Is that a friendship I see before me?
“LET’S TAKE IT easy to start,” Lieutenant Clayn said, standing slightly in front of four other Riders, hands clasped behind his back. “I want you to run in a straight line. Nothing fancy, we’ll save that for later when we know what you’re made of. Three times. Three measly straight lines. Down to those rocks and back up. Go.”
A straight line sounded simple enough. Three of them sounded pathetically easy. Until Zett looked down the slope and realised it was a lot steeper out here in the clearing than he’d realised, and the snow only got deeper the further down the hill he went.
“I am so glad I wore a short coat,” Caelo puffed as she stuck doggedly by Zett’s side, striding downhill with exaggerated steps, leaning back to an almost comical degree. Skidding a turn at the bottom, almost crashing into the pile of jagged rocks, they looked back up the slope, which looked even steeper from here.
“And to think we signed up for this,” she muttered, making Zett splutter with laughter.
The girl grinned at him and held out her hand. “Come on, let’s show our grand and benevolent master how it’s done.”
Slapping his glove into hers, Zett launched back into the snow, scrambling up the slope as best he could.
* * *
VHEN WAS GRATEFUL he’d spent much of the recent Midwinter festival walking around the city and dancing until he wanted to drop. Compared to that, jogging circuits around the small landing field behind the eyries was almost easy. Except when he tried to keep up with Rhiddyl. The dragon was fast and light, her buoyant strides bouncing her forward twice as far as each of his, seemingly with only a fraction of the effort. She noticed the difference almost immediately and dropped back, trying to match his strides with only partial success.
It was easy to see that she was born for flight, with each stride designed to launch her skywards rather than propel her across the snowy flat ground. Vhen couldn’t see her disguise lasting for long. Still, her attempts to restrain herself in order to fit in were oddly endearing and Vhen was glad there was someone even stranger than him in this selection school. It made him feel slightly less alone.
When Captain Imaino pulled her over with a stern glance, Vhen slowed down too.
Rhiddyl looked pale and worried as she stopped in front of the Riders and Vhen couldn’t leave her to be told off alone. He stepped up beside her, offering silent support. Her hand darted out to grip his, briefly but powerfully. He couldn’t leave her now.
The captain eyed him for a long moment and nodded a dismissal at his Riders. “Keep them moving,” he told his lieutenants, before nodding at Vhen. “You too, student.”
Rhiddyl made a soft noise, which Vhen interpreted as a protest. He straightened his shoulders. “If it’s all the same, sir, I’ll stay.”
The captain raised an eyebrow but didn’t bother dismissing him again. “Embarking on a new adventure, Rhidystel?” The amusement in the Rider’s tone caught Vhen by surprise. Perhaps his support wasn’t needed after all. “I see your control has improved. I like this new skin tone.”
Vhen glanced over as the dragon rubbed her glove over her pale cheek. To his astonishment, it suddenly darkened with a purplish hue.
“Ah.” The captain smiled. “Still, it’s much improved.”
Rhiddyl shifted her feet, blushing a deeper shade of mauve. “Please don’t send me away, captain. Please!”
The words rushed out in a musical torrent and Vhen was so entranced by the fluting sound that he almost missed the words and the desperation beneath them.
The captain didn’t. His amused expression hardened. “Rift Riders are human, Rhiddyl.”
The mauve accent drained from her skin and her shoulders slumped. “Not all of them,” she grumbled.
“Name me one non-human Rider,” the captain challenged.
“Nightriver,” Rhiddyl replied instantly.
Vhen had no idea who or what that was, but Captain Imaino’s lips twisted. “Technically he isn’t a Rider either.”
“But there is a precedent,” Rhiddyl argued, clearly warming to her theme. “Archivist Reglian stayed at Aquila for three years. I hear Jaymes and Emberbright remain close. And there’s always Dhori.”
The captain snorted softly. “There is indeed always Dhori.” Although clearly amused, he nevertheless shook his head. “I’m sorry, Rhiddyl. This is not my decision to make. It’s too big for me.”
Rhiddyl’s shoulders slumped again. “Maybe you could ask someone else?” she asked hopefully. “And I could stay until you hear back?”
The captain didn’t look convinced, but before he could say no again, Vhen suddenly remembered another thing about his first meeting with Rhiddyl.
“The Cyclone vouched for her.”
Captain and dragon stared at him, both seeming to have forgotten he was there.
Vhen nodded encouragingly at Rhiddyl. “You didn’t have a letter of recommendation, but the Cyclone gave her word instead, remember?”
“The Cyclone?” Captain Imaino repeated.
Rhiddyl nodded. “I stayed with her while I waited for registration to open.”
And yet she, like him, had almost missed the window. What a hapless pair they made, strangers in this land, late and laggard, and now hovering on the edge of rejection.
The captain sighed. “I don’t know how much water that would hold with the general,” he told her. “You know how he is with dragons.”
“Please,” she begged softly, her blue eyes wide and watery.
Imaino huffed. “I’ll write to the dean. He’s the one who has the last say over Aquila, not Keipen, all gods be thanked. He might agree.”
When Rhiddyl squealed and clapped her hands, the captain motioned for her to calm down.
“I said might, Rhiddyl. He might agree. He might not. I can’t guess which way he’ll go, but if he says no, it means no. You can’t go running off to your friends in Nimbys afterwards, hoping for a better result.”
“I know, I won’t,” she promised. “Just let me stay until you hear back. Please.”
The man sighed, but even Vhen could see the captain was beaten. “You can stay.”
Rhiddyl squealed again, sharp enough to make Vhen wince as she grabbed his hands and spun him around in the sleet. “I can stay, I can stay, I can stay!”
The captain rolled his eyes to the rainy sky. “I was going to say try not draw attention to yourself, but that horsat’s flown.”
Vhen glanced at the field and found the rest of the students had stopped running and were looking at them with mingled curiosity and amusement.
“Welcome to the Riders, Rhiddyl and friend,” the captain said, shooing them away. “Now go line up so we can get this training session started.” “Sir, yes, sir!” Rhiddyl fluted, grabbing Vhen’s hand and dragging him back to the rest of the students and their first proper day in the Riders.
~ Next Chapter ~
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