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“How is the food?” Duxton looked up from his glass of wine. He then frowned at Sybil, who was poking at her salad with a fork.

Sybil shrugged. “... Green,” she replied. She couldn’t comprehend how they managed to make a salad in the dead of winter, but it didn’t matter. It was probably a waste of money and resources.

Today was yet another day where she suffered through a long and boring existence. Every morning, a quarter till dawn, she would get up and get ready. She would tie on her layers of cloth and Beat would escort her to the hotel where she would have breakfast with the prince. Then it was lessons with Rosethorn and her afternoons were spent either in city hall or “enjoying” Duxton’s company.

Duxton and her would sit next to each other as they listened in on the Crimson Court meetings. It was nothing interesting. Mostly that the city was continuing to not do well. With the southern roads closed, they were shut off from the majority of the country. Mostly they all complained about how it was bad for their own businesses rather than how it affected the people.

The only things to the north and east were the swamp and a scattering of villages which the army had built massive walls around. That and the army fighting off invading hordes of tainted beasts... But that seemed to be of little concern to no to Carapace politicians. Nothing outside of Carapace seemed to matter much to them.

Sybil would give anything to be a part of the northern army. At first, it seemed terrible, but it was better than sitting around without being allowed to speak her own mind. She had words for them. Plenty of words. All of them harsh.

On days when she finished her studies early, she was expected to eat lunch with Duxton. He didn’t seem to like dealing with people that weren’t his own entourage, which now comprised of herself, Beat, and Shaw. Mostly she was there so that Duxton would have an excuse not to attend any lunch meetings.

Politicians in Carapace doubled as businessmen. Meeting with any of them in person meant that one had to travel far and wide about the city, which Duxton didn’t seem to mind. They looked in on shops, visited workshops, and tasted samples at restaurants. It was less political related and more to see what Duxton could weasel out of these people for free.

The worst of it all was the parties. There had been one nearly every night. She would be stuck on Duxton’s arm as he went around to greet people. He would then force her to dance with him. Each dance they shared was increasing in difficulty and he took great joy in scolding her whenever her steps began to falter.

There was a time when Duxton hated such events. Now he lingered at them, waiting until nearly everyone had left before excusing himself. He would then invite her to spend the night with him, but she always refused. Not only did she not trust him, but dealing with him always made her desperate to scrub herself clean.

“This would be easier if you would just tell me what sort of foods you like,” he remarked. Duxton then paused when she didn’t give him a reply. “... Any woman would be thrilled with my company. I am more than willing to make certain allowances if you would just tell me what you enjoy doing.”

Sybil sipped her water. She didn’t trust alcohol, avoiding it whenever she could. “I’m not here to be entertained, my lord. I am here to work.”

The prince rested his elbows on the table and placed his chin on the back of his folded hands. “You really are boring.” He shook his head with disappointment. “So very, very boring.”

“You are no better yourself,” she muttered under her breath.

“I do prefer it when you show me an attitude as long as no one else sees it. Do that in public and I will have to punish you.” A hint of a wild smirk appeared on his lips. “You should do it in public. I have been looking for an excuse to have some real fun.”

Behind her, the clock began to chime.” Sybil took the napkin off her lap and folded it on the table. “I believe that I have stayed here long enough. May I be excused, my lord?”

He smirked. “Are you this cruel to that fish of yours?”

Sybil stood up from the table. “Alton is not a fish,” she replied coldly. “I kindly ask you to not refer to my husband as one.”

“Husband,” said Duxton with a snicker. “You say that word like is poison upon your lips.” She couldn’t argue against that. Sybil tried to say it happily before, but it only made her angry. “Are you like that in bed with him? … Come now, don’t glare so rudely when I ask that.” He snickered again, this time at her scowl. “Do you actually enjoy being used by him, or do you lie there in silent protest as he conquers your fertile lands? Do you make him wear his armor or do you like the sensation of his soiled seed spilling out in your body?”

Her leg kicked up slightly so she could snatch up the dagger that was strapped to her calf. She then stood up and pointed it at him. “Do not dare to speak to me like that!”

Despite the threat, Duxton kept his cool. “My, my... You two haven’t done it at all. Now that is a surprise.” Sybil lifted her leg long enough for her to grab her other dagger before taking on a defensive stance. “I told you not to wear those things around me.”

“I refuse to go anywhere unprotected,” she growled back. “Especially when I have to be around a useless tool of a prince.”

