Last week, we saw the fallout from the mine incident, and then we saw that Cristov, for the most part, isn’t going to suffer for the actions of his father. We took an extended look at why Tarik’s trial was not nearly as fair as it needed to be, and we spent some time at the Pernese equivalent of the Olympic Games.
Also, Moran is here, he’s much less sympathetic than he was before, and Halla got told to stuff herself silly by Cristov, who provided the money for the feast. Halla is supposed to be spying on Cristov at Moran’s request.
Dragon’s Fire, Book 2: Chapters 3 and 4: Content Notes: Character Death, Prisoner Abuse
Dragonmen, your beasts must learn
When to flame and swiftly turn.
Keep the burning Thread away,
Live to fight another day.
The setting is High Reaches Weyr, and we follow D’vin and Hurth through the pep talk, whose sole purpose is to indicate High Reaches concern with their firestone supplies and their volatility. Then we hop back and forth between D’vin and Lord Fenner’s box to watch the competitions, which mostly consist of “Thread” made of rope being flung from queen dragons up above and single sets of riders flaming the entire pattern to ash. Any bit that gets through uncharred results in disqualification. After each group runs, the queens spread out farther and repeat the process, making it a longer course to run in the same amount of time, until there is only one rider left that succeeds.
All this time, it’s explicitly noted that the training exercises are harder and more numerous than the actual thing is supposed to be, which has the added benefit of assuring the people on the ground that the Weyrs will be able to do their jobs when the real thing happens. (We’re told this reassurance is why the Games happen at all.)
The only real thing of interest to note during all of this description is that an older Istan rider seems to be able to run the course with uncanny speed and accuracy, arriving at the right points to destroy the clumps almost before they get there. D’vin thinks it’s years of training, but since we know that the secret of time-warping dragons isn’t as well-kept as we think, it’s entirely possible someone is doing some very fancy localized time displacement to produce the speed.
After four rounds, however, there are still three dragons left and there’s no more “Thread” allocated to the singles, which leaves it up to Fenner to decide. He enlists the box to help, but it’s a unanimous vote among them all, in agreement with him, so no trouble.
At the break, D’vin comes down, says hello to Fenner, and asks where the bubbly pies are. He caught a whiff on the way down and would like to get some in the break. Cristov volunteers Halla by name, which freaks her out entirely because he remembered her name, and he knew she was there, when she was supposed to be close enough to listen, but not to be seen.
Also, bubbly pies are way more expensive in the second pass than in the Ninth.
A miner half-mark entitled her to four, so she paid for two and got a quarter-mark back.
And we are again forced to try and figure out the relative values of the various Craftmarks, when a half from the Miners in the Second Interval is less valuable than a 1/32nd from the Harpers in the Ninth Pass. I can’t imagine the economics that would allow for that – I would have expected inflation to run it the other way around, so that Halla gets them cheap and Piemur has to suffer.
Cristov offers to accompany the petrified Halla so that she’s not alone with D’vin. She knows her freakout isn’t quiet, and Cristov isn’t helping.
“No wonder I recognized you! You look just like him! It’s been ages since I’ve seen him!” He looked around wildly. “Where is he?”
Halla’s face fell and Cristov’s expression changed. “He’s all right, isn’t he?” he asked. “He had the cast on his leg when we met, but he’s all right?”
“The break got infected,” Halla murmured.
Cristov stopped dead, grabbing Halla in alarm. “Where is he?”
Halla pointed to the cemetery. “He died not long after he met you,” she told him. “He’d hoped to see you again.”
“I’m sorry,” Cristov told her miserably. “I never knew.”
I realize we’re supposed to see this as Cristov being crestfallen at losing a friend and not knowing about it, but again, there’s a little bit more in this that I want to say that Jamal might have been a first crush for Cristov, who wouldn’t have had the language to express what his desires were, nor be in a safe space where he could examine those feelings and come to terms with them. Unless, perhaps, he were lucky enough to be born in a Weyr, or Impress a dragon.
Tarik, of course, wouldn’t want anything other than the finest of toxic masculinity for his son. This is probably why Cristov asked for the pipe lessons to be secret, because Tarik had a very strong idea about what kind of miner his son would be and what knowledge his son would need to be that miner, and none of that Harper stuff to interfere. Plus, out here in our world, men-looking folk playing woodwind instruments sometimes have to weather invective from their peers about their sexual orientation. So, there’s ample reason to believe that Tarik would have tried to beat the music lessons out of his son as somehow unmanly.
