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“There is no way that this is going to work,” said Sybil.

Veximarl clutched his spear to his chest and pouted at her. “I am trying my best here, Sybil. What else am I supposed to do?”

“Look at it! What did you think I was going to tell you?!” She exclaimed as she gestured to Veximarl’s summoned apparition.

It was a ghostly looking elk made of purple and red light. Most of it looked fine, but there wasn’t any skin around the face, showing only a bare skull. The one eye it still had was hanging out of its socket, and it bounced about as it turned its head this way and that. Veximarl had used his shield spell to summon it, so he could at least ride on the thing if he wanted to.

Both himself and Chickadee wished to show Sybil the fruits of their labor. She had shown them the hidden cave that Alton had taken her before, and she was certain no one could spy on them here. This was one of the first caves she had marked off as safe, thus even Bronzescale wouldn’t think to intrude.

As Veximarl failed to impress, she sat there with her head in her hands. “I can’t pass this off as a golem,” she explained as she gestured to it again. “What are you going to do when someone hits it and all the damage is reflected back on them? They’re going to know that isn’t a paladin spell.”

Veximarl held his nose up proudly. “I have other spells.” Sybil put her hands on her hips and glared. “I have a necrotic spell, which is, for obvious reasons, something I cannot cast here. However! There is my astral projection spell, and I’ve used that here before without much issue.

I am able to transfer injuries from one person to another, which is forbidden, but I have a touch spell that will cause someone to feel pain. There are also my warding spells against tainted mist, and you cannot argue that those will not be useful.”

“Those are all obviously necromancy spells,” retorted Sybil.

Chickadee fumbled with his notes. “Perhaps this is not the wisest way to strengthen Veximarl’s abilities.”

“Really?!” cried out Sybil. “You two should have consulted first!”

“I do appreciate the spear, regardless of Sybil’s objections,” replied Veximarl as he gave it a few skillful twirls. “If it isn’t a problem, I would like to use this as my main weapon going forward.” Chickadee beamed and bobbled his head.

Sybil wasn’t amused. She was tired of her long hours, and she was cold. Miserably cold. They were given jackets to wear with their uniforms, but the one she had was tight about the ribs, and the stockings were also uncomfortable. Why she still had to wear a skirt in this weather was beyond her understanding.

Her head shook back and forth. “Just be careful. I think both Stonetoe and Grimhawk know something is up with you. Go to them and ask for advice when you need it... They wouldn’t have taken you in if they didn’t have some sort of a plan.”

Veximarl had gone to Stonetoe. His supervisor’s advice for him was to, “not get caught,” and “allow him to have plausible deniability.” Stonetoe had proven useless, and Grimhawk appeared to have the same opinion. He was now forced to seek outside help, and he was limited in his options.

“We still have some time left to prepare,” said Veximarl. “For now we should head back and take part in the Eatha Feast Day celebration. There’s only so long the three of us can stall before they start worrying about our whereabouts.”

They hiked back to the main field outside of the barracks. A series of outdoor games had been set up, and a large group of knights, students, and the civilians that had worked with the barracks had gathered together. Mainly they were gathered around the tables that were set up with a wide assortment of food. Large roasted pigs, piles of bread, cheeses, salads, and apples. Most of Eatha’s holiday involved eating an insane amount of apples.

Zaniyah had set up some posts with a rope tied between them, and she was dancing to music that Alton was playing. They had a crowd around them as she bounced between the ropes and twirled about. Sybil’s nose crinkled at the sight. It wasn’t as bad as the displays done at the roof of the core, but she still worried that people might form stereotypes about them.

“Sybil!”

Zaniyah sprung over to one of the posts and balanced on it with one foot. She was wearing the costume that she got while she was in Mareth over the summer. The one that hid practically nothing. There were bells that hung down from her wrists and ankles that chimed as she moved about. Being cold wasn’t a bother, not as long as she kept herself moving, and as she planned on moving as long as there was a party going on.

“I’m not going to dance with you!” Sybil called back, much to Alton’s disappointment. He was set up underneath the ropes and could have a view up her skirt if she chose to jump up there.

“But Sybil!” Zaniyah waved her arms about. “When was the last time you really let yourself go and just have fun, eh?! Shake that booty of yours! Sing along with the music! You are such a good singer!”

