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Chapter forty: T’kamen

R’lony’s convinced that S’leondes will want to bring a Justice against T’kamen, not just a Discipline. And he’s right, of course. S’leondes would like nothing better than to send T’kamen off to Westisle in disgrace and put this whole episode behind him. The fact of T’kamen’s existence has been chafing him like a badly-fitting harness ever since he and Epherineth arrived: the living, breathing evidence of a time S’leondes would rather everyone forgot.

In his heart of hearts, R’lony wouldn’t mind. He doesn’t like T’kamen much more than S’leondes does. I think he’d forgotten what a bronze rider could be like. A real bronze rider; not a bitter old wher like R’ganff, or a blunt instrument like N’hager, or even an awkward young naïf like O’sten or H’juke. A bronze rider who hasn’t been ground down by Turns of scorn and dismissal. A bronze rider who’s wielded power, whose hands still itch to wield it again. R’lony wouldn’t shed many tears to see T’kamen banished.

I told him he couldn’t let it happen. Because what would the rest of the Seventh think of a Marshal who allowed one of his own to be exiled on such jumped-up charges? It’s not long until the next election, and Ch’fil likes our Interval bronze rider. Does R’lony really want to go into a ballot having thrown a Seventh rider to the snakes, and risk T’kamen being the spur for Ch’fil to finally stop dithering and take him on?

But R’lony understands the consequences of that, too. He’ll have to bring an Arbitration against S’leondes to oppose the Justice. And the last thing he ever wants is another Arbitration that he can’t and won’t win.

So I’ve told him to leave it to me. He knows I’ll never use my vote in anger. He knows I can’t. And he knows there’s always more than one way to skin a snake. He might not like it, but he likes the alternatives even less.

– Excerpt from the personal diaries of Weyrwoman Dalka

26.06.07 (26TH TURN, EIGHTH PASS)

T'kamen (Micah Johnson)The apprentice had just finished changing T’kamen’s bandages when the tread of booted footfalls, and the low growl of a voice in conversation with the duty journeyman, alerted them both to R’lony’s arrival.

The young Healer quickly gathered up the blood-stained wrappings he’d removed, sweeping them all into a bowl, and dropping his scissors on top. “Thank you,” T’kamen said softly, but the apprentice neither replied nor met his gaze, hurrying away through a gap in the curtains surrounding the bed without a word.

T’kamen laid his head back on the pillow and closed his eyes to slits. He’d learned more over the last couple of days by feigning sleep and listening than he had by asking questions. A moment later, R’lony shouldered through the curtains, trailing an agitated Ondiar. “He shouldn’t be walking yet,” Ondiar was protesting. “The infection… He almost lost the leg –”

“You said you had that under control,” R’lony interrupted.

“We do now,” said Ondiar. “But we had to delay repairing the damage until we were sure we’d drawn all the foulness from the wounds. The stitches mustn’t be disturbed if he’s to have any chance of regaining meaningful use of that leg.”

“I want him awake, alert, and on his feet,” said R’lony. “How much fellis has he had today?”

“He’s refused more than he’s taken,” said Ondiar, with obvious reluctance. “When he wakes up he shouldn’t be…excessively…disorientated.”

T’kamen could sense R’lony scrutinising him more distinctly than he could actually see through his narrowed eyes. He kept his face carefully unresponsive. After several moments, R’lony said, “Wake him up.”

“But –”

“Wake him up, journeyman. The longer this is drawn out, the worse it’ll go for everyone.”

T’kamen heard Ondiar sigh. He would have been touched by the Healer’s unwillingness to wake him, if he’d thought it were motivated by personal concern. “T’kamen,” Ondiar said, in a quiet voice, and then, more firmly, “T’kamen.” The journeyman gave his shoulder a light shake. “Can you hear me, T’kamen? It’s time to wake up.”

“I should have his dragon rouse him,” R’lony muttered.

“I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” said Ondiar. “T’kamen.”

That seemed like enough stimulus to abandon the pretence of sleep. T’kamen took a deep breath, turned his head towards the sound of Ondiar’s voice, and opened his eyes, blinking slowly.

“Do you know where you are, T’kamen?” Ondiar asked.

“Yes,” T’kamen replied. He didn’t have to feign the roughness of his voice. He lifted his gaze to R’lony’s, meeting the pale, deep-set eyes. “Marshal.”

R’lony looked down at him. “How are you feeling?”

T’kamen considered the question. He’d been in the infirmary for five days: injured, immobilised, and isolated – again. The main difference from his last sojourn in the care of the Weyr Healers was that, this time, he was entirely to blame for his predicament. “Great.”

R’lony’s furrowed brow creased even more deeply. “Well you look shaffing terrible.” He prodded at one of the closure strips on T’kamen’s temple; T’kamen flinched away from the uninvited touch. “That’s good. That’s going to help.”

“Help with what?” T’kamen asked.

R’lony withdrew his hand. “Give us a minute, journeyman,” he said to Ondiar. When the Healer had withdrawn, he turned back to T’kamen. “You’re to be Disciplined,” he said. “For your actions here and at Little Madellon.”

