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Chapter eighty-six: T’kamen

When a volcano erupts, no one stops to ask why.

– Harper expression

27.02.09 – 27.02.24 (27TH TURN, EIGHTH PASS)

T'kamen (Micah Johnson)“We’ll sabotage the beaches if we have to,” said Reloka. “We’ll smash every clutch and poison every fire-lizard we find.”

“You won’t do that,” said T’kamen.

Reloka turned a stare on him that her mother would have been proud of. “Try me.”

T’kamen bought himself a moment to think with a sip of water, cool with the ice he’d brought to Ista himself in a gesture of appeasement.

The news had travelled fast. Even if H’juke had been able to contain his exhilaration when he and Bularth and their pilot fire-lizard Fathom had burst out of between into the clear blue sky over Ista Weyr, it would have been impossible to preserve the secret once each of the other ten members of the Unseen reproduced the feat themselves in quick succession. The raucous celebrations in Madellon’s dining hall that night had lasted long into the small hours of a morning that dawned clear of the torrential rain that had besieged the Weyr for days. T’kamen had, with an effort, avoided the worst excesses, though his jubilant riders had cajoled him to match them drink for drink. He didn’t mind their overindulgence. It meant they’d be safely insensate the next morning, leaving him free to deal with the consequences of their achievement.

The queens of Pern’s other Weyrs began to inundate Donauth with messages before the first day was even out. The communications ranged – if an outraged Dalka was to be believed – from barely courteous to outright rude as each queen requested or demanded that Madellon share its newly-proved expertise with her own Weyr’s dragonpairs. Donauth had never been the most even-tempered of dragons, and she responded to the harassment of her peers with somewhat more hostility than T’kamen would have liked. Madellon’s twelve between-capable dragonpairs, she insisted icily, were just that – Madellon’s – and no other Weyr on Pern had any entitlement to them whatsoever.

Donauth wouldn’t be placated, not even by Epherineth – she was becoming visibly egg-heavy now, with a clutch that looked closer to twenty eggs than her customary ten, and she blamed him for her discomfort – so T’kamen, with Dalka’s agreement, called instead upon Lirelle and Levierth to smooth the feathers Donauth had ruffled. Levierth was delighted to be asked to help. T’kamen had her communicate the same message to each of the other Weyrs: that Madellon would share its knowledge with Pern, but not prematurely. They might have proved that Eighth Pass dragons could go between, but the riders of the Unseen Wing were like weyrlings in their understanding of a skill as dangerous as it was valuable.

The responses Levierth had back were more grudging than understanding. T’kamen wasn’t surprised that the other Weyrs were impatient. In their position, he’d be desperate to get his hands on such a game-changing power, too – and unnerved by Madellon’s exclusive possession of it. But Madellon had a right to be jealous of its secrets. He had a right. Restoring between had come at a high personal cost. He believed, as strongly as ever, that all of Pern was entitled to what he had won so painfully, but not for free.

But not every Weyr agreed with him.

Three days after the Unseen completed their first trips between, Levierth received a furious communication from Chrelith. Ista’s sweepriders had encountered foreign dragons on the beaches along the Nerat peninsula: southern dragonpairs, looking for fire-lizard eggs.

“I’m not unaware of the irony,” Reloka said, when T’kamen’s pause went on too long. “The raiders become the raided. But we only ever raided to survive. This…pillage…by the south is unconscionable. If we can’t be guaranteed the sovereignty of our own shores, then we will take the most extreme measures. If I have to go down in history as the Weyrwoman who set dragon against dragon to protect Ista’s rights, then I will.”

“It won’t come to that, Reloka,” T’kamen told her. “I won’t let it.”

It was an arrogant thing to say, and it gave him pause, still, that Reloka didn’t question it. Instead, she said, “I don’t have the dragonpower to protect what’s left of Ista from Thread and those beaches from marauders, T’kamen.”

“Did they get many eggs?”

Reloka looked like she was debating the wisdom of telling him. Then she said, “Three clutch sites that we know of have been plundered. Completely stripped. We don’t have many records on fire-lizard husbandry, but what we do have says that a wild queen will desert a clutching ground if she feels it isn’t safe. There’s no telling where those queens will lay next time. It isn’t just those nests we’ve lost. It’s the ones that would have been laid there in the future. Our records allude to a way to entice queens back to clutch sites that they’ve abandoned, but they aren’t specific. We haven’t found so many nests that we can afford to ruin them!”

