Chapter forty-three: Carleah
In retrospect, it’s hard to say what could have been done differently. Long Bay was amply stewarded. Perhaps too amply. There were so many extra men brought up from lesser Holds of the territory to keep order that it would have been impossible for every man to know every one of his fellows. Nobody would have questioned the right of any individual wearing a blue-and-brown armband to be there – or his authority to deal swiftly with apparent troublemakers.
– Excerpt from an incident report on the Long Bay Gather of I7/100
This feels wrong, Carleah thought, and then wished she could take back the traitorous notion that had leapt uninvited into her mind.
But Darshanth didn’t react – didn’t flinch, didn’t reply – and neither did C’mine, on the blue’s neck behind her, as they spiralled up on the Bowl’s thermals towards between altitude. And Jagunth had already succumbed to the soporific influence of warm sunshine and a full belly, and didn’t rouse in response to Carleah’s unease either.
Carleah craned her neck as Darshanth banked, seeking the familiar pale green shape of her own dragon amongst the dozing forms of the dragonets on the training grounds, and –
Between swallowed them like dark water.
Frozen moments later, it spat them out again. Carleah found she’d clutched C’mine’s arm around her waist, unfelt in the absence of sensation, and quickly released it, ashamed of herself. She’d been going between all her life, on Darshanth and on her da’s Indioth. But they had always forewarned her, always spoken to reassure her the instant before jumping between. Darshanth’s unresponsive silence made riding a dragon who, however familiar, was not Carleah’s own, even more unsettling.
“Are you all right?” C’mine asked, once Darshanth had landed and they’d both slipped down from his neck-ridges. Carleah found that weird, too. Darshanth was quite a bit taller than Jagunth. “I’ve never felt you cling on like that before.”
“I’m fine,” Carleah said quickly. “Only…is Darshanth upset with me?”
“Of course he’s not. Why would he be upset with you?”
“He didn’t say when we were about to go between. He always used to. It just took me by surprise.” The nasty instant of shock was fading, replaced instead by a sense of injury. “He never speaks to me anymore,” Carleah finished, feeling offended.
“Well, no,” said C’mine. He clapped his blue on the shoulder, and Darshanth sprang aloft. “You have Jagunth now.”
“So he just ignores me?”
“He’s not ignoring you,” said C’mine. “But he doesn’t hear you as well now that you’re a rider.”
“But he’s a Search dragon. They’re supposed to be good at hearing other people.”
“Only before they have dragons of their own,” said C’mine. “Your thoughts channel privately to Jagunth now. Darshanth would have to concentrate to listen in, and that would be rude of him. Like eavesdropping.”
“Oh,” said Carleah. She wasn’t completely satisfied by the explanation. “He still could have warned me, though.”
“You probably wouldn’t have liked it if he had,” said C’mine. “It’s an uncomfortable feeling, having someone else’s dragon talk to you.”
Carleah nearly yelped at the alien voice that spoke in her mind. “Was that him?”
C’mine gave her a sympathetic look. “I did warn you.”
The other Wildfires were congregating as they dismounted from the dragons who had conveyed them to Long Bay. M’touf still looked disgruntled. He’d been insisting all morning that Atath was more than capable of transporting him between. It hadn’t made him popular with any of the rest of the class. L’stev had finally told him to either wind his neck in or stay behind with Karika and T’gala and, sullenly, he’d quit complaining. Still, he didn’t seem any closer to making up with K’dam and K’ralthe, who’d taken it personally that M’touf’s dragon could go between when theirs couldn’t. Carleah almost felt sorry for him..
L’stev was taking a headcount of weyrlings. “Eighteen, nineteen…who’s still missing?”
“Derthauth’s just landing now,” said C’mine. “He’s the last one.”
The blue in question was backwinging towards the landing zone; a moment later J’kovu and P’lian jogged over to join the group. “All right,” said L’stev. “You kids have the liberty of the Gather for the afternoon.” He raised his voice over the chorus of whoops. “But only for as long as you sharding well behave yourselves. If even one of you gets in trouble, I’ll recall the whole class, so you’d better make sure you’re all minding your manners and keeping your noses spotlessly clean. This Gather is crawling with Madellon Wingseconds, and if any of them reports that there’s been the slightest infraction I’ll pull you out of here so fast your heads will spin.” He glared at them all. Carleah wondered if he had any idea how little attention most of the others were paying, with the sights and sounds and smells of the Gather so tantalisingly close. “No going off by yourselves. I want you in pairs at least at all times, or with an adult rider escorting you. No fighting. No gambling. No drinking. No stealing. No spitting. No swearing.”
“No shaffing chance of that,” someone said – Carleah thought it was R’von trying to sound like K’ralthe – and everyone else snickered.
“Don’t try me,” L’stev said, with infinite disgust. “Now get lost.”
Most of the Wildfires needed no further bidding. B’joro, W’lenze, and C’seon sprinted off, yelling; K’ralthe and K’dam headed away at a purposeful jog that suggested they had a destination in mind. Chenda and Adzai, having been fussing over each other’s hair to repair the effects of flight and helmets, linked arms, hitched up their overlong skirts, and made for the main square with all possible haste.
L’stev walked over to C’mine, looking weary already. “I swear it ages me a decade whenever I let them out of my sight.”
“They’ll be fine, L’stev,” C’mine replied.
