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Chapter seventy-nine: T’kamen

People wonder why I’ve never wanted to be Senior. Levierth is, after all, the only home-bred Madellon queen; she’s older than Donauth, and we’ve both been here longer than Dalka. Before Harrie stepped down, she did ask me if I should like to be Weyrwoman after her. For all that we pretend that the succession is decided by our dragons’ mating schedules, I doubt a queen has ever abdicated without first making sure that her favoured successor will be next to rise. But I believe it was a courtesy to me, as Weyrwoman Second; Harrie knew quite well that I had no interest in being Senior. I lack the ambition; I lack the hunger; I lack the passion for power and politics.

Where I am deficient, Dalka is excessively endowed, and some would think that cause for friction between us. No. We have always complemented each other. She commands and I nurture. Donauth has favourites and Levierth loves widely. Dalka draws the eye and I – funny, dowdy old Lirelle – watch unobserved.

Neither of us is blind to the risk to ourselves, and to our queens, represented by Madellon’s fertile greens. Neither of us is oblivious to S’leondes’ zeal to dispense with the larger dragon colours entirely. Neither of us is so selfish as to place our own interests above the good of Pern.

Dalka has walked the fine line between Marshal and Commander ever since Madellon split into Strategic and Tactical branches. She has steadied the ship that is our Weyr a hundred times in a hundred ways. She has stayed S’leondes’ hand as often as she has R’lony’s, and she has done it, always, in private consultation with me.

And still she will not tell me what it was she saw in T’kamen the very first time she met him that makes her trust him so.

She has put aside R’lony, who – for all her dalliances, all her frustrations – was, and is, the great love of her life. She has danced as close as she dares to open defiance of S’leondes, even knowing that her power as Weyrwoman derives as much from his endorsement as it does from the colour of Donauth’s hide. She has even extended the hand of friendship to Reloka in the pursuit of T’kamen’s ambitions, and no one knows better than I how deep and bitter that rift runs.

But if Dalka trusts T’kamen, then I must trust him too. She and I are the Weyrwomen of Madellon. We have no one else, truly, but each other.

– Excerpt from the personal diaries of Weyrwoman Second Lirelle

26.13.20 (26TH TURN, EIGHTH PASS)

T'kamen (Micah Johnson)Levierth’s clutch had the decency to Hatch on a Thread-free day, and in spite of everything, T’kamen resolved to make a point of celebrating it.

The Unseen looked askance at the blackboard when they came in for their morning briefing. “Nothing for the afternoon?” B’roce asked.

“The clutch could be breaking shell by then,” T’kamen said. “There’s no point starting a drill when it’ll be interrupted halfway through.”

When his riders exchanged doubtful looks, T’kamen frowned. “What?”

“We wouldn’t usually stop just for a Hatching,” said Kayrin.

“Well, you’re going to today. And I want to see you all there. No excuses.”

He knew why they were reluctant. It wasn’t that the novelty had worn off – although between Donauth, Levierth, and the fertile greens, Madellon did have a Hatching of some sort most months. But T’kamen didn’t believe any dragonrider could be unaffected by the sight of dragonets choosing their partners, and that, he sensed, was the problem. Bronze and brown Impressions were still considered disappointing – if not outright ignominious – while the vast majority of new blue and green riders would be needed to replace the fallen as soon as they were old enough. It made Hatchings too unhappy a reminder of Pass Pern’s brutal attrition rate.

T’kamen could understand why no one wanted to get too emotionally attached to weyrlings who would probably be dead within five Turns. It sprang from the same root as R’lony’s insistence on dealing with Madellon’s forces in the abstract, as numbers and statistics, not flesh and blood. The pain and grief of losing a dragonpair could be made less if you were willing to divorce yourself from them as living beings. But just as the schism between colours had damaged the Weyr, so did the deliberate rejection of the common ties that bound every dragon and rider to every other. Madellon wasn’t just divided between Strategic and Tactical. Each fighting Wing was its own clique, its members devoted to each other at the expense of any outsiders. The whole Weyr was nothing but clans and coteries, a cluster of micro-societies separated by how they differed from each other, instead of a sprawling web of individuals connected by all they had in common.

It had to change. It would change. Because he would change it.

He chivvied every Seventh rider he saw into agreeing to come to the Hatching. He asked his blue and green riders to bring their friends. He passed it about the Weyrfolk that anyone not occupied in vital work should come and be welcome in the Hatching cavern. He had Dalka speak to the Headwoman about preparing a more lavish spread than usual for the evening meal, even if it couldn’t quite be called a feast so close to Turn’s End, and he got Tawgert to ask Madellon’s assortment of musicians to play. He even persuaded El’yan to run a book.

By late afternoon, when Epherineth reported that Levierth’s eggs were actually rocking, the Weyr was moderately abuzz.

