In The Wee Hours (JP Cremsden/Dytha)


The wee hours of the night could perhaps go by very slowly if you were awake, but Cremsden was not. He was peacefully, deeply asleep. At least until the shrill wail of a baby woke him and he rolled drowsily to reach for Arden.

“There now, there now, little man--” He spoke quietly but still his voice drifted through the near silent weyr. “Yes, all right, Bitey, I know, I’ve got him -- come on then, sweetling, don’t wake your mother, shush now.” 

He padded through from the bedroom, still half-asleep and only half-dressed, Arden in one arm and an agitated Bitey perched on the other shoulder chuntering at him urgently.

Fear and withdrawal did not make for a good combination. Although the couch provided was, as Cremsden had said, certainly big enough to accommodate her small height, nothing could assuage it as she tossed and turned, feeling as though the cushions were filled with rocks as she alternated between feeling as though she were on fire to shivering violently. Perhaps a normal person might raise some sort of alarm, but that was the last thing on Dytha’s list of things to do. Between keeping her eyes fixed on the door and the upheaval in her system, she had wedged herself firmly in the corner of the couch, gritting her teeth through the umpteenth wave of nausea.

The sound of the babe crying had been as though someone had violently driven a nail through her skull. And just as rapidly her startle response kicked in. Before her brain could finish processing the information, the sight of a figure approaching caused a sharp intake of breath before her brain could remember who it was. It was Ponth who stepped in, her own calm induced by the presence of Zlorenth being beside her that was the voice of reason.

It is just the Healer, mine. The Healer and his small-one.

Dytha’s breath slowly exhaled. Cremsden. Of course it was. But her heart still raced and her stomach felt as though it had been filled with icy water.

“Well, you don’t stink, and you’re not even that wet.” There was a soothing cadence to Cremsden’s voice, a gentle lilt. His accent had drifted too, far more Bitran than he ever was in waking hours. “What’s the problem then, old chap?” He patted the baby’s back, rocking him absently. Bitey continued to chatter angrily.

Cremsden yawned, his brain still fuzzed by sleep. “Yes, all right, lad, I’ve got him, I--” It was a moment before he even remembered Dytha on the couch and twisted around to check on her. “Did I wake you?” he asked guiltily, voice still low.

Focus on breathing. That was what they got told to tell patients. So she told it to herself. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in… feck, why wasn’t it working? Huddled in the corner of the couch, her knees pulled up to her chest, Dytha managed to shake her head. “No. Was awake.” It was a low mumble of sound but the words came through clearly enough.

Bitey jumped from his owner’s shoulder with an ungainly thud, and then scrambled up next to her, scolding all the way.

“Behave yourself,” Cremsden ordered the firelizard. He squinted at Dytha, baby still held in the crook of one arm. “Not feeling right?” Half statement, half question. He knew that by look, more or less.

Barely perceptible in the dim light of the room, her eyes slid to watch the firelizard scramble towards her. Bitey had a reputation all right but Dytha rather liked the little chap. So reputation of teeth aside, it didn’t alarm her to see him heading her way. But Cremsden’s question got another shake of the head. “Don’t feel attached. Ache a lot.” Short, sharp sentences were also easier to maneuver around the ball of nausea churning in her stomach.

“And judging by Bitey, you’re twitchy,” Cremsden observed. “He objects to people getting panicky in his vicinity.” Indeed the firelizard’s chattering had turned to her now, muttering at her in a way that suggested she was being told off. “Here, can you take Arden a minute?” The baby had quieted, though was still clearly wide awake. “Can get you something -- and him something -- much easier with two arms.”

Twitchy was probably an understatement. Dytha could feel muscles that felt like they were bunching and releasing of their own accord. Even pulled up, one of her feet drummed a nervous tattoo on the couch. She felt as though every inch of her was both spoiling for a fight and trying desperately to flee all in one go. What she didn’t expect was the request to take the infant and it clearly derailed the miasma of thoughts in a direction they hadn’t prepared for.

There was a moment’s consideration. And then she held out her hands. “Used to have my siblings plopped on my lap when I couldn’t leave home.” It was probably the only “sure, why not?” Cremsden was going to get in a roundabout way.

“There now, young man, you go to Dytha and I’ll see what we’ve got in the cupboard.” Cremsden handed the baby over without hesitation.

Arden stared at her with round eyed surprise for only a moment before realising that this was a mother shaped person with breasts. One hand reached to tug demandingly at her pyjama top, trying to pull it down.

“Ah-- not really how you say hello to a lady, kiddo,” Cremsden said, hastily turning towards the tiny kitchen area before he could see anything he shouldn’t.

The instinctive snort of laughter suggested that this wasn’t something that Dytha was wholly unfamiliar with. “Yes, they’re the right shape,” she mused, gently tucking a finger under the probing hand to carefully pry the fingers away. “Sadly, the size belies that there’s nothing in them.” It was clear that handling babes was something she had done before, carefully maneuvering with a slight grunt of discomfort to support the soft weight. 

“Mi!” It was clearly a demand, but just as clearly Arden was not unhappy or about to burst into screams at being handed over, even as he tried to grab her top with his other hand. 

“I’m getting milk, Mr Impatient,” Cremsden retorted from the kitchen, voice still low. “Mmm. Crusty bread too. You want bread, Dytha? And-- let’s see-- mint tea tastes like sad leaves but it should help.” He set water on to boil as he talked, moving briskly as he shook off sleep.

“I’d let you look but your father’s head might implode.” Her voice had changed from low and edgy to low but soft. “I know you won’t believe me just by telling you.” The pulling hands weren’t in danger of making everything fall out. At least not yet.

