Leila twisted her hands into her skirt and looked around the pretty wooden summer house she stood in. Prince Andreas watched her in turn. She wasn’t sure what he was looking for.
She turned to take it all in. The walls of the house were an airy lacework of carvings and whimsical pictures. In truth, it put her in mind of a bird cage rather than a human space.
Tucked against the dark, delicate wood were box-like benches, the same shade as the walls, each artfully strewn with soft, plump cushions, inviting visitors to sit, relax and admire. Their colours were subdued and moon-silvered at first, but as lamps were brought, and placed around the space, they came to vivid, rich life.
Prince Andreas spoke. “Is it suitable?”
Leila swallowed and nodded. “It’s lovely, thank you.”
He bowed. “If it allows you to find the voice I heard on the wind, I will be more than amply repaid.”
People truly spoke like that? Oh heavens she was out of her world.
She gave him a nervous twitch of a smile and sat in a well-lit spot. Marya slipped around the Prince and deposited the bag of yarn at her side. “I’ll wait outside shall I? Make sure no one comes in?”
Bless her friend for understanding, Leila murmured. “Thank you.”
Prince Andreas bowed and strode for the door. “Xavier, guard the entrance. No one is to be admitted unless given explicit permission by…”
He frowned and turned back to Leila. “I don’t even know your name.”
She wasn’t sure she wanted him to. It made things more real somehow. But he was the Prince. “It’s Leila.”
He considered it for a moment, then gifted her a sweet smile and a small bow with his hand on his heart, in the style of the Sun Empire. Her own skipped a beat.
He was gone in an instant and Marya dragged Xavier outside. She could just see his shoulder at the edge of the door and heard the two of them talking, probably arguing, about something.
She looked around the space, then through the empty doorway to shadows of trees and bushes. The door was on the garden side of the building and she was glad of it.
Picking up her loom, she breathed deeply, found the pattern in her mind and began to weave.
Andreas returned to his guests, wondering if he was about to become the laughingstock of the island.
The crowd returned to their conversations, with only the occasional glance at the summerhouse, now glowing like a beacon on the far side of the courtyard.
Suddenly, finally, a faint thread of melody reached him, someone humming. The sound swelled, then burst into the heart-healing music he’d been chasing for so many days.
Talk stopped, the crowd’s faces turned as one to the garden, many started to move towards the sound. Andreas tensed, then relaxed as Xavier appeared around the corner of the little wooden house. The man had weapons stashes everywhere and now stood guard with a fighting staff planted firmly at his side.
His level stare halted the oncoming wave, and Andreas signalled his thanks as people began slowly retreating to the house. Conversation resumed; quieter now, and calmer. Andreas’s Sun Empire friend gave him a congratulatory nod.
“Well done. With a singer like that, your court will be the talk of the Shifting Sea and beyond.”
His wife poked him, then smiled at Andreas. “I apologise for my husband; he’s lovely, but a little too focused on politics. He can never simply enjoy something for its own sake.”
A small crease furrowed her brow. “How did she come to be here? Her accent says she’s Carra-raised, for all she’s singing a song of the desert people.”
Andreas shrugged. “We have a few Sun Empire people here. We have a few people from most places. What reason does anyone have to move to a new home?”
Her husband snorted. “Many and varied, and not all of them wholesome. Should I make enquiries?”
Andreas raised a brow. “How are you going to find out anything about one little weaver amongst your entire population?”
“As you say, it’s my population. What can you tell me of her?”
“Other than her name – Leila – nothing. Xavier will know more.” Said Andreas.
Prince Ashar nodded thoughtfully, then looked at his wife, Zaira, who was frowning.
She gave him an abstracted half smile. “I feel her name has hooked into a memory, but a fleeting one and barely caught. A Carran weaver named Leila seems familiar.”
She shook her head. “I’m chasing butterflies, no doubt. There are many weavers in Carra, and while Leila isn’t common as a name, it’s not unheard of.”
Andreas put on his practiced smile. “Regardless, you’re on your way to the Court of All Nations. Investigations will have to wait.”
Ashar snorted. “I’ll send a letter. Not all of us feel the need to be right on top of things.”
Andreas raised a brow. “Which was why you were always in trouble, when we were pages at the Court of All Nations. You kept delegating the most unsuitable things to the most unsuitable people.”
Zaira intervened. “As it’s a female matter. Will you allow me to look into it, My Lord?”
Ashar replied. “If you wish, my love.”
He added to Andreas. “She’s taking to intrigue like a falcon on an updraft. I’m not sure whether to be proud or nervous.”
He laughed as his wife poked him again, then quietened in response to the quelling frowns turned on him from other groups.
The guests began making their various ways home as the music from the end of the courtyard quietened and slowed.
As Ashar and Zaira retired to the guest quarters, Andreas returned to the summer house. The girl was merely humming now, and he wondered how long she usually sang for.
Leila finished a row of her weaving and ran an eye over the work so far, she’d made quite a bit of progress. A shadow fell across her lap and she jerked back. The Prince was standing in front of one of the lamps, quiet again, but his silence now was serene.
She looked back down at her work, and up again, not sure what to say.
He spoke before she could. “Your singing is exquisite, Mistress. Will you be able to return tomorrow?”
Her eyes widened. “You have another party tomorrow?”
He grimaced. “Merely a dinner. Ten or so guests. I entertain most evenings.”
He stepped forward. “You will, of course, be paid for your time.”
She flushed and stumbled. “I’m more worried about sleep, Your Highness.”
Were you meant to mention sleep to a Prince? Her cheeks flamed hotter. “I mean, I start work quite early each day.”
He shook his head. “You won’t be working there any more. This will become your job.”
She darted a glance around the little room, its lattice walls feeling more like a cage than ever now. “I can’t. I can’t be trapped again, please let me go.”
His expression flashed shock, then narrowed to focus.
He took a careful step closer, and slowly, carefully crouched before her, as if she were the wounded animal now. “Again?”
Her eyes darted to him, and away. “I’m sorry?”
“You said you didn’t want to be trapped again. What happened?”
She began tidying her work, wrapping shuttles and smoothing the completed section, avoiding his gaze. “It’s nothing, please don’t pay it any mind. I’ll be here at sunset tomorrow; I just won’t be able to sing every night.”
The Prince rose, and stepped back. “Of course, my thanks for your time and skill. I believe you brought great joy, and hearts ease, to my guests this evening.”
The way to the door now clear, Leila scooped up her loom and scurried into the open air. Remembering too late, she’d left her yarn bag inside.