A merry tune was heard being whistled throughout the estate as its residents sat down for breakfast. Alton skipped down the steps, eager to join up with his squadmates and family members in the dining area. Sybil had already been kidnapped by Beat for the day and Alton couldn’t care less. Last night was enough to carry him through his emotional distraught for quite awhile.
“Hello family and traitors,” he said in a sing-song voice as he approached the table. His eyes then fell towards the trio of Grimstone members he liked far less than Sybil. “Quick announcement.
There’s a series of journals missing from my room. A large portion of those are from the old me, thus I don’t care about them. However, there’s one particular one, and I know you know which one I’m talking about, that shouldn’t have been taken in the first place.
I am going to go into the parlor to play the piano. If that journal doesn’t end up with me by the time I am done playing my tune, I am going to burn down this house and murder every single one of you. Did you get all that?” He grinned all the wider and nodded. “Good. I’ll see one of you very soon.”
Alton then walked out of the room, still with a bounce in his step as he did so. A glance was tossed between those at the table. Soon enough, the sounds of merry piano playing flooded the air. Veximarl frowned at both Chickadee and Zaniyah. Surely they were to blame for this.
“You should return that Sybil journal of his as soon as you can. He already doesn’t like me. I don’t need him to have a reason to not like the two of you,” scolded Veximarl.
Looking up from her pile of fried bread, which was something to be considered a sane breakfast within Zaniyah’s mind, she frowned. “You took it away from us saying we shouldn’t read it, remember?”
Veximarl’s face fell flat. He felt the jacket he was wearing and pulled out the journal that he confiscated the previous day. It was absentmindedly stuffed into his inner jacket pocket and forgotten there. “... If you take the blame for this one, I will owe you one favor. One very large favor.”
Zaniyah thought about it. “See, he expects me to be at fault for this, which I am, right? But I’ve been putting back all the journals before he’s had a chance to notice. So in a way, this isn’t my fault at all.”
“I’ll do it.” Chickadee held out his hand.
“Actually,” said Iofea thoughtfully. “Maybe I could take the blame? Sometimes Alton becomes a little too engrossed in his playing, and that would give me a chance to skim through a few pages before I return it.”
That seemed like a terrible idea. Iofea was basically Sybil’s mother in law, wasn’t she? This journal had… things written in it. He was ashamed to know that he himself had taken a glance at it the night before. “I will accept whatever payment it is you desire.” Veximarl handed Chickadee the book.
A smile crossed Chickadee’s features. A dark, intimidating smile. “I want a date.” He continued to grin while Veximarl felt a chill go up his back. “A journal date.”
“You want me to date you… E-exactly how Alton would date you?” Veximarl raised an eyebrow at the curious request and Chickadee bobbed his head up and down. It was either do an awkward date or having Alton dislike him more than he already did. “... It will have to wait until after we’ve returned to Braytons and you better behave yourself.”
“Deal.” The blacksmith ran off to the parlor, where he proudly held forth the journal for Alton to take.
Alton continued to play with one hand while taking the journal with another. He would need to find a safer place for it, however… Would it be weird to carry it around with him everywhere? If he randomly got sent to city hall, he might have to hand over his belongings to be checked.
Then again, if Sybil wasn’t mad at him anymore, he could possibly store underneath her bed without her even noticing... Alton stopped his melody and frowned at his own realization. Zaniyah was probably the one that took the journal and bribed Chickadee somehow to give it back. He couldn’t bring himself to be mad at Chickadee because of that.
“Thank you.” Alton closed the lid to the piano keys and tapped his finger on it. “... And about that time you kissed me,” he started off.
“... I apologize.” Chickadee looked down at the ground. “Been a bad friend to you and Sybil.”
Alton shrugged. “I don’t think she thinks of it like that. She’s probably not thinking of all that much right now other than the warmth of my loving embrace...” He broke out into a huge smile. “I like that you’re my friend, Chi. We shouldn’t let this come between us.”
Narrowing his eyes, Chickadee was starting to regret apologizing. “You’re smiling too much.”