T’kamen let his eyes slide away from the Marshal. He’d known this was coming. The only surprise was that it had taken so long. “Do I get to defend myself?”

“A defence has been put forward on your behalf,” said R’lony. “Those responsible for dictating your punishment have already taken those arguments into account.”

T’kamen wondered who’d spoken for him. He hoped it was Ch’fil. Stratomath’s rider had been one of the first on the scene when he and M’ric had returned from Little Madellon, barking out orders for a Dragon Healer to see to Epherineth, for a regular Healer to treat T’kamen, and for everyone else to get out of the shaffing way. There were few other riders, Pass or Interval, T’kamen would have entrusted with his dragon’s care. But once the immediate crisis was over – Epherineth’s ugly facial and neck wounds cleaned and numbed and stitched, T’kamen’s superficial cuts dismissed, and the Healers conferring over the damage to his right leg that he’d been trying not to think about – Ch’fil seated himself by T’kamen’s bedside and asked a succession of terse, blunt questions about what had happened at Little Madellon. T’kamen answered with as much honesty as he could afford without implicating M’ric. If Ch’fil sensed that he was omitting pieces of the truth, he didn’t accuse him of it, but either way, he didn’t like T’kamen’s answers. He’d called him a no-good shaffing shit-for-brains, and stalked away. T’kamen hadn’t seen him since.

He hadn’t seen M’ric, either. That, at least, he knew was a situation not of the boy’s making. Epherineth had tried to bespeak Trebruth, but Trebruth replied only that he wasn’t allowed to talk to him. Epherineth thought another senior dragon had been eavesdropping, so T’kamen had told him not to press the issue. M’ric didn’t need any more trouble on his account. He hoped he’d been able to conceal their two hard-won fire-lizard eggs somewhere safe and warm, but of all the worries weighing on T’kamen’s mind, that was one of the least. M’ric was resourceful enough to preserve what had cost them so much to obtain. Still, T’kamen found he’d missed him, especially in the periods of uncomfortable wakefulness between sparing fellis doses, when he’d have given much for some company to distract him from the sick dread that all the Healers’ efforts wouldn’t drain the poison from his knee, and then, when they had declared the worst risk of amputation over, the lesser but still bleak fear that he would never walk normally again.

“What about M’ric?” he asked. “I told Ch’fil he had nothing to do with what happened at Little Madellon. He didn’t want to go there in the first place.

“M’ric’s not your concern,” R’lony told him.

“He shouldn’t be punished for obeying my orders,” T’kamen said. “He’s my tail. He was only doing what he was told.”

“Your report on the role he played in the incident has been noted, for all the good it’ll do him,” said R’lony. “You should be more worried about yourself. S’leondes wants you sentenced in public.”

T’kamen suspected the distaste in R’lony’s voice had rather more to do with his loathing for the Commander than for any outrage he felt on his behalf. “When?”

“After the evening meal tonight,” said R’lony. “In the dining hall. Where everyone can see you.”

T’kamen felt himself smile, and wished he hadn’t. The expression pulled painfully at several of the incidental cuts and slashes on his face. “There’s nothing like a little public humiliation to aid the digestion.”

R’lony actually laughed, a short, harsh bark. He sat down without ceremony in the chair beside T’kamen’s bed. “I see your sense of humour hasn’t abandoned you.”

“That fled long ago,” said T’kamen. “My sense for the ridiculous, though…” He shook his head. “S’leondes really hates you, doesn’t he?”

“What makes you think this is founded in that?”

“Because I’ve never done anything to him personally to deserve that kind of vindictiveness.”

R’lony snorted. “S’leondes takes insult to any fighting-colour dragon personally. Your fate was sealed the moment you let Epherineth put that uppity blue of C’rastro’s on his ass. The Little Madellon business; well, that’s just a bonus.”

“You sound much less angry with me than I would be in your position.”

“I’ve been waiting for you to do something stupid since you gave me your service record. You’re clearly not a rider with any sense of self-preservation. Or who can be warned against imprudence.” R’lony shrugged. “But you’re still one of mine, so you’ll go into that dining cavern tonight and take your punishment on the chin as befits a rider of the Seventh Flight. And you’ll not be rolled in on your backside in some invalid chair, either. You’ll do it on your own two feet even if it cripples you.”

The affable way R’lony said it sent a chill down T’kamen’s back. “That Thread may already have burrowed.”

“So I understand.” R’lony looked at T’kamen’s freshly-bandaged knee. “Don’t have much luck with leg injuries, do you?”

“Not recently, no.”

“Well, you can’t say you don’t have experience of getting around on crutches.” R’lony peered again at the dressings on T’kamen’s face and head. “Those might earn you some sort of sympathy, though. Or at least they’ll show that you didn’t get your dragon maimed and escape scot-free yourself.”

“What do you mean, maimed?” T’kamen asked sharply, sitting up. “Epherineth’s not maimed. Master Hundarly said his wounds will heal –”

“Don’t get your underfurs in a knot, T’kamen,” R’lony told him, pushing him back down. “They’ll heal. He’ll not die of them, anyway. But he’ll never be the handsome fellow he was.” He rose from his seat. “You have a couple of hours before dinner. You might spend them practising a contrite expression. Or a tearful one, if you prefer; it’s really all the same to me.”

