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Chapter seventy-four: C’mine

Where a Justice concerns matters that would be harmful if disclosed to the Weyr, the Weyrleader or Weyrwoman may move to hear the Justice in private rather than in public. In such cases, Weyrwoman and Weyrleader must be joined by three Council bronze riders, chosen by lot, to hear the case.

In lesser cases, a simple majority vote is sufficient to deliver a guilty verdict. In capital cases where the potential sentence is Exile or Separation, a unanimous verdict is preferred. If unanimity cannot be reached a majority of four-to-one may be accepted; however, this is not ideal, as doubt will remain as to whether or not true justice has been served.

– Excerpt from Madellon Weyr’s Legal Code

100.05.18 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
MADELLON WEYR

C'mine (Micah Johnson)“Why me?” C’mine asked, even before B’ward, the Wingsecond on guard, had closed the outer door behind him and turned the rusty key in its lock.

M’ric rose from the bench inside the single cell that comprised Madellon’s gaol, moving stiffly. That didn’t surprise C’mine. There was no padding, and the seat was neither wide enough for someone to lie down on it, nor long enough for a tall man like M’ric to stretch out. Besides the bench and the sturdy wooden bars, the only other features of the cell were a bucket in the corner and a single glow-basket, dimly supplied. The ventilation shaft that permitted fresh air to circulate even here, deep in the bowels of the lower caverns, might have allowed a snake to slither through, but nothing larger than that. There was nonetheless an odour of damp, of stale disuse, and overlaying it, fresher and ranker, the smell of a man’s sweat.

“Why me?” C’mine asked again, more insistently, when M’ric didn’t answer straightaway. He’d asked the same question of Valonna when she’d relayed M’ric’s request to him the previous day and she hadn’t had an answer for him. The question had kept him fretfully awake all night in equal parts perplexity and anger, but now he was here, M’ric’s slowness to answer made the anger dominate. “Well? Don’t you have anything to say? Aren’t you going to explain yourself?” He held the leather-bound book that the Weyrwoman had given him up against the bars of the cell. “Aren’t you going to explain this?”

“I’ll explain everything, C’mine,” M’ric said. He spoke softly. “It’s only that I hardly know where to begin.”

“Did you kill T’kamen?” C’mine asked. Emotion made his voice unsteady.

M’ric met his gaze unblinkingly. “No. I didn’t kill T’kamen.” Then a shadow crossed his face, and he looked away. “But I did betray him.”

The word seemed odd, with what C’mine knew of the minimal relationship that had existed between T’kamen and M’ric. “Where is he now? Is he still alive?”

“He was alive the last time I saw him.”

“But did you put him in harm’s way?”

M’ric paused, and then said, “Yes.”

“Where is he?” C’mine asked again. “For Faranth’s sake, M’ric! I know you didn’t like him, but –”

“I didn’t like T’kamen,” M’ric interrupted. “He was the finest rider, the best leader, and the most honest man I ever knew. I didn’t like him, C’mine. I loved him.”

“You hardly knew him!”

“I knew him when I was a boy,” said M’ric. “When I was angry, and insecure, and far too convinced of my own cleverness.” He almost smiled, a terribly sad expression. “He never entirely cured me of that last one.”

C’mine looked at him in complete bafflement. “But you’re older than him! You’re from the Peninsula! You –”

“Timing,” M’ric said simply, and when C’mine broke off, he added, “It all comes down to timing. When, and how, and why. And why I asked to talk to you, C’mine. Because you’ve gone between times. Deliberately. Knowingly. So Darshanth can keep you safe from what I’m going to tell you.”

“Safe from what?”

“Time,” said M’ric. “Because time protects itself, and it doesn’t care who it has to hurt to do it.”

The part of C’mine’s mind that was only human had no idea what M’ric was talking about. But the part that was twined inextricably with Darshanth quivered with a shock of instinctive comprehension. Does he mean…?

Listen to him, said Darshanth.

A chair had been placed outside the cell, and C’mine sat down, the book on his lap. Within the cell, M’ric eased back down onto his uncomfortable-looking bench. “Tell me everything,” C’mine said.

“I need something from you first,” said M’ric. “I need your word that you’ll hear me out completely before you tell anyone else what I’m going to tell you. Otherwise I can’t tell you anything.”

H’ned had told C’mine not to let M’ric take advantage of him. “If he refuses to answer a question, or he tries to bargain with you, or threaten you, you just remind him what’s at stake.”

“If you won’t talk, you’ll be Justiced and sentenced to Separation,” C’mine said. He almost couldn’t bear to say the terrible word. Aghast though he’d been by the revelation that M’ric had been involved in T’kamen’s disappearance, the idea of being a party to the forcible division of a rider from his dragon filled him with visceral horror.

“Then I’ll be sentenced to Separation. But I won’t talk without your promise.”

C’mine didn’t know what was compelling M’ric to prize his discretion over his own dragon, but he couldn’t bear the dreadful resolve in his eyes. “All right,” he said. “I won’t repeat anything until I’ve heard you out.”

Some of the tension seemed to go out of M’ric. “Thank you,” he said. “I hope to make you understand why I needed that promise.” He leaned his head back against the bare stone wall for a moment. Then he took a breath. “I was born in the eighth Turn of the Eighth Pass.”

C’mine looked at him without comprehension. “You mean the Seventh Pass?”

“I mean the Eighth Pass.”

“But that hasn’t happened yet. It won’t happen for another hundred Turns.”

“I came back between times,” said M’ric.

“You timed it by a hundred Turns?”

“Almost a hundred and fifty.”

C’mine stared at him through the bars. Knowing M’ric had been timing was one thing. The claim that he had made a jump between times of more a century was something else. C’mine had thought his own trips of ten and twelve Turns dangerous enough. The idea of travelling more than ten times as far made him feel queasy. “A hundred…and fifty…Turns?”

“Give or take,” said M’ric.

C’mine groped for a suitable response. “Why?”

“Because I had to.” M’ric sighed. “That’s not a good answer. I’m sorry. Let me start this from the beginning. My beginning, anyway. I was born at Fiver Hold in eastern Madellon territory. My father was a blue rider of Starfall Weyr, but when I was fifteen I was Searched to Madellon, where I Impressed Trebruth.”

Starfall Weyr?”

“It won’t be founded until about twenty Turns from now.”

“And Fiver Hold?”

“It goes by a different name now, and it’s still in Peninsula territory. The borders will change quite a bit between now and the Pass. A lot of things will change. The Pern I grew up in was very different to how it is now. By the time I Impressed Trebruth, no dragon had gone between in sixty Turns.”

“Then our weyrlings…”

“Were only the first,” said M’ric. “No dragonet Hatched from now on will be able to go between and come out the other side.”

It was such a terrible, desperate thought that C’mine briefly couldn’t take it in. “Then, you mean,” he said, “it can’t be fixed – we can’t put it right?”

