Chapter Two: Terse Talks
Valerian turned to his great-grandfather with a mental sigh, wondering how it had come to this. Sparing an ear for his grandfather, his eyes swept the table noting down the expressions of those present. His grandfather carried an expression that made it looked like he was unable to suppress bile from rising up his throat while his grandmother simply looked nonplussed. Uncle Richard remained alert though he looked somewhat bored. Elder Allard, on the other hand, seemed to be taking the opportunity to examine Valerian in turn. Elder Foreson and Healer Brian were merely quiet though the latter’s disapproval was clear on his face.
As for the twins they did not even understand what was going on. They stared at his grandfather inquisitively and Valerian knew that given how smart they were, they’d probably figure some of it out eventually. Apparently, their mother knew this too because she stood up from the table and making some trite apologies, marshalled her brood out the door and back home. Valerian approved. Those two were best kept out things like this for now.
“…but even in this field, allies are necessary. There is no monopoly but there are alliances. You can’t just come in from the outside. You can only stand on the porch and look in whilst others order it. When your turn comes you go up to perform, in this case, kill and die before you are marched back to the sidelines”, his grandfather was saying. “The alliances control everything, the supplies and training of troops, their deployment, how often war is waged, practically everything you can think of. Speaking of, it is surprising how often war is waged because some fat lipped general wants to remain a topic of discussion or simply because they want to remind the royal court they are still useful.”
“Our dear patriarch and his court have it in their minds that we need to get in on the action. They have grown fatigued of their current powers. Simply sending our own to their deaths isn’t enough for them anymore so they want to join those with the power to order death in Bathar.”
At this point, all the elders turned to stare at the magistrate in shock at his caustic words.
“Unfortunately for elder council”, said the magistrate paying no heed to their gazes. “The big boys refuse to let them play, not with what they are offering. Rather than submit to one of the larger powers and enter the great game as vassals our esteemed council believe themselves fit for the grown-up table, They dare to go up to them as if they were equals. Never mind our obvious and significant lack of everything. When asking nicely and bribery did not work, they tried to finagle their way in. They failed at that too.”
“Okay! I have had enough!” the patriarch commanded. “Is this really the kind of discussion you want to have?”
“Not at the dinner table, no!” his son admitted. “However, it does seem to be the topic you want. Why don’t we continue? I was just about to get into the part concerning the consequences of your ambitions and the resulting er… friction with our local warlords. I believe in Cousin Peter died in the last disagreement with Lord Honeytoff, did he not?”
“Enough!” his father warned. Everyone was sitting up now. No one wanted to miss this action.
“Why?” Valan asked, his expression cool but angry. “You forget that this is my home. My table, my grandson, my business, my rules. You wanted to talk about overtures in the military and broach the topic of your expansionist ambitions. Fine! Let’s talk about that. I’m sure Valerian will find what I have to say very enlightening.”
“Valan…” his father warned again.
The magistrate completely ignored him, much in the same way he had him earlier. Turning to face Valerian directly, he continued to speak.
“I believe I mentioned that one of the last Steelborns to attend Strapping’s now sits nice and pretty in a Wherry detention centre as a result of the clan’s ambitions. Did I mention that the reason this happened was because the elders had him constantly show up and slowly elbow out the prominent officer from a major family that was in charge of the battalion they were in?” he said to Valerian, speaking quickly.
“Next thing you know, orders were sent out for a ‘strategic repositioning’. Somehow, Reinhardt did not get those orders. In fact, he received contradictory orders to claim a staging position on the battlefront. Regrettably, this unfortunate mix up resulted in him and his core platoon and only them, mind you, being left behind. They were eventually defeated and captured by the enemy forces that soon surrounded their position.”
Valerian’s mind reeled at the revelation. That was not right. Bogus orders, leaving men behind, deliberately sabotaging war efforts for personal reasons. That was not the kind of picture of the military Strapping’s had painted for him. He found it hard to grasp that something like that had actually happened but given the way the patriarch was acting and the fact that his grandfather never bothered with lies, it was definitely true. Still, were the clan’s ambitions truly that self-destructive?
“That’s not all…” his grandfather continued.
“ENOUGH!” came a shout from his great-grandfather. “You will cease this at once!”
“You do not give orders in my house, father”, Valan said, staring the man down. “I do!”
“If you want to bark and yell do so in your own home!” he added icily. “Make that kind of noise again and I will throw you out!”
Shivers went down Valerian’s spine. Never in his life had he imagined his grandfather as that commanding. The person he was dressing down was not some errant servant. It was Roland Steelborn. The acclaimed most powerful man in Cragsveil. The patriarch of their clan and his father to boot. Yet, he did not seem to care. In fact, he stared at the elders seated at the table in turn as if daring them to contradict him. Beside him, Valerian’s grandmother sat there seeming staring down into her tea but with a proud smile on her face.
