A Wyndian Princess
by Mintbaby




Author's Note: I have always loved the Breath of Fire series by Capcom. I suppose I always will. To show my appreciation to Capcom for the wonderfully entrancing stories and the captivating characters they created, I have written this fanfic. Now while many BoF fans usually pair Ryu with Nina (thank you for writing Katt's Tears, Jason), as an author I have always abhorred the 'easy pairing'. Now this isn't to say that I don't agree the two would make an adorable couple! Ryu would make a grand dragon prince. In fact, I'm currently putting together a fic that pairs the two throughout the entire BoF saga... but that's a different 'Author's Note'.

In A Wyndian Princess I wanted to hold to my passion for writing the not-so-obvious pairings, stories, or what-have-you. Such as Terra and Edgar, Setzer and-- maybe I shouldn't tell you. After all, if you haven't read Ace of Diamonds I don't want to ruin it for you. So I've concocted this story that pairs Nina with a gentleman she normally wouldn't have met but for the right circumstances...

Please let me know how you liked it. I love hearing from you.

Enjoy!

mint
the mintfield

The Proposal

Princess Nina of Wyndia adjusted her crossed arms as she stood on the open-air walkway between sections of the castle. Short blonde hair stood on end in the breeze, and blue eyes sparkled with a smile. She gave her fairy-like wings an absent flutter in the slight breeze and shifted her slight, petite form.

It seemed like only yesterday when she and her friends had returned from their long journey. In actuality, four years had passed. Four long and fulfilling years of learning more about what it meant to be an involved princess of Wyndia. Deeper aspects of the politics. A more intense understanding of the levels of diplomacy involved. Business tactics that contributed to the realmís growth, and of course a more personal involvement with her people. All had been and continued to be an adventure the 18-year-old never regretted experiencing.

Though she did miss Ryu and her friends.

Ninaís smile widened at the welcome bombardment of memories. I should have them over for dinner again. Itís been ages. Nina nodded absently to herself, giving another flutter of her wings before turning and making her way back into the castle.

Her father the king crested the stairs to her room just as she entered through the hall door. "Hello, father," she greeted with a smile. "How did your meeting go?" When Ninaís mother crested the stairs directly after, the smile wavered. She studied each of their expressions. "Whatís wrong?"

The king motioned to a chair-and-table set near the left corner of her room. "Nina, we need to discuss some things."

"All right." Nina made her way to one of the four straight-back chairs and sat on the extreme edge. She daintily clasped her hands in her lap as she raised her eyes to another examination of her parentsí expressions.

Her mother moved to sit beside her, taking one of Ninaís hands. "You are Wyndiaís treasure, Nina."

"As such," the king interrupted, drawing Ninaís attention, "it is common for the princes or princesses of the royal line to be betrothed in arranged marriages to benefit the realm."

Nina blinked. Her hands went cold. "A-Arranged marriage, father?" She looked from her father to her mother and back again. "O-Of course I understand," she stated feebly, "I only... I-I didnít know you had... considered one."

Queen Sheila looked to her husband with a pleading expression.

"One had not been. Not until my meeting this evening," the king assured her.

Yet Nina didnít feel very assured. "I didnít know we needed an alliance, father."

"It isnít necessarily an alliance, dear," he offered with a gentle smile. "The joining will greatly benefit Wyndia, of course, but in the area of trade and not of power."

Nina arched an eyebrow. "Trade? Iím to marry a merchant?"

The king scoffed. "No, dear, not a merchant. A mayor."

"Oh," Nina gasped, covering her mouth. She flushed and lowered her hand and eyes. "I-I mean..."

The king chuckled. "The mayor isnít a doddering old man on his deathbed, dear. I would never put you into a position such as that."

Nina reluctantly smiled as she raised her eyes to meet his gaze. "Thank you, father." She released a deep breath. "When do we meet?" she asked resignedly.

"Next month," the king said. "The betrothal shall be this evening via proxy, as the mayor has already journeyed home to make arrangements for the wedding here. You and an entourage shall travel to McNeil--"

"McNeil?" Nina asked, eyes wide. "Why, Ryu and Rei are from McNeil." The king raised an eyebrow. Nina flushed. "Iím sorry, father. Please continue."

"You shall travel to McNeil in order to meet and escort Mayor McNeil back here. The wedding ceremony will be held the morning following your arrival, after the mayor and I have settled certain details."

Nina dutifully nodded.

"You had best prepare your wardrobe," he continued. "Your mother and I will begin preparations for the ceremony, including the guest list. Do you wish there to be a ball directly afterward?"

"Just a simple affair, father. If you donít mind."

The king nodded and then gestured for his wife to stand. "We will see you this evening for dinner, dear."

"Yes, father."

