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Chapter seventy-two: Sh’zon

Timing isn’t difficult.

It’s an uncomfortable truth, but a truth nonetheless. Timing isn’t difficult. The very fact that weyrlings are prone to slip the odd hour when they’re first learning to go between is evidence enough of that. To a dragon, a trip that takes him between times is hardly more challenging than a normal jump from one place to another.

Why, then, is Pern not full of time-shifted dragonriders, running amok in past and future alike, learning things they shouldn’t yet know, changing things to suit themselves? When disaster strikes, why doesn’t someone simply go back to avert it? What’s stopping dragonriders from shaping events in whatever way they like?

– Excerpt from the personal diaries of Weyrlingmaster D’hor

100.05.17 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
MADELLON WEYR

Sh'zon (Micah Johnson)It was a moment before Sh’zon realised that the woman sitting behind the Weyrwoman’s desk was, in fact, Valonna. He looked, and then looked again, harder. “You’ve cut your hair!”

Valonna smiled wanly. She looked older than Sh’zon recalled, an impression created only in part by the new, short style of her hair. There were shadows under her eyes, and she looked like she’d lost weight in the sevendays since he’d last seen her. Under the circumstances, he wasn’t surprised. “Thank you for coming, Sh’zon.”

“No need to thank me,” he said. “M’ric’s served under me for Turns. I owe it to him to be here just as much as I owe it to you.”

If Valonna noticed the forced heartiness of Sh’zon’s tone, she didn’t say anything. He was glad of that. He hadn’t had much time to think about how to play the situation, but he’d come down on the side of showing bluff support for the man who had been his second for so long – up until the point when he had to seem shocked and baffled by whatever accusations M’ric was charged with, anyway. He’d only incriminate himself if he gave away any hint that he’d been aware of M’ric’s activities. He just hoped that M’ric wouldn’t implicate him. He tried not to let the thought put visible tension in his body. It was already hard enough keeping his anger tamped down. Some part of him had always known that this day would come, but M’ric had promised him he’d be careful, that he wouldn’t ever slip up, and like an idiot, Sh’zon had believed him. He was glad he had Kawanth back to help him keep his emotions in check. If he’d still been dragon-deaf, Sh’zon didn’t know if he’d have been able to maintain his composure.

“Where do you –” he began.

He was interrupted by H’ned’s arrival. “Sh’zon! Izath told me Kawanth had come in.”

“Came as soon as the Weyrwoman asked,” Sh’zon replied, clasping wrists with H’ned.

They engaged in a few moments’ contest to see who could inflict more pain on the other. Sh’zon won, and H’ned retrieved his arm, trying to conceal his discomfort. “Well, you’d be the expert at coming running when a queen rider calls, eh, Sh’zon?”

“Don’t pay to be tardy when your dragon’s twined with hers,” Sh’zon said, with matching sincerity.

“Weyrleaders,” Valonna interrupted, before H’ned could respond, “I think it’s best we proceed as quickly as possible.”

“Of course, Weyrwoman,” H’ned replied. He didn’t quite look at Valonna as he spoke.

“What’s M’ric supposed to have done?” Sh’zon asked.

H’ned shrugged, but his pale eyes watched Sh’zon intently as he said, “Timing.”

Sh’zon looked right back at him. “Timing? Where? Or when, rather?”

“I was hoping you’d be able to shed some light on that.”

Sh’zon braced himself for a specific accusation, but when none came, he asked, “What makes you think that, H’ned?” He let indignation shade his tone. “I hope you’re not suggesting that I’d endorse that sort of nonsense in a rider under my command.”

H’ned spent another couple of moments searching his face, and then gave up. “Of course not. It’s only that, having been his Wingleader for so long, you might have an insight into M’ric’s agenda.”

He didn’t have anything specific, Sh’zon realised, but that didn’t mean H’ned suspected him any less. “Insight?” he repeated. “I’ll not deny M’ric was my Wingsecond for many Turns, and a sharding good one too, but the man’s never been a friend.”

“Then he’s never confided in you?” H’ned asked. “Never told you he planned to go between times for any reason?”

“Never,” said Sh’zon. It was very nearly true. M’ric had seldom told him anything about timing runs he planned to make; only about the ones he already had, which wasn’t the same at all. “And I’d have given him a piece of my mind if he had,” he added. “Fool thing to do, timing.” He frowned at H’ned with what he thought was a credible attempt at bafflement. “Not something a rider with any sense would attempt. M’ric’s always been level-headed. There has to be some mistake.”

