Lilinova of Tresterville was a princess, not a general.
Her father hadn’t trained her for war…or anything at all, really, which in retrospect should have put a big red flag on her upbringing, but alas. She had nothing to work with except her musical talent and the few scattered conversations with the Duke and Sybella.
She couldn’t do nothing, but nothing was what she was quite skilled at.
Lili paced her room.
She had options.
Option one: kill the Duke?
Ha. No. Absolutely not. That wasn’t going to happen. She didn’t even want to. But only because…because she wasn’t a killer. For no other reason.
Not to mention Amedeo would kill her back.
Option two: kill…someone else?
What were her other options again?
Why were all her thoughts so murderous!?
Lili stuck her head out her fabulous open window, breathing in fresh Neilsland air.
She was backed into a corner.
Her father hadn’t taught her diplomacy and Lili hadn’t needed it, since she’d simply gone along with everything he said. And now the only other modeled behavior she had from him for problem solving was…murder.
Lili put her face in her hands.
So many red flags, and she had just thought red was her father’s favorite color.
Stupid, stupid, stupid!
Lili pushed the heels of her hands against her eyes until she saw stars, then looked out the window at Neilsland like it had personally affronted her. Which she had been taught to think that it had.
But that didn’t matter anymore. As the darkness cleared from her vision, the open world flooded in.
Lilinova of Tresterville was not going to wallow for another twenty years (or even two days), thanks.
Not when she knew what was at stake.
Not when she’d already taken risks and lied her way into Neilsland, of all places.
She burst out of her room before she had time to think of what to say and was halfway down the hall already by the time she realized she didn’t even know where to begin with him. She was at his door when the man in question stepped out. They nearly collided.
There was a moment where she and the Duke just stood there staring at each other, him with his expression pinched, the perpetual frown making his glare all the more pronounced, and her with her mouth hanging helplessly open. His hands were extended, hovering just under her forearms as if to catch her if she fell. He was looking her over, the frown soft at the corners, his eyes scanning her once before settling on her face. It was almost accusatory.
Lili kept expecting him to say something. Ask her why she had been eavesdropping. Make some grand declaration that made her heart pound.
Instead, he said nothing.
When she broke the silence, what came out of her mouth sounded very sane: “Salutations, kind sir, this humble one was searching for you. She would request an audience.”
The language was flowery and excessively formal, but at least she didn’t sound like she was begging to speak with him privately. For some reason, that would be too much. She wouldn’t be able to look at herself in the mirror if she sounded desperate.
“Of course.” He gestured across the hall with one elegant hand, the other folding behind him as he angled his body to display the unassuming door he had stepped out of. He even opened it for her.
Lili stepped into the first dark room she’d seen in the palace, squinting in the gloom. The candles and lanterns weren’t lit, and with the curtains closed, the darkness pressed in all around her.
She couldn’t live in darkness.
Lili threw the curtains open with both hands and nearly jumped when she found the Duke directly behind her, his hand extended to do just the same thing. Light streamed into the room, throwing a beam of sunlight across the Duke’s sharp cheekbones and full lips, even as he squinted in surprise. His whole face scrunched minutely before he blinked rapidly and stepped away from her, eyes adjusting.
She felt silly to have expected… something else.
Behind the Duke was a blackwood table at the center of the room, dismissing her panicked speculation that the office was anything but what it was. The room was trimmed in golds and blacks, which didn’t surprise Lili. What did surprise her were the little knickknacks and oddities around the mantle and on the shelves. Lili walked his shelves to distract herself, finding all manner of things. Namely, books that weren’t about war or death or black magic, but about agriculture, horsemanship, a book of paintings of dogs, an engineer’s guide to watermills.
“You asked to speak to me.” The Duke stood stock still where she had left him, but his hands had clenched into fists at his sides. His tone was crisp. She grimaced an apology and stepped away from his things to address him.
“I did. Thank you for indulging me.” She forced a smile, which only seemed to annoy him. His scowl deepened and he walked past her to the window to regain distance.
“I wanted to apologize,” Lili decided on the spot, “for upsetting you yesterday. When I asked about what I sang”——even though it was her damn song—“it was finished and done. I should have let it lie.”
Lili’s indignance flared in her chest, but she kept her tone demure and hopeful, calling on all her experience with her father.
The Duke’s fists were still tightly clenched, but his voice was low, almost tentative, when he spoke.
“...I am not unwilling to speak to you about it.” She had him on the ropes.
Lili bowed politely.
“This kind sir should of course rely on his own excellent judgement—”
She jumped at the sharp word. Despite speaking at a normal volume, he sounded furious again.
She clasped her hands together and squared her shoulders, but he looked—if possible—even angrier about that.
“That!” he elaborated unhelpfully. “Stop doing that.”
“Kind sir?” Lili was used to never being able to please; she kept her cool.
He gestured to her with a harsh jerk of his elbow and wrist. “That kind sir bit. You speak like you’re appeasing a noble.”
“The Duke is a Duke, sir.” Lili didn’t roll her eyes because she was a lady.
“I—yes.” He ran his fingers through his hair, disheveling the curls artfully.
Lili gave him a look she hoped expressed that it would take more than a handsome face, soulful eyes, elegant hands, soft mouth, long legs, and some artificially tousled curls to move this princess’s heart.
The Duke subtly wiped his palm against the leg of his pants before the hand curled into a fist again. “My judgement told me you could be trusted, and yet I allowed my temper to override my sense,” he said.
That was very close to an apology, and Lili couldn’t ignore that he felt he could trust her. Heat bloomed in her cheeks and something swooped low in her belly.
She found herself about to reassure him that he had excellent judgement—for real, this time.
She was just trying to save Tresterville!
“It is all forgotten, sir.”
Was Lili a little pleased? Yes. Was it because she was “fooling” the Duke? Maybe not.
But it helped her mission. She was allowed to take it as a win.
“I wished to speak to you about earning my keep here.” She smiled at him and he went very still at her words, the whites of his eyes showing as they widened. “I have many services I can offer the castle. Music lessons, festival entertainment, the court bard, if you wish?”
His shoulders relaxed, but he also scoffed, ending any goodwill he might have been building within her.
“We have no need of such services in this castle.” He folded his hands behind his back and stepped closer,until she had to look up at him to maintain eye contact.
She held her breath, and for a moment—just an instant—he looked from her to the window and back again. Whatever he had to say to her was important enough to worry over.
“Miss Aurora, what do you know about musical prophecy?”