Claude leaned against the door, cheek throbbing. The thick wood behind him failed to silence Hilda’s retching and choking sobs. What had he done? Something deep inside him had shattered at the look on her face. She was a professional—her true feelings rarely showed. To see her in such a state was like having his intestines pulled out his throat.
There was no time for him to linger. His rotten siblings were likely already plotting against him. At least the engagement would draw attention away from Hilda and buy him some time to come up with a plan.
He flagged down a couple of guards. “The lady within isn’t feeling well,” Claude said. “When she emerges, take her back to the main guest suite so she may rest. She’d be terribly embarrassed if anyone knew she was ill, so I would consider it a favor to the crown if you kept this to yourselves.”
Claude pressed some gold into their hands, and the guards took up position outside the room. Hilda wouldn’t thank him, but the armed escort would keep her safe as well as ensure she was taken care of. He’d be sure to have someone fetch her in time for dinner. She likely wouldn’t appreciate it if he showed up himself.
Claude only made it a half dozen yards down the hall before his knees shook so violently he needed to lean against the wall. Thankfully, no one was about. Hot tears leaked from his eyes, followed by an ugly sob. Gods damn it all. He’d fucked up the one good thing in his whole shitty life. She didn’t care that his engagement was a sham. She’d never forgive him, nor would she understand that he had to become king. It would help so many people—if his own happiness was the price, so be it.
He only allowed himself a few minutes of weakness before he wiped his face and squared his shoulders. By the time he returned to his family, his tears had dried. His mother caught his eye as he entered. She must not have liked what she saw, for she frowned.
“Where’s your friend?” his father asked.
“She’s not feeling well.” Claude paused. What would Hilda want him to say? “She’s rather delicate, and I’m afraid the journey was harder on her than I realized.”
Dafiya snorted. “If she had any sense, she wouldn’t have even tried.”
Bakur chuckled, but Ehfaz appeared thoughtful. That was never a good sign. Claude hated dealing with Bakur and Dafiya—they were bullies—but Ehfaz was the one he actually feared, for all his brother’s mild mannerisms.
“Will she be joining us for dinner?” his father asked.
“I think she’ll have recovered by then.” Hilda would carry on despite a broken heart, just like Claude would. It was yet another way they were alike.
“Now Khalid is back, you have no excuse not to name an heir,” Bakur said.
Kadir sighed. “Already? He’s not even been here a day. You’re giving an old man a complex. It’s almost like you want me to step down.”
“No, Papa,” Dafiya said, rubbing the side of her shaved head. “We just want to have a plan in case something happens, that’s all.”
“Then you can figure it out amongst the four of you. Although, it would be nice to retire. Go on adventures like when I was younger.” Kadir took Talia’s hand, and they smiled at each other. It was a look of true love.
It was a look Claude had shared with Hilda. A tremor passed through him as a sharp pain stabbed his chest. When he glanced up, Ehfaz was watching him. Claude would have to be especially on his guard tonight.
Another thought seized him with a jolt. Without Hilda to watch his back, he was truly alone. Again. Her presence was still with him, like a phantom limb. No, he had to learn to let go, at least until he had a plan.
The conversation must have continued without him, for his mother’s voice shut down the others. “You can continue your bickering without me. I think I’ll take a stroll around the gardens with Khalid. When Lady Goneril is feeling better, I hope you’ll each take a turn showing her around. Remember, in Fódlan, they think us savages. Please do not prove her right.”
Claude stood and took her arm. His father winked at them, and Claude led his mother out into the courtyard. They wound their way past the fountain, through a gate, and into the garden proper. His mother kept glancing at him out of the corner of her eye.
“You’ve changed,” she finally said. “But not as much as I’d hoped.”
Claude winced. “I see you still don’t pull your punches.”
“What were you thinking, bringing that girl here, of all people?”
“Hilda has been a good retainer.” And see how I’ve repaid her devotion.
“You brought a Goneril to Almyra. A Goneril. You may try to make her out as a wilting flower—and I grant you, she appears fragile enough—but she had a warrior’s calluses on her hand. She’s no decorative noblewoman.”
Claude’s mind raced. Had anyone else shaken Hilda’s hand? No, just his mother.
