Nightingale

The guard captain closed his eyes and breathed deeply a couple of times, then began to speak. “I’ve known His Highness since we both joined the army. We trained together, and served together. We’ve both been in bad situations, but the Pirate Battle … he saw his best friend, Princess Julia’s betrothed, cut down. It’s affected him.”

Marya didn’t give an inch. “The Pirate Occupation affected everyone on this island. What makes it different for him?”

Xavier replied. “Nightmares. He’s back in the battle, watching Tarek die every time he closes his eyes. In the capital, he could work himself into exhaustion and avoid dreaming at all, but even that’s not working here.”

Leila and Marya looked at Master Kebur, he shook his head, expression grim. “Not all scars are visible. How is he when he visits the portside square?”

Xavier said. “Hasn’t been yet. He’ll go eventually, but that’s why the songs are so important.”

He looked at Leila. “So you see, you have to come to him.”

Leila shook her head. “I don’t understand. Why are you connecting my singing with his nightmares?”

Xavier pushed his hand through his hair again. “He heard you the other evening, when he walked down to the end of the garden to watch the sunset. He slept a full, peaceful night for the first time since the battle.”

He gave a wry smirk. “Jerome, his valet, said he checked three times just to make sure His Highness was still breathing, he was so still and calm.”

Marya’s protest was half-hearted. “And why should he benefit when others on the island still suffer?”

Xavier brightened. “We could gather people together. You could sing to all of them.”

Marya rolled her eyes, Master Kebur said. “Now don’t get twitty, lass, you know he’s not been around in the evenings, or any time or place when people talk. He doesn’t know.”

“Know what?”

Leila answered. “I choke when I try to sing for an audience. My mouth opens, but no sound comes out. And no air comes in.”

Xavier looked anguished. “Is there some way? Any way at all? Please?”

Marya looked at him. “Did you know that’s the first time you’ve actually asked, rather than demanded?”

He glanced down and shuffled his feet, remaining silent.

She sighed and looked at Leila. “What do you want to do?”

Leila shuffled in turn. “I feel I ought to try, he is our governor after all, but I know what will happen. And that would make it even worse.”

She saw Marya and Master Kebur exchange glances, then her friend said. “What if you took your loom?”

The next thing she knew, Leila was clutching her loom, walking up the hill through the softening twilight to the Governor’s House. Xavier was just ahead of her on the path, forcing his longer legs to slow to her pace, and Marya marched staunchly beside her, carrying Leila’s little bag of yarns.

Xavier exchanged quiet words with one of the guards at the top of the hill, then bowed both of them through the archway and across the Gardens.

They entered the house through a side door grander than any front door Leila had been through – other than the time she’d visited Lady Oren here.

She hadn’t seen much of the house then and she saw even less of it now. Her focus was on Xavier, guiding them down a wide corridor, and on Marya’s arm tucked around hers. Her friend’s steady, determined presence was all that was keeping her from fleeing.

They reached the door at the end, and Xavier opened it into a large room full of light, sound, and people in rich, colourful clothes.

Leila jerked to a halt. “No.”

Her voice was faint, but enough for Xavier to hear and turn towards her, a worried crease between his brows.

She choked out. “All the people, I can’t. Can we wait somewhere else?”

Xavier looked scandalised. “You want me to fetch the Prince of the Scattered Isles to wait on you?”

Marya’s jaw jutted but Leila shook her head. Then with her heart in her throat, she turned and began walking back the way they’d come. Would he let her go? Or would he call the other guards and drag her to the Prince?

He ran ahead of her and put both his arms out. “Please, I’ll tell him you can’t sing in a crowd but at least show him you’re real.”

Leila looked back towards the bright, busy room. “I could stand at the door and you could point me out.”

Marya huffed at her now. “Now where’s the brave adventurer who hid in a ship for five days? Or are you saying I’m not enough support?”

Leila gave her friend the smile she was after, then sighed, and turned again. “It won’t be as bad as the ship. Just promise you’ll not let some handsome guest from the capital whisk you away.”

Xavier scowled at that; Marya didn’t notice as she laughed and squeezed Leila’s arm. “I will stick to your side like a particularly large and persistent barnacle.”

Leila wondered at Xavier’s reaction. It gave her something else to think about as they made their way through the door and began to cross the room.

