When we last left everyone, a heel that had no business being in charge of anybody was recalled immediately from Fort because dragons were dying, after spending a full chapter antagonizing a Hold and their people.
Dragonheart: Chapters 8 and 9: Content Notes: Assisted Death, End-Of-Life Planning, Advance Directives, Suicide and Suicidal Ideation
Weyrfolk, keep your duty dear
Provide for every dragon and for Weyr.
When the Red Star comes on nigh
By your efforts will dragons fly!
(Fort Weyr, Afternoon, AL 507.13.25)
Well, if we didn’t know it before, I guess that tells us it official pronunciation of “Weyr.”
Plot-wise, H’nez arrives to see J’marin, Fiona, and Xhinna tending to the very sick Asoth. Since H’nez is there, J’marin asks Fiona and Xhinna to tend to others, which let’s is in that Fiona believes Melanwy is plotting something to attack her, because she doesn’t talk when Fiona enters a room, and Tannaz isn’t talking to Fiona, either. This is after Fiona had walloped Melanwy with persuasion already, so Melanwy may just be aggravated at that. Cisca certainly doesn’t think there an issue, but she asks Fiona to keep an ear and an eye out, anyway.
Xhinna, for her part, stays firmly glued to Fiona’s side, which seems to have engendered a thought among the blue and green riders.
“Just because she’s not right for a queen doesn’t mean she wouldn’t suit a green,” L’rian had assured Fiona the only time the subject had arisen.
“A green?” Fiona had asked. “But greens only have male riders.”
“That’s because no one’s ever thought to put a girl on the Hatching Grounds,” L’rian replied, ” ‘cept in front of the queen eggs.” His lips curved up briefly at the notion. “She might even Impress a blue.”
“A blue?” Fiona repeated, surprised.
“The dragons choose,” L’rian had assured her with a knowing look, “not the riders.”
Fiona points out Xhinna has to get on the Grounds, and L’rian nonchalantly indicates Xhinna would take a chance, were she encouraged to by a queen rider.
There’s a good thing and a terrible thing in this exchange. The good thing is that the author is providing us with a hint about where Xhinna’s attractions lie, so long as they know about the shorthand of dragon coloration. It’s not as good as out-and-out saying Xhinna’s romantically interested in Fiona, but it’s better than pretending only men can be anything other than heterosexual in dragonrider culture.
The terrible thing is the claim that nobody has thought to put all the candidates in front of all the eggs, and thoughtlessly adding “the dragons choose” right after it. Especially in this story, where Fiona has Talenth by virtue of a dragon choosing outside the standing candidates. It’s not impossible, but I would think it highly improbable that no dragonet at any point has bolted for the queen candidates and said, metaphorically, “this one’s mine.” Even though I know the Records are always a hot mess for the purposes of the plot, there should be a Record, if not a fucking song, about the girl who Impressed a not-gold dragon.
Unless that’s supposed to be shameful in some way and the earlier Weyrs quashed the Records of it happening or misrepresented it as a dragon that failed to thrive. But if that were the case, then L’rian wouldn’t be openly advocating for Fiona to find a way to get Xhinna to stand for a dragon again. So this has to have happened before. And several times more before Mirrim and Path. By the time it gets to the Ninth Pass, dragonrider-ing should be a pretty mixed-gender affair.
Again, the dangers of writing the past when the future has already come to pass, but for the most part, when you’re handed a canon like Pern, fix-it is going to be a necessity, and it’s a question of how obvious you are going to be about it.
Going forward, after L’rian’s insinuation, Fiona and Xhinna go out to let Talenth feed. The first time was a bit rough for them both, but Talenth has it down, now. Fiona is hit by a wave of confusion, Xhinna provides temporal references, and Fiona’s aggravation at herself bleeds through in how she talks to Xhinna. T’mar intercedes smoothly, telling Xhinna she’s wanted in the kitchen, before having a come-to-Jesus meeting with Fiona about Xhinna.
T’mar moved forward to stand beside Fiona. He glanced down at her and said conversationally, “I’ve discovered that when times are hard, I need my friends most.”
Fiona glanced up at him, her expression blank even though she had a gnawing suspicion of his intentions.
“So it is a shame to see you treating the one person who is most attached to you so poorly,” T’mar finished, catching her eyes with his own.
