Chapter twenty-four: Valonna
Weyrbred candidates are always preferable to those Searched from outside. The Weyrbred rider understands more at the moment of Impression than his Holdbred classmate will after a full Turn. He knows, instinctively, what will be expected of him, whatever colour his dragon’s hide. His loyalties are never weakened by any residual allegiance to Hold or Hall. He is a Weyr man: first, last, and always.
– Weyrleader O’ret, On Candidate Selection
The dragon sitting on the Weyrleader’s ledge gave Valonna’s heart cause to hesitate an instant in her chest before she blinked the sun-dazzle from her eyes and saw that it was only Izath.
They are alike, Shimpath sympathised, as she had every time Valonna had thought she’d seen Epherineth and dared to hope that T’kamen might have returned.
Shimpath’s commiseration was justified in Izath’s case. He and Epherineth were almost the same size – Izath the bulkier, Epherineth perhaps fractionally taller – and similar in hue, and although Izath was by far the deeper shade of bronze, in the dense shadow cast by the walls of the Bowl Epherineth could look nearly as dark.
As Valonna scooped up her skirts to climb the stairs to the Weyrleader’s weyr, a resounding bang that made Izath flinch echoed from the entrance, followed by an eloquently descriptive curse. Valonna paused, then hurried upwards.
Within T’kamen’s office, H’ned was turning away from the big skybroom desk with his hands on his hips and a frown creasing the bridge of his nose. “Wingleader?”
He froze, almost comically, then dropped his arms by his sides and offered her a short bow. “Beg your pardon, Weyrwoman. I didn’t know you were there.”
“I heard you…shouting. Is something the matter?”
“I’m sorry you had to hear that,” said H’ned. “I’m having a problem with T’kamen’s desk.” He kicked the bottom drawer with the toe of his boot – not for the first time, judging by the number of scuffs on the wood. “I’ll send for the Master Smith. I need to get at T’kamen’s strongbox, and I don’t have the key to it or the drawer.”
“You should have sent for me,” said Valonna. “I have both.”
H’ned blinked. “Do you?”
Valonna tried not to let his surprise offend her. She’d never had keys to any of the Weyr’s assets when L’dro was Weyrleader, but T’kamen had given her copies of everything less than a sevenday after Epherineth had flown Shimpath. She lifted the heavy ring of keys from her belt and began to turn it over, searching for the right ones. “What was it you needed the marks for?”
“It’s to pay the balance for the extra head of herdbeast we need to make up the shortfall until the next scheduled drive from Jessaf.”
Valonna stopped sorting through the keys. “Do you have T’kamen’s authorisation? I mean – did he approve it before he…went?”
“The purchase order has his chop on it,” said H’ned, pointing to a document on the desk. “I just need to drop the marks we still owe down to Winstone’s steward. Those Southern weyrlings are going to eat us out of hold and hall before long.”
Valonna pulled the hide towards her. Sure enough, T’kamen’s mark and seal were there, beneath the request for livestock – and the agreed price. That part made her wince. But the date next to T’kamen’s name troubled her more deeply. He’d signed the slate over a sevenday before the Southern weyrlings had arrived. “He didn’t even know about the Southerners,” she said. “For him to order these just to tide us over until the next scheduled drive, we must be short on food animals to feed our own dragons.” She pushed the purchase order away, feeling suddenly sick. “Have you overflown Kellad’s holding corrals recently?”
“Can’t say as I have,” said H’ned, “but we can make a pass when we go out to Jessaf. Don’t worry, Weyrwoman. Once I’ve delivered the payment they’ll release the extra stock, and we’ll have them in a couple of days.”
H’ned’s casual dismissal of the situation made Valonna even more anxious. “H’ned,” she said urgently, “don’t you understand; we can’t afford to be making up shortfalls to the tune of hundreds of marks! We’ve the crafters’ wages to pay at the end of the month, and the rider stipends, and with nine extra dragonets to feed –”
“Weyrwoman. I’m sure it’s not as bad as you think, or T’kamen wouldn’t have approved the purchase.”
“He didn’t have a choice. If you knew how he’s been agonising over the Weyr’s resources – how I have – you’d be scared between. We hardly have enough to get us to the end of the Turn.”
