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10 Homecoming III

    It could.

    Granted, the estimable Lady Ilse did not mean to leave an underage and injured princess of the first rank on her own. An attendant and four soldiers, one of whom was the captain himself, now stood with her. The carriage door slammed shut.

    "Mother, wait!" Gisela said, belatedly working out the implications. "We'll wait for Hilde at the outpost, won't we?" Lady Ilse did not even look at her daughter. Gisela's eyes widened in alarm. "Won't we?"

    "If you could do a passing job," Lady Ilse said, her unclouded hazel eyes trained on Hilde, addressing her alone, "well and good." The corner of her lips lifted in a smirk as she added, "But I will also be satisfied if the numbskulls come out of the experience thinking you'd been set loose upon them."

    With that, to Gisela's audible protests, the two carriages and their remaining escort continued on their way, seemingly at full possible speed.

    Before they were out of earshot, however, Hilde heard Lady Ilse's parting command: "Keep them away from me!"

    The little group was silent while the proverbial dust settled.

    Hilde's original plan had been to ride to the Lyseans and personally bid them welcome - as the highest-ranking member of their party, if not exactly the most senior. Even if they were aware she wasn't of age yet, they had no right to remark on the break in protocol. After all, they should also be aware of the reason the Arnicans flaunted their own rules in the first place.

    After that, Hilde would have somehow persuaded them to also forgo courtesy and continue on their way at their original speed, either passing the royal convoy on the road or parting with her by the outpost, where her aunt and cousin would have been waiting. They can then continue at THEIR original speed.

    None of that was to be, now.

    After drawing a deep breath, steeling herself for a more difficult undertaking, Hilde took several steps until she was truly in the middle of the cobbled road.

    'Well then...'

    The attendant with her was the one who'd been in the carriage with them. She had moved to support Hilde again, but the princess lifted a hand to bid her stop. Facing the Lysean contingent who were drawing ever closer, never taking her eyes from the front, she spoke to the older girl hovering in worry behind her.

    "May I have your name?" she asked.

    The girl answered, "It's Frieda, Princess."

    "Frieda," said Hilde, noting in passing how the soldiers had paired up and moved to either side and slightly in front of the women, flanking them protectively. "If I collapse at any point, please be sure to exaggerate your distress. Put emphasis on how valiant and dutiful I'd been, abusing myself to spare my Aunt the pain that these approaching men would not."

    She heard it when the maid sucked in her breath and, from the corner of her eyes, saw the soldiers turn slightly to her in alarm. She smiled.

    "Your Lady would like that," Hilde continued, still smiling, though her narrowed eyes showed more strain than humor. "But I would not. I'll try to stay on my feet."

    ***

    Long before they drew close, the Lyseans were already well aware of the strange scene that awaited them.

    Twelve armored soldiers and three lords on horseback - as well as one silver-detailed black carriage - stopped three yards away from the smaller group and, as one, alighted. Four men formally dressed in varying shades of gray, including one elderly lord who'd been the carriage's sole passenger, approached the other party of four.

    Watching even as she herself was being watched, Hilde saw the different indications of wonder and puzzlement the men couldn't quite suppress.

    "Who is she?" their faces were saying as they examined the girl whose pale face, hair, and eyes made her look like a ghost in her simple gray dress. "Why would Lady Ilse leave her here?"

    The youngest, a handsome if stone-faced man four or five years older than Hilde, did not even bother to keep the speculation out of his eyes. What his expression seemed to be saying was "This is not quite what I was expecting."

    The moment the men stopped a few steps in front of the waiting party, the captain of Lady Ilse's guard loudly announced: "You are in the presence of Princess Hilde of Arnica, daughter of the late King Dietrich, sister of the reigning Queen Heloise."

    At this formal announcement of her identity, the men immediately bowed.

    Eyes ahead, staring at nothing and maintaining a blank expression, Hilde was thinking that the announcement wasn't quite complete. She added: 'Niece of an aunt who left her at the mercy of their enemy, bearer of a spinning head, possessor of a hunger that could make her eat your horse, not the mother of any mythological creature.'

    The men in front and the soldiers behind them had already straightened before she was halfway done with her private litany. The eldest of the men formally intoned in his own tongue: "Our Kingdom's condolences for your Queendom's loss, Princess Hilde."

    The portly man had stepped forward after he said this, and it seemed his intent had been to take Hilde's hand and give her a second greeting - one he perhaps thought was more befitting of a lady.

    Hilde recovered her scattered mind just in time.

