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~ Previous Chapter ~
A longer than usual update this morning, since there’s no easy way to split this scene. I’m sure Stirla would have preferred I’d found a way, though. Poor lieutenant, his stay is getting worse.
“There is no possible way that I, or my men, can be ready to leave today, lieutenant. By the time we’ve gathered our gear, and taken leave of Corporal Ferryth and the city, it will be dark. Therefore it would be foolish to set out today.”
Stirla looked at Lieutenant Seiryn and knew he stood no chance of changing the older man’s mind. He was all serene obstinacy. Stirla clenched his jaw so hard his teeth creaked; they had to leave today. “Fine, you and your men take proper leave of the city. I, meanwhile, will be going today, along with my Riders. You may return to Captain Grynt. We head east from here, so should have no further need of your escort.”
Seiryn narrowed his eyes. “You would go before receiving word from Lieutenant Lyrai?”
“I told you,” Stirla repeated for what seemed the fiftieth time, “Lyrai’s gone. He flew south this morning, and with Lyrai gone there’s no reason to stay.”
The other lieutenant snorted. “Nothing I’ve heard of Lyrai leads me to believe he would be so idiotic as to fly towards the Stormwash, not even in pursuit of a pair of lunatic students.”
“Which shows how well you know him,” Stirla replied, wondering if there was a place in existence Lyrai wouldn’t go in defence of his students. Truly, his friend took responsibility too seriously sometimes.
“I’ll wait until Lyrai sends word,” Seiryn announced with pompous finality. “You may do whatever you wish, though I will be writing to Captain Hylan about this.”
As if that was much of a threat. Stirla shook his head and turned his back on the stubborn old fool. As a man who hated Misthome and everything it stood for under Heryff’s rule, Seiryn was oddly reluctant to leave. If Stirla didn’t know better, he’d have accused the man of being contrary. Perhaps he should tell him about the Havian Special Force – that’d get him moving. It would also earn Stirla a lecture or five, and he really wasn’t in the mood for chastisement.
Shaking his head, he climbed down to the eyries. His men could easily be ready to leave this afternoon, regardless of what Seiryn the Fusspot said. At the bottom of the ladder, however, one glance was enough to tell him that his Riders were missing. As were their miryhls. Grumbling, he wove between the remaining eagles and pushed open the rickety doors.
The sun was shining over Havia, making the piles of slushy snow glisten. Pretty, in a freezing cold way. Oblivious to the temperature, his students had roped the older Riders and all their miryhls into a slush-war, which involved a lot of running around, throwing mud and slush, ducking, yelping and accusing the other team of cheating. Stirla grinned – that was his sort of game.
He turned towards the unfamiliar voice with a sigh and looked the newcomer up and down. The woman was of medium height and build, dark in the Havian way, and though her clothes were unusually casual, they were also of the finest fabrics. Expensive. There was also no denying the gold rings in both ears, each with a diamond bead.
Hiding a grimace, Stirla bowed in the presence of royalty. “May I help you, Highness?” Since the princess looked only a few years older than him, and wasn’t wearing a scrap of lace, he assumed this was Neryth, the second heir. The one rumour claimed would truly rule once the current king was dead.
Princess Neryth inclined her head. “I have come to see Prince Lyrai, if he is available.”
Trust Lyrai to have been meeting up with royalty while Stirla got merry downtown. Once or twice Stirla had felt a twinge of envy for his friend’s social position, but mostly he wouldn’t exchange places with him for the world.
He studied Neryth again and smiled. Not for any number of worlds. “I’m afraid Lyrai isn’t here. Is it something I might assist with?” he asked, dredging up his much neglected manners.
Unfortunately at that moment something wet and slimy struck the back of his head. “Watch out!” came the warning, far too late to be of use. Followed by snickers and guffaws. “Sorry, sir!”
Stirla pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the slush off the back of his neck. “You will be.” Turning to Neryth, he couldn’t help wondering why a royal princess had decided to visit. A miryhl shriek behind him made him wince, and he dreaded to think what the princess could see over his shoulder. The woman looked more amused than shocked, thankfully, but who really knew with royalty?
As Stirla tucked his handkerchief into his pocket, the princess’ eyes narrowed with humour. “Lively, aren’t they?”
