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“And I will tell you now that I have an issue with this.” Veximarl straightened his jacket as a show of how stern he was being. “We will not be summoning Tyrtain at our first given opportunity.”

Sybil shook her head and waved her hands about. Everything was coming together so much more quickly now that it was the first of winter. “I have everything planned out! You’ve seen the cave with the hut inside. No one will bother us there, and it’s far enough from the barracks that everyone will stay safe. If the worst were to happen.” And if anything bad were to happen, no doubt that the others would blame it on the miasma and not them.

It still wasn’t a plan that Veximarl was comfortable with. “This is quite the… Precarious venture. We have no idea how powerful he will end up being, nor do we know how he will react to sudden reanimation. It’s possible that he will have no memory of the past eight hundred years and attempt to hunt down Brayton.

It is best that we wait until our return from Carapace. The situation here will be much more stable, and we will be better prepared. The others should be informed as well before we even attempt the ritual.”

That didn’t sit well with Sybil. She knew that the miasma would weaken in spring, but she also wanted answers as soon as possible. Unfortunately, it was Veximarl’s necromancy that would be needed to activate the golem. Listening to him was her only choice.

She tossed her hands in the air. “Fine. We’ll stick with that plan, but only if we wait to tell the others until much, much later.”

“Agreed.” He nodded and held his chin up high. That’s right. He was the squad captain. Like it or not, she had to obey his orders. “I have a date with Chi where we will be testing adjustments he has done to my spear. Anais will be joining us as well. Likely a few others as well. What are your plans for today?”

“Date with Toval,” she rolled her eyes at the thought. “He wants to have a picnic lunch up on the wall... It’s freezing outside. I can’t even leave right after eating because he wants to serenade me. What am I supposed to do? Sit there awkwardly with a frozen smile and clap my frostbitten hands until they shatter?”

Veximarl was sympathetic. “At least he is attempting to make you happy.”

She let out a groan and shook her head. “I’m thinking about breaking up with him.”

“I thought you were infatuated with him.”

“I am, or am I?” Sybil tossed her arms as she gave up trying to rationalize how she felt. “We were forced together so quickly and... This place and all the stuff that happened… The sword, the tainted beasts, Erskine and Aeneas. What little joy I get from Alton’s company feels fragile. Like it’s going to shatter at any moment because I’m running away from the more important things. I want some time apart from him just I can be me and get my life sorted.”

Veximarl tilted his head. “And are you certain now is the time you wish to go through with that?” With Sybil trying to summon a god, and their upcoming mission to Carapace, along with their final tests and other training… He didn’t know if it was even possible for Sybil to take a break from anything.

“When would be a better time? All I need to do is find a way to make a clean break of it. I’m going to do it the moment I see him.” But Alton is so pretty. “... I can’t keep going on like this.” He was also nice to cuddle with, not to mention a decent kisser. “... I’m starting to think that I’m a shallow person, and I don’t know how comfortable I am with that.”

“That is something that the two of you are going to have to discuss. I am not going to intervene unless physical harm or death is a serious concern.” He stopped leaning against the wall and headed to the door. “Lady Blu would be the best one to talk to. Tish is also a wise choice. Either way, I will be leaving first.”

Sybil pouted but no amount of puppy eyes could keep Veximarl from abandoning her now. She followed him out of the squad room and met up with Alton, who was already preening. He thought himself to be quite the genius when it came to date planning. There was a blanket set out for them to sit on, hot broth to drink, and a sample of spiced foods to try. His harp was ready to play, and even extra blankets for them to cuddle beneath.

Sybil couldn’t be more displeased. Core dates were always on the move. Dancing on the webs or exploring the caves. Being confined to one place while a man sang her praises was the most awkward outing ever. Not to mention the fact that there was no point in doing all of this outside in the cold. She chose to sit there and nod while he did the most of the talking. Soon he will be pleased with himself, and she could leave to work on her golem.

“I have a rather extensive collection of instruments at home,” he muttered. Alton was looking into his mug of broth as he spoke. The steam was slightly stinging his nose.

“... Mhm.” Sybil’s eyes wandered over to the field.

Winter was one of the core’s most beautiful seasons. With icicles dripping down the webs near the roof, and there were roots in the sides of the mountain that could be dug up and eaten. When roasted and mixed with crushed ice, they made for a pleasant sweet treat. It was similar to pickled beet sherbets they had in the summer.

“I was thinking about bringing some back with me when we return from Carapace. I love my harp, but it’d be nice to play something else once in a while when Till forces me to do lessons. “

“Yeah, of course…”

Sybil had never experienced a winter outside the core before. Everything seemed to be in the process of dying here. The hotter weeks of summer were also full of brown death for the hillsides, but this was on a whole new level of bleakness. A part of her was pained to see the colors of autumn fade away.

“What do you think? It won’t be long till Tish forces us all to do another party and I’ll be stuck playing the dancing music. I have a handpan that I could bring. Preferably something like that, where I need to sit in order to play it, but maybe a wind instrument could be fun.”

“... Anything is fine,” muttered Sybil.

Alton stared at her. She was bored. How was she bored? He had thought of everything that women like. They had become a couple more quickly than he had anticipated, and now it was their time to just relax and ease their way through the next few years at Braytons. The hard part was supposed to be over and she was supposed to be doe-eyed and fawning over him at every given opportunity.

The thought that she wasn’t enjoying what he had put together for her was leaving him distraught. Was it his choice of location? Maybe the broth? His only consolation was the fact that Lydia had sought entertainment elsewhere and that he didn’t have to worry about listening to her make fun of how terrible this date was going.

