Bars of sunlight streamed in through the window, lighting the motes of dust that floated in the air. They illuminated father's face as he gazed out of the window, leaning against the headboard of the hospital bed.
As I walked towards him with a bowl of potion held in my hands, I couldn't help but study the stern visage that had shaped my childhood. Today, under the glow of the sunlight, the hard lines of his face seemed to become soft, serene.
When I placed the bowl on the table by his bedside, he turned to me and smiled. My heart clenched. The very smile I had tried my hardest to elicit from him during our training sessions together, today filled me with dread.
"What are you smiling for, you oaf!? Is it my corpse you see walking? It is but an arm. I'll have you whole in a jiffy," scolded Mother as she walked up with another container filled with medical instruments and assorted vials filled with preserved biological materials and mana-rich minerals.
"You think that just because you lost an arm, everything's over? I'll trouble you not to lump me in with those ordinary healers who can only regenerate lost limbs, yet leave them at the stage of an ordinary man's. All those years of effort strengthening it and infusing it with mana gone in an instant."
She set the box down with a thump, making me wince for the fragile vials inside.
"There's a reason I'm the Chief healer. Your muscle-memory might be gone for good but given enough resources, I can at least restore it to its previous intensity. A year of intense exercise and you'll be back up to speed." She reached out and pinched his cheeks, distorting his face into weird expressions. "So, don't give me that gormless smile. It doesn't suit you."
Father grabbed her hands, single-handedly and brought it to his lips, causing Mother to shoot me a flustered look and blush, swiftly withdrawing her hands back to her lap.
He chuckled softly, "Worry not, dear. I'm made of sterner stuff."
I breathed a sigh of relief. Yes, father's injury was a serious blow for an ordinary warrior, making them lose the entirety of the effort they had poured in to the lost limb during their training. But with my mother's variant of the Gift of light that incorporated the alchemical properties of water mages, she could siphon off the mana inherent in mana rich substances and imbue them in the new arm she generated for him.
In my anxiety for him, it had slipped my mind. Though, the amount of resources required would be quite astronomical, but we had some savings and with the help of the clan, we would be able to barely scrape by with a loan.
If it was for father, going a few months without resources was nothing. I smiled as I went about setting up the medical apparatus.
After her confrontation with the Duchess, even though her words had been for her own good, Mother had held a grudge, resigning from the post of the leader of the Healing committee. Thus, it came to be that I was conscripted to work as her assistant for father's surgery as she didn't want to owe the Duchess any favours by availing of any of the medical staff.
We were currently in the most secure ward of the capital's hospital; thus, we were quite startled when the door to the ward was pushed open.
Mother's expression turned frosty when she saw the Duchess leaning against the doorframe. "What are you doing here, interrupting my Husband's treatment?"
Covering her mouth with a tail, she narrowed her slanting eyes and chuckled, "Ara-ara. Don't be like that, sister." Walking over with a sinuous gait, she wrapped her arms and four of her tails around my mother from behind, despite her struggles. Placing her chin on her head, she addressed father, "I'm not the only one who came."
Following the direction one of her free tails was pointing at, I turned my gaze to the open door.
A gigantic shadow appeared on the wall of the corridor beyond it, growing as its owner approached.
A large hairy hand clasped the doorframe and a seven-foot-tall giant squeezed into the room, crouching to avoid hitting his head.
My first impression of the man was 'huge', the second was 'hairy'. He had a shaggy beard and hair that looked like it had fought a war with a comb and won. The backs of his hands and arms were covered with hair while a thick patch of it on his barrel-chest peeked out of his shirt which was casually unbuttoned to the third button.
My third impression of him was 'loud'. A booming laugh rang out as the hirsute man entered the room, his presence making the room seem small.
"Ha-ha. Big bro Veer. You have one such day. Its always been us lying on the stretcher while you've overlooked us. How's it feel to be on the other side for once."
His eyes brightened when he laid his eyes on me, closing the gap between us in a single stride, he reached out for me. My instinctive dodge was an exercise in futility as his arm seemed to cut off all routes of escape, speaking of his extreme attainments in the martial arts.
