Valan Steelborn’s ability to keep a party going was not as great as say his organisational skills or his writing and it paled greatly when held up to his predilection for deductive logic and his gift at dialectics. Even so, he thought it a little insulting that the party broke right when he arrived. He tried to get everyone to stay but apparently, half the food had been eaten and the presents had already been given. There just wasn’t much reason to stay longer.
He supposed that the fact that Richard was still avoiding him after the chewing out he’d given him or the fact that he and Valerian were sure to confront the issue of him going to Strapping’s at this party, organised as a send off to that same place. At least, he would if he wasn’t actually Valan Steelborn. Predilection for deductive logic, remember? He couldn’t blame them though.
Truth be told, Valan was long over it. As much as he didn’t like it, the choice had been made. He wouldn’t hold something like that against them especially not against his own family. That was why Vorm, equally as culpable as Richard for the path Valerian had chosen, was still able to speak so freely with him. Now, if Richard and Valerian could stop hiding from and avoiding him, they’d see that he wasn’t angry and actually work through the issue.
That’s what Valan did anyway. He didn’t stamp his feet or skulk off when something didn’t go his way. He worked to make the best of it. Take this decision and its consequences that had so divided his family. He spent the better part of the last few weeks striving to made it not just the best alternative to his original plan but also secure his grandson’s best interests in the affair. Hence, the matter with Major Berkeley and his frequent tussles with the Elder Council.
Would he have preferred to send the boy off to a school where his individual talents would actually be appreciated, where he could actually learn something under the tutelage of a venerable and respected Master of Arrays, with easy access to great tellurian cultivation methods and people to teach him? More importantly, would he rather have Valerian nowhere near the grubby fingers of the unfortunately well-preserved ancients on the Greater Council? Another emphatic yes.
He hated those grizzled old folks and they way they could look at their own kin and only see calculated investment and estimated profit. As for their plan to achieve regional dominance through military might that was currently the first, second and third cause of death among Steelborns, it was obvious proof that their metallic brains had begun rusting. He’d been against that initiative since that ‘briefing’ fifty years ago. Thank the Heavens, the other agenda had finally taken off. Let them focus their attention on that instead of their other stupid plans.
However, that was not why he was here today. Like it or not his grandson would be leaving in the morning. He had to put in a presence at his send-off party. He couldn’t let Valerian leave thinking he was still mad at him or worse. Valan waved the boy over. Given how far pretences had already fallen he’d probably be forgiven if he cut to the chase just this once. Clara gave his hand one final squeeze as well as a kiss on his cheek before leaving him. Already choosing a room, he stepped out of the parlour and made for the study. Valerian quietly followed.
Reaching the chosen venue, Valan held the door open and directed his grandson to his seat. The action was so nostalgic it left both of them thinking back to happier times. When a younger Valerian sat in that very same chair whilst his grandfather expounded on various topics. Those days were gone now. Valerian was headed for a different form of schooling, where things wouldn’t be as private and peaceful.
The two stared into awkward silence for several minutes until Valan gained the courage to speak.
“Valerian”, his grandfather begun. “I know what you must think now; of me, of yourself and of this whole mess. I admit, it was…difficult for me to accept your decision at first but I understand where you’re coming from and what you hope to gain by this. I apologise for my reaction to it all and ask that you forgive me. I just want you to know that I support you and that it matters little to me which school you go to. Only that you be happy and that you stay safe.”
Valerian stared for few more seconds. That had sounded even more rehearsed than the old man’s speeches usually were but he didn’t care. It showed just how much effort the old man had put into this…? Come to think of it, Valerian wasn’t sure what this was. He had run through it many times in his head but it had always been him apologising. He was the one who had gone against the old man’s wishes. He was the one who had caused this mess. He was the one leaving his family behind.
“No grandfather”, He said emotionally, rising to his feet. “I am the one who should apologise. I am the one who has not been understanding. I directly disobeyed you when I knew you only had my best interests at heart. I am sorry.”
