Chapter One

Slosh.

"I don't like this," Menolly said.

Robinton looked over the side of the boat at little waves and tried to stare them down, as if that might still the churning in his belly. "I don't like it either," Robinton said. He hadn't told Menolly he didn't do well on small boats, when they started this trip. He thought, like time softened memories, time might also soften seasickness.

It didn't. However, it was a little difficult to not look like a hypocrite when he harped on cross-Craft knowledge all the time, and then neglected to take advantage of what Menolly knew. She was a smart woman, and would have sensed he were somehow dancing around her seaholder past, never tapping it, and she might possibly think it was a slight against her. She sometimes became testy when they tip-toed around subjects dealing with her childhood.

So. Here they...

Slosh.

...were.

Menolly came over to the side of the boat where he was standing, and leaned over to see what he was looking at. "Oh. Yeah. See, those little baby waves are going to get much bigger. Look west."

Robinton did so, and swallowed. He tried to make the swallowing look unobtrusive, but had a feeling his adam's apple bobbed like...like a boat on a swell. "If I were Journeying, I'd predict rain, and be looking for a nearby cothold around now," he said. "Or a friendly band of Traders. Or perhaps a cave."

"We don't have those," Menolly said, with a calm that seemed almost supernatural to him.

Harper-witch indeed. He gave her a brief, encouraging smile; she was a woman of many talents, and right now, her keeping her head while he had the urge to lose his own was the one he appreciated most.

"Why don't you put on your heavy weather gear, Master?" she asked him.

His smile faded. It was odd, how distant things seemed, like the troubled contents of his mind were more real than this stormy sea they were sailing on. "No, my dear, put yours on first."

"Let me just fix these—"

"I will do it. Go below. And put your gear on."

She gave him an strange look, perhaps finally picking up his queer mood, or the oddity of a man who'd previously professed absolutely no knowledge of boats suddenly professing knowledge enough to do what she had intended to do. But she complied. "Watch yourself! Things can come up quickly!" she yelled back as she disappeared down the ladder.

"I know!" he assured her. "I know," he also told the menacing storm, in a quieter tone.

As Robinton went around securing what needed to be secured, and making sure emergency devices were easily accessible, he thought about old sea tales. It wasn't that he were giving into superstition, but it gave his mind something silly to worry at. Here he was. At sea. In a small boat. Which he should call a ship, but didn't, because he felt using the wrongheaded word "boat" aptly demonstrated his true knowledge of the dangerous Craft. The woman with him was from a seafaring family, and if Kasia's eyes could be described as sea-green, Menolly's could be described as sea-blue, if Silvina were not around to catch the reference and give him a good smack. A good sea tale would have a siren rising out of the ocean to bewitch him, and she'd wear Kasia's face, and try to entangle him in half-truths and lies, and his student as well.

He snorted to himself at his whimsy, momentarily forgetting the approaching storm, and his seasickness. What an imagination you have, Master Robinton. He felt like sticking his tongue out at the storm, but had the feeling the moment he did, Menolly would pop up with her gear on and spot it.

Not that he cared overmuch if she caught him in a moment of silliness, so once he'd checked on everything he suspected Menolly would have checked on and returned to the tiller, he gave into it and gave the western horizon and its bank of puffy gray clouds a clear raspberry.

Menolly caught him at it, as she ascended from below with her gear on, and his in her hands. The wind also blew droplets of his own spit back in his face. "What?" he asked, catching her eye and giving her a guilty smile.

"I probably shouldn't tell you seaholder superstitions about spitting while at sea," she said.

"No," he said, giving her a look that was both sly and guilty, the perfect air of boyish got-caught-in-the-act-and-I'm-not-really-sorry-but-aren't-I-cute? The mark of an accomplished Harper is being over six turns of age and still pulling it off successfully. He watched he face war between sternness and a smile, and knew he'd pulled it off. "You probably shouldn't."

She shook her head at him. Once upon a time she wouldn't have known how to act when he teased her, but now she tolerated him fondly. Then she became businesslike and firmly took control of the boat from him.

Robinton was able to don his rain-resistant gear without much more fuss than a few gusts of air clouting him on the back like they were drunken buddies from a nearby Gather. Menolly manned the tiller, and put together a plan for trying to make it to the nearest Seahold before the storm broke, and Robinton...hovered.

