Estella stared at herself in the mirror.
As a princess, she knew how to dress up nicely to make every head turn to her. It was one of the most important lessons her mother, and later the Queen, had thought her. She had been in plenty of balls and dinner parties, and though she was never as experienced as Luciana, she had learned a lot during those events.
But she was dressing to impress lords and ladies, generals and merchants, diplomats and envoys; rich individuals who expected her to act as she should, a princess and a future general of the kingdom.
Estella had rarely dressed to impress for just one person. And not just any other person, but her squire, her pupil, her friend. Her…
She frowned, turning her body this way and that, clad in nothing but her nightwear. She had asked Nox if they could visit the city of Sildas tomorrow, less than an hour’s ride from the academy. It was finally winter break, and there was nothing better to do than see the sights this province had to offer.
It didn’t take her long to convince Nox. She had forbidden him to train or even study for the rest of the break. “Foundation Day is the time to relax and enjoy vacation,” she had told him earlier during dinner. He was reluctant, but unlike before, it was easier to talk him out of it.
Which brought Estella back to her problem; what was she going to wear? Her school uniform was out of the list. The dresses she used for parties wouldn’t fit the occasion, either. That only left her casual clothes, but would Nox even like them?
Humming in thought, she opened her drawer and surveyed her collection with a critical eye. Aldros would already be asleep by this hour, so she couldn’t ask him for help. Besides, this was her problem.
If Nox like one of her previous lovers, Estella would have chosen something a bit provocative, just enough to tease him all throughout the day. But Nox wasn’t like them. Sure, he sometimes responded on her teases on rare occasions. But oftentimes, he treated her properly and with respect befitting their relationship as master and student.
A little frustrating at times, but that was just one of the many things she loved about him.
Her hand froze on a blue cocktail dress. Love. Did she love him?
Estella glanced at the box next to her bed wherein lay her current work in progress. She had yet to finish it; Nox’s expression was easy, but his eyes were quite challenging. That’s why she needed an inspiration.
Did she love him? The question tickled her mind, and her heart seemed to beat a little faster. It was not love… Maybe? She was attracted to him, that much was certain. And yet she wouldn’t consider it love. Not yet.
“What’s happening to me?” she muttered. The more she thought about it, the more her heart drummed faster. It’s not love. He’s just her squire. He didn’t see her that way. It’s not love. He’s not even reciprocating her subtle advances and…
No. No. Those weren’t advances. She’s just teasing him. Because she liked teasing him. She wanted to see his smile, his embarrassed expressions, sometimes irritated and annoyed. She wanted…
She wanted him. All of him. Badly.
The next day dawned bright and clear, almost as if the weather wanted to reflect Estella’s mood.
She wanted Nox. She knew it the moment they had kissed inside a small storage room near the dining hall. She knew it the moment their bond formed between them.
And he had become hers; her friend, her squire. But this new feeling was different. Stronger, fiercer. She kept her mind hidden from him since then, even though a questioning thought from Nox often lingered at the edge of her consciousness. Estella didn’t bother acknowledging it.
He would know soon enough.
Of course, there was always the possibility of rejection. But Estella was ready for that. Whatever happened on Foundation Day, she would remain his master and friend. For now, though, she would enjoy the day with him.
They met by the academy’s entrance near the coach that would take them to Sildas. Estella was leaning on one of the pillars supporting the vaulted ceiling when she felt Nox’s presence approached. She looked at him, and stared.
“Hey,” he said softly.
She kept staring, her eyes roving from his leather boots to the overcoat wrapped around his lean frame, to his neatly brushed hair. A black scarf coiled around his neck, the end extending behind him.
“Hey,” she echoed with a smile. “You look good today.” Handsome. Irresistible. Ravishing.
Nox gestured at her. “So are you.”
Estella looked down at herself briefly. Her attire almost matched his, though her scarf was silver. “Well, we both looked the same. On the outside, at least.”
“And on the inside?”
With a smirk, she grabbed his hand and tugged, whispering in his ear, “You’ll find out later.”
