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Chapter forty-nine: Valonna, Carleah

In the immediate aftermath of the Long Bay Incident in I7/100, southern Pern was for a time devoid of a single traditional Weyrleader in any of its three Weyrs.

Not for no reason was that period of upheaval considered the start of many of the changes that would come to define the politics of Pern in the late Seventh Interval and Eighth Pass.

– Masterharper Hennidge, Chronicle of the Seventh Interval

100.03.26 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
MADELLON WEYR

Valonna (Micah Johnson)Cyniath and Maibauth descended towards the Bowl, two bronzes so alike they might have hatched from the same egg, and close enough to their mutual sire Tezonth in colour and conformation that it gave Valonna a reflexive chill to see them.

“Well?” Sh’zon asked T’rello, where they all stood on Shimpath’s weyr ledge. “Is that the bronze you saw going between in Southern territory?”

“Which one?” T’rello asked. “They both look the same.”

Sh’zon growled, “For Faranth’s sake…!”

“Be reasonable, Sh’zon,” said H’ned, on T’rello’s other side. “Do you even know which of them is Maibauth and which Cyniath?”

Sh’zon didn’t reply for a long moment, his gaze moving between the two Southern dragons. “Cyniath’s on the left,” he said, pointing, though he didn’t sound certain.

Even side by side, the differences between the two bronzes were difficult to make out. Valonna thought perhaps that Maibauth was a fraction taller than Cyniath. T’rello looked hard at the Southern bronze, his brow furrowing in concentration. “I can’t say for certain,” he said at last. “It could have been. We never got a clear sight.”

Sh’zon’s teeth flashed briefly in an expression of annoyance, but H’ned clapped T’rello on the shoulder. “Never mind. If anything comes back to you, have Santinoth bespeak Izath.” He glanced at Sh’zon. “Best I greet them.”

As H’ned started forward to receive D’pantha and R’maro, Valonna noted how Sh’zon clenched his jaw when he looked at the Southern riders. Sh’zon had always been direct, even overbearing, in his manner, but his temper was visibly close to boiling over. Valonna wondered if it was the felah. It seemed to be affecting each of them differently, beyond its main effect of blocking their communication with their dragons. Tarshe was nearly as angry as her cousin, while Carleah had been so overwrought, launching into an emotive account of their ordeal without even pausing for breath between sentences, that the Healers had recommended she be sedated for her own good. Valonna had asked the Weyr Healer’s staff to mix both girls something to soothe them without actually putting them to sleep, and they were resting now under the fierce and vigilant watch of their respective dragonets.

She, herself, felt almost paralysed with fear and dread; indignation, even anger, ran beneath her fright, but secondary to it. Shimpath was much angrier than she, and if Madellon hadn’t already been fraught with tensions in the wake of the dreadful day, the waves of fury emanating from its senior queen would soon have made it so.

Rallai wasn’t coming. H’ned had gone to invite her to the table with the two Southern riders, but he’d returned alone, reporting that the Peninsula was in nearly as much uproar as Southern. “Rallai said she can’t leave her riders right now,” he’d said. “She said she trusts in you to negotiate with Southern, and that Sh’zon will speak for Peninsula if necessary.”

H’ned had given Sh’zon a hard look with that, his gaze lingering on the Weyrleader’s knot still looped over his shoulder. Sh’zon had made no effort to take it off. It would have to be returned soon, Valonna thought, for H’pold’s interment, but she was too wary of Sh’zon’s temper to point it out. She knew Shimpath would have been irate with her had she been party to that reasoning. The notion that her queen might never again have free access to her thoughts made grasping tendrils of panic and despair begin to rise from the pit of her stomach.

She fended them off only with the hope that the two Southerners come to treat with Madellon had a cure for the poison P’raima had put in the sherry – the cure Karika believed must exist. The thought of Karika gave Valonna another queasy pang of fear. Shimpath had promised Megrith sanctuary. Sh’zon had almost been forced into breaking the queens’ covenant. Yet now, Valonna dreaded the likelihood that she would be the one obliged to use Karika as a bargaining chip. The fact that Karika had already offered to return to Southern for Tarshe and Carleah’s sakes in no way mitigated the revulsion Valonna felt at the idea of trading the girl for the cure.

“Weyrwoman,” said Sh’zon, touching her arm. He jerked his head towards the interior of the weyr. “We need to go inside.”

Under most other circumstances it would have been a dreadful snub of representatives of another Weyr. Envoys should be received by the Weyrleaders and escorted with all civility and courtesy to the council chamber. Shimpath wouldn’t have it. Valonna didn’t need to be able to hear her queen to grasp that she would not tolerate her leaving her sight. Even as Valonna let Sh’zon accompany her within, Shimpath rose from her ledge and followed them. Arranged just so, with her head put somewhat awkwardly through the archway between her chamber and Valonna’s quarters, she would be able to keep watch over her. Valonna suspected that Kawanth felt much the same anxiety about having Sh’zon out of visual range, but a queen’s demands would always outrank a bronze’s.

There had been little time to prepare a welcome for the two Southern riders – not that they felt inclined to cordiality anyway. Valonna only wished they’d had more opportunity to form a strategy. It was clear that D’pantha and R’maro came as rivals rather than allies. It was clear that the struggle between them hinged on one of them securing the restoration of Southern’s sole living queen to her home Weyr. It was clear they would each offer Madellon something in trade for Megrith’s return. Beyond those bare facts, neither Valonna nor Sh’zon nor H’ned knew what to expect.

They’d set a table in Valonna’s office with water and klah. No wine. That was a courtesy too far for two riders from the Weyr whose leader had kidnapped and poisoned and murdered in the pursuit of his frenzied ends. Sh’zon, Valonna knew, had already convicted D’pantha as P’raima’s accomplice; she had taken care to see that the two were not seated next to each other, for fear that Sh’zon’s rage would boil over into violence. Nor would the two Southerners sit together. Valonna had placed them at either end of the table to discourage them from setting their differences aside in the face of Madellon’s censure. That was as much preparation as they’d had time to agree.

Valonna took the central seat on one side of the table. Sh’zon sat on her right. “Water?” he asked, curtly, and when Valonna nodded, he poured for both of them.

He had barely set down the two cups when H’ned brought R’maro and D’pantha into the chamber. As soon as the three bronze riders were inside, Shimpath’s enormous head thrust through the archway. Her eyes were turbulently blue, more storm than sky, flecked red with her displeasure. Still, Valonna found her watchful presence comforting.

