Sybil’s eyes snapped open. The smell of dried flowers meant that she was in the infirmary. The ceiling was tinted a rose color from the setting sun, which meant that she had been asleep for at least a few hours. There were voices nearby, and she rubbed her eyes in an effort to unblur her vision enough so she could see.
“Did I mention that I had high hopes for you?” That was Stonetoe’s voice. “I was dumb enough to ask the powers that be to allow you to be in my squad, and this is the thanks I get. Why did you let yourself sink down to their level?!”
Zaniyah shuffled uncomfortably. “Sorry, mama.”
She was sitting along the edge of a bed with the others. Next to her was Chickadee, followed by Veximarl, and finally Alton, who couldn't be more annoyed at the thought of being scolding again. He was half tuning out the conversation while the others paid attention.
Stonetoe was sitting in a chair across from them. His face strained as he fought off the urge to box them about the ears. “Let me try to understand this mess,” he muttered. “You went out for a playdate with your little friends, and found these two idiots being attacked by a mess of tainted beasts? So you decide to kill them, not report back, and try to hunt down any others that might be around?”
“... Y-yes, sir,” mumbled Zaniyah.
“And why were you two idiots in that sort of trouble in the first place?” He looked over to Alton and Veximarl.
Alton interrupted Veximarl before he had a chance to speak. “After we heard that they were planning a Dogfall day out, we decided to do some good old fashioned male bonding. Vex was helping me pick some wild plants so I could surprise Sybil with a nice dinner.” Veximarl let out a nervous laugh and nodded his head in agreement.
Stonetoe blinked in a stunned fashion. He then shook his head with disbelief. “You two went out for some good old fashioned male bonding? You and you?” He gestured between the two of them and they nodded. “Tuton, what really happened?” Alton went to speak again, but Stonetoe interrupted. “I’m not asking you, I’m asking Tuton.”
Clearing his throat, Veximarl began to regurgitate random knowledge like an encyclopedia. “Autumn is a wonderful time to go puffball hunting, along with the addition of rosehips and chestnuts. There are also several sloe berry bushes within the area, of course, their only purpose is to make gin, which is frowned upon for us squires, b-but…”
His eyes widened as Stonetoe slowly put his hand on the hilt of his sword. Suddenly Veximarl’s head was hanging to the side as he changed his tune. “Sybil had informed us that there were caves within the area that were affected by miasma, and we went to go investigate while she kept the others distracted.” He let out a yelp as Alton punched him in the shoulder, but that was the best lie he could think of. There weren’t any mentions of gods or of trying to seal the mist away... What else was he supposed to say?
Pinching the bridge of his nose, Stonetoe dropped his head forward and shook it from side to side. “You.” He pointed to Veximarl. “You’re taking over for Highland in making sure everyone in your year is following curfew and keeping track of all of their schedules. And you.” He pointed to Chickadee. “You are going to assist Ira Knut in cutting up the bodies you brought in today so they don’t rot, but you’re not allowed to work with those materials past prepping until the start of Winter.”
“B-but,” stammered Chickadee. He had plans. Big plans. Plans that he wanted to get done before winter. Why was his punishment the one that was so severe?!
“Excellent suggestions, Sir.” Alton stood up. “I think that almost getting killed today was punishment enough, and I still need a bath.” He gestured to his blood covered self. “So if you’ll excuse me-”
“Sit, Toval,” growled Stonetoe, and the squire immediately plopped down again. “Apparently what you have now isn’t enough, so I’m putting you and Twist in quarantine with a chaperone. Until you two have served your time, I can think of no one better to supervise you than Highland.”
Zaniyah’s jaw dropped in shock. “Wait! What does he have to do with any of this?”
“Because all of you are idiots!” Shouted Stonetoe. “This isn’t the time for games! Stop caring about playing with your friends or sleeping around! You are here because you want to be knights! I am here to train you so you don’t die the moment you leave this place!
Want to know what is going to happen to those third years?! Almost every single one of them is being tossed into the swamplands as greenhorn fodder for those tainted beasts to tear apart! They’ll be lucky if there’s enough of them leftover to end up in a mass grave!
