Taylor's sixteen and well into her time at the Harper Hall when she's swept off to Benden Weyr on Search.
It's not like leaving the Hall for hatching means a firm commitment. Despite the firm pressing she had from the Hall and the rider who took her, she doesn't have to be present for the hatching at all. Being a potential dragonrider is one of the highest honors a person can have besides actually being a dragonrider, but plenty of candidates have family obligations or goals of their own, and it's not hard to be conveniently out of sight when the dragons start to hum.
And Taylor has her ambition: Masterharper by the time she reaches twenty-five turns.
Or so she'd thought.
None of the rest of Taylor's family has been called on Search before, and as appealing as she'd found the idea of flying as a child, she'd assumed the ability wasn't in her family and she'd have to make her fortunes a different way. Masterharper always has the ear of the Weyrleaders, and telling stories comes with a lot of power. But it's amazing how fast a girl's ambitions can change, and weighing the two side-by-side, she decides she'd rather be out there making the stories than being the one telling them.
She definitely feels a loss when she's on dragonback and sees the Harper Hall the last time before she goes Between, but the loss is there only because her decision's made. She'll Impress, and Impress big. There's no going back now.
It's not the last of Taylor's decisions. She's shoved into a white dress like all the other queen candidates, but the role of a queen rider is not the one she's interested in. She sneaks out onto the sands early with the boys. She's tall like the older boys, and carrying herself like she belongs makes up for the rest. When she spies a bronze wing flopping out of one egg after the hatching begins, she grins and strides forward confidently. Considering all the boys are shying back, no one gets in her way.
By the time residents of the Weyr yell at her to stop, she has the bronze's head in her hands, his name in her head, and intense hunger in her belly.
Next stop, Weyrleader.
Karlie's lived in High Reaches all her life, and she comes from a long line of riders on both sides. Her mom's a green rider, even.
"You'll Impress," her mom's always said. "But it's a queen you'll have. Your flights will stock a Weyr, not simply sate the men."
Karlie ends up on the sands in High Reaches four times, and she doesn't shun the greens, but no dragons end up her way. She isn't sure how she feels about it, but after the fourth failure and her mom's fallen face, she knows she doesn't want a High Reaches dragon at all. Unless she has a green, she'll outrank her mother, and if she gets Weyrwoman in her mom's lifetime - not impossible, considering the High Reaches Weyrwoman has grandchildren trying to Impress - she'll basically rule over her.
Still, Impression is inevitable. It's a secret she's always kept from her mom, who had Impressed Epoth before Karlie was born. Karlie was talking to Epoth mind-to-mind before she could speak, and Epoth knew what Karlie's ability meant and knew what Karlie's mom would feel about it long before Karlie could. They'd kept the secret together, and it hurts Karlie to know the plan they make will take Karlie away from High Reaches and Epoth, but it has to be done. Karlie has the rare ability to hear and speak to all dragons, and all of them know how miserable she'll be if she stays.
We can visit, Epoth says in her characteristically bright way. You'll only ever be a Between away.
Karlie shudders. Even as friendly as she and Epoth have been Karlie's entire life, she's never liked going Between. It's something she'll have to get used to, of course, but. Between is nothing. It's dark and cold and there's no hearing your screams, no feeling your heartbeat or the dragon beneath you.
Still, she endures it when she hears there's a hatching at the newly reopened Ista Weyr.
The most recent interval ended in Karlie's childhood. No Thread to fight for decades meant fewer dragons, and fewer dragons meant fewer open Weyrs. The dragons had mostly repopulated by the time Karlie hit adolescence, but Ista, on its island, had remained closed. Several dragons and riders are coming in from other Weyrs to form its ranks, but the queen who laid these eggs is close to death, as is her aged rider. The queen hatched from this batch will make Ista's new Weyrwoman instead of taking a secondary from another Weyr. The dragonriders around High Reaches say it's so Ista can find its own footing, but Karlie knows dragonriders enough to know bronze riders have a lot to gain from a young, inexperienced Weyrwoman.
Dragons from every Weyr are going to this hatching. Her mom is one of the riders meant to stay at High Reaches, just in case. But Epoth sneaks Karlie to Ista, and when Karlie breathes in the humid air after bursting free of the void, she knows this is where she's meant to be.
She doesn't have a white dress on, and she doesn't even go on the sands until the queen egg is all that's left. She feels the pull when the egg sports its first big crack, and she's thinking soothing thoughts toward the cluster of energy she's registering as she hops the rail in the stands and runs forward, the heat of the sands radiating through the soles of her boots. She hears the excitement of the dragons harmonizing inside her head just as much as she hears them humming their approval.
My name is Unith! the gold says when Karlie finally makes her way over.
Karlie laughs as she picks shell remnants from Unith's wings.
It's an honor, Taylor's told when she learns of her transfer to Ista. She gets to be Wingleader in a new Weyr, maybe Weyrleader if Kumath flies their new queen when she's old enough.
John's basically laughing behind his hands as he tells her as much.
Taylor smiles sweetly at him because she knows, just as well as he does, that she would have had him out of his Wingleader position in less than a year if she'd stayed. He'll never make Weyrleader. When she makes Weyrleader at Ista - and she will - she'll come to Gathers and communal Weyr meetings and outrank him every single time.
He thinks he's gotten rid of her. But she's more powerful now.
The other bronze riders are conveniently spaced in the halls of Benden Weyr and speak pointedly when Taylor walks to meet Kumath in their Weyr. She's only good for bedding, looks like she fucked the wrong dragon, and so on. Weyrs supposedly have evolved ideas about sex and relationships that the Holds don't, but Taylor had been labeled a slut as soon as she'd Impressed and long before Kumath was old enough to fly. Women Impressed queens, and occasionally greens, but never any of the other dragons. Those were for men.
