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Chapter seventy: Valonna

As often as I tell myself that I did only what was necessary, still I look back at the tally sheet of my life, and wonder when I will be asked to pay for all I’ve done.


Valonna (Micah Johnson)It was a tradition long established that the Lords Holder of Madellon territory must begin any summit discussing their duty to the Weyr by protesting the poverty of their Holds. Never mind that Lords Meturvian, Winstone, and Zinner were the three richest men west of the Peninsula; never mind that, despite the drought, a child could have observed the overflowing granaries and storehouses stuffed with the most fruitful harvest southern Pern had seen in ten Turns; never mind that Winstone of Jessaf had just engaged a full dozen Master Miners and their teams to survey the promising deposits of iron, copper, and silver that his holders had found in the westernmost reaches of his vast domain. When the Weyr came asking for tithe, the Holds would put on a show of destitution worthy of a Gather play.

It was a shame, Valonna thought, as Masterharper Gaffry held her chair for her, that Meturvian hadn’t been able to divest himself of all his jewellery. Kellad’s Lord, always a burly man, was running to fat – enjoying too much of his Hold’s recent prosperity, no doubt – and the chunky rings of gold and silver embedded in his sausage-thick fingers had clearly resisted all attempts at removal. Their stubborn presence made the absence of any other adornments nearly laughable, while the fact that the Lord of Kellad had surely had his ostentatiously unostentatious tunic tailored for the occasion somewhat undermined his efforts to present himself in a state of self-imposed austerity.

Winstone was better at playing this particular game, partly because he was miserly by nature in spite of his wealth, and partly because he’d been at it longer. Meturvian would probably have stripped the more expensive paintings and tapestries from his halls, and hidden away the best glassware; Winstone, not given to lavishing his marks on such things anyway, had simply chosen a room that didn’t overlook the construction of Jessaf’s new racing flats for the meeting.

Blue Shale’s Lord Zinner had taken the least trouble to make himself look poor. Under other circumstances, that would have surprised Valonna. But of the three Lords, the Seaholder was the only one who could afford to wear his Hold’s affluence unselfconsciously. Blue Shale wasn’t a region known for its livestock and could have taken little part in the plot that had been perpetrated against the Weyr. And evading culpability for that, more so even than the drive to appear too impoverished to meet Madellon’s tithing demands, was certainly foremost in Meturvian and Winstone’s minds.

Zinner was quick to take full advantage of his Hold’s strong position. “I understand congratulations are in order, H’ned,” he said, clasping wrists with the bronze rider. “Or should that be Weyrleader?”

“It should be, Zinner” H’ned replied, “but as we’re all equals now, H’ned will do just fine.”

Winstone looked as if he’d have liked to dispute H’ned’s assertion, but he held his tongue. Meturvian showed somewhat less restraint. “Is this to be the way things are done in the Weyr now? Weyrleaders elevated to the position by their peers rather than winning the right? It seems quite the fashion, these days.”

“Not at all, Meturvian,” said H’ned. “Shimpath’s next mating flight will decide the Weyrleader in traditional fashion. Though I have every confidence that there’ll be no change in leadership at that time.”

Valonna hoped that Shimpath’s snort of distaste was only mental. She didn’t disagree with it, though. H’ned’s boast made her skin creep. She understood the need for him to present a strong front to the Lords of Madellon, but she couldn’t bring herself to back him up with more than the smallest smile.

“Be that as it may, I trust that whatever the source of your authority, you’ll honour the agreements we had with your predecessors,” said Winstone.

H’ned’s smile hardened, and while his tone remained affable, his words didn’t wholly match it. “I wish it were the case that prior arrangements could be allowed to stand. In the light of recent events, however, I’m sure you’ll appreciate that we must insist on a complete reassessment of our relative positions.”

The statement dropped like a stone into snow. Winstone’s pinched face contracted still further. Meturvian checked the retort that was clearly on his lips. Zinner, leaning far back in his seat as if to emphasise his disassociation from the recent events of H’ned’s allusion, looked casually from one Lord to the other. And Masterharper Gaffry was the picture of sober neutrality, though Valonna was sure that his eyes missed nothing at all.

H’ned forged on regardless. From a record tube, he took the summary of Madellon’s demands. “We propose three changes to the Charter, to take effect for the coming five-Turn period. The first is a material increase of the base tithe from each of your holdings of seven per cent…”

Meturvian snorted, “Seven! Absurd!”

“…to redress the current shortfall in our supply,” H’ned continued, ignoring him. “A further three per cent, deferred until the Turn 102, to reflect the predicted increase in Madellon’s dragon population that will result from our second queen.

“Secondly, a special measure for the first Turn, with the possibility of extension thereafter.” H’ned cleared his throat. “The replacement of material goods in each category with marks, pegged to market values as set by the governing Crafthall of the first day of this Turn.”

“What?” Zinner exclaimed.

“Finally, a binding pledge to set aside a portion of your holdings’ overall income each Turn of no less than two parts in one hundred to create a fund for the ongoing and future development of Madellon protectorate’s Thread defences and preparations; said fund to be used strictly in the cause of readying the territory for the Pass.”

The brief period of incredulous silence that followed H’ned’s pronouncement didn’t surprise Valonna in the least. Nor did Meturvian’s eventual response. “You’re Threadstruck if you think we’ll swallow that,” he said. “A ten per cent increase? In marks? And what in Faranth’s name is this fund?”

