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Chapter eighty-seven: Valonna

I’ve run out of time.

I can see it in the Healers’ faces, as they gather at my doorway. I can see it in P’raima’s shoulders as he argues with them in low, angry words. But most of all I can feel it. This thing – this creature of pain and death that has been consuming me from the inside out – has almost finished its work. I can scarcely bear to go an hour without fellis, and soon I’ll drink from that cup for the last time. I scratch these words to you with a hand that can hardly grip a pen.

But I have to tell you what I did, Karika. Because it was our fault. It was us. And you must warn the others. You must warn the other queens that what we did – what they might one day try to do – is forbidden.

We tried to save them. We tried to undo what we knew had been done. We tried to change the past, and the past would not be changed. We should have been destroyed, as P’raima and Tezonth would have been destroyed, in our place. But Grizbath is a queen. Grizbath’s will was strong. Grizbath would not bow to time.

But still, always, time protects itself.

– Excerpt from a letter from Weyrwoman Margone to weyrwoman Karika

100.06.07 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
MADELLON AND PENINSULA WEYRS

Valonna (Micah Johnson)When the queens of the south came to Madellon, Ranquiath was not among them. Sirtis, Rallai explained, had excused herself on account of a frightful headache. Valonna expressed her regret for Sirtis’ indisposal and asked Rallai to pass on her wishes for a speedy recovery. Rallai thanked her for her concern, promised to do just that, and held Valonna’s eye for just half a second longer than strictly necessary.

They had more urgent matters to discuss than Sirtis’ gracelessness. Karika laid Margone’s letter before them with shaking fingers, and they all bent their heads over it, reading the spidery, tortured words in silence.

Tarshe, blunt as ever, was first to speak. “I don’t understand. What did Grizbath do?”

“She tried to save Southern’s weyrlings,” said Rallai. “Karika’s classmates. The ones who died between.”

“But what’s wrong with that?”

“She tried to change what had happened,” said Valonna. “To undo what we knew had been done.” She placed her finger on the words.

“Then she timed it,” said Britt.

Tarshe still looked baffled. “But Darshanth’s timed it. And Trebruth.”

“They couldn’t change anything,” said Valonna. “L’stev says that a dragon who gets too close to changing something when timing will either pull back at the last moment, or…”

“Die,” said Rallai, simply.

“Time protects itself,” said Valonna, and she could see from their reactions that each of the other queen riders had just heard those terrible words from their dragons.

“But it’s different when it’s a queen,” said Karika. “Like…like…”

“Like the sea against a rock,” said Britt. She made an evocative gesture with her hands. “Most dragons would be washed away, but a queen…”

“Forced the wave to break,” said Valonna.

Tarshe frowned. “But between being broken was what killed those weyrlings. How could it be broken before Grizbath tried to change what happened?”

“Because she did try,” said Rallai. “I know,” she said, when Tarshe shook her head. “The logic of timing has always baffled me, too. The notion that effect can come before cause seems to make no sense, but…” She lifted her hands helplessly.

“Then this could have happened at any time in Pern’s history,” said Britt. “Just one queen trying to change the past, and the…stuff…of between…tears?”

“But she still didn’t succeed,” said Tarshe. “She didn’t save the weyrlings.”

Yes, she did, said Shimpath. Just not here.

Shimpath? Valonna asked.

All four of the others suddenly wore the same perplexed expression that she imagined was on her own face. “Did anyone else’s queen just say…” Britt asked.

“…that she did?” Karika finished doubtfully.

“Oh, Faranth, I feel dizzy,” Tarshe groaned.

Valonna did, too. It was as if her mind were repelled by the very otherness of Shimpath’s remark: unable to even begin to comprehend it on some fundamental level.

“Then this was Southern’s fault,” said Karika.

“It wasn’t anyone’s fault,” Rallai told her. “Margone didn’t know what would happen. She was just trying to protect her weyrlings.”

“But if she hadn’t –”

“She did,” said Rallai, “and none of us can change that.” She fixed each of the young weyrwomen with a stern look. “Especially now we know the consequences.”

“Faranth,” said Britt. “So this is why between’s broken.” She looked around. “Does anyone have any idea how to fix it?”

“Maybe it’ll just…sort itself out?” Tarshe suggested.

“It’s a pain in my tail,” said Karika. “Megrith and I have to piggyback on a bronze if we want to go anywhere.”

“I have no idea what we can do about it,” said Valonna. Then she put her hand to her brow as another wave of vertigo swept her. “Ohh…”

“I think we should all have a drink,” Rallai said firmly. “I think we should drink to Margone’s memory. She did what she did with good intentions.”

Valonna poured wine, and when they all had glasses in their hands, she raised her own. “To Margone and Grizbath,” she said. “And to never letting our queens try to do what they did.”

“And to letting the northern queens know, too,” said Rallai. “Faranth knows what might break if another queen tried to do it.”

They all emptied their glasses rather quickly, shuddering.

Valonna was glad when no one wanted to discuss the headache-inducing concept any longer. Rallai had brought copies of the Peninsula’s lineage charts, as Karika had brought Southern’s, and everyone seemed relieved for the distraction. “So Tynerith isn’t Ipith’s daughter,” said Tarshe, flipping from one page of the Peninsula record to another.

If Rallai still felt any residual sensitivity about that, she didn’t show it. “She’s actually Ipith’s granddaughter,” she said. “Tynerith’s sire, Solstorth, came from Ipith’s fourth clutch. But Tynerith favours her dam in looks.”

“Ranquiath and Ipith aren’t that closely related,” said Britt. She spoke with a relaxed confidence that did her great credit, Valonna thought. “Ranquiath was out of Haeith, the old queen; Ipith is a daughter of Eindanth, by a Benden bronze. And Haeith and Eindanth were only half-sisters.”

“The Peninsula bloodlines are very diverse,” said Karika.

Valonna tried not to look too sharply at her. She was grateful when Tarshe said, “Are you thinking that’s good or bad, Kar?”