[…Fiona doesn’t deny it, although she’d love to, and complains that history has its eyes on her…]
“You generated quite a bit of gossip by having Xhinna stay with you.”
“She helps me,” Fiona declared simply.
“She’s with you all the time,” T’mar observed. “Night and day, it seems.”
Fiona flashed him an angry look. “We’re friends!”
Say it! Say it, you cowards! Acknowledge, on page, and use the words: Xhinna is a lesbian!
And Fiona is potentially bi, if her denial is the kind of denial that’s usually put in place when someone doesn’t want to acknowledge that part of themselves. Which still annoys me that we can openly talk about how Fiona has the hots for Kindan and has from an early age but we can’t say out loud that Xhinna has the hots for Fiona. (And maybe everybody has the hots for Cisca, regardless of their gender identity and sexual preferences.)
“I know that,” T’mar replied. “But have you considered what will happen to Xhinna when your Talenth rises and chooses a mate?”
From the look on Fiona’s face, it was obvious she hadn’t.
“That’s Turns away!” she declared.
“And in all those Turns, where will Xhinna’s affections lie?” T’mar wondered, shaking his head firmly. “No matter what your intentions, it will be a brutal adjustment for her to make.”
“But she’s my friend!” Fiona blurted, her face twisted into a sad expression. “Why can’t she still be my friend?”
“She can,” T’mar agreed. “But only if you keep her as a friend.” He gestured back toward the kitchen cavern. “If you treat her like a drudge, just because you’re out of sorts–and we all are–then what sort of friend will she be?”
“And,” he continued as he saw Fiona gulp as she absorbed his observation, “if you aren’t careful to respect her emotions–all of them–what sort of pain will you cause when your dragon rises to mate?”
“And what about me?” Fiona demanded. At T’mar’s puzzled look, she went on, “What about my emotions when my dragon rises to mate?”
“You’ve about three turns to figure that out, Weyrwoman,” he replied shortly. He shook his head. “Not as much time as you’d imagine.”
And then we have T’mar saying that Xhinna might get hung up on the possibility of another person coming into Fiona’s life. Which makes sense, although I’m looking askance at it because a Weyr is the place I would expect all sorts of partner configurations to be valid and normalized in, especially when there are dragons involved. It’s one of those things where I would expect the Weyrfolk to have jealousy studiously drilled out of them and monogamy to be seen as an impractical Holder thing, since they care about bloodline and succession.
Given the option to be really radical, Pern is unable to expand its horizons, but that’s not Pern’s fault, that’s the writers’.
So Fiona apologizes to Xhinna, because she snapped at her, and asks Xhinna to continue helping her, because she’s going to need a good friend when she’s a “right proper wherry” around the mating season. Xhinna stays on.
The chapter ends with Fiona waking up on the middle of the night and crashing the plan to sneak Kelsanth out with Asoth, Panuth, and Danorth, and have Tannaz and Melanwy (and the riders of the other sick dragons) go one-way to hyperspace. Because the dragons aren’t going to last any longer, and the riders, because of the extremely tight mental bond they share, basically prefer oblivion to life without their dragons. (Insert your favorite caustic rant about how that is a terrible design decision to have humans basically get rid of themselves with their dragons.) Fiona is unhappy that nobody was planning on stopping by to say goodbye before disappearing, but most unhappy that the riders are making this choice.
Which, you know, there’s an entire conflicted everything in our times about assisted death, which could be talked about, except that Fiona’s considered too young to understand it, past “this is the choice the dragonriders are making, you’ll understand it yourself if you ever have to do the same.” Dragonriders have always been in favor of assisted death and, as L’rian puts it, being “remembered as a dragonrider”. In our times, degenerative diseases of body and mind that have no cures make it a question of lucidity and advance directives and someone’s will, like it’s presented here, but the metaphor falls apart because this situation could have been entirely avoided if Kitti Ping and company hadn’t decided they wanted to bond dragons and humans together so tightly that they would both disappear if one died. If it had been set more like how watch-whers bond, and their level of emotional attachment, then there wouldn’t have developed the tradition of disappearing with the dragon into hyperspace, because of their magnified and shared pain. And, of course, when dragons die, the grief of all the other dragons and riders gets magnified into Fiona, who manages, with Xhinna’s help, to get back to her bed and pass out from the grief until morning.
So that’s Chapter 8.
