Chapter fifty-nine: Sh’zon
A rider of another Weyr may not take part in a queen flight except under the following circumstances:
- Where a bronze rider of another Weyr has inadvertently been drawn into a queen’s flight during a visit to the Peninsula.
- Where the flight has been declared open to riders of other Weyrs, the specific conditions of participation in such flights being defined at the time of that declaration.
- Or where a bronze or brown rider of another Weyr has been specifically invited to participate in the flight, such inclusions being possible only at the special request of the queen’s rider and ratified by the Council.
– Excerpt from the Peninsula Weyr’s Legal Code
Kawanth had just downed his first herdbeast, bowling the panicky animal off its feet with a glancing touch of his claws, and was turning back to alight beside the kicking bullock when the downdraft of another dragon, landing behind Sh’zon, blew an annoying vortex of dust and scorched bits of grass up around him.
He pivoted on his heel to confront whatever idiot rider had let his dragon touch down so close, an angry challenge ready on his lips.
That was where it stayed, for the dragon was Trebruth.
M’ric’s call down from his brown’s neck was low, but urgent. “Don’t let him eat that.”
Sh’zon stared up at him. Mistrust and anger warred with two decades of instinctively following M’ric’s advice. Then he turned back to the hunting paddock, where Kawanth was stretching his head down towards the feebly twitching herdbeast he’d killed, placed both hands on the top rail of the enclosure, and bellowed, “Kawanth! Leave it!”
Kawanth jerked his head up. His open jaws were dripping strings of slaver with anticipation of his meal.
“You heard me!” Sh’zon shouted. He made a peremptory gesture. “Don’t you take a sharding bite!”
Kawanth’s eyes, already tinged orange with killing fervour, flashed red, and the forepaw he’d planted on top of the bullock’s ribcage flexed with displeasure, sinking needle-sharp talons through its hide. Then, ill-temperedly, he released it, knocked the carcass over with an irate sweep of his paw, and stalked two steps towards the fence, looking sullen.
Sh’zon didn’t need to be able to hear his dragon to feel his annoyance. “You’d better have a shelling good reason for that!” he snapped at M’ric.
M’ric was dismounting from Trebruth. “Get him away from it,” he said. “Trebruth will have it, but he’s not going to be able to wrestle it off Kawanth by force.”
“And why should he give Trebruth his Thread-blighted dinner? For that matter, why should I be listening to a sharding word you say?”
“The answer’s the same for both questions,” said M’ric. “Ipith will rise tomorrow.”
Sh’zon stared at the rider who had been his second for so long. Then he shouted, “Kawanth!” His bronze had begun to sidle back towards the cooling herdbeast. He froze in place when Sh’zon challenged him. It would have been comical under different circumstances. “Get away from that beast! Now!” He pointed, with a wide sweep of his arm, at the wherry run on the other side of the paddock. “Go and have a wherry! One wherry!”
He waited until Kawanth took off from the beast enclosure and soared the short distance to the wherry pens. If the bronze had been able to speak to him, Sh’zon knew what he’d have said. Wherry’s dry and tough. I wanted that herdbeast. Then he rounded on M’ric, spitting, “A fine moment you pick to start playing your games again!”
M’ric didn’t recoil at Sh’zon’s hissed accusation. He never had. “Tomorrow,” he said, as though Sh’zon hadn’t just snarled at him. “About an hour into forenoon, Peninsula time.”
Sh’zon wouldn’t admit it, but the timing of it gave him a chill. He still had his friends at the Peninsula, but Ipith never showed much until she actually went to blood her kill. With no more warning than that, he and Kawanth would have been fast asleep in the dead of Madellon’s night when Ipith initiated her flight, scarcely in peak readiness to chase a queen. “And why should it matter to me, now?” he asked. “We’re in no state to go after a green, let alone Ipith.”
