Sybil was happy for Zaniyah, but she felt much less so the next day. Since morning, a sense of dread had been building up inside of her. It grew and grew until the point after lunch where everyone participating in the dance was to meet together in the outfield.
More squires had shown up than she had expected. Nearly all of the first and third years, and a dash of the second. Third year mages amused others by tossing fireworks about, or by juggling balls of fire and lightning. A group of squires and younger members of the barracks staff were holding hands in a large circle, dancing and singing to a carol as they spun about.
Alton was dragged off early. He was set in the center of the circle of dancers, playing on his harp and leading the songs. As long as he wore his collar, his singing could be heard all throughout the field.
Chickadee was also dancing. His hair was pinned back with the comb that Zaniyah had given him. Veximarl was holding hands with both the mage and with Tish. While the blacksmith was light and agile, picking up the steps quickly, Veximarl… He was at least making a solid attempt. With every step, Tish reassured him and told it was okay to keep trying.
Zaniyah stood off to the side with her foot tapping along. The gown felt softer than the linen her uniform was made out of. Maybe it was silk? Seemed expensive, either way... Anais had helped her get ready for the party, which helped boost her confidence. Her freckles had been evened out with powder, her lips painted gold, and her amber eyes enhanced with red lining about them.
She even had her nails painted, and as pretty as these shoes were, it was obvious that they didn’t do well in the grass. If this is what she was going to have to put up with every time she attended a fancy event, she was going to put in more effort to avoid them. Etiquette be damned.
Sybil stood next to her in a plain, oversized tunic that hid her figure. There were deep pockets within her skirt that she kept her hands in, and her sword was strapped to her belt. It was an outfit that said, “I’m a girl, but I don’t want to put the effort into it.” And it was enough that nobody came by to bother her.
Maybe it was too much because no one was approaching Zaniyah either. She watched as the people in the center would split off into couples for a song or two, before joining back in a circle again for more merrymaking. Her hands fiddled with each other, which made the metal bangles around her wrists click together nervously.
“You can dance without waiting around,” muttered Sybil.
“But what if I scare them off?” Zaniyah whispered.
“Then they aren’t worth your time.”
Zaniyah’s breath got caught in her chest as she noticed that Vincent had broken away from the group so he could approach. Her face was nearly as blue as her hair by the time he arrived, but all he did was give Sybil a stern look. “Twist. You are still on medical leave. You need to head back to the barracks.”
“I’m sorry.” Zaniyah stepped between them before Sybil could respond. “I was too nervous to stand around by myself, so I made her come with me, and uhm… Sorry.” She bowed. “I don’t think I can be left alone right now.”
Vincent studied her as she fumbled about in a nervous manner. “This event is causing unnecessary emotions among the squires.” He looked around Zaniyah and over at Sybil. “Go back to the barracks. Rest while you are still able to and be up early tomorrow to do your chores. I will wait with Krogastein.”
Shaking her head, Zaniyah interrupted again. “That really isn’t necessary. I was going to head back myself and-”
“Yes, Paladin Highland! Iath be with you!” Sybil saluted as she backed away. “Bye! Have fun! Talk to you later!” Before Zaniyah could stop her, Sybil was already jogging back through the open gate of the school.
Shifting into position, Vincent stood next to Zaniyah with his arms folded behind his back. He watched the dance continue with a straight face, waiting for a silence between songs before speaking up again. “Have you been waiting long?”
“No…” Zaniyah laughed nervously. “I mean, yes. Alton had to show up early because Tish is forcing him to play. At least, until one of the third years decides to take over the music. Something about blackmail on getting someone drunk... I don’t know.” Her hand went to her mouth. “... I didn’t say that. Sorry.”
“I will refrain from pursuing the issue. If Maplehammer saw it as a serious matter, she would have told me or reported it to Bronzescale Squad.” He leaned back slightly to look at her hair. “You are wearing the comb he gave you.”