“Not here,” said M’ric. “Not now.”

“Then…” C’mine swallowed hard. He’d just assumed that L’stev and the other Weyrlingmasters would eventually get to the bottom of the problem with between. “Then we have to tell the other Weyrs. Before any more weyrlings die trying –”

M’ric sprang from his bench to seize the bars emphatically with both hands. “Remember your promise, C’mine!”

“But –”

Remember your promise!”

C’mine flinched back from his fierceness. “All right. All right.”

M’ric released the bars and slowly sat down again. “Pern will be very different without between,” he said. “I don’t think anyone here yet has any idea of just how different. And Madellon will be at the centre of it all.”

C’mine listened, torn between incredulity and fascination, as M’ric told him of a Pern made almost unrecognisable by the loss of between; of how the devastating casualties of the early Pass led to the rise of a revolutionary blue rider, S’leondes, and in his wake the overturning of traditional Weyr hierarchies; of a Madellon divided along colour lines, with blues and greens venerated for their heroics, bronzes and browns relegated to an inglorious supporting role. And of a young man with dreams of riding a blue who had, instead, Impressed the first and only brown dragonet ever to Hatch from the egg of a fertile green dragon.

“I believed I was the most overlooked, underappreciated, friendless rider on Pern, and if you’ll forgive a degree of youthful self-importance, I wasn’t far from the mark,” M’ric said. “I burned to fight Thread with the Tactical Wings, but the fighting riders wouldn’t trust a brown rider, and the bronzes and browns of the Seventh Flight despised me for a traitor to my colour. I was caught between their two worlds, no place for me in either. I didn’t help myself. I was seventeen, and too keen to prove my worth, and not nearly as clever as I thought I was. I was a disaster in the making. But then something happened.

“Trebruth and I had nearly finished our training when, one Threadfall day, we were summoned out to Madellon West Weyrstation at Rift Valley. I remember thinking it must be some sort of test. But when I got there, there was an enormous bronze dragon in the valley, and I was told that his rider was asking for me. His name was T’kamen.”

“Faranth,” said C’mine. “So he did slip between times!”

M’ric nodded. “He didn’t have the softest of landings in the Pass, in any sense. But his injuries healed. He convinced the riders of Madellon that he wasn’t a raving madman. He even took a position in the Seventh Flight.”

“But why didn’t he try to come back?”

“Because Epherineth found he could no longer navigate between, any more than all the other dragons of the Pass could,” said M’ric. “And then T’kamen discovered records showing that he never returned to his own time, and he realised that trying would be futile. Or fatal.”

C’mine closed his eyes. His chest hurt with a jumble of emotions: anguish, that T’kamen was truly lost to them; relief that he had not died; hope that his oldest friend had made a new life for himself in the future. “He always said he wished he’d been born during the Pass. He always wanted the chance to test himself against Thread.”

“He was a bronze rider,” M’ric said. “And Epherineth was the biggest dragon anyone had ever seen. It took time for them to adjust to their new status. Although even saying that implies that they did. I’ve never met a rider less tolerant of injustice, or more willing to spend himself in the service of others.” There was an odd tone in his voice; the echo of a young man’s zealous adoration, perhaps, tempered by an older man’s self-awareness. He met C’mine’s eye, as if conscious of how it sounded. “Or more short-tempered in a friend’s defence.

“He had no reason to help me. He had every reason not to, based on the M’ric he already knew. And I was a cocky little bastard of a weyrling. He didn’t like me much at first. But he took me on. He gave me a chance when no one else ever had. He wouldn’t put up with any whershit from me, but he never judged me for the colour of my dragon’s hide, or for the direction of my ambitions. And he wouldn’t stand for it when anyone else did.”

Every word rang so true that C’mine felt his throat constrict. “That was T’kamen,” he said. “He was always that way, right from when we were boys together, before we’d even dreamed of being Searched.” Then he suddenly recalled the book, forgotten in his lap. “He taught you our cipher.”

M’ric nodded. “He used it to keep notes. I tried to decode it myself, but I didn’t get far.”

“You wouldn’t have,” C’mine said. He found himself smiling, though it hurt. “C’los invented it.”

“Kamen often spoke of him as the cleverest man he’d ever known,” said M’ric. He exhaled a long breath. “He trusted me with the secret. I’ve never forgotten it.”

C’mine touched the book. “I can’t read this,” he said. “You use the same symbols, but a different keyword, don’t you?”

“Yes,” said M’ric. “I had to be sure I was the only one who could decode it.”

C’mine’s doubts about the veracity of M’ric’s claims were ebbing away. “But how did you get back to the Interval, if even Epherineth couldn’t go between in the Pass?”

“T’kamen figured it out,” M’ric said. He pointed with his thumb towards his own shoulder. “Because she was missing.”

It was a moment before C’mine grasped his meaning. “Your fire-lizard?”

M’ric met his eyes. “Remember your promise.”

“It’s fire-lizards?” C’mine asked. He could hardly believe the implication. “Fire-lizards?”

“It’s not that straightforward,” said M’ric. “Even Kamen didn’t like Epherineth going between with only Fetch to pilot them.”

“Fetch?”

“His fire-lizard.”

“Kamen couldn’t stand fire-lizards.”

“I know,” said M’ric. “But his guidance was the only way Epherineth could navigate between in the Pass.” His eyes went briefly distant. “The strange thing was that when we came back to the Interval, Trebruth discovered that he could travel between without Agusta’s help.”

C’mine was still struggling to take in the frivolity of the solution. “But why did you come back to the Interval, and not Kamen?”

“T’kamen knew he never made it back,” said M’ric. “There was no record anywhere of his returning to the Interval. He knew that meant he never had. But he also knew that I had travelled back in time to become the M’ric he had known.”

“He told you?”

“Yes. I didn’t believe him for a long time. I wanted to, but it didn’t seem even slightly plausible until he intuited the fire-lizard connection.

“But I started to find myself in old records from the Peninsula. Nothing major, nothing significant, but a passing mention in a drill muster, or a note that Trebruth and I had conveyed a passenger. The chance of there having been another brown dragonpair with exactly the same names as Trebruth and me seemed…well, eventually, less likely than the possibility that T’kamen was right. And eventually, I uncovered a record of my own arrival in the eighty-first Turn of the Interval, not far from Sixer Hold, in Peninsula territory.”

“Sixer,” C’mine began, and then made the connection. “Fiver Hold.”

“They say you can’t go home again,” M’ric said, with a shade of irony. He shook his head. “I thought I was so clever for figuring it out. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have come back between times when I did. I’ve always wished that I’d spent more time in the Pass, but, as I’ve come to understand, it was out of my hands.”

“What happened?” C’mine asked.

“We went between without a visual,” said M’ric. “And the first reference my panicking brain could produce was the one I’d just read about in my home Hold’s records, describing the day in Interval 81 when a strange brown dragon appeared out of nowhere to the west of the hoodoos.”

