As the squires shifted into their regular schedules, the days appeared to fly by. Sybil hadn’t had any more hallucinations, and her powers hadn’t strengthened or changed, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. As long as she concentrated on her other tasks, she could shove those worries off to a dark, unmentioned place within her mind. Out of sight, not her problem.
Her afternoon classes with Moontear hadn’t quite lived up to her first day at Braytons. They mostly tracked small animals and had traps set up to catch wild pigs which would then later be preserved for winter meat. Sybil had been getting horse riding lessons during this time, and that went hand in hand in helping her be of more use to Bronzescale. Plus it gave her a something that she was better at than Irving, and that felt great.
They spent their afternoons exploring caves. If they found evidence of miasma, they marked it down with Archive and would later report it to Dalkirk in person. He had a set of mages that he worked with in order to ensure that they were sealed.
But the heavy schedule was wearing thin on Sybil’s ability to do her homework well. She also was at her limits when it came to studying noble culture. The classes from Blu and Oceans were fine, but she dreaded the days when Till and Moss were in charge. She didn’t care to learn about anything they had to teach.
“Attention!” Lady Till clapped her hands together. “The Duchess of Violet, Lady Elbellziara, will be arriving this afternoon. She will be spending the majority of her time within Tilrey, but we will be scheduling a demonstration at the barracks. Be careful to show her your best. Her findings will be reported back to the king.”
Alton stood up with a start. “... Lady Elbellziara? She’s performing the king’s inspection?” It had been mentioned that it was coming up, but he had never paid attention to who was coming up until this point.
Till nodded her head. “Yes.” She gave an apologetic bow to the class. “There are preparations that I have to make before her arrival. You will have a forty-minute break until Sir Moss arrives, and your afternoon classes will be put on hold. Your dress uniforms should be finished, and they are to be put on immediately after Sir Moss concludes his lessons. Be prepared to meet in the courtyard at a moment’s notice.”
There was a twitch in Alton’s eye as Till left the room. His mood didn’t improve throughout Moss’ class, and he charged upstairs as soon as it was over. He let out a spree of curse words as he pulled off his clothes. Standing there in his underwear, he began to inspect his dress uniform to there wasn’t anything odd about it before he put it on.
The rest of his squad followed after him, concerned about his sudden change in behavior. Vincent was first to speak, immediately pointing at Alton’s back as he did so. “He has scales.” It seemed like a fact that he would’ve learned about sooner. Not once in the eight years that he had known Alton had it ever been brought up.
Zaniyah waved her hands about as Alton turned around and glared. “Yeah, but we’re not supposed to talk about that ever so we just… Don’t talk about it.” She leaned in and whispered. “He’s rather sensitive about that sort of thing.”
“Stop letting him into the room whenever you please!” Alton tugged on his dress blouse.
“But he’s like an honorary Grimstone Squad member.” Zaniyah grasped onto Vincent’s arm and clung to it. “And he’s been outcasted from his home! We have to take him in, Alton! We just have to!”
“He’s a grown man, Zan! Not a puppy!”
Veximarl waved a hand to get her attention. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but had I assumed I would be the one who would have any say on if he was allowed in or not.” Zaniyah’s bottom lip began to quiver. “I do enjoy his company, but we do not have room for him to stay full time. Zani, please stop making that face. It will get stuck like that.”
“Move Sybil and Alton to the same bed,” muttered Chickadee as he sat at his desk. He sat down on his desk and began to inspect a set of leather gloves that had been left there. Picking up his sewing kit, he began to stitch on a blood iron ornament.
“We’re not a couple!” Sybil moved to her area and yanked the curtain shut.
Alton frowned harder as he pulled on his waistcoat. He was to tie on an ascot about his neck and then put on a coat over this. Why did they have to follow Fogbloom fashion with these dress uniforms? He was going to die of heatstroke before the duchess even arrived. Even if Carapace fashion overdosed on the color choices and designs, at least they never felt uncomfortable.
