“Oh that is lovely,” Frieda exclaimed, noticing the brooch fixed to Valya’s collar. A red stone fitted into a gold setting, detailed intricately with winding engravings all around it. The stone itself was unblemished. She had seen it the night before but did not realize its attractiveness until seeing it more clearly in the daylight.
“Oh, this,” Valya said. She looked a bit uncomfortable at the compliment, but shook off the feeling rather quickly. “It is a family heirloom. My mother gave it to me after I ascended to the throne.”
“Well your family certainly has good taste,” Frieda said. For an heirloom that was worn so readily, the brooch had been kept remarkably well.
The two went on, Frieda expressing kind words at the beautiful landscape and unique design of the castle, genuinely impressed with the curious design of the place. Valya, in turn, expressed an interest in visiting Gavelon, certain that it would be equally impressive. When they were done trading compliments and humbly accepting them, Frieda moved on to questioning how Valya ran her court from advisors to servants. Valya answers politely without delving into too much detail. Nikolai interjected whenever possible, giving more direct, shorter answers that ended the discussion of whatever topic Frieda was asking about. It was never easy to tell whom Frieda truly liked. She had been so well taught in her ability to charm whomever she met and remain both agreeable and convincing. Her questions seemed innocent enough, but Wilhelm knew better than to think his mother was merely curious about how another nation was run.
Nikolai lead everyone inside using a different doorway than the one Wilhelm had entered the garden through after following around the servant. He brought them through the lower level of the castle first, pausing in the hallways and pointing out paintings of landscapes, describing their locations and any worthless anecdotes he had about each of them before moving on to the next one. The rooms on the ground floor were all bustling with servants moving around with decorations and people lounging around on the sofas and benches. He was not sure who the people making themselves at home were, nobles visiting the castle he assumed, but the servants were apparently preparing for the festival. Some of the rooms in the castle would be open to the public, inviting everyone into the lower level for the duration of the festival.
The castle was a maze of curved hallways and misplaced rooms. Some of the rooms were only accessible after passing through another room, with no hallway access. All of the rooms were lavish, clean, and bright. Not one unoccupied or in use by less than a few people. No one seemed to pay any mind to the group, everyone in the room simply continued doing whatever it is they were doing before they arrived. There were no greetings, no introductions, no formalities whatsoever. Even in King Nikolai’s tour. He told stories that would surely embarrass anyone in the Gavelon Empire with a laugh at his relatives’ and relations’ foolishness or misfortune. The whole thing was rather trivial and non educational as he made no effort to display himself as powerful or stoic. Wilhelm had never witnessed such a personality in anyone, nevermind a king.
The von Ledersteins followed along, Frieda feigning interest while Penrod listened on more befuddled than fascinated. As Ehren sneered, Wilhelm found it all a bit curious. How this man could lead a nation, no matter how small an empire it may be, he still had an empire. Lelonia had conquered lands with no outside help or political alliances to speak of. They had also defended their own borders, keeping them from shrinking or being threatened for generations. This was not the way Wilhelm had expected such people to live.
Avoiding sight of any stairwells, they toured the entire ground level and emerged in a different courtyard than they had began in. This courtyard was more open, less shrubbery and larger in general. The ground was unpaved once they went a few steps from the doorway. Off to the side of the courtyard, built into the castle wall, was a stable, horses’ heads protruding from the stalls.
Frieda’s steps slowed at the sight of the horses through the stable carved into the wall. “I had not realized you kept so many horses here.”
“Oh yes, Valya is a bit of a collector when it comes to horses. I’m not even sure where she finds them all, but we certainly have the space for them,” Nikolai said.
“I have gathered a great number of contacts over the years, and it is no secret I appreciate a fine breed. It helps that we keep the horses for the royal army here,” Valya explained.
“You keep the royal army’s horses here in the castle?” Ehren asked.
“Of course. The barracks are a part of the castle after all,” Nikolai said.
Penrod’s eyes widened at the idea. Their own army was kept close by, but was separate from the castle itself. The horses were also kept in a stable nearby, but detached.
