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Zaniyah was still annoyed about losing the match against the Macestar Squad yesterday. After continual draws, Tish had the bright idea to carry the whole box of eggs over to Grimhawk, which secured them the bragging rights. As the first years prepared themselves for Grimhawk’s morning class, she couldn’t help but to toss them the occasional glare. What she wanted was another contest, not a team building exercise.

Beneath her shuffled a fat, brown mule. Behind her was Chickadee, who was perched upon a small, spotted horse. Veximarl had also borrowed a mule. He patted its neck quietly while the other squads mounted their animals. The only ones that weren’t riding were Macestar and Moontear.

They had been informed some days ago that Grimhawk was in charge of the Martday morning classes. The majority of them had taken a guess that Grimhawk was going to ask them to do a forced march exercise, as they were told to come to the field in their full battle gear. Whether or not it was a rebellious act, most didn’t feel like running in the summer sun.

Grimhawk was the last to show up, fumbling his staff in front of him so the blind man could find his way. He paused, let out a long series of coughs, and continued until he had reached the group. His head tilted sideways as he listened for who was present.

“Tuton?” He called out.

“Yes, sir!” Veximarl replied. “All squires but Twist are present and accounted for!”

The old knight nodded. “Damn shame what happened. We press on and are stronger for it.” He gestured to the outskirts of the field. “Today’s goal is to hit thirty laps about the field as a unit. I hear some of you chose to bring riding animals. No point in making those beasts suffer, and I doubt most of you are skilled enough riders as to not run the others over. Those who brought them have the morning off. The rest of you get running.” He made a shooing motion with his staff. “Get to it!”

“Nothing like a brisk morning run to rejuvenate the spirit of youth!” Tish was beaming in the morning light, but the other two in her squad were glaring. “Shouldn’t I try practicing the new casting techniques Lady Blu taught me? It’s always better to practice such things on the go!”

“No,” replied Chester coldly.

Evan narrowed his eyes at his squadmate. “A real man follows through on his captain’s orders without complaint.”

“A real caster spends weeks doing meditation to finely tune their spells,” spat back Chester. “Any spell should be as mindless as breathing air before it’s used on others. We’re not here to be experimented on until she figures it out.”

A whine came out of Peter. “C-captain…” He began to paw at Emery, who was ignoring him. Moontear didn’t like the idea of running for nearly four hours either, but they couldn’t find a reason for them to borrow mounts. After all, their squad was meant to work on their feet.

Basil’s hand shot up in the air. “Moontear Squad volunteers to be experimented on, Miss Maplehammer! We will gladly be subjected to whatever spells you desire!” Tish responded with a gasp of delight.

Peter was suddenly filled with enthusiasm. “Basil! Wise and sage-like Basil!” He started to pound at Basil’s shoulders with his fists in order to loosen them up. “It’s an honor to have you on my squad, master! We sh- Captain!” Emery had begun to jog off without them, and the two immediately skittered to catch up. Tish wasn’t that far behind them, with Evan by her side and Chester dragging his feet behind them.

A meeting among the knights was scheduled for that afternoon, which was one of the reasons why they were to be running this morning rather than dueling. The rest of the day was to be used as they pleased. Veximarl couldn’t be more ecstatic at the news. Any day where he wasn’t strength training or covered in blood was a good day.

“Alton.” He steadied his mount. “We were planning on heading into Tilrey. Myself and Chi wished to gather ideas for gifts. I believe Zaniyah may have wanted something as well.”

“I have it handled. Chi is already making me something for Sybil,” Alton replied.

Sybil might end up receiving an excessive amount of gifts if his hunch was correct, so Alton needed to do what he could in order to make himself stand out. Then again, maybe he should think to pick up something for Zaniyah as well. Others found her personality to be somewhat overwhelming at times... Not to mention that Chickadee and Veximarl didn’t have much spending money, and Tilrey was known to be expensive. His face strained at the idea. It was better if he went with them so they wouldn’t be somehow scammed.

“Tuton!” Grimhawk bellowed through a wooden cone. “You’re still on physical training! Make Toval put away your half-breed pony and get back here!”

“Ah…” Veximarl’s features tensed.

“I’ll handle it,” muttered Alton.

