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~ Previous Chapter ~
Urgh. This week hasn’t been great. Electricians technically still haven’t finished and will be back one day in the nebulous future to do a few final things. I also have a cold and am feeling sorry for myself.
But have some Dragongift anyway! There will be an update today, tomorrow and Sunday, since today and tomorrow’s updates are both a little longer than usual. If I’d split them by scene there would have been two really short updates and two still too big ones, so have two big chunks instead.
And in case you’ve forgotten everything since the last time I updated, Mhysra and co are still hanging out with dragons, Stirla is still plagued with nobles and Mouse… will be in tomorrow’s update.
Enjoy, my lovelies, and may you have had/be having a much less frustrating week than me.
The Cleansed Lands
The whisper broke through Corin’s dreamless sleep and she grumbled as she settled deeper into the bed. It was so soft and she was so tired. They’d talked late with Reglian, discussing everything, finding no answers. It was just so exciting to be somewhere new, with dragons, real dragons. So tiring too, after all that flying, then the fighting, then the talking. It was no wonder she was so sleepy – and this bed was so soft…
Muttering dark threats, she turned over, still less than half awake.
She batted the unknown voice away from her ear and hunched her shoulder.
Outside, Corin. Come outside.
She stuck her head under the pillow in a futile attempt to keep the wretched whispers away. What good was outside? There were dragons inside – and all those strange little lizard people who cooked the most marvellous food. She wondered what breakfast would be like…
Corin. Come. Jaymes.
She sat up. “Oh, Gods, not again.”
Hands on her head, she looked around the room she’d been given. Bright fingers of daylight peeked around the edges of the shutters, showing that morning was here. Across the room Mhysra slept on oblivious, proving to Corin that it was too early to wake, sunshine or not.
“Go away.” Grumbling, she settled down again, hoping she’d been dreaming.
Come, Corin. Come, Jaymes. Come now. Come fast. Please.
Corin sat up again with a groan of defeat.
She pushed away the covers.
Swinging her legs out of bed, she reached for the clothes an unseen hand must have cleaned for her during her far-too-short sleep. It was the please that did it, although once the voice had mentioned Jaymes she’d known she was doomed. Mostly because she’d never dream Jaymes’ name. Not that she didn’t like him, but he wasn’t her type. She also knew Jaymes would go, whether she did or not, and she didn’t want to be left out. Add to that the gathering urgency, followed by soft pleas getting weaker, and she was done.
“I am an idiot,” she muttered, pulling on her boots and shrugging into her jacket. “A complete and utter fool.” As she left the room, she almost collided with a tousle-haired Jaymes and reflected that at least she wasn’t the only one.
She rolled her eyes. “We’re coming.”
“As fast as we can,” Jaymes promised. “Which should be interesting, since I’ve no idea where we’re going. You?” He raised his eyebrows at Corin and she shook her head on the way down the stairs. “Great.”
Show. Come now. Please.
“We are,” Corin grumbled, stepping out into the courtyard that led to the miryhl eyries.
Before she could head in that direction, Jaymes grabbed her arm and tugged her down a smaller path leading off to the left. “This way.”
Frowning, she shook him off and took a stubborn step towards the eyries.
No! cried the voice, making them both wince at the unaccustomed volume and shrillness. Wrong way. It dropped to a humble level and added, Please.
“I guess we go this way,” Corin muttered, rubbing her aching head as she followed Jaymes down the overgrown path to where ivy had all but covered a rotting door. As they broke through it to reveal a pool with steam curling off the surface, the voice purred approvingly inside Corin’s mind.
“Glad someone’s happy.”
Jaymes grinned over his shoulder and walked on, taking them beyond the walls of the Archives and through a quiet woodland to the wider world ahead. Neither noticed the distance or how much time passed, all they knew was the need to keep going until they found the voice whispering inside their minds.
* * *
STIRLA TUGGED NERVOUSLY on his cuffs and rolled his shoulders, remembering why he hated his dress uniform. White breeches were bad enough, but putting this much red on a man of his stature was like painting a barn door. Skinny runts like Lyrai could just about pull it off, but Stirla knew he looked like a fool. A fool who had to walk past his Riders, all of whom for no fathomable reason were still gathered in the landing courtyard.
