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~ Previous Chapter ~
The clean up begins.
IT WAS RAINING in Nimbys. Again. That was what Thaw Month did, rain, rain and rain until most of the snow and slush was cleared away. It was a dreary month, full of grumpy faces and bitter complaints as wood that had warped over the long winter started to leak, and tiles lost in blizzards and gales revealed themselves in their absence.
Not this year. This year Nimbys was happy for the rain. In fact the good people of the city often wished for more. It was the only way to wash away the stains, both black and red, in the hope that without them their memories might likewise fade.
Corin trotted through the sodden streets, her eyes well trained by now to avoid the brown smears, though she absently registered the darker ones and whether or not they were fading. It had been a hard fight. Even more so for being unexpected. The good folk of Nimbys weren’t yet sure what to make of it. Plenty hadn’t even believed the kaz-naghkt truly existed, so to be presented with such incontrovertible and violent truth was taking some getting used to.
Amongst the Flying Corps it was a different matter. The dragons had been accepted with full honour and much gratitude into their ranks. Preparations to regain Aquila had also been stepped up. Those who had been doubtful of the wisdom of such a plan before had quickly changed their minds. It was one thing to find kaz-naghkt in the west, where they lived in the shadow of the World’s End Mountains, but here in the east was a different story. Yet if the kaz-naghkt and Wrathlen pirates were permitted to keep such a valuable jewel as Aquila, it would surely become a regular and bloody occurrence. And not just in Nimbys.
So it was decided, all the ships in Nimbys’ harbour would be pressed into Rider service to carry men and miryhls to Aquila as soon as everything could be arranged.
Corin could just imagine how the merchants were going to take that. Which was probably why the Flying Corps hadn’t told them yet. If they’d been able to fly to Aquila during the first quarter-moon after the attack, she had no doubt that every last person in the city would have done anything to help. But war preparations took time, even without a long flight in between, and by the time everything was finally ready, the first horror would have long since faded. Merchants had short memories for anything other than being on the wrong end of a bad deal, and with spring finally blossoming they’d be furious. She was looking forward to it. If only to provide a distraction from the recent disaster.
Thirty-four miryhls and fifty-nine Riders had died in the fighting, more than a hundred of each lay wounded, some of which weren’t expected to last out the month. And it would have been worse without the dragons.
Yet this was just a skirmish. A teaser, a taste of what they would have to contend with when they reached Aquila. It made Corin’s blood colder than any blizzard she’d ever encountered. Losing Aquila had been terrible, but she feared regaining it would be worse. Who knew what surprises that Yullik had prepared for them? How she wished none of them would ever have to find out. If that made her a coward, so be it.
Shaking the water from the brim of her hat, she slowed to a walk and pulled open the door to the Offices. Shedding her cloak and hat, she left them dripping on a peg, nodded at the clerk behind the main desk and wound her way deep inside the busy building. Her feet carried her automatically up the stairs and along the corridors where once she’d fallen asleep in her lessons and laughed with her friends.
These days the rooms were empty of students, snoozing or otherwise. Wounded Riders had taken their place, stretched out on temporary beds, while men and women from the city, as well as more able-bodied Riders, tried to make them more comfortable. Harried and overstretched healers dashed between the rooms, doing their best to treat everyone, unable to save them all.
Corin didn’t envy them one bit, wishing she could help, but knowing from experience that nurturing wasn’t amongst her skills. Instead she reached the end of the corridor and entered the very last room. It was small but private, with barely enough room for one bed, let alone all the people who seemed forever clustered inside.
Corin edged her way passed Lieutenant Honra, who kindly lifted his splinted wrist out of her way. At least these days his smile was less frightening, now that most of the swelling around his right eye and jaw had gone down. There had been a worrying few days when the healers had feared he would lose his eye, but it seemed to be improving now. The patch gave him a nicely rakish air, especially when combined with the new scar that stretched from his hairline to his chin.
He mumbled something unintelligible before bowing out of the room. Corin clambered onwards over Lieutenant Lyrai and his fetching head wrap, to squeeze onto the storage chest next to Mhysra. Her friend’s left shoulder and leg were both heavily bandaged, while her face still carried a green tint from all the balm the healers kept applying to her blistered skin. Fortunately, the hair at the front of her head was starting to grow back, meaning she looked better than Cumulo, who currently resembled a hedgehog.
In front of her, Goryal sat perched on the edge of the patient’s bed, their eyes closed, a hum in their throat. They did this a lot. Almost every time Corin escaped from training – since she was one of the rare few to have escaped the fight without a scratch – Goryal was here, humming and healing. Which was lucky, because Jaymes needed all the help he could get.
She looked at her friend now, barely able to recognise the skinny, lively redhead in the still form on the bed. The only similarity was the redness, only now it had spread from Jaymes’ hair to cover every exposed part of his body. Which was quite a lot, since the healers didn’t dare put any covering over his terribly burned skin. Bare from the waist up, Jaymes was a patchwork of pinks and reds, charred-black sections clearly showing every place Emberbright had leant against him, melting his skin.
He’d been unconscious for seven days, and no one knew whether he’d ever wake again. Beneath his bed, on a pile of soft pillows, Emberbright slept just as deeply. Her scales had faded to a pale rose, almost as though she and Jaymes had swapped skin. She hadn’t even woken to feed. Skybreeze was wrapped around her, mournful and lonely. He cheeped dolefully at Corin, but didn’t move to greet her.
