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Chapter eighty-eight: T’kamen

Mission accomplished!

– Message from Weyr Singer Tawgert to Masterharper Marlaw

27.02.24 (27TH TURN, EIGHTH PASS)
MADELLON WEYR

T'kamen (Micah Johnson)The Starfall delegation arrived headed by an elderly queen whom T’kamen realised must be Donauth’s dam. Ignia, her rider, was a straight-backed and silver-haired lady in her eighth decade whose features still carried the traces of what must have been an astonishing youthful beauty. The old weyrwoman peered intently into T’kamen’s face when introduced to him, and he feared she would comment on the nature of his malady. He was relieved when she merely apologised for the absence of Starfall’s Senior Weyrwoman. “Hidmath is due to rise, and Ekarri thought it best not to inflict her upon the other queens. Ourath and I will have to suffice.”

T’kamen assured her that her presence was equally welcome, and G’reyan remarked gallantly that his own Ginth must owe her fine conformation to Ourath, being her grand-daughter, but Dalka greeted the older Weyrwoman with the thinnest veneer of courtesy covering her obvious loathing. “I take it you weren’t close,” T’kamen said to her, when Wingseconds had escorted the Starfall riders to the weyrs that would accommodate them for the two days of the Conclave.

“It’s just a good thing Donauth hasn’t clutched yet,” said Dalka, and when T’kamen and G’reyan both looked askance at her, she added darkly, “Once a queen has a taste for something rich, she never loses it.”

The hostility between Dalka and Ignia wasn’t the only old enmity that became apparent as the senior riders of Pern’s Weyrs greeted each other for the first time in the anteroom off the Council chamber. Southern had always borne the brunt of the northern Weyrs’ raiding, the Peninsula had lost many riders to Fort, and Igen and Starfall shared a long history of discord that seemingly stretched back into the Interval. The north-south divide had already been made explicit both by the relative size of each continent’s dragons – Fort’s queen was only fractionally smaller than Epherineth – and by the composition of their delegations. Each southern Weyr was represented by the triumvirate of Weyrwoman, Commander, and Marshal that S’leondes’ early-Pass revolution had made the norm. The three northern Weyrs, still led by the more traditional partnerships of Weyrleader and Weyrwoman, were at a numerical disadvantage.

It made for an awkward gathering. The northern riders clustered together, as if for mutual protection; the southern did the same, but more in solidarity against Weyrs that had been perceived as the enemy for so long. It fell to Madellon to bridge the yawning divide between the two sides. But G’reyan, for all his tactical competence, was no politician. He started talking to Starfall’s Commander C’strar about the next cross-border Fall: shop-talk that served too narrow a purpose to be a good use of valuable Conclave time. And Dalka, put on the defensive by Ignia’s unexpected and unwelcome presence, was prickly and acerbic, when the charm she could project would have served Madellon’s ends far better.

T’kamen still felt terrible. The willowsalic he’d had after breakfast was wearing off, gradually robbing him of even the least respite from his pounding head and roiling gut. The keenness of the anger he’d felt towards himself earlier had been replaced by a dull hopelessness that was no lighter a burden. He had no real heart for diplomacy. And yet the thought of watching the Weyrs of Pern tear themselves still farther apart through the Conclave that was supposed to heal the rifts between them filled him with an even greater sense of despair.

He mustered every bit of determination that remained to him. He knew the Starfall and Peninsula riders only slightly, from liaising with them over cross-border Falls, and most of the others not at all, but he began at one end of the room and resolved to make it to the other, crisscrossing between northern and southern Weyrs, trying to foster communication where there was none, even through his thumping headache and bleak mood.

Only Ista saw through it. “The shaff happened to you?” Ch’fil asked, when they crossed paths. “You look like what a dragon sicks up after Fall.”

“Bad fish,” T’kamen said dourly.

Ch’fil eyed him sceptically, but Reloka was less interested in T’kamen’s unhealthy appearance than she was in the riders from the Peninsula. Weyrwoman Estrinel, her Commander Feyara, and the Marshal J’born all sported fire-lizards on their shoulders. “She doesn’t even have the decency to try and hide them,” she said, staring at Estrinel across the room. “She’s like a thief who’d steal your jewels and then expect compliments for how well they look on her.”

El’yan had turned up in T’kamen’s weyr just before the first Weyrleaders had arrived with the Beastcraft record on fire-lizard strains in one hand and T’kamen’s cane in the other. “These were on your desk,” he’d said. “Thought you might need them.”