The king and queen left the room, leaving Nina in a somewhat dazed frame of mind. A mayor... Arranged marriages had been a tradition within her family for generations, the pairings always in the best interest of Wyndia and her people. Nina had known and expected the same, but... A mayor?

Nina sighed.

*

After dinner, Nina climbed the stairs to her fatherís office. "Father?"

The king looked up from the papers and ledgers spread across the table. "Nina. Come in, come in." Nina stepped the rest of the way into the office. The king motioned to the chair beside. "What can I do for you?"

Nina absently lowered herself into the chair. "Father, Iím curious. About Mayor McNeil."

The king nodded and leaned back in the chair. "How so?"

"To be honest," Nina began carefully, "and fearing Iíll sound a snob, I wondered what small little McNeil can offer Wyndia." Nina stretched a hand toward her father with slightly widened eyes. "Iím not refusing to marry the mayor, father. I only want to understand how Iím helping Wyndia."

The king nodded several times in succession as he regarded his only child. "What do you know of McNeil, Nina?"

"Itís a small farming community west of here; in the Yraall Region on the other side of Mt. Myrneg."

The king smiled and then searched the ledgers and papers that littered the table. He drew out a specific collection of them to present those to Nina. "A farming community, yes, though not so small as you would think."

Nina accepted the ledgers and papers and began to scrutinize the numbers listed there. Over the last two to three years the community of McNeil had been steadily growing in crop size, production, population, and even dairy production. All of the positive changes had begun soon after the former Mayor McNeil had left office.

"The current Mayor McNeil," the king began. Nina looked up from the ledgers. "The current mayor, Shamus McNeil, approached me with a proposal of a contract with Wyndia in order to access our eastern region and utilize our trade routes to the Rhapala Region."

Nina blinked. "Then... Then he didnít propose the marriage?"

"No," the king admitted with a slight shake of his head, "the proposal was mine."

"But...Why?"

The king motioned to the ledgers in her hand. "Mayor McNeil has done in three years what the previous McNeils could not in their lifetime. He has raised communal health and wealth. He has earned their trust and built it up. This man would be an asset to Wyndia, Nina, and he would be an asset to our family line."

Nina lowered her gaze back to the ledgers and papers as she absently set them aside. She slowly stood, a thoughtful expression coloring her eyes as she turned to go. "Thank you, father," she said absently.

The king watched her as she descended the stairs, and then he released a slow breath.

Betrothed

"Ryu!"

Nina rushed down the stairs of the main square just as an athletic built young man with blue-black hair and brilliant eyes stepped from one of the shops. He turned her direction and smiled, catching her as she threw herself into his arms.

"Whoa!" Ryu laughed, stumbling slightly backwards.

Nina giggled and then held the handsome dragon out at arms length. "How are you?" she asked brightly.

"Iím good, Nina. Iím actually spending some time studying with Fahl at the Arena. Itís rough, but good."

Nina nodded along with the telling, her eyes shining. "Have you seen Momo yet? Is she doing well?"

Ryu chuckled. "Sheís doing fine, Nina." His smile lessened somewhat. "What about you?"

"Oh Iím fine. Wonderful now that youíre here." Nina urged him toward the castle with an arm around his and a bright smile on her features. "You must say hello to father and mother. They will be so happy to see you."

"Nina." Ryu halted, pulling her to a stop and holding her gaze with a serious expression. "Nina, I heard about you and Mayor McNeil."

Ninaís bright smile wavered. "Oh?"

Ryu nodded. "Why?"

Nina cleared her throat and lowered her gaze to an examination of her fingernails. "Arranged marriages are common for royalty, Ryu. Itís a necessary tradition for--"

Ryu shook his head. "Thatís not what I meant. Why didnít you tell me before? Because it was McNeil?"

Nina gave a delicate shrug as she sent him a glance. Then she sighed and drew Ryu forward, guiding him to the tables and chairs in the square. She sat across from him and held his gaze. "I remember the stories you told," she admitted. Nina quickly continued, "but the new mayor has made it possible for the community to flourish. Father believes Wyndia would benefit from--"

"I know, Nina. Iíve been staying with Rei up at the old cabin in Cedar WoodsÖ Well, not for a long time because Iíve been traveling around, but I still know whatís going on." Ryu took her hand and gave it a squeeze. "You could have told me."

Nina smiled. "Iím sorry, Ryu." Her eyes brightened with an idea. "Why donít you come with me? Then you can see all the wonderful things that have happened while youíve been away." She squeezed his hand. "Please? It will be so nice to travel together again."

Ryu pushed his lips to one side before sending her a smile. "Alright, Nina."

Nina smiled brightly. "Wonderful! This will be so much fun!"

Ryu laughed.

*

Nina took in a deep breath as she gave a slight flutter of her wings. She sent Ryu a smile, which he intercepted and returned as he walked beside her.

"Brings back memories, doesnít it?" he asked.

