A Friend

He sat on his own tomb. He didn’t know much about his death, but perhaps he knew more than most people. He knew what would kill him, even if he had to guess whether his heart would give suddenly or reduce him to a bedridden shell before it stopped altogether. He knew he’d be buried inside this stone box, carved at his birth large enough for a man because they didn’t know his heart was bad. Kael would be across from him in the row of kings between his father and his son. If they took wives, they’d be at the other end of the room, ranks and genders separating them even in death. And it wasn’t fair. If he managed to snag a wife, it would likely only be a few years. When she died an old woman, he wanted her next to him. Likely, though, she’d have remarried and lived the majority of her life with someone else. More likely, nobody would want him in the first place.
The bow slipped down the strings of his instrument, hitting its tip against his name carved into the stone. Maybe at least, when they opened the stones to bury him, they’d find his instrument. Kael would realize he’d hidden it, realized he’d loved it, and one thing would be left with him.
“Are you a spirit?”
His heart lurched as Darshon twisted toward the steps, staring at the little girl who stood on the bottom step. Her eyes were as blue as the pair that had followed him into his dreams last night. She stood in a long, white shift he guessed was a nightdress, looking more like a spirit than he did.
“Not yet,” he answered. “Are you?”
She laughed. “No. I’m visiting. I’m Aelava. I’m six.”
She must be a daughter of a lord too young to have attended the gathering, but why had they not left her home?
“I’m Prince Darshon,” he said. “I live here.”
“I know,” she answered. She padded across the floor, climbing on top of his grandfather’s tomb, wiggling until she was comfortable. “Will you play something else?”
“No,” he said. He lay the instrument down and strode over her to lift her off. “That’s a burial place. You shouldn’t sit on it.”
She lifted accusing eyes and pointed toward his. “But you were sitting on that one!”
“There’s no one in that one.”
She jumped, then eyed the smooth stone next to her, whispering, “Who’s in that one?”
“My grandfather,” he said. “He was sneaking around places he shouldn’t be and fell down a flight of stairs.”
The blue eyes widened more as she glanced toward the entrance of the room. “Those stairs?”
He shrugged. “Perhaps. If you hurry, you can still get back safely.”
He reached for her hand, but the girl planted her heels like a stubborn colt, crying, “I don’t want to go up them!”
“They’re only dangerous after breakfast,” he amended. “And it’s nearly breakfast now. We’ll go up together and find your family and then you can eat.”
“But what if we fall and die?” she cried.
He shrugged, “Then we’ll be dead, and we won’t know.”
When her eyes filled, he pressed his fingers against the bridge of his nose, reconsidering his approach with the child. He reached down and picked her up the way Remarr used to when he refused to go somewhere. “We’ll be safe. I know how to get up them.”
And, as he had done with Remarr, the girl let out a whine that rattled his eardrums, then screamed, “No! No! No!”
He cussed, setting her down. Someone was going to hear and think she was being hurt. “Aealava!” He resisted shaking her shoulders and took a breath instead, finding her eyes. “I won’t fall. You won’t fall. I will carry you to the top safely, alright? You’re going to have to trust me.”
She sniffed, then blew out a breath with a resolve that again reminded him of the girl he’d danced with the night before. Then she held out her arms, clinging so hard to his neck that it was hard to breathe. She whimpered when he stepped onto the first stair, squeezing her eyes until he peeled her off and set her into the hall at the top.
A smile spread before she took his hand. “You saved me.”
“Not hardly.” He retracted his hand. “What room are you staying in?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Who is your father?” he asked.
“He’s dead,” she said. “He was throwed by a horse.”
“Who was your father?” he amended, then flinched because the girl’s eyes filled again. Feeling desperate, he asked, “Are you related to Lady Milan?”
The child chewed her lip and nodded. He didn’t know which room Milan was staying in either, but he perked at the idea of an excuse to see her. The child led him on a goose chase trying to find the room with the view she remembered from the window. But he saw Milan first. Her gown was plain, her hair down and loose.
“Milan!” Aelava cried and waved.
Her sister turned, anger and relief mixing in her voice. “I have been looking everywhere for you!”
And then her eyes met his, and her entire face flushed a deep red. “I am so sorry. I woke and she was gone.” Her voice grew shrill as she looked at the girl. “Why are you not dressed?”
“I was exploring,” she said. “I found him playing music with all the dead people.”
He wasn’t sure how he was going to explain that answer, so he mimicked Milan’s confusion. “I think she just got turned around,” he said.
“Is he the prince you said you like?” Aelava asked.
Milan snatched her hand. “You are speaking nothing but nonsense today.” She never stopped for breath as she curtsied toward Darshon. “I’m very sorry. We’re going to get dressed now.”
He’d meant to ask her if she planned on joining in on the afternoon ride later, but he’d have to hope she would. He didn’t let himself think about Aelava’s comment. He was never the prince anyone liked. But had he followed Milan into her dreams as she had his?
He shut his eyes, shaking the thoughts from his head as he hurried down the stairs, past his sure-footed grandfather who probably hadn’t slipped in his life, and stopped at the smooth top of his cript.
