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Chapter fifty-five: T’kamen

Conventional wisdom tell us that you shouldn’t show your hand unless the play requires you to do so.

This isn’t always true. If you show an opponent who’s folded to your bluff your cards, you torment him with the knowledge that he made a mistake.

Show him the hand that would have beaten his anyway, and perhaps he’ll fold sooner next time.

But never show any of your cards until the hand is over, however much you may want to bait your rival.

– Excerpt from Dragon Poker: Stratagems

26.08.22-23 (26TH TURN, EIGHTH PASS)

T'kamen (Micah Johnson)Between.” It wasn’t the first time R’lony’s gruff voice had broken on the word. The shake he gave his head, and the agitated sweep his hand took through his hair, were motions he had repeated more than once, too. His stare shifted from T’kamen’s face to the middle distance and back again. “Between,” he said, yet again, and appended, at last, “Faranth’s mercy, T’kamen. It was your blighted fire-lizard did it?”

T’kamen smoothed his hand over Fetch’s head. Fetch nuzzled happily into the contact, though his contentment had as much to do with the candied nuts filling his belly as with T’kamen and Epherineth’s approval. “He saw the way,” he said. “Led Epherineth through like a harbour pilot guiding a clipper.”

“It’s been under our Thread-struck noses the whole sharding time,” said Ch’fil. He was leaning up against the fireplace in R’lony’s office, his arm stretched along the mantel. “For a hundred and Faranth-knows how many Turns.”

“And the boy,” R’lony said. “M’ric. He and Trebruth can do it, too? It’s not just some residual ability of Epherineth’s from being bred in the Interval?”

T’kamen hesitated. Once he and Epherineth had made their first jump, with Fetch’s help, to Harper’s Rock, returning to Fiver Hold the same way had been less daunting. Being prepared for the extended stay between reduced the visceral terror of knowing that they were reliant entirely on the fragile guidance of a juvenile fire-lizard. M’ric had been frantic to try it out for himself, and T’kamen feared that he already knew enough to attempt it by himself were he to refuse him. So he talked him through the steps, more than once, until M’ric was bored and annoyed with it, and Epherineth coached Trebruth, and Fetch chattered at Agusta – though whether their lizardy interaction mirrored what riders and dragons shared, he didn’t know – until at last T’kamen was satisfied M’ric was ready to try.

It didn’t go well. Once airborne, Trebruth wheeled in a holding pattern for far longer than necessary, apparently struggling to overcome the deep-seated aversion to between that their training had instilled in them. T’kamen had begun to wonder if he and Epherineth should take the young pair between with them first, to give them confidence, when Trebruth finally vanished. But he’d been gone barely half a heartbeat when Epherineth lifted his head sharply, reporting with alarm that Trebruth was panicking in the grasping blackness of between.

T’kamen didn’t know exactly what Epherineth did. He felt him reach, somehow, towards Trebruth. He sensed how Fetch was enfolded in that sending, perhaps to link with Agusta. And he caught a glimpse of a reference, of themselves against the backdrop of Fiver’s stone pillars, forced into Trebruth’s consciousness to replace the visual of Harper’s Rock that had frayed from his frightened focus. Moments that felt like hours passed before Trebruth erupted back into the air above them, his eyes ashen with terror, and his hide not a much healthier shade.

M’ric didn’t completely disgrace himself, but he did throw up once he and his dragon were safely down on the ground. His description, in a shaking voice, of how the featureless oblivion had stretched away in every direction matched T’kamen’s own experience. But M’ric, lacking T’kamen’s Interval training, had panicked, and in panicking, distracted Trebruth from his supreme effort of will and concentration. Only Epherineth’s sudden intervention, M’ric said, had saved them, pulling them backwards out of between, shaken and dishevelled..

T’kamen didn’t think it had happened quite as M’ric had perceived it. Epherineth hadn’t pulled Trebruth backwards. Between, even in T’kamen’s limited human understanding, didn’t work that way. Epherineth had only steadied Trebruth in his fright and supplied a clean visual to replace the one of Harper’s Rock he had lost. But Epherineth had done something that T’kamen had not known he could do. He had reached between with his mind, from outside, to touch a dragon there. Dragons were usually unreachable while between; T’kamen had only ever heard of queens being capable of bespeaking dragons in transit. He didn’t know if it was the fire-lizards that had enabled Epherineth to reach Trebruth, or if there was some deeper connection between bronze and brown that even he couldn’t grasp. But he didn’t tell M’ric any of that. He’d had a bad enough scare without knowing that his life, and his dragon’s, had been preserved by a skill T’kamen hadn’t even known that Epherineth possessed. And if T’kamen had feared that M’ric would treat the ability to go between with too little regard for his own safety, then at least, for now, he had no worries on that account.