Karika levelled a baleful look at her. “I’m not P’raima.” Then she shrugged. “It’s just not going to be easy to convince Southern’s bronzes to accept the need to outcross.”

“Not to cast any aspersions on your queen, Weyrwoman,” said Britt, “but it doesn’t take much more than a glance at Megrith’s pedigree to see the issue.”

Karika snorted. “You don’t have to mince words, Britt. I know I ride the most inbred queen on Pern. I know it’s a wonder she doesn’t have two heads or her tail stuck on the wrong way.”

She spoke with bravado, but there was fragility beneath the toughness. Valonna said, “Madellon’s bloodlines are rather monolithic themselves, Karika.”

“And close line-breeding isn’t at all unusual in Interval dragon populations,” Rallai added. “Nor detrimental, for the most part.”

Karika looked unconvinced by their reassurance. “Tezonth was Megrith’s sire and grandsire. Every Southern dragon under thirty is his get. When it’s time for Megrith to mate, I want her to have some choice beyond her brothers and uncles.”

The maturity of the statement was only slightly undermined when Tarshe said, “Not a single home-grown bronze rider you fancy at all, then?”

“Oh, shut up, Tarshe!” Karika snapped.

Valonna covered her mouth with her hand, pretending a cough, to hide her smile.

“The problem,” Karika said, still glaring at Tarshe, “is that no one’s had a serious chance at becoming Weyrleader for three decades, and now that P’raima’s gone every bronze rider thinks it’s his turn. I’m still a weyrling; Megrith’s still a juvenile; we can’t impose our will on the bronzes like we could if we were older. And I can’t just declare Megrith’s maiden flight open. That has to be approved by the Council. I checked.”

“That rule isn’t unique to Southern,” Rallai commented, with a self-deprecating shrug.

“Guess it’s understandable,” said Tarshe. “No one likes a foreigner coming in, knowing nothing, and telling them how to do things.”

She spoke lightly, though Valonna detected the defensiveness in her tone. “Then we should act now, while we have time before Megrith’s first flight,” she said. “An exchange of dragons would benefit all our Weyrs, and you wouldn’t have to get Council approval to open her flight to bronzes of different origins if they’re already stationed at Southern.”

“But I would have to convince some Southern bronzes to transfer away,” said Karika. “And Southern hasn’t been a welcoming place to outsiders for a long time.”

“You know your bronze riders better than anyone, Karika,” said Rallai. “Find out which of them would welcome a change of scene and a different queen to win. Or which don’t rate their chances against the strongest of Southern’s bronzes, but fancy themselves good enough to outfly Madellon or Peninsula dragons. Those are the ones you can convince to transfer out. And as for the inbound transfers – well, you can certainly suggest that any Southern rider who feels threatened by a foreign bronze must be lacking something himself.”

They all snorted a bit at that.

“Madellon has a few younger bronze riders who wouldn’t be deterred by a Southern reception,” said Valonna.

“I’d best get a chance to veto, Weyrwoman,” said Tarshe, with a touch of asperity, and then, when the other queen riders looked askance at her, “What? They’re Berzunth’s bronzes, too.”

“I was thinking T’rello and Santinoth –”

“T’rello?” Tarshe asked. “You’d break every Madellon girl’s heart from the caverns to the barracks if you sent him away.” She paused, then went on, “What about B’mon? Do you want him, Kar?”

Karika’s expression was hard to read. “He’s only twenty-one.”

“Is that a point in his favour, or against?” asked Britt.

Karika furrowed her brow. “Both.”

Tarshe nearly hooted. “B’mon it is! Pack his bags, Weyrwoman, he’s going to Southern!”

“Shut up, Tarshe.”

“Don’t I get a vote?” Britt complained. “A twenty-one-Turn-old bronze rider who isn’t a complete swine? Can’t we have him, Rallai?”

Rallai laughed, and Valonna couldn’t keep her expression stern either. “There’s also E’dor, and maybe A’keret,” she went on determinedly.

“Not E’dor,” Tarshe said firmly, with a wag of her finger. “He’s almost halfway a possibility.” Then she looked at the Madellon lineage chart. “You’ll wipe out every bronze rider under thirty at this rate.”

“It’s as I said, Tarshe,” said Valonna. “Madellon’s lines are quite limited. Shimpath was by Staamath; so were Epherineth and Pierdeth. Even Berzunth only has one set of grandparents. An outcross to Peninsula or Southern would do the blood good.”

“Madellon’s founding dragons were a varied lot,” said Karika, tracing the lines back to the top. “Ista, Telgar, High Reaches, Benden. Even an Igenite bronze back here. But no Fort.” She looked up. “All of Southern’s original dragons were Fortian.”

“There’s a little Fort in the Peninsula lines,” said Rallai, “but we’re mostly Benden and Igen. We’ve always had at least two queens, though, and they tend to breed dragonets true to their own matrilineage.”

“Madellon seems to bottleneck here,” said Tarshe, putting her finger on the generation three levels above Berzunth’s. “Pequenth and Snarth. There’s not a single bronze who doesn’t have them on at least one side, and most have them on both. And they were parents to Staamath and Cherganth.” She looked up. “You’ll not have much choice if you want to avoid a bronze of Staamath’s get, Weyrwoman.”

“What about these ones, by Pelranth?” asked Britt. “Sewelth, Redmyth, Peteorth – oh, and H’ned’s Izath!”

Valonna managed to avert the twist of distaste that her lips wanted to make. She wasn’t oblivious to the fact that H’ned’s bronze was one of the better matches available for Shimpath among Madellon’s home-bred population. Neither was H’ned. “As much as I appreciate you match-making for me,” she said, “Shimpath’s next flight is a long way off.”

Rallai saved her from having to obfuscate any more than that. “Tynerith’s will be next,” she said, “in less than a Turn. And perhaps the Peninsula isn’t so much in need of new bloodlines, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt for a few Madellon or Southern bronzes to join the pursuit in our junior flights.”

“Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m thinking that exchanging queens would be a better way to mingle the bloodlines than just moving bronzes around,” said Tarshe, thoughtfully. She shrugged when Valonna looked at her. “Not that I want to go anywhere, Weyrwoman. I don’t. But even if you throw a dozen foreign bronzes into a mating flight, there’s no guarantee any of them’ll win. More likely a home-bred will want it more.”

“It’s sound reasoning, Tarshe,” said Rallai. “I just don’t think our Weyrs are ready for that quite yet. Perhaps in a few Turns, when things have settled down again.”

“Will they settle down, though?” asked Karika. She shifted in her seat, and went on, “Do we want them to settle down? I mean…” She furrowed her brow again. She was going to give herself premature wrinkles, Valonna thought. “Megrith and I can’t order anyone around while we’re still weyrlings. But there’s no one who can order us around, either; not really. The bronze riders at Southern spend half their time arguing amongst themselves to decide who’s in charge this sevenday, and the other half mincing around me, trying to figure out how to suck up to their thirteen-Turn-old future Weyrwoman without looking like they fancy little girls.”

Tarshe and Britt both made sympathetic noises of disgust.

“But in a Turn or so, we won’t be weyrlings any more, and we’ll still have a while before Megrith rises for the first time and some bronze rider gets to be a real Weyrleader,” Karika went on. “And isn’t that the same for all of us?” She looked between Rallai and Valonna; not exactly excluding the two younger weyrwomen, but consciously – perhaps rightfully – positioning herself as the equal of the two Seniors. Valonna was too admiring of the adolescent girl’s spirit to be offended by the presumption. “Because a Weyrleader isn’t really a Weyrleader until his dragon’s won the senior queen, is he?”

“That’s not completely true, Karika,” said Rallai. “Weyrleader K’ken has been appointed by the other bronze riders of the Peninsula. He rules with the same authority that a traditional Weyrleader would wield.”

“He’s not in your weyr, though, is he?” Karika asked.

“Karika,” Valonna said reproachfully. Candour was one thing; prurience was another.

Rallai didn’t rise to the remark. “That isn’t important,” she said. “The Weyrleader doesn’t have to be your lover. He doesn’t even have to be your friend, though it helps if you don’t loathe the sight of each other. H’pold and I didn’t share many views, or a bed very often, but we always supported each other for the good of the Weyr. I believe the Peninsula’s riders respected that more than they would have celebrated a love-match.”

“But that’s not the point,” said Karika. “When a bronze flies a queen, he’s beaten her. Outflown her. Outdone her. Proved he’s better than her. A bronze rider becomes Weyrleader because his dragon has dominated the senior queen – and that makes him think he can dominate the Weyrwoman in the same way. And the Weyr lets him – even respects him for it – because he’s forced his superiority on the most powerful dragonpair there. And it’s wrong.”

A chill went through Valonna. She’d never thought of it in quite those terms before. By Rallai’s suddenly strained demeanour, she hadn’t, either. “You never met Weyrwoman Fianine, Karika,” Valonna said, rather uncomfortably. “I don’t believe any bronze ever flew Cherganth that she didn’t choose.”

“But she couldn’t choose not to choose,” said Karika. “Could she?”

The girl was a study in duality: old beyond her Turns, young beyond belief; adamant with self-certainty and desperate to be corrected of the conviction she knew was true. Valonna knew, because she had been Karika. Never so bold; never so brave; never so outspoken in her fears; yet she had been her, as every rider of a queen – every rider of a female dragon – had been her. She thought about L’dro, whom she’d believed she had chosen; she thought about T’kamen, whom she had not. She thought about what Fianine had told her about responsibility and duty and compliance, and almost she repeated those pitiless words to the child who sat staring at her with eyes as hard and black and brittle as flint. She thought about all the things riders told each other about the price they paid for the love of their dragons: the pithy and the patronising, the flippant and the facetious, the comforting lies and the painful, naked truths; and none of them were the right answer to the question this defiant, scared, courageous woman-child had asked.

It was Tarshe who replied. “There’s no answer to that, Kar. Not a good one, anyway. Shards; I spent most of my life on a stupid little island, and even I know there’s not an answer any of us would like to hear.” Her expression darkened for a moment in a way that put Valonna startlingly in mind of Sh’zon. “And if you think felah is the way out, you’re wrong. No mating flight can be as bad as what that poison does to you.”

“Tarshe’s right,” Valonna said, seeing Karika draw herself up to respond, and interrupting before the debate became heated. “There’s no answer that doesn’t simply require us to accept the injustice as the cost of being a queen rider, or to bear the hardship in the name of the greater good. Some things we must accept, and some things we must endure.”

She looked from face to face: Tarshe, Britt, Rallai, and finally back to Karika. “But you’re right too, Karika. It’s wrong.” Saying it aloud – even here, amongst those women of Pern most sympathetic to the notion – gave her an odd thrill of rebellion. Her thoughts tripped far ahead of her. H’ned wore the Weyrleader’s knots, but he was still only the Weyrleader Regent, in the Weyr’s mind and in Valonna’s; neither she, nor they, would accept him until he and his bronze had exerted their sexual dominance over every other dragon of Madellon. What barbaric way was that to choose a leader – and yet, sickeningly, Valonna realised that she was complicit in her own oppression. She had accepted as truth that the only fit leader of a Weyr was the man whose dragon had subdued the senior queen, regardless of his other qualities; she had accepted it down to her bones. She had seen for herself how a formidable Weyrwoman could be despised for the very strength that made a Weyrleader desirable; how a Weyrleader dominated by his Weyrwoman must be a figure of pity, if not outright derision. It was wrong. It was wrong.

“Then let’s make it right,” said Britt. The freckle-faced girl – she would never be a beauty, and those who tried and failed to win her favour would surely despise her for that unforgivable flaw – spoke as calmly and plainly as if she were proposing a change to a dinner menu, not the toppling of a centuries-old tradition of government. “None of our Weyrs will have a proper Weyrleader –” she put heavy irony on the adjective, “for at least a Turn. Doesn’t that give us – or, well, you, Weyrwomen – an advantage?”

