Hilda remained in bed for three days. Servants brought her food and drink, but she consumed little. She couldn’t be bothered to bathe. Claude sent letters, poems, and flowers through her maids, but she ignored them all. A physician showed up, sent by Ehfaz. She prescribed Hilda some sedatives. Then at least Hilda was able to sleep.
On the fourth day, she decided not to let Claude influence her anymore. He might have been telling the truth when he said the situation wasn’t what it looked like—although lying mostly undressed on top of a naked woman generally only meant one thing—but he also might just be trying to ensure she stayed out of the way and out of trouble.
It was time for her to stop moping and take action. If trouble came, so be it.
When the invitation came to take breakfast with Ehfaz, as it had every day, she accepted. The maids dressed her in a gown of soft linen, did her hair, and left. Funny how she’d only been here a few days and it was already easier to be naked around her maids.
The soldier assigned to escort her led her to a small courtyard. Each corner of the rectangular space held a fountain that burbled into a miniature canal. Blossoms studded the low oleander hedges, and strips of other greenery adorned the space. A gazebo structure intricately carved from light stone sat in the center, and in the raised space, Ehfaz reclined on some cushions in a midnight-blue jacket.
His face lit up, and he rose as she neared. “Lady Goneril! I was beyond pleased when I heard you were well enough to join me this morning.”
“As am I.” Hilda lowered herself onto the indicated cushions. “Thank you for remembering me each day I was unwell.”
“I don’t see how anyone could forget you.”
Hilda giggled behind her hand. Oh, boy, that was laying it on a bit thick so early in the day. Not that she minded.
Ehfaz pushed a platter of little fried pastries her direction. “I hear in Fódlan, you prefer sweet breakfasts.”
“How thoughtful of you. These are very good.” And they were—the honey-soaked pastries tasted faintly of rose.
“Would you care for some melon? And we have pickled sardines.”
“Thank you. I enjoy fish.”
“I shall make a note.”
They ate and talked and laughed. It was all very comfortable and easy. Too easy. She’d already known he wanted something from her, but now it was obvious. That was fine. She wanted something, too.
After they were finished eating, she put her elbows on the table and leaned in. Her arms pushed her breasts together, deepening her cleavage. “What was it like, growing up a prince?”
“Surely Khalid told you.”
“I got the impression his experience wasn’t typical.”
Ehfaz chuckled and reclined on the cushions. “In Almyra, the succession isn’t based on birth order but on skill. What skills those are depends on the king or queen’s personal philosophies. As you might imagine, it tends to skew toward military prowess.”
“Makes sense.” She leaned forward a little more, looking up at him through her eyelashes.
He swallowed. “And, uh, my brother and sister act in accordance with those values. Bakur fancies himself the finest axe wielder in all of Almyra.”
“Oh, you use axes here, too? My brother favors the axe. As for me, I’d be all too happy to never see another axe as long as I live.”
Ehfaz covered her hand with his. “Was the war very difficult for you?”
“The hardest thing is watching friends die.” Hilda didn’t have to feign her sadness. Tears gathered in the corners of her eyes. “Years and years of death…I’d do anything to stop it, anything to prevent another one.”
“Hence your support of Khalid.”
Ehfaz sighed. “My brother and sister think he’s weak, you know. They think I’m weak. For not wanting war.”
“You certainly don’t look weak.” Hilda put a bit of purr into her voice and ran her finger down his forearm. Oh, goddess, was he blushing? Adorable. As the middle child, and a bookish one in a warrior culture, he likely didn’t get the attention he deserved.
A charged silence fell. Ehfaz’s gaze intensified, as if he were trying to read her mind. He was definitely evaluating her figure, especially once she fully reclined on the cushion and yawned. Almyrans had chairs—lots of them—but they appeared to prefer to lie around after eating. She loved it.
“Tell me about your brother and sister,” she said. “I’ve only spent a moment with them, and I suspect they’ll find me beneath their notice.”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Ambassador, remember? If one of the others becomes ruler, I need to be able to help my king get perspective, so he knows how best to reach out.”
Ehfaz made a sound deep in his chest but said nothing.
Hilda rolled onto her side and looked up at him. “May I ask you a favor?” Then she shook her head, eyes downcast. “No, I shouldn’t. You wouldn’t have time.”
“What is it?”
“Will you…will you teach me Almyran? Khalid never would.”
Hilda touched the back of Ehfaz’s hand as she spoke, so lightly his skin barely registered against her fingers. He smiled and took her hand.
“Typical, that he would want to control the situation by forcing you to go through him for translation.” Ehfaz shook his head. “I am honored by your interest and would be delighted to act as your tutor.”
Hilda squeezed his hand. “Thank you so much.”
Ehfaz helped her stand. Her ankle rolled on the cushions, and she fell against him. His arm went around her reflexively and held her steady. She looked up at him in surprise. His cheeks reddened.
A movement behind him caught her eye. Claude and his future bride were taking a stroll in the covered walkway just beyond the garden. He stopped when he saw her and Ehfaz, expression hardening. Hilda pressed her breasts against Ehfaz more firmly. His grip on her waist tightened, and his breathing grew a tad heavier.
“Oops,” Hilda murmured.
Ehfaz brushed her cheek with the backs of his fingers. “It’s all right. I’ve got you.”
Claude walked away so quickly his woman had to trot to keep up. Hilda smiled up at Ehfaz.
“You’re even prettier when your smile is real,” Ehfaz said.
Hilda’s cheeks heated, and he chuckled. Damn it, she was going to be careful around him. But in the end, she had no choice.
He pressed her knuckles to his mouth. Claude wasn’t around to watch, but Hilda stood on tiptoe and kissed Ehfaz’s cheek anyway.
“Be gentle with me,” she murmured. “I’m only used to Fódlan manners.”
With that, she walked away, leaving Ehfaz with surprise written all over his features. She smiled to herself as she went. What was it that Holst always used to say? Oh, yes, she remembered now.
Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.