“They will be able to,” T’kamen said at last, in answer to R’lony’s question, and then added, “but not easily. They need to be trained to use between safely.”

“And you’ve cut M’ric loose?” R’lony demanded, his heavy brows rising incredulously. “With that knowledge, with that power?”

“He won’t use it,” T’kamen said, flatly certain. “M’ric’s not stupid –”

“He’s a teenager,” R’lony growled. “He’ll boast of it to anybody who’ll listen.”

The insult to M’ric made T’kamen stiffen. R’lony’s wilful ignorance of the young man’s complicated character irritated him. “He will not,” he said, reining hard back on his ire. “I made it clear to him that he couldn’t tell anyone.”

“You made it clear?” R’lony snorted. “The boy outranks you, T’kamen. You have no power to command him.”

Ch’fil interjected brusquely. “If T’kamen told him to keep his mouth shut, R’lony, I’ve no qualms he will.” He met T’kamen’s eyes. “Rank be blighted, there’s no doubting that boy’s loyalty to you.”

T’kamen nodded to the remark, grateful for Ch’fil’s intervention. “I’m well aware of the significance of what Epherineth achieved today. That’s why I brought this straight to you.”

Even as he said it, he recognised his mistake. He had reported directly to Ch’fil on their straight flight return from Redyen Hold, and Ch’fil had decided the matter should go to R’lony. Almost, T’kamen expected the Marshal to make some withering remark about the nature of his loyalty, but while R’lony’s eyes tightened enough to make clear that he had not missed the implication, he didn’t dwell upon it. “I’m not sure you do,” R’lony said. He looked briefly conflicted, his brow descending again over his deep-set eyes, and then he said, “And I’m not prepared to risk either of you unleashing this on the Weyr, by design or by mistake.”

T’kamen felt Epherineth’s surprise and then chagrin as the influence of a more senior dragon came down upon him. He didn’t need to ask to know what it was. “You’re having Donauth lean on him?”

The compressed line of R’lony’s lips spoke as eloquently of his unwillingness as his words. “Would that I could keep Strategic affairs to Strategic branch, but he’s not to go between again without permission.”

R’lony’s tacit admission that Epherineth could not be quelled by any dragon less than a queen did at least give T’kamen an instant’s satisfaction. “What do you mean, Strategic affairs?” he asked. “I know we can’t spring this knowledge on the Weyr without warning, but dragons can go between again. That’s not a matter to be kept to Strategic.”

“Then you’d bring S’leondes into this confidence?” R’lony asked, shaking his head. “Doesn’t he have enough of an advantage already? Do you want to grant him greater adulation and acclaim for his deliverance of dragonriders than he’s already gathered?”

“I don’t like him much more than you do, R’lony,” said T’kamen, “but that doesn’t make it right to keep this from the man who represents six-sevenths of Madellon’s dragonriders.”

“And what about the one-sixth he doesn’t? What about what’s right for them? Faranth, man!” R’lony flung his arms up in frustration. “You’ve been here long enough now to know how we’re treated. You know what a demoralising, downtrodden life it is to ride a bronze or brown dragon.” He took a breath, and his eyes beneath his shelf of a brow glimmered with the distant prospect of hope. “But if the Seventh’s dragons could go between – if browns and bronzes could teleport – if Strategic could prove its worth in that way – maybe we’d win back some honour. Maybe we’d be worthy of respect again. Maybe S’leondes would have to admit that we deserve our place on Pern.”

“And if blues and greens could go between maybe fewer of them would die before their riders were twenty Turns old,” said T’kamen. “Between doesn’t belong to Strategic division, R’lony.”

R’lony rounded on him. “But you do.” His pale blue eyes had gone cold again. “You belong to Strategic. And Strategic is mine.”

T’kamen felt the muscles of his face strain against the desire to glower. “No,” he said, softly. “I won’t be a chess piece in this game you and S’leondes play. This is too important – between is too important – to be a prize for you to gloat over and hoard to yourself just to spite him.”

“You have the gall to accuse me of hoarding it to myself? When you stand there in all your self-righteousness and declare you won’t use it to help your fellow riders? You Thread-blighted hypocrite!”

“You’re the hypocrite, R’lony,” T’kamen said, low and steady. “Do you even feel it when a fighting dragon dies? Do you care at all?”

