“Now that we’re alone, I wanted to tell you something. It’s important, but it’s worth saying,” muttered Alton with a wide smile. “You’re beautiful and I love you. You, over anyone else, have truly been the love of my life.”
Sybil looked on with disgust as Alton cooed at his horse. She was brushing the dust off of Oyster with a thick brush made with pig hair while Alton was nuzzling up to Bibi. The mare tapped her front hoof on the ground and looked off to the side bashfully.
“I know, I know. You’re so excited to go show those stallions the wiles of an older woman. You’ll have all of them wrapped around your hoof, but you’re going to need to behave yourself.” Bibi shook her head back and forth. “Yes, it’s been a while since you’ve been able to walk alongside Rux. You’ve been missing him, haven’t you? You naughty thing... Do you know how much trouble your son is? I’m not raising any more of your accidental babies.”
Rux was the name of Vincent’s horse, who was also a purebred Guard Vanner. He was a white horse with brown splotches and a white mane and tail. Bibi was also a favorite mare of his, as the two had been boxed next to each other at Starsons, but mares and breeding stallions were kept separate at Braytons.
The stallion kept stepping from side to side in his box, waiting for the chance to be let out. Alton and Sybil were responsible for preparing the horses for the journey ahead of them, and he knew he was next. Of the nine squires going, only three of them owned horses, making this easy work.
Oyster would normally not be traveling long distances in winter, but Chickadee was going to be using his magic to clear the snow off the roads. They also had special hoof shoes with metal studs for traction, and she wasn’t going to be using the side saddle. Everything should be fine.
Everqueen, Sir Moss’ horse, would be the last to be prepared. She was a mixed breed horse who was a solid champagne color. Everyone else was helping with the six mules they were bringing. Two for each of their wagons.
Baron and Grimstone squad would be bringing supplies to Carapace. Smaller supply caravans had been passing through without much worry, but the group from Braytons had their own needs. Newly developed medicine against miasma sickness, as well as seeds for Gwyn to use. She had only been at Braytons for two weeks before being sent back, but she had wanted to hand pick what she would be bringing rather than hope that Ivy would get it right.
Leading the horses outside, Alton and Sybil noticed that Veximarl was being cornered by Tish just outside the stables. The priestess was clutching her hands behind her back and smiling sweetly at the necromancer. Veximarl was bracing himself against the wall, holding his hands up in the air and having an air of innocence about him.
“It’s hard to talk when you keep hiding from me, Vexi. Don’t you want to before you leave?” She took a step closer to him while her smile grew bigger.
“Well, you see… Hrm…” Veximarl winced as she took another step. “I haven’t quite finished packing. I am certain we will have plenty of time to discuss matters once I return from Cara… S-stop that.”
Tish had reached up to straighten the edges of his jacket. He swatted her hands away and took off running away as fast as he could. His unusual running gait left Tish laughing to herself. She then noticed Alton and Sybil standing nearby. A wink was given to the pair before she walked off, still giggling quietly.
The two blinked at her exit before Alton looked over to Sybil. “You could probably stand to learn a thing or two from her.” Sybil tossed him a glare. “Maybe I would be more inclined to be nice if you bothered to look cute once in a while.” She punched him in the shoulder and both her and her horse tossed their noses up at him.
Despite her and her horse not liking each other, her personality was beginning to wear off on him. Alton followed before joining up with their squad. They had lined up in front of Lady Till. She fanned her hand around the air to get their attention as they straightened their positions.
“Upon the completion of your classes-”
Zaniyah’s hand shot up. “Does mean I passed my etiquette retake?”
Till slowly shook her head. “... No.”
Zaniyah’s eyes then widened. “... Does that mean I have to stay here?”
“It means that you will have to retake it again when you return,” replied Till.
“Yeah, but, if I do really, really well on the mission, doesn’t that mean that I’m good enough to not have to worry abo-”
“Stuff it, Krogestien,” growled out Stonetoe. “Your squad is going to make sure you pass that test when you get back, otherwise they’re all in for extra work.” He then gestured to Till. “Go ahead, Nita.”
“...” Till let out a sigh before speaking up in a loud and commanding tone. “Upon the completion of your classes, you will now begin the second phase of your studies. Over the next two years, you will be expected to travel across Lustro and engage in acts that exemplify the code of chivalry while seeking to gain the attention of the lords and ladies who will act as your future employers.
