“Are you all right?” Sabiha asked Claude as they sat in his room, maps spread out all over his table. It felt like she asked him that every five minutes.
“I’m fine.” Claude rotated the map and peered at the mountain passes. It was no good. All but Fódlan’s Locket were impassable. The mountains of the Throat were high enough—and the range itself was wide enough—that wyvern soldiers would freeze to death before they reached the other side. Damn it, he was going to have to involve Holst in faking Sabiha’s death, after all.
Sabiha sighed as she leafed through her book. She was good, quiet company. Mild. Obedient. Not an incessant chatterbox. More modestly dressed. Never called him on his bullshit. Unlike Hilda in every way.
Gods, he missed Hilda.
“It doesn’t seem like you’re all right, ever since you spotted Lady Goneril.” Sabiha sat up straight. “Wait, do you think she’s going to marry Prince Ehfaz?”
Maybe Sabiha did call him on his bullshit after all.
“She’s too smart for that,” Claude said. “He has a heart of stone. Half of the attempts on my life when I was a child were arranged by him.”
Sabiha nodded. Of course, she understood—she was Almyran. Hilda had been horrified when he’d related some of his childhood experiences to her. As if that sort of thing didn’t happen in Fódlan with their Crest obsession. Miklan Gautier was an excellent example.
“My maids heard from Lady Goneril’s maids that she still won’t open your letters or gifts,” Sabiha said.
Claude’s jaw tightened. Damn it, if he could just talk to Hilda…but she acted like he didn’t exist. Not that he blamed her. “Thank you for helping me deliver them.”
“She must see that you’re trying.”
“By the way, how’s the situation with your father?” Claude asked. He couldn’t take her line of questioning anymore.
Sabiha sighed. “He’s pleased by how much time we’re spending together, but he’s disappointed I’m not pregnant.”
“He’s going to be waiting a very long time.”
Sabiha smiled. “Thank you for your help. You’re a good man.”
He hadn’t been a good man to Hilda.
Claude frowned down at the maps. Hilda far too sharp to get entangled with someone like Ehfaz. Unless she was the instigator? She certainly knew how to use her feminine wiles, and not even someone like Ehfaz was immune. But why would she get close to him, knowing the danger? Maybe she wanted to become queen any way she could. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d underestimated her.
“You’re doing it again,” Sabiha said softly.
Claude shook himself and stood up straight. “Sorry.”
“If you need someone to talk to, I’m here. It’s the least I can do.”
“I mean it. If you carry too many secrets around, they’ll crush you. Or they’ll backfire, like mine did.”
“Trust me, I know.”
Then the finance minister’s messenger showed up. Claude took the reports to pour over later. They’d help him figure out just how much he could pay Nasir once Sabiha was presumably dead. If he started discretely moving money now, he’d have a tidy sum squirreled away when the time came.
He spent the rest of the day trying to formulate a reason for Sabiha’s lover’s squad to approach the Locket without actually putting anyone in danger. Letting everyone in on it would increase the risk their plot would be discovered. Claude pondered until his head felt like it would explode. It was a mercy when they stopped for dinner. Or it would have been, if Hilda wasn’t sitting front and center at every group meal. Every time he saw her, he sustained a fresh wound to his heart. He liked to think he hid his feelings at least as well as she did. If she was hurting, it was almost impossible to tell.
A week passed, and Claude grew closer to finalizing his plans. He scratched his beard as he poured over letters from various military officials, confirming wyvern squad locations and the number of reserve soldiers near Fódlan’s Locket. Claude didn’t know the posted commander, so he’d need to investigate the man. Overall, the troop situation didn’t seem insurmountable. Good.
“You’re going to have to die in a wyvern fall, I’m afraid,” Claude said as he frowned at the letters.
Sabiha, lounging on his bed, looked up from her volume of poetry. “I really don’t like heights,”
“It would take too long to get there if we do the troop review on horseback.”
Claude chewed on his lip. Not that the troops would actually be reviewed, but it was a good excuse to get her near the border. It also dovetailed nicely with escorting Hilda to the safety of her brother, if she could be convinced to go. Once she was secure, he could try harder to patch things up before returning to deal with his siblings.
Sabiha returned to her book. “I heard something interesting this morning.”
“My guards were talking. Apparently, Prince Bakur is giving an arms demonstration. He’s welcoming challengers.”
Claude rolled his eyes.
“I guess he’s going to grant one request to anyone who can beat him.”
“No one can beat him. Trust me, I’ve fought him, I know.”
“I’m just telling you what I heard.”
Claude sighed. It stank of Ehfaz. He’d goaded Bakur into such things before, not that it was difficult to goad Bakur. Either way, it was of no interest to Claude. He had better things to do. Once he figured out how to get out of this marriage, he’d have time to figure out how to get his siblings to abdicate in his favor.
