Chapter thirteen: Sh’zon
Secrets seldom stay secret for long in a Weyr. Dragons, for all their disinterest in human matters, are ferocious gossips when it comes to the business of other dragons. It only takes one excitable green – and it is almost always a green – getting wind of a choice rumour for the information to spread. Then it will burrow and multiply like an unburned Thread in the fertile ground of the Weyr’s imagination, until finally, having become a gorged, bloated parody of itself, it collapses under its own weight, leaving behind a shell of the original truth: ugly, empty, and of no further interest to anyone.
– Excerpt from Weyrwoman Fianine’s personal diaries
Even the most hardened rumourmongers would think twice about gossiping openly with a foreign queen still in their midst, but Sh’zon had Kawanth start listening in on the speculation the instant Grizbath and her rider left. Epherineth has gone looking for our lost weyrlings, Kawanth reported dutifully. Southern Weyr has broken between. Epherineth’s rider tried to depose Tezonth’s rider and they’ve all gone between. Grizbath wishes to transfer to Madellon and leave her weyrling daughter as senior at Southern. Between is broken in the south but not the north. Between is broken for everyone.
That’s ridiculous, Sh’zon scoffed as he jogged up the steps to his weyr, overtaking two blue riders.
I’m only repeating what I’ve heard.
Still, as idiotic as some of the allegations circulating at Madellon were, the basic facts seemed to be well and truly out: Madellon’s weyrlings weren’t the only ones getting lost between, and the Weyrleader had gone missing.
All around the Bowl, riders were streaming towards the low-level weyrs of their Wingleaders. In the Council meeting that had continued after Margone’s departure, Sh’zon had proposed that the whole Weyr be informed of the facts. H’ned had seconded the motion. Sh’zon had then suggested that the Council should decide what information should be released and what was need-to-know only. With eleven vocal Wingleaders, plus the Weyrwoman and Weyrlingmaster, it had taken most of the night to reach a consensus.
None of them had slept, but one point on which they’d all agreed was that the Weyr must be briefed first thing, before the hearsay got out of hand. The Weyrwoman would address the Weyr Masters and her lower caverns section leaders, who would then disseminate the information to their people. L’stev, naturally, would inform the weyrlings – hopefully putting a stop to some of the more lurid conjecture that was coming from the youngsters. And each Wingleader was to address his own Wing. H’ned offered to include Madellon’s retired riders in his briefing, while Sh’zon put the word out to T’kamen’s Wingseconds that they and their wingmates should report to Kawanth’s weyr.
The briefing rooms attached to each Wingleader’s weyr had been designed for Pass-strength Wings of thirty or more riders. Sh’zon’s Wing and T’kamen’s combined barely numbered that many, so there was room for everyone, if not necessarily space on the benches. The riders had organised themselves by Wing on either side of the room. M’ric and J’tron stood one side of the door; B’ward and F’halig, T’kamen’s Wingseconds, the other: all of them looking serious. “You lot,” Sh’zon said, jabbing his fingers at them and trying not to look M’ric in the eye, “is everyone here?”
“Just waiting for a few stragglers,” said J’tron.
The pair of blue riders Sh’zon had passed on the stairs hurried in and found themselves space to stand on T’kamen’s side of the ready-room. One of Sh’zon’s own green riders came in behind them, looking dishevelled. He’d ordinarily have remarked on a girl coming to a Wing meeting with her hair still wet, but this wasn’t a normal Wing meeting. Sh’zon had washed but not shaved, preferring to let his stubble continue to obscure the visible evidence of the blow H’pold had landed on his jaw yesterday when the Peninsula Weyrleader had found him in Rallai’s weyr.