"It certainly does." Nina wrapped her arms around his. "Thank you for coming, Ryu. Itís comforting to have the support of my friends."

"Sure, Nina. OnlyÖ" He sent her a glance. "Only I wish I could stop it. I donít like the idea you being married against your will."

Nina shook her head. "Only father can stop the marriage, Ryu, and even then it would bring disgrace to our family. Agreements have been made. Itís a matter of honor."

Ryu looked a little perplexed. "But isnít there more to it than that, Nina? I thoughtÖ Well, I thought youíre supposed to marry when youíre in love. Arenít you?"

Nina smiled as she looked over at her long-time friend. "Ryu, Iím sure the mayor isnít an orc. If he were, why would he take such great care with the town?"

"Iím not saying heís bad, you just donít know him," Ryu told her, matter of fact.

Nina laughed and gave his arm a pinch. "You mean you donít know him. Ryu, give the mayor the benefit of the doubt. Remember when Garr assumed that you wanted to conquer the world simply due to the fact you were a dragon? You didnít, did you?"

"No, but--"

"Then give him the same courtesy."

Ryu smiled. "I never said I didnít like him."

Nina fluttered her wings absently as she chuckled. "You had best be the gentleman I know you can be when I meet the mayor for the first time, Ryu. I wonít hesitate to rain flame upon your head."

Ryu chuckled. "Donít worry about me, Nina."

"Good--"

One of the forward scouts arrived at a gallop, reining in their horse a few feet from Nina. She and Ryu both halted.

"What is it?" Nina asked.

"The mayor approaches with a carriage for you and your guest. He wishes to give you a tour of McNeil as the caravan continues on behind."

"Oh." Nina looked to Ryu. "I think that would be lovely. Ryu?"

Ryu shrugged.

Nina pushed at him with a scolding expression before changing her focus to the scout. "Return to the mayor and give him my regards and my thanks."

The scout bowed and then galloped away.

Nina faced Ryu with a hand on hip as she wagged a finger at him. "You promised to be on your best behavior."

Ryu sent her an innocent look. "I didnít do anything."

Ninaís lips twitched. "That is no excuse."

Ryu shrugged. "I thought it was a pretty good one."

Nina laughed and pushed at him again. "You are as impossible now as then."

Ryu laughed, and then his focus was drawn to the approaching carriage. "Here he comes."

Ninaís smile wavered as she followed Ryuís gaze. A pair of chestnut horses drew a simple black carriage with room for four. The driver was dressed in simple black and burgundy livery.

Nina took in a deep breath and slowly released it. Her stomach fluttered the same as her wings, nervousness and a touch of dread making her throat go dry. When the carriage pulled to a stop in front of them, though, Nina received a pleasant surprise.

"Princess? Iím Shamus McNeil."

The bright-faced man with the smiling green eyes and unruly shock of auburn curls bowed respectfully. He was dressed in a pair of simple pale-brown trousers with a matching brown jacket and a pale yellow shirt beneath.

He produced a hand. "Itís a pleasure."

Nina accepted the hand with a genuine smile. "Good afternoon, Mayor McNeil. Thank you so much for meeting us."

"Please. Call me Shamus or Sammy." He released Ninaís hand and presented it to Ryu, still smiling.

"This is a friend of mine, Shamus," Nina offered simply. "Ryu."

"Ryu, a pleasure," Shamus greeted heartily. Ryu accepted the offered hand with a wordless nod of greeting. "Arenít you staying up near Bunyan?" Ryu nodded again, eyebrow raised. "Well welcome back. I heard you were traveling." Shamus gestured behind to the carriage. "After you, Princess."

"Thank you."

Shamus fell into step beside her. "I hope your journey wasnít too bad. The winds have been picking up again."

"No, it was lovely. Thank you." Nina sent Ryu a glance over her shoulder. He smiled.

Shamus helped her into the carriage and then sat across from her, leaving Ryu the space beside. Nina arched an eyebrow with an absent flutter of her wings. Shamus gave the driver the go ahead, and the carriage turned toward McNeil.

Shamus faced the two friends with an easy smile. "I figure youíre both a little hungry after the hike from Wyndia, so Iíve arranged a quick tour by carriage before heading over to the house."

Nina felt the contagion of his smile and returned it. "I appreciate it, Shamus. Thank you."

His ears colored slightly. "My pleasure, Princess. If you get at all thirsty, let me know. We can stop in at one of the farms and chat over some lemonade."

"Iím fine, but thank you."

Shamus nodded. "My pleasure."

The tour was simple enough.

From Yraall road the carriage proceeded another mile before turning to the right down a fairly recently added main road. Simple yet productive farms and ranches rose on each side, producing fields of grain or cattle. Nina could tell the farms were well cared for, and Shamus spoke of the families as if he knew them each personally.

