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Author note: ...I have to be honest. When writing the last part of this chapter...I misted  up. 

There isn't much going on in this chapter, but tell me what you thought of it. Ah, and they've alreeady been  on the road for a while now, won't take too long to reach Zeshar now.

I will edit this later, as always. Remember to rate, review and comment on whatever you wish.

*******************

Balmont was a smaller city, one overseen by a minor Noble. A baron by the name of Hearn, a soldier who many years back gained enough accomplishments to be given the title. Balmont, to be clear, was not an actual Barony. 

Their ruler, Mayor Hearn, held the title but little more. Being named a "Baron" was, in essence, an honorary title to reward certain outstanding people for their merits. They didn't have many obligations or duties above taking care of the city, raising soldiers, and answering the call if they were ever needed.

The baron was born and raised in Balmont, so after the previous Mayor died of old age Queen Evelyn stepped in and gave Hearn auhority over the lands. Needless to say he and his family, having been a lower-middle class family before this, became loyal followers of the Queen due to that.  

To explain a bit about how the Queen held the power to make a decision on her own like that, and why the family became loyal to her and not the King...

Well, it was because Drann Kingdom was ruled primarily by a line of Queens.

 The word "Kingdom" just meant a land ruled by a monarch, and the word king simply meant--bluntly speaking--the "top dog" of the Kingdom.

In older times that are long past, monarchies used to only be ruled by a male. Therefore the term "king"--note the lower-case "k"--began to be associated with the ruler himself, and the term queen as merely the wife of a ruler. 

This long trend of male rulers all changed at some point when the first Queendoms--entirely new nations governed at the very beginning by a female--came into existence. But most nations couldn't make the mental change of associating "queen" with "ruler" rather than the "wife of a ruler". 

So while a line of female rulers eventually sprang up in a few previously male-ruled nations, the nation and it's people would simply keep calling itself a Kingdom even though it was ruled by a Queen. 

And this is also why any Queen can call herself "a king"--a ruler of a nation--instead of The King. With a capital. Usually they would be addressed as the Queen, Queen whatever-their-names-were, Your Highness, etc...

Drann Kingdom being ruled by Queens had been something that has already gone on for some years now, and some even wanted to officially change the widely known "Drann Kingdom" into "Drann Queendom" or some such thing. 

Wouldn't change how things are already run, but what it would do is make things a lot less confusing.

...It was all very complicated, and Lyle's head hurt whenever he thought too much about it.  

Getting back from that little history lesson, to describe Balmont, It had high wall surrounding it like many cities in Drann kingdom. There were watchtowers along it's walls too.

The inside of Balmont had several districts which surrounded the small castle in the center. It was sort of mish-mashed together, and although you got a general feel of the land if you spent time here, you would still have trouble finding exactly what story you want to visit or what district you were in unless you were a local.  

The  good thing about it was that the ground around the city was nice and flat, wide too. The gates were very large as well, and the road into the city was made so that numerous amouns of carriages and caravans and other small companies could squeeze onto it easily.

As such, they had a few travelers riding along with them right now. Some traffic, not much, but still.

The city had a nice feel to it. Lively. Stall owners lined along the main road, people coming and going through the city.

Iris crinkled her nose beside him.

"Brother, the smell is a bit..." 

To her, the city smelt...moldy? No, well, something else too. It was ripe, a mix of many different things. There were spicey, herb-like smells tied together with the scent of cooking meat or baked goods, but underneath that there was a fe other smells which were distinctly unpleasant.

Like urine. And wet dog. General uncleanliness. It was strange. Like in Ustrax and Varric. 

She tried not to complain about it, though. She didn't want her brother to find her bothersome, like a spoiled little girl who couldn't take even a bit of harship or discomfort.

But it wasn't something she was used to, this kind of foul air. Or rather than completely foul, it was different. There were good smells too, like she said, but it was sort of a sensory overload...

Still, Iris didn't want to trouble her brother overmuch...

"I know, it takes some getting used to. But you'll barely notice it once you do." 

"..."

Iris said nothing. She didn't want to get used to it, really.

She hesitated. "Brother, can I hug you?" She scooted closer, asking quietly.

"What? Why?" Lyle paused as he looked around. "Iris, now is a bit..." 

He was a tad troubled by the sudden and slightly strange request. Although they were sitting next to each other as he drove the carriage behind the caravan in front, they were still surrouned by other travelers who came on horsback.

Allowing her to do that while out in public like this...

Lyle then saw her big, hopeful round eyes. They stared up at him silently, bright and clear. 

She clutched at his arm, her small hands grabing hold of him. Her blonde hair was framing her delicate face, making her expression even more destructive.

He sighed. 

...Ah, well, what did it really matter? 

"Alright, fine." He replied coolly. "Do what you want."

Iris smiled, instantly burying her face against his side.

"...Ah, much better...Now I don't have to be troubled. Thank you, big brother."

Because she could now only smell her brother's scent, which she liked, she no longer had to endure the strange smells from before. She also appreciated his warmth. 

Recently her brother felt hotter. He was always warm-feeling, but these days it was more pronounced. Like a small fireplace. It calmed her. It did at times make her restless, but not very much, and it wasn't a bad feeling either.

As for Lyle, he had no trouble letting her do this. It looks like he was worried for nothing. These changes in his body were odd, but not as extreme as he feared--at least he didn't see any indication as of yet. 

He could touch women, briefly, and it wouldn't affect him much. The amout of skin-to-skin contact was also a factor, he found. 

How did he know this, some may ask? 

Because he casually made a few experiments with Melanie and Cecelia without their notice. 

He felt bad doing so, but he had to know if a reaction like before would spring up whenever he even momentarily touched a woman, or if the reaction changed. Maybe the first time was the worst, maybe the reaction differed depending on a few variables.

So he experimented.

Like clapping Cecelia on the shoulder, or helping Melanie down the carriage by holding her hand.

Small things that were part of what he usually would do, nothing like just outright grabbing them without explanation.

This was like playing with fire. What if Lyle lost control during an experiment, what if a reaction like before sprung up and he assaulted them?

Obviously Lyle would think of this. 

