Sybil had trouble sleeping that night, and as always, Beat came for her early in the morning. A moment was taken to make sure her uniform was on right. Carapace fashion didn’t call for corsets, but her dueling attire did. Stupid western fashion. Curses were muttered under her breath as she headed downstairs and out the door.
She got into the carriage and stared out the window. It was probably because she had been going stir crazy or homesick, but she had the strangest urge to go into the core. As if something was calling to her. Or maybe she wanted to go someplace where she felt like she had some control over her life. She didn’t know.
The carriage turned onto the road leading to the hotel. No doubt there would be a long, boring breakfast without much dueling to be had. This was all some elaborate prank. Duxton would display an outfit he had prepared for her, give some excuse for her to put it on, and then he would do cruel like parade her around for his own amusement.
Her eyelids felt heavy. Especially as she looked out the carriage window. There was only so much snow and stone she could take before she wanted to shut it all away. She rested her head to the side. Sleep wouldn’t be a bad idea. Just a little bit before her nightmare of a day started.
A warm sensation greeted her as her eyes fluttered open. There was a cloak drawn about her and she was still in the carriage. She lifted her head high enough to see that she had been resting against Duxton’s shoulder. The prince had his back braced against the carriage wall and he was loaning her his body warmth.
This was far from a happy surprise, and much to Sybil’s abject horror. She began to shift away as slowly and carefully as she could. Duxton stirred slightly before he tightened his arms about her.
“Not yet,” he muttered wearily.
“Let go of me!”
She shoved her hand against his face, which made him further tighten his grip. Her response was to struggle harder. Duxton let out a hiss when her nail pierced his cheek. Bands of orange light suddenly surrounded her. They pinned her arms to her sides before slamming her against the side of the carriage.
The force was enough to knock the air out of her, and another orange band appeared about her mouth and nose. Her mind was suddenly a wash of desperation as she struggled to find a way to breathe. Memories of when Jill the Elementalist had cut off her air were flashing through her mind. She wiggled about in a desperate attempt to escape. Sweat began to build upon her forehead.
Duxton calmly sat up and felt his cheek. He then looked down at his blood covered fingertips. A tsk was to be had. Reaching into his jacket, he took his time to locate his pocket watch. It opened with a soft click.
“Two hours wasted,” he muttered. “I will have to make do with whatever drivel this establishment calls food if I wish to have any breakfast… Prepare to take a breath.”
The pocket watch was closed with a sharp click, and the band around Sybil’s face vanished long enough for her to inhale deeply. It then reappeared, once again cutting off her air supply. Duxton slowly pinned his cloak back on before he stepped out of the carriage. Once outside, he took a moment to say something to Shaw, but Sybil couldn’t make it out.
Duxton’s bonds tightened around her before flinging her outside of the carriage’s open door. She rolled along the ground as the spell burst apart. Scrambling to get her bearings, her eyes darted about as she kept a low and defensive stance.
Shaw and Duxton were standing over her. They were all within some sort of compound. The buildings were similar in design, and there were pathways between them. Colorful streamers were hung up everywhere, but Sybil focused more on Shaw or Duxton, wary that she might be in for another attack.
“May I remind you that you are restricted from exerting yourself?” Shaw apathetically folded his arms and frowned at the prince.
Duxton shrugged. The wound that was on his cheek had already been healed by his paladin bodyguard. “Has Beat secured us a room?”
“It’s unlikely that he knows that we’ve arrived,” replied Shaw.
Sybil steadied her breathing. “I’m not going anywhere with you.” She flinched as Shaw took a step towards her. “Don’t get near me!”
Duxton pointed to himself. “Future King.”
“That doesn’t give you the right to assault me!”
The prince gasped in a mocking manner, putting his hand to his chest to further demonstrate his shock. “But you were the one who overreacted and drew first blood. My precious, royal blood!” Sybil held her ground, glaring at him angrily. “Shaw. Fix this.”
Shaw resigned himself with a sigh. “Prince Duxton must act appropriately when he feels that he is being threatened.”
“He was forcing himself on me!”
