Chapter eighty-two: T’kamen
If dragonriders aren’t meant to fight, why do we teach our weyrlings how?
For self-defence, of course. Just because a rider has been told not to fight – and just because the Teaching Ballads strictly forbid any holder from attacking a dragonrider – doesn’t mean either party will obey.
There was a time in Pern’s history when knife duels between riders weren’t uncommon. They were considered to be an acceptable resolution for the most bitter disagreements between dragonriders. How better could a rider prove his conviction than by putting his life, and his dragon’s, at risk in its name?
Those were more primitive times. Now, the mechanisms of Weyr law – the Discipline, the Justice, the Mediation, and the Arbitration – have replaced the mindless injustice of the duel, just as Exile and Separation have replaced staking out as the punishment for capital crimes. For what civilised man prizes physical might over reasoned argument, sober consideration, and self-evident truth?
– Weyrlingmaster D’hor, Weyrling Training Manual, volume three
T’kamen knew he shouldn’t have been surprised.
S’leondes had won every Arbitration he’d ever fought out of sheer force of popularity. It had been a foregone conclusion that he’d win this one, too. It still made T’kamen’s stomach lurch. The arbiters had made their judgement, and he had to abide by their decision.
He gathered himself. The loser of an Arbitration was required to concede to the victor. Stiffly, he limped over to face the Commander in the centre of the dais. S’leondes was smiling slightly. T’kamen wanted to smash the expression off his face. “You killed Alanne,” he said softly. “Your acolytes might believe that you’re the greatest dragonrider who ever lived, but that doesn’t make you any less a murderer.”
“Don’t be a sore loser, T’kamen,” said S’leondes. “It doesn’t look good on you.” He seized T’kamen’s wrist and yanked him so hard towards him that his shoulder nearly dislocated. “Besides,” he said, for T’kamen’s ears alone, “you don’t give me enough credit. Poisoning that old loon was easy. Getting M’ric in the path of the tangle that put him out of his misery was much harder. And as for the sheer persistence it took to get Fraza to lose herself between…” S’leondes’ teeth flashed, and his fingers bit into T’kamen’s forearm. “Go on. Repeat what I just said for the Weyr to hear. See how long you last as Marshal after that.”
Then S’leondes released him with a shove. T’kamen staggered. As his weight went onto his game leg it crumpled under him, and he dropped to one knee.
“No need to kneel, T’kamen,” S’leondes said, as though graciously, turning to the audience. “But I accept your concession.”
T’kamen hardly heard him. His ears, his mind, his entire being, rang with the appalling truth of S’leondes’ gleeful admissions.
Never underestimate what your opponent is prepared to do in the pursuit of victory, El’yan had told him.
S’leondes is cunning, but he’s not subtle, Dalka had said.
And T’kamen had heeded neither of them.
He heaved himself upright and hobbled the few steps back to his chair. He’s a dragonrider, he said, numbly, to Epherineth.
He is also a man. With a man’s capacity for fear and hate and rage. You have known all those things yourself, T’kamen.
But you wouldn’t let me kill Katel, T’kamen said. You pulled me back from that brink. Why didn’t Karzith stop S’leondes?
Karzith is not me. S’leondes is not you. You are my rider. My partner. My equal in all things. You cannot hide from me or lie to me. You cannot force your will upon me. You cannot make me believe what you know is not true.
I would never want to!
Not all dragons are as fortunate as me. And not all dragonpairs are partnerships.
Unbidden, the image of the lad who had Impressed that first blue dragonet of Levierth’s clutch floated up in T’kamen’s mind: his intent face, his fierce eyes, the unswerving conviction in the set of his jaw that he would Impress the dragon he wanted. Man and dragon fully matched. The words of that ancient ballad had never seemed so inapt. They’re Impressing the wrong dragons. That boy should have been a bronze rider. He’ll dominate that blue.
Yes. Epherineth’s tone was gentle. You would have overwhelmed a blue, too. As Karzith is dominated by his rider.
Then Karzith has no power to stop S’leondes the way you stopped me?
