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Chapter fifty-four: Valonna

There’s a common misconception that the moment of injury itself is the most terrible, that afterwards the worst must surely be over, and that things can only improve from that point on.

But wounds fester. Left untreated they can hurt much more than the original blow. Treatment can be torture. Healing can be agony. An injury half-mended can break open again. And scars are the ugly reminder of all the pain that was, and all the pain still to come.

Sometimes – often – things will get much worse before they can begin to get better.


Valonna (Micah Johnson)A Turn or so after Valonna became Weyrwoman, one of her former classmates, a rider named M’shen, lost his right hand in an accident.

He was Seahold-bred, and so proud of the small hold of his origin that he’d taken its name as his own when he Impressed. He begged permission from his Wingleader for leave to help man the family trawler during the crucial spring redfin runs, the success or failure of which would decide if his folk would prosper that Turn or else scrape grimly by. One spring morning, there was an accident with one of the heavy winches that hauled the laden trawling nets up into the back of the boat. M’shen was standing nearby when the winch failed, and one of the cables suddenly released from its tension lashed around his wrist, taking half the forearm off so quickly and cleanly that M’shen simply stood staring at the gushing place where his hand had been for several moments without any understanding of what he was seeing.

He survived, thanks to the quick-thinking actions of his crewmates, who tied off his stump, and the rare presence of mind of his green Zattenth, who managed to convey a clear enough visual of their location far out to sea back to the Weyr to bring help. Healers stopped the bleeding and sewed up the sliced veins and arteries and stitched a flap of skin over the raw end of the place where M’shen’s right forearm stopped. They kept the stump clean with redwort and insensate with numbweed, and dosed M’shen into unconsciousness with fellis. Shimpath spent long days in close contact with the frightened Zattenth, reassuring her that her rider would be fine, that he’d been hurt and he was sleeping, but that he’d heal and would be all right. No one knew if that was true or not. M’shen had lost a lot of blood, and while the slice that had taken off his hand had been clean, the wound had been fouled with scales and fish blood from his shipmates’ desperate efforts to clamp off the bleeding. He burned with fever for three nights before the youth and strength of his body threw the infection off. He woke, disorientated but alive, took food and water and herbs to rebuild his strength and aid the healing, and slept again. He woke and slept, woke and slept, and the puffy inflammation of his stump gradually subsided, and they’d been able to give him less and less fellis, and the Weyr let out the collective breath it had been holding, relieved that a dragonrider’s life had been saved against all the odds.

Then one morning, Valonna went into the infirmary to see how M’shen was doing. She’d never been close to her classmates – too segregated from their easy camaraderie by the colour of Shimpath’s hide – but she’d spent hours sitting by the green rider’s bedside, holding his one remaining hand, both while he slept and in the times when he’d been partially conscious. She found him awake, with his face turned to the wall. He’d been crying. For the first time since the accident, he’d been lucid enough to grasp what had happened to him. His hand was gone, his dominant right hand. He would never again be able to rig Zattenth’s harness without help. He’d never be of use to his family during the redfin runs. He had played a tin fisherman’s pipe, not well but cheerfully; that was lost to him too. He could barely write his own name or cut his own meat or unbutton his own fly. He was eighteen Turns old.

Valonna, two Turns his junior, didn’t know what to say to comfort him. Eventually, she asked him what he would do, and M’shen replied, “I don’t care. My life is over.”

“But life goes on,” Valonna implored him. “It has to.”

And it had.

M’shen’s stump healed. He learned to use his left hand to write and cut and unbutton. His aunt, a clever rigger, invented a type of buckle for Zattenth’s harness that could be fastened and released one-handed. He returned to his Wing. And if he never played the pipe again, then it was only a small bit of sweetness lost to him, and not a reason to stop.

Valonna’s life, too, went on. Because it had to. She might wish, fervently some days, that she could merely turn her face to the wall in despair, but she could not. Madellon’s affairs could coast unassisted only for a day or two; after that, like a dragon gliding on unpowered wings, they would inevitably stall. Crauva and her section leaders kept the Weyr’s basic services running – the cooking and cleaning, mending and maintenance, gathering and gardening – but there were matters that could not be decided without the Weyrwoman’s approval. They had gathered in a pile on Valonna’s desk so orderly that whoever had been adding to it must have squared off the corners every time. Valonna almost felt guilty when her first act was to up-end it. The oldest jobs were at the bottom of the stack, some of them going back to the first day of the Long Bay Gather, and it didn’t seem right to give priority to the more recent additions when others that had been awaiting her attention for days might be more urgent. So each morning, she chipped away at the backlog that had built up, and each morning she found something to add to her burden.

