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~ Previous Chapter ~
Chatting with Captain Korfei and Yullik is up to something. Again.
“SO, LIEUTENANT STIRLA, tell me about Misthome.” Captain Korfei sat behind a large desk and linked his fingers together, watching Stirla over the top. Shrewd blue eyes awaited his answer, but Stirla was too busy looking around to care. Korfei’s room was a surprise. Dean Marshall’s study at Aquila had been full of bits and pieces – gifts from students and Riders, presents from his family, things he had picked up along the way. And books, the dean had a lot of books.
That had been the study Stirla knew best, but he’d seen many other commanding officers’ rooms across the Overworld, especially of late. Like Dean Marshall’s they usually contained items of personal importance, a shelf of books and a desk buried beneath stacks of paperwork. Most captain’s offices were a mess of scattered papers, the men too busy to organise flittering scraps of information two moons out of date.
Captain Korfei’s study had none of that. Situated at the tip of Sherpoint, where the building folded around the mountain edge and jutted over the Cloud Sea, the front wall curved gently outwards, making the room semi-circular. A series of shuttered windows provided a breathtaking view and access to the balcony beyond. The walls were carved from the stone of the mountain, while the floor was a broad expanse of polished wood.
No pictures or carpets softened the surfaces, leaving the natural colours to fill the space. Of which there was a lot. A large desk sat before the windows, ten feet wide at least, and half that in width, with a padded leather chair to match. Behind it crouched a map chest, while a couple of bookshelves flanked the curved walls on either side of the room. Spare chairs were lined up along the wall, patiently waiting until needed.
Other than that there was nothing. Not one thing out of place, not one identifying feature. It could have belonged to anyone, or no one. It left Stirla feeling curiously adrift. So he filled the silence with his story, since he could do nothing to fill the space. As he recalled his disastrous foray into the taverns of Misthome, Korfei relaxed into his chair, eyelids drooping, index fingers tapping against his lips.
Then he sat up. “Where is Lieutenant Lyrai?”
Having expected a reprimand over his dealings with the exasperating Lorfyn and company, and braced for a lecture, the question caught Stirla by surprise. “Lyrai?” he repeated blankly. “He took some students on a separate mission.”
Korfei’s lips quirked in a dry smile that refused to be deflected by empty words and half truths. “A mission to where, lieutenant?”
This was why Stirla was going to kill Lyrai if he ever saw him again: there was simply no way to tell the truth without sounding like he was having fun at his commander’s expense – or was completely crazy. He was in enough trouble as it was; he didn’t need to add delusional to his list of faults.
Besides this captain could tell a princess what to do with a waggle of his eyebrows. Stirla would rather Korfei didn’t think he was mad, and thus incapable of making his own decisions. Not yet anyway, though it might come in useful later. The only problem was that Stirla couldn’t think of an adequate alternative to the truth. If only he’d had more time.
When he opened his mouth, still frantically thinking, Korfei raised a hand. “Lying to your superiors is a difficult habit to break, lieutenant.” He smiled and rubbed a knuckle over his freckled nose. “So before you start, just tell me the truth. All of it.”
As a student Stirla had often believed Captain Myran to be omniscient, but as a lieutenant he’d learned about messengers, body language and a good information network. He raised his eyebrows. “Been talking to my Riders, captain?”
“Without your permission?” Korfei’s eyes narrowed with amusement. “Of course not.” Before Stirla could even think of relaxing, the captain smirked. “I’ve been talking to my Riders.”
Stirla sighed. He should have known: Riders were the worst gossips. “In that case, though I doubt you’ll believe me, Lyrai and four students left Misthome a quarter-moon ago. He flew south.”
“It’s astonishing what a man will believe,” Korfei murmured, pushing back his chair to look out of the wide window. “Especially those assigned to Havia. The only thing south of Misthome is the Stormwash. Which might explain why it was in such a frenzy a few days ago. Have you any notion what took him in that direction?”
This captain just kept surprising him. Stirla blinked. “According to my miryhl, two students went first. Lyrai and two more followed shortly after. I have no idea why.”
“Hm.” Korfei linked his fingers again, tapping them against his lip. “We certainly need all the help we can get, but I wonder if the dragons will care.”
“If they reach them,” Stirla mumbled, staring at the wall of roiling clouds.
Korfei shot him a reassuring smile. “They’ll be fine. If they can’t get through, the Stormwash will spit them back out again somewhere between here and the Wrathlen. But if they do get across…” He stared at the view, his smile growing. “What wonders they’ll see. I almost envy them, though I doubt the dragons will do more than send them back. Dragons rarely do anything else.”