It was not easy to resist the reflex to rise, a courtesy drilled into her over Turns as Hold scion and Weyrwoman. Valonna managed it only by hooking her fingers painfully tight together where they lay in her lap. Standing, she told herself, would undo even the hurried weave of their planning. The Southern riders must be made to know their place as petitioners, not equals. She saw, from the corner of her eye, Sh’zon shift restlessly beside her, and hoped he would not leap to his feet.

“Weyrwoman Valonna,” H’ned said formally, inclining his head to her. “R’maro and D’pantha, from Southern Weyr.”

Valonna took a breath, permitted herself the briefest glance at Shimpath, and then nodded with a briskness she didn’t feel. “Be seated.”

She wondered, as H’ned gestured R’maro to Sh’zon’s end of the table, and D’pantha to the opposite seat, if the two Southerners would believe her front. Recent events had forced her to develop, if nothing so substantial as an armour, then at least a veneer of gravity, a thin shell of composure. Still, she knew, she was young, and inexperienced, and looked even more so of both than she was. She was no formidable Fianine, nor effortless Rallai, nor even distracting Sirtis. No, Valonna thought. I am none of them. And then she thought what she knew Shimpath would have said, had she been able to hear her. I am the Weyrwoman of Madellon Weyr. I am Shimpath’s rider. And then at last she added, I am Valonna.

She had never met either rider before, and H’ned’s briefing on them both had been terse, but R’maro reminded her so powerfully of the last Southern rider Valonna had received in her office that she had to will away the lump in her throat. He was lean and rangy where Margone had been gaunt, and his hair was sandy-light to her grey, but his brilliant green eyes, flecked with gold, were as startling as Margone’s had been. She only wished they were less guarded, less wary. R’maro was a junior Wingleader, H’ned had told her; not heretofore prominent among Southern’s bronze riders. But he was still a Southerner, Margone’s son or not. And even Margone had come to Madellon not to offer aid but to seek help. It was just difficult not to see the shadow of the Weyrwoman’s desperate plea in her son’s petition.

D’pantha might have been R’maro’s opposite in every way: older, swarthier of complexion, with blunt pockmarked features and grey-shot black hair. He was burly, brawny, solid. His expression yielded no hint to Valonna’s searching gaze that he was a man to compromise. Nor did his coal-black, coal-hard eyes offer her any reassurance that he was a man who would balk at a task he was given. He had been Southern’s second-in-command for long Turns, as intrinsic a part of the former Weyrleader’s regime as P’raima himself, as senior as R’maro was junior.

But the two Southern men were alike in one way, at least. Both were users of felah. The Weyr Healer Isnan, before leaving to consult with his colleagues at the Hall, had examined all the Madellon riders who had been poisoned – Valonna, Sh’zon, Tarshe, and Carleah – and pointed out a tell-tale dilation of the pupils of their eyes. It explained why all of them had been finding themselves unusually sensitive to the light since their poisoning. The dilation was less dramatic in R’maro’s and D’pantha’s eyes, but now Valonna knew to look for it, it was there. “I would welcome you to Madellon,” she said. Her voice, she was surprised to hear, was perfectly even, without a trace of a quiver. “But this is not a day for welcomes. Where is your Weyrleader?”

“He hasn’t –”

“He isn’t our –”

Both Southern riders spoke at once; they both stopped and looked at each other balefully for the interruption.

“Faranth’s sake,” Sh’zon said impatiently. “D’pantha, you’re P’raima’s deputy. Where in the Void is he?”

“I don’t know,” D’pantha replied shortly. “He hasn’t returned to Southern, and there’s been no word from him. Cyniath can’t reach him. No one can reach him.”

“No one wants to reach him,” said R’maro. “After all he’s done, better he makes himself unreachable for good.”

“Then he’s not dead?” asked Valonna.

“No.” D’pantha said it too quickly. Every eye turned to him, not least R’maro’s, but he seemed unconcerned by the accusation. “Cyniath would know.”

“Cyniath’s close to Tezonth, is he?” Sh’zon said, barely hiding the implication in his voice.

D’pantha returned Sh’zon blazing blue gaze without flinching. “None of you are such simpletons that I’d profess otherwise. It’s common knowledge that I’ve been the Weyrleader’s right hand at Southern these last ten Turns.”

Valonna sensed that Sh’zon was on the verge of shouting out the accusation they’d agreed to leave unsaid at the first. She grasped his forearm beneath the table and felt him twist slightly towards her. He was trembling with barely-contained rage. She wished she could ask Shimpath to have Kawanth calm him. “You know what P’raima did to us today,” she said, skirting carefully the issue of blame, and then added, “Both of you,” looking from D’pantha to R’maro.

The Southern riders had the grace to look uncomfortable. “Your weyrlings are unharmed?” asked D’pantha, stiffly.

“Bruised and shaken,” H’ned said, giving Valonna the chance to dig her fingernails hard into Sh’zon’s arm. “Likely to suffer nightmares for Turns.”

“And poisoned into dragon-deafness,” Sh’zon said, despite Valonna’s convulsive grip on his forearm. “As are we all!”

“You haven’t been poisoned,” D’pantha insisted. “It won’t harm –”

“It’s already harmed us!” Sh’zon bellowed.

“Wingleader!” Valonna said to him, as sharply as she could manage. Amazingly, Sh’zon subsided. She took breath. “Drugged, then,” she said to D’pantha. She swapped her gaze to R’maro. “With this…felah.”

“Few at Southern would deny that P’raima was wrong to give you felah,” said R’maro.

None would,” D’pantha interjected. “What P’raima did cannot be laid at the feet of the other riders of Southern.”

“But P’raima acted in what he believed to be Southern’s interests,” said H’ned.

“P’raima acted in P’raima’s interests,” said R’maro. “As he has for Turns.”

D’pantha turned an excoriating glare on the younger rider. “Southern has always been P’raima’s only interest, R’maro,” he said. “He’s devoted every instant, every breath to the Weyr since before you were born.”

“Well do I know that.”

“I’ll wager you do,” D’pantha said, sitting back.

“But P’raima isn’t here to answer for his crimes,” H’ned cut in, before the two Southerners could bicker any further. “In his absence, what the Southern Weyrleader has damaged, Southern Weyr must put right.”