The flow of people converging on the Hatching Ground wasn’t quite a flood, but it was more than a trickle. Epherineth followed two blues in via the high-level access, and there were more dragons behind him. As they descended towards the edge of the stands, T’kamen gauged the number of people taking seats, and was pleasantly surprised. More than half the tiers were full. Even at capacity, the Hatching Cavern couldn’t have accommodated all of Madellon’s folk, much less its dragons, so it wasn’t as if the whole Weyr was there, but the turnout was still gratifying.

It pleased him nearly as much to find that the Unseen had bagged the two prime tiers behind the grander seats where the Weyrleaders had always sat in his day. H’juke and Tr’seff stood up to get his attention as he made his slow way over, although it was hardly as if he could miss the two rows of riders whose shoulders were adorned with flapping, excited fire-lizards.

“I’m glad to see you all came,” he said, and then noticed the one missing member of the Wing. “Or nearly all.”

“Yaigath caught a green,” said Z’renniz. “B’nam said he’d be here once they were done. We’ve swapped shifts. I’m on for you now, and he’ll do the night watch.”

B’nam had turned even more surly since T’kamen’s argument with R’lony, but as long as he was still civil to his wingmates, it didn’t matter. “All right.” He turned to limp down to the seats where Dalka, Lirelle, and K’rod, whose brown had sired Levierth’s clutch, were waiting. Then he turned back to the Unseen. “Keep your lizards under control. I don’t know how excited they might get, and I don’t want them upsetting Levierth or the hatchlings.”

Even as he said it, fire-lizards began to subside to shoulders. Fetch whistled approvingly next to T’kamen’s ear at the demonstration of obedience, and T’kamen nodded to his riders, pleased.

“Quite the crowd,” Dalka remarked, as he took the empty seat next to hers.

“Yes, Levierth is rather pleased,” said Lirelle. “It’s been Turns since there were so many people here to see a Hatching.”

“T’kamen’s paying them all in hard marks,” said Dalka. “He plans to make it all back wagering. Don’t you, Marshal?”

“At the odds El’yan’s offering?” T’kamen asked. “There aren’t enough marks in Madellon.”

Across the Sands, the Weyrlingmasters were giving last-minute instructions to the candidates for Levierth’s clutch. T’kamen wondered what was going through their minds. Standing for an Eighth Pass clutch was a different prospect to the one he’d faced in the Interval. “Tell me about the kids,” he said. “What’s the proportion, Weyrbred to Holdbred?”

“About the usual,” said Dalka. “A third, two-thirds. All but the youngest of ours have been passed over three or four times at least already.”

“That’s no bar to Impression, Dalka,” Lirelle told her. “My youngest stood seven clutches before Gliarth chose him.”

“Sometimes it takes that long before a boy accepts the colour he’s meant for,” said Dalka, acerbity thinly cloaked in blandness.

Lirelle didn’t seem to notice the jab. “And did you Impress first time, T’kamen?”

“I did.”

She sighed. “It’s so hard to imagine any of us being that young.”

“It wasn’t as long ago for some of us as you, Lirelle,” said Dalka.

T’kamen just stopped himself from wincing. “It was a long time ago for me.”

“I’ll bet you made a lovely candidate,” said Lirelle. “All fresh-faced and eager.”

As I recall, you had a black eye, said Epherineth.

T’kamen’s smile was for that remark rather than Lirelle’s. “Have you settled on a name for this class?”

“I thought I’d see how they come out, first,” she replied. “I never named a child before I saw him to know what would suit. And I –”

She broke off, her gaze moving beyond T’kamen.

The shadow that fell over them both belonged to the Commander.

“Dalka. Lirelle.” S’leondes paused, waiting for T’kamen to look up at him. “Marshal.”

“Commander,” T’kamen replied, too surprised to hide his incredulity, as the Commander kissed first Lirelle’s hand and then Dalka’s.

“I didn’t think to see you,” said Lirelle, with frank disbelief.

S’leondes sat down beside T’kamen. Even seated, he towered over him, and the massive forearm he draped over the arm of the chair made T’kamen’s look puny. It was, he realised, the closest he’d ever been to the Commander. It would have been easy to feel intimidated by his sheer physical size, let alone the palpable force of his personality.

He is still only a blue rider, said Epherineth.

“I knew I’d find the new Marshal here,” said S’leondes, in response to Lirelle’s remark.

T’kamen refrained from observing that he hadn’t been making himself hard for the Commander to find. If S’leondes was finally prepared to talk to him, he wouldn’t be churlish about how long it had taken him to do it. He did wonder why he’d chosen now to approach him, in full view of half the Weyr. S’leondes and R’lony had always kept space between themselves even when duty required them to appear together in public. The simple fact that the Commander had seated himself beside him made T’kamen cautiously optimistic. “El’yan and G’reyan have been handling the transition very ably between them,” he said. It hadn’t occurred to him until very belatedly that the two riders were father and son. “But I’d hoped you and I would be able to speak directly about how the Seventh Flight can better serve Madellon.”

“With your predecessor not ten days out of the Weyr yet, T’kamen?” asked S’leondes. He sounded savagely amused. “His seat must still be warm.”

