The ceremony was drawing to a close. The champions had been hailed, the prizes given and the speeches said. The spectators had cheered themselves tired and hoarse and even the music troupes were weary. A few pompous officials were still trying to get their say in, but the Steelborn Arena was fast emptying. As with most official programmes, the majority of the people had left before the closing time, making their way over to the inns, and taverns to continue the festivities. The Zebre was done.
Valerian was also ready to leave. His grandfather was throwing a feast to celebrate his victories, and everyone who mattered was already there. Now if his grandfather could just manage to get away.
He turned his gaze towards him. The magistrate was engaged in conversation with some other gents. The only one Valerian recognised was the head of the county’s Guild of Array Masters. They were talking quite animatedly but even with his superb hearing, Valerian could not make out what they were saying. He didn’t have to though. It wasn’t a hard thing to guess. They were talking about him.
“I wonder what kind of offers they are making grandfather?” he asked out loud.
The question drew the attention of the others, momentarily causing them to turn away from his uncle Vorm and his recounting of his own Zebre victories. He had been working and succeeding at proving to have had more victories than Richard when they were younger. However the words trailed from his mouth as as one they all turned to look in the direction of Valerian’s gaze.
“I know Guildmaster Serun has been trying to have you come over and register as a member of the Cragsveil branch at least. I’m not sure about the other three young masters”, Avery quickly answered.
Valerian’s eyebrow quirked at this. “Register? He is going through all this trouble just to get me to register?”
He could scarcely believe it. He had been expecting the old man to take him as his apprentice or something. With him being the youngest array master the kingdom had had in the current age it stood to reason that some of the higher-ups would try to pull him into their circle. Being chased after just for an official registration was honestly, a little underwhelming. His feelings on the matter must have been obvious because his uncle, Jonas spoke up to clarify the issue.
“It is a more important issue than you realise Valerian. While the DaleGuard Branch may have confirmed your status as an array master no formal ties exist, either with you or with me, your tutor, coming from a school not directly under royal oversight. If you register with them though, things will be different. You will be recognised as a member of the greater Cragsveil Branch meaning that they, the Cragsveil branch have produced an array master who is not only the youngest array master in the last two ages but also youngest ever to become a circle master of three attributes,” Jonas explained.
“The influence alone that will bring the local association not to mention the prestige… It is something worth begging for and Uncle Valan knows it. That’s why he has been stringing Guildmaster Serun along,” he added with a wicked grin.
“Of course he would!” Vorm laughed. The others merely smiled.
“Old Serun has been doing a lot more than that though,” Jonas continued. “He is representing the Royal School of Array masters and Artificers in their negotiations to secure you as one of their students in the coming year. Whoever the others are, suffice it to say that they are involved in the negotiations as well.”
Richard nodded in agreement.
“Negotiations? For school? How and when did that happen?” Valerian asked incredulously as he spun around to face his family. He was justified in doing so. When have schools ever come to negotiate with students for admission instead of the other way around?
“It happened while you were on your hunting trip, Valerian”, his grandmother answered. “After having stirred the people up with your debut, your grandfather had the brilliant idea of enticing all the interested parties to come forth and explain why we should ‘consider them’. Since then, the different groups have been trying to outdo each other, under the assumption that the winner would get you. Your victories in the Zebre have only made them more desperate”.
“That’s… “ he left hanging.
“I know dear,” his grandmother admitted. “Valan might have out done himself this time. Additionally. he is having quite a bit of fun.”
“I can imagine,” Valerian said. He really could. The magistrate delighted in such games. Having all those important people hanging off his every word, that would tickle him into delirity.
Still, he was doing everything for his benefit so Valerian could not complain. There were some things he wanted to know though.
“Who else is involved in these negotiations?” he inquired.
His grandmother smiled and pulled him closer so she could speak beside his left ear. “The man in full military dress is Major Linus T. Goebunor representing the Royal Military Colleges. Next, to the RSAA they are the top contenders. Right behind him and also the youngest of the group is from the Eight Hills?
Valerian couldn’t help but start. “Eight Hills?”
“Yes Valerian, that Eight Hills,” his grandmother confirmed with a small laugh.
There was no one in Bathar who did not know about the Eight Hills. It was one of the most prestigious schools for cultivators in the entire country. Full name, The Royal Eight Hills Institute, it was a school directly backed and managed by the royal family itself making it different from all the other royal associations which while carrying the royal name belonged more to the kingdom than the family itself.
“They are offering you a spot in their Class A, array masters’ class.” his grandmother added.
Valerian considered the offer. It was just a spot but it was a spot in the Eight Hills and for Class A no less. It was more than worth it. They knew they didn’t have to offer more. Valerian was already tempted to accept.
“There was also a missive from Marrbisi Academy doing same. Unfortunately for them, they don’t seem to have anyone in the surrounding area who can act as representative for them. Until they actually send someone over your grandfather has put them at the back of the list and made sure they know it”, his grandmother added.
