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“Presents!” Tish gently placed a bag on the floor. “I’m surprised at how many showed up! There was hardly room for us to move about! Each of these should have your names on it, so have fun sorting them out yourselves!”

Zaniyah had already opened the bag and was looking through it. “... All of these say Alton.”

He gave a thumbs up. “Number one record holder.”

Tish waved her hands about. “You did get seventeen, however, Highland received nineteen gifts that he promptly requested we return on his behalf.”

“You’re kidding,” replied both Alton and Zaniyah in unison.

“Well, he is the first year commander, but Miss Twist came in second place with twenty-three! There was a second year squire who beat her out with twenty-six, but I shouldn’t go into the details.” Tish gave them a friendly wave as she began to walk backward. “I need to run so I can drop these off to the other dorms before curfew! Tell me what you got later, okay?” She vanished down the hall to where Evan and Chester were waiting with the rest of the gifts.

Zaniyah slumped back to her chair as Veximarl took over sack duty. He constructed five separate piles of everyone’s gifts. Sybil had been sort of excited to see if she would get anything, but her heart was sinking as she saw the pile in front of her get bigger and bigger. This was borderline ridiculous.

“Bribes.” Chickadee stated as he looked over Sybil’s pile. He picked up the small box from his own pile and opened it. Inside was a metal hair comb with a set of emeralds, similar in design to the one that Alton had bought Zaniyah a few days ago.

“It makes sense,” muttered Alton. “She would’ve spared herself some trouble if she had publicly announced what she was going to do with the tainted beast corpse.” He looked over to Chickadee. “I don’t understand why so many people mistaken you for a girl.” The mage had already put the comb in his hair and was preening.

“That one is from me.” Zaniyah looked off to the side out of embarrassment. “I liked the one Alton got me, so Caitlin helped me make a matching one.”

Chickadee gave a nod in appreciation. There was also a braided leather cuff with a bone charm from Veximarl, which he quickly slipped on as well. He opened the last gift to see that it was a vial with a large lump of blood iron in it. This was given a shake as he looked at it with curiosity.

“That’s the blood iron from the tainted beast,” Sybil explained. “I figured you’d appreciate it more than anyone else would.”

The young blacksmith scurried around the table and wrapped his arms around Sybil’s shoulders. He became like a leech, refusing to remove himself from the embrace. Even as Sybil attempted to push him away, he clung all the tighter to let her know how happy he was.

“I want him to work all of the material, if possible. There is a lot of it, and I don’t trust anyone else to get it right. I mean, aside from Zyris. He already has the leatherworking requests, and Caitlin has started working on some of it as well.” Sybil stifled a laugh as Chickadee planted a kiss on her cheek.

Zaniyah ignored the pair. She was leaning over on the table to see what Alton had gotten. “It’s all a bunch of brooches.” She picked one up for closer examination. They were all masculine looking, depicting either weapons or animals.

“It’s not uncommon for women to give men brooches,” explained Alton. “They usually used to publicly declare a man’s association with a certain woman. There are different rules for where to pin it, depending on if it’s a romantic or family connection. It’s all boring noble stuff.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that sort of thing days ago when I had asked?!” Zaniyah exclaimed through gritted teeth.

Instead of answering, he pointed a finger at a box of misshapen cookies. It appeared as though there was an attempt to make jewel cookies. “I assume these are from you?” He picked one up and took a bite. The flavor was better than how they looked. A little undercooked for his tastes, but edible.

His face made Zaniyah huff up all the more. “I tried, okay?!”

She sat back down in her seat in a huff. In front of her was a large box that had remained unopened. Another was a bracelet with little charms in the shape of different weapons from Chickadee and a tin of dried tea from Veximarl. The tea itself was an herbal blend meant to ease muscle weariness, and he had painted a spider on the lid to make it match her tattoo.

Veximarl looked over his own items. There were more cookies from Zaniyah. Chickadee had gotten him a bone hair fork to hold back his hair while he was working out. Sybil was starting to feel bad that she didn’t manage to get anyone a proper gift. But there was an accident, and she almost died getting it. It also seemed like no one had minded that she hadn’t gotten them anything either.

“Two is fine.” Veximarl smiled as he looked over his gifts. “Tish has promised me a dance already, and I assume that I will be able to get another from someone else once everything is started. Somehow, I will manage to get a lesson”

Zaniyah tossed Alton a look. “You know, you said I would be the one who wouldn’t get any gifts, but…” She tilted her head towards Veximarl and glared at Alton again.

“I agreed to be in his squad. That’s appreciation enough,” Alton replied coldly. “What did Twist get?”

