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22 Funeral VI

    At the arrival of the Queen into their midst, the wrong representatives sent by the heads of their families flew into a low-key panic. These individuals edged towards the back of the small crowd as soon as her back was to them, all hoping that she didn't note their identities as she passed them by. They then turned around and hurried back into the royal residence.

    If they could have flown up that long flight of stairs, they would have. They would give away the fact that they were in haste, but at least they'd look a little more dignified.

    Halfway up, they were met by others going the way they'd just come. These others were not the heirs to their respective ruling houses - they were the heads themselves.

    The false representatives, the youngest of whom had just turned sixteen, stopped and made way for their elders, who were looking ahead with stony faces. The Lords and Ladies did not pause to acknowledge the youngsters. That they'd had the presence of mind to hightail it away from the entrance steps at the sight of their monarch, that was only to be expected. Why praise a child for knowing how to breathe?

    The old Lord Gervas was among these rulers. He moved with dignity and purpose despite his age - and the fact that he was feeling repentant.

    At first, like many of his peers on the left side of the semi-circle, he assumed the worst when he heard of the Queen's latest movements. So she meant to honor these foreigners by coming down herself to welcome them, did she? And this, on top of hesitating over a war that no one but she seemed reluctant to wage?

    They would not dare to air out their opinions at such a time and in such a place. And those who were more introspective, Lord Gervas included, did recognize that their harsh judgments of every little thing the Queen did these last few days were caused by their own high-strung emotions.

    Queen Heloise had always been a careful ruler - they should not expect her to suddenly act differently just because they imagined they would have been bold and raging if they had been in her position.

    That said, this was still a curious move she was making. There was one obvious implication; if it should prove true, Lord Gervas and many like him would rather hate that to the core his being.

    But they knew nothing yet. For the moment, he was giving her the benefit of the doubt, in this and in other matters.

    For how long, however, even he couldn't say.

    The elderly Lord and the handful of other rulers with him caused a stir that mimicked the one caused by the Queen's arrival moments before. They made their way to the front of the center crowd, stopping just a few steps behind Queen Heloise and Lady Ilse.

    Before they could even settle, the crowd parted again, this time to allow another small group of people through to the front. The latest newcomers - three men and two women - did not stop advancing until they'd reached the Queen's side.

    Though she didn't so much as twitch when the first group of rulers arrived, Queen Heloise swept an acknowledging look to the second one. "Ladies, Lords, thank you for coming," she said. In a different tone, she called, "Lady Saskia." The person addressed stepped closer. "Please see to HER at once."

    "Yes, Queen," answered the Royal Physician, a buxom woman who had a youthful face despite nearing forty years of age.

    Just as Lady Saskia returned to her place in the far right of the Queen's handpicked greeting party, the Lysean delegates entered the courtyard. At the sight, the low murmurings of the Arnican crowd rose.

    "Queen," began Lady Ilse, her voice a mere whisper close to her niece's ear. "Perhaps you should have given out an explanation for the others' benefit - of why you came down in person."

    Curtly, Queen Heloise replied, "They shall soon have it."

    The Lady kept her sigh to herself. 'Not before they've jumped to the worst conclusions,' she thought. Alas, because this matter was largely her fault, she was not in any position to criticize how the Queen wished to handle it.

    In no time, the riders and the black carriage reached the steps of the royal residence. Their wayward Princess was home at last.

    ***

    "This blasted Arnican protocol," Baron Marmion muttered darkly the moment they cleared the shadowed archway and glimpsed the small gray crowd waiting for them at the grand steps of the residence. "We've been riding hard for hours and baking in the sun for the greater part of it - could they not allow us to rest and refresh ourselves before forcing us to face them?"

    With a wry smile, the scholarly Baron Harmin replied, "I rather think we look fine." He faked a contemplative expression as he swept his eyes once over his peer. "But you could use looking a little more disheveled."

    "What?" asked the other Baron.

    Baron Harmin only smiled wider. Prince Leal explained.

    "Instead of seeing us looking dignified," he said, "these Arnicans will likely enjoy it more, seeing the evidence of how difficult this journey had been for us."

    "This was why the King asked us to travel on horseback, my lord Marmion," added Baron Harmin. "It was not so we would look dashing on arrival, I'm sorry to tell you."

    "Ah," answered Baron Marmion, tone genuinely lamenting. He took out a lace handkerchief and dabbed at the sweat at his temples. As he did so, he eyed the men he was talking to. A few wisps of fine hair had escaped the other Baron's tie.

    But the prince...