“She’s the reason I’m standing here today.” Claude sighed. “She wanted to see the wider world. You know I’m all for that. I couldn’t not help her.”
“And when did you get married?”
Claude stopped dead, slippers crunching on the gravel.
His mother frowned up at him. “I see the line on your finger where you used to wear a ring. Unlike the others, I understand what it means.”
“We’re not married.” The words still hurt to say. And it turned out it was his own damn fault.
“Is she pregnant?”
“Is she? You’re a prince, Khalid. You can’t afford to be sloppy.”
“It’s not like that.”
“I’m your mother. You can’t lie to me.”
He could, and he had. He’d even been successful a time or two.
“I’m going to be marrying the Nasir girl, remember?” he said. “I appreciate you jockeying for such a powerful family for my match.”
His mother’s gaze crackled. There was a reason people feared her temper. “I saw the way you two looked at each other, although you tried to hide it. It’s stupid to get involved with a foreigner. Although I regret nothing, my life hasn’t been easy.”
“Hilda’s nothing like you,” Claude snapped.
His mother’s expression turned smug. “And there it is. You do care for her.”
“She was my best friend at the academy, all right? We have history.”
“Of all the people for you to befriend…you have a knack for chaos, my dove.”
She wasn’t wrong. He’d avoided Hilda at first because of her lineage despite his physical attraction. When it turned out she was as cunning as she was beautiful, he’d lost his mind. Just look where that had gotten him.
“That’s all behind me now.” His voice grew thick. “I still want to become king.”
“And you cocked that up by abdicating your position in Fódlan,” his father said behind them.
“Hi, Papa,” Claude said with a sigh.
Kadir clapped him on the shoulder. “Your brothers and sister had a field day when they heard. Why did you do such a thing? You were essentially a king.”
“A unified Fódlan is a better Fódlan.” Claude shook his head. “And the Alliance was too small for my dream.”
“Dream, huh? What about reality?”
Claude nodded. His father had never understood. Then again, his parents had always left him to look after himself. Hilda was the only one who—
No. He had to stop dwelling on her.
“I’m going to be your heir,” Claude said.
His father studied him. “Good luck getting your brothers and sister to abdicate. They’re secure in their power. Bakur’s wives have borne him a child apiece, and Dafiya expects to start trying with her husband soon. Ehfaz won’t touch his wife still, we made a poor match on that one.”
“If we’d known she was as dumb as a sack of rocks,” his mother said with a sigh. “Not much to look at, either. Mostly just rich.”
“Should have arranged it for Bakur, then,” Claude said.
His father shook his head. “Every single one of you would do Almyra proud if you became ruler, so I have no worries there. But you’re behind your brothers and sister. This Nasir girl is rumored to be a beauty, not to mention kind. Smart enough, but not too smart. I’m sure she’ll be an excellent mother to your children.”
Claude choked down the bile that rose in his throat. The thought of touching another woman made him ill. An image of Hilda, large with his child, flashed through his mind. It was so vivid his chest ached. Holding their baby in his arms was a dream he’d never see fulfilled. That child had been sacrificed for the good of Almyra even before its birth.
“I’ll be sure to give her many,” Claude said with a smile.
His father clapped him on the shoulder again and grinned. His grin faded, replaced by a frown. “Is your face all right? It looks red on one side.”
“Oh, that. Hilda almost passed out on our way to the washroom, and she accidentally grazed me when I caught her.”
“Hmm. Well, you’re looking a little rough. We can’t have that, not on the night you meet your new wife. Go back to your room and get some rest.”
His father squeezed his shoulder and sauntered back in the direction he’d come. Tiana took Claude’s arm, and they wandered in silence for a while longer. Claude loved his parents, he truly did, but he still felt alone when he was with them.
“I should be getting back or they’ll say I’m playing favorites,” his mother said, squeezing his arm. Her gaze searched his face. “Are you sure you’re all right with this arranged marriage?”
“I would do anything for Almyra, despite how little it’s done for me.”
“And both of those break my heart.” She patted his cheek and turned to follow her husband.
“Mine, too,” Claude murmured to himself. “Mine, too.”