Relieved she hadn’t taken offence over the near miss with the slush ball, Stirla smiled. “Bored, mostly. After so long in the saddle, they’ve had enough rest and are eager to be busy again. Such is youth. My apologies for their behaviour, Highness. Do you wish them to stop?”
Neryth looked genuinely surprised. “Gods, no, let them enjoy themselves, lieutenant. Staying here can hardly be easy.”
Uncertain how to answer, Stirla chose the most diplomatic option and stayed silent. Half-turning, he could watched Atyrn pounce on Thetik to hold him down while the students plastered slush in his hair.
“Justice is swift amongst the Rift Riders,” the princess murmured, her smile widening a little. “Would that be your miryhl holding him down?”
Stirla laughed. “My Atyrn doesn’t take it well when others disrespect me.”
The princess looked at the miryhl again, her eyes bright. “Magnificent. A truly splendid specimen.”
Well, after that Stirla had to like her. “My thanks, Highness. Pardon me if I agree entirely.”
Neryth chuckled. “Your pride is justified under the circumstances.” She fell silent, and Stirla waited, curious as to why she had come. “I do not wish to seem rude, but why are you still here? Prince Lyrai gave the impression your stay would be brief. Not that you are unwelcome,” she hastened to add, then grimaced. “Well, no more than usual. What I mean to say is I expected to hear of your departure this morning. The prince gave the impression he was eager to leave.” She shook her head. “Can’t think why.”
Intrigued about what had passed between this princess and his friend, Stirla sighed. “It’s my intention to leave tomorrow, Highness. You need not fear we’ll outstay our welcome.” Such as it is, he added silently.
“Such as it is,” Neryth said wryly, proving she was a reader of minds. “Still, it gives me a chance to look at some real miryhls. I showed Lyrai my own yesterday and was sorry not to have the chance to meet his.”
“Ah.” Stirla wasn’t sure how much to reveal about the current whereabouts of the errant lieutenant. He studied the bouncing miryhls and ducking Riders for a moment, then opted for something near the truth. “I’m afraid you still won’t, Highness. Lyrai isn’t here. He and a handful of students left this morning.”
“Oh.” Though she sounded disappointed, the princess’ eyes were uncomfortably sharp, one eyebrow arching slightly. “That is a shame, but it cannot be helped. I would be just as honoured to meet your miryhl, and those of your Riders.” She looked at the raucous group, smiling her half smile. “Perhaps when they have settled down.”
Knowing a hint when it was thrown at him, Stirla sighed for the game he definitely wouldn’t be joining now and strode onto the field. “Riders!”
They stopped at once, heads turning in his direction. Slush balls were dropped unheeded to the ground as clothes were straightened, faces wiped and feathers ruffled into order. It was one thing to tease Stirla at the edge of a field, another to do it when he used that voice. Glances darted over his shoulder and the Riders belatedly realised they had serious company.
“Cloud scutt,” one student muttered. “Royalty. And I’ve got mud in my teeth. If me mam hears of this, she’ll tan my hide.”
Struggling to conceal his amusement, Stirla clasped his hands behind his back and paced along the ragged line of Riders, students and miryhls. “We have a visitor,” he pointed out affably. “Princess Neryth has done you the honour of requesting to meet your miryhls.”
Embarrassed groans drifted along the line, while the miryhls fluffed themselves up caught between excitement and chagrin.
“Your Highness,” Stirla called, turning to where he’d left the princess, relieved to find her smiling. “Please, come and meet my squad, such as it is.”
The last words raised a few blushes, even beneath the mud, as they studied their filthy boots.
“Well met, Riders and miryhls,” Neryth greeted. “May I ask whose aim caught the lieutenant so precisely?”
There was suddenly a wide space around Thetik, though his hand shot out to keep Rhyk beside him. Both Riders looked considerably worse for wear, covered head to foot with mud, except for smeared streaks where they’d wiped their eyes.
At Stirla’s arched eyebrow, Thetik cleared his throat. “Ah… that was me, Highness. But it was Rhyk’s idea,” he added, before the full blame could fall.
“Indeed?” Neryth looked between the two as they twitched miserably. “Well, you seem to have been punished. Both of you. Excellent shot, by the way,” she added casually, ignoring the ha-told-you-so punch Thetik gave Rhyk’s arm. “Are these miryhls yours?”
