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Lady Till sat with her forehead resting against her desk; a rare look for the headmistress. There was the rattling noise of celebration outside her window as the third years celebrated their victory. Inside her office, the air was tense. Sitting at the other side of her desk were three squires, and Stonetoe was leaning against the wall.

Chickadee, Sybil, and Veximarl were at different levels of panic. The blacksmith was looking about apathetically, Sybil was twisting her hands together in her lap, and Veximarl was a complete mess. His eyes darted about constantly, and he was struggling not to hyperventilate.

“Sir Stonetoe, are these all of the squires that know of Mister Tuton’s affliction?” Her face had a weary expression on it as she spoke. She lightly touched her temple in an attempt to keep her composure.

Stonetoe cleared his throat. He had spent the past hour being yelled at by Till, and he was trying not to continue their argument. Especially not after Grimhawk bailed on him claiming that his “old man illness” was acting up.

“Yes. I believe so.”

“I would like to start off by saying that I’m disappointed that this wasn’t brought up to me prior to Mister Tuton’s acceptance to this institution. However, if we expel him now, there will no doubt double other’s suspicions. As I do not feel comfortable being the one sentencing you to death, and for the fact that Lady Grulick asked for you to be here, I will allow you to remain at Braytons for the time being.”

Veximarl bowed deeply. “T-thank you, Lady Till. I will forever be in your debt.”

“This is pending on several conditions, Mister Tuton,” continued Till. “You will continue to hide your condition to the best of your ability. If anyone seems to be aware of your affliction, you will report them to me. If there is ever a time where I believe you are compromised beyond our ability to protect you, you will be sent away. Furthermore, I will be requesting contact with Lady Grulick about why she thought it wise to send you to us in the first place.”

“Ah…” Veximarl looked down and wrung his hands together. “I am certain that the impending flood would make it quite difficult to get in contact with her.”

Now Stonetoe took a turn in pinching the bridge of his nose. “She’s dead. The damn woman dropped dead, didn’t she...”

Clearing his throat, Veximarl continued. “There was an incident last winter where a surge of stronger tainted beasts entered from the north, including a would-be, and Lady Grulick was injured in such a manner where, despite my best efforts, she did not exactly... R-recover.”

Stonetoe let out a pained groan. “Dammit, toad.”

“Fear not! Upon her request, I created a soul gem and sealed her within it so that she may still communicate from beyond the grave. It is only a matter of time before Lady Till will get her chance to speak with her.”

“Why would you do that?!” Stonetoe held his hand in the air and fought off the urge to smack Veximarl.

“I am a necromancer. Preservation of the dead is quite literally what we are known and feared for... I will stress that I only perform such rituals upon request of the deceased,” Veximarl stated. “However, the gem was left in a safe location within the swamp. It may be difficult to retrieve it until after winter.”

Sybil twirled her thumbs around each other. “Actually... I may have taken her back with us.” Veximarl snapped his head in her direction. “I couldn’t help it! I felt so bad about leaving her there! I swear that never attempted to activate the gem, and I’ve kept her safe in my dresser!” Next to her socks. She didn’t want to say that part though. It didn’t feel like the most respectful place she could have kept Lady Grulick.

Till was annoyed with the stress that her knights and squires were placing on her. “When I see you first thing in the morning, Miss Twist, I expect you to hand over that gem. As for you, Mister Cully, from now on, I will need detailed reports on any and all items you modify or create. I do not wish to have any more surprises like today. Sir Stonetoe, will you please go over their punishments?”

“Of course, Lady Till.” Stonetoe handed a piece of paper over to Veximarl. “The three of you are going to start new schedules. Your morning duties and afternoon classes are hereby canceled, and you will be working as personal assistants for a selection of knights. That means no more blacksmithing, Cully. None. And you are going to be abiding by that.”

Veximarl looked over the paper. “I will be working with Sir Grimhawk, Chi will be handling affairs for Sir Dalkirk, and you have been assigned to work as Lady Till’s assistant, Sybil.”

Her nose scrunched up at the news. She flashed a pleading look with Stonetoe. Surely he must understand that she had very little to do with the incident today and would ease her punishment. Sybil very honestly had nothing to do with this...