M’ric’s steady gaze didn’t flicker with either surprise or chagrin. It made Sh’zon wonder how much he knew about the outcome of Ipith’s flight. He forced down the excitement that surged in his chest. “I thought you’d want to know, regardless,” M’ric said.
“I’d’ve liked to know what P’raima was going to do to us at Long Bay!” Sh’zon retorted. “Was that so much to sharding expect?”
M’ric looked at him searchingly. “But Saren did pass that along. That you shouldn’t drink the sherry.”
Sh’zon stared at him. “Saren?”
“On the first night of the Gather,” said M’ric. “When we were in the officers’ pavilion. She must have done. She told me she’d passed along my warning.”
Sh’zon searched his memory. So much had happened since that night. “I remember she said something about sherry,” he said at last. “She didn’t tell me drinking it would make me deaf to Kawanth!”
“I could hardly have told her that,” said M’ric. Lines of perplexed concern had appeared between his brows. “I was sure you’d got the message.”
“You trusted that to your girlfriend? Your drunk girlfriend?”
“She wasn’t drunk when I told her to pass it on –”
“And what in Faranth’s name were you doing passing it through someone else anyway? Why didn’t you just give yourself the message?”
M’ric waited a long moment before he replied. “I’ve told you,” he said at last. “It doesn’t work the way you seem to think it does. I don’t choose how the knowledge gets to me. This time, it came through Saren. To me as well as to you.”
“But you must have given it to her,” Sh’zon said. “Why couldn’t you just have – I don’t know – written yourself a note?”
“I couldn’t because I didn’t. There wasn’t a note. Saren gave me information that she could only have heard from my future self, coming back to deliver it. And to prompt myself to make the trip backwards. But when I did, I could only fulfil what I knew I’d already done. I couldn’t give Saren a note when I knew I’d only given her information verbally.”
“That doesn’t even make sense!” Sh’zon complained. “When you decided to come back –”
M’ric interrupted him sharply. “I didn’t decide,” he said. “I never decide. I never choose to time it, or to when, or what information I pass on in the process.” He held Sh’zon’s gaze, hard. “Do you understand? I have no choice.”
It made Sh’zon’s brain hurt just trying to comprehend it. He wished Kawanth were there to help him. “But you could choose not to do it.”
“No. I couldn’t.” M’ric took a breath. “If I know I’ve done it, then I have to do it. This is what I’m getting at, Sh’zon. I don’t decide I’d like to time it back to inform my earlier self of something. I only do it if I already know I will. Once I know I must have, then I must.”
Sh’zon looked at him with frank disbelief. “You’re talking nonsense! Those times when we were still weyrlings, and we timed it back to the Peninsula so we wouldn’t be late –”
“I’m not saying you can’t time without first knowing you’re going to do it,” M’ric said. “But doubling on an hour or two isn’t the same as affecting a future that’s already happened by sending knowledge from it back to the past.”
“Why in Faranth’s name not?”
The look M’ric gave him was, for an instant, so filled with self-loathing that Sh’zon felt himself blanch. Then he looked away. After a very long time, he said, “Bad things happen to make sure you don’t succeed.”
There was a finality to M’ric’s tone that would not be disputed. Sh’zon cast about for comprehension. “Then what’s the point?” he asked. “If you can only give yourself information you know you already gave yourself…”
M’ric paused, then said heavily, “It’s fairly useful when it comes to backing winning runners.”
He sounded tired as he said it. The cracks in M’ric’s perpetually calm façade bothered Sh’zon more than he liked to admit. “Forget Long Bay,” he said. “You’ve been aiming me at Ipith’s flight for Turns. You must know what happens.”
“You’ve been aiming yourself at Ipith’s flight for Turns,” M’ric corrected him.
When he studiously did not answer the second accusation, Sh’zon glared at him. “So by your own reasoning, you’ve known what would happen for all these Turns, because your future self told you so. After the fact. After you had any ability to change it.”
M’ric actually smiled. “You’re catching on.” He didn’t sound impressed. “But, no. I’ve never brought myself information from…that far ahead.”
