I’ve got a big announcement. We’ve met our first patreon goal. I honestly wasn’t sure this day would come (it has been over a year). Do you know what that means?
When payments clear on Wednesday, we’ll be having four chapters a week instead of three. Please join me to thank our beloved patrons who have made this possible. Calling them heroes could not be more apt. Funny, how it goes with the chapter title, doesn’t it?
Also, I’ve been falling off lately with respect to responses. I’ll step up. I’ll bee manning the site whilst I finally get to work on patreon.
Chapter Three: Patrons and Allies
“Isn’t it obvious?” the magistrate shot in. “Lady Bloodworth is old, and retired but more importantly, she’s unmarried, childless and wealthy. Her apprentices and commendations are all she has and everyone knows it. She also happens to have a controlling interest in the best school in the kingdom as well as top-level influence in the military.
“I’m sure my father is about to make some speech about your admission to Marrbisi is an opportunity and responsibility to help other members of the clan do same.” Staring the patriarch right in the face, he continued, “If not that then it would about how you need to cosy up to the lonely old lady and have her leave you something in her will. Additionally, there will definitely be a portion where every once in a while you will tearfully raise with your mistress the topic of how your clan and patriarch have always been trying to serve the kingdom but are restricted due to unfavourable politics. Please, correct me if I’m wrong father.”
The patriarch said nothing but it obvious to all that he was restraining himself at that moment. The man was good at controlling his expressions but no one at the table was a slouch either. The eyes he trained on the magistrate, in particular, were filled with anger.
“I understand your position here, Valan”, he said, taking on a sympathetic tone. “I couldn’t be more regretful that things between us have reached this point. Now, everything, even my good intentions are suspect.”
They kept quiet and listened to the man speak. “You are the same person who pointed out that some of our… overtures had negative consequences for the involved parties and the clan as a whole. I simply do not wish for that to happen in this case, especially with Valerian involved. I was merely hoping to give him some advice and let him know he has our support.”
The magistrate stared at his father as if asking if the man was joking. “Well, I am certain Valerian is very grateful for your oh so sincere wishes, father.”
Not missing a beat, Valerian pipped up, “You have my utmost thanks, Patriarch!”
The man looked around the table feeling exasperated. He just couldn’t win this. No progress had been made whatsoever. At one point, he glanced at Elder Allard as if asking for his support but to everyone’s surprise, the man ended up telling him off.
“Don’t look at me like that, Roland”, the gaunt man said. “Even a blind man would have seen this coming.”
In fact, he’d brought the matter up before they came over, asking how they were going to handle this very issue. Valan had removed himself from nearly all clan matters but he was sure to oppose them every step of the way so long as Valerian was involved and even more so if it was his father who proposed the deal. His vehemence for his father was something everyone knew. Allard had even gone so far to suggest that they stick to people who would not ruffle the hairs of those in Valan’s household when it came to the negotiations.
To his astonishment, Roland had confidently waved away his concerns and had them come over. At first, he thought the man had a plan but the moment where he broached the topic without any warning or strategy, Allard knew they had already lost. Returning his leader’s gaze with one of warning and reproach, he resolved to bring this matter up the next time the Greater Council met. Roland needed to have the idea that he was invincible or that every Steelborn would automatically bend to his will knocked out of his head.
“So…” Valerian began. “This is part of the great clan agenda you were talking about last time?”
Leaning back in his seat, Valerian asked. “You really should have explained the full picture to me before you sent me to Strapping’s. I was under the impression that I was to become the best I could be. Had I known that I was also there to bootlick important people, I might have done things differently.”
“What do you mean?” The patriarch asked.
His grandfather knowing him better asked instead, “Valerian, what did you do?”
“Nothing!” Valerian exclaimed defensively already regretting his words. “At least, nothing I wasn’t supposed to do.”
“Valerian…?” his grandfather asked worriedly.
“Okay”, Valerian said knowing the man would let this go, he started to explain himself. “From what I have come to understand, our batch of cadets had an unusually large number of notable figures.”
“Oh! You’re regretting not taking the chance to grow close to them?” the patriarch asked, taking the obvious route.
The ones closer to Valerian had different thoughts. Healer Brian, a firsthand witness to Valerian’s recklessness, even scoffed at the patriarch’s words. It let him know that something was very off.
Now worried himself, he could help but inquire. “Please tell me you did not purposefully make enemies out of them.”
Valerian gave the man a tight defensive smile. “That depends entirely on how they took it.”
Quit stalling and tell us what you did, boy!” Great Elder Allard commanded impatiently. Valerian was picking up Valan’s bad habits by the truckload. All this circling was annoying.
“I have already told you. It was nothing I was not supposed to do”, Valerian said reassuringly. “We were competing against each other. Everyone wanted to be the best. there were some arguments, a few spars but nothing unofficial or unsupervised.”
