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Chapter fifty-six: Carleah

A queen in a clutch is like the bonfire in a camp: the centre, the focal point, the source of light and heat around which all the other gather. Yet for all her centrality to the life of the class, she will never truly be part of its fellowship. A queen has no peers but other queens, and queens seldom enjoy one another’s company. For this reason, a queen rider must be prepared to be far more self-sufficient than any other dragonrider in the Weyr.

– Weyrlingmaster T’geon, Management Of The Queen Weyrling


Carleah (Micah Johnson)The dining hall door opened, and Carleah looked hopefully up, as she had every morning for the last sevenday. But it was just A’len, and she sighed, and looked back down at her plate, and at the breakfast she’d been picking at without enthusiasm or appetite.

“I miss him too,” Tarshe said softly, from where she sat on Carleah’s left.

Carleah picked up a crust of toast and bit it determinedly in half. “I don’t care what Low-Brow says. I’m going to sneak in and see him today. You’ll cover for me, won’t you?”

“Always,” said Tarshe.

They gripped wrists for a moment, fiercely.

Across the table, Kessirke flicked her head, as if dismissing something beneath her attention, and turned to talk to Adzai, but when Carleah risked a glance she saw the angry injury in the other green rider’s eyes.

Well, it wasn’t her fault that Kessirke was taking Carleah’s new friendship with Tarshe so personally. It wasn’t even as if they’d been best friends before. And Kess had been so condescending about Carleah’s condition. “It must be so difficult for you,” she’d said, wide-eyed, stroking Irdanth’s neck, “I don’t know how you can bear not to hear her.”

Chenda had been even worse. “It must be like you don’t even have a dragon any more.”

“I have a dragon,” Carleah had snapped back. “And what we have is far too strong to be affected by a little setback like this!”

But no one had dared even hint at the question that she’d been asking herself ever since Long Bay. What if they don’t find the antidote? What if you can never hear Jagunth ever again?

No one except Tarshe, anyway.

“We’ll manage.” Tarshe said it matter-of-factly. “One way or another, we will. Not going to let a little thing like this stop us being the best sharding dragonriders we can be.”

Tarshe’s resolve gave Carleah heart. And after the first few days, when they’d both been in and out of the infirmary so often they might as well have been living there, it had seemed perfectly natural that they’d begun to spend more and more time in each other’s company. None of the other weyrlings had gone through what they’d gone through together. None of them could understand what it was really like to be dragon-deaf.

It was curious, though, Carleah thought, as she tackled her toast with grim resolve, how many of the Wildfires had realigned themselves into new patterns since the arrival – and subsequent departure – of the Southerners, and the events of Long Bay. M’touf had become isolated by the very fact of Atath’s ability to go between, and yet he seemed happier in himself than he’d ever been as the awkward third wheel of K’ralthe and K’dam’s clique. R’von and H’nar seemed both closer and more competitive than ever, while M’rany had begun to spend more time with P’lian. And S’terlion and T’gala  were inseparable, although now that the truth about T’gala’s gender was out, S’terlion had been strictly banned from visiting her weyr alone.

But the change Carleah liked the least was the appointment of A’len as Assistant Weyrlingmaster.

C’mine was gone, and L’stev didn’t want her seeing him. “He got himself in a state at Long Bay when you were taken,” the Weyrlingmaster had told her severely, when she’d asked to see him.

“But that wasn’t my fault!”

“It’s not about fault. He needs to get his head back on straight. Too many people have been cutting him too much slack for too long.” L’stev looked disgusted with himself. “I’m one of them.”

“Well, when will he be back as your assistant?” Carleah pressed.

“He won’t.”

Carleah was honest enough with herself to know that she was being unfair to A’len. She had nothing against him personally. He was a respected Wingsecond, and he’d always been a friend of her da’s. But he wasn’t C’mine, and for that failing alone she resented him.