“For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t have marked him as the sort to go playing with time, either,” said H’ned, “but…” He glanced towards Valonna; again, without quite focusing on her.

“Journeyman Sarenya came to me with it last night,” said Valonna.

“M’ric’s girlfriend,” H’ned added.

“I know who she is,” Sh’zon said. He furrowed his brow, thinking fast. Sarenya wasn’t a dragonrider. Whatever she’d seen to make her turn M’ric in, surely it could be put down to a misunderstanding. “How did she even know about timing?”

“M’ric wouldn’t be the first rider to boast about his dragon’s abilities to a woman,” said H’ned.

“Absolutely not. Even if M’ric has been timing – and that’s a big if – he’s no braggart.”

“C’mine told her,” Valonna said, with a sharpness that Sh’zon had seldom heard her use. “And he says he’s witnessed M’ric and Trebruth timing first-hand.”

That was uncomfortably near the mark. Sh’zon and M’ric had once manipulated C’mine into going between times to Search Tarshe – albeit only by a few hours, and not with his explicit knowledge. Still, as credible witnesses went, it could have been worse. “C’mine’s not all there himself,” said Sh’zon. “Who knows what he saw?”

“You’re defending M’ric rather hard, Sh’zon,” said H’ned.

“I won’t condemn a man who’s served me long and faithfully before I’ve good reason to do so!” Sh’zon said. “The say-so of some girl with no business knowing about timing in the first place, and a crackdust blue rider who’s timed it so much he doesn’t know if he’s coming or going, doesn’t add up to shaff-all!”

“Ah, but you haven’t heard the good part, yet,” said H’ned, with a perverse sort of relish. “The girlfriend thinks M’ric got rid of T’kamen, and then timed it to give himself an alibi.”

Sh’zon felt his blood go cold. “Got rid of,” he repeated with exaggerated slowness, to give his face something to do that wouldn’t betray him. “And why on Pern would M’ric want to do a thing like that?”

“She and T’kamen were lovers,” said H’ned. He spread his hands. “What more motive does a jealous boyfriend need?”

“A jealous boyfriend!” Sh’zon scoffed. “This isn’t a Harper farce, H’ned! M’ric wouldn’t do in another rider over some sharding piece of tail!”

H’ned looked hard at him. “I thought you said he wasn’t a friend.”

“You don’t have to be bosom-pals to know something of a man’s character after flying together twenty Turns!” Sh’zon snapped. He stabbed a finger at H’ned. “Whatever else M’ric might have done, he’s no killer!”

He could say that with a clear conscience, with M’ric’s promise from all those months ago ringing in his head. I haven’t killed him, if that’s what you mean. Sh’zon found himself able to stare H’ned in the eye until he backed down. “Maybe you’re right,” H’ned said in a placatory tone. He cast another non-look towards Valonna. “It does seem a little far-fetched, Weyrwoman. I know you’re fond of C’mine, but he’s not been stable for a long time now; and as for the Beastcrafter, she’s probably still distraught over the business with her Master.”

“Sarenya isn’t given to flights of fancy,” Valonna insisted.

“No one’s saying she is, Valonna,” Sh’zon said. He sensed the chance to nip this whole troubling matter in the bud. “But how much can some girl from the Crafts know about dragons and between? She’s not a rider. She probably just misinterpreted something.”

“You’ve said yourself that Shimpath would know if Epherineth had died that day,” H’ned told the Weyrwoman.

“Then where did he go?” Valonna asked. “Where did T’kamen go, if not to his death?”

Sh’zon exchanged a look with H’ned. “It’s like I’ve said, Valonna,” H’ned said, too patiently. “He must have bungled a visual and slipped between times. He could have ended up anywhere, in any Turn. And if he tried to come back, and missed his mark…” He lifted his hands. “Shimpath wouldn’t have sensed Epherineth’s death if it happened before she was even Hatched.”

“T’kamen was never that careless,” said Valonna, quietly, but resolutely. She lifted her eyes, first to H’ned, who avoided them, and then to Sh’zon. “Something happened that day. And if M’ric wasn’t telling the truth about where he was, he must have something to hide.”

“Valonna, if it makes you feel better not having the man around, I’ll take him back to the Peninsula with me,” Sh’zon said. “And I wouldn’t expose my Rallai to a man I thought had a speck of malice in him. You know that.”

