Chapter thirty-six: T’kamen
I was dragonspawn: born in the Hold but of the Weyr. I didn’t know my father. My stepfather didn’t want to know me. Then I made the mistake of Impressing a brown dragon, so no Tactical rider would want me for a tail, but a green-laid brown dragon, so nor would anyone from Strategic. I didn’t belong anywhere. I wasn’t wanted anywhere. I always fell between one thing and another, neither fish nor fowl, never fitting in, an outsider to everyone.
No one ever stood up for me, took my side, had my back.
Not before him.
“That could be a bronze,” said A’dry, leaning over the low barrier that separated the bottom tier from the Hatching sands. “Faranth, T’kamen, it really could. Just look at the size of it!”
T’kamen studied the egg that Levierth had just produced: the ninth of her clutch so far. She was licking it carefully clean of sand and fluid with long, patient sweeps of her tongue, revealing the markings on the rather elongated shell. The most pointed end of the egg sported a cluster of vivid blue-green spots beneath the faint iridescence. “I don’t know,” he said. “Once it’s rounded itself out again, I don’t think it’ll be much bigger than those two with the yellow speckles.”
A’dry didn’t look convinced. “But the markings, those spots… Monbeth Hatched from an egg just like that.”
T’kamen thought back to Epherineth’s hatching. He had come from a perfectly nondescript egg, unmarked and unremarked. “I don’t think spots mean anything.”
A’dry sat down. “I hope you’re right,” he said mournfully. “Plumiath already has a strike against him. One more bronze, and his queen-chasing days will be over.”
T’kamen didn’t feel particularly sympathetic towards him, given his own dragon’s exclusion from mating flights, but it might have been crass for him to say so. Instead, he asked, “This is your second clutch, then?”
“Third,” said A’dry, a hint of smugness overriding his anxiety for a moment. “And when you think how free Levierth is with her favours, that counts for a lot. Half the browns in the Weyr have had her at some point, but Plumiath’s the only one who’s caught her three times.” He squinted anxiously at the new egg. “I’m going to go and ask Lirelle what she thinks. She had a feeling last time Levierth threw a bronze. I just hope to Faranth she doesn’t have it again.”
As A’dry hurried off around the tiers, T’kamen reflected that diversity in the sires of Levierth’s clutches could only be a good thing. Geninth’s influence on Madellon’s bloodlines was plain to see in the large number of dragons with his distinctive short-winged frame. In the three Falls T’kamen had now flown with the Seventh, he’d begun to recognise how any given fighting dragon’s conformation was the chief element that defined his place in the Wings. The dragons that chased tricky clumps and stray filaments were clearly the most manoeuvrable, but their straight, narrow wings made them slow in a straight line, and their size contributed to their rather limited flaming-range. The blues that anchored the fighting formations were noticeably longer in the leading edges and deeper in the wingsail, giving them a straight-line speed advantage at the cost of some agility. T’kamen was getting to know Madellon’s dragons well enough to identify many of them on sight, and the pattern that had emerged from his observations troubled him. Geninth’s domination of Donauth’s flights had resulted in Wings full of small dragons who could turn well and stay out of trouble, but whose puny flame limited their effectiveness. The great majority of the more versatile anchor dragons were Levierth’s offspring, not Donauth’s. Clearly, a small surface area was still the most desirable characteristic in any dragon, but T’kamen thought that the obsession with reducing size at the expense of other qualities was hampering Madellon’s ability to protect its lands.
He shifted on the hard stone bench of the tier, surveying the Hatching ground. It surprised him that so few people had come in to watch Levierth’s clutching on a Thread-free restday. Lirelle was there, of course; A’dry had a personal investment as the rider of the clutch’s sire; and R’lony was scrutinising the eggs several rows up from where T’kamen sat. A handful of candidates were the only other watchers. Levierth herself clearly wasn’t bothered by the audience – in that, she behaved quite differently to Shimpath and Cherganth, both of whom had been fiercely protective of their privacy when laying. Perhaps the novelty had simply worn off, clutches being so frequent mid-Pass.
The thought made T’kamen look over at the corner of the sands where, behind a discreetly positioned screen, eight more eggs were hardening in the heat. They were clustered in two groups, one of five and the other three. All were much smaller than the smallest Levierth had yet produced. That stood to reason. A green dragon couldn’t be expected to produce eggs as large as those of a queen twice her length and many times her weight. T’kamen was fascinated by the modest clutch – two clutches, he supposed, since they were the product of two different greens, laid almost a sevenday apart. It still jarred him to think that some green dragons could be fertile, but apart from their size – and the absence of a protective mother watching over them – the green-laid eggs looked healthy enough to him.
T’kamen got up from his place and climbed half a dozen levels to where R’lony sat. The Marshal acknowledged his presence with a flick of pale blue eyes as T’kamen sat down beside him. “Something I can do for you, bronze rider?”
“I was wondering what happens with the green eggs,” he said. “Does a queen have to look after them?”
R’lony made a short, disparaging sound. “The queens won’t have anything to do with them. Bad enough they have to tolerate someone else’s eggs on the sands with their own. They once tried to slip a green egg into one of Levierth’s clutches when she was out feeding. Thought she wouldn’t notice one more when she already had sixteen.” He looked up from the slate he’d been studying to stare unblinkingly at Levierth’s half-laid clutch. “Didn’t end well.”
“I see,” said T’kamen.
“So long as they’re kept out of sight they leave them be, but they have to be turned by hand,” R’lony continued. “Green dragons don’t have the slightest interest in their eggs, so their riders do it. That’s why green-laid hatchlings are as they are.”
“Which is – what?”
“Used to be that half of them never hatched at all. And the ones that did see the light of day sometimes weren’t right. Blind, or wings deformed, or just so spindly and weak they’d never amount to anything. Once two dragonets hatched from a single shell, neither of them bigger than this.” R’lony indicated something less than two feet long with his hands. “Not that they lived long. Thankfully.”
T’kamen had learned not to expect much sensitivity from the Marshal, but in this scenario he concurred. “I’ve heard of that even in a queen’s clutch,” he said. “There was a double hatching at the Peninsula. Two blues, I think. They didn’t survive, either.”
R’lony shrugged. “But there’s still no substitute for proper mothering. I suppose the greens’ riders have got better at tending the things, because there aren’t so many duds and deformities these days, but I wouldn’t have liked to Impress a hatchling from a badly-turned egg.”
It did put a different complexion on the Marshal’s open distaste for green-laid dragons, T’kamen thought. “Perhaps not,” he said. He looked back at Levierth, fussing over the positioning of her latest egg. “Where do the queens come from?”
R’lony looked at him sharply. “What do you mean?”