The offer of food however, brought a slight groan, the mere thought setting her gut roiling. “I… don’t trust it to stay there…”

“Mint tea should help then.” Cremsden seemed unsurprised by that reaction. “Take a few minutes for it to boil. Promise me you’re decent before I bring his milk and bread over?”

“Psh, like you’ve never seen breasts before.” There it was, a glint of Dytha’s dry humour. “I’m sure Arden isn’t complaining.” Tea, she felt she could probably manage tea. Hopefully. She was pushing her thoughts to focus on the infant in her arms and not chew on the worry in the back of her head that kept trying to snag at her with sharp claws. 

“Not sure you’ve got a medical need for me to inspect them today,” Cremsden returned with a small cup of milk and a saucer with fingers of buttered crusty bread. “Not that he normally gets a middle of the night snack but usually it helps if his teeth are playing up. And I’m sure he won’t object.” He sat down but made no attempt to remove Arden. The baby seemed to be helping, let him stay there. “Feel like shit?”

“Teeth ‘ey?” And it was said to Arden as opposed to Cremsden. “Inspection is definitely off the list for you.” There was a slight judder to her intake of breath and in the slightly brighter light near the couch, he would probably see that she looked a little clammy. “Almost… ill. But not. Like being on a boat going too fast…”

“Yeah, withdrawal sucks.” He said it matter of factly rather than as though he was trying to comfort her. “Reckon we caught it early enough that you won’t get the real nasties, but you’ll probably have a rough few days.”

Well, that confirmed what her brain was stubbornly denying. What a mess. “So much for ‘we trust you to be responsible with this medication’ huh?” It was said reproachfully but didn’t stink of self-pity. If anything there was a shade of annoyance in there.

“You’re not the first, you won’t be the last.” Cremsden shrugged as though it were nothing. “And it’s not as though you were helping yourself to it, else we’d be having a different talk. Reckon more of us go through this than anyone. Here.” He handed her the milk. “He can drink it like this if you hold it for him.”

She wasn’t sure if it was reassuring or disconcerting to hear that. But part of her mind did acknowledge that he had a point. It wasn’t as though she was dipping into the supply cupboard for her own kicks. Taking the glass, it was carefully proffered to Arden. And yes, she did half expect to end up wearing more than he took in. “I just wanted to be able to shut off so I could sleep. That’s all. I was so, so tired.” And she still was.

Arden seemed surprisingly proficient at it though.

“Don’t like the glass bottles,” Cremsden explained watching. “Not if they can be avoided. Too hard to clean properly and no one is watching right in the middle of the night to check they’ve not missed a bit.” A Healer who had seen too many sick babies was unsurprisingly fiercely protective with his own.

He watched long enough to make sure she’d got the hang of it and then relaxed. “It was alcohol for me,” he admitted in that same matter of fact tone. “Same reason. Don’t bring it into the weyr, while I remember. If it’s here I drink it.”

Truth be told, she had heard some minor rumours that Cremsden had had “issues” in the past. But it was none of her business. And she wasn’t the type to listen to gossip. Her eyes watched the babe, small hands clutching the glass with surprising surety. It wasn’t something she had expected. But then, she didn’t really know babes that well, she had merely just been the allocated carer here and there for a while. “So, what options have I got now?”

“You sit through it a few days, you feel like death, it passes,” Cremsden said bluntly. “If you need a couple more shifts off I’ll-- actually I’ll get Cuylar to sort it. Considering the cover story it probably shouldn’t be me.” He was sensitive to the appearance of impropriety and visibly being the Healer of someone he was apparently sleeping with came under massive conflict of interest. “I’ll write to Master Kregg about pain relief options. He’s been trying new things on his leg. And I’ll start doing nightly foot checks while you’re here -- might as well take advantage of me.”

Shells, her brain hadn’t even gotten that far. In a cloud of fear she had followed but now she had a glimmer of clarity. “Faranth, this is getting worse by the second…” And the Healers liked their gossip as it was. It was something of an outlet. She rubbed her cheek with one hand, trying to quiet the immediate whirl of thoughts that flared up. “I should transfer now and be done with it.”

“You’re not going anywhere until you’re through the fellis tea issues, else I have to transfer notes with you,” Cremsden said, tone making it clear he wasn’t offering an option here. “And that’s career-wrecking, trust me on this one. Give it a sevenday and we’ll talk about it.” He slouched back, offering Arden a crust of bread. “As for the rest -- people were going to talk about you regardless for a bit. This way they’re giggling about something slightly scandalous rather than feeling sorry for you. Thought you’d prefer that.” They’d also be giggling about Cremsden, but he was fairly sure he could take it.

“And when he gets out? What then?” It was clear that Dytha didn’t believe any other outcome other than that H’lan would be free to… do whatever it was his anger would lead him to do. And shells, she knew he would be so angry. “Gossip about me shacking up with you and Margana will fuel his… his… filthy dock-slut ire…” It was apparent that it wasn’t some insult she had made up on the fly, but one she had heard before. Aimed at her. With a grave face, she fixed Cremsden with a steady look. “He’s convinced I’m contaminating the Weyr. That’s what started all this off. That… flight you know about. That wasn’t the first.”

She had thought she would feel better letting more of this out. The fact was, she didn’t. It felt dangerous. But it also felt that because she had begun peeling back the layers, it was now out of her control and wasn’t going to stop.

“Then we make sure that I'm the one of us who looks like an easy target,” Cremsden said a little grimly. “Shouldn't be too hard. Margana’s got Zlorenth and I've got options for kiddo that don't involve the creche if needed.” He smiled at her.”Try to trust me. I don't want to talk through any plan too much in case they ask Ponth later.”

