Around false dawn, I was awakened by the low, resonant sound of a small gong. When I investigated, I saw a servant standing at the nearby intersection of hallways, muttering a repetitive chant to himself to help keep the time.
As the servant continued to lightly strike the small gong every few minutes, I heard people stir to life in the other nearby apartments. They began cleaning as much and as quickly as possible. It dawned on me just in time that the gong was probably a warning that someone important was coming.
I had just finished straightening my quarters and grooming when Princess Siri arrived with an entourage consisting of two guards and two women. The two guards took up positions just outside my door, while the two women stood in the doorway with their backs to us – effectively forming a living doorway.
Princess Siri spoke Gairia fluently, albeit with a thick Kirengari accent. She spoke only about inconsequential things, until I realized she was making small talk and asked if she was alright. She shook her head and hesitantly explained that she’d had troublesome thoughts the night before. She asked if I expected her to relocate to my fortress when I was done in Varlada, if that was the custom of my people. She visibly relaxed when I indicated that it wasn’t.
The Princess then asked where I come from and who my father was. I carefully explained that I was from Ista Weyr, similar to one of their fortresses. All children born in the Weyr belong to it and are commonly called weyrbrats. She smiled at this. Like other weyrbrats, I had been raised by all the dragonriders and support staff. Eventually, harper Master Garoway had noticed my musical talent and claimed me as his own. More accurately, I had claimed him as my dad. Princess Siri seemed confused and asked carefully if I was the son of a musician. I smiled, shook my head, and explained that Garoway had been a diplomat, a Lorekeeper, and our senior Queen’s most trusted confidant for decades. She had mourned with me – and the rest of Ista Weyr – when he passed only a few years ago. After mourning, she had made a point of showing me the mountain of official documents with his name on them – tangible proof of how much my adopted father had done for the Weyr. The Princess tried to hide it, but I could tell that she was secretly relieved to hear that I wasn’t the son of a “lowly musician.”
Princess Siri asked if I had a family of my own. I nodded and told her that I had three children, two by a previous lover that would soon be old enough to Impress, and one by my current lover who was still an infant. She asked about my aspirations for them, and I admitted that my oldest daughter Shireya will probably be next Weyrwoman of Ista since she was born with the ability to hear dragons. My oldest son Kevlen was just like me, an Eldritch, and would not be dissuaded from following in my footsteps. I didn’t know what path Garrin would follow in life, but I would be happy so long as he grew to become an honorable man who contributes to society.
When asked, I admitted that Seliana wasn’t a dragonrider or a noblewoman; she had trained as a Master Beastcrafter, and become a Master Dragonhealer after moving to Ista Weyr to be with me. Siri immediately asked me bluntly, clumsily, if I loved Seliana. She smiled slightly, almost shyly, when I told her that I did and she replied, enigmatically, “Yes, of course you do.”
Princess Siri took a moment to collect herself. She announced that, since I already had a woman and male heirs, I should “make her hair proper.” She insisted on sitting in my lap while I did it. She leaned back, intimately close, and rubbed suggestively against me, subtly but obviously trying to seduce me. She smelled and felt enticingly familiar from the night of passion we’d recently shared, and Valenth’s strong feelings toward Naktenfeth made it feel like the most natural thing in the world to take her again. She was, after all, a very beautiful – and obviously willing – woman.
I wasn’t just a man and Siri wasn’t just a woman, though. I was a Wingleader and the leader of the first diplomatic mission from Pern. Siri was a Princess of the Chingfa Dynasty. I couldn’t begin to guess what it would mean if I slept with her again, now that we were no longer compelled by dragon lust.
I am ashamed to admit it, but my hands trembled slightly as I carefully braided Princess Siri’s hair. Twice my will faltered and I lightly stroked the skin of Siri’s face and neck. Twice she leaned into it, encouraging me. It took every ounce of will I had, but that’s as far as things went.