“I bear R’lony no ill will, S’leondes,” T’kamen said. His use of the Commander’s name was as deliberate as S’leondes’ use of his. “But time is a limited resource. It can’t be wasted in the cause of protecting his feelings.”

“A limited resource,” S’leondes repeated. “That’s an interesting observation, for a man who’s cheated time’s natural order.”

T’kamen wasn’t sure if S’leondes meant that as insult or compliment. Side by side as they were, he couldn’t study his expression to tell. “Not by design.”

“So it would seem,” said S’leondes. “I can’t fathom why a rider in your position would have chosen to land in this Turn.”

“That being so, I’m here now,” said T’kamen.

“You mean to make your mark.”

It was too pointed to be anything but a challenge. T’kamen sidestepped the obvious retort that he already had made his mark. “What rider of vision doesn’t?”

“And is that what you are?” S’leondes asked. “A rider of vision? What does Weyrmarshal T’kamen’s vision for Madellon look like?”

T’kamen was forestalled from answering by the sudden thunderous cracking of the first of Levierth’s eggs. The Hatching cavern didn’t go silent, as it would have in his day, but the chatter of conversation did drop off a bit as eyes turned to the Sands.

There were perhaps forty candidates for Levierth’s thirteen eggs. The oldest and the youngest were probably Weyrbred – those who had failed many times but not yet given up on Impression, and those only just old enough to stand. A rider had to be fifteen to fly in the fighting Wings, so putting anyone younger than thirteen to a clutch was thought wasteful of an entire Turn of a dragon’s fighting capability. Those under the age to stand weren’t even allowed in the Hatching cavern. It struck him as incongruous how concerned Madellon was with not squandering a dragon’s earliest flying Turns, when so few dragonpairs lasted into veterancy.

Two eggs fractured nearly at the same moment, depositing a pair of squealing green dragonets onto the sand. From the corner of his eye, T’kamen noticed S’leondes relax fractionally. He suspected he wouldn’t have reacted quite the same way had a bronze Hatched first. “Our visions don’t have to be in opposition, Commander,” he said, as the two newborn dragons made for the waiting candidates. “I only want what you want. To protect Madellon’s territory at the minimum cost to Madellon’s dragons.”

S’leondes didn’t reply for a moment. T’kamen wondered if he would dispute the convergence of their goals. “By returning to the old ways.”

“By restoring between,” said T’kamen. “Not by setting bronze and brown riders above blue and green.”

The first green chose her rider, almost pouncing on her in her eagerness. The second was still nosing along the line of candidates. A third egg rocked so hard it toppled over and shattered, leaving a dark blue dragonet looking startled in the wreckage of his shell. T’kamen felt Epherineth’s pleasure in the young dragons as if it were his own, and almost missed the Commander’s response.

“The one leads to the other,” said S’leondes, apparently unmoved by the first Impression. “History tells us that. The larger always subjugated the smaller, until this Pass.”

He spoke evenly, but T’kamen could sense the indignation that underpinned his words. He phrased his response with care. “Dragons have a hierarchy that they find most natural. We don’t have to let it dictate how we conduct ourselves.”

“Dictate,” said S’leondes. “Isn’t that what bronze riders did for untold centuries, when dragons could go between?”

“You could make a case –”

“And how often did a bronze rider become Weyrleader not through his own fitness for the role, but because his bronze was the luckiest dragon in the sky that day?”

Too often, T’kamen could have admitted, but he didn’t want to say it. “A bad Weyrleader wouldn’t stay in the role for long,” he said, not quite truthfully.

S’leondes must have detected the lie. “And yet whoever replaced him would still be a bronze rider, still selected almost arbitrarily from a limited pool of eligible men.”

T’kamen watched as a lad stepped boldly out in front of the blue. The dragonet hesitated, almost recoiling. The boy dropped to a knee in front of him, never taking his eyes off the blue’s. For a long moment dragonet and candidate locked gazes with each other, a stare curiously more like a battle of wills than a meeting of minds. Then, at last, the boy’s determined posture relaxed, and he whooped with exultation as the dragonet butted his chest. “It was always believed that bronzes chose the most likely leaders for their riders.”

S’leondes laughed. “And a dragonet moments old knows how the unformed boy of fourteen Turns he chooses for his rider will turn out? Dragons aren’t prescient, T’kamen. Leadership arises where there is need.”

“There we can be in agreement,” said T’kamen. He was frustrated by how S’leondes kept boxing him into defending tradition, regardless of how nearly a Turn in the Pass had altered his Interval sensibilities. He wished he could confront S’leondes’ wrong-headed insistence on prioritising green and blue rider pride over even their lives directly. But he held those retorts in check. He couldn’t afford to break the tenuous line of communication by saying everything he really wanted to say.

He turned his attention back to the sands for a moment. Three more greens and another blue were roaming the Sands in search of riders. Then, as T’kamen watched, a larger egg broke open to reveal a glistening brown dragonet.