“Protection is what Shaw and Beat are for, my dear.” Duxton gave a loud snap and the door creaked open. Sybil didn’t flinch. She kept her weapon aloft even as Shaw approached and placed a hand on her shoulder. “What should we do? We’ve been so kind to her and yet she spits venom at us.”

Shaw’s hand slid up from Sybil’s shoulder and gently cupped itself firmly about her ear. She suddenly felt disorientated. The dagger dropped from her hand and she fell backward and into Shaw’s waiting arms. Her body remained slack as he picked her up.

“Rosethorn’s orders are that you do not exert yourself,” replied Shaw.

He then carried Sybil to the nearby sofa and unceremoniously dropped her on it. She was still conscious but didn’t understand what Shaw had done to her. The world was muddled, and the inside of her head had an uncomfortable pressure swelling within it.

Duxton waved his hand, dismissing Shaw’s remark as he did so. “Aunt El wouldn’t forgive me if I did anything like that to her. Have Beat do it. She’s technically his subordinate at the barracks.” He tapped a nail on the table while thinking about it. “Actually, you do it. I have decided that she has indeed made me angry. Cancel my appointments for tomorrow and find a private location. I want to watch.”

Sybil couldn’t make out what they were saying. She felt herself being propped up and a hand was supporting her head. Her vision started to unblur and she blinked until she could make out Beat’s face.

“Are you alright?” He whispered at her. She somehow managed a nod. “I’m taking you home.”

“Thank you,” she whispered back.

Duxton raised his voice. “I didn’t give her permission to leave yet.”

“She doesn’t need your permission. There is a set schedule for her to follow. That schedule is the only reason you are allowed to spend time with her. Now it is time for her to leave,” snapped back Beat.

“I am your employer while you are here, Beat. You should heed my requests,” replied Duxton in a deathly tone.

“She is my subordinate. I will protect her,” growled back Beat. “Professor Rosethorn is her assigned mentor. Nothing will be done without his or my permission.” The two glared at each other before Duxton turned his head off to the side. That was enough to let Beat know that the prince had relented.

Beat continued to support Sybil as they moved through the hotel and to the carriage. It took her a few moments before she could walk properly again. Was that a paladin technique? She would expect that to be something Veximarl could do. There was blood about the inside of her ear. It no longer hurt, but she still felt dizzy.

“Wear your training uniform tomorrow,” said Beat as they arrived at the Toval manor. “You’ll have combat studies tomorrow.” Sybil frowned at the response. “You need to exercise in order to keep your skills sharp and it is likely that Professor Rosethorn will approve of the prince’s request. There is no avoiding it for now. Be prepared to leave at the same time tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir...” She gave Beat a brief smile. “Have a good night.”

He wished her the same and she exited the carriage. Walking up to the gate, she suddenly realized that they had kept her daggers. Certainly, she had more than just the Tal and Vin, and she was eager to place both Nip and Gnarl between Duxton’s eyes if he dared to keep her precious tools hostage.

Sybil gave a nod to Zynn as he let her in. The sounds of the piano were still drifting through the air. Alton had developed the habit of playing quietly in the parlor while waiting for her to come home. She took off her shoes and held them in one hand as she walked up to the parlor. Her free hand knocked at the door frame.

“You’re here.” Alton lit up the moment he laid eyes on her. He stood up from the piano so he could greet her properly. “Still mad?” She nodded. “You should be. I cheated on you today and I feel horrible about it.”

… Maybe she should use a knife on Alton instead.

He tensed up as he sensed the death radiating off of her. “Chi kissed me,” he replied. “I know, he likes me, and I don’t know what to do about it. He’s already spent enough time in his shell and I don’t want to hurt his feelings. Maybe you could talk to him?” She shook her head. “... Are you at least jealous?”

“Not really. If you want to make Chickadee happy, I will fully support it. It’s been difficult for him to find a man who enjoys being intimate with other men and he deserves to be with someone.”

“I’ll talk to-” Alton sidestepped around her in order to get a better look at her ear. There was dried blood that had leaked out of it. “Who did this?” He reached up and gently touched her jawbone.

“It was my fault,” she said as she swatted away his hands. “Duxton said something stupid and I threatened him... Shaw cast something to defend him. Don’t worry about it. He’s a prince. He’s supposed to overreact when people threaten him.”

“Shaw cast something? You don’t know what he did?” She shook her head and Alton forcibly grabbed her hand. “We’ll have Vex look at it.”

Sybil would’ve kept her feet firm, but her stockings were making her slide freely across the stone ground. “I feel fine. It doesn’t hurt at all.”