Five days after P’raima’s death, a lengthy report from Weyr Mason Gerlaven found its way to the top of Valonna’s pile. His plan for beginning work on weyrs in the south-eastern quadrant of Madellon was footnoted with a chit requesting payment for powder and labour. Valonna knew that the strongbox locked away in her cabinet didn’t have enough marks to honour all the bills. That meant a trip to the Woodcraft at Kellad to draw on Madellon’s funds. A trip to the Woodcraft meant asking someone to escort her; H’ned, probably. Or she could send H’ned by himself. Valonna dismissed the notion. H’ned had not the proper authority to make a withdrawal. He was not Madellon’s Weyrleader.

Madellon had no Weyrleader.

The south of Pern had no Weyrleaders.

The thought often shouldered into the mundane distractions with which Valonna had been filling her head. Even had Madellon not been full of speculation on what would shake down in the aftermath of Long Bay, Valonna was involved in too many events that threw southern Pern’s leadership – or rather, its conspicuous lack of it – into stark relief.

H’pold’s memorial service was a more affecting occasion than she had thought it would be. Valonna had not cared for the Peninsula Weyrleader, and the overall atmosphere amongst the Peninsula’s riders had been one of sober reflection on H’pold’s life rather than heartfelt grief for its loss, but she was certain that she was not the only one to find the sight of his four smallest children, weeping inconsolably, distressing.

She would not have broached the subject of Peninsula’s leadership had Rallai not done so first, when they met in her ocean-facing sitting room after the funeral. “K’ken’s keeping things running,” Rallai said. “Which is much as it’s always been, and unlikely to change no matter who moves into the Weyrleader’s weyr.”

“Will that be –” The question came out of Valonna’s mouth before she could stop it. She did turn its course, though. “Will it be K’ken?”

The tiny smile that upturned Rallai’s mouth signalled that she knew who Valonna’s question had originally concerned. “Essienth can’t keep up with Ipith.” Then she said, after a pause that separated one remark from another, “It’s for the best, in a way.”

Valonna knew Rallai wasn’t talking about Essienth. “Do you know who would be suitable?”

“I know who wouldn’t,” said Rallai. “But that hasn’t stopped L’dro demanding access to the antidote. He claims Pierdeth’s life is at risk if Ipith should rise while he’s still dragon-deaf.”

The idea gave Valonna a little jolt: L’dro, competing for the Peninsula Weyrleadership. “We can’t spare any more.”

“Even if we could, I wouldn’t give it to him,” said Rallai. “After the way he behaved, K’ken doesn’t even trust him as a Wingleader.”

“I see.” Valonna let another moment lapse before she went on, “I wouldn’t wish L’dro on you, anyway. He was not a good Weyrleader to me.”

Rallai met her eyes. “Is that the first time you’ve said that aloud?”

Valonna realised it was. “I did love him,” she said. “I think part of me still does.”

“Part of you always will,” Rallai told her. “It isn’t –”

She stopped. They were punctuating their conversation, Valonna realised, with little gaps and spaces that neither needed the other to fill. Still, she did complete Rallai’s sentence. “It isn’t enough.”

It was bittersweet, for both of them. Valonna saw the regret in Rallai’s eyes. They clasped wrists: as Weyrwomen, as queen riders. As friends. “Will it be Izath, when Shimpath rises?” Rallai asked gravely.

Valonna lifted her shoulders. “It’s Turns away.” She sighed. “I’m not sure.”

“I didn’t know T’kamen well,” Rallai said. “H’pold was quick to judge him last Turn’s End, but that was H’pold.” She left another space for Valonna to fill.

“I didn’t either,” she replied. “I think he had…a plan. A vision for Madellon. I just don’t think he had the time, before he left.” Softly she added, “They all leave, sooner or later.”