“I could let him go, if it would ease your mind,” H’ned said quickly, as if to remind them both that he, not Valonna, had the last word on the disposition of a fighting rider. “I’d need to find a new rider to take on Ops, but –”

“No,” said Valonna.

“But, Weyrwoman –”

“I said no.” Valonna rose from her seat. It shouldn’t have been impressive, as slight and young as she was, and yet Sh’zon had to stop himself taking an instinctive step back. H’ned looked equally startled. “I’m not letting this pass, and I’m not letting him leave my Weyr. No.”

“Where’s M’ric now?” Sh’zon asked, breaking the uneasy pause that followed Valonna’s statement.

“In his weyr,” said H’ned.

“Alone?”

“S’rannis is keeping an eye on him.”

“So he knows he’s under investigation. Does he know what for?”

“Not yet. I wanted to get your take on him first.”

“Then you haven’t even asked him to his face if he’s been timing?”

“He’d only lie if he had –”

Valonna interrupted, “Trebruth can’t lie to Shimpath.”

“M’ric wouldn’t lie,” said Sh’zon, conscious of the irony that it was the biggest falsehood he’d yet uttered.

“You can harm a dragon, forcing him to choose between his rider and his queen,” H’ned added. “I’d sooner not do that without good reason.”

“And the disappearance of Madellon’s rightful Weyrleader isn’t reason enough, H’ned?” Valonna asked.

That rocked H’ned. Sh’zon could almost feel for the poor man. No wonder he wouldn’t look Valonna in the eye. “Weyrwoman,” he said, and subtly moved his shoulder towards her so the tassels of Peninsula’s Deputy Weyrleader swung eye-catchingly there. “I’ll question M’ric. He was my Wingsecond for Turns. I don’t believe he can lie to me. Asking Shimpath to get involved is a last resort.”

“We’ll both question him,” said H’ned. “And Trebruth is only a brown. He won’t be able to hold out against Izath for long, if it seems M’ric is lying.”

Sh’zon thought H’ned might be surprised where Trebruth’s ability to obfuscate was concerned, but he refrained from saying so. “Fine by me.”

Finally, Valonna nodded. “I won’t have Shimpath pressure Trebruth…yet. But I want to find out what M’ric’s been doing. You two might not believe C’mine or Sarenya, but I do.”

“I’ll have S’rannis escort him up here,” said H’ned.

“No,” said Valonna. Sh’zon was sure she hadn’t used that word nearly so often when he’d been her Deputy Weyrleader. “We’ll go to his weyr. He won’t be expecting that.”

It wasn’t the resolution Sh’zon had been hoping for, but it was a reprieve, of sorts. Trebruth would be helpless to resist a queen’s coercion. Still, as he and H’ned flanked Valonna on the way out of her office, he wished he could send M’ric some sort of warning. He couldn’t, of course. Shimpath would certainly be listening for any communication Trebruth either sent or received. The fact that there was probably nothing Sh’zon could say that would prepare M’ric any more than he’d already prepared himself didn’t make him feel any better about it.

Trebruth wasn’t on his ledge. The undersized brown dragon was curled up on the couch inside the weyr. He regarded them with eyes still slow and green, but on the distinctly yellow side of that colour. Sh’zon risked a hard stare at him. He didn’t say anything, or even think in words, but he hoped Trebruth would get the message.

Inside the weyr, M’ric was sitting at the table with his leather-working kit open and a piece of harness spread out in front of him. If it hadn’t been for the stern and stony-faced presence of S’rannis, standing stiffly by the archway to the outside, the scene might have been perfectly normal. But even as M’ric looked up from what he was doing, Sh’zon recognised the subtle signs of tension in his shoulders and in the lines of his face. However good a show he put on, M’ric was afraid.

And that made Sh’zon afraid.

“Weyrleader,” S’rannis said, straightening unnecessarily to attention. “Weyrwoman. And, uh…”

“Weyrleader will do fine, Wingsecond,” Sh’zon said shortly.

“Weyrleader,” S’rannis said obediently, but his attention was on H’ned.

“Anything to report, S’rannis?” H’ned asked.

“No, sir. He’s just been greasing harness.”

S’rannis’ eyes pleaded for some explanation, but H’ned only nodded. “Thank you. You can go.”

