Those ill thoughts were bouncing about Sybil’s skull as she tried to relax. The sound of Alton’s heartbeat and the subtle rising and lowering of his chest as he breathed put her at ease. He hummed for her again until she fell asleep, and she was awoken by a different sensation. Someone had firmly kicked the base of the bed. Her eyes opened in a panic, only to see both Vincent and Zaniyah standing there in the dark.
The paladin had a lantern in one hand while covering his eyes with the other. Zaniyah had a pile of clothes tucked under her arm. Her grin could not be hidden. Upon feeling Sybil shift, Alton woke up as well. His eyes widened with horror, and he grabbed onto Sybil and their coats in order to give themselves some sense of modesty.
“Do you mind?” Alton asked in a harsh whisper. “... Zan, why do you have my clothes?”
Zaniyah’s grin grew all the bigger. “See ya!” A giggle escaped her as Alton’s face flushed with panic. Before he could react, she had already escaped.
“Twist,” whispered Vincent in a deathly tone. He was furious at the moment and was having trouble containing his rage. “Do not dare to say a word. Put on your coat, and go back to your room... Toval.” He took a slow and labored breath. “You made your choice on where you wish to spend the night. Don’t bother entering the dorms until after dawn. The doors will be locked and Bronzescale will escort you out if you attempt to enter.”
Alton frowned as Sybil pulled away from him. “You can’t be serious, Highland. We’re both responsible squires, and everything we’ve done tonight was natural and healthy. There’s nothing wrong with this.”
“If you try to go back to your room now, I will wake up Lady Till, and you can explain to her why you are running about the barracks wearing nothing but a coat.” Vincent turned to walk away. “You better be dressed, Twist!”
“Uhm...” Sybil fidgeted. “Sorry, Toval. This was interesting. Let’s, uh… Yeah. We probably shouldn’t do this again.” She pulled her jacket on and started to scurry after Vincent.
And she had returned to calling him by his last name again. Great. He fell back on the bed and let out a groan of annoyance. His hands covered his face, and he let out a series of quiet curse words.
Sybil hadn’t recovered from her embarrassment. She walked two steps behind Vincent as he moved quickly across the courtyard. Zaniyah had stolen her shoes along with most of her clothes. The cold ground was burning her feet as she moved along, and she couldn’t be feeling any worse about the entire situation.
“These barracks are an institution that seeks to create admirable individuals. Ones that may very well shape the very future of Lustro. As you should be aware, Lady Till has stated that I need to be sure where every squire under my watch is once nightfall happens. I am not a tyrant, Twist. I will not rule this class with an iron hand. As long as you are within the barracks walls, I will consider order to have been maintained.
However, trespassing into the third year dorms, and engaging in immoral practices is something I cannot condone. Especially when your partner has a history of misleading others for his own entertainment.” He turned and held the lantern up so he could better see the shame on her face. “I am torn between reporting you for this in order to ensure Toval is punished, and not wanting to see you further placed in pain.”
Sybil shuffled about, if only to minimize how long her feet had to touch the ground at any given point. “If you tell Sir Stonetoe, it would technically count as reporting it. I don’t think he cares that much about what we do.”
“I do not have to report it to Stonetoe.” Vincent lifted up the lantern and gestured to where Stonetoe and Dalkirk were standing on the rampart. “They are usually on the wall until midnight and are more aware of our movements than even ourselves. I am certain they already know since Zaniyah ran through here carrying your clothing.”
“... Oh.” Sybil looked and gave a sheepish wave. “Evening, Mama Stonetoe and Sir Dalkirk!”
Sir Stonetoe held up his cone to his mouth. “Was there mutual consent?!” His voice echoed across the barracks.
They didn’t even have sex, but she didn’t feel like having a yelling match in the middle of the night. Especially not if everyone else could hear it. “Yes, sir!” She called back.
“Then you’ll be in trouble tomorrow! Get some sleep!”
“Thank you, sir!” Sybil then looked over to Vincent. “... Sorry if this means we’ve inconvenienced you. I thought Vex would have assured you that we were safe.” She smiled sheepishly. Or at least lied better on their behalf.
Vincent shook his head. “Certainly not. Until the Eatha Feast Day festivities, I would have told you that there wasn’t a single thing Veximarl was actually good at, which includes lying. I appreciate your captain, I do, but he has a lot of work ahead of him.”
