“Did Sir Moss not teach you the proper way to write a letter of apology?” Marjoram was standing behind Sybil. She reached over and pulled away what Sybil had wrong before she tossed it away in the trash.
Moss had indeed gone over how to write an apology letter. That and possibly fifty or so other types of letters that one could write. There wasn’t a way Sybil to remember them all off the top of her head. She looked up at Marjoram with a helpless look.
Marjoram moved to a cupboard at the back of the room. “A letter is more than its contents, Miss Twist. There are more than just words that can convey your intent. The stationery you use, the color of the ink, the size of your letters, even the way you choose to do your letterlocking.”
“The way your letter is folded before it is sealed with wax,” replied Marjoram. “Honestly, what did you learn in etiquette class?”
Sybil frowned. She had always used envelopes to store her letters, and those were sealed with glue. “Mostly how to put on clothes correctly, how to dance, and a lot of useless stuff about horses.”
Marjoram stared at her for a moment before shaking her head with disbelief. “That is what grade children learn.” Sybil stared at her wide-eyed, somewhat petrified of saying something wrong in front of a baroness. “One moment. I will need to borrow the correct stationery from my husband’s office.”
Veximarl had been standing awkwardly in the corner of the office. He silently watched Marjoram leave before he began to whisper at Sybil. “We studied letters at the end of summer.”
“You mean when I had to cut class and make time to be tortured by Duchess Elbellziara?” Sybil muttered back. “You know I don’t pay attention to Sir Moss’ class.”
“You shouldn’t let the Baroness know that. Sir Moss’ family serves this one. She might take your lack of studying as a personal offense,” he replied. Sybil let out a loud, annoyed sigh. “I did warn you that you should study more.”
Sybil was about to open her mouth when Marjoram entered the room again. She placed down a piece of stationary in front of Sybil. It had a black border on the right side, and Sybil had never seen paper so white in color. Next to that was placed a bottle of ink that was a dark grayish blue shade.
“This is yours to keep.” She placed a small rectangular box in front of Sybil.
Sybil opened it and found a wax seal with a moth marked on it. “Oh… Thank you.”
“... Do you have any idea what that is?”
Sybil paused. She then quickly rolled the option around in her hands, examining every detail. It was similar to the device Chickadee used to make his maker’s mark, but it was larger. “It’s a wax seal?” That was an item that Marjoram had mentioned earlier. Logic concluded that this was it.
Marjoram stared at her a moment longer before letting out a tired sigh. “We will work on a draft together. You will copy this draft onto the stationery, then I will handle the letterlocking. Let’s be quick about it. We must not keep Paladin Buttonweed waiting.”
It was like she hadn’t been kidnapped at all. There wasn’t an ounce of sympathy as she was thrust right back into lessons on how to be a proper noble. Perhaps it was better that way. It gave her less time to reflect on all the horrible things that had happened.
She finished the letter in an hours time and the trio met up with Buttonweed. He and Alton had located a merchant who was heading to Tilrey. One that was eager to have a free guard in exchange for giving someone a ride. Sybil and Veximarl found themselves nestled between crates of alcohol. The rattling of bottles did nothing to ease her worries.
There was a mix of emotions stirring within her. She had spent the past few days locked away and praying for Alton to find her. He found her, and she couldn’t even bring herself to look his way. Even if she wanted desperately to talk to him, she hated the idea of speaking up. If she had been rational and spoke to him in the first place about her worries, they could have gone to Tilrey together and kept each other safe.
Despite all that, she still felt like pushing Alton away. Was he lying to himself about wanting to be with her? This only happened because he was the one that retrieved Lydia’s rapier. There wasn’t anything about her being in love with him. She knew what love was like. Whatever Felix said about love being different from person to person was just… It was all childish thinking.
And while she was playing the blame game, she was also a little peeved with Veximarl.
“... You activated the golem without me,” she whispered.
Veximarl shifted closer to ensure their conversation was kept private. “It was a matter of emergency.” How did she find out so soon?
“I met him... He came to visit me and kidnapped the boy that was being held captive with me.” Veximarl’s jaw dropped at the statement. “He didn’t seem all that helpful.”
“What would he want with a child?”
Sybil shrugged. “I think Felix was the dragon that Alton met last summer, only in human form. At least, it seemed like Felix recognized Tyrtain, even though Tyrtain was also human. Maybe it has something to do with dragons? Either way, I hope Felix is alright.”
“All we can do is hope that we hear news of him soon,” replied Veximarl.
Coughing to clear his throat, Veximarl changed the subject. “Well, uhm, on a different note... It will trouble you to know that Alton assisted me with summoning Tyrtain.” Sybil’s worried look turned into a hard glare. “Again, it was a matter of emergency and I didn’t believe it wise to do it alone. We will sit down together and discuss it as a trio when we get back to the barracks. Zani and Chi are in Tilrey. We will have privacy.”
