On the third day, Cherganth laid the eighteenth and final egg of her clutch, and I collected seven and a half marks from B’nune. I didn’t even crow over it.
My fellow wingsecond counted out my winnings in half and quarter marks with an elaborate show of reluctance, as though the small coins would induce me to relent. Like between I would. “It’s unnatural, L’stev,” he repeated yet again, dropping the final Smithcraft half mark into my outstretched hand, and tugging shut the neck of his lightened belt pouch. “If I didn’t know better I’d say you had the queen’s ear. Thread-sharded lucky, that’s what you are.”
I poured the handful of marks into my own pouch and tucked it back under my tunic. “Pure skill,” I said. “You won’t take a few of these back on the colour distribution?”
B’nune clapped a hand over his purse. “Not this time, old friend. You’ve done enough damage for one day.”
I chuckled mechanically as we turned to leave the Hatching ground. B’nune would be glad enough to take my marks on Hatching day: five sevendays hence was soon enough to relieve my wingmate of a few more coins. And Cherganth had set a knotty puzzle for me to unpick, laying eggs of such uniform size and shade that even I, with my proven instinct for such things, would be hard pressed to guess the dragonet each would yield. Still, I threw a final contemplative glance over my shoulder at the mound of eggs, and decided it would be a good clutch for the blues.
It was just too easy.
“Gabinne will be pleased,” B’nune went on, the blow of losing his money to my correct prediction already behind him. B’nune always was like that: mercurial as a fire-lizard. “Eighteen dishes for the Hatching feast won’t tax her creativity too greatly. Last clutch at the Peninsula Hatched thirty-seven, can you imagine?”
“The new weyrlings wouldn’t get over thirty-seven courses for a month,” I said. I shook my head. “And the Peninsula’s overproducing. That junior queen’s going to lay herself out.”
Neither of us mentioned that we’d been hoping for a gold egg and the new queen Madellon hadn’t seen in over twenty Turns. Cherganth had mated three different bronzes in her five clutches as senior, and sole, queen of Madellon, but produced no golden daughter to continue the line.
Cherganth is in her prime still, Vanzanth insisted, as he did with each clutch. When the time is right she will clutch another queen. Be patient.
He was right, of course, but I don’t like to let my dragon wallow too deeply in self satisfaction. It’s Fianine I’m concerned with.
Vanzanth considered that for several moments, in his workmanlike way. She is hale. And pleased with the clutch, queen egg or no.
I couldn’t deny either assertion. The Weyrwoman showed no sign of relinquishing either her robust good health or her firm grasp on the affairs of Madellon Weyr. Yet the only queen rider of Madellon occupied an unenviable position, changing Weyrleader with each of Cherganth’s mating flights and never softening her steely resolve to do things her own way for long enough to let anyone get close. A new queen rider, tempered in the heat of Fianine’s uncompromising standards, would be a credit to any Weyr on Pern, and I could sympathise with her frustration at being denied a successor.
But any clutch was cause for celebration and this, the first in five Turns, would be the first Hatching some of my youngest wingriders would have attended since their own Impressions. “Going to be a few sore heads tomorrow,” I muttered. Then I snorted back a laugh. “What say we put about the rumour of a surprise inspection first thing in the morning?”
B’nune shook his head. “You wouldn’t. With all the drinking the Wing’s going to be doing tonight?”
“I wouldn’t,” I agreed. “But it might make H’ned and his youngsters think twice about getting themselves between with wine.”
“You’re a bad man, L’stev.”
I flashed my teeth. “I’ll take that as agreement.”
Yes, I was a cussed old sod then, too. Fifteen Turns isn’t that long ago.
The young of the lower caverns always behaved strangely after a clutching. The oldest youths were to be seen sitting tall and straight at their trestle table, as if to prove their maturity, while the younger ones bothered them with incessant questions. And the youngest, those under the age of ten, tore about like mating fire-lizards, infected with pure excitement at the prospect of a Hatching of dragons they were too small to Impress.
