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A sunny day, a successful Fall, and the wings of Benden were released for an afternoon of rest and relaxation. As the sun slipped toward the western cliffs, a buff bronze dragon, his hide shining in the sun like a well-polished copper breastplate, made a couple of close passes along the eastern wall before circling back and plunking himself down on one weyrledge known to be unoccupied.

The bronze crouched there, broad tailspade twitching, as his rider clearly took in his bearings - from the perspective he had on the Weyr bowl to the nearest ledges crowded with the grass, dirt, and sky colors of the worn-out fighting dragons.

There are many eyes upon us, the disgruntled bronze remarked.

You used to like being near the rest of our wing.

These are not my wing.

A'far thumped him on the shoulder with a short, harsh, Watch out, Umberlith. They will be. Now take a good look around and get to know them.

The bronze did as directed, swinging his massive head around to peer at each neighboring ledge in turn. A'far, too, watched as dragonmen emerged from their caves and nonchalantly looked him over.

Well, Wingleader S'lel must've given his wing advanced notice of the new wingsecond assignment -- even though he had told A'far that proper introductions could wait until the next day's post-Fall wingmeeting.

They are apprehensive. Menerith-- Umberlith grudgingly sent along an image of a long-limbed dark green, --says this weyr is quite large enough for me, and comfortable.

A'far pulled his goggles off his face and shoved them into his trouser pocket, then unsnapped himself from the harness. "Well, let's give it a look, then."

The long, rectangular ledge was already well-scraped by enormous talons and big enough for both Umberlith and a particularly lithe green, if she was inclined to cuddle.

Perhaps in the winter?A'far suggested wryly.

Perhaps. Umberlith padded into the dark cave and found it not large enough for him to sit upright. It is very tight.

Good enough for bad weather, though. The ledge more than makes up for it.

Yes.

They changed places, Umberlith emerging and blocking all the light. Luckily, the space considerations were such that A'far could enter easily with his borrowed glowbasket.

Weyrleader F'lar had suggested they come up to this particular weyr, though it was in shade most of the day and A'far had initially rejected this section of the west-facing cliffs -- they could see the feeding paddock and star stones, both, which was not A'far's idea of a good view.

On the other hand, his interview with F'lar had included a discussion of A'far's interest in leveraging Oldtimer knowledge to develop new formations and other approaches to Fall, and he'd mentioned that this weyr contained a decent study-alcove in addition to sleeping room and bad-weather wallow. "The table could go here," A'far said aloud, pointing to each space as he mentally furnished the weyr with his things. "Study-desk in the back." There was the wallow, yes, and a niche beside the sleeping space that would work well for clothes and things.

In the study space, which was almost another small room to itself, A'far decided he could fit two short cupboards so they would be facing inward and sheltered from a soaking wet Umberlith.

I will be quite careful, the bronze promised, his eyes whirling a contented blue as he peered in. And there are many of the wing who are watching us now.

I know they are. Does it bother you?

Umberlith did not answer, apparently unsure. A'far walked back to the sleeping space, then to the ledge. He resolved to carve a feline-sized ledge in the wall so that Fifthmark could sleep on her pillow inside the cave but still have a good view of the Weyr bowl. She'd spent fifteen months on ground level after his injury and he was worried about her return to the heights; surely she was too smart to fall now -- and too old, he thought, to be adventurous, but wasn't he supposed to replace his the word _old_ with _experienced_ in his vocabulary these days?

Anyway.

I will tell her not to fall, Umberlith promised.

And I'm sure she'll listen to you,A'far assured him, for Umberlith adored Fifthmark as much or more than his rider did. All right, are we agreed?

We will be very visible to the wing.

If it bothers you, speak now. You seem calm.

Umberlith ran one talon along the ledge surface, unwilling to commit.

Is it something in my mind?A'far asked, joining him on the ledge outside and snapping the glowbasket onto the big bronze's harness. You should look deeply. We'll be here for a while.

There, Umberlith said, after a long pause. You would not like to stay here.

Well, I certainly don't expect we'll have ground-level quarters again for some turns,A'far admitted. Mnementh and Ramoth's bond can't be denied, but I'm resigned. This will suit me for now, I can live with this. With these men.

Then so can I.

A'far rubbed Umberlith's forearm, sharing a feeling of support, then looked around at the nearest ledge. A younger man (but not a boy, he thought, still stunned at half the wing being under twenty-two turns of age) stood beside a stunning ultramarine blue on their ledge about two dragonlengths away. Catching the man's attention, A'far waved a greeting, trying to remember the man's name... what was it?

Naeth with S'ver. Naeth says S'ver has seen you fight over the Reaches, and met you in the aftermath in passing. I assured him that you remember him. Naeth agrees that the weyr is very comfortable.

Well, tell them to put the 'taken' sign on it and stand watch 'til we get back with the furniture.

On his own ledge, which really was too far away for A'far to happily shout, S'ver got the message and laughed, flashing A'far a 'good to go' handsign.

Naeth looks forward to flying with us.

Excellent. Mission accomplished.A'far clambered up and clipped in. To the Weyrleader's office, my good bronze.

Umberlith may have been more flashy in his leap than necessary, but A'far couldn't blame him for taking to heart A'far's need for a good first impression. These were dragons and men they'd have to lead for what might be a long, long time.

~ = = = = = = = = = = = ~

"A'far: V'tur on Vanth. V'tur: A'far on Umberlith." Their laconic wingleader conducted the introduction without rising from behind his small wooden writing desk. "Gentlemen, at the risk of repeating myself, please keep this investigation between yourselves. This may turn out to be ... extortion." S'lel scowled. "But it could also be a simple misunderstanding and I would prefer not to sully the reputation of this wing or this Weyr."

