Claude hurried to his room and stowed the gifts except for the handkerchief, which he put in his pocket, and the bracelet, which remained on his wrist. He missed his Golden Deer days. At least most of his classmates had been able to return to Derdriu. He sent pages to inform his friends of the banquet while he made final preparations.
When it was time for the meal to begin, Claude waited in the wings while everyone was seated per his plan. As much as he wished he could have his friends to himself, they had other jobs to do tonight, whether they knew it or not. Raphael and Ignatz were seated with the foot soldiers, Leonie with the cavalry, and Lysithea was with the other nobility. Hilda would sit at Claude’s right, between him and Margrave Edmund.
Claude craned his neck and peeked down the hall. Sure enough, Hilda appeared just as most everyone else was seated. She wore a raspberry-colored, off-the-shoulder gown with a sweetheart neckline and gauzy skirts. Her hair was piled on top of her head and held in place with two black lacquered pins, exposing her pale, slender neck.
A buzzing sensation flooded him as she drew near. He stepped into view and blocked her way. She smiled coyly up at him.
“I have something for you,” he said. “It’s not as wonderful as what you gave me, but I hope you’ll like it anyway.”
Claude held out a velvet-covered box. Inside was a simple—but very expensive—necklace of rubies, pink sapphires, and onyx. Through sheer luck, it happened to go perfectly with her gown.
“Oh, Claude.” Hilda looked up at him, wide-eyed.
“I actually bought this a while ago and planned to give it to you later,” he said, “but now seemed a better time.”
She turned so he could put it on her. If only he wasn’t wearing gloves. It was all too easy to imagine what that creamy throat would feel like beneath his fingers. The hair on her neck stood on end at his touch, and a flash of heat seared through him. Did she enjoy his touch? He risked a caress as he pulled his hands away, and a tremor ran through her body.
“It’s beautiful.” Hilda said, fingertips resting on the necklace. “Thank you so much.”
He smiled. “Hopefully, it makes up for all your birthdays I missed.”
Claude offered his arm, and she accepted it. Although she was shorter, she easily matched his stride as the entered the banquet hall. It was only as they neared the high table that he realized the place of honor in his court was the same one traditionally occupied by a wife.
Judging by the glance Hilda threw him, she’d realized it too. The looks on some of the nobles’ faces—particularly the ones with eligible daughters—reinforced the idea. Claude plastered a grin on his face. Let them think what they liked. The Gonerils were one of the most powerful families in the Alliance. Few were brave enough to badmouth Lord Holst’s dear sister.
“I need you to try to convince Margrave Edmund to summon Marianne,” Claude murmured. “He wouldn’t let her come and fight.”
“He’s the most stubborn man in the Alliance, after my brother.” Hilda sighed.
“Lorenz didn’t make it, either.”
“I knew he wouldn’t. He told me what was happening with his family when I sent him his birthday present.”
Claude’s stomach twisted. Of course, she’d made gifts for all her former classmates. She’d been bored out of her mind, and she cared about her friends. He’d been silly to think he was special.
She took her seat gracefully, and he pushed in her chair. It seemed natural to have her at his right hand. Interesting. He didn’t sit just yet. A servant filled his wine goblet, and he raised it to the crowd.
“Tonight,” he called to those gathered, “we gather to celebrate the return of old friends. Not only our friends who have helped us get through this war, but friends we thought departed who have returned. The course of this war is changing. We have reached a turning point, and the Leicester Alliance will rise to the occasion. There will be peace in Fódlan again. We will ensure it!”
Those gathered cheered, and there were several toasts. Claude tossed back his wine, accepted a refill, and took his seat.
“Meaning what, exactly?” Hilda asked the moment he sat down.
“Meaning Dimitri’s alive. So is Teach. They’ve set up base at Garreg Mach.”
Her eyes widened. Good. She understood the implications, too.
“Yep.” He sipped his wine. “If they can unify the Faerghus lords…”
Hilda’s gaze grew distant as she looked out over the gathering. “Peace. It feels like forever.”
“That’s assuming they don’t fight us.”
