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Alton slept soundly and awoke the next morning with Sybil still in his arms. His hand caressed her cheek to let her know that he was up. Her eyes fluttered open and she blinked a few times as she struggled to get her senses together.

“You okay?” He smiled at her. She seemed so vulnerable last night that he was worried she’d still be feeling down.

“What time is it?”

“I haven’t checked yet, but it feels like mid-morning?”

Sybil sat up and put a hand to her mouth. “I shouldn’t have slept in so late... We should be in class.” Ah, same old workaholic Sybil. Alton rolled her eyes at the thought.

“Don’t be in such a hurry to leave.” He stretched out his limbs and rolled onto his back. “I promise you that the moment you step out of this room, Aunt El is going to kidnap you for another day of socializing.”

Sybil was hit with flashbacks. Of all the moments where Elbellziara would drag her about stating that she would make a real proper woman out of her. A woman should be pampered, she argued. Apparently being pampered was all sorts of work.

She was slathered with mud and random people poked and prodded at her until Elbellziara was satisfied with the amount of beauty Sybil had obtained. The whole time she was forced to listen to gossip about other noble families. She didn’t even know who any of those people were. All she could do was nod and appear uneasy.

“We could also hide out here.” She said with a nod. “We could hide out here forever.”

“We could.” He smiled at her. “I could also order us some berries and cream, and you could then let me lick it-” Alton let out a yelp when she hit him with the pillow. “Don’t be so mean to me on my birthday!”

“Don’t be a pervert,” she snarled back. “And happy birthday!” She barked it like it was an order.

He put her pillow back so she could lay down again. “How do people in the core celebrate birthdays? With those cookies, right?” They had jam baked into them. That’s all he could remember.

“Not really. You could do that if it’s someone you want to court, but making those is expensive. We don’t really do gifts all that often since there’s limited space and resources in the core. We normally help by giving items that a person needs, such as new clothes or help replace something of theirs that might have broken.

Ages are also counted a little differently in the core. Basically, you’re one when you’re born, and everyone shares Mart’s feast day as their birthday. The only time we get parties is for our sixteenth birthday because that’s when we’re considered adults and can start working, and then for our twentieth. That’s when we become adults and need to start being serious about finding a marriage partner.”

“That’s depressing,” remarked Alton. “Everyone deserves to have a day to themselves.”

Sybil shook her head at the idea. “Our way builds a sense of community. Everyone in the outerlands are more distant than they need to be.” Maybe it was because they could afford the space. Either way, sometimes she didn’t like the distance. “We did make you cookies, if that makes you feel better. They’re waiting for you back in the room.”

“... That doesn’t make me feel better, no.” It wasn’t as though he was expecting anything from the squad, and he couldn’t help but feel that they were going to be burnt if Zaniyah was involved. “I don’t even know where I’m going to put all of this stuff.” The boxes around him gave him concern.

“It’s all stuff for me,” said Sybil with annoyance in her voice. “Clothes that were bought for me, and maybe some for you? I don’t know if I’ll ever wear any of it, and I’ll ask to see if I can stuff it in storage. Maybe Mila or someone else will get some use out of them.”

Alton shrugged. “You might need them after you graduate.” He sat up and smiled at her. “So you’ve never had your own birthday party?” She shook her head. “Then let’s cut afternoon classes and do what you want. We’ll have our own party for you.”

“The only thing I have ever wanted was to get into Braytons, and I got into Braytons. I’m going to hide out here until it’s time to leave, then ride the fastest horse I can find.”

“That can be arranged.” He scooted over and put an arm around her waist. She turned her head and gave him a peck to the lips. They looked into each other's eyes for a moment, and then Alton turned away. “Or we can see what’s inside all these boxes and make fun of it.”

“Just one?” She bit onto her lower lip. “Please don’t ask me to admit that I feeling like… You know.” He raised an eyebrow. “Because I don’t understand this either, alright? You’re so annoying, and bothersome, but I don’t know…”

“I don’t understand it either, Sybil, but I know I like you. I honestly do like you.”

Her face flushed red as her hands tightened on the blanket. He was staring at her with such a sincere expression that she just felt like punching him as hard as she could. She couldn’t explain it, but she really wanted to hit him.

