"It's bad for Weyr morale," Lessa said again, as if she'd forgotten any other words.
"It can hardly be the first time it's happened, at one Weyr or another," Menolly pointed out. "For one reason or another. Wasn't it just last Turn that Weyrleader G'narish was laid low with spotted fever?"
Lessa gave a short, mirthless chuckle. "Dragonriders are human enough to get fevers every now and then…and there's more than a few bronze riders who have been struck down with less mentionable ones." Menolly spluttered in spite of herself. "But for the Weyrleader to be Thread-scored…"
What would Master Robinton say? Menolly asked herself, as she'd been doing repeatedly for the last hour. "He's not dead," she said firmly, sticking to facts. "He's not crippled even, only laid up for a while. And―" (what would Master Robinton say?) "―surely you don't object all that much to a man with a few scars."
Lessa gave her an incredulous look and then burst into genuine laughter, biting the sound off hard when it threatened to waver into a sob. "Hardly," she gasped, regaining control after the momentary lapse. "That would be the least of my problems, or his. But I'm worried about the Weyr."
"Do you mean whether there are other riders who can lead in Threadfall while the Weyrleader's recovering? Or whether the riders will be less effective because he's been taken down and they've lost confidence in the Weyr as a whole? Or whether they'll lose confidence in him specifically?" Menolly spun it out logically, drawing on Sebell this time instead of Robinton.
"Oh, I don't know," Lessa said impatiently. "Any or all of that. No…F'lar would be no leader at all if there were no one who could replace him for a while, there's T'gellan and K'ril and maybe E'von if he can keep his dragon away from the greens long enough to focus on something for a change, we'll manage in Fall well enough, but…" She sighed and shoved the weight of dark hair, less touched with grey than Menolly's own, away from her forehead. "Ramoth tells me I'm a fool to think the Weyr would doubt Mnementh, scored or not. But men aren't dragons."
There was a clunk from the small lift in the wall; Menolly went to it and retrieved a tray of food and drink, the klah pitcher steaming. She had hoped to have this uncomfortable interview interrupted by someone bringing the tray to Lessa’s weyr in person―maybe even Mirrim, if she was willing to give up the dignity of a senior rider. Over time, Lessa's generalized irritation with the disruption caused by a female greenrider had gradually transmuted into something like a recognition of commonality; Menolly had more than once seen the two of them exchanging ironic looks across half the Lower Cavern at the behavior of the male riders. Mirrim was always at her best in a crisis, and she might have been able either to comfort Lessa or to annoy her into relaxing.
Well, Mirrim probably had other good things to do with her time, like Master Robinton, far away down South and handling matters of his own there, concerned as he might be. Menolly was the one on the spot, more by chance than by arrangement, and at least whoever had put the tray together had seen fit to include a skin of genuine Benden white.
She poured the klah first and passed the warm cup to Lessa, along with a plate of sliced wherry meat and bread. The smell of savory spices tickled her nose; someone wanted to make sure the Weyrwoman was eating. She wondered if Lessa would push the food aside and reach for the wine, but in general she seemed equally uninterested in all of it, and only picked up the klah cup after what Menolly strongly suspected was a nudge from her dragon. Thank Faranth for the good sense of dragons. She adored all nine of her firelizards (currently tucked away in Canth’s weyr with Grall and Berd, because this was no time to ruffle Lessa’s feathers any more than necessary), but common sense was not their strong point and expressing it in words even less so.
Menolly followed Lessa’s lead for the moment, eating her plateful with insensate practicality and drinking the hot klah in careful, regular swallows. She had been hungry, she realized as the food reached her stomach—called urgently from the Harper Hall at first light Fort time. Not that there was any reason to have her there, except that she was the nearest thing available at the moment to Master Robinton. It wasn’t as if there was a policy conclave to be held or a song to be written. Menolly had in her time as a harper so far been called on to write more than one dirge, and had found it an exercise running from the purely academic (for Lord Groghe’s wife’s ninety-three-year-old father) to the bleakly comic (for an argumentative, hyperactive minecrafter who had been killed in a pit collapse during a shouting match with his journeyman) to the genuinely heart-wrenching (for two brown weyrlings at Fort who had never emerged from between). In this case there was no question of what it would have been, and Menolly reminded herself fiercely that Master Oldive was there, and that the Weyrs had years and years of experience tending Threadscore.