T’kamen had grown so accustomed to seeing nearly every Istan rider’s shoulder adorned with a fire-lizard that it hadn’t occurred to him that even Reloka’s supply could be limited. “Do you have any idea where the dragons you saw were from?”

“Only that they were too small to be northern.”

“They weren’t from Madellon. That much I can promise you.”

“I’m sure that makes you feel better.” Reloka spoke with anger, but her desperation showed through it. “T’kamen.” She didn’t quite plead. “They’re all we have. They’re the only hope Ista – the north – has. If the south just steals our eggs, without payment, without recompense of any kind, we’ll never rebuild. You have to see that.”

“Madellon didn’t take those clutches, Reloka,” T’kamen said. “I can’t pay you for them –”

“I’m not asking you to!”

“Then what do you want?”

“For you to make the other Weyrs see sense!”

“I don’t have that kind of power –”

Reloka laughed over him, loud and hard and incredulous. “You don’t have that kind of power?”

“I don’t even command the loyalty of my own Weyr,” said T’kamen. “I’m just the Marshal. And a bronze rider. And still an outsider. I can’t tell the other Weyrs what to do. I don’t have the influence.”

“Faranth, T’kamen,” said Reloka. “Ch’fil told me you could be dense. I didn’t believe him.” She leaned forward in her chair. “You’ve not even been in this time a Turn, and look at what you’ve done. You’ve replaced my father. You’ve won over my mother. You’ve toppled the Commander of Madellon Weyr. You’ve restored between to dragons, and hope to Pern. And you think you don’t have any influence?” She threw back her head and laughed again. “You have all the influence. You have every Weyr on Pern desperate for your help. You’re still the only man on the planet who knows the secret of between. Whoever looted our beaches knows that. They may have fire-lizards, but they still need you.” She stopped. Her light eyes, R’lony’s eyes, shimmered with emotion. “And we need you,” she went on, softly. “To advocate for us, for Ista and the north. You’re the only one who can. You were a Weyrleader once. Please, T’kamen. Be a Weyrleader again. Be the Weyrleader Pern needs.”

“It was the Peninsula,” T’kamen said as he limped back into his office, unbuckling his flying helmet with one hand.

El’yan looked up from his work. “They’ve admitted it?”

“No, but they couldn’t hide it. The place is lousy with newborn fire-lizards.” T’kamen tossed his helmet onto his desk and ruffled his fingers through his flattened hair. “Estrinel tried to sell me a song about them finding clutches on their own beaches.”

“I suppose it’s not outside the realms of possibility,” said El’yan. “They do have a lot of coastline.”

“I don’t think so,” T’kamen said. “Fetch gets pretty excited whenever he gets wind of a strange fair around, and he didn’t react like that at Southern. No lizards there. Nor Starfall.”

“You didn’t accuse Estrinel directly?” asked El’yan.

“I’m not that hopeless a statesman, El’yan.” T’kamen sat down behind his desk with a wince. “I told her what I told the other Weyrs. That it’s in all our interests to approach the issue of fire-lizard supply with a long-term view, not a short one. I told her that the other Weyrs were concerned about the incursions into Ista, and ready to demand that I withhold my expertise from any Weyr allowing its riders to trespass where they aren’t welcome or take what doesn’t belong to them.” He allowed himself a smile. “And I did mention that Epherineth and I would be making random visits to Nerat personally to keep an eye out for the offenders.”

“I’ll wager that turned her pale.”

“It did,” said T’kamen. “I’m hoping it’ll scare her enough that they’ll suspend their raids, at least until we can get everyone committed to an agreement.”

“The Conclave is on, then?” El’yan asked.

“As soon as we can agree a date,” T’kamen said. “Probably the end of next sevenday, by the time we can all find a Thread-free day.”

“Good,” said El’yan. “It gives us plenty of time to refine our strategy.”

“I’m glad you think so,” said T’kamen. “It doesn’t give me nearly as much time as I’d like.” He met El’yan’s quizzical look. “My hand isn’t that strong. Madellon might have lost all its Interval records, but Southern and the Peninsula haven’t. Once the other Weyrs realise that a clear channel between dragon, rider, and fire-lizard is the real hurdle they have to overcome, they’ll figure the rest out themselves. My value as Pern’s authority on between becomes non-existent, and I no longer have any influence to exert over them.”

“I take your point.”

“Going between in one place and coming out somewhere else isn’t enough,” T’kamen said. “It’s just a faster way of getting from one place to another. And once you’ve seen it done a few times, it starts to look like anyone could do it. It starts to look easy.” He paused. “I need the Unseen to make it look hard.”

And so they trained.