That was a more defensive reaction than T’kamen would have expected. “What I said. Bronze eggs are rare enough from brown-sired clutches, judging by the population, so how are you breeding new queens?”
“We don’t need any more queens,” R’lony said. “Levierth and Donauth are two of the best layers in the South. We’re lucky to have them.”
“But they’re not young,” said T’kamen. “Donauth has to be thirty, and Levierth can’t have many more good laying Turns left.” It had already occurred to him that both queens must have hatched before the Pass began. “Madellon hasn’t bred a queen since Donauth, has it?”
R’lony’s heavy brows descended over his eyes, and T’kamen wondered if he’d nettled the Marshal’s pride. “Donauth’s not home-bred,” R’lony said, at last. “She came over from Starfall at the end of the Interval.”
“Starfall had an excess of queens?”
“No more so than any of us,” said R’lony. “But their senior queen was particularly territorial. There was an incident. Dalka transferred here.” He smiled a thin-lipped smile. “Can’t say I’m sorry about that.”
“Then she’s Madellon’s last home-bred queen?” T’kamen asked, glancing at Levierth.
“I know what you’re getting at, T’kamen,” R’lony said. “But you’re wrong. You don’t need a bronze to sire a queen.”
“Madellon’s current roster would seem to put the lie to that.”
R’lony put his slate down with a crack. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Donauth’s sire was a Starfall brown. Levierth’s was a Madellon brown. Go to Peninsula or Southern, and you’ll find most of their queens are the daughters of browns. Not all, I’ll grant you, but most.” He emphasised his point with a jabbing finger. “It’s done the breed good. You’ve seen Threadfall now. You’ve seen how the fighting dragons fly. Do you think they’d be capable of manoeuvres like that if they’d been sired by brutes like Salionth?” He shook his head. “The day of the bronze dragon is done, T’kamen. With all respect to what your Epherineth achieved in the Interval, they’re just not necessary any more.”
That was the bluntest articulation T’kamen had yet heard of an opinion that pervaded Pass Madellon. He resolved not to take R’lony’s remark personally. Madellon’s other bronze riders weren’t an inspiring bunch, on the whole. The glaring absence of a queen younger than middle-aged bothered him more than the colour prejudice he was beginning to accept as the norm. “But if even browns with a proven ability to throw senior colours are being excluded from queen flights, how are you ever going to breed another queen?”
“We did breed another queen,” said R’lony, snapping the words out. “Geninth got a gold egg on Donauth in 17.”
That was definitely a sore point. R’lony’s whole posture oozed hostility, from his lowered brows to his clenched jaw to the belligerent set of his shoulders. T’kamen considered the revelation for a moment. “What happened to her?”
R’lony continued to glower at him. Then he looked past T’kamen. “Ask him,” he said, with a dismissive jerk of his chin. “I don’t want to discuss this any longer.”
T’kamen followed the Marshal’s line of sight. M’ric was waiting at the end of the tier. “I’ll do that.”
“What were you talking to R’lony about?” M’ric asked, when T’kamen made his way over to him. “He looked like he was about to smack you one.”
“Let’s get out of here, and I’ll tell you,” said T’kamen.
As they walked along the tier towards the exit to the Bowl, M’ric looked over his shoulder at the screened-off green eggs. “They’ll be hatching soon. Ceduth’s, anyway.”
“Concerned that Trebruth won’t be unique anymore?” T’kamen asked dryly.
“He’ll always be unique,” M’ric replied defensively. “And anyway, Nonrith’s caught Ceduth every single time since Trebruth hatched, and she hasn’t produced another brown yet.”
T’kamen masked his amusement at M’ric’s sensitivity. “Has C’rastro released you to me?”
“Oh, he wants to see you about something,” M’ric said. “But he said you could have me for the whole day. He’s spending the morning coaching F’sta on Tetketh’s lateral rolls anyway. He’s still too slow, and F’sta’s petrified they’ll wash out on assessment day. Probably will, too.”
“You should be more concerned about your own performance,” T’kamen told him. “You can’t give S’leondes any reason to fail you.”
“There won’t be one,” M’ric assured him.
They passed through the tunnel between the Hatching ground and the Bowl, into the autumn sunshine. Madellon was as full of dragons as T’kamen had ever seen it: clustered on the Rim, splashing in the lake, sprawling on the sunnier ledges. There were plenty of greens whose brilliant hides announced that they would be rising before the morning was out, and plenty of blues eyeing them up speculatively.
Trebruth, waiting in a patch of early sun outside the mouth of the tunnel, sat up as they emerged. T’kamen inspected the young brown with more care than usual, R’lony’s comments about green-laid dragonets still in his thoughts, but M’ric’s dragon looked a picture of health. “When do you get to send him after a green?”
“Any time I like,” M’ric said. “He’s old enough.”
T’kamen looked at him. “But you haven’t yet.”
“My mistake,” said T’kamen. “How was it?”
M’ric looked away. “I didn’t say we won.” He shrugged. “Didn’t really want to anyway. S’gon’s all right, but I’d sooner not wake up next to him.”
“That’s all fine, until Trebruth gets fed up with waiting,” T’kamen told him. “When you have a randy, bad-tempered dragon on your hands, you won’t care what’s waiting for you in that flight weyr.”
“There are about two hundred greens with female riders in the Weyr, T’kamen,” M’ric said, with a long-suffering sigh. “It’s not that unreasonable to want to make sure we catch one of those. Anyway, it’s not as if I’m not getting any. Unlike some people I could name.”
T’kamen ignored the insinuation. “Are you ready to go once I’ve spoken to the Weyrlingmaster?”
M’ric shrugged. “I’m all yours. Where are we going?” Before T’kamen could reply, he sighed. “You still want to find fire-lizards, don’t you?”
“Groan all you like, M’ric, but you wanted help getting Trebruth between safely, and this is my best idea.”
“And what if it doesn’t work? Will it be watch-whers next?”
“I’d remember if you’d had a watch-wher in tow,” T’kamen said. “We’ll start at Blue Shale. That was the centre of the trade in fire-lizard eggs in my time. They might not be in favour any more, but there should still be records of the best beaches to try.” Then, when M’ric shook his head, he asked, “What?”
M’ric furrowed his brow, looking very much like he wished he hadn’t indicated his disagreement. “It’s five hours to Blue Shale,” he said at last.
T’kamen wondered if M’ric was just being obstructive. “Since when were you afraid of a long flight?”
“It’ll be mid-afternoon by the time we get there, and we’ll only have a couple of hours before it gets dark.”
“So we’ll both get to practise navigating by the stars on the way back.” T’kamen gave him a hard look. “What is it you’re not telling me, M’ric? You usually can’t wait to tell me why I’m wrong.”
