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~ Previous Chapter ~
Gossip and grumblings…
For the next month all anyone spoke about was the kaz-naghkt attack. Speculation was rife, though most reports were greeted with scepticism. Everyone knew kaz-naghkt came from the west, usually in large numbers – the only surprise was when they appeared.
“I ain’t never seen no kaznak,” a kitchen maid grumbled one morning as she wiped the work table. “I bet Riders make ‘em up to scare us normal folk.”
Eating her breakfast in the corner, Mhysra grimaced. She’d never seen a kaz-naghkt either, but the look on Derrain’s face whenever they were mentioned was enough to convince her that they existed. Not much made her merry friend grim, but the word kaz-naghkt never failed.
“I ‘eard they’re yumans what sold their souls to the Dark God for wings,” a footmen said, snatching a fresh roll while Cook’s back was turned and winking at the chatty maid.
She turned her nose up at him. “People don’t fly. Gods, or no. They ain’t real.”
“I ‘eard they was dragons from the Stormwash what lost their magic. Sounds mad ter me.” The bootboy shook his head, apparently disappointed by the world’s most ferocious enemy.
“Dragons,” the maid scoffed. “They ain’t real neither.”
Cook picked up a broom and poked the girl in the back. “If yer lucky Maycie, ye need never think different. Me, I’ll believe all kinds of things, so long as the Riders keep ‘em far from me. For somethin’ that don’t exist, plenty of people think they do. Call me a mug, but I’ll stick to trustin’ the Riders to keep me safe.”
The maid scowled as she took the broom. “I know what I think, an’ I’ll be stickin’ with it.”
How quickly they forgot Feather Frost, Mhysra thought. Not just Feather Frost, but Thrift Edge, Heston Point and Shune. All were Rider bases with reputations for defeating the enemy. Only Feather Frost was destroyed, but the others had been damaged enough to allow women back into the Riders.
Cook shrugged at Mhysra and snapped her fingers at the maid. “Floor needs sweeping.”
Not that any Rider complained if the city folk didn’t believe the stories. Better a sceptical populace than a panicked one. Not that there was anything to worry about, according to Captain Myran’s official statement. A small scouting party of kaz-naghkt had been spotted and sent about their business. Since no Riders had been killed and all injuries were minor it was easy to believe the placating words. But Mhysra didn’t and nor did her friends.
How could they when the enemy had been sighted over well-protected Imercian, to the east of Nimbys? Kaz-naghkt never came from the east. No one would bother making that up.
Luckily for the officers at the selection school, the majority of their pupils soon had other things on their minds.
* * * * *
“I DON’T SEE why I have to go,” Mhysra grumbled, tugging Bumble’s lead as she walked along the street with her friends. It was a glorious day in Nimbys, when everything seemed magnified by the sun. Cool water, sweet strawberries, the green mountainside, honey-gold streets – the dark despair of family machinations.
“Because you’re Lady Mhysra of the almighty Kilpapan clan, destined rulers of the world,” Harlan replied.
Derrain chuckled, swinging the empty basket that had been filled with food just that morning. “You have no idea how close you are. Be thankful you’ve never met her mother.”
“Or my father,” Mhysra added.
“Your mother is a hero to my family.” Corin laughed at the disbelief on Mhysra’s face. “The things she’s done with the Kilpapan business is every merchant’s dream. She’s a legend.”
“Yes,” Mhysra said feelingly. “I know.”
“And your father’s top of the tree too,” Mouse put in, struggling with his basket despite its emptiness. He collided with a wall, careened into his cousin and rebounded into Dhori. Not once did he stop talking about Mhysra’s father, his social status or the work he did for Stratys.
“Yes,” Mhysra repeated, after he finally shut up. “I know.”
Dhori smiled consolingly. “Parents can be hard to live up to.”
She raised her eyebrows, having never heard him speak of his family before. Out of all her friends he was the one she knew the least about. It wasn’t that he refused to talk about himself, he just manipulated every conversation so that he never gave anything away. It drove Corin mad.
“I don’t care about living up to them,” Mhysra said, exasperatedly. “It’s having to fight to make my own choices that bothers me.”
Dhori tweaked the end of her braid. “Well, you’re doing a good job so far.”
“That’s because they don’t know what she’s up to,” Derrain said. “Until now the Countess hasn’t been around to watch her.”
Mhysra scowled, not appreciating the reminder that her mother was home. Luckily it was Midsummer, a five-day holiday with the Feast of Heirayk in the middle. All celebration and no school. It was the perfect time for her mother to return.
Unfortunately it also meant the Midsummer Ball; an annual event held by the Stratys for Nimbys’ most important residents. As Mhysra had been allegedly receiving social training from her sister for months, her father had ordered her to attend. He didn’t want to waste an opportunity to marry her off before the autumn, no matter her age.
“It’s not fair,” she whined. “I don’t want to go.”
“You’ll enjoy it,” Derrain assured her.
“I won’t. You wouldn’t either if you were forced to go.”
“Since I’m not that point is moot.”
“You sound like Clerk Brenai.”
“Thank you, that was the tone I was aiming for.”
“I don’t see what the problem is,” Corin said, diving into their bickering before Mhysra could thump Derrain. “Think of all those rich, good looking, socially adept men.” She sighed. “Riders in uniform. It’s enough to make a girl swoon.”
“Not this girl,” Mhysra sniffed, though the prospect of Riders in dress uniform did make her feel a little weak about the knees.
“Lieutenants Lyrai and Stirla,” Corin continued dreamily. “Scarlet jackets and tight, white breeches, their boots polished to reflect candlelight. Swords at the hip.”
Mhysra said nothing, the image a little too clear for her comfort.
“And your sister is a leader of fashion,” Corin went on sulkily, “so you’re bound to look amazing. And Theryn will be there. If you dance with him I may have to hurt you.”
Though Derrain and Dhori were Corin’s everyday flirts, with the lieutenants as distant crushes, Rider Theryn was the one she truly adored. A redhead with a blinding smile, he wasn’t the most handsome Rider, but he was funny and popular.
“Is it still all right for me to come and see your dress before you leave?” Corin asked as they approached Kilpapan House.
“Milli says you’re quite welcome.”
“And can I -” she began, but Dhori clapped a hand over her mouth and towed her away.
“Until next we meet, milady!” Harlan called, and she waved forlornly as her friends headed into the city, leaving her on the doorstep with Bumble and Derrain.
“It’s just one day,” Derrain consoled her.
“And one night.” She sighed. “One very important, frightening and stupidly grand night.”
“You’ll be fine.” He patted Bumble’s head and ruffled her ears, before patting Mhysra on the head and ruffling her hair. “Milli will look after you. And both your parents will be there.”.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” she grumbled, entering the house to the sound of his laughter.
~ Next Chapter ~
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