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16 At the Capital III

    Gisela thought the man looked familiar somehow but couldn't quite place where she'd seen him. For fifteen years, even before her father died, she'd lived a largely secluded life, and as she was not yet of age, she'd had few opportunities to meet and mingle with people close to her rank.

    Did she perhaps come across this man during one of the rare times she stayed in Oste? If so, she rather thought she would have remembered it more clearly. The young lordling with an absent-minded air made quite the impression, after all.

    Meanwhile, Gisela's attendants were lost on what to do. Their Lady would have their heads when she finds out that, not even five minutes after her daughter was out of her sight, she was already thrown into the presence of an unknown man. And even though this man was yet to realize just who was on the other side of the open doorway, that alone made them categorize him as "strange."

    What was he so preoccupied with that he wouldn't even take a proper look at Princess Gisela's face? If only he did so, they guaranteed he'd forget all about his thoughts, perhaps even who he was.

    Ah, but no! They shouldn't let that happen either!

    The senior of the two maids stepped forward to speak quietly by Gisela's ear. "Shall we head to your suite, Princess?" she asked.

    Alas, the man inside the chamber full of green-tinted furnishing seemed to have been blessed with sharp ears. When he overheard the maid call the girl with them "princess," he suddenly snapped to attention. He looked at the girl in the middle properly for the first time, blinked, and - for some mindboggling reason - frowned.

    "Princess?" he said, sounding very confused. "But you're not Princess Hilde."

    The maids' mouths fell open. What was this man saying, why was he stating the obvious? And why did he seem like he was disappointed - almost dismissive - as he recalled himself and bowed mechanically to the girl whose rank was higher than his?

    "Was there something you needed from my cousin?" Gisela asked pleasantly after returning the greeting. "Sir...?"

    "Theodar, Princess," the man supplied. "Lord General Alfwin's younger son."

    Gisela's lips formed a silent "oh" as she began to understand why the stranger looked familiar to her.

    "You are Lothar's brother."

    "I was," answered Theodar, the second word devoid of any inflection. His forehead knotted again briefly before he added, as if he only just recalled the name, "Princess Gisela. You have my condolences."

    Ignoring the fact she had just been offhandedly insulted, Gisela smiled with sorrow in her eyes.

    "And you have mine, Theodar. Your elder brother was a good man - one of the best."

    The lordling acknowledged this with a brief but grateful nod.

    "As for your question," he suddenly went on, surprising the women who'd forgotten about it, "there is nothing in particular that I need from Princess Hilde. I've heard much of her from Lothar, and I thought... well, I admit, I did not quite know what I was thinking. I can't imagine how seeing me could make her hurt any less." Theodar paused, his dark eyes looking fathomless again because he was gazing inwardly. "She and I... we are in the same boat is what I was probably thinking."

    Gisela's attendants shared a look, their eyebrows raised slightly. Was this young man perhaps suffering from a deficiency in intelligence? To not know the reasons behind his own actions - nay, to appear so thickheaded that the unparalleled beauty of the young woman he was talking to seemed to be lost on him - the reason must surely be something like that!

    But their young mistress, bless her kind soul, was nodding as if she fully understood what this addled man just said.

    "I cannot guarantee that Hilde would welcome the reminder you represent," she told him, "but simply for being who you are, my cousin would not turn you away."

    Hearing that, Theodar looked somewhat relieved. "Thank you for your words, Princess, though I am not deserving of your sympathy."

    Gisela smiled a little more brightly. "Any person who thinks well of Hilde is a good person in my opinion."

    The young man blinked several times at Gisela's unexpected forwardness. Her maids' panic spiked again, but Theodar shifted his gaze away from her face and instead looked at the floor around him, where chess pieces made of white and black jade lay scattered. Out of nowhere, he bent down to begin picking them up.

    "Oh!" Gisela exclaimed even as she was turning to one of her attendants. The younger of the two understood what was being ordered and immediately stepped into the room to help Theodar pick up the scattered objects. More slowly, Gisela also entered. The senior maid behind her bit her lower lip in worry as she followed. May Lady Ilse spare their heads!

    Theodar slowly straightened once he was done. Nonchalantly, as if he was the only person in the room, he then proceeded to put on his squashed gray jacket.

    "May I know what happened?" Gisela asked, calling his attention back to the others. "Why was Prince Luca upset?"

    Theodar looked a little confused again. "The Prince approached me in the throne room earlier, asking for a chess match. We came here, we played, I won, then..." Instead of continuing, he shrugged, indicating that the rest of what happened was as they had witnessed.

    Gisela could not hide her surprise. "You won?" she asked. Theodar simply nodded. "But Luca's a prodigy."

    The man readily agreed. "Yes," he said. "He's quite skilled."

    At this casual relaying of how he defeated the boy prince when the latter was known to be a rare genius at the game of chess, the maids shared another look, this time of embarrassment. This strange lordling was not stupid, after all.

    ***

    Lady Ilse walked as swiftly as she could to reach the Queen's study. At the double doors, however, she was redirected to a nearby sitting room by the personal guards stationed outside. Someone else was already having talks with the Queen, and the Lady must wait for her turn.

    Knowing she cannot pull rank here, Lady Ilse swallowed bile and proceeded to the room indicated. She cannot choose to return to Gisela and simply have her talk with Queen Heloise at a later time. Some of the things she had to tell her older niece cannot be delayed more than an hour.

    Inside the bright, yellow-themed sitting room, someone else already waited. The Lady recognized Lord General Alfwin, who held a domain to the west of the queendom. After Prince Dieter, he was the highest-ranking military officer in the land. She supposed that now, he was indisputably at the top. But the cost...

    The wide-framed older man rose to his feet at Lady Ilse's entrance. His dark brown hair was heavily silvered at the temples, and compared to the last time they'd seen each other, the Lady judged that he'd lost some weight even as the lines on his ashen face had increased. He was not yet sixty years of age.

    The Lord General bowed in greeting first. Instead of simply returning a curtsey, Lady Ilse took several steps towards the older man and took his hands in her own.

    "Lord Alfwin, I am so very sorry for your loss."

    Though unexpected, the Lord accepted with heartfelt gratitude this intimate gesture of friendship that crossed ranks. It was purely the honest sympathy of one parent for another.

    "And I for yours, Lady Ilse," he replied while pressing her hands gently, quite at odds with how large and rough they were. Mutually, they released each other and took opposite seats.

    Lady Ilse said in a soft voice, "Your son fought bravely, by all accounts."

    The bereaved father looked down at his upturned palms.

    "To no avail, in the end," he answered just as softly, not lifting his eyes. "His reputation had preceded him. He was besieged first - Prince Dieter's other personal guards were only incapacitated during the Askarians' opening gambit, but they intended from the start to kill Lothar, and the Prince right after him."

    A heavy silence stretched for several moments. The Lady made no reply because there were no words now for what was in the past. All of them can only face forward.

    When Lady Ilse eventually broke the silence, it was to inquire, "What of the formal declaration of war that's to come? Is that what you came to speak about with the Queen?"

    Lord Alfwin looked up at her, blinking several times in confusion. "You have not heard from the others? I thought that was also why you're seeking her out."

    "I came straight here upon arrival," the Lady replied, starting to feel alarmed. "What do you mean?"

    "We all thought she was only waiting until after the funeral," Lord Alfwin began explaining in a low tone, "but now..." All of a sudden, the older Lord's weary expression hardened and the hands on his lap formed fists. "It does not appear like the Queen intends to declare war at all."
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