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Chickadee sat in the back of the tavern. His leg cast had been removed that morning.. They should have set off hours ago, but the other two decided to spend one last day making sure he was alright. They said he needed some time to adjust to being able to walk properly again. It must still hurt, they insisted. It must still be tender, they said. Rest one more night and they’ll leave as a group in the morning.

They were enjoying themselves too much, he thought

Though he had drink and food in front of him, Chickadee didn’t have much of an appetite. Instead, he stared at Zaniyah with annoyance streaked on his face. Not that anyone could see his expressions, as they were still hidden under the bundle of cloth that made up his appearance.

Zaniyah had been given a dress and mask to wear while performing. It didn’t hide much, and had long strings with bells attached. Her favorite thing about it was that it showed off the tattoo she had gotten during their stay here. The legs of a spider were etched in her back like the wings of an angel. Core pride, she insisted when she first showed it to them.

Her, rather, their act was popular. A series of ropes had been tied high along the support beams of the tavern. She would dance and jump between them, and her only complaint was that she wasn’t allowed to juggle weapons after a table was damaged on the first night. Meanwhile, Alton roosted on a stool below her. He was playing his harp and singing the folk music that controlled Zaniyah’s movements.

And oh how Alton roosted with pride. He preened all the more when his voice brought women’s attentions upon him. They would make requests for him to keep singing, and drop gold as his feet to make him happy. It was like he was in a gilded cage of his own design, thinking he had all the luxury and freedom in the world while being trapped by indulgence and comfort.

It was not a situation that Chickadee enjoyed. He made tools that let others shine, not stand in the spotlight himself. Apparently it was also his job to nurse the two back to health each morning because they stayed up late at night while enjoying the occasional free drink. They had promised before to stop early tonight so they could set off first thing in the morning. He had his doubts, though. Serious doubts.

Alton paused his playing to listen to a girl compliment him, letting Zaniyah take the opportunity to slip down from the ropes and take a seat by Chickadee. She grasped at his drink and gulped the whole of it down in one shot. Then she plucked up his chicken leg and took a bite of it. Not that he minded when she did such things. He was full already.

“That was the last one! I’m done for tonight!” She waved off a suitor that had come to take her hand. “Ah, it’s you! Hello again!” The gentleman spun Zaniyah about and pressed her down and against the table while she let out a laugh. They kissed one another passionately while Chickadee sat tjere glaring. She eventually pushed him off of her, but she didn’t seem to want to. “Some other time, okay?”

“You’re always saying that,” he man replied. “Why not now?”

“Because I am starving. I promise that I’ll spend tomorrow night with you. Absolute honest promise.”

It appeared to Chickadee that some of Alton’s personality may have rubbed off on Zaniyah. Then again, having Zynn as a brother and Zoe as a mother didn’t give Zaniyah any advantages in the purity department. Her and Alton’s divide and conquer strategy among the sexes had done wonders to show the two of them with both money and attention.

Zaniyah had never had much luck talking to men in the core. She was tall and brazen, while the majority of them were much like Sybil and Chickadee. Small and easily frightened by shouting and strength. They were cave people. Cave people were tiny folk.

Her mother was a performer in her youth, with three different children by three different men. That was many years ago, and now she worked in a shop run by Chickadee’s family. Zaniyah had worked summers as an entertainer, but she stopped when she joined Dogfall’s squire program. That was work she would’ve returned to if not for Braytons. Zyris had started a leatherworking apprenticeship some time ago, and Zynn took after their mother. Every Krogastein worked hard to support each other, despite their differences. It was a close family.

Chickadee had three sisters, one older and two younger. His father came from the far south, ever further than the Coral Kingdom, and stayed in Carapace after meeting his mother. After his mother’s workload increased, they moved to an outerland house. Nearly all of them worked in the blood iron trade. The current demand for it made it solid work.

But saying he had only three sisters would be an insult to his family. Zaniyah and Sybil were also his sisters. Braytons was the last three years that they could stay together as siblings. After that, they’d end up breaking apart to take care of their own lives. He used to think that it would be fine if they all returned to the core, but he doubted that now.

If they never made it into Braytons, things would be vastly different. They would need to begin their apprenticeships. Sybil with her father, Zaniyah with her brother Zynn, himself with his family. Wouldn’t be much of an apprenticeship. His mother told him he was good enough to open his own store, and he had considered it.

That would also be the time they would finalize marriage contracts. It made matters simpler. There was limited living space within the core, and the management there preferred to have time to set up the arrangements for new families.

He’d end up having to marry Zaniyah, and while he did like her and appreciated her company, it wasn’t something either of them desired. If she was working with her brother, he’d likely be stuck raising a bunch of kids that weren’t his. Then again, he wasn’t planning on siring children himself, so he didn’t mind.

But now that he saw what the rest of the world was like, his views had broadened. He enjoyed working the forge at Braytons. He liked meeting new people and creating objects that would let them live out their own dreams. The items he forged were the things that guarded their very lives, and he took pride in the importance of his creations.