Valerian wanted to protest on their behalf. It was Marrbisi Academy, you know! It was the first ranked school in the kingdom. Just beating out Eight Hills for the top spot. He held his tongue though. He understood what his grandfather was trying to do. Besides, there were other schools. So, instead, he asked, “And the other two?”
“The man cradling the spindly staff”, his grandmother pointed out. “He is from the Ivory Spire Mage Institute. They are offering you a place not just in the Bathar Branch but also with sponsorship to their headquarters should you accept.”
Ivory Spire! The name rang in Valerian’s head like a church bell. Eight Hills, Marrbisi, and Ivory Spire. He had the full set. The three best schools for cultivators in the kingdom all wanted him to choose them. Still, Ivory Spire. That was one of the best schools in the region. Eight Hills and Marrbisi were good but Ivory Spire was one of the premier schools of the Theodorian Magocracy. The fact that one of the branches roamed the top three in their own kingdom was more than enough proof of how good they were. All this and they were offering to sponsor further studies in their main school.
“I am beginning to understand why the others are so desperate now”, Valerian exclaimed.
Bathar was allied with the Theodorian Magocracy. However, whilst Bathar merely occupied the seventh spot in the rankings of the Empires subordinate nations, the Theodorian Magocracy was ranked second. Plus, as the name suggested it was a nation where arcanists, or mages as they were better known there, filled the positions of power. It was a nation steeped heavily in the arts and dreams of many an arcanist. Their knowledge of the field was so extensive that in some areas they were superior to even the empire.
Bathar and The Magocracy were staunch allies. Nonetheless, its officials weren’t going to simply sit aside and watch as one of their talents was basically picked up and taken away. That was why they were putting in so much effort. They feared that if he went to the `Magocracy he might never return and thus they were trying to entice him to stay.
“So, are these all the ‘parties’?” he asked his grandmother.
She smiled sweetly and replied, “For the most part, yes! Your grandfather made it clear that he wanted no groups who weren’t at least national in scope. It helped cut down the number to more manageable levels.”
There was a snort from the side. Valerian glanced over at Vorm who chuckled unapologetically before saying, “Honestly, I think Uncle Valan overdoes it sometimes. He might have succeeded in getting the big fish biting but is he sure he can handle the consequences? Like it or not, only one of them will get something to eat. What will he do about the ones left with empty stomachs?”
His aunt laughed. “I wouldn’t worry about that Vorm. Your uncle knows what he is doing. This isn’t his first time. Those fish will eat each other before even thinking of pulling him in!”
“I sure hope so”, Vorm stated. “The Military College is getting more desperate as the days go by. You wouldn’t believe how many courtesy calls I’ve received over the last two weeks. All of which ended up hinting at me to help my uncle and nephew make a good choice for King and country. Some even offering bribes”
“Really Uncle Vorm?” Valerian asked worriedly.
His uncle merely gave him a pat on the shoulder before telling him, “Don’t worry about it boy! They can’t really do anything. At least not to me and definitely not in DaleGuard. I’m just worried that the resentment would linger. Powerful figures do not like being refused. Some of these people have very long memories, and grudges don’t require much space to be kept. Past resentments may re-emerge at some point, and never at a good time. It’s never good to make too many enemies Valerian, remember that.”
Valerian nodded, seriously considering his uncle’s words.
“I guess this would be a good time for me to tell you all that my old institute has been trying to get me to negotiate on their behalf”, Jonas announced.
Stunned by the news, they all turned to him.
“I told them no of course!” he quickly added. “They offered me a position as a senior instructor as well as sponsorship for further education in an imperial university they are affiliated with. They offered a similar deal to Valerian. Along with the opportunity to directly study under our grandmaster himself as one of his disciples.Their reasoning was that as your tutor I would be able to sway your decision.”
“However my refusal didn’t go over well”. He mentioned softly. Deliberately, they all chose to not to glance in Vorm’s direction. He, on his part, tried not rub his victory in their faces.
“I was reminded that they were the ones who trained me and that any teachings I gave you were in turn, teachings of the institute. Seeing how swiftly they resorted to coercion, I protested their methods. As a result, I have long since severed my ties with my alma mater.”
The mood instantly turned sombre. “Oh dear! Why didn’t you tell us earlier?” Clara inquired.
“I didn’t want to trouble you Auntie”, Jonas replied. “Besides, I am an adult now. I am perfectly capable of handling my own affairs.”
His aunt huffed but said nothing, ceding the point. Valerian however did, “I- I am sorry Uncle Jonas. I didn’t-”
His Uncle stooped over him, cutting him off. “Hey! It was nothing you did Valerian. You know that, don’t you? The institute had begun to think they owned me. It was best that I shattered that delusion.”
“But what will you do now?” Valerian asked.
“You don’t have to worry about that” Jonas assured him. “I trained a genius you know!” he exclaimed. The small joke made everyone smile.
“Right now, my tutoring skills are in high demand. It almost makes me feel sorry for my former institute. I was one of their best Second Circle masters. My status hasn’t changed. Rather, my current lack of attachment is causing many to trip over themselves to hire me. Not as much as you, I know, but I must say I like the attention. I’m just not sure whether to take an offer or hold off on employment and instead return to my studies. Maybe I can do both,” he ended.
