Nkoyo was excited while at the same time dreading her first day at work of any kind. She had graduated about a year ago but it had never crossed her mind to use her certification from a foreign university for anything more than bragging. Her mind had been filled with thoughts of queen-ship and so, when engagement to the prince of Ibibio kingdom had been suggested, all she saw was a fast track to her dreams of ruling a kingdom.
Swallowing her trepidation, she went through the work cloths that the queen had once again magnanimously sent, even adding undies to them, and Nkoyo wondered again how the woman was able to get the right size for everything.
Gladly, she abandoned the undies she’d been washing over night and using all this while, shaking her head to forget the fact that she’d never found herself in a situation where she had to repeat undies for lack of them. And with relish, she pulled on the very sexy looking undies the queen had provided, silently wondering if the queen wanted her to seduce her son with these undies.
They were lacey and sexy and Nkoyo assumed that the woman could have just sent over plain cotton undies and she wouldn’t have minded. Another part of her mind reminded her that maybe this was the queen’s taste too, so she stopped analyzing the gift and simply enjoyed it.
From the numerous hangers of corporate cloths, Nkoyo chose a light pink long sleeve shirt and a black pencil, a bit below the knee length, skirt. The black skirt molded alluringly over her curves as she slipped her feet into the black, wedge shoe. Quickly, she brushed out her extensions and rolled it into a demure bun at the back of her head, she put on light make-up and was ready to leave her room.
Okay, not quite ready, she had made it a habit to recall at least one tidbit from the queen’s lecture, everyday. And the one she chose to recall for the purpose of work was “Leadership isn’t about squandering the wealth that royalty grants but choosing to see and understand the toils and stress your subjects suffer to make that wealth available.”
She had really been touched by that one because she was guilty of squandering money. And she was proud of herself for offering to work, she was being accorded the opportunity to see and understand, first hand, the toils and stress of the working class.
What she didn’t know was how Onen was going to treat her; he had barely been cordial over the weekend. With a deep breath and an encouraging air kiss at her image in the mirror, she turned and left the room.
BREAKFAST HAD BEEN DIFFICULT but compared to now, it was a joke.
Onen hadn’t been able to help himself, he had looked up when she’d walked into the dinning room and his breath had left him. My God, what had his mother been thinking giving her such form fitting cloths, she looked like she belonged in front of a fashion magazine.
The black wedges she had on made her legs look so much sexier, while complimenting her fair complexion. His hands itched to glide that skirt over her round curves to discover how soft her skin would be under there. Realizing where his thoughts were headed, he snatched his gaze away and tried to calm his palpitating heart by taking deep breaths.
On a normal day, he would be glad to be leaving her at the palace while he went to work; but today, she was at work with him and he hated it.
Nkoyo had not been paying attention to the street turns that Onen made as he maneuvered his Lexus SUV to get them to the mill; and even if she’d been paying attention, it would’ve made no difference since she wasn’t really good with roads and directions.
The tension in the car had been suffocating and Nkoyo had been glad when they’d arrived at the mill, enabling her to escape from the confines of the car. Her eyes had widened first at the humongous warehouse and second, at the smell that emanated from it.
Onen led her through the chaos inside and onto an iron stair that led to the office; an aluminum and glass enclosure with three tables, complete with laptops. Nkoyo had no idea who the third table was for but she assumed the one Onen had flicked his wrist at was Wofai’s own, and currently, hers.
The tension had not let up the whole day. The prince had not deigned to speak to her or direct her on what to do and after grueling hours of watching him work on his laptop, he had finally left the office, according Nkoyo the opportunity to finally breathe freely.
Was this how it would be, she silently wondered and felt like she might have made a big mistake offering to come here, apparently the guy didn’t need help and he was making that very clear.
With an exasperated sigh, she got up from the swiveling chair and went out the office. Her sojourn stopped at the railings that made a balcony which faced the whole mill operation area downstairs. The operation area spread out before her and at first, she couldn’t make head or tail of what was going on, but after some minutes, she was able to decipher that the melee actually had a process to it.
The mill catered basically for the procession of cassava, maize and wheat, from their natural state to a final product that would be transferred to other places for consumption. The operation of heavy machinery left a constant vibration through out the building that Nkoyo was already acclimating to.