Secrecy was paramount. If they were to astonish the Weyrs of Pern with spectacle, no one outside the Unseen could know what they were doing. T’kamen didn’t have to tell his riders not to talk about it: they all delighted in the mystique. They began in the small hours of the morning each day, before the Weyr was awake, disappearing without fanfare, and returned just as quietly after dark most evenings.

He had already been taking them between to the Holds and Halls of Madellon territory, building up their store of visuals, but absolute jumps weren’t impressive enough. They concentrated instead on blinking in and out, first individually, then in pairs and trios, and finally as a full twelve-dragon Wing. As the young dragons – and their fire-lizard pilots – developed their awareness of each other, they flew in increasingly close formation with decreasing margin for error. In that, the fighting dragons had the advantage. They were already trained to fly in close proximity to each other. The bronzes and browns found it more difficult, but no rider who had once been part of the Seventh asked for any leniency. They practised jumping into and out of the formations they’d flown so often in straight flight, disappearing in one pattern and reappearing in another, leapfrogging each other from front to back and back to front. They even practised patterns that were more flashy than practical, blinking out in sequence one colour at a time and reappearing in reverse order.

T’kamen drew the line only when it came to fire. Introducing flaming to the high-risk manoeuvres they practised would have been reckless in the time they had available. The Unseen riders complained and cajoled, but T’kamen wouldn’t be moved. He wanted his Wing’s display to be spectacular, not suicidal, and they were already flying close to the edge of what was safe.

But he pushed them hard – as hard as he dared – and they rose to every challenge.

“I’ve found another box!” Jillan shouted from a back corner.

T’kamen looked up from the map he’d been trying to decipher. “An old one?”

“Think so. It’s dusty enough.” The journeyman emerged from the back of the stacks with a web-encrusted crate in his arms. He set it down atop the pile of similar boxes and wiped a thick layer of dust away from the index. “‘Fire-lizard anatomy and husbandry. I7/113-120.’

“That sounds promising,” said T’kamen.

“I’ll take it outside and give it a proper dust,” said Jillan. “Just a mo.”

A shaft of sunlight briefly intruded into the dim Archives, and T’kamen sent a thought to Epherineth, up on the Blue Shale fireheights. I envy you.

I know.

Is it warm back at the Weyr?

Not as bright as it is here, but Monbeth says it’s pleasant to have a day to do nothing but sleep in the sun.

I envy him, too.

Giving the Unseen the day off on the very eve of the Conclave had been Audette’s idea. “They know their manoeuvres as well as they’re going to, and they’ll perform better for having a break,” she told T’kamen. “And you should take the day for yourself, too. Smarten yourself up. You’re looking ragged.”

“I’ll be in my new dress blacks tomorrow,” T’kamen protested, but Audette had insisted he at least get out of Madellon for a few hours’ respite from Conclave preparations.

It was a relief to be away from the Weyr. It had been Turns since Pass Madellon had played host to more than an occasional informal visit from one of the other Weyrs, let alone all of them, and Dalka was insistent that Madellon show itself at its best. They’d gone through more soapsand and oil in ten days than they had in the previous three months. And every pair of hands that could wield mop or broom, paintbrush or polish-cloth, had been ruthlessly drafted into Headwoman Kanessa’s army of cleaners. T’kamen couldn’t deny that Madellon looked as sparkling clean as he’d ever seen it, in Pass or Interval, but the smell of new paint gave him a headache, and he was tired of tripping over buckets every time he walked three paces from his office.

But while the riders of the Unseen were spending the balance of their day off relaxing with their dragons, T’kamen was spending his in the dusty, dingy Archives of Blue Shale Seahold, looking for fire-lizards.

Master Tennegin of the Blue Shale Beastcraft had been more willing than able to help. “We have more knowledge of ways to eradicate fire-lizards than we do on how to find them,” he said apologetically, when the Hold’s steward delivered T’kamen to him. “It’s been a long time since we had any expertise on their care, I’m sorry to say.”

“What about records?” T’kamen asked. “Blue Shale was the centre of the fire-lizard trade in my time.”

Tennegin got that fascinated, slightly unnerved look in his eye that T’kamen had come to expect when he made reference to his origins. “Records we may have, but I can’t speak to their legibility. It’s not likely they we re-copied once fire-lizards fell out of favour. A waste of good paper, you know. But you’re more than welcome to explore the Hold’s Archives. If they’re anywhere, they’ll be there.”