“You say that. I remember letting your lot loose for the first time at a Blue Shale Gather not half the size of this one, and I was dragging stragglers out of the beer tents until the early hours.” L’stev gave Carleah a hard look. “Not going with your pals?”
“We’re meeting my mama in the main square,” she said. “She’s singing with one of the Harper ensembles today.”
“Well, give her my best,” L’stev said. “And make sure this one behaves.” He gave C’mine a withering look. “I won’t be happy if it’s you I’m having to drag out of the beer tents.”
“Of course not, L’stev,” said C’mine, rather less good-humouredly than Carleah would have expected. “Come on, Leah.”
Some of the other weyrlings had been looking forward to Long Bay as if they’d never been to a Gather in their lives. Some of them probably hadn’t. But Carleah had been raised at the Kellad Harperhall, and Kellad held Gathers every other restday in the summertime. There were only so many ways you could make a quarter of a mark stretch to cover an afternoon’s entertainment, and the coins rattling in Carleah’s belt pouch, handed stingily out by L’stev before they’d left Madellon, hardly added up to more than that. Given how she knew vendors inflated their prices in direct proportion to the size of the Gather – and the warmth of the weather – her four thirty-seconds, two sixteenths, and solitary miserable eighth weren’t like to go far here. There was only one good way to do a Gather like Long Bay, and that was in the company of someone with proper money.
C’los hadn’t always been reliably cajoled into parting with his marks. He’d usually been good for any Gather sweetmeat that he liked, unless he’d been having one of his periodic mopes about his waistline, but the chances of him springing for anything costing more than a mark had never been better than evens, and he’d never given Carleah so much as a sliver for any sort of sideshow game. “They’re all scams, girl,” he’d told her every single time she’d implored him for a thirty-second to try her luck at the ring-toss or the whack-a-snake or the find-the-Weyrleader. “No daughter of mine is ever going to be outwitted by some half-literate holder. You’re smarter than that.”
She had always sighed, and agreed, and accepted, squirming, the big ostentatious kiss that C’los had planted on the top of her head. And then she’d waited until her father was distracted, and gone wheedling to C’mine, whose ability to say no to Carleah’s pleading entreaties had always been unfailingly non-existent. “Don’t tell your da,” he’d always warned her, as he slipped the marker surreptitiously into her hand, and Carleah had always asked, “But what if I win the fire-lizard?” and C’mine had looked at her seriously and told her that they’d flame that Thread when it fell on them.
Carleah never had won the fire-lizard, but it wasn’t winning the fire-lizard that counted, she’d always told herself, to counteract the vague feeling of foolishness that had always come over her when she hadn’t landed the ring or whacked the right snake or found the Weyrleader; it was the idea of winning the fire-lizard that counted. And more than that, it was the thrill of colluding with C’mine behind her da’s back, and the secret wink that they’d share, with C’los oblivious to the whole business, that made it fun and exciting and conspiratorial, even though she never won anything.
Perhaps it was her age, or perhaps it was the glaring, painful absence of C’los in his role as their unwitting mark, but somehow Carleah found she wasn’t nearly as eager to hand C’mine’s money to any of the many Long Bay hustlers who begged their patronage as she once would have been.
Resisting the sweet sellers was still beyond her, though. “I got your peppermints,” she told C’mine, passing him one of the little cheesecloth bags into which the fat man behind the sweetmeat stall scooped his wares.
C’mine took one of the candies out of the bag and popped it in his mouth. “Mm,” he said, sucking appreciatively. “What have you got?”
“Pecan brittle,” Carleah said, showing him. “Do you want some?”
He shook his head. “But don’t forget to save the last piece for Darshanth.”
That was another of their Gather traditions. Carleah wasn’t sure if dragons normally liked sweets, but Darshanth seemed to. “I’ll save two,” Carleah said. “One for him and one for Jagunth. She’s never had sweets before.”
“Is she all right?” C’mine asked. “Not worrying that you’re out of her sight?”
Carleah brushed gently against her green’s drowsing mind, sensing Jagunth’s satiated contentment. “She’s still asleep,” she said. “I don’t think she even knows I’m not there.” She looked anxiously at C’mine. “What if she panics when she wakes up?”
“Vanzanth’s back by now,” C’mine assured her. “He’ll be keeping an eye on them. And when she does wake up, you just tell her that you’ll be home soon.”
Carleah nodded. “Phew,” she said, “it’s boiling here.”
As she began to shrug off her jacket, C’mine frowned. “You’re meant to be showing your insignia at all times, Leah,” he reminded her. “Is the knot on your jacket transferable?”
“Nope,” she said. “L’stev makes us sew them on so we don’t lose them.”
C’mine sighed. “Of course he does.”
“It’s all right,” she insisted. “Look, I’ll just carry my jacket so it’s showing. My badge, too.” She folded the garment so that Madellon’s emblem, and the green bar embroidered with the legend WEYRLING, were both clearly displayed.
“Make sure you keep it visible,” he said. “It’s important that everyone can see where you’re from.”
“Do you think the Southerners will be here?” she asked. “The weyrlings who went home, I mean.”
“I don’t know,” C’mine said. “Why, are you missing them?”
“Missing them?” Carleah demanded, outraged that he could suggest such a thing, even as a joke. “Faranth, no!”
“Carleah,” she told him, “and since when was saying ‘Faranth’ bad language?”