“A Weyrwoman’s power is tied to her dragon’s mating cycle,” said Rallai. “My influence has always been at its lowest straight after a leadership flight, when my Weyrleader hasn’t needed to worry about winning my favour again for two or three Turns.” She was regarding Britt with a pensive expression. “But not this time.”

“K’ken’s only there because he was the next in line,” said Tarshe. She glanced at Valonna. “Same with H’ned. The other bronze riders had to confirm them both because they hadn’t won the Weyrleadership in the traditional way. Can they un-confirm them, if they don’t like them?”

“Even a traditional Weyrleader can be removed by the will of the Weyr under exceptional circumstances,” Valonna said.

“Only by unanimous decree of the Council,” said Rallai. “But a Weyrleader Regent is confirmed by simple majority, and can be ousted the same way.”

“Which makes K’ken and H’ned’s positions pretty precarious,” said Tarshe. “Until their bronzes actually win a senior flight, they could get chucked out by the Council.”

“K’ken knows his position is temporary,” said Rallai. “Essienth isn’t up to flying a queen.” She sighed. “Which is a shame.” She saw, as they all did, Tarshe’s eyes narrow slightly. “That’s not a slight against Sh’zon, Tarshe. Sh’zon would make a fine Weyrleader. And will, in two or three Turns, when Kawanth flies Ipith legally. But K’ken is very experienced. He might not command the admiration of a traditionally appointed Weyrleader, but I don’t believe there’s a rider at the Peninsula who questions his competence to lead, or his dedication to the Weyr.”

“I’ve always thought it’s a shame about Essienth,” said Britt. “I like K’ken.”

“He must be forty Turns older than you!” Tarshe exclaimed.

“I don’t like him like that!” said Britt. “But you know how it is with most bronze riders. Even the crusty old ones look at you thinking their dragons could fly your queen.”

“That’s not helpful, Britt,” Rallai told her, with a glance at Karika.

“Wouldn’t that be a better way to choose the Weyrleader, though?” Karika asked. She’d been quiet for a time, and now that she spoke up, her voice was grave. “The bronze rider who’s actually good at it, not just the one whose dragon happened to be fastest that day?”

“Probably,” said Rallai. “But that would take even more power away from us as Weyrwomen. You shouldn’t underestimate the influence that our preference can have on the outcome of a flight. The Weyr’s choice is a powerful force, but it’s only one of several.”

“Maybe that’s what we should do, then,” said Britt, “and I’m meaning ‘you’ again when I say ‘we’.” She looked rueful. “But, I mean, we should use the time between now and the next senior flights to decide who the best Weyrleaders would be for each of our Weyrs, and then try to make sure that those riders have everything in their favour.”

“You mean, we five queen riders decide for all our Weyrs?” Tarshe asked.

Valonna thought about reminding Tarshe that there were six southern queen riders, but she hated to interrupt the discussion.

“Why not?” asked Britt. “We’re the ones who have to work with them. Shards; bronze riders come and go, but we’re there for life!”

“What if you all decide that my Weyrleader should be someone I don’t like?” Karika asked.

“Don’t be daft,” said Tarshe. “Why would we do that?”

Karika still looked suspicious. “And what about you two? You’re not Weyrwomen. Do we still get to choose which bronzes fly your queens?”

Tarshe and Britt looked at each other. “We could have more influence over the bloodlines that way,” Tarshe pointed out, a bit doubtfully. “Improve the breed.”

“Sirtis isn’t going to be keen,” said Britt. “I don’t think she’d much care about our opinion of who should fly Ranquiath.”

“I think you’re all getting a bit ahead of yourselves with this,” Rallai interjected gently. “You’re not going to overturn the social order of Pern in an evening.”

The weyrlings subsided good-naturedly enough, though Tarshe especially had a speculative look in her eyes.

Valonna sent all three young women off to fetch fresh klah – as much to remind them that they were all still weyrlings as to give herself and Rallai some private time to talk. “What have we started?” she asked, only half in jest.

“I doubt that we’re the first Weyrwomen of Pern ever to talk about taking more power into our own hands,” said Rallai. “Though I don’t know that the southern Weyrs have ever been so universally lacking in Weyrleaders before.”

“Will Sh’zon be looking to take over the Regency from K’ken once he’s served his sentence?” Valonna asked.

Rallai looked pensive. “If you’d asked me a sevenday ago, I’d have said yes,” she said. “And I think that’s what K’ken had in mind anyway, when he made him Deputy. Even contesting Ipith’s flight illegally didn’t harm Sh’zon’s popularity that much.”

“But now?”

“The business with M’ric has hurt him,” said Rallai. “His standing at the Peninsula, of course; but Sh’zon himself, too, personally. He’s always been at pains to say that they weren’t friends, but he trusted M’ric. Having that trust shattered…it’s shaken him. It’s shaken all of us who knew him. I always liked M’ric, but to think that all these Turns he’s been timing it… I don’t suppose you’ve been able to decipher his journal?”

Valonna shook her head. “I don’t think I want to know all the details,” she said. “Enough that he’s safely on Westisle where he can’t do any more harm.”

“I only wish we could have uncovered what he was doing before he lost you your Weyrleader,” said Rallai. “I feel responsible for that, Valonna. No matter where – when – he came from, he was a Peninsula rider for twenty Turns, and we sent him to you.”

“You couldn’t have known,” Valonna told her. She smiled wanly. “And it was Sh’zon we thought would be trouble.”

“He still is,” said Rallai, with a sigh.

Valonna met the other Weyrwoman’s eyes. “But you love him.”

“I do,” Rallai replied, and then added gently, “It’s not a crime for a Weyrwoman to love.”

“I didn’t mean…!”

“I know you didn’t,” Rallai said, but she watched Valonna expectantly.

Valonna wrestled with the words. “I loved L’dro,” she said at last. “Or thought I loved him. No. I did love him.” She felt herself making a grimace at the thought of it. “He was…unkind, and dishonest, and greedy. I know that now, but I couldn’t see it then, because I was in love with him. And if I’d been a green rider, or even a junior queen rider, it wouldn’t have mattered – but I wasn’t. I was the Weyrwoman, and I inflicted his selfishness and prejudice on Madellon. Because I loved him.”

