Taking a deep breath, Zaniyah knocked on the door. At first, nothing happened, and she began to nervously step side to side as she debated if she should leave. Much to her dismay, the door slowly opened. The woman who greeted her gasped with surprise.

“My dear girl, whatever is the matter?” Iofea looked over Zaniyah.

Zaniyah’s face was streaked with tears. She was carrying her belongings and she was still in her smelly fighting gear from that morning. “I got ki-kicked out, and, and I d-didn’t know where else to go... I’m s-sorry... I really don’t mean to be a bother, but I d-didn’t want mom to see me like this, and I-I don’t know much of anything anymore!”

“My goodness! Come here!” Iofea wrapped up Zaniyah in a warm hug. She held her for a moment and then brought her inside.

They went to the tea room while Zynn prepared something to drink. He then lingered nearby with his arms folded, waiting for his crying sister to give a full explanation as to what had happened. Someone was going to pay dearly for this. There was a certain level of malevolence hidden behind his gentle smile.

Zaniyah explained that had gone to Lady Magdalena’s room to ask for a proper conversation, exactly like she should have done in the first place. She was then yelled at for not properly announcing herself, and then Zaniyah yelled back that maybe she would bother with being proper if Magdalena wasn’t such an outstanding bitch.

That was about the time when Zaniyah was told to leave.

“She shouldn’t have been such an outstanding bitch,” replied Iofea.

Zaniyah nodded her head. “Right? Why can’t she be like you? You’re awesome, Miss Iofea! You’re exactly what every mother-in-law should be!”

Iofea thought about that. “Well, Jory is single…” Zynn tsked his tongue loudly. “... What I meant to say is that I wasn’t born a noble either. My family used to run a bakery in Fogbloom. Things turned sour after I turned fifteen, when my father and one of my brothers was killed in an attempted robbery.”

“That’s horrible.” Zaniyah reached forward and grabbed onto Iofea’s hand.

“Since our mother had already passed some years ago, I had been left to tend to everything myself. My eldest brother, Nils, returned home to become my guardian and proprieter of the bakery. My other brother, Krister, was lucky enough to have an apprenticeship within the Duke Aconite’s kitchens.

Neither of us would let him leave Grand Temple, It was simply too good of an opportunity for him,” she explained. “At least, I thought it was a good opportunity... Nils had kept him away because he didn’t want Krister to discover his gambling debts. When the bakery’s income couldn’t provide enough, he then sold me off to the Teasel family in order to pay them off.

Of course, slavery is illegal in Fogbloom, but Adrian knew that my brother would attempt to take me outside the city and force me into a brothel if he didn’t do anything something. He cleared out Nils’ debts and stuck me in his family’s kitchen as the chef’s assistant. I had wages, food, and board… But I was miserable. All I wanted during those years was a home to go back to.

When Nils’ debts appeared again a few years later, I begged for Adrian to take the bakery as payment and place it under Krister’s name. His compromise was that I had to remain with his family and continue to work in their kitchens.” Iofea leaned in close to Zaniyah. “I had grown a little during that time, you see, and he was madly in love with me by that point.” She then tossed her hands about. “But he wouldn’t admit it, which made the whole ordeal quite awkward for the both of us.

Being the naive girl I was, it took me a while to notice. Of course, I fancied him in return! I always had to some degree, but I had also always thought that was the sort of daydream that every girl has. After all, no village girl ever has the chance to love the hero that saved him.

Then Lady Elbellziara decided to make a mess of everything. She had been sent away by her father to live with her uncle and had fallen in love with Krister during her stay. Neither of them knew how to handle it well. When he left the Duke’s estate in order to return to the bakery, she became desperate to find a way to get him to notice her affections.

He wanted me to be free of my indentured servitude Teasel family was more than willing to oblige when Elbellziara was the one to ask.

Adrian, however, refused to free me. He cited that I was a valuable member of staff that he couldn’t afford to let me go. The Teasel family, his flesh and blood, proceeded to disown him rather than risk Elbellziara’s wrath. He then scrambled together everything he could and begged me to run away with him at the last possible moment.

All my dreams had come true. I doubted Krister would allow me to stay with Adrian, and he had no way to gain employment within Fogbloom anymore, so we chose to run away together. We somehow stumbled our way into Carapace. He understood finances well but had trouble making ends meet, while I kept us afloat with my baking skills.

The only reason why we were able to succeed at all was because of Talwyn Cully. She couldn’t get a loan to open up a business because she had been born in the core. Adrian pulled together every resource he had as well as taught her how to manage her business, and the money they made together allowed us to finance so many other’s dreams.

What I’m trying to say is that we’re happy now, Zaniyah. We really are. I have three adorable sons and have led a wonderful life, but all of this is was a fluke. If not for a chance meeting, we could all still be living out of a storage closet of a bakery.

