“I’m sorry, girl, just a bit more,” Claude shouted to Luliwa as they sped toward Fódlan’s Locket. When he’d brought Hilda to Malzha, he had taken the established route, the one that took three days. The topography lent itself to currents and updrafts that helped wyverns on their way.
That route was also slower.
Claude flew west, parallel to the coast, before turning sharply north. It was more work for a wyvern, but it should cut almost a day off the trip. Most wyverns wouldn’t have been able to handle it. Most wyverns weren’t Luliwa.
There was no point in trying to chase Ehfaz. Almyra was too vast, and even along the usual route, there were too many variations and hiding places to have a hope of finding them. Besides, he knew where his half-brother was going, and he had a pretty good idea of what Ehfaz had planned. If Claude could beat him there—and convince Holst to help—he had a chance for things to go in his favor.
Fódlan’s Locket came into view at dusk on the second day. Luliwa’s ribs heaved beneath him, her wing strokes growing sluggish. “Just a little farther, sweetheart,” he said, patting her scales.
She perked up when she noticed the fortress. It was a place she recognized, since she’d been over it a few times. That was the good news. The bad news was it appeared Fódlan forces were already camped at the foot of the mountains. The Almyran camps were laid out in a way that suggested they were ready to fight.
Claude swore and gave Luliwa the signal to land. She protested, likely wanting to reach the aerie at the Locket, but he forced the issue. He landed a hundred yards from the Fódlan camp and hurried toward its perimeter.
A group of guards stopped him before he came close. Claude put up his hands—he’d left his weapons with Luliwa—and stood still. When the soldiers were near enough, he called out, “Claude von Riegan is here to visit your commanding officer.”
The guards exchanged a confused look, and one of them ran back into camp. Claude waited, gnawing on the inside of his cheek. Every moment spent waiting was a moment he wasn’t helping Hilda.
Holst burst from a tent, pushed past soldiers, and stormed toward Claude. Instead of speaking, he punched Claude in the face. Claude went down with a shout.
“Hello to you too, Holst,” Claude said after he was done moaning with pain.
Veins stood out against Holst’s forehead in the torchlight. “You bastard. Where the fuck is my sister?”
“Long story. The important thing is she’ll likely be here around midmorning tomorrow. I’m pretty sure my half-brother is going to try to sacrifice her to start a war. We need to make sure his plan fails.”
Holst glared at him. “How could you let this happen?”
“It’s…complicated.” Claude winced. Secrets had gotten him into this mess. It was time to tell the truth, to trust. “We sort of broke up when we got to Almyra. And my parents tried to marry me off to another woman.”
“What?” Holst roared.
Claude held up his hands. “Like I said, I’ll explain later, but for right now, the most important thing is saving Hilda.”
“Get your sorry ass in my tent, now. You.” Holst pointed at a soldier. “Bring us food and drink. Claude, you look like shit. How long have you been riding?”
“If I look like shit, it’s because you just punched me in the face.”
“It’s the least you deserve.”
Claude couldn’t argue with that.
Holst dismissed his officers once they arrived at his tent. Claude sat on a camp stool and gave Holst a quick summary of what had happened as a healer tended to his face. The refreshments arrived, and Claude stuffed himself while Holst fumed.
“And now my half-brother is going to try to use the noblewoman and your sister to get me killed and start a war between our countries,” Claude finished.
“Your parents condoned this?”
“If they did, there would be a lot more troops out there. Even so, your soldiers shouldn’t be this far into Almyra.”
“Then your brother shouldn’t have kidnapped my sister. My gut told me something was wrong when I got your letter but none from her.”
“Does King Dimitri know you’re ready to start a war?”
“I sent him a note.”
Claude sighed and shook his head. “That doesn’t matter now. I need to make a visit to the Almyrans. What I’d like from you and your soldiers is to focus on helping Hilda.”
“How do you even know she’s still alive?” Holst asked with a frown.
“Because my brother likes to make people suffer, and he’ll want you as angry and irrational as possible. Watching your sister die from falling off a wyvern would do the trick, don’t you think?”
Holst’s mouth flattened into a line.
Claude stood and put his hand on Holst’s shoulder. “I’m going to save her. But I might need you to save me.”
“Thanks.” Claude smiled. “Can I borrow a horse?”
Holst pinched the bridge of his nose. “Fine. We’ll take care of your wyvern. Just hurry.”
“Best brother ever. Way better than my biological ones.” Claude clapped him on the shoulder and hurried out of the tent.
Once Claude had his borrowed mount, he retrieved his sword and headed not for the main Almyran force but northward. Night had fully fallen by the time he reached the squad of soldiers hidden in the trees along the base of the mountains. The moment he arrived, the rustle of leaves reached his ears, and arrowheads glinted in the moonlight.
Claude held up his hands. “I’m here for Sergeant Esfir Jahin.”
