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Alton had decided that there was definitely something off about his squad. He and Sybil were sitting by themselves at the front of the class, and the other three with Vincent had lined up behind him. Normally they shared the second row together. Zaniyah had insisted that Alton sit more forward so that she could keep an eye on him.

Zaniyah will slip up eventually, and Alton will figure out what their plan was. All he needed was patience. Class was uneventful, and the first years soon parted ways. Alton walked with the group while Sybil was taken away by Lady Elbellziara. He strayed towards the front while Vincent and Zaniyah hung behind him. It was apparent that Vincent had also noticed that something was off, but the paladin also couldn’t quite place his finger on it.

“They’re plotting something.” Lydia rotated about as she flew between the three other members of Grimstone. “I know! It’s probably a surprise birthday party!” She was suddenly giddy at the idea. “I’m going to follow them about today and see what they’re planning!” As long as she wasn’t bothering him, Alton didn’t care.

After they had eaten lunch, they were stopped by Amalfrieda. Chickadee tossed her a set of gloves that he had prepared. These were slipped on so she could check the fit. Long blades of energy came out from her fingertips as she flexed her hands, and her face contorted into a vile grin.

“Thanks again, gem bird. This makes us even.” She giggled as she walked away from the group. “I got a new toy!” A wave was given to the other second years. “Let’s play, Gildenboot! I want to test these out first!”

Zaniyah was still upset about Amalfrieda’s training methods. “Please tell me that she’s the one I’m fighting against in the weapons demonstration.”

“I requested it for you,” replied Chickadee.

“And that’s why you’re the best, Chi.” She beamed at him. “Forget prepping a fun fight to watch, I’m gonna go crazy on her!” They went to the outer field to see what else had been prepared.

The majority of the student body had set up on a hill that overlooked the field. Several tents had been set up for shade, and the largest held Lady Elbellziara. Gwyn had grown a collection of wildflowers around it to give it atmosphere, and a stone path had been put it place leading to it.

Theodoric was sitting on one side of the duchess. He had a notebook he was using to keep her informed of the afternoon events. A third year mage sat on her other side, chilling her drink whenever the Duchess requested it to be cooled.

Alton joined them in the tent, taking a seat next to Sybil. The poor girl had been dressed up again. This time in a heavily layered white dress with a large bonnet to keep the sun away. Underneath that was a mountain of short curls that she had been told was fashionable. Her face was so miserable that Alton had trouble not snickering at her. His stifled cough succeeded in earning him a glare.

There were several demonstrations made ready, and as second year commander, Duxton was in charge of ensuring that the events were run smoothing. He had a queue waiting along the side of the field. Macestar had been assigned to hand out drinks or take care of minor injuries. The second years were either set to perform or were Gildenboot, who were running about in every direction as they followed through on Duxton’s orders.

The two members of Horsetalon were in the midst of a duel against each other. It was heavily staged and aimed to be theatrical, as Naiov was hardly a match for Trenchall. That didn’t stop Elbellziara from leaning forward in her seat and gasping from time to time. Then various members from the second and third years went on to show their specialties in equally theatrical ways. This left the first years nervous, as they didn’t know they were supposed to have routines memorized for the event.

Placing a fan against her bottom lip, Elbellziara watched as Zaniyah dueled against Amalfrieda. The only plan they had was to go at it with extreme violence. The field was full of glittering light that had spilled out of the women, and both were giving loud cries with each attack. Zaniyah was faster at dodging, but her weapon was slower to swing, leading it to be a lengthy battle of agility and stamina.

“Walter Cully is Talwyn Cully’s son, is he not?”

“Yes.” Theodoric flipped through his notebook. “He has also drawn a weapon from the Volo Refuge. It belonged to a Herring blacksmith who died over two hundred years ago.”

Elbellziara nodded at the news. “Inform Nita that I want a monthly update on what sort of trinkets he’s made. I would like for him to have ample time to practice his craft. If he improves in skill, father will most likely want his talent in the royal forge.” She waved her fan at Theodoric. “Arrange for him talk to me in private at some point. I want to see if he has a good personality before I decide on anything official.”

A good personality. Sybil rolled her eyes. Chickadee was fine as a person, but he came off as rude to those who didn’t understand that he disliked talking or pointless conversations. This was obvious enough from the sideways glares that Chickadee was giving her.

He was there now. They could just talk now. Sybil made a mental note to make sure she was there if a private meeting were to happen, just so that she could translate his short phrases into something the duchess could understand.

“Are you doing alright?” Alton was whispering quietly to her while his aunt was distracted. She shook her head. Though the shade was nice, the weight of the dress made it difficult to breathe. “A little longer.” He squeezed her hand. “They’ll be back with more drinks by the time the match is over.”

“Thank you,” she whispered back. He was being nicer than usual. It was either out of pity or because Elbellziara’s maids had attempted to make her look pretty. Nice to know that he only treated her with respect when she was painted up like an outlander.

By late afternoon, Elbellziara had called Chickadee over for a cup of tea. He mostly nodded while Sybil explained part of the forging process and that seemed to satisfy the lady. When the demonstrations had finished, Elbellziara asked to speak to Sybil again.

