Estelle had a great deal of trouble falling asleep that night. She lay in a tangle of sheets, staring out her window at the night sky while her thoughts bounced manically around her head. Her body felt like it was ready for winter hibernation while her mind was as fresh as the garden after a spring rain.
She sighed and flopped around in frustration. It was natural, she told herself over and over again, to be nervous knowing that her husband would be standing before her for the first time in just over a day. Or perhaps it wouldn’t be for the first time, she realized as her stomach twisted into knots. What if a man she had already rejected returned to take an alternate route to her side?
“That would certainly make for awkward dinner conversations for the first five or ten years,” she muttered. In a deep bass she played out an example: “Pass the butter? You mean like how you passed over me the first time we met and I had to slay a bloody dragon to become your husband? Sure thing, Your Highness! Can I slay any other murderous nuisances for you while I‘m at it?”
Estelle allowed the argument to play out in her head for several more minutes before finally putting a stop to it. Squeezing her eyes shut in the hopes that her mind would take the hint that it was time for sleep, her brain instead chose to start imagining what the man would look like. Old or young? Tall or short? Handsome or…
“Oh no. What if the dragon disfigures him before it dies? He could be missing his nose or an eye or… oh, control yourself! You are being ridiculous, not to mention incredibly shallow! This man will have killed a dragon just to be your king! Or will he have done it simply to become the king? What if he hates me?”
It was enough to make her want to scream and cry and thrash about like a child who wasn’t getting her way.
She had wanted to talk to Jerry about it all that afternoon but he wasn’t in his room when she called on him and no one she spoke with knew where he had gone. That wasn’t like him at all - he rarely left the castle grounds, and when he did Estelle almost always heard it from him directly beforehand.
If she was being honest with herself, Estelle would have had to admit that her concerns about the jester were also keeping sleep at bay. Her impending marriage had already caused one argument and the man hadn’t even been chosen yet. What would happen to their friendship once the man moved into the castle? After the wedding?
Estelle almost got out of bed to go looking for Jerry then and there. But she told herself that at such a late hour she would only look silly. And what would she say when he opened the door, as he stood there staring at her in a half-asleep daze, his night shirt in disarray, his hair falling into his eyes…
A smile stole its way onto her lips at that image. Jerry would be rather cute like that, she thought.
“Oh good heavens, I must need sleep! I can’t even think straight anymore!”
She turned and buried her face in her pillow and screamed into it. It felt good, so she did it again. And one more time, for good measure.
The next morning, the sun’s rays found her sprawled across her bed, one arm slung across her eyes, sleeping fitfully. Exhaustion had finally won out, but only for the last hour before sunrise. When a knock sounded at her door, jolting her back into the waking world, her first thought was to fake an illness.
“Who is it?” she asked, her voice hoarse.
“Is that you, Your Highness?” Grace replied from the hallway.
“Yes, yes, come in Grace.” Estelle looked around the room for water but found none. “I hope you brought… oh, thank you. You are truly a life saver.”
“It is what I do,” Grace said as she handed the princess a small mug of water. She stepped back and looked her charge over with a skeptical gaze. “You, my dear child, look like you went out drinking at a tavern, got yourself into a fight, and lost. Badly.”
“You are too kind, Grace.”
“I am kind enough not to allow you to be seen in the Great Hall like this,” she said, returning to the door.
“Oh, excellent,” Estelle said, her shoulders sagging with relief. “I was considering not going anyway.”
“Oh, you are still going,” Grace told her from the doorway, a touch ominously. “Lie down, close your eyes, and I shall return shortly.”
Estelle sat blinking at the door until she heard footsteps in the hallway, at which point she set down her mug and flopped backwards. She managed to close her eyes just as Grace stepped into the room.
“Keep your eyes closed,” she commanded. Estelle heard her set something down on her bedside table and then suddenly it felt like her face was on fire. With a muffled moan she reached up to take the steaming cloth away but Grace grabbed her wrists and held them down with surprising strength. “Oh calm down, child. One minute with this on will do you a world of good.”
The princess tried to argue but she was finding it difficult to breathe. This was not how she wanted a morning after a sleepless night to begin. She tried to relax by picturing herself sitting by a roaring fireplace underneath a warm blanket, enjoying a big bowl of herbed chicken soup. It didn’t really work, but it was better than focusing on her present situation.
“I am taking it off now,” Grace told her after at least three eternities. “But do not open your eyes until I tell you to. Understood?”
Estelle jerked her head up and down rapidly. The cloth was lifted away and the relief was immense and immediate. She heard her maid rubbing her hands together and the scent of vanilla wafted into her nostrils. Then Grace began massaging the cream into her face, starting at her temples and working along her jaw line before moving to her cheeks.
“This is more like it,” Estelle murmured.
“Not so terrible a remedy, now is it?” Grace asked with a short laugh. “So. Start talking.”