She nodded. “Anais said it matched the dress.” Her hands fanned out the skirt. “I mean, this is what I actually picked out but I can see how whoever got it for me might be confused about the comb… Not that they would know the comb was a gift, but I guess it’s not really my style so it’s super obvious and... “ She went to slap herself on the forehead, suddenly remembered her makeup, and settled for resting her fingertips against her temple. “I really messed up. I’m so terrible at this...”
“There isn’t any confusion about it. The dress is obvious enough.” Vincent turned away, facing the crowd once more. “Regardless on how you feel, I believe that it looks pleasant on you. Red is a flattering color. It’s fortunate that it also happens to be your favorite.”
“Thank you.” Zaniyah glanced at him and then at the ground again.
“I am certain that whoever gave you that dress is happy to know that you put in the effort to accentuate your appearance today.” Vincent coughed into his fist. “You were always one to put in effort... It reminds me of when you were a performer at the mouth of the core.”
Zaniyah laughed. “Wow. You saw that?” He nodded. “Isn’t that a load of embarrassment, but I guess I did stand out. Mom and Zynn would dress me up and made me arm wrestle anyone who would pay. Come challenge the monstrosity of the core! See if you can beat her unnatural strength!
We made decent money, but Sybil hated it. She made me stop when we started to take the squire program more seriously. I was so worried about not being able to help support the family, but mom got a job at Auntie Talwyn’s shop after that. It ended up working out well for all of us.”
“It is a relief to know that you were able to find your place.” A hint of a smile appeared on his face.
“I guess it’s been four years? Maybe three? Yeah, I think I was thirteen the last time I did it. Started when I was lot younger, though. Maybe when I was eight or nine. This was during summer, or whenever else we didn’t have school. It’s not like I did it all the time.” She laughed again, her anxious demeanor fading.
Vincent looked over at her. “You enjoyed it.”
“Absolutely! I’d rather do that than school, but mom said I needed an education. The best part was that there was this rude noble kid who would show up to challenge me to a real fight whenever I was there. He was this scrawny weakling who would bring training weapons with him so we wouldn’t get hurt. I would pin him down until he surrendered. It sounds mean, but all the outlanders there were jerks... Someone had to bring them down a peg.
The first year he would cry and my mom made me kiss him on the cheek and sit with him until he stopped. I guess he wasn’t so bad the following years. Actually, I started to think he was cute. A little kid crush, you know? My first love?” Zaniyah thought about it. “I still beat him up something good whenever I got the chance.”
“Sounds… Entertaining,” he replied flatly.
“Yeah… Mostly I dealt with tourists, but it was nice to see him whenever he could stop by. His sister would come with him to watch and sometimes to yell at Zynn because I’d cover her brother with bruises. I guess we were lucky we never got sued. She was a cleric. Maybe she healed him up every time so their parents never found out. He even entered the Starsons’ squire program to toughen himself up, but he still couldn’t beat me.
Oh, and he was sooo rude! He wouldn’t even tell me his name, even though I knew him for years!” Zaniyah tossed her head to the side in a snobbish manner and put on an intimidating voice. “He would go, ‘I’ll only tell you my name after I’ve defeated you, core demon!’ And I’d laugh and beat him up harder the next day. He’d put up such a huff about losing, but always sat with me after and shared the food he had brought with him. Actually, he was the one who gave me my first kiss and-
… No, wait. What am I doing? I’m so sorry! You came to stand with me, and all I can talk about is another guy I won’t ever see again.” She tightened her arms about herself out of embarrassment. “But, honestly, I was kind of sad when I heard you didn’t let a lot of kids from Stardsons go to the exams. Especially after Alton huffed at Sybil when we went to the Volo Refuge. He made trouble for her right away, did you ever hear about that?
They’ve been acting weird with each other ever since, but this whole time, I was hoping that would be me. Some nameless friend of mine from my youth would appear out of nowhere and start shouting like a madman that he wanted a challenge. One last showdown. Winner takes all. This time it’s serious. Like, really serious.” Zaniyah looked up at him with a weak grin.
