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7 The Other Princess

    They were running late, but the invalid cannot be rushed, and she would sooner crawl than allow herself to be carried. After Hilde was assisted down the last flight of stairs, she and the maid steadying her slowly turned a corner and finally saw the manor's entrance.

    The massive front doors were wide open, and past them, Hilde could see eight mounted soldiers in full armor. They were spaced around the royal carriage that was waiting in the manor's cobbled yard.

    Being a stagecoach, it had a roof and doors with glass windows. It was nearly all white, and despite the intricate gold detailing, it gave off an elegantly understated feel. Two pairs of snowy-maned horses were hitched at the front, ready to pull. Behind it, a black and nondescript second carriage also waited.

    There was just enough illumination from the rising sun for a person to casually note these things - owing to its size, the royal carriage was hard to miss, even when one didn't wish to pay it any mind.

    Just as Hilde exited the manor and stepped down the handful of steps into the still-misty yard, a ray of sunlight broke past the obstruction of hills and towering trees overhead. It landed squarely not only on the white-and-gold carriage but also on the young lady in gray who was standing beside it, unnoticed by Hilde before then.

    The soft dawn light glinted on the golden and artfully arranged curls atop her head. It gave the illusion that it was her hair giving off this light, lending an ethereal quality to her beaming countenance. Then, as Hilde watched, Gisela shifted such that the sunlight landed on her face as well. Now her eyes were also golden.

    Hilde sighed, feeling slightly irritated and comically defeated.

    For nearly the entire time she was descending the manor's stairs, she had berated herself for the brief surge of envy she felt for her faultless cousin. She'd literally just gotten herself under control, so what was with this moment now?

    A step behind and to Hilde's right, Lady Ilse also let out a much louder sigh.

    "I wish wearing veils at funerals never went out of fashion," she said.

    Curious as to what that was about, Hilde turned to look at the Lady and saw that her attention was on her daughter. Her eyebrows rose.

    Just as Hilde faced back in front, their slow-going little group finally reached the carriage. Gisela's face was then close enough to be scrutinized, down to the tiny dimple she had on her upper left cheek.

    "You could have waited inside," said Lady Ilse, indicating with a hand gesture for Gisela to enter the carriage. With a pleasant giggle, she went obediently.

    "Aunt..." Hilde said while the attendant who'd accompany them in the carriage got in next so she could assist Hilde from inside. "Is it me, or has Gisela's face changed?"

    This actually wasn't the first time Hilde had noted the subtle differences in Gisela's appearance from the last time the cousins saw each other, some three months ago. For several highly compelling reasons, however, since the new Hilde arrived in this world, she'd been doubting some of her own judgments and perceptions.

    When the carriage doors were secured, the coachman set them all on their way at long last. The rest of their party fell in behind and around them.

    Lady Ilse had waited until Hilde was settled into the carriage and until she herself was sitting opposite her before answering.

    "It isn't just you," the older woman said. "But it also isn't something to wonder about. Her face has simply left girlhood behind."

    "What is it?" Gisela asked, noting how Hilde had been regarding her face thoughtfully from across the seat while her mother spoke.

    "Nothing, dearest," Lady Ilse answered. "We were just discussing how our peaceful life in secluded Nelke will be ending after this day."

    Gisela frowned. "But how is the coming war related to my face?"

    At the unexpected response, the women Gisela was talking with were at a loss. And then, something that had never happened before took place: Hilde and Lady Ilse burst into laughter at the exact same time.

    Ever the proper woman, Lady Ilse calmed herself first, though she was still smiling when she said, "That was not quite what I meant, but..."

    "That should have been what you meant, Aunt," Hilde rejoined, still chuckling while wiping at her watering eyes.

    She was thankful that the medicine she drank had done its job, reducing the pain she felt. Alas, it also delivered the cautioned side effect. After the carriage began moving, Hilde had been slowly beginning to feel even dizzier than the norm.

    In these moments, though, she forgot all about her discomfort.

    Truth be told, the topic was not something to laugh about. It was only that the women were on their way to a funeral - and their country was on the cusp of war. If not under these circumstances, when else could they indulge in gallows humor?

    "As to your question," Lady Ilse went on, growing more serious. "I'm sure someone in Oste will soon come up with a good answer."

