15 At the Capital II

    Stationed guards noted their approach to the palace way ahead of time. As such, even before the royal carriage negotiated the winding and tree-lined stone path to the central courtyard - where the entrances to the most important buildings can be found - there was already a small crowd there awaiting its arrival.

    The central courtyard was a lot smaller than the city square down the hill, but its superior grandness showed in the smaller details. No expenses had been spared in the creation of the buildings and their facades, which boasted timeless designs.

    Stone spires, marble statues, intricate latticework, tall arched windows with colored panes of glass - their architects and artisans came from different eras, but they all took immense care to make their additions and improvements complementary with those that came before, not contradictory.

    The white-and-gold carriage, its team of horses once again uniformly white, drove past the courtyard's shadowed entryway and came into everyone's view. It went around the oval-shaped center field of manicured grass and seemingly random pockets of flowering shrubs. It then stopped before the dozen cascading steps that led up to the entrance of the royal residence.

    The building of yellow stone was the tallest, most richly decorated structure among the already opulent surroundings. But of course, the flags and banners of mourning also flew here against the cool wind that heralded the end of summer. Here more than anywhere else, the blank symbols of cloth bore a heavy weight.

    Royal attendants waiting by the foot of the stairs immediately approached the carriage, opening its door and escorting out a pair of women inside who, with their similar coloring and matching simple dresses, could not be mistaken for anything other than mother and daughter. They were greeted with bows and curtseys, which they acknowledged with a nod.

    A thin and solemn-looking man, aged around seventy, stepped forward. "Lady Ilse," said the man, who was the Royal Steward. "You've made it in good time. The other Lords and Ladies await you at-"

    The steward paused when he saw the carriage door close before the vehicle pulled away. He had been operating under the expectation that Lady Ilse would be bringing a certain princess with her - one who, in the first place, had no business being anywhere else other than the palace in Oste. Knowing she'd just suffered a fall, he had thought she didn't come out of the carriage with the other women because she needed assistance to do so. Why was it going away already?

    Masking his confusion, he said to Lady Ilse, "Is Princess Hilde perhaps still sleeping?"

    The Lady understood what was really being asked but chose not to address it here.

    "Is the Queen with the Assembly?" she asked instead, in her turn.

    The white-haired elderly man blinked a few times to come to terms with the fact that his own question was being ignored.

    "No, Lady," he eventually answered. "The Queen is in her private study."

    Lady Ilse nodded. "Good. I shall go to her first. Make my excuses to the Lords and Ladies, please, Steward. I'll be a while to join them." Almost automatically, she turned to her daughter, held out her hand, and called, "Gisela." The young woman stepped closer and linked arms with her mother. With their maids following closely behind, they began ascending the steps.

    At the wide landing of the semi-circular stairs, there waited three distinct groups: minor lords and ladies; some young representatives of powerful ones; and several rich and influential people who held no official positions.

    If a ruling family should ever fail to fulfill their duties, down to the last man or woman, the first of these three groups would have the best chance to take their place, elevating their stations. The last of the three could in turn take the vacated minor seats of power.

    Both groups seldom needed watching - naked ambition gets nipped in the bud if it was not paired with doing the work required... properly. As well, a family or individual would have to be extraordinary schemers if they were to get away with making a power grab. Anything less than that, the Arnicans' deeply ingrained habit to check and balance each other could deal with effectively.

    None of the new arrivals within this company was blind - they noticed how nearly every pair of eyes in the vicinity was following a certain exceptionally beautiful young woman. Despite appearances, not even the woman in question was ignorant of it.

    But Gisela wore a serene expression, neither shying away from the attention nor acknowledging it in any way. Some of those looking had noted this before the princess and her mother paused in front of them to receive their greetings. However, it was something that the person walking so closely by her side could not see.

    Sweeping her slightly wrinkled tawny eyes among the gray-garbed throng, Lady Ilse did not hide her disdain at how many of them were wearing clothes made from highly expensive fabric, mostly the type that shimmered when hit by light. A few even went so far as to wear dresses or jackets embroidered with silver thread.

    Just what kind of occasion did these people think they were attending?

    For all that the mother and daughter pair were wearing simple clothes made from inexpensive but good-quality materials, they somehow still looked better than the others. After acknowledging the minor dignitaries with a  nod that was slightly deeper than the one they'd returned to the royal attendants, Lady Ilse and Princess Gisela continued on their way. In another dozen steps, they crossed the threshold into the palace.

    The magnificence of the entrance hall alone was enough to overwhelm anyone who was not used to such sights. Two of the four maids following the royals were new to their positions, and though the luxuriousness of the old stone manor in Nelke was also not to be laughed at, it was not quite comparable with the royal residence.

    The floor was of polished granite in maroon, beige, and sparkling black hues that were arranged in a mandala-like pattern. There were gold-plated sconces and other golden accents to the white walls, which had various-sized portraits hanging at artful intervals. Columns of yellow-veined marble supported the ceiling that seemed to extend for three floors. Along with a grand chandelier of reflective crystals, that ceiling boasted masterful frescoes of battle scenes, side by side with more peaceful moments in the country's long history.

