Being around horses was a harrowing experience. Though most would claim that a relationship with nature was a fulfilling experience, Sybil was having none of it. Animals were a hazard. They produced waste, carried diseases, and took up valuable space. In the core, everything was a finely tuned masterpiece, especially when it came to air purification. The amount of dust that came off these creatures made Sybil worry about her lung health.
There were two stables at Braytons. The smaller one had a collection of stallions and mules, while the other one had everything else, along with more mules. Mules were the main transport for everyone at the barracks who didn’t own a horse. They were hardy beasts that traveled well about the Gilded Region, and there wasn’t a need to worry about unwanted foals.
Sybil was expected to work for nearly two hours in the larger of the two stables five mornings a week. It barely gave her enough time to wash off and get to class, but she went on without complaint. She was fortunate enough to not deal with the animals themselves. They were turned out to the field at dawn or moved to a separate box so she could clean out the previous one. Until that happened, she preferred to wait by the door outside.
Her shoulders tensed up and her eyes shut tight as a group of them ran through the door. Hold still. Don’t breathe. Stay out of the way. She wouldn’t be trampled on as long as they didn’t notice her. She absolutely wouldn’t. A knock at the wall snapped her back to reality. She gasped as she let herself breathe again, and stared up wide-eyed at the third year squire.
“That’s the last of them, Sybil. Go ahead and start at box three.” Gower grinned widely. Seeing someone so frightened of horses work in the stables was particularly amusing for him.
He was a scout in Elderberry Squad. His job was to help let the animals out in the morning and follow them to the field, while the first years and stable hands cleaned out the boxes and replaced the hay. Sybil didn’t think he worked all that hard, even though that was his right as a third year. If he wasn’t out on missions, he’d watch the horses to see if they were settled in, and then wander off to archery field until it was time for him to do actual work.
Third years were either on missions or applying for employment for after they graduated. They weren’t expected to do much around the barracks as a result. The second years were in a similar position, but the ones that had been assigned to stable work only showed up when the Bronzescale captain forced them to.
Attempting to not sound frustrated, Sybil muttered out a quick response. “Alright…”
“Relax. It’s just the first day. You would’ve learned most of this in school already, and they’ll give you plenty of chances to figure out the rest.”
That’s right. Today was the first day of classes. After failing the exams and trudging through a Mart-forsaken swamp, she had somehow managed to con her way into becoming a proper Braytons’ squire. Her hands tightened around the broom as she began to fret. As troubling as the thought was, it was Gower that was making her nervous.
It had nothing to do with him from the Clay Region, but she did notice that people from that area tended to speak softly while standing all to entirely close. Then again, people from the Violet Region tended to stand so far that she nearly felt like she was shouting at them in order to be heard. She winced as Gower leaned all the closer so he could get a better look at her expression. There was no way she was ever going to get used to this.
“I think it’ll go well,” she whispered back.
“Us third years are here to help.” He frowned as he leaned away, placing his hands on his hips as he thought about it. “Actually, if it’s something difficult, ask Theodoric. He’s the smart one when it comes to books. Anything else, I’m your man. Any boys give you trouble, I’ll take them out.”
Sybil gave a nod. “Thank you.” She gave another, awkward nod and rushed off to do her work.
“Box three!” He called out after her.
“Got it!” She called back as she scampered within.
Chester, a first-year mage, was already at work. He was swirling his arms about, moving water in and out of a stall as a means to wash it out. Sybil bowed her head as she picked up the pitchfork next to him. She then silently went to a stall he had already cleaned out and started to toss hay into it.
They worked to the melody of Alton humming to himself. His horse, Bibi, was having some swelling in her legs and was being kept inside as a result. He was checking the wraps on her legs and brushing out her coat first before coaxing her out long enough to clean out her stall.
However, this also meant that he was basically useless in terms of cleaning out the rest of the stable. One of many annoyances that the squire provided for Sybil. The other major one was the fact he had retrieved Lydia Larkin’s rapier out from the Volo Refuge. This did nothing but add to Sybil’s overall misery, and there was nothing she could do about it aside from concentrate on her own work.