“Yes. I went there.” The knight pointed at her in a scowling manner. “Because despite Krogastein’s bizarre existence, you have the worst grades in etiquette class.” Ah, yes. He did have a point there. “Take this time to improve yourselves, and don’t mess up like this again.”

The three were dismissed, and they made their way back to the dorms. Singing and dancing could be heard from the meal hall. Third and first years alike had broken out drinks and food in order to celebrate the third year victory.

“Veximarl!” Theodoric ran out and slapped the necromancer firmly on the shoulder. “I heard that you were the one that came up with the plan to help us win. I was certain you were going to backstab us in the end, but you all were being truthful when you said you were willing to sacrifice yourselves to take out the second years.”

It wasn’t for the third years sake... He only wanted to beat Duxton. A heavy sensation hung in his chest at the thought of using the third years to his advantage. When he had come up with the plan, he truly didn’t care if they managed to win or lose. Not as long as Trenchall was going down before him.

“... Yes.” Veximarl nodded. “Please give my congratulations to the victors for me.”

Theodoric laughed. “Do it yourself.” He gestured for the trio to join the party. “This is just as much your victory as it is ours. We’d love to have you.” His sincerity was like a hot knife in Veximarl’s gut.

Sybil grabbed the spear out of Veximarl’s hands and nudged him towards the hall. “Why don’t you and Chi go? You can afford to let loose a little before we end up locked away for who knows how long.” She held up the spear. “I’ll drop this off in the room for you.”

“Of course.” Veximarl smiled back. “Be sure to join us when you can.” He wasn’t fond of crowds, and he would feel more comfortable if both of them were with him.

“I need to make sure I have everything in order first so I can somehow impress Lady Till tomorrow.”

Her eyes flitted over to Alton, who was dancing with Forlaith. She let out a high pitched whistle, which made the squire look over just in time to see her wink. He raised an eyebrow and she responded with a smile as she walked away.

Alton quickly excused himself, running past Chickadee and Veximarl as he caught up with Sybil. “Have fun! Glad to see you don’t seem to be in trouble!” He then spun around long enough to give the pair a salute before continuing on.

He grinned to himself as Sybil took his hand into her own. She didn’t make a big deal of it. This wasn’t behavior that she was proud of. She did like the guy, but… Something about admitting that felt shameful. Especially since they weren’t dating.

“How’d it go?”

Sybil rolled her eyes. “I’m stuck working as Lady Till’s assistant for awhile because those idiots decided to make an unapproved weapon without consulting me first. Why did they refuse to believe me when I said I wasn’t involved?”

“Because you’re awesome enough to care for your friends, and you would have absolutely helped them out if they had asked?” Sybil stopped for a moment to let out a loud groan. “You would’ve felt guilty if you didn’t get punished with them, right?”

Chickadee ‘borrowed’ the modified designs that she had done for Vincent’s bracer for his project. The reason he didn’t ask first was because he knew Sybil would’ve given him permission regardless. Sybil’s face tensed up at the thought. Stupid Alton had a point about her feeling guilty through association.

They opened the door to their squadroom, only to see Vincent and Zaniyah slow dancing with each other in silence. The pair paused and stared at Sybil and Alton as they stood in the doorway, their faces turning a bright red color in the process. Sybil raised the spear and gestured to the weapons rack.

“I’m just going to put this here and leave,” Sybil placed the spear on the rack and started to walk backward and away from the situation.

Alton shook his head in disappointment. “A man alone with a woman in her room.” He tsked his tongue as he closed the door. “You want to go have sex in his room?” She punched him in the arm. “What?! They’re in ours!”

“I will not let you make fun of Zaniyah for this!” Sybil slashed through the air with her hands. “She is happy, and she deserves this. Let her be!” Though she was hoping that they would be at the party and they would have the room to themselves. “And stop suggesting we have sex.” She only wanted to cuddle because it was cold outside and maybe kiss him, but only a little.

Alton grinned all the wider as they walked back to the second floor. “For someone who wanted a purely physical relationship, you sure turned out to be a prude.” He watched as she sat on a sofa and took a seat next to her. He flopped his head onto her lap and sighed contently when he didn’t get hit for it.