Karzith is not the equal of his rider. He believes what the Commander tells him, and has not the will to question his decisions. I cannot stop you from doing anything. As you cannot stop me. But we are equals. We are alike in strength. We are together in all things, in all ways. And together we always know what is the right thing to do, even when it is not the easy thing to do.
What do we do, Epherineth? T’kamen asked. Their conversation had taken a span of seconds; S’leondes was still speaking, describing how the between programme would be dismantled, the Unseen reassigned, the fire-lizards chased off or put down. He’s won the Arbitration. He’d won before we even started. The way these shaffing riders love him…
They wouldn’t love him if they knew what he truly is, said Epherineth.
You saw how they turned on me when I accused him of killing Alanne. They didn’t want to believe it. Dalka told me not to attack him personally. He knows he can’t be beaten in a popularity contest. That’s why he rubbed my nose in it just now. T’kamen put his hand to his face, stricken. Faranth, Epherineth. He killed Alanne so we wouldn’t have access to more fire-lizards. He made Fraza go between, knowing she wasn’t ready. He got M’ric and Trebruth Thread-struck… And all because he was afraid of how it would harm his legacy if dragons could go between again!
Epherineth said, He must not be allowed to win, T’kamen.
I don’t know what I can do to beat him! He has control of the board, and me in check. I can’t think of any move I can make that won’t end in a mate.
Epherineth exuded puzzlement for a moment, and then said, But you are not playing chess.
He seldom sought refuge in draconic literal-mindedness. Don’t be so sharding obtuse, Epherineth, said T’kamen. You understand what an analogy is.
Yes. I do. And you are still not playing chess with Karzith’s rider. Epherineth paused. You are playing poker.
T’kamen sat, thunderstruck, for a moment.
Epherineth was right. T’kamen had approached this clash as a chess match. S’leondes had been playing poker all along. The Commander didn’t have a hand, and he knew it. But a good poker player didn’t need good cards. See how long you last as Marshal after that. It was the ultimate bluff. Give up now, before I destroy you utterly. Because that was what S’leondes wanted: to make T’kamen fold while he still had something to play for. While he still had something to lose. It was how the Commander had played R’lony for all those Turns: driving him to submission rather than obliteration, limiting his power by threatening him with the complete withdrawal of it. T’kamen had often wondered why S’leondes hadn’t pushed harder to depose R’lony entirely. Now he knew. A rival crushed made space for a new threat to arise, but a surrendered enemy would never be truly dangerous. R’lony had surrendered because he’d still had too much to lose, and S’leondes’ dominance of the Weyr had been left unchallenged.
And suddenly something from an age ago, a lifetime ago, unearthed itself in T’kamen’s mind. I think you’d be a better poker player if you didn’t lose confidence in the strength of your hand.
We still have a lot to lose, T’kamen told Epherineth. My rank. Your queen. Our reputation. Our lives, if we fail, and S’leondes follows through on his threat. He could have us Separated.
It’s as I said, said Epherineth. We always know what is the right thing to do. Even when it’s not the easy thing to do.
T’kamen was overwhelmed, briefly, by awe for Epherineth’s courage. A lesser dragon might have been brave through lack of comprehension; Epherineth understood completely the potential consequences of what T’kamen planned, and he supported it anyway. Epherineth was the high card, the ace in the hole. The card T’kamen had known he couldn’t play. The card he now must play, though the gamble could ruin them both. How do we do it?
Make him lie, said Epherineth. And then catch him in it.
T’kamen took a breath.
Then he rose. “I don’t.”
S’leondes had still been talking. He broke off and looked around, blinking in genuine surprise. “What?”
T’kamen advanced to face him. His knee felt even weaker than before, but he ignored it. “I don’t concede, S’leondes. I don’t recognise your authority to question mine. You’re a confessed murderer and not fit to hold any rank, least of all Commander.”
The reaction of the crowd, far from the outrage at T’kamen’s earlier accusation, was mutedly baffled. S’leondes’ response was nearly as equivocal. T’kamen could see him trying to figure out his angle. “The Arbitration is over, T’kamen,” S’leondes said, after a moment. “Whatever baseless accusations you care to hurl at me, the arbiters’ decision is final –”
“The Arbitration was brought under false pretences,” said T’kamen. “You forfeited the right to wear the Commander’s knots when you committed your first murder. Only the Commander or the Marshal can invoke an Arbitration, and you’re neither.”
