16. The Scare

Chapter 16

The Scare

            When she woke up that morning, it was almost surreal. She never made it back to her bedding. Instead, her head was resting in Albel’s lap and his claw arm was resting gently across her chest. He was in a light sleep, but his eyes opened from the moment she stirred.

Nel could’ve wondered why she was in his lap or even briefly wondered if anyone had noticed where she was. But none of it mattered as her body moved on its own. Somehow she shoved his claw off her and got up without making much noise. Before she knew it, she was running away and down the hall until she couldn’t hold it in anymore.

She fell to her knees near a corner and retched before she emptied out the contents of her stomach. The spy was suddenly grateful that her hair was short and that she had taken off her scarf last night. She managed to successfully keep the acidic fluids from getting on her and only had a trail of it slowly seep from the corner of her mouth. She quickly wiped it away with her arm and sat back so she couldn’t see or smell what she lost.

She was still feeling a little sick, but it wasn’t as bad as before. But she knew that if she wasn’t careful, she could continue to throw up even if there was nothing left in her. She squeezed her eyes shut as she tried to calm down from the event. It wasn’t long before she felt a warm hand on her back and opened her eyes in time to see a water skin held in front of her.

“…Thank you,” she croaked weakly before she grabbed the skin and took a sip.

Nel swished the cool liquid around in her mouth, making sure to capture all evidence of the bile, and then forced it out onto the mess in the corner. After taking a few more calming breaths, she risked taking another swig and let it settle in her mouth before she allowed it to slide down her throat. It did nothing to ease the slight nausea that was still there, but it did cool her throat.

Albel wasn’t sure what to do or say. He wasn’t accustomed to aiding the sick. But he wasn’t about to leave her alone. It wasn’t honorable to allow his mate to suffer. All he could do was kneel beside her and offer the water. When she was done, she gave the water skin back to him and tried to get up.

“Don’t strain yourself,” he warned as he helped her up.

“I’m not ill,” she chided, accepting his hand. “I feel a lot better now. I think I’m just stressed is all.”

Though something nagged in the back of her mind that it was unlikely. She lived with intense stress everyday without suffering maladies. How could this be any different from her usual missions? Then again, in normal situations, she generally had one thing to worry about. In this case, she had to worry about the Vendeeni, the Marquis, Fayt, and Albel all at once. Maybe it was a sign that she was taking on more than she could handle.

But it wasn’t like she could stop what she was doing and take a day off. Nel would just have to endure it a little longer and take some time off when everything was over… assuming that Fayt’s plan would work and the Vendeeni would be driven away.

She tried walking around a little and was relieved to find that her stomach was indeed settling and she was feeling more like herself. She noticed that Albel was watching her every move and seemed ready to catch her if she so much as stumbled.

“…Albel, why do you treat me differently? It’s not like you to go out of your way to help someone. It’s just not…you,” Nel ended up inquiring, finally asking a question she had wanted to ask for a long time. Though the spy had to admit that she didn’t really know the real ‘him’. If anything, his answer could help her understand exactly who he was and why he had to act like two different people.

He gave her a playful smirk before he yanked her against him and held her still with his claw arm. “You have a brain. Use it. I’ve told you already how I feel about you. Is it really so hard to understand that I would also care about your well being?”

“That’s not what I mean,” she muttered with a shake of her head, “Am I the only one you care about? You say you fight for your kingdom, but you act like you hate everyone around you.”

Albel was silent for a long while. She tried to look him in the eye, but he sharply turned his head away. “…You’re the only person I’m willing to have this close to me. No matter how I treat you, you won’t do something foolish like sacrifice yourself for me. You know better than to waste your life on someone like me and that’s why I trust you.”

Nel frowned a little. How was she supposed to take him seriously when he wouldn’t look her in the eye? Eye contact was important for her because it allowed her to discern when someone was telling the truth. But he answer was consistent with his behavior. He bore his teeth at the masses like a snarling dog to keep them away, but when they were alone, he would act more like a man around her. His act had nothing to do with how he felt about the others, which would make sense as to why he would vow to protect his kingdom and yet sneer down at them.

“It’s reckless to trust an enemy spy,” she scoffed before she decided to lean against him. It was a little cold in the ruins and he was so warm. She couldn’t help but take advantage of the nearness. “I could kill you in your sleep.”

“But you haven’t,” he pointed out before he finally faced her again. “We’re a lot alike, you and I. You wouldn’t kill someone who’s willing to place so much trust in you anymore than I would slaughter others without valid reason. It’s not honorable and it’s a waste of life.”

Damn. Why did he have to be right? Without really thinking, Nel allowed her hands to trail up his body and rest on his chest so her arms could share in his warmth. Albel was the third person to point out how they were alike. At this point, she accepted it as the truth, despite the fact that she only heard it from Glyphian mouths. They weren’t completely alike as they still had some differences, but their ideals and demeanor were close enough for them to get along with each other in daily life.

As of late, she found herself trusting him as well -to a certain extent. While she could trust him to back her up in battle or watch over her as she slept, she knew he had his limits. His kingdom came before her and should something come along that would endanger his homeland, he could turn against her for the sake of his people. But at the same time, he probably expected the same from her if the scenario were reversed.

Albel took the hint and wrapped his other arm around her, resting it against her lower back. The spy wanted to ask why he felt the need to push everyone else away, but she found herself too distracted. Her head felt a little funny and she was feeling strangely cold. She ended up pressing her face against his chest in a feeble attempt to gather more warmth. She found herself breathing in deeply, catching his scent with every breath.