The crowded room and buzz of speculation took Sh’zon back to the last time he’d had to break serious news to a room full of riders. It wasn’t a memory he relished. Telling his Wing that he was leaving the Peninsula had been hard, facing the wariness and distrust of riders who’d flown under him for eight Turns even harder, and resisting the impulse to say what he really thought hardest of all. H’pold must have pulled a lot of strings and called in a lot of favours to expose the skeletons in Sh’zon’s family’s closet. If that was how he thought a Weyrleader’s influence should be spent…well, Sh’zon could have let his wingriders know his opinion of that. It wouldn’t have helped. Peninsula bronze riders were always running this scheme or that to discredit their rivals, but it wasn’t every day that the Weyr found out one of its senior Wingleaders was related to a bunch of murderers – or that he’d refused to condemn his kin for what they’d done. By the time Sh’zon had realised what a mistake it had been to try to defend his uncle, it had been too late to save his own reputation. Agreeing to transfer to Madellon had been his only graceful option.
The memory of that day, that briefing, that creeping realisation that H’pold had totally outmanoeuvred him, still made Sh’zon angry. He made himself put it aside. Today was different. The people, the circumstances, the focus. No one was accusing him of anything. It wasn’t the same at all. Save for one thing: M’ric at his back, steadfast and reliable and so hatefully knowing in his watchful silence, as if he’d anticipated this crisis and still lifted no finger to avert it.
“All here,” said M’ric, quietly, and J’tron pulled the curtain across the doorway.
No one had taken the big seat at the head of the room from which Sh’zon usually conducted his Wing meetings. He didn’t sit down, but rested his forearms on the back of the chair. “Want to thank you all for coming at this short notice,” he said, and then paused, looking around at the faces he knew and the ones he didn’t. “You all know there’ve been some things happening in the last day or so. The rumour mill’s been grinding out all kinds of nonsense, and most of it Harpers’ tales, a lot of people flapping their gums that they know what’s happening.
“Well, most of it’s guff. You’ve a right to know what’s really been going on, and that’s why all the Wingleaders have called meetings, right now, right across the Weyr. You’re getting the same news as everyone else, so when you get out of here and you talk to your weyrmates and your pals, they’ll know just the same as you.
“Firstly,” he said, holding up a finger. “The Weyrleader’s gone missing.” A ripple of uneasy mutters followed the statement. “He’s gone missing,” Sh’zon repeated over the hum, “but that doesn’t give anyone a pass to make up stories about what’s happened to him. What we do know is that he’s not dead, because you’d better believe Shimpath’d know about it if he was. So he is missing, that’s all, and we have no cause to think he won’t be back soon enough.”
He took a breath. One of T’kamen’s riders opened her mouth to ask a question. He cut her off. “If you’ll hold your peace while I talk, Suzallie, you can ask questions at the end. Now. While T’kamen’s absent, his duties as Weyrleader will fall to me and to Wingleader H’ned as his deputies. We’ll also be supporting the Weyrwoman and you’ll like as not see one or both of our dragons on her ledge, or on the Weyrleader’s, while we get to grips with all the thousand-and-one things that keep this Weyr flying.
“Secondly. You’ll all have noticed that we had a visitor yesterday. For those of you who don’t already know, that was Weyrwoman Margone from Southern. There’s been a lot of ash puked about the whys and wherefores, but I’m telling you now: Margone’s visit had nothing to do with T’kamen going missing. She didn’t even know he was missing. Margone came to Madellon for one reason and one reason only.” He held up his finger again for emphasis. “That was to help us understand what’s going on with the weyrlings.
“Now, there’s been a lot of talk about what happened, a lot of finger-pointing, a lot of blame being chucked around about the quality of Madellon’s dragons and the way they’re being trained. Well, that’s all the biggest heap of whershit.” He paused to let that sink it. “It’s whershit, because Southern Weyr has a group of weyrlings just about a month older than ours, and they lost a bunch of them between a couple of sevendays ago too.”
That caused a more vocal response from the riders, and Sh’zon even caught motion from the corner of his eye that must have been from one of the Wingseconds shifting uneasily. “For Faranth’s sake,” said one of the older blue riders from T’kamen’s Wing, “and they didn’t tell the rest of us?”
“That’s sharding Southern for you,” someone else said, and suddenly the ready-room was abuzz with the angry voices of thirty riders.