D’pantha was fastest to compose himself. He nodded guardedly. “As best we can.”

“What do you mean, as best you can?” Sh’zon demanded. “You can give us the shaffing cure, for starters!”

“The cure,” D’pantha repeated. Slowly, he shook his head. “What cure?”

Fear snatched anew at Valonna’s stomach, and Sh’zon recoiled beside her. She couldn’t speak with her mouth gone suddenly dry. H’ned stepped in. “P’raima promised an antidote to the felah, in return for a treaty of non-intervention.”

D’pantha frowned. “Then he…misled you,” he said. He sounded reluctant to indict P’raima in any way. “Felah isn’t a poison. It has no antidote.”

Sh’zon shook Valonna’s hand off his arm, and rose to his full considerable height. He was visibly shaking as he slammed both hands down on the table and loomed over D’pantha like a mantling dragon. “Then how in Faranth’s Thread-struck name are you going to fix us, you worthless piece of shit?”

D’pantha, for all his unflappable demeanour, pushed his chair back slightly from the table. H’ned caught the back of Sh’zon shirt. “Easy, Wingleader.”

“Get your hands off me!” Sh’zon roared, turning on H’ned.

“Wingleaders!” Valonna cried, and Shimpath, who could hear well enough to follow the conference, added an irate bark to her exclamation. Sh’zon dropped back into his seat with a thump like a dropped sack of flour, and sat there, crimson with fury.

“P’raima must have given you a massive dose of felah to block you completely from your dragons,” said D’pantha, in the moment of stillness that followed. “It was never intended to cause dragon-deafness.”

“Then what is it?” Valonna asked desperately.

D’pantha looked to be struggling for an answer. “It’s Southern business,” he said. “It always has been. It’s not for outsiders.”

“Look there, Wingleader,” said Valonna, in a chilly tone she hadn’t know she could project. She pointed at Shimpath. “My queen doesn’t care if you think it’s Southern’s business. P’raima has made it Madellon’s business. What is it?”

“It’s what makes us better than the other Weyrs,” D’pantha said at last, without a shred of humility. “More controlled. Less in thrall to our dragons’ baser instincts. It makes us civilised.”

“Civilised?” H’ned asked, incredulous. “You drug yourselves to block out your dragons, and call it civilised?”

“Is it civilised that dragonriders should rut indiscriminately when their dragons do?” D’pantha asked. “Breeding unwanted children, spreading disease, grappling crudely with partners not of our choosing? Is that civilised, is that seemly, is that right?”

It was such a staggering statement, so fundamentally contrary to everything Valonna – everything every dragonrider – had been taught – that she had no words. H’ned looked as shocked as she felt, and even Sh’zon seemed jolted out of his rage. “It’s part of being a dragonrider,” H’ned managed, at length. “It’s part of what we accept. ‘The dragon decides –’”

“‘– and the rider complies’,” D’pantha completed the adage, with a curl of his lip. “Yes. We comply. And riders are harmed, and riders are traumatised. Sometimes riders die. But not at Southern. Not any more.”

Sh’zon shook his head, bewildered. “By excluding your dragons from your minds? By addicting yourselves to a drug?”

Felah doesn’t exclude them,” said D’pantha. “It takes only a little to blur the link, to resist the merge enough to stay more in control. It’s a price worth paying.”

They were dumbfounded, all of them, for a long moment in the aftermath of that revelation. It seemed a dreadful assault on the purity of the dragon-rider bond. And yet…and yet… Valonna remembered a boy who had Impressed a green from Shimpath’s first clutch: M’lare, his dragon Narvinth. He had never completed weyrling training, not through a mishap in flying or flaming, but because breaking flight-merge during his green’s maiden mating had sent his dragon fleeing, terrified, between. Afterwards, L’stev had blamed himself, insisting he hadn’t done enough to prepare a Holdbred lad for the realities of being a green rider. But Valonna had read many accounts in Madellon’s records of how green riders sometimes struggled with the difficult demands of their lusty dragons, male and female both; how greens were lost, not often, but sometimes, in their first or second matings; how, more rarely, they took their mates between with them to their deaths. And she wondered, though it appalled her, if D’pantha had a point: if there was some truth in his words, some virtue in Southern’s vice.

“If you’re so very civilised, then,” said H’ned, “why haven’t you shared this miracle potion with the other Weyrs?”

D’pantha looked at him. “Why should we?” Then he went on, though his explanation didn’t diminish the breath-taking arrogance of his first response. “Do you think the ingredients of felah are easily obtained? Common herbs, perhaps, to be picked by the side of a road? That the formula could be mixed by any apprentice Healer?” He snorted with disdain at the notion. “Our herbalists can produce barely enough to meet our own needs. So perhaps you’ll better understand, now, the value of my offer to you.”

“Which is what?” asked H’ned.

D’pantha paused, his black eyes moving from H’ned’s face to Sh’zon’s and then onto Valonna’s. “You’ve had a strong dose,” he said, perhaps seeing some nuance in their eyes that only one familiar with felah would discern. “Its effects may wear off eventually, to a degree. A few of the riders who volunteered to try our early attempts at formulating felah regained some communication with their dragons after powerful doses.” He paused. “Though none of them ever lost their longing for the draught.”

“Faranth,” Valonna whispered.

“You’ll begin to feel the cravings late tonight,” D’pantha went on. “Perhaps they won’t begin until the morning, but certainly by noon tomorrow. You’ll find yourselves restless, agitated, unable to settle or to concentrate. You’ll be short-tempered and snappish with everyone around you. Later, you’ll find yourself sweating, though your hands will seem ice cold. Nothing you drink will quench your thirst. Then the itching will begin –”

“Stop!” Sh’zon exclaimed, nearly shouting. Sweat was already glistening on his brow. “Stop, you blighted snake,” he went on, more softly.

D’pantha nodded slowly. “Our supply of felah is limited,” he said. “But I will provide you with enough for each of the Madellon and Peninsula riders affected by P’raima’s dose. You may continue to take it indefinitely, or try to wean yourselves off it, as you like.”

“This is your offer?” Valonna asked hollowly.

“Not all of it,” D’pantha replied. “Southern will also reimburse Madellon for…fostering…our weyrlings, in goods or marks. We will make a gift to each rider directly affected by P’raima’s actions today in compensation for his behaviour.”

