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11 Homecoming IV

    The road from Akelei to Oste was not normally so deserted. It was only that today, everyone else who needed to had already gone to the capital days or at least hours ahead. If they lived too far away with no easy means to reduce their travel time, most people would stay in their village, town, or domain and from there, remotely share in their queendom's grief.

    But not alone. Even now, in the town that the only late-coming parties had just passed through, proprietors were preparing to close shops, citizens were getting ready to leave their homes, and activities that were not strictly a matter of life and death were being suspended.

    With gray spirits, the Arnicans in Akelei would be gathering in their market square in a few hours' time. There, their elected Head would preside over the citizens' ceremony to honor Prince Dieter and bid him a final farewell. All across the land, anywhere people could gather, the scene would be the same.

    While it was true that this Prince had not inspired tender feelings even among those closest to him, the Arnicans knew he had been a proud, fair, and brave commander of soldiers. They had ultimately lost in the last war with Lys, but Prince Dieter himself had proven his mettle in battle. He had since been in charge of their border defense against the northern states, which, before this sudden turn, had been largely preoccupied with warring against each other.

    It was an unexpected move for the northerners to assassinate a prince of a country they had no actual quarrel with. Most Arnicans still had no idea why it even happened - or which among the seven states of Almar, Askari, Fonn, Holmi, Kelda, Kjarr, and Selja had truly instigated it.

    All they knew for certain was that for months leading up to the event, the Warlord of Askari had been having talks with Prince Dieter in the Queen's name - talks that had centered on the possible defection of Askari to Arnica. The Warlord had shown his sincerity in this by letting the Prince choose the meeting places along their shared border. He would then arrive there unarmed, bringing only a handful of escorts.

    The Arnicans had not been so naïve as to think the defection would be completed, let alone smoothly. Did the Askarians agree with their Warlord's wishes? How would the other Warlords react? Would Arnica absorb Askari into their territory only to defend it from attacks on multiple fronts, and perhaps from within?

    But with all that said, given how Arnica had lost a portion of their western territory to Lys just nine years prior, the prospect of gaining a new region had been too tempting to dismiss.

    When weeks and months passed with the Warlord of Askari not only still alive but also still firmly in control of his state, the Arnican side could not help but lower their guards in increments. To wit, Prince Dieter had shown up to the last couple of meetings with only the same number of elite soldiers as the other man.

    After all, the Warlord had proven himself capable. He had been aware of all the risks, and he had placed adequate measures against them. There was a real chance the merging of territories would truly happen, so the Arnicans had elected to show their sincerity in return.

    During that final, fatal meeting, the Warlord of Askari had also been killed, not by Arnican retaliation but by the same duplicity that had taken the Prince's life.

    The elite Arnican soldiers reacted the instant the northerners made their move, but their valiant defense had not been enough - their equally elite enemies had entered the engagement knowing they will not be getting out of it alive. They spared none of their energies for escaping, and certainly not for defending their own lord.

    Surviving soldiers had reported that the Warlord of Askari was as surprised as the Arnicans were by his own men's actions. A true warrior, he recovered in a flash, drawing his own concealed blade to attack the nearest of his treacherous men. A second one had closed in on him just as quickly, piercing his heart from behind.

    Though it was wretchedly too late, shrewder minds recognized how much this series of events stank of long-range planning. If the Askarians had only been against their Warlord's decision to surrender their independence to a foreign power, they did not have to wait until that moment. They could have picked any number of place and time to assassinate him - and only him.

    What actual need would they have to kill Prince Dieter as well? Nothing.

    Unless, as seemed apparent from the survivors' accounts, the Prince's death had been their true goal all along.

    The question of who had masterminded it was still a mystery, but the question of why was easy enough to answer. With Prince Dieter gone, Arnica's future leadership now fell either on an untested boy or on an oddball princess.

    Most importantly, its current monarch was female. To Warlords who only believed in the rule of might, the Queendom of Arnica had just become easy picking...

    ...And such an insult would never be tolerated.

    Yes, Arnicans of all walks were grieving. They worried about their future. But stronger than their sorrows, greater than their fears, there was an overpowering rage.

    How DARE the brutes look at them and see weakness? While the northern states had spent the last odd centuries fighting amongst themselves, it had been two hundred years since Arnica was last embroiled in civil war. During that time of internal peace, they had steadily become powerful and prosperous; their wealth was now second only to the eastern Empire of Zahr, and though reduced, their military might was still not something to be laughed at.

    They achieved all this by focusing only on the truly important things, which did not include a person's gender, only his or her capabilities. They did perhaps put too heavy an emphasis on rank and bloodlines, but it had been working well for maintaining general order and for limiting the power a single person could hold.

    An inept, abusive, or corrupt noble or royal would not stay in his or her position for long. A Crown Heir who does not have it in him or her to manage the country would not inherit. Even their poorest citizens, still considerably well off compared with those of other countries, would always have his or her right to live protected. And as long as they had the will and the ability, everyone would have plenty of chances to improve their lot in life.

    If the northern fools thought that Arnicans would not fight to the bitterest end to defend this "weak" queendom of theirs - if by "weak" they meant "nearly damn perfect" - they will all find in their dying moments just how wrong they had been.

