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~ Previous Chapter ~
Shall we dance?
AS LYRAI MOVED around the ballroom, meeting acquaintances and dutifully writing his name on the dance cards he should, he crept closer to the top table and his mother. Occasionally he glanced at the Riders enjoying themselves, or at the flock of young men surrounding the Kilpapan daughters. Lady Milluqua handled them deftly, while her sister stood awkwardly to one side. He felt sorry for her.
On the training field Mhysra was an intelligent pupil, quiet, but willing to put herself forward when required. With her miryhl she was an undisputed expert. Here she was clearly uncomfortable. Too tall, too thin and too awkward for this gilded sphere. Having once struggled to move between such different worlds himself, he’d gladly put his name down for two dances. Even though she didn’t like him, he thought she’d find him easier to dance with than a stranger.
As he watched, Stirla insinuated himself into the group by talking to Mhysra. “Wily old fox,” Lyrai chuckled, seeing the smile of gratitude Lady Milluqua sent his friend for paying attention to her sister. Stirla was full of tricks and Lyrai didn’t doubt he would use them all before this night was through. It was just curious that a wellborn lady was his objective. Stirla rarely played his games where the odds were so heavily stacked against him.
Still, what Stirla got up to was his own business, so Lyrai approached his mother. He kept an eye out for his father, but knew the old man preferred making late entrances.
“Lyrai.” His mother angled her cheek for a kiss. “How dashing you look. There isn’t a woman present who doesn’t long to dance with you.”
He smiled at her radiant appearance. “There is only one lady I wish to dance with.”
She arched an eyebrow and chuckled. “I am long past the age for dancing, dearest.”
Looking at her golden dress, glittering with diamonds in a style that wouldn’t look amiss on a newlywed wife, Lyrai shook his head and tugged her to her feet. “Nonsense. You’re the prettiest girl here. No one would imagine you the mother of five nearly grown children. Come, dance with me, and we shall wow the city with our splendour.”
“You ask so sweetly, how could I refuse?” Resting her hand on his arm, she allowed him to sweep her onto the floor. As he swung her around she laughed like a child and he smiled to see her so happy. It reminded him of long ago days when she would visit the schoolroom to dance with him, much to the dismay of her servants and his tutors. In time his father had put a stop to it, but Lyrai still treasured the memories.
“I’ve missed dancing with you, my Lyrai,” she murmured as they stepped together, turned and joined hands with two other couples to make a circle.
When they came together again, he saw tears in her eyes and squeezed her hands. “I will always dance with you, mama.”
She smiled and when the dance was over asked to be taken back to her table, where she remained for the rest of the evening, isolated in her golden splendour. She danced with no one else and after Lyrai’s father finally arrived the gentlemen stopped asking.
* * * * *
WINCING AFTER A particularly clumsy romp with a young lord whose name she’d already forgotten, Mhysra limped back to her table. Her father was busy with an acquaintance, her mother similarly engaged across the room, while Milluqua was dancing with Lieutenant Lyrai.
Dreaming of the moment when she could take her shoes off, Mhysra watered down her wine and took a sip, thinking she ought to eat something. She wasn’t hungry, but the night was barely half done, so getting drunk probably wasn’t a good idea. Except she would have to get up if she wanted to visit the food table. Her feet throbbed. She couldn’t bear to put weight on them yet.
“Evening, my lady. May I join you?”
She looked up and smiled at Stirla. “Please do, sir. My sister won’t mind.”
“She’s a popular partner,” he said, sitting down. “I don’t think she’s sat out a single set.”
“She likes to dance.”
He smiled at the understatement and poured a glass of wine, eyes widening as he tasted it. “You have better stuff on this side of the room.”
Mhysra laughed, no longer feeling the need to perform for the strangers looking down their noses at the gangly country girl. Lieutenant Stirla knew her and she liked him. “I’d say you’re enjoying yourselves more.”
They looked at the far tables where a raucous toast was going on. “Savages.” He grinned.
She wished she could sit with them. There was no pretence with the Riders. They’d been granted an evening off and were taking full advantage of it. She wished she could do the same.
“I suppose your sister will get married soon,” Stirla said, staring at Milluqua as she skipped around Lieutenant Lyrai. They made a striking couple; her darkness complimenting his light. “Probably to some high lord or prince.”
“My parents are very ambitious,” Mhysra agreed, wondering for the first time how much say her sister would have over her own future.
Stirla’s smile was self-deprecating. “My parents are wool farmers.”
She smiled back, feeling sorry for him. “You’ll make a fine captain, sir.”
He nodded towards the floor. “I believe this is our dance.” When she cast a disgusted glance towards her slippers, he chuckled. “Or we could sit it out and have something to eat instead.”
“A damn fine captain,” she said, and he rolled his eyes as he left to fetch food for them both.
* * * * *
AS DANCES WENT, Lyrai mused while waltzing with Lady Mhysra, it wasn’t the worst he’d experienced. Some conversation might have been nice, but it was difficult to talk to one’s partner when she was watching her feet so intently. Not that he minded the quiet; he was fond of this piece of music and the orchestra played to perfection.