Veximarl squinted up as Sybil scowled. “... What are they wearing?” Alton was wearing an outfit similar to Zaniyah’s, but his showed off less skin. Both of them were wearing matching decorative masks, black with opals and gold trim.

The necromancer then looked over to Vincent. The paladin’s uptight nature was a stark contrast to Zaniyah’s liberated demeanor, yet the two attempted to make it work. Yet he had become completely paralyzed at the sight of his girlfriend and hadn’t moved in some time His ears had been a bright red shade, but the rest of him was like stone.

“She does this sometimes,” Sybil waved it off. “I’m supposed to help set up some games for the younger children. We are going to make yarn dolls or something. Catch up with me later!” She gave a wave over to Veximarl and Chickadee, running off before anyone else asked her to jump up and dance with Zaniyah.

Frowning, Alton watched as Sybil made her escape. “Hey, Zan?” She swung upside down on the rope, hanging on by her knees so she and Alton were face to face. “Didn’t you tell me before that dancing with someone on the ropes is supposed to test how compatible you are with each other?”

Her head bobbled up and down. “Yeah. Everyone learns how to dance in the core because of it. It’s pretty important for all of us.”

Alton gasped, putting his hand to his mouth as he did so. “Oh, really?” She nodded again. “Why not ask Highland if he wanted to dance? I’m sure the two of you would look super cute.”

“I couldn’t do that,” said Zaniyah as she scrunched up her nose. “Both you and him are part of the outerland, and I remember how bad you were when you asked me to teach you before. Maybe I should ask Chi instead?”

Vincent became concerned that they had stopped their performance and chose to approach. “Has something gone wrong?”

“Highland!” Alton grinned widely at him. “We were just saying that it would be nice if you were to dance with Zan on the ropes.”

The paladin gave a nod. “I will abide by those wishes.” He started to take off his jacket as he walked towards one of the support poles. His boots were also taken off so that he could more easily maintain his balance once he was up there.

Veximarl took a step back and sat on the hill. Chickadee sat next to him, both quietly watching the scene as it unfurled. Summoning his shield golem, Vincent did a running jump towards it. His foot landed within its gauntlets and he was launched up in the air. Alton moved away from underneath the ropes as Zaniyah reached up and pulled herself above them. She balanced on a rope as Vincent neatly landed on one of the poles.

Stepping forward and onto the ropes, the paladin held out one hand. Zaniyah placed her hand within it and took a step towards him. As the music began anew, the two started to twirl and balance around each other. Their feet bouncing along the strands of ropes beneath them as they danced.

Veximarl made a remark as he leaned towards Chickadee. “I had mentioned to Vincent before that I’ve been within the core, and he told me that he had picked up acrobatics when he was younger as a way to improve his footwork. He’s had a long time interest in core culture.” He then gestured over to Alton, who wasn’t amused by Vincent’s ability to adapt. “It seems that Alton will have to find a different way to make a fool of him.”

“Wait for it,” replied Chickadee. There was a reason why he didn’t offer to jump on the ropes, and why Sybil had run away so quickly. It was something that Alton had also noticed the last time he had partnered up with Zaniyah as her musician.

As they danced, Zaniyah became increasingly possessive of Vincent. Her hands ran along his body and she would press against him in a needy manner. As the song reached its climax, her excitement could no longer be contained.

She slipped her arms about his neck and kissed him passionately. A muffled cry escaped Vincent’s nose as he began to fall backward. Zaniyah attempted to pull him back on the ropes but tugged against him to firmly, worsening their balance in the process.

The two collapsed with a heavy thud to the ground. Alton froze up at the sight, ceasing all traces of music. Veximarl stumbled to a stand and ran down the hill, skidding to a stop as Vincent rolled off of Zaniyah. The necromancer stooped down and placed his hand against the side of Zaniyah’s neck, closing his eyes and sensing out her wounds in the process.

“Simply a dislocated knee and a sprained hip. Nothing to worry about.” Veximarl opened his eyes. “Hold still, Zani. It will only take a moment to pop in.” He grasped onto her lower leg and began his adjustments as Zaniyah growled between her teeth.