“You mustn’t worry, Weyrwoman,” H’ned told her. “Sh’zon and I will review the accounts and straighten all this out –”
“No,” Valonna heard herself say, in a flat hard tone that she’d never thought she could muster. “You won’t. The accounts aren’t yours to straighten.” It was as if all the times she’d nearly answered back, all the moments when she’d almost disagreed, all the instants she’d bitten her tongue for fear of the consequences of speaking up, had been stacking up in a heap, and now that teetering pile was finally collapsing under their weight. She’d obeyed her two Weyrleaders, but this wasn’t the same. “You’re not the Weyrleader,” she said, and marvelled at the strength of her own voice, and the backwards step H’ned took as she spoke, and Shimpath’s warm approval.
H’ned looked like he was going to say something in his defence, and then he sketched a bow, deeper than his first. “No. Of course, Weyrwoman, I’m not. My apologies.” He stopped, looking uncomfortable. “What do you want me to do?”
Indecision was one of Valonna’s most familiar companions, but something in her outburst seemed to have chased it away. “I want to see everything that T’kamen would have seen if he’d been here. Everything that you and Sh’zon have taken on.” She looked at the desk with its piles of scrolls and slates: the background detritus that the Deputies hadn’t considered important enough to spirit away. “And especially anything that we have to buy or pay for.” She looked at the bottom drawer. “I need to see the Ledger.”
For all that she’d spent the last several months buried in the Headwoman’s stores and records, Valonna had never presumed to ask T’kamen for a look at Madellon’s Ledger, the master record of all the Weyr’s tithes and purchases. She found the right key to unlock the drawer and lifted out, with both hands, the heavy strongbox that contained Madellon’s marks. Beneath it lay the thick leather-bound Weyr Ledger.
She set book and box on top of the desk, closing the drawer. It took her a moment to find the strongbox key, and when she did, the contents dismayed her: a jumble of coins, everything from thirty-seconds to the oversized discs of twenty-five and fifty-mark-pieces. It was impossible to tell at a glance how much the box contained, so she opened the crackling pages of the Ledger, made from the same thin vellum as the Weyr Book in which she recorded Madellon’s births and deaths and Hatchings.
It was a new book, begun when T’kamen became Weyrleader, but the handwriting on the first page belonged to D’feng. T’kamen’s angular hand took over several pages in, when the dates in the left-hand column overtook the date of the accident that had crippled both D’feng and his dragon. Valonna recognised many of the entries, duplicated from the records she and Crauva had inherited from Adrissa, the last Headwoman: details of each delivery or collection of goods for the Weyr, its date, its origin, its contents, who had brought it and who had received it. A final column, marked Cost, showed the notation T in most cases, showing that the item formed part of the Weyr’s tithes. But figures filled that column with increasing frequency as Valonna turned the pages of the ledger to the most recent entries.
“What does it say?” asked H’ned.
Valonna had almost forgotten he was still there. “It says we’ve been having to spend more hard marks on essentials than we have coming in,” she replied. She turned to a page showing positive figures – the income from the Weyr’s paid transportation service – but the numbers were too low to offset the expenditure from the earlier pages. “We’ve been running a deficit since…well, since before this record began.”
H’ned folded his arms, leaning his hip against the desk. “So we’re not getting enough in tithes?”
“Not nearly enough.” Valonna ran her finger down a column, stopping at each entry marked with a monetary value. “Herdbeasts, cured and raw hides, flour, sweetener, beer…these aren’t luxuries, H’ned. We’re not getting enough just to live on, and we’re making up the difference using Madellon’s reserves.”
“How much do we have in reserves?” asked H’ned.
She flipped back to the front of the ledger to check the figure carried forward from L’dro’s tenure. “We had about twenty-one thousand marks in currency when T’kamen became Weyrleader at the start of the Turn. Now we have…” She faltered.
“Go on,” H’ned prompted.
Valonna swallowed hard. “Now we have a little over fifteen thousand marks.”
“Faranth’s teeth,” H’ned swore. Then he cocked his head. “There are fifteen thousand marks in that box?”