Well, not anymore.
It was a trap. Sleep with no one, sleep with the entire Weyr, do anything in between, the labels were the same. At least everything in Benden had been on her own terms. She'd let Kumath fly without sleeping with any of the horny dragonriders clumped nearby, and all her beddings had been of her choosing, for good or ill.
I'm glad to be leaving, Kumath tells her when she finishes tying her pack to her saddle, and that's the only time Taylor feels any regret. Dragons are pure of heart and thought, and Taylor had done her best to keep her feelings away from him, but his sadness and anger for her flashes in his mind, and she has to take a breath and lean against him, petting his well-oiled skin, before she climbs on the saddle. His clutch was here. He has friends and family living within these walls.
And he's willing to give it all up for her. He's glad.
"We'll be happier in Ista," Taylor tells him as she swings on his back. "We'll make a difference there."
Made a difference here, too. Kumath turns his head so his swirling eyes can meet hers, sending all the love in his heart her way.
Taylor sends all her love back before she directs her thoughts to Ista.
Taylor goes on Search before the hatching.
She's gone on Search before, so she knows it's a coincidence that she brings back mostly women: three sisters close in age from Tillek Hold, a young girl from Southern Boll Hold who seems to favor darker clothes, five individual girls from various holds who clump together almost instantly. She also finds a boy with curly hair and green eyes from Ruatha Hold, which is more proof the gender skewing's a coincidence.
It isn't a coincidence that Taylor's been declared Senior Wingleader at Ista, though. It isn't a coincidence that she runs Search, it isn't a coincidence that another bronze-riding woman named Abigail is her Wingsecond, and it isn't a coincidence that Taylor lines up the women to go on the sands with the men when she introduces everyone to the eggs before the hatching.
"Everyone will go out at the same time when the hatching begins," she tells them as they touch the eggs and get familiar with them. Another unorthodox practice, but if this is going to be Taylor's Weyr, she's making it hers from the beginning. "If you feel a connection with any of the eggs, even if you're a boy who's told that you can't Impress a queen or you're a girl that can't Impress anything but, don't be scared. The dragons know what they're doing."
"Bold," Abigail says under her breath as the candidates touch the eggs hesitantly. But she's smiling. She had been the second woman to Impress a bronze, out at Fort Weyr, and Taylor suspects going first didn't make it any easier for Abigail, but changing the entire system might. Even if it's just one Weyr to start.
"Practical," Taylor replies. That's really what it comes down to. Dragon populations are going to continue to grow as they get further from the interval, and keeping half the potential candidates away from the dragons won't do anyone any good.
The boy with green eyes is patting the queen egg with a dreamy smile. Taylor grins his way.
Taylor spends quality one-on-one time with all the potential candidates. She has her favorites, of course - the Haim sisters are a laugh, and Ella and Camilla are really unique in their own ways - but most of them will end up flying dragons and protecting the Weyr, and even if Taylor just stayed Wingleader, knowing personalities is crucial for the work they're going to do.
There's also going to be a Weyrwoman in their ranks. Taylor knows she can't really game the system, and she wouldn't want to, but getting all of them familiar with Kumath can't hurt, either.
Taylor sees the woman before the queen hatches.
The woman sits at the front of the stands on a bench Taylor reserved for the cleaning staff in the Weyr. During her tenure at Benden, the Weyr hadn't allowed anyone but candidates, their families, and high-ranking officials at their hatchings. Taylor knows that Ista hasn't had dragons in years, and dragons are terrifying if you don't have any exposure to them. Besides, Taylor's pulled candidates from the cleaning staff at Benden before. Everyone is eligible to Impress if they have the talent for it.
The stranger isn't wearing the usual type of clothing the cleaning staff wears in Ista, practical but light. Her dress has long sleeves and is lined with some kind of fur. She's from one of the colder Weyrs, probably. There was space, so Taylor doesn't begrudge her the spot, but Taylor also can't tear her eyes away even though she's curious how the candidates are faring.
Kumath is mostly intent on the hatching, Taylor can tell, but when he feels Taylor's attentions divert, his own follow just a little. He sends her a surprised feeling, but it's tinged with pleasure, so she knows he approves somehow. Taylor isn't sure how he can know enough to have any kind of opinion, but she's willing to go with it.
Taylor's also not surprised when the queen egg starts really rocking and the woman hops the rail and runs across the sands. There's an outcry in the stands, and Abigail leans over, whispering, "Should I—"
"Leave her," Taylor says. "I think this was supposed to happen."
"You believe in destiny?" Abigail asks.
The woman catches the queen when she's falling out of the top of her egg. The new Weyrwoman-to-be, and Taylor knows absolutely nothing about her.
"I believe in making your own destiny," she says, and rises to her feet.
Karlie's been around enough dragons to know how much they can eat, especially right after hatching. She's felt the hunger in her own belly from dozens of clutches all at once. Even so, it's even more intense with Unith in her head.
It's why she doesn't notice the woman hovering near all the new dragonriders until Unith is full and drowsing in Karlie's arms.
"Nice job," the woman says. The sunlight's reflecting in her hair and giving her kind of a halo. "I didn't know what to do with Kumath when I Impressed. I was five seconds from going out to hunt before someone at Benden told me where to find meat."
Karlie laughs. "I'm Weyr born. If I didn't know that new hatches ate meat scraps, my life would be a waste."
The woman laughs and extends as a glove-covered hand. Karlie shifts Unith into her left arm and takes the woman's hand with her right.
"Taylor," the woman says.
