STIRLA BROKE FREE of the crowd just as the cathedral doors closed and two imperial soldiers took up guard positions in front.
“Probably for the best,” Princess Neryth said softly. “Lyrai and his father need to talk.”
Stirla couldn’t hold back a snort. Over the many years that he’d known Lyrai, he’d seen the aftermath of such talks a handful of times and none of them had been pretty. “The Stratys might need to talk to Lyrai, but I can promise you, Lyrai does not need to talk to him.” Still, there was little he could do to help his friend now, so Stirla turned away with a defeated sigh.
Neryth was not alone. “Sister, allow me to present Lieutenant Stirla of the Rift Riders, who has been so kind as to escort me across the Overworld.”
It was all Stirla could do to hold back another snort. Escort implied he’d had any choice in the matter, when in truth Neryth had inserted herself into Stirla’s life and seemed unwilling to leave until she’d achieve all that she wanted - namely Rift Rider training without any of the risk. Escort also implied a manner of comfort and luxury on what had really been a scrabbling trip that had been as much about surviving the Heighlen winter as reaching their intended destination. Luckily manners and years of tedious etiquette lessons prevented any of that from showing as he bowed politely to Neryth’s sister, Princess Demolie, Crown Princess of Imercian and Lyrai’s sister-by-marriage.
“At your service, Highness.” He pressed a hand against his heart and clicked his heels in the western manner. Demolie might be living in the east now, but she would always be Havian underneath it all.
The tall woman gave him a wan smile and offered a cold hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you, lieutenant. My sister has told me much about your joint adventures. I confess it all sounds rather exciting.” The words were all correct and polite, but her tone lacked enthusiasm and her eyes were already wandering. Stirla might have taken it as an insult, but in truth the princess didn’t look entirely well, especially when she stood beside her sister. Though clearly still the prettier of the two, Demolie’s skin seemed dull and dry beside Neryth’s glowing vitality. There were bags beneath her dark eyes and pinched lines around her mouth. All was clearly not well with the princess and the way her eyes continuously strayed towards the closed doors implied it all stemmed from her marriage. Or at least the family that she had married into.
Stirla barely restrained the urge to turn and look for himself, wishing he knew what all of this was about so that he could prepare for any fallout. Lyrai, like the rest of the Aquila survivors, had been through too much this past year to have to deal with family drama on top of it all. His friend was still on the injured list, for Maegla’s sake. Couldn’t the Stratys show any compassion?
Knowing full well the answer to that, Stirla balled his fist in frustration and looked out over the slowly dispersing crowd. Most were either leaving to get on with their ordinary duties and days, but a small group was pressing forward, hoping to get a better look at the princesses.
Squaring his shoulders, Stirla stepped down, ready to form a protective barrier in front of Demolie and Neryth if necessary. Not that the latter needed any help in that area; she was fully capable of defending herself. Stirla should know - he’d taught her.
“Oh, look, the carriages are here,” Neryth announced with a forced cheer that was completely out of character.
Stirla looked incredulously at her and she shot him a grimace as she took her sister’s arm and gently steered her to the side of the cathedral, where Lyrai’s sisters were already being bundled away by the imperial guard.
“Come along, Demi, time to go.”
Her sister didn’t reply, simply lowered her head and meekly went wherever Neryth guided. It was only as she walked away that Stirla registered her clothing for the first time: black. She was swathed in it from head to toe.
“Sweet Maegla,” he whispered, staring at the guarded cathedral doors once more and wishing more than ever that he was inside, providing support to his friend. He might have been jumping to conclusions, of course, but the repeated summonses that had come from the palace over the last half moon now made a worrying amount of sense. No wonder Lyrai had been avoiding them all.
Shaking off his thoughts, he turned towards the call and smiled at the cluster of welcome faces watching him with curious expressions. Wildly different experiences might have separated him and Derrain from Dhori, Corin and Mhysra these past few moons, but they were all still and always would be his first students and Riders.
He rubbed his hands eagerly together. “Ready to get to work?”
“Not more inventory,” Corin groaned.
Stirla grinned and opened his arms, ushering them away from the cathedral and silently wishing Lyrai good luck. “Of course more inventory, Student Corin. Wouldn’t want to get halfway to Aquila and find out we’ve run out of pickled eggs now, would we?”
Corin wasn’t the only one to groan this time.
“As if we’re going anywhere anytime soon,” Derrain grumbled, and it was true. The city might make all the right noises about gratitude and glorifying the Riders for saving Nimbys from the kaz-naghkt horde, but it hadn’t been at all reflected in offers of transport or perishable goods. The battle had been mercifully brief and the civilian casualties minor, which enabled the populace to forget all too easily about the threat they’d so recently faced. And would face again if Aquila wasn’t retaken and the kaz-naghkt and pirates driven back to their miserable holes.
“Are you so eager for war?” The light chiming tones could only come from Elder Goryal, the strange Starshine dragon who was so small and fragile looking, yet wielded immense power beneath their gentle façade.
Stirla still wasn’t quite sure what to make of the dragon and their taller, darker companion, Reglian. Or their other friend: he glanced around for the younger Rhiddyl who didn’t yet possess the ability to shift into a human shape. Not that either Goryal or Reglian were really all that human when you looked closely, but at least they could pass at a distance. Thankfully Rhiddyl was not within sight and the cathedral square was now all but empty, meaning it was perfectly safe for the dragons to come out. Similar to the way they were thanking the Riders, the people of Nimbys had been happy enough to see the dragons during the battle, but in the aftermath had been far more suspicious and wary.
“Not eager,” Dhori said, answering the elder’s question. “Never eager.”
“But the waiting chafes,” Reglian agreed, nodding solemnly. “Action must be taken, whatever your own wishes, so you would rather take it sooner than later.”
“Exactly,” Stirla agreed, and began striding across the square, students and dragons trotting after him. “So let’s take what action we can right now and leave the difficult negotiations to those better trained to undertake them.”
“But inventorying…” Corin whined.
“You could always take a turn in the smoke house if you prefer,” Stirla offered, smiling. “It’s nice and warm in there, I hear.”
When Corin opened her mouth, Mhysra elbowed her sharply in the ribs, while Derrain quickly said, “Inventorying is fine.”
Goryal and Reglian chuckled, while Stirla smiled smugly. “Just as I thought. Come along, everyone. Lots of work still to be done, and if you’re really good, I’ll let you join drill practise later.”
All six of his companions, dragons included, groaned but followed him back up through the city nonetheless.
~ Next Chapter ~