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~ Previous Chapter ~
Just hanging out over the Cloud Sea, flirting with a charming sky captain, as you do. And what’s that? Brand new miryhls! Someone fetch a net!
A cool breeze washed over the mountain as Cumulo soared in widening circles. Mhysra lay against his back, enjoying the sun. It was a beautiful morning, made all the more special by the news three days ago that she’d passed her exams, along with all her friends.
“It’s nearly ready,” Cumulo called, dipping a wing and banking sideways.
Mhysra’s knees tightened as the world tipped, giving her an excellent – if unusual – view of the activity below. A quarter of the flying field was covered in scaffolding, explaining why she and the rest of the students had been given a half-moon break.
“Glad I don’t have to stay there.”
Chuckling, Mhysra smoothed Cumulo’s wind-ruffled feathers. “If you weren’t already bonded you’d be too excited about the Choice to care about the accommodation.”
Cumulo snorted. “Hardly. Humans get excited about the Choice. Miryhls don’t. All the Choice does is bind us to a lifetime of work.”
“Charming,” she replied. “Are you saying miryhls don’t gain anything from the bond?”
“But Riders get to fly, so that’s the only reason they care about their miryhls?”
“Something like that,” he agreed, flapping away from the city-side of the mountain.
“So the fact you roost in the best eyries and get fresh meat regularly, whether you work or not, is not worth having?”
Cumulo didn’t answer, taking them on a skin-tingling dive down a gully instead. Clinging tightly, Mhysra gasped, heart racing with the exhilaration of being at one with her miryhl. It was true, Riders did gain a lot through the bond, and the gift of flying wasn’t something she could ever give up, but miryhls were more than just mounts. They were partners, protectors, friends. Or even family.
The base of the gully broke over the mountainside and Cumulo drifted down to the Cloud Sea, its turbulent winds making Mhysra’s teeth chatter. Skimming over a low outcrop, Cumulo kicked off the frozen rocks and took them back up to where the air was warm and clear.
Passing a Rider patrol, Mhysra waved. “Are you sorry?”
Swooping under the other flyers, Cumulo tilted his head and eyed her curiously. “About?”
“Being bonded to me. I know neither of us had a choice, but do you mind?” She’d never considered it before, but his comments worried her. He was the one constant in her life, as important as home or friends. It wasn’t quite breathing, but with Cumulo life was worth living. She’d always assumed he felt the same, but what if he didn’t? If he’d been free to accept another Rider, would he have jumped at the chance, even if it meant leaving her behind? Was their Wingborn status a hindrance to him, where it had always been a gift to her?
Cumulo tucked his wings in and dropped several feet, before catching them again – an airborne sigh. “You think too much.” His voice was a reassuring vibration against her.
“It was a fair question, after what you said.”
He clucked reproachfully. “I was joking. Since you started training you’ve lost all sense of humour. Not that you had much to begin with.”
She smiled into his feathers, loving the clean smell of him touched with a sweet hint of dust. “Did it ever occur to you that you’re not funny?”
“Of course not. The fault has always been yours.”
“But even without a true appreciation for my genius, I’d rather have you than anyone. I can’t imagine a better flight partner. You’re my Wingborn. Even though I can’t live without you, I don’t wish to either. I’m yours as you are mine. If I made disparaging remarks about the Choice it’s because I pity all other miryhls. They’ll never have what we have, nor comprehend what they’re missing. You are like flight to me.”
Stunned to hear such words from her proud and often irreverent Wingborn, Mhysra couldn’t speak. Instead she reached forward as far as she could and hugged him tightly. Tears stung her eyes, from the cold and the wind as well as emotion, and she buried her face in his feathers.
“Are you crying?” he rumbled. “You’d better not be crying. Your nose always runs when you cry and it ruins my feathers. I am not a handkerchief.”
Chuckling, she sat up and wiped her face. “I’m not crying.”
“Good. It would damage my reputation should anyone catch you being so unashamedly girlish. There is no room for maudlin sentiment in the Riders.”
“Yes, sir,” she chirped, saluting cheekily.
“Are you mocking me, student?” he growled, in a perfect impersonation of Sergeant Rees.
“Because if you were, student, I would have to take severe action.”
“I would never dare mock you, most gracious and brilliant sir.”
“Good. I should hate, for example, to have to do this!” Wings tucking in tight, he clamped her legs against his sides and plummeted into freefall. Had Mhysra been a little less familiar with her miryhl it would have been terrifying, especially when the world turned and the clouds rushed up to meet them, but after years of flying together she knew him almost as well as she knew herself. Which was why when she felt his wings twitch, she gripped his neck feathers, tightened her thighs and held on.
She still screamed, though, when Cumulo began to spin. Her heart thundered, her chest felt tight and her eyes closed. The wind roared in her ears, slapping her face and pulling at her hair as it raced over them while they tumbled down and around. With a final roll, Cumulo righted himself, swooping across the clouds and scattered rocks below.
Mhysra laughed breathlessly, face buried against his neck. “You’ll kill me one day.”
He didn’t answer. Fresh tension shivered through him and he powered upwards with heavy beats of his wings, lifting them higher with each hard pull. “Ship,” he growled.
She sat up in surprise. A skyship was drifting over the Cloud Sea towards them. Specks circled the unfamiliar vessel, swooping in and out of the hatch doors on the bottom of the ship’s five tiers. Thinner than the broad hulls her family favoured, the dark craft was sleek and slender, perfect for cutting through the air. The gasbag was red and black, the insignia unknown.
