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8 Homecoming I

    When Hilde opened her eyes, she was back in the Cube with its black floor and white walls and ceiling. It had only been a few days since she was last here, but somehow, the interval felt longer.

    Having "arrived" on her feet, the first thing she did was sit down, intending to stare at nothing for however long the carriage ride to Oste was going to take.

    But she soon recalled that even here, she would not completely escape her grief. Thoughts and memories possessed their own unbearable weight. At the very least, however, in this sterile place that really only housed her consciousness and echoes of her emotions, there were none of the bodily substances that made human feelings such a curse to bear.

    Just as she was making herself comfortable, her new least favorite entity in any world made his presence known.

    [Thought I'd let you stay here and escape, did you?] Prick said in his lazy drawl. [Tell me, which part of 'endure' did you not understand?]

    Lacking energy even here, Hilde replied, "I've been enduring."

    [Yes, sure,] he answered. [For all of ten seconds. Then you ran away again. You do not endure what you don't even allow yourself to feel, princess.]

    Hilde let that one pass. It was too on the mark to argue with. Instead, she latched on to an opening Prick unwittingly offered.

    "Why am I not Gisela?" she asked. When she made that question to herself earlier, it was more of a hormone-fueled query by a teenager who was envious of what another had that she did not. Now, it was mostly the intellectual curiosity of a former twenty-seven-year-old influential superstar. "If I simply needed to be someone important, say - there are two princesses here, and one is a lot more princess than the other. Why me and not her?"

    Not at all privately, she added to herself, 'If I were going to feel guilty for stealing an identity anyway, why not for becoming the most beautiful woman in the land?'

    [Oh?] said Prick, sounding amused after hearing both her voiced and unvoiced thoughts. [And what are you going to endure then? All the admiration and envy? An avalanche of suitors? The terrible burden of your own beauty?]

    Hilde frowned. "Don't be insulting, please," she said in automatic defense of her cousin. "I'm sure that's not all Gisela's life would be about - how did you think her mother became that way?"

    If Prick had a face, Hilde was somehow certain he'll now be wearing a smirk. But he did get his point across. From an objective standpoint, Hilde's pile of miseries from the past and in the present rose higher compared to Gisela's. They were certain to multiply in the future, providing a convenient mountain that - as "Hilde" - her nameless self could climb, suffering every step of the way.

    [You can stop trying to distract me. I still can't let you stay.]

    "Just until we get to Oste...?" Hilde said, her tone not quite begging.

    Prick seemed to have lost patience. [I am really under no obligation to make anything easy for you. Forget what you know about 'systems' in your previous world, you only learned those to get you used to the idea. Remember what you're really here for.]

    Hilde narrowed her eyes but didn't respond. She never did forget, but she couldn't quite see how following along would help her uncover her true identity.

    And at the moment, she couldn't see how finding out would even matter anymore.

    "It's too painful out there," she said in a small voice, her body folding in on itself.

    His tone without any trace of mercy, Prick replied, [Noted. Get going.]

    Hilde was unceremoniously thrown back into her body. Now, it wasn't only grief she carried with her, there were also bitterness and anger.

    At the very least, the emotions served to distract her from the carriage ride, which had become bumpier. Lady Ilse appeared to have taken Hilde at her word, ordering their retinue to go faster as soon as she had "passed out."

    They had since entered a familiar forest road, which accounted for its relative roughness compared to the cobbled one out of Nelke. Glancing out the window, Hilde also found that the morning sun peeking between mossy tree trunks was much higher.

    When she asked, Gisela told Hilde she'd been asleep for nearly two hours. In that time, they'd changed horses once and the maid had finished adjusting the hem of her dress.

    Hilde's eyebrows rose. She had suspected it the first time around, but it seemed time did pass differently inside the Cube.

    This confirmation only made Hilde angrier. The damn Prick couldn't even spare her a few hours of pain when it was only a few minutes out of his own time? He didn't have to be there with her. In fact, she'll have thanked him more if he'd stayed well away. What did he even do when Hilde wasn't there for him to mess with?

    "Are you alright, dearest?" asked Gisela gently. She had understood her cousin's meaning earlier when she lied - if "that" matter was to be brought up again, it won't be by Gisela. But she worried that the lines on Hilde's forehead caused by whatever she was thinking of would become permanent, so she sought to interrupt.

    Hilde, of course, wasn't alright, but since she can't exactly tell her cousin why that was the case, she had to lie again.

    "Haven't we already made good time, then?" she said, putting on an even more wretched look. "Now I'm awake, I think I might throw up from this pace."

