Alton had a carriage already prepared and waiting for them at the entrance. He helped her step in first and followed in after her. His arm went about her waist, pulling her closer so that she could stay warm. As usual, he ignored Lydia as she floated over the bench across from them.
Nothing was prepared, they weren’t expecting him, but he wanted to get this out the way. Even if his voice was a painful wreck, he would smile through it. He wanted to show her the progress that he had made. It was important to Alton that Sybil see what he had put together for her. At least, before he risked making her angry again. He was definitely going to make her furious before the day ended.
They pulled into the market area and he helped her stepped down. Once more did they walk arm in arm. It was a market that Sybil had been down once or twice before with Lydia. Close to the core and the prices were reasonable. Alton slowed down and came to a stop in front of a bakery. He pointed at the empty shelves that were within.
“This is one of the shops that I told you I was going to be working on.” Alton smirked at her. “It’s a walk in shop. They’ll have food from the core but it will be actual food. Not the rats or the bats they serve at the entrance… Or the grubs you apparently eat. We had to make adjustments so that normal people would eat it too.”
Sybil looked up at him. “... Normal people?”
“Outerland folk. You and I know that they aren’t going to eat insects. They’ve worked out a menu using other staples, like mushrooms. They’ll also serve those jewel cookies that you guys are always making at the barracks.” He took a step forward, giving a gentle tug to ease her along. “I wanted the people at the surface to see what the core is actually like. People need to experience it for themselves if their views are going to change.”
“Thank you.” Her frown turned into a subtle smile. “What’s this one?”
Traffic noticeably slower as people passed by the shop’s window. There were long, spindly limbs stitching in the front display. A skirt was being woven and embroidered at the same time.
Sybil’s eyes immediately became glued to the scene. “A golem?”
Alton nodded. “The three stores we have planned have human workers, but the brunt of the work will be done by golems. All of the clothes you’ll be wearing during this trip are going to be supplied by this shop. They’re going to specialize in doing custom designs, and we even got a known designer to work with us.” He leaned in and whispered in her ear. “So make sure to mention them if anyone compliments your dresses. It’s good for business.”
She agreed to do so as they walked past the crowd and towards the third store. A metal plaque on the wall caught her attention. It had lines with strange symbols on them and the top said, “Sybil’s song.”
“What’s this?” Sybil ran her hand along the lines and studied them. She had seen sheet music when she made music boxes, but she never learned how to read them.
“It’s special,” replied Alton. “You know how when we’re alone and I hum that song you like?” She nodded. “That’s this. If these shops work out, I want people to know that you were the inspiration behind them. I want this song to live on even after we’re gone, so uhm…” He became embarrassed by his own intentions and fell silent.
Sybil grimaced at the idea. “You always do the sappiest things when you’re messing up at being romantic.” He winced at her words. “... This is cute though. I don’t mind it if it’s going to be something like this.”
Hearing that made him feel relieved. “Let me show you the last store.” He opened the door for her. “I think you’ll like this one best.”
Inside was a clock shop. The walls were lined with ornate clockwork, and there were display cases full of pocket watches and music boxes. Sybil always preferred working on golems but she did have an interest in this sort of work. She walked along the wall, looking at the pieces with admiration while Alton waited by the door.
“Is someone there? I swear I need to add an automatic locking system to that door. I’ll never understand the point of keys.” Stallis Twist exited the back of the shop and glanced up at the pair. “... Sybil?!” He looked her over and took off his glasses to clean them. “Sorry, miss,” he quickly blurted out, “I had mistaken you for someone else.”
“Father!” Sybil walked up and embraced the man. “It’s me. They just make me wear stupid clothes all of the time now. Other than that, Braytons is a wonderful place. I swear it is, but what are you doing here?”
A gasp escaped Lydia. “... Stallis,” she whispered under her breath. “Look at you… You look like you’ve aged twenty years since I’ve died.”
Stallis’ face broke out into a grin. “I should be asking you that.” Sybil gave him a stern look. “If you must know, I am the owner of this shop.” He took a moment to hug his daughter and to put on his glasses as soon as he let her go. “A man named Jory Toval approached me in Outcore and gave me a letter asking me to start up a clock shop.