M’ric sighed exaggeratedly. “It’s just a long way to go on a wild wherry hunt.”
“You don’t think we’ll find any fire-lizards at Blue Shale?”
M’ric raised his shoulders. “Maybe you will. I doubt it, but you can try if you like.” He paused, visibly torn now between hiding something he didn’t want to say, and showing off his knowledge. The latter won. “But Blue Shale’s not the most likely place you’ll find fire-lizards.”
“All right,” T’kamen said. He kept his tone carefully neutral. “Where would you suggest we look?”
M’ric looked even more reluctant. “You’re really going to drag this out of me?”
“I can beat it out of you, if you’d prefer.”
M’ric responded to that with a derisory snort that belied his still-just-visible bruises. “Like Ch’fil wouldn’t pound you to snot if you did that.”
“Just spit it out,” T’kamen told him. Involuntarily, he rubbed his face. “I don’t like fire-lizards any more than you do.”
“Maybe not,” M’ric said. “But I bet not for the same reasons.” He folded his arms. “Fine. You’ll have to ask Dalka’s permission to go and see Alanne at Little Madellon.”
“At Little Madellon?”
“It’s a crater about an hour south of here.”
“I know what Little Madellon is, M’ric. Is it populated now? We used to go down there all the time in the Interval. The hot springs are the best in the range.”
M’ric gave him a look. “No one goes bathing there. But there are fire-lizards.”
“Are you sure?” T’kamen asked. “They’re coastal creatures. I’ve never heard of wild fairs living inland.”
“They’re not exactly wild,” said M’ric. He sighed. “Look. There’s no point us even having this conversation if you can’t get Dalka’s permission to see Alanne.”
“The…woman…who lives at Little Madellon.”
T’kamen gave him a pointed look. “Care to elaborate?”
“Weyrlings aren’t supposed to know about Alanne,” M’ric admitted.
“That’s never stopped you in the past.”
“Dalka’s going to know I told you about her. I’ll get in trouble.”
“That’s never stopped you in the past, either.”
“All right, all right. Alanne was a queen rider at Madellon about a thousand Turns ago.” He sighed again at T’kamen’s frown. “All right, not a thousand, but decades before the Pass, anyway.”
“What’s she doing at Little Madellon?”
“I don’t know. Whatever crazy people do.” M’ric deliberately avoided T’kamen gaze. “They say she lost her mind when she lost her dragon.”
T’kamen winced. Unasked, Epherineth bumped his thoughts reassuringly. There wasn’t a rider alive who relished thinking about the prospect of outliving his own dragon, and interacting with the dragonless was as brutal a reminder of that unthinkable fate as could be, but at least it was a lead. “And there are definitely fire-lizards at Little Madellon?”
“Fine.” Epherineth, would you ask Donauth if her rider would see me?
Epherineth responded promptly. She says her rider is in her office and can see you presently.
“All right,” said T’kamen. “M’ric, go to my weyr and get Epherineth harnessed. Dalka will see me now, and I’ll go to C’rastro on my way back from her. Be rigged and ready to go when I get back.”
As they split up, a green launched from her perch on the Rim. Half a dozen blues, and a single brown, took off after her in a flurry of pumping wings and lashing tails. T’kamen followed the pursuit with his eyes until the participants all disappeared out of sight, wondering if it had been Suatreth.
No, said Epherineth, immediately. She is not here.
His brisk response amused T’kamen. I thought you told me you’d turn one of these greens inside out.
My attentions do come at a price.
T’kamen almost laughed out loud. Keep me informed on Suatreth. We’ll chase her if we can.
While he understood the prohibition on bronzes chasing queens, the idea that a Seventh Flight rider needed permission to allow his dragon to chase any given green had initially struck T’kamen as ludicrous. There were more greens in Madellon than all the other colours combined, over four hundred of them: it was hardly depriving fighting blues of mates for a brown or bronze to catch a few. Since Epherineth had flown his first Fall, though, T’kamen had realised that permission wasn’t really a problem. He’d been approached five times in the last sevenday by green riders inviting Epherineth to join their dragons’ mating flights. Epherineth, after a long contemplation of the greens on offer, had remarked that Suatreth wasn’t entirely disagreeable.
The fact that Epherineth was willing to consider chasing greens again was a clear sign that his faithfulness to Shimpath was waning. No queen would tolerate the insult of her mate flying other females, so it had been a while since Epherineth’s last chase. It was only natural that the time and distance – temporal, if not geographical – that now separated him from his queen had eroded his commitment to her. Still, it stung T’kamen more than he’d thought it would that his dragon had come to accept their stranding in Pass Madellon. He kept his sadness as much to himself as he could. If Epherineth fancied a green, T’kamen had no intention of denying him the pleasure. But showing an interest in the green’s rider was more of a step than he himself was willing to take. Suatreth’s rider, Leda, was small and dark and pretty, and at least ten Turns his junior. Her candid proposition of him was, T’kamen admitted privately, quite flattering. Under different circumstances he might have been more responsive to her. As it stood, he was still too vainly angry at the injustice of his situation, too rawly conscious of all he had lost, and too pridefully wounded by the trivial reality of his place in history. It was bad enough that he couldn’t help but share his bleakness with his dragon; he wouldn’t inflict it on an unsuspecting woman, too.
At Command, T’kamen paused by the signboard in the small foyer to orient himself. The names, ranks, and room numbers chalked on the blackboard told their own interesting story. In direct contrast to the convention for weyr location – which became increasingly desirable with proximity to ground level – the upper floors of the administration block were the most prestigious. Certainly the fact that the Seventh’s senior officers were all on the ground floor spoke to the inferiority of their position. The first floor was all Wingleaders, while the top level accommodated just three riders: Dalka, Lirelle, and the Commander.
The dull thump of heavy footfalls from above shivered through the banister as T’kamen started up the stairs. He increased his pace slightly, but not by much. He’d always habitually taken steps two at a time, but Ondiar, who had treated T’kamen’s dislocated hip, had warned him against such exertions. He glanced up to see who was coming downstairs. Whoever it was, they’d just have to be patient.
There could have been no less likely candidate for patience. S’leondes filled the top of the stairwell: breadth, height, and presence alike.
They looked at each other for a long moment.
Then S’leondes looked deliberately past him. He started down the stairs, paying T’kamen as much heed as he might have an insect. T’kamen flattened himself back against the wall as the Commander swept past. Even so, S’leondes’ bulky shoulder caught him a glancing jostle that almost sent him staggering. “Hey!” T’kamen objected, catching the banister with one hand.
S’leondes ignored him. He simply forged on down the stairs as if T’kamen weren’t even there.