Blackdust, crack dust
Floating in the sky,
Dragonriders do trust
Thread will soon be nigh.
(Fort Weyr, the next morning, 507.13.26)
Rather than spend time with grief and sorrow, as we did in an earlier chapter, Chapter 9 picks up with a warning, as spotters at Fort Hold have sighted the black dust that is frozen dead Thread, the harbinger of the real stuff coming soon. Fiona is requested to the records room by K’lior. Cisca hoped Xhinna would bring klah (and there’s your signifier of how others might see the relationship, Fiona), but essentially they’re poring over the newly rediscovered Threadfall charts and trying to make heads or tails of several of the features, and waiting to see if they’re accurate (while warning the places that will be in the way of Thread if they are).
At the meeting that follows, H’nez continues to demonstrate he should not be in a leadership position anywhere.
H’nez professed no faith in the Threadfall charts when K’lior mentioned them.
[…the Weyrs need alerting, even the Asshole at Telgar…]
“I’ll go to Ista,” P’der said.
“I can imagine how Weyrleader C’rion will feel to be briefed by a wingsecond,” H’nez drawled.
“Are you offering to go instead?” K’lior asked, cocking his head.
“I’ve my wing to attend to,” H’nez responded. “They suffered grievous losses.”
“We all did,” Cisca replied, her eyes flashing. H’nez did not reply.
[…with that settled, everyone readies to leave, but H’nez has one more question…]
“The question is,” H’nez replied [to the Weyrleader,] as though speaking to a particularly slow weyrling, “how are we going to survive Threadfall with sick dragons?”
[…Cisca chews him out mildly for not recognizing the work already being done. K’lior orders drills to be run, even if the leaders aren’t back by then, because K’lior realizes they’ll have to work with casualties…]
“By the First Egg, that’s more like it,” H’nez declared. To T’mar he said, “You go and spend time with M’tal, while we do real work here.”
“His job is no less important, H’nez,” K’lior said warningly.
I realize this is sort of the standard villain trope that’s evolved over the course of the series (a person who, were it not for the weird ironclad Rules regarding who is in charge in this feudal arrangement, would long since have been demoted, deposed, killed, or otherwise gotten rid of), but H’nez is beginning to rival The Asshole At Telgar for sheer asshattery, even if he won’t be responsible for a mass telefrag because of his own arrogance. (OR so I hope.)
Also, K’lior continues to be a better Weyrleader regarding Thread than M’tal ever was, since he explicitly acknowledges the need for drills with wings that do not have all their regular component parts.
The plot continues with T’mar heading off to Benden, and Cisca putting Fiona to work so much that she’s basically perpetually exhausted. Even when Fiona realizes it’s a technique to keep her mind off of her grief and the inevitable conclusion that all the dragons, including hers, will get sick and die, and then the planet will be overrun by Thread, she’s still appreciative of Cisca’s deliberate efforts to keep her too tired to think. Fiona also deliberately tries not to learn the names of the new dragons that are sick, as a way of trying to deny the conclusion. In talking with T’jen about fighting drill, Fiona wonders why she isn’t doing it, but remembers there aren’t enough queens now to do it. Then, as part of the keeping Fiona exhausted bit, Cisca sends word that Fiona’s going to drill the medical procedures for injured dragonriders.
“The drills are a lot of fun,” Xhinna told Fiona. When Fiona looked at her, surprised, she added, “We’ve been doing them at least once a month for the past Turn.”
“All because your Weyrwoman believes in being prepared,” K’lior remarked, casting a fond look at Cisca.
Oh, so K’lior is equally as terrible a Weyrleader as M’tal is, it’s Cisca we have to thank for having a lick of sense about anything involving Thread. Tell me again why the Weyrwoman isn’t actually the person in charge of everything? (All together now: The Patriarchy. Yay.)
We don’t actually get any of what those drills entail (and also, if they’ve been doing them for the last several months, that would seem like the sort of thing Fiona would remember, except we can handwave away anything that Fiona should remember as being swallowed up by the fog that’s affecting her and all the Weyrlings), because they’re scheduled for tomorrow, so the narrative doesn’t have to deal with them right now. Instead, we jump to Fiona going to visit T’jen and finding him not all right and asking for the presence of the Weyrleader. Because Salith apparently passed away in his sleep, rather than going into hyperspace. When Fiona asks about this and whether T’jen was going to go with Salith, T’jen (who is de-contracted by the narrative as soon as Fiona thinks that he would now be known as Tajen, his birth name) says no.
