribs and the straw-scratchy floor, before brain and body clicked fully together, and the recollection of what had happened flooded back into her mind in a rush.

“Jagunth!” she half-gasped, half-screamed, aware all at once that her hands were bound behind her, and that her eyes were covered, but most painfully of all that the place where her green dragon’s gentle presence should have met hers, where their thoughts leaned up against each other’s, was inexplicably, terrifyingly silent. “Oh Faranth, Jagunth, Jagunth, where are you, why can’t I feel you?”

“Carleah!” a voice hissed.

She turned her head blindly in the direction of the whisper, feeling tears wetting the strip of fabric tied over her face. “T-Tarshe?”

“Be quiet. I’m trying to listen.”

“Listen to what?” Carleah asked tremulously. “Where are we? Why can’t I hear Jagunth?”

“We’ve been drugged,” said Tarshe. She sounded more matter-of-fact about it than Carleah felt. “Whatever they stuck us with to knock us out seems to be blocking us from hearing our dragons.”

Carleah had a suddenly mental flash of a sharp pain in her arm, followed by an almost instant numb weakness spreading through her body. “Then you can’t hear Berzunth, either?”

“I can’t hear any dragons,” Tarshe said. “That’s why I’m trying to listen to what they’re saying out there.”

“Who’s they?”

“The men who’ve kidnapped us. The ones who are still here, anyway. The dragon left a few minutes ago. I think the ones who are left only have a fire-lizard.” Then she modulated the irritation in her voice. “Can you move?”

“I – I don’t know…” Carleah tried to sit up. Her muscles still felt weak and feeble, but she struggled to a sitting position. The rope binding her wrists behind her back had been tied firmly but not cruelly. She shuffled awkward on her bottom in the direction Tarshe’s voice had come from until she bumped into something softer and more yielding than the hard floor.

“Ouch,” Tarshe hissed. “Careful.”

“Are your hands tied behind you too?” Carleah asked. “Turn around. Maybe we can untie each other.”

Tarshe sighed, but then Carleah felt and heard her shifting around. “They’ve stopped talking now anyway,” Tarshe said.

Carleah flexed her fingers, trying to make some slack in the rope. “Who’s taken us? Where are we? I remember…a boy took your purse…and two Gather stewards…”

“I don’t think they were Gather stewards,” Tarshe said. She sounded grim. “And I don’t have the faintest idea where we are.”

Carleah’s mind raced. She might be tied and blindfolded, but her senses didn’t stop with her eyes. She took in the heat of their location, brushed her fingers against the floor, listened to the sounds she could hear from outside, considered the faint musty odour she could smell.

And then the significance of something Tarshe had said struck her. “What do you mean, you can’t hear any dragons?”

Tarshe said nothing, manoeuvring around so that they sat back to back.

“Tarshe?” Carleah asked, astonished despite herself. “Can you hear dragons other than Berzunth?”

It was a long time before Tarshe replied, “Suppose so.”

“You’re a sensitive? You can hear all dragons?”

“Not all dragons,” Tarshe said. “And not all the time.”

The revelation was enough to make Carleah forget their predicament temporarily. She’d heard of sensitives, but she didn’t think there’d been one in Turns. “Has it always been like that?”

“Don’t know. It’s not like I met many dragons, growing up.” Tarshe’s tone was ironic. “I could always hear my cousin’s bronze if I concentrated. When I was Searched to Madellon I was more interested in keeping all the voices out than tuning in to them.”

“And when you Impressed?”

Tarshe was silent for a moment. “It’s easier, with Berzunth,” she said. “Listening in and blocking out. It’s like she filters out the background noise, but if I want to hear a particular dragon, it’s much sharper and clearer than it used to be.”

“But not all dragons?” Carleah asked.

“Some I can’t hear at all. Other queens. I could never hear the Weyrleader’s bronze, either.”

Carleah felt, and resisted, the urge to ask Tarshe if she’d ever eavesdropped on Jagunth. “Is it just the senior colours you can’t hear?”

“No. I can listen in on most of Madellon’s bronzes, but there are blues and greens I can’t hear. Lovanth’s silent even if I’m touching him, and that usually amplifies it. And Vanzanth’s totally inscrutable. Even Berzunth can’t eavesdrop on him.” Carleah felt Tarshe shrug. “There’s no pattern to it that I can tell.”

