IT WAS A simple enough routine. Morning was spent on the training field, afternoon was spent inside, sitting before a handful of teachers, learning a handful of things. Being neither unfit nor indeed particularly stupid, Rhiddyl swiftly realised a startling truth. Training to be a Rift Rider was boring. At least the selection school bit of it was. She hoped things improved once they reached Aquila. Until then she tried not to yawn too broadly as she tiptoed around a muddy field, trying not to show her fellow students up too badly, before fighting to stay awake as one dull tutor after another instructed them in the finer points of the Imercish language.
As the official language of the Rift Riders, it was an important thing to learn, except they were in the Storm Peaks, one of the greatest trading nations on the Overworld. The children of this land grew up speaking a minimum of three languages – Westron, Imercish and their own Peakian – in order to best get along in life. As a dragon, Rhiddyl had no trouble picking up any language at all, her innate skill at mimicry diving deeper into understanding with very little effort.
The history lessons were potentially more interesting, except they barely skimmed the surface of the subject and left Rhiddyl with far more questions than answers. She had no use for geography, since she’d flown over most of the Overworld already, and poetry seemed a strange and useless skill for a potential Rider student to learn.
At least she wasn’t alone. Vhen proved to be exceedingly good company over the following days, muttering sarcastic comments in lessons to keep her entertained, sticking by her side when Captain Imaino split the students into training groups, staring the man down and practically daring him to separate them. When that worked, he insisted on always being her partner too, which came in very useful when they began training with staffs. Even though Rhiddyl tried to temper her strength, she wasn’t always successful and at least with Vhen she didn’t have to come up with a feeble excuse, she only had to apologise. Repeatedly.
His most useful talent was inventing games to play during class, helping to keep her awake, even if she frequently lost track of what the teacher was saying.
“Perhaps you would like to give me an example, Student Rhiddyl?”
Absorbed in the newest of Vhen’s challenges, and trying to figure out which square to place her cross in to block her opponent from winning the game, it took a firm elbow in the ribs to make Rhiddyl realise she’d missed something important.
She looked at the man at the head of the class, trying to remember what lesson she was in.
“Student Rhiddyl?” Tutor Biven asked again, his patience clearly strained. “An example, if you please.”
Rhiddyl’s eyes widened in panic. Biven taught both history and geography. She couldn’t even begin to guess what he’d been talking about.
“North-South Imercian war,” Keiva, the girl to Rhiddyl’s left, muttered in an undertone.
“Causes,” Vhen added, surreptitiously sliding their game paper out of sight, since Biven liked to wander around and peer suspiciously over their shoulders when they were supposed to be working.
“Oh, um,” she stalled, trying to think of what little she knew about the conflict that had engulfed the great Imercian continent for almost two hundred years. “Mon-” she began
“Juro already said money,” Keiva hissed.
“More land,” Rhiddyl emended quickly, and almost seamlessly she thought. “For farming.”
The pinching of Tutor Biven’s lips suggested otherwise. “Indeed,” he said, sounding almost disappointed that she’d avoided his trap.
Rhiddyl slumped down on her bench with relief while the teacher continued to drone on about the usual causes of the human Overworld’s many and relentless wars: money, land, more money.
Not that dragons were much better, Rhiddyl knew, with their own histories full of conflicts, but still, for such short-lived creatures, humans did fight an awful lot.
“With no end in sight, the collective kings of the petty South Imercian kingdoms appealed to the Rift Riders for help.”
Rhiddyl wasn’t the only one to sit up at the mention of those immortal words.
“But the Wing Marshal declined to intervene.”
The students all slumped again.
And to think this would be their life for the next seven months. Rhiddyl tried to console herself with the reminder that she was over two hundred years old. Seven months was nothing.
As Tutor Biven began detailing the terms of the South Imercian Declaration of Surrender in excruciating detail, she cupped her chin in her hand and sighed. Two hundred years old or not these next seven months were going to be very long indeed.