She wasn’t the only one depressed. Veximarl wasn’t allowed to do paladin training, and most of his acolyte studies were put on hold as well. Not because he was a necromancer, only Sybil knew about that, but because he was not considered physically fit enough for standard training. He was on a strict schedule of stamina training for the next few weeks. There would be no participation in physical training with the rest of the group unless he had Grimhawk’s permission.
On the other hand, Zaniyah and Chickadee couldn’t be more pleased about their stay. Zaniyah spent her mornings working with animals along with two members of Baron Squad, Vincent Highland and Anais Reese. Her afternoons had her following around Stonetoe participating in whatever classes he was teaching. As long as she could keep on hitting things with her axe, she was happy.
Chickadee’s sister, Caitlin, was temporarily working in the barrack’s forge. He would join her most afternoons and work as the forgemaster's assistant. Caitlin was here for the purpose of repairing Vincent’s mist charge bracer and to study the phenomenon that damaged it in the first place. For some odd reason, mist charged devices had a habit of blowing up around Braytons. It was a flaw that Caitlin needed to fix if her mother’s business was to expand outside of Carapace.
Zyris, one of Zaniyah’s older brothers, also worked in the forge. He claimed that he came along to keep Caitlin company, but he was actually here to see Sybil. He was timider than his sister and didn’t have the skill to assist Caitlyn in her studies. Instead, he had a focus on leatherworking, having apprenticed in it since he was fifteen, and was currently assisting Ira Knut in armor repairs. It was a temporary assignment, much like Caitlin’s. They would be leaving as soon as she had completed her work.
Everything had fallen into a routine by the time the first day of classes began, but this was the day that Sybil dreaded the most. Mostly because of her uniform. It was a copper and gray dress that looked quite stylish and feminine. Overly so, much to her annoyance. Stonetoe thought it punishment for her taking to long in gaining admission, and for the fact that she had demanded to join his squad. Also, watching her fumble to hold down her skirt during practice made him laugh.
She stared into her wall mirror as she tied back her hair with a gray ribbon. Alton was observing her from his perch. His bed was the one next to hers, meaning that Sybil had limited places to go if she wanted to get away from him. Her stance had become to ignore him whenever she could.
Alton climbed down and stood behind her. He then leaned up and tilted his head back to expose his throat. “Straighten my scarf for me, Twist? Sorry if it’s a bother, but I’m having trouble with it.”
What a wonderful position for slicing your throat open, Sybil would think to herself, like she did every morning whenever he asked. But she kept her mouth shut and straightened his scarf for him anyways. It wasn’t a problem for her to help, despite him having access to a mirror and being capable of doing it his own damn self.
“You made her mad again,” muttered Lydia.
He shrugged at her remark. “Thank you.” Alton then looked into Sybil’s mirror, straightening the scarf again himself. Sybil made a growling sound as he did so, and he replied by smirking at her reflection.
Zaniyah and Chickadee were standing off to the other side of the room and examining their schedule board. “First official day.” Zaniyah was vibrating with excitement. “It looks like we have Till’s class first, followed by Moss.”
Veximarl let out a wheeze. He was lying prone on Zaniyah’s bearskin rug. Foggy, the golem cat, was preening herself on his back. The farm which he worked in the mornings had a mule that was on the older side of his life. He was also a stubborn thing that didn’t feel like working hard some mornings. Once more did Veximarl have to drag the cart of daily supplies from the farm to the kitchens by himself.
“How does this stuff help us with becoming knights?” Zaniyah folded her arms and frowned. Till taught etiquette and governing, while Moss taught leadership and strategy. “I want to do tomorrow’s survival training instead. Hunt me a new rug.”
Veximarl let out another wheeze. This prompted Sybil to walk over and hold out a hand. “Come on, Vex. It’s time to go to class.”
“Please do me this kindness and allow me to rest. They will make me go back to the farm soon enough. It is better that I take a moment to imagine that I do not exist in this reality until it is time for the unceasing nightmare to continue.”
Zaniyah forcefully dragged Veximarl up to a stand and supported him with her shoulder, and he was too weak to protest. They moved downstairs to the classroom that was on the first floor of the dorms. There were seventeen squires in the first year split among five squads. It didn’t take long for them to cluster together among their own groups as they waited for Lady Till to appear.
