The next morning, Claude sat next to Nader beside the campfire. Dew glistened in the grass, the sun’s light pale as it rose far to the east. He suppressed a yawn. The griddle cakes and venison sausage had been filling, but the heavy food made him even more sleepy.
“So,” Nader said, glancing Hilda’s direction as he handed Claude a mug of hot tea. “Busy night last night.”
Heat rushed to Claude’s cheeks. “Were we that loud?”
“Wyverns are quieter when they mate.”
Claude glanced at where Hilda was returning their breakfast dishes. The soldiers nodded to her as she swaggered past, and she shot them all a gracious smile. Oh yeah, she was definitely gloating.
There was no other option—he’d have to be sure to pay her back tonight. Couldn’t afford to lose face, after all. Maybe he could get her to moan his Almyran name again. Just the thought of it sent a pleasurable shiver down his spine.
Nader chuckled. “You got it bad, don’t you?”
“Says the man who gets all mushy around Judith.”
“About that…after you don’t need me anymore, I’m going back to Fódlan. Going to spend some time with her. Maybe forever.”
Claude grinned. “You old dog! Good for you.”
Nader chuckled and rubbed the back of his neck, cheeks red.
Claude’s chest expanded with warmth. An Almyran general leaving to be with a Fódlan general. A Fódlan noble impressing Almyran soldiers. It was happening—his dream was unfolding right before his eyes.
And it could crumble just as easily in a few more days, when Hilda met his family.
He glanced over at her. She stood with the three soldiers. Even with the language barrier, she had them smiling as she tried to help them pack. She dropped a sack, and one of the soldiers picked it up. Soon, the soldiers were doing everything themselves, yet somehow including her as if she was actually helping. Damn, she was good. It was one of the reasons she’d make an excellent queen. Everybody wanted to do things for her. Himself included, and he even knew better. She looked at him over her shoulder and winked. His heart stuttered in his chest.
“I have to admit,” Nader said, “I thought the plan was to be married by now.”
Claude’s jaw tightened. “It was. Things got complicated.”
“Thought you liked ‘em complicated.”
“Not like this. She doesn’t trust me.”
“You give her a reason to?”
Claude opened his mouth and shut it again.
“You trust her?” Nader asked, watching Hilda over the rim of his mug.
Nader snorted. “So she knows all about your family and what you told me about your ambitions. Funny, she doesn’t act like someone who’s about to meet foreign royalty.”
“If I told her, she wouldn’t be here right now.”
Nader sighed and shook his head. “Doesn’t sound like trust to me. Listen, your dad’s not very impressed that you gave up your position in Fódlan. It looks like you were too weak to hold onto it. You have an uphill battle ahead of you, and you’ll need all the help you can get. You’re an excellent tactician—you know you have to solidify alliances before the battle, not during.”
“It’s not like that,” Claude said, frowning down at his tea.
Nader clapped Claude on the shoulder. “Maybe you’re more stubborn than I thought. One of the things that sets you apart from your brothers and sister is you actually listen to other people. Think about what I’ve said.”
The general rose and joined his soldiers. Claude sipped tea, unable to muster the will to go help. The closer they got to their destination, the greater the weight on his shoulders grew. Strange, he’d had far more responsibility in the Alliance, and yet the burden had felt different. Perhaps because his life belonged to serving others there, whereas now he had only his own future to worry about, at least for the moment. A future in which he still wasn’t sure Hilda would participate.
He drank the last of his tea just as breaking camp finished. The soldiers stashed the mug with the other dishes. Hilda waved and smiled at them, and all three soldiers returned the gesture. Claude took her arm and escorted her over to Luliwa.
“Seems like you made some friends,” he said as he helped her up.
Hilda smiled. “They’re quite nice now that they’re not trying to haze me.”
“Funny how that works. I’m glad you could find it in your heart to befriend such savages.”
Hilda whacked him on the leg as he mounted behind her. “Hush. I learned my lesson, all right?”
Claude snorted and wrapped the blankets around her. They’d need to get her proper wyvern riding attire if she was going to—oh, right. Putting the cart before the horse. He still had to get her to marry him first. The next few days would make or break them. He pushed the terror out of his heart and focused on getting Luliwa off the ground.
Fortunately, Hilda couldn’t see him brooding from where she sat, so he was free to let his thoughts take whatever turns they liked when they were in the air. On the ground, he pretended everything was fine, that worry wasn’t eating him like acid. So many things could go wrong.
