Like she did every night, Sybil snuck inside without so much as greeting anyone. Unlike every night, Alton was missing from the piano. She looked about the room to see if there were signs that he had come home. A drink left behind or his coat, but there was nothing.
“... For a while I was worried about this crazy family forcing you into this, but you seem to actually like him.” Sybil turned around to see that Zynn was standing at the entrance of the room. “Kid went to bed without saying anything to anybody. He must’ve been tired…” He looked her over. She also looked tired. “You’re late, sis.”
“Being a noble is a pain,” she replied.
“I hear that.” He gestured to outside the room. “Come over to the next room. I made a cake for the first time today. Come be the newest victim in Zynn’s flavor journey.”
She followed him over to the tea and he took a seat first. Honestly, it was nice to see Zynn drop the butler act he had been putting on. Watching him be all proper and gentlemanly was… Weird. He poured the two of them a glass of wine each and sat back in his chair.
“I guess I can’t argue that this family is crazy…” Sybil took a seat and sniffed at the wine first. Duxton had attempted to give her lessons on wine, but she had always refused them. Being around these outlanders all the time was certainly troubling. “Are you happy here, Zynn?”
“You know me, sis. I’ve always had basic needs. All I wanted in life was the webs beneath my feet and a fine woman in the sheets. Then Zikor came along.” He downed his glass in one gulp and poured himself another as Sybil cut them each a slice of cake. “But dammit, I love that boy. It’d be the truth to say that I loved his mother too, but she had a good reason to leave. As long as Iofea sees fit to take care of us, I’m staying put.”
Sybil smiled. “That’s good to hear. I was so shocked to find out that you got yourself an actual job that I didn’t know what to make of it.” He pouted. “It’s true though! Zyris would always complain that you and Zaniyah were the reasons he needed to get honest work. Someone had to be out there to support the family.”
“Ah man, Zyris.” Zynn let out a long sigh. “I really did think if any two people had a chance at young love working out, it’d be you two… Don’t let that get you down though, Sy, I just as easily thought you two were going to break up. Your dreams were always big and he thought small and simple. I used to think that’s what made you two work. You brought him to the clouds and he brought you back down to earth. Wasn’t enough for either of you in the end.”
She did have a chance with Zyris when he offered to stay at Braytons to be with her, but… Zynn was right. In the end, no matter what, she would always push for danger. Danger isn’t what Zyris needed. “I fell out of one mess and into another.”
Zynn shrugged. “Iofea thinks Alton is willing to make you two work no matter how many times you say no. Even if you hate him, you have to admire that. She nearly fainted when he wrote and asked her to empty out his bank accounts so he could afford the dowry Lady El put on you.”
“... She what?” Sybil had almost taken a bite of preserved lemon cake, but the fork was left hovering in the air.
“Fainted from happiness,” he waved it off. “She never thought Alton would find a girl that would make him feel that way. Iofea was even happier after she met you and realized you weren’t manipulating him into it. You must be really good in the bedroom if that boy is still hounding you after all the poor treatment you put him through.”
Sybil took her bite of food and quickly washed it down with some wine. “We’ve never slept together,” she mumbled.
“Then you must give great head,” he replied. She glared. “Either way, if this master plan of yours is to be with him for the money, don’t bother. He hasn’t got any. The whole family is nearly broke at this point.”
“... What do you mean?”
“That idiot Duke isn’t putting in any support for the villages outside of Carapace. Tovals pulled their merchant connections and funded caravans in order to give them the supplies that the Duke wasn’t buying.
The reason that boy of yours is so worn out now is because he’s busy wining and dining with the rich folks in town. Sure his businesses need it, but all the money he makes from them and his music is going right back into helping out the eastern villages.”
The news was certainly shocking. When she first met Alton, it seemed like his family wouldn’t be any different from the other nobles. He was even stuck up on money, preferring to do side jobs for cash rather than spend any of his savings. Alton was always hounding Zaniyah for wasting money, so it seemed like he came from a family of copper pinchers, but they were all somehow good people.
“Are they going to be alright?”
“The father guy, Adrian, says that it might take a few years to recover, but they’ll be fine. As long as this doesn't happen again next year, they’ll be fine. It’s worth it if it means people out there aren’t dying out there because the Duke is a heartless bastard.”
They continued to eat and drink for a short while. Zynn wouldn’t shut up about Zikor. He was slowly but surely fitting into his role as a father. Zoe, the Krogastein mother, loved to come by and have long talks with Iofea while no one else was at home. Even with the core being forced to Outcore and the risk of tainted beast and miasma, everyone she knew was busy being happy.
Sybil soon went to excuse herself. Despite all their troubles, everyone had found ways to make their lives better. She was the one that was lagging behind and causing trouble for herself.
Not to mention that she was even more confused about Alton than she was before. First he forces her into marriage, then he claims to love her, and suddenly there’s the dowry. Alton spent years saving up that money. It was going to be his funds for when he moved to Fogbloom to join the royal guard. Why would he give up on all of that? Even if it was for her, it made no sense.
Sybil couldn’t take it anymore. Even if she was still protesting her marriage, she needed to talk to him. After she was done with her bath, she put on a robe and made her way up the stairs to where Alton’s room was. Knocking seemed pointless, as he probably was already asleep again. It was better to sneak in quietly and wake him.
But she didn’t make it that far. Instead, she got stuck in the instrument room, staring at everything that was hung up here. Zaniyah had told Sybil that, “he has a lot of instruments, no seriously, a lot,” and Alton said himself that he had a collection, but this was… This was borderline insanity.