“…can’t believe they knew…”
“…might not have lost our kids…”
“…shaffing Southern dimglows…”
“All right,” Sh’zon bellowed over the clamour. “Wind your necks in!” He waited for the uproar to subside, glaring around the room. “See how you’re all quick to point the finger now, eh? Aye, Southern could’ve handled it better, and they’ll be facing some hard questions of their own. But when all’s said and done, there’s nothing to say that Southern caused the problem, and flaming them for it won’t sharding help.” He let them mutter for a moment. “Here’s the fact of it. I don’t have all the answers. No one on Pern does. But I’ll tell you this: we’re going to fix it. I’m on it, H’ned’s on it, the Weyrlingmaster’s on it and none of our weyrlings are going to be put at any risk until we knows exactly what the problem is.
“So.” He pushed himself up from where he’d been leaning on his chair. “That’s where we are. The situation’s changing all the time as we work on it, and we’ll be keeping you informed as and when we have new information. Now. Green rider. You had a question.”
Suzallie gave a start at the suddenness of the address, then composed herself. “I was just going to ask if the Weyrleader’s disappearance is connected to his investigation of the weyrlings’ accident.”
Sh’zon fixed her with a piercing stare. “Connected how?”
“Was he trying to replicate what happened to them?”
“I’m lots of things, green rider,” said Sh’zon, “but I’m not a mind-reader. I don’t know what T’kamen was doing when he disappeared and neither does anyone else.” He pointed to one of his own riders who’d raised a hand. “T’pial.”
The blue rider was one of the oldest and steadiest members of Sh’zon’s Wing, and he asked his question with quiet gravity. “Is between still safe?”
That was something they’d all agreed they should expect. “What’s affecting the weyrlings isn’t affecting adult dragons,” said Sh’zon, “so between is no more dangerous now than it’s ever been. That isn’t to say that taking extra care would be a bad thing. Anyone can go astray with a half-arsed visual, and I’d wager there’s none of us here who could say we’ve never been guilty of that at one time or other.”
G’tab, another of T’kamen’s riders, had his hand up. Sh’zon nodded at him. “Sir, what should we be saying if we’re asked about between? I was at Kellad yesterday and one of the journeyman Woodcrafters asked me if it was true that dragons were getting lost.”
The quiet murmur of consensus implied that G’tab wasn’t the only one who’d encountered that demand. “You tell them the truth,” said Sh’zon. “No adult dragonpair has been affected and there’s no reason to think they will be.”
“But what if they ask about T’kamen?” asked G’tab. “They’re bound to link the him and the weyrlings.”
“News of the Weyrleader’s absence hasn’t yet spread to the Holds,” said Sh’zon. This was another point that had come up at the long meeting of the Wingleaders overnight. “H’ned and I’ll be visiting Madellon’s Masters and Lords Holder later today to apprise them of the situation. Beyond that, you should answer any questions about T’kamen’s whereabouts, or the consequences of him being missing, with reassurance that Madellon’s in the hands of his deputies, and that there’s no cause for alarm. Yes, Ammia?”
“My brother’s boy is a weyrling at Telgar. What’s going to happen when his dragonet’s old enough to start going between?”
“I can’t speak for Telgar,” said Sh’zon, “or anywhere else, but all the Weyrleaders of Pern have been warned now, and no one’s going to be taking between training lightly. Anyway, we’ll more than likely have an answer and a solution to this problem long before it’s an issue for your nephew.” He scanned the room for any other raised hands. “Anyone else have a question?”
No more came. “Well then, I’ll –”
“I have a question, Wingleader.”
The voice came from behind him, and belonged to F’halig, T’kamen’s burly senior Wingsecond. Sh’zon knew the brown rider had never thought much of him. Still, he turned to face him. “Go ahead, Wingsecond.”
“What if T’kamen doesn’t come back?” F’halig asked.
