Chapter fifty-one: Sh’zon
A dragon cannot make you a better person. But he can make you want to be.
The hours passed in silence. Silence from the Weyr, for Madellon seemed collectively to be holding its breath; silence from Southern, where neither Megrith nor any other dragon reached out to make contact; silence from Kawanth, whose mind remained as veiled from Sh’zon’s as it had been for almost two full days now.
The Bowl was very still. The Wings that should have been drilling had been grounded. The dragonets lay curled and quiet on the training grounds. No greens strutted or preened in advance of a flight. The solitary watchdragon, a blue, was motionless as a statue up by the Star Stones. It was as if no rider nor dragon dared move or speak, lest they tear the fragile tissue of suspense that hung over Madellon, and bring untold calamity down upon them all.
Sh’zon felt anything but still.
It began in the night, when, in the absence of word from Karika, he and Valonna and H’ned finally agreed to seek what sleep they could. He didn’t undress, or even remove his boots, stretching out fully clothed instead on his bed, ready to leap up at a moment’s notice. Against the quiet of Madellon’s night-time, and the empty place in his mind where Kawanth should have been, his own preoccupations bumped noisily around his brain, like a man lurching blindly through a room, clattering into the furniture and bruising himself on the walls. His thoughts cycled endlessly through a contemplation of the three Southern bronze riders. As he turned each man’s character over and over in his head, his revulsion for all of them grew. P’raima, for his wilful descent into narcissism and evil. R’maro, for the treachery to which his resentful entitlement had driven him. D’pantha, for allowing his blind and stubborn trust to make him the tool of a cleverer man.
He despised them all. Thinking about them made him feel soiled by exposure to their degeneracy, their greed, their unworthiness to call themselves dragonriders. The notion that three dragons – three bronze dragons – had judged the boys that these men had once been fit to be their life-partners made bile rise in Sh’zon’s throat. Not because he doubted a dragon’s ability to choose his rider, but because in the intervening Turns, the riders of Southern had corrupted themselves so completely from what their dragons had judged good and decent.
What underpinned his abhorrence was the fear that, separated from the nobility of Kawanth’s thoughts, he would become like them.
The thought distressed him enough that he got off his bed and went immediately to Kawanth. It reassured him, a little, that his bronze lifted his head off his forepaws the moment he stepped into his sleeping chamber, his eyes verdantly alert. If Kawanth couldn’t sleep either, perhaps their division was not so comprehensive after all. Sh’zon went to the edge of his dragon’s couch. Kawanth? he tried. He pressed against the blankness where his bronze should have been. Kawanth, laddie, are you getting this at all? He closed his eyes, pushing harder, straining against the hateful limit of his own skull. Kawanth?
Kawanth made a small, sad noise. Sh’zon opened his eyes, the hope that he’d broken through a near-painful thing in his chest, but Kawanth merely turned his muzzle down to him. Sh’zon realised he had splayed his hands against the sleek brown-gold hide, and understood with a wrench that Kawanth was merely returning the contact as best he could. Dispirited, Sh’zon leaned his brow against Kawanth’s muzzle. “You wouldn’t let it happen, would you?” he asked aloud. “You wouldn’t let me become a cold-hearted villain like them.”
Kawanth’s soft rumble and softer nudge acknowledged the question without answering it. Sh’zon let out all of his breath. He hated this. Hated it, hated it, hated it.
He went back into his own chamber after a while. Sleeping beside Kawanth was always a sweaty business with the way a dragon radiated heat, and Sh’zon was already too hot. He undid a couple of buttons on his riding jacket before flinging himself back onto his bed.
Sleep still didn’t come. He stared at the ceiling of his sleeping chamber, though it was as featureless and unenlightening as the insides of his eyelids had been. His limbs felt restless, frustrated by the inactivity. He drummed his fingers on the furs to overcome it, and then realised his foot had already been kicking rhythmically against the air where it hung off the end of the mattress. He halted the fidgeting irritably, but stillness draw his attention too sharply to the internal rhythms of his own body. His breathing seemed unaccountably loud and harsh, dragging in and out of his lungs. He was intensely aware of the blood pumping through his veins and arteries. He thought he could hear the rush of it in his ears. He could certainly feel it throbbing against the points, at wrist and throat and temple, where it pulsed closest to the surface. What little he’d eaten, snatched in passing off the dinner tray the Headwoman had brought to Valonna’s office earlier, lay sullenly in his gut like a bellyful of undigested firestone. The light leaking from the glow-basket he’d turned to its dimmest, even with half the glows thrown out, stung his eyes. His jacket bound against his shoulders, and his trouser-legs twisted uncomfortably around his knees and ankles. The gash in his upper arm radiated a dull ache, and itched, both signs that the numbweed was wearing off again.