Another fake gasp of shock escaped Duxton’s lips as Shaw turned to stare at him. “Merely an exaggeration of events.” He gestured to Beat, who had heard the commotion and had come to investigate. “Beat! Have you secured a practice room for us?”
Beat didn’t immediately reply. He sidestepped around Duxton, grabbed his wrist, and painfully twisted the prince’s arm behind his back. Duxton fell to his knees, and Beat yanked up on his elbow to keep it firmly pinned behind him.
“I have,” replied Beat.
“Shaw..? Shaw!” Duxton grunted at the paladin.
Shaw turned his back to the pair, ignoring them as he addressed Sybil. “Today we will be focusing on getting some exercise. I regret to inform you that Prince Duxton is having a weapon crafted for him. As the process of blood iron withdrawal is quite taxing upon him physically, he will not be participating in today’s dueling practice. I apologize for this inconvenience.”
Sybil wasn’t buying it. Duxton was able to easily use his magic to fling her aside earlier. Why didn’t he defend himself from Beat? This was obviously a trick to give her a false sense of security.... She shook her head and took another step back.
“I would like to be returned to the Toval estate.”
“Then I will inform Professor Rosethorn that you have failed in your duties and ask that you be reassigned,” replied Shaw in a low voice. “Lady Till will be overjoyed to learn that you have an inability to perform even the simplest of tasks.
A failure that will no doubt be reflected in your personal records.” He leaned in so that they were eye to eye. “There is little reason why you should aspire to be a knight. Simply prove to her that she was correct for failing you during the entrance exam so that she can rid Braytons of your ill presence.”
Sybil took another step back. One word from the prince could strip her of any possible future. That still didn’t give Duxton the right to treat her like that, but… She was afraid. What Shaw had said frightened her more than anything Duxton had done to her.
“T-this is just practice, isn’t it? Dueling practice? Nothing ill about it?” She pointed to Duxton. “And he’s not allowed to touch me?” Shaw nodded. “...” She then glanced over to Beat, who gave her a subtle nod. “... Alright.”
Beat let go of Duxton, and the Prince stood up, He dusted the snow off of his knees, then winced at the pain in his shoulder. “No need to be so rough.”
“... And I get next Satyrday off.” Sybil quickly added. “If I do this, I get next Saturday off.”
Her last Satyrday was spent attending an event called a “performance celebration.” An entire day focused on a single play or musical. This time it was The Coral Prince. A heartbreaking romance centered around the fall of the first Coral Kingdom.
They started with a brunch with a lecture on the history of the original production. Then they watched the musical, which didn’t bother Sybil so much, but this was followed by a party where everyone discussed the performance. Hidden meanings within the narrative. The realities of history versus fiction. How religion shapes our everyday lives.
Sybil could understand why the musical was Iofea’s favorite, but she never wanted to do anything that tedious again. She knew that the only reason why Duxton put up with it was that he enjoyed watching her suffer. What she needed was some time off to herself and to not worry about doing anything with involving people ever again.
“You were not scheduled to spend next Satyrday with us,” replied Shaw. Sybil suddenly lit up at the prospect of freedom. “You are to be attending a women’s seminar that day, followed by Duke Rubire’s party.” Sybil groaned loudly.
A bell rang, and people began to filter between the buildings. Every single one of them had matching uniforms. Sybil’s heart dropped at the sight of the students... Starsons? They were at Starsons? Another groan escaped her. Why did it have to be here?
Beat held out his hand. “Weapons are not allowed on campus.” She pouted at him and he responded with a stone cold stare. Unfastening her utility knife from her belt, she handed it over. “We will likely leave late afternoon. They may expect either you or the prince to say a few inspirational words to their squire program.”
“We have a change of clothing set aside for you if that happens,” replied Shaw.
If she was going to be forced to talk in front of rich snobby kids, she was going to do it in her own clothes. “... Alright,” muttered Sybil. “Where do we go from here?”
They were lead to a gym that housed several smaller practice rooms. There were racks of practice weapons and padded armor along the walls. The practice rooms had windows that others could look through, with padded walls and a woven straw floor. Their shoes were taken off and left by the door as they entered one.