“Are you… Are you listening to me, Sybil?”

“Hmm?” Sybil looked over at him.

Winter had even drained the color from Alton. His eyes didn’t sparkle or shift like they used to, staying a grayish blue. His hair seemed more blonde than silver. She squinted at him. … Yes, he was certainly not the same Alton. He, in turn, leaned in and gave his usual handsome smile.

“Like what you see?” Alton’s smile grew all the larger. Maybe she was being shy about being alone together and had become distracted with perverse thoughts. Yes, that was probably it.

Sybil let out a scoff and looked away. “I had imagined for a moment that you looked different than usual.”

The statement left him feeling alarmed. His hands started to instinctively pat at his hair. “Different? Like how?” She shrugged. “Is it something bad? Do you dislike it?” She shrugged again. “Stop doing that!”

“Look, Toval.” Sybil gestured to everything around them. “It was nice being together. The last month had its ups and downs, but isn’t this all a little too nice?”

Alton was stunned by her response. Nice? What was wrong with nice? “Was there something else you wanted to do?”

As she thought about it, the sound of an explosion and Veximarl’s high pitched scream of panic resonated through the air. “I want to spend time with our friends.”

“But we’re supposed to be on a date...” Another explosion rang loudly. “I know that something is bothering you. Instead of running away, can’t you talk to me?”

“I can’t spend my three years here spending every single free moment of my time with you,” she replied. “I fought to get into Braytons because I wanted to be here to support Chickadee and Zaniyah. All I’ve done since then was almost die and be stuck at your side. I don’t want to keep going on like that.”

“And I get that... I do, I would also like it if...” His voice drifted off. He would rather just spend all of his free time with Sybil. There weren’t many other people at the barracks that he enjoyed the company of. “... Friends are, uh, nice?”

Sybil let out a sigh. She stood up and kept the blanket wrapped about herself as she gave a quick bow. “I no longer wish to be your girlfriend. Sorry for wasting your time. Goodbye.”

“... What? Hey! Hey, wait!” Alton scrambled to clean everything up. “Are you sure you don’t want to go drink some tea and talk about this?” She shook her head. “I thought you liked tea!” Her response was to hasten her footsteps. “What is it about tea that is suddenly offending to you?!”

Alton let out a long sigh as he watched Sybil descend down the stairs. This was only temporary. Some time to cool off and she’ll be willing to talk about what was actually bothering her. He continued to put away everything, not even being the littlest surprised when Lydia’s image floated up alongside the wall.

“Do I even need to ask?” She pretended to sit on the edge of the rampart as she watched him, only to succeed in floating an inch or two above it.

Alton didn’t want to pretend to understand what was going through Sybil’s head at the moment. “I got the documents back from Carapace this morning. The ones about your mother.”

“I see that you are continuing the trend of not trusting me,” replied Lydia. “She’s dead.”

“You’re dead,” he replied curtly.

Lydia shrugged. “It is true that the definition of death may be a bit lax these days, but I assure you that she died in a time when it was quite permanent. I haven’t hidden her circumstances. It is alright to trust me, Alton. I’m only looking out for what is best for you and Sybil.”

Of course, he couldn’t trust Lydia. She never lied, but she never volunteered information until he could ask the right questions. “Right… The documents confirmed that she had died in the plague, as you had said she did.”

Carapace’s water source comes from deep within the core. There is a process of purification, and then both golems and elementalist mages bring it up to the city and sell it to the citizens. The costs were always kept low enough so that even the poorest citizens could afford water, but others still thought to undercut the process.

Potential sellers began to bring up water from lakes and rivers outside of Carapace. The cost was cheaper, but the water was not purified. Buyers were told to boil out diseases before using it for bathing or consumption. Thus when the plaque broke out, it took over a year for anyone to realize that the water was the source of it.

Five percent of the outland population had died before the lengthy investigation had come to a close. The result was that the people were dying of heavy metal poisoning. Over four hundred deaths lead to the duke being overthrown for bad management during a time of crisis. The Rubire family took charge, and laws were passed restricting the sale of consumables containing water sourced from outside the core.

But Alton had held out hope that there may have been some clue in their death records. A marriage certificate with Aeneas’ fake name. Lydia’s birth certificate. Anything that could lead to answers.

“I want to tell Sybil about you.” He firmly believed that Lydia would be a lot more open if Sybil were the one asking the questions.

“And she would simply believe that you have been able to see and talk to me this entire time?” Lydia smirked at the idea.

“Yes. She would.”

Lydia laughed. “You forget that Sybil is a woman of science. What is the first thing she will do when you tell her that I have been here the whole time?”

“... She’d ask Chi to investigate the rapier.”

Which Chickadee already did when Alton had mentioned that he heard a voice saying to protect Sybil. Baton was made by his mother and he had access to notes on its construction. Voices were maybe a possibility but Lydia’s existence as she was now wasn’t something Chickadee was even capable of comprehending.

“There isn’t anything to prove that I am Lady Lydia Larkin,” said Lydia. “There isn’t any evidence to state that I will be around forever either. How would that make Sybil feel? To know that only you can see her? To feel forced to be with you so that she could talk to me? To understand that I may simply disappear one day without once even truly feeling like I had been there?”

In a way, wasn’t Alton Lydia’s hostage? He had always felt like he had no choice when it came to Sybil. Their lives were always meant to be intertwined at one point or another. It was for the sake of protecting that destiny that he would continue to keep secrets. Now and forever.

“Right... I understand.”

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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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