Visiting her father was the only time she dressed down for a public event. She owned silks and brocades that she wore every day, and gowns sewn with glinting twists of beadwork from neckline to hem that would have been perfect for the holidays in her own home. She owned dresses that sang, and hummed, and whispered as she walked, and every one of them would have been too loud in her father’s halls. Even the dresses she had worn as a girl for the celebrations in his home would have drawn too many eyes.
She dressed as plainly as she could get away with on such an exalted day. Her blue dress turned dull silver if it caught the proper shine, though the evening’s yellow lamplight was turning it muddy gray. The neck was embroidered with a line of rolling waves, and the hem echoed the pattern in larger strokes. The skirt bunched stiffly in its gathers where it should have flowed, an expensive fabric made in the wrong pattern.
She looked properly decadent, just shy of real elegance. In the long hall, roiling with party-goers, no one looked at her twice.
Anika walked slowly, and smiled at everyone around her as if they were strangers. After so many years, it was oddly easy to convince them of it with a shy glance. As one hour stretched into another, she started to wonder if her father would look past her as well.
Then he touched her elbow, lightly, in the crowd. When she turned, he bowed as if he were introducing himself, while his eyes held hers with the kindest surprise.
“When did you arrive?” he murmured.
She smiled and sank into the deep curtsey that the gold on his wristband demanded. “Unofficially? Just after noon.”
“Officially?” he asked with a slanting smile.
She shrugged. “I’m off the coast of Emirett, resupplying on my way home.”
He shook his head at her. “Every time I see you, I expect it to be the last. I’ve never been so sweetly proven wrong.”
She tried not to smile too widely. “Daughters have their duties…”
He laughed. The sound was as warm and infectious as she had remembered it.
“You don’t need to keep sneaking back here,” he murmured.
Anika shrugged again. “It’s only once a year. And it’s really not much effort when everyone is so blind with the holidays.”
“Ana…” he whispered.
Looking down, she tried to hide the sudden smile. It seemed so silly for her own name to give her so much pleasure. “Besides, I owe you more than just duties,” she told him. “It’s not every man that will fake his little girl’s death so that she can become a Clan Lady.”
He sighed and seemed to lean back on his heels. She watched him check the faces of those closest to them, making sure no one had heard in a subtle turn. “It was an odd year,” he told her. “Not every man welcomes two Clan Lords into his home, or has them ask him to witness treaties for them, or has negotiations go so badly that they both try to murder each other under his roof. I do believe I’ll be in the history books. At least twice.” He raised his eyebrows, as if even he were impressed with himself.
Anika squeezed his hand. “As you should be.”
Catching her hand before she could drop it back to her side, he met her eye carefully. “You’re well?”
She nodded instantly. “I am. I still love him. He still loves me. He gives me a thousand reasons a day to stay with him, on top of the fact that his love for me keeps my Clan safe from him. And I think my new family gets real joy in concocting new childhood stories as they lie for me.” She gave him a long smile and squeezed his hand again. “I don’t do this just for you.”
“But you would,” her father murmured.
She looked down again. “Luck has been good to me, then.”
“I have to go now,” he said. “I can’t really be seen to hover over anyone.”
Anika nodded him on. “Go.”
“Can you stay…” He held her eye to finish his question.
“I have a boat ready to take me away in the morning,” she told him.
“So, we’ll have our annual secret breakfast then.”
Anika smiled broadly. “Of course. I don’t think anyone has caught on yet.”