With dirt under her nails, Esmeralda felt a bit more centered. She continued to fuss at her rosebush, though she did not actually do anything. Her proper gardening had already been tended to, today’s weeds carried away by a servant. Issabella, now poised and proper in public, sat at her easel and painted a sketch of the elder sister tending to her roses. Esmeralda smiled as she glanced at her focused sister. “How much longer?”
“Longer if you keep moving your head,” Issabella shot back. “Hold still and I’ll be finished in just a moment.”
Esmeralda complied, positioning her head as she had been before. She caught Luxa trotting past in the corner of her eye, the white cat’s fluffy tail twitching back and forth as she explored the garden.
Just as Issabella set down her brushes, Esmeralda saw a second door to the garden swing open. The pair of guards, a regular shadow for the princess’s, tensed briefly before seeing more guards stepping into the garden. Esmeralda rose to her feet, Issabella following suit before turning to see their father stepping into the garden.
King Renard walked slow and straight, his hands folded behind his back. On his shoulder perched a raven, his own witch familiar; the black bird spread its wings and took off into the air. The king’s golden crown gleamed in the sunlight as he walked down the garden path. He studied his daughter’s handiwork as he walked, and when he reached his daughters, he was smiling. “Lovely as always, Esme. You do better work than any gardener ever could.”
Esmeralda beamed at the compliment. “Thank you, Papa.”
“I know your mother does not approve so much, but I understand.” Renard’s stormy eyes flashed with humor. Unlike her sister, Esmeralda took after her father in the ways of magic. Father and daughter felt an undeniable link towards nature and manifested in their interests. Renard loved to ride and hunt, Esmeralda loved to garden, to stand on the terrace and feel the wind in her hair and imagine she was flying, exploring the world. Queen Aleinora and Issabella never understood it, but they had each other to understand, and that was enough.
The king’s smile faded a bit. “I came to speak to you about your suitors. If little Bella does not mind me stealing you away, that is.”
Issabella shrugged as she sat down at her easel again. “I can finish alone, it’s all right.”
Renard bent down to kiss his youngest on the head. “Thank you, little fawn. Show me when it’s finished, yes? It looks like it shall be a masterpiece.”
Esmeralda fetched her cat once more, and with Issabella in high humor, father and daughter drifted back through the garden to the other door. It opened into a dim, narrow stairway. Guards led the way up, followed by the king and crown princess, and more guards took the rear. Esmeralda felt more stifled with her father’s guards; they were far more numerous than the two that typically accompanied her.
As they climbed, she spoke up. “What did you wish to talk about specifically?”
“I wondered what you intend to do with those who do not pass your first trial,” King Renard replied. “You only announced the winners, but I imagine there are those who did not pass the test.”
“Yes and no. It’s hard to judge a twofold test. Some who performed poorly in the joust excelled in the melee, or the other way about. And certainly, some only performed middling well in both, but it isn’t fair to exclude them from the other tests.” She hesitated, then asked, “Is it?”
“That is your decision to make, my dear. You will be queen soon enough, and while I will always be happy to advise you, I cannot make your decisions for you.”
Esmeralda wondered if this was a test for herself. Her father was not above testing her royal merits, nor did she blame him. It seemed fair and right to test that she would make a fine queen before abdicating his throne to her. “I will let them continue,” she answered. “I have rules in mind that would lend to disqualification, in which case they would have to leave. Serious harm to another suitor, disrespect to myself, my family, or my kingdom, so on. And perhaps if one is glaringly obvious in that I won’t choose them, I won’t have them waste our time. But I don’t think anyone is excluded entirely at this stage.”
The king did not immediately reply. Esmeralda refused to second guess her answer as they came out of the stairway and back to the royal solar, which stood above the throne room. As Renard sat down at his desk, Esmeralda remained standing, folding her hands in front of herself.
Renard studied his daughter for a moment before nodding. “As you wish. I wanted to speak about your next test as well. Are you sure it’s wise, the way you’re establishing it?”
Esmeralda nodded without hesitation. “I want their answers to be genuine. If they know it’s a test, they’ll tell me only what they think I want to hear, not what they would actually do.”
“I worry they’ll be confused why I’m not present. Don’t you?”