    It was then that Gisela understood. "Oh..." she said slowly. "You think I'll be traded somewhere else for an alliance."

    Looking at her cousin's deepening frown, Hilde also sobered, but she couldn't help tease: "You'll be worth a thousand ships, at least."

    "It'll be fine, love," Lady Ilse suddenly asserted, smiling - no, smirking - a little. "Your cousin will be good for something for once. Nowhere would you find a better shield for yourself than the one she'll make."

    This time, both young women were puzzled by the words. But while Gisela only needed to think for a moment before understanding dawned, Hilde remained at a loss.

    She said so.

    "Goodness, this girl," said Lady Ilse with a cluck of her tongue. "Did you dismiss your teachers too? You outrank Gisela, so of course you have precedence. In everything."

    Hilde's failure to understand intensified. Her kind cousin took pity.

    "Among other things," Gisela explained, "it means I cannot marry until you do."

    "Oh, that rule," Hilde breathed out, her knotted forehead relaxing. "Is it really important, though? I never heard of it being enforced before."

    "That's because everyone else already knows to follow it," Lady Ilse replied acidly. "It rarely needs to be enforced, but make no mistake, it will be if it proves necessary."

    Though it had slipped her mind, this piece of information belonged to the category of things that the original Hilde had simply taken for granted. It tied in with how her country put great stock in matters of rank, seniority, and ability - in that order.

    That is, a male was a male and a female was a female - all well and good, but what was his or her order of birth? More importantly, to which parents? For matters of inheritance, especially, aside from whether or not a person was the firstborn, the last relevant question that needed answering was "Is he or she capable?" After that, every other consideration was secondary.

    For certain other matters, one gender or the other still remained preferable. For instance, entering the army or simply learning combat arts was still a traditionally male pursuit.

    However, there was no rule in place that would automatically prevent a female from becoming a soldier or, if she's highborn, learning privately from a young age and perhaps becoming an officer someday. In their society, as long as a person had the aptitude and not merely the desire to learn, resources would be spared for them to be taught, regardless of their gender.

    That was also true for most other pursuits or professions. For example, the queendom had a lot of male cooks and dressmakers, and the Royal Physician, appointed before the Queen's ascension, was a woman.

    Despite all this, female soldiers remained extremely rare, though there's always a small spike in their numbers in times of war. Meanwhile, female officers were nearly the stuff of legends.

    Because the fact of the matter was, the question of whether or not a female had the aptitude for combat or military leadership was moot if she did not have the desire to learn those skills in the first place. Few young girls did, and even fewer encouraged it in them.

    Then there was Hilde.

    The princess had first been dubbed an oddity for being sword-obsessed right out of the cradle. But even for her - perhaps especially for her - matters had not been so straightforward.

    She had only been the spare of a spare before terrible circumstances raised her status, and no one believed she could have eventually taken a position in the military like her brother did, for the simple reason that she had not been formally raised for it.

    The only other use she could have served was to marry for political gain, but no one bothered wondering if the ungovernable princess would even agree to that. Putting it mildly, she had not been raised to become a bride either, so the more pressing question had been... who would have her?

    A perfect shield indeed.

    Hilde grinned at her cousin. "Well, there's that. You are completely safe, then."

    This time, all the carriage occupants laughed, then Lady Ilse interjected: "Not forever, I should hope!"

    Hearing that, Hilde's grin suddenly fell. She had been careful these last few days not to dwell upon them. Like her body, her self-control had also been too fragile to withstand being tested. But now, with this seemingly unrelated matter, Hilde's feelings were brutally dragged from their hiding place.

    The Lady's fear was well grounded.

    The only man Hilde could ever have been compelled to marry was dead.

    "Hilde..." she heard Gisela whisper, her voice full of sympathy for her cousin and not a hint of concern for herself.

    Hilde looked up to find the young woman who's golden in every sense watching her face. Gisela could probably see everything that was written on it, but Hilde chose to lie anyway.

    "I've just been feeling each small bump on the road, don't mind me." After showing a thin smile, she closed her eyes. It would normally have been a bad idea given how dizzy she truly felt, but trying to sleep was not her intent. Eyes still shut, she told the people in the carriage, "If you find I've lost consciousness, do not worry. And feel free to increase our speed."

    With that, she disconnected her mind from her body, forcefully releasing herself from the emotions she could no longer suppress.
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