Hilda barely remembered being healed and taken to the infirmary. Claude came to visit her several times, but he could never stay long. Mages healed her two more times that night, and by morning she was almost feeling adequate, so long as she moved carefully. Well enough to bathe, and well enough to meet Claude at the gate. Kingdom soldiers were everywhere, but somehow, she didn’t see a single person she recognized. Just as well. Her wounds still hurt, and it took her longer than she would have liked to get where she was going.
Claude stood at the side of the walkway a few yards outside the gate, staring at the world without. Four horses were hitched nearby, two saddled and the others laden with bundles. Claude had a pack slung over his shoulder and another under his arm. If she hadn’t known better, she would have thought he was nervous, the way his brow furrowed. He wore plain brown trousers tucked into serviceable black boots and a white shirt with loose sleeves. Strange to see him in plain clothes after so many years of fancy uniforms and half-capes. The lack of ornamentation better highlighted his beauty.
His expression brightened when he caught sight of her only to fall into a frown. True, she was moving slowly, but it wasn’t as if she was going to keel over and die. Her delicate flower ruse was well and truly broken at this point.
“Well?” she said as drew near. “I’m here. What’s with all this? Are you going on a trip?”
Claude took a deep breath. “I have something to tell you.”
Hilda’s stomach sank. His expression, combined with his tone, didn’t bode well.
“I…I abdicated. Dimitri’s the leader of the Alliance now.”
Hilda stared. Her mind turned blank, and her mouth hung open.
“The council agreed after you left the night before the battle,” he continued.
“But how? How could they agree to that after Gronder?”
“Because Dimitri’s the man I always thought he was.” Claude sighed. “I wrote him and said the best way for him to make up for Gronder was to save the people he’d wronged. So he did, and in the process, he proved that Fódlan is more important to him than revenge. That’s the kind of leader Fódlan needs.”
Hilda threw up her hands and gripped her hair. She blinked a few times. This wasn’t a dream. It was just insanity, pure and simple.
“Why? Why would you give up your position? What could possibly be better?”
Claude crossed his arms over his chest, considering. “It’s not really something that’s easy to put into words. More importantly, how are you doing?”
“I’ve been better. That’s the last time I’m doing anything for you, just so you know.”
Claude offered his arm, which she grudgingly accepted. “I can’t begin to tell you how magnificent you were.”
“I hope I lived up to your expectations.”
“You’ve always done your best to keep my expectations low, so I can safely say you exceeded them.”
Hilda glanced at the mounts. It was easy to see what they meant, especially since he’d abdicated. What surprised her was the way her gut clenched and her heart stuttered at the thought of him leaving.
“So, this is it?” she asked. Damn her voice for wavering.
Claude nodded. “Seems tacky for me to stick around after abdicating, don’t you think? But I was hoping you’d come with me. So, you know, I could show you what’s better than leading the Alliance.”
“You and your secrets.” If her wounds didn’t still pain her, she would have slugged him.
“I want to reveal everything to you, but I can’t if you won’t accompany me.”
“Claude!” Oh, she could kill him. Schemes upon schemes, and now he was asking her to take a leap of faith and follow him goddess-only-knew where.
“Will you at least tell me where we’re going, or is that secret, too?”
“No, no secret. I’m taking you back to House Goneril.”
Hilda blinked. It was just one unexpected thing after another. Her head spun.
“I want to ask your brother permission to take you on a journey.”
That wasn’t really the permission she was hoping he’d ask for, but at least it made sense. It was the first thing that had come out of his mouth today that had.
“This is…what are you…”
Claude extended his hand. He wore a smile, but it was weak and thin. “I thought you wanted to meet my parents. This is it, your only chance to learn all my secrets. So, what do you say?”
“Fine, you bully,” her heart said before her brain gave permission.
Claude smiled. It was the first genuine smile she’d seen on his face in a long time, and it was a balm to her heart. In fact, he actually appeared excited as he reached into his pocket, pulled something out, and slid it onto her finger.
It was a wedding band.