Once I had finished braiding Princess Siri’s hair, she deftly turned around in my lap so that she was facing me and spoke quietly, intimately “In Carindas and Terenmor, armor on a gold dragon is an embarrassment because the males are supposed to protect them. In Galatia, most young golds have armor while older ones do not. It’s mostly a matter of age and rank, with younger and less noble riders expected to fight. In Kirengar, Satakam demands that all gold dragons have armor. It is a great embarrassment that Valenth does not.” She leaned even closer, looking deep into my eyes, and whispered, “Valenth seems an impressive dragon. It is a sadness, a great shame, that he does not have his armor. Perhaps you could help him find it? For me? If you find you don’t like it, it can always be set down in the spring.” She smiled when I agreed and asked, “In the meanwhile, would it be alright if I lie and claim that Valenth lacks skiutes because you are upper class nobles, like those of Galatia?” She smiled warmly when I nodded, and thanked me formally along with a slight bow of her head – as thought I was doing her a great favor.
With this favor asked and granted, Princess Siri stood and asked one of two women who had come with her to bring us breakfast.
While we waited for food, I asked the Princess about herself. She explained that every queen candidate was chosen from among the Shian, so all had grown up in a temple – or at least in the service of one – before they Impressed. Some Shian are assigned to particular people or places; these don’t tend to Stand the Sands. All of rank and file women of the temple are expected to Stand the Sands, though.
There is much honor and prestige in giving a smart or pretty daughter to the temple, so this is a fairly common practice among the middle and upper classes. Poor families generally don’t because a daughter’s dowry – the money they are paid by the groom’s family as part of the marriage agreement – is the only windfall they will ever see in their lifetime.
Princess Siri said that she hadn’t had a baby yet, but that her friend and confidant Shian Zangli had been expected to bear many children because she was a moderately powerful Talent. She had already born five sons – three dragonriders, one who had died in training, and one who served at the local temple.
Many Shian wait until they are asked to Stand the Sands and then have children if they fail to Impress, so they can still contribute.
Over an extensive breakfast of mostly unfamiliar foods, Princess Siri advised me concerning the types of gifts I should buy for the bronze dragonriders I had bested in her mating flight. Essentially, the gifts needed to be lavish enough to politely acknowledge their rank and position but not so lavish as to imply that I had done something wrong.
We talked about a number of other subjects for over an hour. The Princess eagerly provided me with a wealth of useful social and political information on both Kirengar and the other Dominions.
Eventually, Princess Siri asked me about the instrument cases stacked neatly with the rest of my gear. As she examined my well-worn guitar with intense interest, she explained that every woman of the temple was trained in music. It’s unusual for the men of Kirengar to know how to play, but not unheard of. She told me the replica bone flute I carried, modeled off the broken one recovered from Great Isle, was a Kirengari instrument called a cluey. She smiled when I admitted that I hadn’t been able to figure out how to play it, and asked if I wanted her to show me. I instantly agreed.
Siri led me out through the formal gardens and well beyond the thick protective walls of Fortress Thusdo to an otherworldly old growth forest in a saddle between two mountain peaks. The impossibly tall trees were called Katsura, and the largest of them was about 70′ tall with at least a 50′ canopy. They had light grey bark and leaves in shades of gold and orange. I had never seen anything like them before. Life on Pern had adapted to countless generations of Threadfall, meaning that the plants were relatively fast-growing but short and weedy. It suddenly dawned on me that the few species of real trees on Pern had originally come from here, and why the few real forests of trees had to be protected so vigilantly from Threadfall.
Naktenfeth flew high overhead, keeping watch while we walked. Eventually, the Princess had one of her servants roll out a mat for us to sit on near a small stream. Siri explained that I hadn’t been able to play the cluey properly because I hadn’t wetted the reed. She soaked it in the nearby stream for a couple of minutes and then sat crosslegged on the mat to play for me. She was quite skilled and I was shocked when I realized she never had to stop to take a breath. Watching carefully, I guessed that she was using some sort of circular breathing technique. When I asked her if she would show me, she moved closer to me – what I was coming to understand was intimately close in this culture – and teasingly said that she would, if I would convince Valenth to grow skiutes. When I carefully answered – truthfully – that I thought it was almost inevitable that he would, she seemed mollified. My Harper training told me she was trying to get at something else as well, but I didn’t know enough about their customs yet to be able to puzzle it out.
