“Spend the next thirty minutes doing warm-ups! Fights will begin after that!” Grimhawk called out to the group of twelve squires. “Pairs will keep fighting until I’m bored. Breaks between these fights will be limited. Stay hydrated and flexible! Seek medical attention if it is necessary. Part of this practice is understanding where your limits are. Only then can we break your barriers!”
Patterfall waved for Veximarl to come closer. “Vex! I saw you jogging about earlier, so no need to do a warmup. Let’s relax and have a talk instead.” The two went to sit on the side of the field, where Patterfall produced some glazed cakes to snack on. They had candied cherries on top and an almond paste filling.
“So that’s the guy whose aunt messed up your family?” Zaniyah was doing her stretches next to Alton and Sybil. She was waiting for Vincent, who was having a conversation with Gwyn and Ivy. If she were paying more attention, she would have noticed the death glare that Alton was giving Patterfall.
That glare shifted from Patterfall to Zaniyah. “Didn't we agree to not talk about it?”
“Oh right.” Her eyes widened. “Sorry.”
“Right…” Alton rolled his eyes. “If by aunt you mean the Duchess of Violet, an incredibly powerful woman who could destroy all of us with a simple signature, then yes. Don’t bring it up again. It’s a sensitive subject.”
Vincent had told Zaniyah what he had learned about Patterfall and she proceeded to bring it up at dinner. Since Chickadee was working, and Veximarl was asleep, they hadn’t much else to talk about. Alton didn’t confirm if that was Patterfall or Duxton, but he did clarify what had happened with his family.
Elbellziara had fallen in love with a baker who was working for the previous Duke of Violet. Every time she made her affections known, he would refuse and insist that he didn’t want a life involving nobles. He then left the estate and sought to make a fortune elsewhere, as his family became desperate for money.
His younger brother and sister had taken over their family’s bakery after their parent’s death. The brother had collected a mass of gambling debts and sold off both the business and the sister in order to stay afloat. When the baker returned, he agreed to marry Elbellziara on the condition that his sister is found and freed.
That’s when the trouble started. The man who had bought the girl refused to turn her over. They eloped, ran away to Carapace, and changed their name to Toval in the process. Elbellziara went on the hunt, but the eldest brother told her to drop the issue. They married and ended up having two children, Patterfall and Viokern.
The scandal, despite happening before either of the two were born, was a famous incident in the capital. Especially since it led to Elbellziara working towards making lives better for the common man and that earned her the title of Duchess of Violet. Slavery is a sensitive issue in Fogbloom. It was technically illegal, but examples of it still exist throughout the country. Stories such as the one with the duchess came up every now and again, but there still hadn’t been progress with strengthening the law or enforcing it properly.
“So... “ Zaniyah folded her arms at the dinner table, debating everything she just heard. “I mean, he really can’t be the future Duke of the Violet Region, right? Someone like that wouldn’t come to Braytons. He’s actually the prince?”
“Yeah, that’s Duxton,” muttered Alton. “Officially the worst disguise possible.”
“He really is the prince?” Sybil tensed up at the idea.
“... Why are you suddenly jumpy about the idea?” Alton raised an eyebrow at her odd behavior.
Best not to tell them that he had approached her at the dance and stolen half her food. Alton was in a bad enough mood as it was. “So you think that he doesn’t care if he gets caught if he’s going with a bad disguise?”
Alton nodded. “His squadmate is the son of Nicolas Arbutus, the paladin who is currently serving as one of the King’s hands, and he’s here using his own name. Shaw was born to serve Duxton. They wouldn’t be separated, and even though it’s likely that only low nobles would come to Braytons, they’ll still be recognized by someone at some point.”
“That does sound like the worst disguise ever.” Zaniyah’s face scrunched even further. “I especially don’t like this Shaw guy. Living a life like that… How is it any different than being a slave? Ugh, Fogbloom people are the worst.” Her eyes flicked to Gwyn and Ivy, then back to her own squad.
“Prince Duxton doesn’t even look like the real Patterfall.” Alton frowned, but he was surprised that Zaniyah was able to put everything together so quickly on her own. “Or I had heard that they look nothing alike... He’s probably is only using Patterfall’s name so he could be in the same year as Shaw, otherwise, he’d be a third year, but don’t worry about it. I don’t want any trouble. None of us should want trouble from the future king.”