Sh’zon supposed he should have anticipated it. “He’ll be back. I have every confidence –”
“You said yourself that you don’t know where he’s gone or why,” F’halig pointed out. “So it follows that you have no idea if he’ll turn up again. Excuse me if I don’t find your assertions very comforting.”
“F’halig,” B’ward said to his wingmate, quietly urgent.
“No, Wingsecond, it’s all right,” said Sh’zon. He met F’halig’s stare unblinkingly. “Bit soon to be writing him off, don’t you think?”
“I think that it never takes the wherries long to start circling when a position becomes vacant in this Weyr,” F’halig replied. “And any bronze rider who claims he isn’t eyeing up the Weyrleader’s weyr right now is being disingenuous.”
“T’kamen’s not been gone a day yet,” said Sh’zon. “Like as not he’ll turn up before dinnertime.”
“And if he doesn’t?” F’halig asked. “What happens tomorrow, or next sevenday, or a month from now, if he’s still missing?”
The atmosphere in the room had gone from expectant to tense. “If he’s missing for an extended period,” said Sh’zon, “Madellon will have a procedure to choose a successor until the senior queen rises again.”
“And do you know what that procedure is at Madellon?” asked F’halig.
“No, but at the Peninsula, the Wingleaders vote –”
“At the Peninsula,” F’halig said witheringly. “Well, Wingleader, you may not know this, being a foreigner as you are, but T’kamen didn’t become Weyrleader here through a procedure or, Faranth forbid, a vote amongst the Wingleaders. We chose T’kamen. Us, the rank-and-file riders of the Weyr, the browns and greens and blues. We wanted him for our Weyrleader and when Shimpath rose we made sure we got him. So if you think Madellon’s going to take kindly to having a new Weyrleader imposed on us by a procedure, or by bronze riders, or by someone from the Peninsula, you’re very much mistaken.”
“F’halig, that’s enough,” B’ward told him, but the damage was already done. T’kamen’s riders were talking restlessly amongst themselves, and even Sh’zon’s were looking agitated.
“All right, settle it down,” said Sh’zon. “We’re jumping way ahead of where we are.” He must have misjudged the respect Madellon’s wingriders had for T’kamen. These were riders who had only recently wielded a degree of influence in the selection of their leader. He decided to take a risk. “Shame on you, F’halig, for having so little faith in T’kamen that you think he’d abandon Madellon!”
It paid off. F’halig looked genuinely shocked at the allegation of disloyalty. “I never said that!”
But suddenly the momentum was back with Sh’zon. “I may not be a Madellon rider born and bred like all of you,” he pushed on. “And I never expected to be made up to Wingleader the way it happened, much less Deputy Weyrleader. But since I was, I’ve done no less than my best for all of you and for my Weyr. This Weyr. If any rider among you thinks that’s not so, you say it to my face. I’ll not slate any rider for speaking his mind.” He paused expectantly, willing F’halig to let it go, looking around at the wingriders in the room and challenging any of them to call him out.
They didn’t, and F’halig held his tongue. Sh’zon relaxed fractionally. “T’kamen’s a fine Weyrleader,” he continued, in a placatory tone. “It’s no small job, being Madellon’s Weyrleader, and me and H’ned are finding that out! But T’kamen was the one who made us his deputies. He’s trusted us with his Weyr and his Weyrwoman. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll be back, but in the meantime we’re going to do everything in our power to pick up where he’s left off.”
He let that sink in for several long moments. Behind him, F’halig stayed sullenly silent. After what seemed like a reasonable period of time, Sh’zon asked, “Anyone have another question?”
No one did – or else no one wanted to stick their neck out to ask. “Then you’re free to go. And if any of you think of something later, my door is always open.”
The four Wingseconds, F’halig included, stayed at their posts on either side of the door as the wingriders left the room. “You can go,” Sh’zon told them, but he caught M’ric’s eye meaningfully.
