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~ Previous Chapter ~
Time for that audience with the Old Pyrefly.
REGARDLESS OF WHATEVER time King Heryff woke, it was past midday before Lyrai was finally called into his presence. Though the exterior of the palace was stone, unlike most places on the Overworld, the inside was a rich mixture of local wood and timber – sanded, polished, inlaid, lacquered, layered and painted to perfection. It gave off a feeling of warmth that stone interiors lacked. Lyrai was impressed.
The throne room itself was a masterwork of carpenters and craftsmen, with a detailed map of Havia and its outlying territories set into the centre of the floor. The edges of the room were covered in greenery growing in pots, with creepers climbing the walls. Two narrow pools ran the length of the hall, containing shoals of silver fish and water plants taken from the lakes of Havia and Scudia.
The head of the room was graced by a fountain, filling it with the music of falling water. A greenery covered dais sat before it, supporting three thrones. The central one held King Heryff III, the Old Pyrefly himself. The queen’s seat to his right was empty, but on his left sat Crown Prince Heryff, affectionately known as Ryffle, partially due to his love of lace. A glance assured Lyrai that yes, even now, Ryffle’s cuffs and collar frothed with delicate white lace, like a cascade of snowflakes.
“His Royal Highness, Lieutenant Prince Lyrai Henstrati Henrykran of Imercian.”
Thankfully the herald waited until Lyrai was halfway across the room before shouting, saving his ears from an impressive blast. Perceiving that he had the attention of the king, Lyrai executed a formal bow in the Havian style, which involved a lot of unnecessary hand fluttering.
“Prince Lyrai, is it? Come closer, come closer.”
For a man in his sixtieth year, Heryff had a deep, rolling voice, full of command and presence. As Lyrai drew nearer, however, the same could not be said of the king’s appearance. His glossy black curls had become stringy and silvered, the rich bronze of his skin faded to a dark, ashy-tan. His eyes were bloodshot and the skin of his face drooped, the excess flesh gathered beneath his chin. His beautifully tailored clothes did little to disguise the broad width of the monarch’s belly, and his opulent rings of office were firmly wedged upon his fingers.
Prince Ryffle was the image of what his father had been; handsome, glowing and impressive, despite his frippery lace. Yet at thirty-two years of age there were signs that the Crown Prince was following his father’s example. He already looked a little stout around the waist and there were glints of silver amongst his black curls.
Still, as an image of past and present, and present and future, they made a fascinating study. No one would ever mistake them for anyone but who they were.
“So you’re the Rift Riding son, are you?” Heryff demanded as Lyrai lowered to one knee before the throne. “Rise so we can look at you. Hmm… yes.”
“I trust it is not problems of family that bring you to visit, Prince Lyrai,” Ryffle murmured politely, lacking his father’s rich baritone. Lyrai hoped the unfortunately reedy tenor was an affectation, like the lace.
“I thank you, Highness, but no. What news I last had from Nimbys said all was well.” Since that dated from well before his brother’s wedding, which Ryffle had attended, they would know better than he. But it didn’t seem prudent to point that out.
“See, Ryff, see. I told you it would pass.” He elbowed Ryffle with a chunky arm, and his son smiled weakly. “Handsome lad. Like his brother, is he?”
Seeing Ryffle’s eyes widen in panic, Lyrai concluded that some creative portraiture must have been exchanged during the marriage negotiations.
Taking pity on the prince, Lyrai cleared his throat. “Your Majesty is all kindness, and many have remarked that they could not tell my brother and I apart.” Ten years ago.
Heryff grunted. “He weedy too?”
“Ah, no, father,” Ryffle replied in a strangled voice, with a glance at Lyrai that mingled gratitude with apology. “Prince Henryn is not weedy.”
“Good!” Heryff boomed, slapping his hands on his thighs. “A nice stout lad, that’s what I wanted for my Demolie. Shows a boy’s healthy and wealthy. These weedy boys look half-starved. What’s the matter, lad, don’t they feed you in the Riders?”
Struggling not to laugh, Lyrai could only shake his head.
“Cursed folk, bird brained they may be, but bird seed they don’t need. Look, Ryff, poor lad’s red. High blood. Mark my words, dead by thirty. Those damned Riders. See why I won’t have them in my city!” His voice boomed through the otherwise empty room. “Why join them, lad? Too young to know better?”
Bringing himself under some semblance of control, Lyrai shook his head again. “It’s a family tradition, Majesty. The second son always joins the Riders.”
“Always knew those Easterners were tapped in the head,” Heryff rumbled like distant thunder. “Mad notions and strange ideas. My Demolie will stop them, never you fear. Hold out a year or two, lad, and she’ll make it safe for you to go home. My girl will soon sort out that wrong-headed father of yours.”
In which case Lyrai didn’t plan to go near Nimbys for the next twenty years. Poor Henryn.
“Ah well, these things are as they are. Good of you to visit. Neryth says you can’t stay long, but come back soon and we’ll give you a good meal or ten. Fill you out a bit, boy! No son-by-marriage of mine will go around half-starved. How does that suit you?”
