Okay….I’m throwing this out there. Who here has a suitable discussion topic? It can be about the mystery in the recent chapters (even this one) or something form as far back as BK I, CH 1: The Magistrate’s Grandson. We’ve already had reader suggested topics for DC/RH. It’s about time we do same for HoGW.
Chapter Seventeen: Lady Bloodworth’s Gamble
Lillian Bloodworth flew slowly through the air, her old form an insignificant speck in a sky set aflame by the setting of the sun. She sighed at its beauty. It was a sight that never got old. The reds, oranges and golds that dyed the sky and clouds were like an expansive flame. As someone who had drawn from this very phenomenon for her techniques, the Queen of Flames felt very connected to it.
It was a strange habit but despite her position, she was not one for carriages and entourages. There were not many people she trusted to accompany her and a traumatic experience from her past made it hard to see vehicles with enclosed spaces as anything other than an invitation to assassins. A woman with an incredible network of contacts she nonetheless walked Verre alone. Moving silently from place to place, coming and going without much fuss. It was much harder to identify and follow a plainly dressed old lady, even one that flew, than it was to identify and ambush a high ranked field marshal with a full retinue. Unless of course, you were already accustomed to her habits.
“Mind slowing down for a chat, Martial Aunt?” the figure behind her asked.
She obliged, slowing down enough that he caught up in an instant.
“What is it you want, Allworth?” she asked.
“Don’t be like that, Auntie!” the Headmaster of Marrbissi teased. “I just wanted to come and discuss the details of the trials with you.”
“Hmph!” she snorted. It was unladylike but it did not look like she cared and neither did the man beside her.
“Fine!” Allworth confessed. “I just wanted to leave the Board meeting early. The Patriarch might have closed it but they never let things end that easily. They would just wait for you two to leave and then start badgering me with demands.”
“Thanks for putting that upstart in his place”, he added. “When I do it, everyone acts like I am abusing my authority. It made today’s meeting much more interesting than most. That and a few other matters.”
Shooting the old lady a look, he ventured, “I cannot remember the last time so many seniors were present at one of those meetings. Even the Patriarch came. They were also much more active and vocal than usual.”
“And why would they not be?” Lady Bloodworth said, finally speaking. “They all came to confirm the news with their own eyes and ears. I am sure that they would throw feasts when they return to their homes now that they now that the rumours are true. I am dying. In two or three decades they would no longer have to worry about me.”
“I’m sure it is not like that”, Allworth tried to defend only to change his mind after seeing the look she shot him.
“Okay”, he yielded.
“There might be a bit of that. However, they seemed more concerned with your new apprentices than they were with you. Even the Patriarch was the same. My guess is they wanted to confirm that you were planning on passing down the Grand Order of the Five Phases, are you?”
The old lady said nothing but Allworth knew her well enough to know he was right. This caused him to sigh. “Your apprentices are in for a lot of trouble then, inheriting the kingdom’s most infamous small scale formation. I am already unable to predict how the trials would turn out. This time even the Patriarch was stirred.”
A small twitch in Lady Bloodworth’s facial expression caught his eye as he spoke causing a startling realisation.
“It can’t be!” he exclaimed. “You two planned all that.”
Seeing no reason to hide it, she revealed the truth to her martial nephew. “Piersym could care less about the formation or who I pass it to. His only concern is that it remains in the academy. Any person I teach, especially those who are introduced as they have been, is undoubtedly one of our people. Even if they are not fully so yet, they will be when I am done with them.”
“Then, why the trials? Given who was at the meeting… your chosen could easily end up replaced by people from…” Allworth began before his mouth closed as he answered his own question. “The entire thing is a trap. You are hoping to stir some hidden parties into acting. Who? The royal family? The nobles? The military would not be able to organise anything on such short notice so they are out. Your rivals in the guardians? Is there some Wherry aligned faction I do not know about?”
“You are over thinking it, Allworth”, his martial aunt admonished. “It was cute when you were little, not so much now. The worrying is a distraction not to mention, wasteful. It does not matter who stirs at the news. All we are concerned with are the reactions and the chatter; seeing which people start talking and who they talk to. Then, we note those who actually act and what moves they make.”
“It is a big risk, Aunt”, Allworth said in a composed tone. “You cannot control the reactions not to mention your apprentices are wholly unprepared for what you are demanding. You risk letting them, whoever they are, plant someone in your team. Why this unnecessary gamble?”