“You were – what – fifteen, when Fianine died?” Rallai asked. “Fifteen, and Holdbred. You expect too much of your younger self, Valonna. It’s no fault of yours that Shimpath’s maiden flight was decided by the heart, not the head. Shards, Valonna; every rider should be able to share her first flight with someone she loves.”

“But Shimpath’s matings don’t belong to me,” Valonna said. “They’ll always be leadership flights. And if I let my heart influence who wins her…”

“You don’t have to let it,” said Rallai. “It’s not a foregone conclusion.” Her eyes went distant. “Kawanth won Ipith’s second and third flights. Junior matings, both of them. Her fourth flight, just after Larvenia stepped down, was our first as senior. Everyone assumed that Kawanth would win again and Sh’zon would become Weyrleader.”

“Why didn’t he?”

“Because I realised Shai wasn’t ready. He was still too angry, too impulsive. The Peninsula couldn’t afford a Weyrleader like that. I couldn’t afford a Weyrleader like that.”

“Then you chose H’pold?”

“Oh, I’ll not deny that H’pold could be a slimy tunnel-snake,” said Rallai, “but he was a respected Wingleader, and a competent Weyrleader.” She shrugged. “Maybe not so competent that he should have had a second term, but there were a great many worse choices.”

“H’ned’s a respected Wingleader,” said Valonna. “He was T’kamen’s deputy, and if Shimpath were to rise tomorrow, I think the Weyr would want Izath to win. But…”

“Is it him personally?” Rallai asked. “You can’t bear the thought of having to share a flight with him?”

Valonna shook her head. “If it were only that…no. I can’t bear the thought of him as Weyrleader. He’s too much like L’dro.”

“Really?” Rallai asked. She looked surprised. “He seems much more courteous, at the least. More – dare I say – grown up.”

“He’s not crass like L’dro,” Valonna said. “He’s not…aggressive, at least not openly.” She paused. “He hides it well. But I think he believes, really believes, that riding a bronze makes him superior. He doesn’t respect the junior colours, and when someone crosses him, or injures his pride…”

Rallai made a face. “Is he Weyrbred?” When Valonna nodded, she went on, “It’s common for Weyrbred bronze riders – Weyrbred riders of all colours, really – to believe rigidly in the hierarchy. I suppose when you’ve been brought up surrounded by dragons in a culture of bronze is best, you’re more keenly aware of colour distinctions than we Craft- and Holdbred types.”

“I don’t want Madellon to have another Weyrleader who thinks that way, Rallai,” Valonna said. “But if the Weyr wants him…”

“It’s like I said to Karika,” said Rallai. “You need to cultivate your bronze riders. Use the time you have before Shimpath’s next flight to figure out who would be a better Weyrleader – and who you could live with.” Then she smiled, and said, “Why do you think I sent G’kalte to you?”

“He’s a brown rider, Rallai!” Valonna said, despairing. “He can’t ever be Weyrleader!”

“Exactly,” said Rallai. “A Weyrleader can’t be seen to tolerate a rival in his Weyrwoman’s weyr, but a brown rider isn’t a rival. And you’ll never have to give him up because his dragon tried and failed to fly yours, the way I had to give up Sh’zon for so many Turns. The way I might have to again, if Kawanth doesn’t fly Ipith the next time.” She caught Valonna’s stricken look. “It might seem convenient to have your Weyrleader and your lover be the same man, but it doesn’t always go as smoothly as that. Life’s never quite so neat and tidy.”

“Messiness, and complication,” Valonna said, smiling. “The real price of being a Weyrwoman.”

Rallai laughed. “Of course, Valonna. Why else do you think queens only choose girls?”


The staccato report of H’ned’s boots on the steps to Shimpath’s ledge warned Valonna of his mood before he came into view. “Why didn’t you tell me they were leaving?”

Valonna looked up from the documents she was filing away. “I didn’t realise you needed to know, H’ned.”

“You should have told me,” he said. “I know I wasn’t welcome at your little supper party, but you might have let me see the other Weyrwomen off.”

“I didn’t think you’d want to be interrupted,” said Valonna. “I know how busy you were today.”

“Interrupted,” H’ned said, with a snort, as he crossed to his own desk. “You try getting a Flight drill to run to plan with five queens on the Rim inducing them all to show off.”

Izath was showing off more than any of them, said Shimpath.

Valonna kept her face blank of any reaction to her queen’s remark. “I’m sorry they were a distraction. We’ll be meeting at Southern next time.”

H’ned paused in the act of picking up a hide from the pile Valonna had placed there. “Next time?”

“It does the weyrlings good to spend time in the company of other queen riders,” said Valonna. “Especially Karika.”

“I don’t like the idea of Tarshe being exposed to Southern’s ways,” said H’ned. “Or some of the Peninsula’s, for that matter. They have peculiar ideas about what is and isn’t beneath a dragon’s dignity.”

Valonna ignored the barely veiled accusation that she had been over-exposed to Peninsula ways. She and H’ned had already had a number of brief, polite, but inharmonious conversations about offering cargo conveyance to Madellon’s Holds and Halls. “Tarshe is far too strong a character to be easily swayed by anything harmful,” she said instead, though she couldn’t resist adding, “She is, after all, a queen rider.”

That’s what worries him, said Shimpath, even as H’ned made a noncommittal hmph.

Are you listening in to the Weyrleader? Valonna asked, half scolding.

I don’t need to do that to know what Izath’s rider – Shimpath still refused to refer to H’ned as ‘the Weyrleader’, much less by his actual name – is thinking.

A thought occurred to Valonna then, and she said, casually, “We were discussing the possibility of moving some bronzes between our three Weyrs, to mingle the bloodlines.”

That got H’ned’s attention. “Oh?”

“I wondered if you had any thoughts about which of our bronze riders would be open to transferring to Southern or the Peninsula.”

