“You looked as if you could use some air,” Ehfaz said as he escorted Hilda between lantern-lit walls of oleander.
Hilda shot a vapid smile up at him. She was pretty sure he saw through it, but it wouldn’t hurt to try. “Thank you so much. My head swims from the language. I really should learn it. Maybe then I wouldn’t be so overwhelmed.”
“It’s quite all right.” His fingers ran the length of her bare arm, lingering on her wrist.
She covered his hand with hers and squeezed. He was a few inches taller than Claude, and his hands were larger. The lantern light reflected off the lenses of his glasses, obscuring his eyes. She’d only spent a short time with him, and already she was convinced he was the one who’d tried to poison Claude at breakfast.
“Is this okay? Aren’t you married?” Hilda said with a bashful giggle.
“I haven’t seen the woman in years,” Ehfaz said with a slow smile. He had very nice teeth. “It was arranged, and we didn’t find each other agreeable. We’ve been keeping our options open.”
Hilda blinked up at him. “I don’t understand.”
“Oh, of course, you’re from Fódlan and wouldn’t know.” He patted her hand. “Here in Almyra, we can take multiple spouses so long as everyone agrees to the arrangement.”
“Is that so?”
“I would make sure she agreed to any arrangement I cared to make.”
His words sent a shudder through Hilda, but he didn’t seem to notice. Out of all of Claude’s siblings, it appeared she’d attracted the attention of the most dangerous. Strange—he was obviously smarter than the other two, but he seemed last in line.
“So why are you so interested in me?”
His gaze flicked down to her cleavage. She suppressed a sigh. If that was the reason, she was going to have to reconsider her opinion of him.
Ehfaz stopped and stood before her, blocking her way. His hands drifted down and rested on her waist, and she suddenly felt very small. He smelled like resin and smoke.
“As you might imagine,” he said, deep voice rumbling from within his chest, “life can be very dull here sometimes. You are exotic, new. I’ve never seen anyone quite like you.”
Hilda didn’t have to feign her blush.
Ehfaz pulled her a little closer. “I’ve always been curious about Fódlan. My stepmother rarely talks about it, and people here can be so prejudiced. I could learn about it firsthand from you.”
“I would be happy to enlighten you however I can.”
“Is that so?” A lazy smile crossed his face, and for a moment, he resembled Claude so much it hurt. He leaned in. “Then what’s your relationship to Khalid?”
Hilda forced a laugh. “Oh, we’re old friends. My brother made me promise to be his retainer. I think it was really so I could keep an eye on Khalid. You see, if he hadn’t shown up, my brother would have likely been the next leader of the Leicester Alliance.”
“How interesting.” Ehfaz brought her a little closer. “And that’s all? The way he looks at you, I thought it might be something more.”
Hilda swatted him lightly on the upper arm and swallowed her scream. “Silly. If he felt anything for me, would he marry that lovely girl your parents chose for him?”
Ehfaz inclined his head as if conceding the point. Hilda choked down the bile that had risen up the back of her throat. It was time for her to decide. Was she going to help Claude or go against him? If Ehfaz was so eager to put his other wife aside and was interested in Hilda, maybe she could still become queen. That’d show Claude. If she were the one on the Almyran throne, not him…well, that was about the best revenge she could imagine.
There was only one problem—even if she hated his guts right now, she still thought he’d make the best king and wanted to support his dream.
“I think,” she said slowly, as if it had just occurred to her, “he was hoping to use me to help gain the throne. I’m not sure how, exactly. Maybe my connections in Fódlan? He’s always spoken of wanting peace between our people.”
Ehfaz nodded. “My brother always was clever. But as I said before, he’s not the only one who wishes for peace.”
They resumed walking, and Ehfaz’s fingers laced with hers. It felt vaguely like cheating on Claude, which was both exciting and nauseating at the same time.
“Bakur and Dafiya are warriors made from the old mold,” Ehfaz said. “They live to fight and would be happy to lead the entire country into a senseless war. But I think there is a better way. You see, I value knowledge, yet how much is unavailable to me and to others due to ignorance?”
Hilda hummed as if contemplating his words. “And if someone were to help you realize your dream? How might they go about it?”