With that question Neryth turned from royalty to ordinary Rider as the others gathered eagerly around to discuss miryhls, miryhl-care and who they deemed the best eagle in existence. Stirla could hardly believe the woman he’d first met that morning, with her slightly stiff and aloof demeanour, was the same one now arguing with Kerryl and Derrain about the benefits of speed versus endurance. When others piled into the argument and things progressed towards threats of violence, Neryth slipped away to rejoin the head-shaking Stirla.
“A fine squad, lieutenant. And a wonderful collection of miryhls. I see now that, though I love my pair, they are nothing by Rider standards. Pretty, sleek and swift, but lacking the grit your birds need to survive.” She sighed, running covetous eyes over the miryhls preening idly while their bondeds declared war. “But perhaps it is best,” she murmured. “This way I may keep my miryhls without feeling guilty about taking them away from where they are needed.”
Stirla said nothing, once more unsure what was expected, and with no diplomatic escape.
The princess eyed him slyly. “Unless, of course, I join the Havian Special Force.”
He stared at Neryth with a mixture of disbelief and dismay. “Beg pardon?”
“I received an interesting visit yesterday afternoon,” the princess said. “You have my deepest sympathies, lieutenant. Lorfyn is nothing if not tenacious, and has been obsessed by all things Rift Riders since he was a boy.”
“He’s still a boy,” Stirla grumbled, thrown off balance by the princess’ amusement.
“He’s one and twenty,” Neryth corrected. “Though I see how his behaviour could be viewed as such. Still, for all his enthusiasms and boyish tendencies, I assure you he is not a child.”
“It doesn’t matter. There is no such thing as a Havian Special Force.” Realising his exasperation had made him sharp, Stirla rubbed his head. “Forgive me, Highness, my days have been trying of late.”
Neryth waved a dismissive hand. “Understandable. Lord Lorfyn has that effect on the best of us. Still, it’s a shame there will be no special force. It sounded interesting.”
There was a sinking sensation in Stirla’s stomach as he croaked, “How so?”
“Hmm?” Neryth pretended to watch the Riders and students, who were devising a series of tests to prove which miryhl was best. “Well, since my father promised Prince Lyrai whatever aid he could to help the Riders regain Aquila, this force seems an ideal way to fulfil his pledge.”
Only if it scared the nobles into paying heavily to prevent such a force being dispatched, thus keeping their heirs safely at home. Stirla might be willing to pay himself, if it meant he never saw Lord Lorfyn again.
“Just a thought,” the princess said in the face of his silence. “All rudimentary training and kit would at least be paid for by the crown. As things currently stand, it seems Lorfyn is prepared to lead his band of semi-willing friends after you, on whatever flying beasts they can find, regardless of funding or permission.”
“Ah.” Understanding dawned, and Stirla smiled. “Came begging feathers from you, did he?”
The princess inclined her head. “He seemed quite putout when I said no. Claimed there was an international conspiracy keeping him from miryhl-back.”
“Gods, if only there were.” Stirla laughed and pinched the bridge of his nose against the headache building at the thought of that damned special force. “Did he come alone, or had he already lied to his friends about Lyrai providing miryhls for them all?”
“He said Lyrai promised that?” Neryth choked with disbelief. “Heirayk’s fire. He choose his target poorly there. Your princely friend only agreed to see my miryhls to ensure they were being properly looked after. Not that he said so, but I swear he entered my eyrie prepared to start an international incident by removing them should there have been the slightest sign of mistreatment.”
Stirla could picture the look on his friend’s face perfectly. “In all fairness, Highness, any Rider would do the same. We know what a precious gift we’ve been granted, and jealousy guard our rights.”
The princess gave a surprisingly sweet smile. “I understand entirely. But Lorfyn told me it was you who said this, then reneged on your promise.”
Fists clenching with rage, Stirla forced himself to relax. “That boy will be the death of me.”
“I believe his father would agree.”
Which didn’t comfort Stirla one bit. “Thank you for the warning, Highness. You’ve reminded me why we must leave tomorrow.”
“While it is always an honour to assist the Riders, you have misunderstood.” When Stirla raised his eyebrows, Neryth smiled deviously. “I am not trying to warn you, lieutenant. I am trying to join you.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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