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Ah, Lyrai… (Part 653)
WITH A STERN look, although warning him against doing what Lyrai had no idea, Neryth set the lamp on the bedside table and left the room. The door closed behind her with a click, leaving Lyrai shut in with a woman he’d never met and a brother who was dying.
An awkward silence fell, broken only by the rasping, uneven breaths of the man on the bed.
Lyrai stopped a few paces away from Henryn’s side, unable to see anything beyond the blankets in the low light. The room was stiflingly hot and stank of sweat badly concealed beneath pinewood incense. Sweat beaded his own brow as he took another step closer. Henryn’s blond hair, so similar to Lyrai’s own, was an untidy thatch barely visible on the pillow, hiding his face.
He wheezed out a long, whining breath that ended in a gurgle.
Lyrai’s heart clenched in his chest, his own breath stilling as he waited for his brother to breathe again.
A double gasp, then Henryn inhaled and exhaled deeply, his breath falling back into its rough pattern of wheezes and whines.
Lyrai huffed out his own breath and met Demolie’s eyes over the lump of his brother’s body. Her eyes were sad but her face was resolute. Whatever troubles his father might have told him about this marriage, it was clear the princess cared for his brother a great deal and this was far from the first night she’d spent sleeping by his side, listening to his failing breaths and waiting, waiting, waiting for him to inhale again after too long and frightening a pause.
“I’m sorry,” he said, utterly inadequately. There was so much here he didn’t know about, so much he would never understand. He couldn’t even work out his own feelings. He was sad for his brother and his family, but at the same time he didn’t feel it as deeply as he probably should have. The man on the bed was practically a stranger. Lyrai felt for him, and even more for Demolie as she dealt with this, but he wasn’t upset for himself. He didn’t feel the pain of loss. He just felt cold and numb and confused.
Resting her hand on her husband’s side, fingers clenching with every fall and relaxing on each rise, Demolie nodded. “So am I.”
Lyrai stepped another pace closer. “Can he… can he talk? I thought… I was told he wanted to see me.”
She looked down, hand clenching in the blankets. “Whoever told you that was lying. Your brother hasn’t woken for three days. He does that sometimes, falls into a deep sleep only to wake again a day or two later.”
Except it had been three days this time and he still slept. Lyrai looked at the blond head on the pillow, listening to the wheezing, shallow breaths and wondered if this was the last sleep, the one from which Henryn would not wake.
“You can talk to him,” Demolie said, when it became clear Lyrai didn’t know what else to say. “He can hear you.” She stroked the hair from her husband’s face, revealing his puffy cheeks and the redness that marred his pale skin. “At least, I believe he can.”
Watching the tender way she trailed her fingertips over her husband’s face, Lyrai felt the first stirring of grief. Not for himself, not even for his brother, but for this woman who had been sent half the world away from home and family to make a marriage that had always been doomed to fail. But regardless of their difficulties, something must have gone right, some bond must have formed between them, because the look on Demolie’s face and the softness in her touch spoke of love. She loved Henryn and her heart was breaking for him.
Lyrai took the final step and sat gingerly on the edge of the bed, looking down on his brother’s face and trying to think of something to say.
“He admires you greatly, you know,” Demolie murmured, stroking her hand over Henryn’s shoulder and back to his side. “He would tell me stories of you and your miryhl, scanning the papers each morning for news of the Riders and you in particular. The fall of Aquila shocked him. He couldn’t believe it. Not the Riders, not you. He refused to believe it. Your mother fell into despair, but Henryn insisted you lived. He – he said he would wait for you. He would wait until you returned. He said you would know what to do. You always did. You were the smart one. He admired you so.”
Pity stirred the coldness inside him and Lyrai reached out, resting a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “I’m here now, Henryn. I’ve come, just like you said I would. But you can’t go yet, we still need you here. I need you.” Gods, wasn’t that the truth. It was selfish of him, but Lyrai didn’t want his brother to die. He needed Henryn to live because else he would have to take his place as their father’s heir, and he couldn’t, wouldn’t do that. “Hold on, Henryn. Get better. Live. Thrive. We need you here, the Overworld needs you.” Because Lyrai was leaving on the morrow – and if he had his way, he would never come back.
Whether his brother heard him or not, Lyrai had no way of knowing, but it seemed to him that Henryn breathed a little deeper, the rhythm growing a little smoother. It wasn’t a recovery, but Lyrai felt better.
Gods, he truly was a selfish bastard.
“Talk to him,” Demolie urged. “Tell him of your miryhl, of your adventures. I’m sure he’d love to hear about them.” Something in her voice hinted that she would like to hear about it all too, and even though he didn’t like himself very much for his tangled feelings and selfish desires, Lyrai settled more comfortably on the bed. Because even if Henryn couldn’t hear him, Demolie deserved some light in the darkness of this sickroom.
So he sat on his ailing brother’s bed and spun tales of miryhls and flight and dragons for an almost-widow and prayed in his heart to Maegla and Heirayk and every other god he could think of to preserve Henryn’s life. To make him well again. To carry him past this lingering sickness and return him to his rightful place as the Stratys heir. Because while Henryn might have often wished he could change places with his brother, Lyrai had never wanted to do the same – and he never would.
He talked and talked and talked until his mouth was parched and Demolie fell asleep, curled up beside Henryn with a smile on her face. He left the couple sleeping soundly and crept out of the room, his heart heavy and his throat sore.
Tiptoeing past where Neryth had fallen asleep on the sofa, book lying open on her lap, Lyrai slipped out of the sitting room into the hallway beyond. The same footman was still on guard, but this time Lyrai left the man no choice but to meet his eye.
“Take me to my mother,” he ordered.
The man inclined his head. “This way, Highness.” He turned with a click of his heels and led the way deeper into the slumbering palace.
* * *
RAIN TAPPED IMPATIENTLY at the window panes as Stirla stared out at the night. The room around him was dark, shrouded in mystery and shadows, while outside Captain Myran took his leave of the Kilpapans, Honra and Fleik by his side. Stirla watched them leave, heard the Countess bid her daughters good night and the soft conversation between the sisters in the hall, all while wondering what he was doing. He should have left long ago, should have stepped out into the rain and walked away. There was nothing for him here, no future, no hopes. Only heartache.
But he stayed. Because all the heartache in his future was nothing compared to Milluqua’s smile when she entered the small office and walked into his arms.
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