“We’re not a couple, we’re lovers. There’s a difference.” Alton pointed at Zaniyah. “And Highland can’t stay if you volunteer to share a bed with him. He’s not allowed to stay. That’s final.” Zaniyah opened her mouth to protest. “Go put on your dress uniform!” She held up a finger. “Go!”
Clearing his throat, Vincent looked awkwardly about. He took a few steps forward and yanked Zaniyah’s curtain shut. She had started to get changed without closing it again. The others had gotten used to it, but he didn’t find her openness to be appropriate. Spinning on a heel, he then started to make his way to the door.
“I will see you in the courtyard,” he muttered to the others.
Excusing himself, Vincent left the room. Zaniyah took her dress and somehow figured out how it should be put on while the rest also got changed. Moving over to the window, Alton looked out to see that the squires were already lining up in the courtyard. A carriage hadn’t arrived yet, more had they had time for lunch, but they were standing at attention while the knights double checked their appearances.
“Twist, hurry up. You’re the last one.”
He heard cursing from behind the curtain. Alton walked past it and saw that she was fumbling with layers of wool. Her long skirt was halfway inside out, and there was this confusing contraption that folded up like an accordion. She was stretching it open with the most confused expression on her face.
“First off, don’t move. You’re going to tear something.” He held out his hand as an offering.
“Go get Tish!” Sybil dropped the contraption and grasped at her chest to keep him from seeing anything.
“We’re all running late and Tish is already outside. There’s no time,” Alton looked her over with disdain. “Strip down to your undergarments and fasten your shoes on first. You won’t be able to put them on after you’ve put on everything else.” He picked up the accordion-like item from the floor. “This is a bustle cage. It ties on after you have your corset on, and hangs behind you.
After that comes your petticoat, and then you put on your corset cover on next. There should be pouches.” He nodded as she pointed to some sacks on the table. “Yes, that’s them. They are also tied on our waist and act as your pockets. That’s why there are slits in your skirts. Speaking of which, it’s foundation skirt, then the overskirt, that’s the one that looks like an apron, and finally your bodice jacket. None of this should take you longer than ten minutes to do by yourself. Did you get that or do I need to repeat myself?”
“How do you even know this?” She tensed up as Alton started to tie on the bustle cage for her.
“My Starsons squad used me as a dress slave whenever they were playing with western fashions… Did they give you a little hook? It would look like a thin fork with a hook on the end. It’s impossible to get the buttons on your shoes without it.”
“Is that what it’s for? I think I left it on top of the dresser.”
Veximarl was already dressed, and he was standing nervously next to the center room table. He glanced between Sybil’s curtain and Chickadee. “Should I keep informed about what happens between those two?”
Zaniyah was cupping at her breasts, debating if stuffing some socks in there would make her appear more feminine. “It’s probably fine… He’s just helping her out. You should see what Sybil has back there. It’s insane looking.”
She frowned and continued to fidget with her dress. Hers was a simple linen dress. It had a long jacket that covered up most of her torso, but it was tight enough that she had difficulty moving about. Zaniyah didn’t like the way her axe harness fit over it, or the fact she had to keep her hand axe tucked under her skirt. Still, it was better than the torture device Sybil had been given.
Even though she was the other girl of the group, she certainly had it easier than Sybil. Aside from her barnyard duty in the morning, she had her morning classes and spent her afternoons following Stonetoe around. She served as an extra training partner for the lessons he taught, which meant that she got to wear whatever she wanted whenever she wanted. Chickadee had a similar schedule. Since Sir Pegasus had left with his squad to Fogbloom, every afternoon of his was spent in the forge.
Veximarl never saw much of anyone aside from Alton, whom he had Baron classes with two days of the week. They didn’t talk to each other. Alton was mostly quiet, but unlike Veximarl and Vincent, he had no issues talking with the girls there. Neither Ivy and Gwyn had any with him either. The necromancer attempted to butt in once in a while but never could find a reason to talk to any of them. Mostly he would make a statement on where the squad was meeting for dinner, and Alton would nod as a reply.
