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~ Previous Chapter ~
Remember Stirla? Yes, apparently he is still in this book.
“I NEVER WANTED to be a princess.”
Leaning against the rail of the Sherpoint observation deck, Stirla didn’t dignify this ridiculous opening with an answer. It was far easier to not wish to be a princess than to become one.
“When I was a child, I didn’t truly understand what such a thing was. My sisters knew all there was to know about their roles – wearing beautiful gowns, expensive jewellery and marrying handsome heroes. Their nurses filled their heads with stories, and when those were not sufficient there was a whole library from doting godparents and distant relations to tell them how to go on. There were no such stories for me. Or no stories that felt right.”
The rail groaned as the princess leant alongside Stirla, weight on her elbows, hands linked loosely. She’d taken off her rings, which made her fingers look strangely fragile. Hers were the hands of a woman who’d never had to work for her keep or worry about anything beyond her preferred amusements. Stirla’s fingers were thick and blockish, those of a farm boy. Yet there was strength in them and the calluses from swordwork and flight. His were the hands of a fighter, a Rift Rider. Glittering rings would look ridiculous on him.
“The stories that called to me most spoke of dashing Rift Riders, the heroes of the Overworld. There were even women in those stories, though they were all in the older ones from long ago.” The princess’ chuckle was dry and empty. “I remember asking my father how one became a Rift Rider. He frightened my voice away for a whole quarter-moon. I didn’t see him for two months. Not because such an ambition was unladylike, but because in my father’s house it was no good thing to want to be a Rider. Or a hero. All my favourite storybooks were quietly replaced with political treaties, carefully edited histories and biased biographies promoting the excellence of Havian royalty. Shortly after that my father began instructing me on how to be a true Havian princess, the power behind the throne. I was eight years old.”
Staring at the stars above the moonlit Cloud Sea, Stirla couldn’t help wondering what Neryth wanted. This was the kind of conversation she should have with Lyrai. They could compare heartless fathers and bemoan how terrible it was to be handed everything on a silver platter. If she expected sympathy she’d come to the wrong quarter.
“It wasn’t many years later that I realised I could never become a Rift Rider,” Neryth continued, idly swinging her hands, an oddly childlike gesture from the self-possessed princess. “Not because of my father’s prejudice, or my disfavoured gender, but because of my own weakness. I might not have wanted to be a princess, but I do enjoy aspects of it. I like the life I lead, the privileges I enjoy, the food I eat, the clothes I wear. My miryhls. I am fully aware that life as a Rift Rider, even as a princess of Havia, would require quite a sacrifice.”
So she was smart. What did she want, a round of applause? Congratulations, Highness, for realising you were too spoilt to ever make a great hero. Now go away so I can brood in peace. Stirla didn’t open his mouth. Even seeing Captain Korfei handle the princess in such a manner hadn’t convinced him to follow his example. Neryth was a princess, when all was tallied up, and Stirla was an Etherian farm boy. Better to give no order at all than one you know won’t be obeyed. Or so Captain Myran always said. Wise man.
“Yet somewhere deep inside, I still cherish the notion. Especially now that women have been accepted into the ranks once more. I know I can never become a Rider, or even a hero, but it’s still my duty to try.” The princess rubbed her forehead and sighed. “I’m not making sense. It’s no easy thing to admit, since my life looks like a paradise, even to nobles like Lorfyn. Well, perhaps not Lorfyn. I doubt he believes anyone could live better than a Ketthik of Havia. A poor example, but you understand.”
Since the princess was looking at him, Stirla nodded, because Lorfyn was a bad example to use for anything. Other than how not to achieve something. Lorfyn’s enthusiasm brought him a measure of success, true, but it would also get him killed. He didn’t even like the boy, but the prospect of him facing the kaz-naghkt made Stirla’s heart hurt. Gods, he was tired.
“I’m making a mull of this,” Neryth muttered, gripping the rail and breathing deep of the evening air. “What I’m trying to say is that I know you think this is stupid, that we’re spoilt brats on a lark, ignorant of the risks we face and the trouble we’re causing. I know you and the captain think we’ve been reading too many romances and fancy ourselves heroes-in-waiting. I wanted to say that though this might be true for some, it isn’t for me.
“I know what we face. I’ve spent summers at both Havian Rider bases. I’ve seen the wounded and helped to treat them. I’m my father’s second born, who everyone expects will rule behind the throne once my brother comes to power. I have no wish for the crown, but nor do I wish my country to die by slow inches as my foolish brother fritters our treasury away on his benighted lace. With a weak king on the throne my country will be in danger. It will be my task to defend her. But there is no one in Misthome who can teach me. No one in all of Havia, since my father’s influence is so wide-reaching.
“I need to learn and if to do so I must leave, then I shall. The Havian Special Force might be a farce, but it’s also the opportunity I’ve been awaiting these past ten years or more. I will never again have this chance to escape Misthome with an escort that I can take beyond the borders, without fear of ambush or kidnap.”
Stirla snorted, remembering the attack as they reached Havia. Kaz-naghkt were everywhere.
Ignoring his scepticism, Neryth rushed on. “I know nothing’s safe these days, and there’s no protection to be found anywhere. Especially not while the Wrathlen and kaz-naghkt hold Aquila. But this is as safe as I can get.”
“Even if it draws the wrath of your father down on the Rift Riders for seducing you away from his control?” Stirla had to ask.