    Indeed... many northerners already did.

    Four days ago, within the same hour of the assassination, the Lords and Ladies whose domains bordered Askari, Almar, and parts of Fonn had each received a note through messenger birds. It was from the company of soldiers under the Prince's command who had not been with him during the ambush, and they were asking for aid.

    The exact nature of this "aid" had not been specified. It was therefore free for anyone to "misinterpret." Thus, the rulers had mobilized their private garrisons to "practice drills" with the border troops stationed nearest their domain.

    This was all to work around the fact that neither an order nor an express permission to act had reached any of them from the Queen in faraway Oste. If the soldiers in their "drills" had happened to come across northerners who may or may not have had anything to do with recent events, and if they had happened to "accidentally kill" said northerners while "chasing them out"... well, they were within their rights.

    When she learned of it, the Queen's only response had been to ask if they'd left some alive for questioning. In the heat of the moment, each group that dispersed assumed the other ones would do so. All of them, however, had been determined to exterminate. No one took prisoners.

    That same day, a third of the queendom's main army reached the northern border after long hours of swift marching. More had arrived in the days that followed, and the divisions had been encamped in strategic points along the largely mountainous border areas.

    Their orders were only to defend against a sneak invasion and not to breach the border themselves. For that, there must first be a formal declaration of war after Arnica had determined beyond any doubt that they were under threat.

    Strictly speaking, that is.

    Most citizens - soldiers, rulers, and civilians alike - would settle for an excuse, even another "misinterpretation."

    Their Prince had already been murdered. Even if no one from their side had said it in words thus far, the northern states had already declared war on Arnica by committing this act. For that, with complete abandon, the Arnicans would invade even potentially blameless states at a moment's notice.

    This was how Hilde's people had always been. To outsiders, they appeared overly rigid with their countless rules and protocols, and for the most part, the stereotype was accurate.

    But it was an equally stereotypical trait, this tendency to resolve urgent crises by bending rules every which way - as far as they might go without breaking. Because no matter the consequences, they would not let themselves be their own downfall.

    Hilde had learned the full account of these events only in bits and pieces, mostly from Lady Ilse. The last two days, she had been either asleep or foggy-minded due to her medications, and this was the first time she had had a clearheaded if uncomfortable moment to think about how things in the queendom currently stood.

    She approved of her fellow Arnicans' swift, thorough, and unforgiving retaliation. It was a comprehensive response that said, "You think you could conquer us? Just try."

    It wasn't just the lives lost that they had avenged, it was their beloved homeland's dignity that they had defended, and "proud" doesn't even begin to describe how Hilde felt for being born and raised here among such people. She was determined to do her own part for her country, whatever this may turn out to be.

    During the ride in Viscount Renard's carriage, as she had been thinking of all this, Hilde had maintained a polite smile while largely tuning out his chitchat about trivial topics.

    Earlier, she had decided it was best to come clean to him about her riding accident, telling him when and where it happened, but not why. In any case, if they could pry the information out of someone in Oste, they would learn the full story sooner or later.

    She'd have preferred it if the Viscount had maintained a friendly silence as she did, but he seemed to be the type who was uncomfortable with a stranger unless they were talking.

    Playing the considerate hostess, alas, was the least among the skill set Hilde had grudgingly learned under her etiquette teacher. Even if she were feeling well, who would want to sit through the torture of keeping someone else entertained? But having just made a resolution to herself, she strove to "become" the type of person who could do so, and then maintain that mask.

    "Forgive me, Lord Viscount," Hilde said with an apologetic smile that made her look like her age. "I have not eaten anything since dawn. May I trouble you to join me for a brief meal? We'll soon reach an outlying village."

    The grandfatherly man, learning of the poor, hungry teenager's plight, gave his consent readily. He had of course been aware that her mind had been elsewhere since the merged parties continued their journey, with him resigned to the speed the princess' escorts would set after she told him the reason.

    When he thought about it, who would take offense for their extended lateness when the presence of Princess Hilde with them was all the excuse they needed? And while Prince Leal had been riding his horse abreast of the carriage window since earlier, that was all he'd been doing. The Viscount was starting to feel silly for being so apprehensive.

    When they entered the modest market square of the farthest village outside of Oste, they found a small crowd of citizens already gathered in it. Eerily silent, the villagers who were washed in gray stared as the black carriage and over a dozen mounted men clattered into their midst. The party had been forced to stop when not a single person moved out of the way to allow them passage to where the village inn stood.

    The foreign lords and soldiers on horseback looked tensely towards the captain of Lady Ilse's guards, whose jaw had tightened in visible alarm. The villagers had seen and recognized the Arnican soldiers among the Lyseans - the party saw that clearly enough.

    But the captain also clearly saw that the villagers didn't give a flying fig. In the height of their grief and anger, they were suddenly facing an enemy on whom they could unleash everything.

    Knowing full well someone had to do something quick or disaster would follow, the captain filled his lungs with air. His goal was to defuse the tension, but he was painfully aware that any action could just as easily trigger an explosion.

    "Fellow Arnicans! These honored guests have come to-"

    "SCUUUMS!"

    The captain closed his eyes.
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