Taylor. Taylor Swift. Karlie's eyes widen. Everyone's heard of Taylor and her bronze dragon Impression.
"Karlie. I didn't know you'd be at Ista."
"They needed some dragons to start." Taylor's smile turns from a genuine sort of happy to a satisfied smirk. "Apparently, I was redundant."
Karlie feels her breath catch. She's in front of a woman who made history. Something that feels almost like her dragon sense is telling her that Taylor isn't done, either.
"Lucky for Ista," Karlie says. She means it.
Taylor knows it's traditional for Weyrwomen to take management of the Weyr in a domestic way. Taylor also knows that Karlie is Weyr-raised and probably perfect for the traditional role.
But Taylor is going to be Weyrleader, and she's not going to be hide-bound.
She waits until Unith's old enough to do a little more than eat and sleep - and when Karlie's allowed a little more freedom - to invite Karlie into her chambers for a meeting. Taylor isn't inhabiting the Weyrleader's quarters yet because she might be ambitious, but she's not foolhardy. She wants to earn Weyrleader trappings.
"You and Unith have a lot of training to do," Taylor says, "and we have coverage from the other Weyrs until at least Unith rises for her first flight, and maybe longer. I'm supervising the bronzes' training, and I want some of that to be in the Weyr."
Karlie smiles. It's neutral, but not discouraging. "How so?"
Taylor outlines her plan to have the bronze riders rotate through the Weyr so they can understand the full function. Her reasons, again, are mostly practical; one of them may end up running the Weyr one day if Kumath doesn't fly Unith or if Taylor does get to be Weyrleader but gets killed fighting Thread. But the divisions between the men and women in the Weyr are also outdated and useless.
(She takes some pride in knowing all the women she'd personally Searched had Impressed fighting dragons, none of them green, and that many of the other women had Impressed greens and other fighters.)
Karlie listens to Taylor's plan in silence. She looks like she's really thinking it over, which is what Taylor hoped for. When she speaks, she says, "You're not worried about them losing drill time?"
It's a valid concern. With the rotations, it's not unlikely Taylor's bronzes will be a little greener - when it comes to experience, that is - than other bronze trainees when they hit their first Threadfall.
"We have backup from the other Weyrs, as I said," Taylor says, because she's thought this out. She's glad Karlie is giving it consideration, too. "Our riders will probably be held back from primary positions longer than trainees in other Weyrs just as a matter of course because everyone knows we're establishing here. We need to foster a positive culture for the women riders, and this is part of it."
Karlie smiles. "I agree on two conditions."
"One, I get to assign rehabilitating dragon riders on similar rotations in the Weyr." Karlie holds up a hand before Taylor can speak. "And you know I mean the ones well enough to move around and bored out of their shells. I'm not pulling the really sick ones out of their bedrolls."
Taylor laughs, surprised. "You really were raised in a Weyr. Your other condition?"
Karlie smiles. "That you teach me how to ride Unith."
"The High Reaches Weyrwoman sent a rider to offer her services, didn't she? I saw one visiting you."
"Oh, you mean my mother?" Karlie's smile warms. "Actually, Epoth came to visit. And Mom wanted to see how the place was holding up."
Epoth. Karlie's mom was a green rider, and Epoth was visiting.
Kumath, Taylor thinks. Have you talked to Karlie at all? Or just Unith?
Taylor feels a swirl of emotions as Kumath evaluates what Taylor's really asking. Taylor's always been told that dragons will mostly answer what you say on the surface, but Kumath's never had a problem interpreting Taylor's deeper meanings. Riders can talk to other dragons by speaking and getting their answers through their own dragons, but only one person every generation or two can speak mentally with all dragons.
I've talked to Karlie, Kumath answers. He doesn't find it particularly worthy of note, but then, dragons always seem to know what humans don't long in advance.
So Karlie can talk to all dragons. And she's Taylor's Weyrwoman. Taylor feels a surge of excitement so powerful that she has to ball up her fists a little to keep from shaking with it.
"I'd be happy to teach you two how to fly," Taylor says, when she finally manages to calm down a little.
Karlie isn't really surprised how easy it is to fly Unith, even when she's still not fully grown. She grew up flying Epoth, and even as clumsy as Unith is, Karlie has the benefit of a direct bond with her.
What she isn't ready for is when Unith has flying mastered and Taylor asks, at the beginning of another day of lessons, "Ready to try Between exercises?"
Karlie's mom gave her all kinds of advice about being a Weyrwoman, both when she was growing up and on the couple visits she's made when she's Impressed. One of the big ones was always, "Don't admit to any shortfalls. You're going to be guiding a Weyr. Any shakes in confidence will be reflected back."
But Karlie's known this was coming, and even as busy as Taylor is, Taylor's devoted lots of time to helping her with Unith. Being confident for a Weyr is one thing. Ignoring that she has help when she needs it is another.
"I don't like going Between," Karlie says. Her voice shakes. "My mom used to dose me with fellis juice when I was a kid because I had nightmares about it and couldn't sleep. It hasn't gotten much better."
"I didn't know that." Taylor nods to herself a little. "Okay. No going Between on Unith for now. How about...how about we do it a couple times on Kumath's back? Work up to it?"
Karlie nods gratefully.
She watches Taylor adjust Kumath's straps, and Kumath tells Karlie, You can talk to me if you're worried.
I appreciate it, Karlie thinks back. Don't you need to concentrate?
I can do both.
Karlie smiles and hums a quiet laugh, and when Taylor turns to see why, Karlie shrugs. But then she says, "I can talk to them all, you know. The dragons."
"Oh?" Taylor says mildly. Karlie's suspected that Taylor already figured it out, but her reaction isn't giving Karlie much. "You mean, you understand them?"
