Chapter Five

Holder Yanus's glare moved away from Elgion to focus on Robinton the second Robinton appeared from the sickroom, and Robinton was reminded of Menolly, during the rare times when she got her back up and went off on some misbehaving apprentice or journeyman who didn't live up to her sense of righteousness. It was slightly unsettling.

Even more unsettling was Yanus' hand firmly clasped on Rellana's shoulder, hard enough that the young woman would probably have bruises soon. Rellana's face was streaked with tears, and there were more welling at the corners of her eyes, and she trembled like a newborn runner foal.

"You may be Masterharper, Robinton," Holder Yanus said without preamble, "But if you ever use one of your Craftsmen again to prevent me from accessing one square inch of my Hold—"

"The flag is flying, Holder," Yavi said to his father, coming up behind him in a hurry. "A Benden dragon should be here shortly. They're very good about answering our flags, particularly in weather like this."

Yanus glanced at his son, and didn't finish his threat, although Robinton was a little curious about what it would have been. Instead, Yanus let go of Rellana and gave her a shove in her back so she stepped towards Robinton. "Take her. When the dragonrider's here to stand for the Weyr, I'll approve whatever punishment you and the rider decide on."

Robinton blinked. Whatever he had been expecting upon hearing Yanus yelling at Elgion through the door... Robinton looked at Rellana for a second, assessing, and she promptly burst into tears as if he were renowned throughout Pern for his cruelty instead of his compassion, and sank to her knees.

Was the woman a natural actress?

Or merely an intensely frightened scapegoat, as Yanus rushed to get Robinton out of his Hold and away from the real truth?

This made no sense. If there was some family-based scheme against Alemi that had gone awry and interfered with Robinton and Menolly, why by the shells of Faranath's clutch would Yanus and Yavi invite a dragonrider from Benden—known allies of Robinton—into the mix? Surely it was any small Holder's nightmare to have Robinton about under such circumstances, much less the Benden Weyrleaders (who would likely get involved as soon as they knew Robinton and one of their riders were) and perhaps the Lord of Nerat if he got wind that something was afoot at Half-Circle that had the Masterharper and Benden Weyrleaders moving about. Robinton had expected to send Zair a-winging away to Benden, once the bronze returned, against protests on all sides that the mighty Weyr didn't have to be involved.

But here Yanus was, calling up the dragonriders of his own accord.

Robinton's immediate thought was that if they wanted dragonriders here, he did not, because their presence might mask something he should know.

But that should perhaps not be his first concern. What would happen to Menolly if no dragonrider was summoned? If she convalesced here? Alemi talked about the acrobat fish like a thoughtful man would; what could a Healer, a Smith do with it? But what happened more typically when man was not mucking about with concentrating it? It could have been ill-luck that Menolly had fallen down the stairs while under its influence.

...in which case, Yanus would call in the dragonriders because he had nothing to hide, and an easy scapegoat. Rellana, for some catty reason, had taken the sort of "games women played" to an unusual extreme, and was handed over to Robinton as punishment. Perhaps there was a young man that she felt Menolly might lead astray. If that's all that had happened, there was nothing at all to hide there. A dragonrider would come, whisk Robinton and Menolly away to the Healer Hall, and Elgion who would undoubtedly be dismissed from Half-Circle and go with them...

...and Alemi would be left to deal with the aftermath alone best he could, with no plausible reason for Robinton returning to investigate. Alemi did not fall under Robinton's jurisdiction—or protection—like Elgion and Menolly did.

The Harper began to see, clearly, the role he was being assigned to play. The notes were inked, the performers tuning themselves to Rellana's soft sobs...

...and yet, if Robinton danced on stage singing his own tune with fire in his eyes and heart, changing the performance and stealing the show so that it was his and not theirs, it was Menolly who may pay the price, again. And he could not bear that, not after having failed to protect her once. It was one thing to ask her to make sacrifices while she was aware and awake, and quite another—

"Mash'er!"

The dull cry was accompanied by sudden sounds of firelizards in the other room, and Robinton's own Zair appeared again and dropped onto Robinton's shoulder, chattering.

Robinton turned to Elgion. "Get her a handkerchief for her nose and a glass of water," he told the Harper, nodding down at Rellana. Elgion would not let her go running off. Then Robinton turned heel and rushed to Menolly's side.

The firelizards were back, and arranging themselves around her. They were uncharacteristically noisy...well, even Menolly's well-trained firelizards could be noisy when they got themselves into a tizzy, but now they were uttering strange, lost noises that sounded like some of the sounds Zair had uttered upon hatching, but which Robinton hadn't heard since.