They turned right again onto a road leading between Cedar Woods and the main part of McNeil on the right. A portion of Cedar Woods had been cleared to make room for more houses, but Shamus was quick to assure Nina and Ryu both that he tried to harmonize with their surroundings as much as possible. In fact, the burned wreck of Ryuís previous home within Cedar Woods had been refurbished with his help before being sold to Rei. Rei had then been Ďhiredí to tend the woods and plant seedlings where trees had been felled for the building of houses or equipment. Shamus didnít want the natural resource to be depleted.

The carriage turned right again, following the same road that had once gone directly thru McNeil. It now went around as well, so as to not wake the people when late-night shipments moved out. Then the carriage moved past the Ďcommercialí section of McNeil and entered more farmland before turning left and Ďheading toward homeí. Still more farms and ranches rose on each side, bustling with activity.

As the carriage approached the McNeil house, Nina noticed a partially disassembled brick wall. People continued to work on it, too.

Nina pointed to the wall as she looked to Shamus. "What are you doing there?"

"Hmm? Oh. Iím tearing it down. The wall doesnít really do anyone any good as is. So Iím having the bricks salvaged as best they can and making wells and whatnot. I felt caged in with before."

"I think that was the point," Ryu offered innocently.

Nina surreptitiously pinched him. Ryu looked over at her with a silent protest. She ignored him.

Shamus nodded. "I know it. You should have seen the house. Took me nearly two years to get the floor plan straightened out. It didn't make a bit of sense before."

The carriage turned into the main entry of the grounds and halted. A huge dog barked and bounded toward them. Ryu kept Nina back with an arm behind him as he positioned himself in front of her.

"Rufus! Come here, boy!"

Shamus leapt from the carriage with a smile, greeting the monstrous black dog with several vigorous rubs behind the ears, gently chastising him when he would attempt to leap up. Then Shamus turned toward Nina and Ryu, a hand firmly gripping the dogís collar.

"This is Rufus," he offered simply. "Has a tendency to think heís a puppy, but heís getting better." He looked back to Rufus. "Rufus, this is Princess Nina and her friend Ryu. Say hello."

Rufus barked twice and then sat back on his massive haunches to smile up at them, tongue protruding slightly.

Nina moved out from behind Ryuís protection and climbed down. She presented her hand. "Nice to meet you, Rufus."

Rufus sniffed and snorted her hand for several moments before standing and vigorously wagging his tail, tongue lolling from one side of his mouth.

Shamus laughed. "He likes you, Princess."

Nina scratched the black beast behind his ears. "I like you, too," she told him.

When Ryu descended from the carriage, Rufus sent him a peculiar look as his head tilted to one side.

Shamus looked from Rufus to Ryu. "He doesnít quite know what to think about you, Ryu. Heíll likely follow you around for the rest of your stay."

Ryu smiled before moving his focus to Rufus. "Thatís okay by me."

Shamus motioned forward. "Princess?"

Again Nina moved forward with Shamus falling into step beside her. Ryu and Rufus both trailed behind. "Youíve done some marvelous things for McNeil, Shamus," Nina praised. "Itís wonderful to see."

"Thank you, Princess, but most of it was just common sense. And the people are really the ones who deserve the praise. Theyíve been working hard."

Shamus held the door for her and Ryu both, urging Rufus to hurry up when he lagged behind. Rufus bounded indoors.

Shamus motioned to the doors on the other side of the carpeted hall. "Did you want a tour now, or after dinner?"

Nina looked to Ryu, knowing that he had less than wonderful memories of the house. "Ryu?"

Ryu slightly smiled. "Go ahead, Nina. Iíll wait here."

Nina focused on Shamus. "Now would be fine."

"Alright then." Shamus motioned ahead to a door across the front hall and on the left. "Ryu, if you want to head out to the backyard and play with Rufus, just go thru that door there. The door there," Shamus added, motioning to a pair of double doors on the right wall, "leads to the banquet hall. Weíll meet you there."

Ryu nodded and then looked down to the huge black beast beside him. "Come on, Rufus."

Rufusí ears perked up and his tail wagged. When Ryu headed toward the door previously mentioned by Shamus, Rufus excitedly barked and bounded around the dragon.

Shamus chuckled, shaking his head before guiding Nina to the left. "Rufus plays hard."

Ninaís smile widened. "Ryu will be fine."

Shamus opened the door for her and ushered her inside. The room held a piano, a collection of game tables and chairs, bookshelves complete with books, couches, and a fireplace on the far wall. Live plants brightened the room with welcome just as the hand-loomed rugs on the floor.

"What a lovely room," Nina exclaimed.

Shamus stood near the door with crossed arms and a small smile as Nina explored it more fully. "My sister helped with the decoration of the house. Wouldnít set foot in the place otherwise. She felt sure Iíd ruin the entire building."