Both men accepted this with a nod; S'lel's expression softened as he looked between them. "I understand that this is less than an ideal situation for making a good impression on the wing, A'far. V'tur, I know you and A'rin are close so I appreciate your cooperation. I'll let you deal with the details yourselves. That'll be all for now -- A'far, would you stay for a moment?"

"Certainly, Wingleader." A'far exchanged a look with V'tur, who said quickly, "I'll be just outside, sir. Good evening, sir."

"Good evening." S'lel waited until the bluerider had vanished onto the ledge, then visibly relaxed, taking a seat with a sigh.

Crossing his arms, A'far reflected upon the situation. S'lel had chosen to assign his new wingsecond to an investigation of one of the wings' blueriders for chose his words carefully. "I'd like to thank you for making this an easy transition, Wingleader..."

S'lel smiled at that, lips twisting in recognition of the irony. "Weyrleader F'lar wanted to slot you down low while we waited to see how you'd fit in but I protested. I need someone besides C'lanar for this investigation but there's another matter... you see, there's only so much of my time I can put toward looking after N'pir. I feel as if we're doing him a disservice."

A'far nodded, knowing how important it was to keep close to young active bronzeriders. He'd been mentored himself in the wings of High Reaches, so he didn't mind.

S'lel continued, "He's only eighteen, you see. He needs a steady hand. No, to be clear, this wing needs a steady hand. And you weren't going to the upper flight on your first sevenday at Benden, were you?"

"No." But A'far wasn't satisfied. This ... personal assignment. The investigation. He hadn't expected S'lel to be such a tunnelsnake. "And I'm happy to help with the matter of A'rin, Wingleader, and even happier to mentor, but how do you think this allegation of ... manipulation, of extortion, if that's what it really is, is going to end for the Weyr? A mark here and there for favors, that's one thing, but this feels bigger than that."

S'lel raised his eyebrows as he stared A'far down. "What're you really asking, Wingsecond? Benden alone among the seven maintains her sterling reputation for decency and fairness; we can absorb some allegations, but we must first determine their nature before we can act."

"And if the complainant won't be silent?"

"A handful of marks and a place at Hatching will buy his silence."

"Does the Weyrleader know?"

"No." Seeing A'far's frown, S'lel hasily added, "... and you're not going to tell him! F'lar would take this matter directly to Bitra's Lord and then it'll be gossip for the Holds all over this sharding continent! No. We have always dealt with this ourselves and we will continue to do so. You are forbidden to mention it to the Weyrleader."

On the one hand, A'far understood completely. On the other... "With respect, Wingleader, I want your support when these eggs of ours hatch. Don't leave V'tur and I alone to deal with the shards ourselves."

S'lel's eyes narrowed. "I don't like your tone, bronzerider, but I hope you'll appreciate that I allow riders in my wing to speak freely."

"I do appreciate it, sir. I appreciate it when my leadership listens."

A'far was not usually one for metaphors but the temperature in the wingleader's office dropped noticeably as S'lel scowled, his hands white against the edges of the table.

"You'll keep me informed," he said, and gestured sharply to the ledge behind A'far. "Fix A'rin's mess. Look after N'pir. You'll fly drill tomorrow, bronzerider. Remember your place here."

Maintaining his mild demeanour, A'far accepted this with a nod and a simple, "Yes, sir," mentally calming both the suddenly very mentally present Umberlith before turning on his heel.

~ = = = = = = = = = = = ~

V'tur waited on the ledge outside S'lel's weyr, tactfully out of earshot, hands shoved into his uniform's front-pockets. "It's good to have you here, sir."

"Yeah." A'far shoved his hands in his pockets and regarded the younger man. Blond in sharp contrast to his deeply tanned white skin, keen-eyed and smart as a whip. More reliable than most wingriders, too. There weren't many others, on bronze even, to whom A'far would've trusted this task. "Feels much longer than two turns out of the fight, I'll admit."

"I'd imagine." V'tur shook his head, commiserating. "Think he'll toss us aside like bags of firestone if this comes out publicly?"

"Undoubtedly. You'll just have to see that it doesn't." But it wasn't just because of the wing would look bad. If this came out, A'far had no doubt S'lel would make it look like A'far's own fault. Had S'lel not wanted him in the wing in the first place? But he'd said he had -- so how had he really ended up here? What was A'rin really up to? Why hadn't S'lel taken this right up to Weyrleader F'lar so the greenrider could've been removed immediately, grounded or reassigned or transferred. Quick greens were a dime a dozen and if A'rin was special, A'far certainly hadn't heard about it.

Nor I, Umberlith rumbled, sharp-eyed in his own right from his place down the bowl on their ledge.

I think we'll let Vanth make inquiries.

Yes, the bronze agreed, as if it were self-evident.

Well, Afar had been out of politics for long enough, he could be forgiven for being a little off his game. He couldn't immediately determine a motive to anyone, including V'tur, but he'd get back on the dragon soon enough.

"Bluerider. Wasn't there wing trouble with S'lel a few months back?"

V'tur looked sideways at A'far and his lips twitched. "Small dust-up with the Weyrleader. I think it was right after that kitchen wench Impressed the green. Plenty of fallout from that, and make no mistake. We chromatics were insulated from the details but S'lel changed after. Ramoth came down on the side of the dragon's choice and we all know F'lar's whipped to the Weyrwoman's will. I think S'lel argued against allowing the training." After a pause, V'tur put words to A'far's fears. "If he's out of favor, then he's expecting you'll take his spot?"

Weyrleader F'lar had clearly said A'far wouldn't make wingleader for a turn at least, but S'lel probably didn't know that. And, of course, V'tur didn't need to know it either. "I expect so," A'far said slowly. "All right, go down and see what you can dig up on our greenrider. I want names and dates and witnesses. A particular crime wouldn't go amiss."

