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Chapter seventy-five: T’kamen

No one talks about the correlation between a fighting dragon’s age and the death rate. Not R’lony, not S’leondes.

Plot it on a graph, and for the first few Turns it’s as you’d expect. The high attrition rate for first and second-Turn dragons falls off gradually as they gain experience in the Wings. If a dragonpair survives their first three Turns fighting Thread, their chance of surviving the next three is pretty good.

 And then the death rate spikes, and spikes hard.

 An eight- or nine-Turn-old dragon is no slower or weaker than a five-Turn-old. The opposite, in fact. We know from Strategic that a dragon’s prime Turns don’t truly begin until he’s around ten, and can last – his rider’s vigour permitting – until he is well into his forties.

Why, then, this sudden sharp incidence of fighting dragon mortality between the ages of eight and ten?

They carved the answer on the Wall. And it makes me sick every time I pass by.

– Excerpt from the personal diaries of Weyrwoman Dalka

26.12.10-26.13.09 (26TH TURN, EIGHTH PASS)

T'kamen (Micah Johnson)Dalka raised her eyes from her work to fix T’kamen with an incredulous stare. “I don’t recall inviting you in.”

“You wouldn’t,” he said. “You didn’t. But since you left the door open, and since I can’t go anywhere quietly these days, I thought you’d had notice enough that you could shut me out if you really wanted to.”

She seemed to consider his logic for a moment. Then, with a lithe shrug, she turned more fully in her chair. “And to what do I owe the honour of your eminent society, Marshal? Business, or…” Her nostrils flared. “Well, it wouldn’t be the other, would it?”

She flung it down between them with disgust, like a dragon throwing down a wherry that was less than fresh. T’kamen was almost glad that she had. This confrontation was inevitable, and it was better to burn out a burrow before the Thread had gone too deep. “I don’t want you as an enemy, Dalka.” He braced himself and continued, “I don’t want you as a lover, either.”

Dalka didn’t recoil, as he’d feared she would, but her tone when she replied was icier than between. “You’ve made that abundantly plain.”

“I don’t think I have,” T’kamen said. He shifted his weight from his standing leg to his cane and back again. “Can I sit down?”

“Do as you please. I can’t command you one way or the other.”

T’kamen seated himself without comment. “It’s not fair,” he said, after a moment. “What our dragons do to us. What they compel us to do.”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s very disagreeable for you bronze and brown and blue riders,” said Dalka. “All those riders you’re obliged to bed, even when you find them repulsive.”

“I don’t find you repulsive, Dalka,” he said. “You’re a beautiful and sensual and passionate woman. A formidable woman. A powerful woman.”

“Don’t patronise me,” Dalka said. “You took what you needed and then you left. And now you have the temerity to come back looking for more, thinking I’ll believe your promises a second time.”

“I don’t think that’s me you’re talking about,” T’kamen said.

Dalka dismissed the suggestion with a flick of her head. “I might as well be. Different colour, same lying song.”

“Things aren’t as different as some people would have it,” T’kamen said. “Leadership flights might have gone out of fashion with the Interval, but the Weyrwoman is still the fulcrum on which the Weyr’s choice turns.”

“Oh, yes,” Dalka said. “My power and influence know no bounds, at least until I’ve served my purpose.”

“And I’m not serving yours?” T’kamen asked, needled by her contempt. “At Ista you said you wanted a leader with vision for Madellon. Was that true? Or were you really just after a Marshal you could control? Or a new lover to pit against your old ones?”

She shot him a look  both wounding and wounded from her hard black eyes. “You were supposed to be different.”

“I am different,” said T’kamen. “That’s why I don’t want you as a weyrmate. I want you as a partner.”

“A partner,” said Dalka. Her voice dripped suspicion.

“I didn’t sleep with my first Weyrwoman, after Epherineth flew her queen. She was young, and very inexperienced, and still half in love with my predecessor. Some bronze riders wouldn’t have let that stop them moving into her weyr – out of tradition, or to present a united front, or just to exert control over her.”

“She wasn’t beautiful, then?” Dalka interrupted. “This Valonna?”

“She was…” T’kamen paused to frame his thoughts. “She was very pretty. Blonde. Fragile. And terrified of me.”

“And she rode a queen?” Dalka asked, her incredulity thinly veiled.

