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~ Previous Chapter ~
LYRAI STOOD AT the window of the yellow parlour, counting pigeons as the city flock wheeled over the streets below. The view was beautiful: Nimbys basking in the winter sun. He smiled at the nearby Rider barracks, lying so close at hand. It would have been quicker for him to have walked than to have taken the carriage, but appearances mattered.
So short a journey, yet it felt vast. He’d passed this very building numerous times since his return, but had only seen his family once. Just a brief glimpse of his mother, father and brother on his arrival, when Captain Myran’s officers had paid their respect to the Stratys’ court. He’d been awaiting a summons ever since, knowing his mother would welcome him any time – and his father would not. While appearances mattered to his mother, formalities were everything to his father. She would have needed his permission before daring to invite her second son into her presence.
Lyrai was used to it. Much as he loved his mother and was distantly fond of his sisters, it had been years since he’d felt comfortable with them. Their insular, rarefied world had grown stultifying long before he’d joined the Riders. It was the one family tradition that Lyrai had welcomed. The oldest son was the heir, the next was the spare. One honoured the family by maintaining the legacy, the other died gloriously.
The door opened and heavy steps stumped to a halt. “That you, Lyrai?”
He glanced over his shoulder and blinked. “Henryn. You look… well.”
It was a lie: his brother looked fat. His cheeks were ruddy, while the rest of his skin was pallid and sweaty. His blond hair, even fairer than Lyrai’s, was a unkempt thicket. His clothes were a mess, straining over his paunch, and his eyes were bloodshot.
Pushing the door shut, Henryn shrugged and crossed the room until they were face-to-face. The same height, they shared their father’s eyes mixed with their mother’s colouring. Once they had been alike enough to be mistaken for twins. Now Henryn’s features were fleshy from dissipation, while Lyrai’s had been chiselled by wind and training.
“Rider life suits you,” Henryn said, his tone wistful and Lyrai pitied this brother he barely knew. Their lives had been set on different paths from birth, yet whenever they met they rubbed along well enough. It would have been nice to have known Henryn better. Had he wanted to join the Riders when he was young too? Was he angry that their father – and tradition – had decided differently?
“How’s life in Nimbys treating you?” Henryn asked. “Still flying that pretty feather?”
Lyrai shook his head. “Froth’s been retired. Wounded.”
“Ah. Shame.” They dropped into silence, uncomfortably aware that they knew nothing about each other. Familiar strangers. “You’ll get a new one soon, I dare say.”
“At the Choice,” Lyrai agreed. “I can’t wait. It’s hard being grounded for so long.”
“Yes, ‘spect it is. Not that I’d know. Never flown.” There was that wistfulness again.
While it was tempting to offer empty platitudes about future possibilities, Lyrai held his tongue. His brother would never get off the ground. They lived such vastly different lives.
“How are things in Nimbys these days?” he asked, doing his bit to keep the conversation going.
“Pretty good,” Henryn replied, stepping away from the glare of the window. “Though I’ll be leg-shackled before long. Father’s insisting.”
Lyrai grimaced sympathetically. Henryn had never been interested in girls, or anyone much, at least not that Lyrai had ever heard. He much preferred food, drink and gambling. “Every man has his duty.”
His brother snorted and poured himself some wine. “Begetting brats. My heart races at the prospect.” He drained his goblet in one. “Mother will see to it. She has an eye for the pretty ones. Likes Princess Demolie of Havia, but not sure King Heryff’s keen. That Kilpapan chit is top of the local list, last I checked. Her father’d welcome the match and she’s nice enough. Good connections.”
“Kilpapan?” Lyrai was surprised enough to leave the window, waving away his brother’s offer of wine. “She’s barely sixteen!” Not to mention Wingborn and a Rift Rider in training. Lyrai didn’t add those details – he was too stunned. Did nobles really marry off their daughters so young these days? He stared at his brother and thought of Mhysra. Henryn would crush her flat.
