And so we get even closer to the end. Only one chapter left now, and this book will be over.
BK II, Chapter Fifty-six: Dark-winged Vassal
Valerian sat on a bench at the side of the training yard, staring off into the sky. Come sunrise, he would have to leave Strapping’s. It all seemed surreal. The school that had required him putting in so much effort to get into…now he was leaving it for something better…supposedly. His resolve wavered when he thought of the people he was leaving behind.
He’d told his squad and instructor some of the details of his meeting. Lady Bloodworth had warned him that word would get out anyway about her taking on a new apprentice so he felt he could share some of the general details with his colleagues. They had not taken it well.
“Wait! So, you’re just going to up and leave?” Tamara had asked in a shocked tone.
Valerian had sighed, feeling very drained. “Yes. I’ll be leaving tomorrow. Teacher says that it would be bad form to attend the ceremony and take the prizes when I do not plan to stay.”
Apparently, that was the wrong thing to say.
“So, it’s a done deal then? You don’t even plan to stay!” she had argued.
“No! It’s not like that” Valerian had tried to reason out. “The ceremony is unnecessary. The prizes are not worth the ill will they will bring.”
Looking back now, Valerian liked to think that had he not been so fatigued he’d have known to handle that better. Alas, there was no pill for regret. Cybele had jumped on his case before he even had the breathing space to realise just how they might misconstrue his statement.
“I see”, she ground out. “It’s the prizes that are not worthwhile. Tell me, Valerian, what about us? Are we worthwhile?”
Not even giving him a chance to answer, she run roughshod over him. “I never pegged you as toffee-nosed, Valerian. Is that it then? Casting us aside now that you’ve been invited to a better place?”
The others had merely watched, their faces a variety of shocked, outraged, jealous and confused. He looked to Alenwaa and Berengar but the former looked lost in thought and the latter actually stepped backwards in a clear attempt to distance himself from the proceeds. Soft crunching sounds came from Captain Walters as he munched on his snacks, his focused eyes staring fixedly as if watching a drama. James and Drusilla were quiet and that very silence spoke volumes. As for John, his eyes flicked over to Cybele, her words registering and causing him to take on the look of a kicked dog.
“If this lady is offering you a place in the school after watching our assessment battles then why did she call only you?” Alenwaa said, finally speaking up. “It was a group assessment. You’re not the only person in the squad Valerian. Why are you the only one getting something out of this? She should have said something about us as well. What did you tell her Valerian?”
The rest of the meeting had continued in that fashion. Nothing was accomplished and harsh words were said. People got angry and feelings got hurt. Even Valerian had lost his patience at one point. The looks on their faces when he barked at them to shut up and let him talk stuck out in his mind.
He had tried to understand them and failed. Anger at being left behind, he understood. Same for envy at not being chosen. But how they related that to him being uncaring and condescending was beyond him. They’d even made it seem like he had planned the whole thing beforehand like he was sticking it to them by leaving and even questioned his motives and principles. At one point, there was a narrative where he had used them and relied on them to get the invitation. Valerian had tried to tell that he didn’t need to do that and that he was chosen because of his displayed skills and potential not on the basis of any group activity but that only made it worse.
Perhaps this was what Captain Walters had meant when noted him as being distant and having problems communicating with others. Valerian sighed, pulling himself loose from his thoughts.
“How long are you going to stand there”, he asked.
“You seemed pensive”, Pugio said stepping out of the shadows and into the moonlight to stand next to Valerian. “I didn’t want to interrupt whatever process you have going on.”
“Don’t worry”, Valerian said, forcing a smile. “I’m not cooking up any plans. I just can’t sleep.”
“Travel jitters?” Pugio asked.
“Something like that”, he answered.
“That’s alright. So long as you don’t drool in your sleep when we’re in the coach, we’re good!” the shifty youth told him.
“What are you on about?” Valerian asked in a puzzled tone.
“Well, we’re leaving in the morning, aren’t we?” he was asked.
“I am leaving in the morning”, Valerian clarified, stressing the ‘I’. “Not we, I!”
“Come on”, Pugio laughed. “You didn’t think I was going to let you go off on your own. I told you then, didn’t I? I’ve chosen you. You’re my lord.”
“That’s what this is about?” Valerian asked.
“Then you can rest easy”, he told the dark youth. “We are …friends, colleagues, nothing more. If anything, I am your commanding officer. I am not your lord. There are no oaths between us, no ties beyond this school. You can stay. There’s no need to come with me.”
Pugio’s face twisted, looking like he had swallowed something particularly vile and been sucker punched at the same time.
“I see…” he said.
“In that case”, he added, taking a knee.
“What are you doing?” Valerian asked in alarm. He grabbed at his friend trying to pull him up but Pugio shrugged him off, determined to kneel in front of him. Stimulating his qi so it rose to cover him, he knelt and swore fealty before Valerian’s stunned eyes.
“I Pugio, child of the fifth slaughter, shadowed dagger of the third rank, swear to you, before Verre itself, before my ancestors, before the spirits, by all I hold dear and by my very self to be faithful and true to Valerian surnamed Steelborn, son of Valiant and Scion of the House of Cragsveil.
“I swear to carry his will, to do obeisance without deceit to him and his heirs and never by will or force go contrary to him or his wishes. I will be his blade, bound by his principles and living in accordance with his laws for so long as he will have me and give me what I rightfully deserve”, he said solemnly.
Valerian looked down at him, suddenly aware that he had put his foot into something very troublesome. He’d had his suspicions but hearing Pugio confirm himself to be a shadowed dagger had turned them into fact. Watching his friend’s expectant face, he said nothing knowing that any word out of his mouth would only serve to deepen the pit he’d somehow fallen in.