“She’d been badly treated,” he said. “She had it in her to be a true Weyrwoman to Madellon. I saw glimmers of it, before…” He sighed. “She was beautiful. But I’d have made her miserable if I’d forced myself on her.”

Dalka’s lip curled fractionally. “How tremendously noble of you.”

“I don’t mean it like that,” said T’kamen. “I wasn’t about to set up home in her weyr. She’d have hated me for it, and we’d never have been able to work together. That was more important to me than marking my territory. And it still is.”

Her sceptical gaze flickered. “And what work is it that you had in mind? Unless, like the majority of riders in this Weyr, you’re labouring under the impression that I don’t do enough already.”

“Hardly. R’lony’s office is full of documents in your handwriting. But the records of tithe negotiations never mention you.”

“I can’t take Donauth out of the Weyr for as long or as often as that would require. The other dragons need her more than R’lony’s tithe talks need me.”

“If flying her straight everywhere were your only alternative, I’d agree,” said T’kamen.

“Donauth will never be able to go between,” Dalka said. “She’s too…she’s not young enough.”

“If all goes as I hope it will in the next couple of sevendays, Epherineth soon won’t be the only dragon capable of giving her a lift wherever she needs to go. Whether that’s to argue over the quality of harness leather with the Tannerhall, or to facilitate the trade of what Madellon has for what it doesn’t at the other Weyrs of Pern.”

Dalka was far too perceptive to miss his implication. “You want me to negotiate with Reloka?” She laughed, short and hard. “I’m the last person on Pern she’d welcome to the conference table.”

“Ista has fire-lizard eggs,” said T’kamen. “Until we find another source, they’re the most valuable commodity on Pern. And once my riders start going between and prove that Pass dragons can, every other Weyr on Pern will want to get its hands on Ista’s lizard eggs – by fair means or foul. Reloka bargained with me from a position of desperation. Next time, we won’t have nearly so strong a hand to play.”

“Reloka bargained with you because she’s her mother’s daughter,” Dalka said caustically. “She and I have always shared many things. Most of them unwillingly. She’ll refuse me to spite me. You’d do better to treat with her yourself.”

“But what Madellon can offer her doesn’t belong to me,” said T’kamen. “Donauth’s eggs are Donauth’s. Only she, and therefore you, should be able to trade them away.”

Dalka’s eyes widened slightly, as though he had just suggested something outrageous. “They belong to Madellon,” she corrected him. “Not to me.”

“Madellon has three Weyrleaders,” said T’kamen. “S’leondes, me, and you. And I know that Epherineth wouldn’t dare tell Donauth what she can or can’t do with her eggs, so you can bet your last mark that Karzith won’t want any part of it, either.”

“S’leondes won’t let me trade dragon eggs for fire-lizards,” said Dalka. The colour had rushed to her cheekbones. “You know just how much he likes the idea of dragons going between.”

“Then let him stand up in front of his six hundred fighting riders after my twelve have all gone between successfully and tell them he’s not going to authorise any more trades,” said T’kamen. “See how well that goes down with his devoted acolytes. S’leondes might not like the way the winds are blowing now, Dalka, but even he isn’t powerful enough to defy them.”

“You want to bring him down so soon?”

“I want to make him see reason. I don’t like S’leondes, but his innovation saved the Weyr – the Weyrs – when all conventional Thread-fighting strategies failed. He had the vision and the audacity to imagine a new hierarchy when the traditional one failed. He was a force for change at a time when change was needed. He just needs to be shown that this is another time for farsightedness.”

Dalka shook her head. “S’leondes isn’t the revolutionary he was twenty Turns ago. He’s built his own establishment. He won’t be a party to tearing it down.”

“I don’t want to tear anything down. I don’t want to be S’leondes’ enemy. I’d sooner we were allies. But dragons weren’t meant to live like this. Or, more importantly, to die like this.” He rose from his seat to extend a piece of paper to her. “Which brings me to this.”

Dalka took the document. “Donauth’s last clutch,” she said, glancing at the list of names. Then she looked up at him. “Is there a problem with it?”

T’kamen touched the notation at the top of the record. “This.” Then he ran his finger down the first column that ran the length of the list. “And these.”

“DO-SP-26,” Dalka read. “That’s the clutch designation. Donauth’s spring Hatching of the 26th Turn. And these are the identification numbers for each dragonet. DO-SP-26-GR-3/5. The third green out of five to Hatch from this clutch.”

“El’yan explained what the numbers meant,” said T’kamen. “I don’t want them to be used any more.”

