In the best possible way, Giana, Queen of Izlia, was nothing like Nico had imagined.
It wasn’t as though Nico had spent a large amount of timing thinking about the queen of the neighboring kingdom. Of course, his heart had ached for her when he had learned of her mother’s passing one year previously – he could empathize with the pain of losing a parent. But other than the brief positive energy had exerted in her direction upon receiving the news, he hadn’t given her much thought.
After all, Ravenna and Izlia had been on the verge of war for a century. Although he hadn’t planned on straining that relationship further once he took the throne, he assumed there would always be tension there. Still, although he had been surprised by his father’s arrangement with the late Queen Katrina, he was open to trying to restore that relationship.
He’d assumed Queen Giana would be harsh and stubborn, wanting to assert her dominance as a ruler who was thrust to the throne so young and unexpectedly. And although it was clear that she did stand by her beliefs, there was also a fire and passion in her eyes that took Nico’s breath away. She was guarded, which was to be expected considering the circumstances, but there was something intriguing about her opinions that Nico couldn’t wait to learn more about.
At this moment, however, he’d like to learn why she hadn’t yet turned up for dinner. He was pacing the hallway outside the palace’s main dining room, allowing the other nobles invited to dine with the queen to enter the room as he waited for his future wife. The other dinner guests were seated and, in accordance to royal protocol, had empty plates and glasses for the last fifteen minutes as they would not be given food or drink until the queen arrived.
“Would you like me to enquire as to the queen’s status?” Felix asked, picking at embroidery on his formal dinner jacket as he stood quietly beside Nico in the hallway.
Nico debated saying yes. He could hear the dinner becoming impatient in the dining room. However, this wasn’t his kingdom. Just because he was going to marry Giana didn’t mean that he had any right to dictate how she behaved in her own home.
“No need.” He placed his hand on Felix’s shoulder in a calming gesture. “At this very moment, she is most likely on her way here.”
“It would be no trouble, sir,” Felix insisted, turning towards the hallway which led to the east wing, “I can just go…”
Nico tightened his grip on Felix’s shoulder. “You will do nothing of the sort, Felix.”
Felix’s task would have been in vain in any matter, as Giana appeared at the entrance to the east wing, looking radiant in red gown embroidered with gold, the warm colors making her brown skin glow. “Good evening. Is everything alright?”
“Everything is just fine, Your Grace,” Nico assured her, their gazes locking. He was pleased to see the same fire still sparking in her dark brown eyes. “You look beautiful.”
She didn’t blush as she reached up to pat down the silky black curls which had been tamed into a bun at the nape of her neck. “You mean, now that I no longer have grass in my hair?”
“No,” he shook his head. He wasn’t surprised that she didn’t seem all that impressed by his compliment. “The grass suited you.”
With one hand behind his back, he gestured towards the dining room entrance to indicate she should arrive at dinner first. As they were not yet married, royal protocol dictated that the queen of Izlia took precedence and Nico had no desire to assert any sort of authority over his future wife. Which is why he surprised when she slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow, her fingers tightening around his arm as she tugged him along with her.
“Come along, Your Highness,” she said, her smile wide and beautiful. “Our dinner guests await.”
Dinner itself was nowhere near as torturous as Nico had expected. In general, he hated the idle socialization. Not because any of the guests were uninteresting, but because Nico had always found making conversation with new people to be difficult. Even as a child, it had taken him quite some time to gain enough confidence to join the other children playing in the courtyard. As such, he fully expected to be on edge and uncomfortable for the majority of the dinner.
And he was uncomfortable for about ten minutes, but it wasn’t long before he was opening up to Lady Larissa who was seated beside him, laughing heartily at the tales she told of the mischievous animals she was raised with on her family’s estate. Every so often, he would glance across the table to where Giana sat, their eyes would meet, and he would feel a sense of calm wash over him.
He found it both alarming and strangely satisfying that he felt so completely comfortable at such a large group setting. Even more mystifying was the fact that Giana’s presence and occasional glances in his direction seemed to be the cause of such comfort.
The reassurance carried him through the remainder of dinner and even allowed him to mingle during after dinner drinks. Once the guests began to retreat to their rooms for the evening, he realized the entire evening had passed much quicker than he had expected.
He waited until the last guest bid he and Giana goodnight before turning to her to say farewell, but was pleasantly surprised when she placed a hand on his arm with a twinkle in her eye and whispered, “Will you come somewhere with me?”
Seeing as he’d gladly follow her anywhere, he nodded and allowed her to pull him gently towards the hallway. They ducked into a narrow passageway and he dutifully stayed quiet as she navigated them around a few corners until a few moments later, they ended up back in the hallway they had just left. He furrowed his eyebrows in confusion and parted his lips to ask what was going on, but decided against speaking when he noticed the playful glint in her eyes. Apparently, this misdirection was all part of the plan.
