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9 Homecoming II

    With that undesirable confirmation, Lady Ilse's blazing eyes flew open. Past gritted teeth, the ever-proper woman eloquently articulated, "The **s!"

    "We must have been spotted, after all," Gisela said. It was yet another testament to how deeply Arnican hatred ran for their neighbor that even Gisela's demeanor had become almost chilly - "almost," because Hilde doubted her saint of a cousin was capable of being cold to anyone.

    "But why didn't they leave it well enough alone?" Hilde mused, deeply annoyed. She was hungry, she was dizzy, and she was hurting all over. Even if she had been inclined to, she couldn't possibly put on a civil act in her condition.

    "Lady?" the captain ventured, waiting for the only reasonable response Lady Ilse could make.

    Since their escape had failed, they cannot now refuse to acknowledge the Lyseans without giving inexcusable offense. National sentiments aside, that was not something they could afford to do, especially with the current situation in the north.

    However, there was a good reason avoidance had been Lady Ilse's first choice.

    Irrational or not, "all is fair in love and war." The Kingdom of Lys won the last conflict in their centuries-long history of waging wars with each other. That time around, Arnica had to surrender a considerable chunk of its western territory. But while their defeat tasted bitter, it had been "fairly" accomplished by the enemy.

    In the same vein, Lady Ilse was a woman deeply in love with a husband who died in that war. She cannot "fairly" be expected to pretend she didn't want to tear every Lysean's face on sight.

    That is to say, they actually risked giving greater offense by engaging with them. The Lady had many talents, but even under normal circumstances, putting on masks had never been one of them.

    It had never been Hilde's either, come to think of it, but then things happened, and now...

    She could do that now, couldn't she?

    Hilde thought for a moment. She really was in no fit state for the plan she had in mind, but seeing Lady Ilse's pitiful struggle to master the resurgence of her grief and anger - not to mention Gisela's worry and powerlessness over it - she knew she had little choice.

    Sighing, she thought, 'Here you go, then, Prick.'

    From the others' perspective, Hilde broke the silence seemingly out of nowhere.

    "Aunt Ilse," she began, exuding a confidence and lightheartedness she did not really feel. "Would you agree I cannot possibly do a worse job than you would at the moment? At diplomacy, I mean."

    Hilde didn't wait for an answer - the time that had elapsed with no response from their party was already too telling. Instead, she pulled rank on the confused man outside the window.

    "Stop the carriage, Captain," she ordered in a tone that implied she fully expected to be obeyed. However, his gaze shifted to Lady Ilse, wordlessly asking for confirmation. Hilde kept hers resolutely trained on his face. Using a softer voice and expression, she snatched his attention back by saying, "Your Lady is in distress."

    That much was obvious enough for the captain to concede, but it was still not enough reason for him to follow Hilde's orders when it might contradict what the said Lady wanted - even if what she wanted ultimately spelled failed relations with another neighbor.

    Hilde barely managed to keep an impatient sigh to herself. She was not presently at leisure to appreciate this lesson on loyalty and exemplary training.

    With put-on calmness, and silently wishing she'd simply done so from the beginning, Hilde explained, "I do not wish for my Aunt to suffer any unwanted company. If you would please lend me a horse, Captain, I would honor our guests by going in person to greet them. They could find no grounds for complaint then, even if my greeting IS late in the coming... and even if others in our party choose to defer theirs. Until after we've reached Oste, say?"

    'Where Lady Ilse could hide behind cooler heads and tempers?' Though she did not say this part aloud, her pointed manner implied it. She got her meaning across.

    During this exchange, Lady Ilse and her daughter had been too dumbfounded to do anything but stare at Hilde. The shock of her strange behavior was so profound that it even made the Lady forget her present "distress."

    Yet it wasn't so much the way Hilde spoke, it was her reasons for doing so. And though she was hiding it well, it was still apparent to their knowing eyes how much she was straining herself, both physically and emotionally.

    She was persisting. That in itself was not strange - she had always been single-minded, but that trait used to be reserved for her own pursuits. Now, she was doing it for the sake of preserving peace, both her country's and her aunt's.

    Whether Hilde had always cared this much for either, neither of the women knew. This was certainly the first time they'd ever seen her showing it.

    To Lady Ilse, it appeared as if their wayward princess had finally woken to the fact that, as the new second in line to the throne, she now bore a heavier responsibility. More importantly, it would seem that Hilde possessed the mental fortitude necessary to bear that burden, though it was too soon to tell if she would crumble or not under its weight. For now, Lady Ilse wouldn't reward her niece's efforts by shooting it down.

