Lyle was completely disgusted with himself.
Why? For what reason did he even agree to ride Spirit with her? It wasn't like him at all to tempt fate like that.
He'd touched her, and kissed her, and...
...And she felt so good...Her soft lips, her slim waist...the way she melted against him, so willing and pliant and ready for--
Lyle forced the thought down to hell.
What the flying fuck was he thinking just then?
He shook his head, clearing the memories from his mind.
He wanted to kick himself until he was left bloody and blue, wanted to beat himself within an inch of his life, because what he did was unforgiveable.
He'd betrayed Melanie's trust with his recklessness. And he couldn't understand why he'd even risk that.
Lyle nearly lost control, nearly took her there and then, and he'd had to bite his cheek till he tasted blood before he was able to stop himself.
And he lied. Lied through his teeth as easily as drawing breath. He could see just how much the girl apparently cared about him.
Fooled her, didn't he? Bastard that he was. No, that wasn't his fault. She and her crazy talk was what caused it.
Cave, what cave? What did they do? Nothing. Not a damn thing. And yet she was under the impression they'd had some sort of night of passion or something? As if he'd ever believe that.
Say what you will about him but Lyle didn't give a damn how beautiful a woman was. If she wasn't his wife he'd never sleep with her like that. Sex, to him, was the most intimate act a couple could both enjoy together.
And to be like some people who treated it like something insignificant? That was just a foreign concept to him. He despised those who didn't understand it's importance.
The way the girl looked at him, so full of some sick, twisted obsession he couldn't fathom the reason of, was concerning on multiple levels.
But he was sorry. To her, those feelings were real. And while he didn't reciprocate them he was pretty much encouraging them. Stoking the flames.
There was no way true love could be formed in such a short time--he didn't believe in love at first sight either, that petty excuse people use to disguise their own base desire for a good rut--but she thought that's what it was and he was using it against her.
There were times in the past, times he wasn't proud of, where he used similar tactics...their usefulness couldn't be denied...but nothing to this extent.
He found it hard to look at her.
So blantantly playing with her supposed feelings for him, acting like he really believed the words he said, made him feel a peculiar sense of self-loathing.
Of course he knew that she wasn't well in mind and was obviously suffering from some sort of delusion that they were meant to be together...but even still it didn't help much.
Especially since he knew Melanie must be feeling awful too.
He could just sense her eyes periodically landing upon them throughout the journey. He must have put her through hell, letting her see him flirt with another woman not even a full day after they got together.
It was because of this that he moved them in front. He did regret it though. Because of that Sera had apparently gained enough courage to do what amounted to dry humping him.
Lyle was suddenly assaulted by memories of how exquisitely tender her rear was, how shapely...the way it moved...
He angrily shut those thoughts away once again. He really got himself into a mess, hadn't he? Had he always been so stupid?
Currently everything was calm, the girl--Sera--choosing to sit side-saddle and rest her small head on his chest. It was a difficult position because it meant he had to use his arm as a seatbelt to keep her from falling off.
The saddle they used wasn't meant for riding like that, and neither was Spirit trained for it.
But it didn't trouble him in the usual way, his arm was as strong as the rest of his body so it wasn't as if she was a burden on him at all.
Rather the way she occasionally stared up at him longingly and idly drew hearts on his thigh with a finger was what was truly getting on his nerves.
He admitted it: She was cute. Her large eyes and wide forehead, the way she peeked up at him behind long eyebrows, her dainty hands and well-manicured nails...all of it left such an impression.
The thing was that he really grew annoyed at how...how damn girlish she acted with him.
She acted as if they were on their honeymoon of something. It was really irritating.
He didn't mind intimate action like these but only if it was with a woman he was actually dating. Which in this case would be Melanie.
Before it was only Sophia who he would tolerate acting like this towards him...or Iris, but only because he was her brother and the meaning was different in that case.
Any other girl?
He'd tease, if anything, but not anything serious. And if they themselves grew more serious than he was comfortable with then he'd put a stop to it right quick.
This situation was of the latter, yet he had to endure. He didn't let his mask slip, occasionally glancing at her as if he couldn't wait to have her in bed.
