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~ Previous Chapter ~
Yeah, yeah, I know, this chapter is pretty hard on Lyrai, but I swear they’ll finally be leaving Nimbys soon. Promise. Honest. They will.
But first… oh, Lyrai.
Another dark room, another opened door. Lyrai stepped inside and his sisters stared at him from three sides of the room, their expressions ranging from a smug smile to narrowed eyes.
He ignored them all in favour of the woman propped up on pillows in the middle of a vast bed, with covers as billowy and soft as the Cloud Sea itself – and likely just as treacherous.
His mother smiled at him and raised a trembling hand, which he strode across the enormous room to take. “My boy,” she murmured, reaching up to stroke his face and hair. “My beautiful boy. I knew you would come, I knew you wouldn’t fail me.”
Even as he submitted to her touch, leaning into her caress and savouring the perfume that scented all the good memories of his childhood, Lyrai felt the resentment swelling in the room. His dutiful, attentive sisters were always here. They never failed her. Yet it was Lyrai, the one who always left, whom she doted upon.
Already she seemed brighter, in just the few moments since he first stepped into the room. Her colour was returning and there was fresh strength in her hand as she gripped his and pulled him closer.
“Come, sit with me,” she urged. “Tell me everything about all your adventures. I knew you weren’t dead, you know. I told them.”
The childlike enthusiasm was not something he expected from his beautiful, clever mother, but the joy in her eyes was undeniable. She was happy to see him and he would never disappoint her. At least, not to her face.
“You mustn’t overtire yourself, Mother.” Lyrosa, the oldest of his sisters, stood on the far side of the bed and glared at him. Closest to him in age of all his siblings, she had always been the one he knew the least. The apple of their father’s eye, she had grown up petted and cosseted, yet here she was, twenty-two years old and still at home, tending to her ailing mother. His father could do worse than train her to be his successor. He was certain Lyrosa would accept. She might even be good at it.
“No.” His mother gripped his hand, showing surprising strength for one so supposedly ill. “I am not tired.”
“You have had a busy day,” his middle sister, Hylena, said in her soothing, peacemaker voice. She smiled at Lyrai from her seat in the corner where she was embroidering something colourful and complicated, but there was little warmth in it. She was nineteen now, he realised, the same age as Mhysra and Corin, but as different from them as it was possible to be.
“I am fine,” the mother insisted stubbornly, her lower lip poking out in a pout as if she were a small child. “I want to speak with Lyrai. I will speak with Lyrai.”
“Why don’t you lie back, Mother, and let Lyrai tell you his adventures?” Nataryn said as a compromise. “Then if you get too tired, you can nod off with no harm done.”
The Stratys-Consort thought about it for a long moment, wrinkling her nose, and finally sighed as she sank back into her pillows. “All right then.” She patted the bed beside her. “But sit with me, Lyrai. Cuddle up close. I have missed you.”
Lyrai did as he was told, feeling a tightness in his throat and chest that had been missing when he visited his brother. Because although his mother seemed healthier in body than Henryn, clearly all was not well with her mind. And for someone as intelligent and active as his mother that was almost as bad as losing her completely.
Pain pinched at his heart as she snuggled into him and he lifted his arm to let her lay her head against his chest.
“My Lyrai,” she sighed, patting a hand over his heart.
“Yours,” he promised, wrapping her hand inside his and kissing her fingers. “Always yours.”
Aware of his sisters’ deep scrutiny, he buried his face in his mother’s hair until he had his emotions under better control.
“Talk to me, Lyrai. Tell me how that pretty little bird of yours is doing. Are you nervous about your officer exams? I can’t believe my little boy is going to be a lieutenant. How exciting!”
He met Nataryn’s eyes over his mother’s head, but she wasn’t smirking now. Instead she stared at her mother with a face full of pity.
He held his mother tighter, breathing her in. Her perfume was the same, but little else was. Why hadn’t they told him? Why hadn’t someone bothered to tell him the truth? Why hadn’t they sent for him? He’d been in Nimbys for over two months. He could have been here every day, spending time with her, helping to take care of her.
Feeling Lyrosa’s fierce glare boring into him, Lyrai knew the answers to all those questions. The Stratys, always the Stratys.
“Yes, Lyrai, how is your little miryhl?” Hylena asked in her serene tones, breaking through the tension and encouraging him to play along. “Froth, I think her name is.”
Froth. His first miryhl. The one he’d picked when he was young and foolish and had no idea what he was doing. Their bond had been severed over three years ago. He had Hurricane now and he was everything Lyrai wanted and needed. But his mother didn’t remember. He’d spoken to her of losing Froth, written to her of his disappointment and how he’d hated been grounded without a miryhl to fly. When Hurricane came into his life, he’d written letter after letter, telling his mother all about it. Telling her all about his first lessons at Aquila, his first students, his fears and successes and hopes for the future.
She didn’t remember any of that. She didn’t even remember that he’d been a lieutenant for five years and had passed his exams a long, long time ago.
Pressing her hand to his heart, he swallowed his pain and sorrow and dredged up a smile. “Well. My miryhl is well, thank you.”
“Tell me about Aquila,” his mother murmured sleepily against his chest. “I’ve always wanted to see it. Is it very beautiful?”
“Yes,” Lyrai agreed, closing his eyes against a different kind of pain. “The most beautiful place in the Overworld.” Because it was home.
“Perhaps I can visit you there one day.”
“Perhaps,” he agreed, knowing it would never happen.
“Tell me about it.” To his surprise it was Nataryn who asked, an imperious demand in her tone and a hungry look in her eye. Lyrai tilted his head towards her, wondering if perhaps he and Henryn weren’t the only ones in the family with Rider ambitions.
“Yes, Lyrai,” Hylena urged. “Tell us about Aquila.”
Pushing back memories of the citadel on that final day, when the kaz-naghkt had broken through the Heights and he’d fled with his wounded Riders and regulars, leaving good people behind dead, only to have boulders smash through the murals of Maegla’s Hall and send them all fleeing into the tunnels, Lyrai tried to remember what Aquila was like. Before the siege, before the destruction of the Miryhl Shadow, when no pirate had touched the place and no kaz-naghkt had defiled it.
The memories weren’t hard to find, full of Stirla and their training, of miryhl flights and his students. Of winning bets and points against Willym, of teaching students to fly. Of carrying a very drunk Mhysra through the halls on her birthday. Of standing in Dean Marshall’s office: getting told off for gluing Willym and his cronies to their saddles; receiving praise for putting out a fire in the kitchens; learning that he and Stirla had been made into lieutenants; receiving official orders to leave with Captain Myran; giving his report of the incident between his student and Willym’s and learning the dean could do nothing. So many memories, most of them good, some of them less so, but all of them real and vital and precious because Aquila had been whole then. It had been theirs.
Closing his eyes, he held his mother closer and turned his mind back to his first glimpse of the place and the long, white line of the Falls of Aquatai…
~ Next Chapter ~
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