“I know you mean well and that you have genuine misgivings and reasons for not wanting me to go to Strappings and yet tomorrow I will leave. It is selfish, I know that. I’m being uncaring towards you and grandma and putting myself at unnecessary risk. Even so, let me be selfish this once. I will not fight you on this but I would like to travel down this path and see where it leads. I believe it’ll take me somewhere great. Make me something you’ll be proud of one day. I just pray that you understand”, Valerian ended.
Valan looked at him, this young boy he’d raised. A boy who had gone from sleeping in his arms to clutching his trouser leg and was now looking him in the eye. Valerian was fifteen now and already nearly his height. Perhaps it really was time to stop treating him like a child and let him make his own decisions like Clara said.
“Very well, I will not fight you on this either. I’m satisfied that you understand my endeavours on your behalf. I already know I cannot stop you. The Heavens know I tried with Richard and Vorm to no avail. Just promise me this. When you’re out there, your number one priority will not be power, fame, the clan or whatever it was that drove you to this. It will be yourself and your safety. Make sure that whatever you do, you’ll consider that first. I cannot stress this enough Valerian. No matter what happens, no matter what you have to do, you must protect yourself. You must come back home!” Valan said to him, his usually composed voice growing louder near the end.
Valerian nodded emphatically. “I promise grandfather!”
“Good!” the man acknowledged. “Now, I guess it is my turn to give you a going away gift. Well, I have it here.”
Taking out a large file and a satchel he placed them on the table for Valerian to look through. Curious, the young boy did so, his disbelief growing as he read the file and checked the satchel’s contents.
“This…, he started. “How did you?”
“How?” Valan repeated with a smile. “With some difficulty but that doesn’t matter. I can now feel assured that you’ll be safe.”
Valerian checked the satchel again, not believing his eyes. Picking up the file he went through it one more time. In it was listed everything in the satchel as well as the presents it could not contain. One surprise was that it made mention of the fact that his grandfather had been able to negotiate with a military official to give him many of the same benefits he would have enjoyed had he gone to one of the prestigious Royal Military Colleges. It made no mention of the means by which he ‘coerced’ Major Berkeley but did the promised extra officer’s training and the like.
The second major surprise was on the clan. His grandfather had somehow gotten them to commit to sending him cultivation resources three times a semester. The list of resources was listed and each one of them was pricey, to say the least. They were also highly effective. There was an increased allowance of five hundred silver florins and 50 essence stones. a tenth of which were metal and wind attributed. Valerian made note of the fact that there were no cultivation pills.
‘Good!’ he thought.
He’d come to detest the stuff due to his previous method of tellurian cultivation. There were, however, several medicinal pills and salves as well as incense for meditation in addition to talismans that held healing qi. The things that drew his attention though were the material for attunement and the defensive equipment. Taking a glyph inscribed amulet out he held it out to his grandfather.
“I don’t understand. I thought recruits couldn’t bring in noble gear”, he questioned.
“Well that’s not exactly true”, his grandfather said with a small smile. “I’ve gone through the rules. They only say that no recruit may wield equipment greater than his or her tier. Since they normally recruit consolidated first tiers it is interpreted as ‘no weapons noble tiered or above’. However, there are older recruits in their second or third years who are Lord tiered. They are allowed to bring in and use them then.
“Additionally, that is not a noble artefact. It is merely an amulet that possesses defensive properties on par with the noble tier. It is also a consumable, only capable of blocking five attacks before it is rendered useless. You might not be allowed to wear it during practise or training sessions but they cannot stop you from carrying it with you on missions as an extra protection”, he added.
“Really?” Valerian inquired.
“Of course!” his grandfather told him. “If not their death rate would be much higher than it already is. Not to mention, a lot of nobles and wealthy heirs go to Strapping’s. Their parents and clans would never send them there if they didn’t have some means of protecting them.”
“I understand the need for protection but you got me three”, Valerian said, pulling out the other two. That meant fifteen protections on par with the shields of an Arcane Lord. “Is that not a bit much?”
“No!” his grandfather replied resolutely. “Not when your life is at stake.”
Valerian looked at the old man, touched by his love and concern.
“Furthermore, I cut a deal with a noble in the area, Baron Bismuth. There is a hundred league communication talisman with his, mine, your grandmother, your uncles and Elder Foreson’s numbers contact signals recorded on it. Remember to reach out to him in case you need anything. He is a King tiered alumnus of the school; trustworthy and highly respected. I have full faith in his abilities.”
