DINNER WITH MILLUQUA was always a convivial affair, enjoyed by all who were lucky enough to be invited. Something which Mhysra had never imagined herself capable of thinking, especially when she last left Nimbys, almost three years ago, drugged by her own mother, kidnapped and carried out of this same house in the dead of night. Back then this house and these sort of parties had been bound up with her parents, their ambitions and their inability to listen to her.
How much had changed. Not only in herself, but in the house and the company she was keeping. She didn’t even mind wearing dresses now, especially not when it brought such an expression to Lyrai’s face as the one he’d worn when he first saw her. Without the pressure of her parents’ expectations, and with three more years of maturity and experience, Mhysra could enjoy these evenings just as they were. The food was delicious, the company always wonderful and the dresses were surprisingly comfortable once she got used to them. After spending so much time in her Rider uniform, working with Cumulo and living life as a Rider, she could also appreciate the chance to look pretty occasionally. Sometimes it was nice to put aside the Rider and be a woman for once, not just another faceless uniform to be ordered about.
Milluqua was also a supremely gifted hostess. She could bring together a group of Rider officers – even the notoriously short-tempered and grumpy General Keipen – mix them in with Mhysra’s student friends and somehow keep things fun. Some might expect the addition of three princesses – Neryth and two of Lyrai’s sisters – to upset the balance, but Milluqua kept the conversation light and flowing. Even the inclusion of Elder Goryal and Reglian didn’t disturb the mood. Because Milluqua liked people and was interested in all of them as individuals. She could make everyone relax and find common ground with the most unlikely seating partners. They were all here to eat, drink and be merry and Milluqua did all she could to ensure it.
The talk drifted from stories of Nimbys to travels across the Overworld. It touched on dragons and the wonders Mhysra and her friends had seen, without dwelling on the reason for bringing some back with them. Elder Goryal told tales of the origins of the miryhls and the world before the Cloud Curse fell. General Keipen regaled them all with some of his most notorious exploits and even Captain Myran was coaxed into a tale of mischief from his own student days.
Best of all, from Mhysra’s point of view, she’d been seated beside Lyrai. The conversation ebbed and flowed around them, not leaving much chance for them to talk to each other, but he held her hand beneath the table and just being near him was enough to soothe the ache around her heart.
Not even the intense stare of Princess Nataryn, who was seated opposite them, could ruin Mhysra’s mood. The youngest princess had Lyrai’s bright blue eyes, but lacked the warmth she’d grown so fond of. In fact, the icy glare reminded her strongly of how Lyrai had been when they’d first met, right here in Nimbys over three years ago. How far they’d come since then.
As the courses wound down and the guests relaxed back in their chairs, glasses of their preferred drink in hand, talk inevitably turned to current affairs and the reason why most of them were in Nimbys.
“There’s no point denying that the delay is wearing thin,” General Keipen said, nursing his round glass of brandy. “Tempers are short and trouble is brewing. Nimbys was never designed to hold so many. If we don’t find enough transport soon, war’ll break out right here.”
“There’s no gratitude, none at all,” Captain Reeve snarled, slamming his hand on the table and making the glassware rattle. “These blasted merchants were happy enough to have Riders die for them last month, spilling our blood in the streets to keep them safe. But now we have need of help in return, suddenly they’re all wringing their hands and whining about profit margins. Profit, ha! What use is money when Aquila is lost and the kaz-naghkt are free to roam the Overworld at will? Let’s see how much profit they get when the bastards ransack every voyage and trade grinds to a halt.”
“That’s enough, Reeve,” Jastenor, General of the South, rumbled. “We have ladies present. Apologise for your language.”
The captain did so, glaring at the table as he drained his wine glass.
Catching her sister’s eye, Mhysra shared her grimace. After all, their family were merchants who had grown rich in the safe eastern skies. The Kilpapan fleet was one of the largest and richest across the entire Overworld, but control of them rested firmly in their mother’s hands and the Countess would never help the Rift Riders. Not when her youngest daughter, and chosen successor, had fled to their ranks to escape her dynastic plans.
“Something will be found,” Captain Myran said, his voice cool and calm in the suddenly strained air. “The Marshal is here now. He will ensure it.”
General Keipen smiled wryly and raised his glass. “He most certainly will,” he drawled.
“And won’t the rest of us hear about it afterwards,” Commander Lurent chuckled without much mirth. “Incompetent children all.”
Sharing glances of commiseration and understanding, the older officers toasted each other with humourless smiles, while the younger guests looked on with a mix of amusement and confusion.
