Last time, we saw the beginning of what Pern will look like in the immediate aftermath, as the dragons wind down their protective duties (ish) and the wealth gap between the haves and haves-not seeks to widen itself exponentially.
However, we have a short story to go to before we move on. This one was also collected and published in A Gift of Dragons, in this millennium, no less. 2002 is the year in question, and we have twins as protagonists.
Ever the Twain: Content Notes: Faint-shaming
Our story starts with a little self-insert fantasy from Neru, often called Ru, flying with his dragon called Nerith, before being abruptly called back to reality by having someone in his peer group step on his Berserk Button, calling his twin sister, Nian, “Ninny.” Neru threatens Flamel, the responsible party, with “yet another bloody nose”, suggesting this is not the first incidence of this sequence. Flamel is up for some boxing, but one of the other children, Orla, intervenes long enough that the adults arriving on scene dismiss the children as a lot to go to their lessons with the Harper. Who is explicitly tagged as being unhelpful in the matter, having called it “childish bickering” when the last fistfight in the matter erupted in front of him. Typical Harper behavior, given what we’ve seen from inside the Hall.
We get the first taste that these twins might be more than just a pair born together as Nian contemplates the upcoming reality that the twins are going to be separated soon.
Being the more reserved twin, she couldn’t imagine life without her brother at her side, even if she could always sense him. When her parents had moved Neru to a bedroom in the lean-to, she had spent many wakeful nights without his comforting presence beside her, even though she was well aware that boys and girls were always separated when they got to a certain age. But being in totally different places…She gave herself a mental shake. It would do no good to worry now.
Neru’s prospects seem to be an apprenticeship at a Hall somewhere, later suggested that he might be a good fit for the Harpers, while Nian can look forward to being married off to “a farmer on the North Shore.” Nian will later mentally voice her unhappiness at that idea, having met her prospective husband and found him dull. The twins, however, have hatched a plan to see if they can’t Impress a pair of fire-lizards, so they can send messages to each other over the distance and not feel so far apart. Orla gently teases Neru about the possibility of being a dragonrider, and that since there’s a queen egg, it’s possible Nian might manage it, too.
“Who would want a Ninny for a rider?” Nian asked scornfully.
“You shouldn’t call yourself that, Ni,” Ru said with a fierce scowl. “A ninny you’re not. Don’t even think it of yourself.”
Nian glanced gratefully at her brother.
“You can’t let the teasing of a dimwit like Flamel get to you,” Orla said with equal severity. “As we used to say, ‘Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names can never hurt you’.”
Nian gave a snort and wished she could shake off such jibes as easily, but she didn’t have that kind of confidence. No one ever teased Orla. Orla was self-assured and pretty, with very curly black hair that framed her oval face. Her nose was straight and small, her mouth wide and friendly. Orla had all the feminine qualities that Nian did not see in herself. She didn’t consider herself even marginally attractive.
I’m guessing this is at least set somewhere in the AIVAS, if not post-AIVAS period, mostly so that I don’t have to wonder, yet again, how ancient-even-for-colonists phrases and words managed to survive the future, and also this long on Pern. If the computer exists or existed, I can handwave it as old slang becoming fashionable again with the youngsters.
More importantly, though, I can’t say I’m at all pleased with the way that nobody is taking the problems of the kids seriously, not even the kids themselves. Names do hurt, and they can and do affect the way children develop. Children internalize the messages you put in front of them, like “Girls aren’t good at math and science,” or, perhaps as we learned with Piemur’s hazing, “The adults won’t intervene until someone gets seriously hurt.” I suspect Nian might also be internalizing “pretty people don’t get picked on,” which is… maladaptive, to put it nicely.
That said, Nian and Neru, so far, sound like actual children and siblings, and are protective of each other, even if nobody else is going to be. So when Flamel lays into Neru again about his obsession with becoming a dragonrider, Nian tries to defend him, although Flamel doesn’t treat her as a serious threat. He does treat Orla’s threat to reveal that he picks on them because he has a crush on Nian seriously, and beats a hasty retreat before it can actually be said aloud. “I pick on you because I like you” is another trope of childhood I despise, but thankfully this is the only time it gets used.
As the kids head in for their lessons, we find out that not only is Orla pretty, she’s a fairly skilled weaver and appears to be the only child that might be considered for an Artist’s Hall, which we haven’t seen exist since Hall Domaize all the way back in time. Apparently they survived? Or maybe were revived in the AIVAS times? But now Orla’s starting to look like a perfect person, which might set some teeth on edge if she weren’t a secondary character.
Before the lessons can get started, though, there’s a wild clamor that dragons have come on Search to Lado Hold, and so the children are lined up as prospective candidates for the blue and green riders to examine. There’s one man (R’ditk) on the blue and two women (Sarty and Conna) on the greens, further confusing the time this story takes place, but suggesting it’s at least past the point where Mirrim has impressed Path, or it’s on the revised timeline where there have always been green women riders and nobody actually noticed until it was pointed out.