As they crossed the floor, the conversation hushed. All the women she served in the shop were there, made strangers by their formal dress and shocked faces. Then the whispers began, words like ‘shopgirls’, ‘Miklos’, ‘bakery’ bubbled up through the hum, along with speculative ones such as ‘trouble’.

They were heading towards a group that, despite being nearly at the wide doors open to the garden, somehow seemed to be at the centre.

The eyes of the whisperers all darted between the three of them and that group. As she drew closer, she thought they may all be flicking to one member of the group in particular. He was a little taller than most around him, broad-shouldered and he had an air of stillness around him that made her tremble.

It wasn’t the stillness of calm or contentedness. It was the poised tension of a wild animal, ready to run, or turn on the intruder and rend it to pieces.

He broke off his conversation with one of the women from the capital as they approached, turning a querying look on Xavier.

The guard captain bowed. “Your Highness, I found the singer.”

The Prince focused on Leila and Marya, the gaze of a predator now and Leila froze within it. She should never have come. She couldn’t do this.

Marya’s arm tightened on hers, anchoring her, and keeping her from running.

He spoke. “You say ‘singer’ and yet there are two.”

Xavier shifted, then straightened his back. “I scared her, Sir. She wouldn’t come alone.”

The Prince’s brows drew together, and he shook his head. “You of all people should know better.”

Xavier shifted again, head ducking, and Marya shot him a sharp glance. “Why?”

Her clear-voiced question startled both men, they both looked at her. She repeated. “Why? Why should he, in particular, know better?”

Prince Andreas looked at the still silent Leila. “You’re the singer then.”

Leila bit her lip but nodded, and the woman next to the Prince tittered. “Your Highness is so astute; how did you know?”

He replied, nodding towards Leila and Marya in turn. “Xavier scared the singer. That one is scared, that one isn’t.”

He stepped forward, one hand held out, wordlessly demanding Leila’s hand in turn. She obeyed without thinking.

How strange. It felt as if he’d pulled her away from the room, from the rest of the group. The sounds, the lights, everything felt muffled and distant.

“Will you sing for me?”

His face and voice were calm. His eyes were desperate, the wild animal was back but this one was wounded and begging for help.

Her heart ached for his pain but there were so many people, so much avid attention. Her voice refused to give more than a whisper. “I can’t. Not in front of people.”

She sounded like an idiot. Taking a deep breath, she continued. “I’ve only ever sung to help keep rhythm and pass time when I work. If I try to sing for an audience, my voice ties itself into a knot in my throat and won’t come out.”

The woman tittered again. “That sounds uncomfortable, I’m sure we can find some work to set it right though. She could sweep the courtyard or something.”

Prince Andreas looked at her, and her smile faltered. She curtseyed, and retreated. Now there was nothing between Leila and the open doorway but the hand of a prince.

He looked down at where her and Marya’s arms tucked together, one hand holding a loom, the other a cloth bag. “Is that why you brought those?”

Leila nodded. “If I could maybe sit somewhere quiet and out of the way, then get on with some work. I may be able to forget myself enough to sing.”

He was still looking at her, completely focused on her face, his eyes had calmed though, and the stillness was less alarming than it had been.

His abrupt order made her jump. “Bring lanterns and cushions to the summerhouse at the end of the courtyard.”

He lowered his voice to speak to her again. “It’s as quiet and out of the way as I can manage. Let me show you.”

A man’s voice broke in this time. “You’re making an awful lot of fuss, Andreas. I do hope this will be worth it.”

Leila pulled her fascinated gaze from the prince to look warily at the speaker, his voice, appearance, and dress all proclaimed him a member of the Sun Empire elite. She shrank as he came closer.

Andreas stepped back as the man looked her over. “Rather a drab little thing to produce the music you’ve been speaking of. Are you sure your man has it right?”

Marya puffed up in indignation, but yet another woman spoke first. Tall and willowy, she rested her hand on the loud man’s arm and said. “They say the nightingale traded her bright plumage for a sweeter song and never regretted the choice. Perhaps we have a nightingale in front of us now.”

Andreas bowed. “Just so.”

The man laughed and waved a hand. “Oh very well, conduct your little songbird to her grove, and we’ll hope for the best.”

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