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They bid their goodnights to Stonetoe and started to settle into their evening routines. Alton still had a pile of letters to respond to. He had been in correspondence with his family in Carapace, and there were several arrangements to be made concerning their assignments. Vincent was taking care of housing for Baron Squad, and Alton said that Grimstone would stay at the Toval estate.

There were some personal matters that needed tending to as well. Even if Lydia said it was a terrible idea, he needed to find a way to keep Sybil protected. He glanced over at a thick envelope that had a royal seal on it. The one he was saving for last, since it had been personally sent by Duxton.

He eventually got around to opening it and held up one of the pages for Veximarl to take. “Vex! We have our mission assignments for Carapace.”

“That was faster than I anticipated, but at least we will have the time to prepare,” remarked Veximarl as he took it. He then frowned at the use of flowery script. “These are from Prince Duxton... I had figured Sir Moss would be giving us our orders.” The knight had recently returned with Gwyn but had yet to speak to them about their upcoming mission. “Goodness. He went out of his way to make this look like a royal decree.”

Alton shook his head. “Being worshiped in Carapace has inflated his ego. Trust me. Things are going to be so fun over the next year because of it.” He couldn’t wait to be a third year and not have to deal with Duxton anymore.

“Ah, it says that Sir Moss will be responsible for assigning tasks to Baron Squad.” Veximarl dreaded the idea of being put under the supervision of that dangerous prince. He then sighed with relief when he saw his post. “I will be working in Highland Hospital, Zani has been assigned to Sir Trewarne, though I am surprised he chose to stay in Carapace instead of moving north.

Let’s see… Chi will be attached to Horsetalon squad and Alton will focus on his family business. Now, this doesn’t say anything for… Where is Sybil’s assignment?” Alton held up a smaller envelope which Veximarl immediately passed to Sybil. “This one states that it is for your eyes only. Alton, what family business do you have?”

“The Toval family was recently been granted a sum of money to use for city improvement. I suggested we use the funds to open several shops within the main marketplace. Rather than selling souvenirs at the core entrance, a select group of citizens are being given the opportunity to sell goods that will represent all of Carapace.

Jory, my older brother, is handling the majority of it, but I will be taking over when we arrive. My role will be to finalize the shop’s appearance and goods, and we are hoping to do a grand opening sometime before the new year.” He glanced over at Sybil to see what her reaction was, but she was busy staring at the letter in confusion.

“That’s an honorable ambition,” replied Veximarl with a smile. “It seems unusual for you to go out of your way for such a job. You are normally rather reclusive in your day to day activities.”

“Ha. Funny.” Alton looked away from the group. “I am an aspiring knight and the owner of Lady Larkin’s rapier. Doing something like this is what she would’ve wanted.” He tossed another glance over at Sybil, who stood up and began to tear her letter apart.

“Why does this say that you suggested I be Prince Duxton’s personal assistant?!” She crumpled up the pieces still in her hands before chucking them at Alton.

Alton casually tilted his head to the side and the paper ball flew past his ear. “Duxton is sitting in on every important meeting that is being held by the Crimson Court. Duke Rubire was the one who selected the core representatives, and I’m damn certain he picked the ones who only have good things to say about him. You have the chance to be the core voice that speaks the truth.”

“And how would I do that?!” Her hands balled up into fists at him. “I can’t do politics! Why me?!”

“I asked Lady Till what might be best for you, and she suggested that you work with Duxton. You’ll be getting lessons from Lord Rosethorn so you won’t have to worry about embarrassing yourself. This is what you wanted, Twist.” Alton dodged Sybil’s shoe as she threw that at him. “You will be face to face with the most important people of the region, and every single one of them is going to remember that you have powerful connections.

They are not going to forget that. In the future, your words are going to be able to carry a tremendous amount of weight to them, much more than Lady Larkin’s ever could. You will be able to make the changes she wanted, and people will gladly grovel before you to do your bidding. This is the opportunity you have been waiting for.”

Sybil sighed but was still furious at him. It did sound like a good deal, but not one that was worth the trouble. “It also says that he sent reading material for me to memorize before our trip there.”

Alton gestured to a box on his desk. “I believe it’s that box with the royal seal on it.”

She opened it up and read the titles out loud. “Carapace divided; an outerland guide for core dummies. Pleasing your master; instructions for the modern maid. Please drink me; how to maintain your virginity while still satisfying your lover.” She set that last one down and slapped Alton across the face as hard as she could.

“What was that for?!” Alton rubbed his cheek. “I didn’t pick out these books! If he tries anything like that with you, you know that I will be right by your side when it comes to stabbing him! I only wanted you to get ahead in politics!”

Sybil stomped her way to the door and grabbed her cloak while she was at it. “I’m going for a walk!”