When they landed for the evening and made camp, it grew apparent Hilda was nervous, too. It showed in her too-bright smile and the cadence of her voice. She studied him whenever she thought he wasn’t looking.
The entertainment at dinner was Hilda and the soldiers trying to teach each other words from their respective languages—profanities, mostly. Nader served as translator. The soldiers seemed to enjoy the dichotomy of Hilda’s proper demeanor and the vulgar phrases she knew from growing up around Goneril soldiers. Claude could relate. The unexpected facets of Hilda’s personality were his favorites.
And time might be running out to enjoy them.
If all went according to schedule, they’d arrive at his parents’ summer home tomorrow evening. There was a chance that they’d arrive without incident, but tonight was the only guaranteed night he’d have with her. He’d better make it count.
The moment dinner was over, he marched over to Hilda, slung her over his shoulder as she squealed, and carried her into their tent. The soldiers hooted and hollered. Even Nader chuckled.
“I like it when you’re forceful,” Hilda said with a smile as he laid her down on the cushions.
Claude unfastened her shirt and kissed her collarbones. “I’m going to make you say my name. The Almyran one.”
“What does al’amir mean?”
“It’s a term of respect befitting my station. But don’t think about that now. Tonight, it’s just you and me and how we feel about each other.”
By the way Hilda quieted, he knew she was thinking the same thing she was. Maybe what Nader had said was right—with all this love they had for each other, where was the faith? But what he felt for her truly was love. He had no doubts about that as he ran his hands and mouth all over her succulent body. The way she touched and kissed him was magic, filling him with a heat and need he never could have imagined experiencing. Their fingers laced as he finally slid inside her and they became one.
Hilda wrapped her legs around his hips and looked up at him, cheeks flushed and lips red. “Claude. Khalid.”
His names came off her tongue like a blessing. His heart took flight.
They clung to each other as he thrust, and he found a spot inside her that made her writhe and moan. Gods, she was perfect. He worked that spot until she was screaming his Almyran name, and the heat in the core of him turned white hot. They peaked at the same time, their cries mingling, and shuddered against each other. He collapsed on top of her, their sweat mingling.
Hilda’s hands danced over his back and stroked his hair. The way she touched him…he never wanted her to stop. His eyes drooped closed as his energy drained away.
“You’re heavy,” Hilda said, startling him awake.
Claude rolled off her, keeping her in his arms, and closed his eyes again. “Sorry.”
“Claude.” Her fingers stroked his chest hair. She felt so right against him. Sleep pulled at him with velvety hands, his body warm and relaxed.
“I love you.”
It was the first time she’d told him outright. His eyes opened, and he turned his head toward where she rested on his shoulder. He bundled her closer, all her soft curves and silky skin pressed the length of him. The fingers of his free hand knit with hers. Her hand was so small.
“I love you, too,” he said, voice thick. His eyes burned as he blinked back tears. He tilted her chin up and kissed her softly.
Hilda settled back against his shoulder, their fingers still laced as they rested on his chest. Her eyes closed. Soon, her breathing deepened and slowed.
Lovemaking had stolen Claude’s energy, but it took him a while to fall asleep. When he did, he dreamed—foes stalking him in the dark, memories of the beatings his siblings had visited upon him as a child, the suspicious faces of the people at the monastery. Strong hands gripped him, and he fought, only to be shaken awake.
“I’m here,” Hilda said. “You’re safe.”
Claude clung to her in the night, his cheek pressed against her soft breasts as she stroked his hair. How much longer would he have her? He had kept so much a secret. First, it had been out of necessity, then fun, and then that fun had turned to fear.
They made love again before dawn, slowly and sweetly, and rose with the other soldiers. Today, Claude was the one on the receiving ends of the smirks and approving glances. He almost rolled his eyes. Soldiers were the same the world over, but who could blame them? Sex and drink and food were some of the things that made life worth living. Courting death as an occupation likely threw such things into even sharper relief.
They struck camp and took to the air. Hilda twisted in the saddle as they soared southward. “I love flying,” she shouted with a grin.
Instead of lifting, his heart sank.
He tried to memorize the feel of Hilda in his arms as they flew. Each time they stopped for a rest, he stayed at her side. He’d even almost followed her once when she went to relieve herself. If his clinginess bothered her, she didn’t show it.
It was just as well. He wasn’t about to hold back now. Every moment with her was precious. Tomorrow, she’d know everything. Tomorrow, he would know if they would walk life’s path together or if he would have to go alone.