“Look at this room!” Zaniyah rushed into the small inn room and twirled her arms around. Vincent took a step in after her and looked about cautiously.
“It certainly is… Quaint,” he remarked. It was not even half the size of their squadrooms, but it seemed so much larger without the clutter of multiple people.
Veximarl opened the door across the hall and placed his bag inside before closing it again. “As much as I do enjoy all of your company, I am looking forward to a long night’s rest where I do not have to hear any your nocturnal noises.”
“You can use my bed tonight, Vincent.” Zaniyah gave him a smile. “You’re probably tired of sharing a room with Macestar.”
Vincent gave her a bow of appreciation. “It would be an honor to be able to guard your squad room in your place. I was worried about your golem pet becoming lonely in your absence.”
Zaniyah looked down and shuffled her feet. “Thanks, Vincent… I appreciate that. It means a lot to me that you’re willing to help.” That is absolutely what she had meant when she said he could use her bed. Absolutely was.
“... Huh,” muttered Chickadee as he stood next to Veximarl.
“At least these two are more courteous towards each other than Alton is with Sybil,” remarked Veximarl as he shrugged at Chickadee.
“I’m standing right here,” replied Alton. “My room is down the hall. I need you to move so I can get to it.”
Alton shuffled past them as they stepped aside and opened up the last door down the hall. There were already boxes set up everywhere. Most likely birthday gifts from his aunt that he didn’t want to deal with. He’ll give them to the others and maybe that will make them less angry with him.
He changed into the suit that was hanging by the door and headed back down to the dancing hall. There was a banquet set up, and squires from the barracks were already filtering in. Sybil was next to Lady Elbellziara and was forced to follow her about as the lady greeted her guests. Alton rolled his eyes and went to examine the piano. It wouldn’t be long until his aunt forced him to start performing. He might as well ensure it was a decent instrument.
Zaniyah showed up wearing the dress that Vincent had bought for her. She was offered a new garment by one of Elbellziara’s assistants, but it felt better to wear this one. It made her feel the prettiest. Vincent tensed up at the sight of her as she approached. He cleared his throat and looked bashfully off to the side.
“Would you like to dance before we look around?”
“Uhm… Y-yes. I would like that very much.” Zaniyah nodded and took his hand into her own.
Tish gave a sigh as she gazed at them, and then turned to Veximarl. “I spoke with Gwyn and Ivy. We were able to reach an agreement on having Vincent go back to his room.”
“Really?” Veximarl raised a brow. “Not that it hasn’t been interesting having Vincent around. He is fine as a person, it is just that…” He gestured to Vincent and Zaniyah. They were giving each other idiotic smiles as they twirled about the ballroom. “We have had to deal with that for a while. I worry that I may develop cavities if it continues for much longer.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that.” Tish waved a hand about as though she couldn’t care. “I told both of those girls that this sort of thing was bound to happen. When a young nobleman finds himself suddenly free of high society, he subconsciously starts clinging to rebellious ideas. Give him half a year and he’ll realize what a mistake he has made before breaking it off.”
Anais pushed some of her hair behind her ear. “You probably shouldn’t say that sort of thing to Zaniyah though.”
“I am rooting for her!” Tish exclaimed. “But I also needed to appease those two. I’ve known Ivy for years, and she’s always been a little sensitive when it comes to men. Give her some time and everything will smooth itself out naturally.”
“They already forgave him a few days after it happened, but they also decided that they preferred not to have a man around.” Anais nervously laughed at the idea. “I’ve been trying to compromise, but Ivy also wanted to move out all of his belongings so they have more room to themselves.”
From Veximarl’s understanding, Anais was from one of the most southern regions of Lustro. Crookstead, more accurately, the former Clay Region capital before the war happened. Anais was the daughter of the mayor, which technically made her a noble, but the city itself was hastily on the decline. Anais didn’t have the sort of upbringing that most nobles would have.
That also meant that Veximarl and Anais had a common ground. He wasn’t exactly born noble, but he had been forced into the captain position. All of this fancy stuff didn’t appeal to either of them, but at least they had others to spend time with.
“I’m certain you’ll convince them that you can fit in if they give you a chance.” Veximarl nodded at them both. “And thank you again. Vincent is grateful for your efforts as well.”
“Oh, I’m not going to just accept a thank you as gratitude enough,” said Tish with a wide grin. “The only thing I want from you is a dance.”
