Chapter eighty-one: T’kamen
Have I made a mistake?
The notion that I could have made such a gross error of judgement in supporting T’kamen is something I can’t even share with Donauth. I sit here, writing this, thinking this, while she sleeps with Epherineth’s clutch growing inside her. She would not allow me to question our path. Her opinions have always been absolute: right or wrong, black or white. They cannot help me in this greyest of times.
I hadn’t planned to set T’kamen against S’leondes yet. It’s far too soon. T’kamen needed time to establish himself as Marshal, to prove the worth and veracity of his work with the Unseen, to grow in the Weyr’s esteem. Then, and only then, could he hope to challenge S’leondes for Madellon’s loyalty. Now, his hand has been forced. He must face the Commander before the eyes of the whole Weyr, in a contest he knows nothing about, with the deck stacked against him. And if he loses…
If he loses, we’ve all lost.
– Excerpt from the personal diaries of Weyrwoman Dalka
There was no Fall due over Madellon’s protectorate for three days. The sky was clear and blue. Epherineth sat on his haunches on the ledge, and the light pouring in over the Rim of Madellon Weyr limned his iridescent hide with molten gold. T’kamen paused in the archway to look at him, struck as if by a fist to the chest with awe for the dragon who had chosen him for his rider so long ago, with love for him, with pride in him.
And then Epherineth turned his head to look at him, and the illusion of perfection was ruined by the reality of the right side of his face: his upper lip split in a permanent snarl, his lower eyelid drooping downwards, his once flawless hide ridged by the puckering scars where flesh and skin had been stitched back together.
T’kamen spoke aloud, softly, as if that could hide his words from his dragon. “I couldn’t even protect you.”
It wasn’t your fault, T’kamen.
He was no more specific than that; not that it mattered. T’kamen had long ago rejected the notion of absolving himself of blame whether Epherineth meant his own maiming, or Fraza’s death.
Dalka had said the same thing. “It wasn’t your fault,” she’d told him the previous day. “You couldn’t possibly have been watching all of them, all of the time. The stupid girl had been told and told again, and still she did it. In the middle of the night, when she knew you’d be asleep. It wasn’t your fault.”
“She was my responsibility,” T’kamen said. “And I got her wrong. I underestimated her.” He paused, his head swimming with the number of times he’d underestimated someone. “I misjudged her need to excel. I should have known, after Ista…”
“Stop claiming ownership of every bad thing that happens on Pern,” said Dalka. “I’ve never known a man so intent on hoarding blame for everything to himself. You glory in making a martyr of yourself. You wallow in it. Why don’t you just stake yourself out for Threadfall and be done with it?”
“I don’t know that many people would stop me if I did.”
Dalka pinned him with a contemptuous glare. “Now you’re being absurd. Anyone would think you were the first Wingleader ever to lose a rider. Unless, that is, you intend to disband the Unseen yourself, call off your between programme, and tell the whole Weyr that you were wrong to dream of a better future for Pern. Because if so, you’d be better off doing it now, and spare us all the trouble of the Arbitration!”
T’kamen hadn’t said aloud what was in his mind, because Dalka would have thrown that back at him too, and he’d felt bruised enough. But now, as he moved alongside Epherineth to look out at the hatefully beautiful day, he did say it. “Maybe a dream was all it ever was, Epherineth. Maybe I was wrong to think that I could find a way to give between back to the dragons of this time. Maybe I’ve been as blind and stubborn as S’leondes says.”
Stubborn, yes. But not blind. We have always looked before we leapt.
Epherineth made jokes so rarely that T’kamen wasn’t certain he’d meant it as one. Then Epherineth bumped his muzzle against his shoulder. You cannot let yourself doubt the truth of what you do, T’kamen.
“Even if I’m wrong?”
If you don’t believe it yourself, no one else will.
“I don’t know if I do believe it any more, Epherineth. M’ric. Those Istan riders. Now Fraza. Maybe S’leondes is right. Maybe dragons of the Pass really can’t go between any more.”
Trebruth’s rider went between to the Interval.
“But what if he only made it back because he had to, because he already had?”
He was still a dragon of the Pass.
“But I can’t prove he made it back,” said T’kamen. “And even if I could…”
He left wordless the strong resistance he still felt to the idea of revealing M’ric’s time travel to anyone, much less to Madellon at large. Epherineth shared it anyway. Before you can think of proof, he said, you must first have faith.
T’kamen thought about what he’d said to Dalka about faith the night before Fraza’s fatal accident. Belief in something you have no good reason to believe in. “Faith isn’t a virtue, Epherineth. It’s a weakness.”
Perhaps, said Epherineth. But so is doubt.
Many things had changed in the Turns between T’kamen’s native time and the Eighth Pass. The laws of the Weyr were no exception, but the structures that underpinned them had endured. A rider who transgressed within the hierarchy of the Wings could expect to face a Discipline. Crimes against individuals or the Weyr itself were tried and punished in a Justice. And when disagreements occurred that could not be settled, the principles of Mediations and Arbitrations had long been established to resolve them.
Any Weyr resident could petition the Weyrwoman to open a Mediation to settle a private dispute, and they often did. Disagreements over property, custody, and conduct that fell outside the remit of either a Discipline or a Justice were heard by a panel of three neutral Weyr residents, selected by the presiding queen rider. Both sides must abide by a unanimous verdict, but either party could appeal to the Weyrwoman’s higher authority if one of the Mediators disagreed with his fellows. Madellon’s Archives groaned with the records of dozens of Mediations, few of them concerning anything more serious than former weyrmates quarrelling acrimoniously over the division of their mutual possessions.
The Arbitrations that convened when ranking riders disagreed on matters that affected the Weyr at large were far less common. In the twenty-six Turns of the Eighth Pass so far, there had been only three Arbitrations at Madellon Weyr, invoked when the Weyrleaders couldn’t agree on an issue of critical importance. All three had been disputes between S’leondes and R’lony. All three had gone to S’leondes.