“Do I feel it?” R’lony near bit off his tongue with the curt snap of his words. “By the First, T’kamen, if you weren’t half a shaffing cripple already…” He stood there, radiating fury, his chest heaving with it. “I’d love to feel it. I’d love that luxury. But I can’t. It’s been twenty-three Turns since I was in a position to feel it every time a dragon got hit by Thread and died. Twenty-three Turns since I was reduced to this.” He gestured angrily at the charts and maps, the mundane and necessary tools of his mundane and necessary work. “They aren’t dragons any more, T’kamen. Do you understand me? They’re tallies and registers. Rosters and assignments. Casualties and losses. Do you know why every dragonpair is assigned a number? Because it’s easier to put a line through a number than it is through the name of a dragonet your own dragon sired less than two Turns ago. If I felt it a tenth as much as I’d like to, I couldn’t do this job at all. So no, T’kamen. I don’t feel it. But if you accuse me of not caring again, just because I don’t wail like a woman every time another fleeting green or blue life comes to an end, I swear, cripple or not, I’ll smash your shaffing face for you.”

For a time, neither of them spoke. T’kamen escaped, for a moment, the instant of regret he felt at his accusation by wondering if R’lony had ever allowed himself such an outburst before. Still, he felt he was right. He wouldn’t yield to R’lony’s self-serving argument. If restoring between to the dragonriders of Pern was the reason he and Epherineth had come to the Pass, he would restore it to all riders, not just a select few. R’lony’s ancient rivalry with S’leondes clouded his motivations far too much for T’kamen to trust him. He took a breath, preparing to resume the argument.

R’lony beat him to it, though his tone had turned petulant. “I don’t know why I’m even wasting my time trying to convince you. Seems to me that now we know fire-lizards are the key, you’re hardly necessary.”

“Shard it, R’lony!” T’kamen said. “Do you have any idea what an irresponsible notion that is?”

“The very first dragonriders must have had to figure out between for themselves,” R’lony pointed out stubbornly. “I don’t see why we couldn’t do the same.”

“The first dragonriders didn’t have to weave a connection between rider, dragon, and fire-lizard,” T’kamen said. “And who knows how many of them were lost before they got it right. Faranth.” The thought of how L’stev would have reacted to a weyrling who declared he could go between untutored gave him a reflexive shudder of dread. “Even M’ric wasn’t rash enough to think he could work it out for himself.”

R’lony dismissed that. “M’ric’s not ten minutes out of the barracks. If there’s one thing C’rastro does right with the weyrlings, it’s scare them off even thinking about between. Of course he’d look to you to hold his hand.” His obdurate stare made it plain that he felt no such need for guidance.

T’kamen was gripped with the desire to shake sense into him. He settled for a glare. “You’re an idiot, R’lony.”

“You’re both idiots.” Ch’fil’s quiet words sliced across their dispute. They both turned to him, equally stung, but Ch’fil went on before either of them could speak. “You’re blind to what should be obvious. You’re not going to be going between, R’lony, with or without T’kamen’s help.” His shrewd gaze settled on R’lony. “Geninth’s too old.”

R’lony went quite still, and a stricken look entered his eyes. “But it’s different, now,” he said. “A fire-lizard –”

“Can guide a dragon,” Ch’fil said, looking to T’kamen for confirmation. T’kamen nodded slowly, realising himself, with a sick jolt in his stomach, the implications of Ch’fil’s calm reasoning. “And only guide it. A helmsman’s no good to a boat that’s been beached for twenty-five Turns.”

R’lony sat down bonelessly in his chair, as if the comprehension of Ch’fil’s words had taken all the starch out of him. “Faranth,” he muttered. “Faranth, I thought…” He didn’t complete the sentence. He looked pole-axed.

Ch’fil didn’t. T’kamen realised he must have followed the thought through long before today, perhaps as long ago as the first time T’kamen had mentioned his hypothesis that fire-lizards were the key, because the known limitation that would prevent Geninth from ever going between applied to Stratomath, too. Both browns were far past the age at which the ability to go between atrophied for lack of use. T’kamen kept his tone carefully neutral. “How many of Madellon’s dragons are young enough?”

“Three bronzes,” Ch’fil replied when R’lony, still dumbstruck in his disappointment, didn’t. “Bularth, Stenseth, Monbeth. Vralsanth’s nearly nine; he’d be borderline. We’ve had, what, thirty-some browns Hatched in the last ten Turns? R’lony?”

