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~ Previous Chapter ~
Uh oh… This would be why Stirla needs a keeper.
IT WAS A sad fact of life, but Stirla had to admit that Havian ale was not what it used to be. Perhaps the harvest had been poor or the taverns he’d visited had been bad – please, Maegla, let it not be because he was getting old! – but something in the tankards he’d downed the night before had really gone to his head.
Not quite as badly, he was pleased to note, as it had hit his three Riders. Rhyk, Dhenn and Theryn looked decidedly ill-favoured this morning, with Rhyk also sporting a black eye and plenty of thick stubble, looking more thug than Rider. Which might explain the eye, though that portion of the evening was a little hazy.
In the pallid light of mid-afternoon, and with the thudding headache of hindsight, Stirla was able to admit that he might have drunk more than was wise. But it had been so nice to spend an evening free from constraints. It hadn’t been a complete waste either. He distinctly remembered talking to someone about why Havia never sent anyone to the Rider selection schools and asking whether they were all cowards.
Ah, that might have been what happened to Rhyk’s eye. He winced as more of the night returned with embarrassing clarity. No wonder he had such a headache – shame mostly. Captain Hylan was counting on him to generate support amongst the ordinary folk of Misthome, in order to put pressure on the king if Heryff refused to help. Not bicker with them and carouse the night away with a bunch of half-fledged nobles. What a fine candidate for captain he was.
A groan disrupted his thoughts and he eyed his Riders. “Do you feel as bad as you look?”
“Worse,” Theryn croaked, his voice broken after some painfully off-key songs belted out full volume. Just the memory made Stirla’s temples throb. How they had escaped arrest was both a miracle and a mystery.
“Good,” Stirla said heartlessly, pouring them a glass of water each from the tray.
For the first time since he’d stumbled out of bed in search of a place to ease his overfull bladder, Stirla looked at his surroundings. The parlour was small but neat, connected to the two bedrooms he and his men had shared the night before. It was the best equipped and cleanest inn he’d ever encountered. Deep inside his tortured brain, alarm bells were ringing.
“Where are we?”
His Riders accepted their glasses with miserable shrugs.
“All a blur after my eye, sir,” Rhyk mumbled, his slurred words revealing a fat lip beneath his stubble.
“You need to shave,” Stirla ordered, spotting a bowl of warm water, towels, a razor and a mirror on the side. “You look like a damned pirate.”
Rhyk grinned, then winced and went to study his reflection. Theryn followed, offering assistance, while Dhenn poured himself some more water.
Stirla looked around the room and swore. “Lyrai’s going to skin me.”
Dhenn raised his eyebrows. “Sir?”
“We might not know where we are, Dhenn, but I can rate quality when I see it. How are we going to pay for this?” What little funds he’d been granted for his information gathering had vanished amidst a haze of sour wine and foul beer. “Gods.”
A knock on the door had him sharing a panicked glance with Dhenn, but instead of the angry innkeeper he expected, a bright-eyed young man entered. He seemed vaguely familiar.
“Evening, lieutenant. Riders.” The lad beamed, looking disgustingly healthy. “Glad to see you’ve all recovered. I invited you to lunch, but I’m not sure any of you noticed.” He glanced at Theryn and Rhyk and blushed. Stirla rubbed his eyes, hoping he wouldn’t have to explain. He really wasn’t up to it.
“Not to worry,” the lad continued over-brightly. “I’ve told Cook to expect extra for dinner. She has prepared quite a feast.”
Head pounding for reasons other than drink, Stirla weakly murmured, “Oh?”
“Our last night of luxury!” their host explained, and from his rich garments Stirla dimly recalled a name: Lord Lorfyn… Kettle? Kerrik? Ketthik! “Thought we should enjoy it while my dear papa is busy with the king. The others agreed.”
Massaging his temples, Stirla wished he’d walked off a bridge last night – a fate which he dimly recalled this lord steering him away from. Gods! What else had he done?
“You will join us, won’t you?” Lord Lorfyn sounded anxious. “There’s little point returning to your Riders now, especially once you’ve eaten. The others have brought their things already. That way we can leave together in the morning. We thought that was the best idea.”
Stirla had a sinking feeling that it was the worst idea ever, but had to check. “Leave where?”
Lorfyn smiled like a small boy given a treat. “With you! The Havian Special Force. We’re going to be the saviours of Aquila!”