In either case, there’s a good crop from Lado Hold – Orla and Chaum are picked up straight out, and while everyone hopes that both twins are selected, the initial foray looks like Nian will go and Neru won’t. This distresses Nian, because if that holds she’ll “have deserted him [Neru] and stolen his dream all in the same moment.” Nian is not having that.
Her change of opinion is enough that Oswith calls Conna in for a consultation.
She is very strong! Oswith told her rider. I can hear her, Conna. But she will not go without him.
Remaining at Oswith’s side, Conna looked at the twins.
“What is your name?” she asked Nian.
“Neru and Nian,” the twins chorused in unison.
[…Neru goes through the same despair Nian did…]
“Have you ever been separated from each other?” Sarty asked, startling everyone.
“No, rider Sarty,” Neru replied.
“We’re just better together at everything,” Nian added stoutly.
The riders point out that the dragons have only really been interested in Nian, distressing Palla, the twins’ mother. The riders also say that it’s customary to ask the Lord and at least one parent for permission to take the children on Search, which I don’t remember being part of the process at all. There were some mentions of people who had been held back from it, but that sounded more like Lords or parents who were adamant their child had other plans, rather than denying a request made in the first place.
Seeing the possibility that they might be separated and Neru’s dream crushed, Nian comes up with a gem of an Indy Ploy to postpone the separation and asks if Neru can accompany her as family to the hatching, since it’s unlikely anyone else from Lado Hold will make it.
Conna paused a moment and looked at her dragon, lost in a telepathic conversation.
The boy is strong but his twin shields him from me, Oswith said to her rider. I cannot see his potential clearly. Perhaps he should come along as a candidate, too.
“Oswith is undecided about Neru as a candidate, but we will bring him with us regardless,” Conna said finally. Both twins let out their breath in a rush. “Never fear, Nian, your brother will remain with you until the Hatching. There is, however, no guarantee that any of those selected on Search will Impress; the hatchlings make that decision.”
And since we have yet to have a story where a viewpoint character actually failed to get a dragon, we still don’t know what happens if they don’t actually Impress.
Also, Oswith had mentioned not a few paragraphs earlier that Nian wasn’t going to come without Neru. Oswith was very certain about Nian’s potential. Yet that same potential is interfering with Oswith evaluating Neru. I’m a bit surprised that nobody went, “Well, shoot, this one has to come with us with that kind of potential, so we should totally go along with this idea she’s floating.” Oswith and Conna seem much more ambivalent about the whole matter than I would have expected, since they discovered such a strong potential in Nian.
There is a flurry of packing and goodbyes, and we find that Nian is still firmly in the camp of “Neru has to become a dragonrider,” even if she’s less certain about her own prospects. When they arrive as candidates at the Weyr, as part of the tour and explanation, there’s something that makes me wonder if becoming a rider, or even getting Searched for it, is something that people aspire to for mundane reasons as well as religious and majestic ones:
“There’s always something to eat for hungry riders. We keep klah, soup, and porridge warm all day and all night.” She pointed to a hearth at the far end of the cavern where, indeed, pots sat at the back, keeping warm. “And fresh bread when it’s ready.”
Ru grinned at his sister. He was always hungry, now that he was growing tall and filling out his bones. Pretty soon he’d be taller than Nian.
Coming from a place where a bad harvest or a bad catch might mean starvation, to be told there was infinite food available might make someone scheme to figure out how to stay at a Weyr even if they never Impressed. Instead, we get a joke about the neverending appetite of teenage boys, and the tour continues, where the candidates get shown where they will be staying while they wait.
She pointed to the curtained passage that led to the baths and necessaries.
“And we expect everyone living in the Weyr to be clean for breakfast and dinner every day.
So not only is there infinite food, but indoor bathing and toiletries. Perhaps a Lord Holder’s child wouldn’t be impressed by this, but there’s a lot more excitedness about choosing one’s alcove than there is at the fact that for at least a little while, all of these people are going to be fed, housed, and can care for themselves with extravagance.
After the tour, and a snack, the Weyrlingmaster, H’ran, introduces himself and runs through how the candidates know if a dragon is theirs, and also many of the common dangers associated with dragonets finding their match. He shows them the barracks, and then the eggs themselves, as several of the unprepared do the “Hatching dance” on the hot sand. They go amongst the eggs, and we’re introduced to Robina, the Masterfarmer’s daughter, who will be taking on the role of the designated stuck up snob, who believes she was promised the queen egg. After the candidates meet the eggs some, H’ran gathers them to help out with necessary chores, like changing the dressings on dragons that were hurt in the most recent Threadfall. The twins get on with C’tic and Brith, helping peel and replace the dressings on the dragon with speed and a good touch.
And then someone faints, and we are reminded that dragonriders are not good people.
To one side of the infirmary, one of the other riders exclaimed in dismay, “Shards. We’ve got another fainter. Someone get me a cold compress while I brush the sand off her; she certainly hit the dirt with a bang!”
Neru peered around those gathered to assist the fainter and he chuckled. “It’s the girl in blue, Ni,” he said with a little smirk. “The one who fancied your egg.”
