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Chapter forty-seven: Sh’zon, Carleah, L’stev

Q: What does a Southern rider call his mother’s brother’s weyrmate’s son?

A: …Dad?

– Peninsula joke

100.03.26 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
SOUTHERN WEYR

Sh'zon (Micah Johnson)Sh’zon didn’t like leaving Madellon in F’yan’s hands. He didn’t like going between without being able to guide his dragon. But he liked less still the thought of entrusting H’ned – who was still hungover, even if he wasn’t actually slurring any more – with a mission to Southern Weyr alone.

His relief when Kawanth brought them safely out of between over Southern was short-lived. Izath was a wingspan ahead of them, exactly where he’d been when they’d left Madellon, but they weren’t alone. Southern dragons reared up out of the undergrowth from all sides, their heads swivelling, red-eyed, to challenge them. Sh’zon felt Kawanth’s grumble of displeasure at the reception, but it was Izath who called out, his bugle uncharacteristically respectful to the Weyr full of hostile dragons.

As H’ned’s dragon asked for leave to land, Sh’zon made a quick reckoning of Southern’s complement. He counted twenty-five bronzes, two short of the twenty-seven who had come to Madellon the night they’d removed Southern’s weyrlings. Tezonth was one of the absentees, but Sh’zon wasn’t familiar enough with Southern’s roster to identify the other. Southern dragons were difficult to tell apart at the best of times: every single one under the age of thirty was Tezonth’s get, out of either Grizbath or her predecessor Brodavanth, and almost every bronze favoured their mutual sire in build and coloration. If P’raima did have an accomplice among his senior riders, identifying him wouldn’t be as simple as noting the absence of his dragon.

At last, a bronze that could have been a younger, marginally smaller Tezonth barked out permission for Kawanth and Izath to approach. Sh’zon tried not to seethe as Kawanth gave way to Izath. He’d never have advocated ceding such prominence to another dragon had he been able to direct Kawanth. It would give Southern’s riders the impression that H’ned, not Sh’zon, was senior. He was the one P’raima had drugged; he was the one who’d been charged with resolving the situation; he was the one with a family member in jeopardy! It was insult added to the many injuries Sh’zon had already suffered, and the irritation was almost more than he could stomach. With more effort than it should have taken, he asserted control over his frustration. H’ned wasn’t the enemy here, and their rivalry could wait until this was all over.

Kawanth had barely landed, and Sh’zon hadn’t dismounted, when the Southern bronze’s rider challenged them. “We were told you’d be bringing Megrith. What are you doing here without her?”

“Wingleader,” Sh’zon said, reading the man’s shoulder-knots as he swung down from Kawanth’s neck. “I’m Deputy Weyrleader Sh’zon, Kawanth’s rider, and this is Deputy Weyrleader H’ned –”

The Southern rider cut him off. “We know who you are.” He was perhaps thirty-five, sandy-haired and slender; Sh’zon could have taken him in a fight with one hand – both hands! – behind his back.  “I’m Wingleader R’maro. Maibauth’s rider. Where’s Megrith?”

“She’s safe and well at Madellon,” H’ned said, before Sh’zon could reply. He walked towards R’maro, his hands spread as if to show he was unarmed. “Wingleader, please hear us out; we’re not here to try anything on with you. Your Weyrleader has our weyrlings and our Weyrwoman. We’re not stupid enough to want to risk them.”

R’maro looked from Sh’zon to H’ned, then back at Sh’zon. Sh’zon realised that he still had his hand on Kawanth’s neck. Relinquishing the physical contact gave him more of a wrench than he liked to admit. His mind groped futilely for Kawanth’s, unable to stop itself. “All right,” R’maro said, after a moment. “What do you –”

He was interrupted by the arrival of another bronze overhead. Sh’zon looked up, daring to hope it might be Tezonth, but while the dragon in the sky was yet another simulacrum of P’raima’s bronze, he was neither as grey nor quite as big. R’maro’s eyes narrowed nearly imperceptibly as the newcomer landed, and Sh’zon risked the briefest exchanged glance with H’ned to see if Izath’s rider was thinking the same as him.