T’kamen didn’t follow R’lony’s advice. He did agonise over the implication that Epherineth had been permanently damaged by his encounter with Alanne’s watch-wher. He was still in the care of Madellon’s Dragon Healers, and Master Hundarly himself had come to the infirmary twice to update T’kamen on his condition. He’d barely concealed his scathing opinion of the slapdash first aid T’kamen had administered at the scene. T’kamen had no defence for that, nor any wish to fabricate one. He and M’ric had pasted over the gash in Epherineth’s neck where the wher had bitten a chunk out of his flesh with all the numbweed and salve they had, gluing the torn hide back together as best they could. They’d gingerly daubed a bit on the long slash down his face, too. But all their efforts hadn’t stopped the bleeding, and Epherineth had been streaked and spattered gorily green with his own ichor by the time they’d returned to Madellon. But for all Hundarly’s criticism, he hadn’t mentioned mutilation. He’d talked about the hundreds of stitches that he had personally put into the wounds, inside and out; he’d stressed the dumb luck that had spared Epherineth injury to a major artery by a matter of inches; he’d even conceded that Epherineth’s fundamentally robust constitution seemed to have shrugged off any infection far quicker than T’kamen’s had; but he’d offered no prognosis of long-term disfigurement. Had Epherineth been awake, T’kamen would have asked him. But he was asleep, still under light sedation in the dragon infirmary to help him recover from the ichor loss, and T’kamen was entirely alone.

By the time the infirmary bell rang for the start of second evening watch, he was dressed – albeit with his right trouser leg slit down the out-seam to accommodate his bandaged and unbending knee – and upright. He found he hadn’t forgotten the knack of moving around on crutches, keeping his weight completely off the injured leg, though it was just as hard on the shoulders and arms as he remembered. Ondiar watched unhappily as T’kamen crutched about the infirmary to demonstrate his mobility, and sent him out with a couple of the bigger apprentices to pick him up if he fell, and the instruction to return immediately once his sentencing was over.

The darkened Bowl was eerily quiet, with few folk about, though the presence of dragons on almost every weyr ledge indicated that most of Madellon’s dragonriding population was at home. T’kamen only had to wonder about that incongruity for the length of time it took him to make his slow way from the infirmary to the entrance of the lower caverns, where the buzz of hundreds of voices coming from within made the situation unhappily clear.

R’lony was waiting outside the big double doors with his tailman, B’nam, and a tall green rider T’kamen knew as G’reyan, S’leondes’ right-hand man. “Here he is, G’reyan,” said R’lony. “I told you he was on his way.”

“Why’s he on his feet?” G’reyan asked, assessing T’kamen with a frown. “I thought he was supposed to be in a chair.”

“What can I say,” said R’lony, with a toothy grin. “Seventh riders are made of stern stuff.” He turned an equally insincere smile on T’kamen. “Bronze rider. Are you ready?”

T’kamen eyed the Marshal uncertainly, wondering what he was up to. “Yes.”

“You boys can wait here,” R’lony told the apprentices who’d escorted T’kamen from the infirmary. “B’nam and I will walk him in.” He gestured to G’reyan. “After you, Wingleader.”

R’lony and B’nam flanked T’kamen as he followed G’reyan into the dining cavern. G’reyan walked at a much faster pace than T’kamen could match, and after only a few strides he had to pause to let him catch up, looking irritated by the delay. The clamour of conversation began to hush as they proceeded down the long aisle between tables to the raised dais at the front of the hall, riders and non-riders craning their necks to look at the unusual procession. T’kamen kept his eyes fixed straight ahead, concentrating on staying upright, and letting the succession of faces turned towards him merge into an anonymous blur. As silence descended across the entire cavern, his escorts’ footsteps, and the dull thunk of his crutches against the floor, were left as the only sounds.

Climbing the couple of steps onto the platform under the avid gaze of a thousand pairs of eyes was the hardest part. T’kamen was glad for B’nam’s steadying presence on his right as he crutched awkwardly up the steps. R’lony’s tail was a husky lad with a powerful grip; it seemed as if the Marshal had no intention of letting T’kamen be physically demeaned by this reckoning, at least. The stairs negotiated, T’kamen resettled his crutches under his arms, and moved to the place on the dais G’reyan indicated. There was no chair. He hoped that meant this ordeal would be brief.

As R’lony and B’nam took up places behind him, T’kamen allowed himself to look out at the assembled throng. Farthest back, seated as always at the rearmost tables, the faces of his Seventh Flight colleagues were indistinct, their expressions impossible to discern. The fighting riders in the middle and front parts of the hall were less inscrutable. The young men and women who comprised the greater part of Madellon’s rider population regarded him with varying degrees of suspicion, mistrust, and outright contempt. T’kamen searched the weyrling tables, segregated on the left side of the hall, and glimpsed M’ric watching him with bowed shoulders and a pained expression. Finally, he looked down at the top table, directly before the dais, with its complement of Flightleaders and senior Wingleaders; the queen riders Dalka and Lirelle; C’rastro and his staff; and in the centre, S’leondes, staring at him stone-faced and unforgiving.