The process involved peeling the cassava, the drums and drums of water needed for washing them and then the peeled and cleaned roots are fed into the machinery which grinds them to a pulp. The pulp is scooped into industrial size sacks and placed under the squeezer, which drains the pulp of all moisture that escapes through the tiny holes of the sack.
Nkoyo watched as what had been a pulp was now removed from the sacks as dried clumps which when placed on the sieves and sieved, a fine white powder is gotten and the husks are kept aside for another sort of procession. This fine white powder is then sent to the area of the mill that had mostly women, the white powder was scooped into special garri pots over a blazing fire and stirred until it cooked and solidified into a kind of grain.
Some had palm oil put in them that gave the garri a yellowish hue while some where left to maintain their whiteness.
She had no idea how long she’d stood there watching everybody at work. Nkoyo felt extra guilty that she’d never considered the effort that went into processing a food she’d always taken for granted. At her sigh, she turned and her gaze caught Onen helping one of the workers load a sack of pulp into the squeezer, and her stomach twisted at the sight of his bulging muscles, a rush of pleasure filling her whole being.
The mistake had already been done, she should never have volunteered, the question was, would she give up?
Nkoyo didn’t; even though Onen basically ignored her presence at his work space, she doggedly dressed up and followed him to work without letting his parents know that she only tagged along for the drive to and from the mill.
On the fourth day, he gave up and gave her a sheave of paper with records of expenses and receipts to sort out. Nkoyo was grateful for Wofai’s order, and so with the help of her register, she was able to know where everything went and soon, didn’t need the register for reference whenever Onen dropped off the next sheaves.
He had grunted when she’d first shown him her work, hardly able to breathe as she leaned close to show him where she’d been a bit confused. Onen had been glad to tell her that she was right and that her certification hadn’t been a waste after all. He had been expecting her haughty look and a snide reply but she’d actually looked hurt and had glumly returned to her table without a comment.
The guilt had assailed him instantly and he’d choked on his need to apologize and assure her that he’d been joking. He couldn’t though, he’d just walked out and preferred to spend his whole day helping at the mill, the physical exertion helped keep his mind, if only for a moment, from thoughts of her.
By the next week, Nkoyo had more cloths and a new resolution. She noticed that Onen didn’t go for lunch breaks, not that she went either, but she reasoned that he deserved a nutritious lunch break after exerting so much energy at the mill.
So, she woke up earlier than her usual time, snuck into the kitchen and prepared a snack pack for both herself and Onen, she gave it to the car washer to put at the back of the car without Onen’s idea.
When he returned from working at the mill, looking exhausted and parched, Nkoyo seized that opportunity to offer him chilled water from the flask she’d also taken from the kitchen.
“Thank you,” he said gratefully, hiding his shock and pleasure at her action.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if you had lunch? After all that effort downstairs, you need to replenish,” Nkoyo commented nicely.
Onen shifted uncomfortably in the silence that followed and decided that he should give some sort of reply so as not to appear rude; even though rude was basically what he’d been since she begun work.
“Err…yes, that would be nice. If you are hungry, we could go down the road for lunch,” he offered, his heart thumping as though he really wished to share a meal with her away from his parents’ presence.
She flashed him a wide smile that quickened his breathing as she rushed to her table and returned with a lunch bag that she proceeded to arrange on his table.
“Lunch,” she said and smiled uncertainly at him, she looked as though she dreaded his reaction.
Onen swallowed with some difficulty, nobody had ever been so considerate to him this way and coming from a person that had been branded conceited, it meant more.
“Wow, I…this is unexpected,” he moved closer and opened the disposable plate in front of him and he was instantly inundated with the appetizing scent. His eyes bulged over the fried yam, beautifully pieced, the fried plantain and the egg sauce on the side, not that he hadn’t had that kind of meal before, just that he wondered when she’d had the time to prepare it.
Nkoyo nervously watched him stare at the food, “Will it do?”
“Will it do? Of, course, this is lovely, thanks,” he said and dug into the food with the fork she provided.
She sighed in relief and opened the other plate. They ate in companionable silence and thus started a tradition that made them closer.
By the end of the week, they were like old time friends and the monarchs noticed a difference in their son. The queen was aware of her son’s longing stare on Nkoyo and she didn’t know whether to be happy or worried, all she was sure of was the complication involved.
