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~ Previous Chapter ~
Ah, Kaskad, how much we’ve missed you…
“NO. NO MORE dragons. No more.” It wasn’t the best greeting they could have hoped for, Stirla thought, wincing as he and his friends lined up before the Illumina, waiting for the Countess to disembark, while General Dreffen ranted and raved.
Ah, Kaskad. How wonderful to be back. It felt like he’d never left.
“I warned Keipen. I told him not to leave you unsupervised. I told him what might happen. And look, here you are again, with dragons in tow. Well, not in Keipen. No more dragons.”
While Stirla did his best not to cringe, aware that Lyrai was doing his best ice prince impression next to him, and Derrain, Jaymes and Dhori all clearly wished to be elsewhere, Elder Goryal appeared to be as oblivious as ever.
“More dragons?” they asked. “Have you had other company recently, general?”
Dreffen eyed the pale dragon up and down before glaring at Reglian, looming black and tall beside the elder. “Had? No, we have not had other company recently, dragon, we still have it!”
General Dreffen, Stirla realised, had something of a theatrical streak. He’d caught glimpses of it during his last memorable encounters with the man, but now he was certain. The general made a big show of stomping in front of them, practically tearing his silver-streaked hair out, but it was also clear that he was enjoying himself hugely. When Keipen raged, mountains trembled. When Dreffen did, crowds gathered and handed out snacks. Just another day at the Kaskad Playhouse.
“Truly?” Goryal sounded delighted. “How fortuitous.” The elder beamed at Stirla and Lyrai. “Please excuse me, lieutenants, but I cannot pass up this opportunity to speak with my fellow dragons. I am most keen to discover what they’ve been up to on this side of the Veils. Reglian…?” They cast an inviting look towards the archivist.
Folding his arms across his broad chest, Reglian looked at where Dreffen was huffing himself up for another performance and tilted his head towards where Rhiddyl was still sky-dancing with the miryhls. He smiled at the Riders. “I will remain here, if it’s all the same. I trust you will keep notes for me.”
Goryal tapped their temple with a smile. “Always.” They vanished with a sharp pop.
Even the general couldn’t compete with that. Dreffen blinked at where Goryal had so recently been.
“Show off,” Reglian muttered to no one in particular. “They only use sound effects when they’re trying to impress.”
Stirla shared a glance with his friends, knowing they all thought the same silent curse: dragons.
Dreffen frowned and turned back to the newly-arrived Riders, saving a particularly dark scowl for Stirla. “Tell me you brought the princess back with you, at least. Perhaps then we’ll finally see the last of Heryff’s blasted messengers.”
Thinking of Princess Neryth, last seen standing beside her sister and waving them off from Nimbys, Stirla grimaced. Yes, it really was wonderful to be back in Kaskad again.
He couldn’t wait to leave.
DERRAIN HAD ALWAYS known that Lunrai, Countess Kilpapan, knew when best to make an entrance. He was never more grateful for that skill than when she chose to descend from the Illuminai moments before General Dreffen decided to kill Stirla for leaving the Havian princess behind.
He was even more relieved when the great lady swept the general up and bore him back into Kaskad with talk of trade items, supply runs and decent accommodations for a lady of her stature. As with eastern society, earls and countesses – or kerns and kernesses as they were known in the west – were nobles, even if they were only third tier ones. That was enough to gain her the best possible treatment, but since the Greater West was built on trade, being the woman in charge of the rich, powerful and highly-influential Kilpapan fleet also brought respect. The Countess was fully aware of that and exploited it to the full, leaving Derrain and his friends time to breathe and regroup while the general’s temper was mercifully distracted.
“How soon can we leave?” Stirla grumbled, as a fresh-faced Rider student arrived to show them to their quarters.
Derrain shared a rueful grimace with Jaymes, while Lyrai patted his fellow lieutenant on the shoulder. Neither of them had an answer for that, not even Dhori, who was uncharacteristically quiet as they stepped inside the rickety halls that had once seemed like luxury after the desperate, scrambling flight following Aquila’s first fall.
Yullik and his kaz-naghkt had driven them out that time; this time they followed him.
The young student was a chatty fellow, bubbling over with enthusiasm as he asked whether they’d been in the recent war, what part they’d played, if they’d killed any kaz-naghkt or seen the tower fall. Derrain could hardly believe how old the boy made him feel. There couldn’t have been more than five years between them, but gods, the child sounded so naïve. He reminded Derrain of Mouse, except he lacked the same over-energetic bounce – and surely Mouse had never been so blindly oblivious as this boy. Each blithe, foolish, idiotic question felt like punches in Derrain’s gut. How could anyone be so enthusiastic about all the lives lost, the blood spilt, the horror and terror of Aquila’s fall?