I used to cry myself to sleep every night because I thought I wasn’t a good enough wife or mother. Every night was full of nightmares. Worries that Jory would never succeed in life or that we would never find a way to be happy.

Be patient, Zaniyah. Right now, I know you are willing to throw everything away to be with your Vincent, but that’s a mistake. Stay at Braytons. Get your knighthood. Show all those nobles that some nobody core girl can make it without needing anyone to hold her hand and then you sink your teeth into that man of yours like a raw animal. You must refuse to let go until his family accepts you as you are.”

Her story had made Zaniyah start to cry again. They hugged each other and she spent a moment hiccupping and sobbing into Iofea’s shoulder. “You’re so great. I mean, it’s a bit hypocritical of you since you guys also forced Sybil to marry Alton, but I really can’t bring myself to hate you guys as much as I want to because you’re all just so super nice.”

“Well, dear, that was a bit of an emergency situation,” muttered Iofea with a nervous laugh. “Alton does whatever he wants sometimes. I can’t really tell him no when he’s already finished everything behind my back.”

“Even if he’s the bastard that stole my brother’s girlfriend,” grumbled Zynn.

“I heard they broke up even before she met my son, but that’s none of my business,” quipped Iofea as she sipped her tea. “Don’t worry, Zaniyah. I want you to stay here for the rest of your trip. We will make certain that you are comfortable. I know Alton may be grumpy, but he thinks of you as a sister. He told me that personally and that’s enough to make you family.”

Zaniyah tilted her head. “Aww, he really said that?”

“He did. Don’t tell him I said that though,” Iofea said as she pointed a finger at Zaniyah. “I will work on letting you have your vengeance against Lady Magdalena because I do not let anyone mess with my family.”

“How would we even do that?”

Iofea couldn’t be more excited at her prospects. “To do it properly, we must have a lady’s seminar. We gather the wives of the powerful men in Carapace and we have a light banquet while discussing current events. It’s one of the most painful events I have ever experienced and I would rather have my nails and teeth broken off.

But it’s also the place for young women to impress potential mother-in-laws. I can’t tell you the number of women that have flocked around me during these affairs. They’re all wretched little creatures in their own right, but Zaniyah, this is your golden opportunity. Magdalena can’t ignore you if you have all of those bitter old hags tied about your fingers.”

Zaniyah’s eyes lit up. “That sounds amazing, but I can’t do anything like that. Margie always scolding me about how bad my handwriting was, and that I talk like a poor person, or how I can’t tell one fork from another... I don’t think I’m good enough to impress anyone.”

“That is not how you should think of yourself!” Iofea snapped her fingers in front of Zaniyah’s face. “You are not to pretend to be something you’re not. You are going to go in there and you are going to talk about how you are a proud female warrior who murders monsters with brutal force in order to keep this city safe from the flood. Those money grubbing nobodies wouldn’t be able to continue being wastes of space if hard-working women such as yourself didn’t do your job and you need to let them know that!”

“Yes! I can do that!” Zaniyah replied confidently. “I love talking about murdering things with axes! It’s what I’m best at!”

“Exactly!” Iofea then pointed to Zynn. “Please contact the party planner at city hall and we’ll see if we can sneak into whatever mess they have planned after Satyrday’s mass.” She thought to herself as Zynn left the room. “We’ll bring Sybil and invite those three girls staying at the Highland estate. It is going to be a bloodbath. A word bloodbath, mind you, and we are going to need an entourage to back me up when I start laying out the lashes myself.”

That sounded like exactly what Zaniyah had been waiting for this entire time. “Alright! We’ll do that! Gwyn and Ivy love saying mean things about people, and I think Ivy is a monster who feeds off of others suffering. They’ll love it!”

“Then we will have our best prepared when we head into battle,” said Iofea happily. “I figured something like this might happen, so I’ve left a room prepared for you. It’s right next to Sybil’s. Go ahead and put your belongings away and take a long rest. I’m going to double check the kitchen to see if we can make something wholesome for dinner. It will cheer you right up.”

With a smile on her face, Zaniyah grabbed her bag and headed upstairs, not noticing that Chickadee and Veximarl had been eavesdropping right outside of it. She continued to rush through the manor, nearly running into Alton, who had just arrived home. He held out his hands in an effort to not be knocked over.

“Zan! What are you doing here?” He was certain she’d be glued to Vincent’s side this entire time.

“I live here now!” Zaniyah’s smile grew bigger. “Your mother said it was okay!”

Alton growled through his teeth. “... Damn that woman.”

