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Ah, Nimbys, where family reunions always bring such joy…
“HE LIVES DOWN there, seventh arch on the left, but if there are any problems, Orla, know there’s room for you at Kilpapan House. It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve housed students and it won’t be the last.”
Nodding her thanks at Captain Derrain’s directions, Orla climbed down from the cart and watched it trundle away through the shadowy streets of Nimbys.
She shifted her pack on her shoulders, hardly able to believe the day was almost over. What a day it had been. Arrival in her first non-Ihran city, seeing Rift Riders in flight for the first time, meeting her first Rider captain, signing up to the selection school, receiving her first uniform and now this. She peered down the grimy alleyway and looked up uncertainly. The houses towered over her, almost blocking out the sky as they leaned drunkenly inwards, looking only a light puff of wind away from falling.
She swallowed. Wooden buildings; her mother would not approve. There was enough wood on show down this cramped street to strip Ihra’s precious forest bare. Still, she was not here to critique the architecture. Gripping her straps, she set off into the shadowy alley, counting arches as she went.
When she reached seven, she paused. A narrow archway led into complete darkness.
Was this really the place? It matched the directions.
Looking around, Orla tried not to wrinkle her nose at the smell. High overhead a window slammed open. “Webellow!” someone cried, before waste splashed on the cobbles.
Orla flinched and shifted a moment too late to save her boots from a wetting.
She hurried into the darkness, emerging in a tiny courtyard, gagging and gasping for breath.
A fiery glow disturbed the shadows, the small square of dusk sky doing little to lift the gloom below. “Should have moved faster.” A waft of smoke accompanied the words, making her cough.
It took Orla a moment to realise the gravely voice was talking to her. In Ihran.
It had been a month and a half since she’d last heard that language. It had felt like forever.
“Uncle Hethanon?” she asked warily.
The glow went out and a small, stocky shadow shifted forward. A lantern flared and Orla squinted away from the sudden brightness.
“Georlanash?” her mother’s cousin’s husband’s brother whispered in disbelief. “Cousin Georlaneth’s little girl?”
She hadn’t seen him for years, but she threw herself forward against the man who was taller than her, but only just. He didn’t loom, he didn’t tower. He was just the right height and just the right width. She felt his arms close tight around her and it felt like coming home.
* * *
DINNER WAS TORTURE. The entire adult Kilpapan clan was in attendance and very much happy to be so. Taryn sat silently in her seat and stared at her plate, wishing she was anywhere else. Earl Kilpapan sat at the head of the table, her husband at her right hand, her sister by her left. The countess sat at the foot, Derrain on her right, her son-by-marriage on her left. Taryn had been given a choice of the two empty middle seats. Should she sit next to her brother or opposite him? A lecture or a glare? It was a difficult choice. While she wouldn’t have minded sitting next to either Captains Stirla or Derrain, she had no desire to sit beside her much-admired sister-by-marriage, Mhysra, so had opted to sit beside her brother instead.
“You look well,” Lyrai muttered, when they first sat down.
“As do you,” Taryn muttered back, all stiff politeness.
After that they said nothing, a pool of silence amid the sea of happy Kilpapans. Both captains regaled the room with tales of their recent travels, while the earl and countess filled everyone in on how wonderfully successful their business interests were doing. Taryn supposed she should have been happy that they were all so happy, and that no one was focusing on her, but she couldn’t ignore the concerned glances Mhysra kept shooting her and Lyrai. Her brother took part in the conversation as if nothing was amiss, while Taryn waited tensely for the lecture to begin.
Dessert came and went and everyone was reclining replete in their chairs before Lyrai finally addressed the errant sister in the room.
“Your hospitality, as always, exceeds all bounds, Milli, but I trust no one will mind if Nataryn and I don’t join you in the withdrawing room just yet.”
The earl waved a dismissive hand. “Of course, of course,” she said, pushing back her chair and rising. “I believe that’s our cue, everyone, to vacate the premises. Come, let us leave their royal highnesses to their drama. I am too old for such sibling spats.”
Rising slowly from her own chair, Mhysra reached for her walking stick and accepted her mother’s arm with a laugh. “You have always been too old for that, Milli. So mature, so aloof, so much better than the rest of us ill-mannered brats.”
“If that was supposed to be an insult, dearest, you need to work a little harder,” the earl chuckled, and the Kilpapans swept from the room in a jolly joking mass.
Taryn and Lyrai sat side by side, silent and tense, waiting for the door to close.
As soon as it did, Taryn leapt from her seat and started to pace. “Don’t lecture me,” she said before her brother could even start. For the first fourteen years of her life, she had barely seen him. Her young years had been spent secluded in the nursery with her sisters. By the time she’d escaped into the wider confines of her mother’s rooms, Lyrai was long gone, training to be a Rift Rider and travelling the world as a lieutenant. He’d never had any time for his sisters then, especially not the youngest one.
Then everything changed and he seemed to have nothing but time to waste poking his nose into Taryn’s affairs, trying to order her around, telling her what to do. He wasn’t her father; he was barely her brother. She didn’t have to listen to him.
“I have no plans to,” her annoying sibling said, turning in his chair to watch her pace, his near lifeless left arm hooked over the back. His fingers hung limp and cold, rough and discoloured at the edges from where Lyrai didn’t always notice how cold they were getting. It was hard to imagine that arm had once been deadly with a sword. Had once fought off the most dangerous man in the Overworld. Had once made her brother a hero.
He still looked heroic now, blond and gilded in the candlelight. He was handsome, Taryn supposed, and princely, yet the fading tan on his skin and the weather-lines on his face showed he didn’t much care for that. He was well dressed in a casual style. He wore no jewellery, save a golden chain around his neck, upon which hung a miryhl pendant, half bronze, half silver, a match to the one Mhysra wore. It reflected both their marriage and their miryhls, unified by beauty.
He watched her with cool blue eyes, so very much like their father’s. Yet they could be so much warmer too, Taryn knew. She’d seen it when he looked at his wife, their mother, their middle sister, Hylena, any and all of his friends. But not when he looked at her. Never when he looked at her.
She raised her chin. “What do you want to talk about then?” she demanded, drawing on all her training as a princess. She tried to look down her nose at him, but it was difficult when there was a long dining room table between them.
The corner of Lyrai’s mouth kicked up, amused. “Aquila. Mhysra and I are going back.”
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