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Out of everything that had happened to her over the past summer, Sybil could feel that the next few days would be the worst of her life. Her nails had been scrubbed to a shine, only to be hidden beneath satin gloves, and her face was tugged at and painted. They had trimmed off the splits of her hair, curled it nearly to death, then tied a jeweled ribbon about her head to keep it out of her face.

Around her neck hung a string of opals and silver teardrops, along with the ring Alton had given her. It had been hanging on a leather cord, but she had been given a nice chain to put it on. Sybil kept it close out of habit since it was useful to have during duels. Grimhawk had become fond of having teams during his lessons, and she was often put with Alton since the complimented each others fighting styles well.

Sybil stuck the tip of her finger in it to see if he was still nearby. It annoyed her that he wore it like a regular ring, but he told her that he didn’t see a point in removing it. When she complained that it made them look like a couple, he said he’d keep it hidden underneath his gloves. It was like he made every excuse necessary in order to get his way.

“This way, Miss Twist.” The handmaiden gestured to the open door.

Sybil gave a nod and walked through first. The pulse coming from the ring quickened as she fiddled with it, and as she looked up to see Alton whispering her name. When their eyes made contact, he quickly looked off to the side, covering his mouth with a hand as he did so.

He was laughing at her. Not a sound was made by him, but she could tell that was exactly what he was doing. His face was turning red from how hard he was trying not to make any noise.

They had put her in a pale blue and champagne dress, which had a large skirt that somehow had more layers than the dress she wore earlier. The corset was tied even tighter, and her shoulders were left bare, with the short sleeves starting just above her elbows. Why was clothing like this necessary? How was she supposed to move, fight, or even breathe in this?

“Afternoon, gloomy.” Duxton held out an arm for her to take. “Duchess Elbellziara has asked us to escort you to her as soon as you were ready.”

“Right.” Sybil looked down at his arm and took a step back. There was something artificial about Duxton that she found unnerving. She didn’t want to touch him as a result.

“Twist is capable of walking on her own,” replied Alton in a cold voice. “She’s not a lady, she’s a squire.”

“Toval is right,” she agreed in a quiet voice. “I would prefer to walk with my arms free.”

Duxton clicked his tongue. “I wonder how Lady Till will react when she found out you refused the arm of a royal blooded nobleman.”

Alton immediately looped his arm with Sybil’s. “I doubt she would put up a fuss if I was the one to escort her.”

He started to quickly drag her down the hall. Sybil stumbled as she tried to keep up with his fast pace. The shoes, somehow worse than the ones she had on before, were doing her no favors. They continued on until they entered the room where Till and Elbellziara were waiting for them. As a group, they sat down together and were quickly served a glass of wine each.

The two older women did most of the talking. It was less a conversation and more of a ranting from one end of the table while Till was patiently nodded along. Elbellziara went on and on about events that were happening in Fogbloom until Till had to excuse herself to get her evening work done. Till had little patience for gossip, and it didn’t seem like Elbellziara liked her much either. Both let out a sigh of relief once the other was out of sight.

Basking in the taste of her wine for a moment, the Duchess then turned the tables on Sybil. She was asked all sorts of questions about her parents, her life in the core, and her general interests. There was not a fact about her life that she wanted to miss out on. Alton mildly paid attention while Lydia fumed behind him, and Duxton had long since checked out of the conversation. He spent most of his time staring at the sky outside the window.

For the most part, Elbellziara was amused by Sybil’s brief responses. When it came time for dinner, the maids came in and started to set the table. An array of silverware was put out, and the course after course of dainty dishes were brought in. Anytime Sybil couldn’t tell which fork or spoon she was supposed to use, she would glance at Alton who would tap at what was in front of him.

It was nightfall by the time the noblewoman released them. Duxton lingered to speak to her, but the other two chose to flee. Sybil stumbled across the courtyard with Alton walking next to her. Anytime she had taken a sip of wine, her cup was suddenly full again. Her world was spinning as a result. Alton had taken off his jacket and put it around her shoulders, and he kept an arm about her waist to support her.

Sybil kept glancing at his face instead of paying attention to the path ahead of her. Zaniyah was right about him being pretty when he kept his mouth shut. As long as he didn’t say anything or do anything to forward, she found herself having trouble keeping her heart from racing... Or that could be the alcohol talking. It was probably the alcohol. They stopped right before the door of their room, with him leaning towards her ear.

“Do you need help with your dress?”