The Weyrlingmaster, D’hor, seldom waited long after the laying of a clutch to formally name those among the Weyr children who would be allowed to stand as candidates. We adults of the Weyr knew that, in practice, any young man or woman in good health from the age of twelve to that of twenty Turns was entitled to take his or her chance on the sands. But knowledge of the handful of youths that had been culled out from the candidate group over the Turns made the young ones wary.
I had no such concerns over my own children. Of my five, my eldest daughter and two older sons already rode dragons; my second daughter was a journeyman in the Weavercraft at Poren Hold, and my youngest had yet to celebrate his fourth Turn. My two middle children would have been of an age to stand, had they but survived the childhood fever that had swept southern Pern eight Turns ago.
Those losses had gravely depleted the Weyr’s young. Where there should have been twenty-five or thirty boys to stand for Cherganth’s clutch only a dozen or so had survived to be of age. Madellon’s riders would have to fly Search, but I wondered if the Holds, struck as badly or worse than the Weyr, would welcome the poaching of their children.
I put the thought to one side and set down my ale mug as G’boran crossed from the far end of the dining cavern. I raised my eyes to meet my Wingleader’s amused gaze. “Whatever they said I did, I deny it.”
G’boran snorted back a chuckle and sat down, rubbing his fingers through silvering black hair. “B’nune told me about your inspection threat. I’ve had to plead ignorance twice already. You’re going to get me into trouble.”
I shrugged, enjoying his discomfit. “If it makes you feel any better, I will hold an inspection in the morning.”
“I’d sooner you didn’t,” said G’boran. “You know how long it takes me to get any kind of shine on Inborth’s coat.”
“Better start now then,” I growled. Then I clinked my tankard against the side of G’boran’s and took a long gulp.
Few of Madellon’s Wingleaders would have tolerated my particular stripe of authority. As a youngster, I’d frequently seen criticism for my eagerness to take command of my fellows despite the presence of three bronzes in the class, and spent a good proportion of my free time on punishment duties for speaking my mind about the fitness of those three bronze weyrlings for leadership. Age had brought, if not tact, then the prudence to know when to hold my tongue. But G’boran, who prided himself on his approachability as a Wingleader, had recognised the importance of having a disciplinarian to take a firm hand with the Wing, and I’d applied myself to that task with vigour for the last sixteen Turns.
“R’hren’s looking hard done by for a man whose dragon’s just sired a good healthy clutch,” I remarked to G’boran.
The Wingleader shrugged. “Word’s got round that we’ve had another laying without a queen. It seems some blue weyrling on a message from Peninsula made a remark to our watchrider about Madellon being like Ista without the speed.”
“Presumptuous little snot,” I said. “He’d have seen the back of my hand for that. And Vanzanth all over his dragon like a tangle.”
G’boran nodded. “Though you have to wonder if a younger bronze might not yield a better clutch.”
“Ambitions to the Weyrleadership, G’boran?” I asked.
“Scarcely. Inborth’s out of Pequenth, the same as Cherganth, and she hasn’t clutched well by her brothers.” The Wingleader stared across the dining hall at the round table where the Weyrwoman held court with her latest favourites. “I think what we need is some new blood,” he said, with bluntness verging on treason.
“That’s not like to happen,” I said. “Fianine wouldn’t let any queen of Cherganth’s transfer out, however badly we need a new line.”
Silence lapsed between us for a few moments. Then G’boran asked, “You’ve not got a boy old enough to Stand, have you?”
“You know I haven’t,” I replied. “D’hor’s going to have his hands full scratching together enough kids to give the dragonets a choice this time.” When G’boran only made a thoughtful noise that I took to be agreement, I went on, “Makes it easier when I come to relieve my fellow riders of their marks on Hatching day. Though the odds won’t be so good.” I heaved an exaggerated sigh of regret at that reality.
