Dragonsong: The Porter Scene

When we last left Half-Circle Hold, Menolly had been acknowledged as missing. And that was about as far as her search-and-rescue operation got. Yanus explicitly gave zero fucks about finding his daughter, Mavi was anxious until she had official cover to not care, which relieved her of the fear of being blamed and punished for Menolly running away, her brother told Elgion not to try too hard to find Menolly, and the children of the Hold actively resisted giving information about Menolly. Elgion has correctly deduced that something is very rotten in Half-Circle Hold.

Dragonsong: Chapters 7-8: Content Notes: No content notes. For two whole chapters, no less!

Chapter 7 is “The Care And Feeding of Fire Lizards”, starring Menolly and her cadre of nine fire-lizards. We find out that Menolly had been paying attention to all the other things she has had to do at the Hold, and can therefore find food, whether by forage or by fishing, gather fire-starting materials, harden clay vessels in the ashes of that fire, and boil water. And teach nine fire lizards the finer points of hunting.

Menolly is also able to fashion reed pipes so that she can play and sing music again, and the fire lizards are an appreciative audience, and learn to study of harmonize with her as she makes music. Menolly treats them like people are supposed to treat dragons, and things work well for her. She also learns that the queen fire-lizard rules the nine, with commands and scolds and discipline all coming from her.

The first major test for Menolly comes when she needs to collect some sort of oil for the cracking fire-lizard skin.

The closest source of oil swarm in the sea. But she’d no boat to catch the deep-sea oily fishes, so she searched the coast for dead fish and found a packtail washed up during the night. She slit the carcass, carefully, always working the knife blade away from her, and squeezed the oil from the skin into a cup. Not the most pleasant of jobs; and by the time she’d finished, she had a bare cupful of unpleasantly fishy yellow oil. Yet it did work.

This could have been a spot for drama or to show us more explicitly how much Menolly’s mental state has improved – the packtail is the fish Menolly was working on when she sliced her hand open. Regrettably, all we get is that Menolly exercises caution with her knife in skinning the fish. It’s an acknowledgement, but it’s very much a missed opportunity to examine how well she is or isn’t doing in relation to her Hold, to any memories that might have surfaced upon seeing a packtail, or anything else. Menolly’s mental fortitude must be doing quite well, for the narrative to be so blase about this encounter.

When seeking more oil, Menolly comes across a trapped wherry and kills it, disembowels it, strips the meat, fat, and all the rest, then leaves the bones and organs as a feast for her lizards and the older clutch. Oil problem solved, as Menolly can also render fat into grease with her fire and clay vessels.

At the end of the chapter, the fire-lizards get names: Uncle (the small blue who always seems to get bullied), Auntie One and Auntie Two (greens), Rocky and Diver (bronzes, named for their hunting habits), Lazybones, Mimic, and Brownie (browns, named for their behavior), and Beauty (gold queen, named for her fastidiousness in cleaning herself).

This is a pleasant interlude, with happy entities all around and much laughter and geniality at the antics of the fire lizards. Even Shakespeare knew you wanted to lighten the mood before diving into the very tragic parts. Chapter Eight opens with Alemi suffering a broken leg and then getting cabin fever at having to rest. Yanus was unhappy about the break, but Mavi was able to turn him aside by pointing out it would be an opportunity to see if his XO could captain a ship.

Thus, bored and looking for something to do, Alemi drops in on Elgion teaching a new song to the kids. Alemi is a quick study and is soon singing along with them, to his own happiness.

“How’s the leg, Alemi?” the Harper asked when the room had emptied.
“I’ll have a weather-wise ache now for sure.
[…]
That’s a fine ballad you’re teaching.”
“That’s a fine voice you were singing it with, too. Why don’t you sound out more often? I was beginning to think the sea wind snatches the voice of everyone at about twelve Turns.”
“You should have heard my sis…” and Alemi stopped, flushed, and clamped his lips tight.

Elgion inquires after the mysterious boy with the composing talent, and Alemi can’t bring himself to say who made those songs, even after Elgion says they’re great and that he’s sending them on to Robinton. He hopes that the composer will show himself when he hears his own compositions. Elgion is dealing with a plot-mandated Idiot Ball at this point, considering how much Alemi has already slipped and the attitude of everyone regarding Menolly. He works through it as best he can, though, by delighting in Alemi’s flexibility and making a deal with him to teach him music if Alemi will teach him sailing. The mutual exchange of skills creates a friendship and Elgion uses the cover of his learning to borrow a boat and range up the coastline looking for the signs of fire-lizard eggs. Once let in on the secret, Alemi is eager to sail in close and look on the beaches. Which gives Elgion a good enough listen to hear music. Pipes, specifically.

