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Tried To Make Me Understand

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"It's a girl!"

I assume there was great celebration - you know the kind of thing, aunties fainting with joy, everyone crowding around and wanting to have a look, to convince themselves that yes, Zulanna had a child and it was healthy and it was female.

It wasn't like the bloodline was going to die out entirely; there were several other descendant lines that were doing just fine for themselves. But with descent from not only one of the First Riders, but one of the First Queenriders, no-one wanted an opportunity to be missed.

The Weyr tried quite hard to spoil me, after that. Zulanna wasn't as busy as she could be, with the tendency of Fort towards hierarchy leaving little in the purview of the junior weyrwoman, and she had all the help she could wish for from the weyrfolk - who wanted to be part of the heartwarming tale, or ingratiate themselves with an important family, or the doctors that wanted to keep a close eye in case I developed any of the diseases common to children of later-life pregnancies.

And then there were the kitchens, of course.

It wasn't uncommon for the weyrbrats to hang out in the kitchens, exchanging a bit of help with the washing-up for a first nibble of the day's desserts, or attempting to sneak into the larders and being chased out by the staff.

But the kitchen staff treated me like family - sometimes to the point where I could have done without it, to be honest - it didn't help any with the other children, who were already jealous of the fact I got to live in my mother's weyr rather than being fully fostered out like many riders' kids, and all the attention my bloodline and circumstances brought me.

----

Everyone loved a Hatching.

That's what they all said - everyone loved a Hatching.

They're wrong, of course. Everyone expects you to love a Hatching, and they bring you up to the stands as a kid, and people are excited and gushing over how special an occasion it is.

I didn't understand what was going on for a while. My mother brought me to my first Hatching as a baby in a sling, one of Lanath's, I'm told. Apparently I slept the whole way through - lulled by the dragons humming welcome.

When I was a little bit older I was always impatient of having to stay in one place. They tried to interest me in what was going on, but I wasn't really paying attention to the blurry teenagers shuffling about on the impossibly distant Sands; I just wanted to explore all the visiting people, the Holders often nervous and strangely dressed and smelling of interesting foreign places.

Once I started to understand what was going on, I found it horrifying.

I mean, I loved to curl up against Hyalith or Jasinath, stroke their warm hide, get told off for wiping my sticky fingers on them, and I was vaguely aware that they were living, thinking beings as well, even more so than the canines that some of the weyr staff kept as pets or working animals.

But to me, dragons had pretty much always just been animate furniture; they'd move around and they wouldn't hurt you on purpose but you sometimes had to be a bit careful not to get in their way by accident.

But the hatchlings were pretty much all accident - falling out of jagged cracked eggs, clearly not knowing what parts of their bodies were for, and the people that were down there with them went suddenly from uncomfortable on the hot sands to desperate to get in the way of these bundles of teeth and talons and confusion that were tripping over their own tails.

My mother, and many other folk, tried to make me understand about the bond between the dragon and the rider, and how beautiful it was, and how desirable, but I couldn't really work out why I would want my own piece of animate furniture. I had lots of friends and people who wanted to look after me, whatever I did, already.

Once I really understood what was going on, I found it heartbreaking.

Sure, it was great - for the people who Impressed. By the time I had grown out of the awkward toddler stage, where the entire world was about me, I could recognise the joy and love in their eyes, and understand it was worth it - for them.

But the ones who were left Standing could see that joy and love themselves too.

I wasn't sure which was worse - the weyrbred or the holdbred. The weyrbred had been their whole life around dragons and you couldn't find one who didn't want one; even I had grudgingly revised my opinion and decided it would be pretty neat, and anyway everyone would be really disappointed if I didn't.

But if the weyrbred didn't manage to Impress, they could at least stay at the Weyr.

Some of the holdbred didn't want to stay, I eventually gathered, but at the time I couldn't see why they wouldn't. Everything I heard of the Holds sounded terrible. Even in the well-run ones, most people seemed to have to fend for themselves; even in the main Hold the assumption was that you'd pay for your keep, rather than being fed just the same as everyone else as long as the Headwoman didn't think you were shirking your chores.