It wasn’t as reassuring as it was meant to be. Even though it was meant well. Another wave of uncomfortable heat began to churn up and she fidgeted a little, conscious of the infant in her lap. “You’re not doing anything foolish.” Because she didn’t know just what H’lan could do. And what he would take no qualms in doing. 

“Sweetheart.” Cremsden sighed at her. “Look. You remember Master Kregg? Slightly terrifying, walks with a stick, somehow goes through life without being beaten to a pulp even when it's deserved?”

The look she gave Cremsden was one that said “Of course I remember Kregg, I still have the nightmares.” Because it was Master Kregg, a legend of terrifying power in his own right. “Ye-es,” she said with more than a dollop of suspicion, wondering where this was going. Absently she adjusted Arden in her lap, finding his warm weight surprisingly comforting. 

“Don’t ever forget he trained me,” Cremsden said. “Even if I managed to miss picking up his sparkling personality along the way. He built Fort Healers into something that survived, and we survived by knowing when to step outside the rules. And the first rule he implanted, the first rule, is that no-one hurts a Healer. Not any of us, doesn’t matter if you can’t stand the sight of them, shells, wouldn’t matter if.. If it was Ambrelli. Because you start letting that happen then you’re all in danger.” Absent-mindedly he reached to steal one of Arden’s bread fingers. “Second rule is that anyone who thinks Healers can’t defend themselves in a hundred nasty unseen ways is an idiot.”

He had a point there. Fortian bred, the sane ones that was, were a whole different kind of hardy stock. Dytha had never been there but her Father had. He never went back. And she had a suspicion that the stories you knew were a bare whisper of the actual truth. And they were bad enough. Swallowing through the nausea that was still bubbling away, the steadying breath was to fight through the gurgle that felt like it was trying to claw up her throat. Shells, why was it still so warm? “Healers that stitch together, pitch in together,” she quipped wryly. 

Wrestling a hand free, she rubbed the corner of an eye. Sleeplessness made them feel gunky and dry. “Is this where you teach me how to conceal a blade and reveal you know far too many ways to incapacitate someone?” 

“...I mean, I’ve sent a good few of the apprentices on our side over for guard training on self defence already,” Cremsden said, after thinking on that a  moment. “It might not be the worst idea for you to join them.” He grinned. “My particular style of fighting is less guard-like and more the Bitran way of scrapping in the dirt like a ten turn old. But K’ren is fairly insistent that I behave myself.” There had been one very public Dining Hall fight -- delightedly made much of by gossips - which had resulted in the same kind of dressing down which might be given to a poorly behaved apprentice and that K’ren almost never gave. “But there’s other ways. Things you don’t talk about. Amazing what ended up in some teas at Fort if you didn’t keep to Kregg’s rules of not touching the Healers.”

“Oh yes, because I can totally see myself standing to attent---” The words faltered behind a rather gut curdling belch that was smothered by her hand. “Is… is that tea ready?” Because she didn’t really want to end up throwing Arden at Cremsden whilst she lunged for a bucket. Or forwent the bucket and ended up having to explain sheepishly why Arden had had to have vomit washed off him at whatever ridiculous time it was.

“Oh shards, sorry.” Cremsden jumped up hastily. “I’m an idiot.” Or still half asleep enough to forget things one of the two. He hurried to fetch it -- and a bowl. “Here. I’ll take kiddo.”

The cold clamminess came on swift feet behind the nausea, alongside the “inside out” sensation that was impossible to describe. Arden was getting passed over whether he liked it or not whilst Dytha closed her eyes and tried to force back breaths to push it all back down again. An ominous sounding gurgle came from somewhere about her body. Keep it down, keep it down. There was a slight retch just as the bowl appeared. No, it was going to stay down if she had to shove her hand down her throat and hold it there.

“If it’s coming up, let it,” Cremsden advised, pushing the bowl towards her as Arden went back onto his hip, easily secured with one arm. “You’ll feel better after. Not like I don’t see vomit a few hundred times a sevenday.”

It was probably the bowl that did it, just staring into the privy seemed to do the same. The sound… wasn’t pleasant. It likely didn’t help that there wasn’t really much to remove in the first place. Dytha was stubbornly refusing letting her brain rifle around in its endless corridors of information to recover the information sheet about fellis withdrawal that it had no doubt read at some point. Nope, she didn’t want to know. Not this time around. By the time it was over, the cold sweat ran down her back and she resisted the urge to shrivel up into a miserable ball and cry equally miserable tears. “Tea…” She croaked, needing desperately to shift the bilious taste from her mouth.

The mug was pushed into her hand and Cremsden pulled the bowl away, safely out of smelling distance. “Let me get rid of this and I’ll be right back,” he promised, heading towards the privy.

She used the skirt of her pyjama top to mop at her brow. Not like Cremsden would see anything he shouldn’t if he was out of the room. The tea was sipped at obediently, the minty tang oddly soothing in a strange, leafy way. How it was thought of was beyond her. Had someone really been that desperate to drink something one day that they had decided to try boiling random leaves and see what happened? Dytha enjoyed the slightly cool sensation for a moment but made sure she was decent again by the time she heard the sound of returning footsteps.

“--And you’re nearly asleep, aren’t you, little man?” Cremsden was chatting to Arden in a low voice as he returned. He stopped to look Dytha over with a judging eye. “Let me just put this one down next to his mother and I’ll get you a cool cloth.” It might end up being a long night, but he was used to those.