The evidence that one of the Unseen had gone between to Blue Shale for no other reason than to look for T’kamen’s missing cane put another knife of guilt into his chest, but he’d been grateful for the return of both items. “Leave Estrinel to me,” he told Reloka.

Her light eyes measured him doubtfully, but then she acquiesced with the slightest nod. “If you were anyone else, T’kamen… I’m not accustomed to relying on a man to solve my problems for me.”

“Well, that’s just lovely,” said Ch’fil.

T’kamen nearly smiled.

He found less to smile about when he found J’born deep in conversation with Southern’s Weyrwoman Lori. “Yes, yes, I’m certain we’ll be able to come to an accommodation on supply,” the Peninsula Marshal was saying. “Proportionate, you understand, to our own needs, but once our greens start clutching… Weyrleader!” He greeted T’kamen with exaggerated heartiness.

“That isn’t necessary, J’born,” T’kamen said.

“Oh, nonsense, T’kamen,” J’born said expansively. “You’ve earned it, even if only as an honorary title. All those riders you’ve saved, the villains you’ve rooted out, rediscovering between…now, when are you going to let us all in on the knack?”

That made T’kamen’s heart sink. “There’s a little more to it than a knack.”

“No doubt, no doubt, but the sooner I can get my riders between ready, the happier they’ll be.”

“If you’d forgive us a moment, J’born,” said Lori. She smiled briefly at the Peninsula rider as she took T’kamen’s arm and led him away from the other Marshal. “I’m anxious that Southern isn’t left behind, T’kamen. I don’t want my Weyr to be the last one on Pern without between capability, but the price J’born is asking just for first refusal on his Peninsula-bred eggs is extortionate.”

There was no point even asking if Lori had spoken to Reloka about buying fire-lizard eggs from Ista. “I understand your concerns, Weyrwoman,” T’kamen told her wearily. “I’m hoping we’ll be able to address the issues surrounding Pern’s fire-lizard supply to everyone’s satisfaction over the next couple of days.” He cast about for a way to disentangle himself. “You’ll excuse me. I should attend to Weyrwoman Ignia.”

Ignia was staring in T’kamen’s direction, her brows knit as though she were trying to solve a puzzle, but he didn’t go to her. Instead, he caught G’reyan’s eye across the room, and motioned with his head towards Dalka, and a moment later the three of them convened near the archway.

“Starfall knows that the Peninsula’s fire-lizards were stolen,” Dalka said. “They don’t care, so long as they can get their hands on some themselves.”

“I suspect the same of Southern,” T’kamen said. “And no one from the south is interested in talking to anyone from the north.” He looked at Dalka. “You’re not surprised.”

“Not even slightly,” she said. “We need to move this into Council. You need to be prepared for things to go badly, T’kamen.”

He sighed. “I’m always prepared for that.”

It took time to pry some of the Weyrleaders away from the wine and refreshments in the antechamber, and more time to get everyone seated at Madellon’s Council table in accordance with the seating plan Dalka had worked out, and even more time for the grumbles of those who disliked their nearest neighbours to subside. From his own seat at the head of the table, T’kamen let Dalka and G’reyan settle the room. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that sixteen of the most powerful dragonriders on Pern should be so awkward to wrangle, but he lacked the strength for it.

He lacked the strength for much. His head was thumping, his gut felt like it wasn’t wholly committed to holding onto what he’d had for breakfast, and the too-bright light from the glows in the Council chamber hurt his eyes. He wanted nothing more than to go and lie down somewhere dark and quiet and be left alone. He limped through his opening address, thanking the Weyrleaders for coming, and making some remarks about cooperation and reconciliation and the greater good that would have rung false even had he delivered them with conviction instead of weary necessity.

“Very fine words, T’kamen,” said C’strar, “and no one here disputes the potential value of what you personally have achieved. But it is just that – potential. Knowing that it’s possible for dragons to go between again is one thing; having the means to do it is another. And Starfall Weyr has not the means.”

“Nor Southern,” said H’roo, Southern’s Marshal, “and it seems a great injustice that some Weyrs should enjoy preferential access to the resources required, while others equally in need are held to ransom for the same.”

“If you want to speak of injustice…” Reloka began, glaring across the table at Weyrwoman Estrinel.

“I can assure you…” Estrinel said at the same moment, leaning towards H’roo.

