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So it begins…
It was still dark when Mhysra crept down the backstairs, but the servants were already hard at work. Maids pumped water for the laundry, cleaned fireplaces and fetched milk, eggs and newspapers from the markets, while Cook prepared breakfast. The butler designated the day’s tasks to the footmen and the boot boy worked on his basket of shoes. No one paid any attention to the earl’s daughter slipping between them. It wasn’t the first time and everyone knew it wouldn’t be the last.
Only Cook acknowledged her, handing her a warm pastry with a smile. “Luck, my lady.”
Mhysra grinned and stepped out into the darkness, glad she’d left her puppy behind. “Please behave,” she murmured to the absent Bumble.
“I’ll be the best boy in the city, I promise.”
“Derry!” she yelped, grabbing his shoulders as he goosed her ribs. “Don’t do that. Gods!”
He grinned at her overreaction. “Nervous?”
Nervous was too weak a word for how she felt – bone-deep terrified was more like it. Just because she’d grown up around miryhls, was Wingborn and had been flying all her life, didn’t mean this was going to be easy.
“Me too,” Derrain chuckled, shivering. “Come on, we don’t want to be late.”
“Not on the first day,” she agreed, blowing into her gloves. “But by next quarter-moon you’ll be singing a different tune.”
* * * * *
“OH, HAPPY DAY.” Stirla was in a disgustingly good mood as he met Lyrai in the Rider’s mess at dawn. But then he would be – he was on morning duty, so getting up this ungodly hour was normal. Lyrai wasn’t. His flurry didn’t fly until the afternoon, so he had every right to still be sleeping. Yet, as an officer, his presence was expected. He hated being stuck in Nimbys.
“This is the first day of a glorious future. Aren’t you excited?”
Lyrai grunted, his mouth full of eggs, a handy excuse not to talk, and was relieved when his sergeant sat down beside him.
“Morning, Honra,” Stirla greeted.
“Morning.” Honra was a pleasant-natured fellow, an experience Rider and the perfect go-between for the occasionally stiff and moody Lyrai and his flurry. Honra never got offended, even when Lyrai was having an off-day, of which there had been a many since Froth retired. When Lyrai finished his captaincy training he planned to back his sergeant for promotion. He’d earned it the hard way.
Stirla and Honra chatted amiably throughout breakfast, while Lyrai pretended he was still sleeping like sensible folk. When they finished, he followed them outside, where they met Stirla’s sergeant, Rees – a sharp-tempered Rider who rarely spoke when he could bark. He’d been paired with Stirla to provide the distance an officer needed from his men. Stirla was too quick to share jokes with everyone. Rees, it was suspected, had no sense of humour. His response to Stirla’s cheerful greeting was a sullen grunt.
It was another fine winter morning in Nimbys, with frost shimmering on the flying field and snow dotting the cliffs. The air was freezing, but it hardly mattered since the fifty new students were too nervous to stand still. Had the weather been inclement, they would still have been expected to wait outside, blizzard, hail or sleet. They didn’t realise how lucky they were.
Between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, they ranged across the social spectrum from the son of a duke to a couple of dockhands. Anyone could enter a selection school if they had a recommendation from a guardian or sponsor of consequence, and handed it in before the deadline. Or after, Lyrai amended, spotting Lady Mhysra in the crowd. Special treatment was understandable for a Wingborn. As long as she didn’t expect it too often.
Of the fifty, Lyrai counted eight girls, some not looking fit enough to run one lap of the field, let alone fly a thousand miles. The same could be said for the boys, but that was the point of the selection training. Fifty students might apply to each of the six schools across the Overworld, but over the course of the next two seasons most would drop out. Some wouldn’t be able to take the discipline, others would find the training too tough. There might even be failures at the end of year exams, easy though they were reputed to be.
Then, and only then, would they be allowed to choose a miryhl and move to Aquila. Only the most dedicated and capable lasted that long. If they were left with twenty students at the end of all this Lyrai would consider it a bumper crop. Ten would be average. He wondered how many would be girls.
“Morning, everyone!” A brusque voice rang out, silencing most of chatter as the students turned towards the speaker. Short, stocky and scarred, Hethanon Armsmaster was the best selection trainer the Riders had ever had. He took no cheek from anyone, regardless of who they were born to be. A native of Ihra, an isolated state to the north, he knew everything about harsh conditions and human limitations. He pushed his students hard, because he expected them to be the best. Lyrai had studied under his yoke and had nothing but respect for him. He didn’t look like much, but a boy underestimated him at his peril. Same for the girls.
Though most of the crowd was quiet, two girls continued to gossip, while a knot of boys snickered. Honra clucked his tongue and the lieutenants shared a smirk. Rees sniffed.
“Lieutenant Stirla, if you please,” Hethanon invited.
Topping six feet in height, with shoulders to match, Stirla had an imposing presence when he chose to use it. “Silence!” Not to mention a ferocious bellow.
The students flinched, the hush so complete a pair of squabbling ravens halfway up the cliff could be heard in raucous detail.
Hethanon stepped forward. “Obedience is the first rule of the Rift Riders. Respect for command. The ability to hold your tongue,” he added, glaring at a whispering lad; the boy blushed. “Insolence breeds contempt and mistrust. A Rider follows his officer, no matter what. To question is to die. To disobey is to die. To disrespect is to die. If you cannot obey you have no business here. No one is forcing you. No one will stop you. Leave if you will.”
He looked around as if he could see every face in the crowd, even those right at the back. None dared make eye contact. There was a lot of nervous shifting and a few titters, but nobody left. Most would likely believe it shameful to walk before the day began. They’d learn better soon enough.
“Five laps of the field!” Hethanon’s bark made everyone – Riders included – jump.
The youngsters stared at each other in dismay. No one moved.
“If you cannot obey an order, what are you doing here? Five laps. Now!”
They obeyed reluctantly, breaking into groups as they trotted towards the far end of the field, slipping and sliding over the ice. Complaints abounded, along with insults about pipsqueaks who thought too much of themselves.
Hethanon rocked smugly on his heels. When the students reached the cliffs, he turned to the lieutenants. “Shall we show them how it is done?”
“No.” Stirla had never studied under Hethanon, but he’d heard the rumours. Which was why when Hethanon started jogging Stirla and the others went too.
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