Gulsalma purred lightly, a low rumbling sound that carried through the room as she went about cleaning behind her ears. No one was fooled for a second. Cats didn’t clean themselves with their claws out. Just then, a giant hand reached over Elder Allard’s shoulder to snatch a joint of meat from the dinner table. Pan smacked his lips, looking very hungry. The point was made to buttress the threat hanging in the air. There were two third-tier daemons, each the equivalent of a human, emperor tiered cultivator.
As far as Valerian knew, the patriarch was only an Emperor himself. Elder Allard, he knew little about but he certainly wasn’t stronger than the patriarch. Elder Foreson, he knew well and the man was merely a King. A King that stared nervously at Sela who appeared to be coiling herself next to his chair. As for Healer Brian? No one at the table doubted that Healer would stand with them in need be.
“I understand”, the patriarch finally relented. Nothing good would come of forcing this issue. In fact, he’d already worsened it enough. He didn’t look happy at all but he bore it.
“So do I!” Valerian exclaimed, making himself the centre of attention once more.
“The Council of Elders has decided on a dangerous but profitable route to developing the clan”, he summarised. “They have failed to make headway for some time now and have instead been forced to concede several losses with many in the clan suffering as a result. Now, however, great-grandfather thinks there lies a chance with me because I have become Lady Bloodworth’s student.”
Looking the man for a second, he continued. “It is a chance so great that he appears willing to fight for it. He even mentioned that eclipses everything the clan has achieved so far. I understand all that. I just wonder, is the Lady Bloodworth that great? Can she do it?” Feeling emboldened by the earlier display, he turned back to the patriarch, adding, “Do you have a reason you are so confident or are you just barking up a tree that is likely to fall on you and your house?”
The man stared at him as if sucker punched. In the short frame for which the shocked silence that followed lasted, Valerian’s grandfather looked at him with approval whilst his grandmother shook her head softly. Elder Foreson looked scandalised whiles Healer Brian gazed around in alarm. Richard smiled. This silence, however, was soon broken by the sound of Elder Allard’s disbelieving laughter.
“Can she do it he says. Is Lady Bloodworth really all that?” the man said laughing. “I thought you went to military school to learn army business, lad. Are you saying you do not know who Lady Bloodworth is?”
Valerian nodded tentatively. Strapping’s, at least the taste of it Valerian had gotten did not waste time learning things like who was in charge of what. People and the positions they occupied changed constantly. Major Atakoma taught them the duties and powers of the various positions and not the people who filled them.
“I know she is an administrator of Marrbisi Academy. I presume that’s where she met and tutored Lord Strapping’s since she mentioned something to that effect when we spoke”, Valerian told them. “I also know that she was a field marshal at some point and that given her title she is nobility for one and secondly, she is a fire attributed cultivator of at least some skill.”
“Do not get me wrong. From what I can tell, she is definitely someone important. The rank of field marshal is the second highest rank in the army and it does not come cheaply but that’s the thing. She is retired. She might have contacts and respect but she’s only one person. Plus, I doubt that she still has authority in the army or the capacity to help with whatever your plans are”, he said plainly.
It was the truth. Once you were out of the army, you were out. You did not command troops, you did not go into battle and you certainly didn’t have the pull to grant promotions, concessions or whatever it was the Steelborns needed to become a military power. His grandfather had just explained that there were certain alliances that controlled the military sector. They weren’t up against one powerful individual but an entire group. How was she going to help with that?
Elder Allard stared at him for a moment. “Field Marshals are more powerful than you realise boy and Lady Bloodworth is definitely far greater than you know.”
“Boy”, he began. “That woman is the single most powerful Emperor tiered cultivator in the Eastern Kingdoms. No one, and I do mean no one, below the fifth tier can hope to match her in battle and even those Sages are wary of doing so. She’s defeated and disgraced so many of them that few are willing to take that chance.”
“You might think of her as a retired field marshal but she is far more than that. Her list of achievements is so long, I don’t even know half of them. Lady Bloodworth was once the fifth protector of the realm. Field Marshal was merely the rank she held before she took the post.
Also, you seem to think she tutored Strapping’s at Marrbisi. You’re wrong! Lord Strapping isn’t some former student. He is her apprentice. His position as one of the protectors? He got that because when the old lady retired, she nominated him to take her place and no one dared contest”, the gaunt man told him.
“Now, I’m sure Lord Strapping is more than powerful enough for the post”, the man added as an afterthought. “But I’m also certain that even he would admit that his master was the primary reason he got that position so easily. Anything that woman says goes Valerian. Anything!” he said, putting a lot of emphasis on that last word.
Whilst Valerian struggled to digest the new information he had been given, his grandfather spoke up. “I’m sure Elder Allard did not intend to make Lady Bloodworth out to be a brash, nepotic, battle-hardened despot but what he says does have some merit.”
