Valerian spun around to face her in shock. That couldn’t be right. His grandmother’s family were plains folk who bred and sold horses. While quite wealthy and well known among the plains tribes, they weren’t some secret ancient clan.
“Do you know anything about this?” Avery whispered at Jonas.
Jonas shook his head slowly.
Luckily, his grandfather jumped in to explain the issue. “Your grandmother’s clan, the Sapeiba’a are believed to be descendants of a lord named Zotkalam, who served as Master of Horse and Hunt for Na’abanwaa, third king of Bathar. That’s not quite three hundred thousand years but there is enough proof to suspect that Zotkalam himself was the scion of a noble house. One that certainly preceded the establishment of our kingdom.”
“That’s…” Valerian repeated, again at a loss for words. He just kept staring at his grandmother in shock and he wasn’t the only one. Jonas and Avery were the same, Vorm hid it better but he was surprised too. He knew they had a long history just not that long. Even so, Valerian was the most astonished. He had never known that.
Eventually, he asked, “Really?”
“Why Valerian, can’t I be the long-lost scion of an ancient clan too?” his grandmother asked teasingly.
“Anyway, there you have it”, the patriarch said to move things along. “There are some clans like your grandmother’s that have fallen from prominence but there are others that have not. The royal family is an obvious one but there are others that not even I can claim knowledge of. When our clan gained our peerage, we had no idea that we had only jumped out of our small pond into this ocean or that we’d be competing with these people. No! That is wrong. We are not competing with them. We remain beneath their notice.
“We sit in our fortress city and proclaim ourselves lords but the truth is that the House of Cragsveil has no real influence anywhere but Cragsveil. Even here, our rule is often contested how more less in the greater Bathar. Sadly, that’s where you’re going, Valerian, into Bathar. Do not make the mistake thinking that you are a talent or that you carry outstanding legacies. Among the great clans, there is none that does not have a better one. Three hundred thousand years is more than enough time to find or gain one. The peng blood you inherited might make you unique but there are other daemons and legends just as fierce and as powerful.
“In the city, they refer to you as a great guzzler of cultivating resources but I’m telling you today that there are youths who consume the equivalent worth of all you have used thus far every month. These are the people the great schools in Bathar were built to cater to. You wondered why the top schools only sent invitations. That is why. Do you think they did so because you are such a great talent? Think again. There dozens just as talented who apply only to get turned away. To them, there is only thing truly remarkable about you; the fact that you possess dual forces. That is why they are interested.
“The others who gain admission will be different. Many would have had their names in the school’s listings from birth. They’d have had, and continue to have, private tutors, and the resources necessary to fully make use of their school’s resources. For you see, Valerian, there is a great difference between the resources doled out as part of a student’s allowance and what is made available for purchase. If you go to Ivory tower or any of the other great schools you’ll find special remedial lessons, training grounds, training supplements, etc. that are there for students to purchase.
“Our clan is not like the others, we cannot help you with that. You may have the talent to compete with those noble scions but without those resources, you’ll soon fall behind. Think of your colleagues from Fang’s Grammar School. A few of them became cultivators soon after you did, others before. However, none are anywhere close to your level of cultivation or power and that is because none had access to the methods, resources, spells or legacies you do.
“That is why Strapping’s is different. That is why Richard told you Strapping’s is the place for people like us. People who will work hard but do not have the resources. Everyone is treated equally there. You’re all soldiers with no distinction being between the rich and those not so. There, your talent can truly speak for itself. Richard did not go to a ranking school. He went to one of far less standing and yet he knows what I am telling you from experience. Same with Jonas. Do you honestly think that an arcanist of his talent would really have such little standing with his institution? Do you know why he is so good at glyph creation and energy control? It’s because he did not have the standing to learn the truly powerful arrays and enchantments his institute has and could only busy himself with those subjects?”
Valerian glanced towards his uncle’s trying to confirm this news. Richard nodded to show it was true whilst Jonas merely looked uncomfortable. His grandfather, on the other hand, had finally found the opening he needed to jump in.
