13 Leal of Lys

    [Nicely done, princess.]

    Hilde slowly returned to her senses to the sound of Prick's voice inside her own head. For a brief moment, she was confused. 'Who was that?' she thought. Then she recalled everything, down to why she just received an unexpected praise. Or was he being sarcastic?

    She had no idea how long she'd been knocked out, but judging from what else she was hearing from her surroundings, it must not have been that long. The villagers were worriedly asking what had happened to her, and their voices grew increasingly louder, as if they were drawing close.

    But it was not them who were moving. Though Hilde's eyes remained shut, the sensation was unmistakable: she was being carried in someone's arms, and that someone was walking steadily past the concerned crowd, which must have parted for them.

    As soon as the full realization struck, she stiffened. She almost snapped, "Put me down this instant," but just managed to hold her tongue. The man wore no armor; he must be the one whose arm she grabbed earlier. One of the foreign lords, in other words, maybe even Leal of Lys himself.

    'Diplomacy,' Hilde told herself sternly, trying to flatten her raised hackles. From the way the man's arms had adjusted to her initial reaction, however, he already knew she was awake. He probably also knew she was far from feeling appreciative of his help. She sighed inwardly. 'I can't walk by myself anyway.'

    [Actually, you can,] Prick butted in, sounding a little annoyed that Hilde didn't acknowledge him earlier. [I just forcibly restored some of your physical strength. You can consider it as a reward for actually trying to meet the objective, but it's really because you can't keep fainting to escape the situation.]

    Hilde's eyes nearly flew open in indignation. 'I didn't do it on purpose this time!' she objected.

    Still, when she mentally examined her body's state, she found that he was telling the truth. She was far from being restored to one hundred percent, but aside from the lingering aches and dizziness, she'll be able to function well enough without anyone's assistance. For some reason, though, her hunger seemed to have increased tenfold.

    Grateful but confused, she asked, 'I thought you weren't supposed to help me?'

    [I said I wasn't going to make anything easy for you,] Prick replied in his signature dry tone. [And by that I meant I won't do the things you're supposed to do yourself. I only have influence on you, anyway, not on your world. Why do you keep misunderstanding me?]

    'Oh, I don't know,' Hilde answered, just as drily. 'It must be because of your wonderful personality.'

    Prick snorted. [Touché. Now back to work.]

    Hilde thought about ignoring his order just to be difficult, but her current reality simply wouldn't allow it. She opened her eyes and looked up. What she saw was something she already half-expected, yet the confirmation still managed to jolt her.

    Leal, who may very well be the heir to Lys' throne, was looking straight ahead. From her vantage point, it was only the sculpted line of his profile that she could see against the blue and white backdrop of the sky.

    There was really no denying that the man was handsome. Hilde had already acknowledged that the first time she saw him, so she didn't waste another second dwelling on the matter. What she badly wanted to know were the following.

    Was he really the Leal who was King Madelon's son? If so, why did he come to Arnica cloaked in secrecy? Actually, scratch that, why did he come to Arnica at all?

    "Do you like what you see?"

    The quiet words drifted to Hilde's ears. She saw that Leal's lips had been moving subtly as she was hearing them said, but with her mind occupied with the mystery the man himself presented, she didn't immediately connect the two occurrences. Then the meaning behind his words sank in.

    Hilde was not the type to blush under strong emotions; she was the type to pale. Turning her head away so Leal's oh-so-precious face won't be on her line of sight anymore, she clenched her teeth and fought the urge to form fists. She was absolutely livid.

    'This damn brat!' she thought. So what if she was looking? Don't show your face if you don't want it seen!

    But her anger only made her already-pale face lose more color. To those who'd noted she had regained consciousness, she appeared dreadfully ill.

    And this after realizing just who was carrying her! Their poor princess!

    Hilde blinked. She and Leal had just passed through the entrance of a building - the village inn, she was assuming. The late morning light and the small crowd outside was suddenly replaced by shadows and relative silence in the building's entrance hall, which had no windows.

    There were already others further inside. Most were villagers who were probably hurrying to prepare a bed for her, though she was more desperate for a large meal. As in any village inn, the first floor of this one served as a pub. It had a dozen neatly spaced tables, and to the far left of the room, there was a bar. Frieda was talking to a man who stood behind it. The rest of the people who came in before or after Leal and Hilde were soldiers, and one of them was her Aunt's.

    The Arnican soldier was still performing his duty of guarding their guests, but from the way his otherwise attentive eyes kept darting to the princess in the foreign lordling's arms, Hilde guessed that he was feeling displeased.