"That's a rare skill. Good for a Weyrwoman to have."
"Good for any rider," Karlie says, mostly in agreement.
Taylor grins. "Good for any rider. Thanks for telling me."
She gives Karlie a foot up, and Unith comes up to nuzzle Karlie as she settles in the saddle. She can actually reach Karlie pretty easily now. There's still time before her first mating flight, but shells, she grew so fast.
Wish I could go, Unith says wistfully as Taylor slides into the saddle in front of Karlie.
It's not you, love. You'll get your turn. And sooner rather than later. Karlie knows just as well as anyone that Unith will start going on her own if she doesn't have structured lessons.
Unith seems appeased for now, but Karlie feels in her the back of her mind as Kumath takes flight. Karlie sends her love and focuses on holding onto Taylor's waist.
"I'm going to think of a place to guide Kumath," Taylor calls once they've gained some altitude. "Can you pick up the picture in his head?"
"If he shares!"
"He will. Ready?"
Karlie takes a sharp breath in and holds onto Taylor tighter. "Do it."
She picks up the image in Kumath's head just before the warmth of Ista's skies disappears. It's actually nice to have that much to focus on because that, on top of the usual counting Karlie does when she goes Between, is enough to distract from the fact that Karlie can't feel the hide of Taylor's dragonriding outfit under her hands, much less any of the rest of it.
Still, the transition from cold and darkness and nothing into bright skies is hard to miss. Karlie gasps like she does every time she comes out from Between, and she laughs with relief when Taylor cheers and waves her arms.
"We did it!" Taylor says.
"Don't you do it a lot?" Karlie asks.
"Doesn't make it any less of an achievement!"
They circle a few times before they land in a grassy field. They're in front of a Hold of some kind; Karlie's lack of comfort with Between means that her travels have been limited. A couple kids in the front wave, and Taylor says, "You can come closer if you want!"
"Where are we?" Karlie asks after she feels the happiness Kumath's putting off when the kids scratch his eye ridges. Taylor's very good about directing them.
"The Harper Hall."
"Oh, wow." Karlie takes it in. "We had some great Harpers at High Reaches. Great way to pass time if you aren't riding dragons."
"I was here when I was found on Search. I wanted to be Masterharper."
Taylor nods with a pleased smile. "I figured, you told me something about you, so I wanted to tell you something about me."
"Well." Karlie smiles too. She feels warmth in her chest that's almost like what she feels when she's surrounded by happy dragons, like when she's at a hatching. "Thanks for telling me."
It starts small, but somehow, Taylor just keeps...confiding in Karlie.
They spend a lot of time together in their pursuit to ease Karlie into Between flights, so it doesn't come from nowhere, but Taylor realizes, with a distant sense of surprise, that with all her hopes for Kumath flying Ista's first queen, she hadn't taken what that would mean in her own life into consideration.
You should have friends, Kumath tells her one evening, while Taylor's oiling him and they're mostly kicking back.
"I do have friends."
Because you worked to make them. Kumath nearly floors Taylor with his love for her. He's good at that. Taylor takes a break to hug him.
"I guess that's one of the good things about the Weyr being like this," Taylor says. She hadn't thought of it in terms of "maybe I could have some friends". Honestly, she'd always thought being in charge meant she couldn't have friends. But the more she thinks about it, the more she realizes that all she had allowed herself to hope for was to be left alone.
It's probably why she tells Karlie about John the next day. Well, that and a lot of other things.
"The queen riders in High Reaches usually bedded the men who flew their dragons," Karlie muses as they walk around the hatching grounds at Benden. Taylor's been taking Karlie around to all the Weyrs so she can have mental pictures of them, and Kumath's off visiting the other dragons. "I heard Benden was different."
"I was different," Taylor says carefully. "Actually, can you see if a dragon named Izaroth is around?"
Karlie nods, and her gaze goes distant. "He's off teaching weyrlings with his rider."
They're in the hatching grounds by themselves - none of Benden's queens are clutching at the moment - so Taylor sighs and sits in the stands. "Izaroth's rider is a man named John. He's...well, I bedded him."
"During a mating flight?" Karlie looks politely confused as she sits next to Taylor in the stands.
"No. I didn't bed anyone during flight. I bedded him on my own and told him it was separate from what we did as dragonriders, but then I started getting ambitious, and..." Taylor sighed. "It wasn't pretty."
"Shells." When Taylor looks Karlie's way questioningly, Karlie says, "I've lived in a Weyr all my life. I know what happens when bronze riders feel like their partners are overreaching."
"It wasn't as bad as it could have been. I know that." It's what Taylor had to tell herself when the abuse in the Weyr mounted and nightmares plagued her. It was the only way to get back to sleep on those nights, and the only way to keep from waking Kumath.
Karlie takes one of Taylor's hands. Taylor blinks in surprise.
"We can't change what happened here," Karlie says, "but we can keep Ista from being that place. I want to."
Taylor gets a lump in her throat. She just nods and holds Karlie's hand back.
Karlie first flies Unith Between with Kumath and the echoes of Taylor's thoughts in her head. It's all reinforced images of the sky around High Reaches - Taylor thought Karlie would be more comfortable going somewhere she's really familiar with - and Karlie had wondered, at first, if it would be too overwhelming. But they'd practiced for days on solid ground, and then days on the back of Kumath, and having more in her head when there was nothing but cold and darkness outside of it was exactly what Karlie needed.
A few heartbeats, and then they burst above High Reaches Weyr in a burst of comparative warmth. (Everything was warmer than Between.)
Karlie shrieked with joy, and underneath her, Unith bugled her happiness. It's enough to disturb the dragons clumping on the ground, the older ones sending her fond grumps, but a very familiar Green flies up to meet them, circling happily.