The assembled riders began to stir again, the mutters of consternation growing in volume. Then S’leondes held his hands up to them. “No,” he said. “Let the bronze rider say his piece. Dalka!” He pointed to her. “Donauth may impose upon Karzith to verify that I speak the truth!”
Dalka was looking alarmed, but behind her, Donauth mantled her wings, and then cried out, an imperious affirmative.
S’leondes turned back to T’kamen, smiling. There was a dangerous glint in his eyes. “Go on, T’kamen. Tell Madellon about your fevered fantasies of my many heinous murders.” The I dare you went unspoken.
“You killed Alanne,” T’kamen said, “or had her killed.”
“I didn’t kill Alanne,” S’leondes said. “I didn’t have her killed. I had nothing to do with that tragic woman’s death.” He looked slightly towards Donauth. Her eyes were narrowed as she regarded Karzith, but she didn’t contradict S’leondes’ claims. “You see? Why would I wish any harm on a poor dragonless woman?”
“Because she had fire-lizards,” T’kamen said. “She was found dead the same day that Fetch piloted Epherineth between for the first time, the day we discovered that fire-lizards were the key to restoring between to dragons.”
S’leondes laughed. “Alanne’s death happened sevendays before I even knew about that supposed link. I was as surprised as anyone when Epherineth rescued Suatreth in Fall!”
T’kamen hadn’t thought of that. He felt sweat trickling down his temple. He didn’t dare distract Epherineth from his intense concentration. “You knew,” he said. “You had an informant.” His mind raced, trying to fit the pieces together, and then his guts lurched. He darted a sideways glance towards Dalka. Surely she couldn’t have been reporting to S’leondes…
And then the smallest twitch of S’leondes’ expression, the least upwards curl of his lip, betrayed his delight.
Not Dalka, T’kamen realised, heartsick.
“M’ric,” he said, and saw S’leondes’ features freeze. “M’ric was your informant all along. He told you what I was trying to do. He told you when Epherineth and I went between.”
“Ridiculous,” said S’leondes. “M’ric was your tailman. Everyone knows that.”
T’kamen shook his head. He advanced a hobbling step on S’leondes. “M’ric was your eyes on me. He was for months.” Then two dots connected in his mind. “That’s why you assigned him to your Wing. Why else would you allow a brown rider into Tactical, if not to reward him for services rendered?”
“I did no such thing,” S’leondes said, but something had shifted the tiniest bit in the space between them, in the air that surrounded them, in the ground beneath their feet. “And what makes you think I’d want to spy on a bronze rider?”
“You’ve always seen me as a threat, S’leondes,” T’kamen said. “Ever since the moment you witnessed Epherineth and me arriving in this Pass, that morning at Madellon West.” He knew it was too much to hope that Dalka would support him in that claim, and she didn’t fail to disappoint, but he saw the flicker in S’leondes’ eyes. “You’re afraid of me. And you’re afraid of between.”
“I’ve flown over two thousand Threadfalls, and you dare call me a coward?” S’leondes snarled.
“You’re afraid of between,” T’kamen repeated. “You’re afraid of the emptiness of the void. You’re afraid of the cold, devouring darkness of it. That’s why, as Fraza told me, you always sleep with a glow-basket open.” He took another halting step towards the Commander. “Or will you deny that, too?”
S’leondes was shaking his head. “All lies,” he said, but some of the certainty had seeped out of his voice.
“You’ve opposed the restoration of between from the start,” T’kamen said. “You’ve feared how it would break the grip you have on Madellon. You’ve put the preservation of your legacy above the preservation of lives. You’d rather see hundreds of dragonpairs die than risk any damage to your legend as the saviour of Pern.” T’kamen paused, feeling his lip curl in a snarl. “And you’ve killed to make sure it never happens!”
“No,” S’leondes said. “No. That’s not true.”
It was the softest sound, barely a whistle from the blue dragon’s throat, but it gave T’kamen fresh impetus. Is it working?