“Since you said it in that tone of voice,” said C’mine. “It’s not polite to swear.”
“L’stev swears all the time.”
“You’re better brought up than he was.”
Mutinously, Carleah muttered, “Da swore all the time, too. You never told him off for it.”
She regretted saying it even before the anguished expression crossed C’mine’s face. “Maybe I should have,” he said, softly.
Carleah wished she knew a way to take words back. Occasionally – just occasionally – she found herself saying things before she’d completely thought them through. In the month or so since C’mine had become L’stev’s assistant, she’d realised that talking about C’los to him was a really bad idea. It was wretched. And annoying. Carleah liked talking about her father. It made her feel closer to him when she passed on any of the million clever bits of information he’d imparted to her over fourteen Turns. K’dam had once made a spiteful remark about Carleah’s habit of starting sentences with My da says, but Carleah didn’t give a wherry’s tail for what K’dam thought. C’los had been the funniest, smartest, best dragonrider on Pern, and Carleah didn’t want anyone to ever forget that she was his daughter.
It still baffled her that C’mine got so upset when anyone mentioned C’los’ name, as if he didn’t want to think about him. It made no sense. Carleah got sad, too, when she thought about what had happened; sad, and angry – but she couldn’t imagine not thinking about her da every day. It was almost like C’mine was trying to forget him. Da would have hated that. The fact that she’d hardly seen C’mine for the first ten months of Jagunth’s life only reinforced the notion that C’mine had been avoiding her to avoid being reminded of C’los. Even now, she sometimes caught him gazing at her with his sad brown eyes, as if he could hardly stand to look at her. She’d tried talking to him about Da and Indioth at first, but the grief-stricken expression that always came over him – the expression he wore now – was too heart-breaking to bear, so she’d stopped trying. It was easier that way.
So she was glad when they reached the large, busy main square – bigger, Carleah admittedly privately, than Kellad’s had ever been – and the familiar sound of trained singers trading off the vocal parts of one of the long ballads. It was The Peninsula Song, Carleah thought, recognising one of the endless litanies of names that made up the middle section. When she and the other Craftbred kids had had to sing it in class back at the Harperhall, they’d always made fun of the boring roll call of Peninsula Weyr’s founding dragonpairs, putting on silly deep voices for the bronze riders and squeaky high ones for the greens. She supposed the Harpers couldn’t exactly do the funny version in public, though.
Carleah’s mother was only second from the centre of the half-circle of singers, elegant as always in a flowingly draped robe of Craft blue. She was singing with the sopranos in the ensemble sections, but using her natural warm mezzo voice for her role as weyrwoman Sofinda. As she traded off lines with the lyric tenor who was singing D’worne’s part – adequately enough, though he seemed about five Turns too old to be playing the young bronze rider who’d become the first Weyrleader of the Peninsula – Carleah thought she’d never heard her mother’s voice sounding so rich and fine.
She knew better than to try to catch any performer’s eye during a show, so she contained herself through the latter part of the ballad, with its extended duet between the Peninsula Weyrleaders. But as soon as the final notes rang triumphantly out, and the fifteen-strong ensemble took their bows, Carleah applauded loudly along with the rest of the crowd in the square.
She was still clapping her hands together enthusiastically when the other applause died politely away. She broke off. “Well, clearly there aren’t any real music lovers here,” she said to C’mine. “I’ve heard D’worne sung better, but Mama’s Sofinda was brilliant!”
“Founding ballads aren’t everybody’s cup of klah,” he told her, with typical neutrality. “Let’s go and catch Robyn before her next set.”
Carleah went ahead of him, weaving nimbly through the crowds that were thinning out now that the ballad had ended. Mama was standing with the too-old tenor who’d sung D’worne, talking to a Peninsula rider, but she must have seen her coming because she made her excuses rather more quickly than was polite to turn in Carleah’s direction. “Oh, Leah,” she cried, holding out her arms, “you’ve grown so!”
She flung herself into the familiar embrace, smelling the familiar perfume, hearing her mother’s familiar soothing hum of pleasure; unaccountably emotional. “I’ve missed you so much, Mama!”
Robyn clasped her tight, and then released her, holding her at arm’s length to look her over. “You must have put on half a hand,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief. “And your hair’s nearly all grown back!”
Carleah put a self-conscious hand to her head. “Will you braid it for me?” she asked. “It won’t all fit under a flying helmet. L’stev will threaten me with his shears again!”
“You just send him to me if he tries,” Mama said. “Of course I’ll braid it, Leah darling.”
“It’s Carleah,” said C’mine, with the ghost of a smile.
Mama was the one person in the world whom Carleah didn’t dare correct, but when she turned to greet C’mine, the expression on her beautiful, animated face stilled dramatically. “Oh, Mine,” she murmured. Her eyes roved over his features, and then she caught his hands and lifted them to her lips. “Mine, Mine. What have you been doing to yourself, my sweet sad boy?”
C’mine smiled, but it was a tenuous thing. “Looking after weyrlings,” he said, tapping the chevron on his left-hand epaulette with two fingers.
Mama clearly wasn’t satisfied with the answer. “You never could sell me a story to save your life,” she said, studying him worriedly. Then she put one arm around Carleah’s shoulders, and linked the other firmly with C’mine’s. “Come. I have a little time before I’m needed again. Let’s have something to eat, and you’ll both tell me how you and Jagunth and Darshanth are.”