He crushed me to his side with an arm around my neck and ruffled my hair with his other hand. "Ha-ha. Is this your son? A strapping young lad. Didn't see him during the banquet or I'd introduce him to my good-for-nothing son. He's just come back from the military and would love to have a junior to brainwash. Ha-ha."
I gave up my futile struggles and resigned myself to the fate of being manhandled by this man whom I recognized as the Marquis of the North, Theodore Ursa.
"Ya know? Me and your pa go way back. He used to be my Commander when we both served in the army and I his Lieutenant."
Waving his free hand animatedly, he looked to the distance as he tightened his grip on me, making me look the same way.
"There we were, facing a horde of the Northern savages and as all young fellows are, I was as green as they come. They were charging at us, a tide of flesh and steel and I was too stupid to know the fear I felt for what it truly was. Ran out of the lines and charged them, I did. Stupidest thing I've ever done or will ever do.
"In war, an individual is merely a cog in the machine. Throw a cog at the opposite machine, not only will it bounce off without even scratching the opposition, it'll leave a gaping hole in your own. When I finally came off my bloodlust and fear fuelled high, I was deep in the enemy lines."
I couldn't help but be drawn into his tale, his enthusiastic arm waving, painting a picture of blood, steel and despair in my mind.
"They were all around me and my pride, my defence and strength, but a drop against their sea. I was prepared to die there, that day. Vowed I'd take as many of the bastards with me as I could. The only regret I had was that I hadn't done my Marge's belly in a big way before coming. Knowing her, she'd come charging right after me without the restraint of a child to keep her back in the camp."
He paused to wet his lips with his tongue. He was a fine storyteller and even Mother and the Duchess listened, enthralled.
"Then your Pa came through for me. He was one of the very few Tier 3 wind mages who could fly. I don't know what his balls are made of, but they're harder than steel. Maintaining the void in the middle of a battlefield is just about impossible but he made it seem easy as he rained blades of wind all around me, covering my retreat.
"I owe your pa a life, boy. I've come to pay a bit of that debt back."
He turned to the door, "Oi Donald! Marcel! How long are you chaps going to lurk outside?"
I turned to the entrance to see two men enter. No one else in the room seemed surprised to see them so I concluded that they had already detected them.
"Pipe down, Teddy, we can hear fine," said the blue haired man while adjusting his square-rimmed glasses as he walked in with a hand in his pocket.
"We didn't want to interrupt y-your touching s-story, so we waited o-outside," stammered the other. Other than his arms, which were longer than normal, and a long tail which he had wrapped around his waist like a belt, he looked quite similar to a Hominum, albeit with the area between his nose and upper lip raised slightly.
He had a large case slung over his back which he placed on the ground after he came in.
I recognized them as Marquis Delphinidae, the leader of the South and Marquis Primate, the leader of the West of the south-eastern province.
In this moment, the five people with the most authority in the province were gathered in the room.
Marquis Ursa turned to father and said, "When we saw you giving that ponce his due, we knew that things would escalate. Sure enough, it ended up in a Mortem's Duel. The Sun Wolf paid for his over-confidence with his life," he pointed at father's missing arm, "but, you didn't get off without a scratch either."
The Duchess took over, "We might have been helpless to aid you in your Duel," she poked Mother's cheek with the tip of her tail, "and we might have even obstructed some of you for your own good, but that doesn't mean, we won't help when we aren't shackled by the mandate of law."
"W-we know of your wife's ability to help your recovery along. We also k-know what is needed for such a procedure," said Marquis Primate as he knelt on the ground and opened the clasps on the wooden box.
It opened, revealing a crystalline shoot of bamboo that practically glowed with the density of the mana enclosed within.
He continued, "This is a crystal bamboo shoot that grew in an area under my jurisdiction by absorbing the energy of a nearby fluvial crystal. I-it is packed with water mana and hence, easily lends itself to alchemical processes."
Marquis Delphinidae adjusted his glasses, causing them to glint under the sun, "Of course, without me, you would have a hard time with the extraction. And Teddy here has been generous enough to foot the bill."