At Ch’fil’s prompt, R’lony gave a start from his misery. “What? Browns?” He pulled a record hide from a cabinet beside his desk, and ran his finger down it. He looked relieved to have something to do. “There are twenty-nine under ten. Twenty-four under eight.” He raised his chin to look unblinkingly at T’kamen, stubbornness characterising his jaw once again. “Twenty-seven dragons young enough in the Seventh.”

“And four or five hundred in the Fighting Wings,” T’kamen pointed out.

“Ah, Faranth, the pair of you are like whers with a bone!” Ch’fil  said. “Stop snarling at each other and sharding well think.” He glared at them both, his deep-graven scars adding severity to his expression. “R’lony, T’kamen’s right about the dangers of between. You know that as well as I do. He and Epherineth are the only dragonpair on Pern who know anything about it, and we’d be idiotic to think we don’t need them.” Then, giving neither of them a chance to respond, Ch’fil continued, “But T’kamen, you’re just being naïve. You don’t want to be R’lony’s pawn. No man does. But you’re a piece here, not a player. You have no influence in this time and this Madellon. Maybe that’ll change. Maybe it has to. But for now, while you possess the spark of between, you’re the most important dragonrider alive, and until that spark can be coaxed into a flame, you need to be protected.”

“Protected?” T’kamen demanded. “From what?”

“From yourself, at the first,” Ch’fil said. There was a little of disgust, a little of admiration in his voice. “You’ve spent your own health and your dragon’s in pursuit of between. Coming here could have killed you. Alanne nearly did. You risked yourself and M’ric between without leaving any indication of what you were trying to do. What if you’d killed yourself, and denied Pern any chance of regaining the use of between?”

T’kamen didn’t like to admit how close it had nearly come to that. “It was my risk to take.”

“Oh, aye, and look how well that’s been going for you! No one’s going to write you a shaffing Ballad for getting yourself killed before you do something useful!” He snorted with disgust. “You need protection, T’kamen, but you also need patronage. All you’ve gained from breaking your own trail is a bad leg and an ugly dragon.”

T’kamen wouldn’t have taken that remark from almost any other dragonrider. Even coming from Ch’fil it made him bristle. He realised that R’lony had gone silent and still, as if he knew that T’kamen was more likely to heed Ch’fil’s counsel than his own. “I don’t deny that I need help,” he said doggedly. “Or I wouldn’t have come to you.” He looked at R’lony. “But between shouldn’t be used as a weapon in your war with S’leondes.”

“And you think it wouldn’t be if he knew about it?” Ch’fil asked. “I’ll tell you what would happen if you brought S’leondes in on this secret now. You wouldn’t even be a pawn. You’d be a tunnel-snake caught between two hatchlings; R’lony one end, S’leondes the other. And the greater good has never been the priority of either one of them.” Ch’fil’s words were jagged edged, softened not at all by any concern for what R’lony might think of him for saying them. T’kamen glimpsed the taut anger in his face. But Ch’fil went on, heedless of the damage he did to his own standing with R’lony. “You have the only spark in a world that’s been without fire for a hundred Turns. If a fight breaks out over it, it’ll get snuffed out. So you let R’lony – and me – help you to build it up. Let it become something that can be shared with everyone – every colour, every Weyr – in shelter and safety.”

“Amongst Strategic,” T’kamen said. He tasted the sourness of his own words.

“Aye, at first,” Ch’fil said. “With riders we can trust to keep their mouths shut. And in privacy, without the eyes of the world trained on us while we feel our way.” He cast a look in R’lony’s direction. “And when we know what it is that we have, then we bring S’leondes into it.”

R’lony had been right to let Ch’fil do the talking, T’kamen thought. Ch’fil’s bluntness was more persuasive than anything R’lony could have said. He still didn’t like the feeling that he was being recruited into R’lony’s war against S’leondes, but reluctantly, he conceded that Ch’fil was right. He had little power of his own, and while there were a few riders he thought he could honestly call his friends, they were too new for him to trust implicitly. “I’ll choose the riders to be trained,” he said.

“There are only twenty-seven,” R’lony objected.

T’kamen shook his head. “I’ll keep it to the Seventh, but I’m no Weyrlingmaster. I can’t train that many riders at once.” And then he laughed, recognising what they’d all overlooked. “Not to mention, where on Pern are we going to find another twenty-seven fire-lizard eggs?”

They were all silent a moment to contemplate that, but only a moment. “Alanne’s due a delivery tomorrow,” R’lony said. “You’ll go, Ch’fil. Seems you’re more persuasive than me.”