His face itched, too. He dragged a hand the wrong way against the beard he hadn’t shaved off since the morning of the Gather. The scruff of stubble was unpleasantly hard and prickly. It only took a couple of days’ neglect for his beard to grow in, fierce and wild, darker than his hair. He rolled off his bed again and snatched up the glow-basket, carrying it through to his bathing room. The bit of mirror propped there next to the basin flashed back glimmers of the greenish illumination. He angled it so it wouldn’t reflect into his eyes, so he wouldn’t have to look at his own eyes. He scooped up a basinful of water from the steaming pool and worked up a lather from the hard corner of shaving soap to spread on his face. He unfolded his razor, and in the dim gloom that was all the light he needed, he shaved away the stubble. The blade wasn’t as sharp as it might have been, dragging reluctantly against his whiskers, and as his fingers followed its path they came away wet from a nick at the corner of his jaw. He swore and muttered, and blotted the spot with a cloth until it stopped seeping. Then he splashed his face with clean hot water from the pool, followed by cold from the ewer. His skin was a little sore from the blunt razor, but it was smooth to the exploratory rub of his palm, and sore and smooth was better than itchy and rough. Satisfied, Sh’zon went back to bed.
He’d lain back down for barely a few minutes before he realised that the back of his hand itched.
It doesn’t itch; you’re imagining it, he told himself sternly, even as he turned his hand over to draw the back of it across the furs.
The itch he was imagining moved to his left calf.
Sh’zon shifted his right foot to scratch it, and succeeded only in kicking himself in the shin with his boot. “Shaffit!” he cursed, reaching down to rub his leg.
The itch jumped from his leg to his arm.
Except it didn’t jump, in the sense that it left one place to affect another; instead, Sh’zon realised that everywhere he had felt the itch he didn’t want to admit existed still itched; and even as he acknowledged, unhappily, that perhaps he wasn’t imagining it, the malevolent prickle surged into maddening existence all over him. His back, his chest, his arms and legs; every part of his body crawled with it, as though his flesh were trying to slough off a skin suddenly shrunk too small. For a time he fought with the overwhelming desire to scratch the sensation away, to dig his fingernails deep into tender tissues to dislodge it, to scrub himself raw with coarse soapsand until the intolerable itch subsided, or at least was replaced with a pain he could stand.
Then, between one breath and the next, it was gone.
Sh’zon lay panting on his bedfurs. He was wringing with sweat, his shirt soaked through, his wherhides dark with rank moisture. His skin cringed away from the clinging clamminess, and yet, still, it was better than the unbearable, excruciating itch.
He lurched from his sleeping chamber for the third time, stripping off as he went, leaving his drenched and stinking clothes where they fell. He almost tumbled into his bathing pool, and the suddenly heat of the water knocked the breath briefly from his lungs. He was afraid to examine his skin, dreading the sight of livid welts, a bubbling rash of blisters, scarlet petechiae describing the path the fiendish burning had taken across his body, like a marching hive of crawlers. He put off the moment by plunging his whole head beneath the turbulent water, and keeping it there as long as he could hold his breath.
He came up, gasping, and shook his head to dash the water from his eyes. Beneath the surface, nothing seemed amiss with his lower limbs, but he still steeled himself before lifting his arms free of the water to examine the damage.
There was nothing. His forearms were unmarred by sores or rashes, even when he turned them over. He raised one leg out of the water to find it similarly unmarked. He poked at the mat of flattened-down hair on his chest to find nothing there, either, and when he snatched down the mirror fragment to examine his back, all he found there was the familiar, age-greened lettering that spelled out his dragon’s name across his shoulder-blades.
He sagged with relief, but the sense of reprieve was short lived. If there was no physical cause for the itching, then his first thought had been correct. He had been imagining it. The itch had been in his head, not under his skin. It was his body’s way of telling him, with manic urgency, that it needed something. That it needed felah.
His mind raced through the implications as he lay in the soothing water of his pool. They’d wrung some knowledge of the drug out of D’pantha. It had been developed to help riders of male dragons from being subsumed by their dragons during green flights, blurring the bond enough that they could maintain a degree of control over their own responses, and therefore make mating a gentler experience for green riders. Even Sh’zon struggled to condemn the good intention behind the initiative. Young green riders were vulnerable to injury during their dragons’ flights, especially male green riders, and those whose dragons hadn’t settled on a preferred suitor. A competent Wingleader had to keep track of his greens’ mating schedules, not only to be mindful of their emotional states, but to be prepared for their riders to beg off drills. A competent Wingleader also had to discern if a green rider was falsely pleading a sore arse when he just wanted to get out of some undesirable duty, but Sh’zon had always erred on the side of compassion. He’d had stern words with a few of his blue and brown wingmen, too, when they’d been accused of unnecessary roughness in the flight weyr. He didn’t envy green riders their lot in life, and it seemed only right that he should offer them what protection he could.