“It’s just gold-plated steel.” Claude raised his hand and wiggled his fingers. He wore a matching ring. “But they’ll do the trick.”
“You know what I mean.”
His smile grew impish as he handed her the pack under his arm. “It’s a disguise to make our trip easier. A young, unmarried couple making their way to Fódlan’s Locket is notable. A married pair of traders, not so much. Wear the clothes in the pack. You can use the gatehouse to change.”
Claude helped Hilda into the gatehouse. He closed the shutters and went to leave when she put her hand on his arm.
“My wounds,” Hilda said. “I’m not sure I can…”
Claude swallowed. “Right. Happy to help.”
The pack contained a plain white shirt, voluminous trousers gathered at the ankles, a pair of low boots, and a knee-length coat of subdued cloth. Claude pulled off her boots and stockings and set them aside, his hands lingering on the curve of her calf. His cheeks burned red even in the dim light coming through the shutters as he unbuckled her belt and put it on a chair. He unfastened her overskirt and slowly slid his fingers down her arms as he removed her sleeves. She shuddered at the caress, and goosebumps appeared on her skin. His breathing grew ragged as he drew near and unbuttoned her collar, the sound loud in the quiet of the guardhouse.
Before he could pull her bodice away, she stopped him. His hand was warm beneath hers.
“I’m not wearing anything underneath,” she murmured.
Claude’s breath hitched, and a tremor ran through him. She winced at the pressure on one of her wounds as he pulled her to him. He immediately stepped away, hands raised, and she barely caught her dress before the top fell away and exposed her chest. Her cheeks warmed, and she hugged her bodice more tightly.
“I’m sorry.” Claude handed her the shirt and turned his back.
Hilda hissed as she slid the shirt over her head. Her dress slumped to the ground around her ankles. She took a deep, steadying breath.
When she was ready, she said, “You can turn around.”
Claude’s gaze swept her bare legs before darting to her face. He helped her into the rest of outfit, even tying her boots as her heart pounded. Her pulse finally settled as he gathered her hair into a ponytail, twisted it into a bun, and put a shapeless hat on her head. She raised her eyebrow at him.
“You’re recognizable.” He grinned. “No point in pretending to be traders if you’re not disguised.”
“Like you’re not easy to recognize.”
Claude shrugged. He opened his own pack and pulled out a tunic. His eyes locked with hers as he unbuttoned his shirt. She refused to let him see her squirm. It was too dim in the guardhouse to get a good look at him, anyway. However, the angle of the light that managed to filter through the shutters revealed a sculpted chest and abdomen. If she hadn’t been so sore, she would have been disappointed when he slipped the tunic over his head. He wrapped a sash around his waist and another around his head. Lightweight green cloaks finished the look for both of them. It might be Blue Sea Moon, but this far north, it was still chilly in the mornings.
When Claude opened the shutters again and light streamed in, it became obvious that the style was similar to what he wore in battle. Hilda had always wondered if there was significance to it, since it was unusual attire for Fódlan.
“You really are Almyran,” she said.
Claude cocked his head, eyebrow raised. “You knew?”
“Was I supposed to think you just had a really great tan?”
He snorted. “Fair enough.”
Hilda adjusted her own sash. He definitely wasn’t full Almyran, what with his Crest. In Fódlan, having a Crest and a noble title granted a large amount of social capital. But what did a mixed heritage mean in Almyra? She wondered what his life had been like growing up.
“Wait, are you asking permission to take me to Almyra?” she asked as he escorted her to her horse. “If so, we could have just sailed there. It’s much shorter than going through Fódlan’s Locket.”
“Have to ask your brother, remember?”
“He’ll never say yes. The Almyrans are our sworn enemies.”
“Maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised. I admit, I had expected you to balk at the idea of traveling to the land of your foes.”
Hilda thought about how she’d embarrassed herself with Cyril back at the monastery and how Holst had scolded her for her prejudices. No, that sort of ignorance wouldn’t do. “I’m curious to see what the fashions are like. I’m always on the lookout for new ideas for accessories.”