The gleam of delight that leapt into H’ned’s eyes stayed there only briefly, but it shone there long enough for Valonna to recognise it. “Well, let me see,” he said, and then paused as if he were giving the matter serious thought. “E’dor might welcome a change. Or V’stan: he’s been moaning about the weather since the first frosts, same as he does every Turn; maybe Southern’s climate would suit him better.” He thought a moment longer, then said, “T’gat, maybe.”

The careful nonchalance with which he mentioned the last name betrayed him. Valonna hoped she was better at concealing her intentions. “I’d thought perhaps B’mon or T’rello…”

“T’rello?” H’ned asked. “He’s still a boy. Let him grow up a little before we think about packing him off to another Weyr.”

He thinks Santinoth isn’t a threat? Shimpath’s huff of affront was audible through the stone wall. Santinoth is twice the bronze Izath is.

He’s also your son, Shimpath, Valonna pointed out.

Precisely.

“Speaking of transfers,” said H’ned, “I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed when it comes to the matter of your brown rider G’kalte.”

He spoke lightly, as if the issue were of no moment. Valonna raised her eyes from her work to look at him. H’ned deftly avoiding meeting them. “What do you mean?”

“He seems to have gone cool on the idea,” said H’ned. To his credit, he kept any pleasure he felt out of his voice.

“Cool?”

“Reading between the lines, Valonna, I think it’s an issue of rank,” said H’ned. “He implied that a demotion would be difficult for him to accept, and I don’t have a Wingsecond slot to offer him.”

Both statements were so incongruous that, for a moment, Valonna couldn’t absorb them. G’kalte, quibbling over rank? That didn’t fit her knowledge of the brown rider at all. She seized instead on H’ned’s second assertion. “But S’herdo still doesn’t have a junior Wingsecond, and you said you didn’t like any of our unranked brown riders for the job.”

“He doesn’t,” H’ned said. “And I don’t. But that doesn’t mean I like G’kalte for it, either.”

“I’ve seen his recommendations,” Valonna said. “He’s had nothing but praise from his current Wingleader.”

H’ned’s composure was fraying. “It’s not that simple. S’herdo won’t hear of taking on a Peninsula rider.”

“S’herdo’s the most junior Wingleader in the Weyr! You’re the Weyrleader, H’ned! Wingsecond appointments are yours to make!”

That seemed to put some steel into H’ned’s spine. He jerked his eyes up to meet hers. “And a fine Weyrleader I’d be if I didn’t listen to the concerns of my Wingleaders. As it happens, I agree with S’herdo. Given what happened the last time a Peninsula brown rider was appointed as a Wingsecond –”

The implication was breathtakingly offensive. “You’re comparing G’kalte to M’ric?”

“The parallels –” H’ned began.

Valonna wouldn’t let him finish. “You’re comparing a brown rider who has been nothing but a friend to Madellon to a liar, a cheat, and a criminal, because he happens to come from the same Weyr?”

“Same Weyr, same rank, same colour of dragon!”

“So all Peninsula riders are criminals?” Valonna demanded. “All Wingseconds are treacherous? All brown riders are dishonest?”

“Approving his transfer at all would look bad!” H’ned shouted. He’d risen from his seat. “It would make me look bad!”

Valonna found she was on her feet, too. “For not tarring one brown rider with the same brush as another? For judging a man on his own merits? For –”

“For letting in a foreign rider who only wants to come to Madellon so he can get into your shelling furs!”

In the awful silence that followed, Shimpath asked, low and steady, Should I step on Izath?

Valonna took the breath that H’ned’s final unfiltered outburst had banished from her lungs. No, she told her queen, with careful certainty. This is my Fall to fly.

H’ned’s face had frozen in an expression of terrible self-awareness. The knowledge that he had gone too far was inscribed on his features as though printed there in deep black ink.

“You have no right, H’ned,” Valonna said quietly.

“Weyrwoman, I –”

Valonna gestured him to silence with one hand, and H’ned nearly bit off his tongue.

“I’m a hostage to my queen’s needs,” she said. “And I submit to them, gladly. But I won’t be made a prisoner of your insecurity. I’m not accountable to you for who I –” she almost said love, and then, hating to use the word in H’ned’s earshot, amended it “– take into my weyr. My affections are my own, to give as I will. Or to not give.” She didn’t glare at him, but somehow, despite the difference between them in height, she seemed to be looking down at him. “You’ve made it clear that you desire me, H’ned. Whether that desire is genuine, or a reflection of Izath’s longing for Shimpath, or merely a bronze rider’s stratagem, I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t desire you.”

Emotions flickered over H’ned’s face – outrage, humiliation, despair – but he said nothing.

“L’dro made a weapon of his power, and used it on me,” she went on. “That won’t happen again. I won’t permit it.”

H’ned flinched on the word permit.

“And you know I won’t. You know you can’t force your will on a queen rider who won’t be cowed. So you target your bitterness against a rider whose fate you can dictate.” She despised him with her eyes. “Do you know how pitiful it makes you? That if you can’t have me, you’ll see to it that no one can?”

H’ned found his tongue. “I didn’t,” he said thickly, “that is, I only…I only wanted to protect you. Protect Madellon.”

“And how do my private affairs endanger Madellon?”

“You’re the Weyrwoman. Your affairs are never private. People will talk. Behind…behind your back. Like they talked about Fianine.”

Valonna laughed out loud. “If people speak of me as they spoke of Fianine,” she said, “then I’ll know I’m doing things right.” She walked past him, to his desk. It took only a moment of rummaging to find the document, marked with the ochre-and-grey seal of the Peninsula, that bore G’kalte’s transfer request. She slapped it down on top of all the other work. She took a pen from the holder, dipped its nib in ink, and then turned and held it peremptorily out to H’ned. “Sign.”

H’ned just looked at her: baffled, uncomprehending. “But –”

“Sign,” Valonna repeated, more firmly, and when he still hesitated, she set her jaw. “We don’t have to be friends, bronze rider, but you don’t want to make me your enemy.”

H’ned took the pen from her hand. He looked rattled. The signature he scratched onto the hide was untidy, but legible.