“Enough,” T’kamen said tiredly, as everyone began to talk over each other.

“Enough!” Dalka echoed him, more sharply, when no one listened. The room subsided, but not without several glares flung in assorted directions.

“Everyone needs fire-lizards,” T’kamen said. “And everyone will get access to fire-lizards.” He found Reloka’s eyes across the table. “Weyrwoman Reloka.”

“Ista has the only native population of fire-lizards on Pern,” Reloka said. “The only native population,” she repeated, when Estrinel drew herself up indignantly, and the other Weyrleaders glanced at the fire-lizards that the Peninsula riders carried on their shoulders. “And we are willing to share that resource with the other Weyrs. But not –” she turned her head deliberately to look at Estrinel, “– for free.”

Estrinel put a protective hand up to the bronze fire-lizard on her shoulder. “What is it you’re implying, Ista? I can promise you that the Peninsula’s fire-lizards are –”

“Weyrwoman Estrinel,” T’kamen said. “Northern and southern strains of fire-lizards are as distinguishable from each other as northern and southern bloodlines of dragons. Before you continue, I’d suggest that you investigate carefully the true origin of the fire-lizard eggs that came into your possession recently.”

Estrinel closed her mouth with a snap. She lifted her chin just a fraction. “The riders who found our fire-lizard eggs swore they were from Peninsula beaches. I had no reason to doubt their word.”

“Perhaps you had best re-examine their claims, Peninsula,” Reloka said, with chilly control. “If the riders responsible for stealing eggs and damaging the few nest sites that we’ve been trying to protect are rogue Peninsularites, I’m sure you’d want to discipline them very severely indeed for endangering such a precious and limited resource, and for bringing their Weyr into disrepute.” She paused. “We have fire-lizards. We’re willing to part with them, for the good of Pern, and for a fair price. But we will not tolerate having them stolen.”

“This is a little rich, isn’t it, Weyrwoman?” asked H’roo. “Coming from Ista, of all Weyrs? You’ve been stealing from us for Turns, and now the boot’s on the other foot, you have the audacity to cry foul?”

The Peninsula’s Feyara said quickly, “Good point!” and several other riders murmured in support of the argument.

Reloka’s nostrils flared; T’kamen thought she’d never looked so much like her mother. “Ista never took anything it didn’t need to survive.”

“We’re all trying to survive,” said H’roo. “Ista’s no different from the rest of us –”

“Have you been to Ista, H’roo?” Ch’fil asked sharply.

The Southern rider recoiled slightly. “Well, no, I –”

“Then shut your mouth.”

“No Weyr has lost more to Ista’s need to survive than Madellon,” Dalka said, before H’roo could retort. Her eyes met Reloka’s as she spoke. “No Weyr. But I have been to Ista. And what passes for existence there bears no resemblance to the fat, soft, grub-safe life of a Southern dragonrider.”

“We’re getting away from the point,” said T’kamen. “The fire-lizard beaches are in Istan territory; the fire-lizards belong to Ista. Weyrwoman Reloka has every right to demand that Ista’s ownership of an Istan resource is respected.”

“The fire-lizards should belong to Pern!” said J’born. “They’re too valuable to be controlled by a single Weyr!”

“And Kendan Hold’s firestone has twice the potency of any other stone on Pern,” Ch’fil shot back, “but I don’t see the Peninsula giving up its claim on it!”

“I say we put it to a vote,” Feyara said. “For the good of Pern, Ista shouldn’t get to control the fire-lizard supply.”

“Seconded!” H’roo cried, leaping to his feet.

“Sit down, Commander, Marshal,” T’kamen told the two riders. “There will be no vote. Ista’s Charter-given sovereign rights are not up for grabs.”

“Says who?” Feyara demanded. “Southern’s with me!” She looked at the Starfall delegation. “What do you say, Starfall?”

Starfall’s Marshal and Commander exchanged glances; Ignia was still gazing thoughtfully at T’kamen, apparently unconcerned by the vehement argument going on around her. T’kamen raised his voice, though it made his headache worse. “I said sit down, Commander,” he told Feyara.

