No, This Meeting Couldn't Be A Flit-Mail (JP R'tal/F'loran)


IC Date Reference: Set approximately

If neither he nor Kass (and N’shen, mustn’t forget N’shen) mentioned it then maybe, somehow, wonder of wonders, a Conclave wouldn’t have to happen. Maybe the world would somehow forget that someone just tried to kill the Arolos Weyrleadership, maybe they could deal with it privately in their own way.

And maybe tunnelsnakes would fly.

There was no way it could not be discussed. Not so much to blame Arolos but to protect every other Weyr from danger. But right now what R’tal felt was the possibility of eyes assessing him up again, checking his fitness for the job and maybe -- once more -- removing him. Because he -- because Talith -- wasn’t up to standard.

And once in a lifetime was enough for that.

So stubbornly, pig-headedly, he pretended it didn’t need to happen. Covered the blindness as long as he could (though after Hatching, that secret was likely out of the bag). And set up contingencies to protect them from other Weyrleaders as much as from attacks from outside. Sooner or later, they were going to come asking. He needed to be ready.

It was probably not much of a surprise to anyone that barely a few days after the Hatching that a familiar Weyrleader’s dragon winked into the sky and began to circle to land. Truth be told, it was probably a wonder that F’loran and Antelath hadn’t turned up days ago. Wygelle had probably firmly insisted, using that voice that only Weyrwomen seemed to know how to use, that he was absolutely, under no circumstances, going anywhere near Arolos until the Hatching was done. Well, now it was. So now there were no excuses. Besides, F’loran wanted to be the first at the door before the rest of the Weyrs started turning up. Because it was probably a guarantee that at some point, they would.

Expecting to be directed in the familiar direction of R’tal’s office, F’loran was somewhat surprised when instead, he was sent towards what looked like… Hatching Caverns? Well all right then. As he approached the entrance, the guards positioned there didn’t go amiss. Guards who immediately stiffened to attention when they spotted the Weyrleader knots on the shoulder of the approaching Bronzerider. “Afternoon,” F’loran commented with his usual joviality. “Don’t suppose you could do me a favour and turf R’tal out. Tell him F’loran’s here with that delivery he promised.”

In normal times he’d likely be waved through. As it was one of them vanished in for a few minutes before returning to his position with a polite ‘he’s on his way, Weyrleader’.

And R’tal was on his way, much preferring to meet a visitor away from Talith than where they could stare at him. Usually delighted to see the High Reaches Weyrleader, the look he gave F’loran today was wary, verging on hostile. “F’loran,” he greeted, also polite but a lot cooler than usual. “You should have mentioned you were coming.” And today that felt like more than a ‘so we could make sure there was cake and good alcohol ready’. Today he really would have liked that warning.

The surly countenance was spotted immediately. But if you wanted to faze someone like F’loran, it probably involved something more terrifying. As it was, he didn’t bat an eyelid. “Wygelle wanted me to bring down a congratulatory package for your twin golds. She’d have done it herself but Ormanth’s gravid and set to pop any day. Antelath couldn’t wait to get a day to himself before he sits guard over the Caverns for the next month and a bit.” Lazily the big man jerked a thumb over his shoulder to where the bronze was cheerfully letting several staffers unload several large crates from his harness. “One of ‘em’s got your name on. A lot of babies heads to wet.”

If R’tal’s smile, even at that, looked a bit forced then things were probably fairly bad. “Let’s walk over my office,” he suggested. “We’re just tidying up what’s left in the Hatching Grounds, no point hanging around here too long.” And he could have taken F’loran home except he’d been in there for such brief flyby periods of late that there was every chance it might look like Thread had been falling in there. “Sorry, if you’d told us you were coming I’d have set time aside.”

And that would fool no one. Tidying up the Caverns his foot. But, he could understand the other Weyrleader’s hesitance. He would probably be the same if someone tried to blow up Wygelle, let alone if someone had tried to blow up one of Ormanth’s clutches. “You look like a walk will do  you good. You forgotten what sunlight looks like?” It was the same, cheerful tone as ever. As if all were good and right in the world. “Besides, it was a bit of an impromptu one as Ormanth said she thinks she’s clutching soon. Wanted it done before that. Was half expecting her to wake Antelath up at stupid past the candlemark this morning.”

“You sure she won’t be calling you back?” And R’tal tried to relax, tried to sound cheery as they started to walk -- followed at only a short distance by the tail of guards. He liked F’loran. He did. F’loran was a friend. 

Except right now F’loran was another Weyrleader which meant that F’loran felt like a pair of eyes sent to spy on him.

“It’s been a bit of a sevenday or so.” And F’loran had been joking, but he was indeed squinting a little as they stepped out into the sun. 

“Doubt it. After much bribing for information she sulkily admitted we’ve got a couple more days. Been in a right snit this time around for some reason. Even Wygelle’s baffled by it.” It was banter as lazy as the stride he settled into as they meandered out of the Caverns. “She finally relented when I promised I wouldn’t be longer than a day and then she can have Antelath back. Wygelle doesn’t know what to make of her right now.”

“Golds are golds. Foreth nearly drove Kass demented with this last one,” R’tal admitted. He glanced back over his shoulder as though checking everything back there was in place but kept talking. “Had a sudden fish craving. Had to get Weyrlings to bring them in.”

Noticing the glances, F’loran acted as though he either hadn’t seen them or thought them entirely normal. “Then I’m glad she’s not close enough to give Ormanth ideas. You know, this time she demanded that the Caverns be lined with our warmest furs because “I can feel the cold starting”. It’s like - sweetheart, it’s always cold here, furs aren’t going to do a sharding things.” The man rolled his eyes in a mock dramatic gesture. “Glad it all went well on your end. All things considering. You got two golds out of it and I heard they’re doing all right. That’s one way to stick up the finger to ‘em.”

“We lost a few.” And if it hadn’t been Talith’s Clutch maybe R’tal would have barely felt it - would have put it in the part of his mind that logged the ever growing number of dragonpairs lost to Fall and stopped thinking there. But it was Talith’s Clutch, and Talith felt it so R’tal felt it. The smile, even the forced one, faded. “Eight.”