Epherineth’s question was mildly put, but if anything, it riled T’kamen even more. The Commander just nearly knocked me down the stairs!
But he did not?
No. T’kamen collected himself, squaring his shoulders. But I don’t think he’d have apologised if he had.
He’d had very little contact with the Commander since their first disastrous meeting. They seldom encountered each other at all, and when T’kamen had seen S’leondes around the Weyr, he was usually flanked by one or several of his officers, or by Fraza following obediently at his side. T’kamen knew he’d made a poor first impression, but he thought, stubbornly, that S’leondes hadn’t covered himself in glory, either. He wished, perversely, that he could find more fault with the Commander’s leadership, but it was hard. He’d seen S’leondes and Karzith in action in enough Falls now to see that they were very good. They didn’t fly a fixed position, but moved constantly around the stacked Flights, monitoring the Fall and repositioning Wings as necessary. And for all that seven dragonpairs had died in T’kamen’s first Fall, two in the second, and four in the third, T’kamen struggled to see what he could have done better with the tools available. There was just so much Thread, so many opportunities for fatal strikes. It seemed a wonder that twice as many didn’t die in each Fall.
The thought made him refocus on his mission. Between. That was the only thing that could reduce the death toll – and mitigate the destruction on the ground below. S’leondes wouldn’t be so keen to disparage a Pass bronze rider and an oversized bronze if they could restore between to Pern’s beleaguered dragons.
He rapped his knuckles on Dalka’s pine-planked door, wondering idly as he did if the lumber had come from Kellad. As he waited for a response from within, he let his eyes follow the lettering of the plaque beside the door, brass like the Commander’s. Senior Weyrwoman Dalka. The precedence still accorded the queen riders of Madellon was surprising, given how deeply their position had been undermined. Browns had comprehensively replaced bronzes in every way that mattered, it didn’t seem entirely far-fetched to think that greens might in their turn supersede queens. T’kamen couldn’t blame R’lony for his mistrust of green-laid dragons. If greens could throw offspring of all three junior colours – and in the compact proportions so prized by the fighting officers of the Pass – then it wouldn’t take so many more fertile greens to render queens redundant. The thought added to the low-level, but ever-present, sense of wrongness and disquiet that had ridden with T’kamen since he’d first arrived in the Eighth Pass.
Perhaps that was what guided his choice of greeting when Dalka opened the door to him. “Senior Weyrwoman.”
The formal nature of his address was not lost on Dalka. “Weyrleader,” she replied, with a sardonic quirk of her lips. She opened the door more widely. “Come in.”
T’kamen complied, but Dalka’s attire nearly made him stop dead. She wore a loose wrapper of some thin, fine fabric. It was belted at the waist, but the two sides of the garment crossed low enough to make it obvious that it was all she was wearing. T’kamen raise his eyes resolutely to Dalka’s face. Her expression dared and mocked in equal measure. “If this isn’t a good time –”
“Why wouldn’t it be a good time?” Dalka asked. She stepped backwards into her office. “You’re not interrupting the work of the Weyr. Even a queen rider is entitled to a rest day.”
It would have been discourteous to refuse the invitation. T’kamen stepped inside. “Interrupting a rest day with work might be as unwelcome as interrupting a work day with – rest.” He paused only fractionally before that final word, aware even as he spoke it how it might be taken.
“Then it’s work that brings you to me,” said Dalka.
T’kamen couldn’t tell one way or another if that disappointed her. He caught himself looking at the improbably deep vee of her robe’s neckline again. Averting his eyes completely would have been the more gallant choice, yet he found he couldn’t make himself look away from her. He tried looking down instead. “Not work exactly,” he said, and then realised he was addressing her feet. They were bare, and her toenails painted dark red. He dragged his gaze back up, and then up again, back to her face. “I’d thought to take M’ric down to Little Madellon for the day.”
“Little Madellon?” Dalka echoed. “What’s that boy done now to deserve that?”
Her incredulous tone was puzzling. “He’ll be finishing his training this month,” T’kamen said. “When I was a weyrling, it was traditional for the riders of a graduating class to be set at liberty down there for a couple of days of camping and hunting.”
Dalka’s expression was a picture. “How…charming. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but Little Madellon doesn’t bear much resemblance to your boyhood idyll any longer.”
“M’ric said that a dragonless queen rider lives there now.”
“Did he?” Dalka asked, and then went on, “Of course he did.” She smiled thinly. “That’s one thing that won’t have changed. Weyrlings finding out about things they ought not know.”
T’kamen was reminded again of C’los. “It never did us too much harm.”
“That was then.” Dalka turned away, and T’kamen found himself able to exhale properly for the first time since he’d knocked on her door. “Wine, T’kamen?”
“Well watered,” he replied. He’d found that was the least contentious way to accept a drink without spending the day half drunk. The ubiquity of wine as a drink for all occasions had as much to do with its abundance in the Weyr as the reliance many riders seemed to have on it, but he had no ambition to build up a tolerance.
While Dalka was busy mixing red wine and water from the carafes on a side-table, T’kamen took the opportunity to look around her office. It was twice the size of R’lony’s, and the wide windows set into two of the walls would have made it one of the sunniest places in Madellon, but for the filmy curtains draping both of them and muting the morning light. But while the normal furnishings of desk and case and cabinet were all there, it was clear that Dalka’s room was as much studio and workshop as office. The easel set up where the light from one of the windows would best fall, and the box of paints and pens flung open beside it, made Dalka’s rest day pursuits clear enough, and the walls were covered with the works that could only be hers. Some of them had been done on canvas, some on vellum, some on panels of skybroom wood, and they’d been hung or pinned up haphazardly, with no scheme to their random arrangement. Portraits in formal style hung side by side with sketches done quickly and carelessly in charcoal on irregular scraps of hide. Naked figures jostled for space with landscapes and botanical studies. There were many self-portraits, T’kamen saw, as he looked from piece to piece. Dalka’s own face gazed out from at least a dozen pieces, as sharp and sensual in pencil or paints as in the flesh. Belatedly, he recognised that all of the nudes were self-portraits, too, though in most the focus was not on the face, but on the long, languid curves and deep shadows of the unclothed form. One exception caught his eye, not the most revealing, but somehow the most erotic. In it, Dalka was stretching out on a cushioned day-bed, covered inadequately with a twist of cloth that concealed nothing and served instead to accentuate her nakedness, but the expression in her half-lidded eyes, and the position of the hand she had draped over her own thigh, revealed a deep sultry hunger for an implied, unseen lover – a lover, T’kamen realised suddenly, whose long dark shadow had spilled across Dalka’s lounging form from his position out of frame.
“Do you like it?”