He smelled masculine- which she wasn’t aware that it could be a scent. A better way to describe it was that it was a smell only a man would carry. There were Glyphian spices mixed in with the faint odor of sweat and old blood. She could also detect traces of the oil he used to care for his sword and claw. Combined together, it wasn’t a bad smell…

“Are you going to fall asleep on me again, woman?” he wondered idly as he tried to look down at her. With her pressed so close against him, it was a hard thing to accomplish.

Nel shook her head to prove that she was wide-awake. But as she did so, she had a strange foreboding feeling crash over her. Something was wrong- but she didn’t know what. It was like she was hyperaware of something that didn’t even exist.

Albel tensed a little when he felt a shiver from her and felt her breathing erratically. She was breathing like that before she fell asleep last night. There was something wrong with her. He jostled her some to make sure she was staying awake and earned a look of confusion from her when she pulled away. She appeared fine, but she her breathing was still off. He wondered if she was even aware of it. He watched as she shivered again and raised her hands to rub at her arms.

His eyes narrowed some at her actions. It wasn’t that cold, even for an Aquarian. He grabbed one of her hands and held her wrist to his lips. Her body temperature was unusually low.

“What are you doing?” she inquired as she tried to pull her hand out of his grasp.

“Are you sure you’re not ill? Did you eat anything unusual or sustained a strange injury from any of the monsters here?”

“I had the same food everyone else had and I haven’t encountered any known beasts that can poison its victims. I shouldn’t be ill, but there must be something causing this. …I will ask one of my subordinates to examine me once we reach Peterny,” she responded, hoping to ease his concerns. A split second later, she realized what she had said. It wasn’t like her to volunteer to see a doctor. She would have to be on her deathbed before she would ever relent and go see one.

But it was too late to take back her words. Albel seemed adamant to make sure she followed through with it. “Good. Until then, stay close to me while we’re heading down. You look ready to pass out at any moment.”

Nel huffed and placed her hands on her hips in what she hoped was an irritated manner. “I’m not that bad! I feel fine!”

Though had the lighting been a bit better, Albel would’ve clearly seen that she was pale…

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

At first, Nel seemed to have a burst of energy as she gathered her things and prepared to leave. Nobody knew that she had been feeling poorly at all and didn’t think twice about it when she started traveling at the back with Albel. They were too focused on reaching Peterny as soon as possible so they could come back to where they were by the end of the day. Thanks to all of the marks Maria had left, they knew exactly where to go and that cut the travel time significantly.

Their encounters with dragons and other monsters had been reduced as well and the spy was secretly grateful for it. She tried to do her fair share in battles, but she felt extremely exhausted after each one. Albel did what he could to lessen her burden by killing the beasts as quickly as possible so she wouldn’t strain herself.

But by the time they were close to the exit, the spy had a hard time breathing. It felt like her throat was closing up and she felt weaker than ever. No one, save for Albel, noticed her staggering in the last few stretches of the path. The spy’s eyes rolled to the back of her head as her body lost consciousness and she began to fall. The Wicked one easily caught her and called out to the others to get their attention.

When she came to minutes later, she found the blurry figures of Adray and Maria hovering over her. As her vision cleared more, she could see that Maria was using her quad scanner on her and Adray casting a healing spell. Further out, she could see Cliff standing guard for any monsters while Fayt hovered over Maria to read the results of her scan. Albel was standing close behind Adray, trying to maintain a calm façade. A look of relief crossed his features briefly when he saw that she was awake.

Damn. Nel was hoping to make it to Peterny without anyone finding out…

It took her a while to realize that Maria was talking to Fayt about her theories of the scan results.

“…There are number of ways that cause this level of inflammation and drop in blood pressure- stress, sudden change in hormones, even a small infection of an organ. But we can’t treat her until we know what exactly is causing it. For the time being, the shot I gave her and Adray’s symbology seems to have stabilized her.”

Nel’s mind slowly worked around that new piece of information. Since she was breathing better, she had to assume that the ‘inflammation’ Maria was referring to was in her throat and she had a drop in blood pressure. Suddenly, her actions this morning were making sense. That foreboding feeling and the sudden chills were because her blood wasn’t circulating properly. The lack of oxygen getting to her brain was making her act out of the norm. But what was causing it?

“Oh, you’re awake. You had us worried,” Fayt said when he noticed her. The spy tried to sit up carefully, aided by Adray (who had been holding her the entire time).

“Did I…pass out?” she wondered as she glanced around.

Maria nodded in affirmation. “Your body appears to have gone through some kind of toxic shock and we had to stabilize it. I just took a skin sample from you and I’m scanning it for possible causes. Since there are a lot of diseases known in the universe, it will take most of the day before we’ll get any results. If you feel faint again, tell Adray or me and we’ll give you something for it.”

Toxic shock… Something had gotten into her body. …Or she was severely stressed. But she never heard of stress cases being this bad. Nel pushed Adray back some and used him to help stand up. She was feeling significantly better.

“We had to give you a lot of medicine and runology,” the aged runologist explained after some hesitation when she commented on her health. It was then the severity of her condition really hit her. Adray used up almost half of his energy to stabilize her. That was an almost impossible feat for him to exhaust so much in one sitting.