There was a cookstall serving a spicy river grain dish that had always been one of Carleah’s favourites, not far from the Harper platform. It was doing a brisk trade, but Carleah spied three people getting up from their seats outside, and hurried over to claim the table.
“So, my darling,” Mama said, when she and C’mine had brought over the food and three tall glasses of juice, “tell me all about your Jagunth. How big is she now? Is she still the prettiest green in the class?”
So much had happened since Mama had last seen Jagunth that Carleah hardly knew where to start. She resisted the urge to plunge directly into an account of the Wildfires who’d died trying to go between, or the dramatic arrival of the Southern weyrlings, or the upheaval they’d caused during their brief stay, and began instead with a measured report of her and Jagunth’s progress in training.
But her mother interrupted partway through Carleah’s account of the endurance flying that had made up much of the last several months. “Leah, darling, why don’t you tell me what’s happened with between?” She glanced at C’mine. “We’ve heard all kinds of reports, and even the Hall doesn’t seem to have a clear line on the truth.”
“Nobody does,” Carleah said. She felt faintly aggrieved at being cut off mid-stream. “It’s just not working for any of us.”
“Any of you?” Mama echoed.
“Any of the weyrlings,” said C’mine. “Ours and Southern’s, anyway.”
“Except Atath,” Carleah said quickly.
Mama looked questioningly at C’mine, and he shook his head. “Atath’s one of Jagunth’s clutchmates,” he said. “She took a premature trip between about two sevendays before the others were due to start their first jumps. L’stev thinks there’s something preventing dragons who haven’t gone between before from navigating properly.”
Carleah’s mother looked troubled. “Can’t they be taken between by adult dragons to show them the way?”
“We’ve tried that,” said C’mine. “It didn’t change anything. They still wouldn’t jump by themselves.”
“Wouldn’t? Not couldn’t?”
C’mine hesitated. “About half of our dragonets were willing to try, although they were nervous about it. But the other half – and all the Southerners – refused outright.”
“Jagunth said she would have tried,” said Carleah. “Vanzanth asked her if she would like to, and she said she would. She’s not a coward.”
A look passed between Robyn and C’mine, and then Mama reached across the table to grip Carleah’s hand tightly. “Of course she isn’t.”
The overt show of concern made Carleah squirm. Not because she was embarrassed by it, but because, obviously, it was as clear to her mother as it had been to everyone else what would have happened if she and Jagunth had been among the Wildfires to try going between on that awful morning. She pulled her hand back. “And I’m not stupid,” she said, in a low voice. “I won’t let her try.”
“Vanzanth has them locked down tight,” said C’mine, when Robyn’s stricken expression didn’t relax.
Mama still didn’t look any happier. With a visible effort, she tore her eyes away from Carleah’s face. “What’s happened to Kamen?”
C’mine’s expression, not cheerful to start with, turned even more doleful. “We don’t know.”
“How can you not know?”
He lifted his hands. “He just went missing.”
“No,” C’mine answered quickly. “No. The dragons would know. But…” He shrugged.
“We think we know,” said Carleah.
“Who’s ‘we’?” asked Mama.
“Oh, me and…” Carleah paused. She’d told Kessirke and Jardesse, but it wasn’t as if either of them had contributed to the theory. “Well, just me, actually.” She paused again, to build their suspense. She had grown up at the Harperhall. “I think he’s timed it to find an answer to the problem with between.”
She’d barely finished the sentence before C’mine hissed, “Leah!” in an uncharacteristically hard tone, and then, “keep your voice down!”
“But Mama knows –” she protested.
“Your mother isn’t the only non-rider at this Gather,” C’mine told her. He looked genuinely angry. “You know better than to talk about Weyr secrets in public!”
“He’s right,” Mama said sternly, when Carleah turned to her in supplication.
“But everyone knows about ti– about it,” Carleah said defensively.
“As a myth,” said C’mine. “As a legend for Harper songs. Not as something dragons can actually do. Shells, Leah! L’stev’s warned you about loose talk when you’re out of Madellon!”
Carleah found she couldn’t meet either C’mine’s accusing gaze, or her mother’s look of disappointment. She stared at her hands instead. “Am I right, though?” she asked hopefully, without looking up.
“We’re not talking about this,” said C’mine. “And T’kamen is your Weyrleader. You shouldn’t even be speculating. It’s disrespectful.”
Carleah nearly scoffed at that. She’d known T’kamen all her life; didn’t that give her the right to speculate? But in the face of censure from Mama and C’mine, she decided that discretion was the better part of valour. “I’m sorry.”
Her mother moved the conversation tactfully on to more neutral subjects – the weather, the Gather, the latest news from Kellad – until C’mine raised his hand suddenly to stop her. “Just a moment, Robyn,” he said, with the slight distance that meant he was talking to Darshanth. Then he sighed. “I’m really sorry. A’len says there’s a problem with one of the other weyrlings. I need to go and sort this out.”
“Who is it?” Carleah asked, half interested, half anxious. “Are we all going to have to go home?”
“A’len’s called me and not L’stev, so let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” said C’mine. “Robyn…?”
“I have another song to prepare for,” Mama said, rising from her place. “I’ll be free after that to take you shopping, though, Leah.”
