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~ Previous Chapter ~
So, Lieutenant Lyrai, Lady Mhysra, tell me about your fathers…
“YOU ASKED TO see me, sir?” Mhysra entered her father’s study and tugged at the riding skirt Milluqua had bullied her into wearing. She still had her breeches on underneath but, as her sister had pointed out, their father didn’t know that. It was better all round if he didn’t know she routinely paraded around the eyries in a flying coat and breeches, with no thought to so-called modesty or propriety.
Lord Kilpapan looked up from his account books and nodded approvingly at her outfit. The skirt was overlong and overfull, all the better for modest maidens to mount horsats without unseemly displays of ankles. It was a compromise, since it allowed women to ride astride without any loss of reputation. Side-saddles had an unfortunate habit of unbalancing all but the biggest horsat stallions, and all agreed that they were no mount for a delicate lady.
Mhysra hated riding skirts. Her long flying coat, reaching almost to her knees with a split vent at the back, was a different story. It didn’t surprise her that the earl wrinkled his nose at the coat’s condition – she wore it every day.
“You spend too much time at the eyries.”
Straightening her spine, Mhysra stared over his left shoulder. “It’s Starday, sir. I am permitted to spend this day how I wish, according to the agreement Milluqua and I drew up. Which you approved.”
Lord Kilpapan made a noncommittal noise. “I would prefer you spent less time there.”
And Mhysra would have preferred him not to be such a narrow-minded bigot, but few got what they wanted in life. If he thought she would give up Cumulo on his command, he was doomed to disappointment.
“Your sister should not have to track you down in such places. It is to her credit that she chooses to go herself rather than send a servant, but it casts shadows on both your reputations.”
Then don’t ask for me when you know I’m there, Mhysra thought, but stayed silent. After the scene she’d just witnessed between her sister and Captain Stirla, Mhysra knew the real reason why Milluqua chose not to send a servant. She also had to concede that her father might have a point about eyries and reputations, but she would rather cut out her tongue than admit it. What Milluqua got up to was her own business.
At her silence, the earl nodded as though something had been decided. It had, though Mhysra doubted they’d reached the same conclusion. Silence was a valuable tool when talking with her father. The less she said the happier he was, leaving her free to carry on as before without making false promises.
Putting his quill aside, Lord Kilpapan looked at her over the ledger. “You have been studying under your sister’s supervision for two months now. From both her reports and our meetings, I have decided that it’s time your new skills were put into practise.”
Mhysra tightened her hands, hoping her father didn’t notice her white knuckles. He wanted her to enter society? To become a useless butterfly like so many others? When pyreflies hatched kittens!
“I am honoured by your confidence in me, sir,” she murmured demurely, mind racing. How many functions would he expect her to attend? When? What would Milluqua say?
“Your sister is a fine tutor.” The praise was grudgingly given.
“But am I not too young, sir?” she asked, trying to sound feeble and self-conscious. It was one of the only things Milluqua had actually taught her, claiming it never failed.
Lord Kilpapan frowned, tapping his fingers together. “You turned seventeen last autumn, yes?”
Mhysra blinked and thought a quick prayer of thanks. “I am but sixteen, sir.”
“Ah.” The earl pursed his lips. Clearly he’d hoped to be rid of her before she could start pestering about the Riders again. But although girls of Mhysra’s age were sometimes invited to society parties, it was frowned upon to engage any well-born girl before seventeen, and few married before eighteen. And if there was one thing about Lord Kilpapan that could be counted upon, it was his strict adherence to society’s unwritten rules. “Perhaps not yet then. No matter. Continue as you have been. We will review your progress in the new year.” Picking up his quill, he returned to his figures. It was as polite a dismissal as she could expect, so Mhysra curtsied and left the room.
Milluqua was waiting in the library. “Well?”
Mhysra smiled and tugged her towards the stairs. “Disaster averted.”
Raising her eyebrows, Milluqua glanced back at the study door. “For now.”
“That’s good enough for me.” Chuckling, Mhysra grabbed her skirt and hurried up the stairs, not caring who saw her ankles.
* * * * *
THE AUDIENCE CHAMBER was empty as the steward announced Lyrai and left him to his fate. Walking across the echoing floor, Lyrai glanced up at the galleries where pairs of guards stood at intervals, then looked at the eight men positioned around the dais. Four more waited behind him. All wore the ceremonial armour of Imercian – the sun rising over clouds – with their weapons of status – sword, axe and spear – clasped close. The sapphire-plumed helms faced straight ahead. Statues who came to life only when the Stratys was threatened.