He hovered mostly in case she needed him, and so he would have easier access to the railing in case his seasickness decided to overcome him. However, it had a side effect of letting him be in earshot when she finally shook her head in irritation and said two words. "Half-Circle."

Robinton glanced up at the clouds again, and said, optimistically, "There are other Seaholds nearby—"

Menolly was quiet. Robinton rested a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. He wasn't exactly very enthusiastic about the notion himself: in true Harper fashion, shortly after Menolly had joined the Hall under his guidance, a little stinging song about a man who squandered his children's gifts due to overweening pride had circulated around the smaller holds in Nerat. Robinton hadn't sent the song to Elgion, only because Elgion lived with the folk it satirized, and while overly hidebound, Yanus wasn't necessarily slow-witted or unafraid to take anyone in his Hold to task if it suited him. Even a Harper, if the Harper went too far. But Yanus, his wife, and his sons, did travel to other holds to trade, and would be powerless to stop the rendition without giving it even more weight before their peers.

Still, without having been there to see the tune hit home, he found he still harbored uncharacteristic anger at Menolly's family. And cooping himself and Menolly up with them in an enforced stay during a storm wasn't his idea of a jolly good time; he knew his student hadn't mended fences with anyone but her one brother Alemi, so any stay would be fraught with emotional traps, and he wasn't sure if he could hold his tongue if he saw her being badgered and belittled.

"The storm doesn't seem to be coming in all that fast," Robinton said, after watching it for a while. There was a part of him that stirred uneasily, thinking of the last time—had it really been the last time? That long ago?—he had been on a small boat during a storm. What lovely choices; physical drowning, or emotional suffocation. Which scars last longer? Well, if you took that literally, "dead" didn't leave scars. But he didn't think it was quite that dire yet. "Tell me, Menolly: do you think we can make it to a safe spot beyond Half-Circle before this storm hits us? Perhaps even the spot where you lived before the Weyr found you?"

Menolly glanced back at him, startled. Then she laughed. "I don't think we'd both fit in there! It's not a very big cave..."

Robinton squeezed her shoulder again. "I'd rather be sitting in the lap of good company than playing hide-and-seek with foul company."

She giggled.

Perhaps that wasn't his most well-thought-out phrase ever...but he'd already said it, so he ran with it dramatically. "What? You don't think I'd fit? I have it on good authority—Master Zerg, in fact—that my backside needs more padding, so it also goes to show it's not overly large, my dear..."

"Are we actually having this discussion?"

He considered, tapping a finger on his chin while the wind blew the oiled canvas of his jacket around. "Well, if we choose to hide in your cave, we probably are. If that's not a choice, then perhaps we should drop it."

"We won't fit in the cave. Not both of us and the firelizards."

"I see. Onward, then!"

She shook her head to herself, but set them on a course that would angle them back towards the coast—but not too close yet, due to rocks—in a way that would overshoot Half-Circle Seahold.

#

SssssSSSShhhhlllllllsssssss.

The sea roared. Their boat groaned. The firelizards screamed and whirled overhead; ten of Menolly's, and one of his own.

"Menolly," he said in her ear, as he stood behind her and lent his strength as she tried to keep them on track. He was wet, from head to toe, but even wet the gear kept him warm; this wasn't a chilly springtime sea like the one that lurked in his memories.

"I know!" she yelled back, as a wave rose up out of the ocean like the water was a bedsheet and some colossal child was flapping it avidly. "I think there's a spot to anchor just ahead!"

A thought rolled through his head—the kind of thought he usually took action on, with a powerful stride across the room, and a booming voice. We need to know. Not "think". He hesitated in speaking it, because at this point the fear had started to ride him again. Fear based on his past. Was this storm that bad? Or did fear just make it seem that way? He twisted around, and could just make out something behind them, a shadow where the coastline dipped in and made the hold that had been Menolly's birthplace. It wasn't too far behind. It couldn't be, not with all this rain and spray; if it were too far he wouldn't be able to see it at all.

Then the ship dropped beneath them, into a trough, and his stomach twisted into knots. "Menolly," he said again, in her ear.

"What?"

"Can you see the place you want to anchor?"

