Eli gulped. “He’s the what, now?”
“The king.” Ava beamed.
The door swung open, and a man entered the room. His shoulders filled the doorframe, and he had to duck to enter the room. Despite his imposing frame, his eyes glowed with kindness and joy.
“So this is the man I have to thank?” He pumped Eli’s hand, which seemed the size of a mouse in the King’s massive palm. “I am eternally indebted to you, Eli, shepherd, for the safe return of my daughter.”
“Well, she sort of returned herself.” Eli smiled weakly. “I didn’t do much in the way of bringing her back. She sort of brought me, as she may have told you.”
“But without you, I’d still be a Beast,” Ava interjected. “You’re the only one who had the courage to help me. Give yourself a little credit.”
“Ava told me of what you said to the Prince out in the fields,” the King continued, his face the picture of pleasure. “Never have I met a wiser, more perceptive man.”
“Nonsense,” Eli said. His face was beginning to radiate heat. “I just spoke the truth.”
“And you saved my daughter. Which, if you know her well, you’ll know takes some doing.” Ava and the King shared the same elusive twinkle in the corners of their deep green eyes. “I cannot allow such heroism to go unrewarded. Name your wishes, and I will grant them to the best of my power.”
Eli sat up and thought for a moment. “I should like all the sheep returned to my homeland. My countrymen’s livelihoods depend upon those sheep.”
“Done. And?” The King leaned forward, as if prepared to hang on Eli’s every word.
“I should like my parents to be comfortably settled for the rest of their lives—somewhere in this country, safe from the Prince, and somewhere pretty.”
“Again, done.” The King glanced at Ava. Eli looked at her, her bright eyes watching him anxiously. “Is there…anything else you might want?”
“Anything else?” Ava asked. Eli had never heard a voice more hopeful.
Eli looked at his friend. There were still little bruises on her face, but they couldn’t tarnish the whiteness of her skin or dull the light in her eyes. She was every inch a Princess. He kicked himself for not having guessed it before. But he knew she was remarkable, whether she was the daughter of a king or not. If he was very lucky, he thought, she might call herself his Princess—one day.
“If you—if you don’t mind,” Eli said quietly, “I shouldn’t mind getting to know you better.” He smiled. “If that’s all right with—all concerned—‘specially you, er, your highness—I mean, your ladyship—”
“My name is Ava,” she replied, her smile a sunbeam. “And I wouldn’t mind at all.”