Hilda smiled and put down her cup of tea as she, Ehfaz, Dafiya, and Dafiya’s spouses sat around the low table, drinking tea and eating small confections made of almond paste. It had been two weeks since her victory against Bakur, and Ehfaz had been more helpful and attentive than ever. She only had to see Claude and his pretty bride-to-be at mealtimes. Her studies of the Almyran language had paid off enough for her to be able to speak to her maids, which had been just the breakthrough she’d needed. As much as she hated to study, in this case, it had been worth it.
“Congratulations on your pregnancy,” Hilda said. “You must be very excited.”
“Thank you,” Dafiya said then switched to Almyran. “Ehfaz, why did you have to bring her?”
Hilda took another sip of tea. She didn’t understand every word, but she was able to comprehend enough.
“You saw how strong she is,” Ehfaz said. “She’s a reliable bodyguard.”
He shot her an indulgent smile. The five of them made small talk for a while. Hilda did her best to follow but only answered when spoken to in her native tongue. Ehfaz was enjoying himself immensely, if his grins were any indication. And well he should—it had taken Hilda the better part of last week to find sources to corroborate the information she’d uncovered via her maids.
Still, a few things were odd. She’d been flirting with Ehfaz, but he’d only responded to a point. It wasn’t because he wasn’t attracted to her—the few times she’d sat in his lap, he’d quickly developed an erection. She was starting to worry he wouldn’t take the hint. Not that wanted to sleep with him—Claude was the only man she wanted, even now—but she needed Ehfaz to want her to be his queen.
Then there was the fact that Holst hadn’t written her the entire time she’d been in Almyra. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know where she was or who she was with. In fact, she suspected he had known more about Claude’s parentage than she had when they left house Goneril. She’d written him every third day. Strange that he wouldn’t respond or that there was nothing to report about the war.
Hilda took another sip of tea and examined Ehfaz over the rim of the delicate porcelain cup. His attention was fixed on Dafiya, who also drank. A bangle sparkled on her wrist. In fact, she wore two, as did both her spouses. Bakur had worn three, as had his wives. King Kadir and Queen Talia only wore one each. None of them wore wedding rings.
Despite herself, she missed her own bracelet, the one had Claude had given her. If only she’d known he was proposing without asking. It was so like him. If she had it to do all over again, she’d have eloped when she had the chance.
“I heard something interesting the other day,” Ehfaz said, a small smile on his face.
Hilda’s heart rate picked up speed. A bead of sweat worked its way down her spine.
“Oh?” Dafiya popped one of the almond confections in her mouth.
Dafiya rolled her eyes and swallowed. “Get to the point. You know I don’t tolerate teasing.”
“This is no tease.” Ehfaz’s smile widened. “I think Mother and Father would be very interested to learn that their new grandchild isn’t your husband’s.”
Hilda paused with her cup halfway to her mouth. They had agreed he’d wait until Dafiya’s spouses were out of the room before springing the news. The blackmail was only supposed to put pressure on Dafiya, not hurt her family.
“What?” her husband said, eyes wide.
“Don’t believe him.” Dafiya’s voice was confident, but her hands began to tremble, and the color drained from her face. “You know how Ehfaz likes to hurt people.”
Hilda had expected to hear that from Claude since they were half-siblings, but she was surprised to hear it from Dafiya. Ice spread slowly through her veins. Not even the tea warmed her.
“Is it true?” Dafiya’s husband looked between her and Ehfaz.
Ehfaz smiled again. “Why would I lie? But I can be convinced to keep it a secret.”
“And what’s your price?” Dafiya’s cup rattled against the table as she set it down.
Dafiya’s wife smacked the table with her hand. “You wouldn’t ask that if it weren’t true. Come on, my heart.”
Dafiya’s wife grabbed Dafiya’s husband’s hand, and they stormed from the room.
“How dare you,” Dafiya said between her teeth. “How dare you come in here and destroy my family.”
Hilda’s hands began to shake. She put down her cup and folded them in her lap. Oh, goddess.
Ehfaz’s smile didn’t fade. The bastard was actually enjoying this. “It can stop there, if you’re willing to work with me.”
“And if I’m not?”
“You know what the laws against infidelity are.”
Hilda didn’t, however. She examined Dafiya’s face as fear spread across it. It wasn’t good, then.
“What do you want?” Dafiya grated.
Ehfaz’s eyes glittered like a reptile’s. “Abdicate.”
“You piece of shit. You destroyed my family for the throne?”
Hilda’s eyes began to burn. What had she done? She hardly knew Dafiya and had nothing against her. And Claude was next on Ehfaz’s list.
“Unless you choose not to abdicate,” Ehfaz said to Dafiya. “Then I suppose I just did it for fun.”
A shiver ran down Hilda’s spine. She took another sip of her tea and pretended she didn’t understand what was going on. Dafiya needed to direct her hatred at Ehfaz. That was where it belonged, anyway.
