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~ Previous Chapter ~
After everything that’s happened, it seems that some things will always remain the same.
IT WAS A sombre group that met in the officer’s mess the next morning. They weren’t there to eat, but to plan. Sitting on either side of Lyrai were his fellow captains-in-training, Stirla and Hlen, though neither of their captain-instructors were present. Of the four senior lieutenants who had been at Aquila, only one remained: Hylan’s Lieutenant Brathyn. While only two of the eight sergeants had made the trip. Without either of their lieutenants. It was a mess, a gods’ blighted disaster, and Captain Hylan was the unlucky man who had the responsibility of fixing it.
“Still hoping to become captains, lads?” Hylan asked, giving a weary groan as he sank onto the bench opposite and poured himself some wine. “Not too late to change your minds.”
“Though we could do with you.” Kaskad’s current captain, Nordei, was a stocky wall of a man best known for his wealth of inappropriate jokes. At the moment he looked as far from laughing as the rest of them, drained after a day spent drawing up lists of the living, the missing and the dead. “A bad business.”
No one felt the need to disagree with that.
“Gods,” Hylan groaned, with all the agony of a man asking why me?, and rubbed his hands briskly over his face. “Nordei, any idea where General Dreffen is?”
The other captain grimaced. “You know what Dreff’s like. Not one for keeping in touch. Thinks it’s safer if he’s secretive.” Which meant that the Rift Rider General of the West could be anywhere across his range. Though hopefully not beyond it. Which had happened before.
“Then I suppose we’d best find him before we make any final decisions.” Hylan rubbed his face again and smoothed a palm over his bald head. “All right. Yhen you’re with Brathyn, since Lykano won’t be needing you anymore.” The sergeant bowed his head at the reminder of his deceased lieutenant and nodded in acknowledgement. Brathyn murmured his acceptance too, since his own sergeant had been killed before the siege began. “And you already know each other, so I trust you can work together. Hlen, you’re with Jheko.” Sergeant to the missing Imaino. “I think you’ll do well together. Jhek, try and get him out of his shell a bit more. Hlen, if you want your captaincy you have to start pushing yourself forward. See what you can do without Willym around to hold you back.”
The two men nodded and traded assessing glances as the captain looked across the table. “You two make a good team. Stirla, I’m counting on you to keep everyone’s spirits up. Lyrai, I’m counting on you to keep him in line, and since you’ve a bit of court training I’m sending you down to Havia. Isn’t your brother betrothed to one of Heryff’s daughters?”
“Aye, sir,” Lyrai agreed, a little reluctantly. “I think the wedding was at Midsummer.” Unsurprisingly, it had been months since news of the outside world had last reached Aquila. Even something as monumental as the marriage of the Imercian heir couldn’t bypass a siege.
“Good. Play up your family connections and see if you can get some help out of the Old Pyrefly. Stirla, you trawl the taverns and play the genial fellow. Catch up on gossip, and see if you can discover the whereabouts of the general. Who’s in Havia at the moment, Nordei?”
The captain scratched his scraggy blond head. “Korfei and Grynt. East and west. Neither are at Misthome, though. The king doesn’t like Riders near his daughters.”
“Two of his sisters eloped with some,” Brathyn pointed out, raising wry smiles.
“True enough,” Hylan acknowledged, pointing a warning finger at the lieutenants opposite. “Best behaviour, boys. We need all the help we can get, so play nice with the princesses.”
Stirla assumed an expression of utmost innocence. “I’m always nice,” he protested, then spoiled it all with a grin. “Especially when I’m playing.”
The captain sighed. “Lyrai…”
“I’ll put him in harness, sir. Make him work the taverns until he has no time for princesses.”
“Ah, ‘tis a hard life,” Stirla bemoaned, wincing as Jheko slapped the back of his head.
“Where do you want us, sir?” the sergeant asked.
“You and Hlen have Scudia.” Hylan looked at Nordei for further information.
“Shouldn’t be a problem,” the other captain agreed. “King and court keep largely to one place, and they like having Riders around. Friendly and simple, you should do fine.”
“Brath and Yhen, I’m giving you Kevian.” The northernmost kingdom of the Greater West was also the roughest, with the most scattered population. “You’ve been there before, so you know the rules. Queen Sithaka is young, but she’s no one’s fool. If the general’s hiding at any of the courts, he’s most likely there.” Again Hylan left Nordei to fill in the details of names and places, grimacing when he was done.
“That leaves me Etheria. Wonderful.”
“At least it’s not Sutherall,” Nordei said, jostling the other captain out of his gloom.
“True enough,” he agreed, but looked distracted. “I can only hope Myran made it east as he planned. I sent messengers from Heighlen, but with Aquila out they’ll have to go round by Ihra and North Point. It’ll take months for news to reach them. Let’s hope the kaz-naghkt don’t strike before then. Gods, this is such a mess.”
As the captain rubbed his bloodshot eyes again, no one argued. Instead they settled down to divide the remaining Riders and students into groups to provide each envoy with a guard, then left to prepare for their journeys as best they could.
“CAN ANYONE NAME the five chief exports of Kevian? Yes, Kloe?”
Lieutenant Byrne’s voice flowed over Mhysra as she stared out of the top floor window of Kaskad. The canyon was murky today, with sleet and dust thick in the air. The sky above was pewter grey, while a sluggish river of clouds drifted down below. A high scream drew her attention upward again as a squad of miryhls dove between the rock walls. Scouts returning.
“And the principle use for coal? Yes, er, Jaymes?”
“A fuel source, for both homes and industry, especially where fresh wood is scarce.”
The sound of her friend’s voice snapped Mhysra’s attention back to the classroom, and she cursed herself for drifting off yet again. In order to get the students out of the way, Hylan and Nordei had decided to mix them in with Kaskad’s current student population, regardless of what they were studying. It had seemed like a good idea this morning, except Mhysra couldn’t focus. In her defence it had been months since she’d last sat in a proper lesson, and though Lieutenant Byrne seemed a nice enough man, if a little strict, geography had never been her favourite subject. Even when Captain Fredkhen was teaching.
She wondered where the kind captain was now and hoped he was well. Though if Bovei’s rambling could be believed and he’d been captured –
“… with copper, er, Mhysra?”
The sound of her name made her jump and she stared at the serious lieutenant. His greying hair was braided in tight rows, making his forehead seem huge. And formidable when he arched an enquiring black eyebrow.
“It is Mhysra, isn’t it?” He checked the list he’d made at the start of the lesson, and she nodded. “Well, Mhysra, since I now have your attention, perhaps you might tell me…”
The rest of his words were lost in a rush of noise. Blinking, she rubbed her aching temples and watched the lieutenant’s lips shaping words she couldn’t hear. She opened her mouth to apologise, to excuse herself, anything, but the noise became a heavy buzz and her throat tightened. The more she fought against it, the worse it became. The buzz became a hiss as an invisible fist squeezed her neck.
She couldn’t breathe. Gods! What was happening? She clutched at her desk, gasped in a desperate search for air and the world went dark.
~ Next Chapter ~
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