Last week was a training montage, courtesy of Mikal, where Kindan prepared himself in a week to get ready to fight Vaxoram. There was some amount of technique, but a lot of it seemed to be trying to get Kindan to the point where he had true resolve to go forward and enough skill to back up his boasts. While Kindan has been giving answers about why he’s doing what he’s doing, they don’t sound organic to me, and they seem to want to put the emphasis in the wrong place.
Dragon Harper, Chapter 4: Content Notes: Bullying Apologia,
We are again trolled by the poem for this chapter:
Fight only in direst need
Not for lust or petty greed
Honor those that do give birth
Respect them well for their full worth.
This certainly seems to be from the same fragment as the rhyme in Chapter 3, and it has the same context that makes it more of a nose-tweak than serious advice. Because the last couple chapters have been about a fight that could have been squashed if any of the adults in the room had decided that children fighting was a terrible idea. And it’s over specifically the people who give birth, which on Pern means women, because trans characters definitely do not exist here, I’m sure. I’m sure that the authors thought it a brilliant counterpoint to the narrative, but really it just highlights how far away from reality this moralizing poem currently is.
Kindan, for his part, as he arrives back from training, and finally figures out the way to beat Vaxoram on terms Kindan will accept, convinced as he is that he needs to win without bloodshed. and decides that he needs “practice”, which in this case means getting a few green tomatoes and demonstrating to the audience, with his off-hand (“‘Kindan, you’re not left-handed,’ Kelsa said in surprise.” Assume the usual Princess Bride remark here.) that he first can bruise tomatoes (which looks like missing them) before cutting them cleanly in half, two at a throw, not once, not twice, but three times in succession, even though Kelsa puts a little extra oomph into the last throw in her excitement.
- [#]5: Duel before the sun is in the sky.
- Pick a place to die where it’s high and dry.
Now that he’s done with his practice, Kindan gives Kelsa the thumbs up and says he’s ready to face Vaxoram.
I suppose, then, that the training montage with Mikal covered the next two, so they’re slightly out of order.
- #6: Leave a note for your next-of-kin.
- Tell ’em where you been. Pray that hell or heaven [between or the place beyond between?] lets you in.
- [#]7: Confess your sins.
- Ready for the moment of adrenaline when you finally face your opponent[?]
Kindan calls to Vaxoram if he wants to surrender and is rebuffed. Murenny calls to Kindan and Vaxoram and asks if they still want to go forward with this.
- #8: Your last chance to negotiate.
- Send in your seconds, see if they can set the record straight.
[For example:] “Alexander!”
“Aaron Burr, sir.”
“Can we agree that duels are dumb and immature?”
“Sure. But your man still has to answer for his words, Burr.”
“With his life? We both know that’s absurd, sir.”
“Hang on, how many people died because Lee was inexperienced and ruinous?”
“…okay, so we’re doin’ this.”
Admittedly, no seconds handling this part of it, because the narrative and the authors have conveniently forgotten to tell us who agreed to be Vaxoram’s second, but since Kelsa is also not going to be seen in this fight at all, it ultimately doesn’t matter, I suppose. Murenny asks the important question in this case, and Dellator examines their blades to ensure they are appropriate for dueling.
Kindan knows that he’s got an advantage on Vaxoram, because, as I’m sure all of you have suspected, the tomato practice was really meant to be intimidation.
“Are you determined to do this?” Murenny asked Kindan and Vaxoram in turn. Each nodded, although Kindan noticed that Vaxoram was swallowing nervously, his eyes wide with fear. Kindan locked onto Vaxoram’s eyes until the other glanced away. Kindan kept his eyes on Vaxoram’s face, meeting his eyes every time the older boy glanced nervously in his direction. Kindan was certain that Vaxoram had seen the tomato demonstration, just as he was equally certain that Vaxoram thought Kindan had missed the first two tomatoes.
- #9[a]: Look ’em in the eye, aim no higher.
- Summon all the courage you require.
- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9,
- #10: [Ten] paces! FIRE.
On hemmed-in ground, resort to stratagem.
On desperate ground, fight.