“That reminds me, I have something else for you.”
The look on his face indicated it wasn’t at all something that had slipped his mind. His nonchalance was too studied. He reached into his pocket again. Judging by his demeanor, this was a lot more important to him than the fake wedding band had been.
Claude pulled out a bangle, a narrow strip of gold with tiny mirrors and bits of onyx and deep, sparkling green aventurine embedded in the metal. The piece reminded her of his eyes. Although it wasn’t her style, it was beautiful all the same. He held it out to her with both hands, expression solemn.
“Will you accept this as a gift of my heart?” he asked. “And know that I will be loyal and faithful to you?”
Hilda swallowed. That sounded serious, not to mention a bit strange, especially coming from Claude. It almost felt like a proposal. Just accepting a bit of jewelry wasn’t a big deal, surely.
“It’s lovely.” She held out her wrist, and he slid it on. “Thank you.”
The joy dancing in his eyes seemed entirely unwarranted, but she wasn’t going to say no to such an adoring gaze. He took her hand and kissed her knuckles.
“Now we each have a bracelet,” he said.
That made much more sense. The colors even matched. How sweet.
“Well.” He rubbed his hands together. “Shall we be off?”
She blinked. “Now? I don’t have any of my things. I’m not even a tiny bit ready.”
“Don’t worry about it. They’re being packed now and will be shipped to your estate.”
“Bit presumptuous, don’t you think? You were really that certain I’d just go gallivanting across the country with you?”
“You’ve protected me—at great risk to your own life—twice now. Besides,” he said as he leaned in and whispered in her ear, “I remember the passion in our kiss.”
The core of her heated as she recalled the way his mouth felt. Her gaze darted to his lips, and he noticed. A grin spread across his face.
“So, my lovely pretend wife, shall we go?”
A pleasurable shiver ran down Hilda’s spine. “I suppose, my handsome pretend husband.”
Claude helped her mount. She gasped and winced as her injuries pulled. His brow rumpled, and his hand lingered on her knee.
“I take it back,” he said. “We should wait another day. Your wounds were pretty bad. A few more healing sessions would probably do the trick.”
“Ugh, you tell me that after you make get me up on this horse? I think I’ll leave without you.”
Claude chuckled and squeezed her knee. “All right, my queen.”
His tone dripped with sarcasm, but she liked the sound of that. Queen. Yes, if it meant he was going to wait on her hand and foot, she liked it quite a lot.
“You have Freikugel?” Hilda asked as Claude mounted.
“In the packs.”
“I gave it to Dimitri.”
Hilda nearly dropped the reins. “What?”
“I’m done with Crests and Relics. Besides, it’s not going to help me get what I want.”
Claude fell silent, expression pensive as they rode out the gate. The city walls loomed behind them, ringed by the Kingdom’s soldiers’ camps. Rolling hills scattered with copses of trees stretched out before them. The grass sparkled with dew, scenting the air. Birds chirped and sang as they darted through the air. It was a fresh, beautiful morning. The start of something new.
Hilda took a deep breath and smiled despite the aching of her injuries. Besides, if she hadn’t fought so hard, Claude might not be riding next to her. Things could have turned out very differently. She wouldn’t say she’d saved his life, but she’d definitely protected him.
“You’re going to judge me if I tell you,” Claude finally said when they were a mile out of town, the Kingdom forces and Derdriu far behind.
“And the professor didn’t. Is that why you always smiled so genuinely at him?”
“If you looked at me like that—” Hilda shut her mouth before she could give herself away. Claude had always been too easy to talk to.
He raised his eyebrow, a crafty smile winding across his face. “You’d what?”
Hilda considered. Perhaps the truth would throw him the most off-balance.
“I might not be able to resist you,” she finished.
Claude’s eyes widened.
“It’s going to be a long trip,” Hilda continued. “You might as well tell me.”
His jaw clenched, and he took a deep breath. “I want to change things, all these prejudices that have taken root. I want to bring the whole world together and start anew. I want to give everyone a fresh perspective. No one should feel like an outsider, at least not because of nationality, race, or ethnicity.”