“What do you mean?”

“They reduce a living dragonpair to an anonymous string of numbers and letters,” said T’kamen. “And the clutch to nothing more than one of many.”

“Every Madellon dragonrider has an identification number,” said Dalka. “R’lony started using them Turns ago as a way to keep track of our dragonpairs. Even you have one.”

That threw him slightly. “Do I?”

“ME-AU-26-BZ-1/1.” Dalka shrugged. “You were considered a transfer.”

“That’s exactly what I mean,” T’kamen said, disconcerted. “It’s degrading.”

“Why?” Dalka asked, sounding mystified.

“We’re defined by our names,” T’kamen said. “Dragons and riders. The first thing a dragonet does when he chooses his rider is name himself, and the rider – if he’s male, at least – changes his name too. These things are important. Sacred. They connect all dragonriders to each other. They remind us that we’re all the same.” He tapped the clutch designation again, more emphatically. “These, too. They turn something life-changing and profound into a string of meaningless symbols.”

Dalka looked thoughtful. “What do you suggest we use instead?”

“In my time,” T’kamen said, “each weyrling class was given a name. Something inspirational. Evocative. We were the Highflyers.”

“The Highflyers,” said Dalka, in a drawl.

“It gave us an identity,” T’kamen said. “Something to honour, and to be proud of.” He turned to look out of the big window that faced out towards the Lower Caverns, in the direction of the Wall. “It seems like the only time the names of Madellon dragonriders are honoured now is when they’re dead. There’s too much emphasis on glory in death, and not enough on the living.”

Dalka shifted in her seat. “What do you want me to do?”

T’kamen nodded his head towards the pictures that covered every inch of Dalka’s workroom walls. “I want you to draw them.”

She looked taken aback. “The weyrlings?”

“Not just the weyrlings.” T’kamen made a gesture to encompass all of Madellon. “The whole Weyr.”

Dalka stared at him as though he were quite mad. “All of them? Seven hundred dragonriders?”

“I’m not expecting them overnight.”

“But you’re expecting them nonetheless?”

“Eventually,” T’kamen said, refusing to let her incredulity deter him. “They should be honoured now, as the living, breathing individuals they are – not only when they’re dead and a name carved into a wall.”

Dalka still looked appalled. “Do you have any idea how long it would take me to draw every rider in this Weyr?”

“Then recruit some artists to help you,” said T’kamen. “Oversee their work. Make it a special honour for any rider whose portrait you draw. Make having survived more than five miserable sharding Turns be the criteria. Dalka, there are fighting riders out there more intent on dying nobly than living usefully. The attitude is ingrained in them even before they Impress. They’re told riders die young, so they expect to die young, and then they do die young. We could trade ourselves down to rags for enough fire-lizards to help every dragon in this Weyr go between, and there’d still be riders convinced they’ll be cowards if they’re alive at twenty-six!”

For an instant, Dalka seemed to quail beneath the force of T’kamen’s frustration, her expression stripped of its usual haughty languor. She lifted her head. “You’re right,” she said, in a tone unlike any other T’kamen had yet heard her use. The smile on her lips didn’t match the sadness in her eyes. “Sometimes we’re so concerned with the new dragons we breed, we don’t pay enough attention to the ones we already have.”

“Not nearly enough,” said T’kamen. “And one thing hasn’t changed since my time. Queens have always been judged on their productivity above everything else. I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t think it recognises the pastoral role a queen has to play in a Weyr.”

“Pastoral?” Dalka asked, her usual acerbity resurfacing. “It may have escaped your notice, but I’m hardly a nurturing matriarch.”

“Maybe you’re not, but Donauth is. And it’s not just bronze dragons who respond well to a queen’s attention. I’d never advocate Donauth and Levierth flying in a Queen’s Wing like in the old Passes…”

“I should hope not.”

“…but having one of them fly with the Seventh for part of each Fall would give heart to the Wings.”

“And honour to the Seventh,” Dalka pointed out sardonically.

“The Seventh could do with some honour,” said T’kamen. “R’lony might have found duty its own reward, but that’s not much comfort to veterans who’ve been serving in obscurity for Turns, or young riders who’ve been told that no one who flies in the Seventh will ever amount to anything.”

Dalka didn’t reply for a long moment. “I think you’ve already done more to prove that a fallacy in the last Turn than any other rider ever has.”

