Interlude - Royal Duty

Princess Francisa Von Lohengramm was nervous.

She glanced around the assembled crowd. Her esteemed father - Lord Lohengramm, stood a few steps ahead of her. His back seemed impossibly large to her. What great burdens he carried, yet stood straight as if defying the heavens. To her side stood her lady mother, who looked at her and gave a slight reassuring smile. Francisa smiled back, feeling slightly at ease. If her lord father was the burning Sun, surely her mother was the soothing Moon. She did not glimpse behind, but she knew Captain of Guards and the Head Maid would be lingering close by. Despite the event being of the greatest import, each family brought only the most essential members of their retinue. Even her little brother was back in his room, sulking.

Other families, of which there were six in total, were standing at equal distance from each other in a small semi-circle. Every major clan's head was present, along with one of royal offspring each. Although none showed it outwardly, she suspected they all were just as apprehensive as her.

She peeked at Anna, her bestest friend. They had known each other since childhood, being close in age and status. Anna stood behind her grandfather, the current head of her clan. Their eyes met and Anna shot a wink at her. Francisa made a shushing gesture but brightened up nonetheless. 'Always so mischievous that one.'

Her eyes wandered over to the only other princess present, Priscilla. She was the youngest at 15, wily nature hidden behind an innocent facade. Many who knew her aptly called her "Prissy" - behind her back, of course. Prissy was staring with poorly concealed hunger in her eyes on an otherwise expressionless face.

Her gaze did not linger long on Prissy. She was about to examine the remaining three clans and their princes but her attention was caught by the murmuring chants of Royal Mages. She gaped at the Teleportation Circle they had prepared before-hand, which started radiating a bluish-white glow. The glow became brighter, illuminating even the high ceiling of their large hall, casting off long shadows behind the pillars. Brighter and brighter it became until its brilliance was dazzling enough that she had to shield her eyes from the intense luminescence. She took a deep breath, ready to play the part she had been raised for. She couldn't disappoint her father now, feeling the pressure of responsibility beginning to squeeze her stomach. 'Here they come...'

¤ ¤ ¤

"...Heroes?" she questioned, "What will they do?"

"Why, save the world, naturally!" her tutor answered.

Little Francisa liked the history tutor more than the others. She did look stern, with a tightly held bun of graying hair and unsmiling lips, but as soon as the lecture started, her eyes shined with excitement - one that Francisa shared. Today's topic concerned the ancient prophecy of their world's salvation.

"Six heroes shall rise to legendary levels, ridding us of the unending malaise and bringing forth eternal peace," she continued, "We shall get to see history made with our very eyes! You shall even take part in it; and should you do well, Lohengramm clan shall rise to glory once again!"

Francisa's 7-year-old mind did not dawdle long on the latter part. She had heard it for so long from so many that she automatically brushed it off. She will play her part. But that was far off in the future. Now though, she was intrigued.

"Is that what the prophecy says? How will they save us? Will they kill off all the monsters? What does malaise mean?" she shot doubts one after another.

"Hum, the actual words of the prophecy are lost to time. Thankfully, the interpretations remain. What I mentioned was simply the very end of it. It starts off with how the malaise - which means an ailment, disease, or sickness, by the way, will begin to spread. How it will affect the world and its denizens, then goes on to describe the time and place that the summoning will be conducted to usher the heroes. Eventually ending with eternal peace," the tutor concluded.

"Oh, And what is a legendary level? Will I reach it as well? What about..." Francisa's curious mind bubbled forth many queries that her tutor was happy to address.

¤ ¤ ¤

"You will cease this nonsense at once!" her lord father declared. He waited for Francisa's meek "Yes father" and stormed out the door.

Tears threatened to erupt at any moment. Her father had never raised his voice at her. Ever. She had always been a dutiful daughter. She didn't understand what she did wrong. Hands gripping tight the folds of the frilly dress Anna and she bought together, she sought the comfort of her mother.

"Aww, come here daughter. It's okay. Father was just shocked to hear about it, he won't be angry for long. Don't worry. There there..." her mother patted her head as she snuggled into her bosom.

"I-I don't understand... Why..." she sniffled. She was just going out with her friends for a stroll. Anna, Fredrick, and Hamilton were probably waiting for her even now. It wasn't like she had done anything. Maybe she had a slight crush on Fredrick, but she wasn't in love or anything and had never acted on it. Well, nothing beyond dressing up a little. And holding hands that one time. But she didn't plan to do anything more. Yet her father had somehow caught whiff off it and scolded her wits out.

