NERYTH GRIMACED AND tugged the thumb-sized dark amethyst dangling from her left ear. “Don’t you start,” she grumbled. “You would not believe the fuss I just went through to get Birch ready. They wouldn’t even let me tack him up myself.”
Stirla looked her pointedly up and down while Atyrn chuckled. “Perhaps if you looked less like a princess,” his miryhl said, “they might treat you more like a Rider.”
Startled, Neryth glanced down at herself. Huge silver buckles adorned highly polished boots that reached her knees, where they met black velvet breeches with seams embroidered in silver and studded with tiny amethysts and clear quartz gems – at least Stirla hoped they were quartz and not diamonds. A matching black flying jacket completed the ensemble, also embroidered in silver, amethyst and quartz in a dazzling display of miryhls in flight. The whole thing was topped off with a froth of lace at the wrists and the throat. Rings wrapped every last finger, diamonds and amethysts set in platinum, matching the plum drops at her ears and the narrow circlet around her brow, which held her short, dark hair in check.
Grimacing, she looked from herself to Stirla and back again. “I’ve been back in a palace too long. How quickly one forgets. Your sisters were quite scandalised to see me in breeches and a flying jacket, so I assumed I had dressed down.”
Stirla’s lips twitched with amusement. “Shades of Kevian all over again.”
Neryth snorted a chuckle and pointed her toe. “They are very fine boots,” she said, admiring her footwear, much like she had all those moons ago when Stirla had suffered through a harrowing shopping expedition.
“And entirely impractical,” he reminded her. “They’ll leak at the first hint of water and the stitching will start to rot within a half-moon.”
The princess laughed and shook her head. “Not these boots. They were made by the finest cobblers in Nimbys, I’ll have you know. No water is getting into these and the stitches will be just fine. The Stratys himself recommended them to me. They make all of Lyrai’s too.”
“Ooh,” Atyrn cooed appreciatively, looking from Neryth’s gleaming boots to Stirla’s own dusty, battered pair. “Weren’t yours a gift from Lyrai? Why don’t yours shine as nicely?”
Neryth grinned. “I thought I recognised the craftsmanship. Leak at the first hint of rain, do they? And how long have those stitches lasted?”
Choosing not to get involved in such a foolish conversation, Stirla folded his arms. “What are you doing out here anyway?”
“Lyrai gave them to him when they both made lieutenant,” Atyrn said, ignoring his attempt to divert the conversation to more important matters.
“How many years ago would that be now?” the princess wondered.
“Five,” Birch decided to join the conversation at the least helpful moment. “It was five years ago.” He drooped sadly, no doubt remembering his Rider, Stirla’s former sergeant Rees, who went missing during the evacuation of Aquila and was presumed dead.
The levity of the moment faded and Neryth rested a comforting hand on her borrowed miryhl’s neck. “I’ve come to ask for your help,” she said, answering Stirla’s earlier question. “Well, more of a favour, I suppose. In answer to a request.”
Tickling Atyrn’s cheek as she pressed close to him, Stirla raised his eyebrows. “Oh?”
“Lyrai. My sister wants him to visit his brother before you leave, and his sisters want him to visit their mother.”
Stirla shook his head. “The Stratys -”
“Doesn’t have to know,” Neryth said quickly, cutting him off. “The princesses have it all worked out. There’s a side door he can take, and they’ve guards who can be trusted to look the other way.”
“A servant entrance,” he said flatly, hating that his friend had to sneak into his childhood home in order to see his own family. All thanks to the stubbornness and cruelty of his father. Lyrai hadn’t said much about what was currently going on inside the palace, but Stirla had overheard enough of his conversation with Princess Nataryn and knew his friend well enough to guess. It was always the same when they returned to Nimbys.
“It’s the only way if we don’t want the Stratys to know, and Natty seemed adamant that Lyrai wouldn’t come if the Stratys knew.”
Natty seemed an incongruously sweet name for the fierce young woman who had stormed into the Rider barracks to berate her brother. It almost made him smile.
“I don’t know,” he sighed. “Lyrai and his family… It’s complicated, Neryth. He’s under enough pressure. I won’t add to it.”
