Chapter seventy-three: T’kamen
Even in the Eighth Pass, a queen’s flight is nothing but politics, writ large upon the sky.
The only question is: whose hand is doing the writing?
– Excerpt from the personal diaries of Weyrwoman Dalka
F’sta and S’devry came whooping into the classroom at the tail of the class, heaving an exasperated-looking Kayrin between them. “She did it!” S’devry shouted as everyone else turned to look. “Fiasco did it!”
“Would you get off,” Kayrin said, batting at the two jubilant riders who were half carrying her in their excitement.
She looked annoyed by the manhandling, and T’kamen shot the pair of riders a look. “Blue riders,” he said, “put her down. You’re not weyrlings any more.”
“But she did it,” F’sta said. “We saw her. She –”
T’kamen held up a hand to silence him. “Kayrin?”
She took a moment to compose herself after her unceremonious treatment. “It’s true,” she admitted, and couldn’t help the grin that crept onto her face. “Fiasco went between. She can do it.”
T’kamen allowed her a smile. “I never had any doubt,” he said, and as he turned to mark a cross in the box next to Kayrin’s name on the progress board on the wall, the rest of the group broke into a chorus of cheers and congratulations behind him.
He let them celebrate for a few moments. It was a breakthrough worthy of some high spirits – though for T’kamen, it was more relief than revelation. All eleven other fire-lizards had been popping in and out of between for several days already, and he’d been concerned that Kayrin’s Fiasco seemed reluctant to follow their example. Losing even one dragonpair from the Wing would have been a major setback.
But when he turned back to the room, and asked for quiet with a motion of his head, he leavened his words with caution. “Well done, Kayrin. You could have discouraged Fiasco if you’d given her any indication you were worried about her, and you didn’t.” He approved with his eyes Kayrin’s tiny nod of satisfaction at the compliment. Then he expanded his attention to all of them. “But I don’t want any of you taking this as a cue to start getting impatient. Your lizards are still only three sevendays old. They aren’t mature enough yet to be sensible, especially the smaller ones.” He said it in the confidence that no one would take offence. Even the most prickly blue and green riders had learned, early on, that the brown and bronze lizards were markedly more calm than their more junior brethren. “By the time they’re six sevendays old, and awake more than they’re asleep, they should be able to concentrate well enough to be reliable as pilots.”
The response to that was mixed. Tr’seff and Z’renniz, the most level-headed of T’kamen’s riders, nodded sagely. Dannie and Fraza looked disappointed at the delay. Most of the others sighed with varying degrees of frustration. Only B’nam didn’t react, staring instead at his hands with the same sullen expression he’d been sporting for more than a sevenday now.
T’kamen had intended to take them through a visualisation exercise from the Peninsula’s records, but he doubted they’d concentrate on it with the excitement around Fiasco’s achievement. Instead, he sketched a formation on the board. “Let’s go and stretch some wings.”
The need to keep the fighting dragons fit gave T’kamen an excuse to put them through manoeuvres, and after half a Turn flying only with the Seventh, Epherineth liked taking out an all-colour Wing. They didn’t flame, though Dannie had protested that the greens and blues would lose their edge. The Strategic dragons weren’t trained for it in close formation, and T’kamen didn’t want any of his irreplaceable dragonpairs getting scorched or – worse – going between to dodge live flame before they were ready.
He could, and did, put dragons into formations that they had never flown. As weyrlings, bronzes and browns were soon separated from their smaller siblings, the better to learn the skills that would be appropriate to their supporting role. That Trebruth had been allowed to continue to train with the fighting colours was a testament to M’ric’s persistence as much as to Trebruth’s size. But neither Tactical nor Strategic dragons were used to flying together, and it had taken a couple of sevendays for them to settle into the unfamiliar patterns. Neither side was ready to cave in and admit it yet, but T’kamen thought they all quite liked it.
He took care to include contemporary formations, too – allowing the greens and blues to work independent of the bigger dragons, to lead themselves, and even to command the browns and bronzes. But T’kamen found that hybridising traditional and modern patterns was the most rewarding approach. Flanking two or three sub-formations of fighting blues and greens with layered stacks of browns and bronzes, or assigning a single Seventh dragon to anchor a trio of greens, or assigning big dragons to static stations and infilling the gaps with free-moving smaller ones, combined old-fashioned strategy and new in ways that neither T’kamen’s Interval training, nor the rigidly segregated tactics of the Pass, would have allowed.
Whatever he did, he knew that someone would be reporting back to S’leondes. Dannie, or Fraza, or B’roce – it could have been any of the fighting riders or all of them. T’kamen didn’t let it worry him. He hadn’t asked his riders to keep anything secret. He reported to S’leondes himself, answering his sceptical questions about the nature of the flight training he was putting his Wing through. And if the Commander had hoped to expose him as partisan towards his Seventh men over the fighting riders, then T’kamen thought he’d been sufficiently even-handed with everyone to disappoint him.
It was true that his greens gave him more headaches than all the other dragons of the Wing combined, though. The emphasis that Pass tactics put on speed seemed to have endowed every green dragon in the Weyr with the need to prove that she was the fastest of them all. Without Threadfall to take the edge off their ferocious rivalry, T’kamen’s complement of five were constantly vying with one another over who was quickest and who could turn the tightest and who could best catch Epherineth’s eye in the process.
Epherineth was unmoved by the one-upmanship. Despite his mangled face, he had half the green dragons in the Weyr competing for his attention already, and he’d never been liberal with his favours. He caught Suatreth in her flights, but he wasn’t the sort of dragon who needed to make a show of his virility. Still, the young greens of T’kamen’s Wing kept bickering with each other and attempting to flirt with his bronze. It was exhausting.
Mnorth, Kayrin’s green, flew with particular exuberance in the morning’s drill. T’kamen wondered if she was just reacting to her rider’s good mood, but when they returned to the Weyr, Epherineth said, No. She’ll rise later.
The one fighting blue, Nankinth, had landed next to Mnorth. T’kamen watched the two dragons for a minute as Tr’seff, his duty wingman, helped him to strip Epherineth of his harness. “Tr’seff,” he said. “Is there a problem with Kayrin and S’devry?”
“They used to be weyrmates, sir,” said Tr’seff. “Didn’t you know?”