Veximarl offered out his hand, but Tish playfully swatted it away. She instead grabbed onto Chickadee’s hand, dragging the alarmed teen away while sticking her tongue out at Veximarl. This left Anais and Veximarl standing by themselves.
“I would say that we should go around for a walk around town and avoid the awkwardness of being here, but I need to keep on eye them.” He said as he gestured to his squad members as they flailed about on the dance floor.
“No, I understand.” Anais shuffled about uncomfortably.
Adjusting his glasses, Veximarl then offered her his hand. “It’s easier to keep an eye on them from up close, wouldn’t you say?”
She took a moment to adjust her own glasses and agreed. He danced with Anais for a time and then cut into Zaniyah’s fun in order to give Vincent a break. The paladin needed to speak with the members of his squad while they were still in a good mood. Until he returned, Veximarl’s eye kept going to Alton, who was singing at the piano. After a few moments, Zaniyah excused herself to check on Vincent, and Veximarl went to see Sybil.
She was wearing a partially sheer dress with flowers sewn underneath a veil-like material, and it had a white gown as the innermost layer. Her hair was tied back with petal shaped hairpins, and she had blue makeup dabbed around the corners of her eyes. Anytime she moved, the small silver bells hanging along the back of her dress let out a tinkling sound. As a result, she took to holding as still as possible.
“At least you look nice?” Veximarl remarked.
“Get me out of here,” she pleaded back.
“Attempt one of the excuses Lady Till taught us to use in an awkward situation?” Veximarl moved his hand back and forth in the air in a dainty manner. “The air here is overly perfumed. The wine has left me feeling faint. I dislike the way that horrid musician is gazing at me.” Veximarl tilted his head towards Alton, who was glaring at the pair from the other side of the room.
Sybil nodded along. “I think I’ll say that the musician boy gave me such a lecherous look, that I am in fear of becoming stricken with pregnancy.” She lifted her nose in the air while making a snobbish face. Her fingertips were placed against her breastbone as she added an aristocratic tone to her voice. “How am I to stand this air? It’s so polluted with his carnal music, that I am in desperate need for someone to show me to the fainting room.”
Veximarl laughed. “That will certainly prove something.” He then frowned. “I am serious about making up an excuse to let you leave. You were up late last night and I worry for your health. Let’s make an attempt to escape while you can.”
He followed her over to Elbellziara and stood nearby as Sybil complained that she was feeling light-headed. Elbellziara looked between Duxton and Sybil, covering her mouth slightly so that no one would see her frown. She then tapped at the side of Duxton’s boot with her shoe.
Duxton rolled his eyes. “It would be a shame if you did not take an opportunity to dance before the night is through,” he said in an overly exaggerated tone. His expression didn’t match the cheerful tone of his voice. He then extended out his hand for her to take.
“As her captain, I request that Sybil be allowed to be excused.” Veximarl bowed deeply. “Forgive me, Duchess Elbellziara, but I worry how this will impact her health.”
“What a lovely gesture, but part of this celebration is an evaluation of Miss Twist’s ability to…” Elbellziara struggled to come up with the right words.
“She needs to learn how to play nice with nobles if she’s going to get anywhere in life.” Duxton looped an arm about Sybil’s waist and began to drag her. “Come on.”
“Wait, wait. No.” Sybil shook her head quickly back and forth.
He paused for a moment. “You can’t dance?”
“I can, but I can’t. The ground is too solid.” Sybil had only ever danced on the webs of the core. Dancing on solid ground was simply too different. Even attempting to comprehend it gave her a headache.
“... What?” Duxton’s face scrunched up.
“Back home, in the core, I- Uh... Oh, oh, suddenly I’m feeling so faint.” She leaned more heavily in his arm. “I’m afraid I am unable to continue, Lord Aconite. You must carry on without me, as I must away with myself back to my room… And so on and so forth..”
Duxton leaned in with a wild grin on his face. “Then I will carry you there myself and see you to bed.”
“No… Nope, no, that will not do at all.” Sybil immediately straightened up. “I will walk there myself.”
“If you’re good enough to walk, you’re good enough to dance.” Duxton began to pull at her again.
Veximarl went to intervene, but Elbellziara grasped the back of his jacket. He blinked bewilderedly as he glanced at her over his shoulder. Not a word was said by the Duchess, and yet her intent was clear. There would be trouble if Veximarl made a scene at her event, and it was wisest not to cross her. Yet it was expressed with the eeriest of smiles.
“... I will stay as your escort until Lord Aconite returns.”
