They didn’t arrive in the town until nightfall. Light shone from inside the houses, windows thrown open to the summer evening. It was warm but not hot, and Hilda was comfortable in her long-sleeved coat, although she’d stowed the cloak a long time ago. Purple and orange painted the sky as their horses plodded along the stone-paved road. Flower baskets hanging from eaves scented the air. Somewhere, a baby cried, and children shrieked with laughter.
Strange, to be reminded of what normal life was like, away from war.
“I think it’s this way,” Claude said, steering their pack train down a side street that opened up on a square. Sure enough, an inn and a bath house stood side by side, one with a sign depicting a fish in a bed and the other a fish in a bathtub.
Hilda giggled. “They must like fish. Reminds me of Flayn. Did she come to Derdriu with the professor?”
“Yeah.” An odd expression flitted over his face. “She’s mostly the reason you lived. Not to minimize Mercedes’s help, of course. I’m not sure I thanked either of them enough.”
They stopped in front of the inn. A stable hand appeared as Claude helped Hilda down from her horse. She yelped, her wounds pulling, and sagged in Claude’s arms.
“Let’s get you inside,” he murmured.
Claude kept his arm around her as she limped into the building. The common room was orderly and comfortable, people eating at tables alone or in groups as a fiddler played in a corner. Delicious smells—something spicy as well as baking bread—wafted from the kitchen. Claude and Hilda approached the desk, and the innkeeper joined them a moment later.
“Nice, peaceful town,” Claude said. “Seems like it’s been spared from the war so far.”
The innkeeper smiled as she opened the logbook. “We’re off the beaten path, and Duke Riegan keeps us safe. Long may he live.”
Hilda glanced at Claude. His smile grew wooden.
“And you are?” the innkeeper asked, pen poised above the book.
“The Valentines,” Claude replied. “My messenger should have come through here a week or so ago?”
“Ah, there you are. I see you’ve even paid in advance.”
A week ago? Claude must have been confident in all his plans. Not that she was annoyed—that would require energy she didn’t have. Hilda leaned more heavily on Claude. It hurt to stand, and she was saddle sore. Bed sounded like an excellent idea. Unfortunately, she was filthy from the road.
“Darling?” Hilda put her hand on Claude’s chest. “Will we be able to rest soon?”
Color stole into Claude’s cheeks as he looked down at her. “Yes, my dear.” He turned to the innkeeper. A gold coin glinted between his fingers. “Would it be possible to have dinner served in our room?”
The innkeeper snatched the coin out of his hand. “Absolutely, sir. Will you be requiring the use of the bath house?”
The innkeeper handed them each a wooden token, painted with the image of a fish wearing a towel. If fish wasn’t on the menu for dinner, Hilda was going to be disappointed. Good thing she liked fish.
Ugh, her thoughts were wandering. That was a sure sign of her exhaustion. She missed the rest of Claude’s exchange with the innkeeper, and before she knew it, he was helping her up the stairs. Stupid stairs. By the time Claude unlocked the door to their room and guided her inside, her wounds throbbed. He set her on the edge of the bed and locked the door behind them.
There was only one bed. They were posing as a married couple, after all. How nice it would be to be able to actually sleep in each other’s arms and not worry about being woken by summons or news of war.
Hilda began to peel off her jacket but had to stop to catch the bottle Claude tossed at her. She uncorked the vulnerary and took numerous gulps to drink it down, fighting her gag reflex. Why did healing potions always have to be so bitter? She shuddered and put the bottle on the bedside table.
“We’ll have to get more of those, Claude said. “Your injuries are worse than I thought.”
He’d managed to remove his boots, sash, headwrap, and tunic while she suffered through the vulnerary. As she’d suspected, he had a muscular torso. The dark hair in the center of his chest ran in a line down his taut stomach and into his trousers. She warmed at the thought of running her fingers through that hair, his muscles hard beneath.
“You’re going to have hairy shoulders when you get older,” she said.
Claude spluttered and burst out laughing. “You look at this—” He gestured to his naked torso. “And that’s all you can think about?”
Hilda shrugged and unbuttoned the top buttons of her shirt. Just a few more and her breasts would pop free. “What do you think about when you look at me?”
“I think about how spoiled you are, and I realize I wouldn’t mind being the one to spoil you.”
“I like the sound of that,” Hilda began.
Then Claude dropped his trousers. Riding wyverns had sculpted his rear, legs, and hips. Words deserted Hilda. She stared, openmouthed.
“I forgot what prudes you folks from Fódlan are.” Claude shot her a wicked smile, hands on hips, wares on display. “Are you going to be all right?”