Vincent rubbed at his neck with some healing magic. “Forgive me. I was startled and lost my balance.”

“No, it’s my- ARGH! Dammit, Vex!” A muffled pop sound came from her knee and Vincent moved in to heal it. Vexixmarl ignored her complaints and began to wiggle her leg to make certain that it wasn’t loose.

“It isn’t a painless procedure. Apologies, but it will be over quickly.” He was confident enough in his ability to treat injuries like this without magic. Plus Vincent following up with his healing spells without question made it much easier.

Chickadee picked up Vincent’s coat and brought it over. Vincent took it from him and wrapped it about Zaniyah’s shoulders as she struggled to sit up. Alton joined them, having already folded up his harp. There wasn’t a point in continuing the show if Zaniyah had injured herself.

“You have to remember that he’s a paladin, Zan,” scolded Alton. “You can’t force your lecherous desires on him like that.” Chickadee tossed a suspicious look at Alton. “I am merely attempting to show our sister in arms the glory of the light.”

“Sir! I finally found you!” Basil ran up. He was out of breath, having been running about for some time now. His hand hastily went up as he saluted Veximarl. “Sorry to interrupt, sir! We’ve been ordered by Lady Till to change into our competition uniforms and report to the barracks courtyard!”

The Moontear Squad member was already wearing a short brown tunic. He had a long blue vest over that with a matching hat that had a chicken feather sticking out of it. Against Gwyn’s wishes, they decided to refer to their three-man squad as the Grosbeak Unit. She hadn’t offered any names, and Veximarl had no suggestions, so Basil handled it all. Sir Moss had designed the colors of their uniforms around the blue variant of the species.

Veximarl stood up and dusted himself off. “Now? How unfortunate. Will you be able to manage, Vincent?”

“It will take a few minutes for my spells to fully take effect, but I believe both of us will manage,” replied the paladin.

“Good.” Veximarl nodded, catching his spear as Chickadee tossed it at him. “We will speak later about my weapon, Chi. Do you wish to do some dueling evening to further test it?” Chickadee gave a nod. “It’s a date then! I’ll return when I can.” He then nodded to Basil, and the two began to jog towards the barracks.

Chickadee pulled his scarf more about his face. “... Yeah.”

“Ah,” said Alton in surprise. “... He’s actually running. Oh no, there he goes.” He blinked as Veximarl stopped in the distance. The necromancer had stumbled over a clump of dirt and attempted to play it off as though nothing had happened. “Almost had a moment of respect for him there.”

Zaniyah spoke in a low voice at Vincent while the other two were distracted. “Sorry about molesting you, Vincent. I know we haven’t- ... I mean, I should respect your personal space.”

“How am I supposed to battle the villains of this world if I cannot handle you?” He gave her a hesitant peck to the forehead. “I will admit that I am not used to showing my affections in such a public manner, but I am the one who chose to court you. Feel free to disrespect my personal space as much as you need.” He leaned in and lowered his voice all the more. “In private next time, perhaps? I’ll arrange some time for it.”

Crinkling his nose, Alton looked away as Zaniyah rested her head against Vincent’s shoulder. “Please tell me that is not what Sybil and I look like when we’re together.”

Chickadee tilted his head. “You’re a couple?” Alton glared at him. “She often threatens and hits you.” Alton continued to glare. “She doesn’t like you.”

“She likes me plenty,” hissed Alton. Chickadee blinked and didn’t say anything. “She does.” He tossed his hair away from his face with a flick of his head. “I don’t need to argue with you, Chi... I’m going to go help Sybil with her work because she does like me and will appreciate my company. I am a very good person to have company with!”

Watching him storm away, Chickadee shook his head. Though an Alton who was in denial was more entertaining than watching Zaniyah and Vincent whisper sweetly to each other. Rolling his eyes, Chickadee went over to the barracks. They never said the meeting of the contestants was private, so he might as well see what was happening.

He nearly jumped out of his skin as an arm was draped around him. Amalfrieda had someone snuck up on him undetected. “Greetings gem bird.” Her hand went in front of his face and a set of claws appeared from her glove. “Love the toys you’ve made for me. I’ve been trying to find a way to thank you, but I’ve been told a few times already to just leave you alone.”

