The first years shuffled together. Weariness had overtaken some of them, leading them to collapse in the grass. Emery’s usual apathetic expression was replaced with a worried look. He had his hand over his mouth in order to keep himself from hyperventilating. Basil and Peter were patting his back and giving him reassuring words of encouragement.
Vincent remained composed. He was disappointed that Zaniyah had not won, but that didn’t stop him from completing his job. “I assume that none of you would have raced if you hadn’t some idea of a plan. Would you be willing to divulge your decisions now?”
Emery mumbled something that was muffled by his hand. Basil raised his hand and Vincent gave a nod. “Our captain wants to go on farm duty with Miss Ivyverine and Miss Anais.” He grunted as Peter hit him in the shoulder. Emery’s face went pale at the request, but he was stuttering too much to say for certain if Basil was correct in his guess.
“I am not going to spend a week on a frigid, frozen, smelly farm,” snarled back Ivy.
Vincent placed a knuckle on his lower lip. “Penvil is a capable captain and decent strategist. Moontear would also have an advantage in the outdoors, and it is best if a captain were to be a member of each unit. His place is at the farm.
Anais’ empathy with animals will allow her to have the first warning to any trouble that may arise. Ivy needs both the experience of serving under another captain. She is also more than capable of acting as the muscle if there is an emergency. This is an arrangement I can agree to.”
Ivy glared at him. She didn’t say anything... She simply glared. This was another instance of Vincent showing favoritism, hidden under piles of logic that would make her look like the villain if she tried to start an argument now.
“I don’t have any complaints about being on the farm. I actually like it there very much.” Anais smiled at Ivy. “I would feel safer if you were there, Ivy. It would mean a lot to me if you agreed to it.”
Ivy tossed her head to the side and pouted. “I will tolerate it only because you were the one to ask,” replied Ivy with disdain.
Alton put on a smile as he approached Sybil. “I suppose I can find time in my schedule to go with you to Tilrey.” He leaned in and whispered in her ear. “Unless you were serious when you said we should break up? … We can still talk about that, right?”
“What are you talking about?” Sybil stepped away from him. “Vincent said he’d feel better if a captain went on the mission. Vex is coming with me.” Alton stared at her blankly. The corner of his lip was quivering. “Ugh, don’t look at me like that... Fine. I’ll take Chickadee too.”
Vincent quickly agreed with Sybil’s decision. “The guards may want assistance with their weapon and armor maintenance, and neither Tuton and Cully, unlike Toval, would serve as an ill distraction.”
Though Vincent wasn’t saying it, it was obvious to everyone else that he was uncomfortable with the idea. Either allow for Alton and Zaniyah to be left in a squadroom alone together for a week, or have Alton use his time in Tilrey for play rather than work. He couldn’t hide the conflict on his face.
Tish spoke to ease his worries. “They will make for a solid three-man unit. They’re also some of the few that have weapons that can fight off a tainted beast. It’ll be okay.”
Ivy burst out laughing. “Alright, fine! I’ll go start packing!” She started to walk away, cackling like a mad woman.
Though several wanted to take a break from barracks life, not many could find fault with the arrangements. Sybil was pleased with herself. No dresses. No etiquette lessons. No Alton. Sure, she would still have to deal with her stupid horse, but that was a small price to pay.
Not seeing a reason to delay, Sybil decided to set out that afternoon. When they reached Tilrey, they were given a room within one of the cheaper inns to share. After they dropped off their belongings, they met up with Lady Blu, who had already been working within the town for the past week.
She was monitoring the levels of miasma sickness within the town. While the three from Grimstone were in Tilrey, she would be serving as their mentor and tutor. Moss was in Carapace with Gwyn and Oceans was frequently on far patrols with Dalkirk. Only Grimhawk and Stonetoe were at the barracks full time. Lady Till, much to her dismay, was left to do the majority of the first year lessons.
The evening was spent getting their bearings. Chickadee received permission to help the guard’s blacksmith with any tainted beasts that been hunted down, while Sybil was to work on late-night patrols. Blu and Veximarl would take shifts at a local clinic.
As night fell, Sybil found herself staring out the window. A light fog was blanketing the ground, much like the lands at the base of Carapace. Veximarl was right... Sealing the caves had done nothing. The subtle odor of rot was hinting that there were traces of miasma mixing in with the fog. Her brow furrowed and she felt a fear building up inside of her. All around them, the world was changing, and she worried that it might be turning into something wicked.
“It’s colder here,” muttered Chickadee. He had a pile of blankets on him, and that still didn’t make him feel better.
Veximarl was also leaning towards wanting more blankets, but Chickadee had already stolen all of the spare ones. “Tilrey was built in a lower part of the hills. The mists can become more concentrated during this time of year, and the settling effect will make it cooler as a result. We should be prepared to deal with snow soon.”
