Hilda had a difficult time sleeping. The mattress was comfortable and the sheets divine, but it wasn’t easy to fall asleep in a new place, especially without Claude by her side. Her emotional state didn’t help. As relieved as she was to finally know his secrets, his fear was palpable—and contagious. When a knock came at her door, she could have sworn she had just fallen asleep. Yet morning light shone through the intricately carved window screens.
The knocking started again. Hilda managed to sit up just as the door opened. Three women entered, bowed at the waist. Two of them sneaked glances at her, distaste writ plain on their faces. The oldest of them, a gray-haired, wrinkled woman, raised her head.
“Good morning,” Hilda said. “Can I help you?”
They stared at her blankly. Damn it, she really needed to learn Almyran. The older gestured to the younger ones. Only then did Hilda notice the silks in their arms. As the two hurried to lay out their burden, the old one beckoned Hilda from bed and gestured for her to remove her nightshirt.
“What?” Hilda said with a gasp, clutching the garment to her more tightly.
The old woman sighed and shook her head then pantomimed getting dressed.
Hilda disrobed, cheeks burning. The maids didn’t give her a second glance. The old woman gave rapid instructions to the other two, and soon the young women began to dress her.
While the two draped her in silks and ornaments, the old woman started in on her hair, clicking her tongue and shaking her head. Soon all three were engaged creating braids from her long, pink strands. They draped and coiled the braids around her head, fastening them with golden, jeweled clasps.
All three women smiled as they herded her over to a full-length mirror. Hilda wasn’t sure how to describe the gown she wore. The wine-dark and light pink silks complemented her coloring. The fabric fastened to a golden collar, covered the front of her breasts, and tied in the back before flowing behind her like a train. She wasn’t shy about showing cleavage, but even this seemed a bit much. A sash wrapped her midriff, accentuating her small waist, and the skirts were slit to halfway up her thigh. Delicate gold chains with dangling ornaments encircled her hips, matching the golden embroidery along the edges of the silk. Her elaborate hairstyle was almost like a crown, what with its ornaments. She looked like an exotic queen.
A queen. Her eyes widened in the mirror. Leave it to Claude to send a message.
The maids bowed and began to depart. Hilda stopped them with a hand. “Thank you.”
They looked at her blankly, so she gave them a little bow. The old woman bobbed her head with a tiny smile, and the other two followed suit. They left as suddenly as they had come, and Hilda was alone.
Time for some extra primping. Hilda never wore much makeup, and she had plenty of confidence, but she might as well put forth the extra effort to look her best. Her hands trembled as she applied her cosmetics. This was it. The moment when she’d finally meet Claude’s family.
She almost missed the knock at the door due to the thunder of her own heartbeat.
Her heart leapt at the sound of Claude’s voice. She hurried to the door. At least the silk slippers were easy to move in.
Claude stood on the other side when she flung open the door. He wore a long sleeveless tunic made of fine, creamy linen, secured at the waist by his usual green, black, and gold sash. Gold embroidery around the high, straight collar and the shoulders glinted in the light. His trousers—a slightly darker shade of linen—ballooned out before fastening at the ankle. They weren’t too dissimilar from what he’d worn as a student. Embroidered slippers with a slightly pointed toe finished the look. The only embellishments were a golden silk half-cape hanging from one shoulder and his earring. Her chest constricted at his beauty.
“You…you look amazing,” he said, but his expression and body language were distracted.
Something was wrong. “Thank you. You look very handsome.”
It was true. The cut of the tunic showed off the inverted V of his shoulders to waist. The trousers didn’t do much for his legs, but a girl couldn’t have everything.
“Thanks.” Claude’s voice, his eyes, his expression—all were utterly flat. “Shall we?”
Instead of offering her his arm, he walked a step ahead of her, leading the way. What was going on? Hilda’s stomach decided now would be a good time to crawl up her throat. She had to remember to take deep breaths as they left the room.
Other than the jingling of Hilda’s gold ornaments, they walked in silence. Every person they passed stared. Few of the looks were curious, and most were openly hostile. Claude kept his gaze straight ahead. Heat blossomed in Hilda’s cheeks. It felt like she was going to an execution. Maybe even her own.
“Did you sleep well?” she asked.
Claude stopped, his gaze boring into her. “An assassin came to my room last night. Obviously, they failed.”
Hilda covered her mouth with her hand. “Are you all right?”
