The person who greeted them was a woman wearing the traditional Carapace dress, yet it was so different from the common fashion. Its fabric was muted in color, and the only decoration was a bit of lace trim about the collar. She was middle-aged, yet had aged well, and had brown hair that was pulled back in a wavy ponytail. Her brown eyes lit up at the sight of the Zaniyah and she smiled widely as a greeting.
In her arms was a baby. He had auburn hair that waved about in every direction, with notable purple streaks that stained the overall color. The baby’s chubby arms waved at Zaniyah, as though he was wanting to be picked up by her.
“Hi! I’m Zaniyah! Are you Missus Toval?” Subconsciously, Zaniyah held out her arms, and the woman passed her the child. The babe reached back and started to pat at Zaniyah’s axe handle eagerly. “And who is this little cutey?”
“Well, no one calls me 'Missus Toval' around here. Iofea is fine, Zaniyah., and this wonderful bundle of joy is Zikor. I’m surprised you haven’t heard about him, considering-” She looked back and over her shoulder. “There you are! I was just about to call for you. Alton’s squad has finally arrived!” She eagerly waved to the rest of the group as they approached. “Hello there!”
A tall man in his early twenties leaned against the doorframe. He had a broad and handsome face, with green hair that ended around his ears, but just as wild as Zaniyah’s. “I was going to open the door after I had set the tea down. After all, there isn’t a need for such a beautiful woman to lift a finger... That’s what I’m here for.”
Iofea burst out into laughter. “Oh, you! Opening a door for my son’s friends is no bother at all!”
Despite the smiles that were being exchanged, Zaniyah’s face fell flat. “... By the core, Zynn, I was only gone for three months.” She looked at Zikor, and then between her brother and Iofea again. Her voice lowered to a threatening tone. “What did you do?”
Iofea began to squeeze her way between the siblings. “I’ll let the two of you talk. Let me through, please.” She then lifted up the edges of her skirt and jogged down the steps that led up to the manor’s front door. “Alton! Welcome home!” She waved an arm about like a happy schoolgirl.
Alton gave her a kind smile and bent down to give her a kiss on the cheek. “Hello, mother.” Behind him, both Sybil and Veximarl bowed politely. “This is-”
“Now that won’t do! You’ve gone and hurt your throat from singing to much again, haven’t you?” Iofea reached up and pinched her son’s cheeks. “Let your friends introduce themselves. Zynn! Will you fetch some lemon juice for our tea?! Extra honey for Alton’s cup!”
“I’m fine, mother,” whispered Alton.
Behind him, Veximarl cleared his throat. “Salutations, Missus Toval. My name is Veximarl Tuton and I am the Grimstone Squad captain. This is Sybil Twist. She is our scout.” Chickadee had been hiding behind Zaniyah but now he was jogging up to meet up this group. “And finally, this is our mage, Walter Cully. He is more commonly referred to as Chickadee, or Chi for short.”
“Of course I know Walter. His mother has been in business with my husband since before he was even born, but I haven’t seen this little one in years. My, you’ve certainly…” She was going to say ‘grown,’ but the two of them were nearly the same height, with her being slightly taller. It was exactly how it had been the last time she had seen him. “You’ve certainly made your mother proud.”
“Thank you,” replied Chickadee as he bowed in appreciation.
Iofea then set her eyes on Sybil. “And I am finally getting the opportunity to meet Miss Sybil Twist. Oh, Alton! She’s beautiful!” She walked up to Sybil and rested her fingers on the girl’s cheeks. “You’re absolutely perfect.”
Those were words that Sybil had never heard used to describe her before. “T-thank you?” Her cheeks flushed red at the compliment. She took a step back and attempted to curtsy again.
“No! None of that! We are huggers in the Toval family!” Iofea gave Sybil a warm and motherly squeeze while Sybil tossed Alton a confused look. He was rolling his eyes.
Behind them all, Lydia had her hands on her cheeks. “My goodness… I absolutely adore her,” she whispered. The comment made Alton roll her eyes all the harder.
After what seemed like an eternity, Iofea let go of Sybil. “We need to spend some time together. What is it that you like to do? Alton was never specific about it in his letters.”
Alton felt a headache coming along. Why did his adoptive mother always have to be like this? And she wondered why he had never once brought anyone from school over to their home. “We’re tired, mother. At least let us rest first.”
“Stop stressing your voice until after you’ve had your tea, Alton.” Iofea frowned at her son as she let go of Sybil. “We’ll have Zynn bring your belongings to your rooms, and you’ll all be able to get changed and wash off. Ah, Sybil. We have some special dresses for you to wear.
I hope you don’t mind, but Alton had sent your measurements over. I’ve written instructions on how to tie all the ribbons. It’s all quite simple so you won’t have to worry about me intruding. I will help if you ask though, so don’t be afraid too.” She took Sybil’s hand into her own. “We’re going to have so much fun together!”
They filtered into the home and Alton retreated into his room while the others were escorted to guest rooms. When he exited, he was wearing a long black coat over a white tunic. The coat had wheat stalks embroidered in gold thread on the sleeves and back. He wore a western style top hat with a sweeping rim that he kept adjusting as he entered the tea room.