“They’re lonely,” said Chickadee. He had finished smoothing out his hair after pulling it back into a braided bun. It was being kept together with a hair fork. “They’re fond of being lonely together.” His nose crinkled at the statement, and he bit on his lip to ward away the errant ill thoughts and worries going through his own mind.
Zaniyah shrugged. “If he’s lonely, maybe you guys could take out Alton? Go fishing? Hunting? Break into a pub and start a fight? Make out in the orgy of blood and mud that follows? Wait, now I want to go too... Let’s go get Vincent and party all over Tilrey!”
Behind the curtain, Sybil was looking off to the side as Alton used the button hook to stitch up the seemingly thousand buttons that were at the front of the bodice. Nearly everything was impossible to put on without the aid of another, which made Sybil wonder what sort of monster would ever design such a thing.
Alton reached down and adjusted the overskirt. It had no purpose other than to make her butt look bigger. The whole dress upset Sybil, as she couldn’t figure out where to put her sword and the layers of cloth had made it nearly impossible for her to strap a knife to her leg.
“They really outdid themselves with this one,” muttered Alton.
The materials were more expensive than the ones the rest of the squad had, and the design was more intricate as well. There were loops upon loops of costly fabric stitched to sections of the skirt, and gems on the corset added to its worth. They must have outsourced the outfit to a professional designer. His fingers traced along some of the flower embroideries that were along her back. Simple designs that didn’t portray any house.
“Stonetoe said that someone had offered to fund the costs of all my uniforms, and I wasn’t allowed to say no,” she said while gritting her teeth. A shiver went down her back as Alton brushed her hair aside and pecked her neck. She put her hand against his forehead and shoved him away.
Grinning, Alton spun her around and pressed her back against the dresser. “Is one okay?”
Her cheeks flushed as she frowned. Closing her eyes, she waited for him to make the first move. Alton stared at her for a moment. She was having trouble breathing, but that was less from nervousness and more from her corset being on to tightly. With a smirk, he leaned in and planted a kiss on her forehead.
“Lady Till will probably want you to put on some makeup on,” he whispered. “I saw some on your dresser when I was looking for the hook. Did you need help with it?”
“N-no…” She bashfully shook her head. “I can manage.”
Alton rested his hand on her cheek. “We’ll be waiting for you in the courtyard.” He then squished her cheeks together. “Don’t forget to put on your hat. It looks stupid, but you should probably wear it anyways. At least it’ll keep the sun off your face.”
He stepped out from behind the curtain and gave a cheerful wave to the others. Together, they started to make their way down the stairs. Lydia floated next to Alton. She had been silent for a while and deep in thought. Her voice spoke in a low whisper as they walked into the courtyard.
“Alton.” He didn’t acknowledge her. “Alton. Alton!” He tossed her a brief look. “You have to promise me, okay? You need to promise you will do everything you can to keep Sybil away from these Violet Region sorts, especially Lady El.” There she went calling someone dangerous by their nickname again. “When you get a chance, tie a handkerchief around the emblem on her sword, and convince her that it’s best to keep it hidden. Don’t let the duchess see it!”
There still wasn’t much trust between him and Lydia. He had asked her questions about why Sybil had a necklace belonging to the Fogbloom family, and she had shrugged it off. She had to know something, and now she was concerned about the duchess knowing about the sword? Why was she so stubborn about not telling him anything?
If the sword belonged to Grulick, why does it have the emblems from several noble families on it? Alton had done his research, and Volo Refuge would have contacted someone to see if the sword was an important relic, yet it stayed at the refuge. Was that the reason why Duxton sent Sybil his identification pendant? He wanted to reveal himself to her in hopes she would come to him?
Everything was becoming an annoyance to Alton, and he wasn’t going to continue to go along with what Lydia asked of him if he wasn’t going to get answers. Sybil was also keeping secrets from him. There was no way that she was as innocent in all of this as she had claimed.
