I stood beside Nika a few steps behind Harran and Brea as their parents approached. Nika had her shoulders squared, and her face was placid.
I try to be understanding about Nika’s relationship with her parents, but having been only hovered over and adored by my father, their cool treatment of her and clear favoritism of Brea has always seemed strange to me. But Nika has asked me to support her and I will.
“Chief Walkin,” Harran smiled as their father stepped forward, “and Lady Anaia,” their mother, who eyed me sharply. I looked down. “Welcome.”
“Chieftan,” Anaia said with a smile, “Brea, love,” she kissed Brea on the cheek. “And Nika,” she moved to Nika. “Duchess.” She looked at me.
“Mama,” Brea said, slipping her arm through hers, “isn’t it lovely that they got here so quickly. They only arrived this morning.”
“We had thought we’d arrive before you,” Chief Walkin said as we all moved inside the keep. Nika nodded. “You look well, Nika.”
“Thank you Papa,” Nika said, her eyes downcast. Brea was babbling about something for the wedding in a few days and Anaia was nodding along.
“Is your cousin here as well, Duchess?” Walkin asked me.
“Yes,” I said, my throat dry. “But she is resting, I think. She hates long rides in full court. I prefer them because we move slower, the faster riding is what exhausts me.”
“Rina,” Nika raised an eyebrow at me. I clamped my mouth closed. I realized I was babbling. “Her Majesty offerred to perform the ceremony but Brea insisted on Mama.” I smiled softly at her.
“I would hope so,” Walkin said and moved past us. Nika exhaled as he left. I took her hand and squeezed it.
“That wasn’t so bad,” I said cheerfully. She looked at me.
“I suppose not,” she said. “Thank you.” I nodded.
“I’m sorry I was babbling,” I sighed, “I know your father hates idle chat.” She laughed.
“It’s alright,” she sighed and we walked to our room. “I’m glad we got here before them.” She fell back on the bed.
“You should go spend time with them,” I said. She looked at me.
“They won’t notice,” she said. I lay down with her again. I kissed her softly. She wrapped her arms around me. “We shouldn’t.”
“I’m not the one who doesn’t want to,” I pointed out. She exhaled. “I love you. I can’t imagine they don’t love you too.”
“They do love me,” she whispered, “they just don’t see me.”
“I see you,” I whispered and pressed my forehead to hers.
“Nika!” Brea ran in breathlessly. “Why does everyone keep disappearing on me?” Nika sat up and looked at her sister. “Mama is insisting we go over the ceremony.”
“Why?” Nika said. “We’ve all done it a hundred time.” She rolled her eyes.
“I don’t know, it’s Mama being crazy,” she threw her hands up. She glanced at me with a smirk. “Was I interrupting?”
“Of course not,” I mumbled and straightened my gown. “Do you need any help?” Brea smiled gently at me.
“No,” she said. “Thank you though. I look forward to when you two go through this.” She grabbed Nika’s hand and pulled her up. “Come on.” I laughed as Nika groaned following her sister out of the room. I flopped back again and took a few deep breaths. Stolen kisses were becoming more common, but we hadn’t had sex since that first night she’d asked me to pretend.
I missed it. I missed touching her.
“Excuse me,” Calla’s small voice came from the door. I sat up and looked at her.
“Yes, Lady Calla,” I said. She walked over to me.
“Do you know where my Papa is? Aunt Annalise and Chieftain Harran sent me to find him, but I cannot find him.”
“Perhaps we should look for him together,” I said and stood up taking her hand. She nodded and we walked out. “How do you like the keep?” She smiled.
“There are so many hiding places, I’m guessing,” she said. I laughed. “I found some good ones today, but Lady Mercy said I oughtn’t hide from everyone now that I’m the heir.” I knelt down.
“May I tell you a secret?” I said. She nodded. “Lady Mercy knows the best hiding places at the Palace in Dovetail. When she and I were small we hid all the time. Your Uncle Tristan knows good ones too.” She giggled. “But yes, you ought to stay in sight while we’re here. The Keep is very old and has a lot of secrets.” She nodded seriously.
“When you and my mama and Uncle Tristan were small,” she said, “you hid?” I nodded.
“I did,” I said softly, “and your Uncle Tristan and Lady Mercy. But never your Mama, she thought it was stupid.” She giggled. “Why do you hide?”
“Everyone is big,” she said. I nodded. “And loud, and I want to be brave, like Mama. But sometimes,” she sighed. “It’s just scary.”
“I know,” I said softly. “But there are lots of ways to be brave. Your Mama and Aunt Annalise are brave when they fight. But don’t you think it’s scary for your Papa and Me, to take care of all the people in our Provenance, and our family?” She nodded. “It’s big, and that’s scary. But doing it is brave. So while we’re here, you’ll practice being brave.” She hugged me. “And when we get back to Dovetail, I’ll show you all the hiding places.” She nodded.
“Your Grace,” she said softly, “what if I can’t,” I hugged her close.
“You can,” she whispered. “We’re all here to show you how.” She nodded. “Come on,” I picked her up. “We’ll find your Papa now.”