“R’maro!” the new rider snapped down from atop his dragon’s neck, and Sh’zon recognised D’pantha, Southern’s Deputy Weyrleader. “What in Faranth’s name are you doing, letting these two land?”

“I had the watch, D’pantha,” R’maro said, straightening defiantly.

“And I have seniority.” D’pantha jumped ponderously down from his bronze. He was too substantial a man to do anything with grace. “You should have reported to me straightaway so Cyniath could speak to Tezonth about this.”

“Two bronzes are no risk to Southern –”

“That’s not the point.” D’pantha looked at Sh’zon and H’ned. “Why haven’t you brought Megrith?”

“We were just explaining to R’maro,” Sh’zon said quickly. He fixed D’pantha with his most guileless stare. “She won’t come.”

D’pantha blinked, as though not understanding. “What do you mean, she won’t come?”

“Karika refuses to leave Madellon,” said Sh’zon. “Megrith won’t bring her back to Southern.”

“She’s a weyrling,” said R’maro, looking as baffled as D’pantha. “Make her come. “

“She’s a queen,” Sh’zon said. “We can’t make her do anything she doesn’t want to!”

“How in the Void do you run your Weyr if you can’t tell a weyrling what to do?” R’maro demanded.

“We’re not telling her she has to go to bed early!” Sh’zon shouted. “We’re asking her to come back here, the last place in all of Pern she wants to be, and Megrith won’t have it!”

D’pantha and R’maro both looked taken aback. H’ned grabbed at the slender advantage. “Don’t you see?” he implored them. “We just want our weyrlings back. We won’t stand in the way of returning Karika and Megrith to Southern if that’s what it’s going to take. But we don’t have any leverage over Karika. You must know what a wilful girl she is.”

“She should never have been allowed to stand,” said D’pantha.

“But you’ve told her what’ll happen to your weyrling if she refuses?” R’maro asked perplexedly. “Do you think P’raima’s bluffing?”

D’pantha looked sharply at his Weyrmate, even as R’maro’s implication made Sh’zon’s blood go cold. He pressed on regardless. “Karika doesn’t give a trader’s cuss what happens to Tarshe. They’ve been at each other’s throats since the minute she arrived at Madellon. Go on, ask any of your weyrlings! They’ll tell you!”

The two Southern bronze riders looked uncertainly at each other. “What are you saying?” D’pantha asked, at last. “What is it that you want?”

“Time,” said H’ned. “Our bronzes can’t force Megrith out. Nor can yours. Only a mature queen can exert that sort of authority over her. And Shimpath, Ipith, and Ranquiath are all out of play while P’raima has their Weyrwomen.”

“We need time to petition the northern Weyrs for help,” said Sh’zon, taking up the thread. “They didn’t want to get involved the first time, and they sure as shards aren’t going to be happy about it now, but without a queen to put pressure on Megrith, we can’t deliver her.” He spread his hands helplessly. “P’raima wanted Megrith back within the hour. That hour’s nearly up. We’re doing everything we can, but we’re not going to make that deadline. Please. Tarshe’s not just a queen weyrling; she’s my cousin. I knew her as a tiny baby. I promised her da when she came to Madellon that I’d look out for her. You can’t let P’raima hurt her. You have to get a message to him that we’re working on returning Megrith, but we need more time.” He didn’t have to feign the desperation in  his voice. “Please. I’m begging you.”

R’maro shook his head slowly. “What P’raima’s doing…” He trailed off, his voice exuding doubt.

“It’s not your place to question the Weyrleader, R’maro,” D’pantha snapped.

Sh’zon couldn’t help himself. “When your Weyrleader’s taking women and children hostages, and feeding riders drugs to separate them from their dragons, I’d say he merits more than questioning!”

Sh’zon!” H’ned hissed at him urgently.

But Sh’zon ignored him. “That’s right,” he said, flicking his gaze between R’maro and D’pantha. Both Southern riders had gone still and wary. “This felah, or whatever in Faranth’s name you call it. Do you even know what it’s doing to you? What it’s done to me? I can’t hear my own blighted dragon!” His voice broke on the last part.

“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” said D’pantha.

“If you maniacs want to mess around with how your dragons talk to you, that’s your business!” Sh’zon shouted. “Doesn’t give you the right to poison anyone else! Faranth! How can either of you support P’raima after all he’s done?”