At first, Veximarl was hopeful at the statement, thinking that Alton would somehow convince Grimhawk to set him free, but then he saw Alton’s outstretched out. He slowly dismounted in a dejected manner and passed the reins to Alton. Dragging his legs behind him, he began to jog behind the others. Even Tish’s cheerful cries of encouragement weren’t enough to elevate his mood.

The others put away their animals and headed back to the squadroom to get changed. Chickadee rolled up his leather case of blacksmithing tools and tucked it underneath his arm. “Forge,” he muttered to the other two.

“I thought we were heading out on a date to Tilrey,” replied Alton.

Chickadee immediately began to fluster at Alton’s innocent statement. Shopping alone with Alton in Tilrey... But wouldn’t Zaniyah also be going? Not to mention Caitlin had made him promise to help her out, and he did not like being on his sister’s bad side. His head quickly shook back and forth. No choice in the manner. He didn’t want to face Caitlin torture again.

“Suit yourself,” said Alton with a shrug. The sight of this made Chickadee hang his head to the side. “Want to see if Mila wants to go with us, Zan?”

“We should ask Vincent!” Zaniyah clutched onto Alton’s arm and shook it as he glared at her. “A-and Anais too! She would want to go!” Alton rolled his eyes. That was enough to let her know that it was okay. “Thank you!”

Bronzescale was always expected to be on duty, and both Mila and Irving were more interested in napping than shopping. However, the whole of Baron was willing to go with them. It didn’t bother Alton as much as he thought it would. Ivy was always clinging to Vincent’s side, and Zaniyah vouched for Anais. He also had seen Gwyn play a tune on grass blade before and wanted to ask her how she did it.

They rode to the nearby town of Tilrey. It was the largest town within Braytons’ territory and was a popular destination point for travelers between the Violet and Crimson regions. Hot springs were promoted for their health benefits, and few could resist the temptation of soaking in one after several days travel. However, the luxury aspect of the town also made it an expensive one to stay in.

Zaniyah felt a bit… Peasantish as she walked next to the others. Even Alton’s casual clothes were fancy, and Vincent dressed in a similar fashion. Anais wore a white blouse with a bright pink skirt, while Ivy and Gwyn wore heavily ruffled linen dresses. The three of them rode in a governess cart that was being steered by Gwyn, which added to their elegant flair.

Even the way Gwyn delicately held the reins aloft was a thousand times more graceful than anything Zaniyah could manage. She looked down at her peasantly core clothes and let out a sigh. All she could do was ignore her doubts and concentrate on what she needed to buy.

She had money from when she spent a few days working as an entertainer with Alton in Mareth but was hesitant to spend a large amount of it. There was also a list of items that Chickadee wanted, and she had promised him to buy what she could. Sybil had mentioned that she had seen a store here that sold all sorts of raw materials for crafting. That’s where she had gotten the Volo Refuge quartz used in Veximarl’s staff, but the location also had a selection of unprocessed blood iron harvested from local animals.

Luckily, Zaniyah’s Braytons identification plaque gave her a discount at most places. After buying what she could from the store clerk, Zaniyah was careful to wrap up the vials in a handkerchief and tuck them away in her bag. Luckily Alton had coughed up half of the cost, so she still had some money left over.

“Sorry it took a while to find everything,” she said with a nod of apology.

Anais frowned at the thought. “I know blood iron has become a necessity in our day to day lives, but I still don’t like the idea of wild animals being hunted for it.”

Vincent sought to ease her worries. “These animals may have been hunted for their meat, regardless of the need for blood iron. The meat is used for food, bones for glue, and blood iron for tools that improve our quality of life. They may not have volunteered for the process, but we are grateful for their sacrifice.”

“I have a hairbrush that has blood iron from an eel in it,” Ivy gloated, even though she had short hair that benefited little from brushing. “It applies a conditioning enhancement that tames frizz.” The way she said it made it seem like it was an expensive and rare treasure, and that they should appreciate her for owning it. She beamed at the thought before she pointed down the street. “We should go to the jewelry store before the shops become crowded.”

The idea of the dance had spread to the other two grades. Caitlin and Zyris had already gotten requests to make items, and Caitlin wasn’t against the idea of making an extra buck while they were away from Carapace.

Miss Mandroux, Braytons’ head seamstress suddenly found her hands full of requests for items to be ready by Triaday. Gwyn, whose barracks’ morning chore was to help out the seamstress, wasn’t happy about this. She had spent long hours dyeing cloth and prepping patterns as a result. For those who didn’t want to wait, picking up something in Tilrey was an excellent and speedy alternative, and the first year group had already spotted third years wandering about.

