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Chapter sixty-six: Sarenya

How many people and dragons have died as a consequence of my actions?

No more, I tell myself, than would have died anyway. I have no power to dam the course of events; only, in small ways, to deflect its path.

Perhaps even that has been an illusion. Or perhaps I cling to the immutability of history as the only way I can justify the things I’ve done.

But he gave me one charge, one job to do, and I botched it.

For all the things I’ve done, that’s the failure that will always hurt me the most.

100.05.06 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
MADELLON WEYR

Sarenya (Micah Johnson)Jarrisam had insisted that Sarenya go to the infirmary, and for all that he wouldn’t make it an order, he could be like a hound with a bone when it came to worrying at a thing until it was done. So after a day or so of him nagging at her every time their paths crossed, and finally threatening to take her off the work roster entirely, Sarenya left Hannser in charge of selecting beasts to go for the Lower Caverns, and took herself to the Weyr Healer’s forenoon surgery.

The waiting area outside the duty Healer’s room was busy with riders and Weyrfolk alike. None of them would be seriously unwell. The gravely sick and badly injured never had to wait to be seen. But for the sore muscles, the persistent coughs and the aching joints of the Weyr, forenoon surgery usually came round soon enough, and didn’t excite the same attention as someone who considered themselves in sufficiently dire condition to seek treatment from the Weyr Healers outside their regular hours.

Attention was something Sarenya didn’t want to attract. She left her name with the apprentice manning the desk and settled down on the end of a bench to wait her turn. In amongst the usual crowd of arthritic labourers, runny-nosed weyrbrats, and muscle-sore dragonriders, Sarenya found herself comfortingly anonymous, especially with her shoulder-knots still lying on the table beside her bed where she’d been leaving them. It wasn’t a good time to be identified as a member of the Beastcraft at Madellon.

She found, as she leaned her head back against the wall, that the enforced period of inactivity had one significant drawback. It gave her the time to think that she’d been trying so hard to avoid. And while her thoughts circled warily around the most painful things, bits and pieces were still drawn in, like leaves dragged unwillingly into the vortex of water over a sinkhole. Thinking about how Bovey was sound again, the cuts on his legs all but healed, was not uncomfortable, but it inevitably reminded her of the empty stall that had belonged to Franc, and how she couldn’t yet bear to put another runnerbeast in there, or even to remove the bars that had protected unwitting passers-by from Franc’s long reach. Remembering that she no longer had to report to Master Vhion after her morning shift was fine, but thinking about the empty bay in the dragon infirmary where Sejanth had spent most of the last Turn of his life made Sarenya’s stomach wrench with guilt. And considering which of the senior apprentices might be best rewarded by moving into Tebis’ now-vacated room in the Beastcraft cothold was all right, but the thought of going into Arrense’s quarters again, to face the ghost of him that now resided there, started a tremor in her hands that, unchecked, she knew would spread until she was a shaking wreck.

“Journeyman Sarenya?”

She heard the words, but it took a nudge from the elbow of the woman sitting beside her to alert Sarenya to her name being called. She started up from her place, looking to the duty apprentice. “Yes?”

“The Weyr Healer will see you now.”

That should have tipped her off, but preoccupied as Sarenya was, she was halfway through the door into the Healer’s room before she realised what it meant. Master Isnan looked up from the desk. “Journeyman Sarenya. Please, close the door and take a seat.”

Sarenya obeyed, but slowly. “I didn’t realise you would be taking forenoon surgery, Master.”

“I like to keep my hand in,” said Isnan. “But you needn’t have waited with the sneezers and wheezers. Did Lante not tell you to come in for a follow-up anyway?”

“She said something about it, but I’ve been absolutely fine,” said Sarenya. “Really, I was hardly even grazed.”

“It’s not your grazes that we’re concerned about,” said Isnan. “But we’ll talk about that in a moment. Have you come in for something else today?”

Sarenya was beginning to wish she hadn’t. “It’s really nothing.”