Sybil nodded in agreement and they continued into the dorms. It was apparently an hour until midnight, which meant that the majority of the squires had already gone to sleep. She said her goodnights to Vincent and entered her room, where Zaniyah was putting away the clothes she had taken. She gestured to the table where some stew stuffed bread rolls were waiting for Alton and Sybil.
“Thanks.” She picked one up and bit into it. “Did Chi and Vex make it back?”
Zaniyah gestured to Veximarl’s bed. “Sorry you got caught. Vincent and I ended up dueling to long, and he needed to ask Chi about the device he’s making for Anais, and I said that Chi would probably still be up so it wouldn’t be a problem, but he had already crawled into bed.
Then I was like, ‘Wait, where’s Sybil? Because Chi has been cuddling with her at night to keep warm. Why isn’t she here?’ Then Vex started to mumble bumble about this and that and fell apart completely when Vincent started to shake his sword at him.”
“It’s fine. The whole thing was a mistake anyways... I deserve to be punished.” Sybil started to dig through her dresser for her pajamas.
“... Yeah, sorry. Shame though, because you two did look adorable together,” said Zaniya. She then cleared her throat. “Sorry again, this is inappropriate, but I gotta know. Is it scaled?” Sybil turned around and glared. “No, really. I’m curious. Does it, you know,” she made a waving gesture with her hand, “flop around on its own like a fish out of water?”
“Yes. That’s exactly what it’s like,” replied Sybil flatly. She shook her head and removed her coat so she could start to change.
A sharp inhale passed through Zaniyah’s teeth. “Oh, girl…” Sybil turned and glared again. “No, no. I mean, you’re marked.” She gestured to her own chest. “All over.”
Looking towards the mirror, Sybil could see she had little love bites along her neck and collarbone. Alton was a little rough with his nibbling in order to calm himself down, and the results of that were easy to see. “... I am going to kill him,” she murmured. Even though she had done basically the exact same thing to him.
There wasn’t anyone she could ask to heal it either. Alton wasn’t in on the necromancy secret they had with Veximarl, otherwise, she’d have the wounds transferred over as retribution. Tish would make a big deal out of it, and Vincent would outright refuse since this would serve as a reminder for her to not do it again.
Though if she was honest, at least one or two of those were older than tonight. The uniform she had for colder weather had a high neck, so Alton took advantage of the extra coverage. She frowned all the harder at the thought and pulled her shirt over her head. She wolfed down the rest of her food quickly before reaching for her ladder.
“I’m going to bed. No, wait, Zani.” Sybil waved her hands about. “Do you want to do a core kid day on Satyrday? I’ve been worried about Chickadee as of late. You have Vincent and I have,” she gulped down her urge to gag, “Toval, I mean, Alton... Because I guess we’re a thing now. Let’s ditch the boys and go out to someplace fun. Do some of the old squad bonding exercises like we used to.”
“Yes! I am totally for that!” Zaniyah bounced up and down excitedly. “I’ll have a whole day planned by tomorrow. It’ll be great!”
Sybil gave a fake smile. “I’ll look forward to it.” Vincent will double his efforts to keep track of them now, and with both Dalkirk and Stonetoe being on night watch, there was no way they could sneak out whenever they pleased. A serious change of plans was needed.
They’ll go on Satyrday. Alton and Veximarl could head to the destination early and she can lead Chickadee and Zaniyah to them. It will be a quick trip without any issues and things will be fine. That is, as long as she wasn’t grounded more because she had been such an idiot today.
Alton was doing alright. He waited by a window until Vincent and Sybil had entered the dorms, then made his way to the infirmary. As he saw it, Tish would no doubt find out about this at some point, and then Lady Blu would know because Tish loved to gossip. Might as well spend the night in the infirmary now and get it over with.
He knocked on the door and waited for a groggy Blu to answer it. She stared blankly at him for a moment before speaking. “Did someone take advantage of you or was it consensual?”
“My partner and I were willing, Lady Blu, but may I stay here tonight?”
She gave a shrug and moved off to the side so he could enter. A thick blanket and pillow were dragged out of the closet and were tossed out on one of the infirmary beds. Alton was also given a patient’s outfit.
“I appreciate this Lady Blu. Highland thought it best that I be locked out of the dorms due to my poor judgement, and am thankful to have a bed to sleep in tonight.”
“Really…” She moved over to her desk and rummaged about until she found the right notebook. “Ah! I won that one!” She pointed to a list that had been written out and signed by several individuals. “Though it wasn’t for a high bet, as there were a lot of takers for that pairing. The two of you do have that sort of feisty tension in the way you interact. It’s only obvious.”
