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Chapter forty-four: Valonna

If you’ve trapped a snake, best not forget where you left it.

– Beastcraft saying


Valonna (Micah Johnson)There were no other queens on the fire-heights when Shimpath brought Valonna out of between above Long Bay, and Suffath wasn’t among the bronzes in attendance around the coastal Hold. Nor, Valonna was grateful to notice, was Tezonth.

“Thank Faranth we’re on time,” she said to Sh’zon, as he assisted her deftly to the ground from her high seat between Shimpath’s ridges.

“A wee bit early, even,” he replied, shrugging the skin of wine – a vintage Jessaf red, procured at no small cost – into place over his shoulder. “Rallai and H’pold won’t be late, that’s for sure; not for Gianna.”

Valonna untied the scarf that had protected her hair beneath her flying helmet, patting nervously at the pinned braids. “Am I respectable?”

Sh’zon looked her over, then smoothed a single errant lock of her hair with a touch as gentle as it was surprising. “There,” he said. “You look lovely, Weyrwoman. Will you take my arm?”

She did, slightly taken aback by the small display of familiarity. Valonna had her suspicions about H’ned’s indisposal, particularly in the light of the rather handsome new outfit Sh’zon seemed conveniently to have had on hand to wear, but she couldn’t fault Sh’zon’s attentiveness as he laid his fingers lightly on her wrist to walk her to the double doors of Long Bay’s main entrance.

They were met there by a steward in Coffleby’s immaculate livery of brown and blue. “Weyrwoman,” he greeted Valonna, with a deep bow, and, turning to Sh’zon, “Deputy Weyrleader. Please be welcome to Long Bay Hold. Lady Coffleby is waiting in her private dining room, if you would be so kind as to follow me.”

Valonna was impressed that the steward had named Sh’zon’s rank accurately, and commented as much as they followed Coffleby’s man up the grand staircase that dominated Long Bay’s entrance hall. They’d retrieved the pair of starred-and-barred epaulettes that had been sewn up for the occasion from H’ned’s weyr, but Madellon’s unique internal insignia of stripes and stars weren’t always recognised at the best of times, and there was no universally-accepted shoulder knot for the position of Deputy Weyrleader.

Sh’zon just shrugged. “Gianna’s nothing if not well-informed,” he said. “She can hardly walk these days and she’s older than dirt, but nothing gets past her.”

That gave Valonna a little thrill of apprehension. “Is she a friend to the Weyr?”

“That she is, and every Peninsula Weyrleader for the last four decades has gone to great lengths to keep it that way.” Sh’zon laughed. “Sometimes not successfully. We had a son or grandson of Long Bay standing for every clutch for about twenty Turns before one actually Impressed. You know how it is. There’s no making a dragonet pick a candidate, however politically expedient it would be. G’kalte did well though – Impressed himself a brown. He’s been a Wingsecond for a few Turns now, and not just because of who his grandmother is. Archidath’s up on the heights, so you’ll likely meet him. He always was Gianna’s favourite.”

As they proceeded deeper into Long Bay, Valonna noted all the signs of the Hold’s wealth – the intricate tiled floors, the expensive wooden panelling on the walls, the weight and quality of the fabric drapes and furnishings. She was no stranger to Hold affluence. She’d walked the well-to-do corridors of Jessaf and Peranvo Holds as a child, before she’d been Searched for Shimpath. But Long Bay’s casual opulence put even Madellon’s richest Holds to shame, and when they passed the ornate archway, guarded by a pair of sharp-eyed men-at-arms wearing mail beneath their brown-and-blue surcoats, that led to Lady Coffleby’s private apartments, the furnishings all around became even more lavish.

The steward showed the way to a pair of doors made of a light wood inlaid on both sides with the Long Bay crest. The room beyond wasn’t huge – less than a dragonlength long – but one wall was almost completely made of glass, each of the upper narrow arched windowpanes set with patterns of vibrant stained glass in red and blue and green. The clear lower panes looked out over the Hold’s eponymous bay, sun-spangled beneath the clear blue sky, and full of vessels of all sizes riding at anchor in the shelter of the inlet. The bright sunlight pouring through the spectacular glass wall threw streaks of colour across the deep-pile cream and blue carpeting, the oval dining table and matched chairs, and the fine china and silver cutlery. The part of Valonna that had been dragonrider for the last eight Turns wondered how that magnificent glass wall would ever be shuttered safely against Thread; the Hold daughter she had been for the fourteen Turns before that sighed at the thought of living amidst this sort of comfort and beauty.

Lady Coffleby stood behind the heavy carved seat at the head of the table, one gnarled hand gripping the chair with knuckly strength. Time had bent her back and wasted the flesh of her face and turned her hair white, but the grey eyes set in their deep sockets were keen and alert, and her bearing regally assured.

The much younger man standing at her side wore the insignia of a Peninsula Wingsecond on his shoulder, and even had Sh’zon not already told Valonna that Coffleby’s grandson was a brown rider, she would have recognised him as her descendant. His eyes were a warmer blue-grey than his grandmother’s; his hair, and the rakish scruff of stubble on his jaw, was brown instead of silver; and the curve to the corner of his mouth was good-humoured rather than imperious; still, something in the set of his shoulders mirrored Lady Coffleby’s natural poise.

“Welcome, Weyrwoman,” Coffleby said. “Welcome to my humble Hold.”

There was enough irony in her tone to leave Valonna in no doubt as to the sincerity of the remark. “Thank you, my Lady Coffleby,” she replied, approaching to offer her hand to the Lady of Long Bay; Coffleby gripped her wrist lightly but not feebly. “You’re very gracious to invite Madellon to celebrate this occasion with you in such beautiful surroundings.”

