There was no mistaking that Sybil was zoning out. She had a blank expression on her face and wasn’t looking towards anything in particular. What was she doing with Alton? This wasn’t forgiveness. She couldn’t forgive him for what had happened. But she was scared she was going to go back to her old habits as though nothing had happened. All he was doing was being nice and pleasant, and it was becoming difficult to stay mad at him.
Her face turned crimson at the sensation of fingers tenderly touching her cheek. Eyes focusing in an instant, she noticed that Duxton was leaning in uncomfortably close. A gasp escaped her lips as she slapped his hand. She jerked so violently away from him that she ended up falling backward out of her chair.
A snicker escaped the prince. “Now that is a look from you that I didn’t think possible. Perhaps you are feminine after all... Are you familiar with the playwright Edward Nesbit?” He stood up out of his chair and offered her his hand. “He said that a woman’s face cannot display true beauty until after she had relished in the touch of a lover.”
Sybil stood up on her own and picked up her chair. “Don’t talk like that to me.”
“You’re right. Vulgar language is not to be shared between family... Then again, we are simply a man and a woman who are tossing about the thought of intimacy. Nothing more.” She gagged at his words.
“Work on your lessons,” commanded Beat in an authoritative tone. He was sitting back in a nearby chair, reading through a tall stack of novelettes.
The prince tsked his tongue. “How am I supposed to get anything done with this watchdog present? Isn’t it time for your meal, Beat? Would you like to fetch lunch today from downstairs? I desire to have their spiced egg salad over toast.
Though it must be made fresh this time, as it was slightly stale the last time I had it. You’ll have to stay in the kitchen and watch as they make it. Be especially certain that they don’t put those little green things in it. I don’t like those little green things... What are they Shaw?”
“Capers,” replied Shaw. Duxton stared at the paladin’s response. “Pickled flower buds.” Shaw was absentmindedly listening in while doing his own studies. He was currently reading through the autobiography of a general.
“Disgusting little capers don’t deserve to be called a delicacy. I desire a good meal, Beat. Fetch it for me.”
Beat stared at Duxton for a moment and then looked back down at his book. It was some horror story from a genre known as copper dreadfuls. They had quickly become Beat’s favorite type of literature, and he had scoured the city looking for old copies so he could build a collection.
Sybil had noticed that Beat was the only one in Duxton’s entourage that disobeyed his orders on a regular basis. Shaw occasionally did the same, but only when he thought it was teaching the prince a valuable lesson. She didn’t understand why Duxton let them get away with it. He was impatient and cruel to anyone else.
“I’ve finished the reading you suggested for me,” she muttered apathetically. It was a lie. She couldn’t concentrate on it, nor had Duxton made a kind suggestion to do it. The prince only knew how to make demands.
“Good. Next, you will need to sharpen your dance skills.” Once more did he outstretch his hand, only to have it refused again. “Do you want Shaw to give you dance lessons? I am more than happy to let that happen.”
Shaw placed the book down and cracked his knuckles. Sybil’s eyes widened and she looked away from the pair. “My knee is still bothering me.”
During her time here, she had noticed that Duxton went through fits of not wanting to deal with anyone outside of his entourage. Yesterday’s training session appeared to be one of those days, and today was another one. Perhaps it had something to do with Rosethorn being away, but it didn’t matter. Duxton’s patience was wearing thin.
“I don’t care. I won’t be there when you go to that woman’s whatever Satyrday morning. You will have to represent the family by yourself.” That sounded like a wonderful idea to Sybil. “Duke Rubire’s party is that same day. You are aware of who he is, are you not?”
“Some rich guy throwing a rich party for a kid who hasn’t even been born yet. It’s a waste, isn’t it? The kid isn’t going to remember.” She rolled her eyes at the idea. Of course, she knew who Duke Rubire was, but she refused to acknowledge him as her ruler. He disgusted her even more than the prince did.
“Duke Rubire is the ruler of the Crimson Region. The third largest region of Lustro, and one that covers most of the eastern coast as well the whole of the Fallen Mountains. The only person he has to obey is my grandfather. If you want to make it in this city as the king’s voice, you better be on that man’s good side.” His tone was authoritative as he spoke in a gold tone.