So it was difficult to argue with Southern’s motivations. They had listened along, Sh’zon and H’ned and Valonna, as D’pantha described the early efforts of Southern’s Healers to formulate a potion that would produce the desired effects. In that pursuit, Southern Weyr was better equipped than any. The dense rainforests of the territory had yielded many new medicinal leaves and roots since the resettlement of the southern continent, and Healers with an interest in the physiological effects of such herbs had naturally gravitated to postings there. H’ned and Valonna reacted with surprise to the mention of a Master Berro, evidently once of Madellon, who had recently taken a place amidst Southern’s herbalists.
The earliest ventures yielded limited success. The riders who volunteered to try the experimental preparations experienced symptoms ranging from nothing at all to the common effects of fellis to a complete separation from their dragons even more drastic than that Sh’zon and Valonna were suffering. But, undeterred, the herbalists continued with their trials, testing this concoction and that on their subjects. It was a Turn before they refined a potion that came close to the desired effect, and another before they began finally to master the unwanted side effects of its fellis-based origin. The rare herbs they at last discovered could counteract the normal sedative and analgesic properties of fellis, making their distillation practical for serving dragonriders, had an unfortunate secondary effect of their own. They made the fellis derivative, already a narcotic that incited dependence in its users, even more addictive.
But it worked. Further testing identified the dose and frequency of the potion required to elicit the intended result: a thin tissue of separation between a rider and his dragon’s emotions that gave a man the ability to resist falling completely under the thrall of his dragon’s flight lust, while cushioning the dragon from the panic-inducing fear of having lost his rider’s contact at the critical moment of flight merge. D’pantha spoke of a blurring of the contact, so a victorious male dragon’s rider could prevent himself from falling upon the female’s rider in mindless mimicry of his dragon’s lust, without fear of the abstention driving one or both between in terror at the loss of unity.
The popularity of the potion soon expanded beyond the blue, brown, and bronze riders who had been its intended recipients. While only the male dragons’ riders benefited from its moderating effects, rider intercourse during mating flights was still required, albeit performed less frantically – the green riders, consumed by mating passion, could not be satisfied with less than their dragons were experiencing. For a time, the tables turned on the male dragons’ riders: once the aggressors during flights, now the subject of aggression. Soon, though, green riders had begun to demand access to the concoction, citing a wish to be similarly free of enslavement to their randy dragons’ urges. It did not prevent the participants in a mating flight from mirroring their dragons’ ardour, D’pantha stressed; it merely put the decision as to whether both parties wished to partake in the riders’ hands, and if the intensity of the experience was somewhat reduced as a consequence, that was a small price to pay for consent. In a Weyr so criss-crossed by blood ties, the result of nearly twenty Turns without external Search, the value of such control was self-evident.
Yet even with the use of the fellis-based concoction widespread amongst Southern’s riders, there were still those who declined to use it, and over time it became apparent that those who did not take the drug had an advantage over those who did. Riders of all colours began to complain that the minority who abstained were winning more green flights than their share – distressing for the greens’ riders, who must endure grappling with a fully-merged partner while themselves in possession of self-control, and frustrating for the male dragons’ riders, who felt they were being penalised for their own considerate use of the drug. The debate over whether or not the potion’s use should be made compulsory amongst Southern’s riders raged this way and that for months, with advocates for both sides arguing with passion to rival that the subject of their dispute governed. At last, the issue came to a head when Grizbath’s reliable mating schedule made it clear that she would rise before the close of the Turn. Few of Southern’s bronze riders ever spoke openly of opposing P’raima’s premiership, D’pantha admitted, but that didn’t stop any of them, bar R’maro, from sending their dragons after her. It would have been an unthinkable insult to their queen not to muster a competitive field of suitors. It would have been equally unthinkable for that field to have been made uneven by the use, or not, of the fellis potion.
P’raima himself settled it. He had not partaken of the drug before, for Tezonth, Grizbath’s mate for so many Turns, had no interest in chasing greens. But when he announced that he, too, would begin using it, out of respect for Margone’s comfort, it shamed every other bronze rider who had until then abstained into pledging to do the same. From there, it was a short step for the remaining holdouts to bow to the pressure of their peers. It even became a sacrament, used to bind Wings and Weyr together; each morning, every Wingleader received a doled-out measure of the potion to mix with his Wing’s breakfast klah, to be drunk together in a ritual reinforcing of the ties of comradeship and fraternity. That had been when the drug became known by its current title. Felah.
