Armed with a large wicker basket and wooden step stool, Isabelle entered the royal garden. The garden has an enchanting timeless beauty and it seemed like yesterday when she and King Daniel spent hours there playing hide and seek as kids and having grand adventures together. Their families were friends and often visited with each other. She laughed out loud involuntarily as she recalled their antics, the innocence of childhood.
As her thoughts went to the king, she sighed and mused at how her life had changed course over the past two months. If she had been less arrogant and accepted his proposal, she would be the one marrying him today instead of plucking roses for his bride's hair and bouquet.
On the other hand, while fate had dealt her a heavy hand, being forced to marry her fiddler husband had opened her eyes to the kind of person she was. She had been living in an ivory tower for far so long that she had forgotten what it meant to be kind and humble. And that the best things in life like friendship, music and love are free and cannot be measured by monetary terms.
While her husband is poor in the worldly sense, he is rich in love and kindness. He has always treated her with patience and compassion even though her attitude was less than exemplary in the beginning and she was more a hindrance than help. Working in the castle as a helper, she learnt the value of teamwork and joy of camaraderie with colleagues who are also friends that support each other. These she never experienced as a princess.
The few lady 'friends' she had in court merely pandered to her fancy, which only served to stroke her ego. Her only true friend, Prince Daniel had gone away to school. Initially they wrote to each other. As the years went by, they had grown apart. In between, her dear mother passed on. Her father, filled with grief focused his energies on the affairs of his kingdom and hardly paid his anguished daughter any attention. Isabelle often felt isolated and learned that the only way to get her father's attention was to be a spoilt brat. As the years grew she developed into beautiful, but selfish, vain princess.
As she thought of her husband John, her heart welled up and she wondered where he was performing today and whether he remembered to eat. He was always ravenous when he came home in the evenings. After tonight's wedding feast, there would be plenty of leftover meat, and pastries which all helpers are free to take home. She smacked her lips as she thought of the dishes she could conjure with the leftovers. She imagined John's warm smile as he tucks in the meal she prepares.
Since working as a kitchen help, she had picked up a thing or two about
cooking. From not knowing how to boil water, she progressed to making stews
from whatever leftover meats and vegetables leftovers she could glean from the
castle kitchen. John even complimented her a few days ago on a well
"This is so good, I feel like a king" he had teased stroking his bushy beard.
"Hmm I guess then that makes me your queen" she had quipped back in humour. From then he called her his little Queen
A thrushbeard's song broke her reverie and she suddenly remembered she had a job to do. She walked to the end of the garden where she remembered there were beautiful rose shrubs and bushes. One of the shrubs was even planted jointly by her and the king. The king's late mother had loved roses. When she passed away, they were just kids. The king, then a young Prince was devastated. The young Isabelle, wanting to cheer him up, had suggested planting a rose shrub in her remembrance .
The two kids had spent a splendid afternoon digging up a hole and planting the seeds with the help of gardener Joe. They spent lots of time taking care of the rose shrub and were overjoyed when the first rose bloomed. To the young Prince , it felt as if his mother was present whenever he went to the garden and seeing the roses filled him with peace.
"I wonder if that rose shrub is still here." she pondered aloud. She gasped in awe as she saw the rose shrub. It had grown beautifully with vibrant red roses .She wouldn't have recognised it if not for the wooden plaque that she and the king had erected years ago. It had grown so tall that she had to step on the stool to reach the flowers.
"I’m sure they'll go perfectly with the bridal gown!" She clasped her hands with joy. The king would be pleased to see these roses on his queen. It would be most fitting since the roses remind him of his beloved mother...and this can be my way of making up for being so rude to him two months ago she thought ruefully
She grimaced as she remembered taunting him about his beard and also how she had insulted her other suitors at her father's castle. Her callous attitude had grieved her father so that he vowed to marry her off to the next man who came by the castle, which happened to be John, an unsuspecting travelling fiddler.