"Right away, Wingsecond. That's what I do." V'tur inclined his head slightly and raised his arm to signal for Vanth. He turned back with a tentative, "Ah, sir?"

"Yes?" Simultaneously, A'far gave Umberlith a mental prod. Ready.

"You'll have my back through this mess, sir?"

"Yeah." A'far's tone softened, rueful. "I will. You have my word."

"Good to have you back, sir," V'tur repeated, and turned to seize Vanth's harness as the blue hit the ledge with a screech of talons on stone.

A'far followed a minute later, aboard Umberlith, turning over the facts of the matter in his mind. V'tur would investigate A'rin. He ought to speak to N'pir. Probably he'd not know all the facts until the matter was over and he had the benefit of hindsight, but he hadn't got to be old without learning how to be wily, too.

~ = = = = = = = = = = = ~

It turned out to be good for N'pir that A'far wasn't one to kill the messenger-lizard.

The news that S'lel didn't want A'far in the wing, seeing the older and more experienced bronzerider as a threat, didn't surprise the wingsecond. No, instead, it was the news that everyone in the wing (and many others of the Weyr's wingriders) knew about Greenrider A'rin's sudden influx of marks being connected to his recent penchant for late evening flights to Bitra.

"He says he plays poker there." N'pir scowled. "But that's not what he said in the beginning. He said he met a man a turn back, an oviner. I don't know whom but that lasted a couple of ..." the bronzerider grimaced, "_dramatic_ months and then suddenly he had marks out his ears and a nightly 'poker game'. But, sir, A'rin doesn't _play_ cards."

Eyes focused on a far-away cloud, A'far mentally ran through his options. When he focused again on N'pir, he looked tired. "Who in the wing knows the watchrider over Bitra?"

"Uh, well, I don't know who he is, so I don't really know, sir. I could ask."

"Wrong answer, young man. Bronzeriders should know everyone," A'far told him, switching seamlessly into lecture mode. "You're lucky you fly here at Benden and not at High Reaches, where you'd likely be whipped for that. Don't believe me? Well, names and faces is your new assignment. We'll meet tomorrow after the drill in my weyr for a review of notable persons."

N'pir looked surprised, then intrigued. A'far was pleased to see no trace of disappointment at the added workload -- which only endeared him further to the wingsecond. "I'll be there, sir," he promised.

"Good. And keep your eyes open as regards A'rin. I need as much information as you can give me."

With that, they parted ways. N'pir returned to his sun-drenched patch of riverside rock and his careful application of leather softener to his riding straps, mentally alerting small bronze Oltrath to keep a wary eye on Umberlith. A'far did his rounds, introducing himself properly to the wingriders. After dinner, he invited V'tur to his weyr.

"That one's Pirinth," V'tur told him. They stood on Umberlith's ledge, A'far holding the purring Fifthmark in his arms; they both tried not to look too conspicuous as they watched the wiry, cragged-faced A'rin buckle the harness around his green. He was well out of weyrling training, mid-thirties, and acted like he had no care in the world. "You want me to follow him?"

"Can you do it without alerting suspicion?"

The bluerider made a face. "There's no reason for a Benden rider to go over there so late and I'm sure he knows we've been asking questions. So, no, I'm sure Pirinth would alert him."

"Vanth doesn't fly her on a regular basis?" A'far asked, making V'tur really hide his frown. Did the wingsecond really think mating flights were some sort of precedence for knowing what another rider was thinking? It was practically the opposite.

"Pirinth's not really my Vanth's type," he replied carefully.

"That's unfortunate."

"... you know, sir." V'tur changed the subject. "I'd feel more comfortable flying into Bitra if I spoke to the watchrider first."

"I believe N'pir and I will do that," A'far said calmly. "We're going to make a small round of introductions tomorrow as part of his education."

"Well, it's good to see someone's taking his education in turn," V'tur said, still careful with his words. Far from the ease he'd felt upon their first meeting at Wingleader S'lel's office, A'far now made him feel defensive and on edge. V'tur leaned forward on impulse, intending to surprise or shock the wingsecond so he could feel more in control, and rubbed A'far's feline under her chin. Fifthmark chirruped happily and purred louder; A'far's eyes focused on the bluerider and his lips tightened in what might have been a small smile.

"Stick around the Weyr tomorrow, V'tur. We may need you."

Well, that was something. "Yes, sir."

~ = = = = = = = = = = = ~

Pirinth sleeps, Umberlith reported, the diamond-flat of his tail lazily swinging, pendulum-like, a few feet from A'far's study-alcove. The wingleader paused in his writing and sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. Well, so perhaps they'd solved the problem by just letting A'rin he was being watched.

No, Umberlith disagreed. Oltrath's rider believes he is biding his time.

"Keeping an eye on him, are you? He seems like he just needs someone to drill with him, keep him on task. You have to watch young bronzeriders, Umberlith."

His bronze found the correct course of action was to be agreeable when A'far got in one of these vexed moods. Indeed.

"No, it's true. Everyone assumes they're just born to maturity and leadership but I tell you, I've seen some terrible Weyrleaders in my time. Tr'dav, he's a fine man compared to some of them. Training trumps breeding every single time. I'm only this way because Wingleader S'rai took an interest. I've been lucky all the way, I know that. S'lel has an _obligation_ to N'pir, an obligation he is not meeting!"

Umberlith rumbled amiably at a convenient pause to show he was still listening. A'far slid a bookmark into his journal, placed the book back on his shelf, and pushed his chair back to rise. Wait. He sat back down.

He'd verified Fall the next day at noon but when was A'rin back up for the sweeps? The appropriate journal came right back out of the shelf and fell open easily, its binding broken after much use. Near the back was the current sweeps list. A'far scanned it quickly and frowned.

Of course, tomorrow, when there would be nobody available to be sure A'rin went only to the far northern sector to sweep. There wasn't anything there, it was mostly sea, he could jump to Bitra at any time and claim business.

