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“I say we tie him to a chair, nail his hand to the table, and cut off one of his fingers for every lie he feeds us,” explained Zaniyah as she tightened her grip on her handaxe. “And if the fingers don’t work, we aim for the jewels.”

Veximarl winced at her eagerness. “We will abide by the arrangement that I and Vincent have agreed to. There is no need for us to impart violence upon Alton at this time.”

Everything was laid out for them to confront Alton. They hadn’t informed any knights about it because Veximarl felt that they should give Alton a chance to say his side of the story. They only informed Vincent that they had some concerns about Alton. As commander of the first years, and as the one who has known Alton the longest, he would be acting as mediator.

But they still needed to attend their afternoon classes before any of that could happen. Sybil wouldn’t be around until after nightfall, and there wouldn’t be anything suspicious about Vincent eating dinner with them. Everything would go smoothly.

Veximarl said his goodbyes to the other two and went to meet up with Gwyn and Basil. They had gathered in the first year classroom and Basil was writing his notes on the slate board. He kept checking his notebook as he wrote down the observations he had made over the past few weeks.

When he was done, Basil stepped to the side and made a grand gesture to the board. “The War will consist of four rounds, which each of the first three rounds being arranged by the supervising knight for each year. Each of these can get us one point. The last round, which is the combat round, will be worth two. Lady Till will decide a winner if there is a tie.

We may do well outside of combat if we plan wisely. Sir Pegasus leans towards magic heavy events. Lady Anemone prefers games that challenged one’s wit. The biggest problem would be Sir Stonetoe, as he doesn’t reveal his game until the last possible minute. It’s possible that he leaves one of his squires to arrange it for him.”

“If we wish to make a good show of ourselves, we will only have to worry about excelling at two of the games,” muttered Veximarl to himself. “And Sir Stonetoe has not mentioned having us plan anything as if yet.

Gwyn hardly made a noise. Her embroidery was more important than working on any sort of plan. She didn’t want to participate in the games, nor did she show any fondness towards either Basil or Veximarl.

Basil gave a nod. “Yes, sir. I’m afraid that we have no chance of winning in combat. According to what I’ve gathered, Kindrick and Arbutus often rival for the third strongest spot within the second year, and either would be able to defeat the third year trio by themselves. If we wish to impress any possible future employers, it’s in our best interests to excel in the other games.”

“It worries me to think that there are two in that year stronger than either Paladin Arbutus or Mage Kindrick.” Veximarl did a mental list of every person in that year. “Which two are in the first and second positions?”

Looking through his notes, Basil shook his head. “Afraid I don’t have information on that, sir. I can only guess that it’s not anyone in Gildenboot.”

Veximarl hung his head to the side. It most likely wasn’t Udell either, as he wasn’t a captain and preferred to stay quiet. “Gather more data on what the previous challenges were. We might stand a chance in a game of wits, but a magical challenge is beyond our capabilities. I will see to ensuring we can win the game Stonetoe provides us.” He had noticed that his knight was easily swayed by bribes. It should be easy to have him help.

Basil flipped through his notebook. “I suggest that we at least practice some of our coordination as a group. We can form a team of Highland, Byers, and Cully to simulate the second year class and schedule combat sessions with them.” He glanced over to Gwyn, hopeful that she would agree.

“Both my captain and Mister Byers are quite busy with their responsibilities,” muttered Gwyn. Not once did her eyes flit up from her embroidery as she spoke. “It would be frivolous to interrupt their duties by asking for their help.”

And now that Duchess Elbellziara had shown interest in Chickadee’s work, it would be nearly impossible to pull the mage away from the forge. He took every excuse that he could to live in there. Veximarl would want the chance to practice their team combat but knew it was an impossibility.

Veximarl couldn’t help but worry about how dangerous the second year class was. Shaw Arbutus couldn’t be considered normal if he served the prince directly, and Udell Tardivel was nearly as violent as his squadmate. Within the third years, there was a mage and a cleric. In terms of power, healing, and strategy, the first year group was heavily limited.

Being a necromancer meant that he wouldn’t be allowed to use his spells without revealing himself. Maybe he could find some uses for Gwyn’s plant magic, but frail, flower-loving Gwyn was also their best sword fighter. It would be unfair to ask her to divide her attention as such. Basil was decent with a bow, but his main skills were observation and strategy. Both were talents that were difficult to make a fair demonstration of during direct combat.