“All right, weyrlings,” A’len said, writing on the chalkboard in his narrow, slanted print. “New assignments. These are going to be your starting formations from this morning.”

Carleah exchanged a look with Tarshe.

Jagunth had been in a trio with Warjenth and Nerbeth – the two greens closest to her size – since they’d begun training. Now, Warjenth had been placed with Irdanth and Lirpath, and Nerbeth moved into Bristath and Kitlith’s trio. The three bronzes were all together, and Heppeth’s name was listed with the two remaining Wildfire browns. Jagunth wasn’t there at all. Neither was Berzunth.

“I don’t have an assignment,” M’touf complained.

“Nor do –” Carleah began.

“M’touf,” A’len said, over their heads, “you’re going to be getting some one-to-one between training –”

“Yeah?” M’touf asked, brightening.

“– with me,” A’len finished.

M’touf’s face fell.

“Tarshe,” A’len went on, ignoring M’touf’s dismay, “and Carleah. You’re to report to the Weyrwoman.”

“Both of us?” asked Carleah.

“Both of you.”

Automatically, Carleah began to reach out to Jagunth to relay this new development. She stopped herself just before the thought ran into the barrier between them.

“Best we go tell our girls, then,” Tarshe said.

Carleah met her look, noticing, as she always did now, how the bright blue of Tarshe’s irises was almost completely obscured by the blackness of her dilated pupils. “Good idea.”

Jagunth and Berzunth were sitting side by side on the lake shore, slightly removed from the other dragonets. As Carleah and Tarshe emerged from the barracks, Berzunth nudged Jagunth, and the pair of them watched their riders approach with identically blue eyes.

Carleah had caught L’stev looking at their two dragonets with the most screwed-up expression on his face. “What is it?” she’d asked him, and he’d just shaken his head, and walked off muttering something about oil and water. Perhaps it wasn’t normal for a queen and a green to get on so well. But, like their riders, Berzunth and Jagunth had more in common than most dragons.

“What do you think they talk about?” Carleah asked Tarshe. “Between themselves, I mean.”

Tarshe stroked the end of Berzunth’s nose, frowning. “Sometimes I’m not sure they really do,” she said at last. “Not like we’ll talk about this and that. Not even like they talk to us. They…” She paused. “When they talk to us, they form thoughts, like we form sentences. As if they’re having to translate what they want to say into something we can understand. But when they’re talking to each other, it’s…different. They don’t think specific things at each other unless they’re relaying messages. It’s like they think in a cloud, and when they want to share something with other dragons they just let the clouds kind of…intersect.”

Carleah had never heard it described that way before. She shaded her eyes with one hand. “So what one dragon knows, they all know?”

“I don’t think so. Though some dragons are better at keeping private things private than others.” Tarshe shrugged. “I’ve never tried to explain it before. And since I can’t hear any of it right now…” She laughed. “It’s almost peaceful. Ever since I came to Madellon it’s been like having background noise constantly in my head, even with Berzunth helping to filter it out. Two hundred dragons all chattering away.”

“But,” Carleah said, uncertainly, “you don’t want to stay deaf to Berzunth forever…”

Tarshe’s hand went still on her queen’s muzzle. “No. Right now, I’d do just about anything to be annoyed by the background noise again.”

They crossed the Bowl together in silence. As they approached the Weyrwoman’s weyr, where Shimpath lay in solitary golden splendour, Tarshe stopped. “It’s a relief,” she said. “Being able to talk to you about this.”

Carleah wasn’t oblivious to the quiet, firm implication in Tarshe’s voice.  “I understand,” she said, and hoped she sounded grave. “You can always trust me, Tarshe.”

“Aye,” said Tarshe. “I know.”

They greeted Shimpath politely, and Valonna’s queen responded with a little muttering rumble. A moment later, Valonna called out from within. “Please come on in!”