“Sarenya,” Isnan said. He spoke with a directness that she found disconcerting. “Why don’t you tell me how I can help you?”

She took a deep breath, then sighed it out. “I’ve been finding it hard to concentrate,” she said at last. “I’m…distracted. I keep dropping things. I’m tired all the time.” She looked at him sheepishly, knowing how vague and unspecific a list it was. “Sam keeps saying I’m not myself. He wanted me to see a Healer about it, but there’s really nothing in particular –”

“Sarenya,” Isnan said. “Stop apologising for being here. With all that’s happened to you, you have more reason than most to seek our help.” He paused. “How are you sleeping?”

“Better than I have a right to,” she said. “I can’t say I haven’t been sleeping, at least.”

“Are you waking often in the night?”

“Not often.” Sarenya thought about it. “Maybe once or twice a night, to use the facilities.”

“And is that normal?”

She shrugged. “It’s been hot. I suppose I’ve been drinking more than usual.”

Isnan made a mark on the wax tablet in front of him. “But you say you’re tired all the time.”

“I suppose more exhausted than actually sleepy,” Sarenya said. “I just keep wanting to sit down.” She shook her head. “Sam’s right. That’s not me.”

“No,” Isnan agreed. “Tell me about how you’re dropping things.”

“I’m just…jittery.”

“Is it anxiety? Things making you jump? Because given your recent experience…”

“Not really,” Sarenya said quickly. She didn’t want to foster the notion that she’d become nervous. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s just because I haven’t been drinking as much klah as normal.”

“Is that to help you sleep? Not drinking it, that is.”

“No, I’m just a bit off it,” she said. “I think the cothold’s had a bad batch of bark. Just the smell of it makes my stomach turn.”

Isnan put the back of his hand against Sarenya’s brow, and then took her wrist, pushing back her sleeve. “Have you been feeling nauseous generally?” he asked, placing his fingers over the pulse points.

“Not generally, no.”

“Headachey? Achey anywhere?” When Sarenya shook her head, Isnan asked thoughtfully, “When was your last bleed?”

Sarenya blinked. “About six sevendays ago.”

Isnan looked at her.

“I’m not pregnant,” Sarenya said, almost laughing. “I drink goldwort tea every day.”

“Goldwort isn’t infallible,” Isnan said. “You know that. And you’re late.”

“I’ve never been regular,” she said. “Not since I was a girl. And goldwort’s always worked for me.”

“Perhaps,” said Isnan. “Or perhaps not.” He cocked his head. “Do you know who the father would be likely to be?”

Sarenya did laugh then. “There’d only be one candidate, Master, but it’s a moot point. I’m not pregnant.”

“Journeyman,” Isnan said matter-of-factly. “You’re a Beastcrafter. You know very well that the only way you could be absolutely sure of that would be if you’d been sleeping alone for the last ten months.” He held his hands up. “And if that’s the case, then I apologise…”

“It’s not,” Sarenya said, more sharply than she intended. “But goldwort’s stopped me conceiving for the best part of a decade. I don’t see any reason why it should have stopped working now.”

“I’ve been a Healer for thirty-seven Turns, Sarenya,” Isnan told her. “I’ve yet to come across any herbal means to prevent conception that is wholly reliable.” Then he added, “Nor, regrettably, a certain way to tell, at least until a woman is far enough along to feel a babe quicken. There are some tests…”

“Master Isnan!” Sarenya said, nearly in a shout. She found she’d leapt to her feet. Her hands were sweating. Absurdly, she felt hot behind the eyes, as if she was about to cry. “I’m not pregnant! I’m just…I’m still not myself! I only came to get a tonic or a remedy to settle me down! I’m blundering around, nearly too tired to pick up a runner’s foot or milk a sharding cow!”

“Saren. Saren.” Isnan’s voice was soothing, but it made Sarenya irrationally more angry. “Sit down. Please.”

“I don’t want to sit down!” she cried.

