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Of fierce friends and stressful exams. With a little added miryhl teasing for luck.
“ARE YOU NERVOUS?”
It wasn’t an unexpected question to be asked, Zett thought, as he sat on the edge of a sheer drop, staring at the jagged, ramshackle mess that was the Kaskad base five hundred feet below. At least he was sitting down.
Caelo, the asker of the question, was balancing on one leg on a tiny spur just off the main cliff, trying to see if she could touch the back of her head with her toes. Since she was struggling to raise her foot above her waist, Zett didn’t think much of her chances.
Many people would have been nervous to see their best friend in all the Overworld wobbling on the edge a five hundred foot drop on a patch of loose ground barely larger than her foot. But this was Caelo. If there was one thing Zett had learned over the last six months it was not to worry about Caelo. She always knew how to take care of herself.
Besides, that wasn’t what she was asking.
Zett shook his head. “I’m not nervous.”
He’d taken exams before. The Havian education system was very fond of exams. Entrance exams, mid-term exams, end of term exams, mid-year exams, mock exams, end of year exams, not to mention the various grades and levels he had taken for music, dance and dramatic arts. There were times when Zett thought he’d spent more time in exams than he had in lessons.
“Are you?” He only asked to be polite.
Predictably, Caelo laughed, releasing her foot and hopping back to the somewhat more stable ledge where Zett was sitting. “Of course not! If we fail, we fail with style.” She threw out her arms and he half-expected her to jump clean off the drop. It wouldn’t surprise him. Nothing surprised him with Caelo.
She dropped down beside him with a huff instead, nudging his shoulder with her own. “I bet you have your outfit picked out already, don’t you?”
He eyed her sideways. “Don’t start.” Perhaps at home he might have spent a few days deciding what to wear, but only if it had been a practical exam. The right outfit was very important for those. Up here in Etheria, his choices were limited. There was a uniform he had to wear and only five jackets and three pairs of boots he could choose from to go with them. He sometimes missed his old wardrobe, especially when he remembered a favourite piece of clothing he’d had to leave behind, but mostly he was too busy. Some of them might not even fit anymore.
Constant training and the restricted Kaskad diet meant his body wasn’t quite the same as it used to be. He’d thought himself fit back home, thanks to all his sword dancing and occasional climbing activities, but Kaskad and Lieutenant Clayn had swiftly set him straight. He was stronger and closer to the ideal of a fine young Havian gentleman than ever before, and yet his roommates still teased him for wearing dresses.
Zett sighed. He missed wearing real dresses. His coats were wonderful and all, but they weren’t the same. He’d been stuck in breeches and trousers for too long.
“What’s up?” Caelo asked, nudging him with her shoulder again.
Zett looked at their dangling feet and grinned. “Us, by the looks of things.”
A couple of miryhls were spiralling upwards from the eyries below, wings spread wide, glossy brown perfection in the summer sun. Quite the contrast to the ramshackle buildings below them.
Kaskad would never be a beautiful place, no matter the weather, no matter the season, but Zett had grown surprisingly fond of it. With the harsh sun pointing out all its glaring imperfections, he could almost admire its jagged edges and the way it clung to existence in such a precarious place. It would never be beautiful, but it did feel almost like home.
He was going to miss this place too.
“Uh oh, here comes the Nanny Brigade,” Caelo murmured, as the miryhls drew level with them.
“Students, get down from there!” Contrary to the way Lieutenant Cayn preferred to throw his students off cliffs to see if they could fly, his miryhl, Rannan, would coddle them all to death if they let him. “You could fall!”
“Tempting,” Caelo murmured, leaning out deliberately far and waving her arms. “If I did, would you catch me, RaRa?”
“You are a student of the selection school and I am a Rift Rider lieutenant miryhl, you will address me with the appropriate form of respect!”
“Sir, yes, Rara, sir!” Caelo shouted, saluting. “Oops!”
Rannan and his escort lurched closer to the cliff as Caelo wobbled forward.
Bursting into laughter, she rolled back and kicked her feet in the air. “Save me, Sir RaRa, save me!”
“One of these days you’re going to need someone important’s help and then where will you be?” Zett warned in an undertone as the two miryhls burst into a thundering scold.
“Right beside you, of course,” she chuckled, sprawling out like an exhausted child and smiling at the sunny sky. “When they come to rescue you, because you’re sweet and likeable, I’ll just tag along, same as always.”
She always made it sound like he was the popular one doing her a favour by being her friend, when it was definitely the other way around. Everyone liked Caelo. Zett was the weird friend they tolerated just so they could be closer to her fun and warmth.
“You’re cracked,” he told her.
“But you like me anyway,” she laughed, then turned unexpectedly serious as she met his eyes. “You won’t forget me when we reach Aquila, will you?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Is it possible to ever forget you?” He seriously doubted it.
Her smiled turned wry and she sat up, ruffling her hand through her short, fiery red hair. “I guess we’ll find out when you make less annoying friends.”