Sybil couldn’t help but worry about it. Alton had mentioned before that a cousin of his had forcibly cut off his hair when he was told to leave Fogbloom. Now she couldn’t help but to wonder if that cousin was Duxton or Shaw, or what that meant for Alton’s own past. Then again, Alton and Duxton were similar names. The answer was right there... She just didn’t know how to bring it up to him.
Alton shook his head of the thoughts going through them and looked over to where Vincent was standing with his squad. The sight of Duxton had made Ivy go into a full-blown panic, as she was making wide gestures while speaking quickly. She must have just put the pieces together herself.
Alton had said he didn’t want any trouble, and if Duxton was outed by other nobles, he was innocent in the matter. But that prince also tried to out himself to Sybil and was currently acting all buddy-buddy with Veximarl. It was only a matter of time before this became Alton’s problem.
Lydia floated behind Alton as he and Sybil went for a jog around the field as part of their warm up. “The Aconites are a dangerous lot. They make decisions based on what is most entertaining for themselves and rarely what’s good for others. Elbellziara was no different when she chased out the Tovals. Even Wulfric was a bitter sort to deal with.”
He ignored her and moved on to doing stretches. It was a touchy subject for him.
Grimhawk eventually called them all over, tapping his staff against the ground as he did so. “Hrm.” He gave it some thought. “Those two versus those two.” He haphazardly waved his staff in the air and no one in particular.
“Aconite and Tuton vs Twist and Toval?” Duxton called out in a delighted manner. “An excellent first choice, sir! As always, I admire your abilities as an instructor.”
“Was it..?” Grimhawk tilted his head so his ear pointed at the group. “I suppose that would work. Make sure your pendants are on and get in the field!”
Alton looked over to his opponent. “What are you doing, Patterfall?” He hissed it between his teeth.
Duxton placed a finger against his own cheek and did his best to look innocent. “I was simply thinking to myself, what a better way to become acquainted with my long lost cousin?” He grinned. “And hello there, gloom girl. You’re actually almost decent looking now that I’ve gotten a better look at you. I would ask for a dance now that you’re feeling better, but it’s sad to see that you’ve become this one’s girl.”
“I’m not his girl,” Sybil replied coldly.
“From my understanding, my dear cousin was a bit of a womanizer in Carapace,” purred Duxton. “But why wouldn’t he be? The fish was certainly blessed by the gods, so who am I to judge? Shame he has been such a good boy since coming here. Other than that time he bought those drinks off that naughty third year in the library, the only girl he’s made eyes at is you.”
A growl escaped from Sybil’s lips. She was about to say something when Alton intervened. “That’s enough, Patterfall.”
Seeing their annoyance just made his smile bigger. “Remember, nestlings, there are eyes everywhere at Braytons. Anything they see ends up in your record, and a record can be a very important thing. After all, it’s what our potential lords and ladies will see in the future when it comes time for us to graduate.” He turned to Veximarl. “Let us be off, Vex. It will only be a few moments before we’re finished, and we’ll have more time to converse then.”
Veximarl didn’t feel comfortable with watching them speak. It felt like he was siding with the bad guy just by standing next to Duxton. He mumbled an apology to the two and followed his partner as he left. Giving a few twists of his spear about his body, he felt well enough to fight. Everything will be made well again with Alton and Sybil after the duel.
Grimhawk held up a cone to his mouth. “Aconite! Armor form only!”
“Surely it would be better for me to go with a form that I have more experience in!” Duxton shouted back. The look on his face was ripe with sudden anger. “It would be a poor example for the nestlings to go in with my weakest spells!”
“Then be less weak with them! Armor form only!”
Duxton growled to himself and pulled out metal can of softened wax from his belt. He rubbed some between his fingers before placing a bit in each ear. “Bee’s wax. You will need some to stop the fish’s singing.” He said, holding the tin over for Veximarl.
“Was all that necessary?” Veximarl may have complained, but he still took some wax for himself. “I don’t believe they’re actually a couple. The two are quite distant from each other most of the time.”