“No, of course not.” Valonna rummaged amongst the mark pieces and dug out a signed and sealed piece of vellum. “This is a promissory note from the Woodcraft at Kellad. They hold the bulk of our marks for us.” She poked at the coins in the strongbox. “There are perhaps five or six hundred here. Enough for this consignment of herdbeasts. But not enough to pay the stipend or the crafter wages. I’ll have to go to the Woodcraft and draw on our funds to meet those.”
“How in the shell has T’kamen managed to spend his way through six thousand marks in just over a Turn?” H’ned wondered aloud.
“What he’s spent isn’t the thing,” said Valonna. “Why he’s having to spend it…. The Holds just aren’t tithing enough to support us. If I could find last Turn’s adjustment….” She flicked through the rest of the ledger, without success. “It must be here somewhere.”
“What are you looking for?” H’ned asked, almost diffidently.
“The tithe adjustment. It’s the list of everything we asked for from our Holds last Turn, amended for circumstances.” Valonna pointed. “Could you look on the shelves there?”
H’ned turned to check the rows of records. “What does it look like?”
“I don’t know,” Valonna admitted. “I’ve never seen one.”
H’ned paused in what he was doing, regarding her with those strange light eyes of his. Valonna knew what he was thinking. “I haven’t been involved in tithe negotiations since I’ve been Weyrwoman,” she said, aware of how weak it sounded. “But I do know how it works. In theory.”
“Well,” H’ned said slowly, “T’kamen’s not here, and D’feng’s in no state to advise. So I guess that makes you the most knowledgeable person here when it comes to tithes.”
So, perhaps, she was, although as they set to sorting through the mass of records and documents, Valonna began to quail at the thought of the task at hand. There was some indication that T’kamen had tried to keep his work in order, but evidence too of his frustration with it: records taken from a once-logical system and shoved back in out of place; bits of old scraped hide with notes and questions scrawled on them but no hint of what they referred to; certain documents, dated from months ago and untouched under a layer of dust, thrown into a pile that might as well have been labelled too difficult. Valonna wanted to tip everything onto the floor and start organising it properly. Only the urgency of the task at hand – and the thought of what T’kamen would do if he found her kneeling amongst the scattered contents of his office – stopped her.
After his unpromising start, H’ned warmed to the task. “Herd quotas 97-101?” he offered, holding out a hide from T’kamen’s record shelf.
Valonna glanced at the document, then shook her head. “That’s the agreement about the number of beasts we’re allowed to hunt from the wild,” she said. “But – let me have it. It does affect what we ask of the Holds.”
“And what’s this?” H’ned asked, holding out another document. “These nonsense symbols?”
Valonna took it. “That’s T’kamen’s shorthand. He writes notes in it sometimes. Though I’ve never seen a whole document written in it.”
“Can you translate it?” H’ned asked.
“He never told me the trick of it. But this won’t be what we’re looking for. The adjustment is an official document. It won’t be in shorthand.”
H’ned pulled out the next fat folder, perused the cover, then flipped it open. “Now this is something I’d wager many a Wingleader would like to see,” he said, with relish.
Valonna pushed a sheaf of loose Wing reports back into their binder, wiping her dusty hands on her skirt. “What is it?”
“Stipend record,” H’ned said, sitting back on his haunches. “All the way back to Fianine’s time.” He turned the pages avidly, then stabbed his finger at an entry. “That greedy wher L’mis is on four marks more than me!”
“You shouldn’t be reading that,” Valonna chided.
H’ned ignored the rebuke, still reading. “And Sh’zon would blow his smoke if he knew how much less he’s getting.”
Curious despite herself, Valonna asked, “Shouldn’t his allowance be the same as yours?”
“I’m still on the old scale,” H’ned said with a shrug. “Most of us are, even the ones who got bumped down when T’kamen reorganised the Wings. So there are bronze riders still on Flightleader stipends when the position doesn’t exist any more, and Wingleaders like me getting less for doing the same work, and new Wingleaders like Sh’zon who’ve come up since the changes on less still.” He thumbed through several more pages. “And not that I begrudged it, then or now, but all the blues and greens got a mark increase just after T’kamen became Weyrleader, and the browns half a mark. Everyone did all right except the bronze riders! Well, I suppose we were always doing all right. And he had to reward the riders who supported him before Shimpath’s flight.”
