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~ Previous Chapter ~
Time for a real Havian welcome!
THOUGH SMALL, THE room was at least private as the three lieutenants entered and settled in. Rubbing at the tension in his neck, Lyrai walked towards the window, while Stirla eased into an armchair with a groan.
“Great Gods, cushions! Just when I’d forgotten what civilised life felt like.”
Seiryn sat opposite him with a grunt. “I’m getting too old for this.”
Watching the older man’s face, Lyrai didn’t think the lieutenant was talking about the comfort of their surroundings. The few times Lyrai had met Seiryn before, he’d noted the man’s lack of patience with everyday nicieties, not to mention his interesting notions of self-consequence and what Rift Riders were entitled to. Being stationed on Havia must have been torture. Or punishment.
“How long have you and Grynt been here?” Stirla asked, pouring wine from a decanter.
“Three and a half years,” Seiryn growled, pouring a glass for himself and draining it. “Three and a half very long, very tedious years.”
“Just one and a half more to go then,” Stirla congratulated, smiling at the older lieutenant’s glower. “At least you weren’t at Aquila this past summer.”
Seiryn winced. “Maegla be praised for Her mercies, big and small.”
“Aye to that,” Stirla mumbled, draining his wine.
Satisfied they had worn out the laboured conversation, Lyrai turned to look out of the window. They were on the third floor of the city guardhouse in the lowest wall of the city. Though in terms of status they were barely within the bounds of Misthome, the view was spectacular. Looking south over the winter gardens, the skeleton-branched trees, shrubs and evergreens were dark against the first dusting of snow. Below them stretched the rippling Cloud Sea and, beyond that, the roiling wall of the Stormwash shone white and silver, touched with gold and pink as the sun dipped over the western mountains.
He would gladly wait all day for such a view. Especially if it meant escaping being a prince.
A rattle at the door interrupted his thoughts and a small retinue of private guards entered with two lords, one young, one old. The guards wore a black and dark blue livery, which was echoed in the richer materials of the young lord’s outfit. The other man was more resplendent still in dark blue velvets, edged with silver, and a fur-lined cloak.
It was he who walked into the centre of the room, gloved hands spread wide in welcome. “Prince Lyrai?” he asked in Westron, clinging to his authority though clearly uncertain whom he was supposed to be addressing. A glance in Seiryn’s direction was answered by a dismissive shake of his silvered head. He eyed Stirla’s indolent posture, the wineglass dangling insouciantly from his fingertips and barely noticed Lyrai standing in the shadows.
Tempting though it was to let his friend pretend to be him, there were plenty in Havia’s court who would recognise Lyrai’s likeness to his brother, Henryn. The dark-skinned, brown-eyed, broad-shouldered Stirla had nothing in common with pale, blond Henryn, except in solidness of stature. But while Stirla’s came from hard work and exercise, Henryn’s was entirely due to fine wines, rich food and laziness.
Since Lyrai didn’t think it would make a particularly good impression if he tried to dupe the official sent to greet him, he sighed and stepped into the light. “Well met, my lord.”
The older man turned, gave him a look of narrow-eyed assessment and adopted a social smile. “Highness, it is a great honour to make your acquaintance. I am Eorn Ketthik, whom His Majesty sends with sincere greetings. And my heir, Lord Lorfyn Ketthik.”
“The honour is mine, my lords,” Lyrai said, all formal politeness. “Allow me to introduce my fellow officers. Lieutenant Seiryn, serving in Havia under Captain Grynt, and Lieutenant Stirla. He and I both serve under Captain Myran.”
Lord Ketthik gave the faintest of nods in Seiryn’s direction. “Captain Grynt is known to us.”
Ignoring his father’s cool demeanour, Lord Lorfyn perked up. “Truly, you serve under Captain Myran? Is he as legendary as rumour tells? Whose is that magnificent marble miryhl I saw arrive this afternoon? Is he fast?”
Realising they’d found a kindred spirit, Lyrai and Stirla shared a grin, all too happy to answer such enthusiasm. But Lord Ketthik shot his son an impatient glower before they could begin. “His Highness has important business with the king, Lorfyn. He has no time for foolish questions.”
Exchanging another look as the lad’s shoulders drooped, Stirla raised an eyebrow and Lyrai shrugged. There was nothing he could do about the situation he was trapped in, but there was no reason why Stirla had to suffer too. Lyrai could lay their problems before the king well enough on his own.
“His Highness might not have time, my lord, but I would be happy to answer any questions you have,” Stirla offered kindly. “For instance, the marble miryhl is called Hurricane, and though fast, he isn’t the fastest in our flurry.”
Lorfyn’s eyes widened like a child’s. “Is he yours?”
Stirla chuckled and shook his head. “No, mine was the bigger female on the right. Atyrn’s my girl, while poor Hurricane is stuck with Lyrai there.”
Lord Ketthik looked scandalised by such irreverence, so Lyrai deemed it time to leave. His suggestion that they go somewhere more appropriate to talk was greeted with relief, until Ketthik realised that his son had every intention of remaining behind with Stirla and Seiryn. Since that was what Lyrai would have preferred to do himself, he pretended to be irritated at being kept waiting – Lord Ketthik couldn’t hustle him out of the room fast enough, full of effusive apologies, leaving a curt order to a guard to ensure his son didn’t bother the Riders for too long.
