Day faded into evening. Claude’s heart raced as they flew over the darkened earth, his palms clammy inside his gloves. Hilda squealed as small pinpricks of light appeared beneath them, scattered at first and then more concentrated. The moonlight sparkled on the ocean in the distance.
“That’s Malzha,” Claude said in Hilda’s ear. She grew still against him.
They landed outside the summer palace. Claude slid to the ground and helped Hilda down as servants swarmed them, tending to the wyverns and relieving the soldiers of their camp gear. They stared at Hilda in the lantern light. She ignored them—the palace shining white before her stole her attention. He had mixed memories of the place as a child. It was interesting to see it again through her eyes.
Claude clasped hands with Nader. “Thanks for the escort.”
“Good luck, kid. Watch yourself,” Nader responded.
Hilda curtseyed to each of the soldiers, who bowed in return, smiles all around. Claude suspected he was the only one who could detect the tension in the curve of her mouth. He put his arm around her waist and led her into the building.
“This is your family’s summer home?” Hilda gawked at the ornate ceilings and the mother of pearl inlays lining the dark wood of the walls. Their boots clicked against the marble tiles of the floor, echoing through the tall, arched windows into the summer night. And this was just the side entrance.
The palace was just as he remembered it—too much white, too much mother of pearl, too many milky blue glass tiles. He secreted her through back passageways, startling servants, until they arrived at her quarters. Best they stay in separate rooms until he understood the situation here. Making it seem like there was distance between them would keep her safer.
Hilda exclaimed over the silk bed hangings and the copious cushions. Her exuberant smile was forced, the look in her eye suspicious. “This is the fanciest room I’ve ever been in.”
Claude plastered his own false smile on his face as he went to her and put his arms around her waist, perhaps more tightly than necessary. “Wait until you see the bathing chamber.”
“I definitely need a bath. I’m a dirty girl.”
Her smile turned seductive. “Very dirty.”
“Just the way I like you.”
He bent and kissed her, gently opening her mouth and slipping his tongue inside. She made a little noise and melted against him. Blood rushed to his groin. Her hand pressed against the outside of his trousers, making him harder.
“Seriously, though,” she murmured against his mouth. “I need a bath.”
Claude took her hand and led her into the adjacent bathing chamber. Hilda’s lips parted as she took in the room, eyes wide. Lanterns hung from the ceiling like stars, illuminating the room with gentle light. Glass tile mosaics in the floor mimicked the curl of ocean waves. The soaking pool was twice as wide and three times as long as he was tall, deep enough Hilda’s head would barely be above water when she stood on the bottom. She’d likely have to sit on her knees on the bench. Hooks with plush towels hung next to the door, and delicate teak stools and wash basins stood off to one side over a drain. A shelf of oils and soaps and perfumes and various scrubbing implements lined the short wall of the room.
“You can leave your things in that wicker basket over there,” Claude said.
As she undressed, he went to the shelves, picked up several floating candles, lit them off one of the wall lanterns, and let them loose in the soaking pool. He threw in some dried rose petals from a nearby basket for good measure.
Claude grabbed a brush and came up behind her just as she was freeing her hair from the braided bun she wore while riding the wyvern. Its petal-pink waves cascaded past her waist, the last gasp of her perfume filling his nostrils. The strands ran between his fingers like silk. The weight, the shine—lovely beyond measure.
“Sit,” he said, directing her to a bathing stool. He knelt behind her and ran the brush through her hair. Hilda hummed low in her throat, a small smile on her lips. Every stroke of the brush was another moment they were together.
“Don’t brush it too much, you’ll pull it all out,” Hilda said.
Claude relinquished the brush, and she scrubbed herself. If his gaze lingered on her slippery breasts or waist, she didn’t seem to notice. Her hips swayed as she made her way to the stairs leading into the pool. She paused at the water’s edge and turned. Maybe it was how pale her skin was, or the color of her hair, or her petite stature, but she suddenly seemed fragile. His heart lurched in his chest. Gods, let her never break. It was a miracle they’d made it this far.
“Not going to join me?” she asked.
Claude shook his head.
She shot him a questioning look then frowned. Perhaps she sensed his melancholy. “What’s wrong?”
He shrugged. So much could go sideways. He didn’t understand why she’d come with him. Well, except for the sex. If it was half as good for her as it was for him…. It was the only time his feelings reached her.
“You have enough energy to make love?” she asked, as if she’d read his thoughts. “But let’s not do it in the water. I don’t want the servants to have to clean it up.”
“Since when do you care about servants?”
“Since I got to know Cyril. Turns out he worked for my family. He felt like Rhea rescued him from us. Which she did, I guess.”
Claude snorted. “You’re just a big ol’ softie, aren’t you.”
“Tell anyone and I’ll make sure you die in horrible pain,” Hilda said sweetly as she slid into the water.
“Your secret is safe with me.” It was about all that was safe with him right now. Being here again only made him remember what it had been like to always live on edge.
Claude’s stomach roiled. His hands began to shake, and he clenched his fists. It was time. Past time, actually. He took a deep breath. “You’ll meet my family at breakfast tomorrow. They don’t know I’ve brought a guest, mainly because I wasn’t sure if you’d actually come with me. When I introduce you to my parents, you should probably address them as ‘Your Majesties.’”
Hilda stared at him, mouth hanging open.