“I heard.” F’loran’s cheerful voice took a turn for the sombre now. “It’s a damnable shame. I know it’s not worth much, but for what it is, I’m sharding sorry, R’tal. Don’t know what I’d do if it were me so I’m not going to even act like I know how it feels.”

“We’re waiting for the dragons to forget,” R’tal admitted, dropping his voice to a quieter tone. “You know, this is one of those times I thank Faranth they can do that. Given time and it’ll be a far distant memory of ‘something bad happened a long time ago’ and nothing more.” And once the dragons forgot the humans could try to start forgetting.

“They will.” His voice was kinder now. “It’s one of the small mercies. They’ll forget long before we do. And as their hurt fades, it makes it easier for ours to.” And he didn’t blame the man for counting every day until that happened. “Come on. I’ve already told your lot to send a crate by way of your office. And no, I’m not going to drink you under the table this time.”

“Good. I haven’t got time for the hangover,” R’tal said honestly, picking up the pace again. He tried to shift his mind again away from the thought of the eggs, of tiny broken corpses left behind after-- after--

No. Don’t think it, let that one go. He could feel Talith shift at the memory and clamped hard on the thought, pushing it out of his brain. Change the conversation, think of something else now before you push it back onto Talith. “Weren’t you doing something with Ista last we spoke? How’s that going?” Sharded if he could remember even what it was now; had they been lending Ista a gold or was it the other way around?

Nice change of subject. F’loran couldn’t help but wonder if R’tal hadn’t liked where his head was going at the mention of the lost eggs. But he certainly wasn’t there to make the man sit through unpleasant memories. Well, not of eggs anyway. “Ista is being, well, Ista. Albeit with a dollop less shell-cracked toomfoolery. We made an arrangement to send them a contingent of transfers - all volunteers who wanted a fresh change of pace. They’re currently trying to negotiate more out of us and getting a bit huffy that we’re putting our foot down and saying no. But they’ll settle. It’s not that she-wherry Eilid at the helm any more so I think it’s a bit of jostling to prove they’ve got it under control.” F’loran shrugged as they walked, a gesture that seemed to say “so we’ll have to wait and see”.

“They’re managing Fall all right, I take it? Otherwise we would have heard something.” R’tal could relax more when it was someone else’s Weyr they were talking about, picking over. “Any Clutches there?”

“Seem to be. No worse than anyone else. They’ve had some rough weather of late which obviously makes it a bit of a faff at times but then, could say the same of us with blizzards or you lot with whatever natural disaster decided to rear its head.” The nonchalant tone suggested that F’loran was privately of the opinion that Ista was making waves because they seemed to think they warranted some sort of special treatment. “Clutch-wise, couldn’t tell you. I send that stuff to Wygelle because I get bored counting eggs. But from what I hear they’ve got a small group of mature golds. Possibly waiting on one to go up the first time. But they’re no worse off than the rest of us at the moment.” 

“Well, give us a couple of turns and when our new babies are fighting with the rest of them for who should be in charge maybe we’ll have a gold or two to share,” R’tal said with a touch of his usual dryness. “They don’t stay tiny and cute for long, do they?”

The High Reaches Weyrleader chuckled at that, his burly frame shaking with the noise. "Don't I know it. I think Wygelle is quietly hoping Ormanth is brewing a gold to explain her mood. Me, I could go another five turns before the next. Easily been a couple turns since Silarath was hatched and even that feels too sharding soon!" There was no real animosity to his words but Weyrleader to Weyrleader, gold eggs and hatchlings brought a unique kind of stress that put turns on you overnight.

"I reckon Ista will settle when they realise the Weyrs will happily leave them be when there's so suspicion of skullduggery going on. And no goldflights ending in disaster." He waved a hand as if to stall any interjecture. "It's all in the past now. No amount of hunting hides and heads to blame will bring either of 'em back. These days, I'm just grateful that some small amount of positivity came out of Tyne being able to resettle here. And I've got to be content with that."

“As long as they’re not going to go crazy on us, I’m quite happy to ignore them,” R’tal admitted. “No-one wants another Fort but beyond that.. They can get on with their business.” And if he left other Weyrs to get on with their business unbothered, maybe they would leave him to get on with his. “No point getting too interfering. They’ve got to learn to handle things themselves.”

"True enough," F'loran conceded. "But only to an extent." They were coming up a familiar piece of tunnel and he could see the recognizable door to the man's office coming up. Unfortunately for R'tal, F'loran wasn't going to be beating about the bush today.

F’loran had been in R’tal’s office before, which meant that he knew that while Margana kept it tidy it was usually a fairly busy place. Paperwork came in, paperwork went out, both in tray and out tray were usually stacked with a few pieces of half-completed work here and there.

Right now, the room felt.. Empty. No Margana or Candidate hanging around ready to run for klah. No stack of documents. R’tal had barely been in there for a couple of sevendays and it felt eerily tidy as he closed the door behind them.

R’tal glanced about as though just realising Shalia wasn’t there. “I’ll get someone to run for klah. Or--you prefer juice, don’t you?”

Although his eyes were taking in the stark difference in the office compared to the last time he had been here, F'loran's hand was sheepishly going into a pocket in his flight jacket and brought out a small pouch. "Just a pot of hot water. Healers have me on a tea concoction for some acid problems. Nothing serious, apparently I need to cut back on the amount of cheese I'm putting away." 

“Sorry to hear.” R’tal was automatically polite. “Sure you don’t want juice to wash it down with?” The guards were getting used to their junior members being used as errand boys on occasion. Talith was remaining uncooperative on message-passing.

“Doesn’t taste too bad, just a bit of an embarrassing reminder that I’m closer to fifty turns than I am twenty.” F’loran gave R’tal a wry chuckle as he dumped his large frame into a chair, sprawling over the leather as though it were almost too small to fit. “Wygelle wants me to go on a diet. Told her where that idea belonged and that we North men need a bit of padding come winter!” 

