Chapter forty-eight: Carleah, Valonna, Sh’zon
Delegation is only a wise course of action when you can trust in your subordinates to perform a task at least close to as competently as you would have done it yourself.
– From Hold and Hall Management, by Headwoman Hakera
Gorty had barely shoved them both back into the shack and slammed the door when the nausea that had been brewing in Carleah’s guts ever since she’d come round finally overwhelmed her. She collapsed to her knees, bringing up a vile mess of everything she’d eaten at the Gather, and when her stomach was empty, retching vainly for several more moments.
She could hear Tarshe asking urgently if she was all right, but she couldn’t answer, too preoccupied with trying to spit the last few half-digested river grains out of her mouth. Finally, she shuffled away from where she’d thrown up, finding a wall and leaning against it, shaking.
“I don’t think I can do this much longer,” she heard a voice say, and realised it was her own.
“Yes you can,” said Tarshe. “You’ve been amazing. You just have to keep going. Keep up the pretence –”
“But what’s the point?” Carleah cried. “When this Southern rider arrives…”
“Exactly,” said Tarshe. “He’s a dragonrider. However big a monster he is, he’s going to have a hard time looking one of us in the eye and ordering us to be killed.”
“We’re blindfolded!” Carleah wailed. “He can’t look us in the eye!”
“You nearly had my hands free before they pulled us out,” said Tarshe. “Come on. Get me untied. Then maybe we can find a way out of here.”
It seemed a wan hope, but Carleah squirmed around until she could once again work at the ropes around Tarshe’s wrists. There was comfort in leaning against her back, at least. It didn’t compare to the companionship of Jagunth’s thoughts, but Carleah couldn’t imagine sharing her current state of mind with her dragon. Jagunth would have been terrified, panicked. If there was any solace to be had in their situation, it was that at least her green wasn’t having to experience it.
“You know L’stev’s going to ground us until we graduate once we get back to Madellon,” said Tarshe.
There was too much forced cheer in her voice, but Carleah made herself play along. “We didn’t ask to be kidnapped.”
Tarshe shrugged one shoulder. “He’ll find a way to make it our fault anyway. You know how he loves to do that.”
Their conversation lapsed for a moment, even Tarshe apparently at the limit of her ability to make reassuring small-talk. Then Carleah said, “They can’t have sent Karika back, can they? That’s why they want to get rid of…get rid of the green rider. To prove they’re not bluffing.”
Tarshe didn’t reply for a bit. Then she said, “Karika’s terrified of P’raima. She couldn’t tell any of the other Southerners. They all idolised him.”
“He’s been Weyrleader at Southern forever,” said Carleah. “I don’t think the Weyrwoman who died was his first.”
“She wasn’t,” said Tarshe. “And Margone was afraid of him, too.”
“But why?” Carleah asked. “She was the queen rider. Why didn’t she just make sure some other bronze flew her dragon?”
“I think that was why Karika was so afraid,” said Tarshe.
Carleah absorbed that. Then she said, softly, “But they’ve still put her before us.”
“You don’t know that – ah!”
Tarshe’s exclamation as the knot Carleah had been working on finally yielded briefly superseded the feeling of betrayal. Encouraged, Carleah started on the second knot. “This one’s much easier,” she said, and a moment later, she had it undone.
“I think that’s it,” said Tarshe. “Let me just… Yes!”
Carleah heard the soft thud as the length of rope tying Tarshe’s wrists fell to the floor, and then the blindfold over her eyes was pulled abruptly away. “Faranth!”
The light filtering in between the cracks in the walls was still enough to sting her eyes. Their prison was a dilapidated drying shed, the ceiling crisscrossed with rails from which a few desiccated bunches of herbs still hung, the walls of rotting planks roughly nailed together. “Give me your hands, I’ll untie you,” Tarshe said urgently.
Carleah’s bonds gave way easily to Tarshe’s fingers. But she’d barely had a chance to rub her chafed wrists, and wipe the last clinging remnants of what she’d puked up from around her mouth, when the impact of a dragon landing nearby shivered through the ground. Tarshe’s expression of horror must have matched her own. “Shards,” Carleah whispered, and then, in the next breath, “the back wall!”
They both flew to the rear wall of the shack, pushing on the splintery wood with all their might. For all that the boards were old and poorly seasoned, flexing in places, the rusty nails fastening them together were still sound. Hastily, they tested the wall from one end of the shed to the other, but none of the planks yielded to their frantic pressure.
