Chickadee had told a lie.
Hopefully one that wouldn’t cause to much trouble. Trenchall was the only one necessary to have on a mission. They didn’t actually need himself. He didn’t even feel guilty when he told Zaniyah that he was feeling ill, probably because of the miasma, and was going to go to the hospital with Veximarl to have himself looked at.
Veximarl had a later shift today. He’d tell Veximarl that he’d sleep it off. Iofea went out shopping with Zynn, everyone else was on their missions. No one would be bothering him. No one would be surprised to learn that he had left the manor for a little while, because no one would even be finding out.
Chickadee was careful to sneak through the hallways, and opened the door to Alton’s room as slowly as possible. Once inside, he quickly made his way past the instruments and to where the bed was before flopping down on it. It was a little over a year ago, wasn’t it? When he first saw Alton?
It was after Hayden’s accident. She had gone missing in the caves, and due to core politics, neither Chickadee or Millie were allowed to help search for her. The majority of core elementalists were off doing jobs in the outerland. This meant that search parties had devolved to wandering about in the dark while shouting really loudly until one of their mages returned.
It had taken hours to find the collapse that had buried the transport golem, even longer to find an elementalist to clear it out. Clerics were far from common in the core. They did what they could to stabilize any injuries before sending them up to the outerland.
Hayden had both of her legs amputated.
Two others died.
Then the whole ordeal was brushed off to the side. A standard core accident. Golem error. No one was at fault. These are simply the risks to be had for those who chose to remain loyal to the core.
But Chickadee knew better. It was their own hubris. Their hate of those who abandoned the core clouded their ability to save lives. He could have spoken to the stones. No one would have had to die. Hayden would still be able to dance. If they were going to blame no one, then they would have no one to blame if several more caverns suffered collapses as well... After all, things like this tend to happen.
Long story short, that’s how Chickadee was banished from the core.
No one was more disappointed about it than Caitlin. The shop was closer to Starsons than their home was and she had gotten rather used to living by herself. Fairy got between the school and their home via a shortcut in the core, but that was no longer an option for Chickadee. He was forced to live with Caitlin until Summer arrived and could only go home on Satyrdays.
Caitlin stared down at him with a frown. “You have to cook dinner three times a week and I’ll give you cash for your other meals. Anything you have leftover is your allowance. Under no circumstances are Sybil and Zaniyah allowed to spend the night and our sisters aren’t allowed to be here just because you are. You understand?”
Chickadee sulked in his chair. “Yes, Caitlin.”
“I had to fight to get you this school schedule,” she spat back. Their mother wasn’t much for words and few understood their father when he spoke. This left Caitlin to deal with many of the issues that plagued her younger siblings. “They said that they’d allow you to graduate if you pass all your classes.
The other thing you have to do is to write Braytons and explain exactly what happened and why. They’re not going to accept your application if you’re not honest with them. Whether they reject you are not is your problem.”
“A client of mine is going to tutor you here two times a week. Come straight here after school every Martsday and Eathaday. He didn’t come cheap and you need to tell me if he doesn’t work out for you. Don’t lie about it. Actually try to study first.”
Thus began his life of solitude. It didn’t take long to figure out that Starsons didn't want him. He only had three classes, and twice a week, he was expected to go to the university for advanced math studies. What frustrated him was the fact that he wouldn’t be able to see Fairy in order to make sure she was doing alright. She was in a different part of the school and there wasn’t a single other person there that he knew.
Music was already flowing out of Starson’s courtyard by the time he got there on his first official day. Students were gathered around a lute player bellowing out sea shanty. Others were spiraling about each other in a dance. Chickadee was only barely able to catch a glimpse at the performer... An absolutely stunning teen with silver hair.
He would later learn that that was Alton Toval. Of course he knew of Adrian Toval, Alton’s father. That was the man who helped gather investors and push forward the blood iron trade in Carapace, but that was over twenty years ago. Adrian and Talwyn had already paid their debts to each other.
But that didn’t stop Chickadee from wanting to get a better look at Alton. His progress was impeded by the ringing of a bell and a rush of students. Chickadee tried to fumble to get out his map, but people were bumping into him. It slipped from his grasp and was quickly trampled beyond repair. He let out a thin whine as he stepped off to the side.
Late. It took too long to figure out the tattered map and he was a good half hour late to his first class because of it. He sat down and looked around. Everyone was a lot younger than he expected. They did say that the harder life in the core had a way of quickly aging people but…
At that moment he realized that he had been assigned to the wrong year. Two years behind where he should be. After class, he went to the administration office in an attempt to explain, but they replied that he would still be allowed to graduate if he passed all of his classes. After all, the curriculum in the core was different. Aside from math, the classes of his proper year were to advanced for him.