“You’re the one who said you didn’t want to rush things,” she muttered. Her fingers ran through his hair like she was petting a cat.

If Alton were honest, it was moments like these that were his favorites. The soft gentle touch that felt like she actually did care about him. Plus Lydia was distracted watching the party. This sort of silence was a comfortable one.

“Would you rather I acted more like Highland?” He rolled on his back and kicked his legs over the armrest of the sofa. The back of his fingers began to trace themselves along her cheek.

“No. Don’t get me wrong, they’re adorable, but I think I would go crazy if we acted like that.” Sybil tilted her head to the side, leaning her cheek into his palm as he turned his hand around. She said that, but she was acting so cute at the moment.

He took his time to study her. When they met, she was this thing that was covered in dust from the road and staring at everything with a sense of worry and concern. That was to be expected since she was from the core. People from the core were supposed to be looked down upon. Not that he wholly believed in that philosophy, but he was expected to abide by it. Sybil had changed a lot, and she was still mean to him, but… He couldn’t bring himself to dislike her when she looked at him like this.

“It’s been a while since we talked about it,” he whispered. “Is this how you want us to stay? Do you want more?”

Sybil’s eyes flitted away for a moment and then back to him. “I like what we have now.”

They often met up in secret to talk, but it rarely went beyond that. It was fun at first, when she would hit him and play hard to get. Suddenly she would be the one asking him to meet in private for some affection. Things were nice, but Alton felt like they had become stagnant.

“That’s not enough for me anymore,” he whispered.

“Alright, fine.” Sybil bit on her bottom lip. “I guess you can feel up my, uh, breasts more often or something… I haven’t decided yet.”

Alton sat up and stared at her. “Really?!” She nodded and refused to look his way. “No, wait, that’s not what I want. Actually, I do want that, but not right now... Maybe right now, wait, no.” He took a breath to gather his thoughts. “Let’s make this official.”

“... Official, huh?” Sybil shook her head. “... I can’t. I’m grounded. Stonetoe will just find a way to make matters worse for me if he finds out we’re dating.”

“Right.” Alton put an arm about her shoulders. “At least stop hitting me any time I try to be affectionate with you. Everyone thinks you hate me.” Sybil shrugged and then nodded as though she agreed. “You don’t hate me, Twist.”

“There are times where I find you to be absolutely intolerable,” she replied flatly.

He kissed the side of her neck. She stiffened at first before she tilted her head to the side. Her hand grasped at the edges of his collar as he pulled away. “We should go back to the party. If Vincent is busy, then it won’t be long until it becomes amazing.”

They had already started to toss people in the pantry when he left. He wanted to watch the regret on people’s faces when they came back out. It would also be a great opportunity for him to publicly declare his affections for Sybil.

“If it’s anything like what I’ve heard, then we’re not doing that,” replied Sybil as she loosened her grip. “What we should do is go tell Vincent what they’re planning so he can stop it. That way we can have the room to ourselves for a little bit.”

“No. We are going to that party.” Even if her offer was tempting, he didn’t want to miss out on any potential chaos. “We won’t drink, but we are going to get locked into a room together so we can do something absolutely regrettable, and watch the others walk around with horrid shame shadowing in their eyes.”

Now Sybil regretted that she had encouraged Chickadee and Veximarl to attend. “Alright, fine.” Alton raised a brow at her. “Stop being suspicious about why I want to go, and just hurry up.”

She would be late in her rescue attempts. The moment that Veximarl and Chickadee had entered the party, there were suddenly cheers for Veximarl to be the next person to enter the pantry. A prize for the general who led the third year army to victory! Now he found himself standing awkwardly in a small room next to Tish, who was holding up a light spell so that they could see.

Tish couldn’t get the fight out of her head. Veximarl was somehow an impressive paladin. He was able to fight with a new weapon and cast spells while keeping track of the position of every single one of Trenchall’s coins. Not once did he even suffer a scratch.

Yet he somehow completely missed the sight of Udell’s hook. No… He didn’t. She saw it. His shield showed up for the briefest moment before he purposely took the hit. He chose to not defend himself against a melee attack, and it was the same when Trenchall went after him with a magic sword. Veximarl chose to put his trust in dodging over his shields. She wanted to know if Vincent saw the same, but it bothered that he chose to silence her instead.

