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~ Previous Chapter ~
In which Cumulo grumbles. A lot. And Stirla does what Stirla does best – and reminds me why I love him so.
And for those who have never been here before: Rift Riders is the second book in the Wingborn series. It can be read as a standalone, but if you’d like to read the first one, you can – and it’s free! Head this way to find out more and for all the links.
Students at Large
“I DON’T SEE why I don’t get to go,” Cumulo grumbled, his raspy voice a sulky growl.
Smiling, Mhysra ducked out from beneath his wing, where she had been preening him. “We can barely take care of ourselves, Cue. How could we possibly look after all you miryhls as well?”
He huffed, unappeased. “I still don’t see why I can’t come. You’re more capable of taking care of me than of yourself. You’ve had plenty of practise.”
That was true, she thought as she dunked her hands in a water bucket to sluice off the oil and grime before diving under Cumulo’s wing again. United by the shared moment of their births in the mystical Wingborn bond, they were more like twins than military partners. They’d been together for more than seventeen years, seeing each other every day. Their training at Aquila was just the final step in their duty to the world. Unlike the other students, though, no bonding ceremony would be necessary at the end of her three years. Whether or not she had ever set foot in the citadel, Cumulo would still be hers.
Having said that, she was quite looking forward to a half-moon without him.
“It’s not fair,” he grumbled, feathers vibrating to the tone of his voice. Buried beneath his wing, Mhysra felt surrounded by his disgruntlement. “It’s like I’m being punished. Just because the rest are incompetent, doesn’t mean you are.”
Running her fingers through his feathers – from cool skin up the quill shafts to the tips and back again, removing dust and dirt – Mhysra chuckled. “Why, Cue, I do believe that’s almost a compliment.”
He shifted his weight, since he couldn’t shuffle his wings, and crackled his beak. “You’re enjoying this.”
“Grooming you is always a joy,” she agreed, pulling free to clean her hands again. “Especially today.” She grimaced at the brown gunk flaking off in the water. “Have you forgotten how to preen yourself?”
“Why should I bother with you around?” he sniffed. “I’m trying to make you feel useful.”
“Thanks.” She tugged his wing open so she could riffle through his long flight feathers.
“It’s not my fault it gets so dusty up here in the summer. Who would have thought it, after the snows we had last winter?”
Tracing the golden sheen that tipped the bottom edge of his primaries, Mhysra rolled her eyes. “Maybe if you and the others didn’t head up to the north slope so often, where I know for a fact there’s a dust bank you all enjoy, you wouldn’t get so dusty?”
Snatching his wing back, he ruffled his feathers indignantly and muttered about pesky mites and itches.
“You haven’t got any mites. Don’t talk nonsense.” She yanked his wing out again and moved onto his secondary flight feathers, which were a rich brown. When he was clean, his colour reminded her of the conkers she used to collect at Wrentheria in the autumn, where giant horse chestnuts bordered the farm.
Cumulo sniffed. “Of course I haven’t, but one can never be too careful when living with all-comers.” He glared at the other end of the eyries, but the precise recipient of his scorn was lost on Mhysra. Miryhl flock politics was a strange thing.
“Just remember you’re the one who has to clean it all out for a bit, so don’t get too filthy.”
“I can preen myself, you know,” he reminded her, peering over his shoulder as she finished his wing and moved onto his tail.
“That’s something I’d like to see,” she retorted, then spoiled it by grinning. “You’ve got gold on your tail now. Does this mean you’ve finally stopped growing?”
Fanning his tail out, he waggled it up and down to make the gold streaks flash in the sun. “Perhaps. Have you stopped growing yet?” He chuckled at her grimace.
“It’s been a whole month since I needed new shirts.”
“You’re almost as tall as Lieutenant Lyrai now, did you notice?”
“Not quite,” she muttered, not wanting to admit that she had indeed noticed. She noticed quite a lot about Lieutenant Lyrai these days. It was embarrassing, especially when his smile made her flush with heat. He didn’t even have to be looking at her – when he did it just made everything worse. She hadn’t been able to meet his eye since spring. The man must think her daft.
“Shame he isn’t going along with you,” Cumulo said, watching her slyly. “Will you miss him?”
“No,” she replied quickly. And it was the truth. A whole half-moon without going all hot and unnecessary over a smile sounded like heaven. Lieutenant Stirla was a far safer officer to be around. He was funny and she never daydreamed about his wicked dark eyes. Not that she daydreamed about Lieutenant Lyrai, his eyes or otherwise. At least, never on purpose.