A nod was given to Lydia. Anything to get her quiet so he could pay attention to what was happening. Outside, a horn player was signaling the arrival of the Duchess, and suddenly everyone was in a rush to get into position.
The front gates opened and the first to enter were Horsetalon squad upon their white horses. Behind them was a carriage that was painted in different hues of purple and green. Flowers of all sizes were carved along the frame. Black lace curtains were drawn open, and a middle-aged brunette whose face was partially covered by a veil was peeking out.
As the carriage came to a stop, a set of members from Treant Squad pulled out the side steps and opened the door for the duchess. Till approached, bowing as Elbellziara stepped down from the carriage. Her dress was just as over the top as the carriage was in design, with fabric flowers and reflective beads making up the bulk of it. She and Till exchanged a quick hug as Elbellziara grinned widely.
“Nita! Congratulations on your promotion. I always said that you were the only one around here that did any work, and oh! The summer here is just as horrid as I remember it. How can any of you stand this heat?!” She fanned herself and shuddered. “Parasol, please.” A small woman exited the catch behind her and held the parasol above her head. “Regardless, it’s been far too long since I last visited.”
“My lady, you were here just the year before when your son was accepted.” Till smiled and gestured to “Patterfall,” who was standing next to her.
“Yes! Of course!” She put her glove covered hand on Duxton’s cheek. “My dear child... Your tooth is as crooked as it was last time I saw you. I thought you said you were going to have that fixed.”
Duxton grimaced and faked a smile. “My dear mother, I have been busy with my studies. I assure you that I will have it looked at the next time I am in Fogbloom.”
Dropping her hand, Elbellziara was disappointed. “You’re not the reason I’m here. Go on and play with your friends. Nita, where is my nephew?” She spotted a silver-haired boy in the midst of the group. Suddenly she was like a child, hopping up and down while waving her fan excitedly. “Alton! My dear, sweet Alton! Please tell me that it’s really you! Come up front where I can see you properly! It’s been far too long!”
Few knew of Alton’s personal connection to the duchess. Nearly everyone was now tossing alarmed glances his way. He gritted his teeth and made his way past the squires as they parted for him. When he reached his aunt, she was quick to embrace him and give him a wet kiss on each cheek.
“You were just a little baby the last time I saw you!” She beamed at him.
“I was ten.”
“You don’t know how often I wished I could visit you in Carapace, but the people there are simply so impoverished… Not to mention the fact that I absolutely despise Duke Rubire. Oh! And the spider folk! How horrid.” She smiled at the glare he was giving her. “My goodness! You look so much like your father right now that it’s giving me the shivers. Tell me, do you still play the piano?”
“Go home, Aunt El,” replied Alton as he gritted his teeth. “Get back in your carriage, and go home. You shouldn’t be bothering yourself with this sort of work.”
“Nonsense!” Elbellziara started to pick at Alton’s ascot in an effort to straighten it. “I’ll admit that I am using this visit as an excuse to see you, but I have been sent here on official business. You’ll hardly notice me at all. I have to do inspections and meet up with my new protege. The fact that your birthday is soon is nothing more than a coincidence, but I wouldn’t dare to miss my favorite nephew’s eighteenth birthday!” She scoffed at the idea. “Never! We’re going to have so much fun together!”
“You missed my eighteenth and twentieth birthdays,” hissed Duxton under his breath.
No one seemed to hear his complaint. Duxton smiled all the wider as his fake mother continued to gush over Alton. His jaw gave off a loud pop from him grinning so hard. Next to him, Shaw cleared his throat, and Duxton’s expression softened slightly as he worked on controlling his breathing.
Alton’s sentiments lined up with Duxton’s for once. “There isn’t a need to have any celebration. I am a squire, and I don’t want any special treatment. You also must be weary from your trip. Why not go ahead and travel to Tilrey? The hot springs will help you relax.”