Alton grimaced at the thought. “What are you knights betting on now?”
Blu clutched the book to her chest. “In order to keep ourselves amused each year, we make bets to see which squires will be the first have certain situations happen to them. Nothing serious, of course. The first for who starts dating, who gets detention, which couple gets caught sneaking out at night, and the first to make a big scene over being spurned by a lover.
Every year is the same old tale for you youth. You should’ve seen the fight between Miss Rodanthe and Mister Kindrick last year! Absolute violence! I had so much cleaning up to do afterward! Lots of stitches!”
“Hey!” Alton held up his hands. “I didn’t get spurned, and Highland isn’t my lover! He caught me with someone else and he decided to punish me instead of her!” Blu nodded as she looked over the book again. “I’m not telling you who! Why would you even bet on that?!”
Nose held high, she didn’t appreciate his tone. “Because I am a thirty-something-year-old single woman forced to live in these barracks as a doctor, and I will have you know that there is an average of one out of every five squires here capable of healing magic. Even with me being the head of acolyte studies, I have very little to do here, Mister Toval. Very little to do!
I even tried to get into quilting, as I heard it takes quite some time, and now I have an absurd amount of quilts lying about. An absolutely absurd amount! Feel free to take that one back with you to your room if it suits you, because I have literally two dozen more.”
Alton was taken aback by her outburst. He quickly averted his eyes out of shame. “... I’m sorry. It was Twist. Please do as you wish with that information.”
“I will.” Blu went over to her cabinet of medicines and opened a drawer. She began to pick and choose through certain items before placing them into a linen bag. “If you need more protection or lubrication, let me know. Your personal requests will always be confidential. Especially contact me if there if you are having any emotional problems, because that is what I am here for. Take your sheets and clothes to the launder services in the morning, and try not to get locked out again.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” She frowned at him sternly. “I mean, Lady Blu. Thank you.”
The night was a short one, as he still had early morning chores. Alton thought the worst part of his day was going to be when Blu went on a detailed explanation of sexually transmitted diseases during class. She was especially keen on asking both him and Sybil detailed questions to make sure they were paying attention. It was made quite obvious to everyone that they were the reason for this lesson today. Everything was made worse when Stonetoe summoned him and Sybil to his room afterward.
The attic above the dorms was an apartment with minimal decorations. There was enough space for Stonetoe to have two bedrooms, an unused kitchen, and a living room which had a set of couches and a short table set between them. Stonetoe was laying down on his couch and staring up at his ceiling while Alton and Sybil sat on the other one.
“I was actually looking forward to the next three years,” muttered Stonetoe in a dismayed manner. “I almost thought that I had a set of competent kids in my squad. I would finally have the team that I always wanted. The only one I thought I’d have to worry about was Krogastein, because I always have to tell her off for modifying her uniforms. She needs to stop cutting them up to the point where they start falling apart on their own.
I told her that her breasts are too small and that she needs some meat in there to hold up the cloth properly... She never listens. I swear, she’s going to give Highland a heart attack one of these days at the rate they keep popping out during practice. I don’t know what they feed paladins in Carapace, but he’s got larger breasts than her, and the fact that he can’t talk some sense into her stresses how whipped she has him.
But if some idiot girl whose clothes kept ‘accidently’ falling off was the worst in my squad, I could have managed. The rest of you seemed fine at first, except for Tuton, which I told Grimhawk that we couldn’t handle, but he didn’t listen. Grimhawk can’t have more than ten years left... I have to handle everything, and I didn’t sign up to deal with this workload because Nita is too much of a pushover to hire someone new to help me.
The one girl I had faith in nearly got herself killed on the first day of class, and apparently, she can’t keep her legs closed for the pretty boy! I don’t even know why I have a pretty boy!. He can’t even pick up rapier basics properly. Rapiers are supposed to be the pretty boy’s best friend, what with the fancy factor and all, but he can’t even manage it!
Even the quiet kid in the group tried to blow up the barracks at some point, then went into a mating rut with Erpingham... Trewarne wouldn’t let me hear the end of it. Like it was my choice to send in that seed of temptation.” His hands wrung above him as though he were strangling someone invisible. “You lot have only been here for a month. How did you manage to screw up that badly in such little time? Do you five do realize that this is a three-year program?!”
Sybil looked down and twirled her thumbs together. “Sorry, sir.”
Stonetoe’s face twisted into an even worse scowl. “My son is going to be a squire here next year. He’s going to be in Treant Squad, and he’s already got a fantastic job set up for him afterward. Great kid. Has his whole life planned out for himself, and he is willing to face that challenge rather than run away like other kids.
