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Zaniyah was introduced to a four-year-old guard vanner named Gypsum. He was a stallion that was the result of an accidental breeding between Bibi and Rux. Alton was rather pissed at the stable hands at Starsons after that but he got over it eventually.

Gypsum was never sold off because he was born as a twin. His brother, Flower, lived at the Highland stables. Twins were undesirable due to the smaller adult size, and it felt like the right time for the Tovals to get a second horse anyways. The pregnancy and labor process weren’t easy for Bibi, and Alton was hesitant to ever try breeding her again as a result.

He was especially annoyed that Gypsum had a bad habit of breaking out in order to visit his brother and it would often be days before he returned. Vincent never seemed bothered with having an extra horse around. They had several at their disposal and one more hanging about was never a trouble.

Saying her goodbyes, Zaniyah let Gypsum be her guide. He led her to a cathedral, picking up his pace eagerly as he trotted around to the back of the block where a simple estate was located. Heading to the stables, he stopped and waited for Zaniyah to dismount before he continued on his own. She followed him within the stables itself, where he waited patiently for her to open one of the box stalls so he could enter it.

“You’re a really polite horse, aren’t ya?” She reached up and Gypsum pressed his nose against her palm for a moment. Then he went to the hay pile that was in the back of the box and proceeded to flop down on it.

“You think you can just show up on your own without being announced?” Zaniyah whipped around. Ivy was sitting on the door of a different box stall. Flower was kept in that one and Gwyn was combing out his mane.

Zaniyah frowned at her. “Gypsum was the one who took me here. I didn’t know where I was supposed to announce myself.” She looked around but didn’t see anyone else present aside from horses. “Is Anais here?”

“She left earlier to meet up with Horsetalon,” replied Gwyn.

“We’re hiding,” explained Ivy. “Sir Trewarne will be out here as soon as he’s done calming down Lady Magdalena.”

That was the name of Vincent’s mother. “Did something happen? Is Vincent in trouble?”

Ivy laughed loudly. “You’re the one who is in trouble.”

“Hush,” said Gwyn. “You’re not in trouble, Krogastein. They are simply two stubborn forces that are unwilling to bend. No matter how much heat is applied.”

That made Ivy laugh harder. “Why make it sound like a casual affair? Sir Moss and Sir Trewarne are in there with Vincent darling, and all three of them are being screamed at by Missus Magdalena. Vincent went out and failed his marriage interview last night and now she’s blaming the knights for it. He’s got one lined up for every night this week and they’re trying to convince her that it will interfere with his work.”

“What’s… W-what’s a marriage interview?” Zaniyah tried to rationalize it as something other than what she thought it was. “Is it some sort of church thing? Is he helping people getting married as part of his paladin duties?”

Gwyn opened the door that Ivy was sitting on, making Ivy flail her arms about so she wouldn’t lose her balance. “It’s a meeting between a potential bride and groom and their parents. They have them to see how compatible the couple would be. Vincent didn’t know he was attending one last night, and abruptly left when he realized what was happening. None of it was his fault.”

“I see...” So that was his family’s answer to their relationship? She was lower than low born, after all. Zaniyah really wasn’t good enough for him.

“It’s what Gwyn said. Don't let it get you down,” replied Ivy. “All the nobles have been in a panic about the young noblemen of Carapace getting their priorities straight. They’re afraid that they’ll be a draft for the war and want their grandkids in place before that happens. Not to mention that the Toval family announced Alton’s marriage last week. They’re in a hurry to make claims and toss dowries at people while they still can.”

Raising a hand up, Zaniyah was confused. “... Alton got married?”

Ivy nodded. “We heard a rumor that it was to someone with connections to the Violet court.”

“I heard that it was a marriage that would grant him a position within the Crimson Court,” added Gwyn.

Ivy shrugged. “Sir Moss had us attend a party last night so that we could have our proper introductions done. All they did was try to milk us for more information, but I don’t know anything about it. I had no idea Alton was actually popular here. You’d think the pretty boy was just boasting.”

“I told you this was a backwater city. Nothing makes sense here,” grumbled Gwyn.

So that was the reason for their latest argument. “I n-need to talk to Vincent.” Or kill Alton. Zaniyah didn’t know which was supposed to come first. All she knew was that she was feeling dizzy from all of this information that had come to light.

“You’re not going anywhere.” Ivy hopped down from her perched and patted Zaniyah on the shoulder. “Unless you want to go get a few practice swings in before you head out? Sir Moss isn’t going to let me fight much during this trip.”

“As we are all women of Braytons, we are bound by a certain code,” added Gwyn. “We’re allies.”

“That is correct,” Ivy confirmed with a nod. “Men are the enemy, after all. Don’t forget that we beat that tainted beast together. That makes us blood sisters.”

Zaniyah looked between them. “... This is a trap.”

“Not at all, I pro-ooo-mise,” replied Ivy in a sing-song voice. “Vincent is going to break up with you over this and that makes you one of us now. Let’s go out to the garden and beat the crap out of each other because that’s what friends do.” She tilted her head towards the exit of stable and started to walk towards it.