“Who were you competing with?” Richard asked, suddenly curious. Valerian wasn’t the type to compare himself to others his own age. The cocky brat held himself to high standards of excellence and refused to accept anything less. For him to acknowledge others was practically the same as him certifying that they too were of this standard.
“There were three major ones. There was the secondary heir to the Gigne clan, the third son of Earl Reynard and the only child of General Price Clearcrest. They were the other squad leaders in our platoon”, Valerian said. “Besides them, there were thirty or so nobles, mostly secondary and tertiary heir to powers of varying rank. They included a cold bringer, a Morwoko, a Reign… enough to make a long list.”
“Other Squad Leaders?” Richard caught proudly. “You were a squad leader?”
“Yes!” Valerian answered with a smile. “There were four squads and mine was the second. The system threw us into a mixer hoping that the best would rise to the top. So, we would compete, brush shoulders, etc.”
It was Valerian’s grandfather who ended up pulling it apart. “If the competition was sanctioned and par for the course then why are you concerned about how they took it?” the man asked.
“Well”, Valerian began. “You can never tell how people take these things. Take Gigne for instance, after the first time we fought and for the next month or so, he and his squad spent their time doing everything and anything to be contrary to us.”
He thought back to the aftermath of his ‘spar’ with Gigne on the fighting dais. It was two full days before the bushy-haired tellurian showed his face in public. Valerian had been relieved to see that the other had not been permanently disfigured after he raked his talons across his face and cut off his nose. That only lasted until the members of Squad One decided that it was now their duty to mess with everything he and his did. Their second major encounter had ended much worse for the lion themed tellurian. He truly doubted that Gigne would let that one go.
“And the last time?” came his grandfather’s voice, asking the very question Valerian hoped he’d let slide.
Seeing no good way out of it, Valerian told the truth, “The last time I saw him, he needed medical assistance to breathe.”
“Valerian, what did you do?” his grandfather asked in dismay.
Roland Steelborn took in a sharp intake of breath when he realised just what Valerian was saying. The circumstances weren’t clear but they didn’t need to be. There was no way to put someone in such a state without bringing them close to death. Valerian had nearly killed the secondary heir of the Sunburst Lions. That was bad, very bad. He exchanged glances with Elder Allard and saw a mirrored worried look on the other’s face. This needed to be handled fast and quickly.
Valerian caught unto the byplay happening on the table. It prompted him to speak again. “Don’t worry about it. You can relax. I did not injure him. We were fighting an an illusory state and I won. He just happened to have complications when returning to the real world”, he explained.
Truth be told, Valerian wasn’t even the one who injured him so. Pugio deserved the credit for that. The soul attack the dark tellurian had used messed Gigne up royally. He was effectively put into a coma. Even though his body was fine on the other end, there was no mind to possess, control and let it understand that the wounds it had sustained weren’t real. Due to that, his body ended up assuming that the injuries from the illusory world had carried over and the affected parts of his body started shutting down.
Valerian had only contributed to this when he and his phantasm, quartered and electrocuted Gigne’s phantasm till it dispersed. He genuinely felt bad about that. He hadn’t known how bad the situation was until after they left the illusory realm and by then it was too late. At that point it didn’t matter what he said or did so he did nothing. Gigne’s squad had been royally pissed and the looks they shot him alone were enough for him to know where he stood with them.
“This is bad, Valerian”, the patriarch said speaking up. “It doesn’t matter if it was an accident or if it was sanctioned. Those major clans don’t care. All they’ll see is that someone nearly killed their heir and that some lesser power dared challenge them.”
“I said there was nothing for you to worry about. You can relax!” Valerian assured the man. “Gigne is not the type to run and tattle to his parents.”
“You’re missing the point Valerian”, his grandfather told him. “It would matter if he told his people or not. They already know. The Gignes are one of Lord Strapping’s major subordinates. The influence they’ve got in his affairs cannot be underestimated. They probably know everything that happens in that school.”
“Damn!” Roland exclaimed, slamming his hand on the table. “You should have sent word when it happened. We could have sent a missive, some gifts, maybe found some way or something so they’d back off. Tell me that was the only incident!”
After scanning Valerian’s face, he no longer needed an answer. Cursing under his breath, he asked, “Who and what you did them?”
“The Reynard. I beat him till he surrendered. He sulked a lot afterwards. The Clearcrest, I simply chopped into pieces along with her squad. There were a few others but they didn’t stick out to me.” Pausing in thought, Valerian added. “There’s a disciple from the Viper Style school of Spear fighting with a vendetta against me.”
Each name caused the faces around him to pale.
“So many names. What were you thinking?” the patriarch yelled.
