Lilita Solita was built as small as her mother, but her face gave none of the warm invitation. She stood by, waiting for her turn in introductions, then politely nodded in way of greeting her foreign guests. Her two sisters, Ilona and Brigita were unmistakable as her relatives. They were nearly identical, though clearly much younger, and their expressions were more inviting and easier to read. Lilita stayed put until her parents’ excitement at the arrival led the group inside the castle. Lilita did not say a word, beyond kind welcome, and merely watched on as Wilhelm passed her. He tried to decide what to make of this girl and her contrast to her parents’ bright greeting. She was not eager to bring them inside, but she did not appear cold and unwelcoming either. Wilhelm followed the group, Lilita keeping pace beside him, to the great hall where a feast awaited them.
Despite the enormous amount of food laid out on the tables, there was no one else in attendance. Servants stood throughout the room, prepared to serve and clear food or pour whatever drink was contained in their pitchers, but there were no other guests. The royal family of Lelonia had prepared a feast just for this small group. A great show of their wealth perhaps, or an excessive display meant to impress them. Many compliments were given and humbly accepted as they all took their seats along the table.
Wilhelm noticed Lilita watching him carefully and felt uneasy at how she appeared to be evaluating him already. He quickly shook off the thought and replaced it with pride. He had no need to show off for this girl and impress her. He was the prince of the Gavelon Empire, next in line for the crown, with claims to the throne of the Fae Isles through his mother’s relations. He was an accomplished soldier in the royal army, knighted at a young age due, not to his title, but to his impressive abilities with a sword and mind for military tactics. This alliance would benefit the Gavelon Empire greatly, but Lelonia needed the protection more than Gavelon needed the land. If anything, Wilhelm convinced himself, he should be evaluating Lilita to see if she was worthy to sit beside him in the throne room.
Wilhelm looked to Aldrik who was politely sitting beside him accepting food and beverage gratefully. Wilhelm calmed himself enough to sip the wine in his goblet. It was sweeter than he was used to and this surprised him out of his internal outrage at being observed so much that he forgot it entirely. Finally, he looked at the food laid out before him. More fruit than he had ever seen gathered in one place and in more varieties than he even knew how to name. Bowls of nuts sat beside plates of small roasted birds that glistened in the candlelight from whatever glaze had been applied to them to make them taste so wonderful. The food was as impressive as the building they were sat in.
Wilhelm had few expectations when he departed for Lelonia, but aside from the curiosity that was his potential bride-to-be, he had to admit to himself it was an interesting place. One that he looked forward to spending more time in, should this be the way they always lived and not just be a show to impress them. Everyone in their seats, the guards ate happily while the kings and queens asked one another of their travel and adored the decor of the great hall. Beautifully woven tapestries covered the stone walls, which were as lightly colored and new looking as the exterior of the castle. King Nikolai responded to what type of stone it was built from but the answer was lost in the chatter of the queens’ complimenting one another’s fashion.
The von Lederstein family was eager to discuss the alliance and the Saulitis family easily brushed off their questions. They ensured them they had plenty of time to discuss the details. They had, after all, been talking about it for some time. There was not a great deal left to work out until the alliance was confirmed and a date determined. Penrod and Ehren had worked out the attack already. They only needed Nikolai to confirm which location along the border would give them the most advantage. Wilhelm listened in, trying to absorb everything and maintain his composure. Lilita remained quiet, eating her supper. She did not provide any of the polite smiles the younger princesses provided as their way of contributing to the discussion.
Heavy with food and light headed with wine, the polite conversation dissolved into laughter and not a word of politics and alliances was spoken after the goblets had been refilled a few more times. Giving in to the exhaustion brought on by travel and feasting, Wilhelm was lead from the dining room by a servant to the guest chamber that awaited him. The bed was as large as his own, but the fabrics adorning it were bright, lighter, and softer than he was used to. He wondered if it were simply his exhaustion paired with the wine playing tricks on him, but he had never before laid in a bed so comfortable. Within moments of being undressed and lying beneath the plush blankets, he was asleep.
