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Chapter fifty: Sh’zon, Valonna

An infant dragon of any colour knows nothing of morality, nothing of decency, nothing of truth or fairness or honour.

Why, then, do we continue to peddle the myth that the boy who Impresses a bronze dragon must inevitably become a man of strong will, of upright character, of impeccable integrity?

To preserve the Weyr, of course. To preserve Pern.

And, perhaps, to reassure ourselves, however falsely, that the men in whose hands chance has placed the reins of power are, in fact, worthy of them.

– Excerpt from Weyrwoman Fianine’s personal diaries

100.03.27 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
SOUTHERN WEYR

Sh'zon (Micah Johnson)Megrith had grown. Sh’zon didn’t need to hear Kawanth to know it: the way his dragon held himself against Megrith’s weight, and her uncomfortable proximity to Sh’zon himself, her breath hot on his back where he sat astride Kawanth’s neck, made it plain. They were, he thought, all three of them relieved when Megrith disengaged her claws from the catching harness and tilted gently sideways off Kawanth’s back, reverting to independent flight now that their trip between was behind them. Sh’zon glanced at the sweep of her wings as she matched Kawanth’s vector. She was going to be a big dragon, like her dam before her. And like her sire. The thought made Sh’zon clench his jaw, and his hands tightened against Kawanth’s neck.

It was past midday at Southern, and sunlight blazed painfully bright off the hides of three hundred dragons. Each head had been lifted stiff and alert to the return of their queen, as avid in their regard of her as though every one were bronze. Yet among them all, only Maibauth, planted at the middle of Southern’s central plaza, called out a welcome to Megrith. R’maro’s bronze almost quivered with pride and vindication. See what I’ve done, his out-thrust chest and mantled wings seemed to say, see how I’ve brought back our queen. Sh’zon imagined that Kawanth must find the Southern dragon’s conceit as grating as he did. But R’maro’s successful reacquisition of Megrith had, it appeared, settled the brief internal struggle for power that P’raima’s abrupt disappearance had prompted. No other dragon had put himself forward in opposition to R’maro’s bronze. Cyniath had retreated into the anonymity of his many identical brothers. Even R’maro’s relative youth and inexperience hadn’t dented his credibility as the man who had brought Megrith home. Southern, it seemed to Sh’zon, had been under P’raima’s boot for too long to like being leaderless. The emergence of a leader – any leader – to fill the Weyrleader’s shoes had clearly been seized upon with relief. It struck him, as Kawanth descended to the flagged stones of the plaza, that the bronze riders of the Peninsula, divested of their Weyrleader with equal abruptness, would be less quick to cede power to the first candidate who presented himself. The notion upturned the corner of Sh’zon’s mouth.

He made himself concentrate. There was work to be done today before he could contemplate tomorrow. He looked over at Izath, alighting beyond Megrith. Relying on H’ned sat poorly with him, but while Sh’zon remained deaf and dumb to Kawanth, there was nothing to be done about it. He counselled himself to calm. H’ned had remarked that he seemed quicker to anger without Kawanth’s soothing presence in his mind, and Sh’zon had turned on him irritably for a moment. Didn’t he have reason to be angry? Then he’d recognised the truth of the observation. There was a raw edge to his anger that took him back to his youth, to the impatient and hot-blooded lad he’d been, chafing against the expectations and limitations of his humble cothold background. It made him aware of how much of his adult character had been shaped and defined by his dragon. Without Kawanth to steady him, he fell too easily back into the habits of that impulsive and easily-provoked cothold boy. It was a tendency he knew he must consciously resist, if all were to go as they hoped.

Karika shinned down from her queen – a long slide for a small girl from a tall dragon – and then stood a moment, her hand on Megrith’s neck, looking around with an expression Sh’zon couldn’t read. He stepped protectively closer to her. “Do you need a minute, Karika?”

She lifted her dark eyes to his. “No, Weyrleader.” She took a long inward breath, then let it out with a sigh. “It’s only I’d forgotten how the rainforest smells.”

