Two in the morning was a fine time to have sudden realisations of things undone and things that needed to be done. Particularly when you’d dealt with an emergency for most of the previous day. R’tal muttered in his sleep, shifting drowsily and then opening his eyes wide, abruptly completely awake.
Something needed doing.
With the clarity of purpose that came from being suddenly awake at two in the morning he gently distangled himself from his weyrmate (it was hardly the first time he’d needed to manage that without waking K’ren) and rolled away, pushing himself to his feet. N’shen had been sleeping around here somewhere. Still dressed only in the underwear he’d been sleeping in he padded over to find him, eyes squinting in the darkness.
N'shen lay with his backside pressed against that of his own sleeping (and rather pregnant) weyrmate. They were a bit beyond snuggling at this point, as the baby made such things uncomfortable, but they still slept where they could touch each other.
“Are you awake?” There was a moment where R’tal almost shook the wrong shoulder in the dark, but it seemed unlikely N’shen would have an abdomen that large.
N'shen opened one eye and bit back a gasp. Who was –
Oh, right. He was in the Hatching Cavern. And that was R'tal. He very carefully extricated himself from his bed without moving Cotai too much, and then stood.
"What's wrong?" he whispered.
“No current emergency. But we need to talk,” R’tal murmured back, voice low. “While the dragons are asleep. Can you creep out?”
N'shen shot a glance to Cotai and then to Truenoth. A few moments later, he answered, "Yes," and followed R'tal to a place where they could talk without worrying who they would wake.
The Stands had seats at least, even if most of them were still covered in sand from the events of the day before. R’tal swept one mostly clean and then sat down. “You realise, don’t you,” he said quietly “that they’ll only remember if we make them.”
"Remember what?" N'shen asked, raising an eyebrow. He supposed it was likely they would be able to forget the tragedy of losing eggs – dragons could forget most anything unpleasant… But why that should be news to him, he was not sure. So perhaps R'tal meant something else.
“They’ll remember, I think that something bad happened - or Foreth will at least.” At least, going by previous Clutches she would hold onto that. “But the detail, the -- how they were broken, how they looked--” He shuddered a moment. There were reasons not to have this discussion with the dragons awake. “They’ll remember if we remember seeing them and let ourselves think on it, but otherwise..” He glanced to where Foreth had taken the gold eggs. “And Kassia,” he said very very quiet now “has nothing to remember.”
"Yes…" N'shen said, his tone rising curiously. There had to be somewhere else R'tal was going with this. Did he think N'shen was going to dwell on that image any more than he had to? He was going to forget about it as soon as he could. Distract. Distance. Something. Anything to keep his mind off of it.
“So we’re agreed then.” R’tal sounded relieved. “The eggs broke in the explosion.”
Ah, there it was. They were getting their story straight. N'shen sighed. He could not argue with it. It was about more than just protecting Truenoth and Talith. The whole Weyr did not need that mental image, did not need that… doubt about Foreth in the backs of their heads. She was going to be beating herself up enough as it was.
"Agreed," he said.
“And we don’t mention -- let her think they died like the ones in the earthquake,” R’tal said. “Tell her we checked this time so it couldn’t happen again.” It would leave them as the only ones to know, but it would save so much hurting.
"Agreed." If N'shen had to lie for some reason, any reason, this was the best one. To protect his Weyrwoman, his friend, from this pain. This sorrow.
"Won't Foreth tell her?" he asked.
“I don’t know,” R’tal admitted. He stared at the Sands a moment, at the vague shapes of sleeping dragons, considering. “I know Kass and Foreth’s bond has always been..different, and Kassia will be a while recovering anyway. By the time she’s understanding, it’s possible Foreth’s memory will already be fuzzy.” He shook his head. “If she finds out, she finds out and she can yell at me for it if she needs to. Still worth trying.”
N'shen nodded. "You're right. It's worth the risk of her getting angry to protect her from this. How's, uh… is your daughter OK?" he asked. Was that Shalia his daughter? "Your assistant? Whoever she is?"
“My daughter?” R’tal looked blank, too tired for his brain to catch up on who N’shen meant.
"The girl. Who came to the Caverns with you – she saw, too," said N'shen. "She's somebody's daughter…" Well, obviously, somebody's. But somebody important. "Shalia, right? But then, if she's not your daughter, I probably have the name wrong, too…"
“Oh! No, just my assistant,” R’tal reassured him. “Sh’ain’s daughter, though Kass had a hand in raising her.” Well, in a way so had he, though strictly in a ‘small child I vaguely know’ sense. “I’ll talk to her tomorrow -- today?”
"Ah, that was probably it. I must have been thinking of Kassia," N'shen said. It was late. Or early. "Make sure she knows what happened. It won't do if she undermines the official events…"
“You can trust Shalia,” R’tal said. “I’ll talk to her though. Talith’s resting a lot in the day anyway, I can catch her then.” He hesitated. “How’s Truenoth? I mean.. I know how they say they are..”
"He's… steeling himself to be blind for the rest of his life," said N'shen. And so was he. How long would they give it before he would be asked to step down? He did not want to think about it. He had waited his whole life for this, and now… "And Talith? Other than the sleeping?"