For all T’kamen’s careful vetting of his riders, that was one fact that he’d missed. “Used to?”
“Kayrin broke it off,” said Tr’seff. “Said they couldn’t be involved any more now that they’re in the same Wing. Though I think that was just an excuse.”
T’kamen didn’t like the way that Nankinth had positioned himself possessively beside Mnorth – or how S’devry was clearly pestering Kayrin. He limped over to the two riders. “Something the matter?”
“No, sir,” S’devry said promptly. “Nothing the matter, is there, Kayrin?”
Kayrin looked pained, but she straightened. “No, sir.”
T’kamen looked at S’devry. “Why don’t you stop bothering Kayrin, then,”
“I’m not –”
“See to Nankinth,” T’kamen told him brusquely.
“Sir,” S’devry said, sounding petulant.
T’kamen watched him stalk off towards his dragon. “Is there a problem with him?”
“No, sir,” Kayrin said quickly. “He’s just… An idiot.”
“Do you want him grounded when Mnorth rises?”
“Grounded?” Kayrin looked taken aback. “Nankinth’s a fighting dragon. It’s his right to chase any green he wants. Mnorth won’t let him catch her.” She made a face. “Probably.”
“I didn’t know that you two had a history,” said T’kamen. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have selected both of you for this Wing.”
Kayrin put a protective hand up to Fiasco, riding on her shoulder. “It is history,” she said. She looked anxious. “You won’t kick us out of the Unseen?”
The word gave T’kamen an instant’s dislocation. “The Unseen?”
“Oh,” Kayrin said, “it’s something Tr’seff came up with. Aloft, on wing, seen then unseen.”
“From March Of The Wings?”
“Though I suppose we’re more like the Seen Wing, until we actually go between,” said Kayrin. “H’juke and O’sten don’t like it. They think we should still be called your Wing. T’kamen’s Wing.”
“I don’t know,” T’kamen said. “I think the Unseen has a certain ring to it.”
He appreciated H’juke and O’sten’s loyalty, though he didn’t think it was necessary. He wondered how much of it was down to the shift in the dynamics between the brown and bronze riders of the Wing. Yaigath, B’nam’s brown, had started out as the most confident of the Seventh dragons, but Bularth and Monbeth were beginning to assert their natural dominance. T’kamen hadn’t realised just how heavily suppressed Madellon’s bronzes had been until he’d had daily contact with them. Under Epherineth’s guidance, Monbeth and Bularth were starting to behave more like bronze dragons should.
It was with that observation in mind that he spoke to their riders in the dining hall a couple of nights later. “Will you be sending Bularth after Donauth?” he asked H’juke quietly, beneath the hubbub of dinner conversations.
H’juke looked startled. “Bularth? Chase Donauth?”
“Dalka says she’ll rise within the sevenday,” said T’kamen. “If you want to try for her, you should be thinking about it now.”
“Faranth,” said H’juke. “I don’t know if I want to think about it.” His slightly glazed expression suggested that he was doing exactly that. “I don’t want to oppose you.”
“Don’t put your loyalty to me ahead of your duty to Bularth,” said T’kamen. “This might be the only opportunity he ever has to catch a queen.”
H’juke’s expression turned pained: the look of a rider torn between his own desires and his dragon’s. Then he shook his head emphatically. “No. I’ll wait. Bularth’s young.”
O’sten was less noble, which T’kamen found refreshing. “I’ve been giving it some thought already,” he said, absently stroking Flicker’s folded wings. “Monbeth’s keen.”
“As he should be.”
“I don’t think he really has a chance,” O’sten said. “Not that he couldn’t give Epherineth a run for his money.” He grinned, and T’kamen chuckled, approving. “But it’s a match race really, isn’t it? Epherineth and Geninth, winner takes all. Still, we’ll be there. Even if we’re just making up the numbers.”
“He’ll be doing more than that,” said T’kamen. “You can’t underestimate any bronze in a queen’s flight.”
“I heard Br’lom say he’ll be putting Shadith in,” said O’sten. “Faranth knows why. He’s older than dirt.”
“Any dragon who’s caught a queen once could do it again,” said T’kamen, thinking of Epherineth’s canny old sire Staamath. “Experience counts for plenty.”
“So does the queen’s choice,” said O’sten. He was looking over towards Dalka. Donauth’s rider was laughing at some joke R’lony had made, her hand draped familiarly over his forearm. “She’s been with R’lony a really long time.”
“I know,” said T’kamen.
“What happens to us if Epherineth doesn’t win?” O’sten asked. “I mean, do we just muddle on by ourselves?”
“No,” T’kamen said. “No muddling.”
T’kamen shrugged with a nonchalance he didn’t feel. “We’ll fly that Fall when we come to it.”
“It’s going to happen today, isn’t it?”
T’kamen made his slow way out onto the ledge, placing his cane quietly. Leda was barefoot, wearing one of his shirts, her arms wrapped around her against the early morning chill. She hadn’t turned to see him approach. Her attention was elsewhere.
So was Epherineth’s.
T’kamen nearly didn’t dare touch him. Epherineth was an arc of tension, his body strained taut in the same direction as Leda’s gaze. So intent was he on staring across the Bowl, he seemed to have forgotten that T’kamen didn’t like having to come along his right-hand side. So T’kamen made a point of not looking at the disfigured snarl of his dragon’s face, and moved between Epherineth and Leda. “Yes,” he said.
Leda did turn to him then. Her face was blotchy with more than early-morning sleepiness. “You could go,” she said. “There’s still time. You could…”
Epherineth tilted his head in response to some stimulus in the Bowl: another bronze, if the tightly-contained flare of anger that T’kamen felt and shared was any indication. T’kamen reached out to place his palm against his dragon’s shoulder, half expecting it to be fever-hot. Epherineth flinched, but his hide was merely warm beneath T’kamen’s fingers. “You know I can’t.”
“I could come with you,” said Leda. “I’d go anywhere with you. To Starfall, or to the north, or…”
“Leda,” T’kamen said.
He meant it gently, but it came out shadowed by Epherineth’s rising aggression. She looked at him, stricken, and he tried again. “Leda,” he said, “you know I have to do this.”
“You don’t have to do anything,” she said. “You could choose to do something else if you wanted to. If you really wanted to.”
