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Chapter seventy-one: T’kamen

There’s one thing I’ll say for having a rival like T’kamen. S’leondes is twisting himself in knots trying to decide which of us he’d hate less.

And the irony is that for all our differences, past and present, I suspect he’d still sooner have me as Marshal. Who’s kept this Weyr supplied and flying these twenty Turns? Me. Who’s quelled rebellion amongst the brown and bronze riders all this time? Me. Who’s provided him with a steady stream of the right kind of dragons he needs so badly? Me.

If S’leondes wanted me out of this office, he could have contrived it Turns ago. No. He may hate me, but he knows I’m the best man for the job. He knows what it would mean for Madellon – for Pern – if T’kamen were to get elected in my place. Chaos. Absolute anarchy.

And Dalka knows it, too. Oh, she has a roving eye, but she’s served this Weyr as long as I have. She knows what a disaster T’kamen would be as Marshal. It’s crucial – absolutely crucial – that we don’t let it happen, no matter how radical we have to be to prevent it.

– Excerpt from the personal diaries of Weyrmarshal R’lony

26.10.25-26.11.09 (26TH TURN, EIGHTH PASS)

T'kamen (Micah Johnson)By contrast to Fetch and Agusta’s chaotic night-time emergence, the fire-lizard hatching went smoothly.

Fetch gave T’kamen plenty of violet-eyed warning, and all twelve of the riders they had selected, plus Dalka, R’lony, and S’leondes, crowded into his weyr for the occasion. Epherineth did have to persuade Fetch to allow T’kamen to pass out the twitching eggs to their designated handlers, but with that achieved, there was little else for T’kamen to do. He still half expected S’leondes to interfere in some way, but the Commander just watched with an unreadable expression as, one after another, infant fire-lizards broke free and Impressed upon their new owners.

T’kamen couldn’t pretend that he wasn’t a little disappointed that no queen hatched from the Istan clutch, but with a final haul of four greens, two blues, three browns, and three bronzes, he couldn’t complain that Reloka had given them the worst eggs, either. R’lony still grumbled, but none of the riders who left T’kamen’s weyr carrying tiny sleeping fire-lizards in the crooks of their elbows seemed dissatisfied.

A couple of days later, on a Thread-free morning and with the whole Weyr in attendance, Dalka presented the twelve riders and their fire-lizards to Madellon. The ceremony itself had been T’kamen’s idea, but its execution was all Dalka’s. One at a time, each rider rose from his Wing’s table to introduce himself and his fire-lizard and receive a new four-strand shoulder-knot from the Weyrwoman. The knots combined the usual thick cords in indigo for Madellon and in the colour of the rider’s dragon, with a third, narrower strand in the colour of the fire-lizard, and a slender thread of gold to acknowledge Dalka’s supervisory authority over the new Between Wing. Last of all, she called T’kamen to the dais, affixing his new rank-knot to his shoulder. It was tailed and knotted like a fighting Wingleader’s braid. With his back to the massed riders of Madellon, T’kamen couldn’t assess their reaction to this provocative symbol, but when he passed R’lony and S’leondes on his way to join his new cohort of riders, their faces were stony.

Commander and Marshal both said a few words about hope and the future and new beginnings that neither of them really meant. Dalka’s speech was mostly rhetoric, too, but she did slip in a few allusions to the spirit of cooperation and the value of building bridges and forging links. She was vague enough that even T’kamen wasn’t sure if she meant within Madellon itself or between the northern and southern continents of Pern.

He knew R’lony feared he would make a speech of his own, though he’d said he wouldn’t. There was an air of expectation generally that he would use the public occasion to announce his intention to stand in the Marshal election, less than a month away. He had considered it. But when he went down the line on the dais, clasping wrists with each of the riders whose between training had been placed in his hands, he knew he’d been right to decide against it. When he reached H’juke, halfway down the line, with the blue lizard he’d named Fathom sitting sleepily on his shoulder, the young bronze rider looked him in the eye, and asked, clearly enough to be heard by the riders either side of him if not by the Weyr at large, “Will you be declaring, sir?”