D’pantha cut across him. “After all he’s done?” He laughed incredulously. “You took Megrith. The shock of it killed our Weyrwoman. Madellon drove P’raima to this, bronze rider. Southern only ever asked to be left alone!”

“Southern’s been rotten for Turns,” said Sh’zon. “You mark my words, Pern won’t stand for this. You’re crazy to think the other Weyrs will tolerate him if he hurts so much as a hair on Tarshe’s head!”

“Look,” R’maro said, in a more conciliatory tone, “for all our sakes, let’s not let it come to that. P’raima’s done some…desperate things, but if you return Karika and Megrith, your weyrlings won’t be harmed.” He glanced at D’pantha. “And then you can let us worry about our Weyrleader.”

Hurriedly, H’ned said, “That’s what we mean to do. But you have to persuade P’raima to give us a little more time.” He moved his gaze onto R’maro. “Please.”

“I…” R’maro looked briefly wretched. “Maibauth can’t actually contact Tezonth…”

“No, he can’t,” said D’pantha. The look he’d fixed on R’maro couldn’t have been more scathing, but he dragged his dark eyes away from his Weyrmate. “Only Cyniath is in contact with Tezonth today.” He shifted his look back to H’ned. “But I will speak to the Weyrleader on your behalf. Cyniath will be in touch with his decision.” He held up a warning finger. “P’raima is not a patient man, and Southern has already been without a queen for too long. I suggest you set in motion whatever negotiations you require with the north straightaway.”

“Thank you, Wingleader,” said H’ned, with too-convincing humility. “We will. Thank you.”

Sh’zon stole one last gauging look at both Southern bronze riders before he turned to remount Kawanth. Neither man looked as confident in the fanatical devotion to their Weyrleader that had been the norm amongst Southern Weyr’s riders ever since Sh’zon could remember. It gave him hope. “Follow Izath again,” he said softly to Kawanth, as he passed his dragon’s head. Kawanth gave a rumble of assent that should have been reassuring, but Sh’zon found it only increased his anger and despair at their inability to communicate naturally.

It was more unsettling still to go between on his own dragon without knowing their destination, to trust H’ned and Izath to guide all of them safely through. As they hung in the bitter darkness, Sh’zon caught himself wondering grimly if he was a fool to put his faith in a man he’d contrived to get roaring drunk the night before. But even if H’ned’s judgement was still impaired, Izath’s wasn’t, and his endpoint featured a sight to gladden the heart and stiffen the spine of any bronze: the shining presence of a queen.

Tynerith had grown since the last time Sh’zon had seen her, and if the Peninsula’s weyrling queen didn’t quite yet match Essienth, standing vigilantly guard beside her, for length, she certainly outdid K’ken’s bronze for beauty. Not, he reflected, as Kawanth circled downwards, that Essienth’s long-ago damaged left wing had ever stopped him being a fine Wingleader’s dragon. But there was no avoiding the fact that the missing final joint of his left mid-spar had always given him a ragged, uneven appearance.

Kawanth and Izath landed close to the two Peninsula dragons on the ridge where the last rays of evening sun could still fall on their hides. There was no need for physical concealment – they were ten miles within Peninsula territory – but Sh’zon hoped that Tynerith had grown in subtlety as well as size since he’d transferred out of his native Weyr. She looked intent, barely reacting to the new arrivals, even when both Kawanth and Izath rumbled respectfully to her in greeting.

“Well?” K’ken asked, walking around Tynerith, as H’ned and Sh’zon dismounted.

“D’pantha seems to be in charge at Southern,” said H’ned. “He’s promised to talk to P’raima about getting an extension.

“D’pantha’s a lickspittle,” said K’ken, “but he’s been P’raima’s right arm for a long time. He’s as likely as any to be doing the dirty work.”

“He sounded pretty prickly when it came to any criticism of P’raima,” said H’ned. He glanced at Sh’zon. “What about the other bronze rider? R’maro? He sounded more moderate.”

K’ken frowned. “R’maro’s one of Margone’s sons.”

“P’raima’s?”