It smelled like rotting vegetation to Sh’zon, but the wistful note in Karika’s voice plucked unexpectedly at his heart. “Sometimes the road that takes you away from your home is the same one that leads you back,” he said, and then wondered at himself for saying it.

Karika looked at him with a directness that Sh’zon found unsettling. Then she gave him a smile that curved her mouth without ever coming near her eyes. It broke his heart. In ten Turns Karika would be the most exquisite woman. It gave him a pang of guilt to consider the child in such a way. He turned his head sharply towards Kawanth, hopeful that the instant of admiration was rooted in his dragon’s instinctive regard for a queen, and indicative that the barrier between them was weakening at last, but Kawanth was looking at Maibauth. Sh’zon glanced again at Karika and, following her example, resolved himself to the business ahead.

He offered his left arm to the Southern queen rider before H’ned could. The small hand that slipped into the crook of his elbow made him feel still more protective. He exchanged only eye contact with H’ned, and then, as one, they turned to face R’maro.

The plaza was ringed with riders of all colours, but R’maro had a small group of bronze riders at his back – the riders who had thrown their support to him before his successful negotiations, Sh’zon assumed. D’pantha certainly wasn’t among them. They were all young men, and he almost laughed to see Southern, so fiercely convinced of its superiority, following the same tried-and-true formula as every other Weyr that had ever replaced an old regime with a new one.

R’maro already wore a pair of new tassels on his shoulder-knot. Clearly, he’d wasted no time in proclaiming his new authority. He strode forward to meet them, a picture of confidence. “Wingleaders,” he said, in a perfunctory way, to Sh’zon and H’ned. Then he greeted Karika with a bow. “Welcome home, Weyrwoman. Welcome back to Southern.”

“Weyrleader,” Karika replied, rather stiffly. She offered R’maro her left hand to kiss, though she kept her right tucked into Sh’zon’s elbow. The protocol was not quite correct, but then, Sh’zon thought, neither were the titles they had bestowed upon each other.

“I’ll have your belongings taken to your quarters and unpacked for you immediately,” R’maro said.

“I don’t want them unpacked,” Karika said. “Please just put them in the barracks for me.”

“You won’t be lodging in the barracks now, Weyrwoman,” R’maro said, still smiling. “Your new weyr has been made ready for you.”

Karika’s tone betrayed her discomfiture. “Margone’s weyr?”

“The Weyrwoman’s weyr. I hope you’ll find it comfortable.”

From the tension in Karika’s hand, Sh’zon doubted she would. “So here she is, R’maro,” he said. He wouldn’t do him the courtesy of calling him Weyrleader. “Safe and sound. Now it’s your turn to deliver on your promise.”

“Of course,” R’maro replied pleasantly. “Let’s first just get the Weyrwoman settled.”

“There’s no sense getting her too settled, R’maro,” H’ned said, with matching pleasantness.

R’maro’s green eyes flashed to the death-grip Karika still had on Sh’zon’s arm. “That being so, everyone’s so pleased to see you, Karika.” He looked over his shoulder to the watching dragonriders of Southern. “Sekara…?”

“Mother?” Karika asked, her voice suddenly a child’s again, and her hand slipped from Sh’zon’s arm as a green rider stepped hesitantly from the throng. “Oh, Mother,” Karika breathed, and while she didn’t fling herself into the woman’s arms, she stepped quickly away from Sh’zon to clutch her hands.

Sh’zon traded a quick glance with H’ned, a little dismayed. H’ned’s expression gave away no such consternation. His complacency was aggravating, but Sh’zon forced down the flare of rage. “The cure, R’maro,” he said, in a low, insistent voice.

“You’ll have it, Sh’zon,” R’maro replied. “All Southern’s resources have been put to finding it.”

“When?” Sh’zon grated.

R’maro took a breath, perhaps to forestall a more precipitous pledge. “Sooner rather than later,” he said. “I can assure you, it’s in Southern’s interests as much as yours, that Karika be confirmed as Weyrwoman as quickly as possible.”