“But I thought the Riders could take whatever they wanted,” Princess Hylena said, sounding perplexed. “Is that not part of the Great Contract?”
The older officers laughed bitterly, but it was Captain Myran who aimed a kindly smile at the now blushing young woman. “The Great Contract is something of a myth, Highness. No such thing has ever been drawn up or signed, and if it had been I doubt we could make it stick.”
“It’s more of an understanding,” Lyrai explained to his sister, who looked at him sceptically as if she wasn’t used to speaking to him at all. “We give our blood to protect the Overworld and the Overworld assists us when we need it. But some needs weigh more heavily on some than others, and a trip out to Aquila for no reward at the start of the lucrative spring trading season doesn’t seem fair to many merchants.”
“But it’s their duty,” Princess Nataryn said, sounding far fiercer than her older sister. “Why hasn’t this been brought before the Stratys? Papa will soon sort it out. You should speak with him, Lyrai. Stop avoiding him and do it tomorrow.”
Feeling him freeze beside her, Mhysra rested her hand on his tense thigh, offering silent support. She might not have seen him to speak to for several days, but she’d had a clear enough view of the Stratys heading into the cathedral three days ago with Lyrai following. Since his relationship with his father was every bit as contentious as hers with her own, Mhysra knew it wouldn’t have gone well.
Lyrai linked his fingers through hers and held on tightly. “You overestimate my influence, little sister. The Stratys will not listen to anything I have to say.”
“Because you are both so stubborn.” Princess Nataryn slapped her hand angrily on the table. “Just apologise for being rude the other day, agree to whatever he wants and let him find you some ships. It’s your duty, Lyrai, as a prince and a Rider. Don’t you want to get Aquila back?”
A heavy silence filled the room and Mhysra bit her lip against the pain of Lyrai’s iron grip as he stared at his sister across the table. Two icy stares, locked together in a fierce glare.
“You know nothing,” he growled. “Nothing of what I would do for Aquila. Nothing of what was said between him and I. Nothing of what he demands. And nothing of duty. If you did, you wouldn’t so easily spread his lies for him. Go home, Nataryn, and tell him his latest ploy has failed. If he wants to speak to me, he knows where to find me. I don’t speak through proxies.”
He shoved back his chair with a screech, releasing Mhysra’s hand at the same moment. Folding a sharp bow in Milluqua’s direction, he muttered an apology to the company at large and stalked from the room.
Nursing her throbbing hand in her lap, Mhysra glanced from the door to her sister, just in time to see Milluqua urge Stirla to go after him. The lieutenant brushed a quick kiss across her palm before striding after his friend.
No sooner had the door shut behind him then it swung open again. Half-expecting to see Lyrai returning, Mhysra turned in her seat and almost tripped over her skirts as she hurriedly stood.
Milluqua too pushed to her feet – along with all the men around the table who still had possession of their manners.
“Mother!” Mhysra gasped, drowned out by Milluqua’s louder exclamation as her sister hurried across the room towards the Countess.
Dressed for travel, with the hood of her cloak covering her hair, Lunrai, Lady Kilpapan was much changed from when Mhysra last saw her: older, thinner, frailer. She gripped the hands that Milluqua held out, eyes roaming restlessly around the table.
Until they found her. “Mhysra.” She held out a hand and despite everything – the kidnapping, the threats, the humiliation – Mhysra went.
Reaching up with small, cold hands, the Countess cupped Mhysra’s face and stared deeply into her eyes. “You were with him?” she asked softly. “You were with him at the end?”
Seeing the grief on her mother’s face and thinking of her brave, lost brother, Mhysra’s eyes filled with tears as she nodded. “Yes. I was there.”
“He died well?”
“With absolute honour.”
Lunrai searched her eyes for a long moment as if reading the truth, then her hand slid from Mhysra’s face and her eyes closed. “Good.” She swayed.
Mhysra and her sister reached out to steady her and Lunrai’s eyes snapped open. Her spine straightened and her chin rose. The Countess was back.
“Your brother lies unburied at Aquila. It is our duty to bring him home.” Placing a hand on each of her daughters’ shoulders, she gently pushed them aside and stepped up to the head of the dining table, every bit the powerful Countess Kilpapan. “I hear you’re having transportation problems, general.”
“Indeed, my lady,” Keipen agreed, with a tilt of his head.
“Gentleman,” she smiled grimly and raised a glass in salute, “consider them solved.”
~ Next Chapter ~