Chapter sixty-nine: T’kamen
Thank you for your latest report. Things seem to be moving in a promising direction. I trust you recall I asked you to be circumspect with regard to how active a role you take in developments at the Weyr; that notwithstanding, the songs you’ve been sending are excellent. I would hope it will not be too much longer until we are in a position to debut them openly – all over Pern.
– Letter from Masterharper Marlaw to Weyr Singer Tawgert
“This again?” C’los asked.
T’kamen shrugged, staring out past him. Below, the dense timberlands of Kellad rippled in the wind, blanketing the land in every direction as far as the eye could see. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“That’s always what gets you into trouble, Kamen. I told you. Let me do the thinking. Then you can do the doing.”
“Is that wise?”
“Don’t you trust me?”
“Of course I trust you. It’s only…”
“What? That I’m a green rider?” C’los asked. “You think I’m not on your side any more?”
“The Commander did achieve what you always talked about,” said T’kamen. He looked across the fire-height to where S’leondes stood at the edge of the roof, his hand on M’ric’s shoulder. “Respect for blue and green riders.”
“He gets them killed a lot, too,” said C’los. “Don’t eat the pie.”
“What does pie have to do with it?”
“It’s gone too far.” C’los pointed. “Look.”
T’kamen followed his finger, but he couldn’t see anything in the sea of undulating trees. The smell of ashes wafted up from the forest. “There’s nothing there, Los.”
“Yes, there is,” C’los said patiently. “You’re still too high up. I’m closer to the ground than you. You can’t be afraid to fall.” He pointed again, in a different direction. “See?”
As T’kamen watched, M’ric took a step off the edge of the roof. “No –” he began, starting forwards, but it was too late. He pitched over the edge and was gone.
“We’ve done all this before,” said C’los, unperturbed. He was eating a gigantic wedge of pie. “Nothing’s really changed. Well, I suppose a few things have.”
“Everything’s different,” said T’kamen. “And I thought you said not to eat the pie.”
“Doesn’t matter to me any more,” said C’los. Scarlet berries were oozing out of the pie and dripping onto his shirt. “And the cards are all the same. Just shuffled in a different order.”
“I’m a terrible poker player.”
“It’s not poker. It’s just a trick. You keep them watching what one hand’s doing and they won’t notice what the other one’s up to. Anyway, you hold all the aces.”
T’kamen looked at the hand of cards dealt on the table in front of him, three face up, two face down. The Five of Eggs. The Weyrwoman of Harps. The Wingleader of Stones. “These aren’t aces.”
C’los rolled his eyes. “It’s a figure of speech. And it’s still a strong hand.”
T’kamen looked at S’leondes. “He has a lot more cards than me.”
“The rest of the deck,” said C’los. “But he doesn’t know what you have in the hole.”
T’kamen turned over the fourth card. The Ace of Spears was a snarling scar-faced bronze dragon. “I think he might have guessed this one.”
S’leondes was holding out a card to him.
C’los plucked the card from the Commander’s fingers and inspected it. “Huh.” He handed it to T’kamen.
The Weyrling of Eggs. The face on the card wasn’t clear. T’kamen offered it back to C’los.
“Keep it,” C’los told him. “You still have one card left.”
T’kamen turned it over. The Weyrleader of Spears bore his own face. “Very funny. This isn’t a winning hand.”
“I told you, it’s not poker,” said C’los. “I can’t do this for you any more, Kamen.”
“Why not?” T’kamen asked. “You did it last time.”
“I know,” C’los said. The pie was gone, but the stain on his shirt remained, crimson and spreading. “But you know the drill. You’ll be fine. You’ve done this before and you can do it again.”
“But without you to think for me,” T’kamen said. “Los…”
“I’ve done the thinking,” C’los said gently. He turned away, smiling. He’d always had the most dazzling grin, ever since he was a boy. “Now it’s your turn.”
T’kamen reached after him, grabbing for his shoulder. “Los –”
But his hand passed through C’los’ shoulder, as if through smoke.
“Wake up, Kamen. Wake up. You’re –”
“– having a dream. Wake up!”