“Are you completely sure you’re not Bitran?” G’boran asked, not for the first time.
“Bitrans fear me.”
The bronze rider drained off his ale and set the tankard down, rising to his feet. “They’re not the only ones. Give Inborth some warning if you decide to carry through on your threat, won’t you?”
“I’ll think about it,” I promised.
Yet the old banter didn’t fire me. I looked into my empty mug. The last of my ale swirled around at the bottom, strangely uninviting.
I downed it anyway.
I didn’t pause in my methodical grooming of Vanzanth’s foreleg. I brushed in sure, slow strokes from the top of his shoulder to his elbow and down the forearm, the motion as much massage as ablution. Vanzanth’s eyelids had all but drooped shut with his enjoyment of the attention.
Now, though, my brown cracked open one eye. He’s not talking to me.
When he gets my title right, I’ll answer.
You are a brown rider.
I’m also a wingsecond.
You’re also a brown rider.
That’s not the point, Vanzanth.
“Uh, brown rider?”
So I take it that those stripes on your shoulders are more important to you than being my rider.
I gave up my purposeful massage to glare at my dragon.
Don’t stop, Vanzanth said languidly, then added, He thinks you’re a little deaf.
I thought several highly unflattering thoughts about Vanzanth’s intellect, conformation and breeding before transferring my stare to the youth standing halfway up the steps to my weyr. “What is it?”
“I have a message for you,” the tall lad replied, eyeing me with a poorly concealed look of disdain.
I didn’t care for that look. “Well, don’t just stand there, boy. Spit it out.”
“Fianine wants to see you,” the lad said carelessly.
“Show some respect,” I growled, to cover the momentary shock of the message. Then I looked more closely at the insolent messenger. “You’re L’mis’ boy, aren’t you?”
The youth lifted his head as if to assert his height advantage, though his gesture lost some of its effect by merit of his standing three steps below my ledge. “Yes, I am.”
“Then you’d do well not to shame him by cheeking a wingsecond. Get out of my sight.”
The son of the former Weyrleader almost hesitated. Then he turned on his heel and strode away noisily down the steps in a charming display of adolescent temperament.
I’m sure you were just like that once.
I smacked Vanzanth’s nose. Fits of pique because Daddy isn’t Weyrleader any more were never my style.
Aren’t you glad I’m brown?
Small mercy. I ducked under my dragon’s head, then stepped over the tail coiled neatly before the entrance of our weyr. Browns don’t show the dirt.
Brown riders did, though, I thought, glowering at myself in the fragment of silvered glass propped on a shelf above my bed. I ran a hand over my chin and concluded from the rasping sound that I’d better get out my razor. Even on a rest day, one did not greet the Weyrwoman wearing half a beard. After I’d scraped the stubble off my face, I changed my shirt and then smoothed back my hair into a tail. I hesitated over my rank knots, then decided against them. I never wore them by choice, and the very fact that Fianine had summoned me meant that she knew perfectly well who I was.
Might help when youngsters come with messages for you, Vanzanth put in.
“They should know better,” I replied, aloud, and more curtly than I intended.
Vanzanth had turned his long head to meet me when he emerged from the weyr. Touchy, he observed, without offence.
I ran my hand up the brown dragon’s jaw and pulled at the near head knob. “You didn’t deserve that,” I admitted.
Whatever the Weyrwoman has to say can’t be that bad, L’stev.
I lifted one shoulder. “It’s just unexpected.” And, I didn’t need to add, for Vanzanth already knew, I didn’t much like surprises.
Go and get it over with, Vanzanth suggested.
I tugged his head knob one more time. “Guess you’re right.”
The short distance from our weyr to the Hatching cavern made stirring Vanzanth from his ledge unnecessary. I walked, following the gravel path that ran the circumference of the Bowl. It needed renewing, I thought critically, and paused for a moment to stamp on a weed that had shouldered up through the stone chips.