Not releasing her grip on his hand, she pulled him in the opposite direction from where Felix and Freya had more than likely headed. They walked slower this time, though he noted with pleasure that she kept her fingers laced through his, the gently pressure of her hand reassuring as she guided them through a small wooden doorway and up a stone staircase which spiral up the length of one of the palace’s towers. The staircase opened to a small room which seemed to be serving as a storage space for spare tables and chairs. Just beyond a stack of uncomfortable looking seats was a glass double door. Giana pulled it open with a deft tug and led him out onto a widow’s walk which overlooked the palace’s west gardens.
The gardens were unlit at night, which was probably for the best, as their beauty would have been overshadowed by the view which greeted them from the west side of the palace grounds. Just past the garden maze lay a lake lit with moonlight. The water was calm and clear enough that the constellations above were reflected on the still surface, making the body of water seem as though it was sparkling from within.
“Wow,” Nico sighed as he leaned against the wooden railing, unable to pull his eyes from the scene before him. “This view is breathtaking.”
“Isn’t it just?” Giana said softly. He could hear the smile in her voice. “I’ve been coming here since I was a girl. Being alone here, it helps me breathe. It helps me think.”
There was something about the way she explained it – a hint of vulnerability in her voice. This place was special to her, sacred. It was her sanctuary – something he knew from experience was hard to find in a palace. So the fact that she had deemed him worthy of knowing of its existence was significant.
Tearing his gaze from the lake, he shifted so his torso was facing her. “Thank you for sharing it with me.”
Her eyes flitted towards him and the corners of her lips lifted into a soft smile. “Well, in a few days, you will be my husband. Everything of mine will be yours.”
He winced at the loss of the moment of solace. “That’s not true.”
She quirked an eyebrow at him and turned to face him more fully. “No?”
Historically, royal marriages for the sake of alliance generally had the optics of shared control over the respective kingdoms. Although Nico hoped that their marriage would be an equal partnership, he did understand that she would be reluctant to allow him to make any decisions regarding the Izlian people. He had been in Izlia for a total of one day.
“No,” he assured her firmly. “I do not wish to take anything from you. I will only partake in what you choose to share. You are the queen of Izlia and you know much better than I what is best for your kingdom.”
“Do you mean that?” She tilted her head to the side, skeptical. “Or are you just saying what you think I want to hear?”
“I suppose my level of sincerity is for you to decide,” he replied. He did mean his words, but he would not force her to believe them, so he changed the subject. “Are you nervous? About the wedding, I mean.”
She paused for a moment and his heartbeat quickened in the silence. He wasn’t sure why he was nervous about her answer – after all, he had been hesitant when his father mentioned the marriage in the first place. But if the past few hours with Giana had taught him anything it was that he felt stronger when she was near. All he wanted was some sort of confirmation that she might possibly feel the same.
When she smile softly and shook her head, he felt the tension release from his shoulders.
“No,” she assured him. “Just apprehensive of all that comes afterwards.”
“Because you’ll be married to a man you barely know?” he joked.
She flashed him a grin to acknowledge the statement but then straightened her posture to indicate the seriousness of her words. “Because more than anything, I want to be the kind of queen my mother would be proud of. This marriage, this alliance, it’s just the first step towards peace in Sireen. The rest of the journey will be difficult.”
He had the same fears. They were both young and inexperienced and still discovering themselves as people let alone as rulers. There would be plenty of challenges, he was sure of it, but he also felt a strange sense of safety now that he knew they had each other to lean on.
Reaching out tentatively, he placed his hand atop hers on the railing. “And we will travel that road. Together.”
They stared at each other for a brief moment and he rejoiced at the fact that she had not recoiled from his touch.
Her gaze warmed and she nodded towards the door. “I should sleep.”
“Of course,” he agreed, a slight tremor of disappointment shooting through his body. “I will walk you to your chambers”
She led him back down the stairs and through the winding palace hallways in silence until they reached the entrance to the wing which held the queen’s rooms. Placing a hand on his chest to keep him from continuing on, she stepped in close to him, tilted her gaze up to meet his, and whispered, “Nico?”
Never in his twenty-five years had his name on another’s lips sounded so full of hope and promise. He could barely breathe out his response. “Yes?”
Lifting up onto her toes, she leaned forward and pressed her lips to his, holding them there for just a few seconds before backing away. It was the shortest kiss he’d ever experienced, and although he didn’t have much to compare it to, he knew without a doubt that it was also the sweetest.
“What was that for?” he asked, unable to stop the smile stretching across his face and wondering if such a short amount of contact should make him feel as though he was floating.
She grinned. “I just wanted to know what it would be like before everyone else becomes involved. Goodnight, Nico.”
She disappeared into the east wing before he could respond. Smiling widely, he turned towards the hallway which led to his chambers, deciding he was rather looking forward to getting married.
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