Milan’s fingers were beautiful as they pressed the strings and passed the bow back and forth, but her nose scrunched as the cruit screeched. She laughed, flickering sheepish eyes toward Darshon. “I intended to approach my lessons with a deep desire to learn and a fair amount of determined practice, but little skill. That way, when I discover halfway home that I’ve forgotten it here, it will be a relief to both mother and teacher, and we shall mutually agree that it’s best not sent for.”
Darshon’s laugh echoed off the tombs. “I’ll gather it won’t be painted into any of your future portraits.”
“No!” Milan winced as she finished the simple tune. “Actually, I discovered I didn’t even need to act. I’m going to be as relieved as any of them for the ending of the practice sessions. I haven’t the patience for this foolery.”
Yet she had practiced for weeks, enduring the screeching and scraping, simply for the excuse to bring it to the castle. And just as it was growing hard for him to swallow, the girl set the bow aside and he wondered how many times her tutor had reminded her that she was holding the bow wrong.
“There,” she said. “You’ve heard me play. You can stop hounding me. I wasn’t being modest when I told you I was terrible.”
“But you are beautiful when you play,” he said. She lifted startled eyes, so to offset the compliment, he smiled and added, “I’ll just replace the song in my memory.”
Her face colored but she laughed. “Please do.”
Then it was gone again as she glanced down at the instrument, untucking it from her body and holding it toward him. The teasing was gone and the smiles with it. She’d been in his thoughts since the first night when she’d come back down the stairs with that sheepish look that betrayed her humanity. She’d seen him at his worst, both physically and in mannerisms. She’d stumbled into bits of his life, but the secret of his music dwelled in his soul behind a door he’d never opened for anyone.
His fingers brushed hers as he grasped the neck of the cruit, but his eyes held hers as he transferred the boxed body onto his leg. “I play it on my lap,” he whispered. “It’s easier on the bad days if I don’t have to lift my arms.”
Today wasn’t a bad day, but his heart was pounding hard and slow.
“Just play,” she whispered.
He hadn’t played in weeks, and he wondered if it was nerves or the lack that made him fumble with the instrument. Two strings at the edge that created a drone or could be plucked if he wished. Four strings passing the neck, pushing into his fingers as they found their place. It wasn’t as beautiful as his old instrument, but it was given, not stolen, and the wood only shined where her fingers had touched.
“Nobody ever gave me anything,” he said. “Except from obligation.”
“Well, you’ll give me a song, won’t you?” she asked before adding quickly. “Not from obligation.”
He’d give her more than a song if she gave him any hint she’d accept it.
He flickered his eyes from her face to the strings and drew the bow across it. The low strings filled the room with the drone that complimented every note he created. He watched Milan’s face lift toward the rafters, then the walls as the song resonated, filling the room. It hummed against his leg, carried through his blood, and smoothed out the pounding in his chest. He smiled at her, again watching her own disappear.
She listened to the entire last verse with her eyes on her knees, with a bobbing throat. When he finished, she only whispered, “Thank you.”
He felt his heart jump again, felt a slight tremble set into his hands. He nearly leaned forward to kiss her, but her eyes had fallen to the crack the instrument formed against the tomb as he set it aside. It couldn’t have been the song she didn’t like, and he’d done nothing to upset her.
‘What’s the matter?” he asked.
“My mother told me last night,” Milan said, “that I couldn’t write you anymore. She found the letters.”
She couldn’t write him? If she didn’t write him, he’d have no idea what was happening to her all the way across the country.
“Why not?” he asked.
“She said I mustn’t refuse you here. We couldn’t afford to insult you. But I wasn’t to encourage you.”
He’d received a rather stern reprimand from Remarr himself, but only because the man was overly sensitive to appearances. If he let people speculate his intentions toward Milan, then got her off alone, he could damage her reputation beyond repair even if they’d done nothing to earn it. But he wasn’t his father.
Anger swelled. “Why?” he asked. “I won’t hurt you.”
“I know,” she said. “She fears no one would take me after people associated me with the royal family, and she’s convinced I have no chance for a future here.”
He set the instrument to the side, reaching to put his hand over hers, pulling them from the cracks of his carved name.
“But you do,” he said. “I’m not playing games with you, Milan. I’d take you publicly, except…”
Except for the man who’d smashed his cruit because it was below his station. But she wasn’t. He must marry someone, and Milan was a lady. He wet his lips. “We could have a future together. But I – I don’t want my father to forbid it before we have a chance.” Milan swallowed, and he pressed on. “I’m not trying to compromise you. I’d stand beside you, no matter what. If something happened, I’d take the repercussions for you.”