“But –”

“Weyrleader Sh’zon and I will take it from here.”

M’ric had set his harness aside and was wiping oil from his hands with a cloth. Once S’rannis had gone, he rose from his chair. His face expressed surprise to see Sh’zon, but his eyes didn’t. “What’s this all about?” he asked, with just the right amount of perplexed concern. “S’rannis wouldn’t say why we’ve been confined to quarters.”

“Sit down, M’ric,” Sh’zon said, and then turned to H’ned and Valonna. “If you’ll let me…”

He moved the three vacant chairs around so that they all faced M’ric across the table. He took the centre one himself and gestured for Valonna and H’ned to take the pair slightly behind him. He leaned his elbows on the table and stared at M’ric, hoping he could read his expression. “There’ve been some allegations made against you, M’ric.”

“Allegations of what? And by whom?”

“Murder,” Sh’zon said, before H’ned or Valonna could say timing. “You’ve been accused of murder.”

To anyone who didn’t know him well, M’ric’s expression of pure, uncomprehending shock would probably have been convincing. Sh’zon was nearly convinced himself. M’ric looked blankly at him, then at Valonna and H’ned. “Is this…” He started to smile. “This is some kind of joke?”

“Do we look like we’re joking?” H’ned asked.

The half-smile fell from M’ric’s face. He continued to look from one to another, his dark eyes moving quickly. “Murder,” he said, and coughed, as though the word caught unfamiliarly in his mouth. “Faranth. Murder? How can you… I mean… Faranth, has someone died?”

“T’kamen,” said H’ned.

M’ric blinked. “But… He disappeared months ago. Has…has a body been found?”

“No,” H’ned said, “but you’ve been accused of his murder nonetheless.”

“Did you do it, M’ric?” Sh’zon asked, angling his body forwards. “Did you kill T’kamen?”

“No! Faranth, Sh’zon, of course I didn’t kill him!” M’ric looked as appalled at the notion as Sh’zon could have hoped he would. “Faranth’s teeth, I…” He raked a hand through his hair, looking totally bewildered. “Why would I do such a thing? Who would think I could?”

Sh’zon didn’t know if H’ned had Izath pressing Trebruth to confirm if M’ric was speaking the truth, but he assumed he was. “Then you weren’t the last person to see him the day he disappeared?”

“I don’t know,” said M’ric. “I suppose I could have been.”

“Then you did see him?” H’ned asked.

M’ric looked straight at him. “Yes, I saw him. He was intending to come and observe Ops on night manoeuvres, but he had a lot on that night, so we rescheduled… Weyrleader, you and Sh’zon asked me about this the day it happened, and I told you what I knew then…honestly, I’ve probably forgotten the exact details between then and now…”

“All right, M’ric,” H’ned interrupted him.

“And you didn’t kill him,” Sh’zon said, “or hurt him in any way, or…lay a finger on him?”

“Faranth, no,” M’ric said. “I’d never hurt anyone. Least of all another dragonrider. Least of all the Weyrleader.”

Sh’zon turned in his seat to look at H’ned. “Kawanth says Trebruth says he’s telling the truth.”

“Izath says the same,” said H’ned. He looked towards Valonna. “Weyrwoman, I think –”

Valonna’s face was unreadable as she looked at M’ric. “Brown rider,” she said quietly, “what do you know about timing?”

Sh’zon’s heart sank.

M’ric met the Weyrwoman’s gaze guilelessly. “Timing?”

“Going between times,” said Valonna.

“I…know it can be done,” said M’ric. “I know it’s dangerous.”

“Do you know it’s against Madellon law?” H’ned asked.

“Yes,” M’ric replied. “It’s against the law of the Peninsula, too,” he added, glancing at Sh’zon.

“That it is,” Sh’zon agreed, “and I don’t know of a Weyr on Pern that isn’t the same…”

But Valonna wouldn’t be distracted from her line of questioning. “Have you ever done it, M’ric? Gone between times?”

M’ric went fractionally more still. He hesitated a moment, and then said, “Weyrwoman, I’m not the only rider in this room who has.”

Sh’zon gaped. He hadn’t expected that answer, or for M’ric to implicate him so blatantly. Nor had H’ned, by his indignant response. “What? Explain yourself, brown rider!”