He wanted to see more of Lustro and learn more about the dreams of those living here. He wanted to be able to understand better what he could do to help others accomplish them. Going back to the core, working with his family… He was starting to have doubts that that was the best way to make his own desires happen.

“Hey, hey… Look at Alton.” Zaniyah’s jabbing him in the arm made him snap out of his daze.

Alton was attempting to excuse himself in order to join Zaniyah’s and Chickadee’s table. A pair of young girls were tugging at his sleeves, trying to get him to spend more time with them. Chickadee found himself hoping he wouldn’t be put on watch Alton duty again. It involved trying to find out where he was hiding at night and it usually was in an alleyway where he was being “accosted against his will” by someone he had met in town.

Zaniyah was more suited for that sort of thing than he was. A hooded figure with a hidden face roaming around at night with a limp only succeeded in people screeching and running away. All he wanted to do was ask if they had seen Alton. Instead, he ended up having to answer to the guard. People in Mareth were impolite.

“Now ladies, I have matters to attend to.” Alton gave them each a kiss on the cheek. “I promise that I’ll see about making some time to be alone with you tomorrow. Or should it be together?” He tsked in a sad tone. “Remember, never let a man get in between your friendship. Especially when you each can have a turn at the same time.”

He was preening again. It was mostly a joke, as he never actually got serious with any of them, but he was still preening. Chickadee narrowed his eyes as Alton set his harp down, giving the girls a final wink before shooing them away. Both Alton and Chickadee let out a sigh at the same time. One while watching those girls walk away, the other out of sheer discontent.

Zaniyah pulled Alton down to the seat next to her and wrapped her arms around both of the men’s shoulders. “Now then, will these two knights be treating this lady to something nice in her bedchamber tonight?” She planted a wet kiss on each of their cheeks, which made the both of them groan. “Don’t be like that. It’s time for bed.”

They went up to the room they shared in the tavern. It was small, cramped, and didn’t have a bed. The three resigned to use their own bedrolls, which had to be tucked together in this cramped space. At least there was a small window so they could have fresh air. Without it, this would look like a cleared out storage closet... Which it was.

Chickadee had the “misfortune” of being stuck in the middle. It was more of a mixed blessing. He flopped down on the bedroll, layers of clothing and all. This was his preferred sleeping garb. Despite the risk of overheating, it was a small price to pay for his own sanity. Zaniyah rolled around in her sleep, and she would often twist her legs around Chickadee’s as she slept more and more at an angle.

Alton had a tendency of cuddling in his sleep. Chickadee didn’t rest well when that happened, being too embarrassed to push himself free, but it was terrible after Zaniyah got cold and sandwiched him in on the other end. Not only that, but Alton would blame it on him for being small and easy to hug.

The only thing that Chickadee was grateful for was the fact that Sybil wasn’t here. At least she wouldn’t see him at what he considered to be the lowest point in his life. Actually, she would probably help him out in his time of need. Now he was missing her ability to be rational.

His other comfort was that his layers of clothes were to warm for Zaniyah to snuggle with, and they acted like a pillow for Alton to grasp at. He started to let out some fake snores while the two excused themselves to go get changed. On returning, they sat down on their bedrolls and proceeded to talk to each other as they settled in.

“It feels great to be able to dance on the ropes. Are you sure we can’t stay longer?” Chickadee heard Zaniyah shuffle about as she tried to get comfortable.

“We need to get Chi over to Herring, and we don’t know how long we’re going to be there.” Alton gave a pause. “Though we could spend some time in Mareth on the way back. If we handle everything in a day, we’ll have plenty of time.”

“Three weeks, huh? I suppose that’s plenty of time.” He could hear Zaniyah beaming at the thought of returning. Chickadee resolved to have mastered riding before then so he could abandon them as soon as they were close to the city.

“It’ll be fun… But I’ve been meaning to ask, is dancing like that something common for core kids?” Alton asked as he laid down on his bedroll.

“Everyone learns it as kids. There’s places during festivals where they have the webs more tightly knit together to make it safer. Then we hold hands and dance around with all sorts of partners. They say that how well you dance with someone is how well you’ll be their partner in marriage.” Zaniyah’s tone went bitter. “I guess it’s mostly done before contracts are set up. Not many people have the time to dance after that...”
“So it’s lucky you don’t have to worry about that now.” Alton paused again. “... Wait, so Sybil can dance like you do?” Another pause. “No wait, does she have a marriage contract?”

“Oooh..? You want to know?” Zaniyah giggled. “Chi is actually better at web dancing than either of us, but he cheats and uses magic to jump higher and keep balance.” That was true, agreed Chickadee. Wind magic did help a lot. “Sybil is just as good as I am, but she hates doing it outside of the core. Blah, blah, equal rights for the core, blah, stereotypes are bad, blaaah.”

“... That’s a shame.” Chickadee could hear Alton mutter to himself, just low enough for Zaniyah not to hear it. “Damn. I didn’t care about it before, but I guess I’ll have learn.”

