Excerpt for Phirestag
He always waited until she was either naked or sleeping to bring the valley guard to her door. The young Rain Lily native cursed under her breath, sun-warmed rainwater cascading over her lithe, bronzed body. She’d just finished planting the last of the summer squash too. Rich dark soil still clung to her arms amid the soap as she reached out of the shower for a towel. The pounding on the door didn’t let up.
“Eilian,” she shouted, seizing a dusty brown tunic from the floor in hopes that the child was close by. Of course he wasn’t. She grumbled under her breath. He went to play with his friends hours ago and wouldn’t be home until sundown. She gave him permission herself this morning and even packed him a lunch.
She wriggled into her tunic and undergarments, the fabric sticking to her damp flesh and doing everything it could to fight being worn. Today she just had to grab the one tunic that Aeronwy tore the shoulder out of with his teeth the other day during a training session. Another flurry of cuss words lingered on her chapped lips. One of these days she was going to have to sit down, take a day, and mend every torn piece of fabric in this house.
Threading one leg through her cotton trousers’ left side, the young woman hobbled across the sun-splashed, sunken level of the small cottage she shared with her younger brother. From now on she was keeping a robe by the shower, because this was ridiculous.
The pounding on the door intensified.
“Alright, alright already. I’m coming,” she hopped across the stone floor to the twin wooden steps leading up to the kitchen, while trying to get the other leg through the right pant leg—only succeeding in pawing at the air with her foot.
Caught up in the fruitless dance, she continued hopping toward the door and didn’t see the top step’s edge until her left foot connected with its side. A loud yelp tore from her throat. The young woman tumbled forward, unable to recover fast enough. Reed baskets scattered across the kitchen’s wooden floorboards.
Seizing the opportunity and regretting her life choices, she pulled her trousers on the remainder of the way and fastened the leather belt around her midsection to keep it that way. Pants were overrated anyway but it was only proper to at least wear them when someone was at the door. Heaven help her if it was someone important like the queen.
Then again, if Queen Odirsa really was at the door, pants were the least of her problems. The young woman sighed and made a half-assed attempt to comb out her long, auburn hair with her fingers, only to find soap still lathered in it.
“Every damn time.” She crawled back to her feet and settled for just letting it hang down to the small of her back instead. With some moderate fortune, it wouldn’t be anyone important, allowing her to return to her shower. She stalked across the kitchen until her bare feet landed on the mud-crusted, worn, reed welcome mat just inside the doorway. Her calloused hand fell across the stag-bone latch. The flustered young woman drew a long, slow breath and tried to prepare herself for whatever nightmare awaited her on the other side.
Don’t be the queen. She willed in silence. Don’t be the queen right now.
As the door crept open, Selkie Lilianna Henwas found herself eye to eye with a familiar young man and felt immediate embarrassment flood over her. Talien Shaden was one of the more honorable members of her fellow Rain Riders and an even better friend, but the fact that it was him witnessing her current state was enough to make her want to crawl into a dark cave and never come back out. His gentle sapphire blue eyes met her marsh green ones across the threshold.
“Sorry, Selk.” His face took on a rosy hue and he looked away in an attempt not to stare. “Didn’t mean to interrupt you, but…”
He reached a gloved hand out and dropped the frayed, braided rope—what was left of it anyway—into her outstretched hand. His usually pristine blue doublet, brown trousers, and the long, forest green sash hanging down his right leg were spattered with mud and what she hoped was lake water. Thick droplets oozed from his shaggy mud-brown hair, making it look almost black in the afternoon sunlight, his pale oval face sporting an equal mixture of dirt and freckles.
She glanced down at the rope and the distinct split fibers at its end, where a set of flat teeth chewed through with expert precision. Fifteen minutes. She left him alone for fifteen minutes at most. Not only did the bitter ironroot vines she used this time fail to deter him from chewing, he seemed to actually enjoy the taste.
“I’m afraid to even ask, Tali.” She almost didn’t even want to know, her words tangling in her melodic accent as she peered over his shoulder at the magnificent animal standing just off to the young man’s right. The colt’s hide was the color of dappled rain, deep cyan spattered across an agile silver body from nose to tail. Afternoon sunlight dripped through the long angelic feathers tucked against his sleek sides. A pair of storm-blue eyes cut into her soul with an innocent look, the winged colt doing his best to look like the victim here.
She knew better.
Usually when one of her fellow Rain Riders came knocking on her door to drop a chewed up lead rope into her hands, Aeronwy had broken loose and gone exploring, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. The fact that it was Talien who brought him back meant it hadn’t gotten too out of hand at least. The current state of his uniform said otherwise though.
“He picked a fight with a palace watch gryphon,” Talien’s words harbored amusement against the warm afternoon air.
“You’re kidding. I swear, I just left him alone long enough to clean up my gardening tools and get a shower.”
“Nope. Trotted right up to the old Watcher and grabbed it by the tail. Hell of a noise it made and there were copper feathers everywhere. Oh, and he may have broken two ceremonial magic vases, caused a thunderstorm in the palace foyer, and released three dragon pups from the royal gardens before he ended up perched on my flying ship’s bow long enough for me to get a rope on him.”
Selkie felt her eyebrow twitch, the headache already brewing. “I don’t know what I expected.”
“Abby is trying to coax the gryphon out of the courtyard trees to find out if it’s okay or not. Captain Royce is corralling the frolicking dragon pups. The vases and palace foyer though…well, it could be worse. The queen would like a word with you.”
Yep. She was royally screwed now. At least her fellow Rain Riders were on the situation. The young woman drew a long breath in a struggle to keep her words measured and fixed her eyes on the winged colt. “Aeronwy, why, just…why?”
The rain colt shook his long slate-blue mane and ruffled his feathers with an indignant snort as if to say ‘wasn’t me.’