Dytha wasn’t about to protest, as much as it had been oddly comforting to have Arden there, she also wasn’t sure she could manage an errant kick to the gut when he decided to do something unexpected. So instead she sipped at the tea, carefully making sure not to take too much in one go. The last thing she needed was to bring back peculiar minty smelling tea. 

Thankfully, Arden had long passed the stage where he squawked the instant he was laid down. Cremsden took a few minutes to settle him and then returned, throwing himself down on the couch next to her with a sigh and handing her a cool damp cloth.

“So. You’re going to feel like shit for a few days, but it shouldn’t be a high enough level that you need the Infirmary unless I miss my guess. You might want to kill me by this time tomorrow though. I take being yelled at pretty well but try not to stab me or something, it’d upset Margana.”

The cloth was taken gratefully, pressed to her brow and then back of her neck with a sigh as she felt the cool dampness sink into her skin. “I suspect there will be less yelling and more crying,” she said wryly and giving a faint insight into the emotional tidal wave she had been living on. “It’s because I’ll want to sleep, isn’t it?” Dytha said flatly after a moment of pressing the cloth against her cheeks. “And I’ll be angry because you won’t give it to me.”

“Well. That’s what your head will tell you at least,” Cremsden allowed, always the teacher even here. “Really it comes down to something like ‘withdrawal hurts and your body knows that there is a way to make that feeling stop’. But yes, your head is likely to turn that into ‘I just want to sleep, why is Cremsden being so mean’.” He flopped his head back against the couch, still drowsy. “And I wouldn’t count on it just being crying. Mood swings are great fun.”

“So you going to knock me out with a pan to the face instead? I promise I won’t say no.” Because now the prospect of not being able to sleep at all was beginning to rear up and bite at her, the thought of finding no reprieve whatsoever suddenly seemed very really and worse, absolutely terrifying. Some part of her brain tucked away the information without her noticing, too preoccupied with the thoughts of what could be about to come to notice or even care about residual information to be stored away.

“Mmm. Let’s save that for when you are actually trying to kill me.” Cremsden yawned and forced his brain into awake mode. Too long on day shifts; used to be this time of night felt perfectly natural. He shook his head, trying to shake off sleep, and sat up. “Right! You wanted to learn how to cheat.”

Dytha recognised the distraction immediately. It caused a conflict of a sense of irritation that he was behaving so normally and at the same time, relief that he wasn’t being… well, the one drowning her in questions. If what he had said was right, then at some point there would be questions. A lot of them. “Cremsden,” she said, and there was a light note of chastisement there. “You do know you’re allowed to go back to bed. You don’t have to sit up and play nice.”

“And in a short time I intend to,” he reassured her. If only because she was likely to need him more the next night. “But before that I am going to be really incredibly nice and lend you a pack of my cards. Which you are going to respect and touch only with clean hands and admire in--” He yawned again “--in an appropriate way.”

“But I wanted to lick them,” Dytha said with mock sadness. “And maybe spill juice on them.” Cards eh? Sure, she had been intrigued by the “Secret Language” she had heard rumours of when it came to playing a hand and tried to squash the worried whisper of thought that this was futile distraction. What was she going to do with a deck of cards when, and it was when, H’lan found his way to the door - papercut him to death? Distract him with a card to the face? 

“Cuylar plays some horrible game with his involving snatching and slapping them down,” Cremsden grumbled lightly. “It’s like watching card murder.” He stood, padding across in bare feet to a lidded wooden box -- a fairly solid one by the look of it -- and unlocked it. “Probably got the most valuable things in the whole weyr stored in here.”

It actually made her want to chuckle, even though she didn’t know why. Cremsden of all people being the type to have a protective quirk over the manhandling of poker cards. It seemed almost so ludicrously bizarre that part of her brain momentarily wondered if she had gone totally and utterly mad. “Wait…” Her voice piped up before she fully grasped that her brain had baffled slightly over something, “... Cards are valuable? Why?”

The way he raised his head to give her a delighted genuine smile suggested that a) she had asked a question that pleased him greatly and b) she might be about to learn more about cards than she ever wanted to. “Get yourself over here and I’ll show you.”

Ooph, she had to move? A bit of her was genuinely not sure she could without falling over. As the nausea subsided somewhat, it reminded her that everything was hurting. And it felt different to her usual aches and pains. She knew those intimately. “This might take a minute…” she groaned, carefully levering herself out of the corner she had wedged herself into. 

She got there. Eventually. Lowering herself down with agonisingly stiff limbs that made her look at least seventy turns old. “You better make this good after all this.”

“So! Let me show you.” The box was filled with cards. Not just one pack but pack after pack and individual cards on top of that carefully stored in their own separate compartment. “You get cards that you play with and cards that unless you’re a Lord Holder you’d be utterly crazy to play with.” He laid them out very gently in front of her on the table; a set of Weyrleaders and Weyrwomen, intricately painted, more like miniature works of art than playing cards. “You buy these by the individual card. They update them every time a new Weyrleader catches a flight so there are constantly new ones.”

And there was another set that he was carefully moving to the back of the box, away from curious eyes.

Okay, so she was curious. More than she would admit. All she knew about Dragonpoker and cards was that she was a lousy player. So lousy it could only be laughed at. There was something that felt utterly insane to be sat here watching a man carefully handle cards as though they were the most precious metals in all Pern when her brain had just gone, “so they’re cards? I don’t get it it” for the majority of her existence. 

“Ey, hold up. Are you trying to smuggle rudely drawn cards down the back there?” Because for some reason that seemed to add an absurd layer of hilarity to the already surreal situation if that was the case. Plus Cremsden was lousy at trying to be discreet, no doubt because of his sleep-addled brain. 