“Is that all? You came all this way, made this great entrance just to tell us that the clan cannot afford to send Valerian to the schools he wants to go? Well, rest easy father. We never factored in any contributions from the clan from the get-go. We understand full well your policies and we will do our part to steer clear just in case a day comes when you might need to pull the rug out from under us. So, thanks for your opinion and for communicating the clan’s wishes. You may leave now.”
Completely dismissing the man, he switched to Valerian and continued. “Listen to me Valerian, my father took care not to utter any lies knowing I was listening closely. But understand that he didn’t offer the full truth either. It is true that many schools do indeed provide additional materials on the side for those who can afford it and yes, a few go out of their way to milk it but understand that a quarter of a cow will always be bigger than a full lamb.
“Going to one of those schools and gaining access to the base resource allotment will be far better than going to a lesser school and getting all they have to offer. Besides, schools are overrated. Trust me when I say that. The best form of education for a cultivator is an apprenticeship. You gain one on one teachings and the opportunity to inherit your teacher’s legacies. In school, you’ll compete with your classmates. That is why those wealthier nobles pay for extra lessons. You would not need that with a master. On that note, I feel we should take a close look at the offer from the Earthen Obelisk. Being an apprenticeship in a top-ranking school, it should be our current focus especially since you’ll have some partial access and closeness to tellurian resources and learning materials.”
Valerian looked at his grandfather and then back at the Patriarch. Was the man really going to dismiss his father and continue on like nothing had happened? Watching the man talk on, Valerian realised that yes, he was. Despite the painfully clear dismissal, his great-grandfather was still standing there nonplussed. Clearly, he was used to it. The others were not. An uncomfortable atmosphere had descended on the gathering. He could make out Avery, Jonas and Vorm fidgeting awkwardly. His grandmother simply sighed indulgently.
“Hold on grandfather”, Valerian called out.
“Yes, what is it?” the man asked quietly.
“Valerian looked away from him to the patriarch, causing him to frown.
“There’s something you are not telling me. Something grandfather and Uncle Richard know of and Uncle Vorm is definitely in on. What is it?” he asked the man.
“Valerian!” his grandfather called.
“You know, I think we should leave”, Jonas suddenly announced. Avery nodded but didn’t budge, his eyes were still trained on the commotion in front of him.
“Why would you think that Valerian?” the patriarch said with a smile.
“You came here with some hidden stake. That’s the only explanation for grandfather’s reaction to your words. You only showed yourself when it seemed like I would refuse to go to Strapping’s. Vorm knows it that’s why he stressed on Strapping’s so much. Richard is aware of it but it is clear his reasons are not your own otherwise you would have let him finish when he was speaking. Not to mention, from the moment you appeared you kept referring to the clan. You even said you were here to communicate the clan’s opinion the matter”, Valerian rationalised.
“You and grandfather are very similar in how you skit an issue, steering someone to it without being direct. I will tell you something now, great-grandfather. I do not appreciate it. I’m not someone to be herded. Unlike you, I’ll be direct. If you don’t tell me what the clan’s stake is, I will definitely not go to the school” he declared.
“Valerian, listen to me”, his grandfather begun, but his wife placed a hand on his shoulder. They exchanged a few tense murmurs and he quietened.
This left Valerian in an intense stare off with his patriarch. Everyone watched them now. No one making a move or sound. Then unexpectedly, the patriarch smiled.
“I marvel at your mind, Valerian, being able to make the connections you have is a feat, you know. Alright, I’ll tell you”, he stated. “Remember all I said about our clan being a small, inconsequential power?”
“Well suffice to say, we are neither satisfied nor happy being a small time noble house left in the extremities of the kingdom, forever looking in but standing at the fringes. So, we aim to change that. However, our base is not stable. Our rule is often contested and our authority is not widely recognised. Thankfully, over the last few decades, we have made massive strides in securing Cragsveil completely under our rule.
“It has not been without obstacles and we have often stumbled or been stymied by some of the other powers in the region. Nevertheless, we have nearly succeeded. We estimate that the next generation, your generation will inherit our efforts. Our work will culminate in you becoming the true rulers of the land instead of being viewed as a foreign, invasive power like we were. It’s been a long road and even now we cannot truly be certain we will succeed. There are forces marshalled against us, Valerian. All of them determined to keep us away from our goal. But even as we work to secure our foundation, we must look to the future”, the patriarch said wistfully.
