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This chapter should have been titled Conversations with a Royal Asshat.
“WELL, LYRAI, HERE we are at last. You are a difficult man to pin down these days, it would seem.”
Having followed his father down the length of the nave, Lyrai wasn’t quite sure where to position himself as the Stratys sat on the front pew with a small groan. He viewed that tiny hint of weakness with suspicion. After all, the Stratys was not a man to do anything involuntarily.
Then again, as he hesitated over whether to sit alongside his father, stand beside him or in front, Lyrai looked at his father’s face for the first time and realised with shock that Henryk was getting old. Not unexpected for a man approaching his sixtieth winter, but the stark light pouring through the great arched window made the Strays look even paler than usual, his skin drawn tight over stark features, while his once bright blond head was now mostly white threaded with silver. In the two years since Lyrai had last seen him, Henryk had aged dramatically.
“Sit down, boy. I didn’t organise this whole farce just to have you hovering about like a nervous footman. Sit.”
The snap was new, although the disapproval and poorly veiled contempt was just what he’d expect from the man who had always been disappointed in him. Although the Stratys was usually better at hiding such things and was rarely so blunt or impatient.
Lyrai sat, leaving a healthy distance between them. Too small to fit in all the questions that were running through his head, but large enough for his missing family members to fill.
His father seemed to notice that as well as he eyed the distance with a grim expression. “Your brother is not well.”
Having deduced as much, Lyrai didn’t quite know how to answer. Not well could cover all manner of ailments, but somehow he doubted the Stratys would have been so eager to see him over a common cold or a predictable hangover.
“Nothing, not even now?” Henryk drawled, cold and contemptuous. “I had thought there were at least some in our family that you still cared for. Yet you have not even enquired after your mother. You just sit here in silence as if none of us matter to you. Burn it, boy, say something!”
Lyrai fisted his hands on his knees, holding himself still against his father’s anger, keeping his own in check. He was not a boy, hadn’t been for many years. To still be called such after Aquila…
He raised his head and stared directly into his father’s eyes. “My feelings for my family are precisely what you have made them for me.” There was one reason and one alone why he hated returning to Nimbys, and even though he had little in common with his siblings, there was only one family member he would prefer never to see again.
His father’s lip twitched as if on the cusp of a sneer, but a frown formed instead. “This gets us nowhere,” he muttered, almost to himself, rubbing a hand over his thigh. “Times have changed, we must put all that aside. The Overworld has changed.” It surely had for Lyrai, but somehow he didn’t think his father was talking about the fall of Aquila. The Stratys eyed him sourly. “Duty dictates, regardless of what other feelings one might experience.”
“I know my duty,” Lyrai replied instantly.
And there was the sneer; he’d known it wouldn’t be contained for long.
“Do you?” the Stratys murmured softly. “Do you indeed? I wonder. I have always wondered much about you, Lyrai, but it didn’t matter before. It does matter now. I say again, your brother is not well.”
Curiosity and a desire to get this farcical meeting over with combined with genuine concern for his brother as Lyrai finally asked, “What is wrong with Henryn?”
His father laughed bitterly, tipping back his head to stare at the vaulted ceiling far above. If Lyrai didn’t know better he might almost have thought the man was blinking back tears. “What’s wrong with Henryn? What is wrong with my son? My heir? The hope of Imercian? Merciful Heirayk, where would I even begin with such a question? Still, as you have been away and neither news nor gossip has evidently reached you for some time, let us say that your brother’s illustrious marriage has not been quite the success we all hoped for.”
Unsure what to say to any of that, Lyrai made a noncommittal noise.
His father’s smile was small and extremely unhappy, but he was staring at the high altar, almost as if Lyrai wasn’t even there. “No, not as hoped for at all. Not that there’s anything wrong with the girl. Demolie is beautiful and correct and all that one might wish for in a princess. At first she was bright and vivacious, and became immediately close to your mother. I could see success within our grasp. She was strong. She would whip Henryn into shape. I could die content that, with her to guide him, Imercian would be in good hands.”
All of which sounded like just what Lyrai had expected when he’d heard of the proposed marriage. “What went wrong?”
“Everything.” His father sighed heavily. “Everything went wrong.”
Lyrai waited in silence, staring through the arched window at where the Cloud Sea stretched out, glowing white and immense beneath the bright spring sky.
“I knew your brother had never shown much interest in women, but he hadn’t shown any in men either, so I had hope. I thought it was perhaps shyness that held him back. He wasn’t like you, confident and so blasted certain of your future to be so damned stubborn about it. Henryn was much more easily led, much more malleable. I thought, hoped, expected that once married he would do as he was told. Do his duty. It’s hardly a chore to sleep with the woman. Have you seen her? It could have been worse.”
Lyrai grimaced at that, but didn’t expect any better from his father.