Basil excused himself so he could meet up with his squad. This left Veximarl and Gwyn walking side by side as they headed to the Baron squad meeting in the library. Occasionally Veximarl would clear his throat and look over to Gwyn, who would completely ignore him. She often made it difficult to have any sort of casual conversation.

“Would you consider pairing up for studying? Sir Moss has been preparing us for debates against one another and I would be interested in discussing the social discrepancies within Carapace with you. I know that there is no core in Fogbloom, but it would be intriguing to hear the opinion of a westerner.”

“Mister Tuton, the fact that you are a captain and are allowed to take part in my squad’s activities is a farce,” replied Gwyn in her usual apathetic tone. “You are only here because your knights adore watching squires fail, and no matter how nicely they dress up swamp rot, it will always be a diseased piece of filth that was better left dead in the bog.”

He didn’t have much of an argument against that. Veximarl’s smile drew into a thin line on his face. “... Perhaps it is best to put those biased thoughts behind us and work to-”

“There is no working together. The only outcome to be had is that we’re going to embarrass ourselves for the barrack’s amusement. It’s best to lose swiftly and be done with it,” she said as she continued to walk without pause.

Veximarl let out a nervous laugh. “I’m certain that if we try-”

Gwyn stopped and turned on her heel to face him. “To make my motivations clear to you, Mister Tuton, the only reason I am here is to gain a title of nobility or to find myself a husband. I am not here to make friends, nor am I interested in helping you fix your plethora of problems. In three years time, I will be a knight, and I will not have to deal with you or anyone else here again.”

She turned and whipped her hair away from her face with a flick of the hand. Veximarl chose to give her space, following a distance behind her until they reached the library. He was stunned at how cold she was. Tish had mentioned that Gwyn was known as the Ghost of Petalmist, so her frigidness was hardly a surprise. However, he felt that Braytons was an opportunity to treat everyone as equals. Her behavior was unnecessary.

A few hours passed and the dinner bell was rung. This was normally the end of the day for most, but the more combat oriented squads often did light exercises before their meal. Sometimes Zaniyah would use this time to do some dueling, but it was her turn to fetch dinner today.

Even the end of class wasn’t enough to free Veximarl from his inner demons. He stared vacantly at the library wall for a moment before resting his head against the table. The sound of a tapping next to him made him lift his head. It was Alton standing in beside the table, and he was leaning over Veximarl in an effort to check in on him.

“Are you… Alright?” It seemed as though he struggled to find the right phrase to use.

Grimstone’s members had different tactics when it came to friendship. Sybil got along with those she worked with, Zaniyah tried to make friends with everyone, but both Chickadee and Alton preferred to fly solo. Sure, they talked to each other as a squad, but it was mostly just daily events or gossip. Rarely did it get more personal than that. Seeing Alton initiate a conversation when it was just the two of them present was… odd.

“The events over the past summer have varied greatly from my regular schedule. I will admit that I will never adjust from the way my life once was. Whether it’s a failure to adapt or a hidden stubbornness, I will never know.” Veximarl laughed nervously at his own words.

“Anything is better than a swamp,” replied Alton in a serious tone.

“I would beg to differ,” said Veximarl as he lifted up a finger. “On our way to visit the swamp, Sybil and myself spent some time within the core of Carapace. I would argue that that was the location that put an honest fear within me.”

The vast darkness, the giant spider golems, and the numerous times he had slipped on the transport webs and nearly fell into an endless abyss. Not to mention the delicacies of the region. Those were experiences he did not care to go through again. By the look that had crept up on Alton’s face, he was certain that the squire wanted nothing to do with them either.

Alton looked off to the side. “She showed you the core. Right, of course she did. It was probably mentioned already.” He trailed off in thought for a moment. “Regardless of the everything that’s happened, I don’t think you’ve done as badly as I expected you to.”

“I will accept that as a compliment.”

“You shouldn’t. The bar I set for you is low.” Alton held his hand flat in the air, moving it down in elevation as he spoke. “Unbelievably low. A stone tumbling down a hill possesses more power than I would have expected you to have.”

Veximarl furrowed his brows. “How would I be bested by a stone? Versus a rock, I would at least be able to get back up again once I reach the bottom.”

“When you roll down a hill, I worry you are going to somehow snap yourself in half and take someone down with you.” Alton grimaced at the thought. “Somehow you’re not doing all that badly. Keep up the good work, Vex.”

