Day Two

The lengthy walk to reach the dais on which the throne and princess sat waiting was only made longer by the weight of the princess’ gaze. At first Gerald tried to meet it with an apologetic smile but he soon found his eyes on the floor in front of him, on the tapestries and charts on the walls to his left and right, on the handful of noblemen and ladies of the court who had already arrived to observe the day’s proceedings.

By the time he had made it to the middle of the Great Hall, Gerald felt like two large rocks had been tied to each foot and that his arms were no longer under his control, they were moving so awkwardly. He told himself to relax, five or six hundred times, but to no avail - he felt like buckets of sweat were running down his back when he finally came to stand before the princess.

“Good morning Princess Estelle,” he said with the deepest bow he could manage without snapping himself in half. “Please accept my deepest apologies for my late arrival.”

“My father will be here any moment,” Estelle told him in a harsh whisper, her blue eyes colder than the Algor Mountain Pass in mid-winter. “You have been getting here later and later every day these last few weeks - what is the matter with you?”

Even when facing her fury, Gerald could not stop himself from taking a moment to appreciate the young woman before him. Her short blonde hair - some called it boyish, but none dared to in her or her father’s presence - was adorned with one of her many diadems. This one consisted of a simple silver design punctuated by three large sapphires which complimented her eyes. Her gown that morning was a soft green silk with a modest neckline and a rose down each side in gold thread. It did not appear to be a practical choice for that time of year, but Gerald knew Estelle would be wearing the warmest undergarments she could conceal beneath it. She had chosen not to wear a necklace that day but her appearance did not lack for it.

“Nothing is wrong, my princess,” he replied just as she was about to repeat her question. “The year is drawing to a close and beds are becoming more warm and comfortable every morning, that’s all. And, if I may be so bold, it seems as though you are growing ever more radiant with each new day.”

“Compliments will get you nowhere, Jerry,” she replied, looking away, though her expression had softened slightly when she turned to regard him again. Tilting her head to one side, she asked, “What is that on your right cheek?”

But before Gerald could reply the king’s herald appeared in the small archway at the right side of the dais, his gold and burgundy trumpet already halfway to his lips. Gerald moved to stand below the throne and picked up the tiny replica of the king’s scepter he had forgotten to take with him the previous day, while Estelle rose gracefully to await her father’s arrival.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the herald called out in a rumbling dramatic bass after playing a brief fanfare, “I present to you His Majesty King Owen.”

The herald stepped aside and the king strode into the Great Hall. Though he was not a tall man, Owen carried himself with so much dignity and confidence that most people didn’t notice until they were standing near him. The years had been kind to him, particularly so when considering his stressful position, but as he neared the throne Gerald could see that more grey hairs had appeared in his neatly trimmed red beard and that the wrinkles around his eyes had deepened. Perhaps the protracted search for a suitable match for the princess was beginning to wear on him.

Gerald was surprised by a sudden rush of guilt as he recalled Henry’s earlier words but quickly pushed it away. There would be time to mull that over later.

“Father,” Estelle said with a shallow curtsy as Gerald dropped to one knee and bowed his head. “You are looking well today.”

“Daughter,” Owen replied with a tender smile that seemed to wash years from his face. He placed a soft kiss on Estelle‘s forehead - which she had to bend down to receive - before stepping back to regard her, his burgundy cape whispering against his black leggings. “And you are looking simply magnificent, as always.”

The two royals took their seats and Gerald turned and sat on the step just to the king’s left, slowly twirling his miniature scepter in his right hand. It would only be a few minutes before the first applicants began streaming into the hall and he knew that the king preferred peace and quiet to start his day. Which was why he was caught off guard when Owen chose to address him only a moment later.

“Good morning Gerald.”

“Good day to you Your Majesty,” the jester replied, his scepter going suddenly still while his heartbeat increased. He swallowed a nervous lump in his throat and waited for his master to continue.

“I trust that you are feeling well?” Owen asked while keeping one eye on the entrance door.

“Of course, Sire.”

“That is good to hear, my boy,” Owen said with a slight smile that was mirrored by his daughter - Estelle always seemed pleased when her father allowed his fondness for his jester to slip through his regal facade. “I say, what is that on your cheek today?”

“Oh, this?” Gerald touched the red paint with his index finger and shrugged, thankful that his makeup concealed his darkening cheeks. “It’s a… well, you see Sire, it’s a dragon… of sorts.”

“Of sorts?”

“Ah, yes Sire. The sort with butterfly wings.”

A snort of laughter escaped from Estelle before she quickly looked away and coughed politely. Owen looked at his daughter’s shaking shoulders for a moment, a suspicious gleam in his eye, before returning his attention to Gerald.

