They snuck up the stairs and quietly made their way through the third floor. Tish led Veximarl to the Macestar room and was careful to be as quiet as possible when she did so. She immediately went to the curtain underneath her bed and gestured for him to follow. There was a low table in the center that was surrounded by pillows.

“You haven't changed the room much,” he remarked. Though it was a lot neater and much more feminine than the last time he had seen it. Tish had gone through the effort of embroidering more pillows and putting up a bookshelf that was filled with different tea sets.

“I’m rather fond of our space.”

Tish examined her different tea sets and picked out one of the smaller kettles. This was filled with a nearby water jug before she took her seat at her table. She gestured for Veximarl to take a seat as well.

He did so, tucking his feet underneath him in the process. Rushing outside without shoes on was a stupid idea. His toes were freezing. “I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me.”

Tish tapped a finger against a blood iron coin on the side of the teapot and smiled to herself. “I’ve never viewed our conversations as a bother. Oh, but where to begin this time?” She hummed to herself for a moment. “What kind of books did you have in Husk?”

“Lady Grulick had a small collection that I added to each summer. The humidity of the swamp does terrible things to paper and vellum. Everything had to be wrapped tightly in waterproof materials and kept in a chest in order to prevent them from falling apart. We only spent a month within Husk each year and traveling with them was a bother.

The rest of the year was spent roaming the coastline and as Lady Grulick put it, ‘looking for trouble.’ It was during those times that I studied in libraries, or apprenticed under town doctors or apothecaries. Husk was Grulick’s place of birth, and she felt obligated to protect it, hence why we returned there each winter.”

Steam started to come out of the teapot, and Tish lifted up the lid so she could dump in a spoonful of loose tea leaves. “My family has been in Grand Temple since the city was founded. We were originally from the Clay Region, which is why we have a tree name rather than a flowered one.

Our family church has a wide collection of books. Some date back to before the formation of Lustro. Nearly every man in my family is a paladin. My brothers, my father, my grandfather, his grandfather… Lots and lots of paladins.” Her eyes widened for a moment as she stared at the table.

“It surprises me that you aren’t one yourself. You’re quite capable as a fighter,” Veximarl remarked.

“Oh, you don’t know?” She laughed at his confused expression. “Only men can be paladins. That is, only male acolytes of Iath. Women simply aren’t born with those abilities. Though I shouldn’t be surprised that you don’t know that... Most people treat it as either being born with or without magic, which happens all the time in any magical family.”

“How is that unfortunate?” He thought that Tish was excellent with a hammer. She would make for a much better paladin than himself. “That seems to be sexist more than anything else.”

Tish was amused by his serious tone. “No, no! It’s all about the rules of gods and magic. They don’t teach it anymore! People love to talk philosophy when it comes to the relationships between gods and men, but they ignore or even bury the evidence of what came before. Tria’s fall did wonders to destroy the scholastic views of religion. There is hardly a religious divide between the acolytes of Eatha, Mart, and Iath anymore.

The first gods had their prophets, who kept their magic solely within the bloodlines of their chosen representatives. The prophets were kept in line by not being able to cast magic outside of mist regions. When our gods appeared, they created blood iron and acolytes. Several family lines were made acolytes, and magic could now be casted anywhere. Each god gave different gifts to their chosen.

Mart focused on healing, and his love for music passed on to his cleric’s shields. It’s why they sound like bells when hit. Surgery is also a trademark skill of Mart’s clerics and some pride themselves on their skill for it.

Iath wanted something that would last in combat, so his paladins naturally have stronger and faster bodies, have tougher shields, and can heal weariness the easiest. They are the poorest at healing spells, and it’s only men who are born with Iath’s talents.

Eatha wanted her priestesses to bring people together. It’s about seeing the connections between people and finding what gives them a sense of completion. Her acolytes are always women and working as matchmakers or consolers are the most the common professions for an Eatha priestess.