Vincent didn’t smile. He stared blankly at her. She blinked. He blinked. Something began to form in the back of Zaniyah’s mind. It was like a tickle. No, it was somewhat painful for her to think about, so she avoided it whenever she could. A memory that would only sometimes come to haunt her in the middle of the night.
She remembered the exams. The group fight had boiled down to a one on one duel with Vincent after most of his team was expelled from the tests. It was over in an instant because she had been too cocky to defend herself properly. Suddenly she was in another field with the other applicants and confused on how she had even ended up there.
Lady Blu was the one who approached and congratulated her on her acceptance. It didn’t feel like winning though. She couldn’t find Sybil or Alton to see how they did, Chickadee and Veximarl didn’t teleport back, and she already knew they were in. All she could do was wait on top of a hill, staring off in the direction of where the test had happened.
As she saw the group approach, one of them broke off to greet her first. Vincent’s eyes bore into her own, and it almost seemed like he was glaring. Like he was furious at something she had done, but she didn’t know what it was.
“My name is Vincent Highland. Do not forget it.”
And just like that, he stomped off. He was probably just mad about his team betraying him. She could understand that, but that didn’t mean he had to take it out… on h-her?
“Oh no… Oh nooo…” Zaniyah’s hands covered her face as she looked downward. “Oh, that was you. It was you this entire time! And you kept giving me chance after chance to remember, but I kept not realizing it! How could I forget? No wait, that isn’t right. You’re a paladin... That kid never used magic once.”
“It is possible that was me.” Vincent looked away again, still speaking in a flat tone. “It is also possible that a younger version of myself considered using magic against you as an ill advantage, and refrained from doing so aside from healing the occasional sprain or broken bone.”
“Oooh… I’m so sorry. I’m such an idiot. I mean, that was an important thing to remember, and here I am, just forgetting it like some idiot. I didn’t even recognize you! How was I supposed to when you got so much taller and sexier with all those muscles? Ah man, and I was talking about those stupid memories of you to you, and I said I thought you are cute and had a crush on you. Wait, did I mention that? Did I just say you had sexy muscles?
Why am I even still talking? Could you forget everything I’ve said today? I would feel so much better. Especially if you could forget the fact that I said that I found your muscles to be, like, really attractive. Please do that for me, because I can’t believe any of this is happening. I don’t even know what happening anymore or why I can’t shut up.”
“It wasn’t all bad,” he interrupted before she could add anything more. “I have been enlightened to some of your thoughts. Now I do not feel guilty for defeating you so quickly during the exams.”
“But this dress, and shoes, and ugh, I got dressed up… I mean…” Zaniyah bent down on the grass, sitting on the heels of her feet while hiding her face in her folded arms. “I don’t even know what I’m doing here.”
“If I may make an observation?” Vincent made no movement to kneel down to comfort her. He stood as rigid as he had been for the whole conversation. “It is possible that you received that dress from someone who feels guilt over the way his squad members mocked you and your clothing preferences.”
Zaniyah’s muffled voice muttered out a reply. “That doesn’t make me feel better.”
“It is also possible that that very same person held a long meeting with his squad members where he stressed that he wouldn’t be showing favoritism to anyone. In order to lead, he must view everyone as equals.” Vincent coughed into his fist again. “I would observe that this person very much wanted to gift this dress to you without being caught.”
With a sigh, Zaniyah stood back up. Her face was red and she was biting at the corner of her lip. “I guess that’s an observation.”
“If that person could tell you that you look quite beautiful today, I am certain that they would,” Vincent muttered in a gentle tone. He glanced at her for a moment and then away again.
“And if I were to make an observation…” She pondered over her many options. “It would be that I’m grateful for this dress. I would also wonder if that person bothered to wear something that was given to them yesterday. I mean, if they were already a hypocrite, how far would they go in their attempts to hide their bias?”
“He would go to a certain length to be bold about it.” Vincent tapped against the grip of his sword. Zaniyah looked down and noticed that a black leather charm had been tied to the hilt. It had a light blue stone woven into it. There was an attempt to carve Carapace into it. The shape wasn’t quite right, but Vincent could at least tell what it was supposed to be.