Sybil couldn’t bring herself to care. It sounded tedious. “Right. Go to the party, say hello, and then… What, leave? I can leave after that?” Duxton shook his head. “That’s what you do at every single one of these parties.”
“You will go there and present a gift to his daughter. There is a chance that you will be expected to entertain her with a story or two. It is likely you will be forced to dance with several older men who will seek to push your buttons. Buttons you won’t be allowed to push back. Most of all, you will be expected to smile. Are you even capable of smiling?”
“Not really, sir.” Sybil winced as he flicked her in the forehead. “Stop that.”
“Think of something that makes you happy.” She furrowed her brow at him. “Do it. The last thing that made you smile. Think of that right now.”
As hard as she tried, she couldn’t think of a reason to grin. She hadn’t seen much of either Chickadee or Zaniyah despite spending each night under the same roof as them. There weren’t any jokes that she heard as of late that she had found to be amusing. Though there was also a chance she didn’t understand them. Outlander humor was different from what she was used to.
Then she thought about how Alton always stayed up to wait for her each night. The calm expression he had as he played on the piano… When he was lost to the music he was playing. That’s a face she thought suited him well.
A faint smirk appeared on her lips as she remembered it. When she realized that Duxton was frowning hard at the sight, she shook her head and looked off to the side. Her eyes flitted to him for a moment and then to the table again as she fumbled her hands together behind her back.
“You’re not capable of smiling at all,” Duxton muttered softly. “Let’s work on dancing then. For every misstep you have, Shaw is going to break one of your toes. I’m not going to let him heal it until after I’m satisfied you can dance through the pain.”
He grabbed her roughly and she tried to push him away. “Don’t touch me without my permission!”
“I told you that people are going to expect to dance with you and you’re not going to have much of a say in how much they’ll piss you off.” Duxton narrowed his eyes. “Diffuse the situation as a lady would.”
“Can’t Beat do this instead?” She asked in a pleading manner.
“I don’t dance,” replied Beat, not once looking up from his book.
Sybil frowned in his direction and let out a sigh. “Please handle me more gently, my lord.” Another wince as he flicked her in the forehead. “Stop that.”
“Now dance,” commanded Duxton as he extended his hand again.
“... My knee is still troubling me,” she whispered as she took a step back.
“Then tomorrow. That’s what you will work on tomorrow.”
Sybil was still hesitant, but she gave a nod. “... Fine.”
And that was how Sybil’s new schedule had been decided. Training lessons where Shaw would beat her mercilessly, dancing and dining with Duxton, and the occasional kind word from Beat which served as the bare minimum of encouragement. Night was the only time she felt like herself again. She would wait for Alton to pass out before going to her own bed. Being by herself and with her own thoughts was the only time she felt like she could relax.
Satyrday could not come quickly enough. Sybil was free from the entourage and had instead traveled to the city’s largest library, where noble women from all over Carapace had come for a morning of socializing. Despite her thinking it disrespectful to the literature, they had a buffet set up full of dessert wine and dainty hors d’oeuvres. At least no one was interested in reading, which was odd but it did keep the books safe.
Zaniyah had found an open area and was now surrounded by women. “It was the most bizarre thing! How could a snail even get that big? Its shell was covered in jewels that vibrated together and let out this shrill noise that jostled your brain about!
Not even my axe could crack through that shell! And it had this long rasping tongue that flailed about like a whip so we couldn’t attack it from the front! Neither side was working out for me. What else could I do? I decided to go for it anyways!”
Gasps came from the crowd as Zaniyah described in gruesome detail on how she baited the snail into whipping its tongue about her arm, and how she planted her feet into the ground so she could tear it clean off. The visceral nature of the details she used left some women pale in the face while others were unable to move their hands away from their mouths.
“And now I know what to tell Alton when he asks why no one touched the pickled snails,” muttered Sybil.
