Valerian looked out at his family. Everyone who mattered to him was gathered at the feast. A small private get-together in his courtyard to celebrate his success; his small family, Uncle Vorm’s family, Elder Foreson, Healer Brian and his assistant as well as a few others. His Uncle Vorm had taken to teasing Uncle Jonas and his kids were running up and down after Sela who basically glorified in their attention. Even his grandfather was red faced and engaged in a serious debate with Foreson and Brian over the merits of recognizing beast lands as part of the empire. Watching them filled him with warmth.
Following the events at the Arena and the temple, their entire group decided as one to put it all behind them. “Nothing is going to spoil our fun!” Vorm had exclaimed. Valerian admired their dedication to partying. Especially his uncle Vorm. The man was laughing uproariously as he forced Avery to pour another mug down his throat. This was what Valerian wanted. For those he loved to be able to sit back with nothing to worry about. Cheerful and happy as they celebrated his successes.
It was the best feeling in the world.
“Valerian! Valerian!” one of Vorm’s twins cried.
He looked to his left expecting to see Veyhei the elder twin rushing towards him. He was right. His brother Zantoley followed closely behind him. Seeing the two seven year olds, made him smile. Identical in almost every way but manner, the twins were Vorm’s only children and he spoiled them rotten. Valerian could see why. They were that easy to love. It didn’t hurt that they thought the world of him.
“Valerian! Tell Sela to stop and let us get on”, Veyhei demanded.
“You want to ride her?” Valerian asked even as he kneeled to brush dirt off their clothes.
“Uh huh!” they answered emphatically.
“Oh!” he said feigning sadness. “I’m afraid I can’t help with that”.
Why?” Zantoley whined.
“I just can’t. The only one who can let people ride her is Sela herself”, Valerian told him.
“But you did it last time!” Veyhei pointed out.
Valerian sighed mentally. He knew that would come back to haunt him sooner or later. He really shouldn’t have done that that day. Luck for him, he had an excuse.
“That’s because I asked and begged her till she agreed”, he told the twins.
“So, we should beg her?” Veyhei asked with an innocent pout.
“Yes”, Valerian told him. “It really is the only way”, he buttressed. “Also, it will help if you have some meat or something when you make our case”.
Zantoley nodded seriously, obviously taking the advice to heart.
“Good!” Valerian said. “Now go try that. If you do it right, Sela might just give you a ride”.
With a fresh reminder of their primary objective, the twins took off again to search for the serpent. Valerian laughed as he watched them go and then sat back and reached for his plate. Today’s meat was courtesy of him, the long-tusked boar he had killed during his last fateful hunting trip. It was very good and he’d be remis if he let it pass without at least tasting it.
“Should you really be sending those two to pester poor Sela?” a soft voice spoke to him.
Valerian turned to meet his grandmother’s eyes. Grinning sheepishly, he found himself with no excuses. On her part, she just looked at him and smiled sweetly.
“Those two are quite the handful”, she said. “They remind me of when the boys were young. Vorm’s mother would drop him off and he’d team up with Richard to drag Valiant and Jonas everywhere and into everything. There was a time I honestly believed Valan would have a heart attack from their antics.”
Valerian smiled. He could believe it. Uncle Vorm was one of the few people who could leave his grandfather exasperated and speechless. Often, he seemed like two entirely different people. There was the serious, strict, gentlemanly Vorm and the one on display now, raucous and friendly. His grandfather claimed that it was the military that had ruined his beloved nephew. That he was never so boisterous. However, from his grandmother’s words, Vorm might have always been so.
“He would have been proud of you, you know”, his grandmother suddenly said.
“Who?” he asked curiously.
“Your father”, she stated. “He would have been very proud of you. Valiant didn’t make it into the finals of any Zebre until he was nineteen. He did win two years after that though, beating Vorm who only won when he twenty-three”, she said wistfully.
Valerian leaned forward, listening intently for more.