Veximarly winced as Alton lightly punched him in the shoulder. “Your sentiments are appreciated, I suppose. Are you going to be around for dinner?”

“Zan always picks out the weird leftover foods they have, but they normally end up better tasting than the rest of the slop they serve here,” he remarked with a shrug. “I’ll be around.”

Veximarl nodded and bid his goodbyes to Alton before heading up to the room. He sat at his desk so he could read while he waited for the others to return. Chickadee was first, moving to sit by the open window with a leather sheath and a small metal rod. He had his gloves on, and was burning an intricate design into the leather.

It was part of their class with Lady Till. They would need to show a demonstration of artistic talent because anyone with a noble title needed a hobby of some sort. This was also supposed to make their personalities well rounded. As a result, Chickadee was working on a chef’s knife, to show practicality outside of weapons for his skills.

A mass of yarn scattered around Zaniyah’s area showed that she was not only bad at knitting, but that she had forgotten to keep her belongings outside of Foggy’s reach. This brought some comfort to Veximarl, who had no outside hobbies other than herbology and basic medicine. Yet he was faring better than Sybil, who had been told that her skill with golems was an abomination when she presented Foggy to the class.

Maybe Veximarl could spin herbology as an acceptable hobby. Vincent came from a religious background. His mother’s father is the abbot at a monastery located near Carapace, and his father ran a set of hospitals that were under Mart’s name. Religious studies counted as his hobby. Perhaps an education about plants counted just as much?

Then again, a lack of religious studies made things awkward for Veximarl as a paladin trainee. His only real knowledge was of Tria, the goddess of winter, blacksmithing, and death. Plenty of firsthand experience with her. He was surprised to learn that she had a following within the core of Carapace, but that was just another aspect that added to the negative image of the core.

While he was fretting about Lady Till’s class, Vincent and Zaniyah walked into the room. She was carrying a bowl of wild green salad while he carried a basket of items. Vincent set this down and began to arrange dishes on the table. Zaniyah helped by cutting up the loaf of bread.

“I got herb salad for dinner! With plenty of fennel to give it kick!” Zaniyah proclaimed proudly. “And I know just the thing to make it extra special!” She hurried to her dresser and pulled out a jar of something Veximarl found to be repulsive looking. “My mom’s secret recipe for pickled snails! I can’t tell you how long I’ve been waiting to break these out.”

Veximarl got up from his desk as Chickadee started to clean up his work. The pair sat down at the table along with Vincent, and Zaniyah began to dump heaps of food into each bowl. When she offered some snails, Veximarl politely declined and claimed that too much vinegar made him ill. Around the same time, Alton entered the room, apologizing for being late as he sat down at the chair. The other four tossed a glance at each other before looking back at him.

“Let us take a moment to say grace,” said Vincent as he folded his hands together and dipped his head forward. “Praise to Eatha. Without her guiding hand, we would not have the bounty that lays before us today. Praise to her for allowing us to return home safely this evening so that our clan may dine together.”

“Praise to her,” the others muttered.

“I would like to add that though I am still a guest here,” said Vincent, “I’m grateful that you have accepted me into your group.”

Alton narrowed his eyes. “You could just as easily eat dinner with your own squad.”

He used a fork to pluck the snail flesh free from their shells, then tossed a small handful into his salad. A growing look of concern appeared on Veximarl’s face as he watched. Not even an eye tick or a frown given by Alton as he bit down on a fork full of snail and spinach.

Veximarl cleared his throat to prevent himself from gagging. “I see no reason to complain if Vincent chooses to have the occasional dinner with us. However, there are some items I wished to discuss, and at the moment, I feel safer if he were present.”

“Did something happen?” Alton leaned back into his chair and folded his arms. “Does this have something to do with the secret missions that Sybil is doing with Bronzescale? Is she in some sort of trouble?”

“Actually,” Veximarl nervously looked over to Zaniyah, who had gone tense, and then back to Alton, “we were wondering why Duchess Elbellziara and Prince Duxton have shown an interest in Sybil. Specifically, the strong interest that your aunt has with Sybil concerns us.”

Alton tilted his head. “I asked Stonetoe about that, and he said that Aunt El offered to be Sybil’s patron sometime after she had pulled the sword from Volo Refuge. It was a week before she came back with Vex. Before you ask, no, I’ve never heard of that sword before and Aunt El has refused to tell me her reasons for being Sybil’s patron.”

