Robinton awoke to a pounding headache. He instinctively ducked his head away from the too-bright light and got a mouthful of hair from the warm female form in his arms. Shards. He tried to piece together scattered memories, to place where he was and who the lady might be. He’d not indulged heavily enough to earn a morning-after headache this bad in years; he would need to summon all his charm to make up for what was likely a very disappointing bedroom performance the night before.
She pushed back into his embrace and stretched. “Morning,” she said.
Robinton recognized the distinctive contralto. Menolly. He held himself very still, mind racing. “Water?” he begged, his own voice cracked and heavy with sleep and dehydration.
She chuckled. He felt her leave the bed.
Last night—he remembered performing with her before a Gather crowd at Fort Hold. Menolly had been away for months, journeying with a merchant caravan. As valuable as he had known the experience and connections would be for her, he had missed Menolly’s counsel and her company more than he’d expected. Robinton had been delighted when one of Menolly’s fire lizards had appeared in his quarters with an invitation to perform with her. It had been easy enough to convince the Fort watchdragon's rider to deliver him to the Gather.
Robinton recalled the joyous rush of performing tight, intricate instrumental and vocal duets with Menolly, followed by a rowdy sea chanty and a few of her own pieces. He’d eventually begged off any more encores, playing up his age and infirmity to the crowd, for the pure pleasure of sitting down and listening to Menolly sing.
When she joined him at the table, she’d been in good humor and, noticing he was already partaking of the excellent Benden vintage on offer, had whispered in his ear to propose a drinking game. Every time the Holder’s son mentioned dragons, he’d drunk. And drunk. And drunk some more.
She’d walked, or rather half-dragged him back to his room in the wee hours of the morning. He remembered spouting some filthy doggerel about a farmer and his well-muscled filly. She’d laughed at him. Efficiently stripped him of his clothes. Slipped under the bed furs. And kissed him.
Robinton allowed himself a moment to treasure the memory of that warmth, the taste of her mouth, the feel of her hands running over his body. Then he locked them away, caged in every one of the reasons he’d decided this was impossible. Menolly was young enough to be his daughter, he reminded himself. She was nearly young enough to be his granddaughter. It was entirely possible that the girl was still a virgin, and the very idea of her master being the one to take that from her was obscene. It was a mercy that he’d been too drunk to do any more than rut ineffectively against her last night.
Robinton dragged himself upright in bed and squinted against the morning sunlight. Menolly, wearing nothing but a smile, turned towards him with a cup of water. He took it, thanked her, and drank slowly, staring down at the age spots on his hands clasped around the cup. This morning was all about damage control, and might well require the type of cruelty he most despised, towards one he held most dear.
Robinton placed the cup carefully on the bed stand, looked up at Menolly, and went on the offensive. “It’s not uncommon,” he said lightly, meeting her eyes, “for journeying harpers to fall into the habit of plying the locals with drink in order to satisfy their urges for sexual conquest, but I hadn’t thought you’d be the type.” Robinton was well aware Menolly hadn't planned it out this way, but the accusation should be enough to force her to retreat to a safe distance. Safe for both of them.
Menolly paled. “That’s not what happened last night, and you know it,” she said.
“No? You wanted me, were repeatedly told no, and rather than respecting that choice you intentionally incapacitated me with alcohol—very clever, that drinking game. Benden red is known far and wide as my weakness, but I’ve never had it used against me quite so effectively. As a general rule, anyone too drunk to remove their own clothing is too drunk to consent, Journeyman Menolly. If you’ve forgotten the relevant teaching songs, I can quote them to you.”
Menolly looked stricken for a moment, then rallied. “You know I care for you. You’ve wanted me, wanted this for years. And if the only reason why we can’t is that you have too much power, then last night should prove I’m no shrinking maiden helpless to resist your manly virility,” she said tartly.
Robinton ignored the urge to applaud her effective turn of phrase. “Power comes in more forms than the purely physical. When, a few months down the road, you find yourself a younger, more attractive lover, you shouldn’t have to fear the reaction of the master who controls your placement and opportunities for advancement.”
Menolly scoffed. “Nearly every master, in every craft hall, marries from within their own craft. Putting aside the insult of your assumption that I don’t know my own mind well enough to know what, and who, I want, can you honestly tell me you would vindictively misuse your power as Masterharper? Because if so, you’re absolutely right, I don’t want you in my bed, or in a position of power over any harper,” she challenged him.