And then she did. Hard, bonelessly, brokenly. She put her face in her hands, and felt herself heave with uncontrollable sobs.

The kind arm that Isnan placed around her shoulders did nothing to still her shaking. If anything it made it worse. Sarenya didn’t want anyone’s sympathy. She didn’t want anyone’s pity. She didn’t want to be coddled and cosseted as a nervous wreck; as a frightened child; as a feeble, helpless woman. Because that woman existed. She’d existed since Hatching night, when Sarenya had become Katel’s hostage, and realised what it was to fear for her life. She’d been rescued that night, and perhaps that had been the deepest injury of all. For all her pride, all her competence, all her resilience, she had been powerless to save herself. And so the seed of fear and doubt had been planted in the deepest, darkest, most secret fastness of Sarenya’s soul, and she knew that if she let it thrive beneath her attention, she would become it. The only way she knew to suppress that insidious sprout of weakness was to bury it beneath other things, heaping work and worry atop it each time scrutiny made it worm towards the light, and avoiding anything that might leave her mind or body free to encourage its growth: introspection, idleness, injury.

Or pregnancy.

“I can’t be pregnant. I can’t.”

She didn’t realise she’d spoken the words out loud until Isnan squeezed her shoulder, then let it go. “You wouldn’t be the first woman to feel that way,” he told her. He resumed his seat behind the desk. “Would it be so terrible if you were?”

Sarenya looked at Isnan without seeing him. In truth, she’d never given it much thought. She’d begun drinking goldwort tea as a senior apprentice, when she had been seeing one of the Smiths assigned to the Beastcraft hall, and falling pregnant would certainly have prevented her from making her journeyman’s knot. That relationship had come to a natural end, but she’d kept drinking the tea. It was small enough inconvenience to keep a supply of the herb and it had kept her from conceiving all the Turns since; or so it had seemed. Perhaps goldwort wasn’t infallible – it didn’t work for every woman – but Sarenya had been in relationships on and off through the Turns, and she’d never caught with child. Before.

She tried to turn her Beastcrafter’s instincts inwards. Did she feel different? She wasn’t sure she knew what normal was to be able to tell. She had been surprised by how deeply she’d been sleeping in the aftermath of Arrense’s death. Certainly she put her twitchy clumsiness down to her frayed nerves. And she’d assumed the revulsion she’d been feeling at the smell of klah had been down to Sam burning it.

Would it be so terrible if you were? Sarenya didn’t know. She knew more about gravid cows and ewes than she did about women. Faranth, she knew more about egg-heavy fire-lizards than she did about human pregnancies. How long would she be able to work if she was pregnant? What would she do with the child once it was born? Could she nurse it herself and go back to work, or would it need a milk-mother? What would the Hall do? Would she ever have a hope of making Master having interrupted her progression through the Craft to bear a child?

What would M’ric think?

That thought came after all the practical considerations. Sarenya wasn’t sure if she should feel guilty for thinking about M’ric so belatedly. Because if she was pregnant, the child was his. She felt a sudden pang of sadness that too many months had passed for there to be any possibility of it being T’kamen’s, and then made herself put the sentiment aside. Dragonriders could be dismissive of their offspring, especially those conceived during mating flights, but this was different. M’ric had cared very much for the daughter he’d lost several Turns ago. Surely he wouldn’t disdain to know their child.

“There are alternatives,” Isnan said into the space left by Sarenya’s furious thinking.

“Alternatives,” she said, not quite blankly.

“You could bear the child and foster it. The Weyr is more than equipped to accommodate women whose work doesn’t allow them the time to be mothers. You could perhaps ask for a half-assignment for a few Turns, if you wanted to raise the babe yourself; several of my journeymen and apprentices have done just that, and returned to their duties full time once their children are weaned.” Isnan paused, and when Sarenya had let a little span of time elapse, went on, “Or, if you would prefer not to continue the pregnancy, arrangements can be made for it to be ended.”

“Ended.” The word seemed oddly portentous. “Ended between.”

