Dinner with the Kilpapans. How very respectable.
TARYN WAS MISERABLE. Which wasn’t an unusual occurrence whenever she was in Nimbys, but things had been going so well. If someone had told her Henley would wind up being expelled, she would have expected them to get even better. Instead everything was worse, so very much worse, particularly after Dhori opened his big mouth.
“You look like someone stole your best pig and served you gammon for supper.”
Startled, Taryn stopped pushing her meal around her plate and blinked as she realised she was the centre of a considerable amount of attention. The Countess of Kilpapan sat on her left, swirling deep red wine around her glass, eyes thoughtful as she studied her young guest.
“Are the exams so very terrible?” The Earl of Kilpapan sat to Taryn’s right at the head of the table, looking concerned.
The man opposite Taryn shook his head. “Of course not,” Captain Stirla scoffed, holding his wife’s hand atop the table cloth. “I don’t think anyone’s failed it in years, and even that last one was down to bad handwriting and a flu-addled marking clerk. It’s more of a way to bring the selection school to an appropriate close. The real test is making it through the previous seven months, especially the winter.”
“Then why the long face?” the countess wanted to know.
Taryn watched Milluqua and Stirla exchange a long look. The countess had been away from the city for a while, sailing the Overworld on her skyship, running her trade empire. She was an important, successful woman, and apparently no one had wanted to bother her with the petty dramas that had occurred in her absence. Taryn didn’t mind. The fewer people who knew about her current foolishness, the better.
Lunrai drank her wine in a long gulp. “I see. Growing pains, is it?” she asked, trying to sound interested but mainly sounding bored.
It made Taryn’s lips twitch. By all accounts the countess had not been much of a mother to her children while they were growing up, and despite making a token effort, it was clear she wasn’t interesting in trying again now with someone else’s child.
“Just a few friendship difficulties,” Milluqua explained, smiling kindly at Taryn. “Always painful, but they rarely last.” She reached out and squeezed Taryn’s hand before she could pull away. “It’ll get better soon.”
“Especially once the gossip dies down,” Stirla agreed, tugging his wife back towards his side of the table. Although Milluqua chided him jokingly for being jealous, Taryn was grateful. The flirty captain knew very well that Taryn found Milluqua’s sympathy uncomfortably close to pity.
“Gossip?” The countess became interested once more. “What gossip is this?” She placed all of her considerable focus on Taryn, making her feel pinned in place. “Is someone spreading lies about you?”
“No lies,” she managed to answer, even if it felt like she was being squeezed breathless.
“Just the truth.” Stirla smirked, drinking his wine.
The countess turned her gaze on him instead; Taryn sagged back in her chair with relief. “Her identity?” The older woman had been accused of many things, but a lack of wits had never been one of them.
Stirla nodded. Taryn smirked, pleased to see she wasn’t the only one affected by the countess’ full attention.
“Crawling sycophants?” She swung back to Taryn.
Taryn shook her head, wanting very much to end this conversation.
Unfortunately Milluqua answered for her. “Worse. They’re ignoring her completely.”
“They think I’m a snitch,” Taryn confessed beneath the countess’ searing eyes.
“Are you?” Lunrai asked.
“No!” Stirla and Taryn both cried together.
The countess shrugged and picked up her glass, which had just been refilled by a footman. “Sometimes it is necessary. Blind loyalty in the wrong direction is far more damaging.”
While that might have been true in the countess’ world, where she was at the very top of the pile and the most likely person to need a snitch to keep her informed, Taryn’s situation was entirely different. Her fellow students thought she’d turned on one of their own. The others might not have liked Henley, or Getha, Rudtha and Imanyne, but that didn’t mean they approved of what Taryn had done. Or, rather, what they thought she had done.
Finding out she was also a princess hadn’t helped. Some thought her secret proved how untrustworthy she was, while others accused her of acting as if she was above them all. No one liked her, no one trusted her and no one spoke to her.
Which was fine. Taryn didn’t much care for any of them anyway.
Except Orla. Somehow, at some point over the last eight months, the unwanted Ihran had begun to matter to Taryn. She’d cared when Henley had been treating her so badly. She’d wanted to step in and stop it. She had stopped it when Rudtha and Imanyne had turned their anger on Orla, and look where that had got her. Orla had moved in with her uncle that very night and after two days alone in the mews, Taryn had given in and moved into Kilpapan House. There was no point pretending to be anyone else now. She was Princess Nataryn of Imercian and she was utterly miserable because an irritating Ihran was ignoring her very existence.
