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~ Previous Chapter ~
Welcome to Aquila! :D
“GOOD EVENING, GENTLEMEN. Please sit down.” Former Flight Commander Marshall was an unassuming man with silver streaks in his dark hair. Having been the dean of Aquila for almost ten years, he’d overseen Lyrai’s training. So when he smiled, Lyrai fought the urge to squirm like a schoolboy, still unused to being called into the man’s office for anything other than a reprimand. “A well-timed journey.”
Thunder snarled as Myran accepted a goblet of wine. “We had fast winds, but only chance brought us in safely. The ships are moored at the caves.”
“Safest place for them, storm or no,” the dean said, waiting for his secretary to pass the wine around before opening the nearest ledger. “How many students, Myran?”
“Thirty-two,” the captain said, nodding at Lyrai to fill in the details.
“Nineteen from Nimbys, sir, eight from Storm Peaks, five from Sutherall. Nine girls, twenty-three boys.”
The dean inked in the numbers. “Thirty-two. A solid number. Made better for the girls’ presence.” He frowned at his ledger. “Added to the twenty-nine from Etheria, ten of which were girls, numbers are holding steady.”
“Any word from North Point?” Fredkhen asked.
“Word, yes,” the dean murmured, twirling his quill. “Thirteen students, including five girls. Hopefully they’ll arrive soon. Weather permitting. The storms are early.”
“More girls,” Rees grumbled into his wine. “What use will they be?”
“They’ve already bolstered the numbers,” Myran pointed out mildly. “If not for the girls this would be a poor year. Fewer are willing to risk their children for the glory of Rider fame.”
Dean Marshall set aside his quill and rubbed his neck. “Original application numbers were up on recent years.”
“How many of those withdrew after the attacks on Kevian and Cirrica?” Captain Roumn asked.
Fredkhen grimaced, which was all the answer they needed. “Two attacks in the Greater West, regardless of the low mortality rate, so close together… One could hardly blame parents for getting jumpy.”
“Because life in the Riders has always been sweetness and light,” Roumn mocked. “What did they think their children were signing up for, the Cloud Circus?”
“Thank you, captain,” Marshall murmured, his soft voice still retaining the power of a commander. “Until you have children do not criticise others about how they care for theirs. It’s one thing to hear of the glory of the Rift Riders, another to be confronted with corpses and casualties. Twenty-nine families of the Greater West have given us a glorious gift, do not scorn those whose generosity failed at the last.”
“We’ll see,” the captain muttered. “Ten girls, remember? Our intake may yet decline.”
“Have you seen any girls in action yet, captain?” Stirla asked, studying his nails.
“I’ve been trapped in this benighted place for the last five years,” Roumn retorted. “I’ve seen plenty of girls, for all that they call themselves boys. It might be refreshing to see how real girls train. Can’t see it’ll do much good, but there we have it. One voice is often lost in a crowd.”
“Wait until you’ve seen them,” Stirla advised. “You might learn something.”
Roumn gave a sceptical snort, echoed by Rees; the two men had always been likeminded. It was why Rees had been reassigned to Myran’s command a few years back.
“A time of changes,” Dean Marshall said.
Roumn shrugged. “I’m glad to be out, if it’s all the same. My penance is paid. Time to take my lambs into the wild, for all the good it’ll do.” He raised his drink in a mocking toast.
“Indeed,” Marshall murmured, closing his ledger carefully. “You may depart at any time, captain. Sutherall and South Imercian are in desperate need of your relief force. Everyone else, make yourselves at home. Lieutenant Lyrai, Lieutenant Stirla, I trust that you are satisfied with your assignments?”
They both nodded. At first Stirla had been sulky over his practical studies appointment – teaching students to survive in the wild, cooking, hunting and so on – compared to Lyrai’s as flight instructor. Both were equally important, but there was glory in teaching others to fly. Since the test flights, though, Lyrai was the one feeling hard done by. Still there were worse things to teach. Probably.