R’tal poked his head out of the office. A quick murmur to one of the guards and he came back in. “Told them to make sure there was no cheese on the tray. No point taunting you,” he said, taking a seat himself. “Somehow I find the older I get the more important snacks in meetings feel.”

Looking about him, F’loran had the crumpled expression of a disappointed Apprentice who had hoped to see their friend in the yard during a break. “No Ty?” He asked, the plaintive hopefulness in his voice baffling from a man who had to stoop to fit through doors. 

“He’s keeping Talith company.” Again, R’tal had that cagey look to him. “They’ve been buddying up together lately.” Highly encouraged by R’tal’s hope that any threat Talith couldn’t see Tyren might smell. If he couldn’t be there to protect his brown then Tyren being there helped.

The disappointment was probably amusing, complete with sad pout. “I get that. If firelizards can pick up on things, whers probably can too. Shells, animals in general are funny like that.” He shifted about a bit to make himself more comfortable, tactfully not commenting on the cagey expression that flitted over R’tal. His “Thread Sense” was tingling all right. And once again, his Weyrwoman had been far more astute than he was that something was “going on”. He inspected R’tal for a minute. “Right. We’ll wait for snacks and then we’ll have a chat.” Unless he was kicked out the door the moment he said the word they were all dreading.

Here it came, that moment where they both admitted that F’loran wasn’t here for a nice social visit and delivering alcohol. R’tal tensed visibly, scowling a little. “A chat?” That wasn’t precisely a friendly response. He wasn’t a wingrider to be called in for a friendly dressing-down if his performance was under par and it was too easy to go on the defensive.

"Well, more a head's up." F'loran's casual tone belied the fact that on the inside, the visible defensiveness concerned him. What the shards was going on?! As the door opened and a small tray was hastily brought in, the Weyrleader paused, waiting for the door to close again before he spoke. "Whether you announce it or not, you've got the Weyrs landing imminently on your doorstep. And yes, I'm talking Conclave. Because we've all been quietly watching, quietly waiting for Arolos to announce it. And since it hasn't been… well, lets just say that Arolos is under more scrutiny than ever.";

“It's an internal matter,” R'tal said flatly.”Begging your pardon, F'loran because I like you well enough but I don't see that it's anyone else’s business outside of this Weyr and that includes you.” He did. He’d been doing this far too long to claim not to understand how things worked. Still if it came to it he would try anyway.

Leaning to pour hot water into an empty cup, F’loran fished about in the pouch and dropped a small herbal bag into it. “Now I know you’re just being a stubborn arse. You know as well as I do that that won’t fly. It wasn’t as if your Hatching Caverns collapsed from an earthquake. They blew up. And people are all a-twitter as to whether it was accidental or intentional sabotage.” He poked the bag forlornly with a spoon. “Now, we could probably all smile and cheerfully say it was internal when that incident at the Gather happened - and yes, the rumours have hit Reaches, because lets face it, your Weyrwoman has probably pissed off a lot of people over the turns. But you of all people have been playing this game long enough to know that the very second that a gold yielding clutch was threatened, everyone sat up and looked worried.”

The High Reaches Weyrleader fixed R’tal with a firm look. “So either deny all you like and be caught on the back foot when they arrive, or get your head in the game and be ready for whatever drama they’re bringing to the table.”

“I don’t suppose it's occured to anyone that we might be just a little bit too busy investigating to host a Conclave.” R'tal was being unfair and he knew it as he said it. Of course it had occurred to them. That was why they had waited until after hatching. 

“Unfortunately you lot stayed too quiet for too long. They’re getting impatient now. As far as they’re concerned, they gave you the Hatching and a few days to let things settle down a little and get the new Weyrlings settled. They’ve still not heard a peep so toes are tapping.” F’loran flipped out the bag of herbs onto a small plate and took the steaming cup. “As it is, they don’t think you’re going rogue. But you know what they’re like. They’re twitchy and nervous.”

“Shells, no, we’re not going sharding rogue!” That denial was quick and horrified. R'tal knew too well where that kind of talk went. “We got attacked for Faranth’s sake, we're just trying to get our feet under us again.” Despite all his talk about snacks in meetings being important he'd been ignoring the tray. Something about this conversation didn't inspire an appetite.

“And if “we got attacked” is the official line, that’s exactly why the Weyrs are going to be turning up. Because that’s exactly what they want to know. Is this an Arolos specific issue or is it something all the Weyrs need to up their own vigilance on. You know better than most that after Fort, after Ista, after Fort again and that sharding goldflight, they’re not going to sit on their hands and wait. We did that too many times before when we said that what happened at other Weyrs was not our problem. Until it became everyone’s problem.” F’loran’s expression was stern, not at R’tal but at the whole situation as he sipped calmly at the tea. He wasn’t really feeling it just as R’tal wasn’t feeling snacks - unfortunately a Healer would probably smack him if he missed a dose.

“Ah, fecking shells.” The polite semi-formality R'tal had been trying to keep up slipped for a moment and his shoulders slumped. He sighed. “How many of them at your door?” Because there was no point pretending he didn't know how it worked. Once the concern level rose suddenly everyone was casually dropping in on each other for klah and a chat.

“New Fort is mostly perplexed and confused. They’ve not seen a Conclave yet but they’re not idiots. They’ve picked up that something is in the wind. Benden is twitchier but they tend to be a bit more sensible about wanting all the information first before they get too committed. Not heard much from Telgar or Igen and Ista is, well, looking supremely smug that it’s not them being talked about for a change.” F’loran could feel for the man. Conclaves were a bucket of stress in and of themselves. That magnified a thousand fold when it was your Weyr in the cross-hairs “Wygelle has discreetly been advising New Fort as to how it rolls. She’s determined to show up even if it means leaving Ormanth with a minder and making sure we get this done and dusted as fast as possible. Otherwise she’ll have to send Nerila and she isn’t really quite up to a Conclave solo.”

