Valerian purposefully looked away as his grandparents left his courtyard. There was nothing to say and even if there was, he didn’t trust himself to say it. A glance over at the patriarch caught the pleased smile still on the man’s face. Not wanting to look at that, he turned towards his uncle Richard instead. The scarred knight sensed his discomfort and clasped his shoulder softly.
The patriarch spoke up again, exclaiming, “Wonderful!”
Turning to the rest of them, he said, “I have good news. Now, that the school has decided, I think it best that we immediately begin preparations. The entrance exam at Strapping’s is legendary. Valerian will need training. Best get a start on that as well as prepare his prospectus among other things.”
Vorm and Richard nodded but something stuck out to Valerian.
“What do you mean by entrance exam?” he questioned.
“Ah”, the patriarch said slowly, drawing out the sound. “There is only one way into Strapping’s and that is the entrance exam. There is no backdoor, no friend of a friend deal and no premium paid tuition. It is a school wholly dependent on merit as a means of selection. The army would have more of it if they could. With its reputation, in addition to the fact that it is completely free, thousands would attend if they could but the kingdom only wishes to work with the best. Then, they make them better.
“In order to attend, one first has to volunteer willingly. You accept of your own volition, the risks involved, the fact that you might not make the cut and that you will work with the army for a minimum of thirty years after graduation. You will also need a letter of recommendation from an enlisted officer possessing the rank of Captain at least and pass the centre’s dreaded entrance exam. This exam is renown for its difficulty and best of all its efficiency at weeding out the weak. No one can attend Strapping’s without fulfilling all of these three requirements, it doesn’t matter if it’s the king himself”, he concluded.
“You’re joking!” Valerian said bluntly, already regretting his decision. “After all this, I have to take an entrance exam.”
Laughing softly, the patriarch added, “Don’t worry, Valerian. I have full confidence in your ability to pass the entrance exam. As for the recommendation, the clan has dozens of people who can grant you one. However, we aren’t just going to settle for making it into the school. As I said earlier, Strapping’s is meritocratic unlike the others on your grandfather’s list. The better you prove yourself to be, the better your experience will be. The clan will ensure that you have what it takes to be the best. So, I’ll assign you tutors to guide you in the proper methods of cultivating as well as instil in you whatever skills you need to pass the entrance exam.”
“I already have tutors”, Valerian said stubbornly.
The patriarch sighed softly, understanding that Valerian was not being intentionally difficult, just a bit ill at ease with the way things were going. “Yes, you do and they have done a marvellous job so far”, he told the boy.
“However, Strapping’s is a different sort of beast and you will need new skills to tackle it. I’d like Vorm to take charge of your arcane studies. He will not only instruct you in the arts but also share his experiences at Strapping’s with you, to help prepare you for what you’ll face there.”
He said this whilst glancing at the man. Vorm could not disagree; all he could do was nod and bow slightly to show his acceptance. Turning to stare at a disgruntled Jonas, he asked quietly, “I hope you do not have a problem with that?”
“Er… no Sir!” Jonas said quickly.
Having gotten consent, the patriarch continued with what he was saying. “Richard has been doing quite well with your tellurian training, all things considered. He also seems to have the best handle on your abilities and from what I understand; he was responsible for training you for the Zebre. He will continue with your tellurian training for now.”
This was welcome news for Valerian. For a moment there, he was scared that he would lose both of his mentors. However, his mouth nearly fell open in shock when Richard looked at their patriarch and told the man, “I’m afraid I cannot teach Valerian right now.”
He spun to face the man, feeling a bit betrayed. How could the man who had influenced him into picking the school in the first place not train him for it? Richard merely clasped his shoulder tighter, offering him an apologetic smile.
“I am sorry”, he said sadly. “I recently had a breakthrough and cannot postpone it any longer”, he explained.
“Ah!” the patriarch mused knowingly. “Congratulations on reaching the third tier, Richard. The clan is proud to have another Terrene King!”
“Wait, you broke through, Richard?” his brother asked excitedly and rushed closer.
The others followed suit, eagerly congratulating the knight, with Avery inching his way over cautiously.