But Lyle knew already that he was able to not immediately lose his self-control. This was a fact.  

He also prepared some things to stop himself. He wouldn't let himself do this otherwise. He knew that pain made the fire more bearable. So a few days ago he went and foraged for a plant called the Blue-Needle Stinging Bush.

This plant had needle-like hairs on it that cause geat pain and also has a slight paralyzing effect. Both of which would last for around twenty minutes it you pricked yourself with the hairs--Although this was supposed to actually last twice that, it's just that Lyle's body weakened it greatly.

They were a not-so common type plant in these parts of the world, but they can be found if you knew where to look. 

He took some of the plant and decided to use them against himself if the need called for it.

But that aside, as for his experiments...he found that it was not as bad as he thought. The amount of skin touched is important, and the lengths of time. If he just poked a woman then no significant reaction would occur.

If he put a finger to a woman's skin for a long period, that may change. But he couldn't test that out without it seeming weird. Moving on, if a woman touched his hand with her own without any clothing between them then he would immediately feel a fire build inside him in response. 

Yet it was not as wild and unbearable as that first time. He pretty much recreated what happened the first time, and confimed that things were different now.

As for why, he didn't know. Lyle thought that maybe his body was getting used to the changes or something. Or maybe the larger effects only happened randomly, or during certain times.

He wasn't able to tell. 

He just assumed he was getting used to it, but couldn't be sure.  

Lyle discovered something more, too. And it was that he didn't have any great reaction when it was with Iris.

It seemed to not work well when it was with blood relatives? Probably. He believed it was so.

Although Iris touching him like this did make his body slightly react, it was almost negligible. So much so that he doubted anything would happen even if she were touching him directly like this for hours.

He was great relieved that this was the case. So Lyle permitted her hug. If it were not like this, if  he responded to her touch like how he did with Melanie and Cecelia, he would never let her hold onto him like this. 

Ever.

He would rather never touch her again than risk ruining her due to some uncontrollable force making him react towards her. 

He loved Iris, he never wanted to hurt her. Especially not like that...

If he ever did... 

No, he couldn't think about it. Wouldn't.

"The Young Miss looks to be enjoying herself, I'm almost envious of her." Melanie, by Lyle's other side, whispered softly with a small laugh.

Although a bit abnormal, watching the love and affection the two siblings had for each other warmed her heart. It was so adorable... 

You could truly feel how fierce their love was, especially in regards to the Young Miss, Iris. Though perhaps it could also be called overbearing...

Lyle's eyes briefly lit up mischieviously in response to her voice.

"Oh? Well then would you like to join her?" He teased.  

As expected, she did nothing but reveal a faint redness which crept up along her ears. 

Melanie felt her heart skipped a beat at the words, the mere thought of doing so making her face hot.

She huffed. "Young Master, saying such things...you're awful..."

Lyle raised a brow in surprise, pleased with her response. Lately she appeared to be able to talk more casually towards him, and he liked it. 

"It's not my fault." Lyle began as if wronged. "  Your reactions are simply too cute. I can't help myself."

"So you really were just teasing me..." 

"Whether or not I'm just teasing you, why don't you decide?" His smile spoke volumes.

Though he knew he may be in trouble if she did, he understood that Melanie wouldn't do such a bold thing. She was a shy person, she would have to work up a lot of courage in order to do so.

Lyle felt something pinch his side.

It was Iris, who spoke up in dissatisfaction. 

"Big brother, flirting like this...I dislike it." She pouted.

Melanie was speechelss. 

F-flirting, she says...Was that what was happening, Melanie wondered. She had never did anything of the like, so...

"No, no, dear sister. There's a difference between teasing and flirting."

"Like what?"

"I can't exactly put into words what the difference is right now, but when I can I'll be sure to tell you."

Flirting, huh... that may be an accurate choice of words, now that he thought of it. He had secretly decided some time ago that he'd try and court her. The reason for this being him wanting to make things easier for her.

Melanie currently didn't know where her feelings on the matter between them laid. 

If courting her showed unfruitful, if she still didn't show any romantic feelings for him, then he'd stop. At that time it would be obvious that a relationship was out of the question.  

Of course, it's not like he was just playing around with her. If she did actually start liking him romantically then he'd take it seriously. 

"Trying to avoid this... Hmph. Big brother, if you truly have to tease someone then you should do so towards me instead." 

"No."

"Why not?" 

"Because rather than teasing, that'd just be spoiling you." 

"I see no problem with that, big brother."

"Really? Well if you pass a little test of mine then I suppose I could do so for a bit."

"What test?" She looked suspicious.

"I'll give it to you in a bit. But treat this as a real-life situation. This scenario I'm about to give, pretend it's real, okay? I'm serious here."

"Real, got it." She nodded.

" Alright." Lyle said. " So, you're at an auction house and a full set of armor costs 800 gold. You buy the set along with a good sword which costs 500 gold. You go on to buy some other desired items which altogether costs another 125 gold. Another half hour passes by, and you get more items which in total costs 90 gold.

How much do you pay when you move to leave?"

Melanie heard all this and was stunned. She knew Lyle pretty well, and sensed something amiss. This question couldn't be what it appeared. And she had a hunch she understood what he was trying to do.

Even so, she felt she had to try and step in. "Young Miss..."

"Don't!" Iris stopped her. If she was given the answer by someone else, he brother wouldn't count it. "I can answer it just fine. It's easy. Let's see...1515 gold...?"

She was confident she was right! 

"Wrong." Lyle cut her down instantly. 

She showed a dumbfounded expression. "...Eh?"

"Iris, I told you to treat this as if it were a real situation. What sort of armor costs 800 gold? You got swindled. You're penniless. Bankrupt. Homeless."

Iris looked about to cry, extremely pitiful.

"Big brother, that...! That's not fair! S-swindled? But I answered the question right!"

" Yes, you showed that you can add numbers. But this was just to test your common sense. I told you, most swords would not cost more than 10 or so silver. More depending on the quality. No normal armor, even a full set, would ever reach above past 30 or 50 silver. That's all excluding anything made from precious materials or ores, but we're not talking about that right now.

