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12 Homecoming V

    The captain, whose name was Helmut, couldn't help his initial reaction of dismay, but he snapped back into action the next moment.

    "Protect the guests!" he ordered his soldiers as he himself spurred his horse forward.

    He and the others spaced themselves between the villagers and the Lysean soldiers, who had carefully moved back to surround the black carriage. Thankfully, many villagers seemed to have opted to go to Oste; this small crowd of people wasn't the village's full population, and most were either too old or too young to do much damage.

    Behind him, Captain Helmut heard another man say in a barely audible tone: "Don't draw your weapons. Don't make any threatening moves."

    It had been spoken in Lysean, which the captain understood a little, but he didn't know who exactly had given the orders. He did note that the voice sounded young, and he was pretty certain the captain of the Lysean escorts was already in his thirties. The man had a youthful voice, perhaps? Whatever the case may be, he was grateful that, while under threat, they had chosen to fight fire with water.

    The shout earlier had come from a lone man from the back of the crowd. It had failed to rouse the others into attacking, as he had perhaps intended. But if that unknown man had been in front of the crowd...

    Captain Helmut waited a moment more, and seeing that the majority of the villagers were choosing to simmer instead of blowing their lids off like the yeller did, he tried to calm them again using a different tactic.

    Into the tension-filled silence, he asked aloud, "Would you shame our Princess in front of guests she herself had welcomed?"

    To his relief, that brought about the desired effect. At hearing the word "princess," the villagers broke out of their blind haze. Some looked at each other to wonder, "Princess? Which one?" Others craned their necks to try to see inside the carriage, correctly inferring that if the princess had personally welcomed these... "guests..." and that if Arnican soldiers were among the party even now, she'd also be among them.

    Alas, this revelation had another unintended effect, one that none of the people on the other side of the divide could have seen coming.

    One elderly woman dressed in a homespun gray wool, her white hair pulled back in a simple bun, stepped forward slowly. Though none of the soldiers had made a move to stop her, they still heightened their guard even further. There was no predicting how the new situation was going to develop.

    The woman herself stopped just in front of one Arnican soldier, but from her vantage point, she was in clear view of the carriage's door. As the men watched, the elder's eyes glazed and hot tears began to overflow.

    "Princess..." she called, voice low and cracking. Then, much louder: "Princess!"

    The woman was at the very front of the other villagers. Perhaps that was why they found it natural to follow her lead. If these villagers were to be asked later - "What pushed you to step forward, crying and calling for a person whose identity you weren't even sure of?" - they would have no answer to give. Even this elderly woman did not quite know what she intended by her actions.

    Still, in the next moment, all the villagers had let their feelings loose, not in violence as they had wordlessly threatened earlier, but in sorrow. And even though there were only four Arnican soldiers barring their way from the carriage, their deeply instilled discipline showed when they stopped right in front of the "barrier," which was so full of gaps they could have easily overwhelmed it.

    Captain Helmut and the rest of his soldiers did not leave their posts. He also kept facing the front, with his eyes and all his other senses cranked up, watchful and vigilant for any change in the crowd that might spell a threat for them all.

    If things were to go south here, forget about not receiving aid from Lys or having them declare war on Arnica once again - they might very well use this as an excuse to join forces with the northern states and happily annihilate their centuries-old rival.

    Maybe that was even King Madelon's aim from the start. He didn't actually have to send anyone to Arnica for the funeral rites, an official letter would have been a lot more welcome. And in Captain Helmut's opinion, the delegates who had been sent over all looked pretty damned expendable.

    When he was on the verge of believing his own conspiracy theory, the captain caught the sound of a carriage door opening. A hush fell over the weeping crowd.

    ***

    Hilde cursed herself for a fool. When the carriage left the road to enter the village, it was only after it slowed that she recalled exactly why, when there were countrywide events, it was customary to complete all traveling well before it would start. It was so travelers wouldn't inconvenience town or village residents - who would already be busy with their own preparations - like she was about to do now.

    Behind her mask of pleasant attentiveness, she lamented the impression she was going to give these villagers in this, her first public appearance as the new second in line.

    Soon after having that thought, Hilde discovered yet another of her failings: until a single shout of pure hatred had rang out, she had no idea that their arrival had transformed the gray-clad sea of villagers into a powder keg. Eyes wide, chest pounding, Hilde was turning her head towards the window even as her hand was unconsciously reaching for the door.

    The Viscount stopped her hand with a light touch. She raised panicked eyes at him, then recalled herself. Blinking and swallowing to moisten her suddenly dry throat, she erased all traces of emotions from her face, leaving only a hard blankness. At the sight, the elderly man retracted his hand, and though his face was also carefully bland, one can see from the way his breathing had quickened how anxious he truly was.