“He was just like you. I remember, he went into a training frenzy that year. It seemed like he spent every waking moment back then pushing himself, knowing that it was his last chance to beat the standard Vorm had set” his grandmother added with a laugh. “You’re like him in that aspect. You know how to set needless things aside and focus instead on your objectives. It served him well, it will do same for you.”
“I just wish he was here to see you now”, she said in a sad tone. “He’d be so happy!”
“What about you?” Valerian ventured.
As much as he liked hearing about his parents. Valerian never knew them. Other might consider it strange but for him they were just people he had heard about. His mother disappeared in the weeks after he was born, his father in the midst of searching for her. Even he, with his vaunted memory could not even remember them. What little feeling he had towards them, he had gained because they mattered to the people who actually concerned him. Perhaps, he was just cold but that was just how things were. In his mind, parents were merely a fuzzy image. An idea that represented those who bore him. His grandparents, his uncles, his aunt and cousins, Avery, his grandmother’s daemons, Healer Brian, those were people he cared for. His family.
Their opinions were the only ones that mattered. Their pains were his pains. Their joys, his joys. Their dreams, his dreams. That’s because they had done same for him from his first conscious moment to this very second and they had never made it seem like a chore. They had always loved him and so he loved them. Even through all those days when his tellurian cultivation seemed bleak, they had stuck with him. They not the clan contributed to purchase the resources necessary for improving his body and paid the medical fees that came as a result.
When he came from the Stormhawk’s domain and informed them that he wasn’t a peng like he had first believed, they had been unconcerned and uncaring of the revelation. Their only worry was whether he was alright. Valerian knew that had anything actually happened to him beyond that portal, they would have come for him, clan and deity be damned. There was a reason Valerian’s greatest fear was letting them down. The battle against Aaron Veldt had proved that he’d rather die than make it seem like all their efforts and hopes had been misplaced.
Even so, he had to know. There was still some lingering fear in his heart. Which was why he asked his grandmother that question. He wanted, no, needed that assurance.
“Me?” his grandmother questioned incredulously.
“Are you proud?” he ventured.
“Valerian…” his grandmother begun. She made to sit on the stone bench with him and he quickly made space for her.
“Do you really have to ask that?” she asked. Valerian said nothing.
“Look around you Valerian” she said. “You see these people?” referring to their family and friends. He nodded.
“They are here for you, because of you. Each of them has come here to celebrate your success. You are the youngest array master of the age. The youngest in our country’s history to become a circle master of three attributes. On top of that, you are a Steelborn, a scion of the House of Cragsveil, descended from the main line of the Menhirionn and now, favoured by the Stormhawk itself. Not to mention, a descendant of the legendary KunPeng. You not only reached the finals of the Zebre but fought your way to second place in your first appearance despite being the youngest combatant in your category.
“How many can possibly lay claim to as many feats at your age? How many would dare even compare themselves with you? Who wouldn’t beat his chest with pride just for knowing you? How could we, your family not do same? We have even been privileged to have seen you grow, to have taught you and been part of making you who you are today. How could we not be proud?
“Besides that, these people are here not because of what you have done but because of who you are. They are not here for the person who claimed second place in the Zebre but for Valerian Steelborn. I dare say that even if Valerian Steelborn never amounted to much, lost all his matches and wasn’t the great array master we know him as, they’d still be here. They’d be happy and celebrative. Why? Because we are family. You never have to ask that question because you already know the answer, right here” she said, poking him in the chest.
“We’re family Valerian and we’ll always be proud of you no matter what!” she declared.
Valerian’s eyes softened as his grandmother’s words made their way into his heart to clear his heart. Still, something prompted him to ask. No one had spoken on the issue and it worried him.
“Even if I’m not a peng?” he inquired.
“Even if you’re not a peng!” she affirmed with a smile.
Valerian sighed in relief. Happy to have put the matter to rest.
“Actually, we knew you weren’t one anyway”, his grandmother revealed.
“Really?” Valerian asked. “How?”
“Truthfully, ignoring the fact that the appearance and aura of a divine creature like a golden winged peng is not something that any of us can hide or prevent from getting out, your grandfather refused to believe that a primordial being descended on a little mountain side in our territory without leaving any signs or that there is anything alive on Verre that could possess such a connection to the being to make it do so”, she started.