Veximarl couldn’t feel more uncomfortable about his current situation. Not that he didn’t know or trust Tish, but Chickadee was now alone at the party. The blacksmith normally relied on others to help communicate for him. Hopefully, no one was giving him a hard time or pressuring him into something he didn’t want to do. What should only be a few minutes alone with Tish dragged on for seemingly forever.

“Vexi... I know we’re still new at the barracks, and we haven’t known each other for very long, but I want you to know that you can feel comfortable around us. You know, all of us first years... We’re all here to take care of each other,” whispered Tish.

“Yes. I understand that,” said Veximarl with a nervous laugh. “There is no need to coddle me, Tish. I know that we are all friends here.”

Tish nodded. “Exactly! We’re going to be out here quickly enough, but feel free to use this time and tell me whatever it is that is on your mind!”

“Yes, well.” Veximarl cleared his throat. “This is awkward, as you are a priestess of Eatha, but I do have something to admit.”

She put her free hand on his arm as a sign of reassurance. “Go ahead. I’m here for you.”

“Currently, I identify as an asexual. That is, I hold no particular attractions towards anyone, nor do I know if I ever will. That is how it’s always been for me... Not to say that I will not someday, as I have very little experience with anyone my own age, but I am comfortable being this way.”

The priestess was confused. “Pardon?”

“I understand that you are perhaps not used to rejection, and I feel a sense of guilt about it since you were so adamant about being the one in here with me. I do understand that despite the pious nature of other branches of the church, the agents of Eatha tend to practice sexual responsibility as a form of praise. However, I am a paladin in training, and despite abstinence not being a mandatory requirement of the church, I desire to uphold the standard that I have set for myself.”

“Yes, of course.” Tish nodded her head slowly.

This had been a stressful day for him. She would have the chance to figure out if her suspicions were true later. There wasn’t a doubt that Vincent either knew something or thought the same as her. She understood now that him telling her to remain silent confirmed her suspicions.

Veximarl and Vincent appeared to be friends, and the two paired off together during Acolyte studies. They trusted one another, but Baron wasn’t the only squad Veximarl hung around. He also spent time with Macestar. She thought they had grown close enough to trust each other with these sorts of things.

“I hope this does not put a strain on our friendship,” whispered Veximarl.

“No!” Tish lifted her away from his arm and waved it about. “Not at all, Vexi. I’m overjoyed that you brought this up. There is nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to a lack of physical interest in anyone... I’m not sure what we are going to do for the rest of our time in here, but I’m certain we can figure something out.”

Veximarl nodded. “I would assume we would speak like we normally would. It is nice to have some private time to talk, even if it is in an awkward location.”

They spoke politely about their classes and some other minor gossip before they were let out. Veximarl then retreated to a corner of the dining hall and made his presence small. Eventually, Sybil reappeared, relieved that both of them appeared to be doing okay. Chickadee was doing more than okay, he had come out of the pantry himself and was absolutely beaming. He was so adorable that Alton couldn’t bring himself to tease him about it.

After an hour, Vincent appeared long enough to order the first years to head back to the dorms. It wasn’t terribly late into the night, so they stole some of the food and continued to hang out on the second floor. It was around that time when Veximarl chose to slip away. He had won Duxton’s game, and he was worried that the prince would conveniently forget to tell him the information that he wanted.

It was foolish of him to go alone, but Chickadee was stressed enough by the last interaction that they had had together. He didn’t want to make his friends worry. Veximarl had more than enough worry in himself.

The second years had retreated to the library, where they weren’t acting any differently than usual. An odd sight to see them well behaved on a holiday, but they did appear to have snuck in some alcohol. Silence washed over the room as Veximarl entered, and he gave them a meek wave in return.

“I was hoping to have a conversation with Prince Duxton,” he muttered.

Duxton lifted his arm off of Rebecca’s shoulders and gestured to Shaw with a set of fingers. The paladin had partially drawn his sword and was glaring at Veximarl. “He’s unarmed. Foolishly so. Do you believe that makes you look confident?” He stood up and put a hand on his hip. Even though he also appeared unarmed, everything about his stance radiated danger.