“I don’t think so. He’s a fairly junior Wingleader; what was he doing there?”

“He was on watch,” said Sh’zon. “He didn’t seem as in love with P’raima as D’pantha plainly is.”

“Maybe he blames P’raima for his mother’s death?” H’ned speculated.

“Well he might,” said Sh’zon.

“It could be,” said K’ken. “But he doesn’t have the seniority to pose a credible threat to P’raima.” He turned his head to look at the young woman hunkered down next to the juvenile queen. “Britt, kindly have Tynerith focus on D’pantha’s Cyniath.”

Britt waved a hand at him distractedly. “Shush, please, K’ken; we’re concentrating.”

“You’re sure Tynerith’s going to be able to eavesdrop from this distance?” H’ned asked K’ken dubiously.

K’ken nodded. “She can’t break into dragon-rider conversation, but if Cyniath reaches out to Tezonth, she’ll catch it. Whether or not that’ll give us any clues as to where P’raima’s hidden him…” He spread his hands.

“Is there any word from Long Bay?” Sh’zon asked. Not being able to have Kawanth check in for him was almost the most frustrating thing about their affliction.

“There’s nothing new from Archidath,” said K’ken. “Essienth says he reports he was still finding it difficult to understand his rider. L’mis’ Pelranth seems to be keeping the queens and Suffath contained. You did well putting him in charge there, Sh’zon. No bronze who’s flown a senior queen ever loses that ring of authority.”

There was a tinge of sadness in K’ken’s voice as he said it. Essienth had never flown a queen, senior or otherwise: his damaged wing put him at too great a manoeuvrability disadvantage against his rivals. Still, the fact that K’ken could never be a threat to a standing Weyrleader had put him in a consistently favourable position throughout his career. Few bronze riders would ever become Weyrleader anyway; being a trusted, well-liked, and highly competent deputy had advantages all of its own. Sh’zon dared to let himself think ahead to Ipith’s next flight. K’ken had always maintained a strict apolitical stance when it came to the Peninsula’s leadership contests. When Sh’zon ousted H’pold from the Weyrleader’s weyr, he’d want to keep K’ken on as his own Deputy.

But the musing turned his thoughts, inevitably, to M’ric. The anger flared up yet again, so raw and uncontrolled that for a moment Sh’zon couldn’t think at all. He curled his hands into fists, digging his fingernails into his palms until the rage faded back to a manageable level. Master Isnan had wanted to examine him before he’d left Madellon, to investigate the physiological changes the felah had caused besides blocking him from his dragon, but there hadn’t been time. As Sh’zon struggled to quell his temper, he wondered if the drug itself was influencing his emotions. It would go a long way towards explaining the increasingly insular and hostile behaviour that Southern Weyr’s dragonriders had been demonstrating in recent Turns.

None of that could diminish Sh’zon’s shock or rage at M’ric’s treachery. M’ric, who had stood there – with Tarshe’s life in jeopardy, and Rallai and Valonna hostages, and Sh’zon’s own bond with his dragon damaged, maybe irreparably – and refused to use his Thread-blighted knack for timing to help them. He’d used the same knack a hundred times, a thousand times, for personal gain, and self-satisfaction, and convenience. And, yes, occasionally, to provide Sh’zon with intelligence at crucial moments – but only ever for their mutual benefit. A brown rider could only go so far on his own merit; one with loftier ambitions must of necessity hitch his wagon to another man’s team. For Turns, Sh’zon had been that man. But M’ric’s progressively more precipitous actions had been a source of concern for some time. Now, Sh’zon was beginning to believe with increasing certainty that the Wingsecond he’d trusted for so long had found himself a new coat-tail to ride. The knowledge that M’ric was out there now with his Wing, supposedly looking for Tarshe in Giskara Basin, should have reassured him; in the light of M’ric’s unflinching refusal to employ his most salient skill to help Tarshe, Sh’zon feared that his perfidious Wingsecond would hinder the operation more than he helped it.

But he couldn’t tell anyone about his misgivings. He had no one to confide in. Even Kawanth was helpless to alleviate his fears. Sh’zon’s reputation and M’ric’s were inextricably linked; he couldn’t expose the brown rider without making himself look a buffoon at best, a co-conspirator at worst. And Sh’zon didn’t know what game M’ric was playing, except that, whatever his agenda, he was holding more cards than any one man ought.