“Alemi! That’s music! Not wind over blow holes! That’s someone playing pipes.”
An unhappy furtive thought crossed Alemi’s face so plainly that Elgion jumped to a conclusion. All at once, the pieces feel into place.
“Your sister, the one who’s missing. She wrote those songs. She taught the children, not the conveniently dismissed fosterling!”
[…]
Slowly Alemi nodded. “Yanus believed the Sea Hold disgraced to have a girl taking the place of a Harper.”
[…]
Now Elgion could understand many things about Menolly’s disappearance and the general reluctance at the Hold to discuss her or find her. Anyone sensitive enough to compose such melodies must have found life in the Sea Hold intolerable: doubly so with Yanus as Sea Holder and father. And then to be considered a disgrace! Elgion cursed Petiron for not making the matter plain. If only he had told Robinton that the promising musician were a girl, she might have been at the Harperhall before that knife had a chance to slip.

Oh, thank Prime Elgion isn’t carrying the Idiot Ball any more. His suspicion should have been roused a lot earlier than this, instead of having a flash of insight based on music, but we can finally move forward with the plot, now that Elgion is on board. If Elgion had been able to put aside his own prejudices and hadn’t accepted Yanus’s story as fact, we could have gotten here a lot earlier. Because Robinton, whenever described, is apparently really on board with the equality thing, so it’s a bit of a miss that such an attitude wasn’t instilled into Elgion before he left for Half-Circle.

Before they return, Alemi warns Elgion against divulging his knowledge, for obvious reasons. And Elgion, gifted with a free day from teaching, hatches a plan to go back and find Menolly in the caverns. Thus ends Chapter Eight.

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15 thoughts on “Dragonsong: The Porter Scene

  1. depizan December 11, 2014 at 8:17 pm

    Packtails seem to have whatever the narrative requires. At first description they have an oily slime that eats into the flesh of [people’s] hands and made the skin peel off and is apparently extra dangerous if it gets into a human’s bloodstream. Now they seem reasonably safe to handle and have an oil that can be used to treat dry fire-lizard skin.

    (And I’m a little puzzled as to why only Menolly’s fire-lizards have cracking skin. If it really is as dangerous to them as Menolly/the narration believes, the mortality rate for wild fire-lizards must be astronomical.)

    Chapter Eight opens with Alemi suffering a broken leg and then getting cabin fever at having to rest. Yanus was unhappy about the break, but Mavi was able to turn him aside by pointing out it would be an opportunity to see if his XO could captain a ship.

    Yanus continues to be such a lovely man. And the most anyone ever does is try to keep people out of trouble with him. There never seems to be any consideration of deposing him or bringing some greater authority to bear on him or anything. It’s like he even manages to bully the narrative itself.

  2. boutet December 11, 2014 at 9:14 pm

    I thought that the dangerous packtail slime was in the spines of the fins, the way that lionfish have, but I don’t have the book on hand to check if that’s headcanon filler or if it actually was mentioned.

  3. depizan December 11, 2014 at 9:31 pm

    Description from the book: An ugly fish, with sharp spines all over, it oozed an oily slime that ate into the flesh of your hands and made the skin peel off. Packtails were more head and mouth than anything else but hack the front end off and the rounded, blunt tail could be sliced off the backbone. Grilled fresh it was succulent eating; smoked it could be softened later for baking or boiling and be as tasty as the day it was caught. But packtails were the messiest, hardest, toughest, smelliest fish to gut.

    Sure sounds like the whole fish is covered in the flesh-eating slime. Which seems to have vanished in this chapter. Along with the spines, since I’d think those would also be worth a mention when she’s squeezing the oil out.

    Once again, headcanon makes more sense than canon appears to.

  4. boutet December 11, 2014 at 10:56 pm

    Ha, wow. Not the fish you want to be squeezing barehanded.

  5. Lodrelhai (@Lodrelhai) December 12, 2014 at 8:01 am

    My headcannon was always that the external slime was caustic, but washed and skinned (not just descaled) they would be a perfectly edible oily fish (like tuna or mackerel, which have a lot of oil in the flesh).

    Of course, then the question would be, why isn’t washing off the caustic slime the first step in cleaning them? I doubt the fish continues to secrete it long after death, so a thorough wash before cleaning would massively reduce the danger from the slime. Unless Menolly was just super-unlucky to have cut herself while working on a packtail with enough slime residue to cause blood poisoning. Or the blood poisoning was actually a secondary infection, and the packtail slime gets the blame because lack of knowledge about infectious bacteria and contamination vectors. After all, while the infection was very bad, it was the depth of the cut that made Mavi decide Menolly would lose most of her dexterity in the hand.