Finally, Tarshe cried out in frustration. “Shaffit!” she shouting, kicking out angrily.
And knocking the rotten lower portion of a plank right out of the wall.
They didn’t even look at each other. Tarshe went to work on the broken board, shaking it loose, while Carleah kicked at the adjacent planks with all her might, and in less than a minute they’d made a low, shallow gap that maybe, just maybe, two slender girls might be able to escape through.
“You first!” Tarshe told her.
“Don’t shaffing argue with me!” Tarshe told her, with all the authority of the queen rider she was. “Go!”
Carleah dropped to the floor and crawled towards the hole they’d made in the wall. At close range it looked impossibly small, the edges of the planks surrounding it dauntingly jagged. She brushed away the detritus of straw and dust on the floor, making another precious quarter-inch of space. “It’s not big enough!”
“It’s going to have to be!” Tarshe told her. “Go on, I can hear them coming!”
Fear overcame Carleah’s doubt. Thrusting her arms ahead of her, she dived through the hole, propelling herself with her feet. Her head went through, but her shoulders scraped painfully against the sides. For a moment of perfect despair, she knew she wasn’t going to fit. Those two brutes, and the evil Weyrleader of Southern, were going to burst in, drag her out, and kill her. She was never going to see Jagunth again…
Then Tarshe started shoving her from behind, shouting, “Breathe out, you fat shaffing wherry!”
Carleah obeyed, and as she expelled all the air from her lungs, she felt the pressure on her shoulders ease the tiniest bit. She squirmed and wriggled and pushed, and suddenly she was free, head and shoulders out into the fading light. She groped forwards with both hands, pulling now more than pushing; for a horrible instant, she thought her hips would get stuck just as her shoulders had; but then she was through, scrambling to her feet, and looking dazedly around.
The sun was low in the sky and sinking rapidly towards a ridge that rose above the horizon in the west. The shack they’d been imprisoned in was one of a handful of similar buildings, constructed with equal carelessness, in a clearing that had been cut from the dense surrounding forest. The back and wings of a massive bronze dragon rose above the roof of the shed; instinctively, Carleah crouched down to avoid being seen.
“Tarshe!” she hissed, through the gap in the wall.
She heard a thump, and a muffled exclamation, from inside, and then, not muffled at all, Crent’s voice, roaring. “Where’s the other one?”
Then Tarshe’s voice rose, raw and commanding. “Carleah, RUN!”
The bronze dragon filled most of the clearing, but the undergrowth behind the shed was too thick to penetrate. Carleah dodged between buildings, working her way around the clearing, searching for another way out, but it was only moments before the shout went up from behind her, and the bronze reared up onto his hind legs to get a sight of her over the roofs. It was that very action that revealed the exit Carleah so desperately needed: a broad track leading eastwards out of the clearing. But she would have to get past the dragon to reach it.
Dragons had been a symbol of all that was good and noble in the world for Carleah’s entire life. Her da’s Indioth; C’mine’s Darshanth; her own Jagunth. A dragon had always been a sight to lift the spirits and gladden the heart. Now, the Southern bronze dragon who stood between Carleah and a chance of life and freedom couldn’t have been a more potent symbol of oppression.
She ran straight at him.
The bronze took a moment to get sight of her – a dragon’s eyes were better over distance than at close range – and by the time he did, Carleah was already in his shadow. She sprinted with all her strength, head down, arms pumping, legs straining, and the clumsy swipe of his forepaw passed an inch over her head, the draught of its passing ruffling her hair. She dashed beneath his belly, threw herself between his braced tree-thick back legs, vaulted the end of his tail, and landed still running, with the track ahead of her.
The Southern dragon’s bellow of surprise and annoyance was deafeningly loud, but Carleah was more afraid of the angry shouts of her captors. She hit the track at speed, almost tripping on the deep hard ruts of the ground, scored there by who-knew how many Turns of wagon wheels and runner hoofs. She hardly dared lift her eyes from the treacherous going, though she knew she was exposed, knew she needed to get off the trail and into the undergrowth, knew that, as scared and as desperate as she was, she couldn’t keep up the pace forever. Each time she did risk a glance, to the left, to the right, all she could see was jungle, thick and dense, encroaching on the edges of the track, and offering no prospect of a refuge. It wasn’t long before she could hear the pounding of running feet behind her, and then the heavy pant of her pursuers’ breathing. Do the green rider, rang in her head. Do the green rider, do the green rider. She ran, chasing her own shadow, thrown before her long and thin by the setting sun at her back. She ran, thinking desperately of Jagunth. Do the green rider. She ran. But though she wasn’t brave enough to look back, she didn’t need to. The tread of heavy feet behind her grew steadily closer, the laboured breathing louder. When the tips of her hunters’ own shadows overlapped her feet for the first time, she cried out, redoubling her efforts, stumbling over the uneven ground, putting distance between herself and the encroaching darkness, but in vain. The shadows of the men who meant to kill her overtook her again, slowly, inexorably, first one, then both. Do the green rider. The fire-lizard flashed past her, screaming, its fast-moving shadow intersecting hers.