Keep making him lie, Epherineth told him grimly.
That was the key. Karzith couldn’t lie to Donauth, but S’leondes could lie to Karzith – at a cost. Each time S’leondes was forced to suppress the truth to his dragon, it put strain on them both. That strain was beginning to lever open the cracks in S’leondes’ impervious façade, but if Karzith collapsed before his rider did, all would be lost.
“You killed Alanne,” T’kamen said. “You killed her because she could provide us with fire-lizards. But that wasn’t enough. M’ric had Impressed Agusta. A queen. You couldn’t risk her clutching.” He paused half a beat. Each link in the chain was falling into place now, running far ahead of his words. “So M’ric had to die, too. It should have been easy, setting him up to get killed in Fall. But he was too good, wasn’t he? Too quick and too clever. So you used Fraza, the wingmate he loved. You put her in danger, knowing M’ric would risk himself to save her. And that’s exactly what he did.”
Complete silence had fallen across the Weyr. The whispers had died away. No one spoke, no one moved. The dragons on their ledges could have been carved from stone. “This is…” S’leondes said, and then coughed. “This is whershit. This is all whershit.”
Sweat had broken out in beads on his forehead, but behind him, Karzith looked far worse. He was going greyer by the minute, his eyes fading out to frightened yellow-white. T’kamen felt sorry for him, trapped as he was between a queen’s fierce attention and his rider’s desperate blocking. A dragon could be broken by such conflicting pressures. Stay with him, Epherineth.
I am, Epherineth replied, but his voice was strained, and T’kamen realised how much it was costing him to shore up Karzith’s strength unnoticed, to take some of the oppressive weight of Donauth’s and S’leondes’ will off the beleaguered blue, and to prevent either stress from bleeding through to T’kamen.
“But even getting M’ric killed wasn’t enough to make it go away, was it?” T’kamen asked. “Because we found more fire-lizards. Riders started losing their fear of going between. A hundred dragonriders volunteered to Impress a fire-lizard. You could feel your grip getting weaker and weaker with every passing day. Even the tragedy at Ista couldn’t stop it. It was just too distant, too remote. You realised that if you were going to put an end to the Unseen, you needed a catastrophe much closer to home, quickly, before someone succeeded, and I was proved right.”
“No,” S’leondes whispered.
He is very close now, Epherineth told T’kamen. His voice was laboured.
T’kamen gathered himself for a final push. “And that’s why you made Fraza go between, wasn’t it? You used her need to be the best and the brightest, the top of her class, to coerce her into the jump between that killed her. When I’d told you it was too soon, when you knew she wasn’t ready. When you knew she’d fail. When you knew she’d die. Fraza. A green rider. One of your own. The nearest you’ve ever come to having a daughter.”
S’leondes was streaming with sweat now. The glitter in his eyes had turned to a fever shine. “I didn’t…never wanted to…didn’t want to have to hurt her…”
Something broke, violently, like a steel cable snapping. T’kamen felt it through Epherineth; they flinched together, as though physically struck. Karzith uttered the most hideous wail of loss and betrayal and horror, rearing up on his hind legs, his wings half spread, his jaws agape. And S’leondes collapsed to his knees, clutching his head, as the dam he’d built against his dragon’s scrutiny finally burst, and Karzith’s horrified awareness flooded into him like a tide.
Even after everything S’leondes had done, T’kamen felt sorry for him as he knelt there, broken and shuddering, but there was no room left for mercy. “Confess, S’leondes,” he said roughly. “Confess to what you did.”
S’leondes raised his head. His eyes were bottomless pits of despair. “What…did you do…to my dragon?”
“Nothing,” T’kamen said. “Epherineth only lent him the strength to break through your deception.”
“I was protecting him,” S’leondes whispered. “He wouldn’t have understood…the things I had to do…”
“Then you admit it? You killed Alanne? M’ric? Fraza?”
S’leondes drew in a shuddering breath. “Yes. I killed them.”
The words fell like stones into a still pond for a span of moments.
And then the silence that had held sway over the Weyr was shattered by a thousand voices, raised in horror and rage and disbelief.
“He killed them!”
“He admits it!”