T’kamen began to react to her irony before he realised that she was sincere. “Will you help me?” he asked. “Will you be my partner in this?”

She rose abruptly from her seat. She went to the window and stood there for long moments “Why are you here?” she asked, at length. “Why did you come here, now? Why not to twenty Turns ago, or thirty, before the Pass began? Why now?”

Something in her voice told T’kamen she didn’t expect him to answer, but he did anyway. “I don’t know,” he replied, half honestly. The truth of his connection with M’ric was a secret he still wanted to protect. He didn’t think that the arbitrariness of it would have satisfied Dalka anyway. “It wasn’t my choice.”

“If it had been your choice,” she said, “and if you’d known that by leaving your own time you would change the future of Pern for the better…would you have come?”

T’kamen wondered if he’d ever be able to take a compliment from Dalka at face value, though he doubted he’d have many opportunities to find out. “You’re crediting me with something I haven’t yet done.”

“Assume that you will,” she said impatiently. “Humour me, T’kamen. Answer the question.”

It was almost shameful how easily T’kamen came to his answer. He hesitated a moment before he spoke it, wondering what Dalka expected him to say – wondering what she wanted him to say. “No,” he said. “I would have considered the price too high. I would have said that the distant future could look after itself.”

“Then you’d still go back, if you could?”

T’kamen had to bite off the affirmative that sprang from his heart to his lips. “I can’t,” he said instead. “I don’t. And neither of us can change that. What’s done is done.”

“What’s done is done,” Dalka echoed. “And if you could undo it?”

He looked down at his twisted and crippled leg; he thought about Epherineth’s mutilated face; he saw in his mind M’ric’s mother’s grief, and R’lony’s devastation, and Leda’s despair. It made him too melancholy even to dissemble. He shrugged. “I would.” Then he took a deep breath and said, “But dwelling on impossibilities won’t make me happier or wiser. You play the hand you’re dealt, or you don’t play at all.”

Dalka’s eyes narrowed, though whether in approval or disappointment, T’kamen couldn’t have said. She looked at him for a long time. “Then I’ll play it with you,” she said, and extended her palm to him – not in a lover’s yearning reach, but in the time-honoured offer of mutual consent. “Where do we start?”

Relieved beyond his ability to quantify it, T’kamen clasped her wrist. “With peace,” he said. “I need you to help me mend some fences.”

Dalka asked him to give her time to talk S’leondes round into dealing with him, and although T’kamen granted her request, he did so reluctantly. He had plans – for the Unseen, for the Seventh, for Madellon – and dealing with the Commander via intermediaries wouldn’t do for long.

Still, his first two Falls as Marshal went uneventfully enough, although between El’yan’s capable management of the plan R’lony had left, and the conventional Eighth Pass deployment of the Seventh’s dragons, T’kamen suspected that the change in leadership made no difference to Tactical. He and Epherineth still flew their station at the mid-level, watching for dragons in trouble; G’bral made a better job of organising the muddled flame-crews than T’kamen had thought he might; and if G’less was still diffident about commanding the browns of the watch division, then it was nothing time and familiarity wouldn’t solve.

Some problems, though, weren’t likely to go away by themselves, no matter how much time T’kamen gave them.

He’d had it easy when he’d become Weyrleader in the Interval. L’dro had been only too keen to leave Madellon, and in the couple of sevendays between deposal and departure T’kamen had just left his defeated rival alone.

But R’lony wasn’t going anywhere, and T’kamen couldn’t afford to look like he was afraid of dealing with his predecessor. While he’d moved quickly to appoint riders like G’less and El’yan to positions in his own administration, there were enough brown and bronze riders still loyal to R’lony that he could cause strife within the Seventh if he chose. T’kamen hoped to persuade R’lony to choose differently – and without Dalka’s intervention, which would certainly be more provocative than placatory.

He found he’d underestimated R’lony’s capacity for bitterness.

Assuming that the former Marshal would respond better to civility than compulsion, T’kamen had B’nam deliver a politely-worded invitation for R’lony to join him in his weyr for a cup of wine. That seemed like a less confrontational way to reconcile with a deposed leader than to summon him to his office. He paid no attention to B’nam’s sceptical mutters about R’lony’s likely response. B’nam had been sullen and intractable ever since T’kamen had openly declared his opposition to R’lony’s leadership, and the best way to deal with youthful hostility was generally to ignore it.