“He said he’d need to cut the stipend,” Valonna said, remembering that grim conversation they’d had in the Weyr Archives the day after the weyrlings had gone between. How bitter that must have tasted. “He knew we were in trouble with the tithes. I just didn’t think it was this bad.”
H’ned sobered, closing the stipend record. “Haven’t you and Crauva come up with all sorts of useful things in Stores?” he asked. “Wine and jewellery and such?”
“A few things we could sell,” Valonna said. “Mostly just spoiled grain, and snake-eaten old hides. They’d have been useful if they weren’t all rotten.” The pleasure she’d taken in each discovery seemed foolish now.
H’ned propped his elbow on his knee and his fist against his chin. “You know the Holds have had a bad time, these last few seasons,” he said. He spoke quietly, the forcefulness Valonna had come to expect from him tamped down. “Last Turn’s harvest was terrible, and if the rains don’t come in the autumn, this Turn’s will be worse. We’re not the first thing on our holders’ minds.”
“T’kamen thinks the Weyr lacks influence.”
H’ned’s reddish eyebrows twitched. “He said that to you?”
The tide is so far out we can’t even see it. “When he and D’feng came back from negotiating last Turn’s adjustment, before the Hatching, they argued,” Valonna said. “T’kamen said they needed to push for more, and D’feng said the Weyr didn’t have a hand to play. And we don’t, do we? Have a hand to play?”
“It’s not as if we can fold,” said H’ned. “But it wasn’t always like this. I don’t mean in Fianine’s time,” he added. “I mean before then, long before. I’m Madellon-bred to the bone. My granddad K’get came from High Reaches with M’dellon, you know, when they founded the Weyr.” He smiled. “He and his blue flew Thread in the last few Turns of the Seventh Pass. He used to tell me stories about it when I was still a fosterling. It always seemed to me that he sounded disappointed to have missed most of the Pass. He was hardly out of the Weyrling Wing when it ended. But he used to say that when he was a young man, a dragonrider could walk into any Hold or Hall on Pern and be guaranteed the best seat at the table, the first cut off the roast, and – well – the prettiest girl in the room.” H’ned shook his head ruefully. “K’get was a dirty old bugger until the day he died. But even by then things had changed. My father used to say that he’d never known times like K’get talked about. The respect was still there, but the gratitude…by then there was a whole generation of holders who’d never seen Thread, and riders who’d never fought it. And there weren’t so many queens, so we didn’t have to Search so much. When I Impressed Izath there were only four boys who weren’t Weyrbred, and hardly anyone left alive who remembered Thread at all.
“So our holders aren’t grateful. I guess it’s understandable. It doesn’t make it right. And it doesn’t make it acceptable for them to be tithing us less than our rightful share.” H’ned waved his hand over the scattered documents. “D’feng wasn’t forceful enough to press for Madellon’s rights, and L’dro lacked the patience for negotiations. And T’kamen – I won’t speak ill of him, but he wasn’t Weyrbred. He didn’t grow up here, hearing about how it used to be – how it should be. He was still too worried about upsetting the Holds, at the Weyr’s expense, when it’s the Holds that should be worried about upsetting the Weyr.”
Valonna’s face must have betrayed her disquiet, because H’ned smiled. “But I’ll wager T’kamen was just as angry with the Holds as any Weyrbred rider.”
T’kamen had been more frustrated than angry, but then, bar the colour of their dragons, T’kamen wasn’t anything like H’ned. “I suppose so.”
“You know he’s not coming back, don’t you?”
H’ned put the question mildly, but it hit Valonna like a slap. For several long moments she had no words. “You don’t know that,” she said, at last.
“Would you be desolate, if he didn’t?”
“He’s my Weyrleader,” Valonna said. “He’s a good man.” Then, fretfully, “He wouldn’t leave me!”
“I don’t think he did leave you,” H’ned said soothingly. “Not on purpose. But riders do go missing. He’s been so distracted. Maybe he went between, and –”
“He’s not dead,” she insisted, so vehemently that Shimpath, on the ledge of the adjoining weyr, uttered a soft cry of sympathy. “Shimpath would know.”