“I appreciate the kind gesture, Captain Tuton,” she replied.
Those on the dance floor began to part as Duxton and Sybil approached the center. Chickadee glanced between them and Tish. She had been teaching him dance steps the entire time, which he was grateful for, but he was concerned that Sybil may be in trouble. He slowly began to coax Tish towards them, and she dug her heels into the ground.
“It’s common courtesy to allow high ranking individuals enough space during a dance. They’re simply held to a higher standard than anyone else, Chi, and they need all the room they can get to further exemplify their status.” She began to take Chickadee towards the edge of the dancefloor, much to his dismay.
Rebecca met them halfway. “I will take it from here, Captain Maplehammer.” She held out a hand for Chickadee to take. He blinked at it a few times, then shuffled sideways so that Tish was between the two of them. “We’ll dance near Miss Twist. She’ll need the support of her friends in order to do her best.”
That was enough to convince him. The pair stood near to where Duxton and Sybil were setting up. He was quickly muttering to Sybil the dance steps she would need to know. Chickadee tried to follow along, but it was difficult to hear him over the rest of the party, and Tish hadn’t taught him anything that complicated.
“Eyes on me, Mister Cully” said Rebecca. Chickadee looked up. She was a little taller than him, but she didn’t seem like an intimidating person. “Four basic steps. I’ll follow your lead.” She turned to smile at Duxton, whose tense features washed away in an instant when he noticed that she was nearby.
But a sigh of dread escaped his lips when he looked back at Sybil. “Do what I do, but sweep your feet when you move. Low to the ground, so you’re pushing the hem of your dress away. That way, neither of us trip. Understand?” She bobbled her head, but he felt like she didn’t get it. Another annoyed sigh escaped him when he realized that there wasn’t any music playing.
Because Alton was staring at them with a seething look of rage. He glanced over to Veximarl, who gestured to Elbellziara and flailed his hands about as a secret message of him not knowing what he was supposed to do. A failure and as a captain. Alton’s teeth gritted together as he partially stood up from his bench.
“Play something light and with a four-count!” Elbellziara raised her wine glass towards him. She was either blissfully unaware of Alton’s jealousy or relishing in it.
If only she weren’t a duchess... Alton would have stood up at that very moment and violently taken Sybil away from Duxton by force. He settled back on the bench, and his fingers began to hammer at the keys in front of him. Light, yes, and with a four count, but so fast that only the most experienced of dancers would be able to keep up.
While Veximarl began to apologize for Alton’s behavior, Chickadee and Rebecca took off. It felt like music from the core, which was lively and springy. They gracefully spiraled about, with Chickadee using a hint of wind magic anytime he swung Rebecca about to forcefully. This led to breezes blowing about hair and skirts all over the room.
Sybil was having less luck. Though this was a rhythm she was used to, her dance partner was moving in an unpredictable fashion. Whenever she stumbled, he’d lift her off the ground for a twirl, which was happening every few seconds. It took all of her willpower to not squeak whenever she left the ground.
“Absolute attention on me,” said Duxton in a cold tone. “Never look away from the one you are with.”
He said that, but occasionally he’d glance over to Rebecca to make sure she was doing alright. A frown crossed his lips as she erupted in laughter. He braced Sybil as she stumbled again, frowning all the harder as she did so. Sybil was being easily distracted by Alton. Out of the few times she had seen him perform, never had he put so much of himself into his music. The melody was wild and passionate. She was worried that something was horribly wrong.
By the time it was over, she found herself clutching to the side of her head. “I feel terrible.” She panted and wheezed in defiance to her corset.
“And this time, I believe you.” Duxton lifted his hands away from her, holding them up innocently. “Bid a good night to Duchess Elbellziara and have a friend of yours escort you to your room. I have more entertaining matters to attend to.”
Before she could have a chance to breathe, Chickadee was at her side. They bid Elbellziara a good night and Chickadee took Sybil to her room. He was sure to show her where his room was as well, in case she needed something in the middle of the night.
“I’m alright, Chickadee. All I need is to get out of these clothes and wash myself off.” She frowned as Chickadee started to go through boxes in the room. “The Duchess bought me those, and there’s more on the way, unfortunately.”
Chickadee picked up a dainty hat from one of the boxes and set it in his head. Today was but one of many tortures that Sybil foresaw in her future. She had been taken to a tailor, who took her measurements down, and would be spending the next few weeks making her yet more dresses. Then came a hat shop, a jewelry store, and a shoe shop for more measurements.
