After the first several rounds, my head started to clear, and I realized I was in bed with a foreign junior Queen rider whose language I didn’t really speak and whose name I didn’t know. I made a point of learning that her name was Princess Sunstrasiri, or “Siri” for short, and that her gold’s name was Naktenfeth.
When I had been apprenticed to Master Karthen what felt like a lifetime ago, he had taught me many techniques for pleasing women. Like any teenage boy, I had used them – first with T’ria, and later with Seliana and other women I’d been with. My style as a Harper had been so different from his, though, that I had honestly assumed I would never, ever use them professionally – for social or political gain, instead of mutual pleasure. I did that night, though, and it left me feeling a little dirty.
I awoke late the next morning to find that someone had cleaned the room and laid out food for me. Three attendants were dressing Princess Siri in an adjoining room. She saw me wake up, but did nothing to cover her body. Instead, she smiled coyly and looked away, obviously pretending that I couldn’t see her naked. Teasing. This, too, felt odd to me – but I decided it shouldn’t, since we had been intimate several times since the previous afternoon.
Princess Siri’s attendants dressed her in a beautiful elaborate dress made of layers of richly-embroidered cloth and bound her hair into a neat bun held in place by pearl-tipped pins. Once she was fully dressed, she came over to the bed and formally, almost awkwardly, thanked me for a “very pleasant evening”. She indicated that I should eat the food that had been laid out for me, and politely excused herself to attend a meeting. She left one servant behind to help me bathe, groom, and dress.
I was conspicuously taller and more muscular than almost all of the Kirengari we had met, but Siri’s servant had somehow found Kirengari-style clothing that fit me well. It consisted primarily of a beautifully embroidered robe-like silk tunic that came down to my knees, comfortable linen breeches, and soft cloth shoes with soles of some tightly-woven reed.
I spoke little of the language, but was able to make myself understood well enough using the few hundred words I did know, gestures, and a little patience. Siri’s servant escorted me through Thusdo back to my wing. Unlike the spartan barracks at Modaisa, we were quartered in a separate area – obviously intended for guests – that consisted of a large, comfortable shared common area with many small but private bedrooms. All of my riders were loitering here, mostly working on their notes or maintaining their gear. N’lan explained that the single long tunnel exiting this room led to our dragons’ weyrs, which were smaller than we were accustomed to, but adequate. He gave me an odd look as he added, almost as an afterthought, that they were pretty certain Valenth wouldn’t fit in any of them – but that hadn’t been a problem so far. He was still sharing Naktenfeth’s weyr.
‘Zana told me that the Chingfa bronze and brown riders hadn’t known that the mating flight was going to happen. Kirengari queen riders intentionally hide when their mating flights will be in order to prevent both infighting and real fighting among competitors.
The Kirengari had assumed that N’lan was my second in command because of his dragon and carriage, and Faranth’s Wing had done nothing to dissuade them from that. N’lan told me that Chancellor Somchar had come to speak with him shortly after I had been escorted to Princess Siri’s quarters. Somchar had assured him that neither Princess Siri nor Naktenfeth would have offspring as result of this mating flight, so there was no expectation that I stay longer than planned. In Kirengar, queens must receive permission to lay eggs – suggesting that dragon overpopulation is a very real problem here. ‘Zana suggested that this was probably because the Kirengari Dynasties were spread out enough that average dragon population was kept low, meaning that mating flights would be much more frequent. They had invented an alchemical solution called Winter Winds to prevent a population explosion.
A few minutes later, Chancellor Somchar arrived with Lorekeeper Jianya to help with translations. He said that Queen Daiyusendi, or “Daiyu,” would be honored to meet with us in her quarters in an hour. He then obliquely suggested that they would be happy to help us with appropriate clothes for court, which I immediately accepted. The more we fit in – and showed that we were trying to respect their ways – the better. My female riders didn’t complain about the elegant dresses they were fitted with, but most of my male riders didn’t like the soft, relatively form-fitting knee-length silk robes and trousers they were provided. T’grim, in particular, complained bitterly about these new clothes – especially the silk underwear. Even L’nos quipped, “We’re all dressed like Harpers going to a play.”
When the time came, Chancellor Somchar returned to escort us to a nice but simply-appointed room with two tables surrounded by comfortable chairs. Chancellor Somchar introduced us to Queen Daiyu, who was easy to spot. She was tall, plain-faced, and had long straight black hair down to her waist. Her only unusual physical trait was her amber eyes, which – at least on Pern – would have suggested she was from a Talented bloodline. Her regal carriage would have made her stand out in any crowd, though, and as soon as she spoke I could tell that she had received extensive voice training as well. Masterharper Cameron would have approved.