* * *
“YOU MIGHT HAVE heard tales about how other selection schools across the Overworld, including our dear northern neighbours, Kevian, like to do things,” Lieutenant Clayne began, on the first morning for a half-month in which it wasn’t snowing. “You might have arrived here expecting to stand around all day, hitting each other with sticks -”
“It’s the reason I signed up, sir!” Caelo called out, making the other students splutter, amongst the usual smattering of coughs and sneezes. Winter at Kaskad was having a predictable effect on the health of most.
Even the lieutenant smiled at the interruption. “It does have a certain appeal.”
Zett certainly agreed, after being kept up late yet again by his foolish roommates discussing the girl students and women in general in such crude and boastful terms as to make it clear very few of them had ever actually spoken to a women, let alone been allowed close to one, intimately or otherwise. Topped off with yet another early morning teasing session because even his shortest coat was fitted with enough flare in the skirts to still look like a dress, and Zett thought the idea of hitting most of his fellow students with sticks was a particularly fine one.
“But we don’t do that here.” Lieutenant Clayne was ever-fond of crushing hopes and expectations – usually right before he crushed his students. “Some think wielding a staff is a good way to prepare for sword work, but we -” He waved a hand at the two sergeants who were his partners in torture today, since the other pair of lieutenants that usually accompanied him were suspiciously missing. “- disagree. Sword work is the best preparation for sword work and you’ll get plenty of instruction once you reach Aquila. If you reach Aquila,” he added, grinning at Caelo as he pre-empted another of her pert interruptions.
“I would never be so predictable,” she huffed, utterly untruthfully.
“Maegla forbid.” The lieutenant pressed a hand to his chest and winked at her.
Caelo grimaced. “She could try,” she murmured to Zett in an undertone, “but I’ve never been good at following orders.”
“And yet you signed up for the Rift Riders,” he reminded her.
“More fool me,” she grumbled, as Clayne stepped to one side and waved his hand at the craggy cliff behind him with a flourish.
“Today we climb!”
The students craned their heads back. A hundred or so feet above them, the missing lieutenants waved cheerfully.
“What’s wrong, my little lambs, scared of heights?” Clayne cooed. “That won’t do you much good on a miryhl’s back. Sitting still like a lump won’t help either. You need strength, agility and excellent reflexes. Which is also what you’ll need to get up there. Let’s go.”
“It’s not going up that bothers me, sir,” Caelo said, seemingly unable to help herself. “It’s coming down the quickest way that does.”
“Then you’d best keep your mind on your hands and feet instead of your too-quick tongue.” Clayne smirked. “But to save your precious nerves, why don’t you go first? Bring your friend, we’ll do this in pairs today.”
“Sorry.” Caelo winced apologetically at Zett as the other students none-too-helpfully pushed them to the front of the group.
Zett sighed. Being friends with the cheekiest student in the school had its highlights – since Caelo and her quips were ever popular, and for some reason she made sure Zett was always included too – but also its lows. There would be no fading into the background when Caelo was around. He would just have to get used to it.
Thank goodness he’d worn his sensible jacket today, nipped at the waist with only thigh-length skirts to add a little flare. Stylish and practical, he could move easily while still looking good. He folded back his cuffs and concentrated on what a suddenly serious Clayne was telling them with regards to safety.
“You’ll do fine,” the lieutenant said at the end, stepping back and slapping them both on the shoulder. “Stick close to Guro, listen when Lieutenant Nyren tells you something and you’ll be at the top in no time.”
Zett tipped his head back, studying the cliff in front of him, wishing he had gloves on.
“I’m really sorry,” Caelo muttered, as gruff Sergeant Guro nudged them to the bottom of the climb. “Please don’t die without forgiving me.”
Zett blinked, startled as he looked from the rocks to his friend. He smiled. “You’re forgiven.” He loved climbing. It was one of the few activities back in Havia that he chose to engage the other boys his age in – and beat them at, which didn’t endear him to them any more than his flamboyant clothes and sword dancing did. “Race you to the top.” Confident that he’d picked out the best route, he reached up, raised his foot and began to climb.
“Whoa, slow down, wait for me!” Caelo cried, but Zett was already above her head and he wasn’t slowing down for anyone. His fellow students whooped and Zett grinned, showing them how it was done.
~ Next Chapter ~
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