Over the next few weeks, Zaniyah had learned much about Baroness Marjoram. First and foremost, she did not like Zaniyah. On the other hand, she didn’t have anyone else to turn to. Unlike the rest of her squad, she was always assigned to stay by Stonetoe’s side.
Not only had he not bothered to teach her much aside from fighting, but she was stuck with Marjoram as long as the Baroness was serving as his temporary replacement. One of the things that she had wished Stonetoe had taught her was how important Till and Moss’ lessons actually were.
Marjoram did think it a tragedy that Grimhawk and Stonetoe let Zaniyah waste away as a woman, but it wasn’t worth her effort to fix the girl. Zaniyah was also being quite clingy, which she found to be annoying.
Vincent was determined to have Zaniyah meet his family while they were in Carapace. A proper outland family would want nothing to do with her now. If she was going to make a solid impression, she had to be as close to perfect as she could get.
“Go bother Lady Till if you are so concerned about your lack of social skills!” Shouted the baroness at Zaniyah.
Zaniyah tapped two fingers together and shuffled her feet about the snow. “Nita is busy with all this paperwork and Alton’s music lessons. I mean, she also seems to take on squires that uhm,” she raised a hand at about chest level for herself. “They start out here and I’m more,” she lowered her hand close to where her knees were. “Here… What I’m saying is that they are better than me.”
“You will refer to her as Lady Till.” She frowned as Zaniyah opened her mouth. “I do not care what Sir Stonetoe calls her, you will refer to her as Lady Till. Now, I would tell you to let me be, but I have the misfortune of having a calligraphy class with you and Miss Twist. Come along.”
The other thing that Zaniyah knew was that the baroness absolutely despised Stonetoe. He was the Grugrim intruder, and she was a proper squire serving under Lady Till. It was only because her eldest son was becoming a squire here next summer did Marjoram choose to become an instructor here.
“But if you could just help me with other things that aren’t calligraphy?” Zaniyah pleaded as the walked.
“I am not interested in tutoring anyone beyond what is asked of me. Especially not if your only motivation is to further sink your fangs into that man of yours.”
“No! No, no!” Zaniyah her arms about wildly. “We’ve never- I mean, there’s protocols to courtship, miss, uhm, Baroness, and I would never demand that sort of… Indecent behavior!”
But her face was beet red from thinking about the time she did demand it, and she remembered the clumsy hot kisses that he had placed on the side of her neck... So much so that she could almost feel them.
Marjoram squinted her eyes at Zaniyah’s frozen expression of fear and embarrassment. “You are the worst!” She exclaimed. “Come along, Krogastein! We are late!”
A nearby group was watching the display from the comfort of the forge. Anais was seated in a chair as Chickadee fitted a delicate cuff around her ear. It was made to look like bronze and gold vines curling out the center. Next to them were Veximarl and Tish, who were looking on as Marjoram continued to stand there and screech at Zaniyah while at the same time complain that they were late.
“Is it comfortable?” Chickadee tilted Anais’ head about as he examined the device.
“It’s quite alright. Are you certain that my hair won’t get caught in it?” She watched him out of the corner of her eye.
“Will shave head. Completely safe then.” Chickadee looked over to where a collection of knives and razors were waiting to be sharpened.
Veximarl waved his hands about. “That was a joke, Anais. Merely him making an ill remark.” He felt his heart drop as he saw Chickadee pick up an especially sharp looking razor and rushed to step between him and Anais. Raising his hand, he began to rub two of his fingers together next to her ear. “Are you able to hear that?”
She shivered. “Oh, what an awful sou- Oh! I can hear that! It’s coming through quite clearly!”
Anais was born with a malformed ear. The ear was smaller, cauliflower-shaped, and the canal had always been sealed. Her deafness made it difficult for her to guard her left side, making it an ill disability for a promising knight. Veximarl deduced that her ear canal was sealed, and Chickadee had developed the cuff as an experiment. Tainted beast blood iron was allowing him to make more complicated projects and this was one of them.