“I believe you,” she said. “And the romantic side of me would take your hand, no matter where you pulled me. But I’m practical, and I’m scared. We’re playing with fire and I don’t mind being burned with you.” Pushing her lips together, she looked away and he watched tears squeeze from her closed eyelids.
His heart was already burning, and they sat silently for a full minute before he worked up the ability to choke. “I’d rather know than guess.”
Her lips parted before she whispered, “We’d have to get consent from your father and my uncle. You can’t leave this castle, and I’m afraid to live with your father.”
“None of that would last,” Darshon said. “Even if they refused, even if we had to wait years and years until Kael became king and I changed your uncle’s mind, those things won’t be forever.”
“But you won’t last either,” Milan said softly. “No matter if we waited and fought or walked into the fire together, I’d walk out of it alone.”
Pain rolled through his head, down his body in waves, concentrating in his chest until he swallowed against the pain. “Milan, no one can promise how long they’ll live. You could marry someone else, and he could be run over by a carriage crossing a road.”
“I know,” she said. “But I also know how quickly a heart can kill a strong man and what it’s like to watch him worsen and worsen. And that’s what it would be. You know it is. Every time you left me, I’d worry. Every day I don’t get a letter from you, I’d wonder if you were alright and this is just the beginning. Promise me that it would more than a few years. That you wouldn’t leave me a prince’s widow under the dictation of your father. I know that’s what it would be. If I took your hand, I’d just feel it growing weaker and weaker and you’d be the one to let go, and then mine would be forced into someone else’s of your father’s choosing. And I…” she lost her whisper in a breath. “I can’t do it. I want to, but I can’t.”
He turned his face away from her toward the cruit who’s life would end when his did if he was to retain it. Milan couldn’t be buried with him. She was as truthful as he. She’d thought out the angles, she’d searched for the solution, with no more luck finding it. If she was selfish to be practical, he was more so in pleading for her to reconsider.
“I can’t promise you that,” he said. “I can’t even promise you that things would be easy, that my family wouldn’t harm you, that your future would be safe. All I can promise you is that I’d try to make more good days than bad, that I’d do everything I could to make you happy, I’d play you music anytime you wanted…”
The promises felt flat coming from his mouth. Even as a prince, he had little to offer her. “I would leave you,” he said. “But I’d fight to stay for as long and hard as I could. No matter how bad it grew, I would fight for you.”
But it was growing bad. He hadn’t fully recovered from the last time he’d gone to his knees, even with his mother adjusting the herbs. He’d grown used to the pain, but he’d noticed it more often now, even when he wasn’t angry or upset, even when he wasn’t dancing, or riding or watching his father’s menacing behavior. He felt it squeezing, searing, protesting, and if he didn’t lay down soon, he was going to prove everything she said true.
His fingers slid over her hand, intertwining with hers and she squeezed it. But her flooded eyes stayed on her knees. She was shaking, holding her breath. She wasn’t going to say it. She wasn’t going to move until he released her. And he didn’t want to. But his heart would force him now, as it would later. He swallowed, gasping for air once. It would be hard to breathe soon, hard because his blood was too thick, his heart too weak to pump it through its course.
“Can I kiss you?” he whispered. “Just once?”
Their first time would be their last, but it would say what neither of them could manage.
Shannondant’s eyes flooded still, but she nodded, only pulling in a gasping breath when he was too close to see her face. His lips touched hers, and the warmth eased the pain in his chest. Her hands moved to his sides, her kiss firmer than he’d expected, though when his ran his hands over her back, he felt them shake with sobs. She trembled, but she was brave. Brave in the second kiss, brave in venturing into the taste of what things could have been if they weren’t what they were. And he couldn’t make it last because he could barely breathe as it was. He pulled back, squeezing his eyes shut, resting his face against her shoulder, tightening his arms around her body. And then he gasped for air again, enslaved to his heart that pierced him like a slaveowner, telling him his time was up.
She wasn’t pretty anymore, not with her puffy eyes and blotched face. Not with the misery that glistened in her tears, shrinking back like she was a child who waited to be hit. Not in her raw voice as she rasped, “I’m sorry.”
He couldn’t talk, so he nodded that he’d heard, but it turned into a shake of his head as he found he couldn’t reply. He stood, leaned down and kissed her hairline. He measured his steps away from her, away from the cruit, knowing the instrument would be the only thing waiting the next time he came down. But he would, and he’d play it, if nothing more than to defy the death that was stealing his life.