Not today, Neilsland scum!
Lilinova made a break for it.
The unnamed rude man made a second grab for her as she broke free, but Lili had the element of surprise. She bolted into the woods, stumbling over fallen trees and stepping in holes and nearly twisting her ankle as she pushed her way through the underbrush. She didn’t let the pounding of her heart or the stinging of branches against her cheeks slow her down.
She’d never been more grateful for pants in her entire life.
A large boulder proved the perfect place to hide, and Lili threw herself down, dirtying her clothes and panting harder from the exertion. As she gasped for breath, she came to the horrible conclusion that she hadn’t thought any of this through well enough.
She was lost, but beyond that, it wasn’t like she had anywhere to run to! She had a horse to get this far, meaning it was all forest for a good long while in every direction, and even if she returned to Tresterville, her father would just send her to die in three days’ time.
Lili put her head between her knees.Neilsland was just like the castle all over again. Sitting her between a rock and a hard place, waiting for death.
It was almost homey.
“Pathetic,” she mumbled into her knees, who agreed silently.
If this really was the border forest between Tresterville and Neilsland, it was only a matter of time before she wandered into the darkened wastes of Neilsland’s ruined farms and war-torn, desolate cities. Though Neilsland so far looked perfectly normal—which Lili knew was a trap, of course....
She rubbed her wrist, which wasn’t bruising, despite the rough treatment at the hands of the big scary Neilsland warrior.
Which was about when said Niesland warrior appeared in front of her.
“Good try,” he said coldly.
Lili, frozen, stared up at him, her wrist in her hand, her back to the rock. The soldier stood over her, not drawing his sword, but not looking particularly friendly either.His hands clenched into fists at his side.
Lili gathered her feet under her, but before she could run, he grabbed her harshly by the arm and hauled her to her feet. Lili pulled, but he dragged her along easily.
Lili was no fighter, and the Neilsland man was built like a tank, all plated metal and brutal strength. She pulled a few times, but it was no use. He was strong and terrifying.
Just like how she was warned Neilsland men would be.
He brought her back to their horses, her warhorse already tethered to his, which neither horse particularly appreciated. He shoved her at her horse and waited silently for her to mount.
Which… she had never done without a block or assistance.
They stared at each other.
“Then you may walk,” he sneered, cementing himself forever as the absolute worst example of a man in the entire world. She frowned angrily at him, but was unwilling to admit her lack of cooperation wasn’t an act of defiance, but of ineptitude. She reached to pick up her lute, but he beat her to it, snatching it from under her nose.
Lili’s protest came out as a very unmusical squawk as the man swung easily astride his horse.
“A musician’s instrument is their life, is it not?” he said. “Then I hold your life in my hands twofold. Get walking.”
It was somehow reassuring that he at least understood musicians, even if he was also willing to take them prisoner.
One awkward silence later, a Neilsland raiding party was galloping into view, all of them with weapons at the ready. Their leader, dressed similarly to her mysterious captor, readied his weapon upon seeing her and urged his horse to the front of the pack. The soldiers galloped around once and slowed to maneuver their horses into a circle around her.
Before any violence could come to her, Lili’s captor pulled his helmet off, scratched his fingers through tamped down dark curls, and pointed an accusing finger at her, glowering at his men.
“What is this?” he demanded, ruining any appeal he might have had by talking about a living breathing person as a thing.
Of course, this was also when he turned to glare at her and Lilinova of Tresterville found herself facing down the same man who had killed her in another timeline. The same man who had pitied her. The same man who would lay waste to her country.
The Dark Duke himself.
He was still the same man, even with his mouth turned down in a snarl, even with deep eyes that radiated the disdain and malice he felt.
Annoyingly, he was still incredibly attractive.
“A spy,” guessed the other dark-clad leader in a dismissive tone, wheeling his horse around for a better look. “Best to kill her now.”
“No.” The Duke’s frown stayed firmly in place, but his eyes had narrowed, assessing. “We’ll take her with us to the fortress. She has Tresterville secrets I’m sure she’d be most willing to part with.”
Lili, who definitely had things to say about that, said nothing.
The men seemed ready to move on, and Lili decided she’d walked long enough. There was, fortunately, a rock she could use to mount her horse, and while the Duke’s eyes stayed on her, he made no comment about her rather ungraceful journey from the ground to saddle.
The trip to their fortress was equally short.
And back in the direction she had come from.
The fort was near the Tresterville border, that much was clear, and as the walls loomed and the troops glared, Lilinova saw years and years of planning in mortar and stone.
The invasion was not an impromptu attack.
Lilinova was a single runaway princess with no skills.
She was hustled straight into an audience chamber, the Duke—flanked by his men—following her inside.
Maybe now she could have a decent conversa—
And she had a sword at her throat.
“You’re a bad minstrel who chose the wrong man to spy on,” the Duke’s said, his sword steady. Not drifting any closer to her neck, but also not wavering in the slightest.
Lilinova couldn’t argue that she’d had a stroke of bad luck meeting him, but she did have a significant issue with being called a bad minstrel.
“I’ll have you know that my audiences have been spellbound by me,” she snapped, thinking of Countess Dorothea’s glowing commentary on her solo performances.
“Have I heard of you?” He narrowed his eyes at her. “Does this musician have a name?”
“My name is Lil—Aurora!”
“Lilaurora?” His expression cleared slightly, less angry and more bemused.
Lilinova cautioned herself against panicking as she panicked.
“Lil’ Aurora! As in...Little Aurora! It’s a nickname... My nickname! Because my music is so moving…it summons colors from the sky!”
Lilinova attributed her sudden incredible improvisation skills to her entertainer’s soul and determined “lying” was a worthwhile skill she definitely possessed. She gratefully added it to the mental list as adrenaline sung in her veins and she braced herself for his response.
“That,” the Duke said thoughtfully, “sounds magical.”
“It is,” Lili asserted with all the false confidence of someone leaning full tilt into their lie.
Of all things, that made him lower the blade.