“Okay... Fine.” She rolled her eyes. “I guess I’m starting to… Appreciate you. Or something. Can we go at it now? Your hair has been a mess since you woke up, and I’m going crazy from not being able to touch it.”

Now Alton was the one blushing. “Uh, yeah. Go ahead.”

He closed his eyes and waited for her. A moment passed before he felt her lips against his again. Alton didn’t like how she got mad at him all the time, but he did find it adorable when she was frustrated. A content sigh escaped his lips as he eased her onto the bed. She really was cute at times.

Regretting that she had been watching, Lydia made a disgusted face as Alton embraced her daughter. She floated over into the hall, frowning. Alton would ignore her if she tried to interfere now. If only there were a way she could get someone to interrupt. All of the disadvantages she had as a ghost really shined at a time like this. Making her way into Veximarl’s room, she was interested to see if the others were awake yet.

“Was it necessary to pack this?” Veximarl winced as Chickadee tightened the blood iron device in around his neck.

As he did so, the collar’s spikes pressed against his spine and larger veins and arteries. Despite it barely piercing his skin, there was an unnerving sensation when the device was worn. Chickadee fastened a small vial to the front. Behind him was Zaniyah, who was making a face as he worked. She was having flashbacks from when she went through the process a year ago.

“I will extract more due to a lessened physical schedule,” muttered Chickadee.

Veximarl had been given three days off from his strict exercise routine so that he, Basil, and Gwyn could work on coming up with a training schedule. They would be expected to juggle their preparations for the War of the Years on top of their regular classes and needed to coordinate while they still had time. He was supposed to meet with them for dinner this evening, but he wondered how much energy he would have after having his blood iron taken. It always made his head go wonky for a few hours.

As Chickadee tightened the final screw, Veximarl began to feel a tingling sensation across his skin. Chickadee looked down at a pocket watch, quietly counting seconds to himself. Black dust started to form in the vial attached to the collar. After a minute, Chickadee loosened the screw and put on his gloves. He carefully removed the vial and heated it in his hand, and the dust within it clumped together into a single lump. A feeble amount, but it would be enough once he had put it together with the rest.

He then started to unfasten the collar from Veximarl. The necromancer was feeling faint. His skin had cooled and there was sweat forming on it. He gladly took the glass of juice from Zaniyah and began to take small sips as Chickadee finished removing the collar.

“Eat this.” Chickadee pointed to the pile of beans and bacon that was on the table. Parts of steak were peeking out from underneath the pile, and hints of green implied there was spinach as well. Veximarl didn’t feel like eating anything after going through this process, and he never was much of a fan of meat, but he knew he would feel worse if he refused.

“We don’t have to leave Tilrey until lunch. What do you guys want to do till then?” Zaniyah kicked back in her chair and put her bare feet on the table. This led Veximarl to move his plate away and shield it as he slowly ate.

Chickadee thought about it. “No money.”
“Yeah, everything here is expensive.” Zaniyah puffed out her cheeks. “If I was going to have a day off, I’d rather go horseback riding and see if we could catch a deer.”

“Apologies. I would love to plan for such an affair for next Satyrday, but my free days are being taken up by group training with Miss Hewitt and Basil.”

They were interesting as a pair. Gwyn didn’t talk much, but he had been assured by Anais that she was uncomfortable around men. This had been bad news for Basil, who had been failing in his attempts to charm her.

Working with them at the same time made Veximarl tense. Basil was talkative and motivated to do well, while Gwyn was passive and wanted to get it over with. Veximarl didn’t know if he was supposed to act as an in-between or side with one against the other. Everything about the situation was troublesome.

Zaniyah hung her head to the side. “Why can’t we do that today? Sneak Sybil out of here and go riding. Alton can come too, I suppose.”

Veximarl stood up and immediately slumped back down. “I do not believe I will be able to stand without worry of regurgitation anytime soon.”

“I guess I could go see what Alton wants to do?” Zaniyah tapped her foot on the ground. “We are supposed to be keeping an eye on him... You sure we have to wait until tomorrow? I’d rather ambush him now and shake all the information we can out of him.”