There is a great deal of weight being placed on your shoulders and I expect you to treat it with respect. That does not mean you should act outside of reason in order to prove your worth. Be wise and obey your limits. Ensure the safety of your squad and place absolute trust in each other. You will need it. Best of luck on your mission. I will be here to greet you when you return home.”
A collection of cheers were heard as they passed through the gate. The rest of the first year was watching from the rampart. Some were jealous, like those from Moontear, who worried about their own families in Timber Vale. Mila was clutching painfully at her chest, and Irving was attempting to comfort her by putting an arm around her shoulder. Emotions were running deep, and it was only by seeing the other’s expressions that they began to understand what was being expected of them.
The squires then made their way to Tilrey, where they would be picking up the last of their supplies. Their plan was simple enough. Zaniyah, Anais, and her wolf friend would be in the front cart, with Vincent and Moss flanking on their horses. Veximarl would ride in the second wagon with Gwyn. Last would be Chickadee and Ivy in the back wagon, with Alton and Sybil guarding the rear.
Chickadee would also be expected to clear out roads when needed, and to build emergency shelters. With heavy snow on the roads, they were planning on the journey to take nearly two weeks. A wagon would normally make it there in five to seven days time, but they planned to allow the animals frequent breaks.
“Master Alton!” A tall, thin man in a fine suit was the first one to greet them within Tilrey.
“Enzo!” Alton rode ahead of the others. He smiled widely. “I had no idea you would be here personally! Will you be heading to Carapace with us?” He dismounted Bibi, and the two men exchanged a firm handshake.
“I am unfortunately already on my way back to Fogbloom from Carapace. There is some paperwork that requires your signature before I return. I thought it better to get it personally rather than by courier but I was delayed due to heavy snowfall. It’s fortunate that I was able to catch you at the last possible moment.”
“It should take a few minutes for us to confirm our route. We can step into a tavern and I’ll sign everything there.” He turned and cupped his hand around his mouth. “Highland! I need to take twenty for personal business!” Vincent raised a hand in the air to indicate that it was fine.
“Would it be possible to get a moment with the young miss first,” asked Enzo in a low voice. “The item you requested has been completed and I would like to be the one to present it to her. It would be my honor to do so.”
Alton rubbed at the back of his head. “About that... I haven’t exactly mentioned anything about this to her. I didn’t think Aunt El would agree so wholeheartedly and choose to rush the process. Please don’t bring it up before I get a chance.”
“I would never be one to go against the young master’s wishes,” replied Enzo in a serious tone. “Make certain to do it soon.”
“In that case,” Alton sighed as he scanned the group he came in with. “She’s riding the glasstrotter. The one who is scowling in our general direction.”
Sybil was wearing a male uniform underneath her cloak, with her hood over her head to hide her more feminine features. She certainly was frowning in their direction, suspicious on whoever this man was and what Alton was planning. Alton planning things never ended well in her favor and she didn’t want to be a part of it.
“... I see.” Enzo’s eyes darted between Ivy and Gwyn, who were wearing fancy embroidered fur cloaks, and back to Sybil again. “I see,” he repeated.
“I know. She’s great, isn’t she?” Alton smiled widely again. “Twist! Come over here!” He waved at her eagerly.
Sybil dismounted Oyster and passed the reins off to Anais so he wouldn’t run away again. She strode over and placed a hand over her hip as her eyes scanned Enzo with a certain sense of scrutiny. “What?”.
“This is Lord Enzo Cowl. He’s a member of Aunt El’s court. Mostly he runs important errands and makes deliveries for her.” Alton gestured between the two. “The reason why he is here is that Aunt El is financing the core run businesses that I’ll be working with once we’re in Carapace. There’s some paperwork that I need to sign so it can be filed with her accountants, but he wanted to take the opportunity to meet you.”
Her demeanor instantly changed from an aggressive tone to something more ladylike. “I thank you for your efforts, Lord Cowl.” Her hand went off to the side in a graceful motion as she mimicked the motions of a curtsy. “It is a pleasure to meet your acquaintance.”
Enzo smiled nervously. “Perhaps this will work out after all.” He gestured to the nearby tavern. “Would you honor me with a moment of your presence, Lady Twist? I have a gift to impart upon you.”
They entered a tavern together and sat down at a table. Enzo reached into his bag and pulled out the paperwork that Alton needed to go over and sign. He also produced out a small wooden box and stepped behind Sybil so he could display it properly.