“Not today, H’juke,” T’kamen said. “Today is about you, not me.”

It was the closest he’d yet come to confirming his intention to contest the Marshal election publicly. He knew it would get back to R’lony and S’leondes. But as his answer rippled outward in both directions along the line, passed along in murmurs to those who hadn’t heard it with their own ears, he saw each of the riders of Between Wing stand just a little bit straighter.

At the nadir of T’kamen’s Interval disfavour, when L’dro had just become Weyrleader and demoted him from Wingleader back down to wingrider, T’kamen had gone to L’stev to ask for a position on his staff.

L’stev refused him on the spot.

“But H’ben’s already said he doesn’t want to do another class,” T’kamen argued, following L’stev determinedly up the steps to Vanzanth’s ledge. “And I know you don’t have anyone else in mind.”

“Who told you that?” L’stev asked, over his shoulder, and then snorted. “C’los, I suppose.”

T’kamen didn’t dispute his source. “I want to do it, L’stev. Faranth knows I won’t have much opportunity to distinguish myself otherwise for the next three Turns.”

“That’s the problem,” said L’stev. “You want to distinguish yourself. That won’t do.”

“What other choice do I have? L’dro’s got me by the balls.”

“And I’m as sorry about that as you are. It doesn’t matter. I won’t have you.”

“But –”

“Do you want to be Weyrlingmaster? Do you want my job?”

“Of course I don’t. I just –”

“There’s no just, T’kamen. You want to be Weyrleader. There’s nothing wrong with that. But a Weyrlingmaster whose mind is elsewhere is a sorry thing to inflict on weyrlings. They deserve better than to be used as stepping-stones to influence.”

Those words were never far from T’kamen’s mind in the sevendays that followed the hatching of the twelve Istan fire-lizards. Most of his charges weren’t weyrlings, and he certainly wasn’t calling himself a Weyrlingmaster, but he doubted L’stev would have considered the distinction worth making. They were young – all but two of them under twenty – and he and Epherineth were the only ones even remotely equipped to teach them what they needed to know. And they weren’t so much stepping-stones to influence as a precarious rope-bridge upon which one mislaid step could plunge them all into utter catastrophe.

He reckoned he had three or four sevendays before the newly-hatched lizards would start to go between and, in doing so, represent an immediate danger to riders over-eager to impress him, over-zealous to please S’leondes and R’lony, or simply over-keen to prove themselves against their fellows. As carefully as the twelve had been selected, there was no accounting for the competitive rivalry of any group of young dragonriders.

At least he had more support this time. He didn’t have to train his riders in secret. The documents he’d recovered from M’ric’s weyr were a great help, once he overcame the unfamiliar terminology used by the long-dead Peninsula Weyrlingmaster who’d written them. And if none of his students were quite as clever as M’ric had been, then at least none of them laboured under the same burden of tortured alienation as he had. But there were other obstacles that he hadn’t anticipated. He didn’t expect Eighth Pass riders to know anything about fire-lizard husbandry, but he had presumed they’d be able to look after their own dragons. His first formal inspection had turned up five dragons out of twelve with the sort of hide damage that could split between. And for all that each dragonpair seemed well enough versed in the narrow band of skills required for their role in Tactical or Strategic, they were hopelessly ignorant of anything that fell outside it.

When he walked into the training room they’d been assigned by the Weyrlingmaster on the first official day of instruction, he found that his riders had segregated themselves: Tactical at the front, Strategic at the back, all the fighting riders organised by their old Wing or Flight assignments, and the two Seventh blue riders apart from everyone else. That situation T’kamen had expected, but he wasn’t prepared to indulge it. They had, at least, all risen when he’d entered the room. He limped to the front. “Be seated.”

Yes, sir!”

