Actions

Work Header

Flight

Work Text:

Flight

(Alternate Ending Version)

By D. M. Domini

#

"So, when are you going to send me out into the wild, blue yonder?" Master Menolly asked Masterharper Robinton on one particularly bonny day. They weren't quite out of the grips of winter yet, but the weather was doing a pretty good impression of it, and all the windows from his office into the courtyard were thrown wide open to let the unusually warm gentle breezes in. And also, Menolly's firelizards. You'd think they've forgotten how to go between, Robinton mused as they zipped crazily in and out of all four windows, sunlight glinting off their oiled bronze, brown, green, and blue hides. Outside in the courtyard, some Apprentices—and a few Journeymen from the depths of some voices—were playing a game in their downtime, with all the required hooting and yelling boy's games were required to have. The sounds matched the cavorting firelizards quite well.

"Master?"

Robinton tore his attention away from Menolly's fair and the budding tune in his mind, and gave Menolly a gentle smile. "I'm sorry. I was woolgathering. And didn't you just rub in the fact that you were going to stay here in the nice, warm, insulated-from-blizzards Hall right in front of Sebell a mere four days ago? As he was pulling on two pairs of socks, three layers of pants, two and a half layers of—"

"I was teasing him," Menolly insisted. "And he was laughing right along with me! And...what is Zair doing?" Her attention abruptly shifted away from the joke at hand.

Robinton had made his point, so he let Menolly distract him. "I honestly don't know," he said, reaching up to scratch the little bronze's side, as Zair stroked his small muzzle along Robinton's jawline. "Perhaps he likes the fragrance from my morning ablutions."

"Is the Masterhealer testing new blends out on you?" Menolly asked.

"I suspect so; either that or Silvina is trying to tell me something by switching out my sweet sand every day for the past three days," Robinton said, his mouth quirking.

Menolly's mouth quirked in reply. "I hadn't noticed."

"You also don't actually sit on my shoulder most of the waking day either, like Zair here does, Menolly."

"Blast. I'll need to try harder." And there was a mischievous glint in her eyes.

Robinton made a sound, and changed the subject. "You know, I had a lot of things that needed to get done today, and for the life of me I can no longer recall what they were," Robinton said, sighing, and poking through the hides on his desk. He moved a few aside to peer at the glass-covered sandtable below, and then remembered that the sandtable only had that song he'd been meaning to get back to for several sevendays. The notes had started to blur into the now-dry sand. "Menolly, what did I need to do?" he asked, hoping she would take the bait, as a breath of moist greenery-scented air puffed in the window and ruffled his hair.

"I'd say a trip up to the drumheights would be in order, to check on what snow and ice have done so far to the masonry. And then a stroll down to the Hold to see if anyone clever has set up a few impromptu Gather stalls outside. There might be something important there that the Hall needs."

"Like bubbly pies and wine?" Robinton asked.

"Well it's not technically a Gather day so I don't know what you'd think of the wine involved. But it's probably very important that you sample the quality of the pies everyone at the Hall will be buying five days from now. Just in case there's any issues that could be corrected before then."

"You should to plan out more of my days, Menolly," Robinton said with a smile, rising, and gathering a light over-tunic from a hook on the wall, just in case the balmy weather turned mercurial. Zair stopped sporadically rubbing against Robinton's jaw and surveyed his Master's actions avidly from his perch. Menolly's firelizards became excited at the prospect of them doing something, and the three bronzes fought briefly for the position of honor on the shoulder opposite Beauty, and then one of the losers, in this case Diver, saw a different opportunity, and swung around to make a landing on Robinton's one un-occupied shoulder instead.

Zair hissed, and Robinton was startled to feel a faint pang of antagonism towards the bronze trying to occupy his empty shoulder, as if the feeling was his own. Diver, equally startled, made a sound that probably meant he was telling Zair to do something physically impossible to himself if he was going to be so cranky about sharing a person's shoulders. And besides, Diver didn't really want to sit on Robinton's shoulder anyway. This bookshelf over here would do.

"Excuse you," Robinton told his bronze companion. Zair stared at him, red eyes slowly changing back to bluish-green.

Menolly seemed as surprised as he was. "...what was that all about? Diver's sat on your shoulder before."

"I don't know," Robinton said, and rounded his desk. "I think he woke up on the wrong side of the furs today; he knows better manners than that. Hopefully now that that's out of his system, he'll behave himself," and he shot his bronze a firm look. Zair peeped once, and Robinton accepted that as an apology, although he wasn't entirely sure if it was one. "Let's go harass our drummer boys, shall we?" Robinton suggested to Menolly a moment later, after he and Zair regarded one another for a long, thoughtful instant.

Menolly laughed. "Lead on, sir!"

#

Robinton was never quite sure why, but of all the I-swear-I've-done-nothing-wrong looks he'd seen over the turns, the Apprentices in the drumheights always managed to look the guiltiest. It was true that they were separated much of the day from the main part and other Apprentices in the Hall, and that probably built a certain camaraderie, but if that allowed them to get away with more mischief than usual, it was a hollow victory, because the rest of the Apprentices in the Hall didn't think much of drumheights duty.

Ah, well. "The stonework's held up well this winter," Robinton told Menolly, running his finger along one mortared seam, and finding that very little, if any, of it came away on his finger. There seemed to be no significant cracks either, he mused, rubbing the fingers together. Very good. Very good indeed. "Assuming nothing else has decided to spontaneously decay, we might be able to skim a little off of this budget and stick it somewhere else without harm."

"So should I contact Master—"

"No, no, let him come. I'm no Mason, after all. But I suspect he won't find anything wrong of significance. We'll adjust budgets then, once we get the official word that everything is in fine order."

"Noted, sir."

"Thank you, my dear."

Faintly, in the distance, the boom ba-doom boom of message drums bounced around the mountaintops. Robinton cocked his head to the side and listened, sorting out echoes from each other with a practiced ear. Like usual, it was nothing. Anything important would be carried via firelizard these days. "You have certainly made yourself invaluable," he told Zair.

Zair rubbed his face against Robinton's jaw again, and sighed, his little shoulders heaving. But it seemed a content sigh.

Menolly, with keen insight into his mostly unspoken chain of thought, chuckled. "Half of Beauty's clutches have been going to Runners. It's a smart idea they've had, giving a firelizard to each of their people. They start the junior ones with blue or green eggs, and as they promote from within their ranks, they award brown, bronze, and gold eggs. I suspect some of them will end up with half as many as me by the time they're senior."

Robinton blinked. "I see. That's actually a very good idea."

Menolly nodded sagely.

"Did you suggest it to them?" Robinton asked, looking down at the woman standing next to him, the corners of his mouth quirking up in a smile.

She shrugged and made a sound. "I sort of hinted there may be eggs available if they needed them. You only award so many eggs to the Harpers in a Turn, and I'd rather that the rest go somewhere useful, rather than as pets or back into the wild. Hopefully it'll keep the contingent of ill-trained and spoiled rotten firelizards down." She glanced at him. "And, improved communication across Pern is a good thing."

"Very," Robinton said. "So our Drummers are a dying breed." He began to walk across the snowmelt-wet roof of the Harper Hall, away from the door into the classroom where a few of said Drummers were banging away. The breeze ruffled his clothes as he walked.

Menolly followed. "We could give them firelizards. Although..." and she trailed off.

They were thinking the same thoughts again. "Yes. It would be considered by many Lords and not a few Masters a rather blatant attempt on my part to have eyes and ears everywhere."

"You already do, it would just make things easier to get into place," she said, grinning. "Between Beauty and Farli and Kimi clutching once or twice a year, it's not like we don't have the eggs. And if you count Auntie One and Auntie Two—"

"They clutch?" Robinton asked curiously.

