Wilhelm managed to wake before the servants could come to force him out of the bed. Pulling one of the curtains aside, he saw that the sun was hovering over the horizon, almost at the same height it was when he had returned with Lilita for supper the night before. The castle was silent and the air still cool. It felt earlier than it appeared and he remembered what Lilita had said about the days being longer in Lelonia. She must have been telling the truth. Somehow the sun managed to stay up later and rise earlier here than it did in Gavelon.
Whether it was too early or not, Wilhelm dressed himself, not wishing to wait an indeterminate amount of time for the servants to flood into his room. He searched the wardrobe for his blade, then under the bed, but was unable to locate it. His chainmail also seemed to be missing. He assumed they had been brought to an armory within the castle. He did not like being separated from them, especially knowing he had a slim chance of ever finding them on his own in the impossible to navigate building.
As ready as he could be without his chainmail and sword, Wilhelm ventured out of his room on his own. The hallway candles were unlit and no servants waited outside. He was thankful for the latter. Trying to remember the path he followed to get up to his room, Wilhelm set out to find his way downstairs. It was not long before he felt he was only leading himself in circles, making little to no progress at all. When he decided he had passed the same painting three times, he gave up trying. He wandered the hallways, exploring the stairwells, stopping to examine the carefully detailed paintings that adorned the walls, even stopping to run his hand over the fabric of one of the drapes to see if it was as soft as it appeared. It was.
About to enter another stairwell, he heard voices descending from above. He listened carefully, worried for a moment that he would be caught walking around the castle unattended, then realized how ridiculous a thought that was. He was a guest here. Within the year he would be a part of the royal family. He should have no shame in looking at the art rather than sitting in his room until someone came to give him permission to be let out. Still, he was not sure the Lelonian royal family or their staff would feel the same as he. It was too late anyway. He would never find his way back to his room. Had he not known any better, he would believe the passages changed as he walked through them.
One of the voices on the stairs was his father, that much was certain. This calmed him as much as the presence of his father could. The other voice was too hushed to identify, but he thought it sounded familiar.
Wilhelm waited beside the open doorway to the stairs until his father descended into sight. The other voice, to no surprise, belonged to Ehren. They, too, were without a servant guide.
“Wilhelm, good,” Penrod said. “Ehren here is convinced we are lost. Tell him that this is the way to the dining room.”
Ehren looked between them, his expression showed that he knew better. That the king was too proud to admit he was lost, but Ehren knew better than to argue the point with him.
“Actually,” Wilhelm answered, then sighed in defeat, “I am entirely unsure how to get to the dining room from here. It seems I woke before the servants began their morning duties.”
“Well what on earth are you doing then?”
“Just looking around,” he admitted. “I figured I would find my way or be found by someone by the time breakfast was ready.”
“It seems we are all in good company then,” Penrod said, still not admitting defeat. “Together we will surely find our way.”
“Is mother not with you?” Wilhelm asked, realizing she should have been with his father and he had either left her alone or she had wandered off before him and was lost in the castle by herself.
“She was sound asleep when I woke. Seems her and Queen Valya have more in common than we anticipated. Or your mother was asking endless questions, you know how she gets. Either way, they stayed up well into the evening.”
“Shall we continue our fruitless efforts in locating the dining room?” Ehren asked, not at all amused by the situation they were in.
“Very well. Wilhelm, you lead the way. It is your turn to bring us round in circles.”
“Who would build such a trap to live in?” Ehren asked as they descended another set of stairs together.
Guessing his way, assuming down was his best bet, Wilhelm wandered the castle with his father and uncle trailing close behind. Penrod made occasional comments on the architecture or the practicality and possible advantages of having a layout that was confusing to visitors while Ehren complained heavily how utterly impractical it was to make any one room so difficult to locate. Wilhelm found it highly inconvenient as someone new to the place, but the servants seemed to have no trouble finding their way around. They did not hesitate at turns or contemplate doors before opening them. They knew precisely which landing to exit the stairs. Clearly there was some reasoning to finding one’s way around the castle if one knew where they were headed.
By some chance of luck, they managed to get themselves onto the ground level. They knew it was the ground level by the flowers adorning the passageway. Voices carried down the hallway from a room unseen. They moved down the hallway in the direction the voices were coming from and were fortunate in finding themselves nearly walking past the dining room.
Penrod laid a heavy hand on Wilhelm’s shoulder as he moved past him into the dining room. Ehren sighed as he followed his brother into the room toward the empty table. The three men took seats. It may have been too early for breakfast, but at least they knew where they were. Sitting at the table in wait seemed preferable to wandering around the castle completely lost hoping someone would find them and show them the way, a way that they would never be able to trace back if left to their own devices. Wilhelm may have guessed his way correctly, but they all knew that finding this room was not by any knowledge of the location or sense of direction.