T’kamen had never witnessed an Arbitration. In his day, they could only have been invoked if a Weyrleader and Weyrwoman had been deadlocked on some issue, each unable to overrule the other. There’d been rumours in his early Turns as a dragonrider that L’mis, the Weyrleader of the day, might bring one against Fianine, but it had never happened. Everyone agreed that the rumours alone had annoyed Fianine enough that she’d specifically prevented L’mis from retaining the Weyrleadership the next time Cherganth rose.
The three-way sharing of power between Commander, Marshal, and Weyrwoman at Pass Madellon should have made the Arbitration obsolete. Any issue on which three parties had a say should always be resolvable by simple majority, if not unanimous accord. The fact that R’lony and S’leondes had put their discord before the Weyr to settle three times made the precariousness of Dalka’s position clear at last in T’kamen’s mind. A Weyrwoman’s power was a shadow of what it had once been. When small dragons were prized over large, and even a handful of fertile greens could lay as many eggs between them as a queen produced in a Turn, a queen’s breeding potential had less value. The instinctive reverence that the dragonriders of T’kamen’s native era had felt for the rider of any queen dragon no longer existed. No one revered funny old Lirelle at all, treating her with an exaggerated courtesy that verged on condescension. And the respect Dalka commanded among the riders of her Weyr was accorded her less because she was the chosen of a queen and more because the Commander willed it so. Without S’leondes’ favour, however covertly bestowed, Dalka would wield even less influence. It was little wonder that Dalka had cultivated S’leondes’ passions so assiduously, even as she shared R’lony’s weyr; less that she had devoted so much energy to courting T’kamen, once she’d sensed his star on the rise; and least of all that she would not abandon the publicly neutral position that had served her so well for so long even when her private loyalties had become increasingly partisan. For all her talk of faith and vision, Dalka only backed winners when they were already certainties.
And T’kamen’s victory in the Arbitration was a long way from certain.
On some level he’d always known it was coming. S’leondes had been opposed to between from the start. While T’kamen and Epherineth had been dragging dragonpairs between to save them from certain death, and hauling cargo across the territory in moments rather than hours, and generally making themselves indispensable in ways that threatened no harm to anyone else, S’leondes had been powerless to criticise T’kamen’s work with the Unseen. Now that the deaths of five dragonpairs had cooled the widespread enthusiasm for between training, S’leondes had made his opposition to it public. To the strictest letter of Weyr law, he should first have established that he and T’kamen were irreconcilably at odds on the matter. In reality, S’leondes hadn’t even asked T’kamen to cease the project and disperse the members of the Unseen back to their Wings. It was probably a good thing he hadn’t. T’kamen had loathed himself enough in the immediate aftermath of Fraza’s death that he might have given in. It would have spared him the coming ordeal of the Arbitration, but he wouldn’t have liked himself any more for running away from it.
The format was nearly the same as a Mediation. S’leondes would argue his side before the Weyr: namely, that T’kamen’s between project should be terminated. T’kamen would make the case for it to continue. There would be a panel of thirteen arbiters: all dragonriders, chosen by lot. By definition, the outcome of an Arbitration affected every rider in the Weyr, and selecting arbiters without an interest in the outcome would be impossible. To diminish the possibility of an arbiter panel biased too heavily towards one party or the other, each side was entitled to dismiss up to three of its members, who would then be replaced, again by random draw. The arbiters wouldn’t be chosen until the hearing began, so neither party would be able to persuade, bribe, or intimidate the riders in whose hands the Arbitration rested – at least not directly. The verdict of the majority of the arbiters was binding, and there was no recourse to any higher authority. In an Arbitration, the will of the Weyr, expressed through those thirteen riders, was the highest authority of all.
It was an elegant solution to the stalemate that ensued when a Weyr’s leaders couldn’t agree. It aired the issue in contention before any member of the Weyr who cared to attend, and it gave ownership of the judgement to the people it would affect. It also put T’kamen at every possible disadvantage. He’d never been involved in an Arbitration. He’d never even seen one. S’leondes, meanwhile, had argued three and won three. He was an experienced and gifted public speaker. And any random selection of thirteen dragonriders would skew heavily towards greens and blues. T’kamen had no doubts about how most of Madellon’s Tactical riders would lean.
There was nothing he could do about the composition of the panel, or about S’leondes’ experience, or his own lack of the same. Instead, T’kamen used the time he had to study the Commander’s previous Arbitration form. It was straightforward enough to find the records in the Archives. The official transcripts had been taken down word-for-word by the Weyr Singer, while Dalka – in the non-interventionary role demanded of her during an Arbitration – had documented each judgement in crisp, dispassionate style.
The first of the three Arbitrations, Wingsecond S’leondes vs Weyrleader R’lony, concerned the division of Madellon’s riders into Tactical and Strategic branches in the second Turn of the Pass. T’kamen experienced a curious sense of disconcertion at the titles. It was unbelievable that S’leondes had only been a Wingsecond when he’d overthrown the traditional hierarchy, and equally unbelievable that R’lony had still been Weyrleader at the time. The record didn’t say, but T’kamen suspected that R’lony had been made to give up the use of that title shortly after the arbiters returned their majority of ten to three in S’leondes’ favour.
The next record was dated slightly over a Turn after the first. Flightleader R’lony (Strat.) vs Flightleader S’leondes (Tac.) documented R’lony’s attempted opposition to S’leondes’ intention to cease flying Fall over Peranvo Hold. The transcript went on and on, with both parties delving into the minutiae of the contract that defined the responsibilities of Weyr to Hold and Hold to Weyr. T’kamen skimmed past most of the wrangling over Charter law, but he felt the same powerful sense of wrongness about Madellon’s abandonment of Peranvo as he had when El’yan had taken him there. Perhaps some of the arbiters had felt the same way, because the verdict was less emphatic than before. S’leondes still carried it, though: eight to five.