Seven per cent for the next two Turns, Meturvian,” H’ned corrected him, “and given how Madellon has been explicitly defrauded in the supply of livestock, our demand for marks rather than goods is hardly unreasonable.”

Winstone cut into the exchange, perhaps fearing that Meturvian would compromise them both if allowed to speak. “We are all as appalled as you by the criminal activities of the Beastcrafthall, H’ned, and by the unconscionable and shocking actions of certain other individuals…”

“Do you mean the Kellad herdsmen who tried to hide the evidence of their crimes by beating and killing Master Arrense?” H’ned asked, with an icy glance at Meturvian.

“Those men will be punished!” Meturvian said, before Winstone could stop him. “Those mountain folk scarcely consider themselves under Kellad’s jurisdiction at all, but I am bringing the full weight of justice to bear upon them nonetheless!” He took a breath, then added, “And upon the steward who it seems was facilitating the fraud across Hold and Weyr borders – who was also embezzling marks from my own coffers!”

Valonna noticed how Winstone almost winced at that last creative flourish. She wondered if Gaffry found it as blackly humorous as she did that Meturvian was trying to evoke some sympathy for himself. Everyone – Jessaf, Kellad, and especially the Beastcrafthall – had been producing culprits in droves. Valonna didn’t doubt that a plot as wide-ranging as the one that had been robbing Madellon of its rightful beast tithe must involve dozens of people, and she knew that there was a weyrling’s chance in Thread that either Winstone or Meturvian would confess to their own part in it. Still, Meturvian’s attempt to cast himself as the victim of a treacherous steward struck her as particularly farcical. It was a mark of how afraid Kellad’s Lord was of implicating himself that he would prefer to appear gullible than guilty.

“And these marks have all simply vanished, have they?” H’ned asked. “All the proceeds from the illegal sale of Madellon livestock that should have come to the Weyr?”

“Would that we could pry the whereabouts of those marks from the guilty parties, Weyrleader,” Winstone interjected. “None of the ringleaders are prepared to talk, and as the Charter forbids us from extracting information by force…” He let it trail delicately away. “We have, of course, seized all assets belonging to those responsible. Some marks, personal luxuries, a number of expensive runnerbeasts. Perhaps it would be some small token of our sympathy for the proceeds from the sale of those items to be paid directly to you, Weyrleader, for you to dispose with as you see fit. For the benefit of Madellon, of course.”

It gave Valonna a small cause for reassurance that H’ned’s eyes had gone flat at Winstone’s offer. Izath says to assure you that his rider is not Pierdeth’s rider, said Shimpath.

Tell him I had no doubt on that account.

“It will take more than a handful of marks to replace what Madellon has been deprived of, Lord Winstone,” said H’ned. “Both in goods, and in trust.”

“If you mean to imply –” Meturvian began.

“Nothing of the sort,” said H’ned. “I’m sure you’d both be more than happy to submit to Shimpath’s scrutiny.”

If Valonna had had any doubt about Winstone’s complicity before, the rictus of frozen terror that briefly broke through his controlled façade dispelled it. She let the fear take root for a moment, and then spoke for the first time. “H’ned, you know how upset Shimpath already is. I would not lightly expose the Lords of Madellon to her agitation, nor her to anything with the potential to heighten it. She already feels sorely disrespected by the failure of Madellon’s Holds to support her dragons adequately.”

Then she turned to the anxious Lords Holder and spoke with the earnest meekness she knew they expected from her. “My Lords. I’m not concerned with apportioning blame or seeking vengeance. I know that you will mete out justice against the men in your territories who did the Weyr, and you, wrong. I also trust you know that Madellon will assist in the exile of any parties found guilty of the worst crimes. In this, the Weyr bows to your judgement.” Meturvian looked relieved, and even Winstone nodded to her with a greater show of humility than Valonna had ever seen from him. She pressed on. “But however it came about, we have been poorly supplied in recent Turns. The low-quality beasts that have made up your quotas are plainly not satisfactory. And it’s clear that the mark-making scheme that has deprived our dragons of decent sustenance has all but emptied Madellon territory of acceptable stock. Peninsula territory, meanwhile, is experiencing a glut of high-quality beasts that has driven prices down to an unprecedented level. We appreciate it will take time for your pastures to be adequately repopulated, and therefore we ask merely for the capacity to purchase stock outside Madellon’s borders, at a fair market price.”

“A Weyr doesn’t buy outside its own borders,” said Meturvian. “That’s always been the tradition.”

“Only in the south,” Valonna corrected him, “and the tradition was only established when Southern Weyr was founded, to prevent an influx of cheap southern goods to the north. We would restrict our purchases to the southern continent. And it would enable us to modify our supply to what is required, rather than what we happen to have tithed. We often find ourselves with a surplus of one item and a dearth of another. The use of currency would make our resourcing more efficient.” And stop the Holds fulfilling their duty to the Weyr with the minimum quality of this or that commodity, as the livestock fraud had exploited – but Valonna didn’t say that. She didn’t have to. The three Lords of Madellon knew exactly what she hadn’t spoken aloud.

“Weyrleader T’kamen made it clear last Turn –” Winstone began.

“Weyrleader T’kamen is gone,” said Valonna, and then she had to catch her breath as the impact of saying it aloud briefly rattled her. “And much else has changed. And will change. And must be paid for.”