“About what? Ow! You pinched me!”
“Of course I did,” Grace said matter-of-factly. “And I shall do so again if you do not tell me what kept you from sleeping last night.”
“You are a tyrant.”
“Only when it is required of me. Talk.”
Having no other real alternatives, Estelle told her the whole story. Her anxiety revolving around the dragon and her future husband, the lack of control over any of it, the evolution of her friendship with Jerry. While Estelle released her pent up worries, Grace remained silent as she continued to manipulate the princess’ face with various creams and lotions. When she was finished she stepped back, surveyed her handiwork, and nodded once.
“Much more presentable,” she said. “Now get yourself dressed while I fetch you some breakfast. You will have to eat it on the way to the hall, so we will finish this conversation as we walk.”
While Grace was away, Estelle picked out an orange gown that was decorated with swirling brown patterns that reminded her of the trees transforming in the streets below. She chose a simple black choker with a silver clasp to go with it and had just slipped on a pair of black shoes when her maid returned with a brown woven basket filled with food.
“Time to go, my dear,” she said, passing her a bun covered with melted cheese before taking one for herself. “Just eat, listen, and walk for a while, all right?”
“Yes Milady,” Estelle replied, doing her best impersonation of Jerry. Grace raised an eyebrow and sniffed daintily, but otherwise gave no reply as they left the room.
“Firstly,” Grace began as she kept pace next to the princess, “this dragon is not your concern. One way or another, it will be taken care of and the people will feel safe again and they will owe their security to the crown. And do not, for the love of all that is good, feel any guilt when some of the men who stand before you tomorrow are felled by this beast - and surely many of them will be. They are doing this of their own volition.”
“They wouldn’t have to if I had found a husband on my own.”
“I did not say it was time for you to talk again,” Grace said sternly. “Now, where was I? Ah yes, your husband. There are no certainties in this world, but I would expect him to be a good man with a brave heart. He may not be the prettiest flower in the garden, but then, I have never been convinced that is something you seek.”
“And what if he is as monstrous as the beast he has slain?” The food Estelle was forcing herself to eat seemed bland, though she knew it was not. “What if he is a miserable ruler, no matter how well we try to teach him? What if he despises me for making him slay a dragon to become king?”
“I must be going deaf in my old age!” Grace said with a look of mock horror. “For I most certainly did not hear myself tell you to speak.” Estelle looked suitably abashed as they walked on. “But I will take a moment to allay your concerns: any man who proves himself a poor husband to King Owen’s daughter will not last in that position for very long at all.”
“Grace… are you suggesting my father would have my husband killed?”
“My dear girl… your father’s love for you is no secret. Do you really think he would stand by and allow a man to mistreat you? One who became your husband by his decree? Do not be naïve; it does not suit you.”
Estelle’s jaw dropped open briefly before she snapped it shut. She was too shocked to say anything, so Grace picked up the conversation where she had last been interrupted.
“As for young Jerry… you have been best friends for almost your entire lives. That will not change, unless either of you allows it to. I am sure your new husband will make things awkward for both of you, but you will adjust. What you two have cannot be replaced by a dragon slayer with a sword - no matter how big that sword might be.”
“You are terrible,” Estelle whispered, her cheeks darkening. They rounded the final corner before the Great Hall and she reached out a hand to bring her maid to a halt. “But you are also an incredible help. I do not know what I would do without you.”
“I imagine you would figure it all out eventually,” Grace said with a slight nod of her head. “But for the time being, I am here to speed things along, as best I can. Off you go now, before your father arrives to find you missing.”
Estelle gave her a quick hug before hurrying on alone. Grace watched her go with a sad smile and a tilted head before turning back to her own room with a tired gait.
The princess swept into the Great Hall and came to an abrupt halt, startled to see Gerald already seated on the steps leading to the dais, twirling his scepter in lazy circles. Recovering quickly, she made her way over to her seat as she looked around the room.
“Good morning, Your Highness,” Gerald said.
“Good morning, Royal Jester,” she replied with a smile. She saw that he had also chosen an outfit inspired by the season, a red, green, and yellow costume with a hat that, somehow, actually matched. His face paint was a brown base with intricate yellow and red leaves on his cheeks. As she admired his work, her gaze fell on his eyes and she noticed that they looked as tired as she felt. So she asked, as casually as possible, “Sleep well?”
“Of course,” he replied but a massive yawn quickly dispersed any notions that he might actually have been telling the truth. He glanced at the doorway the king’s herald would be appearing in before leaning towards her. In an earnest whisper he said, “If I fall asleep, please wake me up before your father notices.”
“And how do you expect me to do that? Shall I just clap my hands excitedly when someone says something the least bit clever?”
“Yes, that should do fine,” Gerald said with a wink. “You are too good to me, Your Highness.”