As Claude had feared, things were a bit of a mess when he got back to Almyra.
“Where have you been?” his father snapped as Claude strolled into the audience chamber.
“Smoothing things over with Lord Goneril.”
“You didn’t try to stop him from killing your brother?”
“Holst claimed a blood price. You know what Ehfaz did. Besides, you always made each of us look out for ourselves. It’s not my fault he fell short.”
His father scowled as he put down the scroll. He appeared old, worn out, grief-stricken. The sunlight streaming in through the window and the yellow stone of the walls gave the chamber a warm atmosphere, but cold settled into Claude’s bones.
“You probably already guessed that the Nasirs broke off the engagement,” his father said with a sigh. “Your mother thought it was probably your doing. She said you had a woman on the side?”
“Sabiha helped. She didn’t want to marry me, either.”
“You could have just told me you didn’t want to marry her, you know, and you definitely should have told me you were giving them a loan.”
“I needed to have their backing in my bid for the throne. Although that’s not much of an issue anymore.”
“That’s right,” his father said. “Congratulations. You’re going to be the next king of Almyra. Don’t get too excited—I have a few more years left in me yet.”
Claude smiled and waited for the exultation to set in. It didn’t. Hilda was the reason he was heir. He wouldn’t be satisfied until they were married and took the throne together.
“So, who’s the lady?” his father asked.
His father dropped his pen and cursed as ink splattered across his papers.
“What?” Claude grinned, and this time it came from the heart. “You married for love. Hilda will make an incomparable queen. She already had half the palace eating out of her hand, and she didn’t even speak the language.”
“She just…she’s so unlike your mother. Although she did hand Bakur’s ass to him. That was quite a thing to watch.”
“No, she’s not like Mother. And I’m not like you.”
“True.” His father sighed again. “You were always my favorite, though. I’m glad you’re going to be king after me.”
Claude’s eyes burned as his hands curled into fists. Then why didn’t you help me? Why didn’t you protect me? That’s what people do when they love each other. It wouldn’t be the same with him and his children. He would treasure each and every one of them and be sure they knew it every day. Hilda had grown up spoiled rotten, and yet look what she’d accomplished. He’d have traded his family relationships for hers in a heartbeat, although maybe that was his soft Fódlan side talking.
“You bury him already?” Claude asked.
“Not yet. They just finished the embalming. Funeral is day after tomorrow.”
“I’ll see you there.”
Claude turned to go.
“Khalid?” His father smiled. “Welcome back.”
Claude waved and made his way to Hilda’s quarters. Her maids were there, pleased to hear she was safe. They turned over her belongings willingly. When they asked if she’d ever come to visit, he shot them his best cryptic smile.
Back at his rooms, he rifled through his possessions. Among them, he found the fake wedding ring he’d given her over two months ago. His fingers curled around it as he vowed she’d be wearing a real one soon enough. Finally, he located the bracelet she’d made for him. He’d never bothered to exchange bracelets with Sabiha—that should have been his parents’ first clue. Hilda’s bracelet was among his things, too. Good.
Two days later, he stood with his family in the death god’s temple. Ehfaz’s body lay in a stone sarcophagus on a golden stand before the altar. The priest droned on and on. Claude thought back to all the times Ehfaz had hurt him—or tried to hurt him—growing up. All of it paled in the face of the rage that flared when he thought about what Ehfaz had done to Hilda. If the man had played his cards right, he might have married her himself and taken everything Claude ever wanted. Thank the gods Ehfaz hadn’t been as clever as he thought he was.
His parents shed tears before the sarcophagus. They were the only ones. Claude shook his head. He hoped he’d have more true mourners when he passed.
“Here,” Claude said to Dafiya at the post-service memorial feast. He handed her a letter from Hilda, who had specifically asked him to deliver it to his sister and reinforce the message inside.
Dafiya scowled and snatched it out of his hand. “Come to rub my nose in your ascension?”
“Hardly. I fully plan to involve you once I’m king. You’re an outstanding commander. No, this note is from Lady Goneril.”
Dafiya’s eyebrows rose. She tore open the letter. Her eyes grew moist as she read, but she quickly blinked her tears away.
“Tell your spouses it was all a vicious lie by a vicious man,” Claude said. “Show them Hilda’s letter.”
“I lost the baby anyway,” Dafiya said softly, her expression broken. “I don’t think my husband can…. But my spouses are what matter.”
Claude put his arms around Dafiya and pulled her into a hug. “I’m sorry. You don’t need a baby to make you happy.”