“You aim to go further”, Valerian grasped.
“Of course!” the man affirmed. “To stagnate is to regress and die, Valerian, remember that. Push forward whenever you can. That way if you fall, you’ll fall forward and not be dragged backwards. We’ve been spreading our sights for a while, establishing a name for ourselves. It’s helped with both our current agenda and in preparing for the next. That was the task set for your father’s generation. They were the ones truly encouraged to go beyond the borders of Cragsveil. We tried everything, sampling various pies and ventures.
“For instance, your father gained a position as a small-time diplomat, an official with quite a bit of reach. Jonas is part of the first batch of Steelborn Array masters to establish himself outside the region of our control, Vorm and Richard went into the military. Each travelling a different route. Richard, the often travelled, official route and Vorm, a specialist one. They and all the others have contributed greatly to our clan’s growth and exposure in Bathar.
“Since then, we have learnt quite a lot. First is that, like your grandfather said, for proper education in cultivating, getting a master is definitely better than going to a school. And yet, all the big clans send their children to schools in addition to getting them, private tutors. Do you know why? It’s because schools are only true places for networking and socialisation in Bathar. They send their schools not only for a wider range of learning but so their heirs can meet and form alliances. That is why getting into the right school is so important.
“Second is that different families or groups control different fields and the only way to get in on those fields is to either ally with them or become one of their subordinates. For example, your grandmother’s clan has a tight rein on all horse trade in North-eastern Bathar. They’ve completely cornered their territories and all dealers in it are subsidiaries of theirs. Any who try to compete with them are either taken over or forced out of business. Imagine that on a nationwide scale. Suffice to say that we are not good enough to ally with those powers and we do not want to subordinate ourselves to them.
“The third is that in order to gain influence or recognition in any area one has to display certain characteristics associated with it or have a history in the field. That is why your Clara’s clan specialises in horse trading. It is, historically, their go to business and with such an established history, in addition to their recorded feats and distant ancestor, they have been able to establish themselves as the line of horse breeders in the region.
“What does this mean for our clan? Well, as a new family that does not even have an extensive history in the area, we have no allies, no history in most of the fields and no relationship with the major schools or clans. But we do have something, me! My one feat of turning the tides in the Wherry Invasion back then set us up here. The decades that followed and the battles they held both internally and externally gave our clan the image of being great warriors. Our role in defending this vital border is uncontested and our reputation is growing.
“Without even knowing it, we gained the image of a military family. It was the only field we could consistently rise in. Plus, despite there being many great military families, none can corner or control it. The Royal Bathan Army is under the command and control of none other than the Royal Family and they will always welcome more subordinates. Considering that as a noble house we are already their subordinates, we felt that the army was the place to be. It has proved very profitable. Our reputation grows with each battle and mighty feat we accomplish and in with it our power and influence. Excluding you, every other talented youth in your generation is enrolled in one of the RMCs.
“Choosing to focus our efforts in the military was not a decision we took lightly but we did so anyway when we saw what we stood to gain. Understandably, not everyone agreed. Your grandfather is one of the dissenters. In his opinion, directing our young to the military is basically betting their lives in the hopes that they bring home some prestige. That we’ve effectively begun raising our children and orienting ourselves to feed the slaughterhouse that is the hopelessly protracted war against the Wherries. Even so, the results speak for themselves. We’ve seen Steelborns like Vorm break through ceilings into higher strata of society and the clan? Doing better than ever before”, he ended.
“You want me to join the army to help further the clan’s agenda?” Valerian summarised.
“Yes!” the old man admitted. “To be honest Valerian, you’ve got us all a little excited. Your talents, dual forces, array skills, legacies and intellect put you right up there with Ethan and we thought him to be a fluke. Before you, no Steelborn had ever received an invitation to a top ten school. However, to go there when you can cause a much greater impact elsewhere would be a waste. Initially, we wanted you to enrol in an RMC but hearing your discussion earlier reminded me of Strapping’s. Only four Steelborns have ever qualified for Strapping’s and one of them is here today. You’ve seen what it did for him and our family. You are far more talented than Vorm ever was and will surely reach higher heights. Do you not want to?” he questioned.
