Chapter Twenty One
I stood in the elevator, hands trembling. It was as though I could physically feel the distance that was stretching between Leopold and I; my panic grew with every floor we descended. We were getting closer and closer to the outside. I would soon be at the edge of the universe that Leopold and I had been trapped in for the past week and I was terrified that if I left, nothing would be the same when I got back. I told myself that I would only be gone for a few hours, that everything was going to be fine. I was going to go back to the castle where I would see Phillipa and Hector. Guards were traveling with me and many other Royal Guards remained at the hospital to keep Leopold safe. As the numbers that were flashing above the elevator door grew steadily lower, my breathing picked up and my heartbeat pounded a rapid tattoo in my ears. I couldn’t help but worry about all the people I was about to see, the lawyers, counselors, soldiers, photographers, reporters, ladies, and dukes. I also worried about something happening to Leopold before I got back; about being alone.
Something suddenly shifted beside me, pulling my attention back to my surroundings as M. Arsnault reached out and pushed the emergency button on the elevator wall. The lift jolted to a stop. His voice was calm and steady as he spoke, “I can have you out of there in under two minutes, Mademoiselle, and back here in less then ten.”
I took deep breaths through my nose while wringing my hands together, the rough black lace of my gloves twisting around my fingers. Slowly I steadied, then nodded at my guard. He pushed the button again and the elevator resumed its descent. I settled my features into a careful expression before we stepped out of the elevator, our footsteps echoing through the atrium of the hospital. The outer walls of the atrium were made up entirely of glass so the photographers and news crews waiting in the street could see everyone who moved through the lobby. For this reason, the space was nearly empty, with the exception of the occasional nurse and a handful of castle security guards. The mob of paparazzi that was waiting just outside, poised for the hunt, paused briefly as they considered us, from where they sat.
“I will be with you the whole time, Mademoiselle,” M. Arsnault assured me.
Then it hit, in a great blinding rush. As soon as they realized who was walking across the white stone and toward them no less, the crowd erupted into a frenzy. I didn’t react, I just kept moving, keeping pace with M. Arnault who had moved up to stand beside me. The rest of the guards around the room stepped into formation around us. The guards stationed outside rushed toward the door, waiting to protect me from the people who were pressing closer and closer into the barriers that had been set up. I could just make out a sleek black car at the other end of the barred pathway. It was circled by police officers in reflective vests who were trying to keep people away from the car and off the street.
The paparazzi started yelling my name as soon as I was through the doors. All of them, in more languages then I thought possible, were shouting questions at me. I could feel M. Arsnault at my side, his hand brushing my back, just short of enveloping me in his arms and rushing me away should the need arise. There were three guards behind us, watching for M. Arsnault’s directions, and three more in front, keeping back the reaching arms. When we finally made it to the car, I was quickly stuffed inside, my security forming a wall between the car and the crowd. M. Arsnault jumped into the seat beside the driver and we slowly began to creep forward along with the police who were on foot in front of us, gently nudging back cameras, recorders, and notebooks. Hands balled into fists, I looked back at the hospital once more before settling into my seat and giving up.
“God, they are awful, terrible, parasitic monsters,” said Hector, voice edged in steel. He was furious. I could see tension laced through his entire body, wrapping tighter and tighter to his center.
Phillipa just took my hand in hers, squeezing tightly for a moment. “So,” she said, “I didn’t think I would have to give this lesson for a long time but...” I nodded, urging her to continue. I was grateful for the distraction, for something normal.
“We do not go to funerals often,” she began, clearing her throat. “Usually it causes too much of a commotion. Our presence tends to take away from the reason for the gathering. This is a special case. We have to go to thank the family and the deceased for their service to the county and the crown, for dying while protecting the prince.”
“I thought we didn’t know what happened,” I said, confused.
“We still don’t,” Hector murmured, “so anything is possible.” I nodded, understanding, more manners and policies.
“We need to do our best to fit in,” Phillipa continued. “Do not draw attention to yourself. You will be under great scrutiny. Everyone is waiting to see you and how you will react. You should not smile, laugh, or sob; remain resolute.”
“The rumors will spread like wild fire if you don’t,” added Hector darkly. “Your reputation will be ruined. You will be deemed weak or unfeeling, definitely unfit to rule.”
“People are going to get all of that from seeing me go to a funeral?” I scoffed doubtfully.
“If you allow them to,” he replied shortly.
Phillipa glared at her brother for a moment before pursing her lips and turning back to me. “You’ll be fine. Just do as you always have, and everything will be alright.”