“Listen to me.” Claude took her hand and resumed walking, his voice soft and urgent. “We don’t have much time, so I can’t afford to repeat myself. You mean the world to me, and I have to keep you safe. The situation is worse than I thought when we spoke last night. Even appearing as friends is dangerous. If you don’t have personal ties to me, the Goneril name will protect you. So as of right now, you’re an ambassador from Fódlan ready to start negotiating in anticipation of Dimitri’s victory. Between your perceived ties to Dimitri and your actual ties to your brother, no one should dare lay a hand on you.”
Hilda blinked. “But I can—”
“If they don’t kill you outright, they’ll use you against me. And it would work. This is why I never had friends before you.”
Hilda’s mouth moved, but nothing came out. No friends? And he’d said he couldn’t depend on his family to protect him. Her chest suddenly hurt.
Claude caught her gaze and held it. “We have to put some distance between us, do you understand? I hate it, but I’ll do whatever it takes to keep you safe. No matter what happens, I need you to trust me. I love you. That won’t change. You are my life. Remember that.”
They stopped in front of a set of doors inlaid with brass. The guards looked Claude up and down. He said something in Almyran, and they opened the doors and ushered them through.
The room before them was opulent but intimate. Three low tables stood in a U shape in the center of the room, surrounded by cushions. Plush rugs covered the polished marble floor, and painted tiles spread halfway up the wall to meet intricately carved stone. Elaborate wooden window screens and a pointed-archway door opened onto a lush garden. A fountain supported by carved wyverns stood in the middle, water burbling from is center. The scent of mint and verbena wafted into the room.
A woman with dark hair and jewel-green eyes that matched Claude’s stood from her place at one of the tables and rushed forward. “Khalid!”
She put her hands on his shoulders and looked up into his face, eyes sparkling, as she spoke to him in Almyran. His expression softened, and he pulled her into a hug. Hilda stood to one side, hands folded in front of her, trying her best to look empty headed. An older man, two younger men, and a young woman occupied the tables. The older man watched Claude, a small smile on his face, but the others stared at Hilda.
“And who’s this?” the older woman said in Fódlish, looking at Hilda.
Claude inclined his head toward Hilda, keeping his distance. “This is Hilda Valentine Goneril, ambassador from Fódlan.”
Hilda dropped into a curtsy, head bowed. Nothing about this situation boded well. Fortunately, she was an excellent actress. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Goneril? You any relation to Holst Goneril?” The older man raised an eyebrow. His accent when he spoke Fódlish was almost nonexistent.
Hilda held her curtsy. “He’s my elder brother, Your Majesty.”
“Fine manners from a Fódlan dog,” the older of the two young men grumbled under his breath.
“I heard that,” Claude said. “Don’t forget, you also insult the woman who raised you.”
Claude’s mother watched Hilda carefully, but Hilda kept her expression open and friendly.
Claude sighed. “Hilda, allow me to introduce you to my parents, King Kadir and Queen Tiana.”
Hilda bowed her head and curtseyed until her knees brushed the ground.
“And these are my esteemed siblings.” Claude’s voice had taken on its usual lazy cadence. “The big, burly one over there is Bakur. That’s Ehfaz, and that’s my sister Dafiya.”
“Charmed.” Hilda curtseyed again, not as deeply, and glanced at them through her eyelashes. All three siblings took a peek at her cleavage.
“Welcome, Hilda.” Claude’s mother took Hilda’s hands. Weapon calluses lined Tiana’s palms. “Please, make yourself at home.”
“I’m so sorry to keep you waiting,” Hilda said as Claude led her to a table and seated her next to him. She tried to catch his eye and failed.
“Not at all,” Kadir said as Tiana returned to his side. His eyes might not be the same color as Claude’s, but they held the same twinkle. “Children, continue to speak Fódlish in honor of our guest. I have to admit, I never expected a scion of one of our dearest enemies to visit our fair country.”
Hilda smiled. “My brother has the utmost respect for Almyrans and urged me to come see it for myself. As you may have heard, things are changing in Fódlan, and I hope my experience here may be of some use to the new king.”
“I’ve heard he hasn’t won yet,” Dafiya said, her accent thick. She was short and stocky, a spring about to uncoil, and she glared at Hilda as she spoke.
Claude shot her a lazy grin. “It’s just a matter of time.”
Ehfaz, the handsome middle brother, chuckled. Unlike the other men in the room, he wore his thick, wavy hair in a ponytail and was clean shaven. Wire-rimmed spectacles perched on his nose. “Is that why you discarded your Riegan inheritance so easily? Hardly behavior befitting someone of your lineage.”