Within was a cuff bracelet. It was made of green stone with amethyst gems arranged into petals. On either side of the decoration were poppies and stalks of wheat set in gold. Next to the bracelet was her identification pendant. One side was a wolfsbane emblem, while the other had a single gear. Her name had been etched along the side.
“This is to be your personal identification. No one will be able to deny your connection to the duchess as long as you wear this pendant. The bracelet is merely a Fogbloom tradition of welcoming someone to the family. You will be able to remove it after a month.” He smiled gently as he lifted the bracelet out of the box.
“It’s beautiful,” she whispered. Then her face tensed up. “But it also makes it sound like you expect me to be kidnapped again.”
“Not at all, Lady Twist. The duchess simply wishes to do her part to ensure your safety. May I have your left hand?” Sybil offered it and Enzo and he placed the bracelet on her wrist using a specialized tool. The stone flexed and bent around it, making it impossible to remove.
Despite the generosity being offered, Sybil believed that Lady Elbellziara should abandon her. After all, she had lost the sword. There wasn’t a need for the royal family to be interested in her anymore.
“I’m not sure I can do my part in repaying the duchess for her kindness.”
“Trust when I say that you are doing more than your fair share and we are grateful for your work.” Enzo slipped out from standing behind her and produced a similar box to Alton. Alton raised his arm and read through the paperwork while Enzo attached his bracelet.
The squire was busy flipping through several pages after signing a few of them. “All of this is final? It’s official?” He looked over at Enzo. “This is really happening?”
“After it is notarized in Grand Temple, yes. The paperwork has been settled. You will be able to handle the rest on your own.” Enzo took the stack and separated them into two piles. Each was placed in a folder that was then set into a flat box. “These are the documents that will need to be notarized within Carapace. I apologize for the inconvenience this will bring you.”
“Nonsense, Enzo. Just being able to see you again makes it all worth it.” Alton was attempting to be mature, but seeing Enzo after all these years made him feel like he was a kid again. “I’ll write to you again when I reach Carapace.”
Enzo beamed proudly for a second. “It has been good to see you again, Master Alton. I am proud of the progress you have managed.”
Alton was humbled by the comment. “Thank you, Enzo.”
Enzo excused himself and the other two took their time to walk back to the caravan. Alton had his box tucked underneath his arm. He looked down at his free hand for a moment, wondering if he should offer it to Sybil or keep it to himself. She spoke up before he had a chance to decide.
“The two of you were awfully dramatic. You lit up like a little kid when he called you ‘young master.’”
Alton quickly put his hand behind his back. “Enzo was one of my father’s attendants, along with Paladin Arbutus and a few others. After father passed away, Aunt El took him in. His family has served the crown for generations, but he mostly looked after me whenever dad was busy.” He smiled to himself. “He’s truly a good man. He bought me my first instrument and taught me how to play the piano.”
“Ah… Yeah, he does seem to care about you a lot.” She pulled back her sleeve so she could stare at the bracelet. “Is this honestly alright?”
Alton nodded. “Of course it is.” He stopped walking, tightening his arm about the box as he thought to himself. “... Aunt El has promised to help me establish my connection to my father. Fogbloom will acknowledge my birthright. I will be able to inherit some of the wealth and land that comes with that.”
Grabbing onto his sleeve, Sybil pulled him into a nearby alleyway. She looked around first before speaking. “Is that why you also got a bracelet?” Alton nodded. “That’s good, isn’t it? You’ve been wanting to go back to Fogbloom for years. You’ll be able to be with your family again.”
Alton studied her expression for a moment. She was smiling. She was happy for him. Seeing her like that gave him a dull pain in his chest. “When I was sent away from that place, I couldn’t think of anything else but of returning.
I thought if I worked hard and was granted a position with the royal guard, I could at least serve this nation alongside my father. However, he died before I could return. Ever since I received the news, I have been obsessed with trying to find out the truth if what really happened to him and my mother.”
“Then this is exactly what you need, isn’t it?” She put a hand on his upper arm as a show of reassurance. “You’ll be able to get so much more information now then you would have if you were a guard.”
The world around him went silent. He couldn’t hear the hoofbeats of passing horses or the sound of crushing snow as people walked by. All that enveloped his senses was her and her alone. “Everything is different now,” he whispered. His brows furrowed for a moment in worry.
