“Why are you sitting alone in here?” The queen peeked her head around the doorway into my workspace.
I slid off my stool to my feet. “I was just thinking. I should get back to work.”
She stood in the doorway. “It’s okay, you deserve a break. I’ve seen how hard you’ve been working today. That reminds me, I didn’t see you in the dining room this morning.”
“I… wasn’t feeling up to breakfast, and I wanted to get a head start on my work.”
Alexandra entered the room. “There’s no rush to get the garden done, Zinnia. I wouldn’t want you making yourself sick over it.” She took my hand. “Why don’t you join me for lunch? That way I can be sure you’ve eaten a proper meal.”
“I wouldn’t want to impose. I mean, it can’t be proper for me to eat with the queen, can it?”
“It’d be rude to refuse a queen’s invitation.” She winked, coaxing a smile from me.
“Then I guess, I have to come.”
The queen smiled and led the way to the dining room, off the left of the throne room. Guards passing through the corridor stared at us, but Alexandra paid them no mind. I kept my head down to avoid their eyes. We reached the entrance, and I heard staff bustling about, setting the table for the queen. When we entered, the queen approached one of the workers.
“Could you set another place next to mine for my guest? I want to be sure gets a good meal.”
“Yes, your highness.”
She smiled and thanked her, gesturing to her place at the table. I took the seat at her right side, placing my hands in my lap. She took her seat, watching the staff hurry to make the addition.
“It’s like watching a performance, isn’t it?”
My gaze flicked up to watch them, moving around us to bring out dishes, silverware, and fruit and bread to start the meal. “It does seem that way, your majesty.”
She touched my shoulder. “Why the sudden formality?”
I turned my attention back to her. “I just, I don’t want other staff thinking I’m disrespecting you.”
“I see. Well, if it makes you feel more comfortable, how about you call me Alexandra when it’s just us?”
“Thank you, your majesty. Or your highness. I never quite understood the difference.”
She laughed. “Well, majesty refers to kings and queens while highness is usually other members of the royal family like princes or princesses. Oh no, don’t look so embarrassed! It’s a tiny difference, and I understand people mean respect. That’s why I don’t correct them.”
I heaved a sigh. “Okay, I’m glad I didn’t offend. Wouldn’t want to get fired on some of my first days here.”
“Of course not! Now, feel free to take as much as you like.”
My eyes wandered over steaming rolls and bowls overflowing with grapes, strawberries, and apples. “This looks delicious! Shouldn’t you go first?”
“Tell you what, you get your food first, then I’ll take the first bite from mine, deal?”
“Okay, deal.” I picked off little bits of everything, arranging on the plate.
Alexandra took to the berries and rolls, leaving the grapes and apples untouched. As soon as she took the first bite of her bread, I ate strawberry whole, down to the leaves. Juice dripped down my chin, and I wiped it away with my left hand, going in for another berry. The works set plates of chicken and vegetables around us, and their eyes bore into me from behind. I froze as I took another piece of fruit, raising my head to meet the queen’s eyes.
“I’m so sorry. I don’t know what you must think of me-”
“I was thinking you must be hungry. Eat, eat, it’s okay.”
I dabbed at the corners of my mouth with my napkin, popping a grape in my mouth. One of the works chuckled, and the heat rose in my cheeks. I opted to switch to the bread, tearing a piece off. The queen took to the vegetables while I finished up the fruit, piling her plate with broccoli and spinach. I cringed and she laughed when she caught sight of me.
“Come on now, they’re good for your health. They don’t taste bad, I promise.”
“Oh, no, they taste awful. I’ve had more than my fair share forced upon me.”
“The cooks here do an excellent job making the healthy food taste just as good as the sweets here.” She took my plate and served me vegetables and chicken in equal parts. “Trust me. Try taking a bite of both the meat and the vegetables together.”
I stabbed a small piece of broccoli and a few spinach leaves, capping it with a piece of chicken breast. “Down the hatch.” I took the bite and paused working through the salty, earthy flavors mixing together. “You weren’t kidding!”
“I’m glad you see it my way! Next time, I’ll make sure you get plenty of vegetables to try.”
“There’s a next time?”
The queen smiled. “Of course! Can’t have you skipping any more meals, can I? I’ll have to keep an eye on you myself!”