Claude was living both a nightmare and a beautiful dream.
By day, he and the woman he loved dodged armies, deserters, and thieves. They’d bloodied their weapons more than once. The passage of every mile was spent in tense silence. He was almost starting to wish he hadn’t given Failnaught away.
But the nights…oh, the nights. Hilda was strong and flexible and, most importantly, a bit kinky. It was more than he could have ever hoped for.
There was only one thing wrong—their relationship was slowly becoming purely physical. Running and hiding during the day wasn’t conducive to conversation, and the game consumed whatever time in camp they didn’t spend eating or sleeping. She got better with her mouth every time, and he liked to think he was also improving. He’d always enjoyed talking to Hilda and found he missed it. It also felt like a chasm was developing between them, and he wasn’t sure how to cross it.
Maybe it was because he was being too damn fearful and masking it with strategy. So much for being a master tactician.
They were close to House Goneril territory. Two days, maybe, and then they’d be safe. Goneril was out of the way of the Empire’s marching route, and Edelgard wouldn’t want to mess with Fódlan’s best defense against invading Almyrans. It would be stupid to weaken the border when Fódlan was in chaos.
Claude wasn’t sure he could afford to wait that long, not if he wanted to keep Hilda.
They made camp just before night fell. He cooked a simple stew for dinner and handed Hilda her portion. Claude ate just enough to take the edge off his hunger. He took a deep breath and put his bowl aside. As much as he hated throwing the game, losing Hilda would be worse. Time to face his fears.
“I have three older half-siblings,” he said. “Two brothers and one sister. My father married his first wife when he was very young, in an arranged marriage. She died, and three years later, he met my mother. They fell in love and eloped, as you know. It was a shock to my father’s family, but my mother soon won them over. When I was born…well, it didn’t go over so well. My siblings saw me as a threat to their inheritance, plus I was only half Almyran. Let’s just say they weren’t kind with their words or fists.”
Hilda stared at him, her spoon drooping in her fingers.
“My mixed heritage didn’t go over well with most people, in fact. They were either openly hostile or pretended I didn’t exist. My mother tended to try to solve the problem with violence. I learned pretty quickly that wasn’t the way to create lasting change.”
“Then, when it turned out House Riegan needed an heir, I ran away to Fódlan. I held higher rank in the Alliance, but I got the same treatment as in Almyra. I’m an outsider no matter where I go. That’s why I have to change things. If we all just see each other as people, there won’t be any in-between where people have to struggle.”
Hilda put her bowl aside and took his hand. “That sounds painful. I’m so sorry.”
“Thanks.” He drew her into his arms. “You, at least, never treated me differently. You’re an equal-opportunity manipulator.”
Claude chuckled and rested his chin on the top of her head. “There was no judgement attached to my comment. You’re observant, intelligent, and charming, which is why you’re able to successfully manipulate people”
“Takes one to know one.”
“We’ve established that. When I return to Almyra, I plan to prove to my father that I deserve to be his heir. I’m going to need a smart, canny person by my side to help me build bridges. If that person is from a different background, so much the better to conquer prejudice.”
“Plus, if the sister of Almyra’s most feared opponent consents to spend her life with the enemy, so to speak, it sets an excellent example.”
Hilda sat back and looked up at him, a calculating expression on her face. Damn it, this was why he hadn’t wanted to take the risk and reveal anything before they were married. She hated effort, and being his wife would require a lot of effort. Her help during the war was one thing—it was a matter of life or death—but he doubted she’d want to return to that level of responsibility.
“Your family must be pretty important for my heritage to make a difference,” she said.
There was no way Claude could lie if he wanted this to work, and it was over if he told the whole truth now. “I suppose you could say I’m from the Almyran equivalent of nobility. Does that scare you?”
“I’d rather be free to do what I want. I don’t like having to live up to expectations.”
And that was the crux of it. It wouldn’t work unless it was something she wanted. The last few days had taught him that.
“So, we’re back to my original question.” Claude’s chest tightened. It was suddenly hard to breathe. “Is it me or is it marriage that you don’t like?”
“I think it’s pretty obvious I like you just fine. But I can’t agree to marry you yet.”
Her words struck him like an arrow. He’d misread the situation badly. The way she defended him, the passion in her touch—it was a mix of duty and friendship and attraction, nothing more. It left him with only one card to play.
“Hilda,” he said, “I—”
She put her finger on his lips. “You know how things work in Fódlan. As a noblewoman, I don’t get to choose my future unless my family lets me. I understand why your mother eloped. But if I ran away with you, my brother would come after us. It might mean war, and I’m sick of war.”
“Then what about our game?” The ache in his chest only intensified. Surely, she couldn’t feel nothing. The look in her eyes was one of sadness and longing, not detachment.
“It’s only a game, Claude. You were never going to win anyway.”
“You don’t know that.”
Hilda put her hands on either side of his face and pulled him in for a kiss. Her mouth was somehow soft and firm at the same time, both yielding and commanding. He had no idea how she did it.
“If I ask your family and they say yes?” he murmured around the kiss.
“Then I’ll go to Almyra with you. And if I like it there, we can talk about marriage. In the meantime, I intend to win a wager.”
“Bold words. Let’s see if you can back them up.”
Hilda kissed him deeply, and soon he was lost in the taste and feel of her. She took his hand and led him to their tent. Once inside, she slipped out of her clothes and slowly undressed him, her mouth trailing her fingers over his chest, his stomach, his groin. Then she tied his wrists to a tentpole.
Twenty minutes later, the tent collapsed on them as Claude moaned her name.