Claude slipped out of Hilda’s bed and through the window before dawn. Hilda didn’t stir. Leaving was torture but losing the fight today would be worse. For his pride at the very least, if not his future.
He scaled the rope, crossed the manor’s roof, and dropped down into his own quarters. The sun had scarcely breached the horizon by the time he dressed and hurried to the training area he’d toured the night before.
Holst was already there, ready for their match. Claude wasn’t particularly tall, but Holst was shorter. Claude swallowed a curse. Superior height was a liability in grappling, which was likely why Holst had proposed it. Hilda’s brother would have no problem getting under Claude’s center of gravity.
Claude bowed as he entered the room, using the gesture to brush his hand against the secret weapon tucked in the waistband of his trousers: a single pin. The pin lay in a tiny, pointed sheath on the skin side of the fabric. The sheath might prick him, but that would only result in pain and blood. Claude had plenty of experience with sharp, annoying injuries. Should the pin itself get loose and poke him, his muscles wouldn’t obey him, as if he were drunk. If the dose was just right, that was all it would do. If the dose was wrong, his entire body would seize up, including his lungs, and he’d die.
“I know folk from Fódlan like to regard Almyrans as savages, but it seems to me that fighting for permission to take her out of the country is pretty barbaric,” Claude said as he removed his shirt.
Holst already stood barefoot and bare-chested, a scowl on his chiseled features. “That’s not what this is really about. This is to see if you’re worthy of her, if you can take care of her.”
“You do know that she can bench press me, right?”
“Hilda’s in love with you. I saw the way she looked at you last night at dinner, the way she always leans toward you as if you were a lodestone.”
Heat rushed to Claude’s face. Oh, Hilda. Did she know how much he loved her, too? He should have told her.
“But I don’t know you,” Holst continued, “and I believe one of the quickest ways to judge a person’s character is to see how they behave in a fight.”
Claude cocked his head and regarded Holst. Foolish to have underestimated the man; Hilda was sharper than she let on, too. Suddenly, the pin tucked in his waistband didn’t seem like such a good idea. It proved Holst’s point all too well. So be it—Claude had only planned on using it as a last resort anyway.
“And,” Holst said, “I know who you really are.”
“Tiana’s your mother, no?” Holst continued. “The Riegans did a good job keeping her marriage a secret, but I know more about the Almyrans than most. I know the king has a wife from Fódlan, and they had a son. A son who’s last in line for the throne, but if he’s given up what power he had in Fódlan, I wonder if he’s not angling to be first.”
Claude kept his mouth shut and clenched his hands to keep them from shaking. If Holst told Hilda, she’d never visit Almyra. Claude’s chances of any future with her would vanish.
Holst bent his knees and continued his stretching routine. “What I want to know is why you want her to be your queen.”
“I love her.”
“If what I’ve heard about you holds water, that’s not the only reason.”
“No.” The word came out strangled, and Claude cleared his throat. “But if I didn’t love her, the other reasons wouldn’t matter.”
“Hmm. She won’t be happy being queen, you know. Too much responsibility.”
“I think you underestimate her.”
Holst shook his head. “I adore her. But you know as well as I how she refuses to live up to her full potential. She won’t put in the work. I’ve been haranguing her for years, and it’s only effective because it’s more of a hassle to put up with me than it is to do what I want her to do.”
Claude snorted. “She saved my life and our army at Gronder, helped me keep the Alliance together, and protected me when the Adrestians tried to take Derdriu. I think she’ll do just fine.”
“Funny, what I’m hearing is she keeps cleaning up your mistakes.”
“I call it watching my back, and I watch hers.”
“You think that’s all you need to become king? Someone watching your back?”
“We’ll see, won’t we?”
“Only if you beat me,” Holst said with a grin.
Claud took a deep breath. Holst wasn’t wrong about his sister, but he didn’t know what she could do when she’d committed her heart. The trick was making her want to commit. If Claude could pull that off, she’d be a queen like no other.
“Let’s get this over with,” Claude said, settling into a wide stance. “No blows to the face.”
Holst nodded and copied Claude’s posture. “As you wish.”
Claude moved, but Holst was faster—surprisingly fast for such a bulky man. Only the instinct ingrained by years of training allowed Claude to dodge the first blow Holst aimed at his middle. Holst dropped and tried for a leg sweep as Claude backpedaled, off-balance, but Claude flipped out of the way.
“Fancy,” Holst said. “That seems in line with my impression of you.”
Claude frowned. Holst’s tone lacked judgement. In fact, his expression was an emotionless mask. He was empty, blank. It made him impossible to read. Ice crept down Claude’s spine on sharp feet.
They traded a few more strikes. Claude mostly just got out of the way. The power behind Holst’s attacks was like nothing he’d ever felt before. No wonder this man was so well-respected across the border.
Claude darted in, using his superior reach, but only landed a glancing blow. Holst smashed his fist into Claude’s gut. Claude bent his knees, wrapped his arms around Holst’s torso, and hoisted him into the air. Then he threw them both to the ground, Holst on the bottom. Bare skin smacked against stone. Holst grunted and tried to get a grip on Claude, but Claude scrambled out of the way. They regained their feet and watched each other, panting. The places where Holst’s blows had landed were starting to swell. Perhaps it was time to take a different strategy.
“You know,” Claude said between breaths, “your little sister gives great head.”
Claude braced himself for the storm of rage that was sure to come. Holst loved nothing as much as his sister.
Claude’s breath hitched, and the blood in his veins ran cold. Holst’s expression remained blank, the look in his eyes flat. It was more terrifying than if he had started to rage.