“Snow would be nice. It will make it easier for me to see anything creeping around at night.” Sybil wrapped the fox fur cloak around her shoulders. Hers was in an archer design, meaning that it was heavier about her shoulders and back, but long slits along the sides gave her free movement of her arms.
Falling back into his pillow, Veximarl let out a heavy sigh. “You may change your tune after you’ve been out in it for a few hours. Best of luck out there and try to stay warm.”
“I will.” She grinned at the other two. “I’ll see you when I get back.”
“Wait.” Veximarl raised a hand. “Will we be putting together a name for our unit?”
Sybil tilted her head. “Like how you were part of Grosbeak Unit for the war of the years?” Chickadee immediately perked up at the thought but it also didn’t make him feel any warmer.
“Indeed,” replied Veximarl. “I thought that it would help our moral while we are here. You may be eager to be out of the barracks now, but we have plenty of work ahead of us.”
“Let’s sleep on it,” said Sybil. “Chi will probably come up with something great by tomorrow, right?” Chickadee bobbed his head up and down. “I’ll look forward to it! See you in the morning.”
She went out of the door and stuck mainly to the rooftops of Tilrey. There was an odd sense of calm to what was usually a busy town. Sybil did find solace in being alone. This was a new environment to explore, with plenty of roofs for her to run along, and her talents played well with the dark. A vacation like this was exactly what she needed to clear her mind.
Especially when it came to working on her golem. She had succeeded in trapping Veximarl in a place where she was free to work on it as much as she wanted. Alton would forgive her in time, but for now, she needed him out of the way so she could work on her own projects. Chickadee wouldn’t be a problem either, as it wouldn’t be long before he locked himself away in the forge. Everything was working out in her favor.
But this sense of freedom was something that Zaniyah was dreading. She paced back and forth across the room while Alton was perched high in his bed. He had a book in his lap but was finding it difficult to concentrate. Alton was upset for different reasons. Mostly to do with Sybil and the fact that he couldn’t understand why he was so annoyed with the idea that she needed a break from him.
“What’s wrong with you?” Alton pushed aside thoughts of Sybil and only wanted to catch up on the lessons he had so far ignoring. Zaniyah’s stomping about was the opposite of helping.
Zaniyah stopped and looked up, running her hands through her hair to get it away from her face. This gave it a puffed appearance that added to her bewildered expression. “I did my evening walk with Vincent, and he took me back to the door, like he always does. He gave me a kiss on the forehead, which is also normal, but then he just… Left… He left. He said goodnight and left.”
“... That’s what you always do,” replied Alton in an annoyed manner.
“Right, okay, but bear with me.” Zaniyah climbed up the ladder leading to Alton’s bed and sat at his feet. “What if he’s in there alone, and uhm… I just go in there? What should I expect to happen? What do you think will happen?”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “Highland is going to tell you that you shouldn’t be out of your room after dark and escort you the three steps that it takes to get back to our room.”
“What if I’m not happy with that anymore?” Zaniyah felt conflicted. “I mean not… S-sex or anything, but u-uhm, what if I wanted to tear off his shirt and sink my teeth into those absolutely perfect muscles of his?” Alton frowned all the harder at her. “He used to take off his shirt in the summer when it got too hot, but he doesn’t do that anymore!
“... It’s winter.”
“That didn’t mean that he had to stop taking off his shirt!” Zaniyah dragged her fingers down her cheeks. “He’s so pure and I feel so dirty looking at him like he’s a piece of raw meat, but I really want to get a piece of that... Also! I’m his girlfriend! Isn’t being all touchy-touchy part of the deal?”
Her needy expression was making Alton nervous. He reached behind his pillow and tossed a paper bag of condoms at her. “That seems like a conversation you should be having with him.”
“How do I even start to have a conversation about that?!” She put her hands to her chest and started to hyperventilate.
“You go to that room, you knock on that door, and then you....” Alton looked her over. He was going to say use her sex appeal, but he never thought of her as attractive. She had a cute face and all, but it always felt like he was staring at a sister rather than a woman. “Look, just uh… Show him a condom. He’s going to say no, but then you guilt him into doing something that is still fun yet not so intense. Like kissing with tongue or- No. I did not need that image in my head.” His eye noticeably ticked at the thought.
“That sounds like coercion and coercion seems like something bad people do. I just want to stare at him, not manipulate-” Zaniyah paused as she stared at Alton. “... Aren’t you cold?”
His skin was feeling particularly itchy at the moment, so he was going without a shirt. Without Chickadee floating fireballs around himself all the time, the overall temperature was considerably lower. He was more comfortable in colder temperatures, being somewhat aquatic, but Alton couldn’t say that. She’d just claim he’s a fish again.