“Ehfaz is the scholar of the family,” Claude said to Hilda, as if that explained everything. “But he doesn’t understand a thing about Fódlan.”
Ehfaz’s physique was as sculpted as anything Hilda had ever seen. Between him and Claude, it appeared Almyra liked its scholars as fit as warriors.
“I’d be happy to help you gain perspective,” Hilda said.
Claude shot her a look, and Ehfaz raised his eyebrow, gaze calculating.
“Behave yourselves, children,” Tiana said, her voice quiet but sharper than any knife. “We haven’t seen Khalid in years, and we have also a surprise guest.”
Claude’s siblings closed their mouths as one. A shiver ran down Hilda’s spine.
Kadir shook his head, the tassels of his head wrap swinging. “Don’t worry, Lady Goneril, they’re always like this. Never gotten along, if I’m honest.”
“Please, Your Majesty, call me Hilda.”
Kadir clapped his hands. Servants came through a small door set into one wall, carrying trays laden with food. One of the servants stumbled and recovered, but the food intended for Claude spilled all over the tray. The servant scurried away and returned while the rest of them waited. Only when Claude was served did they begin to eat.
Hilda took a bit of saffron rice sprinkled with almond slivers and raisins, but before she could lift it to her lips, Claude snatched it from her. The gesture was playful. The look in his eyes was not.
She reached for his food, but he blocked her. “It’s poisoned,” he whispered. “Mine, not yours.”
It took all Hilda’s discipline not to jerk in surprise. She watched, ice spreading through her chest, as Claude raised a bite to his lips and chewed. All his talk about danger had been in earnest, it appeared.
“Who?” she asked between her teeth.
“Anyone. And I’ll be fine. I’ve built up a tolerance. See why I need to keep you safe?”
Hilda glanced at his siblings. None of them were looking their way. If this was what Claude had put up with his whole life…. His strange proclivities at the academy suddenly made sense. She might still be a bit angry with him for keeping his identity secret, but that didn’t mean she was going to let anyone try to kill him.
Silence fell as everyone ate. Hilda plastered enjoyment on her face. It was partly true—although the flavors were strange, and some things tasted a bit sour, it was still good. She especially liked the stuffed leaf things filled with spiced meat, the mint yogurt to dip the leaf things in, and the chilled, fresh melon.
“You enjoy it?” Claude asked as they were wrapping up.
Hilda smiled, searching his face for any hint of a connection. “It was very good.” She hesitated. “How is yours sitting with you?”
“It’ll be fine.” A bit of his usual spark flickered in his gaze, but it went flat again when he returned his attention to his father.
Kadir and Talia shared a glance. Talia nodded and frowned as she looked away, mouth pursed.
“So, Khalid,” Kadir said, shifting in his seat. “We have news for you.”
Both Bakur and Dafiya snickered. Ehfaz caught Hilda’s gaze and held it.
Kadir cleared his throat. “The Nasir family has offered their daughter in marriage. I’ve decided that you, as my only unwed child, are the appropriate match.” He glanced at Hilda. “I’m afraid we’ve already finalized the agreement.”
Hilda stared at Claude, her spine stiff. A draining sensation spread through her, as if she’d been stabbed and was bleeding out. Her fingers and toes grew cold. She’d thought his royal lineage had been his big secret, but maybe this was it instead.
Claude went still. The expression on his face might have been carved from granite for all the warmth it held. The others couldn’t see, but his fists clenched on top of his thighs until they trembled. A minute passed. The silence stretched out. He glanced at Hilda, and line of his mouth hardened.
“I admit I’m surprised,” Claude finally said, “but since everything’s already been settled, I may as well accept the offer.”
The room spun around Hilda. Her chest grew so tight she couldn’t draw breath.
Kadir blinked. “Excellent. We’ll hold a feast tonight to celebrate your engagement and you can meet her.”
“As you wish,” Claude said.
Hilda’s stomach roiled. She was going to throw up. “Excuse me,” she said, “where’s your washroom?”
“Here, I’ll show you.” Claude offered her his hand and helped her stand.
“Weakling, can’t even take the food,” Bakur muttered as Hilda staggered to her feet.
“Bakur,” Talia snapped. Bakur shut his mouth.