"Francisa, look at me," her mother spoke softly. "I understand, this must feel illogical, cruel even. Especially at your age. But you must understand, you are a princess of Lohengramm. Your duty is harsh and responsibilities heavy, even so, you must stiffen up that upper lip and carry it out. For you are the only one who can. Your brother is too young. The very fate of our clan depends on it. Oh, dear daughter, how I wish I could ease your distress."

"But I don't... How do I..." Francisa sputtered. She considered being close to Fredrick would give her experience to do the act when it mattered. She justified her actions as a learning mission. Yet she couldn't raise these points in front of her vexed father. In her mind, she knew she had erred. Almost jeopardized their future while at it. Shame burned in her heart now. She felt like she did not deserve the loving embrace her mother graced her with. Yet her maiden heart soaked up that love in its entirety. Then and there, she swore to never bring disgrace on the Lohengramm name again. She shall fulfill her role, no matter what. Her resolve hardened as the tears dried up. "I shall do my duty."

¤ ¤ ¤

The light blinded her for a few moments, even with her hand raised to block most of it. As her vision returned, she saw the six heroes. Just as the prophecy promised, three men and three women.

One of the women was wearing the apparel of a priest of the Church of Luminaris. Her great-grandmother had been one, she had seen the portraits. The Church no longer existed. The pure white visage with cyan Circles and golden trims begged immediate attention. 'A Healer then?'

Beside her stood a Mage with dark robes and wine-red Circles. The quality of cloth looked slightly above-average but the Circles themselves were superlative. She could identify a boosting Circle on the hood, but the machinations of the one on the back were unknown. Besides, she only saw it for a second before he turned around to face in her direction. She wondered in what state they were before they were summoned. He glanced around the congregation, his sight colliding with hers, raising an eyebrow at her stare. She quickly turned her gaze, slightly flush due to embarrassment.

She almost missed the shadowy figure in the midst. Scrutinizing closely, she noticed another woman with reddish hair hidden underneath the hood. A Scout, she surmised. The Scout was surveying the hall as if expecting a monster to pop out at any moment.

She saw her father take a step ahead. She knew what came next. Quickly inspecting the two Knights and an Archer, she heeded her father's words.

"Heroes, welcome!" he began, "I am Siegfried Von Lohengramm, head of clan Lohengramm and current leader of the Clan Council."

He paused for effect. Francisa puffed her chest, her father always projected a majestic aura. She also noticed varying expressions on the Heroes' faces, from caution to elation. Yet relief was common among all. Only now that she was taking a closer look, she noticed their slatternly state. Rumpled clothes with small cuts here and there, uncombed hair and unwashed faces, dragging muck with their stained shoes. Her father must not have expected them so, yet he simply buried his thoughts behind the courtly face, and his next words assured the matter taken care of - the long speech he had prepared cast off without hesitation.

"Please, do not worry, everyone here is an ally. These are my peers and fellow members of the Council. Our representatives will lead you to your rooms to take care of subsistence and repose."

That was her cue. She was a step behind Prissy and another prince, Johnathan. Prissy had glued on to the young Knight, while John went to the Archer. She looked between the remaining Knight and the Mage, then looked at Anna. 'Damn, we should have divided them up beforehand. Now the heroes must think us buffoons.'

Anna nodded at her, then made a beeline for the dark Knight. She stowed away her awkwardness and charged ahead with head held high and a forced smile. "Greetings Sir," she curtsied, "I'm princess Francisa Von Lohengramm, at your service. May I have the pleasure of knowing your name?"

The Mage hero looked at her with slight amusement in his eyes. He did not curtsy back, she noted.

"I'm Pat. Nice to meet ya. Guess you're stuck with me, eh?" he lightly jested.

Francisa straightened up, matching his gaze. She did not feel anything, good or bad. It mattered not though, she would do what was necessary. "Oh no. It is an honor, Sir... Pat. Please, follow me. I shall guide you to your room." And she stiffened her upper lip just as her mother taught her.

No matter what the Hero asked of her, she will brave it. She was a Princess of Clan Lohengramm. Such was her duty.

Chapter 25 - The Fog
Chapter 26 - Bootstrap