T’kamen was no stranger to a Discipline. He’d handed down punishments to his own riders as Weyrleader, Wingleader, and Wingsecond, and taken demotions, demerits, and debasement in his turn, largely at the whim of L’dro, who’d never tired of inventing new ways to make his life miserable. But even L’dro had never had T’kamen denounced in public. Discipline was a private matter, a Wing matter, kept between the offender and his Wingleader or Wingsecond, depending on the nature of the transgression. An errant rider might be rebuked before his wingmates, but only where the Wing as a unit could learn from one man’s mistake. It was enough for a rider to be recognised as being in disgrace without every man and dragon in the Weyr needing to know the details of both misdeed and penance. This public excoriation was as small-minded and spiteful, in its own way, as anything L’dro had ever dreamed up, and now, as then, T’kamen was prepared to look his enemy in the eye and accept his punishment without flinching.

Yet S’leondes didn’t look like he intended to rise from his place. He sipped from a glass of wine, toyed with the knife lying beside his plate, even tilted his head slightly to listen to some remark from the rider seated on his left. He never took his eyes off T’kamen. But he gave no indication that he planned to move to the lectern set up on the other end of the dais to pass judgement on him.

Instead, G’reyan walked over to the podium. T’kamen mentally added that to the list of snubs S’leondes had dealt him. He turned to face G’reyan, and spared a moment to be grateful that Epherineth wasn’t awake to experience this along with him.

“Your attention,” said G’reyan, and immediately the faint expectant hum that had sprung up to fill the silence died away again. He glanced down at the slate resting on the lectern, then up at the room. “Every dragonrider in this Weyr has a role to play,” he said. “Every dragon, no matter how large, has a place in the defence of Pern and the continuing battle against Thread. Every dragon, no matter his colour, has value and worth and importance, whether in the fighting Wings, the Seventh Flight, or on the Hatching sands.” He looked around, and a murmur of agreement rippled through the hall. Behind T’kamen, R’lony made a strangled coughing sound.

“But it hasn’t always been this way,” G’reyan went on, and immediately, the people nearest the front of the hall began to sit up in their seats. “The meritocracy that we enjoy…”

Somebody two tables back began to stamp his feet.

“…as Madellon riders is a relatively recent innovation…”

The foot-stamping was joined by the pounding of fists on table-tops, quietly at first, then growing in volume as more riders joined in.

“…fought for and won by…”

S’leondes!” somebody bellowed.

In the bedlam that followed – the whooping and cheering, the chants of S’leondes! S’leondes! and Com-man-der, Com-man-der; the banging of plates and mugs on the tables – it struck T’kamen that most of the yelling, stamping riders bawling out their allegiance to their leader were too young to remember S’leondes’ revolution. Half of them hadn’t even been born. Their only knowledge of what he had done in the cause of meritocracy was what they’d been told. Yet there S’leondes sat, accepting their frenzied adulation, and if he didn’t take any obvious satisfaction in it, he wasn’t quick to end it, either. At last, when the clamour had gone on for several minutes, he raised his arm, and the din cut off abruptly as though sliced through with a knife.

G’reyan didn’t look perturbed by the interruption of his speech. Being S’leondes’ man, he must be used to it, T’kamen thought; and then, with a flash of insight, he grasped that G’reyan’s opening remarks had been calculated to provoke the response they had.

“But the rider who stands before you here has not known the benefit of growing up in our enlightened era,” G’reyan went on. “Bronze rider T’kamen is a man out of his own era, stranded in a time he is completely unsuited to occupy. Whatever mistake he made, whatever mishap occurred to send him here to us, we can be confident that he didn’t come with the premeditated intent to scorn our values or violate our laws. T’kamen is simply a product of less rational times; he cannot help the way he is. It would take a great man indeed to recognise the innate wrongness of morals and ethics he was raised to believe in and live by; greater than most of us here in this hall.

“T’kamen and his dragon are scions of a time when it was thought acceptable to bully and belittle dragonpairs of the smaller colours, and bronzes and bronze riders believed that imposing their will upon the Weyr was not just their right, but their duty. We can all see from observing him just how poorly such an attitude serves any rider in the Eighth Pass. T’kamen is not a figure to be hated. Learned from, perhaps. Pitied, certainly. But not hated.”

T’kamen found that he’d gritted his teeth so hard that his jaw was aching; with difficulty, he forced himself to relax. He darted a glance sideways at R’lony, but the Marshal’s face was completely impassive.

“But ignorance of Weyr law is not and never has been an excuse,” continued G’reyan. “T’kamen may have been born in an era when certain behaviour was tolerated, but he wears the insignia of a rider of this Pass now, and he is subject to the same rules, regulations, and penalties as any other Madellon rider.”

G’reyan paused, and T’kamen braced himself to hear, for the first time, exactly what crimes he was to answer for.

Then G’reyan turned to his right, and said, “Crewleader?”

