“GOOD AFTERNOON, LIEUTENANT, I trust you are settling in well.”
On his way to visiting Hurricane, Lyrai turned in the passageway to find Countess Kilpapan watching him from a cabin doorway. It was difficult to believe looking at the diminutive woman in front of him that she was one of the richest and most powerful people in all Imercian. However, Lyrai had spent enough time with Elder Goryal to know never to judge anyone by their appearance.
Besides, despite her small, slight size, her face was merely an older, more world-worn version of Mhysra’s, and he’d learnt very early on never to underestimate the Kilpapan women. She might lack Mhysra’s height and wiry strength, but the storm grey eyes were the same, as was the stubborn line of her jaw and the determined set of her mouth. And while Lyrai couldn’t honestly say he that agreed with all the decisions this woman had made about her children’s futures, he had little doubt Mhysra would count herself fortunate to grow into as formidable a woman as this. If she got the chance. Lyrai would do anything to help her try.
Aware that his silence was stretching on uncomfortably long, Lyrai inclined his head. “The hospitality of the Illuminai never fails to do you credit, my lady.”
Her answering smile was polite and perfunctory. “Good. Do you have a moment? I confess even after all these months in Rider company I have very little idea of what you do with your days, but if I am not interrupting…”
Uncertain whether she had meant to sound quite so dismissive of his life, Lyrai decided to give her the benefit of the doubt and bowed a little deeper with a smile. “Of course.” Not that she’d left him much choice. It was never particularly smart to be rude to the owner of the skyship you were currently flying on. “I am entirely at your disposal, Countess.”
Her smile this time was a little more genuine, humour sparking in her grey eyes – so familiar, yet so very, very different. “And ever so polite, despite my own lack of manners. My apologies, lieutenant, I did not mean to be rude. I truly do not know what you get up to each and every day, and that is a failing for a mother to two fine Riders.” Her lips pressed tight as if annoyed with herself, but her eyes were sad. No doubt remembering that she only had one Rider child now. At least, they all hoped there was one left.
Reminded of why the Countess was going to so much effort to assist them, Lyrai stepped towards her. “There is no big mystery, my lady. Mostly on flights such at this we care for our miryhls, tend to our weapons and, if space and time allows for it, practise our swordplay.”
Her smile this time was rueful as she beckoned him into the cabin. “Yet another display of those fine manners. You quite put me to shame, lieutenant.”
“Lyrai, my lady, please,” he said, stepping past her into what was clearly an office space, the cramped confines filled with a neat desk and piles and piles of papers. “We’ve corresponded so much over the last few months that it feels almost foolish to insist on rank now.” That and the way she hesitated every time she said lieutenant, as if stopping herself from saying something even more foolish, like highness, instead. Try though he might to forget his own princely origins, there were always those who couldn’t or wouldn’t do the same. Apparently you could take the countess out of the social whirl of Nimbys, but you couldn’t quite take the social structure out of the countess.
“Lyrai,” she said slowly, and with more than a hint of amusement. “Of course. You must call me Lunrai.”
He only just stopped himself from wrinkling his nose. When he looked at the woman in front of him could only see Countess Kilpapan, or possibly Mhysra’s mother. Lunrai was far too informal and really didn’t fit. Was this how other people felt when he insisted on being called anything but prince or highness?
As if sensing his dilemma, she smiled again, waving him towards the chair facing the desk. “I promise not to keep you long,” she said, turning all business as she moved to take her own seat. “Now that we’ve left Aquila and all pretence of subterfuge behind, I merely wished to ascertain your plans for this trip.”
“Fly to World’s End,” Lyrai told her simply, because their destination had never been in doubt during all their long correspondence.
“Yes,” she agreed. “And then?”
“We find Mhysra and destroy the kaz-naghkt forever.”
Lunrai Kilpapan was far too much of a countess to be so uncouth as to roll her eyes, but the tightening of her lips was just as eloquent. “Yes, lieutenant, that’s all very heroic and grand, but how exactly do you intend to do that? World’s End is a nice large target to aim for, so you can be certain that the Illuminai will not miss, but finer details are important too. So while I applaud your aims, I must also ask how do you intend to find my daughter?”
It was an excellent question and one that Lyrai had asked himself many times, he’d asked his companions too, and so far they had only one answer. “Get us to the mountains, my lady, and we’ll do the rest.”
He should have known the Countess would not be appeased by such an answer. She raised a solitary dark eyebrow. “How?”
Doing his best Dhori impression, he shrugged and smiled mysteriously. “Dragons.”
