It's just a bit of a christmas treat, a loose one-off sequel to "In the dark watches of the night" (which has a decent number of reviews, but far fewer hits than I think it deserves) Anyway, this one is set several years further down the line.
Paying the Price
F'ren stiffly walked out of the council chamber, and down the short passage that connected with Kiath's ledge. Nodding briefly at the slumbering gold, he started jogging down the steep steps towards his waiting dragon. The High Reaches air was chilling, and a few deep breaths quickly took the edge off his anger. He'd expected nothing less than this, after all. Even so, he still felt like smiling.
So. That's it. We've lost Cloudburst, and we're being transferred into Sh'vek's wing. Still think it was worth it?
The bronze didn't even pause. Of course! Don't you?
As they emerged from between, the sunshine gleaming on the ocean surface reflected a thousand bright points of light towards F'ren's eyes. It was enough to make him glad that their descent would soon bring them to the relative shelter of Ista weyr, though even there, the pale floor of the weyrbowl held an unpleasant glare. Before the Trath's clawed feet could touch the dusty ground, F'ren heard his name being called. The thin, greying woman walking towards them had been sheltering from the sun under a broad awning, and had obviously been waiting for him. Dismounting, he quickly jogged towards her, giving his eager bronze enough room to launch himself back up towards the cooler air of the Weyr's heights. The woman's clothes were plain, but well tailored; she looked more like an aide than a simple drudge. So. Someone had warned Vallenka that he was on his way here.
"This way, Wingleader."
Without any pause for introductions, the woman led him on towards the Weyrwoman's quarters. Carth was sprawled full-length across her ledge, and rather than risk disturbing her, they entered via the council chamber. The gold looked in fine health, as a Weyr Queen should. Not as bright as Kiath, back at High Reaches, but that was only to be expected. Kiath would rise soon, he could feel it in Trath's demeanour... even as far away as he was here in Ista. No sooner than she'd ushered him into Vallenka's presence, the woman left, no doubt heading back to whatever work she did when she wasn't leading guests from place to place.
"Wingleader F'ren," Vallenka said slowly, looking up from a pice of hide on which she'd been scratching notes. "I gather you're here hoping to peruse our records?"
Vallenka sat silently behind her broad wooden desk, and gave F'ren a steady, considering stare. Refusing to drop his gaze, F'ren uneasily found himself noting the similarities between Ista's Weyrwoman and his own Weyrleader, her brother Sh'vek. Vallenka was the elder by almost a decade, and shared her sibling's confident demeanour. But there was no masculine posturing here, no arrogant bluster... just the firm conviction that people would jump to obey this woman's will, whatever it might be. How much of Sh'vek's current scheme did this woman know? Most likely all of it, whatever it was...
"Well, I think Ista can help," she eventually declared. "Assuming Trath will be comfortable on the ridge, you're welcome to spend as long as you need in our records room. Rahnis will help you find everything you need."
"Where can I...?"
A swish of fabric behind him announced a new arrival, and F'ren turned his head to see a younger woman casually saunter in, seemingly more at ease here than he was. Rahnis, presumably. Ista seemed to have more than its fair share of plain-faced women, but this one wore a goldrider's knots on the shoulder of her loose red dress.
"You sent for me, Vallenka?" she asked calmly.
"Mmm," the Weyrwoman confirmed, an eyebrow raised her junior's unceremonious interruption. "This is F'ren, of the High Reaches. He has an interest in our records, and I think you're the best person to help him there."
"Of course, Weyrwoman." Rahnis dipped her head in agreement, then glanced sideways to give F'ren the second searching look he'd had that day. Her lips twisted into more of a grimace than a smile. "Bronzerider, would you care to wait on the ledge? I need to speak to Vallenka about this."
Vallenka's smile towards the young woman was far more genuine, but entirely condescending. "Make it quick, girl."
F'ren quickly thanked them both and made his exit. There were some odd undercurrents between those two; Rahnis seemed to be skirting a border between subservience and insubordination that he hadn't previously known existed. Was the woman a fool, behaving that way? He slowly walked back towards Carth, unashamed of overhearing anything that might give him an insight into how this Weyr functioned. But whatever it was they were talking about, he couldn't make out more than the odd word amongst the muffled sound of voices. One had been his own name. This was meant to be a quick, simple mission, but now, F'ren had a growing sense of certainty that it'd be nothing of the sort. Sh'vek's politics were bad enough, without needing to worry about those of his sister's domain as well.