T’kamen couldn’t have been more staggered had G’reyan literally swept his crutches out from under him as Ch’fil appeared from the shadows and marched, heavy-footed, up the steps of the dais. Numbly, he realised he should have wondered where the brown rider was, but it hadn’t occurred to him for so much as an instant that Ch’fil – decent, even-handed, fair-minded Ch’fil, whom he liked and admired and trusted so much – would be the one to flame him before all of Madellon.

Shame and betrayal made T’kamen’s guts harden, as though he’d been punched in the belly. He didn’t think he actually swayed, but R’lony’s hand caught his upper arm in a hard grip. T’kamen looked blankly at him; not the source of solidarity he’d have expected. “Just hold your peace and take it,” R’lony muttered, hardly moving his lips. “It’ll all be over soon.”

G’reyan ceded the lectern without ceremony. Ch’fil had his own slate; he set it down with such a bang that the small portion of T’kamen’s mind still concerned with such trivialities was surprised it didn’t break. Ch’fil’s face was set in hard lines, his eyes flat and grim and as angry as they’d been when he’d cursed at T’kamen in the infirmary five days previously, and when he spoke his Peninsula accent was more pronounced than ever. “Bronze rider. You’ve been deemed guilty of the following transgressions and allotted penalties accordingly.” Ch’fil took a breath. “For the crime of colour intimidation, bronze-on-blue, you and your dragon will place yourselves in the service of the wronged party for not less than one full watch per day for a period of not less than twelve sevendays. Do you acknowledge your responsibility and accept the punishment?”

T’kamen was surprised that Ch’fil even asked. Perhaps it was a formality that couldn’t be skipped. The prospect of three months at C’rastro’s beck and call was grim, but he couldn’t deny that Epherineth had intimidated Prerth. “I do,” he said slowly.

“For insolence to a superior officer,” Ch’fil went on, “you and your dragon will stand three additional middle or morning watches per sevenday, for a period of not less than eight sevendays. Do you acknowledge your responsibility and accept the punishment?”

For a moment, T’kamen was baffled as to which superior officer he’d supposedly disrespected, and then he realised that C’rastro had gone for the double: intimidation and insolence. That was just malicious. He risked a glance at the top table, and found the Weyrlingmaster leaning back in his chair, burly arms folded, smirking. A rebellious part of him wanted to dispute the superior part of the charge, but he bit it back. Cold watches were nothing. He’d done a Turn of them under L’dro. “I do.”

Ch’fil turned his slate over. “For the harassment of a dragonless rider, a fine of ten marks and a formal apology, written or in person.”

T’kamen almost laughed aloud. He didn’t have two marks, let alone ten, and if the thought of issuing Alanne with an apology in person wasn’t blackly hilarious enough, the notion of giving the eyeless Weyrwoman one that had to be read was even more so. “Sure,” he said. “Why not?”

Ch’fil fixed him with a withering glare, and R’lony hissed, “Don’t get cute, bronze rider,” out of the corner of his mouth.

But if their disapproval couldn’t make T’kamen’s sudden attack of mirth subside, the next charge did. “For the reckless endangerment of yourself and your dragon.” For the first time, condemnation crept into Ch’fil’s voice, quenching the flames of T’kamen’s defiance. “Resulting in bodily harm precluding you from active duty and denying the Weyr use of a strategic asset. Suspension of all stipend for a period of not less than twice the length of convalescence plus sixteen sevendays. Confinement to the Weyr except with the express permission of a superior officer until further notice.”

It sent a whisper of accusatory commentary around the hall, but T’kamen couldn’t break Ch’fil’s censorious stare to look. He felt shame rise in a slow flush to the skin of his cheeks, and the constant low-level pulse of the gashes to his face and scalp intensified to an insistent throb. Half the Weyr had seen Epherineth come in, streaming ichor from his face and neck. R’lony had been wrong, T’kamen thought. No one would see his injuries as any kind of penance for Epherineth’s. He didn’t himself. The penalty seemed absurdly lenient. “Yes,” he said, dully.

“Finally,” said Ch’fil. “For the reckless endangerment of a weyrling and his dragon. Confinement to quarters during all off-duty hours until further notice. Revocation of all extant tailing privileges with immediate effect. Prohibition from taking any weyrling as a tailman. Indefinitely.” Ch’fil’s eyes bored into him. “Do you understand and accept?”

T’kamen had suspected he would lose M’ric. It hardly mattered anyway, given how close he was to graduation. But T’kamen didn’t have to look in the direction of the weyrling table to know that the boy would be squirming, mortified, under a hundred judgemental stares, disapproving or disparaging or just pitying. He wished he could tell him that he’d tried to exonerate him, but it wouldn’t have helped. As dubious a reputation as M’ric had made for himself prior to T’kamen’s arrival, his name would be forever tainted now by association. Any vestigial loyalty he might still feel towards T’kamen would last only until his inevitable posting to the Seventh Flight. “I understand,” T’kamen said. His voice sounded almost as self-loathing as he felt. “I accept.”

“Then we’re done here,” said Ch’fil. “You’re dismissed, bronze rider.”

He snatched up his slate and left the dais without a further word. The room broke out in a thrill of interested conversation. R’lony clapped T’kamen on the shoulder. “You did well,” he said. “Proud of you.”