Nina returned to his side with a soft chuckle. "Iím sure you exaggerate."

"Not according to Marianne." Shamus motioned to a connecting door on the right. They proceeded toward it. "She says Iím 100% oaf; donít understand a thing about anything except animals and crops." He opened the door to reveal an adjoining library. "I havenít the heart to tell her Iím a good cook."

Nina laughed.

"As you can see, this is a library. Most of the books are left over from Neilís stay, so I plan on going thru them and seeing what I want to keep and what gets donated somewhere, mostly the trash barrel Iím thinking."

Nina absently nodded as she fought with the curiosity at his relation to the former mayor. Instead, she fingered a few of the leather volumes, noticed the positions of the overstuffed chairs throughout the room, as well as the window looking out on the backyard. Nina made her way toward it. Ryu and Rufus were playing rough and tumble.

Shamus came to stand beside Nina as she watched Ryu and Rufus tug-of-war and chase and tumble with each other around the yard.

Shamus faced Nina with a serious expression. "Princess?"

"Yes?" Nina answered absently, still watching Ryu with a fond smile.

Shamus cleared his throat, drawing Ninaís attention. Then he rubbed at the back of his neck.

Ninaís expression held concern as she faced him. "What is it?" she asked.

Shamusí ears pinked when he met her gaze. "Is Ryu..." He cleared his throat again. "I wonít go thru with this if youíre in love with someone, Princess."

Nina slightly smiled. "Iíve known him since I was a little girl, Shamus. Ryu and I are close friends."

"Oh." Shamusí ears reddened as he looked away.

"Thank you for the thought," Nina offered. He glanced toward her with a smile, and Nina motioned to the door leading out of the room. "May I see more of your lovely home?"

Shamus nodded and gestured for her to go ahead. "My pleasure, Princess."

Because the staff quarters and the bedrooms were on the second floor, Shamus proposed to show them after dinner. Instead, he completed the tour of the lower level and then led her back to the banquet hall. Ryu was inside, leaning back in the head chair with crossed arms.

Ryu stood when the pair entered, and he gestured to the pictures on the walls. "I like these faces a lot better than the other ones."

Shamus raised an eyebrow. "Youíve been here before?"

"Long time ago," Ryu offered vaguely.

Shamus nodded, accepting the answer easily enough, and looked to the paintings. "These are my close family. Neil McNeil was my 3rd cousin twice removed... or something." Shamus focused back on Ryu with a smile. "The other faces gave me the creeps. I sent them along with Neil."

"Good idea," Ryu agreed, chuckling.

Shamus smiled at Nina before stepping forward to pull out the side chair. "Princess."

Nina returned his smile as she sat. "Thank you."

Ryu moved to sit across from her, leaving the head chair for Shamus. He sat, giving both Nina and Ryu a smile before looking down at a silver bell at his right hand.

He grimaced and took it up. "I hate this thing," he muttered. "Makes me feel ridiculous."

Nina gently laughed and reached out a hand. "Allow me."

Shamus passed her the bell with a boyish smile. "Go for the gusto, Princess."

Nina rang the bell with just enough volume to get the message conveyed that the group was ready to eat. Then she set the bell down with a smile in the boysí direction. "Definitely a ladyís realm of expertise."

Ryu and Shamus both laughed.

Ninaís eyes twinkled. "You laugh, but you didnít protest when I offered."

"I laughed because Iíve seen you take down an orc with barely a blink," Ryu said. "You can do whatever you set your mind to."

Nina acknowledged the compliment with a smile and a delicate nod. "Thank you, Master Ryu." She looked to Shamus. "And you, Mayor McNeil?"

"Me?" His ears pinked. "What about me?"

Nina smiled. "You laughed...?"

"Oh. That. Well... uh..." Shamus cleared his throat and rubbed at the back of his neck.

Ryu chuckled. "Easy, Shamus. Sheís not going to bite you."

Shamus boyishly smiled, ears still pink as he met her gaze. "I laughed because..." He cleared his throat again. "Because I agreed. You look a sight better holding that infernal bell than I do."

Ninaís smile softened. "Thank you."

Shamus held her gaze with a continued smile. "My pleasure, Princess."

And Nina believed him.

"Shamus," Ryu spoke up suddenly. Shamus moved his focus to Ryu. "How did you get Neil McNeil out of here?"

Shamus chuckled. "Neil didnít really have a choice. Certain shady characters were looking for him, so my family helped him disappear." He looked back over at Nina. "No one really had the time to dedicate to McNeil because of their own farms, so I asked my father if I could, Iíd just turned 20, and he said yes." Shamusí smile widened. "Obviously."

"Twenty," Nina repeated, wide-eyed. "My goodness."

Shamus waved it aside as the staff entered with trays of their first course: salad. "Iíd already been foreman of my fatherís ranch for ages. It wasnít too much different to mayor a town."

