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~ Previous Chapter ~
Miryhls and mischief. I love Hylan (just in case anyone was wondering…).
“DID YOU BRING FOOD?” Cumulo muttered, basking by a hatch, surrounded by dozing miryhls.
“Haven’t you had breakfast yet?” Mhysra asked, glancing at her brother who was greeting the miryhl beside hers – his bonded, Cirrus.
“Is that what he’s complaining about?” Kilai chuckled and removed a stray feather from Cirrus’ chest. “The miryhls get fed before we do. They’ll get more at midmorning, noon, mid-afternoon and around dusk. That’s the new ones,” he added, when Cirrus nudged him. “When miryhls first arrive the attendants feed them little and often, in case of delicate constitutions.”
Cumulo snorted and shifted, throwing Mhysra and Kilai into the shade. His stomach rumbled and Mhysra grinned. “Poor boy. Not used to short rations, are you?”
“The Wrentherin birds always feel the pinch when they arrive,” Kilai said, running his hands through Cirrus’ feathers, making her purr with contentment. “Aunt Mhylla overfeeds them.”
Cumulo glared at him, grumbling to Mhysra, “Is he calling me fat? Do I look fat? I’ve been living with the Riders for months, why am I not being fed like one?”
Someone chuckled. Standing on tiptoe, Mhysra peered over Cumulo’s back at Hurricane. He was dozing in the sunshine and eavesdropping. After a moment, he opened an eye and winked at her, before settling again.
“Made a new friend, Cue?” she asked innocently.
Cumulo didn’t reply, though their proximity was answer enough. No dominant male could bear the sight of another unless peace had been established. Mhysra sighed with relief. She hadn’t relished the arguments if Cumulo had decided to be difficult.
“That bird is a brute,” Kilai murmured, and Mhysra raised her eyebrows. “Hurricane. Unusual colours, but the size of him.” He whistled in approval. “Can’t wait to see him and Lyrai in action. The Riders really felt his loss when Froth retired. Good to have him back.”
When Cumulo shot Kilai a sour look, the Rider grinned. “No need for jealousy, Cue. You’re perfect, but I know you. And before you complain you’re wasting away for want of a proper meal, remember that your new friend is going through the same. Even if he is Lieutenant Lyrai’s.”
Cumulo perked up and looked at Hurricane. The marble miryhl didn’t even twitch, just kept on basking serene as a cat. When everyone stopped staring at him, he winked at Mhysra again, making her grin. She liked Hurricane; he would be good for Cumulo.
While waiting for the others to finish checking their miryhls, Mhysra perched on the edge of the hatch and rested against Cumulo. Lounging in the sun with her miryhl at her back, it was easy to forget that it was autumn and Aquila would soon be buried in storms.
“Pretty thing,” Kilai said, stroking the nakhound by his feet. Bumble wagged her tail, raised a wing and flopped over to present her belly for a tickle. Chuckling, Kilai complied, looking up at Mhysra from beneath his curls. “One of mine. Did you think I wouldn’t notice?”
“Don’t blame me,” she protested, knowing how possessive her brother could be. “She picked me when she was barely a moon old. I never encouraged her. I even left her behind, but Aunt Mhylla sent her after me, claiming she was pining. So I left her with Milli every day, but the stupid pup still wanted me. I don’t have time for a nakhound.”
Shaking Bumble’s waving paw, Kilai raised his eyebrows. “What a speech. Feeling guilty?”
“No!” She opened her mouth to defend herself, then noticed that Kilai was laughing. “Brothers,” she grumbled. “I haven’t missed you at all.”
Chuckling, he ran his hands over Bumble, spreading her wings, pulling the silky plumes on her legs, ears and tail. “She’s a beauty. Shame to lose her, but Mhylla knows what she’s doing. And if I can’t give a pup to my own sister, who can I?”
“You’re not taking her away?” Mhysra asked, surprised; Kilai was never so understanding.
His smile was crooked and rueful. “Let me have a litter or two from her and I’ll be content. I’ve never seen such perfect markings on the wings, though her body colours are a bit messy.”
“Messy?” she flared up, defensive of her pup for the first time.
Kilai gave a low growl. “I’m trying to be gracious. Take her and be happy.”
Cumulo nudged her and she took the hint. For all that she complained about Bumble, it was nice to know she could keep her. Something had tightened unpleasantly in her chest at the thought that Kilai might take her back. She glanced at the pup on her feet, surprised to realise that she did want her after all. Until Kilai said it, though, she’d never been able to believe she was hers.
Smiling, she looked around in search of a new subject before he reconsidered his generosity. Derrain waved and she waved back. “They’re done.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.” Kilai gave Bumble another pat and straightened up. “Best check they haven’t plucked any of their birds bald before we continue the tour. I’ll show you where to leave your pup later. The kennel workers will look after her while you’re busy. Come on.”
