After Gerald stormed out of her room, Estelle had stood rooted to the floor for several minutes, just staring at the empty doorway. She might have blinked once or twice, but otherwise she was as still as a statue until a servant walked by, paused a few steps beyond her door, then returned to peer at her curiously.
“Ah, Your Highness?” the woman asked, clearly concerned. “Can I get you anything?”
“No, thank you,” Estelle managed to reply with a weak smile. “Just close the door, please.”
The servant did so with a deep curtsy before rushing off to tell anyone and everyone what a state the princess was in after her father’s dramatic announcement - of that, Estelle had no doubt. She shook her head fiercely and finally managed to pry her feet off of the stone tiles so that she could collapse into her bed once more.
“First father,” she told the ceiling, “now Jerry. All in the space of a few hours! What’s next, this stupid dragon arriving at my window to take me away to his lair in the mountains?”
A noise at her window made her heart freeze in her chest. Slowly, ever so slowly, she turned her head, barely able to keep her eyes open. When she saw the tiny yellow warbler sitting on the ledge, peering back at her with its head cocked to one side, she could only laugh.
“Silly, silly girl,” she muttered. Then, to the bird, “I am being very stupid right now, aren‘t I?”
The bird blinked twice but before it could share any of its wisdom a knock at the door startled it into flight. Estelle kept her blue eyes on the ledge it had just vacated while she answered.
“Who is it?”
“Lunch, Your Highness,” an unfamiliar voice replied.
“I’m afraid I don’t know anyone by that name,” she said with a trace of her usual humor.
“Ah, no. I meant that I have brought you lunch. To eat, that is.” An awkward pause, then: “Your Highness.”
Estelle’s lips threatened to form a smile, but the weight of the morning’s events prevented them from moving. Instead, she struggled to her feet and moved to the door, fully prepared to scold the servant for not knowing a good joke when he heard one.
And completely unprepared for the man who was standing there when she opened it.
Seeing the king outside her door, holding a serving tray with a contrite expression on his face, Estelle was at a loss for words.
“I… didn’t recognize your voice,” she said eventually, smoothing non-existent folds in her gown with the palms of her hands.
“As well you shouldn’t have,” Owen told her, pointing his chin proudly upwards. “That was my very, very rarely used ‘pretending to be a servant’ voice.”
“This is no time for joking around, father,” she said, clenching her bottom lip between her teeth to stop from smiling.
“Oh, is it not? Because I was quite sure I just heard you making a joke - and a rather terrible one, at that.”
“It wasn’t terrible at all,” Estelle snapped, crossing her arms across her chest. “Oh, come inside before someone sees you with that. The gossips don’t need any more fodder today - you‘ve made sure of that.”
Owen stepped inside and placed the tray on Estelle’s bed before taking a seat beside it. He removed the silver cover to reveal two meals and two sets of cutlery, then looked at his daughter expectantly.
“I’m not hungry,” she said, still standing by the door.
“You have always been a miserable liar,” the king observed. “As I am quite excellent at it, you must have inherited that unfortunate trait from your mother.”
Estelle scowled at him before moving to the fireplace and adding another log as the room began to fill with the scents wafting from the plates. The gravy on the meat was particularly inviting. She then chose to gaze out of her window for a while before eventually sitting down on the opposite side of the tray and picking up a fork.
“No point in letting it get cold though, is there?” she asked, impaling a thin slice of beef and bringing it to her lips.
“Indeed,” Owen said with a poorly concealed smile as he did the same.
They ate in silence for a while before either could find a way to broach the subject that hung invisibly between them. It was Estelle who finally broke the silence as she picked at her apple crumble dessert.
“I apologize for… overreacting in the Great Hall,” she said quietly. “I should have held my tongue until we were in private.”
“If you had done that,” Owen said with a fond smile, “then I would have wondered who you were and what had happened to my daughter.”
Estelle sniffed and looked away, her gaze coming to rest once again on the burning wood. She rooted around in her mind for the anger that had been so overwhelming earlier but found that it had dissipated after talking to Grace.
“I am still angry with you,” she muttered. “You could have bothered to think a decision like that over for an hour or two before announcing it, you know.”
“Oh, I can assure you that I pondered that for much more than a few hours, my favorite daughter.”
“You were planning this all along?” Estelle demanded, springing to her feet and glaring down at her father.
“You’re not going to point out that you’re my only daughter?”
“Answer the question, father. How long were you plotting this?”
“I suppose I owe you that much,” Owen said as he rose to his feet and moved to warm himself by the fire. “The idea first occurred to me four weeks ago, when word reached me of this Blackwing creature’s terrible behavior.”
“That long? And not a word to me the entire time!”
“It is difficult for me to say which was harder on me - the decision, or keeping it from you.” The years seemed to settle heavily on the king then and Estelle felt her previous guilt return with full force. “I am sorry, daughter, please believe that. But I simply could not wait any longer for you to find a husband on your own. The risks grew greater with every passing week.”
