Nerilka’s Story: The Tragedy Compounds, With Interest

Last chapters: Nerilka, meet worldwide epidemic. Epidemic, meet a competent planner, administrator, and Healer who will be hampered by the fact that she’s female and her family is unlikely to be any sort of helpful – Tolocamp is self-quarantined, and Campen is unqualified to lead in a crisis.

Oh, yes, and speaking of Tolocamp, he abandoned Pendra and some of his daughters to the known plague zone as he broke the quarantine.

Nerilka’s Story: Chapters IV and V: Content Notes: Evil Stepmothers, misnaming


Chapter 4 opens with the drums pounding again – one of Nerilka’s earplugs had fallen out. Which means Nerilka can hear quite clearly as the drums beat out the death of her mother and sisters at Ruatha. The remaining children grieve privately at the loss, with the exception of Campen, and Nerilka wonders whether anyone, in addition to her, had hoped that it had been Tolocamp instead of her mother and sisters.

If only she could hear us outside the narrative, all of us that are very tired of having women be sacrificed for narrative and plot, and especially this one so that it can set up a bitchy rivalry and get the mistress into the household to cause trouble. Twice, while Nerilka is raiding the storeroom to help Desdra and the Healers stay stocked, she spots Anella in the area, and is unhappy about her Holder duties being potentially usurped:

Clearly I heard my father’s vigorous voice calling out the window, and I saw Anella lurking just round the first bend in the corner. Quick as a snake, she scuttled away, but the gloating smirk on her face on her face provoked me past indifference to active dislike and disgust of her.
[…down in the storeroom, Nerilka summons Sim at a shriek, then apologizes to the Healer for overburdening him…but not to Sim, despite his clear fear that something bad was going to happen to him…]
…I caught sight of Anella sweeping down the steps, beckoning imperiously to Felim. I knew that if I entered the main kitchen and saw that smug little lay-aback playing Lady Holder, I would rue the outcome.

So it’s going to be Official Mistress versus Lady Holder for control of Fort. If it’s not abundantly clear at this point, this story idea can go fucking die in a fire.
Plus, Nerilka gets some extra salt in her wounds as she goes by the Harper Hall – Tirone is, of course, safe and sound, having avoided the plague to this point. While Nerilka catches some of the Harper joy for herself, it is quickly erased by the details of Tolocamp’s sentries refusing entry or exit to Healers or Harpers and the presence of the internment camp for the sick and for the Healers.

The healer eyed me with some consternation, for this smacked of criticism of the Lord Holder. I could not in conscience show any trace of my growing disgust, disillusionment, and distrust of my sire. And obviously I should not have heard such sentiment.

Wait, what? Why should a Crafthall worry about insulting a Lord Holder? The Crafts are independent of the Holds, and the Holds have to trade with the Crafts for their simple and advanced goods. The Harpers, especially, since they’re the only official teachers. Yes, there’s something to be said for staying on good terms with the Lord Holder so that you don’t end up outside during Threadfall, but the way Nerilka describes this makes it sound like there’s a more official prohibition on criticizing the overlord and their decisions. I wonder when it came into being, and also how the Lords Holder ever try to enforce those prohibitions.

After inquiring about Capiam’s health and urging Desdra to take advantage of her help and supply access as much as possible, Nerilka instructs Sim to tell her where the internment camp is and makes plans for how to make sure everyone there has proper supplies, as well as how to make sure that Harpers and Healers are unimpeded by the guards (as much as possible). From there, she heads to the kitchens. Felim is entirely a-tizzy, trying to decide whether Anella’s demands for “all kinds of foods that I [Felim] know Lady Pendra would not condone” should be taken to heart or politely ignored.

“She said she was to order Hold matters now. And I was to prepare broth for her children, whose stomachs are delicate; and there are to be confections with every meal, for her parents desire sweets; and roasts midday and evening. Lady Nerilka, you know that isn’t possible.” Tears streamed down his cheeks again as he shrugged. “Must I take orders from her now?”
“I’ll find out, Felim. Proceed with the plans we made this morning. Not even for Anella can we alter an established routine in one day.”
[…and then…]
That little lay-aback, coming in here and thinking she could just take over a Hold the size of Fort and run it if it were exactly like the backhills midden from which she’d come! The thought of the chaos that would shortly result at such inexpert hands gave me a perverse delight. Little did Anella know if real management, and if she wished to to keep my father content, she’d better learn. Whatever had made her think that just because Lady Pendra was dead, she was to step into her shoes, just as she had taken her bed partner? Unless…
[…something bad happens, that is. Something that distresses the other children…]
“Father has had her transferred into Mother’s rooms. Already!”