“What about Blue Shale? That was where you went for fire-lizards in the Interval.” The thought, connected as it was to Sarenya, caused T’kamen a fleeting lance of pain. “The Beastcraft at Blue Shale.”

“Not for a long time.” Ch’fil sounded tired. “You have to remember T’kamen, we…well. You’ve seen Little Madellon.” He looked at Fetch. “You’ve seen what fire-lizards do there.”

“No better than wild wherries,” R’lony said. He, too, was looking at T’kamen’s fire-lizard, with distaste. “Stinking carrion-eaters.”

T’kamen wondered how many riders would balk at the idea of deliberating Impressing a fire-lizard. “If they’ve been vilified for this long, it can’t only be because of Alanne’s fair.”

The two brown riders avoided his gaze, and each other’s, for a minute. Then Ch’fil said, “They used to take the bodies out to sea.” His scars deepened. “Then they started washing up.”

He didn’t need to be any more descriptive than that. When dead creatures washed up on a beach – shipfish, the larger types of eel, and the occasional deep-water monster – it never took long for the local wildlife to find them. Fire-lizards might not risk competing with wherries for an eight-foot shipfish carcass, but the massive corpse of a dragon would provide plenty for all. Well could T’kamen imagine the revulsion dragonriders had felt at the rotting, water-bloated corpses littering the beaches, not only as food for scavenging lizard fairs, but as graphic evidence of dragons’ mortality to the coastal people of Pern. “They didn’t just fall out of favour,” he said. “You wiped them out.”

“Not me personally,” R’lony said, in a growl. “It all happened long before my time.”

T’kamen wondered how it had been done. Poison, he supposed; easy enough to put out laced meat for the local fairs to devour. He found himself resting a hand protectively on Fetch’s back. “There must be beaches along the unpopulated coast with lizards still.”

“Not much of that left,” said Ch’fil. “Unpopulated coast. When your average field has no more than an even chance of going a Turn without smoking holes in it, the sea starts looking like a good place to rely on for food.”

“M’ric’s queen,” said R’lony. “When will it be old enough to mate?”

T’kamen didn’t know. “I don’t have much knowledge of fire-lizards,” he admitted. “My…” He groped for the right epithet for Sarenya, then gave up. “I knew a Beastcrafter with fire-lizards, but they were both males.”

“Found or bred, it doesn’t matter,” said Ch’fil. “Fact is, we won’t be training anyone to go between overnight, let alone all the dragons of Pern.”

“I’ll need to keep working with M’ric.” T’kamen met R’lony’s disapproving frown levelly. “Scowl all you like, R’lony. He’s a danger to himself untrained. And to the secret of it, with him flying under S’leondes. Donauth’s command or not, if Trebruth were to try dodging a Thread…”

“You should never have got him involved,” R’lony said censoriously.

“Nonetheless,” T’kamen said. “I did, and he is.”

“This thaw’s going to make it harder for M’ric to find time away from his duties,” said Ch’fil. “Best hope for another cold spell before the winter’s out. And that he keeps himself safe in Fall.”

The foreknowledge T’kamen couldn’t share with them in no way lessened his quiet pride when he said, “He’s more than capable of that.”

“Still,” said R’lony. “Neither of you are to go between without permission. I’ll find time in your roster for you to work on it, but you’ll do so under Donauth’s scrutiny. And circumspectly.”

With that, R’lony dismissed him. Ch’fil remained, perhaps to finalise the Seventh’s preparations for tomorrow’s Fall; perhaps to discuss, in T’kamen’s absence, the full implications of the news he and Epherineth had brought them. That notion didn’t sit entirely right with T’kamen. He was still uncertain of the wisdom of keeping between confined to Strategic, even temporarily. He didn’t trust R’lony. But he did trust Ch’fil, and in the end, he supposed that would have to be enough. If nothing else, he thought, as he made his halting, stiff-legged way back to Epherineth’s weyr, Ch’fil had been right about the damage he’d caused them both. Perhaps R’lony’s support would smooth the way now.

Still, the chessboard in T’kamen’s weyr was an uncomfortable reminder of the role he had consented to play. El’yan must have been there, for the chessmen were arranged in a different configuration from how T’kamen had left them, most of them cleared to the side. He studied the remaining pieces, trying to see not only the route to a checkmate, but the underlying lesson El’yan sought to teach him. It struck him, as it had before, that the rules of dragon chess, at least, had resisted the upheaval of the Weyr’s hierarchy. The Weyrleader was still the most powerful and far-ranging piece, and the game could still only be won by mating the Weyrwoman. The thought made wryness quirk T’kamen’s mouth.