“You should be fine now, but there’s no guarantee you won’t have another attack… We should stay the night in Peterny and see what the scanner comes up with. Once we know what it is, we can heal her and go back to the mission,” the blue haired girl suggested as she glanced at Fayt for approval.

“You’re right. We shouldn’t make Nel strain herself until we’re sure,” he agreed.

“No.” The spy shook her head and gave the bluenettes a stern glare, “If I am truly that bad off, then leave me behind in Peterny. I refuse to be a burden to the mission.”

If it was a choice of taking herself out of the mission or delaying it long enough to get better, then Nel chose the former. Now that they knew something was wrong with her, they weren’t going to let her continue traveling with them until she was better and she knew they couldn’t afford to lose a day because of her. If she was willing to leave Fayt behind, then they should be the same way with her. Of course, she knew the boy wasn’t of the same mind as her considering that he risked his life for her before when going out of his way to rescue her from Albel.

But she didn’t expect Maria to be the one to reassure her. “You won’t be a burden. We can afford at least one day. I’ve been listening to the transmissions and I picked up intel that suggests the Vendeeni warship was delayed by a few days. It won’t be here when we first anticipated.”

The spy paused as she tried to look at the girl. Even though she was feeling better, she was still a little out of it to really pick up if Maria was telling the truth. She wasn’t paying too much attention when she spoke. But it was also hard for her to tell anything when she still didn’t know what ‘transmissions’ were and how they worked. Was the girl somehow able to hear things in the sky?

Nel hesitated for a moment before replying, “…Alright. Sorry to trouble you all.”

She didn’t really want to stay behind and if it was okay with them to rest one night, then she was okay with it, too. Maria hid her sigh of relief from the spy when she bought her little fib. Fayt sent Maria a grateful look and mouthed ‘thank you’ to her when Nel wasn’t looking. Albel frowned slightly at them. The female worm wouldn’t have gotten away with it if Nel were in top form. But he couldn’t argue that she needed the rest. If lying to her was the only way, then so be it.

When they headed down the pass towards Arias, they found that the Dragon Brigade (mixed with some of the Black Brigade) was obediently waiting for them as Albel had ordered. Some of the Black Brigade members had been given some lesser dragons so they could help better assist the party (and keep an eye on the Dragon Brigade members). There were more than enough dragons to carry everyone, leaving just enough men to stay behind and hold the small camp while the others were away.

With careful instruction, the party was instructed to pair up with a dragon rider and ride behind them on their dragon. The Wicked One quickly intervened when Nel approached one of them.

“You there, I shall ride on my own. Relinquish your mount,” he ordered curtly. The Black Brigade soldier he addressed stuttered before he quickly did as he was told. Nel cast a look of suspicion back at the dark warrior as she tried to figure out what he was up to. It was a widely know fact that Albel the Wicked didn’t ride dragons. She heard that he actually had failed to impress a dragon and has hated them since, but she had no proof that the story was true or if Albel really hated dragons.

“You’re riding with me woman. Get on,” he announced as he held the reins of the dragon.

She blinked once before she decided to ask, “Do you even know how to ride a dragon.”

He gave her a dismissive look. “Of course I know how. Any Glyphian babe knows how to ride one.”

“But I never seen you on one before,” she pointed out, temporarily forgetting the fact that she hadn’t paid enough attention to him to really know that.

“That doesn’t mean I’m incapable. …I just simply prefer other methods of travel,” he muttered before he slightly changed the subject, “Now get on. You’re riding in front so I can catch you should you happen to faint again.”

That caught her off-guard. She was going to be in the front to where he would have to have his arms around her to hold the reins? Everyone could get the wrong idea about that, illness or no! But the look on his face clearly told her he was serious and that if she didn’t comply with his order, he would find a way to force her to obey.

She chose to sneer at him before reluctantly climbing on. “I’m not some damsel in distress.”

“Ordinarily I would agree with you, but this isn’t a typical situation. I will watch you closely until you are well,” he vowed quietly to where only she could hear him.

“I thought you didn’t want to be bothered with women who can’t ‘support themselves’?” she argued in a low growl once he was seated behind her. She felt his breath at her neck as he chuckled and leaned forward to grab the reins.

“You hardly qualify as someone who can’t support herself. You’re merely ill- it happens to the best of us.”

His response stunned her. She was half expecting him to taunt her for feeling bad. The other half was expecting him to find some way to take full advantage of her while she was somewhat weak.

When Albel signaled for the dragon to take off, she could feel how tense he was behind her. If it weren’t for the quiet growls near her ear, she would almost suspect that he was afraid to fly a dragon. Perhaps the rumor that he failed to bond was true. But why did he let that upset him so? Couldn’t he just try again? Or was he simply being childish and condemning all dragons for being ‘useless’? Of course, Nel didn’t know what fate befell those who failed the Ascension of the Flame ceremonies…

Albel wasn’t too happy to be back on a dragon after several years of swearing them off. But he had to do this for his woman. He couldn’t trust the other bumbling idiots to not try anything with her (whether it be flirtatious or an assassination attempt) and he didn’t want to risk her falling off because she would be stubborn enough to act like she was still fine when she wasn’t.

They had to land a little way outside of Peterny so that the dragons wouldn’t panic the public. Even with the truce, there could still be some paranoia left over a potential attack. Nel wasn’t happy shortly after she climbed off the dragon. Almost instantly, Fayt and Maria started babying her like she was going to faint again. Cliff just laughed in the background while Adray shook his head and defended the spy’s honor by saying she was tougher than she looked. Albel just remained silent as he walked behind them.