B’nam came back with the invitation still sealed and unopened, and a tersely-worded report that R’lony wasn’t interested in either his wine or his society.

Next, Epherineth bespoke Geninth, asking him to have his rider come to the Marshal’s office an hour before T’kamen’s evening meeting with his section leaders. That, T’kamen thought, would show that he didn’t regard R’lony as simply another subordinate to be sent for at his convenience, but a rider to whom he owed due deference for his seniority and service.

R’lony still hadn’t turned up by the time El’yan and T’kamen’s other officers began to arrive for their conference.

He didn’t muster for inspection, for drill, or even for Fall. He was conspicuous only by his absence from Madellon’s common areas. Geninth had taken to dwelling exclusively within his cavern, so it was difficult to know at a glance if R’lony was even in the Weyr or not, and Epherineth reported with meaningful neutrality that Geninth was often sleeping when he queried him. T’kamen was loath to barge into anyone’s private quarters uninvited – he was too often disturbed in his own weyr to wish that inconvenience even on R’lony – but as the days passed, and the former Marshal continued to refuse all contact, T’kamen’s patience began to run low.

“He’s trying to provoke you,” El’yan told him, as they sat one evening over the familiar diversion of a chessboard.

“He’s succeeding,” said T’kamen, reaching to move his remaining Wingleader.

“Don’t –”

T’kamen froze, his fingers not yet touching the chess-piece.

“– let him, I was going to say,” said El’yan, chuckling, “though I’d strongly recommend you not expose your Weyrleader that way, either.”

T’kamen retrieved his hand. “I play worse when I’m aggravated, don’t I?”

“Most people do,” said El’yan. “R’lony’s trying to bait you into losing your temper and doing something unwise.” He smiled. “Remind you of anything?”

“I wish I hadn’t had to goad him before Donauth’s flight,” T’kamen said. He moved a Star Stone, and had the satisfaction of seeing El’yan nod judiciously. “He might have stomached Epherineth winning if I hadn’t made it so personal.”

“Or he might not have relied so completely on Dalka’s support,” said El’yan, “and we might be sitting in a different room, wearing different shoulder-knots and having a different conversation. That match is done, T’kamen. You won because you took control of the board. Now R’lony’s trying to play you like you played him.”

“He’s sharding lucky I haven’t just had Epherineth command Geninth to obey and be done with it.”

“He’s more aware than anyone that you could, and that you haven’t,” said El’yan. “But that’s a flame you can’t un-breathe. You’ll have humbled a proud rider who’s served Madellon faithfully for thirty Turns and a brown who sired half the dragons in this Weyr. You turn R’lony into a victim and yourself into a bully, and you already walk a fine line there, given Epherineth’s colour.”

“But if I keep doing nothing about his attitude, I look ineffectual,” said T’kamen. “He knows that, too. He’d probably sit in his weyr alone for the rest of the Pass if he thought it would spite me to do it.”

“Scored if you do, scored if you don’t,” said El’yan. He contemplated the board. “Of course, he can’t really be sitting alone in his weyr all the time.”

“Dalka’s not seeing him,” said T’kamen. “At least she says she hasn’t. I haven’t been keeping tabs.”

“I don’t mean Dalka,” said El’yan. “But no dragonrider can completely isolate himself. Geninth has to hunt and be bathed. R’lony has to eat.”

“I haven’t seen Geninth at the lake or on the killing grounds since before Donauth’s flight,” said T’kamen. “And no one’s seen R’lony in the dining hall. I suppose his tail –”

He stopped.

El’yan grinned. “There’s always a third way,” he said, moving his Wingsecond. “Check and mate,” he added apologetically.

T’kamen was cross-hatching the predicted footprint of the following sevenday’s double Fall on the chalkboard in his office when Epherineth reported, Geninth incoming.

The warning – and the interference provided by Dannie, on duty in the anteroom outside the Marshal’s office – gave T’kamen enough notice to seat himself behind his desk and open several books to the appropriate pages. By the time R’lony – with much ranting – succeeded in getting past Dannie, T’kamen was ready for him.

R’lony blew into the room like a summer storm, all heat and thunder. “You can’t do this!” he shouted, without so much as closing the door behind him. “You don’t have the right!”

“R’lony,” T’kamen said. He aimed for a pleasant tone, but he’d never been a good actor, and it came out with the quiet satisfaction he felt at finally forcing R’lony’s hand. “Why don’t you sit down.”