That’s the fate that’s in store for all of you. At any moment, the crown can decide to cut your life short, and you’re expected to charge in with a ‘Yes, sir!’ You click your boots together and then drop dead for your king with a shit eating grin on your face!
You think you’re proud of today’s accomplishments? Imagine being stuck far from home without your allies and the only thing you know for certain is that something terrible is going to show up and try to kill you. While you’re having a meal, while you’re trying to sleep, even while you’re trying to take a shit!
And I know for a fact that the only one of you who understands the weight of that situation is Tuton. Ask him what it’s like to see the ones you love without knowing when you’ll be next, and get that through your thick skulls!”
Veximarl looked down and fumbled his hands together. It was true. His parents were dead, and Grulick had passed away in his arms. There were other children in the villages he had stayed in, but he never tried to get close to them as friends. Not because he was a necromancer, but because he knew that there would always be one or two that would die the following winter.
“Are… Are you alright, mama?” Zaniyah looked at their knight with concern. “Do you want a hug?” She let out a yelp as Stonetoe stood up and hit her on the side of her head.
“Without Highland in the way, maybe you’ll start paying attention to your training like you’re supposed to!” He explained. “You and Toval go tell Highland about the mess you’ve put him in. Cully, go start helping Knut out. Tuton, Twist has woken up. Tell her what’s going on and escort her back to your room so Sarya doesn’t have to put up with her again. Thanks to the lot of you, I need a damn drink.”
“Yes, sir,” muttered Veximarl. He didn’t move though. Not even as the others cleared out of the room.
Sybil got out of bed and walked over. She sat down behind him and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, placing her cheek against his as she did so. “How are you doing?”
“I should be the one asking you that,” said Veximarl as he leaned back and closed his eyes. Hugs were surprisingly nice. “Alton ran in shortly after you stopped responding and found you unconscious. You wouldn’t wake up after I had finished purging the taint from your body... We panicked and brought you here as quickly as we could.”
“This is going to sound crazy, but I was a witness to some strange events,” she whispered. “I saw a palace that I had never been to, and the Fogbloom family was being murdered... I only recognized some of their names from the history books, but I do know that a boy named Aeneas survived. He was supposed to rescue Prince Erskine, but I don’t know if they made it together or not.”
“... Erskine?” Sybil nodded and Veximarl was troubled by the news. “I believe Chi stated that traces of personality may reside within blood iron. That is if the donor was of high enough intellect or particularly powerful in magic… Maybe they are the ones responsible for your hallucinations, but let’s put that all aside for now. We should have Chi look over your sword for any changes and let you have your rest.”
“Thank you.” She gave him a squeeze and pulled away. “I’ll head over to the room myself.” Her hand patted his shoulder. “Go eat some food. You’re still tired, right?”
“... I am.”
Veximarl was exhausted. When they had pulled Sybil from the cave, he was already at his limit, but he had to press on to make sure she was alright. They didn’t need Alton and Zaniyah carrying the two of them back to the barracks when there could be other tainted beasts about. It was a blessing that they managed to return safely.
They said their farewells and Sybil headed to the kitchens. She should at least do her part and cook dinner for Alton, but she was worried that she’d end up having to cook Vincent’s meals from now on. She didn’t even know what he liked.
Grabbing the basics, she decided that a simple meal of eggs, biscuits, and sausage gravy would be enough. Even if it was more of a breakfast food, it was one of the few things she had learned how to make. She finished cooking quickly and set them in a basket, but Vincent intercepted her as she attempted to head back to the room.
“The first quarantine area has been set up,” he stated in a low voice, gesturing to the mess hall itself.
At first, she was confused, and then she laid eyes upon the truth of quarantine. A table in the corner had a fancy cloth placed over it, with candles and flowers placed in the middle. Behind it was a banner that read “Quarantine Zone” with a heart-shaped arrow pointed downwards. Alton was already sitting there with his face in his palms. He didn’t want to exist at the moment. The only consolation he had was that he was able to wash off before this.
“I have been informed that you two will be responsible for my meals and laundry for the next few weeks,” said Vincent as he helped her arrange their meal. A frown crossed his features as she saw what she had prepared. “Apologies, but my routine has dietary restrictions. I will be sure to provide you a list of appropriate meal plans tomorrow.”
