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5 Just Another Role

    When her consciousness returned to the body she was now occupying, she was better prepared for the all-at-once rush of sensory input. Unfortunately, Prick was correct - she did not enjoy the sensations of pain, dizziness, and confusion that were now in the mix.

    Her entire head throbbed; her neck itched and ached under its constraints. And within her ribcage, there were dozens of jagged pieces piercing and shredding her from the inside out.

    Pain of the body, she was familiar with. Hilde had been obsessed with physical training since the age of four; bruises and aches were nothing new to her, though her current condition was a lot worse than what she was used to.

    But the pain within her chest was something she'd never encountered before - it was wrenching and crushing, it made her want to scream until her throat and the whole world were in ruins.

    Who did that Prick think he was kidding? There was no enduring this agony.

    With all her might, Hilde wrestled her emotions under rigid control. She couldn't possibly last if she let them overwhelm her from the get-go. This was NOT "just another role." This was her life now, and there was no knowing how long she must live it. It would be for the best if she sealed her feelings shut until she sees further use for them.

    From the farthest recesses of her mind, a male voice's exasperated sigh echoed.

    She ignored it, focusing instead on the feeling of someone touching her hand and on the sounds made by a female voice nearby.

    Hilde opened her damp eyes with a groan and immediately had to close them again. She heard that same voice suck in her breath. After re-opening her lids and squinting to try to dispel her blurry vision, she slid her gaze sideways. Her light gray eyes met a pair of tawny ones that were also rimmed with tears.

    For a moment, Hilde was at a loss. Most of the memories she had literally just gained were nowhere to be found, and she cannot put a name to the face she was looking at. Then, just as she was starting to panic, it slowly came back to her.

    "Gisela," she acknowledged weakly, her voice sounding rough. She then tried to look at her surroundings but was only rewarded with more pain. Fighting past the dizziness, she could only move her half-closed eyes. That was enough for her to recognize the burgundy-themed room she always stayed in when visiting her cousin. "I'm at your manor?"

    Gisela nodded as she attempted to dry her steadily streaming tears. "You've reached this far north yesterday," she explained through her sniffles. "Do you remember? You... you got into an accident just outside of Nelke. The soldiers sent after you brought you to us."

    Thinking better of nodding her battered and spinning head, Hilde merely closed her eyes again and said, "Mm."

    "Hilde..." Gisela began hesitantly, her initial relief giving way to other concerns. "It was an accident? You didn't...?"

    Her cousin couldn't voice it, but Hilde fully understood what she meant to ask. The slight answering smile on her pale, thin lips could only be described as self-deprecating.

    "That would have been too much, even for me," she replied in a low but cutting tone. "Lothar saw me as his little sister. We were never lovers. I was merely a foolish girl who was overly attached."

    Gisela frowned, confused by Hilde's words and attitude. After all, this was the same girl who rode hell-for-leather the day before after hearing of her beloved teacher's death. Lovers or not, foolish or not, her actions had only been natural.

    This abrupt change made Gisela feel the beginnings of alarm - Hilde did hit her head pretty hard. Her skull may not have cracked, but perhaps what's inside had sustained some serious and unseen damage. The physician had warned that even if Hilde woke, there was a high chance she would never be well again.

    Before Gisela could think of anything to say, Hilde asked, "Any word from my sister?"

    "Oh..." said Gisela, unsure whether she should go along with the change of subject. This one was important too, however, so she answered, "Yes - yes, of course. Her messenger birds have been coming every hour. Mother's been informing her since yesterday of your state." Recalling her obligation, Gisela rose to her feet. "We should report to the Queen that you're awake."

    Opening her eyes, Hilde sighed and told her cousin: "I wish you wouldn't."

    "We must," Gisela replied automatically, then frowned. "Why not?"

    "Because she'll want me back immediately... and I have this sinking feeling she's going to strip my hide as soon as she sees me."

    ***

    Gisela's mother was the widow of a first rank prince, Hilde's fraternal uncle. As such, Lady Ilse and Princess Hilde shared the same social standing. In theory, they could treat each other as equals, but Lady Ilse being an elder and Hilde being a minor, the latter must of course defer to the former.

    Gisela too was a princess, but she was of the second rank. Strictly speaking, she had no right to interfere with those above her standing. Whenever her cousin was concerned, however, she never let the rules stop her.

    Per the Queen's "request," as soon as Hilde wakes up, Lady Ilse was supposed to pack her into a well-sprung carriage and send her back to the capital - strapped tightly and drugged into the next century, if necessary.