Lyrai blinked, charmed by this eccentric generosity, but also confused. This man did not seem the type to hold a grudge for over forty years, just because his sisters made imprudent matches. Nor worthy of the nickname the Old Pyrefly. Yet he definitely had some strange ideas about the Rift Riders. How was he supposed to ask this man for aid?
“Come back soon, won’t you, Lyrai? Good lad.”
Not that Heryff was giving him much of a chance to say anything, let alone beg for help.
With a contented sigh, the king settled his hands on his paunch, sat back in his chair and closed his eyes, ready for a nap.
Lyrai raised an eyebrow at Ryffle.
Looking embarrassed, the prince coughed delicately into a lace-bedecked sleeve. “Um… father?”
Heryff huffed and fixed a beady eye on Lyrai. “Still here?”
“Damn.” The king sat up in a creak of wood and overburdened joints. “The jolly mad fat man act usually works.” He eyed Lyrai again, intelligence glimmering in his dark eyes. “Not much of a prince, are you?”
“Father!” Ryffle cried, aghast.
Except to Lyrai it was a compliment. Shifting to stand at parade rest, he inclined his head. “No, sir.”
Ryffle fluttered a handkerchief and made distressed sounds, until Heryff snapped, “Quit your widow weeping, Ryff, and cover that moon face with a proper rag. That thing’s more air than cloth. If you’re a prince, can’t blame this boy for not acting like one. All right, damned Rider, what do you want?”
A little wrong-footed by the swift change in the king’s demeanour, though not wholly surprised, Lyrai took a deep breath. “I come, sire, in search of aid.”
“Aid?” growled the monarch. “What type of aid? What more could you feathered leeches want? I help you plenty, and what do you ever give in return?”
Now didn’t seem to be the time to recap recent local history, nor recite a list of the dead, so Lyrai held both tongue and temper. It became a struggle when Heryff launched into a garbled tirade about money, sisters, high-reaching commoners and perfidious fools, but he managed. After about three sentences it grew so confusing that Lyrai gave up following it and just waited for it to end. Moaning, Ryffle alternatively clasped his lace handkerchief and covered his face, pleading for his father to stop.
He did. Eventually. Since Lyrai had stood unmoved throughout, Heryff fixed him with his beady eyes again and asked, “Well? What do you want?”
“Aquila has fallen.”
Sometimes the truth needed neither introduction nor adornment.
King and prince blinked in astonishment. “How?”
“An alliance between the Wrathlen and the kaz-naghkt.”
“Heirayk’s fiery balls! When?”
“Two months ago.”
The king narrowed his eyes, gripping the arms of his throne. Ryffle watched him anxiously, but Lyrai held his breath and waited. “You’ll have it,” Heryff declared, thumping a meaty fist on his knee. “Whatever you need, you’ll have it. I’ll not have more of you feathery bastards loitering about, claiming sanctuary, cuddling up to my girls. Pin down your flighty idiot of a general for half a day, then send me word of what’s needed. No one can say Havia don’t pay its debts.”
Hearing an unspoken acknowledgement of the work the Riders did do on his borders, Lyrai was satisfied and saluted before the king could change his mind. Placing a hand over his heart, he dropped to one knee. “The Riders will remember this, Majesty. We will do justice to the honour you do us.”
“Just keep your randy bastards out of my city and away from my daughters,” he rumbled gruffly. “Now go away. You’re too pretty for my court. Good thing your brother’s as fat and idle as I am. Don’t think even my Demolie could’ve coped with you. Your mother’s son, that’s your trouble. Send her my regards.”
“It will be my pleasure and honour to do so, sire,” Lyrai replied, smiling.
“Go! And quickly. I take no offence at a turned back. Gives me more time to aim my crossbow.”
On which unsettling note, Lyrai did as he was told and strode swiftly from the room. Heryff was so changeable who knew what he’d come out with next. Entering the antechamber, Lyrai heaved a sigh of relief and slumped against the wall, utterly exhausted.
He looked down at the small pageboy, who couldn’t have been more than seven. “Yes?”
“Princess Neryth wishes it be made known that it is conva-, convey-, convintient -”
“Convenient?” Lyrai suggested, smiling.
“Yes, that,” the boy agreed cheerfully, then hummed as he recovered his place in the message. “… for you to come visit her miryhls. If that’s convey-, conva-, con-, all right with you.”
Chuckling, Lyrai had to ask, “What’s your name?”
“Kirel, Highness,” he replied proudly. “I’m Princess Neryth’s second page.”
“Then, Second Page Kirel, it is most definitely all right with me to visit Princess Neryth’s miryhls now.”
“Oh good,” Kirel said, with a grin. “I’ve been waiting all afternoon. But I know shortcuts. It’ll be fun.”
“No doubt,” Lyrai agreed, wondering just what he was letting himself in for, but he followed the boy anyway. A minor adventure was just what he needed.
~ Next Chapter ~
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