Duxton was right behind her, with Shaw and Beat by his side. The paladin was wearing a glittering uniform, which appeared to be a part of the War of the Years event. He kept picking at it as though it wasn’t very comfortable. As the trio grew closer, Duxton gestured for Amalfrieda to remove herself from Chickadee. An order she refused to immediately follow.

“I told you before, Amalfrieda, there’s always another third year that could use some training.”

“Why won’t you let me play with any of the first years?” Her arms drew more tightly around Chickadee, who was already at his limits for remaining calm. “How am I supposed to get better with my own skills if I can’t sink my teeth into worthy targets?”

“The first years, especially Grimstone Squad, are off limits, my dear,” Duxton cooed at her. “All of them are rather close, and you remember what happened the last time that soot worm got angry because you hurt his friend.” Amalfrieda pouted and Duxton turned his attention towards Beat. “You said that there was that broken one in your squad. Who was it?”

“Irving Byers.”

Duxton grinned. “Excellent. You can have that one, Amalfrieda. He’ll be tougher than the last playmate I assigned you.”

“No,” replied Beat flatly. Both Amalfrieda and Duxton pouted at him. “As their captain, they are my responsibility. Do not interfere.”

“I’m certain we will find either an arrangement or someone else at some point. But speaking of dear playmates, Walter, was it?” His grin grew all the wider as he examined Chickadee. “Have you seen Vex? I’ve been wanting to invite him to eat with us today, but I haven’t been able to find him.”

“Don’t go near him,” Chickadee growled.

“I have no plans for playing with Vex today, I merely have some personal business that I wish to discuss.”

“No,” growled Chickadee again. “Don’t hurt Irving. Don’t talk with Vex. Stay away from my friends... All of them.”

“Well... Look at you!” Duxton broke out in a laugh. “Little cinder baby trying to start a war with a pack of griffins all on his own... I think you deserve a treat.” His finger danced about the air and one of Amalfrieda’s claws sliced deeply into Chickadee’s cheek. The prince’s eye twitched at the sight of blood. “I’m not trying to start a fight, Walter.

I am the head of the second year class, and soon to be squire commander of these barracks. My job is to make sure everything runs smoothly... You should know what I’m saying. You’re a blacksmith, after all. What do you do when your armor has a dent? Think about it.” He flicked Chickadee in the nose before sidestepping around him.

If there’s a flaw in the armor, one hammers it out.

Chickadee’s eyes narrowed in the group’s direction as Amalfrieda slipped off of him. She skipped away while giggling, eager to see what other fun there was to be had. Shaw was the only one that remained. He held his hand near the mage’s cheek, but not close enough to heal it without permission. Chickadee turned his head to the side and pulled down his scarf far enough to grant him access. The gray cloth was still stained noticeably red, and Chickadee rotated it out of the way so that it wouldn’t show.

“Thank you,” he murmured in a quiet voice.

“He’s right. His job is to keep the barracks strong.” The tone Shaw used was a cold and distant one. “The weak and the insubordinate will be punished swiftly. If they cannot understand their place, there is no reason why they should remain.”

And suddenly he could understand why Zaniyah didn’t like Shaw. She always had an instinct when it came to spotting callous people. Watching the paladin walk away, Chickadee had a rare thought.

He could crush them all in an instant.

A flick of his fingertips and they all would disappear within the earth below. Never to be seen again. Oh, but that was murder! Shame on him! ... It also wouldn’t make him any better than them… Though a part of him felt like they’re behavior would change as long as he took the high ground.

Chickadee turned around and headed to the first year dorms, where he nearly ran into the Veximarl as the necromancer rushed out. His hair was messily pulled back in a crooked bun, and he had trouble keeping his hat on his head. Holding his hands out in front of him, Chickadee stopped Veximarl in his tracks so he could fix the crooked buttons on his vest.

“Apologies and thank you.” Veximarl looked around. Gwyn and the whole of Moontear Squad were around, but none of the other first years were. All of the second year and third year classes were present and were lining up in an orderly manner. “What is going on?”

His question got a shrug as a response. “The knights are present.” Chickadee knew something was off but was to busy fixing buttons and being enraged by second years to care.

