“At least he will be no fool,” Henry replied with an unseen smile.
“You go too far, Henry,” Estelle whispered, whirling to face him. “And I am ever so sorry that you have found my search for a husband so wearisome. I do not know what I have been thinking, taking so long to find the man I will spend the rest of my life with, raise a family with, rule this kingdom with.”
“Princess, I would never suggest such a thing,” Henry began, holding his hands up in a placating gesture, but Estelle had heard enough.
“Good day to you, Henry,” she said, turning her back to him again. Then, over her shoulder as she walked away, “When you see my father, tell him I shall be in my room, awaiting his return to sanity.”
Estelle strode down the hallway, allowing her anger to fend off her tears. She kept her head down, not seeing the servants who bowed and curtsied as she passed, barely hearing their greetings and returning none of them. Eventually she found herself in an empty corridor and paused to gain her bearings.
It took her a few moments to realize that her feet had carried her to the hallway leading to the king’s chambers, as there were few distinguishing features to be found. Owen was not one to display his wealth needlessly, so there were few statues or paintings outside of the Great Hall. He was no art connoisseur anyway; that duty had always fallen to his wife, Elena.
Thinking of her mother now, fresh tears burst through her defenses and Estelle spun around and returned the way she had come, this time making sure to take the turns required to reach her own chambers. When she reached her room she stumbled inside and slammed the door behind her. Resting her back against it, she stared at the ceiling and at last gave her anguish full permission to express itself.
The weight of her tears pushed her down into a heap on the floor, where she hugged her knees tightly and buried her face in her gown. She remained there until her eyes dried up and the cold of the stone tiles began to seep into her body. Rising on shaking legs, she moved to the small fireplace at the foot of her bed and placed another log onto its weakened flames. She stayed crouched down, staring at the reinvigorated flames, until a soft knock at her door disturbed her trance.
“Who is it?”
“Just your old Grace, Your Highness,” her maid replied.
“Enter,” Estelle called back. Her personal maid since she was in swaddling clothes came into the room with a sad smile on her deeply lined face and came to stand beside her. “And you are not ‘just’ my anything, Grace. Thank you for coming.”
“Of course, my dear girl,” Grace said, shirking formalities now that they were in private. “How could I not, after hearing what your father has done?”
“I must find a way to change his mind,” Estelle said fiercely, but the fire in her words faded quickly. “How can he break his promise to mother so easily?”
“Oh child, do not think this is easy for him!” her maid admonished. “There is no doubt in my mind that he is at his desk this very moment trying to come to terms with what he has done. In fact, I would bet my job that he is writing you a letter, begging for your forgiveness. I expect that it will arrive shortly.”
“Then why do this at all? Why not, I don’t know, offer all the gold in the kingdom as a reward? Why the crown, why his daughter, as a prize?”
“Owen has been incredibly patient with you, child,” Grace said, taking a seat on the edge of the bed. “He has allowed your search to go on for two years now without the slightest hint of success. You wish to know the reason for this rash move? Because he is scared. Nay, he is terrified.”
“That the suitors will stop coming. That you will never be satisfied with any applicant. That the lords and knights and princes will abandon this route to the throne and await his death. That they will then take it by force, and his kingdom that he has worked so long and so hard to build up will be torn asunder.”
They sat without speaking for some time, the sounds of the popping wood and crackling flames the only noises to be heard. Outside her window the sun had already reached its zenith and was beginning its descent. The smell of the burning fir helped to soothe Estelle’s frayed nerves and eventually she moved to take a seat beside her maid.
“It will turn out all right in the end dear,” Grace said, taking both of Estelle’s hands in her own. “This is no simple task your father has set forth. The man who accomplishes this will be a man worthy of the throne. We can only pray that he is also worthy of you.”
“What would my mother think of this?” Estelle asked. “You knew her much longer than the five years I had with her. Would she have meekly approved?”
“Oh goodness, dear,” Grace said with a laugh, “your mother did not do anything meekly! No, I think she would have screamed at her husband until either his ears fell off or her voice gave out. And then she would have written and presented to him a novel or two on how pig-headed he was being!”
“That sounds like a good plan - perhaps I should try that,” Estelle said with a smile. “So she would not have allowed the marriage to happen?”
“Oh, I think she would have come around eventually. Elena would have understood his fears and that his time with us is not infinite - and old age is never guaranteed, as she discovered herself. Owen could be thrown from his horse tomorrow and then what?” Grace took hold of the amulet she wore around her neck and pressed it to her lips, mouthing a few words to ward off the mentioned accident. Estelle looked away, uncomfortable with such displays of faith, but Grace‘s gravelly voice brought her gaze back. “She would have trusted you to find a proper match eventually, but she would have recognized the toll this delay has taken on him.”
“It has worn him down, hasn’t it? Have I really been so blind? So caught up in my own needs that I could not see the damage I was causing others? I have been such a fool, Grace.”
“No, child,” Grace said, wrapping a frail arm around her shoulders and pulling her close. “Love can be many things, but it is not foolish. It was a noble, valiant search, but it has come to an end. You were fortunate to even have had the opportunity - there are many, many princesses out there who were told who and when to marry, with no say in the matter whatsoever.”
“It just feels so… unfair,” Estelle said, hating the petulance in her voice. “But I suppose I should just hope for the best. Maybe he’ll turn out to be not so bad.”
“Not to mention,” her maid said with a giggle that came very close to being girlish, “a dragon slayer is almost certain to have a cute butt.”