Lady Coffleby swept her with an unapologetically appraising look – taking her measure, Valonna thought – and then turned her attention to Sh’zon. “And Deputy Weyrleader Sh’zon, as I believe you are styled now.”

“I am, my Lady,” Sh’zon replied, with creditable humility. He bent his head over Coffleby’s fragile wrist. “I’m honoured as always to be a guest of your fine Hold.”

“Of that I have no doubt,” Coffleby replied. She gestured towards the Peninsula rider at her side. “Weyrwoman Valonna, may I present my grandson, Wingsecond G’kalte.”

“Weyrwoman,” said G’kalte, and looked for permission before raising Valonna hand to his lips.

Sh’zon and G’kalte, who obviously knew each other, engaged in a contest to see which of them could crush the other’s wrist more painfully. The grin they traded belied the apparent intensity of their competition.

Then Sh’zon presented Coffleby with the Jessaf red, which the Lady of Long Bay declared would pair most excellently with the main course. As a wine steward poured glasses of a straw-pale white for them all, Valonna stole a closer glance at the oval dining table. It was set for ten. H’pold and Rallai, plus the Peninsula’s Weyrwoman Second, Sirtis, and her partner, made eight. Valonna wondered if D’pantha of Southern would come alone or with an escort.

Another footman appeared, unobtrusively murmuring a report to Lady Coffleby, even as Shimpath remarked, Ipith and Ranquiath have just arrived.

The mention of the pair of Peninsula queens made Valonna think anxiously of the two juveniles back at Madellon. Berzunth and Megrith…?

Are fine, Vanzanth assures me, Shimpath replied.

“Our own Weyrleaders will be joining us shortly,” said Coffleby, at the same time. “I’m afraid you’ll be somewhat outnumbered by Peninsula riders, Valonna.”

“Madellon and the Peninsula have always enjoyed close ties,” she lied politely. “Closer now than ever.”

“So I understand,” Coffleby replied. Her sharp gaze slid back to Sh’zon. “And do you find that the recent exchange of talent has been to your liking, Weyrleader?”

Sh’zon blinked, evidently thrown by being called by that title as much as by the question. “I do, my Lady,” he said, recovering his poise. “Madellon has been more than warm in its welcome, and I gladly serve at Weyrwoman Valonna’s pleasure. But my roots still run deep into Peninsula soil. I was born here and my dragon was Hatched of a Peninsula egg. A dragonrider can owe a Weyr no deeper debt.”

“Indeed not,” said Coffleby, throwing a glance at her grandson, “as I’m sure G’kalte would agree.”

“I would,” G’kalte replied agreeably.

“And this business with the weyrlings,” Coffleby began, and then left the question hanging.

Valonna took a careful breath before replying. She didn’t like to discuss Madellon affairs with a foreign Lady Holder, much less when the subject was so contentious. Coffleby must know that Weyrleaders of another territory would be reluctant to speak openly of such things. But the fact that she had left the question so ambiguous – did she mean the problem with between, or the controversy of Madellon’s recent dealings with Southern? – put Valonna even more on edge. Clearly, Lady Coffleby would draw conclusions as to her chief preoccupation whichever way she replied. “Our Weyrlingmaster is very experienced,” she said instead, answering vagueness with vagueness. “I defer to his judgement in all matters concerning the weyrlings in Madellon’s barracks, and I have no doubt that he will find the solution that the situation requires.”

She was saved from the more probing follow-up that she sensed was inevitable by the arrival of the delegation from Peninsula Weyr. Relieved, she turned to greet them, grateful that in Rallai she would at least have an ally besides Sh’zon in the room.

And then her relief turned to ashes.

H’pold and Rallai looked every bit the tall and handsome couple they always did: he statesmanlike in ochre-trimmed black, she elegant in lustrous gold. But it was the couple immediately behind them that made Valonna’s stomach lurch: not because Sirtis was so beautiful that she took the breath away, although she was, but because the bronze rider on whose arm her slender hand rested so effortlessly, so gracefully, and so proprietorially was L’dro.

Valonna’s head spun.

It had been more than a Turn since L’dro had lost the Weyrleadership; more than a Turn since he’d left Madellon; more than a Turn since Valonna had last seen him. It felt, in retrospect, like that Turn had been the longest of her life. But L’dro had hardly changed. He wore the shoulder-knot of a Peninsula Wingleader, and his dark auburn hair was longer and smoothed neatly back in a tail at the nape of his neck, but he still held himself with all the assurance and authority of a senior bronze rider, still favoured the exquisite tailoring, in sapphire blue, that emphasised the breadth of his shoulders and narrowness of his waist, still had that slight smile, that assertive manner, that conspiratorial glint in his eye; in short, he remained the confident, rugged, sexy dragonrider who had been her first lover, her first Weyrleader, and the first and only man she’d ever loved.

Who’d been unfaithful to her. Used her. Disrespected her.

Whom she’d always invited back into her weyr regardless.

He never loved you, she told herself, as she’d told herself a hundred times, a thousand times.

But I loved him, she answered, as she always did.

And even though she laboured beneath the legacy of his failures as a Weyrleader – his negligence, his profligacy, his nepotism – the frustration and resentment Valonna felt for the man whose actions had made her life so difficult melted helplessly away in the face of the physical effect he still had on her, and the broken-glass stab of his presence there as the companion of another woman, and not just another woman, but another queen rider, and not just a queen rider, but the most perfectly lovely queen rider Valonna had ever seen.