“How strict is this quarantine?” Alton didn’t want to spend more time with Vincent than he had to. “He’s not going to be sharing a bed with us, is he?”
Vincent shook his head and Alton let out a sigh of relief. “We will be sharing a room with Bronzescale squad.” Alton gagged from shock. “I have been informed that every action of yours must be cleared with me first. Although I do not look forward to the changes in my schedule, it will be refreshing to be able to take Rux out of the stables more than once a week.” He picked up a biscuit and applied some butter.
None of that sounded appealing to Sybil. She served up a plate and placed it in front of Alton before getting herself some food. “Are you going to be okay with doing all of this?” Maybe if Vincent complained, Stonetoe would let him leave.
“I believe that Tuton is quite a capable individual who is in desperate need of a push in order to see his own potential. If I need to momentarily step aside in order to let that happen, then it is a necessary sacrifice.” Vincent stared at his biscuit with scrutiny. “I am going to see if there are some vegetables I can add to this. I will return shortly.”
Alton faked a smile as the paladin left. He then leaned across the table and whispered with panic. “We have to get rid of him.”
“How?” Not that Sybil minded having Vincent around. They never talked much, but she didn’t think he was a bad person.
“I don’t know. I spent half my life avoiding that man, and I don’t want to start pretending to be his buddy now.”
“Ah!” Sybil nodded at the idea. “We could start an argument, and I walk away in a huff screaming that I never want to see you again. That should clear things up nicely and we can both cleanly go our separate ways.”
Alton pouted as he poked at his food. “But what if they expect us to stay mad at each other after this? You make it sound like we’re breaking up.” She shrugged. “Hey! Don’t even joke about that!”
“Relax. I’ll handle everything, dear,” she replied in a mocking manner.
As Vincent sat back down, he added some steamed cauliflower to each of their bowls. “I have mentioned this to Zaniyah on several occasions, but I believe that your group has had a positive influence on Tuton. It is likely that he would be at a complete loss now if he were set up with any of the other first years.” He bit into his biscuit at cringed at how tough it was. Sybil must have overmixed the dough.
“He’s our friend, and we look out for our own,” Sybil replied with a smile.
“And on that subject, it doesn’t sit well for me if the two of you do all the cooking.” Vincent didn’t believe that his digestive tract or teeth would survive until the end of autumn at this rate.
Sybil tapped her fork against the biscuit. It thunked back. Honestly, it was better once the gravy had soaked in. “Alright, I know I’m not the best, but today is clotted cream day! We wait until the ovens cool down, stick a pan of cream in there, and then we have clotted cream for the rest of the week!”
“Fresh clotted cream with blackberries makes every Solsday easier,” quipped Alton.
“The two of you should abide by the same meal schedule that I have my own squad follow. Tomorrow it will be lentils, kales, and poached eggs for breakfast.” Sybil gasped in horror. She was never one to be fussy about food, but clotted cream day was the one treat she was allowing for herself. “... You may make half the amount of clotted cream as usual, and use it sparingly. I believe it best for me to carefully monitor your food preparation from now on.”
“Oh, Highland.” Alton put a hand to his chest. “We would never impose!”
“Surely you’ve been punished unnecessarily enough as it is! We’ll handle everything.” Sybil smiled weakly.
“Perhaps it is better that we save that argument until morning,” muttered Vincent. He wasn’t in the mood to deal with the two of them when they were unified in opinion. “A change of subject is needed.”
And that was something Sybil was eager to provide. “Zani said that you claimed we were having a positive influence on Toval as well.” She tilted her head and smiled as politely as she could, ignoring Alton’s frown in the process.
Vincent shook his head. “That was something said sometime before these recent events occurred. Now I fear that his ego has found a way to fight back.” Alton’s eyes rolled about. “Sybil, I have been meaning thank you for watching out over Mila. I appreciate that you have taken the time to be her friend.”
She smiled to herself at the comment. Bronzescale was the least hectic of her classes here, and she appreciated Mila’s company as well. “Seems sad that you all from Starsons got split up while us from Dogfall managed to stick together.”