    "Our young lord doesn't appear to be any the worse for wear," he observed, feeling a mixture of envy and pride.

    Leal was still sitting his horse with his back straight. Not a single strand of his hair was out of place, and the light sheen of sweat over his chiseled features was somehow looking... decorative.

    Leal's serious expression did not change when he drily replied, "My arse would beg to differ."

    They were now mere moments away from their final stop. With practiced subtlety, every Lysean present braced themselves.

    Inside the carriage, the Viscount silently shared his countrymen's tense feelings. But Leal had hit the nail on the head earlier: he truly did feel protective towards this young princess he'd formally met mere hours ago. This was why he noted that she too was not feeling particularly enthusiastic about their arrival.

    Reading the question in the Viscount's eyes, Hilde smiled at him without much humor.

    "I'm afraid I do not much relish being the center of attention," she said candidly. She too had been feeling steadily more comfortable in the elder man's company. She had no qualms about being straightforward with him. "And this particular crowd we're about to meet... well."

    Though Hilde left the thought unfinished, Viscount Renard understood her meaning perfectly.

    "Courtiers everywhere are the same, it seems," he observed, wearing that gnome-like smile of his. "When their company is unpleasant yet unavoidable, I always wish I could become part of the wall - then I could skirt it and perhaps sneak my way out unnoticed."

    Hilde laughed. "I was under the impression you were a courtier too."

    "And so I am," the Viscount replied lightly. The carriage drew to a stop. "Now you can freely sneak out of my company, Princess."

    "Something I must do with great regret, Lord Viscount," answered Hilde in all sincerity. The door opened. Leal stood on the other side, ready to escort her down. She ignored him to tell the old man, "I hope we could find the chance to eat a meal together again."

    The Viscount beamed in obvious pleasure. "I shall keep my appetite leashed so it may keep up with yours when the time comes. Thank you for your wonderful company, Princess Hilde."

    "And yours. My lord."

    Hilde smiled one last time before fixing on a solemn expression. Without so much as giving him an acknowledging look, she then took Leal's offered hand and climbed down the carriage. The Viscount followed, then each of their attendants. He stood to Hilde's vacant right side.

    Once again, it was Arnica's Royal Steward who came forward first to meet the new arrivals. The surprise on his face at seeing Hilde right in the middle of an unwelcome group of people mirrored the one worn by many others up the steps, who'd also noted her presence. It took the Steward a full two seconds to master his emotions and speak.

    "Princess Hilde," he said, bowing slowly and deeply to her for the first time that she could remember. Sounding relieved, he continued, "You have arrived safely." At her brief nod that masked her mixed emotions, he next turned to the men with her, bowing once for all four before turning to the Viscount, the obvious senior of the party. "Lords of Lys," he intoned formally. "The Queen of Arnica waits to bid you welcome."

    At this unexpected news, Hilde's fingers lying lightly on Leal's arm twitched a millimeter.

    That was enough for him to notice. He could not afford to turn to her outright and betray his curiosity, so he once again employed that trick of spying out of the corner of his vision. He managed to make out how she raised her head in increments, projecting unconcern. Head still lifted thus but not quite raising her eyes, she took the first step forward, cuing the others to also advance.

    Using that other trick up his sleeve of not moving his lips much while speaking, Leal murmured so only Hilde could hear, "If even you are afraid of your Queen, should we be terrified?"

    His voice raised her ire in record speed, making her forget some of her apprehensions.

    "It depends," Hilde answered him just as quietly. "Are you as idiotic as you behave?"

    To herself, she added, 'And therefore as idiotic as I was a few days ago?'

    She wasn't about to admit she was terrified of being scolded. Not to this brat.

    They were now a few steps short of clearing the entrance steps. Hilde was running out of excuses not to lift her eyes and meet those of the woman standing at the very center of the crowd waiting for them, a crowd that had never for one moment stopped whispering amongst themselves.

    Just as Hilde had steeled herself to finally look up, movement from the back of the crowd caught her attention instead. Then the front parted to let two people through. The older man stopped beside a young woman who bore a strong resemblance to him - Hilde recognized him as Lord General Alfwin.

    The younger man with him...

    She lost her footing on the very last step. She couldn't help it. She suddenly lost all her strength. She would have fallen forward amidst the gasps and a few errant chuckles from the people watching - her grip on Leal's arm having also slackened - but the man had caught her by the waist and kept her upright.

    Being the closest, he and he alone heard it when Hilde, voice full of sorrow, wonder, and pain-filled hope, whispered a name.

    "Lothar?"
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