HoGW has new patrons. Please join me in thanking Dren, the newest person to have a plaque in our Hall of Heroes. Thank you Dren, I truly appreciate the support.
Speaking of support, are there any tropers in the house? I mentioned that I had things in store for 2018, well… HoGW now has a tv tropes page. Regrettably, the page is incredibly sparse. I’ll be relying on you guys to help out. This is new way to support the series and more writing. If you can or have some free time, please help out!
Chapter Fifty-five: Unable to Refuse
“What of your dual forces? Can he help with that?”
Valerian said nothing. The answer to that was so obvious it did not need saying.
“Strapping’s is holding you back”, Lady Bloodworth told him. “It’s not your instructor’s fault. It is the system’s. You heard the report. You have to do things yourself and from what I see it is because you can’t rely on others to do them to the standard you require. Your squad is lagging behind you and yet you can’t break free. You all need to develop as a whole even if it means you are stifled in the process. You know why? There’s no one to focus on you.
“Strapping’s focuses on teamwork. That’s because, here, they train soldiers. They’re building an army. You, unfortunately, don’t quite fit the mould. I’ve seen your growth charts. You are outpacing their development paradigm. Soon, it would be completely ineffective for you but that wouldn’t matter as you would be trapped in it all the same. Unless you find someone who has the requisite skills and the time to help you along, you and your talent will end up stiffled. Sadly, there’s no one here who can
“That’s why you need a master. A personal trainer. Someone powerful, experienced and well connected. Someone who can see to your specific needs and guide you on your path”, she told him.
“What are you saying, ma’am?” Valerian asked, seeing where this was going.
“I want you to be my apprentice!” she stated.
“You, ma’am?” Valerian asked incredulously, staring down at the diminutive old lady.
“Yes, me!” she said with a laugh. “I was a Field Mashal, Cadet. Let me boast and admit that I’m one of the most powerful people you’ll ever meet and my connections…? This centre you’re in? The person it’s named after was once my apprentice. Ignoring that, you will not only be my apprentice, you will be a student at my school, Marrbisi Academy. I assume you have heard of it. I’m one of its senior administrators”
Valerian stared so hard his eyes looked like they’d fall out. Marrbisi Academy? The first ranked school in Bathar? Of course Valerian had heard of it! He’d never dreamed he’d be invited to attend but he’d definitely dreamed about it. Eight hills and Ivory Spire were the only top ten schools to have ever shown interest in him and all they did was give him the opportunity to apply. Even that had nearly been enough for him to pack his bags and run there. This…this was… Right then, Valerian came to his senses.
“I’m sorry”, he said in a pained voice. “I can’t leave Strapping’s.”
“Oh!” she said with a raised eyebrow. “Is it because of the agreement you signed with your recruiter?”
“How do you know about that?” Valerian asked in shock. That agreement was supposed to be a secret. Even he only knew the circumstances surrounding it because he had eavesdropped on his grandfather blackmailing Major Berkeley. The special clauses were all confidential. They didn’t even kick in until after he had graduated with a distinction and the signatories were required to never mention it.
The old lady ignored his question choosing instead to say, “Don’t worry about that agreement. I’ll handle that for you. Steven’s a good institute with a solid programme, if you planned on serving as a simple war attache or bowing out to lord over your father’s serfs. That is not an option for you is it?”
Valerian shook his head, numb at the revelation.
“Then I’ll get you an even better deal. All you have to do is become my apprentice”, she said, reaffirming her position.
“I-I… It’s not my decision to make”, Valerian said with regret.
The old lady laughed. “So, you need permission? Don’t worry. I’ve spoken with your guardians. They’re willing to put you in my care, so long as you agree.”
“You spoke to my grandfather?” he asked in disbelief.
“Your grandfather, the Viscount heading your house and your clan patriarch”, she informed him. “I can give you my communication tool to verify if you wish.”
Valerian nodded, reaching out for the offered talisman. His head was spinning. Was this actually happening? A glance at his trembling hand told him it was. He didn’t even have to put in the signature. The call was already in the queue, ready to go out. He activated the tool. The call was answered almost immediately.
