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The mood in the morning class was a heavy one. Some of the squires had been up late, and then Mila and Irving were up even later writing up reports on squire misconduct. The two from Bronzescale were at their usual back table, in a complete daze and oblivious to the world around them.

Alton was feeling down as well. His arm was around Chickadee’s shoulder as the mage leaned heavily into him. He had a headache. He didn’t know what was happening in his life anymore. Everything was spiraling out of control, and one hand wasn’t enough for him to flip through his notebook and take notes.

“What is..?” Veximarl gestured at the pair. “I thought you were…” He glanced over at Sybil, then shook his head with disbelief.

“I know this one!” Zaniyah raised a hand. “Chi has this thing where he, uhm…” She snapped her fingers. “What was it that you called him, Sybil? What is he?”

“A parasitic leech,” replied Sybil.

Zaniyah clapped her hands together. “Yes! That’s it! He really likes cuddling with people when it gets cold like… What do outlanders have as pets?” She looked over to Sybil again.

“Badgers,” replied Sybil confidently.

“Right! Badgers!” Zaniyah bobbled her head up and down. “Chi has a very low tolerance for cold weather and tends to turn into a badger until spring.”

“Dogs,” said Alton as he pinched the bridge of his nose. “You’re thinking of dogs, not badgers.” Both Sybil and Zaniyah stared at him. “Badgers and dogs are different animals!”

“... You’re kidding me.” Zaniyah was even more confused. “Well, I guess that’s why that striped dog I tried to pet the other week tried to bite me.”

Tish held open the side of her cloak. “Chi! Come share my cloak with me if you’re cold! I also have some sweets here that I can give you.”

At the mention of sweets, Chickadee immediately abandoned Alton so he could suck the heat out of someone else. This was a relief to Alton, who straightened up his jacket. Finally, he could go back to his book.

“Attention!” Lady Till stepped into the room and immediately tapped a pen against the lectern. A growl came out of Alton as he slammed his book shut. “I am certain you all had an interesting day yesterday, but time is short, and I have little of it.” She lifted up her pen and gestured to Tish and Chickadee. “You two stop that. Bronzescale, sit up straight. Highland, please give me attendance.”

Vincent stood up. “Everyone is present, ma’am!”

“Thank you. Let’s begin,” said Till as she straightened her paperwork. “As you all know, the second and third years will be leaving in a few days. I understand that some of you have family within the Crimson Region. If you haven’t already, please take some time tonight to write letters to your loved ones.

As for the reason for the region’s state of emergency, there have been reports of miasma building up within the city of Carapace, and all along the Crimson Range. Due to concern for human safety, the core is being evacuated until the situation may be better assessed. The third years will graduate early so that they may start their training within the military and assist in any concerns that may arise this winter.

You will not be allowed to attend any of these missions until your classes have ended after the eighth week of winter. Due to concerns of tainted beasts appearing within this area, none of you will be allowed to travel outside of the barracks unless you are in groups of three or more.

You must also have methods of defending yourselves in the event of an attack if you wish to be outside the barracks. We are currently looking into options for that, but it is unlikely that we will be able to provide the materials. No travel will be permitted after nightfall, and I expect that you, Mister Highland, will do a headcount of everyone at curfew.

As we gain more information over the coming weeks, we will give it to you. It is not our policy to hide information from our squires. You must all be capable of handling the truth as it is presented if you wish to mature.” She cleared her throat. “Now I hope that you all have a thirst of knowledge for the language of flowers because that is what we will be going over today.”

The class dragged on until they were given their first break, and then the air became tense once more. Vincent abruptly stood up. He took a deep breath before making his way to the lectern.

“Salutations and good morning.”

“We already have our orders. It’s not like you can say anything to cheer us up,” muttered Ivy as she rolled her eyes. “They’re leaving and we’re staying. That’s how things are for us first years.”

Vincent nodded, despite not appreciating her snark. “I wish to gather a list of concerns that we may have. Would anyone like to begin?”

Gwyn raised her hand. “I understand that Fogbloom doesn’t have a core, but there are often times where the mist over the city becomes exceptionally heavy. Do you believe the third years are being sent there to manage something that we don’t know about?”