“This isn’t for you,” growled Alton. “This is for me. If he did something to seriously hurt you, I am carving a hole in that paladin’s head.”

Part of the problem with Alton was that he had become overly protective. Possessive might be the right word. Other girls might consider it romantic but Sybil was annoyed with his behavior. She just wanted to wash off and get to bed. He was getting in the way of that.

Alton knocked at Veximarl’s door and the necromancer answered in a weary manner. “... Evening?” He then looked between the two of them. “... Has something happened?”

“She-”

Sybil interrupted Alton’s attempt to speak on her behalf. A lot of people had been talking for her as of late, and she was quite tired of it. “Paladin Arbutus cast some sort of knock out spell on me. This idiot wants to make sure I’m okay because he’s being a big baby.”

Veximarl had already noticed the blood on her ear. “Give me a moment.” He placed his hand on the side of her neck, closing his eyes in the process. “I would say that something had damaged her inner ear, which would have affected her balance. It’s already been healed by magic.” He was more worried about the blisters on her feet.

“I told you I was fine.” Sybil spat at Alton. Her tone was much kinder when she spoke to Veximarl. “Thank you. Sorry for waking you up.”

“It’s never a bother, Sybil. It feels like weeks have passed since we’ve last talked.” He gave her a smile and pulled his hand away from her neck. “Stop by anytime you need to talk. Zaniyah is also here. She was asked to leave Vincent’s home.” Sybil’s mouth dropped open at the news. “Everything has already been handled. She’s asleep now, but be sure to make some time and talk to her about it tomorrow.”

“I will. Goodnight.” She performed a curtsy out of habit, which made Veximarl’s brow furrow with confusion. Sybil then began to walk down the hall without much care towards Alton’s presence.

“Thanks, Vex,” Alton quickly blathered out before he proceeded to follow Sybil into her room. He turned his head away as she began to undress. “... I want to talk to you.”

“I’m still mad at you,” said Sybil. “Go away.” She let out a curse as her fingers struggled to get the knot of her skirt loose. “... Get this off of me first and then go away.”

Alton locked the door before stepping over. He gave a hard yank to the ribbon before taking a step back. Sybil kept her clothes held up with her hands so he wouldn’t get a glimpse at her body.

“Is Duxton pushing you too hard? Mostly I deal with charity work, which involves talking to investors all day long, but I can arrange to take you with me if you’d like to.”

It sounded like she’d be doing the exact same thing she was doing with Duxton, but the company would be twice as annoying. “... I’m fine.”

“What did he say that upset you?” Alton looked away from her again as she went over to the side table.

She double checked the kettle to see if it was full of water before activating the blood iron gem on it. After she slipped her skirt off and put on a robe, she put a scoop of powdered soap into the smaller of the two bowls. The idea was to pour some of the kettle water into the smaller bowl so that she could give herself a rag bath, and dump out the water into the larger bowl whenever it became dirty.

“... He wanted to know the details about our sex life,” she plainly replied.

“We don’t have a sex life,” replied Alton. “That’s why we are ‘technically’ married and not actually married.” She looked over her shoulder with a deathly glare in her eye. “... And it’s completely fine if we stay that way.”

Sybil let out a sigh. “What I prefer is a hot wet rag to wash myself off with.” She pointed to a partition and Alton moved to the other side so he wouldn’t be able to watch her bathe. “It’s fine if you want to talk but don’t stay long. I have to be up early tomorrow.”

Alton sat at the table. “I’ll wait until you’re done.” He would rather talk to her face to face than speak loudly across a room.

Sybil took her time washing off. She then lifted up a small door in the wall so she could pour out the dirty water. A light amount of scented oil was applied to her skin in order to keep it from drying out and she changed into her nightgown and sleeping coat.

Peeked around the edge of the partition, she noticed that Alton had passed out and was now partially sprawled out on the table. He looked peaceful, despite the fact that staying up late and waiting for her every night wasn’t doing himself any favors. If only he wasn’t a moron... She wouldn’t have minded their situation as much if he had been smarter about it.

Sybil sat down in the chair next to him. She then brushed his bangs away from his face. He hadn’t gotten a haircut since he had started going to Braytons and it had become a bit wild in appearance when he didn’t have the time to brush it.

Startled, his eyes snapped open as he snatched her hand out of the air. They looked at each other for a moment while he tried to figure out what to say. “... I’m sorry. About our marriage contr-”

“I don’t want to talk about that,” she said as she interrupted him.

“You said we could talk,” he whispered back.