The Weyrwoman was sitting behind her desk, looking weary. H’ned, the Deputy Weyrleader, was leaning over her, stabbing his finger down on a slate. “…just don’t think this one is a good fit,” he was saying, as Tarshe and Carleah came in. “I’d sooner the Istan man, P’larcus.”

Valonna threw Tarshe an acknowledging glance before returning her gaze to H’ned. “From a breeding perspective, H’ned, it’s too close to home. Madellon’s bloodlines are already half Istan.”

“Igen, then,” said H’ned. “Or even the Fortian rider, if you’re insistent that D’pantha goes somewhere cold.”

“Not Fort,” Valonna said. She spoke with finality. “I’m less concerned with punishing D’pantha than I am with bringing strong stock into Madellon. Half the bronzes of Fort have flown one of their junior queens, but Derinth isn’t one of them.”

H’ned raised his eyebrows at that. “If that’s your criteria…”

“It’s part of it,” said Valonna. Then she inclined her head towards Tarshe. “And I thought I’d talk through the candidates with Tarshe, since she has a stake in the outcome.”

“Well, we need to decide soon,” said H’ned. “The faster we see the back of Cyniath, the happier I’ll be. Weyrwoman. Tarshe.”

Carleah waited for an acknowledgement, but H’ned strode past her as if she weren’t even there.

“My apologies, Tarshe, Carleah,” said Valonna, when he had gone. She passed her hand briefly over her eyes. “Please, sit down.”

“It’s early to be wrangling,” said Tarshe.

“Early is all there is, when you’re dealing with the other Weyrs,” said Valonna. She smiled wanly. “A disadvantage to being the most westerly Weyr. But H’ned is right. We need to make a decision quickly on this bronze rider trade.”

“Weyrwoman,” Carleah said, not certain if she should speak, but too curious to hold her tongue. “Shouldn’t Southern be responsible for trading D’pantha?”

“Ordinarily, yes,” said Valonna. “But there aren’t many riders who’d want to transfer into Southern in its current state. And I see this as an opportunity to bring some new blood to Madellon. If we’re to learn anything from Southern, it’s that no good can come of too narrow a breeding pool.”

“That’s why you want my opinion,” said Tarshe. “You’re setting up suitors for Berzunth.”

Valonna looked pained for a moment, but then her brow smoothed out. “Yes,” she admitted quietly. “I wish it weren’t so bald a thing as it is, but Madellon’s bronzes…”

“It’s not the bronzes,” said Tarshe. “It’s the bronze riders.”

They both smiled at the same moment, a rueful little expression. “There are a few of the younger ones,” said Valonna. “But I’d like you to have the option of more than a few.” Then she said, quickly, “Unless there’s already someone…”

“No,” said Tarshe. “They’re all silly little boys.”

Valonna actually laughed at that.

“What about an open flight?” Carleah asked, and when both queen riders looked at her enquiringly, she continued, “My da said that all junior queen flights used to be open to all bronzes from whatever Weyr, back before the southern continent was settled. That’s why the northern bloodlines are more diverse.”

The Weyrwoman looked at her, and for a moment Carleah feared that she’d spoken out of turn. Then Valonna smiled. “He taught you so much about the world,” she said. “C’los. He’d be so proud of you.”

The compliment made emotion flood Carleah’s chest with an abruptness she wasn’t expecting. “I…thank you, Weyrwoman,” she whispered.

“That’s why I asked you to come here today,” said Valonna. “L’stev is concerned that formation practice won’t be safe for you and Jagunth, while you still can’t hear each other. He wasn’t sure what to do with you.” She transferred her gaze to Tarshe. “It’s time you began to learn about a weyrwoman’s duties. And you have more to learn than most, given the isolation of your upbringing.” She looked back at Carleah. “I thought you might help Tarshe learn. And learn alongside her.”

“But I’m just a green rider,” Carleah said, unthinkingly.