Stirla winked at Lyrai as he reluctantly left, and he hoped his friend didn’t corrupt the youth too much. Lorfyn may have been over the accepted age for a Rider student, but high birth and plenty of money had removed such barriers before. It was also clear that Lord Ketthik was against such a life for his heir. Lyrai hoped Stirla knew what he was up to. Offending the king’s emissary was not the best way to secure assistance.
Sighing, he followed Lord Ketthik out of the guardhouse and mounted the offered horsat. It would be a steep ride up through the dusk-darkened city and Lyrai was relieved not to be expected to walk it. As they moved off and the guards surrounded them, Lord Ketthik rode at Lyrai’s side and began a long stream of compliments.
Before they reached the end of the first street, Lyrai’s head was pounding, his neck ached with tension and he was slumped in the saddle. Welcome to Misthome. It was going to be a long night.
“NOT THE BEST place I’ve ever put up in, but it could be worse,” Derrain sighed, climbing into the loft above the eyries and joining his friends on the badly swept floor. The whole structure smelled strongly of leather, hay and horsats, reminding him of Storm Seasons grounded at Wrentheria. Unfortunately the quality of the scents was not matched by the level of comfort and convenience. The miryhls had started grumbling the moment they entered the barn. As well they might, poor things. The wooden walls were riddled with gaps, letting in all manner of drafts, and they had no perches. Derrain could only hope they wouldn’t be spending too many cold nights roosting on the floor.
Unsurprisingly Cumulo’s complaints had been the loudest, shaming startled and chagrined glances out of the Havian guardsman. Ever more often these days, the young Wingborn showed less and less concern about being overheard. In fact he’d started speaking to several people directly who were neither family nor his Rider. Usually Mhysra ignored him or was openly amused. Today, she wrinkled her nose in distasteful agreement.
“Brings back memories of Nimbys, doesn’t it?” Derrain said, sprawling beside her and resting his saddle across his knees before reaching for the leather soap she’d was using.
She looked up from cleaning Cumulo’s bridle with an expression of mock despair.
Examining the worn soles of her flying boots, Corin rubbed her nose in confusion. “The Nimbys eyries were nothing like this.”
“Not the Rider eyries,” Derrain agreed, tossing Jaymes a cleaning cloth as he joined them, “but you never saw Cumulo in the city before Mhysra joined up.”
“As bad as this?” Corin asked doubtfully.
“Worse,” Rider Theryn put in, reaching over to borrow the buckle grease.
“Cue was miserable,” Derrain said.
“The Corps keep trying to shut the place down,” added Rider Dhenn. “But while regular folk need them for horsats and pyreflies they’ll stay open.”
“Since there’s few enough miryhls outside the Riders these days, we don’t have much cause for complaint. Unless we’re caught short in the lower city and need to hole up for a while.” Theryn handed the grease back to Mhysra with a smile. “Good thing someone packs prepared. What would we do without you, student?”
To Derrain’s amusement, Mhysra blushed and ducked her head with a bashful shrug.
Corin glowered irritably, muttering, “I wish he’d smile at me like that. You’re packing for me in future.”
Mhysra’s only reply was a snort.
“So what happens now?” Jaymes asked, as Dhori finally climbed up from the eyries with his tack, some weapons and a cleaning kit of his own.
Dropping Corin’s bow on her lap in passing, he settled beside Jaymes and shrugged. “Waiting, mostly.”
“It’s always waiting in Misthome,” Rider Wye agreed, shifting to join them and share Dhori’s kit. “Nine times out of ten you’ll be ignored.”
“Is that wise?” Corin asked, counting the arrows in her quiver. “Ignoring Riders, I mean?”
Chuckling, Theryn snagged the saddle soap. “As if the Old Pyrefly cares. He provides places and funds for our use, and we’re mostly content.”
“Better than Kevian,” Dhenn said, and all the Riders shivered.
“What’s wrong with Kevian?” several students chorused.
“The Queen,” was the emphatic answer.
“She’s young,” Theryn explained.
“Romantic,” Dhenn added.
“Very fond of stories and uniforms,” Theryn agreed. “Particularly young captains and lieutenants, if she can get them. Otherwise any of us will do.”
“Woman has taste,” Corin approved to general amusement.
Except Wye grimaced and shook his head. “She’s married, but too many of her ladies aren’t. And where she leads, they always follow.”
“Much to the delight of the young lords,” Dhenn grumbled. “Not. Foolish hotheads, as if we’re interested in collecting court ornaments to dangle off our arms, let alone marrying any of them, when we have real work to do.”
“Speak for yourself,” Theryn said, with a wink and a grin.
Rolling his eyes, Wye continued, “If one of us even looks at them wrong, they challenge us all to duels. Idiots.”
“If they’re not trailing around after you like a pack of sycophantic puppies.” Theryn grimaced. “What’s it like to be a Rider? May I ride your miryhl? How fast can you go? Let’s race, you on your bird, me on my interbred horsat. How many things have you killed? Do kaz-naghkt really exist?” He shook his head in disgust. “Gods, just thinking of them gives me a headache. I have every sympathy with Brath’s lot.”
“There’s no peace for Riders in Kevian, but Havia’s got plenty to spare.” Dhenn smiled at the students. “Enjoy it while it lasts. We’ll be heading back north again soon enough, where peace and quiet will be very hard to come by.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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