Zaniyah was sitting with Chickadee and Veximarl. She had Zikor sitting in her lap and couldn’t be feeling more stunned at the moment The story her brother had told her was so unbelievable that she had been stuck in a daze.
Zynn had apparently been quite naughty and took it upon himself enjoy the company of an upper-class woman. After Zaniyah had left for Braytons, the woman showed up with Zikor and told Zynn that he needed to take responsibility for him. The purple streaks of hair were a dead giveaway that this was a product of his seed, unless Zyris had been the one to make a fool of himself.
His first task was to find a job to support his newfound family. Along the way, he had met Iofea. The woman was being nosy by checking in on what sort of families her son’s squadmates came from. She offered Zynn a job as a butler so he could make a living for himself, and it came with the added bonus of having built-in daycare.
“I’ve been trying to find her again,” explained Zynn as he set down their cups of tea. “But there’s uh… There were a lot of women? I hope you understand that your brother is an absolute manwhore.” He laughed at the thought. “So it hasn’t been as easy as I thought it would be... Iofea has been letting me and Zikor live here until I get it sorted out. Personally, I think she’s suffering since her kids are, as she puts it, ‘no fun anymore.’”
“The Toval family sounds amazing,” muttered Zaniyah. “Alton! How come you never told us how great your mother is?!”
Alton didn’t speak until after he had sat down and taken a sip of his tea. “Because she is always like this,” he remarked with a far off, traumatized stare. “Always… All. The. Time.”
“Don’t be such a bitter pill.” Iofea entered the room and hugged Alton from behind. “This one used to do nothing but mope in his room. When he wasn’t doing that or working, he was being dragged out against his will by all sorts of girls and boys. Poor thing has spent his whole life thinking that he’s been nothing but miserable.”
“They don’t need to hear that, mother.” He said as he set the teacup down. He frowned all the harder as she took a seat next to him.
“Really?” Zaniyah scrunched up her nose. “From what I heard from Vincent, he did nothing but flirt with girls at school. I didn’t know he also had a job. I mean… Alton. Working. Ha… Hahaha...”
Alton was serious about becoming a knight. He got good grades but he never did anything more than what he was asked to do. Zaniyah couldn’t imagine him needing to take up a job, since that seemed to get in the way of everything else he would want to do.
Iofea beamed proudly at the memory. “When he turned fourteen, he insisted on working as a musician. Alton never wanted an allowance for himself and has always wanted to earn his own living expenses. I’m so proud of how all of my sons turned out, but Alton has a special place in my heart. He’s always been the most independent.”
“Please stop, mother,” muttered Alton.
“They must all know the truth by now? You only went out on those dates because it was good for your father’s business. It’s not like you did anything rude with any of them. All you ever did was escort them for a pleasant evening out, like the proper gentleman you are.” Alton’s eyes flitted off to the side as he nodded in agreement. He had nothing to say about that.
Veximarl and Zaniyah were trying not to laugh. “Yes. That certainly is the Alton we know,” replied the necromancer. “He is exceedingly pious and dedicated to his work at Braytons. I would be quite lost there if it weren’t for him.”
“Yeah, he’s a real stand up guy. Just an inspiration. I remember when we had to earn some wages in Mareth, we had to stop him every night because he wanted to go out and help so many young girls with their problems. Real problem solver he is, that Alton guy,” snickered Zaniyah. Her statement had Chickadee putting his hand to his mouth as he tried to stifle his own laugh.
Sybil finally found where they were all hiding, and tilted her head at their remarks. She had on a bell-shaped black skirt that was tied on above her bosom. The skirt was covered in embroidery shaped in a maze of colorful flowers and feathers. Over that was a short white jacket that was barely long enough to cover the knot of her skirt, and the ribbon hanging from the jacket was heavy due to the beads that were on it.
“What’s going on in here?”
“Nothing,” said Alton as he stood up. “Mother, I apologize for rushing out so quickly after I arrived, but Miss Sybil and I won’t be around for dinner.”
“But I was going to make your favorite.” There were already fake tears forming in Iofea’s eyes as she looked up and pouted.
“Save it for tomorrow.” Her pout grew all the wider, and he let out a sigh. “I will play the Ebbing Ibis when I get back, but I won’t be able to sing it.” Iofea’s pout turned into a hopeful smile. “Gideon needs to show those three around town when he gets back from school.” She pouted again. “I won’t have them left alone with you. They’re troublemakers. Every single one of them... They’re dangerous.”
Zaniyah also pouted. “But Miss Iofea is so fun! I love it here already!”
“Thank you, dear!” Iofea smiled in her direction. “And I told you to stop stressing your voice, Alton. Sit down and drink more tea.”
Alton rolled his eyes. “Miss Sybil.” He walked over to her and offered his arm. “If you could do me the honor of going for a walk with me?” She frowned at him. “... Please?” He rasped out.
“... Fine.” Sybil also wanted to hear gossip but she also felt bad for him. She took his arm into her own and they walked as a unit towards the entrance of the house. “Where are we going?”
“Someplace special.” He grinned widely, happy to have a chance to drag her out on an actual date this time. “Leave everything to me.”