Shaking her head, she spotted another door that she quickly stepped into. This seemed to be a more normal room, with simple decorations and a bed that Alton sleeping in. She closed the door behind her and sat down at the foot of his bed.
“I swear if I roll over and see that it’s you again, Chi, I am going to be mad,” grumbled Alton in a tired voice. “... And tell Zan to return my journals.”
“... It’s me,” she said quietly.
“Sybil?” Alton sat up with a start, staring at her with wide eyes. “What are you- No wait, if you’re here because you’re after my body again, forget it. Having sex with me isn’t going to lead to divorce. Don’t get strange ideas into your head. I won’t fall for your trap.”
She frowned at him. “... I needed to talk to you.”
He rested back down on the pillow and frowned back at her. “What is it?”
Sybil shrugged. “Why are you like this?”
“... Like what?”
“Why are you like… I don’t know, some sort of heroic prince or something? Why do you treat me like I’m something precious and always in need of rescuing?”
He still didn’t understand the question. “... Because I am a prince? A disowned prince, but still a prince. I thought we went over this.” Alton waved his hands about in a mystical manner. “Oh no. How dare I act out my basic nature? Why don’t I get mad at you for being violent all the time?”
Sybil sighed. “You lied to me about Duchess Elbellziara offering money to help you start those businesses. You spent all of your savings on them.”
“... You weren’t supposed to find out about that.” Alton rolled to his back and rested his arm across his eyes. He sighed heavily before speaking. “Yes. I emptied out almost all my savings. Aunt El wanted us to move to Fogbloom when we graduated, but she said she would change her mind if I could prove that I could adequately provide for you by then. I figured I would follow the Toval example and invest in people from the core. ”
“You lied to me. Again.”
“Because I didn’t want you to find out that I’m nearly bankrupt and make you feel guilty about it,” he muttered. “If Aunt El really gave me the money, I wouldn’t open three shops. I could’ve opened an entire shopping district with what she has lying around.”
She wasn’t upset at how he used the money, but... “You chose Carapace over Fogbloom? I thought… Everything you’ve done up to this point was because you wanted to return home.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’ve already decided that I’m going to stay here in Carapace. If the businesses succeed, they can pay off the loans I gave them with interest. I can then sell the shops to them and we can afford our own place, then use our titles to do whatever we please. Either that, or we live here miserably while Miss Iofea delights in demanding grandchildren at all hours of the day.”
“I don’t understand why you would… You’re going to have to explain this better. I don’t understand any of it.”
Alton lifted up his arm long enough to peek at her before putting it down again. “I wanted to join the royal guard so I could be with my birth parents again. Prince Wulfric is dead. Enzo hasn’t brought up my mother in his letters, so... I’m afraid to ask how she must have died... He and mother were close, and I don’t want him to suffer ill memories by asking.
I honestly want to know the truth, I do, but it would only be a matter of time before someone like Duxton or my grandfather sends an assassin after me. No one wants a disowned heir to the throne snooping around family secrets. Even though I knew that when I applied to Braytons, my death seemed like a small price to pay for finding out what happened.”
Silence lingered between the both of them for a moment. “... But then you pulled out Lydia’s rapier.”
“And I decided that if I was going to throw my life away anyways, I might as well do it for the sake of someone who was still alive... There. Happy?” He peeked at her again. She was frowning at him. “What is it now?”
Sybil shook her head. “Forget about the rapier. Forget about my mother’s final request. Do what makes you happy, Alton. Don’t… Don’t keep the both of us locked up simply because that’s what you think you’re supposed to do.”
Alton sat up. He stared at her wide-eyed before speaking. “That is not what I meant. You truly are what I want. I haven’t been the best at it, and I’ve done nothing but bring you misery, but I want to make things right. I want to find a way to make this work.”
“You know why. Don’t make me repeat myself.”
Sybil sniffled. She then began to rub her eyes with her arm. None of it made sense. Feeling so confused was making her tear up. Alton instinctively wrapped his arms around her. Grasping at his shirt, she continued to cry as she buried her face in his chest.
“Why wouldn’t you tell me what you were planning until it was all over?”
“You would have said no,” he whispered.
“I would have said yes! If you had sat me down and explained everything, I would have said yes, because I believe you when you say we can accomplish it together. My father isn’t working in some hole in the ground located in an even bigger hole in the ground. He has a chance to gain his life back and that alone makes this worth it.”
His arms tightened about her. “Even though I knew I was hurting you, I kept forcing myself to go forward. I wasn’t even sure if I would be able to get any of this done. I didn’t want to make promises I couldn’t keep.”
“I need you to promise me that I’m your equal partner from now on.” She pulled away from his shoulder and looked him in the eyes. “None of this treating me like a woman the way nobles do, or trying to protect me from things you think I’ll won’t understand. I have to be your equal if we are going to keep going.”
“... So you’ll stay with me?” He whispered.
“I don’t know, but I need you to promise me that we’re equal before I even think about going forward with thinking about it.”
“I will,” he quickly replied. “I’ll promise anything you desire.”
Alton buried his head against her shoulder and inhaled deeply. His fingers dug into the cloth on her back and into her hair. Her warmth, her scent, by the gods, he missed her so much.
“I love you,” he whispered in her ear.
“Alton, I…” She shivered as he let out a heated sigh against her neck. “Alton?”
He was already asleep again. Sybil eased him down on the bed and snuck back out of the room. She knew he would want her to stay, but she couldn’t bring herself to do so. Not until she knew she could trust him again.
In the end, she could take a lot of pain if it meant that the others were safe. It didn’t matter if Alton or Duxton were the ones hurting her. She was going to make herself strong enough to take it.