Sh’zon didn’t know what that fractional pause in M’ric’s words signified. “You might have told me before I went all out to catch her the first and second times. You promised I’d win my queen.”
“Yes,” M’ric agreed. “I did.”
It dawned on Sh’zon suddenly. “But not when.” He scanned M’ric’s face frantically, but the mask had gone back on. “Not the first time. Not the second. Maybe not even tomorrow? You don’t know, do you? You’re guessing! You’ve always been guessing!”
“I don’t guess. I extrapolate.”
“Sometimes my interpretation misses the mark.” M’ric looked at him. “I’d assumed you hadn’t had that wine. That you were putting on your dragon-deafness, for the sake of appearances.”
“Putting it on?” Sh’zon snorted. “Tell me, M’ric, in all the Turns and Turns we’ve known each other, when was I ever that good an actor?”
“You have a point.” M’ric kept regarding him with that disconcertingly perceptive gaze. “Which makes it interesting that you don’t seem too despondent about your current condition in the context of Ipith’s flight tomorrow.”
Sh’zon glared at him. “Well, do you have a solution to it?”
“No. But I suspect you do.”
It was intolerable, being put on the back foot by M’ric once more, when Sh’zon had vowed to rid himself of his influence. In the past, he would have spilled everything to his second, counting on him to find any flaws in what he’d planned. But M’ric’s convoluted excuses for his conduct weren’t enough to make Sh’zon trust him again; at least not so soon. That trust would have to be rebuilt. “That’s my business, isn’t it?”
M’ric’s slight smile made Sh’zon want to punch him in the face. “Trebruth thanks Kawanth for the herdbeast.”
Sh’zon scowled at him. “Trebruth can shove it up his arse.”
Kawanth was standing over a ichor-stained patch of grass and plucked feathers in the wherry paddock, chewing morosely. He turned his head accusingly at Sh’zon’s approach, and then, quite on purpose, snorted a cloud of wherry down in his direction. Sh’zon flapped his hands at the clinging bits of fluff. “Don’t be a shaffing tail-fork,” he told his dragon. “Like it or not, M’ric’s done us a favour. If you’d had two or three of them herdbeasts you’d be too fat to chase Ipith tomorrow.”
Kawanth’s eyes began to turn fractionally faster, and he cocked his head interestedly, but even tomorrow was too far away from now for a dragon to react strongly. Sh’zon caught his bronze a glancing blow on the cheek. “I know. You’d still sooner eat that herdbeast. Well, we’ll see about all the herdbeasts you can eat after you’ve caught our queen, hmm?”
It was strange to have precise enough notice of Ipith’s flight to be able to prepare. Kawanth finished his wherries – they were, Sh’zon decided in the end, scrawny enough that two wouldn’t weigh him down much more than one – and then they left the Weyr to visit their favourite bathing spot. Sh’zon could have cleaned Kawanth at Madellon, but the straight flight to the glistening alpine lake they favoured gave him a chance to observe closely how his dragon was flying. Kawanth had developed a minor but annoying tendency to let the final third of his trailing edges bow slightly in extended flight; Sh’zon shouted at him to stop it, and the bronze snapped his sail fully taut to correct the fault. It might not be the sort of habit that would decide a mating flight, but Sh’zon didn’t want to take the chance.
Aggravatingly, there were already two green dragons at the lake. There would have been room enough for Sh’zon to bathe Kawanth on the small gravel beach that lipped the edge of the water but for the fact that the greens’ riders had spread their furs out there so they could have sex. Sh’zon had Kawanth bellow off the dragons, which had the added benefit of startling their riders into quitting their activities. Even from aloft, the sight of two not-especially-young green riders fleeing, naked and flopping, to the cover of their dragons wasn’t one Sh’zon had wanted to witness, and he thanked the fact that he’d built up a reputation for ill humour over the last couple of sevendays.