“I am not sure what to say”, Valerian admitted. The old man had put a lot of thought and effort into this. He was a bit stunned as to how far he’d taken things though. Coercing Major Berkeley and the Council were one thing but the price of the amulets alone and now this deal with a King tiered Baron, The price of everything was sure to be astronomical.
“Thank you grandfather!” he eventually managed.
“The old man smiled proudly. “Think nothing of it boy.”
That night when everyone had retired to their quarters and Vorm had gone home. Valerian walked out of his room and went to the side of the estate. There was a small rock garden there that served as the home and training ground of his grandmother’s daemons. At least, that’s what it was intended as. Sela preferred to bask on the manor roof and Fuooh rarely, if ever, left her place around his grandmother’s shoulders. It had ended up belonging solely to Pan and Gulsama who had split it between them.
Walking between two particularly tall obelisk-like rocks, Valerian stepped into a wide open space with a floor of dense, hard packed dirt. Standing in the middle of it was his grandmother. She was brushing Gulsama who lay at her side. The old lady ignored him for a few minutes, choosing to continue brushing the leopard’s shiny coat. In the meantime, Sela swooped down from the sky and slithered over whilst Pan came out his cave and walked to them.
Valerian said nothing. He waited for everyone to gather and for his grandmother to acknowledge his presence. Gulsama purred contently from the attention paid to her. It was the only sound besides Pan’s loud breaths and the wind in the nearby trees. That is until his grandmother finally spoke.
“I knew I’d be the last person you’d talk to Valerian.”
“I could tell it would be a good night Grandmother. You always love those”, Valerian said calmly.
“True”, his grandmother said. “The stars are bright and clear. The night clouds have drifted elsewhere. I wonder who it is that needs their cover.”
“I think it less their need and more a recognition from the clouds of the undoings to come. They know to leave overseeing such tasks to the Heavens themselves”, was Valerian’s response.
His grandmother nodded but said nothing.
Valerian tried again. “Delrein is on the wax grandmother. Already it peeks out of Verre’s shadow.”
His grandmother paused. “Your eyes have become sharp Valerian. I remember when you weren’t this perceptive.”
“I have been taught well”, he replied.
“Mayhap you’ll keep those lessons when you leave on your journey”, she told him.
“That which is learnt is not so easily unlearnt. I have truly learnt what I have been taught and I am ready to make proper use of it. I’m sure to carry them till I meet the ancestors”, he responded.
“I see”, came her simple reply. “All the more reason to remind you to be cautious. The path you have chosen is not just unfamiliar. The bulk of your hunting will be men. Man is a beast more challenging than you may think. It would not do for you to meet the ancestors so soon.”
“I know that”, Valerian acknowledged. “Still, I am reaching a plateau. One which I cannot surmount in this wood. Not under this watch. Not constrained as I am. Certainly not when I am yet to prove my mettle. You think so too. If not you’d not have given the go-ahead then. Are you hesitating perhaps, now that the day is upon us?”
Clara smiled. “No! I’m not so sentimental yet. I just need to make sure you’re certain of the path you’ve chosen.”
“I am”, Valerian stated.
“You’ve gone over the possible dangers and spoils?” she asked.
“Which is greater?”
“You know your prey?”
“Any not me or mine.”
“Hmmm”, she intoned. “You might just be ready.”
Turning to face him, she held out a brush. “Come, join me. We’ll talk while we work. Afterwards, we’ll dissolve your pact and invoke the spirits on your behalf.”
Wordlessly, Valerian took the hard bristled brush from her hand and went up to Sela who hissed her congratulations to him. Holding it in his hands, he began to brush her rough scales. He smiled. Without the pact holding him back, he could finally cut loose. Soon he’ll be able to hunt without quarter.
He glanced back at his grandmother. Funny. Everyone thought he chose Strapping’s after listening to Richard and Vorm. True, they set the ball rolling and he had considered it when they spoke. However, it was a signal from this seemingly demure lady who had stealthily drawn his attention and given him an imperceptible nod that actually made him do so.