The day Lilinova died started poorly.
She nearly ran headfirst into her father at the foot of the stairs first thing in the morning and King Scarfone said something scathing in reply. Lilinova had already been bowing and apologizing before breakfast.
Her father’s script changed, but the message always stayed the same: Why are you causing problems for me on purpose?
Lilinova was a proper princess. She played music daily, drew, read, and spent most of her time (all of it) in the tower. She had been playing one of her mother’s melodies that morning when she saw her father, so she reasoned that maybe that was what had set him off.
Thankfully Countess Dorothea had arrived three days prior with a gift for Lili: an instrument called an “ocarina.” Lili was already proficient, as instruments of all types had become her constant companions, but she hadn’t felt the pull of its music and returned quickly to her .
In her tower, she felt the catch of song.
Countess Dorothea said inspiration swept great composers away sometimes, and when Lilinova became spellbound by the music, the words she sang to the rafters rang clear and true.
Lilinova was loudest when she was safely tucked away from the rest of the Tresterville court. Her room was removed enough that she felt, even if only briefly, that she was free to let her voice carry and be heard.
Not, of course, that anyone ever listened.
As always, when echoes of her final notes faded and Lilinova darted forward for pen and parchment, the song was gone. Poof.
What was the point of inspiration if there was no way to remember her masterpieces?
Lilinova pushed the lute aside and lay back in her bed, closing her eyes against the beautiful chandelier and the pleasant mid-afternoon daylight. She covered her ears to blot out the birds singing in the lush gardens outside and the sounds of life in the castle going on as usual without her.
And because of that, she missed the sounds of the first clash of swords and the splintering of the gate.
It happened so fast.
Lilinova’s door slammed open and Countess Dorothea and two guards leapt into the room.
“You sang that they would come,” Dorothea said shortly before pulling her by the arm out of her room. “They’re on our doorstep! Come!”
Through the castle, past the great hall—where the sounds of battle finally registered to Lilinova’s confused senses—and out the servants’ door they fled.
Dorothea didn’t have to tell Lilinova what had happened. Her father had been expecting an attack from their neighbors in Neilsland for almost as long as Lilinova had been alive. Lilinova had eavesdropped enough to know that the Dark Duke of Neilsland brought death- and possibly dark magic- down on anything under his influence. He was a beast of a man, seven feet tall with eyes that burned like coals behind his armored helm.
He ate children possibly, or maidens.
Lilinova was lost in these thoughts as Dorothea brought her to the stables where her father’s horse was being tacked up in its finery. King Scarfone was already there, his back to her as he spoke to his generals. The crest of Tresterville’s crossed axe and sword were stitched in gold across the white shield on his blue cloak; the silver eagle’s wings above it gleamed at her ominously as he gestured his orders to his men.
Lilinova had no choice but to wait helplessly as people and horses swarmed around her.
Finally, as if noticing her presence for the first time, the king turned to face his daughter.
“The Dark Duke is here,” he told her, which was the longest stream of words he’d spoken without censure in weeks. “You must flee through the south gate.” He had one hand on the hilt of his sword, the other clenched into a white knuckled fist.
“Yes, Father,” she said, because what other choice did she have?
He continued to stare at her, eyes piercing and dark, mouth curled down in an eternal frown.He had run out of smiles when her mother died bringing Lilinova into this world, if he’d ever had them at all.
“You look like Aurora,” he told her, “which makes this difficult.”
It was, again, one of the kindest things he’d ever said to her.
He wrapped his cloak around her, pulling the hood up so she was dwarfed in his kingly mantle, wearing the crest of their people.
“Take my horse.” He helped her into the saddle. “Ride for the south gate and do not stop.”
He didn’t hug her, or kiss her, or say anything other than that. But they were words meant to save her life, even if he had to deliver them with a clenched fist and a sword in his hand.
She had words to say to him, as well. Maybe apologies. Maybe questions. Had he forgiven her for costing her mother’s life? Did he have hopes for her?
Would he miss her?
He gave the signal and the horse galloped south.
They dashed through the streets of Tresterville, where the black flags of Neilsland stood up like grave markers above the skirmishes washing the city in red. The horse continued at a breakneck pace toward the south gate and Lilinova’s tears welled up and rolled off her face as they went, her father’s cloak billowing around her slight shoulders.
Then there was pain.
Lilinova’s shoulder hit the cobblestone and the air was knocked from her lungs. She felt her body go cold and hot, pain lancing in daggers down her arms and through her torso.
She struggled to breathe, lying on her back as her vision swam. The black flags of Neilsland stood up around her—until she realized they weren’t flags at all.
Six arrows were embedded in her chest.
Even as the darkness was closing in around her, she could see the shadowy figures of Neilsland warriors gathering.
“Why was she riding at us like that? She had to have known she’d be killed.”
One of the warriors, taller and broader than the rest, with armor trimmed in gold, removed his dark helmet and shook out his hair, looking down at her.
The Dark Duke.
She had the thought that he had a pleasant mouth and kind eyes. Maybe it was her body’s response to the end of all things.
“My Lord, the king escaped,” another man reported. “She must have been the decoy.”
“He would.” The Dark Duke scowled. But when he frowned at her, his expression softened. “Poor thing.”
Lilinova wanted to laugh.
Of course. How could the Dark Duke not shoot her as she rode straight at him dressed in the riding gear of his mortal enemy?
She should have realized her father intended this from the start.
She tried to laugh, but instead…she died.
Lilinova awoke sobbing in her own bed. She tumbled to the floor, nightgown caught around her ankles as she crashed down hard on the same shoulder that throbbed from her fall off the horse. Her chest still lacked oxygen and her body still burned.
But she was safe. She was whole.
She was… home.
Lilinova covered her face with her hands, her heartbeat slowing as her mind caught up with what must have been a vivid dream.
A nightmare, that was all.
A knock on her door startled her badly, but she recovered her composure and allowed the messenger to enter.
“A gift from your aunt, the Countess Dorothea Mysterium,” the messenger said. “It is called an ocarina.”
Lilinova held the gift. Kept holding it long after the messenger had gone.
She unwrapped the small wooden instrument and blew a few notes expertly, heart hammering, panic rising.
She played a tune. She knew how to play it well.
That had been no dream.
Lilinova’s hands tightened around the ocarina.
It was three days before the attack on her homeland…and her murder.
And damned if she wasn’t going to do something about it this time.
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