Popping one of the morsels in her mouth, Iofea shrugged. “It’s a shame. They’re quite tasty… Zaniyah is also doing a wonderful job of telling her stories.”
That was the plan. Make Zaniyah lovable. It was an easy task as long as she wasn’t expected to act like a lady. Of course, Iofea was also wanting to make Magdalena look bad for casting Zaniyah out from her home, but the woman was to busy talking with another woman about Vincent’s recent marriage interview.
“I can kill things too,” whispered Ivy under her breath.
Her mission in Carapace had devolved to following Gwyn around and making sure no one bothered her while she grew her flowers. Either that or accompanying Moss whenever he needed a “date” for events. It was never an actual date, but he was often expected to not show up alone whenever he was invited out. Ivy hated it because Moss wouldn’t let her hit on other men while they were together, even though it wasn’t a real date.
Gwyn gave a gentle pat to her friend’s shoulder. “Depending on how the miasma reacts to springtime, they may allow us to enter the core and assist in ridding it of tainted beasts.” Though it depended on what the second year knights had to say, as well as what news came in from the north.
People had started to call it a war. There were already soldiers returning with grievous injuries and stories of the horrific beasts that murdered everything that drew near. The army had become disorganized, making it difficult to receive letters or information from the battlefield. Despite that, rumors had come in that Theodoric, the previous head of the student body, had been crippled. Treant Squad Knight Clytia Anemone had died when she attempted to save the members of her assigned unit.
None of that mattered seemed to matter to the people of Carapace and the Braytons squires were becoming sick of it. The nobles didn’t appear to have a grasp on what it meant to be in a battle and yet loved to hear the details of one. Most of the group didn’t wish to entertain with stories of their own fights, but Zaniyah fully delved into them.
Anais looked around. She was small and boring looking. There would be a chance people would be interested in her if they knew she was from Crookstead, but for the wrong reasons. Everyone appeared to be more interested in Gwyn or Sybil. The outstanding beauty and Alton’s wife who had been hanging out with the prince. This came as a relief to herself. She could look around at the books or stand near her friends without feeling worried about stranger danger.
“I suppose this isn’t as interesting as going out on patrol, but it’s different than the parties in Crookstead. I wouldn’t call it fun, but it is… Something.” She smiled at Chickadee.
The little blacksmith was wearing a dress and had a light dusting of makeup. No one could tell that he was an invading male unless he spoke up. He had resolved to force himself to stay with his friends to make sure that they were alright, no matter how uncomfortable it made him.
“It’s boring,” he said quietly, being careful not to let anyone hear his voice.
“I prefer this rather than being around he whose idiocy knows no bounds.” Sybil couldn’t badmouth the prince publically. She had to find workarounds to let those around her know of her displeasure.
People were also hesitant to approach as long as she kept a group around her. Perhaps that explained why Duxton always kept his allies close. This was the one tactic she had learned from him that she was willing to use.
Occasionally, she would see someone glance in her direction and hold a hand to their mouth as they whispered something to someone else, but Sybil didn’t mind. Let them talk. Hopefully, she would never deal with any of these people again.
Zaniyah came prancing back after she was done with her tales of adventure. “I got invited to go out with some people for lunch. They want to take me to these gardens and we’re going to look at flowers. I guess that’s a good thing?”
Iofea wagged her finger at the idea. “Leave them wanting for more, dear. Why don’t we all stay together until everything winds down and go home? The girls from the other squad can come as well. Cherish your friendships while you can and have as much fun as you’re able.”
Sitting back, Sybil listened to those around her talk. Gwyn and Ivy offered stories about working with the hospital and how some of the clients that had hired them for other work, and Anais spoke of the animals she had worked with. Chickadee sat next to Sybil and occasionally would explain the truth behind the embellishments Zaniyah put on her stories.
After the party had finished, they went back to the Toval estate and gathered in the garden. They then split into two teams and made snow forts while Iofea sat back to watch. Sybil and Zaniyah tossed snowballs at Baron Squad, who were playing mostly on the defensive.
“It isn’t fair if your team has a mage!” Ivy hollered out after she had been pelted particularly hard a projectile thrown by Zaniyah.
