Sybella came up with an extremely obvious excuse to leave the orchard, citing “the need to procure some snacks from the kitchen.”
“Subtle,” the Duke commented, arms crossed again, and Lili turned away from him to hide her smile.
“She really doesn’t want to talk about magic, I suppose.” Lili shrugged, deflecting from the fact that she had lied to the Duke and didn’t want to think about it anymore.
He let it go gracefully, for which she was brutally grateful.
“You seem more open-minded now.” The Duke gestured them forward, and just like that, Princess Lilinova of Tresterville was on a garden walk with the Dark Duke of Neilsland.
“I’m always open-minded.” Lili had to be, given that the rest of her life had been so closed off. With Neilsland and its Duke nothing like what she’d been taught, Lili could have said her horizons were expanding from the moment she left her castle.
“How very un-Tresterville of you.” The Duke glanced sidelong at her without turning his head, and Lili resisted elbowing him or chiding him in retaliation.
“So,” she said instead, “I had a thought about your musical prophecy. If you’d like, I would be happy to explain.”
“In song?” He didn’t smile, but he did raise one arched eyebrow at her pointedly, and Lili, who had been on the verge of getting flustered, realized that a song was exactly what he needed.
“Actually, yes, kind sir.” She curtsied, and relished his scowl.
“I said stop doing that!”
She smiled, and it threw him off balance immediately.
They ended up in Lili’s music room, where she settled her lute and sat by the window to tune it while the Duke prowled the room once like a trapped beast, and then sunk into a chair.
Lili had thought her idea was so smart, but composing an entire song in the time it took to tune an instrument was a tall ask, even for the best musicians.
And Lili wasn’t one of them. Yet.
The Duke’s leg bounced while he waited, and she glanced up at him once to find him staring at her. Which made composing a song harder.
“Are you uncomfortable in here?” She tried not to let his clear anxiety get to her, but it was hard when she was so aware of him.
There was no more information forthcoming.
If the Duke was always so hot and cold, Lili wasn’t surprised he didn’t eat with his men, or spend very much time with anyone at all.
But she would take hot and cold; even at his most silent, the Duke was still warmer than her father or his courtiers had ever been.
“I’m not stalling,” she said. She glanced up at him, and he shook his head.
“I gathered.” His leg stopped bouncing, but the pressure of holding himself still was apparently almost too much for him as the tension bled into the air.
Lili couldn’t buy any more time, both because her lute was tuned and also because she was psyching herself out. She turned to him and he sat up attentively.
The song she sang wasn’t her best. Not by a long shot. But for a song she’d come up with while walking from the gardens to her music room, all while distracted by the Duke, it was a masterpiece.
She sang about the south gate of Tresterville, about running into a dark-clad stranger who pierced her heart and invaded Tresterville with his army. She sang about how he laid waste to Tresterville and they couldn’t stand against him.
And then she ran out of song to sing because she, herself, had been dead.
Throughout the song, he had listened closely, eyes never leaving her, leg not bouncing—not moving a single muscle, in fact, as he took in the music. He hardly blinked.
When she was finished, he nodded a few times.
“It just came to me,” she lied, feeling another deception weighing on her shoulders.
“I’m sure it did,” he agreed too easily. “It wasn’t as seamless as I’ve come to expect from you.”
“Do you think it’s musical prophecy?” She had told him his own plan. And about his victory. Surely he would believe—
“I think it’s a very smart woman overhearing a conversation in my office as she walked by.” He sat back in the chair and crossed one leg over the other. “A woman with good tactical instincts and a great deal of observational skills.”
While the next words out of his mouth were most certainly going to be “exactly what I'd expect from Tresterville’s spy,” she couldn’t help but enjoy the praise. It was the first time someone had complimented something that wasn’t her mother’s face, her cultivated skill with music, or her manners and breeding.
It was a commentary on her as a person. A mind. A soul.
“You have a good head on your shoulders, Miss Aurora,” he said, and she found herself shamefully averting her gaze to avoid the earnestness in his. “But so do I. That was no musical prophecy, but you should be proud to have deduced so much of my plan from a simple conversation.”
It was praise based on a lie.
Lilinova didn’t feel proud at all.