It was Stirla’s first visit to the East Havian Rider base and so far he was impressed. A sprawling stone structure built in the days when Riders were still favoured by the monarchy, its clean lines and sun-bleached stone reminded him poignantly of Aquila. Folded around the edges of a sharp peak that jutted out over the Cloud Sea, there was no sheltered valley for Sherpoint – but the view was amazing.
The moment he exited the guest wing the courtyard fell silent. With snow on the ground, the miryhls had long since taken to the eyries, but their human bondeds had nothing better to do than wait in the cold to watch their lieutenant walk to his execution.
He was halfway across the courtyard, aware that every eye was on him, when someone shouted, “Lieutenant, wait!”
Stirla closed his eyes and squeezed the bridge of his nose. “Derry,” he pleaded.
“Huh. And here’s me fresh out of miracles,” Derrain replied, abandoning the supplies he’d been pretending to sort through to step into Lorfyn’s path. “Lieutenant Stirla’s been called to see Captain Korfei, my lord. It won’t do to keep him waiting.”
Called was a polite way of saying ordered in no uncertain terms to appear in the captain’s presence within a half-bell of his arrival – or find somewhere else to spend the night.
“I know.” Lorfyn brushed past Derrain as if he didn’t exist. “That’s why I’m here.”
Stirla spun to stare at the lordling. “Excuse me?”
“For our meeting with the captain,” Lorfyn said, beaming. “I didn’t want to be late, so I am afraid I rushed my toilette. I do hope the captain will not object to my linen, though it is sadly crushed, and I simply hadn’t enough time to tie my neckcloth correctly. But since Riders dress informally, I assumed it wouldn’t appear too rude.”
“Good Gods, no!” Stirla half-shouted, unable to bear the thought of meeting Captain Korfei with this idiot alongside. It was bad enough that he’d brought him here in the first place.
In his own world as always, Lorfyn gave a relieved smile. “Oh, excellent, I had hoped it would not. Though I must say your jacket and breeches look very fine, lieutenant.”
“I believe that panicked expostulation was against your presence and intentions, Lord Lorfyn, not your woeful neckwear.” The lazy drawl drew all eyes across the courtyard as a ray of light pierced the overcast clouds, illuminating Princess Neryth in Heirayk’s blessing. Stirla had always appreciated a dramatic entrance, especially one so impressively presented. Although how the princess had managed to keep her silver pantaloons, white shirt, frothing lace cuffs and blue velvet coat so spotless and crisp during their journey so far, he had no idea. Perhaps there was a touch of magic about royalty, after all. The circlet on Neryth’s brow certainly glistened like an enchantment. One cast to bring Stirla nothing but ill luck.
The sunlight faded and Neryth strode confidently across the courtyard, the motion all wrong in an outfit designed for fluttering hand gestures and mincing steps. Such as Lorfyn was demonstrating as he hurried to catch up to Stirla before his princess could reach him.
He failed and eyed his princess sullenly, pouting down at her shiny but practical boots as she swiftly overtook him in his clattering lacquered heels. “I am the founder of the HSF,” he grumbled. “I should go.”
Neryth paused to look at him, one dark eyebrow raised. “Indeed?”
“Well, it may have been Lieutenant Stirla’s idea,” Lorfyn admitted grudgingly. “But I gathered our troops, found our mounts, prepared the uniforms and designed the hats. I even recruited you, Highness. That makes me the founder.” He perked up again. Sadly, nothing could keep him down for long.
Neryth’s upper lip curled and Lorfyn deflated right before Stirla’s eyes.
He had to learn that trick.
“Perhaps you should go, Highness?” Lorfyn mumbled, shoulders hunched. “After all, you are much better at this sort of thing.”
The princess smiled and brushed an imaginary speck of dirt from her sleeve. “Well, if you insist,” she purred, and nodded at Stirla. “Shall we, lieutenant?” Not bothering to wait for an answer, she stalked towards the archway on the far side of the courtyard: a predator in princess form.