The two siblings locked gazes. Dafiya’s hands flexed as if she wanted to reach across the table and strangle Ehfaz. Hilda would have been happy to let her, so long as she abdicated first.
“Fine,” Dafiya spat. “On one condition.”
Ehfaz arched an eyebrow. “You think you’re in a position to negotiate?”
“Tell my spouses it was a lie. Tell them you concocted the evidence and I gave in only to save our reputation.”
If Hilda thought her puppy dog eyes would work on Ehfaz, she would have turned them on him.
Fortunately, he appeared to relent. “So be it, as long as you tell our parents by the end of the day.”
Dafiya let out a long sigh, her shoulders slumping. “Agreed.”
“Excellent.” Ehfaz stood and clasped his hands together. “Hilda, my dear,” he said in Fódlish, “we’re done here.”
“Oh, of course.” Hilda stood and cocked her head, brow furrowed. “Dafiya, are you all right?”
“I’m fine. Just go,” Dafiya said.
Ehfaz chuckled and turned to leave. Hilda raised an eyebrow and mimed knifing Ehfaz in the back. Dafiya’s lips twitched in an almost-smile, but she shook her head. Hilda nodded and hurried after Ehfaz.
“I assume that went as expected?” Hilda asked as they strolled down the walkway adjacent to the gardens.
Ehfaz smiled. “Even better than expected, I’d say.”
Hilda was beginning to hate his smile. She should have listened to Claude. She shouldn’t have been so stubborn.
“That leaves only Khalid,” Ehfaz said. “Any ideas, since you’ve been so helpful with the others?”
As if she would ever let him get his hands on Claude.
“Come, now.” He ran his hand down her bare arm and laced his fingers with hers. “I know he hurt you somehow. This is your chance for revenge.”
Hilda swallowed. Time to tread very, very carefully. “I’m not sure just revenge is enough.”
“Oh?” He pulled her closer. “Then what about a crown?”
She ignored how wrong he felt pressed against her. “What are you saying?”
“Would you want to be my queen?”
It was a lie, pure and simple. Even if his smile didn’t give it away, logic did. He cared about as much for peace as she did for hard work. If he wanted war, having a queen from Fódlan would not be to his benefit.
A tremor ran through her, but she smiled up at him anyway. “I suppose I wouldn’t mind being queen.” And she wouldn’t—just not his.
“Think on it.” They resumed walking down the hall. Her hands grew clammy. There was nothing she could do about it.
“I think I’ll go rest and practice my alphabet,” she said, stretching and yawning. “See you at dinner?”
“Of course. In fact, I was thinking that we might dine alone tonight. I have something special planned.”
Ehfaz’s arms snaked out, wrapped around her waist, and pulled her close. She gasped as his lips mashed against hers, his hands sliding down to her ass. No, she couldn’t struggle. It would give the game away.
Fortunately, he let her go almost immediately. Hilda looked up at him, breathing hard to keep her gorge from rising. He seemed to think it was for another reason, for he smirked at her.
“Until tonight,” he said, and moved off down the hall without her.
Hilda stared after him until he turned a corner and was out of sight. This was it, the end of the game. She’d go to Ehfaz tonight because she had to see this through, but she wasn’t going to go without telling anyone where she was. The only problem was she was alone. Friendless. Well, not entirely, but the librarians and maids and other servants she’d befriended wouldn’t be able to help her now.
There was only one person who could.
She kept a tight rein on her imagination as she made her way to Claude’s quarters. Thank goodness she’d had her maids show her where it was. She might have stood in front of his door a few times in the middle of the night, when she couldn’t sleep. Maybe she was listening for the sounds of him making love with his bride-to-be. Maybe she was beyond relieved she’d never heard anything.
Soon Hilda stood before his door. It was unlikely he was there—it was the middle of the afternoon. Although, if he remained true to his habits, he might be napping after a long night in the library. She raised her hand to knock but pulled back before she could.
“Claude?” she said softly, tears filling her eyes. “Khalid?”
There was no answer, of course. She raised her hand again, hesitated, and pressed her ear against the wood. Voices came from within. Claude’s deeper tones mingled with a higher, lighter voice. It had to be his future wife. They laughed and fell quiet.
Hilda rested her forehead against the door. She couldn’t interrupt him, not if he was happy. His happiness was all she’d ever wanted. Tears filled her eyes and rolled down her face. Her fingers rested against the wood as she imagined him on the other side, lying in bed with that pretty young woman. If only Claude had loved Hilda enough to trust her. Hopefully, he wouldn’t make that mistake with his new wife.
A letter would do the trick. It wasn’t as immediate, but then she wouldn’t have to bother him. Hilda hurried back to her room, asked her maids for pen and paper, and wrote. Then she tore it up and tried again. By the time she had a good enough draft, it was time to meet Ehfaz for their private dinner.