Goryal sighed, sat back and opened their eyes. “They have far to go.”
At the end of the bed, Lyrai shifted his weight. “But he still might wake?”
Humming, the dragon ran their hands over the boy’s body, careful not to touch. “He might,” Goryal agreed in their silver chime voice. “Give me time. Give him time. Give Emberbright time. We all need time.”
Under the bed, the dragonet twitched as though responding to her name. On the bed, Jaymes took an extra deep breath. Everyone stared at them, tense and hopefully, but neither patient stirred any further. The room settled back into ordinary sounds, and the watchers sighed with disappointment.
“Time,” Goryal repeated, flexing their long fingers. “I am out of practise.”
Mhysra rubbed pensively at the stubbly regrowth at the front of her head. “Won’t this just happen again next time? Will he have to go through this every time they fight? Can he?”
Goryal wrinkled their nose. “Emberbright is young. I forget sometimes how young. She has developed so fast. Too fast, perhaps. She has not yet learnt control.”
“So this could happen again?” Corin asked.
“Yes and no,” Goryal hummed. “Time, as I said. If I have enough of it, I can teach her to control her heat so that she will not burn him. If I have enough time, I can teach Jaymes how to take that heat into himself and pass it back to her, so she won’t exhaust herself. It all relies on time.”
Which was all a little too evasive for Corin’s liking. She raised her eyebrows at Mhysra, and her friend’s mouth twisted unhappily. Dragons.
“All right, everyone, out if you please.”
The door opened to admit the head healer, who preferred to treat Jaymes herself. She found his case fascinating, if baffling, and on more than one occasion had seriously upset his friends by shaking her head and announcing that he should be dead – and probably would be in the next day or two.
Still, much as Corin and Mhysra had come to dislike the woman’s bedside manner, there was no denying that her creams provided Jaymes with some relief. Nor was he dead yet. Perhaps the woman was doing some good after all. Or perhaps Goryal was less out of practise than they claimed.
Either way, neither girl wanted to hang around when Healer Arrane got to work. They took Lyrai with them, leaving Goryal to bicker amiably with the woman about methods and salves and herbs. They both seemed to enjoy it. Healers were an odd bunch.
Shuffling through the infirmary and out into the corridor beyond, Corin didn’t quite know what to do with herself. From the looks on both Lyrai and Mhysra’s faces they didn’t either. Since both carried injuries, and their miryhls were grounded too, they hadn’t had much to do over recent days. Corin was a little envious. She’d had far too much to do since the kaz-naghkt had been routed.
“I wonder if it’s still raining,” Corin mused, heading for the stairs.
Lyrai followed, his arm about Mhysra’s waist to help her hobble along. Honestly, that man was shameless. Any excuse to touch. Corin smiled, an expression that had been in short supply recently. It was still on her face when she walked passed the front desk and saw Dhori talking to three travel-worn strangers. From the puddles forming around their feet, Corin guessed that it was still raining. Probably even harder than when she’d arrived.
One of the strangers shook their head, chuckling at what Dhori was saying, and his hood fell back. Corin’s feet tripped over empty air.
“Stirla!” Lyrai abandoned Mhysra in his headlong rush across the room.
The three strangers turned, revealing their faces.
“Derry!” both Corin and Mhysra shrieked.
Since Mhysra was hampered by a punctured leg, Corin reached him first, throwing herself against that broad, broad chest, barely able to close her arms around him. Gods, he was real, he was here. He was home.
Derrain laughed and lifted her off her feet, spinning her around and around. “What a welcome!” He stopped to gather Mhysra in as well, kissing both girls soundly on the cheek. “I should lose you more often.”
Loosening his grip, he stepped back, smiling at Corin and ruffling her freshly cut hair, which was even shorter than normal, thanks to gore, smoke and other messes. “Looks good. Suits you.” Then he turned to Mhysra and lost his smile. “Maegla, what happened to you?”
Mhysra chuckled self-consciously, running her fingers over the front of her head, half-hiding her stubble patch. “You should see Cue.”
Derrain frowned, but before he could ask any questions, Stirla threw an arm about each of the girls’ shoulders. “What, no welcome screams for me? I’m crushed.”
Mhysra winced as the big lieutenant put his hand right on her wounded shoulder, but Lyrai quickly rescued her. Leaving Corin free to give her favourite lieutenant a heartfelt hug.
“Welcome back, sir. Maegla, have we missed you.”
Ruffling her hair, he smiled and looked around the bustling offices, bright eyes passing over both Lyrai’s and Mhysra’s bandages and the number of walking wounded hobbling about. For all his merriness, Corin knew he hadn’t missed a thing.
“Looks like you have,” he said, patting Corin’s shoulder and letting her go. “Something tells me there are some adventures here that I need to hear about.”
The front doors burst open, admitting the dripping but unmistakable form of an irate Ihran. “Stirla, Derry, Neryth! I need you!”
Lyrai raised her eyebrows at the other lieutenant. “Sounds like you’ve been having an interesting adventure or two of your own.”
“If only,” Stirla grumbled, grabbing Derrain’s arm before he could slip away. “If bloody only.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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