Maybe Dala could have helped Cristov come to terms with his feelings, but it would have had to have been somewhat secret to avoid tripping Tarik’s wrath and ignorance, and that makes the assumption that Dala would be willing to help on that matter. She’s shown as having differing opinions about things and encouraging Cristov to make up his mind, but that’s not the same thing as being supportive of having a potentially gay son.
D’vin, in the other hand, is making Halla much more nervous the longer they talk.
“How are you getting along, then?” D’vin asked. His gaze took in the state of her clothing, and the gauntness of her frame.
“I’m making do, my lord,” Halla said, dipping her head in an apparent gesture of respect but really trying to hide her eyes from the dragonrider’s probing flame. To change the subject, she looked up again and pointed. “There’s the baker, my lord.”
“Thank you,” D’vin replied, picking up his pace. Sonia’s words from months back echoed in his head: I swear, D’vin, you’d take in every stray that crossed your path!
The baker was so pleased at D’vin’s patronage that she sent to the tent next door for fresh berry juice and set a special table out in front of her stall just for them.
Neither Halla nor Cristov were used to such deferential service, but D’vin did everything he could to make them feel at ease, while praising the baker’s and juicemaker’s efforts loudly to the bustling crowd.
Halla watched the dragonrider surreptitiously, surprised at his easy ways and the manner in which he dealt with the merchants. It was clear to her he knew his praise would help her sales, and that he didn’t overdo it—he said just enough to ensure that both vendors would have plenty of customers for the rest of the Gather.
Cristov watched neither of them. Instead, he explored his last memories of Jamal. Memories of a Gather three Turns past.
“Cristov?” D’vin’s voice startled him.
“Was he a good friend?” the dragonrider asked softly.
Cristov shook his head. “He might have been,” he said, “but we never got the chance to find out.” He looked up. “My father didn’t approve of him.”
Cristov didn’t notice the startled look Halla gave him but D’vin did.
With a sigh, D’vin got to his feet. “We’d better get back—the next event will start soon.”
And there’s that ambiguity again, as to whether it would have been just friendship for a boy who wasn’t allowed to have any that weren’t approved by his father, or whether Cristov had an interest in Jamal, an interest he might also have for Pellar, but he lacks the necessary components for understanding, and also lacks mentorship from a responsible adult about those feelings, even if he could articulate them into some sort of coherent form.
Chapter 3 leaves off at this point, and Chapter 5 will bring us back to the Games, but Chapter 4 has to happen in the interim, and it’s specifically situated at “Firestone Mine #9”, and here’s the rather ominous rhyme that accompanies:
Shunned from Hold, Shunned from Craft,
Steal the grain, steal the haft.
Take without returning too
And it will be Shunned for you.
Because that’s the sort of thing you need in your nightmares, that someone’s going to come along and paint an S on you because you borrowed something and forgot to return it, or someone else thinks you’re not contributing enough to justify what you’re taking.
One page into this chapter and I understand why the previous eight firestone mines have exploded. The Miner Formerly Known As Tarik, as part of his sentence and Shunning, has been sent to work Firestone Mine #9, and is awoken by having water thrown in his face, threatened with the stocks, and had his head bashed with the water bucket when he tries to give a little of the harsh treatment back to the foreman, Gerendel. The Turn before this assignment has apparently been drudge duty in the minor holds around Crom.
Proving that he’s got rocks in his own head for splashing Tarik, Gerendel reminds everyone about the reasons why spitting isn’t allowed in the mine.
“But we’re it in the mine,” Maril protested.
“If we were, you’d likely be dead,” Gerendel said. “I don’t want you thinking you can spit anywhere lest you forget when you’re in the mine.” He turned to Tarik. “You remember that, firestone’s fickle with water. If it doesn’t explode, the fumes’ll kill a man.”
[…Tarik tried to get away from this fate on his first night there, was caught, and thrown in the stocks…]
In the two months since then, Tarik had been in the stocks twice more, and beaten, once, in the middle of the night. He was certain that Maril had been one of his assailants.
But neither Maril nor Gerendel frightened Tarik as much as the mine.
And with good reason. Gerendel says it will only be a matter of time before this one explodes, too, but because the Shunned work the mines, nobody cares, either. For extra horror points, Gerendel notes Tarik is the first miner exiled to this space, before dismissing the idea that Tarik might have any special skills that would help with the mining.