“I’m sorry you lost your Weyrleader, Valonna,” Meturvian said. He didn’t sound sorry. Aggression was bleeding through his imperfect control. “But exactly why should we be tithing more to the Weyr – and in hard marks! – if you’re not providing a better service to us now? What benefit to us, supporting two hundred and fifty dragons and a thousand people? You sit up there on your mountaintop, doing Faranth-knows-what; expecting us to feed you, to clothe you; stealing our young men for your candidates; getting our young girls pregnant; and all the time demanding respect that you haven’t earned!”

Valonna had expected the argument – all the riders who had served as Madellon’s Weyrleaders for the past sixty or seventy Turns had heard it in one form or another, and written angrily of it in their records – but it was the first time she’d had it shouted in her face. Her instinctive indignation echoed through to Shimpath, and she felt her queen’s anger rousing, even as H’ned drew himself up beside her to answer the insult. No, Shimpath, she told her dragon, and, “No, H’ned,” she said to her Weyrleader.

Then she met Meturvian’s belligerent stare. After all she had faced that summer, she found, curiously, that he didn’t intimidate her. She had stared down worse men. “Have you anything more to add, Lord Kellad?” When he recoiled slightly – perhaps at the use of that variation of his title – Valonna looked at the other Lords of Madellon. “My Lord Jessaf? Blue Shale? Would either of you like to add your voices to Kellad’s?”

Zinner looked uncomfortable, and Winstone clearly disapproved of Meturvian’s outburst, but it was he who spoke. “Weyrwoman, I have known your family for many Turns. Will you allow me to speak, if not as impolitely as Kellad, then at least as plainly?”

Valonna inclined her head towards him. “Of course, my Lord.”

Winstone pressed his lips together. Then he spoke. “You make the same argument that we have heard from every Weyrleader who has sat in your place since Madellon’s founding. Our response is also the same. The Pass is a hundred Turns away. My children’s children will be old men before a dragon of Madellon burns a single Thread from Jessaf’s skies. Meturvian is right. We support the Weyr, as the Charter promises. We allow you to choose candidates from our Holds. We even look the other way when your riders plant dragonseed in our women. We do this out of respect for you, for your queen, and for the ways of dragons.

“But you demand tribute without merit. You are the descendants of yesterday’s heroes and the ancestors of tomorrow’s, but you have won no glory of your own. We’re not children, Weyrwoman, to believe that every man or woman who rides a dragon is better than us. It seems, indeed, that a man like P’raima, raised to power and influence by Impressing a bronze dragon, in fact has the ability to become far worse. We are not so short-sighted that we fail to see the role Madellon’s dragonriders will play when the Red Star passes, a hundred Turns from now. So we will support you. But you are not protecting Pern. You cannot expect to be venerated for deeds you have not performed, or entertained in luxury to the detriment of those who labour to keep you. I say this not to offend you, Weyrwoman. Weyrleader. I’m sure that if you had been born in the Pass, you would have distinguished yourselves against Thread. It’s not your fault that you were born to the Interval, yet here we are, a century deep in Thread-free skies, and we must all of us cut our coats according to our cloth.”

Valonna nodded to Winstone as he finished his speech. “Thank you, my Lord,” she said. She kept her voice completely absent any inflection. “My Lord Blue Shale?”

“I would like to point out that Blue Shale had no part in disrespecting you, your queen or your Weyr,” said Zinner. “But I cannot fault Lord Winstone’s logic. And I would add just one thing. My Hold is a hub for sea-trade, but getting our goods inland over our southern terrain has held back Blue Shale’s development ever since it was founded. The dragons of the Peninsula are well known to accept paying contracts for conveyance of cargo. Let your riders do the same.”

Next to Valonna, H’ned bristled. He was much the more level-headed of the two riders who had served as Valonna’s Deputy Weyrleaders since T’kamen’s disappearance, but on this one count, Valonna would have preferred to have Sh’zon sitting beside her. H’ned had a Madellon rider’s instinctive distaste for the idea of dragons being used as literal beasts of burden. Valonna could feel his resistance to the suggestion radiating from him.

Valonna felt differently, and Sh’zon would have, too. The time Valonna had spent in Rallai’s company over the last couple of months had educated her on a great many matters. The Peninsula was the largest protectorate on Pern, but not the most populous; that distinction belonged to Southern. Valonna had been astonished to discover that tithing accounted for only seven parts in ten of the Peninsula’s upkeep. It earned the remaining thirty per cent by contracting out its dragons to carry passengers and cargo. The mercenary approach had also earned the Peninsula the disdain of every other Weyr on Pern, but Valonna couldn’t deny the appeal, from a fiscal point of view, of creating a new income stream for Madellon. If things had been different, she might have agreed to pursue the idea as a genuine alternative to the changes she wanted to make.

“My Lords,” she said, and opened the record tube she had brought with her from Madellon. From it, she passed out copies of the map that Carleah, with her excellent eye for detail and beautiful script, had duplicated for her from the Records. There was one for the Masterharper as well as the copy she kept in front of her and H’ned. “This is our latest map of Madellon’s protectorate and all the Holds major and minor within it.”

