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23 Funeral VII

    Lothar.

    The name was known to Leal: it belonged to the elder son and heir of the Arnican general whose family traditionally ruled one of the Queendom's strongholds to the west - a domain that bordered Lys, in other words.

    The man was a famous prodigy with the sword. He was recruited directly into Prince Dieter's service as soon as he came of age; recently, he'd been made a Sergeant.

    According to his father, when both the official and the spy-borne news of the events in the Arnica-Askari border reached Lys mere hours after they took place, the list of casualties contained the same names.

    King Madelon knew of Leal's private admiration for the genius swordsman of Arnica. He also knew of his one-sided rivalry with the man, who was only two or three years older than he was. Thus, he had told his son of Lothar's death in the course of performing his duty as an elite Royal Guard.

    'But his Prince died anyway,' Leal had thought bitterly then.

    The way this man called Lothar had been painted by the rumors, as he and the Lysean prince were both growing up on opposite sides of a hotly contested border, the latter had grudgingly come to think the former was invincible.

    To be killed during the first real challenge he faced - what a bad jest. It made a mockery of all the years Leal spent envying and respecting him in equal measures. For what had he been working so hard for, practicing his swordplay, willing all his skills to improve as quickly as they could, if not for the chance to face Lothar of Arnica one day?

    Whether it was to be on a sparring yard or on a field of battle, it mattered little. Leal's entire motivation was the image of him prevailing over this other man, who seemed to have been gifted at the cradle with every martial blessing possible.

    And, it seemed, with the deepest regard of a certain princess.

    "He's dead," Leal found himself saying.

    He did not mean for the words to sound as cruel as they did, truly.

    But his father's reports did not lie. Leal had come to accept over the last few days that he needed to find another way by which to measure his worth as a man. He thought that Hilde, in her turn, should not falter in her own budding acceptance of Lothar's death.

    Because unless he missed his mark, Leal was certain that this man and the "teacher" she recently spoke of were one and the same. In that moment, whatever she was seeing - whatever vision was bringing her spirit close to crumbling when nothing else did these last few hours - it was merely an illusion.

    "Hilde," he said by her ear, the first time he had ever uttered her name. He had forced his voice into a gentleness it was not accustomed to, but all the same, the content was devastating. "Lothar is dead."

    His right arm was around her torso; his left hand was firmly holding her shoulder. Through their connection, Leal clearly felt the effects his words had on Hilde. Her slight trembling was replaced by a rigidity so absolute, he felt the hard muscles underneath her previously soft flesh.

    It was then that Leal fully comprehended and believed what all the rumors and stories had been saying about her all along. A person who was only playing around with swords and other combat skills would never be able to earn these badges. One had to work hard and mean it, day after day, hour after hour...

    The woman he held truly was a martial princess. She was taught by none other than the man Leal held in the highest regard, higher even than he regarded his own father.

    Hilde straightened of her own accord. With an iron control that he was able to feel through the fabric separating their skin, she managed not to slap at Leal's hands in order to extricate herself from his hold. Before stepping away from him to walk on her own, she threw him the fiercest, the hardest, the coldest of looks - his thanks for spitting on the spark of hope she'd dared to entertain.

    Because he would have to be made of stone not to notice: her heart belonged to Lothar.

    Was there ever a moment harsher for a man who had just fallen in love?

    ***

    Yes... yes - she knew it. Lothar was dead.

    As Hilde forced herself into appearing calm and unconcerned about her small stumble and subsequent display of emotions, she threw all her remaining strength into preventing her eyes from sliding back to the spot where she'd seen a living apparition.

    Living - yes - and this ghost was called Theodar. Theodar the Recluse, his brother Lothar used to call him, fond and exasperated in equal measures.

    It was funny, the fact that no one ever bothered telling her how much the brothers resembled each other. That is, it would have been funny under any other circumstance. She would have laughed.

    But finding that out in such a way, it was only brutal.

    Nothing more could possibly be worse than having her greatest and most secret hope dashed - and by a much loathed voice of reality, no less. That was why Hilde no longer had any difficulty meeting her elder sister's gaze, which she knew had been on her since earlier. A pair of gray eyes met another, neither of their owners flinching.

    Hilde stopped three steps before the Queen and sank into a deep curtsey.

    "Queen Heloise," she said neutrally, her voice only loud enough to be heard by the handful of people closest to them. Silence fell, perhaps so the rest may listen in. "I have returned."

    "So you have," the Queen replied. Her tone was just as colorless, but the volume allowed even those in the fringes to hear her. "I was alarmed to hear of your accident on the road, Princess." At this confirmation of what had merely been rumors before then, some in the crowd sucked in their breath in an audible collective hiss. To her listeners' mystification, her voice became softer when she continued, "Yet despite your injuries, you have this day unknowingly helped me correct a lapse. The letter confirming the arrival of our Lysean guests was late in coming. I could not send people to greet and escort them. I thank you, Princess Hilde, for taking it upon yourself to do so when your paths have crossed."

    Though referred to indirectly, the Lyseans took this as their cue to step forward. Similarly, Hilde knew it was her cue to make way and step to the side. For the moment, she'd been dismissed.

    Despite the other concerns crowding her mind, she couldn't help but wonder: did the Queen just neatly made sure others would understand? That is, that Hilde "honored" the Lyseans of her own volition, not because anyone ordered her to. Certainly, the words had sounded like praise. Given who these guests were, however...

    Hilde swallowed. She must still be scared, after all, to be reading deeply into plain statements and choosing the worse interpretation.

    She was in the middle of dismissing the thought when she caught the confused look Lady Ilse was throwing the Queen - and this, while four Lysean Lords was standing before her, quite at striking distance.

    Hilde did not doubt her aunt had told her sister the full account of what happened on the road. She would have had to explain Hilde's absence, after all. Had it been made known to the others that she'd been in Nelke these last few days? Or that she was traveling with her aunt and cousin half of the way?

    That was the only reason she could think of for why Hilde's actions regarding the Lyseans would not need further explanation; Lady Ilse's hatred for the entire race was one of her defining traits. It might not be an exaggeration to say that no Arnican below the age of two had not heard of it.

    Lady Ilse noticed Hilde looking at her and grimaced. There seemed to be an apology somewhere in that complicated expression, but mostly it was distaste - that was also the moment the Lyseans were making their bows to her. Before they raised their heads again, she fixed her face into a mask that was not quite a smile and, without meeting any of their eyes, tilted her head stiffly in acknowledgement.

    After she had performed the absolute minimum required of her, the Lady took a single emphatic step back. Like water, the rulers whom the Queen chose to entertain the foreign guests for the duration of their stay smoothly closed the gap and got to work.

    As she watched, Hilde slowly came to the most logical conclusion: Queen Heloise wanted to save her aunt's face as much as was humanly possible. Though the Lyseans already guessed what Lady Ilse had done to her younger niece, most of the Arnicans gathered probably had no idea. No matter the justifications, there was a high chance that the other rulers would persecute the Lady for it, royal status or no.

    Coincidentally, this explanation was also the one that brought Hilde the greatest peace of mind. The other possibilities... they were too terrible to even contemplate.
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