They joined up with the other first years and quickly discovered that they also had no idea why everyone was gathered. Gwyn had just finished tying on an ascot about Basil’s neck, `and she gestured silently for Veximarl to bend down. He did so and she pulled another tie from her jacket’s pocket. A brown and bluebird had been embroidered onto the point that sat at the center of his collarbone. He attempted to thank her, but she shook her head so that he wouldn’t interrupt the silence.

Lady Till stepped onto the makeshift stone platform. On either side of her was Tallosi Rosethorn and Clytia Anemone. From Veximarl’s understanding, Rosethorn was a professor at Grand Temple. The city that was focused on training magical talent and the religious center of Lustro. His position within the barracks was temporary, no doubt so he could personally oversee Duxton’s education. Lady Anemone was a third-year knight who was highly respected by the other knights, but Veximarl didn’t know much about her.

“Attention!” Lady Till raised a hand to gather their attention. “Apologies for the interruption on this sacred holiday, but King Howell has issued a command to all barracks across Lustro. Due to the urgency of these events, we will be changing the schedule for today’s festivities. I will let Professor Rosethorn and Lady Anemone explain our plans further.”

Rosethorn stepped forward as Till stepped back, giving a polite bow to the gathered students. “We have received a call of help from the Crimson Region. A miasma flood may soon be encroaching upon the area. Animals afflicted with Tria’s wrath have been spotted within the area, further emphasizing evidence of a flood.

Duke Rubire has ordered evacuations of the smaller villages, and a complete eviction of those within the core of his city. The second year class is to assist the duke within Carapace and help maintain order. We will know more of what your specific assignments will be once we reach the city.”

Chickadee’s hand grasped tightly onto Veximarl’s. He was trembling. His own family lived at the base of the mountain, which was regularly overtaken by mist. They had a shop in the city that had some living space in it, but their real home would have to be abandoned. Not to mention that he was worried about Zaniyah’s family and Sybil’s father, along with all of the friends they had left behind.

“They’re doing the evacuations early,” whispered Veximarl. “Tainted beasts are most active during the month of Winter. It’s unlikely anyone you know has been harmed, and miasma levels drop quickly when spring arrives. This is only a temporary measure, and they will find the source of the miasma and eliminate it soon enough.”

The necromancer had plenty of experience with the changes in seasons and how it affected the tainted beasts. However, the fact that they were going to such extremes to control it was troubling, as the miasma rarely made it past the swamps. A flood covering the Crimson Region would spell death for hundreds. His hand gave Chickadee’s a squeeze, and he worried on how he was going to break this news to the rest of his squad.

Lady Anemone stepped forward after Rosethorn had finished speaking. “The third years will be having their graduation ceremony moved up. Although it isn’t customary, you will be knighted in Fogbloom. The majority of you will be drafted into the king’s army and assigned to a unit that suits your skills.

I have less information on will be in store for you afterward, but I will do my best to ensure that none of you will be overwhelmed by your new posts. Be prepared to leave this Satyrday. Any of those who are currently out on missions have been recalled, and they will be meeting us within the capital.”

She took a step back as Till moved forward again. “For those first years who are present, please notify members of your class that we will be prepared to address your worries at tomorrow’s class. As for the War of the Years, we will be asking the participants to have a battle this afternoon for the enjoyment of our guests. You will have two hours to prepare. Best of luck to you all.”

Now Veximarl was trembling. It would be a quick fight, but now he felt that his weeks of planning and training were suddenly wasted. “At least that explains our presence,” he said in a dismayed tone.

“Sir,” Basil said as he looked over. “Do you have any orders?”

Veximarl pulled his hand free from Chickadee's so he could remove his hat and push his hair away from his face. He also looked over to Gwyn to see what she was thinking. It looked as though she had zoned out completely.

“Miss Hewitt.” She blinked a few times in a startled fashion before looking towards him. “Please give Vincent an update and then gather any gear you will need. Do it quickly, as I would like some time to discuss our strategies.”A hesitant nod was given before she ran off.

“It shouldn’t take me more than a few minutes to prepare, sir,” continued Basil. “Do you wish to go over the battle plan again?”

“Yes, in a moment though.” Veximarl had gotten distracted by Duxton’s sudden appearance. “May we assist you, Lord Aconite?”