She snapped toward him, her eyes wide. “The professor wouldn’t fight us, would he? We’ve been resisting Edelgard this entire time.”
“He’s going to fight Edelgard, so why not us? We’re not his students, and he knows I support Edelgard’s ideals, if not her methods.”
Hilda folded her hands in her lap and frowned down at them.
“Come on,” he said with a lazy smile. “It’ll be all right. Smile for the crowd. Besides, you’ll give yourself wrinkles.”
She raised her eyebrow at him. “You did not just tell me to smile or talk about wrinkles.”
“Oh, good. I would have hated to think you were treating me a certain way or telling me certain things just because I’m a woman.”
Claude swallowed. This was new behavior from her. Although, come to think of it, Ingrid had hated when he’d said similar things to her back at the academy. He wasn’t sexist, was he? Prejudice based on gender was just as bad as racism. The matter merited reflection.
“You’re right, I’m sorry,” he said.
“Better.” Hilda smirked. “Now you need to ease my righteous anger.”
Yes, she was different from when they were at the academy, but he liked it. He took her hand from her lap and kissed her knuckles again. “You, Lady Goneril, are without peer.”
“That’s better.” Her expression grew smug, but pink stained her cheeks.
They gazed at each other, smiling. Claude forgot to let go of her hand. It wasn’t until Judith, seated on Claude’s left, cleared her throat that he came back to himself.
“The meal is on its way, boy,” Judith said. “And best watch yourself—everyone else is.”
Hilda must have heard her as well, for she demurely slipped her hand from his and picked up her wine goblet. She turned toward Margrave Edmund and began to make small talk. Claude wiped the annoyance from his face and smiled at Judith.
“So, she going to be the new duchess?” Judith asked.
Heat rushed to Claude’s cheeks. “She’s a friend, nothing more.”
“Marriage between the Gonerils and the Riegans would be politically advantageous.”
“True, but better to make ties with someone who’s not already an ally.”
Judith smirked. “Then you should have proposed to Empress Hresvelg.”
Wine almost came out Claude’s nose as he choked. Thing was, Judith wasn’t wrong. Claude had actually considered that path early on, but such a proposal would have reinforced the very framework Edelgard was trying to dismantle.
“I’d propose to Blaiddyd, but I don’t think he’s interested in me,” Claude said with a smile.
“You don’t seem to be interested in anyone but Lady Goneril, judging by the way you look at her. I hear she’s quite eligible. Better make your move before someone else does.”
Claude sighed. “Not content with giving me only martial advice, I see.”
“I only give advice when I think you’re going to make a stupid mistake,” Judith said with a small smile.
Claude shook his head and took another sip of his wine. There was a war on. If Holst was going to marry off his sister—or if Hilda was interested in getting married—it would have happened by now.
Then the food arrived, and all other thoughts vanished from his head. The buzz of conversation in the hall muted as people set about eating the meal. Claude and Hilda swapped morsels so they could each have more of their favorite dishes, an activity that only increased during dessert. Her eyes sparkled as he held his fork to her lips so she could have a bite of his chocolate tart. Judith uttered a long-suffering sigh on Claude’s left.
After the meal, people took their beverages and began to circulate. Hilda took Claude’s arm and made a beeline for Lysithea. The two women hugged, and Hilda chattered at Lysithea as Claude spotted the others heading their direction.
Then a minor noble from the northeast asked for a moment of Claude’s attention. That led to another conversation, and soon Claude was across the room from Hilda and his friends. She threw him a rueful glance over her shoulder. He shrugged in return. Later, when the war was over, there’d be time to be with the people he cared about.
Hilda caught up with him when the evening wound down and people left to go to bed. She gestured toward the door with the wine bottle in her hand. “Need a break?” she asked.
He ran a hand through his hair. “Do I ever. Come on, I know a spot.”
Claude took her free hand and led her back to his chambers.
“Wow, you move quickly,” Hilda said.
“That’s not—” Although his imagination suddenly supplied ways they could use his bedroom.
Claude took a deep breath. “There are tons of secret passages leading from my chambers all over the compound. The entrance for the one I want is in my study.”
“Aren’t you full of secrets. As usual.”