Grimstone was headed by both Hugo Grimhawk and the Braden Stonetoe, with Veximarl Tuton assigned as squad captain. Baron Squad’s captain was Vincent Highland, a former classmate of Alton’s from Starsons, and their knight was Remi Moss. Sir Moss was an emergency addition hired over the summer after the Jewelclover knight left, but few understood the details. Bronzescale Squad had members from all years, as they were in charge of discipline and fort security. A man named Dalkirk was their knight.
The last two first-year squads were Lady Sarya Blu’s Macestar Squad, captained by Tish Maplehammer. She was an eager squire who had training as a priestess of Eatha. Lady Blu was also the instructor for field medicine, head of acolyte studies, and the barrack’s doctor. Sir Galwen Ocean’s Moontear squad, lead by Emery Penvil, focused on wilderness training. Emery was the quiet type, flanked by two squires who were similar to him in appearance. At a glance, they could easily be mistaken for a trio of brothers.
Zaniyah dropped Baron Squad in his seat and waved at Baron Squad as they entered. Specifically at Anais and Vincent, since Gwyn and Ivy ignored her existence. “Wow. That’s what your uniforms are like?” She stifled a laugh. “And I thought ours were bad.”
Each squad had uniforms in specific colors. Baron squad was a mix of rich reddish-purple tones with green leaves and pink flowers. Vincent looked off the side out of embarrassment. The Starsons uniform he wore before was also extravagant in its own way, but most of the other outfits were muted or less extravagant. He didn’t like the way he stood out.
“At least ours cover us up.” Ivy Nox spat back. “In Fogbloom, we have something called respect for our bodies. If you’re going to make anything out of yourself, you make an effort to learn about it.”
It was true that Zaniyah went a little on the looser side when it came to clothing, but she couldn’t stand being restricted during her combat exercises. Plus, she never thought she needed to hide anything. There wasn’t ever much to show in the first place, and the weather outside was all hot and gross. Her tongue stuck out at Ivy as she took a seat next to Sybil. She couldn’t wait for dueling practice to begin so she could beat Ivy about all she wanted.
Alton sat down in his seat while giving a passing glance to Baron Squad. One male captain and his three squire ladies locked up in one room together each night. He scoffed at the sight. Vincent always did judge Alton harshly for having a harem squad at Starsons, but the tables have certainly turned. This was even worse than Alton’s own situation.
… And the thought of that depressed Alton.
Then again, he was the one that requested to transfer out of Baron Squad so he could spend more time with Sybil. This was his own fault. Though he wouldn’t admit it, he did like the members of Grimstone more. Vincent and Alton had never gotten along, the other two looked like snobbish bitches, and Anais seemed like a chore to be friends with. She was cute and all, but they didn’t have anything in common. Then again, the captain of his new squad wasn’t someone he got along with either.
Veximarl was currently melting into the table. He looked more in line with the members of Bronzescale squad. Part of their initiation meant that they were getting up at odd hours to begin their scouting missions, and they weren’t used to it yet. Mila and Irving sat together at the last table in the back, with Irving completely unconscious, and Mila struggling to keep her eyes open.
A silence fell over the room as the headmistress of Braytons stepped into the room. Lady Nita Till was dressed in flowing blue robes and hid her hair underneath a velvet hood. Her hazel eyes peered over the room as she settled in behind the lectern.
“Welcome to your first day of classes. If we have not met already, I am Lady Nita Till. I am the governess of the lands around Braytons, which includes several villages and Tilrey. It is my role to ensure you all receive a proper education, and I will be instructing you personally in the matters of etiquette. Highland?” She gestured to Vincent.
The paladin stood up and gave a swift tug to his tunic in order to straighten it. “Squires stand!” As they stood up, he did a quick headcount of everyone. “All pupils are present and accounted for, Lady Till. Squires bow!” They bowed in unison. “Squires sit!”
“Thank you, Highland.” She took a moment to go over her notes before continuing. “My class is aimed at teaching you the skills needed to interact with high members of society. We will also be covering the basics of governing, and elaborate on the duties of barons and dukes, as well as how you may best assist them. Many of you should already know the basics. If you are unfamiliar with them, please check in with the school’s golem, Archive. He will direct you to the necessary texts for study. Now let us carry on with our lessons.”