“Has –” he began, intending to enquire after the Ops Wing’s progress, but then Britt stood abruptly up, her eyes darting this way and that. “What is it, Britt?”

Britt’s hands grasped vaguely at the air, as though she were trying to seize something. “Cyniath’s reaching out to Tezonth!”

“What’s he saying?”

“Where?”

Sh’zon and H’ned’s questions went unanswered as Britt concentrated. “Let her listen!” K’ken told them, stopping them both from crowding her with a hand on each shoulder.

“He’s saying that Megrith isn’t cooperating,” said Britt. “And that Madellon’s asking for more time.”

“What does Tezonth say?” H’ned asked urgently.

“Quiet, man!” Sh’zon snapped.

“He says…he says his rider says that Madellon can take as much time as it pleases,” Britt reported. “But – oh!” Her face blanched, and Tynerith gave a little moan of despair.

“But what?” Sh’zon urged her, feeling dread strike the pit of his stomach.

Britt swallowed hard. “But…he says…it’s going to cost them.”

“Cost us what?” H’ned shouted.

Britt’s eyes came back into focus. She looked from one bronze rider to another, her gaze finally meeting Sh’zon’s. “The green weyrling,” she said, her voice choked with horror. “It’s going to cost you the green weyrling.”

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

Carleah (Micah Johnson)Carleah was certain she’d worked one of the knots binding Tarshe’s hands nearly loose when Tarshe, who’d been leaning with her head against the wall of the wooden shack they were in, stiffened urgently behind her. “Something’s happening!”

Abandoning her work on the knots, Carleah heaved herself sideways to press her ear against the splintery planks, listening to the muffled sound of arguing voices beyond.

“…said we wouldn’t have to,” one man said unhappily.

The second voice was less hesitant. “…knew there was the chance…want the marks or not…?”

“…not paying us enough for this!”

“Faranth, you Void-spawned weakling…I’ll shaffing do it if you don’t have the stomach!”

The voices got louder and clearer as their owners approached the shed. “Wait a moment, Crent, just wait a moment!

“I said I’ll shaffing do it!” A fist striking the outside of the shack just above where Carleah and Tarshe were listening made them both flinch instinctively away. “Get out of my way, Gorty!”

“Just wait!” Gorty insisted. “Shaffit, Crent, thanks to you we don’t even know which one is which!”

“That wasn’t my fault!”

“Well it sure as shards wasn’t mine!”

“It was the blonde one Harket’s boy was watching, wasn’t it?”

“Harket’s boy is even more of a drooling idiot than his father. Do you want to take the chance of getting the wrong one?”

“The message said to do the green rider –”

“And if we get it wrong and do the shaffing queen by mistake? There wouldn’t be enough of us left to fill a bucket once that bronze rider and his dragon got done with us!”

Crent didn’t reply, but Carleah could only hear his last words anyway, repeating over and over again in her head.

The message said to do the green rider.

She found herself suddenly unable to breathe.

Do the green rider.

Panic welled up as it hadn’t before, as she’d never experienced it before.

The green rider.

“Oh, Faranth,” she whispered, hearing her own voice as a strangled croak. “Oh Faranth, oh Faranth, oh Faranth…”

Tarshe elbowed her clumsily in the back, jolting her out of her motionless horror. “Pretend to be me!” she hissed.

And then they both almost toppled sideways as the door they’d been leaning against was yanked abruptly open from the outside. “Get up!” Crent’s voice ordered them, and Carleah felt rough hands seize her, dragging her to her feet.

“Get off me!” Tarshe shouted.

Carleah felt Tarshe struggling behind her, and she fought too, trying to get free of the man who’d grabbed her. “Get your hands off me!” she cried, turning her head futilely from side to side, trying to sound defiant despite the bonds and blindfold.

“You girls want to lose all your teeth, you just keep on struggling like that,” said Crent. “Nothing said we have to keep you in one piece. Now stay still!

All the air went out of Carleah’s lungs as she was slammed face-first against the wall of the wooden shack and held there, gasping. A moment later, she felt and heard Tarshe similarly pinned beside her.