“Then –” C’mine began.

“No.” M’ric interrupted him. “I haven’t told all of the truth.” He took a long deep breath and let it all out. “It was my own fault. Not because I was careless in Fall that day. Not because Trebruth was, Faranth knows. But because I’d made the biggest, stupidest, most unforgivable mistake of my life, not just sevendays, but months before. I’d betrayed the trust of the best man I’ve ever known.”

M’ric didn’t speak again for a long time. His eyes were dark pits of ancient self-loathing, of decades-old shame, of fathomless regret. Into that bleak vacuum of reflexive recrimination, C’mine said, “You betrayed T’kamen.”

“Some would say that I was punished for it,” M’ric said. His tone had gone hollow, empty. “I tend to disagree.” He looked at nothing for a moment. “It was a while between the point when Kamen and I Impressed our fire-lizards and him working out how to actually use them to help pilot our dragons between. During that time, I completed my weyrling training. I was so desperate to fight Thread. I knew that, however skilled Trebruth was, however well I did on my assessments, we’d never be assigned to a fighting Wing. We were the wrong colour. It was that simple. And I couldn’t bear it. I didn’t sleep at all the night before our final assessment for thinking about how we’d be posted to the Seventh. I went to see T’kamen, to ask his advice. He said in my position he’d have done anything at all. Faranth forgive me, it’s the one piece of counsel I wish he’d never given me. Because I did exactly what he said. I made a deal with S’leondes.”

“The Commander,” said C’mine, uncertainly.

“No one else knew that T’kamen was trying to rediscover between at that point,” said M’ric. “I thought S’leondes would want to know. Stupid boy that I was, I thought he’d be pleased. I remember making the case to him that once dragons were able to go between again there’d be no reason for browns and bronzes not to fight Thread, and that allowing me combat experience now would give him a Wingleader he could trust in the future.” He shook his head. “I was such an arrogant little shit. S’leondes promised me a chance in the Wings if I continued to report to him in private about T’kamen’s experiments with between. I sharding near bit his hand off.

“S’leondes tapped me to his own Wing.” M’ric bared his teeth in the parody of a smile. “It was the proudest day of my life. And Kamen was proud of me. That only made it worse. I convinced myself that it justified the fact that I was spying on him. Faranth, I convinced myself that S’leondes knowing what he was up to would help.

“I remember reporting to S’leondes the day T’kamen figured it out. I almost didn’t. T’kamen and Epherineth had gone between successfully, but Trebruth and I…we struggled. Having to admit that part to the Commander was difficult. I remember thinking how stony-faced he looked when I told him that T’kamen could go between with his fire-lizard’s help, but that I couldn’t. S’leondes asked me if fire-lizards were definitely the key, and then told me to keep working with T’kamen to see if Trebruth and Agusta could learn the trick too. He even made sure I had the free time to do it.

“But we were still having trouble, and sourcing more fire-lizard eggs was a problem, too. T’kamen got his hands on a pile of old records from the Peninsula and had me reading them with him, looking for answers to both problems. S’leondes asked me to cull out any documents I found that would have helped – to keep them from T’kamen, and bring them to him instead. Anything about fire-lizard eggs, anything about learning to go between.” M’ric paused. “I half obeyed him. I did hide documents from T’kamen. But I’d begun to feel uncomfortable about what S’leondes was doing with the information I’d given him. I’d started to wonder if he’d find another young rider – a blue or green rider – to Impress a fire-lizard and learn how to go between. So I kept the records I found to myself, and Trebruth and Agusta and I used them to work on mastering between by ourselves. And we finally did. We finally discovered how to go between and get out again – badly, slowly, with great effort and not a little panic – but we could do it. And like an idiot, the first thing I did was tell S’leondes.”

C’mine dreaded where the story was going. “What did he do?”

“He told me I’d done well, but that I had to keep it to myself,” said M’ric. “He asked me not to tell T’kamen, and not to do it again in our training sessions, until he’d decided on the best way forward. And that wasn’t a comfortable order for me to take, because T’kamen had been getting more and more frustrated with me and Trebruth, and I wanted to show him that we could do it. But S’leondes was my Wingleader. He was the Commander. So I did what he told me, even though I knew it was making T’kamen doubt himself. If he couldn’t teach me to go between, even with Agusta to help, then maybe he was wrong about everything. I hated seeing him second-guessing himself like that.” M’ric took a deep breath. “And then a couple of days later I did something really stupid. I got us Threadscored.”

Despite himself, C’mine recoiled at the notion. “Faranth.”

“It should have been a death sentence,” M’ric said. “To any other Eighth Pass dragonpair, it would have been. It was a bad Fall. A really bad one, in strong winds, all Thread-bombs and unpredictable tangles. It was frantic. The Wings were at full stretch, and the formations couldn’t hold. I remember glancing up and seeing dragons veering aside in both directions, and nothing but silver pouring down on us. There was someone…” He paused. “There was someone important to me in the formation below us. I remember Trebruth going vertical, almost standing on his tail, trying desperately to flame everything that was coming down on us. I remember when the Thread-bomb ignited and then shattered and rained half-burnt bits of Thread down on us. I remember Trebruth twisting and turning, trying to evade it, and I remember the Thread that got through all his flame and all his manoeuvring and hit us.”

M’ric drew a line with his finger over his own left leg. “It struck here,” he said. “Across my thigh, Trebruth’s neck, the fore neck-strap and my left-hand tether. I remember having enough time to think that it looked like a tunnel-snake had landed in my lap before it ate through my wherhides. It was like someone had poured boiling water across my leg. The tether went a moment after that. I remember the safety going taut. I remember Trebruth throwing his head back as it started to eat into his neck.”

He stopped for several moments, his eyes narrowed in the memory of pain. “And then he went between,” he said, at last. “Without a visual.”

“Trebruth dodged,” said C’mine. “Blinked.”

“He didn’t know how to blink. When we’d gone between that one time before, it had been on a visual, carefully, with Trebruth and Agusta both concentrating on where we were going. Trebruth didn’t have time for any of that. He just reacted. And the strangest thing was that I didn’t panic. I should have. We’d just been in the middle of the worst Threadfall of my life, we’d been hit, and we’d gone between blind. I had every reason to panic. I didn’t. I just sat there in the dark and the cold, thinking that at least my leg didn’t hurt any more, and waited for T’kamen and Epherineth to rescue us. It wouldn’t have been the first time.”

“But they didn’t?” C’mine asked.

M’ric shook his head. “I don’t know how long we were there. Long enough for me to start thinking that maybe we’d both been wrong all along, and the dragon who’d appeared near Fiver all those Turns ago hadn’t been Trebruth at all.” He smiled distantly. “Fiver when it had still been Sixer. That was the key. That sixth hoodoo up on the ridge. I’d dug a drawing of it out of Fiver’s records. And that’s the image Trebruth – and Agusta – grabbed onto. That’s the where and the when that they found. That’s where and when they took us.”

