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~ Previous Chapter ~
Time for a cosy sisterly chat. Which is not embarrassing at all, no no.
“GODS.” GROANING, STIRLA the last crate onto the pile and stepped back, flexing his arms and rubbing the small of his back. “Chores like this are why I left home.”
Chuckling tiredly, Derrain twisted his waist a few times and rubbed his shoulder. “Welcome to skyship life.”
Watching the pair of them from her comfortable seat behind a table, checking off their cargo with a goose feather quill, Neryth raised an eyebrow. “I’m amazed you didn’t leave to join the Riders sooner.”
Derrain shrugged and flexed his large hands. “The thought never crossed my mind until they started letting girls in again.” At their raised eyebrows, he smiled. “I thought Mhysra could do with a friend, since I knew she’d want to try – for Cumulo’s sake if nothing else. Until then, life as a skysailor suited me well enough.”
Stirla shared a look with Neryth, neither of them able to believe there was any comparison between the two.
Catching the glance Derrain grinned. “I said it suited me well enough, not that I preferred it. Where I come from scraggy farm boys do not become Rift Riders.”
Acknowledging that with a grimace, Stirla felt that was part of the Riders’ problem these days. They were becoming too exclusive, especially amongst the officers. He might have been a farm boy himself once, but he’d had to work hard to get where he was. Befriending Lyrai had certainly helped, although that wasn’t why he’d done it.
“Finished?” Destevan pushed through the cloth walls of the trade booth and hurried to check the boxes, running her work-scarred hands over them as high as she could reach. She touched the scorched and weather-stained wood as if they were made of precious metals. “Ready, no?” she asked Neryth, rushing over to snatch the list from beneath her quill.
Neryth sat back with a resigned sigh, while Stirla and Derrain leant against the stacked crates. They had grown used to the Ihran’s fussy ways over the last seven days, as they travelled steadily between Lowland markets. It seemed the weaponsmith was a perfectionist in every aspect of her life, not just her craft.
“Good, good,” Destevan muttered, running a calloused finger down the list and scurrying between the boxes, matching up identity marks. “All here. Good.” Finally satisfied, she gave Neryth her list back and smiled. “Now we unpack!”
The three travellers shared a grimace before straightening up and getting back to work.
* * *
STEAM CURLED INVITINGLY across the surface of the copper tub as Mhysra sank into the enveloping warmth. She settled back with a sigh and closed her eyes. This bath was a glorious luxury and she intended to enjoy every moment of it, especially after the servants had worked so hard to heat the water and haul it up the backstairs for her. Mhysra knew she should probably feel guilty about that. Maybe later. For now she just let her mind drift, while her aches were soothed away.
Gods, what a day. After travelling for so long, and the events at Aquila, Mhysra had almost forgotten she was still a student. She’d certainly forgotten what it was like to be ordered around like an idiot. Stirla had never been good at ordering, while Lyrai had long since been treating his so-called students as equals.
But they were back in Nimbys now, where there weren’t only lieutenants to contend with, but captains, commanders and even a general. All of them, it seemed, were intent on forcing Mhysra and her friends back into their proper place. Even Lyrai had been treated with cold civility, but ever since he’d received his summons from the Stratys he’d been in such a bad mood that he seemed to enjoy it.
Mhysra didn’t. In fact she hated it, and she wasn’t the only one. Cumulo heavily resented being treated like a half-fledged hatchling, with no more sense than a sparrow. To make matters worse they’d been flying drills all day under the unsmiling gaze of Captain Huro, who made granite boulders look cuddly. The boredom had been crushing, lulling her brain into doelyn-like docility, her body going through the motions without conscious thought. Until Cumulo started acting up – and when a Wingborn rebelled the rest of the flock followed.
Groaning, Mhysra ducked under the water, wishing the memories were as easy to wash away. Captain Huro had not been impressed. Ignorant and ill-disciplined were two of the nicest descriptions he’d used about Cumulo when he issued a formal and very public complaint to the general.
General Keipen had listened to every word, turned and looked at Mhysra and her Wingborn. It felt like his eyes had pinned her to a board, like a hapless insect.
