[A/N:  I just need to get this out of my system.  I know it might be standard fare, but please just take it in stride.  Read if you want to... Reviews are always appreciated.  The people are real, the situation isn't... *rueful grin*  Well, enjoy!]

          A deep breath in, a deep breath out.  Calina closed her eyes and listened.  She heard the water splashing playfully behind her, bees humming loudly as they flitted from flower to flower, and the gentle rustle of leaves as the warm breeze swept through the garden.  The early summer sun felt glorious on her face and she wished desperately to lie down and stretch herself out on the bench.  Peeking one eye open, Calina studied the entire length and width of the garden.  Her lady attendant stood respectfully off to the distance, covered in the shade and tending to one of the rose bushes. 

With a quick rustle of her skirts, Calina hoisted the yards of bothersome fabric up around her knees and straddled the bench.  Sighing contentedly, she lay back and released her skirts so they fell around her feet.  The sun touched the skin on her arms and she felt as if she were glowing from the golden heat.

"Lady Calina!!" A harsh, reprimanding voice interrupted her delighted sighs.  Her heart sank as she opened her eyes and found herself face to face with her lady attendant.

"Yes Leana?" she asked innocently, keeping her tone meek.  Over the years, Calina had learned the difficult lesson of choosing one's battles.  This was one she was bound to lose.  Leana did not answer, her blue eyes wide and disappointed.  She uncrossed her arms and hastily brushed a few strands of blond out of her eyes.

"Could you imagine how shamed I would be if His Majesty, your father, entered the royal gardens at this very moment, my lady?"  Though two years younger than Calina, the small blonde had a much firmer grasp on the rules and etiquettes of the court.  The only etiquette Leana ignored was the demeanor of humility in the presence of the royal family.  The two girls had been friends much too long for such formalities to really bind them.

Pointedly avoiding Leana's question, Calina resumed the proper posture on her fountain-side bench.  Lady Leana soon took a place beside her.  Closing her eyes again, the princess breathed in deeply.  Aromatic perfumes filled her senses.

"Wouldn't it be lovely if we could get away from all this?" Calina mused breathily, her imagination spinning.  "A quest, a knight, danger, perilous travels!"  She turned to Leana, caught up in her own excitement.  "A magical treasure at the end of the road, a delicious romance..." she trailed off at the disapproving glint in Leana's eyes.

"Your Highness should not entertain such flights of fancy.  Your safety is the very life reason for countless soldiers and guards stationed about the castle."  She turned away.

Casting her eyes down, Calina sighed.  "I remember a time when we were young girls, dreaming of adventure and romance.  Where did those girls go, Leana?"  But she already knew the answer her friend would give her.  They'd grown up, they'd lost their dreams to the cold stone walls of the castle.  Gloom entered her thoughts, but she was surprised when Leana turned and took her hand warmly.

"Dear Calina.  Those girls have not gone anywhere.  You and I will always have our dreams of love and excitement."  In the depths of her light blue eyes, Calina detected a faint hint of girlish ideals long gone.  "Perhaps... well, perhaps they will not happen as we imagined."  The hint grew stronger and Leana's smile was freer than Calina had seen in a long time.  "But you are the Royal Jewel, the Daughter of King Xavier of Almier, the Fairmaiden Princess.  How can you think nothing of import will happen in your lifetime?  Your dreams will come true, I promise." 

Her words rang true in Calina's heart and she felt tears rise, hot, to her eyes.  She embraced Leana tightly and whispered, "And yours as well, my dear friend."

+   +   +   +

The next sun rose among gray clouds and gloomy weather.  Confined to the women's quarters, Calina reached her hand out the window and felt the flecks of rain graze her fair skin, her thoughts heavy with frustration.  Her ladies-in-waiting sat calmly in the center of the wide room, resting on cushions as they knitted and sewed.  Once in a while, Leana's eyes flickered up to rest upon Calina's position on the window ledge, but she said nothing.

Had it been just one day since she'd rested in her garden, feeling vibrant and alive?  All her plans for another gorgeous day were in shambles!  In a sharp movement, Calina hopped down from the window ledge and swept quickly across the common area.  Her ladies in waiting stood hastily, as if to follow her, but she waved her hand impatiently.  She wished to brood in silence, alone in her room.  In such a foul temper, she did not wish anyone to cross her path lest she speak harshly.  As she stomped up the tight circular staircase, she grew aware of a set of footsteps following her.  Leana.  She pushed her door open and closed it firmly behind her.  Even Leana would not enter without her spoken permission.

Throwing an angry glare at the closed curtain on the other side of the room, Calina seated herself on an exquisitely crafted wooden chair.  The reflecting glass shook slightly with the force of her actions, but Calina only glimpsed at her mirror image briefly.  Her dark, sapphire blue eyes glinted with anger and her dark chestnut hair curled loosely, framing her oval face.  Before she could even register the color of her own dress, Calina stood again and yanked the curtain open. 

The rain poured now, the large drops splashing against her afternoon dress, a simple yet elegant light blue satin gown.  Her balcony offered her a beautiful view of the royal gardens, though they were a saddening sight now.  Leaves bent, blossoming flowers bruised, the plants seemed to shiver away from the relentless rain.

