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Is it too late to reconsider everything?
RAIN FEATHERED DOWN over Zvenera as Rhiddyl arrived on the training field behind the Rider offices. A scattering of young humans were already waiting, clustered together in groups. Rhiddyl looked for familiar faces and didn’t see any. Unsurprising, since the only person she knew by sight in the city was the rude boy who’d knocked her off the bridge five days before. She couldn’t see him and was glad of it.
She walked onto the field, feeling exposed and uncertain as her fellow students eyed her curiously. A self-conscious tug at the bottom of her hat was the only fidget Rhiddyl allowed herself. She was wearing boots, like a proper Rider, and a set of gloves covered her tell-tale hands. There was nothing obvious about her that suggested she was any different from the rest of them. At least, she didn’t think there was. She’d spent the last two days ensuring her disguise was as perfect as possible. Not that she thought she could keep it up for long – the boots were too blasted uncomfortable, for one thing – but she wanted to at least get through her first day without drawing attention. She just wanted to get started, to settle in and perhaps make some friends.
She looked around, hoping for an inviting look or a welcoming smile. The nearest group turned away, leaning in to whisper to each other and giggle.
Rhiddyl tried not to hear what was being said, although her sensitive hearing had no trouble picking out the words. She tugged on her hat again, knowing there was nothing wrong with it. She liked the colour – bright pink-purple, like the strike of her lightning when she unleashed her magic. She liked her boots too, although now that she looked at the rest of the students she could see they were rather large and bulky by comparison. They needed to be to accommodate the claws on her toes. Still, they did make it seem like she had outrageously enormous feet. She hadn’t noticed before. It made her even more uncomfortable now.
“Nice boots.” A familiar voice drawled beside her and Rhiddyl scowled at the rude boy she’d met before. Of all the people to step forward and speak to her it would have to be him, wouldn’t it?
“I like them,” she said, raising her chin defiantly.
He smiled. “So do I. Very practical. You could wade a hundred rivers in those and not feel a drop, I’d wager.”
Rhiddyl looked at her ridiculous boots and thought she could probably carry a hundred rivers in them and not lose a drop either.
“Don’t let them get to you,” the boy murmured with surprising sympathy. “You’d think a city as open and busy as Zvenera would be used to unusual strangers and yet here we are.”
Rhiddyl frowned and looked around again, realising that they were indeed the only two who were standing noticeably apart from the rest. She knew why she stood out, but she looked at the boy again, trying to figure out what was wrong with him. He was dressed a little differently and his hair was straight and silky, compared to the shorter curls and long braids that most of the other students possessed. Beyond that she couldn’t see anything to make him stand out. He wasn’t overly tall or short, he wasn’t too skinny or too broad. His skin was a deep, warm bronze, but he wasn’t the only one in the group. She couldn’t tell the colour of anyone else’s eyes, but there was nothing overly remarkable about his steady brown gaze. He looked human; Rhiddyl couldn’t see what the fuss was about.
“I’m Sutheralli,” he said, clearly guessing the direction of her thoughts. “They’re all wondering why I’m not at my own school, training to become a Rider that way.”
“Why aren’t you?” Rhiddyl was surprised enough to ask. She’d studied a little about the geography of the Overworld, but her knowledge of the customs of each country was not particularly strong. The only thing she knew about Sutherall was that it lay in the south-eastern corner of the known world and was ruled by a strict religious system. It wasn’t a very welcoming country to outsiders, she didn’t think, which would make it all the stranger to find the boy here. Rhiddyl was beginning to understand why he was as much of an outcast as herself.
“A difference of opinion made it wise for me to leave,” the boy replied smoothly.
Rhiddyl shivered at the chill in his tone. Humans might have lacked the layered tones that coloured every dragon conversation with multiple meanings and emotions, but there were times when they came surprisingly close. She didn’t need to be an expert on humans to know she’d struck a nerve.
“I could ask a similar question myself,” he said, after an awkward pause. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a -”
“Hsst!” Rhiddyl cut him off angrily. “Not so loud.”
The boy eyed her up and down, then surprised her with a grin. “Are you hiding, Miss Rhiddyl?”
She shouldn’t have been so flattered that he’d remembered her name – especially as she’d forgotten his – but it still sent a pleasant wave of heat through her. Someone had remembered her!
Feeling a little embarrassed, she waved off his question. “Maybe.”
He laughed, soft and quiet, like so much else he did. He was a very contained person, Rhiddyl was beginning to realise. She wondered if he’d always been that way or if perhaps life had taught him to keep his secrets and emotions close. A difference of opinion could hide a world of meanings, after all. Rhiddyl began to feel very curious about this boy indeed.
“I’m Vhen, by the way,” he said, holding out his hand, much as he had the first time they’d met. “In case you’ve forgotten.” His smile was small and sly, but Rhiddyl sensed he was laughing at himself as much as her.
“Of course I hadn’t forgotten,” she lied, placing her hand in his. “How could I possibly have? Our first meeting was so memorable.”