Hilda focused on every posture exercise her mother had ever put her through as Claude escorted her from the room. She refused to crumble in front of Claude’s asshole siblings and royal parents. He led her down the corridor to a small room. When he opened the door, she pulled him in after her.
“What the fuck was that?” she snapped. “I thought you being a prince was the secret, but you’re also engaged?”
Claude held up his hand. “Trust me, I was just as surprised as you are. But this can work to our advantage—”
Hilda slapped him across the face so hard he staggered backward. “Shut your lying mouth. I thought you loved me.”
“So that’s why you’re marrying another woman?”
“I’m not! It’s only pretend—”
“Like you pretended to be my husband?”
“It’s not the same at all. Just listen. I’ll find a way to get out of it. What I care about is drawing attention away from you and keeping you safe. If she’s a target, you won’t be. It’s the perfect diversion.”
“Even if it’s just pretend, it’s going to kill me to watch you with someone else. Please, don’t do this.”
Claude’s expression hardened. “This is to keep you safe. To keep Fódlan’s safe. What do you think will happen between our countries if one of those three manages to kill me and becomes ruler? You think Fódlan is going to remain unthreatened, especially as it rebuilds?”
“Holst wouldn’t let—”
“Holst can’t do shit about it. Sure, he might hold Fódlan’s Locket, but Almyra’s navy is massive. He’s an excellent general, but no one can guard both coasts against us at once.”
“So now it’s ‘us,’ is it? You’re one of them?”
Hilda had never seen Claude truly angry before. His features twisted, his gaze sparking. “I’ve never been one of you, just like I’ve never been one of them. You don’t know what it’s like, with your loving family and your soft, pampered life.”
“I sure did feel soft and pampered when I was dying for you on that bridge.”
Claude reeled as if she’d struck him. Good. She hoped it hurt.
“I thought you were different,” he said softly. “I thought you didn’t care where I came from.”
“I thought you were different! I never thought you’d throw me over for some woman you’ve never met!”
Claude grabbed her arm. “I haven’t even been here twenty-four hours and they’ve already tried to murder me twice. The game has changed. This new woman will be the focus for people trying to hurt me, not you.”
“I can’t believe you’d put someone you don’t know in mortal danger like that.”
“She won’t be in danger, not like you. Her family name’s good enough they might not dare threaten her.”
Hilda tore her arm away. “I can protect myself.”
“You don’t know what these people are capable of. I do. Please, just trust me on this.”
“Trust you?” Hilda’s chest heaved as tears rolled down her face. “You really want to talk about trust? If you truly loved and trusted me, you would have told me everything a long time ago. But you can’t trust anyone, can you? Those people back there have warped you so badly that you can’t love or trust yourself, let alone anyone else.”
Claude reached for her, but she smacked his hand away and made for the basin. He blocked her path.
“You don’t understand,” he said between his teeth. “Your safety is the priority, but this could also be the chance I need to stand on equal footing with my siblings. If I can get them to give up their claims, I’ll become king when my father steps down. When I’m king, I can ensure peace, I can start to erase prejudice. The world will be a better place. That’s bigger than you or me, bigger than anyone. I’ll do it alone if I have to. I’ve come this far on my own.”
Hilda shoved him away. “Because Gronder would have been such as success if I hadn’t been there. Because you would have survived Derdriu without me. You’re not stupid. If I left here now, I’d bet you Freikugel the war will be over by the time I got home. Fódlan might be tired of fighting, but what better way to unite a fractured country than against a common enemy? The professor would listen if I came to him with troubling news of a threat to the east, and if I convince him, I convince Dimitri.”
“You wouldn’t,” Claude said softly, eyes wide.
“You are apparently a very poor judge of what I would or would not do.”
He laughed, the sound bitter. “You are one of the biggest miscalculations I’ve ever made.”
“It’s because you never trusted how much I love you.” Hilda wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands, but the tears came harder. “If, after Derdriu, you had said, ‘Hilda, I’m an Almyran prince who’s trying to become king. Will you be my queen?’ I would have said yes in a heartbeat. If I loved you enough to die for you, why wouldn’t I love you enough to spend my life with you?”
Claude stared at her, all the color gone from his face.
Hilda could barely see through her tears as she pushed him toward the door. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, the man I’ve been in love with for seven years is marrying someone else, and I really, really need to throw up.”
She shoved Claude back into the hallway, locked the door, bent over the basin, and vomited. Then she sank onto the cool marble tiles of the floor and wept until her heart was empty.