Each of the Lords studied the map with fierce concentration; checking, no doubt, that the full extent of their holdings was represented. The territory of each was shaded in the primary colour of each Hold: yellow for Jessaf, blue for Blue Shale, and green for Kellad. The lesser Holds were marked within each territory, and Madellon itself was an uncoloured island in the middle of the three regions.

“Is this a true representation of your respective holdings?” Valonna asked.

Zinner and Meturvian nodded, the latter rather grudgingly. Winstone frowned slightly, and said, “We’ve settled rather further south of the Bonnery River than this shows, but other than that, it seems accurate.”

Valonna unrolled a second set of hides from the tube. The vellum had been specially treated and scraped so thin that it was actually translucent. “If you’d lay these over the first,” she said, handing them around the table.

Winstone’s face went guarded as soon as he complied with Valonna’s instructions. Meturvian’s clouded. “What’s this?”

“The overlay shows the borders that were proposed for your three Holds before their founding at the end of the last Pass,” said Valonna. She didn’t need to point out that each territory was dramatically smaller than the one on the first map, or that the three original tracts of land would all have fit within Jessaf’s actual current borders with room to spare.

“Weyrwoman,” said Winstone, curtly enough to make it clear that he was rattled by the direction of Valonna’s demonstration, “if you’re hoping to argue that our Holds have exceeded the boundaries that the Weyr pledged to protect at Founding, then I’m afraid you’ve wasted some good vellum. Jessaf’s expansion was agreed nearly forty Turns ago; I believe Weyrleader O’ret’s name and seal are on the amendment to the Charter.”

“Blue Shale’s claim on the coastline clear to the West Delta was established even before that,” Zinner said, “not that we’re halfway close to pushing that far west.”

“And if we hadn’t struck south, we’d never have uncovered the firestone deposits in the Greatpeaks, and Madellon would be begging to Peninsula or Southern for supplies,” said Meturvian.

“Your claims aren’t in dispute, my Lords,” said Valonna. “Madellon’s capacity to protect them is.”

“Oh, and here it comes,” Meturvian muttered.

“My Lord Kellad.” Valonna spoke sharply. “I’m sure you are not ignorant of the news from Telgar. The crisis that began with Southern’s weyrlings last Turn is not confined to the south. Pern’s young dragons have lost the ability to go between.”

“We were promised that you were looking into the matter,” said Winstone.

“We have been,” said Valonna. “We are. But if we have learned one thing from this situation, it’s that we have no true understanding of how between works. Even our dragons don’t completely comprehend how it functions. They merely use it.” She looked at Zinner. “If the ocean currents were to stop flowing, would your sailors know how to fix them?”

The analogy clearly resonated with Zinner; he looked unsettled indeed. “No,” he admitted.

“Dragons still have wings,” said Meturvian, though some of the force had gone out of his protestation.

“And runnerbeasts still have legs,” said Valonna, “and neither is as swift as a trip between.” From her record tube, she removed a final set of translucent hides. On them, Carleah had inked a series of concentric circles, centred on Madellon. “Travel times,” she said, once each Lord Holder had laid the plans over the two they already had before them. “Flying straight, without breaks, and assuming fair weather.”

Winstone was the first to speak into the uncomfortable silence that ensued. “Seven hours from Jessaf to the Weyr. Seven hours a-dragonback.”

“Two hours just from Kellad would be intolerable,” Meturvian objected.

“Concerned though we obviously are for your comfort and convenience,” said H’ned, with a remarkable lack of inflection, “I think you fail to see the bigger picture here. When the Red Star passes, Thread will fall wholly or partially in Madellon territory twice and sometimes three times per sevenday. Conservatively, the Weyr will need to fly Fall every three days.” He leaned forward for emphasis. “Madellon’s present protectorate is more than thirty hours’ flying time across. How do you think we will be able to reposition our fighting Wings to meet it without being able to send them between?”

To their credit, the Lords Holder grasped the issue rapidly. Even Meturvian paled slightly as the significance of H’ned’s words sank in, and though he was quick to retort, his protest lacked force. “Well, it seems to me that the Dragonweyr had better find a solution to its between problem, and soon!”

“Would that we could, my Lord,” said Valonna. “And we won’t stop looking. But we would be remiss – and foolish – to simply assume that we will find an answer in time, and make no provision for what happens if we don’t.”

“The Pass is a hundred Turns away –” Zinner began, without conviction.

“In fifty, there won’t be a dragon left alive on Pern who can go between,” H’ned cut across him, “and our successors, and yours, will be sitting here that much worse equipped to prepare for a Pass that much closer.”

“And cursing us for being too short-sighted to consider the legacy we bequeathed them,” said Valonna.

The mention of legacy made the Lords Holder stir. “And how do you propose that we prepare?” Winstone asked. “More dragons? More Weyrs? Is that what this fund is to furnish?”

“We don’t yet know,” Valonna said simply. “We’re only beginning to see the edges of what a Pern without between looks like.”

“It does seem that Madellon is better placed than the other southern Weyrs to serve its protectorate,” said Zinner. He had been studying the map intently. “The Peninsula’s too near the coast. Southern, too. Faranth, but half of Peninsula’s western holds are closer to Madellon as the dragon flies. Are you seeking to change Madellon’s borders?”

“We haven’t got that far,” said H’ned. “But I can assure you that the Peninsula’s Weyrleaders, and Southern’s, will be having conversations with their Lords Holder much like this one.”