Common folk usually deal with copper coins, and silver a bit less commonly while gold coins are rarely used by them. As for platinum coins, never. 100 copper coins equals 1 silver coin. Even supplies of food and water we bought earlier only cost 10 silver altogther. 

A normal person wouldn't spend more than a a few copper on a small treat bought at a stall or something, and groccery items wouldn't be more than a few silver.

How can you expect a sword to be much higher than that? Swords aren't cheap, not at all, but they can't be too expensive or else not many would be able to afford them! You fail! Miserably!"

Iris wasn't able to take it. 

Her brother did take the time to teach her some things about money and the value of items, but he tricked her! 

"Big brother, you're too mean..." Her eyes misted up, going puffy.

Lyle didn't have the heart to be too harsh on her. He rubbed her back soothingly.

"Don't be like that, Iris. It's alright." 

"...Brother, you tricked me..it's not fair..." 

" The world isn't fair. I tricked you, yes. I'm sorry. I know I was wrong to do so. But you should have caught on. I just don't want you to really get tricked by someone in the future. Knowing the value of things is important, so is spotting when something's wrong. You knew those numbers were insane, but you said nothing. You can't just accept things like that, Iris."

"...I understand..."

When she thought of it, he did this for her sake, right? And she did know that such numbers were outrageous...

Yet she didn't speak out about it... 

She now knew, if she just questioned him then she would have passed. 

"Now, enough of these tears. I won't do something like this again, promise."  

Iris calmed down after a minute, though she did sniffle a bit. Which made Lyle feel terrible. 

It wasn't long until things went back to normal, with the three of them--mainly Lyle and Melanie--talking amicably.

**********

Meanwhile, through the window, Cecelia watched them with a peculiar look on her face.

...They appeared peaceful. Comfortable. 

Iris never liked her. Cecelia understood that very well. Yet it seemed that she could tolerate Melanie. It meant that the atmosphere around them was much better than it would be if it were Cecelia there instead of Melanie.

Cecelia couldn't help but once again, for the third time, look at the contents of the letter Lyle's mother handed her.

Dear  Cecelia,

 I assume that by now  it's been at least a few days since I handed this to you and that you've worked up enough courage to open this letter of mine. You must be wondering what I have to say, yes? I won't waste time on pleasantries. 

If you want to know what this letter is about, I will have to disappoint you. It's not my position to talk about it. I won't tell you. Instead, I'll have you see for yourself.

So I suggest that you look around and notice a few things. Go ahead. I'll wait. You done? Good. What did you see? Notice any...strangeness? No, you must have, now that you were told to look for anything amiss. You know. You can tell with a glance, can't you? 

Those two, they seem different from normal, right? But of course they do. Maybe more..."friendly"? A bit awkward too, perhaps? Like a pair of new young lovers, I wonder? Well, it wouldn't be a surprise...

...After all, they've already done "that" with each other. Yes, your read right. Trust me, I was surprised to learn of it too.

I should think that you feel many things right now. Jealous. Angry. Sad. But worry not. Because it's not as bad as you think. Make no mistake, they did have quite a passionate few minutes together, but that boy of mine stopped himself before it could escalate further. For whatever reason it may be, I think he was a bit muddle-headed at the time.  For him to do such shameless things to a young maiden like her is unlike the usual him.   

I think his libido got a bit out of hand or something, who knows. Oh well, whatever. In any case, you should take care, my dear. Those two may very well get together if you aren't careful. I favor you, you know that, but it's his choice. I'll help you if I can, but you'll have to do the heavy lifting yourself.

Ah, but I should get to the real point.

Cecelia, if you continue as you are, you'll regret it. He thinks of you as a friend, nothing more. It's not that he is a fool, but that you were almost like a sister to him before he broke up with Sophia. As such he never considered you a love interest, and he won't even now if things continue as they have between you two. You've been thoroughly friend-zoned, my girl. I pity you.

If you want to break out of it, then you can't leave things ambiguous like this. You're a shy one when it comes to things like this, but you'll have to grow a pair eventually or else you'll always  only ever remain in that hateful position you currently hold. 

Tell him. Because if those two ever decide to get together, you'll have lost your chance. And you likely won't get another. Well, not unless you plan to break up another of his relationship. Not that I would care. All's fair in love and war.  And as long as you don't resort to killing, it's fine. I know people who killed less, you know.

Sincerely, Alyssa.

P.S. A word of advice. About what you did, never tell him. Not a word. Ever. You understand better than I what would happen if you did. I personally don't mind, if it were me at your age I most assuredly would have done worse, but if you tell him...  Then even if he doesn't hate you, or be angry at you, he'll likely never trust you again in this lifetime. 

...I think he suspects something, honestly. Suspects that you did something that day, that maybe you caused it. I think that perhaps, deep down, he always did. But he'll deny any doubts, because he trusts you. 

Don't prove those suspicions right. 

If he ever asks, lie. 

Lie, and he'll believe you.

 Because more than anything, he'll want to.

...Cecelia had a lot to ponder after reading all of that. But one thing stuck out at her.

The way those two interacted with each other...it really was different from normal. 

The way he looked at the older girl, it was different. He never looked at Cecelia like that. Not once. Not that she can remember. Even if he complimented her, found her beautiful...that kind of gaze, he never showed it to her.

It was different from lust, from desire. A bit. It was more like a certain awareness. At least that's what she thought of it as. She couldn't properly explain it. Was it because of the fact that they--He and Melanie--had been intimate?

Cecelia didn't know. And wasn't sure how the knowledge of what they did together made her feel. Not exactly. 

She hated it, not knowing. She felt it childish, being so hung up on it. It was foolish. She thought that all of this was foolish. 

Her, being so confused and trustrated over a matter like this one. As time went on, she worried about it more and more. She began to care more about how he viewed her, and that was ridiculous. 

She didn't want to become some useless woman who's thoughts revolved around the person they liked. Cecelia had her own aspirations, things she wanted to do in life. 

She wanted him by her side during it, that was all...

But if he found someone who suited him, that was also fine. She wanted what was best for him. Obviously. 

It didn't have to be her.

...Right. As long as he was happy, that was enough. 

Because he was her friend. 

And she wanted that for him. 

