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~ Previous Chapter ~
And… they’re… (almost) off!
IN AN ATTEMPT to keep gossip to a minimum, Lyrai snuck out early the next morning. Boots in hand, he stole down the main staircase of the Kilpapan mansion, hoping the front door wouldn’t be difficult to unlock.
He met Stirla in the foyer.
Eyes widening at the shock of getting caught, Lyrai opened his mouth, ready to defend himself. Stirla shook his head with a crooked smile and nodded towards the door. It was still dark and the servants weren’t noticeably working yet, so Lyrai took the offered escape. The front door was unlocked, but since Stirla didn’t remark upon it, Lyrai gathered his friend sneaking out before dawn might have been more common than he’d guessed.
Still, he knew better to ask as they sat down on the front steps to pull their boots on. At least it wasn’t frosty. Rain hovered in the air, but since Lyrai’s clothes still hadn’t dried from the night before, he wasn’t bothered when it started to fall. The fact he had no jacket, however, soon had him shivering.
“Here.” Stirla shrugged out of his topcoat and handed it over.
Lyrai accepted it gratefully, even if he did feel like a little boy dressed up in his big brother’s clothes. Stirla’s lips twitched at the sight he made, but he still didn’t speak. They strode through Nimbys’ quiet streets in silence, putting as much space between themselves, their ladies and gossip as possible before servants began to appear, sent out to fetch fresh milk from the market.
Only after they’d climbed the long path from the city towards the officers did Stirla open his mouth. “So…” he began.
Lyrai tensed, and not just because they were passing the palace gates and the night guard were saluting him. Henryn wasn’t dead yet. Didn’t anyone in that wretched place have any respect. Putting his head down, Lyrai hurried past.
“Those Kilpapan ladies, eh?” Stirla continued, matching him stride for stride, not commenting on the increased pace.
Lyrai eyed him sideways. Stirla’s smile was wry, filled with sympathy about love and families and a certain pair of special women.
“Yeah,” Lyrai agreed with a heartfelt sigh, having nothing more to say.
Stirla slapped him on the shoulder, though Lyrai suspected his friend was the one most in need of comforting. At least Lyrai would still get to see Mhysra occasionally, even if it was never alone.
“Ready to go home?” he asked his friend.
“Yeah,” Stirla echoed with a heartfelt sigh of his own, and they headed into the barracks to gather their bags. It was time to go.
* * *
THE STREETS OF Nimbys were crowded and bustling. Mhysra pressed herself against Cumulo’s back as they glided safely above it all, fervently glad that she didn’t have to make her way through all that mess. She’d probably miss her ship if she tried.
“Looks like they love us again,” her Wingborn grumbled as he swooped low, making the crowds point and gasp and admire. Vain old feather duster.
“Only because we’re leaving,” Mhysra muttered.
“And taking the entire Kilpapan fleet with us,” Cumulo agreed. For the traders of Nimbys it was an unexpected double bonus. Not only were they not expected to waste risk their own profits by transporting the Riders, the missing Kilpapan fleet would open up fresh and lucrative opportunities for the rest of them as well. Mhysra could practically smell the greed emanating from the merchant quarter as they skimmed over it before banking around the cathedral and heading for the docklands.
A long line of miryhls spread out before them, and even more followed behind. With all the supplies and luggage loaded over recent days, it was finally time to get the Riders on board, students first.
Spreading his wings, Cumulo slowed as they reached the massed ranks of the fleet, searching for their assigned ship.
“There!” Mhysra leant forward to point at the grandest vessel of all, moored at the very mouth of the Nimbys harbour cove. The Illuminai, flagship of the fleet and her mother’s personal trader.
Double flapping in acknowledgement, Cumulo shrieked to draw the attention of Wisp, Zephyr and Latinym, then led the way above the rest of the ships. Although a broad landing platform had been erected on the stern, a sailor stood in the middle of it, waving flags to direct them down below towards the stern hatch.
An old hand at such landings now after so many voyages, Cumulo swept around the edge of the ship, tucked his wings and dove down the Illuminai’s side, banking away from the vessel. When they drew level with the hatch, he opened his wings to shed the last of their speed, turned and glided easily in through the doors.
