EXHAUSTED AFTER ANOTHER day of flying drills, packing up supplies and polishing weapons, Mhysra dragged herself home alone through the streets of Nimbys. Corin, Derrain and Dhori should hopefully have passed this way some time before, but Captain Huro continued to have it in for her and Cumulo and had set her an extra round of tack repair, mostly because he could. Although Cumulo’s not so quiet mutterings about puffed-up cock robins squawking at falcons might also have had something to do with it.
“Thanks a lot, Cue,” she grumbled, flexing her sore hands as she trudged through the puddles and finally climbed the steps to the front door of Kilpapan House.
Gedley, the under-butler, was there to take her coat and boots, meaning that the Countess was already inside and had Hathers waiting on her. “Your bath is ready for you, my lady,” the woman said, bowing as Mhysra ruffled her damp hair and smiled.
“Thanks, Gedley, you and my sister make an excellent team.”
Too well-trained to crack a smile, there was nevertheless a twinkle in Gedley’s eye as she bowed again and carried Mhysra’s damp clothing away to be cleaned, ready to get wet and muddy again in the morning.
Climbing the stairs in her socks, Mhysra couldn’t deny that although she didn’t always enjoy being a Kilpapan, it did come with some pretty big benefits. Like the glorious bath standing steaming beside the roaring fire, and the maid waiting to carry the rest of Mhysra’s filthy uniform off for cleaning and also provide a range of soaps, lotions and bruise balms to wash all her dirt and aches away.
The water was beautiful, just the right temperature, as Mhysra sank down into the tub and let her head fall back against the rim. Her sister’s personal maid, Letha, was quick to clear up the dirty clothes and place clean ones nearby, along with the lotions and towels. Then she left, the door clicking quietly shut behind her, since Mhysra had never been comfortable having someone assist her in the bath.
Only when she was finished, wrapped in a plush towel and brushing her hair dry beside the fire, did a knock sound on the door.
“Come in,” she called, not raising her head, assuming it was the ever-efficient Letha and a team of servants come to clear the bath and dirty water away.
It was, but instead of Letha leading them, Milluqua was the one who entered first.
“Mother wishes to see you,” her sister said, joining her beside the fire and taking the brush from her hand.
Mhysra was too relaxed from the bath to care much about the words, instead tipping her head back and enjoying the soothing strokes of her sister’s attention. “Now?” she murmured, not liking the idea of getting dressed again.
“When you’re ready,” Milluqua replied, dealing with a stubborn tangle. “Her day has been as long as yours. She’s in her sitting room reading.”
Mhysra tilted her head so her sister could see her sceptically raised eyebrows.
Milluqua chuckled. “She is capable of reasonableness at times, as is father. It helps if you’re not permanently at odds with them.”
Mhysra rolled her eyes as her sister forced her head straight so that she could keep brushing her hair. “Funny, I always thought it was they who were permanently at odds with me.”
“That too,” Milluqua agreed good naturedly. “All so stubborn, all so sure. It’s easy to see how you’re all related.” When Mhysra curled her lip at the thought, Milluqua tugged firmly on a curl. “I know you’d rather be a Wrentherin through and through, little sister, but the fact is you’re a Kilpapan. As I am. As was Kilai. You can’t love us without at least a little of it extending to them. They are our parents, regardless of who raised us. Without them none of us would have been born.”
Which was true enough, even if Mhysra rarely wished to acknowledge it. Turning in her seat, she hugged her sister around the waist and rested her head against her. “I love you, Milli. None of us deserve you.”
Her loving sister tapped her gently on the head with the hairbrush. “And don’t you forget it. Now, bundle up in a nightgown and go see mother. No matter her reasons, she’s been working hard to get everything in order for you Riders to return to Aquila. The least you can do is show up and speak to her in thanks.”
True again. Sighing, Mhysra stood up and kissed the top of her much shorter sister’s head. “I hate it when you go all wise.”
“No, you don’t. I’m always wise and you love me more for it. Now get dressed, go talk and I’ll have some of your favourite cloudberry tarts waiting for after you’re done.”
Since it would be rude to refuse such an offer, Mhysra did as she was told and was soon padding off down the plush carpets of the hall towards her mother’s sitting room.
* * *
LYRAI WAS WALKING back from the Rider mess hall with Stirla and a group of other young lieutenants when they suddenly all stopped. Caught mid-yawn, not paying attention to his surroundings, Lyrai walked into Stirla before he realised everyone else had paused. Luckily his friend was big and broad enough to absorb the impact with little more than a brief sway and an amused glance.
“I am looking for His Royal Highness, Lieutenant Prince Lyrai,” an imperious voice demanded.
While everyone else looked around in bemusement, searching for him amongst their number, Lyrai gritted his teeth and shoved his way to the front. He knew that voice and tone. Planted firmly in the middle of the corridor, blocking the way to all and sundry, Nataryn, his youngest sister, stood proud and tall, somehow managing to look down her nose at him from several inches below his height.
“That,” he growled, stopping in front her, “is not my title.” Royal Highness was used to address the heir only.
“Isn’t it?” she queried, tilting her head mockingly.
He looked her up and down, taking in the perfectly tailored black velvet dress, the matching veil on her head and the silver circlet that held it in place. She wore no other jewellery and her eyes, though icy with contempt were also rimmed with red.
Aware of the whispers already starting – not just behind his back but all around – he grabbed her by the hand. “This is not the place for this.” Rift Riders were the worst gossips across the Overworld.
“Why not?” Nataryn dug her heels in, but her puny fourteen-year-old frame was no match for his wiry Rider strength and he towed her along like the meddlesome brat she was. “Everyone will know soon enough anyway. Why not find out here and now? This is the family you’ve chosen, isn’t it?”
“Discretion, Highness, is the Stratys’ finest weapon.” Much to Lyrai’s relief, Stirla had shoved his way through the chattering crowd and was now ushering Nataryn forward in no uncertain terms, arms spread like he was herding sheep. Lyrai might be taller and stronger than his sister, but their builds were similarly small and unprepossessing. Stirla, however, was the kind of man no one defied – unless you were of a similar bulk and height or very, very drunk.
Grumbling in a most unprincessly manner, Nataryn sniffed at the pair of them and raised her chin to a haughty angle. “Take me somewhere we can talk then,” she commanded.
Stirla raised his eyebrows at Lyrai, and Lyrai rubbed his face with a sigh. Clearly he wasn’t getting rid of her without hearing whatever it was she’d come to say. He only hoped her appearance was mostly for shock and show.
“Come along then,” he relented, turning to lead her towards the cramped room he was sharing with the rest of Captain Myran’s lieutenants. “And try not to stir up too much more gossip along the way.”
Lifting her skirts in one hand, she inclined her head the tiniest fraction. “I make no promises.” She shot Stirla an icily unfriendly look and marched after Lyrai as if she owned the place. Gods help them all, but if Lyrai’s father actually listened to him and picked one of the princesses as his successor, she very well might.
“I’ll stay out here, guard the door and make sure no one listens in,” Stirla told Lyrai, when Nataryn swept past them both and into the room beyond.
Clapping his friend gratefully on the shoulder, Lyrai straightened his spine, took a deep breath and prepared to meet whatever fate his sister threw at him.
~ Next Chapter ~