“Grandfather!” he called out tentatively.
“Valerian!” came an enthusiastic response. “How are you?”
“Grandfather”, Valerian began. “There is a Lady here. She wants me to…”
The old man did not even let him finish. “She is with you right now?”, he asked in a strange jittery tone. “Valerian, listen to me. Do whatever she says. You have to seize this opportunity and become her apprentice. She is…”
His voice cut off and another came on the line. “Valerian!” his great-grandfather yelled into the connection. “Listen to Valan. Thank her for the opportunity and accept immediately. DO NOT mess this up!”
“But…” he tried to get a word in.
“But nothing!” the patriarch yelled excitedly. “God! This is Lady Bloodworth we are talking about. You have no idea what this means for the clan. Hahahaha!” he laughed. “We’ve done so much, put in so much effort. Who would have thought such an opportunity would fall into our lap without us even looking for it.”
“Valerian, listen to me!” he commanded. “Drop whatever it is you are doing. Rush to her side and accept her proposal. You cannot let this opportunity slip away! Call when you are done!”
With that, the call was terminated. Valerian stood there, holding the inactive talisman, his face slack with confusion. He glanced at the old lady, a bit of fear in his eyes. How much planning went into this? As willing as he was, there was something terrifying about how he had been cornered and robbed of his choice. Giving up, he kowtowed in front of her.
“Please accept me as your apprentice!”
Lady Bloodworth smiled and sipped from her cup.
“Stand please, you’re my apprentice now, there’s no need to fawn!” she commanded lightly. “There are, however, a few things you must note.”
“I am ready and willing, ma’am!” Valerian exclaimed.
“That would be the first one”, she started. “No ma’ams. To my apprentices, I am teacher. In formal gatherings, you may refer to me as Milady. That clear?”
Valerian nodded. “Yes, teacher.”
“Secondly, you will be coming with me to Marrbisi. Unfortunately, that means you can no longer attend Strapping’s. It will be a bit troublesome to bring you in so late in the term but I can’t also leave you here. Word will get out eventually and news that you’ll be leaving will not make for a comfortable situation for you”, she told him.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to return home for the time being. I’ll have you brought in next term officially as a transfer student. That way you can complete the year at my school. It will also give you some time to scrounge up some respectable gear”, she added, giving his armour an appraising stare, one that made Valerian suddenly feel very poor and naked.
“It is pretty enough but it’s very lacking. You are my student now. You are not allowed to disgrace me. That orb thing will also have to go. Honestly, you barely use it as is. I’ll speak with your guardian. The report said yours is a clan of smiths and warriors. You must have someone capable of making passable equipment. I’ll have materials sent over. If your people can’t hack it I’ll get you some myself. Now, that business you’ve got going on with…”
Valerian felt his face burn as she dressed him down and picked at him. It hurt that his prized gear, the best Valerian had ever had, did not amount to much in her eyes. Even the way she spoke about his clan said a lot. It let him understand the depth of the pool he had fallen into. In the meantime, the officer in the corner continued to give him that same look of pity and schadenfreude.
“Teacher, the boy was suspicious of you”, came the voice of Marshal Strapping. He’d arrived in time to see the tail end of the discussion. Saying nothing, he’d watched in silence.
“He knows you’re hiding things and even the things you did tell him, I doubt he believed more than half.”
His apprentice hastily stepped forward with greetings.
You’re right!” came his answer. “But who cares?” she added. “He raised no complaint and he’s already agreed to become my apprentice. Whatever misgivings he had are useless now.”
“Still, you didn’t have to slander my school to get him to agree”, he pointed out.
“Did I slander your school, Augustus?” the old lady asked.
He did not reply. It was true. Nothing she said was a lie per se. She just didn’t state the full facts. The fact that that painted his centre in a bad light was a separate matter. Her former apprentice could do nothing but sigh.
It was true that his centre focused more on the group than the individual and that that practice could have detrimental effects on individual growth. However, what his teacher had failed to mention was that this was only true for the first year. His instructors were under orders to make sure that all the cadets met a certain baseline in terms of basic skills. It was only when this was done that specialisations came into play.