She’d never said that before, either: not aloud, nor even in her mind, where Shimpath would once have heard it. Shimpath would have briskly rejected the notion, for while Fianine and L’dro and T’kamen had all abandoned Valonna in their different ways, it was absurd that her own queen would ever have done so.

“Yet here you are,” Rallai said. Her eyes were still sad, but her smile had a glow to it. “If you could see what I’ve seen over these sevendays, Valonna. How you’ve unfurled, out from under all those shadows. Yes,” she added, when Valonna began to object, “even Shimpath’s. And if she could, she’d tell you how proud she was of you. A queen rider should be more than just a woman whose dragon can win every fight for her.” Rallai shook her head. “You aided Margone when no one else would. You protected Karika. You brought P’raima to his knees. You.” She sighed. “What a ballad it would make.”

There would be no ballad. They both knew that. It could not be permitted, to have a dragonrider’s crimes preserved in song. It would damage by association the reputation of every rider on Pern, and the Weyrs couldn’t afford that. They must close ranks, play down the magnitude of P’raima’s wrongdoing, and allow only the barest facts to become the recorded history of what had really happened.

Valonna didn’t said anything to Sh’zon about her conversation with Rallai. He had taken P’raima’s death worst of all of them – apart from Sirtis, who had been so histrionic once the implications had sunk in that it had taken K’ken, L’dro, and H’ned between them to strap her onto a dragon to take her home. Sh’zon had roared and ranted at first, and punched R’maro so hard that for a moment Valonna had feared they would be interring two Southern bronze riders, not one. Then he had seethed, barrelling around Madellon like an angry herdbeast, snapping at everyone who so much as looked in his direction. Lately, he had settled into a sullen black mood so palpable that it was a wonder a small dark cloud did not actually accompany him everywhere he went. He had suspended himself from the Wings, declaring he was useless to man or beast, dumped his share of the Weyrleader’s workload back onto H’ned, and now spent most of his time taking long straight flights with Kawanth.

She didn’t feel up to confronting Sh’zon with his behaviour. H’ned, basking though he was in the prestige of being the one-and-only Deputy Weyrleader of Madellon, was flailing beneath the weight of T’kamen’s full workload. Sh’zon’s rejection of anything that approached Weyr business amounted to nothing less than a dereliction of duty, and yet Valonna didn’t want to coerce him into a semblance of normality if he didn’t want it. They were all dealing with their affliction differently, and if Sh’zon found comfort in physical contact with his dragon, Valonna wasn’t going to deny him it in the name of forcing him unwillingly back to work.

Tarshe and Carleah were managing their condition better than any of the adults. Rallai, when Valonna mentioned it to her in the correspondence they began to exchange almost daily, speculated that the relative newness of the weyrling bond made it easier for riders and dragonets alike to bear. Sh’zon, by contrast, had been with Kawanth for twenty Turns. He probably couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t shared his every thought with his dragon. Rallai didn’t mention in her note that she, too, had been a dragonrider for the best part of two decades. Valonna thought that perhaps women were simply more resilient than men, but she had – thankfully – too little day-to-day contact with L’dro, the only other male rider who had been poisoned with felah, to know.

There was G’kalte, of course, but G’kalte didn’t count. He’d only taken a small dose of P’raima’s drug. Not a weak dose – there’d still been enough concentrated felah in the polite sip of sherry that G’kalte had drunk to fog his connection to Archidath – but a small enough amount that their communication had not been blocked completely. With concentration, G’kalte could hear his dragon and make himself heard, although he was still sufficiently impaired that he had been excused from his Wing. That, he told Valonna, was why Rallai had appointed him to courier for her: so that he would have something to do besides making himself mentally hoarse shouting at his dragon. From the postscripts on Rallai’s letters, asking how Valonna liked her messenger, she doubted the veracity of G’kalte’s explanation. Not that he would have lied to her, but Valonna suspected that Rallai was quite capable of a degree of subterfuge where finding excuses to send G’kalte to Madellon was concerned.

After the first three or four times, Valonna had stopped telling herself that she didn’t look forward to G’kalte’s visits, although she didn’t admit it to anyone, especially Rallai. In that, Shimpath was her only confidante. The spare moments when they sat together, Shimpath listening raptly as Valonna told her aloud about G’kalte’s latest visit, were their way of coping with each other’s mental absence.