His aunt had lied to him about it. She told him that she started to support Sybil after she heard the girl had defeated a tainted beast on her own because such talent should be tended to properly. This was the story that Duxton confirmed with him his well. Elbellziara had told Stonetoe that Lady Grulick’s sword was historically important, and the new caretaker was to be looked after, but the knight didn’t know anything other than that.

Veximarl cleared his throat. “That all sounds plausible, but I have trouble believing-”

“Spill the truth! We know who you are, Alton!” Zaniyah slammed her hand against the table. “We know they’re your family! Now, what do they really want with Sybil?!”

Alton blinked a few times. “... Yes. They are my family. I don’t see how this is a surprise. Again, I haven’t had contact with either of them in nearly eight years. Why would I know more than you?”

“Prince Wulfric Aconite,” blurted Veximarl as he sought to interrupt whatever shouting Zaniyah was planning next. Alton visibly stiffened at the mention of their names. “He’s your father. Your mother was listed as a woman named Emogene… At least, that is what it says within your records.”

“You looked into my records?” Alton felt a mix of betrayal and confusion. “If you want to make a big deal about it, fine. First of all, thanks for asking me about it first before you went behind my back, but whatever. My father was Wulfric Aconite. I was disowned for not being able to cast any of the Aconite magic, and Aunt El had me sent off to the Toval family so that I would have a comfortable life.

As for anything to do with Sybil, I honestly don’t know. I don’t know anything about why her sword has that crest or why the royal family is interested in her. I’m the talentless kid they got rid of. Why would they bother to tell me a damn thing?”

Veximarl twiddled his thumbs together underneath the table as Zaniyah fumed. Vincent was sitting stoically. He had told Veximarl that he would have to deal with his own squad and he would only intervene when necessary. Despite him saying that, Veximarl was fumbling and in desperate need of advice.

He cleared his throat again and spoke meekly. “I have some additional concerns because it appears as though you transferred into this squad without telling us about your original assignment to Baron Squad. You also seem to be aggressively pursuing a relationship with Sybil. We worry that you may have been offered something by the Aconite family in exchange for keeping tabs on her.”

“Are you being serious?” Alton looked about the table, eyes lingering for a moment on Chickadee. The blacksmith was eating his meal like nothing was going on. “Vex, I have been offered nothing by those people.”

“However, you also said during the exam that you wanted to apply to royal guard after graduation,” Veximarl squeaked out. “There is a considerable amount of evidence against you.”

Lydia floated up through the table. “I never considered that this would be the conclusion they came up with. Even if I hadn’t asked you to watch over Sybil, I wonder if you still would have been forced to do so eventually. It makes me wonder why they didn’t bother to approach you first, with all things considered.”

Of course she must have known about their plans to ambush him, and of course, she wouldn’t warn him about it. Lydia was the type to be more amused by watching things happen rather than being useful. The majority of this was her fault, and he wanted nothing more than an ability that let the others see her at this very moment.

Alton glared at her for a moment and then looked to Veximarl. “You’re all obviously not going to believe me, but everything is that stupid rapier’s fault. I would still be clueless and in Baron Squad if it weren’t for that thing.”

“You’re not supposed to unite the core and the outerland with your penis!” exclaimed Zaniyah as she slammed her hand down again. Vincent reached over and patted her arm in an effort to calm her down.

“I know that’s what you think Lady Larkin’s final request was, but it wasn’t.” Alton stood up and gestured to where the rapier was on the weapons rack. “When I drew that thing out of the Volo Refuge, there was a voice in my head ordering me to protect Twist. Specifically her. That’s why I’m always following her around.”

Zaniyah slammed down her hand down for the third time but somehow managed to smack Veximarl as he was reaching for the pitcher of water. The joints in his knuckles cracked uncomfortably as she applied pressure. “You’re not supposed to protect Sybil with your penis!” Veximarl let out a thin whine and Zaniyah’s hand sprang back up in the air. “Oh! S-sorry.”

Alton clenched and unclenched his hands while he thought about why it would be a bad idea to start a fight. Right now, he really wanted to have one. Meanwhile, Chickadee had calmly moved over to his desk. He grabbed one of the journals from it and quickly flipped through the pages. Returning to the table, he held it up to show the others the sketch he had located. It was of Lydia’s rapier. There extensive notes written across the page about its construction and use.

“He keeps copies of any notes his mother has made. She’s the one that created the rapier,” explained Zaniyah. “It was one of her first weapons, before she became super famous.”