T’kamen couldn’t find anything to say.
“But you don’t want to,” Leda said. “You don’t want me. Not enough.”
“No.” She unfolded her arms, lifting her chin. Her eyes sparkled with the tears she refused to shed. “No. I won’t beg.” She stepped past him, walking faster than T’kamen could have followed.
He watched her go helplessly.
Leda stopped just before she passed beneath the shadow of the archway. “But I’ll be waiting for you,” she said. “I’ll still be here.”
Then she was gone.
T’kamen stood looking at the place where she’d been for a long moment.
B’roce came out onto the ledge with a mug of klah a few minutes later. His face was screwed up in a sympathetic grimace. “Didn’t think she’d take it well, when the time came.”
T’kamen accepted the drink with a nod. “Will you keep an eye on her today?”
“Not like there’ll be much else for us to do,” B’roce replied.
“Fetch, too,” T’kamen added, after a sip of klah that did nothing to clear the sour taste from his mouth. “Just make sure he’s fed, and keep him out of trouble.”
“I know all about keeping a mad brown calm,” said B’roce, whose own brown, Frenzy, was the most placid lizard of the entire clutch. “Is there anything else you need me to do?”
“See if you can get someone else to cover B’nam’s shift later,” said T’kamen. “One way or another, I don’t think he’s going to be in any condition to be picking up after me today.”
Donauth didn’t make it easy on anyone. When she woke, mid-morning, every bronze and half the browns in the Bowl started to creep closer, but she merely stretched, threw a scathing look around at the expectant males as if to mock their eagerness, and then set to a meticulous preening of her wings. The brown riders whose dragons regularly chased Madellon’s queens were unfazed by Donauth’s behaviour. “She always does this,” J’lope remarked. He was dealing cards around one of the tables that had been set up just below Dalka’s ledge. “Teases it out as long as she can before she goes.”
“Doesn’t it drive your dragons crazy?” T’kamen asked.
“They’re used to it, with her,” said A’dry, picking up his hand. “Not like Levierth. With Levierth, the minute she wakes up, she’s ready.”
Their relaxed complacency was in marked contrast to the taut anticipation on the faces of the bronze riders loitering near Donauth’s weyr. Only three of them had left Madellon early, escorting Levierth away – H’juke, C’pul, and ancient M’gard – but T’kamen suspected that even creaky old Arwilth had needed Levierth’s motivation to remove himself from the Weyr. The remaining bronzes, so long forbidden from even dreaming of flying a queen, were growing increasingly aggressive and restless.
But it was Geninth who made the first move.
As he launched himself from the Rim and towards the killing grounds, R’lony and Dalka emerged from Dalka’s weyr. The angry flare of indignation that T’kamen felt was only half Epherineth’s. R’lony had Dalka in a possessive embrace, his hand wrapped familiarly around her hip, and Dalka showed no sign of displeasure with the arrangement. She arched against R’lony with feline contentment, paying no attention to the riders waiting below.
R’lony didn’t ignore them. As Dalka pressed up against him, he glanced down at his rivals, dismissing them with the quick motion of his eyes, until his gaze landed on T’kamen. Then R’lony broke into a broad and gleeful grin.
It made T’kamen bristle, and he took a unthinking step forwards. It was nearly the end of him. Without the support of his cane, his left leg buckled under him. Only J’lope’s quick grab saved him from falling, and T’kamen found himself turning on him with his teeth bared.
“All right, T’kamen,” said J’lope, releasing his arm. “Here.”
J’lope pressed T’kamen’s cane into his hand, and T’kamen wrapped his fingers around the handle, feeling the familiar, comfortable shape of the bronze haft, steadied by it. He was already more than half with Epherineth, feeling the air flowing beneath his wings as he descended towards the killing grounds to stake his claim on the queen. Other dragons veered away as he came down hard on a fleeing herdbeast, but Geninth, already rending open the throat of his prey, merely threw him a red-eyed glare.
What’s Dalka doing? T’kamen demanded of his dragon as he made his way determinedly towards the steps of the weyr.
Epherineth wasn’t to be distracted from his kill. Doesn’t matter.
It does matter. If she’s changed her mind…
Doesn’t matter, Epherineth repeated. She won’t outfly me. He threw aside his first herdbeast with more force than necessary and took off after another.
Riders more mobile than T’kamen barged past him as he climbed the steps one at a time. He had to make himself refrain from lashing out. He gripped the cane hard enough to imprint the lines of the snarling dragon head on his palm, and made the ledge just as Donauth leapt lightly down among her suitors.
T’kamen shouldered through the shifting ranks of riders. Browns moved instinctively aside; bronzes turned and glowered at him, but only for a moment. They saw him as he was, with Epherineth’s superiority cloaking him like a mantle.
Only R’lony squared up to him. He stepped in front of Dalka, blocking T’kamen’s path to her. “You can’t walk straight,” he said. “Why, you can barely stand up. You –”
He had reached out, as if to push T’kamen, to prove his point. T’kamen stopped him with the hilt of his cane. “Touch me and you’ll never use that hand again.”
R’lony withdrew his hand, his eyes flashing with resurgent anger. “Maimed dragon,” he said, gesturing at the ornamental handle of the cane, with a vicious grin. “Lame rider. You can’t give her what she needs.”
“Neither can you,” said T’kamen. “Or she wouldn’t be taking other men into her weyr.”
The smile couldn’t have vanished from R’lony’s face more quickly had he been slapped.
But then Donauth shrilled a challenge, and T’kamen felt himself slide more completely into Epherineth’s consciousness. His awareness of his own damaged body diminished; he felt Epherineth’s strength and power as his own, huge and winged and dominant. He raised his head, and R’lony, shrouded by the snarling presence of Geninth, took one step backwards.
Dalka stood at their centre, the queen among them, and her eyes glowed with Donauth’s radiance.
“Catch me,” she cried, “if you can!”
Madellon was black and silent, and it was a long, dark, cold walk home without Epherineth to carry him.
T’kamen was glad of it.
He was grateful, in spite of his stiff leg, for the distance between Dalka’s weyr and his own. He was grateful for the lateness of the hour, that meant he could cross the Bowl undisturbed. Most of all he was grateful for the chill night air that seeped through the torn fabric of his shirt to numb the many small throbbing pains on his back and chest and neck.