“And what compensation do you intend to give to Weyrleader H’pold?” H’ned asked.

D’pantha raised his head. “H’pold’s death was a tragic accident,” he said. “But Southern will recognise the gravity of the damage done to the Peninsula.” He glanced at Sh’zon. “There has been some dispute over the territorial status of Hoffen Hold. Southern will cede all rights and responsibilities over Hoffen, to the Peninsula, in perpetuity.”

Sh’zon frowned in reaction to that. “And in return for all these concessions, you want Megrith,” he said, with disgust.

D’pantha’s nearly black eyes glittered. “I want Southern Weyr, and myself as Southern’s Weyrleader Regent, exonerated hereafter of all wrongdoings, perceived and actual, committed by P’raima or at P’raima’s command. Madellon’s written pledge, and Peninsula’s, that no action will be taken against Southern or Southern’s riders, nor any further reparations sought.” He paused. His eyes moved to the Weyrleader’s braid on Sh’zon’s shoulder. “And I want Ranquiath as Southern’s senior queen.”

There was an instant of startled silence, as D’pantha’s unexpected final demand sank in, and then Sh’zon burst out, “You want Ranquiath?”

“Please,” R’maro interrupted. He had been listening to his compatriot’s list of demands with a sceptical expression. “Don’t think my Weyrmate is acting out of anything but the purest self-interest. D’pantha here has every reason not to want Megrith restored to Southern. After all, you can’t become Weyrleader to a Weyrwoman who’s your own daughter, can you?”

Valonna looked in astonishment at D’pantha. “You’re Karika’s father?”

D’pantha shot a glowering look at R’maro, and then nodded curtly. “I sired her, yes. And it’s true I’d have there be no risk that Cyniath could ever fly Megrith. Felah can go only so far. R’maro would condemn me for wanting to avert an abomination.”

“No, D’pantha,” R’maro replied, “only for putting your ambitions ahead of Southern’s right to its own queen, and Karika’s right to take her place as our Weyrwoman. If you fear an inability to control Cyniath, then you should step aside, not expect a queen to do so for you.”

“Then you are asking for Megrith back, R’maro?” H’ned asked, before D’pantha could reply.

“Yes,” said R’maro. “And I make no apology for it. Megrith is a Southern queen. Southern’s only queen.” He met and held Valonna’s gaze squarely. “I respect the pact between your queens, Weyrwoman, as I respected Weyrwoman Margone’s decision to have our weyrlings brought to Madellon for sanctuary. P’raima’s actions these last months have not been supported as whole-heartedly as D’pantha would have you believe.” He ignored the look of disgust that D’pantha sent his way. “But P’raima is gone now, in disgrace. Were he ever to return, he would be handed straight over to Madellon and the Peninsula to answer for what he did.”

“Your treacherous snake,” D’pantha said, under his breath.

R’maro still ignored him. “It’s no disparagement of Ranquiath that we would rather have Megrith back. You would do Ranquiath’s rider no favours to install her as our Weyrwoman. Southern is not a Weyr that takes well to strangers. Perhaps we’re too proud of our history and our bloodlines, but it is how we are. Weyrwoman Sirtis would find herself judged unfavourably to her predecessor – my late mother – no matter how unfair the comparison. She would find our ways and habits very different to those of the Peninsula, and our riders not as welcoming as she might hope. Karika, though, would be adored and cherished as the daughter of Southern she truly is.” He flung a look at D’pantha. “Regardless of her father’s opinion of her. Whatever Karika feared would happen to her under P’raima, I guarantee would not in a Southern free of him. A Southern with me as its Weyrleader Regent.”

He fell silent. H’ned stirred. “And what do we get?” he asked. “Madellon and the Peninsula?”

R’maro smiled. “Everything D’pantha’s offered.”

“As if that were in your power, R’maro,” D’pantha said derisively. He looked at H’ned. “He promises concessions he has not the authority to give. Southern won’t accept a junior Wingleader as its Weyrleader. Nor will Southern’s Lords treat with a novice bronze rider they don’t know. And he cannot supply you with felah. He has no access to, nor knowledge of, the production facility.”

“That is true,” R’maro admitted. He was still smiling. “I don’t have access to the felah makers. But you won’t need it.” He leaned forwards. “There is an antidote.”

“What?” D’pantha asked, so sharply that a burst of spittle escaped his mouth as he said it.

R’maro smirked at him, but any satisfaction he took at spiting his rival was cut short by Sh’zon, who slammed his fist down on the table before R’maro with a bang. “Is this true?”

“Yes,” R’maro said hastily, and then, “at least, I believe it is.” He held his hands up. “Let me explain.”

“Sh’zon,” Valonna said urgently, tugging his arm. “Sit down. Please!” Sh’zon grudgingly resumed his seat, and Valonna addressed R’maro. “Wingleader, please go on,” she said, not caring that the desperate hope she felt was plain in her voice.

“I’ve already had people going over P’raima’s quarters and offices,” said R’maro. He didn’t flinch at D’pantha’s outraged intake of breath. “He wasn’t just taking felah. There were vials of something else, too. I don’t have the formula – yet – but I’m willing to bet everything that he was using a drug to counteract felah’s effects. Not an antidote, exactly. A counter-agent.”

“That’s preposterous,” D’pantha objected.

“Is it? How else do you think Tezonth kept beating every other bronze to catch Grizbath even after he started to slow down? Because my mother loved P’raima so?”

D’pantha curled his lip at him. “You were never loyal to him. It’s no wonder he was always so disappointed in you.”

“It wasn’t my fault that he could only sire daughters,” R’maro shot back.

“Faranth alive, would you two stop flapping your gums at each other!” Sh’zon barked.

Both Southerners glared at Sh’zon. Valonna spoke quickly, to avert any possibility of an alliance between them, unlikely though it seemed. “Wingleader,” she said to R’maro. “We would need more than the possibility of an antidote to consider your offer seriously.”

R’maro nodded. “I understand, Weyrwoman. But I will need more than the promise of Megrith to fulfil my side of the bargain.”

“Antidote first,” Sh’zon growled. “Then Megrith.”

R’maro was already shaking his head. “Forgive me, Wingleader. D’pantha’s right. I was a relatively minor figure on P’raima’s Council. If I’m to command my riders’ respect as Weyrleader, I must deliver on my promise to them, as well as my pledge to you.”

“Then what do you suggest?” asked H’ned.