Then he’d given a small, unpleasant smile. “Wingborn are not like other Riders, Huro,” he’d stated, without inflection, though Mhysra had felt the sneer. “We must make allowances.”
Which made her ready to sink. Cumulo hadn’t helped by puffing up aggressively and rumbling at the general.
The general hadn’t even looked at him as he turned to clap the captain on the shoulder. “Your work is excellent, Huro, despite the circumstances. I trust you to rise above any childish disturbances. Carry on.”
Without a backward glance, he’d walked away with his group of important people – including Reglian, Goryal, two commanders, Captain Myran and too many other officers. Leaving Mhysra to wilt under the humiliation. Maegla, she hated Nimbys.
Unlike her, Cumulo was made of stronger stuff, and spent the rest of the day performing every one of Captain Huro’s commands to the letter. His precision was such that even the captain was exasperated by his obedience at the end of the day. The man knew when he was being mocked, but he could hardly complain when they were doing what he told them to. And only what he told them to. As perfectly as possible.
To make matters worse, neither Mhysra nor Cumulo could see the point in the drills. They had fought kaz-naghkt before; they knew that when an attack came it would be every last Rider for themselves. It was impossible to fight in formation against such a foe. There were too many variables to consider. Kaz-naghkt could come from any direction, at any moment, and they certainly didn’t fight in formation. Yes, occasionally, a small group of Riders might be successful in forming a team, but their numbers had to be small and their formation flexible.
Nor did she and Cumulo need to practise their flying. Not only were they Wingborn, but they had spent the last half-year in the air, constantly travelling from place to place with barely a day’s rest in between. They had hunted wild doelyn and deer, fought kaz-naghkt and dragons, and explored the breadth of the world. There was nothing Captain Huro and his repetitive boredom could teach them.
Sighing, Mhysra sat up. She was too tense to relax, even in a bath like this one. Besides Milluqua had invited the dragons, Lyrai, Honra and Captain Myran to join them tonight. It was time she prepared for dinner.
Stepping out of the bath, she wrapped herself in a thick, fluffy towel and was looking unhappily at her wardrobe when there was a knock on the door. “Come in,” she called, poking a pale pink dress doubtfully.
“Oh good, you’re finished.” Milluqua swept into the room, a vision in black and gold. Her elegant evening dress might cover every inch of her skin, but she looked far from frumpy. The lace across her chest and frothing at her wrists shimmered with an under-layer of gold, while her underskirt shimmered with the same. The black net that contained her hair was beaded with gold knot work and the makeup on her lips, cheeks and eyelids glittered with the same shade. Milluqua was mourning in style.
Knowing she could never compete, Mhysra pushed aside the pink dress and stared doubtfully at a dark red creation.
“Try this.” Nudging her aside, Milluqua dug through Mhysra’s wardrobe and pulled out a dark blue evening dress that looked almost black. It shimmered like a magpie’s wing, making Mhysra catch her breath.
“I don’t remember this,” she murmured, stroking the velvet with a wondering hand.
“Of course not. I had it made for your last birthday.”
Mhysra raised an eyebrow at her sister. Even though they had maintained a regular correspondence since Mhysra left for Aquila, neither had so much as mentioned the possibility of Mhysra returning to Nimbys. Especially not to her parents’ house. “Ever the optimist, Milli?”
Her sister tutted and laid the dress on the bed. “Whatever else happens, you are a Kilpapan. I will not forget that, no matter who else tries to. Now, come along, it’s time to get dressed. We can’t have your lieutenant seeing you like that.”
Mhysra turned away in search of undergarments in an attempt to hide her face. “I have no idea what you mean.”
Milluqua gave a very unladylike snort. “Just because I like gowns and parties, little sister, does not make me a fool. It was obvious something was building between the pair of you two years ago. Now you can barely take your eyes off him when he enters a room. He’s just as bad,” she added, before Mhysra could sink through the floor with humiliation.
“It’s – there’s – we -” Mhysra stammered, trying to find the words to explain her relationship with Lyrai. Except she’d never had to explain it before, not even to herself. All she could do was flounder like a fish and wish her embarrassment would fade, as she stepped into her dress.