"Why am I the only one eating?" Lessa asked suddenly, tilting her klah cup in Menolly's direction.
"Oh…I didn't want to impose…I suppose I thought I'd eat something when I got back to the Hall. My body's still running on Fort time."
"Eat," Lessa ordered, sounding momentarily more like herself. "I won't have that Manora of yours―" "―her name's Silvina―" "saying the Weyr gives Harpers nothing but wine."
Menolly took this as a double invitation, filling her glass. She liked Benden white less for the flavor itself―her palate remained stubbornly untutored, although apparently she wasn't as bad as Sebell, whose extended journeyings had given him a persistent taste for the rough ales and ciders herdsmen and poor journeymen in all crafts drank―than for the sense memories of Master Robinton it brought. A sip filled her mouth and mind with his presence, as vivid as the smell of a favored hide jacket or the sound of the first-inversion chords he often used for the chorus break.
She must have sighed. Lessa was looking at her over her own wineglass, the steady grey gaze bracketed by fine lines. It occurred to her suddenly that she didn't actually know how old the Weyrwoman was. Younger than Master Robinton or the Weyrleader, certainly, but did that make her closer to Silvina's age or to Menolly's own?
They sat in silence for a few minutes; Lessa finished her plate without visible pleasure, pushed it away from her and sipped her wine steadily and regularly, her gaze distant; Menolly wasn't sure if she was talking to her dragon or simply staring into space. She herself discovered how hungry she was once she began eating, and had to remind herself not to gobble like an apprentice after a choir rehearsal with Master Domick.
What would Master Robinton have done? she asked herself once again, breathing in the fragrance of the wine. She knew he and Lessa had been very close (although she'd never believed the rumors that suggested just how close; Robinton wasn't a man to sleep with a woman he cared for unless he could have all of her, nor one to spend years indulging himself in unattainable desire―unless maybe it was for a song. Menolly could think of one or two tunes she'd written herself in that vein), but was surprised, on reflection, at how vague her image of their relationship was. Were they friends, the way Menolly was with Talmor or Piemur? Was he an older brother of sorts for her, or a father figure―for Lessa, who had none of her own? Was it the kind of close working partnership Menolly was starting to share with Domick?
"What would Master Robinton have done if he were here?" she asked out loud. After all, presumably Lessa would know.
"If you don't know, I don't know who does," Lessa answered, seeming to echo Menolly's own thoughts. "Oh, he would have put away the rest of the wineskin, come up with some ironic twist on it all to make me laugh, then turned serious in an eyeblink, telling me everything would be all right…" She sighed. "I miss Robinton terribly, Menolly, but he's just another man. There isn't anything he could have done here that you haven't, except drink more wine."
"Today you need Healers, not Harpers," Menolly summed up. "And you know the Weyrleader has them."
Lessa's gaze turned momentarily dragon-vague. "Master Oldive is requesting a lift back to his Hall, where he has ill patients. S'edli says the Masterhealer assures him the Weyr healers will be able to do all that's needed here."
"That's…good?" Menolly ventured. She knew Oldive wouldn't leave the Weyrleader if he were dangerously unstable.
"I suppose. Brekke knows as much as Oldive's craftfolk these days, and she has a couple of apprentices on hand, and S'edli's been tending Threadscores here since he was a weyrling at the beginning of the Pass. And he's got Limarth listening in to Mnementh full time as well…not that Ramoth isn't…" Lessa rubbed her face roughly with both hands. "Dragons don't need as much sleep as we do, fortunately."
"What…does Mnementh say?"
Lessa still had her hands over her face, her loose hair hiding what could be seen between her fingers. "He says it hurts," she said, suddenly small-voiced. "And when Ramoth and I ask if he means his scoring or his rider's, he says 'Yes.'"
In the silence―silence for Menolly, at least; she had no way of knowing what dragon voices might not be clamoring in Lessa's mind―it came to her that she had been thinking of all the things she couldn't do because she wasn't Master Robinton, but not of what she could only do because she was not.
She set her wineglass down very carefully and stood up, moving around to stand just behind Lessa's chair. What she had noticed was that, though Lessa had let her hair out of its braid and swapped her riding boots for slippers, otherwise she was still in riding gear, as if there hadn’t been a moment since that morning when she’d found a chance to change; it was a wonder she’d been able to taste her meal through the smell of firestone. Then again, she might not have noticed its taste anyway.