For a moment R’tal was quiet, and his scowl said that he actually might consider telling F’loran to just feck right off out of his Weyr and not come back. Then he sighed. “Kass is pregnant,” he admitted, conceding that much. “Twins, and she’s old for it, and has had a few bad ones as it is. And then this.. She’s out of the Infirmary but she needs rest.”

Something about the way R’tal spoke told F’loran that now was not the time to congratulate R’tal on what F’loran could only assume was his impending progeny but filed the note away for Wygelle. She could manage the women stuff. “And won’t be fit to deal with the chaotic and very stressful event that is a Conclave.” He finished, reading between the lines. “So who gets to be thrown into the fire? Delysia?”

“At the moment she’s insisting it’ll be her and Healer advice be sharded,” R’tal said, spreading his hands in a gesture that indicated the difficulty of arguing with a determined Weyrwoman. “If she concedes I suspect it’ll be Andronda.” He stood up. Something about having this conversation seated felt wrong. He wanted to pace; wanted to move, and shift around and possibly kick walls if the conversation went that way. “I wanted-- shells, I just wish you’d wait until we actually had something resembling useful information to give you!” Frustration there; people were going to arrive wanting answers and it felt as though he had very little to give.

“To be honest? I think right now their main agenda is establishing what is believed to be the cause of recent events - as in, accidental or sabotage and what steps you are in the process of devising to make enquiries if believed that something sinister is afoot. I’d like to think that at least some of them have enough of a brain to realise that you’re likely still going to have very little idea as to specifics. And discuss what measures they all need to be considering as well as sharing information that they may have picked up about possible concerns from any outside parties. Unfortunately, with the Redstars known to lurk on your doorstep, you can guess where half of them have probably already been going with it.” F’loran paused, watching the man pace around the room. He’d probably be doing the same.

“If Kassia is being that… gold about it,” he said diplomatically, “Then I strongly suggest a discreet chat with your Weyrmate. Because the general feeling I’m getting is that backs are up, people are suspicious, they’re scared and that means they're going to be argumentative and hostile off the bat. So I would anticipate you to need the brandy I have actually brought with me by the time it’s over. And if she can be convinced, I don’t think that it will do Kassia any good to sit through that.”

Right now it felt as though R’tal could use that brandy before the Conclave even started. “Officially, as far as the Weyr knows? Could still have been an accident, we’re just being very careful. Off the record?” He shook his head. “Right now I haven’t got a sharding clue who it was, but it’s someone. And after the Gather attempt-- honestly I’d rather not have anyone new in the Weyr just now and that includes a whole bunch of Weyrleaders!”

F’loran watched R’tal thoughtfully. Despite the man’s ranting - which to be fair, he could empathise with a lot of it, it still didn’t shake the feeling that something was afoot. For several moments, he sat and drank his tea. “Well,” he began after clearly some thought. “Wygelle wants to attend but is reluctant to leave Ormanth. You have a pregnant Weyrwoman and an understandable concern about a mass arrival of the world’s Weyrleaders turning up during what could be a safety crisis.” You could hear the man’s brain ticking from across the room. “So what if I suggest we bring it to neutral territory and bring them to High Reaches? Not to mention, New Fort will probably be more comfortable attending too as they’re familiar with us now and know where they’re going. And if there is a genuine Weyr-Wide threat to be concerned about, taking it out of Arolos might actually keep things a little more… low key.”

It should have been a kind helpful suggestion. As it was, R’tal stopped in his tracks, face freezing for a moment as he too-obviously searched for the lie, the excuse that would get them out of that situation without explaining why he needed it. Kassia’s pregnancy had been a useful excuse but for this? He searched for an easy get out clause and failed to find one. 

The hesitance was what F’loran didn’t realise he had been waiting for until it happened. When it did, he leaned forward in his chair, the firm expression changing to one of more concern. “Whatever you say now stays in this room between you and me. Not even Wygelle hears it. But there’s something you haven’t been saying since the moment you came out of those Caverns.”

“Talith.” The word was almost a croak, and R’tal swallowed, trying to get some moisture back into his mouth. “Talith, he-- the Healers say it’s temporary.” Probably temporary, likely temporary, and that other possibility that it might not be was keeping him awake at night already. “But--the explosion-- he can’t fly, not right now.” In the end, it was almost a relief to say it.

Ah, shells. The moment the Arolos Weyrleader mentioned his dragon’s name, something in the pit of F’loran’s stomach froze in place. For such a big man, F’loran could move surprisingly gracefully at times as he eased up out of the chair in a fluid motion to drop a manly, companionable hand on R’tal’s shoulder. “You’re afraid of them finding out, aren’t you? Because if your dragon can’t fly, how can you lead a Weyr?”

“Truenoth too.” Confess one, confess both, easier to get it over with all at once now he’d started. R’tal sagged under F’loran’s hand, releasing the lie finally. “They’d been helping Foreth with the eggs -- it just came from nowhere.” If he’d looked unhappy when discussing the lost eggs that was nothing to his stricken expression now. “I’ve got one of our old Weyrleaders leading Fall, and T’ryn -- you remember T’ryn? - taking WeyrSecond duties. We’re handling things. But I don’t know if they’re going to see that.”

And things just went from bad to worse, didn’t they. Shells, no wonder the man was on the defensive, he probably thought that the Conclave were going to steal his Weyr out from under him “No reason why the official line can’t be that your dragons sustained temporary injuries during the incident that has impacted their ability to fly, but are on the road to recovery and that in the meantime, you have made suitable arrangements for other duties to be covered by suitable Riders of appropriate knowledge. Drop names if you have to. Shells, if you don’t want them coming here, have someone bring the lot of you up in a couple evenings’ time and I’ll hole you up in a guest weyr so you don’t have to arrive under scrutiny of “but where are their dragons?”” F’loran hadn’t the slightest idea of whether any of this was going to appeal to the man, but he would at least try.