The crisp acknowledgement came only from the fighting riders in the front row. They sat down promptly, leaving the six Strategic riders behind them still standing, and looking bemused.

“Yes, Wingleader,” H’juke said uncertainly, and he and the remaining riders from the Seventh sat down, rather more raggedly than their new Tactical wingmates.

T’kamen wondered if the fighting riders had planned that little demonstration to show up the Seventh. “Who’s the senior rider in this Wing?”

They looked amongst themselves for a moment, and then Dannie rose from her place. She was one of the older riders, and Dalka had warned T’kamen that she might be trouble. T’kamen had chosen her anyway. He’d been slightly nonplussed when he’d inspected her Lusooth for the first time. Dannie had Impressed and trained at the Peninsula, and while T’kamen was familiar with how that Weyr’s riders liked to tattoo themselves, he’d never before come across a tattooed dragon. Lusooth had been inked with tally marks on her near shoulder – one, Dannie had told him proudly, for every month of Threadfall she’d flown. “I am, sir.”

Behind her, Z’renniz stood up. “I am, from the Seventh.”

“How many Turns have each of you served?” T’kamen asked. He knew the answer, but he had a point to make.

“Five Turns in Second Flight,” said Dannie.

“Six in the Seventh,” said Z’renniz.

The fighting riders didn’t actually turn around and glower at Z’renniz, though some of them looked very hard at T’kamen. He could read their minds. They were wondering if he was going to favour the Strategic riders, and use Z’renniz’s marginally longer service record as justification.

“Sit,” he said. “You don’t have to keep jumping up and down just to answer questions. Fraza, how long have you flown in the fighting Wings?”

She sat perfectly straight in her place. “Four and a half months, sir.”

“H’juke,” said T’kamen. “What about you?”

“I’m still only a weyrling, sir,” said H’juke, sounding abashed.

“There’s quite a big difference, isn’t there,” said T’kamen. “From five and six Turns of adult service, all the way down to none.” He looked around the room, seeing heads nodding in agreement, Tactical and Strategic alike. “All right. Who’s gone between the most?”

The nods stopped. Riders glanced at each other, frowning, perhaps wondering if it was a trick question. “Wingleader,” said Dannie, after a moment, “none of us have ever gone between.”

“None of you have ever gone between,” said T’kamen. “Let me say that one more time. None of you have ever gone between.” He looked from rider to rider, meeting one pair of eyes after another. “This isn’t a fighting Wing. This isn’t the Seventh Flight. This is the Between Wing. None of you has any more experience of between than anyone else. So in this Wing, under my command, there is no seniority. No hierarchy. No rank. Whatever your assignment was before; whatever the colour of your dragon – or your fire-lizard – you are all equals. Is that understood?” When they didn’t respond immediately, he repeated, “Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir,” they answered back, rather unevenly. Some of them looked happier about it than others.

“This won’t be easy,” T’kamen went on. “You’re not used to working with riders from the other branch of the Weyr. Or taking orders from a bronze rider. I’m going to be asking you to do things that run counter to your training, and part of that is overcoming some of the attitudes and preconceptions that govern you. It won’t feel safe or natural. You’re going to feel exposed. Unsafe. You’re going to be scared.”

He noticed a couple of the fighting riders bristle slightly at that. “Yes, scared,” he said. “And I’m not questioning your courage by saying that. Those of you who’ve fought Thread already know what it is to be brave. Those of you who haven’t have shown a different kind of mettle. But your nerve will be tested, in this Wing. Between isn’t something to be taken lightly; not now, not ever. No matter what you’ve faced before, and no matter the colour of your dragon, you’re all coming to this equally raw.”

He looked across the room. Dannie had raised her hand. “Green rider?”

“Sir,” she said. “You said that we’re all equal, whatever the colour of our dragon. But without rank, how will you prevent riders with larger dragons from intimidating those of us with fighting dragons?”

