Consequences

Xavier accompanied her to her home, then continued on to the galleon with Marya. It was a tense, quiet walk.

Marya asked. “Are you going to go back tomorrow?”

Leila nodded. “I have to.”

Marya tensed. “What did he say? He might be the prince but he can’t force you into doing anything.”

Leila summoned a smile for her friend. “It’s not that, it was him. When we arrived, he was so tense. If I had a loom strung that tight, the warp threads would snap as soon as I tried to weave. When he spoke to me at the end, the threads were relaxed.”

Marya nudged her shoulder. “Enough that you could weave him?”

That startled a giggle out of her. “I don’t know, I’ve never tried to weave a person. I’ll let you know if I ever decide to try.”

Xavier cleared his throat. “I don’t know about the weaving, but I saw the change as well. Same as when he heard you in the garden. Thank you, Mistress.”

They fell silent again and she left the two of them at her garden gate. Waiting until they were gone and she was inside to indulge the sobs of fear, relief and she didn’t-know-quite-what that had been clamouring for release since she’d first stepped in to the summer house.

She felt stupid. Why was she overreacting like this? Her mind’s eye spun back to the summer house, and the Prince looming over her, blocking the only way out. How many times had Gasin cornered her like that? Times when she’d had to dodge or kick, or on one occasion even bite, to get away from his leer and too-familiar hands.

The Prince though, he’d not done any of those things Gasin had tried. He’d not even touched her beyond that initial grasp of her hand. But there was a shivering little core inside that refused to see the difference. There was only a powerful man and a cage in which she wove.

She gave in, let the tears come. Maybe they’d wash the fear away and she’d be able to sing at his dinner without making a fool of herself with her cringing and shrinking.

Maybe next time, she could pretend to be Marya, brave and bold. Her smile felt wobbly but it was there. She washed her face, and finally fell asleep.

She woke, far too soon, to go to work.

Bleary-eyed and yawning, she ate a quick breakfast and left the cottage. Marya would have already left, she probably didn’t get any sleep at all. Leila wondered if she’d managed to tell Xavier off for that as well.

Smiling to herself, she waved at Master Kebur as she slipped through the gate in Grigor’s wake and ambled into town with the carpenter in sleepy, amiable silence.

The day started normally, the tailors and seamstresses sending her on quests through cupboards and drawers for all the notions needed to make yet more outfits to impress the new governor and his coterie.

She wondered how long it would be before he was no longer the ‘new’ governor, and merely the Governor of Port Watch.

The trouble came in the afternoon. As soon as Bianca unlocked the door after lunch, the Hill ladies came flooding in. Every one of them eyeing Leila as if she was some strange creature they’d never seen before.

They gathered in their groups and pretended to look at ribbons and silk trim, until Sophia put her head on one side in a charmingly thoughtful pose and asked. “Why have you never sung for us?”

Bianca frowned. Leila stuttered. “It wouldn’t be suitable. I can’t sing and find the right thread for your new lacework project, and your lacework is more important.”

Sophia smiled. “Oh that’s fine. You can sing, and Dani can find my thread.”

Other voices joined Sophia’s, blending and rising into a cacophany of cajolement and advice. Bianca cut across them.

“This is a fabric shop, not a tavern. Leila is a shop assistant, not a singer. At least during the hours she is here. What she does in her own time, is her own business, provided she’s not doing anything unsuitable.”

One of the women from the Capital piped up. “Well, she was alone with the Prince in that summer house for some time.”

Rosalina fired up. “You take that back. He accompanied her in there, along with Marya and that guard of his, and was back talking to his guests in no time at all.”

Sophia ranged herself with Rosalina, as did the other Hill ladies, firing up to defend their own. The ladies from the Capital were not so easily cowed, however, and the conversation soon became strident.

Bianca spoke under the noise. “It might be best if you finished a little early today.”

Leila nodded and bit her lip. “I’m sorry. I had no idea my singing for them last night would cause such a fuss.”

Bianca humphed. “It’ll die down soon enough, just maybe don’t do it again.”

Leila winced. “He wants me to sing again tonight, and any night I can.”

She looked over at the group of women, who had now moved on to other perceived slights and issues between the locals and the visitors, then back to Bianca.

Bianca waved a hand. “Go. It’ll be far easier for me to sort this out if you’re not here to remind them.”

Leila nodded again and slipped out of the door, heading for home without a thought for anyone else she might encounter on the way.

As she wove through the market stalls in Port Square, a voice called out. “Hey, you, singing girl.”

She pretended not to hear.

A hand grabbed her arm. “I’m talking to you.”

It was a young man, tall and slender, his colourful clothing and speech marking him as one of the visitors from the Capital.

She tried to pull away, he held on tighter. “My mother wants you to sing at my sister’s ball next week. You will be at the Mivart hotel in three days, at sunset. Make sure you’re wearing something suitable.”

She tugged hard, freeing her arm and glaring. “No.”

He scowled. “That wasn’t a request girl. You will be there.”

What would Marya do? Leila paused a moment, then put her chin up. “I am singing for the Prince that night. You will need to speak with him.”

That earned her an ugly laugh. “The Prince will be at our ball. So, yes, you will be singing for him. Properly, on a stage, looking presentable.”

She kept her chin up. “No.”

He went to grab her again. A hand grabbed him instead. Xavier. Leila’s shoulders relaxed.

He stepped between the two of them, and spoke to Leila. “Is there are problem, Mistress?”

Leila replied. “This man was trying to force me to go with him. He wants me to sing at his party and won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

They’d gathered something of a crowd by this time, and people began to murmur, shifting and glaring at the man, who didn’t notice.

Xavier glanced around then turned his full attention onto the man, who seemed to shrink before him. “Mistress Leila sings at the Governor’s House. Nowhere else. If you wish to complain, you may do so to His Highness.

He stepped back and raised his voice. “Any offence against this lady, or any other of Port Watch is a direct affront to the Governor of the City and will be addressed as such.”

The man sneered. “And what are you going to do? My father is the Duke of Great Winding.”

Xavier looked around him. “Would you agree that I arrived as this person tried to attack Mistress Leila?”

The crowd nodded. Xavier grinned, then turned and punched the man. He staggered back, then tripped over a conveniently placed foot, it was impossible to tell whose. Just as it was impossible to tell who might have dropped a bag of rotten vegetables on the ground as he teetered. He landed with a smelly squish.

Xavier turned a steely gaze on the gathered people. “Any further trouble, with any of our visitors, please inform me, His Highness, or anyone at the Citadel. We are here to serve Port Watch.”

He seemed to have read the crowd well. They nodded, a few even twitched a smile, then dispersed. Glancing down at the spluttering noble, he added. “Feel free to complain to anyone you wish.”

He turned to Leila. “May I escort you home, Mistress?”

Leila inclined her head. “Thank you.”

They encountered a number of others wishing to engage Leila’s services on the way, although none of them were as insistent as the first, and accepted her refusals with grace.

Marya caught up with them as they left the town, she eyed Xavier suspiciously. “Why are you marching about after my friend like some sort of gaoler?”

Leila said. “He was protecting me.”

Her friend’s incredulous stare tumbled her into an explanation of the women in the shop, the man in the square and all the people since. Marya shook her head at the end. “I think we should talk with Papa.”

She sighed and turned to Xavier. “And I suppose you can come too.”

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