A gap of some sixteen Turns separated the second record from the third. The hide was cleaner, the ink fresher, and Dalka’s account markedly more terse. Weyrmarshal R’lony vs Weyrcommander S’leondes had been heard in the wake of the mass defections of Reloka, Chrelith, and forty-seven brown and bronze riders to the north. The penalty for defection had been increased to immediate, permanent Exile to Westisle for any defector who returned to Madellon’s territory, but R’lony’s dispute with S’leondes had centred on Reloka. S’leondes had proposed that Chrelith and her rider would be exempt from Exile, but that Reloka would be confined indefinitely to her weyr and Chrelith’s interactions strictly monitored to prevent her from exerting her influence on any other Madellon dragon. R’lony had disagreed. If Chrelith’s rider were ever to be persuaded to return to Madellon, he’d argued, Reloka must not only be given amnesty, but pardoned of her original crime of defection. To threaten her with any curtailment of liberty would certainly convince her to stay in the north.
The transcript of R’lony’s remarks in the course of that Arbitration was littered with increasingly frequent swearing as the hearing proceeded. T’kamen wasn’t surprised. The fact that Reloka was R’lony’s daughter, and Chrelith Geninth’s, made it an intensely personal issue, and S’leondes took full advantage of that vulnerability. He chose his words to provoke R’lony into progressively more impassioned outbursts until, by the end of the hearing, R’lony was nearly incapable of coherent speech. His arguments, so cogent at the beginning of the hearing, fell apart as he lost his composure, and S’leondes emerged with a majority of eleven to two.
It all made for discouraging reading. Clearly, valid points alone wouldn’t be enough to convince the arbiters to decide in T’kamen’s favour, and while he thought – hoped – he was a more compelling speaker than dour R’lony, he was under no illusions that he had S’leondes’ charisma or presence. He would need more than a rational argument if he were to have any chance of swaying the arbiters to his side.
He wished the most vain of wishes: for C’los’ political shrewdness; for Ch’fil’s plain-spoken counsel; for M’ric not to be gone; for Fraza not to be dead.
He would have laughed at the futility of it all, had he the heart.
H’juke brought him breakfast on the morning of the Arbitration. T’kamen regarded the sausage and eggs and toast laid out on his table without enthusiasm, but he knew he’d need it to get him through the day. Still, he delayed starting in on the grease and stodge until he’d finished his second cup of klah.
“I’ll lay out your blacks,” H’juke told him. “Did you want me to send Wista up?”
“To give your hair a trim. You’re looking shaggy. She’s already been to S’leondes.”
T’kamen had put a hand self-consciously to his hair. He lowered it. He wondered if he should be heartened that the Commander was making an effort. It suggested that T’kamen’s cause wasn’t as hopeless as it seemed. “No,” he said. “If it goes against me based on how much I’ve combed my hair, so be it.”
He meant it as a joke, but H’juke looked at him anxiously. He’d always been very literal. “Do you think it will? Go against you?”
“If I knew that, I wouldn’t still be here.”
H’juke went on with the air of one too preoccupied to listen well. “Because O’sten heard a rumour that if S’leondes wins, he’ll have our fire-lizards taken away.”
“Taken away?” T’kamen asked.
“Put down,” H’juke said. “Destroyed.” He bit the words off, as though he nearly couldn’t bear them. “So we won’t be able to keep trying.”
T’kamen glanced at the padded shoulder of H’juke’s jacket, conspicuously absent its fire-lizard passenger. “You’ve sent Fathom away?”
“We all have,” H’juke said. “I’ll have Bularth scare him away if I have to. For good. Better that, than…” He set his jaw. “I won’t let them hurt him.”
“I’m sure it won’t come to that,” said T’kamen.
His tone must have been less than reassuring. H’juke darted a sideways look at him. “What will you do? If it goes against you?”
“I’m not thinking about that,” said T’kamen. It was a blatant lie. He’d thought plenty about what he’d do if the Arbitration went S’leondes’ way. He just hadn’t made any decisions yet.
“Will you defect?” H’juke asked. “Go to Ista?”
“Shut your shaffing mouth.” It hissed out of him, angrier than he’d expected. H’juke looked taken aback. “Whatever else happens, I’m still Madellon’s Marshal. I won’t abandon my Weyr.”
“I didn’t mean –” H’juke protested, and then went on, chagrined, “I’m sorry, T’kamen. It’s just…”
“Couldn’t you do more good figuring out between at Ista, than wasting your time running Strategic here where S’leondes won’t even let you try?”
“Running Strategic isn’t a waste of my time.”
“But it is,” said H’juke. “Anyone could run it. Only you know how to get our dragons going between.”
T’kamen was torn for a moment between gratitude and shame. “Such faith you have in me,” he said, and didn’t mean it as a compliment.
H’juke didn’t notice. “We could go now,” he said. He spoke quickly and quietly. “You and me. There’s time before the Arbitration starts.”
“Go,” said T’kamen. He wasn’t sure what H’juke meant. “Go where?”
“Out,” said H’juke, gesturing vaguely. “Of the Weyr. We want to do it, T’kamen. Bularth and Fathom and me. We want to go between.”
T’kamen looked at him, horrified.
“I don’t mean on our own,” H’juke continued. His eyes were shining with enthusiasm. “We’re not reckless, like…” He caught himself before he said Fraza. “That’s why you’d be there. To pull us out if we got it wrong. But we want to do it, T’kamen. To prove to the Commander – to prove to everyone – that you’re right.”
T’kamen took a deep breath. “No, H’juke,” he said. Then, as the young bronze rider began to protest, he said, “No. That’s an order. Absolutely not.”
H’juke’s face fell. “But we can do it. I know we can. And if you have evidence…”
“No,” T’kamen said. “I’m not going to use you to score a point off S’leondes. This Arbitration isn’t about evidence. It’s about ideology. Mine, and the Commander’s. If I can’t convince seven out of thirteen dragonriders to believe in my vision, my path, over his, then no amount of evidence is going to change their minds. I have to show them I’m more worthy of their trust than he is.”
It was a moment of such clarity that he was briefly staggered by it. Epherineth approved. Now you understand. I proved my superiority in flight. Now you must do the same on the ground.