-Sunzi, The Art of War, Book 11
Which means, yes, the duel is on, after the ritual salute. Vaxoram attempts to overpower Kindan with a charge, but Kindan sidesteps the rush and whacks Vaxoram with the flat of his blade, which will “leave a welt”, but more importantly, will piss Vaxoram off. (The narrative says “with the side of his thin blade”, trying to evoke the idea of the fencing foil/epee/saber, but in just about every sword I know that’s intended to kill someone, the side is sharp for slashing as well as the point for thrusting, and Kindan is explicitly not trying to cut Vaxoram here.) Vaxoram opts for cautious advancing, but Kindan can read his attack, knocks his sword away and sticks him in the shoulder with his own sword. (So much for bloodlessness.) And then offers Vaxoram another chance to yield. Vaxoram is undeterred, and then Kindan blocks one of his attacks and threatens Vaxoram’s eyes. Vaxoram protects them on instinct, and now it looks like, to Kindan, that Vaxoram is afraid.
“Did you see what I did to those tomatoes?” Kindan asked. He saw a flicker of curiosity in Vaxoram’s eyes. “I can split your eyes just like that.” He saw a look of horror creep over Vaxoram’s face. The large apprentice charged blindly with a loud yell, but Kindan was ready and sidestepped, turning around to keep his blade pointed at Vaxoram.
Vaxoram stopped, uncertainly. It was a moment before he turned to face Kindan. In that moment, Kindan knew the fight was over, that Vaxoram was looking for a way out, an honorable surrender. And Kindan would give it to him.
He rushed toward the larger apprentice. Vaxoram took a step back, then held his ground, his sword in guard position. When Kindan struck, he beat Vaxoram’s blade to the side and curved back across Vaxoram’s exposed face–just below the right eyeball, leaving a thin, red, welt.
Really, so much for bloodlessness.
Vaxoram charges again, gets tripped, and is told to yield at the point of Kindan’s sword or he’ll lose an eye, throws his sword away, tries to get it back as a feint, but Kindan knocks it away and out of his grip, and then makes sure that Vaxoram says his yield and forefeit loud enough that the entire audience can hear and witness. Which puts him in Kindan’s service until Kindan releases him. And then there’s this.
Kindan kept his eyes on the older boy who had just agreed to become his personal drudge. And he was surprised to see a sense of relief in Vaxoram’s eyes. The bully had found his place at the Harper Hall–at Kindan’s side.
Cocowhat by depizan
*checks cover* Nope, this is not The Dragonriders of Gor, but for this whole next sequence, I wouldn’t fault anyone for thinking that perhaps it were. To wit, Kindan is able to stop Vaxoram from considering what he could do with both blades to Kindan’s none with a glance and a stare of conviction that Vaxoram recognizes and decides not to test. And Kindan says that Vaxoram will sleep close to him and the girls, which Nonala is dubious about, but acquieses to because of Kindan’s “set look.” And when he goes to Murenny, Kindan argues for his point of view with the older Masters and the Weyrleader present.
“You could have killed him,” M’tal said with no preamble.
“That would not have been a good idea,” Kindan replied.
“Explain,” Murenny said, waving his hand to turn the terse word into an invitation.
“If I had killed him, the rest of the apprentices would have decided that perhaps Vaxoram was right, that there should be no girl apprentices because they caused trouble,” Kindan said. Murenny nodded in agreement. “And they might also decide someday that I deserved retribution.”
…nothing really stopping them from that now, Kindan. The masters ask what Vaxoram will do for Kindan, and it’s mostly “as he did before, but with some extra chores.” And then they ask if he can be trusted with the girls. Kindan’s response is illuminating, but not necesarily in a good way.
“Yes,” he said. “I think he will be trustworthy. In time he’ll realize that if he wants a mate, he’ll need to seem appealing to women, and that his good behavior is the onnly way to do that.”
“I think he has seen the error of his ways,” Dellator agreed, his face set in a wry smile.
“We shall keep an eye on him all the same,” Murenny said.
[…Murenny says to call on him if Kindan needs help. Kindan declines. M’tal is skeptical….]
“You’re saying that now that he knows his place, he won’t cause any more trouble?” Murenny suggested.
“Yes,” Kindan replied.
Murenny pursed his lips, his eyes half-closed in thought. Finally he looked up at Kindan and nodded. “I think you have a good understanding of his character,” he said. He wagged a finger warningly at Kindan as he added, “Make sure you don’t forget.”
“I won’t, Master,” Kindan said.