When Wilhelm awoke, servants were moving around the room, drawing the curtains to let in the bright sunlight rush in, removing clothing from the wardrobe that Wilhelm had not even realized had been taken from his trunk and hung in there, setting down a tray of breakfast on the intricately carved table beside the equally elaborate looking chair beside it. The servants did not seem to take any interest in the fact that Wilhelm was squinting as his head throbbed and he was clearly not ready to leave the far too comfortable bed. Without any command or force, they managed to remove him from the bed, wash, dress, and sit him down in the chair while one of them removed the lid off of the tray to reveal a spread of berries and toast with the nicest smelling jam he had ever had the pleasure of smelling and a mug full of some sort of tea he imagined he would never guess the variety of, but was clearly made with some of the same berries laid out on the plate.
Wilhelm ate his meal slowly, though he wished to eat up all the fresh flavors before him more quickly, his grogginess prevented it. When he finished, the servants wasted no time getting his boots on and raising him to his feet, ushering him out of the room. He tried to insist he was not ready, he had no armor, his sword was stored somewhere in the room, he was not sure where they had placed it, but he knew it was not at his hip. He could not remember the last time he left his chambers without it, but the servants gave him no choice. They did not argue with him, they just kept moving and working until he was out of the room and the door was closed between them. He tried the handle, but they had locked him out to keep him from interfering with whatever tidying they were doing in there. Wilhelm wondered if the servants even spoke the same language as them since no one would answer his orders or issue requests of their own when they needed him to do something or go somewhere.
Wilhelm turned around, away from the door, to see a new servant had somehow appeared and seemed to be waiting for him.
“Let me back into my room. I am not yet ready,” he demanded.
The servant simply turned and began walking down the hallway, not looking back.
“What are you doing? Where are you going?” Frustrated, Wilhelm followed the servant down the hall, noticing the elaborate paintings and fine curtains hanging along the walls. He had not noticed them in the dark of the evening before when he was brought to his room.
“Where are you leading me?” Wilhelm asked, finally caught up to the servant.
The servant did not even look at him, just kept walking through passageways and down winding stairs until they reached a door. The servant stopped beside the door and simply stood there, not looking at him, not looking at anything in particular from what Wilhelm could tell. Simply looking.
Wilhelm shook his head in disbelief at the disobedience of their servants. For as fine as the place appeared and as talented as their kitchen staff may be, the servants acted as if he were simply a task that needed to be performed, not a visiting prince from a well respected, important nation. He looked around, not entirely sure where in the castle he was, nor did he know how to get back to his room from there. His only options were to wander around aimlessly until he found his room, which he did not seem to be allowed into, or see what was behind the door this servant apparently lead him to.
Wilhelm grabbed the door handle and opened it. Light poured into the already well lit passage. His eyes adjusted quickly to the courtyard overgrown with fragrant, flowering shrubbery. Birds chirped wildly somewhere hidden in the trees. The ground was laid with flat stones, grass growing in the spaces between them. The stones formed a loose pathway that Wilhelm followed to a small area within the garden more tightly paved with stones, though grass still poked its way effortlessly up in the spaces between each stone. The area was decorated with little more than a modestly sized dining table composed of a stone surface and metal legs shaped into flowers and vines. The metal chairs were draped loosely with thick blanketlike cushions. Everything about this place seemed to be created to be beautiful and comfortably inviting. A stark contrast to the stiff furniture he was used to, portraits of serious looking relatives, and dark colored stone and fabrics.
Seated around the table were his parents, looking a bit more tired and less composed than usual, though they were clearly making an effort to conceal that fact, King Nikolai and Queen Valya, Ehren, and Lilita. To his displeasure, Aldrik was not there. He imagined he was given breakfast and kept occupied elsewhere, as the guards surely had been, since they were not actually a part of the royal families.
“Ah, Wilhelm, please have a seat,” Nikolai called to him. “We have been awaiting your joining us. I had the servants bring a tray up to you, but there is plenty more if you wish.” He motioned to the food laid out on the table, the same foods Wilhelm had been brought in his room, but arranged on a platter in the center of the table.