    When he got Hilde's attention, the Viscount said, "Even you might get hurt, Princess."

    Hilde knew he was right. She could only monitor what was happening outside through listening intently, and she heard the clanging of metal and horse hooves, accompanied by the raised voice of the captain of Lady Ilse's guards.

    Despite the situation, Hilde was jolted once again by the realization that she did not know his name - she had asked for Frieda's, why did she not ask for his and the others'? The least she owed the men was to know what to call them by. Those four soldiers might get hurt or even die because of her thoughtless decision to stop in a random village, whose residents tended to be insular and more nationalistic than townspeople.

    And here she had been imagining she might finally get the chance to fight battles, and perhaps lead them, as her brother did before her. Some commander of soldiers she'd make when she didn't even know something as basic as learning the names of the people she was responsible for.

    Only a few moments had passed, yet Hilde found she was about to sink further into panic and helplessness. During the crisis with the Lyseans earlier, it had been easier to keep a cool head because she had been the one in control of the situation.

    This time, it was different. The crowd outside had abandoned reason and was now in the grip of their collective emotions. How can such a beast be controlled by anyone, let alone by an untried teenager who could barely handle her own feelings?

    Just outside the carriage window, a male voice spoke quietly in Lysean. Being so near, Hilde had heard the orders clearly, and they made intuitive sense to her. The Arnicans hated the Lyseans so much they would take the first available chance to reduce the other side to rubble. The Lyseans becoming instantly defensive at the first sign of a challenge would be just the excuse the Arnicans wanted.

    No, what didn't make sense to Hilde was the recognition of who had given those orders.

    Leal was a common name in Lys. Many of their kings had been named thus, and it was also much used by their general populace. Hilde had thought absolutely nothing of it when "Leal of Lys" introduced himself as such - he was only one among an entire legion.

    But while that was still very much true, it now appeared that THIS Leal of Lys was the one standing at the head of that legion.

    Hilde shifted her gaze to look at the Viscount.

    He too had realized exactly what had been revealed by what they just overheard. He was also turning towards her, his nervousness now showing in his crinkled and honest-looking eyes. After seeing the expression on Hilde's face that seemed to be asking "Are you people insane?" the Viscount could only wince.

    In the village's market square, the scene had shifted once again, and hearing the Arnican captain shouting about her and what she'd done brought Hilde's full attention back to the situation.

    She couldn't even begin to imagine what the consequences would be if this Lysean prince died on Arnican soil. Never mind that no one but Hilde had known it, these people had been sent to them as a token of friendship. Any way you look at it, Arnica would be the one in the wrong if they murdered their guests.

    And wasn't this almost the same reasoning they had for wanting to conquer the northern states? Would Lys really sacrifice its future king just to get a similar excuse?

    She barely even noticed how her aches and lightheadedness had been, for the moment, swept to the side by the adrenaline being pumped into her bloodstream.

    'Must this situation really fall on MY head?' she couldn't help but think. There was no denying it: it was far more than what she was prepared to handle.

    "Princess..." she heard someone outside say faintly, and again, louder, "Princess!"

    Soon, it wasn't only that lone female voice calling out, but seemingly every villager outside, from old to young, all crying out their grief and fears.

    "I think it's fine now, Your Highness," Viscount Renard said quietly, addressing Hilde the same way he would the royals in his own kingdom. With a sympathetic expression, he then explained, "I suspect they are overwhelmed that one of their queendom's heirs has unexpectedly come to them. They are looking to you for reassurance. For strength."

    Hilde acknowledged the words with a grateful bow but didn't speak. Her heart was in her throat, and now more than ever, she was feeling like a complete imposter.

    Reassurance? Strength? What exactly can she offer anyone? She wasn't even confident she could get herself to stand again without help.

    Hilde clenched her teeth so hard her already aching head throbbed. Her people were calling for a princess. She suspected any royal would have done, but she was the only one around. Nothing else matters - there's no one here but her to answer their call.

    Hilde reached for the door handle, twisted it, and pushed the door open. With her very last reserves of strength, she climbed down the carriage, not thinking twice about taking the supporting arm being offered to her. It would only be pure silliness to pretend she didn't need it, at this point.

    Gripping the man's gray-sleeved arm tightly with one hand, Hilde raised her head. The villagers recognized her face and renewed their cries, "Princess Hilde! Princess!"

    That was all they said, her name and nothing else. But from their voices and expressions, these were what Hilde understood: they were her people, this was her home, she was Princess Hilde and no one else.

    Her own tears began to fall freely. As she swept her eyes over the crowd, she nodded her own wordless understanding. "She will," her tearful nodding was saying. Whatever they were asking of her, she will do it.

    With that resolve, Hilde felt the last of her strength leave her. Then she knew nothing else.
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