LYRAI TURNED SLOWLY back to where his father stood in the sunlight pouring through the great window. White-headed and alone, for the first time in Lyrai’s life the Stratys looked vulnerable. He took a step back towards him.
“With no child and no hope of ever having one, that makes you my heir. When I am gone, Lyrai, you will be Stratys of all Imercian.”
Slowly, almost unaware of what he was doing, Lyrai walked back down the aisle to the nave until he and his father stood eye to eye. Same eyes, same height, once their hair had been the same too, along with the stubbornness and determination and adherence to duty.
But Lyrai was his also his mother’s son.
“No. I do not want it.”
“You have no choice. You will soon be my heir, Lyrai, and when that day comes you will return to Nimbys and learn everything I have to teach you.”
“I am a Rift Rider lieutenant, I have other work to do.”
“You were a Rift Rider lieutenant,” the Stratys smirked, “but now you will be more.”
Lyrai had always intended to be more than a lieutenant, but always within the Riders. A captain, perhaps even a commander one day. That was what he wanted, all he wanted. He had never wanted his father’s crown - and he wouldn’t take it.
“You have three daughters. Train one of them.”
“They are not suitable.”
“Because they’re women?” Lyrai growled. “Have you forgotten who you have been married to these last three decades?”
“Since your mother is currently lying in her bed, choosing to shun the world in an excess of extravagant and unnecessary grief, your point is not convincing.”
Snarling, Lyrai turned away, pacing along the nave and coming back. “Train them. They’ve been raised by a queen to become queens in their own right. They know far more about being the Stratys than I ever will.” Or ever wanted to.
“You are second oldest, Lyrai. Even if the Stratys crown didn’t pass from male to male, it would still fall to you. Where is all your passion for duty now, boy? Is not the welfare and protection of an entire country duty enough? Don’t they deserve to be cared for?”
Of course they did, but not by him. He wasn’t the Stratys, would never be the Stratys. “I am a Rider.”
“You are a fool,” his father replied, but without much heat, in fact he sounded more weary than anything as he massaged his forehead with his hand. “Stop being stubborn for one wretched moment, Lyrai, and think. Think of all the good you could do as Stratys, not just for your people, but for your precious Riders too. The resources of the biggest, richest country in the Overworld would be yours to command. No more striking uneven bargains for weapons and armour, no more scrabbling about for transport from people who should be thankful for their very lives. You could change all of that. You could make all their problems go away.”
“And turn them into little more than an Imercish militia?” Lyrai sneered. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Having the Rift Riders on call for any small favour you desire, jumping at your bidding because of how much they owed you. I won’t. I can’t. The Riders are independent for a reason. I won’t take that away from them.”
“Gods, spare me from mewling idealists!” Henryk shouted at the vaulted ceiling, throwing up his hands and pacing away. “I should have known better than to leave your education in the hands of an egalitarian priest and your wayward mother. What a waste, such a waste.” He turned and eyed Lyrai again from ten steps away. “I see so much of myself in you, but twisted and ruined by weakness and sentiment. Gods, what a waste.”
Personally, Lyrai saw all of that as a blessing and one that he would not throw away. “Your bribes won’t work on me. I am a Rift Rider and a Rift Rider I’ll stay, even if you have to disown me to take me out of the succession. I will not be your heir.”
His father barked a sharp laugh. “I won’t make it that easy for you. I will fight you every step of the way.” And he said Lyrai was stubborn. “You’ll change your mind, people always do. Don’t you want to be part of history?”
It was Lyrai’s turn to laugh, but his was incredulous and full of pain for everything he’d been through and the fact that this man would never acknowledge any of it - not his hard work, his achievements and especially not his pain. “Part of history?” he echoed, his chuckles slowly dying into bitterness. “Do I want to be part of history? I was at the fall of Aquila. I was there the day the Miryhl Shadow exploded, the last of the survivors to leave the deck before fire took the rest. I was there at the Heights when the kaz-naghkt broke through the defences and painted the walls with Rider blood. I was in the great hall when missiles ripped through the ceiling and the pirates came. I was in the tunnels when the kaz-naghkt invaded, spreading panic and crushing students to death. I fought through the darkness to the evacuation at Buteo, and all along the hard, exhausting flight north, never knowing if this night would be our last. I was there when we fled through the Heighlen, grief-stricken, wounded and starving, to reach the Greater West where we were neither expected nor wanted. I went cap in hand to Havia to beg for aid from a king who would rather see us all dead.
“I flew through the Storm Wash, spoke with dragons, fought one in single combat and won. I crossed the Storm Surge, travelled with dragons, seen half the Overworld including the shores of Sanctuary and took part in the Battle of Nimbys. Now I wait to take my place in the war to win back Aquila.
“Don’t you dare speak to me about history. I have lived it. I have bled for it. And I will likely die for it. That is the history I choose to be a part of. Not some dry, dusty name on a list learnt by rote in childhood lessons and swiftly forgotten once the yearly examinations are over. My life may not last as long as yours, sire, but I will make it count. You offer me an empty crown in a hollow hall, full of shackles and bitterness, but I choose my miryhl, my sword and the sky, and a chance to pick my own fate.”
“You are a fool,” the Stratys spat, red-faced once more and ready to explode.
Lyrai smiled and offered him an ironic bow. “I am your son.”
“Not for long. Not if you deny me this. Your brother is dying, Lyrai! He cannot succeed me.”
“How fortunate for you then that you have three intelligent, healthy daughters. Train them. You might find yourself surprised by what you find.” Touching his forehead in a farewell salute, he strode back down the aisle, and this time no amount of shouting or threats could draw him back.