Jillan, the journeyman in charge of Blue Shale’s Archives, had taken enthusiastically to the challenge of unearthing the Beastcraft’s forgotten fire-lizard knowledge in spite of the limited success of their first forays into the Archives. Tennegin’s warning that the old documents might be hard to read had already proved well founded. The first boxes they’d found dated back sixty Turns or so to when the wild fire-lizards of southern Pern had begun to scavenge the washed-up corpses of dragons denied a resting place between, and those records had not kept well. They found more rot and mildew than hide in some of those boxes, and T’kamen wondered if the crafters who had stored them so haphazardly had done so believing that the knowledge they contained, documenting how the fairs had been poisoned, would never have any relevance again.

But the crate Jillan brought back inside, having swept off the accumulated dust of a century, had been sealed around the edges of its lid with wax. “This is how these are supposed to be stored,” Jillan said, as he took out a sharp little knife. “With the humidity this close to the ocean and all. But I doubt this box has been opened since it was first closed.”

He slit the wax around the edge of the box with an expert hand and lifted off the lid, then peered inside. He grinned. “This is more like it.”

“No rot?” T’kamen asked.

“No rot. But handle these gently. They’re more than a hundred Turns old.”

The scrolls Jillan began gingerly to remove from the box had darkened over time, but they unrolled smoothly, their vellum still supple despite their age. The first one T’kamen opened described how to predict the colour a fire-lizard egg would yield, which could be done crudely by assessing its size and weight and texture, and more accurately by taking a scraping of the shell, mixing it with something called a solvent, and testing the acidity of the resultant solution. That was some way beyond T’kamen’s comprehension, and he set it aside. The next record was a comparative study of the suitability of different fire-lizard colours to different roles. It warned against queens for all but the most experienced handlers, recommended blues as pleasant companions, and mentioned that browns were the most reliably trainable, even over bronzes, which could be too easily distracted by nearby mating flights.

He set that one aside too and glanced over to Jillan, who was engrossed in a scroll of his own. “Any maps?”

“No,” Jillan replied, “but look at this. The colour, the clarity. It’s amazingly well preserved.” He put the scroll down in front of T’kamen. “These must all have been the work of Masters to be recorded this handsomely and stored this carefully.”

It was an anatomy, a detailed and beautiful study of a fire-lizard’s physiology, drawn from all angles and labelled with the names of each anatomical feature. As T’kamen unrolled the record, the exterior studies gave way to more grisly diagrams, hide peeled back to reveal the muscular structures of the fire-lizard physique, and those in turn removed to expose the internal organs and the skeletal system. There’d been a time when he would have found the depiction of a fire-lizard’s insides unsettling – even disturbing – but he’d seen the corpses of too many dragons now to be upset by a mere picture.

The final portion of the scroll described the differences between the acknowledged subspecies of fire-lizard, and as T’kamen read, he sat up suddenly in his seat.

Of the two subspecies known to have populated the southern continent, only one remains – the Settler or South Range fire-lizard, which can be found along much of the coast of the southern continent. A second southern subspecies, the Bay fire-lizard, went extinct in I7/34.

Settler and Bay fire-lizards were most easily distinguished from each other by the differing arrangement of the claws on their forepaws – Settlers have five-fingered forepaws with opposing thumbs, while Bays possessed three-toed pincer-like forepaws.

The Northern fire-lizard is more closely related to the Settler than the Settler is to the Bay, with the five-digit Settler hand configuration, but possesses anatomical features that set it apart as its own strain: a larger and stockier body, a more refined muzzle and less pronounced stop, increased posterior wingsail anchorage, and a longer tail with eleven true ridges against the Settler’s nine.

Epherineth absorbed that for a moment. Fetch has eleven ridges on his tail.

I’m almost certain all the lizards we saw at the Peninsula did, too, said T’kamen. Which means they’re Northerns, and we can prove Estrinel was lying about where they came from. He carefully re-rolled the record. “I’d like to have the loan of this one,” he told Jillan.

“I think you might want to look at this, too,” said Jillan. “Didn’t you say you were interested in getting queens to return to nesting sites they’d abandoned?”

T’kamen reached for the half-unfurled document that Jillan proffered. Controlled clutching: ensuring consistent laying behaviours in queen fire-lizards. His fingers touched the hide at the same moment as he scanned the title. And in that moment, his eyes took in not only the words themselves, but the shape of their black imprint on the age-browned vellum, and his hands felt the texture of a scroll that had lain forgotten and untouched in a box for a hundred Turns, and mind and body resonated together in a chord like the pure, soaring, heart-breaking keen of a dragon in pain.