His tone snapped Hilda out of it. She undid another button and looked up at him from beneath her eyelashes. “I’ll manage. Will you?”
Claude’s Adam’s apple bobbed, and he was no longer fully flaccid. He threw on the robe supplied by the inn. An embroidered fish in a bathtub graced the left breast.
“These guys are really trying to get their image across,” Claude said. “Your turn to get ready. Need help?”
“No, I’ll be fine.”
Claude turned around. Hilda managed to get undressed thanks to the vulnerary, but she’d broken out in a sweat by the time she was finished. Between the pain and road dust, she felt anything but attractive. She pulled on the robe in a huff.
“For someone who likes to be waited on, you’re surprisingly stubborn,” Claude said as he draped her arm over his shoulder. Somehow, he made it seem like a lover’s embrace instead of the fact he was half-carrying her. They made it down the stairs to the hallway that connected the bath house to the inn. Claude’s face grew red as he hauled her to the entrance to the women’s room, and she had a feeling it wasn’t from proximity.
Claude set her on a bench next to the door and gulped air. “You’re a lot heavier than you look.”
Pain be damned, Hilda got ready to smack him.
“But it’s probably because you’re so strong,” Claude finished.
Hilda relaxed her fist and smoothed out her robe. “I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
“You going to be all right?”
“Silly. Although if you’re offering to give me a scrub, maybe we should go back to our room.”
Claude chuckled and ran his hand through his hair. The ring on his finger glinted, and something in Hilda’s chest lurched. She looked at her own hand. What would it be like if they truly were married? Claude’s parents had eloped…
But no. Holst would kill her.
“See you in a bit,” Claude said and disappeared into the men’s section.
Letting Claude drag her down here had conserved some of Hilda’s energy, so she mustered what remained and went to take a bath. Fortunately, the buckets were small and light. Her injuries didn’t care how strong she usually was. She sat on the stool, poured water over her head, scrubbed, poured more water, washed her hair, and retreated to the pool. Good thing she was on the short side, because the pool was shallow. She allowed herself a few minutes of relaxation before getting out. Her fingers probed her wounds, testing for tenderness. The skin had knit, but she’d have scars. Her poor, beautiful skin. Oh, well.
Somehow, she beat Claude to the room. Dinner was waiting on a cart. Hilda dug in the packs, pulled out a nightshirt, and put it on. She draped her robe over a chair and sat on the edge of the bed. The moisture from her hair began to wick into the fabric of the nightshirt. Oops. She twisted her hair up on top of her head and began to remove the nightshirt.
“Honey, I’m back,” Claude said on the other side of the door.
“Don’t—” she began, but it was too late. The nightshirt was already up to her neck when Claude entered. She immediately dropped it, but the wet fabric clung to her chest and revealed everything beneath.
Claude clapped his hands over his eyes. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“Do we have an extra nightshirt? I’m super wet.”
Claude groaned. “Please don’t say it like that.”
He was still wearing his fluffy robe. It appeared absorbent. Hilda crossed the room and pressed against him with a smile. Claude stiffened, one part in particular. He took a step back, snatched her robe from the chair, and wrapped it around her before she could protest.
“I sure could go for something to eat,” he said. “You hungry?”
“Oh, yes.” Hilda made sure he saw her looking him up and down.
He shook his head with a smile. “You’re asking for trouble.”
“Are you going to give me…trouble?”
Claude loomed over her. His arm snaked around her back as he pressed against her just like she had done a few moments before. He bent his head until his lips grazed her ear. “I’ll give you as much as you like.”
Hilda jerked as Claude ran his tongue over the curve of her ear. The movement pulled one of the larger wounds in her side, and she hissed as she hunched over, turning away from him. There were few things she hated as much as someone seeing her in pain.
“And that’s enough for now,” Claude said. He seated her and rolled the cart closer. When he took the lid off the tureen, the smell of cheese wafted toward her.
Hilda blinked at the dish, pain forgotten. “Is this cheesy Verona stew?”
“It is. A special off-menu dish, just for you. Made with river trout instead, but I hope you’ll like it all the same.”
“It’s one of my favorites.”
Claude winked at her and served her a bowl. Hilda took a bite and moaned. It wasn’t the same, but it was still good. That he had gone through the trouble touched her. In fact, he’d been very attentive.
He must have been just as famished as she, for silence fell as they ate. When they finished, not a crumb of food remained. Hilda sighed and leaned back in her chair, bowl in her lap.
“Thank you,” she said. “I really enjoyed that.”
“Only the best for you.”
“Are you the best?” Hilda took her hair out of the bun and shook it out.