And the final cherry on top is that, since everyone who arrives and departs does so by dragons, there’s a good chance that Gerendel isn’t lying when he says the nearest dwelling is three days’ march away. Tarik has been handed a death sentence, and nobody cares, and at this point I wonder how many of the Lords and dragonriders know how their most important mineral is obtained, and the quality of the workers employed for it. If there were actual miners employed, maybe the mines wouldn’t have exploded so much. Of course, that would also mean having to make relatively safe mines.
Tarik manages to get himself put in the stocks again before the shift begins for this:
Tarik hefted his pick, eyeing the back of Gerendel’s had thoughtfully.
Maril shouted, pointing at Tarik, and Gerendel wheeled around.
Over his protests that he did nothing, of course. Tarik is to get water and no food for his time in the stocks, and while Maril is assigned to make sure he actually gets water, all Maril does is mine. It takes Renlin, the cook, coming over at the lunch break before Tarik gets any water at all, and after lunch, Maril is equally unwilling to give him a drink, at one point demanding that Tarik beg for the chance. Tarik refuses, choosing his pride over what would likely be humiliation and no water. Maril leaves the bucket seemingly out of reach and continues to mine.
Tarik thinks he might be able to get to the bucket.
Tarik eyed the bucket, eyed the mine entrance, and paused. If he didn’t get the bucket, if it tipped over, what then? He was close enough to the mine shaft that the water from the bucket might flow to the entrance. Of course, he reminded himself, there was a deep gutter dug in front of the mine to carry any water away–water in a firestone mine would be disastrous.
[…Tarik tries for it, but only manages to kick the bucket over…]
Everything would have been all right, if Maril hadn’t emerged from the mine at that moment. The water had lapped over the wooden rails the cart ran on: Maril, pushing from behind, didn’t see the stain of liquid and was taken off guard by the sudden change in resistance of his load. His pushing jarred the cartload, and a few pieces of firestone fell off the cart.
Tarik’s voice was too dry for more than the hoarsest of shouts. “Run!”
…this seems like an engineer or a miner would be been very helpful in the construction of this mine, because “water should never be allowed near the mine” and “rails that lead to the mine are close enough to the water gutter that water can slosh onto the rails from the gutter” sounds exactly like the kind of problem someone who actually knows what they’re doing can spot and fix during construction. (Or possibly move once they notice, if for no other reason than self-preservation.)
Which brings me to the point I couldn’t quite find the handle on before. Since Tarik is the first miner that’s been Shunned and sent to the firestone mine, shouldn’t they be picking his brain aggressively about how to make things so that they don’t die easily? Maybe not the foreman, since he doesn’t seem to care at all about anybody’s lives, but the dragons need firestone, and even if they’re Shunned and looking for a way out, surely everyone else there wants to have a shot at living long enough to make an escape?
Yet everyone seems to be much more interested in hurting Tarik and trying to make him feel humiliated than using his knowledge. “Too stupid to live” is not a phrase I’d use lightly, but it applies here so, so much. Because what happens next was eminently preventable, even if all the people there are inveterate shitheels.
Maril didn’t hear him. He leaned over instinctively to retrieve the errant stone just as it fell into the water and burst into flame.
In an instant, the disaster was complete. The fire startled Maril, who leaned backward, tripped, and, struggling to stay upright, tugged the cartload of firestone back toward the mine. The cart of firestone caught flame even as it rolled back over Maril’s leg and into the mine, gaining speed on the slope.
A huge ball of flame, taller than a man, burst out of the side of the mountain where the firestone mine had been. The blast caught Tarik and threw him, still in the stocks, backward like a straw doll.
The flames licked the nearby trees, withering their limbs. And then the fires subsided, leaving the mine shaft a huge, black smoking hole in the side of the mountain.
That’s certainly an evocative explosion. And I think it’s probably safe to say that Tarik is dead from that explosion, too, along with all the others. Because of a poorly designed mine system and a great indifference to the lives of the Shunned in punishment. It’s unlikely that the narrative is going to dwell on this all that much, though. There’s more exciting things to get to, like the next part of the dragon games.
I’m just really annoyed that Tarik is the one getting sacrificed, when Tenim has already more than earned dying in a terrible fire with nobody around and he doesn’t have valuable skills and information to give to the miners about their survival.