"I can't begin to thank you enough for doing this," Raoul said as they walked through the streets of Corus to his great-aunt's city house.
"Don't mention it." Buri, once again dressed magnificently in scarlet and gold, showed her large companion a grin she did not really try to hide. "I live to rescue you big guys from the clutches of over-eager relatives."
"Glad to be of service," Raoul muttered, his feelings about the family event plain on his face in spite of the fact that he had female company to bring along and hopefully avoid any of the more intrusive attempts at matchmaking.
Not particularly eager to arrive early, the tall knight had kept his pace slow, as if to accommodate his much shorter friend. She humored him, letting him buy those extra minutes. When he slowed down even more, however, she couldn't stop herself from commenting.
"I think she meant for you to arrive before midnight," she informed him, shaking her head slightly about his silliness.
He sighed. "We're here." Pointing to a large building set back from the street in a generous garden, he schooled his face into a polite mask he could present to his great-aunt and assorted female family, including invited guests.
Right by the door, he stopped again to look at her. "You're sure you want to do this?" he asked Buri. His hands went up to needlessly fumble at his collar before he proceeded to straighten his already-proper clothes.
"Stop stalling," Buri advised. "Take courage and get it done with."
She took hold of his arm to push him towards the door again.
The door opened before he could reply, revealing an elderly woman with snow-white hair framing a thin face. The dark green, heavily embroidered velvet gown she wore might have looked pretentious on a lesser woman. Shrewd eyes as dark as Raoul's own took in the knight.
"Finally," she said coolly. "One would think you are old enough by now to at least try to be on time."
Buri nearly winced. Raoul had not exaggerated his great-aunt's tendency to speak too loudly. She was pretty sure that at least some guests inside were going to be privy to the dressing-down Raoul was about to receive.
He was spared only because this was the moment at which Sebila of Disart realized that her great-nephew had not, in fact, come alone. Squinting, she seized up Buri, who suddenly became very aware that her hand still rested on his arm – and of the impression she was probably conveying to his aunt. She pulled back her hand.
Raoul took the opportunity as soon as it presented itself.
"Aunt Sebila," he said, "may I introduce my friend Buriram Tourakom? Buri, this…"
Raoul's great-aunt made a 'hmph' sound.
"It's about time," she then declared, voice still loud enough to make sure they were not the only ones listening and talking right over him. "It has been getting increasingly harder to find remotely appropriate options for you."
Buri and Raoul exchanged a look.
"Aunt Sebila," Raoul interjected before his aunt could continue down that track. "Please – Buri is just a friend who's kind enough to accompany me…"
"Nonsense!" the older woman declared. Muttering something about young people making life unnecessarily complicated with their new notions as she beckoned them inside.
Raoul's aunt Sebila was hosting a dinner party, apparently. Buri followed Raoul into a large room in which tables were set up and relatives waiting.
Glancing around, she saw that there were indeed a good few women more than there were men. She assumed the single women were those invited for Raoul to take his pick from. She also noticed the large windows providing a clear view of the street in front of the house. That certainly explained how their host had known to come to collect Raoul by the door herself.
A servant showed them to a pair of seats that Raoul had been walking towards directly enough to suggest that it was his usual place at such gatherings.
There was some commotion around great-aunt Sebila as she quickly re-arranged the seating order to accommodate the additional guest.
They took their seats, Raoul politely greeting the couple next to him and exchanging pleasantries with some relative across the table.
"…even if she is one of those females who walk around in men's dress and pursuing male pastimes," Sebila's penetrating voice sounded over to them. She was talking to a cluster of women, most her own age or just slightly below. "It's not like the boy has much of a choice left, after all this time. At least he has finally seen reason and found someone. Even if she's a foreigner."
Raoul covered his face with one palm.
"I'm sorry," he whispered in her direction. "I didn't know she would—"
Buri considered giving him a kick under the table, but ended up merely leaning in his direction to whisper back, grinning mischievously. "Let her if it makes her happy. We can always break up tomorrow, and maybe she'll leave you alone about marriage for a while."
"Thanks." He put his hand on hers for a moment. "I'll never be able to repay you for this." The smile on his face and in his eyes was wry, but it still warmed something in Buri. Actually, come to think of it, aunt Sebila kept the place heated somewhat too much for her liking. That had to be it. It couldn't very well be the idea of being considered Raoul's chosen lady that made her feel hot.
The feeling of his skin on hers lingered long after he had withdrawn his hand.
Shortly thereafter, everyone was seated in the right places and the first course was served.
Raoul's relatives really had to be rather desperate to see him betrothed and married. Otherwise, Buri was sure it would have been rather obvious to them that they were, in fact, only friends. Or wouldn't it?
There wasn't a lot of space at the table, she mused as she accidentally brushed against Raoul's arm again. She had lost count of the times that had happened that night. Of course they might have just taken care of it by moving their chairs apart a little more, but neither of them seemed to see any reason to.
She was left mainly alone by the other guests, the single women apparently considering her the ruin of any plans they might have had involving Raoul, his family not quite sure what to make of her or how to approach her. It was just as well for her, as it left her with plenty of leisure to watch Raoul suffer honorably through polite conversation with his relatives every now and then. It was quite amazing how he could turn from talkative and relaxed while engaged in conversation on subjects of interest to him to apprehensive and stiff the moment a hint of politics insinuated itself into the conversation. She more than happily obliged in taking his mind off of the less pleasant subjects thrown at him in between those brief conversations.
"I guess this is where we break up, then," Raoul said lightly. They had reached the corridor that led to his quarters. "That is, unless you care to join me for a cup of cider beforehand?"
Did he know what that boyish grin of his could do to a woman? Probably not, she decided.
"Cider sounds great."
No light was visible under the door to Kel's room when they got to Raoul's quarters. He fumbled slightly with the key, as if his hands had suddenly gotten clumsy. Was he nervous? It wasn't as if she had never been in his rooms before, or alone in a room with him.
She nearly walked into him as he stopped just inside the door. Reaching back to push it closed, she looked up at him. "Something wrong?"
"No." His voice sounded hoarse. "I'll go get the cider."
In spite of his words, he didn't budge.
As of its own accord, her hand reached out to rest on his arm.
Then they both moved at once, their lips meeting in what turned into a long and deep kiss. She felt his arms come up behind her back and followed suit.
"I think I'll forego the cider," she grinned as they came up for air before she pulled his head down to meet her again.