Tish clasped her hands together. “Are you able to better understand what your wolf is saying now?”
A shake of the head given. “Not really. I never hear anything when it comes to animals. It’s about sensing what they are feeling and such.”
“I will fix it,” said Chickadee as he reached for her ear again.
“No!” Anais clamped her hand down on the side of her head and hopped to a stand. “It’s fine! It’s fine how it is! Thank you, to the both of you, so very much!” She bowed deeply with gratitude.
Veximarl smiled to himself. He liked this kind of work and he was decent at it. After Grulick died, he managed to carry on for a short while as a witch doctor. Not that it wasn’t an honorable position within a swamp, but he never wished to stay in Husk. The work he had been doing for his fellow squires left him feeling proud of his decision to leave.
First, there was Irving, who was allergic to practically everything. He had never realized it before due to the strict diet of his home village. Lady Blu and himself had worked on safely testing out his allergies so that he wouldn’t further have another life-threatening situation.
Then there was Tish, who found herself worn out every few weeks due to horrific stomach cramps. Veximarl had shown her how to make a poultice bandage in order for her to sleep better at night. Watching him help out Anais as well reminded her that she still needed to find a way to thank him.
“Say, Vexi,” cooed Tish in his direction. “Didn’t you say your birthday was on Tria’s feast day?”
Snapping out of his own inner thoughts, Veximarl scowled. “Yes, but it is ill luck to celebrate anything in Winter. Even acknowledging Tria’s feast day will no doubt be disapproved of. Lustro has a strong policy of rejecting the fourth god.” To the point where necromancy and any other magics involving her were outlawed in Lustro.
“We celebrate it in the core.” Sybil suddenly poofed into appearance in between Tish and Veximarl. She was hiding from Majorarm, who was now on the receiving end of Zaniyah’s shouting. That meant it would be at least another hour until her own calligraphy torture begin. “We secure a cavern for a party and tell scary stories.”
Tish clapped her hands together. “What a wonderful tradition! Let’s do that! We can set up something in the common area and we can go watch the dancing lights at midnight. It will be perfect!”
A look was exchanged between Sybil and Veximarl. Tyrtain’s transformation had marked the end of Archive. The entire system had abruptly stopped working. Over the past few weeks, the miasma had nearly vanished, possibly blessed away by the rivers of light that lit up the sky each night. There were no signs of a massive dragon reappearing or terrible sightings of destruction, much to Grimstone Squad’s relief.
“Get away from my pupil, you cantankerous rat of a woman!” Stonetoe’s voice boomed out from the southern gates of the barracks. “By Tria’s saggy tits, what are you even doing here?!”
“Cleaning up after your egregious mistakes!” Screeched back Marjoram as she gestured to Zaniyah. “How do you even begin to explain this?! What am I supposed to do with this?!”
“Nothing! She’s fine as she is!” Stonetoe continued to shout. “You better have not done anything weird to her!”
“Mama Stonetoe!” Zaniyah immediately ran over, nearly skipping as she did so. A low hiss from Marjoram made her skid to a stop. She then pulled out the edge of her skirt politely. “How dooo you dooo Mama, I mean, Lord Stonetoe?”
Stonetoe blinked at the strange sight. “Ah, well. You’re still you. Guess there is no fixing that... Ester!” He called out to Marjoram again. “Don’t do anything weird to this one! I mean it!”
The window to Lady Till’s room slammed open and the sounds of harp music were now clearly drifting through. “Braden! Stop shouting at Ester! Be a decent person and have a conversation at an appropriate noise level!” She got an abrupt look of horror on her face as though she were experiencing a terrible flashback. “Braden!” She looked down at the knight again, with shock this time. “Wait right there!”