“That is unlikely,” replied Veximarl. “A flood always begins at the peninsula. If there was a risk of Fogbloom being endangered, there is an army of paladins and mages at Grand Temple who will serve as the capital’s first defense. No disrespect for our peers, but I doubt they are being moved there because of an emergency within the capital.

I also doubt that they would send the second years to Carapace if it was truly dangerous. If the west had truly fallen, they would have been sent eastward, and this area would be at risk of miasma. At least, more so than the wisps that plague us currently.”

But people were already taking advantage of the miasma that was present here. A pregnant animal was smuggled to the area so that someone could experiment with it. Sybil knew this, and the evidence that Bronzescale had managed to uncover over the past few weeks implied that the miasma had been present for at least a year.

She looked back to Irving and Mila, who shook their heads at her. Right. They weren’t supposed to talk about it, and the infected caverns had already been sealed. Lady Till would have been told of the issue, and she would have told them about it if she thought it important.

“From my understanding, the floods happen within the swamplands every year?” Vincent asked. Veximarl nodded as a response. “That means you have dealt with tainted beasts in the past?”

Veximarl nodded again. “Eradication of tainted beasts is an unfortunate standard event. We usually work to avoid them whenever possible. However, I have fought several in the past.” He was also allowed to let loose with his necromancy in the swamp, which helped a great deal. “I wish to assure everyone that the one Sybil fought was a unique specimen.

The majority of tainted beasts are larger than their usual counterparts, but not always to such severity. Occasionally, there are larger floods where worse monstrosities, the would-bes, appear, but I do not know if that is the case for this situation. Lady Grulick battled one last winter, and it has been over ten years since the last appeared. As long as we abide by Lady Till’s rules, we should remain safe.”

Vincent agreed that the rules were not unreasonable. Most of what Veximarl had mentioned appeared to be sound judgment. “I suggest that we write to our loved ones as Lady Till suggested. Our families are the best source of information that we have. Let us plan for a formal meeting a few weeks from now so that we may compare notes. For now, I suggest we work on a system of keeping track of each other. Our safety is our top priority.”

Sybil raised a hand. “We use specialized letters in the core.” She reached into her jacket and pulled out her metal pad. “They’re attuned to work in Carapace, but they have some limited functions here. I’ve been using mine to send wingmail to Chi and Zani.” She tapped at it and a ghostly image of a moth appeared above the pad.

A buzzing sound came from Zaniyah’s jacket, and she quickly retrieved her letter. She snickered at the message. “Yeah, he does do that. It’s so stupid.” Her thumbs hastily typed at the letter and another moth appeared.

Sybil’s letter buzzed, and she put her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing too loudly. She then cleared her throat when she realized the class was staring. “They’re expensive since they’re normally personalized, but we might be able to get one for each of us.

The cost shouldn’t be as high if they’re only meant for messaging. We still need to see what their range is, but it should cover as far as the testing fields. Our only problem is that it will take a few weeks before they arrive.”

“We would appreciate it if it can be managed. I will speak to Lady Till to see if we may receive funding for such an endeavor. Please prepare a report of their functions and their costs for me beforehand.” Vincent looked to the rest of the class. “Does anyone else have something they wish to address?”

Alton raised a hand. “What do we do when two squad members are obviously writing hurtful messages to each other behind one’s back?” He shot a glare at both Sybil and Zaniyah, who looked away so they could hide their smirks.

“I suppose that draws our meeting to a close,” replied Vincent. “We have a few minutes until Sir Moss arrives to continue our,” he paused, if only to refrain from showing his disgust, “wonderful lessons on the hierarchy of noble courts. Please enjoy the rest of your break as you see fit.”

They continued their class and left to eat lunch in their separate groups. Then the grounded within Grimstone went off to start their punishments. Chickadee followed Dalkirk around and neither said anything to the other. They were joined by Mila and Irving, the latter who also didn’t say much.