“Just talk to me about it now. I need something to get my mind off the terrible thoughts I’ve been having.”
They spent the next few hours exchanging whispers with one another. He told her that Aeneas sought out Tyrtain in order to find Tria and that she was the one who made the Heart. What that meant for Sybil or why it chose her at Volo Refuge, he wasn’t certain. Sybil mentioned that Tyrtain was going to attempt to purge this area. The topic then shifted between the relation of gods and miasma.
“And there has never been a case of tainted mist within the capital,” added Veximarl. “That must be the ritual that Alton spoke of. They are empowering Bellia in order to keep the mists pure. If we were ever to get the opportunity, it may be beneficial to see how it’s done personally.”
“It doesn’t even matter anymore. They stole the sword, Vex. I won’t ever see it again. That adventure is done and over.” Sybil squeezed Veximarl’s knee. “I’m so grateful that you two found my dagger. I don’t know what I lost Tal.”
Her dagger was important to her, as it was a gift from Chickadee. Losing Erskine’s pendant, the one connection she had to her grandfather, was a heavy blow against her conscious. Maybe it was punishment she deserved for being kidnapped in the first place.
They continued to talk about simpler things until they reached a fork in the road. One way to Braytons and the other way was to Tilrey. Paladin Buttonweed would escort the merchant to the town while the others went back to the barracks. He would stay there until the end of winter.
Sybil rode on the back of Veximarl’s summoned horse. As night began to fall, she kept looking up at the sky. Streams of green and blue light flowed like rivers across the stars, shifting occasionally to purple and pink as they danced… They reminded her of Alton’s eyes. Soon enough, she found herself tossing the occasional glance at him and felt her cheeks burn despite the cold around her.
There was no fanfare waiting for them when they entered Braytons. The trio headed back to their room after they had bid their farewells to Baroness Marjoram. Veximarl excused himself so he could give a full report to Vincent, and Alton frowned at the stack of homework that had been left on the table for himself and Veximarl. Likely make up work and something extra as punishment for skipping classes. All that could be dealt with later though.
Alton glanced at Sybil, and she, in turn, was ignoring him again. She had already retreated behind her curtain. He shook his head and thought of going back behind there in order to force a conversation with her. Instead, he changed into his pajamas and began to catch up on his homework. Quiet was apparently the only company he would get.
Loud voices in the hallway betrayed the fact that the others had different plans in mind. The door burst open and Irving stepped inside first. Mila immediately followed as Tish stood by the door. The priestess’ hands wavered about nervously as she hesitantly smiled.
“We just can’t enter each other rooms like this, Irving,” she said in a loud whisper.
Irving didn’t care. He took out his letter and started to type into it while Mila looked about the room. “Sybil? You here?”
… Alton was just standing there in his slacks and nothing more, but whatever. Apparently, that didn’t matter to others. “Learn to read a room, will you?!” He snarled back at them.
Sticking her head out from behind the curtain, Sybil gave them all a small wave. “... Hi.” She waved her letter. “I’m fine, Irving. Thank you for asking. Nothing all that terrible happened... It was just an anti-climatic kidnapping. Please don’t-”
Tish had rushed past the others tackled Sybil in a hug. Mila followed suit while Irving smiled to himself. Alton them all a disgusted look. He then scrambled to find a shirt as Peter and Basil’s heads peeked through the open door.
“She’s back! I know! It’s great!” Alton started to shoo them away with his shirt. “All of you need to get out and leave her alone until tomorrow, do you understand?” They all blankly stared at him. “Do it before Highland sees you trespassing in another squad’s room! He’s right next door now. I’ll start shouting loud enough for him to hear!”
Mostly disgruntled by Alton’s rudeness, they shuffled out of the room one by one until Alton could slam it shut behind them. He spat out a few choice words and spun around, only to be greeted by Sybil standing right behind them. Hopping a step back, he quickly composed himself and yanked on his shirt.
“... I’m sorry.” Sybil looked off to the side and rubbed one of her arms. “I haven’t exactly made anything easy for you all.”
Alton also looked away for a moment and then back to her. “That doesn’t matter... Are you alright?” She nodded. “I’m serious. Don’t hide anything. Are you actually alright?”
“Yeah… I mean, yes. It was just dark and lonely, but no one hurt me all that badly. I figured you would show up eventually, so all I had to do was wait it out.” She shook her head and looked up at him with a worried expression. “... Are you alright?”
“Ah, well… Yes?” He gave her half a grin. “What do you mean by that?”
She lifted up the edge of his shirt and tilted her head. “Your scales fell off. Was that stress? I wouldn’t want you to worry so much about me that your body started to fall apart because of it.”