"Umberlith," he said aloud, staring at the book.

Oltrath will drop Vanth's rider with the watchdragon, Umberlith said, several steps ahead of A'far, as was only proper.

"We'll put Vanth in the first flight, swap him with S'ver, so he'll be back here and ready as soon as Oltrath returns. They'll drop V'tur with K'nick after Fall, not before, and come right back so as not to arouse suspicion."

Umberlith relayed all this and, satisfied that he was no longer required, rested his massive head on his ledge before resting his eyes.

~ = = = = = = = = = = = ~

N'pir was turning into a sharp young man, attentive and able to think quickly. Oltrath made up for being small by being equally on point. The bronze landed in the bowl near the weyrling barracks and V'tur darted out from where he'd sheltered under an overhang, accepting N'pir's offered arm up.

Both riders were exhausted from Fall but neither of them would've given up the chance to do something _this_ different, not to mention important.

"We shoulda been harpers," N'pir joked. V'tur grinned.

"How do you know I wasn't?" he teased.

Laughing, the two riders leapt into the sky and were gone before anyone else could blink.

"Come clean, V'tur," N'pir said, leaning over and looking at the older wingrider. "You think he's bribing someone here to keep quiet. Probably over sex, maybe over business dealings."

V'tur shook his head ruefully. "I think it's personal, sure. I'm just afraid of who it is. A lowly vintner I can handle; some errant Journeyman I'll be swearing about, but the family of the hold would be just be my luck."

"Well, fly true," N'pir told him. "Good skies!"

V'tur sent him off with a wave and jogged over to join K'nick under the shade of his weyr-porch.

"He's a good boy," the watchrider said approvingly. His Crinth was sleeping out in the rain, completely unbothered. "We've been keeping watch, you know, but your man hasn't returned in a sevenday. You scare him on the other end?"

"We think he got spooked when he saw A'far and I together. Word might've leaked through the wing that we were asking questions, too. Doesn't seem like he has so many friends these days though."

"Really?" K'nick frowned. "I would've thought a man who exudes marks from every pore would have no end of 'friends'."

V'tur laughed. "I don't think that's all he's exuding. There's just something off about the man, even if he is a greenrider." He grimaced at the way the words sounded. "I didn't mean that against the color, believe me."

"Oh, I know." K'nick patted V'tur companionably on his soggy back. "I've ridden the watchpost for a long time. You see the worst of people when they think nobody's looking, especially when they come to the hold. He's a disgrace to his color if he's endangering the Weyr."

"That's what I don't understand, K'nick." The bluerider hadn't had much interaction with the brownriding watchman but he was rapidly coming to respect his observations. "Who has marks like he does to spare?"

"I was thinking about that, too. Could be a couple of factors. There's inheritance, which is more than possible. There's a crafter stealing from his shop fund. There's even counterfeiting, though I doubt it, as the Hold guard's been cracking down these past two turns. Theft seems the most likely to me, but again, I haven't heard of any incidents."

"Could be it's the sort of theft that isn't reported because it's embarrassing."

K'nick smiled wryly. "I think you'll find embarrassment is often your deepest motivator here in these parts. Well, that and fear, but they're the same thing when you get down to it. You know, it's a thin ridge-path your greenrider's walking. If his man got tired of paying and decided the secret wasn't worth keeping, he could've shared it with the whole hold and caused no end of trouble."

"Why does everyone think he's my greenrider?" V'tur complained. "And you don't have to tell me about the risks. The wingleader putting me on this means I'm the one to blame if it all goes fruit-shaped. I'll be happy when this is over."

"Well, come on in and we'll drink to that," K'nick offered. "Crinth's keeping an eye out for any visiting dragons."

~ = = = = = = = = = = = ~

V'tur's Vanth had stealthily followed their quarry to Bitra, unobtrusively seeking a hiding place behind a thick copse of trees west of the Hold. Thread hadn't fallen in the sector in several days so anybody out and about was hurrying to daily duties, head down against the pelting rain, doing their work as quickly as they could. V'tur could feel his blue's mild interest but Vanth was never an overly enthusiastic dragon so it wasn't hard for him to remain unnoticed. He liked to have a job more than anything so, if today his job involved being very quiet and not admitting his existence to anyone for a few hours, then invisibility he would attempt to his utmost.

V'tur felt an immense pride in his dragon over the next hour as Vanth waited patiently. K'nick won every hand of cards. They drank ale but not excessively, as V'tur was still mindful of his duties. Finally, as the bluerider drew an excellent hand and was about to up the ante, K'nick put his cards back on the deck and said, "Your man has arrived. Pirinth's circling to land here."

"Oh, that's just my luck!" V'tur said, exasperated, showing his cards on the table. "I would've had you, you grifter."

K'nick grinned. "Not much to do these days but play," he said. "And you've got no face for the game. Your hand's all over your forehead. Crinth says it's definitely Pirinth and she's reporting sweep."

"That's a cartful," V'tur said, getting to his feet and reaching for his jacket. "Still raining?"

"Can't you hear it?" The watchrider grinned. "A'rin is begging off an audience, claiming the rain. He's headed to the cots."

V'tur suddenly felt like he'd missed a few mental steps in this plan. "Wait, is Pirinth here?"

"She's sitting with Crinth."

"I need to follow A'rin on foot ... can Crinth get her to leave, to go hunting or something?"

"In this rain?" K'nick looked at the bluerider like he'd lost his mind.

V'tur glared at him. "I need to know the name of the man, K'nick, or this is for nothing and my wingsecond will have my hide."

"All right, but they're not going far."

And that was how the bluerider V'tur found himself running at full speed down the path to catch up with the greenrider A'rin, ducking and weaving and generally looking like a mad-man; he caught up to the man as he entered a cot and dove into the bushes out back.