“Good. Myran, are you happy to resume your history lessons? We have Lieutenant Willym for politics and Fredkhen has agreed to undertake geography. His other junior lieutenant, Hlen, will teach arithmetic, with the usual tutors for the rest. The senior lieutenants will be allocated on arrival.”
Lyrai raised his eyebrows at Stirla and smiled. He doubted their old friend Willym had been happy with political history. He’d always fancied himself a better flyer than he actually was. Hlen was quiet and studious, but Lyrai didn’t envy him his assignment. Not that the dean was really asking their opinion. They were Riders who’d been given a task, and so they would do it.
“For now, gentlemen, have something to eat and reacquaint yourselves with the citadel and the gossip. Oh, and lads,” he added, causing Lyrai and Stirla to pause at the door while the captains continued without them. “Welcome back. It’s good to have you home.”
* * * * *
BY THE TIME Kilai reached the girls’ dormitory, Mhysra was yawning. Climbing up and down two flights of winding stairs had reminded her that she’d not slept properly for several days. The walk across the citadel and up another three levels had only made things worse. When Kilai left, all she wanted to do was pick a bed and fall into it.
A clamour of excited yips ended that idea: it seemed that more than her luggage had been delivered. She eyed Bumble balefully as the pup shimmied up to her, wriggling in a way that said she might like to go outside. Soon. Sooner than soon. Or there would be puddles.
“Corin, save me a bed,” Mhysra grumbled, opening the door and shooing her dog out through it.
After a long trek along empty hallways, she finally found someone to direct her outside. Since it was still raining, she then had to haul Bumble onto the grass and hold her in place to prevent her diving back into the dry. Looking pitiful, the pup went about her business and they dripped back inside. Now thoroughly lost, Mhysra wandered until she found more servants to direct her.
“We’ve got to find an easier way out,” Mhysra told the damp pup as she opened the dormitory door.
“Open the window,” Corin suggested, pointing to a bed in the corner beneath said window where Mhysra’s bags had been dumped.
Stepping on the bed, Mhysra peered out at the storm-thrashed darkness. A flicker of lightning confirmed how high up they were. “She can’t fly yet.”
Corin raised her eyebrows and Mhysra had to smile, albeit wearily. Bumble was flitting around the dormitory ceiling in a haphazard style, dripping over all the beds.
“Nakkies are lazy,” Haelle yawned. “They need an incentive to fly.”
“I know,” Mhysra said, changing into her sleeping things, “but pushing her out of a third-floor window seems a little extreme.”
“She’ll bounce,” Corin promised, collapsing onto her bed. “Nice. Feather pillows and a wool mattress. I could get used to this luxury.”
“I don’t care if it’s stuffed with rocks,” Mhysra groaned, flopping facedown.
“Puh. Her first night in Aquila and all she can think of is sleep,” Corin scoffed. “Some Rider you’re turning out to be.”
“Ask me again in the morning,” Mhysra advised, shoving Bumble away as she tried to lick her face and crawl under the covers with her. “I’ll be thrilled then.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it,” Haelle chuckled, but Mhysra ignored her. Burrowing beneath the blankets, she cuddled her pillow and closed her eyes. When that wasn’t enough, she pulled the blanket over her head and the world went away.
* * * * *
“WHAT DO YOU want to see first?” Kilai grinned at Mhysra and her friends, all of them wearing identical blank expressions. “Oh, come on, breakfast wasn’t that bad.”
“Easy for you to say,” Derrain muttered, and the others grumbled their agreement.
Breakfast had been a noisy, chaotic nightmare. Despite having been woken at dawn by the deafening clatter of bells ringing right above their dormitory, Mhysra and the other girls had still been excited about their first day at Aquila. Until they followed their guide into the mess that was the dining hall.