“Battles are won before the fight begins. It’s all about the mental condition. A clear state of mind is as important as a sharp blade or the ability to crush them in an instant if not for Grimhawk’s meddling.” Duxton took back the tin and put it away. “Besides, I know that look on her face. Everything about it says that she spread her whore legs for him at one point or another and has been regretting it ever since.”
“I assure you that is not the case,” replied Veximarl. “She’s been like that with him since our entrance exams. I would know if something like that happened, as I had stayed with them throughout the ordeal” Or at least, he would think that Sybil would have mentioned it to him.
Duxton’s face visibly darkened. “You were with them the whole time? There wasn’t a point where they could’ve snuck off on their own for a few hours without anyone noticing?”
Veximarl studied Duxton’s cruel expression and shook his head. There was a point, when they had gone to the Volo Refuge together, but he didn’t want to think about it. Battles are won before the fighting begins. It was the first lesson that Moss gave when he attended classes with Baron Squad.
“Your weapon?” It didn’t seem like Duxton had anything on him aside from clothing. Veximarl was certain that the prince was fond of using a halberd.
“I have it handled,” he muttered.
On the other end of the field, Sybil couldn’t be more upset. She had her daggers out and were twirling them about in her hands like a nervous tick. Chickadee had done a good job with the tainted beast teeth. She could hardly feel a difference in their weight or balance, but she chose to use Tal and Vin regardless. There was a worry that she might damage Nip and Gnarl to quickly.
“Put those away.” Alton put away his own tin of wax after having Sybil take some. He then took the opportunity to strap on his collar. “Trust me. You’ll need your sword.”
But after what she had done with the tainted beast, she had become hesitant to use the sword at all. If not for the fact that she was supposed to carry it around, she would have left it in the room. Now was a horrible time to make an attempt to convince her to use it.
Grimhawk once again shouted through his cone. “You’re wasting time! Start the fight already!” He grumbled and sat on the nearby hill along with the rest of the class. Tish had a blanket set down and was serving tea, and he nodded gratefully when she passed him a cup. “Ah, thank you, Maplehammer. Would you pass me another scone? Those are lovely.”
“Get behind me.” Duxton outstretched his hand and orange runes began to spiral about his wrist. Veximarl didn’t what spell he was using, but he did know that glowing, spiraling runes were best left avoided. He took a few uneasy steps back and looked towards his squad members on the other side.
Sybil looked over to Alton, keeping her daggers out. “Are we going in?”
“He’ll be coming to us.” Alton drew out his rapier and held it at his side.
Light began to swirl around Duxton’s body. He stepped up as they formed blocks below his feet, and the whole of him became encased with mana. Orange and gold strands of light formed into plates of heavy armor. His hand remained stretched out until a sword appeared within its grasp and a tower shield formed in the other.
Duxton then charged forward. The long stride of the armor enabled him to move at an unsettling speed. His shield was held in front of him in hopes of ramming into his opponents before they had a chance to react. Veximarl blinked at the sight. He stepped from side to side, hesitating before charging in as well. Although his mighty push forward was at a much slower pace.
Both Alton and Sybil tumbled out of the way. The ground shook below them with every step that the prince took. He turned and swung downward at Alton, who barely managed to dodge the hit as it cleaved a wound into the field. At least the armor had made Duxton’s movements somewhat sluggish, otherwise, they would be in trouble.
Alton wouldn’t be able to dodge forever. Even with Duxton’s slower swings, he could easily catch up with them with his wider stride. Sybil thought of her scabbard as she took a few steps back. She was faster. If she could activate the powers within her scabbard, she would be able to find a weakness in the armor and give them the advantage.
“That sounds like revenge.”
Alton’s words spoke in the back of her mind. That’s right... Even if she wanted to use the scabbard, she couldn’t muster up the emotion needed to trigger it. She had been warned that abusing that power could result in her downfall. It made her hesitate.
Duxton’s sword came down again. This time Alton was holding up his shield in hopes of blocking it. Sybil rushed forward, crossing her daggers against each other so they also took the brunt of his blow. A great weight crashed down upon the both of them, her needing to fall to a knee just so she would be able to take the weight.
