Claude returned from the wyvern aerie and knocked on Sabiha’s door. Their plans were in place, and all that remained was for them to leave in the dead of night. Luliwa and another wyvern were being readied at that very moment.
No one answered the door. Claude frowned and knocked again. It was still too early for her to be dressing for dinner. Perhaps she was off making last-minute preparations.
Wait—she had mentioned making an appointment with Queen Tiana. The two women had spent little time together despite the fact Sabiha would presumably be marrying into the family. It was just as good an excuse as any for him to visit his mother. It had been a while since he’d seen her. She was just as hands-off as she’d always been.
When he arrived at his parents’ apartments, the guards let him in immediately. Claude found his mother seated at her writing table, reading glasses perched on the end of her nose as she peered down at a letter.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Hello to you, too.” She didn’t bother looking up. “But since you asked, I’ve just received two pieces of news.”
Claude flopped into the chair situated at an oblique angle to the desk. “And they are?”
“First, your sister has given up her claim to the throne. No explanation.”
A chill ran from the crown of Claude’s head to the soles of his feet.
“The other is troop movements have increased at Fódlan’s Locket.”
“That’s not particularly news,” Claude said. “Lord Holst often holds exercises there.”
His mother raised her eyebrow, and he shut his mouth.
She sighed. “That’s not the strange part. Someone has been ordering royal troops to gather on our side of the Locket. It wasn’t your father, nor was it Nader. It’s not something Bakur or Dafiya would do without alerting us.”
“Especially not if they were planning to abdicate.” Not that Claude thought their abdications were planned—not by them, at any rate.
“The only one of you children who hasn’t abdicated anything is Ehfaz. Anyway, scouts say Goneril’s forces are moving over to our side from the Locket, but they’re staying in the trees.”
Claude nodded. Holst was holding up his end of the bargain. “I wouldn’t worry about Lord Holst. As long as we have Hilda, he won’t try anything.”
“That was very clever of you, by the way.” His mother finally looked at him over the tops of her glasses. “Did she know she was a hostage?”
“She was never a hostage,” Claude said. “She was always free to do as she pleased.”
“After seeing her put Bakur in his place, I wish you’d planned to marry her. She was all your father could talk about for a week.”
Claude closed his eyes until the sting from her words faded. “Speaking of people I’m supposed to marry, have you seen Sabiha? She mentioned she was going to come visit you.”
“No, I haven’t seen her.” Tiana began to rifle through her papers.
Odd. Sabiha wasn’t exactly the adventurous type. There was no way she’d have set out on her own.
“All right, thanks anyhow. By the way, what are you going to do about those troops at the border?”
“Your father’s looking into the matter.”
Claude stood. That would have to be good enough. He’d put his trust in Holst like he should have in Hilda. The Gonerils would have it covered.
“Thanks, Mother. If you see Sabiha, tell her I’m looking for her.”
Tiana put down her papers, took off her glasses, and looked him in the eyes. “I’m glad you’re getting along with her. Neither your father nor I was certain an arranged marriage was right for you, especially since we fell in love on our own, but the Nasirs were so desperate. Honestly, I expected you to try to weasel out of it by now. I guess you really have grown up.”
“What would you have done if I was already madly in love with someone and wanted to marry them?”
“I would have questioned why you didn’t marry them. Why do you ask?”
Claude sighed. He’d asked himself that question every day since he’d broken up with Hilda. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter.”
“I just want you to be happy.”
“I know. I’ll see you at dinner, all right?”
“All right.” Tiana put her glasses back on and was engrossed in her papers before Claude had even reached the door.
Claude swore to himself as he made his way back to his room. Dafiya had abdicated, too? Shit. Ehfaz must have gotten to her somehow. At least he hadn’t killed her—that seemed more his style. Maybe that was Hilda’s doing, if they were actually in league. Considering how successful Ehfaz had been after so many years of trying, it seemed likely.
