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[22] Duty Remains

Dinner rolls around. Regina wound up spending most of the day by herself, thinking far too much and doing far too little.

Her embroidery project, the one composed of red roses and thick, detailed leaves, has been one of sparse progress lately. Whenever she tries to work on it, the motivation just isn't there. Frustration is crawling up her veins and tearing her attention away from where it needs to be.

The lack of control is irritating, and as Regina settles in for dinner, sitting neatly to her father's side, she hopes that her poor mood doesn't shine through.

Lord Cornelius is at the head of the table. Nikola sits to his left, Bartolomeo is to his right, and Regina is next to her father. The meal available is as rich as ever, but looking at the glazed meat and bright, butter-cooked vegetables, she doesn't feel hungry at all. Her appetite has always waned when she's upset. Regina remembers clearly how she wasted away during the rough time between her parents. This may end much the same.

"Good evening, Regina," her father says, placing a hand on her shoulder. "You seem tired tonight. Is something on your mind."

Regina smiles. Her father, of all people, might be the one to see through it, but she can hope her act will be good enough. "I'm alright. I've been feeling slightly unwell lately, but it's nothing to concern yourself with. I think I just need to rest a little more."

Bartolomeo nods. "Then be sure to sleep properly."

"Yes, do take care of yourself," Nikola chimes in. "If you're not cautious of your health, you could wind up like my father." He gives a cheeky look in the man's direction.

"That's very true," Cornelius laughs. "Young people need to be careful. You won't be invincible forever."

And the meal begins. Nikola eats heartily, as always, and Bartolomeo is much the same. Cornelius is slower, and this time, Regina all but picks at her food. It doesn't taste right. She knows it's just her unpleasant mood getting her down, but that doesn't make it any easier to ignore it.

Then comes the question that Regina was dreading.

"Nikola, are you enjoying your time with Regina?" Cornelius asks. He looks at his son, who takes a moment to finish a long swallow of his drink.

"Of course. Regina's company is delightful. She's wonderful to be around, and I'm happy to have met her," he replies. Regina watches Nikola's eyes as he talks, and... she's not sure if what she's seeing is genuine.

Nikola likes her. She knows that. The two of them would make excellent friends. The question is if he has the right kind of feelings. When Regina thinks about the way he looked at Elaine, she can't say for sure. Underneath the table, one of her hands fists in her dress. She wants Nikola to be happy. He's a kind young man who deserves to live the life he wants. But for people like them, there's more to their lives than 'deserves'. Duty calls whether they want it to or not.

"And you, Regina?" her father questions next.

"Of course. Nikola is very kind, father. He's welcoming of my company and has made me feel quite at home in the castle. I haven't been able to forget our walk in the gardens." As she says it, she looks right at Nikola. There's a clear meaning to her words, and she wonders if he'll even respond.

"Yes! That was incredible. It was only the first day you were here, but I think we got off on the right foot from the start. We'll have to do it again sometime soon."

"Please. I'd be happy to."

And... again, Nikola brushed it off without a moment's pause. Regina takes a drink of the light wine in her cup. Her fingers dig into her skirt a little tighter. The prince is very good at avoiding the subjects he doesn't want to recognize. Too good.

"I can't wait until the marriage," Cornelius says, fondness thick in his tone. "Since my wife passed... I've always hoped that Nikola would find someone he loved. That he wouldn't be alone."

"I understand you, my friend. After what happened with my wife as well, I've prayed that Regina would marry happily," Bartolomeo adds.

Regina knows how her father thinks of her. She knows how badly he's wished for her to have the happiness he never did. Ever since she was a little girl, even before the arrangement with Nikola, he'd been so, so hopeful that she'd find a husband who would look after her just the same as he did. For his beloved daughter, nothing was ever too far.

Beyond that, even, it's her duty. For the sake of her father's happiness and the wellbeing of the territory, Regina understands what she has to do. Marrying Nikola is how she'll live the life she's meant to, how her father will be able to be secure in the knowledge that his daughter is loved by someone kind. And even for Cornelius, Nikola taking Regina's hands will reassure him that his precious only son won't be alone. There are countless reasons why the marriage has to go through.

As Regina looks across the table at Nikola, who's chattering happily with his father, she doesn't know quite what to think. Surely, he understands his purpose too?

There's something in the way. No matter how much Regina likes Elaine, the girl is in the way, and that can't stand. For Nikola's sake, for Cornelius's, for her father's, and for her own, she can't allow anyone to tear Nikola away from her.

If Elaine won't step back and stay in her place, Regina will do whatever it takes to remove her from where she doesn't belong.

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