He found himself thankful for another small mercy when he climbed the steps to his weyr. The only dragon on the ledge was blue. If it had been green, T’kamen thought he would have turned around and left, and he wasn’t sure exactly where he could have gone.
His determined, one-step-at-a-time progress up the stairs brought the blue’s rider out of the weyr. His voice was low, but clear. “T’kamen, sir.”
“I’gral,” T’kamen replied, relieved again that the rider on night-time duty was a Seventh man.
“Yes, sir,” said I’gral, after a moment. “I changed shifts with B’nam. We took over up here about half an hour before you – Epherineth –”
“Good,” said T’kamen, cutting him off. He wasn’t ready for that conversation yet, even with the mild-mannered I’gral. “You can go to bed, if you want,” he added, as he limped wearily into the glow-lit mouth of Epherineth’s chamber.
I’gral’s sharp intake of breath, more so than the expression T’kamen’s tired and glow-dazzled eyes couldn’t really make out, was telling. “I…don’t think I should, yet, sir,” he said. “I, um. Do you want me to get something for you to eat while you, um, bathe?”
T’kamen leaned heavily against the archway, exhaling hard. “Is it that bad?”
It was. He discovered some of it for himself when he peeled the ruins of his shirt from his scratched and bleeding back. Pulling the fabric away from the barely scabbed wounds broke them open again. He was too tired to do more than grimace at the pain, or to watch passively as the blood tinged the water of his bathing pool red before the circulating flow dispersed it.
He must have dozed off in the warm water. T’kamen sat up, opening his eyes. I’gral had ventured into the bathing room. “Hand me that towel,” T’kamen said, and when the I’gral obliged, T’kamen rose unsteadily from the pool with as much dignity as he could muster.
I’gral had laid out redwort, numbweed, and bandages in T’kamen’s weyr. T’kamen waved him away when he picked up the redwort and cotton. “I’ll do it.”
The sting of the antiseptic solution jolted T’kamen out of his vagueness, if not the bone-deep weariness that infused every part of his body. He resented it. He didn’t want to be awake, to have to think, to have to process everything that had happened. To have to plan for what would happen in the morning.
Still, he found he kept stopping, too stupefied to complete the task he’d set himself.
After the third or fourth such occurrence, I’gral took the medical supplies out of his hands, and T’kamen didn’t stop him. “Who did you tail for?” T’kamen asked, as the blue rider deftly swabbed and numbed and dressed the scratches that hatched his torso.
“J’naide,” said I’gral. “His weyrmate used to bite.” He paused, and then said quickly, “I don’t mean that –”
“It’s fine,” T’kamen said. “I don’t know J’naide.”
“He was a Wingsecond,” said I’gral. “In the Third.”
“He’s the one who washed me out. I hated him right up until the day he died.” I’gral’s sure hands hesitated for a moment, and then he carried on. “He saved my life. Alvamorth and I were never going to be more than an inscription on the Wall if we’d made it. He said I might as well have Impressed a bronze…”
I’gral went silent for a while. T’kamen didn’t interrupt.
“He’ll be back in the morning,” said T’kamen. “He’s tired, and he can’t come between without Fetch.”
“Should I have bandages ready for him?” asked I’gral. “I mean, for when Dannie takes over.”
“I don’t think he’s hurt that way,” said T’kamen. “It’s only me who was…”
I’gral brought T’kamen a shirt to wear, loose enough not to bind. As T’kamen struggled into it, I’gral said, “She was here, you know. When I came on shift, and for hours after. Waiting for you to come back.”
T’kamen fastened the buttons of the shirt slowly, one at a time. After a bit, he said, “I’d like to get some sleep. You should too. I’ll need to be up not too long after the morning watchdragon takes over.”
“What should I do if anyone should come looking for you before then?”
There were too many people who might, and no one way that they could all be handled. “Tell them to come back tomorrow.”
He didn’t truly believe that sleep would come easily. Left alone and undistracted, his mind trawled incessantly through the events of the day, pushing glass-sharp memories through the hazy film of his weariness. Some were overlaid with Epherineth’s perceptions, recalling bronze wings and brown and golden. A pursuit that left more than half its competitors floundering before Epherineth had even found his top speed. Blue sky and rolling clouds spanning the widening gaps between those in contention and those without hope. A brown dragon whose triumphant roar turned desolate when his decisive move found no queen for his lunge to capture.
Geninth’s incredulous bellow of loss still rang in T’kamen’s ears, echoed as it had been by R’lony’s howl of despair. It had almost jolted him out of flight-merge. The vivid image of R’lony’s face, aged by ten Turns in the instant of his dragon’s failure, could have been imprinted on T’kamen’s brain, and in the moments it took him to rejoin his consciousness fully with Epherineth’s, other dragons had pressed their advantage. Other bronze dragons; and in the reassertion of the traditional order, Epherineth’s determination to prove his superiority had swept away T’kamen’s distraction.
Epherineth hadn’t paid any heed to the identities of dragons around him, but now, as T’kamen relived the flight in glimpses, he recognised the players. Recranth had outlasted Salionth, Br’lom’s Shadith had hung grimly on past the point at which he should have given up, and Monbeth had flown in Epherineth’s shadow until the very end.
Donauth’s endurance had run out before theirs had. Decades of only outcompeting browns had inhibited her stamina, and she had been ready to be caught before clear dominance had emerged among the bronzes. She’d flagged, beginning to zigzag between her remaining pursuers, and Epherineth’s instinctive desire to drive the queen as far and high as possible had warred with his need to claim her before someone else did. But he hadn’t needed to make that decision. Donauth had made it for him, swerving out of Recranth’s desperate clutches, and directly into Epherineth’s. If T’kamen’s memory of it had ended with his dragon’s exultant capture of Donauth, it would have been the most straightforward queen flight they’d ever contested.
But his memory didn’t end there.
His eyes, blinking free of Epherineth’s fading scarlet overlay, focused on Dalka’s face. Her hair was tousled and wild; her lips were puffy, bruised-looking. “Dalka,” he said, in a voice made rough in his dry throat. “Did I –”
Her hands on his chest stopped him from rising. “You did,” she replied. Her voice was as husky as his, but not for the same reason. Dalka’s eyes sparkled with fierce satisfaction. “We did.” She bent over to kiss him, and her hair fell in a cascade to shroud both their faces.