“Now which one of you’s the Thread-blighted queen rider?” Crent demanded.

Carleah didn’t know what to say. Do the green rider, Crent had said. Pretend to be me, Tarshe had insisted. Their captors meant to kill one of them. The expendable one. The green rider. They meant to kill her. Carleah wasn’t yet fifteen. She’d been a dragonrider less than a Turn. She didn’t want to die.

But how could she lie to save her own skin when doing so would push Tarshe into the path of that Thread-strike? No. She couldn’t. She wouldn’t. She was a dragonrider of Madellon, and she knew her duty to her Weyr and her Weyr’s queens. She wasn’t a coward.

In the instant before she spoke up and sealed her fate, she wondered if her da had experienced a moment, just before the end, when he knew he was going to die. But then C’los’ words, from that long-ago Gather, burst into her mind as clearly as though he were standing right next to her. No daughter of mine is ever going to be outwitted by some half-literate holder. You’re smarter than that.

“Answer me!” Crent yelled, so close to them that Carleah felt a fine spray of spittle hit her cheek below the blindfold. “Shelling answer me or I’ll smash both your mouths in for you!”

Tarshe staggered beside her, her elbow catching Carleah’s urgently, and they couldn’t have been more perfectly in harmony had they rehearsed it as they both cried, “She is!”

Crent’s roar of frustration was deafening at such close range. His fist caught the side of Carleah’s head a glancing blow, and she crumpled, as much out of nervous terror as from the force of the strike.

“Shaffit, Crent, leave them alone!” Gorty shouted, and for a moment Carleah lay there, half dazed, as their two captors scuffled over her, stamping and swearing.

She felt Tarshe crouch protectively over her as the two men grappled with each other. “Are you all right?”

Behind the blindfold, Carleah didn’t know if her vision was blurred; she felt dizzy, but Crent must have pulled his punch at the last moment. “I think so,” she whispered.

“Score you to the Void, Gorty!” Crent bellowed, panting. “They’ll never pay us if we don’t get the job done!”

“And we’re both dead if we foul it all up!” Gorty shouted. “Just calm the shaff down!”

Crent huffed and puffed, but the sounds of conflict quieted down. “Well what are we going to do?” he demanded. “These little dragon-bitches are lying!”

“All right,” Gorty said. “Just calm down. I’m going to send Pogo back to that bronze rider. If he wants to keep the right one alive, he can come and tell us which girl’s which. And then if we kill the wrong one, it’s on his head, not ours.”

100.03.26 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
MADELLON WEYR

L'stev (Micah Johnson)“You’ll take this one,” L’stev told H’lamin, stabbing his finger at one of the unclaimed squares on the rough chart of Giskara Basin on his chalk board.

H’lamin nodded curtly, his eyes darting over the hastily scrawled instructions. Track and crawl search pattern, the first one read, with an urgent underline, and ABSOLUTE SILENCE! the second, underlined three times, and capitalised for good measure. Then he ran back to his waiting dragon, cramming his helmet back onto his head as he did.

Do we have any more incoming? L’stev asked Vanzanth.

Derthauth and Grissenth aren’t reporting in.

Then let Trebruth know that they’re still short of coverage in the north-west quadrant. And that we have volunteers willing to help out –

Trebruth says no volunteers.

L’stev paused. Well, it’s his operation. M’ric had barely spent five minutes on the ground between coming in from Long Bay and taking off again for Southern territory, but the riders of Ops Wing had been reporting in to get their hurriedly-assigned orders for the last quarter-hour. B’frea and G’pellas were the only absentees, two riders out of sixteen.

The weyrlings had come home, too, bundled two and three onto the first available Madellon dragon. The sight of so many of them clinging to their dragonets for reassurance made Berzunth and Jagunth’s frightened misery even more affecting. Megrith, curiously, had moved closer to Berzunth, her demeanour an odd mixture of conciliatory and protective. Give them a common enemy, L’stev thought sourly. On balance, he’d rather have had the queens still despising each other.

Vanzanth tilted his muzzle skywards an instant before Kawanth and Izath burst back into the air above the Bowl. L’stev took in their agitated demeanour with a glance. Trouble?