"They fly," she pointed out. "I've never gone searching for the eggs. Otherwise we'd be up to our necks in blues and greens. But I could probably find them though, Master, if you needed them."

It was a tempting thought. It would revitalize a segment of the Hall that had been going moldy when Piemur had been there, and was definitely soft in the center these Turns later. Of course, truth be told, he wasn't sure he would trust many of the lads there currently with the care and training of a firelizard, or the handling of sensitive information written plainly on paper or hide. Manning the drumheights didn't take much intelligence or initiative beyond being able to learn the various codes, and keep one's ears open for the duration of their shift. The few lads that did have a brain that they used on a regular basis were like Piemur—put there until they figured out where else in the Hall they wanted to be. Transient. As it currently stood, the most sensitive information was sent in a code the lads in the drumheights didn't understand; they just recorded the beats, and passed the message on to someone who could read it. In contrast, a firelizard in the wrong hands used as a messenger could cause a breech of sensitive information, if the firelizard's owner was unethical. "I'll consider it," Robinton said. "There would be some details to work out."

The two of them walked around the roof of the hall, kicking at ice and mounds of snow that had not yet melted, checking for anything that seemed amiss, but the wear-and-tear of winter wasn't very bad this turn, and, looking out towards the cotholds and Fort Hold, there was indeed an impromptu Gather, so he had Menolly put inside the few notes they had taken about the Hall's exterior condition, and made his way downstairs and outside to take part in the important task of examining the bubbly pies. Menolly departed his presence to file their notes on the masonry in his office.

Robinton came across Silvina in the main corridor leading outside, and suspected she had the same intention as himself, to visit the proto-Gather at Fort. "Masterharper," she said, a smile on her lips and a girlish twinkle in her eyes.

"Headwoman!" he said, and offered his arm as they strolled out the front doors of the Hall. "We seem to be headed in the same direction."

She linked her arm in his. "Indeed we do. I thought it might behoove me to find out if there were any pies we could purchase for dessert at the Master's table. Sometimes it's nice to have something different."

Robinton chuckled. "You have a heart more generous than my own, I fear. I was going to be selfish and get one just for myself." He paused, seeing a few variously colored firelizards dart over and ahead of them. "And perhaps for Menolly," and he turned and offered his other arm to her.

Menolly laughed, and jogged a few steps to catch up with them. "What about me?"

"I was going to share my pie with you. But! Nobody else." He paused and gravely looked at Silvina. "Well, I'll share my pie with you too. I've a soft spot for lovely women," he flattered.

Silvina shook her belt purse, rattling the marks around, and gave him a look.

"Or you can buy one for me. I'm not picky," Robinton said, and both women laughed.

Because it amused him to do so, Robinton flattered and flirted outrageously with both Silvina and Menolly as they walked, going so far to spontaneously compose and sing a flowery sonnet at the top of his lungs. A few of Lord Groghe's fosterlings were about and watched him with that unique mix of surprise and interest he often got as Masterharper when he started to sing spontaneously—the look that told him that a person in such a grave position was not supposed to be silly, no, he was too important for that, and yet, he was a Harper so what could be more right than the Masterharper himself spontaneously bursting into song?

It seemed to turn their brains into knots.

People! He ended his verse, and smiled at the world at large, bowing extravagantly to the sounds of a few people clapping hesitantly.

Menolly and Silvina immediately countered with a verse set to the same tune, and from there, the three of them created the most amusing (and slightly naughty) little ditty about a man who two wives at different Seaholds who was being cuckolded by both of them. It almost seemed pointed, although Robinton was fairly certain their little story was just a story.

And then they located the pies, which distracted him for a few moments as he wrangled and negotiated on a price with the baker, who had perked up upon seeing them.

Finally choosing and paying for a wonderful just-baked bubbly pie from the vendor, he glanced over his shoulder at them. They were looking at each other as if there was a conspiracy between them, and against him, much like the women in their song. "I'm not so sure I want to share my pie, now," he told them, acting dismayed.

"That's fine," Silvina said. "I'm sure Sebell will share his pie."

And indeed Sebell was there, walking through the small crowd of people, and wearing a pack containing all the layers of clothes he had put on to venture out in the blizzardy cold just a handful of days ago. He looked overheated despite having shed layers. His shirt was damp with sweat. "Come again?" he asked, walking over to join them.

"Silvina wants a slice of your pie," Menolly said, nodding and looking as innocent as a Harper playacting could look.

Robinton coughed. "I was wondering who would compose the fourth verse of our song," he said. Then he looked Sebell up and down, and narrowed his eyes. "I see you're the competition." Then he glanced at Silvina. "For shame," he said, shaking his head solemnly and tsk tsking. "He's half your age." Then he laughed along with Menolly and Silvina.

Sebell, however, looked so lost as all of them walked back to the Hall (aside from Silvina, who stayed to haggle for the evening's dessert), Robinton relented and used his belt knife to slice into his steaming pie and create a piece. The man looked hungry.

Sebell perked up though as he took possession of the sticky dessert Robinton handed to him. "Thank you, sir. What was all that about?"

Menolly answered. "Well, Master Robinton was going to share his pie with myself and Silvina, but then the three of us made up a song about a man being cuckolded by both of his two wives, and he seems a bit sensitive about it. However, given that he did give some of his pie to you, I think we've just found out the reason the man was being cuckolded by both his wives." And she waggled her eyebrows suggestively.

Robinton's eyes widened, and he nearly choked on the hot berry filling. "Shame on you, Menolly, for making pie sound improper." Then he noticed she hadn't bought one for herself. "You didn't get one?"

"I didn't have my marks on me," she said. "I was going to run back to my quarters, but you dragged me out of the Hall."

"Humph," he said, and used his belt knife on his pie again. Then he handed her a generous piece. She had, after all, been the one to suggest visiting the vendors in the first place. And he still had most of half a pie to himself.

Her blue eyes twinkled at him as she bit into the crust.

#

"So let me get this right," Piemur said. "The story is about a fisherman who had a spouse in every port—"

"A spouse in two ports," Robinton corrected. "Two wives."

"And they both cuckolded him because they saw him speaking with a greenrider."

"Possibly. I'm waiting for Sebell to write the fourth verse."

"...and is this a song you're going to slip into my satchel and have me bring to Southern?" Piemur asked, a line forming between his brows.

Robinton chuckled. "No, it's just a ditty. Made up on the spur of the moment for our own amusement. Under the influence of pie."

"You mean wine?"

"No, I mean pie. Have you ever seen me drunk?"

Piemur opened his mouth.

"—when I wasn't playacting?"

Piemur closed his mouth. Then opened it, and then decided, upon meeting Robinton's stern, blue-eyed gaze, not to say anything at all, although it was perturbing to look like a fish, opening and closing his mouth like this. He suspected he had seen the Harper drunk once or twice, but Robinton did choose to pretend to be drunker than he actually was on a regular enough basis, when he felt it suited his purposes. So he couldn't be entirely sure. Perhaps the Harper really did have a gut of iron, and any supposed drunkeness was playacting, all the time. Something to ask Menolly or Sebell about; they would know for certain. "Well. We do all sorts of things under the influence of pie," he allowed.

Robinton grinned. "Indeed. If you ask Headwoman Silvina sweetly, she may have a slice or two left from this evening's supper."

The furrow between Piemur's brows faded, and he grinned back. "Thank you sir."

"I make no promises. She may have consumed any leftovers herself. But it won't hurt to ask. Now! I didn't actually call you in here to talk about bawdy ballads—"

#

Sebell didn't complete the fourth verse; his skills had never lay in composition, and he had only returned to the Hall briefly, to switch out his supplies as he was headed south, although not South, and the multiple layers he had swaddled himself in going North had been too much. So Robinton found himself, a night or so later, contemplating the quickly-scrawled ditty pensively, while he visited with Silvina. Zair was off somewhere, but would likely appear again when he went to sleep.