T’kamen resolved to banish any hint of embarrassment at being caught looking at the nude from his face. He accepted the wine-glass Dalka put in his hand. “You have a real gift.”
She neither denied it nor thanked him for the compliment, instead studying his face with, if not that same sensuous hunger, then some lazy relation of it. “Are you interested in art, T’kamen?”
The wine wasn’t what he’d have called well-watered. He sipped cautiously, tasting the quality of the vintage and the strength he hadn’t asked for. “I don’t know that I’ve ever had the opportunity to be,” he replied. “I was going to have my Weyrleader’s portrait painted just before I left the Interval.” The thought made him notice the obvious omission on Dalka’s walls. “There are no dragons.”
“I don’t do dragons,” she replied. She raised an eyebrow a fraction, as if to acknowledge her lack of explanation. “There are four portraits of your predecessor, yet none of you as Madellon’s Weyrleader. Nor of any of your successors until the last quarter of the Interval.”
“My predecessor had time and marks to spend on portraits,” said T’kamen. L’dro was one rider he wasn’t sorry to think of as long dead. “He left me a Weyr impoverished by such indulgences.” He lifted his glass slightly. “Good wine, abundant food beasts, plentiful harness hide – these are luxuries we didn’t have in the Interval.”
Dalka looked surprised. “Whyever not? The Holds must have been many times more productive than they are now without Fall to worry about.”
“And many times less interested in supporting a population of dragons with no Thread to fight for a hundred Turns.”
“How very short-sighted of them,” Dalka murmured.
“It was what it was.” T’kamen smiled without warmth. “Evidently Madellon managed to hatch enough dragons by the Pass to meet the threat, mid-Interval shortages or not.”
“Hatching dragons isn’t the problem,” said Dalka. “Which brings us back to Little Madellon.”
He didn’t entirely follow her logic. “This former queen rider…”
“Alanne.” Dalka’s lips described the same grimace – sympathy, pity, revulsion – that T’kamen imagined his own had at the mention of a dragonless rider.
“M’ric mentioned she was elderly. I thought she might remember someone from my time, maybe one of the younger weyrlings from Epherineth’s first clutch. Perhaps her queen was a great-granddaughter of his –”
“No.” Dalka cut across him, an unequivocal negative. “She won’t see you, T’kamen.”
“Because I’m a dragonrider?”
“Because you’re a bronze rider.”
There it was again – the colour prejudice that still, despite everything, seemed topsy-turvy. “Have we been out of favour for so long?”
“You’ve been out of favour for that long,” said Dalka, “and Alanne has better reason to think that way than most.”
“What’s her story?”
“A sad one,” she said, “as you would expect the story of any rider without a dragon to be.” She drank from her own wine-glass, looking contemplative. “She was a sensitive. Did you ever meet one of those?”
T’kamen shook his head. “She could hear other dragons?”
“Dragons. Fire-lizards. She’d even talk to watch-whers, would you believe.” Dalka smiled thinly. “She was more popular with them than she was with people. For some reason, folk were ill at ease around a woman who could pick a thought out of any dragon’s mind from half a territory away.”
“I can see how that would be unsettling.”
“Some would have said she was as unsettled by it as anyone,” Dalka said, “if you take my meaning.” She paused. “Alanne was forceful even for a queen rider, and Weyrwoman in all but name for Turns before her predecessor died. Once the mantle did pass to her, she turned her attention to the Weyrleader’s seat.”
“The title was still in use, then.”
“It’s era was coming to an end at Madellon,” Dalka said, “although no one knew just how quickly the change would come. The Peninsula had been selecting its Weyrleader by ballot for Turns, but Madellon, and all the other southern Weyrs, still respected the senior queen’s choice.”
“Of course. She had a lover, D’midder; a brown rider. His Kolkorroth had flown Ryth in every one of her flights. In those days, only browns were allowed to chase junior queens, but Madellon had never had a brown rider for a Weyrleader.”
“So bronzes were still beating browns,” T’kamen said. “Who would have imagined.”
Dalka’s eyes flashed. “But Alanne had become so accustomed to getting her own way that she didn’t see that as any bar to D’midder becoming Weyrleader – by fair means or foul. By all accounts, Kolkorroth wasn’t an exceptional dragon, so clearly Alanne had helped him along in Ryth’s junior flights. She must have been so confident in her ability to help Kolkorroth, and in the inability of the bronze riders to agree with each other long enough to plot against her, that she didn’t consider Madellon’s bronzes a credible threat.”
“She was mistaken?”
“Tragically. The bronze riders had plotted against her – or more correctly, against Kolkorroth. They’d taken pains to do it while their dragons were asleep, and to guard their own thoughts during the day, so Alanne didn’t get wind of the plan. On the basis that any bronze rider was the preferable choice for Weyrleader to any brown rider, they agreed to work together to make sure that no brown – and especially not Kolkorroth – flew Ryth.”
T’kamen could see where the story was going. He remembered vividly how close Epherineth had come to being sabotaged by another bronze before flying Shimpath, and that had involved only a single dragon with an alternative agenda. The thought of dirty tactics on a grand scale made him feel faintly sick. “What happened?”
“It was as rough as I can see you’re imagining,” said Dalka. “Forty or fifty dragons in the air and the Weyrleadership at stake. The bronzes pushed hard after Ryth. Half the browns couldn’t go with the pace at all, and those who did found themselves getting barged and shoved out of the way. They left a trail of bloody, battered dragons halfway to Kellad before the flight was done. Kolkorroth was still there until the end. Maybe if he’d dropped out earlier, it would have turned out differently. But he was there to see when one of the bronzes, Ligarth, finally got hold of Ryth.
“Alanne should have accepted the outcome. She should have trusted her queen. She didn’t. She had a particular disliking for Ligarth’s rider L’vorn, and as Ligarth’s talons closed on Ryth, she struck out at him with her mind. Maybe she thought he’d let Ryth go and clear the way for Kolkorroth, but that isn’t what happened. The force of Alanne’s blow, through her queen, stunned Ligarth like a poleaxed steer, but he was already locked with Ryth. Ryth couldn’t get loose; her wings were fouled; and by the time the other dragons still in the air nearby grasped what was happening, it was too late to catch them.”
“And they couldn’t go between,” said T’kamen.
“No,” said Dalka. “They couldn’t.”
“They both died.” It didn’t seem worth phrasing it as a question.
“Eventually.” Dalka’s eyes had gone distant towards the end of the grim tale, but now she refocused on T’kamen. “Ligarth lived a few days longer than Ryth. Alanne never forgave him for that. She never forgave bronze dragons or bronze riders in general. It wasn’t for her sake that bronzes were barred from queen flights soon after – or that Madellon eventually adopted the Peninsula convention for electing Weyrleaders – but she wouldn’t have taken any satisfaction from those things anyway. And if she knows how her story has become a cautionary tale against the evils of arrogance, selfishness, and the abuse of power, I doubt she cares about that, either.”