“My apologies, Weyrleader,” said M’ric. “But…” He looked at Sh’zon. “Look, maybe it doesn’t happen so much at Madellon. But at the Peninsula, almost every weyrling dragonpair slips a few hours at some point. You place the sun too specifically in your visual on your way home across a timezone or two, and you arrive three hours later than you intended…”

“Is this true, Sh’zon?” H’ned demanded.

Sh’zon let out the breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding. “Aye,” he said. “Me and Kawanth did slip a time or two as weyrlings. You don’t think of it as timing, so much as…well, cocking up, if you’ll excuse my language, Valonna.”

I never did,” said H’ned, as if he were offended by the implication that he and his precious bronze could have been so careless.

Undeterred, Valonna pressed, “Have you ever gone between times deliberately, M’ric?”

“Deliberately?” M’ric asked. “You mean by my own choice?” He shook his head. “No.”

Sh’zon braced himself for the uproar from Izath at least, Shimpath at worst, at that bare-faced lie. It didn’t come. He was baffled for a moment, and then he recalled what M’ric had said the day before Ipith’s mating flight. I didn’t decide. I never decide. I never choose to time it, or to when. M’ric wasn’t lying. He was plotting a circuitous route around the truth, but he wasn’t lying. You clever bastard. You might just fly us out from under this tangle yet.

“Then you didn’t time it back to the day of Shimpath’s Hatching in 91?” Valonna asked.

M’ric looked as puzzled as Sh’zon felt – genuinely puzzled, Sh’zon thought. “Shimpath’s Hatching? No. I can’t think why I’d want to?” He cocked his head expectantly.

Valonna frowned. “You didn’t go back to bring C’mine and Darshanth back through time to the present?”

“C’mine and Darshanth?” M’ric really did look baffled. “I don’t know C’mine all that well. I’d heard he’d had some difficulties getting over the death of his weyrmate, and that he’s not working with the weyrlings any more, but…” He shrugged, plainly at a loss.

“Faranth, Valonna,” H’ned said suddenly, forgetting not to look at the Weyrwoman. “You don’t think C’mine could have been behind T’kamen going missing…all the timing he’s been doing…”

“C’mine loved T’kamen,” Valonna told him curtly. “And it wasn’t C’mine who accused M’ric of being involved in the Weyrleader’s disappearance.”

“Then – pardon me, Weyrwoman – who is?” M’ric asked. Again, he looked sincerely bewildered. “I don’t know why anyone would suggest such a thing.”

Valonna looked uncomfortable. “I don’t think we should say.”

“Don’t I have a right to know who’s been making accusations against me?” M’ric asked.

“I don’t know…” said Valonna.

“He has a point,” said H’ned. “He’s been accused of some very serious things. And by a non-rider. It’s not right that a dragonrider should have no recourse –”

But M’ric had raised his head mid-way through H’ned’s sentence. “A non-rider,” he said softly, and then, after a long moment of frozen disbelief, his face contorted into sorrow. “Oh Faranth. Saren.”

Valonna stiffened, and turned to H’ned, looking furious. “I told you we shouldn’t say anything!”

“I didn’t!” H’ned protested.

“M’ric,” Sh’zon growled. The last thing either of them needed was for M’ric to lose his masterful grip on the situation when they were so close to being free of it.

“You’d be within your rights to make a charge of false accusation against her,” said H’ned.

“Sarenya wouldn’t have made the allegation if she didn’t believe it to be true,” Valonna told him.

“No one’s making a charge against Sarenya,” M’ric said, cutting across them both with a finality that verged on the insubordinate. “With all she’s gone through, everything she’s lost… I don’t blame her. Faranth. I’ve let her down so badly.”

“Why would she make these allegations up, M’ric?” Valonna asked. With both C’mine’s and Sarenya’s credibility in shreds, some of the force seemed to have gone out of her.

“Does it matter?” H’ned intervened. “A woman scorned; am I right, M’ric?”

“No, Weyrleader,” M’ric replied. He sounded heartsick. “The fault was entirely mine.”

“That being so, I won’t have a rider’s honour being called into question by a non-rider,” H’ned said. He held up a hand to Valonna. “And matters of reputation fall squarely in my bailiwick, Weyrwoman. The Beastcrafthall has done enough damage to Madellon. I’m not having some overwrought journeyman running around my Weyr making up malicious lies about my riders.”

“H’ned –” Valonna began.