Sh’zon bit back the retort that rose unasked to his lips, that Karika would be no true Weyrwoman until Megrith rose to mate – a Turn away at the earliest. “The sooner you hold up your end of the deal, the sooner we’ll leave you and your stinking Weyr to it,” he said. “Faranth knows, if I never have to come back here, it’ll be too soon.”

“Sh’zon,” H’ned said warningly.

“Have no fear, Weyrleader,” Karika said, from behind R’maro. She had regained her poise. “I’ll see to it that Southern delivers on its promises to Madellon and the Peninsula.” Then she raised her head. “Where is bronze rider D’pantha?”

R’maro’s eyes went almost imperceptibly wider. Sh’zon didn’t know if he was reacting to the hardness in Karika’s voice or to her deliberate omission of D’pantha’s title. He looked around the circle of dragonriders lining the plaza until his gaze lit upon the other bronze rider. “D’pantha! Attend the Weyrwoman!”

D’pantha stepped forward from the ranks of Southern men and women. His expression was wary, but he let no hint of uncertainty lend hesitance his gait. He approached square-shouldered and straight-backed, looking from Karika to R’maro and back. “So.” He pitched his voice too low for the Weyr at large to overhear. “You wish to be rid of me already, Karika.”

She ignored him. “Weyrleaders.” She addressed Sh’zon and H’ned. “As senior queen rider of the Southern Weyr, I turn this man and his dragon over into Madellon’s custody.”

“What?” D’pantha demanded.

“What?” R’maro asked, at the same moment.

“Thank you, Karika,” said Sh’zon. “Will you come quietly, D’pantha? He allowed himself a savage grin, taking a short length of cord from his belt. “Please say you won’t.”

D’pantha stared. “What is this?”

“You stand accused of the kidnap of two Madellon weyrlings,” said H’ned, loudly.

“Kidnap?” D’pantha seemed too startled to resist as Sh’zon seized his wrists and began to bind them.

“Of conspiring with former Weyrleader P’raima to murder one of those weyrlings,” H’ned continued, over D’pantha’s objection. “And –”

A bugle of distress that could only have been Cyniath’s rang out over D’pantha’s protest, and the sudden buzz of speculation from the watching riders. “I did no such thing!” D’pantha shook loose of Sh’zon’s grip. “Take your hands off me! This is an outrage!”

H’ned raised his voice to reach the ears of every Southern dragonrider. “And conspiring with P’raima to murder Weyrwoman Margone.”

Silence dropped instantly over Southern Weyr, hard and fast enough that R’maro’s sharp intake of breath was clearly audible against it. D’pantha opened his mouth. The colour had leached suddenly from his face. His black eyes locked incredulously with H’ned’s pale ones. “No,” he said. His voice seemed to have clotted in his throat. “No. I would never.” He turned a suddenly pleading gaze on R’maro. “Please, I would never –”

R’maro backhanded him across the face before H’ned could lunge to seize him. The sound of the blow echoed queerly across the unnaturally silent plaza. R’maro’s face had slackened into disbelief, and he hung in H’ned’s grasp like a man pole-axed, but his eyes shone with a bright, vehement fury. “You killed my mother,” he said, low and fervent, his smirking enjoyment of D’pantha’s disgrace wiped clean at a stroke.

A thin stream of blood trickled from D’pantha’s left nostril, but he seemed hardly to notice it. “Please, no,” he muttered. “Please. I didn’t do it!”

“Enough.” Karika’s voice sliced the tension, and Megrith’s strident cry muted the shifting, distressed dragons. “Weyrleaders. Remove this man to Madellon.”

D’pantha no longer seemed capable of fighting Sh’zon’s grasp. He barely seemed aware at all of the cord being bound tightly about his wrists. Across the plaza, dragons had shifted away from Cyniath, leaving D’pantha’s bronze an island of grey-toned misery.

R’maro suddenly collected his wits. “He should answer for Margone’s murder at Southern!”

“No.” Karika knew to anticipate the exclamation. “He is for Madellon. His crimes against that Weyr are the more immediate.”