The best part is that he thinks I’m a complete failure. I wanted to show him that I was doing well for myself here. That I was capable of bringing up good kids, but I got stuck with you lot!” He rolled to a stand and slapped the side of Alton’s head. “You’re supposed to be role models!” A lighter hit was given to Sybil, since she at least looked guilty about her predicament. “When are you going to get that through your heads? We train leaders here! Not idiots!”
Sybil rubbed the side of her head. “Sorry, sir.” Alton didn’t reply.
“Here’s my problem,” continued Stonetoe. “I can’t tell you not to see each other. You’ll end up with some star-crossed lovers complex and drive yourselves to ruin... And here I am being given the opportunity to turn you two into a fine example for the others, so I hope that you two think that the other is worth it.”
Sybil raised up her hand. “I don’t think Toval is worth it at all. I’m fine with not seeing him anymore if that’s an option.”
Alton grabbed her hand and lowered it for her. “What about what Chi was doing? Isn’t that the same?”
“Those third years are gonna get sent off to their deaths, and that’s if they’re lucky. What Cully did was send Erpingham off to die happy. Him and I already had a talk about it, and I know he was being responsible. Ain’t no harm in what he did. That was a damn service. You two, on the other hand, have no right to be rubbing uglies with each other. Got that?”
“Yes sir,” repeated Sybil.
Stonetoe shook his head and rested back on the couch. “Until the end of Autumn, you two are in double trouble. No more free meals, no more laundry. You cook your own food, wash your own clothes, and have all sorts of extra chores that I haven’t thought of yet. If you’re going to act like adults, you’re going to live like adults and take on full responsibilities.”
Alton shrugged. “That doesn’t sound so bad?”
“It gets worse,” stated Stonetoe. “You two get matching schedules. Every class and chore duty is going to be done together. Speaking of class, Sarya is going to get you to teach one on contraceptive use. You’re going to have extra homework assigned, so I hope you like to write reports.
They’re all going to be co-authored by the both of you. Don’t let one of you do more work than the other. If you somehow mess up again, the two of you are going to be put on quarantine. Is that understood?”
Alton raised his hand. “What’s quarantine?” Maybe he’d want to go on quarantine with Sybil. Sounded nice.
Stonetoe replied with a low and threatening laugh. “You don’t want to know, Toval. From here on out, I should only hear about the best things about each of you. Got that?”
“Yes, sir,” the two muttered out.
“Good. Get out of here. Go make yourselves lunch and report to Nita.”
They were kicked out of the room and had less than an hour before they were supposed to start their dance lessons. Dismayed, the two made their way to the kitchen and found out that they already had a list written out for them of what they could and couldn’t do there. Alton gave it a quick scan before entering the pantry.
“This will be interesting,” said Lydia as she floated over Alton’s shoulder. “I suppose his plan is to force you two together so much that you will want to kill each other. I’m certain it won’t even take a week before one of you begs to end this. You’re already in enough trouble right now.” Alton raised a brow at her. “Neither of you know how to cook. You must have always had servants do it for you. I use the term servants lightly as Sybil had her kitchen golems... The one recipe she does know is the one I taught her for jewels.”
Alton let out an annoyed groan and suddenly felt a headache coming on. Even if Sybil did know how to cook, he assumed she would only know how to fry insects. “Great. Just great.”
“What is it?” Sybil was trying to make sense out of the list and was worried she might be missing something.
“You should let me handle all the cooking,” he replied. Lydia was assuring him that she could teach him enough to get by. “In exchange, maybe handle some of our chore list while I’m stuck in the kitchens?”
“I can do that. If we divide our efforts, it’ll give me more time for laundry. Thank you, Toval.” She patted him on the arm.
He gave her a smile back, but inside he was panicking. “This will be fun.” Alton lied through his grinning teeth.
The next few days took time to adjust to. Alton did end up doing all of the cooking, but Lydia was kind enough to keep it to simple meals. Stews could be cut up during lunch and left in the bread ovens for a few hours. They took hours to cool off after the morning bread baking, thus were perfect for low and slow meals. He could also make a loaf of soda bread in an hour. This could be used for sandwiches, and as toast in the morning with eggs. Flatbreads could be made even more quickly.