Laying in the mud, the bluerider realized he'd made an enormous mistake. There was no way he could go into that hut looking for A'rin's man in this state. He was filthy and wet! He rolled over, swearing to himself, and got up.

I'll hang out with you until Pirinth leaves,he told Vanth, jogging up a path that went the long way around the watchweyr. Then we'll go home. Let's hope A'far doesn't see us.

~ = = = = = = = = = = = ~

Alas, the returning bluerider V'tur was not so lucky as to avoid detection. Vanth came in low over the Weyr, angling right for their ledge, but in doing so passed near Umberlith, who raised his great head and told the blue dragon that A'far would like to see his rider immediately.

Tell him I'll dress first, thanks,V'tur snapped, feeling quite defensive. It was still raining and his frustration had turned to anger.

Vanth's response came with a sense of confusion. He says 'now'.

I'm soaked! And we've nothing to report, really.

He says you'll go back out right this minute, then, if we have no news, and get more soaked. He says we didn't spend enough time on site, clearly. He says-- Vanth's whole demeanor deflated. He says I am irresponsible.

"What on Pern possesses that man?!" V'tur reined in his anger and directed Vanth to land on Umberlith's ledge; the bronze shuffled indoors after a long, penetrating, orange-tinged glare.

"You will not talk to Vanth that way!" V'tur snapped, dropping lightly to the ledge and whirling around to face the emerging wingsecond. A'far was dressed in full uniform and he held no feline this time; he crossed his arms, clearly angry.

"You'll watch your tone, Wingrider."

"No, sir. My dragon is my first priority and I will return to the Hold but only after I've cleaned myself up and seen Vanth right. Our mission isn't yet complete."

A'far's whole face had twisted in a scowl. "No, Wingrider, you will clean yourself up and be restricted to the Weyr for two sevendays, save for Fall. You don't think Pirinth saw you returning?"

"Well she did now, sir!" V'tur spit and saw A'far stiffen.

"I will not have insubordination! Your part in this is over, rider. Does K'nick know the name of the man?"

"No," V'tur snapped, aware of Vanth behind him bristling. "I had to hide in the mud so as not to be seen." The rain was only a drizzle now and perhaps it was that A'far hadn't seen the torrents falling on Bitra.

"Do you know his name, then?"

"No, I'm telling you, sir, I saw his cot."

"Vanth," A'far addressed the blue over V'tur's shoulder. "You will give the image to Umberlith. V'tur, you will return to your weyr immediately."

V'tur, realizing how serious A'far was, tried again to convince him to change his mind. "I could've talked to the man as a fellow low-ranker," he pleaded. "He won't take kindly to a bronzerider! It'll send the wrong message!"

"It will send the message that the Weyr takes this seriously and will do much to be sure the matter isn't blown out of proportion," A'far countered. "Get back to your weyr right this instant before I have to inform the wingleader of the developments this evening -- and their cause."

The two men glared at each other on the ledge, V'tur bristling and A'far grim; what the wingsecond didn't hear was V'tur's frantic command to Vanth as he sent the blue an imagined set of cots in a copse of trees away from the Hold. Send that to Umberlith,V'tur said, to buy us time. I have an idea!

"Thank you," A'far finally said, as Umberlith received the image. "You will remain grounded as I ordered but you will attend the wingmeeting tomorrow."

"Yes, sir," V'tur snapped in a reply, making a shallow salute and turning to remount Vanth.

A scarce few wingbeats after the blue had cleared the ledge, however, V'tur visualized Bitra and gave Vanth the command to go between.

He is gone to Bitra, Umberlith reported, swinging up his massive head to verify personally that Vanth had gone and not emerged at his ledge.

A'far had already turned to grab his long jacket but he whipped around at Umberlith's warning, saw no blue dragon between his ledge and V'tur's, and restrained himself from punching the wall.

Shall we go? Umberlith inquired, roused by his rider's ire.

And have a scene in front of holders? No, but we'll clip his wings when he returns.

~ = = = = = = = = = = = ~

Once upon a time, when Thiep was a younger man, he'd gone with the wagon train to Benden Weyr for tithe and he'd thought long and hard about approaching the dragons. He'd got all the way to the Weyr and talked a good game to his mates, as he always seemed to do, before he'd broke and ran. He could tell a good story about being brave but he still felt the shame of fleeing like a wherry and hiding among the palleted goods. Now, he'd begun to think that he'd had the right idea, if all dragonmen were like this greenrider A'rin.

A Bitran man back through the generations, Thiep had plenty of marks inherited from his father, but now his wife and children were watching the last of those marks trickle through his fingers. He shut the door behind the greenrider and slumped against it. His family had traveled up the river to visit his wife's mother and he'd already borrowed heavily from the last of the men he thought he could depend on, so this autumn had found him out of friends, family, options, and marks.

He had just got himself together enough to pour himself a tall mug of ale when he heard the knock on the door. His heart skipped a beat: the dragonman wasn't back, was he? What on Pern could he want? Didn't he believe that Thiep had nothing more to give?

The knock came again and Thiep slammed the mug down on the table so hard it sloshed over. Swearing, he went to the door and flung it open -- but it was not A'rin on the other side.

The blond, pale, exasperated-looking man standing before him was not only muddy but soaked to the bone. His hands were shaking and the maniacal quality of his sudden force smile stole Thiep's attention so that it took a minute for him to register that his visitor wore the uniform of a dragonman.

"Hello, holder. I'm really sorry for the intrusion but I think we can help each other out. Could I come in?"

Thiep stared at him. The dragonman shifted nervously and moved in to grip the doorframe, adding: "This is awkward. I'm really sorry but things have been rather out of my control and I don't think we have a lot of time. Could I step in out of the rain?"