It was fascinating to observe the candidates’ reactions. Some of them moved back straight away. Others took a moment to follow that example, perhaps influenced by the overt show of aversion. But several of the eldest candidates actually stepped forwards, plainly intent on Impressing regardless of the unfashionable colour of the dragonet in question.

“The best candidates self-select,” said S’leondes. “There’s no bar to what a green or blue rider can achieve now. Whatever stigma there was to being the rider of a small dragon in the past no longer prevents the best and bravest from Impressing the fighting colours.”

What he hadn’t said rang clearly in T’kamen’s ears: that candidates who would stoop to Impressing bronze or brown dragons, knowing they could never achieve fighting rank, were far from the best or bravest. He supposed, in a perverse way, it was true. A Weyrbred candidate of seventeen or eighteen Turns must have been passed over many times by blue and green hatchlings. Continual rejection by dragons of the two colours held in most esteem would cause anyone to doubt their own worthiness. “I’ve known brave riders of every colour,” he said. “And craven ones of every colour, too.”

“You won’t find any cravens in my Wings, T’kamen,” said S’leondes.

T’kamen stopped himself from replying no, because most of them die before they’re old enough to be scared. The brown dragonet that had been looking uncertainly from one end of the candidate group to the other staggered forwards to thrust his head into the hands of a boy who had suddenly stepped forwards out of the line. “And what about him?” T’kamen asked, nodding towards the new brown rider. “Is he not brave for Impressing the dragonet no one else wanted, even when he could have waited for a blue to come along?”

“That depends on your definition of brave,” said S’leondes.

T’kamen risked a glance sideways. The Commander’s long face was etched in grim lines. Perhaps he was thinking of the son who’d disgraced himself by Impressing a brown. “What about M’ric?” he asked. “No one could dispute that he was courageous.”

A muscle moved in S’leondes’ jaw. “He died a fighting rider’s death,” he said, “but he couldn’t have known when he Impressed that his dragon would be small enough to fight.” Then he turned to T’kamen for the first time, fixing his tawny eyes on him. “You have no patience for the significance we place on size.”

“Patience?” T’kamen asked. “That’s not the word I’d use. I understand the importance of small dragons, in the circumstances of this Pass. I appreciate how single-mindedly you pursued speed and agility as the pivotal traits of your breeding programme. I admire how you, personally, revolutionised Thread-fighting in the early Turns of the Pass when the old ways proved inadequate.”

He paused. S’leondes didn’t fill the silence. His nostrils were flaring slightly as he absorbed T’kamen’s words.

“But I also know that a man of your farsightedness can see when the landscape is changing,” T’kamen said. “The newest weyrling can see it. Riders of every age and colour. You know how many volunteered to Impress fire-lizards and join the Unseen. With another dozen fire-lizards from Ista –”

S’leondes didn’t let him finish. “Yes. Let’s talk about Ista.”

T’kamen wished he hadn’t mentioned the name. He didn’t want to talk about Ista. He was sick of talking about Ista. “What happened there was an avoidable tragedy.”

“Avoidable,” said S’leondes. He sounded grimly amused by the word. “I’m sure it would be a great comfort to the Istan leadership, who find themselves a full three percent worse off for fighting dragonpairs, to know that what happened there was avoidable.”

“It’s not intended as a comfort,” T’kamen said. “It’s the truth. Those riders had been told their fire-lizards weren’t old enough; they’d been told not to experiment on their own; they’d been told to wait for me –”

“To wait for you,” S’leondes repeated. “Weyrmarshal T’kamen of Madellon. You placed a toy in their hands, expounded on its virtues, and you expected those fearless young riders to wait.”

T’kamen thought it was rich for S’leondes to describe them as fearless, given the epithets the Commander usually reserved for northern riders. “Between isn’t a toy,” he said. “And I’ve never described it as one. It’s a blade. Any blade can cut both ways.”

“Seems to me it’s a blade with no hilt and no crossguard,” said S’leondes.

“That’s why I needed to be there,” T’kamen said. “Epherineth could have pulled them out –”

“But you weren’t there,” said S’leondes. “Now three dragonpairs are dead, and you’re no closer to proving that this wild wherry chase of yours has any point at all. Has any native Pass dragon yet actually gone between successfully with a fire-lizard’s help?”

It was a rhetorical question. They both knew it. “You would know if they had, S’leondes,” T’kamen said. He didn’t add, And not from me. Any such news would have reached the Commander’s ears long before T’kamen could have delivered it himself. “And I haven’t asked them to try yet. Their fire-lizards are the age Fetch was when he first piloted Epherineth between, but I’m not going to force them before they’re ready. It’s as much about confidence and belief as technique. They’ll rebuild their courage.”

“Courage they have,” said S’leondes. “At least the fighting riders among them. But then no one doubted the Istan riders’ courage, and look where that got them.”

“They had courage. They lacked caution. Between demands both. And there’s no shame in checking your safety line twice.”

“Some would say that demonstrates a lack of faith.”