“Saying that she is a school administrator and a retired field marshal is indeed a great and I suspect intentional oversimplification. Marrbisi is the best school in the kingdom and the Royal Bathan Army is one of the finest in the empire. Those two are uncontested facts. In fact, one of the primary reasons why our kingdom is the seven ranked vassal state is because of how powerful our military is. The thing is, if you are old enough or know who to ask you will know that Lady Bloodworth is responsible for both of those facts”, he explained.
“She is an alumnus of Marrbisi and according to what I have learned, it was during her time at the school that it began to gain international recognition”, he told the gathering. “Additionally, the Wherry-Bathar war has been going on for centuries now. However, we have not always held the upper hand in this conflict. Again, the records show a great increase in army strength and number of victorious battles after Lady Bloodworth attained a significant position in the army. I believe she is number one on the Kingdom of Wherry’s kill list and given her exploits, that is understandable.”
“Valerian”, he called. “Do you remember the details of the last great war? The war that made our family famous and allowed us to seize our peerage?”
“Yes!” Valerian answered. “The Wherries allied themselves with the Kingdom of Surline and together they overrun our armies and invaded our kingdom from seven different locations igniting intense and frenzied fighting that nearly resulted in our loss. In response, we too allied ourselves with the Theodosian Magocracy and eventually succeeded in pushing them out and taking the fight to them.
“Good!” his grandfather acknowledged with pride. “Lady Bloodworth or should I say, The Fifth Protector led our side in that conflict. I’ve seen the numbers and read many of the reports. We should have lost. I’m still not sure how we got the Theodosians to commit so much to our side to help us pull through in the end but we should have lost long before that. Elder Allard is right about on that account. Lady Bloodworth is the most powerful Empress in the Eastern Kingdoms.
“Whilst my father was busy trying to hold DaleGuard, she killed no less than four of the enemy Sages. Sages, Valerian! Sages!” The magistrate said with a rare expression of awe. “An emperor slaughtering sages. It is a feat that is unheard of. Something unprecedented in our history.”
Valerian was with him on that front. That was the definition of an impossible feat. Valerian was merely a consolidated first tier but even that was enough to ensure that no one who was not a consolidated first tier himself could match him in combat. In fact, he felt certain that he could slaughter scores of them should push come to shove. Despite that, he had no faith in his chances to fight a Lord. Scratch that. Practice sessions with Captain Walters had taught him that not even his entire squad was a match for a true Lord tiered cultivator.
These were just the first two tiers and already there was such a gap. These gaps were supposed to grow the greater the tier. Their cultivation instructor had even explained to them how the most powerful cultivator in the entire kingdom was a Sage practitioner with all others at different stages of the King and Emperor tiers. Yet, his new teacher had supposedly fought and killed several Sages despite being an Empress.
“Are you certain she is an Empress?” he asked carefully.
“Lady Bloodworth is an Empress. Nothing more, nothing less” the patriarch confirmed. “It seems unbelievable but that fact has been confirmed many times over. The woman is a monster amongst monsters. Someone like me would not even register in her sight.”
“Well, there’s some debate on that front”, his grandfather threw in. “Her power is unnatural and quite truthfully, heaven-defying but there’s talk that she has some kind of special legacy or physique. However, even that cannot explain her power.”
His voice dropping low as afraid of being overheard, the magistrate added, “There is some belief that she’s a false Sage. Someone who is in the fifth tier but not truly there. There is an old rumour that she should actually be a Sage but she cannot get past the final step due to some injuries she suffered during her younger years. Allegedly, she was targeted and ambushed in one of the early Wherry-Bathar wars and that’s why she hates them so much. It is the most plausible thing I have ever heard but even that doesn’t seem enough to explain it. A false Sage should still be inferior to a true Sage and yet she has defeated middle stage Sages which should be impossible.”
The table went quiet.
“I have never heard that story”, the patriarch confessed. A strange look came over his face. “Where did you learn of this? Have you started your..” pausing to look at Valerian, he continued. “extracurriculars again?”
“That is none of your business!” the magistrate told him plainly.
“You…!” his father started. He seemed about to say more but he calmed himself down. ‘Now is not the time’, he reminded himself. he spoke to his great-grandson instead.
“Long story short, Valerian, your new mistress is influential, well connected and extremely powerful. All of her apprentices are in places of great power and authority”, the patriarch said, focusing on his objective. “I’m not sure how you did it but you fished up a dragon queen and you didn’t even mean to. You didn’t even know who she was. That’s unbelievable!”
Valerian thought about this. Actually, he had stopped since Elder Allard begun disabusing him of his notions. Clearly, he’d underestimated his new teacher. It was just hard to reconcile the person they were talking about with the diminutive old lady he’d met in Strapping’s. Now that he had a much better view of the full picture, he could see why this was such a big deal.
“So”, he asked. “What exactly do you want me to do?”
Edit: Sorry. Earlier I wrote that Pan was Emperor tiered in the chapter. He isn’t. He’s still a Dire Daemon (King tier). Gulsama is the only Profound Daemon in their household. I somehow bunched the two together in the scene.