That was more like it. Carleah brightened. “Can we look at the instruments?” she begged. “I haven’t played so much as a pipe for ages!”
“Of course we can,” Mama said. “Have you been writing?”
“I’ve been trying, but it’s hard without an instrument. Do you think…maybe there might be a second-hand gitar…?”
“We’ll see what we can find,” Mama promised.
“I can go and have a look now,” Carleah offered, “and see if there’s anything I like…”
“I can’t let you loose on your own,” said C’mine. “L’stev would have my neck. You’d better stay with me for now.”
“Then let’s meet back here later,” said Robyn. “I won’t be far from the Harper platform for most of the day.” She embraced Carleah, and said quietly, “And don’t give C’mine cause to worry about you any more than he already does. You’re a big girl now, a grown-up dragonrider, and he’s looking ragged around the edges. You need to look after him the same as he’s always looked after you.”
“I will,” Carleah promised.
“I’m not sure how long this is going to take.” said C’mine, as they left the food stall to find the Wingsecond who’d summoned him.
Carleah asked, innocently, “Who’s in trouble?”
“Don’t be nosey,” said C’mine. Then he relented. “K’dam and K’ralthe,” he said, with a sigh.
“I could have told you it would be them,” Carleah said. “What have they done?”
“I don’t know. Chyilth wasn’t specific.” C’mine’s stride hesitated for a moment as he peered through the Gather crowds. “Is that Maris over there by that Tanner stall?”
Carleah’s eyes were much sharper than C’mine’s. “Yes,” she said, “so Soleigh can’t be far away.”
“Come on,” said C’mine, changing direction to cut across towards the other weyrlings. “I’ll leave you with them.”
“You’ll hear about whatever disgrace K’ralthe and K’dam have got themselves into soon enough. You don’t have to make it worse by being a witness to it.”
Soleigh was with Maris at the Tannercraft stall, and so was Tarshe. The three of them were poring over a range of leather dyes and spools of coloured gut. When C’mine asked if they minded Carleah joining them, Soleigh shook her head. “Of course not, Weyrlingmaster,” she said, with a dimpled grin. “It’s our pleasure.”
“Thank you,” said C’mine, rummaging in his belt pouch. “Here, Leah. This should keep you going for a bit.”
The treemarks he handed over – two eighths and three sixteenths – didn’t exactly make her wealthy, but every sliver helped. “Thanks, Mine,” she said, adding the coins to her own pouch.
“Make sure you buy a round of drinks or something,” he said. “Not alcoholic ones!”
As he hurried off, Carleah said knowingly, “He’s got trouble with some of the boys.”
“We heard,” said Maris, solemnly.
That deflated Carleah a bit. “Did you?”
Maris nodded at Tarshe. “Berzunth’s been getting a running commentary from Djeth.”
“Something about being caught at a unauthorised wher fight,” Tarshe said. She looked perplexed. “Is there such a thing as an authorised wher fight?”
“Oh, yes,” Carleah said immediately. “The Minecraft runs the legitimate wher pits. The whers are de-clawed and their fangs are filed down, so they can’t do so much damage to each other.”
“That’s horrible,” said Maris, with a shudder.
“Wher fights are very popular in mineholds,” said Carleah. “My da said that it started out as a way to make use of the ones that are too aggressive to work the mines. No one’s supposed to breed whers just for fighting…” She let the sentence trail off meaningfully.
“But they do anyway?” asked Tarshe.
She nodded. “A wher has to have been registered with the Minerhall to fight in a Craft pit, so the ones bred illicitly can’t be entered in licensed fights. That doesn’t stop their handlers from setting up unlicensed fights. And because they’re outside the control of the Minecraft, they ignore all the other rules too. The whers that fight outside the Craft’s jurisdiction aren’t de-clawed or de-fanged.”
Maris looked sickened. “Faranth.”
“Have you been to one, Carleah?” asked Soleigh. “A wher fight?”
“Only a licensed one, and not for long,” she said. “But my da used to say that you hear holders talking about it all the time, if you’re picking up firestone or coal or whatever from the mineholds. There’s a lot of rivalry between neighbouring holds over whose fighting whers are the best – Hall-approved or otherwise.”
“K’ralthe was a mineholder, wasn’t he?” Maris asked. “Before he Impressed Djeth?”
“From Buckmore Minehold,” said Carleah. “Where Madellon gets most of its firestone.”
Then Tarshe said, “He was a wher handler.”
That was something Carleah hadn’t known. “Really?” she asked. “Bonded?”
Tarshe shrugged. “I suppose so.”
“He can’t have been,” said Soleigh. “He’d never have been Searched.”
“Not necessarily,” said Maris. “Does anyone know who Searched him?”
Soleigh shook her head, and Carleah, reluctantly, did the same. “But being bonded to a wher wouldn’t stop you Impressing a dragon,” she put in instead. “It’s not much different to a fire-lizard.”
“It’s not that a wher handler couldn’t Impress,” said Soleigh. “It’s just – well, you know how dragonriders are about watch-whers.”
“We’re dragonriders, Sol,” Maris reminded her.
“And whers don’t skeeve you out?” Soleigh asked. “Just a bit? Because they do me. They’re like dragons that went wrong.”
“You have a point,” Maris conceded.
“I wouldn’t want to bond with one,” said Carleah. “But if Jagunth turned out to be sensitive, and we found a wher handler on Search, I wouldn’t not bring him in.”