Penrod continued making comments of the place, pleasant enough, but trivial in reality. He wondered over the food, complementing the previous meals they had eaten there, wondering if the feast they were greeted with would be outdone at the festival. Ehren did not reply as the king went on. Wilhelm did not either, but he was not nearly so bothered with the place as Ehren obviously was. Penrod was impressed with what he had seen so far. His time with King Nikolai was clearly well spent admiring their fine barracks and likely asking over the state of their military and trading tales of battle. That was truly the only thing that impressed the king of Gavelon so deeply. Military victories. To have won compliments on the menu, Wilhelm assumed Nikolai must have some impressive stories to tell.
They waited in the room, Penrod giving off his occasional observations and opinions, until the servants began entering and exiting. None of them seemed at all surprised that they were seated there already. No one offered to bring them anything either, nor did they ask after their sleep or well being. The servants so far had not spoken a word. Wilhelm had not noticed it before, but even when the king ordered them around, they gave no response, no acknowledgement that they were given an order, they simply acted. This struck Wilhelm as odd once he realized it. They did not even bow.
Nikolai startled, just enough for Wilhelm to notice, when he entered the dining room and noticed the guests from Gavelon already seated at the table. His expression immediately shifted to a bright smile, Queen Valya entering with him, a smile growing on her face as well.
“Gentlemen, I did not know you would be up so early,” Nikolai said.
“We did not wish to disturb anyone, so we made our way down here together. I hope that is all right,” Penrod said, not really concerned with whether that was all right or not.
“Of course,” Nikolai said. He hesitated a moment before speaking again, almost as if he were reconsidering if it was anything to be concerned with. “Queen Frieda and our girls should be here any moment. Shall we have the food brought out now? You must have worked up an appetite waiting for us.”
“No, no. We can wait a bit longer until everyone has arrived.”
Nikolai and Valya paused another moment before taking their seats at the table. They exchanged a quick, awkward glance that Penrod did not seem to notice. Wilhelm could not determine what it meant, but he believed Ehren had noticed it as well. Ehren was watching the king of Lelonia carefully, as well as the queen. He seemed suspicious of something, but that was his way. Always looking for the trouble with something, usually finding it. It was a valuable characteristic in ensuring a decree or military campaign would be effective, but rather unbecoming in all other situations.
Frieda looked well rested when she entered the room, a servant at her side. Although she had stayed up inquiring about Lelonia, she had far fewer tasks to keep herself up at night here than she did at home in Gavelon. Ilona and Brigita arrived together shortly after.
Lilita was the last to arrive. She moved gracefully, catching Wilhelm’s eye as she sat. She did not keep his gaze long enough for Wilhelm to determine what the look meant, but he knew there was something there. Some trace of judgement, suspicion, or distrust. Or, he remembered Aldrik’s words, she was trying to find the connection with him that they needed to make their alliance tolerable.
After breakfast, Nikolai was reminded that he had agreed to take them to the barracks again, but he hesitated to go, saying that he wished to check on the festival preparations first. Queen Valya wished to assist him, which suited Frieda just fine. Although she could have used the break from her duties since she was always deeply involved in all matters related to her family’s four nations, Frieda seemed to have had enough small talk and was eager to get back to business.
Lilita, to everyone’s surprise, offered to take her guests to the barracks herself. Her father hesitated at the suggestion, nearly brushing off the idea entirely after she brought it up. Nikolai let in fairly easily, however. Especially once Valya supported the idea. Lilita insisted it would be no trouble at all. She claimed to have some knowledge about the barracks and the army and would enjoy the walk.
Penrod was not bothered at the change in escort, and Frieda did not mind much at all who was leading them to the barracks so long as she got to see them. Ehren looked almost impressed at Lilita’s boldness, especially since she had remained mostly quiet since their arrival. To learn that she was willing to take the lead, and also that she knew about the state of their military, was not something to ignore. Wilhelm still felt a certain misplaced suspicion about his future bride. He was trying to give her the chance to prove herself to be more than she appeared. Perhaps this would be what he needed to see.
The barracks were in a wide tower attached to the edge of the main castle just enough to place a door between them. The building was essentially its own building beyond that door. As if the building was meant to be constructed in another space, but was misplaced and the builders had no choice but to adjoin it to the castle.
The army had its own kitchen, its own dining hall for the soldiers to eat in. A meeting room with a modest throne sat front and center for the king to address his army. A smaller meeting room with a table and maps for the king to plan attacks and defenses with the commanders. Bedrooms with wash basins. A room of military relevant books and boards of tactical games. An armory with a blacksmith kept on hand to craft and maintain their equipment. A training yard with practice dummies filled the enclosed area outside of the main tower entrance.
It was clear by the layout of the tower and the number of beds arranged in each room that the military force was small. On a much larger scale, this setting could be transferred to Gavelon. The men agreed that there was possibly too much room for relaxation, but they agreed that it was perhaps beneficial to morale and the activities made available were acceptable choices.
Lilita answered all of their questions without hesitation, knew her way around the building, and even provided information without being prompted to do so. Wilhelm was impressed with her knowledge. He could not help but wonder how she had come to know this place so well. She was the heir to the throne, sure, but the nation she was in line to run was not known for its army. He did not imagine it would have been a priority to teach someone who would not be fighting alongside her men so much about the building they lived in.