“But how are you going to do that?” H’juke asked unhappily. “He’s the Commander.”
“I don’t know,” said T’kamen. “But I have to try.”
The sweepriders reported a warm air mass moving in from the west, and G’less, whose Elsterth had an excellent weather-sense, predicted thunderstorms by evening. But when Epherineth took T’kamen the short distance across the Bowl to where every bench, chair, and stool in Madellon had been set out in front of the speakers’ platform, the afternoon could not have been hotter, or drier, or more expectantly, airlessly still.
That wasn’t to say that the riders and Weyrfolk who had claimed every last one of those hundreds of seats were still. They were anything but. The buzz of anticipation wouldn’t have been out of place at an Interval Hatching. It was the dragons filling the weyr ledges at that end of the Bowl, three and four of them crowding some of the best vantages, that made T’kamen truly aware of the gravity of the occasion. Dragons usually paid no attention to human constructs like law. The fact that so many were taking an interest in T’kamen’s dispute with S’leondes spoke to the deep significance between had to dragons as well as their riders. Everyone cared about this Arbitration.
The arbiters were already there, seated in two rows at the side of the dais. Dalka had done the ballot to select them from the Weyr’s rider population that morning, with T’kamen and S’leondes both in attendance. The first thirteen names out of the box wouldn’t have been too bad, but the Commander exercised his right to exclude three names he didn’t want – two of them brown riders. T’kamen used his own objections to weed out the worst candidates, but by the time Dalka had drawn fresh names to replace the discards, he wasn’t much better off. The final panel included the assistant Weyrlingmaster S’hayn and S’leondes’ own Wingsecond G’reyan. There were two Strategic riders – ancient P’rally, and V’larr, a Seventh blue – and Kayrin, one of the Unseen, had been drawn as the final replacement. The others were all Tactical riders with varying amounts of loyalty to S’leondes. It was about as balanced a selection as he could have expected, but the sight of the thirteen riders who would decide his fate – none of them looking certainties to support him – he felt unease twist his gut.
Have faith, Epherineth reminded him.
T’kamen left his hand on his dragon’s shoulder for just a moment longer than necessary as he dismounted. Epherineth had landed close up to the dais, so he didn’t have far to walk. Two lecterns stood upon the platform. A chair and a small table had been placed behind each one; a mug and pitcher of water sat on each table. Between them, at the back of the platform, Dalka sat at a larger table, with Weyr Singer Tawgert beside her. Donauth herself sat behind the dais, and Epherineth took up his place on her left.
The stage was all set; the only player remaining to make his entrance was the Commander. As T’kamen put his notes on the lectern and poured himself water from the jug, he wondered if S’leondes was harming his own case by turning up late to the Arbitration he had invoked. No, he decided. S’leondes was simply making a show of his power. He had every rider in the Weyr, Dalka and T’kamen included, waiting breathlessly for him.
I could command Karzith to come down, Epherineth suggested.
You’d probably better not.
Karzith did come a moment later, without Epherineth’s persuasion. It struck T’kamen, as S’leondes’ blue made his descent towards the dais, that he still reacted to dragons like the Interval rider he was. Karzith seemed comically tiny beside Donauth and Epherineth, like a weyrling beside adults. T’kamen had to remind himself that most of the watching riders wouldn’t see their Commander’s fighting blue the same way. To them, Epherineth was grotesquely oversized.
S’leondes dismounted from his dragon and stepped up to his lectern with the easy, loose-limbed stride that T’kamen still envied. He had no notes. He placed his hands on the wooden stand and looked intently out at the assembled dragonriders. Then he turned slightly to face the arbiters. His tawny eyes sought and found faces, and he nodded slightly to a chosen few. As he did, and without even commanding it, the buzz of conversation faded into an expectant silence punctuated only by an occasional cough from a rider, and the odd grate of talon on stone from a dragon.
Dalka rose from her seat. Her face was composed into sharp lines. “Riders of Madellon.” Her voice carried well on the still, close air. “Commander S’leondes has invoked an Arbitration against Marshal T’kamen. The arbiters before you will hear the case for both sides and decide for the Weyr.
“Commander S’leondes, what motion do you bring before this Arbitration?”
“That the Marshal’s attempts to teach Madellon’s riders to go between are unsafe and misguided,” S’leondes replied, “and that for the good of the Weyr the training programme should be terminated.”
Unsafe and misguided made T’kamen want to clench his teeth, but he resisted the urge.
“Marshal T’kamen,” said Dalka. Her tone betrayed no hint of personal opinion. “Do you contest the Commander’s assertion?”
“I do contest it, Weyrwoman,” T’kamen replied.
“Very well,” Dalka said. She maintained her careful neutrality as she spoke. “Commander; as you have brought the Arbitration against the Marshal, you may open your case.”
“Thank you, Dalka,” S’leondes said, with the least inclination of his head.
He stepped out from behind his lectern, moving to the centre of the dais. T’kamen had expected that. The records noted that S’leondes had done the same in each of his prior Arbitrations, while R’lony had remained stubbornly in place. But as the moments passed, and S’leondes didn’t begin, T’kamen began to wonder if something was amiss with his opponent. S’leondes stood with his head down, as if steeling himself. The faintest murmur of query started amongst the watching riders.
Then S’leondes raised his head. He looked at the panel. “Forgive me,” he said. “I’ve found this matter very difficult. Very painful. Each time I harness my thoughts to grapple with it, the loss hurts me again. It hurts me that I must stand here in front of you all and rip the scab from a wound not yet begun to heal; that I stand here compelling you to Arbitrate when I know that the loss is as raw and personal for at least some of you as it is for me.” He took a breath. “Green rider Fraza was my wingman. She was my tailman before that, and of all the many riders who have served in that capacity she was among the bravest, the most honest, and the most talented. Her death is a blow to Wing and Weyr, and a tragedy to me personally. I’m a father of sons, and only sons. Fraza was the nearest I’ve ever come to having a daughter. And now I have no daughter.