A dragon was shrieking her defiant invitation to the skies on the other side of the Weyr. Several blues had gathered around her, and as I watched a brown dragon descended to join in their admiration of the green. It crossed my mind that Vanzanth’s participation in a mating flight might be a good excuse to avoid meeting with the Weyrwoman. But Vanzanth’s wasn’t interested: a fact made as obvious by his contented sprawl in the afternoon sunshine on their weyr ledge as by my own disinterest in chasing or catching.
Staamath was sitting outside the Hatching cavern. That gave me pause. Cherganth wouldn’t tolerate any dragon – even her own mate – on the Sands with her, but if Staamath was here, R’hren must be with Fianine. If R’hren was to be present at this meeting, it must involve the Weyr’s fighting structure.
Which was ominous.
“Staamath,” I muttered in greeting to Madellon’s pre-eminent bronze dragon as I passed.
Within the Hatching cavern, Cherganth held court. Neither Pern’s largest queen nor its most prolific, she nonetheless exuded the regal serenity of an individual entirely in control of her domain. She had arranged her mottled eggs in mysterious fashion: some in groups of three or four, others singly or in pairs. The one closest to her forepaws had three curious blue spots on it, rather like eyes. Others were barely flushed with soft colours; one big one was almost perfectly spherical in shape; still another seemed to have an unusually rough texture to the shell. My early observation had been careless. No two dragon eggs were ever truly alike. I’d found the subject fascinating ever since one very plain cream-coloured egg with no distinguishing features save several greenish speckles near the base had cracked to reveal a phlegmatic-looking brown dragonet who had raised pleading eyes to mine and declared himself Vanzanth.
Stop wool-gathering, said that same brown dragon, very softly.
I allowed myself one final surreptitious straightening of my clean shirt, and set out around the perimeter of the stands to present myself to the Weyrwoman.
What you have to understand about Fianine is that she wasn’t like our current Weyrwoman. Not that I intend Valonna any disrespect. But Fianine was a Weyrwoman of the old school: not only the rider of a queen, but a queen among riders, too. She probably wasn’t really as tall as I remember, but the intimidation of her presence could make the most grizzled old rider shrink into his boots. I was neither grizzled nor very old at the time – or at least, not so much as I am now. This was a woman who specialised in manipulating bronze riders into petty rivalries so as to better keep a grip on the reins of power at Madellon, but who seldom dealt with the lesser echelons of riders herself. So the very idea that I had somehow come to her attention unsettled me.
Our Weyrwoman was a formidable figure, handsome rather than beautiful, and too forceful to even contemplate in that sense anyway, in much the same way that a blue dragon wouldn’t dream of ever chasing a queen. She wore her reddish hair in a cropped style just short of severe, and persisted in the unnerving habit of staring at people down the length of her nose without blinking.
That piercing stare all but rooted me to the spot as I drew myself up to attention before her. “You sent for me, Weyrwoman?”
Fianine examined me as though assessing a half-grown dragonet with disputable potential. Then she tilted her head slightly to speak over her shoulder. “This is the fellow, R’hren?”
I hadn’t spotted the Weyrleader – hidden, literally, in the shadow of his Weyrwoman. R’hren was about sixty, though then, as now, he wore his seasons well. That was probably one of the reasons why Fianine let Staamath fly Cherganth several times over the Turns, though I didn’t think that at the time. Madellon’s Weyrleaders, in my experience, always played second gitar to Fianine.
“This is L’stev,” R’hren confirmed in his terse manner.
“Hm.” Fianine narrowed her eyes at me. “Younger than I thought.”
I suppose that was a compliment, though I don’t think it was intended that way.
“He has the experience,” said R’hren.
Experience of what? I demanded of Vanzanth.
Fianine made a gesture with her hand, as if to brush away an insect. “So you’ve both said. And you’re certain of the brown?”
R’hren’s voice remained level as he replied. “Out of Cherganth’s first clutch, Fianine.”
