The days passed by, and soon Foundation Day arrived. And each night, Estella poured her heart and feelings into the canvas.
Morning came. The entire academy was in a festive mood, every available spot decorated with colorful banners and flowers. The trees in the garden were draped in silks of gold, blue, and red—the colors of Favenia.
Estella had written letters to her family a few days ago. They knew about Nox—she always kept them informed of her school life—but she kept her feelings for him a secret. They had a habit of jumping into conclusions, and she didn’t want to put her squire in a position where he wouldn’t be able to make a choice.
Their responses arrived that morning, talking about how much they missed, how they wished she was with them. Estella was heartened, and it gave her strength to do what she planned to do.
A small celebration was held in the Great Hall, presided by the Headmaster. Only less than fifty students had stayed behind, so it wasn’t crowded. Estella found Nox sitting with a few second-years from his class, exchanging stories and swapping notes for their upcoming exams. Such a sight was becoming frequent, and she was glad that Nox no longer sat alone most of the time.
“Good day, Nox. Do you have a moment?” Estella asked. Behind her she held a square package wrapped tightly in silver and black.
“Of course, Ella. What is it?” he said. One of his friends, a stout boy with eyes of gray, raised an eyebrow.
Nox ignored him, his attention focused on her. Estella smiled. “Meet me under the tree in five minutes.”
That was all she said before she strode away. She heard the faint whistles and hushed whispers, and her smile broadened a little.
The garden was silent and empty when she arrived, and she made her way toward the tree that had become hers and Nox’s private spot whenever they didn’t want to eat in the cafeteria. Like all the other trees, silk hung from its branches, providing a canopy of three colors.
She leaned on the trunk, and waited. Not a minute later, Nox emerged from the hallway and approached her, his strides smooth yet hesitant. When he finally stood in front of her, he opened his mouth to speak.
Estella raised the package and offered it to him with a smile. “Open this first, then we can talk.”
He didn’t move. “Ella. I’m not—“
“Open it. Please.”
Nox fell silent. With a deep breath, he accepted the gift and slowly unwrapped it. Estella watched as the cloth fell to the ground, revealing a white canvas.
Her heart hammered in her chest. Nox didn’t say a word; he simply stared at the painting, the one that Estella had spent all of her free time perfecting, making sure that every detail was as they had been in her memories. The painting that she had poured her feelings and emotions into.
“Ella,” Nox murmured. His gaze lifted to meet hers. “I…”
“I don’t know what to give you except this; a memory of the greatest moment of my life.” She placed a hand on top of the canvas, smiling.
“I doubt if this is your greatest moment.”
“It is! At least for now. But that’s not my point, Nox.” A lump in formed in her throat, but she forced it back down and calmed her nerves. “You… You made me proud. You made me happy. The happiest I’ve ever been. And now I’m telling you. I couldn’t tell you before because I’m… I’m not sure…”
Nox gripped the painting tighter. “If you love me?” he asked softly.
Estella’s words died in her throat. Love. Yes, she loved Nox. It was foolish to deny it any longer. After all, it was her feelings that led her to create that painting of a victorious Nox lifting Erebos in the sky, victorious, his expression as calm and serene as she had seen in Sildas.
“Was I too obvious?” she chuckled.
“Apart from your teases, no. But I can feel your thoughts, Ella.” He lowered the painting and stared deep into her eyes. “You’re not exactly subtle with them lately.”
She drew closer. “And what does my thoughts tell you?” she asked softly.
For a moment, Nox was silent. Estella tried to read his thoughts as he did hers, but all she felt was a wall blocking Nox’s mind. He was good at that. How irritating.
Nox snorted. “At least I beat you on that aspect. And gaming.”
“Only on those two,” she retorted. “You still have a long way to go to defeat me in a duel.” Although that may not be true anymore. If Nox could defeat Karsos, he could defeat her now.
“You really think so?”
“Don’t change the subject, Nox.”
He chuckled. “You really want to know my answer badly?”
Estella hesitated. She never liked rejection, and she was fortunate that she hadn’t experienced it with her past flings. But this was Nox. And whatever he said, she would accept it.
Even if it would hurt her.
“I would never hurt you. You know that.”
He looked at the painting again, his eyes darting around, perhaps scrutinizing every detail. Finally he lifted his gaze back to hers. “I don’t know if I’m worthy of this—“
“—but I’ll gladly accept this gift, Ella.”
Her heart almost burst at that, and she started to speak. But Nox’s smile cut her off. “I have a gift for you as well.”