“No dragon masters flight the first time he takes off. The same applies to going between.”

“A bad landing isn’t generally fatal,” said S’leondes. “You’re playing with far higher stakes.”

“I’ve never pretended otherwise,” said T’kamen.

S’leondes fell silent, though T’kamen knew he hadn’t convinced him. He sensed that the Commander wasn’t to be convinced. A man who spent the lives of his riders so brutally in Fall would hardly be concerned about the loss of a few more in the pursuit of between, except that he feared and resented the changes that restoration of the dragons’ ability to teleport would wreak on the Weyr – the Pern – that he had shaped in its absence.

All but the last two eggs had Hatched. Green and blue dragonets, and the one brown, were bolting down meat at the edge of the sands. The remaining candidates tightened their circle around the final two, and as they did, both eggs cracked nearly at the same moment. T’kamen almost laughed aloud. The larger shell gave way to the struggles of a blue dragonet, his hide soaked to near black with egg fluid. The smaller, unintuitively, revealed a bronze, though he must have been crammed tight within his egg: as he shook out his wings, he expanded dramatically, dwarfing his brother. A curious murmur went up from the watching crowd as the two hatchlings fought themselves free of egg casing and shell shards, and T’kamen was struck again by the incongruity of a Hatching in which the emergence of a bronze was cause for muttering, not celebration.

T’kamen made a final attempt to persuade the Commander. “Look at those two, S’leondes. As things stand – as things have had to be, these last two decades – that blue has a life expectancy of about five Turns, and that bronze can look forward to half a Pass of hauling tithe and firestone around the territory. Status and honour aside, is it right that two dragons should have such unfairly divergent futures? It doesn’t have to be that way. Give them fire-lizards and training, and you give them the most powerful weapon in any dragon’s arsenal. That blue will be able to dodge Thread. That bronze will be able to collect tithe in minutes. And they’ll both be able to get to wherever Thread is falling at a moment’s notice. There’ll be no need to supply and staff the Weyrstations. No need to impoverish our holders with the livestock tithe. The North can be reclaimed. Pern will prosper again.

“And the revolution won’t happen overnight. It could be six months before I even have this first group of riders ready, and a single fighting Wing of twelve won’t make much difference. Twelve dragons able to go between would be better employed in support roles than in the Wings, at least until there are more of them – and that will take time. Perhaps in two or three Turns, if we can establish a good supply of fire-lizards from the North, we could begin fielding Wings of dragons who can go between in Fall. But there’ll be dragonpairs who can’t go between still fighting in the formations you developed and perfected until the end of the Pass.”

On the sands, the blue swerved and turned his head up towards his chosen rider. The boy’s delighted cry rang out in harmony with the dragonet’s joyous bugle. The bronze dragonet, meanwhile, had nosed up the row of candidates, dismissing one after another. Fewer boys had stepped away than had from the brown, but the hatchling didn’t seem grateful for the reception. He kept searching and searching, peering intently into one face after another before moving on.

S’leondes still hadn’t replied. T’kamen forged on. “I don’t intend to tear down what you’ve built. I have no desire to supersede you, to usurp your position or challenge your authority.” He nearly said that he regarded S’leondes as an asset, not an obstacle, and bit his tongue, reflecting that in many ways he was still the entitled Interval bronze rider that the Commander accused him of being. “I’m not a threat to you.”

“I never considered you one,” said S’leondes. It could have been a compliment or an insult. “I believe you are a man of sincerely-held convictions. A man not easily deterred from following the path you believe is the right one. Which is more than I could ever say for your predecessor.”

T’kamen was loath to speak ill of R’lony, even in the cause of sealing an alliance with S’leondes. “R’lony served the Weyr for a long time, in the best way he knew how. I can only hope to serve as long and as faithfully.”

“Yes,” said S’leondes. “I have no doubt of that.”

The bronze lurched to a halt in front of a lad of fifteen or so. The boy took an instinctive step back, blinking, but only one. Then he stepped forwards again, though his knees seemed to give out from under him as he did. “Ipanath,” he said, and then, shouting, “Ipanath! His name’s Ipanath!”

There was an awkward pause, as if the assembled riders and Weyrfolk were unsure of how to respond to the elated cry – indeed, to an Impression that would ordinarily have been regarded as an unfortunate one, to the pairing of a dragonet whose hide made him a relic of old times, a redundancy that would have to be fed and maintained despite its limited usefulness to Pass Madellon.

Then, across the Sands, someone stood up in the tiers. “Good job, Greilen!”

The crowd didn’t leap to its feet as one to celebrate the new bronze rider. But behind where T’kamen and S’leondes sat, H’juke and O’sten were the first to rise and cheer, and the other members of the Unseen Wing just after them, and then, in twos and threes and little clumps, other voices rose in solidarity.