Something in the Weyrleader’s tone suddenly indicated to me that he was on my side. If Fianine was measuring Vanzanth and me against some mysterious criteria, R’hren wanted us to pass.
I decided that the time to remain silent had passed. “Weyrwoman,” I began, and strove to neutralise the edge of impatience I detected in my own voice. “How exactly can I be of service?”
Fianine’s stare bored into me for another uncomfortably long moment. “Your Wingleader has put your name forward.”
I made a mental note to think up a new way to insult G’boran. “Your pardon, Weyrwoman, but what for?”
“Weyrlingmaster,” she said.
I’m told my face looked particularly foolish at that moment. Yeah, I know, it’s not exactly a surprise for you lot hearing this story, but R’hren assures me that I looked like a Holdbred green weyrling who’s just found out what happens in mating flights.
“Weyrlingmaster?” I repeated stupidly.
“D’hor has elected to step down,” the Weyrwoman said, in a tone that left me in little doubt of how she felt about the situation. “In little more than a month Cherganth’s clutch will Hatch, and the weyrlings will need somebody to train them, yet D’hor has proved obstinate in his refusal to name a viable replacement.”
R’hren evidently sensed the same potential for danger that I did, because he stepped in hastily, remarking, “D’hor feels he hasn’t the energy to keep up with a class any more, L’stev, and his recommended successor….”
“This matters not,” Fianine interrupted. “The Weyrlingmaster has resigned his post, and I’ll see it filled before the sevenday is out. G’boran suggested you.”
By her tone, Fianine questioned G’boran’s judgement. So did I. “He hasn’t said anything to me,” I objected, even as I thought frantically back through our recent conversations.
“I see.” The Weyrwoman continued to stare at me. I hadn’t yet seen her blink. “And if he had, would you have told him not to suggest you?”
“I, well, I….” I scrabbled about for words. “I just haven’t given it the first thought, Weyrwoman. I mean, D’hor’s never given any indication of wanting to resign.”
“Yes,” Fianine said, in a voice just fractionally warmer than the Snowy Wastes. “I know.”
From the corner of my eye I could see R’hren making a face at me over Fianine’s shoulder, but I didn’t dare break Fianine’s gaze.
Say yes, Vanzanth suggested.
G’boran’s just dumped this on me!
I know, and that’s why you’re being stubborn about it. Accept the Weyrwoman’s offer, L’stev. We could do with the change.
Vanzanth’s voice held an odd note: an eagerness, an excitement, that I hadn’t heard in Turns. We had our Wing and all the responsibilities and privileges that came with our Wingsecond rank – that should have been enough for any brown pair. Except it wasn’t. We were second in command of a scant nine other dragons, all but two of whom had been riding with us ten Turns or more. And there wasn’t much to do, save threaten the odd inspection or choose a stern word when a rider turned up late to a briefing. On the odd occasions when Vanzanth and I weren’t there, B’nune covered our duties, and no one missed us. Truth was, I could be a Wingsecond in my sleep, and nothing I did really made very much of a difference. Being the Weyrlingmaster…teaching the young riders of the Weyr…that would make a difference.
I cleared my throat. “I’ve never considered it before, Weyrwoman, but Vanzanth and I are in agreement. We’d be…honoured to serve.”
“Good,” Fianine said, and went on without pause, “You’ll start presently. D’hor is vacating his quarters over the weyrling barracks and you’ll move in straightaway. You’ll be in charge of co-ordinating Search, and the sooner those riders fly the better.”
“Search?” I said stupidly, stunned at the speed with which Fianine was moving.
“Search,” Fianine said crisply. “I understand you have a talent for predicting colour distribution and probable matches. We have eighteen eggs and only thirteen possible candidates. I want twice that number on the Sands when this clutch Hatches. However you have to make up the numbers.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. However you have to make up the numbers? What was I getting myself into? But, “Yes, Weyrwoman,” I replied, again aware of R’hren’s grimaces behind his weyrmate. What’s he doing that for?
