IT FELT STRANGE to be back on the Miryhl Heart. Taryn’s first journey aboard Derrain’s skyship had been ill-planned and more than a touch childish, while her attitude at the time had stunk. So it was no surprise when apprehension gripped her as she walked up the gangplank and recognised all the faces of the crew gathered to welcome the new Rider students onboard. She’d expected animosity. She’d received friendship.
Not from First Mate Dakka, of course. That woman would never smile at Taryn purely on principle, but they exchanged polite nods if they happened to meet now, which was an awful lot more than Taryn deserved. It helped that both Derrain and Orla had obviously put in a good word for her, but still, it was a relief not to be as despised as she had been before.
However, after a half-moon of being cooped onboard with thirty-eight other students, all bored, restless and eager to reach their destination, Taryn was more than ready to leave the Heart and never set foot on another skyship again. Especially when the Nimbys bunch, other that Orla, were still giving her the cold shoulder. Unfairly, since she hadn’t tattled on Henley like they all thought, and even she had, the little weasel would have deserved it. The rumour had obviously trickled out amongst the Storm Peaks lot too, since fewer and fewer of them bothered to speak to her as their journey progressed, leaving her with only Orla and the miryhls for company.
Which suited Taryn just fine. If the fools wanted to pick a manipulative, nasty little thief over her, they weren’t worth knowing anyway.
Throw in a bunch of unseasonable storms and Taryn was ready to get off this ship as swiftly as she possibly could.
Tired of the dramatic silences that fell whenever she ventured too close to the rest of the students, Taryn spent most of her time hiding in the hull eyries with Pinwheel, Milk and the officer miryhls.
“Hit me,” Zephyr’s soft rasp murmured through the shadows.
Taryn raised her eyebrows, but Zephyr’s nod was determined. There was just no helping some.
She dealt the card. Ten of diamonds.
“Heirayk’s fiery balls!” the miryhl growled, kicking her cards with disgust.
“What did she have? What did she have?” Latinym asked eagerly, as he and Milk tried to flip the rejected cards over with their beaks.
“Twenty nine!” Atyrn scoffed, after Taryn dutifully turned them for the miryhls to study. “You should have stuck on nineteen.”
“I did stick on nineteen three hands ago and you beat me with twenty.”
“That doesn’t mean I would beat you this time,” Atyrn argued, even as Milk managed to flip the captain miryhl’s cards over.
“Twenty-one!” Pinwheel whistled.
The other miryhls scattered their cards with disgust.
Atyrn preened proudly. “I guess I’m just lucky.”
Zephyr snorted. “Is that what you call keeping those aces under your wing?”
Taryn raised her eyes to the ceiling and gathered the cards to shuffle, seriously questioning her wisdom in teaching the miryhls to play this game.
“You’re sitting this round out,” Latinym told his superior. “Let someone else win for a change.”
“Why?” Atyrn protested. “We’re not even playing for anything!”
“Then you won’t mind sitting this round out, will you?” Zephyr said smugly, drawing her freshly dealt cards towards herself with a delicate flex of her toes.
“You’re a bunch of bad losers,” Atyrn grumbled, fluffing up her feathers.
“Does that mean there’s room for me to join?” the strangely mottled Cereyn asked as he did every new round.
“No!” the other five answered without looking at him.
Taryn might have felt sorry for the eagle if he didn’t laugh with such clear delight every time the rest shut him down. Nothing could dim his exuberance or the light in his bright blue eyes.
“Show me,” Milk said, nudging Taryn in the arm with her wing.
Sighing, Taryn wished she’d thought of a more interesting way to pass the time than this, but nevertheless picked up the miryhl’s cards and held them so only she could see.
“Hmm.” The white miryhl cracked her beak and narrowed her eyes, then nodded for Taryn to lower the cards. “Hit me.”
Taryn turned over an eight of clubs.
Milk drew it towards her with a talon and covered her cards with her wing. “Roost.”
No matter how many times Taryn told them it was “stick” the eagles insisted on roosting. Still, if it made them happy…
“Show me, p-please,” Pinwheel asked, always the polite one.
She held up the cards, cupping them in her hand so that only her miryhl would see.
“Oh. Oh. Um…” He dithered, as usual, glancing from the cards in Taryn’s hands to the ones left in the pack. He scratched his head, scattering scurf, evoking irritated tuts from the others as they dusted white flecks off their cards, and nodded. “T-twist.”
He was the only one who used the words Taryn had taught them, not least because the poor bird couldn’t bring himself to ask to be hit, even in a silly card game.
She gave him the three of diamonds.