“You said that we are not protecting Pern,” Valonna said, looking at Winstone. “And maybe, in any other Interval, you’d be right. But this isn’t any other Interval. We have been shaken out of our complacency by the events of this last Turn. If dragons have truly lost the ability to go between, then a hundred Turns from now our descendants will be facing Threadfall without being able to travel between to meet it wherever it falls, without the ability to dodge, without the ability to freeze Thread off in the cold.

“We’re dragonriders, my Lords, and Pass or Interval, we’re sworn to protect Pern. We can’t fly Fall when there’s no Fall to fly. But we’re still Pern’s protectors, Thread or no Thread, and if we don’t start readying Pern for the Pass now, we fail in our duty. We’ve had a hundred Turns beneath Thread-free skies, and we have a hundred more to come. This is the turning point, midway through the Interval, and we are the fulcrum on which Pern’s future turns. Because I promise you, my Lords; if we don’t discharge our duty to our descendants, history will judge us. And judge us harshly.”

She had them, not through fairness, but through fear. She could see it in their eyes, in the set of their shoulders, in the inability of even Meturvian to argue. “You make a unsettling case for forward-thinking, Weyrwoman,” Winstone said, at length. There was nearly a shade of respect in his voice. “And maybe there is a call to invest some of our present plenty against future need. Jessaf would be willing to pledge, perhaps, one per cent into your fund. But its management must be stringently overseen by a third party.”

“The Harperhall would be honoured to play such a part in this forward-looking endeavour,” Gaffry interjected smoothly.

Meturvian looked slightly mollified by that; perhaps, as the Harperhall was at Kellad, he believed he’d have some measure of control over the money there. “One per cent might be feasible,” he said. “But your other demands are out of the question.”

“Quite out of the question,” Zinner added, “unless you’re willing to consider my proposal regarding moving cargo around the territory.”

That’s close enough, Valonna told Shimpath, knowing her queen would relay the message via Izath to H’ned.

A moment later, H’ned nodded. “Maybe you’d all read these in detail,” he said, passing out documents to each Lord. “And we can reconvene to discuss further in a sevenday.”

Lord Winstone walked them all out to where Shimpath and Izath waited with the two blues who would return Zinner, Meturvian, and Gaffry to their respective Holds and Hall. He clasped Valonna’s wrist last, and then held it, and her, there for a moment. She raised her gaze questioningly to his shrewd old eyes. “I’ll admit you surprised me today, Weyrwoman,” he said, quietly enough to go unheard by the others. “I’d thought to spar with H’ned, not with you. You’re not the gauche young girl you once were.”

Valonna had known Winstone long enough not to be offended. “My Weyr can’t afford me to be.”

“Your new Weyrleader?” Winstone asked, with a jerk of his chin towards H’ned.

Valonna could have interpreted the question in a dozen ways. She opted for the least controversial. “H’ned is devoted to Madellon.”

“And to you?”

She hoped the grimace she felt didn’t show on her face. “As are all my riders, my Lord Winstone.”

“Hm.” Winstone’s eyes searched her face. He cracked a smile for the first time. “A shame you went for the Weyr. You’d have made some match for my Herstone. More than I can say for the flitter-by creature he’s to wed. My duty to you, Weyrwoman. Safe flight home.”

The unexpected praise – effusive, by Winstone’s standards – left Valonna feeling slightly disconcerted as she walked back to Shimpath. What is it?

He just suggested that he’d have liked to marry me to his second son. Valonna nearly shook her head as she climbed up between the golden neck-ridges. When I was fourteen, I’d have done anything to catch Herstone’s eye.

A good thing you are not now fourteen, said Shimpath.

They almost had to dodge a mating green’s followers when they emerged over Madellon, although the pack of blues and browns scattered with alacrity to make way for Shimpath’s descent. Shimpath snorted at that. She didn’t snort, though she might well have done, when Izath preceded her down to her ledge. Do you want me to tell H’ned to have Izath land on his own ledge? Valonna asked.

I would tell Izath myself if you weren’t more concerned with not offending his rider.

Valonna winced at the mild rebuke. He’s Weyrleader now, Shimpath, she pointed out as they touched down. I have to work with him for the next couple of Turns, no matter how I feel about him personally.

No one asked my opinion.

“I thought that went as well as we could hope,” H’ned said as Valonna dismounted. “Did Winstone have anything to add?”

“Not that bears repeating.” Valonna unbuckled Shimpath’s harness and, heaving the heavy leather over her shoulder, hauled it inside to hang it on its rack.

H’ned followed her in. “Zinner’s going to be difficult to win round on the increases,” he said. “We don’t have the livestock matter to hold over him. And you saw how he reacted to the idea of tithing in hard marks.”

As always, the pile of new work on Valonna’s desk had grown in her absence. She skimmed quickly through the heap. Then she looked up at H’ned. “Zinner has a point about paid cargo conveyance, you know.”

His face instantly darkened, as she’d known it would. “We’ve discussed this. Dragons aren’t draybeasts.”

Valonna took a breath, and then asked, “Aren’t they? What else do we ask them to do, if not carry things for us?”

“For the Weyr,” said H’ned. “Not at the whim of all of Pern. I won’t put dragons at the beck and call of every holder and crafter who wants to haul his wares two hills over.” He held up a finger. “And don’t tell me the Peninsula does it. Peninsula riders are scorned the world over for the way they pander.”