At least Mila had someone to talk to whenever Sybil was around. Now she had three mutes to deal with for the next two weeks. A sigh escaped her lips as she hung her head to the side. Complete silence as they sat on the rampart together... This was a nightmare.

Things were more difficult for Veximarl. He was now not only forbidden from using magic until his spear skills improved, but had every third year in Grimhawk’s class wanting to try their luck at fighting him. Everyone wanted a chance to prove they could fight before they left the barracks forever.

He was stuck in the dueling field, dying repeatedly as his ability to adapt wasn’t the best under this sort of pressure. Somehow this was worse than Amalfrieda’s lessons. Veximarl was concerned that he was going to die for real before the two weeks were up.

Sybil was watching Lady Till give a demonstration of horse riding. She had little idea what this had to do with dresses, but that’s what was written on her schedule. Till adjusted the horse as she came to a stop, The squire sat at the side of the field with Foggy stretched across her lap.

“To be a knight is to have a title of nobility,” said Till. “You will, on certain occasions, be expected to attend events and enamor others with your presence. That involves having good manners, being able to dance, and maintaining interesting conversation with others. Having a hobby outside of warfare is essential if you wish to connect with others.”

“I do understand that golem manufacturing is perhaps unsettling to others,” replied Sybil. “But I've been working on some others projects that might hold your interest.”

Till looked disdainfully between Foggy and Sybil. “What people care about is the arts, literature, and religious discussion. You are a… Rather depressing person. You’re a depressing person to converse with, Miss Twist. Even if you are a skilled fighter with interesting magic, you lack the ability to tell your victories in an entertaining fashion like Miss Krogastein can. Tell me, how did you defeat that necromancer in the swamplands.”

“I cut off her head. There wasn’t as much blood as I expected there to be, though I didn’t want to look at the body. It got burned up pretty quickly by her golem after that so I guess it didn’t matter either way,” replied Sybil in a flat tone. She then blinked a few times. “... You might have a point that I’m not very good at this.”

“I have written to a horse breeder in Mareth. Duchess Elbellziara has offered to pay for anything that you might need during your tenure, despite us being a barracks that offers free education. Because of that, I better not get a complaint when I send her a bill for a pureblood steed. During the rest of your stay here at Braytons, I expect you to train that horse as your most trusted partner.”

Till then proceeded to give a demonstration of dressage. Her horse performed a series of dances and high steps while Sybil took notes. She was riding sidesaddle, with both her legs over one side of the horse, and she expected Sybil to learn how to do the same.

Over the next few days, Sybil was given lessons having to do with everything about horses. She was used to riding spiders along a maze of webs. Everything about this was boring when compared to that.

“Am I allowed to choose hunting as my outside hobby?” Sybil eventually asked.

The idea of putting all this effort into an animal that would just die after a few years seemed pointless to her. Especially when she could just as easily program a transport spider to do everything a horse could do. Tricks, riding, and more if she wanted it.

“Denied. Though the sidesaddle does allow for women to travel more freely with men on hunts, I expect you to hold yourself to a higher standard,” replied Till. “Reflect on what you have seen more carefully. There is still time before you will have a horse of your own. For now, I need to attend to some personal business within the barracks.”

It was already Satyrday, and the third and second years were slowly filtering out. Wagons were pointed towards both exits of the barracks, surrounded by animals that were loaded with heavy packs. The first years were loading what they could and assisting were they were needed. As Lady Till moved to help direct everything, Sybil went up to the rampart to watch. She was going to wait until she spotted someone in her squad and help them out.

Stonetoe joined her, offering a sip of his flask as he did so. Sybil took it and dipped it back, coughing and sputtering as the liquor burned her mouth and throat. The knight laughed as he took his flask back.

“You really shouldn’t drink that stuff all the time, mother.” Sybil pounded at her chest and shook her head. “Arg, that’s terrible.” She felt like clawing out her tongue.

Stonetoe scoffed. “Don’t you start with mama stuff, I get enough of it from Krogastein and Cully. I didn’t come up here to have another woman lecture me about my drinking habits either.” He let out a sigh. “How has Nita been treating you?”