He chuckled and shook his head as he led her into the room. This, more than any other place, still smelled like his grandfather, with its dark wood and myriad books. He paused for a moment to let her soak it all in before triggering the panel behind one of the bookcases. She stared into the darkness as he prepared a lantern and grabbed a cloak.
Hands clasped, they plunged into the passageway. The lantern lit their path as they wound between the thick stone walls of the compound, the air heavy with the scent of dust and rock. The fresh air when they emerged seemed all the sweeter.
“What is this place?” Hilda asked as she leaned over the railing.
They stood on a corner of the roof, where they had a clear view of the bay. The cold light of the stars danced on the surface of the water. Claude lit a nearby brazier and wrapped the cloak around Hilda.
“It’s an escape,” he said. “Figuratively, because it’s a nice little refuge where no one can find me, and literally. If we take this route across the roof, we’ll come to a set of spiral stairs that lead to tunnels that let out near the docks.”
They sat on the lone bench and passed the wine back and forth, talking about what they’d learned at the banquet. Hilda had confirmed that Dimitri’s return wasn’t yet common knowledge. Unfortunately, she’d made no progress in getting Margrave Edmund to release Marianne.
“I heard you talking to Lady Daphnel about marriage proposals,” Hilda said.
Claude feigned nonchalance. “She was surprised you weren’t married yet.”
His head snapped toward her, his eyes wide.
Hilda arched a brow. “I’m getting old to get married and have children, you know. Count Gloucester actually wrote to my brother trying to arrange a union between me and Lorenz.”
“What? Would you actually be all right spending your life with Lorenz?”
“Why not? He’d spoil me rotten. I’d never have to lift a finger.”
“And that’s what you want?”
Hilda looked out over the bay, cheeks pink from cold and wine. “I don’t know. I’m tired of Fódlan. I want to see the world, experience the ways different cultures dress so I can come up with new ideas for accessories.”
Claude’s heart fizzed. If Dimitri could keep Edelgard at bay, if he was the man Claude thought he was, and if the plan worked out…maybe Hilda would be interested in coming with him when he left.
The wine had gone to Claude’s head. The world seemed brighter than it had in a long time. He gazed at the woman sitting beside him. They’d been apart for years, and yet now they were together, it felt like no time had passed at all. Except, maybe the fact she was more beautiful than ever.
“There wasn’t dancing tonight,” Claude said.
Hilda giggled. “I know. Just how much wine have you had?”
“Enough. Do you want to dance now?”
“What? There’s no music.”
“Do we need music? We have the beating of our hearts to set the tempo.”
Claude stood and offered her his hand. Hilda took it, and he swept her into his arms. They made a circuit of the small area, moving slowly. He pressed on the small of her back, and she stepped so close their bodies brushed. The feel of her—petite and yet strong—went to his head more than any wine. She gazed up into his eyes, lips parted.
A bell somewhere in the city chimed midnight. Claude groaned and rested his forehead against her crown. He had to get up early for a war council.
Hilda stepped away and stroked his cheek. “You have to go, don’t you.”
She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered.
“Maybe just a few more moments.” The winter night was cold. He shrugged out of his coat, draped it over her shoulders, and wrapped his arms around her from behind to keep her warm. She leaned against him, the back of her head resting on his chest. Her eyes closed as she inhaled.
“So warm,” she murmured. “It smells like you, too.”
“I bathed, I swear.”
“It smells good. You’ve always smelled good.”
His face heated. He wasn’t aware she’d noticed. “You do, too.”
Hilda turned in his arms, face titled toward him. It would be so easy to bend down and kiss her. Instead, Judith’s words about marriage and his thoughts about war collided inside his mind.
“I really should go,” he said. “I’ll walk you back to your rooms.”
Claude kept his arm around her as they navigated the passageway and then the corridors to her suite. Only then did she return his jacket and cloak. Gods, she really did look fantastic in that dress. It hugged all the right curves.
“Rest well,” he said. “It’s good to have you back.”
Hilda reached out and squeezed his arm. “Rely on your friends a little, all right? You’re not alone. We want to help.”
Claude nodded and walked away before his heart could convince him otherwise.