“When at last we meet, we shall talk so soft, the way young lovers do…”
“I daresay,” Natalia teased, “you are making eyes at the bard.”
“Lia!” Grace whispered furiously. She dropped her gaze and smoothed the fabric of her dress. “Must the entire court hear your babbling?”
Lia’s smirk grew wider. “Gray, the entire court can see you staring at each other. He looks more often at you than at his lute.”
“Nonsense,” she replied, though a smile tugged at her lips. As if against her will, her eyes wandered back to the slim figure lounging in the midday sun at the other end of the garden. Music flowed from his fingertips, and his warm, rich voice suffused the air with song. Red leaves floated down from the surrounding trees, carpeting the grass, as if he sang within a painting. The bard attracted beauty the way nectar attracted bees.
“When at last we kiss,” he sang, “we shall hold so close, the way young lovers do…”
“There is something else,” Grace murmured. “I know him. I am sure of it.”
Lia shook her head. “Impossible. I have never seen a lowborn bard with such a lute. Is that gold on the frame? We would remember him, surely. Besides, I cannot recall when last you swooned over a man in such a fashion.” She giggled. “How amusing that our roles are reversed for once.”
“It is not only the lute; it is his face, too. Where could I have…?”
“When at last we wed, we shall pledge our whole, the way young lovers do…”
The spell was broken by the sound of boots crunching leaves, as a tall, broad-shouldered noble approached their table.
“Duke Ferdinand,” said Lia, lips pursed.
“Lady Beaudelaire. My request from the last banquet remains. Please, call me Cecil,” he rumbled. He looked at Grace. “Lady Staveley. A pleasure.”
With effort, she pulled her attention from the bard to the Duke. She found him watching her with brooding intensity.
“To what do we owe this pleasure, my lord?”
Ferdinand sat stiff-backed in the seat opposite her. “Forgive me. When the two most comely ladies at court partake in such mirth, I cannot help but be curious.”
She exchanged glances with Lia. He was watching us, the lecher.
“It is the first banquet of autumn. We have cause to be merry.”
He looked unimpressed. “In Serpent’s Maw, autumn marks the first raids from the Southron Kingdoms. We have little time for banquets with barbarians burning our villages.”
“A pity. Where is Lady Elaine? I recall she is fond of banquets.”
“Lady Elaine,” he said, clearing his throat, “is indisposed. She has been cursed with some sickness of the mind and hurt herself quite gravely.”
Grace caught the reprimand before it left her lips. Your wife lies at death’s door and you already seek to replace her.
Lia was less restrained. “Should you not be with your wife, Duke Ferdinand? Or… defending your lands from barbarians?”
A few heartbeats of awkward silence drifted past. Before the Duke could respond, the bard’s voice rang clear through the garden:
“When at last we die, we shall fall as one, the way-”
“I tire of that peasant’s warbling,” Ferdinand growled. “In Serpent’s Maw, the bards sing songs of courage and bravery. Tunes to fill the soul with pride, not this maudlin nonsense.”
Grace met his gaze. “I find it rather charming, actually.”
The Duke’s expression remained unchanged, but even his beard could not obscure the colour blooming in his cheeks. He abruptly stood and nodded to them both.
“Until next we meet, Lady Staveley.”
With a final lingering glance at Grace, he marched out of the garden.
Lia waited until he was out of earshot, then blew a raspberry in his direction.
“Can you not see? He waits for his wife to pass on. Then, he will ask your father for your hand in marriage. ”
“He may just as likely ask for yours.”
Laughing, Lia made her voice mockingly deep. “Until next we meet, Lady Staveley. The man is infatuated with you, Gray. He stares more brazenly than the bard, even.”
“Lia!” Grace repeated, but this time fear pricked her spine. She shuddered. “He makes me uncomfortable. I do not want to marry him.” And he is twice my age.
“There are worse matches. He is handsome, in his way.”
“He is an adulterer.”
“So they say. Let us hope it dissuades your father from accepting the proposal.”
“I trust Father. If I refuse, he will listen. I am sure of it.”
“Indeed,” Lia agreed. “He may be the only Duke in existence who would consider his daughter’s wishes. Yet…” She smiled wickedly as more lyrics floated past.
“But until that day, I shall dream of you still, the way young lovers do.”
“... I wonder what he would say if his only daughter wished to marry a common bard?”
Grace blushed, and despite herself, let the dream carry her away. It would not be so terrible. A simpler life, removed from the machinations of politics and court intrigue, without responsibility or expectation. A life filled with simple love and song. A painting. It was all she longed for.
But it is just a dream.
“We cannot speak of this. Even in jest. I have a duty to Father and to Stavewood; he speaks so proudly of when I shall be Duchess. And more, the nobility will not respect me if I marry a lowborn.” She sighed. “No matter how magical he is.”
“As you wish. Let us cast aside all notions of marriage.”
Grace raised her eyebrows. “You would drop the subject so easily?”
“The subject of marriage? Of course.” Lia said, eyes sparkling. “But I see no harm in a simple tryst.”
“A tryst? You are babbling again.”
“Answer me true. If he agreed to meet, would you go to him?”