After a very pleasant hour of playing music together, Princess Siri admitted that she needed to return to the Fortress. She told me that she thoroughly enjoyed our morning together and was sorry to see it end. I was surprised when I felt that her words were true; she really had enjoyed spending time with me.
She smiled softly, enigmatically, when I pointed out that it was a long walk back to Fortress Thusdo. She took my hand and we enjoyed the conversation the entire time.
My wing riders were speaking quietly amongst themselves in the courtyard when Siri and I walked in, still hand-in-hand. We parted with the obligatory flowery goodbyes. My wing riders watched all of this, B’dir looking obviously thoughtful, ‘Zana looking concerned, and ‘Mala inscrutable.
B’dir pointedly asked where I’d been and what I’d been doing, but fumbled his line of questioning – obviously surprised – when I replied levelly, “Spending time with Princess Siri. Doing whatever I must to secure the political support we need to survive in this foreign land.”
As B’dir stood there in stunned silence, L’nos interjected to awkwardly. He nervously announced that Faranth’s Wing had taken a vote in my absence. They wouldn’t tell me who voted which way, but they had agreed some of us needed to learn how to fight. After much debate, T’grim, V’dos, ‘Mala, and T’ria had volunteered. B’dir later told me in private that he had also wanted to volunteer, but wouldn’t do anything that might jeopardize Borheth’s ability to fly Liviath when the time came.
T’grim spoke with me privately after dinner that night. As was his way, he directly asked if I wanted to learn to fight, too. I pondered his question for a moment and then shook my head. I told him that I didn’t want to learn to fight, but assured him that I would – since I would never ask my men to do something that I wasn’t willing to do myself. T’grim nodded thoughtfully, paused for a few seconds to gather his thoughts, and then asked if I would reconsider. I assured him that I would, if I were presented with a good reason. He explained that he thought I should concentrate on teaching the Kirengari how to jump between, since I was by far the best teacher in Faranth’s Wing. If we lost too many trainees – and we were guaranteed to lose at least a few, no matter what – they might think the trade wasn’t worth it or, even worse, decide we were intentionally getting them killed. I agreed with his logic and we worked out a compromise. I would train the Kirengari and he would learn the art of dragon combat – so he could, in turn, teach me once the mission was completed and we returned to Pern.
Two days later, a purification ritual was performed at the great temple. Warlord Kriang, Commander Garaam, and Commander Hakkun had each been assigned one brown, one blue, and one green trainee. Since they had been warned that the training was dangerous, they swore oaths before the Shian – and presumably Shia herself.
Afterwards, the Shian led us out of the temple to where a burning path of burning coals had been laid between the temple and a gazebo. My wing riders and I watched with a combination of horror and awe as the Warlord and his Commanders led their riders barefoot onto the hot coals.
I was still pondering whether I would ask my riders to do the same when V’dos – eager to not show weakness to the foreign dragonriders – stepped out onto the hot coals and followed after him. I did the same. L’nos, T’grim, B’dir, and finally T’ria followed after me.
I was shocked. I could feel intense heat beneath my feet, but we were somehow separated from it by what felt like an intense layer of cold air. We all made it down the path without being burned, and were congratulated and clapped amicably on the shoulder by our Kirengari counterparts when we reached the gazebo.
We started training the Chingfa to jump between the next morning. I had worked out a training curriculum with my wing riders that lasted almost exactly ten weeks – giving us only a few days of leeway before the Archer’s Arrow left the Brazier and the doorway between worlds closed until late autumn of the next year.
Warlord Kriang and Commanders Garaam and Hakkun stood ready with their riders at attention in the courtyard that morning. The imposing older bronze rider greeted me formally, coldly, pitching his voice so the gathered riders could hear. He gave me a challenging sideways look, and announced haughtily, “I do not see skiutes on your dragons. I do not see stains from blood on their teeth. I do not see their fire. Show me.”