While the spy had no clue why Maria was so concerned, she had a feeling Fayt was worried because he didn’t want a repeat of what happened to Ameena. Though Nel didn’t think she was anywhere near terminally ill like that girl was. The bluenettes made sure she made it to her private room in the Peterny inn and had her promise to stay in bed and relax. Nel was beyond annoyed, but did make the promise so that they would go on and take care of their business.

She let out a sigh of relief when they finally left. The spy was going to give them ten minutes before she was going to get up and break her ‘promise’. …At least until Albel wandered into her room several minutes later to make her give her word that she would behave herself. The irony didn’t escape her. Had things been different, she would be demanding his word that he would stay out of trouble while in the city.

He placed his claw near her head and leaned down to where their noses were touching. She thought he was trying to be intimidating, but she decided that he was only being seductive as he grinned down at her. “If I catch you wandering outside of this inn, I will carry you back here and make it to where you don’t want to leave again.”

“So then you do want me to try to leave,” she muttered when he pulled away.

“Oh, I didn’t say it would be pleasant. You’d be staying in fear of what I would do to you.”

She raised an eyebrow as he began making his way to the door. “That still sounded sexual.”

His smirk grew as his hand pulled at the knob and then he glanced back at her. “It would be for me. But you might find it a bit painful.”

He was probably threatening to spank her. Nel sighed again as she settled herself on her bed. She wasn’t really afraid of his little threat. He wouldn’t dare try anything like that until he was sure she was well again. But she didn’t see any harm in listening to him and the others for a while by taking a short nap and catch up on the sleep she had lost last night.

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

When Nel stirred again, she glanced out her window and discovered that she only spent an hour napping. After stretching a little, she sat up and proceeded to break her first promise by getting out of bed. Honestly, everyone was acting so paranoid about her condition…

She looked at herself in the mirror and found that her skin was a healthy color and she had no evidence of ever appearing weak or sick. She felt and looked fine. Whatever was in her must’ve gotten out of her body. Or the medicine happened to cure her. She didn’t care which. What was important was that she deemed herself well enough to continue the mission.

The spy decided that it would be a good time to sneak out and check her contacts to see if there was any news she should be aware of. While she was at it, she might as well secretly check up on the others to make sure they weren’t causing trouble. She was certain that Fayt and Maria were behaving themselves, but she couldn’t trust Cliff or Albel alone for too long. One liked to start fights while the other could be goaded into a fight if someone wanted to challenge him. She also needed to make sure Adray wasn’t scouting for potential men to marry Clair off to.

But as she neared her door, she heard voices in the hall. While that was nothing unusual, she was stunned to find that it was an unlikely pair calmly discussing the results of the war between Aquaria and Airyglyph- Albel and Fayt. She opened her door enough so she could see the two and listened in.

It was the first time she had ever seen the Wicked One engage in a civil conversation with the boy that didn’t involve him threatening him or pushing him away. He seemed curious to know Fayt’s opinion about the outcome and she had to wonder why. Albel wasn’t interested in the blue haired boy before and she couldn’t figure out why he would want to know more about him now.

“…Despite the very real differences in strength between our kingdoms, we waged war against Aquaria because we thought we had a chance of winning. However, you can see the outcome. Why do you think this happened?” Albel wondered, sounding genuinely interested to hear an answer.

Nel recalled the conversation they had back in Airyglyph before they left for the Barr Mountains. Albel had mentioned a reason why Airyglyph didn’t strike down her kingdom in one fell swoop. She knew the answer to his question, but she doubted Fayt would be able to see it. It wasn’t really as obvious as he thought it was- not unless the blue haired boy happened to be a spy that was able to see the radical division of ideals between the king and his captains.

…Though, even Nel wasn’t entirely sure of the reasoning until the Wicked One divulged his knowledge to her.

Fayt thought long and hard on his answer before something came to him and he nodded. “You lacked compassion for others.”

The spy was shocked to hear him say that. After days of the boy trying to please the dark warrior, she hadn’t expected him to say something against him. But as Fayt gave his reasoning behind his answer, she understood that he was referring to Airyglyph as a whole and not just Albel. He thought their kingdom could’ve avoided the war if the Glyphians took the time to understand what Aquarians went through.

It was sweet of the boy to defend Aquaria like that, but that was ridiculous. Her people had been led to believe that their religion was being condemned and they fought against the Glyphians in order to defend their right to practice the teachings of Apris. Compared to the Glyphian’s reason for war, their excuse was almost petty. Though it wasn’t like her people were in the wrong to defend themselves and- it was still wrong of Vox to imprison and execute the followers of Apris in order to goad the Aquarians to fight back.

Albel wasn’t very impressed with the answer either. She could see his annoyance and a trace of anger as he scoffed at the boy.

“You know nothing of the real world,” he sneered. “What if someone important to you were starving right before your eyes? Would you still be concerned about people you’ve never even seen before?”

It took her a moment to realize that he was most likely speaking from experience. The image of the starving people in the alley was still clear in her mind.

“After all is said and done, we are creatures that are only able to think about ourselves and a very limited number of people around us. Only those who have never gone hungry speak such foolishness as compassion for others. Or perhaps you are suggesting we can use that compassion to fill our bellies?” Albel added bitterly, taking care to remind Fayt that he was better off than the people of Airyglyph.