“His brother is dying, Stirla, and his mother might not be far behind. This could be his last chance to speak to either of them.” Having balled her fists in frustration, she now opened them and held them towards him in supplication. “All I ask is that you tell him about the plan. No force, no coercion. Just let him know that the opportunity is there, if he wishes to take it.”
“Why don’t you tell him yourself?” Stirla asked, knowing he was being churlish but unwilling to cause further stress or heartache to his friend. Lyrai’s family – or his mother and brother at least – always made the right noises about caring for Lyrai and wanting to see him more often, but when the Stratys snapped his fingers they still fell swiftly into line and cast him back out into the cold. All for no good reason Stirla could ever uncover. The Stratys simply did not like his younger son and made no effort to hide it.
Neryth shot him an impatient look. “I barely know him. You’re his best friend. Just tell him, please. Before you’re all ordered to leave.”
“What do you mean you’re?” Stirla asked, as she turned to go. “What about you? Aren’t you coming?”
She spun back to face him, arms folded tightly across her chest. “No, I’m not. And you don’t have to act disappointed,” she added, turning her head away. “You’re not that good of an actor. I know you’ll be relieved to be rid of me.”
Stirla didn’t know what he was feeling. On the one hand, it would be wonderful not to have to worry about the Havian princess and how much trouble King Heryff would cause the Riders should she earn so much as a scratch. On the other, this was Neryth, who he’d travelled across the Overworld with. They’d survived winter and mud and snow, terrible cooking and tyrannical Ihrans together. She was a friend.
“I’m not acting,” he said slowly. “Although it is a relief to know you’ll be safe. We Riders might not know exactly what we’re facing yet, but everyone agrees it won’t be easy. So, yes, all right, perhaps I am relieved you’re staying. War isn’t what you’re trained for.”
“No,” she agreed, sighing heavily and meeting his eye with a rueful smile. “Politics is, and Nimbys has almost more going on inside the Stratys palace than even I can handle. My sister needs me, and let’s be honest, lieutenant, you and the Riders never even wanted me. I enjoyed our time together, you taught me more than I ever dreamed, but I knew it wouldn’t last. The fun stops here. You have war to tend to, I have family.
“I know I have no right, after all we’ve been through, to ask for more, but please, Stirla, help me to help my sister. Tell Lyrai, and let us handle the rest.” Tossing a folded note at his feet, the princess nodded sharply at Atyrn and jumped into Birch’s saddle. Then they were gone, swooping back into the clear spring sky, leaving Stirla with a frown on his face and a view of the Kilpapan fleet.
“Will you tell him?” Atyrn asked, once Birch was gone and they were alone again, save for a raven attempting to uproot an scraggly gorse bush for some arcane reason.
“I don’t know,” Stirla sighed, running a hand through his hair and rubbing the back of his head. On the one hand, he didn’t think any good would come of this, whether Lyrai visited his family or not. On the other, it wasn’t really his place to make such a choice for his friend. If this really was the last chance Lyrai might have to speak to his mother and brother, what right had Stirla to keep it from him? He picked up the note, scanning it to see all the instructions for sneaking Lyrai into the palace laid out clearly in a neat hand and sky blue ink.
“I think you should,” Atyrn said.
Stirla groaned and reached for her saddle to tack her back up again. “So do I.”
“You just don’t want to,” his miryhl murmured, proving how well she knew him.
“No,” he sighed, cinching her girths into place and picking up her bridle. “But I’ll do it anyway.”
“You’re a good friend.” She nuzzled him affectionately.
Stirla wrinkled his nose doubtfully and swung into the saddle. “I’m not sure Lyrai will agree.”
“Perhaps, perhaps not,” Atyrn demurred. “But Neryth would.”
And since that little exchange might be the last time he ever saw the princess, Stirla knew he couldn’t refuse. Not that he would. This was Lyrai’s family – Stirla had no right to keep it from him, no matter how much he wished to. On that happy thought, they glided back down over Nimbys towards the eyries and a meeting Stirla had no wish to have.
~ Next Chapter ~