“So was your father,” said Valonna. “And I know there were a hundred times when T’kamen wished he could still turn to him for counsel. There is no such thing as just a green rider, Carleah. We can’t allow our thinking to be so rigid. P’raima…” Her mouth made a twist of distaste, as if even saying the name was unpalatable to her. “P’raima was deranged, but in some ways he was right. If dragons can no longer go between, then Pern will be a very different place come the Pass. We can’t afford to be constrained by traditions that have no value in that future.”

“Then you don’t think our dragons will ever be able to go between?” Tarshe asked.

“We have to be prepared for the possibility,” said Valonna. “In a couple of sevendays, when Telgar’s weyrlings are old enough…then we’ll know.”

“But why?” Carleah burst out. “Why can’t they go between? What happened?”

“I wish I had an answer for you,” said Valonna. “I don’t. I’m sorry. And you two have an even greater burden to bear.”

She didn’t have to say what she meant. In the glowlight of Valonna’s office, the dilation of her pupils wasn’t quite so noticeable as in bright sunlight, but Carleah was aware of it nonetheless.

“Are the Healers getting anywhere?” asked Tarshe.

“Master Shauncey tells me that they have identified several of the ingredients of the antidote,” said Valonna. “And the Masterhealer himself promised me that Shauncey is the Hall’s very best mind when it comes to herbs and drugs. We just have to be patient a little while longer.”

Tarshe made a dismissive sound. “I’ll bet my cousin isn’t feeling very patient about it.”

“Not especially,” said Valonna, with a sigh. “Oh.” She moved several documents on her desk, eventually uncovering one with the seal of the Peninsula Weyr affixed to the bottom. “R’maro’s Justice is set for the end of the sevenday. You’ll both be called as witnesses, unless you don’t feel you can face him again.”

“I don’t have a problem with it,” Tarshe said, “although I never saw him or Maibauth. Only those two goons.”

The mention of the Southern bronze’s name gave Carleah a shiver. She could still see him rearing above her in the jungle clearing, still feel the swipe of his forepaw bare inches over her head. “I don’t have a problem, either,” she said stubbornly.

“Will he be exiled?” Tarshe asked.

There was a curious note to her voice. Valonna must have noticed it, too. “He killed P’raima in front of half a dozen witnesses,” she said. “That alone would be enough to have him sent to Westisle for the rest of his life.”

“Some might say he did Pern a favour, killing P’raima,” said Tarshe. “With all he did. And all he would have done.”

“Pern, perhaps,” said Valonna. “But P’raima wasn’t R’maro’s to execute. There’s still no actual proof that P’raima killed Margone, and even if there were, revenge isn’t justification enough to take a life in cold blood.”

Tarshe’s nostrils flared slightly at that. Carleah wondered how much the Weyrwoman knew of the truth about her family’s exile. “How many other riders are there on Westisle?”

“Four,” said Valonna. “Two Benden riders who’ve been there nearly thirty Turns. One from Telgar. And one from the Peninsula.”

“What did they do to be sent there?”

Valonna took a short breath. Then she said quietly, “The Benden riders were involved in a plot to poison their Wingleader.”

“Faranth,” said Tarshe.

“Did they actually do it?” Carleah asked. She knew it was ghoulish, but she couldn’t help herself. “I mean, did they kill him?”

“They were only conspirators,” said Valonna. “A third rider was found guilty of the murder. He was sentenced to Separation.”

“Separation,” said Tarshe. She shook her head. “I don’t know what that is.”

Carleah did. The word alone made revulsion squirm queasily in her stomach; so much so that she didn’t even want to show off her knowledge.

“It’s the worst punishment there is for a dragonpair,” said Valonna. She was still speaking very softly. “Separation from each other. Physical, and…” She stopped. “And mental.”

“But that’s punishing the dragon as well as the rider,” said Tarshe. “Surely the dragon wasn’t in on it too.”

“His dragon could have stopped him. He didn’t.”