It wasn't long before Rahnis reappeared, a troubled expression on her face. Her earlier poise had vanished, and she seemed uncertain of what to say. F'ren offered his hand, sensing an opportunity to find an ally here in Ista. "Rahnis, it's a pleasure to meet you."
He watched her stare coldly at it for a few moments, as if at a tunnelsnake, before shaking her head slightly and stepping forward to grasp it firmly.
"I'll take your word for it, Bronzerider." She sighed, and smiled apologetically. "Sorry. Sometimes, I don't know whether to believe Vallenka or not. Anyway, we'd best get started." Rahnis dropped his hand, and turned away, trusting F'ren to follow.
Rather enigmatic, that one sentence. As they made their down the stairs and into the depths of the lower caverns, F'ren wondered if he'd ever know what Vallenka had said about him, for he'd clearly been the subject of discussion... and whether the Weyrwoman had been entirely honest with her junior or not.
As they passed the entrance to the kitchens, Rahnis paused to beckon one of the workers over. "Merrah? Can you bring some refreshments to the records room when you've a free moment. Juice, if it's available, chilled water if not."
"Of course, Rahnis."
The goldrider nodded her approval and moved on, looking back once to check that F'ren still followed. So, was she one of those goldriders? F'ren mused. Always expecting to be waited on hand and foot, and too feeble to use a flamethrower effectively? Her figure was pleasing enough, he supposed, in an average kind of way... but it was impossible to judge whether the loose dress she wore concealed the properly toned muscles of a dragonrider, or the indolent body of a Holder's brat.
Rahnis led him into a quieter part of the main cavern, talking as she walked. "The records don't like too many changes in the air, and the room can get rather stuffy at times. If we've burned herbs to deter the tunnelsnakes recently, then you'll smell that too. I expect you'll appreciate a drink soon enough."
Faranth, was he going to have to put up with inane chatter the whole time?
She's just explaining herself, F'ren. You don't conceal your disapproval very well, you know.
So, she's eager to please? Is that any better? Indolence in a queen rider was bad enough, but a woman cursed with the character of a dishrag was even worse.
How do you expect she sees you? Trath countered. You've been polite enough, but she doesn't welcome your company, does she?
No, but that's Vallenka's doing, isn't it?
"I'll take your word for it, goldrider," F'ren said before the pause could grow too long. Surprisingly, his cold response elicited a smile, the warmest he'd seen on her face so far.
Explain that, dragon-mine
If I learn anything new, I'll let you know.
Reaching a recessed storage alcove, Rahnis stretched up on tiptoes to pull a pile of four nested wicker baskets off a high shelf, longsleeves slipping back up her arms as she moved. Well, that was one question answered for the better, F'ren decided. The large wooden storage box taking up space alongside the adjacent wall turned out to be a source of fresh glows, and she filled each basket with the swift ease of long familiarity with the task.
"Here." Attaching carry-handles to each, she passed him a pair of filled glowbaskets. "The records room isn't occupied very often, and we don't keep any baskets there unless it's being used. After four previous passes, it's grown rather large, so if you want it properly lit for reading, you need quite a few."
The woman's lips pursed into a conspiratorial smile. "Generations of weyrlings sweating and chipping away their various misdemeanors, and making room for the next year's tally of tithes, births, deaths, and general gossip. Anyway, you'll see for yourself soon enough." She collected her own pair of baskets, and gestured towards a dim passage halfway down the corridor. "Hennefer in the second pass spent most of her life reorganising the records room, and we've kept her system ever since... I don't think she did much else, to be honest, but Ista had five queens then, and she stayed junior all her life."
"And Vallenka has you in the same role?" For an ambitious rider, that scenario could be extremely annoying, F'ren mused. At least being a bronze rider, he and Trath had their own chances to advance, despite all of Sh'veks efforts to impede them. But as far as junior weyrwomen were concerned, all they could do was bide their time and wait for the senior pair to retire.