As she contemplated the darkened skies, a soft knock sounded at her door.  And then Leana's inquiring voice.  "My lady, are you feeling all right?  Have you taken ill?" 

"Not at all," she answered with a resigned sigh.  "I think perhaps I shall take a nap to pass this dreary day away."  Her soft bear skin cover did look very inviting...

"Of course, my lady.  Would you like me to brush out your hair?"  Leana usually did not linger once Calina had given a feeble explanation.  Her brow wrinkled, the princess forgot her frustration for a moment and stepped closer to the door.  She heard whispers.

"My lady wishes to lie down, perhaps my Lord would return later today?"  It was Leana's hushed voice.

"His Majesty insisted on a direct reply.  And I'm afraid I've been ordered to escort her to his presence immediately."  Calina frowned.  This was an unfamiliar masculine voice, hushed as well, and carrying an urgent message from her father!  There was a long pause.

With a flush, Calina realized she had not answered Leana's question.  Before she could say a word, however, Leana's voice called again.  "My Lady?" 

"Yes, Leana.  Would you attend me?"  Another long pause.

"Of course, my lady Calina."  The door swung open and Leana stepped through, her head inclined.  "My lady, a knight of the Golden rank awaits your pleasure.  He brings a message from the King."  Leana's light blue eyes flashed up to meet Calina's dark ones.  They practically danced with amusement.  Feeling her eyes widen in surprise, Calina nodded her assent, smoothing her skirts as she settled on the wooden chair.

He entered.  He was garbed in a plain tunic and was unarmed, as custom dictated he should be.  As he knelt on one knee, Calina saw the reason for Leana's amusement.  He was undoubtedly handsome, his features fit well for a member of the Golden rank.  His hair was a dusky blonde, his skin tanned by long hours in the sun, and when he looked up -- oh, his eyes.  They were a deep, warm, golden brown that spoke of many smiles and moments of laughter, though they seemed intensely sober at the moment.  Her smile faltered.

"Rise, Sir....?"  In so serious a moment, simple pleasantries could be brushed aside but Calina couldn't resist pausing to learn his name.

He rose, settling comfortably into the soldier's stance.  His lean, muscular body was visibly relaxed though his gaze remained alert.  When she paused a moment to ask his name, a hint of a grin flashed across his face and was gone in a breathtaking moment.

"Your Highness, Lady Calina, Fairmaiden Princess of the Royal House of Almier.  I am called Malick Atrevene, I serve His Majesty, King Xavier of the--"

"Yes, yes, of course," Calina interrupted.  She'd never had much patience for all those insufferably formal titles.  Seeing Leana's sharp glance, Calina nodded gently and smiled her apology.  "Pray forgive me, my Lord Malick.  I'm afraid the weather grates on my nerves more than I'd realized."  She bowed her head to mimic shame for a suitable length of time and looked up. 

The handsome knight made no movement, though his brown eyes took on a hint of green.  She looked closer.  Ahh... Hazel.

 "My lady, I understand."  And she had no doubt that he had seen through her shallow attempts at recovery.  Her eyes lingered on the creases of laughter around his eyes.  A face full of laughter forced into such a serious countenance ... this surely cannot be a good sign.

"What manner of message can this be, that His Majesty would send a knight of the Golden rank into my bedchambers?" Calina asked reluctantly.   

This comment seemed to unbalance him for a moment.  Calina surmised that he probably hadn't expected her to deduce the seriousness of the message.  Does he think me a fool? 

He placed a fist over his heart and recited, "Have my daughter join me in the royal stables as soon as she is physically able.  She turns the appropriate age next month, and so must receive a gift from her father."  The knight stopped, bowng low. 

How utterly confusing.  An early turning of age gift from her father?  This was surely an event to cause celebration and joy, yet the careful tension Calina sensed in Sir Malick's stance gave her pause.

Rising slowly, Calina gestured to Leana and gave her instructions to bring her riding mantle.  If the gift was to be presented in the royal stables, there was clearly no surprise intended.  Her friend's mouth hung open for a few seconds, a stammered protest making it out  -- "B-but the rain, my lady!"

"I'll be burned if that'll stop me," Calina muttered quietly, her curiosity mingling with dread.  The knight coughed at her quiet swearing, and she realized he was at her side.

"I'm to be your escort down to the royal stables, your Highness," he explained in response to her inquiring glance. 

"Foolishness," she murmured again, anxious to be on her way.  He bowed his head in apology and held out his arm, which she took without ceremony.  Stepping briskly through the corridors, Calina tried to ignore the boulder of fear settling in her stomach by clenching her jaw and steeling herself. 

"My lord, did my father say nothing else in his message?" she finally asked, feeling the stretched silences to be unbearable.

The knight smiled apologetically and answered, "No, my lady."  Calina muttered in frustration; what had inspired the sudden summons?  Sir Malick slowed in his steps, causing Calina to slow as well.  She glanced up at him quickly.

"My lady, do not be so distressed.  I promise you, all will turn out well in the end."  He smiled again, this time in encouragement.  Her anxiety remained unaffected, but she appreciated his sentiment.  His words may have sounded empty, but a Knight of the Golden Rank would never give meaningless promises.  So, strengthened by the support of his arm, Calina continued through the castle corridors.