There was an urge to hit him for being bold, but she couldn’t work the clasps in the back. Zaniyah would tear them and she also didn’t want to wake Chickadee up. “Yes, but please be gentle about it.”

Alton frowned. “We really shouldn’t be fooling around when we’ve been drinking.”

“... I didn’t mean it like that.”

“I know, but it’s fun to tease you.” He smirked at her glare.

Before he could open the door, she grasped onto his hand. “Wait, wait.” He paused at she tensed up. “... Okay. No, wait.” She quickly put her arms about his shoulders and pulled herself up. His hands went about her back so she wouldn’t fall over, and she took advantage of his kindness by stealing a kiss.

“You’re drunk,” he said as his lips brushing against her own.

“Mhm…” Her nose nudged against his. “You’re drunk too, my pretty, pretty fishie.”

“You’re not thinking straight right now.” He was mentally kicking himself. Moral high ground. Don’t take advantage of the drunk girl.

He opened the door and dragged her inside. They went past Sybil’s curtain as a pair, then she turned around so he could undo the many clasps that ran along her back. When he was done, she took in a large breath. It felt like an eternity had passed since was last able to breathe. Suddenly, her head was so much clearer than it had been moments ago.

“Thank you.” Sybil looked over her shoulder bashfully.

He looked away as a response. “Aunt El might end up bothering you until she decides to leave. Do you have any idea what she would want with you?”

“No... I thought you would have an idea? Maybe something to do with the prince, but he hasn’t done much to approach me.”

“I don’t know either... It makes me worried.” Alton ran his finger up the length of her bare back before he started to undo the opal necklace. He removed it and began to inspect it closely. It didn’t look as though it had any important meaning. The only thing of note was that it was worth a lot of money.

“Twist.”

“Toval.”

Alton frowned. He didn’t like it when she called him by his last name, but he understood why she did it. “Stay away from them.” She turned around so she could face him properly, tightly gripping onto the front of her dress so that it stayed in place.“The Aconite family. Stay away from them.”

“Why?” She tilted her head when he hesitated to speak. “What are you hiding?”

There was a lot that he was hiding. A lot that he didn’t feel comfortable with telling her. His voice lowered to a quiet whisper. “The reason why I wanted to join the royal guard is because I believe my father was assassinated. I don’t know what happened, and they claimed it was an accident. No, they claimed a criminal escaped into the palace and murdered him... I’m certain his death was arranged, possibly by someone within the family, and if they have an interest in you I-”

He stopped and stared at her confused face. All of the effort he had put in just to get to this point… All of those arrangements he had made to stay by Sybil’s side, and those little plots he had to get her to start looking his way… Yet now he was… What was he even doing anymore?

Somehow, something had gone horribly wrong.

Sybil raised up her hand and fiddled with the ring that was around her neck. “Are you alright? You’ve been nervous all day, and now it’s even worse.” She let go of the ring and placed her palm against his chest. “Your heart is racing.”

“Please stay away from them.”

Damn the wine. He wasn’t feeling right in the head because of it. The two stared at each at each other until he couldn’t take it anymore. His hand clasped onto hers, and he began to lean towards her.

“Uuugh.” Zaniyah’s groan came from her bed. “Hurry up and kiss her goodnight or something. Just shut up and go to sleep already.”

“I can’t even make out what they’re saying,” remarked Veximarl. “I was woken up when they knocked over that chair when they first entered. It’s possible that they’re drunk.”

“I don’t know what they’re saying either, but that skirt Sybil is wearing is loud. Anytime she moves, it goes whoosh whoosh rustle whoosh. You can’t hear it because your bed is on the other side of the room, but trust me. It is loud. I don’t even care what they do at this point, as long as that dress goes away.”

Alton’s jaw tensed up. “I’m attempting to have a private moment here,” he snarled out.

“I would hardly think a room with three other people is private,” remarked Veximarl.

“Three other people who are always watching, Alton,” replied Zaniyah. “Don’t you forget that. No matter where you go, there will be one of us watching while lying in wait. And if you mess up in the slightest bit, BAM! Axe to the head!”

What did he do now? Normally they weren’t so vocal about his affairs. Alton looked over to Sybil and saw that she had gone red in the face and was completely stiff. “I’m helping her out of her dress. I’ll go to bed when I’m done.”

“Use the bathroom,” replied Chickadee.

“I’m ignoring you all now!” Alton set the necklace onto her dresser. “Is there anything else you need, Twist?” He was talking louder so they could hear that his intentions were pure.