"So you're turning your sights on Sebell now, hmmm?" Robinton asked Silvina, while stretching out on his back on the couch in her quarters, nursing a good glass of wine.

"Ha! And scare him right out of his Craft? I think not!"

"Why would that scare him right out of his Craft? You're beautiful, well-connected, and in a position of power!" Robinton said mischievously.

"Are you trying to marry me off, Robbie?" she asked, sitting down in one of her chairs across from him. "You know that will never happen."

"Never say never," Robinton warned.

She made a sound. "At this late date? I most certainly can. Besides, I don't see you a-courting. Except in jest. Cruelly leading all of the love-lorn women on, with your silver-tongued attentions!"

Robinton shook a finger at her. "I offered." It wasn't said without a smile; enough Turns had gone by that her rejection no longer stung.

"You offered everything except that which matters," she chided gently.

"Ah. Well. Perhaps someday Kasia will release my heart to someone else." The memory of his spouse was no longer a sharp ache, but a dull ache still lingered in his chest when he remembered her.

Silvina picked at her bootlaces, and Robinton watched as she untied them and loosened them and finally slid one boot, then the other, off. She rubbed her feet wearily through her stockings, and Robinton laid down the hide with the ditty on it and swung himself up and into a sitting position on the couch. Then he patted the table before him. "Here."

Amused, she stretched her legs out and rested her stocking feet on the stone. Robinton picked one up, gently cradling her heel in his palm, and started to massage the arch of her foot with his thumb.

"You've been standing too long today," he told her, as she grimaced and her foot twitched under his fingers. "Overworking yourself. You know your feet only ache like this when you've been standing too much. Have you talked to Master Oldive?"

"The Masterhealer can't cure 'old', Robinton," she said.

Robinton chuckled. "No, but he may have a salve that doesn't numb your feet so much that you can't walk." He continued to massage the one foot, then switched to the other.

"And who are you to be nagging me about overworking?" she asked pointedly.

"I haven't been. Overworking myself, that is. This beautiful weather has been putting me to sleep like a baby. Well that, and the fact that nothing has been falling apart recently. It makes me suspicious when the lads tell me that nothing of note is brewing." It was the reason he was running Sebell and Piemur around. Just in case they found something the others hadn't.

"You're never content unless you have your finger in a pie, are you?"

Robinton made a noise. "Back to the pies, are we?" he asked rhetorically, rubbing the spots he knew were sore with sensitive thumbs.

"Mmm," she said. "That does feel nice."

He continued to massage her feet, removing her stockings once he knew his hands, which had been a little cool earlier, would no longer be uncomfortably cold on her toes. He rubbed her ankles as well. "Is anything else sore?"

She rolled her eyes. "If you start massaging the rest of me, you know where that will lead," she said in amusement.

"I wouldn't mind that," he said.

And he wouldn't, he realized with a faint bit of surprise. Zair, blast him, had gone after Merga, Lord Groghe's queen firelizard, not a two days ago. It had been, without exception, the shortest mating flight he'd ever seen.

Lord Groghe and himself had been speaking about manure of all things. Robinton had tried to point out that such things were better spoken to the Masterfarmer, because the only "manure" he dealt with as a Harper was the tall-tales type, but Groghe wanted his opinion, because he was a good listener, and suddenly Merga let out a shriek, launched herself into the air within Fort Hold, and Zair, the only bronze in the room, launched himself violently from Robinton's shoulder, and caught her not five breaths later. The mating itself was even shorter; even with the vaulted ceiling, there was not much room to fall, locked in an embrace. They went between before hitting the floor, and came out of between to settle on a banister.

Lord Groghe and Robinton had stared at the couple in dumb silence, before Robinton had turned to the man and, with dramatic hand over his heart, proclaimed that yes, the Masterharper of Pern did indeed have a deep and abiding love for the Lord of Fort Hold, and it was only now due to Zair's enthusiastic actions that he felt free to admit this closely-held secret to the world.

Lord Groghe's wife had just about fainted from laughing.

Slightly later on that day, when Zair had deigned to rejoin him, grumbling that he'd been kicked out of Fort Hold already, Robinton had made fun of him. "Little one...it's not too difficult to figure out why she's already done with you. I'm more than ten times your age, and even I can last longer than that! That was just pathetic. No wonder Merga asked to see the back of you. I would too, if I were her and someone performed like that. Performance is everything!" As any good Harper knew. It wasn't the rehearsals that counted.

Zair had ignored him and went to sleep. Which didn't do anything for the annoying, nagging sensations he'd triggered in his Master.

"Has Zair been bothering you again?" Silvina asked knowingly. She gave his hand a nudge with her foot.

Robinton felt the faintest burn of color in his cheeks, because it was still a little embarrassing that such a small creature could make him...a grown man...past that stage of his life...well...then he sighed and told her the Zair/Merga story.

She dissolved into giggles, which made him smile. Half the Hall would keel over in shock if they knew their Headwoman could giggle.

Then she said, "Perhaps I should get a queen of my own—"

"With Beauty, Kimi, and Farli all in the Hall as often as they are? Oh no. Please no. Spare an old man that! He even tries the greens, and Menolly alone has two of them!"

Silvina laughed at him some more. But then she came to sit beside him, and let him hold her, and eventually he rose to lock the door in case some "emergency" happened at exactly the wrong time and somebody—one of his lackeys or one of hers—tried to come barging in.

#

He had, perhaps, been wrong in thinking that Winter hadn't released them from its grips yet. The bonny weather held, the number of accidents due to young boys and men kicking their heels up after a winter of being deeply snowbound and confined to the Hall went up, and Farli, Auntie One, and Kimi all rose in quick succession.

Zair felt that it was his right as a bronze firelizard to attempt to fly all of them, including his clutch-mate Kimi. He spent several days sleeping, cramming his gullet with meat like he was a hatchling again (and also crying like one if Robinton wasn't fast enough in feeding him, ungrateful wretch), and zooming frantically through the air after some alluring green or gold backside. When the sevenday was out, only Menolly looked more frazzled than Robinton felt. And Auntie Two had yet to rise, not to mention some of the golds and greens at Fort that would send Menolly's three bronzes a-flying just as certainly as they did Zair. And, of course, Beauty.

He almost kept Sebell at the Hall out of pity—there was something between his two no-longer-Apprentice-Apprentices, although he'd never asked for particulars and they'd never volunteered—but Sebell had picked up on some Oldtimer-related gossip, and it was worrisome enough that they both decided that Sebell should pursue those rumors and see what came of it, and take Piemur along for a second set of eyes and ears.

"And yet, here I stay cooped up in the Hall," Menolly told him, the complaint cut with a smile.

Robinton leaned back in his chair, making the leather padding creak, and folded his hands before him. "I could send you some where spurious if you want, my dear, but there's just not all that much going on that needs to be investigated. Our suspicious Oldtimers, along with Toric and everyone else on the Southern continent are going to look askance if I send all three of you. And clam up. Although, if you want, we could send you on a Gather tour, although it's possible, or even probable, you could find yourself up to your calves in snow on the stage. Spring's always a tad mercurial. How are your new songs coming along?"

Menolly paused for a long second, then walked over to sit and stretch out in one of the chairs on the other side of his desk. "Nothing suitable for this year's Gathers yet," she confided.

Robinton's eyebrows rose. "You haven't been composing?" That was always a bad sign, for those who were as into their music as Menolly was.

"Well, I have. But they're not suitable for Gathers. If you take my meaning." She didn't meet his eyes.