“Would you like to give them a look?” Nikolai offered. “We can even see the barracks when we are through here.”
“Yes,” Penrod said sincerely. “I would like that very much.”
The three men set off to examine the large collection of horses.
“Do they frighten you?” Valya asked, noticing Frieda’s stare. She had not moved from where she stood slightly further back from the stable than the rest of the group.
“Not at all,” she replied. “It has been some time since I have been to our own stables, we keep ourselves so busy with political affairs.”
“You ride?” Valya’s excitement was clearly growing.
“Not for some time, I am afraid,” Frieda admitted, “but I do miss it. I rode in tournaments in Browana and the Fae Isles. That was a long time ago.”
“Care to tour more of the grounds? See of you have kept your talent?” Valya asked.
Frieda’s eyes lit up at the offer. “I would like that,” she said.
“Come then, you shall have your choice of horse. We have many breeds to choose from.” The women followed behind the men to examine the horses for their own purposes, leaving Wilhelm and Lilita standing together in the courtyard with no one other than the busy servants seeing to their duties and ignoring the pair.
Wilhelm’s eyes drifted over to Lilita who was staring at him, making no effort at discretion. Her boldness made him uneasy, but he would not let her unusual nature intimidate him. He held her stare, willing himself not to look away, even though he wanted to end the awkwardness of being together. Finally, much to Wilhelm’s relief, Lilita looked away and instead held her attention on the stables.
“Do you ride as well?” she asked.
“I have been riding since I was a boy,” he answered.
“Are you not still a boy?” She looked at him again.
“Well of course, but I meant, I learned to ride when I was young.”
“And you ride still?”
“When I must.”
“You ride only out of necessity?”
“There is much work to be done at the castle. We train every day. There is not so much time for pleasure rides.”
“There is time now. Perhaps you will find our horses to be faster than your own.”
Wilhelm did not jump eagerly at the suggestion. He did not jump at all. He knew they were meant to be polite, but what changed his mind was the thought of comparing the Lelonian horses to his own. They appeared different, but not in the same way the castle did. Everything here was the opposite of what he was accustomed to. His horses were tall and lean. These horses were shorter, bulkier, their legs grown with hair that covered their legs like high boots. Their manes overgrown and wild like the shrubbery.
“We can ride, though I’ve no interest in races,” he said.
“I do not wish to play games with you,” Lilita said plainly. Blunt as she was, Wilhelm was not sure what she meant by the statement. She was offering to take him on a leisurely ride, yet she remained detached and businesslike. Perhaps her own parents had insisted she be kind by entertaining their guests and keeping Wilhelm occupied.
The stables inside were even larger than they appeared from the outside. There was a wide space between the two exterior walls, both of which were lined with stalls that opened both inside and outside of the stable. The queens were watching on as their chosen horses were saddled, then they rode off together. The men were evaluating the remaining horses, and there were plenty left behind to admire.
“Wilhelm,” Penrod said, noticing him, “come now, we are going to see the barracks.”
“We had planned on going riding,” Lilita said.
“Riding?” Penrod asked, looking to Wilhelm for an explanation.
“Lilita offered to take me out on one of the horses,” he said.
“I think it would benefit you more to see the army,” Ehren suggested.
“Nonsense,” Nikolai interrupted. “there will be plenty of time for that during the festival. Go, enjoy this lovely weather. Take the chance to get to know one another.”
Wilhelm looked to his father for any disagreement but received none.
“Very well,” Penrod agreed reluctantly, still clearly trying to remain polite and agreeable. “Ehren and I shall go to the barracks now and return later with you. Enjoy your ride.”
Ehren rolled his eyes at the absurdity of taking a leisurely horseback ride rather than inspecting the barracks, but he said nothing.
Wilhelm watched the men leave the stables, feeling a pang of jealousy that they would be viewing the barracks without him while he was taking a pointless ride on a pony with a girl he took no interest in getting to know better. He convinced himself that this could be a good thing. After all, they would be spending a lot more time together once they were married, if only to keep up appearances. It would be far more tolerable if they actually grew to like one another or at least understand one another.