Footsteps faded into the darkness, and a few minutes later, a tall, lean woman with her lustrous dark hair pulled up in a ponytail appeared. “I am she. Who are you, and why are you here?”
“I’m Khalid. I was supposed to have Sabiha with me, but something happened.”
The sergeant and her troops immediately sank to one knee, heads bowed and a fist pressed to the ground. “My prince. I apologize.”
“I’m afraid,” Claude said with a sigh, “that I’m the one who should apologize. I let things go sideways. But I have a plan. You’re a wyvern squad, right? Do you have a really big net? If not, I’ll get one for you.”
He outlined his plan, and once he was certain the sergeant understood, he rode for the main Almyran encampment. The captain confirmed that they’d marched on Ehfaz’s orders, who had acted with the king’s seal. Claude sighed. Seals were so easy to forge.
“Well, I’m here in person,” Claude said. “I’m taking command.”
The captain opened his mouth to object, but Claude held up his hand and drew his sword.
“We can do this the old-fashioned way,” Claude said. “Are you really going to fight me for it?”
The captain bowed his head.
Claude sheathed his weapon. “That’s what I thought. Tomorrow, likely around midmorning, we’ll see at least two wyverns arrive. I’m sending in a small squad to intercept. I’ll be up there, too. What I want you to do is take out the wyverns, support me and the squad, and capture Prince Ehfaz.”
“He kidnapped my bride, Captain.” Both the true and the false. “Not even a prince should be above the law.”
“And the Fódlan forces, sir?”
“Ehfaz has General Goneril’s sister. If your sister was in danger, wouldn’t you go after her? At any rate, I order you not to engage. I’ve spoken with General Goneril, and he will not be attacking our forces. His sole objective is to retrieve his sister. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
Claude conducted a review of the troops, taking the time to stop and exchange a few words with each of the soldiers. Soon every person in camp knew what Ehfaz had done. Many were offended, and none of them appreciated being tricked.
It was dawn by the time he returned Holst’s horse. He checked on Luliwa, who was resting peacefully, then ate breakfast with Holst and went over contingencies. A few hours later, all the preparations had been made. There was nothing left to do but wait. Claude stood next to Luliwa, hand on her flank, and watched the sky. Every second felt like a year. He wasn’t the praying type, but he sent a prayer to every god in Almyra—and one to Sothis—that things would work out.
Three dots appeared in the sky a few hours later. They were farther north than Claude had anticipated, angling for Fódlan’s Locket. Claude climbed up on Luliwa and took to the air.
The beating of Claude’s heart competed with the roar of the wind in his ears. Hilda was near, finally within his reach. Soon he would end this, lay his soul at her feet, and find out if a future together was still possible.
He hadn’t been expecting three wyverns, and it appeared there was a rider on each. A curse sprang from his lips as they split up. Hilda was on one, Sabiha on the other, and no way to know which was which. Wait—two were heading directly for the fortress, while the other one flew straight toward him. Luliwa was nothing if not recognizable. The other rider knew it was him, which meant they had something they thought he’d want.
They were wrong. “Sorry, Sabiha,” he said, turning Luliwa toward the Locket. Her powerful wingbeats propelled them forward, and they closed the distance quickly. As they drew near, it became apparent that the two riders were dressed identically.
Claude’s eyesight had always been excellent, and Hilda’s curves were difficult to hide even in a disguise. He readied his bow, aiming at the other wyvern. The hair on the back of his neck stood up, and he urged Luliwa into a roll. An arrow sliced the side of his skull. As she righted herself, he spotted another wyvern. Damn it all, two against one were bad odds when everyone had bows.
At least he caught sight of Jahin’s squad intercepting the lone wyvern out of the corner of his eye. Two of the squad went down—there must be a second rider with Sabiha. Six of the squad had the net stretched beneath the wyvern. Sabiha would be terrified, but she’d live.
He couldn’t say the same for him or Hilda.
Luliwa dodged the next few arrows. They drew nearer to the Locket—if they didn’t gain altitude soon, they’d smack right against the walls. The rider behind him must have possessed an enormous quiver, because the arrows kept raining down.
Claude swore and urged Luliwa into a climb. She soared into the sky. Claude drew his bow and aimed at Hilda’s captor. His arrow struck the soldier the same time the soldier fired on Hilda. The enemy’s corpse fell through the air as the wyvern peeled away. Because of Claude’s shot, the enemy’s arrow missed its mark, sinking into the flank of Hilda’s wyvern. Her beast roared and climbed higher. Its roll dislodged her from the saddle, and she went tumbling through the sky.
Her scream cut Claude in two. He shouted at Luliwa and urged her forward. No, this couldn’t be happening. He couldn’t lose her when he was this close. His boots slid a little on the saddle as he stood.
“Catch us,” he said to Luliwa and vaulted off the wyvern into the air.