“No,” Tajen replied firmly, “we’d talked it over, Salith and I.” He paused, lips screwing up into a grimace. “I didn’t want to set such an example for the weyrlings, even though I never wanted to lose Salith. Sometimes, all you have are bad choices.”
I’m surprised this isn’t a more common stance by many dragonriders, honestly. And also, it suggests that with the possibility of talking about it with your dragon and figuring it out in advance might mean the survival of more dragonriders past the deaths of their dragons. After we get over the ritual of grief, Talenth and Fiona talk it over and decide that Fiona’s going to go with Talenth, like Tannaz chose to. And like J’lantir and his chose to. I want to see more of this. On-screen considerations, or the understanding that these decisions are not made because someone is making a choice after a tragedy that they had not actually considered. The possibility of Thread killing any dragon or rider on any given day really should suggest that all riders in or around a Pass should have had this conversation, or been encouraged to have it, and it’s an accepted and expected part of Weyr culture. (Like, I am imagining an entire binder full of advance directives for the Weyr in the Healer’s office, and the Healer and Weyrwoman insisting that all riders need to have updated ones on file.)
But we don’t see a lot of these things, because Weyr culture sees a dragon dying as something more akin to a permanent visible disability or mental illness, and so there’s no up front frank talk about the possibility of dragons dying in the line of duty, and the dragons and the humans need to talk about what their end-of-life plans are in advance.
We also get to see a formal ritual of acknowledgement and grief at the loss of a dragon that doesn’t take their human with them.
The sound of feet rushing around the corridor alerted them to the approach of Cisca, K’lior, H’nez, T’mar, and M’kury. Cisca entered first, something in her stance and the way she moved making it clear that the others were to wait for her.
“Tajen,” Cisca said quietly, “I grieve for your loss.”
K’lior entered, bowed to the ex-dragonrider, and repeated her words. “Tajen, I grieve for your loss.”
“Tajen,” H’nez said, his eyes downcast and tear-streaked, “I grieve for your loss.”
“He was a great dragon, you were a great pair,” T’mar said when he approached. “I grieve for your loss.”
M’kury came forward then, but even though his mouth worked, he could make no words, instead reaching out beseechingly with one hand to Tajen, who took it. M’kury grabbed the stricken brown rider and embraced him in a tight hug. When finally they broke apart, M’kury found the words: “I grieve for your loss.”
“And I recognize your courage for remaining behind,” H’nez added into the silence.
“It wasn’t courage–” Tajen protested. “I needed to set the right example for the weyrlings. No matter what may come: ‘Dragonmen must fly when Thread is in the sky!’ ”
He looked up at K’lior. “I don’t know what we’re going to do with the body, however.”
Cisca does, and it involves using slings and hoists to get it to where dragons can carry the body, and then they’ll dispose of it in hyperspace. Because they don’t have the skills to do an effective autopsy, much less the knowledge that doing an autopsy is a good idea for gathering information about the thing that is killing the dragons.
Also, it stings that it’s so quickly that the dragonrider contraction is lost. Military officers and enlisted are still referred to by the rank they achieved when they retire from the service, so it seems like it would be a better idea to keep the contraction as an honor to the service provided as a dragonrider, rather than going “well, you’re not part of the club. We’re sorry for the situation, but you’re not one of us any more.” Despite the fact that the grief is probably real and heartfelt, the use of the non-contracted name just makes it ring hollow.
I will also note, for fairness’ sake, that H’nez is not being an asshole at this very specific set of sentences in this book. Clearly, even he has a limit, and the death of a dragon has reached it.
Xhinna offers to stay the night with Tajen, to which Fiona offers her the sweater she is wearing, and the gesture seems to convince Cisca and K’lior that Xhinna is a good person after all. (Now that she’s been given a chance to prove it, and has done well in the company of a person they actually respect.) The next morning, after talking over end-of-life decisions with Talenth, Fiona sets herself to the idea that today is the first aid drill. Cisca and K’lior, at breakfast, share to Fiona that they think Xhinna should stand as an actual candidate for the next Hatching. (Because we can’t have Xhinna sneaking on again when she’s supposed to be a Good Guy, now can we?) The actual drills themselves make everyone glad they’re just doing drills, because it doesn’t go well for anyone, including Fiona, who struggles mightily to remember what she’s supposed to do. In addition to that, Talenth takes her first glide on wings after running off an edge and making Fiona very worried about bad results until Talenth finally unfurls her sails. Many of the weyrlings have the same brainfog that Fiona does, which makes it hard for them to describe symptoms nor to respond appropriately to them. Cisca says this is to be expected and not to show concern about it or everyone will feel terrible. And that the next time this is happening, Fiona might be the one running the drills.
