Chapter sixty-two: L’stev
Dragonriders like to speak with the benefit of hindsight, claiming they’d always known that this boy or that would Impress a bronze, or would never do better than blue, or any of the other well-worn refrains that come out after a Hatching. And some candidates do stand out as being especially suited to one colour. Girls, in particular, are typically either queen-types or green-types – a girl temperamentally suited to the life of a green rider quite simply wouldn’t be a good match for a queen. There are certainly boys who’d be hopeless on bronzes – and boys who’d be hopeless with anything less than bronze.
But we forget, sometimes, that the kids we put up are just that – kids. Lads of twelve or fifteen or even seventeen Turns aren’t the men they will one day become. And while Impressing will force a boy into the role that his dragon’s hide has decreed for him, it doesn’t necessarily follow that that role is the right one for him.
– Weyrlingmaster D’hor, Weyrling Training Manual, volume four
“It’s a southern problem,” F’rer said loudly from where he was standing with Igen’s A’stay. “Though whether it’s of breeding, training, or something else, who knows?”
L’stev snorted. He’d already taken the measure of Benden’s new Weyrlingmaster and found him wanting. F’rer was the youngest of their company and the only bronze rider – neither good reasons for any of the rest of them to take him very seriously. Experience always trumped colour when it came to the respect a Weyrlingmaster commanded amongst his peers. In that sense they were the most egalitarian riders on Pern.
“Not that we don’t want to agree,” B’reko commented where they stood drinking klah against the chill of a spring morning in Telgar. “But wishful thinking, not helpful.” He slurped from a cup at least half full of sweetener, and added, “Also. Man’s an idiot.”
L’stev had no arguments with that opinion. He resumed his thoughtful study of the Telgarese dragonets, comparing them mentally to his own. They were three sevendays younger than the Wildfires, but both bronzes were almost as big as Berzunth. L’stev sometimes forgot that Madellon’s dragons were some of the smallest on Pern. The young riders looked nervous, but that was to be expected. Bad enough that they had to try to go between with the spectre of what had happened at Southern and Madellon hanging over them; worse still that every Weyrlingmaster on Pern was there to watch.
G’dorar, Telgar’s Weyrlingmaster, had asked for L’stev’s advice specifically in advance of the morning’s trials. L’stev had supplied him with the detailed written reports of his experiments with the Wildfire and Southern weyrlings. Now, the Telgarese brown rider came over to join him and B’reko. “They’re as ready as I can get them.”
“You have a contingency plan for if this goes sideways?” L’stev asked.
G’dorar nodded towards the queen waiting near the dragonets. “We’ve done a little experimentation with one dragon pulling another out of between. Fadath can do it, but these are Sesmeeth’s hatchlings. She insisted.”
“Know which are your plotters, which jumpers?” asked B’reko.
“Yes, but I haven’t told them which are which. I don’t want them having any more doubts in their minds than they already do.”
“And your running order?” asked L’stev.
“Drew lots,” said G’dorar. “Or they’d only ascribe significance to who I’d put first.” He sighed. “I’ll get them started.”
L’stev wondered, as G’dorar crossed the training grounds towards the line of dragonets, how effective the measures would be in eliminating preconceptions from the weyrlings’ minds.
Not very, said Vanzanth. Failing is all they can think about. Then he added, We’re not helping.
The first dragonet, a brown, took off from the training grounds. G’dorar’s Fadath and the queen Sesmeeth accompanied him to altitude. Reckon G’dorar threw the draw?
To make sure a brown went first? Vanzanth asked. Not every brown rider is biased towards his own colour, L’stev.
Just the sensible ones, said L’stev.
The brown dragonet circled for what seemed like hours. Then he gave a little shudder, and his head drooped. Doesn’t want to, Vanzanth reported.
“Shaff,” L’stev muttered. “Plotter? Or just afraid?”
“Who could blame him?” asked B’reko, but his voice had gone grim too. He jerked his chin towards the next dragonet in line, a green. “Pity that little girl.”
L’stev tried to banish his negative thoughts, but it didn’t surprise him in the least when the green refused to go between, and the blue who came after her, and the next two greens.
“Shard it all, they’re just feeding off each other’s fears!” said F’rer.
“Probably,” said L’stev. “But do you want to be the one to force them between?”
That shut him up.
The sixth dragonet was a bronze, and from the moment he launched himself skyward, the picture of confidence, it was clear that he wasn’t going to let his clutchmates’ doubts affect him. Vanzanth winced as the young dragon began his holding pattern. He’s very loud, he remarked, when L’stev asked. They probably heard him at home.