Duxton went off to the far corner and sat with his back against the wall. There was a welcome package waiting for them that included a basket of food. Digging through the until he hit the bottom, where he found a roast pork belly and pickled cabbage sandwich.
“No need to pay any mind to me,” he took a large bite and shoved the food off to his cheek with his tongue so he could continue speaking. “Time to mold our junior into something useful. Are you ready to tutor her, Shaw?”
Tutoring? Like when Duxton had Amalfrieda tutor Veximarl? Sybil didn’t like the sound of that. “What do you mean by something useful?”
She didn’t have a chance to further voice her concerns. Shaw’s arm curled around her neck from behind, cutting off her air supply in the process. Her hands clawed and scratched at his clothes, and her toes scraped at the ground below as he lifted her up. Panic started to set in. This was the same hold that was used on her when she was kidnapped before. Right before she was knocked out with poison.
“Stop struggling,” said Shaw. “Calm down. You know what you need to do.” She twisted her hips about in an effort to use her weight to turn herself. She aimed her throat against the crook of his elbow, giving her some space to breathe. “Use your head. How do you get free?”
Sybil wiggled about some more. Stupid paladin. Even Zaniyah wasn’t this strong and Sybil couldn’t comprehend how that was possible. She scraped his thighs with her heels while she kept a hand about his forearm. The other hand flailed about in an effort to scratch at his face. Her fingers found his hair and she yanked as hard as she could.
Shifting his grip, Shaw’s forearm slid away from her throat so he could wrap his fingers around it instead. He slammed her to the ground by her neck and proceeded to backhand her across the face. The hit rattled her senses and her vision blurred as blood flooded her mouth. She had bit into both her cheek and tongue.
“Women are frail and unfit for battle.” Shaw snarled out. The wounds on his face and neck were already beginning to heal. “... Why do I have to do this? She isn’t as capable as the reports claimed her to be.” He frowned all the harder as Sybil spat a mouthful of blood onto his clothes.
“Because I’m bored,” explained Duxton, “and because there has to be something special about her. Her kill list is certainly more impressive than she is… I say that it’s our responsibility to separate fact from fiction.”
Beat was scowling more than usual. “This is a waste of time.” He was clearly irritated.
Duxton spoke in an apathetic tone. “This may as well be her punishment for threatening me last night. Let her go through with it and maybe next time she’ll be wiser when it comes to answering my questions.” He pulled one of Sybil’s daggers out of Beat’s bag and began to twirl it about his fingers. “And if she isn’t, she’s never getting this back.”
“Tal.” The dagger flew to Sybil’s hand and she made an attempt to stab Shaw.
The paladin dodged left, and Sybil rolled to all fours as he attempted to stomp on her. She kept low to the ground, forcing him to come to her, and slashing at him when he did. Skittering forward as Shaw neared a wall, Sybil was forced to skid to a stop as a spiked shield abruptly appeared before her. Her arms crossed in front of her defensively as the shield dropped, and Shaw’s heel slammed into her forearms.
She flew back, rolled along the ground, and sprang up again. When she went to counter Shaw’s punch, her arm was suddenly twisted behind her back. A pained groan hissed out between her teeth as she re
“No weapons on campus,” hissed Beat in her ear. He grabbed the dagger and stuck it into his belt before letting her go.
“Gloom girl was about to learn a real lesson before you stopped her,” muttered Duxton. “I suppose not letting her each any lunch will be punishment enough for now. Let’s keep going.”
Sybil continued with hand to hand combat until Shaw became bored, then Beat took his place. Beat was more dexterous and his fighting style matched Sybil’s more easily than Shaw’s brute force did. Both he and Shaw muttered advice to her as they went, but Beat was gentler about it.
This would go on until Shaw became angered with Beat going easy on her, then he would take over again. He was aggressive in his approach. Any injury he caused could be easily healed by magic. Shaw had no reason to hold back.
Shadows began to appear in the windows as the hours went by. Students had heard rumors that the prince was present. Now they were bundled together, whispering quietly as they watched the show. Shaw had replaced Beat again. He glanced over at the students, shook his head, then went after Sybil with an elbow.