“There were more of us, and although I had her cousin in my squad, she and I were never close. It should be obvious that Toval and I have never seen eye to eye either. We were often compared to one another growing up. Prominent families whose children were expected to be natural leaders among their peers. Regardless, I am envious of your position and am thankful that you have allowed me to monopolize Zaniyah’s time. I wish for you to know as much.”
“Zani’s happy. That’s all that matters.” Sybil twirled her spoon about her fingers as though it were a dagger. “She better stay that way. I will come after you if she cries, and me coming after you is a mercy compared to what Chickadee will do.”
Vincent let out a laugh as he looked away. “The truth is that I… I truly love her. I am not certain if that love compares to what you and Cully have for her, as you are her family, but I share your sentiments. Anyone who makes her cry should pay.”
Alright, so maybe he wasn’t all that bad. “Wow, the two of you really are cute together.” She was almost jealous. Sensing something was off, she turned her head. Alton was staring at her blankly, as though he were anticipating her complimenting him. They weren’t cute together, and she wasn’t going to feed his ego by lying.
They finished their meals, cleaned up, and made their way to the dorms. When they entered the building, Alton put an arm around Sybil’s shoulders. “We’re going to stay on the first floor, but I want some alone time with her.” Vincent scowled at the idea. “A half hour at most, and you’ll get to say goodnight to Zan.”
His face strained before replying. “I suppose that is acceptable. Make it no more than a half hour, and report to Bronzescale’s room afterward.” He gave them both a nod and made his way upstairs.
With his arm still around Sybil’s shoulder, Alton led her into the storage room. The sounds echoed less in here than the classroom, and there were more hiding spots in the event that someone entered. He sat on a box and eased her onto his lap, resting his head on her shoulder as he inhaled the scent of her neck.
It was likely that Alton knew very little about the Aconite family. Sybil frowned at the thought. He had left them at a young age. She believed him when he said he was innocent in this, but with a history like that… So much of it was painful. Was there no record of the truth behind the Fogbloom massacre? And if what she saw was real, didn’t that mean that she and Alton could be enemies in the future?
“What’s the matter? Normally you’d complain after a few seconds of me holding you like this.” Alton grinned at her.
“In the throne room of the palace, is the throne made of tarnished silver? Like it’s thick vines twisting around a green fabric chair?” It’s the only thing she could think of that may still be in the throne room. Everything else she had seen may have been replaced over the years.
Alton blinked with confusion. “It’s been awhile since I’ve seen it, but that sounds right. No wait, I believe the fabric in it is purple with seashells sewn in. What about it?” He didn’t think she had ever been to Fogbloom or at least thought she would have mentioned it.
“I was just curious... That’s all,” her voice started to trail off as she struggled to remember every detail of her visions. “... What are sirens? Was your mother one of them?”
A nervous laugh escaped Alton. “What’s with these questions?”
“I had a strange dream about the palace. It’s hard for me to tell what was real and what isn’t.” Sybil reached forward and grasped onto his hand. “Please. Humor me before I tell you more.”
Alton studied her worried face before relenting. “Don’t tell anyone, alright?” She nodded her head. “... Sirens were supposedly everywhere in Lustro before Tria’s fall. They were considered the servants of the old gods. There’s still a few thousand that still live off the coast of Fogbloom, but they avoid humans as much as they can.
The core in Fogbloom was one of their religious sites, but the ocean pathway leading into it was sealed centuries ago. My mother served as the only priestess of the core while I was still there. We were the first two to have lived there in over two centuries.”
“They live underwater?” He nodded and her voice lowered to a quiet whisper. “Toval, are they fish people?”
He narrowed his eyes. “They’re not fish people.”
“Really? Then what do they look like?” She gave him a stern look.
“They look normal,” he said with certainty. “They might have abnormal colors for their hair and spots of scales along their torsos, but they look as average as myself.” He cleared his throat and began to mutter. “With the exception that they sometimes have fish tails instead of legs, and fins along their arms to help stabilize their swimming, and claws, and gills, they look completely normal.”
Sybil stared at him for a moment, long enough for him to start scowling. “... Toval. You’re a fish person.”
“I may only be half human, but at least I am not a mist mutated core grub like yourself.” He pinched at her cheek in an almost painful manner.