Then the bronze disappeared.
“Aha!” F’rer exclaimed.
Long moments passed. L’stev was reminded horribly of the creeping sense of dread he’d felt when the four Wildfire weyrlings had gone between. Come on, he thought, come on, find your way; let that idiot F’rer be right…
Then, even as Sesmeeth cried out and went between, Vanzanth said, He can’t do it.
“Faranth blight it all,” L’stev said softly.
Sesmeeth emerged from between nauseating heartbeats later with her terrified son shaking in her grip.
None of the other weyrlings wanted to try after that, and no one wanted to make them.
“Least they didn’t lose anyone,” B’reko said later. He and L’stev had decamped to High Reaches to give Telgar some peace, having agreed to convene another meeting of Pern’s Weyrlingmasters the following sevenday to discuss what to do next.
“That being so, it was nearly worth it just to see that idiot F’rer almost fill his pants,” said L’stev. “We’re scorched, aren’t we?”
B’reko sank his chins onto his chest. “Seems so.”
L’stev let out an explosive breath. “I’ve been holding off starting mine on firestone. The thought of letting them loose with live flame when they can’t dodge each other’s mistakes turns my blood cold. But I don’t know what else I can do with them. There’s only so much benefit they can get from repeating formations they already know.”
“Worse,” said B’reko. “Can’t put them in a Wing. Dragon can’t go between, liability in a formation with ones who can.”
L’stev had already had the same thought. “Don’t fancy the idea of a Wing of nothing but raw weyrlings, either.”
“You wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. Might have to rethink. Overcome traditional wisdom. Not going to be the same without between.”
“And how the shaff are dragons going to cope when we get to the Pass?” L’stev asked.
“Not we,” B’reko said, with a fatalistic chuckle. “You and me, long dead by then. Someone else’s problem!”
L’stev had to laugh at that. Then, “No,” he said. “It’s not someone else’s problem, and you know that as well as I do.”
B’reko sobered. “No,” he agreed. “Up to us to prepare. Owe that much to Pern.”
“It’s still the why that’s eating me,” said L’stev. “Dragons have been going between for centuries. And taking longer to do it, it’s true, but what went so catastrophically wrong to stop them completely?”
“Have a theory,” said B’reko. “Two things, not related. Not directly. Between broke when the Southerners made their first attempts. Don’t know why. But the time it’s taking…” He opened a drawer in his desk and took out a length of string. He dangled it from one hand. “Between.” He closed his fist around the hanging end. “Dragons.” He increased his grip on the bottom of the string, and it stretched a little. “More dragons.” He pulled harder. The cord stretched more. “Even more dragons.”
“You think it’s the sheer quantity of them?” L’stev asked. “Stretching between? Making the distance in there greater, so it takes them longer to pass through it?”
“Don’t know,” said B’reko. “Maybe stretching is wrong. Maybe they’re doing damage in there. Busy roads need repairing. Maybe between needs repairing. Was never meant for so many dragons.”
“But the population’s no bigger now than it would have been at the end of the last Pass,” said L’stev. “Smaller, probably. We’re all well under capacity.”
“Just a theory,” said B’reko. “Just guessing. “He splayed his fingers out on the desk. “Don’t know,” he said at last. “Suppose it doesn’t matter. It is what it is. Have a Turn or more to think of a plan for the Reaches.”
“You have eggs on the Sands again?”
“Not yet. Soon. Cosmith’s the size of a barn. Going to be a big one. Got any candidates?”
“Not many I could let you have,” said L’stev. “Not now that we have two queens.” Then he reconsidered. “There are a few who’ll be too old by our next clutch. They’ve been left standing two and three times, but if you wanted to give them a try I think I could persuade Valonna to let them go.”
“Would appreciate it,” said B’reko. “Caverns are mined out.”
“You won’t Search?”
B’reko made a disparaging sound. “One Search rider at the High Reaches. One. Couldn’t find his own ass with both hands.” He grasped his own formidable cheeks for emphasis.
“I’ll see what I can do,” said L’stev. He sighed. “Suppose I’d better get back to my kids. Though I’m blighted if I know what to do with them. I have two who can’t hear their dragons, one outlier who can actually go between, and a girl on a blue who’s going to start chasing greens before long, and Faranth knows how that’s meant to work in the flight weyr if she ends up with another girl.”