“Quiet.” R’tal sighed. “Subdued. Not himself. He won’t pass messages in case any of them ask how he is because he doesn’t want to tell them.” Which wasn’t that different from his rider, not really. “He’s trying to sleep until something changes I think.”
"I think Truenoth likes wallowing in it," N'shen admitted. "He thinks he deserves to feel sad and… and all this. Like he's punishing himself for letting this happen. So he's staying awake when he can. Asleep now, thank Faranth."
Which again wasn’t too far from his rider. R’tal could see that, even as he stubbornly denied his own parallels with Talith. He glanced sideways at N’shen. “It wasn’t your fault,” he said quietly.
"Maybe not," said N'shen. "But it was my responsibility. It happened on my watch." He sighed. R'tal really had him figured out. "I have to… I don't know. Do something. There's no making this right, but I can find whoever did it and…" And what?
“And hurt them until you feel better?” There was a tired dryness in R’tal’s tone. “Yeah. That’s what scares me a little.” He rubbed his head. “People with hurt dragons make terrible decision makers, you know?”
N'shen rubbed his face. R'tal was not wrong. But even if N'shen should step back, there had to be justice. And they had to find the perpetrators, or else they could never rest. It could happen again any time.
"We have to do something to stop this happening again. What if they've already prepared to hit us again the day of the Hatching? What if they don't have to do anything else before then but stroll right in with the families?"
R’tal tipped his head up, gazing up into the dark of the Cavern a moment. “...Should we let the families in?”
N'shen had admittedly not even considered that they would be allowed to keep them out. That Kassia would allow it. But maybe after this had happened…
"We should make the case that we shouldn't," said N'shen. "This hasn't exactly been an ordinary time."
“I don’t think it’s a matter of making a case right now,” R’tal said soberly. “Kass, by all reports, isn’t up to making decisions. So far as decision making goes, I’m afraid we’re it.”
"Then the case is made. They can wait in the Dining Cavern or… no, the feast may have to be outside. Someplace unexpected, where they wouldn't have had time to be ready to hit it. But… then it would also need to be someplace we can control access when the time comes." N'shen's head hurt. There were too many variables.
“Can we think of a reason to just leave them at home this once that won’t cause a panic?” R’tal was staring into the darkness still, trying to think. “I just..don’t want that many strangers in my Weyr. We can put them wherever we want but if they’re the ones who come in wanting to cause trouble..”
"I don't think the families are going to cause trouble – it's that they're going to make it easier for people who aren't supposed to be here to get in," N'shen sighed. "And maybe we do just leave them where they are this time. It's…" He could scarcely gather his own thoughts.
"They won't have another chance to see their families for months. But how many of them would see their families anyway? I don't know. I haven't been home since Truenoth won. And it had even been a while before that. I don't even remember whether we told my mother Cotai is expecting."
“Don’t look at me. I was Creche-raised, pretty much,” R’tal admitted, shrugging a little. “Got a pack of siblings scattered around Pern but it’s not like we see each other. I guess Hold families miss each other more though.”
"It depends on the Hold family…" N'shen smiled sadly. "I stayed away for a long time after I came here. But I went back when Gebrand was born. And then I started going back more regularly… especially when Gebrand's mum died. But it's been a while now."
“Gebrand is your little one?” R’tal made a vague motion at around knee-height in the dark. “I assumed he was your weyrmate’s.” Why he wasn’t sure. It wasn’t as though it wasn’t easy to sire a few kids without meaning to all over the place.
"He's mine," N'shen confirmed. "But he's pretty much adopted Cotai, too." The boy was a bit taller than knee-high now, but R'tal seemed to have a bit of trouble keeping track of children.
"My family has a bit of a weird tradition of giving children new names instead of blending together the parents' names." That might explain it. Gebrand certainly did not sound like N'shen. Or Neoshen.
“Makes sense. Once you have a few it’s difficult to come up with decent names anyway,” R’tal allowed. “I’m always amazed Kassia hasn’t yet run out of ideas.”
"I guess it helps if you don't always have the same father. Or the same mother," said N'shen. "What… what do you think she'll name the baby?" he wondered. Suddenly, when he considered in this context that nobody knew who the father was, it seemed a lot more important what the child's name would be.
“Something based on her name?” R’tal honestly hadn’t put more than five seconds thought into it. “I don’t know. Women always seem to have more ideas for those things.”
"Yeah," N'shen nodded. "That makes sense." If she picked one of them, one of the… however many of them might be the father, she would be slighting all the rest. So the child would probably have her name only. He wished he had thought to talk to her about it before…
Something in his tone had R’tal squinting at him in the half-light. “Ah. You’re the type who wants to be involved?” Somehow it had never occurred to him, despite all available evidence, that N’shen might be.
"I guess you can take the man out of the Hold…" N'shen shrugged. He was fairly certain he had grown beyond judging others for not wanting to be involved, but he could not imagine leaving a child without a father. It was just not his way.