T’kamen accepted it passively, unresisting, still trying to reassert his identity. “Dalka,” he said, when she allowed him air. “I need to –”
“You don’t need to do anything,” she told him. “Let me.”
And he did.
Later, as he drank too thirstily of the wine Dalka gave him, T’kamen asked, “Will R’lony forgive you?”
Dalka stiffened only slightly. “What does that matter?”
“He’s been your weyrmate for a long time.”
“Was my weyrmate,” said Dalka, and paused, looking expectantly at him.
T’kamen evaded the challenge. “The ballot…”
“Will take place tomorrow,” said Dalka. “A formality, and everyone knows it, after that flight.” She smiled. “Donauth already thinks she’ll bear her best clutch.”
Unthinkingly, T’kamen said, “It was too short.”
“Too short?” Dalka asked sharply.
It was the wrong thing to say, but T’kamen couldn’t think of a way to back out of it. “Donauth’s smaller than Epherineth.”
“Donauth chose him,” Dalka said. “I chose you.” The fingers she curled into his shoulder were sharp-tipped. T’kamen winced. “Did we make a mistake?”
“No,” he said, but the pain of her nails raking his skin made him incautious. “But they could have flown longer. Higher. It’s the length that makes the…” He grunted with pain as Dalka’s fingernails bit into him. “Stop it.”
“Did you hear me asking you to stop?” she asked him, low and deadly. She clutched his shoulder, and T’kamen felt fire streak his shoulder-blade. “Do any of you ever stop once your blood’s up?”
“If it’s blood you want, you’ve got it.”
“It’s not your blood I wanted.” Dalka dug her talons into him again, and then released him. Bristling, she climbed off him and stalked away, the lithe muscles of her back rigid with displeasure. She pulled a robe about herself, cloaking her naked form, and T’kamen found himself slightly better able to think, despite the awareness that he was bleeding.
“What do you want, Dalka?” he asked. He tried to swing his legs over the edge of the bed, but found his bad knee had seized completely. “You wanted change. I’ll bring Madellon change. I’ll bring the whole of Pern change.”
“And what about me?” Dalka flared. “What about how my life is going to change?”
“It doesn’t have to,” said T’kamen. “R’lony’s your weyrmate. I won’t stand in his way…”
“You won’t stand in his way.” Dalka said it very softly – dangerously softly. “No. Of course you won’t. You won’t fight for what’s yours. You’ll never fight for me, will you; any of you! Not you, not S’leondes, not Ch’fil…”
“You’re not mine to fight for, Dalka.”
She glared at him, but the pain in her eyes betrayed her. “Why not? Aren’t I good enough? Am I too old? Is that it? Is it really some little girl of a green rider whose tender young body and child-like innocence I’m to compete with? Well? Is it?”
“No, Dalka,” T’kamen said, and then groaned as he forced his leg to bend. He grimly did it anyway. “You’re not competing with Leda.”
“I saw how you looked at my daughter,” Dalka said. Her colour was up, her cheeks flushed with more than passion now, and her eyes were black and brittle as agates. “My shadow. The younger me.”
The tiredness came over T’kamen like the leading edge of Fall. “I don’t know what you want me to say, Dalka.”
“I want to know who has such a hold on you that I’m not worth your love!” she cried; and then, as if struck by a thunderbolt, she shuddered and sat down. “It’s her, isn’t it? The one you left behind. Your Interval lover. Valonna.”
It was so far from the mark that T’kamen, without meaning to, laughed aloud.
“How am I meant to compete with a woman who’s been dead for a hundred Turns?”
The brutal gravity of it silenced T’kamen’s helpless laughter. “You can’t,” he replied, and as he said it, thinking not of Valonna but of Sarenya, something seemed to snap in his chest. “No one ever will.”
It was that, and not Dalka’s low, insistent, repeated command that he go, that had impelled him out of her weyr and into the darkness of Madellon’s night-time, in the clothes ruined by the first force of dragon passion.
As he lay there, sleepless and bleak, stripped temporarily even of Epherineth’s comfort, he thought he’d never felt so completely alone.
Then something landed softly on his chest. In the darkness, it took the small head nuzzling his face for T’kamen to recognise his fire-lizard. “Fetch.”
And he found himself laughing again, this time at the absurdity of it all: he, a bronze rider, kept company not by his dragon, nor by either woman who wanted so desperately to be his weyrmate, but by the undemanding friendship of a small brown fire-lizard.
The Marshal ballot took place late the following day, in deference to the fact that most of Madellon’s bronze riders were still recovering from their exertions.
Dalka had been right. It was a formality. When the Weyr Singer asked the assembled Strategic riders to rise to indicate their intention and willingness to serve, G’bral was the only man other than T’kamen to stand. Each rider marked his preference on a ballot stone before dropping the lot into a covered basket presided over by Tawgert and Lirelle. Even before they’d finished counting, the way that the stones piled up indicated that there was a clear winner, and the final totals bore that out. Of the Seventh’s ninety-three riders, fifty-eight cast their ballots for T’kamen, twenty-nine for G’bral, and six abstained.
R’lony was one of the abstentions. T’kamen hadn’t seen him since Donauth’s flight. No one had, and though Geninth’s subdued presence about the Weyr was evidence enough for most of T’kamen’s supporters that R’lony hadn’t done anything dire, T’kamen himself was less sanguine. For all their differences, he took no great satisfaction in having beaten R’lony. In truth, he felt he hadn’t defeated him at all. Dalka had been the architect of R’lony’s downfall, manipulating his blind devotion to her with ruthless finesse. In the moments when T’kamen let himself think about it, he felt outright dirtied by his part in ousting R’lony not only from his position, but from Dalka’s weyr. Perversely, it was something Dalka had said to him at Ista that kept coming back to him when he wrestled with his ambiguity. I serve my Weyr in the best way I can. It doesn’t always allow me the luxury of a clear conscience.
