“So, this is really it,” Holst said from the door of Hilda’s room a week later.
Hilda didn’t bother looking up from where she carefully folded her best gown and put it into the bag.
“We have servants to do that sort of thing,” Holst continued.
Hilda didn’t respond. Normally, she would have asked the servants to do it. But she was going to meet Claude’s mysterious family. Although Claude had asked her to pack light, she wanted to make sure she didn’t forget anything.
“Are you sure you want to go?” Holst sighed. “It seems like things haven’t been going well between you two lately. Once you’re in Almyra, he’s the only person you’ll know.”
“I’m going,” she said. “I have to find out. Not knowing is awful.”
A sniffle escaped her before she could stop it. The sniffle turned into a sob, and she sank to her knees in front of her trunk. Holst drew near and put his arms around her. He’d always been so big and strong. As overbearing as he was, it was nice to be protected, to have someone care.
“Oh, sugar,” he said as he held her. “You really love him, don’t you?”
Holst smoothed her hair back and rested his cheek on the crown of her head. “I know I’m hard on you sometimes, but it’s because you have so much potential. Claude sees it, too. It’s one of the reasons he loves you, I’m sure. And if you decide to get married, you have my support.”
“H-he hasn’t even p-proposed yet.”
Holst sighed and gave her a squeeze. “He strikes me as the sort of man who would want to be sure of your answer before he asked. I’d wager he hasn’t proposed yet because he doesn’t believe you want to marry him.”
“Then you approve?”
“No one’s ever going to be good enough for you.” Holst kissed the top of her head. “But he comes close.”
Hilda wiped her eyes and gave him a weak smile. Claude loved her—he’d told her so. If only he wasn’t so damn stubborn and would tell her more about his situation. The only reason she was still going was because she loved him too much to give up on them.
“I’ll be all right,” she said, although she wasn’t sure it was true. She’d only seen Claude at mealtimes since his birthday. He always wore a smile, but when he looked at her, pain danced in his eyes.
Holst stood. “It’s better you’re leaving. It might be safer in Almyra, since they’re not at war. Although, it might be over by the time you get back. Blaiddyd and Eisner just took Fort Merceus.”
The fact Holst was so confident she was coming back didn’t console her. Strange to think that Dimitri, the professor, and the others were so close again. They must have marched for Fort Merceus not long after she and Claude set off on their trek.
A pang went through her at the memory of the journey, when it was just the two of them, pretending to be married. It had felt like more than just pretending. If only she were still that close with Claude. The gap between them grew wider daily, and she had no idea how to bridge it.
Holst remained with her as she finished packing. His presence comforted her, and thankfully, he said nothing more. It was actually pleasant to be around him when he wasn’t trying to get her to live up to what he called her potential. As eager as she was to be free of her family once more, she was going to miss him. At least he was a known quantity. Who knew what Claude’s family was like? His father used to drag him behind a horse, after all. His siblings beat him and even tried to have him killed.
No wonder he held his cards close to his chest and had trouble trusting others.
Hilda closed the bag, and Holst carried it outside for her. She stopped in the entryway and stared into the drive. Five wyverns took up the space, including a white one. Almyran soldiers stood by their mounts. Claude was talking to her family. He wore his Barbarossa uniform, which always made him appear particularly dashing. The beard he’d grown during their travels only enhanced the effect.
Hilda ran past her family and Claude over to the white wyvern. “Pearl,” she cried, stroking the wyvern’s nose as it nuzzled her. “That’s a good girl.”
Claude joined her in petting Pearl. His hand brushed Hilda’s tentatively, but she was still too upset to reciprocate.
“Her name’s actually Luliwa,” he said. “I raised her from an egg. Nardel—Nader—evacuated her after Derdriu.”
“What does Luliwa mean?”
Hilda rolled her eyes.
“What?” The corner of Claude’s mouth quirked upward. “Makes it easy to remember.”
“Did someone say my name?” a deep voice said.
A large, grizzled warrior appeared from behind Pearl. Hilda had known him as Nardel, but if he was actually Nader…. Her gaze snapped to her brother. Holst appeared at ease, although concern and amusement mingled in his expression.
“Hi, Nader,” Hilda said. “I didn’t know you were friends with my brother, not after all the times you tried to kill each other.”
Claude and Nader exchanged a guilty look and simultaneously glanced at Holst.
Holst made his way over and clapped Nader on the back. “You talking about me, you salty old dog?”
“Wasn’t me, pup,” Nader said with a grin.
Pink stained Claude’s cheeks. “I might have asked these two to meet and play nice just in case things went really sideways in the war. Other than that, Nader’s been helping me make preparations for this day.”
“And he’s really not so bad for a senile old man,” Holst said, smiling.
Nader shook his head. “Don’t make me whup your ass, boy.”
“You tried and failed. Twice.”
“You call that failure? You’re the one who failed to kill me.”
“Only because you ran away.”
“Living is winning.”
The two burst into laughter. Hilda sighed. She’d never understand warriors. Trying to kill each other one moment, friends the next.
“What do you mean, really sideways?” Hilda asked Claude softly as the others continued to chat.
Claude’s jaw clenched, and he looked into the distance. “If we lost and it looked like House Goneril would be overrun, Nader and Holst agreed to secret you away to Almyra.”