It was a hard look to pull off look. Luckily his father was a good teacher and Lyle a quick learner.
He ignored his father's dark past as a notorious playboy most days, but right now he was grateful for it--even if Lyle respected his father a little less when he thought of how many women he'd apparently tricked back then.
Those teachings served him well today.
People saw what they wanted ninety percent of the time anyway, that was why all you needed to do was encourage them.
And Lyle laid it on thick with her.
"Bell..." She cooed unexpectedly. "Kiss me..."
And he had to comply. No matter how the action made him want to stab himself for being exactly what Sophia had accused him of all those days ago. A cheater.
It was something that had to be done. He knew that. Didn't do anything to ease his guilt though.
"I really do love you." She said, sighing dreamily. "You don't know how much. It's like I'm really alive for the first time in my life."
Lyle forced a laugh. "I don't? Please. Do you even know how wrong you are? Until you the world to me existed only in shades of grey. But you just walked in and brought color to everything. I don't even know how I lived without you." He stared at her, speaking slow. "And I don't know if I can anymore."
There was no pause of hesitation when he said this, only an aching sincerity he didn't feel.
.And her eyes again went red with unshed tears. "You really mean that, don't you?" No, he didn't, but he'd make her believe it without a shadow of a doubt. Bastard indeed. "Bell, I..."
She stopped, looking to have choked back a sob. "I'm so happy. To have you here with me, to know how much you care. This is real, isn't it? Please tell me it's real..."
"Of course it is," He lied.
"...I'm sorry..." She looked down. "It's just that this is just too good to be true. I never really thought I deserved to be loved like this. It's...a new feeling for me. I can't help but fear that someday I'll wake up and find that this is all just a dream. I don't think I could survive that."
Her voice shook, and she looked so pitiful that Lyle couldn't resist patting her head.
For all her delusions about him, even she deserved to have someone who really loved her.
It was a cold, hard fact that not everyone did. But her? She, from what he'd seen, at least wasn't too bad a person.
So this reveal from her caused a pang of sadness to resound within him.
And more guilt.
But he couldn't help it if he wasn't the right one for her. Someone somewhere was a good match for the girl, but not he. He'd already committed himself to someone else, for however long that may be, and understood that he wasn't the one to cherish her.
Even if she wanted him to be.
"If it's a dream you can just fall back asleep. I'd still be here. Always." He gave the best, warmest smile that he was capable of and he could tell it set her at ease.
Lyle felt his smile threaten to slip. Promise? He didn't make a habit of making promises he couldn't keep.
"Would I lie to you?" An evasion, but she didn't notice.
"...No...you wouldn't." She gave her own smile in return, and it was one of the sweetest and most heartfelt ones he'd ever seen.
"Of course. Now," He brushed her bangs up, exposing her face. "What did I say about bowing your head? Sera, the world shouldn't have to suffer through you hiding yourself like that. It's ugly enough, it needs a bit more beauty in it."
She blushed. "Sorry. I-I-I'll stop..." Then she muttered, "Saying such things...isn't that just playing dirty...how unfair...."
But she just leaned into the touch and enjoyed it shamelessly.
It didn't last long, Lyle felt his sanity being tested once more and so calmly removed his hand from her head.
A sound of displeasure came, then the girl again rested against him and closed her eyes.
Meanwhile, Lyle was busy with something.
He was concentrating on the feeling of that fire inside him, how it circulated in his body.
It was alien, yet not. He hadn't ever felt an energy like this before. It was more than just lust. It was also...life. Pure, unadulterated life.
The energy--the fire--was teasing and playful, licking at the edges of his skin and beckoning a finger. It whispered in his ears and told him to do all sorts of wicked things to the girl currently riding with him.
Lyle took a deep breath and tried to grasp at that energy. To control it. Yet it eluded him, moving away.
When he tried to smash it down, it resisted. When he thought to let it do as it pleased, it came back and seemed almost malleable.
Like it wanted to be used.
However he never let it.
Most of this energy lived within his chest. Or rather, near his collarbone. Right where that strange Mark resided.
He could feel it pulsing, like a second heart.
As real as any other.
He hoped the day when he'd be rid of it came quickly.