Lilita watched the men banter on, exchanging opinions, with a hint of amusement on her face. She suppressed her smile, but her eyes gave it away. Wilhelm caught the look and Lilita made no additional effort to hide it. Even Frieda did not notice. She was just as judgmental about the military as the men. She may never have fought alongside her men, but she knew military strategy better than even Ehren and Penrod. Her father, having only two daughters and no sons, spared no effort in passing down his knowledge and talents to them. He did not care that their gender may keep them off of the battlefield, he knew only that no trained group of soldiers, let alone entire nations, would not follow their command if they were not confident in the decisions they were making or the orders they were giving.
Penrod and Ehren lead the army in the field, but everyone in the Gavelon court knew that the decisions were being made by Queen Frieda. She had a natural ability at seeing what another nation’s army would do in almost any situation. She spent enough time studying the politics within her own court, she had an easy time applying that information to the way the heads of nations lead their armies in battle. Frieda had no trouble contradicting the men and, though neither of them liked being outdone, they liked losing battles even less. She proved herself long ago and they have since valued her opinions in all matters.
Wilhelm wished that his opinion was so valued, in public or private. Even on this trip, when Penrod had expressly stated that he wished for his opinion, Wilhelm was not asked a single question by his relatives and when he asked one he was answered as if the question was amateur and the answer obvious. It is most likely that Penrod only wanted Wilhelm’s opinions in front of King Nikolai so as to impress them. They seemed to find no need in impressing Lilita.
Penrod made a point to tell Wilhelm to pay attention to certain details, to look at the way something in the armory was crafted, to notice the assortment of training dummies stuck up from the ground in the training yard and the way they were secured. Wilhelm nodded, he listened, he learned as his father intended. These were the things that mattered. This is what would win them Yaeland. A good army, united and well equipped, trained by the best. A bit of Wilhelm’s attention strayed from the details of the barracks the whole time.
He fought the urge to observe Lilita when he was meant to be studying the layout of the tower. He wanted to see her reaction to his father’s lessons almost as much as he wanted to listen to whatever he was being taught. Something in him told him that her reactions to what they made of the Lelonian army were as important as the assumptions they were making, the impression the place was making on them.
Lilita had lost her smirk, but her eyes still watched on with traces of amusement. She narrowed her eyes at times when her country’s work was being criticized, held her chin up with pride when something of Gavelon was suggested to be superior. Wilhelm caught glimpses of her reactions, but no one else seemed to pay her any attention. She stood quietly by while Penrod took over the task of leading them around, having already visited with Nikolai the day before.
When they were being lead back to the main rooms of the castle, Lilita kept poised, stepped lightly, and did not look back at her guests. Wilhelm wondered if his father had injured some of her pride in his comparisons and criticisms. He thought her childish for it. King Penrod was a proud king. He valued his army and their accomplishments more than any other feature of his kingdom. His comments on any other nation’s military were not intended as insults, especially in this setting. Penrod was more impressed than anything. Any shortcomings he witnessed he intended to improve when the kingdoms were united. It would be necessary in the coming months to have their armies in the best shape for when they initiated the attack on Yaeland.
The castle was busy when they returned. The dining room was colorful in drapes and bouquets covering tables and hung on the walls. The hallway had been decorated in a similar fashion. Petals were scattered on the ground, bouquets left along the base of the wall and hung around the candle holders mounted on the walls. Not all the hallways and rooms were done up. Only the ones that were intended to be made open to the public for use during the festival were decorated.
Lilita lead them down decorated hallways, not travelling too far, until they reached the throne room. Wilhelm was not sure what activities were going to take place over the coming days, but he imagined an abundance of eating and drinking, likely dancing as most public celebration events were wont to invite. The king and queen were stood in the center of the main hall, looking over flowers and some sort of papers. They seemed to be advising which of their options to choose. As they noticed their Gavelon visitors approaching, the servants who were stood before them departed.
“You have returned. I trust our barracks were as impressive to you the second time around?” Nikolai asked with a friendly smile.
“Yes, of course,” Penrod answered. “I’ve no doubt our combined efforts will produce the greatest army known to man.” Penrod was quite pleased with this idea.
“The decorations are lovely,” Frieda said. “Seems you two have been busy while we were gone.”
“Oh yes, many decisions to be made before we begin,” Valya said.
“The opening ceremony should be starting soon,” Nikolai said. “Lilita, would you care to take our guests into town?”
Lilita nodded her head politely, “yes, father.”
“Excellent. We still have some preparations to see to. Go, enjoy the festival.”
Lilita looked at her group, silently inviting them to follow her to the village where the start of the festival would take place. She took her leave, passing through the large open doors to the outside. Frieda smiled at Valya, who returned the kind expression, before following Lilita. Penrod moved beside his wife, curious about what the opening ceremony would teach them about this place. Wilhelm looked to Ehren. The two shared a quick look before Ehren moved to follow his brother. Ehren looked more suspicious than excited about the festival. Nikolai and Valya were already returned to their decision making. Wilhelm left, a sense of that same suspiciousness Ehren always seemed to feel lingering within him.