Sybil shook her head. “I’m not really sure I want to deal with any of this right now. If there’s some way to return these, I should. Especially if they’re just bribes.” She finally pried Chickadee off of her and shoved him towards his seat.

But Zaniyah was already opening the gifts up. “It’s a bunch of necklaces, a few hairpins, and some hair ribbons.” She held some of them. “Some of them have symbols sewn on them. Are these family crests?” Her eyes widened. “It’s like they’re proposing to you.”

“That just makes them easier to give back.” Alton started to confiscate anything with a crest on them.

There was a blue fabric choker with a silver crescent moon in the center. “This one has a note that says it's from everyone in Moontear,” Zaniyah stated. She held it forward for Sybil to take.

“... Fine. I will at least keep that one.” She stood up and started to go through anything she’d find useful.

There was another tin of tea from Veximarl that had a different spider painted on the lid. He seemed to think that everyone from the Carapace core loved spiders. He wasn’t exactly wrong, but it was borderline racist. Chickadee had gotten her some cookies, and there was a woven leather bracelet that she was sure was from Zyris. She kept those and some of the simpler items that matched her fashion sense. Mostly ribbons to keep her hair out of her face.

“What the...” Alton glared at a pendant in his hand while whispering to himself. Zaniyah looked over his shoulder and he clasped his hand around it in hopes that she wouldn’t see.

“That’s just like the flower that’s on Sybil’s sword.” Zaniyah leaned back and thought to herself. “Right? I always get Fogbloom crests mixed up with each other. They’re all boring flowers, and if you get one wrong, ohhh, you get in trouble.” She had already gotten an earful about it from Theodoric the other day.

“No, it’s not the same. Right? Is it? No, wait, is it?” Alton did an awkward sidestep shuffle away from the table as everyone stared at him. He had never actually looked over Sybil’s weapon before, so he wasn’t sure. “I’m sure it’s nothing alike, but that doesn’t matter... You guys keep opening your gifts. Suddenly, I feel rather tired.” He stretched his arms as he faked a yawn. “Probably going to go get some sleep now. Night.”

They all kept staring at him as he walked past his bed and to the weapons rack. He knelt down by the sword and started to issue out a string of curse words. Sybil’s eyes narrowed and mist started to form at her feet. Silently, she crept over to look over Alton’s shoulder as he compared the two crests.

She had seen that pendant before, or at least something nearly identical to it. A coin with a flower crest on it, kept on a leather cord. It was exactly like Erskine’s. Her hand darted out and she picked up the pendant for a closer examination while Alton’s hand tightened around the cord. This time, the name along the edge was Duxton, and there was a starfish on the back. The other side also had buttercups on it, but there were six petals instead of five.

“They’re not the same at all. Your sword has multiple flowers on it, and this one just has one.” Alton looked over to where Sybil was, and the mist faded from her feet so she could be seen again. “It’s nothing important... I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Sybil did worry. The crest was close enough to her grandfather’s to make her feel worried. “Toval, what does that mean? Does that have some significance?” She frowned as he looked away. “I’ll go find out who this belongs to and ask him right now.”

“Alright, so…” He began to mutter under his breath. “There are multiple flowers on the sword because it may have belonged to someone associated with several houses, but the flowers on the pendant are, uh...” He lowered his voice even more. “... It’s the symbol of the royal family… Sometimes they give these out to trusted allies, ones that are sworn as blood brothers” Alton attempted to tug the necklace out of her hand. “It’s not really important. Forget about it.”

“You’re telling me to give up on the only lead I have on figuring out this sword?” Sybil gave a tug back. “And by royal family, you literally mean the royal family? The flower looks similar to the one on my grandfather’s pendant. What if this has something to do with the Fogbloom family?”

“... The F-Fogbloom family?” Veximarl tensed up at the implication.

Alton shook his head. “It can’t be a Fogbloom, because they’re all dead. When a family dies, so does its secrets, and I don’t know anything about your sword. Even then, Volo Refuge has a record of family crests, and if it was royal related, they would have contacted them when it was entombed. It obviously isn’t important if no one has contacted you about it and wouldn’t you have already gotten your answers when you visited Lady Grulick? She should’ve known everything if she had been holding onto it.”

“Lady Grulick is dead.” They all looked over to Veximarl, who had spoken up. The back of his chair was facing Alton and Sybil, but there was no mistaking his depression over the matter. Hearing their argument had made his own inner conflict surface. “She had died last winter, but we managed to discover that the sword was placed within the refuge for another’s sake. It never belonged to her.”

“Then who does it belong to?” Alton let go of the cord and Sybil tightly tucked it within her hands so he couldn’t snag it away again. His attention went from Veximarl to her. “I thought you said you got a letter of acceptance from her?”