Large, overhanging gates, walls thick and tall enough to look right at home around a great fortress and a long line of travelers waiting for permission to enter.
This was one of the entrances to the city-state of Zeshar. The only place within Drann kingdom that boasted independance from the rule of the Lautremont royal family.
To explain, the city rested within Drann kingdom to some extect, being along the border between Drann and the kingdom of Virma. So you would expect them to be partially under control of the Royal Family since it was within their territory, yet that wasn't the case.
As a city it was prosperous, green, and was so large you could live there all your life and maybe still not see everything there was to see it in, holding many thousands of people.
Still not quite the largest city, but certainly one of the most advanced and beautiful. With the city built along the Capheus river, they implemented a canal that connected the river to a harbor built inside the walls where ships could be docked, bringing in merchandice for trade.
In fact the river led out to a nearby body of water just three days to the west, where you could take to other parts of the world easily.
Although it couldn't be see, he knew that on the other side of the city's circular walls, just outside it's parimeter, was a stretch of land where farmers grew bountiful harvests to feed the residents of the city and that there was many smaller pieces of land that did the same even inside.
Zeshar also had a high castle nestled in the center, a glittering jewel that overlooked all of it's splendid beauty.
It was a magnificent city.
In fact, the city even reminded Lyle of Nos'Thragnea but on a smaller scale. Who knew, perhaps that was the point. Maybe it was designed that way.
As they came into view of the city, Sera grew lively again.
"We're here!" She shouted in glee. "This is so great, now I can introduce you to father and he can have you knighted before the day is done!"
"Can't wait." Lyle said something to placate her.
"I'm so excited." The girl was just shaking with pent-up enthusiasm. "I never thought this day would come so soon." She grew sad suddenly. "I only wish there was more time to prepare. I would have loved to do this better, but I can't help thinking that it doesn't matter as long as we're together. That's all that really counts, right?"
Something she said made Lyle pause. "What day do you mean?"
Sera let out the most serene smile he'd ever seen from her yet. "My wedding day, of course."
"What?" His heart skipped a beat, jumping up his throat as he worked to choke out even that single word.
"I know, it's so sudden...but why wait?" She asked, placing her hand over his chest, snuggling close. "I won't ever change my feelings for you, I'm sure this is what I want. Aren't you also like that? We both love each other. Complete each other. Even though the time we've spent together has been so unbelievably short I still look forward to knowing more about you, in learning who you are. And I won't regret living the rest of my life with you because I know that, no matter what, we were always meant to take this step."
Alarm bells rang throughout his head.
This girl...was completely fucking insane!
Marriage? Bullshit! A commitment like that wasn't something you decide in a matter of a few days with a person you barely knew! It wasn't some game, it was something sacred that bound two people together.
If Lyle didn't want to even have sex before marriage he certainly wouldn't be open to the idea of actually having one on the fly like this.
This girl was being ridiculous.
"Sera...we can't." He said intensely. "It's too soon, we barely even--
"The strength and legitimacy of our love isn't dependant on time." She insisted flatly. Then her face cleared up."Things like 'too soon' don't have to apply to it at all." She smiled gently, lovingly, holding his face with her hands. "It's okay. Once my father sees how great and caring you are towards me he'll accept you just as I have and we can simply leave the rest to him. By midnight we can be husband and wife."
Just as she planted her lips on his, a small and quiet voice intruded upon them.
Once they all stopped behind the long line of travelers and merchants, Iris, Cecelia and Melanie apparently left the carriage in Murphy's care to come find him.
Well, Iris did. Melanie just followed, and Cecelia didn't dare leave Iris' side.
"Iris...Melanie..." Lyle extracted himself from Sera, while the girl in question blushed upon seeing the face of her future sister-in-law while being so intimate with him before their wedding.
With this and the time from before she feared she didn't leave a good impression of herself on the girl....
"Brother...what is this?" Iris looked pointedly them, referring to how close they were.
"Iris, you know what it is." For Lyle and Sera this had different meanings.
He knew Iris was aware of the plan, while Sera thought he was coming out to his sister about their relationship.
"You kissed her." At Iris' blunt words, Melanie flinched. Cecelia just gave a small shake of her head, thinking that much was inevitable but still not liking it.
