RHIDDYL WAS NERVOUS. She wasn’t the only one. She’d thought that waiting to hear whether or not she’d passed her exams would be the hardest thing she faced all month, but it turned out that riding in a skyship approaching Nimbys on the eve of the Choice was far more nerve-wracking.
“I’ve never ridden a miryhl before. What if I don’t like it?” Tenzi muttered to Keiva as they, along with Rhiddyl, Vhen, Guth and the twelve other Storm Peaks students clustered against the fore rail, watching the North Imercian mountains loom ever higher in front of them.
“You like flying with Rhiddyl, don’t you?” Keiva asked, her voice equally soft.
As far as Rhiddyl knew, her four friends were the only ones who definitely knew she was a dragon. The others mostly just thought she was strange, but had ceased to be curious over the long winter. One or two likely suspected something – the Storm Peaks were right beside the Storm Surge, after all, and a dragon or two had been known to cross the Barrier from time to time – but no one had outright asked her. So she was grateful for Keiva’s discretion.
“That’s different,” Tenzi argued. “Rhiddyl’s much bigger and so comfortable. Flying with her is easy. What if I’ve been spoiled?”
The others snorted. Rhiddyl was glad to hear her friend enjoyed their flights so much, but from what she knew of Rift Riders, dragon flight was nothing compared to riding a miryhl.
“You’ll be fine,” Rhiddyl assured her, almost bouncing on her toes as a glint appeared between the arms of a mountain ahead.
“Is that -?” Guth asked.
Rhiddyl nodded. “The Stratys Palace. The spire is topped with glass, so it shines in the sun.”
“Oooh,” Tenzi and several of the nearby students cooed with appreciation.
“Is it true the Cathedral of Maegla has a coloured glass window that’s twenty feet high?” Keiva asked.
Rhiddyl had never measured the window herself, but she’d seen and marvelled at it from the outside. “It’s certainly very big.”
“I can’t wait to see it.” The girl clasped her hands to her chest and sighed rapturously. “I’ve always longed to visit Nimbys and pay my respects to the goddess.”
The other students agreed, except for Vhen who pulled a face.
Rhiddyl grinned at him. “What a shame it’s Cloudday today. The open service is only held on Stardays.”
“I’m not waiting three days before I visit,” Keiva said stoutly. “I heard it’s open every day for worshippers, regardless of services.”
“Can we go tomorrow, do you think?” Tenzi asked. “Oh, please say we can, Rhiddyl!”
“I don’t see why not.” Rhiddyl smiled, pleased that her friends were looking to her for advice. Back in Zvenera they’d all been perfectly at home, always taking the lead in any outings, but out here she was the expert. Even if she’d never actually walked through Nimbys’ streets, she had flown over them a time or two, which was practically the same thing.
“Aren’t we going to be a little busy tomorrow?” Vhen asked dryly.
Rhiddyl and the rest looked at him blankly.
“It’s the thirtieth of Fledgling,” he said.
More blank looks.
“The reason why we are all here. The start of the Choice. You know, where we all try and Choose our miryhls. Those giant talking eagle things that you can’t be a Rift Rider without.” He eyed Rhiddyl up and down for a thoughtful moment. “Well, most of us.”
While the others rolled their eyes at themselves and grew excited all over again about arriving in Nimbys and the whole reason why they were there, Rhiddyl continued to stare at Vhen.
He raised an eyebrow. “Problem?”
“Most of us can’t,” she echoed him, a strange knot twisting in her stomach.
Vhen looked confused for a change. “Most of us can’t what?”
“Become Riders without a miryhl,” Rhiddyl continued, feeling as if she was groping around in the dark after dropping her lantern in shock at a hitherto unconsidered truth. “That was what you meant, wasn’t it? That most Riders can’t be Riders without miryhls, because they need miryhls in order to fly, but I -”
She stopped, realising her voice had been growing loud and shrill in panicked realisation.
Vhen stepped close and rested a hand on her arm. “It’s all right. The dean said you could come, remember? You’re still one of us, even if you don’t need a miryhl.”
Would she be, though? Could she really be considered a true Rift Rider if she didn’t have a miryhl? Wasn’t that what made them all Rift Riders in the first place?
Except she didn’t need a miryhl. She wasn’t even sure she wanted one. She was a dragon; she was perfectly able to fly herself. Blessed Family, she could turn into a miryhl if she wanted to, and had on many a memorable and enjoyable occasion. She loved flying with miryhls. She was less certain she would enjoy flying on one.
“Don’t worry,” Vhen said, patting her arm with reassuring confidence. “I’m sure we’ll think of something.”