T’kamen startled into consciousness.
Leda was leaning over him, shaking his shoulder. “Come on, Kamen, wake up!”
He pushed her hand away. “I’m awake. I’m awake.”
“Thank Faranth,” Leda said, and sat back on her heels. She’d cracked open the glow-basket, and a narrow slice of light fell over her face. “Are you all right?”
T’kamen sat up. He passed a hand over his face. “I’m fine.”
“You must have been having a nightmare,” Leda said. “You were thrashing around and talking in your sleep…”
“Not a nightmare,” T’kamen said abruptly. He felt for his cane in the semi-darkness, and got up out of bed.
“You’re sure you’re all right?” Leda asked, behind him.
T’kamen limped over to the hearth.
Fetch raised his head, his eyes gleaming green. He was curled comfortably in the hollow he’d scraped for himself in the warm sand that incubated the fire-lizard eggs. “All’s well with them?” T’kamen asked.
The brown extended a wing protectively over the clutch, then laid his head back on his forearms, but his eyes never ceased their watchful whirling.
T’kamen eased himself carefully onto the floor next to the tub of hot sand. He brushed the closest shells lightly with his fingers. “The Five of Eggs,” he said softly. “The Clutch.”
“Who’s Los?” asked Leda, from the bed.
T’kamen looked across at her.
“You kept saying that name.”
“He was my friend,” T’kamen replied slowly. “My brother.”
“In the Interval?”
“He died,” said T’kamen.
The Weyrwoman of Harps. That was Dalka. The Wingleader of Stones; Ch’fil? The Ace and Weyrleader of Spears were clear enough. But who was the Weyrling of Eggs? M’ric?
“It makes no sense,” he said.
“Your dream?” asked Leda.
T’kamen said, “He was trying to warn me.”
Leda sat back. “You mean his…ghost?”
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” said T’kamen.
He didn’t. He’d never held with that sort of superstition. The C’los of his dream had been no more real than the manifestations of S’leondes or M’ric he’d seen there. T’kamen’s own mind had conjured all three phantasms and imbued them with life…and perhaps with knowledge that his conscious mind hadn’t yet grasped.
He levered himself back up off the floor and limped carefully back to bed. “I’m sorry I woke you,” he told Leda, as he settled himself next to her again.
She put her arm across his chest. “I worry about you sometimes.”
You can’t be afraid to fall.
T’kamen smiled in the darkness. “I’ll be fine.”
R’lony and S’leondes were nothing if not predictable.
“What’s the point of a few fighting dragons being able to go between?” R’lony asked the Commander.
“What’s the point?” S’leondes’ voice was flat. “What’s the point?”
“Twelve out of six hundred isn’t going to make a spit of difference against Thread. But twelve Seventh dragons who can do what Epherineth’s been doing these last months…”
“And give brown and bronze dragons the monopoly on between, so they can disappear off to the north and never be seen again? You’re a bigger fool than I thought if you think I’ll allow that, Marshal.”
“There’s more value in using between to move cargo –”
“What value a dragon’s life –”
“– and to mount rescues of fighting dragons –”
“Dragons who wouldn’t need rescuing!”
“– than squandering what few fire-lizards we have to make one paltry half Wing.” R’lony ground out the last of his sentence with dogged resolve.
S’leondes looked down at him, his face set into rigid lines. “Those fire-lizards were traded for dragon eggs. My dragon eggs.”
“Only four of them,” said R’lony. “The other eight were exchanged for my Crewleader.”
“Who should be on Westisle as we speak,” said S’leondes.
“Who’s been worth more to us in fire-lizard eggs than he could have been as a sop to your vindictiveness.”
They continued in that vein for a while. T’kamen wondered, as he listened to them argue, if the two men actually took pleasure in bickering with each other, or if they only did it out of ingrained, spiteful habit. Perhaps R’lony was sincere in his plans for the twelve fire-lizard eggs, but S’leondes wasn’t. S’leondes, T’kamen suspected, would have smashed the entire clutch if he’d thought he could do it without repercussions.