“Does your cousin know?” Carleah ask. “Is that why he had you Searched to Madellon?”

“If you had a big angry cousin who rode a bronze, would you want to tell him you could overhear every dirty little joke he and his dragon exchanged?” Tarshe sounded resigned. “I never asked for it. And you get enough sideways looks, riding a queen, without every dragonrider in the Weyr thinking I’m spying on them.” She paused. “Which I’m not.”

“I wish you were, if it meant it would help us now.” The dire situation they’d found themselves in reasserted itself as the priority issue in Carleah’s mind. “We’re somewhere in Southern territory, I think.”

“Must be,” said Tarshe. “They want their weyrlings back, don’t they? T’gala and Karika, in exchange for you and me.”

Carleah started to agree, and then something the bogus Gather steward had said came into her mind. Did we snatch the wrong shaffing weyrling? “I don’t think they meant to take us both,” she said. “Just you.”

“Then why –”

“I was wearing your jacket,” said Carleah. “They weren’t sure they had the right weyrling, so they grabbed me, too, to be certain.” She thought about it. “Have you ever met P’raima? The Southern Weyrleader?”

“Don’t think I’ve ever met a Southern rider at all, apart from the weyrlings,” said Tarshe. “Suppose I would have, after the Hatching, but then given what happened –” She stopped herself abruptly. “See if you can get at my rope. My fingers are numb.”

It was too late for the change of subject – Carleah had already completed Tarshe’s sentence mentally – but she was touched at the consideration. She stretched her fingers out to feel at Tarshe’s bonds. They seemed tighter than hers. “It’s all right,” she said, starting to pick at the knots, and hoping she sounded brisk. “You don’t have to tiptoe around it.”

“Must have been hard for you,” Tarshe said. “Losing your dad the day you Impressed your dragon. The Weyrbred weyrlings, I don’t think they get it sometimes; what it’s like, to be part of a family.”

There was a strange edge to her voice; a brittle defensiveness. Carleah shifted a bit, trying to get a better position to get at Tarshe’s bonds. The silence was horrible. She didn’t want to think about the awful situation they were in. “What happened?” she blurted, almost despite herself. “I mean…that is…what really happened?”

“What really happened?” Tarshe echoed.

“With your family,” said Carleah. “That they were exiled to the islands. Did they really…kill all those cotholders?”

“Oh, aye, they did,” Tarshe said, with chilling nonchalance.

It jolted Carleah that Tarshe could be so blasé about it. “But…everyone? Even…even the children?”

“There weren’t any children; at least, none that my folk ever hurt. That’s a Harper’s tale, invented to make my father and his brother sound like mad killers.”

“But you said they did kill them.”

“It wasn’t that simple,” Tarshe said. “It didn’t happen like people say it did.”

Carleah burned to ask more questions, but Da had once told her that silence was sometimes the best prompt of all. She kept picking at the tough fibres of the rope, and eventually, Tarshe said, “Klauverte’s place wasn’t even a proper cotholding. Just a mining camp. Not even a dozen men…and one woman.”

Carleah kept quiet, though her mind was automatically turning over every fact to glean Tarshe’s meaning from it.

“My father’s cothold had been in that valley thirty Turns,” Tarshe went on. “My grandfather founded it, and even called it after him, because he was the first of his children to be born there. My dad Shevran, my uncle Shondan, and my aunt Shofia – they all took over the cot when Grandfather died. The whole of Shevran was just them and three other families.

“When Klauverte turned up with his men to prospect the western end of the valley, my dad wasn’t happy. It was his holding, granted to Grandfather by Holder Erric, and he was worried about the miners being so close. Well, Erric was more interested in that copper, but he promised that if Klauverte’s prospectors turned up enough ore to make the mine viable, then a fifth of its yield would belong to Shevran, it being partly on our land. So Shevran could hardly complain that they were there after that.

“But Klauverte’s men were…ruffians. Father thought some of them might even have been Holdless. They’d come up to the cothold sometimes to trade for food, but…things would go missing. They’d stare at the women, and even the girls. I was just a babe in arms, but my cousins were ten and twelve Turns, and it frightened them, when these rough men would turn up, all dirty and stinking of sweat, and leering at them as they did their chores. Shevran and Shondan rode down to the mining camp to ask Klauverte to keep his men in check, but he laughed at them and said it was just high spirits because their…the woman who was with them in the camp…was indisposed.” Tarshe paused. “Then one day, not long after that…my aunt Shofia went missing.”