His eyebrows rose at that, but he made no comment as they made their way to the coach. He took her hand as she climbed the steps to the seats, then settled next to her in silence.
Despite the winter chill, the province rarely experienced snowstorms. Thus, the roads were clear, and the ride was smooth and comfortable. Estella made small talk during the journey, telling Nox about the various shops and establishments she wanted them to visit. He had only seen Sildas once on his way during the Selection Matches, and he had not stayed more than a day to fully enjoy the city’s offerings.
Before long, the grey walls loomed on the horizon, a line stretching for hundreds of meters left and right before wrapping around the city and disappearing from view. Traffic grew as they drew near, and soon there were other coaches, carriages, and riders traveling with them; merchant caravans, public and private transports, and soldiers on patrols.
It was mid-morning when they finally passed the arched entry way. The coach dropped them off near the shopping district, and Estella quickly tugged on Nox’s hand to follow her.
“Where are we going?” he asked as he kept up with her stride.
“I know a good restaurant nearby. They serve the best lamb stew in the city,” she said. It wasn’t noon yet, but the streets and avenues were already crowded.
Atasia’s Lamb & Chops was only a few blocks way. As soon as the three-story establishment was in sight, excitement bubbled within Estella. She quickened her pace, and Nox matched her steps.
The lobby was just as Estella remembered: the dark red tiles were polished smooth, giving them a mirror-like quality. The golden chandeliers shone, and there was the fresh scent of flowers wafting in the air.
“Good morning,” the receptionist said with a polite smile behind the counter. “How may I help you?”
“Are there any tables free today?” Estella asked, hoping that the restaurant wasn’t fully booked yet.
“Let me check, ma’am.” The receptionist opened a thick leather-bound book. After almost a minute, she smiled. “You and your boyfriend are lucky. We still have fifteen open tables. Seven in the balcony, four in the Delas Hall, and another four in Resia Hall. Where would you like to place a reservation?”
Nox started to protest. “We aren’t—“
“The balcony, please,” Estella said, cutting him off.
“Full course menu?”
“Yes. With wine.”
“All right. Please wait there for a moment.” The receptionist gestured to a line of plush maroon chairs by the right wall.
Estella dragged Nox before he could protest again. There were only a few seats left in the waiting area, but there was a quiet spot near the doors that led to Delas Hall where they could wait in relative peace.
“I’m not old enough to drink wine,” Nox said as soon as they had sat down.”
“Well, I am.” Estella passed a hand over one side of her hair. “Still, I think it’s fine. You can just take a sip or two. It would be a waste if you don’t get a taste of their wine here.” She frowned. “Wait. When’s your birthday anyway?”
“Two months from now.”
Estella did the calculations in head. She stared at him incredulously. “At graduation?”
“Close. A week before that.” He raised an eyebrow. “Why?”
“What do you mean, why? It’s your birthday, of course! You need a gift.” She bit her lower lip. The sketch could have been her birthday gift, but it was already too late to hold on to that. She just have to think of another gift for Nox.
“You don’t have to give me something,” he said softly.
“I do. And don’t you dare argue. I don’t take no for an answer,” she said.
He chuckled. “No, you don’t.”
It only took a quarter of an hour before a server ushered them to a hallway and up an elegant staircase. By the entrance to the balcony, the server said, “Your coats, please.”
Estella took off hers at the same time as Nox did, and she pointedly ignored the gaze he immediately sent him. She had chosen a red winter dress for this occasion, one whose skirt ended just a couple of inches above her knees and hugged her body in all the right places.
“This way, please,” the server said after hanging their coats on hooks lining the left-hand wall.
As they followed him, Estella glanced at Nox. He was dressed simply, more for comfort than to impress. Even so, the way he carried himself made his clothes seem like they were made for a prince.
Nox was no longer staring at her, so she leaned in and said, “I expected a comment from you.”
“I already did before we left school.”
“Yes. But what about now?”
“I would just repeat myself.”
She sighed, but a smile graced her lips nonetheless. Without telling him, she linked her arm with his.
Her squire didn’t protest, and they strode toward their table.
Thank you for reading!