“The only damn your mother is, is a damn saint,” argued Zaniyah. “So you watch your mouth around her.” She then shuffled uncomfortably from side to side. “Also is Sybil here? I’ve had, like, the worst day ever, and I really want to sit down, and talk with her, and make sure she’s okay because you’ve been such a big mega jerk to her.”

Alton’s eyes narrowed. “She returns an hour after dinnertime. It’s normal for her to go to bed right away... None of us have seen much of her.”

Sybil had been depressed since she came to Carapace. It hadn’t been getting better. She still avoided Alton unless she had to go play the perfect wife somewhere. That and she was tired. Her work left her too tired to do anything with her free time.

“Then I’m going to put my stuff away,” replied Zaniyah as she reached up to ruffle Alton’s hair. “I’m going to beat a cow pie out of you at some point but I don’t want to mess up your suit. Put it in your schedule, okay? One ass whooping from Zan. Wear something messy. Write it down.” She twirled around Alton to get past him and began to jog up the stairs.

Alton’s face scrunched up as he turned to address Chickadee. “Did Vincent and her have a fight?” He was concerned if this was how she dealt with trauma.

“Kicked out by his mom,” replied Chickadee. “Your mother is a damn saint.”

“I know she is. So much so that it’s annoying at times... Forget that though. Is Zan alright?” He looked Chickadee up and down. “... Are you alright? You look terrible in that Horsetalon uniform.”

Chickadee averted his eyes. “I heard Zani crying before I could change.”

“You should hurry up and fix that. You look miserable.” Alton walked over and reached behind Chickadee’s head so he could pull out the stick that was holding up his hair bun. He then fluffed the blacksmith’s hair with both hands until it was a complete mess. “There we go. That’s the Chi I know.” The hair stick was held out for Chickadee to take.

“You…” He started to mumble under his breath. The stick was quickly snatched and stuffed in his pocket.

“Sorry.” Alton leaned in so he could hear better. “I couldn’t make that out because you have a tendency to talk softly... Not that it’s a bad thing, but I like being about to understand my friends when they speak.”

Chickadee blankly stared at Alton for a moment. He then stood on his tippy toes and gave Alton a faint peck on the lips. “No matter what Zani says, you’re not a bad person,” he stammered out. His cheeks were already turning red and he put his hand over his mouth in embarrassment. “Those two don’t hate you, they’re just mad. They’ll get over it eventually, so don’t let it get you down.”

Alton blankly stared back until Chickadee chose to run away. He could hear a bedroom door slam shut as the blacksmith went into hiding. His head turned to Veximarl, who was still in eavesdropping mode.

“What was that?” Alton asked Veximarl.

“I have been having that happen to me more frequently as of late. The meaning of it continues to elude me.” Veximarl shuddered as Alton tilted his head in a confused manner. “I do not wish to speak of it.” He then shook his head. “Though I agree with Zaniyah. Your behavior around Sybil has been inappropriate.” Without waiting for Alton’s reply, he walked past and made his way upstairs.

Now it was the necromancer’s turn hide away from the world. He had a host of his own concerns to deal with. All roads leading to Carapace from the south had been shut down for the rest of winter, and he didn’t have the opportunity to apologize to Tish about their physical interaction.

The other woman who weighed most heavily on his mind was Gwyn. The two had been writing to each other frequently and he was having trouble telling if it was flirtatious in nature or not. He had attempted to play coy once as a test, but he couldn’t tell if she was noticing. It didn’t help that Ivy had been sending him messages that were aggressively inappropriate in nature. For now, he’d ignore everyone so that he could get a moment to study.

Alton, now alone, was still bewildered as to what was happening. He decided to retreat to the parlor and play the piano until dinner. Perhaps after that as well. At least until Sybil came home. Maybe she would talk to him today... At least a word or two before she went to bed.

But he doubted that.

A note from Adelaide West

I'm in the process of moving to a new place.

Because of that, I've fallen behind on polishing Book Four chapters and prepping them for publication. Due to possibly not having access to internet or a computer, there might be delays. This all depends on how many drafts I can prepare before I temporarily lose those.

Also, I live in a flammable area. During certain conditions like high winds combined with extra dry weather, the power company here will shut off power to prevent a knocked over powerline from burning down an entire city. That's one of those spontaneous events that can happen without warning and will last days at a time.

In other words, don't freak out if I disappear for a week. I just don't know when that week will be.

Also, if you haven't noticed yet, the cover of the series has changed. I'm in the process of working on publishing book II, which will have Veximarl on the cover. It will likely be Chickadee on Book III, Alton on Book IV, and Zaniyah on Book V.

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About the author

Adelaide West

Bio: Author of the Grimstone Series and Duck and Wolf.

I have a Twitter. I check it often, so I guess tag me anytime you want. I just don't post very often. @AdelaideGWest

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