“I can’t help it. I think my face is frozen this way.” Alton started to laugh to himself. “I’m so happy that I don’t know how to express it in a sane manner.” His smile didn’t fade though when he glimpsed Zaniyah walking past the door. She had her letter in her hand and she was rushing up to her room. “What’s up with her?”
“Bad mother. Vincent no longer has his letter. Might not return to Braytons.” Chickadee frowned. “You fix it?”
Alton shook his head. “No, but I know someone who was supposed to be working on it and normally she operates faster than this. If nothing has happened so far… That means she’s also stuck.” Chickadee was confused. “I’ll figure out something.” He then glanced over at the clock. “Shouldn’t you be heading out?”
“Feel ill from miasma,” replied Chickadee. “Staying home to sleep it off.”
“... Alright,” muttered Alton with a nod. “I hope you feel better soon.” He ran his hand on the piano and debated whether or not he should start playing again.
Alton waited in the parlor for everyone else to leave. It was only until his mother was alone that he chose to approach. She was sitting in the tea room by the window, reading a book in the winter sun.
“Hello, mother.” Alton leaned against the door frame. “What dirt do you have on Lady Magdalena and why haven’t you used it to help Zan?”
Iofea didn’t greet her adopted son with her usual enthusiasm. “Hm, Alton..? Shouldn’t you be at work? You won’t be in Carapace for all that long... Aren’t you worried you won’t get everything done?” Alton didn’t reply, he just continued to stare at her. “Let’s talk about Sybil! You seemed happy this morning. Does that mean everything is going well? I am happy for you, I am, but please don’t rush into giving me grandchildren. I’m not old enough to be a grandmother.”
“An important friend of mine is under a great deal of stress right now. When she’s stressed, she gets stupid. Very, very stupid. The kind of stupid that I’m not going to be able to clean up afterward.” Alton leaned away from the door frame and gave his adoptive mother a stern look. “What do you have on Lady Magdalena?”
Iofea pouted. “I assure you that I have this grand scheme where I’m attending a party with all of the other important ladies, and I want to publicly humiliate her there.”
“Mother, I know that you’re a fan of torturing mean rich women, but whatever you’re planning isn’t going to help Zan. If you do something on her behalf, Lady Magdalena will just use her humiliation as proof that Zan isn’t good enough for her son. Give me the information and I’ll see that it’s put to good use.”
Thinking it over, Iofea let out a sigh and laid back in her seat. “It has to do with something else I’ve been looking into. There were some strange connections between the two, so much so that I started to think that they might be connected. But it’s all circumstantial since a certain somebody is refusing to be a tattletale. I can take a licking if I’m wrong, Alton, but you’re just starting out. Find the evidence you need to make it work before you move ahead on this.”
Alton listened to what she had to say. It was strange enough that it could possibly be the truth, but that wasn’t enough to back it up. Luckily, Alton did know exactly the person who could figure it out for him. He left the manor and headed towards the marketplace.
Floating alongside him was Lydia, who had been spending most of her days staying my Stallis’ side. She only occasionally check in with Alton to see how he was doing. “I don’t know how much of a help I can be in this.”
“There’s a couple of ways we can go about this. Before we setting on anything, we’ll need to get the evidence.” Alton was riding on Bibi, so no one should be able to hear what he said as long as he kept his voice low.
“What did Vex say?”
“I’ll meet him during his lunch break. He should have everything I need by then. The stores are set to open up this Triaday, so I shouldn’t be working as hard after that. All I need to do is find Semira, host a dozen more charity events, and this mission could be considered a success.” He tossed a glare at Lydia.
She smiled to herself. “Sorry! I’m not allowed to help. It wouldn’t be much of a game if I told you were she was hiding.”
He already had a decent idea of where to look for Semira. In the core. Where else could she be? If she was in a similar situation as Lydia, than that could also mean she was already dead. Veximarl had claimed his parents died when he was a small child, but Semira was a necromancer. She could have survived and run off to the core, which might be how she knew Lydia.
From what Sybil told him, the core kept strict records of all of its citizens due to limited living space. That’s why marriage contracts existed. They needed the time to plan housing for new families. If he could somehow get to those records, he would be able to find anyone who moved into the core around the time Veximarl was orphaned.