He scrubbed Kawanth as assiduously as though they were on inspection. He checked his talons, and filed out the jags in a couple of them; there was no sense in scratching Ipith any more painfully than necessary. He dug wherry quills and bits of bone out from between Kawanth’s fangs. Once he was dry from his bath, Sh’zon oiled him all over, let the grease soak in for a while, and then carefully wiped his underside completely clean of any residue, so that Ipith couldn’t slip out of his grasp at the crucial moment. When all was done, Kawanth was the picture of bronze health and virility, his hide glowing with well-being, and Sh’zon was sweaty, dirty, and unkempt from the effort of making him that way.
They returned to the Weyr. Sh’zon ordered Kawanth to lie on his ledge and not ruin his fine condition while he saw to his own. He bathed and shaved, bullied a green rider from T’kamen’s Wing into cutting his hair, and then set out clean clothes on his bed.
Then he sat down with slate and chalk to recall in as much detail as he could Ipith’s previous mating flights. Kawanth had chased her in all five of them; he’d won the second and third, and come frustratingly close in the last two only to have Ipith, under Rallai’s influence, choose another bronze. Well; Suffath was gone, and Quongreth, the one other bronze who’d ever caught Ipith, had only won that first flight because it had become such a chaotic scrum. Sh’zon considered each of Peninsula’s other bronzes, separating them into no-hopers, lively chances, and credible threats. The first category was much the largest. It had to be assumed that every bronze at the Peninsula would give chase, but more than half of them were either too old to match Ipith’s strength or their riders too ineffectual to satisfy Rallai’s exacting standards. Essienth went in the ‘hopeless’ column too, on account of his old wing injury, as did the two bronzes from Ipith’s previous clutch who would be old enough to chase now but far too inexperienced to catch their own dam in flight.
Into the ‘chancers’ list went the majority of the rest – contenders, Wingseconds and Wingleaders both, without obvious claims to either Ipith’s affections or Rallai’s, but who might just be hungry enough to throw everything into a chance at elevation. They were bronzes who couldn’t be ignored, and whose continued presence beyond a certain point would mark them out as dragons to watch carefully.
And then there were the real dangers. Bennioth and Nalelth: strong bronzes, ridden by strong Wingleaders. Tserth, with whom Kawanth had vied most closely during Ipith’s last flight, before Suffath had swooped in to deny them both. And Solstorth, perhaps the dragon to be feared the most: the strapping young bronze who had flown Ranquiath for the first time when he was still a weyrling and sired Tynerith during his second mating with Sirtis’ queen. Solstorth had never contested one of Ipith’s flights, but Sh’zon knew him for a formidable opponent from Ranquiath’s matings. Now, with Sirtis having seemingly thrown over Solstorth’s rider K’sorren in favour of L’dro, there was no reason for the ambitious young pair not to go after Ipith.
Sh’zon spent the afternoon so: thinking about their rivals, thinking about how the chase would unfold, thinking about how Ipith would fly. He even considered making a covert trip over to Peninsula territory to refresh his memory of the terrain. He discounted that, as much to avert any suspicion of his preparations as because Ipith had never shown a preference for the course of her flights, as some queens did. He did contrive to glance at the duty roster on his way to the kitchens for dinner, to find out which dragonpairs would be on the middle and morning watches. He let Kawanth have one more wherry, and made a few casual enquiries of the apprentice on duty about the timing of the next beast drive. The fact that a herd was due to be driven up from the pasturage at the foot of the Madellon range early in the morning was slightly inconvenient, but Sh’zon reckoned he could work with it.
The evening stayed light too late. He hadn’t expected to sleep much, but lying in his bed with the dusk radiance seeping in from outside was an exercise in frustration. He wondered if Rallai knew that Ipith would be rising in a few hours. Probably not. Rallai would be fast asleep, though Ipith’s dawning season would be colouring her dreams. When she woke, she would not have long to take the antidote that would temporarily overcome her dragon-deafness.