“You’re familiar with the process,” said Isnan. His face was neutral; neither approving nor judging.

Sarenya found herself nodding. “Green riders who go between all the time don’t get pregnant. So I’d…find a rider willing to take me between a dozen times?”

“Frequency isn’t the key so much as duration,” said Isnan. He spoke with careful dispassion. “A longer stay between than normal is usually enough to shake a child loose, done sufficiently early in a pregnancy. Otherwise no green rider would ever carry to term.” He paused again. “There are a number of exceptionally discreet riders who may be called upon to offer such a ride between. Should you wish it, no one else need ever know.”

Sarenya wondered if she should feel more affronted by the thought of aborting her pregnancy – the pregnancy she was still far from convinced existed. She felt oddly calm about it, perhaps because she was still so disconnected from the absurd notion that she could be a mother. It didn’t seem at all real. She heard her voice, steady and professional, ask, “How soon would I need to take a stay between to be sure of it?”

“For your physical health, soonest would be best,” said Isnan. He reached for a hide marked with a date line. “Do you have an exact date for your last bleeding? We would generally count ten months, forty sevendays, from the first day…”

Sarenya settled on the sevenday before the Long Bay Gather. “About six sevendays,” said Isnan. “Well, you have a little time to think about what you’d like to do.”

“If I’m even pregnant,” she said automatically.

Isnan nodded. “Though if you are, and you do decide to carry to term, you’ll need to take extra care of yourself. No wrestling with steers, or…”

“Breakneck rides up mountain gorges?” Sarenya asked grimly, when Isnan’s words trailed off.

Isnan’s eyes were pained. He leaned forwards, placing his hand on her arm. “Your uncle was a good friend, Sarenya. I can’t say how sorry I am. The circumstances…”

Sarenya shook her head emphatically. “I can’t dwell on it, Master Isnan.”

“I wish you’d speak to Benner or Nial…”

“They’d just make me chew over it again,” Sarenya said. She spoke with determination. “It doesn’t make it better, Master. It only keeps it raw.”

Isnan looked at her for a long minute. “If you knew a runnerbeast had an infection in its hoof,” he said finally, “but it wouldn’t let you lift the foot to poultice it out, what would you do?”

“I’m not a runnerbeast,” Sarenya said. “The Weyrwoman’s promised there’ll be justice for my M– for my uncle. That’s all the remedy I want.” She rose abruptly. “I need to get back to my apprentices. I’ve been away from my duties too long.”

Isnan let her go, but not before sending her to the dispensary for a blend of tea herbs that he said would ease her jitters. The senior apprentice who mixed the prescription for her was professional enough not to comment on its composition, but Sarenya suspected Isnan had slipped a few more potent herbs into the formula than a mere relaxant would require. It would at least give her something to show for the visit, and Sam wouldn’t know any better.

But if she’d been clumsy and accident-prone before visiting the infirmary, then the startling explanation that Isnan had put forward for them only made them worse. She could hardly get a bridle on Sunny for her fumbling fingers, and she was so preoccupied that when she rode him down to the far end of the Bowl to headcount the dairy herd, she found herself simply staring uselessly at the black-and-white milk cows rather than actually tallying them.

Trebruth wasn’t on ledge or Rim, and by the similar absence of any of the other dragons Sarenya recognised from the Ops Wing, she suspected M’ric was out drilling them. She was half grateful, half frustrated – grateful because she wasn’t sure she was ready to tell him what Isnan had said, and frustrated because she was desperate to tell someone. She didn’t have many alternatives. Sam was certainly out of the question. He’d been mother-henning her enough since Arrense’s death; Sarenya couldn’t bear the thought of how he’d try to coddle her if he got wind that she might be pregnant. She couldn’t bother the Weyrwoman with it. And the thought that she could have confided in Arrense made her insides clench in a way she was sure wasn’t good for her, pregnancy or not.