Valonna struck a match and held the flame to the end of a stick of Madellon’s indigo wax. She dripped a blob onto the vellum, then held her hand out to H’ned. “Your seal.”

“Valonna, this is –”

“I’ll stamp it with my own if I have to,” she told him softly. “Beside your signature, it’ll have the same legal weight.”

H’ned’s nostrils flared. He knew as well as Valonna did how that would look. With a curtness that verged on the petulant, he took his seal – a stamp, not a ring, and made of ceramic – from his pocket. He drove it into the wax hard enough to smear the viscous substance into twice the required size. “Are you satisfied?”

Valonna plucked the document from beneath his hands. The wax would be a few minutes in setting. “T’kamen asked me to be discreet.”

“T’kamen’s dead,” H’ned said sullenly.

“My promise to him isn’t.”

H’ned stared at her: mulish now, his earlier shock curdled into resentment. Valonna knew, suddenly, that he would never forgive her. “If Izath had flown Shimpath, things would be different.”

He said it flatly, but something about the statement made Valonna’s skin crawl. She looked at him anew, really looked at him, and wondered if she’d underestimated him.

No, said Shimpath. Because Izath will never fly me.


Not trusting H’ned enough to leave the signed and sealed transfer approval in his possession, and it being too late in the day to send a despatch rider to the Peninsula, Valonna kept hold of the hide. She put it first in the locked bottom drawer of her desk, but when she had to make her evening pass through the Lower Caverns, and worrying that H’ned might somehow have obtained a copy of the key, she moved it into the padlocked chest in her sitting room. Even then, she was relieved to find it still there when she returned.

But even as her concern that H’ned would find a way to thwart G’kalte’s transfer receded, other fears surfaced. The document authorising G’kalte’s move to Madellon said nothing about rank. It wasn’t unusual for riders moving Weyr to accept a lesser posting, and yet… He implied that a demotion would be difficult for him to accept. H’ned’s words troubled Valonna. Would G’kalte balk at being knocked down to wingrider? The thought that he could be so concerned with status was baffling. He seldom made reference to his rank at all, except to say that he’d been able to resume his full Wingsecond’s duties once production of the felah counter-agent had restored his full rapport with Archidath. And yet… It was no small thing to hold rank at the Peninsula, where competition for even a junior Wingsecond’s knots was fierce. G’kalte would have had to fight to achieve it. And G’kalte, the grandson of a Lord Holder, might feel more keenly than most the need to prove himself in the Weyr. The more Valonna thought about it, the more it rang true.

He seems to have gone cool on the idea.

That remark of H’ned’s echoed with horrible resonance in her mind.

Because things had gone cool, hadn’t they? G’kalte’s visits had become less frequent, and while Valonna had distractedly put that down to other things – the completion of the antidote; H’ned’s confirmation as Weyrleader; the terrible business with M’ric – she hadn’t paused to consider if G’kalte’s wish to transfer had been sincere, or simply the impulsive consequence of that joyous evening when they’d both had their dragons’ consciousness returned to them.

If G’kalte had changed his mind, then Valonna had antagonised H’ned for nothing.

She felt the old shadow of uncertainty creep over her, the old cramps of fear and doubt roil in her stomach, the old desire to ignore the problem, pretend it didn’t exist, and keep herself occupied elsewhere growing.

No. That’s not what we do any more.

Valonna thought at first that the assertion had come from Shimpath. It hadn’t. Her queen was asleep.

She rose from the armchair in her sitting room, setting aside the cross-stitch she’d been sewing. The first watchdragon hadn’t yet come off duty, but middle watch couldn’t be far away. It would be the absolute dead of night at the Peninsula.

Valonna nearly laughed aloud. She had told H’ned she’d be discreet. Yet a queen could never be inconspicuous. Madellon’s dragons would know if Shimpath left, even when most of them were asleep; the Peninsula’s dragons would certainly notice a foreign queen arriving in their midst, whatever the hour of the night.

She gave her dragon a mental nudge. Shimpath?

Shimpath, always quick to rouse, came alert with alacrity. What is it?

Can you wake a dragon without alarming him?

Of course. Who would you have me wake?

Valonna told her.


Darshanth glided noiselessly down out of the inky sky above the Peninsula Weyr. He must have announced himself to the watchdragon, because the glow-lit shape on the Rim didn’t challenge them, but the only sounds Valonna heard from her place on the blue’s neck were the soft flutter of his trailing edges, and the rushing of the night wind, and the booming of the ocean on the rocks far below.

Few dragons were awake so deep into the night watches of the Peninsula, and of those who were, fewer gave Darshanth more than a cursory glance before returning to their own sleepless preoccupations. But as Darshanth kited easily towards the ocean-facing wall of the Bowl, a pair of eyes suddenly lit up, sleepy-green and slow.

C’mine turned in front of Valonna, putting his mouth close to her ear so she could hear him. “You didn’t warn Archidath you were coming?”

“I didn’t dare,” Valonna told him.

“Well, he knows now.”

Darshanth set down on Archidath’s ledge. Archidath had only poked his head out of his sleeping chamber, so there was plenty of room. Valonna let C’mine release her safety-strap and then slid down Darshanth’s shoulder. She was prepared for the ground to meet her feet faster than it would after dismounting from Shimpath; still, she grasped Darshanth’s harness for a moment to steady herself.

“Will you be all right?” C’mine asked. In the darkness he was only a shadowy shape, peering down from his dragon’s neck. “Do you want me to come in with you?”

“No, C’mine, thank you,” she said. “Though…would you wait?”

“Of course, Valonna.”

She didn’t let herself pause to gather herself. Valonna headed towards the gleaming lamps of Archidath’s eyes, and beyond them, the faint light from inside G’kalte’s weyr.

“Archidath,” she said, as she made herself small to pass by his quizzically-angled muzzle.

Archidath’s smell washed over her, layered and evocative; at its base the spicy odour all dragons shared; over that the subtle maleness of his colour, more musky and less sweet than Shimpath’s natural scent; the salt tang of the sea; finally the faint perfume of the oil G’kalte used on Archidath’s harness. Breathing in the complex, lovely blend made Valonna’s chest constrict long moments before she grasped that it was the smell of G’kalte himself.