You did it! Epoth says.
Karlie sends her happiness back. She looks so much smaller than Unith, and it's not just the comfortable distance they're giving each other; when they land, Unith's shadow almost completely covers Epoth.
Taylor and Kumath land nearby, and when Karlie's scrambled off Unith, she runs forward and hugs Taylor hard. They bounce together for a moment, limbs tangled, and the warmth of Taylor's cheek against hers is everything Between isn't.
It probably shouldn't be a surprise when Karlie shifts her face just enough to connect Taylor's lips with her own, but it is somehow. Not a bad one, though.
Taylor freezes against her. She pulls back and looks at Karlie's face like she's trying to read Karlie's mind.
She liked it, Kumath says easily.
Hey! Karlie thinks back. That's for her to say.
Kumath doesn't seem ashamed of the rebuke. He does nudge Unith when Taylor doesn't do anything after a moment, and they follow Epoth to the feeding grounds.
"You okay?" Karlie asks when they're alone.
Taylor's voice is tight, but she doesn't sound upset, exactly. Probably just needs a moment. Karlie can help with that much, at least. "My mom's probably in our rooms. Well, her rooms, now. You want to see?"
Karlie smiles reassuringly at Taylor and offers her hand. Taylor doesn't hesitate before taking it.
Taylor's in a haze until they get back to Ista and Cara, one of the candidates from the last hatching who didn't Impress but hung around, steers Karlie away to ask how the flight went. Taylor finds Selena, one of the weyrlings who Impressed a Brown, to ask how the training drills are going, and Taylor gets lost in that for a while. There's nothing like working to let her emotions sit.
She'd been told in Benden time and time again how unhealthy that was. But then, she'd also been called a slut who'd sleep her way to everything.
Shells. Was that what she'd done here? Seduced Karlie so she could get Weyrleader?
Kumath, who was sunning near where the weyrlings were practicing, rose from his nap enough to feel incredulous in her direction.
"I don't know what you know about it," Taylor tells him.
I was there.
"You don't know how humans..." Taylor waves her hands uselessly.
Karlie does. Talk to her.
Taylor sighs loudly. "Stop making sense."
She excuses herself from the weyrlings when she's reasonably confident they don't need her around and goes back into the Weyr. She could make her way to the Weyrwoman's chambers with her eyes closed at this point.
Which doesn't mean anything. They're friends. Taylor doesn't want anything out of this.
She knocks on Karlie's door, gets a loud "Come in!", and goes inside.
Karlie doesn't look up from the table at which she's sitting when Taylor comes in. She's more of a reader than Taylor would have suspected, but then, growing up the daughter of a dragonrider in a Weyr was probably different than being a Holder's daughter.
"Something on your mind, Taylor?" Karlie asks, eyes still lowered.
Taylor pauses mid-step. "How did you know it was me?"
"You walk lighter than most people that come in here." Karlie raises her head then, propping her chin on a hand. "And I thought you might show up."
"Yes. Um. You did a really good job Between. We only have a few more exercises to do..."
"...but Unith's probably going to rise any day now, so if that happens, they can wait..."
"Will you look at me?"
Taylor, without realizing it, had started carefully examining the wall hangings Karlie had pulled out of storage. She sighs and lets her shoulders drop.
"You have to know I want to be Weyrleader here."
Karlie laughs. "Uh, I think everyone here knows that. And most everyone wants it, too."
"Oh yeah. You think the girls want one of Fort's old castoffs running the place?" Karlie shudders. "Shells. That's a miserable thought."
Taylor balls up her hands and relaxes them, and then she does it again before she starts pacing. "I like you. I mean, I was mostly helping out at the beginning because I thought it would be better if we were familiar with each other if I did get to be Weyrleader...and okay, I thought Kumath might fly Unith if we knew each other, but I didn't. It's not."
She pauses to try to collect her words, and Karlie, with a laugh and an extended hand, gets to her feet. "Let me put you out of your misery. You like me."
"I like you. All of you. The parts of you that had to fight for all the power you have just as much as the parts that laugh at my terrible jokes."
"I like your jokes," Taylor says. She can't suppress her own smile.
"So that's all it has to be here. We like each other."
"But the flight."
Karlie raises an eyebrow. "I thought you shut yourself in your room during flights."
She knew very well that's what Taylor does. Taylor had borrowed some of her father's Hold's workers a couple days ago and sat every dragonrider down to talk about how sex during flights wasn't required and that she'd have people around making sure that rule was enforced. She'd suggested everyone stay in their quarters and take part in the flight through the connection only since, after all, the dragons flew too fast and too far for eyes to watch what they did.
"Yes," Taylor says aloud.
Karlie gets closer, and she takes one of Taylor's hands. "Would it make you feel better if we didn't explore this until after Unith's first flight?"
"What if Unith flies someone else?"
"I'm not Unith. I'm not going to sleep with Abigail or Danielle or anyone else just because Unith likes one of their dragons."
Taylor leans forward and kisses Karlie. The kiss doesn't have their mutual excitement over the successful Between trip to fuel it, but it's just as good, Taylor thinks.
"Let's wait," Taylor says. "Nothing personal, I just need time."
Karlie's cheeks are just the slightest bit pink. She doesn't look unhappy. "Take as much as you need," she says.
It's funny, but having this...tension between Karlie and Taylor makes the remaining days before Unith's first flight easier.
Karlie's mom had sat her down as soon as Karlie was old enough to understand - and once Karlie had assured her mom that yes, she wanted to Impress - and explained what flights were like for the people involved. Dragons and people were physically linked, and dragon mating was a very intense experience.
