56 Love and Cai

There is a pinch of safety in Altan's embrace. Although the longer we lay together, the longer I begin to feel the pressure of the outside world closing in on me.

I try to relax.

I listen to Altan breathe steadily in and out I listen to his rhythmic heartbeat.

I try to calm my racing heart.

But every time I hear a noise, I flinch.

My heart rate quickens when I hear the wind blow on the windowpane, or when I hear the guards outside our door slowly shifting on their feet or sharing soft words. I hear a light tapping sound coming from somewhere in the room and it sends me burying my face into Altan's chest.

~I don't want to die.~

I didn't particularly love the idea of an arranged marriage, or being a duchess when I have no idea what that entails, but being murdered sounds far worse than that. At least in my past life, It was an accident when I died. There was no one I could blame.

What if, when I die, It's worse this time? What if I don't die quickly? what if I don't reincarnate? What if I just cease to exist? I gulp at the thought that makes my stomach feel sick.

"Shshshs." I hear Altan say above me. His chest hums when he makes noise. He pets the top of my head in soft soothing motions. "It's alright, I won't let anything happen to you."

My fingers are tingling with nerves and I know I'm probably on the verge of an existential crisis and a panic attack. I need to distract myself.

"Can we talk about something?" I blurt, and look up at Altan.

I see his throat bob as he swallows, "What would you like to talk about?"

"I don't know," I shake my head, "anything. I just think it would be good to distract myself... maybe, tell me something happy."

"Something happy?" Altan repeats and acts as though he is thinking.

"Tell me about your happiest moment." I go on, "Or maybe a time when you were young."

I see Altan smile through the darkness and I know a memory must be upon him. "I've heard you've met my sister?" He asks.

The question surprises me, I almost had completely forgotten about the gorgeous Fire Mage that is Altan's sister. "Rayana?" I say her name, but it feels like years ago when I met her. "When I first met her, I was stark naked."

Altan laughs and continues to play with my hair thoughtfully. It's shorter now than the last time I was in the palace, thanks to Naaomi, and it's easier for Altan to twirl it around his fingers. "She told me about that. In fact, she went on about your body."

"She did?" I laugh slightly at the memory.

"Yes," He smiles but his voice is gravelly, "I have to admit, I was jealous."

I swallow...

~That's not where I thought the conversation was going.~

"When Rayana and I were young." Altan begins, and I'm glad that he isn't pursuing the other topic anymore, "She would always help me get into trouble."

I laugh, "Are you sure you didn't do that on your own?"

Altan chuckles too, and his golden eyes flicker from the hair in his fingers to my face, "Without her, I would've been the most well-behaved child in the country."

"For some reason, I have a hard time believing that." I counter.

"One day, when Rayana's power had manifested, but mine had not yet," Altan begins again, and his eyes lazily draw back to the piece of my hair that he's twirling, "She decided, it would be a good idea to go to the kitchens and try to make some lamb soup, Rayana's favorite dish."

I make a mental note of that, and continue listening.

"She claimed," He said, "That we just had to throw some lamb meat in water and bring it to a boil."

"Oh no." I say as I realize where the story might be going.

Altan grins, and I can see the love he has for his sister in them, "We did end up getting some lamb meat in water, but because Rayana had not yet learned to fully control her power, the water never boiled properly." he stops winding the piece of my hair and carefully tucks it behind my ear. "I remember we were so proud of the soup. We brought a couple of bowls to our parents and begged them to have the first sip."

I cringe at the thought. "Was it terrible?"

"It was." Altan nods, "But our parents lied to us, they both took a sip then told us it was delicious." He laughs at the memory, "My mother asked if we would go get some bread to eat the soup with, but when we returned they had drunk it all already."

"They did?"

"No." He shakes his head, "they threw it out a window I'm pretty sure."

I laugh too.

"Rayana and I were so proud of our soup." he says, "then when we finally sat down to have a bowl for ourselves, we realized how terrible it was." he pauses as if reminiscing in the fond memory, "After that, my mother hired a personal chef to teach us how to cook."

"Oh?" I look up at him, "So you can cook?"

"I can." He nods, "although it's been a while."

"Do you know how to make fried chicken?" I can't help but ask.

"What's that?"

~Dammit. They don't have fried chicken in this world.~

"Nevermind," I say, "It sounds like you had a lovely childhood. You must have loved your parents a lot."

Altan's smile slowly disappears with my words, "I did.... I do" he corrects, "I love them a lot."

Dilera told me before that both of Altan's parents had passed already. But I don't have the courage to ask him how it happened, especially when we are supposed to be talking about happy things. "Do you miss them?" I ask instead.

Altan clears his throat. "I do." he tilts his head down so he's looking at me. "There has been a hole in my life ever since I lost them." I blink at his sad words, "One that I hope can be refilled with a family of my own."

I feel my breath leave my lungs.

~Is he insinuating what I think he is? Or... I don't know, maybe I'm thinking too much.~

"I hope-" I begin, but my mouth trembles. I suddenly feel too close to Altan, I feel too warm, I feel like his embrace around me is too strong. I'm too comfortable. I like it too much. "I hope," I try again, "that you can have that too." I say honestly.

~Even if it's not with me.~ I let those words hang on my lips but not enter the space between us.

Altan's eyes flicker to my lips and I realize that I have my head tilted toward his. I realize that one of his hands is tangled in my hair, while the other is wrapped around my waist, I realize how incredibly close we are, and how I feel a terribly beautiful tension pulling us closer.

And just when I think I'm about to lean forward and kiss him...

I hear metal unsheath.

Every relaxed muscle in my body pulls taut.

"Were you waiting on me?" A familiar voice asks.

Cai's arrived.

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