Duxton grinned widely, with his crooked tooth gleaming in the sunlight. “What is with the formal greeting? I keep telling you, Vex, we’re friends, and all I want is a moment to speak to you in private.”

“I hardly consider it speaking in private if you have your entourage with you,” replied Veximarl. He had a growing distrust of Duxton. The prince had an odd way of showing friendship, and it didn’t leave Veximarl feeling safe. “Anything you wish to say can be said in front of any member of the first year class.”

“But what would they think of that little secret of yours? I am certain that it would be problematic,” replied Duxton in a cheerful manner. “They all trust and admire you so much already, don’t they?” He smiled all the more as Veximarl stiffened. “... It won’t possibly change anything.”

Veximarl felt a tug to his sleeve and looked down at Chickadee, who was gazing up at him with concern. “... You have my attention.” He nodded in an apologetic manner towards the Moontear trio. “If it isn’t a problem, I do want to go over our battle strategy again, but it will be a few minutes before I am available. Apologies.” He gave a nod over to Chickadee and followed Duxton towards the library

The majority of the second years were already settling within one of the smaller classrooms. Trenchall and Udell were wearing the same uniform as Shaw. Udell kept picking at his while Trenchall remained stoic. While the others took to sitting against tables, Veximarl insisted on staying near the door. It made for a quick escape, and he was eager to leave as soon as the conversation was finished.

Something about this situation made Veximarl nervous. Amalfrieda was stalking the hallways outside the door, and it appeared that both Beat and Shaw were waiting for them here. Everything had been purposely set up to be as intimidating as possible, and it was working.

“What is it that you want, Prince Duxton?” Veximarl decided to hold his ground.

The prince clicked his tongue. “Out with proper names the moment we are in private.” He wagged his finger at the necromancer. “Gutsy. I’m impressed, but that forwardness of yours will lead to your downfall. I’ve heard rumors that you’ve been using your Archive access often since I loaned it to you.”

“Wasn’t that the point?” Veximarl spoke in a confident tone, even though he was visibly nervous. “For me to use it as I pleased?”

“Within reason,” replied Duxton. “I’m certain that the other squires would be very interested to know how heavily you’ve been checking into certain people’s records.” He leaned back on the table behind him. “Why have you been doing weekly check-ups on my schedule, Vex? Not to mention a background check on the future leader of this nation... Ghastly. Did I do something to offend you?”

Was that the secret that Duxton was taunting him with? Veximarl felt more at ease to learn this. “You have not offended me personally.”

“Those files are supposed to be a secret.” Duxton’s grin grew all the wider, but his eyes were filled with a subdued wrath. “Who has been unlocking files for you?”

Veximarl shook his head. “I had assumed that was you.”

“Archive’s administrator may have done it for him,” replied Beat.

“Why?” Duxton asked and Beat shook his head. “Is the access pad we gave him defective in some way?” Beat shook his head again. “We’ll figure that out later. In the meantime, I will ask again. Why have you been looking into me?”

Veximarl looked over to Chickadee and then to Duxton again. “Why has your aunt been sponsoring Sybil?”

“Is that what this is about?” Duxton’s head fell back as he laughed. “I was worried that it was something serious! Yes! I am more than willing to tell you about that.” A lingering silence occurred as Duxton stared at Veximarl with a sense of scrutiny. “But first you will have to win a game.”

“You should save us the trouble and tell me now,” retorted Veximarl. “I am short on time as it is. If you had not noticed, there is a fight that I am preparing for, and half my rivals are within this very room.”

With his hand gesturing to Trenchall, Duxton continued. “And that is what the game is. It doesn’t matter to me if you fall or not, all you need to do is survive longer than Trenchall. You win, I tell you what my family wants with Miss Sybil Twist.” Veximarl glared at him. “And yes, I get something if you lose. Gloom girl will be transferred into Kingspaw if you manage to fail.”

Veximarl scowled at the idea. “She’s a first year, and your squad doesn’t focus on scout training. Sybil isn’t eligible for that transfer.”

“I don’t see that as a problem,” replied Duxton. “She’s shown she has the fighting potential, and she was considered a leader of the youth community within the Carapace core.” He pointed over to Chickadee. “That one has to arrange for his mother to make a weapon for me.