“The landscape is changing,” said S’leondes. He spoke so neutrally that T’kamen couldn’t tell if he was agreeing with the statement or merely weighing it up. For a remarkable moment, he thought S’leondes would add his congratulations to the boy who’d Impressed the bronze. Instead, the Commander turned to him, rising, and T’kamen had to grope hastily for his cane to stand. “You’ve given me a lot to think about, Marshal. I hadn’t been certain of you. Now I think I am.”

That sounded more positive than T’kamen had expected. “Perhaps we could have a conversation in a more formal setting before next Fall. I’d like to make some changes to the way the Seventh deploys, but I’d value your opinion. And I have some thoughts on the training schedule for our weyrlings.”

“Our weyrlings,” said S’leondes. “Yes. Of course.”

T’kamen had to crane his neck to look at the Commander as they clasped wrists – S’leondes’ massive hand enveloping most of his forearm – but he was too aware of how good it looked to the Weyr for Commander and Marshal to be seen in concord to mind. “Commander S’leondes.”

“Marshal T’kamen,” said S’leondes, with what could have been the beginnings of a smile.

It was late when Dalka drifted into T’kamen’s office, languidly and unchallenged – B’nam had quit his post outside early, claiming other errands. She seated herself without asking on the edge of T’kamen’s desk, and accepted with equanimity the request he put into the brief flick of his eyes upwards from his work.

Energised by his promising conversation with S’leondes, T’kamen had been reviewing all his deployment plans for the Seventh, searching for any flaws that the Commander might find in them. It wasn’t that he sought his approval. He’d been on the end of too much of S’leondes’ scorn to subscribe to the hero-worship that the fighting riders lavished upon the Commander. But he believed now, more than ever, that the most direct path to his goals for Madellon led through S’leondes, not around him. It could take decades for him to implement his plans with the Commander actively opposing them. An alliance seemed a far more pragmatic approach.

He wondered if Dalka had come to dissuade him. She had been so fervent in her desire for him to overthrow both R’lony and S’leondes. Perhaps that had only been the complex feelings she had for both riders speaking. The thought of assuming the Commander’s role as well as the Marshal’s filled T’kamen with equal parts relish and terror. While, historically, a Weyrleader would have been expected to manage both strategic and tactical decisions, the rigours of a Pass without between made the idea far more daunting than it had ever been.

T’kamen was only just beginning to grasp the complex equations needed to calculate the resources required to fight any given Fall. It wasn’t a simple matter of eyeballing the predicted footprint and estimating eight Wings or ten or twelve. The fielding of every dragonpair – fighting or otherwise – had to be justified and weighed against the conditions. Simply deploying dragons to the location of Fall was a major operation when every single dragonpair must fly there straight and be sufficiently fed and rested to perform. If a second Fall was due over the territory soon after the first, the Weyr’s forces must be even more carefully managed to avoid overflying. T’kamen hadn’t yet had to negotiate a two-Weyr Fall, but a cross-border strike was more complicated again, usually requiring discussions between Madellon and either Starfall or the Peninsula to agree the handover line. And the deployment strategy even for a straightforward single Fall striking exclusively within Madellon’s territory could be wildly different from Fall to Fall depending on its predicted duration; variations in weather, season, or time of day that could affect the width of the corridor and density of the Thread; vagaries of the territory whose profile could create thermals that might disrupt the way Thread fell.

T’kamen had seen enough Falls now to know that R’lony hadn’t always got it right. Sometimes there weren’t sufficient fighting dragonpairs to cover a very dispersed Fall, resulting in more casualties and more burrows; sometimes there were more dragons than required, which was a waste of the resources needed to field them. The Seventh bunker dragons were often overstocked with firestone, which was better than being undersupplied, but led to the chronic back and wing complaints that many of the largest dragons suffered from. He suspected that many of the logistical issues stemmed from a lack of communication between S’leondes and R’lony. R’lony’s records, characterised as they were by the use of identification codes rather than names, showed no detailed understanding of the individual dragonpairs that comprised each fighting Wing. That was probably as much a consequence of S’leondes’ contempt for R’lony as R’lony’s hatred of S’leondes, and it was top of T’kamen’s list of things to change. Recombining the two leadership roles of Pass Pern still seemed to him to be the optimal solution, but given his own total lack of fighting experience, it wasn’t an ambition he thought would do Madellon – or him– any favours.

He was so absorbed in his work that, when Dalka finally tired of waiting for him to finish and addressed him, he’d nearly forgotten she was there. “I didn’t think he’d make such a show of harmony in the Hatching Ground today. You must have made an impression.”

“So to speak,” said T’kamen, meeting her coolly amused gaze. “Perhaps R’lony’s departure has put him in a generous mood.” Then he winced, internally, for mentioning the name.

Dalka sensed it even if she didn’t see it. “R’lony’s made his bed,” she said. “A Turn or so stewing out at some hole of a Minehold will give him some perspective. Then he’ll come crawling back.” She raised an eyebrow. “Have I shocked you again?”

“He was your weyrmate for a long time,” said T’kamen.

“And in all that long time I never managed to jolt him out of his rut,” she said. “It took you to do that. It’ll do him no harm to spend time away from the Weyr. And who knows; perhaps I’ll even miss him.”