Then there is Tria, the current outcast of the group. She wanted to have a balance with her brood. They have the strongest spells, and more variety than the other three, but nearly every spell cast has a price that needs to be paid. It’s all quite interesting, but again, her fall has resulted in everyone coming up with their own interpretations of religion. Everything is a mess because of it.”

Veximarl nodded along as she spoke. “I had wondered why the abilities varied so greatly from paladin to cleric. I had simply assumed they were classifications rather than actual gifts.” He had only been exposed to Tria worshipers while growing up.

Admittedly, religious studies was something Grulick never had much interest in, and religion has a whole wasn’t prominent in the east. He never had much of a chance to research it before. Blu’s lessons on religion were less historical and more focused on developing skills as either a priest or consoler.

“Right?!” Tish bobbled her head up and down as she poured them both a cup of tea. “When the Sky Region fell to tainted beasts, the crown sought to exterminate Tria’s brood out of fear that they would spread the taint past the swamps. All mention of there being separate acolytes disappeared for the sake of unifying the rest. In a single generation, it went from four groups to two. Those with good magic and the necromancers.”

“How horrifying...” If anything, it encouraged necromancers to be evil. How could they not be when they were constantly being hunted down, forced to live in a terrible horror filled swamp, and told they were destined for nothing but the vilest of deeds?

“That prude movement of our ancestors has ruined a lot of good things. They used Tria’s fall as an opportunity to completely reform society’s morals.” Tish took a sip of her tea. “Though some of the worst parts remain.

There are circles who still treat my flock as whores. Our abilities flow easily into the sex trade, and even the most forward-thinking people will look at me and instantly think I’m easily lustful. Did you know about the common practice of richer estates having an acolyte on staff?”

Veximarl had. “It was something I had considered for myself. I had heard that it wasn’t uncommon to hire someone of religion as a live-in caretaker for one’s children.”

“Something like that,” Tish muttered. “... I will state that that is how it’s supposed to be, but the old tradition for Eatha priestesses is still around. They are often hired to work within large estates.

A priestess will act as a tutor for the children and give them a religious upbringing, but they’re also expected to act as a second wife to the home’s master. Wives are told that it’s a blessing. They will ease the burden of dealing with their husband's lusts. Many children produced from such unions are… Sterilized in order to prevent them from gaining inheritance or from passing on their father’s magic.”

“How horrid,” he whispered as he stared into his tea. It had a pleasant minty scent to it. “If there truly was a movement towards piety, why would they allow the tradition to continue?”

“It’s a way to find easy work. Contracts last for around ten to fifteen years and come with large payouts at the end. It’s never meant to be a long term position,” remarked Tish in a distant tone. “Some call it following the tradition. ‘A man has needs that often require a second woman, as his wife has days when she is unavailable,’ as I’ve heard others say... Fogbloom and Grand Temple… Once you start peeling back the layers, you begin to see how divided the people are.

My own father had already drawn up a contract for me to start once I graduated Petalmist. I have another three years until I reach adulthood, but he insisted that it was legal since he had signed off on it. His associate is a man twenty-three years older than myself! Married to his second wife, and with six children by multiple women.

He assured me it would be only for a ‘few years at most’ or ‘until I knew what I wanted for myself.’ It was better for me to start now so that I would still be young enough to start a second contract once this one expired. Because contracts set up by my father is all that I am good for...

He talked about it like it was a business transaction. Selling off his own daughter as a whore… There isn’t any other way to put it… What’s worse is that he was willing to threaten to auction me off since I seemed so ungrateful for his generosity. I’m so grateful that I was accepted into Braytons. It doesn’t matter if I still end up in that trade after this, but knight’s title will at least grant me the right to arrange my own contracts.”

She was smiling widely at him like it was a joke, but her hands were trembling. Veximarl didn’t hesitate to cover them with his own. “It would appear as though we both have memories that we would rather avoid tonight.”

Tish leaned against him and he gave her a comforting pat on the back in the process. “... I miss my brothers,” she whispered. “They had me leave Grand Temple when I was twelve. I was to attend the bridal doll training courses at Petalmist by myself. A part of me always knew that father intended to use me for contracts and that he separated me from my brothers early so that they would have less of a reason to complain.”