“Twist!” Alton winced as she opened the door. “Sybil!” She slammed it behind her and they could hear her stomping down the hall. “Dammit!” He turned around and saw that Zaniyah had snuck behind him so she could glance through the books.

“I’m just going to… borrow this one.” She picked up that last one Sybil mentioned before looking more closely at the other two. “... Actually, I probably need to read the dummies one too.” She picked up that one as well before sneaking back to her space and closing the curtain behind her. Chickadee didn’t make any excuses. He blatantly picked up the maid book before joining Zaniyah.

Vex laughed nervously. “I understand that you think you know what Sybil wants, but-”

“Not now, Vex!” Alton grabbed his cloak and ran out of the door.

He went down to the courtyard and tracked Sybil’s steps up the rampart to where the third year building was. She was laying down on the snow-covered roof, wrapped up in her fur cloak, and staring up at the lights that were dancing above. Alton sighed to himself and did a clumsy jump over to the roof, skittering for a second on the ice before finding his footing.

Weeks had passed since Sybil had been rescued, yet… What were they to each other now? Alton had buried himself under documents and homework. Sybil had also focused on her studies. There hadn’t been any talk between either of them about breaking up but they had also spent a great deal of time avoiding each other.

“Go away,” she said in a loud whisper.

Alton flopped down next to her. “I’m really getting sick of you being mad at me all the time.” As mad as she was, she was still wearing the ring he gave her. He took a moment to check for her pulse, which was quickening due to rage.

“Stop doing stupid things all the time,” she snapped back.

“I’m just trying to help you. How am I supposed to do anything nice for you if you don’t tell me what you want?” He growled back. “You’ve been avoiding me for weeks.”

There wasn’t a response she could give to that. She couldn’t even tell herself what she wanted. They sat in silence for a while, watching the sky above. A shiver ran down her body. This was a terrible idea. The air was cold, her nose felt like ice, and the cloak only helped so much.

“We’re not supposed to leave the dorm building after nightfall. There could be tainted beasts about,” she whispered.

Alton snapped back at her in a harsh voice. “It’s your fault I’m out here.”

“Then go back,” she replied apathetically.

“No.”

Sybil sat up and pulled her hood more over her head. Laying down had made it slip back, and her ears were getting cold. “But you hate me now, don’t you? So just go away.”

He had been acting distant. Alton was usually distant from people other than Chickadee and Zaniyah, but he had felt closest to Sybil. After she was rescued, there weren’t any random touches of affection or him asking her to crawl into his bed at night.

He hadn’t even asked her out on a date or made any sexual inappropriate comments, which was downright strange for him... And he was right. She was always being mean to him. No wonder he had lost interest in her.

“I don’t hate you.” He sat up as well. “I’m not capable of hating you and don’t worry about those books that Duxton sent. He’s only doing it to piss you off. As long as I’m by your side, I’m never going to let anything bad happen to you again.”

Looking away, Sybil felt embarrassed. It was difficult for her to be near him as of late. Her heart raced whenever he was to close. There was a part of her that liked him being distant, but at the same time, she hated that he didn’t want to be near her anymore. She glanced over to him and frowned that he was staring at her with that vulnerable expression of his.

Her hand went to his cheek and she shifted to being on her knees so she could lean towards him. She suddenly moved to kiss him but he turned his head away at the last moment.

Alton couldn’t help it. There was a part of him that was ashamed. Not to mention that he had come to terms with his own feelings. If he kissed her right now, he knew he wouldn’t be able to control how far he went with her at this moment. He needed to have control.

“We should go back to the room,” he whispered.

Sybil kept his hand on his cheek. “... What?”

“It’s late and I don’t want to get you in trouble.” He pulled away from her, stood up, and offered his hand to her. “Let’s go back to the room.”

Her heart felt frozen at that moment. She opened and closed her mouth a few times before she could muster a response. “... Fine. Alright.”

They clamored off the roof and walked slowly back to the dorm room side by side. Sybil had her arms drawn tightly about her body, shivering as she went. Alton kept his eyes ahead. Moving up the stairs, they found Vincent and Zaniyah sitting together on a couch. She was laying back with her legs across his lap and they were each reading a book.

“I told you we wouldn’t have to look for them this time,” chirped Zaniyah as she sat up.

“I am simply surprised that they would still have a libido after hearing Sir Stonetoe’s tale.” Vincent set his book down and looked up at the pair. “Toval, I am going to keep Zaniyah at my family’s estate. Sir Trewarne is staying with the Cully family, which is near our church. It is simply a matter of convenience.”

Alton did a sarcastic salute with his hand. “Yes, sir.”

“I don’t like the idea of being split up,” pouted Zaniyah.

