“Walk with me?” Holst asked Hilda after dinner. He moved with a limp, but she had no pity for him—Claude was still in bed and had to take his meal there. Her lover sustained several cracked ribs, a dislocated shoulder, and an injured knee.
Hilda took her brother’s arm by way of reply. Her silence would wound him more than any sharp words.
Holst led her into the garden. The balmy evening breeze stirred her dress—another gauzy affair, this time in a blue that reminded her of Marianne—and the gravel crunched beneath her feet. A bird sang in a nearby tree. She’d rather be sharing this moment with Claude. Stupid Holst.
“Are you sleeping with him?” Holst asked.
Heat flooded Hilda’s cheeks. “Are you ever going to get married?”
“If you’re going to ask awkward questions, I’m entitled to do the same.”
Holst sighed and patted her hand. “It’s obvious you love him, but how well do you know him?”
“I’ve known him for years. Besides, you’re the one who told me to stay by his side and protect the leader of the Alliance. This is all your fault. You practically set us up.”
Holst’s mouth flattened into a line. “From your letters when you were at the academy, I was under the impression you wanted to marry the Gloucester boy.”
“Lorenz is a dear.” Hilda shook her head. “You’d like him. He’s brave, sensitive, and utterly proper. But he’s not what I wanted.”
They stopped in the middle of the walkway, hemmed in by hedges. The summer night insects had begun to chirp. Holst rested his hands on Hilda’s shoulders and looked her in the eyes, face solemn.
“If you go with him,” Host said, “you will have to work hard and walk a very fine line. People will heap expectations upon you like never before. I know how you dislike responsibility. Are you really going to be all right with that? I don’t want to see you unhappy.”
“He won’t have time to always be looking after you. He’s a brilliant strategist—the fact the Alliance made it this far in the war is proof of that—but that isn’t enough. You’ll have to watch both your back and his.”
Hilda stiffened and tried to ignore the ice slowly spreading from her center into her limbs. “You’re talking like you don’t think I can do it.”
“I know you can.” Holst brushed her hair behind her shoulder, his brow furrowed. “But I’m not confident you’ll want to. That you’ll be happy if you go. You two might care for each other, but your relationship will come with strings. Marriage even more so.”
Hilda narrowed her eyes. “Do you not like Claude?”
“Actually, I like him a lot, not least because he’s willing to do anything for you. That includes making sure he could beat me even if he had to use underhanded tactics. I can respect that. I’m just not sure he’s right for you. Think about it, that’s all I’m asking.”
“You can be such a jerk,” Hilda grumbled.
Holst shrugged, took her arm again, and resumed leading her around the gardens. Silence fell over them as Hilda retreated into her thoughts. Was her brother right? Claude had grand ambitions, and he expected her to play a key part. If she failed, it would hurt him, and she didn’t want that. Ugh, this was why she always let other people do things for her. They were happy because things were done the way they wanted, and she was happy because she hadn’t disappointed anyone. The thought of failing Claude was like an arrow to the chest.
She said goodnight to her family and retreated to her room until she was certain everyone had retired. Then she slipped down the hall on silent feet into Claude’s room. The door wasn’t locked, which meant he hadn’t felt well enough to get up and lock it. Not a good sign, nor was the fact his bedside candle still burned.
He sat in bed, motionless, propped up in a sitting position to ease his cracked ribs. Hilda’s heart stopped, her breath held, until his chest rose and fell. His injuries hadn’t been all that serious, but she still worried. She tiptoed over to his bed and slid under the covers next to him.
“Claude?” she whispered.
Claude didn’t stir. Hilda leaned back on the pillows and examined his profile. His straight nose, his full lips, the way his eyebrows feathered at the corners…. He was beautiful. Perfect.
And yet it seemed like she didn’t have the whole picture. She trusted him. Sure, he was still keeping things from her, but she’d find out in time. Yet Holst’s words worried her. She wanted to experience the world outside of Fódlan, but she’d never wanted to be responsible for anything. Whatever the situation was in Almyra, it meant hard work, which meant risk. Could she do it? As much as she wanted to be with Claude, she wasn’t sure.
“Hilda?” Claude murmured, his eyes fluttering open.
She slid her hand under his shirt, careful not to touch his cracked ribs, until it rested over his heart. “I’m here.”
“I hope you’re not mad at me.”
“It was stupid to fight my brother.”
He covered her hand with his. “Grasp my hand, my heart, even my neck…”
“I won’t be strangling you anytime soon.” Hilda chuckled. “Holst did a good enough job on behalf of all the Gonerils.”
“If you wanted to grasp other parts, too…”
Hilda kissed his cheek. “Oh, I do. But I’ll wait until you’re up for it.”
“It’s up right now.”
“Silly. You need your rest.”
“Get me whole so you can break me again?”
She nuzzled his throat. “That’s the idea.”
“Gods. I can’t imagine a more perfect woman for me than you.”
Hilda blew out the candle and ran her fingers through his hair until his eyelids drooped closed. Before long, his breathing shifted into sleep. She snuggled against him. Being with him like this filled her heart to the brim. She’d go with him to Almyra and learn the truth of the situation firsthand. Then she’d make her decision.
Who knew? Perhaps she wouldn’t mind taking on a little more responsibility after all.