“So he has done something to you.” Ehfaz chuckled. “Out for a bit of revenge?”
Hilda shrugged. “I’m here to act in Fódlan’s best interests. Your half-brother ran the Alliance forces into the ground before he finally abdicated. I’m not sure having him on the Almyran throne is what would be best for my people. We need to deal with a competent, reasonable ruler who won’t act so recklessly.”
“So wise, and so beautiful.” Ehfaz stopped again, this time reaching under her hair and letting the strands run over the back of his hand as he pulled away. His breath caressed her ear as he leaned over and whispered, “Khalid doesn’t know what he’s missing. He’s a fool not to value you.”
“It would be nice if I could find someone who would.” Hilda looked up at him from beneath her eyelashes.
Ehfaz chuckled. When they resumed walking again, he put his hand on the small of her back. Its heat seeped through the thin fabric of her dress.
It was nothing like how Claude’s hand made her feel.
The scent of oleander filled the air as they walked the paths. Night insects chirped from within the shadowed depths. The moon’s light competed with the ornate lanterns. It was beautiful, and Ehfaz was surprisingly easy to be with. Perhaps it was because he was so similar to Claude, only where Claude was radiant, Ehfaz was dark. Hilda was in the mood for a little dark right about now.
They circled back to the feast hall, but Ehfaz hesitated.
“I’m tired,” Hilda said. “Would you mind escorting me to my room?”
Genuine relief crossed his face. Perhaps he didn’t enjoy raucous parties. In that way, he and Claude couldn’t be more different.
“It would be my pleasure,” he said.
The walk back to her quarters was uneventful. Only servants inhabited the hallways, since everyone else was at the feast. Ehfaz kissed her hand and bowed low as he bid her goodnight. She shut the door, listening to his footsteps as he walked away, and slid the latch home.
Hilda chewed on her thumbnail as she paced the bedchamber. The image of Claude dancing with that beautiful woman filled her head. It was all she could do not to crumple to the floor and start screaming.
Even so, after what she’d seen today, she was convinced that having Claude on the throne would be the best thing for Fódlan. She was sick to death of war. Claude might be a jerk, but he’d be the best king out of all his siblings. And, despite herself, she couldn’t bear to truly sabotage him. She’d sworn to always have his back, and when she made a promise, she made it for life. That’s why she tried to make as few of them as possible.
From what she’d gathered, Claude was the only one the siblings had tried to kill. Perhaps there was enough anti-Fódlan sentiment that such a thing could be easily blamed on a radical faction. It was just as well—she didn’t fancy killing anyone. Bad enough to have to murder on the battlefield. Assassination was much more personal, somehow.
It was settled. The bastard had broken her heart, but she wouldn’t abandon him. She believed in his dream, if not in him.
Hilda went to the window and gazed up at the night sky. It was time to channel Holst. How would he approach it? He’d get rid of the easiest one first while trying to get close to the most difficult. The latter she had covered—Ehfaz wanted to get closer, so that would buy her time and likely intel on the others. She could do it. This could work.
Now the big question. Should she tell Claude? He didn’t deserve the gesture.
But her chances of success would go up if she did, since he could provide valuable information. Now that she’d met his family, she could see where his deep distrust and sense of self-reliance came from. His parents obviously loved him, but they were just as obviously hands-off. All their children were products of that philosophy.
Hilda had never been so grateful for her own family. Really, when she thought about all her classmates, she was fortunate. Her family was strong yet stable. She didn’t fear her father like Caspar did or disdain him like Felix. She had an older brother who looked after her, and she had a friend like Balthus. No matter what happened with Claude, she had other people who loved her. She closed her eyes and hoped everyone was safe.
She waited until the distant sounds of music had quieted. Foot traffic in the hallway had increased for a while, but now it seemed scarce again. It was time. Strange to think they’d broken up just that morning. It would be difficult not to punch him in his stupid face. She just had to remember she was doing this for Fódlan.
Hilda opened her door and flagged down a servant. “Al’Amir Khalid?” she asked. After a few more minutes of pantomiming, Hilda managed to make herself understood.
“Hold on, Claude,” she murmured to herself. “I’m on my way.”