So why did seeing those three looks so comfortable and content with each other make her so uneasy?

*********

"Mini beef cakes, get delicious mini beef cakes here! 10 copper a piece!"

"Fur coats, fur coats for sale! Only 3 silver!"

"Miracle pills! Life-extending pills! 20 silver! Cures all illness, the gods are truly kind and benevolent to everyone!"

"No one listen to that hack! 20 silver, a fucking cheat he is! Cure illnesses, my ass! Fuck you!"

"The gods hate you, you're cursed, that's why they didn't work! Go, away with you, demon-spawn!"

" Get high-quality good right here! Interesting artifacts from around the world! Nothing above 10 silver! You won't find a better deal anywhere else!"

"I'm selling that same, 5 silver, screw that last guy!"

"Herman, you bastard, fuck off!"

"You fuck off, you damn bitch!"

" You can't call me a bitch, boy, I ain't your mother!"

"I'll kill you!"

"That's fine, just let me fuck your wife one more time before you do, that little vixen's got a pretty nice technique!"

"You...!"

...Lyle covered Iris' ears long before that last man made the wife-fucking comment. As he strode by he gave them both a fierce glare, full of dark promise.

"Another word and you both die."

After the menacing aura seeping out of the young man reached them, neither man dared utter even a syllable more.

"...Bell's become a real stiff lately, hasn't he, Nyk my good man?" Murphy, a bit ahead of the others and hearing all this, commented to his older friend.

" He's a caring brother." Nyk replied simply.

To explain, for the past few days Bell had gone around and either glared at or smacked anyone who made a cuss word within earshot of his sister. He said that he didn't want her to pick up their foul language. 

He noticed only recently just how often the rough mercanaries cussed, enough to be mistaken for sailors.  

Bell cussed sometimes too, but not to that great a degree. Murphy understood that all this spawned from the time when his sister uttered a cuss word, mimicking the others.

As soon as the brother heard her using language like that, he immediately cracked down on everyone. Literally everyone. 

He threatened, stared daggers at, and once or twice even outright beat anyone(mainly Murphy) who cussed. He was serious. 

It wasn't that he was just being mean on purpose, but that he cared about his sister and didn't want her picking up bad habits like those. Honestly, he talked about her nonstop before, praising her like she was heaven's beloved daughter or something--not that it wasn't understandable now that they saw her. Annoying adorable little bugger, that she was. 

But now he didn't do that at all. Instead he seemed more irritable. Over-protective. As. Fuck.

....It was a real hassle. Always having to watch yourself, how you speak. Well, whatever. Even the mercs thought it would be a shame to taint a young girl's mind with rough, coarse words like what they used. 

Such a angelic-looking little girl, how could they bear to do so?

Would be a damn sin, that. 

" Hey, Bell!" Val's pleasant-sounding voice called, shouting above the loud talking and music from the street performers to reach the other's ears.

"Come on, we're going to the Red Boar Inn! Follow us!" 

By the gates to the city, there was a large section. This section had a metal fence around it, and guards patrolling it. It housed a space where larger vehicles like caravans could be stationed.

You were assigned a lot and given a wooden disk with a number and seal of authenticity placed on it. They couldn't be easily replicated, and you had to have the disk if you wished to be able to take your vehicle out.

This is where they parked the caravans.  Carriages weren't usually accepted, but their's was large enough to be a bit of a nuisance if used in the city where many people came and went.

So everyone was pretty much walking on foot, and it was fairly easy to be lost in a city like this if you weren't careful.

The Haddock mercenaries didn't come often, at least this group, so didn't know much about the lay of the land. But luckily one of the people traveling with them was born here and Jaime had the woman lead them.

"Melanie, Iris, Cecelia, come on. We shouldn't stray too far." Lyle took Iris' hand and turned to see one of them lagging behind.

Melanie, the oldest of their band of four, had gotten distracted when a stall owner began trying to sell her some shady-looking items.

"Ah, fair maiden, look here! Take a gander at these! See this? It's a nifty little ointment that clears up skin and make it look like a baby's bottom! Though, you don't need it...Aha, but what about this! A pearl from the Western Plains, a charm that brings good luck to all who wears it! For a beauty like yourself, it'd be happy to be hung around your neck! "

A fat man proclaimed, eyes flashing with a jovial light as if he truly believed in his words.

"Melanie, we have to go." Lyle called out to her from a few steps away.

The man heard too, and made a sly grin towards the young woman.

"O-ho! Young Miss, your young lover over there is calling you. Quite a good-lookin' lad, reminds me of myself at his age! Hey, hey, why not take this here potion? A true-blue love potion!" 

The man raised a clear glass vial. It was full of a pinkish powder. It glowed beautifully, like tiny grains of pink diamonds. They invoked a feeling of wonder just by looking at them.

He paused and got closer, lowering his voice as if letting out some great secret. 

"Eh, actually, it's not really a love potion, per se. It's a powerful aphrodisiac, Lover's Daydream, as people call it. Perhaps you've hear it's other name, Aine's Kiss?  Even if you hadn't, make no mistake, it's strong stuff! It'll spice up any relationship! Your man'll be all over you, you two'll be at it all day and night, heh!" He laughed lecherously. "Just a pinch'll do, just a pinch! Trust me, Young Miss, this is strong like you wouldn't even believe! It'll have your man ready to go anytime, anyplace! 

" Unfortunately this kind of aphrodisiac don't work on women, but I have one that does if you're interested. As for this one, I'll give it to you for only five silver!...Careful though, not more than a pinch, it's a bit addictive you know! Hah, not that I think you'll mind! Whatdya say, Young Miss?"  

Melanie blushed fiercly at every word, not able to speak for a few second.

Then she spoke with great haste, forcing herself to say, "He-he's not my l-l-lover at all! Don't misunderstand!" It felt like she said the wrong thing though? She should have just said she didn't want it...

"Oh, he's not? Well ya want him to be? Come, come, just a bit of this and he'll be all yers, Young Miss! A strapping young man like him don't come around often, if nothing else his looks are definitely worth even Young Miss' attention right! Also, he seems pretty healthy, eh? Sure to satisfy Young Miss! 