Cremsden coughed and went pink. “They’re art,” he said defensively. “...Besides I needed them to get a complete set.” A complete set of naked Weyrwoman and Weyrleader cards, admittedly, but still. 

“Cremsden, I might have been Hall and Hold raised, but I’m not a complete prude. Nor am I so rigidly hidebound to think that anything naked is promiscuous some sort of indication of deviancy.” For a second there was a look that seemed to say “I could tell you things that would make your klah curdle” before she turned her attention to the carefully laid out cards on the table. “But I’m also not so cruel as to make you bring them out.” Dytha had to admit… she was surprised at the intricacy of the designs. Just went to show how limited her scope was when it came to cards. She had always assumed they were just, well, cards.

Cremsden cleared his throat, still flushed. “Well. Anyway. These are the collector versions. You buy them individually, they paint new ones regularly,” he said. “But you don’t play with them, they’re just.. Nice.” He took several packs out now and laid three in front of her. Two were on what was clearly high quality card; one with a back that was an intricate pattern of vines, one with a plain back washed in what was perhaps a slightly odd shade of orange. The third was much cheaper looking, the paper much thinner, the back a uniform healer purple. “Right. I’m going to try and find some tea I can bear to drink, you’re going to work out which of those three you’re least likely to get cheated with and why.”

The fact that there was a collector element to the cards both baffled Dytha and made sense all at the same time in a dizzying blend. At least the distraction was serving to turn her thoughts outward somewhat although they fought tooth and claw to be released back into her skull to brood and fester. The question or rather, the challenge, he posed made her pause, mug halfway back to her lips. This was the part where she had no clue. Oh, she had heard the rumours that there was secret code in the backs of cards and only very few knew how to decipher it.

The only thing that came into her mind was one idea. She had no idea if she was right, but it was all she had.

When Cremsden bustled back it was with two mugs, both of which had a spicy scent to them. He offered her one.

“Here. It’s not klah but it’s the best I’ve found so far. Got it at that High Reaches thing.” He flopped down into one of the chairs around the table. “How long is it between klah harvests anyway?”

She was relieved it wasn’t klah, she wasn’t sure she would be able to hold it down. “Oh, is that that spicy tea type blend? I heard they had amazing things there…” The wistful regret that she had chosen to miss it stung somewhat, the disappointment flickering briefly over her features even as another teeth chattering shiver saw her pulling the clumsily made, hand woven shawl she had brought back over her shoulders. Hot and cold, hot and cold. Shells, could it pick one already?

His question made her shrug, normally it was the sort of random detail she could pluck out of her head without even breaking stride, but it felt as though her library of random knowledge was locked behind an impenetrable door. “If the shortage is accurate, Faranth only knows. There’s going to be Healers breaking down doors to find it if the Infirmary runs out.”

Cremsden snorted. “Sharding right there will be. People keep offering me teas and telling me how soothing they are.” His wrinkled nose showed just how to offended he was by that notion. “Soothing indeed, when you’re working in a sharding infirmary. You don’t *want* me to be soothed in an emergency you want me to be quick and *right*!”

He didn’t miss the shiver, even sleepy as he was, but politely ignored it. For now. “Right. Did you get anywhere?”

Dytha hadn’t heard much about the shortage, mostly because she hadn’t been paying attention. Running out of klah seemed hilariously unimportant in her head. But, now wasn’t the time to be dwelling on it. Not even remotely. Wrapping her fingers around the mug and letting the heat seep in, she nodded carefully.

“Okay. So I have probably massively over thought this. But this is my train of thought.” The card with the intricate vines was set to one side. “This one is probably more likely to get you swindled. It screams money. You play with a deck this well made and this fancy, you’re going to be clinking the mark pouch under the table.” The other two were separated out, “I was stuck on these two. But in the end, I settled on this one…” And she gestured to the one with the faded orange design. “The purple one initially I started overthinking as to whether the colour had some significance but then I decided that the thinness of the card and the block colour could easily be replicated. If someone had that I’d be suspicious of its authenticity. Which means the person holding it could probably be a better cheat than you.” No, she had no idea whether any of this was remotely right, but it showed her train of thought.

He grinned at her. “Good reasoning, and nearly right with some of it at that.” He tapped the cheapest pack first. “You’ll pay less for these ‘cause they’re quicker to make. They use stamps on the designs rather than anything that takes longer and they’ll do one big mix of paint to paint the backs and not overly care if one back is a touch darker. You can pick ‘em up in most of the Craft and Weyr colours and if I happen to have the same pack as you I’m going to think myself in tremendous luck ‘cause maybe you’re not going to realise your pack suddenly has six Weyrwomen. It’s easier to sneak an extra card in.” He picked them up, stroking a finger lovingly down the side. “Plus they’re cheaper. No-one playing for serious money is going to let you have a pack battered half to death but for quarter marks no-one cares so much if you couldn’t afford better and it’s an easy job to remember which cards have a scuff or wrinkle or bent corner.”

Well, at least she hadn’t gotten it completely wrong. So, sort of yay? Dytha was suddenly realising that there were layers to Dragonpoker that she hadn’t even realised existed. Which probably explained a good part of the reason she was so bad at it. It was as though the game had its own set of politics and rules that weren’t exactly added in the instructions. “So… I’m guessing there’s a sort of… etiquette surrounding the sort of deck you’d use too? Like, you manage to get invited to the Lord Holder’s super secret, invitation only game where all the wealthiest people on Pern are going to be… and you probably shouldn’t be bringing out Old Faithful who's seen a bad Fall or two.” 