Hrm. This sounds suspiciously like a situation where Tolocamp wants to disown his own entire family. It is pretty clear by this point that Tolocamp and Pendra did not have a loving relationship between themselves or their children (thus, Anella as the open, acknowledged, mistress-shaped secret between them), but the speed at which it appears Anella is to ascend to Lady Holder makes it pretty clear to me that Tolocamp does not give a damn about his current children.

Nerilka quips that the speed might be because Tolocamp has the plague and wants to enjoy his remaining time on the planet. Campen is offended, but the remaining siblings are more on board with that joke, before they go off to change the guard for the interment camp and do their other tasks.

As it turns out, Tolocamp wastes no time at all installing Anella as Lady Holder. Dinner that night has Anella read out a pronouncement:

“I, Lord Tolocamp, quarantined from active participation in the conduct of Fort Hold in these unsettled days, appoint and deputize Lady Anella as Lady Holder to ensure the management of the Hold until such time as our desired union can be publicly celebrated. My son, Campen, will actively discharge under my direction any duties required of the Lord Holder until such time as I am no longer immured.
I solemnly charge all of you, under pain of disgrace and exile, to observe the quarantine of this Hold, and to refrain from contact with any others until such time as Master Capiam, or his delegate Masterhealer, rescinds the quarantine restrictions. I require obedience to ask restrictions made by me to ensure the safety and health of Fort, Pern’s first and largest Hold. Obey and we prosper. Deny and we fall.”
She turned the sheet toward us and pointed to the end. “His signature and ring mark are here to be verified.” Then she insulted us again. “He charges me to discover which of you ventured perilously close to the internment camp today.”

Nerilka has no qualms about stepping up, but when she does, so do other siblings. Nobody shouts that they are Spartacus, but the effect of confusing and aggravating Anella is the same.

Additionally, in the electronic version I see here, in the middle of the pronouncement is an image of a standing woman, holding an unrolled scroll, wearing a tiara, looking down smugly on a sitting man and woman, the man looking angry, the woman looking…dispassionate. Like she’s pretending not to be interested so as not to give the smug woman the satisfaction of an emotional reaction of any sort. The actual description of Anella’s clothes don’t mention any head pieces, so we have to guess this is an embellishment from the illustrator. I, personally, would have put the illustration after the whole proclamation, but that’s just me.

Also, what the ever-blistering fuck is going on here? If I wanted an evil stepmother plot straight out of a fairy tale, I’d go read a fairy tale. The only thing we’re missing at this point are the evil and selfish stepsisters. The plague plot from Moreta had its fair share of taking care of prima donnas, most notably Sh’gall, but Anella couldn’t be more cartoonishly evil at this point.

So, after this grand thing, someone snarks the quarantine by pointing out Tolocamp already broke it. And Anella demands that the children come up to the head table with her (but she can’t name them all), as well as the Harper, earning herself another snarking about who requires the head table (and, by implication, who isn’t so full of themselves as to need it). Nerilka vows to provide no help to Anella, and thinks that others will follow suit. She drinks quickly, eats quickly, makes sure the scraps from the kitchen get sent to the interment camp, and then heads to bed. That’s Chapter IV.

Chapter V opens with news of dragonriders flying Thread, but Nerilka is suspicious of the numbers reported, because there wouldn’t be enough riders based on the casualty reports. Before she can puzzle out the meaning of the message, she hits the kitchens for klah, with the obligation to keep Felim on an even keel after he suffered insult from Anella about not having enough sweets on hand. Nerilka wants to let the new Lady Holder learn what a bad idea it is to aggravate your cook.