Valerian was quiet. It seemed things were bigger than he thought. He hadn’t even known about the negotiations, even though he was the subject. Moreover, his family was being pressured as a result. Vorm was a commander in the army, not to mention a powerful cultivator in his own right. He could handle himself. Avery had barely left his side and so had yet to encounter such offers, but Jonas had already lost his place in his institute and Richard…
Apparently, he was not the only one to pick up on the fact because not even half a second later his grandmother’s voice rang out.
“Richard!” she called out. “If they are really going around trying to coerce us individually, I can’t imagine they’d ignore you. Who approached you?”
Again, as one, everyone turned to stare at the only person who was completely silent during the discussion. Richard stood there nonchalant. Understanding that the question was only an enquiry and not an accusation.
“Two colleagues from my time in the army, one artificer from the royal association, three manservants from noble households trying to get me to pass along engagement contracts, one overly arrogant enchanter whose master wished to take Valerian as a disciple and quite a few spies who tried to sneak into the compound. Apparently, they felt going through the guard would be easier, and failing that a few tried to either threaten or slip by me”, he simply stated.
Then a dark smile split his face. “Rest assured that they now know not to do so again.”
It only took a moment of stunned silence before they all burst into laughter. The absurdity of someone trying to bribe or threaten Richard was not lost on them. Valerian only wished he was there when Richard trounced them. He didn’t have to worry for Richard’s sake. Only for those who made the mistake of crossing him.
Once the laughter subsided his grandmother said. “Valan will have to be apprised of the situation if he doesn’t know about the specifics already. Ah! Who knew school could be so much trouble?”
Valerian shook his head somberly. Surely not him. He was still having a hard time believing the degree to which things had escalated. He just hoped his grandmother was right and his grandfather could handle it.
“I don’t envy you, boy,” Vorm said to him. “You’re the one who will have to make the final decision.”
Valerian felt like grabbing his head in grief. Were they really going to just drop everything into his lap in the end? How would he decide? Eight Hill, Ivory Spire, RMC… each school was great. All of a sudden he frowned. Then he went over the list of schools again. His expression drew notice from his family. His grandmother quickly asked.
“What’s the problem, Valerian?”
“Nothing!” he told her. “I just realised that none of you mentioned the major tellurian schools.”
Realisation dawned on their faces. It was true. All the schools so far were either for both paths or for arcanists only. Even the ones that offered tuition for both cultivation paths only offered him admission into their arcanist programmes. Valerian actually felt like a fool for seeing it sooner.
“Valerian…!” his grandmother begun. “I am afraid that you simply set the bar too high with your array mastery. Even your battles in the Zebre were mostly resolved with your arcane abilities. On the other hand…”
“I know grandmother”, he said to her. “I know”
She didn’t have to say it. Valerian already knew. He was a genius arcanist. His tellurian abilities were sub-par in comparison. Additionally, he did not doubt that influential, prestigious schools like that did not already know about his former cursed status, and all the resources he had been forced to consume to advance his tellurian cultivation. He couldn’t blame them for not considering him with that in mind. It still hurt though. Having a major part of himself, something he had worked so hard at, simply disregarded in that manner was more painful than Valerian could have imagined.
“It is good you know”, his grandmother told him. She never coddled him. Continuing she added, “They have made their choice and soon you will make your own. All that stands after that is where and how far you will go. If they cannot see your talent, that’s on them. By the time that they realise their mistake they will be unable to rectify it but only if you….”
It took a moment for Valerian to realise that she had been distracted by something behind him. She wasn’t the only one, his uncles were too. Spinning on his heel, he tried to see what it was that did so. He didn’t have to try hard.
A young man walked towards them, clad in the signature robes of a Stormhawk priest. Two clan elders walked at his sides, escorting him. The Stormhawk priest drew a lot of attention. Besides his robes, there was his hair which was styled such that his forelocks rose sharply into the air before falling, unassisted and unbound, behind his head in a sort of ponytail. It was an emulation of the Stormhawk’s own feathery crest.
Compared with the average Steelborn, the priest looked a bit diminutive but you wouldn’t know it from looking at him. He walked with an easy confidence and assurance in his open power and authority. Additionally, he was swathed in a particular aura. One Valerian couldn’t place but it stood out all the same. It stirred something inside him, especially when he felt the man’s condescending gaze.
His immediate instinct was to reach out and smack the self-confident smirk off the man’s face for daring to flaunt himself in front of him. Valerian was unfamiliar with the urge but it seemed right. Somehow, the man was an affront to his sensibilities. His aura felt disrespectful, but for the life of him, Valerian couldn’t figure out why. This was not the first time he met an arrogant elder but this was definitely the first time he felt this way about one right off the bat.
The man stopped a few feet in front of their party and proclaimed imperiously, “Valerian Steelborn, you have been summoned before the Stormhawk!”
Welcome everyone to Book Two: Fledgling!