Zett couldn’t imagine making any other friends, so he shoved her lightly on the shoulder. “Don’t be daft, Cae. We’re best friends, we’ll always be best friends.”
“Promise?” she asked, oddly sincere, probably for the first time since he’d met her.
“Promise.” He held up his hand, little finger extended.
Chortling, she hooked her own around it, then shoved herself feet-first over the drop. “Catch me, RaRa!” she cried, making the miryhls shriek.
Zett’s heart lurched too, until he realised she’d twisted immediately and was crawling back down the cliff, as confident as a spider. “You’ll be the death of me, Caelo!” he shouted.
She laughed. “Not today, Zeze, but if you don’t beat me to the bottom, you’ll wish I had.”
Having no wish to face another of his friend’s forfeits – the last having involved a pig, the cook’s best Starday hat and a midnight break-in to the captain’s office – Zett slid off his perch and scrambled down the drop to the constant cry of scolding miryhls.
* * *
RHIDDYL COULDN’T BREATHE. She had to get out of the room. Everything was closing in on her. Scales rippled across her skin and Rhiddyl clenched her claws against the desk, making the wood groan.
“Turn your papers over, students. You may begin.”
Lieutenant Fwyndyn turned the sand glass over and settled behind his desk, the latest scandal sheet in his hands.
Rhiddyl’s panic was momentarily averted as she squinted, trying to read the headline. Something about the bakery on South Spoke street. She hadn’t read that issue yet and she wondered if there had been any developments between the mayor’s son and the pair of skysailors he’d been caught cavorting with in the market square fountain —
“Rhiddyl!” Keiva hissed and Rhiddyl blinked, recalling where she was and what she was supposed to be doing.
The exam! Oh Family, oh Sister Storm, oh Ancestor Star, she was supposed to be answering questions. Everyone else was busy scribbling away with their quills and she hadn’t even turned her paper over yet.
Panic welled up, the dragon within threatening to emerge, ready as always to deal with any threat. Rhiddyl forced herself to stay calm. Closing her eyes, she breathed in deep and steady, steady and deep. It had only been three days since Captain Imaino had pulled her aside and told her that Dean Myran had agreed to let her continue to Aquila. Apparently there had been much discussion about her plan and what it might mean for the Riders, but in the end, it had been decided that it couldn’t hurt. Hopefully.
Of course, all the fuss and bother would be for nothing if she didn’t pass the entrance examination first.
Vhen kicked the back of her chair, startling her into turning over her paper.
The words swam before her panic-stricken eyes. She forgot how to read human characters entirely, starting in the middle of the page and spiralling out with great confusion.
No, not Skirsasan runes! Fool. She rapped her knuckles against her forehead, then did it again when reading from right to left proved even less enlightening.
Imercish, she was reading Imercish. Start from the top left and proceed from there.
It was all right. She was all right. She was safe, there was no attack, she was not going to be defeated by a piece of paper. She could handle this. Everything was under control.
Students around the room were turning over pages and writing on the second side, while Rhiddyl hadn’t even read the first question yet.
I’m going to fail!
No. None of that. Absolutely none of that. Just because this was the first exam she had ever had to sit down for in her life, did not mean she was going to fail. She’d passed the physical examination yesterday with flying colours and she’d always done brilliantly – well, occasionally adequately and sometimes distinctly averagely – on her spoken and demonstration tests back home.
Dragon tutors didn’t really bother with writing down answers to questions. They much preferred to spring unexpected questions on their unprepared students without warning or notice. Rhiddyl had been woken up in the middle of the night once in order to answer a pressing question about the ten properties of light and why the sky was blue.
Sitting in a sunny hall, surrounded by seventeen of her fellow students, answering gentle questions about poetry, geography and history was bound to be easier than that.
As long as she remembered how to read.
Focus, she ordered herself, her greatest weakness rearing its ugly head once more.
Huffing, she planted her elbows on the desk, gripped her head with her claws and stared at the paper in front of her.
Question 1: Which country are you in and who are your nearest neighbours?
Rhiddyl titled her head, picturing a map of the world and trying to remember if Tierenslai was the nearest landmass beyond the Storm Surge or if that was further south. Perhaps it was Jegena, although since the Jewelwings had moved there from their previous home in the desert, they might have renamed it…
Focus! Rhiddyl reminded herself, as Lieutenant Fwyndyn turned over the sand glass, indicating that half her time was gone.
Half gone and she hadn’t written anything down yet!
Rhiddyl seized her quill and splattered ink across half her desk. Hissing curses below her breath, she tried not to squeeze her pen to death and started scratching out something that might kindly be called writing, if someone was feeling particularly charitable. Rhiddyl hoped whoever marked her paper was feeling very charitable indeed as she wrote down both Jegena and Tierenlai, along with Mistrune, Lansbrig and the Wrathlen, then turned her attention to question two.
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