“Are Felip and Beatrice coming?” I wondered. It would be easier if they were. Somehow when they were around, everything always ran smoother. They had a calming affect on situations as if their awe-instilling presence acted as a balm. It was as if etiquette mattered more somehow when the King and Queen were involved. Their authority even overpowered their popularity. Hector, Leopold, and Phillipa had more of a superstar effect which tended to evoke chaos. People cared more about getting close to them than respecting them. Maybe it was a generational thing, or maybe all of the mistakes they had made humanized them more. Dating the daughter of bakers, and riding fast motorcycles was much more laid back then getting betrothed to a duchess and riding around in a glass carriage.
“Yes,” Phillipa replied. “We will be following the usual formation and protocol. There will be more security than usual but that will not change much for us. You will stay at the castle tonight?”
She looked too hopeful, I felt kind of bad when I said, “No. I think I will just go back to the hospital after the service. I can’t...I won’t-”
“It is okay. That is fine,” Hector agreed, suddenly slightly calmer. He pinched the bridge of his nose, “How is he doing?”
“The cat scan today showed that the swelling has gone down more,” I told him.
He nodded once, sharply. “Good.”
The car slowed, bouncing as we hit a speed bump. We rolled through two massive cast iron gates and into the cemetery. The grassy hills were lined with monuments and tombstones of various styles and age. It seemed that the older ones were more on the right hand side, closer to the sea. They were ornate affairs, covered in angel figurines and carvings of flowers and quotations. Some of them were falling apart, the names and dates worn off by centuries of wind and storms. Even further away, lined up along the edge of the cliffs, I could see mausoleums, all made of glistening white marble. The names of many of the Solisian aristocratic families were emblazoned above the doors.
When we came to the crossroads at the top of the hill, we turned left toward the new side. There were cars parked all along the roadside and there was a group of people standing about fifty feet into the sea of tombstones. The surrounding area was spotted with a handful of people dressed in black suits, most standing under trees or next to larger monuments. They could have been other mourners but they weren’t, they were members of the Royal Guard. I wondered why they thought it necessary to have so many of them here. I didn’t think that the news crews would be tactless enough to consider interrupting the funeral. Even if they were, there seemed to be more guards here than what was normally required for that kind of situation.
I exhaled deeply as we pulled up behind a bright yellow sports car. I closed my eyes, listening to the sounds of shuffling around me as the other passengers shifted to get out of their seats. I concentrated, focusing on remembering the procedure and gestures that were necessary for going out in public. Beatrice and Felip would go first, followed by Hector and Phillipa, then Leopold and I would follow at the back. No, it was just me this time; I would be at the back alone. No touching, no curtsying, no smiling, no crying, no feeling allowed.
M. Arsnault opened my door and held out his hand to help me up. Beatrice touched my shoulder as I moved past her and Felip smiled weakly. I smoothed the pleats of my black dress and fell into my place in line before we started across the lawn.
As we grew closer to the pool of black clothed people, they began to take notice of us. Solemn heads turned to watch us, bowing grimly, both in respect to our titles and to our own pain. We moved through the crowd until we were at its center, the turning point that they all carefully circled around. The casket was there, hovering over open ground. It was closed and covered by a large Solisian flag. There was a line of uniformed soldiers standing at attention behind it. The Royal Family approached the casket, all of them standing shoulder to shoulder around it. I followed suit, ending up at its head. One by one, they all reached out and placed their right hand’s delicately onto its lid. I hesitated, watching as they bowed their heads, and then reached out myself, the lace of my gloves sliding across the grey of the flag. I did math while I waited for the okay to move again. I divided 78,892 by 1,793, distracting myself so that I would not focus on the emotion. It was the only way I trusted myself not to break the rules Phillipa had given me.
I was startled out of concentration by a deep voice that I recognized instantly and goose bumps prickled across my skin in response as I stood frozen in place. “Did you know him well, Princess?” asked Antoine. His voice was laced in honey, no traces of malice or regret.
All the same, my mouth was acrid and I had to swallow my own words before I could reply. “No,” I said, resisting the urge to run. “I did not.” I opened my eyes to see why no one had thought to warn me of his arrival, or had jumped in to rescue me yet. It seemed that as I focused on mathematics, the DuMont family had moved on to speak to a small group of people, not noticing the caboose lagging behind. I cranked my head around to try and see through the mass of black, hoping to catch one of their eyes. A castle guard who was watching me, took a few steps forward toward Antoine. As much as I wished he could come and help me, since it was evident that everyone else was occupied, I figured it would cause too much of a scene. I waved him off subtly and he returned to his statue-like stance under his tree.
I could do this, there was no proof that Antoine was really a risk to me. If anything, he seem more interested in marrying me than murdering me and I didn’t think he was likely to try either of those things at the funeral. Finally, I turned to face him, squinting against the sun. He was standing surprisingly close to me, and I had to angle my neck awkwardly to allow for his height. He was in uniform, like the guards behind him. The white jacket and pants almost offensively out of place considering the circumstances. “Did you?”