Those were records that he wouldn’t be able to gain access to until the core was deemed safe for people again. His best bet was to try to return either late spring or early summer. Then he would have plenty of time to hunt down where that woman was hiding and yank out any useful intel she had.
Turning a corner, he dismounted Bibi and tied her up in an alleyway behind the stores. A wave was given to Jory. His brother had been waiting for him to show up for a while. “Morning.”
“You’re late.” Jory pulled out a notebook and opened it up. “Why am I acting as your assistant for this?”
“Because you’re the best older brother in the world.” Alton smiled widely. “Plus it’ll look good on your resume.”
Jory rolled his eyes. “Duke Rubire’s daughter has agreed to wear the dress you sent for her gender reveal party. They have declined our offer of food. Matron Goldstein has given us a generous donation for our caravan charity and several of her associates have ordered pocket watches. Mister Twist has also approved of a third apprentice. He’ll be able to handle the workload now. As long as we manage our supply usage and funds, we should have enough to last us until the roads are open again.”
“I figured they would say no to the food, but we dealing with grab and go quick meals. Speaking of which,” he gestured to the door of Core Delights, “this should be our final chance to pick out what we are serving on opening day.”
They entered the restaurant and were greeted by a display of food. The idea was to sell food that could be eaten while people walked along the marketplace and to sell boxes of mixed product that could be ordered and delivered throughout the city. There were cookies, small meat or vegetable pies, and bottled drinks made of root juice and spices.
“The pickled snails are surprisingly good,” remarked Alton. “It’s Zan’s mother’s recipe. Try some.” Jory wrinkled his nose with disgust. “I’m not leaving until you try it.”
Jory popped one into his mouth and his face contorted into a mix of emotions. The texture was slimy and chewy, and occasionally a pop of sour juice would happen as he masticated it. “It… Actually isn’t that bad. Though good or not, people will not buy it.”
“The city of Carapace is flooded with adventurers. I doubt we’d be able to keep jars of these in stock once word gets out about them.” Alton pointed to one of the meat pies. “The chicken does taste more like the snake meat you’ve had me try before. We can sell them cheaper as long as we stick with poultry. What is the crust made out of?”
“It’s a split of dried mushroom powder and flour, my lord.” The chef gave a worried smile. “We added cold butter as you suggested.”
Alton nodded as he took a second bite. “The texture is better... I like it. Everything is excellent. We’ll make it all available on opening day and adjust our future inventory depending on sales.”
Taking a moment to settle the details, they then stepped into the next shop. The display golem in the window was currently working on a collection of ties, and the shelves were full of handkerchiefs, scarves, and dress shirts. They continued on to the back where a trio of golems were working on full dresses, woven to perfection and lacking in any seams.
Jory approached the desk and began to flip through a design book. “Mister Twist is going to finish setting up the fourth golem tomorrow. Your wife’s appearances around town have already brought in some orders. We are prepared to have a drop in sales once the hype of your marriage has died down.”
Alton let out a laugh. His face was stuck in a smile again. “She’s only my wife on paper. Sybil would get mad if you call her that to her face, and my bed prefers it when she’s not mad at me. Plus, I doubt our sales will lessen that much. All of these dresses will be worn to some event or another and that is plenty of free advertising.” He watched the golem for a moment. “Is our designer here?”
“She went to get measurements on a new client. We can head over to the next store if you want, but Mister Twist is busy with his staff.” Jory flipped through his notebook again. “Other than attending Duke Rubire’s party on Satyrday, I have nothing arranged for you. You would be able to get some of your squire assignments done.”
“I had wanted to assist with Prince Duxton’s efforts, but I doubt he’d let me be around. I’ll most likely end up working with Sir Moss on the charity front. Has he been helping with the supplies campaign?”
“He’s given us a list of nobles in the Violet Region area that may be interested. Sir Moss has also been assisting me in arranging events. Having you here will bolster their attendance.” Jory gave it a thought. “We’re done here if that is all. Send a messenger if you need anything. I’ll be at father’s office.”