Prince Ekong detested complications. He could not understand, not to talk more of explaining the instant connection he had with the strange woman in Nkoyo’s room. He had held Nkoyo many times in that same room and had never felt the vibrations that had gone through him when he’d touched her.
He had accepted to marry Nkoyo and had never experienced the potent electricity that cackled in the space between himself and the strange woman or the endless thoughts of her which were slowly driving him crazy. Who the hell was she? He had never heard Nkoyo speak of any female relatives, he’d assumed that would be why she was in her room.
Then another realization occurred, could she be a maid? Ekong’s eyes widened in alarm, Nkoyo would never sit back and allow a maid take her spot. Wait, why was he even thinking of anybody taking Nkoyo’s spot? With a groan, he covered his face and took deep breaths to calm his nerves.
Ekong’s eyes connected with his phone again, he’d made so many false starts in his bid to call Nkoyo, because he hadn’t known what he’d say to her. If her line had gone through before he’d actually really made the call, she would have had a hundred missed calls from him. And when he’d overcome his dread and made the call despite not still knowing what he was going to say, her line had been unreachable.
Where the hell was she when he needed her? He needed to recall what he had with her that had made them agree to get married. Nkoyo was his friend, but there had never been that spark between them, they were comfortable with each other and shared the same insights about several things.
Groaning, he realized what he was doing, he was unconsciously analyzing what he had with Nkoyo and he was afraid, it was coming short compared to the zing he’d felt with the strange woman. And that kiss, Christ, the feel of her lips going pliant on his and then demanding the next second. The feel of her body, melting and fitting his perfectly; he had never thought that he’d feel something that transcendent in his life, so he had settled for the next best thing, which was forever with his friend, a woman he was comfortable discussing state affairs with.
Suddenly, he wanted romance in his life. Suddenly, he couldn’t see himself having romance with Nkoyo, they hadn’t even shared a decent kiss in over a year they’d been engaged. Suddenly, he needed that zing in his life, that electricity that gave life clarity and colored everything in bright hues.
But before he got ahead of himself and destroyed the good thing he already had, he needed to know more about the strange woman. Ekong was a practical person, he was still bothered about the strange woman’s scream and he wondered is she was mentally unstable. No matter the zing, he wasn’t so sure he’d be allowed to snuggle up with an insane person.
Making a snap decision, one that sent an unusual amount of excitement soaring through his body, he began packing an overnight bag. Normally, he would have his male servant do that for him but he didn’t have the time. He would make his excuses to his parents, they already knew he had business to tend at the Efik Kingdom the coming week, so staying over to avoid driving everyday wouldn’t be suspicious.
It’s just that this time, he would take up the king and queen of Efik kingdom on their ever standing offer to board at the palace. He had never done this before with Nkoyo; he really just wanted to find out who the strange lady was and a number he could reach Nkoyo, he was sure her parents would help.
PRINCE EKONG WAS NERVOUS; if he was one to bite his nails in anxiety, he would have no more finger nails. Instead, he preferred to dress up in his confidence cloths, to cover how he was feeling. He had on his usual pristine shirt over brown slacks, pointy male shoes, his costliest wristwatch, his traditional beads around his neck and his princely cap.
He ignored a part of his mind that reminded him that this was a casual visit, as he would be arriving at the Efik palace in the evening. At the end of the day, the dress up didn’t help, he could feel how jittery his stomach felt when he was ushered into the presence of the king and queen.
“My boy,” Asuquo hailed most casually.
“Your majesty,” Ekong greeted with a smile and bowed officially, “May your rule never end.”
“It has to, at some point,” Asuquo chuckled, this was a standing joke between both of them.
Ekong then moved to the queen, he lifted her right hand and place a tender kiss on it, “You are still as beautiful as the lily in early morning lights,” he murmured, bringing a smile to the queen’s face.
“Enough, with all that dreamy words, stop trying to seduce my wife, you’ll soon have yours,” Asuquo joked and everybody laughed.
“Thanks, Ekong, this is a late visit; did you have business in town?”
And he choked for the barest second before he smiled, “I will be having business next week, and I wished to ask if your invitation to stay over at the palace still stands?” he asked, telling part of the truth.
“Oh my, but of course, Ekong, you are always welcomed here,” Affy assured with a bright smile.
“Hmm, I have someone to watch the game with, tonight,” Asuquo said with a wide grin, causing Affy to roll her eyes in mock exasperation.