“I know, you idiot.”
“If you ever need anything, I hope you’ll ask me.”
She pushed away and glared at him. “Why? After all I’ve done to you?”
“You’ve been an asshole to me my whole life, true.” Claude shrugged. “But you weren’t evil. And you know what? You’re still my sister. We’re adults now and should be able to put things behind us.”
“Easy for you to say, now that you’re going to be king.”
Claude smiled. “You’re not wrong. But that means your brother’s king. Might not be as good as being queen, for which you have our dear departed brother to thank, but it’s the next best thing.”
“We’ll see.” Dafiya sniffed, but her expression wasn’t as hostile as before. “Give Lady Goneril my regards.”
His mission accomplished, Claude continued to mingle. Bakur wasn’t going to be his friend until he could beat him in a fight. That nut was going to remain Hilda’s to crack, he supposed. Other than his parents, there was no one he truly cared to see.
The next day, his parents officially proclaimed him the crown prince. Nader attended that celebratory feast—with Judith, no less. It was good to catch up with her on the comings and goings of the former Alliance. She didn’t have much news on the former Golden Deer who weren’t nobles, but Lorenz sounded like he’d settled in fine, and young man named Linhardt had shown up at Margrave Edmund’s estate, looking for Marianne. Lysithea had been summoned to stay there shortly after. Claude wondered if Hilda had heard the news.
Once the festivities were over, Claude headed for the capital. It had been seven years since he’d last flown over the graceful spires and onion-shaped domes of Qalb. His rooms in the palace were just the way he remembered them. All his books, old toys, chemistry sets, magnifying lenses…it was as if he’d run away to the Alliance just moments ago.
He was no longer that boy. In the intervening years, he’d fought a war, made friends, fallen in love. He’d returned a crown prince. Everything he’d ever wanted was within his grasp.
Once Claude had rested, he called upon the Nasirs. Sabiha’s family lived in an expansive mansion on the northern side of the city. The door attendants led him inside and seated him in a grand room hung with draperies and stuffed with gold ornaments. If the general was hurting from a financial perspective, it certainly didn’t show. Claude glanced around. Perhaps he should reconsider the interest rate on the loan he’d extended the family.
Claude turned as Sabiha entered. She rushed across the room and threw her arms around him, almost knocking him over. Just as suddenly, she pushed away and blushed.
“I mean, Your Highness. Congratulations on becoming heir.”
Claude smiled and kissed her on the cheek. “We both know I had very little to do with that.”
“I don’t know. You foiled Ehfaz’s plan all by yourself and stopped a war before it started.”
It sounded more impressive when she put it like that, so he let himself bask in her praise.
“So, how are you?” he asked as she called for refreshments and bade him sit on a chair padded with silk cushions.
“Very well, thank you.” Her cheeks grew red, and she held up her wrist. A turquoise bangle glittered against her skin.
Claude grinned. “Congratulations. I take it your father had no objections to Esfir once she saved your life?”
Sabiha nodded. “We’re going to be very happy. He’s going to make her his heir, since she proved her valor and commanded her squad so well. She’s even going to get a promotion.”
He leaned back in his chair. That was a weight off his shoulders. At least something had worked out, even if his original plan had gone awry. “I’m glad to hear it.”
“How’s Lady Goneril?”
Claude thought a moment. “Healing.”
“She was so brave.” Sabiha’s eyes sparkled. “Did you know she tried to help me escape?”
“I didn’t, but I’m not surprised.” Claude’s heart clenched. Hilda hadn’t told him she’d tried to save Sabiha. Back then, she’d thought Claude intended to marry Sabiha. Hilda had her flaws—many of them—but he still didn’t deserve her.
“I think she will make an excellent queen,” Sabiha said with a soft smile.
Their conversation lapsed into the mundane after that, and Claude took his leave an hour later. A visit to the city’s finest bazaars was in order, which took up the rest of his afternoon. He spent the evening packing for his journey. Qalb was even farther from Fódlan’s Locket than Malzha was.
The flight to House Goneril took the expected time, but it felt much longer. Every beat of Claude’s heart was for Hilda. It had been so long since he’d held her that his body ached. When he finally landed in the manor’s drive, he was able to breathe at last.
Servants led Luliwa away as Claude was escorted inside to the sitting room. He paced as he waited. His heart jumped in his chest when the door finally opened.
“You came back,” Hilda said.