"Well technically she was the one who--"
She ignored him. "What gives you the right to kiss my brother?" Iris' rage was cold and harsh, not at all the explosive kind he usually saw.
And ever ounce of it was directed at Sera.
The other girl felt depressed, knowing that things were deteriorating. So she got off Spirit's back and politely bowed to the younger sibling. Lyle followed suit, for the first part.
A Noble bowing to a commoner, not a single knight of her's who were watching felt comfortable seeing that.
"Please forgive me, it's just...your brother and I...well, we're "that", you know? I'm sorry you had to find out this way, without any warning, and I'm also sorry I caused you to become distressed. Seeing a strange woman kissing your brother like that, I must seem like some sort of harlot." She averted her gaze. "But I and your brother are truly in love with one another, and though it might seem unbelievable given the circumstances, I hope that you can give us your bless--"
"When I look at you I see not merely a harlot, but also a homewrecker. Do you not know my brother has already promised himself to another?"
At this, Lyle felt his heart race from zero to a hundred in the span of a single second.
"Iris!" He hissed.
Sera's entire body became still, motionless.
"Bell? Bell, what's she talking about? What does she mean?" She asked, her eyes going wild. There was clear panic in her face as she looked at him.
"Sera, don't listen to her, she doesn't know what she's saying."
Iris, Lyle shouted spitefully in his mind, What the hell are you doing!
"She's saying you already have someone else!" She cried. "What's not to know?!" Sera felt horrible.
All of a sudden every single doubt she'd had rattling in her head but a short while ago came rushing back with a fury.
Dream? What dream, wasn't this just a nightmare?
She was stupid. So stupid. Of course, all this really was too good to be true, just as she said. Why? Why didn't she listen to herself? No one could love her.
She didn't deserve it, nor was it meant for her, she could only do as she was told and forever lead the life the goddess chose for her...
Sera thought she could be happy, she thought it was something she was worthy of? Pathetic.
A fantasy...that's all it was... now it was time to wake up to that oppressive lonliness once again...
And when she woke, he wouldn't be with her.
The thought nearly broke her.
A world without him? Now that she knew what it was like to feel true happiness, to have someone who really cared about you instead of caring only about what you could do for them?
No...She didn't want that...she didn't want to go back to having nothing but a gilded cage! To being...unloved...
If that's what I have to endure again, I'd rather just lay down and--
"Sera." She heard someone call her name. "Sera, don't listen to her. You know how I feel, right?"
Lyle shot Iris a glance that said, "Stop. Talking."
" Even if there was someone else, do you think they could compare to you? Do you think I would give a damn about them now that you're with me?"
Melanie's eyes went wide.
Even though she knew why he was saying this, even though she knew they were mere guiding questions and not assertions, even though she understood that she shouldn't and it was completely irrational for her to feel this way...
...She felt her chest tighten painfully. And for a moment she imagined this was real, and he really said those things.
It wasn't that she was the kind of woman to easily be put so low by such words, but that she always understood the dfference in social status, life experience and options they had.
Nobles will always gravitate towards other Nobles, everyone else was just a nice distraction.
Melanie thought that this is what she would be. When had she first grown conscious of him as a man? She wasn't sure, maybe even during the first time they met it had already happened.
He was always very robust for his age, always taller and more mature than it warranted.
Sometimes, she admitted to herself now, she would think, "What'll I do if someday he....wants me?"
And each time she thought that, she'd have a sense of hopelessness.
Because she'd always carried a gratefullness towards him, and if something like that were to ever happen she believed only one of two things would happen: Either he proved to be a person who just came to her for momentary pleasure, or even if by some miracle he actually did start to like her, there would only be a sad ending for them.
Because commoners were only picked up by Nobles when they were bored and wanted a bit of fun or excitement.
Since this is what she believed, even now that she knows better about who he was and his seriousness with which he would treat any of his relationships, she still feared that's all she was.
Someone who, ultimately, would only be a footnote in his life. Not important. Not good enough. Not...of the right birth.
...Hearing him say those things caused all these thoughts to flare up and she was temporarily floored by how strongly she rejected them.
