Lili gave herself full marks for her performance that evening. She sang the best possible rendition of the Neilsland song Sybella had desperately taught her earlier in the day, and smiled and curtsied like a lady. She was never spoken to like a princess, but everyone seemed ready to interact with her in a polite and friendly manner. Lili had never been to so pleasant a party.
A foreign song was requested that Lili happened to know from her own personal studying—a fact which went over splendidly. The room was spellbound throughout the song and uproarious cheering was her reward.
Lili stood and bowed and bathed in the praise of a real live audience. If her Aunt Dorothea could see her now, she would be so proud!
There were requests for the rest of the night, mostly obscure requests from far away lands that were requested for sport.
Lili knew some of those songs, in fact, and the party was a jovial affair of nobles and countrymen challenging her knowledge and delighting in both her successes and failures.
The nobles weren’t what Lili had expected. She’d imagined the stuffy court of Tresterville, with its long, odious speeches and self-aggrandizing toasts that went on for hours. The Duke’s party was made up of tables arranged in a massive U-shape in the great hall, with the Duke and Sybella sitting at the table between the others, where they could be viewed by all.
The introductions were short, realistic instead of ostentatious, and polite. The meal itself was flavorful, plentiful, and spicy. Sybella insisted that Lili sit by her side for dinner, maybe for company—and maybe to enjoy Lili’s startled reaction to her first bite of something that had, admittedly, been a solid red color as a warning.
After dinner came the presentation of gifts by the Duke’s guests. He was gifted textiles, sculptures, art, horses, even a puppy of some fancy breed Lili had never heard of that Sybella immediately claimed as her own.
Lili had a part to play. She was but a humble minstrel. So while the gifts were presented, she hung back, played her lute, watched, smiled, and stayed out of the way. That felt more like being Tresterville’s Princess than anything else that evening.
The harp was the size of a breadbox, curved on both sides, with strings that gleamed in the light and shimmered when the cloth pulled away from them.
They called it a lyre, and Lili had never wanted anything more in her life.
The lyre was blackwood trimmed in gold—because of course it was—and the noble who gifted it commented cheerily about the Dark Duke’s fabled love of music. Sybella gave Lili a meaningful look at that, but Lili only had eyes for the lyre.
There were a couple good-natured comments about the music that Lili had been playing, most about the quality of her voice or skill. Lili hardly heard them.
But the Duke’s attention was like a brand, and Lili met his gaze squarely when he focused on her.
“Thank you.” The Duke gestured to the lyre without taking his eyes off Lili. “I will be pleased to hear our resident musician play it.”
Lili couldn’t keep the smile from her face, and the Duke’s eyes widened as she bowed her gratitude. Lili hadn’t noticed her feet moving, but she was already standing next to the bemused but delighted gifter by the time she caught up with herself.
Almost shyly, she glanced at the Duke, who kept staring at her until Sybella elbowed him, and then he nodded once more to confirm that she should take it.
Lili accepted the lyre and ran her fingers over the strings once, creating an elegant sound. A good, wholesome strum. She pressed her fingers reverently against the strings and up over the blackwood frame, following the gold inlay.
“Maybe we should let Miss Aurora and the lyre have a moment alone!” a rowdy party guest called from the back, which summoned wild laughter and applause.
Lili felt her cheeks heat, offering the lyre back to the gifter with extreme care.
“I think our dear Duke means you to have it, Miss Aurora.” The guest grinned, winking at her even as she pushed it into their hands. “To play,” the gifter pressed when she still tried to hand it off.
“Yes, play it!” Sybella was half out of her chair.
The Duke pulled her back gently. “That’s unfair to her,” he said without looking away from Lili. “She may not know how.”
Lili’s hands were already moving, an arrangement of her emotions dancing from her fingertips. In the shocked silence, she heard Sybella’s giggle.
“Keep going!” Sybella clapped her hands and the Duke had to pull her back again.
Lili played a little of her experience in Neilsland into the song, a little bit of her own nerves twanging the strings, a bit of her fear of the freedom she’d found herself with, and the unexpected kindnesses she had been shown. She played something that wasn’t quite a melody yet, but she liked the unfinished notes hanging in the air at the end, and smiled when the crowd erupted into cheers anyway.
Lili managed to gently lay the lyre back into its velvet case and bow without looking at the Duke.
She couldn’t bring herself to risk it at that moment.
The next gift was already being presented, and Lili retreated to one of the alcoves, where servants and guards stayed out of view. By the time she had recovered her composure, the festivities were back on and the Duke was deep in conversation with a few noblemen who all leaned across the darkwood table like old friends rather than stuffy council members vying for favor.
“I won’t be invading at all,” the Duke was saying as Lili drifted closer to their table. “I have been advised against it.”
“I advise you to do it!” One noble slammed a meaty fist on the table, making Sybella jump nearby. “That bastard Scarfone needs to be taken down!”
“Where’s that Amedeo to talk some sense into you!” Another man turned his whole body around a few times looking for the man in question.
“Invading only spells disaster.” The Duke sipped from his goblet without a care in the world.
Lili peeked out at the Duke—now joined by Amedeo for the “everyone convince the Dark Duke to invade Tresterville” round table—and found him looking directly at her.
“I won’t attack Tresterville,” he said with finality, eyes never leaving her. He nodded to her once. “I won’t attack Tresterville at all. I have my own ideas on how to handle Scarfone and everyone who swears allegiance to him. Many unexpected pieces just fell into place.”
Lili’s blood ran cold.
He kept looking at her, a knowing glint in his eyes.
Almost like he knew who she was.