Sirtis was precisely L’dro’s type, Valonna thought hopelessly, although the Peninsula queen rider was so appealing it was hard to imagine anyone not being drawn to her. Her face was heart-shaped, her skin creamy-pale and flawless. Her laughing eyes matched almost precisely the deep chestnut of her hair, which cascaded in artless curls down the perfect column of her neck. She was just the right height for a rider of L’dro’s stature, somehow making Rallai look awkwardly tall and Valonna feel childishly short. She wore flowing white, embroidered with ging blooms in silver thread, and more silver, set with aquamarine, glinted at her wrists, her throat, and her ears. Valonna envied and resented her so powerfully that it was a wonder Shimpath didn’t take a swipe at Ranquiath in reaction.

Don’t be absurd, Shimpath said, jolting Valonna out of her agonised reverie. She is no threat whatsoever to me.

Valonna swallowed hard, feeling shaky on her feet. You might have warned me that Pierdeth was here.

Many bronzes are here. I would not give him undue importance by mentioning him, and nor should you his rider. Shimpath gave her a little push. Be my Weyrwoman. Show no weakness.

Even with Shimpath’s prompting, and her iron support, Valonna found the prospect of having to speak to L’dro – and his new partner – horrifying. It made greeting H’pold almost seem pleasant by comparison. “Weyrleader,” she said, letting him kiss her hand.

“Weyrwoman Valonna,” he replied, looking up at her with those cool eyes even as he bent his head over her fingers. “I see you declined to take my advice on the choice of your escort.”

“H’ned was feeling unwell.”

“You look a trace pale yourself, if you don’t mind my saying so,” H’pold replied. “I do hope you’re feeling yourself. Today promises to be quite the ordeal. For all of us.”

The sidelong look H’pold shot in L’dro’s direction revealed an antipathy Valonna hadn’t expected. The thought that she might share an opinion with the slimy Peninsula Weyrleader was slightly startling.

Sh’zon, she noticed, had lingered rather longer over Rallai’s hand than most people would have considered seemly. Valonna gave him the tiniest of nudges, then exchanged greetings with Rallai. “You look well, Weyrwoman.”

“And you,” Rallai replied. As they embraced, Rallai murmured, “I’m sorry about L’dro. I know how uncomfortable this must be for you, but Sirtis wouldn’t be dissuaded.”

“It’s fine,” Valonna assured her.

It wasn’t, of course. She didn’t know quite where to look, or even how to begin a conversation with Sirtis. She was almost pitifully grateful when Sh’zon touched her elbow for attention before addressing the Peninsula queen rider. “Sirtis. It’s good to see you. Have you met Weyrwoman Valonna?”

“I haven’t had the pleasure, Sh’zon,” Sirtis replied.

Valonna was surprised by the high and girlish quality of her voice. Sirtis was certainly older than her, but she sounded almost childlike. She braced herself, and managed a smile. “Weyrwoman Sirtis. How lovely to finally meet you.”

Sirtis responded with a wide white smile that was as glossy as her hair. “Well, thank you Valonna; I’ve heard so much about you!”

Valonna couldn’t think of anything that the new weyrmate of her former Weyrleader might have said that would have been more unsettling, but there didn’t seem to be a trace of irony in Sirtis’ words. “I…I’m glad,” she said, thrown, and then, because there was no way of avoiding it any longer, she transferred her gaze to L’dro.

It was a mistake. She knew it the instant her eyes met his. The Turn she’d spent without him, in the full knowledge of how poorly he’d served Madellon, and the Turns before that, when his interest had waned and his respect for her with it, might as well never have happened. She was fourteen again, her father’s daughter again, and he was the handsome young bronze rider who had chosen her, of all her sisters, as a candidate for the golden egg on Madellon’s sands. She owed her dragon, her position, everything she was now, to this man. He was –

Stop it, Shimpath told her.

The rebuke actually made Valonna start. She dragged her eyes away from L’dro. “Weyr–” she began, and then corrected herself, “Wingleader.”

L’dro didn’t miss the slip. The corner of his mouth curved in that familiar half-smile. “Hello, Valonna,” he said, taking her hand.

Valonna had to school herself not to flinch at the feel of his big powerful fingers on hers, and Shimpath’s disapproving presence in the back of her mind compelled her to tug her hand out of his grip before he could kiss it. “This is Sh’zon,” she said quickly, to cover the awkward moment, “my –”

“I know who he is,” said L’dro. “Deputy Weyrleader.”

The emphasis he put on the qualifying prefix, bare though it was, was sufficient to raise Sh’zon’s hackles. The whiteness of both bronze riders’ knuckles when they shook hands, and the lack of anything resembling a smile on either face, was silent indication of the instant tension between them. “I trust you’re keeping my old wingriders in line in my absence,” said Sh’zon, flicking his eyes towards the insignia on L’dro’s shoulder.

“Certainly I am,” L’dro replied heartily. “As I trust you are my old Weyr, in my successor’s absence.”

L’dro’s dig at T’kamen was predictable; Sh’zon’s reaction to it, less so. He looked for a moment as if he would defend T’kamen, but then he just cocked his head slightly, as though thinking better of it. “Madellon is in safe hands, you can be assured of that.”

“I’d heard otherwise,” said L’dro.

Sh’zon did smile at that. “Then you heard wrong.”

Any further exchange between the two bronze riders was forestalled by the arrival of Coffleby’s wine steward with drinks for the Peninsula couple. Valonna took the opportunity to step away from L’dro and Sirtis, pretending an interest in the stained glass window.

Rallai moved to join her there. “Exquisite, isn’t it?” she asked, looking up at the intricate patterning of leaded panes.

“Yes,” Valonna agreed. “The Peninsula’s Glasscrafters are very talented.”

“And cripplingly expensive,” said Rallai, with the hint of a smile. She nodded out at the calm waters of Long Bay. “All paid for by that, of course.”

Valonna looked at the immense bay with its flotilla of ships. Every coastal Hold in the South was represented, but a great many craft flew the scarlet-and-white chevrons of Boll. “The trade route has done well for Long Bay, hasn’t it?”