El’yan’s lesson eluded him, and he realised he was more tired than he’d thought. Epherineth was already asleep, wearied as much from his mental efforts as from the long straight laden flight back from Redyen. T’kamen went to bed.

The morning came with brightness and warmth enough to wipe Madellon clean of the last of the slush. There were grumbles in the dining hall, when T’kamen broke his fast, that the afternoon’s Thread would fall lethally true, unhindered by cold or rain. He looked for M’ric but did not see him, though Epherineth touched minds with Trebruth and reported that he seemed recovered from his fright.

It was strange to prepare Epherineth for Fall, with all that had changed. Thread was scheduled to fall over a slice of Madellon’s territory no more than an hour’s flight away, and even the Seventh would not have to depart the Weyr until after noon; still, it seemed faintly absurd that they should have to fly straight to meet it. Not, perhaps, in the same scant few heartbeats that a journey between had taken when Epherineth had been able to find his own way, but no more than twice that span of time.

He wondered how long it would take between to return to the Interval.

The thought came swift and unbidden, and swiftly after it came the giddy rush of possibilities. They could go back. Back to Madellon as they knew it. Back to the office he’d deserted, the queen Epherineth had abandoned, the weyrlings they’d left to fend for themselves. And they wouldn’t go empty-handed. They had won back the secret of between. There were fire-lizards in the Interval, lots of fire-lizards, enough fire-lizards for every dragonpair on Pern. Dragons would not have to do without between. The internal grievances that ate at Pass Madellon’s dragons like a canker would no longer be the inevitable consequence of between’s loss. Everything would be set right, past, present and future. Everything.

You know that it is not possible. Epherineth’s voice, gentle, but unyieldingly firm, intruded on his spiralling vision, stopping it cold.

T’kamen leaned hard against his neck, careless of the oil that he had been working into the soft hide, the unceremonious destruction of the fragile fantasy he yearned after crushing him. He couldn’t speak, but he knew he bled bright pain into their shared awareness.

Epherineth spoke for him. You know this as well as I do. We are here. We cannot change the yesterday that shaped today. We have not. You know this. You have always known this.

And it was true. They couldn’t change the events that had led them to the Pass, nor the circumstances in which they had found themselves. Yet comprehending a thing was not the same as accepting it. The slenderest crack of hope had remained in T’kamen’s heart, and their trip between yesterday had shouldered it wider. Through that vulnerability, his longing for everything they had lost had escaped. It hurt. It hurt, and he did not have to tell Epherineth. He hurt with him. Dragon-memory or not, Epherineth’s heart pined as brokenly for Shimpath as T’kamen’s did for Sarenya.

T’kamen raised his head. His brow was sticky with oil. “But we can shape tomorrow.”

We must. Simply by being. Epherineth turned his scarred muzzle upwards. And neither of us needs be so alone.

His tone was determined. T’kamen followed his gaze. Several of Madellon’s greens were preening up in the wintry sunshine. It took him a moment to identify Suatreth among them. “You want to go after her?” he asked Epherineth. “Now?”

I can’t very well when she isn’t about to rise.

“But now?” If Epherineth had meant to divert him from his sadness, he’d succeeded. “Do we even have time before Fall?”

Epherineth radiated amusement. She’s a green. How long do you think it will take me?

“You haven’t caught a green in more than a Turn.”

Then it won’t take you long, either.

It was so rare for Epherineth to actually make a jest that T’kamen was taken aback. “Do I at least have time for a bath first?” he asked, torn between annoyance at the lack of warning and relief at the distraction.

Epherineth nosed T’kamen’s cane towards him from where it was leaning against the wall. No.

So T’kamen was still dirty from seeing to Epherineth when he limped over to the weyr where a gang of male riders waited, darting glances up towards Suatreth, in a loose circle around the green dragon’s rider. He made it twelve before several more joined and he lost his count: all blue riders. It crossed his mind fleetingly that Suatreth’s rider must not have invited any other Seventh riders to her dragon’s flights. She turned slowly where she stood, assessing her suitors, and then her eyes fell on T’kamen. For a moment he wondered, with a slump back into his earlier bleakness, what she must see: the lame, dirty, disgraced rider of a scarred and over-large Seventh Flight bronze. For a moment he feared to meet her gaze, afraid of what he would find there. But then he did. Her snapping dark eyes sparkled with pleasure, and her cheeks dimpled as she grinned at him. And then she was gone.