This time his mind was clear, as if the wall that encased it had been torn down. There were still sections she couldn’t see, the most secluded corner that no one but Nox should visit. And yet her attention was fixed on that single thought Nox had in the forefront of his mind.
Estella closed her eyes with a sigh as Nox pulled her close and their lips met.
Winter left as fast as it had arrived, and soon the trees and flowers were in full bloom again.
Class resumed the next week, though the days leading up to it were the best ones Estella have had. She and Nox spent any spare time they had together. Twice more they went to Sildas, checking the other shops and establishments they never got to see on their first visit.
They didn’t hide their relationship to the academy, and soon the rumors started. Whenever Estella passed along a corridor, alone or with Nox, the whispers and stares would follow. She did her best to ignore them as before, and she was glad that Nox had the sense to do the same, even if some words fell on the unsavory side.
When class started again, Estella found herself on the cafeteria with Nox, eating lunch together until Aldros’s bulk appeared in front of them.
“Well, I knew it would happen eventually,” he said with a smirk as he sat down and placed his food on the table.
“Welcome back, Sir Aldros,” Nox greeted in a polite tone.
“And congratulations to both of you.” He smiled. Turning to Estella, he said, “Well?”
She arched an eyebrow. “Well what?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“That you like Nox.” Aldros took a sip of his prune juice. “I could have helped do this sooner.”
“Like how you helped me with Tristan?” she commented dryly. Estella could still remember how Aldros had set her up on a date with the general’s son, only for that dinner date to explode, quite literally, on her face.
He looked affronted. “I didn’t even know he liked to cook. Besides, it’s not as if it’s always a failure.” He smirked. “Remember Raelis?”
“Point taken. But I already liked him. Your intervention was unnecessary.”
“Exactly. All I’m saying is, you never had to wait so long.”
“Who’s Raelis?” Nox asked.
“My last boyfriend,” Estella answered. Nox didn’t say anything, but she felt his curiosity, so she added, “We separated on good terms. I just don’t feel… anything for him.”
“She doesn’t usually feel anything,” Aldros commented. “Except for attraction, that is. But you. You seem different. She didn’t give the others a painting of themselves.”
“Oh?” Nox sounded mildly interested, and amusement danced in his eyes. “So if she didn’t give me a painting, that means she’s not serious.”
“Hey! Don’t give him funny ideas,” Estella grumbled. She bumped Nox’s foot with hers. “And don’t listen to Aldros.”
“I won’t… Master.” His tone was innocent enough, but something about the way he said it sent shivers down her spine.
“If you two are going to start flirting, I’m out of here,” Aldros said with a snort. “Anyway, what are your plans for the finals? Please don’t tell me you’ve forgotten about it again, Ella.”
“Of course not.” In fact, she had been discussing the exams with Nox since the evening. Their future, both as a Knight and Squire, depended on how they would do well.
“We’d be working together through the tests, right?” Nox said.
Silence. Estella avoided his gaze, her eyes fixed on a breadcrumb in her plate. She didn’t tell him yet because of their current relationship. It was a shallow reason, she knew, but she didn’t want any complications for now.
Even Aldros wasn’t speaking. So when the silence dragged on, Nox lowered paused in his meal. “Let me guess. We have to fight again.”
Estella nodded. She finally looked at him. Nox was smiling. “Pitting a Knight and their Squire against each other is the best way to test what they’ve learned. Now why are you smiling?”
“Because it means I can finally defeat you.”
All the worry in her heart vanished at that, and Estella burst out laughing. “You really wanted to defeat me that bad? Really?”
“Isn’t that the point of the finals?” Nox turned to Aldros again, who nodded.
“The first part has the master leading the squire and guiding them to pass the tests. If they fail, that means that the Knight hasn’t taught their Squire well.” His gaze switched briefly to Estella. “The second part where they have to fight is meant to test the Squire’s skills after a year of tutelage. If the Squire couldn’t defeat their master, they can’t be a Knight even if the first part is a success.”
“So it’s designed to make the master lose?”
“Indeed. But the master has to give their all or it would be seen as cheating.”
Estella wouldn’t do that. She had seen how much this meant to Nox, and she knew it would tarnish their relationship if she gave in easily. Besides, she wanted to fight him again at their fullest—a duel that would show how much they had both grown.
“Will I receive another reward if I defeat you?” he asked in a playful tone.
She snorted. “Your reward will be replacing me and becoming a Knight.” After a brief pause, her lips curve into a smile. She would give Nox a reward, that’s for certain. But she would only give it on his birthday.
Smiling at him, she asked, “Do you really think you can defeat me now?”
There was no hesitation. He nodded.
As always, thank you for reading!