“We fighting riders are no strangers to bereavement. There’s not a green or blue rider here who hasn’t lost friends and wingmates, lovers and children, to Thread. It’s what binds us together and what sets us apart. We know the dangers we face when we fight Thread, and we fight it anyway, knowing that if we die, we die as dragonriders should: in battle; protecting Pern; making a difference. Knowing that we do not die in vain.” S’leondes paused again. His face contorted. “Fraza died in vain.”
I knew he was going to say that, T’kamen told Epherineth grimly. He wanted to refute the point, but the rules of the Arbitration forbade him. He had to stick it out until S’leondes completed his opening argument.
“She died in vain,” S’leondes continued, “striving to achieve something that she could not reasonably expect to have achieved – something that no reasonable leader would have asked of her. She’d been led to believe that Impressing a fire-lizard would grant her dragon the ability to go between. And trusting to that fallacy – trusting to the rider who had assured her of its veracity – she tried, and failed, and lost her life.
“It could have been prevented.” He said it simply and starkly. “I could have prevented it. But, like most of you, I wanted to believe that between was within our reach. I wanted to believe that our dragons could reclaim their old ability to go from place to place in a heartbeat. I wanted to believe, even when all the evidence warned against it. The loss of M’ric, after all, could have been an anomaly; he was never the rider that Fraza was. But when we heard about the Istan riders who had put their faith in their fire-lizards to guide them safely between, and found that faith fatally misplaced, I should have known. I should have acted. I should have put a stop to the folly before someone got hurt. But I didn’t, and Fraza paid the price for my desire to believe that T’kamen was right.
“Dragons can no longer go between and come out the other side. This is fact, not belief. The notion that fire-lizards are the key to safe navigation is unfounded, unproven, and unethical. Between is closed to the dragons of the Pass, and whatever loophole Epherineth exploits to flout that prohibition, it is exclusive to him. Epherineth was Hatched in a different era. He cannot be held up as a standard for our dragons to meet – not in any sense. It’s absurd to think that since he can go between, our dragons can do the same, when the opposite has been so tragically proven.”
S’leondes held up a hand. “Let me pre-empt something I’m certain the Marshal will argue.” He didn’t turn towards T’kamen as he spoke. “He’ll argue that it has not been proved that dragons cannot go between. He’ll argue that only a positive outcome can be proven. Theoretically, he’s correct. But how many dragonpairs have to die between before he’ll admit that he was wrong? How many lives will he sacrifice to his pathological need to be right? How many M’rics and Frazas have to die before he’s willing to concede that his solution was only ever a wild fantasy?
“I don’t use that word – fantasy – to insult the Marshal. I use it because the dream of salvation through between is something we’ve all –” S’leondes gestured to encompass the entire audience, “– all been guilty of indulging. Because it would be a fine thing, wouldn’t it, if the Marshal were right, and the secret to going between were as simple as every rider Impressing a fire-lizard.” He stopped. “But as I’ve been obliged to examine my motivations in allowing T’kamen to pursue this course of action, I’ve been forced to face some other truths. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that fire-lizards are the key. No one here can have forgotten why we stamped out fire-lizards in the south in the first place. How many among us would truly be happy to sully the bonds we share with our dragons with these scavengers? How many of us could stomach, without prejudice, living in close quarters with a creature who would just as soon gorge upon a fallen dragon’s flesh? How many of us could endure the presence of hundreds of squabbling, spying, thieving fire-lizards at Madellon?”
T’kamen tried not to bristle visibly. The only fire-lizard I’ve ever known to steal anything was Agusta. Fetch certainly never has.
I wouldn’t let him, said Epherineth.
“Consider as well,” said S’leondes, “that fire-lizards are no longer a resource native to Madellon’s territory. We were thorough when we eradicated them from our shores. It leaves us reliant on the north for lizard eggs. The north, with all the many injuries the dragonriders of that continent have done to us over the Turns – and to add insult to them, the mere twelve eggs that the Marshal obtained from Ista came at the steepest of prices. As if Ceduth’s stolen eggs weren’t enough, Ista demanded Donauth’s entire next clutch in payment for those dozen fire-lizards. How many dragon eggs will Ista’s leaders demand for the next consignment of fire-lizards?
“And one promise even the Marshal has never made is that all dragons would be able to go between with the help of fire-lizards. We are, all of us, familiar with the cut-off point. So what of the dragons who cannot go between at all because they are already nine or ten Turns old? What place would they have in this new world of younger dragons going between? What reward would it be to veterans who have survived Fall for a decade or more, only to become part of an underclass? Every Wingleader in this Weyr, and more than two-thirds of the Wingseconds, rides a dragon already too old to ever learn to go between. T’kamen’s vision would make all that experience, all that talent, obsolete. How is that fair; how is that just?
“It isn’t fair. It isn’t just. None of what T’kamen has been trying, and failing, to achieve values fairness or justice. The logic is flawed; the benefits questionable; the price too high. M’ric and Fraza spent their lives in payment for a false promise.” S’leondes crossed the dais to stand directly before the panel. “Arbiters. I’m asking you to intervene before any more young riders of Madellon are compelled to throw their futures into the furnace of this bronze rider’s vanity.”
Silence accompanied S’leondes as he retraced his steps across the platform, but as he sat down in the chair behind his lectern, an excited buzz of conversation leapt instantly into being amongst the assembled riders.
Dalka allowed it for a count of ten before she rose. “This Arbitration will have silence,” she said, and though she didn’t raise her voice, Donauth must have echoed it. T’kamen felt the ripple of a queen’s force through Epherineth. The hum of conversation died down again. “Marshal T’kamen,” said Dalka, “you may open your case.”
T’kamen put his hand to his cane and rose from his chair. He glanced at the notes resting on his lectern, but he knew he couldn’t deliver his argument from there. Instead, he limped slowly over to stand in front of the arbiters, scanning their faces as he did. G’reyan and S’hayn looked just about as hostile as could be, as did the two green riders sitting either side of them. P’rally was frowning, V’larr looked grave, and Kayrin troubled. “I’m not –”
“Shame on you!” someone in the audience bawled.