And then realizes what Lady Holder really means, and swiftly hustles off to remove journals that contain sensitive data about the residents and to take Pendra’s personal jewels for later distribution among the survivors. On her way back to the kitchens, Nerilka gets another way to paper cut Anella:

I was on my way back when Sim intercepted me.
“Lady Nerilka, she is asking for a Lady Nalka.”
“Is she? Well, there isn’t one in the Hold, is there?”
Sim blinked, confused. “Doesn’t she mean you, lady?”
“She may indeed, but until she learns to call me by my proper name, I am in no way obliged to answer, am I, Sim?”
“Not if you say so, Lady Nerilka.”
“So return to her, Sim, and say you cannot find Lady Nalka in the Hold.”
“Is that what I do?”
“That is what you do.”
He lumbered off, muttering under his breath about not finding Lady Nalka – any Lady Nalka – in the Hold. That is what he was to say. No Lady Nalka in the Hold.

Uh, Nerilka? What will happen to Sim when he delivers that message to someone who has already shown a contempt for things that don’t go her way? And who probably has the same attitude toward drudges as everyone else does in the planet? Are you unconcerned about sending Sim in to likely be beaten and shouted at by Anella when she hears the response? Or do you think that Sim’s possible mental difficulties will spare him from being hurt?

Or, is Nerilka not concerned because, despite knowing his name, Sim is still a drudge and not worth caring too much about. There’s a lot of horrible people potential in this, but we won’t see what happens and how things are taken.

Returning to the plot, Nerilka goes to find the Healers, and is directed to the Hall kitchens to find Desdra, who is giving instructions for sterilization of glass bottles. Nerilka reflects on her increased time in kitchens (as befits her new station in the stepmother narrative), and Desdra’s instructions say “no cheating on the sands”, which gives us new knowledge about technology available to the Sixth Pass – sand-based timers in various divisions of time, presumably encased in glass of some sort. Which, in turn, says that the Pernese understanding of time is both complex and subject to arbitrary divisions. That’s probably a holdover from the Ancients, but I wonder who or what the Time Authority is that ensures that the sands measure the same amount of time (within tolerance), regardless of the length of the day during any season. (And what they use as their official definition of time – Terra currently uses a definition in relation to the period of a caesium atom, but even Sixth Pass Pern has no way of measuring that.) Because, y’know, time traveling dragons should mean that temporal definitions and divisions should be strict at this point to avoid accidents and disasters. Yet it always feels like time is loose on the planet.

Desdra asks Nerilka to prepare a restorative soup and a cough syrup, tussilago (likely pronounced in the same way as “tussin” is for Terran cough syrups), scribbling instructions and measurements using a “charcoal stick”, which means the “carbon stick” of the Ninth indicates more loss of knowledge from Sixth to Ninth. As she heads off, Nerilka can feel that the Healers are excited about something, and it’s not just Capiam’s recovery. When she brings back the completed work at the end of the day, the excitement is even greater, but nobody is saying anything.

Nerilka heads to bed contemplating whether or not her work is going into the camps (if so, good), and how much more she will be able to do without the assistance of Tolocamp and Anella. And thus ends Chapter V.

At some point, this is going to create a more direct clash. Nerilka can’t hide from Anella forever.


16 thoughts on “Nerilka’s Story: The Tragedy Compounds, With Interest

  1. Madame Canard April 29, 2016 at 4:36 pm

    Oh god it’s worse than I remember! Truly the suck fairy has not held back.

  2. genesistrine April 30, 2016 at 3:36 pm

    “Lay-aback”, bloody hell. Don’t hold back on your judgements on women who are sexually active outside marriage, Nerilka.

    Also fits somewhat oddly with the culture of Lords having multiple concubines/mistresses we were told about in the Ninth Pass, but eh, narrative inconsistency, thy name is Pern.

    Re criticism of the Lord Holder, bear in mind we’re seeing this first-person through Nerilka’s eyes. She’s been trained all her life to avoid upsetting Tolocamp, and her family dynamics apparently include siblings telling tales on each other – she mentions one of her sisters noting infractions of family rules in the first chapter to pass on to their parents. She could easily be misinterpreting people’s reactions.

    Back to Anella, I actually find her list of demands quite endearing, as well as rather sad. Poor Anella obviously thinks she’s just won the lottery of life, and what does she want from it? – lots of sweets! Roast meat at every meal! She’s not even going for the jewels and pretty dresses at this point; it’s all about getting nice food and plenty of it – and making sure her parents, children, 3 younger brothers and 6 elderly relatives get some too. I have to wonder how deprived her life was before then.

    It’s perfectly understandable that Nerilka would hate her under the circumstances rather than blaming her father, but it’s rather sad that she evidently still feels exactly the same 12 years on.