“But what if his dragon didn’t know?” Carleah asked. “Or didn’t understand? I mean, some dragons aren’t…altogether…bright.”

Valonna was already nodding. “Separation can only be imposed on dragonpairs brown and above. Blues and greens aren’t thought to be…”

Carleah was offended by the idea that Jagunth wasn’t intelligent enough to understand right from wrong just because she was a green. “Clever enough?”

Tarshe snorted. “There’s browns and bronzes in the Wildfires not half as smart as their riders think they are.”

“A queen has to do it,” Valonna went on. “To force the dragon to obey the terms of the sentence. To keep him from going to his rider, or speaking to his rider. Or hearing his rider.”

“A queen can do that?” asked Tarshe. She sounded sick.

“The compulsion has to be renewed,” said Valonna. “Regularly.”

Tarshe actually recoiled at the notion. “Queens have been keeping that Benden dragon apart from his rider for thirty Turns?”

“No,” said Valonna. “He died a few months after he began his sentence. He and his dragon just…gave up.”

They sat there, all three of them, in silent, mutual horror.

“But it’s not the same for us,” said Carleah, with more defiance than she felt. “We’re not apart from our dragons. We can still talk to them. Just not in our heads.”

“And it’s curable,” Tarshe added. “We know there’s an antidote.”

“It’s just a matter of time before the Master Healer finds it,” said Carleah.

“And then we’ll be back to normal,” said Tarshe.

Valonna’s eyes moved between them as they spoke. “You’re right,” she said. She reached across the desk and squeezed each of their hands. “Both of you.” Then she squared her shoulders. “Now, let’s look at these northern bronze riders, and see if any of them sounds like someone we’d like to have around.”

The morning passed in a blur. After they’d discussed the candidates for exchange with D’pantha – and settled on K’letan, a bronze rider from Telgar – Valonna took them through the most pressing issues of Weyr management currently occupying her time. They talked about Madellon’s problems with livestock supply, the blasting work due to commence soon in the south-eastern quadrant of the Bowl, and the imminent arrival of a new Harper to take up the position of Weyr Singer – though Carleah, to her own dismay, wasn’t familiar with the journeyman, whose last assignment had been in eastern Peninsula territory. They discussed how two newcomers to the lower caverns – both pregnant women – were settling into their new roles at the Weyr: one well, the other less so. Then Valonna showed them her work on Madellon’s primary tithe request. The lists and calculations of exactly what the Weyr would need each Turn for the next five went on for pages and pages, and so did the mapping of those requirements to the resources of each of Madellon’s three major Holds. Carleah was captivated by it all. It was as if a door to the inner workings of Madellon had been flung open, and she’d been invited to peer inside.

Tarshe was less enamoured of it. When the lunch hour came, Valonna sent them to the dining hall to eat, rather than all the way back to the weyrling barracks. They queued up at the serving hatches with everyone else, and then sat down at the end of one of the long communal tables to eat. “All those population charts and graphs,” Tarshe said, layering meat and bread on her plate. “I can’t make head nor tail of them.”

“I thought it was fascinating,” said Carleah. “Especially the projections for how many new dragons there’ll be in three Turns’ time, when Shimpath’s clutched again and Berzunth has her first hatchlings.”

“That’s what I don’t understand,” said Tarshe. “There were twenty-five dragons in our clutch, and nineteen in the one before that. So why does the tithe request only account for an extra thirty new dragonets by 105? Shouldn’t the population growth double with two queens clutching?”

“Oh,” said Carleah. “The more queens a Weyr has, the smaller the average clutch size. There’s a formula for estimating eggs-per-clutch based on the number of queens in a Weyr, their relative ages, and what point it is in a Pass or Interval.”

“How –” Tarshe began, and then stopped. “Your da?”

“No!” Carleah said, chagrined. “There was a note about it on one of the Weyrwoman’s charts!”