Donauth growled, and the murmur that had followed the scream quietened immediately. T’kamen tried not to let it rattle him. He went on as if nothing had happened. “I’m not going to try to outdo the Commander’s tribute to Fraza,” he said. “Nor to persuade any of you that my grief for her equals or exceeds his. Those of you who know me, and who knew Fraza, know my feelings.” He met Kayrin’s gaze as he spoke, and was gratified to see her straighten and nod slightly.
“What I will say of Fraza is this: she was a volunteer. So were the eleven other riders who have Impressed fire-lizards and trained with me these last sevendays. They were all chosen from a pool of well over a hundred riders who believed so strongly in the benefits of being able to go between that they were willing to overcome their distaste for fire-lizards, and to master the fear that’s drilled into every dragonpair on Pern in this Pass. Fraza knew it was dangerous. She knew what had happened to M’ric – her clutchmate and her wingmate. And still she believed that the benefits of restoring between to dragonkind made the pursuit of it worth the risk.
“The Commander has disputed if it’s even possible for Pass dragons to go between safely. I maintain, despite how he pre-empted the point, that the case is not yet made either way. Fraza’s attempt to go between last sevenday was premature. I hadn’t yet passed the riders of the Unseen – or their fire-lizards – ready to try going between at all – much less without even Epherineth standing by to pull them out if necessary. S’leondes’ assertion that it isn’t possible has no basis in fact. It hasn’t been given a chance.”
T’kamen took a breath. Most of the arbiters were still studying him with stony expressions. He forged on. “Fire-lizards are the key to going between – or, in truth, to navigating safely between. The Commander cites the eating habits of wild fire-lizards as one bar to their acceptance in the Weyr. I will say now, and the riders of the Unseen will confirm this: no Impressed fire-lizard has or will ever scavenge from the remains of a dragon. The Commander cites bad behaviour – fighting and stealing – that no well-trained fire-lizard would exhibit. And while it’s true that we’re reliant on the north for fire-lizard eggs, that’s a short-term problem. It would only take a couple of queens to supply Madellon with all the eggs it needs.
“None of these objections are compelling enough to outweigh the benefits of having dragons who can go between. I’m almost reluctant to list them, because to me they’re so obvious, but I’m not unaware that I come from a different culture when it comes to between.
“Let me, as a Strategic rider, put fighting aside for the moment. It takes about three hours to fly straight from here to Kellad Hold, and the average dragon will need to eat a couple of wherries when he gets there. But a dragon who can go between can be at Kellad in a matter of moments, home again minutes later, and need no extra feeding to do it. Imagine being able to collect fresh tithe from our outlying Holds, instead of only whatever can be dried or salted down. Imagine being able to go between to meet Thread when it starts falling, instead of slogging out to a Weyrstation the night before. Imagine being able to jump back to the Weyr immediately afterwards, instead of facing a long flight home when you’re already tired.
“And imagine being able to dodge Thread.” T’kamen paused to let that one sink in a moment. He knew that talking about the fighting Wings was dangerous, that S’leondes would certainly haul him up for overstepping his boundaries, but it was important. “Imagine being able to blink back into formation after you’ve chased a piece down. Imagine being able to call in a fresh dragonpair to replace a casualty, a fresh Wing when the Fall is long and everyone’s tired. Imagine how much more Thread you’d be able to burn if you didn’t know that the slightest strike would mean being eaten alive.
“And then imagine what that would mean to the people of Madellon’s protectorate. What it would mean to the people of Pern. It’s not just that dragons could burn more Thread out of the sky and leave less to ravage crops and pastures. The extra beasts dragons need to eat when they’re forced to fly straight everywhere wouldn’t be needed. The burden of tithe would be hugely reduced, alleviating the deprivation and poverty that blight every Hold in Madellon’s territory and beyond. Everyone on Pern wins. Everyone.”
T’kamen took another breath. His mouth was dry, and he would have welcomed a drink, but his water was where he’d left it, on the table behind his lectern, and he didn’t dare break the momentum of his argument by limping slowly back to get it. Some of the more moderate fighting riders on the panel looked like they almost believed him; even G’reyan was frowning thoughtfully. S’hayn’s distrustful expression hadn’t changed, though. He wasn’t for persuading.
“I’m not insensible to the issue of older dragons,” T’kamen went on. “I realise that it may not be possible to grant between to every dragonpair. I know it isn’t fair that officers and veterans, the most valuable and experienced riders we have, will be excluded from many of the benefits of between. But denying young dragons between just to maintain equality isn’t fair, either. The fact that the ability of dragons to go between atrophies with age is a phenomenon none of us can control, not an injustice imposed by choice. As time goes on, more dragons will become veterans because between allowed them to survive long enough.
“And this is where the Commander’s thinking and mine differ so dramatically. The fighting Wings deal in tactics, in the short term, in the here-and-now. But the Seventh Flight concerns itself with strategy. Restoring between isn’t tactical. It can’t be done overnight. Even with the best of luck it could be Turns – even decades – before the dragons of Pern can take full advantage of between as they did in Passes gone by. This is a long game, not a quick fix.”
He paused, thinking, and then spoke words he hadn’t planned. “A long game,” he repeated. “It seems sometimes as if that describes my life. I was born midway through the Seventh Interval. I was displaced a hundred and twenty-six Turns from my native era to come here. I didn’t choose to come. Some other force moved me, like a playing piece on a chessboard. But I can’t believe – won’t believe – that my being here has no meaning. I can’t accept that I was taken from my own era, my own Weyr, from the people I loved, simply to exist here in the Eighth Pass without a purpose. I’m here for a reason. I’m here to make a difference. Let me make it. Let me bring back between.”
He hesitated a moment before the arbiters, then turned to cross the dais back to his seat. The sound his cane made as its bronze-shod tip struck the surface seemed impossibly loud.