Trouble, Vanzanth confirmed.

“That tunnel-snake P’raima’s going to do it!” H’ned shouted down from Izath. “He’s going to –”

He caught himself before he could finish the sentence, but that didn’t stop Sh’zon from roaring, “Shut your mouth, for Faranth’s sake!”

L’stev briefly considered knocking the two riders’ heads together as they climbed down from their dragons. Then he put the tempting thought out of his mind. “He’s threatened Carleah?” he asked in a low voice. “He’s said so directly?”

“Tynerith overheard Tezonth give the message to Cyniath,” said H’ned. “And Cyniath told Izath. All in language a dragon wouldn’t grasp to mean they were passing on a kill order, but…”

“He means to show us he’s serious,” said L’stev.

“M’ric’s Wing…?” Sh’zon asked.

L’stev shook his head. “Over Giskara now, but M’ric said it would take hours to fly the most cursory search pattern, and with no guarantee of finding anything.”

Sh’zon’s face darkened, and L’stev wondered what had transpired between the Deputy Weyrleader and his Wingsecond; the pair had always been just as thick as thieves. “He has to be bluffing,” H’ned said, sounding desperate. “He can’t mean to kill another dragonrider. Even if Tezonth’s insulated from it, surely, surely Southern wouldn’t tolerate measures like that!”

“Faranth knows what Thread-ridden morality Southern’s riders subscribe to with this felah poison running in their veins!” Sh’zon spat.

For a moment the two Deputies just stood there, staring hopelessly at nothing, visibly paralysed by the awful decision they were obliged to make, and while a small part of L’stev was grateful that the responsibility for that decision didn’t fall on him, the larger part knew that there was only one correct course of action.

Sh’zon’s eyes refocused first. He raised his head slightly, and H’ned met his gaze. Consensus passed between the two Deputy Weyrleaders without the need for words, and L’stev was relieved that even in their bronze rider arrogance, both men recognised the lesser evil. “Izath will take her,” H’ned said. He sounded defeated.

“Kawanth should –” Sh’zon began, and then he pulled himself up. He nodded dully. “Yeah. Fine.”

L’stev looked over to where Karika and T’gala were still sitting, looking pinched and woebegone, on one of the long benches. “What about the blue rider?”

“P’raima never said anything about hi…her,” said Sh’zon. “She doesn’t want to go, we’ll not make her. That much we can do.”

But T’gala wasn’t to be deterred. While Karika just nodded, her eyes downcast but resolute, T’gala lifted her head. “If Karika has to go, so do I,” she said. “I’m a dragonrider of…” She almost said Southern, her lips forming the first syllable, and then she shook her head. “I’m a dragonrider of Pern. I’m not afraid.”

“When this is over,” Sh’zon said, “when Tarshe and Carleah are safe, we’ll come back for you. We’ll get you out again –”

“No,” said Karika. Her voice was haunted, her little smile wan. “Thank you, Sh’zon, but you won’t.”

Sh’zon’s expression betrayed his fury, but he didn’t voice it. Instead, he turned to H’ned. “Have Izath tell Cyniath we’re bringing Megrith and Heppeth through now. Tell him to call off the – tell him to call it off.”

H’ned’s eyes shifted in Izath’s direction, as many riders’ did when communicating an urgent message, but the lines between his brows deepened suddenly. “He’s…not there,” he said. “Cyniath’s not at Southern any more.”

“What?” Sh’zon demanded, so curtly that his teeth snapped together on the word.

“Izath can’t find him there,” said H’ned. “He doesn’t know where he is.”

Sh’zon blinked stupidly. “But Cyniath’s the only conduit to Tezonth,” he said. “If we can’t reach him…Faranth! What in the Void does D’pantha think he’s doing, going incommunicado now? Is he stupid?”

H’ned swallowed hard. The colour, L’stev noticed, was leaching from his face. “What if he isn’t stupid?” he asked, sickly, and from Sh’zon’s sudden stricken expression, L’stev thought that the same notion had occurred to him at the same instant. “D’pantha’s P’raima’s right-hand man. What if he’s who P’raima has sent to do it? What if he’s the one who’s gone to kill Carleah?”

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