Stirla raised his eyebrows: Korfei spoke like a man with experience. Yet it had been a good hundred years since the dragons had sealed themselves away and some time before that since they’d ventured out of their lands to show any interest in human affairs. Or so he’d been taught. Then again, Havia was very close to the Stormwash. Who knew what things that tempestuous barrier might throw out?
The captain shook his head with a amused snort and turned back to his desk. “Enough of conjecture, time to discuss why we’re here. Tell me about the fall of Aquila, the evacuation to Heighlen and beyond. And then, if you can possibly find the words, please explain what the Havian Special Force is supposed to be, and why you’ve brought the second-most important person in the country to my base, drawing the attention and wrath of the most inhospitable man in the West.”
Stirla winced as the captain’s voice turned from mild interest to tightly-leashed anger, laced with disapproval. So he was in trouble, after all. Wonderful.
Captain Korfei took in the resigned slump of Stirla’s shoulders and smiled mercilessly as he resumed his seat and waved a languid hand. “Begin, lieutenant. My attention is entirely yours.”
* * *
IT WAS WARM in the darkness, warmer than he’d been for ages. Mouse wrapped it tightly around himself, content to slip back into the flow of forgetfulness. Something was whispering, calling him onwards. A sense of rightness, of comfort, of home. Except something else tugged at him. A flash of gold in the black.
The call drifted into silence, leaving only light. Curious, he drifted closer. Another flash. This one struck his arm and clung to his skin. He touched it wonderingly, and recoiled as pain spread across his back. More gold, more light, the warmth began to seep away as the darkness was driven back.
“No,” he gasped, pain tightening his muscles, his fingers curling into claws. “No!”
Too late. Pain roared inside with the golden light, and Mouse was wrenched awake.
“Shh,” a dry voice soothed. “Not so fierce. Breathe deep, take it steady or all my work will be for naught.” Something cool wiped across Mouse’s forehead, and the voice chuckled. “And as I’m not used to putting myself out for anyone, you’d better make my effort worthwhile.”
Taking shuddering breaths, Mouse turned his head. “Blind.” He panicked. “I’m blind.”
“Not quite,” his attendant replied. “Merely stuck. Let me finish.” The damp cloth pressed against his eyes, passing gently back and forth. “Try again.”
Afraid of failure, yet desperate to see where he was, Mouse prised his eyelids open. Like every other part of his body they ached and he could only open them so far before they stopped. Yet despite having such a narrow view of the world, he could see. Turning his head, he search for the stranger, noticing that he was inside somewhere. The walls were solid, old and familiar: Aquila. It looked like the dean’s office, but since he’d only visited that lofty place once, he couldn’t be sure. He certainly didn’t remember there being great cracks in the wall, but Aquila had changed. Everything had changed.
“How’s that?” A man appeared above Mouse, and he cowered away from the black hair and brown skin.
“No,” he whimpered, then cried out as agony flared across his upper back and shoulders.
“Fool,” his attendant snapped, pressing him down.
It allowed Mouse to see that this man had pale gold eyes instead of the black he’d expected. Nor was his face a portrait in arrogant beauty. His features were sharper, his skin more dark gold than deep tan. He wasn’t Willym. Willym wasn’t here. He had been sent away. Mouse sagged with relief.
“Better,” the stranger murmured. “Much better. I make allowances for your illness, but confuse me with Willym again and I’ll hand you back.”
Mouse’s breath hitched painfully, and the stranger laughed as he let him go. “Calm yourself. After all the work I’ve done on you it would be the height of futility to give you back. Besides, I never abandon a job half done. Here.” He placed a glowing hand against Mouse’s temple, easing the headache he hadn’t even noticed.
It did nothing for the pain everywhere else, but it allowed Mouse a moment of clarity to think as the beautiful heat washed through him in pulsing waves. He remembered being with Willym, the rage over Nehtl’s death roaring inside, and he remembered someone interrupting.
This man. The one who was healing him, though he clearly lived inside Aquila – which made him the enemy.
Mouse’s breath hissed through his teeth as the man took his hand away, taking the heat with it and allowing pain to fill the void. “Why?”
The stranger wiped his bloodied hands before picking up a clean cloth to sponge Mouse’s chest. Pale gold eyes glowed as the man looked up and shrugged. “We are not all monsters.” He returned to his task with an intentness that spoke of deep thoughts and far-off memories. “Even if it takes witnessing one in action to remind me of that.”
Confused but grateful, Mouse licked his cracked lips and murmured, “Thank you.”
The stranger looked up, smile crooked. “Don’t thank me, boy. I’m not done with you yet.”
And a flash of golden light chased Mouse back into the darkness.
~ Next Chapter ~
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