“Megrith returns to Southern,” R’maro replied. “If I fail to procure a counter-agent for your felah overdose within two sevendays, then Megrith is free to return to Madellon, and I’ll step down in favour of…someone else.” He didn’t look at D’pantha as he said it.

“That’s ridiculous,” D’pantha objected. He looked sharply at Valonna. “Return Megrith to Southern as sole and senior queen, and she won’t leave again. Especially to cede precedence to another. She will not have it. No queen would.” He placed both hands on the table, leaning emphatically forwards. “This boy would have you surrender the queen you have protected so fiercely in return for promises. And promises I’d wager he will not keep. Once he has Megrith, and Southern indebted to him, he’ll have no need to honour any agreement with you.”

“And you would?” Valonna pressed. “You would vow to find this counter-agent for us?”

“I…” D’pantha looked harried. “I know of no counter-agent, Weyrwoman. I question that there even is such a thing. And I have been involved with the formulation of felah since its earliest days. I cannot promise to give you something I do not have. Only to honestly seek it out.”

“You won’t find it, D’pantha,” said R’maro. “I’m too far ahead of you.”

The two Southern riders stared at each other from either end of the table.

“Do either of you have anything else to add?” H’ned asked quietly, into the silent impasse, and when neither man replied, went on, “We’ll need to discuss your respective offers amongst ourselves and with the Peninsula. Perhaps you’ll visit our dining hall while we confer.”

It wasn’t a request, a fact to whose significance neither D’pantha nor R’maro could have been oblivious once H’ned called a pair of brown riders to escort them to the dining cavern. S’rannis, H’ned’s senior Wingsecond, and F’halig, who was serving as interim Wingleader of T’kamen’s Wing, were burly, level-headed, no-nonsense types, whose dragons wouldn’t be intimidated by a couple of foreign bronzes. More pertinently, the two Wingseconds wouldn’t permit any of Madellon’s folk to interfere with their Southern visitors. Many riders had returned from Long Bay upset and angry. Many riders had come home drunk. It made a volatile combination, but F’halig and S’rannis would be deterrent enough for even the most soddenly outraged to mind their own business.

Once D’pantha and R’maro and their minders had left Shimpath’s weyr, Valonna looked towards the doorway between her office and her personal quarters. “Karika, T’gala. You can come out now.”

The two weyrlings came through the leather curtain that had hidden them from view. T’gala looked uncomfortable, and impossibly young; Karika’s youth had always been unhappily plain, but her face was set in hard lines that belied her tender Turns.

“You never said D’pantha was your father,” Sh’zon said, throwing an accusing look at the queen weyrling.

Karika lifted her head. “D’pantha may have sired me,” she said, coolly, “but that doesn’t make him my father. He tried to have me barred from the Hatching Sands.”

“Well, of course he did,” said H’ned. “A bronze rider’s options are rather limited if he’s closely related to a queen rider.”

He looked at Sh’zon as he spoke, and so did Valonna. Sh’zon met one gaze stoutly after another. “Don’t make this about me,” he warned them peevishly, and then jabbed a finger at Karika. “But you might have said you were personally connected to D’pantha.”

“Oh, give over, Sh’zon; everyone’s personally connected to someone at Southern,” said H’ned.

“The son of one Weyrwoman,” Valonna said. “And the father of the next.” Karika’s eyes flashed to hers at the implication she hadn’t fully intended, and Valonna went on, “Which do we trust?”

Even Sh’zon, short-tempered though he was, had no instant retort for that. “Neither of them,” said H’ned, at last.

“R’maro promised the cure,” Sh’zon countered. “Promised it –”

“A promise D’pantha believed he wouldn’t keep.”

D’pantha,” Sh’zon spat, as though the name were distasteful on his tongue. “P’raima’s lickspittle. He didn’t even trouble to hide his loyalty to that snake bastard!”

“He’s not so loyal that  he won’t disagree with P’raima where Southern’s next Weyrwoman is concerned,” said H’ned.

“If he’d only done that when Sirtis was first on the table as a candidate for Southern’s seniority, we wouldn’t be where we are now,” said Sh’zon. “R’maro’s right. D’pantha’s acting solely in self-interest now P’raima’s out of the picture.”

“Self-interest that would make Sirtis Southern’s Weyrwoman, and spare Karika from having to go back at all,” Valonna pointed out. “Which is what we wanted all along.”

Sh’zon’s eyes had moved to Karika, and he said, “Is it, though?” He stood up. “You heard what R’maro said. P’raima’s gone. You have nothing to fear at Southern any more, Karika.”

“Sh’zon!” Valonna exclaimed, indignation colouring her voice. “Don’t you dare pressure her! She and Megrith are still under my protection!”

He looked taken aback. “I was just –”

“No,” Valonna said firmly. She put her hand on Karika’s arm. “Karika. You heard everything that was said in here. You know your Weyrmates better than we do. Tell us about them.”

Karika took a breath. “D’pantha has always been loyal to P’raima,” she said. “Completely loyal. P’raima’s always trusted him with everything. I never saw them disagree about anything.”

“But D’pantha had no idea that a counter-agent to felah could exist,” Valonna pressed her. “Why wouldn’t P’raima tell his trusted man about it?”

“Unless it doesn’t exist,” H’ned said, “and R’maro is blowing sunshine up our tails.”

Karika looked doubtful. “I don’t know R’maro so well,” she said. “He only made Wingleader this Turn. I don’t think the other bronze riders think much of him.”

“D’pantha said P’raima was disappointed in R’maro,” said H’ned. “Why would that be?”

“Maybe because he was Margone’s son. I don’t know.”

Then T’gala spoke up in a very small voice. “He blames him for B’nain being dragonless.”

Sh’zon seemed about to bear down on T’gala for more information. Valonna put her hand to his chest to forestall him. “B’nain was the other female blue rider?”

“Yes.” T’gala looked wretched under the scrutiny, but bravely, she continued. “B’nain’s P’raima’s daughter.”

“Faranth,” Sh’zon swore. “Is there anyone not related to every other dragonrider at Southern?”

“Please go on,” Valonna urged T’gala.

“Her Sevrieth flew R’maro’s weyrmate’s green Andranth, and they both went between,” T’gala said. “P’raima always said it was R’maro’s fault because Maibauth should have caught Andranth.”

“That’s hardly fair,” H’ned remarked. “We’ve all been outflown by blues before.”

