Miles above the ground, on the peak of Mt. Sandakfu, with the clouds as the carpet and the blue dome of the sky as the ceiling, Bruno Felidae had placed himself in a world of frost and snow.
Even in the frozen environs, his upper body was bare, revealing corded muscles chiselled with years of diligence and pain.
His meticulously trimmed hair patterned like a tiger’s fur looked unkempt from the three months of neglect.
Tufts of white fur covered his chest and the backs of his forearms as well as the tips of his feline ears. His icy blue eyes were covered by his eyelids as he meditated, the lashes laden with rime.
In fact, a layer of frost covered him entirely, with snow piled high on his head and shoulders. At first glance from his utter stillness, one could easily mistake him for a statue.
If not for the gentle undulations of his chest, it would be an easy mistake.
Not far from his meditating figure, a couple stood by, onlooking. The wind and snow that ravaged the peak seemed to flinch from them, leaving a zone of stillness in their surroundings.
The muscular man in only a waistcoat with nothing underneath and leather breeches was Bruno’s father, Anil Felidae. Like his brother, his hair was a tiger-striped orange and his ears shaped like the beasts his bloodline originated from. Unlike him, his hair was kept long, braided into dreadlocks and held back by a colourful bandana.
His feline, green eyes remained fixated on his son, a hint of anticipation shining within.
A voice clear like the tinkling of ice against ice resounded from his side. “We should just go to my homeland. The ‘Amur’ are revered there. The return of two of such noble blood will be greeted by week long festivities and the sacrifice of the largest caribou in their herd. I do not understand why you insist on staying.”
The speaker was a petite woman with doll-like features. Her icy blue eyes and porcelain skin were complemented by short white hair with tiger stripes embellishing it. Her thick Slavic accent spoke of her origin in the Northern icefields.
Vera Felidae, mother of Bruno, wife of Anil Felidae. Her expression was as frosty as her element.
Anil Felidae chuckled and snaked an arm around his wife’s waist, pulling her close. She relaxed and rested her shoulder against his bicep and leant her head on his shoulder. The perpetual frost in her gaze softening in his embrace.
“You know why, my love. Despite my disagreement with my brother, I am a man of Regiis and I am titled Felidae. It is my soil and my clan. I will not abandon them.”
Vera turned her head to look up at him. “And what of me?”
He smiled. His skin, tanned from his travels, crinkled around his eyes. “You, love, are different. You fought, you lost. Hence, you’re mine. You’re of Regiis.”
Vera Amur, the only daughter of the Boyar of the Jaroslav tribe that attacked Regiis during the Great Northern Exodus.
The Northern Icefields were a land of paucity and survival was but an expectation. When the sixth forbidden land began its centennial migration, they had no choice but to move south or perish.
They invaded Regiis from the north, burning and plundering from those they considered ‘soft from their years of plenty’. Fearsome warriors all, the Northern province of Regiis was almost downcast as the hordes shattered the defence lines uncaring of the blood and broken bodies they left in their wake.
For in their words. “The strong rule and the weak starve. At least in Regiis the weak have a chance to serve.” Said Vera as she nuzzled her face into his neck.
“We were the invaders. We lost. As I stood in the stocks as a prisoner of war, having watched my father’s head on a spike, I didn’t dare expect to live, much less for the young recruit with the highest merits in his regiment to reject all other rewards and claim me as his wife. I care little for Regiis. Where you go is my home.”
Their eyes met, then their lips as the snow swirled around them, obscuring them from view.
Long minutes later, the curtain of snow parted, revealing them again. This time, Anil Felidae sat on a snow-covered rock with his wife on his lap as the both of them watched their son meditating, attempting to counterbalance the ill-effects of the use of a Glacial crystal to break through.
After the end of the Tournament, instead of returning to the clan, Bruno had travelled with his parents on their missions, both in search of means to make up for his flaw and to gain experience in preparation for his upcoming participation in the Swayamvar.
As one of the few remaining eligible bachelors in the Finalists, he had been chosen to represent the south-eastern province at the competition. He had drawn the token for the Trial of Water.
“Brother is really like an insurmountable mountain. He even promoted to Tier 5 in a Mortem’s Duel. His back is even more distant than before.” Anil Felidae said ruefully as he watched his son.
His wife looked up at him, confusedly. “This is something I have never been able to understand. If you wanted the position of clan head so badly, why didn’t you just take it? You obviously had the means to defeat your brother, yet you never used it.” Her eyes went to his right ear.
There hanging from his earlobe was a large earring. It consisted of two pearls the size of marbles followed by a large crystal that sparkled in the hues of the rainbow as it broke up the light that passed through it.
Realizing her gaze, he chuckled. Hugging her tighter, he said. “Why do you think I wanted the position?” He shook his head, causing the earring to sway and sparkle. “No, I much prefer my current life of adventure and travel over brother’s boring job at the desk. I- I just wanted to prove myself to father.”
He clenched his fist. “As the second son, nothing was ever expected from me. I was coddled and treated like a fragile piece of artware. Brother was always the only one entrusted with responsibility. He was the only one father ever expected anything from. Me? I was only expected to live a happy, carefree life. Father loved me. His love was suffocating.
“It hurt my pride. When even on his deathbed, father shortened his remaining life to extract a part of his mindscape to create a mind crystal amulet for me while he entrusted the clan to brother, I vowed through my tears that I would exceed brother and show Father’s soul in heaven that I wasn’t just the boy to be protected and coddled. I could bear the burden of responsibility too.
“If I used the symbol of my shame to beat my brother, what significance would my victory have?”
Vera sighed. “Really, husband, your heart is weak. In the icefields, if we wanted something, we took it. Your misguided pride left your son without his parents for all these years.”
Anil Felidae deflated. “The pressure brother gave me was too much. No matter how hard I worked, he was always a step ahead. Unless I used the amulet, I didn’t stand a chance. So, I evaded my responsibility, pushed my burdens onto my son. I wasn’t a good father and to keep me company, I kept you away from him too. I’m sorry.”
Vera shrugged. “Cubs have to learn to hunt on their own. Our son has grown well enough. The rough edges will be smoothed away by years and experience. In fact, I am grateful to your brother for the setback he faced. A goal he pursued with determination all his life taken away and made impossible due to circumstances out of his control. He will come back from this stronger. He is my son after all.”
“Now that brother has promoted to Tier 5 and even the amulet won’t be of help, I can finally discard my useless pride. The possibility of victory the amulet gave me clouded my vision till now, making me hold on to my obsession, not letting me realize how my family suffered because of me. I won’t make the same mistake again.”
Kissing his wife on her cheek, he set her down from his lap and stood up, walking up to the edge of the ledge he was observing Bruno from.
“But, I want to try one last time. One last chance to exceed my brother through the competition of our sons. A chance to let Bruno move out of the shadow of his defeat. I want Bruno to win the Swayamvar.”
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