“Not really.” He grew more uncomfortable as Zaniyah began to lean in. “Get off my bed.”
“Where are your scales?” The pretty little rainbow scales that had covered his back and sides were missing. Even his gill slits looked more like scars rather than slits.
“They fell off,” he replied flatly. “They fall off every winter. That happens to mist mutants this time of year... The weird parts of them go away, and they look more human.” Even if he was less mist mutant and more half human, half mermaid, he didn’t feel like explaining it.
Zaniyah was confused by his response. “... That doesn’t happen. If that did, would my hair still be blue? It still turns white when wet so I know nothing’s changed.” Alton shrugged. “Did you save me any of them?”
“Save any… What? My scales?”
“Yeah.” They were so pretty. She would’ve wanted to add them to her armor as decoration if she could.
“That’s like me asking you to save your scabs from every time you get injured. It’s disgusting.” She pouted. “Go bug Highland!” He kicked at her until she nearly fell over the side of the bed. “Don’t forget the condoms. Last thing I need is to babysit a little you and Highland hybrid while the two of you are running about murdering fun somewhere else.”
She tilted her head. “Aww… You’d really want to watch after my kids someday?” Her face suddenly flushed red. “... I’m not ready to think about it yet. We shouldn’t talk about stuff like that.”
“Yeah, well, I never want to talk about you and Highland making kids, so never mention any of this again.”
Zaniyah meant to leave quickly, but she decided to pack a small bag instead. Nothing serious. Just her uniform and a toothbrush. She changed into a nightgown and went to give a polite knock to the Baron Squad door. There was the sound of shuffling on the other side and the opening door revealed Vincent holding up a lantern.
“Is something wrong?” He noticed the bag she was carrying and became concerned. “Did something ill happen? Are you planning on going somewhere?”
She shuffled her feet uncomfortably. “I was actually hoping that I could spend the night?” Vincent stared at her for a moment and then started to close the door again. “Uhm, it’s just that it’s lonely in my room! What with it just being me and Alton… It’s kinda hard to sleep without hearing Vex snoring or Chi complaining about how cold it is, you know?”
Vincent’s usual flat expression fell somehow flatter. “I see… You and Toval. Alone... Yes.” His face strained at the thought. His innards felt as though they were in turmoil. “... I don’t believe Anais would mind if you used her bed.”
“Great! Thanks!” That wasn’t what Zaniyah was going for, but she could work with it.
This was the first time she had seen inside Baron Squad’s room. At first, it looked like a small bedroom. On one side was the squad meeting table with the weapon and armor racks, and the other was a large bed set upon a series of drawers and shelves. Vastly different than the mounted beds that she had in her room. A massive curtain blocked off the back half of the room, and that’s where she supposed the rest of the squad stayed.
The decor on Vincent’s side was simple. A banner with his grandfather’s family crest was on the wall, and that was about it. Zaniyah was starting to get really jealous of that bed he had. It looked so much plusher than her own. Not that her own bed was bad, but the woven mat mattress seemed thin at times.
Zaniyah stepped inside and Vincent closed the door behind her. He was wearing slacks and a loose button up shirt. It was weird to see him outside of his uniform. It was rare to see him dressed casually, and Zaniyah forced herself to look away in order to prevent herself from staring.
“Anais’ bed is the one to the left.” Vincent drew back the curtain to reveal an adorable paradise.
It was easy to see where everyone had set themselves up. Gwyn had a bed with light green sheets and her wall was splattered with pressed flowers, leaves, and an abundance of color. Ivy had simple tastes, with black and gray sheets and modest, neat area. Anais had pictures of animals hung up, and it looked like Gwyn and Ivy had dumped an assortment of their own belongings on her side. Her blankets were a soft pink in color, and especially fuzzy looking.
“Or I could just…” Zaniyah pointed to Vincent’s bed and the paladin frowned. Maybe she should actually follow Alton’s advice? … But it seemed like such bad advice. “I brought condoms! Loads of them! We’re good to go! All night long, if you’re ready!”
“Is that the real reason for your visit?” He set the lantern down on the table and took a step towards her.
Vincent was a serious man who rarely lost his demeanor. However, the fact that he didn’t so much as blink when she mentioned that she had brought along contraceptives made her nervous. “... Y-yes?”
He stepped closer and loomed over her. Though he wasn’t that much taller than her, it felt like looming. “Would that make you happy?”
She looked up at him and had trouble making out his expression in the dim light. “... Uh, yeah? I-I mean, yes?”