“Sixteen? Ha! She’s past twenty. Don’t let those big eyes fool you, brother, or those dimples. A lovely little armful, but knocking on now. Where’d you meet? Not seen you about, though mother’d gladly accept your escort. Ladies love a uniform. You’d cause a riot.”
Lyrai frowned, reason finally catching up with him. Mhysra was too young to have been brought out yet, nor did she have dimples or could ever be described as cosy, little or an armful. A handful was much more like it. “You mean the older girl? I haven’t met her.”
Henryn raised a sandy eyebrow. “So you’ve met the younger? Heard she’d been dragged in from the wilds and was something of a savage.” He smirked. “Explains how you know her.”
“Her brother’s a Rider,” Lyrai replied coolly. “I’ve seen her about.”
Henryn shrugged, uninterested in people he didn’t know. “The older one’s popular. Has been for years. Too good for me. It’d be a waste.”
“Marrying you is hardly a terrible fate,” Lyrai murmured, returning to the window. “Plenty of girls would jump at the chance.”
“Hm.” Henryn didn’t sound convinced, but then who would when his worth was measured in things he had no control over? Many assumed that Lyrai envied his brother, but it had always been the opposite. He loved being a Rider, loved flying. It was all he’d ever wanted. Henryn was hemmed in, constrained and watched constantly. He had no choices. Not even the identity of his bride. People thought he’d have everything once he inherited, but even then there would be restrictions. No, Lyrai would not switch for the world.
A maid crept in while they reflected in silence. She curtsied to Lyrai, caught sight of Henryn wallowing in his chair and curtsied even deeper. Glancing at Lyrai again, she blushed and stared at the floor. “Her Majesty will see you now,” she murmured, scuttling away.
“Slayer of maids,” Henryn chuckled, draining his wine. “Is’a uniform, I tell you.”
“Go to bed,” Lyrai advised gently as he left. “You’re slurring.”
“Huzzah!” he cheered, toasting Lyrai’s heels. “Means I’m no’ sober ‘nymore.”
Closing the door on his brother’s misery, Lyrai walked along the shadowed corridor and entered an airy chamber. High windows let in light, while fireplaces crackled behind screens, making the room pleasantly warm. Three young women sat painting, embroidering and reading. None of them looked up.
The fourth lady was already on her feet. She smiled, the firelight making her fine hair glow. “Lyrai,” she greeted, voice mellow and soothing. Grey eyes glinted with satisfaction as she caught his hands and opened her arms.
He stepped into her scented embrace, the only place he was at peace in this tower of memories. “Mama, did you miss me?”
Cupping his face, she smiled. “Always, dearest. Always. Now come, I had tea brought up. I thought I’d best invite you before you flittered off again. So busy. Thank you for sparing time for your old mother, and your sisters too. We have missed you, Lyrai.”
Knowing he’d had no choice but to make time, he smiled at the beautiful woman before him, so flighty, yet with a spine of steel and a mind as sharp as a miryhl talon. Political manipulation was her favourite hobby, so ordering her son into attendance was second nature. His mother was a tyrant, but a benevolent one he loved with all his heart. One afternoon was a small sacrifice to ensure her happiness. Sitting down with his indifferent sisters, he made small talk about people he didn’t know, and all the while she smiled at him, proud of what he’d become, and he was content.
The time passed in pleasant idleness, with the most serious discussion concerning the length of this season’s hemlines. By the end Lyrai was full of sugar, tea and relief. His mother appeased, his sisters seen, he’d even spoken with his brother. Duty done. He could go back to his students and wait for the day he would have wings again.
As he descended the stairs and crossed the entrance hall a man blocked his path, disrupting Lyrai’s pleasant thoughts. He eyed the intruder with a sinking heart. It was his father’s steward.
“The Stratys will see you now.”
Raising his eyebrows, Lyrai glanced over his shoulder, but no one else was in sight. The invitation was for him and him alone. Wonderful. “Then let’s not keep him waiting.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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