With a sigh, Estella turned to glare at her squire. “I’m no longer an invalid, Nox. I can walk.” To prove her point, she walked away from him for several paces, her boots clicking on the polished floor.
“With a cane,” he commented flatly, pointing at the black and gold walking cane Estella held in her left hand.
She grunted, returning to his side before he could go to hers. “With a cane, yes. But I can still walk, can’t I? Unlike some idiot squire who broke his legs last month.”
Nox released a sigh of his own, his smile pained yet also amused. “You’re not going to let me hear the end of it, aren’t you?”
Three weeks. It’s been almost three weeks since the Intra-School Competition. Three weeks since Nox broke his legs in an attempt to win his final match in the semi-finals, only to fail at the last second. Three weeks since they had placed the silver trophy together on a stand in their shared dorm.
Estella couldn’t forget the match quite yet, how her heart almost burst when she heard the faint crack on the stage, followed by a rush of healers and the referee. Nox had been lucky—he only needed two weeks to heal before he could walk again.
She scolded him daily after that, even as she finally took her first steps since the end of their expedition.
“Reminiscing again?” he teased.
Estella rolled her eyes. “Yes. Reminiscing about your stupidity.”
He chuckled, a pleasant sound that often sent shivers down Estella’s spine recently. She wished she could hear him chuckle often. “Well, I did promise I won’t cause you any more trouble, right?”
He chuckled again, then said, “How’s your legs?”
Looking down at her feet, Estella lifted one foot then the other. “Good, I suppose. I can feel everything just fine. Though there are times when I can’t feel my thighs.”
“Yes, my thighs.”
He blinked, glanced at her thighs hidden by her blue skirt, then at her smirk. “Not this again,” he grumbled.
“Not what again?” she asked in a playful tone, trying her best not to burst out laughing.
“You always tease me,” he said dryly.
“I thought you’ve grown used to it,” she said, a grin spreading across her face. “You know how like I like teasing you.”
“And yet when I do the same to you, you act all pouty and scowling.” He made a face, and Estella didn’t know whether to laugh or smack him at the sheer absurdity of his expression. She was certain that she never made that expression before.
“That’s not how I look like!” she said, mortified, and lightly stabbed him in the foot with her cane.
He hopped back quickly, chuckling again. “See? You don’t like it when I tease you back.”
“That’s because it’s not funny,” she said as she started in the direction of the East Wing. It was almost time for their next class.
“But you’re smiling.”
Indeed, she was. Estella never hid it from him, even as they strode together along the corridor. “Fine. It’s funny. But that’s why I’m teasing you.”
“Because you want me to smile often?”
They stopped by the central garden, relatively empty save for a couple of students rising from where they rested to hurry to their next classes. Fall had arrived early, and the leaves were losing their vibrant greens, the reds and golds becoming prominent.
“Remember the first time we met?” Estella said, not answering his question as she stared at the same tree where they had first spent lunch together. It was only six months ago, but it seemed a lifetime already.
“You mean the second time,” he corrected. “The first time we met was most definitely not here.”
She laughed lightly at that. “Right. The second time we met. Do you still remember?”
“Hard to forget. You disturbed me during my lunch.” Amusement danced in Nox’s eyes. “What of it?”
She shoved him playfully, and yet the smile never left her lips. “I just think you’ve changed quite a lot since then.”
He raised an eyebrow at that. “In what ways?”
“A lot of ways. You’re less moody, for one.”
“I’m not moody,” he said indignantly.
“And you’re more open with your feelings,” she continued, ignoring his earlier protests. Nox stared at her in silence for a few moments.
“I take it that’s a good thing?” he asked after a minute.
“Very.” She glanced at him sideways. “You’re more likable when you’re smiling, do you know that?”
“So I’m not likable before?”
“I wouldn’t have kissed you if you weren’t.”
