When the sun finally peered through her window several long hours later, Estelle still had not slept a wink.
When the knock came this time she didn’t bother to acknowledge it. She heard Grace enter her room but kept her back turned and continued to stare out the window at the gloomy, dark clouds which perfectly suited her mood.
“You will have to forgive me for my presumptuousness,” Grace said as she moved to her bedside, “but I brought the towel and creams with me this morning, rather than having to make a second trip again. If, by some miracle, you do not need them, I shall take my leave.”
“I wish I was dead,” Estelle mumbled into her sheets.
“That is what I thought,” Grace said with a small smile. “On your back then and we shall get started.”
After a slight pause, Estelle rolled onto her back. The steaming towel was placed on her face before she could say anything further, though this time she made no attempt to remove it. Her silence and lack of struggle only deepened the worry lines around her maid’s eyes.
“You are even worse off than yesterday,” she said as she prepared her lotions. “Are you really so terrified of meeting your husband this morning?”
“Is that this morning?” the princess asked, her words muffled by the cloth. “I had quite completely forgotten.”
“Do not get smart with me, girl,” Grace said, glad that Estelle couldn’t see the smile that had sprung to her lips. “The cloth is coming off now. You know the routine - eyes shut until I say otherwise.”
Estelle gave her a slow nod and the next stage of the treatment began. She almost told her maid about her overnight revelations but held her tongue, too scared to put her tumultuous emotions into words. Besides, she told herself, in a day or two it might have all passed and things would return to normal all on their own. No one need be the wiser.
“Child,” Grace said softly, her fingers pausing in their work. “Why are you crying?”
“I’m not,” she replied immediately. “But if I was, it’s probably because you got some of that foul stuff in my eyes.”
“I most certainly did not. And you are still as terrible a liar as you were when you tried to convince me that Jerry broke the vase you received from King Theron on your eighth birthday.”
“I can’t believe you still remember that,” Estelle said, sniffing as she tried to hold off further tears. “Poor Jerry, I have been so terrible to him…”
“Have you now?” Grace asked, wiping away the tears with a wrinkled thumb before resuming her work. “And here I was thinking that you two have been just about the most important people in the world to each other for the last eighteen years or so. How incredibly oblivious I have been!”
The tears began to flow in earnest then, and sobs racked the princess’s body, forcing her maid to give up on her treatment. Grace wiped her hands on the still warm cloth before pulling Estelle up into a tender embrace. She held her there until the tears ran dry and her emotions were under some semblance of control.
“Got it all out now?” Grace asked, pulling back to examine her at arm’s length. “Good. So let’s hear it. All of it, mind you, for there can be no more hiding it now.”
“Only if you promise not to tell anyone - not even my father. Actually, especially not my father.”
“Your words will never leave these lips.”
Despite that assurance, several minutes passed in silence before Estelle began to speak. When she did, it was in stops and starts, her gaze locked on her folded hands as they fidgeted in her lap. She didn’t dare to look up to see how Grace was reacting. And so she was completely unaware of the smile spreading across her maid’s lips until she finished her tale and finally, ever so tentatively, raised her eyes.
“Well, my dear child,” Grace said, patting Estelle’s hands once before standing up, “it is about time you realized it.”
“What?” Estelle’s eyes went wide with shock as she watched Grace move to the closet and throw it open. “You mean… you knew?” A short nod was her only response. “Since when? Why didn’t you say anything? How did you -”
“One question at a time, child,” she said as she picked out a dark green gown that very nearly matched the cover of Estelle’s diary. “Put this on while we talk or else we will be late for your father’s grand gathering.”
“Oh no, how can I sit there in front of all those men who are about to face a dragon to become my king when my heart is already spoken for? I cannot do this, I cannot!”
“You can and you will,” Grace said sternly, shoving the gown into Estelle’s lap. “You know better than I that a match with Jerry will not be accepted by anyone. The only way that would change is if he is the one to slay this miserable dragon and I dare say there is a better chance of me regaining my youth than of that happening!”
“And what if he returns my feelings?” Estelle demanded, rising to her feet and letting the gown fall forgotten to the floor. “How could I be so cruel as to allow him to sit by while I greet these men, while I wait for the slayer to return, while I am married?”
“If, child? If he returns your feelings? Do you really doubt that he does?”
Estelle felt as though her heart had suddenly decided to hide in her toes and was having difficulty pumping blood all the way up to her head. She was having trouble thinking straight and her vision began to darken. Grace’s eyes widened with alarm and she rushed to her side as she began to sway. Grabbing her by both arms, she eased Estelle down until she was sitting on the edge of the bed once more.
“Easy, child. This all must seem terribly sudden to you. Just sit and breathe a moment. I will fetch you something to eat - a little food in your belly will set you right. Sit. Breathe. That is all, understood?”
The princess nodded, feeling slightly better now that she was off her feet. Once Grace left her thoughts immediately returned to the possibility that Jerry cared for her as more than a friend and she began to fill ill again. So she forced herself to count the bricks around the fireplace. When Grace returned she was only up to ten, having lost count and started over at least twenty times.
“Eat,” Grace commanded, holding out a cheese bun. Estelle obeyed and, despite her expectations to the contrary, managed to force all of it down. “Here, have some apple juice to wash it down. The sugar will do you some good as well.”
“I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Yes, that would probably help too.”
Estelle continued to eat and drink and some semblance of normality began to take hold as the clouds outside her window grew darker and darker. When Grace finally convinced her to stand up to put on her dress, raindrops began to batter the window sill.
