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Ah, Nimbys! The city that newcomers love, and returning residents dread.
DOCKWORKERS LOOMED OVER Orla as she reached the dockside, sacks and boxes on their shoulders, while merchants hollered across the clouds, trying to strike deals even before the cargo was off the ship.
Everyone and everything was so big, but Orla tried not to let it intimidate her. She was used to being the shortest person around after her time on the Miryhl Heart, and instead used her height to her advantage, squeezing through small gaps beneath raised arms and putting as much distance between herself and the bustling crowds as possible.
Weaving her way out of the main flow of traffic, she put her back against a pile of enormous crates and paused to catch her breath. It was all so strange here, all so busy. She was an Ihran, used to trade, but Maegla’s bolts, when did the rest of the Overworld grow so loud?
Shouts came from every direction, hammering her ears: arguments over deals; cries to get out of the way; shouts from one sailor to another as they lowered crates over the side of a ship; hawkers selling pies and drinks; children shrieking as they carried messages to and fro.
The smells were almost overwhelming: spices from far and wide; animals kept confined for too many days; sweaty bodies, hard at work; a pile of fresh bullwing mess, being swept out of an emptied hold. Orla’s mind reeled from it and she felt her panic returning.
Mighty Maegla, this was definitely a mistake. She should never have left the Miryhl Heart, never have left Ihra. It wasn’t too late to turn back. If she asked, she was certain Captain Derrain would let her work her passage. She would get back home someday. Her parents would be disappointed, of course, but she’d disappointed them before. They would cope.
She looked over at the weather-scarred skyship that had carried her all these miles away from home, and remembered how very proud her parents had been when they’d taken her aboard. They were always looking out for the next opportunity, the next adventure with which to enrich their only child’s life. It had become something of a game for them all, seeing what far-fetched idea they could come up with next and see how Orla would evade it.
Not this time. This time they had found something Orla actually wanted, even if she would barely admit it to herself. Their pride had been tinged with a hint of sorrow, as if they knew the game was coming to an end, that they would succeed this time in sending her away. And yet their pride had been real.
The first Ihran Rift Rider. Orla didn’t know if others had tried and failed before her, or if no one had even tried before, but her parents thought she could be different. That she would succeed. That she would do them proud.
Standing on the edge of the cacophony of Nimbys’ port, Orla lifted her chin and pulled her shoulders back. Her parents believed in her. Captain Derrain and Zephyr believed in her too. They’d never once shown any doubt that she would become a Rider. They didn’t care that she was Ihran. Captain Derrain had said she was as good as family, that all Riders were family.
A shadow swept over the docklands, followed swiftly by another. A high scream echoed off the mountain side, underscored by a ripple of laughter. Orla looked up, eyes wide, chest tight.
Giant eagles, gleaming brown and gold in the morning light. On their backs, bundled-up figures leaned against their mounts’ backs as they flew swiftly over the docks and up across the city. Rift Riders.
Mighty Maegla, they were magnificent. Orla didn’t know if she could ever belong with such a wondrous people, but she wanted to try. She wanted to fly. She wanted to do her parents proud.
Determination restored, she gripped the shoulder straps of her pack and slipped back into the flow of sailors, turning her back on the skyship that had brought her here and the last link to the life she once knew. Stepping out of the crowd on the edge of a market place, she spotted Captain Derrain standing beside a cart, Zephyr glossy and perfect beside him.
“Ready?” he asked, waving her over.
“Ready,” Orla agreed, and accepted his hand up into the cart with a smile.
* * *
TARYN WATCHED DERRAIN ride off with the little Ihran and tried not to feel like a fool for refusing the captain’s invitation to join them. She’d started this journey determined to make it on her own, and she would continue that way, no matter what it cost her. She would not accept cart rides through the city and up to the Rider offices, not with one of its most famous former Riders by her side. She would get into the Riders on her own or not at all.
Hitching her pack more securely on her shoulders, Taryn set off across the crowded main square. It was Moonday Market and all of Nimbys seemed to have turned out to buy midwinter fripperies for the celebrations. She’d never had much use for gifts – either giving or receiving – and had always rather sneered at those fools who wasted their money on such worthless things. A grubby hair ribbon or two wasn’t going to make a peasant girl pretty, nor was it wise to waste good money on such useless stuff. They would be better off buying food to see them through the winter.
Or so she’d always thought, locked up in her palace, with all the food and fripperies she could ever want, hers for the asking, no need to wait for the holidays.
Yet walking through the crowded marketplace, seeing the joy on the faces of children receiving their cheap gifts and gawdy baubles, Taryn realised she was wrong. For someone who had everything a tiny strip of ribbon was worthless, but for a girl who had nothing it meant the world. No, it could not be eaten, but it could be treasured, as one little girl was already doing, bouncing around her father and demanding her mother tie it into her hair, then crooning over the shiny scrap as if it was the most precious diamond.
Happiness and joy in the season of giving abounded all around Taryn. There, a boy and his dog danced with a sock on a string. Over there two young lovers shared a cream puff. Beside her a tired-looking woman smiled as a ragged line of children sang a wobbly song for copper pennies from passers-by. Chestnuts warmed and cracked over the coals. Mugs of mulled cider were clasped in gloved hands, shared between giggling friends. A miryhl whooshed low overhead, making the awnings flap and braziers flare. The locals cheered and jeered as the Rider swooped back, scattering handfuls of sweets from their saddle bag to raucous approval.
Taryn watched it all, wondering at how wrong she’d been all her life, wondering what else she might have missed, locked up in her father’s palace for so long.
A carriage stopped in front of her, blocking her view of laughing children scrambling for the Rider’s sweets. She caught a glimpse of a familiar golden crest before the door swung open.
“Get in,” an imperious voice commanded, and although Taryn longed to refuse, to continue her journey and succeed alone, she climbed up the steps and dropped onto the seat as the carriage rocked back into movement.
“Welcome home, Princess,” Earl Kilpapan greeted coolly. “You have been missed.”
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