14 At the Capital I

    Half a day's ride from the queendom's southern coastline, the capital was a hilly region that also boasted vast plains, thick forests, and rich valleys.

    The Royal Palace, a giant and near-ancient collection of loosely interconnected buildings, was located on top of a defensible hill. Made almost entirely of stone, it had layers of walls within walls, over a dozen towers of different heights, shapes, and designs, and blue roofs with spires whose tips all point to the sky.

    Put simply, it was a castle right out of fairytales. And because it's on elevated ground, if one stands behind any of its outward-facing windows, the breathtaking and seemingly endless plain that made up the city of Oste can be seen.

    Similarly, no matter where anyone stood on that plain, one can face towards the very center and see the majestic structure on the tallest hilltop.

    More than just a residence and a place where central governance was conducted from, it symbolized their country's power, which was in turn embodied by their royal lineage.

    Lady Ilse's reduced party reached the city proper a good two and a half hours before noon. Gisela was looking out the window, absently noting the familiar lines of diversely designed buildings on either side of the wide road.

    She had been quiet for the greater part of the ride. While she would not think to criticize her mother's decision, she would also not be able to stop worrying until Hilde was with them again.

    Earlier, when Lady Ilse simply explained that this would be a good "trial by fire" for her cousin, Gisela somewhat understood what was meant. Hilde's circumstances were vastly different now, and she simply cannot go on the same way she had been thus far. Gisela only wished that her cousin had been in much better condition before having to undergo this unexpected test.

    Knowing her daughter well, Lady Ilse could guess what she was thinking. Was it harsh of her to give a hard task to a girl who'd just suffered blows - both physical and emotional - perhaps the worst ones she'd ever experienced in her young life?

    Certainly. Few adults in their right minds would have done the same.

    But in the real world, no one gets to choose what condition you're in when challenges find you. When you're only ever handed puzzles you already know how to solve, you achieve nothing except a false sense of complacency - about yourself and about your capabilities.

    Of course, Lady Ilse knew better than most that she truly wasn't one to talk about this topic. There were so many lessons she simply refused to learn, and what wisdom she possessed, she only acquired because her own circumstances had forced her to do so. The few things she did learn, however, was highly valuable.

    This was the bitter truth: the world doesn't owe anyone an easy time. It doesn't even owe anyone acceptance or understanding. People set rules in place to make life a little more fair for everyone, but the world was not naturally designed to be that way.

    In all honesty, Arnica's society was very odd in that they cared enough to create let alone enforce such rules, yet if it ever becomes a choice between the two, human nature might still prevail over cultural standards.

    And even in this queendom, no matter what a person's troubles were, the most sympathetic response they can hope for was, "What of it? You're still alive."

    She found out about such truths late in her life, but if given a choice, she'd have liked them shoved in her face early on. Then she'd have possessed fewer illusions, whose shattering she'd had to suffer through one by one.

    Among other things, these dark thoughts of Lady Ilse's indicated the following: she sincerely thought she had done her niece a huge favor.

    However, Hilde was one thing; her own daughter was quite another. Gisela probably had no idea, but such thoughts in relation to her often kept her mother awake at night.

    Beauty others would desire or envy, kindness many would take advantage of...

    No matter how strong-willed, a mother cannot live forever. How could Gisela stay protected long after Lady Ilse was gone? A husband was no guarantee, as she herself could attest. Sometimes they die, sometimes they change. Anchoring your happiness on another person was one of the surest ways to achieve just the opposite.

    No, what Gisela needed to do was also to become strong in her own right.

    And she will - being her father's daughter as well as Lady Ilse's, Gisela surely had it in her to stand firm by herself, withstanding every difficulty.

    But... maybe not quite yet. Her pure and sweet child still had her mother, didn't she?

    People on the wide main street noted the passage of the royal carriage. Most of them were going about some last few errands before the funeral rites were to start, but many were already on their way to the grand city square.