Stirla slapped Lorfyn consolingly on the shoulder, sent Derrain a glance commanding him not to let the lord follow and strode after the princess. Was it so much to ask to meet the captain alone? He already knew he was in deep trouble and would rather be reprimanded without witnesses. But he had yet to learn how to say no to the princess and make it stick. He couldn’t even get Lorfyn to obey him, for Maegla’s sake.
He needed Lyrai for all this noble-handling. Farm boys from Etheria were not raised with this kind of training.
“Which way now, do you think?” Neryth awaited him beyond the archway leading to another courtyard enclosed on all sides by cloistered walkways. At its centre a fountain was frozen silent, the flowerbeds around it empty for the winter.
“Someone should come,” Stirla replied, walking over to study the fountain.
Following, Neryth leant back against the rim and stirred the gravel with her shiny booted toe. “I am not doing this simply to vex you, you know,” she murmured, glancing sidelong at Stirla. “Lorfyn would have accompanied you if I hadn’t intervened. But much as it pleases me to thwart our puppyish friend, he did make a valid point. I am good at this sort of thing. I was trained for it.”
Stirla stared at the bubbles trapped within the fountain, the miryhl statue in the centre dusted with snow, and wondered why this had to happen to him. What stupid thing had he done for the Gods to plague him so. “As well we all know, Highness, though you fly with us, I have no authority over you. You may do as you please.”
“Ah.” Neryth grimaced. “Quite. My apologies, lieutenant. I know you wish me far away, but I promise that this is for your own good.” When Stirla snorted, the princess smiled. “Truly. How many Rift Riders know how to turn down royalty? Particularly Havian royalty, whose good opinion is so important in the face of my father’s prejudice. Once your captain meets me, I assure you he’ll no longer lay the blame for this ridiculous start entirely at your feet.”
“If I wished to reapportion blame, Highness, I would have let Lorfyn come.”
Neryth’s laughter rang out across the empty courtyard, the exuberance of it surprising considering her controlled nature. “Ah, so true. Once the captain meets him, he’ll be unable to blame you at all.” She shook her head and quickly sobered. “Do not think I am unaware of the position we have put you in, lieutenant. I promise to do all I can to lessen the consequences of our actions. Trust me, I intend you no harm.”
“Whenever royalty choose to interfere with the Rift Riders, Highness, they bring nothing but harm. Regardless of intent.” The deep voice came from the shadows, and Stirla turned as a white-haired man emerged, his captain stripes clear upon his shoulder. A fair-skinned easterner, as tall as Stirla but lean, he was not quite as old as his pale hair suggested. Bright blue eyes studied them intently as he approached, the freckles sprinkled across his nose adding an unexpected lightness to his stern expression.
After looking the newcomer up and down, Neryth inclined her head. “Captain Korfei.”
“Princess Neryth,” the captain replied, his lips forming a thin line of disapproval. “I’d believed you to have more sense than to pull a prank like this. You’re too old for games. Tell me it’s nonsense, Highness, then hie off home, if you please. I’ve no wish to suffer the lash of your father’s displeasure.”
When the princess chuckled, Stirla belatedly realised that the two were acquainted. Quite well, if Neryth’s relaxed stance was anything to judge by. “I think it best I stay where I am for the moment, captain. The poor lieutenant is rather in need of my help. Young Havian lords can be tricky, as well you know.”
The captain eyed her for a long moment and shook his head before turning to study Stirla. The corner of his mouth twitched. “He’s a big lad, Highness, I think he can look after himself. Consider your duty done and discharged – I’ll not be laying full blame at his feet, large though they are. Off with you. I wish to speak with the lieutenant alone.”
As Stirla watched, the other two held a silent conversation through twitching eyebrows and fierce frowns, until Neryth sighed and nodded. “I tried.” She shrugged at Stirla and left.
Captain Korfei turned to Stirla again. “Well, you must have made an impression there. Princess Neryth doesn’t try for anyone, in my experience – except her pampered featherheads.” He studied Stirla curiously this time. “I think it’s time we got to know one another, don’t you?”
~ Next Chapter ~
Thanks for reading.