“She’d know if he was still here, too,” H’ned told her. “I don’t mean to upset you, Weyrwoman. But it’s been a sevenday and there’s been no sign of him. There aren’t so many places you could lose a bronze dragon…”
Valonna took a breath and a firmer hold on herself. “Deputy Weyrleader, please.” She’d tried for crisp, but it still came out with a wobble. “I don’t want to talk about this.”
H’ned hesitated, then smoothly acquiesced. “My apologies, Weyrwoman.”
The ease that had briefly existed between them was gone, replaced with the brittleness of formality. Valonna didn’t want to look at him any more. Is he trying to court me so soon?
He is a bronze rider, said Shimpath. He has not forgotten that Izath almost won me.
Dispirited, Valonna turned her attention back to T’kamen’s desk. Several uncomfortably silent minutes passed before the corner of a document sticking out from under a pile of slates caught her eye. She tugged it free, and recognised at once the seals of Jessaf, Blue Shale, and Kellad affixed to the top page. “Here it is,” she said, as glad to break the awkward hush as she was to find the hide they’d been seeking.
H’ned put down the folder he’d been examining and turned his head expectantly. Valonna skimmed through the top page, with the standard phrasing – setting out the responsibility of Weyr to Hold and Hold to Weyr – that prefaced almost every agreement ever signed between Madellon and its protectorate. The second page outlined Madellon’s fighting strength, craft presence, support population, and the projected composition of Shimpath’s clutch, then still in the shell. The third began to list the Weyr’s requirements, the precise number or volume or value of each item expected from each Hold, and how that figure had been adjusted from the primary tithe agreement.
Valonna found a blank slate and chalk, jotted down the figures in the row marked Food beasts, then consulted the herd quota H’ned had found. The figure they used to work out how many animals they needed to feed the Weyr was based on average dragon consumption of a hundred herdbeasts per Turn, although the greens ate less and the bronzes more, and their diet always comprised a variety of different animals. Madellon’s allotted take of the wild herds that roamed the plains of the southern continent accounted for almost a third of their annual requirements. Valonna looked from one figure to the other. “I don’t understand,” she said finally.
“The numbers don’t add up?” asked H’ned.
“They do add up. That’s what I don’t understand. What the Holds have tithed should have been enough. Not generous, but enough. We shouldn’t be so short that we need to buy in extra beasts. Our dragons must be overeating.”
H’ned frowned. “Or the Holds are cheating us on what they’re sending up.”
“Surely they wouldn’t?”
“If they thought they could get away with it.”
A long strand of hair had worked loose from the braid Valonna kept pinned neatly in place. She pushed it back behind her ear. “I need to speak to Master Arrense.” The Weyr Beastcrafter had oversight of all the movement of food beasts in and out of Madellon. “He must have an explanation for the anomaly.”
H’ned didn’t reply for a minute. Valonna looked enquiringly towards him and found him looking at her with a curious expression on his face. H’ned gave a start, jerking his eyes away. “Well, what about the payment for the drive that’s incoming?” he asked. “It has T’kamen’s signature on it.”
“Then we’re bound by it.” Valonna unearthed the strongbox from beneath the drift of documents she’d been searching through. Most of the marks, and all of the high value pieces, were stamped with the tree symbol of the Woodcraft – Madellon territory’s dominant Crafthall. She counted out coins to the value of the herdbeast purchase, placing them in one of the cloth pouches tucked inside the lid of the strongbox. Then she turned to the appropriate page in the Ledger and wrote in the date and purchase and amount on the first blank row. She sanded the ink to dry it, tapped it off into T’kamen’s sand tray, and then held out the pouch to H’ned.
H’ned scrambled upright from where he’d been squatting on the floor. “We’ll go to Jessaf straightaway,” he told her, tucking the pouch into his belt. He looked around at the clutter they’d created. “Do you want me to help you with this?”
He didn’t sound enthusiastic at the prospect. Valonna shook her head. “No, Wingleader, I’ll see to it.”
“Then I’ll see you in the dining hall for the evening meal. Your leave, Weyrwoman.” H’ned performed another brief bow, then headed out of T’kamen’s weyr, keeping a hand resting on the pouch of marks at his hip the whole time.