No matter how many times she hit him, she couldn’t knock him off his balance. What was with paladins and being stone walls?! Sybil leaped up and took a step across the wall before springing off of it in an effort to kick his head. Shaw responded by catching her ankle and slamming her into the bloodstained ground. He stamped his heel against her knee. She let out a scream as a crack resonated in the air.
Braytons was the first opportunity for either Duxton or Shaw to attend a school-like setting. Each was honed like a sword by private tutors. Shaw’s specialty was combat. The role of the Arbutus family was to obliterate any who would stand against the crown. Those who were not able to perform brought dishonor upon the family name.
“Cease with the flair! Every attack must remain unknown by your opponent until the last moment.” Shaw knelt down and dug his fingers in her wound. Sybil inhaled sharply and clawed at the ground below her. He then loosened his grip and started to heal her injury. “It might be dislocated. Hold still.”
Duxton scoffed. “What ranking does she have?”
“She’s third in hand to hand, behind Byers and Cully. They have yet to compile a finalized overall combat list,” replied Beat.
“Even that stone flea outclasses her physically.” Duxton stared at the ceiling and let out a sigh. “This isn’t going to work for me. Twice a week from now on. We must make progress with her while she is still within our care.”
Shaw didn’t want to bother. “This is tedious.” Fighting a weaker opponent was wearing him down mentally.
The prince was struck with sudden inspiration. “You’re right... Break her other leg. See if that motivates her to get better faster.”
A thud shook the floor as the door fell off its hinges. Hayden then lowered her leg. That last threat against her former captain had crossed the line. This wasn’t training. It was torture.
Hayden’s outfit was different from the other students. A short skirt fully exposed the two golem legs that she had been outfitted with. Her leg twisted about and a panel opened up just above her knee. She reached down so she could loop two throwing knives about her fingers.
Millie squeezed past her and into the room. “Don’t you dare lay another hand on the captain!” She held out her hand and a ring of fire appeared about her wrist. “Because we’re the ones who are going to be your opponents!”
Threats weren’t Hayden’s style. The only sound from her was the soft clicking of her knives as she twirled them about her fingers. Her eyes darted between Beat and Shaw, checking to see which of them was going to move first.
Another sigh came out of Duxton. “Beat.” He gestured towards the girls.
Beat shifted his stance and he faked an attack by stomping a foot forward. Hayden fell for the trick and hurled her knives at him. He shifted back on his heel and easily caught both of them. A flick of his wrist and both knives embedded themselves in the far wall. As Hayden took a step back, Millie moved forward as the flames about her hands grew larger.
Millie caught onto Beat’s fist as he attempted to punch her. Golden light spiraled down from Beat’s elbow, completely snuffing out Millie’s magic. She was so stunned by her spell failing that her guard dropped long enough for Beat to knee her in the stomach.
“Stop it!” Sybil pushed Shaw away from her and wobbled to a stand. Her knee was quickly turning a dark shade of purple. “Call him off, Duxton!”
Duxton shook a finger. “You know I can’t do that. They were the ones who interrupted a valuable training lesson. One of them even threw knives my way and the other unleashed aggressive magic. That must be some sort of violation of school rules.”
“Then let the school deal with them instead of your own dogs,” she replied with a snarl.
“My hounds and I hold jurisdiction wherever we stand.” Duxton stood up as well, as though that emphasized his point. “And those two made physical threats at my most trusted subjects. That means they have also threatened me, which is high treason. I won’t stand for that.”
His face contorted into a cruel and twisted smile. Sybil’s eyes widened at the realization of what he could be planning... There wasn’t much time to act. A snap of his fingers and either of those two could be his next victim.
Flicking her fingers open, the room instantly became choked with mist. Sybil ran towards the girls, grabbing each by a wrist and dragging them out of the room. Those she left behind let out panicked shouts and coughing fits as the trio ran past.
The mist didn’t last long, quickly dissipating as soon as Sybil had left the area. Duxton fanned away the stuff from his face. His expression hadn’t changed. In fact, it became wilder in appearance as he looked towards the door.
“I’ve thought of a fun little game,” he cooed to himself. The prince then grinned at both Beat and Shaw. “But our dear toys seem to have run off without us... Go fetch them for me.”