Then S’leondes rose from his place. “Some other force,” he said. His tone was incredulous, and his spread his hands as if to include everyone in his disbelief. “It troubles me, that the Strategic branch of Madellon Weyr could have fallen under the control of a rider with so monstrous an ego, so titanic a burden of self-importance.” He pointed at T’kamen, looking out at the audience. “This man – this bronze rider – believes he’s come to save us all. To save us all!”
Someone in the audience laughed, and a ripple of nervous titters began to spread.
T’kamen clenched his jaw. “That’s not –”
But S’leondes was already speaking over him. “Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, T’kamen’s not even been here a Turn, but he’s hardly been idle. He’s spent every moment of his time with us trying to claw back the relevance that he lost when he abandoned his own time. Any attention, it seems, is better than none, when you’re a Seventh Interval bronze rider in a Pass where your sense of self-entitlement no longer has an outlet.”
Here it comes, T’kamen thought. He’d known that S’leondes would make it personal. He braced himself.
“So what passes for making a difference, in T’kamen’s world view?” S’leondes asked. “Well, let’s see. How about showing a casual disregard for the safety of those entrusted to him? Let’s not forget that before the quixotic pursuit of between claimed M’ric’s life, T’kamen put him in harm’s way at Little Madellon. And M’ric might have got away with it, but T’kamen’s own dragon wasn’t so lucky.” S’leondes looked meaningfully at Epherineth, lifting his hand to mime a scar down his own face. “How about traumatising Alanne, a dragonless woman who never asked for anything but to be left alone – a woman who died still sobbing about the cold-hearted bronze rider who’d slaughtered her companions? How about flouting the prohibitions laid on him at his Discipline by using young riders to tail for him even when he was expressly forbidden to ever take a tailman again?” S’leondes shook his head. “I believe I may have hit on it. What T’kamen characterises as making a difference, any other rider would call breaking the law. Having his bronze intimidate smaller dragons. Aiding and abetting a defector. Colluding with Ista, and trading away dragon eggs not his to trade. Not to mention allowing Epherineth, a bronze, to fly a queen. It’s difficult to find a law this man hasn’t broken while he’s been in the Pass. But it all goes back to the same defect of personality that defines T’kamen: his inability to accept that anything he does could possibly be wrong.
“It explains his hypocrisy. It explains how he can admonish his riders for being careless with their passions while, himself, repaying a young green rider’s faithfulness with staggering cruelty. It explains how he can claim to respect our ways one moment, and seek to remould Madellon to his own satisfaction the next.
“And it explains his breathtaking capacity for bare-faced lies.” S’leondes said that with a perverse kind of satisfaction. “Because even as he’s made his case to you today, he’s misled you – consciously, deliberately, and for his own self-serving ends. T’kamen would have you believe that between is a panacea, a solution to every problem that Pern faces. He’d have you believe that a world in which every dragon can go between is something to be pursued at all costs. And it’s a lie, and he knows it, and still he has the temerity to stand here before the Weyr and claim it as the truth.
“The way T’kamen states it, no dragon ever died a premature death in the old days. A lie. Between or not, dragons still died. Dragons died because of between. The attrition rate of weyrlings at the Peninsula Weyr in the Seventh Interval ran at almost twenty-five percent. Nearly one in every four weyrlings died trying to master between, and this was in the days when every dragon was naturally capable of it. One in four. If we lose one weyrling in twenty, we consider that a failure.
“T’kamen claims he was a leading advocate for the rights of green and blue riders at a time when the only riders who mattered rode browns and bronzes. Another lie. If he was such a champion of the underprivileged, why did no blue or green rider become even a Wingsecond until Starfall Weyr was founded? What evidence is there that T’kamen did anything at all for what he calls the ‘junior’ colours?
“And how can we believe for an instant his assertion that the restoration of between wouldn’t result in a return to the bad old ways we’ve fought so hard to overturn? Because – make no mistake – T’kamen dreams of brown and bronze dragons flying in the fighting Wings once more. And when dragon hierarchy is allowed to rule supreme, which it always does when dragons of all colours fly together, there’ll be no room for blues and greens to lead. No brown or bronze dragon will tolerate being commanded by what they consider a lesser colour. Green and blue riders will be relegated to the rank and file, suppressed there regardless of their abilities, as they have been throughout Pern’s history.”
S’leondes raked the assembled dragonriders with a glance. “I know there are those of you here who’ve been won to T’kamen’s cause. I know there are riders among you who believe you owe your lives to his intervention. And I cannot refute that there are dragons and riders who would not be here today had Epherineth not snatched them between in Fall.” Then he gestured, with a wide sweep of his arm. “And there some of those lucky few are.”
There was a rustle as every rider, arbiters and otherwise, turned to look in the direction S’leondes indicated.
“Meicrath,” the Commander said, pointing to a grey-toned green on one of the ledges above the dragon infirmary. “Epherineth saved her life, but not her wings. She’ll never fly again. Not to fight, not to mate.” He pointed to a blue whose head was swathed in bandages. “Nageth. Hit in the face by a wingmate’s flame. Epherineth brought him back to the Weyr, but even our best Dragon-healers can’t repair his burned-out eyes.” He shifted his arm again. “Kujonth. A tangle took off the last six feet of his tail. He’ll never be able to control his defecation again.” S’leondes lowered his arm. “This is what T’kamen considers salvation. Living crippled, disfigured, disabled. Each of those dragons will need treatment for the rest of his life; and for what? They’ll never be able to fight; some of them will never fly. They’ll be a burden on the Weyr, a drain on our resources. They should have been allowed to die gloriously in Fall like the heroes they were, rather than living on as the damaged shells of what they used to be.
“And that’s what T’kamen, in his self-righteous blinkers, cannot see. He hasn’t saved these dragons. Between hasn’t saved them. It’s condemned them. Those riders, those dragons, would never have chosen to live this way. And perhaps T’kamen – crippled as he is, maimed as his dragon was as a result of his bad decisions – believes he’s done them a favour, but it’s a hollow boon. He’s not the one who’ll be washing out Nageth’s empty eye sockets with redwort twice a day for the rest of his life. He’s not the one who’ll have to watch as Meicrath crawls along the ground in the parody of a mating flight. No. T’kamen’s done the easy part, claimed credit for their deliverance, and then left them to their fates without a backward glance. This is a man whose entire legacy as a Weyrleader is defined by how he abandoned Madellon when it needed him most. He can’t be trusted. He cannot be trusted.”