Till proceeded to lecture on the skills she expected all of them to master by the end of the season. Basic table manners, Violet Region dances styles, the chain of succession for introductions, and the fact that they will need a hobby outside of knighthood. Preferably in the arts, such as painting, embroidery, or music. They would be receiving lessons on all of these and more over the next few weeks.
Afterward, she stated they had a twenty-minute break before Sir Moss’ class began. When she left, a set of teens from Moontear immediately dragged their captain into a huddle. They wore dark tones of blue and green, and each had a silver moon brooch with a teardrop dangling from it on their left shoulders.
“Timber Vale Wolves present, sir, ready and set for the operation,” stated Peter Dew. He suddenly slapped his forehead. “Sorry sir, I meant Moontear Squad.” He tensed up at Emery’s scoff. “Please stop rolling your eyes, sir. I am going to need you to pull through on this for all of our sakes. Basil. Logistics.”
Basil Thistleweed nodded. “There are seven women and ten men. Broken up by squad, only two are available for possible extraction. Our mission is to send Emery to their captain and parley for his squad members so we have dance practice partners.”
“If you’re talking about Baron, I’m not dealing with the rich girls. They seem bitchy,” muttered Emery.
“I’ve run the numbers several times over, sir,” Basil stated firmly. “Grimstone only has one viable candidate, as the other one intimidates me.” Both he and Peter glanced over to Zaniyah and gave a shudder as she looked back at them with a bewildered expression. “The other one is certainly adorable, but may have already fallen for Toval’s tricks. We can’t compete with him on the visual field, sir. The long-haired one might be female, but reports of their true nature have been mixed.”
Peter nodded eagerly. “Maplehammer is outnumbered in Macestar, and Bronzescale runs even numbers. Our only hope is the noble bitches in Baron Squad, sir! You must do something!”
“You… You guys know that all of us can hear what you’re saying, right?” Zaniyah sat backward in her chair so she could watch them more easily. Moontear had been the only ones speaking, and it didn’t help that there were situated in the middle of squires. The entire room was now staring at them.
Sybil kept her back to them. She was still going over her class notes. “If they want to get themselves in trouble, let them.” She raised her voice loud enough for them to hear. “And go ahead and cross off the fact that I’ve fallen for Toval’s tricks. The only reason I deal with him at all is because I’m stuck in the same squad as him.”
“And here I thought you were crazy about me,” Alton said with a wink. “It must be hard to concentrate on class when you’ve got pretty little me around.”
Veximarl frowned to himself. “I was fairly certain I have always been a man.” He blinked as Sybil slowly turned her head towards him. “They were referring to Chi when they said the long-haired one, didn’t they… Yes, that absolutely makes more sense. I will clarify that he is also a male.”
Chickadee was offended. He tossed his long braid over his shoulder dramatically and scoffed at the Moontear group. Normally he would be content in being covered up in scarves, but Till had glared at him until he had taken them off. Realizing she had left, he started to put them on again.
Emery stood up and waved a hand at Vincent to get his attention. His expression was heavy with discontent as he gestured to those in his own squad. “These two idiots want to know if we can borrow your girls for dance lessons. It’s something that wasn’t covered at our school.”
Ivy was the one who replied calmly through gritted teeth. “What exactly did you mean by rich bitches earlier?”
She stood up, picking up a bastard sword that she had hidden beneath the table while she was at it. Her foot stomped down on her chair and she leaned onto her knee. The sword was placed on her shoulder as her eyes narrowed at the squad. Both Basil and Peter went wide-eyed as a response. They both reached up for Emery’s wrists and yanked him down to his seat in a single, unified motion.
“She’s just as violent as the blue-haired one,” muttered Peter. His statement made Ivy’s face flush with rage, her reddened cheeks nearly matching her short, orange hair.
“Baron Squad politely declines Moontear’s request for squad assistance,” replied Vincent in a monotone voice.
A clapping sound echoed about the room, leading those present to turn towards Captain Tish Maplehammer. “If I might add my own opinion? I believe I have the perfect solution for all of us.”