He made an attempt to see what the elementalist club was like during lunch. In the core, mages were focused on using earth and water. Chickadee never had a taste for water magic. After all, he was going to be a blacksmith. Other elementalists found a living bringing up purified water from the core and supplying it to the outerland, but he didn’t have a need for such things.
What he had hoped to find was a collection of different schools of magic, but he was greatly disappointed. It was just a collection of mages that wanted to goof off and play games rather than take magic seriously. He was tempted to join the squire program but that would go against his sister’s rule of coming home quickly.
Chickadee resigned himself to not meeting new people and to do what he could to survive. He ate his lunch, finished his classes, and started to slump his way home. Caitlin was waiting for him. She was fuming so hard that steam was rising up from her head and shoulders.
“Did you skip your classes? I heard you didn’t show up.”
He shook his head. “Late. Got lost.”
She glared at him. Her jaw tensed for a moment. “Get to your room,” she spat out. “Now.”
Chickadee dragged his feet to his room and was surprised to find a man in there. A dark haired man with lovely tan eyes. He was busy arranging items on a new desks. Books, ink vials, and quills. While Chickadee was frozen in place in the doorway, the man turned to him and smiled.
“Hello… Walter?” He pointed at Chickadee, who did a small nod. “I’m Ruven Hutchison. I bought you some fresh supplies. Nothing special, but it’s items that helped me out a great deal while I was at Starsons… Was that alright?”
Chickadee didn’t say anything. He only stared.
“Your sister had mentioned that you don’t talk much.” Ruven thought to himself before shrugging. “Why don’t you sit at the desk. Caitlin already gave me your school schedule. I’ll talk about them more in detail and you can write down what parts you find interesting. We’ll use that as the basis for your studies.”
Ruven then proceeded to rattle on about Chickadee’s three classes and why they were important. Chickadee wrote down exactly zero items that he was interested in. Literature didn’t amuse him, he wasn’t expecting to deal with the money side of his blacksmithing business, and he absolutely had zero interest in astronomy.
Undeterred, Ruven would spend the next few weeks helping Chickadee study for his classes. When he wasn’t studying, Chickadee would help out with his sister’s projects. This meant that he wasn’t seeing either Sybil or Zaniyah often, but at least he always made a point of putting Satyrdays aside for them.
As their tutoring lessons continued, Chickadee began to learn more about Ruven. He was nineteen and was studying to become a licensed merchant. In order to better defend himself, he had recently started to take private fighting lessons. The reason why Caitlin knew him was because he had hired her to make a light short sword.
None of the personal facts mattered after awhile. Chickadee was a quick study, which meant that the two found other ways to keep themselves preoccupied. Exactly how it started in the first place, Chickadee couldn’t say, only that it did happen.
He wanted to tell Sybil about it, since she had a relationship with Zyris and Chickadee did have questions about… Stuff, but then Sybil would tell Zaniyah. Poor Zaniyah who might end up failing the Braytons exams. If that happened, she would’ve ended up stuck in the core.
And now that Chickadee had messed up and gotten himself banned from the core, he’d have to work extra hard to support Zaniyah. They’d end up getting married and Chickadee did not want her to find out about Ruven if that happened. He never wanted Zaniyah to feel like she was making Chickadee miserable by having him choose her over happiness.
Plus this was just a fling. Ruven had a girl he was courting, and he wanted to marry someone who could jump start his career. Someone who would take care of the home and kids. What this was, the heated afternoons in that small bedroom, was a simply Ruven’s last adventure until he settled into adulthood.
Then Caitlin had to ruin everything.
“Get out before I melt that lying face of yours!” She half dragged, half shoved Ruven down the stairs.
A customer had some questions about the work Chickadee had done on his armor, and Caitlin went up to the room for a quick chat. What she found instead was Chickadee bent over his desk by Ruven, and neither of them were wearing much. She couldn’t say much of what happened next, but there was punching involved.
“What are you thinking?!” Caitlin was close to pulling out her own hair. “If don’t pass those classes, you don’t graduate. Carapace requires graduation in order to maintain your apprenticeship license. No apprenticeship, no blacksmith license. We won’t be able to legally let you work in the forge anymore!”
Chickadee shrugged apathetically.
“You’re not getting into Braytons!” Caitlin exclaimed loudly. She flung her hands about to emphasize her point. “None of you are! I’m not going to tell you to not go to the exam, because you should go out there in the world, but you have to be realistic about this.”
