SWEET MAEGLA, WOULD this morning ever end? Lyrai raised his eyes to the bright blue sky in silent prayer, wishing he could be anywhere else than where he currently was. Even if it was just one row back and a few places to the left. Rising at dawn to spend all morning standing in the shadow of Maegla’s cathedral had been bad enough, even if he was fond of the High Tempest and quite enjoyed some of the hymns. What was really making Lyrai miserable was the company he was being forced to keep.
As a lieutenant of the Rift Riders under Captain Myran’s command he had hoped and expected to be standing with the other officers, lined up alongside Stirla, Fleik and Honra, and the captain himself. But Lyrai wasn’t just a Rift Rider, because no matter how much he might wish to forget it, in Nimbys he had little hope of denying his birthright: second son of the Stratys, prince of Imercian.
Instead of lining up in the second row with the other Rider officers, he found himself smack in the centre of the front row with his father the Stratys on one side and Wing Marshal Phirro on the other. Many would consider such a position one of great honour, but Lyrai’s relationship with his father was strained at best and he’d never met the Wing Marshal before. Mostly he regarded Phirro Pheneso with an absent sort of awe, like most Riders, knowing well the name and deeds of the man but never expecting to actually meet him.
Few did. The Wing Marshal was no longer a fighter and didn’t mix with ordinary Riders. Instead he was the ultimate administrator, ensuring miryhls and Riders stayed fed, clothed and armed across the Overworld, while also making sure that new recruits had schools to train at and miryhls to pair up with come the Choice. He was a warrior of words and lists, and rarely ventured beyond the Flight Command fortress buried deep within the valleys of South Imercian. It was up to him where each Rider, lieutenant, captain, wing commander and general was stationed across the Overworld. He knew all their names, but few of their faces, and when it came to the Rift Riders his word was law.
Which left Lyrai standing uncomfortably between the Overworld’s highest ranked Rift Rider on one side and its most powerful monarch on the other. In a garish scarlet coat that did little to keep out the chill, while his impractical white breeches might as well have been painted on for all the warmth they gave him.
Nor was that the only illustrious company he was keeping. On his father’s far side, two princesses of Havia were wrapped up against the spring chill – although technically Demolie was a princess of Imercian now, married to Lyrai’s older brother as she was, while exactly what Princess Neryth’s status was right now – official or otherwise – was anyone’s guess, since she’d travelled across half the Overworld with Stirla as an unofficial Rider-in-training. Without her father’s permission. And King Heryff was not a man well known for his love of Riders or his indulgence towards his children.
Thoughts of the princesses made Lyrai wonder, not for the first time, where his brother was this morning and why he hadn’t joined them. Henryn had always preferred going to bed at dawn rather than rising with it, but his marriage had been expected to settle the Stratys’ heir’s wilder side down and prepare him for the day when he would take on his father’s rule. But Henryn wasn’t here and Demolie didn’t look the least bit pregnant, despite the pair having been married for over two years. Which might explain why his father kept summoning him to visit the palace.
Lyrai had been reluctantly obeying one such order when the kaz-naghkt had attacked – and had been successfully dodging the follow ups ever since. Until now, today, right this moment, when he had no choice but to stand by his father’s side and had little hope of escape once the drawn-out ceremony was finally over. Not that Lyrai truly believed this whole kafuffle had been created by his father purely as a way to pin his elusive second son down, but at the same time, Lyrai wouldn’t put it past him.
Beyond the Havian princesses were his own sisters, though his mother, like Henryn, was noticeably absent. Lyrai frowned, hoping all was well, but it had been a long time since he’d been in a place to receive a letter from her and even longer since they’d spoken.
Unable to answer his worries at that moment, he turned his thoughts to his other side and the figures lined up beyond the Wing Marshal’s wiry form. Two generals, Keipen of the East and Jastenor of the South, along with four commanders. Behind them stretched several long lines of twenty captains, with four lieutenants each, followed by the Rift Riders in their flurries beneath their sergeants’ eyes. Finally, bringing up the rear – even though to Lyrai’s mind, many of them deserved to be in higher places of honour – came the students, barely forty of whom had survived the fall of Aquila, surrounded by the newest recruits, some of whom hadn’t even been paired up with miryhls yet, they were still so new.
All were here because of Aquila, all were here and ready to fight to reclaim their home from the monstrous kaz-naghkt. But amongst the thousands of men – and handful of young women – little over a hundred of them truly knew what they were facing. Lyrai knew, as did his captain and Myran’s other lieutenants. The older students definitely knew, since they’d been trapped in the citadel with few skills to fight off the invasion. And the mixed core of Riders, from three different captains, had fought so hard and so bravely to defend the citadel, its students and the town below, but had paid the highest price of all. They all understood what had become of their home, they knew how much it would cost to win it back. And they were ready.
Lyrai was ready.
Which was why it chafed so badly to stand here in the cold and the shadow, listening to empty words trying to turn death, desperation and defeat into bravery and glory, all the while knowing that there were plans that should be being made, transport being secured and weapons prepared. Instead of standing there, dressed up like a peacock, on display for the whole city.
Lyrai would far rather be out training students or even filling out forms. He didn’t need to stand around singing Maegla’s praises, not when Her favoured Rift Riders remained homeless and adrift. Surely the best way of giving thanks to the Goddess would be to win back Aquila and return Her Riders to their rightful place in the world.
But this moment wasn’t about praise or glory, it wasn’t even about the Riders or the city, or gratitude or commemoration. It was politics, pure and simple. Uniting the powerful Stratys with the glorious Rift Riders, not just through the presence of the Wing Marshal, but by the existence of the son at his side – prince and Rider, a hero of Imercian.