“Well, that could be from anyone.” Zaniyah looked away again, ignoring the fact that she had picked that stone based on the color of her hair. “It’s probably from some girl who has a brother in the leather business. He might have had some scraps of tainted beast leather that she snuck away with. It’s obviously nothing all that special.”
“Obviously,” Vincent replied. “... Zaniyah?”
Him saying her name sent chills up her spine. “Yes, Vincent?”
The paladin was suddenly nervous, eyes wandering away for a moment before meeting her gaze. “It’s fortunate that we both made it into Braytons. That is to say, I am quite grateful that both of us were able to meet here again, as we had promised to in our youth. I know that I have stated it before, but congratulations.”
“Ditto!” She grinned, and no amount of makeup could hide how flushed her face was. “I’m glad that I got to meet you again and see you win a duel for a change.”
“That was a fluke. I was lucky and you won’t let it happen again.” He took a step away from her, looking back to the crowd. “There are several people who have asked me for a one on one dance today, and I should give them the opportunity to do so. Will you be available for one later?”
“Of course!” Zaniyah straightened up. “Thank you for the conversation.”
Vincent smirked. “Maplehammer organized this dance to give everyone a comfortable environment to learn. It would be a shame if you didn’t take the chance to participate fully.”
Zaniyah’s blush faded, and a huge smile erupted on her lips. “Aye, sir!”
So she chose to dance. She joined hands with Chickadee and danced around within the carol. She laughed with Veximarl as he tripped and fumbled about. Along the tall posts from which decorations were hung, she danced and twirled until the sun started to set in the far distance. There was even an awkward dance with Vincent, and it was horrible and nerve-wracking, but in the end, neither seemed to bothered by it.
Sybil watched them all from her spot on the wall. What seemed like fun to others appeared to be a chore to her. She took a bite from her sandwich and kicked her feet back and forth. It’s a shame that Alton sung so prettily, but was so ugly on the inside. At least, that was her opinion. When he let go and let himself be an instrument of music, there was something quite attractive about him…
She would have starred a little longer if not for someone approaching her on the rampart. A man of average height wearing plain clothes. Sybil had spotted him with the second years a few times but hadn’t bothered to learn his name. Something about him was intimidating though... Especially when he stopped next to her and started to pick through her food basket.
Half of her sandwich was in her hand. It was a flatbread that had been stuffed with mutton, radish pickles, and herbs. The other half was still in the basket, or at least it was until the man stole it. He kept his eyes out on the dance while he munched on her meal.
“They might still have more prepared in the kitchen,” said Sybil. “They were going to put a buffet out there. The dance might last a few more hours if you wanted to go out there.”
The loud pop of a laugh that escaped him made Sybil shirk back. He turned, grinning widely at her in a wild manner. Most notable was the fact that one of his front teeth was crooked. Examining her for a moment, he then looked away again.
“It’s a bother,” he muttered. When she didn’t reply, he frowned. “Don’t tell me you were actually looking forward to this? A hastily put together celebration of nothing. One where you are obligated to be dragged around by stranger after stranger in a parade of mockery.” He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. “Or does such an affair play to your tastes?
She quickly shook her head.
“And you have every right to be disgusted. After all, they only act in such a manner because they want to please you. They quote it’s all fun and merit, but they only desire what you can do for them.” A cold look crossed his features. “That’s the reason why they showered you with gifts.” He shook his half-eaten sandwich at her. “I sent you four myself.” Lifting up his hand, he took a large bite and began to chew on it quickly, as though he were in a rush.
Sybil eased herself off the rampart edge and picked up her basket. She clutched it to her chest as she took a wary step back. “You can’t have my kill.”
“And you are a fool to believe that I would need to ask for it,” he harshly replied. A hand was waved about the air as he dismissed an ill thought or two. “All I desired was an introduction. Now that I have one, I can go forward with being unimpressed.” He began to walk past her. “They call me Patterfall, but you will call me by a different name soon enough,” he muttered to her before disappearing down the stairs.
Blinking to herself, all Sybil could consider was what an odd man that was.