The boy was taken aback by his words. He hadn’t anticipated a reasonable response like that. Nel had told him before what Airyglyph was really after and he was just now starting to remember how bad off the other kingdom was. But he refused to back down completely. Perhaps it was a show to prove to the Wicked One that he wasn’t weak, or maybe he wanted to believe that his words still held some power in the debate. The boy glanced up at Albel and took in a deep breath.

“You may be right, Albel. However… Even if compassion won’t satisfy your hunger, it will satisfy your soul. To me, that is a thousand times better than repeatedly waging senseless wars.”

It was a little naïve and some part of her wished that could be true, but it unfortunately worked both ways. If Fayt understood the small factors that led to war, he would’ve known that compassion wouldn’t have worked because nether side was willing to give it. As much as it irked her, had Aquaria been more compassionate towards the Glyphians and their plight, Vox wouldn’t have been able to gain any support for his desire for war. And- if she were to completely believe Albel’s story without questioning the king herself, compassion was what led to the war lasting as long as it did.

Albel let out a snort of distain before he shook his head. “What’s the point if you can’t make yourself, your friends, and the woman you love happy? You intend to force that hare-brained idea of the ‘good life’ on the people around you?”

“I have no intention of forcing anything on anyone!” Fayt protested in frustration before he glared at the floor and added in a defeated tone, “It’s just…I want you to see my point.”

“You mean you want to force me to see it. What nonsense,” he muttered as he crossed his arms. Fayt was a little surprised that was how Albel viewed the situation, but he was more annoyed that he couldn’t get Albel to understand what he was trying to say. The boy ended up storming off, signaling his defeat.

What Albel had said about making those around him happy really made her think. It did sound like something he would say, but she didn’t think he was the type to be so eloquent about it. But did Albel really mean all of that? He didn’t really strive to make any friends happy (did he even have friends?) and if he was referring to her when he mentioned ‘the woman he loved’, how could he possibly make her happy while they were on opposing sides?

But as she thought back on it, their relationship started close to the end of the war and he did try to make her happy ever since he joined the party. While they were working in an alliance, anything was possible. But with the understanding they had about their individual priorities, they both couldn’t be completely happy together unless a full peace treaty happened between their kingdoms.

Suddenly her door was pushed in and she jumped back before it could hit her. Albel smirked as he gave her a knowing look. He knew she had been eavesdropping.

“Another possible cause that we lost the war is probably because you Aquarians can hardly be trusted. You can’t even keep your word.” His words held heavy accusations, but his tone was mocking and his expression was clearly playful.

The spy shook her head and adopted a similar look to his own before she inquired in an innocent tone, “Whatever do you mean? I gave my word that I wouldn’t leave the inn and I am still in the inn.”

He gave her an appraising look as he walked further into her room and closed the door behind him. “I suppose I can’t argue with that logic, but you were intending to leave, were you not? Had that fool and I not been there, you could be wandering the streets as we speak.”

He had her there. But unlike Fayt, she knew how to win an argument against this man. She crossed her arms and approached him until she was almost pressed against him. “Fine, but before you judge me, place yourself in my position. If everyone around you is treating you like you’re on your deathbed, but you feel completely fine, would you really do as you’re told and stay here all day?”

His eyes widened for a second as he opened his mouth and closed it again. She had thrown him in an unexpected loop with that one. Soon his brows furrowed and he gave her a playful sneer. “You win this round…”

Nel chuckled as she headed for the door to make her escape. “Glad you see it my way.”

“Who said I was going to let you go?” he inquired as his claw reached around her to shut the door before she could pull it open completely. He then brought up his other hand to rest on the wall on her other side. He hovered over her form, giving her enough room to turn and face him, before he lowered his body to effectively trap her between his arms.

She knew what he wanted when his head leaned down to nuzzle her neck. If she was going to insist that she was feeling well, then he wanted to play. But she wasn’t in the mood. She had a lot to do before the day ended and she knew he was just going to sneak into her room later on that night. She avoided his mouth when he tried to kiss her and tried to bring up the conversation he had with Fayt.

“You weren’t being very fair with Fayt. I knew more about the war than he did and I wouldn’t have been able to accurately guess at the reason if you hadn’t informed me before,” she muttered, earning a sigh from the man before her.

“Don’t defend the fool,” he chided as he leaned his forehead against hers. “I was only asking for an opinion to test his intelligence. He’s too naïve and softhearted. He’s not even worthy of your attention.”

“Oh for the love of Apris…” Nel growled tiredly in her mind. Albel was only talking to Fayt to determine how much of a threat he was. The Wicked One was seeing the boy as a rival in love…

“You know, Fayt isn’t who you think he is. He’s definitely not you and he has no intention of eliminating you. If you would actually give him a chance, you might see that he actually likes you,” she informed him, wondering if he would catch on to how the boy liked him.

Albel grunted and shook his head, causing her head to move with him since their foreheads were still pressed together. “Don’t toy with me. Any sane person knows to fear Albel the Wicked. The first thing anyone would want to do is kill me if they could.”

“Any Aquarian would want to kill you if they could, but Fayt, Cliff, and Maria aren’t Aquarians. And- it’s not like everyone hates you. Adray seems to like you and that’s saying a lot considering you’re a Glyphian. I don’t hate you either, though I’m still not certain if I love you,” the spy responded as she pushed him back a little to get a better view of his features. “However, using your logic, I must be insane. After getting to know you these past few days, I no longer fear you. I actually trust you.”