Valerian rubbed his hands. Looking at it now, it was a bit much to think the KunPeng itself came down to activate his legacy. Deities also had things to do right? The Stormhawk was probably right when it said that he had inherited a portion of its divine will instead.
“And you?” he asked her. His grandmother was one of the greatest beast tamers in DaleGuard. Surely, she had noticed something.
“Well, you don’t look like a peng for one”, she said. He nodded. The Stormhawk had mentioned that, repeatedly. It really made him feel stupid for not noticing that beforehand.
“Then there’s the problem with your attributes” she added.
“My attributes?” he inquired.
“Yes. One extremely notable thing about golden winged pengs is the fact that they are born with four innate attributes; water, metal, wind and lightning. You only have two; metal and wind!” she pointed out.
“Four!” Valerian exclaimed in surprise.
“Yes Valerian, four. There is a reason why pengs are considered daemons of the highest rank”, she said with one of her laughs.
“I wasn’t even close was I?” Valerian mused out loud. The more he learnt about his ancestors the more insignificant they made him feel. The sheer gulf in abilities was mind blowing.
“Maybe not”, his grandmother admitted. “I’ve told you this several times. That doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme. Innate abilities are great but while they do help, they rarely have any real impact on where people end up. What does is the hard work and effort taken to develop them and any other abilities so that they might benefit you. You work hard Valerian, harder than anyone I have had the pleasure to know, harder than I ever did. You’ll surely be a figure that inspires awe in the future. Even the KunPeng originally started out with only the attributes of water and wind and see where its determination took it. You can do same.”
“Grandmother!” Valerian exclaimed in shock. “That was the KunPeng!” He tried to point out. He couldn’t believe she really made that comparison.
“So”, she said with a laugh. “My grandson is just as a great”, she added with a playful nudge.
Valerian couldn’t help it, he laughed with her.
“Valerian! Valerian!” a loud voice cried. Searching for the source, he discovered his Uncle Vorm waving him over.
“Come here Valerian, everyone is gathering!” the man yelled.
He turned to his grandmother but she just smiled and motioned him forwards. He simply got up and held out his arm for her to take. Laughing sweetly, she took it and they went over to where everyone was gathered.
Once there, his uncle slapped a cup of something into his hands and called for silence.
“Everyone, everyone! I’d like to present to you Valerian Steelborn, boy genius, gifted array master and recently a combatant in our city’s arena. He was the youngest combatant of this year’s Zebre and the first runner up in the Young Lord’s Tourney. That his is now the record to beat in our family goes unsaid” the man begun.
“If you’re wondering where he gets it from, let me remind you, he is my nephew!” he quickly slipped in, much to the laughter of those gathered.
“You’re still quite young Valerian”, the man continued. “Nevertheless, you’ve accomplished a lot and quite frankly, you’re making the rest of us look bad” he joked.
“Even so, we have come here today to celebrate your victories and to wish you well. That you might never falter but go onwards and gloriously to higher heights. So, gathered here as one family, we lift up our glasses to you”, everyone raised their glasses at his words. “…and to your future successes. We love you Valerian, you do us proud. Congratulations, Valerian!”
“Congratulations Valerian!” Everyone yelled.
Truthfully, Valerian had missed some of his uncle’s words. He’d been distracted at the sight of the twins attempting to lure Sela closer with a whole roast bird they had probably taken off one of the tables. However, he had caught the entire latter half and couldn’t help but be touched. His grandmother had been right. He had nothing to worry about. He could feel the love they had for him. He could see how happy and proud they were. Tears came to his eyes but he blinked them away. These were the people he wanted beside him, he would have no others. They were his family and he loved them too.
Valerian raised his cup with the rest of them and downed it. As the congratulations came and the sentiment in the courtyard rose, Valerian merely sat back and soaked in the warm feelings.
He did not cry.
It didn’t matter anyway. Everyone was momentarily distracted by Sela playfully wrestling with the twins for the roast bird.