“When was this?” Sh’zon asked.

T’gala looked uncertainly at Karika. “Seven or eight Turns ago?” she hazarded.

Karika looked no more sure. “I don’t remember it at all. I’d still have been in the crèche.”

The stark reminder of how young these two girls were – just twelve and thirteen Turns – hardened Valonna’s resolve not to sacrifice them for her own sake. “Southern riders have been peculiar for the last five Turns or so,” Sh’zon said, frowning. “Oh, they were never the friendliest, but I’d say it was 93 or 94 when Southern territory Gathers stopped being worth going to unless you wanted to get in an argument with a Southern rider.”

“Then felah came about as a direct response to B’nain losing her dragon,” said H’ned. “And it took them a couple of Turns to invent it.”

“How many times did Grizbath rise to mate in the last five Turns?” Valonna asked.

“Twice,” Karika replied. “Our dragonets are a Turn old, and there was a weyrling class not long graduated when we Impressed.”

“So if there is an antidote, and P’raima’s been keeping it to himself to give Tezonth an edge against younger bronzes, he’s only used it in the last two leadership flights,” said H’ned. He shook his head. “Tezonth has to be getting on for fifty, but he’s always been utterly dominant at Southern. You only need to look at how all the bronzes of his get are nearly identical to each other to see that.”

“P’raima was talking about his legacy,” Valonna said. “The legacy of Tezonth’s bloodline, before he…” The vivid image of the huge bronze dragon’s claws smashing through the stained glass window to snatch P’raima away made her shudder. “He didn’t seem to care about anything more than that.”

“Course not,” said Sh’zon. “That’s why he was so desperate to get Megrith back. It’s not so unreasonable.”

“Sh’zon,” H’ned said, warningly.

“Well, it’s not!” Sh’zon protested. “No southern continent Weyr has given up a queen of its own blood since it was founded. I’m not saying P’raima was justified to do what he did – furthest from it – but any Weyr would rather have its own queen than a foreigner.”

Valonna glanced at Karika, but if she had an opinion on the way Sh’zon’s reasoning was going, she kept it to herself. “Then you think we should deal with R’maro. Send Megrith back.”

Sh’zon held his hands up. “I wouldn’t send anyone back anywhere they didn’t want to go. But we’re caught between a clump and a tangle. I don’t know R’maro to know if we can trust him, but at least he wasn’t one of P’raima’s acolytes. He’s promising us a cure for what we’ve been poisoned with. D’pantha didn’t even know that one exists. D’pantha, who’s had his tongue rammed up P’raima’s tail-fork for Turns.” He looked around at them all, his eyes blazing. “D’pantha, who would have killed a weyrling to do his master’s bidding.”

“We don’t know that’s true,” said H’ned.

“Don’t we? P’raima had a bronze rider accomplice. There’s no doubting that. We know Cyniath was the only dragon in contact with Tezonth. We know he’s the one Tezonth passed the kill order along to when we asked for more time. We know he left Southern straight afterwards. If you’ve dirty work to be done, you ask the man you trust most to do it, and that’s what D’pantha’s always been to P’raima. He’s a lying, murdering tunnel-snake, and I’m scored if I’ll smile to his face and hand him Sirtis and Southern on a plate when he won’t even give me my Thread-blighted dragon back!”

No one spoke into the uncomfortable silence that followed Sh’zon outburst for a long while. Then Karika said, “I want to go back to Southern.”

“Karika,” Valonna said, “you don’t have to –”

“No,” she insisted. Her mouth was set in a determined line. “I never wanted to leave Southern, not until Margone told me that P’raima wanted Tezonth to fly Megrith…. You all keep saying bad things about Southern, how it’s unfriendly, how it’s arrogant. And maybe it is. But it’s my home. It’s my home.” She took a breath, then went on. “I don’t know R’maro, either. I don’t know if he has the cure for what P’raima did to you. I don’t even know if he’d be a good Weyrleader for Southern. Maybe someone new is what Southern needs. Someone who wasn’t close to P’raima.” She lifted her head. “I know I’m only a weyrling. I know I’m only twelve. But I won’t be a weyrling, or twelve, forever. In a Turn or a Turn and a half, Megrith will rise and I’ll be Weyrwoman. I’m not ashamed to say that P’raima frightens me. Tezonth frightens Megrith. But R’maro doesn’t frighten me, and Maibauth is just a bronze. Megrith’s a queen, Southern’s queen, and I’m her rider.” She paused, and then said, “And I know I have friends at other Weyrs.”

Valonna looked away, unable to meet the young woman’s fierce gaze, uncomfortably reminded of how she, herself, had been thrust into a position of responsibility too soon and too young, and how deficient she had been to shoulder its burdens. What a Weyrwoman Karika will make. The thought went nowhere, blocked from its natural path to Shimpath, and Valonna looked at her dragon, her eyes whirling softly blue. “You’re quite sure.” She was hardly aware of making the decision to ask the question.

“Yes, Weyrwoman.”

“I’ll go too,” said T’gala.

Karika turned to her. “No.” She spoke with complete authority. “You won’t.”

“But –”

“You’re happier here,” said Karika. “The way the others treated you…” She shook her head. “You and Heppeth are staying at Madellon. This is where you belong.”

Valonna raised her eyes to H’ned, and he stood up. “I’ll go and get them myself, Valonna.”

“What about D’pantha?” Sh’zon asked.

H’ned raised his eyebrows. “What about him?”

“He would have killed a weyrling! We can’t just let the bastard off!”

“We don’t have any proof,” H’ned pointed out. “Even T’rello couldn’t identify Cyniath as the bronze he saw going between when he picked up Carleah.”

Sh’zon scowled. “Well, what about Tarshe and the other girl?”

H’ned shook his head. “Tarshe never got a look at him, and as for Carleah – well, she thought Santinoth was the Southern bronze when he turned up to rescue her.”

“If Shimpath put pressure on Cyniath –”

“Do you seriously think any dragon would willingly be a party to the murder of a weyrling? Cyniath wouldn’t know anything.”

“Blight it all, H’ned, he’s guilty and we all know it!” Sh’zon snapped.

“We couldn’t prove it,” H’ned said. “Sh’zon, I know you’re angry.” It might have been the most unnecessary thing he could have said. “But we can’t throw around accusations without proof. Maybe if we brought in P’raima…”

“D’pantha will be dealt with,” Karika said, in a tone that sounded all the more sinister for coming from a twelve-Turn-old.

