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~ Previous Chapter ~
Return to Nimbys.
21st Winter Rains
LYRAI’S HANDS SWEATED inside his gloves. This was always the worst part: approaching Nimbys, where not even the shimmering curtains of rain sweeping its streets could dampen the city’s beauty. No, nothing could mar the perfection of the Cathedral of Maegla, nor shroud the brilliance of the Stratys Palace.
Except the presence of the man who ruled inside those walls, and the uncertainty of how he would receive his wayward, second son.
Gods, Lyrai hated returning to Nimbys.
He turned to find Mhysra by his side, kitted out in her wet weather flying gear, an absurd hat covering all her curls, its ear flaps tied beneath her chin. Not even the sight of that hat could make him smile today. For once her mere presence failed to cheer him. He felt sick. The Rift Riders had lost Aquila, so many men were dead, and here was Lyrai without his flight to support him. He knew just what his father would make of that. And that was before the whole dragon situation was mentioned.
Maegla, was it too late to turn the skyship around and head back to Sanctuary? Surely if he explained, maybe begged, the Cyclone would let him in. He felt desperately in need of a place to hide.
“It’ll be fine,” Mhysra promised, tucking her arm through his and brushing a kiss across his cheek. “Captain Myran is a smart man. He’ll understand about the dragons. In fact, he’ll probably thank Maegla for them. You know he won’t shout at you.”
Oh no, Myran didn’t do shouting. He was smart, he would understand. Hopefully. But for once the opinion of his captain barely rated with Lyrai. He had a far bigger authority to please.
However, standing here thinking cowardly thoughts wasn’t going to please anyone, so he shoved his misgivings aside and dragged up a smile for the woman beside him. “Is everyone ready?” he asked, seeing the strain on her face and realising that she had a far harder task ahead of her: informing her family that their pride and heir was dead.
“It will be all right,” he promised. Knowing the words were meaningless, he cupped her cold face between his gloved hands and kissed her softly. “I will be with you.”
“And I with you,” she whispered against his lips.
Finally, he felt better. Only a little bit, but it was enough to put the steel back into his spine. Rubbing her cheek with his thumb, he took a deep breath, caught hold of her hand and led her down through the levels of the Thorncrest to where their miryhls were waiting.
It was time to go home.
* * *
“BUSINESS OR PLEASURE?”
How Stirla had come to hate those words. They seemed to be the Ihran equivalent of good morning where strangers were concerned. No one bothered with a hint of politeness until they knew how much money they might extort from you. Business was always greeted with a smile, but pleasure was pure joy. After all, business involved an exchange of goods and funds, a sound relationship hopefully based on mutual profit for both parties. Pleasure, however, implied an unwary purchaser looking to get fleeced.
Not that the Ihrans meant any harm, but tourists weren’t welcomed because of their appreciation for the scenery. The five mountains of Ihra barely had any anyway, since the vast majority of it had been cultivated to make it either habitable or profitable. Space was at a high premium here, so it was little wonder the folk had the good manners to stay reasonably small.
Though after meeting Regadon Customsmaster Erha diRedaron one might have been forgiven for thinking some Ihrans had decided to grow outwards rather than upwards. Which seemed a little counterproductive in terms of space saving measures.
The Customsmaster had been all stern politeness the day before, beginning in stilted Imercish, the official language of the Rift Riders, before changing to a much more fluent Western tongue. Even if it had been flavoured by a broad Etherian accent.
This had proven mildly amusing for the first part of their conversation, thankfully livening up the dull work of explaining how they had arrived in Ihra, what they hoped to achieve there and when they intended to leave. It was only after all of these conversational routes had been fully explored, and the merits of various weaponsmiths, forges and armouries discussed in excruciating detail, that the Customsmaster had shown any interest in why they were passing through Ihra in the first place.
On hearing the tale of woe they carried with them, the Customsmaster shook his head with a sad tut. “Bad business,” he murmured.
