Claude sighed and rubbed his temples as Hilda hurried away. Damn it. That could have gone better. Having her so close all the time had gone from comforting to confusing.
He glanced at Lorenz, who was about the last person he wanted to deal with right now. Seeing Hilda in his arms made Claude want to tear him into little bits and burn the remains. He choked back the feelings. There wasn’t time to dwell on it. War was more important than his own problems. The war was precisely the reason he couldn’t allow himself to be distracted.
“Since you’re here, you might as well come in,” Claude said, retreating to his study.
Lorenz nodded and stepped into the room. He took a seat at the desk.
“So,” Claude said as he sat across from Lorenz. “You got your father to see reason. Too bad you couldn’t have done that years ago.”
Lorenz’s brow furrowed. “You have ink on your face. Is that writing?”
Claude put his hand on his cheek, where Hilda had tried to scrub the ink away. He’d been burning the candle at both ends trying to prepare for their attack on Gronder. She’d checked on him, put a blanket over him, took care of him…and he’d repaid her by groping her on the floor. Women from Fódlan had certain expectations of decorum. He hadn’t respected them. Hilda’s reaction was proof he needed to be more careful in the future.
Lorenz narrowed his eyes. “You’re working too hard. Have care you do not wear yourself thin. You must do your utmost to be an effective leader, and rest is part of your responsibilities.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Claude sighed and let his gaze rest on the desk’s surface. The papers had fled, scattered on the floor from his wrestling match with Hilda. She had felt so damn good. He’d craved the contact for longer than he’d wanted to admit. But it hadn’t been appropriate.
Lorenz studied him, expression filled with concern. “If you love her, you should go to her.”
Claude’s chest constricted as if someone twice his size was sitting on him. Oh gods, he was in love with Hilda. He’d been so focused on the war he’d never really taken the time to examine his feelings for her. She was important to him, he was happy when she was near, and that was all that had mattered.
“I don’t have time,” Claude said, and saying the words was like tearing out his own heart.
“No time to be with your beloved?”
“All I have time for is finding ways to keep my people alive.”
Lorenz sighed, suddenly somber. “I cannot blame you for your priorities, but I find it sad all the same.”
“Maybe it’s better this way.” Perhaps distance would make it easier if something happened to one of them.
But someday, the war would be over. If he was going to pursue his dream, he’d need someone by his side who was a skilled negotiator and diplomat, someone who was strong in both body and spirit. Someone like Hilda.
A plan began to form. Yes, after the war, he’d begin a different sort of game, one which they’d both win. But first he had to make sure everyone survived.
Speaking of which…
“Help me pick these up,” Claude said as he bent to retrieve his papers. “This is what I’m thinking. I’ll go to Gronder, and you stay here with Judith to mend fences and keep things from falling apart while I’m gone.”
Lorenz stared at him, mouth hanging open. “Are you certain?”
“Yep. Listen well, because here’s the plan…”