Claude didn’t respond, a half-smile on his lips.
“What?” she asked.
“I like the way you look with your hair down.”
“Speaking of which, did you bring a brush? We left so suddenly…”
Claude rummaged in the packs and produced a brush. “Ta-daa. Don’t worry, your things have probably left Derdriu by now and are on their way to House Goneril.”
Instead of handing her the brush, Claude stood behind her and began to work out the tangles in her hair. Hilda leaned into his touch and closed her eyes as he brushed her hair with gentle strokes. There was no fire to dry her hair by, so she’d just have to hope she didn’t catch a chill. Somehow, she thought that unlikely since she was sharing a bed with Claude.
Claude braided her hair. The plaits were even and tight. Who’d have thought he could braid so well? Then he fished out another nightshirt for her, she changed, and they went to clean their teeth. It felt strange, standing next to him in the communal washroom, looking in the mirror at each other while they got ready for bed. It was natural, somehow.
“Drink another vulnerary,” Claude said as they returned to their room.
“Ugh, no. I just brushed my teeth.”
“There’s nothing sweet in it, otherwise it’d be less vile. Just drink it.”
“Fine.” She slid into bed while he fetched it. He handed it to her and slipped out of the robe, naked.
Hilda glanced away while he got into bed next to her. “Don’t you have underwear?”
“Underwear has never been my style. And you got my nightshirt all wet, so…”
Hilda chugged the vulnerary to distract herself.
When she was finished, she gave him the bottle, and he put it on the bedside table. Seemed they were gathering quite the collection. She sighed and settled back on the pillows. He radiated body heat. When she glanced up at him, Claude was looking at her with a strange expression.
“What?” she asked.
The corner of Claude’s mouth curved. “Sometimes, I think just being with you is enough. I feel like I could be perfectly happy going to sleep and waking up like this for the rest of my life and forget my grand ambitions. But if I did, then other people would have to go through what I did.”
“Which was what, again? Oh, that’s right, you never told me.”
Claude extended his arm, and she snuggled against him with a sigh, warm and safe. She ran her fingers through his chest hair.
“It wasn’t easy to be only half Almyran,” he said, “just like it’s not easy to be only half Fódlish. If I wasn’t related to a powerful noble family, and if I didn’t have a Crest, my experience in Fódlan would have been very different. It still wasn’t easy.”
“People are so stupid. I’ve been stupid about that sort of thing, too.”
Claude smiled at her.
“There it is,” Hilda said. “I’ve only ever seen you smile like that at the professor. You know, I always thought you were in love with him.”
Claude covered her hand with his, thumb resting on her fake wedding band. “Fooled you. He was never the one I loved.”
Hilda turned toward Claude. He was close, so very close, and getting closer by the second. She tilted her chin up as his eyes slid closed. Hers did the same. She put her hand on his cheek as warmth spread through her. His kiss was as sweet and gentle as she ever could have wanted. Even so, it wasn’t innocent. He sucked on her bottom lip, and a thrill went through her.
“I counted on you running away during the battle,” Claude murmured when they broke apart. “Why didn’t you run? Watching you defend the bridge…you were magnificent, but it was terrifying.”
“Why do you think, dummy?”
He kissed her again, deeper this time. Her hand wandered down his neck to his collarbones and onto his muscular chest. He gripped her waist and pulled her close.
Claude moved away from her mouth and kissed her cheeks, forehead, and nose. “I’m sorry, I was selfish. We should have stayed in Derdriu and let you get more healing and rest.”
“I’ll be fine,” Hilda said, angling for his mouth.
“It’s not fine. You’re important to me, and I just kept pushing you.”
“You also practically carried me.”
She caught his lips, and he melted against her. Her hand moved from his chest to his head, tangling in his dark, wavy locks. He made a sound as she opened her mouth to him, and his tongue slipped inside. His fingers tightened on her hip, and his hardness ground against her.
“We should get married for real,” he said, breath ragged. “Didn’t you once say eloping was romantic? Let’s do it. Let’s elope.”
“You just want to get under my skirt.”
“I’d be a liar if I said that wasn’t part of it. But—”
“I hate to break it to you, but I intend to stay a virgin until I’m married, and I won’t get married without my family’s blessing.”
“There are many ways to make love. And like I was trying to say, that’s not why I want to get married.”
Hilda fought a yawn and lost. The aching of her body made her heavy and sluggish. She sighed and rested her head against Claude’s shoulder.
“Let’s get some rest,” Claude said. “We can talk more about this later. It’s still a ways to Goneril territory.”
Claude blew out the candles and held her until she fell asleep.