The two bid their farewells and Alton fetched his horse. He then made his way to the hospital where Veximarl and Luca were waiting behind the building. Alton gave the two a nod as-as he dismounted Bibi.
“... Atwater,” said Alton.
“... Toval,” said Luca.
The two stared at each other for a moment. “Why is he here?” Alton pointed to Luca while frowning at Veximarl.
“Because I owe Vincent,” interrupted Luca before Veximarl could explain. “We put his chances at entering Braytons at risk by choosing to help out Barcus. You know Barcus. He was always reckless and threw fits whenever something didn’t go his way, but that… What happened at Volo Refuge was inexcusable. I don’t want to be known as the man who had that psycho’s back.”
Alton narrowed his eyes. “... Uh huh.” Barcus had a lot to do with why Alton didn’t trust Luca at the moment.
Luca matched Alton’s scowl before holding up a finger. “For the glory of the honey bandits?”
“Are you seriously pulling that?”
Luca clicked his heels together and began to belt out a song. “Come for butter tarts and stew filled-”
“Shut up!” Alton flailed his arms about. “Fine! For the glory of the honey bandits! Just shut up and never mention it again!” He then turned his attention to a confused Veximarl. “What have you got?
“I didn’t have access to her medical records, but Luca convinced her to shake my hand,” Veximarl stated. “A worn pelvic bone suggests that she did give birth at some point. I would place the time at around mid-summer. With the large skirts that are fashionable in Carapace, it would have been easy for her to hide a pregnancy.”
While Iofea was snooping around for Zikor’s mother, she noticed that something was off about the Highland family. Vincent’s sister, Philomena, had been expected to marry a prominent doctor from the larger of their two hospitals. Their summer wedding was canceled due to Philomena being in poor health. It had yet to be rescheduled.
“So she abandoned Zikor to preserve her own status.” Alton leaned against the wall. “There’s no way that Zynn doesn’t know who the mother is… And he probably chose to hide it so Philomena wouldn’t get in trouble. We can’t let my mother toss this rumor around.”
Magdalena must have known about Zynn. Since he was Zaniyah’s older brother, she might be worried about the whole Krogastin family being horrific troublemakers. However, she was unable to be direct about her worries without revealing Philomena’s predicament.
“Things like this happen all the time,” rationalized Luca. “It might be best for Vincent if he ran off with his girl. Nobles have been more accepting of exotic romances, and have even started to shun families that have forced young people to stay away from each other. He’d have a good chance out there.”
Alton couldn’t disagree more. “I won’t let Highland and Zan run off together. No matter what his family says, they can’t reach him at Braytons. We need to make sure he gets back there and the whole thing will eventually blow over.”
“What can we do?” Veximarl debated their options. “What happens if Vincent doesn’t go back to Braytons? Who is in charge of our grade then? Would it be Ivy..?”
“Considering how they make you take over for Vincent’s work whenever you get in trouble, I’d say you’re already trained for the job,” replied Alton.
Veximarl shook his head. “That will not do. I do not do well when others actually know I’m in charge and address me that way.”
Luca was finding himself becoming frustrated. “Why not have Alton go over and deliver an ultimatum? He makes sure no one finds out about Zikor, and the Highland family turns a blind eye for Vincent.”
“I’m not particularly certain on how well blackmail will work,” replied Veximarl.
Alton was already imagining Veximarl giggling nervously the entire time. Whatever authoritative air they might have had would be destroyed by that point. Then again, he was young himself. It was possible that Magdalena wouldn’t take him seriously either.
“I think you should try it,” suggested Lydia. Alton tossed her a look. “I don’t know Magdalena personally, but I do know a thing or two about being a bossy bully.” Alton couldn’t argue with that. “Just do what I tell you and everything will work out.”
That sounded like a terrible plan. Then again, Lydia was supposedly well known for her negotiating abilities. She did use those skills to end the war. “I’ll head over to the Highland residence and request a meeting with Lady Magdalena for afternoon tea. Is there anything you two want to do?” They shook their heads. “Right... I suppose wish me luck.”