Moving quickly down the stairs, Till rushed out of the door with her skirt held up in her hands. Stonetoe gave her a sly grin as she slowed down. She then stopped several paces away from him, not daring to approach closer than that.
“It’s nice to see you too, Nita. Guess you can say I’m back. Bearing gifts as well.” He gestured to his horse. The animal had full packs attached either side of his saddle. “I’m taking over Dalkirk’s squad until he gets back. Says he doesn’t like unfinished business.” Till took a step forward and smacked him as hard as she could on the shoulder. “... Ow.”
“You have fifteen minutes to unpack. I expect a full report on your and Dalkirk’s mission.” She began to straighten the edges of his jacket as though he were still a schoolboy.
“I have some matters to settle with my squad first,” he replied coyly. “I’ve also been riding since early morning and sleeping outdoors is a bother this time of year. Let me take a nap first. I’ll bring the wine Lady Elbellziara gave me to your office.”
Till pinched the bridge of her nose. “Don’t bring wine. Come after a short nap. I stress short, because I have little time as it is, and give a concise report. None of your usual flourishes.” She then turned to Marjoram, shaking her head as she did so. “Please keep yourself composed, Miss Dandy. Remember that you are a lady.” She then blinked a few times. “... Apologies, Baroness Marjoram.”
Stonetoe grinned all the wider as Till flustered for a moment before heading back to her office. He then tossed a smug grin at Marjoram. “I’ll always be the favorite,” he whispered.
“I will tie you up to the outer wall again, and this time, I will ensure that the wolves find you,” she snarled back in a threatening tone.
Backing away from the two, Zaniyah felt as though she shouldn’t be hearing this sort of conversation. “I’m just going to… Head to the classroom if neither of you mind.”
“Yes! The calligraphy class!” Marjoram violently shoved the ever-grinning Stonetoe away as he began to laugh. “Miss Twist! Move along!”
Sybil tilted her head back and groaned loudly. She knew she shouldn’t have dropped her mist step. It was better to stay invisible forever. Veximarl gave her a reassuring pat to her shoulder as she walked away, but it did little to boost her mood.
After a series of grueling lectures about how terrible a man Stonetoe was and how the two should never, ever be like him, Sybil and Zaniyah were relieved to be able to go back to their room. They were greeted by their supervising knight sitting at the table. He was enjoying dinner with Chickadee and Veximarl while Alton was working on documents at his desk.
“Twist! Catch!” The knight tossed a small object towards Sybil, who caught it deftly.
It was Erskine’s pendant. An overwhelming sense of gratitude washed over her features as she clung it to her chest and sighed with relief. “Oh, thank goodness.”
Stonetoe lifted up a mug as a toast to her. “I’m glad you’re not dead, but you better not go on patrol alone again. Don’t bother asking for your sword. Dalkirk is still out looking for it, but he’ll most likely give up on if he can’t find it before the end of winter.”
“No, it’s… Everything was my fault.” Sybil sat down in her chair and Veximarl started to fill her plate with roasted root vegetables and chopped ham. “... Thank you.” He flashed her a brief smile.
Their knight leaned back in his chair and dug around in his ear. “Not much to say about my trip. A letter showed up with that pendant and demanding ransom. That guy Dalkirk nearly killed in Mareth had sent a pair of idiots to Grand Temple. They were a lot more willing to talk, and we the location of a group of slavers hiding out not more than three days travel from here. Came north to stalk the supply lines and find easy picks.
Duchess gave us a unit of her best to track down the lot and then I was forced to march my butt back to Grand Temple and give her royal pain a report while Dalkirk went east. Lucky I don’t have to north to explain to Duke Sickleson why the Duchess thought it wise to send her best to hunt down slavers in his region.”
“Is she going to get in trouble for it?” Sybil wrung her hands together below the table.