  6. depizan December 12, 2014 at 2:57 pm

    It becomes increasingly unclear exactly what went on with Menolly’s cut and the treatment of it. Was it properly treated? Was Mavi honest with her? How exactly did she manage not to sever her tendons?

  7. Silver Adept December 12, 2014 at 3:11 pm

    Wow, good catch, depizan. I missed that part. Perhaps being a dead, washed-up fish meant that the water had sufficient time to clean away any slime, although I’d be more worried about rot or the oil getting rancid. In any case, packtail is whatever it needs to be, definitely. If we were going for consistency of narrative, Menolly should try to avoid it or be really anxious around it.

    Yes, Yanus continues to exist, despite absolutely nobody having any reason to keep him alive and in charge. At all. And yet, there he is.

    I’m wondering if the cracked skin isn’t due to overfeeding. Since dragons and fire-lizards are genetic relatives, and dragons have access to basically unlimited foodstuff, so long as they don’t thin the herds too much, perhaps there’s a genetic imperative in both to get as large as possible so as to combat Thread with fire, and that when presented with an overabundance of calories, their growth gets switched on to put all of that extra energy into size. Where Terrans get stretch marks, dragons and fire-lizards get cracked skin, because they can’t stretch fast enough to cover the new bulk.

    So perhaps if they fed more optimally, they would still get giant, but without the cracking skin issues. Unfortunately, the person who would probably know is the Masterherdsman, and I don’t see him being the guest of the dragonriders on how to improve their stock.

  8. emmy December 12, 2014 at 5:29 pm

    I always vaguely figured the skin cracking thing was supposed to be a sign that Menolly’s fair lacked the skills to survive in the wild that would normally have been passed on by the older firelizards, and that proper wild lizards would know to go roll in the mud regularly or something. But there’s no evidence for that, it was just my childhood attempt at making sense of things.

  9. Silver Adept December 14, 2014 at 12:46 pm

    @ depizan –

    Spoiler for future book:

    Znfgreurnyre Byqvir jvyy rknzvar gur jbhaq va gur arkg obbx naq jbaqre ubj guvatf tbg guvf onq, orpnhfr fbzrbar qryvorengryl yrg vg urny cbbeyl naq fpne ubeevoyl. Uvf rlroebjf jvyy shegure whzc ng urnevat gung Zniv jnf erfcbafvoyr, orpnhfr fur unf Urnyre genvavat naq fubhyq xabj orggre. Fb rirelguvat gung Zniv fnvq nobhg gur jbhaq vf nhgbzngvpnyyl fhfcrpg orpnhfr fur unq na ntraqn bs ure bja gb qryvorengryl pevccyr Zrabyyl, cebonoyl nf n zvfthvqrq nggrzcg gb xrrc Zrabyyl fnsr sebz Lnahf.

    Nf vg gheaf bhg, jvgu Byqvir’f fnyirf naq culfvpny gurencl, Zrabyyl znxrf onfvpnyyl n shyy erpbirel va ure unaq, nf gur fpne qvfnccrnef sebz gur aneengvir naq Zrabyyl vf abg fubja univat nal qvssvphygl jvgu vg bapr vg freirf gur aneengvir’f checbfr.

  10. depizan December 14, 2014 at 1:14 pm

    @Silver Adept

    What the fuck. I mean, I was afraid of that, but it really does mean the narration itself is unreliable. Also, that just makes the fact that Yanus suffers no consequences even worse.

    Vs Lnahf jnf fhpu n qnatre gb Zrabyyl gung Zniv gubhtug pevccyvat ure jnf orggre, ur fubhyqa’g or va punetr bs nalguvat, zhpu yrff n Ubyq. Naq gung’f gur orfg vagrecergngvba. Vs Zniv pevccyrq ure vagragvbanyyl orpnhfr fur nterrf jvgu Lnahf… Jul ner gurer ab pbafrdhraprf sbe gurfr ubeevoyr crbcyr!?

    And Elgion later calls Yanus a good man. Fucking hell, man, if he meets your definition of good, I think I can find villains you’d think are saints!

  11. bekabot December 14, 2014 at 2:39 pm

    And Elgion later calls Yanus a good man. Fucking hell, man, if he meets your definition of good, I think I can find villains you’d think are saints!