Her heart dropped at Ivy’s words. Zaniyah’s dwindling confidence officially vanished at that point. She slumped to her knees, staring vacantly at the ground while Gwyn walked over. A pat to her head was given, but that didn’t make her feel better. Her world was over. Completely and utterly over.

 

---

 

Across town, Chickadee was in a similar state of mood. Horsetalon had housed their headquarters within one of the lavish hotels. He wasn’t completely unused to the noble dwellings of the outerland, but it didn’t make him feel comfortable. Even if he had been living outside of the core since he was eleven.

His mother had gained fame as a blacksmith even before he was born, but she was also proud of her core roots. However, it was difficult to raise four elementalists in a small core home. She couldn’t get a permit to move into a larger one since the core refused to acknowledge her marriage to Dodo Tuma. They built a home and forge at the base of the mount, and Caitlin moved into the space above their store when she turned seventeen.

Most of them had chosen to stay with Dogfall for their education. Chickadee moved out of the house and lived with Caitlin for the year after he had been expelled from Dogfall. He took a handful of classes at Starsons and Caitlin found him a tutor to help him graduate.

Fairy was the only one who didn’t remember life in the core. She had always attended Starsons. Unlike her siblings, she wasn’t in the squire program. She preferred a more delicate style of life.

So no, Chickadee wasn’t unused to the sight of luxury, but he never saw the point in it. In his opinion, those in the core were much happier. There was a strong sense of community, and even more importantly, there wasn't any snow. Chickadee didn’t like snow. He did not like it at all.

His own inner thoughts were interrupted when he reached the suite door. He knocked loudly and Trenchall was the one who answered. Here was another mage that didn’t talk much.

Despite Trenchall being apprehensive towards others, he and Chickadee had an understanding. It wasn’t a friendship, but they did tend to stand near one another whenever they were grouped together so that they could relish in the silence between them.

Chickadee stepped past him and bowed towards Pegasus. “Apologies for my late arrival.”

A stern glance over was given towards his appearance. “At least you showed up properly dressed,” muttered Pegasus. “Have a seat at the table. Eat something if you haven’t already. We will begin when Reese is ready.”

The poor girl was sitting at the vanity with her wolf lying at her feet. Naoiv fixing her hair. She had thought the Baron Squad outfits were uncomfortable, but the Horsetalon ones were so much worse. They were overly complicated to put on, and she was freezing.

The straps along the back of her dress were a set of thin, feathered wings that left the majority of her skin exposed. Her skirt was also wispy and thin. Not to mention the heels of her boots were too tall and the toes were too tight. There was no way for her to walk in the dirt in them.

“What’s this?” Naiov ran his fingers along the ear cuff that she was wearing. “The color doesn’t match the uniform. Pegasus won’t approve.”

Anais stiffened up. She didn’t like being touched or pampered. Having her ears touched was going over a line and she especially didn’t like how she wasn’t allowed to hide her deformed ear underneath her hair.

“Chickadee made it for me. I’m deaf in that ear without it.”

A shrug was given before he went back to braiding her hair back. His fingers let out small sparks of static that untangled her locks and eased out the frizz. “It looks terrible,” muttered Naiov to himself. This made Anais’ face flush red with frustration.

Pegasus began to flip through his journal. “I will now explain our duties to the new recruits. We will be working in tandem with Hiram Trewarne and the unit he has put together. Our goal is to patrol the local roads and caverns and to exterminate any tainted beasts that may be in the area.

Furrow will continue to serve as our city guide while Cully will act as our guide within the caverns. With Reese joining our party, we should no longer get ecological complaints from us accidentally exterminating innocent wildlife. Her dog will also serve as a useful tracker.” Anais frowned at the idea that they had been blasting away any animal they found. “Are there any questions?”

“None,” replied Chickadee. Tainted beasts had a natural affinity against magic but he supposed that didn’t matter if they had himself and Trenchall here. Stones weren’t magic. Stones were stones. Not a lot count survive a good stoning.

“What do we do if we run into another would-be?” Anais tried to look over her shoulder at Pegasus but Naiov straightened her head again with his hands.

Pegasus scoffed at the idea. “The north is supposedly riddled with those right now.” The notion that there were multiples of those running around at once made both Anais and Chickadee feel a chill run up their spines. “Sir Moss claims to have seen one on your way here, but I doubt it was anything more than a standard tainted beast. None should be this far south. However, in the rare event one does appear, we will hold our ground and protect the citizens of this city until reinforcements arrive. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir.” The four squires replied.

“Good. We’ll start with our daily patrol of the core entrance. We will ensure that the cap has remained sealed and then we will meet up with Sir Trewarne’s squad. Our days within Carapace have been busy ones. No doubt that we will be in for a long hunt.”

Chickadee wasn’t all that worried. Tainted beasts were strong against magic, but Trewarne’s team were the ones who would do the brunt of the combat. Their role was to control the terrain and provide defense when needed.

Plus Zaniyah would be there. When it came to teamwork, they were the best at it. She had always been in sync with his spells, and it would be nice to be fighting alongside someone he would never have to worry about accidentally hitting. As long as they worked together, and as long as Chickadee kept Anais out of trouble, this would be an easy mission.

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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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