"No," Thiep managed to say out loud, but Vanth was listening to them intently nearby and could feel the storm of emotions from the man.

Crinth?

My rider comes, the brown replied, sending an image of a jacketed K'nick striding down the path. He says you should come back here with me so as not to raise suspicion. He doesn't want to explain this to Bitra's Lord. Come sit with me.

"No?" V'tur had become aware that he was definitely doing this all wrong but he knew if he left it might be even worse. The man was not well; he looked skinny and exhausted, his breath smelled like he'd been drinking, and now all the heat from the small cot-hearth was bleeding into the cold outside.

Well, might as well just come right out and say it.

"Whatever A'rin's got on you, man, it's a shame on the Weyr and a stain on my wing. Let me come in. We'll see what we can do to set things right."

"Set things right!?" Thiep felt a frisson of fear through him. Somebody else knows,he thought. All the marks and everything, and it's all for nothing. I'm ruined for nothing.

"There's nothing that says I have to let you in here, rider," he said, suddenly resolved. "Get back so I can shut this door."

"No," V'tur snapped, his patience gone. "I can help you if you let me--" he stepped forward as if to come in and Thiep, startled and afraid, slammed the door shut with a 'crunch' on his hand.

Crinth clamped down on Vanth's howl and K'nick broke into a run, cursing Faranth for this entire misadventure.

~ = = = = = = = = = = = ~

It was just possible, K'nick thought, that the residents of Bitra were hiding from the rain enough that they would've ignored Vanth's singular outburst. The watchweyr was far enough from the main hold and the ovine pastures both that yes, he might just be that lucky. The holders tended to leave dragons to their own business anyway. K'nick mentally reviewed his options as he bandaged V'tur's hand, having slathered it with numbweed from a small pot Thiep kept on hand.

No, things weren't nearly as bad as they could be. Neither V'tur or Thiep seemed to have any kind of perspective, though.

It was just possible, V'tur thought, holding out his hand while K'nick performed first aid, that he wasn't going to be assigned to a newly-created place called Afar Cothold deep in the remotest northern wilds on permanent night-watchrider duty. Not likely, sure, but possible. The sharp and overwhelming pain in his right hand had settled into a dull throbbing as Thiep's numbweed took effect. Thank Faranth for K'nick, he thought. Hopefully he had some idea how to salvage this situation because V'tur was out of plans.

"What's your name again, holder?" K'nick asked, looking up at the skinny, exhausted man sitting at the table. He was rocking a little as he stared at the jar of numbweed.

It was just possible, Thiep thought, that by helping the bluerider and apologizing profusely, he might not be staked out for Thread. He heard the watchrider say something and looked up. The words were not quite making it to his ears. Oh, what was his Heri going to say when she heard about all this? Probably tell him again what a disappointment he was. Probably she would keep the boys with her at her mother's and never come home.

K'nick cleared his throat and snapped his fingers to catch Thiep's attention. "You're not in trouble here, holder. I promise. I just forget your name."

What did he mean by that? Thiep was in loads of trouble. If his trouble was a dragon, it'd be the size of a bronze. "Thiep," the holder said dully, trying to make sense of everything and failing.

"I want to apologize, Thiep." K'nick spoke slowly and calmly, knowing her had to reassure both of the other men. "I bear some responsibility for allowing this to go unchecked."

"Aw, no." Thiep shook his head. "I didn't tell anyone. How could you know?"

"Riders ought to know," K'nick replied.

"I don't know what the other oviners do on their off-time. I don't know ... anything, really. I had a family and we'd all work the high pastures in the summer. I'm happier outside the hold itself."

K'nick capped the jar of numbweed and put it back on the shelf, stalling. "How long's this been going on, Thiep?"

The holder examined the wall, still holding himself up by his elbows on the table. "We didn't go up to the high ridge this turn... he's been taking me for marks since Turnover."

V'tur swore. K'nick nodded. "Greenrider A'rin found something out during Turnover and said he wouldn't tell if you'd pay?"

"He ..." Thiep trailed off, and K'nick knew the signs of embarrassment and shame when he saw them. He also knew the signs of a family man -- the cot itself had three rooms with child-made knick-knacks on a set of shelves and a small portrait of a younger Thiep and a beautiful woman by the door.

"When did your wife leave?" K'nick asked, his voice low and supportive.

"Month before Turnover. That was... that was the reason," Thiep said, wretched. "There was a trader here for Turnover, he makes the route overland to Telgar and we don't see each other much, and it's dangerous what with Thread now. Heri knew about ... us. I didn't mean to let it get out, I just, I didn't. I wasn't. I was stupid. And we were out during Turnover because she was up north at her family's cot.

"A'rin was probably playing the crowds, looking for someone like you." K'nick shook his head. "Saw the two of you together, followed you home, flattered you after your trader had left until he had enough on you." At Thiep's agonized look, he placed one hand on the holder's arm. "I promise it goes no further than the two of us."

"How do you..." Thiep started to ask, but then appeared to change his mind. "Is he coming back?"

K'nick exchanged a look with V'tur. "Not as long as Crinth and I are on duty here. I'll have a talk with his wingleader--"

Vanth says it's complicated-- Crinth passed along.

What I say to the holder and what actually happens are two different things,K'nick replied, intending his message for V'tur. After a moment, the bluerider nodded slightly and relaxed.

K'nick suddenly missed having a fighting wing that had his back and knew exactly what he was going to do before he even did it. Those were good days,he told Crinth, who rumbled an assent where he lay next to the unhappy Vanth.

"Do I have to see him again?"

"No," K'nick promised. "Thiep, ovine wool is still a good mark-makers these days, right?" The holder nodded. "And if you're not in the pastures now, do you think you could tell your supervisor you've worked out what's been the problem and you'd like to join your family up at her family's cot for a few days? I'm sure he knows already there's been trouble -- I'll fly you up there myself, when you've made arrangements. A good supervisor'll know that the few days gone will make you a better worker. Try to spin that into a story when you talk to him and see if it helps."