“Not about that. I’m tired of it being brought up so I don’t want to talk about it now.” Sybil was firm on this. “I don’t want to talk about anything involving us or our relationship. Not contracts, or feelings, or sex. Especially not sex.”

Alton let go of her hand. Now he didn’t know what to say. “Would it be alright if I slept next to you tonight?” She narrowed her eyes at him. “If only to sleep?” Her expression didn’t change. “I… I-I miss you, Sybil.” She shook her head. “... Alright. I’ll leave when we’re done talking.”

“Good,” she replied.

“Duke Rubire will be hosting a party at city hall. Would it be alright if you came with me as my date?” He asked her hopefully.

She frowned at him. “Do I actually have a choice in this, or are you going to suddenly pull out some paper saying that I have to go regardless of my opinion?” Now he was the one frowning at her. “Fine, whatever. I’ll go with you because it’s fine. Just fine. We’re apparently technically married and that’s what technically married people do. Go to parties and smile fake smiles and do happy couple things.”

“Thank you.” He smiled weakly at her. Alton hesitantly reached towards her. When she didn’t flinch, he placed a hand on her shoulder and began to massage it. “You’re tense.”

“You stress me out,” she replied.

“Yes... And that’s all the topics I have that I’m allowed to talk about. Was there anything you wanted to discuss?” He looked at her with that hopeful expression again. Alton’s face had been shifting quickly between scowling, hopeful, and despair.

Sybil closed her eyes. “Did Chickadee really kiss you?”

“It was a peck. I think it was just him showing affection. Girls used to do that to me all the time when I went to Starsons and it never amounted to anything,” he replied. “Does it bother you that he did that?”

Chickadee had flirted with boys before in the past, but it wasn’t like him to make that big of a move. “... I think he likes you a lot.”

“Oh, good. I have a backup plan for when you finally give up on me and figure out how to cancel our marriage.” He snickered but she wasn’t amused by the joke. “I’ll turn him down gently, but maybe he wouldn’t act that way if you showed interest in me.”

“I don’t have an interest in you,” she said as she opened her eyes. “How would canceling the marriage work? Is it like divorce? Can we get divorced now? Or an annulment?”

Alton moved his hand away from her. “We aren’t actually married, so we can’t get a divorce.” He grinned at her, ignoring her question on how to cancel their current union. “It’s not so bad.”

Sybil folded her arms. “So that’s how it’s going to be?”

“It is.” He then stood up. “I’m going back to my room. I’ll see you tomorrow night.” She reached up and caught onto his sleeve. “What?”

“Hold on.” Sybil stood up and began to unbutton her sleeping coat.

“What are you doing?”

Sybil bit on her bottom lip for a moment. “... I don’t care how it gets done, but I want out of this arrangement. Let’s get it over with.”

He stared at her blankly, which was odd. She expected him to already have her pinned down to the bed by now.

“... I can’t,” he whispered.

“It’s not even that big of a deal. I’ll be on top if it bothers you,” she muttered.

Alton shook his head. “I know I don’t have the right to ask you this, but can you make an attempt to see this from my view?” He looked away from her, scoffing as he did so. “... I never wanted to rush this. I wanted us to take our time, and figure it out together, but then you disappeared… And I couldn’t stand it… I panicked, okay?

I may not be the strongest fighter, but what I can do is play dirty and make money while doing it. Money and power. You’re a member of the Alcea family and the people in Fogbloom are going to figure that out eventually. I need to have more clout if I am ever going to match that. Enough that no one would dare go up against you…” His teeth gritted together. “I-I just want to keep you safe.”

“I never asked you for any of this,” she replied in a harsh whisper.

“You didn’t have to, Sybil. I love you and love is sacrifice… Trust when I say that I hate this just as much as you do. I hate this with a passion but I need a way to make myself worthy of you.” He tensed up again. “... Please don’t tell me that sex isn’t a big deal.

I can’t treat it as simple as a handshake because it needs to be special. A time where I can simply be a man who loves you. Where I feel like you’ve forgiven me or maybe at least feel something that... I-I can’t force myself, so… S-so...” He bowed deeply. “Goodnight, Sybil.”

“Alton, wait.” He was already walking away. “Alton!” The door closed behind him.

Should it even matter if he was suffering?

Sybil didn’t want this. He forced this on her. It would be one thing if he had asked, but he had already established that her opinion didn’t matter. She flopped down on her bed and curled her knees to her chest.

Love might be a sacrifice… But this didn’t feel like love. His head was twisted up. Her head was still throbbing from the spell that Shaw had cast. All she wanted right now was a long rest and to wake up in a world where such troubles didn’t exist.

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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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