* * * * *
THE NEXT MORNING Lyrai took Hurricane out for a brief flight, to familiarise him with their new home, and met up with Stirla embarking on a similar mission. Together they checked their flurries’ miryhls, noting areas of concern before going to find their Riders. By the time they were finished it was midday.
“I could eat a horsat,” Stirla grumbled, patting his stomach as they entered the officers’ mess. “I’d forgotten how hungry real work makes me.”
“Well, look who finally showed up. We almost sent out a search party.” Captain Roumn was his usual charming self. “What’s the matter, lads, new roles got you confused?”
“It’s our first time,” Stirla said meekly, sitting beside Captain Myran. Officers generally ate breakfast wherever they could, but the rest of their meals were served in the mess. “We’re just humble Riders, sir. Can’t keep too many thoughts in our heads at once, it’ll weigh us down.”
“I doubt a thought or two would make much difference to you,” Lieutenant Willym remarked from the opposite side of the table.
“Well, we can’t all be skinny runts,” Stirla agreed mildly, and smiled at the stocky, dark-skinned man beside Willym. “Good to see you, Hlen. Sorry you got the arithmetic job.”
Hlen smiled shyly, only truly comfortable on miryhl-back or with a book in his hands. “B-better than survival. Uphill b-battle you’ve got, from what I’ve seen.”
“If I get too desperate I need only look at my friend here and thank the gods for their infinitely small mercies.” Stirla slapped Lyrai on the back, causing him to choke on his soup.
“You wouldn’t be laughing if he’d just sprayed you,” Captain Hylan told the cackling Roumn, while handing Lyrai some water. He was a big man like Stirla, making Lyrai feel small, wedged as he was between them. But where Stirla was gregarious, the captain was quiet. “Picking up where I left off, Lyrai? All the luck of the gods, lad.”
“You’ll need it.” One of Hylan’s lieutenants shuddered. “Give me history anytime.”
“As if you ever taught a lesson in your life, Brath,” one of Roumn’s lieutenants laughed. “You could fill a library with the things you don’t know.”
“Whereas Nimbys wouldn’t be big enough to hold your lack,” Captain Myran rebuked softly. “Even the best read amongst us could use a little more knowledge, Lieutenant Yordice.”
When Myran spoke everyone else shut up. Though Roumn was older and equally marked by Rider life, there was an air of dignity around Myran, even before a man noticed his limp or heard the story behind it. If family connections had netted Fredkhen for Willym, the mere threat of Lyrai’s had gifted him Myran.
The meal continued in silence until Myran cleared his throat. “How fare your new Riders, Hylan? Roumn doesn’t seem confident about his.”
For once the big man’s smile was smug. “Mine are fine. They’ve been trained as hard as could be without breaking. I’m fairly certain they can fly over a flock of sheep without baulking.”
Everyone looked at Roumn, some knowingly, the rest curious. The cynical captain’s cheeks turned red. “It was only once and it was foggy. Gods blast you for bringing it up again, Hylan.”
Hylan grinned. “Turn and turn about, old friend. All’s fair inside Aquila’s walls. No harm done.”
Fredkhen raised an eyebrow. “That’s not what I heard. Five innocent sheep paid dearly.”
“No, that was Roumn when the farmer demanded compensation,” Myran corrected.
“But still, no harm done,” Hylan repeated.
Fredkhen chuckled. “Except to Roumn’s pocket.”
“It’s good for him.” Hylan grinned again. “And we got mutton for dinner. Very fine it was too.”
“Enough!” Roumn growled. “Yordice, Thylek, round up the others. We leave tomorrow.”
“But it’s Half-Year!” his lieutenants protested, only to be silenced by their captain’s glare.
“We are leaving,” he repeated, and they hung their heads in defeat.
“Don’t be like that, Roumn,” Fredkhen coaxed, as the two men left.
Hylan nodded, sipping from his glass. “Yes, old man, no need to be such a baad sport.”
With a look as scorching as pyrefly breath, Captain Roumn stalked out. The rest hooted with laughter. Stirla was so entertained he reached across Lyrai to shake Hylan’s hand. Even Myran chuckled into his glass. Only Willym was unimpressed, regarding them like mud splatters on his best breeches.
They ignored him and the meal continued amidst splutters, snorts and chuckles as they baaed at random intervals.
A knock on the door was followed by a student wearing a green messenger cap. “Beg pardon, sirs, but Dean Marshall says the North Point ship’s docked. Officers’ meeting next bell.” He vanished.
“Fun’s over, lads,” Fredkhen announced, draining his wine. “Real work starts tomorrow.”
“Best of luck,” Captain Hylan murmured solemnly to Stirla and Lyrai, clapping them both on the shoulder. Then he smiled, an amused glint in his dark eyes. “You’re going to need it.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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