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Time for a few long overdue meetings.
“SORRY FOR THE interruption, Student Orla, but have you got a moment?”
On her way out of the dining hall with Zett, Vhen and Caelo – the surly Taryn having not returned from fetching more cake – Orla paused at Lieutenant Dhori’s question.
The others paused too, ever curious, but the lieutenant waved them on. “Away with you lot, you have another busy day tomorrow.”
“So does Orla,” Caelo argued, and wagged her finger at the officer. “Don’t go keeping her out late, sir, it’s a school night.”
Dhori rolled his eyes and nodded at Zett.
Caelo’s long-suffering best friend sighed and linked his arm through hers. “Come on, Cae, we’ve study work to do.”
“Study work!” the red head groaned. “On our very first day. I fear we’ve chained ourselves to monsters, Zeze, I really do. Is it too late to escape?”
“Far, far too late,” Vhen informed her, and the three of them carried on with mild bickering and amused chuckles.
Dhori smiled at Orla. “Come along, student. You don’t want your coffee to get cold.”
“Coffee?” Orla trotted after the lieutenant. “Students aren’t offered coffee.”
“Of course not!” Dhori laughed. “You’re an excitable enough bunch as it is. Throw in coffee and you’d be unmanageable.” The lieutenant chuckled. “Fortunately, there are some in the citadel who are of a calmer nature and have their own private supplies.” He winked.
Orla considered asking for more information, but seven months in Nimbys had taught her the man hated to give a straight answer if he could instead be obscure about it. She would find out where he was taking her soon enough and since Dhori was a fast walker, it was better to save her breath for keeping up.
* * *
TARYN WAS NOT in a good mood as she left the dining hall, in search of solitude and a break from impertinent questions about her brother. As such, she chose not to go back to her room, unwilling to face the others.
She wandered Aquila’s corridors in search of nothing but peace and found Rhiddyl instead. The dragon drifted through the hallways with a blissful smile on her face. Taryn paused to watch, wondering when Rhiddyl would notice her or if she’d simply walk straight into her.
Almost. Rhiddyl halted a pace away, a startled blink clearing the happiness from her face. “Oh! Goodness, I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there.” Another blink and she burst into a beaming smile. “Oh, Taryn! I was just coming to find you. Come. You have got to come. I’ve just met her and she’s so wonderful and precious. You have to see.”
Before Taryn could protest, insisting she had no intention of meeting anyone, wonderful, precious or otherwise, the dragon seized her wrist and dragged her into the depths of the citadel.
* * *
DESPITE HAVING SPENT several days exploring Aquila with her friends, Orla had never been to this section before. Lieutenant Dhori seemed confident of the way, but he should be as this particular part of the citadel held the private quarters of tutors and officers and was strictly off limits to students.
Curiosity overrode Orla’s natural sense of caution. If a lieutenant didn’t have the right to bring guests here, who did? But despite having trained under Dhori’s watchful eye in Nimbys, Orla couldn’t claim to know the man well enough for him to seek out her company. She didn’t know anyone at Aquila well enough for that, not even Captain Stirla and his generous kindness.
So why was she here?
Lieutenant Dhori turned left and led her down a short flight of steps. The corridor narrowed and the ceiling lowered to barely above the man’s head. A cool draft gusted along the hallway, carrying a hint of charcoal and smoke. They reached a sturdy wooden door, bound in black iron on which the lieutenant knocked. Orla clasped her hands and shifted nervously on her feet, wondering why she was there.
The door swung open, revealing a short, stocky figure silhouetted against the bright light within.
“You brought her,” a familiar accent rolled out to greet them, and the man turned his head to grin into the room, revealing the stern features and heavy lines of home. “She is here!”
Orla breathed a sigh of relief. Lieutenant Dhori had brought her to meet Aquila’s Ihrans.
“Well, don’t just stand there girl.” A second figure appeared, stocky and dark like the first, but a woman this time. “Come in. The coffee’s getting cold.” She seized Orla’s hand and dragged her into the light and warmth of what was clearly a working forge.
“Thank you for bringing her, lieutenant,” the first man said behind her. “We promise not to keep her all night.”
“You’d best not, she’s got lessons in the morning. I’ll be back to fetch her in a bit.”
“Yes, yes, as you wish.” The woman stopped towing Orla and turned back to shut the door in Lieutenant Dhori’s face.
The man beside her chuckled and looked Orla up and down, grinning in a most un-Ihran like manner. “Destevan hates fuss,” he explained, as if such a thing was necessary. They were Ihran; they all hated fuss.
The woman, Destevan flicked a dismissive hand at him and rubbed her hands together eagerly. “No matter. Now he has gone, we can do this properly.”
It had been so long since Orla last heard the language of her home that she almost cried.
The grin faded from the man’s face. “No, no. No tears. This is a happy time. Come, come sit. We have coffee. Gedanon, pour the coffee!”