Chickadee nodded in agreement. “Voice in head is plausible,” he said quietly.

Veximarl furrowed his brows. “Now I have concerns over Alton having a haunted weapon.”

“Not haunted,” replied Chickadee.

Looking between the floating Lydia and Chickadee, Alton couldn’t help but feel confused. “... It’s not?”

“Human blood iron.” Chickadee rotated the book so Alton could see and pointed to the blood iron gem that was in the rapier’s pommel. “Baton designed to enhance magic casting. Blood iron extracted from sentient beings and tainted beasts are known to carry trace amounts of personality.”

“... Trace amounts?” asked Alton as he looked between Lydia and Chickadee. “No ghosts or necromancy or anything like that?”

Vincent raised up a hand to gain their attention. “The practice of killing sentient creatures for the blood iron was made illegal in Lustro centuries ago. It was thought that souls were what powered blood iron, not magical ability. If what Cully says is true, it gives insight to why the practice had stopped.”

Veximarl wasn’t fully convinced. “If Alton’s story about the rapier is plausible, and from what I’ve heard about his lack of lecherous behavior from both Chi and Zani… His actions somewhat make sense?”

“That is simply one circumstance,” reasoned Vincent. “Toval still could have been offered a deal in exchange for his surveillance. He was known at Starsons for accepting high-quality gifts and money in exchange for his services, thus I doubt that what he says about the voice is true. Why would Lady Larkin want to specifically protect Twist?”

Zaniyah rubbed at her arm and nervously shuffled about. “It’s kind of a secret, but Lydia is the reason why Sybil’s mom killed herself. That’s why she helped raise Sybil when she came back from the war. They’re kinda like mother and daughter ‘cause of it, but we’re not supposed to talk about it. Kinda like how we’re not supposed to talk about how Chi was expelled from Dogfall for blowing up part of the mountain, or how Alton is in denial about being half fish.”

Alton took a deep breath. He couldn’t deny that he did accept bribes in exchange for his time, but he had his own reasons for being so greedy. “I am not half fish.” He then blinked several times. “Wait, Chi was the one that caused that earthquake?”

“Complete denial,” muttered Zaniyah. “Gills mean fish, and you have gills. You told me that I needed to learn more about animals, and the books were very specific about the gills.”

“But-” Alton fumbled his hands about in the air. “... What?”

“I thought Lydia was Sybil’s biological mother.” Everyone looked over to Veximarl. “... She was very specific about the biological part, as I recall.” Alton flashed another look towards Lydia. Tossing his arms up in the air as he did so. He was at a complete loss for words by this point.

“Shh!” Zaniyah waved her hands about. “Everyone knows that you feed people half-truths that sort of sound like the real deal so they stop questioning things, and we’re definitely not supposed to talk about that!” Chickadee’s head bobbled up and down quickly in agreement.

The ghost inhaled sharply between her teeth, making a sharp hissing noise. “Did I forget to mention that?” She started to sink into the table while Alton mentally strangled her. “It’s getting rather late. I’ll see you tomorrow. Oh! It’s going to be another exciting day! Lots of training to get done! Better rest while I can...” Her image quickly began to fade away.

“It seemed like Twist likes her secrets,” growled Alton through his teeth.

“She never told you? The two of you seemed close enough that… Ah.” Veximarl winced. Now he felt that familiar pang of guilt from blabbing out one of Sybil’s secrets. He was terrible at being a good friend.

Placing his hand to his temple, Alton let out an annoyed sigh. She told Veximarl, but not him. He had thought they were growing close, but apparently, Alton was wrong about that. Though it did explain why she took Lydia’s death so personally.

“Again, I don’t know anything. If you can find out about her sword, I’m sure you’ll find your answers, but as long as Twist is willing to put up with me, I plan on staying. I like her, and I’m going to court her. Deal with it.” He stood up and pushed his chair in. “But right now, I can’t stand to look at any of you. I’ll find dinner elsewhere.” His hand darted out and stole the jar of pickled snails. “And I’m taking these with me!”

Chickadee waved a hand. “Be safe and sleep early.”

The rest were silent as they watched Alton storm out of the room. Veximarl shook his head and glanced at Vincent. “I don’t believe we handled that right.”

Giving a nod, the paladin was inclined to agree. “If you are still concerned, I suggest you find a way to keep an eye on them. You are their captain. It isn’t intrusive for you to know their schedules. If you believe the situation is becoming worse, you should seek out the council of a knight.”