The wherhide jacket fastened not with buttons like normal clothing but with a complicated system of straps along one side; Menolly had wondered the first time she saw this why they used this complex and apparently inefficient style, until Mirrim explained to her that it meant you could get the jacket off with one slash of a belt knife if you had to. In an emergency.
Menolly thought of Weyrleader F’lar lying in the healers’ weyr across the Cavern, and swallowed.
Well, this wasn’t an emergency…not that way, anyway…and there was no point in ruining Lessa’s perfectly good leathers. Menolly reached out to undo the first knot of the straps, the one that would loosen all the others. At the last moment before her hands found the leather, it occurred to her that one did not casually touch a dragonrider, least of all a queenrider, without permission.
You have permission, said a deep voice in her head; if Beauty's twitter was a piccolo this was a contrabassoon, no, the pitch was deep but the resonances went up through the full range of woodwinds and horns, a single instrument or voice would never do it justice, no wonder there were lots of ballads about queen dragons but none she could think of where the singer took the dragon's part instead of the rider's―
Menolly's mind was touched again by a mixture of amusement and impatience, wordless but still in that diapason voice, and she remembered where she was. Thank you, Ramoth, she said politely.
Lessa didn’t startle when Menolly began to undo her jacket. Of course not, she would have been in contact with her dragon.
The first knot would have been a struggle if she hadn’t had some practice with Mirrim, but she knew the knack now. Once the first one came undone, there was nothing to it. The jacket slid neatly off over Lessa’s shoulders, revealing a plain sleeveless shift tucked into the fighting trousers, and Menolly caught it over one arm. “Where does this go?” Mirrim saw to her own clothes, but surely the Weyrwoman didn’t do her own laundry?
Lessa blinked at her as if she had been a long way away. “Oh—put it down over there. I’ll…later…” As Menolly set down the jacket and returned, the Weyrwoman asked absently “How did you know the rider’s knot?”
“Oh, that? Mirrim showed me.” Menolly remembered visiting Mirrim only hours after Threadfall, was it last Turn? the smell of firestone far stronger from a greenrider’s leathers, exciting the firelizards (who were then scolded away by a sleepy Path…). Flying Fall is hard on the rider too, you know, Mirrim said, half complaining to her dragon, half making up to Menolly. Mm, yes, like that please…
Lessa’s shoulders were thinner than Mirrim’s, smaller all around. Menolly drew the weight of hair—still only just flecked with silver—up over her own arm and found the places where Fall and fear had twisted muscle tight against bone.
She was surprised, and then not surprised, when Lessa melted back into her, drawing Menolly’s hands forward to cup her small neat breasts. Automatically Menolly’s thumbs found the nipples under the smooth fabric of the shift, circling gently and then not so gently; she bent forward to nestle her cheek against the top of Lessa’s head, smelling firestone, sweat, and sweetsand.
When Lessa stood up, it was such a sudden motion that Menolly thought for a horrified instant she was about to find herself on the receiving end of the full-fledged wrath of the Weyrwoman of Benden, something even Master Robinton had not cared to incur. Before she could imagine herself permanently banished to the tiniest sub-hold in the farthest north of the High Reaches, however, Lessa’s arm was locked around her waist and drawing her firmly over to the bed against the wall.
After that it was fast, and smooth, and full of the background resonance of dragon voices. Eventually Menolly lay back, a little breathless, and admired the neat compact rider’s body and the sharp contrast of black hair and pale skin, finely grained and nearly translucent at the cheekbones and hipbones, blue-gleaming veins showing in the rounds of breasts. She leaned forward in spite of herself to kiss the soft rose-brown circles around the nipples once again.
"You know, I've never…" Lessa’s voice was a fifth lower than the Weyrwoman’s usual speech. She ran a hand lightly down the boundary line where her hip tucked into Menolly's waist. "…with anyone but F'lar."
"I know,” Menolly said, before she heard herself. Lessa blinked.
“Well…if you had, the most likely person would be Master Robinton. And the whole Harper Hall knows that’s not true—no,” she added, feeling Lessa draw away from her. “I don’t mean he ever talked about you that way, or was in the habit of updating the entire Hall on his sex life. Or lack thereof. But we would have known from his music, we just…Well,” reconsidering slightly, “at least the journeymen and masters, anyway. The apprentices mostly either haven’t discovered sex yet at all, or assume that everyone in Pern is getting some except them.”