    Gisela turned eyes of pleading to her mother beside her. The Lady sighed.

    "We'll reach Akelei soon," she said, referring to the prosperous town that sat in the crossroads not only for those traveling to Arnica's capital from the north but also for those who come from the western borderlands. From Akelei, only one road led to Oste. "We might as well get breakfast at the Royal Inn while the horses are being exchanged. We'll continue at our original pace afterwards."

    The heavens help anyone who would oppose Lady Ilse once she'd laid down the law. Thinking she'd been lucky thus far for never truly entering the formidable woman's crosshairs, Hilde thanked her and resolved to do a better job at keeping her emotions from showing.

    That last point was important. She now had to live with said emotions for good after all.

    ***

    The Royal Inn sat in the middle of Akelei's market square. While the five-story, half-timbered building of red-painted frames and beige infills was grander than the structures around it - which were of similar construction but painted in other vivid colors - it was an ordinary establishment that served anyone, no matter their station.

    The inn bore that name because it was reserved for royals and nobles to stay in when they pass by. Even if they happened to come when the inn was at full capacity, the Innkeeper cannot turn these guests away.

    So when the soldier that Lady Ilse had sent ahead met them just as they were halfway to the square, the women in the carriage who watched his approach and noted his dark countenance were immediately on alert.

    "Lady," the soldier saluted. He angled his horse to canter beside the window where his liege was framed. At her nod, he reported: "The Innkeeper bids you be warned. Delegates from the Kingdom of Lys have also just arrived from the western road. He said they mean to break their journey at the Royal Inn for a half-hour before continuing to Oste."

    At the mention of their neighbor to the west, Lady Ilse had visibly stiffened. The countries may currently be at peace - at the moment, the murdering northern states were certainly more deserving of Arnica's hatred - but this Lady would never forget at whose hands the love of her life died.

    She was not alone in this sentiment - those representatives of their bitterest enemy would find no warm welcome anywhere in this queendom. If Akelei's Royal Innkeeper could have found a halfway believable excuse, he'll certainly have turned those guests away. With glee, proprietors of lesser inns would have followed his lead.

    It was little wonder why the Lyseans timed their arrival this closely. The same move would have been taken as an insult if any other foreign power had made it, but with the one in question, it was just as well.

    Now, if they could also contrive to depart as soon as the funeral rites were over, the Arnicans could, in turn, contrive to forget that the blights ever stepped foot on their soil.

    "You were not seen by those delegates?" Lady Ilse asked the soldier. His elaborate ceremonial armor would have tipped off an infant that he served royalty.

    "I don't believe so, Lady. I never entered the building. The Innkeeper himself came out after being alerted of my approach."

    Lady Ilse absently nodded in appreciation of the unknown man's forethought. "You've offered this Innkeeper a token in my name, of course?"

    "I did, Lady. He said the pleasure of being of service to you was its own reward."

    By that, every listener understood that the Innkeeper was one of Lady Ilse's admirers. Despite the situation, the princesses smiled and the lone maid giggled. Even the Lady allowed a corner of her mouth to lift.

    "I'll have to remember to thank him in person," she said.

    By then, their retinue was in view of the town's market square, whose usually colorful ambiance was dulled by numerous gray banners put up by the citizens in honor of their slain Prince. Lady Ilse turned to meet Hilde's eyes, who'd anticipated the move and was prepared.

    With false and rather venomous sweetness, Hilde stated, "If we are to be forced by courtesy to eat and travel with those people, my throwing up will be the least of it."

    "Good," Lady Ilse replied with a single, approving nod. She then gave the order: "We do not stop."

    Thus did they abandon their earlier plans in favor of taking advantage of the half-hour the Lysean contingent would stay at the Royal Inn. In that time, they would reach the southern gate on the other end of town and be out of Akelei before the Lyseans were any the wiser. They would then race for the next outpost to change their horses, take their planned meal, and wait for the faster-paced foreigners to pass them by.

    They reasoned, even if the delegates were to learn that members of Arnica's royal family quite literally went out of their way to avoid the much-hated but still-important visitors, they'll surely pretend ignorance while giving the ladies silent thanks for sparing both parties the ordeal.

    That was how it should have gone anyway.

    "Lady!" the captain of the soldiers called as he rode up to the carriage. They were now in a deserted stretch of country road five minutes out of Akelei. "There is a convoy two hundred meters on our tail. They are hailing us for permission to approach."

    Everyone watched as Lady Ilse closed her eyes against the swift rise of her fury.

    It was Gisela who ventured, "Is it...?"

    The captain nodded despite the unfinished question. "They appear to be the Lysean delegates."
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