“You have interesting friends. I’ve been quite amused by their performances,” she said with her fan over her lips. It was impolite to smile in public, after all, but it was difficult when there was so much fun to be had here. “Feel free to keep anything I’ve let you borrow. They were all old things of mine anyways, and I had planned to give them to you from the start.”

“Thank you, Lady Elbellziara.”

Elbellziara fanned herself against the heat. “Not like I will have a daughter in law any time soon anyway. Not while Patterfall refuses to socialize, and Viokern slacking off.” She muttered that last part, not realizing she had been overheard. Sybil kept her mouth shut. “Tell me, have you had much luck with that sword of yours?”

Sybil was confused that her sword would be brought up. “Maybe. I’m still not sure what it’s supposed to do, so I can hardly say if I had gotten it working properly at all.” The sheath was a different story. The blood iron in that was certainly alive and active.

“It’s quite an old thing.” Elbellziara gripped onto Sybil’s shoulder. “Keep at it. You seem like a good girl, Miss Twist, and a dedicated squire. I’m certain something will happen soon.” Her eyes glanced between Sybil and Alton as he put an arm around Sybil’s shoulders.

“An odd topic for you to bring up, Aunt El. I was certain that you never had much interest in knights or fighting.”

Elbellziara went back to fanning herself. “Assisting father is such tedious work. It’s been years since he has been able to step away from the throne, especially not after what happened to Wulfric and Cornelius. Honestly, Paladin Arbutus’ aides are usually the ones to tend to these visits, but I needed to see firsthand how well you’ve grown.

I only came last year in a failed attempt to convince that troublesome boy to return home, but that didn’t work out well. We are of a stubborn bloodline, after all, and I’m thankful that your barracks has provided me with such able guardsmen. I would be beside myself with fear if I had to travel with lesser beings.”

Alton’s grip tightened on Sybil. “Were you heading to Tilrey soon?”

“Yes. Security is a priority, and I shouldn’t be outdoors after nightfall…” The lady nodded to herself. “I will see you and your friends again there. I’ll be certain to have a piano prepared for you. It’s been so long since I’ve heard you sing... And you.” She snapped the fan shut and pointed it at Sybil. “I’m sending a carriage for you first thing Satyrday morning. We are going to spend all day working on improving our beauty. It’s going to be a wonderful bonding experience, my dear.”

“Yes, Lady Elbellziara.” Sybil would have performed curtsy, but Alton’s grip prevented it. “I look forward to seeing you then.” She didn’t. Everything the duchess had said sounded horrible.

The pair excused themselves and left for the squadroom. Alton was surprised to see the rest of the squad huddled around the table in a serious manner. Now Vincent was also glaring at him, along with Lydia. She was floating above the table with her arms folded.

Alton stared at the five of them. “... Did I do something terrible?” He was greeted by silence. “I don’t want to go to a party or have Aunt El here either. Other than the fact that we are lovers, Sybil and I have nothing going on. Is there something else I did that you want to tell me about?”

Zaniyah tossed her hands in the air. “Nothing at all, Alton. Nothing. At. All.”

Now Sybil was feeling that something was up, but she was too tired to care. “Chi, help me out of this blasted thing.”

The two of them headed behind her curtain. Once he had unclasped everything holding her together, she changed into her patrol outfit and let out a massive sigh. Someday it will be stab things with a dagger day. She loved stab things with a dagger day. There wasn’t any worry to watch how she spoke or suffocate due to ill clothing… Why couldn’t tomorrow be that day?

She strapped her sword and daggers to her waist and exited her sanctuary, rubbing her temples as she did so. “Sorry. I absolutely want to find out what this is about, I really do,” she actually didn’t care, “but I still have a night shift with Bronzescale.”

“I’ve observed that you have been leaving the barracks rather than do patrol duty.” Vincent folded his hands together. “What have you been up to?”

Sybil shrugged and waved it off. “There was some contraband found in a cave, and now they’re having us check every single cave in the area to see if there’s more of it. Honestly, I think it’s just a hazing ritual to keep us first years on our toes. Nothing serious.”

“Keep your letter with you.” Veximarl added. She rolled her eyes, as she didn’t need to be reminded. “If there’s trouble, let us know. We’ll save some food for you as well.”

“Will do.” Sybil left and made her way to the front gate where Mila and Irving were already waiting with three horses.

They followed a map of the area and began to check various caves. There hadn’t been many where they had found evidence of tainted mist. When they had, they marked it on the map and continued to the next one. It wasn’t difficult work, but it was tedious.

Sybil hated the miasma. It was like she was more sensitive, as it always seemed like she was the first to sense it. She wondered if it was because she had been injured by the tainted beast before. Her head felt dizzy and the world about her shifted as though it were trying to pull her someplace different. Luckily, she was wise enough to leave the sword behind so trouble wouldn’t arise.

After they had put away the horses, they went up to their squadrooms. A light in the second-floor study area quickly caught their attention. Veximarl had passed out by a book and had left his lantern on.

“I’ll get him to bed,” said Sybil with a wave. She waited for the two to enter their room before approaching him.

