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18 Funeral II

    In a rare occurrence, Lady Ilse forced herself to rein in her initial reactions after hearing the Lord General's words. Surprise or anger, no matter how justified, would have no place here if it came from her. Swallowing, she instead showed a smile that did not reach her wide-open eyes.

    "How strange," she said. "I cannot see how she would not want it as much as we all do - like you, she must be wanting it even more. It wasn't only a Prince or a General she lost, Dieter was her brother first and foremost. Did the Queen say in her own words that there will be no war?"

    Lord Alfwin met the Lady's intent stare for a moment then looked away.

    "It is only court speculation," he answered. "The Queen's been rejecting every draft of the declaration. I... I've only just arrived from my domain, Lady Ilse. I heard this rumor after I had just seen my son..." The man paused. Just when Lady Ilse thought he might not continue, he rubbed tiredly at his face while leaning back in his chair, as close as he was going to come to letting go of himself. "Forgive me, I was not meaning to criticize or confront the Queen. I read the last draft - it looked sound to me. I only wanted a direct clarification of her reasons for not approving it."

    Lady Ilse shook her head. "You know there's nothing to forgive, Lord General. Now I rather suspect she is merely waiting to hear input from you." After considering for a moment, she asked, "Will you please let me talk to her first?"

    It was a question that only had one answer. Lord Alfwin nodded, then he sighed and rubbed his face again. "That might be for the best."

    "Thank you," Lady Ilse replied, the picture of graciousness as she next inquired if the Lord had already sent for refreshments. She told her maid to order a cart for them when the man simply shook his head. Before the tea and light snacks arrived, she broached the thorny topic of where his wife was at the moment.

    'Who was she with when her husband is here?' she nearly went ahead and asked.

    She was extremely glad she didn't when Lord Alfwin answered, "With Lothar."

    After a respectful pause during which she also wrestled with her sympathetic feelings, Lady Ilse asked after his second child's readiness to assume the eldest's vacated position.

    With a little more life behind his eyes, the Lord General nodded. "Sieglind is equal to the challenge."

    "Sieglind?" said Lady Ilse. "A daughter? Forgive me, Lord General, I thought your second child is also a son."

    "Theodar. He and his sister are twins. My daughter was born first."

    As Lady Ilse was expressing her understanding, their refreshments arrived. By silent and mutual accord, the man and woman used this as an excuse to suspend further conversation.

    Freed to think on the subject, Lady Ilse wondered: what in the world were both her nieces doing? The younger had seemed intent to throw away her life a few days ago, now the elder, who should be exponentially more sensible, seemed intent to throw away her power. The Lady doubted that that was really Queen Heloise's goal, but her apparent refusal to put an official seal to the highly anticipated declaration of war would lead anyone to think so.

    For more than a decade, the Queen had been sitting on the throne. In that time, her people had very rarely seen her step a toe out of line - in any matter. She had thus far been the embodiment of a careful ruler, and the biggest complaint her critics had of her was this same carefulness: she'd usually take her time before coming to an important decision, and it was only after consulting with everyone whose opinions on a given issue would have weight.

    To actually dally about making a decision about THIS war... as far as everyone else was concerned, it was never a question of whether it would happen or not, it was a question of how soon.

    When her people were clamoring as one for the same thing and she refuses...

    Whatever her reasons might be, nothing would be good enough. Even Lady Ilse thought so, though of course, she'd stand behind her niece whatever happens. Of course.

    She let out an audible sigh when an attendant arrived, announcing that the Queen would now see the next person.

    "My deepest sympathies once again, Lord General," she said as she stood.

    Also standing, the man murmured with a parting bow, "Lady."

    If he raised his head again afterwards, Lady Ilse did not see it.

    ***

    The Lord General's younger son was lost on what to do next. To be asked to a chess match, have his defeated challenger throw a tantrum, then face this group of females - one of whom was an underage Princess he had not yet been formally introduced to - it was all more trouble than he had bargained for. Just why did he have to end up here and not someone else?

    Gisela's question broke into Theodar's troubled thoughts. "Won't you be missed at the throne room?"

    "Me?" he asked. "No. My elder sister... ah." Mid-sentence, the young man recognized the question for what it was: an exit he could take. "Yes, my mother and father were also elsewhere when I left. She might still be alone." At that, Theodar snapped to attention, losing the absentminded air as he bent from the waist. "If you'll excuse me, Princess."

    Without quite waiting for a response, Theodar took hurried steps towards the open doorway.

    "Please wait!" Gisela called. His expression screaming reluctance, the man paused and turned back to her. She asked, "May I come with you?"

    "Princess, Lady Ilse would wish for you to wait for her,"

    said Gisela's senior maid, who stepped to her side at once, her eyes like saucers.

    Theodar asked with a knotted forehead, "Won't you need an official chaperone to go there?"

    "That's why I'm asking you, sir," Gisela answered, looking at him but simultaneously laying a gentle hand on her maid's arm. "Will you please escort me?"

    "Princess!" the senior maid couldn't help exclaim despite Gisela's attempt to calm her. "That is... um..."

    Theodar blinked in quick succession. "We've only just met - why would I have any right to do that?"

    "Yes..." replied Gisela with only a slight hesitation. "But I'd know you five minutes longer than I would most of the people in the throne room." She paused to smile. "Being Lothar's brother, you also have the best credentials of anyone I can ask."

    The young man looked stunned hearing that last statement. Indeed, the words made his face lose color.

    Meanwhile, both of Gisela's attendants were no longer trying to hide their panic. The younger of the two, who was still older than their mistress, was speaking this time.

    "Princess Gisela, please," she said. "Just wait for your mother to return, we are not enough company for you in there."

    "I don't see why not," Gisela replied in a pleasant tone. "Frieda and Captain Helmut were perfectly adequate company for Hilde, weren't they?"

    Even though she seemed serious, Gisela said this partly to tease her companions. She understood perfectly well that what she wanted to do was ill-advised, but she found it difficult to stop herself from insisting on it. The funeral rites would take place in a couple of hours - social interactions would be set aside then. There was only this window for mundane mingling with each other while they all waited.

    While Gisela held Hilde in the highest regard, ever since they were children, their situations, concerns, and interests had all been vastly different. Growing up in near seclusion, Gisela had longed for more close friendships, especially with those of the same gender and similar rank. With them, she hoped to talk about the things that were important to her.

    How did they feel about the prospect of inheriting their respective domains someday? Were they eager to come of age or were they dreading to? If they had already passed that threshold, what were their opinions about the new experience thus far?

    In that last regard, what Gisela wanted most to know was how things would be different - if they would even be. There were also matters like taking a consort one day, but that was a consideration for a much later time.

    While she longed to talk to others about these things and more, however, her mother was strictly traditional, wanting to wait until Gisela's of age at sixteen before allowing her "out" into society. The young woman still had nearly half a year to go. Surely she could step around her mother's wishes just this once - only for a few minutes before Lady Ilse rejoins her?

    Concealing how indecorously eager she was at the prospect of this small defiance, Gisela shifted her attention back to Theodar. When she met his hard, focused stare, the sight made her heart stop.

    In a voice that was as hard as his expression, he said, "I am not my brother, Princess." To his listeners, this came out of nowhere. At that moment, none of the three could think clearly enough to trace what had triggered this reaction, but Theodar soon gave them the reason himself. "If you think you can trust me based on how you trusted him, it is my duty to disabuse you of that notion. We are not the same person."

    After a perfunctory bow, Theodar completed his exit in huge, swift strides, leaving behind a confused girl who now had ice instead of blood running in her veins.
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