Fianine continued to rattle off her orders. “Once you’ve set Search in motion, I want your report on all our Weyrbred candidates, and I’ll have your proposed training plan for the weyrlings by the end of next sevenday.”
You think I’m going to ask Staamath? Vanzanth asked, amused.
“No, I – I mean, yes, of course, Weyrwoman.” Quiet, you!
The Weyrwoman paused, sizing me up once more. “Hmm, yes. One last thing, brown rider.”
I didn’t dare open my mouth again for fear of putting my foot in it, but I made a show of listening attentively.
“You’ll be reporting directly to me.” Fianine didn’t even bother to veil the force in that command. R’hren subsided, his shoulders sagging with defeat. “If you have any problems, I want to hear about them immediately.”
Staamath’s rider was hoping she’d forget to mention that, Vanzanth remarked.
I let my eyes dart to R’hren for a fraction of a second. The Weyrleader barely shook his head at me in warning – or threat.
Something in Fianine’s voice telegraphed the significance of her question. I stood there, the eyes of Weyrwoman and Weyrleader boring into me, feeling like I was Threaded whatever I said, while in the back of my mind, Vanzanth was laughing his tail off and being sod-all help.
I didn’t even bother to form insults to hurl at my perverse dragon. Instead, I made my decision, which wasn’t really much of a decision by that point anyway. “I’ll do my best, Weyrwoman.”
I saw R’hren’s face harden, and realised I might as well have chucked my Wingsecond rank between. Comprehension began to dawn in my murky brain. R’hren, through G’boran, had sourced me as a potential ally in a Weyrleader’s struggle for a share of the power Fianine was so adept at keeping to herself. In openly declaring my allegiance to the Weyrwoman, I’d taken the wind right out of R’hren’s sails. He wouldn’t have expected me to disrespect the Weyrwoman to her face – far from it – but I hadn’t left him much hope that I’d demonstrate loyalty to him as the Weyrleader. D’hor, that pillar of Madellon, had been Fianine’s man through and through, and I’d just lined myself up as his successor in more ways than one.
Fianine, though, looked pensively pleased as she dismissed me. Perhaps I’d met with her approval despite my clumsy handling of the situation. On balance, I was more wary of her than I was of R’hren – though if I failed as Weyrlingmaster, I couldn’t see myself regaining fighting rank while R’hren remained Weyrleader.
Only one thing to do, then, isn’t there? Vanzanth said gaily.
I knew my tone was pretty sour as I replied. And what would that be?
Be a good Weyrlingmaster.
Be a good Weyrlingmaster. Dragons make light of the most complex concepts. After all, they instinctively understand flight: the shifts and corrections of their own bodies in tandem with the vagaries of weather and air currents; they comprehend the mystery that is between as unconsciously as we breathe; they know at birth who, from a field of possible candidates, to choose as their riders.
They’re not so good at politics, though.
Being a good Weyrlingmaster meant choosing good candidates, preparing them, seeing them Impress without incident, and then, shells help me, training them through all the hazards and pitfalls that had faced every young dragonpair since Faranth’s time. And everything I did in that time would be watched intently not only by Fianine, who expected me to train her weyrlings her way, but R’hren, who’d be watching just as intently for any sign of failure that might force me out and get another candidate of his choosing in.
Was I paranoid? Probably not as much as I should have been. If Fianine was the expert at keeping her bronze riders competing against each other, then R’hren had proved himself equally adept at outmanoeuvring his rivals. He wouldn’t be Weyrleader otherwise. And I was just a brown rider.
Perspective is a funny thing. Not an hour before, as a comfortable Wingsecond in the middle tier of Madellon’s riders, I’d resented a youth calling me ‘just’ a brown rider. Now, taking my first steps into the political arena at the top of the Weyr’s hierarchy, I realised what I, as ‘just’ a brown rider, was really up against.
And I never looked back.
Continue to Dragonchoice 3 teaser chapter