He resolved to live by the first part of that assertion. Before the afternoon was out, he’d already called a number of Strategic riders to a meeting in the Marshal’s office. They weren’t all riders he liked, nor even riders he thought had voted for him. Some of them looked surprised to have been invited. T’kamen himself was surprised that some of them had actually come. But he nodded to them each in turn, and each of them, warily, nodded back, even Br’lom, even R’ganff, even G’bral. “I can’t do this alone,” he said, without preamble. “I know R’lony did, but I’m not him. I don’t have the expertise, and I don’t have the time.”
“And we elected you why, exactly?” asked R’ganff, only perhaps half in jest.
“Ask fifty-seven of your Flightmates,” T’kamen told him. He rapped the back of his hand against the big logistics chalkboard on the wall. “We have half a Fall over eastern Jessaf tomorrow afternoon and then a full one over Speardike two days after that. R’lony left the numbers for Jessaf, but that’s as far ahead as his planning went. D’vek says Madellon East hasn’t been resupplied with livestock or firestone, and we don’t have the calculations for what’s needed.” He stopped to let the gravity of the situation sink in. “G’less.”
If G’less, most senior of the Seventh’s small cohort of blue riders, had been surprised to have been invited to the meeting in the first place, he was even more startled to be called upon. “Marshal T’kamen?”
It was the first time T’kamen had been addressed directly by that title, and it threw him for a second. “You’ll be taking over as Watchleader.” He saw, and ignored, G’bral’s outraged reaction. “I need you to scout the footprint of the Speardike Fall. If it’s going to hit the high slopes I don’t want to waste dragonpower on it. Take as many sweepriders as you need, but I want your report on exactly how and where it’s going to fall by noon tomorrow. R’ganff.” He turned to the Bunkerleader without pausing. “You’ll take five bronzes to the mineholds south of Speardike. There won’t be time for them to cart firestone to the Weyrstation with the passes still closed, so you’ll need to haul it by air. Br’lom, you’ll take half a Wing and scare up stock from all the Holds within an hour of the Weyrstation. If it can’t be driven, have it slaughtered and hauled by dragon. El’yan.”
His chess partner straightened from his position by the door. “Marshal?”
“I need you coordinating everything from here,” said T’kamen. “Talk to D’vek, and once you have G’less’ sweep report I’ll need you to forecast the dragons and supplies we actually need at Madellon East. Keep in close contact with R’ganff and Br’lom, and liaise with the Commander about the Wings he’s going to need to muster.”
“With the Commander?” El’yan queried.
“If he gives you any trouble, tell me,” T’kamen said. “G’bral, you’re Crewleader now.”
G’bral, who had been looking incandescent at his removal as Watchleader, blinked. “What?”
“The fire crews have been in disarray since Ch’fil left,” said T’kamen. “I need you to get them organised again.”
“But,” said G’bral, visibly torn between pleasure and dismay. “But my riders…”
“Will be flying under G’less,” said T’kamen. “And I want all of you section leaders – that includes you, El’yan – to bring me two names of riders who can deputise for you. I just don’t want to be in the position of being dependent on one rider in each role.”
“That’s not how…” Br’lom began.
“…R’lony did it,” T’kamen finished for him. “I’m not R’lony. Get used to it.” He started to dismiss his riders, then stopped. “Oh. El’yan, G’less. You’ll both need tailmen. Speak to the Weyrlingmaster.”
“Five section leaders?” asked G’bral, rather petulantly, as if the addition of one more somehow diluted his own rank. “Strategic only has commissions for four. You can’t just summarily make more. The Commander will veto it.”
T’kamen felt a humourless smile twist his mouth. “Leave him to me.”
“I haven’t seen hide nor hair of him all day,” T’kamen admitted, stretching out his leg more comfortably. “And I don’t know if that should surprise me or not.”
Ch’fil looked pensive. “He’s caught between a singe and a Threadscore. He’s wanted anyone but R’lony to be Marshal for twenty Turns. Guess he should have been more careful what he wished for.”
“I know we’re going to have a confrontation sooner or later,” said T’kamen. “I’m just grateful it wasn’t today. I’ve had enough confrontations for one sevenday.”
“Professional or personal?”
Ch’fil snorted. “I’m guessing R’lony’s taking it hard.”
“I haven’t seen much of him, either. I did send B’nam to check on him, not that I expect him to report back.”
“That boy’s loyal,” said Ch’fil. “Any rider worth his knots feels it personally when whoever he tailed for takes a knock, and R’lony’s been knocked right on his ass.”
T’kamen looked off Stratomath’s ledge and over the dark ocean south of Ista. He knew the peaceful scene was an illusion, created mostly by the northern Weyr’s grave under-population, but he found it calming in a way that no vista of Madellon’s could be. “He’s not the only one I’ve knocked this last day or so,” he said, finally touching on the reason why he’d woken Ch’fil in the middle of the night and brought Epherineth north to seek his counsel. “And I can’t salve my conscience by sending someone else to check on either of them.”
Ch’fil set down his drink on the table between them. “Some riders would consider having two women fighting over him a nice problem to have.”
“I’m not some riders,” said T’kamen. “And they’re not fighting over me.” He paused, contemplating the prospect, and shuddered. “Not yet.”
“Beats me what acrobatics must be going on in a woman’s mind to make you worth fighting over,” said Ch’fil. He grinned. “Now, if you were pretty like me…”
“Would that I were,” T’kamen said, glancing involuntarily at Epherineth, though his bronze had turned the unscarred side of his face to him.
“You couldn’t have picked two women less like each other,” said Ch’fil.
“I didn’t exactly pick them.”
“I mean,” Ch’fil continued over him, “Leda. Rides a green. Substantially younger than you. Cuter than you have any right to expect in your weyr. Worships the ground you walk on.”
T’kamen winced, but he couldn’t argue with the summation.
“And then there’s Dalka,” Ch’fil went on. “Queen rider. Substantially older than you. Scarier than a nest full of hungry tunnel-snakes. And expects the ground she walks on to be worshipped.”
“There’s one thing they do have in common,” T’kamen said. “They both compromised themselves to be with me. And I’ve hardly rewarded them for it.”
“Don’t look to me to wag my finger and call you a bastard, T’kamen,” said Ch’fil. “If you want to eat yourself alive for messing women around, be my guest, but I’d be a hypocrite to condemn you for it. And I can’t speak for Leda, but if Dalka was going to die of a broken heart, she’d have done it Turns ago.”
