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~ Previous Chapter ~
Prince, meet Princess.
“MORE WINE, HIGHNESS?”
Lyrai looked up from a tome on the Life of Queen Avryna and her consort, and smiled at Lord Lorfyn. Thanks to his position by the warm fire with plenty of candles, he hadn’t noticed how dark the rest of the room had become. Lord Ketthik had abandoned him bells ago, promising to return after he’d spoken to the king. The delay was what Lyrai had expected, which was why he’d selected a book from the lightly stocked shelves. A history with a romantic slant wasn’t his usual preference, but he’d had enough war of late.
“Grown tired of Stirla already, my lord?” he asked, gesturing for the younger man to sit with him.
Lorfyn’s answering smile was wry. “Not nearly, Highness. My guard dragged me away after half a bell so that I could dress for the Snow Feast.”
Like many Overworld countries, Havia celebrated the first winter snowfall with a feast to Hyvaena, Goddess of Winter, hoping to please her enough for a mild season. It also explained why Lorfyn was looking rather resplendent in pewter and silver velvet. His black curls had been lightly dusted with white powder, making him look like he’d been hit by a snowball or two.
“That was probably for the best,” Lyrai assured him, as the lord sat down opposite and poured a glass of wine for himself. “Your father appeared less than impressed with my Rider friends.”
Lorfyn snorted. “Dearest Papa is not fond of the common element in any form.”
There was little Lyrai could politely say to that, so he held his tongue and put his book to one side. It would have been rude not to, since Lorfyn was evidently planning to stay a while.
“Have you eaten?”
Smiling, Lyrai got up to add another log to the fire. “The servants have been taking excellent care of me.”
Intended as praise for the servants, Lorfyn bristled, likely imagining an insult to the nobles. “Your pardon, Highness,” he said stiffly. “The feast always drags on longer than most would like.”
“I remember it well,” Lyrai replied genially, making sure his words could not be misconstrued this time. “Though my father turns up late to every feast, he still likes to linger over his meal.” Usually to put the impatient youngsters in their place. Lyrai was just glad he hadn’t been forced to attend any since he was fourteen. An escape he was grateful for all too often, since Aquila’s celebrations were quite different.
“Is it true that the Stratys’ Snow Feast lasts an entire day?” Lorfyn asked, sounding frighteningly keen and far younger than his twenty-ish appearance. “And there are whole courses made purely from ice?”
Lyrai grimaced. “If we were lucky it only lasted one day, though it frequently felt like more. And the courses depended on what the cooks had in the ice house.” Lorfyn looked awed and enchanted, but Lyrai had always found such things torturously boring, even as a child. “Mostly they were unpleasantly cold, tasteless and half-melted by the time they were served.”
“Is the Stratys court so very much bigger than ours?” the lad wondered wistfully.
“It would appear so, and yet it was still the same faces, day after day, with the same narrow outlook on life.” He had no qualms about shattering this boy’s illusions about Nimbys society. Royal courts the Overworld over differed very little, except in names and faces. This brief reminder of what he had left behind made him all the more thankful for the escape the Rift Riders had provided for him.
“Truly?” Lorfyn sounded disgruntled, and leant forward to study the book Lyrai had been reading. He sniffed, his view of the foreign prince obviously lowering by the moment. “I’m glad you found amusement, at least.”
Lyrai said nothing, not appreciating being talked down to, especially by a foolish puppy.
Before long Lorfyn started fidgeting, wanting to speak but seeming not to know what to say. Since Lyrai was in no mood to rescue him, he sipped his wine and waited for the evening to end.
Thankfully they were saved from outright awkwardness by the arrival of several curious young courtiers and a bundle of servants, armed with more food and drink. Lorfyn perked up since he was the local expert on all things Rift Riders and Prince Lyrai. He was soon answering more questions than Lyrai and thoroughly enjoying being the centre attention. Lyrai was content to sit back and let the lords impress the ladies and each other, wondering if he’d ever been so young. Gods, a handful were his age and older, but they made him feel ancient. They were so carefree and oblivious to the Overworld around them.