"Not yet. Beauty—"

"Is still a firelizard. I can see Half-Circle behind us still."

She twisted herself to see. "Yes," she said after a moment.

"We go there. I will deal with your father."

She hesitated.

"Trust me."

She did. She began the process of turning them around.

#

"What are you two doing out there in a storm like that in a ship like this?" an incredulous weather-beaten fisherman said as he and about three other men helped secure the Harpers' boat. "My, oh my, oh my. Are you lads lucky."

Robinton caught Menolly's eye at the unintended humor; Robinton was far from being a lad...and so was Menolly. A better reception than he had hoped...but of course, the true reception still awaited. "Yes, we are indeed, and we are very grateful for Half-Circle's shelter and hospitality. Do you know by chance where Harper Elgion might be?"

The hold's Harper was more or less the last person the Sea Men expected wet and bedraggled refugees from the raging storm outside to be looking for, so it took a moment for the request to percolate through his brain. "We can send a lad to go get him, I'm sure. Who shall we tell the Harper is looking for him?"

"Master Robinton. It would be prudent for me to say hello to Holder Yanus as well."

And that, more or less, set the entire pot a-boil.

#

Slosh.

The girl setting down a bowl of warm fish soup in front of Robinton cried out in dismay as her own nervousness caused some of that soup to slop over the edge of the bowl and seep across the plate underneath it. "I see the soup is as excited to see me as I am to see it," Robinton said, then stilled her hands with a pat as she went to try to wipe it up, and used a bit of bread instead, and popped it in his mouth. He chewed in appreciation, then said, "Thank you." His tone was a gentle dismissal, so she wouldn't keep on fretting over something as unimportant as a bit of spilled soup.

Her eyes glued to the spot on his plate, now smudged from the bread he'd swiped around, and then she curtsied because she couldn't do otherwise and served Menolly before joining one of the other tables for her own meal.

Around him at the table sat Holder Yanus, his wife Mavi, one of Menolly's older brothers, who was presumably in training to be Sea Holder himself some day, and Harper Elgion.

"I didn't know you were going to be up this way, sir," Harper Elgion said, sensing the tension that Robinton himself felt, and seeking to do what he could to alleviate it. He was also trying to assuage his own curiosity on what Robinton could possibly be up to; they had had about five seconds to speak before Yanus made his appearance, which had been about long enough for Elgion to peek around Robinton's shoulder and add Menolly to his greeting. Robinton could see the man was almost jittering with curiosity, his eyes darting from Robinton's jovial face to Menolly's calmly blank one, and finding answers in neither.

"That's the beauty of life," Robinton said. "One finds themselves in unexpected places with unexpected companions. When you involve boats as your means of travel—"

"—ships, sir," Menolly corrected quietly, than looked pained as it brought several sets of eyes to rest on her.

"—those unexpected places tend to be more frequent in stormy weather, and safe harbors such as Half-Circle more precious and appreciated." He paused, and glanced at Menolly, noting her correction. It was the first time in a very long while he'd seen her ashamed for having—to her mind—impudently corrected him in a mistake.

A wide vocabulary of possible words, phrases, intonations, and tones rolled around in his mind, nearly on his lips, and he picked through them. This is where he could set the tone and make many things clear to Yanus and Mavi, if he so desired. The question was...what would be best for Menolly? What was the ideal result here, of this unexpected and unwelcome conjunction of people and all the emotions and egos involved?

Well, first lay the grounding. That he valued Menolly, that she was a full Harper, that she was under his protection. "Thank you, Journeywoman Menolly. In this I am your student, and the student of just about everyone here in the Sea Hold. 'Ships'. I apologize if my choice of term from before was inappropriate, Sea Holder Yanus."

"It's a common mistake, Masterharper," the man said, his eyes flitting over to Menolly for a moment.

"In any case, I appreciate your tolerance, as much as I appreciate shelter from the storm and this fine meal. Elgion—did you receive the Hall's last packet yet?"

Elgion went along with the changing of the subject, a slight gleam appearing in his eye. "I did, Master Robinton. Just the other day, in fact. Although I think it may have met poor weather on the way; did I see Master Domick's name in there, or did the wetting of the top corners play tricks on me?"