“How appropriate,” Estelle muttered.
“That is more than enough pouting, child,” Grace said, waving a bony finger inches from her nose. “You have had your chance to cry, now it is time to put on the mask required of your position. For yourself, for your father, for those men, and for Jerry most of all.”
“It’s just so terribly unfair. To both of us.”
“Jerry is as aware of the situation you two have found yourself in as you are. And thank goodness for that - can you imagine if he let his heart take over his brain for even a second? He would want to whisk you away from the castle so that you could live your happily ever after, dirt poor and starving. But he has not. He is stronger than even I would have guessed, to stand by your side all these years and not so much as say a word to you.”
“Surely he could not have cared for me like that all this time!”
“Well, he certainly has,” Grace said as she buttoned up the back of Estelle’s gown with practiced fingers. “Whether or not he is aware of it is another matter entirely. If he is still as blind as you were up until last night, then let us pray he stays that way for just a while longer.”
“What do you mean?” Estelle asked as she picked up her favorite tiara and moved to her mirror to put it on. It was rather ornate, with six large sapphires and many more smaller ones filling the gaps between them, so she always felt guilty about liking it so much.
“If he knows how he feels about you,” Grace said, watching her reflection from over her shoulder, “then he might get the foolish idea in his head to go kill a dragon for you.”
“Don’t be silly, Grace,” Estelle said with a smile. “It does not suit you.”
Grace shook her head and laughed before helping the princess to her feet. She took a moment to assess her appearance before nodding once and guiding her to her door. As they moved through the hallways servants bowed and curtsied and Estelle paused to say a few words to them all.
But for the entire trip to the Great Hall, Estelle couldn’t manage to put aside the fear that Gerald - if he did in fact care for her, and if he was in fact aware of it - might actually do as Grace had said.
Nor could she disperse the hope that he would do so and, against all odds, succeed.
Gerald sat on the steps leading to the dais, his most recent creation in a brown sack at his feet. He was watching the gathered nobles discuss amongst themselves the men who had answered King Owen’s call and, if he was not mistaken, placing their own bets on who they thought would be the victor.
In the end, he had chosen not to place a wager with the servant boys - partly because he knew they wouldn’t be able to match his amount, but mostly because he thought the whole matter was obscene. It was as though they didn’t realize that real human beings were about to die attempting to become their king.
And Estelle’s husband.
His fingers maintained a steady rhythm against his kneecap as he continued to scan the room. He was doing his best to avoid looking at the doorway through which the princess would be entering at any moment but his eyes betrayed him on several occasions. He wished the men waiting to receive the king’s oath were inside the hall instead of lined up in the hallway outside. They were to be led into the room and introduced by Henry after the king had arrived but Gerald wanted to size up his competition.
And the fact that it would have kept his mind occupied would have been nice as well.
As it was, he found himself either thinking about the princess or the dragon or the words he would use to convince the king to grant him his oath along with the others. Slight variations of the same sentences kept repeating themselves in his head, battling to become the one that would win the day and seal his fate, whatever else was to come in the days that would follow.
Sweat was pooling in his armpits and at the small of his back and he was becoming more and more convinced that his makeup was running. Perhaps, he thought, they would just think he was crying. That just might be to his benefit, he rationalized.
That morning he had painted a black dragon’s head on his right cheek and a golden crown on the left, ostensibly to celebrate the occasion. In reality, it was meant to be a reminder to himself what was at stake. He raised a finger to touch each design but realized it was trembling very noticeably, so he quickly returned it to his knee. He was so caught up in his thoughts that he did not realize the princess had entered the hall until she spoke his name.
“Good morning, Estelle,” he said without turning, not wanting her to see his eyes. To see the excitement and nerves and abject terror in them.
“Sleep better last night?” she asked, shifting from side to side in her seat as though someone had placed a thorn in the cushion.
“Not really,” he said, his lips going dry at the memory of the dream. “What about you?”
“Not a bloody wink.”
Gerald turned at this, too surprised by Estelle’s language to worry about what his face might reveal. She flashed him a weak grin before returning to her survey of the room. Tilting her head this way and that, a frown soon appeared on her lips.
“They’re not in here,” Gerald told her, turning away again. “They’re to be introduced after your father arrives. Grand entrance and all that, I’m sure.”
“Oh. Right, of course,” Estelle said, struggling to appear calm and composed on the exterior while her interior was awash in chaos. “What do you have in that sack?”
“Just a little something I made last night to help celebrate the festivities this morning,” Gerald replied before swallowing the nervous lump in his throat. “You’ll see it soon enough. I hope you like it.”
“Speaking of yesterday, where did you get off to in the afternoon? I went by your room twice and nobody I spoke with could tell me where you were.”
“Twice?” he asked, looking at the princess over his shoulder. “Did something happen while I was out? Were you okay?”
“Oh, it was nothing serious. I just… um… well, I really… oh, here comes the herald. On with the show, I suppose.”
Gerald rose to his feet while giving Estelle a suspicious look out of the corner of his eye. He supposed she must just be nervous about her father making his rash announcement official - and meeting all those men who wished to become her husband. Well, he could relate on both accounts.
King Owen entered the Great Hall wearing his finest burgundy cape, his crown polished to a blinding degree. He approached his throne with a slow, confident gait, and greeted his daughter with his usual kiss to her forehead. Then, as though he couldn’t help himself, he wrapped her up in a tight embrace that caught Estelle completely off guard. Owen offered her an apologetic smile before turning to address the hall.
When the sun finally peered through her window several long hours later, Estelle still had not slept a wink.