In the dim light, Sh’zon put his hand out to the cabinet beside his bed. The top drawer opened silently on its well-oiled runners. Within, beneath layers of socks and underfurs, his fingers encountered the smooth hard shapes of two small glass vials.
He’d only stolen one, really. P’raima had been carrying eight when Sh’zon had frisked him: one for each of the riders, four Madellon, four Peninsula, whom he’d poisoned with felah. The dose that Sh’zon would be drinking before Ipith’s flight was the one that would have been his anyway. The second was just insurance, in case the first wasn’t enough. He hoped he wouldn’t need it, but he was glad nonetheless that he’d managed to secrete two vials, not one, up his sleeve. He was glad, too, that no one had questioned why P’raima had only brought six doses of antidote for eight riders. He supposed that the snake would be out of the bag after Ipith’s flight, but by then it wouldn’t matter; it was easier, sometimes, to be forgiven than it was to ask permission. He would have plenty of time to apologise afterwards.
He did sleep, at least eventually, because he was woken by the shunt of Kawanth’s nose against his feet. Sh’zon started awake. It was still early enough that the light of morning hadn’t yet reached into his weyr, and Kawanth’s eyes were turning peacefully blue. “Did the watchdragon wake you?” Sh’zon demanded, flinging off his sheet.
Kawanth chuffed an affirmative, then withdrew his head from Sh’zon’s quarters. Sh’zon followed him outside into the still, quiet Madellon night-time. The middle watchdragon, Karmunth, was silhouetted against the star-spangled sky up on the Rim. Sh’zon made a mental note to thank her rider for fulfilling his promise to wake Kawanth an hour before morning watch. “Kawanth,” he said, “ask Galdiath at the Peninsula if Ipith is looking…more gold than usual.”
Kawanth tilted his head as he reached towards the Peninsula brown whose rider, F’tren, had been Sh’zon’s other Wingsecond there. Then he sat up, rustling his wings. His eyes began to spin more quickly. Sh’zon didn’t need a vocalisation to understand what that meant. Excitement fountained in his stomach. “Keep in contact with Galdiath. When the bronzes start blooding their kill, tell me!”
He dashed back inside the weyr and scrabbled in the cabinet drawer for one of the vials of antidote. The little glass bottle had been sealed tightly with wax. He broke the seal with his thumbnail, peeled the wax from the cork, and then worked the stopper free. He only noticed that his hands were shaking when the cloudy liquid sloshed over the edge of the vial that contained it. He ran his finger around the lip of the bottle, gathering the spilled antidote, and then touched his tongue gingerly to it. The liquid was bitter and astringent, and his tongue-tip went numb from contact with it. Sh’zon recoiled for a moment. How much did they actually know about P’raima’s so-called antidote? What if it was useless? What if it was dangerous?
What other choice did he have?
He held his breath and tipped the contents of the vial into his mouth, swallowing it quickly and convulsively. It numbed his throat as it went down, and he cast about for something else to chase it. A gulp of water from his night-time mug washed the bitter taste from his mouth but not the numbness, and then he wondered manically if he’d inadvertently diluted the cure.
He sat there. Sweat broke on his brow. He should have experimented with the other vial first. He should have tried it out to see how much he needed to re-initiate contact with Kawanth, how long it took to take effect, how long it would last. He should have –
–ZON SH’ZON SH’ZON SH’ZON SH’ZON SH’ZON SH’ZON SH-
It was like a bellow right beside his ear, a skull-splitting detonation inside his head. Sh’zon staggered where he stood. As if he and Kawanth had been leaning on either side of a door that had suddenly been whisked away, they fell in on each other, collapsing in a heap of flailing thoughts and sensations.
I missed you.
Sh’zon wasn’t sure, when he’d collected himself enough to consider it, if he’d made the statement or responded to it, but it didn’t seem to matter. Kawanth’s mind nuzzled up against his – comfortable, familiar, right – and for a moment Sh’zon just basked in the restoration of the connection he’d taken for granted for so many Turns.