*checks book title again*
Nope, still hasn’t changed. Just from Pern itself, there’s no reason to believe that Vaxoram is going to turn himself into a contrite and virtuous character just from Kindan beating him and threatening to take his eyes. There’s really no precedent or Watsonian reason for him to accept his conditions so readily, and everyone is nodding along like becoming Kindan’s servant has somehow given Vaxoram the purpose in life that he’s lacked up until this point. This males no fucking sense. Because Toric. Because Tarik. Because Tenim. Because any of the other people who thought tangling with dragonriders was a good idea, and were lucky enough to survive the first encounter and kept trying. Vaxoram found an honorable surrender, sure, but that doesn’t mean that his entire demenor should shift so radically as to cause no further problems for Kindan, Kelsa, Nonala, and Verilan.
And yet, that’s exactly what happens. Vaxoram sits with Kelsa and Nonala at mealtime, which Kelsa disapproves of and Kindan waves away with his suddenly iron will. We learn that Kindan was offered apprenticing into the Healer Hall in his second year, but turned it down because he didn’t want to, but all three of them are still versed in some amount of healing because Harpers are often called to be backup Healers. Vaxoram contributes that one of the concoctions sounds familiar because of a song he learned about them. Kelsa asks Vaxoram to sing the song, but there isn’t actually enough time before class. Much more usefully, the narrative gives us a hint about why Kelsa is still pretty hostile to the idea of Vaxoram joining their crew.
“You still want to be a harper, don’t you?” Kindan asked him.
“But I’m not good enough,” Vaxoram protested.
“You are if you say you are,” Kelsa snapped at him. “But at least you don’t have people saying you can’t be a harper because you’re a girl.”
Vaxoram paled. “You could be a harper,” he told her. “I was wrong.”
“You’re not the only one who thinks I shouldn’t be a harper,” Kelsa snapped back hotly. She gestured to Nonala. “Nor Nonala.”
“But you can sing!” Vaxoram said to Nonala, then turned back to Kelsa. “And you can write songs I only dream of!”
“Keep saying that,” Kindan told him. “Keep telling them and anyone you meet. Maybe the others will get it.”
Vaxoram closed his mouth suddenly, his lips thin. Kindan got up from his place and walked over to Vaxoram. He leaned close by his ear, groping for the right words.
“We can all help each other here,” Kindan said at last. Judging by the twitch of Vaxoram’s shoulders, he hadn’t made his point. He sighed to himself. Maybe the next time he would figure out a better way to express himself.
I am not on board with this development. Mostly because it follows a bad pathway of bullying tropes, narratively asserting what many a parent or teacher has said to a child who is a victim of bullying. “They’re just jealous of you” is a terrible thing to say to a child, and actively indicates that the supposed grown-up in question isn’t actually going to do anything about the problem, and they believe that if the victim ignores it, it will go away. Or, that if they take the message to heart, that someone being jealous of your talents will make them bully you, they might decide to not do the things they are talented at in a (mostly futile) hope that it will make the bullying go away. The grownups sometimes think that’s a victory, because it means the weird kid isn’t being weird and drawing attention and resources to themselves. But of course, not everyone who’s weird can turn it off by willing it to be so. And especially in the Harper Hall, turning off your talents defeats the purpose of being there.
Kindan is trying to say that each of them is there to help each other get better, but that’s clearly a lie, if there are apprentices who can’t find a spot for themselves after their voices break for puberty. And Vaxoram has basically been putting the lie to that situation with his incessant bullying. He would know that not everyone is here to be helpful and friendly, and especially not to Kelsa and Nonala. If he were going to get anywhere toward making peace with himself, that would mean admitting that his masculinity is threatened by the fact that Kelsa’s a better writer than he is, and Nonala a better singer. And possibly that Verilan’s a better copyist and Kindan a better fighter. Vaxoram’s self-conception is rapidly and repeatedly being shattered by the presence of all the rest, but rather than try to find his own space, he’s limited by his own man box. If women weren’t supposed to be harpers because women aren’t good enough, then Nonala and Kelsa wouldn’t be there. Vaxoram has to confront proof that one of his bedrock tenets, and possibly one of the bedrock tenets of the Crafts themselves, is wrong. And that’s not easy for anybody. And especially not for men who have been bought up in toxic masculinity and are only now finding out that it’s all a lie, including the supposed fact that gender roles were a much more rigid boundary than they are.