“Do you think she’s going to be sensitive?” Soleigh asked interestedly.
Carleah hesitated over her answer. “No,” she said, deciding to be honest. “I don’t think so, really. She’s nothing like Darshanth.”
“No dragon is like Darshanth,” said Maris. “But if any rider from our class ends up a Search rider, it’ll be P’lian.”
Soleigh nodded. “Definitely.”
“P’lian?” Carleah asked, puzzled. “Browns don’t usually make good Search dragons.”
“Indrahath and I were on elevator detail with him and Sparth the day before yesterday,” said Maris. “They gave Arina a lift up to someone’s weyr, and Sparth nearly jumped out of his hide when she got on him.”
Arina had been a candidate, left standing at the Hatching when they’d all Impressed their dragons. “P’lian was always a bit sweet on Arina, though,” said Carleah.
“I’m not sure he is now,” said Maris. “But Sparth couldn’t leave her alone. We went and got her when she was ready to come down again, and she was relieved not to have to ride him again. I think she found it all a bit uncomfortable.”
“Wouldn’t you?” Soleigh asked. “Having P’lian’s dragonet perving at you?”
“That’s being harsh on P’lian,” Maris chided her. “He’s not so hard on the eye.”
Soleigh exaggerated a gasp of outrage. “Well, if I knew you felt that way about him…!”
“I’m not allowed to have an opinion of a man, now?” Maris asked, with matching faux-indignation.
“No you are not,” Soleigh told her briskly. “Not unless I like him too. You know the rules.”
Maris sighed. “You’re so possessive.”
It was fun to walk the Gather with the older Wildfire girls. None of them had much money, so the things they bought were small and modest. Maris, after visiting two more Tannercraft stalls, drove a keen bargain on the scarlet dye she wanted to colour the name tags on Indrahath’s harness (“She won’t have it that red clashes with her hide,” Maris explained fondly, when Carleah queried the hue). Soleigh bought enough yarn from a Hoffen trader, spun from the exceptionally soft and warm fleece of the famous woolbeasts of that Hold, to knit winter flying scarves for herself and Maris. Carleah admired her shrewdness: it was hot indeed at Long Bay, and the vendors selling wares more suited to the winter months were almost pathetically eager to part with their stock. Inspired, she hunted through a furrier’s booth, and came out with several offcuts of feline fur that would be perfect to trim the collar and cuffs of a winter coat for only a quarter mark.
Tarshe didn’t buy anything. She examined the goods on offer with fierce interest, but not even the promise of the most outrageous discount could tempt her to put her hand in her belt pouch. “We’ve been missing a trick,” Soleigh commented to Carleah as they watched a Minercraft journeyman fawn and scrape in his efforts to get Tarshe to buy something from his collection of jewellery. “Everyone wants to have a queen rider as a customer.”
It hadn’t escaped Carleah’s notice that the gold cord in Tarshe’s rank knot was attracting attention, and when Tarshe finally extricated herself from the Minercraft stall, it became obvious that she wasn’t blind to it herself. “It’s awkward,” she said, when Carleah repeated Soleigh’s observation to her. “They won’t let me just look.”
“You do ride a queen,” said Carleah. “You’re always going to get extra attention.”
“It’s not as much fun as you’d think it would be,” Tarshe said. “Being watched all the time. People nudging each other and pointing.”
“You might as well take advantage of it,” said Carleah. At Maris’ censorious look, she protested, “What?”
“This is Peninsula territory,” Maris reminded her. “You know the rules about accepting gifts in another Weyr’s jurisdiction.”
“Gifts,” Carleah insisted. “There’s nothing in the rules that says you can’t accept a discount.”
“There’s nothing I want to buy,” said Tarshe, with a shrug.
“You keep saying that, Tarshe,” said Soleigh. “I don’t understand you. It’s your first Gather. You have to buy something!”
“What could I buy that Madellon doesn’t already provide?” Tarshe asked. “I have clothes, food, everything I need to take care of Berzunth…”
“And marks burning a hole in your pocket!”
Tarshe shook her head. “There are other uses for marks.”
“Drop it, Sol,” Maris said, gently chiding. “Tarshe doesn’t have to spend money if she doesn’t want to.”
“I just –” Soleigh began, and then stopped herself. She sighed. “All right. I’m sorry, Tarshe.”
It was an odd exchange, one that smacked of an argument that had been made before. Carleah filed it away in her mind for future reference. “Well, I’m going to spend some of C’mine’s money,” she declared, as much to gloss over the awkward moment as because the afternoon was wearing on. “Who wants a drink?”
They stopped at a refreshment stall for iced klah and fried kettle cakes – overpriced, but still the best Carleah had tasted in Turns – and wandered on through the Gather. They paused to watch a puppet show on the corner of a row, and Carleah bought a bagful of ceramic beads in five different shades of green to string into a necklace and pair of bracelets.
As they walked on from the jewellery stall, Carleah felt Jagunth’s mind groping sleepily for her. She sent a gently inquisitive thought out to her dragon. Jagunth?
After a moment, the reply came back, Yes, Leah?
You’re awake, then?
Sort of. Jagunth sounded dozy. Where are you?
We’re all at the Gather, Carleah said. Remember this morning I told you I’d be going somewhere else for a few hours?