Come on, just five silver and you get a new boy-toy to show off. So? Deal? Yeah?"

Melanie tried to refuse once more, becoming more out of sorts as this embarrassing conversation went on.

"No, that's fine! I don't want it! I-I have to go!"

The chubby man axclaimed, "Young Miss, wait, come back! Look, why not just come and see my other--"

"The lady said she didn't want anything." 

A cold voice cut him off.

Lyle saw that Melanie was taking some time, looking a bit distressed. He walked over just in time to see the fat stall owner bugging her.

"But--" The man began.

"Shut up." Came the harsh reply. 

Iris spoke up too, saying. " Harrassing people like this, it's a wonder you're still in business." She hated people like this, not taking no for an answer. She had no trouble telling them off even if she was a bit bad with strangers. 

"Ah, I'm sorry, truly!" The man apologized, not wanting to argue. He took out another trinket and presented it to them. " Here, you can take this bauble for free and--"

"Don't bother talking again, I don't want to hear it. Melanie, let's hurry, the others are getting pretty far ahead."

Lyle took a hand and put it on her back, gently guiding her away. 

When they were a bit further from the man, the young woman let out a sigh.

"Young Master... Thank you." Melanie was grateful. She was no good with overly pushy people. Ever since those loan sharks from that time she had trouble with talking to those who just wouldn't back down and let you speak. 

They were very...intimidating.

"No problem. " Lyle moved his hand away, forcing down that small heat that had built within him. For some reason it seemed to get a bit stronger compared to the other times?

But he didn't touch her long, and there was no direct skin contact...weird. Whatever. He shouldn't think too much about it, this was a tricky and unpredictable problem. At least he didn't turn into a serial rapist every time he touched a woman.

A good sign, that. It was something...

He met up with Cecelia, who waited for them, and they then disappeared into the crowd together.

**********

"Fey, you alright?" Jaime, at a table in the Red Boar Inn, looked askance towards his pale-looking sister.

"Fine." She snapped back. 

"You don't look it."

"I'm hungry." The short reply was instantaneous.

"Liar. You haven't touched your meal much at all." Jaime observed. 

She looked down at her plate and her eyebrows furrowed ever-so-slightly

" Not for something like this..."

"Oh? You've never been a picky eater..."

"I've recently became one. Or rather, I'm craving a something a bit different these days."

"Different? Like what, exactly?" Jaime couldn't understand. Some people who didn't know much about Blood Elves would think of them as vampire-like beings. 

If they heard her then they may think she was craving blood. But that was impossible. Or, well, not exactly. Their kind could drink blood to do a variety of things. But they wouldn't need it to live, and if they drank it then it wouldn't make them addicted to it. 

They couldn't "hunger" for it. So this craving, it couldn't be for blood. 

Intangible, she says. What could she mean?

"Fey....this couldn't have anything to do with that, right?" 

Phaedra wasn't normal, she wasn't just a half-blood. She was born with another peculiar trait that had little to do with her heritage...

If it was what he thought, then this craving, it could only be for...

Just then, the doors to the Inn opened.

The company of mercs saw Bell and his small entourage walk in. Phaedra glanced at them before turning away. For a fraction of an second Jaime thought he saw her expression waver.

Was that anger? He wasn't sure. 

As soon as she looked back, however, Jaime saw another expression. Something like...satisfaction? And her cheek, they seemed a tad more rosy? What the....

Lyle felt a cetain pair of eyes lock-onto him for an instant. He swept his gaze through the room and stopped at Jaime's table.

He focused on Phaedra's cold, aloof face and an intense annoyance sprang up within him.

It passed moments later, however.

He only had this reaction because for the last few days the girl had kept trying to get him worked up, baiting him at every turn. But he never responded. Not once. 

It was simply that now he grew irritated whenever he felt her looking his way. It was different from before, he no longer fought with her. It was just that her constant bugging grew old fast.

But he was determined to not let her get to him, choosing to not waste time on her pettiness any longer than he had to.

"Iris, Melanie, Cecelia, you guys go find a seat. I'll pay for some rooms and a meal."

"Brother, this place is...Balmont, right? I heard of this place, it's said that they've got the best ice cream sundaes in Drann Kingdom! Hey, brother, brother, when we're done can we go and try some? Please? Pretty please?"

Her entire face brightened when she spoke of it, becoming starry-eyed. It seemed like she had been thinking about this for some time now.

"Ice cream? In this weather?" Lyle thought, It's a bit cold for ice cream, isn't it?

But seeing her all giddy like this, he couldn't say no. "Sure, why not? Melanie, Cecelia, up for some dessert?"

"...Ah, if it's fine with you, then I would like to try some...But, no, I wouldn't want to impose..."

"It's fine, no need to stand on ceremony. Come with us."  He added the last part as a command, knowing she might not be honest and stay indecisive.

"If you're sure, then...Thank you, I'll go." Ice cream was good in any kind of weather, she firmly believed this.

Melanie had a sweet tooth, it's just that she didn't like to eat too many sweets since they were a bit expensive..

But if the Young Master said so, how could she refuse? She just hoped she had enough to pay for her share...

"Cecelia, you?"

"Wouldn't miss it." She replied. She wasn't crazy about frozen treats, especially with it being so cold. But it's not as if she disliked them. 

Iris' excitement instantly died down somewhat. "Big brother, I wanted it to just be you and me..." She whispered to him unhappily. 

They never got much time to themselves...

"The more the merrier, right? Besides, eating with friends will make it more enjoyable."

"...Are they even my friends?" She muttered.

She didn't know how she felt about Melanie currently, she supposed she was okay with her...

But that Cecelia-bitch, she was no good.

Also, when you got down to it, they were both just aiming for her brother. Melanie, that girl, had even...with him, she...

Iris felt her heart clench at the thought, not wanting to continue it. She didn't want to believe it. But there was no reason not to, she even overheard her mother. Could she deny it after hearing that?

Bother of them, they just wanted to take her brother away from her...Now that she thought of it, even Melanie was the same. They wanted to monopolize him...take them for themselves.

she hated them.

She hated her....

...She hated herself...

She was weak...

She--

A voice broke her train of thought.