“I won’t tolerate bullying,” said T’kamen. He didn’t want to single out the Seventh riders – a green could harass another dragon just as unpleasantly as a bronze could. “And any dragon of any colour who tries to intimidate another member of this class will answer to Epherineth. I can promise you that that’s not a comfortable experience.”

Dannie had her hand up again. “But sir,” she said. “My riders are –”

“You have no riders, Dannie,” T’kamen said. “I appreciate you feel a responsibility towards the other fighting riders of this group, but that’s an instinct you’ll need to suppress. What we’re trying to achieve is too important to be obstructed by colour loyalties and ingrained prejudice. That applies to everyone here, and in that spirit, the way you’ve organised yourselves isn’t going to work.” He surveyed the seating arrangements. “Every other rider on the front row, swap seats with every other rider on the back row.”

That provoked a low-level buzz of discontented muttering. Fire-lizards that had been dozing in breast pockets or on shoulders began to rouse, grizzling irritably as they picked up on the agitation. The two Seventh blue riders, F’sta and I’gral, looked particularly unhappy to be separated. A brown rider’s green lizard lunged snappishly at a green rider’s blue, and that set all the infant fire-lizards to squalling.

Fetch’s reaction silenced them all. T’kamen’s little brown – not so little, now, by comparison to the younger fire-lizards – squealed his displeasure, and all the babies, even the bronzes, recoiled and shut up. The dragonriders, just as startled by the admonition as their lizards, finished exchanging seats without further grumbling, though one or two of them still looked mulish about their new neighbours.

It wasn’t the most promising start, though T’kamen had always known that getting riders from the two bitterly-divided branches of the Weyr to accept each other would be a challenge. He started them on one of the exercises in visualisation that M’ric had found most helpful, which didn’t require too much interaction between riders, and the rest of the morning passed without serious incident.

In the days that followed, T’kamen drove them hard. He was determined to instil a proper attitude towards between in his riders’ heads before they could take it upon themselves to start experimenting. M’ric had been far too eager to take Trebruth between before the first experience of it had scared him sensible. Epherineth couldn’t watch twelve other dragons all the time. But T’kamen didn’t want to cause his riders such anxiety about between that they would fear to risk themselves at all when the time came. The aversion training they received as weyrlings was a tricky enough obstacle to negotiate without making it worse. He was aware of what a fine line he must tread with the riders whose progress was being so closely scrutinised by S’leondes and R’lony.

Their training followed a routine. They always started the day in the classroom. T’kamen’s insistence that they move around, change seats, and get to know all the other members of the group remained unpopular, but after the first sevenday he found he no longer had to enforce his rule in the training room. After the second, he discovered that, while his riders still tended to separate themselves into groups during breaks and mealtimes, those groups didn’t necessarily follow the strict colour divisions that they had at the beginning.

He didn’t usually keep them confined to the training room for long. He took them out to visit nearby Holds and points of interest, developing their ability to construct and memorise visuals, and beginning the process of building their own reference inventories. Sometimes he took them as a Wing, sometimes in smaller groups, and sometimes individually. The one-on-one flights gave Epherineth the opportunity to assess each dragon on his own merits; the small groups, in varying configurations, let T’kamen compare different dragons with each other; and the full Wing excursions gave him the broadest understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the dragonpairs under his command.

One problem found a natural resolution. Early on, T’kamen told H’juke, gently enough, that he couldn’t continue to serve as his tail, even informally. H’juke hid his disappointment poorly, but he was nothing if not dutiful, even when being asked to do less rather than more. He listened to T’kamen’s explanation that the perception of favouritism would be bad for both of them, and left chagrined but apparently acceptant of the situation.

The following morning, T’kamen was woken by the sound of voices conferring quietly in his weyr. When he got up to investigate the disturbance, leaving Leda still asleep, he found H’juke and F’sta, their fire-lizards in tow, poking around the hearth in his quarters. “What in the Void are you two doing?” he asked. “H’juke, I told you –”

“I know, sir,” H’juke replied. “That’s why F’sta’s here, sir. I’m showing him what needs doing.”