Their three-versed ditty sprang to mind, and Robinton suddenly suspected why she felt her songs were not suited to Gathers. She'd probably diverted her energies. So to speak. He wondered if it helped at all, and then tried not to laugh at the notion of some...some seasonal influx of bawdy songs into the underbelly of Pern, entirely caused by the effects of randy firelizards on their Harper owners.

He tried not to laugh, and rubbed at his mouth as if it might distract him. Then he glanced at her, and their eyes met for an instant, and his control failed. He threw back his head and a deep, rich belly-laugh emerged, and a few seconds later Menolly's furry laugh echoed him, and she slid down in her chair, slouching in embarrassment even as she laughed herself sick, until he could only see her eyes and the top of her head over the edge of his desk.

He would give his right leg to see, oh, some contingent of Miners or Sailors drunkenly singing some shocking song that the mild-mannered woman before him had composed. He would give both his legs if it happened when Menolly was there to witness it, and maybe even an arm if Sebell and Piemur were present as well so the three of them could tease her unmercifully about it afterwards.

Perhaps this is something I can set up? A wicked, wicked part of his mind wondered. Of course, if she wasn't willing to show him the songs, he might have to sneak into her quarters and nick them himself to start the ball rolling. And later he'd have to defend him actions. He wondered how well, "I needed to steal your bawdy songs—for the good of Pern!" would go over.

"You're plotting something," she accused from the other side of his desk. "I can see it on your face."

"It's for the good of Pern," he tested.

Skepticism. "Somehow, I don't believe that, Master."

Robinton's eyebrows went up. "Are you calling me a liar?"

"I think you might believe you're telling the truth," she said.

Menolly. Keeping him honest. He gave her a fond look. And if she didn't watch herself, she would slide off that chair entirely and end up beneath his desk. "Sit up. That's bad for your posture."

"I'm merely imitating my Master," she said mischievously, but complied, setting her hands on the arms of the chair and shifting upwards so that her rump was actually on the seat.

Snorting, he adjusted his own posture and sat up straighter. "Does it help?"

"Does what help? Sitting up?" she asked.

Ah. She wasn't following his chain of thought from before. Probably all for the better; he shouldn't be asking a young woman those types of questions, and moreso because she was his Apprentice, even if she had walked the Tables to become Master. Even if there was a part of his mind—firmly suppressed, and kept well out of the light of day—that wondered what would happen if Zair caught Beauty some day. "Never mind," he said, and busied himself with some of the scrolls on his desk. That had never happened before, after all, and he wondered if it was because he dreaded it, which caused Zair to under-perform, or because his Zair was younger and less experienced than Rocky and Diver. Her third bronze, Pol, was younger than Zair and hadn't to his knowledge caught Beauty yet either.

Time to change your line of thought, you old fool, he told himself. "If you'd like to hop around from Gather to Gather, let me know, Menolly. You're well-received and well-liked, and even if you don't have any of your own songs you feel are ready to be shared yet, I'm sure Domick or some of his Journeymen might have an acceptable tune or two," and the corner of his mouth quirked up. "I don't mean to keep you cooped up in the Hall, my dear. If you're feeling restless we can find something for you to do." He chuckled. "Truth be told, I'm feeling restless myself. I hope this isn't the calm before the storm and Sebell and Piemur aren't going to come hurrying back as if Thread were on their tails. Perhaps the gossip Sebell heard is merely gossip."

"I suppose we'll see," she said, then rose, fixing her tunic so that it hung properly. It was a nice tunic, and the Mastertailor's Journeyman had done well by her. They'd taken a traditionally male pattern and softened it where softening was appropriate, and shaped it so that it would not hang awkwardly on a female frame, but elegantly. She looked beautifully androgynous. "May I look at the Journeyman charts?" she asked, already shifting around some of the scrolls tucked away into the cubbies on the wall. "I could visit some of the more under-served Holds. They might enjoy that. And I'd stretch my legs."

"Go ahead," he said. "You know where they are." Indeed she was already pulling them out. Once she would never have dared to touch anything without his explicit permission beforehand, fearing his wrath—or rather, the ghost of the wrath the menfolk of her birth Hold. It was good to have her so self-assured these days. "Make up a schedule, and we'll go over it."

"Yes sir," she said, and teased out the appropriate hides from their spots, tucking them under her arm. Then with a pretty smile at him, she left.

#

"We need to move the production date?" Master Robinton asked Master Domick with a frown.

The dour composition Master sighed. "It's a spring production. Master Shonogar assigned understudies to the understudies' understudies as a matter of course. And they're all sick. The good news is that most of the orchestra and choir are vertical, but a firm C sharp on brass turning into a horrific metallic hooting blargh blargh blargh is probably one of the most disgusting things I've witnessed in my life. Master Oldive has recommended that we boil all the metal mouthpieces and severely punish anyone who shares reeds."

Robinton grimaced. "Who would share reeds in the first place?" Master Morshal should have been teaching the lads not to do that in his basics classes.

"Young lovers," Domick said direly.

Robinton blinked. There were a few young women in the Hall now, mostly brought in by Menolly, but none of them he would have thought would be so foolish...

Domick sighed, and continued. "Two weyrbred lads. They've already been getting a lot of gruff from the holdbred, so I haven't cracked down on them as hard as I obviously should have. I intend to rectify that; it's not like we don't have an entire box of clean, fresh reeds sitting there for them to use. They think it's...romantic or something...to swap drool-drenched reeds." The man shuddered.

Robinton felt like shuddering himself, and redirected the subject. "So we don't have a leading man or woman? Which is ultimately the point of failure that's pushing the production date back?"

"We have the leading woman. The girl from Southern. She's shaped up wonderfully, you know that, but don't tell anyone that I know that too. She was the understudy. But she has no one to sing to, and quite frankly I didn't compose this piece to be sung by half-trained schlubs. An amateur isn't going to be able to get his vocal cords around it."

"I'm not sure I can allow you to push it back," Robinton said.

Domick gave him a sharp look. "Robinton. You know I wouldn't ask for this unless there was no way we could pull it off."

"I understand that, Domick, but the production we were going to have for that wedding has gone down for much the same issues. Half the Smithcraft Hall is down with the same illness—"

The other Harper's brow furrowed. "A production went down due to out-Crafters? What were you trying to do?"

"So I was holding your production as insurance," Robinton said, not answering the other man's question.

Domick narrowed his eyes. "This is why you wanted us to be ready for live on these dates?"

"Yes."

Domick shook his head again. "The choir and orchestra will be adequate. But without the leading men and women being able to rehearse, the show can't go on. If, if they manage to get better in an unrealistically optimistic timeframe, which Oldive has already warned me probably won't happen, they'll get at most one, or two rehearsals. Your mother Merelan, perhaps, could have pulled it off with that short of a prep time. We have no singers of her calibre these days."

Robinton took a deep breath, and hesitated before broaching a subject that would set any composer aflame. "You could—" he began, delicately.

"NO."

"For the good of the Harper Hall?" Robinton wheedled. "So that we can keep our promises to the people who expect grand things from us in a few sevendays?"

"No. And no. I'm not dumbing down the melody line." Master Domick was usually a pragmatic man, but his pragmatic nature didn't extend to gutting his own works to fit a deadline.

Robinton rubbed at his forehead, hoping the twinge he felt wasn't actually the precursor to a headache. "She just needs someone to sing to? To learn her cues?"

"On her end of it, assuming she doesn't take ill too, yes. But our leading men need their rehearsals as well, which won't happen until there's no danger of them ruining their voices by singing themselves sicker."

"What time have you scheduled these rehearsals for today?" Master Robinton asked.

"Now? They should be tuning up on their own, doing their vocal exercises."