"No, no, you saw correctly." Robinton turned to smile at Menolly's family. "Our Composition Master at the Hall typically works on choral and orchestral pieces that aren't suitable for a lone Harper to play, unless she miraculously grows several more arms and perhaps a head or two."

"She?" Menolly asked under her breath, catching his use of the feminine pronoun as neuter, instead of the more standard male pronoun.

"But this past winter he was inspired—or perhaps feeling competitive—and produced some solo pieces—"

"Oh no," Elgion said. "Sounds like it may be easier to grow additional hands than do a Domick solo."

Robinton waved him to silence. "—that are quite unlike the typical ballads. In a good way. Beautiful tunes. And never fear, Elgion, they're quite playable by any Harper that's attained Journeyman rank."

"Have I seen these?" Menolly asked, forgetting for a moment where she was, lulled by his uncharacteristic use of Craft-talk amongst non-Harpers, and addressing him with a mixture of amusement and skepticism.

"You may have," Robinton said. "When you were collaborating with him on those dances, you may have come across some. He handed them over to me at roughly the same time."

"Competitive..." she said, narrowing her eyes.

Maybe he was laying it on a bit too thick. "Well. Perhaps 'competitive' is the wrong word. But, he has to stay one step ahead of you, my girl," Robinton said. "Petiron taught you well."

She began to turn red.

"So! Holder Yanus, I was hoping to take a turn with Elgion after supper playing some of Master Domick's tunes, if you don't mind."

"Master Domick's?" Mavi inquired.

"Yes. Journeywoman Menolly's tunes are already well in circulation, aside from the dances. We send quite a few of hers out every quarter-year. I was thinking during this foul weather, it might be cheerful to hear something new, not old. Or we could do the dances," and Robinton glanced around the room, noticing many heads that quickly turned away from him so as not to appear to stare. "Although we might need to move tables around for that."

"I don't think that will be necessary, Master Robinton," Yanus said.

And that's where we differ, Sea Holder, Robinton thought as he eyed the man. If Robinton had a daughter as talented as Menolly returning home, he'd seize any opportunity to brag about her skills in her Craft. Harper, Weaver, Smith—it wouldn't matter. But Robinton's chatter had at least discovered for him one thing: both Yanus and Mavi were against overt use of Menolly's songs—Mavi by making sure the songs they intended to play tonight were by Domick, and Yanus for not taking up the offer to hear the dances. And Robinton would now have to keep in touch with Elgion to see if they came to identify and withdraw those tunes by Menolly that were already in circulation in this small Hold.

What would he do, if it came to that? Have Elgion tell people quite sadly when they requested one of Menolly's songs that they'd already heard that Yanus did not allow the full roster of Harper songs to be played now because some were created by his daughter? That was perilously close to interfering with Yanus' authority over his Hold, and while Robinton had no compulsions against fomenting revolt against a unworthy Holder in a good cause (the days of Fax were past, but not forgotten), the coldly calculating part of him reminded him that as much as he cared for Menolly, this wasn't yet enough of a provocation to begin something like that here.

No, that would be overstepping his boundaries. While Yanus was a strict Holder, he seemed competent, and while not exactly loved by his people like some Holders were, neither was he feared. In other words—exactly the sort of situation where Robinton really should mind his own business.

Not that Robinton was any good at that.

Still, he maintained an amiable facade for the moment. "Very well. Elgion—do you know these new tunes of Master Domick's?"

"Well enough if the music is in front of me."

"Good. Menolly? You could sight-read Domick's more customary work the day you entered the Hall, with a mangled hand—you won't have trouble with these if you share the score with Elgion."

"Yes, sir," Menolly said.

"Masterharper," Mavi said. "You're our guest. Please don't feel obl—"

"Nonsense," Robinton said, unwilling to give her any wiggle room to stop him—or Menolly—from performing. "I am a Harper. Entertaining is what I do. If I don't sing for my supper, I sing to make people smile, or to remind them of duty, or to teach. I daresay I crave song like a boat craves water and the sails wind. Take it away from me, and I wilt like an uprooted plant. I'd toss and turn all night, sleepless." Then he caught Mavi's eye and winked, to let her know he was mostly jesting, for she seemed somewhat uncertain about his florid descriptions in a way that would have reminded him of Menolly—if he didn't sense the moment his back was turned and the weight of his rank no longer immediate she'd change her colors. Still. If it pleased her to act like a worried hostess in his presence, it pleased him to wear the masks he did as well, so he played the charming Harper to the hilt in return.

