Anyone for swimming?
THE UPPER LAKE of Aquila was long, broad and deep. It froze in winter, thawed in spring and even in the depths of summer remained bitterly cold. A fact that Taryn couldn’t help being aware of since she was currently neck deep in it.
“Come on, you lot. You’re Rift Riders. Stop being pampered princess and act like it! No offence, Taryn,” Lieutenant Thani added from where she was treading water an arm’s length away.
“None taken,” Taryn muttered, barely preventing her teeth from chattering as she waited for the rest of the girls to stop giggling, shrieking and prevaricating and join her in the water. Some were genuinely nervous, like Orla, who stood on the shore in her dark shirt and knee-breeches, eyeing the lake anxiously. Others were just playing silly beggars. Taryn eyed Jylana and her gang of popular girls with intense dislike as they pranced around, pretending to dip their toes and screaming loudly enough for the boys to hear them clean across the lake.
“Maegla bolt the lot of them,” Lieutenant Thani growled and waded back to shore, water streaming from her clothes.
Needing to move to keep warm, Taryn swam in a circle and noticed the boys were showing similar pampered-princess tendencies on the far side. Dhori and Cayn were less refined in their methods than Honra and Thani, though, and she grinned as the lieutenants swung someone between them and threw them off a rocky promontory into the water.
“Some students have all the fun,” Rhiddyl murmured, surfacing next to Taryn, her feathery hair slicked back against her head. Sunlight shimmered around them, almost as bright as the dragon’s eyes. “There goes Vhen.”
The lieutenants swung again and a distinctly tall boy was flung, kicking and cursing, through the air. He made a most impressive splash, much to the roaring amusement of the other boys.
“I think Orla might need our support.”
Rhiddyl’s soft voice drew Taryn’s attention back to their own shore and she turned to see Orla bravely wading into the water. It lapped against her knees and her usually ruddy face was pale as the milk her miryhl was named for.
Clearly they didn’t teach swimming in Ihra. Having only learnt the skill herself after her family moved out of Nimbys five years ago, Taryn swam quickly to shore to provide assistance.
Slicking her sodden hair out of her eyes, she exchanged an encouraging smile for Orla’s weak effort and offered her hand. “Hold onto us,” she said, nodding towards Rhiddyl. “We won’t let you drown.”
As the two of them gently guided Orla into deeper waters, the rest of their year mates ventured into the cold. All except Caelo, who insisted on remaining on shore with several blankets wrapped around her shoulders.
“I’m sick,” she told Lieutenant Thani firmly. “Cold water will make it worse. I might get pneumonia and die. Head Healer Morri would have words with you.”
The lieutenant looked mildly amused and nodded at Honra. “Can you handle this? I need to make sure none of our other princesses drown. No offence, Taryn,” she added again, without looking around.
“None taken,” she and her friends, Caelo included, chorused.
Thani jogged back into the water and dived in, much to the yelping dismay of the girls who got splashed as they edged reluctantly deeper.
“Go on, Caelo,” Lieutenant Honra encouraged on the shore. “Stop messing around. The sun’s warm enough to dry you afterwards. You’ll be fine.”
Caelo shrugged. “I’ll be better if I stay with you, sir,” the redhead argued. “Why are you on this side of the lake, anyway? Is it because you prefer men?”
“Honra doesn’t prefer anyone,” Thani said, having returned to the shallows to chase the slow-movers into the depths.
“The Overworld is a splendid and complicated thing,” Caelo observed cheerfully.
“And you’re still not getting out of this swimming lesson,” Thani said. “So ditch those blankets and get in the water before I have to throw you in like the lieutenants across the lake are doing.”
A glance across the shimmering surface showed that all the occupants on the opposite shore were now splashing merrily around while Cayn shouted at them from a rock.
Caelo sneezed. “There’s no need to be a brute about it.”
“Rhiddyl, Taryn, can you stop babying Orla for a moment and drag your recalcitrant pet into the lake, please?”
“Are you going to let her talk about me like that, sir?” Caelo asked Honra.
The man smiled. “Moving quickly is best, I always think. The shock fades away soon enough. Sometimes it even feels warmer that way.”
While Caelo was still frowning over what his words might mean, Rhiddyl snatched the small redhead off her feet and ran towards the lake.
“No! Rhiddyl, you can’t! This is betrayal! This is -” The girl’s screams cut off sharply as the dragon dived, plunging them both beneath the surface.
Holding tightly to Orla’s hand, Taryn braced herself against the resulting wave and shivered as cold washed through the lake.
“Treachery.” Caelo broke the surface, spluttering, and burst into a fresh round of coughs.
“Yes, yes, we all feel sorry for you,” Lieutenant Thani said, once the racket had died down. “But now that we’re finally all in this blasted water, let’s get moving before our toes fall off. Everyone, follow me.”
At the back of the group, Taryn flinched away from the resultant fountain of kicks that churned the shining water into foam. Orla clutched her hand harder than ever and Taryn sighed.
“Come on, I won’t let you sink,” she promised, and floated into the deeper waters, dragging a nervy Orla behind her.
* * *
“AREN’T YOU HAPPY to be on this side of the lake today?” Vhen asked Zett as the boy swam circles around him, as sleek and happy as an otter to be in the water, regardless of the frigid temperature.
Zett surfaced long enough to flash him a grin, while Vhen watched Rhiddyl sprint into the lake with Caelo shrieking all the way. A shiver rippled through him at the shock the redhead had likely just experienced, but he felt no sympathy. If he had to suffer these waters, everyone else should have to too.
Strange as it felt to be separated from the girl portion of their friendship group, Vhen was nevertheless relieved to be away from Caelo’s dramas. It was rare the lieutenants bothered to split the six of them up. The usual gender divide no longer seemed to apply to them, since they’d been sharing a room in relative harmony for almost a year, but swimming in the lake appeared to be a different matter.
Vhen was glad and wished Rhiddyl the best of luck dealing with Caelo’s theatrics. Thank goodness Zett was nothing like his best friend. Instead he was the most sensible and quiet of fellows, even if he was unnaturally happy to be in the water.
“All right, you lily-livered lot,” Cayn barked from his position on a sunny rock. Stripped to the waist, as all of them were, Cayn’s bare chest revealed an impressive array of scars in the morning sun – badges of honour for any Rider who had lived through the War of Aquila, when pirates and kaz-naghkt had seized the citadel and driven the Riders out.
Seeing the marks permanently etched on the man’s otherwise healthy skin, Vhen understood why Cayn and the other lieutenants refused to accept that the kaz-naghkt were gone. Anyone who’d suffered such wounds from the enemy and survived would need far more than five years to forget so potent a threat. Especially when there was still a chance the kaz-naghkt might return one day. The pirates already had, though they’d always been the lesser evil.
Still, the man’s scars were as brisk a wake-up call as the cold water, reminding the students that Rift Rider life wasn’t all fun and games. They were training for a serious purpose, so Vhen turned his back on what the girls were up to and paid attention as Cayn began dividing them into groups and setting water-based challenges. Relieved to be grouped with Zett along with a couple of other boys, Vhen allowed his competitive side to rise and prepared to give the rest of their year mates the thrashing they deserved.
~ Next ~
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