It was Kawanth who reasserted control. Ipith, he reminded him.
Sh’zon could feel his bronze’s slowly-building awareness of the queen, even distant as she was. Awareness of the sensation put a foolish grin on his face. Ipith, he agreed. Kawanth, you know this isn’t permanent yet. This antidote. It’ll wear off in a bit and we won’t be able to hear each other again.
I can hear you now, Kawanth said, with a dragon’s typical interest in the present. And Ipith will rise soon.
Are the bronzes blooding yet?
Then we’d best get you ready.
Sh’zon threw on Kawanth’s light harness, not much more than a single strap with two loops for a safety. Then, silently, and without even troubling the watchdragon, they lifted off over the Rim and out of Madellon.
In the pre-dawn darkness, Sh’zon had to rely on Kawanth’s sight, but the simple act of sharing his dragon’s eyes as they skimmed down the valley made him smile. He probably wouldn’t have needed Kawanth’s vision to find the herd, though. They heard it first, a low thunder of hoofs punctuated by the lowing of bullocks and the occasional shouts of one herdsman to another. Then Kawanth coasted around a bend in the valley wall and the drive spread out beneath them, three hundred head moving in an implacable wave up the valley towards the Weyr, lit sporadically by the pole-borne glow-baskets on the herdsmen’s saddles.
The night-time hid Kawanth from beasts and herders alike. Only the crack of sail as he spilled air from his wings to descend abruptly betrayed him – that, and the wash of dragon-scent that accompanied him as he dived on the herd. A sudden cacophony of terrified bawls, a single scream, the impact of talons on flesh – and then Kawanth was beating upwards again, more labouredly, with a limp herdbeast in his grip. Sh’zon could smell the coppery tang of its blood, mingled with the midden stink of voided bowels. Kawanth rose only as high as the edge of the canyon, landing there with a thump that rattled Sh’zon’s teeth, and bent his head immediately to his prize. The wet slurp as he sucked from the dead bullock’s throat, and the convulsive swallows that rippled his hide as he gulped down the blood, should have been disgusting; instead, Sh’zon revelled in his bronze’s primal pleasure.
The herdbeast drained, Kawanth discarded its corpse and plunged from the lip of the chasm for another. Below, the herd was in full panic, its steady progress towards Madellon routed, bullocks and runnerbeasts fleeing in all directions. Sh’zon had time enough to regret the necessity of blooding outside Madellon, where Kawanth’s actions would have been noticed, before his dragon took a second bullock. Kawanth began drinking from it even as he climbed again with short, powerful wingstrokes. Through their rejuvenated connection Sh’zon could half feel, half see the bronzes at the Peninsula pulling down herdbeasts and latching onto them as Ipith, her hide suddenly blazing gold, stirred red-eyed from her slumber.
It was all the reference they needed. There! Sh’zon cried, and as Kawanth released his second spent herdbeast, he took them from the dark of night to the dark of between and then out into the brilliant sunshine of the Peninsula.
Below, the scene stretched exactly as they’d seen it: bronzes taking bullocks, bronzes draining their kill, bronzes crouching scarlet-eyed, scarlet-taloned, scarlet-muzzled. One more bronze should scarcely have made a difference, but dragons turned their heads up towards Kawanth and hissed their displeasure as he descended towards the Bowl. He did not care. He only cared about Ipith as she uncurled herself from her ledge and thrust herself towards the crimson-washed killing grounds.
Off! Kawanth snapped as he landed near Ipith’s ledge, and Sh’zon hastened to obey. He’d barely released the single buckle of the harness before Kawanth took off again; the leather dangled loose from his neck, then slithered off to land in a heap. Kawanth didn’t care, and neither did Sh’zon. Bronze had eyes only for Ipith; rider only for Rallai.