“Nah. Our Duke is a laid back sort. Problem with having our capital so far north is that his reach ain’t as far as it seems. Plus him and Duchess Elbellziara somehow get along. Doubt anything will come of it.” Stonetoe then gestured to a group of small boxes that were on the side of the table. “Had time to pick up souvenirs. Don’t think I wasted money on you lot. These are courtesy of the Duchess.”
If they were from Elbellziara, Sybil wanted nothing to do with them. The others were all over it. Blood iron samples for Chickadee, a set of leather boots for Zaniyah, and a few books for Veximarl. Alton had gotten a wooden box that had ornate decorations on it, but he hadn’t bothered to open it.
All Sybil got was a letter, thanking her for writing an apology so swiftly after her rescue and wishing her good health. It made her feel all the more horrible for putting the duchess’ family in the way of possible danger. Lady Elbellziara was… A great annoyance to her, but the woman seemed to mean well?
“I needed new boots!” Zaniyah held them up with glee on her face. She only had the one pair, and those had almost fallen apart on her due to heavy use. Seemed like Stonetoe was smart enough to advise the duchess with what they actually wanted.
“Eh, don’t worry about it.” Stonetoe shrugged it off. “You five haven’t been nearly as bad as the kids that are normally stuck in this squad, myself included. Think of it as a reward for not being complete failures.”
Zaniyah raised a hand in the air. “Oh! Oh, mama!” Stonetoe shot her a glare. “Can you tell us about why you and Margie hate each other so much?”
“Margie?” Stonetoe raised a brow. “Oh right, Ester.” He scratched at his ear again. “I guess you’ll find out at some point... The kid is gonna be here next year, and you’ve got that bad habit of sticking your nose in my business. Suppose there isn’t any hiding it.” He shrugged and folded his arms behind his head. “Ester Dandy and I grew up side by side in Fogbloom. Our Fogbloom crew included baron boy Leon Marjoram and Paladin Rowan Graves as well. The four of us were a mess of trouble
I was the military brat, Rowan was the poor kid who had all the talent in the world, Leon was the rich kid tossed into boarding school so he could have a good education, and Ester joined up because she wanted to prove to her family that she was good enough to be in the royal guard. We were a hazard to everyone the moment we came together.
We carried each other through the squire program at Petalmist. Ester hated me then, and she’ll continue to hate me long after we’re dead. Nothing will ever change about that. When we got to Braytons, I was the ‘wild card’ that got stuck in Grugrim, and they were the golden trio that was Lady Till’s Harvester Squad. Though the way we’d sneak off to tear up Tilrey every Satyrday quickly earned us the nickname of Plow Squad.
Grimstone and Grugrim are nearly one and the same, so I got stuck studying in Harvester Squad at any given opportunity. It was like nothing changed for us. I mean, things do change. You all, and especially you three,” he gestured to the three from the core, “need to remember that you’re not invulnerable to change. Especially changes for the worst.
We were...” He shook his head. “... It was our last mission, set right before we were ready to graduate. Simple stuff. We headed south to a newly founded town named Wilmarth on behalf of Tilrey, who wanted to start up a trade route. Those uppity squads like Baron and Kingspaw? Don’t let their status fool you. We always got the safest and most boring missions. At least we thought it was going to be that way until we got to Wilmarth.
Whole town was founded as a front for slave trade coming through the Clay Region. It was a common thing fifteen years ago, before that war that is. Even now, you kids are dealing with it. Never deal with a business that does nothing but cause harm, because everyone ends up getting hurt in the end.
And that’s what happened in Wilmarth. After a few days of not getting anywhere with trade negotiations, Rowan figured the whole thing out. Normally a town would be all over the profits Tilrey offered, but Wilmarth had a certain… Let’s just say they hated strangers with a passion. So much so that they opted to try to kill the lot of us while we fled for our lives.
Leon, being the baron boy, was our priority. Ester was in a poor sort of physical condition at the time, and she was left without the ability to fight. Without even being asked, Rowan and I chose to ride in the back. We were idiots to believe his shields were enough to handle our defensive needs.
