It was nearly time for dinner, and Claude had forgotten how many outfits a day in the life of Almyran royalty required. He wasn’t allowed to wear the same thing he’d worn to breakfast. Hilda would love the numerous outfit changes, of course. She would think up accessories for—
Claude shook himself. Old habits were hard to break.
He ran through the night’s agenda in his head. Meet the Nasir girl. Find her weaknesses. Find her parents’ weaknesses. Get their support while finding a way to weasel out of the marriage. Force his siblings to abdicate. Convince Hilda to forgive him and make her his queen.
Seemed easy enough for an evening’s work.
Maybe he was going about this all wrong. Maybe the time for schemes had passed. He should kidnap Hilda, elope, and run away to Brigid or Dagda or somewhere they could live their lives out in peace. They could travel the world until they decided to settle down and have children. Create a little out-of-the-way love nest somewhere.
And let Almyra and Fódlan descend into war. With Teach on Fódlan’s side, Almyra just might lose. Claude couldn’t let more people die just because he couldn’t get his shit together.
He pushed the thoughts out of his mind as the servants dressed him in a long, dark brown coat embroidered in gold and tied his usual sash around his waist. A head wrap in his family’s colors completed the look. He stroked his beard in the mirror, having cleaned up his whiskers a bit with a razor.
It was time. He took a deep breath and made his way to the feasting hall, nodding to the guards posted in front of the enormous, brass-studded doors. The room inside was equally massive, the white marble carved with more intricate shapes than the eye could comprehend. Lanterns hanging from the lattice-wood ceiling illuminated the space until it was almost as bright as day. Claude greeted people—they knew he was prince by his garb—as he made his way to the dais where his family sat on velvet cushions behind their low table. He bowed to his mother and father and took his seat next to Dafiya.
“You’re late,” his sister said.
“I prefer to call it knowing how to make an entrance. By the way, I hear it’s about time for you to start popping out royal offspring.”
“Papa give you the lecture, too?”
Dafiya snorted. “Just because the Nasirs control a large chunk of the army doesn’t mean you’ll have an edge on me.”
“No, I have an edge on you for other reasons.”
Dafiya glared at him. Claude smiled in return.
A bustling at the entrance attracted Claude’s attention. “General Nasir and his daughter Sabiha,” the door attendant called, “betrothed of Prince Khalid.”
The modest cut of Sabiha’s expensive clothing couldn’t hide her voluptuous figure. Jet-black hair coiled atop her head in myriad braids, held in place with jeweled combs. Her full lips were painted red, and thick lashes framed dark eyes.
The sight of her left Claude cold.
“Aren’t you the lucky one,” Dafiya said, sounding a little grumpy.
A grizzled old man in an ornate jacket led Sabiha over. They stopped in front of the king and queen and bowed deeply. “Your Majesties, may I present my daughter and express my gratitude and excitement over the joining of our families.”
Both Claude’s parents glanced his way. “The pleasure is ours,” Kadir said. “Please, be seated. Sabiha, why don’t you join your future husband?”
Claude plastered a smile on his face as Nasir escorted her over and helped her up to the dais. “Pleased to meet you,” Claude said.
“The honor is ours,” Nasir said, gaze sharp.
Claude maintained his smile. He was used to being scrutinized as people tried to figure out if he was more Almyran than Fódlish. Nadir bowed deeply and backed away.
“I’m am grateful to be here,” Sabiha said softly, eyes downcast.
She wasn’t wrong—the only time spouses were allowed at the high table was the engagement feast and the wedding feast, at least until they ascended the throne. Claude’s siblings’ spouses sat with the other honored guests.
“I hope you find me acceptable,” Claude said, still smiling.
She paused. Interesting.
“You are very handsome,” she said. “If not for your eyes, I would not have known you were a mixed breed.”
So, tact wasn’t her strong suit. Fantastic.
“Does my heritage bother you?” he asked.
“No, that’s not it.”
His eyebrows rose. “Then what is?”
She bit her lip and looked away. The gears inside Claude’s mind started whirring.
They came to an abrupt halt when the door attendant cried, “Lady Hilda Goneril, ambassador from Fódlan.”
Silence fell as the entire hall focused on Hilda. Claude’s breath caught in his throat as Hilda glided through the door. Raspberry silk fluttered from her shoulders and hips. The maids knew just how to dress her to accentuate her figure. Her hair was half-up, wound around her head in intricate braids, but the rest hung loose past her waist. Her pale, shapely legs flashed through slits in the skirt as she followed a servant to her seat, moving with such poise and grace her feet hardly seemed to touch the floor. For all her petite stature, she filled the room. Claude’s mouth went dry. He couldn’t tear his gaze away.
Was it his mother’s doing that Hilda was seated with his siblings’ spouses? Seeing her there, in her rightful place, sent pain lancing through his chest. He glanced at his parents and imagined what it would be like to sit there, Hilda by his side.
Hilda met his gaze. Her expression was friendly and open, but her eyes were empty. She wore more cosmetics than usual. When her gaze slid to Sabiha, her posture went rigid. Agony flashed over her face, so quickly he almost missed it. The urge to crawl over the table, jump off the dais, and pull her into his arms nearly overwhelmed him. Only when Sabiha plucked at his sleeve did he realize he was on his knees, hands planted on the table.
“Are you all right?” Sabiha asked, brow furrowed.
Great, now she probably thought he was crazy. Maybe that would work in his favor somehow.
“I’m fine, thank you,” he said. “I’m sorry for worrying you.”