Gwyn was quick to agree with Ivy’s destination choice. “I purchased some bolts of Carapace silk from the fabric store. We should see what styles are popular within this region. I still have several glass beads that I may craft into jewelry.” Ivy paused, if only to stare at her. “Sir Moss doesn’t mind if I choose to sew during his class, as long as I score well on his tests.”

Ivy picked up Gwyn’s hands and held them gently. “We’re squires now, Gwyn.” Gwyn stared back blankly. “We should spoil ourselves and buy something someone else made.”

“I find Sir Moss’ classes to be tedious and am in need of something else to concentrate on,” replied Gwyn. For a moment, it looked like Ivy was about to tear up, but she shook it off and quickly returned to her usual, prissy self.

“I’d be amazed if Krogastein showed up in anything at all,” she stated with a roll of her eyes. “I feel so fortunate that Fogbloom doesn’t have a core, and we that don’t have to deal with that sort of tribal garbage at home.” Vincent walked past them without a care into the jewelry store. “Darling! Wait up!” She and Gwyn followed their captain inside like a pair of ducklings.

Alton hung back as he walked, hold a smug smile on his face. Vincent always did judge him harshly for having four girls in his Starsons squad. Now he understands the pain Alton had to endure for all those years. All those dates and gifts he had to give them just to get them to do any work… At least it paid off and he got into Braytons, now he was free to do what he wished.

As he and Zaniyah entered, Ivy was already holding up an earring to her ear. “Darling, how does it look? Does it match my fragile and feminine nature?”

The paladin flicked the dangling crystal and watched it rock back and forth. “It appears to be an opportunity for an opponent to damage your ear,” he replied in a flat tone.

“But is it good enough for a dance?” Ivy attempted to coax a pleasant answer out of him.

“A dance would be the perfect place for an enemy to strike. Those in our position must always be prepared for combat.” His expression became distant as he put more thought into it. “I should ask the forge for knives that would fit safely within a garter belt. After the current nonsense has passed, they will have the time to do so.”

Ivy pouted. “Must you be like that?”

“I have already stated it before, I am here to improve myself as a paladin, not to show favoritism or to spoil others. That holds true to those within my own squad over any other.” He spoke down to her sternly. “I am the commander of our class, and it is my responsibility to treat everyone equally, and to do what is best for the group as a whole.”

Zaniyah looked off to the side, failing to hide her dismay at his statement. Her eyes quickly locked onto a set of ruby earrings. A gasp of excitement escaped her as she leaned over the display case. Maybe piercing her ears would be interesting. She did already get a tattoo earlier in the summer... Piercings might enhance her overall look? But what kind though. So many different choices. Studs seemed like the safest option, as they didn’t seem capable of snagging on anything.

“Impractical,” Alton scoffed. “Highland is right. Earrings can be pulled out, necklaces used for choking, and rings can catch on armor or weapons. That’s how knights end up losing a finger. Jewelry as a whole is dangerous and expensive.”

“That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want something pretty,” said Zaniyah with a pout.

Alton rolled his eyes and wandered over to a different case. “I’ll buy this one.” He pointed to a silver hair comb decorated with garnets. After he had paid, the worker placed the item in a velvet bag. “Catch.” He tossed it over to Zaniyah.

“What’s this for?” Zaniyah looked into the bag.

Alton was annoyed at the question. “Your hair is always getting in your face because you never take care of it, and you said before that red was your favorite color.” He rolled his eyes again as she blinked with befuddlement. “And because no one is going to get you a gift on Triaday. You’re a violent barbarian that frightens everyone. Shut up and be happy about it.”

“It’ll look lovely with your hair, Zani,” said Anais in her mouse-like voice. “I’ll help you put it in later. Oh, but… I thought the gifts were supposed to be anonymous.”

“I’m not doing this because I want to dance with her, what I need is to have her not rolling around like a depressed mess on Satyrday because no one got her anything.” Alton looked off to the side. “Besides... She’s always spewing out repulsive phrases on how being in a squad is like being in a family, and I take care of my family.”

“A-Alton…” Zaniyah’s voice became choked up.