“Oh, you know me. I’d have run away to save my skin and met you there.”
She did know him, and she knew he hadn’t planned on running in Derdriu. His sacrifice would have meant fewer Alliance citizens casualties. If she’d fallen, he’d be dead. It was one of the reasons she’d fought so hard.
All of it begged another question—according to her brother, Nader was one of Almyra’s top generals. If Claude had the authority to give him orders, what was Claude to Almyra? Pearl had another name. Nardel had another name. She wouldn’t be surprised if Claude wasn’t his real name, either. Who was this man standing beside her? If he trusted her, she’d know already.
Icy pain lanced through Hilda’s chest. True love couldn’t exist without trust. If she hadn’t earned his trust by now, it was likely she never would. This couldn’t work between them.
But she had to try.
“And what’s your real name?” she asked.
Claude’s head whipped in her direction. She’d surprised him. Did he think she was stupid?
He cleared his throat and glanced at where the two warriors were talking. Hilda’s parents had come over, and Nader kissed her mother’s hand. Her mother giggled.
“Claude is what my mother would have named me if I were born in Fódlan.” Claude shifted from foot to foot. “But you’re right, I go by Khalid in Almyra.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“We’re not in Almyra. Even if we were, you could still call me Claude.”
Goddess damn him, he should have told her ages ago. She was two seconds away from telling him he could go back to Almyra alone and stomping back into her house.
His gaze searched her face. “I’m losing you, aren’t I?”
For the first time in their long friendship, she saw fear in his eyes.
“I don’t know what to do.” He took her hands, gripping her almost hard enough to hurt. “If I don’t tell you, I lose you. If I tell you, I lose you. And losing you is the one thing I absolutely do not want to happen.”
Hilda swallowed. She’d wanted the truth, and that was the heart of it. He deserved the truth, too. “I don’t know if you’re scared to lose me because of the way you feel about me or because your scheme will fall apart without me.”
“I see.” He sighed. “I suppose I have no one but myself to blame for that.”
They gazed at one another. The conversation of the others washed over Hilda. Birds sang in the hedges and trees, although it was too early for most buzzing insects. The wind rattled leaves. But inside her heart, all was silent and still.
“H-have—” Claude’s voice cracked, and he cleared his throat. “Have you changed your mind about coming with me?”
“If I stay, will I ever see you again?”
Claude blinked rapidly. “You might not. But not because I wouldn’t want to come visit.”
So, he was in danger. He wanted her, that was obvious, but he also needed her. His dream was more important to him than anything else. Yet she was part of his dream, and he was part of hers.
“I’m still coming with you,” she said. “But—”
Claude grabbed the back of her head and pulled her into a kiss. His tongue slid inside her mouth as his arm wrapped around her waist and crushed her against him. The heat of him, the passion with which he kissed her, turned her knees to jelly. Hilda wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed against him.
When he broke away, he took her breath with him. He rested his forehead against hers, his thumb stroking her cheek. “I love you,” he said. “I want to spend my life with you, no matter what.”
They turned their heads. Everyone was staring at them. Nader finished clearing his throat, eyebrows raised. He jerked his head toward the wyverns. Hilda’s parents appeared scandalized, her mother’s mouth hanging open, and Holst wore a scowl.
“I see how it is,” Holst said. “If you don’t make an honest woman of her, I’ll come to Almyra and take your hide.”
Claud dropped to one knee and rummaged in his sash. “Give me just a sec. Hilda Valentine Goneril, will you—”
“Don’t you dare!” Hilda grabbed the front of his jacket and hauled him to his feet. “I haven’t even met your parents!”
Claude stood and shrugged at her family as if to say, “See?”
Holst sighed and shook his head.
“We should be going if we’re going to make first camp by nightfall,” Nader said.
Hilda hugged her family farewell. Claude bowed to them and thanked them for their hospitality. He clasped hands with her father and kissed her mother’s knuckles.
Claude offered Hilda his arm. “Ready for an adventure?” he asked with a rakish grin.
Hilda returned his smile. As apprehensive as she was about Claude’s situation back in Almyra, she was looking forward to traveling beyond Fódlan’s border. It would be a trip to remember even if their relationship didn’t work out.
Holst helped Hilda up on Pearl, his hand lingering on her foot. “Be careful, sugar,” he said, brow furrowed. “Maybe it’s for the best if you’re not married. That way you still belong to the Gonerils, and the Almyrans know that if they mess with my family, they’ll have me to deal with.”
A tremor ran down Hilda’s spine. Holst knew something she didn’t, and if he was taking it so seriously, it didn’t bode well. On the other hand, he’d never let her leave if it were truly dangerous.
“I promise to write,” she said and blew him a kiss.
Holst pretended to snatch the kiss out of the air and pressed it to his heart, just like he had since they were little. Her eyes suddenly burned, and she had to blink a few times to calm them.
Claude climbed up behind her and wrapped several blankets around her. It would be cold aloft. Hilda smiled at her family one last time. They waved back, Holst sniffling.
“You are my heart,” Claude murmured in her ear. “Thank you for coming with me. I’ll make sure you don’t regret it.”
He twitched the reins, and they were off.