“I trained him. I was the Captain of his Flight, he reported to me,” Antoine said, his usual smile falling slightly.
“I’m sorry,” I told him sincerely.
Antoine shrugged slightly, his head hanging to look at the grass, “It happens in our business.” He cleared his throat and stood straight again, his blue eyes piercing into mine, “How is Leopold?”
“We remain positive,” I replied tersely, trying not to bristle too much. Maybe he was actually concerned and not just asking because he was waiting to move all his stuff into the castle should the opportunity arise.
“Good. I really hope this does not prevent you from coming to Arcadis this week. I completely understand that it may, but I will be disappointed. I think the trip would be good for you, Princess and my uncle has so much to teach you. Here,” he reached into his pocket, “I have a gift for you. Well, I guess I am technically just returning it to its owner.”
He placed a tiny figurine in my hand. It was a lady carved out of white stone. She was wearing a tiny gold crown and her eyes were made of emeralds. She wore robes decorated in flowers and was holding a sapphire cupped in her palms.
“What is it?” I asked, turning her around.
“It is supposed to be for good luck. People in Arcadis used to make tiny statues of deities that they carried around with them for good fortune. She is supposed to be the goddess of love and hope,” Antoine explained. “I wanted to make sure I gave it to you before I left.”
“You aren’t staying for the funeral?” I asked him, wondering why on earth he was here then. Maybe I should have called the guard over.
“No, I just came to give my respects to his family. I have to go and meet clients of my uncle.”
“Oh,” I managed rather indelicately. I was saved from having to say anything else as Hector all of a sudden appeared beside me.
“Everything alright, Winifred?” he asked, his voice as imposing beside me as his huge muscled form.
“Fine,” I assured him, looping my arm through his. I was fairly certain it was the only way I was going to be able to restrain him if Antoine decided to say something stupid. “I was just saying goodbye.”
Antoine looked as though he wanted to say something more but thought better of it and bowed to both of us instead. Without another word, he slipped off into the crowd and toward the cars.
“Walk with me,” Hector said in English, “I will take you to be introduced to the Belmonts.”
I let him lead me across the lawn to where Carlise and Beatrice were still speaking with the same group of people.
“Was Guillaume in Leopold’s team at the base?” I asked, feeling kind of bad that I hadn’t thought to do so before.
“No, he wasn’t. Guillaume was an officer. He was in charge of doing Leopold evaluation, they did not work together on a regular basis,” he explained.
I didn’t respond, I wasn’t sure if I should. I didn’t know if it was a good thing or not that Leopold did not know the man personally, unsure if it changed things somehow.
“Are you sure you are alright?” Hector asked softly. Concern was evident in the line of his mouth. “I am so sorry.”
“It’s fine,” I said, patting his hand. “He just wanted to say hi and give me more stuff.” I held up the figurine for his inspection.
Hector’s brow furrowed as he took the statue, turning it over in his palm. He hummed, the muscle in his jaw jumping.
I was about to ask what was wrong but we had arrived at the group of people. Hector slid the statue out of sight and into the pocket of his suit, smoothing out his features. I did more math, reciting multiples of 17, as I was introduced to the members of Guillaume Belmont’s family, first his mother Stephanie and his father Guy, then his little sister Julie and his girlfriend Marie-Anne. I exchanged brief condolences with them all. The last member of the group was an old man who’s eyes were glistening with tears. Hector murmured softly to him in a language I didn’t understand, his large hand strong and steady on the man’s shaking shoulder. They spoke quietly for a moment before Hector introduced me. The old man glanced up at me through his large dark eyes, holding my gaze fiercely, just as Antoine had earlier. The man’s gaze wasn’t predatory though, more searching, almost as though he could see into the very depths of my soul.
“This is Saripho Belmont,” explained Hector. “He is Guillaume’s grandfather. He flew here from the Ivory Coast.” So I had been wrong, he had been speaking French, just a different dialect.
The man reached out to take my hand, his own dark leathered fingers rough, knobby, and stiff as they wrapped themselves around mine. His voice was rough too, but strong when he spoke to me.
I looked up at Hector, and said somewhat guiltily in English, “I don’t understand.”
“He said that pain makes death easy, it is love that make it hard,” Hector translated.
I frowned, confused. It seemed like a strange thing to say. I shook my head and started to respond but the man squeezed my hand tighter, speaking with more urgency now. Hector listened intently before relaying the message back to me in English once again. “He says, love is what makes life worth living. Pain is what makes it easy to let go. He is sorry and wants you to know that you should do whatever it takes, to do what is best for you and Leopold, even if it is painful.”