As she rode back up to the stables, she noticed in passing the off-colour blue dragon in the killing paddock. Her first thought was to wonder if he’d been sick. Quitting her shifts with Master Vhion meant that she no longer had an insight into the health of Madellon’s dragons. As with so many things these days, she had ambiguous feelings about it. She missed working alongside Vhion, and dragons made fascinating patients by comparison to most of the low-quality food animals that she treated as a Weyr Beastcrafter. But even if half of Madellon’s dragonriders hadn’t still been treating her like a pariah, Sejanth’s echoing absence in the infirmary would have been too painful for Sarenya to bear.

She’d ridden almost back up to the stables before she recognised the sickly-looking dragon. It was Darshanth. The realisation gave her a jolt in the bottom of her stomach. She reined Sunny in to stare over the fence at C’mine’s blue. Darshanth, once the handsomest dragon of his colour at Madellon, was a faded wraith. His greyish hide hung on a frame that had lost its vigour; his eyes were dull, lacking sparkle or vitality; defeat showed in his every movement. He hunched over the wherry he had brought down, pulling it methodically into pieces which he gulped without chewing. His attention to the business of eating was completely joyless; he performed it grimly, as a task that must be done in spite of its lack of relish. It reminded her of nothing so much as Sejanth. But both Sejanth and his rider had been gravely ill, and their decline sadly inevitable. Darshanth’s condition could only mirror that of his rider.

Sarenya hadn’t seen C’mine since before Long Bay. She’d heard that he’d had some sort of breakdown in response to finding out that Carleah had been abducted. She’d learned from her work with the weyrlings that A’len had replaced him as Assistant Weyrlingmaster. And she’d been turned away from his weyr when she’d gone to visit him. Now, she felt terrible for not trying harder. Darshanth had been subdued and quiet on that occasion, but not the physical wreck that he seemed to be now.

Ingany was sweeping the yard, so Sarenya handed Sunny over to her to be untacked and turned out, and walked back to the kill paddock. C’mine was nowhere in sight, but Darshanth was slowly consuming a second wherry. Sarenya put her hand on the top rail of the fence, then paused. It was bad practice to go in the pen when a dragon was in there. Some dragons didn’t like anyone coming close when they were eating, and there was always the possibility of a frightened animal breaking free and stampeding. But Darshanth was the only dragon in there, his wherry-hen was decidedly dead, and Sarenya didn’t think the blue had the spirit to bridle at her presence.

Still, she decided not to take too many chances. She ducked into the paddock and walked slowly towards Darshanth, making sure she was well within his field of vision, and placing her feet deliberately loudly on the ground. He didn’t react to her approach at all. He continued to swallow pieces of wherry without savour. Sarenya stopped half a dragonlength from him. “Darshanth.” He didn’t respond, so she tried it silently. Darshanth.

He froze for an instant, and then he raised his head from his meal. His eyes focused on Sarenya. It was impossible to read dragon expressions in the same way as humans, but she thought he looked briefly hopeful. She started forward, extending her hand to him. “Darshanth, I’ve missed you. I’ve missed C’mine. Where is he?”

Darshanth watched her come closer, his eyes spinning perhaps a tiny bit faster. Sarenya could see his nostrils vibrating, like a runnerbeast taking in a scent. She wondered if he recognised her. He was the first dragon she’d ever seen up close; the first dragon, and one of the only ones, who’d ever spoken to her; he’d Searched her all those Turns ago. She slowed down as she moved within touching distance, still holding out her hand. “Are you –”

Darshanth flinched back from her, almost tripping over his own tail as he did. He caught himself, his limbs splayed, and then retreated three big steps, shaking his head.

Sarenya let her hand drop. “I’m sorry,” she said, trying not to feel crushed. “Don’t abandon your meal on my account.” She backed off, giving the pathetic remnants of Darshanth’s wherry plenty of distance. “You need to eat, Darshanth. You need to…”

But he suddenly unfurled his wings and took off with a lurching leap, beating his wings to cross the Bowl back towards his weyr.