T’kamen was still too sleep-fogged to grasp his meaning. “What?”

“We know you can’t have a tail, sir,” said F’sta. “But you’re our Wingleader, and with your leg…”

“We’ve drawn up a duty roster,” said H’juke, holding out a slate.

T’kamen looked at it. The slate had been marked with neat rows and columns, splitting each day into three shifts – morning, afternoon, and night-time – with the name of one of the Between Wing marked against each shift. “What?”

H’juke was trying hard not to grin, but his enthusiasm still shone through. “See, we each take a shift, once every four days, rotating through so that no one has to do an overnight more than once every twelfth day. We’ve marked Fall for the first two sevendays – see – and swapped some shifts so that different people are on duty for them. And on the back here –” he turned the slate over, “I’ve made lists of everything that your duty rider should be doing for you.”

The reverse of the slate listed everything from making morning klah to greasing Epherineth’s harness to replenishing the wood and coal for the hearth. “This is far beyond even what a tail would be doing for me,” he said. “None of you are weyrlings. I can’t have you drudging for me.”

“We’re all in agreement, sir,” said F’sta.

“All of you?” T’kamen asked. He was thinking of Dannie, who had been almost senior enough to rate a tail of her own before joining his Wing.

“Sir, all of us,” said H’juke, firmly. “You’re a Wingleader. You’re our Wingleader. You shouldn’t have to polish your own boots just because you’re not supposed to have a tail.”

“And we’re not drudging,” added F’sta, “because each of us is only ever on duty for two watches every four days.”

T’kamen hesitated: uncomfortable, flattered, and conscious as he always was now of the need to consider how it would look to the Weyr that his riders were serving him.

“And you’re not just going to be our Wingleader,” said H’juke. “I mean, after the election, that is.” He raised his eyes to T’kamen’s, as if daring him to disagree.

“All right,” he said at last. “All right.” He thumped both riders roughly on the shoulder, and was rewarded with their grins. “Thank you. But just to warn you. If Leda’s here in the mornings, for Faranth’s sake, don’t wake her up. No amount of shine on my boots is worth the grief I’ll get about that.”

For all his concerns about the arrangement, T’kamen was soon glad of it. He’d not been so busy since he’d arrived in the Interval, and with his mobility limited, knowing that his weyr would be tidy, Epherineth clean, and food and klah no more than a request away, made things much easier. He and Epherineth still flew Fall in the Seventh, patrolling behind Trailing Edge on the lookout for dragonpairs in trouble, although their schedule of journeys between to collect tithe and convey passengers was greatly reduced. R’lony grumbled about that most mornings, in between dropping unsubtle hints about the burdens of being the Marshal. T’kamen reported officially to Dalka, R’lony, and S’leondes every other day, and privately to Dalka more often than that. His chess matches with El’yan continued, as did his occasional gitar sessions in the dining hall with Tawgert.

It was during one of those, just after he’d played through a difficult piece that had been eluding him for a time, that the Weyr Singer turned to him and remarked, “That’s as well as I’ve ever heard you play, bronze rider. I think you’ve rediscovered your talent.”

“My fingers disagree,” T’kamen replied, rubbing his fingertips together ruefully. “Those last few measures hurt.”

“They should. I don’t know many Harpers who’d get through that kind of fingering with all their skin intact.” Tawgert leaned on the body of his gitar. “Where did you say you learned?”

“Wintering at the Harperhall every Turn from when I was nine. My friend Carellos taught me the basics. And found an apprentice gitar from stores for me to borrow.” He felt himself smile at the thought of that awful old gitar, with its slightly crooked neck and its uncomfortably high action and the tendency of its A string to go out of tune if he so much as looked at it.

“And he was a Harper?” Tawgert asked.

“No. Craftbred, and he was a much better gitar player than me, but he never apprenticed. We were both Searched out of Kellad. He Impressed a green and became C’los.”

“C’los,” Tawgert said thoughtfully.