He sent a thought in Fetch’s direction for a moment, glimpsed his fire-lizard’s vigilant calm, and was reassured.
You know I won’t let anyone through, said Epherineth
They’d tried offering the fire-lizard clutch to Donauth to watch, but she had turned her nose emphatically up at the lizard eggs. Dalka had reported, quite straight-faced, her queen’s huffy declaration that she should hardly know what to do with such puny eggs. The custodians of the three green-laid eggs currently in their corner of the Hatching Sands had offered to care for the fire-lizard clutch, but given the sub-optimal dragonets that T’kamen had seen Hatch from some of those stunted shells, he’d been loath to hand over responsibility for them. So the clutch remained in his weyr, guarded at all times by Fetch’s conscientious attendance – and by Epherineth’s substantial bulk blocking the entrance.
T’kamen had no idea if Fetch knew what he was doing, but the little brown tended the eggs diligently: sniffing at them, scraping sand over some and scratching it away from others, and once nudging T’kamen awake in the middle of the night to re-stoke the fire when it had burned lower than usual. The eggs had been quite leathery when they’d brought them back from Ista, but as T’kamen hadn’t handled the pair of eggs M’ric had stolen from Alanne until they’d actually hatched, he had no basis for comparison. The Istan clutch did seem to be hardening, though, and T’kamen took Fetch’s devotion as a sign that the lizardlings inside were still viable.
He hoped they were. They’d cost enough.
But the question of which riders should be granted the privilege – and responsibility – of Impressing one of the twelve fire-lizards, when they hatched, had been the subject of bitter disagreement between R’lony and S’leondes. It had been inevitable that both would argue for the entire clutch to be bestowed upon their own riders; it had been equally inevitable that they would scorn each other’s claims. Dalka had told T’kamen to let them. “Thread will stop falling before those two pass up an opportunity to sling mud at each other. When they start repeating themselves, I’ll step in.”
It made T’kamen wish Ch’fil were still there. He was sure that he could have negotiated an agreement with S’leondes in half the time it took Commander and Marshal to squabble themselves to a stalemate. If Ch’fil hadn’t done what he’d done, there wouldn’t be any fire-lizard eggs to bicker over…yet, still, T’kamen missed him.
“S’leondes,” Dalka said at last. “R’lony. We don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Those eggs will hatch soon. This decision can’t wait forever.”
The two riders glared at each other, each too stubborn to give ground.
“There are twelve eggs, not one,” said Dalka. “There must be a way of dividing them between your two branches that you can agree on.”
“There are six hundred fighting dragons in Madellon and only a hundred in the Seventh Flight,” said S’leondes. “I make that ten eggs for my riders, two for yours.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” R’lony said. “You can have four. The four that those miserable eggs of Ceduth’s bought.”
“Not acceptable,” said S’leondes. “What am I supposed to do with four dragons who can go between?”
“Nearly as little as you’d do with twelve,” said R’lony.
“Why don’t you make it simple and have six each?” Dalka suggested.
“Because there’s not an even split of dragons in this Weyr,” said S’leondes. He didn’t exactly turn on her, but he spoke with angry impatience. “It’s completely disproportionate.”
“Numbers aren’t everything,” said R’lony.
Dalka sighed, as if exasperated, and turned to T’kamen. “What do you think, bronze rider?” she asked. “You’re the one who has to train these riders.”
T’kamen waited for both R’lony and S’leondes to look at him before he spoke – although he noticed, as he had ever since Dalka had pointed it out to him, that the Commander seldom truly looked at him. “This first group is an experiment,” he said. “There’s no point limiting its scope. We need to know that dragons of all colours can be piloted between. I need at least two of each colour to test that.” Then he paused. He looked, deliberately, at S’leondes, and almost enjoyed how he first sought to avoid his gaze completely and then, failing, unfocused his eyes to look through him instead. “But it’s a difficult concept for any dragon to grasp. Even Epherineth found it hard to combine his mind with Fetch’s. Whatever else is true of the role each colour occupies in the Weyr these days, green and blue dragons aren’t as intelligent as browns or bronzes.”
S’leondes’ face hardened, while R’lony’s cracked in a smirk.