Not part of the deal, but an added detail that needed to be mentioned. He needs to write to his mother and tell her to be expecting me while I am in Carapace. I will be needing a weapon if I am to fight tainted beasts, and will only accept something made by her.”

On one hand, Chickadee didn’t want to force his mother to work with such a person. On the other hand, thinking about Duxton getting cocky and losing a limb or his life to a tainted beast made him feel better. He bobbled his head in agreement.

“I appreciate your obedience.” Duxton grinned at Veximarl. “And what say you? Do we have a deal?”

“Yes.” Veximarl glared at Duxton in a defiant manner. He ignored the harsh tug to his sleeve given by Chickadee. “Was there anything else that you needed of us?”

Duxton shook his head. “That will be all, my little squires. I will be sure to make the necessary arrangements for my new squadmate. What fun.” He turned to Beat. “The gloom girl will serve as a nice decoration within my room, though Rebecca will no doubt complain.

You’ll need to look after her some nights, as I won’t deal with women fighting over me.” He put a finger to his cheek and tilted his head. “I suppose that would also mean I get to pick out what sort of uniform she gets to wear. Lighter pinks and purples would match her skin tone well.”

Veximarl’s eyes narrowed all the more. He could understand why Alton despised this man, and he hated the fact that he hadn’t seen it sooner. A polite bow was given. After all, Duxton was the prince, and the rest were still his peers. Despite coming from a swamp, Grulick raised him to be a gentleman. It was only for her sake that he continued to be one.

“There are duties I must attend to. Apologies, I will be on my way.”

He was brisk to move through the door with Chickadee walking beside him. A nod was given to the grinning Amalfrieda as they passed, and they continued on to the courtyard. Moontear was still waiting for them, and Veximarl let out a sigh of relief as he found himself with company he trusted.

“Again, apologies,” remarked Veximarl. “I had been spying on some of the second years using… Nefarious methods.” He nervously cleared his throat. “They wished to confront me about it. I want you three to know that I have done nothing to intrude on the privacy of the first years… With some exceptions made towards the members of my own squad, that is.”

Emery raised a brow at that. He looked over to the other two members of his squad. “Huddle.”

The squad gathered into a group and whispered with each other. They had gotten better at being quiet during their impromptu meetings. Mostly because Sybil kept talking directly to them as though she was invited to the conversation.

Breaking away, Basil cleared his throat. “We’re good, sir.” He did another clearing of his throat and gave the others a sideways glance. It was obvious they still had their suspicions. “Would you like to go over our possible strategies until Miss Hewitt returns?”

“It is better that we wait. I ask that you three find our third year opponents instead. We all agree that neither of our sides stands a chance as long as the second year stays in the game. It is time we forged an alliance. I trust that you will serve wisely as our negotiator. You know the strengths and weaknesses of every player on the field, Basil. There is surely some plan you can come up with using our combined resources.”

The gears in Basil’s head were already ticking. “Even the six of us will not be enough to conquer their mage. Especially when he has the support of Tardivel and Paladin Arbutus.”

Veximarl patted his spear. “I will handle Trenchall Kindrick personally. That will leave five of you against Arbutus and Tardivel. Apologies for leaving so abruptly, but it will take me some time to prepare. I know you will be able to plan for the battle without me.” Basil nodded and gestured to Emery and Peter. The three of them headed off to where the third years were standing. “Chi... I will need one of the adjustments we talked about before. Specifically the bad one- ... Please cease scowling at me.”

Choosing to look off to the side, Chickadee still wasn’t happy with him. Even if he agreed that taking the deal was the optimal choice, he didn’t believe their chances were good. “Adjustments can be made within an hour. Will warn, completely untested. Dangerous to use. Very, very dangerous. Must abandon plan if it does not work as expected.” Chickadee tensed up. “Cannot guarantee spell will uncast. It may operate on your strength until you are drained.”

“I do not believe we can risk a lack of courage, but I will not go through with it if you believe it to be wrong.” Veximarl patted Chickadee’s shoulder, and the blacksmith gave a nod. “Then let’s pray that Tria is watching out over us this day because I doubt any other god will wish to guide us after this.”

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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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