“It has,” said Rallai. “As has the situation in Southern, these last thirty Turns.” When Valonna looked enquiringly at her, she went on, “Peninsula dragons have never been averse to carrying cargo for money. Southern Hold has by far the shorter crossing to the North, but onwards transportation has always been a problem. You won’t catch a Southern dragon freighting trade goods.”

The Peninsula’s willingness to barter dragonstrength for marks was well documented, though none of Valonna’s Weyrleaders had ever countenanced the policy. “Your riders don’t mind?”

“I have nearly four hundred dragonpairs to keep fed,” Rallai replied. “They can’t afford to mind.”

That made Valonna think again of the herdbeast racket that Arrense and Sarenya had uncovered. She wondered if she should say anything, but prudence stayed her tongue. One way or another, Rallai’s Weyr would be benefitting from the glut of quality food beasts in Peninsula territory. Valonna didn’t think the other Weyrwoman could possibly know what had been going on at Madellon’s expense, but she wasn’t willing to take the chance.

Instead, she asked quietly, “Is D’pantha definitely coming?”

Rallai’s eyes tightened. “He should be here by now. I don’t know why he isn’t. I don’t dare have Ipith reach out to Cyniath. It’s too delicate at Southern right now.”

That made Valonna even more anxious. “You don’t think P’raima will come after all?”

“I think we should be prepared for anything,” said Rallai. She paused. “How are your two Southern refugees? Did you ever discover why the lad wanted to stay?”

“The lad?” Valonna queried.

“There was a blue rider, wasn’t there? As well as the young queen?”

“Oh, yes, T’gala,” Valonna said. She hadn’t been able to think of T’gala as anything but her actual gender since L’stev had first told her, regardless of her dragonet’s colour. “I, ah, I understand he’d struck up a friendship with one of our green weyrlings.”

“Of course,” Rallai said. “And how are the two queen dragonets getting along?”

“Their riders are trying very hard,” Valonna told her. “Though I confess I’m nervous to have brought Shimpath here. If they were to quarrel while we’re away, I fear my Weyrlingmaster would have an unpleasant time breaking them up.”

“That,” said Rallai, with a smile, “is what you pay him his stipend for.”

Lady Coffleby cleared her throat then, and raised her voice over the polite conversation in the room. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she said. “As I believe everyone is here who intends to be, would you all be so kind as to take your seats for luncheon.”

Valonna exchanged a glance with Rallai. There’s no sign of D’pantha’s bronze?

No, Shimpath replied.

A steward showed her to her seat, and Sh’zon held the chair for her. Coffleby’s staff had unobtrusively removed the two place settings reserved for P’raima and his escort and reorganised the remaining eight spaces evenly to fill the gap. It had been slickly done, but Valonna doubted that anyone there was oblivious to the fact that Southern had completely snubbed Coffleby’s luncheon.

H’pold was evidently all too pleased to call attention to what they were all thinking. “My Lady Coffleby,” he said, from his place on her right, “I fear as the only Weyrleader present it falls to me to propose a toast to you on this august occasion.” He signalled to one of the wine stewards, and immediately the servants began moving around the table, filling tall flutes with a sparkling white wine. “Rallai and I took the liberty of securing a case of Benden bubbly. Your own vineyards produce the best whites of the South, but we thought you’d enjoy something more exotic.”

“An interesting gesture, Weyrleader,” Coffleby replied. “We must be tithing too generously, for the Weyr to afford such an extravagance.”

“Have no fear, my Lady,” said Rallai, “an entire Wing will be going hungry for a month to keep our books balanced.”

“So long as it’s not my Wing,” said L’dro.

“It’ll be mine,” said G’kalte self-deprecatingly. He had been seated on Valonna’s right. “Though Archidath has been getting a bit fat lately. It might do him good.”

“You’ll feed him up into a bronze yet,” Sh’zon told him, leaning behind Valonna to clout G’kalte on the shoulder with a grin.

H’pold coughed, looked to see that everyone had a glass of the sparkling Benden, then raised his own goblet. “To Lady Coffleby’s forty Turns governing Long Bay. May the next forty be as prosperous.”

“Lady Coffleby,” Rallai repeated, raising her glass, and everyone else followed suit.

The wine was special, Valonna thought. She could count the number of times she’d had Benden bubbly on the fingers of one hand, even before Madellon’s current troubles with supply. Benden’s good white vintages were traded all over Pern, but the limited supply of sparkling wine was much harder to come by.

As the stewards began to bring in the first course, a colourful salad of leaves garnished with smoked packtail and a pungent dressing, G’kalte turned to Valonna. “Can I pour you some water, Weyrwoman?”

“Thank you,” she replied, and watched as he deftly filled her water glass, then his own, from the iced carafe. She noticed that he had pushed his wine flute slightly away, the sparkling white virtually untouched. “Are you not drinking, Wingsecond?”

“G’kalte, please,” he replied. “And I’m afraid I have an unfortunate reaction to wine. It seems to compel me with the irresistible urge to climb on the nearest chair and sing badly. My wingmates tell me it’s worth seeing, but I’m not certain my grandmother or my Weyrleader would concur, so I’m obliged to refrain.” He smiled. “Don’t worry, the Benden won’t go to waste. Grandmother’s wine steward will whisk it off in a moment. He loves a sparkling white.” He set the water carafe down. “Have you visited Long Bay before, Weyrwoman?”

“Only once, when I was a weyrling,” Valonna replied. “I’m sorry I haven’t had the opportunity to come here since. It’s a very handsome Hold. Did you grow up here, or were you fostered out?”

