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~ Previous Chapter ~
Leaving the Heighlen.
19th Winter Rains
“SOME LUCK AT last.” Groaning, Stirla eased himself down onto the prow deck beside Derrain, passing over a bottle of something pungent as he stared out over the Cloud Sea. “Not long now.”
Derrain shook his head at the bottle and passed it to Neryth sitting on his other side. “I can’t believe we’ve finally left the Heighlen.”
Neryth snorted. “I thought we’d never leave the Heighlen.” She took a rather unwise swig of the bottle and ended up coughing. “Heirayk’s fiery balls, Stirla, what is this?”
Grinning, Stirla reached across Derrain to rescue his broth. “The sailors call it Scold’s Breath. Elsewhere it’s known as Fire Dew, distilled from fermented juniper berries. Though not of any vintage you’ll find in Nimbys,” he added, before swigging again. “Ah. That’ll keep the cold out.”
The princess was still coughing, dabbing at her streaming eyes with a handkerchief. “Probably knock your brains out with it,” she wheezed.
“As if he still has any to lose.” Derrain unhooked his water bottle from his belt and handed it over. “A future tip, Highness, always smell it first. Especially if it comes from Stirla.”
“Insolent puppy,” his lieutenant chuckled, cuffing him over the head.
“Insolent, yes. Stupid, no.”
“Thanks for the tip,” Neryth muttered, tucking her handkerchief away and spitting a mouthful of water over the side. “I’ll keep it in mind.”
“Students,” Stirla muttered bitterly. “You spoil all my fun.”
Grinning, Derrain leaned forward against the lowest rung of the prow rail, letting his feet dangle over the side as he breathed in the icily fresh wind rushing up from the Cloud Sea. It felt like forever since he was last on a skyship, and it was surprisingly nice to be back with no more worries than when they’d reach their destination.
“I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed this,” he murmured, staring down beyond his feet, where nothing lay between him and the clouds below.
“How long were you a sailor for?” Neryth asked, leaning forward herself and smiling as the wind whipped her hair into her eyes. Where was the elegantly fashionable princess now? Surely not one member of her court would recognise this tangle-haired stranger, with her wind-chapped face, calloused hands and ragged clothes. Yet all her smiles were genuine now and her conversation less prone to sophisticated drawls. Not that she wasn’t still a sarcastic fiend, but Derrain quite liked that about her.
Almost as much as he appreciated her genuine attempts to get to know her companions, so Derrain cupped his chin in his hands and cast his mind back. “I signed up as a cabin boy on my first skyship when I was seven.”
“Seven!” Neryth exclaimed in horror, and even Stirla looked startled. “Great gods, what were your parents thinking?”
“That they had two other sons, three daughters and another brat on the way, so here at least was a way to get one child respectably established and well enough fed.” Derrain shrugged his broad shoulders meaningfully. “I didn’t do so badly out of it, did I?”
Still looking horrified, Neryth said, “But you must have felt so abandoned.”
Derrain grinned at the memories. “Not I! It was the best adventure I’d ever had. I was lucky, mind,” he added fairly. “My captain was an friend of my mother’s family, so he took care of me. The work of a cabin boy was tougher than I expected, but none of the sailors or older boys bullied or abused me. Captain would have had their hides. He took good care of his boys and they usually stayed as crew when they became men.” He caught Neryth’s eye. “Never underestimate the importance of loyalty. It is a gift beyond price.”
“I know,” the princess agreed, chewing thoughtfully on her thumbnail.
“If he was so good to you,” Stirla said, “how come you ended up on the Illuminai? Never tell me your ma was a friend of the Kilpapans.”
Derrain snorted at the mere thought of Countess Kilpapan condescending to even acknowledge Derrain’s family, let alone become friendly with them. Not that his mother’s family weren’t respectable, but they were tenant farmers. Prosperous enough in their own small way, but tenants nonetheless. “Hardly. The almighty Kilpapans do not mix with rustics.”
“Except for their children,” Stirla pointed out.
“That’s the pesky Wrentherin influence.” Derrain chuckled. “Whatever were the earl and countess thinking leaving them for Mhylla to raise? What else could they possibly expect but rebellion and independent thinking?”
Not knowing who they were talking about, Neryth gave a polite cough. “So how did you end up working for these Kilpapans? That’s no Western name.”
“Imercian,” Derrain explained. “Easterners through and through. And as for how I ended up with them, well, it was mostly an accident.”
“Mostly?” Stirla asked, sounding amused.
Derrain grinned. “Have you ever seen the Illuminai? I first clapped eyes on her when I was nine, somewhere in the Lowlands. She was the prettiest skyship I’d ever seen – twice the size of my Chaffinch. I took one look and fell in love.”
“That didn’t last,” Neryth chuckled.
Derrain shrugged. “Eight years on her was enough for me. She’s still beautiful, but real love should be about more than looks.” He winked. “Anyway after that first glimpse I began to plot, and the next time we docked near her I accidentally got left behind by the Chaffy and had to seek employment elsewhere.”
Stirla whistled. “That could have gone very badly for you.”
Leaning back on his hands, Derrain contemplated the overcast sky. “I never considered that anything could go wrong. I was so young. The world was mine to do whatever I wished with. How could I possibly fail?”
“Gods, to be that young again,” Stirla murmured.
Neryth smiled. “I don’t think I was ever that young.”
“Says the woman who infiltrated the HSF just so she could hang around with yon lieutenant,” Derrain reminded her.
“Slightly different,” the princess protested.
“Everything’s different for royals,” Stirla agreed, chuckling.
Glancing at the horizon, Derrain smiled and leant forward again. “Ah, there we are.”
His companions followed his gaze and sat forward themselves. “Three days,” Stirla murmured. “We’ve made excellent time.”
“And we only had to wait a day in port,” Derrain agreed, remembering those last, long, desperate days scrambling across the Heighlen Range through blizzards and sleet, desperate to reach Eastbury before the full moon. They’d done it with a day to spare, letting the miryhls take a well earned break and devour a long overdue meal as their humans tracked down the ticket office for the regular transport flotilla to Ihra. The next morning they’d coaxed their tired and bloated miryhls aboard the Crescent and by lunchtime had left the last of the Heighlen peaks behind.
Now, three days later, they were within sight of mountains again. Except these were significantly fewer in number, quite a bit larger and a tiny bit further south. Which was why it was raining as they approached, rather than snowing.
Derrain tipped his head back and caught raindrops on his tongue as they were blown beneath the balloon by the frisky wind. “Ever been to Ihra?” he asked his companions.
Both shook their heads, making Derrain grin. “Best brace yourselves, then. There’s no place on the Overworld quite like Ihra.”
“And no people quite like the Ihrans,” Stirla added, no doubt thinking of Hethanon Armsmaster and Gedanon Swordsmaster, both of whom trained Rift Riders students, and neither of whom had much patience for the task.
Derrain smiled. This was going to be fun.
~ Next Chapter ~
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