Valerian pondered on it. The sight of him even considering it caused the magistrate to speak up again. He had promised his wife that he would let Valerian start making his own decisions but he simply couldn’t stand by and watch.
“Valerian!” he called in a pained voice. “I know it sounds good but you’ve got to listen to me. It. Is. Not. Worth. It. Service to clan and country is all well and proper until you realise that you are being used as a disposable tool to be sacrificed for the clan’s glory. Believe me, there are no rewards. The clan knows no such thing. Only investments and returns. If ever the day comes that you no longer produce good returns, the clan will turn you out into the cold.
“Vorm was a good investment because he brought home great returns. Richard wasn’t because he got injured and his career ended before it truly began. You should have seen how the elder reacted when we went to claim benefits after Richard was injured, like his wounds were his fault. The same elder who praised him and encouraged him to sign up treated him like a failure and useless dependent. Even then, Richard had it better than most. What of the others that never came home, the ones sacrificed to make the clan great and strong? What of people like my brother, like Richard and Jonas’ father, like your father?
“We left the Wildlands because we couldn’t stand how many of our family we lost each year and yet now we are prepared to send them to die. The RMCs and the military have claimed just as many each year as living in the Wildlands ever did. As for Strapping’s? It’s much worse. He told you four Steelborns made it into the place, ask him what happened to the other three. Two are dead, the last rots in a Wherry detention camp as we speak. What of the one he did not tell you about? The one who died mysteriously during his time there?”
“Please Valerian!” the old man begged. There were actually tears in his eyes. “Please don’t go!”
Valerian looked at him, tracing the man’s image in his mind. He looked at his uncle and asked.
“Tell me your opinion Uncle”, he asked.
“Do not do it for the clan”, the man told him. “I suggested it because of you, for you! If you’re going, do it for that, for yourself. Ignore the clan. The intent is good, even I admit that but the elders in charge, Valerian… they are cold. Truly steel-hearted. They will sacrifice you if necessary but that shouldn’t be your focus. Your focus should be on your goals and bettering yourself. I said it earlier, Strapping’s can make you strong.”
“Richard! What are you saying?” his grandfather yelled.
“You think I can do it?” Valerian asked his uncle.
The scarred man forced himself to smile confidently, “I wouldn’t have suggested it if I thought there was even the possibility of failure. I have faith in you, Valerian. However, do not base your decision on me. Or on anyone else for that matter. The choice is yours to make. I’m with you either way.”
Valerian turned to his great-grandfather. The man had been very quiet, simply standing there and waiting expectantly. He ignored his grandfather’s plaintive attempts to catch his attention.
“Valerian, don’t do it. Please! Tell him no Valerian. Please, Valerian! Please!” the man called.
Valerian hardened his resolve. There was only one true choice. Strapping’s would make him strong and Delrein help him, he needed the strength. Not just for him but for all of them. The patriarch’s words had made something clear. There was a lot he was unaware of and the enemies he spoke of will always be there. The people who were suppressing them would not just go away. When the time came, he couldn’t be the one relying on them.
No! he had only one choice. No matter how much it hurt. For his dreams, for his family, there was really only one path for him to take.
“I’ll go to Strapping’s”, he told the patriarch.
Behind him, he heard his grandfather’s breath hitch and become laboured but to him, it might as well have been the old man’s heart breaking.
And now we gain some insight on what exactly the Steelborn Agenda is. What do you think of it? Is it worthwhile? Is the magistrate right and they are just sacrificing themselves vainly? Besides that, what do you think of Valerian’s decision. Let me know in the comments.
In other matters, I had hoped to end Part I of Fledgling in twelve to fourteen chapters with this particular portion only taking three. However, it’s taken four and for the life of me I cannot figure out why. I’ve gone over it and I guess I could have been a little less wordy in some parts but I wanted to make sure I explained things properly whilst keeping some (okay, a lot) of the human factor.
I have seen too many xianxia and fantasy stories simply say this is this because of that without stating the whys and I did not want to go down that road. Nonetheless, I fear I may have gone overboard. Maybe, I should cut back on the elaborations and feels? I think I have to learn to do this better in the future.