Robinton thought for a moment, then nodded slowly. "Fine. I'll sing the leading man's part."

Domick's mouth opened, then closed, and finally he raised a sardonic eyebrow.

"You don't think I can do it?" Robinton asked, a wicked smile appearing on his face, daring the other man to say no.

"Only that I haven't heard you sing anything requiring this type of skill for Turns and Turns. You'll need to get back up to speed," the Master Composer said bluntly. "I can't recall the last time I heard you do a vocal warmup, which should tell you something about the complexity of the tunes you usually sing."

It was true; Robinton rarely bothered with such these days. He typically kept the vocals simple, and let his fingers do the flourishes and grace notes. "Well, that's what rehearsals are for, aren't they?" Robinton asked, feeling a tad guilty. "Besides, I get to make music far too little as of late. Come on, lead the way. You have your leading man for the rest of the morning. Let's see if this old man can still jump through hoops."

"Or sing virtuoso passages like a youth?"

"That too."

#

"Is there something interesting in the rafters?" Menolly asked, late that evening after sunset had fallen. She'd poked her head into his office and found him sprawled out on one of the couches in the light of the glows, staring at the ceiling.

"Tell me—have the Healers found a gargle that actually works?" Robinton asked, feeling the rawness in his throat.

"They still don't recommend numbweed for internal use, if that's what you're asking," Menolly said, and came fully into the room. She shut the door behind her. "Why?" she asked, as Beauty curiously peeked over her head to regard Robinton, or perhaps Zair who was lounging himself on the back of the couch.

"I took it upon myself to stand in one of Domick's productions while everyone was out ill," Robinton said. "And I'm surprised I am able to still speak above a whisper."

Menolly chuckled. It was a warm fuzzy sound. "Pride goeth before a fall, Master?" she asked. Then she cocked her head to the side. "If it helps, I didn't notice anything amiss when you spoke just now."

Robinton swallowed carefully. "I'm almost afraid to test it; sometimes it's better to just let it heal. I'd rather not go around sounding like an adolescent, that was a trial the first time around."

"The higher notes are gone?" she said sympathetically. "You are a baritone, you know. And you know what happens to baritones trying to do a tenor's part."

"Yes, yes, I know," he said, a little testily. "But my falsetto isn't all that bad, if I may say so myself. It's not like I'll actually be on stage for this; I'm just being a walking cue stick for our young lass, until Teverl gets his voice back. Or, one of his understudies. At this rate, they're all the leading man—who's the understudy and who's not depends on who gets better quickest."

"That's how it always is, in the spring," Menolly said.

"Yes, well. Do you need me for something, or have you just decided to commit an act of great charity by listening to me gripe like an Apprentice?" He smiled winsomely.

"I just wanted to see how you were doing," she said. "I haven't seen you all day."

"I was sequestered in with Domick and the choir and orchestra."

"So I've figured. May I hear some of it?"

Robinton glanced in her direction, and went back through his memories. Had he ever actually sang for her? He didn't recall...of course he'd "sung" ballads and ditties and acted as narrator in skits—if tenors reigned supreme for leading man parts, baritones definitely got their spot on the stage whenever a narrator was needed—but he couldn't actually recall a time when she might have heard him do something one would actually consider complex.

Then he chuckled to himself. Not even a day had passed and yet he'd fallen into a Singer's mindset—and conceit. His mother had taught him better than that. But still.

"Pretty please?" she cajoled as he chuckled.

"All right," he said, and swung himself into a sitting position. His vocal cords were a bit sore, but nothing dangerous. "Just let me get a drop of wine—"

Menolly immediately backed off. "If that's needed, I'd rather you didn't—"

Robinton bent an eye on her as he rose and rummaged in one of his cupboards for the wineskin and some glasses. "It's the sore of disuse, relatively speaking, not the type of sore I need to anesthetize into oblivion to be able to sing without pain. I'm just a bit dry. Would you like a glass, my dear?"

She looked at him sternly.

"I promise. I may not do Domick's type of vocalwork every day, but I do still need my voice for coaxing wooden-headed Lords into taking a sensible path. A mute Harper doesn't do anyone much good. I have no intention of breaking my voice."

She gave in. "Since you promised then. It'd be a shame if you broke your voice on account of me—it's a lovely voice! And yes, a glass of wine would be nice, thank you."

So he poured two glasses of wine, handed one to her, and gestured her towards the couch he had been reclining in before, while he took a generous sip or two to wet his palette. He set the glass down on the edge of his desk, and assumed a formal singing posture for her—which was, again, something he wasn't all that used to these days, but it did certainly look impressive. He winked at Menolly.

Then he sang.

There was always a...certain knowledge, a connection when one Harper sang for another, or played. The knowledge that the other Harper could hear one's mistakes, give one articulate feedback. It was all very well, and never a bad sign, to gain a crowd's approval and ovations with a piece performed for the public, but they were rarely very critical, and not very coherent in giving constructive feedback. And while Robinton controlled himself very precisely as he navigated the trills and soaring crescendos and decrescendos the piece required of him, he saw an answering twinkle in her eyes when he rolled an R around his mouth like it was candy. He didn't, however, prolong the rich rolling sound as he was sorely tempted to; he wished to sing it straight and note-perfect, so he kept the rolling short of something that could be considered humorous, even if on another occasion he would have had fun with it, just to ham it up and make her laugh.

She might rib him about it regardless, he suspected.

Domick had taken pity on his leading man with this number; while it technically was for a tenor, there were no notes that required that a man castrate himself to hit. Some were uncomfortable for a baritone, but none entirely impossible. Rather, the difficulty this time was in the trills and the manner in which the notes changed mid-word. The melodies were not predictable—and yet, were neither disjointed like one might think they would be with such unpredictability. There was a reason, after all, that Domick was the Composition Master.

All in all it was a delightful piece to sing, and a marvelous chance of pace for someone like him. Still holding Menolly's gaze, he let the last, sad high note drift into silence.

She applauded, and he bowed to her with a flourish. "Your thoughts?" he asked her.

"I'm not a voice Master," she began.

"Only because your voice is not suited to arias. You have a fine ear, my dear, one only has to hear you play or sing to know it. Where did I go wrong?"

She blushed, and he knew that she had heard something, but felt embarrassed to let on to him that she had.

Well, he had heard something too, the same thing he'd been trying to banish all day. "Fourteen bars in—" he began.

"Yes, I heard that," she confirmed softly.

Robinton sighed and shook his head, retrieving his glass of wine from his desk as he did so. He took a sip to soothe his throat. "I know how it should sound, but it just refuses to come out. It's also one of the high notes in the piece, where I have to use a bit of falsetto, and balance it against the rest so it doesn't sound too obviously out of place being so high in my throat when the rest of the phrase is in my chest..." he shook his head and came over to sit next to her on the couch.

"It reminds me of that piece, ah, the one we sang in Ista last fall."

"Does it?" he asked.

"Yes, but not quite. We sung that one over and over, and there's four notes in there that are almost the same as the part you're tripping up on."

"So, in my old age and dotage, I'm forgetting which song I'm singing?" he asked.

"Probably," she said with a wicked grin.

"Are you saying I'm old?" he teased.

She wrinkled her nose and didn't answer him. "You were also playing with your R's," she said.

"I was not!" he protested. "I thought about it, but those R's were very rrregal and prrroperrr. Therrre's no need to be gossiping about my Rrr's as if they've done something scandalous!"

Beauty shifted on Menolly's shoulder, and trilled a query at him. He raised an eyebrow at the queen, wondering if she was mocking him. Menolly just laughed. "I don't know," she said. "They sounded as if they were about to do something improper!"