“It is better to wait until we are at the barracks. We have better control of the environment in the event he lashes out against us.” Veximarl put a hand to his temple. “Perhaps I should consider sleeping until it is time to leave.”

That wasn’t a good enough answer for Zaniyah. “I’ll be back. I’ll figure out where Sybil is while I’m at it.” Chickadee was about to tell her where Sybil’s room was but changed his mind. It would be better for her to find out on her own, where Chickadee wasn’t in axe swinging range.

She left the room and walked down the hall. Alton had been set up in a suite. Zaniyah remembered this because it was named the sapphire suite. The whole inn had a gemstone theme to it. She and the rest of them were in numbered rooms down the opal hall.

A loud knock was given to the door and no reply was given. It’s possible that he woke up earlier and went off somewhere, but she doubted that. Spending those weeks over summer traveling with him taught her that Alton preferred to be left alone, and he was most likely avoiding people while he still could. She knocked at the door again, louder this time, then she placed her ear against it. Panicked whispers could be heard from within.

Putting her arms being her back, Zaniyah tapped her foot against the ground and waited for him to answer. When Alton opened the door, he appeared disheveled. His hair was an even worse mess from when he woke up, he was lacking a shirt, and he had a fearsome glare on his face. The two stared at each other for a moment before he went to close the door again.

Zaniyah jammed her boot in the way of him shutting it and let out a yelp when he tried to force it close. “Ow! Why?!”

“What do you want, Zan?” His frown increased as her eyes slowly traveled down his body and idled on his chest. He began to shove her foot out of the way so he could shut the door properly this time.

“Hey! Let me in!” She put her hands on the door and forced her way in, easily overpowering him in the process. “We wanted to know what you were doing today. Also, I don’t know where Sybil’s room is. If you knew, that would help.”

Alton looked about his room quickly and then back to her. “I don’t know where Twist is, and I want to go back to sleep. If you want to bother me, come back in an hour. Wait, two hours... Make that three, and actually, I’ll see you back at Braytons. No need to let me be a bother.”

Zaniyah’s expression didn’t change from a mild frown, as she was disappointed he didn’t want to come out to play. There was definitely a woman here. She began to look around the room, careful in her approach as she did so. Alton, in turn, took advantage of her absent-minded nature and took a moment to pose himself against the table in an attempt to distract her. When her eyes fell on him, her right eye began to tick.

She had to clear her throat to regain her thoughts. “Come on, have some fun with us, okay? Don’t stay locked up in here. We’ll hit up the town and find something fun to do. Birthday boy! Party! That sort of thing!”

“Fine, Zan, and I’ll be honest with you. What I was actually doing was having some lonely Alton time,” he said while making a lewd hand gesture. “If you could give me twenty minutes, I’ll be done and ready to go.” Zaniyah stared at him. “... You have a boyfriend, and I wouldn’t let you watch even if you didn’t.”

Zaniyah looked over to the side of the bed, where one of Sybil’s daggers was on the floor. Her eyes squinted at the weapon until Alton quickly stepped into her line of sight. “I’ll wait outside the door, but you only got ten minutes before I’m barging in again.” He scowled at her request. “No excuses! You’re going to have to put up with us today, and it’s not like you have other friends to hang out with.”

“She does have a point,” chimed in Lydia. “You don’t exactly do much aside from plot foolish ways to get Sybil’s attention.”

He looked off to the side, still annoyed. Since he didn’t exactly get along with anyone else, he might as well play nice with the friends he did have. Especially since they all seemed to be made at him for some reason or another.

“Fine. It better be something worth my time.”

Zaniyah gave him a thumbs up and a wide grin. “

When Zaniyah left the room, Alton tossed an annoyed glare over to Lydia, who was still lingering about. He turned away and was forced to clasp his hand over his mouth to prevent himself from shrieking in surprise. Sybil had been standing directly behind him, and he had nearly run into her. She was equally as disheveled but was at least wearing a robe.

Sybil reached up ran her hand through his hair to help smooth it out. “... Sorry about that.”

“It’s not like you can control when your friends are going to show up.” He cleared his throat and looked away from both her and Lydia. “I’m going to find some clothes to put on.”

“You better,” replied Lydia in a deathly tone.

