Watching the rings of smoke float up into the sky, I leaned back against the guard-rail which was warm from the summer sun. Following the diminishing circles to their base, I laid my eyes on my father’s glowing pipe as he puffed on it leisurely while leaning back on the railing beside me, his empty sleeve fluttering in the morning breeze.
Both of us were on the roof of the Felidae apartments, watching the capital’s populace bustle about their day to day lives, our feet dangling over the edge of the roof.
I picked out the form of a news-painter revising the daily bulletin board.
Paper was an expensive commodity and as such, newspapers and fliers weren’t cost effective as media for information dissemination. Thus, in every village, town or city centre, there was a large shale board that was known as the bulletin board.
Every morning, the board’s contents would be revised with the current news, and any official announcements would be put up there. Due to the work of revising the board being undertaken by hired artists who often added illustrations beside the articles they wrote, they were known as news-painters.
The particular one I was watching, flipped open his box of coloured chalks and began to draw as he referred to a piece of parchment by his side. Very soon, with deft strokes, Steven’s face had been added to the bounty list. We were paying quite a handsome amount for information on him.
Father opened his mouth, “Old Ben will be quite morose.”
The Old Ben in his words was Steven’s father. I nodded. “Steven should have at least tried to talk to someone.”
Father blew out a stream of smoke. “Give the boy some time away from the luxuries of an aristocratic life, he’ll be back sooner rather than later. Old Ben always was too hard on his child. Although, I’m really not one to talk.”
I turned to him. He was rather strange today. I had never seen him smoke before, or be this verbose.
Extinguishing his pipe with a burst of mana, he continued, “Ursa told you of how I saved him in the battlefield. He doesn’t know the weight of the life I carry on my shoulders since he joined after the incident. Robert was the Commander before me and much like I did for Ursa, when I lost my mind in the heat of battle, he saved me.”
Pouring the ashes out of the bowl of his pipe into his palm, he blew on them, scattering them to the winds. “But, he wasn’t as lucky as I, dying of his wounds. These tobacco leaves are his last relic.”
He leaned back against the railing, “I was never really cut out to be a leader. My actions were dictated by my heart much too often for that. I remember you once telling me of your theory that Bestia behave much like the beasts their bloodlines originate from. I think you have it right.
“Even in the army, rather than profound tactics, all I really understood was that I should kill as many of the enemy as possible while protecting my allies. The tiger in my blood only knows violence and to uphold its pride. It is a solitary hunter, not the leader of a pack. The incident with the Sun Wolf made it abundantly clear. I am not a good leader.”
He sighed in self-depreciation. “Actually, if not for the privileges you and your mother would get, I wouldn’t have wanted the position in the first place. Struggling over the accursed thing drove a wedge between me and your uncle. The little brother who preferred my arms to mother or father’s as a baby, grew up into a sour man watching for any failure on my part like a hawk. I am not a good brother.”
When I made to speak, he waved at me to keep silent as he continued.
“I’ve always lived by the creed: ‘It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.’ It has served me better than I could ever hope, establishing me as a strong, silent man who is worthy of respect.”
He chuckled wryly, “At least it earned me your respect.”
He sighed, “No matter how hard the training, you always did your best. After you were done, exhausted, battered and bruised you would always look at me with those shining eyes, seeking praise. And I? I would continue to pretend at being tough. Standing there silently so you’d work harder next time. But what was all of it for?”
He grasped my shoulder with his single hand and looked into my eyes.
“When I look back at how I’ve raised you, I blush with shame. You’ve grown into a splendid young man, yet you have no friends your age and your childhood was devoid of the amusement that is the right of every child. I put so much pressure on you to push you down the path of the clan heir that my criticism of Old Ben is just like the pot calling the kettle black. I am not a good father.
“But I am a good husband and I am a splendid warrior. They are the cornerstones of my pride.
“I am sad about our parting but the battlefield is actually where I’ve always belonged. The thrill of the battle, a life on the knife’s edge; it is what I seek. If deskwork was duty, war is what I’d call my true calling. The ability to sate my bloodlust and to paint it in a gilded coat of honour and glory at the same time, I couldn’t be happier.
“To fall at the hands of a powerful foe is my dream.”
Letting go of my shoulder and reaching within his coat, he pulled out a sealed scroll, flicked the wax seal off with his thumb and handed it to me.
Unfurling it, I read the contents, my eyes widening with surprise. It was a contract with the Crimson Coyotes a rival mercenary clan of the Heavenly Wolf Mercenaries. They had been steadily suppressed by them back in their homeland of Huaxia, specially after the Sun Wolf had come to power.
They had to cede a lot of their territory to the Wolves and had accumulated a lot of resentment. Father had used this fact to wrangle an agreement with them to take over the vacancy left by the Wolves’ departure if he managed to win the Duel.
He had even managed to undercut the prices.
Not only would the Regiis empire not lose any military strength, they would also gain financially. Additionally, back in Huaxia, the Coyotes would begin their retaliatory attack on the Wolves, leaving them too busy to think of revenge on our clan, specially while the deterrent of Father’s presence existed.
“In my early days as the head, I’d lash out against whatever displeased me, spending months on damage control afterwards. Thankfully, I had a good head for numbers and managed the clan finances well enough to keep us quite a bit above the red line. It kept the elders from kicking me out.
“Over the years, I’ve gotten quite adept at damage control. I never leave my business unfinished. Give that to the Duchess. She’ll know what to do.”
I suddenly realized the oddity of his words. “Why do I have to give it to the Duchess? Why not you?”
He didn’t answer as he shaded his eyes and looked upwards towards the horizon.
I followed his line of sight and a tiny dot mapped into my view, which steadily grew larger as it approached. Soon, the entire capital was in a tumult as the people began to point at the rapidly approaching flying object in the sky.
“Is it a bird?”
“Is it Marquis Felidae?”
“No! It’s an Army Dirigible!”
It was a large flying ship held up by a pair of oblong blimps. The jets of flame that heated the air within the blimps were clearly visible even during the day while the sails were taut from the artificially generated wind from aeolian stones and wind mages.
Mother stepped out from behind the parapet from where she had been listening in to our speech, with a large travel bag in one hand. Wiping away her tears, she set down the bag and embraced me tightly, snapping me out of my stunned state.
“Y-you’re leaving now?” My voice cracked as I spoke as I struggled with my upwelling emotions.
She held me at an arm’s length with both her hands on my shoulders, looking me up and down as if to burn my image into her memory. Her eyes were slightly red as she spoke, “Your father called up the nearest command post with the news of his advancement to Tier 5 and they sent their airship as fast as they could.
“You can live your own life now. Make your own choices. Do what you want to do, meet the people you want to meet. You don’t need us anymore.”
My heart trembled. It would be the first time in my life apart from my parents. I almost opened my mouth to stop them from leaving when Mother let go of my shoulder. But, I stopped myself in time. I didn’t want to make it any harder on them.
Father stepped up and wrapped his arm around her waist and she buried her face into his shoulder. Giving me one last look, he closed his eyes and breathed deeply.
The air around him stilled and slowly, the both of them rose slowly, a current of wind curling their luggage up along with them.
When they were on the same level as the airship, a hatch at its side opened, and they entered.
I watched as the dirigible grew smaller in my line of sight until I couldn’t see it anymore.
Turning around, I walked back to the door of the roof with the scroll of contract clenched in one hand.
I rubbed my eyes with my forearm.
Damn the dust. Always getting into my eyes.