She gave in to his charm, and said nothing more this meal about his plans to play for the small Hold after they had eaten. Instead, she opened up conversation about the summer so far, and the weather—which was always of great interest to sea men and of course the reason Robinton and Menolly were there at all—and some light talk about Nerat and Benden Weyr and politics that actually did interest him as it was rare these days he heard such opinions directly, instead of through Menolly or one of his other Journeymen. It was always interesting to see how talk amongst the Lord Holders differed from what their small Holders under them were saying. Not to mention, it was another way to judge these people Menolly had grown up amongst.

Yanus, through all of this conversation, stayed silent, although Robinton was not sure if this was merely due to his stoic nature, or because he had heard Robinton's multiple carefully-worded challenges and was still considering how to respond.

Then, after a final slosh of klah poured into cups, the three Harpers rose to gather their instruments, and in Elgion's case, the scores, so that they could lead the Hold in song.

The people of Half-Circle Sea Hold were considerably more enthusiastic about this than Menolly's parents had been, whispering and chattering to one another.

And as Elgion set up his music stand and arranged two stools in front of it for himself and Menolly, Robinton greeted their audience, introduced himself (although he was fairly sure just about everyone knew who he was: gossip flew quickly), and treated them to some general news about Pern at large that he thought they might be interested in, as he plucked at and tuned his gitar.

And then, the three of them were all ready.

The first song they chose was a duty song. With Domick's deft musical phrasing, the three of them played and sang about Crafthall, Hold, and Weyr, and also about Oldtimers—although not in so direct a fashion. Instead, they told a tale about an man with an bronze firelizard, and how he griped and complained and demanded things from everyone again and again across the turns, from Holder and Crafter and Dragonman, so that when he became an old man with an old firelizard, he reaped what he had sown as those he had taken too much from turned their back on him when his need was greatest.

Although the addition of firelizards was a relatively new thing to a slowly-moving Hold like this one, even though it had been several turns since Benden Weyr—and, independently, Menolly—had discovered they were Impressible, and the symbolism of a bronze firelizard for a bronze dragon possibly missed, the moral of the tale was clear and traditional, and Robinton could see Yanus relax a bit across the room.

After that, they surged into a well-known sea chant, that the Hold could, and did, join in with, clapping and stomping with enthusiasm, if not the beat. Then they returned to another new song of Domick's, this one a more edgy romantic tale about a female greenrider, with Menolly singing the rider and Elgion singing the rider's love-interest. And after that, they did the Firelizard Song, which everyone knew quite well these days, even if a light blush rose to Menolly's face as she sang the song entirely solo in front of her birth hold while Master Robinton and Journeyman Elgion accompanied her on their gitars. Then they did another new one of Domick's, and this time the holders expected it to be something they didn't know, and listened raptly.

The time went along quite quickly, and Robinton was glad to see that by the end of it, the coming-and-going tide of blushes upon Menolly's cheeks had more or less stopped, and her more typical (for these days at least) composure had come to the fore. Indeed, for the last two songs, she was playing the fingers off of poor Elgion, and giving Robinton a run for his marks which delighted him, and her voice projected across the room in a way that would do Master Shonogar proud.

They stopped then, because the eldest and the youngest were all more or less asleep despite the singing and music, and because they were simultaneously going dry as their klah had long been drained, and in need of relief as the klah had also worked its way through their bodies.

Much of the hold clapped vigorously for them.

"You are a playing paragon," Elgion said to Menolly, as they put their instruments safely into their cases, and as people began to shuffle off to the kitchens to do the dishes or to their families and beds. "I've seen you on stage, of course, at Nerat and Benden, but..." and he shook his head in admiration. "It's quite another thing to be playing alongside you."

"Oh, no," Menolly said. "I'm just...me. You're good too, Elgion. I wanted to play with you the day you arrived, but," and she shrugged her slender shoulders and reached down to scoop one of the scores that had slid to the floor after they had played it.

Elgion met Master Robinton's gaze above her lowered head. I should have known, he mouthed at Robinton. It wasn't the first time; Elgion seemed to perpetually kick himself over the fact that Menolly had been here in the hold when he'd arrived and he'd let her slip away solely because he didn't realize "Petiron's apprentice" wasn't necessarily male.

