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~ Previous Chapter ~
Curiouser and curiouser.
“WHAT ARE YOU up to?”
For the first time since he’d met her, Yullik was fortunate enough to catch Riame by surprise. With her twin nowhere in sight, the woman had been descending the backstairs to Restenfell’s kitchen, created in far gone days when his World’s End fortress had been a rather different place.
The untrustworthy woman had been humming happily to herself, utterly unaware of Yullik watching from the shadows. His question made her jump – and very nearly drop the pot she’d been carrying on a tray.
She hissed as the contents swished about and sent him a glare.
Yullik smirked. Served her right for being so smug while carrying such stuff about.
“What business is it of yours what I do?” she snapped, brushing past him to stride straight through the kitchen and out to the little yard beyond. She emptied the pot down the handy crevasse and stomped back inside, slamming the door with another glare.
Thoroughly amused to have discomposed her so, Yullik leant against the wall and folded his arms. “You are my guest,” he said, all mock solicitousness. “A good host likes to see that his guests are content and entertained.”
Riame washed her hands at the pump, picked up a bucket that had been warming beside the fire and threw a bowl into it. “But you’re not a good host,” she said, her familiar smirk returning. “So again, I ask, what business is it of yours what I do?”
He watched her work, bemused by the sheer domesticity of her actions – and how naturally they came to her. “Normally none,” he conceded, because in truth he didn’t care for either twin and wouldn’t miss them if they vanished tomorrow. “However, the Wingborn is very much my business.”
“Then perhaps you should heal her.” She shot him a sharp and thoroughly unpleasant look. It surprised him. Was Riame concerned for the Wingborn? He hadn’t known she was capable of such a thing, not even for her twin.
Yullik wrinkled his nose. “She is too far gone. I could never return her to what she was.”
“You could have.”
“I could,” he agreed. Back when they’d first left Aquila, in those early days aboard this woman’s skyship, the Wingborn’s injuries had been fresh and raw, pulsing like a constant headache in his mind. His hands – his magic – had itched to heal her, to set right what had gone so very wrong in the collapse of the tower. But he hadn’t.
She’d stabbed him. The Wingborn, a fellow Wingborn, had stabbed him. She should have stepped forward to join him, not raised a sword and tried to kill him.
It was an unforgivable betrayal that had made it impossible for him to approach her then. He’d been too angry, too hurt. Then he’d been too busy, rebuilding his shattered home, marshalling the dregs of his kaz-naghkt, laying the foundations of his new plans.
Then it had been too late.
“I cannot heal her now.”
Growling, Riame pulled the clean bowl out of the water and placed it on the draining rack. “You could do something about her pain. It’s the least you could do, considering she’s raising your monsters.”
Yullik’s eyebrows rose at the suppressed fury in her voice, wondering where this had been back on her skyship, back when her intervention might have done some good. “I am not the one who surrounded her with eggs, positioning her like a feast in the middle of a hatchling nest.”
She paused momentarily, the slightest hitch in her gait as she strode across the kitchen on her way to check the bread rising in the ovens. Most people would have missed it, seen nothing of note. Yullik was not most people and he had been watching very closely.
He’d had his suspicions about who was responsible for those eggs. She had just confirmed them.
“Your concern for my prisoner is touching,” he said, not letting on that he’d noticed anything. Let her wonder. Let her wait. Yullik was patient.
“Someone has to care for her,” she grumbled, pulling a perfect loaf from the oven and transferring it to the table to cool. “If it were left to you, the poor girl would have starved.”
Except he’d been the one to organise her meals on the skyship and ensured she ate during the first days after their arrival here. Riame’s concern and attention were both very recent.
“She’s managed to survive my care thus far,” he pointed out mildly.
She glared at him. “Survive,” she spat, grabbing a knife and sawing into the loaf. “Is that the best you can do?”
His left hand balled into a fist in an echo of his old anger, claws pricking through his skin. Yes, survival had been the best he could allow her, especially at first. She’d attacked him. But his anger had cooled since then. Reason had prevailed.
Smiling, he stole a piece of bread, still warm and surprisingly delicious. He breathed it in as he took a bite. “Very nice,” he approved, unexpectedly.
Riame sampled a bit and sniffed. “I could do better.” She pointed the knife at him. “As could you.”
He tilted his head. “Perhaps I could.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Perhaps you should.”
He smiled. “Perhaps I shall.”
* * *
On board the Illuminai
“I DON’T UNDERSTAND,” Lyrai said, jogging to keep up with Goryal as the dragon elder strode after Reglian down the passageway. They were unexpectedly quick for such a small and dainty figure, but by now nothing about them could truly surprise Lyrai. “What’s wrong with Rhiddyl? Was it something she ate?”
Stirla snorted at the ridiculous question, but Lyrai waved him off. It was a stupid thing to say, but a blue and purple lynx had just turned into a pink chicken in front of him. Perhaps stupid things were catching?
“No, no,” Goryal said, flicking their hand dismissively. “It’s all perfectly normal. It’s just her Change Time. It’s all part of growing up. Every Clan dragon goes through it.”
“Normal?” Stirla demanded, while Lyrai was still trying to wrap his head around the implications. “This is normal? Do you mean you’ve been expecting this?”