"No, no, no," he said. "Nothing improper." Then he hesitated, thinking about it. "Perhaps just a little bit naughty," he finally conceded. "But that's just in the nature of a rolled R. They can't help it, poor things. They just sound that way."

"Oh really?" she asked.

"Rrrreally," he said, letting the R consume the word. Then he paused. "I think that was too much..."

Menolly had her palm covering her face and was laughing silently over her knees. Robinton smiled to himself and gently rubbed her back, and drained his glass of wine.

#

"Rrrrrrrr," Menolly greeted him the next morning, a humorous glint in her eyes.

"Why, Menolly—are you showing your appreciation of me, or are you merely rolling your R's again?"

Menolly's eyebrows shot up nearly to her hairline, and after a moment, so did his own, at himself.

"I apologize," Robinton said humbly, shuffling over to his table with his furs wrapped around his waist to see what delicious breakfast Silvina had left for him. "That was out of line." He lifted the cover on the tray and peered in.

"Well, out of context it does sound like...oh, never mind." She was turning quite an astonishing shade of pink.

"Mmm," he said, willing her to believe that he had already forgotten his slip of the tongue. "This looks delicious. Would you like some?"

"I've eaten already, thank you sir."

Ah, good. A distance-increasing "sir" was in there. Of course, if he required some distance-making in their conversation, did that mean that they had become uncomfortably intimate somehow, when he wasn't looking? Oh dear, it was too early for these sorts of thoughts. He was obviously still half-asleep. "Stop strangling me, Zair. You don't like eggs anyway."

Zair peered at Menolly and Beauty for the longest moment, rubbed his head against Robinton's jawline again, then launched himself into the air and out the open window.

"Ow," Robinton said, bleeding now from a score of pinpricks on his shoulder.

"That was ill-mannered of him," Menolly said, wincing and glancing at the pricks of red welling up from his skin.

Robinton sat down and started to dig into his meal. "He's picked up an aggravating number of behavioral tics this month. I intend to have a talk with him, Masterharper to, ah, firelizard."

"Good luck. Do you need something, for—" and she waved at his shoulder.

"Pfft," Robinton said. "It will heal. Is that your schedule for the holds you wish to visit this spring?"

"Holds, Weyrs, and Crafthalls," she said, and handed him a sheet of paper that had been carefully marked in her clear hand.

Robinton took it from her, and scanned it, shoveling food into his mouth as he did so. "Some of these places aren't big enough to put up a proper Gather," he said after a moment around his food.

"I didn't intend to bring a choir with me. They're the places that will appreciate a Harper the most after a long, snowy winter, which you haven't already covered with someone else or three."

Robinton nodded approvingly and swallowed his mouthful of breakfast eggs with a bit of klah. "Who are you bringing with you? Other than 'not a choir'?"

"I was going to go by myself—"

He frowned at her. She narrowed her eyes and stared right back at him, one of those stares that told him he wouldn't tell Sebell or Piemur to bring along a companion. And that was true enough. It wasn't as if Menolly couldn't wield that knife of hers, and she had ten flying, flaming bodyguards if anyone was foolish enough to try to harm a hair on her head. She'd gotten into a brawl and won in the first few days she had been in the Hall, and she hadn't even been a grown woman then.

Still, he worried. "I suppose you're never alone with your fair," he said reluctantly, and gave in.

"Not really, no."

"Make a copy of this for—oh, you already did. Clever woman. When do you intend to leave?"

Menolly opened her mouth, hesitated. "Tomorrow?" she asked.

"It's up to you, my dear."

"Tomorrow," she repeated, with more conviction in her voice, although he saw in her face that she wasn't entirely sure if it should be tomorrow was the right time.

"Well it doesn't have to be so soon," he said.

"Perhaps today," she said pensively.

He blinked. That was even sooner. "As you wish. Pop in here and say goodbye whenever you decide to set out."

She refocused on him and smiled. "Always."

He smiled back at her.

#

"Stop that, Zair," Robinton said, detaching one small bronze paw from the plume of his pen.

Zair made a crabby sound, then gave him a hurt look.

"Zair, I don't mean to be cruel, but you've been underfoot all day. You know you're being bad, don't you?" Robinton asked, soothing a finger down the creature's spine.

The bronze looked away from him, and grumbled a little more. Then he made a sound that half-sounded like it was going to crescendo into a full-out hatchling creel.

"Zair!" Robinton barked the word in the tone of voice he used on particularly bad-mannered Apprentices.

Zair physically jumped, the sound halting mid-keen. His eyes sped up their whirling and flashed a light white or yellow or lavender before becoming an orangey-red shade.

Robinton hadn't exactly meant to scare his friend, but it was like dealing with an infant that didn't know when to—

A comparison rose up in his mind and, aghast, he put his pen back in its holder and swept the little bronze into his arms. "I'm so sorry," he said, and opened one of his desk drawers and fumbled around for the jar of hide salve he kept for Zair. "Have I been neglecting you?"

As he drew out the jar, there was a light tap on his door.

"Come in," he said, fumbling the lid off one-handed as he cradled the agitated bronze to his chest.

It was Menolly. She entered, a loaded pack on her back and her gitar slung over one shoulder.

"You're leaving?" Robinton said, searching for patchy spots on Zair's hide, and daubing a bit of salve on the parts that weren't quite patchy, but which looked suspicious. Zair calmed a bit, his eyes turning more greenish, and twisted around to watch Robinton.

"Yes, I thought I'd set out now," Menolly said.

Robinton glanced at the window. "It's dusk, you're not going to get too far. Unless you arranged for a dragon?"

She shook her head. "No, no dragon. I just thought I'd set out." Beauty appeared in the room, and, finding Menolly there, chirped and swept down to land on her shoulder.

Zair decided he didn't want to be oiled, and crawled out of Robinton's arms, daubs of not-quite-absorbed salve sliding slowly down his hide. "Come back here, you," Robinton said, gently seizing the firelizard by the tail to hold him still. He briskly buffed the salve in with a finger. He doubted anyone would be pleasantly surprised by being spattered with oil if Zair decided to fly above them in this state. "There. Now you can go." He let go of the bronze's tail.

Zair perched on the front edge of his desk and started to preen himself.

"Will you be taking a runner?" Robinton asked, screwing the lid back onto the jar and searching around for a cloth to wipe his oily hands on.

"Yes," she said. "I think so. Are you looking for something?"

"A cloth. This salve is messy."

Menolly let her pack and gitar slide to the floor, and she crossed the room and ducked into his quarters. A moment later she appeared with a washing cloth from the bathing pool.

"You're enabling me to be lazy, you know," he said. "I could have walked that far."

She handed the cloth to him. "It's no problem, Master," she said. She seemed a bit restless, her gaze flitting around the room.

He took the cloth, which she had dampened a bit on one corner, and cleaned his hands. "Are you feeling all right?" he asked, his blue eyes searching hers.

"Oh! Yes, I'm feeling fine," she said brightly. "A bit antsy. Nothing you can help with. I just wanted to drop a word with you before I left."

"You won't reconsider leaving in the middle of the night?"

"Dusk just fell, sir," she said. "We're not quite to the 'middle' yet."

"If you want to be picky about it," he said with a smile.

"Perhaps I do," she said with an answering grin. Beauty peeped from her shoulder. Zair made an answering sound from the desk.

Robinton glanced at them for a moment, then focused a little closer on Beauty. She seemed rather luminous in the light of the glows. And as he watched, a couple of Menolly's bronzes appeared and landed in the rafters.

It didn't take a genius to see why she was restless.

Poor girl. He'd be "antsy" too with both sides of a mating flight linked to his mind, even if it was just a firelizard mating flight. Shards, he was "antsy" with just half of one linked to him. (He didn't want to think about what dragonriders might possibly experience.)