“What else have you not told me?” Estelle demanded, coming to stand before him. “Are there tidings of war? Is someone planning to move against you?”
“Nothing quite as drastic as that,” he replied with a quick shake of his head. “But there are men who crave the power I wield and have already been denied it through marriage by you - and quite sensibly, I might add. They would make terrible husbands, as most have proven since appearing before you. I can almost feel their breath on my neck some days, as they look over my shoulder and wait for me to show the slightest sign of illness. They have spies in the castle, I am almost sure of it.”
“My inability to find a suitable husband is threatening to tear our kingdom apart and I am utterly oblivious,” Estelle said, her gaze falling to the floor at her feet. “I am scarcely fit to be a princess, much less a ruling Queen. Jerry had no idea what he was talking about.”
“Ah, Gerald has been to see you already then?” Owen asked, then added before she could reply, “Of course he has. What was that business with the dragon on his face all about anyway?”
“Oh… just a silly conversation we had last week.” The king raised an eyebrow and waited for her to elaborate. “I’d quite forgotten about it, actually. Jerry had made a joke about what Blackwing would be called if his wings were another color and I must have said something about him having the wings of a butterfly. We ended up arguing whether the people would call him Flywing or Butterwing.”
“I see,” Owen said with a twinkle in his eye. “And he thought to surprise you with it several days later, after it had passed from your memory? Interesting.”
“Oh, nothing.” It was the princess’ turn to demand further explanation with a look. “I was just remembering something I did for your mother a long time ago. Not quite that exactly, but similar. Will he be joining you for dinner tonight?”
“Not after what I said to him earlier,” she replied, moving to take up a position at the window again. A breeze had arrived since last she was there and it gave her pale cheeks a rosy glow. “We… had an argument. A real one this time.”
“I see,” the king said a second time, though this time the look in his eye went unnoticed. “Well then, I had best be going, for I expect he will be at your door to apologize at any moment.”
“Oh, I doubt that very much. I’m the one who needs to apologize, after telling him such a horrible thing.”
“Then let me assure you,” the king said with a wink as he moved to the door, “it doesn’t matter. He will apologize before the day is out, you have my word on that. I will see you in the hall tomorrow morning.”
Estelle watched her father leave the room without replying, having once again been caught wrong-footed. However she was, to her surprise, feeling much better than when he had arrived. She decided to take her usual afternoon walk in the royal gardens - under the watchful eye of two trusted guards, of course.
Her favorite place in the entire castle (and possibly the world) was the sunflower grove in the back corner, right next to a small, manmade waterfall, but at that time of year they were long gone. She was very pleased to find that the gardeners had replaced them with a spectacular array of chrysanthemums but it wasn’t quite the same. Especially without Jerry by her side.
Thinking of the jester, she was tempted to rush back to her room to await his apology. She cleared that desire away with a quick shake of her head and completed her walk before making a point to visit with the ladies of the court in the tea room. But she didn’t last long before the constant talk about the dragon and her future husband drove her back to her room in search of peace and quiet.
Estelle spent the remainder of the day perusing several books on royal policies and procedures, knowing that she needed to know as much as possible now that her future king would likely arrive completely unprepared for the job. A servant came to deliver dinner and stoke the fire and Estelle asked her to fetch a fresh candle to read by.
Not long after it arrived she found herself nodding off and losing track of her place repeatedly, so she marked her page and put it aside. As she prepared for bed, Estelle’s thoughts soon turned to what sort of man she was likely to be wed to and what the chances of her actually liking him were.
She had just about decided that one in twenty would be pretty fair odds when a knock at the door drew her attention. Wrapping a burgundy robe around her nightgown, she moved to answer it.
“Please excuse the late hour of my calling, Your Highness,” a young boy said with a deep bow that almost caused him to lose his balance. “I have a package for you.”
“Oh, thank you very much… Colin, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Milady,” the boy said as he cheeks went crimson. “Ah… here you go.”
Estelle took the proffered box and, her curiosity getting the better of her, opened it then and there. Her eyes went wide and her mouth fell open when she spied the contents.
“Flowers and chocolate? Who sent this?”
“It’s a secret,” Colin replied, turning to walk away.
“Hold it right there,” Estelle whispered in her most royal tone. Colin froze in his tracks, looking quite like a rabbit caught in a hunter’s trap. “Are you suggesting that you are keeping secrets from the royal family?”
“No, Milady,” he whimpered. “It’s just that I promised not to say.”
“And you don’t want to break your word, that’s very admirable.” The boy nodded his head enthusiastically and Estelle had to look down at her delivery to hide her smile. The six yellow roses looked as though they had just been picked. “But if I were to guess who sent them and you were to just nod your head to let me know I was right, then you wouldn’t actually have said anything, isn’t that right?”
“Well, I suppose that’s true. But you only get one guess!”
Not surprisingly, one was all that the princess needed.