    "Do as the Princess says," she told the captain after three beats of tense silence. Immediately, the carriage, as well as their entire retinue, stopped. The carriage door opened right after, and a horse was brought before it.

    Hilde met Lady Ilse's eyes and an understanding passed between them, one that went along the lines of "Next time, ask properly!" After a sheepish nod, Hilde gingerly exited the carriage with the help of the soldier she'd booted out of his ride. She was just about to reach for the animal when Gisela interrupted.

    "Must you really ride a horse?" she asked, worried. "The physician said you cannot have another fall."

    Hilde had been nervous about that too, not to mention how even the smoothest gait just might kill her before a second fall ever could. But she saw no way around it.

    "We cannot let them come to us," she answered. "I must go to them."

    "No, Gisela's correct," Lady Ilse suddenly said. For a moment, they all thought she was going to abandon the plan and simply broil in hatred when the Lyseans close in on them. But she went on, "Scrap the horse. Just wait for them in the middle of the road. The rest of us will head on to the outpost."

    Hilde frowned.

    She could have sworn she just heard her dear Aunt say, "Throw yourself to the wolves so we can go save ourselves," but... that couldn't possibly be right.

    Could it?

    ***

    Aside from the fact that the Lyseans didn't, as Hilde put it, simply leave matters well enough alone, their actions thus far had been polite and proper. After signaling the Arnicans for permission to draw closer, they had been maintaining a uniform distance on the empty stretch of road as seconds passed with only silence for an answer. When the carriages ahead stopped, the Lysean contingent also slowed.

    The ladies did not know it, but they would have risked nothing even if they had yelled an indecorous "NO!" out their carriage windows.

    Earlier, the servant who had supervised the exchange of the Lysean delegates' horses at the outpost in Akelei overheard people talking. They mentioned the hurried passage of a royal carriage that entered from the northern road. He then reported this to the head of the delegation, a portly man in his sixties who'd just begun digging into his food.

    "That would be Lady Ilse," he concluded at once, not taking his attention from his plate. He gave no indication that he was going to do anything with this piece of information, and indeed, if the decision had been left to him, the Arnican royals' plan would have played out as it should.

    The Lady's reputation preceded her, after all. What man charged with maintaining friendly if grudging relations would open that can of worms?

    A Viscount of minor wealth and influence, this one had been chosen for the task for good reasons. He not only lacked the pomposity common to the lords of their country, he also possessed both a general likability and a socially astute mind. He would still offend by virtue of his blood, but he and two other lords of middling rank - similarly chosen for their ability not to take insults personally - would not offend by their actions.

    Unfortunately, this Viscount was only his King's representative for the funeral rites. There was a fourth man in their party, and though he was the youngest, he was the one who held the most power among them.

    They did not expect him to exercise it here.

    Rising from the table, his food barely touched, the man of about twenty met each of the older men's eyes and said in an even tone, "Let us go, my lords."

    The men drew blank. Without waiting for a response, the young man began heading for the door of their private dining room. The two mid-rank lords exchanged a look while the Viscount cleared his throat.

    "My... ah, lad," he said, coughing to cover his near-slip. "You do not mean 'go after her,' do you?"

    Pausing to look back, the "lad" lifted a shoulder and answered, "I heard her daughter will soon come of age."

    This time around, as they abandoned their half-eaten meals to follow, all three men exchanged puzzled frowns. For the umpteenth time during their three-day journey, they each asked themselves why Madelon, their otherwise competent King, would send his own son and heir to Arnica when the queendom's hatred for enemies new and old was running lethally high.

    Yes, Prince Leal had thus far been passing himself off as a lordling of little importance, but that only made him more... killable. If the wind should happen to blow the wrong way while they're in enemy territory, without the prince's true status as protection, the chances of them getting out alive were low.

    Then again, that protection was dubious. If a commoner and not a noble happened to learn of his real identity, they might simply kill the enemy prince all the more happily. Come to think of it, a noble who ought to know better might also do the same.

    Intelligent men all, it was not lost on the long-suffering lords that it fell on them - not on the negligible dozen of soldiers they had as escorts - to keep their future king alive by not inspiring murder in the hearts of every Arnican they meet...

    Now WHY must the man himself make that an even more impossible task?

    As for Prince Leal's stated reason for wanting to disturb a hornet's nest, they'd believe that after he gives proof it was not the wily King Madelon who raised him after all. Or that he was not working to achieve the ends his father had set, whatever these may be.
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