It seemed that one Ihran in the room wasn’t above fuss, and Orla had to admit it was quite nice to be ushered to a soft chair close to the fireplace and have a mug of steaming hazelnut coffee pushed into her hands.
It was only after her first sip that she realised she was being watched, not by the two Ihrans she had already encountered, but by three. All were the familiar short, stocky Ihran build, made even broader by their obvious smith crafting, with the ruddy faces of those who worked close to flames on a regular basis. Two of them were sandy-haired and similar enough of features to be closely related, while the other had dark hair and a disconcerting smile.
He was the one who had opened the door and was unnervingly cheerful, even now as he hovered around Orla, making sure all was well. The other two wore matching scowls that made Orla feel completely at home. She’d missed the grumpiness of her homeland.
“Better now?” the dark-haired man asked, holding up a milk jug. “Need more?”
Orla shook her head and clutched her mug to her. “It is perfect, thank you.”
He put the jug down and rocked on his heels, looking pleased. “Good then. All is good.”
“Introductions,” the woman declared.
“Sit first,” the third Ihran growled. He glared at Orla while the other man rushed to pull a fourth chair in front of the fire. The three adults sat down, two watching Orla eagerly, the third scowling at his coffee as if it had just insulted him.
The dark-haired man cleared his throat. “I shall go first. I am Derneon Weaponsmith Sohr diDeranon, and it is a pleasure to meet you.”
Orla sat up, but before she could do the polite thing, the woman spoke up. “And I am Destevan Weaponsmith Sohr daDelevan. This is my brother, Gedanon Swordmaster Sohr diGeranon. Do not take his surliness personally.” She waved at the brooding man next to her.
Derneon chortled. “He is actually in a good mood this evening. He was excited to meet you, but now he is embarrassed.”
Orla glanced at Gedanon. His scowl deepened and he narrowed his eyes at the other man. He did not look embarrassed. He looked rather a lot like her Aunt Arelanash whenever she had the misfortune to deal with her brother, Orla’s father. Although Derneon wasn’t a sibling of the other two, Orla had spent most of her life surrounded by cousins and could detect a family relationship within twenty paces. If these three weren’t related, she’d eat her boots.
“And you?” Destevan prompted, staring at Orla over her steaming coffee mug. “Who are you?”
“I am Orla,” Orla replied, feeling rather foolish.
Destevan blinked and looked at Derneon, who in turn tilted his head. “Orla? That is… an unusual Ihran name.”
“Too short,” Gedanon grumbled. “Children today always have to shorten things. What is your real name, girl?”
Feeling somewhat scolded, as if her great-uncle Gornelvan had just walked into the room, she sat up straight and drew her shoulders back. “Georlanash, sir, Georlanash Appr- Student Uhra daGeanarla.” She grimaced at her clumsy introduction.
It was the first time away from Ihra that she’d needed to introduce herself in full and she’d almost forgotten she wasn’t an apprentice anymore. Everyone in Ihra was an apprentice, as soon as they grew old enough to learn a trade, and an apprentice they stayed until they became a professional. But Orla wasn’t an apprentice now, she wasn’t learning a trade. She was going to become a Rider. Except student was not an Ihran word and the Imercish addition sounded clumsy and out of place – much like herself.
The three Ihrans exchanged glances.
“So it’s true,” Derneon muttered.
“I can hardly credit it,” Destevan agreed softly.
Orla braced herself, remembering her Uncle Hethanon’s initial reaction to her plan. He hadn’t been impressed and she feared Gedanon’s reaction would be worse.
They all looked at the sword master, awaiting his verdict.
Gedanon scowled into the middle distance. Draining his coffee, he placed his mug carefully on the table beside his chair and looked directly at Orla for the first time.
“Good.” He nodded, much to her astonishment. “It’s time we Ihrans taught these Riders a thing or two. Destevan, measure her up. She will need special attention.”
“She’s come to the right place to get it,” Derneon agreed, rubbing his hands together as Destevan jumped up and pulled Orla to her feet.
“Come. I will take your measurements now, then I will make you armour fit for the gods.”
“And I shall craft you sword,” Derneon agreed, grinning.
“I will teach you to wield it,” Gedanon almost growled as he studied Orla slowly from her head to her feet. He didn’t quite grimace, but there was a wry twist to his mouth as he met her eyes again. “I trust you are not afraid of hard work.”
“Pshaw, she’s Ihran, isn’t she?” Derneon flicked a dismissive hand and grinned at Orla, taking her hand to tow her across the small room and into the forge beyond, where Destevan was already busy sorting through piles of notes. “This is going to be a true adventure.” Orla swallowed and answered his smile with a wobbling one of her own. An adventure this was sure to be. She only hoped she didn’t let them or anyone else who believed in her down.
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