“I see. I have to admit that I have not heard of that particular variety of dragon before. You will have to enlighten me… at a later time. I see it is time to get to work now, unfortunately.” He looked towards the other end of the hall where the door was being opened by David and Derrick, revealing a long line of waiting men. Then he added with a quiet laugh, “But do not think that I will forget, my boy.”

“I promise to have come up with an entertaining and entirely true explanation for you by then, Sire,” Gerald said, finally starting to breathe easier. He eyed the two columns of men being lead their way by Henry, who refused to meet his gaze, and relaxed even further. There didn’t appear to be a half decent looking one among them.

Henry stopped the procession thirty feet away, bowed low to his king, and led the first candidate forward. The man was a jumble of nerves, trying to look everywhere at once, and was continuously dabbing at the sweat on his wide forehead with a checkered handkerchief.

“Your Majesty, Your Royal Highness, I present to you Lord Addlebaum, from Tanglewood County.” With another bow, a much shorter one this time, Henry climbed onto the dais and took up a standing position a few feet behind Owen. The king would have preferred that his advisor was comfortably seated, but Henry insisted that he was perfectly happy on his feet. It made Gerald, if he was being honest, quite uncomfortable.

The king motioned Addlebaum closer and exchanged pleasantries (well, Gerald assumed the mumbles coming from the Lord were pleasantries) with him while the princess looked on. Out of the corner of his eye Gerald could see she was already chewing on her bottom lip, a sure sign she was searching for a polite way to dismiss the man.

Gerald was about to place his scepter in his mouth and give an impersonation of the Lord a try when Owen thanked him for his time and waved him away, saving his daughter the trouble of doing it herself. By that point, the king knew when there was no point in having a suitor converse with the princess. Estelle bowed her head to the Lord, graced him with an apologetic smile and then the next man was introduced.

This one, a mountain of a man from a county on the eastern border of the kingdom, faired somewhat better. He was clear spoken, if a touch on the plain side, and the king obviously liked the prospect of such an imposing man taking his place on the throne. Estelle spoke with him about his journey from his town and what he saw along the way, but her lip was soon between her teeth again.

Gerald took this as his cue and somersaulted forward, coming to a jingling rest at the man’s feet. Startled, the suitor took a half step back and looked down at the jester with a bemused expression.

“Why hello way, way, way, way up there!” Gerald shouted, causing the man to step back again and producing a few laughs from the remaining candidates. “My goodness, that is a nasty scar you have on your chin. May I ask how you got it?”

“Had a bit of bad luck with me axe when I was chopping wood a while back,” the man replied, rubbing his chin. “Mind you, me axe is about as big as you are, so I was lucky to keep me head on me shoulders!”

He chuckled and glanced around the room, looking quite pleased with himself for the laughs he‘d earned. Gerald smiled up at him and counted three beats in his head before speaking.

“Ah, that makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Silly me, here I was thinking that you’d bent down to tie your shoe and hit your chin on the moon!”

The man’s eyes narrowed and his nostrils flared as several of his fellow suitors made no attempt at hiding their laughter. Gerald just sat there, shaking his head from side to side, the bells on his hat jingling cheerfully.

“Careful where you sit, fool,” the man growled. “Me eyes aren’t as good as they used to be, so I can’t see all the way down there too good and I might just end up squishing you like the miserable little insect you are!”

“That is more than enough,” the king called out from the throne. “Thank you for your time, citizen. I wish you a safe voyage home.”

The man swallowed his rage with great difficulty before offering the king a bow. While he was bent over he offered the jester an ugly scowl, which he was sure to conceal before straightening again and making his exit.

“No sense of humor, that one,” Gerald told the royals with a shrug as he returned to his place at the king’s feet. Estelle smiled, Owen gave him an unreadable look, and Henry came very close to glaring at him. Gerald sat down without further comment, wondering if he had blundered without realizing it.

Once again, he didn’t have much time to consider the situation as David came rushing to the front of the lines of suitors with another man by his side. The waiting men looked ready to riot until they realized that this new arrival was not there for the princess’ heart.

His black hair was shaggy and coated with dust, and his clothes looked (and smelled, for those unfortunate enough to be too close) like they had been slept in more than once. It took Gerald a few moments to recognize him as the messenger that had left the castle with a troop of soldiers three weeks prior.

“Your Majesty,” David said with a quick tilt of his head, “Michael returns with word from the north.”

“Get this man some water,” Owen commanded before the messenger could speak. A servant appeared, seemingly from nowhere (as they almost always did in King Owen’s castle), carrying a jug of water. The messenger nodded his thanks and drank from it eagerly, uncaring of the small waterfall running down his shirtfront as a result.

The End

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