Carleah felt Tarshe give a little shiver. She was hard pushed not to shudder herself at the implication. “What happened?”

“She’d gone to empty the fish traps at the riverbend, near the mining camp,” said Tarshe. “When Merigen, her husband, realised she was missing, they went out looking for her. They found her baskets and her shawl on the river bank, but no sign of her.

“It was hours before they found her. She was stumbling back towards the cothold. Her clothes all torn, her face swollen and dirty, her…” Tarshe broke off, and then she said, “She’d been raped. Not just once, not just by one man. They’d broken her jaw, and she could hardly talk, but she said enough. Two of Klauverte’s men had found her alone by the river. They’d propositioned her, and when she refused them, they forced her. Then they’d taken her back to their camp.”

Carleah’s stomach turned a horrible somersault. “Oh, no.”

“Merigen took the fastest runner up to the Hold,” Tarshe went on relentlessly. “For a Healer, and to report what had happened to his wife. The Healer came straightaway, but Holder Erric’s constable was away and wouldn’t be back for a sevenday. So my father, and Merigen and Shondan, rode down to the camp to confront Klauverte.

“Klauverte denied everything. He said they had no way to prove that his men had anything to do with the rape. He even said that he’d heard there was a band of Holdless men at large in the region, and perhaps they were the culprits. And all the time his men were lined up, smirking and sniggering behind their hands.

“Merigen went mad. He flew at them, even knocked one of them down with his fists, though Merigen wasn’t a big man. Then they mobbed him. They broke his arm and his ribs, and spat on him while he lay there. And all Dad and Shondan could do was carry him away before they killed him.”

Tarshe paused again. When she resumed speaking, her normally steady voice trembled almost imperceptibly. “So that night, Dad, and Shondan, and the other men of the cothold, strapped on their knives, and their hunting bows, and their wherry-spears,” she said. “And they went back to the mining camp in the blackest part of the night, when all the men were dead drunk, and the sentry on watch was half asleep, and half a boy besides.” There was a rhythm to her voice now, as if she was reciting a part of the story she’d heard a hundred times. “When they took the boy, and put a knife to his throat, he said he hadn’t touched her. He said he’d only watched, that it had been the others who’d forced themselves on Shofia, one after another after another.

“So they left the boy alive, so he could watch, while they went from tent to tent in the camp, and dragged each man out of his sleeping furs. There were nine of them, and only five of ours, and they didn’t all come out quietly. My uncle Shondan was stabbed in the shoulder. Later he lost that arm. But the man who stabbed him lost more than that. And so did all the others.”

“They killed them all,” Carleah whispered.

“They had no choice,” said Tarshe. “They were outnumbered. The prospectors would have killed them.”

“But…” Carleah’s head whirled. “Shouldn’t they have waited for help? The constable? What about…what about your cousin?”

“Sh’zon was estranged from my uncle,” said Tarshe. “He’d left the cothold to answer Search when he was thirteen, Turns before, when Shondan thought he should have stayed to support his family. And the constable wasn’t coming, and Holder Erric didn’t care. A copper mine was worth more to him than my father’s cothold anyway.” Her tone was full of ancient familial rancour. “Reckon you know the rest.”

Carleah did. All the weyrlings knew the lurid end of the story, the part where the dead prospectors had been found in a circle around their fire-pit, all their throats slit from one ear to the other. The boy who’d been their sentry had been found dead some distance away, at the end of a trail of blood; his eyes had been cut out. And the stewards of Taive Hold had found three other bodies, too. “What about the woman and…and her babies?”

“Why do you think my father and uncle didn’t leave anyone alive?” Tarshe asked, fiercely. Her voice shook with anger. “They found her first. Dead already. The babes dead beside her. And those…men, those filthy snakes…they’d left her to bleed to death. Her and her children. Their children. They just let her die.”

That part wasn’t in the version Carleah had heard. She closed her eyes beneath the blindfold, as though that could blot out the hideous images playing out in her mind. She was glad, briefly, that Jagunth couldn’t share them with her.