Nina arched an eyebrow.

"Not different?" Ryu asked. "What do you mean?"

Shamus answered, "It just takes organization," in an absent tone as he offered Nina a serving of dressing.

Nina watched his expression as she accepted the dressing with a nod. Shamus served it for her with a smile before offering it to Ryu. Ryu pushed the salad plate away with a slight shake of his head.

Shamus motioned for the head waiter.

"Yes, sir?"

"Bring some soup."

The head waiter bowed and left.

Ryu smiled. "Soup? I love soup. Howíd you know?"

Shamusí lips twitched upward. "Lucky guess."

The waiter returned a few moments later with a steaming bowl of broth and meat. Ryu tasted it with an "Mmm."

Shamus laughed. "Good?"

Ryu nodded and took another bite. "Mmm," he said again.

Nina shook her head, eyes twinkling as she focused on her salad.

Dinner and dessert passed quickly with stories of Ryuís adventures with Nina and the others. Amidst the laughter and the suspense, Nina noticed that Shamus didnít offer any tales from his own life. When pointedly asked, he would offer an amusing enough tale of childhood frolics, but then deftly guide the storytelling back to Ryu and the Arena or the Angel Tower or one of the groupsí other adventures.

Nina found the fact intriguing.

Dinner and dessert plates were gathered but the stories continued, prompted most often by a question by Shamus. Then a clock somewhere within a hall struck a late hour and Shamus guided them upstairs to their rooms, one on each side of the other.

"Good night, Ryu. Princess. Iíll see you in the morning for breakfast."

Shamus gently clasped her hand with a twinkling smile and a respectful bow, and then he made his way back downstairs.

Ryu faced Nina. "Nice guy. I can hardly believe heís a McNeil."

Nina absently nodded, still staring after him. "Yes. A nice man." She pursed her lips, accompanied by a puzzled frown as she gave a slight shake of her head. Then she faced Ryu and smiled. "Good night, Ryu. Thank you for being here. And for playing so well with Rufus."

Ryu chuckled. "Good night, Nina. See you in the morning."

Nina closed the door behind her, leaning against her hands with an absent flutter of her wings as the frown returned. Hmm.

Courtship

Shamus watched her with an absent smile as she walked ahead of the caravan with her friend. Ryu and she laughed over a shared joke or Ďremember whení. Her wingtips always fluttered when she laughed.

Shamus adjusted his seat in the saddle, moving his gaze to his hands and the reins he held. During breakfast she had insisted he call her ĎNinaí, but Shamus had respectfully declined, saying he would try to work up to it. Shamus just couldnít even think about doing such a thing. Sheís a princess of one of the oldest family lines in Wyndia. Iím barely a farmer. Shamus could still hardly believe her father had suggested the match. All I wanted was a trade contract! Why would he give me his daughter?

Shamus heard her laughter again and lifted his eyes. They crinkled at the corners when they focused on her. Nina... Shamus intercepted a smile she sent over her shoulder toward him, feeling his ears flush pink as he returned it. Then he looked away with a clearing of his throat. Any other thoughts couldnít survive the shock of his pleasant predicament.

Shamus felt a sudden brief touch on his foot and looked down.

Nina smiled up at him. "Why donít you come and walk with us the rest of the way, Shamus?"

Shamus returned her smile. "My pleasure, Princess." He dismounted and stepped over to the nearest wagon to secure the horse. Then he moved to walk beside her.

Nina slowed her pace instead of hurrying to walk next to Ryu. "Father will likely want to meet with us once we arrive."

Shamus nodded, holding his hands behind his back as he glanced toward her. Her gaze met his with a smile. Shamus could only momentarily return it, then a serious expression robbed away the smile. "I know," he confessed. "We still need to settle a few things." And I need to make sure he wasnít joking when he offered your hand.

"Such as?" Her bright eyes widened slightly.

Shamus looked away as he briefly cleared his throat. "Dowry for one. Wyndia involvement with McNeil for another."

"I doubt father will opt to be too terribly involved with McNeil, Shamus. Heís quite impressed with how youíve managed to help the community flourish in such a short amount of time."

Nina intercepted his sidelong glance with her same enchanting smile. Shamusí ears grew hot as he returned her smile and glanced away again.

"As for dowry," Nina continued, "what had you planned to suggest?"

What do I offer a Wyndian king for his only daughter when that daughter is Nina? "I donít rightly know," he admitted with another quick glance toward her. "Normally I would offer whatever the father needed most. Your father doesnít really need anything."

Nina brightly smiled, and her wings fluttered. "That isnít true. Everyone needs something at some point in their lives. The hard part is discovering what that is."

Shamus returned her smile with an easy one of his own. "Isnít that the truth."

"Did you have any ideas?"