R’lony looked about half a second away from kicking over the chair T’kamen indicated. “I won’t sit down,” he said instead. “I’m not some shaffing cripple who can’t stand and face you!”

“Well, I am a shaffing cripple,” said T’kamen, “so you’ll forgive me if I don’t get up.” He looked past the fuming R’lony to where Dannie was hovering in the doorway. “It’s all right, Dannie,” he said, “you can shut the door.”

“Sir,” she replied smartly, and complied.

T’kamen didn’t think he could have chosen a more appropriate member of the Unseen for the small show of allegiance. The significance of Dannie – a green rider who would have credible claims on a Wingsecond’s braid when she returned to the Wings – obeying the Weyrmarshal would not be lost on R’lony, who hadn’t commanded any fighting rider’s obedience in a long time. “All right, R’lony; what’s the problem?”

“The problem?” R’lony looked at him as if he were mad. “The problem? Epherineth just refused Geninth permission to leave the Weyr! You don’t have the authority to ground me! And you can’t take my tailman away either! I was the Marshal for twenty-one Turns! You have no right!”

T’kamen responded by reaching for one of the books he’d prepared. “‘The tailing privilege may be extended to riders of Wingleader and Wingsecond rank in the fighting Wings,’” he read, “‘and of Marshal and section leader rank in Strategic Branch, and also with the special permission of the Commander or the Marshal in other exceptional cases.’”

“Don’t you read that regulation back to me as if I didn’t write it myself!” R’lony said. “Turn the shaffing page! Read what it says there!”

T’kamen did. “‘Riders formerly of Wingleader, Wingsecond, Marshal and section leader rank may continue to enjoy the tailing privilege upon retirement from active service on the condition that they served at least five Turns in the qualifying rank or above.’ Is that the part you mean?”

“Twenty-one Turns!” R’lony shouted. “You’ll sharding well reassign D’kestry back to me! And tell that scar-faced bronze of yours he can go between and stay there if he tries to stop Geninth leaving again!”

“Epherineth was enforcing the new orders that the watchdragons are obeying,” said T’kamen. “Or, I should say, the old orders that haven’t been followed as strictly as they should be in recent Turns.”

“Old orders? If you think you can drag up some ancient Interval precedent…”

“I didn’t have to look that far back,” said T’kamen. He pulled across another book of Weyr law. “This codicil is dated only to the fifteenth Turn of this Pass. ‘All riders leaving the bounds of the Weyr on any business save Threadfall shall wear full insignia identifying their colour, rank, and posting. Riders failing to display complete, up-to-date, and visible rank insignia shall be challenged by the watchdragon and compelled to don correct insignia before being cleared to leave Madellon.’” He glanced at R’lony’s shoulder, bare of all rank cords. “You’ll just need to comply with that directive before the watchdragon can clear you to leave.”

“Fine,” R’lony said, thrusting out a blocky hand. “Give me a brown rider’s knot. In that bottom drawer, unless you’ve already thrown everything of mine on the midden.”

“I’m not a wasteful man, R’lony,” T’kamen said. He opened the drawer, took out a tangle of rank braids, and unravelled a plain two-strand cord of brown and indigo from the snarl.

“Give it to me,” R’lony told him, gesturing impatiently with his fingers. “I don’t have time for this nonsense.”

“Colour, rank, and posting,” said T’kamen, consulting the regulation. He reached back into the drawer for a hank of grey cord. He unwound a length of it and twisted it quickly around the two strands. “To show you’ve retired.”

R’lony gave him a look that would have withered Thread. “Don’t patronise me.”

“It’s still not complete,” T’kamen said, “but once I’ve finalised your new assignment you’ll be able to add an appropriate strand to indicate your posting.”

“Posting?” R’lony spat the word out in a burst of saliva.

“To whichever Hold or Hall you’re serving as a watchrider.”

R’lony blinked, then laughed. “You can’t assign me as a watchrider. I was the Marshal –”

“For twenty-one Turns,” T’kamen agreed. “Yes, I know.” He pulled yet a third book towards him. “But in those twenty-one Turns, you might have kept a closer eye on Madellon’s duties to its protectorate. Of the…” he checked the record, “…thirty-four holdings that are guaranteed a permanent watchrider under the Charter amendment of Interval 157, two are currently unmanned. The last thing I want is for Welford Hold, or the Minehall at High Cliffs, to withhold tithe because Madellon hasn’t been holding up its obligations under the Charter.”