Alton shrugged it off. “That’s just what happens to sirens in winter. When sirens hit puberty, they start transforming during winter. They lose their tails and look like regular humans. It’s a less traumatic change in me, being half human, but the change did allow for me to be born, so at least there’s that.” It also meant that winter was more liberating for him than other times of the year, as he didn’t have to be as careful as he did or about hiding himself away.
Sybil shook her head. “That must be horrible for you.” Her words caught him off guard. “Even if the Toval family has you hide what you are, you always talk like you’re proud of your heritage. I would hate it if a part of me that I liked just… Went away every once in a while. It must be horrible not being able to sense the part of you that’s your mother.”
And that was the moment that Alton realized that he was hopelessly in love with this idiot of a girl, and he had been from the first moment he saw her. A girl who could see him for what he was and just… Understand. She honestly and simply understood his true self, and not once had she judged it in a negative light.
He took a step forward and put his hand on her cheek, lifting up her chin so he could lean in close to her face. “Sybil, I lo-” His voice got stuck in his throat as he heard the door behind him open. “... I loathe it, but I’m used to it. You don’t need to worry about me, and I’m sorry if I was mean to you earlier.” His hand slipped away from her cheek as he took a step back.
Veximarl closed the door behind himself as he entered. Foggy was at his legs, rubbing possessively along them. He carefully sidestepped around the pair and went to his own station so he could change into his night clothes. Tomorrow would no doubt be a horrific day of lectures and punishments and he wanted to curl up with a book and shut out the world while he still had a chance.
Sybil’s fingers traced along her cheek. She could still feel the lingering warmth of Alton’s touch. “Yeah, uhm... Goodnight.”
They stared at each other for a moment longer and then turned away, each going about their own evening routine before retiring for the night. The next morning, they went to class as though nothing happened. Lady Till made no mention of the incident, nor were either Alton or Veximarl called away to be given any sort of punishment.
Marjoram showed up alongside Lady Till during the morning lessons. She would be taking over Grimstone Squad as their afternoon supervisor. Grimhawk had been assigned to the farm, and weapon lessons were temporarily suspended until Dalkirk and Stonetoe returned. At the moment, Marjoram was interested to see what hidden potential Grimstone had.
Chickadee and Zaniyah returned with Anais just after Till’s class was finished. The two of them bowled over Sybil, and the three then collapsed in a pile of blubbering tears and incomprehensible sentences. Alton sat on the edge of a table in the dining hall with a bowl of stew in hand, watching the scene unfold before him with a great deal of apathy.
“We have an exam in ten minutes,” he replied flatly.
Veximarl, who was sitting on the bench near Alton’s feet, was also feeling apathetic. He had experienced so many highs and lows over the past few days that his emotions had become numb. “... They will tire out eventually.”
Despite thinking the group would eventually stop crying, it took both Alton and Veximarl to physically pry Zaniyah off of Sybil so she could stand up. Even then, Chickadee and Zaniyah stood on either side of Sybil, clinging to her arms as they walked back to the classroom. Marjoram had laid out quills and parchment paper and had written an elegant poem on the slate board.
A scoff escaped her lips as the squad filtered in. “I hope Stonetoe takes his time in returning so I can shape this uncouth bunch into something decent.” She slammed the chalk down and turned to the group. “I know those three buffoons, but who are you two?”
Zaniyah grinned widely. “I’m Zani and that’s Chi!” She pointed at Chickadee with her thumb. “Nice to meet you!” Her smile faltered for a moment as Marjoram scowled at her.
Alton spoke in a loud whisper out of the corner of his mouth. “Proper introduction.”
“Yes!” Zaniyah clapped her hands together. “I know this! I’m supposed to… Bow?” She looked over towards Alton and Veximarl, and both of them shook their heads in unison. “Right! Got it! My name is Zaniyah Krogastein, and it is a pleasure to meet you, my lord. This is my compatriot, Chickadee. How dooo you dooo?”
“Compatriot?” Sybil looked to Veximarl, who quickly shook his head to indicate that Zaniyah had used the wrong word.
Alton put his face in his palms. Sybil furrowed her brows. Other than one wrong word, the rest of it seemed correct. Chickadee sought to introduce himself by taking a step forward. The little blacksmith bowed elegantly and spoke in a confident manner.
“My lady, I am Walter Cully of Carapace. It is a pleasure to be graced with your presence. I am honored that you have taken the time to educate us today.”
Putting her hand to her chest, Marjoram gasped. “Oh sweet Mart, you’re a man...” She then gestured at the layers that Chickadee was wearing. “When you are indoors, you will have your face exposed so I can see it. Other than that, excellent work, Mister Cully.” Oddly excellent. This was probably the lead troublemaker of the group.
