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21 Funeral V

    The Queen's confession of her fears sent a chill down Lady Ilse's spine. Back when things were going well for their country, the Lady didn't have a reason to look closely at how her older niece was holding up. For the very first time, she was getting a glimpse of what it took to stand at the top and rule. There were so many things that needed considering, some of which the older woman didn't know were important at all.

    "I am sorry, my dear," Lady Ilse began, feeling ashamed of some of her actions. Queen Heloise was a person like any other, she'd fully realized, but unlike most people, she had so many matters to keep track of that she couldn't possibly give equal attention to them all.

    Also like everyone else, she was going to take failures hard - perhaps a thousand times more than she should - because the cost of her failures was disproportionately high.

    "I did not mean..." she went on. "That is, I should have thought-"

    There came an urgent-sounding knock on the door, which opened a moment later, the person on the other side not having waited for an answer. The Royal Steward entered.

    "Queen, Lady," he greeted briefly. "I'm sorry for the interruption. You asked me to inform you at once, Queen, when the Lysean delegates arrive. The sentries have just spotted a party down the hill. They appear to be the Lyseans."

    ***

    As soon as they exited the residential streets and entered a minor road, Prince Leal repositioned his horse where it was previously. Surprising the carriage occupants, he then turned to them and spoke.

    "Viscount Renard, will you grant me the honor of escorting the Princess when we reach the Royal Palace?"

    Before the person addressed could answer, Hilde said, "How about asking the person herself, Lord? The last time I checked, I did not belong to the Lord Viscount."

    The elder lord let out a series of coughs whose first note sounded suspiciously like a chuckle. Leal's narrowed eyes slid towards him for a moment before returning to Hilde.

    "Forgive me," he told her with a shallow bow. "He's been behaving so much like your guardian, I quite forgot he was not." The Viscount coughed a final time and settled into silence - one that felt expectant rather than remorseful, like he was looking forward to a good show. "Princess Hilde, will you allow me to once again offer you my arm? Not only when you descend this carriage, perhaps also beyond?"

    Hilde tilted her head to one side. "Why?"

    "Begging your pardon?" Leal enunciated.

    "Why must I be escorted by you? Specifically?"

    He cleared his throat. It was a valid question. Unfortunately, it was not one for which Leal had an answer ready. Why indeed?

    From out of nowhere, he received unasked assistance. He had begun to believe that the Viscount was not on his side, but the elder man said, "I rather think it would make a better picture, Princess. Not only your ages, your... er, statures are also a lot closer to each other."

    Leal was certain that by "stature," the Viscount meant their ranks and not their heights, but he quite agreed anyway - he and the Princess side by side would indeed make for a better picture. He let the reasoning stand and turned his intent gaze back to Hilde, awaiting her response.

    Wearing an expression that seemed to say she could not have cared less who escorted her - AND that she found his insistence to do so fairly ridiculous - she nodded.

    "I'm sure I'll be honored."

    Despite the less than enthusiastic agreement, Leal was satisfied. With a small smile, he turned back to the road to find that they had reached the foot of the hill where Arnica's center of power sat. They had arrived.

    ***

    "So soon!" exclaimed Lady Ilse, her relief causing her to half-rise from her chair.

    She and the Queen exchanged a brief look, then the latter said, "Understood, Steward. We shall be down momentarily."

    The Royal Steward was about to nod but paused all of a sudden. "'Down,' Queen?"

    "Yes," Queen Heloise answered briefly. "If there are others waiting to speak to me, please inform them it may have to wait until after the funeral."

    After another moment, the elderly man completed his nod and left. As soon as the door closed, Lady Ilse collapsed in her chair.

    "Oh, thank goodness."

    "Perhaps it was lucky, after all, that Hilde's with them," said the Queen. "Four Arnican soldiers may have looked ceremonial rather than a sign of distrust." About to rise from her chair, she added, "It was a lesson for both of us, Lady."

    That was the neatest opening the older woman could have asked for.