The praise did nothing to lift T’kamen’s spirits. “Can I just get out of here?” he asked, shifting his weight on his crutches.

“Best you do,” R’lony replied. “B’nam, help the bronze rider back to the infirmary. I’ve some business to see to, T’kamen. I’ll look in on you tomorrow and we’ll talk about when you’ll be fit to start your punishment detail.”

It was a long, unpleasant walk back through the crowded dining hall. Even with B’nam to assist, T’kamen stumbled often, wearied by the exertion and by his public shaming. The watching faces that had merely been curious on his inbound journey were harder now, more judgemental. One blue rider, his youth made plain by the rash of livid pimples decorating his cheeks, stepped deliberately out in front of him, as if to bar his passage, before some older and wiser wingmate yanked him out of the way. Still, T’kamen felt the young man’s hot and angry eyes on his back long after he’d left him, and the hostile dining cavern, behind.

Ch’fil was waiting outside. “You can go and get your dinner, B’nam; I’ve got him from here” he told R’lony’s tailman. B’nam hesitated, and Ch’fil gave him an irate glare. “You deaf, boy? Piss off.”

“He was just doing what R’lony told him to,” T’kamen said wearily, as B’nam beat a smart retreat.

“Of course he shaffing was,” said Ch’fil. “It’s all we ever shaffing do.” When T’kamen looked askance at him, Ch’fil asked, “What, you think I wanted to be the one standing there telling the whole shaffing Weyr how you messed up?”

“You have every right to be angry with me,” T’kamen said. “I thought –”

“You think I’d throw you into that pit of snakes just for being angry with you? Faranth, T’kamen, I’ve been running myself ragged for the last three days trying to find a way not to.”

That made T’kamen felt a little better. The thought that Ch’fil had turned on him had cut him deeply. “You didn’t need to do that,” he said. “I deserve everything I’ve got.”

Ch’fil laughed. “So you’d rather I hadn’t got you off the other charges S’leondes wanted to bring against you?”

“What other charges?”

“Desecration of the dead. Reckless endangerment of a weyrling leading to bodily harm –”

“M’ric didn’t have a scratch on him!”

Ch’fil glared at him and continued. “Abuse of a dragonless rider. Gross negligence in your duty of care to your dragon, your tailman, and your tailman’s dragon. Intentional sabotage of a Weyr asset.”

“What?” T’kamen demanded, outraged. “They think I got Epherineth hurt deliberately?”

“That one was the easiest to have thrown out,” Ch’fil said. “But mitigating the rest didn’t come for cheap. Not for you, and not for me.”

That made T’kamen feel as small and worthless as he had yet. He crutched along in silence for a minute. “I never asked you to do that for me, Ch’fil.”

“Don’t be a shaffing martyr. You’re my rider. My responsibility. You don’t get to decide how I manage you.”

“Being sentenced in public was the cost to me,” T’kamen said. “What was the cost to you?”

“Being the one to sentence you,” Ch’fil said. “S’leondes insisted the judgement should come from within the Seventh Flight. He’s not a fool. If he’d passed sentence himself, or even had G’reyan do it, he’d have made you a rallying point for discontent in the Seventh.”

“And given me a significance that so far he’s been careful to avoid,” said T’kamen.

Ch’fil looked at him sharply. “Aye. That too.”

“Then why not R’lony?” T’kamen asked. “He doesn’t like me any more than S’leondes does. Why would he damage his reputation by standing with me?”

Ch’fil didn’t reply for a bit. “R’lony doesn’t give a trader’s cuss what the fighting riders think of him,” he said finally. “He was the Weyrleader, and they threw him out. He wouldn’t piss on a one of them if they were Threadscored. Anyway, their opinion of him has no bearing on his position. As far as R’lony’s concerned, the only riders who matter are in the Seventh Flight, and come the next ballot, every Strategic rider will remember who showed solidarity with you for answering back to a blue rider, and who stood there denouncing you to the whole of Madellon.”

“Faranth,” said T’kamen. “It was a move against you. Why didn’t you refuse?”

“Because if I had, G’bral would have been the one reciting your transgressions to the Weyr,” said Ch’fil. “And you wouldn’t have liked his version. At least I could limit the damage.”

“G’bral?” T’kamen echoed. “What have I ever done to him?”

“You make him feel insecure,” Ch’fil said. “Barinth’s a nervous dragon, and Epherineth frightens him. The pair of them are terrified of anyone who might eventually pose a threat to their position.”

“Is there anyone in this Weyr who doesn’t have a hidden agenda?”

“Was there ever?” Ch’fil asked. “Politics. Always the same old whershit.”

“Is that why you don’t want R’lony’s job?”

“I don’t want R’lony’s job because I’m not out of my Thread-blown mind. Weyrmarshal’s a cup of poison, right down to the dregs. R’lony’s welcome to it.”

T’kamen was weary indeed by the time they finally got back to the infirmary. Ondiar, hovering anxiously near the entrance, looked relieved to see him. “Back inside, bronze rider, and I want to look at your knee again,” he said. “You didn’t put any weight on that leg at all?”