“They’re different for the better,” she whispered back.
Sybil really was happy for him. He was getting everything he wanted, wasn’t he? Alton had changed little by little in the short time since she had met him. Since winter started, he had become more focused and determined to get his life together, and she was beginning to admire him for it.
He couldn’t take it though. Hearing this girl be so helpful and understanding was pushing him into agony. She was proud of his progress and smiling at him sweetly... It hurt. It did nothing but to increase that dull pain in his chest, worsening by the moment as they stood there together.
His silence was worrying. “Look, Alton... I’m sorry. I know that everything between us has been weird and it’s all my fault, so I’m going to be honest here, uhm…” She pulled her hands into her cloak and wrapped her arms about herself. “I pushed you away before because I was scared. I didn’t want to play our little game anymore once I was convinced that you wouldn’t want to be with me when we returned to Carapace.”
“That isn’t true.” Alton shook his head. “... That would never be true,” he whispered.
“But I was still scared,” she whispered back. “I thought it was better to break everything off early. I’d be able to work on my golem in peace, I wouldn’t have to worry about you losing interest, and maybe we’d pick back up once we were back from Carapace. But… That was a mistake. I’m sorry that I put you through that because I was feeling selfish.”
“Then… W-would you stay with me?”
“... I want you to stay with me.”
The look he had at that moment appeared so vulnerable. Sybil reached out and took his hand into her own. “I don’t believe I’ll do well in Fogbloom, but I promise to help you in any way that I can. We’ll figure it out together from here on.”
“... May I kiss you?”
“I’ve been meaning to tell you that it’s weird every time you ask that... It’s really weird.”
“Yeah… Yeah it is, isn’t it?”
He hesitated again, and now she knew there was something wrong with him. She gave a nod of her head, taking a step towards him as she did so. “It’s fine.”
His free arm went about her waist so he could pull her closer as he leaned down. Their lips met for a brief peck, and the sides of their noses rubbed together for a moment before he went in for a set of slow and passionate kisses. It was the first time he had touched her like this since he realized that he was in love, and weeks of longing and pent up frustration were now pouring themselves into her.
As she held him just as possessively in return. Sybil knew didn’t hate Alton. Despite him always asking so sweetly, a part of their relationship had always felt forced. If things had happened more naturally, where he wasn’t following her around all the time or trying to entrap her in silly deals, she’d probably be crazy for him... Instead, he just drove her insane.
Especially right now. What he was doing right now was the worst of it all.
Her arms slipped about his shoulders to better support herself as she stood on her tippy toes. The fingers of one hand dug through his hair while the other gripped tightly to the fabric of his jacket. She didn’t know why she felt this way. She was still frightened that he would distance himself once they were home again. Instead of pushing him away like she normally would, the thought of him abandoning her made her want to grip onto him all the tighter.
They both looked over at the same time, and Alton spun Sybil out of the way so she wouldn’t be hit by the incoming snowball. He then turned and glared at Ivy, who had already stooped down to make another projectile. Alton let Sybil go so he could face Ivy on more even ground.
“What do you want, Ivy?” He scowled at her for interrupting their moment.
Ivy tossed the snowball between her hands to smooth out its shape. “Vincent says that it’s time to move out. You two should stop wasting time.” She chucked forward another ball, and this time it was Sybil who stepped forward to catch it. It was immediately tossed back as Ivy scrambled for cover. “Stop fighting back! I’m not the one that’s keeping us from leaving!”
“You’re just jealous,” muttered Sybil as she walked past.
Rolling her eyes, Ivy couldn’t disagree more. “Like I’d want anything to do with that singing bastard. Who knows how many diseases you’ve caught from him already?”
“Only the best kinds,” purred Alton as he followed Sybil. “And why don’t you call me those names to my face rather than spit them out like curses at my lady?” He stopped next to her, leaning in close with a handsome smile.
“Because you’re disgusting to look at.” Ivy’s face developed a faint blush as he leaned in closer. “Go back to the caravan! Now!”
Alton stuck out his tongue at Ivy. He was floating on air right now, and there was little that could bring him down, not even Lydia’s disapproving smile as she floated next to him. Rushing to catch up, he caught onto Sybil’s hand. She didn’t hesitate to grasp onto it. Right now, there was little to bring her down as well. Everything about this felt perfect.