Beauty, who had been peacefully curled up with Zair on the windowsill, roused enough to hiss at Robinton. Menolly hurriedly shushed the queen before the rest of her fair awoke and came rushing in to defend her. Zair’s eyes whirled yellow, conveying his dismay. Robinton sent a quick reassurance to his fire lizard that, even though they were arguing, he and Menolly were still friends.
Fire lizard crisis averted, Robinton turned his attention back to Menolly and marshalled his next point. “As a young woman, you’ve had to fight for respect both within and outside of our hall. And the one thing that every single adversary of yours has in common, ever since you walked the tables, is the belief that you earned your rank on your back, as my bed warmer.”
Menolly glared down at him, hands on her hips, splendidly and unabashedly naked. “Will they believe it any more if I spend my nights warm in your bed than if I spend them cold and alone in my own?”
“If we hand them proof of it, yes!” Robinton sputtered.
“I’m capable of a certain level of discretion,” Menolly countered. “Aren’t you?”
“It’s not just your reputation at risk,” Robinton said, grabbing onto the tattered ends of his argument. “What about the other young women who might want to join our crafthall?”
Menolly squared her shoulders and took a slow, deep breath, as if she were about to sing—an arresting sight, given her state of undress. Then she let it out slowly and sat down on the bed beside him. “It’s good that you care so much about the girls who want to be harpers, Master Robinton,” she said gently. “But could you take a moment to consider what I want? Or even, and I realize I’m hoping for a warm night Between here, give a moment’s thought to what you might want?”
Robinton paused and thought it through, because this, as much as composing, was Menolly’s gift. So long as Robinton was Masterharper, Camo would have a place in the kitchens. He deserved it, for his many years of service. But what’s more, he played an indispensable role in the Hall. Robinton kept a close eye on Camo. He observed how every apprentice and journeyman treated a man who had neither the power nor the wits to defend himself. It was a test of compassion, and one that many an otherwise promising young harper had failed. Menolly had immediately taken the man under her wing, proving that Petiron’s apprentice was exactly who the Harper Hall needed. Who Robinton needed.
Robinton could see the big picture—the needs of Pern and the sweep of history. He could bend events to his will with a whisper in a Weyrleader’s ear, a fire lizard egg on the right holder’s hearth, a journeyman placed at a Crafthall to spread technological advancements faster than hidebound traditions would have permitted.
Menolly, always and without fail, saw the people affected by his plans and policies. She was the one to remind him of the holder’s ailing father and the journeyman’s fiancée. Menolly’s counsel ensured that in Robinton’s drive to win a bright future for Pern, he didn’t turn friends into reluctant allies, opponents into enemies.
He’d missed Menolly terribly while she was gone a-journeying. It seemed she had missed him, as well. She was his most valued advisor and dearest friend. The possibility that she could be more, a true partner, was captivating. Robinton began considering it seriously, contemplating the advantages and disadvantages, the potential disasters and the steps needed to avoid them.
“You’re over-thinking it,” Menolly said, recognizing the condition as she always did. She sat down beside him on the bed.
“I’ve been a bit of dimglow about this, haven’t I,” Robinton said ruefully.
“Yes, but I love you anyway,” Menolly said warmly, as she had a dozen times before.
This time, Robinton let himself believe her. He leaned forward to press his lips against her forehead, only to have Menolly wrap a hand around the back of his neck and pull him down into a kiss. It was wet and messy, awkward until he turned his head just so, and then, oh…
Menolly sat back. “You’re a much better kisser when you’re sober,” she said, breathless, bright-eyed, and impish.
“Decades of practice,” he said huskily, lips tingling, aching for more but determined not to push for more than Menolly was ready to give.
“I’ve been told I’m a quick study,” Menolly said. She tossed the bed furs away and flopped down on the bed, then put her hands behind her head and leered up at him. “Perhaps you can recommend a master of the craft who might offer an intensive tutorial?”
Robinton forced his gaze away from her gorgeously lean, slim-hipped body to gauge the angle of the sunlight. The morning after a Gather, no one would be surprised if they were late to breakfast. “I believe we’ve time for a brief introduction to the topic,” he said, and joined her with a smile.