“I know, my eyes are similar to garnets when I’m surrounded by candlelight, but don’t start falling in love with me over it. It’s loathsome.” Alton sneered. “I’m heading to the clothing store across the street. There isn’t anything here that I like.” He left, not caring what opinion the others had of him at the moment.

Vincent watched the scene unveil in front of him. His expression slowly hardened as he processed the information. “I am also heading out. Please take your time.” He quickly turned on his heel, following Alton out of the store. “Toval. A word.” He hastened his steps so he would catch up with the squire, who had sped up in an attempt to avoid him.

“It better not be about me about making another harem. I told you before that the first one wasn’t my choice.” Alton turned around and folded his arms in the process. “Girls are finicky. You make them happy, you make them care, and they make sure that you don’t get stabbed next time there’s a sword drill. Trust me. I have the scar to prove it.” But the scar was from a woman he had dumped, completely unrelated Starsons. He didn’t feel the need to mention that part.

“They are squires, and they will respect you for treating them as equals,” retorted Vincent. “Reese, Hewitt, and Nox are fine examples of knights who will serve their lords admirably in the future.”

A single, loud laugh escaped Alton. “No, they’re little girls from noble families too far down the food chain to get any respect, and they can’t arrange for good marriages because of it. You saw eager Gwyn was to make dresses for herself and Ivy. Those two are used to not having enough money to buy fancy trinkets. They’re here to get titles, or husbands, or because daddy is mad that there weren’t any sons in the family, and this was the only way they could get his attention.

Whatever the reason, I don’t care. They’re women, Highland. They’re your squad. It doesn’t matter if you are the commander, your own squad should be your own personal sanctuary. All they want is a little attention now and then. It doesn’t matter how you spread it out.”

Vincent placed a knuckle against his lower lip. He appeared to be deep in thought. “If I recall correctly, your method for spreading out attention was rather unhygienic.”

“At least call them by their first names. You at least know those?” Alton pinched the bridge of his nose as Vincent furrowed his eyebrows. “Make time to learn their interests. Get them something for their hair, like ribbons. They all tie their bangs out of their faces when it’s time for outdoor practice, or did you not notice?”

“Anais. Gwyn. Ivy.” Vincent took his time to consider Alton’s advice. “Hair ribbons... Tie their hair back... Yes, Toval. I believe I understand what you are getting at.”

Alton grimaced. “I don't think you do.” He watched as Vincent walk into the clothing store ahead of him. Behind him appeared Zaniyah, fumbling her hands behind her back as she struggled to find her words.

“So, uh, thanks.” Zaniyah laughed nervously. “It’s really pretty, and Anais will help me wear it later. My hair is to unmanageable to deal with it now.” She looked away, watching the Baron girls chatting with each other as they followed Vincent. “Uhm, in the meantime, I need some advice on something specific. Please, if you don’t mind.”

“If it’s advice on what to give me in return for the comb, I want nothing.” Alton began to walk away. “Come on. We should follow.” He wanted to see first hand the hole that Vincent had dug himself into.

Zaniyah waved her hands about. “No, no, wait. It’s not for you. It’s maybe for a different guy who, uh, is of a very similar... Pedigree? The kind of guy who wears nice things all the time, and is surrounded by girls, you know? What sort of thing would they like but not already have?”

“You literally just described me,” replied Alton with a straight face. “Vex and Chi were already getting you gifts, and it would look bad if I didn’t get you something. That’s the only reason why I did it. Before you ask, it’s because you really do scare nearly everyone and aren’t going to get gifts otherwise.”

“Awww, you guys are so sweet.” Zaniyah looked like she was going to tear up again, or she was struggling to not give Alton a hug. Alton couldn’t tell which. He took a step back just in case. “But, no. Seriously, Alton. Seriously. Seriously, I need this advice. Why are you being difficult about this?”

“Zan, sweety, I’m rich. My family is also rich. I’ve been in a position of power and wealth my entire life. There is nothing unattainable for me,” he replied in jest.

Lydia was quick to interject. “Aside from Sybil’s affections.”

“And if I can’t get it right away, trust that I will eventually. I always get what I desire.” Alton gritted his teeth at the ghost’s statement. She had been so quiet that he had forgotten she had come along. “There is nothing that someone like you can get me that I can’t achieve myself.” He turned and started to walk away, ignoring Zaniyah’s crestfallen appearance. Alton was certain he could get everything he wanted. All he would need is time.

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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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