“Oh, I was fostered all over from when I was eight or so,” G’kalte said. “We all are. Grandmother’s keen on us knowing about more of the world than just this place, fine though it is. So I did a spell at Peninsula North, and six months at Grayden in Southern territory. Then a couple of Turns at Fort Hold.”

“So far from home?”

“Yes,” G’kalte replied, “and I apprenticed to the Healercraft while I was there.”

“Truly?” Valonna asked, surprised.

“I wasn’t the first of us to take a Craft,” G’kalte replied. “My cousin Nahlia made journeyman in the Harpercraft before she was named as Grandmother’s heir.”

Valonna picked up her fork, belatedly realising that everyone else was eating. “Did you like the Healercraft?”

“I did,” said G’kalte. “Very much; but I had a standing invitation to Peninsula’s next clutch once I was fifteen. Not that I thought it would interfere. I have half a dozen cousins and uncles who’d been left on the Peninsula sands. I had no reason to think I’d be any different.” He looked rueful. “Archidath disagreed.”

Valonna smiled. “Were you very disappointed?”

“Devastated,” G’kalte said cheerfully. “How’s your salad?”

The salad, like the wine, was delicious. Valonna found the tension that had frozen in her neck and shoulders lessening as she divided her concentration between her plate and G’kalte’s fund of easy conversation. He had obviously been well trained in the social niceties that befitted a highborn Holder, and if he felt any conflict between his role as a dragonrider and the fact that he was the grandson of a powerful Lady, it didn’t come through in his manner.

Valonna risked a glance around the table. Sh’zon was talking animatedly with Lady Coffleby, a picture of genial conviviality. H’pold looked like he wanted to interject, but Sh’zon had successfully captured the elderly Lady’s full attention. Rallai was eating quietly, and L’dro had called the wine steward over for a refill. Sirtis, though, looked bored, toying half-heartedly with the remains of her salad. Valonna almost felt sorry for her, but L’dro’s presence made her reluctant to begin a conversation, and besides, it was difficult to know quite what to say to the new woman in her own former Weyrleader’s life.

The servants began to remove the empty salad plates, and the rich aroma of roasted herdbeast accompanied the main course into the room. Two stewards carried between them a platter bearing an entire fillet of beef sliced into thick steaks, the outermost cooked nearly through, the inner still pinkly rare. Other servers brought dishes of crisp roast tubers, spiced and buttered finger-roots, kale mixed with raisins and chopped nuts; a hotroot relish, and a brandied cream sauce. After the plain, functional food that had been the staple at Madellon for so long, the lavish fare made Valonna’s mouth water.

Sh’zon directed the wine steward to pour cups of the Jessaf red that was Madellon’s contribution to the luncheon. “If I could be so bold as to propose a toast, my Lady Gianna,” he said to Coffleby, and when she nodded assent, Sh’zon raised his glass. “To the Weyrwomen of the South.” He tipped his goblet to each of them in turn. “Beautiful Sirtis. Gracious Rallai. And my own lovely Valonna.”

“For shame, Sh’zon, you’ve left out our weyrlings,” said H’pold, before anyone could drink, clearly keen to muscle in on Sh’zon’s toast. He raised his glass. “To Britt, Tarshe, and Karika, the queens of our future.”

“There’s one name you’ve both omitted,” Rallai cut in, interrupting the toast for a second time. She lifted her wine cup, and looked at Valonna as she spoke. “To Margone, whose sacrifice must not be forgotten.”

Valonna heard herself speak. “The Weyrwomen of the South.”

The Weyrwomen of the South.”

The toast echoed around the table, oddly sombre, and they all drank.

Then a footman hurried in to whisper a message in Coffleby’s ear. The old Lady looked surprised. She waved the servant away and rose to her feet, putting her napkin down on her side plate, as the double doors to the dining room swung open to admit P’raima.

For an instant of mutual, frozen dismay, no one spoke.

Then, with a great scraping of chairs, all the male riders stood up in the instinctive courtesy that the arrival of a Weyrleader – even a Weyrleader none of them had wanted to see – merited.

Valonna couldn’t speak for anyone else, but her alarm at seeing the Southern Weyrleader was as much to do with his physical appearance as with the fact that he’d turned up at all. P’raima looked dreadful. All excess flesh seemed to have sloughed off the bones of his face; his visage was a graven death-mask, his eyes bloodshot in the black pits of his eye sockets. He looked like he hadn’t slept – or washed – since Valonna had last seen him, and while he wore the sort of tunic that any Weyrleader might on a formal occasion, it was creased and soiled. Beneath it, his shoulders were rounded, his entire posture stooped. The consuming energy that had defined his demeanour in the conclave at Madellon seemed diminished to a last few embers. The transformation was shocking.

“Weyrleader P’raima,” said Lady Coffleby, crisply formal. “Forgive us for starting without you; we’d assumed you’d decided not to join us.”

“The fault is mine, Lady Coffleby,” said P’raima. His voice was a rattle. “I beg your forgiveness and bear my Weyr’s…my Weyr’s regards.”

Lady Coffleby stared at the broken-down Southern Weyrleader, her expression betraying the disquiet that Valonna was sure they all felt. Then she made a decisive gesture to a hovering steward. “Set the Weyrleader a place. My lords and ladies, if you’d be so kind…”

Having reconfigured the table once to exclude two guests, the stewards set efficiently to the task of rearranging it again to accommodate one of them, but it was an awkward business with the meal already in progress. Everyone had to stand to allow Coffleby’s servants to move plates and cutlery and chairs closer together, and P’raima’s lack of an escort upset the balance of the table. When he finally took the place they laid for him, between G’kalte and Sirtis, neither party looked thrilled with the new arrangement. At least, Valonna reflected, there was no question of having to go through the usual social courtesies. She thought she might have had to plead illness had she been required to let P’raima kiss her hand.