Riders were everywhere, along with students, servants, attendants and all manner of folk that Mhysra couldn’t put a name to. It was chaos. No one sat on the benches, preferring to use the tables or to stand. A debate rapidly turned into an argument in one corner, needing outside intervention to prevent it becoming a brawl. Elsewhere a game of handball was played with bread rolls, while a pack of nakhounds rampaged at will.
Having heard so much about the vaunted discipline of the Riders, the reality was a little shocking. Haelle hadn’t been the only one to decide she wasn’t hungry, while the rest grabbed what they could and ran. The escaping girls had tripped over the retreating boys and decided there was safety in numbers. Which was when Kilai had found them.
“Breakfast is always hectic,” he explained, laughing at their dismay. “Students have high spirits, Riders coming in are light-headed from lack of sleep and the ones going out eat fast. You’ll get used to it. Come on, let’s visit the eyries and see how your miryhls are doing.”
Happy to get away from the chaos, the friends trailed after Kilai. As they walked, he pointed frequently, saying things like, “armoury, practise halls and bath caverns,” or, “kitchens, gardens, servant quarters. Never go there unless an officer asks. Anyone else is tweaking your tail.” Taking a narrow passage, he led them down a steep staircase and out into the glorious morning.
“This is the Lawn,” he explained, stopping to let them look around. “In summer it’s packed, but a little rain, as you see, is enough to drive any Rider away. Mud is not a good look and Riders are so vain.” He patted his black-clad hip and winked at Haelle, who blushed.
The Lawn was a strip of grass along the east bank of the river, wedged between the fast-flowing waters and the citadel. The wider field on the far side lay empty too, used for flying and weapons-practise if the targets were anything to go by. Curving around all, the citadel towered up and back along tiered terraces. The base of the valley was dominated by the river, cascading between two spurs of rock. A broader valley was visible beyond and Mhysra itched to go exploring. Tethered to her wrist, Bumble strained to do the same.
“That’s the lake,” Kilai explained, seeing what held his sister’s attention. “Wait until after the storm season to visit. You don’t want to be caught out by the rain, and at this time of year it either already is or is just about to.” He held out his hand as a gentle mist drizzled down.
Mhysra looked up, confused, since the sun was shining. The peak was shrouded in cloud and their little shower had drifted away from the main mass. She sighed and tugged Bumble to heel.
“Come on,” Kilai urged, walking across the Lawn.
Here were yet more wonders, and Mhysra wasn’t the only one staring at the sprawling giant of the citadel. Towers backed against the mountain, while cloisters and porticos kept watch along the terraces. Weather-bleached stone glowed in the autumn light and the clean, simple lines soothed her. There was nothing fussy about Aquila, nothing complicated or elaborate. It was the home of the Rift Riders, defenders of the Overworld, and it was beautiful. But it was the bridge over the falls that stopped the students short.
Realising he was alone, Kilai turned and smiled. “Quite something, isn’t it?”
What had merely been a port in the storm for Mhysra the night before was entirely different by daylight. The white curve of the bridge leapt from bank to bank, arching over the thundering falls. No longer blinded by rain, she counted three levels beneath the roof and blinked. Most of the bottom row was open to the elements and supported by pillars, leaving a clear view straight through. As she watched, a group of Riders walked across it.
The second level was a blank wall, where Mhysra guessed she had landed yesterday. Above it the third row was marked with more hatches, all of which were closed on this side. A peaked roof covered with slate tiles, glistening after the rain, perfected the image.
“The eyries,” Kilai said needlessly. “For students and two flurries. The rest are in the town, since it’d be impractical to cram them all up here. It’s impressive enough for what it is.”
He set off again, awestruck students pattering along behind, and at last Mhysra felt a frisson of excitement. This was what she had come for. This glory, this magnificence, this beauty. Here was the real Aquila. Not even the steep stairs up to the East Tower were enough to dim her spirits. This was Aquila and she was going to visit the eyries. Laughing with glee, she pounced on her brother and hugged him hard.
Kilai chuckled. “It gets to us all in the end.” Opening the door, he led them back inside.
~ Next Chapter ~
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