“That’s why we put him in charge of defenses!” Sybil called back.
The Baron members had long lumps of snow to hide behind, but those of Grimstone were sitting pretty on top of a miniature castle. Chickadee was in a chair at the highest point. He was still wearing a dress and was sipping tea in a dainty manner, making sure to leave his pinky out.
He held his nose high in the air and spoke with a sense of nobility. “The princess demands that these commoners silence their protests.”
“You guys also have a mage!” Zaniyah pointed to Anais, whose eyes went wide at the accusation. “That makes our sides completely equal!”
“No, it doesn’t!” Gwyn cried back. It might have been more equal if she could grow her plants, but the ground was frozen solid.
Iofea tilted her head to the side as Zynn bent down to whisper to her. “Zaniyah!” The lady called out. “Would you step inside for a moment?”
Zaniyah followed the two indoors and into a parlor. Philomena was waiting there for them. She was holding a handkerchief to her face, and tears were streaming down her eyes.
Zynn went to stand behind her chair. “Sis, this is Philomena. She’s a friend of mine,” he explained. “... We’ve known each other for years. She used to take her brother to the core entrance.”
Of course, Zaniyah knew Vincent’s sister, but this was the closest she had ever managed to get to her without Philomena fighting for an excuse to leave. “Hey, it’s okay.” She walked up and gave Philomena a hug. “This is a good place. Nothing bad is going to happen here.”
“Can’t get any worse after the bad stuff that’s already happened.” Zynn rubbed the back of his head. “She, uh, you see Zani…” He struggled with his words. “They, uh, well they canceled Philomena’s engagement and asked her to leave the house. Vincent’s being held up to her responsibilities now, so he’s going to enroll in the university so that he can take over for their dad when he retires.”
“No, he’s not.” The series of words that just spewed out from her brother’s mouth made little to no sense to Zaniyah. “He’s going to go back to Braytons and finish up his paladin training. Then he’s going to travel all over Lustro to beat up baddies.”
Philomena shook her head. “I’m sorry... I’m so very sorry. I never thought you or Vincent would get caught up in this, I just…”
Zaniyah hugged her all the more tightly. “Hey, this isn’t your fault! It’s the fact that your parents are giant, selfish jerks. I mean, I don’t really know why you would think it’s your fault in the first place...”
Zynn cleared his throat. “Ah, well…” He shrugged. “... Sorry, sis.”
“Really?” Zynn nodded at her question. “Really, really?” Zaniyah’s face lit up with a big smile. “I mean, how is that bad? What’s worse is having a kid grow up without both their parents, right? Well, neither of us had a father growing up, but I can’t imagine going through life without mom. Plus, that makes you my older sister! Well, I guess you would’ve been anyways because things are going to work out between me and Vincent, but now you’re my double sister and that’s double great!”
Her words did little to cheer up Philomena. She kept shaking her head and apologizing while Zaniyah assured her that everything would work out.
“Come on, dear.” Iofea eased Zaniyah away from Philomena. “Let’s let them talk for a bit, alright?”
They left the room while Zynn knelt down in front of Philomena. He was talking in a low whisper that Zaniyah couldn’t make out. She frowned as Iofea continued to coax her out of the room.
“I’ll look out over them,” she promised Zaniyah. “There’s a lot of strings I can pull in this city and I won’t let Magdalena get away with tossing out her own daughter. She can spin this any way she wants to, but the people will turn on her eventually.”
She trusted Iofea. Things can and will get done if she’s involved. “I suppose it’ll be a bother if I asked for help with my own problems?”
“Dear Philomena has stated that Vincent will be coming by this evening to tell you the news personally.” Iofea rested her hand on Zaniyah’s cheek. “Remember what I told you about my own youth?”
Zaniyah nodded. Despite Iofea being happy now, it took a long time to get to this point. This was her way of warning that Zaniyah needed to take a look at what she wanted for herself before she jumped to any conclusions... And she was right.