And I really hated seeing the fear in their eyes when they hadn't Impressed, when they were walking off the Sands back to their old lives of cold and hunger and uncertainty.

----

As soon as I was old enough, of course, I took my place on those Sands.

I'd had a brief fantasy of refusing, but once it was clear that the dragons chose, there didn't seem to be any point in doing so - I wouldn't be taking the dragon that could have gone to someone else, as I'd worried about - because that dragon wouldn't find anyone else suitable.

(The numbers didn't add up, I realised much later. Certainly dragons had their preferences, and had to find a rider that was compatible with them - but the myth that there was only one pairing that could possibly be made didn't make any sense. There were always more candidates than hatchlings, but not that many more - not enough to ensure that each dragon's 'unique' match was there, even if it was guaranteed that their match even existed on the planet - just enough to cater for preferences.

Meranath never really understood. She was convinced, of course, that I was the only one for her. Dragons were a lot more fatalist than I was ever willing to become - she didn't see it odd that the coincidence that brought us together had happened - it had to happen, so it happened, and that was all. They didn't have that human tendency to insist on thinking of all the alternatives, the what-ifs, the might have beens - and it upset her when I followed that tendency too much, as if she thought there must be some inadequacy in my current life that made me think so.)

I was bothered by all the usual things. The sands were kept too hot for the sandals we were wearing, but any other footwear would just have got stuffy as well as hot, given the amount of time we were waiting. There was an odd tension between us, children who were lifelong friends now caught up in a competition that would change our lives, and one where no-one knew how to 'win', how to influence the creatures in their eggs - in fact all adult wisdom told us that we could not, even though superstition continued to drive us to risk the dragon-mother's wrath and try to commune with them in the shell.

And there were the hold bred - some of whom had been delivered some time in advance and become our friends, some of whom were fresh off dragonback, dazed and confused by the new sights around them - some of whom felt they were better than us and would have nothing to do with the 'degenerates' of the weyr, some of whom resented their 'duty' in coming here as something that took them away from their family or their work, some of whom we couldn't determine why they felt unable to talk to us.

I felt detached from the main spectacle of it all, though.

My mother had been very clear that green dragons were extremely valuable to the Weyr, made excellent couriers, fast rescuers, as sharp-eyed as any, and ate less than the larger dragons besides. I couldn't escape the general expectation upon me, but she had been determined that I would start standing as soon as possible, even though everyone expected me to Impress a queen.

Queens tended to Impress older candidates. It wasn't unheard of for a gold dragon to Impress to someone of twenty-four, twenty-five; it was very rare for them to go to anyone under twenty.

Green dragons sometimes took children from the stands as young as twelve.

Not often; most were content with the candidates presented to them, and while there were whispers of Searching younger - especially because a girl by sixteen in a Hold could already be pregnant, which often meant she couldn't reasonably be conveyed to the Weyr even if she wanted to go - the worries of something bad happening to a younger child had continued to keep that only as a whisper.

Even so - I expected to Stand for four years without result, at least. It wasn't that I disbelieved my mother's assessment of green dragons, or that I thought too highly of myself; in some ways I wished that I believed I would Impress a beautiful green hatchling, a conveniently small piece of animate furniture that would come with no great responsibility, or at least the least responsibility available to me.

I just didn't really think it would happen. I would call it intuition, if I didn't have rather a lack of it compared to the expectations people had of me.

----

And it didn't happen.

Once it was clear that I knew everything there was to teach in candidate classes, mother had kept me occupied with her paperwork; I'd offered to help with my father's too, as he always seemed much busier, but he continued to keep me at the kind of arm's length that most riders seemed to keep their children, so I filled the rest of my time in the kitchens, where there was always room for another pair of willing hands.