“She’s right, you know,” said H’ned. “Southern’s riders will be as horrified as any of us when they learn the truth of what P’raima tried to do. Even without linking D’pantha explicitly to the kidnapping, he’s too closely connected to P’raima. His only hope of redemption was Sirtis. If he’d brought a queen back to Southern with him, the taint of association with P’raima might have mattered less.”

“He can’t stay at Southern anyway,” said Valonna. “Not once Megrith’s mature. He didn’t sound confident of being able to control Cyniath.”

“Well, we’re not having him,” Sh’zon said, glowering. “And I’m blighted between if I’ll have him stinking up Madellon when Berzunth’s grown, either!”

It took Valonna a moment to grasp that Sh’zon’s first identification had been with the Peninsula Weyr. It was a disconcerting thought that she put aside for later.

“He can go north,” said Karika, still in that unsettlingly matter-of-fact tone. “Maybe Telgar or the High Reaches. Somewhere cold. He’ll hate it.”

Karika’s steely self-possession should have heartened Valonna that they were making the right decision – or allowing her to make the right decision for them. But even as H’ned went to fetch R’maro and D’pantha back, Valonna felt a discomfiture that went deeper than the constant unhappy absence of Shimpath’s presence. They were missing something. She wished she could ask her queen’s advice. The felah had done more than simply cut her off from talking to her dragon. It seemed to have undermined the entire foundation of confidence and assurance that riding a dragon had given her. She realised suddenly that she had reverted in many ways to the girl she had been before Impressing Shimpath: nervous, uncertain, indecisive. Not that she’d ever left those crippling insecurities behind. But it was terrifying to grasp just how much Shimpath had changed her; just how reliant she’d become on her queen’s conviction in her; just how alone, and afraid, she was without her.

100.03.26 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
MADELLON WEYR

Carleah (Micah Johnson)“Carleah. Are you awake?”

She heard the woman’s voice distantly, as though from within a dream: too gentle, too calm, to induce her to rouse from her muzzy-soft indistinctness. She pillowed her cheek, her uninjured cheek, more comfortably against Jagunth’s velvet-smooth hide.

“Carleah?”

“She’s not asleep.” That voice belonged to L’stev, though it, too, lacked urgency. L’stev’s voice could crack like a whip, jerking the most sleep-deprived weyrling into wakefulness; now, it was more a low growl. “But I’d sooner you let her rest if it’s not important.”

“I’m sorry, Weyrlingmaster, Master Isnan’s asked me to take another blood sample for testing,” the first voice said regretfully. “From Tarshe, too. Better that they’re awake while I do it.”

L’stev grumbled. Then Carleah felt a big hand envelop her shoulder lightly. “Open your eyes, Leah,” he said. “Journeyman Lante’s here to see you.”

Carleah lifted her head from Jagunth’s soft, soft arm. She opened her eyes. Her dragon was coiled around her, a reassuring expanse of pale green. L’stev had had to duck his head beneath Jagunth’s neck to approach. “Weyrlingmaster,” she said. The word seemed to take a long, long time to say.

“Will you let the journeyman examine you?” L’stev asked.

She was so sleepy and peaceful; she just wanted to sit and rest with her dragon, but arguing seemed like far too much work. “All right.”

L’stev retreated from beneath the graceful arch of Jagunth’s neck, and the Healer, Lante, replaced him. Carleah let her take her arm and push up her sleeve. The brief swipe of something cool against the inside of her elbow was momentarily distracting. Then Lante said, “I’m going to use a needlethorn to draw a bit more of your blood, Carleah, just like we did before. You’ll feel a sharp scratch, but it shouldn’t hurt very much.”

“All right,” said Carleah.

But the prick of the needlethorn did jolt Carleah out of her comfortable blur. “Ouch,” she said, blinking until she could focus her eyes on the Healer’s face.

Lante looked briefly up from what she was doing with a wry smile, then concentrated once more on her work. “I’m sorry, Carleah. This won’t take long. How are you feeling?”

“Sleepy,” Carleah said. “My face feels funny.” She put her hand up unthinkingly to her cheek; immediately her fingertips went slightly numb. “Oh.”

“Keep your hand away from that, if you can,” Lante recommended. “The numbweed’s still fresh.”

Carleah’s fingers snagged against the edge of a bandage; she followed its line where it had been wrapped around her head. “Did I hurt my head?”

“You have a nasty bump,” Lante told her. “Nothing too serious.”

“Is that why I’m so sleepy?” Carleah asked.

“Well. No, not exactly.” Lante eased the needlethorn out of Carleah’s arm, and pressed a little square of gauze against the place where it had punctured her skin. “We gave you a drink to help you relax. It’s all right if you feel strange.”

“I can’t hear Jagunth,” Carleah told her seriously.

Lante looked over her shoulder to L’stev. The Weyrlingmaster moved closer again. “The Weyrleaders are working on that right now,” he said. “You shouldn’t worry. You’re home, Jagunth’s here, and you’re safe.”

Carleah stroked Jagunth’s arm slowly. It was strange, not feeling her green’s response; as if she were touching someone else’s dragon. “We were kidnapped,” she explained. The word sounded curiously dramatic. “Tarshe and me. They said, ‘Do the green rider’. That was me, I’m the green rider. But Tarshe said to pretend to be her. They weren’t very clever.” She frowned. “I saved Jagunth a mint. I put it in my jacket to keep for her. Where’s my jacket?” L’stev frowned down at her and, fretfully, Carleah said, “I didn’t mean to lose it. I’m sorry, Weyrlingmaster. I didn’t mean to.”

L’stev’s frown deepened, but his voice was still kind. It was strange to hear him so kind. “Your jacket doesn’t matter, Carleah. Don’t trouble yourself about it.” He cast a look sideways at Lante. “What was in the sedative you gave her?”

“Chamomile. Hops. Bay. A few other things.” Lante shook her head. “Nothing strong.”

“She wasn’t vague like this when she reported earlier,” L’stev complained. “Hysterical, but not vague. She didn’t mention some of these details, either. Could she be inventing them?”

“It’s possible,” said Lante. “But she’s been through a dreadful ordeal today. The sedative is keeping her from feeling it too strongly. She may come out with things that she’d suppress if she were feeling more clear-headed. She should talk to journeyman Benner.” She stood up. “I’m sorry, Weyrlingmaster; I should get this sample back to my Master.”