But as unexpectedly welcome a distraction G’kalte’s visits had become, they were just that – a distraction. And they were far more pleasant than most of the business that commanded Valonna’s attention as the days passed.

The initial hope that the felah would just wear off with time had faded. Neither Valonna nor any of the other affected riders had noticed any lessening of the barrier that separated them from their dragons. The only thing that had weakened was their mutual resolve not to resort to using fellis. They had all experienced some symptoms, from nausea and shaking to sleeplessness and anxiety. Valonna, herself, woke every morning with a throbbing headache, a bad taste in her mouth that klah didn’t wash away, and the leftover dread of nightmares she couldn’t remember.

Shauncey, the rake-thin Master sent by the Healerhall to lead the investigation into the two Southern drugs, was a specialist in medicinal herbs, but the nature of felah baffled him. “Most of the symptoms you’re experiencing aren’t real,” he’d told Valonna when he’d first arrived at Madellon. “You think you’re having withdrawal symptoms, but it’s mostly in your mind. You’re expecting symptoms, so you’re experiencing them.” He’d frowned. “But I’ve never known a substance seemingly designed to cause such dependency. We’ve created many drugs based on fellis, but the first thing any pharmacologist does is counteract its addictive and narcotic properties. Whoever devised this felah achieved the opposite. It’s more addictive than unadulterated fellis. You’d have to be an utter incompetent to formulate it that way by accident.”

No one was under any illusion that incompetence had factored into felah’s creation. The herbalists who had created the drug were a mixture of former Healerhall crafters and local experts on Southern’s native flora, and all of them were quick to accuse P’raima of directing the course of their experimentation. The riders of Southern needed little more reason to curse their late Weyrleader’s name, but the revelation that he had deliberately developed felah, and then controlled its distribution, as a means of manipulating his riders certainly didn’t win him any new advocates.

The second hope that had met a gradual demise was the expectation that Shauncey’s Healers would be able to replicate the felah antidote quickly. Five of the six vials of the counter-agent that Sh’zon had taken off P’raima had been handed over to Shauncey’s team. Rallai had the sixth. With Ipith next due of the affected queens to rise, Rallai was most in need of the means to undo the mental block, if only temporarily, during mating. Valonna sensed that there had been some disagreement at the Peninsula over the decision to give all the other vials to Shauncey. If so, Rallai had evidently quelled the mutiny.

Valonna was grateful that Sh’zon, at least, had concurred with the general consensus that Shauncey’s research was the best place for the small amount of antidote they did have, but the Master Healer would still not be drawn on a timescale for recreating the drug. “If we had the formula,” he said, “or the herbalist who concocted it…”

They had neither. The herbalists who had created felah knew nothing of the counter-agent. The strongest coercion Valonna was prepared to sanction wrung no more out of them than they had already been willing to give. They had at least agreed to work with Shauncey on the cure, and seemed to be doing so freely.

Of the formula P’raima had claimed to possess, they had found no sign. Tearing apart his office and personal quarters at Southern had yielded nothing. They theorised that he must have had a bolthole where he’d been hiding out since Long Bay – perhaps even more than one if he had planned to elude capture while still controlling events at Southern. Traces of reddish earth in the treads of the boots he’d been wearing when he died might have pointed to such a location. Or perhaps not. There were a thousand unoccupied places on Pern still where a single man and dragon could make themselves a home, a thousand valleys with wild wherries to hunt and streams to fish and caves to shelter in. Valonna suspected that Sh’zon spent at least some of his time searching, but she doubted he truly believed he would find it.

Then there was Southern. In Valonna’s bleakest nights, in her lowest moments, in her blackest contemplations of her present situation, she could still console herself that at least she was not the Weyrwoman of Southern. The fact that a twelve-Turn-old girl had assumed that title – and the responsibilities that came with it – merely made her feel guilty in her relief. The loss of first P’raima, who had clenched Southern in his iron grip for three decades, and then of both bronze riders who had sought to step into his shoes, had left the Weyr in utter disarray. R’maro, of course, had been removed as Weyrleader almost before he’d been confirmed in the role; he and Maibauth languished in custody at the Peninsula, awaiting trial for P’raima’s murder, Carleah’s attempted murder, and sundry other offences. And D’pantha, for all that he had been innocent of all the crimes for which P’raima had attempted to frame him, was so closely associated with the former Weyrleader – and with the production of felah – that he feared to return to his native Weyr. Valonna wondered to what degree he feared the ire of his daughter, but she could not dispute his reasoning. Southern didn’t want him back. He and Cyniath remained guests of Madellon, though they didn’t particularly want him, either.