“Oh, yes, any day really. Most Clan dragons start changing somewhere in their twentieth decade. Why, Clan Stoneheart are so punctual you could set your almanac by them, but most of the others are fairly close behind. Except Skystorm. They’ve always been irregular, and the Tempestfury kin are particularly tricky.”
“But you knew this would happen?” Lyrai persisted, not caring about the other kins and Clans.
“Know?” Goryal shot him a glance and shook their head. “No, that is the trouble with Skystorms. Unlike Stonehearts and even Highflights, one cannot be certain just when their Change Time will begin. Rhiddyl is already in her twenty-third decade, and quite overdue. No, we could not know it would happen. But we hoped.”
“You hoped,” Lyrai and Stirla echoed faintly.
Goryal flashed them a pleased smile. “Oh, yes, prayed too – as much as we dragons ever do. And look how the Family have answered!” They chortled gleefully.
Lyrai had no words. He blinked at Stirla. His friend’s lips twisted into a grimace.
“You didn’t think to warn us?” Stirla asked, with deceptive mildness.
Goryal shook their head. “We didn’t want to get anyone else’s hopes up in case it took another decade. Especially poor Rhiddyl. I don’t think she realised how overdue she was. We didn’t wish to make her anxious. She has quite enough to worry about as it is.”
“Ah,” Stirla breathed. “No, of course. What a disappointment that would have been.”
“Indeed.” Goryal beamed. “But that’s all over now.” Their pleasure turned into a pensive frown. “Although she could have picked a better time.” They shook their head, making their fluffy white hair waft around their head like a cloud. “As if it were so easy as to simply choose. Oh well, we shall have to make the best of it.”
“Indeed,” Lyrai said gravely, having finally found his voice again. In fact, it was harder not to say all the things he now wished to. Or shout them. But that wouldn’t help, so he restrained himself.
“I do hope Reglian got her outside in time,” Goryal said, wringing their pale hands. “I should hate to offend the Countess.”
Lyrai exchanged another glance with Stirla. “Maybe you should have thought about that before bringing Rhiddyl below decks,” he pointed out, while Stirla rolled his eyes with exasperation.
“In hindsight, yes,” Goryal agreed, twisting sharply to descend the stairs to the eyries. “But most dragons take time to recover from their first change. When Rhiddyl became an eagle, she should have stayed that way for at least a bell or more. It hurts, you know, especially at first.”
Lyrai remembered the wide-eyed panic of the purple eagle before it became a lynx. Then a chicken. Then an eagle again. She had been growing even bigger when Reglian fled – evidently in search of an exit.
The eyries were in an uproar as they stepped inside. They might have only brought five eagles with them on this trip, but that was more than enough to set up a fuss. Especially considering the full-sized dragon that was now sprawled across the floor, wings scrunched up against the walls, tail looped over her back. Rhiddyl looked a very sorry sight, her stormy scales unusually washed-out and pale. Her sides gleamed and heaved with stress.
“Oh dear,” Goryal clucked their tongue and hurried forward to pat her shivering face.
A black silk-clad arm was visible just beneath Rhiddyl’s great chin and Lyrai smiled.
“Nice to see Reglian got what he deserved,” Stirla muttered.
“It’s outrageous, bringing her down here,” Atyrn huffed, having sidled over to her Rider side. “I don’t know how he plans to get her out again. What kind of stupid prank was this?”
“Not a prank,” Lyrai told her, reaching out to soothe Hurricane as his miryhl shuffled up beside him. “They just didn’t think things through.”
Miryhls and Riders studied the tableau before them as Goryal hefted Rhiddyl’s head up just enough for Reglian to slither free. “Dragons,” they said in a chorus of feeling.
“Well,” Derrain said, somewhat breathlessly as he and the other students stood in the doorway, taking it all in. “At least they’re never boring.”
Unable to argue with that, the rest of them grunted in wordless agreement.
“Derry!” Zephyr scrambled over Rhiddyl’s back and pounced on the Rider she hadn’t seen in months. “You’re up!”
“He was,” Hurricane murmured to Lyrai, as Derrain staggered beneath his miryhl’s enthusiasm. Only the support of Jaymes and Dhori kept him on his feet… mostly.
Lyrai watched their reunion with a smile and looked at each of their ragged crew. Even gathered together like this, they didn’t seem like much, certainly not enough to storm World’s End and save the Overworld. And yet, he could think of few others he would rather share this moment with.
Static popped, stinging the inside of Lyrai’s nose, and Rhiddyl shrank into a strange bird-woman shape, with giant wings and an eagle beak on an otherwise human form. Sitting back on her knees, she raised her wings and looked down at herself in obvious dismay. Glaring accusingly at Goryal, she opened her beak, screamed – and Reglian threw her out of the hatch.
The big dragon dived after her before anyone could protest, leaving Goryal rubbing their head with a sigh.
Chuckling, Hurricane ran his beak through Lyrai’s hair. “That looks interesting. Want to go and watch?”
Catching the curious eyes of his friends, Lyrai laughed and threw up his hands in defeat. “Why not?” he said, and went to fetch his miryhl’s tack. Derrain was right: life with dragons was never boring.
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