“So I need more greens and blues to work with,” T’kamen went on, which wiped both expressions clean.
It’s just a trick, he heard C’los say, the memory of the dream of a ghost.
He said, “Two bronzes. Two browns. Three blues, five greens.”
R’lony found his voice first. “You’re giving them twice as many as us!”
“I need to know that they’ll obey my orders,” T’kamen went on, ignoring him. “And while I’m training them, none of them can fight. They’ll be too valuable to lose to Thread, like we did M’ric.”
S’leondes recoiled a bit at that, but he soon regained his composure. “I’ll select the riders –”
“You can make recommendations,” said T’kamen. He glanced at R’lony, to include him in the statement. “You both can. But I think every eligible rider with a dragon young enough should be entitled to put himself forward for consideration. And I’ll make the final decisions.”
“You vastly overreach yourself, bronze rider,” said S’leondes.
He probably intended the emphasis on bronze as a reminder of T’kamen’s lowly status. It had the opposite effect. “Going between is dangerous, Commander,” he said. “These riders will be my responsibility. I won’t train anyone I haven’t vetted.”
S’leondes sat back. “You still report to him.” He jerked his head in R’lony’s direction. “I won’t ask my riders to be subject to Strategic’s authority.”
“This isn’t a Strategic operation,” said Dalka. “It’s training.” She shrugged languidly. “The Weyrlingmaster reports to me. I don’t see why T’kamen shouldn’t come under me, too.”
Her choice of words made them all miss a beat.
“Fine,” said S’leondes at last. “You and Donauth can oversee this operation.”
R’lony looked harder at his weyrmate for longer, but eventually he muttered, “All right.”
Dalka excused herself shortly afterwards, pleading a summons from Donauth, and S’leondes left R’lony’s office with alacrity, as he always did – whether to be away from T’kamen, or simply out of the Marshal’s domain, it wasn’t clear. But R’lony closed the door behind the Commander before T’kamen could make his halting way out. “What are you doing?”
T’kamen held his accusing gaze without flinching. “What do you think I’m doing?”
“You gave far too much ground to him,” R’lony said. “Eight of his riders and only four of ours? You’ve just brought Thread down on your own head. He’ll give you the pick of his acolytes.”
“You underestimate me, R’lony,” T’kamen said mildly. “I asked for five greens and three blues.”
R’lony looked at him, uncomprehending.
It’s just a trick, said C’los.
T’kamen smiled slightly. “I didn’t say I’d choose them all from Tactical.”
El’yan pushed his Star-stone four spaces forwards to threaten T’kamen’s remaining Wingsecond, and said, “You’re quite serious.”
The move had placed both of El’yan’s Wingleaders in jeopardy. T’kamen analysed the board, trying to see his stratagem. “I have to be.” He moved his Weyrleader, resisting the obvious invitation to take one of El’yan’s strongest pieces off the board.
“No one can say your ambitions lack scope,” said El’yan. He turned in his seat as T’kamen considered his move, taking another game-board and set of chess-pieces from the table. He set it up beside the first, arranging only half of the white stone chess-men on the new board, facing a full array of black.
T’kamen thought he understood the lesson. “I’m to play white?”
“Black,” El’yan replied. “And it’s your move.”
The white pieces were in disarray, the gaps in their ranks presenting a host of tempting vulnerabilities to the solid ranks of the black. One of the white Star-stones could be taken with a mere Wingrider, opening up a clear path to the Weyrwoman. T’kamen made the move and removed the Star-stone from the board. “Check.”
El’yan moved one of his white Wingriders to protect his Weyrwoman.
T’kamen took it with a Wingleader. “Check.”
El’yan moved his Weyrwoman.
T’kamen moved his Wingleader to hem her in.
El’yan jumped a Wingsecond in to block him.
T’kamen took the Wingsecond with a Star-stone.
El’yan moved his Weyrleader clear across the board to threaten T’kamen’s Weyrwoman. “Check.”
T’kamen blinked. “Shaff,” he muttered.
“Do you understand?” asked El’yan.
“I can’t let my goals blind me to my own vulnerabilities?”