Neryth gave a twisted smile. “My father is no fool. It’s partly because of his own thwarted dreams to become a Rider himself that he despises you so. You have freedoms he lacks, or so he perceives. It was why his favourite sisters ran off with Riders. We are all too alike in our thirst for heroics. My father may have crushed that part of me, but he replaced it with a sense of duty and an overwhelming need to protect my country. He will understand. He won’t like it, but he will understand and he promised Lyrai aid. He won’t blame you for my conduct.”
Which was more of a relief than Stirla expected. He hadn’t even known it was weighing him down. Perhaps Captain Hylan wouldn’t be forced to kill him after all. Then again, he wasn’t about to start counting his miryhls before they hatched.
“Like me, he understands that until Aquila is back under Rider control, Havia will never be safe. We’re too rich and too convenient, lying between Worlds End and Aquila, the perfect stop off point since we’re also the closest to the Wrathlen. We are a prize, and if not for the Rider bases we would have been crippled by the constant battles long ago.”
Which was all very worthy, but Stirla still didn’t see what any of it had to do with him. He was just a lieutenant, and not even a proper one since his rank was a courtesy title until he either stepped up to captain or failed. Even if he were a full captain, he’d still have to defer to a princess’ request, second born or not. Neryth seemed to be implying that Stirla had a choice, when he was just as helpless as the few students left under his command. The silence between them stretched, both staring out into the darkness where distant lights glimmered like watchful eyes.
“Was this what you wanted?” Neryth asked eventually. “To join the Riders as a boy, I mean, not stand on an observation deck in Havia with a nuisance princess wittering in your ear.”
It was such a surprise to hear Neryth wittering, just as she claimed, that Stirla smiled. “Of course. I’m the youngest, the only son after six daughters. I was desperate to get away from the moment I understood such things were possible.”
“Did your father not want you to succeed him?” the princess asked. “Your family are farmers, I believe.”
The reminder of his lowly origins made Stirla’s shoulders hunch again. “Tenant farmers,” he corrected. They didn’t even own their own land, though his family had tended it for generations. They worked their fingers raw, all moons of the year, through snow and storms, and when they gathered up what meagre harvest they could scrape up from the land, over half of it went to their overlord – regardless of whether they had enough left to feed themselves or not. A miserable existence. Was it any wonder he’d left as soon as he could and never looked back?
“Ah.” Neryth flexed her fingers and leant on her elbows again. “They must be proud of you. A captain-in-training.”
“And close friend to the second son of the Stratys,” Stirla agreed wearily. His parents were proud of him, so proud that they hadn’t known what to do the only time he’d returned for a visit. They hadn’t known who to bow and scrape to more, him or Lyrai. But he still loved them and would always return should they ask. They were his family.
Something clicked inside his brain. “Ah,” he sighed with understanding. His parents might not own the land they lived on, but it was theirs in the deepest of ways. Stirla would die to protect them and it from harm. As Neryth would for the whole of Havia. The only difference was the scale of their territories.
“I’ve not had your training,” the princess continued, “and I know you find it hard to tell me what to do, but I am willing to learn. It’s why I’m here. I know all about governing a kingdom, contracting eligible alliances, parrying with words as well as dress swords, but I know nothing of true fighting. Against a horde of kaz-naghkt or a bombardment of pirates I am helpless.”
“I am no general,” Stirla replied, not wanting Neryth to think more of him than he deserved, however flattering. “I’m not a captain, nor even a full lieutenant. It’s been barely four years since I was a student. I cannot mentor you.”
“I don’t want a mentor,” Neryth corrected firmly. “Not that I wouldn’t welcome one in time, but I’ve been watching you with your Riders and the foolish HSF. I’ve seen how you handle them and how they respond to you. I have watched you spar. You could help me, lieutenant, start me on the path towards protecting my land. You could certainly tighten up my swordwork and flight skills. I may be considered amongst the greatest duellers of my generation in Misthome, but I’m not so foolish as to think that will save me once the kaz-naghkt descend.
“I want to stay alive, Stirla. I want to survive this experience so that one day I might return home again. And when I do, I will know everything I need to protect it for the rest of my life. I’ve been watching you and I think you have the knowledge I seek, at least at the beginning. So I ask, are you willing to teach me? Will you help me become what my country needs? In return I will work as hard as any student, and do everything I can to restore Aquila to you and yours.”
More than a little stunned by this appeal that had come out of nowhere, Stirla could only stare at the hand the princess was offering to seal the bargain.
Studying his expression, Neryth gave a wry smile. “I’ll also do my best to keep the HSF from plaguing you. Even if I have to muzzle Lorfyn day and night.”
Stirla grinned. “Now there’s an offer I’d be an idiot to refuse.” He grasped the princess’ wrist in the Western way.
“A bargain struck, my word on it,” she said formally.
“May the world break before my bond,” Stirla concluded, and they smiled as they returned to watching the star-sprinkled night.
“So, lieutenant,” Neryth asked. “Where do we go from here?”
“Weapons drill at first light, a quick breakfast, then to wing, student,” he teased in reply.
“Student,” the princess repeated with a grimace. “Might I persuade you to call me Neryth?”
“Depends on how late you are to practise in the morning.”
Neryth chuckled. “There’s an incentive. And after we leave Sherpoint, where then?”
“Etheria,” Stirla sighed, tipping his head towards the north. “Whether or not the general has returned, Captain Hylan will have plenty of work for us.”
“There’s always work,” Neryth agreed, and they fell silent, listening to the whistle and sigh of the Cloud Sea below. As the moon drifted overhead, sinking into the western mountains, they left the deck and returned to the guest wing. They had a busy time ahead – starting at dawn.
~ Next Chapter ~
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