“Peninsula riders are better dressed and their dragons better fed than any on Pern.”

“Not while I’m Weyrleader,” said H’ned.

It was the first time he’d said it. He even seemed a bit surprised himself by the statement. “Yes,” Valonna replied, forcing herself to keep her tone even. “You are.” She didn’t add, For now.

H’ned might have read the thought. “Weyrwoman,” he began, and then, “Valonna.” He sighed. “That came out wrong.”

Valonna didn’t quite trust herself to reply, so she didn’t.

“Look, I’m very conscious that I’m a Weyrleader you’ve been landed with, rather than one you’ve chosen,” H’ned said. “And I know that I’ve said and done some things, hurtful things, about you, about T’kamen… And I’m sorry.” He said it in a rush. “I was wrong to slight him. It was small of me. Petty. Epherineth beat Izath fair and square, that day. T’kamen did everything he could as Weyrleader. I don’t believe he’d have abandoned his post wilfully.”

“I know he wouldn’t have,” said Valonna.

“And I was wrong to…pressure you,” H’ned went on. He looked uncomfortable. “I…know you must feel like every bronze rider who pays you a compliment is just currying favour. That they’re courting your position, not you.”

Valonna couldn’t keep the irony out of her voice. “Aren’t they?”

“Most of the time, probably,” H’ned admitted. “But…” He met her gaze candidly. “But not me, Valonna. Not any more.”

She could hardly endure the ardency of his stare, but she couldn’t bear to break it off either. “H’ned…”

“Valonna,” he pleaded. “All I’m asking is…let me court you. Not your position. Not your queen. You. I’m not L’dro. Let me try to be a Weyrleader you would choose. A weyrmate you would choose.”

The last time H’ned had put Valonna in this position, Shimpath had not been there to counsel her. This time, she was, but she remained watchfully silent. Valonna already knew Shimpath’s opinion of Izath. In choosing not to comment on H’ned, she was granting Valonna complete power to decide for herself how to reply to her earnest suitor.

And there was an appeal to accepting H’ned’s entreaty. He had acquitted himself well with the Lords Holder, walking the fine line between conviction and diplomacy without mishap. His apology had resonated with sincerity. He was a handsome man. And he wasn’t asking Valonna to love him, or to have him in her weyr; only to allow him to try to win her. Was it so unreasonable a request? Was he so untenable a proposition as a weyrmate? In the stormy waters that lay ahead, would Madellon not benefit from a solid and stable partnership at its helm?

But while her head stacked reason atop reason for her to give in, it was Valonna’s heart that answered.

“There’s someone else, H’ned,” she heard herself say.

It was horrible to witness the moment that the hope in H’ned’s pale eyes died. He made it mercifully fleeting by looking away from her. He didn’t speak for a moment, though his nostrils flared white. “So it’s true,” he said at last, with a tightness that suggested he was struggling to keep his emotions in check. “About G’kalte. I’d thought… I’d thought you were more…discreet.”

“Discreet?” Valonna asked slowly. “What have I done that wasn’t discreet? I haven’t even –” She caught herself before she could finish the sentence. It was none of H’ned’s business what she had or hadn’t done with G’kalte.

“He’s a Peninsularite,” H’ned said, from between gritted teeth. “And a brown rider.”

And that was it, of course. It wasn’t that Valonna had feelings for another that H’ned couldn’t stand, nor even that the object of her affections was a foreigner. It was G’kalte’s rank that offended H’ned the most; his perceived inferiority, as displayed to the world by the colour of his dragon’s hide. How emasculating it must feel, for a bronze rider to be passed over in favour of a man who had only Impressed a brown. How insulting to the edifice that was a bronze rider’s pride. How bruising to a bronze rider’s certainty that he was paramount among dragonriders.

Shimpath’s relief that she had seen through to the truth at H’ned’s centre flooded through Valonna like sunlight.

“I’m sorry, H’ned,” she said simply.

He walked two strides away, stopped, stood there a moment, then turned back. “He’s,” he began. His jaw tensed, as though he was forming and then discarding sentences. “When he transfers here –”

“I know you’ll treat him fairly,” Valonna said. “Because I know you’re not L’dro.”

The anger in H’ned’s eyes were replaced, just for an instant, by chagrin, by regret, by the agonising knowledge that he’d made his play and failed. Then the hardness came down again. “No, Weyrwoman,” he said stiffly. “I’m not.”

I could not have lived with you if you had convinced yourself you could live with him, Shimpath said softly, when H’ned had gone.

Valonna sat down behind her desk. “I don’t think he’s a bad man, Shimpath,” she said aloud. “Maybe he won’t even be a bad Weyrleader. I just hope he’s good enough at both not to make my next two Turns miserable.”

She dashed off a summary of the meeting at Jessaf and put the document in the roll of records pertaining to the five-Turn Charter amendment. No doubt H’ned would have his own to add, and a copy of Master Gaffry’s notes would arrive from the Harperhall in due course. Valonna paused, her hand on the document tube, thinking. She knew H’ned didn’t really think that the between issue would persist. Some of the northern Weyrs as yet unaffected still seemed perversely resistant to the notion that it was a universal problem, in spite of its recent manifestation at Telgar. Southern might have been first affected, but things were still too chaotic there for any of its senior riders to be thinking about anything beyond who would next be selected to serve a month as Weyrleader Regent. Madellon’s thinking on the subject was more advanced than any other on Pern. Valonna could see a hide covered edge-to-edge in L’stev’s handwriting amongst the new records that had appeared while she was at Jessaf; probably a report on the progress of the Wildfire weyrlings’ new training manoeuvres. For all that she and H’ned had made the Lords Holder think about what Pern would be like without dragons who could go between, she didn’t think anyone yet truly grasped how dramatically the Weyr would need to change to cope.