Slowly, Valonna closed and locked the strongbox and put it back in its drawer. She looked down at the open Weyr Ledger, where her handwriting had joined T’kamen’s and D’feng’s. He’ll know I’ve been in here, she thought, with an instinctive stab of anxiety.
Shimpath dismissed that with a snort. Better you than another bronze rider.
I suppose. Valonna picked up several hides from the floor, then sat down in the chair in front of the desk with them in her lap. She wished she could get Crauva to help her correct the mess she and H’ned had made. But the Headwoman’s jurisdiction didn’t extend to Weyr or Wing business, and there were many records on T’kamen’s shelves that should have been for the Weyrleader’s eyes only. The thought made Valonna frown. Neither H’ned nor Sh’zon would have presumed to enter T’kamen’s office uninvited before his disappearance, but with the Weyrleader absent that tacit prohibition seemed to hold no sway. H’ned had more right than most to be there seeking marks to pay for Weyr purchases, but Valonna didn’t feel comfortable with the thought that he or Sh’zon or anyone else could walk in and help themselves to marks or documents that weren’t theirs to take. The stipend record alone could cause a mutiny, if H’ned’s reaction to it was any indication.
I should lock some of these up for safekeeping. Valonna began to gather the most sensitive records: conduct reports, disciplinary notices, anything that had to do with the stipend. The more documents she examined the more she found that would be troublesome in the wrong hands. She collected everything that she and H’ned had taken from the shelves and piled it on the desk.
The seals on many of the documents made her think of something else. The sealing wax in Madellon’s signature indigo was there beside the long matches T’kamen used to melt it, but the heavy gold ring bearing the crest of the Weyrleader which was usually there too was missing. Valonna frowned. She’d never seen T’kamen actually wear the Madellon signet. Had he taken it with him, wherever he’d gone, or had someone stolen the seal of the Weyrleader’s authority? It was another troubling thought to add to her burdens.
Then she stopped, looking at the chair tucked beneath it: T’kamen’s chair, and L’dro’s before him; the Weyrleader’s chair. The cushion on the seat was worn and flat from use, the leather arm pads dark and grimy with sweat.
No bronze ever flew a queen because his rider wanted to sit there, Shimpath remarked.
L’dro seldom had, Valonna realised. He had preferred to drill with his Wing, drink with his friends, and dine with the Lords Holder of Madellon, leaving D’feng to manage the day-to-day business of the Weyr. T’kamen had spent more time buried in the administrative quagmire of Madellon in his one Turn as Weyrleader than L’dro had in five.
Would you be? Shimpath asked.
Would I be what?
Desolate, if he didn’t come back.
Finding an answer that didn’t ring false had been hard enough when H’ned had asked that question; finding one for her queen was impossible. Valonna’s relationship with T’kamen was respectful rather than fond or even friendly. It frightens me, she said. I don’t think any of the other bronze riders really know what being the Weyrleader means. H’ned still patronises me like he used to when L’dro was here, and T’kamen’s not been gone for a sevenday before he’s moving in on me. Sh’zon just wanted to swoop into Southern and rescue those weyrlings like something from a Harper song. I don’t know if either of them could do what T’kamen does. Tithe negotiations…the herd quota…trying not to spend all our reserves…and that’s without even starting with the weyrlings and between and what we’re going to do with that Southern blue, and finding a new Weyr Singer if Jenavally doesn’t come back, and who’s going to represent us at the Long Bay Gather…
Shimpath cut across the growing list of woes with an authoritative crack. Then you must.
But I –
Shimpath spoke over the can’t that rose up unbidden in Valonna’s thoughts, drowning it out. Bronze riders will come and go, Valonna, but you remain. You are my rider and the Senior Weyrwoman of Madellon. You can and you must.
Valonna looked again at T’kamen’s seat. The thought of someone else – H’ned, or Sh’zon, or any of the other senior bronze riders – sitting in it filled her with unease. It wasn’t a comfortable chair, or an inviting one, but it was a seat that must be occupied.
Go on, urged Shimpath.
She sat down.
Continue to Chapter twenty-five: T’kamen
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This really isn’t gonna end well, is it? 🙁