“...Oh to get in to a game like that,” Cremsden said wistfully, expression dreamy for a minute. “Could make a sharding fortune. Be set up for life after something like that.” He grinned at her again, so good humoured it was hard to believe he would ever cheat anyone. “Judge your audience. I’ve usually got a pack in my pocket for dull moments and long night shifts but those won’t be decent packs as it’s no good for them being carried around. A planned game I’d bring something like these two..” he tapped the two nicer packs, “...but anyone who knows me or catches the accent who has the least bit of sense is going to ask to use their own pack if they like their marks!” There was a laugh in those words, anything but ashamed of the whole thing.

For her it had been a hypothetical, but by the sounds of it, it was actually a thing that can and did happen. “So… an element of cheating is… almost expected?” It was clear she wasn’t sure if she was reading it right, didn’t help when you were fighting with your own head that interfered with even basic decision making skills. Sipping at the tea-blend, she was surprised at the spiciness. Like klah but at the same time… not. It was actually more layered and delicate. She might have to ask where he had gotten it from. 

“Depends who you’re playing with.” He winked at her playfully. “If you’re playing with a known Bitran.. Probably. But people forget or don’t notice or a surprising amount think they’re so smart it doesn’t matter and whoops, suddenly I’ve got enough marks for another pack of cards. But in general anything that’s happening for marks, assume others at the table don’t have your best interests at heart.”

It was surprising to see Cremsden so much at ease. Clearly this was his forte. “I’ll settle for not looking a total idiot by getting wiped out in the first hand, thanks.” There was a small albeit wry smile from behind the mug. “I’m not foolish enough to play for marks - not that I get much as it is.”

“Have to get Cuylar to come over and we’ll play at some point. He makes me play for buttons ‘cause he’s not daft.” Laughter again in his voice at that. “Anyway, these other two packs..” He pulled them over and gestured to the decorative one. “Again, you’re right but for the wrong reason. Never trust a patterned back. They’re beautifully intricate for a reason -- anything that complicated is going to have tiny differences on every card and if someone offers to play you with these, chances are they’ve learned every one.” He flicked out a few in front of her; identical at a glance; it took careful examination to see where the vines veered off slightly to the right or a leaf was turned slightly inwards or a bud was slightly bigger. A glance of a few seconds and then he tapped the back of each, naming them without hesitation.

Huh, so the rumours were true. There was something going on in the patterns on the back. “Is that the same for every patterned back? Or more an increased likelihood?” Her curiosity was piqued, that was for sure. Even if part of her was glowering about not being allowed to just ferment in a bubble of fear. Her eyes watched as he picked through the differences with a mere glance whilst she was peering trying to see what he meant. Shells, this was so much more than a winning hand, wasn’t it? 

“The differences will vary but in general don’t trust a patterned back,” Cremsden said. “Particularly don’t trust a trader who offers to sell a pack to you without being asked. Means you’re looking like an easy mark who has marks to spare. You’d have someone offering you a game as soon as you made it to the Gather trading tables and they’d take you for everything you’ve got.” He shook his head. “For that matter, you want cards of your own you don’t go on your own. You take me or someone else who knows what they’re doing.” He snorted quietly to himself. “Though I think half the good deals I get are ‘cause they know a good deal of anything I win will end up with them in the end anyway.”

There was a snort of laughter at that, a real one. “I’d get suckered into paying through the nose because I just liked the really pretty pictures. And then I’d probably be too afraid of touching them in case I made them not pretty anymore.” Dytha wasn’t materialistic like that, but she had so few nice things that what she had was extremely precious because it had meant going without in order to obtain it. The extravagant set-up of her sleeping area in her weyr was a prime example of just that. Though it had been worth every mark, it still had put a painful dent in her already limited monetary resources.

“Hey, what do you think my collector’s ones are for? I just sit and stare at them some nights and notice all the tiny details,” Cremsden admitted. “Tiny little works of art.” He reached into the box again and pulled out another pack of patterned cards, this one slightly more battered. “Here. I retire packs once they start looking more beaten but these are still fine for general use and learning.”

Meanwhile, Dytha was trying to ignore the clawing feeling of being turned inside out with hot and cold shivers running up and down her spine. Her mind had shifted a little, away from the clawing hold of fear and it was as though it had given her body room to notice that it was lacking something that it was far more reliant on than Dytha had noticed. She noticed that she felt both suffocated by the clothes she wore, but at the same time frozen to her bones. There was a slight and unintentional groan as another rather ominous gurgle chewed out of her stomach. “Urgh… I think I hate you a bit already…”

Cremsden grimaced. “I did try to warn you -- it’s one of the reasons I’m happier you’re here where I can keep an eye on you,” he admitted. “Look, if it ever gets unbearable and I’m asleep, you knock and I’ll be up and out, okay? And if I’m in the Infirmary Ponth can yell someone to tell me. If you’re in the Infirmary I can make up an excuse to get you out even.” Apparently he was already planning for it to get so much worse.

Pfft, like that was going to happen and the sardonic look she gave Cremsden screamed “you know this is me we’re talking about, right?” because they both knew, Dytha reigned supreme when it came to getting on with things and not bothering anyone about it. More to the point, she was somewhat concerned as to how much worse he seemed to think it was going to get. Swallowing back the lump she felt in her throat, Dytha sipped at the cooling tea, praying the liquid would hold everything down. Why did it have to be vomiting? “So talk to me about other options. That don’t involve a punch to the face every night.”

“Master Kregg’s been working on new painkiller options. Principally for his leg, but he used me as an experimental subject when this went bad..” He touched the one scarred ear “And I can tell you they work ‘cause I think before that point I might have let them chop it off if it made the pain stop. If we can manage the pain better you shouldn’t need a sleep aid so much for it.”