Hilda stared at him. She’d always figured he’d had ambitions, but this was on a different level altogether.
“Yeah.” Claude smiled to himself and shook his head. “Grand plans, I know. For a long time, I thought it might be impossible. Then I met the professor, and it seemed like it might be within my grasp after all. All we have to do is reach out with love and friendship to create a new path, one all of us can walk together.”
A twinge ran through Hilda’s chest. Was it wrong to be jealous of the professor? After all, she loved Byleth, too. Just not in the same way Claude seemed to.
“Things have changed, obviously,” Claude continued. “But I think I can still make my dream come true. With Teach on his side, Dimitri will win. He’ll unify Fódlan. He’s a good man, and he’ll lay down a new set of values, ones that don’t exclude people for being different. He’ll help the common people. Even though he’s never been an outsider, he cares for them. Just look at his relationship with Dedue. Dimitri will use his privilege and power to do right by the people of Duscur. And, I hope, the people of Almyra.”
Claude caught Hilda’s gaze and held it. “You’re part of my dream, too, you know. In fact, you’re a very important piece of it. I can’t make it happen without you.”
Her heart warmed at his words before their true meaning hit her. She sighed. “Always nice to be used.”
“That’s not what I meant. I need you. In more ways than one.”
“Oh, really? I like the sound of that. Tell me more.”
His impish smile returned. “I will, when the time is right.”
“I should have known.” Hilda sighed, but she couldn’t help but return his smile.
They stopped for lunch on a grassy knoll. Claude had packed the meal, and he gave Hilda a vulnerary. She felt a little better once she drank it. After they ate, they sat side by side and watched the breeze play with the grasses. Wildflowers dotted the landscape. Hilda plucked a few nearby flowers along with some tall grasses and wove a loose crown. When it was finished, she placed it on his head, atop his wrap. He smiled—a soft, tender smile. She had certainly never seen him make that expression for the professor.
Hilda made another for herself and looped her arm through his with a smile. “Look at us, king and queen of Blue Sea Moon.”
“Royalty indeed,” he said, and his gaze grew distant.
Hilda’s smile faded.
Claude removed his arm from hers and put it around her waist instead. “Sometimes it’s like you can read my mind.”
Her cheeks warmed as she leaned into him. It felt right and natural to be next to him like this, to have him hold her. She didn’t resist when he laid her down in the grass. He leaned over her. The end of his head wrap dangled in her face, and she barely had time to turn her head before she sneezed. He chuckled and moved it out of the way. It flopped right back in her face.
He tried twice more before he finally ripped off the wrap with a curse and tossed it away. Hilda laughed, and he joined in. There it was—the smile she’d always wanted to see directed at her. His eyes shone, and the corners crinkled. Happy. Carefree.
Claude propped himself up on his elbow next to her. He brushed her cheek with his thumb. Her breath caught in her throat, and she grew still. The sounds of the wind in the grass and the birds chirping fell away.
Part of her wanted this moment to last forever. Her wounds said otherwise.
Hilda put her hand over his and leaned into his touch, closing her eyes. “Will I have to sleep on the ground tonight?”
“No, of course not. But we should get moving if we’re going to make it to the inn.”
He helped her stand but didn’t let go of her hand. Their eyes met, and his expression turned solemn. “On the bridge, when you fell, it was like an arrow through my heart. That you were fighting to protect me, that you were willing to…well. I don’t know if I can express how much that means to me.”
“You’re welcome to try,” she said with a smile and squeezed his hand.
Claude snorted and smiled back. “I do like a challenge. I want you to remember you said that. Don’t blame me for what happens next.”
Hilda barely refrained from asking what, exactly, he meant as he retrieved his headwrap and helped her on her horse. Thanks to the vulnerary, she wasn’t in so much pain. The day was beautiful, her stomach was full, and she had a handsome man at her side. Couldn’t ask for much more than that. All right, maybe she could, and she planned to, but not just yet. There was still a long way to go until they reached House Goneril.
This could be a very fun trip.