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19 Funeral III

    The Queen's private study was at the farthest corner of the east wing. Two of its walls had tall and thinly spaced windows, the back overlooking the garden strip behind the royal residence. In the daytime, sunlight would flood the large chamber of bookcases, desks, and chairs. Despite the serious air that the shelves full of leather-bound volumes gave, the pale green wallpaper and the matching color of the furnishing soothed the eyes.

    A woman in her mid-thirties sat behind the desk at the center of the room, staring out the east-facing line of windows. Her stick-straight, silver-blonde hair was parted in the middle and pulled smoothly back in a low tail. Her hands rested on the oak desk, each holding the ends of a capped fountain pen, which she twiddled one turn per second.

    This woman in a dark gray dress, the sleeves reaching to her wrists and the collar circling her neck closely, had begun these absentminded activities as soon as the thick chamber door had shut some minutes earlier. This was after the exit of old Lord Gervas, who'd been sent there half an hour ago by his peers to hem and haw about the subject they were most concerned about.

    He was only the first wave, she knew - the easiest, out of respect for what's still to come that day. The Lord had asked nothing straightforwardly and received no concrete answer in return. The true purpose of the empty exchange was to warn her: if she meant to do what they were suspecting, they would not let the matter rest until she gives a proper explanation. Maybe not even then.

    A soft knock came from the closed door. Queen Heloise faced forward and returned the pen to one side of her otherwise uncluttered desk. When the door opened a moment later and Lady Ilse stepped in, the Queen paused. The door's closing left the two women alone in the study.

    Queen Heloise's expression softened all of a sudden.

    "Hello, Aunt Ilse."

    The Lady paused in return at the unexpected break in protocol - in her own queendom, a monarch should never be the one to give the first greeting. That they were family and that no one else was around were no reasons to dispense with the order of things, not when it's the highest power in the land that was concerned.

    Her equilibrium shaken, Lady Ilse could only curtsey in response, so deeply that her right knee nearly touched the floor. As soon as the older woman straightened, the Queen pointed her hand palm up to the cushioned chairs before her desk. Lady Ilse stepped further into the room to claim the offered seat.

    "Thank you for your letters these last few days," Queen Heloise said with a spare smile. "Your words were a great source of comfort." The Lady nodded but didn't reply. The silence stretched as the two pooled their sorrows face to face for the first time since the Prince's death. After a while, the Queen quietly asked, "How is my sister?"

    The Lady did not answer at once. In addition to feeling bereft, she also realized that the Queen's greeting earlier signaled that she wanted to dispense with the formalities between them.

    'Good,' Lady Ilse thought, inwardly huffing. This would make the conversation that's to come a lot easier for her.

    First, to tell the Queen about Hilde...

    ***

    "Do you mean to tell me, Lady, that Princess Hilde is currently playing hostess to a group of potentially hostile foreigners?"

    Her long fingers clasped on top of her desk, the Queen had spoken the words blandly, as though she were commenting on the state of the weather. Lady Ilse couldn't help notice, however, that the attitude of "we are family behind closed doors and should not stand on ceremony" had been dropped completely.

    Queen Heloise continued, "And she could not handle a speedy travel, so they are moving at a slow pace - it will be another hour at least before they arrive here. Is that correct?"

    Lady Ilse met the steady pair of gray eyes and nodded. "That is correct, Queen."

    Unable to detect any trace of remorse from that response, the younger woman's eyebrows rose a millimeter.

    "Did you perhaps forget she's underage?" she asked. "Or that her basic education is incomplete?"

    "I did not," answered the Lady. Heat entered her tone when she went on, "Let me ask you in return, niece - have you always cared this much about what is happening to your sister?"

    The question came out sharp and stinging, yet the Queen did not flinch. Turning her head slowly towards the side-facing window, she eventually said, "Of course I have."

    Lady Ilse barely held in a snort of pure disbelief. This was still her monarch she was talking to.

    "Then as your family elder, please allow me to suggest that you start showing it. This is not only for Hilde's sake now - it's for the sake of this queendom she might one day inherit."

    Queen Heloise faced Lady Ilse again.

    "You do not doubt my son, I hope," she said.

    The Lady's expression softened. "You know that's not the case. But Prince Dieter's death has told us clearly: anything can happen in the future. My own daughter's not in the clear in this regard."

    Something about the older woman's last statements made the Queen's eyes flash.

    "If you understand that much, Aunt," she said, tone clipped, "why did you risk Hilde in that manner? Never mind the possible danger the Lyseans pose, do you think you're unique in wanting every Lysean you see dead?"

    Noting Lady Ilse's shocked expression, Queen Heloise forced calmness back into her voice.

    "I tried to refuse Madelon's harebrained gesture, but I only wasted paper and ink. The old codger's probably never listened to anyone else's counsel in his life. And he was half-goading me with this, I suspect - did I dare provide Arnican soldiers to escort them? I chose not to. I wanted to send the message that I trusted my people."

    After a pause, another rare moment occurred. The Queen candidly admitted: "That was a risky gamble on my part, Aunt Ilse, one I would not have taken under better circumstances. That Arnicans would attack these Lyseans is a real threat, and now you've just told me that Hilde is in their company. Can you understand my worry? Another wrong move of mine might get a second sibling killed."

    ***

    Before they reached the city, Hilde had Frieda call Captain Helmut to ride beside the moving carriage. She asked if he or any of his soldiers were familiar with the back roads that led to the Royal Palace. Receiving an affirmative, Hilde instructed the local soldier to lead their party using the least-traveled streets available.

    "Whatever you do," she said, "do not take us anywhere near the city square."

    The soldier saluted and spurred his horse to the head of the party. Hilde thanked and also dismissed Captain Helmut before sitting back in her well-padded seat.

    Their quicker pace had been challenging despite all the conveniences available, but she now only needed to get past this last leg of the journey - preferably with not just her but with all of her companions intact. She could then plant her feet on the ground and refuse to be moved anywhere unless it's to a northern war zone.

    'Let Lady Saskia be the first person I see at the palace,' she thought, referring to the Royal Physician, a commoner who was given a courtesy title after assuming her position. Hilde didn't wish to see her so she could ask for pain medications again - she'd choose the aches over another of Prick's snide remarks any day - it was so she could ask her how long she must wait before she's back to her original strength.

    The accident was Hilde's fault, and she knew the full value of recovering first whenever she gets injured badly, but the longest she'd ever gone without arms practice, or even just holding her sword, was a week. Any longer than that and her muscles would surely run to flab.

    The merciless teasing she'd receive from Lothar if he ever sees that, Hilde mused.

    She hid a pained smile behind a bland one, which she showed the Viscount when she realized he was looking at her.

    "It is admirable how well you learn, Princess," he said.

    For a moment, Hilde could not figure out what prompted his words. There were only the orders she just gave, however, so she decided it must be that.

    Even though common sense had told her that that was simply the most sensible thing for them to do, she guessed that what the old Viscount really admired was the fact that it had occurred to her at all, perhaps before it did to him.

    Hilde found herself glancing out the window that framed Prince Leal. The man was staring straight ahead, his expression unconcerned, as if none of what transpired had anything to do with him.

    'Leave him to his appearances, then,' thought Hilde. She still wanted him to die, but she didn't really want his death to happen on her watch.

    To the Viscount, she gave thanks as well as this honest answer: "I had the most excellent teacher."
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