“He was like a brother to me,” T’kamen said, and then, when Tawgert looked curiously at him, he went on, “He died. On my watch.”

“I’m guessing that wasn’t something that happened too often in the Interval.”

“Things were different then. A dragonrider could expect to live to sixty-five or seventy, and retire to the coast when he’d had enough of the Wings.” He raised his eyes to the occupants of the long tables in the dining hall. “Everyone’s so sharding young.”

Tawgert chuckled. “The immaturity of your riders is getting to you?”

“I’m only ten Turns older than some of them. They make me feel like I’m about five hundred, and what I’m teaching them about between is some mystical make-believe that they can’t quite bring themselves to trust.”

“You come from a different time,” said Tawgert. “Everything they learn from you is filtered through that perception.” He looked contemplative. “Maybe I could revive some of the old songs that mention between.”

“I haven’t heard March of the Wings since I’ve been here,” said T’kamen. “That would be a good one to start.”

March of the Wings,” said Tawgert. “That fell out of favour a long time ago.” He set his fingers to his gitar strings, frowning. “Remind me how it starts?”

“Don’t ask me to sing,” T’kamen warned him, but he flexed his sore fingers and then struck the opening chords of the ballad that had been a mainstay in the Pern of his birth.

It took Tawgert only a couple of bars to pick up the tune. “From the top?” he suggested when they reached the end of the introduction, and then, when they reached the first verse for the second time, joined his voice to the music.

Drummer, beat, and piper, blow
Harper, strike, and soldier, go
Free the flame and sear the grasses
Till the dawning Red Star passes

A little buzz always came over the dining cavern when the Weyr Singer sang. T’kamen, playing the easy chords that his fingers knew so well, saw heads turn in their direction.

From the Weyr and from the Bowl
Bronze and brown and blue and green
Rise the dragonmen of Pern
Aloft, on wing, seen, then unseen

The buzz hushed a bit at that verse. More people turned to look. T’kamen wondered what had made the song unpopular: the reference to an ability no longer available, or the implication that dragons of every colour had once risen to fight Thread?

Dragonman, avoid excess
Greed will bring the Weyr distress;
To the ancient Laws adhere,
Prosper thus the Dragon-weyr

Everyone from T’kamen’s time had known the first three verses of March and everyone with a mind to would normally join in. Hearing it sung solo, in fascinated silence, caused him an odd prickle down the back of his neck.

Agile greens will do or die
Swiftest of the dragon-breed
Turning, burning, flaming, fly!
Daring in the hour of need

There was no set order for the colour verses. Whoever was leading the song would usually build up to the greens, on the basis that there were always far more riders of that colour than any other, and therefore it was usually the most raucously subscribed. No one joined in – they didn’t know the words – but several voices shouted approval of the rousing verse.

Valiant blues will leave no trace
Scorching Thread in deadly style
Sky-born fighters full of grace
Wing-sure, fearless, versatile

There might not have been as many blue riders as green in the dining hall, but more of them anticipated their verse, and the whoops that erupted from the Wing tables made the green riders’ shout sound subdued.

Doughty browns will hold the line
Frame the battle, flank the Flight
Break formation, realign!
Steady in the endless fight

From the back of the cavern, where most of the Seventh’s riders were sequestered, a cheer so loud and so sustained went up from the throats of forty or fifty brown riders that T’kamen glanced at Tawgert and, in mutual agreement, doubled the bridge before the next verse to give the din time to die away.

Splendid bronzes show the way
Roaring flame in battle-cry
First in, last out of the fray
Born to lead in Thread-filled sky

There could be no roar from Madellon’s bronze riders. There were only twelve, and T’kamen was one of them. The lyrics should have been incendiary in a Madellon where bronze dragons had been virtually redundant for decades. But as he scanned the cavern for signs of dissent, his gaze happened to fall on H’juke. He was sitting perfectly still at the Between Wing’s table, and tears were shining on his face.