Karika would not be moved from Southern. In that, D’pantha had been correct, although perhaps he hadn’t reckoned on his daughter’s resolve being as central a motivation for them to stay as Megrith’s queenly possessiveness. It was as far from being an ideal situation as it was possible to envisage: a child Weyrwoman on a weyrling senior queen, presiding over a Weyr full of half-addled riders still reeling from the events of the last several months. Karika had politely but firmly refused the offer of Madellon or Peninsula riders to support her, and rejected out of hand the notion of Sirtis being assigned to Southern as Acting Weyrwoman until Megrith reached maturity. Valonna couldn’t blame Karika for declining Sirtis, but she did wish there were another adult queen in the south who might have had more to recommend herself. Karika radiated the potential for greatness like a beacon fire, and no one could doubt her commitment to her Weyr, but Valonna knew all too well how quickly an immature, half-trained Weyrwoman could fall victim to the ambitions of her own riders. Once Southern’s bronze riders collected their wits, the contenders for the Weyrleader’s weyr would begin to move on Karika like wherries on a hatchling fire-lizard. However self-possessed, a twelve-Turn-old was simply not equipped to navigate such waters. Valonna worried for Karika almost as much as she would have had she returned her to P’raima’s custody in the first place. She knew she should be concerned for Southern as a whole, too – for the three hundred dragonpairs, and thrice as many Weyrfolk, whose lives had been turned upside down – but she could not spare the anxiety for foreign riders when her own demanded so much from her.

And one of them more than all of the others combined.

If there was a consolation to be found in the events that had shaken southern Pern since the Long Bay Gather, it was that they had dwarfed into insignificance the minor matter of the changes to the Weyrlingmaster’s staff. Everyone was still talking about Southern and P’raima and the felah scandal – for every debate that was hushed when Valonna passed in the dining hall, there were three more being held on an adjacent table to fill the silence it left – but she had heard no one discussing A’len’s appointment as Assistant Weyrlingmaster, nor any gossip concerning C’mine’s dismissal from the same post.

“If anyone asks, we’ll say that C’mine was only ever an interim measure until Jenavally felt ready to come back. And that A’len’s taken over on the same basis in the light of the scare C’mine had with Carleah being taken.” L’stev had offered the story grudgingly, with the inference that he would spin the line as a favour to Valonna, rather than to C’mine. “He’s fortunate that the weyrlings who saw him at Long Bay were too excited about the fact he’d collapsed to ask many questions about why.”

“What happens to C’mine now?” Valonna asked, with a sense of dread.

L’stev shrugged. “I don’t care so long as he stays away from my weyrlings.” He said it in that growl of his that would brook no argument, but less than half a breath later he contradicted his own assertion. “If T’kamen were still here, I’d dump the wretch back in his lap.” He met her eyes. “And if you didn’t have enough to do already, I’d dump him in yours. But since H’ned seems like he’s set on imprinting the shape of his arse on the Weyrleader’s chair…”

“No,” Valonna said. “Absolutely not.”

It had taken her a moment to articulate, even in her own head, why passing C’mine off to H’ned seemed so catastrophically wrong. It wasn’t because H’ned wasn’t the Weyrleader, nor because Valonna feared that he would mishandle C’mine. It wasn’t even because C’mine was her friend. It was more visceral than that. C’mine had been left bereft first by C’los’ death and then by T’kamen’s disappearance. He had been left to fend for himself, and well did Valonna understand the pain of abandonment. But if – as Rallai implied – Valonna had somehow blossomed in the absence of her lover, her Weyrleader, and her dragon, C’mine had collapsed. He’d been left with no one but Darshanth to turn to, and faithful as Darshanth was, he was still a dragon, and a blue, and unequipped to contend with the despair that had led his rider to do what he had done.