“Faranth knows, respect for the Weyr is thin enough on the ground already without tolerating this sort of insult,” H’ned went on, warming to his subject. “And we’ve put up with it for too long. Not any more. I’m taking a stand. The Beastcrafthall can have this woman back – between with her contract – and I’ll make sure they know exactly why she was ejected.”

M’ric was looking horrified. “You’ll ruin her career!”

“She should have thought of that before she decided to accuse you of killing the Weyrleader,” said H’ned. “If we don’t make an example of people like her, we’ll never get out from under this disrespect that Pern has for the Interval Weyr.”

“That’ll do, H’ned,” Sh’zon said. He could see something terrible building in M’ric’s eyes. “We get the idea.”

“Too much compromise!” H’ned continued, ignoring him. “Too many Weyrwoman willing to sell their dragons’ dignity for a few extra marks they should have been entitled to anyway! Too many weak Weyrleaders too frightened to stand up for their riders with Hold and Hall! And yes, that means you at the Peninsula, Sh’zon; you and your Weyrwoman! And T’kamen, too, Valonna! What did he even achieve in his fleeting tenure except selling all of us down the river to fatten the purses of his blue and green rider friends?”

Sh’zon saw M’ric start to move, but he was still too late to stop him.

M’ric threw himself across the table at H’ned, sending the Weyrleader crashing backwards on his chair and following him down. “You pathetic piece of shit!” he snarled, seizing the front of H’ned’s shirt and shaking the suddenly shocked and gaping Weyrleader like a dragon with a wherry. Distantly, Izath was bugling in distress. “You’re not fit to clean T’kamen’s boots! Your dragon will never fly a queen! History will barely even remember your name, you pompous, petty little bastard!”

Sh’zon found himself dragging M’ric off H’ned. He was shouting at them both, though he didn’t know what he was saying. A pained yelp from nearby was probably Trebruth, suffering beneath Shimpath’s displeasure. Sh’zon outweighed M’ric in bone and muscle, but M’ric was fearsomely strong with rage. Sh’zon had never seen him so furious. He’d rarely even seen him angry. But he manhandled him off H’ned, leaving M’ric with a torn handful of shirt and H’ned dishevelled and disbelieving of what had just happened to him.

He shoved M’ric away, interposing himself between him and H’ned. “You all right, Valonna?” he asked, not daring to take his eyes off M’ric for more than a second to check for himself.

Then he had to, when Valonna didn’t reply straightaway. “Weyrwoman?”

Valonna was sitting very still on her chair, looking at M’ric.

H’ned struggled to his feet, gasping. “You’re finished, brown rider!” he bawled at M’ric. “You’re finished!”

“Be quiet,” Valonna said, and Shimpath must have reinforced the command, because H’ned shut up immediately. She tilted her head, still looking at M’ric. “How do you know how history will remember H’ned?”

M’ric’s chest was heaving with his exertions, but the wrath had faded from his eyes. Sh’zon interceded. “Figure of speech, Valonna,” he said, “surely…”

“Be quiet, Sh’zon,” Valonna told him, and Sh’zon didn’t need Shimpath sitting on Kawanth to close his mouth. “How do you know, M’ric?”

M’ric shook his head.

“Have you gone between times to find out what’s going to happen in the future?” Valonna asked.

Sh’zon could see the strain on M’ric’s face increasing as Shimpath exerted force on Trebruth, but M’ric set his jaw, and shook his head.

Valonna rose from her seat. She approached M’ric, brushing Sh’zon aside. “Have you used timing to make marks gambling on runner races?”

M’ric’s expression was agony. He staggered where he stood as Trebruth’s low keen of anguish rang discordantly around the weyr, and then said, hoarsely, “Yes.”

Valonna recoiled – in surprise or disgust, Sh’zon didn’t know – and then steadied herself with a hand on the corner of the table. “Have you used timing to better your situation, or the situation of others close to you?”

“Yes,” M’ric said. He didn’t look at Sh’zon as he said it.

Valonna took a deep breath. “Were you timing on the day T’kamen disappeared?”

“Yes.”

She had his measure now, Sh’zon realised, with a sick feeling in the depths of his gut. M’ric might dance around the facts, and he could turn a half-truth to his advantage, but he couldn’t answer falsely to a direct question while Shimpath was poised over his dragon, and Valonna knew it. “Do you know what happened to him?”

“Yes,” said M’ric.

“What did you do to him?” Valonna asked.

“I didn’t hurt him.”

“What did you do?”