He had performed at the castle hoping only for a small fare, but ended up with a hapless princess for a wife. Beng married to a commoner, she was sent away to live with her husband. As John's income could not sustain the both of them, she had to learn to earn her keep. Being used to a life of pampering, it was a steep learning curve. She had bungled at all her jobs in the beginning, from weaving baskets, spinning to selling pottery in the market place. It dealt a great blow to her pride that she could not even handle menial tasks that most commoner women could manage with ease. Finally, John found her a place in the castle kitchen as a lowly helper.
Gradually she adjusted to life as a commoner. She grew stronger physically and developed calluses on her hands, enabling her to hold her own as a kitchen helper. Meanwhile at home she also got better at keeping house. Gradually her self-esteem grew and she found joy in an honest day of work.
A curious friendship also developed between her and John. While she had treated him with disdain initially, she grew to respect his kindness and wisdom . She even came to enjoy his company every evening. He would sometimes play on the fiddle for her. Though they were legally married, John had never forced himself on her, for which she was grateful. On hindsight, she was very fortunate it was John who had turned at at her father's castle first. Perhaps one day they would live as a real couple.
She blushed at that thought. It must be all the the wedding feast preparation that gave her that notion in her head . Laughing at her own silliness and shaking her head , she set to work, humming the Pacabel' s Canon as she plucked the best roses. She saw a particularly large and beautiful one just slightly beyond her reach. Without much thought, she lunged for it and lost her balance.
Her arms flailed as she struggled to catch hold of something. Just then, she felt a pair of arms catch her, breaking her fall. It must be good old gardener Joe, she thought in relief, but she was puzzled as she remembered this was his day off which was why she had been sent to the garden in the first place.
She caught her breath and turned to thank Joe. Instead of Joe's kindly wizened face, she was mortified to meet the laughing clear blue eyes of the king.
Isabelle had rehearsed her apology many times in her head just in case she ran into the king. However, now that she was facing him, she felt utterly embarrassed and lost for words. She hoped with all her might that he did not recognize her in her dirty peasant attire with her hair put up.
She scrambled out of his arms.'Th..thank u your majesty" Isabelle stammered and curtsied as graciously as she could , all the while looking down.
"Oh Isabelle, you dun have to call me your majesty" he laughed
Isabelle was crestfallen. Reluctantly she looked up to meet her old friend's kind smile and gaze. He had shaven since they last met. Though casually dressed in light grey slacks and a white collared shirt, he looked very handsome and had an air of nobility about him. Even two months ago, she had noticed that the boy she knew had grown up to be a very handsome king. But she was too haughty and acknowledge it and had to find some fault to pick . So she picked on his beard.
For a moment, they simply stared at each other.
"You look well, Isabelle "He finally spoke.
Well? In my peasant garb, with my dishevelled hair and grimy face?
Either he needed glasses or he was mocking her. The latter seemed more likely and she knew she deserved it.
Seeming to read her mind he continued," I don't mean any malice but I can't help but notice you seem happier than the last time we met, despite ur current circumstances. Being forced to marry a poor fiddler and all."
She pondered at that for a moment and realised that he was right. She had laughed more in the past few weeks than the last seven years. Though she lacked nothing materially as a princess, on the hindsight she was starving for love and acceptance deep inside. She had tried to fill that void with meaningless pursuits only to become more dissatisfied.
As a commoner she relearned the joy of giving of self in service to others, whether in cooking a meal for her husband or lending a hand to her colleagues. She had also learned to count her blessing and look for the silver lining instead of finding fault.
"I guess you are right, peasant life does suit me after all." She
chuckled, relieving the tension a bit." A small correction though, I’m not
happier despite my circumstances. Rather, I’ m happier because of it."
He raised an eyebrow quizzically.
"We may not have a lot financially, but I have learned that life is not all about possessions. John loves and accepts me for who I am. In fact, I 've never felt richer"
An inscrutable expression flitted momentarily across his face.