Sabiha blushed prettily. “Not at all.”
Kadir clapped his hands, and dinner was served. The pheasant tagine with herbed couscous was divine—and not poisoned—but it sat like lead in Claude’s stomach. The eggplant and tomato salad with yoghurt was a little better. Hilda picked at her food.
“So.” Sabiha cleared her throat. “What do you like to do in your free time?”
He liked to lie in the grass with Hilda and find shapes in the clouds, like they did when they were students. Or run his hands over the muscles in her back and grip her supple waist. And laugh late into the night over court gossip, their heads together on the pillow. Claude’s eyes burned.
“I like to read and ride wyverns,” he said. “I’m also an accomplished archer. You?”
“I also like to ride, but horses. I’m afraid of heights.”
Perfect. Hilda’s squeals of joy when they were aloft echoed in his ears.
“I also like to embroider,” Sabiha said. “I’m not particularly good at archery—the quarter staff is my weapon of choice.”
Claude nodded, head filled with memories of Hilda.
He must have been staring at his beloved, for Sabiha nudged him again. “Look at that hair. I’ve never seen such a color. She’s so pale. Her eyes, too.”
That long, silky hair running through his fingers, its floral scent wafting up to him.
“There’s a wide variety of hair and eye colors in Fódlan,” he said. “Even so, her coloring is unusual.”
Sabiha put her finger to her cheek, apparently lost in thought. “Oh, that’s right. You lived in Fódlan for a time. You held rank there?”
“I did, but they no longer needed me, so I came home. I have a vision for Almyra.”
“Am I part of your vision?”
She sounded apprehensive, not excited. Damn it, he should have pressed the marriage issue with Hilda and eloped when they had the chance. Then none of this would have happened.
“You could be,” he said softly. “I swear to you, I will never make you do anything you don’t wish to.”
“You might not,” Sabiha muttered under her breath.
He raised an eyebrow.
“My father has certain expectations.” She gazed down at her meal.
“And you want something else?”
Sabiha looked away.
Claude suppressed a smile as patted her hand. “Let’s explore that later. We might be able to work together.”
Her blush deepened.
They made small talk through the rest of the courses, and finally it was time to dance. Almyra had a few courtly dances—certainly as nothing as stuffy as in Fódlan—and they’d get those out of the way before the brandy flowed and the party grew wilder. Claude led Sabiha to the dance floor, although his eyes were on Hilda.
Ice shot through his heart as Ehfaz made a beeline for Hilda, bowed, and took her hand. Claude took a step forward, accidentally tugging Sabiha. She yelped and stumbled. He caught her just in time.
“She really is very pretty once you get past the coloring,” Sabiha said.
Claude sighed. Was he that obvious? “That’s not it. She’s my friend, and she doesn’t understand the language. I want to make sure she’s all right.”
Ehfaz pulled Hilda onto the dance floor, but Claude could no longer spare his attention if he wasn’t going to make a fool of himself and embarrass the Nasirs. Sabiha was a good dancer, following his lead easily. She kept her eyes focused on his chin.
When the musicians began the next song, Bakur cut in and whisked Sabiha away. As a general, of course he’d want to curry favor with her family. Claude had never been so happy to see his eldest brother. Sabiha had barely stepped into Bakur’s arms before Claude shouldered his way through the crowd to Hilda. Her eyes widened when she saw him. The tiny step she took toward Ehfaz hurt more than any dagger wound ever had.
“May I have this dance?” Claude asked with a formal bow.
Hilda smiled, the expression strained. “Prince Ehfaz was trying to teach me the steps. I’m afraid I’m hopeless.”
“There is always hope.” Claude pulled Hilda into his arms and whisked her away. The smile Ehfaz shot him sent a shiver down his spine.
The chill was soon forgotten when Hilda pressed her palm to his. They rotated in a circle, hands and forearms touching, then whirled the other direction. He caught her waist and pulled her close. She must have brought her perfume with her from Fódlan, for she smelled the same as she always had. The scent ignited a flame deep inside him.
“I can fix this,” Claude said. “Please, give me a chance.”
Hilda shot him a flat look as she turned beneath his raised arm. “Which is more important to you? Me or the throne?”
“If I don’t become king, Fódlan’s war will end only for another to begin.”
“Ehfaz told me that’s not his plan if he were crowned. He said you were paranoid, that you couldn’t know what the sentiment here was after being gone so long.”
“You’ve known me for seven years. You really think any of that’s true?”
“I never thought you’d throw me over for a woman you’ve never met just so you could have a better shot at the crown.”
Claude clamped his hand on the curve of her back and pressed her the length of him. Their bodies molded together as if they had been made for each other. She gasped and put her hands flat on his chest.
“I beg you,” Claude murmured. “I can make this right. I have a plan—”
“No more schemes.” Hilda pushed away from him. “I gave you my heart, and you sacrificed it.”
Claude stood, numb, as she walked away from him. Ehfaz abandoned his partner and intercepted her. He bent his head and spoke to her, and Hilda put her hand on his arm. They walked toward the gardens. Claude’s hands balled into fists until they shook by his sides.
He turned. Sabiha stood, hands folded in front of her.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
Claude had a lifetime of practice wearing masks to hide the pain inside. His parents had told him to stand on his own two feet, to be strong without support, and so he would. He put on a smile and placed his hand on Sabiha’s lower back.
“I appreciate your concern,” he said. “Everything’s fine. Shall we have another dance?”
Sabiha nodded, and he took her in his arms and twirled her back into the fray.