C’mine tried to reconcile what he knew of timing visuals – the need to find a specific, unique reference to a specific, unique moment in time – with M’ric’s account. “You went between times on a visual from a drawing?”

“I knew it could be done,” M’ric said. “I knew it had been done. And most importantly, Trebruth believed he had to do it.”

“Believed?”

M’ric’s eyes found his. “Believed,” he said. “If I’d known what I know now, about timing, about the fail-safes, about the consequences of getting it wrong…”

They sat for a moment in silence.

C’mine’s head hurt, crammed so tight with everything M’ric had told him about his origins and T’kamen’s fate and Pern’s future that he hardly had room to think. He’s telling the truth, isn’t he?

Yes, said Darshanth. He understands time almost as a dragon does.

The words gave C’mine a chill. Abruptly, he felt suffocated by the close walls of the gaol, as if the weight of the rock above and around him was pressing down upon him. “Can we stop for a minute? I just need…”

He was going to say some air, but the words caught in his throat. M’ric seemed to sense them anyway. “I understand,” he said. “It’s a lot to take in.” He leaned back against the stone wall of his cell. “Could you see about getting me something to drink?”

C’mine hadn’t noticed that M’ric’s cell didn’t even contain so much as a pitcher of water. “Of course,” he said. “I’ll ask B’ward.”

“Thank you,” said M’ric.

C’mine rose and went to the door. He’d barely lifted his knuckles from knocking before it opened. B’ward stood in the gaol doorway, looking grim. “Well?”

“He needs a drink,” C’mine explained.

B’ward threw a sceptical look over C’mine’s shoulder towards the cell. Then he gestured behind him with a jerk of his head. “The Weyrleaders want to talk to you.”

“We haven’t finished yet –”

“Still, they want to talk to you,” said B’ward. “They’re coming down now. I’ll get him some water.”

“Remember your promise!” M’ric called out hoarsely from his prison.

C’mine hated to leave M’ric with his confession half told, and yet leaving the oppressive confinement of the gaol was undeniably a relief. Going outside into the sunlight was almost giddying, and he raised his eyes to where Darshanth was resting up on the Rim. His blue had been conspicuous by his silence throughout most of M’ric’s account.

Sometimes it is better to listen than to talk.

H’ned was striding over from Izath. Valonna wasn’t far behind him, but the Weyrleader got to C’mine first. “Well? Has he talked?”

C’mine looked past H’ned towards Valonna. “He…”

“Look at me when I’m talking to you,” H’ned told him. “Has he confessed or not?”

“He’s not finished,” said C’mine.

“You’ve been in there for hours! Hasn’t he told you what he did to T’kamen yet?”

“Not exactly…”

“Well, has he explained the book?”

“No, he –”

“Then for Faranth’s sake, C’mine, what have you two been talking about?”

“H’ned,” Valonna interrupted, catching up with the Weyrleader at last. C’mine was grateful for her intervention. He’d found himself nearly on the verge of hysterical laughter. “Don’t harass C’mine. This can’t be easy for him.”

“We’re only asking him to do one thing,” H’ned said. “Get that treacherous brown rider to talk.”

“He is talking,” C’mine insisted.

“Then what –”

“H’ned!” said Valonna. She looked at C’mine, and he was struck by how much she’d changed over the last Turn. Under different circumstances he would have been delighted to see how far she’d come. “Has he told you what happened to T’kamen?”

“Sort of. I…don’t know everything yet.”

“What about his timing? Has he talked about the details of where and when he’s been?”

C’mine wrinkled his brow. “I think he has more to say on that subject.”

“Oh, for the love of…” H’ned began. “Get back in there, C’mine! Finish the sharding job!”

“C’mine isn’t the one accused here, Weyrleader,” Valonna told H’ned. “Don’t speak to him as if he’s guilty of something.”

“He might as well be,” H’ned said. “Timing is still a breach of Weyr law…”

“That’s enough,” said Valonna. “You’re not being helpful.” She took C’mine’s elbow and walked him a step or two away from the Weyrleader. “Mine. You look so pale. Are you all right?”

“M’ric’s said a lot of…startling…things,” C’mine said. “It’s a lot to take in.”

“What sort of startling things?”

“I think I need to hear everything before I can put it into…proper context,” he said. “But I believe him when he says he didn’t kill T’kamen.”

“You believe him,” said Valonna. “Would H’ned?”

“I don’t think so.”

Valonna’s expression briefly betrayed her distress. “He wants to push for Separation, C’mine. Wants it.”

“But he’d have to prove M’ric was guilty at a Justice –”

“A closed Justice,” said Valonna. “Because timing’s involved. And it only needs a majority of four-to-one to carry a verdict.”

C’mine didn’t have C’los’ instinct for politics, but he knew how Madellon’s Council operated. Every senior rider was already manoeuvring for H’ned’s favour. He’d have no trouble persuading three bronze riders to find M’ric guilty. “He doesn’t deserve to be Separated,” he said. “No one does.”

“Then you have to find a way to avert it,” said Valonna. “Get M’ric to confess to what really happened. I don’t want to have to be the instrument of separating a dragon from his rider.”

“I’ll do my best,” C’mine promised.

Valonna squeezed his arm. “Thank you.”

M’ric stood abruptly from his bench when C’mine came back into the gaol. He didn’t say anything, but his eyes spoke all the same. “I didn’t tell them anything,” C’mine said. “I just said that you were cooperating as you said you would.”

M’ric sank back down onto his bench. A cup rested on the end of the seat, and a pitcher, half full of water, had been placed on the floor on the outside of the cell. “Thank you.”

“You’ve only told half the story,” said C’mine. “I still need to know the rest. What you did when you came back to the Interval.”

M’ric nodded. His eyes were distant again. “A couple of Peninsula riders picked us up,” he said. “They got us back to the Weyr and patched us up, but they didn’t know what to make of us. They could see that our injuries were Threadscore, so they guessed I’d slipped through time, but they thought I must be from some long-ago Pass, on account of Trebruth’s size.”

“They didn’t question you?”

“Oh, they questioned me,” said M’ric. “And I talked. I told the Weyrleader, Xh’len, everything. About the Pass, about between, about fire-lizards. And about blues and greens leading the Weyr. You can probably imagine how seriously he took me. He was kind, but he thought I’d had my wits scrambled between. He wasn’t completely wrong. I’d forgotten everything T’kamen had told me about the dangers of timing, the dangers of trying to change the past with knowledge from the future. Xh’len promised me he’d look into what I’d told him, but he also counselled me not to go telling my wild tales to anyone who asked, unless I wanted to be thought peculiar.” M’ric looked sorrowful. “I wonder how many lives he saved with that piece of advice, almost as often as I wonder if Xh’len was my first victim.”