A flush had started up R’lony’s neck, scarlet in contrast to his silver beard. “So with all your grand performance as the heroic Weyrleader of old,” he said, with boiling contempt, “it’s petty clerkship and words on rotting hide that you’ll use to bring me low.”

“I didn’t want to have to bring you low at all,” T’kamen said. “I still don’t. But if you won’t eat your pride willingly, then I will feed it to you, and I won’t care how much it sticks in your throat on the way down.”

R’lony stared at him with pale eyes full of hate. “You filthy snake. I never thought I’d meet a rider I loathed more than S’leondes.”

“It doesn’t have to be like this,” said T’kamen. “Madellon still needs you. You can –”

Needs me,” R’lony said, slurring the word into an insult. “If Madellon needed me, it wouldn’t have thrown me away for a lying piece of shit like you. I gave my life to this Weyr, and this is how it’s repaid me. Madellon can go shaff itself!”

“It’s not personal, R’lony,” said T’kamen. “It’s never been personal.”

“Whershit,” R’lony spat. “You made it personal. And you didn’t even want her. You took Dalka away from me, and you didn’t even have the decency to want her.” His whole face had gone crimson with fury. “At least S’leondes doesn’t just sleep with her for power!”

T’kamen recoiled slightly at that. R’lony bared his teeth at him in an appalling grin. “You thought I didn’t know? You thought I was a stupid blind fool as well as a cuckold? No. Even when S’leondes thought he was being so clever, thinking he was going behind my back, thinking he was getting one over on me, bedding my weyrmate when I wasn’t there. I knew. I’ve always known. I’ve lived with Dalka for thirty Turns. I know what she wants. I know what she needs, and I’ve always let her have it. It’s the price I’ve paid for loving her, and I’ve paid it again and again.

“But you,” he went on, looming over T’kamen’s desk. “You poisoned her against me. You made her question me, when I’ve always been good enough for her before. I look at her now and I see contempt in her eyes. Contempt that you put there. You’re like Thread burrowing underground, undermining everything above you, so convinced that you know better, that you’re right, that you can’t even see that you’re going to bring the whole shaffing world down on your head! You have no idea how delicately balanced we are between survival and destruction, T’kamen! You come barging into my Madellon, putting ideas in the head of my weyrmate, upsetting the balance that I’ve spent three decades keeping from collapsing in on itself, and you tell me that it’s not personal?”

“It isn’t,” T’kamen said, with genuine regret. “It never was.” Then he let his face harden. “But I’m Marshal now. Like it or not, you will recognise my authority.”

“Your authority,” R’lony said. “I hope you choke on it.” He snatched the shoulder-knot with its binding of grey cord from the desk. “Send me to the shaffing mine-hold, for all I care. Anywhere I don’t have to look at your sanctimonious face.”

T’kamen didn’t stop him from leaving. He just let him go. A moment later, Dannie put her head inquisitively around the door. “Sounds like that went well.”

He laughed briefly. “Better than I expected.”

Dannie’s face was a picture. “What were you expecting?”

“Physical violence didn’t seem like it would be out of the question.” T’kamen pushed the books of law he’d used to bludgeon R’lony to the side of his desk and pulled the Fall map back to the centre. “You can close the door,” he added.

But he’d barely reminded himself of where he was with the plan when his door banged open yet again. “Dannie –” he began irritably.

It wasn’t Dannie. Dalka strode in, looking dire. She didn’t close the door behind her, either. “T’kamen. We need to talk.”

“Faranth,” he muttered. He rubbed his eyes. “Dalka, there’s nothing I can do about it. We both knew it was going to happen.”

She halted abruptly. “You – what?”

“R’lony,” T’kamen said. “He wasn’t going to give in gracefully. The mine-hold will –”

“R’lony?” Dalka demanded. “Between with R’lony, T’kamen! Donauth just had word from Chrelith.”

“Chrelith?” T’kamen asked. “Ista?”

“Of course she’s at Ista!” Dalka snapped, with a severity that was harsh even by her tart standards.

“What’s happened?” T’kamen asked, suddenly gripped by concern. “Is it Ch’fil?”

“No. Three of their riders with fire-lizards went between.”

“Faranth,” T’kamen said. “And? They did it?”

“No, T’kamen. They didn’t do it.” Dalka’s face was a taut mask. “They died.”

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