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~ Previous Chapter ~
Welcome to the Midsummer Ball!
“AN EVENING OF dancing, fine wines and even finer women – what more could a man wish for?” Stirla chortled, as they pushed through the crowd inside the ballroom. Jewels winked and glittered beneath five enormous chandeliers and everywhere glinted with gold. A rainbow of dresses swirled across the dance floor, their male counterparts almost as bright. An impressive sight, especially for four Riders more familiar with austere barracks and cold mountainsides.
Rees gave a surly grunt and tugged at his collar. “More slack in the stitching,” he growled, wandering towards the knot of Riders lingering by the punch bowl.
Despite having little desire to be present himself, Lyrai wasn’t sorry to see Rees go, though the man did have a point about the tight jackets. “How soon do you think we can unbutton?”
“Just take shallow breaths,” Honra advised.
“You’re too skinny, that’s your trouble,” Stirla said, as they accepted wine from a footman and headed for the Rift Rider table. “You need more muscle on your chest.” He thumped his own. “Then you breathe in deep at the fitting and get some give in your gear. You’re such a runt – it’s no wonder you’re trussed up tighter than a Midwinter goose.”
Lyrai shook his head and tasted his wine. “I’ll bear that in mind.” Sitting near the head of the table, he looked around for his family. He couldn’t see his father, but his brother was laughing too loudly across the room, already drunk, while two of his sisters were dancing. His mother sparkled at the top table like captured sunlight.
“See anyone interesting?” Lieutenant Fleik wanted to know. One of Myran’s senior lieutenants, he’d been patrolling the area around Nimbys for the last six months. Since the kaz-naghkt attack the captain and the rest of his flight had come into the city. They’d stayed for the festivities and would leave again in two days. Lyrai wished he was going with them.
“Lots of interest,” Imaino, the other senior lieutenant said. “But no one I know.”
“Lyrai can supply the names,” Stirla volunteered, already on his third glass of wine.
Fleik laughed and shook his head. “How, when he’s been running wild with us for five years? Society changes – only the daft rules stay the same.”
“I know some,” Lyrai replied, goaded into defending his normally despised social credentials. “That fat, bald man pawing that poor girl is Lord Leivn.”
“Leivn the Letch.” Imaino grimaced. “Even I know him.” The lieutenant came from Mistrune – an isolated, inhospitable place half-submerged in the Stormsurge most of the year – and frequently claimed to have been born under a rock. “Try again, Lyrai.”
“Aye, like the name of that little beauty.” Fleik nodded towards the door.
Lyrai recognised the man first, towering above his three companions. He carried himself like a king, dressed in the sombre dark green of his house. “Earl Kilpapan,” he told his audience. “The woman on his arm is his countess. Formerly a Wrentherin.” Dressed in the same colours, Lady Kilpapan looked small but regal, walking confidently beside her husband, every inch his equal.
Their two daughters trailed in their wake, dressed in shades of blue and gold. “The tall girl is Lady Mhysra,” he continued. “Who happens to be training with us this year.”
Fleik raised his eyebrows. “Rather forward thinking of her parents.”
Despite still having doubts about that, Lyrai smiled. “She was raised at Wrentheria.”
The Riders murmured their approval and turned to watch the family again. Fleik focused on the shorter, more curvaceous woman in gold. “And the other?”
“Lady Milluqua,” Stirla answered to general surprise, since the women he typically associated with could rarely be described as ladies. He fiddled with his wineglass. “I met her at the eyries. Looking for her sister.” Everyone watched him for a long moment, but Stirla remained silent.
Shrugging, Fleik turned away, asking Imaino, “When do we take our turn in Nimbys again?”
Stirla sighed and Lyrai smirked. His friend had failed to mention just how many times he’d met the lady at the eyries. As one of the Riders’ chief gossips, Stirla should have known better.
Stirla shot him a scathing look. “Why don’t you go visit your mother?”
“And dance with a pretty lady along the way?” Lyrai asked. “I just might. This uniform does all the talking for me. Do you think Lady Milluqua will approve?” He slid from the table, chuckling at the growl aimed at his back as he strode away.
* * * * *
LADY MILLUQUA KILPAPAN hid a yawn behind her fan and smiled at her sister. They had barely arrived and her dance card was almost full. Even Mhysra had accepted a few offers, though her dancing lacked confidence. Milluqua glanced across the ballroom, smiling as Mhysra looked the same way. Though many Rift Riders came from good families, they were mostly younger sons and rarely moved in society. The Nimbys Midsummer Ball was one of the few events at which they were all welcome. It certainly made things interesting.
“See anyone you know?” she murmured in her sister’s ear, watching a Rider officer make his way across the room. Even amongst the peacock shades, his scarlet coat stood out.
Pale and uncertain in her beautiful dress, Mhysra smiled weakly. “Some,” she admitted. “Captain Myran’s whole flight is here, but I only know half of them.”
“What about him?” Milluqua pointed her fan at the golden-headed officer approaching them.
“Lieutenant Lyrai,” her sister replied. “My training instructor. You’ve seen him before.”
“That’s Lyrai?” Milluqua blinked, but shut her mouth as the lieutenant bowed before them.
“Good evening, Lady Milluqua. Lady Mhysra.” He smiled politely, though his attention was mostly on Mhysra. It was an unusual sensation for Milluqua, who was used to receiving the full focus of any man in her vicinity. She was more amused than disgruntled, though, especially at her little sister’s discomfort.
“I trust you’re enjoying yourselves,” the lieutenant enquired, accepting a glass of wine from a footman. “A pleasant change from your daily routine.”
“Yes, sir,” Mhysra murmured, toying with her glass and not looking at the lieutenant.
Catching Milluqua’s eye, he smiled in silent acknowledgement of Mhysra’s shyness. “My lady, would you grant me the honour of a dance this evening?” Then, almost as an afterthought, he turned to her sister. “And you too, of course, Lady Mhysra.”
As ploys went, Milluqua thought it masterful. Now Mhysra was frowning because Lyrai had almost forgotten her and presented her dance card without protest after he scrawled on Milluqua’s. She hid her smile behind her fan when he wrote his name down twice for her little sister, after claiming only one dance with her.
“Until later, ladies,” he murmured, bowed again and left.
They watched him walk away, while Milluqua languidly plied her fan. “He seems nice.”
Mhysra started to shrug, then remembered it was undesirable behaviour in a young lady, so sighed instead. “He’s very stern. I don’t think he likes me much.”
Milluqua said nothing, concentrating on folding her fan just so.
“He envies me Cumulo. Well, most of the Riders do, but for him it’s worse since he’s grounded. At first I thought he didn’t want women in the Riders, but he treats the other girls fairly. It’s just me he doesn’t like.”
Smiling, Milluqua tucked a stray curl back into Mhysra’s chignon, proud of how elegant she looked after all the hard work of getting her to the fittings and the torture of making her sit still this afternoon to get ready. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned about men, love, it’s never to second guess what they’re thinking. Especially when it comes to women. Men are rarely as complicated as we believe. I’m sure he doesn’t dislike you.”
“I hope not,” Mhysra grumbled, grimacing as she studied her dance card. “I’m to dance with him twice. Maegla preserve me, what will we talk about? I can’t even look the man in the eye.”
Delighted that her sister appeared to be noticing men at last, even if she didn’t realise it yet, Milluqua suppressed a chuckle. “I’m sure you’ll find something.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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