Chickadee suddenly grasped onto Sybil’s hands. “Anything you need, we’ll always be there.”
“I know that, Chi,” she replied.
“Down the hall, fourth right. Any time for anything.” His grip tightened on her fingers.
“Thank you... I’ll see you in the morning.”
Chickadee left with the hat still on his head, and Sybil went to wash herself off.
In the ballroom, Alton frowned as he lost one of Elbellziara’s distractions. He had just finished making his escape from the stage when his aunt immediately floated over and insisted that he stay around and entertain others with his company. Then he had to show her how well his dancing had come along. She gloated to the others about how proud she was of her highly talented nephew.
He ignored the compliments and looked over to where his squad was. Veximarl was attempting to make small conversation with Gwyn and Ivy, but failing miserably at it. Zaniyah was in her own world with Vincent, and Chickadee had returned with a strange new hat, which he was showing off to Anais. Alton frowned to himself, wondering if it was possible that they had found out about the marriage that he was bullying Sybil into. That was the only reason he could think of as to why they were upset with him.
“You look tired, Aunt El. I know that it would be rude for you not to stay until the last moment, but it is for the best that I depart. Everyone will soon be bored without entertainment, and you’ll be allowed to rest.”
“Oh, Alton.” She put her hand to his cheek and pouted. “Your father has always looked out for my best interests. You really are just like him.” Her head shook back and forth, seeming troubled for the moment. “Go on and rest. I’ve left some items in your room, so bid your farewells and be off with you. Let me know if anything isn’t to your liking, and do take care when you unwrap your birthday present tonight.”
“I will. Thank you, Aunt El.”
Not wanting to disturb anyone, Alton left without saying his goodbyes. He couldn’t wait to take a long bath in hot spring water and sleep in an oversized bed. What a joy it was to know that he wouldn’t be expected back at the barracks until after lunch. This miniature vacation was the only thing he wanted for his birthday, and he was going to get it.
The idea of presents had made him nervous. Once he was in his room, he looked over to the pile of boxes. With some hesitation, he opened one up and saw that it was a new jacket with intricate embroidery. Relief washed over him in an instant. Clothing, even clothing that was a few sizes to small for him, was nothing to worry about. Maybe Chickadee would enjoy it.
Opening the second box, he held up a summer dress. He didn’t know what his aunt thought of him, but this was certainly not his taste. The sound of a door creaking behind him sent a chill up his spine. He shoved the dress back in the box just as Sybil was stepping out of the bathroom. She was rubbing a towel over her hair with another was wrapped about her body. The two made eye contact for a moment, and then Sybil glanced to the table where her daggers were.
“Hold on!” Alton held his hands up. “I was told this was my room!”
Sybil frowned and then shook his head. “I’m too tired to deal with this now. I’ll go share a room with Chickadee or Zani.”
“Now, hold on,” Alton repeated as he gave a wave of his hands. “Let’s talk this over... I’ve seen their rooms their beds isn’t nearly as large. Secondly, I thought that lately there has been a connection going on between us, but there hasn’t been enough time to talk about it... Now we have that chance.”
She looked over to the bed and then to Alton. “... Let me put on some clothes first.” Grabbing a nightgown that was hanging on the back of a chair, she stepped into the bathroom to put it on.
“What about that time when you said that it wasn’t fair that I got to keep my clothes on? Shouldn’t I be stripping down instead?”
“I was drunk!”
Alton put his hand to his mouth and started to breathe slowly. What was he doing? Of course, he should have let her leave before her friends got all the more furious at him. He moved to sit on the edge of the bed while he thought everything over. Worst of all, Lydia was still here. She was floating above the edge of the bed, mimicking sitting next to him, with her arms folded and a stern look on her face.
“Don’t you dare,” she said in a cold voice.
“I’m not going to do anything,” he whispered back. “But if you could go away for the rest of the night-”
“Don’t you dare, Alton Toval!” The look she gave him became all the sterner.
Alton hissed through his teeth as he exhaled. “I want to have a private conversation with her without any feedback. It’s hard for me to think of anything with you hovering there.”
Lydia started to slowly sink through the floor. “If I come back in the morning and see anything off-putting, I will follow you around for an eternity making annoying noises and interrupting every thought in your head at all hours of the day and night.”