Rowan, uh… He couldn’t manage.” Stonetoe shook his head again. “He’s was a lot like Krogastien is. Foolhardy and gloats they can do everything even if they’re in over their head. He told me that we needed to break apart and let the girls and Leon escape while we ran distraction. So they went left, I went right, and Rowan… He opted to hold his ground. Didn’t even get the chance to be there for him when he dropped.
… So yeah. None of us were the same after that. Leon and Ester didn’t even bother showing up to the graduation ceremony. Ended up getting married somehow... Never figured out how he got her to accept. Nita decided it was best to leave the barracks all together, taking a library post in Tilrey until she could figure out what she wanted to do.
I stayed behind in order to convince her to come back to Braytons. Out of any of us, she took it the hardest, but Tilrey was never going to be big enough for her. Braytons doesn’t seem like a big place either, but the kids that graduate here end up shaping the country in the weirdest ways... Where was I going with this? Oh right. Twist, Krogastein, if you choose to have sex while your squires, you damn well be using protection.”
Sybil’s face twisted in disgust. “What does that have to do with anything?”
A sour look crossed Stonetoe’s face. “I don’t like to think about it. Rowan would’ve died either way, I know that. There were too many of them for even Ester’s magic to handle, and he wouldn’t have let her get in danger, but Ester would at least known she did everything she could to save all of us. Instead, she was stuck in the carriage because…” Stonetoe gestured to his stomach with a curving motion. “She was loaded at the time.”
“What?!” Zaniyah clasped her hands to her cheeks. “Ester totally went along with being one of the Plow Squad?!”
Stonetoe nodded. “That whole ordeal was a mess. She didn’t get expelled for it because Till fought for her and Harvester was never supposed to go on dangerous missions... He scratched behind his ear as he thought about it. “I did offer to marry her in order to help her out financially, but she outright refused. Thankfully Leon bit the arrow and had better luck with that. Two are probably happy about it now, despite everything.
Eh, but that was another time and place. Things were different then. Either of you does the same, and I kicking you out of this place by pushing you down a flight of stairs. Marriage deals or not, I’m not dealing with that mess again.”
Now all of them were staring at him and even Alton had looked up from his work in order to give his teacher a judgemental stare. Zaniyah was the one who raised her hand first. “Excuse me, sir? I thought you said you and Margie always hated each other.”
“Don’t get me wrong, hate sex is best sex, and that’s the only reason why I’m thinking Twist and Toval are working out, but- Wait.” He almost fell back in his chair from laughing so hard. “You think my kid is her son?! No!” The knight slapped his knee. “No… That’s a horrendous thought. Elm is Rowan’s son.
Ester’s just being antsy because Elm has been studying in Fogbloom the past five years. Last of her kids was finally old enough to enter boarding school, and she’s probably bored with nothing to do at home. Her and Leon might be close now, but maybe not all that close.”
“Yeah, but… I mean, you also have a kid coming in next year, so uh… Wouldn’t that mean you were also a squire when it happened?” Zaniyah tilted her head.
Stonetoe’s laughter abruptly stopped. “I’m not an innocent man either. Made a lot of mistakes while I went here, that much is true, but I fathered that kid after I graduated.” He tossed a frown at Alton. “Don’t follow my example. Yeah, I did try to man up about it, but it was five years before my lady would talk to me again and she’s still pissed. Don’t get me wrong, she still married me, but… Yeah, she hates me.” He pushed his chair back and stood up. “I need to go out on patrol. Any of you lot have questions?”
“No sir,” replied Sybil on behalf of the group. “... Thank you again for finding my pendant.”
He saluted at her with a set of fingers. “No worries, Twist. Don’t mess up again.” He pointed to Zaniyah. “And I’m serious about pushing you down the stairs if you even think about getting knocked up. Don’t do it.” Stonetoe may have been smiling at the moment, but the look in his eyes made them know that he was completely serious.