“I..can’t.” It was a kindly suggestion, made with the best of intentions and still R’tal shook his head. Not out of stubbornness, out of the creeping fear that left him to leave his wher to guard his hurt dragon, that meant he’d moved almost all work to the Hatching Grounds where Talith was only ever a few seconds out of reach. He looked up at the High Reaches Weyrleader, expression bleak. “Shells, F’loran, this happened when I was only up at my office. If there was something-- and I was half a world away..”

Realistically, F’loran recognised that a part of him had expected such a response. “Then I suggest that you make the entrance to the Caverns look suitably under construction but unaccessible. Because there’s talks of wanting to inspect the extent of the damage. Tell them Talith received temporary injuries but he is resting and strictly not to be disturbed. They don’t need to be told where he is.” And F’loran was not above a little tactful elimination of information at times when it was needed. “End of the day, the primary concern is about potential cause of the incident. Keep the focus on that and away from the impact. If needs be, redirect it to the fact that the Hatching was still a success. Because to be honest, I don’t give a wherry’s feathery arse if a Weyrleader’s dragon is out of commission for a while. If something like this happens, I’m more concerned about whether what happened in one Weyr is at risk of happening in my own.”

“Feck.” He hadn’t even considered them wanting to inspect the Caverns. That much had escaped his attempts to plan around. R’tal, ran a hand back through his hair, trying to think, rearrange, plan, pull himself back together enough to feel like a Weyrleader and not like a barely disguised wreck. Breathe in, breathe out, pull it together. He forced a weak, entirely unconvincing smile. “..Did you mention asking them to send some of that brandy up?”

He watched as R’tal visibly tried to pull himself back into one piece. The hand didn’t move until the weak smile and query came his way and F’loran nodded towards the door. “Aye, surprised you didn’t trip over the crate on the way in. You’ve got enough to pickle the Weyr.”

“Had my mind on other things.” Like how many lies it might take to make this go away. R’tal took another breath, released it. “Grab it? I’ll remember where Margana hides the glasses now. I need a drink.” Needed it to blunt the edge off all the fears this conversation raised, everything he’d been burying unspoken in a corner of his mind and trying not to think about.

Sticking his head out the door, Floran hefted the crate as though it contained nothing but pillows. It clinked and rattled as he did, giving away the contents even as he set it down behind the desk. Just discreetly enough out of sight so someone sticking their head in wouldn’t see a suspiciously large crate of alcohol hanging around. “Don’t worry, I’ve already got more put to one side to bring with me that I can conveniently forget to bring home again.” 

Normally that might have prompted a laugh, maybe a joke about whether F’loran’s true intention really was to drink him under the table. There was no such laughter today. R’tal might have managed to force a smile but his expression shifted back towards grim as he located the glasses and set them on the desk, reaching as he did so to check Talith - making sure the brown was still there, still safe, still protected. Shells, but he hadn’t felt this antsy about being a distance from him since they’d been Weyrlings themselves.

It took little effort to crack the crate open, a bottle appearing as if out of nowhere. With far too much expertise, F’loran popped out the cork and the dark liquid appeared in glasses. “By my reckoning you’ve got two, maybe three days. But I’d err on the side of caution and prepare for two. Because some people are more than champing at the bit.”

“No chance you can delay them further?” It seemed so unlikely as to not be worth asking and R’tal asked anyway, pleading for time, pleading for breathing space. The first glass was picked up and thrown back with almost indecent quickness, the burn of alcohol reassuring. Right now he could use a bit of bolstering and good High Reaches brandy did the job.

“You kidding, I’m amazed I’ve gotten them to sit tight this far.” There was a snort of annoyance at that, as though the huffing and puffing of dignitaries had annoyed him greatly. F’loran nursed his brandy. He knew all too well his own tolerance but Wygelle would also have his head if he came back smelling of too much booze. “Ista idly asked why it would be so terrible to have it before the Hatching. Because Ista.” The man rolled his eyes with obvious extravagance. “End of the day, R’tal - it’ll be better to rip it off quick and kick them out again. The longer you try and fob them off now, the longer the rumours have to pick up speed. At least this way, you can stand and look pretty whilst they all die of heat sickness. Except maybe Ista. You sure you won’t come to Reaches?”

“Honestly?” With a refilled glass in his hand to hide behind R’tal took a chance and told the truth. How much worse could things get, really? “Right now being as far away as this office is hard.” He shrugged helplessly, knowing how that sounded. Beyond weyrlinghood, mostly, riders could rely enough on the mental bond to cope. “Until we work out who’s behind this - every minute I’m not there watching him feels like time where someone could try something else. If I was there and something happened..” It would be a long time before distance would dull the memory of the world going from perfectly fine to screaming unseen panic in the blink of an eye. 

"Fair enough. Offer's there if you feel the Weyr has come down with a strange and contagious illness by morning." And he didn't push it. As it was, this Conclave was going to be hard enough on all of them. "If there is anything you want High Reaches and only High Reaches to be aware of before it all kicks off, you know how to find us anyhow."

Drink your brandy - second glass more slowly than the first - gather your mind, pull in your courage because it felt like these words needed to be forced out and yet they needed saying. “Listen. Your focus might not be on Talith and Truenoth but if they work out something’s up-- they’re not all going to follow that lead.”

“End of the day, you’ve been to enough of these that you know it takes a certain amount of persuasive speaking to keep them looking at the shiny pebble and not pay attention to the man behind robbing them blind. If you come across as confident in your dragon’s recovery and ability to return to duty then who are we to doubt it? So practice your more convincing smile. And maybe bring out a uniform that hasn’t been slept in for a sevenday straight. As much as I hate to use it as example - but the goldflight Conclave. Look at the differences the appearance of Tyne made compared to Breda. Cool, calm and confident. And I know full well that Tyne was so nervous she spent half a candlemark emptying her guts down the privy afterward. This is going to be one of those times where looking as though you’ve got it together and not as though you’re clutching desperately at strings is going to make all the difference. Because they will be looking at you and asking themselves if it looks like you’re quietly falling apart. And right now, yes it does.” F’loran spoke with the candid ease of someone who knew someone else well enough by now that they knew it wouldn’t be perceived as an insult. 

