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~ Previous Chapter ~
Don’t worry, though, there’s no test waiting at the end. At least, not for you.
LYRAI WAS IN a contemplative mood as the exams approached. Out of nine students he had some doubts about Naelyn, Devane and Mouse, but was mostly proud of his group. Jermyn and Dhori were naturally gifted, while the rest worked hard. It boded well for the future and he carried his good mood away from the morning session into the dining room.
“What are you so happy about?” Stirla grumbled, a pile of paperwork at his elbow. Never one to work when he could be having fun, he ended each moon with a two-foot stack and a bad temper. At least this month he had plenty of study supervision sessions to fill to help him catch up.
“Thinking of the future,” Lyrai replied cheerfully.
“I hate this time of year.”
Considering that the school exams always happened in the second quarter-moon of Fledgling, Lyrai knew he should hate it too. Five afternoons of dull prep sessions, supervising his students and taking questions – most of which he wasn’t allowed to answer. The sixth day was the written exam and the seventh was the physical. Hethanon assessed that and clerks marked the papers, leaving Lyrai and Stirla free.
After another quarter-moon, the results were given out and the real excitement began. That was why Lyrai was so cheerful: the Choice was only twenty-one days away. Soon he’d have wings again.
Stirla gave a surly grunt and reached for the top of his stack. “Knowing my luck my lot’ll ask questions all afternoon, leaving me no time to work. Stupid exams.”
Lyrai shook his head, not bothering to remind Stirla about his free evenings and Stardays. Instead he finished his pastry and clapped his friend on the shoulder. “Good luck with the Paperstack of Doom. See you at dinner.”
Stirla grunted again, showing no signs of leaving. Lyrai pitied the students who had the lieutenant as a mentor. Remembering his own study sessions six years ago, he winced. No matter how often he’d been assured the exam was easy, he’d still fretted, certain that he would fail. He hadn’t, of course, and the written paper had been laughably easy, but it was no use telling the students that. It was something they had to discover for themselves.
The real test was to survive seven months in the company of Hethanon and the tedious clerks. If a boy could do that, he’d earned the right to try his luck at Aquila. The girls too. The reward was the chance to partner one of the most wondrous creatures in existence.
Smiling, Lyrai collected his subdued students and led them to a classroom, wondering what he would look for in his new miryhl. Twenty-one days, that was all, then he would be able to fly again. He couldn’t wait.
* * * * *
“GODS, IS IT really over?” Mouse stumbled shakily out of the room.
Walking behind him, Mhysra wished he would shut up. When Lieutenant Stirla had told them to stop writing she’d felt pleased, certain she’d passed. The questions had been as easy as everyone said. Or so she’d assumed, until Lieutenant Lyrai took her paper away and Mouse started moaning.
“Gods, Maegla, Gods. I’ve failed, I know I have. I know it.”
“Enough.” Derrain hooked an arm around Mouse’s neck, muffling him under his arm. “It’s done. You can’t change it. Give it a rest, before you mutter Mhysra into apoplexy.”
She jumped, not realising she’d been so obvious. “I’m not worried.”
“Of course not,” Corin chuckled. “That’s why you’re about to dash back inside and stab Lyrai with your quill until he gives you your paper so you can check if you spelled Aquila with two ls.”
Mhysra stopped, eyes widening. “It has two ls?”
Derrain and Mouse blinked. “I hope not,” Mouse whispered.
Mhysra grinned. “Got ya.”
Which earned her a round of quill tickling, until she protested that Corin said it and Mouse started it. Ever fair, they doled out punishment to the others and by the time they reached the streets they were all in high spirits, even Mouse.
“Went well then?” Harlan asked, as he joined them.
“Easy,” Derrain assured him.
“Could have done it blindfolded,” Corin boasted.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Dhori tempered, smiling. “Perhaps with my hands behind my back.”
“Even you would have passed,” Mhysra assured Harlan, who narrowed his eyes.
“Must have been easy then,” he said, and smiled. “I’ll buy the drinks. You’ll need them.”
“A toast,” Derrain agreed, his happiness revealing how worried he’d been, despite all protests to the contrary. “To the easiest exam in history!”
The others cheered and Harlan smirked. “Well, that too, but I was thinking you need to keep your strength up for tomorrow. Doesn’t Hethanon get his claws into you in the morning?”
Their merriment vanished.
“You’re always the happy one,” Corin told him bitterly.
“So you don’t want a drink?” Harlan chuckled. “All the more for me.”
“Ha!” Derrain snagged his collar before he could escape. “With you buying? Who’d be stupid enough to pass that up?”
“Won’t get another chance this century, that’s for certain,” Mouse agreed.
“Better check your pockets for change,” Dhori advised. Cheered up, they spent the walk into town teasing Harlan and his tight-fisted ways, all thoughts of the next morning temporarily forgotten.
* * * * *
BY THE EIGHTEENTH LAP, Mhysra was struggling, but at least she wasn’t the only one. In fact she was close to the front. Derrain, Dhori and three others were still romping along at a swift pace, but they were all tall and athletic, and at that moment Mhysra hated them. However, there were only two laps left, so she pushed on to complete the first challenge, pleased not to collapse when they were finally allowed to stop.
Which was for the best, really, seeing as Hethanon was as merciless as ever, immediately pairing them off for the exercise routines. Finding herself opposite Haelle, Mhysra smiled and started stretching, turning to her partner when two people were needed rather than one. Then they faced a timed obstacle course. No one was surprised when Dhori won, while Haelle just beat Mhysra.
Then it was weaponry and more competitions to see how far each of them had progressed. Naelyn surprised everyone – herself included – by coming top of the girls in staffs, and placing fourth overall, with Mhysra and Haelle just behind. The top place was fiercely contested between Jermyn and Dhori. Jermyn came out the eventual winner, but only by taking advantage of a perilous pocket of ground that tripped his opponent. Corin came second in archery, beating all the girls and most of the boys too.
It was exhausting but enjoyable, and Mhysra was pleased by how well she’d done. Thanks to Hethanon’s rigorous training, she felt she’d acquitted herself well, as had the rest of her friends. Even those near the bottom, like Mouse and Corin, were competent. For the first time her goal seemed within reach and it was likely that all her friends would make it to Aquila.
“At last,” Corin groaned as the girls entered the officer’s bathhouse, which had been temporarily assigned to the girls over recent months. “I’m finished.” Stretching her arms wide, she belly-flopped into the steaming pool.
Jumping in and letting the heat wash over her, Mhysra sighed. The hardest part was over, now the waiting began. But as she scrubbed away the sweat and laughed with her friends, she was unable to shake off the feeling that everything wasn’t quite perfect yet. Perhaps it wouldn’t be until they reached Aquila. Or until after she’d finally told her parents.
Grimacing, she shook her head and let the warmth soothe her worries away. Their exams were done. Soon they’d be real Rift Rider students. Now that was something worth celebrating.
~ Next Chapter ~
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