Erna looked at the hand stretched out to her. She was so worried this was a figment of her imagination born out of a deep hope and fear. She didn’t think she could handle it if it was. This was something she’d been wanting for a very long time.
When Erna had first come to Hessenguard, she’d known nothing but terror. She’d wanted nothing more than for someone to help her, guide her in a place that was so foreign to her. But because she’d come from Haband, she’d been left to struggle alone. She’d become so used to being treated badly that she didn’t even know how to ask for help anymore. And even if she did ask, she didn’t know how she wanted to be helped.
The memory of her first sight of Hessenguard was still so fresh in her mind, even after all these years. She remembered she’d arrived, exhausted, starving and dehydrated. She hadn’t been able to eat or sleep properly for an entire week. When the carriage door had opened then, there had been no knight offering his hand to her. She hadn’t even been worth that much to them.
In fact, they’d hated her. They hated the fact that this princess was going to be representing Haband at the wedding. They saw no reason to be kind to her. As soon as the wedding was over, they were content to forget about her existence and focus on the person who truly mattered, Marquis Canavan. He was going to be the truth authority of Hessenguard.
Erna had to help herself out the carriage that day. She’d been so weak she’d stumbled and fallen, looking more like a beggar than a princess. She’d been weighed down by the foreboding fear of how she was supposed to survive there.
So, perhaps the hand in front of her now was a product of her wishful thinking, of her hopes that she’d be treated like a human this time around. It was impossible that the hand she so desperately wanted to see was really opened to her.
Why him? Erna thought as she stared at the open palm. If she so badly wanted help, surely she would have dreamed up someone she could depend on?
Erna raised her head and stared blankly at Kalion.
Judging by his tousled appearance he’d come here in a great hurry. His chest was rising and falling hard, and his cheeks were flushed a light red with exertion. His hair was sticking up in a way that was out of character for his usually neat appearance, and the strands that weren’t wind-swept were plastered to his forehead by sweat. For a knight, Kalion was usually quite tidy, so it was strange to see him like this.
Erna looked past his flushed face to stare at the other people behind him. If this was a hallucination, it was starting to feel very real. Even the knights and wizards seemed to be in on the play. They wore confused expressions, and their mouths were partly open, either in a gasp or paused midway through a sentence.
It was impossible that she could dream up such a scene… Perhaps this wasn’t her imagination after all?
Is this… real? she thought.
“What are you doing?” Kalion’s blunt voice broke through her thoughts. “Are you just going to stand there looking stupid in front of Haband’s delegation?”
Erna’s senses quickly returned to her when he spoke. This really was Kalion. Not even her imagination could have so vividly dreamed up the sarcasm in his voice.
She quickly fought down 10 years of bottled-up irritation. Her first instinct was to slap his hand away and tell him she didn’t need his help. That was how the two of them had always been though; poking fun at one another and bickering. But Erna stretched out her pale hand and laid it in Kalion’s palm.
Despite having insulted her only a moment ago, Kalion carefully took her hand and helped her out of the carriage. He was the picture of a perfect gentleman the entire time, helping to restore her grace that she had lost 10 years ago. Because of him, she was able to dismount from the carriage without even the slightest shudder.
“Why did you come?” Erna asked curiously as she stepped lightly to the ground, keeping a tight hold on his hand.
“What?” Kalion shot back.
Haband’s delegation had visited a few times during the past 10 years. The parties sent through then hadn’t been made up of anyone as high and noble as Marquis Canavan. Usually, it was just a low ranked noble who brought an order or a message, like a request for war supplies for Haband. Vanessa or Erna usually dealt with them, and Haband’s delegation certainly had no interest in meeting Kalion once their request had been granted.
“You were never interested in meeting Haband’s delegation before. So, why did you come now? Did something change your mind?” Erna asked.
Kalion tried to reply, but his throat dried up and his words failed him. Why had he come?
At dawn that morning, Kalion had gone down to the Knight Order for the first time in a while. He’d immediately noticed that most of the knights out on the training field were new recruits; none of the more senior knights were around.
Confused, he’d hunted Cedric down and asked him what was going on. Through a large yawn and cocked eyebrow Cedric had said, “Haband’s delegation is arriving later this morning. Did you forget? They left an hour ago but should be back at the castle before lunch time today.”
It was a formality to meet a foreign delegation far away from Archduke Castle. But it was also a precaution. It gave the knight party enough time to determine whether the delegation had brought anything dangerous with them, like weapons.
When Hessenguard had been in shambles after they had lost their former Archduke, Haband and Aether had seen fit to ignore this formality. But after Hessenguard’s domestic situation had calmed once Erna and Kalion had taken over, both countries were once again requested to respect Hessenguard’s custom.
Ever since Kalion had seen the request for more manpower at the Haband’s delegation meeting, he had been on edge.
Probably because of Marquis Canavan, Kalion thought.
Then Kalion realized Canavan had been the noble who’d accompanied Erna 10 years ago. It made sense to him why Erna had insisted that Haband adhere strictly to the formality; she was uneasy being around Canavan, then and now.