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~ Previous Chapter ~
Bumble time! Not that Mhysra is avoiding things or anything, because she would never do something like that, no no.
THE BLIZZARD ARRIVED before nightfall, piling snow against the walls and covering the mountain in white. Brisk winds made the flakes flurry, sneaking in through the many cracks of the citadel.
Leaving poor Mouse in the infirmary, with some hefty puncture wounds to show for his adventure, Mhysra went in search of Derrain. “I need to visit Bumble. Want to come?”
He raised his eyebrows, knowing where she’d been. When she shook her head, he gave a dramatic shiver. “Go outside? Have you seen the weather?”
She rolled her eyes. “Why yes, dear Derry, I may have noticed a sprinkling of snow. However, I haven’t seen Bumble for days and if Kilai hears he’ll kill me. Come if you’re coming. If not, well, more cakes for me.”
“You drive a hard bargain,” he grumbled, but traipsed after her through the eastern citadel and down to the kennels. A chorus of yips and barks greeted them as they crossed the frozen courtyard. The keeper in the workroom was Jynese, an Aquilan lass and a close friend of Kilai’s.
Seeing them shivering, she grinned. “Come inside, my lambs, before you grow icicles.”
Derrain hurried straight to the fire. “Heirayk’s sweet mercy on you, Jynese,” he murmured, chattering his teeth for effect.
“Poor boy,” she crooned, rubbing his back. With her full figure, green eyes and warm smile, she was very pretty and very popular. Especially amongst the boys.
“Sit yourselves down,” Jynese invited, winking at Mhysra. “I’ll get you a drink and see what else I can find. The dogs are being fed now, so I’ll fetch your girl in a bit.” She ushered them both into chairs, filled the kettle and searched the cupboards. When she was done, Derrain and Mhysra cradled cups of Mistrunan tea and balanced plates of apple tarts, scones and cheese slices on their knees. That was the other reason why Jynese was so popular, especially with the boys – she fed them.
“You are a prize,” Derrain praised, his mouth full. “You make the best tarts in Aquila.”
“My pa would disagree,” she chuckled, and as the town’s baker he was probably right. “But flattery is always appreciated.” She looked up as the door opened and smiled. “Kilai.”
Mhysra almost spilled her tea. “What are you doing here?”
Her brother raised his eyebrows and ruffled snow from his hair. “Nice to see you too, neglectful sister of mine. Remembered you have a nakhound, have you?”
Putting her cup aside, she wrinkled her nose. “I’ve been busy.”
“So have I,” he retorted, “but I’m still here. And I only just got back.”
Derrain chuckled, gathering the crumbs off his plate with his fingertip. “If I had such enticements I’d come straight here too.” He winked at Jynese.
Rolling her eyes, Jynese prodded Kilai in the chest. “Think of how much free time you had when you were a newbie – if you can remember that far back, old man – and be nice to your sister. I’m going to fetch the pup.” Patting him on the head, she trotted out the door.
While Mhysra and Derrain blinked to see the mighty Kilpapan heir treated so lightly, Kilai smiled sheepishly. “It’s refreshing.”
“Is that what you call it?” Derrain chuckled.
Kilai grimaced. “Do you have to say that in front of my little sister?”
More amused than embarrassed, Mhysra grinned. “I can’t wait to tell Milluqua.”
Groaning, Kilai covered his face with his hands. “Why couldn’t I have brothers?”
“Because you’re gods-blessed,” Mhysra retorted, enjoying the teasing. She saw her brother so rarely, since both of them were so busy and he spent most of his time away from the citadel. Spending time with this relaxed Kilai was a treat.
“What brings you back so soon?” Derrain asked, taking pity on the poor Rider. “I thought you were patrolling the Wrathlen until the end of the month.”
“Blizzards came early,” Kilai explained, easing into a chair. “Gods, we just beat this monster. Straight off the Stormwash and too big to sate itself on pirates. It chased us all the way home.”
Mhysra shivered at the thought. “Did you see much action?”
Kilai shook his head, smiling as Jynese returned with Bumble. The nakhound looked dignified and glossy, striped wings folded against her back. She trotted with her chin on Jynese’s hip, almost fully grown.
Then she saw Mhysra.
Yipping with glee, Bumble bounded across the room, clearing Kilai’s chair with a flap of her wings. Landing on Mhysra’s lap, she washed her face vigorously.
“See what happens when you don’t visit every day,” Kilai said smugly.
Jynese chuckled as she shared Kilai’s chair. “I’ve never met a pup so fixed.”
Shoving the dog away, Mhysra wiped her face with her sleeve. “Wrentherin trait. You should see our pack with my aunt. They adore her. Whether she sees them every day or not.” She glared at Kilai.
He grinned. “Mhylla feeds them. This one’s just stupid.”
“But beautiful,” Jynese protested, while Bumble licked Mhysra’s hands, her plumy tail wagging.
Sighing, Mhysra stroked Bumble’s silky ears. “You didn’t deny that she was stupid.”
They talked about nakhounds for a while, but eventually talk veered back to Kilai and his recent exploits. “It’s the strangest thing, sitting on the edge of the Wrathlen, waiting for something to happen. When nothing does you feel relieved, until you start wondering. Having an imagination out there is a curse.”
“So you didn’t see anything?” Derry asked, ruffling Bumble’s wings.