“I didn’t hurt him!”

Tell me, M’ric!” she ordered him, and all of Shimpath’s strength was behind her command.

M’ric went to his knees, crushed by the force of the queen dragon’s mind, crushed by his own dragon’s suffering. He raised his head slowly to meet Valonna’s stare, his every movement an ordeal under the full focus of Shimpath’s titanic will. “No.”

Valonna flinched, and suddenly the tremendous pressure of queenly will that filled the confined space was gone. “What do you mean, no?”

M’ric swayed where he knelt. “Do what you want to me,” he panted. “Do what you want to Trebruth. It doesn’t matter. We won’t talk.”

Sh’zon had never seen a scene like it: M’ric brought low but still unbroken; Valonna uncomprehending that a brown rider could defy her queen; H’ned still reeling from his own reprimand.

Then Valonna said, “Sh’zon. H’ned.” She snapped their names out hard enough to bite her tongue. “Restrain him. Restrain Trebruth. And search this weyr. Tear it apart if you have to.”

She was almost in tears, Sh’zon realised. “What are we looking for?” H’ned asked. His voice still sounded thick and slow from the mental slap Shimpath had dealt Izath.”

“Something. Anything!” Valonna voice wavered before she got control over it. “If there’s any evidence of what he did to T’kamen, I want it found!”

There was no refusing her. Sh’zon used part of the fighting harness M’ric had been greasing to bind his hands behind his back. M’ric looked mutely at up him, his eyes dull, but Sh’zon didn’t dare say anything. He hauled him to his feet and then pushed him unresistingly into a chair. “Stay there and don’t move!”

H’ned had already begun to turn over the weyr, pulling out drawers and upending them onto the floor. Sh’zon joined him, making a good show of it: stripping M’ric’s bed to its bare frame, rifling through the collection of slates and hides in the record case, pulling clothes from their rail and searching the niche where they had hung. He didn’t think they’d find anything. M’ric was too clever, too careful, to have left anything incriminating hanging around in plain view.

He was only half right.

“What’s this?” H’ned cried suddenly, triumphantly. He’d been throwing items out of the chest at the foot of M’ric’s bed. As Valonna and Sh’zon crowded around to see, H’ned rattled what seemed to be the base of the chest. “I think this is a false bottom,” he said. “Give me that beveller from his tool kit.”

Unhappily, Sh’zon handed over the narrow blade. H’ned wedged it in the crack between the bottom and side of the chest and then levered up the entire base plate. He threw the beveller aside, got his fingers under the false panel, and pulled it out of the chest. Then he reached into the shallow space it had concealed and pulled out a book, bound in worn grey leather, and a pouch that rattled with the sound of mark pieces. Wordlessly, H’ned handed the book up to Valonna.

She took it from him with hands that visibly shook. She opened the cover. Sh’zon caught a glimpse over her shoulder of pages filled edge to edge with writing, but although the neatly inked marks looked familiar, they didn’t form any words he recognised. “What is it?”

“This is a cipher,” Valonna said slowly. She traced her finger down the page. “This is T’kamen’s cipher.” She looked blankly at Sh’zon. “He used it to make notes he wanted to keep private.”

That was where Sh’zon knew it from: the incomprehensible nonsense scrawled in T’kamen’s workmanlike handwriting in the margins of a dozen records. But the hand that had inscribed these marks wasn’t T’kamen’s. “Can you read it?”

Valonna shook her head. Her face was tight with frustration. “He never showed me how.”

Sh’zon turned to M’ric, bound and silent in the chair where he’d shoved him. “Is this yours?” he demanded. M’ric didn’t reply, and Sh’zon turned back to Valonna. “Does anyone else know how to read this cipher?”

“C’los invented it,” Valonna said, “but…”

“Weyrwoman!” H’ned interrupted them suddenly.

He had emptied the contents of the cloth pouch onto the table. The mark pieces – ones, twos, even fives – were mostly Beastcraft bullmarks, with a few treemarks, and odd coins from most of the other major Crafts among them. But it was the heavy silver ring lying on top of the money that made Sh’zon, with all he knew about M’ric’s clandestine activities, catch his breath.

Valonna picked it up and turned the flat face of it to the light. Greenish glowlight described the deep grooves etched in the metal, picking out the dominant letter M clasped in a dragon’s talons. “This is a copy of the Weyrleader’s signet ring.”

