“Lyra, where are you? Come here, we have a visitor.”
Lyra looked up from her book and wondered if she could get away with snuffing the lamps in her room and pretending to be asleep. Khalik sounded drunk, again, and the friends he brought home were distasteful even when sober.
Her door rattled, then bounced open, revealing her brother, definitely drunk. “There you are. Didn’t you hear me? Come and be entertaining.”
He turned purple. “You can’t say that, I’m the head of the household, you have to do what I say.”
“Then say ‘sister dearest, you look tired after your day at the Sanctuary, you should have a good night’s sleep and I look forward to seeing you in the morning’.”
He pouted. “I don’t want to. I’ve got the Prince himself in our receiving room, and he wants to see if you’re as pretty as I told him.”
“Altair of course, the other one’s no fun even when he is in Carra. That’s what Prince Altair says anyway. And he’d know.”
Lyra marked her place in her book. “Would he?”
Khalik frowned. “Of course he would, they’re cousins. Even you should be aware of that, with all your book learning and clever talk. Now come on, or you’re going to offend him.”
Offending Prince Altair would no doubt be worse than pleasing him, although not by much. Avoiding his notice entirely would have been a far better plan, but Khalik wasn’t one for planning, or even thinking if he could help it.
She couldn’t resist one little dig first. “How well do you know our cousins?”
“We have cousins?”
“Father’s brother has a daughter, she and Uncle live in the craft district here in Carra, I see her once a month. Both Mother’s brothers have three children each, they’ve all stayed in the desert with their clan.”
She closed her book and stood with a sigh. Khalik frowned as she walked towards him. “Not in that old thing. Put on one of your pretty dresses.”
“This is my pretty dress. You said I never went anywhere other than the library and the Sanctuary, so there was no point buying me new clothes.”
“Father died two years ago; I’ve not had a single new piece of clothing in that time.”
He scowled. “You should take better care of them.”
She took every care of them, as did their housekeeper, but the fine linen, woven for the heat of Carra’s days, didn’t last like the thick, sturdy fabrics of the Northlands across the sea. In truth, she only had two over-gowns and four under-gowns left from her life before their parents died.
She raised a single brow at him, he pouted again, and stomped sulkily away. “He’ll have to see you like that then. Hurry up.”
She sighed again, he hated her sighs, and followed in his wake. She would be serene, she would be polite, she would be as interesting as a block of sandstone.
Her brother had crossed the reception room and was already sitting beside his guest when she entered. They made a strange pair, Khalik’s fondness for food was emphasised by his bright, over-ornamented robes, and contrasted with the spare lines of Prince Altair’s stark white tunic, trousers and over-robe. The Prince’s skin was several shades paler than Khalik’s drink-flushed bronze, making the black of his hair and deep-set eyes startlingly compelling.
She bowed, then remained in the doorway, looking enquiringly at her brother. “You wished to see me?”
Khalik flapped his hand. “Get over here where His Highness can get a good look at you.”
She stepped forward, far enough for the lanterns to fully light her features, then stopped again, face serene, expression dull.
Prince Altair looked her over, something hungry in his expression. “Yes she’s pretty. She’d be prettier if you dressed her properly. You need to set art in the right frame, Khalik.”
He leaned forward and addressed her. “And what do you have to say for yourself, Khalik’s sister? Is there a mind behind that pretty face? Or are you as empty as the girls in the palace?”
Khalik answered for her. “She’s too damn clever for her own good, always has her nose in a book, and wasting her days at the Sanctuary, playing at being a healer. My parents should have had her trained in keeping a house and business but chose to indulge her instead.”
She managed not to snort. She’d been trained in all the skills needed to run a household, the family business, and basic healing arts; she just didn’t choose to share that information with her unobservant brother. She had no desire to find herself married off to one of Khalik’s layabout friends.
Prince Altair smirked, his eyes drilling through her. “I have no need of a housekeeper or stallholder. Come, girl, and tell me something interesting.”
Lyra somehow held onto her serene expression, inside she was jumping between fury and terror. Prince Altair was cruel, selfish and the darling of his aunt, the Empress; how could Khalik think it a good idea to bring her to his attention?
She sat and asked. “What would you like me to tell you?”
Altair said to Khalik. “She has a nice voice, you should have her tutored in singing, or storytelling.”
She bit the inside of her lip on a snarl and waited until the Prince’s attention returned to her and he asked. “What do you find to do in the Sanctuary?”
“I assist in the care of the child patients, Your Highness. Khalik is being kind in describing me as a healer, I merely follow the directions of the real healers, and keep their charges company, should they begin to fret.”
She also helped with the ill and injured adults and was frequently left to change dressings and administer treatments when the healers found themselves with too many people to care for.
“You’re fond of children then.” Prince Altair’s grin reminded her of the crocodiles that basked on the banks of Carra’s Everflowing River.
She should have spoken about reading to the elderly, or re-dressing the oozing, infected limbs of river workers who’d encountered one of those crocodiles and survived.
She put her head on one side. “I like them when they’re asleep. They whine and screech when they’re awake and give me a headache.”
The biggest child she knew was her brother.
The Prince still leaned forward, devouring her with his gaze. “That’s what nursemaids are for. What is your name?”
“Lyra, Your Highness.”
His smile terrified her. “A lovely name for a lovely girl. I look forward to dining with you soon. You were inviting me for dinner next week, were you not, Khalik?”
Her brother nodded and blustered and grinned. His grin made him look like a deranged hippopotamus, clumsy and stupid but every bit as dangerous in his own way as the crocodile prince.
Prince Altair stood, barely tipped his chin to Khalik, bowed to her, and left.