Had the firelizards been—

Then Robinton spotted Menolly's white knuckles gripping the side of the board she still lay upon, as if she weren't on solid ground but instead back on their boat, sloshing around on the churning stormy seas. She was still drugged, and it was affecting the firelizards now that she was awake.

Robinton sat on the edge of the healing cot and placed his hand over one of hers. "I am right here, my dear. I am right here. We think you've been dosed with something called the acrobat fish, and you took a nasty fall down some stairs—Piemur's going to be after you for stealing his trick you know—" and he let his voice hold mingled concern and humor as he "warned" her.

"—'Murr?" she said.

He heard the puzzlement in her slurred tone and realized that perhaps humor was not the best tack to try with someone under the influence of something mind-altering. Rubbing his hand soothingly on her forearm, he said, "—and a dragon's been called—"

"Mmm fi'e," she murmured, and turned her hand under his to grasp his wrist. Her grip was hard, as if she still was feeling tossed upon the decks of a ship, but then he felt a pulse, as she squeezed in a rhythm.

Or tried to...her tempo was as slurred as her speech.

He put his free hand over hers again, and said, "You hit your head. That's not 'fine' by my definition..."

"N' gragns." The tempo her hand squeezed felt like fire-dragonette, an ancient term for firelizards. "Gra. Ghe."

Robinton's brow furrowed. Either she was speaking of dragons again, or mangling Lord Groghe's name. But he couldn't figure out how the Lord of Fort played in to this, so it seemed likely the former.

"We need to go home, and get you to Master Oldive," Robinton said.

Drown-death, her squeezing said.

Not received; repeat? He squeezed back, in drumbeat. "Menolly, your brother Yavi has put up a flag for a Benden rider—" he said, hoping repetition would make her understand.

Black, blacker, blackest, she squeezed. It wasn't drumcode this time; it was the actual beats of the song.

He hesitated for an instant, but other people were peering into the room, and he couldn't afford to act like Menolly was passing a secret message to him—even if she was. So he prattled on. "It'll probably be someone we know who comes. Perhaps your friends Miriam and Path—"

Burn the holds, her squeezing said, nonsensically. "Cold," she said.

Was she cold? Robinton looked around for some furs, and a second later Alemi passed him the edge of one. They put them over her, firelizards and all, and some of the bumps stayed snugged up to her sides under the furs, while one vanished between and two others crawled out to be on top. "Or, if not them, maybe it'll be T'gellan—"

The Masterharper is dead, she squeezed.

He stared at her.

"Gn." Menolly made an odd sound, then suddenly sat up.

Alemi, quicker on the uptake than Robinton, produced a bucket, and Menolly dry-retched into it.

It was actually a good performance for someone under the influence of a drug, but as he watched her, Robinton realized it was not real. The toxin had been consumed hours ago; none would be left in her stomach by now that could be voided by vomiting. Yet, Menolly wasn't a boy and didn't do boyish things like fake-vomiting to disgust her companions—

Robinton turned to Yanus. It was clear: Menolly did not want the rider to come. Perhaps for the same reasons as he. He prayed the reason behind it was sound, and not a product of fish-oil delusions. "Take the flag down. If she's concussed, which she may be if she's vomiting, she can't go between anyway. We'll monitor her and send a firelizard direct to Fort Weyr if we need to, now that my Zair is back."

There was a long pause, as Yanus stared at him from the doorway, probably wondering if it were true concussed people should not go between. A small Holder would not know for sure.

Robinton stared right back, hoping his reputation for being close to Benden might make Yanus believe a Harper knew more than he about dragonrider matters, and Menolly retched again. This time, it sounded more sincere. If there was a difference between "sincere" vomiting, and "insincere".

"Very well. Take the flag down," Yanus told his son, still staring into Robinton's eyes.

Yavi vanished once again. Yanus began to turn away. Not once had he inquired about Menolly's health.

"Holder," Robinton said.

"Masterharper?" Yanus said, halting.

"I will require free rein in your Hold to investigate this 'mishap'."

There was a pause, as Yanus thought about this.

Robinton knew, if Yanus had been a Lord Holder, not a small Holder, and permission was denied, the autonomy of the Holds would dictate that Robinton would have to obey, barring a situation where Robinton was being brought in as Masterharper and a neutral observer by an alliance of other Lords or Weyrs or Crafters because of a situation that fell under one of their domains. But things became less clear-cut when the head of a Pern-wide Craft came into conflict with a minor Holder whose authority was limited by the scope of his Holding's lands. Yanus could, strictly speaking, still throw Robinton out—Fax had done so for some of his minor holds even before he took a major one—but Yanus was no Fax.

