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~ Previous Chapter ~
For all those who have been waiting — you know who you are ;) — this is for you.
THE SUN WAS dipping towards the mountains by the time Mhysra and her friends climbed the path from the forest back to the base. Frolicking overhead, Rhiddyl and the vulardis were playing an intricate game with a flock of miryhls. Unable to recognise them all, Mhysra smiled, realising the local miryhls must have joined the fun. Unlike their human counterparts, the eagles had little trouble accepting the dragon.
Rider Rekko gave a low whistle of appreciation, shielding his eyes as he looked up. “That there sure is a big’un. Makes your little friends look like rats.”
Skybreeze gave an indignant trill at the slur, and the Rider tapped him gently on the nose, having lost his wariness of them over the course of the day. “Can’t deny the truth, little’un, like as not. That un’s big. You’d best grow some more.”
“Gods, please no,” Corin groaned. “I can barely carry him now.”
Chuckling, they continued up the slope, but Mhysra lagged behind, watching her brash Wingborn circle the dragon with two vulardis on his tail, a rag ball fluttering in his talons. Sweeping up underneath him, Hurricane flipped onto his back, catching the ball as Cumulo dropped it. Shrieking in triumph, the pair dived low, a playful Rhiddyl snatching at their tails.
“Makes your heart stop, doesn’t it?”
Unable to watch as Cumulo skimmed uncomfortably close to the trees, Mhysra turned to smile at Lyrai, surprised to find him here. “You’d think I’d have grown used to him showing off by now.”
The lieutenant chuckled from where he’d stepped aside to let the others pass as they ascended the slope. “As if he’d let you. His aim in life is to shock, surprise and impress.”
“True,” she agreed, wincing as her Wingborn was caught by Rhiddyl. Even so far down, Mhysra heard her miryhl’s indignant squawking. She laughed. That he could make such a fuss meant he wasn’t hurt, and it certainly didn’t do him any harm to be defeated occasionally.
“Peaceful out here, isn’t it?” Lyrai shouted, as Rhiddyl and the vulardis began fighting back, scoring several points if the squabbling amongst the miryhls was anything to go by.
Wincing at the noise, Mhysra ran after her lieutenant back down the hill, aiming for the thick forests and the protection of the canopy. The shadows welcomed them with silence, and soon she could barely hear the miryhls anymore.
Heaving a sigh of relief, Lyrai crouched next to a chattering brook and cupped his hands in the water. “I’ve never known another place like this,” he murmured, taking a drink. “I wish I could have joined you today. Did you have fun?”
Stepping carefully over a giant beetle, Mhysra looked around the peaceful trees and smiled. “It was wonderful,” she enthused, then looked down at her lieutenant, noticing his mussed hair and the strain lines around his mouth and eyes. “Did your talks not go so well?”
Snorting at the understatement, Lyrai sat on the ground, after making sure he wasn’t about to squash anything. “It could have gone better,” he admitted, running a hand through his hair with a sigh. “But likewise, it could have gone worse.”
“The dragons?” she guessed.
“And the general,” he groaned, lying back to stare at the canopy. “Keipen was settling down, starting to see the advantages of having dragons around. He even made a joke. At least, I think he did. Reglian was amused, anyway.”
“So?” Mhysra prompted.
“He thought Reglian, Goryal, Rhiddyl and the dragonets were the only dragons here.”
“So Reglian, ever helpful, thought he ought to mention the other dragons that came across the Storm Surge with us.”
“And Goryal, never one to be outdone, decided to explain the Dragon Moot’s decision to relax the barriers for a month, allowing any other dragons feeling in a helpful mood to cross over and join the fun.”
Lyrai’s laugh bordered on hysterical. “For a moment I thought he was going to explode. I’m surprised you didn’t hear him in the forest, he was that loud. His face was purple. I’ve never been given such a dressing down in my life, or in front of so many. I wanted to curl up and die.” Sighing, Lyrai sat up, shaking his head. “Until he stopped.”
Out of noncommittal noises, Mhysra simply waited.
“And it was worse.” Lyrai shut his eyes, head hanging in defeat. “Gods, I’d have given anything for silence when he was raging, but then he stopped and just looked at me.”
Ah, yes. Mhysra knew all about looks.
“Part disgust, part disappointment. It was like every person I’d ever looked up to in my life had come out to judge me. I felt like such a failure.” He covered his face and groaned. “Gods. I’d rather be mauled by a kaz-naghkt than face that again. I barely even know the man, yet one look is enough to break me.” Growling in self-disgust, Lyrai stood up and started pacing between the trees. “He treated me like a rookie first year who’d just set fire to his miryhl.”
The image made her snicker. “Sorry,” she muttered when he glared. He looked so offended, but she had to ask, “Did you?”
Kicking a stone into the undergrowth, he paused. “Did I, what?”
“Set fire to your miryhl?”
For a moment he looked about to explode himself, then he huffed a laugh. “No. But it was close.” She smiled and he sat down again, resting his elbows on his knees. “Is he right?”
“About?” Mhysra asked, not following his thoughts as she looked for a clear space to sit.
Lyrai slid over and patted the ground beside him. “The general, about me bringing dragons across the Storm Surge. Was it the stupidest mistake in the entire history of the Rift Riders, likely to panic the Overworld and bring down civilisation as we know it?”
She snorted and settled beside him. “Of course not.”
“He felt quite passionately about it.”
“Doesn’t mean he’s right.” She bumped her shoulder against his. “People shout and get passionate about all sorts of things, especially when they’re wrong. I’ll admit, it probably wasn’t the best time for him to find out that there are more dragons out there beyond his control, and that untold numbers could pass through the Storm Wash and Surge at any moment, but that’s hardly your fault.”
“I was the officer on our journey. I made the decision to visit the Dragon Moot.”
Mhysra wrinkled her nose. “I don’t think you did. I think we’d have been taken there, no matter what. And you can hardly be blamed for us visiting the Cleansed Lands in the first place, since it definitely wasn’t planned. Nor can you take any credit for the Moot’s decision, since you were unconscious at the time. Nor did you ask any of them to come with us. In fact, sir, I think you’re innocent of all charges. Blame Dhori, Reglian and Goryal, if you need to blame anyone. They’re far more at fault than you.”
He smiled crookedly. “Nice try, but I was the senior Rider on our unexpected sojourn, therefore all responsibility is mine.”
“I’m not sure Goryal or Reglian would agree,” she debated. “And since they’re both far, far, far older than you, they can take the blame, or credit, or whatever it is that’s being heaped upon your head.” She paused for a thoughtful moment. “Reglian would probably enjoy it.”
Lyrai snickered and picked up her hand. Turning it over, he traced the lines of her palm with a calloused finger. “What would I do without you to straighten me out, my lady?”
“Probably fret yourself into a gloom,” she teased, hoping she didn’t sound as breathless as she felt. Her hand tingled, sending heat shooting up her arm. He wasn’t supposed to sit this close. Or speak so softly. It felt too… good.
“Mm,” he agreed, lifting her hand to his mouth and pressing a kiss to her palm. “Probably.”
Her fingers curled as if to hold him there, stroking his cheek, the contrast of his soft lips and rough stubble making her shiver. He smiled against her skin, his breath warming her whole body. His eyes drifted shut as he slid her hand along his jaw, rubbing like a cat.
Mhysra swallowed hard, barely breathing. “Sir?”
“Lyrai,” he said, opening his eyes and cradling her face between his hands. “Call me Lyrai.”
She blinked, mesmerised by the way his eyes darkened when she nervously licked her lips. “Lyrai, I -”
And then he kissed her.
~ Next Chapter ~
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