Holst darted toward Claude, who tried to spin out of the way. The punch grazed Claude’s ribs. Claude grabbed Holst’s wrist as it sailed past and attempted to put him in a joint lock, but Holst muscled his way out of it, turned, and struck Claude in the gut.
The air whooshed out of Claude as he staggered back. Shit. Holst was good. Time to take it to the mat.
He tackled Holst, planting his shoulder in his ribs, and they went down in a tangle of limbs. Claude squirmed his way out of a choke hold and went on the offensive. Holst parried another of Claude’s joint locks. They rolled around on the floor, increasingly bruised. Holst’s elbow accidentally caught Claude in the face, sending stars sailing across his vision. An arm closed around his throat from behind. Claude gritted his teeth and struggled as Holst’s legs wrapped around him and forced his body straight. The edges of Holst’s wrists dug into the sides of his neck. Black spots began to dance in front of Claude’s eyes. No matter how he tried to escape, Holst held him fast.
“What are you doing?”
Judging from the voice, Hilda had found them. Claude couldn’t see her from where he was.
“What is wrong with you two?” she cried.
Holst’s hold left one of Claude’s hands free. He had barely enough freedom to reach into the waistband of his trousers and retrieve the pin. It slid free from its sheath, and Claude groped for Holst’s neck as everything went black. Holst jerked as the pin pierced him.
Claude collapsed to the floor, head swimming, as Holst finally released him. The blood rushed back to Claude’s brain. Holst’s movements grew sluggish, but the man didn’t fall. Damn it, he was like an ox or a bear or some other animal too strong to realize when it had been beaten.
“You sneaky bastard,” Holst slurred. “That was a dirty trick.”
“You thought I was going to lose?”
Claude’s vision began to clear, and he picked himself off the floor. The poison finally overcame Holst. He crumpled to the ground, lying on his back. His eyes remained clear, and a bitter smile twisted his lips.
“I did win, right?” Claude gasped. It was still hard to draw breath.
“I sure as shit can’t fight anymore, can I?” Holst replied.
“Are you two idiots?” Hilda cut in. She put Claude’s arm around her shoulders and let him lean on her. “Holst, what did you do to Claude?”
“Just seeing if he’s worthy of you,” Holst said.
“Ugh. Men. I can’t believe you. And look what you did to his beautiful face!”
“What’s this about my face?” Claude asked, although now the rush of battle was wearing off, his cheek and eye throbbed ominously. As did his ribs. And most of his body, actually.
Holst started laughing. “You were prepared to do anything to win, weren’t you, Claude?”
“It’d be stupid to go into a fight with an opponent who possesses superior strength and experience without a backup plan,” Claude replied.
It took another moment for Holst’s laughter to fade. Gone was the terrifying, implacable warrior. When Holst smiled again, his expression was genuinely warm.
“All right.” Holst sat up with a grunt. He was still wobbly, but he appeared to be recovering quickly. “I think I have your measure now, Claude. I’ll consider the matter of your trip.”
“Great.” Hilda rolled her eyes. “Claude, I’ll get you to bed and summon the doctor. Holst, if you ever do something like this again, I’m going to stop speaking to you forever.”
Holst frowned. “That’s harsh.”
“So is beating up Claude! I can make my own decisions, if you’d ever let me.”
Hilda stomped out of the room, quite a feat considering how much taller and heavier Claude was. She hauled him up the stairs to his room then laid him on his bed, removed his trousers, and tucked him in.
“Your brother is terrifying,” Claude said as he sank into the soft pillows.
Hilda snorted. “Tell me about it. You look terrible. I’m going to go fetch the doctor.”
“Not just yet.” Claude took her hand and closed his eyes, relaxing into the bed.
Hilda sighed and lay down next to him, their fingers interlaced. It was so natural to have her beside him. Perhaps it was habit—they’d been friends long enough. The fulfillment and satisfaction he got from having her near was more than just that, though.
“I can’t believe you fought Holst,” Hilda murmured. “It was stupid. But also sweet, in a misguided sort of way.”
“I’d be stupid not to guarantee a win. Do you have any idea how much you mean to me?”
Her soft chuckle barely reached his ears. “Hmm. I’d say you could stand to wait on me more. So far, being with you has been a lot of work.”
“When we’re settled, I promise I’ll do my best.”
“I haven’t committed to anything yet, not until I have the full picture. And when will that be, exactly?”
“You’ll understand when we get to Almyra.”
Claude tried not to think about it too much. Hilda wasn’t as lazy as she wanted people to believe, but Holst was right—she might decide the effort of being queen outweighed the benefits. He’d proceed without her if he had to, but the prospect was lonely. Bleak, if he was honest.
Quiet fell between them again. If he wasn’t in so much pain, he would have relished this peace and closeness. These soft moments were his favorites.
“Thank you for last night,” he said. “I…it was amazing. Being so close to you, I mean. I hope you enjoyed it.”
“You’re cute when you’re awkward. Anyway, I’d say I was looking forward to a repeat tonight, but you’ve gone and wrecked yourself.”
Damn it, she was right. Oh, well. There would be opportunities. He’d better stop imagining them, otherwise he’d only be torturing himself.
“I’ll just have to get better soon, won’t I?” he said and squeezed her hand.
Hilda sighed and sat up. Worry danced in her eyes. “Rest. I’ll get the doctor.”
Hilda went to the door.
“I’d do anything for you,” Claude said. “I mean it.”
She smiled. “Likewise.”
Then she was gone, and Claude was alone with his injuries and the anticipation of what would come once he had recovered.