He chuckled quietly again. “So it was. I’m hoping the next few months will be even more so.” Winking, he turned away before Rhiddyl could protest that she was looking for a quiet life, thank you very much. But she kept the words to herself as a group of Riders walked onto the field, well-wrapped up against the rain.
“Welcome, students!” the lead Rider greeted them with wide open arms and a broad smile.
Rhiddyl swore, drawing Vhen’s sharp attention.
“My name is Captain Imaino,” he continued, running through a speech about how wonderful it was to see so many new faces willing to become part of the Rift Rider family. Rhiddyl didn’t listen, she was too busy rethinking her strategy and wondering if it was too late to strike out for Nimbys.
Of all the Rift Riders across the Overworld, she had to run into one of the few she knew by both name and sight. Sadly, he wasn’t one of the ones she knew well, so she had no idea how he would react once he spotted her. And he would spot her, she had little doubt of that. For all that she’d worked hard over the last five years, honing her control and refining her secondary form, Rhiddyl knew she still looked like a dragon – at least to those who knew what to look for. Unfortunately for her, Captain Imaino knew precisely what to look for.
She swore again.
“Friend of yours?” Vhen murmured in an undertone.
Rhiddyl sighed and felt all her hopes for a quiet settling in period seep into the sodden ground beneath her feet.
* * *
“ATTENTION, STUDENTS!” THE brusque voice of Hethanon Armsmaster, head trainer of the Nimbys Selection School, rang out across the snowy field.
Taryn tried not to fidget as the chattering fools around her turned to face the short, stocky, scarred tyrant who would attempt to destroy them over the next few months. Some of the new students looked far too bright eyed and eager to bear as they waited for the Ihran to begin his torture. The rest, rather unwisely, continued chattering.
Tipping back her head, Taryn exhaled a cloudy breath towards the brilliant blue sky. It was freezing and her coat wasn’t nearly warm enough to protect her from the midwinter chill, but at least the snow had stopped and the sun was out. Perhaps her good fortune would continue and Hethanon wouldn’t live up to his terrible reputation.
“Lieutenant, if you please.”
The quiet murmur drew Taryn’s attention back from the sky in time to see one of the Riders standing behind the Ihran put his fingers to his lips.
Everyone flinched as a piercing whistle sliced across the field. Silence fell.
“Thank you.” Hethanon inclined his head to the dark-haired lieutenant and began to pace along the row of new students. “Obedience is the first rule of the Rift Riders, followed by respect for command. If an order is given or an officer appears, you obey and pay attention!” He clapped his hands sharply between two giggling students, making the girl yelp and the boy squeak. Both blushed. “Insolence breeds contempt and mistrust. Inattention feeds confusion. A Rider follows their officer, no matter what. To question is to die. To disobey is to die. To disrespect is to die. If you cannot obey a simple order then you have no business here. No one is forcing you. No one will stop you. Leave if you wish.”
The small man who seemed so very unimpressive at first sight, yet could hold a group of disparate youths captivated with a few simple sentences, looked around the crowd. Despite his obvious height disadvantage, he acted as if he could see every face in the group. Even standing at the very back, Taryn felt seen and judged, and shifted her shoulders uncomfortably. She wasn’t the only one. No one dared to make eye contact and there was much fidgeting and a few giggles. Nobody left. They probably all thought they’d come too far to turn back now, but they didn’t know anything about it. The fools.
Taryn did, and yet she stayed. The biggest fool of all.
“Five laps of the field!” Hethanon’s bark made everyone jump – Riders included.
No one moved, and Taryn was a little surprised not to see Orla dashing out of the pack, ever the obedient little pet. She couldn’t even see the Ihran girl amongst the flock. Perhaps she’d thought better of her crazy idea to become the first Ihran Rider. Taryn hoped so, for the girl’s own sake.
“If you cannot obey an order,” Hethanon continued, sounding almost bored, “what are you doing here?” His fresh snap made them all jump again. “Five laps. Now!”
The group broke up sluggishly, drifting reluctantly apart as the more eager students trotted into action, while the lazier, less certain ones hung back. Taryn sighed and dragged herself into movement, placing herself somewhere in the middle. Snow crunched beneath her boots, which pinched at her toes. Someone slipped in front of her, almost hitting the ground before a fellow student caught them and helped them keep their feet. Taryn skirted around them, eyes fixed on the snow, searching for ice.
Grumbles surrounded her. No one seemed happy about their first task, but honestly, what had they expected? This was a training school for future Rift Riders, they weren’t going to sit inside embroidering cushions all day. Taryn had led a life of pampered privilege and even she knew that. That was why she had come prepared in a coat that wasn’t quite warm enough and boots that flexed nicely at the ankle, even if they did pinch a bit at her toes.
“Come on, pick those feet up! Up! Up! UP! Are you dancing over there?”
Rather than stay put in the centre of the field, watching them suffer from a distance, Hethanon Armsmaster preferred a close-up view of his torture. The lagging complainers leapt into life as if they’d been pinched and Taryn hid a smile as she followed the heels of the boy in front, her breath starting to labour in her lungs. It wasn’t easy training to become a Rift Rider, but at least she wasn’t the worst on day one.
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