Afterwards, T’kamen reflected wryly that Epherineth had been right. It hadn’t taken either of them long. Suatreth’s rider didn’t seem to mind, by the way she pillowed her head on his shoulder with a sleepy murmur of contentment, while the flashes of a little green dragon, snugged and smug in Epherineth’s grasp, that overlaid T’kamen’s vision from time to time suggested that Suatreth was not displeased, either.

He realised with a start that fingers were exploring his face. The green rider’s fingertips smeared in the oil and sweat mingled on his brow. “Suatreth says your dragon is all oily, too.”

T’kamen wiped his forehead with his sleeve. His shirt was still half on, his trousers more than half off. “I’m sorry,” he offered. “Epherineth didn’t give me much warning.”

The green rider gave a gentle snort. “It’s a marvel he noticed her at all, for all the times she’s waved her tail in his face.” Her breath was warm against T’kamen’s neck as she laughed soundlessly. “I’m glad he did. And not just because Su’s been randy for your bronze.” Her fingers had reached the short scruff of his beard. “You were handsomer before you grew this.”

Suddenly disconcerted, T’kamen reached up and seized the young woman’s hand. He felt her muscles tense, and softened his grasp on her fingers. “I’m sorry,” he said again, and then groped for the green rider’s name. “It’s Leda, isn’t it?”

Her body went even more taut; too late T’kamen realised his mistake. “Faranth,” she said, and sat up, shaking his hand free of hers. The rumpled bedfurs fell away from her. She was more properly dressed than T’kamen, which was to say that she was properly undressed. “You didn’t even know – Faranth!”

“Leda,” T’kamen said, as she snatched the bedfur around herself. “I’m –” He caught himself before he apologised yet again. “That was crass of me. I didn’t have but a moment’s notice that Epherineth was going to chase. I’d have washed up first at the least, otherwise.”

The last came out with dismay and Leda paused, sitting on the edge of the bed, the fur clasped above her breasts. “Well,” she said, sounding slightly mollified, but only slightly. “I’ll take that as an apology, I suppose.”

T’kamen tried not to sigh. This, he recalled, was why he’d never been a rider to encourage his dragon into chasing greens. He had a rare knack for offending his flight partners in the post-coital awkwardness. “I –” he began, but Leda was already talking.

“It’s just that it’s not as if I’m Aurel or Stevanti,” she said. “Or G’mend, for that matter, though I suppose you wouldn’t have liked to chase Ullerth anyway.” She frowned at the perplexed expression T’kamen supposed he must be wearing. “Aurel. Stevanti. They asked you to join their dragons’ flights. Oh, don’t tell me you’re one of those men who only remembers a dragon’s name and not her riders?” She shook her head crossly. “Rhosanth and Tennatath’s riders. Well, I suppose you wouldn’t know, if you haven’t flown them. And you haven’t flown them, because they’d have said if you had!”

T’kamen was lost. Do you have any idea?

None. Epherineth didn’t sound very interested.

“And you shouldn’t,” Leda went on, before T’kamen could draw breath. “Fly them, that is. I mean, go ahead if you want to, it’s no hide off my tail, but Aurel only offered because Rhosanth likes big dragons, and Stevanti because she wanted to make a trophy of your underfurs.” She paused. “Figuratively, that is. I don’t think she actually collects underfurs. Faranth knows she’d have a mountain if she did. And as for G’mend, who even knows what goes on in that little creeper’s head. What I’m trying to say is, it’s not as if you have that many options, as far as green riders who actually want to bed with you. Except me. Because I do. I mean, I did. Want to bed with you. That is.”

She said the last part in a rush. T’kamen blinked. “Thank you,” he said, and stopped himself short of adding, I think.

“Oh, ‘thank you’, he says,” said Leda, with another snort. “Well, you should be thankful. And why did you grow that beard? It makes you look like all the rest of the crusty old Seventh riders. How old are you, anyway?”

T’kamen touched his beard self-consciously. “I cut myself if I shave, where the scar’s still proud,” he said. “And I’m thirty-two. Thirty-three now, I suppose.”

“Thirty-three,” Leda said. “Faranth. Cassah said it’d be like sleeping with my grandfather. She’s not far off.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “You’re not my grandfather, are you? I mean, you being from a thousand Turns ago…”

“A hundred and twenty-five,” T’kamen corrected her wearily, and then added, “And it’s not likely.”

“No one there wanted to bed with you, either?” Leda asked, and then grinned.

T’kamen grasped that she was teasing him. It was unsettling, to have this young woman, virtually a stranger to him, joshing with him as if they were old acquaintances. “I did all right,” he said, more grumpily that he meant.