"What do I know? I've said it so many times already...and yet I hadn't heard you say it even once..." Sere's eyes were filled with a resigned sorrow.
Lyle was pissed.
Oh he knew what she wanted. He just hated the idea of giving it so much he thought he'd rather lose an arm.
"Is it really so important to you?" Was his voice just a bit stiff just then? He couldn't tell. "They're just words. They're meaningless."
"If they're meaningless to you, why can't you say it? Even if it's nothing to you they're everything to me!"
"It won't change anything. Facts are facts whether you say them aloud or not." He fought her stubbornly, but he could tell he was slowly losing her.
A very quiet, sad, "But I want to hear them." Was her only response.
Dammit. What the hell was this? Such a petty thing. A petty, overdramatized situation. This wasn't the fucking theater.
Yeah. He thought that but he'd already committed himself to the act.
He made her believe what he'd told her. Made her excited and hopeful and content to just be with him because she had, until now, though he loved her.
She wasn't well.
She was sick. In mind if not in body.
What would she do if, after all this, she learned the truth? If he didn't give in, and tell her exactly what she wanted?
Would she snap? Try to do something to them? Her men were already starting to grow suspicious, if they saw her so distraught and she told them what happened wouldn't they directly try to take their heads?
They were commoners right now. They couldn't act like Nobles.
And Jaime? The Haddocks? Would they dare offend a Noble whose father, just from what he'd heard he can do, was obviously of the upper echelon even among Nobles?
Which was another thing. He still didn't know who she was and he could be offending someone troublesome.
...Just three words...
"Fine," Lyle sighed, defeated. "Sera, I..." Every part of him fought against it. "...Love you."
He felt like a thousand pound weight was placed upon his shoulders and he couldn't face the others. He felt like he lost a small part of himself by saying that.
Three words and he'd only ever said them to two people. Apart from his mother and Iris he hoped he'd only have to say them to his wife and kids. Now he'd told them to some random woman he didn't know or cared for.
It was a bitter pill to swallow.
They weren't words that people would usually hold dear. Lyle, however, attached a special meaning to them. He didn't like being forced to say them to someone he didn't love because of the hot-headedness of someone he did.
It was so easy to say them, those words. If you said them and didn't mean it then how could they not lose a bit of their importance?
While Melanie and Iris became dumbstruck Cecelia's eyes turned sharp.
How could she not understand how much those words meant to him? Not a single time had she heard him say them to her sister, or even to his parents. Although he did feel it, he didn't say it.
Only Iris had the privilege of hearing those words come from his mouth, to have them directed at her.
Lyle was a very stubborn person in certain areas. He had very old-fashioned ideals about things like love and marriage. He never took either as something to kid about.
Sure, he'd tease, he'd play along and joke, but on those subjects he was always secretly very serious when things got down to it.
She also understood that his hand was being forced here. If he didn't say it, who knew what this unstable woman would do?
She had dozens of knights on her side and she was a Noble. No one here wanted that kind of trouble, they didn't have the backing to gainsay her in anything she wanted to do.
A single word and she might be able to make even the Haddocks act against them. The power to turn friend into foe, that's the kind of authority a Noble was capable of wielding.
Knowing this, Lyle made his choice.
It may not seem like much, but the potential consequences--putting Melanie and Iris in danger--wasn't worth it.
Cecelia doubted she was part of the reason he did it. He never thought of her as a woman that needed anything from him, who needed or wanted his protection.
Sera's face instantly brightened like the sun. "My Bell!" Then, without warning, threw her arms around him tightly.
Although it might seem like something small, to her they were the most important words of her life so far!
To believe in something and to hear it were entirely different.
He never lied to her. She knew that. He would never be anything but honest with her, Sera understood.
So to hear him say it was world-changing. To hear him say those words were to know that they were an irrevokable truth!
He really did love her...
"Take it back!" Iris, who had stayed quiet for some time, broke out into a fullblown rage. "Saying those words to her, in front of me, even as a lie I can't accept it!" Her eyes blazed.
Lyle threw her an annoyed look. If it wasn't for you wanting to cause trouble, would I have had to say it at all?
He knew very well that she wanted only to see Sera cry, to put her down, because of how closely they acted. She couldn't stand seeing it.