“Very nice,” Fleik’s sergeant, Quarro, said approvingly, tipping his head to the left. “Go pick your spot.” They were the first to arrive.
“I think I’ll stay just about here,” Cumulo decided, strutting to the spot immediately beside the doors.
“Nice try,” Quarro chuckled, “But that’s for officers only.”
Ruffling his feathers, Cumulo settled down like a hen on its nest. “Hurricane can shift me when he arrives.”
The sergeant shook his head with a chuckle. “You know best, I’m sure, young Wingborn.”
“Always do, always will,” Mhysra’s miryhl agreed, dropping a wing and turning his head to his Rider. “Are you going to sit there all day? Don’t you have your own rooms to find?”
Rolling her eyes at him, Mhysra slid from the saddle and loosened the girths. “I thought you’d forgotten all about me.”
“As if I could.” He nuzzled her ribs. “Who else would take off my tack?”
“You’re such a charmer, Cue,” Corin laughed, pulling Wisp’s bridle over her head and using the reins to lasso Skybreeze before the dragonet could run off into mischief.
Hitching her pack over one shoulder and lifting the saddle with her other arm, Mhysra paused to kiss her miryhl on the beak. “Behave yourself,” she told him. “And try not to pick too many fights. Hurricane, Atyrn, Jasper and Breeze might know you of old, but there will be other officers on board, remember. And be polite to Birch. I don’t want Captain Myran getting a bad impression of us.”
“I’m always polite to Birch,” Cumulo grumbled as she walked away. Which was true, because Captain Myran’s miryhl was one of the few older eagles that her Wingborn genuinely respected. She was less confident about how he would behave around the other officer miryhls, though. Still, there was nothing she could do about it, except hope that Hurricane and Birch would be able to keep him in line. Maybe.
“How long do you think it will be before Cumulo corrupts every miryhl on this ship and has them talking to all and sundry as easy as you please?” Derrain asked, holding open the door for her into the storeroom-turned-tack room.
Mhysra groaned and dumped Cumulo’s saddle on the rack assigned to him.
“I’d give it until sundown,” Corin predicted.
Alongside her, Dhori chuckled. “Rumour has it General Keipen will be joining us onboard.”
Mhysra groaned again, but louder this time.
“Hm.” Corin pursed her lips thoughtfully. “In that case, I’ll give him until lunch.”
While her friends laughed, Mhysra put her head in her hands. “He’s going to get us thrown out.”
“And lose the legend of a Wingborn?” Derrain said, slinging an arm across her shoulders and steering her out of the tack room. “Unlikely.”
“Then again,” Dhori said, “this is Cumulo we’re talking about.”
Her friends pretended to think about it while Mhysra covered her face. “Maegla help me.”
“It was a pleasure serving with you.” Corin patted her consolingly on the shoulder while the other two chuckled.
And they called themselves her friends.
Their laughter was cut short when Skybreeze managed to wriggle out of Corin’s arms tripping both her and Derrain and sending them careening into Dhori. Mhysra snickered, patted the dragonet on the head and smiled at the skysailor waiting to meet them.
“Morning, Lady Mhysra.” The wiry sailor bowed politely, then grinned over her shoulder. “Hey-ho, Derry-o.”
“Morning, Geret.” She greeted the young skysailor cheerfully, having known him almost as long as she had Derrain. The three of them had spent many a Storm Season running around Wrentheria with her cousins and the other young members of the Illuminai’s crew. Which was why she deftly side-stepped so that Derrain and the sailor could engage in their usual greeting wrestle. It didn’t last long, thanks to the fact that Derrain was almost twice Geret’s height these days. “Any chance of showing us where we’re going to sleep?”
Looking up from where he’d been pinned to the floor, Geret blew his hair out of his eyes and grinned. “Of course. It’s right this way.” Wriggling out of Derrain’s slackened hold, he jumped to his feet, straightened his uniform and winked at Corin. “Follow me, Riders. The comfort and luxury of the Illuminai awaits.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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