Sabiha stretched and rolled off the bed. “I think I’ll go watch.”
“You’re not coming?”
“I’ve seen Bakur fight.”
“Are you sure? Because I also heard he’s doing it to introduce a certain someone to the might of the Almyran warrior, partly because that certain someone’s brother is supposed to be even stronger, and the prince can’t bear to be inferior to someone from that country.”
Claude’s head snapped up.
Sabiha chuckled. “Have you decided to escort me after all?”
“Maybe. I’m certainly not making any headway here. When does this thing start?”
“About a quarter hour ago.”
Claude glanced at the window. The sun was much lower in the sky than he’d expected.
Sabiha shrugged. “I wasn’t interested in seeing the more amateur fighters get beaten.”
Claude rolled up the maps and stored them in their cases. The books he left on piles on his table and on the floor. He shrugged into an elaborately embroidered jacket and tied his sash.
“Shall we?” he asked, offering her his arm.
Sabiha smiled. They left his quarters, wound through the halls, and arrived at the training grounds. To his relief, they found a spot in the back. Claude half hid behind a pillar, where he could see the action without being spotted.
His family sat on a dais at one end. Bakur’s three wives, Dafiya and her spouses, and even his parents were there to watch the demonstration. Hilda was in attendance, too, sitting on the cushions next to Ehfaz. If she sat any closer, she’d be in his lap. All she had to do was lean back and she’d rest against his chest. Claude’s fingers tightened on the column.
Bakur stood in the center of the yard in training leathers. The head of his battle axe rested on the ground before him. He grinned at the crowd, teeth white against his dark beard.
“Next,” Bakur bellowed.
A woman shouldered her way through the crowd. Through some fluke of genetics, Bakur was a large man—he’d give Raphael a run for his money. The woman wasn’t much smaller. She hefted her lance.
Sabiha gasped as the two warriors clashed. Bakur’s gleaming axe sliced through the air. The woman warrior did well, but the round still only lasted a few minutes. She joined the other bloody participants on the bench as a physician checked her wounds. Judging by the number of wounded, Bakur had been at it for a while.
They watched as he worked his way through several participants. Then he took a break to rest, and servants brought wine, brandy, and appetizers. The hum of conversation filled the yard, but Claude couldn’t tear his attention from Hilda.
“So many people ignore you,” Sabiha said, looking around with wide eyes. “But you’re a prince.”
Claude shrugged. “I’m only half Almyran. You made a comment on my heritage when you first met me, too.”
“Did I?” Her cheeks reddened. “How awful.”
Claude’s heart lifted. This was how the world changed: exposure, one person at a time. Once the borders were opened, perhaps he could encourage tourism, or at least a scholar exchange or something. Begin the eradication of prejudice in the educational system. More people should be educated, too. If Cyril had a formal education, he likely wouldn’t have been stuck as the Goneril’s—and later Rhea’s—servant.
“They’re starting again,” Sabiha said.
Bakur turned in a circle in the center of the yard, arms outstretched. “Does no one else dare challenge me? Where is your Almyran pride?”
A commotion on the dais caught Claude’s attention. Ehfaz appeared to be cajoling Hilda, who was firmly refusing. Or that’s she wanted everyone to think—Claude recognized the signs. This was a ploy, or he was a wyvern wearing a party hat.
Hilda reluctantly descended the dais, looking for all the world like she was afraid. Claude’s heart constricted despite himself. It took all his discipline not to run out there and stop her.
“You?” Bakur guffawed, his laugher echoed by the rest of the audience.
“Come on,” Ehfaz drawled, eyebrow raised. “You gave everyone else a chance. Besides, her brother’s the one rumored to be better than you. Just look at her—are you afraid of such a precious little thing?”
Claude’s fist clenched. Ehfaz knew about Hilda’s strength. How could he know? Unless she told him. Unless…this was her idea. Claude’s eyes widened. Could she be working with Ehfaz? No. She wouldn’t.
Bakur’s face turned purple. “I am never afraid, especially of a Fódlan barbarian.”
“What did he say?” Hilda asked Ehfaz.
Ehfaz smiled fondly. “He called you a barbarian, my dear.”
“That’s what I thought.”
The crowd roared as Hilda made her way to the weapons rack. There were hoots and catcalls—Almyrans didn’t often hold back. It seemed to all roll off her as she took her time selecting a weapon, placing her fingers on each one but not taking them off the rack. She finally paused at a double-edged battle axe. It looked like it weighed as much as she did.
Hilda rested her hand against the handle but didn’t pick it up. “What do I get if I win?”
“Anything your heart desires,” Bakur answered in Fódlish.
“Do you promise?”
“What are they saying?” Sabiha asked, and Claude translated.
“I promise,” Bakur said with a grin.
Hilda smiled, the picture of soft innocence. A shiver ran down Claude’s spine. He knew that expression.