Vorm laughed loudly, reaching out to clasp arms with his cousin. “Damn, I just realised. This means you’re catching up to me.”
“You were never that far away”, Richard challenged.
Valerian simply told the man, “I’m happy for you Uncle!”
He truly was. Richard was a man who had fallen to the bottom and clawed his way up when all thought he would never stand again. Valerian had always admired him for that. It was only natural that he continue climbing especially given how long he had been stuck in the second tier. The man was about to advance to the King tier. Valerian could only imagine what that meant. Stunned, he realised that meant that as a cultivator of the third tier, Richard was now eligible for the position of elder.
He doubted the man would ever take up such a post given how much he disliked the people who held it but the fact still remained, he could. If he could do that then there probably wasn’t much he couldn’t. His uncle’s prospects had widened greatly and that was just with the third tier. What of the fourth, fifth or Delrein’s grace, the legendary seventh? What would those bring?
Luckily, the patriarch interfered before Valerian could get too lost in his thoughts by saying, “You four stay and celebrate Richard’s advancement. In the meantime, Valerian and I will get to the matter I originally came here for.”
Richard, like Valerian quickly remembered the man mentioning that he had originally come looking for Valerian when he stumbled on their discussion.
“Might I ask what that is patriarch?” Richard inquired.
“You may”, the man stated. “It merely concerns his prizes from Zebre. William is too busy right now. He is unable to personally redeem the prizes the contestants received. I decided to handle Valerian’s on his behalf.”
Richard did not doubt that there was more to it. Handing out prizes wasn’t something that took a lot of time and yet the Viscount was unavailable. Plus, the number of important figures in the city had skyrocketed since that proclamation before the finals of the Zebre. Also, the patriarch being given the task of delivering prizes to children was not a reason even an idiot would accept. Still, he said nothing merely nodding calmly as if that explained everything.
“You brought my prizes?” Valerian asked the man, also picking up the strong fishy smell that came from asserting that the most powerful man in the region had been handed a menial task.
“Oh no!” I didn’t bring them. “You require a fitting. I came to take you there so the measurements and specifications could be taken.”
“I see…” Valerian pronounced disbelievingly.
“Come over now, Valerian” the patriarch gestured with a smile. “We’re already late and the artificer we’re going to see is the grumpy sort.”
Turning to give one last look at his uncles, Valerian walked up to the beckoning man. Expecting them to leave via the gate, he was completely unprepared for the man to clasp a hand to his shoulder as well as the intense pulse of qi that carried him away. The others were left staring at the spot they had disappeared from. They had been told to celebrate but all of them had complicated expressions on their faces. Jonas, from being completely ignored when the patriarch appeared, Vorm for how things had turned out and Richard who was dreading walking into the manor and encountering the magistrate. It didn’t matter what anyone said, Valerian had probably based his decision on what he said. Given his reaction to that decision, his uncle was probably not going to be happy with him.
Conversely, Avery was glad things were done with. Steelborn matters were always so overly convoluted. He was just happy this one had reached a definite conclusion. The fact that the patriarch was gone was also a big plus in his mind. He was a servant of the household, and no matter how well they treated him, he tried not to involve himself in their decision-making. It felt nice to be considered though. However, when others were around, especially when they were important figures, he was forced to switch from trusted subordinate to part of the scenery.
Finally relaxing, Avery looked to the others and said, “I hope you people don’t take this the wrong way but I don’t like that man.”
“He might no longer be here but he can still hear you”, Richard told him.
Avery stiffened, paling so quickly, he could be likened to a marble statue.
Valerian and his great-grandfather appeared on a small, unfamiliar cobbled path. The sudden stop nearly sent Valerian lurching but the patriarch’s strong hand anchored him in place. He gazed about him in wonder. One second, he was in his courtyard, the next he was …wherever this was. Again, he wondered just how powerful the man beside him really was. They’d achieved what seemed like instant movement without any effort. If not for the rushing feeling he had had in that split second of transition, Valerian would have thought they had teleported.