“It is what I think, there is plenty going on and you are obviously more than just friends and co-Riders,” Milluqua supplied the clichés Mhysra had failed to find. “And I couldn’t be more delighted. Not least because you have an unerringly excellent sense of taste.”
Tugging the dress up over Mhysra’s arms, Milluqua began lacing up the back. “Whatever else you’ve done, Mother and Father will hardly object to you marrying a son of the Stratys.”
“Marrying?” Mhysra squeaked, and not only because her sister gave an extra hard tug on the laces. “We’re not getting married!”
Milluqua spun her around again and focused on ensuring the bodice and sleeves were positioned just right. “Well, not yet,” she agreed, darting a quick glance at her sister’s stunned face. “You have other things to do first. I understand that. You’re a Rider, he’s a Rider, but at least it’s a good match. A fair one, in terms of so-social st-standings.” She turned away, but not quickly enough to conceal the shimmer of tears in her eyes.
Mhysra wrapped her arms about her sister from behind. “Oh, Milli,” she murmured. “I’m so sorry.”
“Nonsense.” Milluqua shrugged her off with a tight little laugh. “There’s nothing to apologise for.” She shot her sister an arch look. “At least I hope there isn’t. You may be a Rider now, but you’re still a Wrentherin and a Kilpapan. I trust you haven’t forgotten everything I taught you.”
Mhysra cursed as yet another wave of embarrassment washed over her.
Milluqua’s eyes widened. “Mhysra!”
“No, no,” she said hurriedly. “I mean, not… gods! We… there was – I mean, we hardly have any time alone. I did – There was… one night -”
“Mhysra,” Milluqua said again, flatly this time. A command to tell all.
“Nothing happened!” Mhysra burst out, then winced. “Well, almost nothing.”
Her sister stared at her.
Mortified, Mhysra hunched a shoulder and turned her head away. “He didn’t… I mean, we weren’t alone all night. There wasn’t – I – gods.” She raked her hands through her hair. “We kissed. A lot. And – and other things, but not everything.” She shot her sister an imploring look, begging her to understand and come to her rescue. Mhysra had indeed been raised a Wrentherin and a Kilpapan. A lady. Even two years with the Riders hadn’t provided her with the right words for conversations like these.
Milluqua laughed. “Oh, my poor Mhysra.”
Heat filled her again, this time tinged with annoyance, and Mhysra put her hands on her hips. “I thought you were angry.”
Still laughing, Milluqua dabbed at her eyes, careful not to smear her makeup. “Only if you’d been careless. But I doubted it. Lyrai would know how to take care of you. Nice boys always do.”
It was Mhysra’s turn to stare. “Milli!”
Her sister shot her an old fashioned look. “I am twenty-six, Mhysra. I may not be married, but I’m not dead.”
“But – but – you’re a lady!”
“And ladies are discreet and careful, darling.” She eyed her sister again with a sly little smile. “I see we need to have a proper talk before you leave. Poor sweetheart. No time alone, did you say? The pair of you must be so… uncomfortable.”
Well, Mhysra certainly was now. Her whole world was expanding to unimaginable horizons. She’d never expected to have this sort of conversation with her sister. Milluqua was too elegant for such things.
Reading her expression, Milluqua sighed and patted Mhysra’s cheek. “We’ll talk later. For now I’ll send up a maid. Your hair is a mess and our guests will be here soon. I’ll see you downstairs.” Pausing only to pull the bell cord beside the bed, Milluqua swept towards the door, leaving her little sister staring after her in stunned silence.
“Milli!” she called before her sister could leave. “You and Stirla…?”
Milluqua paused and glanced back over her shoulder, her eyes dark with misery. “We all need our little dreams,” she murmured, and walked out of the door.
And some dreams, Mhysra thought remembering her own misery before a certain decree was passed, were meant to come true. Smiling to herself, Mhysra started to plot. Dreams only came true if someone was willing to work at them, and in this case Mhysra was definitely willing. She could think of a few other people who might be happy help too. When the time was right.
Grinning, she greeted the maid and settled down before her dressing table, looking forward to the evening ahead after all.
~ Next Chapter ~
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