T’kamen shook his head; half in disbelief, half in admiration. “What will you do in the meantime?”

“What, or whom?” Dalka asked, and then laughed. “That was unkind of me.”

Whom is none of my business,” said T’kamen.

She regarded him thoughtfully. “You mean that, don’t you?”

T’kamen leaned back in his chair. He noticed he’d been stroking Fetch absently where the little brown was sleeping in a curl around the inkwell. “Who flies Donauth next has no bearing on this office,” he said. “I don’t need to demand your fidelity to protect my position, and I have no right to it in any case.”

“As I have no right to yours,” Dalka said dryly. “Though you haven’t made up with your little green rider.”

T’kamen sighed. “She deserves more than I can give her.”

“That sounds like an excuse.”

There was nothing T’kamen could say to that that wouldn’t make him sound unkind or weak, so he didn’t say anything.

“Who did you leave behind?” Dalka asked. “It wasn’t your queen rider. So who was she?”

That was a question T’kamen didn’t want to answer, but when he didn’t, Dalka prompted him slyly, “Or was it a he?”

He had to smile at that. “She,” he admitted.

“Just checking,” said Dalka. “Who was she? A green rider? Another queen rider?”

It was curious how the ache for Sarenya was twined now with the pang T’kamen felt when he thought about M’ric. “She didn’t ride a dragon.”

“But Weyrfolk? Holder? Crafter, then.”

Dalka was good at reading T’kamen’s non-responses. “Beastcraft.”

“She was a cow-girl?”

T’kamen detected both scorn and incredulity in Dalka’s tone now that she had a scrap of the truth. He thought about saying that Sarenya was more than that, that she’d been a journeyman with prospects for Mastery; that she’d been a candidate and should have been a queen rider. He said instead, “I’d already lost her.”

“She died?”

“I drove her away.”

“I see.” Dalka’s face was unreadable. “But you did love her.”

Again, T’kamen couldn’t answer.

And again, he didn’t need to. Dalka looked disappointed. “And here I was thinking your heart had been broken by some great romantic tragedy, when the truth is that you’ve just always been wedded to dragon and duty to the exclusion of the women in your life.”

“The one gets in the way of the other,” said T’kamen.

“Which way around?”

“Does it matter?”

Dalka acknowledged the truth of that with a little shrug. “Wedded or not, you should go to bed. Cold and lonely though it may be.”

“Neither, in fact,” T’kamen said. “My wingmen see to that.”

Dalka widened her eyes in mock outrage. “I knew you were taking advantage of those young men and women.”

“My terrible secret is out.”

She snorted delicately. “You wouldn’t be the first rider to add bed-warming duties to his tailman’s schedule.”

“Not really my style,” T’kamen said.

“You should try it,” Dalka told him. “You might like it.”

“They have enough reasons to be wary of me at the moment without adding another one.”

Dalka contemplated him with an inscrutable expression. “Have more faith in yourself, T’kamen. I do.”

“Faith?” T’kamen asked. “You mean belief in something you have no good reason to believe in?”

She laughed. “Donauth thinks she’s carrying a gold egg.”

“It’s only been three sevendays,” said T’kamen. “She can’t possibly know that yet.”

“How do you know? Are you a queen dragon?”

“Not the last time I checked.”

“Then you should have faith that she knows what she’s talking about. Just like her rider does.” Dalka eased herself off the edge of the desk. “Good night, T’kamen.”

He did work on a little longer after Dalka had glided off to her own rest, or her current lover – whichever awaited her in her weyr – but he did so feeling strangely unburdened by her teasing.

When he did dismount from Epherineth outside their weyr, it was well into middle watch. There was no other dragon on their ledge, which was no surprise with B’nam on the night shift. Most of the Unseen took their pseudo-tailing duties seriously enough that they slept in his weyr if they had overnight duty, but B’nam was the last person who’d have offered him that kind of respect.

T’kamen’s weyr showed all the small signs of the brown rider’s regard for him – Epherineth’s couch unswept, crumbs still on the table where food had been grudgingly cleared up, clean clothes still piled on his bed instead of neatly put away. “Faranth, I’ve got used to being waited on,” he said ruefully, looking around his less-than-immaculate quarters.

Fetch hopped off his shoulder and went straight for the dish beside his basket on the hearth. His outraged whistle when he found it empty made T’kamen grin. “You can take it up with Fury tomorrow, Fetch.”

The sheepish look that Fetch threw him was telling. He had chivvied and scolded the younger lizards ever since they’d hatched, but in the last few days T’kamen had noticed him deferring to the bronzes, B’nam’s Fury among them. He bent awkwardly to run his hand over Fetch’s head. “They’re growing up, aren’t they?”

