It should have been no surprise to anybody when the Crown Prince of Chamberg was returned to the castle with delirious fever. No matter how able-bodied Derek was, he was still a human being with no magical powers, and hours of running and shouting in the cold rain was still hours of running and shouting in the cold rain. Why, even his noble steed had been worn out to exhaustion.
The guards, once they had caught up with him, had pleaded for the prince to return to the safe confines of the castle, Uberta had been told, but he would have none of it, and searched and tracked and desperately looked for even the smallest clue to go on. Nothing could restrain him, not even the five guards attempting to block him—not that they could actually bodily stop him; the furious, determined gleam in his eyes and the fact that he was their prince hindered them from doing so—and the only reason he stopped was that his legs eventually gave out under him in fatigue. Even when he was on his knees in the forest, he strove to stand up and charge on before he collapsed again and passed out completely.
"Really, Derek," Uberta sighed as she wiped his brow with a wet cloth. "You were never one to do things halfway, were you?"
The only response the queen received was the crackle of burning wood in the fireplace as Derek slept on. The royal physician had assured the queen that the prince only needed rest and rehydration, and he would be right as rain. Already he was showing signs of improvement. His breathing, though still shallow, had finally somewhat steadied, and his formerly tense muscles had relaxed, save for his furrowed eyebrows and involuntary wincing every now and then. His temperature was still at an alarming warmth, however, which was why Uberta had not left his bedside. Adult prince or not, Derek was still her son; she wouldn't be able to sleep even if she was to return to her bedchambers, as everyone had asked her to.
"Well," the queen laughed, shaking her head, "At least we know where your stubbornness comes from, don't we?"
Again, the unconscious prince said nothing. Uberta dipped the cloth in the basin while humming a tune, and continued the one-sided conversation.
"To tell you the truth, Derek, I can't imagine why you were so surprised when you saw Odette in the ballroom. It's not like she wasn't beautiful before this summer. Well, I suppose she was a rather awkward little dear for a time, but what pre-adolescent girl wasn't?"
If Derek had been awake he would have said something about Odette's ugly braids and her freckles. But since he wasn't, Uberta went on.
"As for her lack of being ladylike then, I really do believe she was trying to keep up with you and Bromley. And she did make up for it magnificently when she bloomed into a young lady; you were lying through your teeth when you denied it! Muttering something about cards and such nonsense..."
If Derek had been awake he would have sputtered some unintelligent denial before turning away to look for an inanimate object to shoot an arrow through.
Uberta's eyes fell on his hand, the one that had been a clenched into a fist the whole night. His fingers had finally relaxed, letting Uberta to catch a glimpse of what Derek had been clutching the whole night. The healers had been trying to pry his fist open, in fear that maybe he had a wound there. Rogers, on the other hand, thought that perhaps Derek had found a clue to Odette's location, after all, and was steadfastly holding on to it, even in unconsciousness. What Uberta saw, however was neither a wound nor a cryptic, unfamilar clue. What was resting on Derek's palm was Odette's golden necklace.
At the sight of the princess' treasure, Uberta gasped, and suddenly her mind was filled with the worst things that could happen to Odette... Ones that would have caused her golden chain to fall from her neck...
Uberta shook her head fiercely, abruptly stopping that train of thought. Clenching her own fists she told herself, No. NO.
She opened her eyes slowly. Odette's necklace was still there, and it was clean, Uberta noticed. No red spots, either. Good.
Carefully, as if afraid that the necklace would suddenly disappear, Uberta reached out to take it from Derek's palm. She had to examine it and see that it really didn't have any trace of... anything undesirable. But even before she could touch the keepsake, Derek's fingers protectively closed around it again, and a weak protest ground out of his hoarse throat.
"Nggh..." was all the prince could manage to whisper.
"Sssh, darling," Uberta replied, gently laying a hand on Derek's fist, as if in apology for attempting to take the necklace from him, as if encouraging him to hold on to the golden trinket. The crease between Derek's brow gradually disappeared, and after a few beats, his breathing evened out, as well.
Despite the grave events of the evening—or perhaps in an effort to fight it—the corners of Uberta's lips lifted.
"You really should have seen your face when you first saw her wearing that," the queen said, grinning. She could almost hear Derek exclaiming, "Mother!" in objection, like he always did when she teased him. She laughed outright this time, her shoulders bobbing up and down, as she swatted his arm as if he truly did speak.
"Ohoho! I can still remember it as clearly as if it happened a few minutes ago—Now, Derek, don't you start saying that I'm imagining things!" Uberta wagged a finger at her son's nose. When he didn't huff and roll his eyes, Uberta sighed, reminiscing, "You stubbornly staying up in that tree until Odette threw an apple at you... Oh, the way it smacked you on the forehead was priceless! And then that fancy swinging-down-the-branch stunt you pulled... Somersaulting from that height! Almost gave me a heart attack—"
Uberta suddenly stopped, blinking in surprise at what she had just said. True, the children had yelled at each other before Derek jumped off the branch and landed with a flourish, but... Oh, it couldn't be!
"Why, Derek!" Uberta gasped. "You were out to impress her! That's what the jump was for, wasn't it?"
Uberta laughed again, partly at her son, but partly at herself for not noticing earlier. She had heard Odette gasp behind her at that time, and Uberta had noticed the pink hue coloring the young, wide-eyed princess' cheeks, as well as the fact that she had been rather tongue-tied for a few moments, but the queen had been too busy reprimanding the prince to wonder what exactly had caused it.
"Oh, all right, all right, perhaps that had not been your intention. But I'll admit, boy, that jump did make you look rather handsome. Not that you weren't already handsome, you're my son, after all."
