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Party like a dragon!
RHIDDYL COULD HARDLY believe her eyes. She’d heard stories about the Midwinter festival and how the humans of the Overworld celebrated the end of the shrinking sun for five days and nights, but she hadn’t expected it to be like this.
Zvenera was alive. Thick clouds covered the stars and flurries of snow drifted down, but the streets of the city were as bright as daylight. Great lanterns of every colour and shape danced in a swirling procession, held aloft by children and adults, all moving to different music as a cacophony of bands played a fresh tune on every street corner.
It was utter chaos. It was pure magnificence. Rhiddyl loved it.
Despite having no money, she soon joined the throng with a lantern pole shoved into her hands by some laughing stranger. A blue fish bobbed at the top, its gaping mouth glowing with light, its streamer fins dancing as Rhiddyl bounced and jogged, spinning for the simple joy of seeing the colourful paper flutter.
Someone shouted above the din and the crowd cheered, chanting together as one and descending into song. Rhiddyl didn’t know the words, she didn’t even know the tune, but she enjoyed humming along, banging her pole on the ground to emphasise the beat with the others. It turned into a dance.
Tap, tap. Spin to the right.
Tap-tap-tap. Spin to the left.
Tap. Tap-tap. Tap. Spin, spin, spin and laugh.
Rhiddyl had never enjoyed herself so much, surrounded by strangers in a very strange place and loving every moment of it. The lantern procession wove through the hub of the city, crossing to and fro across the bridges, meandering like a gigantic glowing snake. People came and went in the dancing, passing their lanterns to new bearers, weaving in and out of the flow, some going one way, others dancing the other, it was an intricate dance that Rhiddyl had no hope of understanding. She let it carry her along and was lost in the joy of it instead.
Her arms ached, her feet were frozen and her face hurt from smiling before someone finally prised the pole from her arms.
“Rest. Eat,” she was told, and gentle hands guided her to a seat at an outdoor café.
Again, despite having no money to pay for anything, she found herself gripping a meat pie, forced to eat it quickly lest all the gravy run down her hands. She’d dined in palaces, sat down with elders and princes, but it was the best meal she’d ever tasted.
Then up again, back into the flow of dancers, a fresh pole in her hands and the arm of a massive dragon bobbing over her head. Eight dancers held it up and Rhiddyl loved being one of them. They bobbed and weaved through the crowd, the two dancers on the head ducking down to roar playfully at children, sending them squealing as they dashed away.
Boom, boom, boom, a vast drum beat in the square, drawing them all back in once more and Rhiddyl banged her pole in time. Step, bang, boom. Step, bang, boom. The lantern dragon glowed overhead and she smiled at complete strangers, never more certain that she had been right to leave home.
* * *
“I’M SORRY, UNCLE. I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t leave her there. I don’t think she has anywhere to stay.” Orla squeezed her hands together, watching Hethanon’s face as he stared at the girl sleeping on the couch. It had been Orla’s bed the night before, but now she wondered where she was going to sleep, since it was clear Taryn wasn’t about to wake anytime soon. Even if she did, where would she go? They could hardly kick her out at this time of night. It was snowing.
“Hm.” Her uncle grunted and shook his head, walking across to the stove, where a pot of something was bubbling with delicious scents. “What do you know of this Taryn?”
Orla followed, drawn by the warmth as much as the food. “Her name, mostly. I know she was working her passage on the Miryhl Heart and seemed to know the captain well enough to argue with him. I heard she was joining the Riders.” She shook her head. “I don’t know much else.”
“You were roommates?” her uncle asked, gathering two bowls and filling them from the pot. “You travelled all the way from Ihra together and that’s all you know?”
Orla accepted her bowl with a small shrug. “We didn’t talk much.” Or at all. But just because Taryn had had no time for Orla, didn’t mean she could leave the girl to freeze to death. “She was working. I was… not.”
Hethanon grunted again and carried his meal to the table. “We don’t have much room here,” he pointed out, because in truth there wasn’t enough room for Orla to stay, let alone Taryn as well. Hethanon’s home was compact, made up of two simple rooms that were clearly all he needed. What he didn’t need were two girls getting in the way.
“I’ll find somewhere else tomorrow,” she assured him. “Captain Derrain said there was room for me at Kilpapan House, if I needed it.”
“Kilpapan House?” Hethanon snorted, staring at the figure on the couch. “Room for her too, do you think?”
Her uncle chuckled at some private joke, but Orla was too worried to ask him about it. “I hope so,” she muttered, thinking back to her time on the Miryhl Heart and the way Taryn had frequently clashed with the captain. “Captain Derrain is a good man. He wouldn’t turn her away, especially not at Midwinter.”
“He is,” her uncle agreed. “And he most certainly wouldn’t. I think you’ll find a warm welcome for you both with the Kilpapans. They have plenty of space.”
Orla smiled and dug into her stew, relishing the earthy vegetable taste. “Thank you for having me to stay.”
He snorted again. “You’d be welcome to remain, but I think you’d be more comfortable elsewhere. Both of you.” He nodded at their uninvited guest once more. “But don’t think this means your training will stop. I expect you here every morning until school begins. I expect you to jog up the cliff path too. You will excel, Orla, or you’ll have me to answer to.”
She flexed her aching feet and sighed. “Yes, uncle.” Her move to Kilpapan House could not come soon enough.
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