T’kamen studied Dalka’s expression. For all the harshness of her words, there was sympathy in her voice. “You don’t agree with that assessment.”
“Oh, I agree, T’kamen. Alanne was arrogant and selfish. For all her talent, she neglected the first duty of any queen rider: to separate the affairs of the Weyr from the affairs of her weyr.” Dalka’s gaze flickered over her office as she spoke; over a couch which T’kamen suddenly recognised as the opulent day-bed from the nude drawing that had caught his eye. “But she paid a terrible price for her faults. She’s still paying it now, more than forty Turns later.” She sighed. “Sometimes I think sending her supplies every sevenday is more a cruelty than a kindness, but then I think she’d find a way to survive without them. It would just make a sad, hard sentence that much sadder and harder.”
“Then she’s a prisoner at Little Madellon?”
Dalka shook her head. “There weren’t many tears shed over the loss of her as Weyrwoman, but not even Alanne’s bitterest enemies would have devised such a cruel punishment. That fell to Alanne herself. She’s a hostage to her own guilt, T’kamen, and however the weyrlings will gossip about the mad old crone of Little Madellon, you can be sure that she has just enough sanity left to know exactly what she lost and exactly who was to blame.”
T’kamen raised his wine-glass, and realised he’d already drained it dry. He lowered it again. “I’d still like to visit her,” he said. “I have few enough ways to learn about the missing Turns between my time and now.”
Dalka studied him with unreadable eyes. “Go, if you must,” she said. “I’ll not stop you. But don’t take Epherineth into that Thread-blighted crater. Don’t wear anything that will give his colour away. You can’t disguise that you’re a dragonrider, not from her, but perhaps if you keep him out of sight, and guard your thoughts with care, you’ll keep her from uncovering the truth.”
“Thank you, Weyrwoman.” T’kamen set his glass down on the sideboard. “For the wine and the permission.”
Dalka seated herself unhurriedly on her day-bed as he started towards the door. “You should come back, when you’ve seen Alanne.”
T’kamen halted. He looked at her uncertainly. “Weyrwoman?” Then he noticed the shirt lying untidily across the cushions of her couch: too large, and the sleeves much too long, to be one of hers.
Dalka noticed him noticing, and a sly smile curved the hard line of her mouth. “To sit for me,” she said, after an interval just long enough that T’kamen had begun to believe something else entirely.
“You want to draw my picture?”
“Don’t worry, T’kamen,” she replied. “You won’t have to take your clothes off.” Then she added, as he started again to leave, “Not unless you want to.”
T’kamen thought he did a good job of keeping his conflicting feelings of horror and fascination in check long enough to make an orderly withdrawal from Dalka’s office, but he couldn’t hide his discomfiture from Epherineth. Don’t even say it, he warned his dragon, as he beat a hasty retreat from Command.
It is no bad thing to attract the interest of a queen’s rider.
A fat lot of good that would do you, T’kamen pointed out. And I’m the one who’d be eaten alive.
Donauth would not eat you.
It’s not Donauth I’m worried about.
The encounter had left T’kamen feeling disconcerted on more than one level, and he almost forgot his appointment with the Weyrlingmaster in his distraction. He crossed to the lake’s well-worn running track to cut back towards the training grounds. It wasn’t just Dalka’s thinly-veiled flirtation that had rattled him, although that had certainly contributed to his agitated state. The story of Alanne, smacking though it did of a harper’s morality tale embellished for effect over the Turns, left him with deep misgivings about what awaited him at Little Madellon. Until T’kamen understood Dalka’s angle – and the ambiguity of her attitude towards him, respectful of his historical significance and mocking of his present situation by turns, seemed calculated to keep him guessing in that respect – he wouldn’t trust her. He still believed that the letter of introduction she’d sent with him to Kellad had cautioned the Masterharper against disclosing too much to him. He still suspected that Dalka knew more about him than she had yet seen fit to reveal. And it struck him suddenly, as he approached the weyrling barracks, that she hadn’t pressed him for a credible reason for wanting to visit Alanne and Little Madellon before giving him her permission to go. It made him even more mistrustful of her agenda. He didn’t appreciate being led around by the nose. Or by any other part of his anatomy.
The Weyrlingmaster, C’rastro, was standing amidst his assistants and all their dragons on the training grounds when T’kamen reached the barracks. He was a short and stocky rider in his fifth decade with a shaven head and virtually no neck. Prerth, his blue, had an uncannily similar build. Every one of C’rastro’s four assistant Weyrlingmasters was taller than him, but there could be no mistaking the man in charge. “Roust those lazy brats of yours out of the barracks, R’nie,” he was telling one of his seconds. “They’ve had enough time to get their stations clean. K’lem, your gang’s on elevator duty for the day. Split them up however you want to give them all some free time, but I don’t want to hear that anyone’s had to wait. Audette, yours are at liberty but have them all back in the Weyr by evening watch. S’hayn, there’ll be more new faces in the candidate dorms by tonight; make sure there are bunks free. Everyone clear? Good.” He waited only an instant before pivoting to face T’kamen. “Bronze rider.”
As C’rastro’s assistants headed off towards their dragons on their separate assignments, T’kamen said, “M’ric said you wanted to see me.”
“Yes I did.” C’rastro looked T’kamen up and down a few times. “Need to talk to you about a boy to be your new tailman once M’ric’s new position is settled.”
The tail system was perhaps the one innovation of Pass Madellon that T’kamen did appreciate. M’ric’s importance aside, having a weyrling on hand to carry messages, run errands, and help with menial tasks was undeniably useful, and it made sense for the older weyrlings to be paired up with adult riders as mentors. “That’ll be the end of the month, won’t it?”
“There’s a brown rider in Audette’s class and another in K’lem’s, both ready to step in for you. J’reo and I’rill. Thought I’d give you the choice of the pair. You’ve only had to put up with M’ric for a month; this next one could be tailing you for half a Turn or more.”
T’kamen nodded. “Tell me about them.”
“I’ll have their records run up to your weyr for you to read,” C’rastro said. “It may come down to how you feel about taking on a younger boy who might be tailing for a couple of Turns, versus one the other end of his teens. They’re both level-headed kids. Unlikely to give you the sort of trouble M’ric has.”
“M’ric hasn’t been trouble,” said T’kamen. It was so outrageous a lie that Epherineth gave a mental snort almost loud enough to be audible.