Veximarl patted him on the shoulder, making Alton grimace at the physical contact. “This does sound like an activity that is best suited for your realm of experience. You are certain to achieve success.”
“I hate you so much sometimes,” said Alton.
“Feelings mutual,” replied Luca.
“... Not you,” grumbled Alton.
“... Uh huh, sure,” muttered Luca. “Let me know how it goes. Anything I can do to help, send me a messenger.” Luca made a gesture with his hands in the shape of an upside down heart. Alton stared at him judgmentally for a moment before quickly matching it himself.
“I’ll message Vex and he can pass on how it goes to you,” Alton quickly muttered out. He then excused himself before Luca did anything else to embarrass himself.
Alton made the short trip over to the Highland estate. Surprisingly, he was allowed inside the house of his former rival. Now he was wondering how he had gotten to this point in his life. His relationship with Vincent had always been strained. Vincent was well respected in the school and viewed as an admirable leader. Alton was the popular fun guy.
And that was the dynamic that made people always assume that they needed to be opponents at every given opportunity. They could have laughed it off and had the whole thing blow over at some point, but the two never did see eye to eye. It wasn’t that they hated each other, it’s just that they disagreed on practically everything.
Yet Alton was somehow here in order to help out Vincent. He wouldn’t have bothered if Zaniyah wasn’t involved. But for some odd reason, Zaniyah was his friend, and Alton had supposed that he was supposed to protect her whenever he had the opportunity to.
Lady Magdalena entered the room and took a seat at the small table Alton was seated at. “I apologize for making you wait. There was important business I needed to finish with first.”
“This is a classic power play,” explained Lydia. “A tiny room, little decor, and no offers for tea or snacks. The madam does not want you to stay for long. By making you wait, she’s saying that you’re intruding on her busy day and she doesn’t value you enough to put on a grand display to make you feel welcome. In reality, she was snacking on tea sandwiches while reading a book in the next room over. Believe me. I checked.”
He didn’t need to be told all that. Alton already had an idea of what to expect when he came here. “I won’t take up much of your time. Thank you for seeing me today, Lady Magdalena. As you know, Miss Krogastein is a member of my squad and-”
“But you are not the squad captain,” interrupted Magdalena. “My son already told me about your squad, and I would’ve remembered if a Toval was in charge. Though that explains much about Miss Krogastein’s behavior if they let someone like you join Braytons.” Alton narrowed his eyes for a brief moment before he relaxed his expression. “Why is your captain not the one having this meeting with me? Am I not worth his time?”
She had an aloof way of speaking, indifferent towards the situation as a whole. Lydia hovered near one side of the table and was smirking to herself. It was probably for the best no one else could see her and she that wasn’t able to touch anyone. Alton was certain she’d slap that smug look off of Magdalena’s face the first chance she got.
“Mister Tuton is working clinic duty at your husband’s lower class hospital. He values the health of the people of this city over minor squabbles such as this one.” Alton rested his elbow on the armrest and twirled his wrist about. “I find this ordeal to be immature.”
“I’m glad that we can agree on something. So you can see why I am choosing to keep them apart? This situation is hazardous towards my son’s future, and I won’t watch one of my children ruin themselves to this idiocy.” Her lips pursed and her fingers tensed up around the edges of her armrests.
Lydia let out a laugh. “Now toss that bastard child in her face and watch her panic!”
“I may be young and inexperienced in this world, but may I share some of the wisdom that my generation has to offer?” Magdalena gave him a nod. “We’re fickle children who wear our hearts upon our sleeves. Isn’t it better to leave them alone and let their relationship run its course? If there’s one thing that I have learned, it’s that the what people regret most in old age is the leaps that they were forbidden to take in their youth.”
“Leaps break legs, Mister Toval, and we forbid our children from taking them in order to stop them from being crippled. Be wise enough to grant yourself good fortune and accept the sacrifices you need to make. Your blessing will be numerous if you do so,” she spat back.