He wondered how soon Beauty was going to rise. Nobody was humming yet, but there was no other reason for Menolly to run out this late.

"You don't want me to go now?" she asked.

Robinton hesitated. "I don't see why it would help, and a runner may make it worse," he said as gently and with as much empathy as he could muster.

She paused for a moment, digesting that, and then, understanding, her cheeks flamed. "I didn't actually think about that..."

"Mm," Robinton said. He wondered what it said about him that he had. Then he sighed. "It's been a rough spring..."

She seized onto that. "Spring started too early," she said tartly. "And all at once."

"I will endeavor to send you out with Sebell next year," Robinton said.

Red rose in her cheeks again. "Master, I—"

He held up a hand to forestall her. "Or somebody else of your choosing."

Silence.

He smiled at her benignly as she stared at him, but gradually his smile faded.

"You're not very good at matchmaking," she said, her expression strangely blank.

"No?" he asked lightly.

"Jaxom ended up with Sharra."

Robinton quirked an eyebrow. "You were interested?"

The blankness faded for a moment, and she was amused. "He was a little young for me, don't you think?"

Perhaps, if Jaxom had had a chance with Menolly and then had ignored or managed to fumble it. Yet, Sharra was older than Jaxom. There was nothing wrong with a few Turns. He didn't say any of that out loud however. "Well, you can't blame me for trying; having Ruatha in our pocket would have been quite the coup—"

Her eyes flared and she grabbed a scroll from his desk and threatened him with it. "You manipulative...Do you want to see a coup?" she asked.

Robinton comically winced as she waved it at him, and laughed, and raised his arm to fend off any mock blows she might aim in his direction.

But the arm was no defense, because he was not prepared when she stepped around his desk and gently moved his arm out of the way so that she could lean down and press her lips to his.

It was not a passionate kiss. He doubted even this Menolly, in a daring mood and dealing with the side effects of having a queen firelizard ready to fly at any moment would try something like that unprovoked. But it was soft, and firm, and warm, and her nose rubbed up along his, and her fingers cupped his face in a loving way that he had very few opportunities to experience these days.

It was enjoyable enough that even his quick mind couldn't work up an appropriate—or even inappropriate—action or remark when she lifted her mouth from his. He just stared at her, surprised, and wondered what to do with all the conflicting emotions within him, how he could possibly channel them into...into...twist them into something more appropriate between Master and Apprentice. Twist, yes, because they weren't appropriate in their natural form.

"Menolly—" he said, finally.

She was red again, likely at her own audacity. And yet, despite feeling it was audacious, she had been the one to instigate the kiss.

He should have seen it coming. He should have—

—and she decided to kiss him again, just in case he hadn't noticed the first one, he supposed.

He'd noticed. He noticed this one too. It was just as soft, but somehow more intimate.

She was infatuated with him, his mind suggested, grabbing for any excuse, no matter how spurious. His fault, as he flirted with her as shamelessly as he flirted with everyone else, because if he hadn't, that would be just as telling.

Of course, this didn't explain why he hadn't kicked her out of his quarters, yet.

Or the ringing in his ears.

Or the humming voices all around them, and the sound of furious wings and the darting of several forms out the window.

He took control of the kiss, because it gave him something to do that put him back in authority.

And discovered that perhaps before he tried to be in control of other people, he should figure out why he'd taken a perfectly good, relatively controlled and loving close-lipped kiss and decided to bring things like teeth and nibbling into it.

This had to stop.

#

Menolly was no fool. When she found herself being pulled upright and set on her feet by her shoulders—he had no clue where he'd found the strength to lift her clean off the floor for a moment—she schooled her face blank, and drew up the strength of will to stand there quietly while he chided her, or punished her, or raged at her, whichever he would choose to do. Except her eyes. She couldn't hide the commingled passion and love and fear and pain of rejection. Her gaze burned him.

It made him want to seize her, haul her back into his arms, and hold her until she was no longer in pain. Her pain increased the pain in his own heart tenfold. It hurt. It hurt.

He fought it though; he knew he would have no strength to stop things a second time. Not with Zair flying through his thoughts, spurring him on with a youthful lust in the back of his mind that was too much for an old man to feel.

You old fool. He turned his back on her and covered his face briefly with his hands. Then he clasped them behind his back as he stared out the open window.

"I'm sorry I put you into this position," Menolly said into the silence. Her voice, normally furry, was husky nearly to the point of inaudibility. He didn't know if it was from passion, or embarrassment, or fear.

"Menolly," he said. He kept his voice even, dispassionate. He had smiled sweetly at Lords, and Masters, and Dragonriders when his heart was burning in fury. What was a little dispassion towards a young woman when he felt himself trembling with the opposite?

"I—"

"Be silent."

He heard a shaky sigh behind him, and wondered if she was weeping. He didn't turn to look. But otherwise she complied, and the room was still, except for some night insects that had flown in and were banging themselves to pieces on one of the glows.

There were things he should say. If he were in his right mind he would punish her, harshly. But it wasn't in him to punish a show of love, no matter how inappropriate, and if he punished her he would have to punish himself, too, because there was a part of him that welcomed the platonic love, and sparked in response to the passionate love. And he wasn't in his right mind, with the firelizards spiraling higher somewhere in the darkness of the night, Zair among them, competing for the queen. He hadn't even known they would rise at night. Perhaps the faint purple line on the western horizon meant it was not quite night.

If he didn't have anything to say, if she had rendered him, a Harper, truly speechless, he should send her from his quarters. Put distance between him.

He wondered what it would be like to be sent away without another word, walking through corridors crowded with curious Harpers, being sent to a cold bed while the fair of firelizards soared and dove in their aerial mating flight. He wondered if, pushed by his own emotions, Zair would catch Menolly's queen this time.

He wondered if she would feel a pang of resentment at Beauty, like he almost felt towards Zair. For putting them in this position.

But firelizards were not dragons, and ultimately, it was he who controlled himself. Not the whims of a flighty firelizard.

Menolly was still standing quietly, as far as he could tell. He couldn't leave her standing there, like a naughty Apprentice. She was a woman, and a Master. He should dismiss her, and let them both lick their wounds in private.

He turned to look at her. She was staring steadily, dry-eyed, at his feet, standing as erect as any of Lord Groghe's soldiers.

Probably the only way she could keep herself sane. He'd stood with his hands clasped behind his back for much the same reason. It was a polite pose he held often when wrestling with himself in front of an audience.

And then she met his eyes again. Hers were filled with misery, and it flayed away the protective shields he had been trying to erect around his heart. "Oh, Menolly," he said, and his tone was sorrowful. He hadn't meant to say it, and he saw as her face crumpled, destroyed by his two empathic words. But still she struggled against herself, turning her gaze away to stare at his desk, while she tried to stitch her control back together.

It hurt him. It hurt him that such a stupid, silly, wonderful thing as a kiss could do this to them. Why? Why? Why was love, any sort of love, a two-edged sword? That wasn't just, or fair. There was so little love in the world as it was. It should be nurtured, embraced, accepted in all its forms.

He couldn't send her away. He couldn't even punish her—she was doing that to herself already, and he didn't know what sort of lies she might be telling herself, what sort of things might bloom and fester if someone was not there to prevent it.

He took a step towards her. And then another. She closed her eyes. He stepped around her, went to the door of his office.

"I'll leave," she said.

"No, Menolly," he said, turning the lock with a smooth, oiled click thick. "You'll stay here."

And then he pulled her into his arms, their clothing rustling loudly in the silence of the room, and rested his cheek on her head.

She was stiff in his arms, afraid to do anything, even embrace him back. He didn't let that bother him. Her hair smelled like her firelizards, spicy with a faint hint of firestone, and he could also smell some type of varnish, something one would use to condition an instrument before taking it out on a long trip.