“A bit. But if you’re present, they’ll defer to you entirely. At least I am more their equal.”
Renard nodded slowly. “I think it is a fine plan. I only worry it may cause some agitation.”
“I’ll be sure to clarify afterwards that it’s only fiction. I’d like to ask you something in return.”
Renard smiled. “Of course. What is it?”
Esmeralda sat down where her sister had earlier, across from her father. “Do you think it was wise to crown two champions in the tournament?” Esmeralda remembered Rasmus’ cold eyes as she crowned him a Knight of Swans, and how it contrasted to Lucien’s apparent surprise and excitement. Much like his brutality in fighting, it left her second guessing the prince’s genteel manners.
“I think you did what you believed right,” her father replied. “I think you could have had a single champion in Sir Kadir. He performed excellently in both. Or you could have given it only to Lord Alane. But you had reason to give it to both, and you warned them in advance that there may be two champions.”
“I don’t want anyone to be insulted. I worry Prince Rasmus was, perhaps a bit.” Though he had been a pleasure during dinner, it had not been as easy as dining with Lord Alane. A cold, stone wall stood between her and Rasmus as they dined, scaled only by courtly manners and frigid propriety.
“Let him be,” Renard replied. “You cannot let worry of insulting a prince stop you from making what you believe to be the right choice. Otherwise you’ll end up thinking he is the best in every trial, and then you’ll be a Bosnan empress.”
“Many kings would love that for their daughters. You don’t?”
“Not inherently. Not when you love this kingdom as much as you do. If I were to choose a prince, I’d rather it be Seyi or Katsuharu. Younger princes don’t feel a need to return to their own throne. They’d be more than happy to rule here.”
“But not Princess Delu?”
Renard sighed a bit. “I admit I would rather you choose a man, to have children with Bornesher blood in their veins. But if you were to pick Delu, I would not stop you from marrying her.”
A small knot relaxed in her chest. It had been a daring move to invite the princess, and Esmeralda had been nervous over her acceptance. She had been more than aware of her attraction to men and women, and that it did not align to the expectations everyone had for her. It was a relief to know her father at least would not mind.
“And what about the non-royals? The dukes, the lords?” she asked. “Would you rather I hadn’t invited them?”
“We’ve already had this discussion, Esme. You know I don’t approve of them all. The Alane boy is a fine choice, though. Valtair thinks very highly of them, and he’s an honorable young man by all appearances. Even better seeming in person than what Valtair and his father said.”
Esmeralda found herself nodding in agreement. With Valtair’s own son married, a lord’s son had been the only option. The Theorian king had only suggested the Alane family. Besides Valtair’s own lineage, the Alanes were the oldest and most elite house in Theoria, as eternal as the wolves of the land. Theirs was the house that Valtair would name his heirs should his own line die off, and theirs was the only one worthy of mixing with Bornesher blood. It would be an alliance Valtair would honor forever.
Valtair had spoken well of the family itself, but it was Alister who had been so proud of Lucien and his achievements. The old lord had listed tournament wins and honors, his skill in hunting and horsemanship, his talent for singing and the light ease he danced with. The father’s love for and pride in his son glowed off the page. Esmeralda had not hesitated in putting Lucien’s name on the list. So far, the man lived up to the description, and his modesty charmed her more than pride ever could have.
Her father chuckled. “You smile at his mention.”
Her smile grew some. “He’s easy to like. I know you thought so, too.”
“I did. I hope you don’t think that my comment disowns the other lords and such. They have their benefits, certainly, but they would not have been my choice. But I’m proud that you’re doing this for yourself. It pleases me to see your independence.”
“I’m glad it pleases you. I don’t think your advisors take to it kindly.”
“Not all of them. Some ignore our history. You would not be the first queen to rule our kingdom, and I doubt you’ll be the last. But I think you may be the best.”
Esmeralda stood, leaning over the table to kiss her father on the cheek. “You’re biased. If it’s all right, I’d like to check on Issabella and her painting. I know she prefers company as she works.”
“Run along, then. I have other business to see to, anyway. But I mean what I said, Esmeralda. You have the qualities of greatness in you. I couldn’t be prouder of you.”
The words warmed her heart more than anything else ever could.