Sarenya climbed out of the paddock, feeling both stung and stupid. Perhaps Darshanth had become as wary of her as the rest of Madellon’s dragons because of what had happened with Sejanth. Perhaps she’d been presumptuous to even try reaching out to him.

Perhaps Arrense had been right.

She returned to the cothold, and spent a fruitless half hour trying to make Sleek understand the concept of carrying a message to M’ric’s weyr and leaving it there for him to find. Even attaching a message tube to Sleek’s leg was an exercise in frustration. He’d let her tie the tube on, but the moment it was in place he persisted in clawing or biting it off again. Sarenya gave up after half a dozen attempts. She knew it was futile – most fire-lizards of the junior colours wouldn’t learn new tricks once they were mature – but she kept trying anyway.

It was late in the evening, after the herd had come in to be milked, and then driven back to their pasture, before the sight of Trebruth at the edge of the lake alerted Sarenya to M’ric’s return. The brown dragon had his head under his wing when she reached him, nibbling with his teeth at an itchy patch farther back than his talons could reach. “Hello, fella,” Sarenya greeted him as she approached. She didn’t expect M’ric’s brown to reply – he’d never spoken to her – but he did stop what he was doing to acknowledge her presence.

M’ric ducked under Trebruth’s neck. “Stop chewing on your – oh, hello Saren.” He held the oil-soaked rag he was carrying in his right hand out of the way, and gave her a left-armed hug. “I was just about to come down and see if you were in.”

“Beat you to it,” Sarenya said. It sounded a bit inane, so she said, “That scaly patch again?”

“For my sins,” said M’ric. He fended off Trebruth’s inquisitive nose with a swat, and stretched up to wipe the oily cloth briskly across the damp place where he’d been scratching. “Now leave it alone,” he told the brown, with an admonitory finger.

Trebruth exhaled a mildly affronted snort, and turned his head away. M’ric slapped his back leg. “Long day? You look tired.”

“I could say the same for you,” she said. “Were you out drilling your riders all afternoon?”

“Most of it,” M’ric said. He picked up a towel to wipe his hands. “Did you need me for something?”

“I –” Sarenya started the sentence, then stopped, unsure of how to proceed.

M’ric threw the greasy towel in the direction of the closest bench, then looked at her enquiringly.

“Sam’s been on at me to go and see the Healers,” she said at last. “You know, because I’ve not been myself, since…”

He nodded. “Did you see someone?”

“Master Isnan was on duty,” Sarenya said, with the dismay she’d felt at the time.

“Well, there’s nothing like an expert,” said M’ric. “What did he say?” When Sarenya didn’t immediately answer, he asked, “Is everything all right, Saren? Are you all right?”

“Yes,” she said quickly, “yes, I’m fine. I’m absolutely fine. I’m…can I sit down?”

M’ric’s expression registered his concern. He moved the dirty towel off the end of the bench. “Sit,” he said, pushing her gently down onto the seat, and sitting next to her. He took her hand in both of his and looked worriedly into her face. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Sarenya promised him earnestly. She almost felt like laughing at his solicitousness. “I mean, I’m not sick or anything.”

“But?”

She took a breath. “I told him I just wanted something to settle my nerves,” she said. “But you know what it’s like when you ask a Master’s opinion. They have to know everything. He kept asking questions about my general health, and…” Suddenly the notion of repeating to M’ric what Isnan had said to her seemed ludicrous. She didn’t even believe it herself. “Well, he said – and it’s silly really, I told him it was ridiculous – he said he thought there was a possibility, maybe, that perhaps I might be pregnant.”

M’ric didn’t react. He just sat there, holding her hand, looking at her. “He said you might be what?”

“I know, I told him it’s not likely,” Sarenya said. The words tumbled out of her now. “I told him I’ve been on goldwort for Turns. I brew it myself. I never miss a dose. You’ve seen me drinking it in the evenings. So it’s really not –”

M’ric suddenly let go of her hand. It dropped onto her knee, stinging her knuckles. His expression was completely blank. “Pregnant,” he repeated, emphasising the two syllables strangely. “You’re pregnant.”