“Men and sports,” she said and then her eyes widened, “And oh, he could also help keep our guest company,” she said, staring at her husband.
“Yes, I’m sure Princess Wofai would appreciate someone her own age to converse with for the weekend,” Asuquo concurred.
Ekong furrowed his brows in confused contemplation, while his heart hammered so heavily, it felt like it was trying to break his chest and fall out at the sweet possibility of the woman he’d kissed being a princess.
“Who is princess Wofai?” he managed to croak and mentally hoping that she was the woman he had kissed.
“Oh well, when Nkoyo left to holiday at err…another kingdom, we also had a young princess come holiday at our kingdom.”
Ekong noticed that the queen desisted from mentioning what kingdom Nkoyo was holidaying. Something was going on and he wished he knew.
Nodding in understanding, he said, “Oh, that’s nice. I have been trying to call Nkoyo though, her line isn’t going and I’m worried.”
The king and queen exchanged uneasy glances.
“That girl,” the king begun with a rueful chuckle, “Her phone has that brand new network that isn’t everywhere yet, that’s probably why you couldn’t get her.”
“So, how do you communicate with her?” Ekong asked with a frown.
We don’t, Affy silently answered, we just get updates from our friends the king and queen of Atam kingdom. With a heavy sigh, she said, “We could give you the number of the queen and you could speak to Nkoyo through her.”
“Oh my queen, I would appreciate that,” Ekong said gratefully and noticed another uneasy look between the monarchs of Efik kingdom.
“You are staying for dinner, right?” Affy asked, at Ekong’s nod, she stood, “I’ll get you that number and then inform the kitchen that we are having an extra guest tonight. You’ll get to meet princess Wofai then.”
Ekong swallowed in dread and anticipation; he couldn’t wait to find out if that zing had been real. But in the mean time, he had to call his fiancée and find out how she was coping.
Onen and Nkoyo were both laughing hard when they came into the sitting room. Though they were shocked to find the king and queen there, their laugh didn’t immediately cease, it reduced to chuckles while they greeted the monarchs who smiled back.
Nkoyo stumbled a bit and Onen instinctively reached round her waist to steady her and just like that sparks flew all around and inside them. Their eyes clashed and breaths hitched and they were extremely aware of each other and what they’d been avoiding, there was extreme attraction between them.
“Thank you,” Nkoyo whispered through dry mouth, not wanting them to stand there like zombies and cause the king and queen to suspect anything.
“It…it was nothing,” Onen replied, yet his hand wouldn’t leave her waist, even though the risk of a fall had passed.
“Yes…yes, she just came,” Jesam was saying on her phone, while Liman seemed to be concentrating on an ongoing game.
Nkoyo snapped her gaze from Onen to stare at the queen, but she was very aware of Onen’s hand still on her waist. She loved it, even though the weight and heat of it felt like it was burning a hole through her cloths.
“Nkoyo, come talk to prince Ekong, your fiancé,” Jesam announced pleasantly while pointing her phone at her.
The first thing she noticed was the instant cold that suffused her body as Onen snatched his hand from her waist. The second was his obvious shift away from her side, her eyes swiveled to his shocked and dismayed ones, and she silently pleaded with him. But he turned and walked swiftly out of the room.
Nkoyo felt like erupting in tears and it was a shock to her because she couldn’t remember the last time she had cried for anything, talk more for a man. Swallowing her hurt at Onen’s obvious desertion, she formed a fake smile and collected the phone from the queen.
“I’ll take this outside,” she said and the monarchs nodded.
When she’d gone Jesam turned to her husband, “Did you see what happened?” she asked with widened eyes, referring of course to the show between Nkoyo and Onen.
“I did and why did you add the fiancé part?” Liman asked with furrowed brow, he had seen the hurt on his son’s face.
“I don’t know, I sort of panicked when I saw the way he was looking at her. He’s in love with her, darling. What are we going to do?” Jesam was really panicked.
“Is it bad that he’s finally in love? Jay, we worried about him as much as we did about Wofai; we wanted them to have what we have,” Liman pointed out reasonably.
“But darling, she’s engaged. And I bet he’s been worried about her enough for Affy to allow him call me. Oh God, what are we going to do?” Jesam cried worriedly.
Complications and intrigue, love and other unrequited emotions…will these be solved?
INSIDE OUT continues
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