His pulse beat erratically, one part hoping he would take that next step by coaxing her to relax with kisses and nips, one part of him half fearful that he would indeed do that. With any other woman, he would have. With Menolly...with Menolly...

Dear Menolly. His mind had shied away from anything except the most basic acknowledgement of his attraction to her for so long that his it tried to fold up on itself when attempting to imagine beyond that. Not because he was unable to, but because allowing it to get that far, even in bare thought...a fantasy...such deeply forbidden territory...it felt like something would break within him, tear itself apart. His reason? Perhaps. Many men had lost their reason to lust. His sanity? He knew, in the short term, it would feel like that.

His heart?

His heart wasn't his to give. Silvina had taught him that. Not at will, not like you could give shelter, or food, or even basic, simple affections like companionship to those you cared about.

His heart, the part you gave to lovers at least, had long been buried under the whitecapped, crashing waves with Kasia, scabbed over and secured with stony barnacles in case anyone tried to steal it away again and break it.

Funny then, how it was a Seaholder's daughter, here in his arms, terrifying him like this.

Folly and coincidence. How Harperish of him, to make such romantic comparisons, even if they were born out of his widely scattered wits. And yet...he stroked one hand down her hair, down her back, and then again.

Menolly finally moved, and she softened enough to grip two handfuls of his shirt tightly in a white-knuckled grip. If that could be considered softening. She was trembling.

He was simultaneously drawn to and repelled by the thought of her hands wandering elsewhere across his chest. Forbidden territory. Forbidden territory, don't even think of it, you silver-tongued lecher. May thread devour you if you do.

And yet. And yet. If it were any other woman, indeed. He would give his affections to those desiring it least, to those he desired least, but not to those he desired most? Why? It seemed absurd. Cowardly, even, to hide his heart away lest it be hurt again, at the moment he realized that, perhaps, there was one person he may be able to give it to.

Robinton lifted his cheek from her head, and with the tips of his fingers, tilted her face up so that she was looking at him. And then, his pulse thundering away in his head, before he could lose his nerve, he claimed a third kiss from her, a proper kiss, showing her that if they were going to be daring, to break taboo, it should be done full-heartedly. Had anyone really kissed her before? He didn't know, had made it his business not to know. If not, well...he had taught her many things. Perhaps this one too. He kissed her long and gently, coaxingly, and when her mouth opened, he teased his tongue over hers. It was a pleasure for him to be a pleasure for her, to hear small sounds hitch in her throat, to feel her twitch against him.

And a pleasure to have her hands unclench his shirt and rise up to cup his face again, a pleasure to taste her lips, and skin, to bask in and nuzzle against the warmth of her body.

Somewhere, outside, underneath the stars and the light of the moons, he could feel Zair still pursuing Beauty, higher, and higher into the sky, soon, if his friend was lucky, to fall, coupled and entwined. Robinton ended the kiss gently, and pulled away from her a little, enough to see her face. He would not assume that she desired the same ending that Beauty did.

But he didn't have to. She responded to his touch, like a flower opening to sunlight. Her fingers skirted up his ribs, sank down to hesitate on his hipbones, untucked his shirt to sneak up and touch his flesh. There were more intimate places she could touch him, but the mere fact that they were doing this at all made each touch laden with meaning, each touch a further choice to trespass, and cross the line between what was and was not supposed to be proper.

Robinton wasn't sure who initiated the retreat to his bedchamber. He was immersed in the sight and scent of her while standing in his office one moment, and then he found himself considering if he wanted to fall back on the bedcovers with her astride him, or the other way around. Somehow, somewhere they'd passed the threshold of the two rooms.

Clothing came off. Slowly at first, then faster, with molten urgency. They both made little noises, small ones that came unbidden to them as they tasted what sensations and pleasures the other had to give. Through mutual consent, or perhaps an underlying fear of interruption, they muffled other noises, rocking together, a nose pressed into the pillow next to the other's neck, a strangled groan at a note too low to carry far. Broad shoulders straining, a hand wringing the furs beneath them.

Sometime during the encounter, Beauty let herself be caught by Zair, and that, too, reverberated through them with a vibrant and sensual joy.

They fell asleep afterwards. The evening hours, and the high emotional stresses and, of course, the physical ones sucked them deep into a restful slumber, without time for regrets, or fears, to rise to the surface.

That would wait until morning.

#

Robinton awoke to a noise. His hand came up to rub a tickle on his nose, and he discovered a long, wavy dark strand of hair had attached itself to him, and that his left side was uncomfortably warm. He also was sharing his furs with a high number of spiky bodies.

Menolly was asleep on his left. She was sleeping on her own left side, the furs only covering a part of her shoulder blades, and with her legs stretched out. They were almost as long and rangy as his own, except that they were considerably more graceful. To him, at least. He picked the hair off his face, cast it aside somewhere, and then bent over to look at her. She had both hands curled under her chin, and he found a most ridiculous grin spread over his face, because he loved her and it was adorable.

The noise came again, from the other room, a persistent tapping. Then a little rattle as someone tried the door, and found it locked. His grin faded quickly, and he crawled out of bed—over considerably more firelizards than he was used to, and on the wrong side to boot—and ducked into the bathing room for a moment so that the musk that clung to him would not be obvious.

He found a robe and donned it, then padded into his office, closing the door to his bedchamber behind him.

Taptaptaptap.

"I'm coming," he said in a tone of voice he knew would be heard through the door, but which he hoped would not awaken Menolly. Then with a click thick he unlocked the door, and opened it.

Silvina stood there, looking wide awake. "I almost didn't think you were in there," she said. "But you were nowhere else, and they said you didn't set out anywhere overnight. Do you want your breakfast?" she said, offering a tray she held. "I also have some sweet sand for your bathing room." That was in her other hand.

"Do I smell, or am I supposed to be rating these for Master Oldive?" he asked, taking both the food and the sweet sand.

"I suspect the latter," she said with a wry smile. Then she tried to push the door open wider and duck around him so she could enter and do whatever light housecleaning she typically did before he awoke.

He stopped the door with his foot. "Later, Silvina," he said when she looked at him with slightly surprised blue eyes. For some reason unknown to him, he leaned forward and stooped slightly to plant a kiss on her forehead.

Then he closed the door in her face.

Once he heard her slow, clicking footsteps go away, he placed the food on his desk, re-locked the door.

He began to tremble. Silvina would have questions, which would lead to more questions. He wasn't particularly scared of her questions, nor of her reaction. She would scold him, most certainly. Maybe even with true anger. She would never betray him and tell others what her quick mind would deduce. But it was just a taste of what might be to come, and others, if they knew, certainly would gossip.

Could he handle it? He wasn't unused to probing questions about anything and everything, but if it were piled upon some late night emergency, that came after a day full of emergencies...could he stand up to it all? And be a shield for Menolly?

He thought of waking up this morning. And of the large, goofy smile that had appeared on his face just upon seeing her there. It wasn't often he woke up with a smile like that. If he woke up with a smile at all, it was a small, "Hello there" one because someone had come to wake him up, and he realized that most times that that had happened was because Menolly was the one awakening him in response to something.

Perhaps he was too hasty. Perhaps he had merely been her relief...and she his...from the built-up pressure of hormonal firelizards zooming around and rutting after one another all month.

Even so. He looked at his bedchamber door, then down at the sweet sand pot in his hand. He would take it one step at a time and see where this path may lead them. He may have to let her go. Or they might end up with an elaborate ruse to cover it all up. Or...most optimistically and most unlikely...perhaps it could be an open relationship.

Either way, and any way...it was worth it.

#FIN#