And long may that continue, he thought in a silent toast to the Gods. For all that he would have liked to set them straight on their more fanciful notions of what went on in the Riders, he had no desire to shatter their illusions of a safe, prosperous world. Not in the way his students’ views had been broken over the last year or so.
“A marble miryhl?” a incredulous cry interrupted Lyrai’s thoughts, and he blinked at the young lady wrinkling her nose. With her hair powdered white and her bronze skin glowing against her pale dress she looked pretty, fragile and false. There were no shadows in her eyes and Lyrai couldn’t help comparing her unfavourably with Corin and Mhysra, who were of a similar age. “Whatever does that look like?”
Since she was fluttering her eyelashes in his direction, Lyrai assumed he was supposed to answer. “Instead of the usual brown or black shades, my Hurricane is cream with brown, black, gold and white markings. In a similar way that a block of marble is patterned.”
“Oh.” She frowned prettily. “That sounds… unusual.”
Ugly, she was too polite to say. “I once thought the same, my lady,” Lyrai assured her. “Until I saw Hurricane. I know better now.”
“He has to be seen to be believe, Maryne,” Lorfyn said enthusiastically. “Words don’t do him justice. The size and power…” His words faded into a reverent sigh. Several young lords nodded in agreement, but others were openly sceptical.
“They’re just birds,” one of the older girls stated impatiently. “I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Tell of Nimbys, Highness. Is it true that this year’s fashion is for high waists and diamonds in the hair?”
“As if Prince Lyrai cares, Hanomyne,” complained a lord standing by the door. The late arrival was more richly dressed than the rest, in boots, breeches and jacket of the plushest velvet and silks, the gold circlet in his short hair marking him as a prince.
Hanomyne wore a circlet too: gold set with pearls. She touched it self-consciously as she scowled at her brother. “Does father know you’re here, Neryth?”
Neryth? Not a prince then, but a princess. Lyrai blinked in surprise to see a woman dressed so unconventionally in so conventional a setting. Then silently scolded himself for jumping to such conclusions – were his female students not daily proof that women were so much more than pretty dresses and feminine wiles?
“Does your fiancé know you are?”
The sibling spat was greeted with indulgent amusement by the others, and Lyrai studied his new in-laws with weary interest. This could have been his life, had his father chosen to keep him at home. Though he would have liked to have spent more time with his sisters, the poisonous glare that passed from Hanomyne to Neryth made him grateful he hadn’t.
Dispensing of her sister and her insolence with a dismissive flip of her hand, Princess Neryth strolled over to Lyrai while Hanomyne flounced from the room. Though the princess said nothing, Lorfyn moved out of his seat without a word of protest.
Flicking out the tails on her exquisitely tailored jacket, Neryth sat down. The material was unadorned, save for the white on white embroidery across the sleeves and hem, which showed only when she moved. Expensive. It was exactly the sort of thing Lyrai’s mother would make him wear, and was echoed in lesser quality amongst the other courtiers. Never had his uncomplicated Rider officer uniform, impractical white breeches included, seemed so wonderful.
Accepting a glass of wine without looking to see who offered it, Neryth studied the man opposite her. Lyrai did the same. Though similar in many ways – being second-borns and thus close to the succession but also superfluous – they also had their differences. A few years the elder, Neryth wore her rank with a comfortable arrogance that Lyrai doubted he could ever emulate. Yet Neryth also had an air of command that would have done well in the Riders.
Aware of his scrutiny, the princess’ lips had an amused tilt. “I hope you’re enjoying your stay in Misthome, Prince Lyrai, and that my father’s court have been kind to you.”
Her half-smile turned sardonic as if she knew exactly what Lyrai had been subjected to thus far. However, there was something contemptuous in her dismissal of her peers that Lyrai couldn’t like, so he merely nodded.