“I ate well in my room, thank you,” Wilhelm declined, taking a seat at the table.
“I must say, this food is exquisite,” Queen Frieda said.
“Oh, thank you. We are blessed with a talented cook. And the harvest was plentiful this year,” Queen Valya replied.
“Yes, incredible harvest this year. In fact, that is why we wished for you to visit at this time,” Nikolai explained. “Our festival begins tomorrow and we had hoped you would stay through it. The Lelonian harvest festival is the biggest event of the year and what better way to show you hospitality and invite you to our fine nation than with the greatest food and celebration we have to offer.”
“A festival?” Penrod asked. The word sounded unfamiliar in his mouth, like he was trying it out for the first time. He had experienced festivals before, but mostly in the form of tournaments and celebrations after a victorious battle. Never to celebrate a harvest. Such a thing seemed frivolous. Wilhelm could not help but feel the same as his father, although he would be lying if he said he were not interested in trying more of the local foods. There were negotiations to be made, battles to plan. They needed a strategy for when their nations were united and they moved their forces to invade Yaeland. Many preparations needed to be made.
“I think a festival sounds lovely,” Frieda said. Wilhelm knew the look in his mother’s eyes. Though her mouth smiled, her eyes said something entirely different. She gave a stern gaze to Penrod, and a quick one to Wilhelm as well. They would be polite and agree to stay for the festival or they would have her to deal with, and neither of the von Lederstein men wanted to be stuck in a carriage for three days with an angry Queen Frieda.
“We would be honored,” Penrod said with less of the enthusiasm his wife displayed.
“We look forward to seeing what your fine country has to offer,” Wilhelm said, more convincingly, as it was true. They had come to Lelonia in person, not only to meet Princess Lilita, but to survey the land they would be claiming. They did, in fact, want to see what Lelonia had to offer. They were fortunate the festival would allow them time to properly see the land and determine the best point of entry for their troops. If all went according to plan, they needed to be ready to attack on Wilhelm’s wedding night. They wished to waste no time after the ceremony to move lest they risk giving Yaeland time to prepare a counterattack. Surely they would not expect Gavelon to move in so quickly. Wilhelm hoped Lelonia would have more to offer beyond the advantage in claiming Yaeland since this was an alliance he would have to live with long after the invasion.
“Wonderful,” Nikolai exclaimed. “We had planned to show you around the castle ground today as the festival takes place outdoors. You will see the town and the surrounding grounds then.”
“That will be fine,” Penrod said. “How long does this festival go on for?”
“Until the end of the week. The days in total. Although I should wish it to go on longer,” Nikolai said before erupting into hearty laughter. Queen Valya joined in laughing and Wilhelm noticed Lilita suppressing a smile, though he could not see what was so funny.
“I only jest,” Nikolai said, finally reining in his laughter. “While the break from our duties is much welcomed, there is plenty to be done running a kingdom. Cannot be avoided for long. Not that I need to tell you that. Your kingdom makes mine look like no more than a village.”
“It does keep me occupied, though one could argue that is not such a bad thing,” Penrod said.
“I certainly would not argue that sentiment,” Frieda said, teasing in her eyes.
“Well then,” Nikolai said, “if we’re all finished here, let us begin the tour.” He gave a slight chuckle at that as he rose from his seat. Valya and Lilita carefully got up from their own chairs. As Penrod got up, he gave Frieda a serious look. This is not the reason he came here, but her amusement at forcing him to go along with such social niceties and trivial tours of the castle would not be opposed. She had spent days convincing him that this was the best approach to forming the alliance. Wilhelm had listened to many conversations of him saying they should just negotiate as a business arrangement, not an elaborate courting, but Frieda knew if this alliance were to last, it would need to be built on trust between the two families. That was, after all, how she and Penrod had come to marry, uniting Browana and Gavelon without issue for years. While Frieda had already ascended to the throne, her father would not tolerate an unhappy marriage for her and it was necessary to keep the peace even more than the practicalities of the arrangement.