Hilda lay awake, staring at the ceiling above her bed and letting the bedside candle burn. Tomorrow was the 30th of Garland Moon. For the past two months, she’d been sneaking into Claude’s room and sleeping by his side. The first month, he was too injured and exhausted to do much more than hold her hand. This last month, they’d both been too busy as the Empire turned north to fill the void left by the Kingdom army as it hurried to Fhirdiad. Whenever she crawled into his bed—or he into hers—she was exhausted and always fell asleep immediately. At least they hadn’t been discovered since Judith walked in on them. They’d learned their lesson and had been careful to lock the door.
But tonight, they would not be sharing a bed. Claude had banished her from the war room when she started nodding off. He would not sleep tonight, not with the Adrestians at the doorstep, led by Lord Arundel himself.
Now that she was in bed, sleep eluded her. Thoughts raced through her mind too quickly to catch. Claude had sent a letter to Dimitri the moment they’d heard he was marching back to Fhirdiad. Only the war council knew what Claude was asking the Kingdom, and most of them opposed it after what Dimitri had done at Gronder, herself included. Even so, if Dimitri was going to atone for what had happened there, saving Derdriu would be a good way to do it. She hoped Claude was right about the Faerghus king.
If he wasn’t, they were dead.
So be it. She’d already decided that she wasn’t going to go quietly, and she absolutely wasn’t going to let anyone lay a finger on Claude ever again. Holst had written her, commending her for her actions at Gronder, and he’d given her the task of keeping Duke Riegan alive. Now she had two reasons to protect Claude. One was easier to communicate than the other.
The secret panel in her bedchamber slid open with a whisper, and Hilda sat bolt upright. Claude stepped into her room, disheveled. He wore only his shirtsleeves, and dark circles nestled beneath his eyes. She leaped out of bed and rushed over to him.
“Are the preparations finished?” She tried to guide him to a chair, but he stood firm.
“The ships are being readied as we speak. The first citizens will be loaded shortly.” He inhaled deeply, took her hands, and looked into her eyes. “I want you to go with them.”
Hila stared at him.
“You can’t stay here.” His grip on her tightened. “If Derdriu falls—”
“Then you’ll die.”
She knew what he was thinking. He didn’t want her to be in danger, but if the Empire overran Derdriu, he’d surrender himself in a heartbeat to spare the city. There was no way she was going to let that happen.
“I’m not leaving,” she said, “I’m not going to—”
Hilda’s words vanished as Claude released her hands and slid his fingers through her hair. His cheeks darkened.
“I’ve never seen you with your hair down,” he murmured.
Claude slid his arm around her waist and pulled her against him. Her pulse spiked, and heat flooded her body as she looked up at him.
“I hope it’s all right to touch you like this,” he continued, “If I die tomorrow—”
Hilda pressed her finger against his mouth. “You won’t die, I won’t let you.”
“If you’re in danger, I want you to run.”
“Promise me. If you’re in danger, run. Escape. Live however you can. Please, Hilda. I beg you.”
She smiled, but it felt weak even to her. “I always fantasized about you begging, but not like this.”
“Let’s focus on surviving, and then we’ll see what we can do about that.”
Claude’s voice had dropped in pitch, rumbling in his chest, and her knees turned to water. Her body vibrated with need. Slowly, he bent his head, his eyes sliding closed. She tilted her head up to him. Their breath mingled as his lips brushed hers.
He began to withdraw. Hilda placed her hands on either side of his face and tugged him down again. His lips were soft and warm. He tasted faintly of wine. A sound left her before she could stop it, and she melted against him as the kiss’s heat flowed through her. This was what she’d wanted for so long. She pulled back, sucking on his lower lip.
A thrill ran through her as he moaned. His arm tightened around her, and he pressed his mouth to hers once more. The kiss grew more frenzied, his lips teasing hers apart. His hands slid down her back and gripped her hips.
“I don’t want to stop,” Claude said when he came up for air.
Hilda wrapped her arms around his neck. “Me, neither.”
“I want to throw you on your bed and take your clothes off with my teeth and run my tongue all over your body.”
Hilda shuddered and ground against him. The fire inside her flared higher.
Claude moved as if to pull away. “We need to—”
“I thought neither of us wanted to stop.” Hilda stood on tiptoe and kissed his throat, next to his Adam’s apple.
A tremor went through him as he threw back his head, eyes closed. She pressed her middle against his hardness. Tomorrow they would fight, maybe die. She had promised Holst she’d remain a virgin until she was married, but when she made that promise, Fódlan had been at peace. What if something happened to them tomorrow and she never got the chance? She reached for his belt.
Claude clamped his hands down on her arms, pinning them to her sides. His eyes were glassy when he looked at her, and his breathing was ragged. “This isn’t the way I want this. Besides, there’s no time—I have to get back to the council meeting.”
“What if this is our only chance?”
He smiled, but the expression was melancholy. “You have so little faith in my plan. There’ll be other chances. I promise. We’ll take all the time we need and want.”
“I really need to go, but just one more thing. Meet me by the southeastern gate the morning after the battle ends. Agreed?”
“Will you meet me there? Please?”
She frowned. “All right.”
Claude curled around her in a crushing embrace. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Remember, you promised to run if your life is in danger.”
They kissed one more time before he disappeared back through the secret passage. Hilda stood in the center of her bedchamber, every nerve awake and aflame. Damn him. She’d have to make sure she lived if only to pay him back for leaving her in such a state. At least she’d be able to enjoy plotting her revenge.
They’d survive the battle. They had to. Holst had told her to protect Claude, and she would. Not only because he’d told her to. Claude’s injuries after Gronder were terrible. She’d never let that happen again, not while she drew breath.
“Sorry, Claude,” she said softly to her room. “I won’t be running.”