LYRAI FELT A chill settle inside him as Mhysra walked away. He didn’t watch her go; he couldn’t. For a moment there, he’d felt almost human again, free from the pressures of the city. But now she was gone, the moment was passed, and he stared at Stirla instead, certain he knew what was coming.
“Well?” he asked, hand rising, ready to accept the invitation he was positive his friend held.
Stirla’s mouth twisted, revealing his reluctance at playing the role he’d been forced into.
Lyrai hated it, hated that his friend had been dragged into this, hated the pantomime it had all become. The shadowy presence of the palace at his back made the space between his shoulder blades itch. Gods, he couldn’t wait to leave.
“I have a message for you.”
Surprised, Lyrai’s hand dropped back to his side. “From the Stratys?” It was unlike his father to issue his commands through people. He much preferred paper and ink and a certainty that his cold words would be passed on exactly as intended.
Stirla surprised him again by shaking his head. “From Neryth, and the other princesses.”
Lyrai stepped back, the coldness growing stronger. “No. I told Nataryn -”
His friend grimaced as he gave out the rest of the message. “The west gate will be unlocked until midnight tonight. Princess Demolie in particular requests that you visit your brother. Your sisters will wait to show you into your mother’s rooms afterwards.” Only then did his friend hold out a piece of paper, a scrap that had clearly been torn from someone’s journal and was a far cry from the thick, expensive cardstock his invitations usually arrived on.
This one wasn’t even addressed to him, bearing Stirla’s name and a list of things he should pass onto Lyrai, if he would be so kind. Maegla, even now they obeyed the Stratys, making sure not to issue any invitations to him that hadn’t come through his father first.
“You don’t have to go,” Stirla surprised him yet again by saying. “It isn’t right that you have to sneak in like a misbehaving servant. Don’t let them humiliate you like that.”
Folding the note with exaggerated care, Lyrai tucked it into his pocket and looked at his friend. “My brother is dying. My mother might be too. Is it right to refuse to see them simply because my pride is too big to use the side door?”
“Your father -”
“Wants me to beg and scratch and scrape at the front gate like a beggar,” Lyrai said, though his tone was flat, the cold creeping up to steal even his anger away. “That way he can deny me and turn me away until I bow my head to his bidding.” It was all so petty and pathetic, so old and tired and pointless. A bitter smirk twisted his lips. “The idea of sneaking in behind his back is actually rather appealing.”
“Lyrai,” Stirla said, soft and urgent. “Don’t do this, don’t play his games.”
Fist clenching on the note in his pocket, Lyrai shook his head. “To leave without seeing them, to let them die without speaking to me one last time, that would be playing his game. That’s what he wants, Stirla, to make me seem cold and callous and uncaring. The undutiful son, the terrible brother. If I refuse him, I refuse them all, and he will see us all suffer for my defiance. But I can’t -” The ice inside started to crack for the first time, a rush of pain welling up from beneath at the prospect of losing not just his brother, but his mother too.
“Gods, Stirla, my mother might be dying. I can’t… I can’t just leave without seeing her, without saying -” He couldn’t say it, didn’t even want to think it. Henryn’s death would be sad, a tragedy as much for the brother he never had a chance to know as to the loss of the stranger he barely ever saw. His mother, though…
“Then go,” Stirla said gently. “Forget everything else. Forget that we’re leaving. Forget him. Go to your family and… say goodbye. You can reach the gate from behind the eyries. The shadows should be deep enough to cover you now. No one needs to know.”
The ice inside him cracked further. “Thank you,” he whispered, not certain what he’d done to deserve his friend but so very, very glad he had. “I’ll see you on the Illuminai.” Because if he was doing this, he should do it properly.
“On the Illuminai.” Stirla nodded his understanding. “I’ll see to your bags.”
They were packed and ready to go, but he still appreciated his friend making sure they got where they were supposed to. “Thank you,” he said again, then strode towards the eyries, heading for the shadows that would take him behind the building and around to the walls of the palace.
It was time to do what he should have done the first day he arrived back in Nimbys. It was time to see his mother.
As promised, the gate was unlocked. Lyrai eased it carefully open and slipped through the gap into the gardens, half-expecting a man in his father’s private livery to be waiting for him, smirk firmly in place.
There was no one. Hidden behind a screen of hazel bushes, the door was entirely out of sight from all the palace windows, with only one leaf-strewn path leading away from it. Lyrai followed the path, wary and alert, waiting to be spotted at any moment. Nothing stirred in the side garden, not even a bird; he was the only thing that moved as he made his way through the gathering evening shadows to the side of the palace.
Reaching the kitchen gardens, he waited again for someone to appear, ready to meet him, but again there was nothing. Further down the path the kitchens bustled with activity, preparing the evening meals, including a farewell feast for the Wing Marshal, generals and commanders, to which Lyrai had pointedly not been invited. Then again, he hadn’t been invited to dine with his father once during this trip, so Lyrai wasn’t too upset by the snub. He’d much rather be down in the city eating with the Kilpapans, but that final joy was also to be denied him.
Unsure where to go next, he followed the path towards the kitchen, certain that his appearance there would not go unnoticed by his father, no matter how many servants his enterprising sisters bribed. A glint of silver caught his eye on the edge of the path. Crouching, Lyrai gathered up the ribbon and followed it to another door half-hidden behind more hazel bushes. He wondered what the significance of that was, and who amongst his ancestors had prepared such a secret way, even as he slipped inside the door and entered the palace.
~ Next Chapter ~