The breath went out of his lungs. The strength would have left his fingers, too, except that he could not drop the fragile, precious, priceless document that he held in them. They felt numb as he rolled through the scroll, until at last, at the very bottom, his eyes found the confirmation that his heart didn’t need.

Epherineth said nothing. Epherineth knew there was nothing to say. He was there, as he was always there. But for once, his presence and immediacy, his total understanding of T’kamen anguish, didn’t lessen the pain. Epherineth hurt with him and for him, and the sharing deepened rather than staunched the wound.

T’kamen was aware of Jillan as the Harper asked him – bemusedly at first, and then with greater concern – if he was all right. He just didn’t put any importance on it. He rolled the scroll tight again, and tucked it inside his jacket, next to the cold dead stone in his chest that had once been his heart.

He limped out of the darkness of the Blue Shale Archives into sunlight that had no right to shine so brightly. Epherineth was landing in the Seahold courtyard, with the scantest concern for the people who scattered before him. His eyes were nearly grey with sorrow.

T’kamen didn’t stop to lean against Epherineth’s head for comfort. There was no comfort to be had there. He climbed slowly and stiffly to his place between the neck-ridges. Habit alone led his fingers to buckle the fighting strap. He left the safety to dangle. It lashed wildly between Epherineth’s arms as he heaved aloft.

“Just take us home,” he said, into the buffeting wind that ripped at his unprotected eyes and tore at his hair, and the silent scream of between was a numb relief.

But at no point as they hung in the null space did T’kamen think that Fetch would find them any destination but the Madellon of the Eighth Pass, the broken, battle-scarred, sundered Weyr that was their prison, the empty stone weyr that was their cell. No shred of hope remained to him that Epherineth would reach for another Madellon. There was no home now. It was gone, chewed between the teeth of time, ground to dust, lost forever.

Epherineth landed on their ledge, heavy and graceless. T’kamen released his harness and slid down. He hobbled inside. He had left his cane at Blue Shale, his helmet and goggles and gloves too. He had neither ability nor desire to care. He could feel the scroll pressing against his chest like the hilt of a blade lodged there. He pulled it out and looked at it, and wondered that blood didn’t pour out with it. He set it down carefully on the table.

There was most of a bottle of brandy in the back corner of a cupboard. El’yan had left it there once and never reclaimed it. T’kamen didn’t drink brandy. He didn’t like brandy. He went to the cupboard and got down the bottle and a cup. He put them both on the table next to the scroll.

Will it make it hurt less? Epherineth asked.

“A little,” T’kamen said.

Then drink.

He slopped brandy into the cup. It was probably good stuff. It could have been wher piss for all he cared. He drank it in a single gulp and set the cup back down. He waited for it to light a fire in his stomach. He hadn’t eaten since the morning. But no fire began. His belly was as cold and empty as a burned-out hearth. He put more brandy in the cup and drank that, too, but it wasn’t until the third shot that he began to feel, not fire in his stomach, but smoke in his head.

He pushed cup and bottle far away and, with his fingertips, lifted the scroll towards him.

It was the way she’d always made her qs, with the odd little tail looping back on itself. But for that he might not have recognised her hand at all. He unrolled the vellum, the best-quality hide too expensive to use for anything but preserving the most valuable knowledge to the future. There it was, her q, every time she’d written queen. He touched each one lightly. He didn’t read what she’d written. He just looked at the words, and touched the qs. Halfway through the scroll his eyes leapt to a blot, black and glaring, an offence against the care and penmanship. Farther still he found a smudge where an inky finger had left its mark. The lines and whorls of the fingerprint were still distinct. He pressed his own fingertip to it, straining, as if the touch of his fingerpad to the phantom of hers could bridge the century and more that separated them. And then he turned again to the final span of the scroll, where the names of each Beastcrafter whose work was cited in the text were inscribed with proper credit, and to the last line, where the author of the record had signed her own name with a flourish.

Master Sarenya of the Beastcraft, I7/118

The tear that dripped onto the vellum missed desecrating the ancient autograph by the breadth of a hair. T’kamen looked at it, appalled. And then he realised that tears were streaming down his face and he pushed himself back from the table. He lifted his fists to his eye-sockets, and heard a terrible groan, and realised it was her name, coming from his own throat. He lurched to his feet, and then crumpled to his knees. He wept. He wept as he had never in his life wept before, in wrenching, hacking sobs that burned his throat and twisted his stomach and crushed his lungs. He wept for everything he’d lost. He wept for everyone he’d lost. And when his body could weep no more, and protested instead in shuddering gasps that caught like hooks beneath his sternum, he fell over onto his side and lay curled on the floor, his knees drawn up towards his chest. He lay like that for a long time, and the tears dried like scars on his face.

