She held the letter in her hand and simply stared at it.
Official, embossed card stock. Heavy. The neat scroll dated back to a time when good penmanship was beaten into young boys. The words were carefully selected, but they had become almost meaningless.
In the last twenty minutes, she had read through the entire thing four times and she felt sure she could parrot it out on cue if she had to, but the meaning of it all seemed to sink in slowly like sediment sinking to the bottom of a pond after a sudden storm.
She had no idea when he managed to sneak the neatly folded letter into the stack Charlotte already sorted through, but there it was. For her eyes only, at least for now.
He was resigning.
Of all the things she had expected him to do, this possibility never even crossed her mind. He was always there, a constant presence in her life. If she was honest with herself, he had been an anchor, her port in every storm, and now she found herself drifting with no land in sight.
The knock at her door pulled her back to reality.
The young footman did as he was told and she noted his slightly nervous expression.
"Joseph, your Majesty."
She had immediately sent for him, but she didn't expect such a prompt response.
"Let him in."
The footman quickly disappeared, holding the door open for the other man to step inside. Joseph shut the door firmly before turning towards her.
"Good morning, your Majesty, is there something wrong?"
His polite formality was not insulting, but there was a distance between them. The walls had gone up.
He stood in front of her desk, back straight and shoulders squared, patiently waiting for her to respond.
"Sit down, please, Joseph."
It wasn't meant to be an order, but somehow it sounded like one to her ears. He obeyed her, wordlessly resuming his wait.
She was reminded of a day, many years ago, when a young man, perhaps two years older than her, sat in that same place opposite from her with the ornate desk between them. Jaw set, the body is rigid, uncomfortable with his job and his new charge but determined to see it through nonetheless. Today that man sat opposite her again, the hair a little lighter, the face a little more lined, but with that same rigid posture, the same hard line to the jaw.
This man had given everything up for his job. He had left behind everything that most people hold so dear: an elderly mother, his brothers, his home, his friends, his well-established career in the army, even his own country. All of it for a job he had been recruited for by his superiors, for a job as bodyguard to an equally unhappy young queen in a different country who wanted him there about as much as he wanted to be there.
My, how things have changed...
There had been a girl as well, she suddenly remembered. He had confessed it to her years later. He left behind a girl in Spain. Most likely just the latest of many, she was well aware of the reputation Joseph had as a young man.
He deserved better than this. That young man should have had his fun, he should have married, he should have had the standard white picket fence, two happy children, a dog, the distinguished military career, perhaps even grandchildren of his own by now.
Grandchildren. Mia. The thought of the poor girl and the events looming on the horizon was enough to bring her back to reality.
Joseph was quietly watching her, seemingly unwilling to interrupt her train of thought.
She gestured to the letter lying on the desk between them and his eyes drifted towards it but he said nothing, waiting for her to speak.
"Joseph, I cannot accept that."
His posture finally softened slightly and she watched his Adam's apple shift as he swallowed, seemingly trying to find the correct words.
"Please. Please let me do what I should have done years ago. I can't stay here any longer, it's time for me to leave."
He seemed tired. Not the sort of exhaustion that came with a sleepless night, but rather an emotional and mental sort of tiredness. She studied him closely and what she saw frightened her. He wasn't a young man anymore, but he prided himself on the fact that he could still easily keep up with men half his age. Now he seemed to have aged ten years in less than twenty-four hours. She had seen it in his eyes the previous night, the exact moment when his heart finally shattered, unable to take any more trauma. Something inside him had died as well.
Her duty and her silly fears had stopped her from giving him the answer she so desperately wanted to and now it was too late to turn back. There wouldn't be the next time.
The shift in their relationship seemed to have happened slowly and without any warning over the years. From employer and employee to friends to... to something she could barely even admit to herself.
They shifted from mutual discomfort to fast friends almost overnight. He became her permanent private bodyguard, accompanying her everywhere. He had been a second father to the young princes and her most trusted advisor and confidant.
He had been the one who gave everybody some much-needed comfort when the news of Phillipe and his marriage to Helen Thermopolis, and the subsequent birth of the little princess, hit the palace.
He stood guard outside the door the day Pierre announced his intentions to join the church to his father. After the argument that followed he helped to calm the distraught prince and then allowed her to take her own frustrations out on him without a single word of complaint.
When Rupert's health started to fade the bond between them became even stronger. There were many nights when they sat in this same room, a pot of tea shared between them, talk eventually shifting from work to the banaler. It would often be near midnight when he would walk her to her suite.