Rhiddyl was equally sure that they wouldn’t. Oh, Family, why hadn’t she considered this before? She’d been so caught up in training and passing her exams without being thrown out that she’d forgotten all about this extremely vital step. It was one thing to turn up at Aquila as a student, it was quite another to be the first to attempt full Rider training without a miryhl.
She nibbled her claw and stared at the view as the city of Nimbys loomed ever-larger in all its bright glory. Suddenly, she didn’t feel so happy to be returning after all.
“I need to speak to the captain,” she muttered, stepping away from her friends and striding across the deck before she remembered Captain Imaino hadn’t come with them. He was still in Zvenera, stationed in the Storm Peaks with the rest of his flight for the next several years. A different captain would meet them in Nimbys, taking them under his wing until they reached Aquila and were all assigned to their permanent places.
Rhiddyl turned and studied the city again, wondering what kind of stranger might await her and whether Imaino had thought to mention her unique attributes in the packet of introductory letters he’d handed over to the skyship captain. Tapping her claw against her teeth, she glanced across the deck at where Captain Zhene was talking to his navigator up by the wheel. Perhaps she could sneak into his cabin while his attention was elsewhere and steal a quick look at the letters in question. It might give her a name, at least, something to go on, something to ease the panic that was swiftly taking hold of her.
Her right arm began to bulge. She gripped it hard with her left hand, willing herself to calm down. She’d been trapped on this skyship for twelve days, which was a very long time for a dragon her age to spend in a secondary shape, without taking any breaks to shift back to dragon form. She’d never gone so long before, but until now it had been easy. The last few months had been excellent practice for her control.
Now her scales were rippling beneath her clothes and her skin was starting to feel uncomfortably tight.
“Miryhls, ho!” The cry rained down from the lookout baskets high overhead.
The students at the prow rail gasped in delight and Rhiddyl turned again. A big brown eagle swooped alongside them, a handful of smaller birds in its wake. It skimmed all down one edge of the ship and swept up the other, before jinking its wings and hopping over the side rail.
Skysailors scattered in a flurry of curses, but Rhiddyl merely blinked as the miryhl hopped to a halt directly in front of her. The Rider on its back was tall, broad and wore an eye patch.
Rider and eagle tilted their heads at the exact same angle, while Rhiddyl stared up at them, utterly dumbfounded.
The Rider grinned.
“Imaino wasn’t lying after all,” the miryhl muttered, as the man swung down from the saddle.
“I told you he didn’t have a sense of humour,” the Rider chuckled, ruffling the feathers of his partner’s neck. “Hullo, Rhiddyl.”
“Hello, Captain Stirla. Captain Atyrn.” She nodded at the miryhl.
The miryhl nodded back. “Good to see you again, youngster,” she greeted, even though Rhiddyl had been born a good two centuries before the miryhl had hatched.
The captain chuckled and rubbed his hands together. “A dragon and an Ihran, all in his first year. Lyrai is going to love this.”
“Lyrai?” Rhiddyl asked, aware that Captain Khene was hurrying over to welcome the new arrivals, while her fellow students were clustering at her back, building up the courage to approach the miryhl. Lyrai had been a lieutenant when Rhiddyl had known him, and had long been her favourite human – and hadn’t the others teased her about it – but his injuries had forced him to retire from the Riders five years ago. The last she’d heard he was raising miryhls on a farm somewhere in Imercian.
“Didn’t Imaino tell you?” Atyrn murmured, as Stirla stepped forward to greet the other captain. “Lyrai’s teaching flying at Aquila this year. He put in a good word with Myran for you and asked us to make sure we find you a decent miryhl.” The eagle looked Rhiddyl up and down and cracked her beak a little doubtfully. “We promised to try.”
And that didn’t make Rhiddyl feel worse, no, not at all. “Thank you,” she muttered, trying to be polite.
The miryhl snorted, while Tenzi tugged Rhiddyl’s sleeve. “Do you know this miryhl?” her friend asked incredulously.
Atyrn snorted again, then puffed out her chest and preened as Keiva sighed, “She’s so beautiful.”
Overhearing, Stirla broke off his conversation with Captain Khene and laughed. “She most certainly is, but I’m sorry to tell you all that she is also quite definitely taken. But don’t feel too disappointed – we have a whole eyrie full of miryhls as eagerly hopeful as yourselves to meet tomorrow. Are you ready to make your Choice, students?”
“Yes, sir!” the students cheered as one, and even Rhiddyl was swept up enough in their excitement to join in. “Then go grab your bags and get ready to follow me,” Stirla invited, opening his arms as if to embrace them all. “Welcome to Nimbys, everyone. Welcome to the Riders.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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