On the dowry, or on how this could possibly be happening? "Actually, Iím expecting a few champion-blood foals this year. Is your father at all interested in horses?"

If possible, Ninaís expression brightened to an even lovelier version of herself. Her wings fluttered with excitement. "Father adores horses!"

Shamus smiled. "Iíll see about offering him his choice of mares. Maybe Iíll throw in free studding for the first five years of our marriage?" Shamusí ears pinked, but he ignored it as he continued to watch Ninaís reactions to the statements.

Nina nodded her approval, eyes twinkling as she rested a hand on his arm. "Oh Shamus, he would love that," she confessed.

"Who would love what?" Ryu asked, walking backwards so as to watch and listen to the duo as they very slowly approached.

Shamusí ears burned as he looked away from Ninaís face and stepped from her touch. Nina excitedly told Ryu of the intended dowry. Ryu nodded his approval and came to walk on Shamusí other side. Nina moved back to her previous degree of closeness, and Ryu left Shamus no opportunity for escape.

Shamus finally settled into the easy pace with a slight smile, occasionally feeling the breeze from Ninaís flutter of wings.

Too soon, Wyndia came into view and the easy banter between Nina and Ryu ceased. The trio halted outside the entry, the caravan moving past to unload.

Ryu stretched out a hand. They shook. "It was nice to meet you, Shamus." Ryu faced Nina and stepped forward to embrace her. "Bye, Nina. Iím sorry I canít stay."

Nina tightened her arms around him with a whispered, "Itís all right, Ryu. Thank you for coming." They pulled back. "Visit again soon. And if you see Momo, tell her Ďhelloí."

He nodded with a slight smile. "I will. Take care of yourself."

Then Ryu moved off in the direction of the Eastern Wyndia region, Nina waving after him. Shamus watched her with an absent smile. Friends meant a lot to her, and she seemed to make them easily. I guess thatís what comes from being a princess.

Nina looked over at him, catching Shamus in his new-found hobby. He flushed but held her gaze.

"Thank you so much for allowing him to stay," she said.

"My pleasure, Princess. It was great to finally meet Reiís roommate."

Nina smiled and surprised Shamus by wrapping her arm around his. She tucked her hand into the nook of his elbow and motioned him forward. Shamus struck an easy pace into Wyndia, oblivious to the hustle and bustle as he focused his attention solely on Nina beside him.

"Father insists we have the ceremony inside the castle, but I so wanted it to be in the square." She looked toward him. "Do you mind an outdoor ceremony?"

Shamus wordlessly shook his head.

Ninaís smile twinkled in her eyes. "I want flowers and doves and ribbons all over."

"Of course." Sammy boy, is this girl for real? Shamus reached around to cover her hand with his. She didnít fade and Shamus was too embarrassed at what he did to pull his hand away. So he only looked ahead of them. "Flowers are always nice," he continued absently. Iím marrying a princess? But I raise crops and breed horsesÖ "Unless you have allergies."

Nina laughed, and Shamus felt the tickle of the breeze from her wings. He looked down at her with a slight smile.

"I suppose youíre right. Perhaps I should create ribbon flowers instead."

"Itís your wedding. If you want flowers, you should have flowersÖ" Shamusí smile wavered. "Though I guess it would be bad to have someone sneezing the entire time."

Nina giggled, nodding up at him as they ascended the stairs of the square into the castle. "Father would be furious."

"And I guess I shouldnít make my future father-in-law angry before the wedding is over."

Nina shook her head with a serious expression, but her bright eyes twinkled. "It wouldnít be recommended, no."

"Then I guess we stay with ribbons."

Ninaís eyes widened. "No doves?"

"Only if everyone brings an umbrella or a hat. Itís liable to get messy."

Nina giggled again. "Ribbons it is."

Shamus chuckled, examining her profile once sheíd turned away. He had heard so many different stories of what to expect from an Ďarranged marriageí; of the condescension, the strained pleasantries, and the barely held tolerance. Nina seemed to be making an actual effort to become a friend. She hadnít looked down her nose at McNeil, or his home, or even himself. She laughed at his jokes and offered her own.

Nina looked over at Shamus as she pointed to the bakery on the way to the entrance to the castle. She explained something about it, but Shamus didnít hear anything except the honest interest in her voice. The princess wanted him to know about where she came from. About what happened there. She wanted his opinion. His approval?

"Did you want to taste some?"

Shamus blinked, finally realizing they had stopped outside the bakery doors. His ears pinked. "Oh. UmÖ" He cleared his throat and looked to the doors. "If we have time." He met her gaze again. She still smiled. "That would be great."

To Shamusí surprise, Ninaís hand moved from the crook of his elbow to take firm hold of his own hand. Then, still smiling brightly, she said "Their berry bread is divine" as she pulled him forward into the bakery.