“They never denied taking the lives they took,” Tarshe went on, into her silence. “The men and the boy. But the constable judged them guilty of thirteen murders. It should only have been ten. The woman and her children; they never harmed them. They never would have.”

Thirteen murders or ten, it made little difference; exile was the only possible sentence for Tarshe’s father and uncle and the other men of Shevran’s cothold. But Carleah didn’t say that that. Instead, she asked, “What happened to your aunt, Shofia? Did she…”

“No,” said Tarshe. “She didn’t die. She came to the island with Merigen and my father and uncle, and my mother and me and everyone else from the cothold. And my cousin Zonan was born just before my second birthday.”

Carleah really couldn’t think of any reply to that. She just kept scratching at the rope with her fingernails, pretending not to notice that the knots weren’t giving way at all.

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

Valonna (Micah Johnson)The table linen was stained and sticky with spilled wine, but P’raima didn’t seem to care as he placed a heavy piece of vellum in front of Valonna, and a second, somewhat longer, document before H’pold and Rallai.

H’pold glanced only briefly at his document before raising his gaze back to P’raima. Any last trace of warmth had left his cold, cold eyes. “What is this?”

“Read it,” said P’raima. “You’ll find it covers everything.”

Valonna was almost grateful for something to distract her from the dreadful silence in her mind where Shimpath should have been. She set her eyes to the hide. It was already affixed with a heavy waxen seal in Southern Weyr’s dark green. The paragraphs inscribed there in stark black ink were brief, to the point, and unambiguously hostile. In return for provision of an antidote for their dragon-deafness, Madellon would agree that its dragons would not visit Southern Weyr, nor overfly Southern’s territory. Madellon’s riders would not socialise with Southern’s at Gathers or on any other neutral ground. Madellon would not convey any passengers, paying or otherwise, to Holds in Southern’s protectorate. There would be fines, in marks or goods, for non-compliance. The only locales excepted from the sanction were the Weaver and Tailorhalls at Flaxlea Hold, and the Fishercraft at Noone Seahold. Valonna wondered distractedly if P’raima had consulted the Holds and Halls of Southern territory before drafting the sanctions that would so punishingly restrict the movements of foreign dragonpairs. She doubted it. P’raima seemed to have taken leave of all reason.

“Even if this had any semblance of sanity,” H’pold said, slapping the document he’d been given with angry contempt, “the signing of a treaty such as this would have to be notarised by Hold and Craft to have any kind of legitimacy.”

“Indeed it would,” P’raima replied. “Fortunately we have both a Lady Holder –” he waved a hand at Coffleby, “– and an apprentice of the Healerhall –” he gestured at G’kalte, “– to witness your signatures.”

“Witnesses are irrelevant, P’raima,” said Rallai. Her face, usually so composed, was strained and angry. “Any agreements you wring from us under duress are by definition unlawful. You can no more hold us or our Weyrs to them than you can expect our queens not to tear Tezonth to shreds the instant he shows himself!”

P’raima fixed Rallai with a balefully bloodshot stare. “Do you take me for an idiot, Weyrwoman?” he asked. “Do you think a single dose of my cure will reverse your condition indefinitely?”

The implication made Valonna’s stomach lurch. Rallai’s face went, if possible, even paler, and across the table Sirtis’ eyes bulged nearly out of her head.

But it was L’dro who reacted the most dramatically. “Sign the shelling treaty, H’pold,” he said roughly. “Sign it, or on Pierdeth’s egg, I’ll make you sign it.”

H’pold shot a look of perfect hatred at the other bronze rider. “Whose sharding side are you on, L’dro?”

“I’m on the side of getting my dragon back.” L’dro picked up the pen and slammed it down on top of the vellum. “I don’t give a trader’s cuss about Madellon’s Thread-blighted queen. I don’t care about staying out of Southern’s territory. And neither should you. Sign the shaffing treaty.” Then he thrust a finger across the table at Valonna. “And you should too, if you know what’s good for you.”

“You are an insidious one, aren’t you, P’raima?” Lady Coffleby asked, ignoring L’dro’s outburst. She almost sounded impressed. “You’re enjoying this.”

