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~ Previous Chapter ~
A STRANGE FEELING of contentment had fallen over the Kilpapan household. For the first time ever, the three ladies of the house were in accord. Even with the looming departure of the fleet the following day, things were peaceful and no one was avoiding each other.
Mhysra wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but she couldn’t deny that it was nice to be able to return to the house and feel as if one day it might be home. Staying with Milluqua was always easy and a joy, yet this was the first time there was no tension between Mhysra and her mother and it was nice. A weak word, perhaps, given all that had happened, but true nonetheless.
So Mhysra couldn’t help feeling slightly disappointed when she returned that night and remembered that her sister was throwing a farewell party. Not just for Mhysra and her friends, but also for the lieutenants and captains that she’d grown to know rather well during their extended stay in the city. Then again, Mhysra could hardly blame Milluqua for wanting one last chance to spend time with Stirla before he went away. She didn’t quite know where things stood between the lieutenant and her sister, nor how things would turn out in the future, but she couldn’t deny that they both felt something. It would have been sweet if it wasn’t so impossible. Despite all her mother’s fine talk of marrying for love and seeming support of Kilai and Jynese, Kilai was dead, his romances irrelevant, while Milluqua was the Kilpapan heir and would be expected to marry accordingly.
Which to Mhysra’s mind made Lieutenant Stirla eminently suitable, since he was a fine man whom she liked very much and would easily make captain one day. Whether or not that would be enough for her parents, Mhysra didn’t know, but she doubted it somehow. Her mother might think she had married up, but the Wrentherin family was old and established despite the Lowlands being widely regarded as a bit of a backwater.
Yet it was hard to dwell on such dreary thoughts when her sister was so bright eyed and excited about hosting one last party.
“You look very fine,” Milluqua greeted Mhysra, when she returned downstairs after changing.
“Thank you.” This dress, mixing brown and bronze threads, like the shine on a miryhl’s wing, was one of her favourites. “You look beautiful.” Her sister always did, but especially so tonight in deep, dark red that brought out the warmth of her skin and went perfectly with the gold net covering her hair.
“I cannot believe how much you’ve grown since you were last here.” Milluqua smiled and gently cupped Mhysra’s cheek. “I’m going to miss you so.”
“And I you.” Despite a momentary worry about crushing their gowns, Mhysra gave into the need to hug her sister. “I don’t know what I’ll do without you and your good sense to guide me.”
“You’ll survive,” Milluqua chuckled, the tease turning serious as she pulled back and cupped her cheek again. “You will survive.”
Gentle though the words were, they were a definite order and Mhysra took her sister’s hand between both of hers as she promised, “I will do my very best.”
Milluqua’s dark eyes glittered. “Oh!” she cried, hugging her tight again. “Enough, enough, or Letha will scold both of us for undoing all her hard work.”
Chuckling, Mhysra wiped a smudge of kohl from her sister’s cheek with her thumb. “She doesn’t have to work that hard to make you beautiful, Milli. That’s the easiest part of her job.”
“Oh, stop.” Her sister slapped her playfully on the arm and bustled over to the nearest mirror to repair any damage. There wasn’t much to do.
Meeting her sister’s eyes in the mirror, Mhysra rested a hand over her heart and bowed. “Thank you, Milli, for everything.” For making her stay enjoyable, for teaching her to enjoy dinners and dresses, for making her friends welcome. For being her sister.
Milluqua’s eyes sparkled again. “You’re welcome, love. Thank you for staying with me and lifting my loneliness. Everything has been so much more alive with you all here.”
Mhysra stepped forward to hug her sister again, but the door to the drawing room opened. Corin, Derrain and Dhori came into the room with Skybreeze romping after them. Laughing, Milluqua crouched down to greet the dragonet, more guests arrived and the moment was lost.
Smiling at her friends, Mhysra let it go. She had one more night of her sister’s company and it was better not to spoil it with tears. So she accepted a glass of sparkling wine from Derrain, greeted Captain Myran and Lieutenant Honra and relaxed. Tomorrow they left Nimbys and Milluqua behind for a cramped voyage and an uncertain ending. Until then there was good wine, excellent food and the best company to be enjoyed, and Mhysra had no intention of doing otherwise.