“Grace!” Estelle squealed, pulling away to look at her in amused shock. “That is… is…”
“Inappropriate?” she asked with a wide smile. “Indecent, even? My dear, nothing is inappropriate once you reach my age. The way I see things, living this long means I have earned the right to say what I please.”
Estelle shook her head and laughed before wrapping the woman up in a tight embrace. Eventually she pulled away and moved to her window, gazing down at the courtyard below and the city streets beyond the castle walls. The leaves on the massive oak trees that lined the road leading to the castle were starting their transformation from green to yellow, with red soon to follow. She could nearly smell change in the crisp air.
“Do you think I will be married before Father Winter begins his work?” she asked without turning around.
“Oh child,” Grace said as she eased herself off the bed and moved to the door, “from what people are saying about this nasty dragon, I would be surprised if you are wed before Brother Summer pays us a visit - or two, for that matter.”
“Thank you for your counsel, Grace. I don’t know what I would do without you.”
Her maid smiled, dipped her head, and pulled open the door, almost receiving a rap on the nose for her efforts.
“Oh, hello there,” she said with a bright smile.
“Er, hello Lady Grace,” Gerald replied, one fist hanging in the air, frozen midway on its trip to knock on the door.
“Jerry, I have told you a thousand times, it’s just Grace, that’s all.”
“You’re not ‘just’ anything,” Gerald and Estelle said at the same time, causing the two to exchange amused looks.
“I will leave you two children to yourselves,” she said with a sigh, stepping into the hallway. “I certainly have better things to do with my time than argue with the likes of you!”
“See you later, Milady,” Gerald said with a deep bow that caused Grace to sniff primly before walking away. The jester laughed as he watched her go, but his expression grew more serious when he turned to face the princess. “May I come in? I thought you might need someone to talk to, but I see Grace has already -”
“Oh, get in here already,” Estelle said, flopping down on her bed and throwing an arm across her eyes. “Grace is lovely and all, but I need you right now.”
Gerald stepped into the room, closing the door gently behind him, and walked over to the fire. He added another log, though it wasn’t needed, then leaned against the wall next to it and crossed his arms.
“It’s not right,” he said quietly. “He can’t do this to you.”
“Well he certainly thinks he can,” came the muffled reply.
“So what are you going to do?” Gerald almost suggested running away as a joke, but suddenly realized a part of him would have been serious. He shook his head to clear his thoughts, causing the bells on his hat to jingle loudly in the small space.
“What can I do? I can’t exactly run away, now can I?” Estelle asked and sighed loudly, which he was grateful for since it drowned out the sound of his snort of laughter. “And take off that blasted hat, Jerry. You’re not here to perform for me.”
“I would if it would cheer you up,” he said as he pulled it off with one hand and pulled the pins out of his hair with the other. He tried to comb it into some sort of order with his fingers but soon gave up. “I overheard this great joke in the kitchens the other day, about -”
“Not right now, Jerry,” she told him, allowing her arm to slide from her face and collapse on the bed beside her. “I just can’t believe this is happening. That after looking for so long, a husband will be forced upon me. That my father is breaking his word, out of fear.”
“I don’t think that the king is afraid of this Blackwing creature -”
“No, not that. He’s afraid he will die before I marry and that war will break out between those who wish to take his place.”
“I don’t see why you need to marry in order for that to happen,” Gerald said, kicking at an imaginary mote of dust on the floor. “I think you’d make a great ruler.”
“That is very kind of you,” Estelle said, sitting up to look at him. “But this kingdom hasn’t had a queen as sole ruler in… well, ever, I don’t think. The people would not accept me. I‘ve already heard talk that the reason I haven‘t chosen a match yet is because I aspire for the throne.”
“Then they are bigger fools than I am,” Gerald muttered, turning to stare out the window.
“For the last time, you are not some simple fool. You are the Royal Jester! My goodness, you are nearly as bad as Grace!”
“What makes a dragon killer more fit to rule than you?” he asked, moving to the window and staring out it just as Estelle had earlier. “What will he know about policies and the nobility and taking care of the people?”
“We will have time to teach him. My father will groom him while he is still with us, then I will coach him after that. It will be trying at times, there can be no doubt of that, but we will make him a king.”
“So you are just going to give in without a fight?” Gerald threw his arms up in the air in frustration, the hat in his hand sounding inappropriately cheerful. “You’re actually going to go along with this nonsense?”
“Do I look the least bit happy about this?” Estelle demanded as she rose to her feet. “And don’t you dare call my father’s orders nonsense! You do not understand what we must endure. We live by different rules.”
“Of course, how could a mere fool comprehend your terrible responsibilities?” Gerald struggled to stop himself from shouting, aware that was a line he did not wish to cross.
“Stop that!” Estelle, however, had no such qualms. “You have been by my side through it all, Jerry. You have witnessed the requirements of being a princess but you do not suffer them with me. You are free to do as you please, without the entire kingdom knowing your every move. You can say what you want, when you want. And you can marry whomever you please!”
“Can I really?” Gerald closed the distance between them until his face was mere inches from Estelle’s. Shaking with barely contained emotions, he whispered harshly, “You really think so, princess?”
“Yes, of… of course you can,” she replied, taken aback. “Why… why wouldn’t you?”
Gerald released a laugh that contained no humor and shook his head before stepping around her and striding to the door. He pulled it open, paused in the doorway to look back at her with an unreadable expression, then disappeared down the hallway.
“At least he will be no fool,” Henry replied with an unseen smile.