Okay, so that sounded promising. Of course she had heard of Kregg, who hadn’t? He might be the hardest Healer on all of Pern to work with but there was no denying that he was a genius. “I used to swim more. That helped.” It was a sentence that didn’t need finishing. There was only one reason she would have stopped and it didn’t need voicing out loud. “It’s the bone ache that’s worse. The splits aren’t as bad when I’m not on them, but I compromise all day long and shells, it feels like my bones are being twisted in knots. The lesions are just… short and sharp. But the aching… it feels like it never stops. Even when I’m sleeping.” Dytha sighed as she ran her hands through her hair, grimacing at the slightly greasy, clammy feeling. “And then my head started too. Started worrying and telling me all the ways it would be terrible, all the ways that the worst things it could imagine would happen. And all I wanted was to sleep. Because when it started, it just pushed through the haze the tea normally gives me like it wasn’t even there.”

“Mmm.” Cremsden sighed, turning to look at her. “And it wouldn’t have taken long for you to wonder if doubling up the dose would help, I reckon. Just for once, just for sleep, because if you had one decent night’s sleep you could actually think.” His tone said he’d been there, that he knew that line of thought too well. “‘Cept when it comes to it you can’t think, because those things have a way of building up in your system, making you fuzzy even when you’d swear it’s worn off. And that doesn’t feel bad either, ‘cause the thoughts are like spikes and the fuzziness makes them just a touch less pointy.” He smiled at her sadly. “Spent a few turns with alcohol never quite leaving my system, I reckon. And I’d have sworn I was sober for most of it.”

She didn’t know whether the fact he got it made it better or worse. “I couldn’t concentrate because I was so tired and then Master Larsin got notes saying I was making mistakes that I didn’t even remember making…” Of course she had no idea  that the mistakes hadn’t happened, that it had been more of H’lan’s passive aggressive infiltration to make her doubt her own mind. “And I was losing track of everything. Finding files in my weyr I didn’t remember needing, finding papers I thought I left in one room in a completely different place. I was starting to think I would go completely shell-cracked if I didn’t get just one good night’s sleep…” 

“If it helps, it wouldn’t have worked if you had.” Cremsden cupped his hands around his mug, drawing it closer. “Strong enough to knock you out through that is strong enough that you still feel off the next day. I moved to swing shifts ‘cause I told myself I just didn’t handle mornings well. Another guy I know started taking quickwort to counteract the fellis during the day.” 

“Suppose I’m lucky it didn’t get that bad.” She’d forgotten about that part, the things people resorted to in order to find a balance that resembled normality. It was clear that there was no structured plan in place, that she was still in that stage of just trying to manage to get through one more day still standing. But she let out an annoyed sounding groan. “I just feel so… stupid. I take so much pride in managing, in not having to need to be fussed over, in knowing what I deal with and just… dealing with it.” She took a sip of the spiced tea, relieved that it seemed to settle in her stomach and not fight its way back up her throat. 

“Yep.” Cremsden nodded as though that was to be expected. “That seems to be the pattern for those of us who fall into it. Don’t want people to fuss, certainly don’t want to muck around with mindhealers, figure we’ll work out a solution and get through it. And Healers are awful for it because we’re used to putting ourselves last in any case.”

“I would ask about your cards but I… genuinely don’t trust myself to ruin them. I’m stuck somewhere between being likely to empty my guts or rip them up and throw them at you.” She could feel the wobbly, tight feeling of being upset. Like she both wanted to cry and punch something all at the same time. And then probably vomit. And then cry a bit more. She groaned as she adjusted, clearly trying to make herself comfortable. “Shells, why do I hurt more than usual?”

“That’ll be your body screaming at you to apply fellis,” Cremsden observed, though it was likely a rhetorical question. “If it’s comfort you’re likely to have a comparatively mild run. For three days or so it’ll be awful, but then you’ll be through the worst.”

It had been rhetorical but at the same time, the observation was oddly welcomed. “I feel… like I’m trying to be ill. But at the same time, like I’m not.” She waved a hand vaguely, unable to verbalise the strange sensations. Another ominous gurgle rang out and she groaned again, “But I could really, really do without the nausea… I do not do well with sick. Which is why I never would have lasted as a Healer.”

Cremsden chuckled at that wryly. “Aye, there is a lot of the less glamorous side of the job between standing around coming up with answers, isn’t there? Plus I reckon the humans are more likely to punch you than the dragons are to eat you.”

That earned a snort of a laughter that threatened to wobble her cup’s contents into her lap. “Good thing about being short. Easier to duck or suddenly vanish from sight when you’ve got an angry Rider on your tail. I’m still waiting for the day I really piss off a Goldrider by messing with their eggs. I reckon I could lose ‘em fast enough.”

He grinned at her, glad to be a distraction again. “Never did get the hang of running away when it would be sensible. Usually puff myself up, bellow at them and hope like shards it works.” He was taller than Dytha certainly, but for a man he was..not tall. Stockiness and personality went a long way to making him seem bigger. “When it doesn’t Cuylar occasionally shows up to loom at them for me.”

Draining her mug, Dytha almost choked on the mental image of Cuylar looming up behind Cremsden like the thugs you saw skulking behind Lord Holders. “Good thing I’m a girl, they’re less likely to take a swing.” Ugh, she felt so heavy and just plain weird. And her head was still trying, Faranth it was trying. If it had its way it would make H’lan loom out of every shadow if it could. Dytha rubbed her eyes, feeling the dry itchiness there that made them sting. “Right. Either knock me out with a pan to the face or tell me how I’m going to try and sleep.”