The princess raised her glass in a sarcastic toast, acknowledging his delicacy. “My father sends his apologies, but tonight’s obligations leave him unable to speak with you until tomorrow. He is greatly looking forward to it.”
It was what Lyrai had assumed after being left alone for so long, and much better than he expected before they arrived. “His Majesty is kind to think of me. If not for our urgency I would have put off our arrival for a few more days. I had forgotten how late the first snowfalls are here.”
“This is early for us,” Neryth said, sipping her wine and relaxing now that her message had been delivered. “Is life so much colder in Nimbys?”
“At Aquila, certainly,” Lyrai agreed, since he regarded that as his home far more than the city of his birth. “I expect Nimbys held its Snow Feast a quarter-moon ago. The heavy snow usually arrives by the end of Gale. This comparative warmth has been most welcome on our journey.”
Neryth’s smile widened. “I confess a certain admiration for those travelling at such a time.”
“We do as we must when need compels. That is what makes us Riders.”
“Indeed.” Neryth sipped her wine again. “Rather you than me. I’m too fond of a roaring fire and fine wines on a cold winter’s night.”
Lyrai’s smile turned wry. “Few would say no to such things, Highness. Yet the freedom to fly in close partnership with my miryhl outweighs any and all discomforts I may face.”
At last Neryth’s smile was genuine, lighting up her eyes. “I can see the appeal. If you have time during your stay, I would appreciate your opinion on my own miryhl pair. They are young, but I think of Rider standard. Perhaps you would care to fly with me?”
As a working Rider, Lyrai looked upon any miryhl outside of the Corps as a waste of much needed wings. Yet as a royal princess, Neryth was perfectly entitled to keep and breed eagles of her own. It was the price the Riders paid for the support of each nation. Not that the princess would ever bond with her miryhls as a Rider did. Still, it would be good to ensure the birds were being properly cared for.
“I would be honoured, Highness. Perhaps tomorrow, after I speak with your father?”
The princess blinked in surprise. “You do not intend to stay long, then?”
Lyrai chuckled. “I believe His Majesty would greatly prefer if we did not.”
Neryth’s mouth twisted in a sympathetic grimace. “True. No doubt you would like to return north before the snows fully settle.”
“We Riders are simple folk,” Lyrai agreed.
Neryth actually laughed. “I doubt that, Highness, I truly do.” She tilted her head as a far off bell chimed midnight. “It seems you will keep your secrets a little longer, Prince Lyrai. My father is an early riser.”
Taking the hint, and grateful for the excuse to leave, Lyrai rose. “Sound advice, Highness. Especially as I have a long trek to rejoin my Riders.”
Beckoning a servant over, Neryth raised an eyebrow. “Your things were brought up to the palace this afternoon. Did you not know?”
Lyrai concealed a frown. He didn’t like being kept away from the others. Hopefully Stirla would look after the students and Hurricane wouldn’t be offended at being neglected. Misthome didn’t have much in the way of eyries. Yet another way Heryff attempted to dissuade Riders from visiting.
Rather than mention any of that, Lyrai gave a polite smile. “You are all kindness, Princess Neryth. I look forward to meeting your miryhls tomorrow, if it is convenient.”
“I shall arrange it,” Neryth agreed, and they exchanged the bows of two people at the top of society. “The servants will show you to your room. Sleep well, Highness.”
Smiling his thanks, Lyrai turned to the footman and followed him into the depths of the palace. It wasn’t how he would have chosen to spend the night, but it was better than he could have hoped. When he was shown into a south-facing room with a broad window shuttered and padded against the cold, he couldn’t resist unlatching the first panel and leaning out. Low clouds veiled the stars, hinting at more snow to come, but Lyrai only had eyes for the darkness beyond the city lamps.
“Good night, Cane,” he murmured, breath misting before his face. “And sweet dreams, all.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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