    The situation with Sim and “Lady Nalka” is a microcosm of Nerilka’s spiteful attitude towards Anella, like her gleeful thoughts about how Anella’s going to mess up the running of the Hold. That could hurt a lot of people, but Nerilka doesn’t give a damn about them as long as Anella is put to some inconvenience. And again, in 12 years she’s never reflected on this.

    Tussilago is a herb, by the way – coltsfoot. The Pernese settlers seem to have brought a lot of familiar herbs, though I hope they engineered them to remove, e.g., liver toxicity. Though of course Pernese may have ~GENETICALLY SUPERIOR~ livers. Either that or we’ve just discovered why “jaundice” is still a known condition…

  3. only some stardust April 30, 2016 at 7:22 pm

    If we allow cultural change in Pern (haha), we could say that holders started off with mistresses and developed into a full blown concubine and multiple wife system.

  4. depizan April 30, 2016 at 8:39 pm

    Imagine the story if Nerilka went to Anella as an ally, or vise versa. We could have had a story of women working together in adversity, instead of this. :\

  5. Madame Canard May 1, 2016 at 5:36 am

    “Lay-aback”, bloody hell. Don’t hold back on your judgements on women who are sexually active outside marriage, Nerilka”

    Ew. I hadn’t clocked this. I just swept past it, just noting it as another weird McCaffrey term, possibly similar to lay-about, which isn’t especially lovely but not as suck-worthy. Wow. I’m even more grossed out than I was.

  6. WanderingUndine May 1, 2016 at 10:13 am

    @Madam Canard: Ditto. I assumed “lay-aback” indicated laziness, with Anella making difficult demands and not helping out, but “gold-digging slut” seems a likely meaning. Ugh.

    @genesestrine: Anella might be going after the jewels and pretty dresses, too, if Nerilka has only heard about the demands related to the work she’s overseeing. I’d be more OK with that. The food-related ones wouldn’t be so bad, either, but I think they’re supposed to indicate that she doesn’t care about the crisis everyone is facing and is only making things more difficult for everyone.

    The commentary on time measurement points out to me the weirdness of familiar timespans in science fiction. How convenient that so many planets apparently have days and years of the right length to accommodate Terran biorhythms. Unlike, say, Mercury, where a day is longer than a year.

  7. Silver Adept May 1, 2016 at 10:26 am

    Huh. I know I noticed “lay-aback”, but apparently I didn’t comment on it in that post. I was not happy about that word choice, although I think Nerilka uses it primarily to suggest that the only thing Anella is good at is having sex, with the extra implications of what she thinks about mistresses and sex outside of marriage running a very close second. This is, I think, the first time that we have gotten things from the perspective of a woman who isn’t busily trying to get herself pregnant by one of those affairs so as to improve her own social standing. Nerilka has the luxury of being a daughter of Fort, and so that might color her perception some. And produce the hostility forward Anella, including the willingness to let other people suffer so that Nerilka can try to drive Anella out, It’s very catty.

    How much nicer of a book this world be if Anella and Nerilka had a talk about how Anella is sorry for the death of Pendra and that she doesn’t want to replace Nerilka, so maybe she could tag along and learn how to run the place? Something that would be sensible regarding their positions of relative power.

    Good to know about tussilago and its potential liver damage.

  8. Wingsrising May 1, 2016 at 1:25 pm

    Re: lay-aback. I was curious and Googled, and the results suggest that “lay aback” is a nautical term: “aback” meaning that a headwind is blowing into the sails from the front, “lay aback” meaning to do this deliberately (as opposed to being “taken aback” when this happens unexpectedly due to a wind shift.) Laying the sails aback would stop the forward progress of the ship.

    Given the context of the use of the term lay-aback — complaining about how Anella’s lack of management ability is going to cause problems at Fort — and the fact that “laying aback” means doing something that brings a ship to a halt, I think Nerilka is using it to refer to Anella’s Hold management skills rather than anything to do with sex.

  9. Wingsrising May 1, 2016 at 2:00 pm

    Aside: I Googled some more because I’m procrastinating, and while I’m not sure about McCaffery herself, apparently her ex-husband and sons loved sailing and they owned at least one sailboat while they were married. Which makes sense when you think about it: She talks about sailing quite a lot in the books, and even the parts of a dragon’s wing are named after sailing terms. So I think that makes it even more likely she’s referring to the sailing term here rather than something else.