I made a show of drawing myself up to my full high, narrowing my eyes, and nodding my head sharply. I barked back, “Yes, we will show you how Pernese fly.” Faranth’s Wing mounted our dragons and took to the skies, breaking into familiar three 3V’s just like Threadfall practice and the annual Spring Games, putting on a show of aerial acrobatics. At first, only our trainees watched from the courtyard, but soon other dragonriders came, followed by a growing crowd of support staff. They watched with awe as we soared, climbed, spun, dove, and even jumped between in perfect formation. The wing was coming in for a landing when Valenth announced firmly, “Trust me. Hold on.” He ordered the rest of Faranth’s Wing to continue landing while he went into a dangerously steep dive, disappeared between right before hitting the ground, and reappeared with a completely different vector three heartbeats later. A gasp and then a cheer went up for a crowd, and I could feel Valenth proudly basking in their admiration – and Naktenfeth’s – as he glided in for a landing.
Warlord Kriang proved to be a very confident, bold leader. He believed in leading from the front, showing his men that something was possible and then expecting them to do it.
Commander Garaam was by far the most sociable. He was quite charismatic and easygoing once I got to know him. His father had also ridden a bronze dragon, but been killed in honorable combat against the Bohran when Garaam was still a child.
Commander Hakkun was lean and muscular, with piercing dark eyes, midnight black hair held in a tight braid, and a sharp-pointed goatee. He moved like a trained fighter. He quickly proved to be very self-assured and competitive. He also bristled at being the second Commander, under Garaam in rank. I quickly learned that he was willing to push his people very hard, even to the point of injury or death, to keep up with the training.
I made a point of learning about each of my students:
- Warlord Kriang – Dominant, focused, and perceptive. Acted as a role model.
- Garaam – Stern, watchful, personable in private. The eldest son of a Commander father who died honorably in combat.
- Hakkun – Competitive, sure of his own success, drove his underlings hard.
- Dikata and brown Stareth – Private, vigilant. Always watchful.
- Kirkren and brown Gryseth – Mature and determined.
- Pang and brown Viroth – Conservative and firm.
- Tanyar and blue Zarth – Civil, orderly, but too methodical. Lost in the second phase of training.
- Shing and blue Honth – Tolerant, charismatic.
- Munjoon and blue Drith – Cautious and quiet.
- Yupha and green Winth – Engaging, reasonable, and easy to train.
- Dusadi and green Tyth – Modest yet steadfast.
- Nuana and green Shanth – Courteous and outgoing.
Commander Hakkun bristled at taking orders from a foreigner, and after a few days challenged me to a “friendly” sparring match in front of my students. I didn’t dare show weakness, so I agreed. I had never fought a Kirengari before, but B’dir and I had spent a few hours watching their applicants fight at this point. I was surprised by how easily I won. Hakkun even more so. He had assumed I would be slow or foolish because I was so much taller and more muscular than him. I was neither and so he lost the match – and some measure of respect in the eyes of everyone watching.
Monjun and Nuana wouldn’t go between at first. Warlord Kriang intimidated them with threats of being flogged and shaved (deeply humiliating to the Kirengari), but they were too terrified of the Dark to order their dragons to jump. I tried a different tactic. I calmly but firmly reminded them that Valenth and I had been between hundreds and hundreds of times, and even survived crossing between worlds. I asked them if they would trust their dragons to follow Valenth into the Dark. They nervously agreed. Both followed us between and back out the other side.
I quickly learned that skipping between during Threadfall is very different than in combat. Thread is driven by gravity and weather, and so falls in very predictable patterns. Dragons, especially in combat, do not. Other dragonriders, friend and foe alike, change vectors quickly and a rider has to be careful to not jump back into where they’re likely to be.