Her face was completely expressionless as she regarded the man who had sired her. Sh’zon would have shuddered had he been less occupied with tying off his best knots. “He’ll answer for it, have no fear,” he grunted. He shoved D’pantha between the shoulder-blades, though the burly man was robust yet in spite of his shock, and did not stumble forwards. “You’ll ride with me. Izath will escort Cyniath.”

D’pantha complied dully as Sh’zon pushed him towards Kawanth. Sh’zon wondered, as he manhandled the Southern rider into place on his dragon’s neck, if part of the man’s heavy-limbed sluggishness was derived from the questions his own dragon must be demanding of him. Cyniath looked frightful, caught between anger and desperation, but when Izath landed beside him, shouldering into him bullishly, the larger Southern bronze did not snap back at him.

“The cure,” Sh’zon reminded R’maro, before he climbed up behind D’pantha.

R’maro still looked shocked. He nodded jerkily. “You’ll have it.”

“I’ll see to it,” Karika added.

It was a mark of Sh’zon’s opinion of R’maro that he thought the promise of a twelve-Turn-old girl more credible than that of her new Weyrleader. Nonetheless, leaving Karika to fend for herself in the snakes’ nest of Southern Weyr caused him a wrench of conscience as he bade her farewell. “If you need anything, Karika,” he told her.

Karika, to her credit, let no hint of concern escape her imperious mask as she thanked him in formal terms for Madellon’s hospitality. She also asked him to see personally to the well-being of her classmate T’gala. That, Sh’zon thought, was a jab at R’maro, who had not even asked after T’gala, but he doubted he would even notice.

Still, the uneasiness he felt as he turned to re-mount Kawanth could not be entirely assuaged by Karika’s precocious spirit. In returning Megrith to Southern, they had played their most powerful card in a game that was not yet won – a game, that, indeed, Southern must not realise Madellon still knew was being played. It made Sh’zon’s head throb with more than just the pain of the brilliant summer sunlight in his sensitive eyes, or the weary ache from a night spent awake and agitated and agonising.

It felt odd to bestride his dragon’s neck behind another man. D’pantha slumped between Kawanth’s ridges, his bound wrists tied in turn to the fore-strap. That, as much as the belt about his waist, kept him upright. Kawanth kicked away from the ground, and D’pantha swayed back against Sh’zon. “Control yourself, man!” Sh’zon bellowed beside his ear.

D’pantha seemed to stir himself. Perhaps it was the wind in his face, or the sight of his dragon, flying riderless, with Izath chivvying him along. “I didn’t do it,” he said. “I didn’t do any of it. You have to believe me. You’ve got the wrong man.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Sh’zon snapped. “We know it wasn’t you. Now stop your shaffing snivelling.”

With that, Kawanth took them between.

100.03.27 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
MADELLON WEYR

Valonna (Micah Johnson)A three-part harmony of queenly bugles rent the air as the cluster of bronzes came out of between, and while Cyniath took the brunt, it was clear that Izath and Kawanth both caught some of its force. The two Madellon dragons shuddered away from the larger bronze between them, and even as they landed, one either side of Cyniath, they were still twitching disconcertedly from the withering blast.

Shimpath and Ipith converged on the Southern bronze, so he was ringed by senior dragons, but while neither Kawanth nor Izath matched Cyniath’s size, the angry stares of two adult queens froze him into cowed terror. As Valonna hurried with Rallai to meet the returning bronze riders, she heard Berzunth’s indignant squeal, and the deeper growl that could only have belonged to Vanzanth, remonstrating with the weyrling queen to keep her snout out of it. Berzunth’s spirit gave Valonna an instant of pleasure.

Sh’zon was heaving his passenger down from Kawanth’s neck-ridges. D’pantha hit the ground and stumbled, looking confused and disoriented. “I don’t understand,” he was saying. “What are you doing?”

“Cyniath’s muzzled?” Rallai asked her queen aloud. Ipith snorted an affirmative, and Rallai turned to D’pantha. “Listen well and speak quickly. Do you know where P’raima is?”