P’raima made a dismissive sound. “Gratifying though it is to see how right I was about the character of Madellon and Peninsula’s Weyrleaders,” he said, “I’m not here to be entertained. I want true autonomy for my Weyr, and I want my queen. That’s all.”

“You want to keep Southern under your incontestable dictatorship,” said Rallai. “You repugnant little despot. You made Margone’s life a misery, and now you want to force yourself on that poor child who rides Megrith. It’s obscene.”

“I won’t be forcing myself on anyone,” said P’raima. “The dragons decide, and I take no pleasure in the necessary consequences of bowing to dragon choice.”

“Don’t give me that pious bilge, P’raima,” Rallai said, and the ice in her voice put H’pold’s mere chill to shame. “You forget who you’re talking to. Karika and Megrith won’t have a choice. Just as Margone and Grizbath never did, against you and your revolting dragon.”

P’raima actually smiled, though the expression was far from benign. “It’s not my fault that Tezonth is as exceptional as he is.”

“Exceptional?” Rallai asked incredulously. “He’s Megrith’s sire and grandsire. He’s as vile as you.”

The smile faltered on P’raima’s face. “Say what you like,” he said. “About me or my dragon. He’s been proving his superiority for three decades, and when Megrith rises, the purity of his breeding will tell again.”

“When Megrith rises,” said Rallai, with towering contempt, “I hope Tezonth ruptures both hearts failing to catch her.”

And that did break through P’raima’s poise. He curled his lip at her. “Just sign the treaty, woman,” he said. “I don’t relish your company any more than you do mine.”

“No.” Rallai thrust document and pen away. “I’m not signing anything.”

“Rallai!” H’pold exclaimed, and both L’dro and Sirtis looked horrified.

She ignored them all. “I won’t pander to the whims of a degenerate madman.” Her narrowed eyes met Valonna’s as she spoke.

“It’s not just your decision to make, Rallai!” H’pold objected.

As the Peninsula Weyrleaders argued, and P’raima watched their back-and-forth with a mixture of impatience and grim satisfaction, Valonna looked down at the hide on the table before her. She pretended to read it, but silently she was thinking, thinking, thinking. She wished Sh’zon were still there; no, she wished T’kamen were there. T’kamen would have done something. T’kamen would have known what to do. She had no idea if Sh’zon was capable of coming up with a plan to thwart P’raima. Perhaps he hadn’t even grasped the meaning of the pleading look she’d given him before he left, imploring him to find a third way. She hoped that his natural contrariness would stop him from merely acceding to P’raima’s demands, but she feared that his connection to Tarshe would compel him to sacrifice Karika to get his cousin back. She feared what would happen to Karika if she was delivered back into P’raima’s iniquitous custody, and she feared what P’raima would do to Tarshe if they defied him. But most of all she feared never hearing Shimpath again. She feared a future without her queen’s wisdom and insight and encouragement, the constant flow of thoughts and emotions and opinions they shared reduced to the barest  and most nebulous link.

Then, beside her, G’kalte reached for a cup on the table, and knocked it clumsily over. “Shard it!” he exclaimed, quickly righting the cup, but not before water had spilled partially over the treaty document. “Sorry, sorry, sorry!”

“For Faranth’s sake, G’kalte!” H’pold snapped at him, interrupting his argument with Rallai.

“I’m so sorry, Weyrleader,” G’kalte apologised. “I’m sorry, Weyrwoman. Let me wipe that up…”

But as he leaned over Valonna to blot at the puddle of water with a napkin, he contrived to put his mouth close to her ear. “Don’t react,” he breathed, covering his words by noisily moving glasses and side plates around to mop beneath them. “I need you to pretend to faint.”

“What?” Valonna whispered.

“Pretend to faint,” G’kalte repeated. “Trust me!”

He sat back in his seat. Valonna darted a perplexed look sideways at him. And then she noticed that the tablecloth around G’kalte’s dessert wine glass – the small crystal goblet that had held his share of the strange-tasting Southern sherry P’raima had brought – was stained with more than merely spilled water.