“Smithcrafthall,” said B’reko promptly. “Master Olham. Makes –” he wiggled his fingers, “– devices. Very discreet.” Then he added ruminatively, “Have a few myself.”
“B’reko! L’stev complained. “That’s a mental image I never wanted to have!”
He and Vanzanth made one more stop on the way back to Madellon. Teller Hold, looking to Jessaf, had always been a pleasant holding. Its mild climate, good soil, and north-facing hillsides had made it eminently suitable for the cultivation of grapes, and the orderly rows of vines that stretched as far as the eye could see were as intrinsic a part of the Teller visual as the silhouette of its towers and the yellow-and-burgundy of its banner. It was a gentle place, a kind place. A place, L’stev hoped, where a soul could find a measure of healing.
He met with Jenavally in the sunny east-facing sitting room of the watchrider’s apartment, directly below the fire-heights where Vanzanth had joined Hinnarioth. “Start early, don’t they?” he asked, gesturing towards the vineyards outside, where the holders of Teller were already working, despite the early hour so far west.
“When the grapes are ready, the grapes are ready,” said Jenavally. “They’re lucky here.” She indicated with a nod the aqueduct that marched across Teller’s landscape from the north. “There’s not been much rain. It won’t be a good Turn for many wine holdings.”
L’stev noted her choice of words. They. It wasn’t the first time he’d visited Jenavally here, the Hold of her birth, since the loss of the weyrlings, but it was the first time he’d heard her distance herself from the other folk of Teller. He sipped from the cup of tea she’d made him, and said, “And how is Hinnarioth?”
He already knew, from the glad way that Jenavally’s green was cosying up to Vanzanth, but he let her say it. She smiled sadly. “Lonely,” she said. “She misses the Weyr. She misses the company of other dragons.”
“We miss you, too,” said L’stev.
“I’m not coming back.” Jenavally said it simply, plainly. “To the Weyr, perhaps, but not to the weyrlings.”
L’stev masked his disappointment. “I wish you’d reconsider.”
“I can’t, L’stev,” she said. “I know that I’m not the first mother to lose a son. But I can’t.”
“I understand,” said L’stev. “But you’re a difficult woman to replace.”
“I thought C’mine –”
L’stev shook his head. “Didn’t work out.”
The three words seemed inadequate to express his disgust and disappointment, but Jenavally had been a Harper, and she could read what he hadn’t said. “Grief can drive a person to terrible things. Don’t judge C’mine for being human.”
“You never did what he –” L’stev stopped himself. He didn’t want the truth of what C’mine had actually done to go farther than it already had. “A’len is filling in,” he said instead.
“A’len?” Jenavally asked, raising her eyebrows.
“I thought you’d approve; him having been a Drum apprentice.”
“There’s generally a reason why an apprentice is sent to the Drum Master,” Jenavally said, a hint of her old humour resurfacing.
“He’s solid,” said L’stev. “Reliable.”
“But he doesn’t have the feel.”
“Not a speck of it.”
“A man whose best tool is a drumstick…”
“…will treat every problem like it’s a drum.” L’stev completed the idiom resignedly. “I know.”
“Should I tell H’ned to expect you back?”
“Hinns will rise at the end of next sevenday. So I’ll have to be back at the Weyr by then anyway, I suppose.” She looked thoughtful. “He hasn’t been confirmed as Regent yet?”
“It’s only a matter of time,” said L’stev. “Especially with the mess Sh’zon got himself into at the Peninsula.”
“It sounds to me like he did quite well out of that whole business,” said Jenavally. “I never minded Sh’zon. He wasn’t a bad sort, for a bronze rider.”
“Well, he’s the Peninsula’s problem now,” said L’stev, but he made a face as he said it.
“It’s not that simple any more, is it?” asked Jenavally.
L’stev thought about F’rer and his stubborn insistence that between was a southern problem. “We can’t afford to be so inward-facing,” he said. “If we hadn’t turned a blind eye to P’raima’s tyranny…if the Weyrs would take advice from each other…if they’d just talk to each other…”
“The cultural differences run too deep,” said Jenavally.
“We’re all shaffing dragonriders,” said L’stev. “Here or at Benden or Southern, what difference does it make?”
“All the difference in the world, L’stev. I was born in Southern territory, and when first I came to the Harperhall with that accent…” She shook her head. “The first thing any Harper apprentice learns is to homogenise. There are holds where pronouncing grass the wrong way will get you marked as a queer foreigner before you can turn around. And there’s no Weyr on Pern that doesn’t think its dragons are better than everyone else’s.”