Sh’zon sprinted up the steps to Ipith’s ledge. Bronze riders already crowded it, a heaving mass of male lust. A few blue and green riders marshalled the edge lest any participant topple over it. Sh’zon joined the pack, then shouldered into it. He would not stand haplessly on the fringe while his queen occupied the centre. Riders jostled him from all sides, some more angrily than others. Sh’zon shoved them right back. He was bigger than them and stronger than them, and his claim was much the greater. He barged aside a grey-haired rider who had no place in this company, and then Rallai was before him, stiff-backed amidst the ruck of riders, her eyes wide and distant as she battled with her dragon’s hunger. K’sorren and K’ken were either side of her, touching her, holding her. Sh’zon wanted to kill them both.
“Ral,” he said, reaching for her hands, disregarding the crush of riders behind him. “Ral, I’m here. I made it.”
Rallai bared her teeth a moment, and then her face relaxed. The part of Sh’zon that was already consumed by Kawanth noted that Ipith had consented to blood her kill. Rallai’s eyes refocused on his face. “Sh’zon?” she asked, as though not believing what she could see. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s all right!” Sh’zon told her. “I’ve taken the antidote. Kawanth can still fly Ipith!”
Then Rallai’s attention was gone again, fixed back on her queen, and as she locked into her connection with Ipith, Sh’zon felt Kawanth’s demands on his attention wax irresistibly strong. The part of him still separate was diminishing steadily, streamers of it sucked inexorably into the whole that was Kawanth. Not yet, he told his bronze, forcing them both to look around, to be aware of their nearest rivals. Not yet! Ipith was flinging aside her second herdbeast and going for a third. Not yet! There were bronzes up on the Rim who would have a head start on altitude, but not on proximity to the queen. Not yet! Ipith was facing east; flying into the rising sun would make it harder on all of them. Not yet!
As Ipith’s muscles began the bunch that would propel her skywards, Sh’zon let his consciousness tip over completely into Kawanth’s. For an instant he felt as though he occupied his dragon’s skin, the power at his disposal, the strength of muscle and sinew, the sensitivity of broad wingsail, the capacity of lungs and hearts; and then Sh’zon the man was gone, not merely diminished, but drowned in the greater symbiosis whose name was Kawanth.
Ipith climbed, and Kawanth climbed after her. The air was thick with bronze wings, with bronze bodies, with bronze musk. Dragons tangled with each other in their haste to put the ground behind them, but Kawanth was too swift, too clever and wily, to foul wings with a rival. He cleared the Rim of the Peninsula a wingbeat behind his queen, narrowing his eyes as he did against the glare of the morning sun. Others hesitated, failing to realise how the sunlight would blind them. Kawanth did not hesitate. He would not fail.
Ipith rolled sideways, barrelling across the path of half her suitors, to veer north from her flightpath. It had been a ploy. A trick, to test her bronzes’ wits. She would not lead them into the sun, blinding herself, making herself a target. She would not fly over the Peninsula’s territory at all. Her route took her north, over endless rolling waves, with no air currents to negotiate, no thermals to ride. There would be no gentle landing sites, no place of refuge at all. A bronze who sought to claim her over that forbidding ocean must have courage and scorn weakness, as she had courage, as she scorned weakness.
Ipith flew, and the bronzes of the Peninsula flew after her, leaving thunder in their wake.
Ipith was one, and they were fifty, but a hundred bronzes could not have matched her grace and majesty. Two hundred could not have equalled her strength and beauty. And then they were not fifty, but forty-nine, the first of their number surrendering to the gruelling toll such pace exacted upon him. He fell away and was left behind, and another claimed his place in the pack.
Ipith beat on, her wings describing shimmering arcs, and far below her double skimmed across the wavetops, a golden kite trailed by a tail of bronze.
Ipith soared, and bronzes dropped away: too old, too young, too slow, too weak. Some went silently. Some howled as they failed. Their cries went unheeded, caught between uncaring sky and unforgiving sea.
Ipith levelled off where the air was thin: high enough. Still bronzes dropped away; still the sky became more blue. They had split: two packs now, off-side and near; a scatter of stragglers falling behind, not giving up.