Then the whole world went black, the sunlight blotted out by an immense dragon overhead, and in the recognition of a hunter she couldn’t ever hope to outrun, Carleah’s resolve faltered. She staggered helplessly to a halt, feeling tears scald her cheeks, and in one final act of defiance she spun to face her fate. “Well, come and get me then, you coward!” she screamed up at the hateful bronze, squeezing her eyes nearly shut as the downdraft of his descent lashed her face with dust and leaves and the trailing curls of her own hair. “I’m not afraid of you! Come and get me!”
The sun had moved around to the west, filling the dining room with long spills of red and blue light that hurt the eyes, and an almost unbearable stuffy heat that had them all sweating and thirsty. All the water on the table had gone; of the alcohol, only the half-full bottle of drugged dessert wine remained, and no one had any interest in that. Even P’raima looked flushed and clammy, Valonna thought, watching the Southern Weyrleader covertly as he paced a restless route up and down the room, but she didn’t believe his agitation sprang merely from the uncomfortable temperature. Rather, she thought, P’raima had expected the situation to have been resolved by now; the prolonged wait for his demands to be met was clearly wearing on him.
Dabbing at her own brow, as much to maintain the fiction of her faint as to wipe away the film of perspiration, she cast a glance towards G’kalte, but his almost imperceptible head-shake deflated Valonna’s hope for more news from outside. The tangle of fear that had been roiling in her stomach had subsided to a sullen mass, but as the time stretched on with no further intelligence, she feared that G’kalte’s secret, tenuous connection with Archidath would provide little advantage after all.
Then she saw P’raima’s stride falter mid-step. He set his foot down slowly, then turned abruptly to the table, his teeth partly bared in the parody of a smile. “Your Sh’zon is playing games, Valonna,” he said, sounding almost as if he relished the development. “I think he’s calling my bluff.”
On the other side of the table, H’pold rose abruptly, his face hardening. “Void take him –”
“Sit down,” Rallai told him sharply, seizing his arm.
Valonna didn’t dare look at G’kalte for insight, though she badly wanted to. “Sh’zon wouldn’t take any chances with Tarshe’s well-being,” she insisted, hoping her voice was level.
“Perhaps he wouldn’t,” said P’raima. “But perhaps he thinks it’s worth risking a green to try my resolve.”
The coil of tunnel-snakes in Valonna’s stomach began to writhe again. “What green?”
“It seems my men picked up two of your weyrlings,” P’raima replied. He turned his head slightly, his eyes going distant, and the light through the stained-glass window bathed his face in a bloody glow. “I wonder if seeing one of Madellon’s own dragonets disappear screaming between will concentrate Sh’zon’s mind on the task he’s been given.”
Valonna couldn’t even speak, feeling choked, strangled, with horror. “Dear Faranth, P’raima!” Rallai cried.
But it was Lady Coffleby who spoke with the most measure. “Don’t cross this line, Weyrleader,” she said. There was no rancour in her voice; only a slow, grave weariness. “All of Pern will turn on you: dragonriders, Holders and Crafters alike. Stop this now, and perhaps something of your legacy might endure untainted by the murder of children.”
“My legacy will endure, Coffleby,” said P’raima, turning on the old Lady Holder. “It will endure in the flesh and blood I leave behind. In a hundred Turns’ time the blood that runs in the veins of every Southern dragon who rises to fight Thread over Pern will be that of a bronze who outflew every rival for thirty-one Turns. Every rider of Southern will be born of the Weyr, born into the traditions, as a dragonrider ought to be. That’s my legacy. History may remember me as it will.”
“History will remember you as a monster!” said Rallai.
“Better a monster who made a difference than a weakling too afraid to make a stand,” said P’raima.
