“I heard that Henry was rather upset,” Estelle said, delicately avoiding the question.
“Oh, you know Henry,” the king said with a soft chuckle. “He had a wonderful little closing speech planned, wanted to announce the official start to the dragon hunt and all that. He will get over it.”
“I’m sure that Jerry didn’t mean any offence,” she said, keeping an eye on the entrance doors. No matter how hard she tried, she didn’t seem to be able to open them by force of will. “And you have to admit that it was rather funny. Did you see the little dragon heads on his sword were wearing jester hats?”
“I did indeed. Do you think he is hiding from me because he thinks I am angry with him? I am not such a fearful man, am I? If he pretends to be sick in order to avoid me I shall have the door of his room removed by force.”
“I’m sure that won’t be necessary,” Estelle said, her eyes going wide with alarm. “He’ll be along any moment now, you’ll see. Probably with a tail attached to his bottom so that he can enter the Great Hall with it between his legs.”
“That does sound like something the boy would do,” Owen said, absent-mindedly scratching his beard.
The two sat in silence for several minutes - Owen fully at ease and Estelle pretending to be - as they waited for Gerald to arrive. As the beginning of court business grew nearer, however, Owen became increasingly restless. His mood was not improved by the arrival of his advisor just a few minutes before the entrance doors were due to be opened.
“Good morning, Your Majesty,” Henry said with a perfunctory bow. “Have you sent that hooligan to clean the kitchen floors with his tongue already? I was hoping to be here to savor the moment.”
“You know I was going to do no such thing,” the king replied with a sigh. “And you have not missed anything - Gerald has not arrived yet.”
“First he ruins your ceremony and then he is late for work? He really is asking for it, isn’t he?”
“That’s enough, Henry,” Owen said flatly. “I will deal with him as I see fit. Assuming he ever shows up.”
“You don’t think that he actually -”
“Oh, here comes Grace,” Estelle said, a little louder than she had meant to. “Perhaps she has some word of where Jerry is.”
Owen turned to greet his daughter’s maid but Henry took a moment to look at Estelle with narrowed eyes before doing the same. Estelle noticed his suspicion but kept her eyes firmly on Grace and tried to keep her breathing as natural as possible.
“Good morning to you, Your Majesty,” Grace said with a picture perfect curtsy. “I apologize for bothering you, but I wanted to let you know before the Great Hall opens that your jester will not be joining you today.”
“Hiding under his bed, is he?” Henry asked with a sneer.
“He is doing no such thing,” Grace replied with enough heat in her words to make the king’s advisor swallow his next comment. Turning to the king, she continued in a more respectful tone. “Sire, Jerry has come down with a rather nasty fever. He is in his bed at the moment, but the doctor is examining him and might recommend moving him to the infirmary.”
“It is that serious?” Owen asked, concern wrinkling his forehead.
“Hopefully not, Sire. But I will keep you informed. Ah, but I see that the doors are being opened.” As the king and his advisor turned to look at the far end of the hall, Grace caught Estelle’s eye and gave her a wink. “I shall leave you to your work, Sire.”
“Thank you, Grace,” Owen said. “Send word if Gerald’s condition changes - for the better or the worse. I will cancel this morning’s business if I have to. And tell him that I send my best wishes.”
“I am sure he will appreciate that,” Grace said, bowing her head to conceal her smile. Turning, she made her exit without another word.
The morning was filled with the usual complaints and reports, but Estelle found her thoughts drifting more than they normally did. She was finding it impossible to concentrate on the petty concerns of the men and women appearing before her when Jerry was out there somewhere, on his way to battle a dragon. She wondered where he was, where he slept the previous night, if he missed her.
She told herself she was being silly but the questions continued unimpeded as the morning wore on. By the time the proceedings were brought to a close, it was almost a relief to return to focusing on lying to her father.
“Will you come with me to check in on Gerald?” Owen asked her as they left the hall together. “You must be even more concerned than I am.”
“He has been in my thoughts all morning,” Estelle said sincerely. “I am surprised that Grace hasn’t sent - ah, here she comes now.”
Grace, as they had agreed upon that morning, met them at the base of the stairs which lead to Gerald’s floor. She had affixed a concerned expression on her face and Estelle was impressed to find that even her eyes were convincing.