“That is not my intention at all,” replied Veximarl. “I merely wished to demonstrate that I do not wish to start a fight.”

“But you are certainly willing to end one.” Duxton stepped forward and smiled at Veximarl. “I like it when people are feisty, Vex, but that’s not you. You act all passive and weak, and you let everyone push you about, but even you are capable of lunging for the jugular when the pressure is on. Or, Udell was the one that went for the jugular. Quite literally.” His finger danced about the air as he mimed slashing Veximarl’s throat.

“I do not understand your point, my liege.”

Veximarl’s eyes were flitting about the room. The other second years were tense. Normally they were lax and joking about, but something was off. Had he interrupted something? Or had he unnerved them to that degree? Only Beat seemed relaxed, silently studying the situation as it unfolded.

Duxton hissed between his teeth as he inhaled. “My point is that I don’t like you.” He shook his finger at Veximarl. “I’ve decided that I don’t like you at all, Vex. Apparently, you have this trait of being dangerously unpredictable, and I don’t like it when people do that. Not to mention that I was looking forward to playing with gloom girl, and you tore that opportunity away from me. People are usually wise enough to not get in the way of the things that I want.”

“I am simply here to for the information you promised. Please do not view this as a threat,” replied Veximarl.

“You’re right. It is for the best that you leave,” retorted Duxton in a harsh manner. He waited for a moment before continuing. “I don’t know what Aunt El wants with that girl, as my orders didn’t come from her.

Someone thought it wise to ask me to protect Miss Sybil Twist in the event that she ever wakes up. No, I don’t know what that means, but I was told it would be obvious if she did. Do not bother to ask who was the one who gave me this order, as you have not earned that information.”

Maybe it had to do with the sword. No, it was obviously the sword and the way she was able to use it. Waking up must mean that she would have better use of those abilities, but Duxton didn’t know that. No one knew aside from himself that Sybil could use it properly. It was also possible that everything Duxton was telling him was a lie. Any furthers questions would be pointless now.

“I see,” said Veximarl with a nod. He gave a polite bow. “Thank you, sir. I will be on my way.”

“Good. Don’t start trouble like this again.” His voice lowered to a deathly tone. “Otherwise, I will be forced to deal with you.” Duxton’s stance relaxed. “Or Shaw will end you. I haven’t decided yet. Whatever seems most entertaining at the time, we will go with that.” Shaw gave a shrug to the statement.

Veximarl thought it best to not give any of them the opportunity and quickly made his escape. He eased his worries by updating the schedule board that they had hanging in the room. Something was weighing heavily on his mind. As concerned as they all claimed to be for Sybil, none of them had approached her about it. Sitting around and spinning theories didn’t sit well with him. Now he felt as though he had enough information to have a productive discussion.

Not today though. After the second and third years left next week. Or even better, after they were done with their punishment. Things didn’t look easy for any of them. He had one on one dueling practice with Grimhawk every morning before breakfast, and it looked like Sybil had lessons with something called dressage. She was already tired of dresses, but she did have a collection of them. The expectations of a noblewoman were beyond his comprehension.

He went to bed early, which was normal for him, and the others filtered into the room after a time. Chickadee took the spear off the weapon rack and began to examine it. The blacksmith wanted to ensure that the heavy casting that Veximarl had done caused it no damage. It appeared fine at a glance, which was a good sign.

Alton also went to bed early. Not that he had a reason to be tired, but he wanted to take Bibi out for a morning ride after he had cleaned out his assigned part of the stables. It wasn’t long before he was woken up by a heavy tapping on his forehead. Sybil eased herself over the barrier and shifted under the blankets next to him. Her head became buried against his shoulder as he wrapped her up in a hug. Neither said anything, but Alton couldn’t complain.

The door opened and Zaniyah stumbled inside. She let out a sigh and looked over to Chickadee, who was still working. “Sorry, I’m late. It took us a while to figure out where Tish was hiding so Vincent could yell at her. Is Vex’s spear okay?”

Chickadee gave a nod. “Held together well. Quite impressed.” Zaniyah blinked at his response. “It will not go boom.”