Ipith flew, golden and glorious.
Ipith flew, and the world ceased to turn.
Ipith slowed, a dozen bronzes still in pursuit. Panting, straining, committed to the breaking point.
Ipith would be caught.
Ipith turned sharp left; veered sharp right. Not playing. This was not play. Catching sight of her suitors, measuring them with her eyes. Seeing everything: the heaving chests, the trembling wings, the drooping heads. Her caustic glare shamed the weakest. She trumpeted her displeasure with them.
Ipith wasted her breath unwisely on derision.
Ipith turned again, too slowly. A bronze lunged. His talons missed her tail by inches. He howled as he fell, his chance gone.
Ipith beat her wings, but her edge had dulled. Bronzes called to her now, spending strength in hope of buying favour. Another lunge. Another near miss.
Ipith was fading, but her bronzes faded too, in rasping breaths and tortured wingbeats. Attrition claimed them in agony and despair. So close. So close. But not close enough.
Ipith no longer fled. Now she surveyed. She judged. She inspected. One of her suitors would win her, but the decision would still be hers. She was still their superior in every way. She would permit one of them to catch her. She would not be beaten. She angled closer to one group, then, unexpectedly, dropped below them. She veered beneath them, leaving bronzes scrambling, colliding with each other, losing momentum as they sought to fall upon her. She rose, elated in her mastery of them –
Kawanth was waiting for her.
Kawanth had been waiting for her for a long, long time.
Kawanth tucked in one wing, slanted across her vector as she rose, and seized her.
Kawanth knew the exultance of victory as he snared limbs with limbs and neck and neck and tail with tail. All around, the thwarted screams of defeated dragons faded into insignificance, and only Ipith’s high, prolonged shriek remained, mingling with his roar of triumph across the rolling, surging ocean rippling endlessly below as the world turned around them.
“What have you done?”
The voice, low and insistent, slipped between Sh’zon and Kawanth like a knife freeing wax from vellum. It peeled them reluctantly apart, though time enough had passed that they no longer needed to cleave so closely together. Then a shove at his chest – Sh’zon’s, not Kawanth’s – bumped him fully out of the blissful union with his dragon.
Sh’zon looked down. His eyes no longer blurred Ipith with Rallai; only Rallai glared back up at him. “Ral,” he began.
“Faranth, Shai, get off me!” Rallai insisted, and shoved him again.
It wasn’t hard enough to shift Sh’zon, but he allowed himself to yield to her push. He rolled sideways, and almost onto the floor. He was perilously close to the edge of Rallai’s bed. “I’m off, I’m off,” he protested, grinning. “But would you budge up? I’m half on the floor!”
Rallai continued to glare at him. Her nostrils were pinched white. That had never been a good sign. “What in the Void have you done?”
Sh’zon blinked. “I told you,” he said. “I had some of the antidote. Thank Faranth it works! I’m guessing I’ll have a few feathers to unruffle with Madellon, but –”
“Oh, Faranth,” Rallai said. She closed her eyes. “Oh, Faranth, Faranth, Faranth.”
“It’s not such a big thing,” Sh’zon told her. “And at least we have proof the stuff works on bronze riders as well as –”
“You Thread-blighted dimglow, Sh’zon!” Rallai cried. “Forget about the antidote! Don’t you understand what you’ve just done?”
Sh’zon just looked at her, perplexed. “Become the Peninsula’s Weyrleader?”
“You idiot!” Rallai covered her face with her hands, distraught. “It was a closed flight! There’s no way you can be Weyrleader now!”
Continue to Chapter sixty: T’kamen
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Dragonchoice 3 news
- Dragonchoice re-read and commentary at AO3 posted 22 December 2017
- The end is nigh posted 8 February 2017
- Happy (nearly) birthday, Dragonchoice 3! posted 5 October 2016
- Venn diagram posted 25 February 2016
- Don’t let me Rosebud; or, why your feedback matters posted 17 February 2016