“None of that matters now,” reassured Veximarl. “You are at Braytons. You have the freedom to do what you want with your life.”

“Yes... That much is true.” She looked up at him. “Do you want a candy? I brought some with me when I first came here. There aren’t many left since I dared not return to Fogbloom over the summer, but I’ll share one with you.”

“I would be grateful if you did so. I’m curious to know if the rumors about Violet Region treats are true.” He returned her weak smile with one of his own.

“Good. Close your eyes.” His smile dropped. “I want to feed it to you. It’ll be fun. Close your eyes and open your mouth, but not too much. It will be awkward if you do that.”

Veximarl closed his eyes and he could hear her stand up and get something from her dresser. This was followed by the sound of crinkling wax paper and the rustle of her robes as she knelt down in front of him. Her hand went his cheek as she pulled him closer.

Their lips pressed together for a moment and her tongue pressing in for a second to taste his before pushing the candy into his mouth. It tasted like how roses smelled, enhanced by the aftertaste of the mint tea. Something about it was eerily refreshing.

He pulled back away from her, his face going pale in the process. “Tish!” His hand covered his mouth as she leaned towards him again. The candy in his mouth was firm, like a stone, yet it was slowly melting away. That wasn’t enough to distract him from the shock he felt.

“How else are we supposed to share it?” She smiled and pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. “Pass it back.”

“I-I told you before that I view you as a friend, not as a p-partner for those sorts of activities.” He scooted away from her, still covering his mouth in fear she’d make another attempt to steal a kiss from him.

Tish let out a giggle. “But isn’t sharing a candy nice? Your heart starts racing, and your mind goes so blank from the sensation. It’s like time stops and you don’t have to think about anything else except how it tastes. The best part is how you can’t remember anything, especially everything that’s hurt you before.”

She was certainly right about the forcefulness of her actions knocking out those bitter thoughts from his head. “It is inappropriate for me to enter your room and participate in such lewd actions.” He didn’t hate it though. The idea of it, yes, but not the act itself. His cheek still tingled pleasantly from where she had touched it before,

“Does that mean you’re open to it?” Tish moved closer to him and Veximarl didn’t pull away this time. Her hand pressed against his cheek again… Suddenly all those nervous emotions within him vanished in an instant. Her fingertips held some sort of hidden euphoria within them. “Pass the candy to me, Vexi.”

His eyes darted off to the side for a moment and then back to her. A sigh escaped his lips. Veximarl leaned towards her with her once again meeting him halfway. They shared a lingering kiss that failed to fade away like the candy that was passed between them. Their night soon became a blur of hesitant touches that only stopped once the winter sun started to shine through the window.

Downstairs, the morning sun illuminated a pile of passed out squires. Alton attempted to roll onto his side but he found himself weighed down. At first, the sofas were occupied and being among the last to fall asleep meant that Alton had to make do with the floor. He had Sybil on one shoulder and Chickadee the other. Both were clinging tightly onto him for warmth.

“I swear, Chi, one of these days I am going to accidentally feel you up when I’m not fully awake... You’re not going to be comfortable with that.” Alton tried to pull his arm free, but Chickadee held onto him tighter.

“You can be my lover any night,” he purred in Alton’s ear.

Alton felt a wet kiss planted to his cheek and let out a yelp. “Twist!” He yanked his arm free from Sybil’s side and shoved Chickadee’s face away. “Tell your friend to stop molesting me,” he snarled out.

Sybil sat up and she squinted at the pair with bleary eyes. “Just kiss him. That always worked for Zyris.” Her fingers curled and she scratched at Alton’s shoulder like a cat. “Lay back down. I’m cold.”

“I don’t want to hear you telling me to go kiss other people,” argued Alton in a harsh whisper. “I don’t even know why you’re here trying to snuggle up to me in the first place.” Though if he had known that she’d get this clingy when he started to act distant, he would’ve tried this weeks ago.