Vaxoram doesn’t have an anchor. I realize that on Terra we can say “Your job is not your identity” and mean it, because there are a lot of people who are working jobs that crush their soul or seem meaningless and pointless and are not at all what they are passionate about, but on Pern, there’s no such luxury. Kindan even points out that if Vaxoram got expellend from the Harper Hall, he’d have nowhere to go, because his family wouldn’t take him back in. If Vaxoram can’t find an identity in one of the Harper disciplines, he’s sunk. At least until Kindan bested him, Vaxoram could fool hinmself into thinking he was at least in charge of the apprentices. And now he’s lost that, too, even though Kindan points out he’s still senior apprentice, and people still do what he says, because his authority rests in Kindan, now.
There’s no way that Vaxoram “found his purpose” in becoming Kindan’s servant, because “Kindan’s servant” isn’t a position that’s going to help Vaxoram advance to journeyman harper status, so that he can make a living for himself on Pern. Kindan, to his credit, seems to be smart enough to realize this almost immediately.
The next issue occurred after their run next morning, as Kelsa and Nonala cast concerned glances between Kindan and the bath room, clearly asking him what he intended to do about the bathing situation. Vaxoram, however, had an answer, rousting out the remaining laggards and handing out large fluffy towels to the four of them. Kindan kept a smile to himself as he reflected that in most ways Vaxoram was still a bully–just his bully.
“He’s not bathing with us, is he?” Nonala hissed worriedly toward Kindan. Vaxoram stiffened, but he continued on his journey to the bath room with them. Inside, he pulled another set of towels off his shoulder and hung them lengthwise between the front and back rows of baths.
Kindan understood at once.
“An excellent idea,” he told the older apprentice. Vaxoram gave him the faintest of grins that vanished before Kindan could reciprocate.
“The girls are getting far too old for us not to respect their privacy,” Vaxoram said. He glaced at Kindan and Verilan. “And so are you.”
“But we like talking when we’re in the baths!” Kelsa complained from the far side of the towel partition.
“You can pull them down when everyone’s in their bath,” Vaxoram replied. “And when you’re ready to get out, let us know and we’ll look away while you wrap yourself in your towel.”
“That’s no fun,” Nonala protested.
“But he’s right,” Kelsa said. “We are getting older.”
I’m pretty sure the authors didn’t intend for Vaxoram to provide such an excellent example of white-knighting, but there you have it. Plus, Vaxoram being Kindan’s bully doesn’t fix the problem that Vaxoram’s still a bully.
Also, this towel partitioning idea seems like a useful one to have, even if in this particular case, Kelsa and Nonala aren’t feeling particularly shy about showing themselves to Kindan and Verilan. Maybe they will be later, but it’ll be up to them to make that decision, instead of Vaxoram making that decision for them and enforcing his own ideas of modesty on them. It’s still a form of control for Vaxoram, even though he’s not able to be as explicit about it as he wants.
The plot itself zips forward as Vaxoram comes to grab Kindan and tell him that the fire-lizard eggs are hatching. Kindan hops off to the Hold and comes onto the scene in the middle of the hatching, and is able to help the Holder’s daughter, Koriana, Impress a gold fire-lizard, by putting the food in her hands and telling her what to do as she’s too fascinated by the creature to feed her.
Also, we’re told that Kindan falls in love with her by seeing her in this moment of hesitation. I’m not really happy about this. It’s probably better than the…not good…way I would expect these authors to handle a love triangle (Kelsa’a interest seems physical, Nonala seems to have a crush, and Kindan’s not entirely sure what to do about either of those things, after all), but to throw away all of that character development in a single line that says Kindan falls in love with a girl he’s never met up to this point doesn’t seem like the best writer’s craft way of doing things.
Kindan Impressed a bronze, I’ll note, even though he was sure he’d picked a brown out based on the egg.
Lord Bremin looked relieved. He glanced at Kindan with his bronze fire-lizard in his lap and then at Koriana with her gold fire-lizard. A frown crossed his face as he noticed how closely the harper was seated to his eldest daughter.
Okay, now I’m angry, because we’re throwing away the possibility of negotiation and coming to understanding among peers in favor of a story about a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Which is not at all romantic or what I would want from this story. Did the authors believe this romance was what the readers wanted, or what Kindan deserved? Romeo and Juliet kinds of stories are not the kinds of things that I think are so universal that everyone deserves to have one. But that is what we are going to get, clearly.
We’ll stop here and then dive back into the ways that Holders seem to be the most socially uptight group in Pern next week.