L’stev couldn’t disagree with any of what she said. He couldn’t even suppress the reflexive thought – well, our dragons are better than everyone else’s – that immediately came into his mind.
He drained his tea and stood up. “Suppose we’ll be seeing you soon anyway, but in the meantime, if there’s anything you need, have Hinnarioth pass it through to Vanzanth.”
“Thank you, L’stev,” Jenavally replied gravely. “I will.”
Valonna and H’ned had already heard the news from Telgar by the time L’stev got back to Madellon, but they still listened carefully to his first-hand account of the abortive between trials.
“Is that it, then?” H’ned asked, when he’d finished. “Is there no hope at all that we’ll resolve this problem with between?”
“We’re all out of ideas,” said L’stev. “Which isn’t to say we won’t keep trying to think of new ones. But we can’t stay in this holding pattern much longer, waiting for between to start working again. We have to prepare for a scenario where it doesn’t. Ever.”
For all the steel Valonna had developed over the last several months, she went tense at that – but only for a moment. “I’ve already been thinking about how Pern might look without dragons who can go between,” she said quietly. “But I’d appreciate your insight.”
L’stev wondered if Valonna’s projections were as bleak as his own. “In the short term, we need to figure out what to do with the weyrlings,” he said. “I can advance them to the flaming part of their training – though I don’t very much like the notion of them breathing fire without being able to blink out of trouble. It’s what happens afterwards that concerns me; what happens once they graduate.”
“Because we can’t place betweenless dragons in the existing Wings,” H’ned said, frowning.
“No. It would be bedlam. And much as the prospect of completely novice Wings sits wrong with me, it may be the only option.”
H’ned’s brow furrowed at the thought. “Well. There’s a bronze or two in the class with the right sort of profile to lead straight out of weyrlinghood, at least.”
L’stev stifled a snort. He knew exactly which bronze H’ned was talking about. “If I do my job right, any of the three could grow into the role,” he said. “They’re good dragons and decent lads.” He paused, thinking of K’ralthe, then decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. “Not a L’dro among them.”
“Or a Fr’ton, I hope,” said H’ned. “I suppose, if this is going to be the way of things now, future weyrlings will just join one of the betweenless Wings.” He rubbed his head, frowning. “How long until we have more dragons who can’t go between than can?”
“About thirty Turns,” said Valonna. “After fifty, there won’t be many between-capable dragons left. And by the Pass…”
“Shards,” said H’ned. “That’s thinking a long way ahead.”
“We have to,” said Valonna. “Why else have Weyrs, during an Interval, if not to make ready for the Pass? Everything we do has to prepare Madellon to face Thread without between in a hundred Turns’ time.”
“You’re right, of course, Valonna,” said H’ned, though he still looked as though his mind was racing through consequences that he hadn’t yet let himself entertain. “Well, and we aren’t the only ones. Southern and the Peninsula have their own plans to make.”
“And the northern Weyrs,” said L’stev.
“It’s not Madellon’s job to worry about the north,” said H’ned. He cleared his throat, then went on, “It’s as well you’re here, L’stev. I’d thought to get your opinion, as an unbiased party. I think it’s past time Madellon’s Council saw to the matter of confirming a Weyrleader Regent.”
Oh, you do, do you? L’stev thought, and then, Unbiased? He spoke neither aloud. “Practical,” he said, cautiously neutral. “Your voice will carry more weight with the Holds if you can legitimately call yourself Weyrleader.”
H’ned’s eyes widened disingenuously. “I would never presume, L’stev –”
“Yes, you would,” said L’stev. “Don’t mimsy around it. You were T’kamen’s Deputy, and with Sh’zon gone there’s no one else with any sort of mandate. Oh, F’yan or L’mis might put themselves forward as alternatives, just to be difficult, but they won’t get the votes. Follow due process by all means, but you’ll come out of that Council chamber with the Regent’s knot on your shoulder, and we all know it.”
“I’m certainly glad for your confidence in me, Weyrlingmaster,” said H’ned, preening only slightly. “And not only because I’d be relying on your vote in Council. And your endorsement.” He looked at Valonna. “Weyrwoman, I believe it falls to you to initiate the selection process.”
Valonna looked for a moment – just a moment – as if she would dispute the necessity of the action. Then she inclined her head. “I’ll look up the procedure before the next Council meeting, H’ned.”
“One more thing, before I go,” said L’stev. “Jenavally and Hinnarioth expect to be back from Teller by the end of next sevenday.”