“What are you doing?!” Alton hissed. “Do your thing already!”
It wasn’t as though the scabbard and the sword were the only tools at her disposal, Sybil still had her own strengths. Her mist-step activated and both of them broke away in opposite directions, letting the sword drop between them. The modified daggers should be sharp enough to pierce through magical armor, right? Maybe Nip and Gnarl could do it?
She dashed behind the armor and took aim. If she used both hands and thrust upward, she could use a dagger to go through the gaps of his armor. Despite it being magical, it should still be thinnest at the joints. Sybil switched out her daggers, and moved back and forth, looking for an opening. When Duxton turned to swing at Alton again, she had her chance.
“Behind you!” Veximarl called out.
The sharp jab intended for Duxton’s kidneys was suddenly a shield in Sybil’s face. Her dagger became wedged into the shield and she attempted in vain to yank them free. Sybil looked over to Veximarl, who was still keeping his distance. Her mist-step didn’t work on someone if they were looking at her from the start of the spell. He must’ve been staring at her this whole time for that very reason.
“Excellent observation!” Duxton lifted the shield high into the air, and Sybil was carried along with it. She planted both feet against the shield in order to get more leverage to yank her weapon free. The world twisted about her as Duxton forced her and the shield downward, intending to slam it into the ground and squash her.
A sudden cold enveloped her body. Everything grew dark as it felt like she was floating through the air, and she suddenly found herself a few steps away from the fight. Her body felt weaker, and her heart was racing. She fell to her knees in a vain effort to catch her breath.
Lifting his shield back up, Duxton let out a laugh that echoed throughout his armor. “Come along, fish! Swim this way! Time to join your lover!”
But Sybil was still here. If she had been eliminated, she would’ve teleported out of the field. This sensation was nearly identical to when she was using her scabbard, but it didn’t seem right at all. There was no mist cloud, no random voices, no weird time dilation. It felt like she had been using her mist-step for hours, and was completely exhausted.
“Sybil?” Veximarl stared at her wide-eyed. He was just as startled as she was.
“Hello?” She patted herself down and seemed alright. “I’m still here, right? I’m still good to fight? You can see me?”
“You would be out of the field if you were knocked out, so I suppose you that are indeed still in this.”
Sybil nodded her head. “Oh… That’s good.”
They stared at each other awkwardly for a moment. Veximarl frowned as he realized that they were opponents and started to run towards her with spear at the ready. When he got within range, she did an upward swing with her dagger and cut his weapon cleanly in half. The necromancer looked over to where the top half of his spear had fallen to the ground.
“Oh...” He was absolutely terrible at this.
“Sorry Vex! I’ll get to you later!” Sybil started to run to where Alton and Duxton were still fighting. She tried to activate her mist-step again but it felt off. That was an understatement, it wasn’t working at all. It seemed like her emergency teleport had used it all up.
She grabbed onto the back of Alton’s uniform and yanked him out of the way of the next sword swing. He turned and gasped with surprise at the sight of her. “I thought you were doing your thing!”
“Ran dry!” Sybil tried to do a little dance to taunt Duxton into swinging at her, but he appeared more focused on Alton.
“How?!” He was forced to drop to the ground as Duxton did a horizontal slash.
Sybil shrugged. “I don’t know. Can’t you do your thing?!” He shook his head, knowing that the both of them had already put wax in their ears.
Circling about Duxton from in the air, Lydia was impressed. “Amazing. Ancient magic certainly does have a flair about it. I once saw Wulfric cast this during the war, but that was because he was using it to intimidate someone. This is the first time I’ve seen it in a fight.” Alton didn’t have time for idle chit chat. If he did, he would complain about her idle chit chat. “Ah, sorry... What I meant to say is that I believe your singing is also a form of ancient magic. You may be able to destabilize his casting if you find the right series of notes.”
Alton let out an annoyed groan as he turned tail and ran. Not like he had better options. He continued to dash about the field as fast as he could while Duxton followed. His voice started to dance about the air as he began to sing, and its magic was amplified by both rapier and collar. It didn’t visibly affect Duxton’s mobility. The armor continued to stomp after him just like it had before.