Some time later – minutes, hours, days – he struggled back to his knees. He swayed there a moment, his head both light and heavy, his mouth hot and dry, his abdomen aching as though he’d been punched hard and repeatedly. He felt for the edge of the table, and then for the bottle. It snugged into his hand like the cold, hard, comfortless friend it was.

Then he really got drunk.


It came from far away, or much too close. One or the other. Both. He didn’t care. He ignored it.

“T’kamen, are you all right?”

If he ignored it long enough it would probably go away.

“T’kamen, are you –”

“Off me.”

There was a pause. Then, “But T’kamen, you’re –”

“Get off me,” he said. “Don’t shaffing touch me.”

“But –”

“Touch me I’ll shaffing kill you.”

It went away.

“Is he asleep?”

“Is he alive?”

“Don’t be stupid.”

“He was like this when I left him.”

“He looks sick.”

“He’s not sick. He’s drunk.”

“He never gets drunk.”

“Did someone drug him?”

“He’s not drugged. He’s drunk. Can’t you smell it?”

“But why’s he drunk? Why now? Of all days!”

“Maybe that’s why. The pressure’s finally got to him.”

“He wouldn’t do that. Not to us, not to Epherineth.”

“You saw Epherineth. He’s out cold.” A pause. Curiously, “Does this mean if we get drunk, our dragons do too, now?”

“What are we going to say to Dalka?”

“We have to tell her.”

“No way.” Flatly.

“What do you mean, no way?”

“You don’t grass.”

“It isn’t grassing, B’nam. He’s sick –”

“For the last time, Dannie, he’s not sick, he’s drunk. You don’t grass up your officer for being drunk.”

“I wouldn’t know. I’ve never had an officer who was.”

“Lucky you.”

“I thought you didn’t like him.”

“Still doesn’t mean I’d grass on him. Back me up here, Juke.”

“I don’t want to get him in trouble.”

“He’s already in trouble. Look at him. He looks like a double-Fall’s worth of firestone ash. He’s not going to be fit to fly in the morning. He’s not going to be fit for anything. We have to tell Dalka.”

“No we don’t.”

“Faranth, B’nam!”

“We don’t. Juke, give me a hand with him.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Sober him up.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“You think I don’t know how to handle a drunk?”

“He threatened to kill Juke just for touching him!”

“Drunks say that stuff all the time. It’s whershit. Come on, Juke.”

It had all been like the buzzing of so many insects, annoying and insignificant, but now, as footsteps approached, he lifted his head a fraction. “Get lost.”

“Faranth, he is awake.”

“You’ve had too much to drink, T’kamen. We’re going to get you cleaned up.”

“Shaff. Off.”

“This is hopeless.”

“Shut up, Dannie.”

“Come on, Kamen. The Conclave starts in a few hours. You have to be ready for it.”

“Don’t care about the Conclave. Between with the Conclave.”

“Yes you do. This is what you’ve been pushing us so hard for. All the other Weyrleaders are coming. All the Weyrs of Pern.”

“Void take the Weyrleaders. Void take Pern.” He ran his tongue around the dry, sour hollow of his mouth, and said, “Let it burn for all I care.”

“You don’t mean that, T’kamen. Look, you’re upset, we get it. But however bad it is, we can’t fly without you tomorrow. We want you there. We need you there.”

“You need me there, do you?” he said, and raised his head from where he’d propped it in the crook of his arm. He glared at the three of them through the blear of his gummy eyes. H’juke, Dannie, B’nam. “You shaffing want me? Well what about what I shaffing want? Did anyone stop to wonder about that? You think I wanted to come here to this Thread-ridden Pass? You think I wanted to sweat and bleed and puke my guts out trying to make things better for this shit-heap of a planet? I never wanted any of this. I never shaffing asked for this. So you can take your we want you and you can shove it up your ass.”

All three riders looked shocked, none more so than H’juke, but T’kamen didn’t care. “Now shaff off.” He lowered his head back onto his forearm and closed his eyes.

“We didn’t ask to fly ourselves nearly to death for the last two sevendays, either.” The indignant voice was Dannie’s. “You can’t put us through that and then desert us at the last minute. We’ve worked too hard. It’s not fair.”

“Nothing in life is shaffing fair,” he rasped. “There’s no prize for winning. No reward for doing the right thing. No shaffing compensation for what you lose.”