  10. WanderingUndine May 1, 2016 at 4:21 pm

    *looks up maps of Pern* Fort Hold is near-ish to the ocean, though I’m not sure just how near, so it’s possible.

  11. genesistrine May 1, 2016 at 4:58 pm

    @Wingsrising: Cool, I never knew that!

    But, while I agree that must be the Doylistic origin of the word, I don’t think that’s the sense Nerilka’s using it in – “laying aback” is deliberately bringing things to a halt, which Nerilka doesn’t think Anella is doing – she thinks she’ll mess everything up through incompetence. I still think what we’ve got there, in-universe, is Nerilka calling Anella a ho.

    But barring input from McCaffrey, I don’t think there’s any way to be sure.

    @WanderingUndine: I’m sure the jewels and pretty dresses will come in to it soon, but I find it interesting that the first things we’re told Anella wanted, and that the narrator seems to want us to think are evidence of her utter selfishness, greed and triviality, are nice things not just for her, but food her children can digest easily* and treats for her parents. I don’t think she’s very bright – she doesn’t seem to have noticed how much the Horde passive-aggressively hate her, for starters – but she seems on that evidence to be generous and caring to her immediate family at least.

    But we’re not going to see any good side to her because the narrator’s determined to make her Cartoon Evil. Because Reasons I guess.

  12. genesistrine May 1, 2016 at 5:02 pm

    *oops, forgot the note. Nerilka seems to think Anella’s children’s digestive problems are just special snowflake syndrome, but given how she’s trampling over everyone else’s feelings to score one over on Anella I don’t really trust her judgement on this.

  13. Silver Adept May 1, 2016 at 5:26 pm

    If that’s true, though, it’s been given exactly zero support from the text, and even more so that Nerilka was forbidden to learn a craft. Where, exactly, is she going to pick up a nautical term like that? If Menolly said it, I wouldn’t bat an eye, but Nerilka has then us no indication at all that anyone in the family likes to sail or has business enough with those that do that they would pick up on the terminology.

    At that point, it’s a pair of cocowhats, instead of just a snarky way of commenting on Anella’s status as mistress.

  14. Wingsrising May 1, 2016 at 5:35 pm

    re: Fort Sea Hold. In Dragondrums it says it takes 8 hours round trip to ride between Fort Hold to Fort Sea Hold, so it can’t be that far.

    re: Doylistic vs. Watsonian. Dunno, I think it’s reasonable to assume the words in the story mean their usual meaning unless we have some reason to think otherwise. I think I overstated the “deliberate” bit — I gather laying aback means the sailors did something to the sails to put them aback as opposed to the wind changing, but presumably incompetent sailors could do something that would lay the sails aback even if they didn’t intend to halt the ship. I think the term fits very well — Anella is doing things that are going to grind Fort to a halt — especially since it was used in the context of a paragraph of Nerilka complaining bout Anella’s hold management, not about Anella’s relationship with her father.

    Also it doesn’t seem “aback” has ever meant “on your back” — even archaically it meant something more like “to the rear” or “farther away” or “going backwards”. (Interestingly, the OED quick search suggests that occasionally “lie aback” has been used to mean being retiring or shy — basically like “hanging back” — but I’m guessing that’s not what Nerilka means here.)

  15. genesistrine May 2, 2016 at 7:01 am

    Regarding in-universe origin, it doesn’t really prove anything one way or another how near Fort Hold is to a seahold – given the Pernese noble fostering system someone there could easily have been fostered to a seahold, or a seaholder’s child could have been fostered in, or, since I don’t think we ever learn Lady Pendra’s origin, she could have been a seaholders daughter.

    But I still don’t think that’s the usage here – AMC’s usual noun-creation scheme is “stick together 2 common nouns” – redfruit, sweatroot, tunnelsnake – she doesn’t seem big on metaphor. Plus if it doesn’t mean what it looks like it means to a non-sailor then I’d like to think someone would have pointed it out during the beta-reading or editing process. Different times, I know, but still.

  16. genesistrine May 6, 2016 at 1:47 pm

    Aaand I just reread the first chapter and Nerilka used to go sailing with Suriana. Hmm.

    Though if it is a sailing metaphor it really, desperately needed to be made more obvious. The perils of getting too popular to be edited?

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