Despite her nerves, Lady Mhysra danced surprisingly well. Considering her age and height, she was graceful. Nothing like the beauty of movement that set her sister apart from everyone else, but for a young lady not fully grown, she did well. Years of flight gave her excellent balance and her natural rhythm made her a good partner. He was almost enjoying himself.
Until the music stopped, she stepped on his foot and someone tapped a glass.
“Sorry,” she whispered, as he helped her regain her balance.
Lyrai looked around the quiet room, saw his father standing at the top table and froze. “It’s all right,” he said, wishing he was back at the Rider tables. He felt exposed out here on the dance floor. Vulnerable.
“What’s happening?” Lady Milluqua appeared beside her sister, Stirla at her shoulder.
He raised his eyebrows expectantly at Lyrai. “Do you know anything about this?”
Lyrai shook his head. “My father doesn’t confide in me.”
“Your father?” Lady Mhysra looked up, eyes wide. “But that’s the Stratys.”
“He’s your father?” she squeaked.
He nodded, too worried and distracted to explain now, and waited with the rest of the room for the man to speak.
“My lords, ladies and distinguished guests,” Stratys Henryk III spoke into the expectant hush. “I welcome you to the Feast of Our Father of Glory, Divine Heirayk, God of the Sun. The Midsummer Ball goes back far beyond our forefathers to the days before the clouds came and our world was changed forever. A time of celebration, of veneration, to honour and thank the greatest of gods. It is an event where matches are made, promises given and futures entwined forever. A night when fresh hope is born.” He paused to raise his glass, waiting for the silence to gain an impatient edge as all wondered where his speech was going.
“Friends, I ask you to join me in celebration. Tonight, my oldest son, your beloved prince and heir to the Stratys throne, wishes me to announce his betrothal.”
A flurry of excited whispers broke out and Lyrai glanced at his brother, who looked thunderstruck, a red flush creeping up his neck. Beside him, he felt Lady Mhysra turn away and Stirla step closer.
Lady Milluqua swayed, whispering beneath her breath, “Please, no. He didn’t. He wouldn’t. He promised. Divine Lithaen aid me. He promised, Mhysra, he promised me.”
“We could not be more pleased with his choice of bride,” the Stratys continued, oblivious to the fact that his oldest son was arguing with his friends, shaking off the more persistent as he tried to leave. “Join with me, dear friends, in wishing them every future happiness.
“To Prince Henryn and Princess Demolie of Havia.”
The crowd dutifully echoed the toast, while the ballroom doors slammed shut behind Henryn.
“Oh, father,” Lyrai murmured, as the crowd began to whisper. “What have you done?”
“My apologies to your brother,” Lady Milluqua said shakily. “But I am mightily relieved.”
Lyrai stared at her, truly taking in her glowing prettiness for the first time and smiled. “As am I, my lady.” Stirla scowled at him over Milluqua’s head. Eager to annoy his friend, he bowed over her hand until he noticed that his parents were watching. He dropped it hastily.
Lady Milluqua stepped back and smoothed her skirts before turning to Stirla with a bright smile. “I believe this is our dance, lieutenant.”
“Of course, my lady.” As the music restarted, Stirla swiftly whirled his partner away.
Which left Lyrai with Mhysra, who watched him with raised eyebrows. “What are your feelings on marriage, Your Highness?”
He grimaced, having eschewed his title all his life. “Lyrai, please, or lieutenant if you must, or even sir. But I beg you, not Highness.”
Eyebrows still raised, she nodded. “I see.” He led her through a series of tight twirls. “About marriage, sir, what are your thoughts?”
“Why?” It was Lyrai’s turn to raise his eyebrows, unable to resist teasing. “Are you asking?”
He was rewarded with a horrified squeak and she stared at his shoulder again. “I thought it only fair to warn you, that’s all.”
“About what, marriage? Rest assured, my lady, I am already wary.”
Overcoming her embarrassment with visible effort, she glanced at his eyes, then quickly away. “Perhaps not wary enough. It wasn’t just your parents who watched you smile at my sister a moment ago.”
Lyrai spat a curse that would have made any proper miss swoon. Thankfully he was dancing with a Rider-in-training and she laughed, albeit softly.
“As ambitious as my parents are, at least marriage by proxy was outlawed last century,” she said. When he glared at her, she grinned. “When do you leave for Aquila?”
Not soon enough, he thought, whirling her one last time as the music slowed. “The same time you do,” he reminded her. “The end of next month.”
“You might want to go into hiding until then,” she advised. “My parents are tenacious.”
As were his. Making a great show of returning her to her table, he kissed her hand and smiled wryly. “A suitable endeavour for any Rider lieutenant.” Spotting Stirla and Milluqua approaching, he made a hasty retreat.
Now that the Stratys had arrived, the evening was stiffening up. The pitchers on the Rider tables appeared to contain more water than wine and the food was cold. As such Stirla, Fleik, Imaino and a host of others were only too happy to accompany Lyrai as he made his escape.
If several expensive bottles intended for the top table disappeared at the same time, well, it was sheer coincidence.
~ Next Chapter ~
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