D’pantha’s coal-black eyes were clouded with confusion, but he gathered himself smartly. “No.”

Both queens loomed at Cyniath, and he uttered a strangulated bark, but Valonna knew the sound Shimpath made for a confirmation. D’pantha was not lying, at least not so far as his dragon knew. “Did you know what P’raima planned at the Gather yesterday?” Rallai pushed.

“No!” D’pantha insisted, and darted a look sideways at Cyniath. He collapsed in on himself a little more, whining, and D’pantha added quickly, “Not all of it. Only that he planned to take your queen weyrling in trade for Megrith. Not what he would do with her, or the other girl, or you!”

“So you’re merely complicit in the kidnap of a queen rider?” Sh’zon demanded.

“Complicit? I counselled P’raima against it! Faranth, I begged him not to go down that path! He wouldn’t listen!” D’pantha looked from face to face. “He wouldn’t listen.”

“Still you allowed him to proceed,” said H’ned. His accusation was all the more severe for the coolness of it.

D’pantha shook his head. “I could no more have stopped him than I could stop the sun rising in the east.”

“You could have warned us –”

“Warned you?” D’pantha interrupted Sh’zon with contempt shading his voice. “I disagreed with my Weyrleader. It doesn’t follow that I should inform on him to another Weyr.”

“And when he told you that giving us more time would cost us our green weyrling?” H’ned asked.

D’pantha looked sharply at him. “How do you know that?”

“We know more than you imagine,” said Rallai. She raised an eyebrow. “Well?”

D’pantha looked even more ill at ease. “We went to Tezonth,” he said dully. “Cyniath tried to reason with him. To make him understand what his rider was doing.” He hesitated. “He didn’t believe him. But why would he, when I didn’t believe it myself.”

“That P’raima would murder a weyrling?” Valonna asked. “Or that he would commit so heinous a crime that even his most loyal riders could not suffer him as their Weyrleader?”

D’pantha’s face rippled briefly with emotions – anger, doubt, a self-loathing, perhaps at his own ability to abhor P’raima’s actions and yet still defend him – and then his expression went blank, as though he felt too many disparate things to reconcile, and so could no longer show any. “I thought him desperate,” he said at last, starkly. His voice was that of a man from whose eyes the blinders had finally, painfully, fallen. “Megrith’s loss. Grizbath’s…death.” He paused a breath, as though such a neutral word for the passing of Southern’s senior queen no longer tasted true. “He wished only for his legacy to continue at Southern. Only that.”

“At whatever cost,” H’ned said softly. “Even another weyrling’s life.”

“And our dragons’ voices,” Sh’zon added, more fiercely.

“And your own daughter’s innocence.” Rallai added that last. She fixed D’pantha with a gaze that would have made any man quail. “Little as you may trouble yourself over any soul outside Southern, D’pantha, your lack of concern for Karika revolts me the most.”

He raised his eyes defiantly to Rallai’s. “She despises me. Her mother despises me. Still, I tried to protect her. I knew a queen couldn’t pass her over. I would have kept her off the Sands, away from being the focus of P’raima’s plans for that queen.”

“And away from your aspirations to the Weyrleadership,” said H’ned.

“Yes,” D’pantha said. “Of that charge you may find me as guilty as any bronze rider.”

The retort needled both H’ned and Sh’zon into momentary silence. Valonna pressed to fill it. “Then you believed that P’raima’s time as Weyrleader would be over when the new queen rose?”

D’pantha hesitated, visibly torn between his ingrained allegiance to P’raima and the need, for his dragon’s sake, to speak truthfully. “Yes. No.” He shook his head angrily. “A rider underestimates Tezonth at his peril. He has outflown or outwitted every other bronze of Southern for three decades. Would I dismiss him as incapable of outflying those same bronzes in the pursuit of a guileless young queen simply because of his Turns? No. Never.” The admiration in his voice for another man’s bronze struck Valonna as curiously disloyal. A rider’s belief in his own dragon’s unassailable calibre might be a vanity, but it was, at least, understandable. The implication, that P’raima’s long and iron-fisted premiership at Southern had bullied even the most assertive of his riders into accepting his dragon as superior to their own, chilled her. “But when Grizbath laid her gold egg, something eased in P’raima. He confided to me that he was comforted to know that Tezonth’s line would continue through another queen. It seemed to me that he was ready to…to let go. At last.”

