The ride back to the palace was silent.
Laurent was contemplating what he'd learned about Danielle's past life.
Henry and Danielle were communicating with their eyes, telling the other how much they loved them and how they were grateful to be together.
Their arrival was, thankfully, treated without much fanfare. However, Leonardo da Vinci, surprisingly, was the one to be waiting for them.
"Danielle, my dear, it's wonderful to see you again," he said, smiling genuinely at her.
"Signore," said Danielle, sinking into a curtsy upon dismounting.
Leonardo gazed at the woman before him. "Rise, Danielle. You have no need to kneel before me, for I have known all along who you are."
Danielle shot to her feet at this statement. "You…did?"
"Well…not precisely. But I knew who you weren't."
"What gave me away?" asked Danielle, sensing Henry coming to stand beside her.
"Your shoes, that day in court, were too big. Any legitimate courtier would have had proper fitting shoes. Therefore, I knew you either did not come often to court, or you were pretending to be somebody you weren't."
"I see," said Danielle, quietly.
"Why didn't you tell me?" asked Henry.
"Danielle had to tell you herself," reasoned Leonardo. "She had her reasons, as everyone at court that day saw, and it was up to her to reveal them to you."
"Thank you, Leonardo," said Danielle, moving to embrace the old man.
As Leonardo put his arms around her, Danielle braced herself to avoid showing any signs of pain. Henry was still wishing she'd let him take the blame, as he felt that if he'd gotten her home sooner, she wouldn't have gotten in trouble. Danielle had already been forced to remind him though, that this wasn't her first time being punished by the Baroness. The resulting look of anguish in Henry's eyes was something Danielle hoped never to see again.
"Would you…I was wondering…," Danielle started. "Would you help me prepare for the ball tonight?"
Glancing slightly at Henry, Leonardo regarded Danielle. "I'd be honored," he said, offering her a stately bow, before moving away to give the couple privacy to say goodbye for the afternoon.
"I love you," Danielle whispered, leaning up to plant her lips on Henry's.
"As I love you, my darling," Henry replied, smiling into the kiss.
"I'll see you tonight," said Danielle, reluctantly pulling away.
Accompanied by Leonardo, she turned once more to wave at Henry, before she was swept away to simultaneously plan for the ball that night and the wedding, which would be in one month.
Henry went to retrieve his copy of Utopia before going to read in the stables. Something about the horses soothed him. He loved to watch them nuzzle each other, or shuffle around in their stalls looking for stray pieces of food, or simply huff out of their noses.
Then, before either knew it, the time had come for them to make their grand entrance at the ball.
Danielle was nervous. She knew that the Baroness and Marguerite would be in the audience and she feared their reactions.
Henry was surprisingly calm. He'd never been more sure of what he was about to do, which was to announce his engagement to Danielle, the love of his life.
Breathe, just breathe, thought Danielle, closing her eyes tightly to avoid alerting Henry to her internal panic.
She felt her hand receive a gentle squeeze and opened her eyes to look up to into Henry's caring face.
"Everything will be fine, Danielle. We love each other and no one can object to marrying for love. As for the Baroness and Marguerite, if they make any threats to you, my parents and I will be there to protect you."
"Thank you, Henry," Danielle replied, returning the hand-squeeze and leaning up to press a light kiss on Henry's cheek.
The trumpets blared and they turned their attention to King Francis, who was clearing his throat to begin his speech.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said. "It gives me great pleasure to announce the engagement of our son, Prince Henry, to Danielle De Barbarac."
There was a round of applause and then Henry and Danielle revealed themselves, for they were required to dance the first dance together.
As Henry placed his hand on Danielle's waist, he felt her shiver, in pleasure, not fear. He smirked knowingly at her and then they were off. They danced divinely, Danielle especially, for never having had lessons till that afternoon.
At the end, Henry bowed and Danielle curtsied.
As they rose, there was a commotion and suddenly the Baroness appeared, pulling Marguerite by her wrist. The Baroness went for Danielle, raising her hands to strike where the lash already had.
In one swift motion, Henry lifted Danielle, as though they were still dancing, and spun so he was between her and the Baroness.
"She has deceived you, my lord," said Rodmilla, halting her attack and curtsying as she spoke. "She is but a servant in my house. Release her to me and I will be sure to punish her for the lies she has told."
"You are mistaken, Baroness," he said, spitting out her title as though he were repulsed, "if you think I would release the woman I love into your keeping. I've seen the way you treat her, I've seen the whip marks. Do you believe that anything could tempt me to let Danielle go with you? She has told me the truth, how you denied her right to her father's land, which would have made her a noblewoman and earned her a place in court. It is you who are to be punished, for not only have you wronged Danielle, but you wronged my mother as well. Did you not tell her, only this afternoon, that Danielle, the Comtesse de Lancret, was engaged and sailing to Belgium? You are the liar, not Danielle!"