As she tried to pull L’stev’s document out from the pile, one of the scrolls on top of it slid off, almost into her lap. Valonna went to put it aside, and then stopped, frowning. A note in Master Shauncey’s looping hand had been pinned to the top. It read simply, Explanation?

The document was a receipt for the purchase of narlbark resin from Speardike Hold. The date on it made it two months old. The handwriting was nearly illegible, but the two seals – one ink, one wax – beneath it weren’t. The inked stamp was the crest of Speardike. The wax bore the unmistakeable imprint of the Madellon Weyrleader’s signet ring.

Valonna stared at it for a long time, trying to make sense of what she was seeing. The Weyrleader’s signet had gone missing along with T’kamen. Sh’zon and H’ned, looking for it, had assumed he’d been wearing it when whatever had befallen him happened, and although Valonna couldn’t think of an occasion when she’d actually seen the big ring on T’kamen’s hand, she’d accepted the explanation. Having a new signet made was near the bottom of her list of things to do – if probably somewhat higher on H’ned’s.

But if this document was accurate, that same ring had been used to authorise the purchase of narlbark a month after T’kamen’s disappearance. The only person outside the Healerhall who’d had reason to buy narlbark was P’raima. Had he somehow got his hands on T’kamen’s signet ring? Realisation gripped Valonna suddenly. T’kamen had gone to Southern the day he’d disappeared. Had he mislaid his ring there? Had he gone back to retrieve it, and stumbled somehow onto P’raima’s machinations? Had P’raima been behind T’kamen’s disappearance?

Be calm, Valonna, Shimpath urged her, sounding concerned.

Valonna realised she was clutching the document hard enough to crumple it. She made herself let it go, and smoothed it flat. Her hands were sweating. They’d assumed that Speardike’s botanists had been selling the rare resin to P’raima illicitly, but if they had believed they were selling to Madellon then that cleared them of any wrongdoing. And implicated P’raima in yet another crime. “P’raima didn’t scruple to murder people who got in his way.”

I would have known if Epherineth had died, Shimpath said, grasping Valonna’s implication, and rebutting it with authority. Tezonth’s rider could not have killed him.

“But how did P’raima get hold of T’kamen’s ring?” Valonna asked aloud.

Then another thought struck her. P’raima had been using the felah counter-agent for Turns. He must have been buying narlbark for longer than a single season – at least as far back as 94, Grizbath’s penultimate flight.

Which was when L’dro had become Weyrleader at Madellon.

Valonna’s guts turned over.

The Weyr was the one establishment whose right of purchase within its territory overrode any other. L’dro must have facilitated P’raima’s supply of narlbark from Speardike. He wouldn’t have asked the Southern Weyrleader why he wanted it. L’dro would have agreed to anything that put marks into his pouch. Valonna wondered if he even knew now that his little side deal with P’raima had contributed indirectly to their mutual poisoning at Long Bay. Probably not. L’dro had never troubled himself with the details. He might not even have known it was P’raima he was selling to. D’feng would have been the one to arrange the transaction and bury the minutiae in Madellon’s books.

And then P’raima’s convenient deal had run into an obstacle: T’kamen. He’d been digging into Madellon’s ledgers almost since the moment he’d become Weyrleader, and he wouldn’t have turned a blind eye to an obvious scheme, however many marks it might have put in his own pocket. And with D’feng injured, P’raima would have lost his side door into Madellon’s upper echelons. He must have been terrified of losing his secret pipeline to the substance that was keeping his Weyrleadership alive. He must, somehow, have stolen T’kamen’s signet ring, and used it to falsify Madellon authorisation for narlbark purchases.

Valonna sat there, shaking, as the facts came together.

He could not have killed Epherineth’s rider, Shimpath said again.

It was difficult for Valonna to believe that, when P’raima had committed so many terrible crimes, but she made herself accept her queen’s logic. Perhaps it was just  a coincidence that T’kamen had vanished a few hours after his visit to Southern. Perhaps his disappearance had nothing to do with narlbark or the missing signet ring. Perhaps in that one matter, P’raima was blameless.

But dead riders told no tales. P’raima was dead. D’feng, with the knowledge he must have possessed, was dead. T’kamen, the only one who truly knew what had happened that day, was gone. Perhaps Valonna might find a way to trace L’dro’s involvement in the narlbark trade back to him, but she doubted it, and the thought of taking up a vendetta against her ex-Weyrleader merely filled her with despair. She supposed she could have found some satisfaction in having unravelled part of the mystery, but without the last crucial pieces, the puzzle remained frustratingly incomplete.

She reluctantly set the matter aside and bent to the task of reading L’stev’s training report.

Late that evening, after Valonna had retired, and long past the time when she would have expected a visitor, Shimpath made a small noise of warning from the ledge.

Valonna sat up. She’d been sitting up in bed with her sewing basket beside her and her current sampler, a large piece depicting a sunrise over the snowy peaks of southern Madellon, draped over her lap. Shimpath?