"Especially for the dragon leading the chase," her mom had said. "It's easy to get swept up in it, forget that you're in a human body. But you are, and you have to keep your dragon and your dragon's mate from going Between." It was something Karlie had worried about when she was a kid every time a flight happened and her mom hid her away.
She would probably worry now, but she was too busy making sure Ista had enough to feed all the dragons and helping Taylor coordinate with the other Weyrs for Thread sweeps and...well, thinking about Taylor. And thinking about Taylor thinking about Karlie.
(She could tell Taylor was thinking about her. Neither of them had much time to see each other right now, but when they were together, Taylor had a very particular thoughtful look she would get that made Karlie flush, and then Taylor would flush with embarrassment whenever she realized she did it, and Karlie would waggle her eyebrows, and...well, Cara and Gigi and some of the others went after Karlie about their mating dance, and Karlie could only suppose that was fair.)
So it comes out of nowhere when Karlie wakes up one morning with her blood heating and her jaw clenched. She doesn't even get out of bed at first; she grabs the cup she has by the side of her bed for klah last night and throws it against the wall. It's only when she sees a trail of liquid dripping down the wall that she thinks, hey, this isn't her usual behavior.
Karlie doesn't need to check in on Unith to know where the emotion's coming from; their connection's white hot in Karlie's head. But Karlie follows it anyway - it's what she's here for - and sees through Unith's eyes as she pounces her food.
Blood only, Karlie thinks. If Unith gorges, she won't be able to fly.
Unith recoils back, but Karlie holds firm, and she can almost taste the blood in her own mouth as Unith complies and only drains blood from her usual livestock stand. But Karlie is still herself, maybe more now than she usually is. If she was Unith, she wouldn't be able to protect Unith like she should.
And if she wasn't Karlie, she wouldn't feel the bronzes waiting in her head, either.
After Unith bleeds a couple of beasts dry, she takes to the air. Karlie's watched flights before, and the way queens fly really depends on both them and the person to whom they're Impressed; she's seen them tease, and she's seen them take bronzes out systematically. Unith doesn't seem to have any interest in fooling around, even in the throws of the mating heat. She wants the best, and the best has to keep up. Simple as that.
And most can't keep up. Unith is small and fast for a gold, her stamina good from all the practice she's had, and Karlie feels little surges of relief as she senses dragons she recognizes fall back.
Soon, there's only two dragons left: Abigail's Okoth and Taylor's Kumath. Not a surprise that they're both holding out, since they've both probably flown before but are still young enough that they outflew the older transplants. Karlie can feel Unith mulling them carefully; they've both proven themselves in her eyes, and she spends lots of time with them both.
Most flights that Karlie's seen ends with fighting between bronzes or some kind of trickery to outsmart the other competitors. But in this case, Unith simply swoops toward Kumath, choice made, and as they entangle for the actual mating to begin, Okoth drops back.
Karlie feels a lot after that - she has to stay with Unith to make sure she doesn't go Between - but she's certain the surge of triumph is hers and hers alone.
The flight is nothing like Taylor's felt before.
Kumath's gone for queens in the past, and he's even been in the final running twice. (Once at Benden, once at Fort, of all places, while they were visiting.) But this is his first mating, and there are going to be dragons from his direct lineage.
It's only after Kumath and Unith have finished and flown back to Ista to sleep that Taylor remembers what else it means.
Everyone else knows. Abigail is waiting not too far from Taylor's door, a big grin on her face as she extends her hand. "Weyrleader," she says.
The Haim sisters aren't far behind, and they surround Taylor and yell really loudly. Taylor yells with them for a minute, something she never thought she could do as a leader. The others standing around join in the group and cheer, and as Taylor gets a bunch of pats on the back, she feels connected to everyone there.
When everyone's calmed a little, the crowds part and reveal Karlie, who's leaning against the wall with her arms crossed. She would look bored if not for the large, knowing smile on her face.
"Better get ready to work," Karlie says, grinning as Taylor walks over to her.
"I have no idea what that's like," Taylor replies, deadpan. And then she hugs Karlie.
Karlie would have thought things would change after Unith's first flight...and to be fair, they do. A couple junior queen riders from other Weyrs ask for transfers to Ista, and Karlie's suddenly senior to a couple women older than her, one of whom, Jaime, is pregnant. They fit in almost right away.
Taylor takes her dragons to the sky for their first rounds of Threadfall, too. Everyone acquits themselves well; a couple riders have new scars, but it's nothing unusual or tragic. Another one of Taylor's changes serves them all well, too. While they all still have backup from the other Weyrs, the riders swap between sweeps in the air and shifts in the medical areas of the Weyr.
Karlie realizes with shock, after the first rounds are over and she's in bed for the night, that almost every rider has the know-how to be Weyrleader now, with the access Taylor's made sure they've all had. It doesn't mean everyone's suited or even wants the role, but using dragon mating cycles to choose a leader means uncertainty, and Taylor's eliminated a lot of it.
Sadly, Karlie hasn't had the chance to talk to Taylor about it much. Official Weyrleader duties take up a lot of Taylor's time at the moment, and that's their lives in their positions, really. Quiet periods followed by busy ones. Karlie just has to wait for things to slow a little. Good thing she's patient.
You're not patient at all, Unith says cheerful to Karlie as they both get some sun on the ledge outside their room one day. Unith's belly is growing bigger as the eggs inside her develop, and Karlie loves oiling her now, wondering when she's going to clutch.
"If I wasn't patient, I wouldn't be here with you," Karlie says. She would probably be a junior rider at some other Weyr.
Unith hums quietly in concession, but she says, You don't feel very patient.