Thiep nodded miserably. "He did suggest it already. A'rin just said, if I left, if I wasn't here when he came back..."

"A'rin ain't your trouble anymore," V'tur said softly beside them. K'nick saw the anger in his face and sighed. They could get Thiep taken care of but his own day wasn't over yet by a long shot.

~ = = = = = = = = = = = ~

The two riders left the holder's dwelling and walked nonchalantly back toward the watchweyr, passing a couple of other men walking by with their heads down against the pelting rain.

"Think he'll be all right?" V'tur asked, frowning.

K'nick had to laugh. "Do I think he'll be all right? Strikes me there's someone in much bigger trouble here than him. You said you were heading home to change, rider. You told me whose wing you're in but I don't recall S'lel being the sort of man to send riders out in weather like this. What's really going on?"

The look of frustration and despair that he got from V'tur was not unlike the look he'd seen from Thiep. "All right," he said. "I'll stoke the fire while you convince Vanth you're all right."

You are not all right, Vanth snapped, sitting back on his haunches, alert and waiting for them. This is not all right.

"It'll heal, you wherry," V'tur said aloud, squelching through the mud to join him. Vanth held up a wing to keep the rain off and inspected V'tur's offered hand carefully, eyes whirling a baffled, suspicious orange. The blue didn't quite understand everything that was happening but he knew he didn't like it. "Let me go in," V'tur added. "K'nick will help take care of this."

Hmph, Vanth snapped, but covered V'tur with his wing as far as the porch before he settled back down next to Crinth.

K'nick had a pot of water boiling at the hearth; he righted the chair he'd knocked over when Vanth's squawling had brought him running and gestured for V'tur to shed some clothes.

"Do you have to go back right away?" he asked. "Weather might break later on. I can lend you a clean pair of trousers and a better jacket to get you home."

"You really don't have to." V'tur sank gratefully into a seat at the table and looked hopefully at the bag of loose tea K'nick had pulled down. The brownrider would have none of his protests, putting the bag and two mugs on the table before walking back to his sleeping area to pull down a slightly too-big set of clothes.

"So who is it?" he asked, pulling down a pair of clean, soft trousers that were definitely a size too big for V'tur. "Not S'lel. And C'lanar would never have cared about appearances but he wouldn't have sent you out for fear of pneumonia. He would have waited."

V'tur scooped the tea into the two metal tea scoops and poured in the boiling water. He wrapped his hands around one mug just to see if he'd feel warmer.

"No, it's the new second. In from High Reaches a sevenday or so ago."

K'nick laughed. "Works fast to make a bad name for himself, don't he?"

"I was thinking maybe that's the point." V'tur smild a thank-you as K'nick held out a stack of shirt, trousers, and old wretched towel.

"Bronzerider, then? Well, who is it?"

V'tur turned back so he could see K'nick's face. "You ever heard of A'far? On Umberlith?"

The brownrider's face stilled, which surprised V'tu, and he tsked softly. "I know of him. How fitting he flies under S'lel."

"Right. That greenrider he killed."

"Believe it or not," K'nick said quietly, "I was there. We were flying in support of High Reaches in terrible weather and her rider came clean off her back, and she fell with him but went between when he hit the ground. It was terrible." An awful silence sat between them, until K'nick shook his head sharply. "Go get changed. This makes things harder, but not much. You're not heading back alone tonight."

V'tur made as if to protest but Crinth asserted the authority that came from age over Vanth and the look on K'nick's face told V'tur there was more here than he wanted to know about. He went without complaint, changed without modesty, folded his clothes into an easily-ferried parcel, and returned toweling off his hair; he had to admit it felt better to be dry and warm... but going home wasn't going to be easy, even if K'nick was there to back him up.

Outside in the growing dark, Vanth's orange eyes reflected his rider's unease as, over warm mugs smelling like the best of the berry harvest, K'nick told him exactly what to do that evening.

~ = = = = = = = = = = = ~

Umberlith lay on his ledge with one eye on the sky, waiting so still it seemed as if he were afraid that blinking or idly scratching might cause him to miss the lanky blue Vanth re-emerging from between. Darkness came in over the Weyr and carried with it a handful of riders returning from post-Fall sweeps and groundcrew check-ins.

He did not make any particular note of the brown watchrider from Bitra until Crinth swooped past over his head and informed him of K'nick's intentions.

Crinth, Bitra's watchrider, Umberlith reported, quite annoyed that he hadn't caught his quarry. His rider's displeasure was putting him on edge -- and in the ensuing rendition of musical dragons that left K'nick on A'far's ledge with Umberlith looming overhead, Umberlith had missed completely Vanth's quick and quiet scuttle into his own weyr.

"Wingsecond A'far," K'nick said, crossing his arms as he stepped into the weyr. "I like what you've done with the place."

A'far looked older than he remembered, with gray-shot hair and more lines in his face, but he still seemed like the petty, rule-loving wingsecond that K'nick had known and not particularly loved.

"If this is about V'tur, then I'm afraid you're interfering in wing business," he said, without preamble.

"It's really about one of your riders dragging the name of the Weyr through the mud at Bitra," K'nick retorted.

"If that rider is V'tur--"

"It is not! V'tur has conducted himself there with a keen sensitivity to his duties--"

A'far waved off K'nick's words. "He has disobeyed multiple direct orders, including that no one at Bitra was supposed to know about the situation, which includes yourself--"

"The man concerned certainly knew." K'nick kept his temper but didn't let A'far get another word in edgewise. Outside, Crinth landed on an adjacent ledge and was eyeballing the big bronze Umberlith. K'nick pressed on: "I've recommended that bluerider V'tur see the healers tonight and stay indoors after the wingmeeting tomorrow. He flew a whole Fall this morning and did good work for a good cause this afternoon but he's physically exhausted and mentally stressed."