He remained in the briefing room for a few minutes after everyone had gone, straightening the benches and turning the glow-baskets. When he quit the room, stepping back into his living quarters, M’ric was sitting in one of the chairs by the unlit hearth. “I need a drink,” Sh’zon told him, going to the shelf where he kept his wineskins. He slopped half a cupful of wine into a mug, drained it in a gulp, then refilled it. “You want a drop?”
“It’s a touch early for me.”
Sh’zon sipped from his second cup and made a face. “You’re not missing much.” He flung himself heavily into the second armchair and stared into the cold fireplace. “That was nearly a disaster.”
“I thought you pulled it back pretty well,” said M’ric.
“No thanks to you!”
M’ric smiled. “When you’re being flamed for being a foreign intruder, your equally foreign intruder of a Wingsecond isn’t going to be much help.”
Sh’zon snorted. “No one minds you.”
“No one ever suspects the brown rider.”
“They’d make an exception if they knew you.” Sh’zon put his wine cup down and levelled a penetrating stare at M’ric. “So are you going to tell me what’s going on?”
“You say that as if I should know,” M’ric said mildly.
“Don’t give me that whershit, Malric.” Sh’zon leaned forwards. “You’ve been hinting that something’s about to happen for sevendays, and you were the last one to speak to T’kamen before he disappeared. So I ask you again. Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”
M’ric didn’t reply for a moment. “I can’t give you absolutes, Sh’zon,” he said at last. “You know that.”
“Absolute or not, you’re not telling me you know nothing about T’kamen’s disappearance.”
M’ric sighed. “What do you want to know?”
“Anything! Everything! Where’s he gone, when’s he coming back? Is he coming back?”
“Questions I can’t answer,” M’ric said.
“Can’t or won’t?”
“But you did have something to do with his disappearance.”
“I suppose you could…” M’ric began. Then he paused, reconsidered, and said, “Yes.”
“Faranth’s tits,” Sh’zon swore. “Is he still alive?”
“I haven’t killed him, if that’s what you mean.”
“That’s not an answer, M’ric!”
“It’s the best I can do.”
“Thread blight you.” Sh’zon got up and started to pace. Then he stopped and looked directly at his Wingsecond. “Did you send him where you came from?”
M’ric returned the stare unflinchingly. “Where would that be, Sh’zon?”
Sh’zon made a frustrated gesture with one hand. He’d never been able to get M’ric to admit anything about his origins. So far as he knew, no one had. He’d still been a weyrling himself when M’ric had turned up in Peninsula territory all those Turns ago, but the mystery of his appearance had been a four-day wonder. Time-lost and time-addled, the consensus went; a young rider from some long-ago Pass, lost between during Fall. If M’ric remembered much of where – or when – he’d come from, he’d never shared it. Whatever mishap he’d had, it didn’t seem to have put him off his little excursions. Sh’zon didn’t like timing, himself, but M’ric seemed to know what he was doing. His forays had always been too useful – and too profitable – for Sh’zon to make a stand against them. “Score it, M’ric,” he said. “I’ve always taken what you’ve said and done on nothing more than faith.”
“And I’ve never steered you wrong,” said M’ric. His voice had taken on a dangerous softness. “But you know my price. Don’t push me.”
Sh’zon glared at him. “This is different, M’ric. You’ve disappeared the Weyrleader.”
“I did what had to be done,” M’ric told him. “What was necessary.”
“And who the shaff are you to decide what’s necessary?”
M’ric turned an implacable gaze on him, and Sh’zon had to stop himself taking a step back. “With all we’ve done, you choose now to develop scruples?”
“I never needed scruples before!” Sh’zon said. “What did we ever do that wasn’t…”
“Necessary,” M’ric finished for him, when he faltered.
“You knew those weyrlings were going to die!” Sh’zon accused. “You knew and you did nothing.”
“I did what I could.”
“Tarshe could have died!”
“Tarshe was never in any danger.”
“If you’d told me –”
“You couldn’t have stopped it any more than I could,” said M’ric. “The best I could do was protect the ones assigned to me.” He looked away. Sh’zon wondered if he was imagining the flash of shame in the brown rider’s eyes. “Three weyrlings were always going to die.”
