20 Funeral IV

    Out of the corner of his eyes, Leal observed the foreign princess conversing with Viscount Renard inside the carriage. Ever since their first meeting earlier in the middle of a deserted road, it had been one strangeness after another with this princess called Hilde of Arnica. He didn't quite know what to make of her.

    Days ago, when his father had given Leal the order to go to this queendom, he also imparted a handful of information. The nature of these bits of knowledge could be classified as "sensitive." Among other things, they were information that King Madelon had no business knowing at all in the first place.

    Few were privy to the fact, but along with running a kingdom, Leal's father also operated a spy network. One of the things the secret spy king told only his son about - which he in turn kept to himself - related to Princess Hilde and how she also nearly died not even a day after her elder brother did.

    When he and the other lords set out from Nerine, the capital of Lys, his father's latest intelligence report said that Arnica's new second-in-line heir was yet to awaken from an unnatural sleep after a hard blow to the head. If she doesn't die, she would likely wake up a permanent invalid. She would therefore be ineligible for her just-inherited position.

    Next in line to Princess Hilde was her cousin, Princess Gisela. It was this other princess his father had in mind when he hatched up his scheme. Daughter of a celebrated beauty, full of grace and charm by all accounts... while her qualifications to become an Arnican queen were still up for debate, there was no question that she would make a perfect queen for the Kingdom of Lys.

    Some reports had told how she was an overly sheltered daughter. Anyone might assume she would be naïve or easy to control because of this, but that had nothing to do with the Lysean king's preference for her. Of course not.

    It "wouldn't hurt" if that ended up being true, certainly, but Leal's father made it clear they shouldn't count on it. His own grandmother having been one, King Madelon possessed a healthy respect for the steel-spined daughters of Arnica. It was there, under all the layers of his guile.

    Princess Gisela was to inherit her own domain in the heart of the queendom - that was one point in her favor. And if things should happen that would leave her people no choice but to crown her Queen... well now, wouldn't that do quite nicely for these neighboring countries. They might just become one kingdom in the future, no?

    Leal was not fooled. All these pretty reasoning didn't change the fact that his father would take over Arnica if given half the chance. Now that such a good opportunity to snatch that chance for themselves had cropped up, King Madelon made his move without hesitation.

    But why did he completely dismiss Princess Hilde from the equation? Had the likelihood of her survival truly been that slim? That was merely days ago. The heavens only knew what happened between then and now, but it cannot be denied: against all probability, here the princess was, weakened but alive... and in full control of her mental faculties.

    Before Hilde ordered it so, Leal himself was just about to suggest that they avoid the city square, which by now must be full to bursting with angry Arnicans. It was only common sense that they do not try their luck a second time - especially not with a crowd that must be more than ten times the size of the one in the village - but to be surprised and impressed that it had occurred to her... even he could recognize how massive of an insult that was.

    It was odd. His feelings probably weren't that different from the Viscount's, but if he'd been the one to make the remark the old lord did, Leal was certain Hilde would have called him out for being such a pompous ass. He chose to stare ahead and pretended to have heard nothing, but from his peripheral, he did not miss how she'd looked at him.

    And of course, his ears had no problem at all hearing the answer she had given: "I had the most excellent teacher."

    He could not help it. Leal slowly edged his horse closer to the carriage window, at the same time angling his head "just so" in order to both hear and see inside a little better. Something about the way she said those words had piqued his curiosity, and he was very glad that the old Viscount was also intrigued.

    "Teacher?" he asked. "Singular? If I may know, Princess, which subject is handled by this teacher you hold in such high regard?"

    "Swordplay, Lord Viscount," Hilde replied. Leal could clearly hear the smile in her voice, but he couldn't turn his head sideways any further without giving himself away. "He also taught me archery, how to ride like a soldier, and how to shoot from the back of that moving horse. He'd drawn the line at wrestling, but he did show me 'appropriate' defensive moves. He also tried to drill in me constant awareness of my surroundings - he would be so ashamed that I failed at that, back in the village."

    Knowing that her listeners would be taken aback by her account despite already being aware of her background, Hilde's tone had been playful and upbeat. At least, it was so in the beginning. Gradually, though her tone was still light, it had lost its focus, taking on a wistful quality instead.

    "I was in the middle of convincing him to teach me knife fighting, but he saw no earthly reason why I would ever need that skill. To be fair, he thought the same about everything else I ended up learning from him. I'm sure I would have succeeded in making him give in again, the next time we see each other..."

    Hilde trailed off. When no one else made a sound, she seemed to have recalled just who she was talking to and - Leal saw her glance out the window again - who else might be listening. When she continued, her voice was carefully neutral.

    "Understand, Lord Viscount," she said, "he was never my official teacher - only when he's in the capital could he give me these lessons, but... that's come to an end now. I no longer have an arms teacher."

    A couple of heartbeats passed before Viscount Renard cleared his throat. "I see..." he said. Leal guessed that like him, even though the elder lord did not know the whole story, he had suspected that something lay deeper beneath that snippet of the princess' life. A person would have to be uncommonly insensitive not to have picked up on it. "This teacher of yours seems to be special indeed," the Viscount ventured. "But permit me to say, Your Highness, I find you to be an even greater marvel."

    "Thank you, Lord," Hilde replied without hesitation. "You honor me."

    From her tone, Leal could tell the smile was back on her face. He wasn't sure why he had expected her to be flustered. Perhaps it was the fact she was not yet sixteen, and Leal knew girls older than her who'd melt at receiving such a compliment.

    From where was she pulling this poise of a veteran court lady? Or, for that matter, the intensity of an old battle campaigner? Earlier in the village, when her people clamored for her, when they asked her to give them strength that - little did they know - she happened to possess little enough of at the time, even when her stomach rumbled while she was in his arms, she had shown barely a hint of losing her composure.

    And what was anyone to make of that account of her "teacher," hmm? It screamed of fondness. Leal himself had never had a teacher he liked half as much.

    By and by, the strangeness of her just kept coming. It was all highly... intriguing.

    He was half-certain his father had the answers to more than a few of these mysteries, but having written off this princess, King Madelon hadn't seen it fit to tell Leal much about her.

    As the party began to navigate the narrow warren of backstreets leading to the Royal Palace, passing modest but sturdy and colorful houses of stone or timber, the secret prince was forced to ride behind the carriage that contained the old man and young woman, who went on with their conversation. He was, in any case, too preoccupied with his own concerns to continue to eavesdrop.

    While it was not the only thing he came to Arnica for, winning a princess' hand in marriage was the clear endgame. Though the details had changed, the plan his father had laid out was still sound.

    That plan only accounted for one princess.

    There were worse problems in the world, Leal was sure. Many men would kill to have his. Knowing that did not make the question any easier to answer: which of the two princesses' hand was he supposed to seek out now?
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