“If he agreed to…” Grace gasped. “You wrote him a message?”
“If I had, it would have gone unanswered. I doubt the bard can read.” Lia leaned forward conspiratorially. “My handmaiden simply whispered a message into his ear. Why, here she comes now bearing his reply.”
A handmaiden in a purple frock swept breathlessly into their midst, casting a knowing smile at Grace before whispering in Lia’s ear and departing as swiftly as she arrived. Grace stared at Lia in expectation, but the other girl remained silent, frowning, looking here and there and examining her fingernails.
“Well?” Grace demanded.
Lia’s eyes widened in mock surprise. “Well, Lady Grace Staveley, it is a pity you have no interest in meeting this poor bard, as I presume he will be most upset when you fail to show at the Silver Arch in ten minutes, and hence cannot hear the tune he composed for you.”
A warmth spilled from Grace’s chest and travelled up her neck to burn her cheeks. Against her expectations, her mind flew unbidden to a memory she had long since buried; a peaceful morning in her childhood when her mother smiled down at her from under a wide-brimmed hat and uttered quiet words into her ear.
Trust your feelings.
On their way to the Silver Arch, Grace and Lia walked side-by-side while their handmaidens trailed behind. Before they left their table she had looked for the bard, but he was gone, melted away into the garden’s canvas. The noblewomen could traverse the gardens unquestioned; he would not have that privilege. She wondered how such a striking man could evade the guards, especially with lute in hand.
He composed a song for me.
The Silver Arch stood in a small clearing of shorn grass, flanked by trees shedding pronged leaves the shade of sunset. It was not truly made of silver - Father would have called that a waste - but took its name from the vines with shimmering flowers that had sprung up along its length. Now the wood was barely visible beneath thick green stems and pale petals.
“It must be the most romantic spot in all the kingdom,” Lia sighed.
Grace nodded, suddenly queasy. She feared she might be sick if she opened her mouth.
Lia patted her arm. “Do not be anxious. We will not leave unless you wish to be alone with him.”
They waited, the sun ever weakening in an overcast sky, until anxiety gave way to consternation. Grace’s neck, previously slick with sweat, felt cold and clammy.
“He is late,” she said, unable to mask the disappointment in her voice.
“Perhaps he found some trouble avoiding the guards. Give him time.”
And time she gave him. They lounged on the grass, picking flowers and twirling them idly, chatting about whatever took their fancy. The handmaidens occupied themselves with hunting for a four-leaf clover, their giggles filling the clearing as they debated on what they would wish for. Grace wished she shared their gaiety. Perhaps it was a lie. There is no song.
The sun was halfway to the horizon when a messenger arrived with summons from Grace’s father. The autumn banquet was due to begin in earnest, and he required her presence.
Lia said nothing, but Grace knew from her pinched frown that her patience was equally spent.
“Very well,” she said. “Let us go back. I cannot neglect my duty.”
“Gray,” Lia said softly, “are you sure?”
Assent had almost left her lips when her gaze fell upon a leaf on the grass; a perfect five-pointed star the hue of a fire’s dying embers. Such perfection belongs in a painting. Suddenly blinking back tears, Grace looked away. Her mother’s voice echoed in her mind. Trust your feelings.
“Perhaps a few minutes alone. Then I will be ready.”
The other girls left the clearing in solemn silence, leaving Grace by herself beneath falling leaves and petals. She looked up at the arch with a sigh, wondering how many hearts had shattered underneath its wizened arms. Had they, too, made the mistake of trusting their feelings?
You fool, she scolded herself. One day, when you are a Duchess, you will laugh at the memory of pining after a lowborn bard.
The forest rustled to her left. Her mouth fell open as a slim man dressed in a dirt-stained red tunic emerged from the foliage. A twig was stuck in his hair. He carried an ornate lute case with golden inlays, and his face broke into a broad smile when he saw her.
He looked better from a distance, thought Grace, though she immediately felt guilty for thinking it. Yet, his joy was so earnest she could not help but smile back.
A minute or a lifetime might have passed in that moment, had it not been broken by distant shouts echoing through the clearing. Grace was first to recover her wits. If the bard planned to charm her with romantic words, they must have deserted him, for he stared at her wordlessly.
“I am Lady Grace Staveley,” she said in a hushed voice. “And you?”
He blinked. “Aridah of Roxton. Ari.” For all the richness of his singing, his voice was softer than she expected.
“Ari,” Grace murmured, feeling the syllables on her tongue.
“I did not intend to keep you waiting, my lady.” He grimaced. “It will not surprise you to hear I am better at playing the lute than sneaking through the woods.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You slipped away from the garden, evaded my guards, and crept through the forest, all whilst carrying that case?”
“And I would do it again.”
The shouts grew louder, as did the crunching of leaves and muffled bootsteps. He looked over his shoulder, then back at Grace. Conflict distorted his features.
“Go,” she whispered. “If you are caught, we will never meet again.”
His eyes widened at that. He retreated slowly, never moving his gaze from her. “Then I will not be caught.”
“And what of my song? The tune you composed for me.”
Ari smiled as he left. “You have already heard it.”