“You’re not the only one who lost something!” Dannie cried. “Fraza and M’ric lost their lives!”

“M’ric!” T’kamen shouted, as though volume could crowd out the pain that lanced him. “Don’t even say that name! The treacherous shaffing snake… He was the spy the whole time…I trusted him and he betrayed me with every shaffing breath. And I sent him to her!” The enormity of it reared up over him like a mantling dragon, vast and terrible, dwarfing him beneath its shadow, and for a moment he couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe.

“Is he talking about Fraza?” he heard B’nam ask the others.

“And for what? What have I bought by being here? A better future?” He laughed, savagely mocking of himself. “For who? Not for me. For riders who despise me? For Weyrs who’d rather tear each other apart than protect Pern? For a planet that doesn’t care? What do I have to show in return for crippling myself and mutilating my dragon and everyone I ever cared about being dead for a hundred Turns?”

And as if expelled from his body in the voicing of that terrible truth, the rage went out of him. The despair that it left had not the strength to support him. He crumpled beneath the weight of his grief. “Oh, Faranth. She’s gone. Saren. My Saren.”

He didn’t know how long they left him curled there in the crushing fist of his devastation. But he didn’t fight when they did come for him. Strong arms heaved him upright; sturdy shoulders held him up; deft hands laid him down. They gave him water; they put a cool cloth on his brow; they covered him with a blanket.

As many times as he woke that night, thrashing or crying or puking, someone was always there to hold him down, to wipe his mouth, to hold a cup to his lips: compassionate, vigilant, forgiving.

Morning arrived too soon, and with it a suffering so distinct from what had come before that it was nearly a relief.

“Dalka’s coming,” B’nam told him. “We’ve told her that we think you had some bad fish at Blue Shale, and Juke’s taken away everything with booze or sick on it from last night, so hopefully she won’t figure it out.”

T’kamen had to let the pain pass before he could reply. Every word B’nam spoke was like a hammer blow on his skull. “Thank you.” His voice was hoarse as much from vomiting as from anything else; there at least the story would hold up.

“Finish all of that,” B’nam told him, pointing at the bowl of cereal congealing in front of him. “You can’t have willowsalic on an empty stomach. I’ve laid out your new blacks. The buttons are stiff, so if you need help with them, you’ll have to call one of us up.”

T’kamen picked up his spoon slowly. “You’re leaving.”

“Have to get Yaigath ready,” said B’nam. “Tr’seff and F’sta gave him a once-over in the lake at first light when they did theirs, but I need to do the finish. Eat that, don’t just look at it.”

T’kamen raised the spoon obediently to his mouth. The cereal tasted of nothing, but it was smooth and cool enough that it didn’t hurt too badly going down. “Epherineth…”

“I already told you, we’ve done him,” B’nam said. “You need to pay attention to this stuff, or Dalka will know. R’lony was much better at hiding a hangover than you are.”

“B’nam,” T’kamen said, and then stopped, just looking at him.

The young brown rider avoided his bloodshot gaze. “He wasn’t the first drunk I had to look after,” he said. “I swore he’d be the last.” He got up. “I’m going.”

B’nam had crossed almost all the way to the archway out when he stopped. “Who’s Saren?”

T’kamen looked at him sharply. The too-sudden motion made his head spin.

“You kept saying the name in your sleep. Some girlfriend?”

Slowly, T’kamen said, “The woman I loved.”

“Thought so,” said B’nam. “I had one of those.” He paused. “She’s dead, too.”

T’kamen was still staring at the place where he had been when Dalka arrived.

“Faranth, they weren’t exaggerating, were they?” she asked as she strode in. She was already dressed in her blacks. “You look dreadful.”

“I’ll manage,” T’kamen said.

“You’ll have to. The Peninsula will be here before noon, and the others won’t be far behind. You picked a fine time for this, T’kamen. You’re in no condition to fly.”

“I can always fly.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You’re not going to impress anyone with a display of projectile vomiting. You’ll have to cancel your demonstration. It won’t do if you’re not there to greet the other Weyrleaders when they arrive, and you should still make the opening address in the Council chamber, but I’ll take the lead after that.” She frowned at him. “What was the excuse they’ve come up with? Bad seafood?”

T’kamen looked at her wordlessly.

“Did you really think I couldn’t tell food poisoning from a hangover?” she asked. “I was weyrmated to R’lony for nearly twenty Turns.”

“I had no idea he was a drunk.”

“Most people didn’t. He’d had a lot of practice hiding it. You, on the other hand, are clearly a rank amateur.”