Yet D’pantha’s knowledge of the drug stopped short of being useful in relation to Madellon’s situation. He knew little of the long-term effects of large doses, beyond the fact that most of the earliest test subjects who had lost all contact with their dragons had since died. He didn’t specify if their deaths had been related to their dragon-deafness, and neither Sh’zon nor anyone else dared ask. He knew nothing at all of the purported counter-agent, though it was plain than his new awareness of its existence coloured his account of P’raima’s apparently honourable participation in felah use. The only thing he had said that pertained to Sh’zon’s current suffering, and that most guardedly, was that his own habitual use of felah would not cause him any noticeable distress for a day or two longer, and then could be alleviated somewhat with a modest dose of plain fellis juice.
Sh’zon didn’t have any fellis juice. It wasn’t the sort of drug anyone had just lying around. The Weyr Healer kept it locked up tight, and it was far too strong in any case for a rider to self-administer. If the willowsalic and numbweed that every rider did have in their personal supplies wasn’t sufficient, then a more powerful medicine could only be obtained from the professionals. And fellis wasn’t a solution anyway, even to short-term discomfort; it would make him drowsy and dull when he needed to be at his sharpest and best. Though how he could hope for that when he was trapped into sleeplessness by his roiling thoughts and his miserable loneliness and now his Thread-blighted felah cravings, he didn’t know.
He wondered if the others were feeling the same. Tarshe, he hoped, would be fast asleep; the other weyrling, too. They had no need to stay alert or to worry about anything beyond themselves and their own dragonets. He doubted Valonna was getting any more rest than he was. For all the steel Madellon’s young Weyrwoman had shown, she was barely less a girl beneath the brittle façade than Tarshe was, and Tarshe still seemed half a child to Sh’zon.
His thoughts turned to Rallai. She at least had sufficient Turns behind her as Ipith’s rider that her dragon’s authority was woven inextricably into the fabric of her being. Rallai had been weyrwoman to a queen longer than she hadn’t. Still, Sh’zon knew her well enough to recognise the threads of fear stitched through the weave, snagging the smooth surface of her serene competence, and he thought he understood their source. Rallai, of all the weyrwomen P’raima had poisoned with his felah, was closest to her queen’s next flight. Ipith, uneven though her cycle could be, was due to rise any time; certainly within the next two or three months. If Rallai was still dragon-deaf when she did, what then? How could she control her queen in blooding if they couldn’t hear each other? How could they flight-merge at all, as a queen and her rider must, to ensure a safe flight? No dragon was ever more emotionally and mentally vulnerable than when consumed by their need to mate, when their rider’s love and loyalty was the anchor that kept them from spending themselves utterly in the pursuit of superiority. How could a queen who couldn’t hear her rider rise and mate and return at all?
How could a bronze whose rider was stricken hope to catch her?
Sh’zon’s thoughts had been orbiting that central terror, circling it without confronting it, ever since the reality of what had been done to him had sunk in. Being separated from Kawanth was miserable, it was lonely, it was inconvenient. That it hadn’t killed either of them, yet, was about the best that could be said of the situation. But it hadn’t killed them. They would puzzle it out, day by day, just as the weyrlings who couldn’t go between would puzzle out a way to be dragonriders. The thought of a time when that had been the most thorny issue Madellon was facing almost made Sh’zon smile at the quaintness of it. But beyond the day-to-day, beyond getting through tomorrow, or next sevenday, the consequences of Sh’zon’s affliction tangled into an increasingly hideous knot. He’d spent the balance of the last six Turns burning after one goal: the Weyrleadership of Peninsula. Kawanth longed to reclaim Ipith; Sh’zon longed to reclaim Rallai; they both longed to elevate themselves above all the other dragonpairs at their native Weyr. Twice they had been thwarted, twice failed to prove themselves equal to Rallai’s expectations – and she expected more of them, Sh’zon knew, than she did of any other pair. She’d made that plain on the first night of the Gather. So, too, had she made plain how he could prove himself, as Weyrleader to Valonna. And then P’raima had poisoned them both, and spun all their careful, measured dance wildly awry. The notion that Sh’zon might be denied the prize he’d struggled so long and hard to win, whose pursuit had forced him away from the Peninsula, and dragged his cousin into its clutches, and separated him from his own dragon, threatened to set his brain alight with rage.