El’yan snorted. “You should know that already.” He reset the board, placing the pieces back where they’d been. “Look again. Take your time.”
T’kamen studied the board carefully. Knowing that taking the Star-stone was the wrong course made it simpler, but it still took him a moment to see the solution. “I take your Wingsecond with my Wingrider, there, and put you into check so that you have to counter with your Weyrleader. Once he’s out in the open, I can get my Wingleader in to mate.”
“And the lesson?”
T’kamen ran the sequence through in his mind. “A provocative move is more effective than an obvious one.”
El’yan grunted his assent as he began to clear the second board.
T’kamen watched him dump the almost full set of black pieces, and the depleted white, back into their box. “What do you think of my chances, El’yan?”
He didn’t reply for a bit. “These are changing times, T’kamen,” he said finally. “And you’re the change. Fire-lizards. Between. Bronze dragons, and brown, mattering again. R’lony has the experience, but does he have the vision? The leadership? He’s steered Strategic well enough on its current course, but the climate’s different now, and everyone knows it. And you were a Weyrleader. Don’t underestimate how attractive the old ways are starting to look to the young riders coming up in the Seventh.”
“Attractive enough that I won’t be censured for defying the newer traditions?”
“You don’t have to take every piece on the board to win, T’kamen. But you’ll need to play smart as well as bold. R’lony hasn’t stayed Marshal this long by being stupid.”
“What’s his blind spot?” T’kamen asked.
“You already know what it is.” El’yan threw T’kamen a look. “Uncomfortable though it clearly makes you.”
“It’s too personal,” said T’kamen. “I don’t have a vendetta against R’lony. I’m not setting out to destroy him.”
“Don’t try and sell me that it’s R’lony’s tender feelings you don’t want to bruise,” said El’yan. “I didn’t come down with the rain.” He studied him measuringly. “It’s the entanglement you’re afraid of, isn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t use the word afraid.”
“Why not? You wouldn’t be unjustified. Dalka’s not a woman to be taken lightly. She’s broken men who haven’t lived up to her expectations.”
“That’s not reassuring, El’yan.”
“It wasn’t meant to be. If that’s the move you’ve chosen, you have to commit to it.”
T’kamen didn’t have an answer for that.
“Is it that little green rider of yours?” El’yan asked.
“Yes. No.” T’kamen stopped. “Not exactly.”
“You’re not convincing me that it’s a passion for the ages.”
“Maybe it’s not, but I still don’t want to hurt her.”
“There’s no avoiding it. It’s really only a question of how soon and how badly.”
“You can’t hatch a clutch without breaking some shells,” El’yan told him. “And, if you’ll forgive me for a second metaphor, a rider can’t straddle two dragons. Particularly when one of them is a queen.”
“Bronze rider! Bronze rider, sir, could I have a moment!”
The shout made T’kamen’s heart sink, and for an instant he wondered if he might be able to redouble his speed and make it as far as Epherineth’s ledge before it was too late.
Then he squared his shoulders, suppressed the look of resignation that threatened to cross his face, and turned awkwardly to face his pursuer.
The green rider who had hailed him looked relieved. “Thank you, sir. I don’t mean to bother you, sir.”
The exaggerated courtesy had become so ubiquitous as to be unremarkable. “It’s no bother, wingrider…?”
“Tr’seff, sir,” the green rider said. “Tr’seff, Franth’s rider. I was hoping you’d consider us for your Wing, sir.”
It was late and T’kamen was tired. He wanted to tell the young rider that if he hadn’t already submitted his name to his Wingleader, he was too late. That was the method S’leondes had proposed after T’kamen had spent most of a day being mobbed by riders of every colour desperate to volunteer themselves. Under other circumstances he would have been grateful for the intervention. But he didn’t want his options narrowed to those riders who had already been filtered through their Wingleaders – and, implicitly, by S’leondes himself. And C’los’ ghost, riding with him as it did almost all the time now, reminded him that every opportunity to look a fighting rider in the eye was an opportunity that shouldn’t be wasted. Even when all he really wanted was to go to bed.