When he arrived at his chambers, he had two letters waiting for him. One was from Holst, agreeing to Claude’s plan to help get Sabiha and her lover out of Almyra. Holst also asked why he hadn’t received a wedding announcement or, in fact, any word from Hilda since they’d left. He complained about how all his numerous letters had gone unanswered, and that Claude had better bring her home when he brought Sabiha, otherwise Holst was going to invade. And oh, by the way, just a tiny detail, the war was over, and Dimitri had won.
Claude’s heart leapt at the news of the war only to sink again as the rest of the letter hit home. Hilda hadn’t written Holst? That seemed terribly unlike her. He pushed his misgivings away and looked at the next letter.
It was from Hilda. He blinked away the burning in his eyes as he gazed at her familiar handwriting. It had been so long since he’d spoken to her. The letter was like a meal for a starving man. He devoured it, but instead of feeling fuller with each word, he felt hollower. She outlined her plan to convince his siblings to abdicate and how Ehfaz had contributed, and that she had no idea how to get Ehfaz to abdicate. Ehfaz would be after Claude next, and that even though she suspected she was in danger, Claude was not to worry about her. Ehfaz likely planned to use Hilda against him, and she begged him not to come after her, no matter the cost. Hilda wanted him to live a long, happy life with his new wife, and she was glad they seemed to be so fond of each other. It ended with her telling him she was grateful for the time they’d spent together and that she would always protect him, no matter what. She would be sure he became king and turned his dream into reality even if it meant her life.
The paper rattled in Claude’s hands as he finished the letter. He scrubbed the tears from his eyes and took a deep breath. She still loved him. Her letter had said as much. He was not going to fuck things up a second time.
He rushed to her room. An older servant answered the door.
“Is Lady Goneril here?” he asked.
“Did you get the letter I delivered, Your Highness? Miss Hilda was most insistent I deliver it in person, but I did not want to wait. Please forgive my boldness.”
The servant spoke of Hilda like a close friend, not a master. Strange. Something sparkled in the woman’s hair, catching his eye.
“That’s a lovely ornament,” he said. “Where did you get it?”
The old woman’s cheeks turned pink. “The young miss made it for me. She made them for all her servants as well as the cleaning staff. A kind lady, that one.”
Claude swallowed the lump in his throat. Oh, Hilda. He’d wanted to build bridges between their cultures, and here she was, getting a head start on him.
“I take it she’s not in, then?”
“Oh!” The old woman covered her mouth with her hands, her eyes wide. “Forgive me, Your Highness. I got carried away. No, she isn’t here. She left for an early dinner with Prince Ehfaz.”
An icy fist grabbed Claude’s heart and squeezed. “How long ago would you say that was?”
“An hour, maybe?”
“Thank you,” he said, pulse thundering in his ears. “I appreciate you taking such good care of her.”
The old woman bowed deeply as Claude strode away. The moment he was out of sight, he broke into a run. Servants jumped out of his way as he barreled past. He stopped at his room just long enough to throw on his battle clothes, grab the small pack he’d prepared, and buckled on his sword and full quiver of arrows. Bow in hand, he sprinted to the aerie.
Luliwa was ready when Claude arrived. The wyvern master scowled as he held Luliwa’s halter. “Not good to fly so close to nightfall, and yet so many of you seem to insist.”
Claude stopped in the middle of mounting. “Oh? Who else has departed?”
“Prince Ehfaz. Had a couple ladies with him. One didn’t look so good, seemed kind of drunk.”
“The drunk one, what did she look like?”
“She was that foreign girl, the one with the pink hair.”
Claude gripped the saddle so hard his bones popped. “Send a message to my father immediately. Tell him to call off the troops at the Locket unless he’s ready for war with a united Fódlan.”
The wyvern master gaped at Claude as he vaulted into the saddle. “Do it now, man,” Claude snapped. “Lives are on the line.”
The man scrambled away. Claude took a moment to ensure everything was secure. Then he urged Luliwa forward and took off into the darkening sky.