“Nothing worth noting.” Kilai got up to add another log to the fire. “It’s unnerving. If you see something, at least you know they’re there, being their usual vermin selves. But when they hide…” He shook his head. “That place has to be seen to be believe. A solid ridge, extending for miles, but the closer you get, the more crevices you notice, until you’re right above it and see that it’s rotten right through.”
“Like those who live there,” Jynese said, filling the kettle for more tea. “There was a nasty piece of work in town when I was a girl. Picked fights, bullied everyone, had a rough hand with the ladies and never listened to no. He fled to the Wrathlen before the Riders pinned him down – his mother smuggled him out, foolish old besom. Boy could do no wrong in her eyes. When the pirates raided Aquila two years later, she was found with a knife in her chest and a sapphire between her teeth.” She sighed and sat down again. “He’d promised to bring her jewels when he was rich. Some are born for that place. I used to wonder why the Riders didn’t destroy it.”
Kilai smiled sadly, winding a strand of her hair around his finger. “I used to think the same until I saw it myself. We’re too few for a rat’s nest like that.”
Jynese nodded. “I’ve seen it too. That’s when I realised nothing short of a gods-blast could clear the place. Even that wouldn’t get them all.”
“Do you think they’re up to something?” Mhysra asked to break the uneasy silence.
“Possibly, possibly not,” Kilai grumbled. “Lieutenant Brath says they’d normally hit Havia after preparations like this, but King Heryff did enough damage last summer to make even those pirates wince. I don’t think they’ll try him again when they have so many other options.”
“Which is a cheerful thought on a blizzard night,” Derrain said, raising a smile from them all.
“True. Let’s leave raiders and pirates behind, since the snow keeps them out as nicely as a pyrefly pack. Tell me what’s been happening here. What’s all this about Cumulo being a hero?”
Mhysra and Derrain exchanged a look and her friend raised his eyebrows, leaving it for her to tell. “Poor Mouse bumped another student in today’s group flight session and fell off,” Mhysra said, not wanting to get into all the details when she still couldn’t believe it herself. “Cue caught him.”
Kilai frowned. “How did he fall? Wasn’t he strapped on?”
Derrain shook his head. “Mouse wanted to fly without. We all do.”
Kilai’s frown deepened, but before he could say anything else, Jynese nudged his shoulder. “Poor lad, I hope he’s all right. Fetch the tea, won’t you, Kilai?” Sufficiently distracted, he got up while Mhysra told them how Mouse was doing. By the time Kilai returned, his lecture was forgotten and the subject turned to something else.
It was late by the time Mhysra and Derrain left the kennels, and it was a wrench to abandon the warm fire in favour of trudging back through the cold. Snow swirled as they leant shoulder to shoulder, wading through the drifts. It was nice with just the two of them, as it so rarely was these days. Mhysra even liked the snow dancing around the lantern that Jynese had given them.
“Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?” Derrain murmured as they forced open the door that led back into the citadel.
“About what?” Mhysra asked, blowing out the lantern and hanging it on a hook.
“What’s going on out there,” Derrain said, rubbing his arms and shoving the door closed.
“Mm,” Mhysra agreed. With the seclusion of the Storm Season being so quickly followed by these blizzards, Aquila had become a small, isolated world. She’d been too busy to notice.
“I’ve spent most of my life flying from one landmass to the next,” Derrain mused, throwing an arm over her shoulders as they walked through the halls, the pair of them huddling together for warmth. “I never thought I’d get used to being stopped for so long. How quickly we forget.”
“We’ve been busy.”
He nodded, watching their feet. “But it’s more than that. There’s just something about Aquila.”
“I feel like I’ve been here forever.”
“Me too,” he agreed, “and I’m not sure that it’s a good thing.”
She frowned. “Why not, since we’re spending three years here?”
Pausing at the stairs, he stared out through an iced window at the blurry darkness. “We’re getting too comfortable.”
“Derry?” she asked, confused as to what had brought on this contemplative mood.
Giving himself a shake, he smiled. “Don’t mind me, I’m just thinking out loud. Poor Mouse, I hope he’s not in too much pain.”
Mhysra winced. “They gave him something to make him sleep. It was strange to see him so quiet.” She stared miserably at the floor. “I feel guilty. So does Cue. Poor Mouse.”
“Don’t be daft!” Derrain scolded, shaking her shoulders. “Cumulo saved his life. If you’re looking for guilt, send it to the brat that hit Onyx.”
“He’s Kern Whittendowns’ heir,” Mhysra muttered, since the rank of kern was the Greater West’s equivalent to an Imercian earl. One of wealth and privilege, even here at Aquila where all were supposed to be equal. “Not to mention Willym’s favourite. He’s going to get away with it, while Mouse has wounds in his leg deep enough to make him limp. Maybe even permanently.”
Derrain hugged her tightly. “If you ask Mouse whether he minds those wounds, I’ll bet he’ll tell you he can cope. Better lame than dead.”
She sniffled against his chest. “It’s not fair.”
“No,” he agreed, stroking her hair. “But that’s the world for you. Come on, it’s late, and I’d rather not fend off Jermyn swinging sticks at my head when I’m only half-awake.”
She stepped back and nodded. “Good advice.”
“And coming from me, too. Proof that miracles do occasionally happen.”
Mhysra grinned. “Only occasionally? Should Dhori watch out?”
“I’ll try not to make a habit of it.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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