Valonna was no actress, but she did know what a faint looked like. One of her weyrlinghood classmates, a green rider named Demmy, had fallen into a swoon every time she’d been faced with blood in the first month after their dragonets had Hatched – several times a day during the first sevenday. They’d all learned to spot the tell-tale signs that she was about to go over. So, hoping she was right to follow G’kalte’s instructions, Valonna dropped her head into her hand, rubbing her temple. She blinked slowly, and began to deliberately reduce the speed of her breathing. Then she rose unsteadily to her feet and stood there for a moment. “I think I need…I need some air…”

As Valonna stood swaying slightly on the spot, G’kalte said, with believable alarm, “Weyrwoman, are you all right?”

“I feel…” Valonna said, making her voice breathy and weak. And then she closed her eyes and let her legs buckle.

G’kalte caught her before she got far. Valonna let herself droop completely, recalling how Demmy had collapsed like a floppy doll during her faints. “Good Faranth, Valonna!” she heard Lady Coffleby cry; Rallai exclaimed in concern, and H’pold or L’dro swore.

“I have her,” said G’kalte, and the next thing Valonna knew, he’d lifted her into his arms. “No, let her alone, she needs space and air. Is there a cushion, something for her head…”

Valonna found it difficult to stay silent and limp as G’kalte laid her carefully down on the floor. A moment later he tucked something, a folded jacket perhaps, under her head. “Stand back, please,” he said. “She needs space. Don’t crowd her.”

“Well, what’s wrong with her?” P’raima’s voice demanded from directly above where Valonna lay.

“What do you think’s wrong with her, P’raima?” Rallai asked angrily. She sounded like she was standing over Valonna, too. “You’ve separated her from her queen!”

“She’s putting it on!”

“I assure you, Weyrleader, she’s not,” G’kalte said, sounding very much like a Healer. Valonna felt his fingers on the pulse at her throat, and then the back of his hand on her brow. “Sir, please!” he said, with a crackle of authority in his voice that belied his modest rank. “The Weyrwoman has fainted. You need to stand back and give her time to recover.”

After a moment, Valonna heard P’raima swear under his breath, and the angry report of his boots on the floor as he strode away.

“Weyrwoman, would you please loosen her clothes?” G’kalte asked.

Valonna felt someone undoing the top lacing of her bodice. She opened one eye a slit, and saw both Rallai and G’kalte bending close, blocking any view of her from the rest of the room. “I’m fine,” she mouthed soundlessly to Rallai, and flicked her eyes meaningfully at G’kalte.

Rallai’s eyes widened for an instant, but she didn’t give either of them away. “Can you keep them all distracted?” G’kalte murmured, and Rallai nodded minutely.

She rose with a sweeping flourish from Valonna, turning back to the room. “This has gone too far, P’raima,” she said. “We don’t have any proof that you’ve taken Madellon’s weyrling as you say you have.”

“You think I’m bluffing, Rallai?” P’raima asked.

“I think you’re desperate,” Rallai said. “I think you’d say anything to make us fall into line with your ridiculous demands.”

“Valonna, my dragon’s trying to get through to me,” G’kalte said, still pitching his voice for her ears only, as Rallai diverted attention to herself.

“You didn’t drink the wine…” Valonna breathed.

“I only had a sip. Archie’s distant and hazy but I can just make him out if I concentrate.”

A dim ember of hope sprang to life in Valonna’s chest. If they had a link to the outside world, that was an advantage P’raima didn’t know about. “Please, have him bespeak Shimpath!”

“I don’t think he should,” G’kalte said. “I think P’raima will be watching the queens. If she suddenly reacts differently because she’s heard from you he’ll know something’s afoot. But I don’t think he’ll care about Archie; he’s only a brown. Who should he contact at Madellon?”

Valonna thought furiously. There was no point in G’kalte’s dragon bespeaking Kawanth; Sh’zon wouldn’t be able to hear him. H’ned was probably still unconscious, and Valonna had no faith in F’yan. “Vanzanth,” she said. “Our Weyrlingmaster’s brown.”

“All right.” G’kalte’s face went intent with concentration, his eyes fixed on a point in the middle distance.

Incongruously, Valonna noticed how striking his grey eyes were in his tanned face. Rallai was still arguing loudly – uncharacteristically loudly – with P’raima, their exchange punctuated occasionally by Lady Coffleby’s acerbic remarks.

Then G’kalte’s gaze came back into focus. “Play for time,” he murmured. “We’re to play for time.” He paused, his eyes lighting. “Help is on the way.”

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