Alton wasn’t sure who she was talking about with that statement, but it certainly wasn’t Vincent at this point. “A mentor of my youth would often tell me that the harder you were with the reins, the more likely the horse was to buck. Vincent isn’t stupid. He doesn’t take risks. However, you are pushing him into a corner.”
“And he will one day be thankful. A horse who bucks at the edge of a cliff is far more valuable than one who has fallen off it.”
“I argue that it’s easier to comfort a person who has just ended a bad relationship rather than hide the product of their mistakes. Wouldn’t you agree, Lady Magdalena?” Now it was her turn to narrow her eyes at him. “It is a mother’s job, after all, to help her children overcome their mistakes. Even if that mistake is another child.”
A loud clapping came from Lydia. “Good one, Alton! Tear her a new one!”
Standing up, Magdalena gestured to the door. “I’m not certain to what you mean, but I believe it’s time for you to go. There are people I can’t keep waiting for much longer.”
“Liar.” Lydia laughed again. “She’s panicking! Don’t offer a deal though. Magdalena knows exactly what she needs to do in order to keep you silent. Leave with your head held high.”
Once again, Alton didn’t need to be told that. He stood up as well, offering a generous bow to Magdalena. “I once more thank you for offering me some of your time.”
He excused himself and thought that that went as well as it could have. No, it was a good day. There was very little that could bring him down at this point. As long as Iofea kept her mouth shut, Magdalena might sway towards being more lenient towards Vincent’s relationships. Only time could tell...
Alton returned home and quarantined himself in his room over the next few hours. There was still correspondence that he needed to reply to. Thank you cards to be sent out, invitations to grand openings, and turning down offers to perform at various events in the city. He was swamped with jobs and could only do so much.
Then again… He was low on money. Alton hated the idea of using the now dwindling funds of the Toval family for his own use.
Would staying out late each night and working as a musician further his cause towards becoming a knight? Perhaps if he did it for free, but Alton wasn’t feeling that generous. Plus Sybil was going to be out late with his repulsive cousin. He saw no reason why he would need to be back early at all.
A few choice jobs would be fine. There would be enough money for him to do something fun later down the road. A nice dinner with Sybil, wait, she was tired of those. Maybe something… No. Alton couldn’t think of anything for her. He took out the journal where he had written down his Sybil facts and began to go through it.
The first time they had kissed, her breath was heavy with garlic, and she let out a blast of foul air in his face as she sighed with disgust afterward. Alton smirked at the memory. The fact that she was so crude made her cute at times. He even thought that the strong-willed part of her was adorable... That’s what made her fun to be around.
“What are you laughing at?” Lydia tried to look over his shoulder, but he quickly shut the journal.
“Nothing.” He smirked to himself and blushed slightly. “We don’t have much time left in Carapace. Are you going to be with Stallis all day tomorrow?”
Lydia nodded. “Not that there’s anything I can do with him but…” Her voice faded away as she got a distant look in her eyes.
“You love him. I understand that.” Alton smiled at her. “Wouldn’t it be easier for me to convince people that you’re here? You want to talk to them, don’t you?”
She nodded, but she was also saddened by the idea. “I’m positive that I don’t want to come back.” Her fingers delicately pushed some of her hair behind her ear. “Someday, the magic will weaken, and I will be gone forever. It’s best to let me fade with only you to mourn my passing.”
“... Sorry.” Alton put the journal back into his coat pocket. “I know that you wanted Sybil to end up with the rapier… Now it just feels like I’m stealing time away from her. Time she should be spending with her mother.”
Lydia let out a laugh. “This was the best sort of mistake. Who gets the chance to make new friends after they’re dead? This is exactly the way I would’ve wanted it!”
She mimicked giving him a kiss to his temple, even though he couldn’t feel anything. Though he did rub at his head with disgust, and she laughed all the harder as she vanished away for the night.
No secrets. Equal partners. Not telling Sybil about Lydia was breaking the promise that he had made only the night before.
Alton might have to wait until Lydia was gone for good. She was right about it causing unneeded stress to Sybil. Although he didn’t want it to be this way, he didn’t have a choice. For the sake of their relationship, there were certain secrets that needed to be maintained.