“I’m not so concerned about Dalka’s heart as I am about Epherineth’s,” said T’kamen. “Donauth’s smug enough for now having the biggest bronze on Pern for her mate, but when the novelty wears off and Dalka’s grudge against me sours her, it’s Epherineth who’ll suffer.”
“Donauth’s not spiteful,” said Ch’fil. “Bad-tempered, but not spiteful. She never took against Stratomath even when Dalka hated me the most. Though it didn’t hurt that she always clutched better by him than she ever did by Geninth…which brings me to the question of just how many dragonets Ista can expect in four months’ time.”
T’kamen shrugged, genuinely at a loss. “I wish I knew. From what I’ve been told, the flight went longer than standard, but it didn’t seem as long as when Epherineth flew Shimpath.”
“Older queen,” said Ch’fil. “How many did Shimpath –”
He cut off his words mid-sentence, his eyes flicking over T’kamen’s shoulder, only an instant after T’kamen himself became aware of Epherineth’s sudden stiffening to attention. What?
For all its silence, Epherineth’s mental roar was deafening. Stupid dragonet!
He sprang from Stratomath’s ledge with a downstroke of his wings that knocked the mugs off the table, shattering them and spilling their contents. Epherineth, T’kamen began, but then he felt his dragon’s consciousness mesh with Fetch’s, and a moment later he disappeared.
“Faranth!” said Ch’fil. He was on his feet. “Where’s he gone?”
T’kamen couldn’t even express his alarm by emulating him. Standing up abruptly wasn’t something he could do any more. “He said something about a dragonet.”
“Istan?” Ch’fil asked, and then in the next breath, “Can’t be. Stratomath says they’re all accounted for.”
“I can’t distract him while he’s between,” said T’kamen. He found he was gripping the handle of his cane hard, and relaxed his grasp. “I hate it when he does this without me. The last time –”
We come, Epherineth told him, and a heartbeat later he reappeared, higher than he’d vanished, a black shape against the starry Istan sky.
He wasn’t alone. A smaller dragon hung passively in his clutches. What happened?
Epherineth landed down in the Istan Bowl, backwinging carefully to set down his burden. She thought she’d try to go between by herself, he said, in a voice that crackled with displeasure. She was not ready.
“Faranth’s teeth, T’kamen,” said Ch’fil, squinting down at the two dragons. “That’s Fraza’s green.”
It took the couple of slow minutes that T’kamen needed to descend from Stratomath’s ledge for him to master his anger. That, he supposed, was one small advantage to his disability. If he’d been able to run down the steps three at a time, he’d have had Fraza by the shoulders, shouting demands for an explanation into her face. Spalinoth, Fraza’s green, could enjoy no such respite: she huddled in a wretched heap beneath Epherineth’s displeasure. But when T’kamen finally approached Fraza – the hunch-shouldered mirror of her dragon – he’d had time to quell the first force of his fury. “Are you all in one piece?” he asked, not much more curtly than he’d have queried a rider who’d had a near miss in the air. “Your dragon? Your lizard?”
“Frost t-took off,” said Fraza. “I don’t know where –”
Fetch has him, said Epherineth.
“He’s safe,” T’kamen told her. He glanced at Spalinoth, though it was too dark to judge if her colour was as bad as he suspected. “What about you?”
“I’m c-cold,” Fraza said, and T’kamen realised abruptly that she wasn’t stammering simply out of nervousness; her teeth were actually chattering.
He seized her hand and found it ungloved, the skin chill with the unmistakeable touch of between. “You went between without…” he started incredulously, and then stopped himself. He took a deep, controlling breath. “Ch’fil, can we get her inside and warmed up?”
“And away from all these curious eyes,” said Ch’fil. “Aye. Use my weyr. I’d best go and let Reloka know what’s happening.”
Fraza was looking confusedly at Ch’fil. “C-crewleader? Where are we?”
“Ista,” T’kamen told her. He looked up at the hundred pairs of dragon eyes whirling interestedly down from the walls of the Bowl. “For which you should probably be grateful, unless you wanted every dragonpair at Madellon to know you…” He caught himself again. “To know what you’ve been up to.”
Ch’fil kept a tidy weyr, and it didn’t take T’kamen long to find a blanket to drape around Fraza’s shoulders. He left the girl wrapped in it while he stoked up the tiny fire Ch’fil used to heat water, a lively hearth being of small use in Ista’s climate. It seemed strange to be tending a fire and brewing a drink for one of the riders who had so conscientiously performed the same duties for him for the last few sevendays.
He wasn’t the only one who noticed the oddness of the reversal. “I sh-should be d-doing that for y-you,” said Fraza. Her voice sounded steadier, and the stammer more definitely a mark of her nervousness.
T’kamen put a mug in her hand – tea, not klah; he wanted her soothed, not roused. Then, as she obediently sipped it, he dragged another chair over to face hers. As he sat down in it, Fraza’s frightened eyes lifted from the rim of the cup to meet his, and half a dozen different questions warred briefly to be first out. What were you thinking? was tempting. Do you know how stupid that was? would be more satisfying but less helpful. And a simple, Well? was nearly as much as he wanted to say.
Instead, he said, “What went wrong?”
Fraza blinked. “What?”
“What went wrong? Was it the visual? Did Spalinoth freeze? Or was it the link with Frost?”
Fraza looked down into her mug. “It was me,” she said. “I don’t think I was strong enough. I failed.”
“You failed this time,” said T’kamen.
“But I failed,” Fraza said. Her fingers clenched on the mug. “I’ve never failed at anything! I Impressed my first time standing; I graduated at the top of my class; I was tapped to the Commander’s own Wing…”
T’kamen looked at her until she fell silent. “That was what this was about, then?” he asked. “Beating the others to it? Being top of this class? Look at me when I’m talking to you.”
Fraza had been avoiding his gaze. She jerked her eyes up to obey him with a guilty flinch.
“Did one of the others put you up to it?” T’kamen asked. “Have you been getting pressure from someone because of who you are?”
She shook her head emphatically. “I just wanted to prove I was worthy of the trust put in me…”
T’kamen leaned back in his chair, irritated. “Faranth save me from weyrlings with something to prove.”
“I’m not a weyrling,” Fraza said, with a touch of indignation.
“You could have fooled me!”