Relief and chagrin mingled in D’pantha’s voice. H’ned spoke again. “With you as his picked successor.”

There was neither scepticism nor accusation in the statement, but D’pantha bridled at it nonetheless. “And why not? I’ve served Wing and Weyr faithfully for twenty-seven Turns. Cyniath is among the strongest of Southern’s bronzes, and a son of Tezonth. Why should P’raima not favour me to continue his work?”

Sh’zon laughed, a short, humourless bark. “And then your own daughter Impresses the queen, and suddenly all your careful plans are in the midden.” Then he added, as if inspired, “Aye, and your usefulness to P’raima as the custodian of his legacy, too. How bitter that must have been for you, D’pantha, to serve and scrape at P’raima’s whim for all those Turns, only to be cast aside at the last.”

D’pantha’s lips thinned and his nostrils whitened; Sh’zon’s dart had found its mark. “P’raima didn’t cast me aside.” The words grated out of him.

“Disregarding your counsel,” H’ned said thoughtfully, sticking out his thumb. “Planning kidnappings without you.” He extended his forefinger. “Hiding from you the existence of the felah counter-agent.” He raised his brows as he added his middle finger to the tally. “Perhaps you weren’t as trusted a confidante as you might like to believe, even before Karika Impressed Megrith.”

“He trusted me more than anyone,” D’pantha said stubbornly.

Valonna wondered if D’pantha grasped how poorly his pride in P’raima’s favour served him under the circumstances. “But no longer,” said Rallai. “You’ve been supplanted by another.”

D’pantha could not have been ignorant of his circumstantial fall from grace, yet confrontation with it clearly still stung him. He looked sullenly at Rallai. “Who?”

His belligerent incredulity must have taken Rallai as much aback as it did Valonna; she hesitated for a surprised breath. “R’maro,” she said, but the name had barely passed her lips before D’pantha had tossed back his head, cawing with cheerless mirth.

“R’maro!” he exclaimed, with a second snort of laughter. “That worthless boy?”

“A worthless boy who seemed to have the acceptance of Southern as its Weyrleader, when we left there just now,” said H’ned.

“R’maro has thought himself significant all his life, first for being Margone’s son, then for Impressing a bronze; as if either happy accident spoke to his merit. He might have made something of himself had he ever sought to earn the respect and credibility he believed was owed to him by right. He never did. He’s resented and resisted P’raima all his life. It’s only by attrition that he was made up to Wingleader last winter. And only by opportunism, as a known dissident on P’raima’s council, that he’s risen so precipitously above his station today. Opportunism, and Madellon’s eagerness to believe his absurd promises.” D’pantha paused in his scorn only for a moment, as if he had so many reasons to despise R’maro that he could hardly choose from among them. “No. P’raima wouldn’t trust R’maro to make a blaze in a firestone bunker, let alone lead a Weyr.”

“Then who would P’raima trust to lead Southern, in his own absence, and with you disqualified?” Valonna asked.

D’pantha’s brow furrowed in precisely the way that Karika’s had when Valonna had asked her the same question. “There are several possible candidates,” he said, after a moment. “O’digy, or K’felia.”

They were two names Karika had proffered; two senior bronze riders of similar middle Turns to D’pantha. Rallai pointed out what they had already discerned. “Neither of their bronzes are Tezonth’s get.”

D’pantha stiffened slightly. “G’nepi, then. Hondinth is by Tezonth.”

“And is Hondinth capable of flying a queen?” asked Rallai.

They knew, from Karika, that he was not. D’pantha’s eyes flicked sideways in the manner that showed he grudgingly agreed with Rallai’s inference. “But R’maro,” he said disgustedly. “R’maro! The least qualified bronze rider in Southern to be Weyrleader! Maibauth might be Tezonth’s, but he’s never even chased a queen!”