Iris' irrational jealousy was always a problem, but only now did he truly find it growing old.
She couldn't hold it in? Couldn't let it go?
"Iris, go back to the carriage." There was no room for arguement in his words, he really was disgusted by her petulance.
"No!" She hissed. " I've had enough of this! I won't stand by and let a woman who doesnt even know you act as if you belonged to her!"
"Iris, you're brother's right. Please, let's go." Melanie was worried about how the situation was becoming. Upon seeing that they were attracting attention from the other travelers in the line she lightly pulled on the girl's hand.
"For once leave well enough alone." Cecelia said darkly, very displeased with her actions just now.
"Shut up!" Came a low snarl. "Both of you, pretending you're fine with it when nothing but envy and hate clouds your hearts just watching them. Bitches in heat, only wanting him for yoursel--"
"Iris, go." Lyle's face, which had always remained calm and collected, started to take on a harsher light.
"Bell, no, wait..." Sera, seeing her future sister-in-law like this, felt a deep sadness.
The young girl only wanted what was best for her brother. Seeing a stranger be so close to him and hearing them say how much they loved each other, why wouldn't she be confused and hurt?
She didn't know what relationship he may have with the other two women but didn't care anymore. She knew that he loved her, that was more than enough to satisfy her.
However she did care about Iris. It's just that Iris didn't know her. She might only see a new woman who wanted to use him. Of course she wouldn't understand them, how could she, when they only just met but a day ago?
Although they loved each other Iris would never be able to so easily accept this change. She probably though Sera was a bad woman who was manipulating her brother, leading him around.
Sera couldn't stand to see the little girl hate her! She was soon to be her little sister, Sera wanted her blessing, wanted to be liked by her.
"Don't get angry with her. She loves you too, that's why she's so mad. If we didn't experience it ourselves would we think something like what we have could be cultivated and grown so fast?"
Iris probably wants your head on a pike, and yet you stick up for her? And what do you mean? Of course this is impossible, do you think love is something that can blossom after only a day or two?
Lyle grew more stressed out with each second, and most of it was because of the woman by his side right now. Such a troublesome existence.
"And I get that, Sera, but she said horrible things to you. No matter what, that can't just be forgiven so easily. Not only that, she'd disturbing the other travelers too. She's acting like a child, so I'll treat her as one." He looked at Cecelia. "Take her to the carriage and lock her up. It's time she reflected upon her actions. I'll be there in a minute."
The girl nodded, and all but dragged an unwilling Iris away with Melanie in tow.
As they left, neither of the young women wanted to look back.
"She hates me." Sera's shoulders slumped. "Why didn't you let her stay? I could have shown her that we--"
"Iris hates any woman close to me, don't take it to heart." Lyle shrugged off her concern. "And nothing you said would have helped at all. Didn't I say it? Act like a child, I treat you like one. And she's done little but act that way since she was old enough to walk, I've just been spoiling her up to now."
"She's your sister, isn't it fine to indulge her?"
Lyle almost laughed. Iris' idea of being indulged would include nonstop hugging, hand-holding, praising, and being carried around all day.
It was already bad enough that he spoiled her to the degree he did, let alone what he'd have to do if he gave in to her fully for even a single day.
"Maybe a bit, but lately she's been too bratty. Especially in how she talked to you three."
Sera didn't ask about the other two. She didn't want to know anymore. After today, it wouldn't matter.
"Maybe I should go and speak to her? I'm sure if she gets to know me better--"
"It wouldn't change anything. Iris is set in her ways and she'd only tolerate you if she thought you were easy to push around." That's why she always had a bit of a soft spot for Melanie. The girl wasn't able to really say no to her.
"But--" Sera began.
"No. I'm telling you, it wouldn't work. Give her time to cool down first, then I'll talk to her. Make her understand." He smirked. "Even I want you two to get along, so just be patient and let me handle her before you try anything. Okay?"
She nodded her head demurely, obediently.
"Okay. I will." Sera took his arm, her breasts morphing as it was smashed against them. " Oh!" Her eyes moved to the front. "The line's moving, come on!"
And after that, they soon well and truly arrived at the city of Zeshar.