“You’re telling me it’s not going to go down well if I spend the whole thing very slightly pissed on your brandy?” It was meant to be a joke but came out too tiredly to not fall flat. Right now R’tal felt exhausted, worried and downright paranoid. Cool, calm and confident was an area he might not even be able to find on a map. “Other than with your weyrmate of course.”

“Depends on whether “slightly pissed” means you’ll be less tense and able to hide the smell of brandy on your breath.” Was F’loran’s response in all seriousness. Wygelle would probably make him sleep out in the snow if she found out he was possibly encouraging a Weyrleader to turn up to a Conclave mildly drunk.

“...Possibly,” R’tal admitted after a moment’s long consideration. “Though I suspect Kass would kill me if she knew I was even thinking of it.” He grimaced, and made himself sip from his second glass rather than just downing the remnants and refilling. “I know, I know you can’t give me more time. But Faranth, what I’d give for another couple of sevendays to just pull it together.” It felt as though given time to just sleep without bolting from one crisis to the next, to breathe and pull his head together he could actually mean that confidence rather than blundering bli-- no, don’t think that word -- clumsily  through a facade of it.

“I suspect the intent was to turn up unannounced to prevent any hasty pulling together. But I don’t agree with that. Because that stinks of treating another Weyr of guilty of something without finding out the facts. But just remember to look surprised.” F’loran’s nose crinkled with distaste as he took a sip of the brandy that burned all the way down his gullet. “Shells, it’s not like it’s another secret Fort takeover and we’ve all been quietly watching the shit going down for turns.”

“Faranth.” And that plan in itself didn’t bode well as to people’s attitudes. R’tal looked a little sick. “Who’ve we pissed off enough that they want to pull that on us?” But it took only a second’s thought to have the answer. “The new lot at Fort, I suppose. And Ista. And anyone else who doesn’t like how many golds we’re putting out.”

“Not even that. People hear gold eggs almost get taken out and they stop thinking sensibly and start thinking “what if that was in my Weyr, or my dragon?” Emotions are kicking in because they’re all sat there asking themselves the “what if” questions.” He resisted the urge to knock back the brandy and pour himself another. “Besides, the lot at New Fort aren’t all that bad. Still finding their feet and struggling a bit with the fact their dragons are working harder because of the size and their golds only manage small clutches from what I hear. But all in all, seem to be getting stuck in.” He shrugged, he’d met with the Weyrleaders and others a handful of times now and thankfully, there seemed to be no suggestion of “issues”. “We’ve got a handshake agreement that we cover our border onto their territory with some additional backup when the weather really kicks off.” The Weyrleader shook his head thoughtfully. “I honestly think that right now it’s a whole lot more about people thinking of the worst possible thing than it is about grudges.”

“Yeah? Because I’m sitting here staring out and all I can think is ‘who’ve we made hate us enough to do this?’.” Alcohol brought frankness, allowed the paranoia that’d been hiding underground to come to the surface. “Wouldn’t be the first time it’s been another Weyr.” Wouldn’t be the first time it had been F’loran’s own Weyr come to that, even if time and Wygelle as Weyrwoman had smoothed over those scars. “I thought we’d been fairly inoffensive lately but-- clearly not to somebody.”

“And we’ve all got enemies from outside of the Weyr. And how many times has Weyr involvement involved the direct attempt to kill golds? Goldflight not withstanding. Weyr involvement in the past normally involves getting a hold of something because we’re covetous feckers who get jealous of another Weyr’s gold fortune. But we usually want it for ourselves in some way, not to destroy it entirely. Shells, if you told me that someone had tried to threaten one of the gold eggs as a distraction to try and take the other? Sure, I’d be looking suspiciously at people.” F’loran didn’t have the slightest clue if any of this made any sense whatsoever.

“I thought maybe..something like the Fort involvement.” It helped a little to say it out loud, speak the old nightmares that had been returning the last sevenday. R’tal had never truly recovered from that invasion, had had K’ren carefully not suggesting mindhealers for decades, and this past sevenday had brought terrors he didn’t even know he still had back to the surface. “Take out Kass, injure Talith and Truenoth, leave a nice gap in Weyrleadership and then move their own people in.” Sip again at the brandy, know it was loosening his tongue and stop caring so much if it did. Sometimes you needed to name the anxieties before you could let them go. “You don’t need to take the gold eggs if you can take the whole Weyr with them still inside.”

F’loran shifted on his seat, suddenly sitting more straight in his seat. “Right,” he said, tossing back the rest of his brandy and setting the glass on the desk. “What I’m about to say does not leave this room as it’s nothing more than speculation. No one’s thoughts but mine about this whole thing.” He didn’t need to wait for R’tal to say anything. They’d known each other long enough that they knew how these things were done.

“You want to take out a Weyrleadership you do it quick and you make sure it sticks. Poison the klah. Slit throats in bed. What you don’t do is use a tool as unreliable as an explosion. If you want to take over a Weyr, you want people to know it’s taken over because the efficiency of a fast kill is a message in itself.” F’loran paused, sitting back as he stared R’tal dead in the eye. “If you think this was intentional. Then I think it went off early. Because a Hatching Cavern doesn’t just fill up with Weyrleaders. It fills up with Lord Holders, Master Crafters and a whole mess of other people from all around the protectorate. I think this was meant to be a message where the aim was to take out a lot of people in one fell swoop and to incite mass panic across the entire board. Not just in a Weyr, but in Holds and Halls. I think your explosion was meant to be a lot bigger, do a lot more damage and be a bigger statement to make everyone scared. Inside the Weyr and outside.”

R’tal thought about that, thought about the damage that truly could have been done if it had gone off a little later, and shuddered as he pictured it, stomach turning a little. There were no words, nothing equal to responding to that potential amount of damage. That wouldn’t just have wiped out the Weyr; that could have come near to wiping out most of the rankers of the South.

