Lili couldn’t help it, despite her best efforts.
She tried so hard.
But in the end, she had to begrudgingly acknowledge that she absolutely loved Neilsland.
It was (annoyingly) civilized, and very (obnoxiously) beautiful and worst of all: she was allowed to go anywhere she wanted. A fact she didn’t even notice at first because her room was so nice she didn’t even try to leave!
When they arrived, she was brought to a medium-sized music room with full floor-to-vaulted-ceiling windows, wood floors with lush carpet, and even a small stage to perform on. She had found the place well maintained, if a little empty, with a stand for her music, comfortable chairs for sitting, a side table, and a piano covered in a crushed velvet curtain that she didn’t dare touch.
The first day, Lili sat in that room, with the windows open, overlooking Neilsland. She stared out over the bright streets with their colorful shop fronts and wagons. Stalls sold food and toys and trinkets, and people bustled about without hurry.
Lili watched the world go by with her lute in her hands and her fingers on the strings and thought that she could be happy if her whole life was playing her lute in that window.
Mid-afternoon, tea was brought to her by a girl a bit younger than herself who had been absolutely dazzled to learn that there was another woman in the castle.
“With so many men in one place, you would think they’d have at least one girlfriend between them,” the girl said to Lili with absolute delight at having someone to tell, “but alas. Not a one. The kitchen has some ladies, and even the guards have some ladies, but do they talk to me? No.”
The girl’s name was Sybella, and after they exchanged pleasantries—which from Lili was only her “name,” and from Sybella was an itemized breakdown of who had made what decor decisions or life choices in the castle—they sat down to tea and had an excellent chat.
Well, Sybella chatted, and Lili listened and learned like a good Tresterville spy would have. Here in the land of Lili’s sworn enemies, the maids actually made the best pies, the stablehand with the cowlick picked his nose, and there was an old woman in town who made donuts on the first Tuesday of every month and could be convinced to part with one if she was in the right mood. Lili filled that information away for future use, as it would definitely come in handy…for spying, of course.
She learned Amedeo was indeed the Duke’s second hand, and that the Duke was very quiet and Sybella had hardly seen him but that it was “very nice that he brought you here for me,” which only added more questions to Lili’s docket.
Sybella suggested they go out and Lili was suddenly made aware that the whole castle and city were open to her.
“The Duke specifically ordered instruments for your room today,” Sybella told her with apparent glee as they walked the palace halls. “I can’t believe he did that! Who even are you?”
“Just me.” Lili offered the girl a smile, which was really the only truth she could give. She was as baffled by the gesture as anyone.
Sybella took her to the palace grounds, walked through the gardens, past the grand fountain that shot beautiful arcs of water over a statue of happy dogs and horses.
“He’s going to ask you to play for him, you know,” she said.
“He hasn’t yet” Lili sniffed pointedly and examined a flower with more enthusiasm than she felt for geraniums. “I would know if he wished for a song. And he’d probably want a Neilsland song and I, as they might have told you, don’t know any.”
“He sent for music books, too. Oh, and he loves improvisational music.” Sybella grinned, skipping forward to twirl her skirts and look pointedly at Lili. “What someone is like when they improvise says a lot about a person.”
A messenger arrived to ask Lili to play for the Duke.
Which Sybella was infinitely smug over.
Lili was still surprised.
“You’re late,” the Duke said as Lili entered a lovely little parlor off the main banquet hall with her lute.
“Apologies, kind sir—”
“You can forgo the pleasantries, Miss Aurora.” The Duke sat heavily into an armchair by the fireplace. And wouldn’t look at her again.
Now that he was home, Lili would have imagined he’d look more at ease. But even without the pointed armor and his sword at his side, he hadn’t lost an ounce of rigidity. He wore black slacks, a black long-sleeved shirt with gold buttons, and black boots with gold accents.
One suit of armor for another, then.
“I would like a song, if you would oblige me.” He paused, and then, almost as though he wasn’t sure of it: “Please.”
“Of course, kind sir.”
One improvised song that Lili wasn’t proud of later, the Duke had sunk back into his chair a bit. His eyes stayed on her, but his posture had relaxed. When the last notes died away, he politely put his hands together and clapped.
Lili…hadn’t expected clapping.
So she bowed.
Because he clapped.
There was, to the shock of neither of them, an awkward silence after it.
“The music room is lovely,” Lili ventured, deciding to just go for it.
“I’m glad you like it.”
“Thank you for allowing me to use it.” She wondered if she was meant to simper more. Despite his fearsome reputation, she doubted it.
“Consider it your own.” He stood sharply and moved to the window. “It is of no use to anyone else. It will be good to have a musician in residence.”
Lili tried desperately not to be happy that there was a place where “musician in residence” was something to aspire to.
The Duke cleared his throat. “I’m glad it pleases you.”
“It does. I didn’t expect such grandeur. I will be happy to call it home.” Lili smiled, and he nodded once, sharply again, as if agreeing, looking out over the city.
After a moment, he looked back at her abruptly, a mixture of concern wrinkling his forehead and indignance turning the edges of his mouth down.
“That is not your room. It is your music room. You have quarters, as well.”
Lili’s surprise must have shown in her eyes, because his expression clouded and she felt his sudden irritation like a slap.
“Thank you,” she said, trying not to make it sound too shocked, and smiled again.
He nodded again.
Neither of them knew what to do with that information, so they were back on the same page.
A possibly companionable silence fell. Lili had to try and ruin it, of course.
“I wouldn’t imagine a musician to be treated this well by a noble—no offense.”
“None taken.” The Duke looked like he was fighting a smile, his face softening to be less severe, and maybe a little mirthful. “A normal musician would not be accommodated so well.”
“So I am special, then?” She fiddled with the strap holding her lute in place and looked at him through her lashes.
He lifted his chin a little at her. He said nothing. Lili resisted rolling her eyes.
“What made you decide to bring me here?” she tried.
“Your music.” He faced her completely, leaning his back against the wall and crossing his arms. “Obviously.”
“Obviously,” Lili agreed readily. “But I sang a song that deeply upset your men, and yet for singing it, I was brought back to your castle.” She released her lute, letting it hang comfortably again.
“What did I sing that made you need to keep me close?”