P’raima, like all of them, had brought a gift of wine – one of the sweet dessert vintages that Southern was famous for – but it didn’t compensate for his otherwise haphazard adherence to protocol. He sat looking glassily at his plate until a steward discreetly laid a napkin over his lap, and when brought the platter of herdbeast from which to select his preferred cut, simply raised his sunken red eyes to the steward in blank incomprehension.

His presence at the table cast a shadow over all of them. The civilised atmosphere that had characterised the luncheon before P’raima’s arrival had evaporated. Valonna could sense everyone else casting about for a suitable topic of conversation. None of the polite, anodyne matters that would normally have filled the silence pleasantly were suitable in the company of a Weyrleader with no Weyrwoman, no queens, no clutch on the sands, and a class of weyrlings slashed in half by death and defection. And the enmity that had developed between Southern and Madellon was a presence all of its own, seated at the table like an uninvited guest. Valonna didn’t dare look too long in P’raima’s direction, but continuing her conversation with G’kalte seemed inappropriate. She concentrated on her steak, and noticed without needing to look around that everyone else was doing the same.

At last, Lady Coffleby set her steak knife irritably down, gestured at a steward to clear the course away, and said, “This problem with between. Just how serious is it?”

Valonna felt most of the eyes in the room move to her; most of them, because P’raima, mercifully, didn’t lift his from his plate. But before she could reply, Sh’zon spoke. “My Lady. Until another Weyr has dragonets of an age to begin between training, we can’t possibly say.”

“And when will that be?” Coffleby asked.

“Telgar Weyr’s latest group will be reaching that stage in a few sevendays,” said Sh’zon. “Our Weyrlingmaster has already been in conference with his Telgarese counterpart. The aim is to test if Telgar’s dragonets are able to go between safely without risking their lives in the attempt –”

“And if they aren’t?” Coffleby interjected. “If Telgar’s dragonets are as afflicted as Madellon’s and Southern’s, what then?”

“Igen would be the next –”

“Weyrleader Sh’zon,” said Coffleby, and any honour she did Sh’zon with the title was undermined by her continued refusal to let him finish. “I’m an old woman. Old enough not to need worry unduly about anything for my own sake. My time will be done soon, and when the end comes I’ll face it knowing that this Hold and the people of it will be in good hands in the generations to come. I’ve made it my business to make sure that any scion of this Blood would be competent to wear this shoulder-knot of mine.” Her sharp grey gaze moved briefly to G’kalte. “The future doesn’t belong to us, but we bequeath it nonetheless to our children, and our children’s children, and it befits us as the stewards of our respective domains to think long and hard about the harvest they will reap from the seeds we sow now.” She leaned forward in her chair, looking around at all the Weyrleaders now: Rallai and H’pold and P’raima as well as Valonna and Sh’zon. “What form will that harvest take in ten Turns, or fifty, or a hundred, if dragons can no longer go between?”

Sh’zon shifted uncomfortably in his seat. It was H’pold who mustered an answer. “Dragonmen will fly, Lady Gianna,” he said. “We’ll always fly, between or not.”

“What plans are you making?” Coffleby pressed. “How will you fulfil your duties without instantaneous travel? What will Pern look like when no dragon can go between?”

“Lady Coffleby,” Rallai began.

“I’ve seen the future of Pern.”

P’raima’s interruption was neither loud nor strident, but it was arresting. Everyone looked at him. “Go on, Weyrleader,” Lady Coffleby prompted.

“Nothing will be as it is now,” P’raima said, in his soft rasp. “Our world will close in upon us. Our dragons’ wings will stretch to snapping point across the continents. And when the Red Star comes, dragons will die and die and die, and Thread will roil unchecked in every field and every meadow, and my Weyr won’t be able to stop it.” Horribly, tears began to trickle from his red-rimmed eyes.

Valonna heard Sh’zon mutter, “Shards, he’s completely lost it.” No one seemed to want to look at P’raima. He was so far removed from the forceful, venomous Weyrleader who’d threatened Valonna directly a sevenday ago that it was hard to grasp that he was the same man. But he wasn’t the same man, Valonna realised; he was a bronze rider under devastating pressure not just from his Weyr, but from his own dragon, to rectify the unnatural situation Southern found itself in: without a queen, without a focus, without a future. The weight of his Weyr’s distress was crushing him.

“P’raima,” Rallai said, gently, “it’s time you let us help you. Your dragons are suffering. Southern can’t function without a queen. No Weyr can. It doesn’t have to be this way –”

“Then you’ll return my queen?” P’raima asked. He looked straight at Valonna, and the hope that lit his eyes was a feverish thing. “She’s all I have. All I have left of Margone and Grizbath. Please. Please.”

“Karika and Megrith are under Madellon’s protection,” Valonna heard herself say. “Under Shimpath’s protection.”

P’raima pressed his fists into his gaunt eye sockets with anguish. “Please. If you could just let me talk to her –”

“She doesn’t want to talk to you, Weyrleader,” said Sh’zon. “We won’t make her.”

“Do you think I hurt her?” P’raima demanded, looking wildly between them. “Threatened her? I love that girl like my own child! Her dragon is my dragon’s daughter!”

So was Grizbath, Valonna thought, and while she didn’t say the words aloud, she met Rallai’s glance and knew she was thinking exactly the same thing.

“Weyrleader,” said H’pold, in a firm and reasonable tone. “Megrith won’t even be mature for another Turn, and Karika is a very young woman. They’ll be young and immature at their second mating flight, let alone their first.”

“Southern needs a Southern queen,” P’raima insisted.

“Southern needs a Weyrwoman, not a little girl who should still be in Harper classes,” H’pold replied. “The solution is sitting on your right, P’raima. The Peninsula’s offer stands.”

