As Claude feared, Hilda was smug about winning the game. She also spent every night trying to outdo her performance the evening before. He was exhausted by the time they rode up to House Goneril but regretted none of it. Hilda beamed at him from atop her horse, almost bouncing in the saddle.
They were right on time, which would hopefully endear him to Holst. A figure standing at the end of the long drive came into view. Hilda dug her heels into her horse’s sides and sped forward.
Claude continued at a more sedate pace, still leading the pack animals. Travelworn and unbathed wasn’t how he wanted to greet his potential in-laws. Oh well, nothing to be done about it now. He debated taking off his headwrap, but no. If they were going to be family, they needed to accept his heritage.
A handsome, burly man plucked Hilda from her horse and twirled her around as if she weighed no more than a feather. His coloring was the same as hers, his pink hair cropped short on the sides and a bit long on top. It had to be Holst. He beamed up at Hilda as Claude dismounted and handed the horses off to a waiting groom.
“Why are you dressed like that?” Holst asked when he put his sister down. He had a deep, booming voice, the sort that commanded attention.
Hilda smoothed the front of her long, dirt-stained coat. “It’s a disguise.”
“An Almyran disguise? Seems risky.”
“Less risky than being an Alliance member crossing Empire lines. But enough of that, I have someone I want you to meet.”
Hilda took Claude’s hand and led him over. “This is Claude von Riegan.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Claude bowed. “I’ve only ever worked with your father at council meetings.”
Holst bowed in return, but his expression grew shuttered. “So, you’re Riegan? My father speaks highly of you. Said you were the leader the Alliance needed. Although he also said you’ve abdicated in favor of Blaiddyd.”
Ouch. “That’s true.”
“You don’t thirst for power, then.”
Claude glanced at Hilda. She wore a slight frown.
“Not for power’s sake, no.”
Holst’s eyes—so like his sister’s—took on a dangerous glint. “But you must have something to fall back on. A man doesn’t give up a position like that unless there’s something better on the horizon.”
Hilda looked back and forth between them, eyebrow raised and mouth tight.
“You’re not wrong,” Claude said. “I came here to ask your family’s permission to take your sister on a little trip and see if I can convince her to marry me.”
Holst tensed. Claude recognized the signs from when his siblings used to beat him and dodged before Holst even threw his punch. Hilda cried out, but still Holst advanced. Claude narrowly avoided another two punches and three kicks. For all his bulk, Holst was fast.
“I said stop,” Hilda said, stepping between them. She grabbed Holst’s fist and stopped it cold.
Claude stared. Either Holst was pulling his punches—and it certainly didn’t seem like it—or Hilda was even stronger than he’d thought. What a woman. Thank goodness she was on his side.
“Hmm.” Holst withdrew and looked Claude up and down, posture relaxed as if he’d never attacked in the first place. “Nice dodging. But can you fight?”
Hilda balled her hands into fists and scowled at her brother. “Holst!”
“Did I hurt you?” Holst’s attention snapped to Hilda, his expression a mask of concern. Claude resisted the temptation to sneak away.
“My hand’s numb now.” Hilda pouted. “Stop threatening Claude.”
Holst examined her hand then patted her head. “I’m sorry, sugar. What sort of big brother would I be if I didn’t make sure he was worthy of you?”
Hilda made a strangled sound and rolled her eyes.
“As for you.” Holst returned his attention to Claude. It was like being on the receiving end of a Thoron spell. “We duel tomorrow.”
“Holst!” Hilda stamped her foot.
Holst grinned and clapped Claude on the back. “But that’s tomorrow. Tonight, we feast! We need to welcome back my little sister properly. Take some time to get cleaned up and relax. Claude, make yourself at home. I’ll have a footman show you to your room.”
“Thanks.” Claude’s back stung where Holst had slapped him. It might even leave a bruise. “I do enjoy a good feast.”
Holst took Hilda’s arm and led her inside. Hilda threw Claude an apologetic glance over her shoulder. Claude shrugged and followed them into the entryway, where a servant escorted him to a well-appointed room. The walls were painted white and hung with brightly colored tapestries. Wide windows and pastel yellow curtains lent the room an airy feel. The furniture was polished to a high sheen and included two chairs, a small table, a chest of drawers, and a nightstand, along with a commode with a wash basin and pitcher. The large bed sported a yellow and green coverlet and crisp white sheets. A vase of fresh flowers graced the top of the chest of drawers. The room smelled vaguely of primrose.