A cold shiver went down Fiona’s spine as she imagined seeing Cisca mount a sick and dying Melirth for a final ride between.
Suddenly, Cisca grabbed Fiona’s arm and tanked her around so that she could meet her eyes squarely. “That is exactly what I need you to avoid,” the Weyrwoman said sharply. In the distance, Fiona heard Talenth’s plaintive cry, and she could almost feel the alarm spreading through the weyrfolk and weyrlings. “They look to us, Fiona. We set the tone. Our dragons reflect it.”
A shadow fell beside her and Fiona felt her free hand grasped by someone else. Xhinna.
“It’s all right.” Fiona’s words of reassurance echoed exactly Xhinna’s words of reassurance. The two girls looked at each other in surprise for a moment and then burst out laughing. Fiona could feel their mood travel to the others, could feel Talenth’s worry disappear.
There’s an additional power to a Weyrwoman that hasn’t really been touched upon before, and a justification as to why Weyrwoman always have to be so chipper and glad-handing and concerned about everyone and otherwise doing an exhausting amount of emotional labor. Apparently, the mood of the Weyrwoman is the mood of the queen dragon, and the queen dragon’s mood leaks out to the other dragons and their riders. If Fiona was hoping that being a gold rider would be an escape from the pressures and requirements of being a Lady Holder, she’d learned that instead, she has to keep up the facade forever and always, without reprieve or time to think about herself and her own real feelings at any time. Way to make something that’s supposed to be the best thing ever into the worst thing ever.
The drills improve with time and practice, but the last drill is a situation that’s supposed to be as close to the real thing, with dragonriders arriving suddenly, faking their injuries and the reality that goes with them, and Cisca yelling constantly in Fiona’s ear to simulate the urgency of an actual emergency, without time to think, only to do what you’ve been trained to do. It doesn’t go particularly well for Fiona, but it’s not terrible, either.
That night, Fiona’s light sleeping continues to pay plot dividends, as she pops awake when she feels someone moving around in the dark. It’s not the dragon and rider that take the one-way trip to hyperspace, nor the cough that’s pretty clearly infected a lot of the riders, but someone headed to the Hatching Grounds. Fiona’s not quite good enough to avoid waking Xhinna, and the two follow the person until it’s revealed that it’s Tajen, who has come to the Grounds to try and find his confidence that things will work out, that the designers of the dragons would have done their utmost to make sure nothing like the surprise of Thread would happen again. Fiona is still trying to put up that they’ll get through it okay, but both Xhinna and Tajen are trying to tell her that she can’t lie to herself about it. The chapter closes with a callback to Beyond Between, although someone who has only read the main series novels wouldn’t recognize it as such.
“No one really knows what between is,” Tajen replied. “If a rider dies with her dragon, does the dragon go between to the same place?”
“Is there a place?” Xhinna wondered.
“The only ones who could tell us never come back,” Tajen replied. He gestured toward the entrance and started them walking back out of the Hatching Grounds. “What does your heart tell you?”
Neither girl had an answer she could put into words.
Because the most we’ve ever seen is a limbo state for dragons and riders that went into hyperspace with no particular destination in mind, or for those who went with the wrong dragon, as Moreta did, and so she has to wait for her own dragon before she passes on into heaven, or whatever afterlife happens beyond that limbo.
Nobody knows, rider or Terran reader, and the general unfairness of the universe always makes it possible that someone goes to sleep one night and doesn’t wake up the next morning. I don’t really like thinking about that eventuality, mostly because I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished enough with life to be satisfied with it right now. And because thinking about those things is trauma-related for me, of those times where I realize now that I was far farther along the path of making a conscious decision about my own life than I understood. Things are better now, but existential questions have always been something that makes me feel scared, small, and dreadful.
More next week, and hopefully on a less triggery topic.