“Don’t act like you’re not going to show up and randomly pretend that you live inside my house,” replied Alton. “And if you don’t feel like it, I’ll bribe you by saying you can borrow one of my horses. Gypsum could use a rider.” He waved a hand and started to walk past them. “I’ll tell you more when I wake up.”

Sybil looked between him walking away and the other two. “I have to be up early to help with the stables.” She bowed at them. “Goodnight.” Then she turned and jogged after Alton in an effort to catch up.

A wry expression crossed Zaniyah’s features. “Is that how normal couples are? All the ones I see are always yelling at each other... Sometimes I wonder if we’re doing it \wrong.”

“Perhaps.” Vincent flashed her a smile. “I prefer the way we are.”

“I don’t…” Zaniyah glanced off to the side. “It would be better if we were in the same squad. The thought of you going on dangerous missions without me is just…” She shivered at the thought.

“You forget that I am the commander of our class and a member of Baron Squad. Ours is a boring existence full of negotiations and paperwork. With Vex being your only healer, I worry much more about your group.” He frowned as her worried expression increased. “We could drop out if that would make you feel more comfortable.”

Zaniyah’s eyes snapped back to him. “Whaaat? Leave here? Are you crazy?”

“It is simply one suggestion,” he replied in a flat tone. “I chose the life of a paladin, but my family resources allow me to shift easily into politics. We could easily afford a manor in a few years.” Zaniyah opened her mouth but he put a finger against it. “If you are concerned that my family won’t accept you without a title, they will be forced to do so once we produce a child.”

“That’s a rather cold way of thinking,” she whispered. Though she wasn’t completely close-minded to the idea. Then again, a child was supposed to be about love. Using her kid as a bargaining tool didn’t feel like love.

“And you will no doubt be depressed and regretful that you didn’t attend the full three years at Braytons.” He graced her cheek with his fingers for a moment before pulling away from his hand. “Early motherhood does not suit you. We need to spend a few years traveling first before we decide on where to raise a family.”

Zaniyah frowned. “It’s not that I’m not happy you’ve put a lot of thought into this, but that’s… That’s like planning waaay ahead.” She flung her hand through the air. “Just way far out there.”

“That’s the way of nobles,” replied Vincent. “They dislike surprises and wish to always know the future, thus they plan far in advance so that they can ensure the happiness and safety of themselves and their loved ones. As we draw closer to our visit to Carapace, you will no doubt see that Toval has put in just as much thought towards Sybil. Trust when I say I have everything laid out.”

“Everything?” He nodded. “Like, everything?” He nodded again. “Like what?”

Vincent took her hand into his own. “I plan on doing a formal meeting with my parents, where I will introduce you as the lady I wish to court. We will spend our years at Braytons, and I will arrange for us to take positions within my grandfather’s monastery.

We will be able to travel across Lustro as religious ambassadors. Then I will you to a very special place, where I will propose to you, and we will marry in the fall. On your birthday, so that you will always have a reason to celebrate it.”

She squinted at him. “What am I supposed to do?”

“Nothing. It’s all planned out. It is the role of the man to ensure that his lady is happy, and to show his dedication to her well-being by planning out her life for her.” He paused as her whole face cringed. “Is that not what you wanted? Do you not like it?”

“I just figured I would get a say in it. Having everything laid out so early in advance is kinda creepy... I want things to... I don’t know, be spontaneous.”

“Your unpredictability is what I love most about you.” Vincent became troubled. By planning everything out, he was snuffing out the trait he found the most endearing. He put his hand to his chin and muttered to himself. “I do wish to make you happy, but I am unsure on how to do it.”

“Let me tie you up and do things to you,” Zaniyah whispered with a wide-eyed stare.

“Pardon?” Vincent didn’t quite hear what she said. His own thoughts were haunting him.

“... Maybe we could uhh…” Something broke within her brain at that moment. “H-hold hands?”

“I am uncomfortable with-”

“No! I know!” Zaniyah pulled her knees towards her chest and smiled out of nervous habit. “I told you that I wouldn’t force you out of your comfort zone. We’ll do things our way. I’m patient, and I love-”

He silenced her up with a kiss. His lips brushed up against hers as he talked. “I am uncomfortable with how much desire I have for your body, and my lack of knowledge in how to pleasure you physically.”

“I-I don’t mind at all, because that’s what experimenting is all about,” she stuttered back.

“I would like that, but Stonetoe will be back from his patrol soon. We also have early schedules. It is for the best that we head to bed… Separately! Separate beds!” Vincent’s eyes went wide as he pulled away from her, wincing as she grabbed onto the collar of his jacket.

“Mama is the best knight here, and I’m his favorite. He trusts me. I’ll make sure neither of us gets in trouble.” A firm tug was given to her love as she pulled him for a heavier kiss. She’ll make sure he won’t get in trouble. What was the worst that Stonetoe could even do to them?

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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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