It was gone. His first thought was that it had fallen, then that it had been stolen back by the musician he’d snitched it from. But when he turned back to the doorway, his father stood near the wall. Seeing the instrument in his hands felt so violating that Darshon stepped toward him to yank it back before he managed to halt himself.
“Is this yours?” Galephy asked with the same tone as though the instrument were an illegitimate child. And it may as well be.
Should he say no and walk off? No, then he’d lose it.
He swallowed. “Give it back, Father, please.”
Galephy took a slow breath. “Well, you were half clever. I knew you played. Did you know your fingers copy the patterns when you listen at the dances?”
No. He didn’t, any more than he knew how his father had found it down here. He’d left it out, but no one should have been coming down here.
He ducked his head. He’d take whatever his father doled out if only the man would hand it back afterward. As it was, he must, he must persuade him. “Nobody ever hears,” he said. “Nobody knows. It doesn’t harm anything, not down here.”
Galephy glanced toward the steps, the held out the violin. “Play something.”
His muscles relaxed before he launched for the gift. Perhaps if the man heard, he’d let it stay as long as no one ever knew. It couldn’t bring shame on his family, and he wasn’t sure why it would be shameful in the first place. He was good. He could be better with training.
He glanced at his father, spying curiosity leaking them the stern demeanor. He never analyzed his playing as much as he did now, wondering if that tremble was usually there, hearing each brush of the bow that produced a soft scrape while their vibration resonated the string into the proper tone.
He played one song, then another, but he couldn’t play a third. He had to look up, had to see the expression he’d been avoiding. His breath shook as the song faded and he ventured a peek.
Galephy’s mouth was closed, but not tight. His head tilted at the slightest angle, giving a shake so small it was nearly indiscernible. He looked almost stunned and more curious about the instrument. He held out his hand, his face so curious that Darshon handed it over with both a wince and growing hope.
Galephy turned it over in his hand. “How long have you been playing this?”
He couldn’t remember. It had been before Tehveor came.
“Ten years?” he sputtered. “I’m good.”
Galephy nodded. “You are good.” He stepped toward Darshon raising his arm. The boy braced for pain, turning his face. The violin descended beside him against the corner of his coffin, splintering into jagged pieces of wood. Its neck snapped, only the strings kept the instrument together as his father raised it to dangle in front of him.
“But you’re a prince,” Galephy said. “And princes don’t play.”
Darshon caught it, feeling it fold around his hands. The neck flipped and the body dragged the strings across his palms. When he closed his fingers, he felt splinters digging into his palm and several pieces of wood continued to the floor and skidded away.
He folded his knees up, cradling what he could to keep the instrument together, staying there until his father left. His first gasp was anger, the next came from the little boy who’d taken such pains to find the perfect hiding place for his instrument before he even plotted its route to freedom. And now it was gone, and there could never be another, for his father wouldn’t allow another to go missing.
He glared at the doorway, then held the carnage against him, kneeling to pick up the pieces. He’d fix this one. This one was his, and he’d be damned if he let his father take away the only piece of life the man couldn’t control. He stomped upstairs, taking the passageway that ran through the walls to get as close to his room as he could. No one saw him step into the women’s room, and he was too angry to care who saw him in the passage.
There was still an entire hall to walk, past the guest chambers, past the doorway that separated them from his family’s quarters, but most of the guest had gone down to breakfast. He walked so quickly, he nearly couldn’t stop when a tiny body jumped out from an open door.
“Boo!” Aelava cried. Her giggle faded as she eyed the instrument. “What happened to your cruit?”
Why was she here? Darshon stepped around her, snapping, “It broke.”
The girl ran to catch up. “How?”
“Father smashed it,” he said. “And I don’t care who knows.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because he was angry?”
“Why?”
“Because he’s a pig!”
He expected her to run at his retort, but her mouth dropped.
“That’s a naughty word,” she said.
She’d hear worse if she stuck around. Darshon turned, but the girl trotted beside him.
“You can get another, can’t you?” she asked.
“Hardly.”
“But you’re the prince. You can have anything you want.”
“Well, I want this one,” he snapped.
“But why if it’s broken.”
“Because it’s mine!” His voice cracked as he felt his shoulders fall. “It’s always been mine.”
She patted his leg. “Don’t cry. I’ll get you another.”
“Would you just go away!” he snapped. “Where’s your sister?”
“She’s breaking the fast,” she answered.
“Who’s supposed to be watching you now?” he asked.
“The maid,” she answered, “But I don’t like her, and she doesn’t like me.”
“So you ran away again?” he asked.
The little girl nodded. The last thing he wanted to do was try to coax her back to a maid who should have barred the door if she wanted her charge to stay, but he couldn’t leave her here. His father was still somewhere looking for someone to torment.
“Stay with me,” he said. “You’re going to get hurt if you keep wandering off.”
She smiled and fell into step beside him. “Want to know a secret?”
“Not really,” he answered.
“I’ll tell you anyway,” she said.