Wilhelm chose a horse. He was not too particular about the decision, merely pointed to one and believed it to be acceptable. A brown horse, a bit taller than the rest, with lighter hair. It reminded him of his horse back at home, a reliable animal with high stamina and incredible speed. He doubted this animal would compare, but it would do for a stroll.
Lilita picked a horse casually. She likely knew most of the horses in the stable and went to one almost instinctively, as if that were her horse so there was no sense in deciding between it and any of the others. Their horses were saddled and they each climbed in with ease, clearly both experienced riders. Wilhelm looked to Lilita to take the lead, he did not know the grounds, half expecting her to take off at full speed as her mother had with his own. Instead, she looked at him to ensure he was ready and began riding at a pace slower than if they had been walking on foot. Wilhelm followed after her, the horse beneath him not seeming too interested in the fact that it was being taken out by a complete stranger, nor was it bothered by him trying to direct it. It followed Lilita along casually and ignored his commands. It seemed nothing in Lelonia was bothered by the fact he was a prince, a royal guest in the castle, and the future king of the united Gavelon and Lelonian Empires.
Lilita lead the horses a good distance away from the castle at a slow pace. She did not look back to see that Wilhelm was comfortable, nor did she inquire as to what he thought of her country. Had she, Wilhelm would have no choice but to admit it was absolutely stunning. The rolling hills they rode on, bordered by dense forests, were so brilliantly colored they made Gavelon’s landscape look faded with age. There was something almost magical improving the appearance of everything he had seen since his arrival, amplifying what it was into something far more impressive. He was almost thankful in that moment that his horse did not require his attention so he could look around. The rocky Gavelon terrain and the slightly brighter, but still unimpressive landscape of Yaeland were nothing compared to this place. Even the Fae Isles were not this lush.
They stopped on the top of the next hill, the castle in clear view behind them. Unlike the front of the castle where Wilhelm’s carriage approached, the whole thing could be seen from here. No trees or other buildings blocking the view. It was also abundantly clear how exposed this side of the castle was.
“Do you not fear an attack from this side?” he asked.
“Why should we?” she asked in reply. “There is all of Lelonia to pass through before reaching this spot.”
“We live in the center of the Gavelon Empire and we have defenses on all sides of our castle.”
“You live in the center of the strongest nation in this continent and yet you still live in fear of men.”
“We would be foolish not to.”
“There are far more frightening things in this world.”
“More frightening than being attacked? Having your home destroyed and your country taken from you?”
“Perhaps there are different things to fear in Gavelon.”
“Perhaps if your nation took more care in securing itself against invasion you would have more nation to worry about.”
“We do not wish for worry. We have also never been successfully invaded in many generations, despite our lack of proper defenses.”
Wilhelm found this difficult to believe. Everyone in Preyos was competing for power, more land, trying to absorb surrounding nations to make their own kingdoms larger, more powerful. Unless there was truly nothing to gain in Lelonia. There was the land if nothing else. They seemed to provide an impressive harvest that was not kept secret. Surely that and their access to the sea were enticing. There must be some other reason Wilhelm had not yet discovered that could explain this poorly defended country’s lack of invasion.
“We should return to the castle,” Lilita said. “They will be preparing supper soon.”
Wilhelm looked to the sky. He knew they had been touring the castle and riding for some time, but it looked no later than when they had begun.
Lilita noticed his puzzlement. “There is far more daylight here than you are used to.”
Wilhelm was not sure why that should be, but based on the look of the sky he had no reason to disagree. Beside, he had no desire to argue with her any further. He could feel his exhaustive temper rising at how careless they could be in matters of defense, he was not going to add to that trying to get her to explain how daylight works.
They rode back to the stables in silence at the same slow pace they had started at. Servants took their horses to unsaddle and return to the stalls. Lilita clasped her hands together in front of her and asked Wilhelm if he would like to wash up before supper, to which he declined. If this were going to be another drunken feast he did not see why he should bother bathing before it began. He followed her through the twisting corridors to the dining room, much closer to the stable than he had anticipated.