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~ Previous Chapter ~
Never trust a woman in a small office at the back of the house. Clearly she is up to no good…
Exiting the servant’s stairway, Mhysra froze, cursing herself for forgetting that her mother’s office was at this end of the house. Until now it hadn’t mattered. Besides, it was still early on the morning after the ball – most people would still be abed. Or most normal people, anyway.
“We must talk.”
Knowing she had no other choice, Mhysra walked into her mother’s gloomy study. Never a big room, it was made smaller by stacks of papers on the shelves, desk, chairs and floor. Despite its haphazard appearance it was all meticulously ordered. Lady Kilpapan would tolerate nothing less.
“Sit down.” Her mother indicated the chair in front of the desk. As Mhysra shifted stack of papers, the countess eyed her critically. “You intend to visit the eyries?”
Perching carefully on the cleared seat, Mhysra raised her chin. “I see Cumulo every day,” she said, folding her hands in her lap. “And fly whenever I can.”
Lady Kilpapan narrowed her eyes at Mhysra’s flying breeches. “Do you always visit the eyries dressed like that?”
Mhysra licked her lips, thinking fast. “The eyries are dusty in the summer. It would be a shame to get my riding dress dirty when no one sees me.” Inspiration struck and she plucked at her worn shirt. “No one minds if these old things of Kilai’s get messy.”
Lady Kilpapan studied her daughter’s outfit. “When you say that no one sees you dressed so scandalously, that’s not quite true, is it?”
Mhysra’s heart thumped, but she tried not to let her unease show. She was so close, surely she wouldn’t be discovered now. There was only a month of the selection school left.
“The eyries are always full of Riders, and even if they aren’t everyone assumes that they will be. You endanger your reputation every time you step outside dressed so. Endanger the reputation of the entire family. Have you no care for your sister?”
Relief collided with anger as Mhysra’s heart pounded. So they were back to this. “I have yet to be recognised, mother. I do not believe the risk is so very great.”
“Since you were raised in Wrentheria, I shall let your naivety pass. From now on you will wear a riding costume whenever you go to the eyries, or you shall not go at all. Is that clear?”
Mhysra stared at the wall over her mother’s shoulder, not daring to open her mouth lest she succumb to the urge to make some things of her own clear.
“Mhysra?” her mother repeated, voice hard. “Your aunt raised you to be wilful and your father has done nothing to curb you, but I will not stand for it. I asked you a question and I expect to be answered. You will wear a riding costume when you visit the eyries, is that clear?”
Gritting her teeth, she muttered, “Yes, my lady.”
“Good.” Lady Kilpapan nodded stiffly. Mhysra shifted on her uncomfortable chair, awaiting the dismissal she prayed would come – before her rein on her temper broke.
Picking up a quill, Lady Kilpapan straightened the ruffled edges. “We must seem strict after Wrentheria, especially when you have set your heart on something. If you had been raised in the city you would have accepted our answer, if you dared ask at all. This is not entirely your fault. You are not yet used to our ways. However, as your parents it is our right to make decisions about your future without explanation. But perhaps we should have made the effort.”
Mhysra watched her mother’s neat hands – always controlled, always still – fidget about her desk, straightening papers, aligning ledgers, shifting quills and ink pots. Her mother was nervous. It was not a comforting realisation.
“To you, a child raised to be independent and wilful, a life in the Rift Riders must seem a natural choice for a girl who has spent so much time amongst miryhls. Why shouldn’t you join? Your brother did and he’s the heir.” When Mhysra stared at her, surprised, Lady Kilpapan smiled. “I understand your thoughts, Mhysra, but you do not understand mine.
“As I’m sure you will recall, your father was not keen for Kilai to follow this path. He wanted his heir to learn the workings of the earldom and the family business. Kilai was to unite our assets into one, re-forging the name of Kilpapan. But patriotic duty is important and Kilai’s noble intentions could not be denied. True, there is no other son to follow him, but we have two daughters, and the families of Kilpapan and Wrentherin have no shortage of intelligence.
“Your sister, whether you are aware of it or not, has spent the last three years learning about the earldom from your father. This is why she has yet to marry. In time she will make the match she deserves, but she will still be a Kilpapan and the earldom will always have her to rely on. She knows her duty.
“And you, my youngest, have your own duties to attend to.” When Mhysra opened her mouth to state that her duty was to Cumulo, her mother held up a hand. “You are a Kilpapan, Mhysra, and your duty is to the family. Many daughters marry to fulfil that duty, as will you, but you will also learn about the business. When I retire, you will succeed me.”