"No one would be patient if everyone could see how they feel every second." Karlie thinks about it. "Besides, it wouldn't be patience if there wasn't the urge for action, would it? It would just be...I don't know, existing."
She pats Unith's side, and Unith leans into it before righting herself. I'm going to find Kumath. He knows the good sunning spots.
"Right, I get it. Just because you're happy means everyone else has to be."
I like the sound of that.
Karlie rolls her eyes, but she's smiling as Unith flies off.
Taylor gets a swirl of pointed emotion from Kumath before the humming starts. She's running before she realizes it, and she's the second on the hatching sands besides the dragons. The first, of course, is Karlie, who's petting Unith's head and making soothing noises in her direction.
The first egg to come out is gold.
"Whoa!" Taylor says, clapping her hands with delight. "Good job, Unith!"
"She says thanks," Karlie calls, "but she's not done yet."
And indeed she isn't. Her clutch is a great size for a first time, and it's loaded with likely bronzes. Taylor likes diversity better - blues and greens are extremely helpful in different ways, even if browns and up are more valued by Pern as a whole - but there's plenty of time, and plenty of queens, for that.
After all, there's three golden eggs in this batch.
When Unith's done and letting Karlie pet her, half asleep, Taylor makes her way over. Unith doesn't seem as protective as other queens Taylor's seen, but Taylor knows better than to underestimate her. If there's one lesson she's learned in her time as a dragonrider, it's that one.
"Do you think you'll want to have dinner with me soon?" Taylor asks Karlie after they sit in the sands with Unith for a minute. "I have some things I'd like to talk about with you."
Karlie beams. "I think I know a dragon who has better things to do than to spend time with me. I accept."
Unith nudges Karlie, probably for her comment, but she huffs a hot breath out in a way that Taylor suspects means she's pleased.
Karlie's first reaction when stepping into Taylor's rooms is "Wow!"
Taylor's made the Weyrleader quarters her own in a way Karlie hasn't seen much. Most of Weyr beauty is left to whatever structures make up the places and the dragons that live within, which Karlie doesn't think is a bad thing. But Taylor's found ways to bounce light with mirrors around the place, and there are little spots of color in the room. Her table is covered in bright cloth. There's a clump of flowers near Taylor's bed. Things like that.
"You like it?" Taylor asks, laying food out. "Benden's Weyrleader had meetings in his rooms all the time, and they were the most boring, ugly things on Pern."
"You've given me some ideas. What food did you make?"
Taylor lifts a lid of a pot, releasing scent. "Something of my own recipe. I'm surprised the kitchens don't hate me."
"You too, huh?" Karlie hoists a basket of her own. "I made bread."
Karlie feels pretty good about things when they both fall silent to eat. They make eye contact a couple times and laugh, but really, it says a lot that both their priorities are in the same place.
When they've slowed enough to actually talk, Karlie pats her belly with a contented sigh. "We make good food."
"We do," Taylor agrees. "I don't get much time to cook or bake these days. Nice that I haven't gone rusty."
They nod at each other for a minute until a dragon bugles outside, and Karlie rolls her eyes when she gets the unnecessary mental translation. "I know," she calls. "Can we have a little privacy, please?"
Taylor giggles. "To be fair, we're in their heads when they're mating."
Karlie leans forward on her hands. Taylor's pretty close, so she gets a good look into her eyes. "Is that what we're doing? Mating?"
"I don't know if I'd call it that." Taylor says it in a slightly deeper voice, resting her head on her hands.
They stare at each other for a few minutes...until Karlie blinks and they both burst into laughter.
"That is probably the least smooth I've ever been in my life," Karlie says after she catches her breath. "Shells."
Taylor snorts. "Believe it or not, this is going better for me than it's ever gone before."
Karlie doesn't believe that. But she jerks her head toward Taylor's bed. "It can get better."
Karlie takes the challenge. She gets to her feet, backs up with a (only slightly silly) smile on her face for enticement reasons, and pushes her dress off her shoulders. She likes how much Taylor's staring at her as she does it.
"Come over here," Karlie says, patting the bed beside her.
She expects Taylor to get up and stalk her way over - and Karlie wants to take the opportunity to ogle Taylor's legs properly in her own dress - but instead, Taylor jumps to her feet, nearly trips over a leg of the table, and hops in one foot while hissing under her breath.
"Are you okay?" Karlie says, getting to her own feet quickly.
Taylor grins painfully. "Fine! Fine. Just...stubbed my toe."
She falls on the bed with a dramatic groan, and Karlie sinks back down and hugs her. "I wanted you to come over here," Karlie says, half horrified and half giggling, "not break everything getting here."
"Well, here's something you should know about me. I may look impressive out there, but I'm actually kind of a mess."
Karlie shrugs. "Who cares as long as you look good on a dragon?"
Taylor groans a laugh.
"Do you want to do this later?" Karlie asks.
"Absolutely not." Taylor reaches forward and brushes hair away from Karlie's face. "I'm fine. Just ridiculous."
"I'm totally okay with that," Karlie says.
Taylor leans forward and kisses Karlie. She's very good at it. Karlie's happy to kiss back.
They kiss for a while, keeping their hands in mostly appropriate places like they're baby weyrlings having their first tryst, until Karlie decides to heat things up and slides her hand toward Taylor's breasts. She pauses and pulls her mouth away from Taylor's to ask if it's okay, and Taylor makes a disapproving noise and pulls Karlie close again. Taylor hums happily when Karlie slides her hand under Taylor's shift and starts rubbing at one of her nipples.
"I want to put my mouth on you," Taylor whispers in Karlie's ear.
"Me first," Karlie says.