The talk about how a green dragon was just as good had started to turn into talk about how there were other positions available in a Weyr for someone without a dragon, but not from my mother; she was determined that the right dragon for me just hadn't been hatched, yet.

When I was twenty-three, she started taking me to other Weyrs.

The first time, she tried to pretend that it was a coincidence. I'd often travel with her to continue being her personal secretary while she went off to compare notes with other junior weyrwomen, or to take minutes when she was sent to attend meetings which Sarai couldn't make for some reason, so it wasn't a surprise when one morning we were suddenly off to Ista.

"I was meant to help with the Gather cakes," I complained, as I threw on my riding leathers. "You could have told me earlier."

My mother looked somewhat guilty. "It came up at the last minute," she replied.

"What did you say we were covering for again?" I asked, but she was already following Hyalith out to the ledge.

She left me no time to ask further questions, Hyalith impatiently preparing to launch as I was still checking my straps, and then we were /between/ as soon as she'd cleared the ground.

The dragons were already humming as we set down at a reasonable distance.

"Oh, bother," she said, distractedly. "I suppose we'd better sit through the Hatching now - they'll have delayed the meeting until afterwards."

It wasn't that suspicious that we seemed to be expected, or that we had front-row seats - you got used to this kind of thing when you were travelling with a weyrwoman, it's not like it was difficult for the dragons to start talking the moment you formed the intention of going somewhere.

It wasn't even that suspicious that after the Hatching, the meeting had been mysteriously cancelled, with no-one even appearing to have mentioned it; things happen, the dragons would have relayed the message, and I'd never been one of the rare people that they chose to speak to, so I was used to not being in the loop.

I was just happy to be back in time to help with the baking - this time.

When the same thing happened again, three weeks later, except it was High Reaches this time - that made me suspicious.

Twice is a coincidence. When we arrived at Igen Weyr to the sound of humming, and she started to hurry me towards the Sands, I told her,

"I know what you're doing."

"Oh," she said. "Yes. I suppose it is a bit obvious, isn't it?"

"You could have told me," I chided her. "I'm not a child any more."

"Well, yes." She looked embarrassed. "Would you have come?"

I started walking again, not wanting to make us late to take our seats. "Of course," I replied. "What did you think? That I like this - being stuck in this limbo? That I don't want a dragon, and that's why they're ignoring me?"

She wouldn't quite meet my eyes. "Maybe," she said. Then a pause. "You… can stop, you know, if you want to," she offered. "I can't say that no-one will think worse of you for it - but I won't. I just want you to be happy. But lots of people are happy."

"Mum," I told her, "it's okay. I want to keep trying. I like working with you. It's kind of frustrating - but that's life, isn't it?"

"That," she said, "is definitely life."

Then we were too close to people to talk openly, for a while.

I watched the two largest eggs, separated out as probably queen eggs, begin to move; one rocked from side to side in a rhythmic, determined pattern, whereas the other was still for many moments and then would jump, fiercely, once, and then settle again. Was either of those my dragon?

I watched the young women that gathered around them. Everyone was meant to be equal on the Sands, in the white clothes that were supposedly more easily distinguished by the young dragons, or more attractive to them, or - as rumour among the candidates would have it - at least were good for showing up the bloodstains if something went very wrong. But you could still tell something from who had expensive hairstyles, had coloured their lips, had jewelled piercings.

I liked to keep my hair short and neat like a working rider, which clearly marked me out as weyrbred, but gave little else away; Fort Weyr at least had no problems with supply, and so all of the weyrbred who would be Standing were as well-fed as they wanted to be.

The jumping egg shattered in a great cacophany, shards flying everywhere. The gold hatchling inside looked inordinately pleased with herself, and immediately waddled straight past all of her prospective suitors.

My mother couldn't quite hide her look of hopeful anticipation - but it was a shy girl over by the green eggs, her tangled hair and general incomprehension suggesting a difficult start in a Hold, who was clearly the young queen's target.