Mhysra blinked. “You wish me to go into trade? To deal with men daily? To spend months on skyships in the middle of nowhere? And this would be different to a life in the Riders how?”
The quill in her mother’s hand snapped. “Let me be blunt, daughter, your life is with your family. If you wish to keep Cumulo, you will accept this. If you persist in this foolishness, I will send him back to Wrentheria. Or,” she added when Mhysra opened her mouth, “to Aquila. You say they are short of miryhls. They will not turn him away.”
Mhysra’s nails dug into her palms as she fought the urge to correct her mother. To do so would reveal her secrets. After this conversation, she realised she didn’t dare. True, she didn’t believe anyone would ever succeed in taking Cumulo away, but she couldn’t risk them trying. He might get hurt and she would never forgive herself.
Eyeing her daughter’s tight expression, Lady Kilpapan nodded in satisfaction. “Life aboard a skyship differs greatly from the Rift Riders. Yes, some families view a life in trade as demeaning, but their fortunes are fading. Their power wanes and they will soon sink beneath the clouds like the setting sun. Those of intelligence know trade is the only way forward, so your reputation will not suffer. Skyships, unlike the Rift Riders, have always had a place for women. True, that has only recently expanded from the galley to the crew, but there are female captains now. There is no shame for a woman in a fleet. Especially not in mine.
“My ships have very strict rules,” she continued firmly. “There are no romances. Life is too close upon a skyship to allow for such complications. Our fleet is not alone in maintaining this standard, so it is deemed eminently respectable for a young woman.
“Life in the Rift Riders is not. How can it be when women have only just been readmitted? Who knows what measures will be put in place to watch over them? As for Aquila, to keep so many young men and women in close quarters away from the guiding and restraining influence of society is asking for trouble. It does not matter how chaste or well behaved they are, rumours will fly faster than any miryhl. So many young persons from all tiers of life are bound to have an adverse affect on the morals of the entire group.” The countess sniffed, as if the prospect of so many different people mixing together was unpleasant to her. “What might be acceptable for dock workers or the middle classes will never be acceptable for you.
“You are a Wrentherin and a Kilpapan,” she reiterated, as if Mhysra could ever forget. “Your lineage is noble and your bloodline impeccable – your reputation must remain pure. It will not be wasted on the eyries. Your father and I will not allow you to throw everything away so foolishly. Your place is in Nimbys, learning about the fleet until you marry or I begin your apprenticeship. That is the duty you bleat so earnestly about. This is the life you were born to. The sooner you accept that, the happier we all will be.”
Mhysra stared at the countess, barely able to take in what she had just been told. This was the life they had planned for her, these people who abandoned her to be raised at Wrentheria. Part of her was pleased that they had such faith in her, but she also knew this wasn’t a choice. She could be as dumb as dirt and they would still force her into this. Because Kilai wasn’t here. Her brother had been granted his freedom, so his sisters had to pay the price.
However, she was not so foolish as to say that, no matter how much the word scrabbled inside her, trying to force its way out. Instead she rose from her chair and curtsied. “You do me too much honour, my lady.”
Lady Kilpapan smiled. “You are learning, child. In time you will be fit to take my place.”
Mhysra felt sick. “May I be excused?”
“Of course.” Lady Kilpapan nodded graciously. “You will wish to change before your morning lessons with your sister.”
Taking deep breaths, Mhysra walked from the room, when every instinct screamed to run to Cumulo, to let him soothe her and remind her of all that was good in the world. Mindful of her mother’s threats, however, she returned to her room and picked out her most expensive – and despised – riding dress, pulling it on over her uniform. Only then did she leave.
Derrain’s eyebrows rose when he saw her. “Did the Midsummer ball turn you into a girl?”
Conscious that her mother’s office overlooked the mews, Mhysra forced a smile. “How droll you are, Derrain. Will you accompany me to the eyries?”
Staring at her as though she’d grown a second head, he looked back at the house. Spotting the countess watching from the window, he sucked in a breath and hurriedly offered his arm. “If you’ll do me the honour, my lady.”
Tucking her arm through his, she ducked her head and dragged him away from the house. “Quickly, Derry, if you don’t mind. I can’t bear it here another moment.”
As soon as they were out of her mother’s sight, Derry wrapped an arm about her shoulders. “Does she know?”
“Not yet,” she whispered, leaning against his chest, grateful for his strength.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Not yet,” she repeated, anger stirring at the memory. “I couldn’t without screaming.”
He tightened his grip. “Let’s go see Cumulo. And be thankful she leaves tomorrow.”
Wiping her sleeve across her eyes, she took his arm again and matched his swift pace. “I thank Maegla for that,” she whispered. “Every single day.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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