Pulling out the chair next to him, she sat down and started to look at the books he had been looking at. They were older texts about the weapons of famous heroes. Aside that were some texts of flowers and how they related to Fogbloom families. Trying to help her out again, huh? Shame these were already books she had gone through herself.

She gently brushed the hair away from his face. His whitish eyes fluttered opened and they stared at each other for a moment. He put a hand to his head before he sat up, giving off a sigh in order to wake himself up.

“What time is it?” His voice cracked with grogginess.

“Four till dawn.” Sybil leaned back in her chair and also gave a yawn. She was at her limit as well, but she didn’t have stable duty on the mornings after a Bronzescale run. Even better, she could nap on the carriage when she traveled to Tilrey in the morning.

Veximarl let out a groan. “What are you even doing out so late?”

“Confidential stuff.” She tilted her head as Veximarl gave her a frown. “I told you. Hunting for contraband.” She poked him in the middle of the forehead in order to drive in her point.

He didn’t like that she was off doing things he didn’t know about. If he was captain, he should know exactly what his squad members were up to at all times. Checking Alton’s records was already a violation of his trust and privacy. Veximarl didn’t want to deal with the guilt he would feel if he did the same to Sybil.

“I would rather you get your rest.” Veximarl stood up and straightened his stack of books. He’d return them to the library before class.

“You should worry more about yourself. It’s not easy going through the blood iron treatment.” She had noticed he was looking even more sickly in color than when they had first met. “You should be aiming at an extra hour of sleep a night, otherwise you’ll be stuck on bedrest in the infirmary.”

Having his blood iron extracted so it could be used in the construction of his spear was tiring. They were in a rush to get a basic prototype out by the eighth week of Autumn. Not to mention how terrifying it felt to have that spiked device attached to his neck each time. He shuddered at the thought.

“Chi and myself have it handled.” They didn’t. Veximarl wasn’t getting much sleep because of the late night fighting sessions he had with Chickadee, and he was still forcing himself to go through extra studying. The hidden naps he was taking were helping, but not by much.

“We’re all going to worry about you if you get sick.”

“It is I who worries about you all…”

And about what a terrible leader he was, along with the horrible decisions he had made to make himself a better one. Accepting Duxton’s gifts and friendship. Amalfrieda’s dueling lessons. The fact that he had chosen to seclude himself many times already out of fear that the others hated him.

Sybil patted him on the back. “You’re one of the family, Vex. We’re always going to be there to pick you up, and you’re just having a low point right now. We all feel like that sometimes, but we rely on each other to get us through. ”

Veximarl paused with his hand resting on the table. A cold shock had taken him over. This whole time, he had been taking on more and more tasks in order to prevent himself from feeling anything. To avoid the guilt he felt over his squadmates, to ignore the fact that he wasn’t a good leader, to prove to himself that he was capable of something… Yet all of it was pointless because he was only driving himself further and further away from those who cared about him out of fear of bringing them down to his level.

But he wasn’t done yet. He couldn’t take a moment to address his own concerns. Not when there were more pressing manners. “Do you view Alton as one of the family as well?”

“Toval?” Sybil let out a scoff. “... He’s not that bad as long as he doesn’t speak his mind, but he and I don’t have a lot we can talk about. It’s not like we have anything in common aside from both being from Carapace, and you’ve been to Carapace. That means we don’t have much in common at all.”

“I see.” He stared at the table. “If he does become a bother, please talk to me. I can arrange for you two to spend less time together. Even have him transferred to a different squad if that will make you more comfortable.”

“Toval isn’t all that bad,” Sybil smirked. “What do you take me for, Vex? Some damsel that needs to be protected? I can take care of it if he tries to get me into trouble.”

She was strong. Sybil might be stronger than Alton, but Veximarl had never seen them use all their strength when they were against each other. Alton even refused to use his singing magic if she was within range. It’s quite possible a real fight could go either way.

“I still have my concerns,” he replied in a firm manner.

“Talk about them with Toval then.” She started to walk back to the room, turning back to make sure he was behind her. “Hurry up and go to bed already. I’m not going to carry you if you faint.”

Veximarl followed her back to the room and went to bed. When morning came, he woke early so he could watch Sybil being escorted into a carriage. Standing next to him was Alton, who was also feeling concerned. The squire’s eyes narrowed as the carriage pulled away.

“Why do you look so worried?” Veximarl studied Alton’s movements.

“I’m not worried.” He clearly was. “I need to go to the stables. I’ll make sure we have the animals ready to take us to Tilrey. Meanwhile, you should get some more sleep, Vex. You haven’t been looking well.”

“You should feel concerned about yourself,” muttered Veximarl.

Alton furrowed his brow. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means that we’re watching you, Alton! Don’t you forget it!” Zaniyah twirled about her handaxe. “Also, thank you for preparing the horses. We still need to pack, so we really appreciate it.”

“Right.” Alton looked between them and a glaring Chickadee. “I’m going to go. You should all get some more sleep. You’re all being weird.” It was most likely stress from their schedules wearing them out. Hopefully, a day out in Tilrey would fix that. Alton knew that he and the rest of them could stand to have a break.

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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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