    One and all, they stopped where they were - even other carriages on either side of the road slowed - to offer the occupants gestures of respect, not for their status as royals but for the fact that they were the family members of the person the whole queendom was going to lay to rest this day.

    The carriage soon reached the expanse of cobblestoned field that was the capital's market square. Boxing it were towering buildings of light-colored stone and huge half-timbered structures painted in various hues. At the very center rose a circular water fountain that featured statues of queens, kings, and other figures from history and legend.

    Arnica did not have an official religion. Aside from the ever-shifting philosophies of the times, its people followed the glorious tales of heroism, sacrifice, and bold progress as their moral and spiritual compass.

    One of the most famous among these figures was Anissa, whose fountain statue can be found near the very top.

    A widowed mother to twins of different genders, she was a Queen Regent who lived over two hundred years ago. She was remembered for making the ultimate sacrifice for Arnica. By rebelling against her own son - who had been on the verge of destroying the kingdom through his selfishness and mad cruelty - and by installing his twin sister to rule in his place, she had helped save the country.

    To this day, many still judge the Queen Regent's actions harshly. No matter what, he was still her child. That her son had grown up to become such a king - hadn't it been her responsibility to raise him in the first place? How did it all come to such an end?

    Such critics were mostly those whose knowledge of raising children - of exactly what was involved - was sorely lacking. It's another harsh reality. Often, it didn't matter how good of a parent one may be. Whether it's favorable or destructive, what's already an intrinsic part of a child's nature will show up, one way or another, if the child himself did not see the necessity to conceal or change it.

    The Arnicans who lived in that chaotic time of transition were a lot more accepting. Back when she and her brother were growing up under their mother's evenhanded rule, if the then-princess hadn't already proven her potential to rule, the rebellion would not have succeeded. Indeed, it would not have happened at all.

    Of the pair, it had always been she who was better - at studies, at grasping and managing complex concepts and structures, at winning the love and loyalty of people of any station. This might even have contributed to why her brother became the way he was. If she had been male like him, it was likely he'd have had her killed as soon as he came to power, and perhaps even before then.

    But she was only a woman, and he was the only male heir. As long as he lived, his uselessly capable sister would be nothing - at best a blue-blooded broodmare in some foreign court.

    And he would have been correct, except his subjects had decided it was for the better after all that he no longer lived.

    After her son's execution, with a will of iron, the Queen Regent oversaw her daughter's full transition to power. When the new Queen was as settled as anyone could possibly be, her mother decided the rest was up to her own abilities and willpower. And luck.

    The Queen Regent virtually sentenced herself into exile to the north, by her own choice never again returning to the capital. Not even when her daughter took a consort, not even when the Queen gave birth to a female child, whom she proclaimed to be her first heir, regardless if she were to have a male one afterwards.

    Two years later, through unexplained circumstances, the Queen Regent died. This outcome had somehow been expected by nearly everyone. No one was surprised or delved deep into the full circumstances of the "accident."

    Throughout all of this, from the rebellion to the moment they sealed her mother in the royal tombs, the young Queen of Arnica never shed a tear that anyone ever saw. No one would have grudged it of her, but she had always been the kind to hold herself to her own standards. If she grieved or felt anything else strongly at any point during her long reign, she did it all in private.

    This legendary Queen was the one Hilde had been named after. Perhaps that was another reason Lady Ilse was sometimes on edge, when the descendant and namesake of those Queens was around her. She didn't like being reminded of what Queen Hilde's mother had done. She herself could never be that patriotic.

    When their carriage passed the fountain, Lady Ilse sniffed. Soon, they had crossed the somber market square and entered the road that would lead up the hill, to the Royal Palace that rose above clouds.

    Despite the occasion and her lingering worry for Hilde, Gisela seemed to have perked up after realizing they were so close to their destination. Her mother could understand her excitement. She very rarely ever comes to Oste with her daughter - only if it really could not be helped. Now more than ever, she didn't want to step foot in that place. Not while bringing such a treasure.

    Her sweet, sweet child didn't know it, but her mother was preparing to enter a battlefield.
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