Vanzanth says we’re not to be concerned, Jagunth replied. Why would we be concerned?
Carleah decided it was probably best not to explain that she was a good half-continent distant from Madellon. You shouldn’t be, she assured her. I’m fine and I’ll be back by dinnertime. Why don’t you go back to sleep?
“Jagunth’s awake?” Maris asked, noticing Carleah’s distraction.
“Not really,” she replied. “But she doesn’t seem to be upset that I’m not there.”
Maris made a mournful face. “They’re growing up, aren’t they?”
A stall on the fringe of the Gather was doing a brisk trade in tattoos. Carleah and the other Wildfires weren’t the only ones to stop and watch, fascinated, as the extensively-decorated tattoo artist – a journeyman Healer, by the insignia on his shoulder, on his stall, and on both forearms – inked an intricate pattern on one customer’s calf using needlethorn and different coloured pigments. Soleigh was taken enough to go and inspect closely the board full of example designs that the journeyman had on display, and even to exchange words with his assistant, an equally ornamented Harper journeyman. When she returned, looking pensive, Carleah asked, “Are you going to get one done?”
“Senyer, the journeyman there, said they won’t put serious ink on weyrlings or apprentices,” Soleigh said regretfully.
“Thank Faranth for that,” said Maris. “Can you imagine L’stev’s face if you came back looking like either of them?”
“They are Hall-approved,” said Soleigh. “And there’s a really lovely dragon design they can do. He said they’ve done half a dozen today like it today in all the colours, but the most they’d do for me would be Bristath’s name in fancy script.”
“Everyone will think you’re from the Peninsula,” said Maris, shaking her head.
Soleigh ignored her. “I was thinking of having it done here,” she said, touching her left upper arm. “And then when we graduate, I could have the full design done above it.”
“How much?” asked Maris.
“Half a mark,” Soleigh replied. “He said I should go away and think about it, and come back if I decide I want it done.”
“Do they use numbweed?” asked Carleah. “It looks like it would hurt.”
“Senyer says it’s best not to when it’s first done,” said Soleigh. “It makes the ink blurry. You’re supposed to just keep it clean with redwort and let it heal by itself.”
Carleah grimaced. She wasn’t squeamish about many things, but the thought of being poked with something sharp over and over made her feel a bit sick. “Ouch.”
“I still think L’stev’ll lay an egg if you come back with a tattoo,” said Maris.
“Let him. It’s not his arm.”
They continued on from the tattoo booth, browsing through another row of stalls, but it wasn’t long before Soleigh said, “Between with it. I’m having it done. Bristath likes the idea…” She paused, then made a face, “…And wants to know if she can have my name drawn on her somewhere.”
“That really would put L’stev in clutch,” said Maris. “I suppose you’ll want me to hold your hand while you have it done.”
Carleah hesitated as the two green riders turned to head back to the tattoo artist’s booth. “I might just, um,” she said. “Go and find C’mine again.” She felt foolish even as she said it.
Tarshe rescued her. “I don’t really want to watch you getting stabbed with a needlethorn, either, Sol,” she said. “Why don’t we take a walk back up to the main square, Carleah? We seem to be miles away from everything now.”
It was true: they were on the periphery of the Gather, and the crowds had thinned out. “I wanted to look at gitars,” Carleah said. “We passed a few stalls a little way back…”
“Let’s do that, then,” said Tarshe. She nodded to Soleigh and Maris. “See you both later?”
“Do you actually want to look at gitars?” Carleah asked, as they parted company.
“Not really,” said Tarshe. “But you were looking a bit green. Excusing the expression.”
“I don’t like needlethorns,” Carleah said, with a little shiver.
“Nor me. And I think anyone who’d pay to have some stranger draw on them permanently with a sharp object is out of their mind.”
“But your cousin has a tattoo…”
“Aye, and my cousin is a bronze rider,” said Tarshe, with half a smile. “They’re all insane.”
“My da used to say that.”
“Your da was right.”
The first instrument stall they stopped at wasn’t Hall-approved. Carleah glanced at several of the gitars hanging behind the counter, then moved on without stopping. “Fourth-rate apprentice work,” she said, to Tarshe’s inquiring look.
“You know just from a glance?”
“My da was a brilliant gitar player,” said Carleah. “He could make almost any gitar sound good, but even he would have had trouble with one of those things.”
“You were Harper-bred, weren’t you?” asked Tarshe. “Why’d you not apprentice?”
“My mama never did. Nor my da. Being a Harper’s about more than just music, and that was the part they liked. Da always said he’d have hated being a Hold Harper, or even an itinerant. But there’s always been plenty of work at the Hall for talented musicians who never wanted to take apprenticeship.” Another instrument stall caught her eye. “Wait a moment, let’s try over here.”
“Good afternoon, green rider,” the stallholder said, smiling at her. “What can I interest you in today?”
Carleah studied a gitar lying on the counter-top. Then she dismissed it and narrowed her eyes to examine the row of instruments hanging on the back wall of the stall. “Gitars,” she said offhandedly. “Do you have anything with a Hall stamp on it?”
The stallholder’s smile turned indulgent. “A few in the back,” he said, “but they might be a bit dear for your purse.”
Carleah fixed him with an indignant look. “Oh, really?”
“Cheapest Hall-stamp I have starts at twelve marks. But if you wanted something more reasonable, the spruce here is only seven.”
