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King’s Game


Chapter 9

Claude’s gut twisted and clenched as he surveyed Derdriu from atop his wyvern. The citizens were as safe as they could be, evacuated to ships that were even now sailing away. Small bands of soldiers led the Adrestian forces through the streets and drew them ever deeper into the city. No sign of the Kingdom army.

Hilda stood at the end of the harbor bridge, on the city side. The wind carried her complaints about the post to his ears, and he smiled. She wore her heavy armor, Freikugel resting on one of her shoulders. Her pink hair waved in the breeze like a banner.

Damn, she was beautiful.

Judith was somewhere in the city, monitoring the guerilla forces’ retreat. It was her—and Claude’s plan—against Lord Arundel, possibly the scariest person in the Empire after Edelgard. And Hubert, actually. It was too bad Hubert was so devoted to Edelgard—Claude admired the man’s ability to scheme and direct action from the shadows.

Still no trace of Dimitri. Too many Adrestian soldiers remained outside the city. If they entered Derdriu, the guerilla forces would be overwhelmed.

“Come on,” Claude muttered under his breath. “Where are you?”

If his plan failed…

It wouldn’t fail. It couldn’t. After so many years, the Alliance citizens felt like his people. He’d protect them if it cost him his life. But he wasn’t prepared to spend Hilda’s.

Claude allowed his wyvern to gain altitude, heart ramming against his sternum as sweat ran down his spine. His hands trembled where he gripped the reins. This was it. If the Kingdom didn’t arrive in the next hour, his only option was to get himself killed, despite what he’d told Hilda. Once he was out of the way, he was certain Edelgard would spare his citizens. His death would ensure the Alliance’s surrender, which would greatly diminish the number of casualties.

That still left Hilda. Maybe he was a coward and should have just told her how he felt. The memory of her in his arms sent a jolt of agony through him. If he never got to hold her again…well, it was probably the least he deserved for gambling with her life.

His scanned for enemy archers. Seemed safe enough for the moment. The Alliance forces were spread thin, still too weak after Gronder.

“Come on, hold out,” he said between gritted teeth, squinting into the sun.

A shimmer on the horizon caught his attention. Heat rising from the ground? A strange reflection of the sea at his back? No. It was sunlight glinting off of shields and drawn weapons. There—a banner of blue. The army was too far away to make out individuals, but there was certain to be a one-eyed man and green-haired professor at its head.

Tears sprang to Claude’s eyes. He quickly blinked them away as he directed his wyvern to lose altitude. The cards had been played. Claude’s hand was a good one. Was it enough?

“They’re here,” Claude shouted to Hilda, but the words died on his tongue. While he was distracted with his survey, the Adrestians had arrived. The lone figure at the end of the bridge was all that stood between the army and the harbor. Hilda readied her shield and hefted Freikugel.

The Kingdom army rushed the city at the same time the Adrestians made for Hilda. Claude swore, hoping Dimitri could discern the plan, and drew Failnaught. He used the bow’s superior range and accuracy to pierce the throat of a swordsman trying to get past Hilda’s guard.

Not that Hilda needed much help. Freikugel knocked enemies to the ground or into the water. The bridge was big enough for wagons, which meant it was too wide for one person to truly defend. Adrestians kept trying to get behind her. Claude picked them off, but there were so many, and he didn’t have an infinite supply of arrows. Every shot counted.

Fortunately, Claude was a very good shot.

And yet he was nothing compared to Hilda. The way she wielded her weapon, the strength and grace of her movements, her sheer power…if he hadn’t been about to vomit at the thought of her getting injured, he would have been mesmerized. She’d always been an excellent warrior despite her laziness, but now she was almost divine.

Claude spared a glance for Derdriu’s gates. Dimitri’s forces were moving into the city. Better late than never. Slowly, the pincer attack closed around the Adrestians. Claude dared gain altitude again to survey the action.

