Juanita raised a brow when Xavier sidled into her kitchen in Marya’s wake.
Her second brow went up when Timon raced through the front door, spotted Leila and his daughter, and sagged in relief.
“I’ve been hearing such stories.”
He straightened and eyed Xavier. “Are you the lad who was harassing Leila, or are you the one that pummelled him?”
Leila answered for him. “Xavier protected me from the man in the marketplace and saw off several others as well.”
Juanita shooed them towards the bench behind the table. “Go on, then, sit out of the way and tell me what’s going on. I have clearly been spending too much time indoors.”
The whole story came tumbling out; Marya and Leila taking it in turns, and Xavier being goaded into protest and clarification a few times during the saga. Leila cringed at the recounting.
By the end Timon was shaking his head and looking to his wife. Juanita stood by the fire, gaze flicking between the three of them, sitting in a neat row against the kitchen wall.
She said, “What do you want to do, Leila? Are you prepared to keep singing for the Prince? Either way, I’m afraid your life won’t be the same.”
Timon hurried to add. “You don’t need to make any decisions now, and not on your own. Talk to Miklos and Bianca, see what they think, and see what happens in the next few days.”
Juanita frowned. “I would hope the Prince wouldn’t be so inconsiderate as to interfere with Leila’s work.”
Timon tipped his head from side to side. “It’s likely less that and more whether it creates disruption in the shop. I hear there was quite a kerfuffle there his afternoon and Bianca was none too pleased.”
Leila gulped. “But I left to avoid problems.”
Timon smiled at her. “And half the patrons left shortly afterwards, without buying anything.”
He continued. “It may be for the best. So long as the Prince pays well, you’ll be doing something you enjoy, and making good connections, you could end up singing in the Capital.”
Juanita frowned at her husband. “Or not. You are doing him a favour, so make sure you’re not being taken advantage of.”
Xavier gave an incoherent protest at that and Marya jumped in to battle. “She was taken advantage of last night. Pushed into a little wooden hut in the garden, with no food or drink and left to find a way to sing. I think she shouldn’t go back at all.”
Xavier glared at her. “So you’d deprive Andreas, and other people of the island of her song? Did you not see how calm and happy the guests where when they left? How could you hide that away?”
Timon spoke before Marya could retort. “You refer to His Highness with some familiarity.”
Xavier shrugged and looked down at where his hand traced patterns on the table. “When a man has saved your life a time or two, and you’ve saved his in turn…”
He looked up to meet Timon’s gaze. “It gets to the point where formality feels more awkward than friendship. He’s my Prince and I’m responsible for his safety. But he’s also my friend and I want him to be happy.”
Leila was the next to find his gaze. “And that’s why your songs are so important. I would be dead if not for him, and when he hears you sing, he seems more alive, more engaged with the world, than he’s been since the Pirate Battle.”
There was a moment of silence, until Marya huffed. “You’ve got a silver tongue on you when it suits. I don’t see why Leila should have to give up her evenings just to make your precious Prince smile more often.”
Timon leaned forward. “Still, it’s an opportunity that is worth considering. But no decisions need to be made yet.”
Juanita smiled and waved a hand at the two girls. “And certainly no decisions on an empty stomach. Come, help me put some food together.”
Timon grinned at Xavier. “That’s our signal to fetch drinks.”
Xavier meekly followed Timon through to the front room, Marya’s gaze following, and Juanita looked at her daughter. “Well?”
Marya flushed and frowned. “Well, what?”
“Tell me how you ended up with the Prince’s personal guard trotting after the two of you like a besotted puppy.”
Marya’s flush deepened. “He’s not. He’s just keeping an eye on Leila.”
She turned away, missing the look between Leila and Juanita. They’d both seen how Xavier looked at Marya, and when she thought no one would notice, how Marya looked at Xavier.
There was no point mentioning it, though, it would only make life more difficult for Xavier and he was having a hard enough time of things already. Not that he didn’t deserve it, he just didn’t deserve more.
They’d put together a good selection of odds and ends by the time the two men reappeared and joined them at the table.
Juanita turned to Leila. “It’s likely you won’t have time for dinner before you sing, and be too tired afterwards, so make the most of this. I’ll make you a package to take.”
Xavier flushed. “That’s kind of you, Mistress, but it’s the duty of the Prince’s household to ensure Mistress Leila’s wellbeing. I’ll see to it this evening.”
Juanita nodded but said. “I’ll still prepare a little something. If Mistress Helden is still housekeeper up there, she won’t take kindly to the request.”
Xavier clearly bit down on a retort, then replied. “It is Mistress Helden and she will follow the Prince’s wishes.”
Marya added. “She just won’t be happy about it, the sour old lemon.”
Leila thought back. “Is she tall and thin, and wears a blue dress? I met her when I visited Lady Oren. I don’t think she approved of me.”