P’raima turned to look at Sirtis, as if seeing her for the first time. “A Peninsula Weyrwoman,” he said slowly. Then he transferred his gaze beyond her, to L’dro. “And the former Weyrleader of Madellon.” The pause he left was uncomfortably pregnant with implication.

“It’s not a coup, P’raima,” said H’pold, into the awkward silence.

At the head of the table, Coffleby, who had been listening intently to the exchange, laughed. “You must admit, it does sound like a coup.”

“Riders transfer Weyr to Weyr all the time,” said Sh’zon. “Doesn’t mean there are strings being pulled.” He waved a hand curtly at L’dro. “Look at me and him.”

It was an unfortunate parallel to draw, given how one of them had risen rapidly to Deputy Weyrleader, and the other had caught the eye of a junior weyrwoman with ambitions. H’pold shot Sh’zon a withering look, and leaned forwards. “Wingleader L’dro wouldn’t be part of the deal, P’raima,” he said. “And Ranquiath’s flight would be closed, like any senior flight. There’d be no chance of a foreign bronze becoming Weyrleader.”

Valonna thought Sirtis looked rather unsettled at that – as any queen rider whose future was being negotiated over a dinner table might – but she held her peace. P’raima, though, shook his head. “It won’t do. Southern’s bronzes wouldn’t accept a queen of a foreign bloodline.”

“You may feel that way about a non-Southern queen, P’raima,” said H’pold, “but I wonder how many of your bronzes are as squeamish. We don’t need to stage a coup. Your own riders will remove you if you can’t deliver them a queen.”

“Yes,” P’raima said. “I know.”

“Do you want that to be how history remembers your Weyrleadership?” H’pold pressed. “You’ve served Southern for thirty Turns. Do it this one last service.”

“You speak to me of service, H’pold?” P’raima asked. “And how have you served your Weyr?” He looked around at them, his bloodshot eyes lingering on each of the Weyrleaders. “What have any of you sacrificed in the name of your Weyrs?”

“Not as much, or for as long, as you have,” said Sh’zon. “But it doesn’t have to end this way, P’raima. You just need to see sense.”

P’raima’s gaze went distant for a moment. Then he looked at Valonna. “You really won’t give back my queen?” His voice was actually plaintive.

“She’s not mine to give, Weyrleader,” Valonna replied. “I’m sorry.”

In the uncomfortable silence that followed, Coffleby waved for her stewards, who had been waiting patiently, to serve the dessert course. For that, Valonna was grateful. The sooner the meal was over, the sooner she could get back to Madellon. As one server placed a dish containing a delicate pinkstem tart and thick cream in front of her, and another filled her wine glass with the Southern sherry, Valonna spoke to Shimpath. Would you just check in with Vanzanth? Make sure that Megrith is all right, and that Vidrilleth and the other bronzes are still on watch?

After a moment, Shimpath replied, Vanzanth says all is well. His rider wants to know what has happened. Kawanth and I both asked him for the same report.

Valonna wasn’t sure if she should be relieved or worried that Sh’zon was mirroring her anxiety. Tell him I’m concerned P’raima could still make an attempt on Megrith.

The matter-of-fact response Shimpath relayed was oddly heart-warming. Vanzanth says Tezonth will touch Megrith over his dead cold corpse.

When it became apparent that P’raima wasn’t going to propose the toast that protocol required of him, Rallai cleared her throat meaningfully and picked up her sherry glass. “Perhaps you’d all like to raise a glass with me to the hundredth Turn of this Interval. May the next hundred Turns bring Southern Pern as much prosperity as the last.”

It was a comfortingly innocuous toast to which even P’raima couldn’t have objected too strenuously, although it seemed to Valonna that he picked up his glass out of habit rather than courtesy or sincerity. “To Southern Pern,” Rallai said.

The salute went around the table as before, and they all drank. The dessert wine was more dry than Valonna would have expected, but the pinkstem tart made up for it: fragrantly sweet, the pastry crisp and flaky. She kept her eyes down, feeling a little closer to liberation with each bite she took.

The clash of a fork dropped on a plate gave her a start. “Sorry, sorry,” Sh’zon said quickly, when every eye went to him. “Clumsy of me.”

He picked up the fork, but didn’t resume eating his dessert. Given how enthusiastically he had been tackling the food, Valonna found that strange. “Is everything all right, Sh’zon,” she asked him quietly.

Sh’zon didn’t seem to hear her at first. Then, as if snapping out of a reverie, he turned to her. “Everything’s just…absolutely…”

He trailed off. Valonna noticed suddenly that his big hand was clenched tight around the delicate silver dessert fork, white-knuckled and trembling. She scanned his face, feeling alarm rising. Sh’zon had gone pale, and his eyes were moving in tiny, unfocused arcs, as though he were looking for something in a vague middle distance. “Sh’zon,” she whispered, “what is it? Are you unwell?” She put her hand on his arm, but he didn’t even seem to notice it. Shimpath, please ask Kawanth what’s wrong with his rider. He’s taken a funny turn.

But Shimpath didn’t reply.

Shimpath? Valonna asked, and then, more urgently, Shimpath? Shimpath?

The sound of her own fork falling from her hand was a deafening clatter against the sudden and hideous silence in her head.

“Ranquiath,” Sirtis said suddenly, across the table. Her girlish voice heightened the fear in her tone. “Ranquiath, why won’t you talk to me? Ranquiath?”

“I can’t hear Pierdeth,” L’dro said. The stark terror in his voice was even more frightening than that in Sirtis’.

Valonna reached desperately for her dragon. Where are you? Why can’t I hear you? The question seemed to bounce back off the inside of her head, echoing back dully rather than ringing out to her dragon.