“There’s usually one who’s not good with wounds,” C’tic said. “Has someone brought the restorative? That one will make a fine rider!” His tone was sarcastic.
“You’d think she’d be used to injured animals, being the Masterfarmer’s daughter,” Nian murmured to her brother.
“Now, she can’t help the way she is,” Neru said with considerably more charity than his sister expressed, “even if she was promised the gold.”
“I’d pity the gold,” Nian replied.
The author really has a problem with women who exist outside a fairly narrow band of possible personalities. And tends to use other women to deride them, so as to set up minimum solidarity between the women against their hostile world.
Neru is also right – some people faint at the sight of blood, and perhaps Robina’s dragon is much more messed up than Brith. But given that the narrative already shamed a queen rider for vertigo and for getting fat, it’s at least consistent in being terrible about possible queen rider ailments.
Brith also gives the twins a thrill by responding directly to them when Neru asks a question. Neru thinks it might be a sign of legitimacy, and Nian lets on again that the twins might share a telepathic bond of their own.
“And you can always hear them?” Nian asked. “I can usually hear my twin brother–especially if he’s in trouble.”
“Ah, I thought you two looked alike.”
“Oh, we’re not completely alike,” Nian said. “Neru’s much stronger and smarter. He’ll make a splendid dragonrider.”
“You both will,” C’tic surprised her by saying.
“How do you know that?”
“My dragon told me so,” C’tic said, and his smile was kind, not teasing.
After finishing the changing of bandages, the twins all of they can help again. Brith takes the opportunity to suggest that Nian might find a good career as a dragon healer. Nian is surprised by the suggestion, but the dinner bell rings before there’s any explanation on why Nian is startled.
We also finally get an acknowledgement of how different the situation at the Weyr is compared to Lado Hold.
“Hey, this is great food,” Neru said after he took his first heaping forkful.
“It’s meat, you mean,” Nian said, teasing her brother.
“Makes a great change from all that fish,” Neru replied, selecting yet another slice from the platter in the center of the table.
“Just don’t make a pig of yourself here,” she added in a low tone so no one else would hear her. “We’ve never gone hungry, you know, and we must uphold the honor of Lado Hold.”
“Humph,” Neru grunted and gestured around the table where the other candidates were equally as diligent in reducing the contents of the various serving dishes. “Tell that to the others.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Nian said with great dignity.
Yes, this is worth mentioning – I’d bet most of the candidates have had to deal with scarcity and hunger, and I’d bet almost all of them have not had meat except for very special occasions. Because herdbeasts and milchbeasts are extremely resource-intensive, and if nobody can put a sharp stone, stick, or arrowhead through the brain of a wherry at distance, it’s grains, roots, crops, maybe fruit, and maybe fish for your diet. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the candidates have an adverse reaction to having that much meat in a single meal to process, because their bodies have not gotten used to it from having a meat-rich diet.
Nian also acknowledges the oddity of having a Harper/singer in the Weyr playing regularly, since the Hold Harper only performs intermittently and it’s a special occasion when he does.
And they both grin at the perpetual availability of hot water as they decide they want a bath before others think about it when dismissed for the night. I think they’re at least peripherally aware that Weyr life is several steps up from Hold life, but they’re not acting like they’ve been transported up to a standard of living that would be nearly inconceivable.
Nian’s bath and shampoo brings back a memory of asking why her mother married, if she doesn’t like fish, which nets a very practical answer: they loved each other, the husband had land, even if she didn’t know it was going to smell of fish, and he could provide food for everyone, even if it is just fish for dinner (although he also apparently spends significantly to put some beef on the table on occasion). Nian could look forward to some or none of those things in her arranged marriage.
Robina interrupts the memories by angrily demanding when Nian’s going to be done, since she was first in, and then insults her as a “…twinling from a fish hold. I suppose it’s as well if we let you get really clean.” Which provokes Nian to point out that Robina must really need to clean all the sand out of her hair (from fainting), and then Orla tells Robina to stop nagging, and Robina stomps off, which conveniently (but not intentionally) gives Nian the opportunity to give her bathroom to one of the other girls waiting, which sets Robina off even more, but Nian is moving away from that space and can’t hear any more of it.
After a bit to herself, Orla asks to come in and talk with Nian. They start with Robina. Orla focuses on how she’s never seen a Master’s daughter be so arrogant. Nian focuses on how pretty she is in a single line before talking about how she fainted and how that has to count against her. Then they both admit that the wounds they saw on the dragons were “stomach-churning”.
Cocowhat by depizan
I guess I’m unreasonable in expecting that might elicit sympathy instead of scorn, like it did for Debera when the boys were confronted with the reality of having to carve their own dragon food.
The conversation between Orla and Nian ends with Orla desperately wishing for Nian’s straight hair (which makes me immediately want to picture Orla as Black in a world without proper hair care products) and Nian saying she wouldn’t want straight hair if she had it.
Since the hatching starts next, we’ll take a break and pick back up next week.