Silently, still digesting that, he drained his glass and reached to refill them both.

“Now, I know when something harms us we automatically think it’s Weyr targeted. But I have spent far too many candlemarks considering the logistics. And using a tool as clumsy as a planned explosion is too ham-fisted if the intent is for a specific target. There’s no guarantee they will get caught in the blast, let alone killed. But if mass damage, mass death and it doesn’t matter who or what gets caught up in? Then an explosion fits that target. It’s big, it’s scary and if the blast doesn’t get you, getting trampled to death in a frenzied crowd of panic will. It’s a sure fire way to bring harm when there are a lot of people in the vicinity. But for a specific target that might not even be in there or could get out? No, I can’t see it. It doesn’t send enough of a message if “and only one or two people got hurt” - not for something as dramatic as that.” He sat back in his chair, taking the refilled glass as he did. 

“It wasn’t an accident.” R’tal’s voice was quiet, his expression shaken as he spoke. “We found the explosion site. We’d had them - I’d suggested digging a route for the water from the Lake to make a pond closer to the Hatching Grounds.” And maybe he’d regret that suggestion to his dying day but at the time it had seemed harmless. “Because of the fish. Because Foreth wanted to fish so much.” He shook his head. “I’d had them check everyone into and out of the Weyr after the Gather attack; thought if we knew who was here we’d be safe. But the workmen; when they said they needed access to make sure it wouldn’t flood the Sands no-one thought twice.”

“If you’re talking construction then you’re talking Stone Cutters. Which means you’re talking Crafters. So the big question is, who’s got their thumb in the Crafters and might have a bone to pick with a Weyr? And what better time than a Weyr due to have a Hatching when all different rankers are going to be sitting in the Stands?” F’loran’s face was dead serious as he watched the other man. 

“Feck..” It hadn’t occurred to him before, hadn’t even crossed his mind, but now he could picture it all too clearly. R’tal shivered as though a cold draught had blown through the room a moment. “Someone with a grudge that big isn’t going to let it drop either.”

“And in all honesty? I think they know it got fecked up. And now they’re going to lie low and let all of this blow over.” He shrugged, it was a useless gesture. “But like I say, this is just wild speculation on my part. No basis in fact, but what I did was step back and consider what this might have done if it wasn’t just about the Weyrleaders and their dragons.”

And stepping back right now was exactly what R’tal was struggling to do. His mind was fixed on Talith, on eight hatchlings that never got to hatch, on danger that felt like it might approach from any direction. “I hoped that might be what happened after the Gather attack,” he admitted. “That was so clearly not what they wanted that I thought maybe--” Maybe they’d overreached and would go away, maybe the Weyr would step up security measures and find it was for nothing. And then this, despite the stepped up security. He bent his head, staring into his full glass as though it might be about to produce the secrets of the universe. 

“I’m struggling,” he confessed quietly after a minute. “I realise that’s not news to you right now, but-- My judgement’s off. I’m not trusting it. I’m jumping at shadows and either I’m going to grab someone innocent because something circumstantial points to them and I can’t let it go, or I’m going to miss something because I think it’s a shadow and it ends in this.”

“You aren’t going to like my next suggestion. Because I’ve been wondering if the two are even related, R’tal. To go from targeting the Weyrwoman specifically to a mass incident? It’s a huge change of direction. Anyone can buy a hired blade if they’ve got the marks for it. Setting up explosives? That needs a whole different type of expertise and a whole different strategy.” F’loran was solemn and it looked strange on his usually cheerful expression. “The Gather incident? I think it was a blade for hire and yes, Kassia was the intended target. This? This reeks of something else. Something with a much bigger agenda.”

He sighed, enjoying the burn as the brandy rolled down his throat. He was definitely going to have had far more than intended by the time he went home. “Do you have anyone in the Weyr who might be in the know? Any one you’ve used in the past to do some digging around but knows where to look? Because you need to set the canines on the right scent and you don’t know what you’re looking for. And you also need to get your head together for Talith. You’re no good for digging up dirt if you’re thinking about where he is. If you’ve got people who know what you need, delegate it to them.”

“That part I’ve done already,” R’tal admitted. “Day one, right after I realised that if someone did take out N’shen and I there was no-one at the helm and did some succession planning. There’s people looking at it, just I don’t trust one of them to be me right now.” He leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees, face lined with exhaustion. “Didn’t take long to remember why I don’t want this job.”

F’loran looked about him as if for a second, he was worried he might be overheard. “I’m not talking about official channels, R’tal. I’m talking about the very unofficial channels that we don’t tell anyone about but who might have connections in the right places to have picked up something that people are talking about.”

“We absolutely wouldn’t have any of those.” R’tal did manage to raise a slight smile at that. “But if we did - theoretically - have one or two of them, then yes, they would be looking at it.” He grimaced again. “Problem being that if I’m honest, at least one I don’t trust as far as I can throw him and might actually have known before things were kicking off. And I can’t tell if that’s my paranoia talking again either.”

“Either way, if the others start talking about this being an attempt on Weyrleaders, that’s the theory I’m going to give them. Because I don’t think you were the intended target - not on your own. Will it shake the klah out of them? Probably. But I think if that they stop looking at it as “yes but maybe it was just…” and more a “this could have been something that hit any of us if we were about to have a Hatching” then I’m hoping that will prompt less suspicion and more ears to the ground to figure out what the sharding Between actually happened.” There was a faint twinkle in F’loran’s eye at R’tal’s smile, however small. Because they didn’t talk about the people that they absolutely knew were possibly the sort of people that could be the very wrong sort of people.

“Shells. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, even if I do want to strangle a few of them once Conclaves are over and done.” R’tal sat a little straighter again at that. “Maybe we should all think of cutting down our Hatching guest lists a bit while we work through this one.”