“No,” T’kamen replied. He let Ondiar herd him back to his bed, thankful to get off the blighted crutches.

Ch’fil watched as Ondiar peeled back the dressings on T’kamen’s leg. “Thread take it, T’kamen,” he said. “You really got yourself shredded, didn’t you?”

T’kamen glanced down at his knee, then away again. He didn’t want to dwell on the unpleasant sight. “How bad is Epherineth?”

“Lots of stitches. Nothing that won’t heal.” Ch’fil’s matter-of-fact report was more comforting than R’lony’s had been. “The ichor loss looked worse than it was. He’ll be out of his sickbed before you’re out of yours.”

“But the scars will be permanent?”

Ch’fil smiled, deliberately making his own facial disfigurement more conspicuous. He rubbed the deep seams either side of his mouth with thumb and forefinger. “All the best scars are permanent, Kamen. They remind you not to be so shaffing stupid the next time.”

T’kamen winced. “I’m going to need help looking after him until I’m more mobile.”

“It’s a kick in the pants, losing M’ric right when you really need a tail,” Ch’fil said. “But it had to be done. You understand that.”

“I understand.”

“At least one of you does.” Ch’fil looked exasperated. “M’ric’s got himself confined to quarters for trying to get in to see you, and C’rastro had to ask for a bronze to stop Trebruth talking to Epherineth. Haggerth’s been sitting on him.”

T’kamen was touched. “Isn’t that colour intimidation?”

“Not while he’s still a weyrling,” said Ch’fil. “Which he won’t be for much longer, and then he’ll be at liberty to talk to you as much as he likes. And help with Epherineth if that’s what he wants to do and it doesn’t interfere with his own duties. But that’s another couple of sevendays off. He has his assessment to get through first, and Epherineth will be out of the infirmary long before then.” He looked pensive for a moment. “You can borrow Jukey.”

“I thought I wasn’t meant to have a tailman again.”

“He won’t be your tail,” said Ch’fil. “He’ll be on secondment to help with Epherineth’s care until you’re fit. Just don’t be seen getting too chummy with him.”

“Thank you,” said T’kamen. The loan of a tailman was no small favour. Then he added, “For everything you’ve done.”

Ch’fil’s expression was difficult to read. He clouted T’kamen roughly on the shoulder. “Get some rest. Epherineth should talk to Stratomath if you need me. And try not to get yourself any deeper in the shit.”

After Ch’fil left, an apprentice brought T’kamen some dinner. He wasn’t hungry, but he made himself eat. By the time he’d cleared his plate he realised he felt better than he had since returning from Little Madellon. He faced several more days at least in the infirmary, probably sevendays of recuperation after that, and then months of detention and punishment detail, but knowing what lay ahead was better than imagining the worst. He wouldn’t be properly at ease until he’d seen Epherineth and assessed his injuries for himself, but he did trust Ch’fil’s judgement. And he took his advice. When the duty journeyman came, T’kamen accepted the weak cup of fellis she offered him to kill the persistent pain of his mangled leg and help him sleep.

It worked almost too well.

“Kamen. Kamen. Kamen! Wake up, blight you!”

It wasn’t the determined hissing of his name that woke him, but the violent shaking of his shoulder, interspersed with slaps to the face that rattled his teeth in his head. Weakly, groaning and groggy, he fended off his attacker, rasping, “What, what is it?”

“Thank Faranth! I thought you were dead!”

The shaking and slapping stopped, but then the light from a fully-opened glow-basket spilled over T’kamen’s face. He groaned again and covered his eyes, but not before he’d glimpsed his assailant. “M’ric?” he asked thickly. “What are you doing here? You shouldn’t be here.”

“There’s no sharding time, T’kamen,” M’ric said. “You need to wake up and pull yourself together. The shaffing eggs are shaffing – oh, shit, they’re hatching right now! Here!”

T’kamen took his hand away from his face just in time for M’ric to dump a double fistful of hot sand on his chest. He grabbed reflexively at it, and his fingers closed around the hard, round shape of a fire-lizard egg – an egg that twitched and shuddered in his grasp. Comprehension wiped some of the fog from his brain. “Faranth, M’ric, have you got something to feed them with?”

M’ric flipped half a dead tunnel-snake onto T’kamen’s bedfur. “It’s the best I could do,” he said, holding his own violently-quivering egg against himself. “Trebruth’s been using it as a chew-toy. I didn’t have time to get anything else. I didn’t know the sharding things would hatch tonight!”

“You can’t give a whole snake to a new-born fire-lizard!” Torturously, T’kamen hauled himself a bit more upright, and fumbled on the table by his bed for his belt knife. One-handed, still holding the egg, he managed to hack some thumbnail-sized gobs of flesh off the carcass, getting greenish-black blood and bits of snake guts all over himself in the process. “Here,” he said, shoving a handful of meat at M’ric. “Use this.”

He was barely in time. As M’ric took the snake-meat off him, the egg jumped in T’kamen’s grip, and he dropped it in his lap. The shell, already webbed with hairline cracks, began to fracture outward in two places as its determined inhabitant fought its way out. A glistening set of talons ripped free of the lower curve, flexed for an instant, then withdrew again. Then, as if shattered by a single determined heave, the brittle eggshell burst into splinters.