And as he lay there in the steaming, turbulent water that so closely matched the state of his mind, Sh’zon grasped that his anger sprang from the same root as the short-tempered impulsiveness Rallai had accused him of indulging as a young man, and then a young rider, and still, now, as a Wingleader of his middle Turns. He had become less angry, less rash, and she had recognised that, but still he had not mastered his impetuosity to her satisfaction. Stripped, now, of Kawanth’s tempering influence, he had lapsed back into the unbecoming hot-headedness of his youth. Like the urge to scratch the itching that was also confined to his head, the only way he could overcome it was by force of will.
Sh’zon inhaled a deep breath of humid air through his nostrils. He held it in his chest for a long moment, then blew it out through his mouth. The anger receded, a bit. He bent his attention upon it, recognising the comfortable familiarity of it, the refuge from fear and doubt that submerging himself in wrath presented. He took another breath and let it out. Another. And another. With each breath he felt a little more of the anger leave him. It left him emptier inside than ever. It was a comfort, or at least a distraction. He thought about Rallai instead: Rallai’s keen and sparkling eyes meeting his; the twitch of her mouth when she was charmed by him in spite of herself; the firm press of her fingers on his wrist, on his face, on his chest. Rallai. Rallai.
The thought came into the hollowness of his mind uninvited – a thought he hadn’t wanted to have at all, while so much else weighed upon him – but come it did, and behind it, riding its heels like a feline kit with its claws snagged in a cloak-hem, the rage. Sh’zon tried to shrug them off, cloak and kit both, but the material fact of his Wingsecond’s treachery had already tangled itself through his thoughts, and Sh’zon’s anger at it could not be dislodged. He tried the breathing exercise again, but without success. How could he not be wroth with the brown rider, when M’ric had betrayed him at so critical a moment?
Sh’zon let himself feel the anger. He let it bunch itself in the muscles of his arms and chest, in the clench of his fists and jaw. Then he put it aside without putting it away, keeping it at an easy reach, while he freed himself from the burden of gripping it. M’ric. He spoke the name in his mind until redness no longer rippled from it. Then he set aside the glowing coal at the heart of his resentment, and focused on the man who had kindled it. He hadn’t seen M’ric since the moment in Long Bay’s courtyard when he’d torn the Wingsecond braid from his shoulder. H’ned and L’stev between them had coordinated the search and rescue Wing’s operations over Giskara, and Sh’zon had issued such orders as his own Wing required through J’tron. If anyone outside that circle had noticed him shunning M’ric, they hadn’t asked Sh’zon about it.
He thought about their confrontation at Long Bay. The memory was neither as sharp nor as complete as he would have liked, but three things he did recall in stark detail: the unprecedented anger in M’ric’s eyes when he’d called Sh’zon an imbecile; the flatness of his refusal to help in spite of Sh’zon sincerest plea; and the ominous words he had spoken: I’ve already done more than I should have.
What had M’ric done?
He didn’t have time to consider the question. His dragon’s echoing rumble made him sit up in the hot water, listening. “Kawanth?”
There came no reply, but Sh’zon hauled himself out of the bathing pool, swearing. A minute later, as he was drying himself roughly with a towel, H’ned’s shout through from the ledge confirmed Sh’zon’s suspicions. “Are you awake, Sh’zon? Sh’zon?” The timbre of the other bronze rider’s voice changed as he came through the chambers of Sh’zon’s weyr. At last, he popped his head through the bathing room archway. “Sh’zon?”
Sh’zon finished pulling his shirt over his still-damp head and stamped into his boots, embarrassed to have been caught off-guard. He sleeked his hair back from his brow with one hand, and turned to face H’ned, growling, “I heard you the first time. R’maro’s reached out?”
H’ned was fully dressed in wherhides, his hair combed and face clean-shaven. Either he’d slept well and refreshed himself, or else he was feeling the stresses of the last couple of days much less keenly than Sh’zon. He nodded. “Megrith’s said they’ll delay him from leaving as long as they can, but we need to be ready to move.” He eyed Sh’zon’s dripping hair and damply-clinging shirt critically. “You can’t go between like that.”
“Never mind that,” Sh’zon snapped. “Has someone woken Rallai?”
“It’s mid-forenoon at the Peninsula,” H’ned said. “Almost noon at Southern. Tynerith’s in place. Ipith and Ranquiath too. Valonna’s already aboard Shimpath.” He looked dubiously as Sh’zon again. “Are you ready to go?”
Sh’zon pushed past him, feeling his anger rising again, letting its heat fuel him. “Oh, I’m ready, all right.” he said, snatching up his riding jacket. “Ready to end this once and for all!”
Continue to Chapter fifty-two: Valonna
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