Because dragons don’t fly in predictable formations in combat, it’s crucial to skip between based on terrain and not other dragons – or you may end up somewhere you don’t expect because your reference point moved.
Tanyar and blue Zarth were lost forever during the second stage of training. The Kirengari dragons roared and the warriors struck their daggers against their forearm bracers chanting, “Shia! Shia! Shia!” When I asked later, Commander Garaam explained that they were calling Shia’s attention so that she could find their fallen wingmate in the Dark and save him before he was consigned to oblivion forever.
Three men in robes with shaved heads – lamentation priests – built a huge bonfire to serve as a beacon to lead the lost dragon and dragonrider out of the Dark, and into the heavens with Shia and her personal guard – the Dragons of the Golden Sun. The heavens are the place where the gods, goddesses, and particularly virtuous people live after they die.
The lamentation priests led Tanyar and Zarth’s wingmates and friends in prayers at dusk, while the Fortress’ gold dragons sang to comfort the other dragons.
I couldn’t help but notice the similarities to our own culture. On Pern, our dragons roar in mourning – but I had though this a natural instinct until now. Even more telling, we still maintain beacons – watch fires – at every major Hold, Hall, and Weyr to help people find their way home.
Eventually we came to the end of my training regimen and Warlord Kriang insisted on a practice three-versus-three combat to prove what my students had learned. My students won easily, jumping between to gain overwhelming tactical advantage.
I thought this would be the end of it, but Warlord Kriang insisted on a second 3v3 combat – this time my students’ opponents would be ready to breathe fire. I didn’t like the thought of my students going into combat against fire-breathing dragons, but there was nothing I could do about it. I was a foreigner here and had only the rights that the Kirengari granted me. More importantly, my students were Warlord Kriang’s warriors, not mine.
Warlord Kriang surprised everyone by stating bluntly, and with no room for objection, that he would lead my students in this second competition.
Varladan dragons only know how to breathe flame down. They’ve never head to learn to flame ascending like Pernese dragons do. Warlord Kriang used this to devastating effect. He tricked his opponent into inhaling to breathe fire at him, jumped between right as the dragon was starting to exhale, and slammed into it from behind, knocking the wind out of it. The unfortunate beast inhaled its own flame and plummeted to the earth with is head and neck ablaze.
Again, Kirengari dragonriders struck blades against bracers while chanting “Shia” to draw their goddess’ attention.
A huge ceremony was held at the temple that night, lead by Shian Zangli. She petitioned for Shia to make the fallen rider one of her Dragons of the Golden Sun, since he had died valiantly in combat to strengthen his Fortress. At the end, money was collected – with a portion of it going to his offspring. I gifted a couple of valuable trade ingots, earning approving looks from several warriors who saw what I’d done.
Warlord Kriang invited me to a formal dinner the next night, attended by everyone from the Chingfa Dynasty of any rank. At the end of the meal, he loudly and formally announced to everyone that the training had been a “wild success” far in excess of anything he had dared hope. He ended the meal with a final toast in my honor, “Here’s to long lost cousins re-found, bonds re-forged, and to their Wingleader K’brin – who out of a brown made a bronze.”
I was deeply surprised by how my wingriders accepted dragon combat.
T’grim’s blue Rogenth didn’t feel strongly one way or the other about fighting other dragons, but T’grim did. He suffered panic attacks, threw up several times (that I was aware of), and didn’t sleep well. When I suggested he needed to stop training, L’nos shut me down. Hard. He reminded me that my job was to cement our relationship with the Kirengari by teaching their riders to brave between. He would let me know if I needed to intervene. When I pushed on the matter, L’nos pushed back by gently but firmly reminding me that all of us had agreed to sacrifice everything for our mission. T’grim knew what he was doing and this was his sacrifice to make – for Faranth’s Wing, and for Pern.
V’dos’ blue Aranoth was also fairly neutral about fighting other dragons and V’dos himself was more than willing – but their instincts were all wrong for it. They kept trying to fight other dragons like they fought Thread, and the maneuvers and techniques just didn’t translate well. V’dos had assumed that they would excel at dragon combat due to their enthusiasm and natural athleticism, so this was deeply frustrating for them both. He also felt guilty that he was letting me, and all of Faranth’s Wing, down.
