LEANING BACK AGAINST the closed door, Lyrai folded his arms across his chest and waited for his little sister to finish inspecting the room. It didn’t take long; there wasn’t much to see.
“Rather small, isn’t it?” she sniffed, using her toe to poke at a pile of discarded clothing. Fleik had always been exceedingly messy. “Which bed is yours?”
Lyrai nodded at the one nearest the door and Nataryn seated herself primly on the edge.
“Hardly fitting for the heir of the Stratys.”
He didn’t even dignify that comment with a roll of his eyes. “Has Henryn died then?” he asked, wondering why the idea didn’t fill him with more sadness. He might not know his brother well these days, but once they had been close. A very, very long time ago. He knew he should have felt more sorrow over his loss, but mostly he felt a crushing pressure and a desperate urge to escape far, far away from Nimbys.
“He is fading.” Whipping out a black lace handkerchief from her sleeve, Nataryn dabbed at her eyes. It was a very affecting scene, except Lyrai was close enough to see that there were no tears on her perfectly pretty face.
“Then he is not dead.” Lyrai felt a massive surge of relief that had very little to do with poor old Henryn. “You can stop referring to me with his titles. It is disgustingly inappropriate.”
“Much you care.” Balling the handkerchief in her fist, spots of angry red blotching her cheeks, Nataryn glared daggers at him. “Father spoke to you ten days ago and you haven’t come to see him once. Nor Mother. They’re both dying, and you, the dutiful son and loyal brother, can’t even bestir yourself five hundred paces to pay them a visit.”
Her words pricked Lyrai’s conscience, rousing his own anger. “I am busy. In case you haven’t noticed, the Rift Riders are about to fly off and fight a gods-blasted war!”
“And your mother and brother are dying!” she repeated. “What kind of monster are you to desert your family at such a time? We need you here, Lyrai. Mother needs you. Father needs you.”
“He doesn’t need me. None of you do,” Lyrai snapped, pacing from one wall to the other in the impossibly cramped room. “As for visiting, easy enough for you to say. I haven’t been allowed to enter the palace uninvited since I was your age. Father doesn’t need me. He doesn’t want me. He wants an empty shell he can mould in his resplendent image, and I am not interested.”
“Oh! Save me from stubborn, prideful, useless fools,” she spat. “This isn’t about you, Lyrai. It’s not even about him. It’s about Mother, who hasn’t left her bed since she feared you were dead, and Henryn, who twists and frets and moans in his fevers, distraught at letting father down, at letting you down, at letting the world down. Won’t you put aside your pathetic ego for just one blasted morning and ease their dying minds?”
The words felt like blows, all the more painful because he knew some of them were true. He was stubborn and prideful where his father was concerned, but only because he had to be. The lifelong disdain of the Stratys had taught him well, too well. Even now, even hearing about his mother’s fears and his brother’s frets, he couldn’t bend. He couldn’t be the first to bend, because his father would see that as a weakness and wouldn’t stop applying further pressure until he broke.
Lyrai clenched his fists and kept his back to his sister, staring out of the tiny window at the dark, rainy night. “I cannot enter the palace uninvited.” He would not.
“Then I invite you!” For once he could hear real pain in his sister’s voice, beyond the ploys and artifice and foolish games. Her family was shattering and she was hurting, and she looked to him to make it all better.
But he couldn’t help her. He turned, feeling his face settle into the cold, hard mask he usually reserved for his father. “Your invite is not enough, princess. I will not set foot inside those walls again unless the Stratys himself invites me.”
Her eyes weren’t icy now; they burned with rage like the colour in her cheeks. She was so furious she shook with it as she stood up from the bed, arms tense sticks at her sides. “I never imagined I would say this after all the tales mother used to share, but you are just like him. Curse you, Lyrai.” She spun away, slamming out through the door and shoving Stirla aside, genuine tears on her face this time.
Lyrai watched her go, feeling hollow and worthless, but unable to give her what she wanted. He wouldn’t do it, he wouldn’t give his father the satisfaction. He would not bend to the Stratys machinations.
Not this time. Not ever.
Frowning in concern, Stirla stuck his head inside the door. “I’ll see her home safe,” he promised, striding swiftly away.
Lyrai said nothing. He simply stood where his sister had left him and closed his eyes, cursing himself just as harshly. Because to give in now would be to lose everything. He was not and never would be the Stratys heir. He would not take his brother’s place. Especially when Henryn wasn’t even dead yet.
“I am a Rider,” he reminded himself softly. “I am a Rider.”
Reaching for the door, he strode down the corridor past the avid eyes and whispered gossip that was already gathering pace. He had to get out of the barracks, had to get away from the narrow walls that were closing in around him. Shaking his head against the sound of his name, he burst out of a side door and ran for the eyries.
He was a Rider and right now he needed Hurricane and his wings to lift him away from the heavy Overworld, reminding him of where he belonged. Even in darkness, even in rain, he was a Rift Rider to the end.
And if that made him a cursed monster who turned his back on his family, then so be it.
~ Next Chapter ~