“I don’t believe so,” Sybil replied loudly. Alton gave a nod and turned away. “If Chi is awake, I think he can help me with the garter belt.” Alton immediately turned around and held up a finger. “I’m worried Zaniyah would tear if it if I asked her.”

“If you need help, I will do it. I am already here.” He leaned in as she whispered something unintelligible. “Chi is also a man. There isn’t a difference.” She muttered again. “I can’t hear you.”

Sybil raised her voice by just the tiniest bit. “It’s not fair if you’re the only one who gets to keep his clothes on...”

Alton yanked off his glove so he could slip off his ring as quickly as possible. No need for her to be worried about his elevated pulse again. “Goodnight, Twist.” He started to step backward. “You’re obviously not feeling well, so go ahead and sleep in tomorrow. I’ll handle your part of the stables.”

He continued to backstep until he was past the curtain. A tapping sound made him look up, and he saw Zaniyah peeking over the border of her bed. Her hand axe was the source of the sound, quietly being tapped against the frame. Now he knew he had done something to upset her, but still didn’t know what. Alton kept his eyes on her as he changed into his pajamas, then he had a brief and troubled sleep.

Waking up early, he tended to the horses quickly and left for the squad meeting. They gathered in the squad room where Veximarl was making his weekly changes to the schedule. He gestured for the two to sit with Chickadee and Zaniyah before he took his spot at the head of the table.

“Morning.” Veximarl frowned at Alton, who scrunched up his eyebrows in return. “We will be attending Lady Blu’s class shortly. Zani, I will need you to wear your combat uniform for this afternoon’s show. Lady Till has requested a demonstration of Chi’s weaponry. Chi is to wear his dress uniform and be prepared to answer any questions that the duchess has.”

Chickadee grimaced at the thought. Explaining how he worked was fine, but doing it in a manner where the average person could understand him was annoying. “Yes, sir.”

“Aye, sir.” Zaniyah gave an eager salute. She was worried she wouldn’t get any combat training in today, but now she was going to take full advantage of this new opportunity.

“Sybil, you will need to report to Lady Elbellziara after class. She stated she would take care of your outfit shortage today.” There was a visible look of disgust streaked across Sybil’s features. “Carry your letter with you. We found that they can be used to send messages within the area. If something comes up, send word to Chi or Zan.

This Satyrday, we’ve been invited as a squad to visit a Tilrey hotel by Lady Elbellziara. She said she will provide our clothing, and that there will be a celebration that night. Several knights and squires have also been invited, but I believe we are the only ones spending the night. Alton’s birthday is on Thirteenth Solsday, so we will be allowed to stay overnight so that we may have a squad celebration in the morning.”

“Or we can boycott it.” Alton leaned back in his chair and frowned.

Sybil raised a hand. “I also vote to boycott.”

“No!” Zaniyah stood up with a start. “We are absolutely going!”

Alton narrowed his eyes. “You’re only saying that because you want to spend the night with Vincent. Don’t use my misery for your own personal gain.”

“... N-no!” Zaniyah turned red at his accusation. “Vincent is a paladin! He’s pure, and, a-and… I am to! We haven’t even kissed yet, and that’s fine! Y-you’re the one that has something wrong with you!”

He pinched the bridge of his nose as he stood up. “I’ll see you in class.” Alton quickly left the room and slammed the door behind him.

“... Sexual frustration?” Chickadee tilted his head as he looked at the door.

Sybil slammed her hands on the table. “I’m not his girlfriend and we don’t do that! Don’t blame me if he has an attitude!” She was quick to storm off as well.

“Take your letter with you,” said Veximarl, uncaring for these romance plots floating about him. He watched as Sybil stomped all the way to the other side of the room, grabbed her letter from her dresser, then march her way to the other side again so she could slam the door behind her.

“Sexual frustration,” replied Chickadee with a nod.

Veximarl’s concerns laid elsewhere. “Alton seems to sense that something is off.”

“They suspect nothing,” stated Chickadee with confidence.

Zaniyah clenched her hands into fists. “We’ll start our spy work against Alton today. Pure stealth! We can do this!” The three nodded at each other. “We’ll never let him out of our sight, and he won’t be none the wiser!”

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About the author

Adelaide West

Bio: Author of the Grimstone Series and Duck and Wolf.

I have a Twitter. I check it often, so I guess tag me anytime you want. I just don't post very often. @AdelaideGWest

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