“Better than being a fish,” she said with a grin, and he pinched harder. “Wait, before you get mad, let me ask one more question.” He let go of her cheek but continued to scowl at her. “Why do you want to be with me? I know I’ve already asked you that, but I want to hear your explanation again. It’s different now, isn’t it? You were only telling me half the truth before?”
Alton let out a sigh and his eyes flitted away from hers before looking back at her again. “That stupid rapier that belonged to Lady Larkin requested that I look after you. It didn’t make sense to me for the longest time until your idiot friends let loose that she was your mother. Thanks for mentioning that to me, by the way. I feel like that would’ve been important information for me, since, you know, we’re dating and I have her rapier.”
“She’s just my birth mother,” muttered Sybil. She then buried her head against his shoulder. “My father had a wife whom he didn’t want to have children with, and I was born out of adultery. With the thought of having your love’s child tossed at you to take care of, it’s no wonder she killed herself.
Lydia felt so bad about Meredith’s death that she ran away to go fight in the war, and she took her time in coming back afterward. I can’t help but to think that she might have lived a happier life if I had never been born. She would’ve been so much better off if she had never come to Carapace.”
He gave her a squeeze. “That’s not your fault. You know that she loved you more than anything else in this world.”
“I know that, but I’m not exactly Lydia’s daughter either. I mean, I am, but I don’t look like her. I don’t fight anything like her. I’m certainly not as courageous as she was, and barely anyone knows the truth about my birth because it could have gotten father kicked out of the core and ended his career. What was supposed to happen after she died? What if I had come out to say that my dad, her supposed murderer, fathered a child with her? I don’t want to think about what would have happened.”
Alton kissed her temple. It made sense on why she didn’t like telling people, but it still would’ve been easier for him if she had mentioned it sooner. “You both want the best for others. Even if you don’t think you have anything in common, there are ways in which the two of you are exactly alike.”
“Which still doesn’t explain why you would want to be with me,” she whispered back. “Please don’t let it be because the rapier made you. That would be the stupidest reason of all time.”
“Shouldn’t I ask you why you’re being so warm with me now?” He pulled back so he could lift up her head and smile at her. “It wasn’t that long ago when you so strongly objected to the idea.”
She frowned. “Because you’re pretty.” He raised an eyebrow. “... That’s seriously it.”
“... Ouch,” he replied.
“That’s still better than trying to sleep with someone because a sword told you to protect them,” she retorted. “That’s a special sort of idiocy. I don’t even know why you’d go through with that. If I pulled out Lady Grulick’s sword, and it told me to protect you, I honestly would’ve tossed it in a geyser and settled on never entering Braytons.”
Alton grimaced at the thought. “At the time, I thought you were worth protecting.”
“Then why didn’t you come with me and Vex to the swamplands?”
He hung his head to the side. “Because I didn’t know that Chi and Zan could’ve gotten escorts to Herring and honestly thought they would’ve died if they had attempted to go by themselves. Also, you wouldn’t have warmed up to me if I didn’t let you have some time to yourself first. I trusted that you and Vex didn’t have an interest in each other, so you’d still be available when you came back.
I’ve been a bit underhanded when it comes to you, but that’s the truth. Maybe I proposed to you because I thought it was the best way to keep you around, but I really have been trying to open up to you... I’m sorry that I’ve been a jerk about it.
And as I learned more about you, and as I started to care about you in a way I’ve never felt about anyone before, I started to see the person you really are. You’re someone I can trust with everything. My gut instinct was right. You are worth protecting, Sybil. The person I see right here is a beautiful girl who is worth so much more than anything I can give her, and that’s why I want to make myself a man that she can be proud of.”
Sybil put her hand to her mouth and her cheeks flushed red. “... Alton.” Her voice was muffled by her palm.
“Yes?” He brushed his fingers against her cheek. “You’re really cute when you’re embarrassed.” She let out a whine. “I thought you should know that.”
She shook her head. “The Fogbloom family was murdered by my great grandfather so that he could harvest their blood iron for some weird ritual, and now that blood iron is in the sheath of my sword, and sometimes it grants me these really weird powers and the Fogbloom family talks to me in either my own voice or the voices of people I know.