Lyrai wished he could send them away. However statue-like they seemed they weren’t deaf, and he’d never enjoyed meeting his father before an audience. He looked at the throne, unsurprised to find it empty. The Stratys knew Lyrai had no respect for his authority, especially when he lorded it over his youngest son. Instead Lyrai was forced to search the room for his eminent presence.
Wishing there was no need for such games, he paused, boot tapping impatiently. He already knew that the galleries were empty, so didn’t bother looking there. It was also unlikely that the Stratys would lurk behind his own throne. Lyrai looked towards the columned walkways beneath the galleries on the left, with their velvet-shrouded alcoves. More than one secret passageway lay behind those curtains, disguised as frescoes and statues, but Lyrai doubted his father would slink away. He preferred to give his humiliations in person.
Turning to the right, he studied the windows and, sure enough, halfway between his position and the dais, a man sat upon a cushioned sill, staring outside. A handsome specimen, even more handsomely dressed in sumptuous velvet, trimmed with the finest furs. The grey in his brown hair only added to his distinguished appearance. The face that turned as Lyrai bowed was dignified and proud, the eyes pale blue and hard as ice.
“So you have come home,” the Stratys said, his rich voice echoing in the deserted hall.
Lyrai knelt, as was expected, and lowered his head. “Majesty.”
“You have seen your mother and sisters?”
“They were pleased, no doubt.”
“I hope so, sire.”
“Word has reached us that you are without a mount at present, yet despite this you continue your duties and Captain Myran is full of praise for you.” There was a questioning lilt to the end of the sentence, as if the Stratys couldn’t believe that anyone would think well of his youngest son.
Lyrai clenched his fists and kept his head down. “Captain Myran is all kindness.”
“Indeed.” A strained silence settled, which Lyrai had no idea how to break and his father had no wish to. It had always been this way between them; distant, tense, difficult. Lyrai had long given up trying to understand why. “We trust you will choose more wisely this time.”
He gritted his teeth at the censure. Like most, his Choice had been impulsive. It was just bad luck that it had ended badly. What sixteen-, seventeen- or even eighteen-year-old could be trusted to make such a decision wisely? Even now, at twenty two, his new Choice would be more luck than judgement. It was the way things were.
“We shall await news of your progress. You have not disgraced your family.” The unspoken yet hung in the air. “It was… pleasant to see you.”
Lyrai marvelled at how the man could sound fatherly yet distasteful at the same time. He was also amazed at how many hidden messages could be conveyed in so few words. Not only had he been belittled and disparaged, but also politely banned from returning during his stay as well as dismissed. Impressive.
Rising, he bowed, studying his father from behind his fringe. The Stratys glanced at him, lips pinched disapprovingly at the length of his hair, before he returned to studying the view.
“An honour, as always,” Lyrai murmured, took two steps back and turned. Not for him the polite reverse shuffle all the way to the doors. A sigh huffed behind him and he almost smiled.
As he understood all of the Stratys’ slights and schemes, so his father knew his. Yet while he was within sight of the guards, whose eyes and ears were in full working order, like their loyalty to the Stratys, Lyrai’s expression remained blank.
It wasn’t until he was back in his mother’s carriage that he allowed himself a rueful smile. Such a loving family. “But what would I do with one of those?” he murmured, suddenly eager to end the farce.
The coachman looked startled as Lyrai hopped out of the moving carriage and flicked the man a casual salute. “Thanks for the lift.” Of about twenty feet. Still, he felt a lot better as he sauntered back to the barracks.
Inside the officers’ common room, Stirla looked up from reading a newspaper. “How’d it go?”
Shrugging out of his jacket, Lyrai poured himself a glass of spirits. “Duty done.” He downed his drink, enjoying the burn as it slid down his throat. “Thank the gods.”
Stirla tossed him the paper. “This’ll cheer you up. Kaz-naghkt attack on Kevian. Thirty civilian fatalities, two pyrefliers and mounts, four Riders and six miryhls.”
“Maegla,” Lyrai whispered, sinking into a chair to read the report. “The sooner I get a miryhl and we’re out in the world again, my friend, the better.”
Grunting his agreement, Stirla crossed to the sideboard and poured drinks for them both. They were going to need them.
~ Next Chapter ~
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