“Yet even when we forced him into bed with the girl, still he wouldn’t. Said he couldn’t. Not the girl’s fault, he just wasn’t attracted to her. To anyone. Said he wasn’t made that way. Great gods! He’s the heir to the Stratys throne! I don’t care what he wants. No one cares. He has a duty, and by Heirayk’s fire, I would see him do it!”
Lyrai didn’t even want to contemplate what that might have entailed. Poor Henryn, and doubly poor Demolie, so far from home, without any friends or family, thrown into such a situation that was never her fault. She had her duty too, and no doubt it had been drummed into her from a very early age, but how could she fulfil it when her husband refused?
“If only you’d been here, damned stubborn boy. Everything could have been sorted out quietly and swiftly enough. You might not be my choice to follow after me, but you know how to get a job done and you look virile enough. All of this would have been sorted by now.”
“Sweet Maegla, are you insane!” Lyrai leapt to his feet, unable to listen anymore, sick at the mere thought. “You would think that I -? My brother’s wife! And what of Demolie? Would she have had any say in this? We are not toys you can play with!”
“Demolie would have done her duty! Unlike my wretched, miserable, useless sons whose only aim in life is to vex and infuriate me!” The Stratys was on his feet too, roaring like a charging bullwing, face a livid red. “I am the Stratys! You will obey me!”
“Not in this,” Lyrai told him, quiet but firm. “Never in this.”
Breathing heavily, Henryk clenched his fists and turned away, pacing down the length of the pew before turning and coming back. His face had paled, his breathing was normal and he retook his seat as if nothing had happened. “It doesn’t matter now,” he said calmly, smoothing out the creases in his winter trousers. “If Demolie was to fall pregnant again now, no one would believe it was your brother’s.”
“Again?” Lyrai asked, still too angry to sit back down. He wanted to pace too, but didn’t trust himself not to simply walk out of the cathedral. He still hadn’t learnt what was wrong with his brother or where his mother was.
“Mm.” Henryk linked his hands together and stared out of the great window. “Your brother and his wife went away together early last year. A private escape to try and save their mess of a marriage. Neither will speak of what happened or where they went, but when they returned Demolie was smiling again and Henryn seemed more at ease. Apart from a persistent cold. Still, that was a small, trifling thing hardly to be remarked upon when it became clear that Demolie was pregnant.”
Was it Henryn’s? Lyrai didn’t voice the question, already certain of the answer. He rather thought his father was too if the sardonic tilt to his mouth was anything to judge by.
“She made it to five months, full of delight. Your mother was the happiest I’d seen her since you left Nimbys. They had plans, so many plans. It hardly seemed to matter that -” The Stratys cut himself off with a sharp shake of his head. “No. It was all for naught anyway. She lost it. She caught that cold your brother still could not shake. They both took to their bed – in separate chambers. Your mother was distraught. Then news reached us of Aquila. She thought you lost and hasn’t left her room since.”
Lyrai clenched his fists, half-convinced he might punch his father as he laid out the tale of loss and woe in a bored tone as if none of it mattered to him. But it mattered to Lyrai, one part in particular. “Why didn’t you send for me?” he demanded through clenched teeth. “The moment you knew I had returned, why didn’t you take me to her?”
“I did, blast it!” the Stratys snapped. “I tried, but you were too damned busy.”
“Eight days! I’d been back in Nimbys a whole quarter-moon before you issued a curt decree to appear before you. Eight days! You could have sent for me sooner. You could have told me why!”
“Oh, yes,” his father sneered. “How could I forget what a dutiful, perfect son you have always been? To her, at least. You’d have come running for her, but when I call you, your father, your Stratys, you duck and evade and hide like the most pathetic schoolboy.”
“The kaz-naghkt attacked!” Lyrai reminded him, since he’d been within sight of his father when the alarm bells first rang. “I was injured.”
“Ah, yes, the injury.” The Stratys raked him up and down with a contemptuous sneer. “You seem hale and whole enough to me.”
So said the man who had never faced a kaz-naghkt in battle. Had likely never faced anything or anyone more dangerous than his fencing master.
It was Lyrai’s turn to sneer. “As if you would know. Or care.”
His father’s lips quirked at the edges in acknowledgement of that last point. “Your mother heard of your injury, by the way. She hasn’t left her bed since.”
Guilt twisted in Lyrai’s gut, but he forced it away. He hadn’t even known his mother was unwell – because this man hadn’t seen fit to tell him. Nor any other member of his family or the palace. Surely one of them, any of them, if they cared for his mother at all, would have sent word that she needed him.
But no, because in Nimbys the Stratys saw and ruled all.
“I will go and see her at once,” he said, turning on his heel and striding down the nave.
“Not yet,” the Stratys said, not raising his voice or even turning around in the pew. “I have not finished with you yet.”
Lyrai shook his head and marched on. He didn’t care for anything else his father had to say. He was finished with him forever.
“Henryn is dying.”
Lyrai’s footsteps faltered.
“Your brother is dying, Lyrai.”
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