“Madellon has no authority –”

“I’m not speaking for Madellon,” T’kamen said, and the flatness in his voice cut through the din. He got painfully to his feet, bracing himself with both hands against the table. “I’m speaking for myself. T’kamen. Epherineth’s rider. The Weyrleader of Pern.” He smiled, half in self-mockery, half in derision of how they had bestowed the title on him as if it carried no weight at all. “You want to go marauding into Ista and take all their fire-lizard clutches for yourselves? Go ahead, if it makes you happy. But any Weyr – any Weyr,” he added, and didn’t exclude Dalka or G’reyan from the excoriating glare with which he swept the table, “– that colludes in the theft of a fire-lizard egg from Ista will have to figure out how not to kill its riders between by itself, because I won’t be shaffing training them!”

He knew he should have regretted it even before he’d finished, just as he knew he should probably say something to soften his declaration, but his head hurt and his gut hurt and his heart hurt, and he was tired of the whole mendacious lot of them. Abruptly, he sat down again, dropping his head into his hands. He heard, but did not see, Dalka suggest quietly that they break for refreshments, and he didn’t lift his head as the Weyrleaders of Pern scraped back their chairs and filed out, but he did hear some of the murmurs of uneasiness and discontent as they passed.

“…not a well man…”

“…not reasonable…”

“…need him anyway? We have our own records…”

“…more interested in the fire-lizards…”

“…how hard can it be…?”

Would you ask H’juke if he could bring me some more willowsalic? T’kamen asked Epherineth, when everyone had gone.

He is already on his way.

Is Donauth’s rider as angry with me as I think she is?

It’s hard to tell. All the queens are on edge. Epherineth paused. Stratomath says that Chrelith is grateful to you, though.

“T’kamen?”

He raised his head out of his hands, wincing as the light stung his eyes again. “Juke,” he said, as the young bronze rider entered the Council chamber. “Thank Faranth.”

“Bularth said Epherineth sounded pretty dire,” H’juke said. “How are you feeling?”

“About as good as I look.”

H’juke poked around the pitchers of water on the table until he found one that was still hot, then poured a cup full, and crumbled willowsalic into it from a packet. “Eat this first,” he told T’kamen, handing him a chunk of journey-cake. “The sweetener will help.”

T’kamen chewed through the square of oats and dried fruit, then gulped down the cup of willowsalic in two bitter swallows. “Thank you.”

“How’s it all going?” H’juke asked.

“I don’t think they’re very impressed with me,” said T’kamen. He forced a smile. “I don’t blame them. I haven’t been very impressive today.”

“That’s not your fault,” H’juke told him.

He laughed faintly. “Of course it is.” He sobered. “I’m sorry we can’t fly the demonstration today. That’s my fault too.”

“They should still do the basic formation jumps.” Dalka spoke from the doorway.

H’juke stood up straight from where he’d propped himself on the corner of the Council table.

“Without you,” Dalka went on.

H’juke slid his eyes sideways to T’kamen.

T’kamen looked at Dalka. Her eyes were flinty, her lips compressed in the thin line that never augured anything good. “All right,” he said. “The basic formation jumps.” He thought, but didn’t say, that Epherineth could still pull a dragon out if something went wrong.

“Go and get the Wing ready now, bronze rider,” Dalka told H’juke. “We’ll come out onto the terrace to watch before we go back into Council.”

“Yes, Weyrwoman,” H’juke replied. He glanced again at T’kamen.

“Now, H’juke,” said Dalka, and he fled.

“I’m right here, Dalka,” T’kamen said, when H’juke had gone. “You don’t have to take it out on him.”

“I rather fear that if I took it out on you, I’d rip you in half,” said Dalka. “Which would be no more than you deserve.”

T’kamen didn’t even try to mount a defence. “They’re so sharding petty, Dalka. They can’t see beyond the walls of their own Weyrs.”

“I don’t disagree,” she said. “But you can’t threaten them the way you did, looking the way you look, and expect to be taken seriously. No one’s worrying because you’ve said you won’t train them unless they fall in line. They’re all still talking about fire-lizards.”

T’kamen exhaled hard and thought about dropping his head back into his hands. “They’re like children, desperate to play with matches when they’ve never even seen fire.”

“That being so,” said Dalka, “if we’re to salvage anything of this Conclave then you need to come downstairs and show your face.”

The journey-cake and willowsalic between them had taken the edge off T’kamen’s headache. He reluctantly levered himself out of his seat and followed Dalka from the Council chamber.

But they had barely stepped outside when they encountered Ignia. Dalka stopped. “Did you get lost on the way back from the facilities, Ignia?”

“Do stop being such a bitch, dear,” Ignia told her. “It’s bad for the complexion.”