He then shot her what she read as a look of pity.
"Oh come on Isabelle, you can't be serious? You grew up in luxury. This is not the life for you. If you are willing, I can make arrangements to annul your marriage and pay a generous compensation to whatisname...more than he 'll ever hope to make in this lifetime. You can start over again, re-enter high society. With your beauty, I’m sure you 'll marry well."
Isabelle felt irked at his words. She raised her voice unintentionally
"I can't believe what I’m hearing. Since I got here, I heard nothing but praise for what a fair and kind king you are...I’m really disappointed to be hearing this from you, of all people .He has a name. IT IS JOHN. For your information, he is the kindest, most wonderful person. I love him and wouldn't trade places with anyone in the world. You may be king but it doesn't mean you can buy people with money. Now, you can take your money and shove it up your..."
She was shocked at her impassioned tirade. Isabelle cringed. A simple"no thank you" would have sufficed, oh why was she so rash? She almost said ass. Old friend or not, she was way out of line. Surely hurling verbal abuse at the monarch is punishable by law? Or at the very least , she could forget about coming back to work tomorrow. Maybe she could go back to basket weaving now that her hands were tougher.
Surprisingly the king was taking it very well. The corners of his lips were curled upwards. He looked like he was trying to suppress his laughter. Perhaps his impending wedding had put him in such high spirits that he decided to let it slide.
Now Isabelle felt bad. Perhaps she had overreacted. After all how could she expect a noble like him to understand ? He probably thought he was doing her a favour. Why, just two months ago she might have jumped at that offer.
Taking a deep breath, she looked him in the eye and said, " I owe you long overdue apology. I’m very sorry for calling you King Thrushbeard. It was totally uncalled for. I wish you every happiness in your marriage. I’m sure your queen is a lovely lady who would make you very happy."
Picking up the basket of roses, she said "If you'll excuse me, I need to deliver these roses to your bride's room. I’m sure she'll be the most lovely bride in the kingdom. "She gave him a small smile as she turned to walk away as fast as she could.
"You already make me very happy, my little queen" the king spoke quietly but within earshot.
Isabelle froze. She turned back slowly ",wh..what did u say?"
Only John called her his little queen. It was their private joke.
"How did u kn.." Her sentence hung in mid air as the king had walked up right to her in a few long strides. Her forehead bumped against his chin causing her to lose her balance and drop the basket. He reached out to hold her again. She found herself staring straight into his intense blue eyes.
For the first time since their encounter in the garden, she noticed that his gaze was very similar to her husband's. And the way he held her...it felt so familiar. If her eyes were closed, she would have sworn it was John
"You...you..."She stammered. She shook her head to clear it.
Impossible! How could John and the king be the same person? Other than their blue eyes, they had completely different colouring. John was brown haired and bearded while the king was fair haired and clean shaven. John had resisted her many offers to shave for him, joking that the beard added an artistic appeal to him when he played his fiddler. She had rolled her eyes in mock exasperation at that
Seeing the realisation and confusion in her eyes the king smiled gently.
"Yes, Isabelle, John and I are the same person. Do not be afraid. I had disguised myself so as to cure you of your pride and remind you of your kind and gentle side that you had buried deep inside for so long"
He cupped her cheek gently and added
" It was out of love that I did that. I had wanted to marry you from the day we planted the roses together. You suddenly stopped writing. I had presumed we had grown apart as some friends do. I did not realise the torment you were going through. I’m sorry I wasn't there for you the way you were for me."
Isabelle was speechless. So it really was him all along! No wonder there were times when she felt as though she had known John all her life. And somehow he always saw and brought out the best in her, even when she did not believe in herself.
Getting down on one knee and picking up a rose from the grass, he took her
hand and looked up earnestly at her.
" I did not have a chance to do this at your father's castle. Will you be my queen? I promise to love and cherish you all my life"
"Yes, Daniel, yes I will"
They embraced for a long time and walked back to the castle hand in hand.