“Yes, of course,” replied Veximarl.

He still had the device that let him check student records. Bronzescale members seemed to make notes if students moved outside their normal schedules, and he could possibly use it to see what secret missions Sybil had been up to. The only reason he hadn’t was because he was attempting to respect her duties. It was better to trust that she would say something if she was in trouble.

They continued to eat in awkward silence until Veximarl began to clean up. He set aside some food for Sybil before turning his attention to Vincent. The paladin was speaking quietly with Zaniyah.

“What is your opinion on our troubles?” He asked.

“My thoughts are that this is a complicated situation,” remarked Vincent. “My expertise lies solely on the fact that I have known Toval the longest. He has always used a fake sort of personality around others in an attempt to please them, but he has refrained from doing so with your lot. The anger he felt when he left is genuine. Make of that what you will.”

Zaniyah shuffled her feet about uncomfortably. “When you put it like that, I feel horrible about treating him so badly. I’ve been a real jerk to him over these past few days.”

Vincent picked up the basket of dirty dishes that Chickadee had just finished packing. “If you talk it out with him calmly, and explain yourself clearly, I’m certain he’ll forgive you.” He bobbed his head to the door. “In the meantime, let us drop this off at the kitchens and go for a walk around the rampart.”

“Right!” She beamed at him. The two left together, leaving Chickadee and Veximarl alone.

Chickadee had already returned to the chair by the window. He held a flaming finger above the sheath he had been working on. Fire was brighter than the glowstone lanterns, and he wanted to be extra certain that the details were right. A nod was given to Veximarl as he approached.

“What do you think?”

A long moment of silence followed as Chickadee thought about it. Despite being asked to look after Sybil, Alton had chosen to go with himself and Zaniyah to Herring. He had offered to teach them out to swim and had rushed to save Chickadee when he was injured. Chickadee’s fingers traced his bottom lip and a faint blush hit his dark cheeks.

Then again, the majority of their problems over summer were all Alton’s fault. Chickadee had been offered a third year escort to Herring, and without his leg injury, they would’ve been there and back before the storms had even hit the town. There wasn’t a way for Alton to have planned for that to happen, but he was accidentally the cause of it. He was just like them, trying to fumble his way through life and failing spectacularly at it.

“Alton is not a bad person.” A part of him knew he should have said something sooner, but he also knew that conflict was better than simply taking someone’s word for it. At least Zaniyah was the type who needed to confront people before she could trust them completely.

Veximarl let out a sigh. “I’m afraid that I agree with you on that. Perhaps it’s best for me to put my faith in him and hope that he is more open to us in the future.”

Chickadee set down the sheath and looked over to Veximarl. “Will you ever be open about yourself?”

“... No.” Veximarl nodded to himself. “I have come to terms with what I am, and I am grateful that both you and Sybil can see past the gifts I’ve been blessed with, but I cannot predict how the others will react. I doubt it will be the same.” He turned away, slightly overcome by the generosity that both Chickadee and Sybil had given him. “I am going to brush my teeth and retire for the evening. Goodnight, Chi.”

Chickadee gave a nod and went back to his work. Veximarl finished his nightly tasks and went to lie in bed. Despite his heavy workload during the day, he had trouble sleeping. He found himself staring at the ceiling and listening to the faint sounds around him.

He could hear Zaniyah and Vincent whispering outside the door before she entered the room. She said her goodnights to Chickadee, who was still working and went to bed herself. An hour passed and Alton returned eventually. He grunted a noise at Chickadee and climbed up into his bed. It was close to midnight when Sybil returned. She didn’t even bother climbing into bed. Her pillow pile was a safe enough haven for her.

The last week of Summer dragged on, and Elbellziara visited regularly to have lunch with Sybil and oversee how Lady Till was running the barracks. When she left, both Alton and Sybil breathed a sigh of relief. She left without much of a word. A duchess was a busy woman, after all, and she had been called away to visit Duke Sickleson on official business.

Everything started to shift into their autumn schedules. Second and third year squires vanished for sometimes weeks at a time to do missions. Nearby farms had to prepare for Eatha’s Feast Day on Sixth Eathaday. It was the role of the first years to help where they could.

This also meant that temporary workers from all over were showing up in order to harvest the crops. The hunting groups were bringing in animals that would be processed into preserved meats, and they also worked on scavenging any wild plants that would help with winter food stocks. Others were built hay shelters to keep the feed safe from rot and mice, while the rest were busy pickling and jamming whatever they could.