“To the Riders!” Milluqua toasted, once they’d all been seated at the table.
“To our hostess!” Mhysra replied, to a rousing cheer of agreement.
“To us all!” The Countess gave the final toast as the food was brought in, and the conversation flowed as freely as the wine.
* * *
CLOSING THE HIDDEN door behind himself, Lyrai paused for a moment to let his eyes adjust. The passage was narrow with high walls pressing in on either side, but he soon realised there were stairs directly in front of him – and a candle waiting at the top. Checking the door was firmly shut at his back, Lyrai began to climb. More lights guided him along a passage and up another flight of steps.
At the top of this one was a small door with a silver ribbon tied around the handle. He turned it slowly and pulled it inwards. Plush carpets, dimmed wall sconces and the scent of beeswax greeted him, along with the back of a footman.
The man didn’t startle or turn at Lyrai’s appearance, he just clicked his heels together and set off down the corridor. It was only when he passed one of the sconces that Lyrai recognised the livery on the man’s back – a silver moon over a sea of clouds: his mother’s emblem. Pulling the secret door shut, unsurprised to see it melt into the panel between two vast oil landscapes, Lyrai hurried after the man.
Still not looking at Lyrai or acknowledging him in any way, the footman stopped outside another door and opened it before stepping to one side, eyes fixed on the wall opposite.
Uncomfortable with the whole situation and unused to servants, Lyrai couldn’t resist a muttered thanks as he stepped past the man and into the room beyond. His brother’s sitting room, he swiftly realised as Princess Neryth leapt to her feet and hurried towards him, shutting the door.
“You came,” she murmured.
Lyrai dipped his head, never quite sure what to make of this woman. No matter what she wore – the highest courtly fashions or the dirtiest of shirts and breeches – she was never anything less than perfectly poised, powerful and in control. She and Stirla had developed a very strange relationship based somewhere between student and lieutenant and siblings, but there was little doubt that they’d become friends. Lyrai didn’t know her that well, and ever since he first met her at her father’s palace in Havia, he wasn’t certain he could trust her either. Neryth was exceedingly clever and highly trained in the intricacies and intrigues of politics. There was never any knowing what was really going on behind those dark eyes and small smirking smiles.
Except she wasn’t smiling now and her clothing was plain and comfortable. Her feet were bare and she wore no jewellery. A blanket and a book lay discarded on the sofa, as if she had been curled up waiting for him. It was an incongruously cosy image.
He didn’t say anything, but she didn’t seem to expect it, simply strode across the sitting room to tap on the bedroom door beyond. “Come.” She beckoned him with her hand.
Lyrai followed more slowly, aware of the reverent hush emanating from the other room. Neryth pushed open the door, waving for him to walk through, but he hesitated on the threshold.
It was dark inside, everything in shadow. Then a coal shifted in the grate, giving out a brief flare of light. A lump lay on the bed, the covers piled high over it, while a second body was stretched out beside it on top of the covers.
Sighing, Neryth stepped past him and paused beside a side table. Lighting the lamp, she turned the wick up slowly and approached the bed. “Demi,” she whispered, reaching out towards the figure lying on top of the bed. “Dearest, Lyrai’s here. He’s come.”
The princess woke with a flinch, one hand immediately reaching towards the lump beneath the covers. Henryn. His brother. Her husband. Princess Demolie pressed her hand to the mound of blankets and only relaxed when they rose and fell. Henryn still lived.
“Demi,” Neryth said again, touching her sister’s shoulder. “Lyrai is here.”
The crown princess rolled to look over her shoulder and sat up, pushing her long twin braids back over her shoulder. She turned to him and held out an inviting hand.
“Lyrai… Will you not come in?”
Swallowing hard, Lyrai stepped across the threshold and entered his brother’s room.
~ Next Chapter ~
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