Nera has been fascinated by dragons all her life. Now, as a Rift Rider Lieutenant, her chance to see them up close has come. The appointment to spend five years as an escort to the human ambassador seems like the ultimate honour and gift, but the dragons she studied in training don’t come anywhere close to the reality awaiting her inside the Dragonlands.
Elder Khennik kin Blazeborn Clan Sunlord has no interest in humans. Thanks to the Cloud Curse that their kind brought down upon the Overworld, Khennik’s kin are close to losing their ancestral desert homelands forever. When he’s assigned as a delegate to the humans upon their arrival, he can’t believe his bad luck. Unlike some dragons, he has no wish for more power or responsibility, but he can’t seem to avoid collecting them. From his desperate kin to his nervous aide, right along to the useless humans, Khennik dreams of the day when he can return to his desert home.
Regardless of personal dreams and opinions, both humans and dragons are about to learn that they often have more in common than they might think or wish. And when trouble descends, the true friends you can count on have little to do with species – and everything to do with spirit.
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Read on for the first part of Chapter One!
On board the Skylark
20th Fledgling Month, 579 Cloud Era
NERA STUDIED HER reflection critically and straightened the collar of her flying jacket. It was pristine, cut so fine as to look moulded on, the midnight blue shade so much more palatable than the garish red of the Rift Rider officer dress uniform. Fiddling with the throat fastening on the high collar, she brushed her thumb over the gleaming silver stripes on her shoulder – still so beautiful, even six moons on – before she tugged her cuffs straight and ran nervous hands down the sides of her three-quarter length coat. Her white breeches looked so very bright beneath the dark blue, but at least her flying boots reached her knees, leaving barely a couple of unprotected pale inches to the vagaries of a dirty world.
“You look fine,” Lieutenant Anhardyne told her for the twentieth time. The past moon and a half of sharing the confined cabin had given the older woman plenty of opportunities to watch her friend preen and fuss over her uniform. “Which is good, because we’re finally here and you haven’t even touched your hair.”
With a squeak of dismay, Nera’s hands shot to her head, messing up all her last moment adjustments. Catching her friend’s grin in the mirror, she growled, “Not funny, Hardy.”
Anhardyne ruffled Nera’s short black crop with a laugh. “Good to see that there is still a girl in there somewhere. You spent all that time in front of the mirror and not once did I see you look at anything above your shoulders.”
“That’s because there’s nothing there worth looking at,” Nera said, turning away from the mirror at last, as familiar with her small, snub features as she needed to be. “My time is much better spent focusing on my uniform.” She rubbed her lieutenant stripes affectionately, until Anhardyne knocked her hand away with an exasperated tut.
“You’ll wear them out if you’re not careful, newbie. Anyone would think you only got them yesterday.” Having earned her own stripes three years earlier, Anhardyne was far less impressed by such marks of rank. Winking, she stepped in front of Nera and tucked a few stray wisps of her own hair back into place. “I’ll tweak yours if you’ll tweak mine.”
Nera turned and submitted to her friend’s fussing with a laugh. “Hold on while I fetch a box to stand on.”
The two lieutenants couldn’t have been more different, looks wise. Where Nera was dark and kept her straight hair short and manageable, Anhardyne was tall and tawny and golden. Their only common features were their brown eyes.
Looking up into those dark eyes now, Nera searched for any scrap of the anxiety she was feeling. Anhardyne looked as serene and amused as ever. Then again she was five years older and had seen considerably more of the Overworld than Nera. Still, not even Anhardyne had been to the Dragonlands before. Wasn’t she the least bit excited?
“Settle down, Half-Pint. Don’t froth up.”
Nera tugged firmly on Anhardyne’s lapels and narrowed her eyes at the irritating nickname. What had been fun and affectionate for a young Rider, was rather less dignified for a new lieutenant. “I’m not frothing. And don’t call me that. I’m trying to make a good impression.”
“Aren’t we all?”
They certainly should be. Being assigned to the Drakkan Embassy might not have been the most exciting post in the Rift Riders, but it was one of the most prestigious. Nera’s father, a well-respected captain himself, had covertly wiped away a tear of pride when she’d told him about it. That the news had arrived alongside her promotion to lieutenant made it all the sweeter.
“Seriously, Nera,” the cool tone of her friend’s voice, along with the firm hand on her shoulder, warned her to pay attention, “stay focused. I know that this is a big day for you – for all of us – but remember we’re here to work. We have a job to do.”
“I know that.” Nera brushed Anhardyne’s hand away, hurt that her friend could possibly think she had forgotten. “I’ve seen dragons before.” Well, a couple, here and there. At a distance. None to speak to, perhaps, but she knew the protocol inside out. It had been her favourite subject at Aquila, the Rift Rider training school, where she’d studied since she was sixteen, learning not only to fly her giant eagle miryhl, but how to protect the Overworld through words as well as deeds.
She’d excelled in all her etiquette and political history lessons – that was why she’d been personally recommended to Commander Bethnelm by Dean Renlyn. It was why she’d spent the last five years training under Captain Wellswen, ever since she’d graduated. Her life had been leading towards this moment for the last eight years. She wasn’t about to ruin it all at the welcoming ceremony by being an overexcited fool.
“Hm.” Anhardyne sounded far from convinced. “Just remember that we’re here for five years, all right, so there’s no rush to get to know everyone. Take it steady.”
“Har-dy,” Nera whined, in the same tone she used to use on her mother when she was twelve and didn’t want to practice her court dances anymore. It would probably take her five years to get to know anyone. Unlike Hardy, who never seemed to meet a stranger, Nera was shy and not good at meeting new people. That didn’t mean there weren’t still a thousand ways to embarrass herself and the others, but rushing to get to know everyone wasn’t one of them.
“All right, lecture over,” the older lieutenant sighed, tapping Nera on the nose and taking a final look at herself in the mirror. “I think we’re ready.” She tucked her waist-length golden braid into the belt loop on the back of her flying jacket. “Though why we went to all this bother when it’ll just get ruined on the flight in, I do not know.”
Nera cast one last anxious glance at her reflection and tugged her cuffs straight again. “My mother always says it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing or what you look like, if you feel comfortable in your skin you can take on the world.”
“Well, your mother should know,” Anhardyne said. “Chin up, Half-Pint, we’ve a world to take on.”
“All set, lieutenants?” Captain Wellswen poked her head around the door after a cursory tap. “Ambassador Jesken would like a word before we leave.”
Both women saluted as the captain vanished again to round up the others. Anhardyne raised her eyebrows at Nera. “We’d best put off the excitement a little longer then.”
Feeling fidgety at the prospect of yet another lecture standing between her and the chance to hop on her miryhl and fly some of her nerves away, Nera flexed her fingers and shook out her tingling hands. “I supposed we’d best see what Her Excellency wants.”
The friends shared wry smiles, having been called into the ambassador’s cabin every second day since leaving Aquila. Nera just hoped this wasn’t another tea ceremony. Not that she had anything against tea, but the ambassador was from Etheria: the day an Etherian could teach a Sutherelli like Nera anything about the beverage, was the same day the clouds disappeared.
“Try not to sigh so loudly this time when she adds sugar to her red leaf, please,” Anhardyne muttered, opening the door.
Nera wrinkled her nose at the memory of such sacrilege and followed her friend along the narrow skyship corridor. “I make no promises.”
They grinned at each other, then Anhardyne took a deep breath and knocked on the state cabin doors.
Want to read some more?
Chapter 1, Part 2
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