Tarshe looked at her for a moment, and then laughed. She shook her head. “I reckon you should have Impressed a queen. You’d make a far better weyrwoman than me.”

“I don’t want a queen,” said Carleah. “I have Jagunth.” She looked at nothing for a moment, trying not to reach for her dragon. “But sometimes it doesn’t seem fair. How greens are treated as if they’re stupid. And green riders, too.”

“No one’s ever going to think you’re stupid, Carleah,” said Tarshe.

“No one ever thought my da was,” said Carleah. “But he wasn’t taken seriously, because he was a green rider. Not until T’kamen became Weyrleader; and they’d been friends forever. It’s not fair.”

“I suppose it isn’t,” said Tarshe. She frowned. “Do you think we’ll ever find out what happened to him? T’kamen?”

“I don’t know,” said Carleah. “Maybe we won’t. I think –”

“Weyrlings out of the barracks?”

The challenge came from behind her. Carleah turned in her seat, an indignant protest already leaping to her lips. “No, we’re…”

She stopped. The rider coming towards them was T’rello, and he was grinning at them.

“Wingsecond,” Tarshe said, laconically.

“Weyrwoman,” T’rello replied.

Tarshe snorted. “Not yet I’m not.”

“Tarshe, then,” said T’rello. “And Carleah. Do you mind if I join you?”

Tarshe looked at Carleah , raising an eyebrow.

“If you must,” said Carleah, taking Tarshe’s cue.

T’rello put his plate down on the table, then stepped over the bench and sat down beside Carleah. For a fleeting moment, Carleah wished that Kessirke were there to see T’rello, sitting next to her. Then she banished the unkind thought.

“How are you both?” T’rello asked.

“Dragon-deaf,” said Tarshe. She reached casually over and took a fried tuber off T’rello’s plate. “Still.”

“What about you, Carleah?” T’rello asked.

“The same,” said Carleah. “How’s Santinoth?”

“Still a broken dragon,” said T’rello.

Carleah looked askance at him.

“He’s not been the same since Giskara,” said T’rello. “He’s never been afraid of anything before. You taught him the meaning of fear.”

Carleah wasn’t sure if he was mocking her or not. “I didn’t know it was him,” she said defensively. “I thought it was that Southern bronze. How was I supposed to know you were there?”

“Well, I nearly wasn’t,” said T’rello. “We’d only just been reassigned to that sector. You have no idea how surprised I was to actually find you!”

“Saving the day,” Tarshe said, with complete aridity.

“You didn’t need much saving,” said T’rello. “If it had been R’maro and not me, I think Maibauth would still be a quivering wreck right about now.”

Despite herself, Carleah stiffened again at the mention of the Southern bronze’s name. It annoyed her. How long would it be until she didn’t react that way?

Tarshe rescued her. Taking another fried tuber from T’rello’s plate, she stood up. “Best we get back to the Weyrwoman, Carleah,” she said. “If the Wingsecond here can bear to let us go, that is.”

“You know I have no authority to command you,” T’rello said. “Even when you’re stealing my lunch.”

“And don’t you forget it,” said Tarshe.

Carleah waited until they were almost all of the way out  of the dining hall before she said anything. “He’s so shameless, Tarshe.”

“He’s a bronze rider,” said Tarshe. “What do you expect?”

“But could he be any more obvious? Berzunth’s not even a Turn old yet. He’s playing a really long game with you.”

“With me?” Tarshe asked. She stopped, and Carleah stopped too. “What makes you think it’s me he’s interested in?”

“You’re a queen rider,” said Carleah. “Of course he’s interested in you.”

Tarshe shook her head. “T’rello’s not interested in me.” She shook her head, smiling strangely. “You really didn’t notice?”

“Notice what?” Carleah asked, blankly.

“The teasing. The body language. The way he deliberately sat next to you. T’rello’s not after me, Carleah.” Tarshe laughed. “It’s you he fancies.”

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