Hilda chucked her shield into the crowd of attacking soldiers. It landed with a heavy thud on armored bodies. The thing weighed half as much as she did; Claude had no idea how she hefted it. Her arms were strong, but she wasn’t particularly beefy. Perhaps it was an unknown side effect of her Crest. His heart crawled into his throat as a dozen soldiers rushed her. Freikugel augmented her speed, and she took them all out in short order. Claude exhaled, sweat rolling down his temple.

Then the next wave hit.

Lord Arundel sat his horse behind the troops. He was too far away to discern his expression, but it was almost certainly smug. Mages stepped forward and began to cast.

The healer who had been supporting Hilda was the first casualty of the magical assault. Hilda took out two of the enemy mages with her throwing axes, but that exhausted her supply, and the press of infantry wouldn’t allow her to retrieve them. A streak of red meandered down the side of her armor. Claude had three arrows. There were three enemy mages left. He loaded Failnaught and let the arrows fly.

Two of the arrows claimed their mark. The third found its home in the face of a foot soldier unlucky enough to step into its path. The final mage cast the spell. Oily purple magic engulfed Hilda.

“Hilda!” Claude urged his wyvern forward. It was stupid to put himself at risk, but now that Dimitri was here, it didn’t matter. The Alliance lords could tell the king what he needed to know. The transition would go forward regardless of whether or not Claude survived.

His wyvern’s wings beat back the enemy as it hooked its teeth in Hila’s armor. She left a long, bloody streak on the ground as it pulled her back to the harbor, metal screeching on stone. Her head lolled, but she kept hold of her Relic.

“Why didn’t you run?” he shouted over the din of battle.

Hilda shot him a lazy grin. Blood matted her bangs and sheeted down one side of her face. Her mouth moved, but no sound came out.

Claude glanced up. Enemy soldiers swarmed the bridge. He raised Failnaught, and they hesitated. They didn’t know he was out of arrows.

A battle cry sounded behind the Adrestians. They turned, and Claude got a glimpse of Felix running Arundel through. Faerghus troops overwhelmed those from the Empire. Knights of Seiros were there, too—Alois, Shamir, and Catherine. And was that Cyril? Tears rolled down Claude’s face. Derdriu was saved. More importantly, help had arrived for Hilda.

Claude slid from his wyvern’s back and unbuckled Hilda’s armor. Her sweat soaked the padded layer underneath. Blood began to pool against her backplate.

“Sorry, Claude.” Her voice grew weak. “It’s been fun.”

“You promised you’d run,” he murmured, wiping blood out of her eye.

Her smile wavered. “I promised I’d protect you.”

“You are the most beautiful, magnificent person ever.”

“Can’t sweet talk me.” She coughed, expression crumpling with pain.

Claude clutched her hand and looked around desperately. He’d planned on dying as a last resort, so he’d purposely left any healing potions behind to avoid temptation. That decision might cost him Hilda.

“You have to hang on,” he said, pressing her hand to his cheek. “Holst wouldn’t want you to give up. I don’t want you to give up.”

Hilda’s eyelids fluttered. Beneath the blood, her cheeks had grown pale. Her grip on his hand weakened.

Claude raised his head. The battle was over. Faerghus soldiers were cleaning up the Adrestians, taking prisoners and collecting bodies. Dimitri separated Arundel’s head from the rest of the corpse and tossed it into the harbor as he stood at the end of the bridge.

“Mercedes,” Dimitri shouted over his shoulder.

Dedue stood next to Dimitri, his armor splattered with blood. Mercedes was a step behind him. She possessed the determined yet hollow look in her eyes that gentle people developed on the battlefield. When she saw Hilda, she rushed to help.

Claude stood. Hilda was going to be all right. Even so, leaving her side was like tearing off his own arm. He brushed off his knees and tried to look dignified despite his bloodstained clothes as he approached Dimitri and Teach. They were speaking of Arundel’s death.

“For now, let’s celebrate our victory,” Teach said.

“Teach is absolutely right.” Claude plastered a smile on his face as he approached the two men. It was time to cut his final ties and fly free to meet his future.