“All of which is what made them uniquely suited to P’raima’s needs,” said H’ned.

“His needs? His need for what?”

“A puppet,” said Valonna.

D’pantha turned his eyes wordlessly on her, and Valonna spoke on, outlining what they had deduced. “When P’raima first plotted to take Tarshe, he must have known his position as Weyrleader was untenable. Even if the exchange of Tarshe for Karika had gone smoothly, he would still have abducted a weyrling from another Weyr. He would still have poisoned the Weyrleaders of Madellon and the Peninsula. If it had gone no further than that, P’raima would still have committed crimes enough to be removed from power and exiled.”

She glanced to Rallai as she spoke, for confirmation. Rallai took up the thread. “At no point, once P’raima set events in motion, did he believe he would still be Southern’s Weyrleader by the end of the day. He sacrificed that to the cause of restoring Tezonth’s queen daughter to Southern. But Megrith is only half of Tezonth’s legacy. For P’raima’s obsession with his dragon’s superior bloodline to be satisfied, a son of Tezonth’s must be positioned as Megrith’s mate; and not just any son, but one of the largest and strongest of his get. One of his best.” Rallai barely quirked an eyebrow at D’pantha. “With any other rider on the queen, D’pantha, that son would have been Cyniath. But Karika is Megrith’s rider. It left P’raima only one choice.”

“Who better to bend to his schemes than Southern’s unlikeliest candidate for Weyrleader?” asked H’ned. “Who would have more to gain from P’raima’s help than R’maro – entitled, maligned, resentful R’maro? Who would have been quicker to leap at an opportunity to be recognised at last; not only by his mother’s Weyr, but by the Weyrleader who was so disappointed in him for so many Turns?”

Sh’zon completed the premise. “Who would be so easily controlled from afar, once P’raima had fled in disgrace? Whose claim to the Weyrleadership would be best served by exchanging the felah antidote for Megrith?” He paused, then finished, portentously, “And who would benefit more from that antidote – employed as P’raima himself had been employing it – to give his inexperienced dragon the edge in Megrith’s maiden flight?”

D’pantha looked from face to face. His mouth twisted down, as though he were on the verge of rebutting the picture that they had painted for him, yet no words came. Instead, he said, “You’re certain that it was R’maro.”

“Our green weyrling saw Maibauth, as she tried to escape,” said Valonna.

“He was on his way to kill her,” Sh’zon added.

D’pantha’s gaze went distant. “Perhaps P’raima was wise to recruit R’maro to that end,” he said. “He must have known that I’d never have shed innocent blood, not even for him.” It didn’t have the ring of a statement made to appease his captors. Almost, Valonna could feel sympathy for this man, who had pledged so much of his life and loyalty to P’raima, and been rewarded so poorly. Then, “What of Margone?” D’pantha asked. “You accused me of plotting her murder.” His voice vibrated with fresh outrage. “Do you, then, believe P’raima to be guilty of that, too?”

Valonna looked to Rallai. She exhaled a long breath. “Margone was ill.” Rallai spoke with careful neutrality, and watched D’pantha closely. “Yet the timing of her death seemed convenient.”

D’pantha’s face relaxed from its tense creases. “Conjecture, then. Whatever P’raima’s other crimes, he wouldn’t have harmed Margone.”

“R’maro seemed to disagree,” Sh’zon pointed out, with a hint of satisfaction.

“Perhaps you’re not as crude as you look,” said D’pantha. “If P’raima and R’maro are allied, as you suggest, it is an alliance only of mutual convenience. Accusing P’raima of hastening Margone’s end might shatter it. R’maro is wher enough to savage the hand that raised him up.” Then he shook his head. “How does it serve you, to drive a wedge between them, before R’maro has the felah antidote from P’raima to seal his bargain with Madellon?”

“It serves us,” said Valonna, “because Karika will convince R’maro of her gratitude to him, and her relief to be home, and her wish to be a good Weyrwoman to Southern. Of how keenly she misses Margone, who’d been like a mother to her since she Impressed Megrith. And of her fear that P’raima had a hand in Margone’s death.”