T’kamen had tried not to let the accusations get to him. He’d tried to let them wash over him. But as he rose to defend himself, he knew he was shaking: not just with anger, but with the nauseating knowledge that at least some of what S’leondes flung at him was true. Epherineth’s touch on his mind steadied him, but only just.
“I’ve never claimed to be infallible,” he said. His voice was rough; he tried to even it out. “I’ve made mistakes.” Even as he said it, he winced at the admission; true though it was, it was what S’leondes wanted. “And a wiser rider than me once said that serving your Weyr doesn’t always allow you the luxury of a clear conscience. My conscience isn’t clear. M’ric weighs on it. Fraza weighs on it. And for all the harm Alanne did Epherineth and me, I regret any part that we played in her…”
And something that S’leondes had said about Alanne clicked in T’kamen’s mind.
“…death.” T’kamen finished his sentence unevenly. He stared at nothing for a moment as the pieces shifted into a configuration at once so implausible and so inescapable that he nearly couldn’t accept it.
Then he looked at S’leondes. “You killed Alanne.” He spoke quietly, for the Commander’s ears only.
S’leondes looked back at him, his expression so blank, that for a moment T’kamen questioned the conclusion he’d drawn. “What?”
“Weyr Singer.” T’kamen addressed Tawgert over his shoulder without taking his eyes off S’leondes. “Would you read back what the Commander just said about Alanne?”
“Certainly, Marshal,” Tawgert said, after a moment. “Let me just find…”
S’leondes’ expression was flatly incredulous. “You’re accusing me…?”
“The Commander said, ‘How about traumatising Alanne,’” Tawgert read from his transcript, “‘a dragonless woman who never asked for anything but to be left alone – a woman who died still sobbing about the cold-hearted bronze rider who’d slaughtered her companions?’”
“How do you know what Alanne was sobbing as she died?” T’kamen asked S’leondes.
“I…don’t…” S’leondes was suddenly as rattled and off-balance as T’kamen had ever seen him. “I mean, I wasn’t; I…”
“Faranth,” T’kamen said, hardly believing it himself. “You did it, didn’t you? You killed her.”
For a moment, S’leondes’ expression was stricken – perhaps more for having made the slip that had exposed him than for the terrible act to which it tied him – and then his face clouded with rage. “How dare you,” he said, and then, roaring, “how dare you!”
“Then you deny it?” T’kamen asked, though he was sure now; as sure as he’d ever been about anything. Alanne’s death, so soon after Fetch had piloted Epherineth between for the first time, had put an end to Madellon’s only source of fire-lizard eggs. Killing her was a brutally logical play for a man who wanted no part in fire-lizards or between. He’s cunning, but he’s not subtle.
“Deny it?” said S’leondes. “Deny what? The false allegation of a desperate man, slung at me like a handful of mud?”
“If it’s not true, then deny it,” T’kamen said steadily, though the angry stirring of the watching riders threatened to drown out his words. “Deny it here, in front of Donauth, and have her verify that you speak the truth. Deny it, S’leondes!”
“I deny it to my Weyr,” S’leondes said, and stepped forward to the front of the dais. “I deny it to my riders, not to a queen. I deny it to the riders who know me, the riders who trust me.” He spread his hands to the audience. “Who do you believe? This man, this bronze rider, who has left death and devastation in his wake since the moment he arrived in our Pass? Or the rider who liberated you all from the tyranny of colour hierarchy, who has been your leader and your servant and your champion, who has wept and sweated and bled for you all these twenty Turns? Who do you believe, Madellon? Who do you believe?”
“S’leondes!” someone screamed.
“Commander!” That shout came from the arbiters’ panel.
Then a young rider rose from the front row. He raised his hand to point at T’kamen. “Traitor!”
“He’s no traitor!” someone else shouted.
“He killed her!” the first boy screamed.
The descent into chaos had happened so quickly and so completely that T’kamen was dazed by it. Not every rider was screaming for T’kamen’s blood, but that made it worse. Shoving matches were breaking out in little knots across the audience as his supporters and S’leondes’ came to blows.
“Stop this!” T’kamen shouted out at the sea of riders. He looked across at S’leondes. The Commander was watching the bedlam with an expression of tremendous satisfaction. “For Faranth’s sake, S’leondes, put an end to this!”
“It is ended, T’kamen,” S’leondes said. “And I think you’ve lost.”
Donauth reared from her place behind the dais, screaming out a cry so forceful that every dragon in the Bowl shuddered with the power of it. The tussling riders broke off as she spread her vast golden wings. “That’s enough!” Dalka shouted. “This is an Arbitration, not a brawl!”
“Dalka’s right,” said S’leondes. “It seems like it’s time for the arbiters to make their decision.” He looked at the panel. “Will you find for me…” He turned to gesture at T’kamen. “Or for him?”
“Arbiters,” Dalka said. Her voice shook slightly with the strain. “Please rise, those of you who find in the Commander’s favour, for the termination of the between programme.”
There was only the slightest pause. Then S’hayn leapt to his feet, with G’reyan a breath behind him. The two green riders who had eyed T’kamen with such disapproval were next, and then, one by one each of the remaining fighting riders rose to their feet. In instants, the only arbiters still seated were P’rally, V’larr, and a wretched-looking Kayrin.
It was all over.
Continue to Chapter eighty-two: T’kamen
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- The end is nigh posted 8 February 2017
- Happy (nearly) birthday, Dragonchoice 3! posted 5 October 2016
- Venn diagram posted 25 February 2016
- Don’t let me Rosebud; or, why your feedback matters posted 17 February 2016
- Dragonflight: early instalment weirdness a-gogo posted 7 February 2016