The old lady pondered the question for a while unsure of how much to say. “I know you do not want to keep hearing this but I will die soon, Allworth. Not even my vitality flame can keep me alive much longer. My longevity is spent and no matter how close I have gotten in the past, I have no chance of making it to the next tier before my death knell. It is best I take care of my affairs before then at least then, you and the others will not be as burdened when I am gone.”
Allworth’s face hardened. “You are trying to lure them out? The ones who killed Teacher and the others? Do Augustus and the others know what you are planning?”
Lady Bloodworth sighed, suddenly looking even older than she did before. “They are not the only ones. I have made many enemies in my time. My life feuds and grudges stretch far indeed. One thing I do not want is to have you and the others continue to fight battles I started even after I am gone. Also, you pointed it out yourself. The Grand Order of the Five Phases is too precious. The number of people who covet it and the ones who wish to see its line of inheritance cut off…”
Sighing again, she said, “Piersym and I have known each other all our lives. For that reason, he has full confidence in me; that my students will win, that my plans can succeed. Can you do same?”
Allworth did not even need to consider it. He nodded solemnly, saying, “You do not have to do this alone. If there is anything you need…”
His martial aunt put her hand on his arm with a small smile, her worn face revealing some of its former beauty with that simple action. Sentiments conveyed she turned and continued her journey, flying towards her manor.
“I think I might tag along a little bit, in the shadows of course”, Allworth suddenly revealed. “I am interested in seeing those chosen to inherit the wills of Marrbissi’s Five Star Reachers, especially the construct mage that will be taking my master’s place. I only hope your apprentices do not get too upset at being used as bait. Will you even tell them?”
The sound of Lady Bloodworth’s laughter rang in the clouds.
Back in Lady Bloodworth’s Manor
Valerian sat on his new bed in his new room. Avery stood at his side, silent but mindful of his young master’s state and what a state it was. For the first time in recent memory, Valerian found himself feeling unsure. He was troubled. Elbows on his knees, hands covering his face, he fought back the niggling sensation in his mind that told him he had made a huge mistake. Where his grandfather, here the old man would have certainly told him off for his poor posture but he was not. Valerian was on his own and it was nothing like he had imagined it.
This was supposed to be a done deal. Show up at the kingdom’s most prestigious academy. Get accepted as the legacy apprentice of its most renowned teacher and alumnus. Get started on his path to his dreams. However, the reality was markedly different. His teacher was nowhere to be found. There were other people claiming his spot and he had no idea what was going on. It was all too likely that he might soon be going home with nothing to show for it. He who had given up so much to get here.
Only now did Valerian realise that he had given everything to be Lady Bloodworth’s legacy apprentice. All those schools, all those opportunities and he had picked Strapping’s. He put all his eggs in one basket. Valerian felt the very rare urge to curse. It had just struck him how much he owed his grandfather for how well that decision had gone. The magistrate had orchestrated things behind the scenes. Ensuring that he got deal for selling away those thirty years. He had put in place safety net after safety net many he was currently unaware of, gone through the trouble of blackmailing a Major, all for him and he had tossed it all way.
He had a good life at Strapping’s; authority, prestige, opportunities, the very building blocks for fashioning his aims and above all, a team he had come to trust. That was gone now. It had looked so cut and dry then. The chance to be the inheritor of one of the greatest cultivators in Bathar. It was even sanctioned by the Patriarch, given the full backing of the clan. Sadly, that was all it was a chance. He had given up the certainty of his former position to chase maybes. He wanted to laugh at himself. ‘A bird in the hand…’ some part of his mind taunted. Five alleged apprentices. Valerian was not a fool. He understood that anyone capable of catching that old lady’s eye would not be simple. The realisation caused him to clench his fists tightly.
Resting his chin on them, he took it all in. Soon his doubts cleared and he came to a conclusion. He could not afford to lose. Words his uncle once told him rang in his mind. “If you cannot bear to lose then make sure you do not.” A sharp look appeared in his eyes and his entire demeanour changed. He still was not sure what was going on but he did know one thing. He had not come all this way to go back with nothing. If there truly was some competition or test then he was surely going to win it. Even if he had to crush the other four underfoot to do so.
Just then, a knock was heard at the door. Avery went to answer it.
“Excuse me, sir. Could you please inform Master Steelborn that the Mistress is in and wishes to see him immediately?” a servant said.
Avery nodded and ignoring the servant’s small curtsy, he stepped aside and opened the door, revealing Valerian on his feet and walking over with a serious expression on his face. It was time to see what this was all about.