“That’s good news,” said H’ned. “Will they be re-joining your staff?”
“No. Jena’s not ready for that.”
“V’stan’s been complaining that he’s short a green,” said H’ned. “I’m sure he’d be happy to have them. I’ll tell you, L’stev, when – if, that is – I’m confirmed as Regent, I’ll have some promotions to hand out in the Wings. I’m down two Wingleaders, with T’kamen and Sh’zon both gone, and you’ve stolen R’yeno’s best Wingsecond. And I’ll have to decide what’s to be done with C’mine before long. Perhaps the watch post at Teller would do for him.”
“C’mine is my responsibility,” said Valonna.
“He’s a fighting rider –”
“No,” Valonna said. She didn’t raise her voice, but she spoke with complete authority. “He was relieved of duty from the Weyrlingmaster’s staff, and the Weyrlingmaster answers to the Weyrwoman.”
“He does,” said L’stev, when she looked to him for confirmation. It amused him that she had quoted that piece of Weyr governance at H’ned. “I do.”
“All right,” said H’ned, with a hint of pique. “I take it we’re still keeping it hushed up that he timed it at Long Bay? It is a Disciplinary offence, however well-intentioned the motive.”
L’stev met Valonna’s eyes. They were the only two riders who knew just how far C’mine’s timing had gone – or how close he’d come to disaster when he’d tried to complete the loop. “I understand that Discipline is a private affair in the Wings,” said Valonna. “C’mine’s punishment will remain a private matter between him and me. As will his rehabilitation.”
“Well, I’ll need to find someone to put on that fire-height at Teller,” said H’ned. “If you’ll excuse me, Weyrwoman, Weyrlingmaster, I’d better go and have a word with V’stan.”
L’stev stayed in his seat on the other side of Valonna’s desk. When H’ned had gone, he raised his eyebrows at the Weyrwoman. “Think you can live with him for a couple of Turns?”
Valonna sighed. Then she lifted her chin. “I lived with L’dro.”
“H’ned’s neither that crass nor that incompetent,” said L’stev. “And you’re not the same woman you were when he was your Weyrleader.”
“No,” said Valonna. “I’m not.”
Something he’d discussed with B’reko earlier came back to L’stev then. “How short-handed are you in the caverns at the moment?”
“We’re always short-handed,” Valonna replied immediately. “Why?”
“As I recall, there were four or five older candidates left standing at the Hatching last Turn who decided to stay on here. How would you feel about letting them try for a High Reaches clutch in five or six sevendays?”
“B’reko’s low on candidates.” Another thought occurred to L’stev. “Maybe they’d let us have a few of their caverns staff in exchange. There’s always a few restless types looking for a new horizon.”
Valonna looked thoughtful. “We have a new bronze rider coming from Telgar tomorrow.”
“K’letan,” said L’stev. “Yes. The exchange for D’pantha.”
“And we already have T’gala,” she went on. “A Southern rider. M’ric’s from the Peninsula.”
L’stev nodded. “Becoming quite cosmopolitan, aren’t we?”
“Do you think that’s a good thing?”
“Yes,” he replied. “It has to be.” He thought about his conversation with Jenavally. “We won’t become less parochial by accident. I think we should have more rider exchanges. I think we’d do well to have at least one rider from every other Weyr here at Madellon. And at least one Madellon rider at every other Weyr.”
“That’s quite a radical stance, L’stev.”
“I’m feeling radical,” he said. “Or maybe that’s just age catching up with me.” That thought sobered him. “I’m not going to be around forever, Weyrwoman,” he said, more softly. “It worries me, how stagnant Madellon’s become. There’s not a senior bronze rider worth a damn. There’s barely a brown rider I like enough to set up as my replacement. We’re all stuck in ruts so deep, we don’t even know we’re in them to try and climb out.” Then he smiled, an expression so unusual on his face that it actually hurt his cheeks to make it. “Except you. Faranth be blighted, but Fianine would be astonished to see you now, sitting in that chair. I’m astonished. If Tarshe makes up to be half the Weyrwoman you’ve become in the last few months, I’ll consider my job well done when Vanzanth and I ship out to South Cove to dribble away our twilight Turns.”
Valonna smiled in return, and for a moment the lost look in her eye – the look of a rider who couldn’t reach to her own dragon for support – disappeared. “Why didn’t you Impress a bronze, L’stev?”
He laughed. “Because even as a lad, Weyrwoman, I was far too sensible for that.”
Continue to Chapter sixty-three: T’kamen
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