Weyrling, focus; weyrling, strive
Learn all you need to survive
Then in time your place you’ll earn
In the fighting Wings of Pern

The riders at the weyrling tables made up for what they lacked in numbers with youthful enthusiasm and volume, banging mugs and stamping their feet so loudly that they nearly drowned out the closing gitar flourishes of the ballad.

T’kamen looked at Tawgert as the final chord died away. Tawgert’s eyes gleamed with the satisfaction of having elicited such an uproarious response from his audience. “They’ve never heard that before,” he realised aloud.

Tawgert shook his head, but with a Harper’s instinct for the significant, his eyes had slid past the applauding ranks of riders, even as they clamoured to hear the ballad again. “T’kamen.”

He didn’t gesture, or even move his head, but T’kamen followed his gaze. S’leondes was standing by the entrance to the dining hall. His face was a mask of contained anger, and his eyes bored into T’kamen’s even from so far away.

“Is this going to make your life difficult?” T’kamen asked Tawgert, not breaking S’leondes’ stare.

“I’m a Harper, T’kamen,” said Tawgert. “If I’d wanted life to be easy I’d never have apprenticed in. And the Commander isn’t the only one with the power to make lives difficult.”

That observation was pointed enough to drag T’kamen’s attention away from S’leondes.

R’lony had risen from his place, and while the nuance of his displeasure did not match S’leondes’, the intensity of it did. As T’kamen watched, Dalka rose beside him, putting her hand on his arm and speaking quickly into his ear, but if she meant to defuse him then she failed. R’lony pushed her hand away and stalked towards the hearth where T’kamen and Tawgert were playing.

“Marshal,” Tawgert greeted him pleasantly.

“Make yourself scarce,” R’lony told him, and only when Tawgert had gone from his place did he address T’kamen. “What in the Void do you think you’re doing? Do you want to start a shaffing riot?”

T’kamen met his irate look steadily. “It’s just a song, R’lony.”

“Whershit. You’re putting ideas in riders’ heads that have no place being there in this Turn.”

“What kind of ideas would they be?” T’kamen asked.

“You know exactly what,” said R’lony. “And all you’re doing is whipping them up. You don’t have the first clue how hard I’ve worked to keep the Seventh’s riders content with their lot.”

“Perhaps they shouldn’t be.”

“That’s your manifesto, then, is it?” R’lony asked. “Equal rights for brown and bronze riders?” He snorted. “You’re an idiot if you think a hundred of us can defy six hundred of them. It’s not the Interval any more, and for all that you’re giving my riders tales of former glories, it never will be.”

“You and S’leondes are really more alike than you realise,” T’kamen said. He knew the mild tone of his voice would needle R’lony as much as the content of his remarks. “You’re both in denial.”

I’m in denial? You’re the blighted fool who thinks a fire-lizard on your shoulder and a few young idiots wanting to emulate you makes you fit to fill my shoes!”

“My fire-lizard doesn’t make me fit for that,” said T’kamen. He felt a smile that he hadn’t intended twist the corner of his mouth. “But my dragon does.”

“Dragons don’t decide elections,” said R’lony.

“Clearly,” said T’kamen. “Or it would have been a warm day between before you ever became Marshal.”

R’lony laughed. “You think insulting Geninth is going to get you anywhere? He’s sired forty clutches. How many did yours manage?”

“Just one,” said T’kamen. “Twice the size of any of yours, and with a gold egg. And that was in the Interval.” He let his smile broaden, though the unaccustomed exercise of his facial muscles wasn’t comfortable. “You don’t think Donauth’s to blame for the puny size of her clutches, do you?”

That put R’lony in an impossible position. He glared at T’kamen with those pale blue eyes. “Size isn’t everything.”

T’kamen threw a look over towards Dalka. “Have you asked her if she agrees?”

R’lony made as if to seize T’kamen by the front of his shirt. He barely checked himself in time, balling his hands into fists. “You’ll keep your tongue civil, bronze rider.”