Sybil took to cleaning the kitchens whenever he was preparing food. She wasn’t appreciating how she and Alton were being referred to as the ‘married couple’ by the staff. Long hours spent in the library working on reports meant she was missing the time spent with her friends. At least Alton was too tired to do anything when they were alone together. She had been worried that he would take to pouncing on her more often.
That didn’t mean she didn’t still choose to sleep in his bed once in a while. Satyrday morning was no exception. They had been out late before and chosen to collapse together on Sybil’s floor pillows rather than a bed. His silver bangs were covering his face, and the sun was just starting to break through the window. Maybe it was because of the fact she had gotten used to him, but waking up like this every once in awhile wasn’t a terrible experience.
“Alton,” she whispered to him and he stirred slightly.
The squire’s eyes opened for a moment and he winced at the beam of light that was directly on his face. His eyes looked like garnets whenever the light was too bright. It was always interesting to her to see what color his eyes were going to be next. A groan escaped him as he adjusted to being awake.
“Morning,” he gave her a smile. The more he looked at her, the bigger his smile got.
Sybil grabbed a pillow and hit him with it. “Stop enjoying this. I’m miserable.”
He laughed and grabbed at the pillow, yanking it away from her. “It’s Satyrday, right? We still skipping church service to clean out the stables?” She nodded. “And we’ll be going into the cave today?”
“I was going to grab Zani and Chi after church and leave right away. You and Vex already know the plan, so please don’t be late.” Sybil sat up and held the blanket to her chest so she’d have some form of modesty, despite being dressed. “Did you want me to make breakfast today? What do you want?”
“Hmm…” Alton looked her over again.
Lydia floated down to behind Sybil and narrowed her eyes. “You better not say her. I will make the most annoying high pitched noise all day long if you do.”
“I’m not on the menu,” replied Sybil in a flat tone.
These two no fun women. “Noodle soup with rolled fish omelets? You can study while I cook.” He turned away and stretched his arms, flexing the muscles in his back as he did so. His shirt had gotten pulled off before he passed out because he didn’t want to deal with ironing out wrinkles.
The scales along his back shifted in color the same way his eyes did. Sybil was hypnotized by how the light was hitting them now. Her gaze trailed along his body and to the slits between his ribs. Supposedly, that’s where his gills were. Alton really was a fish… Wouldn’t that make rolled fish omelets a form of cannibalism?
“How long do you think it will our outing will take? We shouldn’t be gone longer than two or three hours. “Alton turned his head and saw her staring at him, specifically at his body. “... Hey. I’m not on the menu either.”
“Yes, what?” Her eyes snapped up to his. “Uhm, ah… Right, the miasma… The cave I picked had a vent at the entrance, and it’s close to the barracks. Less than an hour away on foot and the only thing we would need to do is open it up for a quick look. It’s also by a grove, so there will be enough cover for us to hide in if anyone comes looking for us.”
Alton laid back down on his stomach. He propped his chin on the palm of his hand and kicked his feet back and forth in the air. “Do you want to go on a date afterward?”
“A date.” She shook her head. “You want to go on a date.”
“I would like to go on a date with you, yes.” He grinned at her. “Two or three hours making sure you’re alright, another two or three hours relishing in the other’s company. We’ll find something fun to do or play cards or a board game… I would like to do that.”
Her hand went to her temple. “Let me get this straight… You started out by demanding I make a marriage contract with you, then we began this shameful physical relationship, and it’s only after we’re a couple for that you ask me out on a date?”
“You just said we were a couple.” He grinned boyishly at her frown. “When is your eighteenth birthday?” Alton had never bothered to ask.
“First Moonsday Spring, but don’t change the subject. The point is you’re doing all of this backwards,” she said as she glared at him.
“I was thinking we’d take the horses for a ride nearby,” continued Alton. “We’ll call it homework for your dressage.”
He had watched her trying to work with her horse over the past week, and it normally involved her chasing after the stallion rather than riding on him. It was amusing to watch but impractical. The fact she had to do it in a dress was all the more entertaining. Even with him giving tips from both his own experience and Lydia’s, Sybil wasn’t learning anything.
Sybil sighed and looked off to the side. “Only because I could use extra help with that damn horse.”
“Good.” Alton sat up and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “I’m looking forward to it.”
It was odd that she found herself looking forward to it as well. She smiled as she watched him go to the bathroom. Her joy immediately vanished and she flopped face-first back into the pillows. Sybil was being an idiot again... This was never going to work.
Deal with the problems of today... That’s what she had to concentrate on. Figure out if she could contact that strange man again, and find out what’s so special about that sword. Until she had her answers, everything else would have to wait.