She was intrigued. “I’m game, if you are.”
He chuckled. “Far be it for me to deny your pleasure, my lady.”
As they approached, the specks retreated to the hull until only a pair of horsats and some pyrefly patrollers were left. They had been sighted.
“Behave,” she warned as the horsats approached, and Cumulo gave a contemptuous snort.
“Ho, Rider!” the foremost flyer called in a heavy accent. “From Nimbys?”
“Yes,” she shouted back, unsure what more to add.
“The captain invites you aboard Thorncrest. You will honour us?”
Thinking they would be disappointed when they discovered she was only a student, she nevertheless accepted the invitation. Cumulo needed a rest and if they could catch a lift back to Nimbys that would be even better. “We would be delighted.”
With a nod, one of the horsat fliers reined his mount around and galloped back to the ship. The second waited patiently for them to join him, before showing them the best approach.
“Welcome, welcome!” A tall, dark-skinned man dressed in buff leathers and a deep blue coat, strode across the deck as Cumulo glided over the rail and hopped to a neat halt. “Welcome, Rider and fine miryhl.” He bowed respectfully to Cumulo and grinned at Mhysra. His smile faltered as she pulled off her flying hat and slid from the saddle. The crew drew back in confusion.
Mhysra smiled nervously and rested a hand on Cumulo’s wing for reassurance. “Thank you for the invitation, captain. You have a wonderful ship.”
The flattery smoothed over the awkwardness and the captain’s bright smile sprang back. “True,” he agreed, reaching for her hand. After a hearty shake, he raised it for a kiss. “You grace it so beautifully, fair lady. Tell me, have things changed so swiftly in Nimbys? I heard they allowed women Riders again, but did not know they already had such fine jewels in their midst.”
Slightly overwhelmed, Mhysra freed her hand while Cumulo tucked her protectively against his chest. “You heard correctly, sir,” she said, gathering her composure. “I am a new student.”
“But you fly so beautifully. Have we missed the Choice? Do you learn to fly before Aquila now?” The captain acted confused, though his dark eyes glimmered. He was a fine looking man who clearly knew how to use his charms to disarm unwary women.
Determined not to fall under his spell, Mhysra stiffened. “I am Wingborn, sir.”
An excited whisper spread across the deck and the captain straightened to his full, impressive height. “Wingborn, you say? Then we truly are honoured. Permit me to introduce myself. I am Captain Khene Torven of Thorncrest, out of Zvenera. We have sailed across the lonely sea from the edge of the Stormsurge, bringing students and miryhls for the Choice.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Captain Torven. I am Mhysra Kilpapan, student Rift Rider, and this is my Wingborn, Cumulo.”
“Ah.” The amusement sprang back into his eyes. “A Kilpapan. I would be delighted, were your family not so adept at cutting out my trade. You have the look of your mother, Lady Mhysra. Were you not so tall I would have noticed sooner. Still, be welcome aboard Thorncrest, such as she is.”
“Thank you, captain. Perhaps it will ease your mind to know that until this summer I lived with my aunt and know nothing about the Kilpapan business.”
“A little.” He smiled again. “A very little, but I’d be honoured if you would bide a while and share your story, while we return you and your fine friend to Nimbys. It will be an enjoyable journey.”
Exchanging amused glances with Cumulo, she smiled at the captain. “We’d be delighted.”
* * * * *
THE SHORT TRIP back to Nimbys was fun. Despite his spates of flummery, Captain Torven was good company. After asking about Wrentheria and the Lowlands, he regaled Mhysra with tales of his travels and life in the Storm Peaks. All accompanied by an irrepressible twinkle in his eye. Mhysra doubted she could believe a word, but he was amusing. After a while Cumulo settled down for a snooze, satisfied his Wingborn was safe.
When Nimbys came into view, gilded by the evening light, the captain excused himself. Horsat messengers were dispatched and sailors filled the deck, pulling in side sails and adjusting the ballast, while others secured the hold. Leaning against the prow rail, Mhysra peered down at the excited youngsters rushing onto the outer walkways of the lower decks, eager for their first glimpse of Nimbys. These would be her year mates at Aquila, and she hoped that more would prove friends than foes.
“You’re fretting again,” Cumulo murmured over her shoulder.
“Better prepared than surprised,” she replied, while sailors hustled the students away.
Captain Torven ordered the hatches opened and the signaller blew the horn. The sound boomed down the ship’s bow and echoed against the mountainside, until the whole sky rang with it.
The captain approached Mhysra as loose miryhls emerged from the belly of the ship. “Would you guide them to their new home, my lady?”
Mhysra glanced at Cumulo, eyebrows raised. Someone would be coming from the barracks to collect them, but she didn’t mind helping. It depended on her miryhl. He tilted his head, sighed and lowered his wing.
“Is that a yes?”
Mhysra grinned and accepted the hand Torven offered. “It is, captain. Thank you for your company. I hope we meet again sometime.”
“I am sure of it,” he agreed, kissing her hand. “Perhaps sooner than you think.” Winking, he stepped back so she could mount. At her curious glance, he laughed. “Till next time!”
Cumulo opened his wings, cleared the deck with a bound and they launched into a sky filled with miryhls.
~ Next Chapter ~
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