Feeling he may have misjudged this man, Stirla nodded. “Yes, a very bad business.”
Wondering why Derrain was grimacing at him, Stirla frowned at the odd look on the Customsmaster’s face.
“No,” the little man corrected curtly. “Bad for business. You careless Rift Riders have fouled the trade routes. Now everything is so very, very difficult.” He shook his head with another of his irritating tuts. “You must sort it out. Profits are suffering.”
The meeting went downhill from there. Thankfully, for Stirla’s blood pressure and the success of their mission, Neryth was highly skilled in the art of diplomacy, while Derrain exerted every last inch of his considerable charm. Under such a concentrated assault, the Customsmaster stood no chance, though he’d put up a creditable fight. In the end, however, he admitted defeat and graciously permitted them temporary visitor rights, with written permission to visit the smith district on Sohr. Whatever business they chose to contract was up to them, but they were to leave for the Lowlands no later than the twenty-fourth. Which gave them three days.
After that the Customsmaster had gathered up his papers, bid them good day and bustled off. Leaving them enough time for dinner, a little conversation with their good-natured hosts, then off to bed again. Which brought Stirla’s second day on Ihra to a close without him setting one foot beyond the northern docklands.
Today, however, was a very different story. Having visited the eyries first thing to explain their plans to the miryhls, Derrain had quickly found a native guide and they’d all caught a bullwing omnibus across one of Ihra’s many iron bridges. These vast structures were strung like spider webs from cliff to cliff, spanning chasms and cloud rivers, and ensuring the five mountains were permanently connected. A wonder of the Overworld, they were just one of the many things Ihran craftsmen were famous for.
Leaving the most northerly mountain – Erha of the docks, delegates, bureaucrats and lawyers – behind, they crossed to the highest, biggest and most densely populated central peak, Ihra itself. Since this was mostly residential, they didn’t stop to explore, though Stirla stared in wonder at the cunningly wrought houses often carved right into the mountainside. There were a surprising amount of gardens too, tucked away on roofs and in forgotten corners, bringing unexpected brightness to an otherwise stern stone place.
Stopping in the central square, they changed omnibuses and headed south-east. As the mountain sloped downwards, the houses became free standing. As beautifully designed as everything was on Ihra, they were almost as fine as the bridges.
Up ahead, the view opened out to reveal the bright Cloud Sea shining between two very different mountains. The one to the west was small and squat, clearly divided even from a distance into fields and farmsteads: green Nehr, the growing mountain. The one to the east was jagged and shrouded in belching black clouds: dark Sohr, the smith-craft mountain.
After one last disconcerting rumble across a bridge that leapt forth into nothing, they finally reached Sohr’s soot-stained streets. Here they were obliged to leave their transport behind, because the streets in Sohr were too steep and unforgiving for even a bullwing team’s powerful shoulders.
Standing between Derrain and Neryth, looking up at the grimy streets winding almost vertically above their heads, Stirla had to wonder if he hadn’t strayed into Jarquais’ bleak realm. If this was where Gedanon Swordsmaster had been born, he could almost forgive that most taciturn of Aquilan instructors for being so perpetually grumpy.
“Go on, yes?” their guide asked, smiling but anxious, probably worried they would dispense with her services now and not leave her with a decent tip.
Staring up at the tangle of streets, Stirla could see their steepness was probably their least daunting aspect. Far more worrying was their maze-like confusion. It would be a struggle to find anything in this sooty place, let alone make their way out again. He had no intentions of letting their guide abandon them now.
Turning to the earnest young Ihran, he nodded. “On, yes,” he agreed. “Show us.”
Beaming, the girl bounced forward a few steps, then turned and waved her arm with various stabbing motions and swooshing sounds. “Swords!” she announced enthusiastically before bounding away up the steepest of all the streets.
Stirla raised his eyebrows at his companions. “Swords,” he agreed, and they set off in resigned pursuit.
~ Next Chapter ~
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