“It’s much too warm for hot springs.” She looped her arm with Alton’s. “Introduce me to your friends! I met everyone else last year, and I haven’t a doubt that I will see how they have improved at tomorrow’s demonstrations, right Nita?” Till nodded as a response. “I’m quite impressed with those Horsetalon boys.
They even did a demonstration for the king, well not father, but those two aides of his. Father is a busy man, after all.” She leaned in and spoke in a whisper. “He hasn’t been the same since Wulfric died, Alton sweetie. Oh, but those Horsetalon boys! Those coin tricks were quite impressive! They had Viokern on the edge of his seat!”
As they started to make their way around, Zaniyah leaned towards Veximarl. “How much longer do we have to keep standing here? It’s not like we’re doing anything.” She was speaking with a sense of apathy, but her mind kept screaming that these shoes were ripping apart her feet.
“The answer to that eludes me as well,” he chimed back. “Perhaps we should hold still and be polite. The sooner she is content, the sooner we may change out of these itchy and overheated clothes.” He was covered in a long wool jacket, and that did not make him a happy necromancer.
Elbellziara gave the polite smile here and there but became especially excited as they approached Alton’s squad. She had a twinkle in her eye as she looked over all of them. “And who are these interesting creatures?”
Alton spoke with a voice that dripped with apathy. “Those three are loyal members of the vile spider folk and this is Captain Veximarl Tuton.” Elbellziara offered her gloved hand for Veximarl to kiss, and he stared at her fingers blankly as a response. “He was raised in a swamp. Oh my dear Aunt El, you know the one. It’s full of Tria worshippers and corpse defilers.”
She made a gasping sound of horror as her hand snapped back. “What deplorable living conditions! We should have you moved into your cousin’s room, where you are less likely to be tainted.” Her fan gestured to Sybil. “Is this my new protege?” She then waved it at Chickadee. “Or is it- My goodness, you’re a boy…” The duchess leaned towards him with a sense of curiosity. “What absolutely stunning features,” she muttered. Chickadee felt uncomfortable. It was like she was admiring an art piece or an exotic animal.
“Protege?” Alton was confused. “If you’re the one that’s been paying for her clothes, then yes,” he replied. “This is Sybil Twist. She is our squad’s scout. You’re looking at Chickadee now and the other woman is Zaniyah Krogastein.”
“I had my personal tailor make that for you, but I see it didn’t travel well in this heat.” Her fan poked at Sybil’s skirt. “You’re going to have dinner with me and Alton tonight. My attendants will work on making you more presentable. There will be another dress set out for you to try on. Something lighter in color.” She wasn’t a fan of the Grimstone colors of brown and gray, but that was required for Sybil’s dress uniform.
Sybil’s eyes went wide as she looked over to Alton. He couldn’t hide his disgust at the idea. She then looked over to Till and a sense of impending dread shivered up her spine. Lady Till was giving her that look. The one that could end her life with a single eye twitch. It was something she had seen the headmistress give Stonetoe several times, but it was a thousand times worse to be on the receiving end of it. A fake smile erupted on her lips as she performed an awkward bow.
“It would be my honor to dine with you, Duchess Elbellziara.” And at that moment, every single fact Sybil had learned about dining etiquette fell right out of her head.
“Excellent. Feel free to refer to me as Lady Elbellziara. Duchess is a little too formal for us, but what am I saying? You dear, plain girl, you may call me Lady El.” Elbellziara fanned herself off again. “I’ve seen enough. Nita, have someone set up my chef in your kitchens and show me to my lodgings.” She snapped the fan closed and gestured to Sybil. “Have this one escorted away and worked on. Even with those clothes, that posture and hair scream peasantry.”
“But I am a peasant,” muttered Sybil under her breath.
Till clapped her hands to draw the attention of everyone. “There will be no classes tomorrow afternoon. Meet with your knights to see which of you have been selected to give demonstrations tomorrow. If you have been assigned to work as a group, please use your time wisely to create a routine. You are all dismissed!”