He glared back, keeping the eye contact until she had vanished completely through the floor. Tossing his head to the side, he saw that Sybil staring at him. She had put on pants underneath her nightgown, and tied a belt about her waist like it was a tunic. It wasn’t an attractive outfit, but Alton was still willing to work with it. He had been teased by her a lot lately and was willing to work with anything at this point.
“What are you doing?” She looked to the spot on the floor he was staring at and then back to him.
“Nothing!” He patted the bed next to him. A dismayed expression crossed his features as Sybil dragged a chair over and sat across from him.
“Talk.” Sybil folded his arms.
Alton cleared his throat. “If everyone thinks we’re a couple, maybe we should go ahead and be a couple.” He and her both looked over at the daggers again. “No, wait!” He held up a hand defensively. “Don’t go thinking about violence yet. Truthfully, I’ve had girlfriends before, but I tend to rush things because they want to and it never ends well. I have to walk away, or they end up-.”
“Hold on, I’m grabbing a weapon.” She went to stand up and Alton snatched her wrist.
“I don’t want to be like that with you!” He exclaimed, and she glare intensified. “We’re going to be at Braytons for a few years. I don’t want to burn up what we have now and end up hating each other because of it.”
Sybil held up her free hand. “Tal.” A blade flew to her free hand. Right. She could do that. He had failed to calculate that possibility.
Alton let out a nervous laugh and let go of her wrist. “What I’m saying is that I want to get to know you as a person. You know, how you had mentioned before that you hardly knew me and then we had a good talk. Let’s do more of that. We should take things slowly and spend the ni-” He winced as she held the dagger up. ”Spend the night talking. Just talking. Or sleeping. You were Bronzescale last night, right? Aren’t you tired?”
“I am…” She considered what he was saying. “If you want to take things slow and less physical… Ugh, I guess I can agree to those terms as long as you don’t go around saying I’m your girlfriend... And stop telling everyone we’re lovers!” He pouted. “The whole idea of it is embarrassing. I want the option to back out and be friends… Or platonic squadmates. Whatever.”
“I can work with that! Put the knife down, and let’s have a talk.”
Sybil put the knife on the table and sat down on the chair. “What’s important to you, Toval?”
“What matters to you? Where are your priorities?”
That was a heavy question. Alton thought he knew where he was going in life, but Lydia certainly ruined it for him. “... Making a life for myself. One where I don’t have to rely on the Toval name or their fortune to carry me through.”
“But…” Sybil shook her head. “Being a member of the royal guard is about finding out what happened to your father. That’s why you’re here, right? If you didn’t want to rely on your adopted family, you could’ve just kept playing music.”
“... Yeah, well…” Alton waved his hands about as he thought. “... It’s complicated?”
“We have time.”
Alton stammered for a moment. “This is just a step in my life… Once I find out what really happened with my father, I can go back to playing music. I can go anywhere I want in Lustro, but I can’t go on not knowing what happened to my parents. My real parents…
Wouldn’t you do anything you could to find out what happened to Lady Larkin? I know she was close to you… Don’t you want to know the truth behind it her death? Doesn’t it sometimes make you stop and wonder what you’re doing with your life because you have no way of getting closer to what happened the day she died?”
“...” Sybil’s arms tightened about her body. “... I know what happened. It was an accident.”
“But if you-”
“No, I get it… I understand what you mean.” She stood up and kept her eyes averted from him. “... I’m feeling tired now.”
Alton stood up as well. “You want to stay here or leave?” She took a step forward and thunked her forehead against his chest. He loosely wrapped his arms about her back. “You don’t want to talk about it?”
“You didn’t know that people from your past were going to be at Braytons… It must be really hard for you to see the prince and duchess here and to be constantly reminded of your childhood. They were probably told the same thing as well, that your father died in an accident...”
“... Yeah.” He tightened his grip on her and buried her more into his chest.
“... I didn’t want to leave my dad behind,” she muttered. “I didn’t want to leave Zyris either. I hate the idea that my dad is alone, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t work on golems or do safe work knowing that Lydia wasn’t around to be Lydia anymore… Someone needed to do her work, and I think it has to be me… I think that I’m the only one who can do it, or at least, I worry that the world is expecting me to be the one to do it… And… And…”
Her voice was wavering as she spoke, and then she stopped speaking completely. “Yeah, that’s how it is for me,” he whispered back. “You want to go to sleep?” She nodded.
They went to bed and she continued to cling to him tightly as he hummed quietly to her. Whether she was feeling lonely or if it was because she didn’t want him to be alone, he didn’t know. He didn’t care either, because he felt as though he needed this.