“I don’t care to know.” He pushed the crest of his ring into the lock of the door that barred the bedrooms from the others.
“Milan likes you,” she said.
The door creaked open an inch, but he couldn’t move yet. He glanced down at the child. “She said that?”
The girl nodded. “Are you going to marry her?”
“No,” he sputtered.
“Then will you marry me?” Aelava asked.
He stared at the child who folded her hands behind her and swayed hopefully.
“Uh, no,” he answered.
The little shoulders collapsed. “But… I like you. You saved me from the steps.”
The violin shifted in his arm as Darshon pushed passed her into his doorway. Where could he hide the criut? He’d need a better spot, but right now being found with a proposing child was worse than someone spying a nearly unrecognizable heap of instrument. He knelt at his desk pulling open the drawers his servants knew better than to snoop through. Pushing aside a stack of letters and the jar of his mother’s herbs, he worked the instrument inside, wincing when he had to fold it unnaturally to make it fit.
Alava reached for the jar, wrinkling her nose. “What’s this?”
“That’s mine,” he pried it from her hands, replacing it back into the draw.
“You collect leaves?” she asked.
Well, she was just arming herself with all of his secrets, wasn’t she?
“Yes,” he said and shut the drawer.
“They’re all crushed,” she said. “They’re not very good ones.”
He turned to the child. “How would you like to have your breakfast in the Great Hall?”
The girl gasped and asked, “Can I?”
He held up a finger. “One condition. This is our secret. We found each other in the hall and came down. You’ve never seen the violin, you didn’t tell me about Milan, and I didn’t take you to my room to see my leaf collection? Deal?”
Her eyes fell from his face, moving back to the drawers in calculated thought before she nodded her head. “I promise.”
“Alright,” he said. And they went to breakfast together.
Before Milan even opened her mouth to scold her sister, Darshon said, “She missed you, so I invited her down.”
And while the child climbed into the chair to Milan’s right, he bent down to whisper at her left. “Will you meet me at the stables later?”
Milan blinked several times, then asked, “Won’t we get into trouble?”
“Perhaps,” he answered, then he left her without waiting for an answer. She kept him waiting for nearly an hour, and he was beginning to wonder if he shouldn’t have used the time to try and fix the cruit instead. But she came, looking guilty and mischievous at the same time.
“I don’t know if you’re an entirely good influence on me,” she said.
“I promise to behave,” he countered.
Milan hugged herself as she took a step closer. Darshon flinched, then explained, “It’s only that there’s so many people. So many eyes and we can’t talk. Not really.”
“Well, I suppose I could just talk,” she said. Her smile grew a bit.
“The thing about horses,” Darshon hinted. “Is you can be seen but not heard.”
“I do ride,” she answered.
And he smiled and sent for two, impressed with how easily she mounted when she wasn’t encumbered with a hoop.
The girl nibbled her lip then asked, “What did Aelava mean about you playing with the dead people? I asked her, and she said it was a secret.”
He laughed to cover the wince, but there was nothing to be ashamed of.
“Come along!” She pressed. “We promised to be blunt, remember?”
“I’ll tell you a secret if you tell me one,” he said.
“Deal,” she answered, “But you first.”
He pushed his tongue against his teeth, then said, “I play the cruit. I taught myself, but the only place that the servants never go in the castle is down in the burial room, so that’s where I play. Aelava heard me this morning, but I made her promise not to tell.”
Milan’s intrigued smile grew as he spoke until she laughed. “You really were playing with the dead people. But why don’t you want anyone to hear you?”
Darshon’s smile slipped, and he shrugged a shoulder, echoing his father’s words, “Prince’s don’t play.”
And his eyes pricked again.
“Why not?” Milan asked.
“It’s girlish,” he said.
“No, it’s not!”
“Have you ever met a nobleman who plays music?”
She took a breath, then held her word on frozen lips as she looked forward again. “No. I haven’t, though I never thought of it.” She frowned. “Well, that’s silly. When my brother’s friends came to visit, they always go hunting. I’d have much rather had one of them stay around and play music with us.” She cocked her head, peering at him with such intrigue that he’d have said yes to anything. But she asked, “Will you play for me?”
And then he steadied his gaze on the wall that blocked their path ahead. “I can’t,” he said. “My father found it this morning and shattered it.”
He expected a launch of questions he didn’t want to answer, but Milan tucked her head, sparing him and said, “I’m so sorry. He shouldn’t have.”
“He does a lot of things he shouldn’t,” Darshon said.
“Can you get another?”
“I don’t see how,” he whispered, because if he spoke louder, his voice would crack. “If Father hears one goes missing, I’ll be the first person he suspects. And I can’t send for one. I don’t even know where they’re made, and none of the servants would sneak it in. You can’t hide anything here.”
Milan chewed her lip, fiddling with her reins before asked, “What about this? This ride? Are we trying to hide us?”
He glanced toward her. Kael had told him to show their favor and protection. He had no reason to avoid her in public.
“Not if you don’t want to,” he replied softly.
And the girl actually smiled. “No.” She lifted her face sideways to look back at him. “I don’t think I do.”