Robinton waved it off, like he always did. It had all worked out well in the end.

Mavi approached them then, to collect their empty klah mugs for washing. "We do appreciate you playing for us tonight, Master Robinton," she said, making no mention of Menolly having done as much as he. "Those were Master Domick's songs?" she asked.

"The first one was, then every other," he confirmed.

She nodded. "The new ones, yes. You're right, they're beautiful, but different."

"Then the Firelizard Song was by Journeywoman Menolly, as was the third-to-last song. The last song was one of my own. The rest are older than time itself," he said with a smile. And then he yawned, for the day had been long and filled with the physical exertions of getting their ship docked here to weather out the storm, and he was still feeling a bit sore around the midriff from the seasickness.

Mavi noticed right away. "We have a guestroom ready for you, Masterharper. If you follow me I can show you where it is."

"Splendid," Robinton said. "And is Menolly's nearby?"

Mavi hesitated.

"I can sleep on—" Menolly began.

Robinton fluttered his fingers against the side of his gitar in a way that looked casual, but which said in the special code only himself and his apprentices knew, If you on boat, me on boat.

"—Half-Circle only has one guestroom, Master," Menolly said. Truth, the quiet pitter-patter of her fingertips said before stilling.

Which meant if he was set on not having her sleep in the chilly, swaying confines of their boat, she would have to bunk with someone.

His first instinct was to have her share quarters with either himself or Elgion. But that would be peculiar for a woman, and he feared would damage what little respect she may have gained by her playing skill. He could perhaps get away with a little cot for her in his room in a known environment, such as Ruatha or Benden Weyr, where those who mattered knew she was his right hand and respected the both of them...but then again, at Ruatha or Benden Weyr Menolly would have her own room, and there would be no need.

So, unless he intended to snub Half-Circle overtly to have them both sleep on the boat after he'd already been offered the use of their guestroom, it was in Mavi's hands where Menolly would sleep this evening.

Perhaps you are worrying overmuch, Robinton told himself. "As long as I know where Menolly is sleeping, and I can find it, and she me, that is fine."

"I thought she would use her old room, which is now occupied by her eldest brother's wife's younger sister. She was the girl that served you the soup tonight. Her name is Rellana."

Well. He could hardly object to Menolly being in her old room, and the girl had seemed polite enough to him. He glanced over at Menolly. "Do you expect Beauty and the others to return tonight?"

"Beauty?" Mavi asked.

He turned back to her. "Yes. Menolly and I both have firelizards. We sent them off when we arrived to let people know where we are so they wouldn't become worried over our whereabouts if they heard gossip about that storm raging outside, but they haven't returned yet. My firelizard is Zair, he's a bronze. Menolly's queen is Beauty, and she has...ah...nine more firelizards besides. Will Rellana become frightened by them? They're well-trained."

Mavi's eyebrows went up. "I do not know."

"If they come in at night, I can send them away if she's frightened," Menolly said.

"Or you can send them to me," Robinton said. "I'm used to them."

A sudden smile bloomed on Menolly's face—the first he'd seen since they pulled into the large docking cavern. "Are you ready for that, Master? You complain about Zair jabbing you in the ribs all the time, and he's only the one. With my ten you'll end up with wingtips up your nose and in your belly button."

"I think that sounds marvelous!" Robinton said.

She narrowed her eyes at him.

"I'll write a song about it," he said. "Every experience into the pot, yes? Song stew." He grinned broadly, because he was teasing her about how the first thing out of her mouth always was, I'll write a song about it! Then, to Mavi, he said, "Don't worry about the firelizards. We'll sort them out. Although we should mention it to Rellana beforehand, just to be kind. I did not see many firelizards in the crowd when we sang." And those he'd seen were blues and greens.

"No, most clutches we have found have gone to the Weyr or to Nerat Hold," Mavi said. "Very well. Let me find the girl and we'll show you where both rooms are."

"Thank you," Robinton said. "You are too kind."


Author's Note: As with my other fics, updates will go up on AO3 (see my profile for a link) first, then come to this site. You can subscribe to me on AO3 though for email notifications. Thanks for reading!