“Your Majesty, Your Highness,” she said with a quick curtsy. “The doctor has asked me to inform you that Jerry is improving but still very weak. He does not want the boy disturbed, so he has -”
“I am tired of not being able to see those I care about when they are ill,” Owen said with a frown. “Tell the doctor that I just want to look in on him - from the doorway will do. I do not need to speak with Gerald, just see that he is all right with my own eyes.”
“I am afraid that will not be possible until later,” Grace said, holding her palms out toward him as though she would stop him from advancing herself. “The doctor’s home is not in a secure area of the city and you would require a full escort to go there.”
“Why would I need to go to his home in order to see my jester?”
“Because that is where he has taken him, to make sure that he is not bothered by anyone and so that he can monitor his condition without disrupting the care of his other patients. He asked me to let you know that he will return Jerry to his room after dinner tonight, at which point you are welcome to see him.”
Estelle held her breath while she waited for the king to respond. It was entirely possible that he would insist on going anyway, hauling guards off their posts to accompany him. If that was the case, the two women would be forced to reveal the truth much earlier than they would have preferred.
“It sounds like Gerald is receiving extra special treatment,” Owen muttered before loosing a long sigh.
“As well he should,” Grace said primly. “He is after all the Royal Jester.”
“You will let me know the moment he has returned to his room?”
“Of course, Your Majesty.”
With a curt nod, Owen took his leave of the women and made his way back to his room to take his lunch - and probably have his ear talked off by Henry, Estelle thought with a scowl. Grace’s hand on her shoulder brought her attention back to the moment.
“It is going as well as we could have wished,” her maid said quietly.
“Here, at least. I can only hope that the same can be said of Jerry.”
“Keep the faith, child. I will meet you in Jerry’s room an hour after dinner, as planned. It would be best for you to conduct yourself as normal until then.”
“I am not certain that I know what normal means anymore,” Estelle whispered.
“You will adjust,” Grace said, giving her hand a quick squeeze. “For now, get some food, take your rest. Breathe. I will see you tonight.”
Estelle nodded her thanks before they went their separate ways. She returned to her room and managed to force most of her lunch down before reluctantly making her way to the tea room. She knew what the conversation would revolve around and the ladies did not disappoint.
“I liked the look of that knight from the south,” one of them chirped. “What was his name again? Ross or something like that.”
“Well, I hate to admit it,” another said, her cheeks darkening, “but I found the mercenary rather… well, sexy. Dark, dangerous… exciting.”
“You need to get out more, my dear,” the first declared.
Estelle was able to last almost an entire hour before she fled their company. She took a walk in the gardens to clear her head and was surprised to find the day already growing cold. She hoped Gerald had packed enough blankets to keep himself warm, especially considering he was heading north into the mountains.
“Yes, worry that he’s staying warm,” she muttered to herself, shaking her head in disgust. “Don’t concern yourself with the dragon, just Father Winter’s approach.”
The hours before dinner passed slowly at first, then all too quickly. While Estelle ate she tried to think of the words that would cool her father’s anger, both at Gerald and herself. But everything she came up with only made him more furious in the scene playing over and over in her head. It was almost enough for her to send a servant for a goblet of wine to steel her nerves.
But in the end she made her way to Gerald’s room all too sober. She opened the door and stepped inside to find that several candles had already been lit. She took a seat at the edge of his bed at first, then moved to the stool at his desk before standing at the window and staring down at the city. Grace joined her not long after that, taking a seat on the bed, and they awaited the king’s arrival in silence.
He did not keep them waiting for long.
“He is not here yet?” he asked after opening the door a few inches without knocking. Opening it wider he strode into the room. “Has he worsened?”
“Close the door, Your Majesty,” Grace said quietly. “We have much to talk about.”
“What is going on?” Owen demanded, looking first at Grace and then at his daughter.
“Please, father, just come in. Tell your escort that you will be out in a few minutes.” Estelle swallowed noisily as sweat began to trickle down her spine. “This is a private matter for the three of us to discuss.”
“I heard that Henry was rather upset,” Estelle said, delicately avoiding the question.