“He’s a murderer!”
Over all of them, Donauth trumpeted her outrage, and hundreds of dragons answered her with furious bugles of their own. Karzith behind the dais, seemed to collapse in on himself, covering his head with his wings. And no one spoke out for S’leondes. He knelt suddenly friendless and alone before T’kamen, staring out at the Weyr. “But I did it for you,” he said. He sounded dazed, as though he couldn’t believe that his riders had turned against him so quickly. “Don’t you see that I did it all for you?”
And then something T’kamen had experienced only a handful of times in his life happened. An alien voice intruded on his mind, forcing its way jaggedly and discordantly into the consciousness he shared with Epherineth.
It was Karzith.
He means to kill you.
It wasn’t the warning itself that saved T’kamen. His body reacted before his brain processed the words, recoiling physically with a rider’s reflexive aversion to a strange dragon’s voice. And as he flinched backwards, the thrust of the blade S’leondes drew and drove towards him missed its mark. The point of the knife struck T’kamen’s belt-buckle and deflected, slicing him above the hip instead of sinking into his guts.
As he staggered, he met S’leondes eyes, and saw there was nothing left there. “Score you between,” the Commander said hoarsely. He surged to his feet. “At least I can take you with me.”
There’d been a time when T’kamen would have backed himself for every sliver of a mark he owned against any opponent in a fight. Not because he was particularly big or particularly strong, because even as a lad he’d been neither. Nor because he was unusually quick, or well-trained, or even naturally talented. No one had ever taught him to spar, and all of his experience had come from scraps – friendly and otherwise – with the other boys and young men of the rough-living trader train that had provided both home and identity for his first seventeen Turns. And he’d only ever set foot in one of the civilised, refereed, canvas-floored boxing squares that hosted the best fighters of Hold and Hall at Gathers once, and then for less than two rounds before he’d been disqualified – and ejected – for his conduct.
Because he didn’t win his fights because he was stronger or faster or even better than the men who stepped into the unlicensed sand-floored fighting rings that inevitably sprang up at the murky edges of every Gather and trading conclave. He won them because he’d thought nothing of throwing dirt in a man’s face, or gouging his eyes with his thumbs, or kicking him in the head once he was down to keep him there.
This wasn’t a fist-fight. S’leondes wasn’t the lard-tub guardsman type who’d so often looked at an arrogant trader boy and seen an easy mark. T’kamen wasn’t the light-footed young buck he’d once been.
But he still remembered how to fight dirty.
S’leondes jabbed at him with the knife. He had tremendous reach. T’kamen swayed backwards to avoid the blow, and the knife-tip caught in the front of his jacket. Quickly, he twisted to snag it. It didn’t pull the blade out of S’leondes’ grip, but the yank sent his wrist wide. In the instant of unbalance, T’kamen drove his elbow backwards.
A shorter man would have felt that elbow in the mouth. S’leondes took it in the upper sternum. He grunted, then grabbed at T’kamen. “Have to do better than that.”
T’kamen caught S’leondes’ left hand in his right. The Commander’s fingers were thick and strong. He bent them back with a sharp tug of his wrist.
Only the index finger broke. T’kamen felt the bone snap before he let go. It was enough to make S’leondes howl. “Faranth…shaff!”
T’kamen took the opportunity to back up a couple of steps. He didn’t dare draw his own knife. He couldn’t compete with S’leondes’ reach. He raised his cane in his right hand, holding it out like a sword. “This is what you’ve always wanted, isn’t it? How many times have you tried to kill me, S’leondes?”
“You wouldn’t…shaffing…stop!” S’leondes forced the words from between gritted teeth. “If you’d just given up. But you had to be stubborn. You had to keep trying. Everything I’ve worked for. Everything I’ve built. You’d tear it all down. All of it!”
“You sound like R’lony,” T’kamen said.
He couldn’t have chosen a more perfectly honed insult. S’leondes’ golden eyes widened. “That worm,” he said. “That mewling coward. That weakling, paper-shuffling excuse for a –”
He lunged again. T’kamen blocked the knife with his cane, barely turning it. He almost tottered, and he saw S’leondes look down at his crippled leg, unsupported even by the stick. He couldn’t let him knock him off his feet. If S’leondes got him on the floor, he wouldn’t get up again. “You nearly did it.”