Cumulo chuckled, and she realised she’d gone red. “Enough,” she snapped, returning to preening his tail. “You might have all day to stand around and tease, but I don’t. I have to go to the armoury and pick up my sword today.”
Her miryhl stopped teasing and gave a disgruntled huff. “That’s it, rub it in, reminding me again that you’re about to abandon me.”
“I’m not abandoning you,” she replied absently, having said it a lot of late and refusing to feel guilty. As if he would miss her anyway; Cumulo had a nice life in the eyries. Except for when she was preening him, any time spent with her was usually an interruption. He only minded now because he thought he was missing out.
As he launched into his familiar list of sulky accusations, Mhysra ignored him. He was just getting into full flow when she rinsed her hands one last time, grabbed his beak and pulled it down for a kiss.
He didn’t stop talking once.
“I’ll see you in the morning. Try not to fret too much, it just makes you scurfy.”
“Scurfy!” he screeched. “I do not have scurf!”
“You’d better not after all my work,” she agreed, picking up her grooming kit and heading for the tack room. “Behave yourself!”
“I would say the same to you, except you won’t spare me a thought while you’re gone, so I don’t care. It’s not fair. Why can’t I go…?” His low rumbling complaints followed her as she walked away, exchanging nods with dozing miryhls and smiling at any Riders she met. At the tack room she emptied her bucket down the drain, chatted with the attendants and charmed a promise out of one to clean Cumulo’s harness while she was gone.
By the time she trotted down to the bridge, it was mid-afternoon and the sun was blazing over the citadel. Inside the stone halls it was beautifully cool, thanks to the breeze sweeping down from the valley above. Outside on the east bank, students and Riders lounged on the Lawn, but Mhysra headed through the deserted west side. Next stop the armoury, where Derneon would be waiting with her sword and instructions for its care over the next half-moon. With her packing all finished, ready to leave in the morning, all that remained was to find out where they were going…
* * * * *
“YOU’RE ACTUALLY LOOKING forward to this, aren’t you?” Resting his shoulder against the doorway, Lyrai watched Stirla pack.
His friend looked up, eyes bright with anticipation, excitement and mischief. “I remember how it felt the first time we were let out of this place.”
Lyrai grimaced. “Fleik tortured us.”
Muttering to himself as he checked he had everything, Stirla gave a distracted nod. “As was his right. He’d only been made lieutenant the year before. It was his first chance.”
“I’m starting to feel sorry for our students.”
“Don’t.” Stirla added an extra shirt to the bag and stared thoughtfully at a pile of socks. “Four of us against thirty-seven of them. We deserve a little fun.” He rejected the socks.
“Just as long as you keep an eye on Rees,” Lyrai warned, stepping into the room and snatching two pairs of socks to stuff into his friend’s bag. “What if it rains?”
About to protest, Stirla nodded and added a third pair. “Good point. I hate wet feet.”
“You always pack too light,” Lyrai remarked, as Stirla buckled the small flight bag.
“Better than too heavy.”
“Not when it means you haven’t any spare clothes and have to fly for days in wet, filthy stuff, while your feet rub raw in your boots.”
“What a bundle of cheer you are,” Stirla muttered, weighing his bag thoughtfully in one hand. “It’s only a half-moon.” Satisfied, he tossed it on the bed and turned to his supply list.
“A whole half-moon and all you’re taking is three pairs of socks, one pair of breeches, two shirts and your shaving kit?”
“I’ll be wearing another set of clothes,” Stirla pointed out, chewing the end of his quill. “Do you think I can get away with making the students carry my camping gear and food?”
“You’re only taking one set of drawers?” Lyrai asked, unable to help himself.
“I can wash them.”
“And what’ll you wear in the meantime?”
“I’ll manage. Besides it’ll keep Corin amused.”
“Only if you decide to wash both pairs of breeches at the same time.”
Stirla’s grin was disturbingly wicked. “There’s a thought.”
“They are your students!”
His friend chuckled and scribbled on his list. “You’re such an easy mark. I’ll pack a couple more then, mother, if it’ll settle your feathers. But I’m definitely not carrying my own kit now.”
“Drawers are so heavy,” Lyrai drawled. “And you’re such a delicate flower.”
Stirla flexed his biceps meditatively and stuffed the extra drawers into his bag. “Wouldn’t want to strain anything. Anyway, it’ll be good for them.”
“Perks of being an officer,” Lyrai agreed. “Will Rees and Loyek be so similarly blessed?”
“It’s up to Fleik whether he goes easy on Loyek or not. As for Rees…” He scratched his chin as he considered his sergeant, then shrugged. “It’ll be best if someone else carries his stuff. He’ll only make everyone’s life a misery if he has to put some effort in.”