His face was solemn as he listened to her. Even though he spent most of his life pushing others away, he still didn’t like being alone. That was why he allowed Nel in his life- because he figured she would be the only one who could be strong enough to stand by his side and someone he could trust. For the most part, he was right, but was she the only one?

He couldn’t love another like he loved her, but was it really possible for him to befriend and trust the other maggots? They were strong and they seemed to have no particular loyalties outside of their own goals. They did care about the others within their little circle, but they only seemed to go out of their way for someone if they happened to be important. Could he really trust them? Could he trust the blue haired fool that the others seemed to blindly follow? Did he want to?

Nothing more was said when they sensed someone in the hallway. Albel pulled away from her just as a knock came to her door.

“Nel?” Maria called from the other side, “How are you feeling? Are you okay?”

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

It wasn’t until nighttime when Nel discovered that Albel actually tried to take her advice. She had waited until Fayt and Maria went off to bed before sneaking out again to the tavern. Normally, she didn’t like visiting that area of the town, but after the day she had been having, she felt like she needed a drink. She didn’t intend to get drunk, she only wanted one tankard of ale.

Cliff had already beaten her there, but he was already well into his fifth drink and didn’t notice her walk in. He was too busy listening to stories from the drunken bandits that had gathered there. As long as he wasn’t starting a fight, she didn’t feel the need to interrupt his fun. She wasn’t in much of a mood to talk to him, so once she got her drink, she walked up to the second floor where there was less people and sat down at one of the tables.

She made sure to sit where she could see the entrance and keep an eye on the Klausian. It wasn’t long before she caught sight of Albel wandering in, looking a little perplexed. He caught sight of her instantly and headed up to where she was once he ordered himself a drink.

“Should you really be here? The maggots might get worried,” he taunted with a grin as he sat next to her.

“I am a spy,” she reminded him with a grin of her own. “I can easily sneak back without them ever knowing.”

Albel let out a short bark of laughter before he carefully slung his claw arm over her shoulders and knocked his tankard against hers. “Heh, I love it when you’re being naughty.”

She couldn’t help but smirk back at him. His gesture was almost friendly- like they were long-time war buddies. She felt rather comfortable sitting with him like that and decided that even if she couldn’t develop romantic feelings for him, she could enjoy his company as a good friend. …Well, a friend with benefits. She had to admit that she enjoyed his company in bed as well.

“Hmm… Anything wrong?” she wondered after a while, “You came in looking rather troubled.”

That sobered his mood some before he took a swig of his ale. “I talked to that Leingod-fool again. You were right- he trusts me and I can’t fathom why.”

Nel was actually happy that he listened to her and took her advice. And- she caught on to how he actually said Fayt’s surname. She wasn’t sure what they talked about, but it seemed that the boy finally earned the Wicked One’s respect.

“It’s as I’ve said: Fayt isn’t from Aquaria so he doesn’t know you from the war. He only knows you from the few times you’ve encountered him and from the time you joined us. Unlike my comrades, he caught a glimpse of who you really are and saw the good in you,” she replied before she glanced down at her ale. She was being way too insightful on Fayt’s thoughts when she didn’t have proof. What little she had must’ve made her more talkative than she would like to be.

“But I was never nice to him,” he pointed out, “I even attacked him earlier when trying to wake him…”

“Albel!” she shouted in a scolding tone, earning a small grin from him.

“I didn’t hurt him,” he defended before he went back to his contemplative mood and described his conversation with the boy, “He started talking like you after I pointed out how I hurt him and his friends. He acknowledged that it was war and said that he accepted my lifestyle. For a moment, I forgot that he was a pampered, naïve child…”

That was Fayt- he could see the good in others and he was wise when he wanted to be. He was still young and had some growing up to do, but he knew enough to make the right decision. Though Nel was a little confused as to why Albel thought he was ‘talking’ like her. It was true that she fell behind the ‘it was war’ excuse to hold in her emotions against the Glyphians, but how did he know that? And she doubted Fayt picked it up from her. The boy must’ve personally believed it.

Albel grunted a little before he took another sip. “But what confused me was how he didn’t seem to care about you. I didn’t reveal our relationship, but I did hint to him that I wanted you and warned him to back off. He seemed upset over it, but he didn’t challenge me. …He didn’t say anything.”

Nel snorted over how clueless the Wicked One was. Poor Fayt. He just found out the man he liked was in love with someone else… Though she was disturbed about how willing Albel was to reveal his intentions with her to others. She only hoped Fayt wouldn’t suspect that there was already something going on between them…

“What is that supposed to mean?” he inquired sharply as he glared down at her, “The boy is very fond of you and it’s natural to assume that he might have feelings for you. It just struck me as odd that he was willing to give up on you so quickly.”

“I’m not his type. That’s why he backed off,” the spy said with a grin. The Wicked One gave her a confused look before she decided to finally tell him the truth. “Fayt likes men. He had a crush on you.”

The look of shock on Albel’s face was priceless. All at once, he pieced together the evidence and found that it added up. Nel watched as his expressions kept changing from disgust, horror, and then back to disgust. It was highly entertaining to the spy.

He appeared a little ill before he finally replied, “He’s not my type either.”