C’rastro held up his hands. “You’ll not tell me anything I don’t already know about the boy by being straight with me,” he said. “He’s been a pain in my arse since the day he Impressed.”
“He’s eighteen Turns old,” said T’kamen. “We were all a pain in someone’s arse at that age.”
“I don’t mean the usual teenage whershit. Oh, the thing with his Harper girlfriend; do you know how many letters I’ve had from this Master or that Holder asking me to pull randy weyrlings off their sons and daughters? I’d be worried if he wasn’t out there, helping to get the next generation of dragonspawn on Madellon’s female population.” When T’kamen looked critically at him, C’rastro said, “What, you think we’d have the choice of candidates we do if riders didn’t spread their seed outside the Weyr? As long as he keeps it within Madellon borders, I don’t care who he humps. It’s not his sex life that’s the problem.”
T’kamen didn’t like the implication. “What, then?”
No rider became Weyrlingmaster without a high degree of shrewdness. The astute look C’rastro directed at T’kamen demonstrated he was no exception. “Look, bronze rider, you’re from a time when things were different,” he said. “And M’ric’s behaviour isn’t your fault, Faranth knows. I’ve had him two Turns, and I haven’t been able to stamp out his attitude. Maybe you weren’t the best rider to reinforce the message I’ve been trying to drill into him.”
“You need me to spell it out for you?”
“Humour me,” T’kamen said flatly.
C’rastro pointed his chin at T’kamen in the way some short men did when they expected a fight. “It doesn’t matter how small or fast Trebruth is. A brown is not and never will be a blue. M’ric’s a brown rider, and it’s long past time he accepted that.”
“Then you’re saying that, however well he performs in the assessment, you’re going to wash him out anyway?”
“He’s going to wash out because he’s a brown rider, T’kamen, and he needs to shaffing well know his place!”
“Where I come from, blue riders know their place,” T’kamen said coolly, flicking his eyes to the rank cord on C’rastro’s shoulder.
The Weyrlingmaster smiled. “You’re not there now, bronze rider,” he said, with dangerous evenness. “Small men can’t hide behind big dragons anymore.”
T’kamen knew he shouldn’t rise to the bait, but he was already too riled to stop himself. “A blue or green hide doesn’t make you a big man now any more than a brown or bronze did when I was Weyrleader.”
“When you were Weyrleader.” C’rastro’s voice was thick with scorn. “M’ric might be impressed by your self-important Interval titles. I’m not. I’m Threadstruck if I’m sending you another boy to ruin. You just keep feeding M’ric that archaic whershit. He was already a lost cause, but when he finally realises he’s amounted to nothing, I’ll be just as happy to watch you take the fall for fanning the flames of his unrealistic ambitions.”
“You have no idea what M’ric will amount to,” said T’kamen, softly. “No idea at all, you bigoted little shit.”
Prerth, who had been shifting warily behind C’rastro until now, reacted sharply to the insult to his rider. The muscular blue reared up, mantling his wings and baring his teeth at T’kamen. Without stopping to consider the wisdom of it, T’kamen snapped, Epherineth! – and C’rastro’s dragon reacted instantly, recoiling as if physically struck, before folding in on himself with a startled cry.
C’rastro himself was hardly less thunderstruck. “You brought your dragon down on mine?”
“I won’t be threatened,” T’kamen said flatly. “We’re done here.”
As he walked away, nearly shaking with anger, he realised that half a dozen weyrlings had witnessed the exchange and were watching him now, wide-eyed. T’kamen swore silently. Having Epherineth shove Prerth was bad enough; doing it where weyrlings could see their Weyrlingmaster’s dragon cringe was an even more egregious offence. “Blight it,” he muttered under his breath. Is Ch’fil home?
Stratomath is on his ledge, Epherineth replied, and then asked puzzledly, Should I not have stepped on Prerth?
I shouldn’t have asked you to. Tell Stratomath I need to speak with his rider as soon as possible. I want him to hear about this from me.
He says he’ll meet you at our weyr shortly.
Ch’fil wasn’t there by the time T’kamen got back to the weyr, but M’ric, having harnessed Epherineth as directed, was leaning against Trebruth’s elbow with his arms folded. “What is it?” he asked, uncrossing his arms anxiously.
T’kamen realised his face must have betrayed him. “Nothing,” he said. “Are they both ready?”
“Ready and waiting,” said M’ric, but he clearly wasn’t satisfied. “Did something happen with Dalka?”
“Dalka was fine.”
“Then you had an argument with C’rastro?”
T’kamen made a show of checking the buckles on Epherineth’s fore-strap. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Did he say something to you about me?”
“The whole world doesn’t revolve around you, M’ric,” T’kamen said sharply.
“I didn’t say it did.” M’ric paused. “Why’s Stratomath coming this way?”
T’kamen looked; Ch’fil’s brown was gliding across the Bowl. “Take Trebruth and go up to the Rim. We’ll be there in a moment.”
“There isn’t enough room for three dragons on this ledge. Now.”
“All right, all right!” M’ric vaulted to his brown’s neck with youthful agility, and Trebruth was up and away in moments.
Stratomath replaced him a minute later. “Problem?” Ch’fil asked, dismounting with a wince, and limping over to T’kamen.
“Something wrong with your leg?” T’kamen asked.
“Not my leg. Six-Turn-old kicked me in the crotch. Think maybe she doesn’t want any siblings.” Ch’fil leaned familiarly on Epherineth’s forearm. “What is it?”
“I just had a disagreement of opinions with the Weyrlingmaster.”
“Did you.” Ch’fil didn’t sound surprised. He motioned upwards with his eyes. “About the boy?”
“Mostly,” said T’kamen. “We exchanged some more personal remarks, too.”
T’kamen sighed. “And Epherineth leaned on Prerth.”
Ch’fil’s eyebrows lifted at that. He brought his hand up to scratch his beard. A cynic might have thought he was covering a smile, but by the time he lowered his hand, he was deadpan again. “What did Prerth do to warrant that?”
“Not enough,” T’kamen admitted. “I lost my temper and had Epherineth push him. Not hard, but there were weyrlings watching.”
“Ah, Faranth,” Ch’fil said softly.
“He only did it because I told him to,” T’kamen said. “This is on me, not him.”
“You, him; it’s all the same.” Ch’fil looked weary. “The personal remarks wouldn’t have mattered. Whatever you said, he’ll have heard worse, and C’rastro’s a thick-skinned old bastard. But bronze-on-blue intimidation…that’s going to bring trouble down on all of us.”
“What can I do to fix this, Ch’fil?” T’kamen asked unhappily.