“I wouldn’t bother. I don’t think she’ll ever dance where people could see her again. The fact that those who are really good at it choose to make quick money dancing at the roof really soured her mood on the whole thing.” Another mischievous laugh. “And I guess you can say she does have a boyfriend, but they got into a big fight before we headed out to Braytons. Hopefully, they’ll make up about it soon. I wonder if she’s gonna go see him while she’s out there.”

“S-seriously?!” Alton’s raised voice made Chickadee wince.

“Shh! Keep your voice down. You’ll wake up Chi.” Zaniyah waited. The mage could feel her staring at him to see if he was awake. Chickadee let out a snort and rolled onto his stomach. That seemed to ease her worries. “But yeah. Her and my brother Zyris. He works for Chi’s family along with my mom. They’ve been together for years now, and I always thought they would decide on getting married.”

“I see…” Alton settled into his bedroll again. He let out a long sigh.

Chickadee liked Zyris. He was two years older than them and got along great with his own family. The problem was that he was on Stallis Twist’s side about Sybil not leaving for Braytons. Chickadee wasn’t there for the argument itself, but he did know that Sybil cried about it. When they were on the way to Braytons, and when she thought the other two were asleep, she’d often cry quietly to herself. That’s always how Sybil dealt with her pain. Alone.

“Yeppers. Honestly, I’d hook her up with my brother Zynn, just so he’d have someone that’ll beat some sense into him. He’s way more handsome, but he vowed that his body is reserved to all of women of Carapace. Says that’s his way of uniting the outerland and the core. Sex and bastard children.”

“That sounds-” It seemed like Alton was about to say something, but changed his mind. “Hmm…”

“You know Sybil is going to cut off little Alton if you try to join Zynn in his crusade, right?”

“I wasn’t thinking about that,” snapped back Alton in a course, loud whisper. “I would say forget about it and go to sleep, but does that mean you have a marriage contract?”

“It’s not finalized yet, but yeah.” Chickadee could feel Zaniyah staring at his back again. “When we’re both twenty-two, Chi and I are supposed to pack it in together, or at least we were. I don’t know. I don’t think he’s exactly willing to follow me around while I kill all the monsters in the world. That and, what I mean is, there’s uhm… Some big glaring issues with that, other than monster murdering, so no point in thinking about it too much.”

“I see.” Alton rolled over so his back was turned to the both of them.

“I mean, for one, we never were much of a couple. You’ve kissed him more than I have.” Chickadee’s face flushed red at her statement.

Alton’s voice came out as a hiss. “Giving him life-saving air isn’t kissing.” Zaniyah snorted and was quickly interrupted before she could say something perverted. “Shut up and go to sleep. We need to leave early tomorrow.”

Zaniyah let out a long yawn. “Be in denial all you want, but you’re family now, and let me tell you that I know true love when I see it.” Alton growled again and she laughed. “Oh, wait! That reminds me. Before I forget, let me ask you something?” She sat up with a start.

“Shh. You’ll wake up Chi.” Chickadee could feel both of them staring at him again. He let out another fake snort and rubbed his face against the pillow before becoming still again. “... What is it?”

“It’s about a boy who would have been in the Starsons squire program,” she whispered. “I think he might have been one of the ones that wasn’t allowed to come here, but I don’t remember his name. Did you know him at all?” Chickadee had to fight off the urge to scoff. She was talking about her imaginary friend again. The nameless “pretty boy” she’d spend her summers with that neither Sybil or him had seen.

Alton paused. “You are going to need to give me more information than that. A lot more.”

“Right, uh… He had reddish brown hair, used a sword, and was bitter all the time.”

“... You mean Highland?”

“No, not Vincent. He wasn’t that good of a fighter. He was also small and thin and really wimpy,” her voice drifted off again.

“You do realize that people change as they get older, right?”

“Yeah, duh, but not by that much. He was seriously scrawny. Maybe Vincent has a brother about the same age?” Alton shook his head. “You know what? Nevermind. Forget I mentioned it. I’m going to sleep.” Zaniyah flopped down on her bedroll and Chickadee could hear Alton settling down as well.

“Was this a guy you liked? Someone you saw somewhere who caught your fancy?”

Zaniyah let out a laugh. “Yeah, right... He was a good friend of mine that I lost contact with a few years back. Back when I was working the roof of the core, but that was years ago... Him and I used to fight a lot... That’s all... It was really fun, so… So I was wondering if he ever got a chance to make it through the squire program, but I guess not. Anyways, doesn’t matter. I’ve only got eyes for Chi and no one else!”

“... Sure you do.” Alton didn’t believe her.

“See you in the morning, Alton.”

“Goodnight, Zan.”

Chickadee rolled over, quietly slipping his hand out of his bedroll. His hand found Zaniyah’s and he intertwined their fingers together. He felt her give a squeeze back, maintaining the grip for a bit before it weakened. A snore came out from her lips, and Chickadee laughed to himself.

Three years. Braytons had bought them three more years. He’ll use that time to find a way to make both Zaniyah’s and Sybil’s dreams come true. Anything less wouldn’t be worth it.

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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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