Understanding was dawning in D’pantha’s gaze. “Karika’s display. An act.” He nodded, visibly following the ploy through. “To make R’maro believe he is not reliant on P’raima’s antidote to win the queen’s favour after all. You seek to break their alliance.” Then, “No.” He contradicted himself as he followed the notion to its conclusion. “Not merely a breaking. You provoke a confrontation.”

“R’maro will lead us to P’raima,” said H’ned.

D’pantha cocked his head curiously. “And then what?”

“Then we’ll have both of the murderous bastards,” Sh’zon growled. “And the antidote, too, once the queens step on Tezonth to force it from P’raima.”

D’pantha did not reply, but his expression bled scepticism. “What?” Sh’zon demanded.

“Tezonth will know nothing of any antidote,” D’pantha said. “As he knew nothing of P’raima’s command to have the green weyrling killed.” He hesitated, as if wondering if he slighted P’raima to elaborate. “And P’raima cannot be controlled by a threat to Tezonth.”

For a moment, no one had an answer to that. H’ned merely looked baffled, but Valonna wondered sickly if Rallai and Sh’zon were recalling P’raima’s frenzied words from the moments before his dragon had smashed through the window at Long Bay and seized him away. I don’t love my dragon. I merely need him. The notion had repelled her then, and it did still. “He’s so bereft of all basic dragonrider decency?” Rallai asked, not quite with disbelief.

D’pantha squared his shoulders defensively. “He has gone farther than most dragonriders would in the service of Southern Weyr. Freeing himself from the bonds of…love…that chain him to his dragon…” He shook his head slightly. “Few men would have the courage.”

“Few men would have the perversity,” said Sh’zon, plainly revolted. “To abuse his dragon so…”

“Tezonth is dominant among bronzes,” D’pantha insisted, with the ring of misplaced pride in a dragon not his own that Valonna found so inexplicable. “He’s won every queen’s flight at Southern for thirty Turns. Whatever price P’raima’s path exacted from him was nothing beside that honour.”

“And would you have asked Cyniath to pay that price?” H’ned asked.

D’pantha’s gaze flickered. “No,” he admitted. “I would not.”

“You say that as if we’d judge you for admitting it,” said Valonna. “Why do you idolise P’raima so? Why such devotion to a man so harsh and unfeeling?”

“Southern has prospered under P’raima,” D’pantha said. “Far more so than your poor, thin Weyr, and undersized dragons.” He hesitated, then admitted, “I have prospered, too. He has always been good to me.”

“Until now,” Rallai pointed out. “When your last usefulness to him has been being the scapegoat for R’maro’s crimes.”

D’pantha’s face hardened. “You’re trying to make me turn on him.”

“D’pantha,” said Valonna. It was, she realised, the first time any of them had spoken his name. “You said you wouldn’t separate yourself from Cyniath as P’raima has separated himself from Tezonth. Yet that separation is what he’s forced upon us. I can’t hear my queen.” She let her true anguish break her voice, and had to hesitate a moment to compose herself. Then she continued, “Please. No one can question your loyalty to P’raima. But…” Suddenly inspired, she went on in a rush. “Just as P’raima chose to serve Southern’s greater good above even his own dragon’s, I’m begging you now. See how wretched we are, without our dragons. How poorly we can serve our Weyrs. Serve the greater good of Pern, even over your love for P’raima. Even though it wrenches you to do it.”

D’pantha stared at her for a long moment, and then tore his gaze away, casting  it sideways. Vaguely, Valonna wondered if he’d seen her hopelessness there. “What, then?” he asked thickly. “What would you have me do?”

“Help us,” Valonna pleaded. “Help us understand P’raima. Help us find the chink in him.”

D’pantha looked down at the ground. He remained silent for so long that Valonna began to fear he had changed his mind. But then, slowly, he raised his head. “A chink, you say,” he said. Slowly, he nodded. “Yes. I can give you that. I can give you that.”

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