A gold firelizard rode on her shoulder, watching the goings-on with quiet dignity. Her back ridges had been painted in alternating shades of orange.
Standing nearby was a tall, muscular, bull-like man with a short dragonrider’s haircut who carried his sixty-something years with quiet dignity. He wore ornamented – and armored – Kirengari dragonrider gear, the leather breastplate and armguards deftly carved with a tiger motif. He carried a straight shortsword comfortably in a matching scabbard on his hip.
Everyone was introduced except for Lorekeeper Jianya and the Shian, who were treated as though they weren’t there because they were acting as translators.
Once introductions had been made and we were all seated – everything here was far more informal than in the Zai Court – Queen Daiyu commented neutrally, “I was just telling the Warlord that I was impressed by your dragon’s performance at the mating flight.” Without missing a beat, I politely thanked her and commented – equally neutrally – that Valenth is a singular dragon. Queen Daiyu smiled and asked how I had found Thusdo thus far. Still riding the waves of powerful emotion flowing off Valenth, I replied easily, boldly, “Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.” Queen Daiyu’s smile broadened, and she barely managed to cover her mouth in time to hide her laughter.
T’ria quietly reported that she sensed four Talents, probably in the room directly behind the queen. They were all in a completely defensive posture, with one protecting Chancellor Somchar, one protecting Warlord Kriang, and two protecting Queen Daiyu.
Chancellor Somchar poured wine for all of us, and Queen Daiyu toasted, “Truly, the blood of Thusdo has returned! We must honor the sacrifice of generations that have brought us to this moment.” She threw a palm full of small seeds from a glass vial into a brazier, making a wisp of colorful smoke and a brief pleasant smell. Everyone took a long drink of wine, and then sat down after Queen Daiyu.
With this brief ritual out of the way, the Queen surprised me by immediately cutting to the heart of the matter: she wanted me to teach some of her dragonriders to traverse the Dark as surely and confidently as my riders do. She bluntly asked me what I would want in exchange.
Falling back on my Harper training, I pondered for a moment and then replied that we must address three concerns before we could enter into negotiations:
I would make enemies of other Dynasties, and perhaps other Dominions, by giving such a powerful tactical advantage to the Chingfa Dynasty.
I would need to make certain that this ability wasn’t ever used against our people.
This training would take all the time we could spend in Varlada this year, so we would need help acquiring Fire Pearls, Saiyena feathers, and a few other items.
This time, Warlord Kriang answered immediately. He stated flatly that the Chingfa are a proud and honorable people; if they agree to do something, they will do it – no matter the difficulty or the cost. He also pointed out that the Kirengari are universally feared by the other Dominions for their prowess in combat, and the Chingfa are feared by the other Dynasties for their skill and ferocity. He concluded by bluntly stating that I would be wise to ally myself with the Chingfa Dynasty.
I was still pondering Warlord Kriang’s response when Queen Daiyu added, “I am willing to swear my Dynasty to the honorable use of your Pernese ability to travel through the Dark for so long as we are allies.” She obviously thought this was an extremely generous offer, and then added as an afterthought that the Chingfa Dynasty would procure for us any reasonably materials we needed.
When I quietly asked Lorekeeper Jianya about this unexpected offer, she gave me a dirty look, shifted uncomfortably in her chair, and then grudgingly answered that the Zai would never make such a generous offer. Ever. Nor would any of the other Dominions. She finished by stiffly pointing out that she would have never told me this, save that she was an Oracle and therefore honor-bound to assist us.
With a room full of people watching intently to see what I would say, I forced myself to be calm and evaluate our options. We knew that the Kameni Egg had probably spread across all of the Dominions, sparking rebellion in Carindas and Galatia. Our first two trips to Varlada had been successful largely due to the element of surprise, and that was now lost. We would need friends here if we were to continue operating in Varlada, to provide a safe place to return to turn after turn, logistics support (dragons eat a lot, and we would need access to skilled healers and ample medical supplies the first time we saw real combat), and – perhaps most important – current information.
I finally broke the silence to announce slowly, formally, “My name is K’brin of brown Valenth and Wingleader of Faranth’s Wing, and I have spent my whole life training for this mission. I have the authority to speak on behalf of all Pern, and I accept your terms. Let there be an alliance – and hopefully friendship – between our people.”
Commander Garaam turned pale as I uttered these words, and I could feel his deep sense of terrible dread even without using my Talent. He felt like his world was ending.
Queen Daiyu formally accepted my words, and had me repeat them in the Place Where People Glow for Shian Zangli – so she could confirm the truth behind them. Once this was done, Queen Daiyu said that I could work out the details with Chancellor Somchar – the details were beneath us – and ordered for all Chingfa dragonriders to return to Thusdo immediately to attend a ceremony at the Temple in two hours.