The path they were on led to a very large but plain brick building in front of them. Looking around made it clear that this was not the proper entrance. The path was secluded, with no people around. The small detail of it leading to what seemed like a side entrance reinforced the idea of it not being the official entrance. Sharpening his eyes with qi, Valerian quickly made out the city walls meaning that they were still in DaleGuard.
There were also Steelborn guards guarding the fence around the property they were in with several others scattered every few kilometres around them. This told Valerian that they were in the clan compound but in an area he had ever been. Their destination was obviously the building in front of them but he couldn’t tell what it was, something about it deflected his sensory abilities.
“I’d stop that if I were you Valerian”, the patriarch warned with an amused smile. “Richard doesn’t like it when people try to peek into his workshop.”
Not knowing who this Richard was, Valerian stopped immediately. Together, they walked up to the small steel door set in the wall. Up close, Valerian could make out the subtle hum of essence bound to it. His eyes picked up the miniaturised glyphs drawn on the door but before he could analyse them in detail the magistrate stepped in front of it and placed his hand on the knocker. Before he had a chance to use it though.
“I’m very busy right now, Roland. Come back later”, yelled a voice from inside the building.
“Come on brother, let me in!” Roland yelled back.
“No!” came the other voice. “I’ve got a lot of work to do. Come back in two days.”
“Richard, there a matter to attend to! Now, hurry up and open the door”, the patriarch shouted in an exasperated tone.
“Whatever it is can wait till I am done with my current project”, Richard shouted back.
“It’s work. I need equipment; something excellent and built to certain strict, special requirements”, the patriarch informed him.
There was silence on the other side for a while but eventually, Richard spoke again. “Fine!” he relented.
The metallic door swung open revealing, not a workshop like Valerian expected but rather what he recognised as a very large smithy. Warm light and colours from the furnace fire roaring a few meter’s away splashed on the walls and a very strong waft of essence tickled his enhanced senses. Standing where he was, he could only make out a small portion of the large chamber but it would have been enough to fill him with amazement had he been in the right mental state to appreciate it.
The patriarch stepped in, a victorious smile on his face. Valerian, on the other hand, found it difficult to get his feet to move. Richard was a relatively common name among the Steelborns. It was often given to the first child provided it was male. Listening in on the shouting match between the two men had clued him in on something. Forcing himself to step over the threshold, Valerian found himself more interested in the man he was to see than in the superbly equipped workshop and its strangely high levels of ambient essence.
The person in question was bent over a high worktable. He had his hair tied in a bun and work simple clothes made from what Valerian could tell were strong fibres and leathers. Over them, he wore a large apron marked with soot. He was also ignoring them, choosing instead to concentrate on the inscription he was creating.
“This better be important Roland. The clan has finally brought the materials necessary to continue the Gleamscales project. This is no time for distractions.”
“Oh really, what materials?” the patriarch asked curiously.
“Nothing new really”, Richard answered whilst working the thin chisel in his hands with a flourish. “They are still mining and excavating the dragon’s lair. However, they did extract a lot of fine grade imbued metals along with a few tons of essence stones. I’m currently experimenting with them a bit. Trying out a few ideas before I go back to working the dragon materials.”
Freeing his work from the clamp, the smith turned around to face them, placing the red-hot sword he had been working on down to anneal. Its freshly carved glyphs drawing in essence from the special array it had been left in. Then, he grabbed a towel from his waist to wipe the sweat off his face to reveal a face eerily similar to the patriarch’s own albeit with more age lines.
“I hope you actually came here with a request worth listening to, Roland. One that better have nothing to do with the brat behind you”, he said. “I’ll add this. Whichever elder it is that sent his grandson with you is definitely going to be disappointed. So, no side requests either. I simply do not have the time to cater to their wishes right now.”
Valerian scrutinised the man with an intense stare, he never knew that the patriarch had a brother. ‘Wait!’ He realised. ‘If this was the first child then shouldn’t he be the patriarch instead?’
Sorry for the late release, I’m just so tired. Too many assignments in a row. That should be illegal, somehow. Thanks to wildmonkey for his review! I really appreciate it. Thank you to all the others who also take the time to rate the story on royalroadl. Your support keeps me going. Read the review on HoGW’s fiction page on royalroadl and help me thank him by upvoting it.