"I have brought you the culprit," Yanus reminded Robinton.

Rellana made a pitiful sound.

"I would not be doing my duty, Holder, either as a Harper, the Masterharper, or as Menolly's Master and guide, if I do not investigate myself," Robinton said.

"Half-Circle's a simple seahold. I don't think you'll find the planet-wide conspiracies you may be accustomed to dealing with as Masterharper," Yanus said, shaking his head. "It doesn't take a man of great intellect to see what has happened here."

"Humans are never simple," Robinton said. "Especially when they claim to be. But you know your Hold better than I, and it may be that Rellana is indeed the person I seek. In which case, what I find will go into making the judgment fit the crime. Will you allow me access to your Hold and its people?"

Yanus was quiet, in that introverted, thoughtful way that Robinton had seen many Sea-Men possess. The man didn't want Robinton nosing around his Hold. Holders rarely did. Then he spoke. "I will allow it, provided—"

"I promise I will not purposely bar you from portions of your own Hold again, Holder. I intended no insult; Menolly, while not quite as unique as she used to be, what with the newest crop of Apprentices, is still a symbol of change within my Hall. She has been and probably will be again a target for fearful, jealous people and I take her safety seriously when it becomes clear there is a threat. I reacted in haste."

"She wouldn't be a target at all if she weren't in your Hall," Yanus said, a hint of a growl in his low voice.

Behind him, Mavi, who had joined them partway through the conversation, gasped at her husband's audacity, and gripped Yanus' arm.

"That's what Fax told the families of some of my Harpers, many turns ago," Robinton said. "If you're willing, later, perhaps we can discuss our philosophies in this area, and the reasons why I invited your youngest daughter into my Craft?"

Yanus looked like someone had stuffed fish bait, instead of a nice fish dinner, down his throat. Robinton wondered if it were the comparison to Fax, or the thought of sitting down for discussion. "Maybe," Yanus said, then he turned his back and walked away.

Mavi still lingered there, staring at Robinton, one hand against the door jamb as if bracing herself.

"Yes?" Robinton said gently.

"I don't know what Menolly has told you—she's always been prone to melodrama—but we are not the sort of Holders that would have supported Fax," she said. "Nor did we."

"Mavi," Robinton said. "Why did Menolly's hand require the attentions of Masterhealer Oldive himself when she first came to my Hall?"

Mavi's face turned stony. Then she said, "Melodrama," and turned abruptly to walk away, her skirts swirling around her legs.

Yavi, who had also been watching, followed his mother. Only Elgion was left at the doorway, and Rellana, who was standing now but hiding her face in her hands. Elgion gave Robinton a nod, and began to lead Rellana out of earshot.

Robinton looked down at Menolly next to him, and saw that although she was laying down again, and her eyes closed, there was a furrow of worry between her brows. "They, obviously, have never met Piemur," he told her softly, and reached over to brush hair out of her face.

Her eyes fluttered open. "'Murr?" she said again.

"Never mind," Robinton said, and shook his head. If he kept mentioning the scamp as comic relief, she may, in her delirium, become afraid that he was here and in trouble and she had to protect him. "You rest, my dear. Alemi, do you mind watching my Journeywoman while I and Elgion go talk to Rellana?"

Alemi shook his head. "I don't mind. I'm good at placing buckets," he added with a crooked smile, but gave his younger sister a fond look too.

"If it helps, about half of that was 'melodrama'. Menolly didn't come to us with nearly as much as your mother thinks she did, but we made up for that by teaching it!"

"I knew Elgion was holding out on me when he said Harpering isn't quite as exciting as sailing," Alemi said.

Robinton chuckled, then he snuck out of Menolly's much-looser grasp, coaxing Zair into her company instead. Not that she needed another firelizard, but Zair would come right to Robinton if something went wrong. She would be comforted by that, he hoped. "Speaking of Elgion, I'm hoping in addition to letting Rellana weep all over his shoulder, he's learned something from her. Do you think she's the real culprit?"

Alemi shrugged. "I don't know. Yanus found her very quickly. I would have been long gone if I had been her; there's a lot of caves and holes down the coast that are useless for Holds but big enough for a woman."

"That was my thought as well," Robinton said. Menolly had taken advantage of that, many turns ago. "Let's see what she has to say about all of this."