“I’m not afraid of danger,” she said, with a tremble in her voice. “I’m not afraid to die for my Weyr…”
“You sharding well should be!” T’kamen shouted, and that made Fraza quail in her chair. “This shaffing obsession that you all have with burning bright and dying young is complete whershit. Life expectancy might be short for a fighting dragonrider, but that makes it more important for you to cling onto it with every last ounce of will you have!” He glared at Fraza. “And if you’d gone and got yourself killed between, do you have any idea of what that would have done to the others? How it would have affected them? How it would have affected me? I already lost one rider to between. I’ll be scored bloody before I’ll be responsible for another!”
Fraza looked at him, her face stricken, and then without any further warning she burst into tears.
T’kamen just sat there, at a loss, although a small corner of his mind noted dispassionately that he could add another name to the list of women he’d caused to weep in the last couple of days.
He wasn’t much better at comforting Fraza than he had Leda or Dalka. “Don’t cry, Fraza,” he said roughly. “Come on. You got away with it this time, thank Faranth. If the only harm done is some dents to your pride and some extra greys in my hair then I’ll call that getting off lightly.”
“It’s not that,” Fraza cried. “It was all my fault. All my fault!” And she dissolved again.
T’kamen thought it would be a pretty good time for Ch’fil to return, but when, after several more long and uncomfortable moments, he didn’t, he exhaled hard. Then he leaned forwards and put his hand on Fraza’s shuddering shoulder. “It wasn’t all your fault,” he told her. “Your fire-lizard isn’t even a month old, and –”
“Not today, I don’t mean today!” Fraza’s face had gone blotchily pink. “When M’ric died. When he went between. It was my fault.”
T’kamen’s hand on her arm went stiff, and he made himself relax it. “Fraza,” he said, as gently as he could manage. “You can’t blame yourself for what happened that day.”
“But I can,” she said. “Spalinoth was proddy all that day. She’d been flirting with Trebruth in the morning, so he knew… We were in the formation below him, and we hardly burned a Thread. He was getting them all, even ones he shouldn’t have tried for. Then that shower of Threads all got through at once, and he went after that Thread-bomb when he should have let it fall. That’s why he died. He was trying to protect us.”
T’kamen couldn’t help it. He laughed. “Of course he was,” he said. “The stupid, cocky little shit. He’d have done anything to impress you.”
“I was going to let Trebruth fly Spalinoth anyway!” Fraza wailed. “If he’d known, maybe he’d have been more careful…”
“I doubt it,” T’kamen told her. The pang of regret he had grown to expect when he thought about M’ric was tinged with bitter-sweet pride. “He was in love with you.” As much as a seventeen-Turn-old dragonrider can ever be said to be in love with someone, he amended mentally, but he didn’t say it aloud.
Fraza sniffled back another giant sob. “R-really? He was always going on about that Harper girl he was seeing…”
“I don’t think he was ever serious about her,” T’kamen said.
“Because I told him, someone who doesn’t ride a dragon can’t ever understand, and he said I couldn’t understand…”
T’kamen let that one pass, but he was encouraged by Fraza’s improving demeanour. What was it Ch’fil had said about green riders loving to weep over tragic deaths? That reminded him of something else. “He wrote poetry about you,” he said, trying hard not to grimace as he said the word.
“I found it in his weyr, after…” He let the sentence trail, as much to avoid speaking an outright lie as to avert a fresh round of weeping.
“Do you still have it?” Fraza asked avidly.
T’kamen nearly told her it was in his weyr somewhere, and then stopped, fearing she’d tear the place apart looking for it. “I’ll look it out for you when we get back to Madellon.”
Apprehension replaced, at least partially, the grief on Fraza’s face. “When we get back.”
“Unless you want to stay at Ista,” T’kamen said.
Fraza looked at her hands. “I have to go back and face up to it, don’t I?”
“You have to go back, and you’ll blighted well learn from this, but I won’t be telling anyone about it,” said T’kamen. “Least of all the Commander.”
She looked up sharply, and though she didn’t seem entirely reassured, some of the tension had gone out of her. “I thought for sure you’d make an example of me with the others.”
“This isn’t about them. It’s about you. They’re all just about young and stupid enough to think that what happened to you wouldn’t apply to them, anyway.” That elicited a wan smile, and T’kamen decided it was time to back up the soft approach with some fire. “But I need your promise – your sincere promise, on your dragon’s egg – that you won’t ever pull a stunt like this again. I haven’t been demanding your obedience these last sevendays just to throw my weight around. Between has always been dangerous, now more so than ever. Until we know more, caution will serve you far better than courage.” He let steel enter his voice. “If you ever defy me again, I’ll send you back to the Commander in disgrace – and don’t think that Epherineth couldn’t scare Frost away permanently if I thought you couldn’t be trusted to obey.”
Fraza’s eyes had gone large at that last part, but she bowed her head. “I understand, Wingleader.”
“Go out to your dragon,” T’kamen told her. “We’ll take you home.”
As the Fraza left to obey, Ch’fil came in. “World set to rights?”
“How much did you overhear?”
“Enough.” Ch’fil strolled over to Fraza’s chair, picking up the discarded blanket and folding it. “We need to get tougher with the kids who have lizards.”
“Much tougher,” said T’kamen. “I’d bring them all back to Madellon to keep an eye on them if I thought you’d let them go.”
“No chance of that,” said Ch’fil. “We can’t even excuse them from Fall the way you can. Every dragon has to fly, excepting Chrelith.”
Ch’fil shrugged. “If you can call it fighting, when we’re barely staving it off over a few valleys.”
“Maybe Dalka was right,” said T’kamen. “Maybe the North should have been abandoned. Reclaimed again after the Pass is over.”
“That’s a dangerous notion for you to get in your head, T’kamen.”
“What, the prospect of bringing the North’s survivors south?”
“Dalka being right.”
T’kamen laughed, not quite mirthfully.
“You need to make peace with her, though,” Ch’fil said. “She’s not someone you want as an enemy. You have enough of those already.”
“At least R’lony and S’leondes haven’t drawn blood.”
Ch’fil’s cautionary answer followed T’kamen all the way home, more insidiously chill than the ultimate cold of between. “Yet.”
Continue to Chapter seventy-four: C’mine
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