Lessa snorted, the tension along her spine relaxing somewhat, though not completely. “Better than weyrlings, who spend their time either oiling their dragons—“
“—or oiling someone else’s dragon?” Menolly finished, irresistibly. I’m oiling my dragon because I can’t oil yours—that might make a song, obviously not one for official performance, but the kind that got journeymen bought dinner and ale in remote holds from Crom to Nerat. With a good swinging gitar backing, ringing major chords interspersed with slaps on the gitar body—
With some effort, she shook herself out of the tuning haze. “But the adults—we don’t, you know, sit around the firepit and gossip about who’s sharing the furs with who, but if you listen to the songs…you work it out. The music tells you. I don’t know.” She realized suddenly that her mental image of the Harper Hall was still, inevitably, dominated by Master Robinton. Robinton talking with his mouth full at the High Table in the middle of lunch, using the full power of his baritone to argue chord changes with Domick over the apprentice clamor. Robinton frowning at the sand table in his office, erasing one note to write three more. Robinton and Sebell having one of their cryptic strategic conversations, rubbed so smooth by their private code that even she couldn’t follow more than a third of it, and tended to drift into enjoyment of their spoken-voice baritone-and-tenor duet. Robinton singing one of her tunes for the first time. Robinton…
She wasn’t sure how long she had been silent. Lessa had turned her face into the curve of Menolly’s shoulder, hard enough almost to bruise. Menolly buried her face in Lessa’s hair and stroked the fine, worn skin of her back, a slow four-four time that helped soothe her as well.
It was sometime after that when the dragon-voice said Mnementh’s rider wakes.
Ramoth and some others as well, Menolly thought, from the harmonics and the voicing. Lessa had come to instant, full awareness in her arms, was out of bed and on her feet before Menolly could sit up. She pulled herself together and helped the Weyrwoman scramble back into her trousers and the nearest shirt, which was in fact Menolly’s, not that it mattered.
"Hurry," Lessa demanded, crisp-voiced again. "Here—" She tossed her own shift in Menolly's direction.
Hurry, said Ramoth, and Menolly got herself dressed in seconds.
She was still hastily finger-combing her hair when Lessa grabbed her free hand and pulled her onto the ledge—the Bowl spread out suddenly below them and Menolly suppressed a squeak of shock at having the drop-off so close—and, without pausing, onto Ramoth's back.
"Of course you can," Lessa said impatiently, one arm firmly about Menolly's waist while the other secured herself to her dragon. "Ramoth would let you know if she minded, believe me. Come on—" and Menolly clutched Lessa's arm, trying not to hang on by the Weyrwoman's hair, as the queen dragon pushed off the ledge in one powerful forward motion, wings beating hard as soon as she was in the air. The association with Lessa's hands on her body only a few minutes earlier was impossible to avoid; Menolly swallowed hard and kept the mixture of fear and exhilarated arousal in check.
They swept over the Bowl in what seemed like a single wingbeat—Menolly had a blurred glimpse of upturned faces below—and settled, with unbelievable neatness for the largest dragon in Pern, onto the lower ledge by the healers' weyr. Lessa somehow managed to dismount without getting her legs completely tangled with Menolly's, and even steadied her as she stumbled on the rock.
The curtain across the weyr opening was pulled back a little way and a woman in a healer's smock over leathers emerged—Mirrim. So this was where she'd been, helping out Brekke. "Weyrwoman! The Weyrleader is asking for you." Her tone of cheerful officiousness went a long way to reassure them both that matters were better than they had been.
"So I have been told, by my own dragon among others," Lessa snapped, a momentary release of tension that Mirrim took in her stride. The Weyrwoman turned suddenly and took Menolly in a momentary violent hug, her lips momentarily pressed to Menolly's throat, before sweeping past Mirrim and into the weyr.
Menolly sat down heavily where she was, the events of the day settling on her suddenly. (Mirrim gave her an impressed look and a wink before hurrying back to her patient.) It was a few minutes after that before she realized that she was leaning back against a warm firm surface which was not rock; Ramoth, clearly, had no objection.
She had not expected, called out that morning, to serve the Weyr in a way Master Robinton himself had never managed. There was at least one song, maybe several, to be written about today alone; Menolly drowsed off against the dragon's warm side, listening to the harmony build up under the melody line in her head.