"You can learn a lot from the records... and from Vallenka, too," Rahnis replied mildly. Dropping both baskets to the ground, she lifted the latch on a heavy door, and swung it open. "There's a ledge above the table for one of your baskets, and the other can stay by the door," she instructed, and set about lighting the rest of the room. "Of course, most of it is just births and deaths, but some weyrwomen have been more open about their own methods and opinions than others. I think Vallenka picked up many of her own tricks from Shessany, and some others from E'kond... but you have to go a long way back to find those." Rahnis paused to pull out a footstool from behind some shelves, and climbed up to position her final basket. "She claims she taught her brother everything he knows about managing a weyr... particularly when it comes to dealing with recalcitrant riders."
F'ren quietly grunted a laugh, and pulled out a chair by the table. Rahnis still had her back turned, and didn't seem at all interested in his reaction, but that barb was squarely aimed all right.
She turned around, wearing an amused smile. "So, bronzerider. Which records were you interested in?"
"More than the ones I came here for, now."
She tilted her head, and silently waited for him to elaborate.
"To start with, clutch records... births and deaths, basically." Tracking down the wisdon of past weyrleaders would have to wait for another day, but F'ren fully intended to make time for a few return visits to Ista.
Rahnis raised her eyebrows. "Very dry. How far back do you need?"
"All the way... or at least as far as they're legible."
"You will be here a while then. Don't you have 'fall the day after tomorrow?"
F'ren felt his smile dropping off his face. Even without knowing the exact details, Rahnis certainly knew the scale of this task better than he did. And he'd practically volunteered for it, had gifted Sh'vek with this assignment! "Thread take him, I walked right into this..." he hissed. "I need this done by the end of the day. That's not going to be possible, is it?"
Rahnis shook her head. "Politics, eh? But don't give up hope yet. Vallenka ordered me to help you, and help you I shall. What exactly did you volunteer yourself for?"
F'ren leaned back in his chair. Vallenka's help was the last thing he wanted, but Rahnis... well, she was proving more capable than he'd expected, and seemed to have enough wit to understand the nuances of what he was up against. He quickly explained what had happened during the last meeting of wingleaders and queen riders at High Reaches. They'd been discussing the placement of weyrlings from Linnebith's most recent clutch, and F'ren had suggested opening up her next flight to bronzes from other Weyrs. To improve the breed by widening the pool of potential mates, of course. The implication that Kiath had been flown by Ormaith far too many times was lost on no-one, except perhaps by Maenida herself. He'd suggested that there'd be evidence in the records to confirm the benefits of such a scheme, and had even gone as far as noting that Sh'vek himself often mentioned the quality of Istan records.
Arms folded and leaning against a shelf, Rahnis listened carefully. "It was a good idea, I'll give you that."
"Perhaps. But if I'm not back in time for today's drill, Sh'vek will take my wing. And there are other things to worry about there as well." When they'd left, F'ren hadn't thought that Kiath was quite as close to rising as it seemed she was. The sensations he was picking up from Trath were getting a little more... tense. Not enough to send him straight back to the High Reaches right away, but worth watching closely.
She looked about to say something more when a woman walked in, bearing a tray. It was the blonde from the kitchens, and now that F'ren could see her clearly, by far the prettiest female he'd seen all day. As she poured some orange-coloured juice from a pottery jug into two roughly blown glasses, F'ren realised that she was giving him very much the same appraising look as he'd given her himself - though he drew a line at responding in kind to her cheeky wink.
Rahnis laughed and rolled her eyes at F'ren. "Thank you, Merrah. But I wouldn't count on him being around for that. Aside from his other duties, F'ren apparently has far loftier ambitions than anything Ista has to offer." Eyes narrowed, she gave F'ren a direct, questioning stare.
"Kiath, yes," he admitted. Well, it was hardly a secret. Not that he'd necessarily turn down what the kitchen worker had so clearly offered; he just wasn't interested today.
As Merrah closed the door behind her, Rahnis sat down in the opposite chair and reached out to take one of the glasses.
"No offense, but I'm really quite glad of that. Dealing with Vallenka's recommendations about suitable Istan bronzeriders is bad enough; it's quite a relief to be sure that she hasn't given her brother the same idea."