I am also in charge of the construction and maintenance for the other shop golems. They even let me have apprentices here.” He held up a set of fingers to indicate how many he had. It felt like ages since he had an apprentice. Let alone two!
Alton slowly approached. “Jory is my older brother. He and father believe that there is hope for golem automation within Carapace, much like how blood iron caught on twenty years ago. Small steps though. There are a lot who are still hesitant, but we’re working on it.”
Stallis stared at him. “... You sound horrid.”
“Because he’s an idiot,” muttered Sybil.
“Then you must be Alton!” Stallis grasped onto Alton’s hand before he had a chance to offer it and shook it vigorously. “I have to thank you for setting all of this up. Sybil seems happy as well.” He looked to his daughter. “You are happy, right?”
“I am. Especially if you’re not going to be working on lousy golem maintenance in the core. You know how much I hated seeing you do that sort of work.”
Stallis sighed with relief. “I was so worried when I signed those contracts, but it really was for the best. I want you to know that I love you. Don’t think that I’m abandoning you by doing any of this... I will always be your father.”
“Abandoning me? Whatever do you mean?” Sybil was confused by the statement.
Alton inhaled sharply through his teeth. “Why don’t we lock up the shop and go out for dinner together?” He grinned at the two of them. “It'll give you two the chance to catch up.”
They moved to a nearby restaurant and Sybil and her father spent their time talking while Alton sat back and listened. As did Lydia, who couldn’t take her eyes off of Stallis. Sybil told him about her horse, even though she didn’t like him, and about the friends she had made. He talked about setting up the shop and how one of the apprentices he had hired was a classmate of Sybil’s at Dogfall.
After night had fallen, and the meal had long been finished, they walked back to the clock shop where Stallis disappeared in the back. He reappeared with a small box that he handed Alton. “This was the item that you had requested, Mister Toval.”
“Please call me Alton. Just Alton,” he said as he tucked the box into his jacket. “It’s been an honor meeting you in person, sir.”
Sybil gave her father a final hug. “I’ll visit you whenever I can.” She was so relieved that her father was doing well. Not to mention that he didn’t seem angry at her anymore for running off to join Braytons, which was a massive relief on its own.
“And I will look forward to it. I would ask you to stay longer, but we’ll have plenty of time to talk later. The two of you should rest while you can.”
Lydia floated there for a moment before turning to Alton. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to stay here until I fade away for the night. It’s uhm…” There was a look of overwhelming sadness on her face, and Alton understood what she meant. He gave her a nod to indicate it was okay before he turned away.
They said their goodbyes and returned to the carriage. Alton took a deep breath before he offered the box to Sybil. “This is yours.”
She opened it up and pulled out a pocket watch. It was decorated with hollyhock flowers and feathers. Pressing the button on the top, it opened up to reveal the watch itself. Parts of the back panel were removed and she could see the gears twisting about as the watch worked.
Reaching over, Alton closed the watch and flipped it over. He pressed a separate button on the top and the panel opened up to reveal a small music box. Two fish popped out of it, one white and the other blue, swirling around each other as though they were dancing. The tune that it played was the one that Alton always hummed.
“I get it,” Sybil smirked. “They’re fish because you’re a fish.”
“It was done as a joke. Don’t take it seriously,” he replied coldly.
“I love it.” She closed up the watch and looked over to him. “You… You really set all of this up? In such a short time?”
Alton nodded. “Jory did the bulk of it, and you better believe that he’s going to be expecting praise. All I did was write a few letters and put the right people together.” Perhaps a hundred or more over the past few weeks, but only a few. Really. “The shops were paid for by the money Aunt El donated, remember?
What I did was make sure the cash went to the right places. Jory did the rest. Plus, nothing else I was doing seemed to impress you at all. I figured I had to go big if I was actually going to win your heart.”
Sybil scoffed at him. “You can’t toss words of praise and money at a girl to make her love you, Alton Toval.” His face scrunched up at the statement. “... Well, that would work for most girls, right? I’m sure it would.”
“Not you, though?” He wasn’t surprised that it wouldn’t sway her feelings. She was an enigma to him.
“We’re in Carapace now,” she said softly.
“Yes... We are.” He nodded suspiciously at her statement.
Sybil looked down at the watch as she twisted it about her hands. “Since you said we should wait until we got to Carapace, do you think I should spend the tonight in your bed?”
