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~ Previous Chapter ~
In which Derry packs up and Lyrai receives an invitation…
BUSINESS HAD BEEN brisk over the last two days. Derrain cast an experienced eye over the trading booth and smiled with satisfaction. For two farm boys and a princess they’d done well in setting everything up. True, when he recalled their first attempt they’d clearly learned a lot, but at least Destevan had only shouted at them five times today, instead of fifty.
“A trader’s life is most definitely not for me,” Stirla muttered, sinking onto the stool behind the payment desk.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Neryth mused, pulling a polishing cloth from her pocket and shining up an already gleaming row of saddle stirrups. “I can definitely see some merit in the life.”
Derrain and Stirla shared a look. That blasted cloth. Neryth had become almost as much of a fussy perfectionist as Destevan over recent days, and like Destevan she never had to do the heavy lifting. No wonder she was enjoying herself.
“Royalty,” Stirla muttered, giving the aforementioned princess a bright smile when she turned to eye him suspiciously.
“All done?” Destevan bustled into the booth and looked around her wares, nodding proudly to see that most of the smaller, everyday items were gone. True, they weren’t nearly so expensive as the armour and swords so temptingly displayed on wooden dummies and specially made stands, but they were just as beautifully made. They were Destevan’s true livelihood. That and the plough chains and farming tools the Ihran had made: a firm favourite in the Lowlands.
“Is good,” the weaponsmith announced, having already deposited the day’s takings with the Steadfast’s captain. “Market close now. We pack, go.” She’d been practising her Imercish ever since they’d left Ihra, but it was still a little stilted.
While Derrain and Stirla exchanged long-suffering looks, Neryth leapt into action. The woman was a born organiser. She liked nothing more than bossing others around. Even Destevan wasn’t immune to her orders.
“I’ve created a monster,” Stirla grumbled, as he and Derrain took down the stands, while Neryth and Destevan packed away the wares like they were the most precious porcelain.
Derrain chuckled. “And you thought Lorfyn was bad.”
“Bite your tongue,” his lieutenant growled.
Neryth snapped her fingers to get their attention. “This crate’s ready to go.” She pointed imperiously at the first and largest. “Put it in the cart.”
“As yer command, milady,” Stirla retorted in an atrocious Lowland accent, tugging his forelock for good measure.
Neryth blinked at him for a long moment. “Sorry,” she muttered, much to everyone’s surprise. “Would you take this one first? Please.”
Derrain raised his eyebrows at Stirla, who nodded. “Of course,” he replied politely, and the pair of them hefted the heavy crate outside to the bullwing cart.
“Maybe not so much of a monster after all,” Derrain murmured.
Stirla dusted off his hands and rubbed his bristly chin. “Wait until we reach Nimbys.”
Confused, Derrain finished the packing in thoughtful silence, one that lasted as they reloaded the Steadfast and drifted away from the Lowland port. It wasn’t until he stood alone on the foredeck, leaning against the rail and feeling the rain in his face that he remembered.
This was their last stop in the Lowlands. From here on they were back on the Cloud Sea. Next stop Nimbys.
* * *
LYRAI STARED AT himself in the mirror of the room he shared with Honra. The scarlet of his jacket looked even more garish than usual this morning in the pallid light of the tiny window. The chevrons on his shoulder openly mocked him, like the invitation lying on his bed, inscribed in a steady, formal hand.
The Stratys will see you on
Starday, the 8th of Thaw,
After the formal services.
That was it, that was all. No salutation, no leave taking. It didn’t even contain his name. It could have been for anyone. So many times Lyrai had longed to throw it on the fire, but he didn’t. He couldn’t. Something always held him back. The same something that brought him back to Nimbys over again, secretly hoping that this time would be different, that he and his father would be able to converse like family, or at least acquaintances. He knew it was foolish, he knew it would never happen, and yet he still hoped.
“Idiot.” He tugged his collar upright and straightened his cuffs, turning to check the back of his glowing white breeches. Impractical as always. His boots shone as bright as mirrors, and he sighed. That would never survive the troop through the mud. Unlike Lyrai’s beautiful but unrealistic mother, the Stratys never sent a carriage to collect his wayward son. All he sent was an impersonal summons. Gods, how he wished he could ignore it.
Shaking his head, he shared one last contemptuous look with his reflection before heading for the door. The time for preening and brooding was done. The service had finished long enough ago for him to reach the barracks and get changed. Even his father would have returned to the palace by now. It was time to go, though he had no doubt the Stratys would keep him waiting. He always did.