This wasn’t like with Alton and Sybil. She wasn’t willing to change everything about herself just to be able to stay with Vincent. Today proved that. Iofea opened her eyes to what her life could be, and she didn’t like what she saw. Zaniyah could never be happy being a high class noble. The idea of being like that was… Terrible. All these women ever did was sit around at home all day managing the estates of their husbands.
That’s what she had learned today. She loved to tell stories of her adventures, but she needed to be out there in the world in order to have them. Zaniyah wanted to keep having fun out there in the world, and Vincent wasn’t even a part of her dreams when she first conceived them. He was the secret seasoning to her pickled snails. It made them taste perfect, but you could still enjoy them without it.
What would she even do if she wanted to stay with him? Braytons was her university. The idea of leaving there and trying to find a new way of life was impossible... What would that even be like? She and Vincent get married, she has a bunch of kids fall out between her legs, and she turns into the perfect wife? … What exactly was a perfect wife?
The vacant expression on her face was making Iofea worried. “Sometimes we have a way of overthinking matters and trying to solve problems that aren’t there. Why don’t you let us help out Philomena and you go talk with your friends? A different perspective or distraction would do you well.”
“Yeah, of course.” Zaniyah laughed her thoughts away. “... I’ll be outside if you need me.”
By the time she had gotten back to her friends, the whole battle had devolved into Ivy pinning Chickadee to the ground while Anais profusely apologized to him. Normally he would’ve tossed her off of him at this point, but she had used his dress against him.
Ivy knew how to win a fight against another girl. Petalmist had taught her that much. Those lessons were passed onto Gwyn, who was lying in a panting heap next to Sybil. Neither had the strength to continue.
The redhead was eventually was convinced to stop sitting on Chickadee long enough to let him breathe, and they gathered together by a fire indoors. Just as quickly as he returned home, Alton excused himself to get ready for the duke’s party. The girls from Baron had to leave to do the same.
As Sybil also retreated to get her things together to go, it left Chickadee and Zaniyah alone in her room. They had been spending their evenings together, and occasionally they’d go visit their families at the Cully residence, but it was somewhat lonely compared to the barracks life. Zaniyah laid on her bed and stared at the ceiling while Chickadee read a book.
“Are you going to visit home today?” She looked over at Chickadee, who nodded. He didn’t see a reason not to. “I have a stomach ache from all that sweet wine I drank this morning… Mind if I hang back this time?”
Chickadee stared at her for a minute and then shook his head. “Stay here. Need something brought back?”
Adjusting herself so her head was upside down and hanging off the side of the bed, Zaniyah frowned. “I don’t know... Maybe some of mom’s cooking? With that many people crammed in one place, I doubt there’s any food left, but I can’t think of anything else.”
He walked over and ruffled her hair. “Will surprise you. Cheer up.”
If there was one person who could see when she was depressed, it was always Chickadee. She sat up with a big smile. “It better be a good one. Something absolutely amazing.” Her finger pointed at him. “I won’t accept mediocrity!”
Snickering to himself, Chickadee grinned in return. “Starve with anticipation.”
Zaniyah waved him off and chose to stay in her room until Vincent arrived. She had a feeling that she’d break down if she was forced to talk to anyone else. Time slowed down to a crawl, and she eventually passed out due to boredom.
The sensation of someone gently grasping her shoulder awoken her. Suddenly she was full of fear as she sat up with a start. Now or never. It felt like the weight of the world was on her shoulders, and she knew that her future was going to be decided tonight.
Vincent was looming over her. The expression of shock and awe on her face was worrisome. “Apologies if I am being a bother.”
“No!” Zaniyah froze in place.
What should she do? She wanted to tackle him to the floor and cover him in kisses. It had only been a few days since she saw him last, but it felt like an eternity. Just seeing him here, knowing she could talk to him and touch him… It’s what she longed for, and yet it was so painful at the same time.
Vincent sat on the edge of the bed and gave her a weak smile. “Zani, we need to-”
“I already know.” She curled her knees to her chest and looked off to the side. “Zynn spoiled the surprise for me. I mean, it makes no sense, right? But how are they even going to find a university uniform to fit you? You’re so bulky that you already look ridiculous in regular clothing. I can’t imagine what a proper suit would look like.”