Shaking his head, A'far didn't appear to have heard any of K'nick's explanation. "V'tur is my concern, Watchrider, though I'm sure he'll appreciate hearing of yours. He disobeyed a direct order. No ambiguity, no room for leave and improvisation. He chose to disobey me and that is unacceptable. Both men will be handled as appropriate according to discipline in this wing."

"Together? You can't be serious, man, A'rin has committed a crime."

"A crime which no one will know about!" A'far snapped.

S'lel wishes us in his office,Crinth interrupted.

The two men glared at each other but were civilly silent as, one at a time, they clambered aboard their dragons and descended to answer the summons.

They came to stand together, silent, in front of S'lel's desk in the wingleader's weyr.

"Good to see you, K'nick," S'lel said quietly, looking up calmly at the two men from where he sat behind the desk. "I understand your involvement has something to do with the matter of a holder at Bitra?"

"The matter is in fact closed," A'far interrupted smoothly. "I understand the situation is under control and the riders in question will be held accountable."

K'nick, having heard the warning tone in S'lel's voice, chose his words carefully. "The matter at the Hold indeed appears unlikely to reflect badly on the Weyr," he explained. "But the rider who was instrumental in securing that beneficial result needs infirmary attention and a day or two of bed rest."

"In your opinion!," A'far snapped, waving off the brownrider's words. "I disagree. Flying in the cold and wet is exactly what we train for. This is ridiculous!"

"The wingsecond's perspective seems reasonable to me, Watchrider," S'lel agreed, his eyes inscrutable as they watched K'nick, who felt suddenly as if he really didn't have any recourse. He was reminded of how much his dislike of politics had been a part of his relief at retiring from the fighting wings and take up residence in the north.

"V'tur sustained an injury upon his return to the Hold," he admitted, and was pleased to see A'far's eyes widen. "He needs medical attention. Additionally, flying in rain and wind is one thing but being caked in mud for hours is quite another. I suggest he be treated as at risk for pneumonia."

"An injury?" S'lel's eyes became intent and K'nick felt his stomach sink. "An assault on a rider, then? That's very serious business, watchrider. If it's to be reported then the holder will need to be held accountable."

"... not an assault, sir," K'nick lied, but he'd already seen where this was going and cursed himself for not knowing the backstory of the matter. In his day, with his former wingleader, this would've gone a very different way. There must have been more at stake for S'lel to completely ignore what was right and good. "An injury he sustained on his return."

"From his own carelessness, then." S'lel shrugged and shook his head. "The matter needs closure, gentlemen, and it seems quite straight-forward to me. I won't countermand a logical order from my wingsecond. A'far, please see to the discipline of the men. K'nick, please see that the holder keeps the details of the matter to himself. There will be serious consequences if these rumors grow wings."

A'far didn't smirk at K'nick but he didn't have to; his quiet smugness rankled the older rider enough. The two men took their leave. On the ledge, K'nick turned to the wingsecond with bitterness.

"If he comes down with pneumonia, your wing'll be a man down."

"Come now, Watchrider," A'far snapped, suddenly entirely willing to reverse himself now that he had ensured S'lel's support. "I'm not going to withhold medical attention from a man in need. Umberlith has already ordered Vanth to the infirmary -- but he'll be restricted to the Weyr and flying watchduty when he's not at drills or on sweep, and he won't be seen at Bitra for a long, long time."

"He acted only in his best judgement!" K'nick protested.

"And where would we be if everyone followed their best judgement? I won't have riders disobeying my orders." A'far wasn't smirking anymore; he looked frighteningly intense. "I don't know which 'second handled discipline this wing in turns past but things are different now. We will not have disobedience here. The fate of men in Fall depends on it."

"You would know," K'nick snapped, and saw immediately that he had scored.

"Go back and watch over your holders," A'far got out through gritted teeth. "And leave the Threadfighting to me."

"I will," K'nick promised, as Crinth landed, eyes blazing. He did not salute. "Good evening, wingsecond."

"Good evening." K'nick could barely visualize the Bitra manor flags; A'far's impassive expression lingered in his mind's eye as he and Crinth vanished between.

~ = = = = = = = = = = = ~

The steward, Selaira, stopped by her watchrider's weyr later that evening. "Quite a lot of dragon activity in the oviner huts these days. Everything all right?" she asked, quirking an eyebrow as she watched the brownrider's face for reassurance.

K'nick gave her a look that said she probably didn't really want to know. "Weyr business," he replied. "It's all for the better now. No harm done."

"Anything I should know about?" Selaira asked, shoving her hands into her pockets.

"If there had been, you woulda been the first to know."

She nodded at the truth of that. That the Lord Holder need never know went unspoken. "Have I ever told you how lucky we are to have you?"

K'nick grinned at her. "You have, but it's always nice to hear."

"Well, it's true." She smiled back. "You have yourself a good evening, brownrider."

"And you, ma'am." K'nick watched pat Crinth as she departed.

She trusts us, Crinth said quietly, watching the steward walk on down the very muddy path.

No reason she shouldn't, right?K'nick replied. Well, the excitement's over for now, eh?

Crinth sounded relieved. Yes.

We'll keep an eye on that holder but I think he'll be all right.

Crinth only nodded his agreement and expressed, quietly and without wanting to be a bother, that it had been a very long day full of excitement and he was quite hungry.

Far to the south, at Benden Weyr, in very neat handwriting on a very narrow scroll of finely scraped hide, a small query-mark was jotted down beside K'nick and Crinth's names. It wasn't a matter of what Wingsecond A'far wanted to do with them.

It was a matter of how much he was going to get away with.