The word made C’mine’s heart lurch. “Victim?”

“Xh’len died a few days after I arrived in the Interval. They said he’d always had a weak heart.”

C’mine’s disconcertion subsided. “That couldn’t possibly have been your fault.”

M’ric didn’t dispute the point. He took a breath, then continued. “Trebruth and I were given over into the care of the Weyrlingmaster, K’tersan. We weren’t really weyrlings, but we were totally unequipped to join a Peninsula Wing. K’tersan thought that my belief that we couldn’t go between without Agusta’s help was a consequence of our timing ordeal. He wasn’t right about that. But he insisted on teaching us – re-teaching us, as he thought – to go between properly. That’s when we discovered that Trebruth didn’t need Agusta to show him the way any more.”

“Trebruth was…cured?”

“No,” said M’ric. “I don’t believe there was ever anything wrong with him, or with any of the dragonets who couldn’t go between. The problem was with between itself, and back in 81 that problem didn’t exist.

“It wasn’t the only adjustment I had to make. I don’t think I really appreciated how lost T’kamen must have felt, arriving in a timeframe so alien to his own, until I experienced it for myself. I’d listened to his stories of how things were different in his day without ever really grasping them. So it shocked me to be treated as an equal, and even as a superior, by blue and green riders. It seemed unbelievable that dragons could just go between at will for the most trivial reasons. And it took a long time for me to get used to the idea that Thread wouldn’t fall for more than a hundred Turns, and all the grass and greenery around the Weyr was considered decorative rather than dangerous.

“But I adapted. I absorbed everything K’tersan could teach me, and all the time I was learning to be a dragonrider of the Interval, I was also piecing together a timeline of what I knew was going to happen over the next century and a half.” M’ric’s gaze fell on the book resting in C’mine’s lap. “I used Kamen’s cipher to record it.”

“Then you tried to change things?” C’mine asked.

“I’d like to say I was wiser than that,” M’ric replied. “I wasn’t. But most of the events I knew about were decades away. I hadn’t had time to research the complete history of the Interval, so all I knew about the immediate future was what Kamen had told me, and bits and pieces I’d picked up from reading old records. Mostly, I had the names of people who’d be significant. Names like L’dro and H’pold and P’raima. Names like Sh’zon.”

“Did you tell him where you were from?”

“No. Sh’zon will have told you that we were never friends. He’s not saying that to cover himself. He was already the dominant bronze in the weyrling class that I joined when I arrived in the Interval, and I set out to make myself useful to him. It’s common at the Peninsula for bronze and brown riders to form strategic partnerships. Sh’zon and I became allies, but not friends.”

“Then you didn’t help him by telling him what was going to happen?” C’mine asked.

“Sh’zon was ambitious. He didn’t need my encouragement to set his sights high. I may have nudged him once or twice, but I knew from the fragments of records I’d read that he’d become the Peninsula’s Weyrleader eventually, so I was content to simply shadow him up the ranks until his time came.” M’ric looked reflective. “How does that song go? About life carrying on even while you’re waiting for something else to happen? I found out the truth of that. And I found out that there were things about the Interval, things about my own future, that I didn’t know. I met a girl. A green rider. Artema. She’d been weyrmated to a brown rider, but that had ended badly, and she wasn’t interested in weyring up with someone new – especially another brown rider. I discovered she had a taste for good wine – she was Craftbred to the Vintners – and I decided that would be the way to win her over. The only problem was that I didn’t have anything like the kind of marks I need to buy the sort of wine that would impress her.”

“So you started using timing to cheat on the runner-racing,” said C’mine.

“Yes,” said M’ric. His tone was resigned. “I’d already been timing, right from the point when Trebruth and I had learned how to go between properly. The first time was ridiculously trivial. Sh’zon had been trying to get me to tell him where I came from, and when I wouldn’t, he said I must have timed it by accident, because he didn’t believe I had the stones to do it on purpose. Then he went into his harness kit for something, and found a note, in my handwriting, saying that I had stones bigger than his, on top of the answers to the following day’s history test.

“And that was always how I timed it. Not because I wanted to, but in response to knowing I must have.” He shrugged. “Not that it stopped me from using it for my own benefit. It wasn’t long before Sh’zon and I realised we could make marks on the runners, and it was convenient how, whenever we were feeling poor, the results for the following day’s races at Blue Shale or Rosken or Long Bay would fall into my possession, and I’d know that Trebruth and I would be making a short trip backwards to fulfil the loop.”

“Didn’t Sh’zon ever do it?” asked C’mine.

“He was never comfortable with it,” said M’ric. “He came between times with us once or twice, usually because we were late home from a Gather or something, but mostly he left it to me. I kept close records of when we’d been, and Trebruth got good at timing, very confident in knowing what references he needed. Dragons do, when they time it often.”

C’mine couldn’t argue with that – Darshanth’s aptitude for timing had certainly improved since they’d begun. “But we never did it for personal profit,” he said. “Or to impress a girl.”

M’ric bowed his head to the banality of it. “And by all rights it shouldn’t have worked. But it did. I wore Artema down with wine and persistence. Eventually we had a daughter together, Temmal. I’ve never been happier than I was in those five or six Turns in the 80s when we were together.”

He went quiet for a long time; so long that, finally, C’mine had to prompt him. “What happened?”

“She died,” M’ric said simply. “Her Wing was flying an extended drill. Towards the end, Zovath got caught in a downdraft that threw her into the side of a mountain. Their Wingleader said they’d overflown their strength. He even said he thought Zovath might have been proddy and less receptive to his orders.” He shook his head slowly. “Zovath wasn’t due to mate for sevendays. But Artema and I had…argued…the night before. I blamed myself for her state of mind. She must still have been angry with me. I thought it had affected her judgement.”

C’mine felt his chest ache, in sympathy for the bereavement, and for its resonance with his own. He hadn’t known that M’ric had lost a weyrmate. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“It was,” M’ric replied. “Just not for the reason I thought at the time.” He hesitated, his gaze far away. At last, his eyes refocused. “Life carried on. I carried on. I had no choice.

“The Turns passed, and pieces of my picture of the mid-Interval began to move into place. T’kamen Impressed Epherineth – I was there for that Hatching – but I knew I couldn’t make contact with him. P’raima had been Weyrleader at Southern since before I’d even arrived in the Interval and showed no sign of slowing down. Shimpath Hatched in 91.” He paused. “I meant to go to that Impression ceremony, too. I knew it was my first chance to get a look at Sarenya. Kamen had told me about her, but I had no idea what she even looked like. As it turned out, Trebruth decided to catch a green that day, so I missed the Hatching.”

He was there, C’mine said to Darshanth, but he didn’t interrupt M’ric’s tale.