“P’raima, please!” Valonna begged. “What possible good could killing a weyrling do? Please!”
P’raima cut her off. “Be silent, Valonna. Responsibility for this rests with your Sh’zon. If he’d done as he was told this wouldn’t be necessary.”
But though Valonna braced herself for the keen from the dragons outside that would signal the awful deed had been done, the minutes passed, and nothing happened. She looked again to G’kalte. His brow was furrowed in concentration as he struggled to communicate with his dragon. Across the table, H’pold shifted his weight in his chair, and even Sirtis, who had been clinging to L’dro for comfort, was beginning to look uncertain. Valonna braved a longer glance at P’raima. His expression betrayed little, but something like impatience had narrowed his bloodshot eyes.
And then a commotion outside made everyone sit up: voices raised in anger, the scuffling of feet, and at last a jingling thud, like the sound of an armoured body being pushed aside. An instant later, the door flew open, and Sh’zon came bellowing in. “Call off your shaffing murderer, P’raima! Call him off; you can have your shaffing queen!”
P’raima had turned sharply at the intrusion, but now his hooded eyes lit with a wild glitter of triumph. “Megrith –”
“H’ned and Izath are transporting her right now,” Sh’zon said. “Void take you, call D’pantha off!”
“When I have confirmation,” said P’raima, raising a finger, though he was visibly struggling to contain his glee. “When I have…”
He trailed off, his eyes moving back and forth. Valonna rose quickly and clutched Sh’zon’s arm; he was breathing hard, his lips peeled back from his teeth in a snarl. “Sh’zon, what have you done?” she breathed, stricken.
“I’m sorry, Valonna,” he said. He sounded sick. “He was going to kill the other girl.”
“You’d best not have botched this, Sh’zon,” H’pold hissed through his teeth. He stood up. “Well, P’raima? Are you satisfied?”
P’raima’s gaze suddenly snapped back into focus. “Sign the treaty,” he said roughly. He stepped up to the table and slammed his hand down on the Peninsula document. “Sign it! And you too, Valonna, or by Faranth that weyrling’s blood will be on your hands!”
Desperate, Valonna met Rallai’s gaze across the table. However little weight a treaty held if signed under coercion, conceding to P’raima’s demands seemed an unthinkable submission for them both to make. History, certainly, would note that both of them had in the end yielded to him.
Valonna would far rather be remembered for yielding than for putting her pride before a weyrling’s life.
She tore her eyes away from Rallai’s. Her hand was shaking as she dipped the pen in the inkwell, scattering black blots over the surface of the vellum, like a pestilent rash. She set the nib to the space left blank above the listing of her name and titles.
And then G’kalte’s elbow bumped roughly into hers, sending her first downstroke wildly askew. “Weyrwoman, don’t sign it! Your weyrlings are safe!”
For an instant, dumbstruck silence ruled; every face in the room stunned by the cry.
P’raima’s face changed. His mouth fell open slackly, his jaw working, as he stared incredulously at G’kalte, and then his strangled cry rent the hush like a knife, fury and defiance and disbelief united in a sound almost more animal than human. “NO!”
“For Faranth’s sake, someone get the bastard, then!” said Coffleby.
But before Sh’zon could vault across the table to seize P’raima, or L’dro could extricate himself from Sirtis’ death-grip, or H’pold could push back his chair to engage, P’raima ripped the knife from the sheath on his own belt and jabbed its point, two-handed against his own chest. “Keep back,” he warned them. “Keep back. I’ll do it. I’ll do it, and none of you will ever hear your dragons again.”
It was a testament to the broken mania in P’raima’s eyes that no one questioned the sincerity of his threat. Fear tightened in Valonna’s breast like a fist; a visceral, primal terror not for another’s life, but for the permanent disabling of her own, as though she faced the removal of her hand, her arm, her heart. She was distantly aware of the impact that shuddered through the room, rocking every glass and cup on the table, but it was nothing to the thought of P’raima taking his own life and with it the knowledge of the cure to the poison that was separating all of them from their dragons.
“P’raima,” Rallai pleaded. “It’s over. What do you gain by killing yourself?”
“What do I gain by not?” he rasped. L’dro, having shoved Sirtis away, took an involuntary step closer, and P’raima took one warning hand off the knife, putting his back to the window. Multihued light streamed around him, but P’raima was a dark shape against the coloured panes, black and malevolent as a cancer. “I said keep back!”