“It’s not confirmed,” Sarenya said. His reaction baffled her. “It’s too soon. Isnan just thought, because of how I’ve gone off klah, and the fact I’ve been so tired, and because my monthly is a bit late, that I might be.” She peered uncertainly into M’ric’s face. “M’ric? Are you all right? You look…”

He stood up abruptly. “I don’t understand how…” He paced two steps away. “How far along are you?”

Sarenya stared at his back. His shoulders had gone stiff, the fabric of his shirt pulled taut between his shoulder-blades. “No more than six sevendays.”

M’ric still didn’t turn around, though he did turn his head slightly. “Six sevendays.”

“If at all,” Sarenya said, and then, as an explanation for M’ric’s sudden coldness occurred to her, she added, “It’s definitely yours, M’ric. I haven’t been with anyone else the whole time we’ve been together.”

If she’d hoped that the assurance would soothe him, she was disappointed. M’ric pivoted on his heel. Sarenya found herself looking up at him. He had never loomed over her so intimidatingly before. “If you’re only six sevendays, then we can take care of it. Right now. I’ll get Trebruth harnessed –”

“Take care of it?” Sarenya repeated. It was her turn to speak as though she hadn’t heard what he’d said. She rose from the bench, unwilling to quail in his shadow. “What do you mean, take care of it?”

“It just means a few moments extra between,” M’ric said. “I thought we’d been careful enough already, but I can’t have been paying attention this last month.”

Sarenya’s head spun. Isnan’s words came floating back to her. A longer stay between than normal is usually enough to shake a child loose. You’re saying you want me to get rid of it?”

The indignant disbelief in her voice surprised her as much as it briefly froze M’ric. Then he said, “Sarenya. I’m sorry. This is my fault.”

“You’re sharding right it is!”

“It should never have come to this,” M’ric went on. He raked a hand through his hair in a completely uncharacteristic gesture of frustration. “Faranth, I got complacent. This last month’s been so frantic. We haven’t taken you anywhere.”

It seemed a complete non-sequitur, totally unconnected to the situation. And then Sarenya suddenly grasped his implication. “Do you mean,” she asked, not sure if she completely comprehended the significance, “that you’ve been taking me between longer than necessary…to prevent me from falling pregnant?”

M’ric fixed his gaze on her. For a moment, Sarenya was sure he would deny it. And then he said, “It was the best way.”

Sarenya couldn’t bear to look at him. She dragged her eyes away and half spun. Her chest was tight, and there seemed to be a fire burning in her brain. She felt her hands curling into fists at her sides. Then she whirled back to face him. “How dare you! How shaffing dare you!”

M’ric looked pained, but he didn’t back away. “It was for –”

“Don’t say it! Don’t even think about saying that it was for my own good! How shaffing dare you presume to make that decision for me?”

“You were already taking precautions,” M’ric said. His voice was tight, restrained. “You were taking goldwort to prevent yourself from conceiving. All I did was make sure of it.”

Make sure of it,” Sarenya repeated. “Do you have any idea how patronising that sounds? How controlling? Make sure of it?

“You’ve never said anything about wanting children,” M’ric said. Anger tinged his reply. “Your Mastery, but never children. And we both know that having a baby would impede your career.”

The truth of the statement didn’t make it any less inflammatory. “I never said I’d sacrifice any chance at having children in the cause of my career, either! You’ve just presumed that for yourself, too, without bothering to even talk to me about it!”

“I didn’t think we needed to,” said M’ric. “But if we’d ever had that conversation, I’d have told you the truth.”

“Which is what?”

M’ric’s jaw hardened. “That if you wanted children, then you’d have to find someone else to father them.”

That hurt like a kick in the stomach, but Sarenya was too angry to let the insult defeat her. “You should have thought of that before you started sleeping with me!”