Juanita snorted. “She doesn’t approve of anyone she sees as below her social standing. Worst snob on the island.”
Xavier stared at the mug in his hands. “She does run an efficient household though. Made it much easier for His Highness to settle into focusing on his work.”
Marya propped her chin on one hand. “What exactly does he do? I’ve never quite understood what keeps a City Governor so busy.”
Xavier rubbed the back of his neck. “There’s a lot of talking to people with different opinions, and trying to get them to see things the same way; a lot of reading and writing letters and things. He says at the moment he most needs to understand the people, products and economy of the island.”
Timon sat back. “He needs to get out more if he wants to understand the people. Only talking to that lot on the Hill is going to give him a very narrow view.”
The guard nodded but said nothing.
Leila was glad of Xavier’s presence on their walk to the Governor’s House. They went the front way this time and stares and whispers followed her through the Old Town and up the Hill.
She’d persuaded Marya to stay with her parents. Her friend had been drooping in her seat, nearly fallen asleep twice, and had another early start the next day. It would have to be enough to feel supported from a distance.
As the stares became cooler and the whispers hissed, she twisted her hands into her skirt and thought about weaving patterns. She gasped.
Xavier’s eyes snapped to her face. “What?”
She twisted her hands tighter. “I don’t have my loom.”
Xavier blew out a breath. “I’ll speak with Mistress Helden, she’s bound to have weaving supplies of some sort. It may not be your own tools, but I’m sure she’ll dig up something suitable.”
They’d reached the front door and he motioned her through, nodding to the two guards, who made some strange hand movements in response, then returned to scanning the road.
Xavier’s lips pinched and his brows came together. He marched through the house, every inch the stern captain. She scurried along in his wake, feeling a little like a rowing boat being tugged along by a galleon.
He strode straight down the main corridor and into the large room where they’d first met the Prince the night before. Mistress Helden, looking every bit as stern and sour as she remembered, was standing at one end, directing the placement of a long dining table.
Her face pinched further at Xavier’s entry, and she looked down her nose at the pair of them as they approached.
Xavier didn’t seem to notice. “Mistress Leila is here to sing for the Prince again. See to it she is installed in the summer house, with suitable refreshments, and weaving materials.”
He turned and left before the housekeeper could answer, leaving Leila stranded and floundering in the face of the older woman’s glare.
Mistress Helden sniffed, then turned back to the men manoeuvring the table. “A little more towards the garden. Stop. Back this way. Stop. That will do. Go and fetch the chairs.”
The men scurried off and she glided towards the open doorway, leading to the courtyard, waving a hand at the little latticed enclosure on the far side. “Get along then. The less seen of you the better. You’ll get food and drink when it’s convenient for the maid to deliver it, and you’ll have to make do with whatever we can find for weaving. This is not a household given over to frivolous hobbies.”
Leila nodded and made her way across the open space, skirting the edges of the structure and stepping through the door.
She stopped and stared. Had the Prince been robbed? Was there a storm coming that needed the summer house emptied? All the cushions and soft, bright rugs were gone, the lamps had been removed and replaced with tarnished candle holders, barely hanging on to stubs of tallow candles.
She was still standing in the middle of the space, worrying, when a young woman strutted through the door and tossed a tangled mess of sail cord and twine on the nearest bench.
“Mistress says that’s all we have.”
Leila bowed her head. “Thank you. I’ll see what I can make of it. Hopefully it will be enough to enable my song.”
The maid grimaced and glanced back towards the door, then lowered her voice. “She ain’t too happy, you being here. That’s why this place is all emptied out, she says nice cushions and all is too good for the likes of you. But Mistress, I heard you sing last night, and I saw your effect on the guests. I’ll make sure you get decent food and drink at least.”
Leila smiled at her. “Thank you.”
There was a scuff on the gravel outside and the maid straightened as her voice cooled. “Yes, well I’ll leave you to your weaving.”
She turned and headed for the door, glancing back with a small, apologetic smile before exiting.
She heard her greet someone outside, then the sound of rapidly repeating footsteps.
The next moment, Mistress Helden crossed the threshold. “Well?”
Leila straightened her shoulders. “I’ll make good use of your yarns, Mistress, no doubt a coil-weave mat will come in useful somewhere, but I will not be able to work in the dark and if I can’t work, I can’t sing.”
The older woman snorted and waved at the battered candle holders. “You have plenty candles all over the place.”
Leila pretended to be Marya. “Those candle ends won’t last five minutes and tallow fumes sting my eyes. Unless you want to explain my silence to His Highness, you will provide me with lamps.”
That earned her a glare as the woman spun and left, but a few minutes later, a boy tiptoed in with three lamps and a fire-lighter. He grinned at her. “The old cat’s fair spitting, Mistress. I hope you’re planning on tweaking her tail a few times more.”