And then the light coming from within the weyr dimmed as G’kalte stepped into the archway. “Valonna?”

His voice was sleepily baffled, and Valonna was suddenly gripped with chagrin for arriving so late, and unannounced. “I’m so sorry, G’kalte,” she said, “I…”

“Oh, shells, it really is you! I thought Archie was pranking me! Are you all right? Is something the matter?”

“No, no, nothing’s the matter, I just, I have your transfer document.”

“My…transfer document?”

The flat incredulity made Valonna wince. “I shouldn’t have come. I’ll come back in the morning…”

“No, that’s not what… Why don’t you come in?”

Archidath huffing a breath through his nostrils made Valonna jump. “If you’re sure you don’t mind…”

She followed G’kalte through the archway. He twitched open the glow-basket by the entrance, flooding his weyr with light. They both recoiled a bit at the sudden brightness, blinking at each other.

“I’m sorry I –”

“I shouldn’t have –”

They both spoke at once, and both stopped at once. Then G’kalte said, “You first, Valonna. Please.”

She took a breath. “H’ned has approved your transfer request. I had him sign and seal it, and it’s all in order, only…”

G’kalte was watching her face closely. His hair, Valonna noticed, was sticking up untidily on one side of his head. “Only?” he asked, in a voice as sober and grave as she had ever heard from him.

“Only I know it’s not what you want,” said Valonna, and then, in a rush, “It’s only a wingrider assignment, and I know how important your knots are; I know how it must matter to you, being Coffleby’s grandson; I know I should have argued harder with H’ned to agree a like rank for you at Madellon, but he was so resistant to the idea of your coming at all, and so prickly about what falls to him now he’s Weyrleader, and so shelling vindictive that it was all I could do to make him agree to the transfer at all without getting Shimpath to lean on Izath.”

She stopped herself. G’kalte was blinking at her with more than just sleepy startlement. “You pressed H’ned to authorise my transfer,” he said carefully, as though seeking to understand completely Valonna’s meaning.

“He was going to refuse it if I hadn’t insisted. He said that when he met with you…”

“What did he say?” G’kalte asked, when she broke off.

Wretchedness knotted in Valonna’s chest. “He said you’d gone cool on the idea,” she said, and looked slightly away from him. She couldn’t bear to be looking straight into his eyes as he either confirmed his reduced appetite for the transfer or, worse, lied about it.

G’kalte did neither. “I can’t blame him, for putting it to you that way,” he said. He sounded slightly choked. “I can’t blame him at all.”

Valonna looked at him in silent plea.

“He asked me my intentions,” said G’kalte. “Not with regard to you – nothing so direct. But he asked about the extent of my ambitions. He asked if I expected to be promoted over Madellon bronze riders. I said I had no expectation of anything, and he asked if my pride was so paltry that I wouldn’t fight to keep what I had already won.” He sighed. “I wasn’t sure if he was talking about my rank, or… He provoked me – I can’t deny that – but not into outright untruth.”

Valonna discovered she was holding her breath. She found her voice. “What did you say?”

“That I was proud enough of my rank at the Peninsula that, if I wasn’t welcome at Madellon, I’d find it hard to justify giving it up.” He winced as he said it. “Now I say it back to you, it sounds so pompous, but it didn’t at the time. H’ned asked what sort of welcome I hoped for, even as a Wingsecond, and that was more pointed.” He stopped and, not looking at Valonna, said, “I didn’t really have an answer to that.”

“I don’t understand,” Valonna said.

“The last time we spoke,” said G’kalte, “when H’ned was set to be confirmed as Weyrleader, you told me that you had to give him every chance to establish himself. I didn’t mark it as significant at the time; but then…”

“You thought I meant to take him into my weyr?” Valonna asked, and then, realising, “He told you I had?”

G’kalte squinted in an expression of discomfort. “He let me believe it was at least a possibility that you would.”

“But you couldn’t have thought –” Valonna said, “you couldn’t think that I would –”

“I didn’t know what to think,” said G’kalte. “He’d got the question of my rank and your intentions so snarled together that I wasn’t sure of anything…anything except for my feelings for you.”

Valonna was finding it harder to catch her breath. “G’kalte,” she said, and then couldn’t think of anything to follow.

Now he met her eyes, though his voice vibrated almost imperceptibly. “The demotion doesn’t matter. Rank doesn’t matter nearly so much to me as you do. I was asleep tonight when Archidath woke me and said you were here on a blue dragon, but I might just as well have been awake, and thinking about how unbearable it would be to transfer to Madellon not knowing if you thought of me in any way the same I think about you.”

His words were clumsy, but the sentiment behind them wasn’t. Valonna caught her hand up to her mouth as he spoke.

“And now you come here, in the middle of the night, with my transfer approval in your hand, telling me that you faced down H’ned to get it signed, and I…” G’kalte broke off. He ran a hand through his hair, making it stick up even more wildly. “And now I’m terrified.”

“T-terrified?” Valonna whispered.

G’kalte eased half a step closer, no more than that, as if not to overstep the bounds he himself could hardly believe were fading away. He lifted a hand almost to Valonna’s face and then stopped. “Terrified,” he said. “Because I’ve never kissed a woman whose dragon could eat mine in three quick bites.”

Absurdly, joyously, despite her own terror, and the shaking of her hands, Valonna laughed. “But Shimpath doesn’t really mind you!”

“She doesn’t?” G’kalte’s exclamation was at once almost comically surprised and delighted, and then a smile broke on his face like a sunrise over the horizon. He laid his fingers on Valonna’s cheek, and his voice went hoarse. “Then that makes this easier.”

He kissed her.

And Shimpath, distant though she was at Madellon, roared with approval so loudly in Valonna’s mind that, in any other circumstance, she would have feared that her queen had woken every dragon in Madellon Weyr, on the southern continent, or indeed, across all of Pern itself.

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