“If it’s any consolation, it was only a crush. He’ll probably find someone else soon enough,” Nel added reassuringly. At least she hoped Fayt could move on.

Albel only sighed and muttered under his breath about wishing he didn’t know that little piece of information. It must’ve been the alcohol that made her bold, but Nel laughed and then offered to help him forget about it once they were done with their drinks. He was more than happy to take her up on that offer.

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

It was easy enough sneaking past Cliff at the tavern, but Nel made sure that Albel followed after her at least ten minutes after she left. She didn’t want to risk one of her subordinates noticing her walking through Peterny at night with their former enemy.

When she reached her room, she started taking off her armor as she waited for him. She smirked when she heard the door close and the lock being turned. Albel wasted no time walking over to her and wrapped his arms around her from behind.

“Scarf,” he muttered against her ear, urging her to take the annoying article of clothing off so he could have access to her neck.

“Take care of your arm first,” she ordered before she pointed to the table where his things were waiting. Since he missed out on cleaning his arm last night, she didn’t want him to risk an infection. “I’ll get ready for you while I wait.”

He smirked at her words before he turned her around for a quick kiss. He was rather curious what she meant by ‘get ready’ and wondered if she had another Aquarian ‘talent’ to share. Knowing that she wasn’t going to watch him, he took off his claw and went about cleaning and changing his bandages.

Nel didn’t have anything particular in mind, but she wanted the chance to at least get in a sleeping robe before he was done. She could think of a few interesting things with the robe on and if nothing else. …Or she could always taunt the Wicked One into removing it himself. She had to hold in a shudder as she busied herself with taking off her uniform. It must’ve been the alcohol that was putting her in the mood, but she was feeling very warm and very ready for him. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to take control or let him have his way with her, but she knew she couldn’t wait to have him inside her.

“Why bother with the robe?” he wondered when he finished his task. She had just tied the belt around her when he started walking back to her.

“If it bothers you, then take it off,” she replied in a sly tone, challenging him.

Albel was more than happy to humor her by sliding the top part off her shoulders so her neck was exposed. Once her bridal rune was in sight, he latched down on it and then ran his tongue along her skin. Nel moaned at the feeling as her hands reached out to his chest fisted in his shirt. He eventually worked his way up to her mouth and slid his tongue inside, she responded eagerly by running her hands through his hair. It wasn’t long before an idea came to the dark warrior’s mind and he pulled back to glance down at the cleavage that was showing from her robe.

This was reminding him of the first time she summoned him in her dreams. She was in a robe a lot like this one. But he still had too much clothing on to fit with that fantasy… He decided that he was going to be in control that night and surprised her by pushing her onto the bed. She fell across the bed and didn’t get the chance to move to where she was properly laying on it because he climbed on top of her and straddled her thighs.

Nel felt excitement and heat course through her body before she wondered what he was going to do next. It didn’t once occur to her that her body was being unusually sensitive and that she was craving for the act more so than usual. All she wanted was for him to undress and have his way with her. Albel didn’t really notice much of a change either until he parted more of her robe to expose her breasts.

He paused for a moment as he realized something wasn’t right. …Were they larger than he last remembered? He was about to dismiss it as his imagination and raised his good hand to feel them, only to stop when she suddenly let out a hiss of pain.

“Ow…” She winced before her hand came up to touch her other breast. She winced again as pain shot through her body at the slightest squeeze. “Sorry, it’s seems I’m tender there.”

Not long after those words left her mouth, they both began adding up all of the symptoms she had that day and came to a startling conclusion. His eyebrows furrowed together as he wondered, “…You have been taking the contraceptives, haven’t you?”

“Of course I have, you saw me take them every time!” she nearly yelled as she tried to sit up. He moved off her so she could. “I can’t be pregnant… unless… Was there something wrong with the contraceptives?”

Albel thought back on it. They never failed before and he doubted the fact that she was Aquarian would have any meaning. “They shouldn’t fail unless exposed to too much heat. It was specially designed for the colder climates since your Aquarian contraceptives often fail in cold weather. But the past few nights haven’t been warm enough to affect them.”

Nel bit her lip. There were a few times she placed her travel bag near the fire, but not nearly close enough to heat up the contents inside…right? Still, it could be just a coincidence. She had an explanation for the other symptoms- stress could still be the main cause and there was still a chance that something else caused her to faint earlier.

But… after counting in her head, she realized that she was supposed to be going through her monthly cycle right about now. She didn’t really think much of it since she had a history of delayed bleeding because of the stress of her missions. It was nothing new and she knew the type of contraceptives she had been taking were not the kind that would prevent them. It had to be a terrible coincidence and nothing more…

“I don’t think I’m pregnant. If this had happened from our first time, then I would be nearly a month along and even then I wouldn’t be having symptoms like shortness of breath this soon. I can understand the rush of hormones, but not the rest of it,” she finally responded after more thinking. She knew enough about pregnancy from others around her to know when certain symptoms were supposed to come and why. But if not pregnancy, then what else could cause the hormonal imbalance?

But there was something else that just came to her that gave her more reason to believe that it was all a coincidence. That same rush of hormones could also be the result of someone about to bleed. She initially thought it was ale that was putting her in the mood, but it could be her body’s natural instinct urging her to get pregnant before her bleeding began.

“I can’t claim to know much about you women, but is it normal to experience any of those symptoms if you’re not pregnant? Is there any way you can get yourself tested so we can be sure?” he asked with a little bit of concern mixed in his tone.