“He does that anyway.” Lyrai picked up the supply list and chuckled. “I am so glad I’m not going with you. A half-moon without Rees sounds like Heirayk’s own heaven.”
“As opposed to the half-moon you’ll be spending with Willym,” Stirla said, grinning. “I’d rather carry my own kit.”
Lyrai looked longingly at the bag on the bed. “Think I could fit in your pack? I mean it’s not like you haven’t got any space.”
“Only if I can get the students to carry it.” Stirla eyed him up and down and scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Aye, I reckon Mouse could manage a runt like you.”
“Now I remember why I’m not all that bothered about being stuck with Willym.”
They shared a grin, before thoughts of Willym and Rees sobered Lyrai. “You will keep an eye on Rees around the students, especially the girls and the little lads, won’t you?”
“As my sergeant, he’s supposed to be watching me,” Stirla pointed out, since he and Lyrai were captains-in-training. “Though the thought of Rees watching me gives me the shivers.”
Lyrai grimaced. “You know what I mean.”
Recognising that his playful ploy wasn’t working, Stirla chucked his quill on his desk with a sigh. “Unfortunately I do. I’ll keep an eye on the old goat and make sure he doesn’t make anyone too miserable. Aside from me, that is, since it’s his job. Why couldn’t I have someone like Honra instead?”
Having got the assurance he needed, Lyrai smiled. “Because you’re too soft, and your flurry would walk all over you.”
“Whereas you’re too stiff,” Stirla retorted. “And your flurry could use you to board up windows and bridge small rivers.”
“But I ended up with Honra,” Lyrai said smugly, knowing how blessed he was with his easy-going sergeant.
“And now you get Willym too, you lucky thing.” Stirla’s deep chuckle was almost as smug as Lyrai’s had been, but then it was his turn to grow grave. “I hope you’ll be watching him closely too. And that little retinue he’s built up. Some potential unpleasantries in that bunch.”
“Aye,” Lyrai agreed, sighing. Only last month he’d been forced to discipline three of Willym’s students for abusing their miryhls in flight lessons. Two more had been grounded for a half-moon for dangerous conduct during exercise. Since then they’d all been relatively quiet, but he knew better than to believe them cowed. Sooner or later they’d revert to their previous behaviour and he still wasn’t sure what he would be able to do about it. For all that Aquila prided itself on its egalitarian ideals, high birth and strong, wealthy connections still held weight when it came to discipline and punishment – no matter how well earned they often were.
“Don’t look so sombre,” Stirla chided him. “It’s only Willym. If the worst happens, challenge him to a flight duel and beat the little worm hollow. You might not be much to look at, but Hurricane is. The pair of you can fly rings around him. Even Froth could manage that.”
Lyrai smiled. “Willym is quite a good flyer.”
“Not as good as you, though,” Stirla said. “Which means double the pleasure when you beat him in the simplest of tasks. Again. His face when you arrived with Hurricane!” He gave a low whistle of appreciation. “Surely that was worth all those grounded months.”
Willym was more Stirla’s enemy than Lyrai’s – his father’s status protected Lyrai from the worst of Willym’s antagonism, since it might still come in handy one day – but Lyrai couldn’t deny that it had been a joy to witness Willym’s fury when he’d realised who Hurricane belonged to. “Not quite, but it was worth them to catch his first sight of Cumulo and Mhysra together.”
Stirla chuckled gleefully. “True. I’m surprised she’s still here. I’d have expected the old rat to have launched a campaign to get her gone.”
A couple of subtle conversations with Derrain and some mysterious comments dropped by Dhori had informed Lyrai that her friends were looking out for her. “She’s more stubborn than she looks.”
“She’d have to be to have put up with Cumulo for so long,” Stirla agreed, ushering him from the room. “Now, I don’t know about you, but since I’m being relegated to nursemaid in the morning, I could do with a trip to town for a draft or two. Maybe a bottle. You coming?”
Since all Lyrai’s students were having an early night in preparation for their trip the next day and he wasn’t on sentry duty, he nodded. “I suppose someone should hang around to walk you home afterwards.” Besides it was Midsummer.
“Ha! Says Lieutenant Lightweight.”
“Whatever you say, Captain Under the Table in Two Glasses.”
Stirla punched his shoulder. “I’m not a captain yet.”
Thumping him back, Lyrai snorted. “My mistake, Lieutenant One and a Half.”
“Funny. So funny.”
“I know. How you’ll miss me.”
“I think I’ll cope.” Chuckling, Stirla hooked him in a headlock and ruffled his hair until he squirmed free. “Somehow.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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