Taylor pushes Karlie down on the bed and straddles her. "Or I can go second," Karlie says with a laugh, sliding her hands down to get her hands on Taylor's ass. And then her legs, which makes Taylor laugh and squirm a little.
"Stop distracting me," Taylor says. "Maybe we should strip."
Karlie grins. "You first."
She has a great view for Taylor revealing herself. Karlie bites her lip as she sees Taylor's breasts and hard nipples, Taylor's cunt, and the rest of her skin that she usually keeps hidden for safety reasons. She has one scar on her arm and Karlie sees a hint of a scar on her back when Taylor turns for more of a view, but she's more concerned with the sight of Taylor's ass, honestly.
"Now you," Taylor says, scooting back so Karlie can have room.
Karlie complies. Taylor's eyes are hungry on her, and when Karlie sees Taylor's gaze linger, she either pauses and lets Taylor get her fill, or she explains what Taylor's seeing. "I got that scar from falling in the hatching sands as a kid," she says about one on her leg. "And this one was a kitchen accident."
Taylor takes her own turn when Karlie's fingers graze over Taylor's arm scar. "Mine are Threadscore," she says. "Didn't even hurt, really. Kumath took me Between both times so fast that I felt the cold more than anything else."
Karlie shivers at that, that the scourge of Pern could be less than that of Between. And she knows it's silly, but having Taylor in her arms as they explore each other feels like the exact opposite of that place.
She forgets about anything else when Taylor finally kisses down her torso, kisses lightly across the hair between her legs, and then gently nudges Karlie's legs open to reveal her cunt. It's not the first time Karlie's had anyone down there, of course, but there's always a new feeling unique to whoever's there. This time, the lingering vulnerability Karlie usually feels is nowhere to be found. Taylor looks awed in a way that makes her look young and makes Karlie feel safe.
Karlie cradles the back of Taylor's head as Taylor leans in to taste Karlie's cunt. It's a nice combination, scratching lightly at Taylor's hair as Taylor laps at Karlie's clit. It's obvious at first that Taylor's never gone down on someone with a cunt before, but it's just as obvious that Taylor always works hard to get what she wants, and the involuntary sighs and moans that leave Karlie's mouth seem to spur Taylor on harder.
It still takes some time - and fingers slid carefully inside of Karlie for her to rock into - before she comes, but it's the best climax of Karlie's life.
Karlie laughs against her pillows when she's done. Taylor makes her way back up, face flushed and hair styled by sweat.
"That was..." Karlie laughs a little again. "Shells. What do you want?"
Like Taylor was waiting for Karlie to ask, she lunges in for a hungry kiss. It feels like a lot after coming so hard, the pressure of their lips together, the taste of Karlie going from Taylor's mouth to Karlie's, but there's still a prickle to Karlie's skin like she could go again. It grows when Taylor guides Karlie's hand between Taylor's legs.
"Just like this," Taylor murmurs against Karlie's mouth. "While you kiss me."
It's the least Karlie can do to give it to her. Taylor's cunt is warm and pulsing, and Karlie's fingers move easily as she figures out what kind of pressure Taylor's clit likes. It takes Taylor barely any time to come at all, and Karlie pulls back to see her face as she does. She's just as beautiful in the throes of ecstasy as she is at any other time, but Taylor leaving herself free to show it - and choosing Karlie to share her bed - is the greatest thing Karlie's ever seen.
When Taylor's finished with the aftershocks, and Karlie can feel the promise of another time in the air, they're cuddling each other under Taylor's furs, fingers intertwined.
"I was hoping I'd get a chance to taste you," Karlie finds herself saying, slightly playful as she brushes a sweaty curl out of Taylor's face.
Taylor beams. "Don't worry. You'll get plenty of chances."
It's weeks after that when Kumath wakes Taylor by saying her name sharply.
Taylor's in her bed with Karlie. Or, actually, Taylor's alone when she sits up sharply, but the rumpled bed beside her is still warm. Taylor passes a fond hand over the spot before she realizes what she's hearing in the air.
"Shells," she says, but she's grinning when she runs out of bed.
It never gets too cold at Ista at any point, but between the warming sands and the eggs on top and the influx of people as sleepy dragonriders bring visitors from other Weyrs, Taylor doesn't need more than her usual clothes as she takes her place of honor at the top of the seats. Karlie's already waiting in the spot next to Taylor's, and she spares Taylor a grin before she turns back her focus to the eggs.
"You couldn't have woken me up?" Taylor says, suppressing a yawn.
"Unith wanted a minute. She knew it was coming." Karlie grabs Taylor's hand without looking and gives it a squeeze.
"Fine, I guess," Taylor says, but she can see the candidates walking on the sands, and a few wave at her, Harry and Cara among them. She waves back eagerly and sees visitors from outside Ista giving her wary looks. And then she sees them wilt, and it isn't until Taylor turns her head that she sees Karlie giving one clump a particularly withering look.
They're mostly left alone after that because the rocking eggs start hatching in earnest. Taylor doesn't know why she didn't expect it, but there's a part of her that feels like she's seeing her own kids born. Maybe she tears up a little when she sees more of her female candidates Impressing bronzes and browns, but she hears Karlie sniffling beside her, so at least Taylor's not the only one.
She's so wrapped up watching Cara with her new bronze that she doesn't know one of the queens has hatched until Karlie grabs her arm.
"Look," Karlie breathes.
Taylor does. And she sees none other than Harry himself running out to help her. She's a little far up to know the second Impression's made, but she hears the gasps of the crowd around her and sees shocked faces as she squeezes Karlie's hand.
"You did it," Karlie says as they watch Harry cradle the new queen.
Taylor shakes her head, smiling at all the people now looking her way. "No," she says. "We did."