Dalka went crimson. T’kamen wondered if anyone had ever spoken to her that way before. He supposed that Ignia was one of the few who ever could. “Weyrwoman,” he said, trying to head off the trouble before it escalated, “will you let me escort you –”

“It wasn’t until you lost your temper that it came to me,” she said, ignoring him. “What with the beard; and you’d looked so pale and peaky until the anger flushed you. I couldn’t think who it was you put me in mind of.”

“Ignia!” Dalka said sharply.

“And I see it now,” Ignia went on. She put her softly wrinkled hand to T’kamen’s brow. “I see it.”

T’kamen was too surprised to pull away. “Weyrwoman Ignia,” he said, at a loss. “I don’t know what…”

She turned her head towards Dalka without taking her eyes off T’kamen’s face. “You haven’t told him, have you, dear?”

“Hasn’t told me what?” T’kamen asked, bewildered.

“Who you are,” said Ignia.

“Stop it,” Dalka said, and to T’kamen’s blank shock, there was a catch in her voice, and tears in her eyes. “Stop it, Ignia. Don’t do this.”

“Don’t do what?” Ignia asked. “He has a right to know.”

What’s she talking about? T’kamen asked Epherineth, but his dragon was as mystified as he. He looked from one Weyrwoman to the other. “What do you mean, who I am? Who am I supposed to be? Dalka?”

He’d never seen her so distressed. Her face had gone white and drawn, her eyes huge, and she snatched at his arm, as if to pull him back from the edge of an abyss. “I couldn’t let you know,” she said, almost pleading. “You have to understand, T’kamen. You’d have left if you’d known.”

“What are you talking about?”

Dalka bit her lip, like a distraught girl. Then she whirled. The door of her workroom was the next along from the Council chamber. She flung it wide and disappeared inside, leaving it open behind her.

T’kamen and Ignia followed Dalka into her room, that sanctuary of decadence and comfort, its walls filled with the works of her brush and pen. Dalka was kneeling beside one of the cases where she stored the pictures that didn’t make it onto the walls. She pulled out a sketchbook, its edges beginning to curl and yellow with age, and tore through pages of crackling paper. “Here,” she said, thrusting the pad at him, and then glared up at Ignia. “I hope you’re happy now!”

T’kamen took the sketchbook.

His own face looked back at him. The pencil lines that spidered the page described the spare lines of jaw and nose and cheekbones, the dark arch of eyebrows, the stern stare of eyes that he saw in the looking-glass each morning. He almost dropped the sketchbook in surprise. “You drew me,” he said, and then something M’ric had said to him, months ago, came back in a rush. You know Dalka has a drawing of you.

“Yes. I drew you.” Dalka’s breath hissed from her lips. “Thirty-five Turns ago.

T’kamen blinked. His eyes found the date on the page. I7/191. “I don’t understand.”

Dalka didn’t rise from the floor. She knelt there, as if in supplication. Her hair hung around her face. “When I was a young weyrwomen, I was made to spend hours in the Starfall Archives. I hated it.”

“It’s the traditional way for a queen rider to learn her Weyr,” said Ignia, blandly.

Dalka glared up through the curtain of her hair. “I hated it,” she repeated. “So I found any and every way to spend the time I was locked in that loathsome room doing anything but reading and sorting and copying records.

“There were pictures on the wall. Paintings, oil on skybroom. The luminaries of Starfall Weyr: Weyrwomen and Weyrleaders and Weyrlingmasters. Not pretty, most of them. The people or the paintings. But infinitely more interesting than mouldering tithe lists and dusty old Wing reports. So instead of copying records, I copied portraits. Over and over again, some of them. But not this one.” She put her hand on the sketchpad T’kamen still held. “This one I got right the first time.”

“I still don’t understand,” T’kamen said. He felt like he was being made the punchline of a joke. “Why was there a portrait of me in Starfall’s Archives? I’ve never been to Starfall. It didn’t exist in my time. I never even had a portrait done as Madellon’s Weyrleader.”

“Not as Madellon’s Weyrleader,” said Dalka. “But as Starfall’s founder.” The pause she left was almost imperceptibly short, the logical leap it represented impossibly long. “That’s why I couldn’t let you know, T’kamen. If you’d known, you’d have gone back, and we needed you too badly.”