He considered her for a moment. “How do you feel about me dozing in the chair next to you? Might tell your brain it’s safe to sleep ‘cause I’ll wake if there’s trouble.” He glanced around, looking for other solutions. “Or you can take Bitey. He has a bit of a robust approach to nightmares, but he helps me.”

“No, you need proper sleep.” And there would be no taking no for an answer with that tone. “One of us still needs to be functional. And we both know it’s not going to be me. Providing he doesn’t leave me missing body parts, Bitey will suffice.” Even if she wanted to slide a bookcase in front of the door. And also knew she was kidding herself if she thought she was going to be getting anything more than fitful dozing.

“Okay.” Truth was, Cremsden was too sleepy to truly argue anyway. He yawned. “Don’t worry if he nips you a bit. It’s just his way of telling you to snap out of it.” He had a few scars from such “prompting”.

That was… reassuring? She guessed? But then, you didn’t have a firelizard called “Bitey” if it hadn’t somehow earned the name. “I… think leaving the bowl handy might be an idea too. Just in case. Is it okay if I get water if I need to?” It probably seemed like a ridiculous question but this wasn’t Dytha’s weyr. It was someone else’s. And she was far too on edge to even consider that getting a drink would be perfectly normal. She would probably end up asking permission to use the privy as well.

“Eh, help yourself to anything you need.” Cremsden waved vaguely at the kitchen cupboards. “Except Arden’s teething crackers. You eat those, he gets to gnaw on you first thing.” He stood up. “You need help getting back to the sofa?”

She probably wouldn’t take food. Because that seemed incredibly rude, like sneaking into someone’s room and looking through their underwear drawer. “I promise not to touch the crackers. I don’t want more bite marks.” Dytha eyed the couch. She had maneuvered into a careful sit and suddenly the couch seemed to be moving of its own accord further and further away. But even so. “I can manage. I know how to take my time and not rush.” And she was stubborn. But even so, it still seemed important that she show Cremsden she wasn’t wanting or expecting him to wait on her hand and foot. She wasn’t an invalid. Well, not entirely.

“....Let me at least give you a hand up first then?” Cremsden asked, and held out his hand. “Save me lying awake waiting for a thud.”

“Psh, thanks for the vote of confidence.” But she conceded, taking the hand and carefully navigating to her feet. She hissed as she put weight on the lesions on the soles, feeling several crack under the application of weight. Fecking feet. It didn’t help that it added a further strain of worry that if she was cornered, she wasn’t going to be running anywhere fast. Probably not hobbling that fast either.

“Hmmph.” And it was familiar the way Cremsden looked her up and down, frowning slightly. “Right. Starting tomorrow I’m doing daily foot care. If they’re not in better shape before you leave it won’t be through lack of effort.”

“Bring out the big knives. They look like someone left a wher out in the sun too long.” Using the furniture, she carefully used it to take some of the weight in her arms as she shuffle-hopped close enough to the couch that she could drop heavily onto it with a sigh of relief. It did little to alleviate the gnawing ache in her muscles but taking her weight off immediately reduced things. “I brought the granules that you mix in that starts to break down the loose stuff. Been too stiff to be able to lift my foot round to take a knife to it so I’ve been relying on using any stone ledge close enough to rub it on.” The short journey of just a few metres had clearly been exerting, moreso than she’d anticipated, feeling short of breath and as warm as though she’d jogged up and down the steps to the Rim.

He scowled a little. “I don’t know why you don’t just come to my office so I can fix them properly. I’m sure I’ve never done anything for you to avoid me that much.” He walked over to her, carrying the blue flit. “Here, Bitey, keep an eye, please.” 

Most of that was a rumble of noise to the firelizard, but it was a noise he’d heard before, most often when they wanted him to watch Arden. He jumped, landing with an ungainly thud and grumbling to himself as he got comfortable.

She waved a non-commital hand. “It’s nothing personal Cremsden, it’s more that there’s only so much that can be done and to be honest, any relief is just temporary. I know it will start to clear up of its own accord when it’s ready to and sometimes I find that over fussing them can be… almost more upsetting. I know that sounds weird. Every once in a while I get pointlessly morose over how bad they look and how nothing will stop it. So a bit of ignoring… sort of helps.” It was a hard thing to explain. End of the day, it would get as bad as it would get and nothing would slow it down or reduce the time frame it was going to last. It was like it had a mind of its own.

Watching the firelizard, it was hard not to feel a sharp pang. Mimsi wouldn’t do that anymore. The brief flicker of those bloodied chunks didn’t help the nauseous feeling either and she felt her gut churn again.

Cremsden grunted, and that wasn’t quite acceptance of that situation. From tomorrow he would be pestering her to let him fuss over them, no doubt until she wanted to strangle him for it. “G’night then.” The words came with a quick unexpected pat, something close to a hair ruffle before he padded off back to the bedroom.

Dytha hadn’t expected him to fully grasp it and held no ill will toward him for it. It was a very hard thing to explain. She knew how her feet tended to cycle, had had Turns to recognise patterns and about just as much time to notice that no amount of interfering seemed to do anything. She watched him head back towards the sleeping chambers before she attempted to make herself comfortable, apologising to Bitey if she jostled him. There was only so much fidgeting that she would be able to do before realising that she was about as comfortable as she was going to get and the discomfort she felt had nothing to do with the couch. Between the sensations that chewed through her body and the churning miasma of worry that pulled at her thoughts, in the end it would be sheer exhaustion that pushed her over the edge into a restless sleep where her thoughts kept her consciousness just alert enough that it would take the smallest noise, the slightest sense of danger to immediately startle her awake once more.

= End =

Nutmeg on the Wizzy.
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