There was at least klahbark in the crock that had been almost empty that morning, though when he made himself a mug, it tasted faintly sour. Trust B’nam to bring him klah from a barrel that damp had got into. Deliberately, T’kamen assumed. B’nam knew how to provide a good service; any rider who’d ever been tailman to a senior officer did. “Surly little shit,” he said, draining his cup without enjoyment and putting the mug down. He made a mental note to ask whomever was on duty in the morning to replace his klahbark supply.

He shouldered through the curtain into his sleeping chamber, stifling a yawn. He shed his clothes and dropped them in a pile, then let himself fall onto his bed. He turned the glow-basket to shut out the light, then stared up at the ceiling, listening to the soft sounds of Epherineth settling himself on his couch and Fetch’s sleepy mumbling.

He thought he’d lie awake thinking, as he so often did these days: thinking about Fall, thinking about the Unseen, thinking about between. He had so much on his mind these days.

But he was wrong.

“Look at you,” said C’los. “You’ll never make a Weyrleader, looking like that.”

T’kamen looked down at himself. The rakishly-patterned shirt nearly hurt his eyes: red and purple, full-sleeved, open at the neck and cinched in at the waist with a bright blue sash. “Faranth,” he said, appalled, and looked at Epherineth.

His dragon looked back at him. He was wearing the same clothes as T’kamen, and he wasn’t a dragon. He was T’kamen’s double in every way except for the blue glow of his eyes, and the terrible scar that split the right-hand side of his face nearly in half. Don’t look at me. This was always your fault.

“You have to look the part,” C’los insisted. “Like this.” He gestured to himself with a flourish. He was wearing the white robe of a candidate, and Indioth, not yet quite as tall as his waist, was nuzzling at his knees. “It’s what’s on the outside that counts, Kamen. Always has been.”

“But that’s not right,” he objected, still staring at his disfigured Epherineth-self.

“Right, wrong; it doesn’t matter,” said C’los. “The only thing that matters is how you present yourself. It doesn’t have to be true. Oh, stop that, you,” he told his dragon crossly. “Go and bother someone else.”

T’kamen tugged at the ridiculous shirt. “I remember wearing this.”

“No one else does,” said C’los. “No one that matters. You can always be someone else, you know. You already are.”

“I’ll always be me,” T’kamen said.

“Underneath it all,” C’los agreed. “But no one’s going to look beyond the outside of you, looking like that.”

Indioth butted at T’kamen’s knee. He looked down, but C’los’ green dragonet had turned into a blue. “Is that what I’m meant to do?”

“Probably,” said C’los. “Or not. You should pay more attention to him.”

“He’s not my dragon,” T’kamen said. He looked across to where Epherineth had been standing, but his dragon-self had gone. “Stop it,” he told the blue dragonet. “What do you want?”

“You just take it for granted that everyone thinks like you do,” said C’los. “Just because you shed your skin when he found you. You’re a bigger sap than Mine.”

The blue put his head down and rammed his poll into T’kamen’s knee. He staggered backwards and sat down hard. “Stop that!” he shouted, gripping his leg with one hand and trying to fend off the determined dragonet with the other. “Los, make it get off me!”

“Not mine to command, Kamen,” said C’los.

“I already have a dragon!” T’kamen told the blue. “I can’t Impress you too.”

The dragonet opened its jaws wide and hissed at him. Then it snaked its head forwards, caught T’kamen’s hair in its teeth, and ripped

…dragging him into wakefulness, or some facsimile of it that came with a thick, deep grogginess and a bad taste in his mouth, like a hangover without the pain. The pain was reserved for where a fire-lizard was trying to pull a clump of his hair out by the roots.

“Get off, Fetch,” he said, pushing away his assailant. “Off me! Faranth!” Then, as he grabbed at the fire-lizard, he realised it wasn’t Fetch. It was too small, too slender. He fended it off with one hand, rubbing his stinging scalp with the other, trying to orient himself, trying to work out why someone else’s fire-lizard was attacking him.

Then he realised that there was a commotion outside: voices raised, dragon and human. He groped for his dragon. Epherineth?

Epherineth was still asleep. T’kamen pushed himself partly upright. It was dark in his weyr. “What’s going on?” he asked aloud, hoarsely.

The sound of running footsteps was almost a welcome relief. Less so was the frantic shout of his name. “T’kamen!” It was H’juke’s voice. “T’kamen, where in the Void are you? T’kamen?”

Then H’juke burst through the curtain into T’kamen’s sleeping room. The blue fire-lizard – Fathom – that had been pulling out T’kamen’s hair squealed and swooped across the room to land on his shoulder.

“What is it?” T’kamen asked. He realised suddenly that there were tears tracking down H’juke’s face. “What’s happened?”

“Didn’t you hear?” H’juke asked. “Faranth, T’kamen, didn’t you hear her screaming for you?”

Epherineth was coming slowly, sluggishly awake.

“We all did,” said H’juke. He was weeping openly. “She was lost. She needed you, and you weren’t there. You said you’d always be there to catch us.”

“Who?” T’kamen demanded. “What’s going on.”

“Fraza and Spalinoth,” said H’juke. “They went between. And died.”

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