The uproar that commenced would have been hard to follow even if Lili hadn’t been at the wrong end of at least five swords. There were some shouted requests to kill her, which the Duke ignored.
Lili stood, helpless and useless, clinging to her lute as the man who had defied orders was bodily dragged back by two of his fellow soldiers. The Duke himself just kept staring at Lili, even while he peeled the ring of swords away like the rind of an orange. He wrestled the men back with an ease that spoke of strength and a deftness that showed care. Not a single sword touched her, and not a man retaliated against the Duke as he muscled his way to the front of their pointed, angry throng.
The Duke’s second in command had removed his helmet and affixed Lili with a stony look from across the room. She had hardly noticed him, since he hadn’t involved himself with the skewering of a hapless minstrel, but he pushed himself away from the wall now and approached, shouldering his way through the ranks of men roughly and keeping eye contact with Lili, trapping her in his disapproval.
Lilinova felt small as the other man came shoulder-to-shoulder with her captor and, only after he gave her one long, practically disgusted look, turned his gaze to the Duke.
“We should kill her regardless,” the man said, hands on his hips. The Duke shot him an unmistakably betrayed look. “At the very least she’s attempting to aggravate our soldiers—”
“My lord,” the unpleasant man interrupted. “She is a threat. A spy, and more than that, possibly some kind of sorceress.” “I am no sorceress!” Lili’s adrenaline-fueled anger made her say what she meant. Lili had held her tongue for nearly twenty years, afraid not for her life but for that last thread of hope that maybe her Father would love her if she performed her part perfectly.
But that thread was well and truly snapped. Lilinova had given her everything to being what Scarfone had wanted, and what did she have to show for it?
Somehow, in the face of her own death, she found that it wasn’t fear or regret welling up in her.
In the most critical of moments the emotion that was simmering in her chest was frustration.
“I am a musician who was asked for a song.” Her voice, for all the emotion clogging her throat, held steady. She glowered up at both men through a sheen of tears and had the presence of mind to angrily question whether this again was an exercise in futility.
“Your Duke asked for a song,” she continued. “I gave him one!”
“You sure did.” The Duke’s manner was different again—distant, as though he hadn’t even noticed her sobs. There was no edge to the words, no snide lilt to his tone, no mocking intonation to his voice. He appeared to be genuinely agreeing. She peered at him closely, but his shoulders had untensed despite the seriousness of his men, and he looked at her with a befuddled kind of curiosity, as though she had surprised him. “A truly heartstopping performance.”
“My Lord.” The one called Amedeo was scolding him. Chiding the Dark Duke!
“She could be useful,” the Duke defended himself, his chin lifting and his eyes narrowing as he looked back to her like he was assessing a fine horse. She almost expected him to open her mouth to check her teeth. He was looking down on her, and not because of his height.
At this angle his jaw and nose were sharper, giving him a distinguished look.
What a scam.
Lili projected as best she could all her foul tempered thoughts about him. To think, he had almost killed her again.
I won’t forgive you for killing me, despite undoing it, Lili thought at him with extreme prejudice. And I won’t forgive you for this second attempt on my life either, even if you thought better of it in time.
She gave him a defiant look.
“I’ve spared your life, Little Aurora.” The Duke’s sneer had returned full force. “And in exchange you will change the fate of Neilsland.”
The power of music, Lili supposed, could move even hearts of pure evil.
“This kind sir is very gracious to allow this minstrel to live.”
Somehow Lili’s voice skirted the line between spitting mockery and relieved sincerity.
The Duke clearly took offense. “You had the misfortune to meet me in that forest.”
Lili rubbed her wrist pointedly, and his gaze darted down to it, then back to her eyes. While there wasn’t remorse, he did give her the shallowest of bows, which upset Amedeo visibly.
“But you’re lucky. You’re going to help a lot of people, Miss Aurora.” The Duke didn’t smile, but he nodded slowly, decisively. “And isn’t that what you want?”
Somehow, it sounded like a threat.