C’mine’s encounter with his future self at Long Bay had not been his first experience of timing; merely his most calamitous. L’stev had found the evidence of C’mine’s reckless visits to the past in his weyr: star maps, time charts, and C’los’ diaries, densely annotated with notes on the references that might guide Darshanth between to a time when C’los still lived. L’stev had been nearly apoplectic with fury when he’d brought his findings to Valonna; Valonna had been too shocked, at first, and then too consumed with guilt, to be angry.

They’d taken it all away, though it had wrenched Valonna to see C’mine’s face as L’stev and A’len between them had removed the maps from his weyr walls and packed C’los’ journals into crates and carried them all off. Understanding why it had to be done made it no easier to bear C’mine’s palpable misery at the confiscation of every scrap of information that had linked him to his dead weyrmate’s life. Shimpath had grounded Darshanth, C’mine was confined to his empty weyr, and the Healers Nial and Benner, who specialised in disorders of the mind, had been assigned to treat him.

But Valonna had resolved to keep anyone outside that small group ignorant of C’mine’s true activities. Not even H’ned and Sh’zon, who knew that he had met himself to provide the information that had led to the rescue of their two weyrlings, needed to know the full extent of C’mine’s timing. L’stev was the last rider who would have gossiped; A’len, an old friend of C’mine’s, was close-mouthed to say the least; and confidentiality was a given from the two Healers. No one else needed to know. No one.

She called on him every day, without exception, no matter how busy she was, or how many other people clamoured for her time, or how, with increasing intensity, she grew to dread the visits.

One evening, ten days or so after P’raima’s death, Valonna trod the familiar path from Shimpath’s weyr to Darshanth’s to fulfil the duty to C’mine that she’d laid upon herself. She had dinner with her in a basket, enough for both of them. C’mine’s appetite had fled him, and the Healers had reported he was losing weight, but Valonna had discovered that she could coax him into keeping her company if she brought up her own supper.

It hurt her to see Darshanth so diminished on his ledge. He, at least, could be directly bullied into eating, but fed or not, he looked a shadow, his previously silver-blue hide now more grey than any proper dragon shade. Valonna greeted him with her customary forced cheer, and he ignored her with his customary unforced sadness.

It was dark within. If Valonna had not known the layout of C’mine’s weyr so well, she would have stumbled over the furniture. As it was, she found the table by feel and set the food down on it, then spoke with determined brightness. “Why, C’mine, have your glows all faded again? I’ll have to speak to the Headwoman about the quality of our supplies!” She moved about the darkened cavern as she spoke, finding and opening glow-baskets, and giving them a good shake to wake the spores into light. There was nothing wrong with the glows, but she wouldn’t draw attention to the fact that C’mine plainly hadn’t made the effort to freshen them.

After too long an interval, C’mine said, “I’m sorry, Weyrwoman.”

The light from one of the glow-baskets Valonna had opened picked him out. He was sitting on the floor, his back to the wall, beside the pair of gitar stands that held the instruments he and C’los had once played together. He was clean, shaven, and decently dressed – that much the Healers insisted on every day – but the drape of his shirt betrayed how the flesh had fallen away from his frame. “Galyann’s sent some more of those barkspice rolls you liked so much the other day,” she said. C’mine had eaten nearly half of one, instead of merely shredding it between his fingers as he did with most things. “Why don’t you sit up and have some with me?”

She knew better than to watch him to see if he would follow the instructions. It was better to simply behave as if his compliance were a given. She busied herself with setting out the contents of the supper basket on the table. At Valonna’s request, Galyann always sent things that looked enticing: a salad of sweet greens and long curls of orange fingerroot; thin slices of cured meats overlapping into a fan with a berry chutney; a plaited loaf of seeded bread, still warm, and butter and white cheese. The promised spice rolls were warm, too, and nestled in the basket beside a truss of grapes. A corked jug would hold either juice, chilled klah, or iced milk, but no beer or wine; L’stev had warned her against offering C’mine any alcohol. Valonna arranged the repast neatly, taking plates and cups from the shelves over the cold hearth to set it on.