Chickadee started to pull off his coverings, and his normally silken hair puffed out at all sorts of angles when it was revealed. Without skipping a step upon seeing Marjoram’s aghast expression, Veximarl pulled a comb out of his pocket and started to smooth it down while Chickadee’s face turned red from embarrassment. This was confusing for Zaniyah, who was still standing. She then raised a hand.
“Excuse me, miss?” She tilted her head to the side. “Why was bowing bad for me but okay for him?”
“Ladies are supposed to curtsy,” whispered Alton.
Zaniyah let out an “ah” sound and then raised her hand again. “Excuse me, miss? I don’t really like being called Krogastein since it’s kind of a mouthful and all? It doesn’t bother me if you want to call me Zan or Zani. Maybe I can call you Marge or Margie? I mean, Marjoram is a mouthful too.” She began to sound it out to herself. “Marjoram… Marjoram…”
Marjoram stepped forward and slammed her hand down on the table. Ink tendrils had extended out of her sleeve and slammed down at the same time, adding to the booming sound had now silenced the room completely. Zaniyah let out a small “eep” and sat back down as the tendrils retreated back into Marjoram’s sleeve.
“I am Baroness Ester Marjoram. I am in charge of the upkeep of an eighteen-acre estate. My husband, Baron Leon Marjoram, holds sway over several cities, with Mareth being the largest of them. His grandfather was once a faithful servant of King Cadogan, Tria rest his soul.
My ancestors were among the original settlers of Fogbloom, and have served on his majesty’s royal guard for generations. So no. You may not call me ‘Marge’ or ‘Margie.’ You will refer to me as Baroness Marjoram, and I will refer to you as trash until such time as you prove yourself capable of acting like a proper lady. Is that clear, trash?”
Blinking a few times while she processed this newfound information, Zaniyah finally gave a nod. “That’s fine, Baroness Marjoram.”
Marjoram’s angry expression fell flat. “... Are you not at all disturbed or in awe of anything I said?”
A shrug was given as a response. “I mean, people have been calling me trash to my face for as long as I can remember. My brother, Zynn, always told me that words are just rain out of the sky. A single drop won’t do anything to hurt you unless you let it soak in. Don’t let it bother you, and it’ll evaporate away to nothing in no time.”
The baroness paused. “... Your brother seems like a wise man.”
“Oh no, ma’am, he’s a complete idiot. He gives good advice all the time, but he doesn’t bother to follow any of it.”
Marjoram leaned away from the table, closing her eyes as she out a sigh. “Carrying on, we will begin our lesson today. When I attended Braytons, I was under the direct tutelage of Lady Till, but I gained much of my wisdom from the other teachers and knights who were present.
One such mentor was weapons master Lady Grulick, who helped teach me that a knight’s purpose lies not solely on the battlefield. A knight must be able to wield a quill as skillfully as they do a sword in order to succeed in life, and I understood the value of her words. Perhaps more so than others have. Please pick up your quills and copy down the script I have written for you on the board. Ensure that your letters are neat, legible, and written with flair.”
Always grateful for the strict lessons that Lady Grulick had given him, Veximarl was doubly thankful for her teachings of calligraphy. Himself, Alton, and Chickadee all passed quickly. Chickadee needed neat handwriting for weapon and armor embellishments, and in theory, Sybil needed it as for golem work. However, the common language was completely different from the arcane script. She had never put much thought into it.
“... Do it again. Actually attempt it this time.” Marjoram handed another piece of paper to Sybil, who was on her fifth page already. “How were you able to write down a letter yesterday but fail at a simple poem today?”
Because Sybil was allowed to write with larger letters yesterday. She didn’t feel like starting an argument. The paper that she was working on was crumpled up and tossed to the side so that she could make a sixth attempt.
Zaniyah hadn’t even finished her first page. Her tongue stuck out of the side of her mouth as she made slow, deliberate motions with her quill. She was growing frustrated as the quill left blotches of ink due to her not moving it quickly enough, but she needed this. No matter what, she needed to become a proper lady. Everything depended on her ability to get this right.
“Done!” She held up the paper for Marjoram to look at, and ink from some of the wetter letters began to run down the page. “I even added extra flair! Just like you said to!” Marjoram blankly stared at the paper. She held up a finger in thought, then pointed it at the door. “Does that mean I pass?”
“... Just leave, Krogastein.”
Zaniyah placed her work next to Sybil. “You can copy off mine, alright? I’ll see you when you get out.”
Sybil glanced down at the paper and nearly choked at the sight. Letters dotted with flowers and crossed with swords, extra swirls around curves, and everything was surrounded by fire. “Ah, yeah. See you when I finish.” Yet if Zaniyah was let out, it proved that Sybil was doing worse than she previously thought.
She redoubled her efforts. Being a lady wasn’t important to her. However, for the sake of leaving class today, she could at least pretend to get it right.