T’kamen just barely smirked in reply.

“You filthy wher,” R’lony said, spitting the words out. “Thinking you’re better than me –”

“I am better than you,” said T’kamen. “And Epherineth could crush Geninth like a crawler.”

“Epherineth can’t bully Geninth. He doesn’t have the seniority.”

“He doesn’t need seniority,” said T’kamen. “And he doesn’t need to bully Geninth to prove he’s better than him. He only has to beat him.”

R’lony’s nostrils flared. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? To throw him in against our inferior browns. Think he’d sweep them all aside, don’t you?”

“He wouldn’t need to. Donauth would be so grateful for a real dragon, she’d probably –”

“Shut your mouth.”

R’lony said it with such justified revulsion that T’kamen nearly backed down. He didn’t like being so crude. It wasn’t his way at all. But R’lony didn’t know that, and Epherineth’s support for the necessary measures stiffened T’kamen’s resolve. He shrugged. “It’s lucky for you that Epherineth’s not eligible to chase Donauth. It would be humiliating for you to lose your queen and your job.”

“You haven’t won the election yet, T’kamen,” R’lony said, forcing the words through gritted teeth.

“You’ve already lost it,” said T’kamen. “Whether it was Ch’fil who took your place, or me, you were never going to be wearing that knot for much longer. And that won’t be the only thing you’ll have lost.” He jerked his head towards Dalka. “Do you think she’ll still be hot for you when you’re not Marshal any more?”

R’lony looked over at Dalka. His face was flushed and ruddy, his teeth partly bared in a grimace, but his eyes sought reassurance from his weyrmate, and as T’kamen watched, they found it. “I should call you out here and now,” he said. “You’ve insulted me, my dragon, my weyrmate and her queen. I wouldn’t allow the least of those slights, let alone all of them.” He stared at T’kamen, his nostrils flaring. “But you’re a cripple. I won’t raise a hand to a man who can’t even stand unaided.”

“How noble of you,” T’kamen mocked softly.

“Shut up,” said R’lony. “I’ll still have my satisfaction. As will Dalka. When Donauth rises, feel free to send Epherineth after her. Then we’ll see whose dragon is superior.”

Epherineth’s excited surge of reaction almost distracted T’kamen from his purpose. He narrowed his eyes, searching R’lony’s face, as though looking for the catch. “That’s ridiculous. You can’t possibly imagine that Geninth can outfly Epherineth.”

“Ridiculous, is it?” R’lony asked, suddenly bullish again. “Or is it that you’re afraid that when it comes to it, your bronze won’t have what it takes to fly a Pass queen?”

“He could fly any queen, Pass or Interval.”

“Donauth isn’t just any queen,” R’lony said. “She’s my queen.”

“I know what you’re trying to do,” T’kamen said. “Epherineth will fly Donauth, and you’ll use it as a way to turn every brown rider in the Seventh against me for siring dragons too big to fight. And the bronzes too, for being excluded when Epherineth isn’t.”

“Then we’ll throw it open to all Madellon’s bronzes,” R’lony said. “What does it matter what oversized dragonets come of it? You’ve already bartered them off to Ista anyway!”

T’kamen put his gitar, which he’d been resting on his knee, to one side. He rose slowly from his seat, careful to keep his weight on his good leg. Even standing, he was half a head shorter than R’lony. “If this is going to be a traditional flight,” he said, “then let’s make the stakes traditional, too. If Geninth flies Donauth, I won’t oppose you as Marshal. No. If any other dragon flies Donauth, I won’t oppose you.” He paused, watching as R’lony reviewed those odds. “But if Epherineth flies Donauth, you won’t just step down as a candidate. You’ll support me as Marshal.”

“I’ll never support you for anything, T’kamen,” R’lony said, with towering disdain. “But I accept. If Epherineth wins, I’ll stand aside. And if he doesn’t…once you’ve taught those riders to go between, you’ll get the shaff out of my Weyr.”

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