“Did you guys name it yet?” She walked over and put her hand on Chickadee’s shoulder, leaning over so she could get a better look. He shook his head at her response. “Come on, a weapon needs a name! I got Whisper and Fling. You got Entomb and Forge and- What was your knife’s name?”

“Bardsen’s knife.” She scrunching her nose at the response. “Not changing it.” He liked the names Entomb and Forge for his cane and gloves, but it felt odd to rename a weapon that he didn’t make himself.

Zaniyah shrugged. “You better come up with something good for that spear.”

“... Resurgence?”

“Ooo. I like that one.” She waved her hands about in a spooky manner. “Makes sense if you’re using the ghosts to make golems. Crazy stuff, but doesn’t that mean that there’s a dead guy in Vincent’s bracer?”

Chickadee shook his head. “Similar concept. Different design. Need not worry.”

“Gosh, I can’t imagine having a person in my weapon. I’d be afraid they’d jump out at any moment and start talking.” She shuddered at the thought. “I mean, Volo Refuge is weird enough for carrying on last wishes, but imagine if the person themselves jumped out and started barking orders at you. I’d go crazy.”

Alton let out a sigh and nuzzled into Sybil more firmly. He didn’t know what that was like at all. Sybil tilted her head up and brushed the tip of her nose against the side of his neck, giving a faint inhale of his scent as she did so. Then again, if things were going to be like this, being bossed around by a ghost wasn’t all bad.

“I’m going to go to bed, Chi. Don’t stay up too late.” Zaniyah patted his shoulder. “Hopefully tomorrow is going to be as fun as today was!”

“Sleep well.” Chickadee waited until he started to hear her snoring before he stood up from his desk and put out the light of his lantern. He walked across the room and climbed up the ladder leading to Alton’s bed.

Alton stirred and started to sit up as he heard the ladder creak. He could see Chickadee’s head peeking up by his feet, staring at him blankly. “... Uh.”

“What is Sybil doing?” Chickadee’s voice whispered in the dark.

“She’s my girlfriend,” whispered Alton back. “We’re going to share a bed once in a while.”

Sybil mumbled in her sleep. “I’m not your girlfriend, and my bed is cold.”

Chickadee debated this. “... May I sleep here tomorrow?”

“... No.” Alton tightened his grip about Sybil in a possessive manner.

“I’m not your girlfriend, and my bed is cold.” Chickadee parroted Sybil’s words.

Sybil wearily nodded. “Go ahead and join in now.”

“He’s not allowed to join now,” spat Alton out quickly.

“Can’t. Meeting my pantry lover at midnight.” Both Alton and Sybil sat up to stare at him. “Might be back later. Will come here after washing off.” He ducked down and it wasn’t long before the two of them heard him sneak out the window.

Alton let out a sigh of relief. “I don’t care if it’s cold, this bed is small. There’s no way it can fit three of us. Plus, I know he hated it when we ended up lumped together in one spot on our trip to Herring. He was always complaining about being in the middle.”

“Normally Zani is in the middle,” whispered Sybil. “We used to sleep huddled together like this when we were kids.”

“You’re too old for that now,” whispered Alton back. “When you’re kids, it’s cute, but it’s weird and sexual when you’re adults. I’m already standing half salute here because of the way you’ve been breathing against my neck.”

Sybil rolled onto her back to make it less awkward. “I guess you’re right, but if you think of Chickadee like a pet, is it still bad? Like when a… What do outlanders have as pets? Badgers? Just think of him as a giant badger wanting a cuddle.”

“I don’t want to think of him as a giant badger wanting to cuddle.” Alton hissed through his teeth. “I know you are close, but I’m not going to be a part of some fantasy of yours or whatever this is.”

“Chi has never been interested in me nor will he ever be. He’s just a mage who can’t stand to be cold, and he’s never taken well to changing seasons.” He frowned at her. She replied by pawing at his shirt. “... I want to cuddle.”

Alton growled in annoyance as he drew up Sybil into his arms again. Her body did feel cooler than his, but he didn’t care what she said, he wasn’t going to share a bed with anyone else. As long as he could hold onto her, he felt like everything was going to be fine.

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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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