Her maids dressed her in fine midnight silks, stitched in gold as always. This gown had a more modest cut. Thank goodness. Her assets had done their job, and it was time to give them a break. Her mind and her strength would get her through the next few hours. She had to protect Claude no matter the cost. Ehfaz would be a wily opponent.
On her way out, she grabbed the letter from her table and handed it to the eldest maid. “You will give to Prince Khalid, please?” she said in her broken, heavily accented Almyran.
The old woman bowed, the ornament Hilda had made for her sparkling in her gray hair. “Yes, my lady.”
“Thank you.” Hilda bowed her head and smiled.
Then she took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and made her way to Ehfaz’s quarters. The Almyrans appeared to do a lot of entertaining in their rooms. It had taken her a while to get used to it.
Ehfaz opened the door immediately at her knock. He wore a long coat of deep green embroidered in silver. It went well with his coloring. His face lit up when he saw her. He really was a handsome man. She glided past him into his quarters and reclined at the low table. Linhardt would have loved this aspect of the Almyran lifestyle. She wondered if he had made it through the war, if the war was even over yet.
“Thank you for coming,” Ehfaz said. The lock slid home with a click.
Hilda pretended not to notice. “Thank you for having me.”
The table was already laden with food and drink, including the sweet brandy Hilda found she preferred. Ehfaz sat across from her, the lamplight throwing shadows across his sculpted face. His glasses shone, obscuring his eyes. Funny, spectacles had always been so cute on Ignatz, but on Ehfaz, they held a bit of menace.
“Please, let us eat.” Ehfaz took a bite, and she followed suit. They ate in silence.
When they were finished, Ehfaz pulled a box out of his pocket. “I have something for you.”
He passed it across the table. Hilda opened it. Inside was a necklace of jet, rubies, and a large pink diamond set in delicate gold.
“It’s one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve ever seen,” she said, eyes wide.
“For one of the most beautiful women.” He smiled. “Thank you for your help. I couldn’t have realized my dream without you.”
Hilda’s return smile froze on her face. He’d used the past tense. But Claude hadn’t been taken care of yet, had he? Her gut clenched as Ehfaz fastened the necklace around her throat. The gems were cool against her skin.
“It has been my pleasure to help,” she said.
Ehfaz chuckled and poured her more brandy. “You know what? I actually believe you. And it has been fun, hasn’t it? You’ve helped me accomplish in weeks what otherwise might have taken me years.”
“Have you figured out how to deal with your half-brother, then?” Hilda took a sip of her brandy. Strange, he hadn’t touched his yet. Oh, no. She put down her glass as a cold sweat pricked her underarms.
“I have.” Ehfaz reclined on the cushions, fingers laced over his stomach. “I’ve tried to kill him so many times over the years. Poisoning, convenient accidents, outright assassination attempts…and he’s managed to escape each time. When he ran away to Fódlan, I thought I was finally rid of him.”
Ehfaz smiled and shook his head. “And then he came back. With you. It made me realize that before, Khalid had only ever had himself to protect. He could afford to be reckless when it was his own life on the line. But if he finally had friends, well, that was a liability. At first, I thought you’d be the one to target, but then you two had your falling out. I was ready to dismiss you, but then I saw the way you used your body as a tool, and I knew there was more to you than met the eye.”
“You’re very sharp,” Hilda said, proud that her voice remained steady.
He chuckled. “Such spirit, even now. I’m so happy to have met you, Hilda. These past few weeks have been some of the most rewarding of my life.”
Hilda wasn’t particularly pleased to hear that, but she smiled anyway.
“Even now, you hold such poise, such polish. Khalid was a fool to choose the Nasir woman over you.” Ehfaz sighed. “But he did, and now the poor girl will have to pay the price. She’s the one I’ll use, you see. I know he’ll try to rescue her. He might even value her life above his own. Once he makes that trade, I’ll be the only remaining heir.”
Hilda pressed her lips together to keep from screaming. She knew Claude—even if he knew it was a trap, he’d still try to save his bride. He possessed a dangerous combination of overconfidence and lack of self-worth.
“And me? What will you do with me now that we’ve had our fun?” she asked.
Ehfaz made a sound low in his throat. “You’ll see.”
Hilda waited. He said nothing more.
“See what?” she asked.
“Give it a minute.”
Hilda frowned as she studied his face. As the moments ticked by, her head grew light. She looked at the brandy.
“Clever as ever,” Ehfaz said. “You’ve figured it out. You really are something. You would have made an excellent queen if you weren’t from Fódlan.”
“What are you going to do with me?” Hilda asked. Her words grew slurred. Goddamn poisoned brandy. She slumped to the floor, tongue numb, unable to move.
“You, my dear,” Ehfaz said as she began to lose consciousness, “are going to help me start a war.”