“I don’t think anyone would be surprised if Hatchings were “by explicit invitation only” for a while. Although I’m sure of the more contrary Holders will love not having to give up their children.” The chuckle was wry and cut off abruptly. “And R’tal… if a lead lands in your lap that seems too good to be true. Then I think it’ll be just that. And I think it will be purely designed to make you stop looking and drop your guard. Because if they’re willing to do it once and fail? Then whoever they are, I think they’re going to be willing to try again.”

“You think I don’t know that one? Shells, that’s why my head’s in such a state,” R’tal admitted. “My brain gets halfway down thinking through something and then the doubt creeps in with ‘but anyone who knows me well enough know that’s precisely what I would think’. And then I second-guess, and suddenly the world is full of potential enemies.”

“And everyone outside the Weyr thinks we’re a bunch of emotionally driven hotheads fuelled by our dragons. I’d be willing to bet my knots that whoever this is? They’re counting on rage and anger and something will land in your lap that you can exact your pound of flesh and think it’s all over.” The twinkle was gone again, taken over by the grim set of his jaw. “Call me half-cracked, missing a glow or whatever. But I don’t think this is a world full of enemies. I think this is a very specific group with a very specific purpose. And there aren’t many of ‘em that have sway with Crafters to do something as bold as plant explosives in a Weyr.”

Again R’tal was quiet for a moment or two, sipping his brandy, thinking. “After the Gather, Kass wanted more guards,” he admitted. “Guards on all of us, guards on anyone related to her -- Faranth knows that seems to be a good quarter of the Weyr sometimes. Told her no because I was worried about packing the Weyr with heavily armed people the Guardcaptain doesn’t know well enough to vouch for.” He ran his finger around the rim of his glass. “Faranth knows, I’ve had cause to second-guess that one but-- I still think that’s a path they would have taken given the chance.”

“There’s ways and means to infiltrate a Weyr, Faranth knows we saw what happened at Fort. But a group of Crafters called in to get some work done and then quietly leave again never to be seen? Perfect way to get in and out again before the damage is done.” F’loran wasn’t sure whether he should be indulging in this theory of his. Because it was entirely that. A theory. And nothing else. “Regarding that Gather job? I don’t think you’ll ever find out who was the blade for hire. They’ve taken their marks and they’re gone. And I think it’s even less likely you’ll find out who made the contract.”

“But they couldn’t plan on us suddenly deciding we needed a pond. And whoever did this didn’t wait until Foreth was gravid before they started planning it,” R’tal pointed out. “So either they’ve been waiting for an opportunity at some Weyr, any Weyr, or they already had something resembling a plan and this one was just..better.”

Whatever F’loran was about to say next, he clearly didn’t want to. “I… think. And again, just me thinking. That whoever they are? They’re patient. And have links to the one group that not only interconnected but is spread out across continents. People think nothing of a Journeyman from the Northern Hall travelling to the Southern one. I think someone is quietly watching and waiting with a variety of options on hand. For when they need them. But they will wait for the right moment to open up for as long as it takes.”

R’tal closed his eyes a moment, let his head drop into the hand that wasn’t securely holding a glass. “I hate this,” he said. “I mean, I know that much is obvious. But shells. I hate this so much.”

“And as much as I hate to say it, if any of my crackpot theory has any basis in possibility, then that’s exactly why a Conclave needs to happen.” F’loran was staring at his brandy as though he hoped it contained the secrets of the universe. 

“Why is the world so full of sharding bastards?” R’tal asked theoretically, head still leaning against his hand. “I thought fine, I’m stuck with the job one more round, Kass and I might kill each other but we all know what we’re doing now so how bad can it be?” He gestured with his glass. “This. This is how bad it can be.”

“Eh… could be worse. Could have happened the way it was meant to.” There was no humour in F’loran’s face as the brandy vanished. “Right. I should probably think about giving you time to practice your best surprised face. Like I say, you’re looking at two to three days. If it’s any consolation, I doubt New Fort will be coming in looking to point fingers - more try to figure out what the shells they’re meant to do. You know Reaches won’t be either.”

“Guh.” R’tal grimaced but nodded at that. “If you can convince Wygelle to let you, sit next to me. I could use someone to give me a kick if I’m looking like I need one.”

“Just don’t take it to heart if she looks like she wants to kill you for no reason. She’s got a bite on her at the moment. I only want her to come along because she’ll get bored and tell all of ‘em to pack it in and it’s time to go home.” This time the chuckle was something resembling genuine.

R’tal stood as though to see him out and then hesitated. “Listen. If we can’t pull this off, looking like we’re in control of this, if it comes to a choice of what’s best to do for the Weyr -- I’d rather it be M’gal and T’ryn in charge here than going down fighting for the sake of looking fair and ending up with someone imposed from outside.” Because sometimes resisting something because  it wasn’t what you wanted ended up with you getting something so much worse.

“Don’t worry, I could always convince them that they’d rather Wygelle came back. I’m sure that would make M’gal or T’ryn seem a much better option.” F’loran had slid to his feet, filling the space as he loomed upwards. 

“Hah. I’d have to stop Kassia stabbing you in the break if you tried that.” R’tal wasn’t looking happy but at least was markedly less hostile as he offered his hand. “And--thanks.”

The proffered hand was taken in a firm and entirely manly shake, complete with non-committal grunt. “Eh, some of us have to stick together. Especially when there’s headless wherries running around. And when you next see me, it will have been, shells easily a few months since last we got together. Not been in Arolos forever and already hating the heat.”

R’tal snorted. “Good job Ty wasn’t here. He’d have given you away in a minute.” He reached to open the door, letting the other man out first. “Guess I have to find a large room that’s coincidentally clean and also in a really good spot to guard.”

“But it was for the Conclave you were going to announce. You just wanted to be ready. Really.” With a nod and an internal sigh of relief that things seemed to be ending on a far better note than they had been when he had arrived. F’loran headed out of the office. It wouldn’t take long to make the jump back to High Reaches. Hopefully he wasn’t about to get his ear chewed off for the obvious scent of brandy on his breath. But shells, today and been a brandy day and then some. And when he got home again, it would be time for a little bit more.

= End =

Nutmeg on the Wizzy.
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