The hatchling fire-lizard left amidst the wreckage of its shell blinked rapidly three times, as though startled, and then opened its jaws wide and squealed with hunger.

Instinct took over. There was no one else in the infirmary for the lizard’s cries to wake, but the weyrling reflex to silence a dragonet’s shrieks by any means necessary ran deep. T’kamen scooped up a ragged chunk of snake-meat and shoved it into the fire-lizard’s mouth. It nearly cost him a finger. The tiny creature snapped its maw shut, leaving him with a torn and bleeding fingernail. The fire-lizard gulped the offering whole, and barely paused before opening wide for more, its amber gaze fixed wide-eyed upon him.

By the imperious squalling coming from M’ric’s direction, his egg had hatched, too, but T’kamen didn’t dare spare him a glance. He was no expert on fire-lizards, but he did know that the window of opportunity for Impressing them was narrow. After all the trouble he and M’ric had taken to obtain the two eggs, they didn’t need to mishandle Impressing their occupants. He fed his lizard another bit of snake, then another. It didn’t seem to mind the dubious provenance of the meat. Nor did it resist when he picked it up, supporting its little body in his hand. The almost negligible weight of it reminded him of the tiny bronze whose life Alanne had so callously snuffed out. T’kamen kept the thought distant, not wanting to frighten the hatchling, and it wasn’t nearly as difficult or unnatural as he’d thought it would be to project welcoming feelings towards the helpless little creature.

Epherineth roused from his deep sleep as the small and tentative presence of the fire-lizard’s infant mind wormed its way lightly into their shared consciousness. T’kamen found himself holding his breath, wondering suddenly if his dragon would object to his invitation of this new being into their established partnership. But Epherineth merely inspected the fragile thread of the fire-lizard’s presence, nudged it in benign welcome, and went back to sleep.

The hatchling inhaled a deep breath that inflated its chest to twice its previous volume, let it out with a great sigh, and snuggled itself down in T’kamen’s palm. Within moments, as if following Epherineth’s example, it was asleep.

M’ric had seated himself on the floor, his back against T’kamen’s bedside table, knees drawn up. He was cradling a handful of sleeping gold fire-lizard to his chest. He raised his eyes baffledly to T’kamen’s. “It wasn’t like Impressing Trebruth, but…she is really cute, isn’t she?”

T’kamen sympathised with M’ric’s ambivalence. He’d never had any time for fire-lizards, and his encounter with Alanne’s vicious fair would have been enough to put anyone off them. Impressing one was supposed to have been just a means to an end. But it was hard not to feel a pang of affection for the tiny creature sleeping curled up in his hand. “What will you call her?”

“Faranth, I don’t know,” M’ric said. “I hadn’t thought that far ahead.” He craned his neck to look at T’kamen’s fire-lizard. “What about your brown?”

It was a brown, T’kamen realised, wiping bits of shell off the lizard’s folded wings. Under the layer of egg fluid the colour of the hide had been difficult to discern. “I’ll think of something.” Then he made a face. “Faranth. There are bits of snake everywhere.”

M’ric went to get a bucket and shovel. When he came back, his queen was riding against his chest, her head poking out from the front of his shirt. “Had to put her somewhere,” he replied, to T’kamen’s raised eyebrow.

“I’ll clean this up,” T’kamen told him. “You should go back to bed before you’re caught down here.”

M’ric snorted. “Don’t care if I am. After what C’rastro put you through tonight I don’t see why I should do as he tells me.”

“You thought that was C’rastro’s doing?” T’kamen asked.

M’ric glanced at him, sweeping snake guts into the bucket. “Who else?”

“I think it came from a little higher up the chain.”

“You mean the Commander? Why would he do that? He doesn’t have anything against you.”

For all M’ric’s perspicacity, T’kamen thought, he had a serious blind spot when it came to S’leondes. He decided not to make an issue of it. “Look. If you want to have a chance of getting posted to Tactical when you graduate, you need to keep your head down for the next couple of sevendays. It’ll be different once you have your stripes, but until then, you’re best off doing as you’re told and staying away from me.”

“But C’rastro –”

Between with C’rastro,” T’kamen said. “I’m telling you.”

M’ric looked at him. Then he thrust his hand into his pocket. “They tried to take this away from me.”

It was the rank cord in which he’d so proudly tied the tailman’s knot. T’kamen reached out and closed M’ric’s fist around it. “Don’t let them. Keep it somewhere safe. Now go back to bed, and stay away from me.”

“But –”

“Don’t argue with me, weyrling,” T’kamen said. He glared at M’ric. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re still my tailman. Go to bed. Keep your head down. Keep feeding that fire-lizard. When you have your stripes, we’ll talk. As equals.” He smiled. It hurt his face. “And then we’ll figure out between together. Us and our dragons and these two little bastards. But until then, you can shaffing well stay away.” He extended his hand. “All right? You promise?”

M’ric face was nearly unreadable. He gripped T’kamen’s wrist roughly. “I promise.”

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