It took all his discipline not to sweep her into his arms—the expression on her face was too fragile to risk it. “Staying away was the hard part. My business there is finished, for now.”
Quiet fell as they gazed at each other. Silences between them had never been awkward before their split. Would they ever be comfortable again?
“Tell me what to do to make this better,” he said softly, taking her hands. “Flowers, romantic dinners, extravagant gifts, poetry…I’ll even compose songs for you, if you like, but I warn you, I have terrible pitch.”
Hilda cocked her head, considering. “Tell me about your whole life. I want to know all of it.”
“Only if you tell me about yours.”
She looped her arm through his, and they went for a stroll in the garden until dinner. They ate alone in her room. It was agony not to push her down on the bed and kiss her, but he didn’t dare.
The next day was the same, and the day after that. They went for rides, for flights, even to a seedy tavern in the town to dance to raucous music. The entire time, they talked. He told her about how happy he was when Luliwa hatched, because he finally had a friend. Then she started to sleep on his head, which was cute at first but became less cute when she got bigger. He’d sneak out to the wyvern aerie sometimes and sleep with her, especially after one of his siblings had a go at him.
Hilda told him about her family’s expectations and the time Holst lost half his squad. She saw how it destroyed him—the good, kind brother who adored her—and she never wanted to feel like that. Better to have no one expect anything of her. But like her brother, she loved deeply, and she couldn’t abandon those who mattered to her.
Claude smiled. He’d experienced that firsthand.
At first, she only took his arm when they walked. Then they held hands. When they sat on benches, she began to lean her head on his shoulder. After a couple of weeks of each other’s company, as Claude bid her goodnight, he leaned in. Hilda didn’t pull away as he drew closer and tentatively brushed his mouth against hers. A tiny sigh left her, and he gently kissed her lips. Her arms wrapped around his neck. He kissed her again, hands on her hips.
“I love you every day,” he murmured. “I’ve never stopped.”
“I’ve never stopped loving you, either,” she said.
Claude was unable to sleep that night. It was time. He doubted delaying would change her answer.
The next evening, before dinner, they took another walk in the gardens. He’d shaved and done his hair just so. When they stopped at a bench beneath a willow tree, he put the lantern on the ground, waited until she sat, and then sank down on one knee. She inhaled sharply as he took her hand.
“Hilda, my life, my love, will you marry me?” He pulled a ring from his pocket. The emerald gleamed in a golden band, small black star gemstones on either side.
He frowned. “Hmm. That one won’t do? Perhaps you like this one better?”
He pulled out a second ring, a pink oval diamond surrounded by tiny rubies.
She stared at the rings. “Two?”
“Not enough? You drive a hard bargain, my lady.”
Claude pulled out a third ring. This one was a band set with gems in every color of the rainbow. “The one in the middle changes from red to green,” he said.
Hilda laughed as he produced six more rings and slid them onto her fingers. Only her wedding ring finger remained bare.
“Sorry, I needed my hands free.” He pulled out the bracelet he’d originally given to her. “I need to return this to you.”
Her eyes grew moist.
“No,” he said with a sigh. “You’re right. That one’s too big for a traditional Fódlan engagement ring. But don’t worry, I have just the thing.”
He took out the simple, gold-plated wedding band he’d first given her when they left Derdriu. He’d slipped his own on when he’d reached into his pocket. It glinted in the lantern light. “Hilda, will you run away with me and be my wife?”
Her eyes overflowed. She held out her hand, and he slid the band onto her finger. “Yes,” she said.
Hilda flung herself into his arms and buried her face against his neck. He closed his eyes, tears leaking out the corners. The gaping hole in his heart finally closed. He took a shuddering breath, inhaling the scent of her.
“I love you,” he said into her hair.
“I love you, Khalid,” she replied in Almyran.
Claude jerked back and stared at her.
A sly smile crossed her face. “What, you didn’t think I was going to learn your language?”
“I just…” His voice thickened, and he had to clear his throat. “Hearing you…”
Hilda shut him up with a kiss. He melted against her as her fingers tangled in his hair. His hands went to her waist and pulled her into his lap.
“When do you want to get married?” he asked, breathless, when they pulled apart.
“Can we go now?”
Claude stood, took her hand, and ran with her back into the house. They laughed as they raced up the stairs and threw together their bags. Hilda left a note on Holst’s pillow before they left the manor. Claude had Luliwa saddled in a matter of moments. He helped Hilda mount, climbed up after her, and kissed her again. Then they soared away into the night.