“All she does is lecture me about… So many valuable things.” The thought of it left Sybil wanting to take another swig of the poison Stonetoe carried. “So many horse things. Lots of horses and horse stuff and… Horse... I don’t know.. Did I mention that I didn’t work on Veximarl’s spear?”

“You probably did something that you deserve punishment for, and don’t you dare take it out on the woman I paired you with. Nita just has always been crazy about horses. She would brag that her and Lady Larkin were best friends growing up. One day she up and quit her job under Duke Sickleson because she wanted to start a breeding program at her hometown.” Stonetoe shook his head. “The only reason she became an instructor here was that her father died suddenly.

Hard living on a ranch can do a number on a man, and her mother was too heartbroken to carry on without him. Nita lost all her motivation after that... Even this job tears her apart, and she tried to quit after her squad fell apart. Had a lot of trouble convincing her to stay. Braytons is always going to need a woman like her.”

Sybil blinked at him. She didn’t know much about him other than he was in Grimhawk’s and Grulick’s squad when he attended Braytons, and that he was a military man who came here after the war was over. “You convinced her?”

“Moral of the story is that graduating from here doesn’t make you a responsible adult. People make mistakes. You should know something about that, right? After all, you’re Lydia’s kid.” Sybil’s eyes widened. “Eh, don’t make that face. You probably never found out that this is where your mom ran off to after she got knocked up.

Best friend Nita there to clean up after another one of Lydia’s messes. They hid her in a nearby cave and her squad took care of her until you came around. Since you’ve seen how Grimhawk runs things, you’d understand that I spent more time in Harvester Squad rather than have either him or Grulick teach me anything useful. Wasn’t all bad though. I even got to hold you for a little while right after you were born so your mother could get some sleep.

That aside, after I left here, I ended up making my own fair share of mistakes. Believe it or not, I’m a woefully married man with two ungrateful sons, but I can’t complain about where my life is now. I’ve got it easy compared to Nita. Her best friend passed, and her children live with their uncle up north... You know how boys are. They never write.

Then when things were really starting to go downhill, you showed up. The daughter of her dead best friend. Don’t tell her I said this, but I believe she kicked you out of the exams because she didn’t want you to end up like herself or your mother. I thought she’d cry and hug you to death considering how she babbled nonstop for a month when she first saw your written application.

That’s why I yelled at her to take you on as an assistant. At the end of the day, you two need each other. Maybe you don’t need her as much, but she does need you. I’m not about to backtrack on your punishment because of that.”

Lady Till needed her. Her arms tightened up around her torso at the thought. “Thanks for telling me everything. I guess a lot of things make sense now, but...” Sybil tilted her head. “You’re married? … But you live in an attic above my room.”

Stonetoe nodded solemnly. “Yes, and living apart was the greatest decision I ever made. Don’t you worry about my wife being lonely. I see her as much as she wants me to, and I told you that I didn’t come up here to talk about me. When it comes to Nita, don’t be afraid to sass back and say exactly what’s on your mind. You’re not a weak kid, Twist. You can handle yourself. Just because your dad murdered her friend, doesn’t mean that you two can’t have a great relationship.”

“This is a terrible pep-talk, sir.”

He shrugged. “You all say I’m a terrible knight behind my back, so why should I watch how I talk? I’m only here to teach you how to hit things.” Stonetoe gestured to the group below. “Go help out your- ...”

They both fell silent as Chickadee walked up to them. He only had two scarves on and hanging loosely from around his neck, another was tied to his wrist, his shirt was on crooked, and his normally smooth hair was hanging in a mess around his shoulders. A drowsy yet friendly wave was given to the two of them, and he had come up because he was curious to see what they were talking about.

“You’re supposed to be grounded,” snarled Stonetoe. Chickadee shrugged and the knight responded by pinching the bridge of his nose. “I’ll yell at you about it later. Find me around sunset and don’t forget to bring snacks this time. We’ll do our meeting then. Now both of you go down there and help those kids pack.”

“Yes, sir.” Sybil ran down the steps with Chickadee.

Stonetoe shook his head with a sigh. This was the last time they’d be all together like this. Shame none of them are going to appreciate it.

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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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