L’stev made a non-committal sound, but he was still looking at Carleah. When Lante had gone, taking the tube of blood with her, the Weyrlingmaster sat down next to Carleah. He absently patted Jagunth’s neck. “Do you remember anything else, Carleah?”

She considered it. Her thoughts felt oddly still and blank, like a smooth, flat pool. Then something surfaced. “Mama said she’d braid my hair once my head’s better.” She touched the bandage lapping her head again.

“That was after you came home,” said L’stev. “Can you remember anything from before that? Anything about the men who kidnapped you?”

“Crent was the angry one,” she told him. “Gorty had the fire-lizard. I don’t think a fire-lizard would like to stay with someone as angry as Crent.”

Almost casually, L’stev leaned over to the table beside Jagunth’s couch for a slate and chalk. “A fire-lizard,” he repeated, scratching down a sequence of terse marks. “Did you notice what colour it was?”

Carleah thought. “Brown.”

“Dark brown, or light?”

“Light,” she decided. “Lighter than Sparth, even, but more like klah with too much milk in it.”

L’stev wrote that down. “What about the bronze dragon?” he asked. “What shade was he?”

“I thought Santinoth was the Southern bronze.” The thought was somehow mortifying. “T’rello will think I’m stupid.”

“He’ll think nothing of the sort,” L’stev said, in a soft growl, and then prompted her again, “The Southern bronze. Dark like Oaxuth or light like Ellendunth and Djeth?”

“Neither,” Carleah said, shaking her head. “More copper-ish.”

“Would you feel up to walking to the door with me and looking at a dragon?”

Carleah shifted uneasily. “I don’t want to leave Jagunth. I can’t hear her.”

“I know you can’t, but Vanzanth will explain, and we won’t leave her sight.”

“I suppose that would be all right, then.”

L’stev took her arm and steered her towards the shriek-hinged door of the barracks. Carleah wasn’t sure why she was so unsteady on her feet, but she was glad for L’stev’s support when he pointed up at two bronzes on the Rim by the Star Stones. “Was the bronze you saw like that?”

Even in the fading light, the colour of the bronzes’ hides was instantly familiar. Dread fell over Carleah like a shroud, and she pulled back into the barracks doorway, afraid that they might see her. “Why are there two?” she asked fearfully. “There was only one. Why are there two the same?”

“Southern dragons all look alike,” L’stev told her. He squeezed her arm. “It’s all right. They can’t hurt you. But it was a bronze of that colour you saw?”

Carleah just nodded. Her throat had gone tight. She raised her hand again to her face, remembering the backhand blow that had split the skin of her cheek.

Gently, L’stev pulled her fingers away. “I know this is difficult for you, Carleah,” he said. “But it’s important. Can you tell if the bronze you saw is one of those up there?”

Unhappily, Carleah peered out and up. The two bronzes weren’t looking in her direction. Their attention was on the four Madellon bronzes standing vigilant guard over them. Still, she drew back again, shaking her head. “Not from here. They’re too far away.”

L’stev’s brows scrunched. “Could you tell if we got closer?”

“I don’t want to,” said Carleah. “Please. I don’t want to.”

L’stev looked conflicted, but then the deep lines of his face softened out. “I’ll not be the one to make you,” he told her. “Let’s get you back to Jagunth.”

Jagunth had been watching them from the comfortable dimness of the barracks, her gem-like eyes tracking Carleah’s every movement. Carleah pressed herself against the soft neck with relief. The sensation of trying to reach her mind and failing was an uncomfortable one, like trying to stand in a cramped space and hitting your head on the ceiling, so she had stopped trying. It was enough, for now, that they were physically together. She settled back down onto the couch in the curl of Jagunth’s forearm, tucking her knees up under her, and extricating L’stev’s slate from where he had left it on the throw fur.

She let her gaze fall on the Weyrlingmaster’s notes. The densely scribed notations filled every last corner of the slate, even curling back on themselves when he’d run out of room. Carleah followed the chalked words with her eyes without reading them. The way they curved was almost hypnotic, like a spiral, its inexorably tightening loops compelling the eye to follow them.

It took Carleah a moment to realise what the coiling lines called to mind. She sat up. She turned the slate over to its blank side and picked up the chalk hanging from the string on its top corner. Then, her hand moving with a brisk competence that her hazy mind lacked, she drew what her memory had recalled.

When she’d finished, she said, “Weyrlingmaster?”

L’stev had been leaning against the doorframe, looking distant. He turned. “What is it, Carleah?”

She proffered the slate. “Will this help?”

He took it, squinting at it in the low light. “What’s –” he began, and then stopped. “This is from the bronze at Southern? You’re certain it’s accurate?”

“I had to run right under his belly to escape,” Carleah explained. “I got a good look.”

“Faranth’s tits,” L’stev swore, and then hurried out of the barracks, bellowing for Vanzanth.

Jagunth cocked her head, her eyes whirling faster with concern at the Weyrlingmaster’s sudden shouting. “It’s all right, “ Carleah told her. Then she reached back along Jagunth’s underside to scratch the distinctive swirl in her hide – the place where the yolk sac had connected when she was still in the egg – the belly whorl that was completely unique to her, as the one Carleah had drawn on L’stev’s slate was completely unique to the bronze dragon whom she’d fled in the unfamiliar jungle of Southern territory.

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2 responses to “Chapter forty-nine: Valonna, Carleah”

  1. Multi-Facets says:

    Karika is formidable, and I’m slightly scared of her. Yet I’m also really, really scared FOR her, and I want to give her a hug and milk and cookies, and tell her everything will be okay.

    I understand why she told T’gala to stay at Madelleon, and it’s good she has Valonna and Tarshe to rely on, but she really needs someone IN Southern Weyr she could trust. A deputy of her own to help her set right everything that’s gone wrong in that place.

  2. Sabine says:

    First time I make a comment and I would like to start to say how much I am waiting for the next instalment (checking the website two-three times a week).
    I have been thinking that you have a massive knot of storylines to disentangle and how many chapters you will need to do it! I am missing in particular progress on T’Kamen in the future. And most particular – will you explain that Klaxon noise that happened sometime in the beginning? Currently I am still hoping for a lot of people on your list, but you may have other ideas what happens to them.

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