When the king passed away and it became clear Phillipe would not be able to ascend the throne immediately her duties increased tenfold. He was the one who reminded her to eat, to take the occasional walk in the garden, to go to bed at a reasonable hour. He had been the one to bring her aspirin when the never-ending paperwork mountain left her with a splitting headache night after night.
The night she lost her youngest son he was the one who broke the news to her. That was the first night they shared a bed, but it was by no means amorous. She had clung to him like a drowning person, refusing to let him go, and he eventually relented, hugging her tightly to him as she cried herself to sleep with the storm pounding against the windows.
He accompanied her to America, to break the life-changing news to her fifteen-year-old granddaughter in San Francisco. Despite his initial grumbling he agreed to look after Amelia, and he did so in the same way he had done for her. He stood up for her and made excuses and he brought her to the consulate on the night of the ball without a moment to spare, somehow sensing the poor girl needed him. She remembered that dance, the wango as Mia had quickly named it, and the way he held her that afternoon. As was their arrangement over the years he had cut in midway through her dance with Sebastian, but that night they had shared more than one dance. She remembered the joke that was not entirely a joke as Amelia and the boy snuck of to the garden. She remembered the way his lips brushed her gloved hand when he walked her to her room.
In the five years that followed he personally accompanied Mia to and from Genovia every time her granddaughter visited and the hours, they spent apart weighed heavily on her. In his absence, poor Charlotte received the lion's share of her mood swings and general unpleasantness. The relief of his return was almost a tangible thing in her office.
The idea of an arranged marriage for the granddaughter she had grown to love so much shook her to the core. She herself didn't have any say in the matter all those years ago. It was a business transaction between the Genovian royal family and a wealthy aristocrat. A trade really, a daughter in exchange for land, money and social status. Mia was young and still so very innocent, there was no way she could possibly fathom the repercussions this move would have for her and her life. She would commit herself to a loveless marriage, a life spent in solitude, in order to follow in the footsteps of so many centuries of Renaldi's.
The words were never spoken, but they both knew what it truly was. In the false shelter and intimacy of the gazebo, his proposal took her by surprise, but in some way, she had expected it. At that moment she wanted to scream it from the rooftops, to fall into his arms and make her own emotions known to the entire world, but she could not. She promised to give the matter some thought, but she already knew what her answer would be and she suspected he knew it too, but there was still a small flicker of hope.
Last night she had destroyed that hope. He had turned away from her and fled into the night to deal with the enormity of the situation on his own. Cowboys don't cry and neither, it seemed, did old soldiers. She wanted so badly to run after him, to seek comfort and support in him, but she would never be able to do that again.
She studied the letter again. After all that had been said and done she could not deny him this. She did not have the strength to watch him walk away from her again, but perhaps it was not too late for him. He was her oldest and dearest friend and she hoped that he would still have time to build a new life, to find happiness somewhere.
"Where will you go, Joseph?"
The question seemed to take him by surprise and it took a moment for him to answer.
"My plan was to return to Spain. I still have family there."
"That's good. Joseph, you know there will always be a place for you here in Genovia if you wish to return, it has been your home for a very long time."
"Thank you, ma’am. Am I to assume you approve?"
"No. No, I don't, Joseph, but I will sign the documents."
It seemed this was not the answer he was expecting.
"However, I do have one request. I would like for you to stay until after the coronation."
He looked indignant and she held up a hand to stop whatever retort he was working on.
"Please, Joseph, it is a request. I suspect that making it an order would be an insult to both of us. Please stay, if not for me, then at least for Mia. I will not force you to work with me, you are more than welcome to assign any shifts you have with me to one of your men, I will not object."
He studied her for a moment, sighed and then nodded.
"Very well then."
She pulled both her pen and the letter closer, signing the allotted space. Charlotte could take care of the formal paperwork later.
She refolded the letter and stood, watching as he followed her example. She transferred the letter to her left hand and held her right out to him.
He took it and gave her hand a gentle squeeze, before letting it drop again. She missed the familiar feel of his lips against her knuckles, but she knew neither of them could face such an intimate gesture today.
He took the letter as she held it out to him and stood watching her for a moment. She stepped around the desk to stand in front of him. She was prepared to stop him if he tried to walk away again, but this time he didn't move.
"I'm sorry, Joseph."
"I know. Please, it's over now. It's time."
He offered her a small bow, turned on his heels and walked away, quietly closing the door behind him once more.