M’ric came as close as she’d ever known him to shouting. “I did!”

For a moment there seemed no response to that. They turned away from each other. Sarenya felt sick. She wanted to leave, but she didn’t see how she could with so much unresolved between them. At last she said, slowly but with determination, “I’m not getting rid of it, M’ric. Not yet. Not before I’ve had a chance to think about it.”

It was a long minute before M’ric replied. He sounded choked – strangled, even. “I wish you would reconsider.”

“Why?” The indignation she felt rang in her voice. “Why are you so opposed to me having your child? What makes me different to all the green riders you must have knocked up in mating flights over the Turns? Because Faranth knows, there’ve been enough of them!”

Her anger had made her careless. She knew it even as she spoke, knew that her savage words exposed too much of her own underlying inadequacy and insecurity, and M’ric knew it too. The look he turned on her went right through her. “Don’t throw green flights in my face, as if you didn’t know what the life of a dragonrider was before we were together.”

“Why shouldn’t I? Why shouldn’t I care that I’m not your only lover? Why should I have to pretend I don’t care that you bed with someone else every time Trebruth catches a green? Faranth! It was never like this with T’kamen!”

M’ric stiffened. “Don’t hold me to the same standards as T’kamen. I can’t compete with him.”

“At least I’m consistent in my expectations! You hold other women to completely different standards than me!”

“I don’t.” M’ric ground the words out.

“Oh, really? Do you make all the green riders you bed go between until they abort your inconvenient offspring, too?”

“No, Sarenya,,” he said, and his eyes flashed black with anger. “I haven’t shared a mating flight with a female rider in the last two Turns to avoid exactly that.” He must have seen her reaction; he glared at her in a way he had never done before. “And do you think I enjoy that? Do you think I like always waking up with other men; do you think Trebruth likes being limited to male-ridden greens; do you think I would choose to constrain us both so unhappily if I didn’t have Faranth’s own reason to sharding do it?”

Sarenya didn’t know what to say; she felt unsteady, as if the ground had grown treacherous beneath her feet. “Why? Why are you so determined not to be a father?”

“Because I’ve been a father. And all of my children die!”

M’ric’s voice, almost a howl of anguish, broke on the final word. He looked at Sarenya with such raw grief, with such unassailable self-censure, that she nearly couldn’t hold his gaze. Then she didn’t have to. She held him instead; they held each other, hard, desperate, angry and sad, accusing and consoling. Sarenya didn’t realise she was crying until M’ric’s fingers dislodged the tears on her lashes; she put her hand to his face and found his own sorrow damp on his cheekbone.

At length, they pulled apart. M’ric passed his hand over his face. “I love you, Saren,” he said. “I’d do anything for you. But I’m not meant to have children. I’m not meant to. It flies in the face of the natural order.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about! M’ric, please. I know you lost your daughter. And I’m so sorry. But that doesn’t mean…”

“Daughters,” M’ric said. The word caused him visible pain. So did the next one. “Sons. Five that I know of. Temmal was the daughter of my heart, Saren. I loved her mother, and she was the child of that love. And when she died…” He lost, briefly, the capacity for words. “She was the only one to live past childhood. And when I lost her…I knew I should never have sired a child here. Time –” He seemed to catch himself mid-sentence. He took a deep breath, and grasped Sarenya’s shoulders with a terrible tenderness. “I only want to shield you from harm and heartbreak, Saren. I’ve not done well with the first. Please let me protect you from the second.”

Sarenya raised her eyes to his. She didn’t understand M’ric’s reasoning, though she bled for his pain. “I love you, M’ric,” she said. “I love you.” Then she removed his hands from her shoulders. “But you can’t protect me from heartbreak by breaking my heart. And you can’t save me from harm by trying to control me.”

She was proud that she kept the catch from her voice. She turned to go. She heard M’ric speak her name, once, twice, three times; each time more urgent than the last.

She ignored it. She walked away. She didn’t look back.

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