“It was about 93 when I started to feel anxious,” M’ric went on. “Ipith became senior at the Peninsula, but Kawanth didn’t win her leadership flight. That rattled me. I’d been telling Sh’zon for Turns that I knew he’d be Weyrleader, but when the time came it hadn’t happened. I started wondering if there was something I should have done. Up until that point, I hadn’t taken much action to make the things I was expecting to happen, happen. Kamen had said that whatever I did wouldn’t make a difference anyway. But I began to think that maybe he was wrong. I began to doubt if events were as fixed as he believed.

“So I started to experiment. I tried to change the outcome of a race whose result I already knew. The next time I found information about a race that I’d passed back to myself, I set out to try and change the result. I remember the winner was a runner called Foreman. Before the race, I found the jockey who was going to be riding. I bribed him to throw the race – to deliberately not win it.”

That was the first admission M’ric had made of a specific criminal action. “Did it work?”

“The jockey did exactly what I paid him to do,” said M’ric. “He took a pull, and Foreman finished second.”

“Then you did change it!”

M’ric smiled wryly. “I thought so. And then the jockey of the winner weighed in light. His runner was disqualified. Foreman still won.

“Then I tried to make a minor change to a record that stated that a certain blue rider from my Wing, T’rolf, had conveyed Lord Astag from Peninsula South to the Harperhall. I gave the assignment to a different blue rider, K’ler. Trebruth and I even shadowed him to make sure he did the pick-up. But when we got back, I found that the Wingleader in charge of rostering had already written up the day’s conveyance report with T’rolf listed against Astag, and he wasn’t about to rewrite a perfectly good report by changing what he’d already put down.”

“So the record was wrong,” said C’mine.

“Yes. And that heartened me. It showed that records aren’t infallible. Just because something was written down one way doesn’t mean it happened exactly like that. It made me realise that there can be many routes to the same destination, some better than others. Perhaps I couldn’t change the bare facts of major events – Trebruth would always stop me if I suggested it – but I could influence how they happened.

“I thought that, maybe, even if I couldn’t stop between from going wrong, and even if I couldn’t tell Interval Pern how important fire-lizards would become, then at least I could encourage events to come about in the best possible way. I stayed away from Madellon – I knew from Kamen I wasn’t supposed to be there yet – but I kept nudging Sh’zon. I kept nudging a lot of people more powerful and better connected than me, in small ways, tiny ways.” Then M’ric sighed. “One of them was P’raima.”

C’mine felt himself go rigid. “You helped him?”

For a moment, he thought M’ric was going to deny it. Then M’ric said, “I didn’t know what he would become. But he’d been Southern’s Weyrleader for decades, and I knew he’d still be Weyrleader when T’kamen took over at Madellon. I knew T’kamen didn’t like him. But as a man of significance and authority, there weren’t many riders better placed to influence the course of events.

“Even now, I don’t know if I told him too much or too little. I was vague. I had to be. But he took my warnings about how the world would change by the Pass, and set out to make himself Pern’s saviour. I’d thought to steer him towards breeding better dragons. I’d hoped I could encourage him to trust riders of all colours in authority, not just bronzes and browns. I hinted at the idea of a chosen successor, not one selected in mating frenzy. I fed his megalomania, but he used what I gave him in every wrong way. Better dragons simply meant bigger; trusting riders meant never going outside the Weyr to find candidates. And when Tezonth’s dominance began to wane…”

M’ric’s voice trailed off. C’mine shifted unhappily on his comfortless chair. “Were you involved in felah?”

“No. Not felah itself. That was a secret P’raima kept to himself. I’d stopped trying to influence him long before I had any inkling of the terrible things he’d do – to his weyrlings, to Madellon, to Southern.”

“Why did you stop?”

M’ric took a while to reply. “Temmal, my daughter, Impressed a green in 97,” he said at last. “She died two Turns ago, overflying her dragonet, exactly as her mother had.” He stopped for a long time. “She was fifteen Turns old.”

It paralysed C’mine in a grip of such empathetic pain that, for a while he couldn’t speak, either.

“I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t prevented it,” M’ric went on softly. “Why hadn’t I already told myself to stop it happening? I’d used timing to warn myself off one thing or another a dozen times over the Turns. It made no sense. I was so angry I didn’t even have room to grieve. I was convinced that I could just go back and fix it. I told Trebruth that that was what we were going to do.” He stared straight ahead. “He wouldn’t let me. He told me that the past couldn’t be changed.”

C’mine’s stomach turned queasily over at the echo of what Darshanth had screamed when he’d tried to make him go between to the day of C’los’ murder.

“I tried to make him,” M’ric went on. “He wouldn’t. He gave me a shove like I’d never felt before. It dazed me for most of a sevenday. I suppose people just assumed I was grieving for Temmal, but the fact was I could barely function at all. I didn’t think it was possible to hate your dragon like I hated Trebruth then. I didn’t know it was possible to be so cruel.”

That remark, even from M’ric and aimed inward, caught C’mine painfully true, but Darshanth, his silent, very present companion in listening to the confession, merely crowded his thoughts briefly closer to C’mine’s in wordless forgiveness.

“It was a long time before I realised that he’d been protecting me,” M’ric said. “Protecting me from the consequences of trying to change something that had already happened. And so I quit. I quit timing, because what Thread-blighted good was knowledge of the future when I couldn’t even use it to keep my own child safe?” His voice, usually so steady, shook as he spoke. “I realised that Trebruth and I weren’t the masters of time I’d believed we were. We were its thralls. No action I’d ever taken while timing had done anything but fulfil what had to happen. I was powerless. I’d gone back to the Interval for one reason and only one – because I had to be there to send T’kamen to the Pass. Everything else I did was pointless at best, harmful at worst. I wasn’t supposed to be there. I wasn’t supposed to affect the present that wasn’t my own. And wherever I had tried to, I’d left death in my wake. I discovered that Temmal wasn’t the first of my children to die. There were others, four of them, children I’d sired during green flights, dragonspawn I’d left at the Holds. They’d all died in accidents and illnesses. I wasn’t meant to be a father. I wasn’t meant to leave a legacy. I wasn’t meant to be at all.”

C’mine reached through the bars of the cell to put his hand on M’ric’s shoulder. He didn’t recall deciding to do it. He’d simply reacted to his pain, to his pure, agonising existential desolation. Perhaps no two people could every truly understand each other’s personal pain, but C’mine knew what it was to suffer beneath the crushing gravity of despair.

M’ric drew a shuddering breath into his lungs, and then he continued, with the determined momentum of a man coming to the end of his tale. “So I rejected time,” he said. “I rejected timing. Or so I thought. Trebruth and I didn’t receive any intelligence from the future, and we didn’t try to influence events. I let Sh’zon muddle along by himself. We went through the motions of our lives. I convinced Trebruth to only fly greens with male riders, so I couldn’t father any more children to die on account of my displacement. I half convinced myself that time had had its use of me and would leave me alone, since I’d grasped how I couldn’t change its course.