“This doesn’t have to be the end for you, P’raima,” said H’pold. His voice was desperate. “We won’t push for Separation. Just Exile. You and Tezonth will go to the islands. Together. No one will bother you –”
“To the islands? Knowing that everything I’ve worked for is to be despoiled and polluted? Knowing that everything I’ve sacrificed in the service of Pern has been for nothing?” P’raima was pressing the tip of his knife so hard against his chest now that blood was seeping up beneath the point of contact, darkening the fabric of his shirt with a spreading stain. “Judged and sentenced and suffered to live by the likes of you? You, who allow your dragons to be used as beasts of burden, crawling and scraping to the Holds for the crumbs from their tables, persisting in your petty political disputes with one another when any dragonrider’s duty should be to the future of Pern?”
“What about Tezonth?” Valonna cried, desperate for anything to sway P’raima from his course. “How can you do this to him? Don’t you love him?”
A shadow was falling outside, a silhouette beyond the window, robbing light from the room, but P’raima didn’t seem to notice. “Love,” P’raima mocked her, his lip curling. “Silly little girl, to still think that what binds a dragon and his rider is love. It’s need, Valonna. Dependency. Dragon to rider, rider to dragon. Their will forced upon us. Our will forced upon them. That isn’t love. It’s tyranny. We’re each other’s master, and each other’s slave. I don’t love my dragon.” He replaced his other hand on the hilt of the knife, falling to his knees, a terrible smile stretching his lips. “I merely need him.”
“No!” Valonna screamed.
But her voice was drowned out by the howl from without; a dragon’s voice. Tezonth’s voice. The shadow outside the stained glass window shifted, becoming darker, blacker. And then G’kalte barged into Valonna, knocking her from her chair, even as he shouted, “Everyone get down!”
The glass exploded.
Shards of glass in every shade burst inwards, flicking points of light from their every jagged facet in a whirling storm of jewels, as a monstrous bronze forepaw smashed through the window. Valonna could hear screaming as she hit the floor, cups and plates and cutlery showering down all around as her momentum yanked the tablecloth loose. From beneath the table, she saw the massive paw sweep left, then right, making a gaping hole in the glass. The huge talons closed around P’raima, and then, abruptly, he was gone, snatched backwards through the shattered window.
For a moment Valonna just lay there, struck dumb, as thousands of tinkling splinters of coloured glass rained down.
Then another impact shuddered through the room, and all at once the light pouring through the ragged hole where the window had been was blocked by a great golden head. “Shimpath,” Valonna heard herself say, and scrambled upright. She flew across the room, ignoring the broken glass that crunched beneath her feet, and Shimpath pushed her nose through the skeleton of lead flashing that had held the stained glass panes together, heedless of the sharp fragments that remained, crooning loud enough to shiver the room. “Shimpath, Shimpath,” Valonna wept, flinging herself against her dragon’s muzzle. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry!”
“Faranth’s teeth!” Sh’zon swore, from somewhere behind her. “Is everyone whole?”
Valonna half turned from her queen, though she didn’t relinquish her fierce grip on Shimpath’s jaw. Lady Coffleby seemed to have escaped the hail of glass entirely; she looked shaken but unharmed. Sirtis was sobbing in L’dro’s arms; they, and almost everyone else, were bleeding from small cuts. Sh’zon was streaming blood freely from his arm, his sleeve hanging in ribbons, but he seemed not to have noticed the wound. H’pold hadn’t moved from his seat at the table, while Rallai –
And then Valonna looked again at H’pold. He sat stiffly, his eyes wide and staring, making a strangled gurgling sound, and with a jolt of horror Valonna saw the long piece of crimson glass embedded in his neck, and blood of the exact same hue spurting in regular jets from the sliced arteries of his throat.
“Is everyone –” Sh’zon began again.
“Oh sweet Faranth, H’pold!” Rallai cried, clutching her Weyrleader’s arm. “G’kalte, G’kalte!”
G’kalte was already moving. “Stay still, Weyrleader!”
“Faranth, it’s right in his neck!” L’dro shouted.
G’kalte pressed his hands either side of the shard of glass in H’pold’s neck. Blood continued to squirt out from between his fingers, turning his hands slick and red in moments. “Someone get a Healer!” he shouted, over his shoulder. “I need help here!”
But H’pold made a dreadful sound, and the stiffness of his stricken posture left him all at once. He toppled limply sideways, out of G’kalte’s slippery grasp, the spray of blood from his lacerated throat weakening and stopping as his heart ceased its beating.