    It was only by chance that it fell on Leal and not on any of the Arnicans to help her, but this kind of reaction can't be helped. When people have already decided they hated something, few would welcome new input that could make them change their opinions. Leal or any other Lysean could die for her and Arnicans would only be angry - no one asked him to do it. How dare he think he even had the right?

    Hilde smiled wryly. Just like any other nations, Arnica was not without its faults.

    "Thank you, Lord Leal, please put me down now."

    Following another worker, Leal had reached the staircase on the right corner of the main floor. It presumably led to rooms upstairs, and he'd been about to mount it. He paused at Hilde's words and bowed his head to look at her. Her pale gray eyes met his intense blue ones squarely.

    Her face's pallor aside, Leal saw that Hilde really thought she could now stand on her own. He himself couldn't see how that was possible - just a few minutes ago, she was shaking like the last leaf on a tree before the first snow falls.

    Neither replying nor doing what she asked, Leal raised his dark eyebrows a tiny fraction.

    Hilde could not help it. The implied condescension made her nostrils flare a little. She forcefully reminded herself, 'DIPLOMACY, Hilde.'

    "I have no use for a bed, Lord," she began explaining in the pleasantest tone she could muster, speaking in Lysean. "Please trust me, I have slept enough these past three days. What I need to do now is eat."

    As soon as she finished speaking, Hilde's empty stomach supported her claim by rumbling loudly.

    She really could have done without that, though.

    Cheeks pale, Hilde fought with all her might not to avert her gaze.

    'Prince or not, if he laughs, I swear-'

    With admirable control, Leal kept his expression carefully bland. "Ah" was all he said, and instead of continuing up the stairs, he turned around and headed for the nearest table. But because Hilde was practically plastered to his chest, he could not quite hide from her how it was convulsing with held-in amusement.

    Over his shoulder, Leal addressed their guide in slightly stilted Arnican. "Won't you find a comfortable chair please, for the princess." Lowering his voice so only Hilde could hear the rest, he continued, "And for the love of all that is holy, say that there is a whole cow roasting somewhere in this village."

    Any other girl would have been excused if she dug a hole and dived in that situation. It didn't matter that she only felt the most basic attraction for this man, as any person might for someone who had a good-looking face. An embarrassment was an embarrassment, and she was like everybody else, wishing no one else had been a witness to any she committed.

    She cannot even hide her expression behind her hands or close her eyes against seeing others' reactions. She must bear it all. Something like this was just another thing she had to endure because of who she was.

    Hilde's face almost seemed like it was made out of wax due to how white and lifeless it was. Behind her mask, however, she was screaming for this man's death, damn all the consequences.

    Speaking as quietly as Leal had done so no one else but him would hear, Hilde asked, "Why are you here, Prince?"

    She now saw no reason to play along with his secret. And if he was not going to put as much effort as her into making their interaction courteous, she too wasn't going to bother as much anymore.

    Simply from watching how the princess had behaved ever since she stepped out of the carriage, Leal had been unable to tell if she had heard him give orders earlier or if she was able to deduce any truths from that act. He had taken the risk of taking command because no matter what, he cannot die in this place.

    Now it would seem there was no need to pretend with the girl in his arms, although granted, he hadn't truly been trying. He always preferred being real in his every dealings. It was something his devious-minded father lamented about him.

    Even before Leal had reached the table he was targeting, the inn worker was already there, arranging a well-padded, high-backed chair with armrests for Hilde. The worker withdrew once he was done, heading straight for a doorway that seemed to lead to the kitchen. Aside from the soldiers who were at least a pace away, the pair was left to themselves.

    With surprising care, Leal settled Hilde on the chair. Before he withdrew, however, he spoke quietly by her ears. "It is funny that you should ask," he said. "Princess." And that was all.

    He moved to another chair on the same table and took a seat. Frowning slightly, Hilde would have pressed the issue, but she saw past Leal's shoulder that the other Lysean lords were entering the inn, about to join them.

    They looked surprised that she was awake and seemingly waiting to be served food, but led by the elderly Viscount, they expressed relief and took it all in stride.

    Then, heralded by the wonderful Frieda and the worker who had found and brought the comfortable chair, platters and bowls of food arrived at their table one by one.

    Hilde could barely restrain herself until all the men settled into their chairs. Shoveling food in while somehow maintaining a proper façade, Hilde inwardly sang praises for highly trained attendants and inn workers while completely scrubbing away Prince Leal's last, cryptic words from her mind.
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