Gone back. The words echoed in T’kamen’s ears and in his head, bouncing off the inside of his skull, reverberating, overlapping, rising in volume and intensity until they became a roar. Gonebackgonebackgonebackgoneback…

“I never went back,” he said. He felt his lips move with the words, but he couldn’t hear them through the clamour in his head.

“Not as T’kamen.” Dalka’s words floated against the background racket. Gonebackgonebackgoneback. “But you did go back. You became this man. M’dan. You became the first Weyrleader of Starfall. You went back. You will go back.”

He thought his head might burst with confusion, with hope, with disbelief, with fury, with every emotion in seething turmoil, and then –

No, said Epherineth.

“No,” said Ignia, at the same moment.

T’kamen lifted his head. He was on the floor beside Dalka. He didn’t remember going to his knees. “What?”

“What?” Dalka echoed.

Ignia stretched out her hands, laying one upon each of their heads, as if in benediction. “No, she said, kindly. “Oh, Dalka. Is that truly what you believed? Is this why you harnessed your fortunes to this bronze rider? Because you thought he was M’dan as yet unformed? Because you believed his greatness was pre-ordained?”

Dalka looked up at Ignia, wide-eyed and pleading. “This is him,” she whispered. “You’ve seen the portrait! This is him!”

“I’ve seen the portrait,” Ignia said. “I’ve seen it every day for nigh on fifty Turns. And I know what’s missing from it that you’ve forgotten in the thirty-five since you copied it.” She lifted her hand from Dalka’s head to touch the blankness over the shoulder of the rider who wore T’kamen’s face, the negative space that no artist would have left unfilled. “You never did like to draw the dragons.”

Dalka stared at the page. “I remember,” she said. “His dragon…”

“Arkandeth,” said Ignia. “A bronze, like Epherineth. But his face…”

“He had no scars,” Dalka recalled. Then she insisted, weakly, “But T’kamen would never have had him painted from the right, where his scars would show.”

“Even if that were true, Dalka,” said Ignia, “I have seen Epherineth’s face, and once, long ago, when I was very young and he was very old, I saw Arkandeth’s. And they are not the same. Epherineth is not Arkandeth. T’kamen is not M’dan.”

T’kamen had listened dully to their debate. His head still rang, but despairingly now, the clamour modulated to a minor key. You knew it wasn’t true.

How could we ever be anyone but who we are?

“Then M’dan –” Dalka began, and then stopped.

“The resemblance is striking,” Ignia agreed.

They both looked at T’kamen. He looked back at them without comprehension. “What?”

“You said you never had any children!” Dalka accused.

“I haven’t,” T’kamen said blankly. “I didn’t.”

Ignia snorted dismissively. “Oh, and I suppose your dragon never flew a green?”

T’kamen, said Epherineth. There was creeping delight in his voice. Your line lived on, too.

He knelt there on the floor of Dalka’s workroom, battered physically, bruised mentally, feeling as tossed about by revelations as a weyrling in a hurricane. “I had a son?” he said. The words tasted strange, unfamiliar, as he tried them out. “I had a son who Impressed a bronze dragon and became a Weyrleader of Pern?”

“You had a son,” Dalka said. There was a peculiar tone to her voice. “And he had a son. And that son had a son…”

T’kamen suddenly knew where she was going. He shook his head, flatly incredulous. “No.”

“You knew he was dragonspawn,” Dalka said. “You knew his father was a blue rider. You knew he claimed ancestry to the first Weyrleader of Starfall.”

“No. He couldn’t have been. He was just bragging…” T’kamen stared down at nothing, until the gleam of gold on the smallest finger of his left hand made him focus. The Madellon signet ring, whose silver duplicate had been the family ring of…

“M’ric,” he said, shaken to the core. “He was my…my grandson?”

“Several-times-great grandson,” said Dalka. She seemed to have recovered some of her poise. “That much I knew the moment I first saw you.”

T’kamen was too disoriented to challenge her for withholding even that. “My grandson,” he said. Jettisoning the greats didn’t make it seem any more real. He felt like he was in a dream.

As Trebruth was my grandson, said Epherineth.

“T’kamen,” Dalka said, and her cool hands gripped his wrists. For an instant T’kamen was reminded of that night, sevendays ago, when those same hands had scratched his flesh, first in passion, then in anger. But Dalka’s touch now asked no such intimacy of him. “I’m sorry. To tell you this now, with him already lost…”

“M’ric wasn’t lost, Dalka,” he said. “M’ric went where he was meant to. When he was meant to.”