It was divine. As was the fruitcake, the white bread, and so many others that Shamus felt certain heíd never be satisfied with McNeil cooking again. When Nina looked about to offer yet another slice of something, he shook his head with a chuckle and raised his hands.

"Please. Iím already ruined for Cookís bread. And Iíve got to save room for dinner yet."

Nina laughed as she set down the tray of breads and cakes to again tuck her hand into the crook of his elbow. "All right," she reluctantly acquiesced. "I suppose father and mother are anxious to see how we fared."

How do we fare? Shamus wasnít quite sure.

The duo entered the castle and made their way to the throne room. Instead of halting and waiting for an audience, Nina gave his arm a gentle tug and led him down specific hallways of the castle to a stairway. Nina began to ascend, but Shamus remained on the bottom step.

Nina looked at him with a puzzled expression. "What is it?"

Shamus cleared his throat and motioned up the stairs. "Isnít that your fatherís office?"

Nina nodded as she stepped down to stand beside him. "Yes. Why?"

"WellÖ" He cleared his throat again. "Iíd just feel better if I knew that he knew I was coming."

"But he does know you and I are coming."

"I know," Shamus agreed with a slight nod, "but not into his office."

"I go up all the time," Nina offered.

Shamus looked up the stairs and then back to her. "I know that, too. But youíre his daughter."

"And youíre his future son-in-law," Nina countered with a smile. "Come on, Shamus," she pressed gently, bringing her other hand up to completely encircle his arm. "Itís all right. I promise."

Shamus was at a loss to argue with her.

So they climbed the stairs as Nina called "Father, weíre here," in a singsong voice that tickled his ears.

Shamus and Nina crested the stairs and turned into the room just as the king stood, stepping toward them with outstretched hands and an eager smile. "Nina. Shamus. Marvelous." He greeted his daughter with a gentle grip of hands and a kiss on the cheek. Shamus received a hearty handshake and a grip on the upper arm. "Come, come. Sit. Shamus. Wine?"

Shamus refused with a simple shake of his head as he and Nina were ushered to the table. Then the king gathered and stacked and organized his papers as he asked on Shamusí health. Shamus didnít remember his responses, but they must have been appropriate for neither the king nor his daughter commented.

Finally, the king sat across from them and folded his hands on the table. "How did you enjoy your journey?"

"Very much, father," Nina volunteered. "McNeil is lovely."

Shamus smiled, his face aglow at the simple statement.

"Shamus?" the king asked, returning his attention to the slightly dazed young man. "What of you? She didnít regale you with too much chatter, did she?"

"Father," Nina protested.

Shamus shook his head, wide eyed. "No, your highness. I donít talk much myself, so it was nice. Her and Ryu shared a lot of good stories."

The king nodded along with the telling before asking, "How did you find each other? Agreeable?"

Shamusí ears burned, but he was saved comment when the king focused attention on Nina first. Who promptly smiled.

"Father, you know very well that Mayor McNeil is a kind and thoughtful gentleman."

Shamusí entire face flushed, and the king chuckled. "Yes, yet now I know you find him to be the same."

Ninaís wings fluttered with an accompanying, "Oh Father," as she gave a shake of her head and a slight smile.

"Shamus?" The king drew Shamusí attention from Ninaís profile. "Is the match approved? I know you had an initial hesitation."

Shamus flushed darker still, and he felt Ninaís gaze on him. "Yes, your majesty, I did, butÖ But it wasnít because of your daughter. IÖ" He cleared his throat and forced himself to meet her curious expression. "Iím a simple farmer who happens to be mayor," he explained. "I didnít want toÖ" Shamus helplessly shrugged.

"Take advantage," the king offered.

Shamus looked to the king again, nodding. "Your majesty, I only wanted permission to trade a little farther than what I do."

The king slightly smiled. "Yes, Shamus, I know. I have every intention of allowing that."

"Then why," and Shamus quickly faced Nina, "no offense, Princess. Please." She smiled with a slight shake of her head, and he again faced the king. "Why ask me to marry your daughter?"

The kingís expression softened. "Shamus my boy, you have quite the business mind for a lad of 23. You are also soft-spoken and fair-minded, though you use the facts known persistently to the advantage of McNeil. Not many men your age are as eager to not only hear the words spoken but to listen to what is said."

The king scrutinized Shamusí flushed face. "I love my daughter, Shamus. Though I know I should utilize her beauty and charm to strengthen our borders when war seems so far distant a possibility, I choose to arrange a marriage to a man I believe most capable of caring for her and her people." The king stretched out a hand. "What say you, Mayor?"

Shamus stared at the hand in muted shock, unable to voice an answer thru the fog in his brain. Then there was a slight flutter and breeze from his rightÖ Shamus accepted the hand and looked up with a gentle smile. "Do you like horses?"

Nina hid a giggle.

Part 2