They all stared at it for a moment as the enormity of the implications sank in.

“He must have been falsifying documents,” said H’ned. He was shaking off his shock; but for his torn shirt and unkempt hair, he nearly sounded himself again. “Shaffing shards –”

“The narlbark,” Valonna said across him, silencing H’ned. She turned incredulous eyes to M’ric. “You used this to buy narlbark. For P’raima.”

M’ric didn’t deny it. He didn’t say anything. He just stared back at her from where he slumped in the armchair where Sh’zon had put him.

“Is this true?” Sh’zon found himself shouting. He advanced on M’ric, fury suddenly overriding his caution, and seized him by the collar. “Were you working with P’raima? Did you help poison us? Were you involved in kidnapping Tarshe?”

“Sh’zon!” Valonna shouted.

Kawanth shuddered beneath Shimpath’s reprimand, and Sh’zon let M’ric go. He stared at the man he’d known for so long; the man he’d never truly known. “You traitor,” he whispered disbelievingly. “You filthy snake traitor!”

“You’d better start talking,” H’ned told M’ric. There was a hysterical edge to his tone. His pale eyes were almost bulging with outrage. “Or it’s Westisle for you!”

“No,” said Valonna. Her tone was hollow, flat, her face pale. “The sentence for a brown rider for murder and high treason isn’t Exile. It’s Separation.”

M’ric’s eyes flickered. It was the first expression Sh’zon had seen on his face since he’d refused Shimpath’s command to speak. Separation. The sentence even P’raima had feared. The sentence that made exile to the bleak dragonrider penal settlement of Westisle seem desirable. M’ric would be placed, alone, on one barren island. Trebruth would be placed on another, and compelled by a queen never to speak to him and never to leave. If the unbearable loneliness of complete and permanent division from one another didn’t kill them, hunger or exposure soon would. There was no capital punishment for dragonriders in the way that a non-rider could be staked out for Thread, or hanged by the neck in an Interval, but Separation was a death sentence in all but name.

But didn’t M’ric deserve it? Hadn’t he committed treason? Hadn’t he lied to everyone – including Sh’zon himself? Hadn’t he forged Madellon documents? Hadn’t he colluded with the most monstrous Weyrleader Pern had ever known?

He says he didn’t kill anyone, said Kawanth. And Trebruth does not deserve to die.

“Why did you do it, M’ric?” H’ned asked. “What did you have to gain by working with P’raima? By getting rid of T’kamen?”

“I have nothing to tell you,” said M’ric.

“What do you think you have to lose?” H’ned snapped. “Talk and we’ll consider Exile. Otherwise, like the Weyrwoman said, you’ll never see or hear Trebruth again.”

M’ric’s resolve didn’t waver. “You’ll do what you have to do.”

“Whoever you’re protecting –”

M’ric laughed. It was a terrible, incongruous sound, devoid of mirth.

“You find this funny?” H’ned demanded.

And then it struck Sh’zon. He’s protecting me. He swallowed back the bile in his throat. M’ric wouldn’t talk because doing so would implicate him. He was throwing himself in front of Thread for Sh’zon’s sake.

Sh’zon couldn’t let him do that.

“Talk, M’ric,” he growled, fixing him with his most penetrating glare. “No matter who it hurts. No one’s worth losing you dragon over. No one.”

M’ric returned the look, and in that instant Sh’zon knew that he grasped his meaning, and was grateful for it. But then he said, “I can’t.”

H’ned snatched up the book with its coded pages. “We’ll decipher this sooner or later, M’ric. Whatever you’re hiding won’t stay hidden for long, and you’ll be rotting on an island somewhere with nothing but the wind for company!”

“C’mine,” Valonna said suddenly.

They all looked at her.

“C’mine will be able to read the cipher,” she said. “He and C’los and T’kamen used to leave each other notes in code when they were boys.”

“Well, let’s get him down here now,” said H’ned. He pointed a finger at M’ric. “Last chance to talk, brown rider, while you still can!”

“For the love of your dragon, M’ric,” Sh’zon begged him. “Just tell us what you know. You’ve nothing to lose.”

But M’ric wasn’t looking at him. He wasn’t looking at anyone. He was staring intently into thin air, his brows drawn together in thought.

Then he refocused. He looked not at H’ned, nor at Sh’zon, but at Valonna. “Bring me C’mine. I’ll talk to him. And no one else.”

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