    This was partly to prevent her from committing any more idiotic feats, like trying to reach the northern border again and perhaps singlehandedly attempting revenge.

    But Gisela begged for her mother's indulgence, asking her to "suggest" to the Queen that it would be for the best if they let Hilde recover in Nelke first. She was, in any case, too incapacitated to do anything, idiotic or otherwise. If the Queen permits, Lady Ilse would of course bring the princess with them in two days' time, when they travel to Oste for Prince Dieter's funeral.

    This exchange took place inside Hilde's sick chamber a half-hour after she woke up. After examining her, the physician had been mystified by how the princess was displaying only the symptoms of a concussion - he had almost been certain she would die when she failed to regain consciousness within a few hours of her fall.

    Still, he was happy enough to be mistaken, and when he also said they should let the princess mend as much as she can before she had to travel, Lady Ilse had given in.

    However, on her way out to write the Queen, she said under her breath but not out of anyone's hearing: "Hiding behind her younger cousin to escape responsibility - fine new second-in-line heir we have, the country is doomed if she inherits!"

    The people in the room all pretended they heard nothing.

    With that immediate concern out of the way, Gisela proceeded to orchestrate a fuss around her cousin. The weak and dizzy Hilde was fed and helped delicately with cleaning herself up before being re-attended by the physician. Her aches and bruises received a fresh application of a healing balm made from the flower after which the country was named.

    She was also to drink a strong medicine that included valerian root. That is to say, she was to be drugged into the next century anyway, but she didn't worry that she'll be transported while in a deep healing sleep: Gisela said she'll be guarding her even if the Queen doesn't permit her extended stay.

    Hilde doubted Gisela could have her way if it came to that; not to mention, her cousin also looked like she needed sleep. While drinking her medicine to the dregs, however, Hilde was warmed by the thought alone, despite herself.

    She was never one to think about such things before, but while waiting for the potent medicine to take effect, it came to Hilde that Gisela had always been more of a sibling to her than her true elder sister and brother ever were. Hilde was older than Gisela, but only by a few months. On the other hand, when Hilde was born, her sister and brother were eighteen and thirteen years of age, respectively.

    In addition to her responsibilities as Crown Princess, her sister Heloise was already a married woman back then. It was said that she nearly died of embarrassment when it was her mother's pregnancy and not her own that was announced some months after her wedding.

    When that announcement was closely followed by the news that their uncle and his wife - a golden couple long thought to be barren - were also expecting, Heloise was said to have lost all desire for a child of her own.

    Neither of the new princesses received the older one's attention - much less affection - after being born, and it was only after becoming Queen that Heloise got around to producing an heir. She stopped at one, though, raising many eyebrows that to this day were yet to come down.

    As for Dieter... he was the doted-on younger child of Lady Helga, who died giving birth to Hilde. Now that Dieter too was dead, the less said about how his relationship had been with his mother's "killer," the better.

    For both the present Hilde and the Hilde of before, these circumstances were simply how things were. She probably should, but she felt no need to be caught up in sadness or anger or bitterness...

    It wasn't all bad, after all. For five years, she had received her father's love and indulgence. King Dietrich had denied Hilde nothing, not even a practice sword when she asked at age four - and someone to instruct her on its proper use.

    When the King's heart failed without warning, the kingdom - or queendom, from then on - had still been at war with Lys, their western neighbor and bitterest enemy. That was naturally where the new Queen's attention went, and after her son was born, the excess from the demands of ruling went to him.

    Meanwhile, even if Prince Dieter had at all been inclined to take up Hilde's upbringing, a new general at the age of eighteen would not have had anything of himself to spare.

    It all still amounted to neglect, despite the army of servants surrounding their young sibling. But while missing her father, Hilde herself thought that what she'd gotten was near-absolute freedom...

    ...and that freedom had now come to an end, owing to Prince Dieter's death.

    Queen Heloise's only child and heir was a nine-year-old boy. It would be years before Prince Luca could be given the title of Crown Prince, and years more before he could be judged by the Lords' and Ladies' Assembly for fitness to rule. If something were to happen to him or if he were to be deemed unfit to inherit after he comes of age, the second in line would need to step up and be weighed in the same manner.

    The second in line used to be Hilde's elder brother.

    Now it was Hilde.

    And because Prince Dieter had just been murdered at the hands of Arnica's northern neighbor, a semi-unified collection of warmongering states, the queendom was once again on the brink of war.

    On that last cheery thought, Hilde sank into true sleep for the first time in her new, chaotic world.
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