Bristling slightly at the polite rejection, and suddenly aware that her queen must also be approaching her season, F'ren responded. "What makes you think he doesn't?" His mind was racing... which Istan queen did this girl ride? Not Minith, it would have to be the younger of the two junior queens. Alaireth, that was it. She'd hatched some five or six turns ago, but F'ren had been too busy with extra watches and covering up the ailing L'sard's failings in Cloudburst to pay much attention to Impressions in other weyrs. There'd been no open flights in Ista since the Interval either, and that was the only other way that the profiles of young juniors in other Weyrs were raised.
Rahnis lowered her eyes, and smiled, her kindly tone barely taking the edge off her reply. "F'ren, rider of bronze Trath, the surprisingly un-maimed wingleader of the so-called 'High Reaches Suicide Wing'."
Suicide wing? That jolted him out of his current train of thought.
"You're only here because Sh'vek's punishing you with what he thinks is a tedious, impossible task," Rahnis concluded, looking up at him again.
She shook her head. "Not widely, just a few throwaway comments I've heard from Vallenka and a few others every now and then. Your wing does have a rather unfortunate reputation though."
And whose fault was that? "We've had no deaths for fifteen falls, and last fall, Cloudburst was the only wing with no injuries other than minor char burns."
"And the weyrlings you get? The transfers?"
The recklessly arrogant, the foolhardy, the incompetent, the grieving... and of course, the downright suicidal, and the plain unwanted. F'ren had thought he was being needlessly paranoid about the way Cloudburst was used. From the first day he'd taken over after L'sard's demise, they'd always been assigned the highest levels in Fall... except, of course, when wind conditions made the lower reaches or the leading edge the most dangerous. As hard as he tried to keep them out of trouble, or knock some sense into the fools, most of the High Reaches still seemed to hold him responsible for the many, many deaths. But she was talking about his wing's reputation, not his own. Ah.
"You've read this in the records as well," he stated, finally sensing how she could have understood things so well.
"E'kond, fourth pass, sometime between turns 3 and 8 I think," she confirmed. "I've not seen Vallenka try anything like it yet, and I'm not sure I could stand by if she did."
"So how does Vallenka deal with recalcitrant riders?"
As F'ren suspected she might, Rahnis brushed his question aside.
"I thought you were interested in genealogy?"
"If my task's impossible, I'm free to take my time on it, aren't I?"
She took a sip of her drink, and grinned. "Sh'vek thinks it's impossible, I said." Getting up from her seat, Rahnis walked towards the back of the stacks and started leafing through piles of hides and wood pulp documents. They must have good snake traps in here, F'ren decided. Snakes seemed preternaturally attracted to the latter medium for nesting materials, and while it was popular during intervals, once a Pass had started the rarity of young wood stocks meant that it rapidly fell into disuse. He watched as Rahnis started to build up a pile of selected documents. "Your Weyrleader will have heard Vallenka brag about our records often enough to know you could be buried in here for weeks... but he can't have told Vallenka what you're looking for, otherwise she'd probably have suggested a more effective diversion. The question has actually been thoroughly studied before, by someone who wanted a convincing reason to switch her weyrmates as frequently as she wanted. For the good of the weyr, naturally." She smiled at him, probably wondering if he'd guessed who she'd meant.
"But N'essen's been weyrleader of Ista for nearly a decade," he said. Of course, no one liked unneccessary change during a pass, and by all acounts the man led ably enough. And if Vallenka could manage him easily, as F'ren suspected she could, then what need would she have for switching weyrmates? Finding the right weyrmate was the key. "Well," he drawled. "I suppose that puts him in a new light."
Rahnis returned with an armful of hides and several rolls of parchment. "Vallenka's study goes back all the way to the beginning of the last pass, but before that, there are gaps in the records. She argues very convincingly for their irrelevance, so don't worry about that. There's two earlier documents here as well, one made during the last interval when we were down to just the one queen, and another by Shessany's predecessor."
F'ren eagerly picked the first one up, and scanned through it. Rahnis was quite right: Vallenka had been very thorough indeed. "This... this is perfect." At this rate, he could be back before the High Reaches noon meal, with plenty of time for preparing for the evening's drill, fall the day after... and Kiath's flight, whenever that would be.
"It's completely flawed, of course."