* * *
SCREAMS ECHOED THROUGH the halls of the keep, a not unusual occurrence in anywhere that housed kaz-naghkt. But these were not kaz-naghkt screams.
“Ooh, Yullik, have you been naughty again?” Riame cooed as he ran past her, up the black stone stairs and along the dark corridor. Glow globes ignited at his approach, throwing out golden light to drive back the shadows. Digging his claws into the stone, he spun around a corner and pounded up a second flight. His wings itched to be released, to lift up, to fly, but he held them back with a growl of effort. These halls might have been built to house his kaz-naghkt, but not even their wide and lofty confines would allow him to fly inside. Instead he ran. Up, up, up, then down the endlessly long corridor.
The screams stopped long before he reached his prisoner’s room.
Slamming through the door, throwing golden light ahead of him, he skidded to a halt.
Eggs and hatchlings littered the bed where the Wingborn lay, pinned and helpless by her injuries. The little creatures had uncurled to the length of the human’s forearm, pale grey and sodden with amniotic fluid. Black wings lay curled up on each back and rattails dragged out behind them, lacking the muscle that would one day make them so formidable in flight. They were pathetic, mewling, pitiful creatures, but they still had claws. And teeth.
Against the pale grey hatchlings and the undyed white of the woollen blankets, the splash of crimson blood was very red.
Heads whipped around at Yullik’s entrance, each hatchling crouching protectively and baring their needle-teeth in a hiss. “Kaz!”
The kaz-naghkt language wasn’t the most complicated in the Overworld, but it was infinitely adaptable. One word, so very many meanings – man, meat and, as in this instance, mine.
“No,” Yullik snarled, baring his own much larger teeth and unfurling his aching wings, “kaz.” He backed up his claim with a wash of raw power, filling the room with golden sparks that flattened the hatchlings to the blankets and sent them scuttling in search of shadows and shelter. Most of them burrowed beneath the blankets, but a couple skittered up the Wingborn’s body and dug beneath her neck and pillows.
Which was when Yullik realised her eyes were open – and glaring at him.
“Oh, well done,” she snapped, her anger all the sharper for the gasp of pain she couldn’t quite contain as the hatchlings jostled her broken body. “How brave of you to cow a bunch of newborns, and just when I’d got them settled down too.”
Yullik blinked. There weren’t many times in his life when he’d felt genuine surprise, but this was definitely one of them. “They were eating you.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Well, of course they were. They’ve just hatched and here I am, prone and helpless, a perfect first meal. What did you expect when you surrounded me with eggs? They were simply following their instincts. But we’d reached an understanding.”
He blinked again, not sure where to even begin. “Eggs?” He latched on to the first because the second was too big to contemplate now. No one reached an understanding with his kaz-naghkt except for him. “You were surrounded by eggs?”
It was her turn to blink, her angry glare shifting to something far less certain. “It wasn’t you?”
“No,” he growled, pulling back his magic. “It wasn’t.” But he had a suspicion who else it might have been. He growled again, deeper this time, calling the hatchlings out from their hiding places.
They slunk and slithered, scrunched up faces peering out from beneath blankets and pillows.
“Come,” he ordered in the snarling, wordless language of their kind.
They squeaked and shrilled, but not one of them left the bed. Instead they settled firmly around and over the Wingborn like some sort of infant guard.
“Come,” he ordered again, in kaz-naghkt and Imercish.
They didn’t move.
The Wingborn gave a breathless laugh, amused despite the pain the little monsters were obviously causing. “I told you we had an understanding.”
The hatchling snarled back, high-pitched and squeaky like an army of pissed off mice.
It would have been infuriating – they were his kaz-naghkt, his, they had no right to defy him – but they looked and sounded so ridiculous that it was all he could do not to laugh. Well, he’d wanted the Wingborn to help raise his new kaz-naghkt. It would be churlish to complain when that was exactly what she was doing.
“Stay here,” he snarled over his shoulder, turning on his heel before he could give into the urge to laugh. “Don’t get eaten.”
A chorus of yips and triumphant squeaks and one pained chuckle followed him out.
Yullik pulled in his wings and lost his smile to a thoughtful frown as he strode back down the corridors he’d so recently sprinted through. As interesting as this development was, it would take some careful consideration about how to proceed next.
In the meantime, he had hatchlings to feed and some egg-stealers to track down. The first was easy enough to achieve, the second… He had his twin-shaped suspicions, but finding a way to hunt them down and punish them might take a bit more time. A smile crept over his face at the prospect.
“They do like me to be interesting.”
~ Next Chapter ~