“Four weyrlings,” said Sh’zon. “And that’s not even counting the twelve dead at Southern. You could have done something!”
“No. I couldn’t. No more there than here. That’s not how it works, Sh’zon.” M’ric hesitated for a beat. “But you can. You have to convince the other Wingleaders to do as Margone asked. You have to get those weyrlings out of Southern.”
Sh’zon looked at him. He sat down. “How do you…?”
M’ric returned the look impassively.
“Shaffing shards, M’ric,” Sh’zon said. “Just how much else do you know?”
“More than I should,” said M’ric. “Not as much as I’d like. Margone’s asked Madellon for asylum, hasn’t she?”
“Not for herself,” said Sh’zon. He put his head in his hand. “Ah, Faranth, M’ric, but you should have seen her. I’ve never seen anyone so sharding scared. And a queen rider. You’d think Grizbath…” He trailed off. The memory of Margone’s desperate plea still gave him chills. “She’s afraid for the weyrlings – the ones they have left. She’s scared of what P’raima might make them do.” He shook his head. “P’raima’s a nasty bastard of a pit-wher, but he wouldn’t harm his own weyrlings!”
“There are a lot of ways to do harm,” said M’ric. “Not all of them obvious.”
Sh’zon stared at him. “What do you know about P’raima?”
M’ric raised his shoulders, barely. “What everyone else does. You heard it from K’ken as often as I did. He’s had it his own way at Southern for a long time. He won’t easily be turned from the path he believes is the right one. He can’t be reasoned with. And he doesn’t back down.”
“That doesn’t give us the right to take his weyrlings,” said Sh’zon. “It’s a betrayal of every law of Weyr autonomy there is!”
“But you didn’t tell Margone you wouldn’t?”
“We said we’d think about it,” said Sh’zon. “Well, Valonna did. Don’t know that Margone gave half a shell what me and H’ned thought about it.”
“That’s the key,” said M’ric. “The queens. The queen weyrling.”
“Oh, score it all between, M’ric!” Sh’zon exclaimed. “What shaffing game are you playing here?”
“The same game I’ve always been playing,” said M’ric. “With the same stakes. You have to trust that what I’m doing is for the right reasons. And that your prize isn’t far away.”
That froze Sh’zon’s anger, like the sharp shock of between. “Rallai.”
“Rallai,” said M’ric.
“Soon, now,” said M’ric.
“That’s no use,” Sh’zon complained. “You know how unpredictable Ipith is. She should have risen half a Turn ago!”
“And if she rose tomorrow, you wouldn’t win her,” said M’ric. “For the same reason that you didn’t win her the last two times. You have to prove yourself to Rallai first, Sh’zon.” His eyes fell on Sh’zon’s jaw. “H’pold’s handiwork, I take it?”
Sh’zon fingered the bruise reflexively. “It was worth it,” he said. “If he hadn’t walked in at that moment…she’d have kissed it better, I know it.”
“You have a chance to prove yourself,” said M’ric. “You’re deputy Weyrleader of Madellon. You can show Rallai that you’re ready to be the Peninsula’s Weyrleader. But you have to step up. You can’t afford to be indecisive. Not now.”
A notion that was, at once, totally abhorrent and totally absurd suddenly struck Sh’zon. “Is that what this is?” he asked incredulously. “Did you get rid of T’kamen to make way for me?”
For an appallingly long moment, M’ric didn’t answer. Then he said, “I didn’t do it for you. But that doesn’t mean you should waste the opportunity.”
Sh’zon sat back in his chair, relieved. “I’m never going to understand what drives you, M’ric,” he said. “Most brown riders would settle for being a Wingsecond to a Wingleader.”
“They probably would,” said M’ric. He got up to leave. “But then, I’ve never been like other brown riders, have I?”
Continue to Chapter fourteen: T’kamen
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What. The. [Censored].
That- That’s all I can say coherently. Whoa.