“Magic is nonsense,” Lilinova lied immediately, the words coming quickly and sharply. “Completely ridiculous. A fake force that people talk about to sound important.”
Before magic had literally brought Lili back to life, magic had just been an excuse to increase fear around a really nice castle with huge windows and a handsome Duke who was more stuck up than dark.
The Duke in question, still so close she could see the frown lines on his forehead, managed to frown harder, which was impressive. His face went through a series of movements, so small as to be unnoticeable if she had been any farther from him.
“You’re wrong.” He stepped back, but Llili followed.
“How am I wrong? I have yet to see any crystal balls for scrying or green fire or cauldrons or bones of your enemies…”
Lili followed as he tried to turn away from her. Maybe her negative stance on the topic was overcompensating for her real magical experience, but she truly didn’t know anything about “musical prophecy” and forgave herself for her rudeness.
“Is that what you expected to see here?” The Duke stopped short, the anger in his eyes blazing hot as she came around to face him again. “Tresterville bones?”
Lili, who had counted lying among her skills before, couldn’t think of a single one.
“I had heard—” Lili swallowed her words. “But that is clearly not the case…”
“Fine words coming from someone who sings her magic,” the Duke sneered. “You heard what? That I would sacrifice you to some dark force? Exchange your soul for power? What happened to summoning colors from the sky, Little Aurora?”
Lili, who inexplicably felt like crying, marshalled herself into action.
“I don’t actually sing magic,” she snapped, cheeks hot, eyes stinging. “Are you happy now? I have no magic for you, if that’s what you hoped for!”
“Is that so?” He smiled, but it was pulled crooked. He was angry, but hiding it.
“I heard it already,” he continued, his voice softening. The false smile morphed into a real frown, which she had never imagined she’d be so happy to see. “I know what you are and what you can do. You’re the entire reason I am rethinking my tactics against Tresterville!”
He shook his head. “And you don’t even believe in your own power.”
“It’s a nickname,” Lili said around the lump in her throat as he stomped out of his office, leaving her to cry hot tears until they dripped onto his carpet. “I made it up.”
He was already gone by the time the door slammed behind him.
It took a while for Lili to wade through the complex emotions weighing her down. She sat in the window of the Duke’s office and scrubbed her eyes with the back of her hand and waited for her face not to feel so warm and her eyes to feel less puffy.
She reflected, finally, on what the Duke had said.
She had imagined he was making fun of her. Mocking her for her “name” and her playing, which was the cruelest possible thing he could do.
But when Lili really got into the music, she could sing about anything. She might have sung about being killed by him in her other timeline. It would surely be incriminating.
She momentarily panicked that she had unknowingly sung her true identity to him. But she would be dead again if that was the case, right?
Maybe Lili’s deep, vehement disregard for magic had been a tactical error. She was a musical princess who sang some stupid song and made the Duke think she had a different kind of magic.
Lili felt like a fraud twice over.
She was well on her way to wallowing again when the door opened, and she turned to meet the gaze of the Duke, who stood frozen in the doorway.
She froze in the same moment he did. He was half into the room, his hair even more tousled than before and framing eyes that weren’t frowning for once. He was as surprised to see her as she was to see him. Unsurprising, as he had more right to be there than she did.
Lili could hardly breathe in the tense silence. She braced for his demand that she leave.
“You’re still here,” he said unnecessarily.
“I was just leaving.” She scrambled for the remains of her tattered pride and resisted wiping her eyes again as she stood to bow to him.
“No!” The barked command made her jump, and he winced at the way she tensed. “I was looking for you.”
They stared at each other. She almost asked how she could help him, but the manners she had been so proud of seemed to have drained out with her tears, and now the husk of Princess Lilinova was left glaring down the Dark Duke in his own office.
“Tonight.” The Duke was still holding the doorknob, and the door swung a little when he let it go. “I’m hosting a dinner. With nobles. From the country.”
He stared expectantly at her and she nodded to show she’d heard him.
There was a desperation in his eyes that made her nervous.
He sighed at her, a frustrated little exhale.
“If you are so inclined…you may play for us.” After a moment he remembered their difference in rank. “We would request that you play for us.”
“At dinner,” Lili clarified.
“At dinner,” he confirmed.
“Of course.” She almost said “kind sir,” but saw him tense as if bracing for it. “I will prepare, then.” She stepped out the door without bowing, saw his hand clench as she passed.
As she headed toward her music room the rapid tapping of feet behind her made her turn back around. The Duke stood there, one hand on the wall, the other half extended toward her like he had been pursuing her.
He had frozen again, and Lili saw a man poised to speak who had lost his words.
The tension- at least for Lilinova- thawed considerably.
When the Duke gathered enough of himself to speak, there was color high in his cheeks and a firm set to his shoulders and mouth that wasn’t quite a frown, but was a desperate bid to hide whatever expression it was instead.
“Pick the songs for tonight’s showcase…. But no music from Tresterville!” He retreated into his office again, but caught the door before it could shut with one hand. “Please!”
The door slammed behind him.