For a long, hideous instant no one spoke, as they all stared in horror at H’pold’s slumped and lifeless form. Valonna pressed her face against Shimpath’s cheek, unable to bear it. What if P’raima’s poison had damaged H’pold’s bond with his dragon beyond Suffath’s ability to realise that his rider was gone?
The cry of a riderless dragon, as at last Suffath screamed his grief to the world, had never been more tragically welcome.
Much as he hated timing – and even more so now, in the light of M’ric’s treachery – Sh’zon wished he could in good conscience have put himself in several places at once. They’d left Long Bay in an uproar, and while Lady Coffleby wasn’t so crass as to demand that the dragonriders stay, she made it plain that she expected someone to answer for the events of the day in due course. L’mis was there still, representing Madellon, but almost all riders and Weyrfolk were home now. Sh’zon had been torn between going to Southern in pursuit of P’raima and his accomplices, and to the Peninsula to comfort Rallai, but in the end the news that Tarshe was on her way back to Madellon on an Ops Wing blue decided matters. Sh’zon was there to see his cousin restored to her dragonet, though Berzunth was reluctant to let him close enough to talk to her.
After that, events took on a momentum of their own. H’ned, fortuitously, had not yet delivered Karika and Megrith back to their native Weyr, but after a hasty conference they agreed he and P’keo should go directly to Southern to demand the whereabouts of P’raima. Sh’zon wanted to go with them, but Valonna forbade him. “We’re half useless not being able to talk to our dragons,” she told him, away from where H’ned could hear. “I’ve never been so frightened –” She stopped herself before completing the sentence, but Sh’zon grasped her meaning: a rider’s faith in his dragon’s ability to go between without guidance shouldn’t be put to the test more often than was absolutely necessary. He grudgingly consented to her insistence that he present himself to Master Isnan to have his arm sewn up.
As it transpired, nothing happened with the speed Sh’zon would have liked anyway. H’ned and P’keo returned with reports that Southern was in chaos, with no sign of Tezonth or P’raima, and the bronze riders there split into two roughly equal factions: one united behind D’pantha and the status quo, the other supporting R’maro’s call for change. It was precisely the internal conflict that everyone had been expecting to break out at Southern since Margone’s death, and under different circumstances Sh’zon would have been glad to see the Weyr’s riders throwing off P’raima’s stifling harness. But while he, and Valonna, and every other rider whom P’raima had poisoned with felah at Long Bay still couldn’t speak to their dragons, Sh’zon seethed at how the power struggle at Southern had superseded the Weyr’s responsibility to answer for its former Weyrleader’s wrongs.
“There’s no point barging in and demanding answers now,” L’stev said, during one of the half-dozen hasty conferences Madellon’s senior riders converged over the course of the afternoon. “Do that before the two sides have had a chance to entrench their differences, and you’ll just unite them against Madellon as a common enemy again. We still hold the trump card. We have their queen. When they’re ready to talk sense, they’ll come to us.”
“That’s fine for you to say, L’stev,” Sh’zon retorted. “You can hear your shaffing dragon.”
L’stev’s dramatic brows knit together over his nose. “I’m not insensitive to that.”
“The Weyrlingmaster’s right,” said Valonna. She still had the same lost, baffled look in her eyes that Tarshe and Carleah wore. Sh’zon supposed a vigilant observer would see it in him, too. There’d been no weakening of the barrier that separated him from Kawanth in the hours that had passed since he’d drunk P’raima’s poisoned sherry. He’d hoped the drug might just wear off, but it showed no sign of doing so. Sh’zon tried not to let his insides knot at the implication. “The dragon-deafness isn’t any worse than it was, and Isnan’s already gone to the Hall to consult with his colleagues. The Healers are more likely to find a cure for P’raima’s drug than Southern’s riders.” Then she lifted her chin, and spoke with a steel that Sh’zon had never heard in her voice before. “Better that we root out P’raima’s accomplice. He didn’t act alone.”
“D’pantha,” Sh’zon said, hearing how his revulsion twisted the name into a slur. He felt his fingers curl, of their own volition, into fists.
“We don’t know that,” insisted H’ned, though his voice lacked conviction.
“Where else did he go but to murder that poor green weyrling?” Sh’zon demanded.
L’stev snorted. “That poor green weyrling might have given D’pantha more trouble that he’d bargained for,” he said, in an admiring growl. “Carleah near ripped Santinoth’s snout clean off when he came to rescue her before she recognised him.”