The silence stretched between them for a full minute. Estella glanced at Nox, gauging his reaction. He seemed to be struggling to say something, and through their connection, Estella felt a storm of emotions that churned incomprehensibly.
Finally, Nox sighed. “I still don’t know why you chose me.”
Estella rolled her cane in her fingers. “I chose you because I saw the potential in you. And you proved that last month. You proved that each time.” She touched his hand gently, brushing the skin with a thumb. “I don’t regret choosing you as my squire, Nox.”
He grabbed her hand fully and brought her fingers to his lips with a smile. “And I’m glad you’re my master, Ella.”
The days passed, and everything went as normal. It would be winter break soon, and Estella saw signs of it everywhere; students preparing their luggages and buying gifts for their loved ones, teachers giving them more homework than usual, and her favorite, holiday decorations gradually filling the hallways and rooms.
“What are your plans for Foundation Day?” she asked during lunch break.
It was Aldros who answered first. “Home, as always. I won’t miss my mother’s cooking.”
“She must be a great chef, sir,” Erian said. Aldros nodded.
“The best in the Velir province.” He chuckled as he stared at Estella. “Of course, nothing comes close to the Queen’s or the Crown Princess’s cooking.”
“Don’t remind me,” Estella muttered. She hadn’t eaten her favorite dishes since forever. Alas, such was the price for her choice to remain in the academy. “How about you, Nox?”
“Stay here, obviously,” he answered, chewing on piece of salmon.
“Again? You stayed last summer vacation too.”
He smiled at her, thin and coy. “You don’t want me to stay here?”
She smirked. “I didn’t say I don’t want to.” Her expression grew serious. “I just find it odd. Your parents surely miss you by now, and yet you decide to stay here.”
“They would understand why I chose to stay here,” he said, keeping his gaze fixed on the table.
Estella wanted to press on—she couldn’t sense anything through their Resonance—but she noticed Aldros shaking his head by a fraction. With a sigh, Estella decided to drop the subject for another time.
She turned to Erian. “And you, Erian? Any plans?”
The Wind Wielder perked up at being addressed. “Yes, Dame Estella. Father wants me back home. I’m actually about to leave this evening. I even bought gifts.”
As Erian spoke excitedly about the various souvenirs he was going to bring home, Estella’s mind wandered. She needed a gift for Nox, but what could she buy him? He didn’t seem the type to enjoy frivolous things, nor had she seen him buy anything other than what he needed for schoolwork. Books, maybe? What did he like anyway?
Her mother always told her that choosing a gift meant that one person truly understood another. Estella thought she already did. But the truth was, she barely knew anything about Nox aside from the brief snippets of his life he occasionally told her about. Would that be enough?
No, she thought. But that only made her ponder her dilemma even harder. While she barely knew about her squire’s past, she knew much of his present. She knew how he thought, his fears, his desires—most of them, at least. More than that, she knew how he cared about her deeply.
Unbidden, the memory of Nox’s duel against Karsos flooded Estella’s mind, as clear as if it had just happened a while ago. The way he raised Erebos in triumph, the way the sun shone as if celebrating their victory, how the crowds cheered for him. And at that moment, she knew what kind of gift she would give him.
“What?” Nox asked, staring at her with a puzzled frown.
“Hmmm?” Estella blinked, then realized that she had been staring too intently at him all this time. Even Aldros and Erian were looking at her curiously.
She cut off her mind from the Resonance just to be sure, and smiled. “Nothing. I just realized what kind of gift I’ll give you for Foundation Day.”
“Nothing embarrassing, I hope.” He seemed suspicious, though his eyes shone with curiosity nonetheless.
“Relax. You’ll like it. But it’s a surprise.”
“Okay. But please don’t give me something expensive.” Nox sighed. “I don’t like receiving expensive things.”
Still smiling, Estella nodded. “Don’t worry. It’s not.”
Well, she thought to herself, at least I have an extra canvas. And the paint wouldn’t be that costly.
Thank you for reading!