Dalka’s eyes widened as she grasped the meaning, if not the full truth, of his words. But then, abruptly, Epherineth said, Ginth pleads for you to return to the other Weyrleaders. Her rider is frantic.

G’reyan’s green must have relayed the same message to Donauth at the same moment. Dalka’s expression reflected first surprise and then a flicker of amusement. “G’reyan never was much of a politician,” she said. “I suppose we’d better go and rescue him.”

The ordeal of the Conclave had been flung so far from T’kamen’s mind that it took him a minute to reorganise his thoughts. He felt wrung out, and yet the whirl of emotion and shock seemed to have wiped the hangover from his brain. Perhaps that was just the willowsalic. It still pained him to struggle to his feet. He leaned down to pick up the cane he’d dropped, and then he offered his hand to Dalka.

“I can get up myself,” she told him, and she did, rising with the sinuous grace that was her signature.

“I never had any doubt about that,” said T’kamen.

Dalka’s mouth curled in that sly smile of hers, but as she turned to face him her eyes found something in his, and she stilled. “You found her, didn’t you?” she asked. “That’s what set you off last night. Your cow-girl.”

“Sarenya,” said T’kamen.

“Did she have a good life?”

“I hope so.”

“You won’t ever let there be anyone else, will you? Not Leda, and not…anyone?”

Slowly, T’kamen shook his head.

“I thought so.” Dalka seemed diminished for a moment. Then she turned her head to look at Ignia. The old Weyrwoman was sitting on the day-bed, watching them both serenely. “You just had to stir the pot, didn’t you?”

“I’m old, and Ourath doesn’t rise any more,” Ignia said. She swung her thin legs like a delighted girl, just once. “I take my pleasures where I can.”

The prospect of having to referee a match between the two queen riders filled T’kamen with dismay. “I’ll go and liberate G’reyan. Weyrwoman.”

He made as hasty a retreat as his stiff-legged gait allowed, but as he left, he heard Ignia say, “What will you do now, Dalka?”

“Now?”

“Now that you’ve realised your Weyrleader isn’t the Weyrleader you thought he was. It’s one thing to fly recklessly when you’ve a safety tether. Another when that tether has been cut loose. And your T’kamen has been flying very recklessly indeed today.”

That was as much as T’kamen heard as he made his halting way down the stairs. He paused at the bottom. For a few moments, a handful of heartbeats, the span of a jump between, he’d glimpsed the shining notion that they could go home. Glimpsed it; desired it; lived it, mind and soul, before it had been snatched away from him again.

What good would it have done? Epherineth asked. What good could we have done, going back, knowing what we know? We could not have changed the past of this present. Time protects itself.

That truth resonated through them both like a chord, purely struck. So did the realisation that followed: how they would have chafed against their powerlessness to bring about change; how they would have been forced to follow the road that connected past and future without detour or deviation; how they would have remained prisoners in the implacable web of cause and effect that had snared them.

And the revelation that followed nearly sent T’kamen to his knees. Everything that had happened from the moment a young brown rider had arrived in the Seventh Interval, flung backwards through the Turns to a time not his own, until the moment in the Eighth Pass a century and a half later when that same brown rider had begun his journey through time, had been foreordained. Nothing could have been changed in those intervening Turns to prevent the fulfilment of that implacable, impossible, inevitable loop through time. For a hundred and fifty Turns, Pern itself had been the captive of pitiless, immutable Time: robbed of agency, of self-determination, of any free will.

Pern was free now. It had been free since the moment M’ric had vanished from the Pass: the loop begun, the imprisonment ended. Everything that had happened since then had been shaped not by the need of Time to preserve its own fabric, but by the will of Pern’s people, for good or for ill.

As it should be, said Epherineth.

They couldn’t change what had already happened. They couldn’t undo the injustice that had been done to an unwitting Pern for so many Turns. They couldn’t avenge the wrongs that Time had wrought.

But maybe they could stop it happening again.

T’kamen wasn’t blind to the irony. Pern had barely been liberated from Time’s clutches for a few months, and now, for the first time in almost a century, dragonriders had the power to ensnare it again. Dragonriders, travelling between times, had unwittingly created the loops that had constricted Pern. Dragonriders, unwittingly, could do it again.

Dragonriders had to learn to know better.

We will teach them.

T’kamen didn’t know if he said it or Epherineth did. He did know that it didn’t matter.