He did sound worried about her, but she was getting the feeling that he wasn’t too adverse to the idea of her carrying his child. But why did he go through all the trouble of getting the contraceptives in the first place? The spy let out a sigh before she leaned against him tiredly. Who knew what was going through his mind? With his complexities, his reasoning was probably something else he wasn’t ready to talk about…

“There is a way to get tested, but it will have to wait until the Vendeeni are gone,” she replied before a bitter thought came to her, “Though if the plan happens to fail, then I suppose it won’t really matter if I was pregnant.”

But there was also still a chance that it could work and if so, then what was she going to do about it? She couldn’t exactly get rid of a baby and it was against the teachings of Apris to deliberately destroy an unborn child. If she were pregnant, then she would have to take responsibility and care for it. …She would have to retire from the Crimson Blade and settle down with the father. Nel’s body tensed as the thought came to her. She wasn’t ready to give up her life. The thought of having to give up everything for a baby was actually a little frightening to her. She wasn’t ready for this.

Albel sighed as he felt her tense up. He had a feeling where her thoughts were going. He brought his arm up to hold her against him to comfort her before he fell back unto the bed, bringing her with him. He wanted to have a child with her, but not until things were settled between the kingdoms. It would be difficult to have her live with him- and he figured that she wouldn’t want to leave her kingdom so soon. He wasn’t too worried about the possibility of having the baby- he was more concerned with how she was going to take it and how to prepare for it. He wasn’t ready to be a father himself, but he was more accepting of it than she was.

“I was hoping something like this wouldn’t come up until much later,” Albel admitted after a while. It was better to let her know his intentions now before she began suspecting that he did it on purpose. “It’s much too soon- and I doubt either side would like it this early in the alliance.”

So that was why he was being careful. Having children in the distant future made sense- they both needed heirs for their families. But having one right now wasn’t possible. She still had too much to do to just drop everything.

“I can’t have a baby,” she insisted.

“You won’t have much of a choice. But… if you are pregnant and you’re not ready to retire when you have it…I’ll watch over the child while you’re off on your missions. The servants will be doing most of the work, mind you, but I will care for it when you’re not available.”

His answer shocked her. Considering Glyphians preferred to have the women raise children, she didn’t think he would be willing to adopt the Aquarian culture and take on men’s work in her kingdom. But she caught the undertone in his message- she was free to continue serving Aquaria, but she had to take responsibility eventually. He probably intended for her to permanently live with him and take over raising the child when she was not on missions. It was easy enough for her to find work and avoid him completely, but she was certain he would find a way to make sure she didn’t get away with it.

“I…wasn’t expecting to hear that from you. Are you sure?” she wondered quietly, making sure he really meant it. For all she knew, he could’ve been just saying it to make her feel better.

“I’m not heartless, woman. I will probably have more free time than you so I can afford to watch over a child. And besides- until there is a peace treaty established, I would rather have you remain where you are so you can help make sure your people work with mine,” he explained, sounding very serious. It was almost as if he thought this through beforehand. She never really asked before, but what was Albel going to do once they tamed the Marquis?

“Thank you,” she ended up muttering before she rolled over to her side to hug him slightly. She wasn’t sure what he was up to, but she was grateful for the offer. It was one less burden she had to worry about for the time being…

“But if I’m not pregnant,” she continued, “We should be more careful in the future… I suppose it’s time for me to start taking the herbs. I was supposed to start on them upon reaching puberty, but I never bothered since I was never sexually active before.”

Most women in the army were encouraged to take the traditional contraceptives (commonly referred to as ‘the herbs’) to prevent pregnancies. But the herbs tend to have bad side effects on the body if taken for too long. They prevented conception very well and they eliminated the need for women to have periods, but it had a way of causing problems with the blood vessels and sometimes even created deficiencies like anemia. But- people would probably start to wonder why she would want them now all of a sudden…

“Damn…” he muttered with a slight pout. “I just realized that we can’t have sex until you’re sure.”

Nel raised an eyebrow. It wasn’t often that he would curse like that. She could tell his revelation disappointed him and couldn’t help but smirk. It would absolutely torture him if he couldn’t have his way with her. But he was right. She couldn’t take any more contraceptives until she was absolutely sure. No matter the type, any contraceptive could damage the fetus if taken while pregnant. And- she couldn’t continue to play around with him without taking those precautions. She would only get pregnant if she weren’t already.

“Poor baby,” she muttered tauntingly before she rolled over and trailed her hand down his chest, earning a shiver of delight from the man. “There are other things we can do as long as you don’t come inside me.”

He perked up at that before a gleam came to his eyes, “Oh? And what are you suggesting?”

“You have a brain. Use it,” she retorted, using his words against him. The heat she was feeling earlier seemed to have dissipated and she was no longer in the mood. But for some reason, she felt the need to cheer him up and reassure him that they didn’t have to give up everything.

Albel grinned at that before he rolled over on top of her (taking care not to put pressure on her tender breasts) and kissed her deeply. They didn’t do much- only kissed until they decided to retire for the night. Nel fell asleep with her head resting against his chest.

She was still worried about the thought of being pregnant, but she wanted to believe that it wasn’t the case. Too many things didn’t add up and all of the evidence came all too suddenly. It had to be something else. But… it was nice to know that she wouldn’t have to deal with it alone.

To the Seventeenth Chapter (The Next Step)

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