Carleah glanced with deliberate scorn at the gitar he began to take down from its peg. “Well,” she said, with all the ice she could muster, “if you think this is worth seven, then I rather doubt your Hall-mark is worth more than nine.” She flicked her head to Tarshe. “Come on, weyrwoman.”
Tarshe was laughing as they walked away. “That told him,” she said. “Was that gitar really overpriced?”
“Criminally,” Carleah said, with a snort. “The neck wasn’t even straight. And his so-called Hall-mark was probably a fake.” Then she sighed. “But everything at this Gather’s too expensive. I doubt I’ll find anything half-decent in my price range. And no one ever takes a green rider seriously.”
They walked on for a few steps, and then Tarshe stopped. She began to shrug off her riding jacket. “Here.”
Carleah looked quizzically at her. “What…?”
“Trade jackets with me,” said Tarshe. “If they think you’re a queen rider, at least they won’t patronise you.”
“Really?” Carleah asked, astonished, and then, “Really?”
Tarshe grinned. “Someone might as well get some use out of it.”
Quickly, they exchanged jackets. Tarshe’s was a bit big on Carleah – she wasn’t as tall as the queen rider – but it wasn’t too bad a fit when she put it on. “We’d better watch out for Wingseconds,” she said. “L’stev’ll have my hide if he hears I was pretending to be you.”
“I haven’t seen a Wingsecond for a while,” said Tarshe. “I think everyone’s gone off to see the racing.”
“We probably shouldn’t go back into the main avenues, though,” said Carleah. “We could walk into C’mine or anyone.”
They walked on down the row of booths at the edge of the Gather. Tarshe, Carleah noticed, studied everything closely. “Is this really your first Gather?” she asked, after a time.
“What, you think we don’t have Gathers on exile islands?”
“I didn’t mean –”
Tarshe laughed. “I’m not serious, Carleah. Aye. It’s my first Gather. I’d never even left our island until I was Searched.”
Carleah knew as much about the circumstances of Tarshe’s family’s exile as anyone – which was to say, not much. “Were you born there?”
“No. But I wasn’t even a Turn old when we moved there.” Tarshe’s face gave away little emotion, but her eyes had gone distant. “So it was the only home I ever knew, before Madellon.”
Carleah looked down at her feet, placing them carefully on the dusty ground. “Do you miss it?”
“Not the island. But I miss my family.” Tarshe’s Peninsula accent thickened on the word. “I’d hoped I’d be able to visit by now, on Berzunth. I really wish I could show her off to my da. I wish that – oof!”
As they turned down a new row, a boy of ten or so ran straight into Tarshe, staggering her, and sending him sprawling flat out on the ground.
“Faranth, look where you’re going!” Tarshe cried, catching herself against the upright of a booth.
“Are you all right?” Carleah asked.
“I’m fine, but – hey!” Tarshe made a grab for the boy who’d run into her, but the kid was already up on his feet and running back down a side row. Her hand flew to her belt, an expression somewhere between panic and outrage crossing her face. “The thieving snake took my purse! Come back here, you little bastard!”
Before Carleah could stop her, Tarshe was off, running after the boy who’d lifted her belt pouch. She dithered for a moment, not sure what to do. “Thief!” she exclaimed after a moment, to the closest vendors and passers-by. “That boy’s a thief!” And she set off in pursuit of Tarshe.
Tarshe was already halfway down the narrow side row, and not far behind the young pickpocket. Carleah spared a thought for the kid as she sprinted after them both. It wasn’t just that Tarshe was a good runner – she was also the best of all the Wildfire girls at the self-defence exercises that L’stev put them all through. When she caught up to the boy, he wouldn’t know what had hit him.
Ahead, the pickpocket darted down another side turn. Tarshe, only a few strides behind him, followed him out of sight. Carleah put on a little more speed. She was blowing a bit when she reached the intersection down which they’d disappeared. It wasn’t a row after all – only the gap between the backs of booths on different avenues of the Gather, crisscrossed with the guylines of canvas tenting. Neither Tarshe nor the thief were anywhere in sight.
“What are you doing down here?”
Carleah jumped a bit, startled. The tall bald man who’d spoken was frowning, but he wore the blue-and-brown striped armband of a Gather steward, and a bronze fire-lizard perched on his shoulder. “My friend,” she said. “Her purse was stolen. There was a boy…”
As she spoke, a second steward stepped out from behind a booth, scowling and rubbing his arm. “Bloody Threadscores, Gorty, they never said the dragon-bitch would fight back…” He trailed off when he saw Carleah. “Wait. Who the shaff is this?”
Both stewards’ eyes dropped to the rank braid on Carleah’s shoulder. Tarshe’s rank braid. The second man grabbed her by the sleeve, twisting it to expose the gold thread in the knot. “Did we snatch the wrong shaffing weyrling?”
In the fraction of an instant that followed that chilling question, Carleah should have bolted.
She was too slow.
Continue to Chapter forty-four: Valonna
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Dragonchoice 3 news
- Dragonchoice re-read and commentary at AO3 posted 22 December 2017
- The end is nigh posted 8 February 2017
- Happy (nearly) birthday, Dragonchoice 3! posted 5 October 2016
- Venn diagram posted 25 February 2016
- Don’t let me Rosebud; or, why your feedback matters posted 17 February 2016