"Iris, I know you're not satisfied with how it turned out, but bear with it. They're not bad, you've known them for some time now. Let's have some fun, okay? We can go and explore Balmont a bit later, just you and me. Alright?"

Lyle knew his siter well. She wanted to spend time with him, just the two of them. Seeing her make a face like right now, he couldn't deny her that, could he?

He could be firm with her, but lately he found that he didn't want to be.

...Spoiling her just a bit was fine...right? 

Iris looked as animated as she had been before, a blooming smile upon her face that attracted everyone's attention.

"Big brother, you mean it?"

"Of course. Just be patient, 'kay?"

"I'll do it! I'll be patient! I'll be good!" Then, in a smaller voice, she said,"...Brother, I love you."

"...Yeah. I love you too." 

She really was an honest sort, wasn't she? Saying something like that, in a place like this...

Eh, oh well, no harm done. She was, after all, his sister.

Lyle rubbed her head affectionately and moved to the desk at the side of the room.

"Three rooms, one with two beds. Just for the night."

"That'll be 4 and a half silver pieces, meals for the rest of today and next morning included. I'll have Jim whip up something for you and your lady friends. " The elderly woman behind the desk held out a hand.

He paid, recieving the keys to the rooms before going back to take a seat with Iris and the other two young women.

**********

"Hey, Boris." Jaime went to see the man at his table.

"What's up?" He chewed on a chunk of meat.

" Let everyone know to be careful if they wander by themselves. And hide their Company badges from now on. Balmont's recently become part of the Crimson Spear's territory, at least in part. It could get dangerous."

Boris peered at him. "You really think they'll cause any trouble with the Haddocks? And our badges are different, they'll know we're not regular foot soldiers and shit."

"Maybe they won't, but I heard rumour that they swore allegiance to the Tyrant's Eye mercanaries. If true, our trip to Zeshar will become complicated should the Spear report our being here. We won't be troubled here, but the towns and cities near Zeshar will have some Tyrant's Eye members stationed within. They might start something if they know we're going to be in the area. "

"Well fu--" Boris nearly cursed, but saw Bell some feet away talkin' to his harem--the damn lucky bastard--and stopped himself before the boy overheard. "--Darn..." He corrected weakly.

"Yeah. Darn. " Jaime's lips tugged upward in amusement. " Anyway, make sure everyone understands."

"What're you going to be doing that you can't tell them yourself?"

"I've got a hot date to get to." 

Jaime's display of his canines, so much like Phaedra's own, made Boris shiver.

He didn't think the young man was going to just go find, woo and then bed some comely young lass... 

Unfortunately things were never that simple with Jaime Haddock. 

**********

An hour later, sitting in a booth from within a brightly-lit room. They found this particular shop after questioning the locals for directions.

" Brother, I want this one!" Iris held up a menu displaying a picture of some frosty treat.

"...Hm. Black Diamond Sea-Turtle Sundae...Looks good. Alright. I'll go ahead and order it when the waiter arrives. Melanie, Cecelia, decide what you're getting yet?

"I'll just take a simple Blackberry Sorbet."

"Alright then. Melanie, you?"

She didn't answer. In fact it seemed like she wasn't even listeneing, spacing out.

"Um, Melanie?" He tried getting her attention, to no avail.

...Melanie was freaking out. She was almost literaly hyperventilating as she saw the menu.

The cheapest was 5 gold...

She wanted to scream,  Just what's with these absurd prices!! 

Gold.

Not silver, gold!

She felt her heart smash to pieces, knowing she'd never going to be able to afford anything with the meager amount she had with her. Her total wealth, right now, numbered only around 20 silver.

She wanted to cry.

But no. She held it in. So what if she couldn't pay for it? It was just ice cream...

So with that in mind, she calmly sat her menu down and said, "I'm fine. I don't want anything." 

Everything was perfect. Her tone was completely even. She hoped.

Lyle asked, "You sure?"

"I said I'm fine."

You didn't answer the question, Lyle thought. Did you think I wouldn't notice? Hmph. Believing you can fool me, you're a thousand years too soon, young'un.

This thought was incredibly arrogant.

But he didn't say any of that.

" I see. Why don't you get the same as Iris?"

"...Young Master, I said--"

"I'm perfectly clear on what you said. But I know you so well, my dear Melanie. Did you think you could lie to me? Plus you nearly drooled just by looking at the pictures."

"I did not."

"Did."

"Didn't."

"Did."

"Didn't"

"Didn't"

"Did." An instant later, she exclaimed, "--Hey!" She was tricked! 

Lyle continued on as if nothing happened."So you did. Yeah, I thought so."

Melanie shook her head, distressed. "Young Master, you...you're terrible!"

" Right, right. Would you like the Frozen Trouffle instead?"

"It looks tasty, I can't deny...but I...I can't...afford it." She admitted pathetically, looking defeated.

"Yes. I knew that from the beginning. Melanie, I don't see why you even thought you would be paying at all."

"But if I don't pay, then how could I get it?" She appeared genuinly perplexed, tilting her head.

"No, obviously I'll be the one paying for it." His tone implied, did you really have to ask? 

"What!" She shouted. Seeing the looks she got from the other customers, she quieted down. "You can't! Young Master, you've already spent so much money for my sake that day, and even more recently. I can't let you do so again! Also, just look at these prices, look at them!" She waved the menu at him. "How can you waste so much money on a person like me! It's just ice cream, I can go without!"

One of Lyle's eyebrows twitched. "Melanie." He started in a heavy voice. " I've never wasted money on you. Any money I used for you could never be considered to be a "waste" by any means. And stop with those self-deprecating comments. Really, your inferiority complex should have it's limits. Hm, also, you're right. It's just ice cream. So what's the problem?"

Lyle never told the others where they were going, just that they were going to look around the city. 

They might get a bit suspicious if they saw them here, and knew that they were coming to a place like this, but they were neither told where they were going nor would they ever come to themselves. 

Well, Jaime and Phaedra, maybe. But even if it was found out where they were at, they wouldn't think all too deeply into it. They might think that Lyle and the rest were being a bit extravagent but little more. 