Pugio remained kneeling, gazing at Valerian for several minutes. Not receiving the answer he wanted, he threw his head back and laughed. It was a terrible laugh, nothing like what Valerian was used to hearing from him. It was a gloomy sound, filled with forlorn desire. Valerian was startled by this show of emotion. Pugio had actual tears in his eyes. To Valerian’s shock, he pulled out his dagger and stabbed at his belly. Lucky for him, a strong hand clamped down on his forearm, arresting its movement and preventing him from committing suicide.
“You are crazy!” Valerian yelled at the dark youth. “You know that, right?”
Pugio smiled wryly, his face sad but resolute. “This must be finished one way or another.”
His message was clear. Valerian either accepted his oath or let him die in disgrace. On his part, Valerian wasn’t sure how to deal with that. Pugio was actually going to kill himself just because his oath had been ignored. It was insane! Surely, even he saw how crazy this was. However, when he looked at the kneeling youth, he saw that his eyes were clear, focused. He was even struggling to continue his suicide attempt.
“STOP IT!” he commanded him.
To his surprise, the boy actually stopped. However, he continued to stare at him, waiting.
“Why?” Valerian asked him. He needed to know. Why was he doing this?
“I have chosen you”, Pugio told him. “That might not mean much to you but it does to me. People think many things of the shadowed daggers. That we are; spies, thieves, assassins. What we truly are, are blades of service. We undertake assignments all over Bathar and in the surrounding countries but that service is only a stop gap to finding a true lord to serve. Finding such a lord is a desire that every shadowed dagger carries. There are things that go into that decision.
“First is the affinity between the chosen lord and the dagger. Second is the Lord’s skill and potential. No dagger would cut his or her path short by following a lord who clearly wouldn’t amount to much. Third, the dagger must submit to his or her chosen lord. The last is the Lord himself. A dagger may submit but it is the Lord who decides to wield. When a person refuses a blade, doesn’t that mean that the blade is useless? Wha…”
“I understand!” Valerian told him. He didn’t need him to finish, he had already gotten the gist of everything.
The choice was his. Would he accept Pugio? His friend. His squadmate who was also an assassin stroke spy slash thief and clearly in the middle of some strange assignment, a ‘service’, to use his own words, in Strapping’s. The shadowed daggers were a sect formed from the remnants of an ancient death cult. That alone was enough reason for Valerian to avoid anything that had to do with them but could he really sit back and let this person he had befriended kill himself?
“What do you rightfully deserve?” he asked, referencing the last words in the oath.
“A life in search of meaning and a death encountered in service!” Pugio told him.
Valerian sighed in defeat. There was no way he could reason with someone who gave such a line as if it was a valid response.
“Let’s start over!”
Pugio hastily repeated his oath, to which Valerian responded, “I, Valerian, son of Valiant, Surnamed Steelborn, Scion of the House of Cragsveil ask the heavens, the earth, the numen and Verre itself to bear witness as I accept Pugio, child of the fifth slaughterer into my grace and favour. From this moment, I will be his lord. He will be my protector and I, his aegis. He will be my blade and I, his wielder. He shall serve none but me and I will hold him in good standing. I will…”
As he spoke, a strange calm settled over Valerian and slowly, he lost control. Words continued to tumble from his lips but they were not his own. His battle intent poured out only it did not coat Pugio like it normally would, it poured into him. Valerian caught himself slipping into a sort of trance but there was nothing he could do. He was locked in.
“Arise Pugio. You shall be my shadow, my blade. You shall cut down my enemies. For you, I give not death but service and for as long as you serve, the shelter of my wings and a domain in my skies!”
With these final words, Valerian found himself free again. He faltered, knees suddenly weak and his essence pool drained.
On the other hand, Pugio appeared reborn. A golden seed had appeared in his dantian and under the mantle of Valerian’s intent, translucent wings popped out of his back. He could sense that this special transformation was something he could only access when wrapped by his lord’s intent. It was a boon greater than any he had imagined. He had only just pledged himself and already rewards were flowing in. However, something told him that the golden seed was the true treasure here.
Flickering forward to catch his master before he fell, he grinned wildly. “I knew it!” he exclaimed. He’d always sensed that Valerian was special. This was proof.
Knowing that whatever had just happened had something to do with his peng abilities, Valerian hissed at his new vassal, “Speak of this to no one!” right before falling unconscious.
Valerian climbed into the private coach that had been arranged for him looking like someone recovering from an illness. He had been fatigued before that, whatever it was, happened with Pugio but after, he felt like not even sleep would do him any good. Not unless he was allowed to sleep for a week. The vassal in question hung at his side, looking at him worriedly. Valerian waved him off, climbing into the carriage under his own power.
“Remember what we discussed”. he reminded the dark youth.
“I will finish my last assignment, tidy up matters with the daggers and come straight to your side”, Pugio said repeating his orders. “I have already sent word that I have taken service under a lord. They’ll know not send more assignments. All will be done when my task at Strapping’s is complete.”
Not for the first time, Valerian found himself wondering just what task he was undertaking. He tossed all thoughts about that aside. The shadowed daggers were led by the Seventh Protector of the Realm. A man in service to the King himself or so Pugio told him. Whatever assignment he was on was something that made him cross unspoken lines and operate in the territory of Lord Strapping, the Fifth Protector. It was something Valerian wasn’t stupid enough to touch and the reason he had been reluctant to accept Pugio in the first place.
“And the other matter we discussed?”
“There is no other matter, master!” Pugio said with a straight face.
“Good!” and with that Valerian leaned back and let his new vassal see him off.