    "Speaking of lessons," Lady Ilse began, prompting Queen Heloise to pause and settle back in her seat. "I also came here to confirm that you mean to take Princess Hilde's education more firmly in hand from here on - in all aspects. I think you'll find she is made of finer materials than appearances would let on."

    The Queen was silent for several moments. "That is high praise, coming from you," she commented eventually.

    "The Princess has endured much if she managed to arrive here not long after we did," Lady Ilse replied with a wry smile. "That by itself raises my opinion of her, but this day alone, there were prior instances that showed her promise."

    Nodding slowly, Queen Heloise rose. "Thank you for your concern, Aunt. I can assure you, I do mean to make my sister's grooming a priority from this point on... whether or not the Princess welcomes it, it shall happen."

    Lady Ilse had also risen and was now walking beside the Queen towards the door.

    "Good," she said. "That was all I-ah, wait, Queen." She laid a light palm on her niece's arm, forcing the younger woman to pause mid-step and turn to her. "About the northern war, there appears to be a rumor that you do not wish for it. Lord General Alfwin was supposed to talk to you first about that matter, but he gave way to me." Lady Ilse paused, her grip tightening slightly. "Queen Heloise, I am sure that was all a misunderstanding. When the poor man comes to you to ask, I hope you can give him an acceptable reason for the... seeming delay."

    The Queen laid her own palm over Lady Ilse's hand. She clasped it for a moment, then she lifted it off her arm.

    "It is all under control, Aunt Ilse," she said. Queen Heloise kept walking, pulled the door open, and stepped out.

    Following her, the Lady could not help swallowing hard. She hoped she only imagined it, but she could have sworn - the Queen's hand was slightly damp and extremely cold to the touch.

    ***

    "Lysean delegates?" said the old Lord Gervas. His voice rising every other syllable, he addressed the other Lords and Ladies seated near him.

    It had been some minutes since the white-haired eighty-year-old man returned to the throne room, and he had just been told of this latest of several developments that had happened since he went to talk to the Queen. His and the others' high-backed chairs were arranged in a semi-circle that faced the dais, which held a throne made of black stone. A wide gap in the middle of this arrangement, as well as the other lines of chairs behind the first, served as the aisle. His place was near the outer end of the left half.

    "They have come?" the aged Lord continued. "What ridiculousness is this?"

    After saying so, he signaled his grandson seated in the third row of chairs to come to him. In whispers, he ordered him to go downstairs and tell his father, Lord Gervas' eldest son and heir, to go back to the throne room and leave the task of greeting the dignitaries to the young man. His grandson soon left to comply.

    Having overheard the exchange, the Lady to his right chuckled.

    "I too have sent my grandson instead of my heir to greet our dear guests," said the woman, who was in her seventies. "The younger one."

    Seated on Lord Gervas' other side was another Lady half the first one's age. She interjected dourly: "I doubt these foreigners would even realize they're being slighted. It's not like we wear labels of exactly who we are."

    "Quite true, my dear," the older woman replied, chuckling again. "But WE would know we've insulted them. I for one am satisfied just with that."

    Looking a little guilty, Lord Gervas also addressed the younger woman. "Forgive us old people this small conceit, Lady. We cannot do anything much worse, to our everlasting disappointment."

    "Hear, hear," murmured a Lord on the older Lady's far side, who had apparently been following the exchange without letting on.

    The sound of the throne room's doors opening and closing echoed throughout the large hall of white walls and pillars gilded in gold. This was followed by waves of whispered conversations that began from the back of the room and traveled all the way to the front.

    The content of the first wave was that the Queen had come out of her private study - to come wait with them, they all assumed.

    Then the second wave of whispers came. It said that the Queen, her aunt Lady Ilse with her, had bypassed the throne room and was descending the stairs. Her intent, it appeared, was to greet these guests - these representatives of their ancient enemies - in person.

    The Lords and Ladies shared a look with those they sat with. For all that their expressions remained carefully blank, it was also tellingly devoid of humor. No one spoke, but all knew they shared the same thoughts, and not a single one of these was pleasant.
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