He smiled at her odd observation. “If that is your major concern, then-”
“I’m not done yet!” Zaniyah winced. “I’m sorry, let me finish...” She took a deep breath. “We should break up, Vincent.” Her eyes darted to his stunned expression and then down again. “I mean, we haven’t been together for long. It’s better to end it sooner rather than hold out for failure, right?
I can’t be your wife, Vincent. I don’t even know where we’re going with this. There were so many wonderful things you promised me for my future, and I’m going to do them all. If you can’t be there with me, I’m going to do them anyways. I can’t, and I won’t give up my dreams to be with you. I’m not going to go through life doing boring things and regretting never going on my adventures.”
“I would never in a thousand years ask you to live that life,” he whispered. “Your happiness has always been my priority when it comes to our relationship... If I am not able to provide the future you want, then I won’t stand in your path.”
Zaniyah looked up at him again. There was a painful lump forming in her throat. “I-I…” Tears began to stream down her cheeks. “I don’t want that at all! I want you there too! We’re supposed to…. With the baddies… And the beating them up...” She sniffled.
Vincent held his arms wide with a kind smile on his face. Zaniyah collapsed into him. She clutched onto the edges of his jacket as she began to bawl. He, in turn, rubbed at her back for a moment before embracing her in a tight hug.
“Do you wish to know a secret?” He whispered softly into her ear. “... I am incapable of being anything but a paladin. The idea of inheriting my father’s work is terrifying... I have no yearning for bureaucracy. That is not how I wish to help people, nor does is it make me capable of doing so... I must be out there in the world.”
“But you’re stuck here doing stupid school things.” Zaniyah kept her head buried. “I hate this.”
Vincent nodded his head. “I know you do.” He took a slow breath. “If we were to have one last night together, how would you wish to spend it?”
She tensed up again, her mind going blank at the question. Any time she had asked him to do something perverted, he would always force himself and be uncomfortable with it... But that isn’t what she wanted right now.
“I’d spend it making sure that it wasn’t our last night together.”
“And how would you do that?” He was interested in what her opinion was.
“I don’t know... Sheer willpower?” Zaniyah let out a nasally squeak as she tried to inhale sharply while letting out a yelp at the same time. “V-Vincent?” He had pushed her down on the bed and was now hovering over her.
He bit onto his bottom lip for a moment and then started to unbutton her blouse. “May I make a suggestion?”
The last time he had made a suggestion, it was to knock her up so his family would be forced to accept her. There certainly were some fun parts of the plan. Mostly the idea of having sex with him, but that wasn’t the point. His family had just cast out his sister for having had a child with someone they didn’t approve of and it might be the same for Vincent.
“I-I really don’t think this is a g-good idea,” she stammered out.
Vincent smirked and lifted his hands from her clothing. “I was going to suggest you change your clothes. You must steal Gypsum and come with me back to Braytons. Immediately, if you can manage it .”
Her face was red and she wasn’t sure if she was hearing him correctly. “To Braytons? But the road... There was an avalanche, not to mention tainted beasts. We don’t have the supplies and what we’d about nighttime?”
He took her hands into his own as he sat up. “I have everything planned out. We will bide our time in Outcore and leave as soon as the snow starts to melt in spring. But, we would have to leave tonight. This may be my only chance to disappear.”
A sense of relief washed over Zaniyah. She put her hand on his cheek and gave a nod. “They probably won’t bother you if you’re back at the barracks, right? We’ll be fine.”
Vincent’s face was a mix of emotions at that moment. Love, fear, admiration, relief. He wanted to embrace her at that moment. “Pack what you will need. No one will notice if we leave quickly.”
Giving him a brief nod, Zaniyah slipped away to gather her equipment. She traveled light, as she didn’t have much she needed to bring other than her clothing and armor. Everything was quickly stuffed into her travel sack and slung over her shoulder.
“Ready!” She was feeling more excited than she had been in weeks. “Let’s go!”