First-year cadets were practically baby chicks. The first term only taught them the basics, military terminology, cultivation practice, combat and survival training, etc. By the end of this first year, the instructors would have enough information on their cadets to identify their interests and talents. They could then make recommendations and draw up plans in preparation for their second year.
The second year was where Strapping’s training truly took off. That’s because this was when the often mentioned specialisations kicked in. Strapping’s trained elite for the army. Many tend to forget that there were a lot of roles in the army. Machinists, array masters, spies, scouts, scryers, warders, benedictors, maledictors, healers, dragoons, beast tamers, etc. All were needed in the army and Strapping’s trained cadets to fit in most if not all of those roles.
For example, Valerian’s squadmate, Berengar, had been trained from birth as a mounted knight. He was quite capable on foot but before coming to Strapping’s his skills off his horse paled before his skills when mounted. Unfortunately for him, first-years weren’t allowed their own mounts in Strapping’s. Then, there were people like Pugio who had very advanced skills but needed certain environments to fully display them. You couldn’t well spy on and assassinate people in the middle of a battlefield, could you? Skills like these were being ignored now but come second year, that would change.
Lady Bloodworth had deviously avoided mentioning any of that. Augustus admitted that he had no staff on hand that could teach an array master as gifted as Valerian and his expert on phantasms was busy overseeing the graduating class but the boy had so much potential in other areas. Illusions and wards to mention a couple and as for his combat skills… he had really looked forward to what his institute could make out of the boy.
Lord Strapping faced his master, “Teacher”, he implored. “Must you take this one?”
He’d had his eye on Valerian from the day the first assessments were done and the report of the entrance exam was given to him. A dual force user who also happened to be the youngest array master in the country. Lord Strapping had already resolved to recruit him from the moment he read that report. Regrettably, he had decided to leave Valerian in the system to mature a little bit first and now, that choice had come back to bite him.
“Must?” she repeated pensively. “No! But I want him. He’ll be my legacy apprentice.”
Strapping sighed and relented. “In that case, teacher, you may have him. I am delighted to have another junior apprentice brother.”
She smiled at him lovingly and reached up to caress his cheek. “You’re such a good boy”
It was a queer sight. A diminutive woman standing on her toes and a very tall man practically bowing so she could reach him. General Grayson looked away from their intimate moment. He was aware that the relationship between his master and Lady Bloodworth was not simply one of student and teacher. The woman was practically his mother. There was nothing she could ask for that he wouldn’t give and vice versa.
“Sean!”, came the old lady’s voice.
“Yes, Lady Bloodworth!” he promptly answered.
“I was not there to receive you when you joined our small group”, she said. “Here, take these gifts. Welcome to the family!”
She handed him a jade chest that had all sorts of softly glowing glyphs carved on it and an ancient wooden slip. Taking a brief glance inside the chest, Sean, gasped. There was an imperial ranked, earthen crux in it. While not priceless, it was not something he could afford, not even if he sold himself.
“I can’t take this!” he said staunchly even though his heart burned with desire. He didn’t even check the wooden slip. He could tell that it had to be worth as much if not more than the item in the chest. He was afraid his heart would not be able to refuse. It was fighting him already.
“Nonsense”, Lady Bloodworth told him. “Trinkets like these are useless to old people like me. Besides, you’ve taken such good care of me these last few days.”
“Thank my teacher and stop being perfunctory, Sean!” his master told him.
Feeling like several birthdays had come at once, General Grayson thanked his master’s teacher profusely. Soon the old lady retired to her chambers and left the two men alone. A few minutes after she left, Sean gave voice to a question that was bugging him.
“Master, you seemed dead set on the Steelborn earlier. What made you give him up so easily?” he asked.
Lord Strapping sighed, a sombre expression on his face. “Do you not know what a legacy disciple is, Sean?”
Realisation dawned in his apprentice’s eyes. “Surely you can’t mean!”
“My teacher is old, Sean”, the man said with a faraway look. “As powerful as she is, her age and injuries have taken their toll. Her path of cultivation has long since reached a dead end. Her longevity will soon run out. He is the last apprentice she will ever have.”