“Wait! Are you telling me that I should have lost?” Valerian asked, his hackles rising. “I told you, we were in a competition. We fought. I won. Unless you’re telling me that I should have rolled over, there was no other conclusion.”
“You should have used your head!” the patriarch bellowed. For Delrein’s sake! Do you know what Lord Reynard does for a living? What he could do to us?”
“Calm down, Roland”, said Elder Allard, stepping in.
Valerian sat there, silent for few moments. He truly regretted his words earlier. The bootlicking comment had been his attempt to make a joke earlier and now… He wanted to laugh but he could already tell how bitter it would taste. Somehow, his accomplishments had turned into crimes.
“I went to Strapping’s to study, become a better fighter and cultivator as well as prepare for a career in the military”, Valerian reminded them. “You all told me one thing before sending me over. That I should do my best. That I should push and fight for excellence.”
“That is exactly what I did!” he told them plainly. “Would I have acted differently or with greater mercy had I known that I was there to make alliances instead? Maybe! Even if I did, I would have still striven for the top spot. There is no way I’d simply sit back and let others take the lead because they happened to be born into one family or the other.
“I went to Strapping’s to become the best and I succeeded. In fact, it appears I was so successful that right after securing my place as the best cadet, Lady Bloodworth called me to her side and made me her apprentice”, he added in realisation. He hadn’t even been given the chance to rest after the battle or for the results to be officially announced.
Returning his focus back to his audience, he continued, “Anyone who cannot look at my success for what it is, pines for or finds himself wishing that I should have placed myself under another person’s boot instead, should not be at this table celebrating with me!”
His grandfather was the first to respond to his assertion. “We understand, Valerian”, the old man said. “We are not saying you did not do well or that you shouldn’t. We are just pointing out that you doing well is not always the safest thing. I am loathe to admit it but my father was right last time. We do not have the background or the resources to face off against the big clans.
“Our roots are shallow Valerian”, he told his grandson. “We can grow as tall as we want but should we attempt to tower over them, they’ll ensure that the wind tosses us down.”
“What longwinded is saying is, you got lucky this time.” Elder Allard jumped in. “Winning is one thing but overwhelming them like that? Beating them down? Sooner or later you’ll have people and their backers coming out of the woodwork to show you your place. You’re lucky this happened at Strapping’s. Nobles can’t just walk into Strapping’s. Had it been somewhere else, some noble would have strutted in and given you some unreasonable amount to pay ‘for damages’. Or he’d have made an example of you to the rest of the school.”
Seeing some signs of protest in Valerian’s face, he did not let up. “Don’t scrunch your face like that lad. These things happen all the time. It’s happened with your cousins, your father and even a few of the elders. In fact, had you not left when you did you’d surely have started seeing some of that nastiness.”
“So you’re saying that I should hold back?” Valerian asked, feeling conflicted.
“That’s the beauty of it”, the gaunt man laughed.
“Before, I’d say yes. Do well. Enough to be noticed and valued but not so you become a threat. Run in their circle without rubbing them the wrong way. Wait for your chance. Don’t shine too bright that they want you snuffed so they are not blinded”, he said in a strange tone. “I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to say that to one of you young ones. I’m sure the others have had their own experiences.”
The two other elders and surprisingly, his grandfather nodded sadly.
“In Cragsveil, we’ve reached the point where we can do what we like but outside? I advise against that strongly”, Elder Allard continued. “That’s changed! You’re the apprentice of THE BLOODWORTH! I want to see which arrogant noble would try to go up against that.”
Valerian ventured. “You can’t just attack me for doing just that and then tell me to keep it up!” Valerian yelled at the old man.
“Earlier, you couldn’t”, the gaunt man told him. “Thankfully, it worked out and now, you can. Every power has some combination of these things; Patrons, superiors, allies, notable figures and subordinates. They have theirs and we have our own. That’s the way the game is played, Valerian. It’s just that, theirs have always been superior but not anymore”, Elder Allard assured.
The magistrate let the old man speak, watching him intensely as if seeing him for the first time.
“It’s too bad you couldn’t cultivate some of the people you met into allies. That would have been icing on the cake.”
“I did have a shadowed dagger swear himself into my service before I left”, Valerian said snidely. “Is that good enough?”
His words effectively stopped the hearts of those who knew of the existence of the group. Elder Allard, actually stammered when he tried to speak. The others were stunned into silence. Most of them did not know what a shadowed dagger was but the reactions of those around them and the way the atmosphere had changed were enough to let them know the kind of thing they were dealing with.
“Valerian! WHAT DID YOU DO?” his grandfather, predictably the first to recover his speech roared.
Uncle Richard, on the hand, couldn’t hold back his laughter. “I knew Strapping’s would be good for you!” the man proclaimed.