"Her name is Ysaneth!" the girl exclaimed, with the tone of amazed wonder common to all newly Impressed, but somehow it felt like she was even more surprised than most.

Meanwhile, the rocking egg had broken unfussily in two, and its occupant had made a beeline for a well-groomed young woman with sapphire earrings. Some high-up Holder was going home disappointed tonight, I thought, as the young lady's gaze transformed from a disinterested expression of mild discomfort to a glowing picture of love and fulfilment.

----

Of course, you know the end to this story.

At Telgar Weyr, it worked.

There was a single clearly-larger egg in this clutch, pearl-white and majestic in its slight isolation from the rest of the eggs. My mother had stopped pretending we were merely visiting dignitaries and started to make proper arrangements, so I was out there in my white candidate dress, probably the oldest of them all; we had still flown in just in time, so the others were clearly unsure what to make of me, with my weyrbred hair and my precipitous arrival.

The egg stubbornly refused to move at all. The others were clearly getting anxious - but I wasn't.

At first, I thought it was just because I had been here before; I had seen so many Hatchings; none of them had lost a queen egg, but one of them had left a much smaller egg undisturbed, that had been quickly scooped up by the Weyrleader and spirited away.

The dance and drama of Impressions carried on all around us, as we stood and watched the silent, gleaming shell. Some of the others couldn't handle the suspense; they started watching the other candidates, looking over to where the green dragons were hatching, inspecting their fingernails.

All of a sudden, there was a sharp noise from the shell, and a crack appeared down its exterior; in the next instance, the two halves burst apart, propelled on Meranath's unfurling wings.

Why is everyone looking at me? came a voice, unfamiliar, but at the same time as familiar as breathing.

It's okay, Meranath. Just come over here and we'll get you sorted.

Everyone started looking at me, when Meranath walked - carefully, clearly just as unsure of her limbs as the other hatchlings, but applying the knowledge of her uncertainty to slow down and remain dignified - over to me, and I began to peel off and lead her towards the food.

I looked back at the other young women, and then I realised - I'd been preparing for this moment so long, that I'd spoken only inside my own head, rather than aloud like most candidates instinctively did.

"I'm afraid Meranath is taken," I apologised to the nearest young lady, who had been eying the young queen like she still might be in with a chance.

----

Except that's not the end of the story.

Neither is this, but it is at least an explanation.

I was deep into the 'weyrling fugue' when I got the letter.

Serenath says her rider has something for you, but she was told to keep it quiet, Meranath conveyed.

I had thought she was asleep. I certainly had been asleep. Trying to keep a fast-growing gold dragon clean, fed, and oiled was more than a full time undertaking.

"Where is she?" I mumbled sleepily, my early faculty with keeping quiet another casualty of my exhaustion.

She says to meet her behind the stables.

I half-fell out of bed, rather glad that I was sharing a room only with the two female greenriders rather than being in the midst of the chaos of the male weyrling barracks. But I needn't have worried; the other weyrlings were as soundly asleep as I had been a moment ago.

Change of plan, Meranath informed me. She's left it under a rock at the corner of the stables.

And so I retrieved the letter.

Dearest Zulaya, it began.

I have no idea how to start this, or say this. I've never been very good with words. I have got one of the other kitchen staff to write this, as I've never been able to get the hang of it myself.

I miss you.

M'yan is not your father.

I hoped that you might guess this, but it seems I have to say it.

Your mother couldn't have a child with M'yan, but both him and Jasinath were very possessive.

I wasn't allowed to tell you - I'm still not - but it was easier, when I could see you almost every day.

I know you can't leave Telgar. I don't know what I want this letter to do. I want you to be happy. But I miss you, and I thought it was time you should know why.

Your father,

Jase.

I just stood there next to the corridor light, swaying, for a moment.

Are you okay? Meranath enquired. She has always been quite difficult to upset, thankfully, but that has never meant she cared any less about me.