Green Jenrith enjoyed fighting other dragons. ‘Mala had precious few compunctions about killing other humans or dragons – but arthritis had seeped into the delicate joints of Jenrith’s forewings during our last Crossing. It didn’t show during normal flight yet, but she was starting to slow down.
It surprised me to learn that green Selenath enjoyed combat, and it shocked me to my core to learn that T’ria relished it. Selenath turned absolutely – frighteningly – bloodthirsty the first time she smelled her own blood and T’ria went right along with it.
Over the next few weeks, Rogenth and Selenath started growing skiutes. This was no surprise to me, since T’ria and Selenath enjoyed combat and T’grim was forcing himself – at great personal cost – into a mindset capable of embracing it. V’dos really couldn’t. Fundamentally, he and Aranoth thought of threadfighting as a dangerous group sport. They were athletes, not warriors. The Kirengari trainers told us that ‘Mala’s Jenrith would eventually start growing them as well, but it would take longer because of her age.
It gradually dawned on me that I should have seen T’ria’s bloodthirst coming. ‘Mala had pointed out that only gold, bronze, and green dragons really like to fight – and Selenath was a green.
Valenth rebelled when I told him that we weren’t going to learn to fight yet. He locked me out of his thoughts, and then fought me for control when I wouldn’t let him leap to the defense of his wingmates when they flew combat drills. He furiously insisted that his place was with them, especially when their lives were so obviously in danger. I had never had to fight Valenth so hard, or so often, for control in our entire lives. It was a near-constant battle.
Eventually it came time for my wingriders’ final combat training session. Small banners were attached to collars at the most vulnerable place on the dragon’s necks. The first dragon to latch on and pull the banner free was the victor. M’din couldn’t bear to watch.
T’grim on blue Rogenth and V’dos on blue Aranoth were defeated easily. T’ria and green Selenath were victorious, largely due to Selenath’s bloodthirst and innate instincts for combat. She was so vicious, in fact, that she almost seriously injured the Kirengari dragon she was flying against. ‘Mala on green Jenrith knew how to fight and didn’t hesitate to attack, they just weren’t as fast as they had once been. Jenrith went down early in the combat with a long tear in one wingsail. Fortunately, the wound wasn’t to bone or joint, so it would heal quickly and completely. ‘Mala accepted her defeat with silent dignity but I could tell it bothered her deeply.
After the mock battle, the Kirengari trainers said that my dragonriders had done much better than anticipated. Even in the face of obviously superior training, not one of my riders had tried to run – or even broken with their training. In fact, they had the discipline to continue flying and fighting together as a team – something that you normally only see in much more experienced combat wings. Warlord Kriang thought this was noteworthy enough to break his usual taciturn silence, commenting that it reflected well both on my dragonriders and on me as their Wingleader.
Valenth began claiming the entire herdbeast pen when he ate, attacking – not just hissing threats, but actually attacking – any foreign dragons foolish enough to not flee. Warlord Kriang himself approached me after it happened a few times, and politely but firmly “requested” that I take Valenth away from the Fortress to hunt. I graciously agreed.
Valenth had always reveled in the thrill of the hunt, but even more so, he loved the time we spent away from the foreign humans and dragons of Fortress Thusdo.
The only Kirengari dragon Valenth would have anything to do with was Naktenfeth, whom he spent hours with every day and even brought fresh kills to – long after both of them had figured out that she wasn’t going to clutch. I had grown up in a Weyr and never seen anything like this before – or even heard of something similar. When I mentioned it to Princess Siri, she smiled and admitted that Naktenfeth was fascinated by Valenth. She had never met a male dragon who could carry an intelligent conversation before. Princess Siri leaned closer and whispered conspiratorially that he was the first male dragon who had ever argued with Naktenfeth or dared to defy her, and she found it thrilling.