Claude accepted the knee-length tunic the servant handed him and changed behind a screen. His packs were already stashed in a corner, and he gladly rummaged through them and handed off all his laundry. The servant showed him to a bathing chamber and departed. The water in the tub—made of beaten copper, heavy and expensive—was the perfect temperature. Claude sank into it with a sigh and soaked for a bit before washing up.
He trimmed his beard—Hilda said she liked it, so he didn’t shave it off—took a nap, and woke in time to dress for dinner. It felt odd to remove the cheap wedding band from his finger. The ring no longer seemed fake. The skin beneath was already lighter than the rest of his hand from the time they’d spent travelling. He hesitated a moment then slipped the ring back onto his finger. Strange, to be so sentimental about an object that was never supposed to mean anything in the first place.
A servant appeared to escort him to the grand dining room. Holst was already seated at the long table, as was an older couple that was unmistakably his parents. The servant led Claude to the chair across from a stately woman who could only be Hilda’s mother.
Claude bowed. “Good to see you again, Lord Hagan. Pleased to make your acquaintance, my lady. I’m Claude von Riegan.”
Hilda’s mother introduced herself as Eloria, and they made small talk as servants brought out the food. There was roast pheasant and gratin and tiny meat pies, along with assorted other vegetable dishes. Claude adored lavish feasts. The food appeared rich, but the quantity was such there wouldn’t be much waste. Interesting. He’d never given much thought to such things until he’d heard Cyril relate his experiences as an orphan. When he became king, he’d have to take such things into account.
“There you are,” Hilda’s father said, and Claude turned toward the door.
Hilda glided into the room, her gown rippling around her in the breeze created by her passage. The petal pink fabric, just a shade darker than her hair, hugged her bodice and flowed around her legs. A gauzy overskirt in yellow was open in the front but fluttered behind her. The lack of straps exposed her shoulders and décolletage. More sheer fabric, this time in pink, flowed down her arms in detached sleeves.
Claude’s breath hitched. He stood and went to her before he quite knew what he was doing. She smiled at him as she placed her hand in his. The fake wedding band still graced her finger, and his heart lurched.
“You look stunning,” Claude murmured against her knuckles as he kissed her hand.
Hilda’s smile broadened. “You clean up nicely, too, although I’ve never been a fan of all that quilting on your outfit.”
“You’ll like the Almyran style better, I promise.”
Holst cleared his throat. “If you win, and if I let her go to Almyra. They’re not exactly friends of Fódlan.”
“Maybe not yet,” Claude said with a smile. “I have reason to believe they could be.”
“Mama, Papa, you’ll let me go, won’t you?” Hilda said as Claude seated her on his left, next to Holst.
“Holst’s the next head of the house, dear,” her father said.
Holst grunted and gave an emphatic nod.
“I’m going to go regardless,” Hilda grumbled.
Claude’s heart rate sped up, and he squeezed her hand under the table.
Dinner passed pleasantly. The food was good and the company engaging. Holst was a more energetic version of his father, strict and tender in turn. It was clear his parents put a tremendous amount of responsibility on his shoulders. No wonder Hilda was wary of high expectations. They’d also raised her like a princess—so many of her habits and mannerisms made more sense now.
When dinner was over, Holst clapped Claude on the shoulder. “Why don’t you come enjoy a nightcap before I beat you into the ground tomorrow?”
“At least let him say goodnight.” Hilda grabbed Claude’s arm. “Walk me to my room?”
Claude bowed to the Gonerils and allowed Hilda to lead him through the corridors. The layout of the manor was straightforward and easy to commit to memory. Hilda’s room was in the wing opposite his own.
“I like your family,” Claude said when they arrived at her door. “They seem nice. Of course, what really endears them to me is the fact they adore you.”
Hilda sighed. “Too much, sometimes. I love Holst, but I already can’t wait to put some distance between us.”
“I’ll whisk you away soon.” Claude leaned down and kissed her. She still tasted like the strawberries from dessert.
Hilda stroked his cheek, drawing her hand down to the center of his chest. “Be careful with Holst.” She sighed. “It’s going to be strange not to sleep beside you.”
“Aww, are you going to miss me?”
“Of course.” Hilda looked up at him through her eyelashes and blushed.
A warm, fizzing sensation flooded Claude’s chest. “I’ll miss you, too.”
He kissed her one last time and made his way back to her family. There was no way he was going to lose to Holst tomorrow. But just in case….
Hilda was going to see him again sooner than she anticipated.