H’pold suddenly pushed his chair back from the table. “What’s happening?” he asked, panic rising in his voice.

“Can anyone hear their dragon?” Rallai asked.

“Weyrleaders?” Coffleby asked, looking sharply from one rider to another.

“He won’t hear me!” Sh’zon cried heartbrokenly.

“Can anyone hear their dragon?” Rallai repeated. “G’kalte? Valonna?”

I want Ranquiath!” Sirtis shrieked, and leapt up from her chair, making as if to dash for the door.

“Don’t take another step, weyrwoman.”

It was P’raima.

He rose from his seat, his ashen eyes alight, a little smile playing around the corner of his mouth. The demeanour of a broken man had fallen from him like a discarded cloak. “Sit down,” he told the frozen Sirtis, and gave her a shove towards her seat. “All of you. Sit down.”

“In Faranth’s name, P’raima, what do you think you’re doing?” Coffleby cried from her seat at the head of the table. “Ervaughn, call the guards –”

“No one moves,” P’raima said, cutting across her. “No one screams.” He raked everyone in the room, stewards and servers as well as guests, with a bloodshot glare. “If anyone disobeys me, if anyone screams or runs for the door, a dragon will die.”

Everyone froze where they were.

“What have you done to our dragons?” Valonna begged. “Please, P’raima! What have you done to them?”

“Your dragons are fine,” P’raima said. “If any of you were half the dragonriders you ought to be you’d know they’re still there. If they weren’t you’d sharding know about it.”

H’pold looked almost broken. “But I can’t hear Suffath!”

“No,” P’raima said. “You can’t.”

“Our queens will know you’re behind this,” said Rallai. “They’ll seize Tezonth, and –”

P’raima cut across her. “Tezonth isn’t here. Your queens couldn’t reach him even if you could ask them to. If you ever want to hear your dragons again, you’ll do exactly as I say.”

“What do you want?” L’dro bellowed.

“You always were the biggest imbecile ever to have Impressed a bronze dragon, L’dro,” P’raima said, with perfect scorn. “You all know what I want. I want my queen back. I want Megrith.”

“Have you completely lost your mind, P’raima?” Rallai asked shakily. “You can’t hold us to ransom like this!”

“I believe I already am,” P’raima replied. He smiled coldly at Sh’zon, and echoed back his words. “But it doesn’t have to end this way, Sh’zon. You just need to see sense. As soon as you agree to my terms, I’ll let you all go to your dragons.”

Sh’zon swept glasses and plates off the table in front of him with a furious sweep of his arm. “What’s shaffing stopping us going to them right now?”

“Just a small thing,” said P’raima. “But I believe it’ll concentrate your mind. What’s your cousin’s name, bronze rider?”

And the malevolent enormity of it struck Valonna all at once, even as Sh’zon’s face went slack with horror. “Tarshe,” he said numbly.

“Tarshe. That’s right.” P’raima smiled. “I have her.”

“No,” Valonna whispered.

“It’s a simple transaction, Weyrwoman,” said P’raima. “My queen for yours. Decide quickly. You’ll give Karika and Megrith back to Southern, or your Berzunth will never see her rider again.”

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3 responses to “Chapter forty-four: Valonna”

  1. Multi-Facets says:

    I said this once to Pern fanficcer Astrokath, quoting a summary of a Japanese comic book I adore: “It isn’t a real apocalypse if it can’t get even worse.”

    Congratulations. You too have created a Pernese apocalypse. My mind is blown.

    Why is P’raima so obsessed with keeping Southern Weyr “pure”? Why does he want Megrith so badly? He doesn’t even want Karika, just Megrith. Is he that desperate to remain Weyrleader when clearly he has some sort of mental disorder that creates extreme paranoia? What’s worn him down so hard? Are any problems ever going to be sorted out? It just keeps getting worse and worse, and it’s really depressing. I don’t understand much of this at all.

    • Kath says:

      You know who P’raima reminds me of this week? Saruman. Like all the best leaders of infamy, he didn’t just wake up one day and decide, Welp, you know what would be fun? Being evil as fuck. *Something* has driven him to it. Something gave his Weyr an isolationist mentality. Something set him on his current batshit path. I think I believe him when he says he’s seen future!Pern, but I don’t think he stopped there. He’s still a Weyrleader. He’s been trying to fix it, maybe by seeding his past with hints and messages. Southern’s hugely inbred – that HAS to change now, somehow, and it’s not going to solve the problem because we’ve all seen the future too. Anyway, I think he has a plan, an imaginary alternative future that he wants to invoke. But the price of failure, and the mental/physical cost of the attempt, has sent him right off his rocker.

      The whole issue of /between/ is fascinating. I don’t think we’re going to see a solution in the Interval, not if we’re in a closed-loop timeline. The issue is an old one. It’s been getting progressively worse, first in the run-up exposed by the weyrling training logs, then onwards to the point where Pass Epherineth won’t go /between/ either. And yet, the firelizards still blithely flit here and there. The dragons will either need to wait it out until /between/ has some kind of natural phase change and fixes itself, learn a completely new way of navigating *that can’t be taken back to the interval and taught to the dragons there* (because, closed-loop), or… something else. Perhaps the firelizard collective memory is the key? That’s the main difference between the two species, the memory vs. empathy sacrifice in Kitti Ping’s engineering.

      But yeah. P’raima. Whatever’s really going on here, he’s setting a really good example of why a Weyr really doesn’t want to breed queens completely out of the laying loop…

  2. Charis Hayward says:

    I. Well. Wow. I don’t think I can leave a proper review, since I’m reading this at two A.M., but WOW. I am at the edge of my seat. Just when I was starting to feel sorry for P’raima, too! You are truly an excellent writer.

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