Working commoner jobs was supposed to give the squire’s perspective on how difficult the lives below their status were. Veximarl was a commoner, and he had never had to work so hard in his life for a meal. Training, blood drawings, classes, working on the farm both mornings and cooking in the evenings... He had little time to do anything for himself.

Suddenly it was three weeks left until the war of the years and he still hadn’t done much to prepare. He sat in his weekly meeting with Basil and Gwyn, head against the table as Basil wrote down all the information he had gathered. Gwyn was just as uncaring as she was before, but now she was working on embroidering a dark blue scarf instead of a handkerchief.

“Lady Anemone is planning an obstacle course that can only be safely navigated by solving a series of riddles.” Basil quickly sorted through a pile of notes. “No word on what the riddles are. I doubt I will manage to find out more than that. Sir Pegasus is requesting an artistic demonstration of our abilities, similar to the shows that were put on for Lady Elbellziara. We’ll be judged on who gives the best performance.”

“How did you get this information?” Gwyn glanced up from her work.

Basil grinned. “We tracked down some foxes that were pestering the chickens and traded the skins to a tanner in Tilrey. Through an extensive barter system, we managed to trade our way up to a case of aged whiskey that we bribed Sir Stonetoe with. He told us everything.”

Veximarl nodded with appreciation, but he worried about his knight’s alcohol addiction. “What is Sir Stonetoe planning?”

“Cooking contest,” Basil replied in a flat tone.

“... Our weapons instructor has arranged a cooking contest?” Veximarl asked in as flat of a manner as Basil had spoken.

“He said it was Sir Grimhawk’s idea.” Both Gwyn and Veximarl made an “ah” noise as they realized that made perfect sense. “We’re going to be told the events next week. There will be a basic pantry, but we’ll be expected to gather the bulk of materials ourselves.”

Veximarl had enough skills to make sure he wouldn’t get food poisoning, but nothing that would impress. He could, however, provide materials. “With Gwyn’s magic, we can specialize in growing out of season foods.”

“I can supply any game you’d guys want,” added Basil. “Getting the goods isn’t the problem. We need to make something delicious.”

“Duck,” Gwyn muttered as she looked down. “They will need to be dry aged for a week, and that would go nicely over a bed of fennel with a wine and cherry sauce. We shouldn’t go and use out of season foods excessively, as Autumn is known for its richer flavors and comforting meals. It should taste homemade with a hint of elegance. For a side dish…” She paused for a moment so she could get a complicated stitch right. “Grilled cabbage wedges with a pickled garlic dressing.”

Basil wiped at his mouth to keep from drooling. “That does sound like a winner, but I have no idea how to make any of that.”

“I will be able to manage as long as I am provided the ingredients,” muttered Gwyn. She still sounded apathetic as she spoke.

Veximarl nodded at the plan. “I have a collection of dried plant samples that I have gathered on my travels. Several of them are edible wild herbs. If you believe that will help, please let me know.” Gwyn narrowed her eyes at him. “I am only suggesting that because I thought it would give us an edge.”

“Fine.” She said, still glaring. “Bring them to the commons area later so that I may look them over.”

That was one event that they stood to do well in. If they could manage to score high in either the skills demonstration or the obstacle course, they could at least beat the third year group. Veximarl was certain that they had no chance to win at combat.

They called an end to their meeting and went about their separate duties. Veximarl felt calmer about their chances now that he had a better idea of what was going on, but he still would prefer to work on patching up things within his own squad. Alton had been talking less with them as a whole, and he felt it was his responsibility to fix the situation.

Chickadee had promised that they could do a test run of his spear before the competition. He had gotten a collection of blood iron from a variety of sources and hoped to use those as a way to help Veximarl cast his magic stealthily

He would be able to cast his magic in the shape of the blood iron sources, making it seem like a summoning spell rather than necromancy. Part of the design was heavily based off of Vincent’s bracer, thus it shouldn’t raise any eyebrows. It seemed like a plan that would work. They had some success in summoning birds that used Veximarl’s shield spell, but not much else. Mostly they worked at night, since the sight of skeletal birds flying about would no doubt get them in trouble.

Maybe he would have more success when the spear was actually complete. Chickadee was swamped with other work, but there was a sense of urgency in Veximarl’s mind. There weren’t many weeks left, and he needed all the time in the world to prepare.

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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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