“Then I will abide by my partner’s wishes.” To Zaniyah’s horror, Vincent unbuttoned his shirt and placed it on the back of a chair. He then took another step towards her and grasped her about the waist in a firm yet somewhat clumsy manner.
Zaniyah’s face went pale as Vincent’s lips began along her cheek and down to her neck. It felt like he was forcing himself. No. He was forcing himself. She could tell he didn’t know what he was doing, and that made her feel all the more uncomfortable. Yet she was too terrified to say anything about it at the moment, out of fear of driving him away.
Occasionally he would tense up. Whenever his hand accidentally slip along a curve of her body, he would freeze for a moment before continuing. Even the act of her loosely putting a hand on his arm made his shoulders stiffen.
“Vincent, wait.” She didn’t know what she was doing either, but this didn’t feel right. “I’ll go sleep in Anais’ bed. Sorry... I’m really sorry.”
“If that is what my lady wishes, I will abide by it,” he whispered in her ear.
Thunking her head against his shoulder, she let out a sigh. “I’m not your lady, Vincent. I’m your girlfriend. It’s okay to sometimes do what you want and not what I ask for. I love you and what’s most important to me is that you’re comfortable with what we’re doing together.”
Vincent wrapped her up in a tight hug. He held her silently for a moment before he chose to speak. “I will confess that my initial plan for the next three years was to observe you. When we were younger, I found you to be fascinating. I wished to continue to admire you from a distance and to use your smile and the occasional word of encouragement as my source of strength. Especially since it appeared as though you did not remember who I was.
As we are now, I am struggling with the best way to act on upon my affections. There are my own wants but those do not align with my needs. As commander, I must serve as an example. Our relationship must be the definition of a proper courtship. If we are to have a future past Braytons, I need to prove that we belong with each other. Not only to us but the world.”
Despite all of Lady Till’s lessons, Zaniyah still had trouble understanding the ways of noblemen. There were so many rules. The reason she came to Braytons was because it was something Sybil wanted to do. It also gave herself a chance to move out of the core and support her family. Having the title would open doors for her that she didn’t realize were there before. Vincent was one of them.
“No, I get it. I’m going to go back to my room. We’ll get in trouble if Stonetoe found out I was here and everyone is going to assume we did something anyways. Doesn’t matter if we do or don’t.” She smiled apologetically. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Vincent.”
She went to pull away, but Vincent tightened his grip. “Do not be mistaken, Zaniyah, I am still a hot-blooded man.” He gazed at her with such intensity that it made her blood run cold from shock. “But first, I must explain that I am struggling with the concept of participating in a union with you.
The idea of entering your body, of claiming you as my own, and seeing you in that submissive state… You were always stronger than me… Sex seems to be an act of dominance. I do not feel as though I have earned the right possess you in such a manner.”
Hearing him be so open about the subject and knowing that he had put so much thought into it already was making Zaniyah’s cheeks burn out of embarrassment. The way his fingers were tightening before loosening due to his nervousness, the heat of his breath as he spoke, and the sighs he took when he was struggling with his speech. It was too intense for her.
“I-I don’t view it like that at all. Sex isn’t a duel. Well, maybe it is for some people, but I-I think for us it would be about trust. Because we chose each other, right? All those years you were watching me, I was watching you too.
Not because I was jealous about you being in Starsons, or because you were an outlander, but because I really liked you. You’re my friend… And because you’re my friend, I’m going to wait for us to be ready. That’s why I’m going to go back to my room.”
As Zaniyah turned away, Vincent grasped at her wrist. “They will only create false rumors about us. Is that not what you claimed they would do anyways? It would not be right of me to allow those under my command spill out lies.”
Shifting behind her, he suddenly pulled the nightgown off of her shoulders and let it fall to the floor. Zaniyah froze up in surprise. She hadn’t been wearing anything underneath, and the cold air made goosebumps bristle all along her back. Turning around to face him, she wasn’t at all surprised when Vincent inhaled sharply and covered his eyes with his hand.
“Are you alright?” Even in the dim light, she could see how red his ears had gotten.
“This is simply another challenge to overcome and I will strive to conquer it.” He said this, but he kept his eyes covered. When her fingers reached out and barely touched his chest, he recoiled away and gritted his teeth together.
Now she felt like a bully… But at least he was cute. Vincent certainly was cute. “I’m going to sleep in Anais’ bed.”
“If you could do that, I would appreciate it. Thank you.” Vincent moved away, stumbling slightly as he did so. He laid down on his bed and completely covered himself up with his blankets.
Zaniyah fumbled to pull her nightgown back up and slid into bed. Neither of them slept well that night. She was flustered and frustrated. He was confused and suffering from a guilty conscious. There was a lot the both of them had to think about and it was all happening too quickly.