“Then T’kamen became Madellon’s Weyrleader.” M’ric’s smile looked like it hurt his face. “I remember hearing about it, and feeling like I’d been woken from a kind of stupor. Kamen was the only person still alive on Pern who was worth waking for.”

“You hadn’t tried to contact him before,” said C’mine.

“I’d wanted to. But he’d never knowingly met me before I transferred to Madellon. I knew that didn’t necessarily mean we’d never met, but I couldn’t bear the thought of meeting him and being so…unmemorable.”

The poignancy of that boyish yearning for a mentor’s approval gripped at C’mine’s heart. “Then when you came to Madellon, it was the first time you’d seen him in nearly twenty Turns?”

“It was a shock,” said M’ric. “He was so much younger than I remembered. Faranth, he was younger than me. Sh’zon was dismissive of him, because he’s a bronze rider, and you know how scathing they all are of each other. I nearly punched him.” He looked almost sheepish. “But I could hardly look at T’kamen. I’d betrayed him, back in the Pass, and half of me wanted nothing more than to beg him for a forgiveness he couldn’t possibly give. And then I betrayed him again. With Sarenya.

“I’d carried the guilt of my first treachery for nearly two decades. I’d nearly worn it out, half from telling myself that I’d been a gullible boy, and half from swearing that, when the time came, I wouldn’t do it again. I knew, because Kamen had told me, that I’d steal his girl. I’d even promised him that I’d be good to her, that I’d protect her from heartbreak and harm.” He said those two words as if both caused him physical pain. “But I vowed I wouldn’t really love her, because she wasn’t mine to love, and because I thought all the love I had in me for another woman had been spent, when Artema died.” He was silent a moment. “I broke all those promises to him, and to myself. I set out to take care of Saren, not to love her. I’ve ended up loving her, but not taking care of her. And yet I still don’t love her like he did.”

C’mine hadn’t thought one man could contain so much pain: a lifetime of pain, many-layered and multi-faceted. “The day after the weyrlings went between,” he said. “When Kamen disappeared. You sent him between times, didn’t you? To the Pass?”

“I closed the loop,” said M’ric. “As he said I would; as he said I had. My third betrayal. And I thought I was finished with it all. I’d done the one thing that I’d come back through time to do. I thought my life was my own again. And then I found, for the first time in nearly a Turn, an intelligence report from the future, in my own cipher. Because time hadn’t finished with me. And, Faranth, I still don’t think it has.”

There was a little more. M’ric talked about how he’d timed himself an alibi; how he’d found himself compelled to fulfil timing loops once more; how he’d resumed, with immense reluctance, the practice of supplying himself with knowledge from short trips between times. He even talked about how his most recent timing loops had been to provide P’raima with narlbark – first the knowledge of it, and then, when the Southern Weyrleader had no longer been able to source the herb through L’dro, how M’ric had used his copy of the Madellon Weyrleader’s signet ring to procure it for him.

“But there’s one loop you haven’t talked about,” C’mine said, when M’ric’s litany finally came to an end. “You were there at Madellon the day that Shimpath Hatched and Saren was left standing. You were there, because you came to save me.”

M’ric looked at him steadily. “The Weyrwoman asked me about that,” he said. “I told her I didn’t know anything about it. That wasn’t a lie.”

“Then you haven’t done it yet,” said C’mine. “You still have that loop to close.”

“Was it definitely me?” M’ric asked, and when C’mine nodded, “How old did I look?”

Thinking back to that traumatic day was hard. C’mine tried to make himself, but the details were blurry. “I…don’t know.”

M’ric looked away. After a minute, he said, “The funny thing with timing loops is that they make you invincible.”

“Invincible?”

“If you have a loop left open, then nothing on Pern can stop you closing it. Whatever happens to you, for good or for ill, you have to complete the loop. Whatever obstacles are in your path, eventually, you’ll overcome them. Time won’t let anything prevent you from doing its work.”

A loop left open. C’mine felt a chill settle over him. “You talk about time as if it’s…”

“Alive?” M’ric asked, when C’mine couldn’t find the word. “Intelligent?” He paused. “Malevolent?”

“But time just is,” said C’mine. “It can’t be evil.”

“Maybe not evil,” said M’ric. “Evil implies intent. No. Time…time is like Thread. Mindless. Implacable. And lethal. You can’t argue with it or reason with it. Stay out of its path and it won’t hurt you. Get in its way, and it will eat you alive.”

“Then you’re saying that everything is pre-ordained?”

“No,” said M’ric. “We just can’t change what’s already happened.

“But tomorrow hasn’t happened yet,” said C’mine. “The things you know about the rest of the Interval…about the Pass…they haven’t happened yet. They’re in the future, not the past. We can change them. We can –”

“We can’t!” M’ric gripped the bars of his cell so hard his knuckles went white. “Don’t you get it? There is no future between now and the moment I left the Pass to time it back here. Those hundred and fifty Turns are all in the past. My past. We can’t change anything that I know is going to happen in them, and if we try, then we’ll only get more people killed! Believe me, I should know!”

“I don’t understand…”

“Darshanth does,” said M’ric. “Ask him. Ask him what happens if a dragonrider tries to change the events of the past.”

The past cannot be changed, said Darshanth. He spoke even before C’mine had framed the question to him. It will not be changed. It must not be changed.

“What if you try?” C’mine asked, but he already knew the answer.

You will be stopped, said Darshanth. Time protects itself.

“Time protects itself.” M’ric said the words at the same time as Darshanth. He leaned closer to the bars. “That’s why I couldn’t tell the Weyrwoman any of this. She can’t know. No one can know. No one but you.”

“But why me?”

“Because Darshanth understands the rules,” said M’ric. “He’s gone between times, with intent, and survived. He knows he can’t change anything, and he knows what will happen to you if you try. He can protect you by preventing you, however he can.”

C’mine thought about his disastrous attempt to return to Hatching day, his desperate final bid to prevent C’los’ murder. “That’s why Darshanth wouldn’t take me back to the right Hatching. He knew I was trying to save C’los…to change the past…”

“He was protecting you,” said M’ric.

“He took me to the day Shimpath Hatched instead,” said C’mine. “The day Saren failed to Impress. He did something…he made me forget who I was…he made me forget I was a dragonrider. But I wouldn’t have tried to change that, M’ric. I wouldn’t have tried to deprive Valonna of Shimpath, not even to help Saren.”

M’ric shook his head. “You and he were there twice. If the you of that time had become aware of the future you, that could have changed the past. And the echoes of doubling up in close proximity are catastrophically damaging. I think you already know that. Darshanth was shielding you from harm in every way he could.”

I am your dragon, Darshanth said, unbidden. I love you.

C’mine fought the lump in his throat. “Then it wasn’t my fault that Saren didn’t Impress?”