He turned around and lifted up his rapier to point at the prince. His voice grew all the louder as he concentrated. In theory, it should work, but he was flabbergasted on how to cast it properly. Spell creation had never been one of his fortes.
As hard as he was trying, nothing appeared to be happening. Duxton raised up his shield and increased his speed. He would have smashed Alton to pieces if not for Sybil doing a full shoulder slam against the squire. Alton flew out of the way just in time to see Sybil explode into golden light. She appeared again not that far away from where the rest of the class was having a tea party.
“I guess I should say that was a good effort?” Zaniyah said with a shrug.
Sybil put her dagger back in her belt and fell back into the grass. She felt hollow, and that last minute run had left her nearly gasping for air. “That was horrid,” she grumbled. Her arm was flung over her face so that her eyes would be safe from the sun.
Alton couldn’t afford to be startled by Sybil’s defeat. Being shoved out of the way so violently had temporarily halted his song. He rolled off to the side and stood up and begun again from the top. His voice was louder this time, and his notes were more carefully tuned. The light about Duxton began to shudder, and it didn’t seem like he had noticed it.
“There’s an opening at his waist! Left side!” Lydia called out as she pointed to it. “Wait for him to swing again and step around his shield!”
Great. He only had to dodge something he had a barely been able to avoid this entire fight. Thanks, Lydia. Awesome advice. Alton did a side hop as the blade came down. He moved around the tower shield, temporarily cutting off Duxton’s line of sight. The rapier was thrust upward with keen accuracy, jamming itself into the gap. At once, the armor erupted into white light. Duxton was at its center, becoming a wash of gold.
Alton let out a sigh of relief. He actually didn’t think he and Sybil could get away with beating Duxton. He was still weak, and his technique still had room for improvement. He gave pause, going over what had happened during the fight and how he could do better next time. Or at least he would, if not for the warm sensation and gold light swallowing him whole.
“My goodness,” observed Lydia. She had been watching silently as Veximarl snuck up and stabbed the top half of his spear into Alton’s back. If Alton was going to drop his guard in the middle of a fight, Lydia thought he deserved it. “He does take forever to catch up, doesn’t he? Grimhawk is going to make him stop fighting again and have him do laps for days because of how slow he is.”
“You didn’t finish Vex off?!” Alton still had his collar on, making his exclaimed shout of rage echo across the field.
Sybil sat up, thankful that she still had the wax in her ears. “I cut his spear in half. That’s almost like taking him out of the battle. Not my fault you couldn’t finish off a guy with half a weapon.”
Alton glared at her. He didn’t say anything. He was too angry to say anything. He chose to yank off his collar, then sit on the grass in a huff.
“Sir Grimhawk, the fight is over.” Tish poured another cup of tea for the old knight.
“Eh, what?” He looked around. “Oh. Who won?”
“Vexi did, sir. Lord Patterfall defeated Sybil, and Alton, in a fit of rage to avenge his fallen love, killed the armored beast.” Tish sounded enthusiastic as she spoke. “But then he fell as Vexi used the remains of his broken weapon to crush him.”
Sybil frowned as she dug the wax out of her ears. “That’s not what happened.”
“That’s exactly what happened,” Zaniyah replied. “Maybe with some embellishments, but that’s what makes good storytelling.”
Grimhawk nodded. “Tuton’s weapon broke?” He waited for Tish to confirm before lifting up his cone. “Tuton! Ten laps around the field for breaking your weapon!” He thought to himself as he debated what should happen next. “I suppose Aconite is dismissed for the day.”
Duxton hadn’t said anything. He instead had been sitting on the ground with his hand to his forehead. The air about him was fuming with fury, just as it was with Alton. “Yes, sir. It was an honor to assist you in this training exercise.” He growled as he tossed a glare at Sybil. There wasn’t anything else he had to say here. He got up and started to head back to the barracks without bidding so much as a farewell.
But that meant that Veximarl was left to jog alone about the massive field that was outside the barracks. He looked around and grimaced at the thought. As he started to move towards the edge of the fort, Foggy appeared out of the barracks gate. She jumped on his shoulders as he passed, almost as though that were an act of encouragement. At least he could always count on her for that.