Normal mercenaries wouldn't ever come to a building like this, they prefered rougher places. Still, it wasn't like they were so poor they couldn't afford to if they really saved up a bit. Merc work were among the more well-off professions, after all.

This was the only problem he could see, being at a expensive place like this one. And he couldn't think of anything else that would make Melanie so worked up. 

Making a fuss just because of some slightly pricey ice cream...

Saying things such as, "Waste money  on a person like me"...

He didn't know whether to flick the girl on her head or give her a comforting pat onthe back.

Melanie, she should just learn to let him take care of things like money when she was with him. It wasn't as if he didn't have enough. 

On the contrary, he currently had enough to buy a sizeable house if he wanted to. And could take out more from his own personal funds at a nearly any decent bank within Drann Kingdom.

" But..." Melanie trailed off. 

Finally Cecelia couldn't take it anymore. " Woman, just shut it and let him pay for you. He'll not rest easy otherwise. And does it even matter? He's already spent so much for you, why complain about him spending a bit more?"

"Pay for me, you say....somehow I dislke the way you phrased that."

"Actually, I kind of do as well." Lyle cut in. Seemed bad when she put it in such a way.

"Ugh, whatever. Look, just pick something."

Iris agreed. " Yeah. This truly is dragging on a bit too much now, don't you think? You should just accept big brother's kindness already..."

Being told so by the two girl, and Lyle, Melanie couldn't resist anymore. When she thought of it...maybe it was a bit silly...But the prices...

She felt physically pained when looking at them...

"So what do you want?" Lyle inquired to her.

"Um...know what, you can decide..." 

For some reason she felt this would put her more at ease rather than asking for something herself.

She would be wrong.

Because Lyle felt his eybrow twitch yet again.

"Fine." He said huffily, thoroughly annoyed. He skimmed through the menu, an evil smile soon coming to his lips." Okay. I've decided. You're getting a Golden Majesty Three-Crown Sundae Supreme! With nuts!" He announced. 

Inwardly Lyle was thinking, ...But seriously, what's with these names....

Melanie didn't know what that particular treat was, so she grabbed the menu once more and looked through it.

Her face paled.

Too wasteful! Young master, you're too wasteful! What's with this absolutely insane price! For ice cream? Is this really ice cream or a handful of edible diamonds?!  

"...That...that costs more than 80 gold...W-what's with these the damn prices, it costs more than a carriage encrusted with silver and precious jewels..." She bang her fists lightly on the table, feeling wronged...

As a person raised by her mother to treat even a copper coin as something to be greateful for, how could she not hurt when seeing the cost of that thing?!

Young master, even if you buy it for me, how could I dare eat it!

"Don't worry. I'm sure you'll want it once it gets here. You're nothing if not a lover of sweets. Besides, you wouldn't want to make my money really got to waste, would you?" Lyle spoke mildly.

...Did...did I say that out loud?

Melanie wasn't sure.

D-did he read her mind? No, that can't be...that would be horrible...

Her thoughts these days, if he knew of them, she would rather die than live another day!

It wasn't long until the waiter--or rather waitress--came.

"How may I help you today?" She smiled as she greeted then, her eyes focusing on the handsome blonde-haired and blue-eyed youth whom she noticed some time back.

" Yeah, we'll have a Black Diamond Sea-Turtle Sundae, a Blackberry Sorbet and one Golden Majesty Three-Crown Sundae Supreme." He said confidently.

The waitress blinked.

" Sir, uh, that last one...are you sure?"

"Yes. Why? Something wrong?"

"No, it's nothing serious. Just that few people ever get that particular item, it's our most expensive product."  

"Oh." Lyle shrugged.

"Is that all, sir?"

"It is, thank you."

"Very well. The total will be 135 gold. Will you pay now or wait till you leave?"

"I'll do it now." 

"Thank you for your patronage." She accepted the money and left after a small bow.

Iris tugged on his arm. "Brother, wait, you didn't give your order!"

"I know. I'll just share with Melanie. It's big enough anyway."

"Big brother, you should just share with me instead..."

Cecelia also joined. "If you'd like, I wouldn't mind sharing mine with you either." She talked with a cavalier air, like she didn't care one way or the other.

"No, that's okay. You two enjoy yourselves."

"...Brother..."

"If you say so..."

The two didn't say anything more about it.

Nearly fifteen minutes later, their orders arrived.

Iris dug in enthusiastically. 

Her order was a two-scoop sundae comprised of chocolate and vanilla ice cream topped with caramel and chocolate syrup with a some sort of golden dust covering some parts of it to give the thing a golden flow.

All this rested above delectable-looking fudge brownie, hot, gooey and full of nuts.

After taking a bite, Iris' mouth was exposed to a plethora of tastes that were very nealry addictive. 

"...S-so...good!" She cried, loving it.

Cecelia was more reserved, eating her slightly tangy treat with a quiet relish.  She had to admit...these people knew what they were doing. How did she not hear of Balmont being so great at making such things?

Lyle, recieving the monstrously large bowl, was about to request for another spoon before he saw that it already came with one.

"Sir, the Golden Majesty is pretty much meant to eaten by couples." The waitress explained, anticipating the question beforehand.

"Ah...makes sense." Such a large bowl, who could eat it by by themselves?

"Enjoy. If you need anything else, just give me a call." She smiled again and left.

Lyle looked at the thing before him, marveling a bit at the dark gold-colored ice cream. Not yellow. Gold. It seemed as if it was a treat meant to be eaten by gods, extremely wondrous to behold.

 It had an assortment of toppings. Chocolate syrup, caramel, cherries, wafers on the sides, silver leaves lining the bowl and spoons that had diamonds embedded in the handle...

It looked great, three small crowns perching on top. Most of the price probably came from the gaudy design of the bowl and utensils though.

Melanie was petrified as she gazed at it.

She wasn't able to even touch the spoon.

...Those stones, t...they can't be real, right...

To her, the entire thing was just a pile of gold coins. Wasteful to the extreme. So much so that she wanted to screeam. This was just throwing money away....

"Aren't you going to eat?" Lyle asked. He had lifted up the spoon closest to him, ready to take a bite, when he saw that Melanie was frozen. Not moving an inch.