M’ric’s eyes flickered. “Not your fault,” he said. “You were always there twice, timed back from now, with knowledge from the future. The outcome of that Hatching was always fixed. Sarenya could never have Impressed. Valonna was always going to become Shimpath’s rider.”

“Then I am to blame, for going?”

“No. You had to go, because you already had. You had no choice. The events of that day were a fixed point.” M’ric hesitated, then leaned down and unthreaded the lace from his left boot. He held it horizontally in both hands. “We think of time running in a straight line, like this, from the past to the future, and for most people, that’s how it works. Except for dragonriders. We can move in time in non-linear ways, jumping to points in the future and the past.” He looped the lace back on itself, so one end touched the middle. “But every time a dragonrider travels from the future to the past, carrying foreknowledge with him, the fabric of time becomes…rigid.” He tied a knot in the middle of the lace. “Events become fixed by the presence of future certainty. Instead of representing an infinite flow of possibilities, affected by chance and circumstance and free will, that moment becomes locked into one certain outcome, unchangeable in any way. The more significant the foreknowledge, the bigger the knot, and the more constrictive it will be on the events that follow. And the greater the risk to anyone who tries to avert them.”

“But you said that Darshanth would protect me…”

“He can protect you,” said M’ric. “Trebruth can protect me. They’re both time-aware. They’ve both come close to changing things, and pulled back from the edge. They understand what’s at stake. But they can’t protect anyone else.” He leaned forwards, gripping the bars again, and his eyes were terrible. “Like Weyrleader Xh’len, when I told him everything I knew about the future. Like my weyrmate, who died the day after I told her where I really came from. Like my children, who died because they should never have been born.”

C’mine couldn’t look at him any more. He rose from his chair and turned away, struggling to take everything in, struggling to comprehend the vast cosmic implications of everything M’ric had told him, struggling to apply the moral of the time-stranded brown rider’s story to his own unhappy experience with travel between times.

Then he turned back to face the cell. M’ric was on his feet, leaning against the bars, his face a haggard mask of despair. “Has any good ever come of timing?” C’mine asked.

M’ric looked at him for a long and terrible moment, and then he said, “Carleah.”

The name rocked C’mine. Carleah. “I timed it back to Long Bay,” he said. He could feel his throat choking as he spoke. “I told myself where she was being held. I met myself…” His brain and his stomach roiled at the memory of that ghastly instant of self-recognition, when he’d looked into the eyes of his own future self, when he’d reached out to touch him, when the presence of two C’mines and two Darshanths in the same place and the same time had come so close to breaking his mind and destroying his dragon’s.

“I protected her, too,” M’ric said. His voice was rough. “I knew three Madellon weyrlings would die. I couldn’t prevent that. But I could make sure that she wasn’t one of them. And again, when she was abducted from Long Bay. I made sure T’rello would find her and Tarshe before anything could happen to them.

C’mine felt himself wobble. He put his hand out and caught himself on the bars before his legs went out from beneath him. He looked at M’ric, and for a moment it was as if his vision had doubled. The M’ric who had confessed to being the manipulative hand behind a dozen plots, a dozen schemes, a dozen deaths, shared space with the M’ric who had railed against his role as time’s helpless pawn. The brown rider who had sent T’kamen hurtling into a future not his own blurred with the brown rider who had himself been displaced violently from his own time. The man who had aided P’raima’s rise to terrible power overlapped with the man who had twice deflected death from C’los’ only daughter. C’mine blamed him and pitied him, hated him and bled for him, could not forgive him, and could not have repaid him. And the burden of responsibility that he bore weighed dreadfully upon him. However guilty M’ric was, he didn’t deserve what H’ned wished upon him.

“What should I do?” he asked at last. “H’ned wants to sentence you to Separation. Valonna begged me to find a way for her to avoid that. But if I can’t tell them what you’ve told me…”

“I’d rather be Separated than cause another death,” said M’ric. It was a brave statement – as brave as it had been when first he’d declared it – but the strain was showing on him now. “I can’t take the risk of anyone else finding out what I know about the future and trying to change it.”

“But Separation!” C’mine protested. “Trebruth doesn’t deserve –”

He bit the phrase off: suddenly, dreadfully conscious of every selfish thing he’d done that his own dragon hadn’t deserved, and every unselfish thing he thought he’d done for someone else’s sake that had in its own way hurt Darshanth.

“Trebruth doesn’t deserve to be sacrificed for the sake of anyone,” said M’ric. “Yet he insists he will endure it, if he must.” He smiled, painfully. “It only shames me more, to know how unworthy I am to be his rider.”

“I don’t think any of us are so worthy,” C’mine said sorrowfully.

They sat together in silence for a moment, united in grief and guilt.

Then C’mine said, “You have to confess. About T’kamen.”

M’ric raised his head. “You know I can’t.”

“You have to,” C’mine said. “H’ned believes you murdered him, and if you won’t speak in your own defence a Justice will find you guilty.”

M’ric closed his eyes. He put his face in his hands. For a long moment he simply sat there like that. Then, finally, he straightened. “I am guilty,” he said. “And it’s time I admit that and accept the consequences.”

“You didn’t kill T’kamen! If you say you did, you’ll be Separated for certain! Even if you won’t give evidence to defend yourself, you have to make H’ned prove what you did. At least that way there’s a chance that the Justicers won’t rule against you.”

“Pleading guilty is the only way I can keep everyone else safe,” said M’ric. “If this goes to a hearing, the truth will come out. It’s unavoidable.”

“But I thought Trebruth already resisted Shimpath’s compulsion,” said C’mine.

M’ric shook his head. “Not exactly. But it’s not Trebruth who’s the problem.” He fixed C’mine with a regretful look. “It’s you.” He smiled slightly. “I’ve just told you everything. H’ned will make you a witness against me.”

C’mine sat back, appalled. “Then why did you tell me?”

“Because I had to tell someone,” said M’ric. “At least you’ll know that I didn’t kill T’kamen.”

“Then you were always going to plead guilty?”

“It was nice to think, for a while, that I might be able to squirm out of it,” said M’ric. “But this is one Thread I can’t dodge any more.”

“There has to be a way…some point of Weyr law…”

“I’m no expert on Weyr law,” said M’ric. “Much less Madellon’s laws.”

“But you can ask for someone who is to be your Advocate,” said C’mine. “There are riders –”

“No.” M’ric’s refusal was flat. “They couldn’t defend me if they don’t know the truth. And I can’t tell anyone else the truth. You’re the only rider at Madellon with a time-aware dragon, C’mine.”

“But I can’t –” C’mine began, and then stopped as a new realisation struck him with such force that his head nearly swam. “No I’m not!”

M’ric looked at him sharply. “You’re not what?”

“The only rider at Madellon with a time-aware dragon,” said C’mine. Hope washed over him, giddying in its intensity. “There’s someone else!”

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