Almighty Gods! Lyrai wasn’t just going to skin him, he’d flay him alive and stake him out for the crows afterwards. “Um,” he hesitated, trying to ignore the puppyish enthusiasm glowing in Lorfyn’s eyes. “About that special force. I think we may have to make a few changes…”
DESPITE THE SHORT winter afternoon leaving them no time to fly, Lyrai had enjoyed his time with Princess Neryth and her young miryhls. True, they were pretty more than functional, and probably wouldn’t last two months on active duty, but they had sweet temperaments. In a way Lyrai was glad he hadn’t had time to fly, since Hurricane was such a superior specimen he wouldn’t have been able to help showing Neryth up.
Instead he was able to leave around sunset with the princess still cherishing the absurd notion that her pair were up to, if not exceeding, Rider standard. It did no harm to let her think so.
The walk through the streets was peaceful in the gathering darkness, and Lyrai welcomed the quiet. Though Neryth hadn’t fawned over him, she had made it impossible for Lyrai to forget his royal status. Then there were the ones who hung around the princess in search of favours or basking in her reflected glory. The few who weren’t jealous had happily included Lyrai in their false adoration, making him desperate to escape. These empty streets were the sweetest sight he’d ever seen, and he was glad he’d managed to slip out of the palace with his things while everyone was busy arranging his escort.
Maegla’s bolts, he was a Rift Rider. He faced death almost daily and had fought the cursed kaz-naghkt too many times to count. He was perfectly capable of walking a scant half-mile downhill with two packs on his back. They weren’t even heavy.
“Gods save me from court life.”
Ten more paces brought him to an unguarded gate leading into the pleasure gardens. The last of his tension seeped away as he smelled the clean scent of wild mint on the bitter air. It cleared his befogged brain and he felt freed from the shackles of his birth for the first time in days.
“Sweet, sweet mint,” he murmured, snatching up a couple of leaves. Crushing them between his fingers, he breathed in the scent with a contented sigh. This was the life he wanted – wild, natural, unaffected.
Smiling, he followed Neryth’s directions around the fountains, avoided the maze and walked through the woods. Before long the branches fell back and revealed the large barn built above the landing meadow. As he headed towards the cheerful lantern set by the entrance, the door opened and Mhysra stepped out. Not noticing him, she walked along the meadow edge to a tumble of boulders overlooking the Cloud Sea.
The Stormwash glowed and flickered along the horizon. It dominated the view by day, but at night it came into its own. Lightning danced the length of the turbulent walls, overwhelming even the stars with its impressive beauty.
Leaving his bags by the door, Lyrai surrendered to his curiosity and followed Mhysra. He wanted to check that she was well and dealing with her grief. If he got to watch the Stormwash at the same time, well, it was a happy coincidence. He stubbed his toe twice and almost fell over before realising he should concentrate on the dark path beneath his feet rather than the view. He still tripped and swore, but not quite so clumsily or so often. Needless to say, Mhysra was waiting when he finally arrived.
She didn’t look at him, but neither did she jump when he squeezed onto the rock beside her. It was a chilly night and she’d left a patch of blanket for him to sit on. After a moment’s consideration, he draped his cloak over them both and pressed his shoulder against hers. In the flicker of the distant lightning, he saw her lips curve in a small smile.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” he said, breathing in the sharp wind flowing straight off the ‘Wash.
“I’ve never been so close to it before,” she agreed, voice rough after months of silence.
It was his turn to be struck dumb.
Glancing at him, she smiled again, but it was tinged with melancholy. “The air’s so clean here. My head feels clear, my throat isn’t tight. I can breathe.”
Though he didn’t understand what any of that had to do with her lost voice, he was too pleased to hear her speaking to question further. “That’s good.”
They sat in comfortable silence, watching the lightning flicker. A chain of jagged lines ran sideways along the wall in sprawling spider webs.
Lyrai nudged her shoulder with his. “I bet Cumulo’s pleased.”
She chuckled quietly. “Once he’d finished lecturing me.”
He grinned, able to picture it perfectly. “He missed you.”
“I know,” she sighed.
“We all did.”
She swallowed and stared at where her fingers clutched the edge of his cloak. “I couldn’t. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. It hurt.”
“It doesn’t hurt anymore?” he asked, knowing she would never stop missing her brother, but hoping she had found a measure of peace.
She shook her head. “No, speaking doesn’t hurt anymore.” Inhaling deeply as the wind buffeted them, she turned to him and smiled. “I can breathe here.”
He looked into her starlit eyes and smiled back. “It’s good to have you back.”
She stared at him for a long moment, smile fading. “Thank you.” The wind swirled around them, tangling their hair and covering both their faces.
Shaking the hair from his eyes, he smiled and said nothing as they both returned to watching the lightning. Later, when she grew tired and he pulled her to lean against him, he said nothing then either. Sometimes there was nothing to say. Words weren’t everything. Even if it took breaking complete silence to fully appreciate it.
~ Next Chapter ~
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