    There were also fantastic depictions of ancient myths, and the most prominent were those of the chief of the gods, Ansigar, and the goddess of the wilderness, Amalasuintha. Ellanher, their son, was said to be the first conqueror of the land now known as Arnica. Though few nowadays blindly believed it to be true, Arnican royals traditionally traced their unbroken bloodline to these divinities and to a mortal queen named Herleva.

    More used to the spectacle, Lady Ilse, Gisela, and their two older attendants just walked steadily across the vast floor, eyes barely flicking anywhere other than the grand central staircase carpeted in dark red.

    Behind them, the minor dignitaries were also entering, and as early as a few steps in, they broke neatly into three groups. One each would return to the parlor rooms reserved for their use on either wings of the ground floor, and the third would descend the stairs after the royals, to rejoin their families who waited on the throne room on the second floor.

    This third group, consisting mostly of youths, was surprised when the small group of women reached the landing and turned right instead of walking straight ahead.

    None of them called out to ask what the matter was, however. That wasn't for them to inquire about. Of course, they can and will report the curious development to the respective heads of their families.

    It was during these moments that many began recalling how a certain absentee royal was also supposed to have arrived. Princess Gisela's breathtaking beauty made them forget, but now they were each asking themselves... where was Princess Hilde?

    When the noise made by the group of youths died down, indicating they had entered the throne room, Lady Ilse stopped in her tracks and stealthily scanned her surroundings. Satisfied that only palace servants were now present, she spoke to her daughter.

    "I need to talk to the Queen," she said in a lowered voice, wary that her words would echo. "It's best that I do it alone. Would you rather wait for my return in our suites? Or perhaps you could go and sit with Prince Luca for a while?"

    Gisela thought for a moment. "If I could find him, I think I'll wait with Luca."

    During the briefest time that she had been preoccupied, her mother shot her two personal maids a sharp look. Unmistakably, it said, "Do NOT let strange bugs get anywhere near my daughter."

    When Gisela gave her answer, her mother had met her eyes steadily. In a pleasant tone, she replied, "If you could find him, then. I wager he misses you."

    Gisela beamed. "I miss him, too. I'll see you later, Mother!"

    Lady Ilse watched as Gisela and her two attendants retraced their steps to the staircase. Instead of descending, they kept going until they've reached the corridor that led to the left wing of the second floor, which served as the residential suites for members of the royal family.

    After they were no longer in sight, Lady Ilse continued on her way, entering the right-wing corridor in turn. There were also residential suites in there reserved for guests, but most of its rooms were for administrative purposes. That was also where the Queen's personal study can be found.

    Almost as soon as they entered the slightly dim corridor, Gisela saw a servant who might know of the young prince's whereabouts. Sure enough, she told Gisela that he could be found in his favorite sitting room. She knew quite well which one that was. She went deeper inside the wing's warren of corridors.

    As she reached the door of the particular room, she heard indistinct sounds of clattering objects. Then, just as she was about to knock on the door, it flew wide open. A small figure came out at a run.

    Noticing too late that there was a person in his way, the figure's head collided with Gisela's chest. The force nearly knocked them both over, but one of her maids braced her from behind just in time.

    As swiftly as he ran into her, the curly-haired boy who could only be Prince Luca stepped away and looked up. Gisela saw that his chubby cheeks were pink and that his fine-lashed gray eyes were watering slightly due to some held-in emotion.

    The moment he recognized Gisela, whatever he was holding in spilled out. However, instead of running towards the older girl again - this time to seek comfort - he completed his interrupted flight. Confused and slightly hurt, Gisela watched his small back disappearing deeper into the corridor, his reddish-blond locks bouncing wildly on top of his head.

    A harried male attendant quickly made his blushing greeting to the princess, apologizing on Prince Luca's behalf and stating that she need not trouble herself, he'll be going after the prince to make sure he was all right. At her small nod of acknowledgment, the young male attendant went, still blushing.

    This swift turn of events left Gisela standing there by the still-open door, lost on what to do next. She was making her mind up to follow Luca anyway when she heard a male voice come from inside the room.

    "Ah-" the owner had said, as if only becoming aware of what had just happened.

    Three pairs of female eyes turned to look inside the room, two of them full of panic. What they saw was a man, perhaps a year or two over twenty, standing by the light of one of the far windows. He was wearing a slightly crumpled white shirt whose sleeves had been rolled up. On the armchair beside him hung a gray jacket, and it didn't seem like it would be in a better condition than his shirt after he puts it on again. His brown hair, dark as his eyes, was straight and fell past his brows and ears.

    If there was anything remarkable about him at first glance, it was the fact that he was incredibly... well, "uncaring of personal appearance" would be the politest way of putting it.

    Still, there was an inexplicably appealing air around him as he gazed absently in the general direction of the door, his forehead knotted, and vaguely commented, "I think that was my fault."
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