Rei recognised Milena almost immediately as one of the many women who had decorated her father’s court many years ago. She was beautiful. With long auburn hair and endearing brown eyes, she was perhaps even beyond beautiful, her face looked as if a great artist had carved it from marble. She moved with the kind of grace only a mother could have, and the smirk on her face offered no queues of the workings of her mind.
“I have to apologise for my eldest son’s impression, he’s always out there, even in the worst kind of weather.” Milena said, her smile stretching wide.
They were seated in the guest chambers, by the fire. Winter was fast on the way already, and Rei’s mother had hinted she planned their stay accordingly.
“Oh its quite fine, Milena. Believe me,” there was something sly behind Reina’s smile as she tried to coax Rei into conversation. “Rei has always been quite interested in combat.”
Reina was sitting opposite her friend Milena, and Rei sat in a slump beside her mother, obviously wishing she were somewhere else. Milena had two sons, and was rumoured to be pregnant with a possible third. Her youngest son, Rian, sat at the head of the table, looking utterly bored.
“Is that so, Rei? Rian is just about to undergo elite training under the instruction of –”
“Mother!” Rian sat forward, a look of disproval heavy on his face.
Milena rolled her eyes, “Oh relax, why don’t you take Rei down and show her the stables?”
Rian grudgingly agreed, offering his hand to Rei. Rian was no taller than her, and quite thin. His hair was much too long for her taste, an ash blonde colour, curling at the height of his chin. He was handsome she supposed, but his face still carried that childlike ignorance about it.
Rei was astounded by the size of the house. She knew the Leolin family were wealthy, in actuality, they were the only family she knew of that despite coming from royal blood, lived in a house and not a castle. Their footsteps echoed as she followed her suitor down the hall, she could hear children’s laughter through the walls, and wondered if maybe one day that laughter would belong to her own children.
“My brother is quite skilled in swordsmanship; he’s going to be knighted after this winter.” Rian said proudly, almost smugly.
“Are there many knights in your family?”
The boy seemed almost offended, “Anyone of good family is knighted.”
They reached the stairs, and once again Rian held out his hand to her. Rei took it despite the unclenching grip of uncertainty in her. There was nothing wrong with him, he was very polite, doing and saying all the right things, but Rei sensed insincerity in his actions.
Milena Leolin was an avid gardener, and it truly showed. Rei found herself blinking against the light of the sun, all the autumn colours of the garden intensified the glare. There were even crops growing, her mother had told her the household lived off their own harvest each year. The family was different from other families of the same status, and Rei knew that was why her mother had chosen them above the others. There were a few eligible men more than eager to take on Rei, and it had taken quite a lot of coaxing of her father to allow their visit to the Leolins.
Rei followed her companion down the garden path toward the stables; she could hear the familiar sounds of grunting and the clang of steel on steel. She stood aside as Rian hefted the large wooden door, swinging it open with a groan. Sunlight filtered in through the rafters above, and dust had stirred from the door opening, Rei stepped forward into it.
It was the smell of him that she noticed first. It was not the musky scent of Geraint, nor the sweet scent of Felyx. Rather, it was something in between. He stood much taller than her, his features were in shadow, but she could see the roughly shorn hair, and the stubble outgrowing his beard. His eyes were as blue as the sky in spring. He looked at her, his gaze dropping to her feet and then travelling back up to her face. A smirk broke out on his face, from one side to the other, there was that same childlike presence of his brother, but he stood with something stronger, something older. His shirt was tight; his build was slender, but toned. He wore leather tanned pants, and a thick belt, where a scabbard hung.
“Is it my birthday?” His voice was deep, sending a shiver through Rei.
Nerves gripped her, and she found herself staring at his feet, twining the webs of string off her coat in front of her.
Rian stepped into the shelter of the stables, “This is Princess Rei Casimir.” He took Rei by the arm, “Princess, this is my older brother, Lucan Leolin.”
“I hadn’t expected her to be so old,” Lucan said slyly.
Offended, Rei did something she hadn’t done since she was twelve years old, she stamped her foot. “Old? I’ll have you know I’m a solid four years younger than you.”
The man laughed a hearty but gentle laugh. “Is that so?”
“She claims she has skill with the sword,” Rian said, as if in on some joke.
“Skill with the sword,” Lucan grinned, “Where would a Princess learn such things?”
Rei clenched her fists, “Sir Geraint Peredur taught me, and is a close personal friend.”
“Ah, I am familiar with his sister,” the twinkle in his eye offered all the explanation needed, but he added, “And is a close personal friend.”
“You’re not making a very good impression; shouldn’t you at least bow to your princess?”
“My Princess? Well, if you insist.” Lucan grinned again as he bowed to her, his mop of blonde hair falling before his eyes as he did so.
Rei found herself scowling, “You’re crude.” She said coldly.
The man straightened, grunting and flexing his shoulders. “Well, you can bark,” he said, picking up a stray sword. “But can you bite?”