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[02] Visitor

The carriage ride is long. That's the main thing that weighs on Regina's mind. After days of preparation, she and her father loaded their things into a near-caravan of carts and accompanying servants, sent the non-immediate things ahead, then settled into the carriage for a ten-hour ride.

At least, that's how long Regina thinks has passed by now. She's been busying herself with an embroidery hoop and a red-rose stitch pattern that's taken her the better part of three weeks to get even halfway done, and the project has done wonders to keep her mind off of the road and the seemingly endless trip. She's pricked her fingers a few times thanks to unfortunate bumps, but overall, it's been a far better choice than sitting in silence.

Across from her, with his nose all but buried in a thick, leather-bound tome is her father; Bartolomeo Adaire. When Regina glances up from a partially completed leaf, she takes in her father's severe expression, the knit of his furrowed brow, and the few loose strands of dark hair escaping where he has it pulled back. The heavy rings on his fingers catch against the book when he goes to turn a page, and the way he frowns at the text is a certain cue that something has gone wrong in the story.

"Did someone die?" Regina asks teasingly.

"What? Oh, no. Our hero has found himself in quite a predicament, though. His lover has completely turned against him!" Bartolomeo exclaims.

For all her father is usually a serious, stern man, Regina never sees him more emotional or excited than when he's buried in a good book. She's known this side of him since she was a little girl— when they'd read fairytales of cursed lovers and brave adventurers together for hours on end.

"How terrible," she laughs. "However will he prevail?"

Bartolomeo smiles fondly. He slips his woven bookmark between the pages of the tome and sets it down on the seat beside him. Then, he faces his daughter with a small sigh.

"Regina, are you nervous?"

"Why would I be?"

"We're on this trip to meet your betrothed for the first time, dear. I was terrified when I had to meet your mother."

"Well, the man I'm meeting certainly can't be as terrible as my mother," Regina smiles. "I have nothing to worry about. You've known Lord Braegon for years. If you trust his son to look after me, I have no reason to fear. Your judgment has yet to fail us."

"Your faith in me is astounding. How blessed I am to have such a trusting daughter. It's alright to be nervous, though. First meetings can get to you."

"Father," she says, "I'm doing my duty to you and our home. My marriage to Lord Nikola will solidify relations between our houses and combine our assets. It'll strengthen both ourselves and the territory. There's nothing I'd doubt and no reason why I'd falter. Isn't this what you've planned for me for years?"

Bartolomeo's smile deepens, although there's a saddened edge to it now. "I'm proud of you, you know. Always taking your life so seriously. It pleases me to know that our future rests in those capable hands." As he says it, he reaches out and takes Regina's smaller, softer hand into his own. Her father's palm is warm. His fingers swallow hers up so easily.

Regina can't help but smile either.

"Thank you."

After that, the carriage falls a bit silent. Regina asks Bartolomeo a few more questions about his story, and in return, he questions the stitches she's using for her embroidery. Regina lets herself grin and laugh. This is where she can.

Although it's probably another hour or two, it feels like no time before the driver announces their destination.

It's then that Regina has to swallow down a sudden flare of nerves. No, she reminds herself, there's no way that she can fail. Whatever the prince will be like, few people have avoided falling for her charms before. Whatever he wishes for her to be, she'll make sure it's what he sees.

If Nikola favors shy women, she'll speak seldom and cover her mouth when she laughs. If he's fond of spirit, she'll command her servants clearly and take his hand when she wants to lead him. And regardless, she'll carry her head high and be her father's daughter. There's little that polite words and a demure smile can't solve. When it comes to making allies, Regina's never found it difficult to get the results she needs.

So as she steps out of the carriage and takes the servant's hand to steady herself, red skirt fanning around her as she descends, Regina seals any fears she may have had deep in her heart.

Cornelius is there to greet them. He's a tall man with a wide, sturdy build— although he appears withered from what she knows to be poor health. Despite being only a couple of years older than her father, Cornelius's hair is white down to the tips. His face is wrinkled with lines left from both smiles and tears. A cane clasped in one long-fingered hand seems to be the only thing keeping him upright.

"Good day, my friend," Bartolomeo says as he steps out from the other side of the carriage. "How's the year treated you?"

"Well," Cornelius responds. His voice is soft, yet strong. "As well as it can. Is that really your Regina?"

"Yes, sir. Regina Adaire, and it's a pleasure to meet you." With the sweet words falling from her lips, Regina bows deeply. Her long sleeves drape down over her hands as she dips her waist, and when she rises, it's to a smile from both men.

"Incredible. It's a shame I didn't meet her until now. Now... Nikola, would you please attend to the lady? Bartolomeo and I have some catching up to do."

"Yes, father."

And with those words, a young man steps into view from behind his father and the crowded attendants.

The first thing that strikes Regina is his smile, soon followed by eyes the color of a cloudy sky. He, clearly Lord Nikola Braegon, has the same broad shoulders as his father, but with touseled sandy hair instead of wispy white and a sharp chin while his father's carries wrinkles and is softened with age.

Nikola steps forward without a second's hesitation. He takes Regina's hand in his, bows just as deeply as she had moments before, and presses a kiss to her knuckles.

"It's an honor to meet you, Lady Regina. I've been looking forward to your visit for weeks— and I'll say it plainly that you exceed every vision I'd held."

Oh, a charmer. Regina's painted lips quirk up in a faint grin. He's much the same as her in that regard. Whether he means his words or not, Nikola is clearly the kind of man who knows how to present himself. Like her, he must be aware of why they're meeting, to begin with. This isn't a social visit between old friends, children dragged along. This is the first encounter of a marriage meant to benefit everyone involved.

Getting along is mandatory.

"Thank you, my lord. You're too kind." Even as she says it, Regina looks deeply into those gray eyes. Nikola seems as genuine as a boy can be, and yet...

She can't help but get the feeling that he's not being entirely honest with either of them.

"Would you like to take a walk with me? Our fathers surely have much talking to do, so we should step aside and give them room. I'd be delighted to show you around the palace for a while." Nikola stands, releases Regina's hand, and meets her gaze without a shred of hesitancy.

"Of course. That sounds lovely." Regina then turns to her father. "I'll allow Lord Nikola to entertain me for a bit," she says. "I hope that everything goes well between you and Lord Cornelius. A year of nothing but letters must leave a lot to be discussed."

"It certainly does," Bartolomeo laughs. "Go. You enjoy yourself as well. I'll wish you the best."

With that farewell, Regina follows Nikola's lead and ascends the steps to the palace's main door, held wide open for her to enter. She steps inside to see her future home.

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