“I wanted you to come to Almyra,” he continued, “to see what it was like, the life I can give you, before I let you in on my secret. But now that we’re here, I remember how dangerous it is, and I realize I’ve taken a terrible risk with your safety by bringing you here before I’m named heir.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Hilda spoke softly and gazed at the water, which made it difficult to tell if she was heartbroken or furious. “Why didn’t you tell me who you were?”
He looked away. “I didn’t think you’d want to be queen.”
“Excuse me? What noblewoman in their right mind wouldn’t want to be a queen?”
“I figured you wouldn’t. Too much responsibility.”
Hilda scowled as she looked at him.. “Because I shirked my work during war councils and did nothing to help you hold the Alliance together those last months—”
“You complained the entire time.”
“But I did it anyway! If I was willing to stand by your side then, why wouldn’t I be all right with being your queen?”
“I didn’t think…” His voice quavered, and he cleared his throat. “I wasn’t sure you thought I’d be worth the effort.”
The anger drained from Hilda’s expression. The sadness that replaced it was worse. Yet it was the love in her eyes that hurt the most.
“Oh, Claude.” She emerged from the pool and threw her arms around him. “I love you more than I can ever express. I’ll stand by your side, no matter what. Why can’t you believe that?”
He returned her embrace, heedless of how she soaked his clothes, and tried to blink away the burning in his eyes. “The way I was raised, I had to do everything on my own. It was supposed to make me strong. And I wanted you to want to become queen. On your own. Without me influencing you.”
“I would prefer to avoid work.” She stood on tiptoe and kissed him. “But you make me want to at least try.”
Claude buried his face against her wet skin. “So, you’re not mad?”
“Oh, I’m furious. You should have never kept it from me. But I’m not completely surprised. You’re not as subtle or as sneaky as you think.”
She was taking this better than expected, but he’d always underestimated her. His insides refused to unclench. Sharp, cold fingers gripped his heart at the thought of asking his next question, but he had to know.
“You are my heart, my life,” he whispered. “Will you stay with me? May I introduce you to my parents tomorrow?”
She kissed him again, more fiercely. “Yes. But only because you told me instead of making me find out on my own.”
They held each other for a long moment, lost in their embrace. When she finally released him, she took his doubts with her. He’d never loved her more.
“I don’t deserve you,” he said.
She shot him a grin over her shoulder as she returned to the pool. “I know. I’m sure a prince will have the resources to make it up to me, though. That’s the last of your secrets, right?”
Hilda would watch his back, but this time he was the one who needed to protect her. Almyra wasn’t a safe place for a Fódlan noble. Any association with him would only increase the danger she was in.
“Actually, there’s something else I need to tell you.”
Hilda sighed and leaned against the side of the pool. “That doesn’t sound good.”
“Now that we’re here, I agree with your brother that it’s safer for you to be a Goneril instead of my intended. We should act as if we’re only friends, at least until I know what’s going on with the rest of my family. Once I’m certain you’re not in danger, we can go back to the way things were.”
“There’s a reason I learned to sleep with a dagger under my pillow. I’d rather not expose you to that right away.”
Hilda raised an eyebrow, obviously skeptical, even though nothing he said was a lie. “Do you not recall seeing me fight?”
“I’m serious. I need to make sure we both live long enough to take the throne.”
Her expression sobered.
“All right,” she said with a sigh. “I’ll play whatever part you need me to play. I’m just disappointed we don’t get to share a room.”
“I promise I’ll make it up to you.”
“You’re getting pretty deep in debt with the ol’ favors.”
He took another breath. His nerves were fried. His entire body buzzed as if he’d just done battle. At least the outcome was the one he’d hoped for.
“One last thing,” he said.
“I’m going to need that bracelet back.”
Her eyes glinted. “I knew it was special.”
“It was my grandmother’s. If anyone sees you wearing it, they’ll know what you are to me. You’ll become even more of a target.”
Hilda slipped the bangle off with a frown, and she took off the fake wedding ring for good measure. Claude removed his own bracelet and ring and put them all in his pocket. He knelt by the edge of the pool and took her hand.
“I’m so sorry.” He kissed her knuckles. “This isn’t fair. I’ll assess the situation, and as soon as it’s safe, I’ll give these back to you and then some, if you’re still willing to be my queen.”
The impish smile she shot him warmed his heart, even though she couldn’t hide the flash of pain in her eyes. “You so owe me. When you ask me to marry you, you’d better give me a ring for every finger.”
“And ten rings every year thereafter on our anniversary. I swear it.”
“I’ll hold you to it.”
Their hands remained clasped as they gazed into each other’s eyes. The moment stretched, too long and too short all at once. He never wanted to leave her side, but he must.
“You really will be safer this way.” He kissed her one last time. “Good night. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“I’ll miss you.” Her exaggerated pout didn’t quite manage to mask her sadness. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Claude left. One of the soldiers who’d accompanied them on the trip from Goneril stood outside her door. Good—at least one person would look out for Hilda. He gave the man instructions and returned to his own quarters, mind churning.
His rooms were just the way he remembered them. Entering was like getting grabbed by the throat. All the old memories poured back, some happy, many not. Where Hilda had marveled at the rich silks and decorations, all Claude saw was a boy huddled in the center of the massive bed, aching with bruises and face streaked with hot, angry tears. He shoved the memory aside and instead thought of Hilda. How strange to have his past and present collide. He was not the same child who’d spent summers in this palace.
It was time to introduce his family to the man he had become.