Welcome (back) to Aquila!
“NOW THAT’S AN interesting looking bunch, and no mistake,” Caelo murmured, as she and Zett watched the Eastern students arrive through a window high above the lake.
Even though the Western students had only been at Aquila for two days themselves, thanks to Caelo’s insatiable curiosity, Zett felt quite familiar with the place already. His best friend had a real knack of ferreting out all the best spots and always knew precisely where to stand to get the best view of everything. The lower corridors and bridges were full of Western students trying to grab a first glimpse of their potential new friends and rivals. Caelo avoided all that by locating a deserted corridor with a large window that offered an uninterrupted view.
As Caelo chortled about who she wanted to meet first, Zett studied the newcomers. Easterners didn’t look all that different, which made sense he supposed as trade across the Overworld constantly kept people moving around. There were more paler faces and lighter hair colours than he was used to, but even in Havia such things weren’t entirely unheard of.
He had never seen anyone with lilac hair before, though, except during feast days and festival plays. He’d never seen an Ihran either, although rumour suggested there were at least three in the citadel who made all the student weapons, and trained them how to use them too. He studied the stocky Ihran standing on the lakeshore with the students and wondered if she was one of his new instructors. She didn’t look old enough. Maybe she’d come to apprentice to the weaponsmith. Zett wondered if the Ihrans would approve of his sword dancing.
“Come on.” A slap on the shoulder jolted him out of his thoughts. “The dinner bell’s about to ring any moment and I want to beat the crowds so we can eat as well as greet. I can’t wait! Who would have guessed our year-mates would be so exciting?”
* * *
A BELL CLANGED loudly across the lake, bouncing off stern stone walls and making Rhiddyl’s head ring. Of all the things she’d missed about Aquila, the bell had not been one of them. She winced and covered her ears. The students around her looked baffled and alarmed, no doubt wondering if they were under some sort of attack.
“It’s lunchtime!” she shouted to Vhen over the racket. “Come on. I’ll show you where to go.”
As eager to leave the noise behind as she was to abandon the wretched bullwing boat – which was not at all safe, no matter how many years the Riders claimed they’d been using such torture devices – Rhiddyl jogged for the nearest door, her friends close behind. A knot of students were blocking the entrance, having made their way inside and stopped, milling in confusion about where to go next.
“Follow me!” she called, finding that she stood almost a head taller than most of the humans. Thank goodness for Vhen, whose height ever so slightly topped her own. Her hair made her stand out enough, she was swiftly realising, without being the only giant in the citadel.
“This way!” Vhen shouted, his voice a nice resonant boom compared to Rhiddyl’s reedy flute. The students stopped crowding aimlessly about and fell into line as she and Vhen hurried down the stone corridors.
It had been five years since Rhiddyl had last walked these halls, but it was all coming back to her. The bell continued to toll overhead, but the addition of thick stone walls and a lack of an echo made it bearable, even when she passed one of the many windows.
Glancing out as she passed the biggest and brightest, where the lake lapped just below the sill, Rhiddyl caught a hint of a splash and smiled.
“Are there fish in the lake?” Tenzi asked. “I think I just saw something break the surface.”
“The lake’s still fairly new, isn’t it?” Keiva said, frowning through the next window, although the wind had whipped away any signs of underwater disturbance. “Still, with the bigger lake higher up, I suppose it’s possible.”
“At Aquila, anything is possible,” Rhiddyl murmured, amused.
“You know something,” Vhen said softly, nudging her with his elbow as Rhiddyl turned away from the lake, leading them deeper into the citadel.
“I know many things,” she agreed.
He snorted and Rhiddyl winked at him as she pushed open the wide double doors that led into Aquila’s dining hall.
* * *
TARYN HARDLY KNEW where to look first. Like so many others, she had loved hearing stories about the Rift Riders and Aquila as a child, and despite herself had often hung on her brother’s descriptions of the place. She’d also known it had been damaged by the late siege and war and had expected to be disappointed when she finally saw it for herself.
She wasn’t; she was astonished. This was Aquila? This was the great Rift Rider home that had been almost destroyed by pirates and kaz-naghkt five years ago? It couldn’t be. The place was beautiful. Grand and imposing, yes, but wonderfully clean and sturdy, with its bright white walls perfectly reflected in the dark waters of the lake. Inside was surprisingly light, with so many windows looking out over the lake and the mountain.
She had to rely on Orla to guide her once they were inside, because she felt like she knew these halls so well already. She’d walked them in her brother’s memory, fought in them alongside Mhysra, Stirla and so many others. She half expected to see scorch marks and bloodstains, but there was no sign that Aquila had ever been besieged. The walls were perfect. There wasn’t a single scratch mark on plaster or stone; everything was weathered and clean.
The corridor turned away from the lake and Taryn found new things to marvel at – wall murals depicting miryhls in flight, Riders with swords in their hands. They flew over mountains, clouds and cities. They fought pirates and monsters. They defied gravity in death-defying plunges. They were painted and carved and made out of mosaics. Stunning, intricate and utterly absorbing. Taryn could have stood and stared at each one for days.
Except Orla had a firm grip on her arm and seemed determined to keep moving. Taryn might have protested, but the tide of students swept her along into a great hall, which seemed already crammed full of people.
They stopped. Orla’s grip tightened on Taryn’s arm. Everyone stared. The newly arrived students huddled wide-eyed and nervous just inside the door, gaping at the room ahead. The Riders and older students already settled on benches at the long wooden tables, gaped back, staring at the newcomers with expressions ranging from interest to amusement to flashes of instant dislike.
Taryn ran her eyes over the people in the room and swallowed hard. In all her dreams about Aquila, she’d forgotten to add so many people.
“Well.” The lilac-haired girl who’d led them this far, straightened her shoulders and raised her chin. “Food is this way.” She gave a firm nod and she and her equally tall friend marched determinedly left. A trio of Storm Peakians hurried after them, leaving the rest of the newcomers to huddle by the door.
Taryn rolled her eyes and prised Orla’s fingers off her arm. “Come on,” she urged. “They seem to know where they’re going and I’m starving.”
She wasn’t. In fact, her stomach was such a tight knot of excitement and nerves that she didn’t think she’d be able to eat a thing, but she wasn’t about to stay stuck in the doorway like a rabbit meeting a wolf. This was Aquila, home of the Rift Riders, destination of her dreams, and where she hoped to spend the next three years of her life. She would not start her stay by cowering.
Picking up a tray from the pile, she handed it to Orla and took one for herself. Then she added plates and fell in behind a short Storm Peak girl with sun-streaked hair and a surprising amount of curves for someone who’d passed the selection school. Perhaps they did things differently in the Peaks? They didn’t have to face Hethanon Armsmaster for one.
The girl glanced back, grinning over her shoulder with warm brown eyes. “Hi!” she greeted cheerfully. “You’re the Outcast Princess, aren’t you?” “Tenzi!” her friend hissed, sounding appalled by Tenzi’s bluntness, and Taryn sighed. Was this better than being ignored? She wasn’t certain, but had a feeling she’d be teaching a lot more miryhls how to play cards before this month was done.
~ Next Chapter ~
Thanks for reading!