Holst rode with Hilda to Fódlan’s Locket, where they spent the night. Her brother sat vigil by her bed as she fell into a fitful sleep. When she awoke, Claude was there instead. His torso rested on the bed, his collar unbuttoned. A lock of hair lay across his face. She resisted the urge to brush it away and tried to fall back asleep.
She didn’t remember much of the journey home, only that she was grateful to arrive. Her parents coddled her, and they even welcomed Claude into their home again, albeit a bit stiffly. Hilda spent a lot of time in the bath. She couldn’t seem to get clean.
Claude knocked on her door one evening, wearing Fódlan-style trousers and boots, his usual sash, and a plain white shirt open at the throat. He’d shaved so his beard was the same as it had been when they’d left Derdriu. He bore her dinner tray. A pink rose sat in a small vase next to a spiced fish pie, a salad, and a slice of cake. A green glass vial and a goblet of watered wine rounded out the tray’s contents.
“Hi,” he said softly as he set down the tray. “Do you mind if we talk?”
Hilda hadn’t done much talking in the two days since their return. “All right.”
He handed her the vial. “Here, drink this first.”
“What is it?”
“An antidote. You were poisoned, and if he used what I think he did, it doesn’t leave the system easily.”
“I know it’s hard to trust me.”
“You jumped off a wyvern for me.”
Claude shook his head. “I should have had your back the entire time, like you had mine. It’s just…no one’s ever chosen me. No one’s ever been in my corner. Even when the Riegans made me heir, it was because of my blood and nothing to do with who I am. I guess I didn’t believe I was important enough to warrant being chosen. I kept expecting you to change your mind, for it to be too much work.”
Hilda took the vial and swallowed the contents. It was even more bitter than a vulnerary, and she gagged. Even so, it called up a memory of better times, when she had pretended to be his wife.
“I should have warned you,” he said, “you’ll probably have to go to the bathroom a lot for a couple of days.”
He chuckled. “Sorry. For the side effects, not for helping you get better. Here, let me get some food into you.”
Claude cut up her meal and fed her. If he stole a few bites for himself, she didn’t mind. It was worth the price to be waited on hand and foot. When they were finished, a charged silence fell.
“These aren’t excuses.” Claude fiddled with the stitching on her blanket. “But I owe you an explanation and an apology.”
He took a deep breath. “You already know I was worried you wouldn’t want to be queen. I thought if you had time to think about it, you’d realize your mistake and leave me. Then, when Holst mentioned you’d be in danger in Almyra if you were attached to me, I feared for your safety. I wasn’t wrong—I foiled three assassination attempts and four poisonings for Sabiha, not that she ever realized. I thought I could use her as a decoy to keep you safe, take advantage of her father’s power to secure my position, and then weasel out of the marriage to be with you. It made sense at the time, but I obviously wasn’t thinking straight, and I didn’t take your feelings—or Sabiha’s, really—into account. I was a selfish, greedy bastard. I made things worse when I wanted to make things better. I hurt you, which is unforgivable. I’m so, so sorry.”
Claude rested his elbows on his knees and pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. A sob left him, then another. Hilda watched as he wept, tears rolling down her own face.
“The stupid thing is,” he said through his tears, “I thought I could still pull it off even after I hurt you. Then you walked in on me and her—and that was not what it looked like—and I realized what I had done. I saw you with Ehfaz, who’s always been my biggest rival, and I knew I’d put you in worse danger than I’d ever imagined. And yet you still tried to help me. I hurt you, and you still had my back. My parents are out of heirs now. I’m the only one left. I’m going to be king, and it’s thanks to you.”
“Now you can make your dream come true,” she murmured.
“No, I can’t. You were always part of my dream. I still love you. I still want to spend my life with you. I understand if you want me to leave and never return. But I’d like to try to mend things between us. The throne isn’t worth nearly as much without you to share it with me.”
Hilda took his hand. “I wish things had gone differently in Almyra, but I don’t regret going. I feel like I understand you better now. I’m still very upset, but I’ve never stopped loving you.”
“Does that mean you’re willing to try to patch things up?”
“I suppose it does.”
Claude pressed her hand to his lips and closed his eyes.
“But first,” she said, sliding out of bed, “I need to visit the privy. That stuff you gave me works fast.”
Claude took the dinner tray and left her in peace. He returned a little while later with a pot of tea and two cups. “You have to stay hydrated while the antidote cleans you out. I’ve asked the kitchen to make sure you get lots of nourishing broths.”
“Broths are so exciting.”
He snorted and poured her a cup of tea. She closed her eyes, inhaling the scent. It was rose petal blend, her favorite.
“I’m planning to stay until I’m sure the poison is out of your system,” he said, “but then I need to go back to Almyra. I’m sure things are a mess right now. With Sabiha as witness, I doubt my parents are calling for Holst’s head for killing my brother, but I’d like to go make sure. And I need to mourn him. Part of me wishes Ehfaz hadn’t had to die.”
Hilda nodded. The way her heart sank was indication enough that she wanted to try to make things work with Claude. “Will you ever come back?”
“Absolutely. As soon as I’m sure everything is squared away.”
“Hilda.” Claude took her hand and gazed into her eyes, expression earnest. “I can’t promise I’ll never have secrets, but I swear to all the gods I’ll never keep them from you.”
“You don’t have to tell me what you’re getting me for my birthday. Surprise parties are also acceptable. But if you ever keep anything else from me….”
He smiled, eyes moist. “I promise.”
Silence fell and lingered for a moment. Claude’s brow furrowed. “Is it okay if I give you a hug?”
A hug sounded really good. Hilda nodded. He gathered her into his arms, clutching her like a drowning man. She buried her nose in the spot where his neck met his shoulder. His familiar, comforting scent enveloped her.
Then she had to get up and use the privy again.
Three days later, Hilda was feeling better. Her chest hurt as she stood next to Pearl in the drive to say goodbye to Claude. Holst and her family had already said farewell and gone back inside.
Claude tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “I’ll be back soon. Two weeks, tops.”
“Promise. I’ll even bring back your things.”
Hilda nodded. “I think maybe now I want all those letters and gifts you kept giving me.”
“Hey.” Claude hooked his finger under her chin and tilted her face up to his. “I love you. I’ll come back.”
He kissed her, just the barest brush of lips, before he climbed up on Pearl. Hilda retreated to the entrance of the manor. Claude waved, blew her another kiss, and rose into the sky. She waved until she could no longer see the white speck of wyvern against the blue.
For the first time in a long time, a genuine smile spread across Hilda’s face.