It’s results day! *gulp*
“I did it! I did it! I did it!”
“Ha! Suck on that, Petric. Never amount to anything, will I? Well, who’s a Rift Rider now, huh?”
Orla hunched her shoulders as she passed streams of whooping students sprinting back into the city to spread their exultant news. Approaching the offices, she’d always expected to feel nerves at this moment, to worry that she hadn’t done enough, to fear that she had failed. Instead she felt nothing, flat and barely interested as she pushed through the door. It had been hard to summon up any emotion lately. She couldn’t even summon up the energy to leave the city. She just followed the same routine, day after day, putting one foot in front of the other, trying not to think too hard, trying not to care.
“Good morning, Student Orla,” the clerk behind the desk greeted brightly.
Orla waved a lacklustre hand in response. She hadn’t been in any particular hurry this morning, pretending to sleep in late so her uncle wouldn’t try to chivvy her into joining him on his morning jog now that selection school training had finished. She’d listened to him eat a quick breakfast, then stared at the ceiling for a long while, absently thinking that the longer she took to reach the offices, the less people she would have to deal with once she got there.
She’d been right. The entrance hall was almost empty, the list on the wall being studied by just one other person.
Unfortunately it was the one person she least wanted to see.
Taryn trailed her finger down the list of twenty-three names, paused and tilted her head. Seeing Orla, she slowly straightened up.
The front door opened and a bunch of laughing Riders poured inside, joking with each other and teasing the clerks. Orla stepped forward to avoid being trampled, reluctantly closing the distance between herself and the other girl.
Taryn’s chin tipped up, ever so slightly, as if she was steeling herself against something unpleasant. “Do you want to good news or the bad?”
No apology, no explanations. Good. Orla didn’t want to hear them. She didn’t particularly want to hear anything Taryn said, so she shrugged.
“You passed,” Taryn told her. “The first official Ihran Rider student. Next stop Aquila.”
Orla narrowed her eyes. “Was that the good news or the bad?”
Taryn smiled ever so faintly. “I thought it was the good.”
“What’s the bad?”
“I passed too.”
Orla snorted despite herself and Taryn’s smile widened.
“We are not friends,” Orla told her repressively, before the girl could get any ideas.
Taryn nodded. “We never have been.”
“True,” Orla acknowledged, wondering why the words hurt so much. They hadn’t ever been friends, they’d barely tolerated each other. So how did Taryn have the ability to always hurt her? “We never have.”
The girl opposite her bit her lip. “Maybe we should change that?”
Orla stared at her, baffled. Her confusion only deepened as the other girl held out her hand.
“Hello, I’m Taryn. Some people call me princess, but I’d really rather they didn’t. I’d much rather be friends. Nice to meet you.”
A lifetime of engrained manners had Orla raising her hand without thinking about it. Taryn’s fingers were warm and callused as they curled around Orla’s. It didn’t feel like a princess’ hand.
“I’m Orla,” she heard herself saying as if from a long distance. “Some people call me Georlanash, but I’d really rather they didn’t.”
Taryn laughed and warmth seeped into Orla’s skin for the first time in too many days.
“I think I’m going to like being friends with you, Orla,” Taryn said, squeezing her fingers before letting go.
Orla smiled, suddenly shy, and looked at the list on the wall behind her new friend’s back. “Did I really pass?” she asked, wanting to change the subject.
“You really did,” Taryn agreed. “Everyone did, even Jorgun, which is amazing since I didn’t know he could write.”
“Hey!” the boy in question protested right behind them, making Orla jump and Jorgun’s friends snicker.
Taryn smirked, indicating that she’d known he was there all the time. “Come on, Orla, rumour has it the Miryhl Heart’s due in this morning, fresh from its latest trip to Wrentheria.”
The other new students rushed back outside in a flurry of excitement, but Orla was nonplussed. “It will be nice to see Captain Derrain again,” she said, because it would. Although she didn’t know why that should interest the other students.
Taryn chuckled and sauntered outside, where golden sunlight was bathing the city in delicious warmth. “Wrentheria, Orla. Don’t you know what that means?”
Orla didn’t even know where it was. Just because she was Ihran, didn’t mean she had an interest in every trade settlement or market on the Overworld. She tried to think what would make the students so excited and came up with, “Fresh strawberries?” It was certainly the only thing guaranteed to make her run through the city to drool at the docks. She’d never had strawberries before this summer, but they’d been the one thing over the last few months capable of lifting her gloom.
Until Taryn asked to be friends. Orla could barely remember feeling down at all now.
Especially when her new friend smiled and shook her head. “Better than strawberries.”
“Impossible.” Nothing was better than strawberries.
Smirking, Taryn pointed over Orla’s shoulder. “Look up.”
Orla did, her jaw hanging slack. “These came from Wrentheria?” she asked, eyes widening as a flock of glossy, perfect, wonderful eagles flew overhead. None of them wore tack or harness of any kind, except the three with Riders on their backs, doing their best to keep the rest in line.
Miryhls. Ten or so free-flying miryhls.
Orla watched the eagles bank their wide wings against the mountainside, circling around the flying field to drop down before the huge temporary eyries she hadn’t even noticed until that moment. Mighty Maegla, just how blinkered had she been this last half-moon to have missed that being built?
Taryn looked over the freshly-arrived birds and snorted. “Those didn’t come from Wrentheria,” she scoffed. “They’re some ragtag South Imercian cast-offs. Just you wait until the Heart gets here. You’ll see real miryhls then.”
“Miryhls,” Orla whispered, hardly able to believe that such magnificent creatures could be brought up to the docks like any other regular cargo.
“Better than strawberries?” Taryn murmured in her ear.
Orla laughed. “So much better.” Glancing out over the city, she could see a distant skyship already approaching the harbour far below. Even from so far away, the green and silver gasbag was unmistakable. The Miryhl Heart was almost here; the miryhls were coming.
Not just any miryhls, but young and free ones, brought here for the Choice. The same Choice at which the new students would choose a miryhl partner. Students like Orla.
Mighty Maegla, she was going to be a real Rift Rider with a miryhl of her own.
Next stop Aquila indeed.
“Race you to the docks!” Taryn darted off, leaving Orla staring in the dust. A pair of Rift Riders swooped low over her head, already on their way to escort the fresh arrivals. Whooping, Orla darted after Taryn not wanting to miss a moment.
~ Next Chapter ~
Thanks for reading!