“Tr’seff,” he said. “Why don’t you step inside my weyr for a moment?”
Fetch looked up from the clutch as T’kamen preceded the young green rider into the weyr. Out of habit, T’kamen crossed to the hearth and put his hand down to feel an egg. It still didn’t feel quite hatching-hard to the touch. T’kamen straightened and gestured Tr’seff to one of the chairs. “Tell me about yourself.”
“Franth’s eight,” Tr’seff began, and T’kamen wondered when word would finally get around. He’d asked for riders whose dragons were no more than eight, and privately, he was of the mind that younger was better. It hadn’t stopped riders with older dragons – sometimes much older – from approaching him. He’d been polite, regretful, and increasingly firm with them. Some of them had wept.
“Who is she out of?” T’kamen asked.
That was important because he wanted to make sure that the dragons he worked with were representative of all Madellon’s breeding lines – both green and gold. If green-laid dragons were less capable of going between even with a fire-lizard’s help, he needed to know.
Franth was out of Levierth. Tr’seff was happy to talk about his dragon, as most riders were, but when, after he’d spoken for several minutes about his green’s endurance and flame range and straight-line speed, he still hadn’t mentioned their Wing, T’kamen interrupted. “Where are you assigned?”
“Herony’s Wing, sir,” Tr’seff said. His face coloured slightly as he said it. “Well, I mean, it used to be G’sol’s Wing, but…”
“Third Flight,” said T’kamen.
Tr’seff looked pained, but he nodded. “Yes, sir.”
T’kamen had been approached by riders from every Flight, but by more representatives of the notoriously ill-fortuned Third than any other. Given its mortality rate over the last Turn, he couldn’t be surprised. Nor was it surprising that most of the Third riders he’d seen were ashamed of their assignment. It would have been easy to dismiss them on the basis that any dragonpair posted to the Third must be deficient in some way, but T’kamen resisted the reaction. Wing assignments were as political in the Pass as they’d ever been in the Interval, and just because S’leondes had seen fit to banish a rider to the Third didn’t mean he or she had necessarily done anything to deserve it.
But he didn’t remark on Tr’seff’s assignment, consolingly or otherwise. Instead, he asked, “Why should I choose you?”
He asked the same question of every rider who came to him, and in many cases he got the same answers. He heard a lot of platitudes about loyalty and hard work and commitment that were probably sincere, but fundamentally empty. He heard boasts of Thread-fighting feats too extravagant to be true, and modesty so overstated it could only be false. Some riders begged him for a chance, and others informed him that he’d be making a serious mistake to exclude them. It made for a wearying cross-section through the layers of conceit, idealism, self-importance, and insecurity that made up the average late-teenage fighting dragonrider. And he’d thought M’ric was bad.
Tr’seff frowned in a way that indicated he hadn’t rehearsed his answer. “Franth’s not the fastest green,” he said. “She’s not the smallest or the most athletic. Her flame’s not the best. The one thing she’s good at is not being in the way.” He smiled ruefully. “She always knows where not to be when Thread’s falling. She sort of has a sense for it. I suppose that’s how we’re still here, with the age she is.”
“I see,” said T’kamen.
“It just means she misses a lot,” said Tr’seff. “Not from want of trying. It’s only that by the time she’s got herself out of the way, the strand she would have burned is out of range.”
He was silent for a long space, but T’kamen didn’t prompt him.
“I suppose she’s not very brave,” Tr’seff went on at last. “She worries too much. Thinks about everything too hard. She’s always second-guessing herself.” He raised his eyes sheepishly to T’kamen’s. “And I’m not making a good case for us, am I?”
“Not an obvious one,” T’kamen agreed. It would have been disingenuous to say otherwise.
“It’s only that I don’t think we’re making a difference, where we are,” Tr’seff said. “I don’t think we’d be missed, very much.” He hesitated, chewing his lip, as if trying to decide whether or not to go on. “If something happened to us. It wouldn’t be a big loss to the Wings.”