“I’ll hold you to it,” Hilda said sweetly and hefted the axe off the rack with one arm.
The training yard fell silent. Even Ehfaz appeared shocked. Claude glanced at his parents. Their mouths had dropped open.
All amusement slid from Bakur’s face. He raised his axe. Hilda followed suit.
They clashed with a ringing of metal, the sound so loud Claude winced. He hadn’t had the luxury of watching Hilda fight since their student days—he’d always been in battle right alongside her. It was different being an observer. Her speed, her grace, and her ferocity were all overwhelming. And yet she fought with a cheerful expression on her face, her petal-pink hair trailing from its ponytail like a banner. Every time Bakur struck, she parried. She sliced back, her swings effortless, and small cuts appeared on his leather armor.
Bakur shook himself. He drove her backward, each of his blows strong enough to take a warrior to their knees. Hilda held him off, but just barely. Claude gripped the column. She wore no armor, and Bakur had no mercy.
“Hilda,” Claude whispered between his teeth, sweat winding its way down the groove of his spine.
Bakur’s axe came crashing down. Claude winced, but Hilda spun away. Her weapon flashed, and Bakur staggered backward, blood trickling down his arm. Ehfaz howled with laughter.
It wasn’t a bad cut, but rage twisted Bakur’s face. Hilda was the first opponent to damage him. He redoubled his blows. Once again, Hilda was pushed backward. He got her in the corner, raised his axe, and brought it down. There was nowhere for her to run. Claude closed his eyes and tried not to vomit.
The crowd roared.
Claude cracked an eye open. Hilda had ducked under Bakur’s guard. She gripped the shaft of his axe, her arm trembling with the effort. Bakur stared at where she’d arrested his swing. Hilda bared her teeth and shoved him backward. He stumbled, and she used the handle of her axe to trip him. A thud echoed through the room as he smacked against the stone, and she leaped upon him, axe blade at his throat.
Hilda looked at Ehfaz and smiled innocently. “Does this mean I win?”
“What did she say?” hissed Sabiha, eyes wide.
Ehfaz’s grin was larger and more genuine than any Claude had ever seen. He vaulted off the dais and ran to Hilda. She discarded her weapon as he picked her up by the waist and spun her around, laughing all the while.
Bakur remained on the ground, stunned expression on his face. The moment Ehfaz put her down, Hilda went over to Bakur and offered him her hand. He stared at her. The noise of the crowd going wild kept Claude from hearing what she said, but Bakur actually let her help him up. They spoke, heads close together, and the color drained from Bakur’s face. Ehfaz added a comment. Bakur glared at Ehfaz, fists clenched so tightly they shook. Ehfaz smirked. Claude frowned as Bakur stood before the king and queen. He held his head high as he spoke. Shock rippled across his parents’ faces. They looked at each other, and finally Kadir nodded.
“What did he say?” Sabiha asked.
“I don’t know,” Claude replied. “It’s too loud to hear.”
Ehfaz wore a triumphant grin as he pulled Hilda into his arms and kissed her on the forehead. Claude started forward, but Sabiha put a hand on his arm. He clenched his teeth and backed down.
Moments, later, the message reached them: Prince Bakur had relinquished his right to the throne. Only three heirs remained. Claude found Hilda in the crowd. She was looking right at him. She wasn’t smiling.
Claude grabbed Sabiha by the arm and dragged her out of the training hall, through the corridors, and back to his room. Shit. Shit, shit, shit.
“What’s wrong?” Sabiha asked once he’d closed and locked the door.
Claude paced, running his hands through his hair. “They’re working together.”
“Hilda and Ehfaz. She’s going to help him win the throne.” He had played this all wrong, and it wasn’t going to bite only him in the ass. If he didn’t stop them, if Ehfaz became king, it would mean war between Fódlan and Almyra. Why didn’t Hilda see that? Why was she helping him?
Sabiha hummed, frowning. “Are you sure?”
“Of course, I’m sure. Why would you say that?”
“Because I’m certain she was looking at you the whole time, not him.”
Claude stared at her. Ohhhh, fuck. The possibility of Hilda and Ehfaz teaming up was bad enough, but Hilda was loyal to a fault. If she was planning to use Ehfaz to get rid of the competition and then double-cross him…. Ehfaz was likely thinking the same thing.
As good as Hilda was, she had a glaring weakness, one Ehfaz didn’t share: a good heart. She would never have Ehfaz killed. Ehfaz wouldn’t hesitate to murder her once she’d outlived her usefulness.
Claude unrolled his maps and tossed his jacket on the bed. He had to think of something and fast. Hilda’s life was at stake. If he’d ever wondered which he’d choose—Hilda or Almyra—he had his answer.
“Get over here,” he said to Sabiha, gesturing at the maps. “We’re running out of time.”