She shrugged tiredly. “Because it’s comfortable and because Chickadee and I made a pact to share the same man if we couldn’t find different ones. Not at the same time though. That… That would be weird, right? I mean, at the same time but not at the same time? Does that make sense? I’m not sure where I’m going with this... I know Zyris didn’t like it either.”

Alton tilted his head. “I have additional questions…” He then shook his head. “Stop mentioning Zyris! I don’t like it when you talk about him.” His jaw tensed as she raised an eyebrow.

“I want to go back to sleep,” she muttered.

“Sleep,” echoed Chickadee. He tried to get comfortable again but his eyes widened as Alton leaned over and whispered something overly erotic in his ear. “Uhm...” He pointed over to an empty chair. Crawling over it, he then issued a series of grunts as he lazily climbed on top of it, and curled into a tight ball. Like a cat.

A frown crossed over Sybil’s features as she watched him struggle to get comfortable. “What did you say to him?”

“Something that I am going to do to you if you don’t shut up and lay back down.” Alton wrapped both of his arms around Sybil and held her firmly against his chest as he rolled onto his side. He pulled their blanket over their heads so they were completely hidden away. “Now go to sleep before I do something really bad.”

“Eh, really?” Peter muttered. “You think you can stay out here so I can get pointers?”

“Go to sleep!” Alton shouted back.

Stonetoe stretched out his arms as he walked down the stairs. He didn’t mind if the kids wanted to have a party on a holiday. There wouldn’t be many opportunities for all of them to be together once their missions started. They were also respectful enough to keep quiet after he told them he was going to bed, so he had no complaints.

What he wasn’t expecting was for them to be still piled up around each other by the time he woke up. His face grimaced at the sight. Normally there would just be the misfits and it usually took a year before they infected the other squads. Apparently, the whole lot of them were trouble this year.

Stonetoe cleared his throat. “Highland!” The paladin sat up with a start, grasping tightly onto Zaniyah in an effort to protect her from unknown danger. “I said I gave you permission for a party! What is with this orgy of youth that I am witnessing?! Did any of you bother going to church this morning?!”

“Apologies, sir!” Vincent rubbed at his eye while he tried to get his bearings. “It seems as though we fell asleep without realizing it.” The last of them passed out around dawn, and he was among them. “I held no initial concerns if everyone chose to sleep in a common area.”

“However, you’ve left the squad rooms unguarded. Someone must have snuck away.” Stonetoe let a sigh. “Getting tired of having these damn conversations. Better be someone not in my squad this time.” He did a quick headcount. “Krogastein, Reese, Nox, Hewitt, Fletch, Twist... Cully is also here? Figured he would’ve turned one of you already. Hmm... Who ran off with Maplehammer?”

The rest of the squires started to stir as Vincent looked around. “Tuton isn’t present.”

“He probably got tired of you lot and went to bed on his own.” Stonetoe smoothed out his bed head with his fingers. “I’ll let Sarya deal with it deal with that priestess of Eatha of hers. Those girls can be serious trouble.

I remember being friends with a priestess when I was a squire.” He chuckled to himself for a moment before his face fell flat. “Highland, go find Maplehammer. The rest of you get up and start your day already! I don’t care if it’s Satyrday! You still have chores to get done! Get up and get out!”

All of them scrambled to clean up the remains of their party. Tish was found asleep underneath her bed, claiming to have had a headache and going to sleep after taking some medicine. She had a silly grin on her face, leading both Evan and Chester to give her odd looks as they headed off to the farm.

With time before their missions started, and with their classes nearly over, their schedules devolved into doing nothing but chores. Daily meals devolved into preserved meats and pickled vegetables. On Satyrdays, they were rewarded with jam and fresh bread. Stew was present for almost every meal. Bean stew, lentil stew, barley stew. Hardy meals for physical labor. The breaks they had were used for studying. It was wearing all of them thin.

Everything was going to change after next week. No more studying. No more tests. They could finally start the real work they came here for. With missions came new challenges and just beyond that was knighthood. None of them, especially those soon heading to Carapace, had the patience to wait any longer.


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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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