As we walked back to our quarters, T’ria quietly warned me that the four Chingfa Talents had waited until I was speaking with Shian Zangli in the Place Where People Glow and then probed the rest of my dragonriders. T’ria had been able to repel them with little effort, but she suspected my other dragonriders might not have done so well – especially M’din.
Once we were back at our assigned quarters and I had confirmed that no one was spying on us – Talents or otherwise – ‘Mala warned me the every single Dynasty will know what we look like – and what we’re up to – a few days after this ritual. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be helped; we were expected to attend.
We were ready and waiting in our Carindi dragonrider uniforms when Chancellor Somchar came to collect us about an hour and a half later. He escorted us to the Temple, which was huge, circular, and had a massive sun mosaic on the ceiling. We were seated in the first row, immediately facing the round stage – which was unadorned and empty, save for a massive brazier resting in the center. Three huge tapestries hung equidistant from one another on the far walls: One for Kirengar, one for the Chingfa Dynasty, and a white one with gold flames that I guessed represented Shia.
We watched with interest as about four-hundred dragonriders wearing arms and armor quietly – solemnly – filed into the temple and found seats. Once everyone had arrived, the temple doors were closed and Queen Daiyu took the stage, flanked by Princess Siri on one side and Shian Zangli on the other. She used the torch she carried to light the brazier, and Lorekeeper Jianya quietly whispered that the queen’s dragon would have lit this flame.
As the brazier flared to life, the Chingfa dragonriders roared and stamped their feet – making a deafening clamor.
Queen Siri waited a few moments, and then silenced the room with a simple gesture. She began to speak:
“Men and women of Thusdo, hear my words.
We listen to the lessons of the past. Unity is strength. We are only as strong as we are united. When there is no enemy within, we can take our rightful places in the Empire.
Shia has given us dragonfire to defend our people. Roaring flames to burn away the darkness of corruption, ignorance, and temerity.
The other Dynasties seek to reunite Kirengar under one Emperor, but it is not their destiny. The Bohran would claim all of Sakaria and plunge us into unending war. The Fukea would allow foreigners to settle in our lands, but the fire that allows water into its heart is extinguished. The Shakas will never know the season in which to act. The Ying tempt with the fan but cannot compel with the sword. And the Zai have turned inward until their tree blossoms only peaches.
It falls to us to bring light from darkness and order from chaos. To succeed, we must learn new ways and new wisdom, but these new ways come at a terrible cost. Let it be our pledge to honor those who make the final sacrifice by walking this new way with faith and fealty.
The blood of our bravest scouts has returned to honor our ancestors. Their leader has pledged himself in Communion with Princess Sunstrasiri. Storms are gathering over Carindas and Galatia.
Our time has come! I call upon the Shian to guide us in a Ritual of Rededication.”
The Shian passed around scrolls that every single dragonrider signed and thumb-stamped with their blood.
Other Shian played very serious-sounding music on unfamiliar instruments while this was done.
Even Princess Siri signed, albeit using the blood of one of her servants who looked much like her, and was even wearing a less impressive version of the same dress.
Once every single dragonrider had signed, Shian Zangli took them from her acolytes and burned them in the brazier as an offering to Shia, reciting with each one, “Shia witnesses their oath.”
After this, the Ritual of Rededication was complete and the dragonriders filed out, surprisingly quiet and orderly.
As we were walking back to our quarters, Commander Garaam caught up with us. He explained that all of the Chingfa dragonriders would be fasting for the rest of the day to show their dedication. He invited us to join them in the main hall, where they would be playing games and listening to music – to help the time pass more easily. We accepted.
The main hall was visibly broken into different areas through the clever use of colorful rugs, wooden lattices, and a few wood-paneled divider screens. Small groups of people formed into natural cliques around tables, with the most popular game being one that involved a large number of different types of painted wooden tiles.
The fortress’ staff and regular soldiers were eating from tables laden with trays of dim sum, sticky buns, sweet buns, crab cakes, chicken paws flavored with peanut and chili peppers, and more. Not a single dragonrider ate, though. I told my men that we wouldn’t either, to show solidarity with the Kirengari riders.
While my wingriders learned to play one of the games involving painted wooden tiles, I spoke with Lorekeeper Jianya. She was unusually stiff and formal, even by Kirengari standards. Speaking with her, I quickly puzzled out that she was a combination of concerned and angry. She was a Lorekeeper of the Zai Dynasty who just attended a ceremony where the Chingfa Dynasty declared their intent to reunite Kirengar. To subjugate the other Dynasties, including her own.
Just like the Kameni Egg in Carindas and Galatia, the appearance of Faranth’s Wing had triggered this.