The damn woman seemed to take great delight in trying to get him off-balance. F'ren clenched his teeth, and watched as she reached deeper into the pile, pulling out an older document.
"Thousands of dragons, but only a few dozens of them actually breeding in all that time," Rahnis explained. "The population is strong and healthy enough, and flights select the best."
He decided to try a barb of his own. "Let me make a guess. You're either beastcraft bred, or the get of some Lord Holder."
The goldrider grunted a laugh, and passed him the aged piece of hide. "A generation removed from the latter, but aside from that, you're right on both counts."
F'ren gave the stained old document a cursory glance - a list of the fourth-generation ancestry of long-dead golds and bronzes, showing surprisingly little overlap. "Hmmm. So, what had you tracking all this down?"
She handed over a much newer document. "Vallenka and N'essen may run this weyr, but I want to choose my own weyrmates, and so does Alaireth. And stay with the same pair, if we want to. "
Oho! Now that explained a few things as well. But he could quite understand her point. "Gold eggs are rare, and bronze hatchlings very much in the minority I suppose," he said, almost enviously wondering which rider she favoured. Unusual for hold morals to persist so long after the need for them was removed. The document looked to be quite detailed; possibly even worth reading, if she'd managed to sway Vallenka with it. Thinking about it, F'ren became certain that he knew the nature of the bargain she must have made. "You have your dragon flying long and low?"
"A weyr always needs more greens and blues in a pass," she said noncommittedly.
"And Vallenka won't interfere until there's a gold egg on the sands, will she?"
Rahnis smiled conspiratorially, and shook her head. "Interfere, yes, but insist, no."
"Flights are just flights, you know. Does it matter that much to you who wins it?"
"I'm no love-struck fool of a holder, F'ren. But yes, if I can share it with my weyrmate, then that's what I want. Anyway, I should find a bag for these; I don't know how many you'll actually want to have copied, but it'll probably take all night. Best if you do that back at the High Reaches... I don't think you want to be stuck here for too long, not if you want your dragon to have a decent chance at Kiath." She got up, and began started searching a cupboard by the door.
This was turning out so much better than F'ren had ever hoped for. Trath's anticipatory mood seemed to have started to rub off on him, so the woman was probably right to encourage him to leave sooner rather than later. "Thank you, Rahnis, you've been a great help. And I expect Kiath will rise very soon now."
"Really? Vallenka said she was still a few days away."
F'ren went cold. Trath was reacting to a gold about to go into heat, but it was Kiath, it simply had to be!
No, not her, his bronze quietly informed him.
Oh, Sh'vek. Clever, clever man. Unless it had been Vallenka's doing all along? Either way, F'ren was starting to feel trapped.
Rahnis must have noticed that something was wrong, and was looking at him with great concern.
"Sharding bastards!" He angrily slammed his fist into the table and pushed the chair aside
"What?" she demanded.
Trath, we're leaving.
"You still have some time, but if you want to leave right away, I can pack these up later and send them on to you with a weyrling?"
Grimacing, F'ren nodded, and returned to the task of convincing his dragon to see sense. That was more urgent right now, and Rahnis would certainly understand. We've got wing drill in a few hours, and fall in two days... I need you fit and ready. If we're not back in time for drill, we'll lose the wing .
Thread take the wing! Trath snapped, and F'ren heard the faint sound of a draconic bellow filter through from outside. We're flying this queen, and we'll still be more than ready to fight in two days. That's what matters.
This is what Sh'vek wants! Do you want to see Ormaith win Kiath again? He sighed, and turned back to Rahnis. "Forgive me... the weyrling's a good idea, but Trath's proving rather reluctant, even now."
"You've told him we're not interested in either of you, right?" She folded her arms defensively, and unconsciously backed a few steps further away from him.
How flattering! "I was saving that for the last resort, actually." Hear that, dragon mine? "He doesn't even care that we'll lose the wing over this," F'ren muttered.
She sighed, perhaps accepting the change in circumstances, but still looking uncomfortable. "Just for missing a drill?"
"An opportunity like that? Sh'vek isn't going to let it pass him by."
"How reliable are your seconds? Can they delay things for you, or postpone the drill?"