At the Baroness's disturbance, King Francis and Queen Marie had moved forward to support their son and soon-to-be daughter-in-law. Leonardo, too, made an appearance, moving to Danielle's side, as Henry was still positioned strategically in front of her to prevent the Baroness or Marguerite from getting any closer. The other courtiers could only watch in stunned silence as the Baroness was denounced.
Rodmilla was trapped and she knew it. She sank into her lowest curtsy. "Your Majesties," she said, acknowledging the king and queen.
"Danielle," said Francis, "I think that you should be the one to decide the fate of the Baroness and her daughters, for they have wronged you the most."
Danielle stepped forward on shaky legs, moving to stand beside Henry.
"Jacqueline, you tended to my back this morning, after I had been whipped. I bear you no ill will, for you have always treated me fairly and been as kind to me as was possible."
Jacqueline smiled and moved to embrace her stepsister. Henry, looking on, smiled at the two.
Danielle then turned her attention to the Baroness, still kneeling, and Marguerite, also kneeling.
"I will never think of you again, for with Henry, I have found peace of mind, as well as true love. You two, however, will think of me quite often, I am sure, for I feel that your place is where mine was—as servants, in the palace. That way, you will understand what you put me through for ten years as well as witness my happiness with my new family."
Once finished, Danielle moved away, indicating that the king and queen were free to 'deal' with them.
"Take them away," ordered King Francis.
As Danielle watched her stepmother and stepsister be led away, she leaned on Henry for support, having found the strength in her legs to have deserted her. However, it wasn't long before she turned to Jacqueline, who had just lost her mother and sister.
"I'm sorry, Jacqueline," said Danielle, hugging her again.
"Nonsense, Danielle. I have no loyalties to them. They hurt you time and time again, and were always insulting me. I'm glad that they're gone."
"Jacqueline, I will be living in the palace, with Henry. I was wondering, if it's pleasing to you, would you stay with the manor?"
"Oh, Danielle. I'd be honored. I know how important your father's lands are to you."
"They're yours now," said Danielle. "As long as I can visit," she added with a smile.
"Of course. Thank you!"
The stepsisters embraced.
Henry rejoined them, "But for now, Jacqueline, would you honor Danielle and I with your presence here at the palace?"
"Your Highness," said Jacqueline, sinking into her lowest curtsy. "I'd be delighted."
She rose, smiling at Henry, before seeing someone over his shoulder, Captain Laurent. She blushed as their eyes met. Danielle was not oblivious and smiled to herself, already planning how to set the two up.
"Would you like me to stay with you, Danielle?" asked Jacqueline.
"No, go enjoy the ball," said Danielle, giving Jacqueline a slight push in Laurent's direction.
Henry and Danielle watched Laurent approach Jacqueline, bowing and requesting the next dance.
"Would you care to dance, my dear?" asked Henry.
Danielle turned her pleading eyes towards him. "Henry, I know we're supposed to stay for the entire ball, but I'm tired. The confrontation with the Baroness and Marguerite left me more drained than I thought."
Henry smiled understandingly. "I'll give our excuses to Mother and Father. Then I'll see you back to your room."
Danielle nodded, watching him converse quietly with his parents.
They're mine now, too, she thought to herself.
"Ready, Princess?" asked Henry who had stealthily crept up behind her.
She jumped, slightly startled, before turning to smile at her impetuous fiancé.
"As ready as I'll ever be, Sire," she replied teasingly.
Offering Danielle his arm, which she accepted, they set off for their rooms.
The walk was mostly silent, broken only to exchange pleasantries and smoldering looks.
Danielle, despite having a lot on her mind, was at peace, thanks to the man at her side.
Henry watched Danielle as they walked, marveling in her natural beauty that Leonardo's magic had only accentuated.
They arrived at the door to Danielle's room.
"This is where I leave you," said Henry, regretfully.
"Sleep well, my handsome prince," said Danielle, leaning up to give Henry a good-night kiss that left them both speechless.
"Good night," he whispered.
They broke apart, Henry opening the door to his room, Danielle remaining in the doorway to hers.
They waved at each other, smiling shyly, before entering and closing their respective doors.
They would sleep well that night, each dreaming about their happily-ever-after future.
I have no idea what would occur during their wedding, and if I were attempt to describe it, I would wish to do it justice. At this time, I don't feel that I could, so this is the end, for now. If I become inspired, I may write more at a later date. Thank you for reading. And to those who left a review, your kind words have meant the world to me.