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~ Previous Chapter ~
I’m not sure this trip to Kaskad is going to go down as Stirla’s favourite…
“YOU WISHED TO see me, sir?” Stirla stepped cautiously into the office, nodding respectfully at Hylan sitting behind his desk, and blinked in surprise to find he wasn’t alone. “Captain.” He sketched an airy salute in Nordei’s direction, then froze. A third man stood with his back to the window, arms folded, waiting for Stirla to enter. “General.”
No wonder Hylan had worded his summons so oddly. Dreffen, General of the Greater West, was an imposing man. He was as tall as Stirla, if not quite so broad, with a posture as rigid as a Heighlen glacier. His appearance was military neat, from the glossy shine on his leather flying boots to the sleek steel grey moustache on his face. A younger son of an Imercian duke, his family’s position and wealth had marked him out for a successful career in the Riders from day one. The bars on his shoulder and medals on his breast suggested he’d earned most of it.
Being in his presence, however, made Stirla nervous. Dreffen had served the Riders for over forty years, more than thirty of which had been memorable. Stirla had spent many a night in Aquila’s taverns trading Dreff stories and admiring the man. That didn’t make him a comfortable presence. In the five years since his ascension to general, Dreffen had gained a reputation for high living and impossible orders. The general liked to throw his weight around – and woe betide any Rider unlucky enough to disrupt his pleasure.
As the silence in the room built to uncomfortable levels, Dreffen stepped away from the window. “Come in, lieutenant, and close the door.”
Uneasy though he was at cutting off his escape route, Stirla did as he was told. Taking a deep breath, he faced his commanding officers again. Captain Nordei looked like he’d bitten something sour, while Hylan was expressionless, the occasional shifting of his weight the only indication that he wasn’t happy. Stirla feared the worst; he was getting used to it.
Linking his arms behind his back, the general paced around Stirla in a slow, wide circle. “So this is the infamous Lieutenant Stirla, is it? One of Captain Myran’s young cubs, about whom I’ve heard so much. You’re the joker, the survival expert and a strong man to have at one’s back. An all round good fellow, with all the promise of a fine future captain.” He paused in front of Stirla, studying him with knowing gaze. “Or so they say.”
Turning on his heel, Dreffen circled in the other direction. “Praise is a funny thing, lieutenant. On the surface it can sound so very impressive, but underneath there are shadows. A joker is just another way of describing insubordination, a tendency to bend the rules, a lack of respect for boundaries, social, military and political. A man like that needs to be able to survive, whether in the wild or in town. He also needs to be strong, to extricate himself from situations where his charm or glib tongue fail to do the trick.”
He stopped in front of Stirla again. “Oh yes, lieutenant, I’ve seen your like before. I know just what to do with Riders like you.”
A cold shudder rippled down Stirla’s spine at the calculation in those blue eyes, but he held it in. He knew better than to show weakness in front of a man like this. Just as he knew better than to protest against the false claims about his character. Men like Dreffen were never wrong.
“Where is Captain Myran now, Hylan?” Dreffen asked, not taking his eyes from Stirla’s.
“Nimbys, sir, the last I heard.”
“And when did you last hear from him?” the general wondered, turning from Stirla to pace in front of the captain’s desk.
“Barely a half-moon ago, sir, but it was dated the beginning of Storm,” Hylan replied, taking the letter out of his top drawer to check.
“Three months. Such a long time,” Dreffen tsked, pacing back again. “This disruption caused by the loss of Aquila cannot be allowed to continue.” He stopped in front of Stirla and raised a challenging eyebrow. “Someone should do something about it. Don’t you think, lieutenant?” He touched the bars of rank on Stirla’s shoulder, running his finger in a firm line next to them, right where a captain’s stripe should go.
Stirla swallowed hard. Anyone who’d experienced the fall of Aquila would want to be there to wrest it back, to avenge the fallen, to reclaim what had been lost. But the additional prospect of a promotion at the end…
Stirla straightened his spine. “I am yours to command, sir.”
General Dreffen smiled. “Indeed. You’ve been long away from your captain, lieutenant. Perhaps it’s time we returned you to him.” He paused and leant back against Hylan’s desk, narrowing his eyes in thought. “I have a message I wish to send.”
Much as Stirla would have liked to see his old captain again, and find out who else had escaped into the east, the prospect of a two to three month journey across the high north through the depths of winter did not fill him with joy. Not that he had much choice. The general was dangling a promotion over his head and his earlier remarks about insubordination still stung. Besides, Myran wasn’t the only person in Nimbys Stirla would like to see.
He took a deep breath and inclined his head, repeating, “I am yours to command, sir.”
“Excellent.” Dreffen tapped a finger against his jaw and settled more comfortably against the desk. “Then I shall make appropriate use of you to dispatch other letters along the way. I always like to make the best use of my resources. I trust it will not take too long for you to prepare for this journey, since I would like you to leave as soon as possible. The weather at this time of year can be so changeable, there’s no knowing how long it might take. Still, a man with your reputation won’t be put off by a little hardship, eh?” The general’s smile wasn’t entirely friendly, and Stirla had never hated a list of orders more. He knew he could handle the conditions, even if he didn’t like them, but the man’s manner grated. With a tiny hint of promotion, he knew he could set any challenge he liked and Stirla would jump. He hated it.
Gritting his teeth, he inclined his head again and bowed. “With your permission…?” Since he had so many impossible things to do, he’d rather get started as quickly as possible. He hadn’t even had time for breakfast yet.
“Of course.” The general smiled, all affable geniality. “And perhaps you’d like to take Princess Neryth along.” The glint in his blue eyes acknowledged that dragging the princess across the inhospitable north was the last thing Stirla wanted to do – and that he’d be doing it anyway. “I hear she wishes to experience the full breadth of Rider life, and that she’s formed something of a friendship with you. I would hate to disrupt your bonding. She might also wish to visit her newly married sister in Nimbys. We must encourage these diplomatic ties whenever they are so good as to present themselves.”
Stirla forced a smile, even as his hands balled into tight fists. “I would be honoured, sir.”
“Good man.” Dreffen dismissed him with an approving nod. Then, just as Stirla turned the door handle, he said, “One last thing, lieutenant.” He waited until Stirla glanced over his shoulder, surprised to find those mocking blue eyes had turned serious at last: a glimpse of the man all those stories celebrated. “Tell Captain Myran to be ready. The time for action is finally at hand. Maegla guide and guard your journey, lieutenant. I will have those letters to you by morning. Fly fast, Stirla, and well. Aquila has need of you.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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