Marquis Ursa finally let me go before thumping my back hard enough to light up my Barrier. "Ha-ha. Don't worry Big Bro, you'll be up and about in no time."
Mother suddenly broke into the conversation, "Who has made the first move?"
The Duchess' lips twitched, "Don't be so cynical, sister. We are all Regiis nationals here… why would anyone hit a person when he is encumbered by misfortune?"
She withered under Mother's stare and pouted as she muttered, "A coalition of Earls, actually. Led by the Lutrinae, the otter bloodline clan. They want to reshuffle the political structure of the province. They're aiming for my seat while the others are trying to depose the current group of Marquises."
She turned to father with seriousness in her eyes, "Their champions have performed extremely well in the qualifiers and have around four members in the finals each. With your injury after your Duel and the withdrawal of the Heavenly Wolf Mercenaries from our war efforts, they have petitioned for the Felidae clan's disqualification and your removal from the post of the Eastern Marquis."
She turned to Mother, "If your Husband can convalesce a bit faster, we can counter their petition with one of our own. So, if you feel hesitant to accept our aid, just consider it a transaction. It is as much for our benefit as yours."
Father, who had been listening silently all this time, suddenly burst out into muted chuckles, shocking everyone who knew of his legendary stoicism. Recovering from his fit of uncharacteristic jocundity, he cleared his throat and spoke with a smile.
"Ah. I'm sorry. Just felt that their procedures are a bit short-sighted. Vying for supremacy internally when a war threatens the borders," he shook his head ruefully, before his eyes hardened and his mirth drained away as if it had never existed. "I feel shame at being their companion."
With a tingle of static, the hairs of everyone in the room stood on end as a vast aura emerged from Father's supine form. Dusky currents of wind gathered at his empty shoulder, forming into the shape of his missing appendage. Thin tendrils of lightning suffused the mana construct like nerves and rivulets of light mana drawn from his contract composed his veins.
When he clenched his fist, the world seemed to stagnate.
"Mana M-materialization!? Elemental Transformation!? Y-you've broken through to Tier 5!?" stuttered Marquis Primate, this time, more due to shock than his speech defect.
"Well, if you noted the Sun Wolf's eyes, you would know that he had already stepped on the threshold of Tier 5. Winning a Duel against him and losing my arm was my turning point. So, thank you for the sentiment, but I won't be needing your gift."
The Duchess was delighted as she clapped her hands. "As expected of the Tempest of the Mangroves. Congratulations on your advancement!"
She looked around at the others and said, "I think everyone will agree to give you the bamboo as a gift for this happy occasion." She raised her hand to stop his protest, "You'll be joining the war efforts at the border while we enjoy the peace bought by your blood, sweat and tears. It is only fitting that we contribute too."
Marquis Ursa bellowed enthusiastically, "Yeah, Big bro, take it or I'll be offended. Anyway, I'll try hard to advance too and join you sooner. Just pay me back by taking good care of me when I get there."
"Fine." sighed Father, letting his elemental arm dissipate, accepting the gift reluctantly.
The two other Marquises joined in the congratulations.
Only Mother and I were conflicted.
We were happy for Father but apprehensive about his joining the war.
In the Regiis Empire, without some extenuating circumstances, all nobles had a duty to serve in the army after their twentieth name-day.
They were to serve until they became parents. Then, to prevent war orphans, they were sent back to the interior and assigned administrative roles so they could enjoy the warmth of their family.
But, if they broke through to the fifth Tier, they were duty bound to serve in the Army again. As a form of compensation, their clans and families would receive certain privileges.
Meaning, the political status of the Felidae clan and my position as the heir to it's leadership was set in stone.
Yet, the only thing in my mind was Father's smiling face this morning.
He knew, yet he kept silent.
He watched us, enjoying our concern for him, reluctant to sour the moment with the news of his imminent parting.
He smiled for it was his last few moments of peace…
… before he bathed in blood and danced with steel.
Double length chapter for missing yesterday's release.
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