“Why are you all dressed up?” The queen stood as I entered the dining room.
“I’m trying not to be as much of an embarrassment as I was last time.” I smoothed my violet gown, clasping my hands in front of me as I approached her.
Without warning, she embraced me. “You are anything but an embarrassment, Zinnia.” She took my hands as she pulled away. “You look beautiful. The gown suits you well!”
“Thank you very much Ale-, your majesty.”
“You’re welcome. Please, sit. Help yourself to as much as you’d like.”
I hesitated mid reach. “You’ve gotten yours first?”
“Tell you what, I’ll start with another dish, and we’ll pass things along.” She smiled as she reached for the plate of scones.
I nodded as I took from the plate of sliced ham. “Aren’t those more of a breakfast food?” I traded plates with her.
She laughed as she took the meat from me. “They’re my favorite, so the cooks like to surprise me with them. Try the blueberry ones.” She gestured to the middle.
I took one from the middle and the outer edge, putting them on a small plate beside my main dish. The queen and I traded dishes until we’d filled our plates with a little of everything the chefs had put out.
“Forgive me for asking, but I was wondering, where do the leftovers go?” I picked at the fruits on my plate, stabbing a strawberry with my fork. “I mean, we can’t possibly eat all of this.”
She grinned. “You’re right. The staff eats after we do, and whatever’s left goes to the market for the families who can’t afford a meal.”
“That’s… very generous of you.”
“I can’t stand the thought of seeing it go to waste when it could be put to much better use.”
I nodded, smiling from ear to ear. “Then I’d like to help with that, if I may. I can make deliveries and use any scraps in compost. We’ll make the most of what we have.”
“That’s brilliant! Thought, you already work so hard as it is. Are you sure you’d be up to making deliveries? They can be late and-”
“I’d be honored to help on your behalf. If there’s time, you could even come with me.”
A new voice entered the room. “And put the queen in danger? How could you suggest such a thing?”
“Damien, it’s a lovely idea! You make it sound like the village is full of savages.” Alexandra stood to greet him.
Damien took off his helmet, revealing sun-scorched features and dark eyes to match his sweat-slicked black hair.
He bowed to her before crossing the room. “I’m sorry to say there are more of them than you’d like to think, your highness.” His eyes flickered to me for a moment. “They show up in the most unexpected places.”
“I just thought- Nevermind, it was a foolish idea. Excuse me.”
Before I could make my exit, the queen gripped my hand. “Please, stay. Damien, if there’s nothing urgent, I’d like to finish my meal in peace.”
“Actually, your majesty, I’ve come to report some good news. Our soldiers’ training is near complete, and I suspect we’ll be battle ready soon.”
“That must be exciting, congratulations.” The queen’s lips turned up in a tight smile.
“Thank you, your majesty. You’re always welcome to check on our progress anytime.” Damien made a show of kissing her hand. “I’ll let you and your guest finish your lunch.” He emphasized the word guest as turned to leave.
As soon as he was out of sight, the queen’s smile dropped. “That man is always excited to boast about the army.”
“Maybe he’s preparing for war.”
She chuckled as she turned her attention back to me. “Our kingdom has been at peace with our neighbors for decades. I could hardly think there’d be a war.”
I shrugged. “Better to prepare for the unexpected, I suppose.”
She hummed. “You have a point.” Alexandra leaned in close. “Now, about going to the village.”