Alton put his arm around her shoulder and leaned in to whisper in her ear. His voice was still sore, but the raspy quality to it was oddly seductive. “When we get back, wait for me in your room. I have one more surprise for you.”
The carriage pulled up to the house and he escorted her inside. There, they parted ways and Sybil went to her room. It was a simple guest space with a single painting of the ocean. There was a desk for her to write on, an armoire for her clothes, a small table for her to take tea, and not much else aside from the bed.
Among the furniture were boxes filled with her belongings from the core. Her father sought to remove everything he could out of paranoia before he left, and her belongings were safer here than they were in a tainted beast infested pit. Not to mention the thought of everything being soaked in the stench of miasma left her shuddering.
Choosing to sit on the edge of the bed, Sybil became nervous. Should she undress? Should she change into something else? Suddenly she was very aware of her own experiences and knowledge about sex. The only person she had ever been with before was Zyris, and she would never describe anything of what they did as adventurous.
Alton was most definitely a lot more experienced than her. They had done… It was best to say that he knew exactly what he was doing, while she only did whatever came to mind and had no idea if it was working. Yet he never complained. That might be a good sign... But what if he got bored? Why was she even thinking about this in the first place?
Sybil’s face was completely flushed by the time Alton entered her room. Her heart skipped a beat as he locked the door behind him. Underneath his arm was the box she had seen Enzo give him. He set this down on the table so he could open it. The papers were quickly glanced over and he selected a few documents to lay out for her.
“... We should uh…” Alton got distracted by how red her face was. He tensed up for a moment, looked between the papers, then to her, then to the papers again. “Uhm... I need to talk to you. It’s important.”
She didn’t know that sex had anything to do with paperwork, but she never tried to understand the habits of outlanders before. “Alright?”
“You’re going to be upset, but…” Alton winced and inhaled sharply before speaking again. “Remember when you got that bracelet?” She nodded. “The reason why you received it was partially because Duchess Elbellziara was made your legal guardian until you turn twenty.”
“What?!” Sybil’s eyes went wide as she felt a mix of shock and rage.
Alton slid a piece of paper to her. “There is the tradition in Fogbloom of signing over ownership of young girls to other families so that they may receive a proper education. Your father signed you over to Duchess Elbellziara so that you may officially receive the protection of the Violet Court.
There is Aunt El’s signature and here is your father’s to clarify that he withdraws any rights he has as your biological father.” Sybil didn’t look at the paper. She was glaring at him. “Now wait before you get even angrier, just a moment longer. This doesn’t change the plan I told you before.
As you work with Duxton, you’ll be introduced to the nobles of Carapace as his core advisor and Violet Court associate. No one expects you to move to the Violet Region when you graduate. You will return to Carapace and have the opportunity to choose to represent the Duchess within the city. That automatically grants you a position within the Crimson Court and you’ll have a say in the laws of this region. That includes any laws you wish to put forward that will unite the core and the outerland.”
“Ownership? Like I’m a possession? Was that even necessary? I like being a Twist. In fact, I love being a Twist! You better tell me that I get to stay being a Twist!” She exclaimed. He stared at her for a moment, then gave a shake of her head. “Why do I have to stop being a Twist?! I don’t want to be one of those pompous nobles! Give me back my name!”
Alton cringed. “... Well, there’s uh… There’s a lot more you’re, uhm, not going to like.” He looked around. Where were her daggers? Were they someplace she could get to them? That was an awfully large skirt she was wearing. They were probably under there.
“... What is it?” Her words weren’t said with rage. They were spoken in a cold, murderous tone.
“Being a noble can be annoying. Trust me. I know.” He laughed for a moment but cleared his throat at the sight of her increasing glare. “To be short with the explanation, uhm… Before, when I told you that Aunt El was working on folding me back into the family, remember how happy you were for me then?” She slowly nodded. “She promised me that I can get my name again, and I will have access to my father’s estates, but the one request she had was-”
“Are we engaged?!” Sybil put a hand to her temple, as her head had begun to hurt. “Are you seriously planning on marrying me in order to badger, er, weasel, no wait, fox your way back into your old family?” Her voice lowered so no one who may be outside the door would hear her. “Why would you do this?!”