Of course! The woman was an inspiration, and F'ren gave her an appreciative smile, feeling a little more upbeat. "Thank you, but no. Still, you've given me another idea. It won't work either, but it's worth trying." He quickly bespoke Trath, passing on his instructions before the dragon could become too addled by lust.
"What do you intend?" she asked.
Curiosity, the closest relative of ambition, even in the face of adversity. F'ren was starting to like this woman more and more. "They need to be capable of taking over in fall, should we become injured. I'm going to take this opportunity to demonstrate their competence." He paused and scowled, suddenly worried. "They'd better not mess it up."
"If you're that concerned, you could still leave." she said dryly, returning to the table with a large tube of oiled hide. F'ren gave her what he hoped was an apologetic look as she began picking up the documents and rolling them up. With her haste, they kept unwinding, and F'ren reached out a hand to help hold it steady. Rahnis flinched away, letting the whole roll drop and scatter. She sighed and gripped the edge of the table, leaving the papers and hides to lie where they'd fallen. "You're a fool, F'ren. An ambitious fool, about to throw away everything you've gained with your wing, and the best chance you've ever had to give Sh'vek the shock he deserves. And for what? Trath won't catch Alaireth, believe me!"
F'ren met her frustrated glare steadily. "So you believe we have a good chance at Kiath? But not Alaireth?" Perhaps spelling out the contradiction like that was a little cruel of him, but it was a boost to his confidence to see that she was so concerned.
She looked away, and walked to the door. "I suppose if you're still intent on staying here, you won't need that weyrling. I should see to Alaireth now, and I'd like to catch Vallenka before she leaves with Carth."
He nodded. "I expect you do. You should go; I'll see what I can do with these." F'ren watched Rahnis leave, wondered how quickly he should follow, and whether he should do anything about all the glows. Well, he knew where they were kept at least. He poured himself another glass of fruit juice and set about tidying up the table. So, Trath, what happens out there?
Yewbath bloods. Minith departs, and Carth will soon follow.
Thought I heard something. We still have time to leave, you know.
I would have agreed to it, if you'd wanted to leave. But you don't, not really.
F'ren found himself grinning enthusiastically. Damn dragon knew him far too well. Perhaps not.
Besides, Carth orders me to stay here, Trath added. Alaireth's rider asked to have us sent away, but Carth refused. And I can't refuse a queen, can I?
No, we can't. He looked around the room, wondering whether other past weyrwomen had treated their colleagues this way, bringing in unfamiliar bronzes on the verge of a flight. Had Rahnis done something particular, to evoke this response from Vallenka, or was she just a pawn, caught up in the midst of her senior's collusion with Sh'vek? Was Vallenka certain of the outcome, or just trying to determine whether F'ren's own confidence and Sh'vek's fears were justified? Well, whoever was responsible for this, he was here now, and determined to make the best of things. Sh'vek and Vallenka, Kiath and Maenida, they could wait for another day. He turned his attention to the flight, to Alaireth, a gold he'd never even set eyes on. Long and low, she'll fly, he informed his bronze.
I heard. That's not what we want though, is it?
Of course not! If you sprint from the start, you should be able to catch up. Get close enough to drive her upwards, but not too close to worry either her or the other bronzes. Trick her into going high enough, and she'll lose her advantage. Why do you think I haven't complained even once about all those high altitude falls our wing's been fighting? Alaireth wasn't the queen he'd been expecting to use these tactics on, but they'd work on her just as well as they would have done for Kiath. The queen's wing rarely flew high enough to make a difference to a dragon's lung power, speed and strength. But a wing that had flown to the limits of their endurance for the best part of a year, oh, that made all the difference in the world.
I know. You've explained it many times before, and I haven't forgotten. Will you come out now? I wish to blood.
Of course. F'ren gathered the last of the documents together, and decided the glows could be left to a drudge. This wasn't how he'd expected today to turn out, and he'd certainly never thought he'd willingly go along with any of Sh'vek's machinations. He hoped Rahnis wouldn't be too disappointed with the outcome... but as she'd said herself, she was no fool, and knew enough not to believe that she'd always have her own way. F'ren secured the roll of documents under his arm, and made for the exit. Whatever price he and Trath ended up paying after the bronze had won this flight, however much longer they had to wait before finally achieving their goal, he was confident that this would not be a decision he'd come to regret.