Lyrai hated it. He hated the pomp and ceremony, the unnecessary waste of time, the empty promises and foolish ideology. It was all so fake and false. Give him the wild wind and a miryhl’s wings any day of the moon over this nonsense.
A chair might also be nice, since his legs were starting to ache and these boots had not been designed for standing around in comfort. He had no idea how both the High Tempest and the Wing Marshal were coping, since both men were long past their sixtieth birthdays and far less active than Lyrai himself was. But just as Lyrai was a symbol of the unity between Nimbys and the Riders, the Marshal was a living embodiment of the Riders’ strength. He could not be seen to be weak, so he could not be seen to be sitting while everyone else stood. What the High Tempest’s reasons for remaining so long on his feet were, Lyrai couldn’t tell. He only wished the old man would hurry up and stop talking.
“All souls gathered here today, together let us pray!”
Lyrai stifled a sigh as he bowed his head along with everyone else crammed into the chilly square, mouthing the words that followed by rote.
“All Gods, Lords and Ladies of Life and Creation, to Thee we gladly pray. Thanks we give to Thy glory, honour we bring in Thy name. Life You have given us, faith we return. Sustenance You provide for us, praise we sing. Hope in the darkness, light in the spring, we honour Your great gifts and live in Your name. All Gods we thank and may All Gods blessings fall upon us. Our life in Your hands. So let it be.”
As the last echo faded from the square, a soft hush followed as everyone breathed out in blessed relief. It was over. Finally.
“Go forth in good health, my friends,” the High Tempest called, beaming as he looked over the congregation. “And glory to the Riders!”
“Glory to the Riders!” many of the crowd cheered, though Lyrai and his companions were not among them.
“Glory,” a dry voice with a thick Sutheralli accent muttered. “I’d prefer a victory and a few years of peace and quiet.”
Lyrai’s lips quirked at the Marshal’s low words, but wasn’t sure whether or not he was supposed to have heard. The blank expression on the older man’s face gave nothing away as he studied Lyrai with whisky-brown eyes.
Unsure if he should say something, Lyrai raised his hand for a salute, only to be dragged off balance by a firm hand clamping around his other arm.
“A word, Lyrai,” the Stratys commanded in his smooth voice, one that had the power to entrance a room of courtiers, but had always sent shivers down Lyrai’s spine. “If you can finally fit me into your busy schedule.”
Lyrai turned and met ice blue eyes with his own cold stare. They were of a height, and had been for years, but they had never been equal. Nor were they now, and caught at the front of an impressive crowd, all eager for another glimpse of their illustrious ruler, this wasn’t the place to kick up a fuss about it.
So Lyrai bowed his head in acquiescence. “My time is yours, sire.”
He expected a sneer or a scoff at that, after all that was how their conversations usually unfolded, but his father simply nodded, turned and strode up the steps into the cathedral. “Then come, lieutenant, it is long past time we spoke.”
Lyrai’s footsteps faltered upon hearing his title – so long ignored, overlooked and belittled – on his father’s lips, and a chill ran down his spine. He paused on the steps of the cathedral, looking back over the crowded square, seeing the many faces gathered there and noticing anew the ones who were missing – his mother, his brother – and remembering the strange deference that had been shown to him when he last visited the palace. His eyes landed on Princess Demolie, standing tall and remote beside her sister, her beautiful face etched with strain, and the way his own sisters clustered up close, whispering together, arms linked as guards and attendants came to usher them safely away.
Not one of them looked at him, not one of them acknowledge his presence, but the way they all pointedly averted their eyes was telling.
Lyrai hesitated, catching Stirla’s eye in the crowd and seeing the worry on his best friend’s face. It wasn’t too late to run. It would be so easy to dash back down the steps and melt into the crowd. Even in this red coat he could blend in amongst the other officers and become a simple Rider again. Another face in the crowd. Anonymous. Unimportant.
“Lieutenant?” Another hand pressed against his arm, but this was smaller, colder and light enough only to draw his attention.
He looked down into the kindly face of the High Tempest, the man who had overseen many of his childhood lessons and had supported him against his father in his bid to join to Riders. The man who had been present for both of Lyrai’s miryhl bonding ceremonies – first when he united rather disastrously with Froth, and again when he and Hurricane became partners in the eyes of the Goddess. This priest knew him better than his own father did, better than any member of his family even his own mother.
So Lyrai waited at the touch on his arm, stilling the urge to run.
The High Tempest squeezed his arm supportively, then nodded towards the great doors that led inside the cathedral. “In you go,” he said, voice gentle yet leaving no room for argument. “The sooner it’s said, the sooner you can move on.”
Not feeling reassured in the slightest, Lyrai looked up, surprised to find that the Stratys had stopped to wait for him, just inside the shadow of the doors. There would be no escape now.
Casting one last glance over his shoulder, shaking his head at where Stirla was pushing through the crowds to join him, he took a deep breath and nodded at the priest. “My thanks, Excellency.”
The old man’s smile was sad as he raised his hand and touched two chilled fingertips to Lyrai’s forehead and at his heart. “May Maegla bless you and keep you, lieutenant.”
“My life in Her hands,” he finished the traditional blessing by rote, shook off the fresh chill that ran through him and strode up the steps to join his father.
Whatever the Stratys had to say, it clearly wasn’t going to be pleasant for either of them, but as the High Tempest said, the sooner it was said the sooner they could all move on.
~ Next Chapter ~