T’kamen studied Tr’seff for a long moment. Fatalism wasn’t an uncommon trait amongst Madellon’s young fighting riders. He wondered if, in some sense, it was even encouraged. He’d seen enough Falls now to know that Thread would have cut a far greater swathe through southern Pern’s fertile lands if not for the unflinching heroism of the dragonriders who threw themselves in its path, regardless of their own safety. And yet there was a certain look in the eyes of the riders who’d resigned themselves to a short life and an early death, like a fire stoked too high, and Tr’seff lacked that manic glitter. The young green rider just sat and watched him with an earnestness that T’kamen found intriguing rather than disturbing.
“You think something could happen to you if you joined my Wing,” he said, keeping his voice neutral, and watching for the reaction.
Tr’seff raised his shoulders. “It’s between, isn’t it? It’s dangerous.”
“Does that frighten you?”
“Frighten me, sir?” He looked surprised. “Well, of course. I’d be stupid if it didn’t.”
T’kamen nearly smiled. It wasn’t every young man who could admit to being afraid. “Why do you want to be chosen if you’re afraid?”
“Because I’m always afraid, sir,” said Tr’seff. “I’m afraid every time Franth and I fly Fall. That’s why she’s so careful. That’s why we’re so…I don’t want to say bad at it, but… She’s eight. We don’t have much time left, before…”
Tr’seff evaded his look. “We could be doing something else, is all. We could be better at something else.”
“All right,” said T’kamen. “I’ll keep you in mind. Why don’t you go to bed, green rider?”
He sat by the fire for a long time after he dismissed Tr’seff back to his own weyr, wondering if the Commander had sent him.
S’leondes had passed him a list of some forty candidates for the eight fire-lizard eggs that had been allotted to green and blue riders, and T’kamen was certain that every last one was completely loyal to the Commander. If S’leondes couldn’t prevent Madellon’s dragons from going between, he would want at least to exercise control over the dragonpairs so enabled. He probably reckoned that having two-thirds of their number loyal to him would give him the edge in a Wing that was nominally under T’kamen’s command.
T’kamen planned to thwart that ambition. Of the three eggs allocated to blues, he intended only one to go to a fighting rider. The other two he had already earmarked for F’sta and I’gral – Seventh Flight blue riders.
Of all Madellon’s dragons, the handful of blues who failed to make the fighting Wings were perhaps the most unfortunate: reviled by their colour-mates, ostracised by their Flightmates. There were only eight of them, and they kept themselves to themselves, even within the Seventh. Tapping two of them for fire-lizards would put both S’leondes’ and R’lony’s noses out of joint: the former would doubtless call the selection a slur on his fighting blues, and the latter would see it as a direct bid for influence within Strategic. As political moves went, it wasn’t subtle, but that was the point. No one would be surprised by the mounting evidence that T’kamen intended to stand for Marshal, and while S’leondes believed that was the limit of his aspirations, T’kamen’s true intent remained obscure.
The ploy did redress the balance between the fighting Wings and the Seventh in T’kamen’s force, but he still had to choose five green riders and one blue, each of whom would probably be reporting every word and action back to the Commander. Some of the riders he’d seen had been obvious acolytes and others had gone so far in the other direction that their true loyalties were plain, too. And the candidates who seemed ostensibly the most promising were probably the Commander’s most fierce devotees.
Tr’seff was the latest of thirty or so riders who had approached him independent of the shortlist. Most of them were hopeless. S’leondes had, at least, culled the totally unsuitable – too old, too unpredictable, too desperate – from his list. But the odd one came along to make T’kamen think. Tr’seff’s uninspiring service record didn’t make him an obvious candidate. But the green rider’s admission that his dragon was more cautious than courageous – and his self-awareness – spoke to T’kamen. A careful rider was more use to him than a fearless one.
But of all the riders who’d come to him on their own, Tr’seff was one of the few with promise, and that made T’kamen distrust him. If S’leondes really wanted to slip a spy into T’kamen’s camp, someone like Tr’seff would be a prime suspect.