    "Thank you, Lord," she said. Her tone was a tad chilly... and she was also speaking the language that belonged to these men, the better to drive home a point. "I accept your condolences, but you might not be aware: unlike Lyseans, we Arnicans do not kiss people's hands as a form of greeting." Then, because they still can't afford to give too much offense, she softened the blow by showing a small yet disarming smile. "For me, the honor of having your names is enough."

    Letting out an even more disarming laugh, the elderly lord amiably replied, "Of course, of course." Hilde noted that with his face scrunched, he looked very friendly, like a gnome. And pointedly, he now spoke using HER language. "Do forgive me, Princess, my memory is not what it used to be. Renard, Viscount of Berce, ever at your command."

    Settling for a shallower yet somehow warmer bow, the Viscount then smoothly stepped to one side, half-turning so Hilde could have a clearer view of the other men behind him. By order of seniority, they each stepped forward to likewise introduce themselves.

    These Lysean nobles sported the same styles and bearing - from their drably colored but intricately tailored jackets to their hair that grew past their shoulders and were tied with a piece of ribbon behind their necks.

    Marmion was a dark and curly haired middle-aged man who looked to be a dandy; meanwhile, though younger, Harmin of the neatly combed sandy hair exuded a more mature scholar's air. Both of these men were barons.

    The last of the four stepped forward and simply introduced himself as "Leal of Lys, assistant to the Viscount."

    His hair was as black as Baron Marmion's, as neatly tied back as Baron Harmin's, but that was all the similarity this blue-eyed man bore with the others.

    While his elders were visibly eager to, if not please, then at least not offend, the very air around Leal of Lys can be interpreted as an insult if viewed under a certain light. If they were in a sparring yard, say, and this man had looked at Hilde as he was doing now, she would instantly take that to mean he was challenging her to a fight.

    Then again, perhaps he was simply a typical pompous ass of a Lysean who looked down on Arnicans as a matter of course. So what if Hilde was a princess? She was only a girl.

    She literally did not have the energy to spare for this overgrown brat.

    Running on fumes now, unable to completely mask the spike in her breathing as she fought past the return of her headache, Hilde produced a warm yet tragic smile by the skin of her teeth.

    "We thank your kingdom for thinking of us in this, our time of sorrow," she said in her own tongue. The slightest bow of her head was made uncommonly graceful by her care not to fall on her face. "Lords, welcome to Arnica."

    ***

    After their near-disastrous exchange, when he had been certain that Princess Hilde's attention was no longer on him, the old Viscount had privately proceeded to kick himself for a fool.

    He, of course, had forgotten absolutely nothing. Put simply, he made a miscalculation after learning her identity and basing his next actions on what he knew of this foreign princess: no parents to raise her, neglected by the rest of her elders, left to run wild nearly all her life...

    When it was only ever such stories that reach the Lysean court, how could any of them be expected to know that that was far from being the whole picture?

    Now they found that Princess Hilde had, after all, managed to stay in a schoolroom long enough to be taught. Among other things, she learned an enemy's tongue and possessed the poise to use it fluently while facing its loathed owners.

    The Viscount had counted on her being young, ignorant, inexperienced - and hurt. The question of why she was even with Lady Ilse aside, she had obviously been left behind as a sacrifice by an unfeeling relative who did not wish to face the Lyseans herself.

    Presumably, the princess had had no say in the matter and would have been unprepared to handle the task of... good heavens, surely not escorting them all the way to Oste? Or was it the other way around?

    Whatever the case may be, by attempting to greet her as he would a precious female in his own kingdom, he had sought to not only flatter her but also have her be at ease in their company.

    Suffice it to say, he had not been expecting a lesson in etiquette for his trouble. Not only did he give insult by thinking flattery will work on this tall but fragile-looking girl, he'd also committed a bigger sin by underestimating her in the first place.

    She was still a princess.

    And if she was meaning to stay with them and not rejoin her party...

    They were still a good two hours from reaching their destination, even if they went with all possible haste.

    'So,' the Viscount thought in resignation. 'At least two hours more of navigating her unexpectedly treacherous waters - and somehow keeping our own prince from getting us all killed.'

    The prospect made him doubly nervous. They would all arrive in Oste with less than two hours to spare before the ceremony was to begin. That was really cutting it too close; the Lyseans could reasonably have arrived hours before, after all.

    Because of these considerations, one can easily imagine how, when the princess made a strange request that concerned reduced travel speed after bidding them welcome, the poor Viscount nearly broke down where he stood and wept.
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