Uberta smiled, patting her hair out of habit. To that declaration, Derek would usually laugh and say, "That I am, Mother. That I am."
"Ah, but she got to you, too, didn't she? That scowl vanished from your face the moment you looked at her properly—and openly stared at her, I might add. Why, you were completely ignoring me! And when the sunlight had bounced off of her necklace... I didn't think you remembered that gift, but you did! Oh, by the utter joy on your face, I dare say you did."
Emphazing the words by lightly jabbing a teasing finger on his arm, the queen repeated, "Utter. Joy."
Uberta laughed once more before shrugging, rolling her eyes, and saying, "But then you had to cover it up with a well-practiced frown, didn't you? Oh, bother. We could have sealed the deal right there!"
Derek didn't reply. He slept on, completely oblivious to his mother's reprimand. For several moments there was silence. Uberta laid her palm briefly on her son's forehead.
"Well, at least your temperature has finally gone down some."
"Odette is made of strong stuff, Derek. She is going to hold on, we are going to find her, and you are both going to survive this. One day, we are all going to look back to this day and..."
That was what she was going to say. But were they going to look back to this ordeal and laugh? Probably not. Her father, after all—
There was a polite knock on the door, cutting through Uberta's thoughts. Which was probably for the best, given the circumstances.
"Come in," Uberta replied quietly so as not to disturb Derek.
"Forgive my intrusion, Your Majesty," Mila began from the doorway. Uberta only nodded.
There was a pause, and it seemed like Mila was going to say something else. Instead of speaking, however, she simply stepped forward and set a new basin of water by the bedside. She worked silently, carefully taking the used cloth and water. She gave them to the maid that accompanied her and sent the girl away. With Uberta's permission, Mila dipped a fresh cloth into the water and placed it upon Derek's forehead.
She gave Uberta a bow before finally speaking.
"The Captain of the Guard sends word, Your Majesty," she began. "The search party has just returned. The Captain reports, with regret, that no sign of Princess Odette's whereabouts has been found. Another search party is being organized as we speak."
"I see," Uberta answered, her lips in a thin line. "And why is he not the one in this room to give this report?"
Mila bowed her head, perhaps afraid to look the queen in the eye. Her voice, however, remained steady. "He and Lord Rogers are coordinating the volunteers, Your Highness. Quite a number of the gentry has arrived, as well as people from the town. The Captain is quite certain that this number will increase now that dawn is upon us."
At the prompt, Uberta turned to look at the open window. She didn't even notice!
"Indeed," she replied, taking a deep inhale of air. "Where is King William?"
"He is in the warmth of the Castle, Your Highness."
"And his crew on the ship?"
"They have been sent for, but only a handful accepted our offer for them to stay in the castle. Most have chosen to remain on board and wait for further instructions. Their supplies have been replenished."
"Make sure that they are provided breakfast," Uberta reminded her, "and also send them another offer to stay here."
"It is done, Highness. I already took the liberty."
"Oh!" Uberta smiled, reminding herself that she really ought to promote the maid sometime soon. "Very good, very good."
There was a brief moment of silence before the maid addressed her again.
"My Queen, now that the Prince is sleeping soundly, perhaps it is also time for you to take your rest..."
Uberta regarded the maid before her. Because of Uberta's jolly, talkative, and somewhat eccentric self, most people weren't used to her stern, thoughtful, queenly side. Most people, when faced with this side of Uberta, usually stuttered into silence. Only a few—namely Rogers, and probably, only Rogers—had the backbone to stand before the queen and tell her their personal opinion.
"Thank you, my dear," Uberta said, "but I think I'll be alright here."
"Your Highness," the maid spoke, making the queen turn to her, blinking, "if I may: I believe the Prince would not wish for you to sacrifice your health for him."
At this, Uberta turned to the form of her sleeping son. Derek appeared to be deep in a restful sleep; if Uberta didn't know better, she would have thought that nothing was wrong.
But the truth was, Uberta did know better, and something was wrong...
On the other hand, Mila was right. Derek wouldn't want Uberta to wear herself out. For all his indulgent sighs of, "Of course, Mother," and his eye rolling, Derek had always taken care of Uberta and made sure she hadn't gone off of her head too much.
"You are right," Uberta admitted. "But I think I'll stay here."
"But, Your Majesty—!"
"I will not be persuaded otherwise!" Uberta raised her voice, only a little. Derek was still asleep, after all. Mila bowed her head. "Fetch me a more comfortable chair," she commanded. "One of the more...cushion-y ones or whatever they're called."
Mila curtseyed and motioned to leave the room, but before she was out of the door, Uberta spoke again.
"You had better get used to it," she said. "If you're going to be my personal aid, you have to know when I am open for negotiation or not. Take notes from Rogers."
There was silence again, and out of the corner of her eye, Uberta saw Mila hesitate, her eyes wide.
"Well, go on, then," Uberta prompted, "you mustn't keep the Queen waiting! Add that into your notes."
"Yes, Your Highness!"
Uberta distinctly heard a hint of relief in Mila's voice, and when she heard the door close, she couldn't keep a grin from escaping her lips. Pulling the servants' legs was such great fun sometimes.
With this happy thought, the sight of Derek finally at ease, and the feeling of the more comfortable, cushioned seat Mila later brought for her, Uberta finally laid her head upon a pillow. She fell asleep shortly after, dreaming of more pleasant evenings of drinking tea and reading a book beside the fireplace. She dreamed of Derek rolling his eyes at her, grinning, and tucking her blanket more securely around her shoulders.
In her sleep, Ubert smiled, even as she felt Derek gingerly place a kiss upon her forehead.
"Sleep well, Mother."
A word from the author: I think I had a little too much fun with Derek in this chapter. Haha! I'd love to know what you think!