Someone is here.

It was dark outside, and the image Shimpath shared with Valonna was unclear. Who is it?

She is leaving.

She? Valonna swung her legs out of bed and swept up a robe, pulling it on over her nightdress as she walked through her weyr. Don’t let her leave.

After a pause, Shimpath said, I have told her not to go.

There were few women who would have come to Valonna’s weyr at any hour, let alone such a late one, and yet still she was surprised when she came out barefoot onto her queen’s ledge and found Sarenya halfway down the steps.

“Saren?” she asked, and put her hand on Shimpath’s inquisitive nose.

Sarenya looked a little shaken. “I was just going, Weyrwoman, but…your queen…”

What did you say to her? Valonna scolded Shimpath.

I told her not to go. She hears well. She is very upset.

“Whatever is it, Saren?” Valonna asked. “Come in, for goodness’ sake. It’s pitch dark.”

Sarenya climbed the steps slowly, every inch of her body, even in silhouette, transmitting reluctance. “I shouldn’t have come.”

“You wouldn’t have if it wasn’t important,” said Valonna. “Come in. Let me get you some wine.”

“I…no, thank you, Weyrwoman.”

“Klah, then.” Valonna glanced back as she led the way inside, sensing Sarenya’s resistance. “Some tea?”

Finally, Sarenya nodded. “Tea…would be…”

As they stepped into the glow-lit living room, Valonna finally caught a glimpse of Sarenya’s face. Her eyes were red-rimmed, her face damp with recent tears. Valonna didn’t think she’d ever seen her cry. “Sit down, Saren,” Valonna told her, distressed by her distress. “Please, sit down!”

Sarenya nearly collapsed into one of the armchairs by Valonna’s hearth, and sat, her shoulders hunched, her head bowed, visibly struggling with her emotions. Valonna grasped her hands, alarmed and concerned. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

She raised her head. She heaved a great controlling breath and held it a moment, then whispered, “Tea would be lovely.”

Valonna went to the hearth, giving Sarenya the time it took for the ever-present kettle to start bubbling to collect herself. By the time it was ready, Sarenya looked slightly closer to composure. She wrapped her fingers around the cup of tea and breathed in its aroma without drinking.

“Tell me what the matter is,” Valonna urged her, sitting on the adjacent armchair.

Sarenya exhaled, blowing steam from the surface of her tea. “I don’t want to get C’mine in trouble,” she began, with a brittle determination.

“C’mine?” Valonna asked, and then, “Is he all right?”

“Oh, no, he’s…” Sarenya looked flustered. “It’s not him. He’s…he’s all right. As all right as he’s been recently.” She managed a wan smile. “I think he might even be a little better. But he told me some things. Things I don’t think I’m supposed to know about…going between times. Please don’t give Mine grief. He didn’t intend to let dragonrider secrets slip.”

Valonna felt tension stiffen her shoulders. She made them relax. “He’s not in trouble,” she told her. “You’re a friend of the Weyr, Saren. You’re not going to be telling all of Pern.” Hopefully, she asked, “Is that what’s upsetting you? C’mine’s timing?”

Sarenya shook her head. “No. I mean – yes. He said some things about what he’s done…the consequences…” She shook her head again. “It’s not him. He knows he’s been stupid. Reckless. I could slap him. But it’s not that.” She hesitated for a long moment. “Can you…is it possible for a dragonrider to be in two places at the same time?”

Valonna took a careful breath. “I’ve never gone between times, Saren,” she told her quietly. “I don’t exactly…” She let it out. “Yes,” she said. “It’s terribly dangerous, but it is possible.”

“So a rider could be seen in one place,” Sarenya said, “and also be somewhere else completely, but at exactly the same time?” When Valonna nodded, she pressed on. “So he could have been at the second place, but used being at the first place too as a way to claim that he wasn’t?”

The line of questioning was making Valonna uneasy. “Do you mean…as an alibi?”

“Yes.” Sarenya seized on the word. “An alibi.”

Valonna sat a moment, her mind racing. “Sarenya,” she said, very quietly, “do you think that – someone – has used timing to do something bad?”

“It’s not C’mine. I’m not talking about C’mine.”

“Then you think someone else has been timing?” Valonna asked. That did alarm her. “With criminal intent?”

Sarenya nearly laughed. It was unsettlingly incongruous. “I don’t know why he’d do it,” she said. “I can’t believe he’d do it over me. He knew Kamen and I were finished. He knew. But I can’t think of any other reason why he’d do it.”

The chill Valonna had felt earlier when she’d grasped, or thought she’d grasped, a piece of the truth about T’kamen’s disappearance came back in full icy force. “What, Saren?” she asked, though she thought she already knew the answer. The second question was still opaque to her. “And who?”

“He’s been timing,” Sarenya said. Her eyes were painful with tears. “Timing, and lying, all along. He said he didn’t see T’kamen before he disappeared. He said he was out with his Wing. He said he couldn’t be in two places at the same time. But he could, couldn’t he? He was.”

Valonna was finding it hard to breathe. Only Shimpath’s calming presence steadied her ragged inhalations. “Who, Saren?”

Sarenya squeezed her eyes shut, and the tears broke and ran down her cheeks. “M’ric,” she whispered, and then, “Oh Faranth, Valonna, but I think he killed T’kamen.”

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