“This isn’t like me.” Sybil gestured between herself and Alton as he rummaged about his belongings. “I don’t ever act this way, so… Uhh...” Her voice drifted off as she fumbled with her thoughts.

Alton blinked at her. “If you are going to turn me down, you should’ve done that before you slobbered all over my face.” He shoved his hands into the sleeves of a shirt and started to button it up. “I am trying to be honest about my feelings here.”

“Yes, and I know that is a big struggle for yo- Stop glaring at me!” Her request made him glare all the harder. “What I don’t want is for you to start thinking that I’m using you as a crutch for me being lonely. I mean, I have Zaniyah, Chickadee, and Veximarl. I’m not lonely... That’s not what I meant.

I meant lonely as in using someone to numb out the stress I’ve been feeling as of late. That’s exactly what I’m doing here, isn’t it? And you’re a person that might have feelings that can be hurt. I also shouldn’t be even thinking about having a relationship with a squad member. Especially if I’m using you in such a horrid manner.”

“... Ah,” replied Alton. He blinked a few times at her again.

“No, no!” Sybil put her hand to her forehead and flustered about some more. “This isn’t like me,” she repeated. “I normally respect people and their bodies! I swear!” She took as slow breath in and out. “I’m sorry. Please don’t be mad.”

Alton stared at her. Her face had gone a bright red shade, and her feet occasionally shuffled as though she were resisting the urge to pace back and forth. “I absolutely do not mind you using me and my body or as your ‘crutch.’ As long as I’m the only one you’re using, I am at your disposal anytime you desire.”

Sybil shook her head and slide her hand down so it covered her eyes. “I can’t do that. You’re an asshole, Toval. A really handsome, good-looking asshole, who-” Her face turned all the redder. “But you don’t deserve that type of treatment! You’re probably the way you are because you’ve been treated like that your whole life.”

“True.” He smiled as her dismayed expression became all the more crestfallen. “Somewhere in that shriveled, spider-infested heart of yours, there is a place reserved for me. That’s where we’re at right now, and I’m fine with it.”

“... Thank you,” her tension eased up and her hand fell from her face, hanging limply next to her.

“You’re welcome,” he replied. “And while we’re on awkward subjects, I’m desperate for a change of underwear. You should probably turn around or not yell at me for stripping down in front of you.” Alton paused as he organized his thoughts. “Actually, go ahead and look. After all, I do belong to you.”

“No.” Sybil held up her hands and made a gagging noise, blowing a strong hit to Alton’s ego in the process. “I’ll go hide in the bathroom and hope that my regular clothes are somehow hidden away in here. It’s going to take a while, so I’ll find some a way to find the rest of you later.”

Alton watched as she ran off to the bathroom in an embarrassed manner. He turned and grinned widely at Lydia. “She wants me for my body,” he whispered.

“Don’t be so prideful about it.” Lydia wagged a finger at him. “This has nothing to do with your original plan!”

“This is so much better!” Alton’s grin grew all the larger. “I know how to work with this. Emotions are an unpredictable mess, but I know how to manage a woman’s lust.”

There was a spring in his step as he changed his clothes and met up with Zaniyah. After Sybil managed to find something simple to put on, the group set about exploring the town. Tilrey didn’t have much aside from tourism going for it. More and more caravans were passing through now that summer was coming to an end, leading it to be crowded as well. They settled for leaving early and taking a wagon back to Braytons.

This was the ideal solution for bringing back all of Sybil’s boxes, and for Veximarl still feeling unwell. After they had stuffed everything into the dormitory's storage area, they separated into their individual classes before they met up again for a quiet dinner of barley, beans, and roasted summer vegetables.

Each had their own anxieties to worry about. Sybil was concerned that Bronzescale was only a quarter through examining the over two hundred something caves in the area, and there was still the possibility that tainted beasts were in the area. Veximarl felt like he was continuing to prove himself incapable of leading. Especially when his thoughts drifted towards both Alton and the War of the Years.

Alton was fine. His birthday had a few good surprises in it. There wasn’t the usual party where he was surrounded by adoring fans, but being around people he actually liked wasn’t that bad either. Despite his original reasons for staying with this squad, he was surprisingly happy with where he ended up. These were his friends, after all. He needed to do what he could to keep them and Sybil happy.

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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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