"...How can I eat it?" 

"With your mouth."

"...."

"...I already bought it, you know. At least try some.."

Her face showed unwillingness. "Young Master, I don't think I should even touch the spoon. What if I drop it?"

"It's just a spoon.

"It's a golden spoon embedded with diamonds!"

A sigh. "So just because of that, you're not going to touch it?"

"I don't think that I can bear to..."

"I see. Melanie."

"Yes?"

"Say 'ah~'."

"Wha--?...!!"

Without giving her any sort of warning, his hand darted out and he slipped his spoon past her lips.

A few moments of silence passed as he held the thing in her mouth.

"LIke it?" 

A pause.

"...." 

She nodded, her face a bright pink.

"Good." He took the spoon out, the ice cream gone from it entirely. "Now are you going to eat or am I going to have to feed it to you again?" 

"I-I can do it myself, thank you. And you didn't have to do that...treating me like a child...how mortifying..."

"In my defence, you were acting like one."

"Even still!" She insisted. "I'm not a kid. i'm even older than you..."

"Are you? Sometimes I forget. Ah, but no need to force yourself. I kind of like you how you are, a bit childish. It's cute, really."

"Cute? Whose cute...I'm not 'cute' at all...dammit, saying such embarrassing things so openly...that's not fair at all. Really, you're just..." She sighed.

Iris and Cecelia looked at them with blank faces.

"Brother?" The young girl called.

"Open."

"Open wh--?"

"...Is it good?"

Lyle licked his lips. "Hm. A bit too sweet for my liking, but it's still pretty great."

" Good. Now you do me."

"No." He refused. "You're not a child."

"But brother, you did it for her!"

"She's a special case. She was too stubborn."

"I can be stubborn too."

"Iris, eat."

"Okay." 

.... She really was very weak, ah.... 

"Lyle." Cecelia spoke up. Her spoon was raised.

" What?"

She hesitated. "...No, nothing..."

Lyle looked at her, but didn't see anything wrong. 

He turned and saw Melanie eating, feeling satisfied. He then moved to take his own spoon once more and have a taste for himself. He had high expectations.

Melanie stopped his hand before it got to his lips. 

"Young Master, that spoon..."

"Hm?"

"..Uh, no, It's just..." She squirmed for a bit, looking uncomfortable, before letting go. "...Nevermind"

Lyle felt he knew what was bothering her, but it didn't matter. Something like this, was there a need to be concerned? Silly girl. 

As these interactions passed, they settled down and ate in a harmonious silence.

**********

When they dropped off Melanie and Cecelia back at Inn, it was around midday.

Now the sky was already dark.

Iris dragged him all over the place, pulling on his arm as they explored the city.

They got lost several times, having to ask the locals for directions before one of them gave out a handy map for them to make their way around more easily.

They may have visited every shop in the city by the time they were done, and Lyle must have lost at least 10 gold buying stuff for Iris.

She was like a little fairy, jumping to and fro whenever something caught her eye.

Not once had she let go of his hand. 

The lights of the city's shops came on long ago, and with the sounds of music from the street performers along with the smells of the food vendors, it gave everything a festive feel to it.

Iris' gem-like eyes and golden locks, the sheer happiness she exuded as she walked with him, when combined with the atmosphere of the place, made everything seem to hold a dream-like quality to it. 

The lights seemed brighter, the colors more vivid. Nearly euphoric. Lyle, for just an instant,  wanted these moment to never end. 

Although she was a bit bratty at times, and despite her clinginess, he could honestly say that the best parts of his day happened when Iris was by his side. Which was often.

She made him want to be...better. 

A better person. 

A better brother... 

He thought back to those peaceful times, the times before he had to worry about losing himself to these things that ate away at him.

...If he could make those days last forever, he wouldn't mind spending them all with her.

As they walked back, he sincerly though this.

*********

Everything was dark, quiet, the fluttering of the curtains the only thing making noise.

A gentle breeze flowed in from the window, streaks of gentle starlight making their way into the room.

One of the beds within the space showed signs of movement, the metal frame groaning. 

The floorboards began to creak just seconds later, the sound of footsteps.

Lyle was laying on his side, hearing the rustling of the sheets and blankets as something made it's way beside him. 

A warm figure, half his size, coiled up next to him. A pair of tiny hands clutched at his shirt, a small head burying itself in his chest. 

"....Brother, are you awake?" A soft, muffled whisper.

He didn't move at all, didn't make any sound at all apart from a few deep, even breeaths.

It took him several minutes before he felt it. A damp wetness, now soaking into his skin

She was crying...

"Iris, what's the matter?"

"Big brother, there's something wrong with me, isn't there?"

"...No. There's nothing wrong with you. You're fine."

"You don't have to lie. I've known for a while now, that there's something...inside of me." Her voice sounded raw, pained. "But big brother, I can't ... I can't take it anymore..." A sob escaped her lips, her shoulders trembling. "She keeps saying all these horrible things.  She says that you'll leave me. That you'll abandon me. She says you'll stop caring about me.  Even today, even now, she..."

"...Big brother...I just want her to stop...please,  make her stop..."

"Iris, it's okay. You're fine. There's nothing wrong with you. You hear me? Nothing. Don't listen to it. It's lying.  I'll always be here with you!"

"I know that, and I don't want to doubt you, big brother, but I... Everything she said...I hate them." She couldn't raise her eyes to meet his. "Big brother, even if you get close to other girls, I'm fine with it...! As long as you're still with me, I won't say anything! Please...just please don't abandon me...!"

Her tears didn't stop, every word cutting into him. He thought that she was talking to it, but never realized it was this bad. All this time, she...Iris, she being told such terrible thing... 

...Lyle's realize his problems were nothing. Less than nothing. In comparison to this, what did he care about what was happening to his own self?

Here she was, in such pain, constantly having her worst fears preyed upon and used against her, and yethe couldn't do a damn thing for her.

He was useless. A failure. 

"Iris, don't cry... I 'll fix this. I'll fix everything. I'm here. Alright? I'll always be here for you... Always..."

He kept saying this like some sort of chant, again and again, holding onto her until she fell back asleep.

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