“Not much. Truth be told, Kamen, the Commander’s been itching for a reason to rain shit on the Seventh for a while. We’ve all been keeping our heads down and our noses clean, but it was just a matter of time before someone slipped up. You being the guilty party does take the heat off a little. You’ve not been here five minutes to know any better. But it gives S’leondes a stick to beat us with. See how it was in the bad old days when bronze riders ruled the Weyr by fear and intimidation.”
T’kamen wished he could refute the slur outright. “Not all bronze riders,” he said instead. “And it feels like the tyranny’s the same now as it was then. Only inverted.”
“That it may be,” said Ch’fil. He cocked his head. “That’s what you disagreed about, wasn’t it? Your tail and his dreams of flying in the fighting Wings.”
“C’rastro as much as admitted that they’ll wash M’ric out no matter how well he performs in his assessment,” said T’kamen. “For no reason but the colour of Trebruth’s hide. It’s ridiculous.”
“I know it seems that way,” said Ch’fil. “And I know it’s an injustice to a boy with a dragon who’s as suited to flying Threadfall as any I’ve ever seen. But they tried it with the smallest browns back at the beginning of the Pass, when S’leondes first became Commander. Blues and greens will take orders from each other, but throw a brown in the mix and dragon hierarchy starts to take precedence. There’s a big step up in authority from blue to brown. Once Trebruth’s mature he’ll find it hard to obey smaller dragons, and that could kill him. Or them.”
“If it were that simple, they’d be upfront about it,” said T’kamen. “And M’ric’s talented. He’d rise to rank quickly enough anyway.”
“You’re right,” said Ch’fil. “It’s not that simple. But there’s not a fighting rider in this Weyr who wants to be taking orders from a brown rider. S’leondes fought hard for blue and green rider autonomy. You’ll pry it back out of his cold dead hands. That’s why this business with C’rastro is going to be ugly. The Commander’s going to want to make an example of you.”
“The Commander barely accepts I exist,” said T’kamen, thinking of how S’leondes had brushed him aside without a second glance.
“Oh, he accepts,” said Ch’fil, ominously. “You’d better believe that.”
“Call me old-fashioned, but I won’t be intimidated by a man who rides a blue dragon.”
“What was that you were saying about not judging someone based on the colour of his dragon?” Ch’fil said it without accusation. “Like it or not, T’kamen, S’leondes is in a position to make your life really sharding miserable.”
T’kamen laughed. “He’s welcome to try.”
“You’ve been dealt a bum hand, T’kamen,” said Ch’fil. “Anyone who says they understand what you’re going through is a blighted liar. But you don’t want someone else’s idea of misery adding to your own. I’ll talk to C’rastro. He won’t want word that Epherineth made Prerth shit himself getting any further round the Weyr than it has to. With some luck, he’ll whine to me and be done with it.”
“I can take my own lumps, Ch’fil.”
“If I think you need a lump, I’ll give it you myself,” Ch’fil replied. “While you report to me, anyway.” He thumped T’kamen’s shoulder in solidarity. “You taking the boy out somewhere?”
He nodded. “Little Madellon.”
“Well, shards.” Ch’fil looked as incredulous as Dalka had. “What in the name of Faranth do you want to go there for?”
T’kamen hesitated for a moment before replying. He didn’t like lying to Ch’fil. The Crewleader was one of the few people who’d been completely open and honest with him since he’d arrived in the Pass, and T’kamen would have liked to return the courtesy. But he was just as reluctant to entangle another rider in the timing loop that had trapped him and M’ric and their dragons. It had already ruined their lives; he wouldn’t have it afflict Ch’fil’s by making him a party to the knowledge that M’ric would be making his own journey through time. So he settled for a piece of the truth. “M’ric said there are fire-lizards there.”
“Oh, aye, there’s fire-lizards,” Ch’fil agreed. “And wherries, and whers, and Faranth knows what other nasties that’ve made that blighted place their home.”
“You mean like dragonless former queen riders?”
“Her and all,” said Ch’fil. He frowned. “What do you want with Alanne and her fire-lizards?”
“I have a theory,” T’kamen said. “About between. I think fire-lizards might be the key to understanding what happened.”
“Understanding?” Ch’fil asked. “Or do you think there’s a solution to be found?” When T’kamen hesitated, the brown rider went on, “Because it seems to me, that way lies trouble for you. Even if there is a way to make between safe again, it’s not a route you’ll be using to return to the Interval. You already know you don’t make it back. I’d not have you throw your life and your dragon’s away going after something that can’t be.”
T’kamen was oddly moved that Ch’fil’s first thought was for his and Epherineth’s well-being. “I know we’re not going back,” he said slowly. “But maybe since we’re here we can do something to help that doesn’t just involve carrying firestone. Maybe that’s why we’re here.”
It was perilously close to the truth that T’kamen didn’t want Ch’fil to grasp, but if he made the connection, he didn’t show it. “Fire-lizards,” he said slowly. “Do you know what a nest of tunnel-snakes that would stir up if you’re right?”
“Because fire-lizards aren’t in fashion as companions in the Eighth Pass?”
“Given their habits, why would they be?”
T’kamen shook his head. “I don’t know what fire-lizards do these days that’s so distasteful. M’ric keeps avoiding the subject.”
“You don’t know?” Ch’fil asked, and then added more softly, “You really don’t, do you.” He exhaled a long breath. “M’ric was right to point you to Little Madellon. There can’t be many left now with the way they’ve been stamped out in most places. Shells, for all I’ve seen them in recent Turns, Alanne’s fair could be the only one still breeding.” He met T’kamen’s baffled gaze squarely, and went on, “It’s not that they’re out of fashion, T’kamen. They’re dirty little cannibals that remind every rider what lies in store for his dragon if he has the fortune to live longer than seven or eight Turns.”
T’kamen was lost. “I still don’t understand.”
“Think about it,” said Ch’fil. “I know. You haven’t. Faranth knows we all try not to. When most of the fighting population is so sharding young it’s easy to ignore the fact there are older dragons in the Wings – aye, and plenty of us in the Seventh, too. We don’t die so often or so hard, but they do. And when they do, when a dragon of eight or ten or older gets hit, and can’t go between…”
“Like Sprilth,” said T’kamen, thinking of the green who’d perished so horribly in his and Epherineth first Fall: still the worst fatality he’d witnessed. “Recranth and Salionth…ended her suffering.” It was difficult to say the words; instinctively he shied away from even thinking about the awful truth.
“That’s right,” said Ch’fil. “They gave her mercy.” He paused. “But you haven’t thought about what happened after Fall was done.”
“Oh, Faranth,” said T’kamen. Comprehension hit him hard, and he felt his stomach turn queasily over. “The bodies. Blight it all, Ch’fil. What happens to the bodies?”
Continue to Chapter thirty-seven: Sh’zon
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