Chickadee didn’t care either way. If it took him a little longer to get his license, that was fine. His mom wasn’t going to kick him out of the forge. It wasn’t like anyone was going to check in on them to make sure what they were doing was legal.
Caitlin leaned against the wall. Her gaze fell to the floor and her voice was quivering when she spoke. “... I know you hate me. I know you hate it when I tell you what to do, but someone has to be in charge.
Mom has to support all of us since it’s so hard for dad to find work. Dad’s never been able to manage any of us and our magic. We only have each other, Walter. We’re the only ones who understand what we’re all going through. You know how much Hester idolizes you. What do you think she’s going to do when she finds out about this?”
Fairy would probably go out of her way to get a boyfriend, and she was still twelve. She didn’t need to be seeing anyone right now. Chickadee looked off to the side. Ruven was doing something for himself though. Why should it matter to his siblings what he did to himself?
But that didn’t matter anyways. Ruven never contacted Chickadee again, and Chickadee didn’t go out of his way to say hello. He never could tell if he was heartbroken about it or not. Now that he thought about it, wasn’t it strange that he didn’t care?
But that’s what brought him to today. There was a man out there that Chickadee was beating himself up about. That was Alton. Why didn’t Chickadee feel that way about Ruven or Gower?
Gower Erpingham. The third year who had taught him how fun being tied up could be.
It was like there was a switch inside Chickadee that always was always turned off. Most of what he felt only involved nervousness or rage. Other than that, there were times where he struggled to focus on his emotions.
He didn’t even care that he nearly died last summer. The fish had him by the ankle, twisting his knee apart as the air was caught off from her lungs, and yet… Chickadee was oddly at peace with himself. He thought he couldn’t do anything to save himself, so he simply let it happen.
Then there was the sudden warmth against his lips, and everything was alright. That was one of the only times Chickadee had felt something positive. Maybe something had changed in him because of that. He thought that maybe if he saw Ruven again, he would know if something had changed.
Chickadee had looked up Ruven’s address in the customer records and made his way over there. He lived in a thin, multi story house that was identical to an entire block of squished together homes. The only difference between them were the wooden plaques on each door that had a family sigil on them.
A round woman answered the door. She looked Chickadee over before saying anything. “We’ve already received our water delivery for this week.”
Though he did wear mage robes, Chickadee wasn’t wearing any sort of uniform to indicate he worked with water. Now that his identity had been mistaken for another person’s, he was left fumbling. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Should he just pretend that he went to the wrong house, apologize, and leave.
“M-my name is Walter Cully… My sister is Caitlin, and I-I thought-”
The woman bowed apologetically. “I’m sorry, your sister worked on Ruven’s sword, did she not?” Chickadee bobbled his head. “Was something wrong?”
Chickadee shook his head back and forth before he continued to mutter. “I wanted to… The sword. It… It needs to be maintained. Need to see if repairs… R-repairs are needed.”
The woman waved it off. “My name is Keilee. I’m, ah…” Her cheeks flushed slightly at the thought. “I’m a friend of Ruven’s. I come over every once in awhile and make certain that his house is well off... Though, I’m afraid to tell you that he isn’t home right now.”
Stay calm. “”Will… Will he be back tonight..?”
“No, I’m afraid not,” Keilee replied with a frown. “He left Carapace last autumn as part of his apprenticeship. Ruven won’t be back until late spring.” She leaned forward so she could be eye to eye with Chickadee. “But you are so brave for helping out your big sister like this! I’ll ask him to stop by the store when he gets back.”
“... Thank you.”
Chickadee quickly bowed before walking away as fast as he could. Not only wasn’t he able to speak clearly, but he was also mistaken for a child. Again.
He remembered when Zaniyah had asked him if he believed he was strong yet incapable of doing much. Chickadee didn’t need help to get what he wanted done, but he was starting to feel left out. Was it because he was unreliable?
When Sybil was kidnapped, Alton and Veximarl somehow found out how to find her. Neither of them had bothered to ask if Zaniyah or Chickadee should go with them to rescue her. Why? Because they couldn’t be trusted? Because they weren’t strong enough?
Chickadee stopped on the sidewalk and stepped to the side so he wouldn’t be in anyone’s way. What was he even supposed to be doing right now? He couldn’t be trusted to help his friends. He couldn’t sort out his own feelings. He couldn’t even stay on the mission, choosing instead to skip a day to… Fail at accomplishing anything.
Everything up to this point was making him feel trapped. And he didn’t know what to do about it.