“I said some unforgivable things to my riders.”.

“Good for you. You can nurse that pain along with your headache.”

T’kamen regarded her with dull dismay. “Aren’t you going to ask…”

“…what set you off?” Dalka interjected. She shook her head. “Make yourself presentable. I’ll speak to H’juke about the display.”

“Not H’juke,” T’kamen said. “Dannie.”

Dalka looked surprised, but she shrugged. “All right. Dannie, then.”

T’kamen slowly finished his breakfast. He’d already had one bath – H’juke and B’nam had shoved him, protesting, into the pool when they’d woken him up – but he had another anyway. He was grateful that he didn’t have to shave. His hands were still shaking badly enough that he’d have cut his face to tatters.

Finally, he put on the dress blacks: the darkest brown leather, with stripes in Madellon’s indigo down the outer seams of the trousers, and the extra-length jacket lined and faced with the same signature colour. His rank knots had been sewn onto the left shoulder. But it wasn’t until T’kamen looked at himself in the piece of mirror-glass propped up in his bathing room that he noticed the final addition to his new jacket. Two stars gleamed upon each of the epaulettes that had been threaded onto the shoulder buckles, and the anachronistic silver insignia of Madellon’s Weyrleader had been outlined in gold.

It occurred to him that he hadn’t seen his fire-lizard since the previous day. Is Fetch with you?

You know how he hates strong smells. He is with the fair.

They were the first words they’d exchanged in hours. Even Epherineth’s voice, silent though it was, made T’kamen’s head jangle with pain. He didn’t reply. Instead, he limped through the archway into his dragon’s chamber.

Epherineth lay upon his couch, shining. That he had been bathed spotless, and oiled from nose to tail-tip, was no surprise. But the deep, burnished patina that shimmered over every inch of hide represented the work of many hands for many hours. Even at his fittest, T’kamen had never brought so lustrous a sheen to his dragon’s skin.

There were eight of them, Epherineth said apologetically. It took a long time.

T’kamen reached out to touch his shoulder, almost in disbelief that the bronze hide he had scrubbed and oiled so many hundreds of times over the Turns could be polished to such an intense mirror shine. Then he pulled his hand back, afraid of ruining the finish that his riders had laboured so hard to produce. He lowered himself to the floor instead, putting his back to the edge of the stone couch.

You’ll get your wherhides dusty.

“They’ll brush off.”

They both sat there. After a minute, T’kamen put his hand up. Epherineth’s nose was there to meet it.

Donauth’s rider is right. You aren’t fit to fly today.

“I’m not fit for anything,” T’kamen said softly.

Epherineth paused. Is there any of that brandy left?

“It won’t help.”

I didn’t say it would. But if you’re going to spend today wallowing in self-loathing, I’d rather you were unconscious for it.

It might have been the most withering thing Epherineth had said to him in their sixteen Turns together. “I said things last night that I should never have said.”

You were upset. And you were drunk.

“That doesn’t excuse me for saying them.” T’kamen exhaled all the breath from his lungs. “Or change the fact that I meant them.”

Some things can be true without being all of the truth. It hurts you that Trebruth’s rider was not loyal. But it only hurts you because you loved him, and because you feel that if you had done better by him then he would not have needed to be disloyal.

Epherineth’s logic sliced through the conflicting anger and guilt as only one who had seen them from the inside out could. “I failed him.”

There was nothing else you could have done.

“I failed my riders, too,” T’kamen said. “Today should have been their day more than anyone else’s. And even after everything I said to them, they still mopped up my puke, and lied to cover for me, and did all this for you. I threw their loyalty in their faces, and they still gave it back to me. They don’t deserve me. I don’t deserve them. Faranth; Pern doesn’t deserve them.”

They are dragonriders. Dragonriders have always served Pern. As you have always served Pern.

“This isn’t my Pern, Epherineth. There’s nothing of mine here. I have no legacy to protect.” He found emotion constricting his throat again. “The Pern I loved died a long time ago.”

Gently, Epherineth said, You knew she was gone.

“Knowing isn’t the same as knowing.” He leaned his head back against the unkind stone, staring at the shadowy recesses of the ceiling. “I should be happy for her. She made her Mastery. She went on without me.”

Would you rather have found out that she hadn’t? Epherineth asked.

“No.” T’kamen smiled bitterly. “Yes.”

He’d never been able to lie to his dragon, but Epherineth challenged neither answer as a falsehood.

They sat together for a while longer. Then, after a time, Epherineth said, Brush yourself off, T’kamen. The other Weyrs are coming.

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