    Well, Elgion either has to accede in Yanus’ rule of Half-Circle Hold or overtly involve Harper Hall in Holder politics, which he’s got no incentive to do. His actual (and his narrative) mission is to locate the composer of the mysterious tunes, and he’s already succeeded there — he now knows the composer was Menolly. Step two will be to locate Menolly and to introduce her to her proper background, and we all know how that works out. Elgion would just be making trouble for himself if he were to try to oppose Yanus, and he wouldn’t necessarily be able to make life better for the Half-Circle Holders, because his own existence is grounded elsewhere (luckily for him). So Elgion decides not to make a stink. The important resource to be extracted out of Half-Circle Hold is Menolly (this is from the Harper perspective) and the rest can be let slide. Then too there are numerous hints scattered throughout this book that Yanus is a really bad dude, the kind of guy who, if you chance to cross him, is capable of seeing to it that for you the consequences of your bad decision are kind of — final. Elgion is a messenger and not a hero and I don’t hold him to a heroic standard, so I don’t find that much fault with his course of conduct (in context).

  12. depizan December 14, 2014 at 7:48 pm

    I don’t expect Elgion to challenge Yanus to single combat, or even to necessarily oppose him, but he could at least acknowledge that he’s an asshole. I suppose Elgion could be thinking such things to try and convince himself, since he has to live with the asshole. On the other hand, the narration itself periodically talks up Yanus as actually a swell guy, so I’m really not at all sure what’s going on.

    It’s not so much that I find fault with Elgion (who after all is stuck living in the story with Yanus and everyone else at Half-Circle Hold) as I find fault with the book itself. (Though it does annoy me that the people in the book are so willing to let Yanus and Mavi off for their actions. Not as if there’s nothing they can do, but as if they don’t see a problem. Or it’s only a minor problem)

    I feel like half the time the book wants the audience to think of Yanus and Mavi as just misguided – stolid working people who just don’t get their musical daughter. And half the time they’re both portrayed as being actively abusive (and pretty damn horribly abusive, given the rot13 spoilers up there). The weird inconsistencies in the narrative leave me feeling like the book itself excuses abuse. At best it seems to suggest that it’s bad that Menolly was abused, not because abuse is bad, but because Menolly is talented.

    I don’t see Yanus as quite so blatantly evil as you do, just as a bit of a bully and abusive to his family. (My thought would be that if Elgion said anything to him, he’d just send Elgion packing and demand a different Harper. One who would respect him.) But your take may actually make more sense – at least it would be a reason for everyone to bow to him.

    I just don’t understand why McCaffrey kept throwing in excuses and support for Yanus, or why the narrative lied for Mavi. Why are these bits here? What are we supposed to make of them? It’s not quite as bad as if Return of the Jedi included a few random moments where people talked about what a great businessman Jabba the Hutt was and how good he was for Tatooine… but it’s kind of like that.

    Maybe it’s a really clumsy attempt at depth? Yanus may be an abusive asshat, but, hey, he’s a super good leader and fisherman! (Except these are not things that seem to go together well.) His Hold is joyless and everyone fears him, but, hey, he’s a good man! (Wait, what?) Or maybe it’s a really clumsy attempt at irony? Here’s this guy who’s clearly horrible, but no one in his world can see it, just you and me, dear reader.

    I don’t know.

  13. boutet December 14, 2014 at 10:10 pm

    I think I may not have questioned the Yanus-as-good-guy thing when I read it as a teenager because it fit in really well with my understanding of the abuse in my family. I mean, we often defended our abuser and said that, no, they’re really good people, they just get angry/I’m not good enough/whatever excuse. So reading it the it seemed perfectly natural for the narrative to be jumping in and saying those things.
    Now… yeah, this is a mess. So I guess good for her for being able to really accurately represent the experiences of an abused teen?

  14. depizan December 15, 2014 at 2:47 am

    Except it’s actually terrifying, because it’s not Menolly thinking it but the narrative and people in the narrative who aren’t (so far as we know) being abused by Yanus. If the book were from Menolly’s point of view, then, yeah. But it’s not.

    Which is why it bothers me so much. It’s like validation of those thoughts for any abused person reading the book. I hope its not. I hope it just seems realistic, like you say. But it really worries me that it comes across as validating the idea that the abuse is actually good more than it validates that they’re an abuser. (Especially with Yanus and Mavi getting to Karma Houdini their way out.)

  15. Only Some Stardust December 16, 2014 at 7:03 pm

    Hmm, I sort of got a vibe that the abuse wasn’t good, but that it was somehow magically ‘blameless’. Kind of like how people will say things like, ‘The girl was attacked’ rather than ‘The man attacked a girl’. Or, from politicians, ‘mistakes were made’ rather than ‘I made a mistake’. Like, “Sure, it was terrible, but what can you do about it, these things just happen yo. How else were they supposed to manipulate her into doing what they wanted, talk to her?”

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