The reminder that M’ric’s Ops Wing had actually hit lucky and found Tarshe and Carleah before P’raima’s order could be carried out made Sh’zon’s teeth grind. “Would’ve been better if they’d caught D’pantha at it, or at least one of the bastards who had the girls.”
“There’s no sign of them at all?” asked H’ned.
L’stev shook his head. “T’rello said they caught a glimpse of the bronze escaping between, but the two kidnappers were long gone by the time Santinoth was able to land. We have names to follow up, and one of them had a fire-lizard, but Carleah described them as having Southern accents, so good luck shaking them back out of the shadows.”
“Is there any word from Rallai?” Sh’zon asked. “From the Peninsula, that is?”
If anyone noticed his slip, they didn’t remark on it. “K’ken’s keeping a lid on things,” said H’ned. “I think the place is in shock. Losing H’pold like that…Faranth.”
“It could have been any of us,” Valonna said softly. Then, as if rousing herself from distraction, she looked at Sh’zon. “Did the Healers say if your arm would be all right, Sh’zon?”
It twinged, actually – the journeyman who’d stitched it up had remarked chidingly that Sh’zon shouldn’t have gone between with an untreated wound – and the skin around the slash was itching as the first coat of numbweed began to wear off, but Sh’zon wasn’t about to admit any of that. “It’s a scratch,” he said dismissively, which also left unsaid the fact that his injury, relocated not eight inches higher, could have killed him just as dead as H’pold.
“Well, if there’s nothing else new I need to get back to my weyrlings,” said L’stev. “I don’t like leaving A’len in charge.”
“Why’s A’len in charge?” asked Valonna. “Where’s C’mine?”
L’stev paused, halfway to his feet. “I’ve dismissed him,” he said shortly. “His judgement is impaired. Had we not thicker Thread to burn today, I’d ask you to have Shimpath restrain Darshanth. As it is, the self-destruction of one blue rider is the least of our worries. You know where I am if you need me.”
They all watched him go, H’ned with an expression of regret, Valonna looking outright distressed. “What did C’mine do?” she asked, once L’stev’s stumping footsteps had faded.
“Timed it to report where the weyrlings were being held,” said H’ned. He shrugged. “He met himself coming. Or maybe going. I’m not sure which. He’s a mess.”
Sh’zon saw Valonna’s hand fly up to cover her mouth. “Oh, poor C’mine!” He hadn’t known that the Weyrwoman had a personal relationship with L’stev’s assistant. Her brow wrinkled in the frustrated expression that suggested she’d tried to bespeak Shimpath and failed. “He must have been beside himself with worry about Carleah.”
“Well, yes,” said H’ned, “literally.”
“That was in bad taste, H’ned,” Sh’zon rebuked him, although – privately – he thought the remark was pretty funny.
H’ned met Valonna’s reproachful look ruefully. “I’m sorry, Weyrwoman. I –” He paused mid-sentence, his eyes going distant.
“What?” Sh’zon asked, recognising the hungry note in his own voice, even as Valonna echoed his question.
H’ned listened for several long moments, and then his pale eyes snapped back into focus. “Southern. They seem to be at a stalemate. The two factions are asking to meet with us.”
“So we can hand Megrith over to the one we like better?” Sh’zon asked, outraged. “What makes them think we’ll be inclined to do that?”
H’ned shook his head slowly. “I don’t know,” he said. “But they’re both saying that have something we want.”
“They can shove it up their –”
Valonna interrupted him. “Let them come,” she said. “We’ll hear them out, at least. Maybe they can help. H’ned, please contact Essienth at the Peninsula.”
H’ned nodded. He stood to leave. Then he paused. “They’re not coming to help, though,” he said. The sympathy in his voice as he looked at Valonna was nearly more than Sh’zon could stand. He knew he couldn’t have borne it at all had H’ned turned that pitying gaze on him.
“No,” Sh’zon said, roughly. “They’re coming for Megrith.”
Continue to Chapter forty-nine: Valonna, Carleah
Comments and feedback
Dragonchoice 3 is also posted at FanFiction.net and An Archive Of Our Own - if you'd like to review, comment, or ask a question, feel free to do so there.
- Dragonchoice 3 at FanFiction.net
- Dragonchoice 3 at An Archive Of Our Own
- Dragonchoice is also on Twitter and Tumblr
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