The two of clubs.
The other miryhls perked up, all minor bickers and squabbles forgotten.
Even Cereyn leant in. “Go for it.”
“We don’t know what he already has,” Atyrn reminded everyone. “He could have an ace or a ten or even a nine under there, plus the second card. He might have enough to roost already.”
Taryn tapped her hands on the two cards lying face down in front of Pinwheel. Only she and he knew that he had a seven and a five under there. His four cards added up to seventeen. He could stick if he wanted to.
She met her miryhl’s dark eyes and raised her eyebrows.
“T-twist,” he said, surprising her as always that such a shy, downtrodden soul would be so quick to take risks.
Then again, it was only a card game.
She turned over the four of clubs.
The other miryhls held their breath.
Taryn looked at Pinwheel. The feathers on his forehead fluffed up. He looked down at his cards, looked back at Taryn and shuffled his wings.
She grinned. “Five Card Trick.” She turned over Pinwheel’s face-down cards. “And twenty-one,” she added, for those who were less confident when adding things up.
The others scattered their cards in disgust once more.
“You could still win,” Atyrn told them, scooping cards towards her with her beak. “You can still get the Stratys-Ace.”
No one was listening. For some reason the Five Card Trick had really caught the miryhls’ imaginations. If they couldn’t win that way, they didn’t want to win at all. Show offs.
“Is that it then?” Taryn asked, gathering the loose cards. “You’ve had enough? We’re finished?”
Smirking, Taryn shuffled the pack. “Who’s in this round then?”
“Me! Me! Pick me!”
“No, Cereyn, not you!”
The rejected miryhl snickered again, delighted by the joke.
Taryn didn’t think he even wanted to play, since he just threw his cards around the one and only time the others had let him join in. He seemed to enjoy riling them up far more than participating. He was such a strange creature.
“All right, everyone, here we go. Eyes on the cards, if you please,” she said, flicking the cards into a waterfall shuffle and tapping them straight on the ground with a snap. “Deal one.” She placed a single card before each of the five miryhls, knowing they liked it when she added a little showmanship. “Deal two.” She was halfway around the circuit when Lieutenant Dhori appeared and pointedly cleared his throat.
“Enjoying yourselves?” He sounded entirely too pleasant.
Taryn eyed him warily while the miryhls chorused a happy agreement.
“Corrupting the corps, Highness?” he asked Taryn slyly. “I didn’t know you had it in you.”
“Hardly corruption!” Atyrn protested. “It’s only a game.”
“We’re not even playing for anything,” Latinym agreed. “Not like when you and Stirla bet on the newbies to see how many of them would fall off during their test flight. You lost, I recall.”
Dhori glared at him, while the other miryhls snickered.
Taryn smirked. “Such faith in your subordinates. I’m sure the Wing Commander would feel so proud.”
“You,” Dhori pointed at Latinym, “button that beak. You,” he pointed at Taryn, “come with me.”
The miryhls groaned a collective protest.
“Just one more game,” Zephyr wheedled.
“We need her to hold the cards,” Milk added, in case Dhori hadn’t already worked that out for himself.
“One more game,” Atyrn bargained. “Then you can take her for as long as you like.”
“Thanks,” Taryn murmured, amused and in absolutely no doubt about how much they valued her presence. Or, rather, why they tolerated her company. “I love you all too.”
Pinwheel brushed his cheek across her shoulder. “You c-can stay with me as long and you like.”
“Thanks,” she said, in a completely different tone, running her fingers through his feathers and making him purr.
Atyrn tutted. “You know what I mean, Taryn. Don’t get goose-ish.”
Dhori’s lips were twitching. “Sadly, it’s now or never. Some of you might appreciate the view too. If you can tear yourselves away from your corruption.”
The miryhls stared at him, suddenly intent.
“So soon?” Zephyr breathed.
“It’s been seventeen days,” Dhori replied, although his tone was gentle.
While the big miryhl sighed, the others headed for the nearest hatch.
“I have got to see this!” Cereyn whooped, practically falling out of the open door.
Taryn watched as Milk and Pinwheel shuffled more warily towards the gap. For a moment she didn’t think they’d make the jump, then Atyrn swept them both out with a shove of her wings. The rest of the miryhls were quick to follow.
Suddenly alone, she raised an eyebrow at Dhori.
“Something I said?” he asked innocently.
She snorted and tucked the cards into her belt pouch. “There had better be something good to see out there or you won’t be allowed back in the eyries for a month.” “There is something good,” he promised, heading for the nearest stairwell. “Trust me, it’s just what you’ve been waiting for.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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