Veximarl didn’t say anything. He stuffed a jewel cookie into his mouth and started to munch on it nervously. That was the second time today he had betrayed Sybil’s trust. He was feeling terrible about it.

“I don’t-” Sybil looked down at the coin and twisted it about. Starfish. Flower. What did it mean? Her grandfather’s pendant was a fox. Was that important? “When I graduated from Braytons, I was going to go on a journey and find out what I can.”

“Fogbloom.” Alton sat down on one of the pillows that were underneath Sybil’s bed. He placed a hand to his forehead like he had a headache. “The flower is called the blooming fog. It grows all over the stones around Fogbloom and represents the old royal family.

The six-petaled buttercup is winter aconite, the symbol of the new royal family. Your sword has the markings of the Aconite family, but it’s not the royal branch, and some other houses as well. Most likely high ranking nobles. I don’t know what it means to have all of their symbols on one item.”

Sybil took a seat down next to him. “Then the sword really does have a tie to the old Fogbloom thrown.”

Alton began to recite the story from memory. It was a cautionary tale that was still fresh in the minds of the elderly. “The king was murdered, and all of his relatives, including his children, had vanished. They said it was the work of the dark mage Bellia, who then stalked the high ranking noble families of Fogbloom across all of Lustro and murdered them off one by one.

He decimated the Alcea family, saving the head of the religious order for last. The Aconites and the Arbutus family also suffered heavy losses, and it was only when Lady Grulick defeated him that his reign of terror ended.” Alton shook his head. “I’m sorry. You won’t get your answers from this. Duxton won’t know anything, and he likely sent you his pendant as a prank.” He held out his hand.

Veximarl peeked around the edge of his chair. “There are a multitude of questions that I have for you, but are you saying that a member of the royal family is hiding out here?”

“Duxton,” replied Sybil as she double checked the pendant.

Alton pried the necklace away from Sybil while she was distracted. She let go and he put it away in his pocket. “Crown prince, Duxton Aconite. I assume he’s here using an alias because very few people seem to acknowledge him as such. We’ve been avoiding each other and haven’t even spoken. I’m not even going to try to speak to him if he’s going to ignore me... ”

“But,” Veximarl continued, “why are you speaking as though you know him?”

Sybil leaned in and whispered to Alton. “You’re not secretly a prince and that’s why you got kicked out of your family, right? You’d tell me?”

Alton leaned closer as well. “Would you sleep with me if I said yes?” He winced as Sybil punched him in the arm. “He’s an idiot, alright? A stuck up, self-centered idiot who only cares about two things. Being the center of attention, and destroying the lives of others for his own amusement. Absolutely nothing like me.”

He ignored the others as they stared at him. Alton honestly didn’t see how he could be like the person he just described. Zaniyah, who had tuned out the conversation by that point, stood up with a loud gasp of surprise.

“Which one of you gave me this?!” She pulled up a crimson gown from the large box. Everyone in the room shook their heads “... S-someone gave me an actual gift?” Another gasp was to be had. “There’s also shoes! Pretty, pretty, painful looking shoes!” Hastening to put them on, she stood up. “This is agonizing!” She cried out in a cheerful manner.

Alton stood up and rubbed at his shoulder. At least it was enough of a distraction where he wouldn’t be forced to answer any more awkward questions. “Someone not in the right state of mind, probably,” he grumbled out.

Zaniyah ignored his statement, stepping away from the table and holding the gown up to herself. “The skirt is so swishy.” She spun around for a moment. Her eyes then widened in horror. “Sybil, uhm, I’d hate to ask, but I need you to go with me to the dance.”

“No,” Sybil replied flatly.

“I can’t ask anyone else! All the other girls are going to be waiting around wearing the gifts that the guys got from them, and I’m only friends with Anais.” She clutched the fabric to her chest. “And I can’t do that on my own! Not with any of these guys! That might scare them off! Also, what do I do if it’s some sort of prank and someone’s laughing at me because I stood there alone all night?”

Sybil scoffed. “Then I kill them.” Her expression softened as Zaniyah looked at her with giant, pleading eyes. “... Fine, I’ll go. I’m not wearing a dress and I’m not supposed to do any dancing. Once someone shows up, I’m leaving.”

Zaniyah carefully set down the dress and gave Sybil a sensible hug. Not tight enough to hurt her, but not to loose to refrain from showing affection. “Thank you so much!”

It made her friend happy, so by some extent, she was happy. She was also tired and not wanting to put too much thought into her own troubles. Sooner or later, Alton was going to have to tell her the truth.

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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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