Or, at least I think Father Alcea is my great-grandfather. Both he and his son have powers like mine, and Aeneas did sort of look like mother, and I think your great-grandfather was in on it as well because he was also out there murdering Fogblooms. Not to mention that I own Erskine Fogbloom’s identification pendant, and I can’t explain why I have it. Or at least, I know that mother owned it, and she got it supposedly from my grandfather, but I don’t know how he got it.”
Alton’s smile fell as she proceeded to blather out everything at once. “... Oh.” He watched as she covered her face with her hands in an effort to hide from him. “... If it bothers you, you can forget what I said before. I’m mostly after your body because I think sex with you would be great. You’re a fun height for it, and seem like you’d be feisty in bed. Also, you don’t have to worry about me deciding to run off to kill the Fogblooms, because they’re already dead... Nothing to worry about.”
“I know... The whole thing sounds crazy... I’m probably crazy,” she muttered. “I don’t like feeling this way, Alton. Who would ever believe someone who was seeing and hearing ghosts? Let alone the visions they’ve granted me?”
He really needed to have a long talk with Lydia. She was hiding knowledge that both he and Sybil needed. Unfortunately, she disappeared right before Stonetoe’s afternoon lecture. It would have to wait until at least tomorrow before he could get anywhere with trying to pry information from her.
“Yes, that does… That does sound crazy.” Sybil let out another whine. “Let’s settle into our new room, get some sleep, and talk about it tomorrow. Vex will have questions too. We can even wait until the three of us can talk alone.”
Sybil dropped her hands and hugged him tightly. She felt his fingers go through her hair and his voice came out in a low hum. “You’re always humming that.”
“It’s the song sirens use to lure sailors to their deaths,” he whispered a little lie to tease her. She tensed up at the thought. “They don’t do it anymore. It’s more or less still sung as an old heritage song. Plus, I’ve always liked the tune. It’s how my parents met.” That part was true.
“Tell me about it,” she said tightened her grip on him.
Alton shrugged. “It’s not that spectacular. My father was traveling to Lyrhea, where the sirens live. Young princes and treasure hunting go hand in hand, after all, but the sirens hit them with a storm on the way there. Through the howling of the winds, they heard a distant song. Thinking it to be land, they swung the ship that way. What they found was a graveyard of other ships and jagged stones... The only two to survive were my father and Enzo, my father’s right-hand man.
Sir Cowl clung to both my father and a piece of driftwood for two days before hitting land. Needing rest, they sought shelter in a cave. They thought to stay near the coast and pray for a rescue ship. Instead, the waters brought them my mother.
She fetched them fish, and convinced the other sirens to lure in a fishing boat to act as their rescue. My father asked if she could visit them in Fogbloom since he was already, as he put it, madly in love with her by this point. She agreed, because she was just as in love with him, and that was that.”
“That’s a lot more romantic than how my parents met,” said Sybil. “My father was in Fogbloom for a conference and Lydia bullied him into letting her be his bodyguard. Mostly because she wanted a free trip to Carapace, but she refused to leave him alone after that. Somehow, her being a stalker led to them falling in love.”
Alton didn’t doubt that was something Lydia would do. “And you say you two are nothing alike... What are you talking about? You bully me all the time.” He kissed her on the forehead. “Let’s go upstairs.”
Sybil frowned to herself as they walked together. Her hand found his and clung it tightly. He probably was her enemy. At some point, they were going to both see that. This wasn’t going to work between them, but all the same, she knew she was starting to fall in love. Maybe it was because she knew that she shouldn’t, but she was really starting to feel that way.
They entered Bronzescale room, and although Mila was happy to have them, Irving was less so. He had taken up a large portion of the room with his supplies and experiments, and they were now shut away in boxes and shoved into a corner. Though he did approve of Alton and Sybil sharing a bed, as that meant he could have enough space for him to unpack some of his belongings.
Sybil’s eyes shut tightly, and her fingers grasped tightly at Alton’s shirt as she tried to kill off her feelings for him. They needed to go away. It was the best thing she could do for both of their sakes. But then he would hold her tenderly in return and hum softly in her ear. As long as he did that, she found herself unable to deny her heart any longer.