It made Derrain’s head pound and his chest ache. Although the increasing pain in his back might have also had something to do with it. This was the longest he’d been on his feet since he’d started walking again, and if he didn’t find somewhere to rest soon, he feared his legs might betray him.
“Stand firm, young Rider,” Reglian rumbled in his ear, wrapping a strong and mercifully secure arm around his waist. “You’re doing well.”
The student stopped mid-chatter, turning to see what had caused the low rumbling. Derrain wasn’t certain what his own face showed, but he knew he’d started sweating and likely looked utterly pathetic. However, it was Reglian that caught the boy’s attention.
“Are you a dragon?” he blurted, eyes widening.
Reglian looked down at himself and slowly inspected the golden claws tipping his free hand. “It would appear so,” he told the boy gravely.
“Oh, famous!” The lad rubbed his hands together. “Another one. Are you a fire dragon, like the others? Or are you more of a stone type?”
Derrain felt Reglian tense beside him and bit his lip against a smile. Dhori caught his eye and winked.
“Neither,” the Thunderwing rumbled irritably. “I am a Clan dragon. Our power is more than merely elemental.”
“Oh,” the student said slowly. “You’re one of those dragons.” He grimaced. “We’ve got more than enough of those already.”
While Derrain found such irreverence amusing, when it wasn’t focused on what he and his friends had been through, he also preferred not to be so close to Reglian when someone was annoying him. Who knew an angry Skystorm could literally spark? Catching Stirla’s amused eye, Derrain shot him a pleading glance, just as the Thunderwing huffed himself up.
“Young human -” Reglian began to growl.
“It’s more than enough time you showed us where our rooms are,” Stirla interrupted, stealing the wind from beneath the dragon’s wings. “Today would be appreciated, student.”
Anyone who knew Stirla would know that that stiff, disapproving tone had to be fake – a less stiff and disapproving man would be hard to find – but unfortunately for the lad, he didn’t know Stirla at all. All he saw was a tall, broad Rider with officer bars on his shoulder and an unhappy look on his face.
The student snapped to instant, embarrassed attention. “Yes, lieutenant. Sorry, lieutenant. Right this way, if you please.”
Before much longer, the student showed them into a room that held all the signs of hasty departures. Kaskad wasn’t quite as packed and overflowing as the last time Derrain had passed through, but with two years’ worth of selection school students knocking around, awaiting a time when it would be safe to move to Aquila, space was strictly limited. Which was why the five Riders had been squeezed into one room, instead of the separate spaces that could usually be expected for officers and their men.
Still, as rooms went, it was large enough for them all to spread out their bedrolls without kicking each other in their sleep, and Derrain had certainly slept in worse places. It was also a lot better than the storeroom that had been provided for the girls when they’d all arrived in the ramshackle mess of Aquila’s first fall.
“Could be better,” Reglian sniffed, propping Derrain against the wall so that he could pace the short distances between the walls.
“But is usually worse,” the five Riders chorused, and shared grins. Reglian sniffed again.
“I wouldn’t get too upset over it,” Lyrai said, as he and Stirla eased Derrain down to the floor, while Jaymes and Dhori rolled out his bedroll and made him somewhere soft to land. “We won’t be here long enough to make a fuss.”
Wriggling to get comfortable, Derrain winced as he twinged his back, then sighed with relief as Emberbright burrowed under his covers with a chuckle. She was warm enough to make even the worst draft seem not so bad. Then Dhori dug out a sweet-smelling bottle from his bag and handed it over. One of Morri’s magical potions. Derrain sat up just enough to gulp it down and smiled as Jaymes propped a pillow under his head.
“Cosy,” he decreed, trying to take the worried frowns from his friends’ foreheads. “Feels like home already.” If home happened to be a drafty, rickety shed built mostly to keep the rain off between rockslides when the latest version of the base would slide into the Cloud Sea. Kaskad was definitely more functional than comfortable, but Derrain wasn’t picky.
“Rest up, Derry,” Lyrai said, squeezing his shoulder. “We’ll be flying again soon.”
Derrain smiled and waved them all away, wishing he had the strength to go gossip-gathering with them. He was good at it. He liked making friends in new places. Always knew the right people to talk to in order to get the best stories. But a yawn overtook him and he could only watch as Jaymes settled cross-legged beside him, a book of maps on his lap, while the others slipped from the room.
“I should help,” he murmured, eyes heavy and already closing.
“You will,” Jaymes assured him, stroking the lump in the blanket where Emberbright was purring. “When you’re healed up. We’ll have plenty of need for you then.”
Knowing the sense in that, Derrain nodded and ceased fighting. It was so much nicer that way.
More on Sunday (hopefully).
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