By the time she had poured them both drinks – it was redfruit juice – C’mine had stirred himself from the floor. He sat in the chair Valonna had pulled out from the table for him, and when she placed some greens, cured wherry, and a tear of bread in front of him, he took a fork obediently in his right hand. But he didn’t apply it to the food on his plate, he didn’t drink from the cup of redfruit juice, and he didn’t look up to meet Valonna’s eyes when she spoke.

She talked about small, inconsequential things, those being the only subjects that wouldn’t make C’mine retreat further into his shell. Benner, the more experienced of the two Healer journeymen who were caring for him, had recommended that he not be reminded of anything that might excite or distress him. It should have been a relief to Valonna to empty her mind of the weighty affairs of the Weyr that occupied her hours and talk of simple matters, but finding topics that did not lead inevitably to a contemplation of C’mine’s current situation, or her own, was a constant struggle. So she found herself speaking of how well the stickleberries were ripening in the kitchen gardens, and how the good weather showed no signs of breaking, and how she was thinking about cutting her hair against the heat and humidity.

She’d moved on to some new inanity when C’mine suddenly said, “You should, Valonna. You should cut your hair.”

Valonna stopped what she’d been saying mid-sentence. “I –” She put her hand up to touch her pinned braids self-consciously. “Do you really think so?”

“They say it’s the worst thing you can do.”

It was a moment before Valonna realised he wasn’t talking about her hair. She lowered her hand. She wasn’t sure if she should prompt C’mine to explain his remark, but she did anyway. “What is, C’mine?”

“Meeting yourself.” He spoke the two words disjointedly, as though he couldn’t quite connect them with each other, and then he said, “I met myself.”

Valonna felt herself go still. Benner had told her that she should not, under any circumstances, talk to C’mine about his timing; that encouraging him to think about his catastrophic encounter with his own future self could send his mind hurtling back to that dreadful moment. The Healerhall had records that even Valonna had never seen until recently: accounts that documented the adverse effects of regular timing on dragonriders’ psyches, and considered so dangerous and inflammatory that only a tiny selection of specialist Healers were ever allowed to read them. Disorientation, anxiety, and recurring nightmares were among the mildest afflictions; some of the riders described in the records, their names redacted, had experienced delusions, paranoia, and even complete mental breakdowns from dabbling too deeply in time. C’mine was right. The records did suggest that a rider who cut timing too fine, who met himself coming, who spent too long in physical proximity to his other self, could suffer a fracturing of his very character as the doubled existence of his dragon exerted a crushing pressure on his mind. And if Benner’s reports of what C’mine had revealed were true, then the blue rider had done much more than simply come too close to himself. He and his future self had spoken, had actually touched. Valonna thought she had detected in Benner’s demeanour an incredulity that C’mine’s sanity had not shattered entirely. She would not entertain the notion that Benner thought it already had.

C’mine was looking at her.

She realised it with a start: half guilt, half fear. C’mine had not looked at her in all the time she had been visiting; not voluntarily, at least, and the clouded hollows that his eyes had become had dissuaded her from bidding him meet her gaze. But the clarity in C’mine’s eyes now was nearly as unsettling as that fog of vague self-loathing and twisted-up pain had been. It was the look of a man who had been thinking, deep beneath tortured waters, and who had now surfaced with the truths he had found there.

“It’s all right,” he said, and put his hand on hers on the table.  Valonna did restrain herself from snatching her fingers away. “I’ve done the worst thing I could do, and I’m still here, Valonna.” He squeezed her hand. “I’m still here.”

“I’m…glad you’re feeling better, C’mine.” Valonna found her mouth was dry, so dry she scarcely had the saliva to speak. It was a reason to retrieve her hand from beneath his. She reached, too quickly, for the juice cup, and nearly knocked it over. They sat in silence for a moment. Valonna was painfully aware of C’mine’s gaze on her. “The wherry is very good,” she said, to say something.

C’mine looked at his plate. Then he said, “Carleah?”

Something in the wistfulness of his tone made Valonna relax half a notch. “You can’t see her, just yet,” she said. “It’s too soon.”

“No. I know.” C’mine bobbed his head. “I understand. But…before?”

“Before?” Valonna queried.

He smiled, a small, regretful smile that did nothing to offset the sadness in his eyes. “Before we go,” he said, and then, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, “Between times again. To close the loop.”

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