"I think Kassia won't mind, even if the baby, ah… doesn't take after me. She told me… well, she said the baby would not want for loving parents."
“Oh, she wouldn’t.” R’tal was quick to reassure him there. “Kass isn’t the type to mind.”
N'shen smiled, taking that small comfort. At least he had his newborn children to look forward to. And he was glad Truenoth was asleep. He did not have all of his children any more. N'shen sighed again. The comfort was a fleeting thing.
"So. No families. And perhaps a delayed feast. They'll have a small one now, and a big one later. Maybe when they come out of seclusion." Or maybe not, if they still had not found who was responsible.
"Who could possibly have a motive to do something like this?"
That brought R’tal to silence for a long painful stretch, lips pressing together tightly as he considered his words.
“You never want to think it might be another Weyr,” he said finally, quietly. “But two golds is always a contentious thing.”
"Then you don't think this is related to the attempt on Kassia's life at the Gather?" N'shen wondered. He had assumed the attacks had to have been related, and the other weyrs would not have known about the gold eggs when the attack happened, unsuccessful though it had been in more ways than one.
“Or both were.” And that just didn’t make sense; there hadn’t been gold eggs known of then. But R’tal was tired and stressed and it was hard to think straight. “I’m not sure the newcomers at Fort have much reason to like us.”
"Maybe not, but not liking someone is a far cry from setting out to murder them and their dragons," N'shen huffed. "I hardly think Cathern is going to try to take Kassia and Foreth out just to see Andronda take the position. She's from here, and we're already more or less on her side; she wouldn't. And who else has someone to take over? Are they going to send in a gold of their own to snipe it? Who else is ready to rise soon?"
“You don’t have to snipe it.” R’tal spoke from long and painful experience. “That’s why I got M’gal and T’ryn put in so fast. You call a Conclave, declare existing Weyrleadership incapable and import your own leaders.” As Fort had once, so many turns ago. “Doesn’t happen often; no-one wants to call that down because once Weyr autonomy is breached we might all start looking at other Weyr leadership really hard. But if they had reason to think we couldn’t cope..” Like a blind dragon, like impaired judgement, like a Weyrwoman too injured to work..
"Feh. That's not a precedent any of them should want to set. All it takes is a bit of cloak and dagger, and suddenly, the other weyrs are taking over? Who… who can we count as allies? Telgar, High Reaches… Would Igen and Ista side with Fort?"
N'shen might have expected Benden to align with the old Fort, but did they have any reason to side with the new?
“You realise right there you’ve got probable cause and reason to move against us,” R’tal pointed out. “Why can we depend on Telgar and High Reaches as allies? Because we’ve installed our golds as Weyrwomen? That’s all well and good but if you were say, Ista right now and recovering from a period of instability would you welcome two more Arolos golds?”
"To them, it looks like we're the ones trying to take over the world, eh?" said N'shen. He sighed again. "We can't just… accuse anyone without proof. And I think we should be prepared to have someone looking somewhere else. You're not the only one clever enough to put this train of thought together. Maybe there's someone out there who wants us to blame the other weyrs. We'll have to start with the ones who were digging the pond, building the temporary structures. Find out where they're from, who they know, who has leverage over them."
“Oh, they might well,” R’tal agreed. “In fact, with my history they might well be doing just that. And even knowing that, you know, it’s working. I’m angry, my dragon hurts and right now if you told me you thought it was High Reaches I’d still probably take a long hard look at F’lorian.” And F’lorian was as friendly as Weyrleaders could get. He sighed. “I’m serious. I don’t think I trust me to investigate this.”
"And we probably shouldn't trust me to investigate it, either… but I will take responsibility for overseeing the investigation," said N'shen. "If you don't object. I can work with the Guard Captain. I'll leave the interrogations to him, but I'll speak with him, stay on top of the reports and make the decisions on what leads we'll follow."
R’tal nodded. “It’s that or ask someone independent to do it, but if you feel you can..”
"Do you have anyone in mind?" asked N'shen. Who else beside the Guard Captain was qualified? Surely, no one else had the same stake in the outcome. "Do you think we could trust an outsider? It wouldn't be doing weyr autonomy any favors if we asked Prental to do it…"
“Oh, dear Faranth, no.” R’tal’s eyes went wide for a moment at that. “No, shells no. I like Prental well enough, but not enough for that. No. It would be a Wingleader or WingSecond most like, but I just put the two I trust most in charge of our riders so..” He looked again over to the sleeping humps of the dragons. “It feels as though the less people we tell about this, the less it will be true, you know?”
"I understand. I… I need something to do. I know there's… that there's plenty. But let me have this for now, and if I mess it up, we can ask someone else to take over. If there even is anyone else who can," said N'shen. He felt more determined now than ever. He could do this. He would have a professional's help.
“You won’t mess it up. I trust you,” R’tal assured him. “Are you all right leaving Truenoth to sort it though?”
"If I don't think about it too much, then I can be," said N'shen. He had hoped R'tal would not point out that he would need to. But he would just have to deal with it. "I think… I think he'll want someone doing this just as much as we do. We're going to make it work."