Alton cleared his throat. “Let me remind you that you did agree to make a marriage contract with me. This isn’t anything new. It’s exactly what we agreed to before, but ever so slightly different.” He held up two fingers that were a small distance apart from one another. “Just a little bit different.”
“I can’t believe you would go ahead and agree to this!” Sybil closed her eyes and shook her head. “And not even telling me about it beforehand… The nerve of that woman!”
“Relax, Sybil. It’s fine. We’re not engaged,” he pulled up a chair and took a seat next to her. Alton then grabbed onto her hand and held it ever so gently.
Sybil let out a sigh. He expression immediately softened. “That’s a relief.”
“We’re technically already married.” Alton winced as she slapped his shoulder. “I-I said technically.” She hit him again. “Please stop that.”
“Explain,” she growled out. “How was any of that even arranged without my permission, let alone without my signature?” She lifted up her hand again, intending to strike him again if she didn’t like his answer.
Alton looked between her hand and her face. She had to lower it before he was willing to speak again. “The legal age of marriage in Fogbloom is eighteen. Since you are not of age, a legal guardian may sign away your hand.” He tapped at a different contract. “There is my and Aunt El’s signature confirming our marriage. Our technical marriage... We’re only technically married.”
“Why do you keep saying technically?” She stood up from her chair and began to pace back and forth. Sitting was just making her want to stab Alton. “This whole situation is infuriating!”
He spoke in a low voice, hoping she wouldn’t hear him clearly. “Marriage in Fogbloom is only considered legal once you turn eighteen and consummation has occurred. Which we haven’t done. I would stress that there were opportunities to do some of that since the contracts were finalized, but we haven’t consummated anything.” Alton winced as her eye ticked. “Please stop being mad. That look you’re giving me scares me. Please stop thinking about stabbing me.”
“That’s why you’ve been refusing me this whole time?!” He nodded. “You’ve been planning this for weeks without even telling me?!”
Alton stood up but stayed out of arm's reach of her. “I wanted to show you the shops first. I wanted you to see that this deal only seems terrible, but it really isn’t all that bad. It’s an example of what we can accomplish together.”
“I didn’t do any of that!” She gestured to the paperwork “Or that! The stores were your idea and your doing! I’m not involved in any of this!”
“And I was only able to get the permits to open those stores by using the Aconite name. With the threat of the miasma flood, aid from the other regions, and especially the name of Duchess Elbellziara, all of it carries a lot of weight. Using that name also enabled us, the Toval family, to set up charities that will support the core and the villages east of the mountains that are currently cut off from supplies.
Now that you’re in this with me, we can do so much more together. Everything you wanted, the dreams you’re carrying on for your mother, we can accomplish it all and even surpass them if that’s what you want.”
“Don’t you dare mention my mother,” she snarled out.
“But I need you, Sybil,” he replied. “We really can do this together.”
Sybil sat on the edge of her bed. “I... I-I just can’t believe that horrid woman. I know that Duchess Elbellziara means well, but why force this deal on the both of us? Why didn’t you protest to any of this?” She tightened her arms about herself.
“Because I’m the one who asked for this.” Alton’s jaw tensed up. His shoulders slumped, and he couldn’t bring himself to even look at her. “The day we recovered you, I wrote to Aunt El and laid out this plan. She graciously agreed, and I then arranged everything.
Your adoption and our marriage. The only thing she did was make it happen.” Sybil clasped her hand over her mouth, still not believing what he was saying. “I can give you a hundred excuses for my behavior, but what I did was wrong. I knew that from the beginning and yet I still made this choice for you. That’s all there is to it.”
Sybil couldn’t bear to look at him either. She bit on her bottom lip for a moment, hard enough to make the tears stop forming in her eyes. “I need you to take those papers and leave. Now, if you could kindly do so.” She grasped onto her chest in order to calm down herself down.
“Please don’t cry, Sybil. I can’t… I don’t like it when you cry,” replied Alton softly. “Please.”
“Please leave,” she repeated herself.
“... Sybil.” Alton glanced her way for a moment and then away again. He gathered up the paperwork and left without another word.
“That… Th-that idiot,” she whispered, unable to stop the tears at this point. They felt hot on her cheeks and stained her sleeves as she put her hands to her face. She didn’t know how she should feel at this point, but nothing would stop the never-ending cascade of tears from dripping down.