It wasn’t as if they’d ever been friends. They’d spent most of their acquaintance actively disliking each other. They rarely talked, and when they did it was mostly to exchange insults, but Taryn missed her. She missed Orla and she was sorry that she’d hurt her. She’d never meant to do that. She hadn’t even known she could.
This was why she didn’t have friends. Or, rather, it would be one of the main reason she would have going forward. Friends were too painful.
“Whatever happened to Derry’s little Ihran?” the countess asked, once the brief discussion about loyalty, snitches and information sharing had run its course without any further input from Taryn. “Did she sign up to the school in the end? Is she still in training?”
Hard to imagine that the countess had once been vehemently opposed to women in the Riders. Rumour had it that she’d once kidnapped her own daughter to keep her away from them, despite Mhysra having been bonded at birth to her own miryhl. Yet here she sat, casually discussing Rider business. It was a funny old Overworld.
“She did and she is,” Stirla confirmed, his mouth twisting with a grimace. “Although I don’t know how much she’s enjoying it. There’s something deeply amiss with this year’s intake. It’s probably for the best that our numbers have fallen a little below average. I’ll be relieved when the exams are over and we head to Aquila.”
“I won’t,” Milluqua murmured quietly, squeezing her husband’s hand. Even though as Earl Kilpapan she was one of the most important figures in Imercian, Milluqua was still a woman whose deeply beloved husband spent most of the year stationed in far-flung places. Having him in the city with her these last six months had been something of a luxury.
He smiled and kissed her fingers. “You’ll already be there waiting for me this year. Did I see a letter from Mhysra in the hall this morning? How are things progressing?”
At last the countess was distracted away from Taryn’s problems. While the Kilpapans discussed Mhysra, the chances of her having already given birth since her last letter and how Lyrai was coping with it all, Taryn shoved her barely touched meal to one side and smiled as a footman took her plate away. Then she toyed with her wine glass, listening to Stirla’s descriptions of Aquila, trying to imagine herself there in barely over a month.
She couldn’t. For all her life Aquila had been an almost fairytale land, somewhere her brother vanished off to when he escaped the dreaded Stratys. She’d never dreamed she would go there herself, although part of her had longed for it. The romance, the adventure, the glory of the Rift Riders was something engrained in most people’s early childhood, delivered in bedtime stories and playful make-believe adventures.
Except Taryn was born a princess. To most people her life already was a bedtime story. Until her mother’s mind made her forget all about having daughters, and her father’s indifference to his children’s fate made itself painfully clear. Taryn had been fourteen years old when she realised her fairytale life did not have a happy ending. It was stagnant and fetid, and if she didn’t do something about it she would have been trapped in one place forever. Fortunately Lyrai freed them all, but a life on a quiet country estate raising miryhls for other people to fly had not appealed to Taryn one bit.
Spending so much time around miryhls, and seeing the bond her brother and Mhysra shared with their own eagles, had revealed a longing Taryn had never known she’d had. She wasn’t close to her family, she didn’t have any real friends, but a miryhl was something different. Family, in Taryn’s experience, were too busy thinking of themselves to care about her. Friends couldn’t be relied upon. But a bonded miryhl was a true partner. Someone for Taryn to care for, who would carry her into the sky in return. An adventure to be shared; a life to be experienced. With a miryhl she’d never be stuck again. With a miryhl she could free herself from any risk of stagnation. With a miryhl she could be free.
Taryn desperately wanted a miryhl, and even though as a member of a royal house she could legally own such a bird without joining the Riders, Taryn realised she didn’t just want to play at life. She wanted to take part in it. Too long she had sat to the side, watching from the shadows in her mother’s apartments, observing her brother’s happy marriage in the country, waiting for something to happen, for something to unfold. For too many years she had waited, until she realised nothing would ever happen unless she made a push for it herself.
And yet, still, even now, a little over a month away from finishing the selection school and choosing a miryhl of her very own, she couldn’t imagine ever actually reaching Aquila. It was a dream, a goal she hadn’t even realised she was aiming for.
“I’m looking forward to seeing it,” Milluqua’s words echoed Taryn’s thoughts and she smiled as the earl turned towards her. “I can’t wait for you to join us. We can share notes. Everyone else has already been to the citadel and say they’re bored of the view, but at least you will understand how I feel.” Somehow Taryn doubted that. Most of the time she didn’t understand how she felt herself. Still, this time when Milluqua squeezed her hand, Taryn squeezed back. “I look forward to it.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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