He sighed. The process was making him paranoid. S’leondes, Dalka had told him, was a cunning man, but he wasn’t subtle. As many traps as he might lay, they wouldn’t be that sophisticated. T’kamen had to choose someone to train to go between. And for all the scheming S’leondes was doing, neither he nor R’lony seemed to have grasped why T’kamen had asked for the ratio he had. He supposed it was a consequence of a Pass population nearly three times as large as that T’kamen had governed as Weyrleader. S’leondes and R’lony wouldn’t consider a force as paltry as twelve dragons – thirteen, including Epherineth – as a credible unit. T’kamen, whose first command had been a Wing of a mere eleven dragons, did. The split between green, blue, brown, and bronze was close to the perfect ratio that Interval bronze riders used as a basis for their theoretical Thread-fighting strategies.
Whatever the Commander thought T’kamen intended to do with the riders he trained to go between, he couldn’t have realised that he had handed him the components of the classical fighting Wing.
The list he presented to Dalka two days later induced her finely-arched eyebrow to rise more than once.
“H’juke and O’sten I can see for the bronzes,” she said, “though you’ll have made a deathly enemy of N’briel. And Z’renniz would have been my first choice among the browns, too. But what’s the thinking behind B’nam? He’s loyal to R’lony through and through.”
T’kamen sipped the wine that – as usual – Dalka had mixed stronger than he liked. “I’m counting on it.”
She regarded him contemplatively. “Another distraction for S’leondes?”
“That,” said T’kamen, “and an antagonist for the fighting riders loyal to him.”
“I thought you wanted your Wing to be the model of traditional colour harmony.”
“That dragon isn’t going to get hatched until I break a few eggshells,” T’kamen said. “B’nam will be the natural rallying point for the Seventh riders. Either Dannie or B’roce will be the same for Tactical.”
Dalka nodded slowly. “But because B’nam is R’lony’s boy, the fighting contingent’s resentment for him deflects from you.”
“They won’t be able to accuse me of favouritism towards him when I’ve deposed his mentor,” T’kamen said. “I need to be fair above everything else. No rider is going to get an easier time from me based on their dragon’s colour.”
“H’juke could be a problem, then,” said Dalka. “He practically considers himself your tail.”
“I’m still barred from ever taking another tail,” said T’kamen.”
“But he’s the one who’s been helping with Epherineth. It hasn’t gone unnoticed.”
“I’ll speak to him,” said T’kamen, though it troubled him. Dalka was right – he couldn’t be seen to favour H’juke – but he still needed help with his dragon, and perhaps always would. He just couldn’t climb all over Epherineth the way a dragonrider needed to any more.
“These greens,” Dalka said, returning her attention to the list. “You’re right about Dannie. She’s been spoken of as Wingsecond material. But she’ll be solidly in the Commander’s corner.”
“Name me a green rider with leadership potential who isn’t.”
Dalka accepted that with a shrug. “You’ve gone for Kayrin because Mnorth is green-laid?”
“I liked the girl, too. She seemed steady.”
“And you’re aware that Fraza tailed for S’leondes?”
She laid the slate with T’kamen’s selections on it down upon the table, and sighed. “Well, no one can say you’ve shied away from difficult candidates, T’kamen. I’m not sure there’s a rider among them whose loyalty you could count on, barring H’juke.”
“That’s the idea.”
“You have so much faith in your ability to win them.”
It was more statement than question, and spoken without Dalka’s characteristic irony. T’kamen cocked his head. “I have to. If I can’t persuade twelve kids to believe in me, what hope do I have of convincing the rest of the Weyr?”
Dalka looked at him with that calculating gaze. “You haven’t selected Leda.”
T’kamen heard the challenge behind the neutral observation. “I had every reason not to.”
“Does she agree with those reasons?”
“I didn’t discuss them with her.”
“And she’s happy with that?”
Dalka watched him avidly. “Only for now?”
“I’m not ready to show my hand, Dalka.” T’kamen steeled himself, and added, “Our hand.”
Dalka’s eyes lit. “And what’s the play?”
T’kamen thought about El’yan and his chess board. “I make it personal.”
Continue to Chapter seventy: Valonna
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Dragonchoice 3 news
- Dragonchoice re-read and commentary at AO3 posted 22 December 2017
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- 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