“Stopped me.” T’kamen laughed. It was true. “One setback after another. One failure after another. I should have known there was more than bad luck behind it.”
“You shouldn’t even be here!” S’leondes shouted. “I tried to give you a way out! I tried to give you a way home! Who do you think gave M’ric the painting from the Harper Hall? I didn’t want to have to kill you, T’kamen! I just wanted you out of my Weyr!”
“Your Weyr?” T’kamen asked, snarling the words. “Yours? And you call me entitled. You should have been a bronze rider.”
S’leondes roared and rushed him, the knife outstretched. T’kamen shifted his upper body, not much. Enough. S’leondes’ charge clipped his shoulder. It sent T’kamen spinning, but he didn’t fall. S’leondes staggered past, trying to check his momentum, and T’kamen struck hard with his cane at the back of his knee, exactly where he knew, from his own bitter experience, it would hurt the most. S’leondes teetered, throwing out his arms for balance, but it wasn’t enough. His leg gave out under him, and he went down with the sound of a falling tree. The knife skittered away across the stones.
“You’ve never cared about this Weyr,” T’kamen said, advancing on his fallen foe. “You’ve never cared about your riders. You’ve never cared about Karzith. You’ve only ever cared about yourself. S’leondes, the saviour of Pern.” He turned the epithet into an insult. “And between with who had to die to mould your legend. And not just Alanne. Not just Fraza. Every rider who asked your blessing before he took his eight-Turn-old dragon between to face a pre-emptive death. Every rider who killed himself so his crippled dragon wouldn’t have to shame him in your eyes. Every rider who threw himself needlessly in front of Thread so his name would be carved in glory on the Wall. Every holder of Peranvo who starved or froze to death because you put your dragonrider’s pride before your duty to Pern!” He advanced faster, heedless of the pain in his leg, heedless of the throbbing numbness of the wound in his side. “All that blood is on your hands, S’leondes! All of it!”
S’leondes crawled to his knees. He stared up at T’kamen, and those angry gold-flecked eyes had gone nearly black, the pupils dilated, as though to reflect the darkness of between he had so feared, the darkness of the ambition that had consumed him.
He snatched, fast as a striking snake, for the knife at T’kamen’s hip. M’ric’s knife. The hunting blade that T’kamen had carried ever since M’ric and Trebruth had gone between: long and sharp and deadly.
Then S’leondes turned it on himself.
Everything stopped. T’kamen looked down at S’leondes – his rival, his enemy, the murderer of people he had loved – and saw what he intended. Both big hands were firm on the haft of the knife. S’leondes would not miss a second time.
And T’kamen had been here before, with a man he hated, a man who had hurt him, at his feet. It had been by moonlight, last time, and by roaring water, last time, and last time the man had been Katel, clinging to a cliff edge in the final moments of his life; the life T’kamen could have saved, the life he had refused to save, the life he hadn’t wanted to save.
It would have been so easy to let it happen again.
No, he and Epherineth said, together.
He wrapped his fingers around the handle of his stick, feeling the snarling, scarred dragon head imprint upon his palms, and swung the shaft of the cane in two short, hard arcs.
The first struck S’leondes’ doubled hands. The knife flew from them, turning over and over in a silvery blur.
The second, backhand of the first, cracked him across the temple.
As S’leondes toppled sideways, stunned, the world came suddenly back to life. People were screaming. Dragons were screaming. Karzith was screaming.
But Karzith lived, and so did his rider.
T’kamen threw his cane aside and dropped hard on top of S’leondes. He felt the air whoosh from the Commander’s lungs as his knee caught him in the sternum. He pinned the bigger man’s shoulders with his hands and his weight and the sheer force of his will, and he held him there.
S’leondes’ lips moved, though he had little breath left to speak. “Why…stop me?”
T’kamen looked down at S’leondes’ slack, glazed face. Then he looked up. He looked over at Karzith, drooping with relief. And then he looked at Epherineth.
“Because I love my dragon more than I’ll ever hate you.”
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