What mattered was the Conclave. What mattered was Pern’s Weyrleaders, assembled at Madellon for the first time in decades. What mattered was that they, T’kamen and Epherineth, had the opportunity to lead the dragonriders of Pern onto a path that branched and diverged and disappeared over the horizon of the future, heading who-knew-where.

Tell Dannie to assemble the Unseen, he told Epherineth.

He made one short trip to his office and then limped briskly into the reception room, buttoning his jacket one-handed. “Weyrleaders,” he said, not slowing his determined pace as he swept through the room, “if you’d follow me.”

Dalka caught up with him as he headed towards the glass door that opened onto the terrace. “What are you doing?” she demanded under her breath.

“Leading by example,” T’kamen told her.

Outside, Epherineth had landed on the gravel of the training grounds. Beyond him, the eleven dragons of the Unseen Wing waited in in a line that angled away from the terrace, facing into the wind, ready to take off.

Their riders approached T’kamen in equally perfect line, matching stride with parade-ground precision. They were as immaculate as their dragons in their dress blacks, their helmets under their arms, their fire-lizards on their shoulders. They stopped as one and saluted. “Weyrleader, sir,” said Dannie, raising her voice, so the Weyrleaders who had come out onto the terrace behind him could hear. “Unseen Wing, reporting for flight.”

From his pocket T’kamen drew the shoulder-knot he’d brought from his office: indigo for Madellon, green for Dannie’s Lusooth, bronze for her fire-lizard Fleet, gold for the Unseen. He saw her mouth open in astonishment as he unfastened the old braid from her shoulder strap and replaced it with the new. “Acknowledged. Wingleader.”

As the Unseen riders either side of Dannie thumped her wordlessly on the arm, T’kamen moved along the line to H’juke. He took another knot from his pocket, indigo-bronze-blue-gold. “Wingsecond.”

“Yes, sir,” H’juke said, hardly whispering.

T’kamen turned away from him before the newly-minted Wingsecond could start to cry. He addressed Dannie. “Epherineth and I will be joining you, Wingleader.”

This time, Dannie let no flicker of surprise cross her face. “Yes, sir. We’re honoured, Weyrleader, sir.”

T’kamen gestured for his riders to break formation and gather around him. “You’ve all gone far beyond the call of duty,” he said, for their ears only. “For the past sevendays and months, but today especially. I let you down, and I’m sorry.”

There was an awkward pause. The Unseen riders looked at each other. Then Dannie said, “I think I speak for all of us when I say that we’re just glad to have it proved that you are actually human. Sir.”

A laugh rippled around the circle of riders, and Tr’seff said, “Because we were wondering.”

“All too human,” T’kamen said. He felt unworthy of their forgiveness.

Then Dannie looked at H’juke, and on his other side F’sta nudged the bronze rider forwards. “We know what you’ve given up for us, Weyrleader,” H’juke said. “We know you didn’t have to come here and give us back between. It’s not right that you had such a hard time doing it, or that you got hurt, and Epherineth…and… Well, we can’t make it better.” H’juke said it clumsily, self-consciously, tripping over his words. “But we can…we wanted to…oh, Faranth, can’t we just show him?”

Unseen!” Dannie yelled. “Left…bend!”

In unison, as if they had been anticipating the command, the dragons of the Unseen Wing turned towards them.

On the terrace behind them, the Weyrleaders of Pern exclaimed in surprise. Epherineth made a startled little rumble in his chest.

And T’kamen just stared.

The eleven dragons of the Unseen had been painted. No. Tattooed. Each face bore a jagged stripe from right eye to upper lip, each alike, each matching precisely the line of the scar that rent Epherineth’s face. They’d been freshly done, tiny beads of ichor still wet where bronze and brown and green and blue hide had been punctured to take the black ink that would forever disfigure them.

Not disfigure, said Epherineth. Distinguish.

T’kamen had no words.

But Epherineth did. Epherineth the silent; Epherineth who never made a sound he didn’t have to, Epherineth who had endured without complaint as much pain and loss and ignominy as T’kamen. Epherineth threw back his head, the scars rippling on his face. He bugled, pure and deep, and the Unseen opened wide their jaws and clarioned back at him in exhilarating harmony.

T’kamen wanted to stagger. He wanted to sit down. His ears rang, and his eyes blurred, and his heart hurt. And then he looked at his riders, his Unseen, at their grins and their shining eyes.

“Come on,” he said roughly. “Let’s show Pern how real dragonriding is done.”

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