Power. It was all about proving who was in charge. As a lieutenant in the Rift Riders, Lyrai had learned all about rank and obedience. He would have expected his father to have realised that by now.
Head down, lost dark thoughts, he raised his hand in the barest of acknowledgements to the greetings other Riders gave him as he passed. There were so many of them here now, so many familiar faces, including several of his own flurry he had thought lost. Yet still so many were missing. It hurt to fly sweeps with his men, trying not to notice that over half of them were new. He missed Honra’s quite wisdom, always there to ease tensions between him and his men. It was time he appointed a new sergeant, but he wasn’t sure whether his first choice would be approved – Dhori was technically still a student, after all.
Letting his thoughts wander along happier paths, Lyrai skirted the worst of the mud on his way down the short road to the palace. He could see the guards standing outside the gates, sapphire plumes shining in the weak sunlight, dress mail glinting. It sent a shudder through him. Once that might have been his fate, had tradition, stubbornness and a certain High Tempest not been on his side. Gods, what a life that would be, parading around all day in cumbersome armour, cold in winter, hot in summer, with no duties more strenuous than opening doors. Thank Maegla for the Rift Riders.
Thinking of other things that he was grateful for, he paused a moment and let his eyes drift towards the city. The cluster of houses looked a mess from this angle, piled up against each other with no obvious rhyme or reason, tumbling down into the shadow of the valley, with the bright pinnacle of the cathedral at the far end. Just emerging from the streets below, a knot of young Riders returned to the barracks from that same building.
Lyrai was almost certain he knew four of them, but as he listened to their laughter on the light breeze, he also knew he couldn’t meet them now. It would make his task too hard. Already he wanted to go with them, talk, laugh, complain over Captain Huro and his blasted drills, but duty held him back. Best not encourage temptation. He walked the last few steps and presented his invitation to the nearest guard.
The man didn’t even look at it as he bowed and stood aside to let Lyrai through the open gates. Lyrai was surprised. Usually his father’s guard treated him with ill-concealed contempt, mixed he had no doubt with jealousy. This unusual sign of deference had him worried.
“If you please, Highness,” the man urged gruffly.
They never spoke to him. Normally they did everything possible to avoid acknowledging his existence. Lyrai stared at the guard, his disbelief growing at the flicker of respect in the man’s eyes. He must be new; it was the only explanation.
Lyrai inclined his head in silent thanks and passed into the open space beyond. The towers loomed above him and he stepped into their shadow, feeling the chill seep into his bones. This was where he had been born, but it had never once been his home.
Laughter filled the air behind him as the young Riders passed the gate, but Lyrai walked on through the cold, up the steps towards yet another pair of guards who manned the palace doors. Bracing himself for the usual blankness, Lyrai gripped his invitation in his hand.
The guards stamped their feet and presented their arms with a stiff salute.
Lyrai stopped, staring in disbelief.
“The Stratys awaits you, Highness,” the man on the left said, the gold streak in the centre of his sapphire plume marking him as the captain of the guard.
Great gods, had the whole palace gone mad in his absence?
“If you would follow me, Highness,” the captain continued, bowing politely before turning on his heel and marching through the door.
Was this an honourable escort? Lyrai had to wonder as he followed warily, or was it merely to ensure he didn’t go wandering off on his own, perhaps to see his mother?
But no, as the captain led him across the grand entrance of the palace and down the long gallery, every guard and footman they passed came strictly to attention. Lyrai felt confused and off balance. There was definitely more going on here than he knew.
At last the captain stopped before the gilded doors of the Sun Room, one of the palace’s more ostentatious reception rooms, and Lyrai’s father’s favourite. Here the captain nodded to the guards and banged on the door with his mailed fist.
The golden doors swung open with a ponderous groan – and bells began to ring. Not the joyful peal of a long-lost son returning, but the dull clang of the alarm bell above the eyries.
All thoughts of family and his father vanished, even as the man inside the garish room pushed to his feet. “Lyrai!”
Too late, Lyrai was already gone, sprinting back through the corridors and out of the palace doors. A light misty rain was falling as he raced across the empty courtyard.
A scream shattered the air above him.
Cumulo, his size and ferocity unmistakable, collided with a kaz-naghkt right over the streets of Nimbys. With a wrench of his golden beak, he tore the creature’s head from its body, screaming his victory to the skies.
A sky that was black with the oncoming horde.
~ Next Chapter ~
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