I couldn't take it in. I can't take it in. I knew M'yan had always been distant, but that was normal for a Wingleader, even one weyrmated to your mother, and it wasn't normal enough to live in the weyr with your parents all the time that I even knew what normal was in that situation.

Meranath let me have my own thoughts for a few moments, but she gets impatient with human over-analysis like any other dragon, even now - and especially when she was younger. Does it matter? she asked.

I certainly couldn't explain that. Maybe it didn't. It clearly mattered very much to Jase, who'd gone to all this effort to get a letter written and find a greenrider who was willing to deliver it, all under the threat of serious retribution if M'yan had discovered any of it.

I can't just leave him like this, I explained. But I don't know what to do.

----

I didn't magically discover what to do about it.

But I wrote a letter back to him - thanking him for telling me, letting him know I got the letter, telling him to stay safe.

And then I wrote a letter to my mother.

I crossed out the salutation several times in the draft. I called her Zulanna. I called her Junior Weyrwoman Zulanna. I called her Mother.

Eventually I just left it off entirely. I couldn't write it down anyway. I couldn't write any of this down. Melenath found me a courier - I didn't ask her how she'd done it - and I just tucked the simplest note I could into some correspondence that was going her way in any case:

Please come and visit me. Your daughter.

Zulanna landed in the weyrbowl within the hour, and came straight through to where I was trying to butcher enough meat for the day.

I had a little bit of warning, but not very much.

"You wanted me?" she asked.

I abandoned my task for the moment. "We should go somewhere quieter."

I didn't know how to tell her, but I knew I needed to. I didn't know if I could trust her, but of course I could trust her - to always have my best interests at heart, even if clearly not to tell me everything.

"I got a letter."

We were in the middle of a random corridor. Other than the middle of a field, it's the best place, and I couldn't wait long enough to get properly clear. The weyrs have ears everywhere.

She looked at me, as if she wanted to say, "And?", but thought that was a bit impatient.

Jase from the kitchens knows he's her sire and he misses his hatchling and you should bring him here, contributed Meranath, all in a rush. He can work in the kitchens here just as well as there and she can see him and he can see her and this will all be sorted and she can go back to making my lunch.

She got this unfocussed look for a second, and then it was about to become a shocked look, but then she clearly got the end of the relay and burst into laughter.

"Hatchlings," she laughed. "Got the world all worked out, especially when it pertains to their stomachs."

I nodded, still nervous.

"She's right, though," my mother continued. "Nobody will care if I do a little shuffling of paperwork. M'yan will be glad to have him out of Fort. And you'll be back to getting extra dessert, hmm?"

I still didn't trust myself to speak, but I generally attempted to signal assent.

Of course I'm right, asserted Meranath. Now, why are you still here?

This time I smiled.

----

I won't pretend that it was all happiness ever after.

It was hard for Jase to settle into a new Weyr. He'd been at Fort all his life, and he didn't do well with unfamiliar places or routines. But when an order concerning the disposition of kitchen staff comes all the way from a weyrwoman, even a junior weyrwoman from another Weyr, people do their best to make it work.

There wasn't much we had in common, and I had a lot on my hands navigating weyrlinghood and the rather unsettled politics of Telgar; while most dragons were beginning to clutch more often, the very beginnings of the sign we were expecting of Thread's eventual return, Telgar's senior queen seemed comparatively subdued and her rider was getting on a bit in years.

Eventually, he told me it was good to see me settled, and he'd like to go home now. I still visit him, now that Meranath can fly and hop /between/ for me.

It probably annoys M'yan, but he knows that if he makes a fuss, that will only ensure that the scandal gets out, rather than staying as quiet as a secret in the Weyrs can be - probably only because of Hyalith's careful reinforcement.

I don't think I will have much longer to luxuriate in worrying about that. Already I've begun to take over quite a lot of Telgar's administrative work; soon Meranath will rise to mate for the first time, and with any luck there will be a good enough clutch that Jurianna considers standing down in my favour, especially if her dragon doesn't rise again.

After all - everyone loves a Hatching.