Leda’s chagrined look pained him. “I didn’t mean –” she started. “That is, I mean…I was just joking.” She put out a hand to him. The fur slipped down. “I do think you’re sexy. Even with the scars and the grey hair and the stupid beard.”

It was the most genuine compliment, and the most brutal criticism, T’kamen had ever received in the same sentence. “You’re a very beautiful young woman,” he said dutifully.

“Well, I know that,” said Leda. “Fifteen blues is not a bad turn-out. Though most of them won’t bother next time if there’s even a sniff of a chance that your bronze will be chasing again. No one likes losing to a Seventh dragon.”

The memory, fading already, of how Epherineth had swept dismissively through the pack of dragons to claim Suatreth made T’kamen wince. He wondered if any of those blue riders would bleat about his conduct. T’kamen discovered he didn’t care if they did. He and Epherineth had taken few satisfactions since arriving in the Pass. Epherineth’s imperious demonstration of superiority, even against a gang of runty blues, was balm to his ragged pride. So, too, was the implication that they would be welcome at Suatreth’s next flight. And the fact that Leda was still sitting there, the bedfurs slipping casually off her body in a way that T’kamen suddenly realised wasn’t accidental.

He knew a moment of ambivalence. A flight was one thing, but Leda was a very young woman. He doubted her twentieth Turn was far behind her. He was, in every sense, much older than her. Her casual catalogue of his flaws made it clear how aware she was of that. He was a bronze rider, still under sentence for crimes known to all. He was no prize.

Yet she still wanted him.

That knowledge stopped his sober analysis dead. His obvious unsuitability for her faded as a reason for him to abstain in the face of her frank desire. It halted his careful deliberation before he had even begun to question his own reasons for desiring her. She was a woman and she was young and she was willing. He was a man, and he was weak.

“Leda,” he said. He put his hand out to her, not touching her. If he scrupled no further, he would at least have her explicit consent.

Her eyes opened wider with pleasure. She took his hand. Her fingers were soft; her breast, even softer, when she placed his hand upon it. “T’kamen…” She sighed out his name, and doubt prickled him at the sound of it, but not enough to make him stop. He fumbled after Epherineth’s opinion, but Epherineth was as beguiled by Suatreth’s candid admiration as T’kamen was by Leda’s. By her softness, and her warmth, and her willingness. And nothing else. It wasn’t enough for either of them. But it was enough for now.

Perhaps it was lucky that T’kamen didn’t have the stamina of a twenty-Turn-old. It meant that when Ch’fil came clattering into the flight weyr, cursing and swearing over the dim light and the clothes scattered on the floor that almost tripped him up, he found them at rest. It was a rude enough interruption nonetheless. “T’kamen, you dirty bastard, you in there?”

T’kamen had enough time to roll out of bed and fling the bedfur over Leda before Ch’fil abruptly opened the glow-basket, flooding the weyr with light. “Faranth, Ch’fil,” he complained, shielding his eyes. “Some notice?”

“If your blighted dragon wasn’t all loved up you’d’ve had some.” Ch’fil shot a glance at Leda, watching from beneath the bedfur, and then grabbed T’kamen’s arm. “A word!”

T’kamen didn’t even have time to grab up the trousers he’d discarded. Fortunately the flight weyr’s entrance was hidden from the Weyr at large by a chance kink in the passage leading to it, and Ch’fil dragged him only that far. “What is it?” he asked, aware of and unhappy with the sulky tone in his own voice at being disturbed.

“Tell me you’re not a man who holds grudges,” Ch’fil said. He sounded shaken. “Tell me you’d not do a terrible thing in vengeance for past wrongs.”

T’kamen looked at him blankly. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“That!” Ch’fil gestured at T’kamen’s leg. “Your face! Epherineth’s! You didn’t seek revenge for them?”

“How could I?” T’kamen asked. He was too sated and stupid from his energetics with Leda to puzzle out Ch’fil’s meaning.

Ch’fil’s eyes raked his face, and then some of the tension went out of him. “It wasn’t you, was it?” he said. Relief, tinged with remorse, overlaid his tone. “You have no idea what I’m talking about.”

“Not the first.”

“Faranth.” Ch’fil took a deep breath, then braced his shoulders. “I’ve just been to Little Madellon.”

T’kamen recalled their conversation of the previous night. It felt like days ago. “Did you get any eggs?”

“No. Didn’t find any eggs. Didn’t find any fire-lizards.” Ch’fil met T’kamen’s confused gaze, and at last he recognised the horror there. “Just Alanne. Dead. Alanne’s dead.”

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