After the incident with Verusha, John considered tracking down his son. The general situation was certainly something worth asking about, though he might not immediately be interested in talking about it.
In the end, he decided to find him and make a judgment on the spot. It wasn’t terribly difficult to follow Tirto’s trail, as he was less than half as sneaky as his sister Melanthina. John found him in gardens on the other side of the manor.
“It seems like you shouldn’t get bored around here,” John began the conversation in a friendly manner.
Tirto sighed, “I was worried she might cause more trouble than this. Are you alright?”
John sat on a bench across from Tirto. “I was until my own son had to worry about me after a fight with someone only in the Foundation Phase.” John grinned slightly, “But I’ll be fine, as long as I don’t do that too frequently.”
“That’s good,” Tirto said.
Silence hung between them for a solid minute.
Finally, John spoke once more. “You need to figure out what you want for yourself. And if that would be a good thing.”
Tirto frowned, “What do you mean?”
John shrugged, “Just what I said. Moments of indecisiveness can damage things that are good in our life, or stop us from obtaining something good. I am not saying that you should rush to make decisions. Take, for example, cultivation. You attain an insight into your element. There is reason to have caution and study the insight for truth before attempting to make use of it, but once you determine it is a valid insight not making use of it only causes you harm. Either directly by stubbornly continuing with faulty techniques, or indirectly by causing your cultivation to languish when it could have grown.”
“I do know these things,” Tirto said cautiously.
“It applies to more than just cultivation, of course. I heard you took the initiative, observing the leviathan. You were part of those who were developing plans to defeat it, should it be necessary. Yet your appropriate caution resulted in something of great interest. Spawn of the leviathan, which can no doubt turn into a great boon for the Brandle clan, and the whole region. At least if properly nurtured.”
“I understand,” Tirto said. “But I believe there is something specific you aren’t saying.”
“Well…” John considered for a few moments. “I could let you figure that out for yourself. The context was sufficient. But on the other hand, I have the feeling that a bit of directness might be good for you.”
“I can handle directness,” Tirto said. “Especially with Verusha around.”
“Good. Because that is exactly the topic I wish to discuss. Let me say this clearly, I intend for you to make your own decisions. I want you to reach the best solution for all, and I have no intention to shame you for whatever choice you might make.” John folded his hands. “Do you love Emilia?”
“Yes,” Tirto said clearly. “I do.”
John nodded. “And the same is true in turn. Yet you delay in marrying her. Why?”
“Well I… it’s better not to rush into things, right?” Tirto asked.
“Indeed,” John said. “And if you truly thought it better to wait, you could set a date some time in the future. For example, one year or five years hence. But you hesitate, because you don’t want to hurt her.”
“Well, yeah,” Tirto acknowledged. “What if something changes?”
“If it is something unanticipated?” John raised an eyebrow. “Then I trust you will handle it as mature adults, even though you are young. And if you don’t know how, ask for advice. I know I have not been available, but there are others around you with wisdom.”
“It is difficult to speak to them.”
“You don’t want to seem weak as clan head,” John said. “Or as a person. I understand. But it is worse to be weak, physically or emotionally. And if you act on your own and slip up, it is even worse. But there is another situation here to consider.” John made sure he had Tirto’s full attention. “That of an anticipated problem. Do you want to say what it is?”
“Well, I… might not know quite what you mean.”
John smiled. “So be it. I’ll tell you, then. The problem you anticipate is that you will break off the marriage because of someone else. Or perhaps you are afraid of doing something even more foolish than that.”
“I… why would I?”
“Because humans are imperfect,” John shrugged. “Look at me, for example. It didn’t seem like I would fail to be there when you needed it. And when everything was going well, I would have been. But that’s not the state we found ourselves in. Now then, I intend to be even more clear. But I will allow you another chance to say it.”
“… I’d be happy, I think,” Tirto said. “Marrying Emilia. She’s wonderful and caring. She would nurture me in more than just cultivation.” John waited. “But I would always think… what about Verusha? She’s infuriating more often than not. Simply being around her is challenging. But I can’t help but think… maybe that’s better?”
“That is the question, isn’t it?” John nodded. “Would it be better? For you, for her, for Emilia? At this point, I don’t know if there is a perfect solution. However, I will say this. You need to be honest. With yourself, with them. And you need to make the best long term decision. At this point, I don’t believe you have made any unbreakable commitments. There may be some political fallout, some damaged feelings. But would that damage be worse than the alternative?”
“I don’t know,” Tirto admitted.
“It’s impossible to know,” John agreed. “But that is why it is important to do your best. Don’t believe you have to settle this all at once, but I would not want to wait too long either.”
John was relieved when Tirto sought him out several times over the next few days. Even if they didn’t make any concrete progress, the fact that Tirto was willing to do so was a good sign. John had been worried he might lose family forever, but that was the thing. They were still family and just like Melanthina, Tirto was waiting for him to be part of that again. It was certainly possible to cause a permanent rift that couldn’t be repaired, but he hadn’t let things get quite that far.
“She’ll be upset,” Tirto said.
“Yes,” John nodded. “She will.”
“And then after that, how can I even face her sister?”
“I would anticipate a heated response.”
“Okay but what if…” Tirto bit his lip. “You have to hear me out for this, okay?”
John nodded. “I’m listening.”
“So I know it’s not the tradition around here. But I’m clan head, and in some places it’s not so unusual…”
“Go on,” John said, fully anticipating what was to come.
“I could just… marry them both? What do you think?” Tirto looked at his father sheepishly.
“Tirto,” John said seriously. “You know I love you. That’s why I’m going to hold myself back and go over this patiently. First, do you believe it could actually happen?”
“I could… probably convince them.”
“And if not?”
“… I might destroy my relationships. Even worse than the other option.”
“Let us say you convinced them. Would that be better for everyone? For anyone?”
“It could be!” Tirto said. “That way neither of them would have to leave, and I know Verusha cares about me too. We would all continue to be together and…” Tirto trailed off.
“Do you think you could truly love them both as much as they deserve? Because let me tell you this. I loved your mother very much. Obviously. But I don’t think I could have devoted enough to her to truly express that even if we had been together at all times.” And sadly, he’d never get to find out. “What do you do when both of them want time alone with you? Without even the other one present? What if their ambitions lead them in different directions? Everything somehow goes well until you pass on the position of clan head. Verusha is tired of sitting around in one place. Emilia wants to return to her family. What do you do?”
“I…could make a clone technique?”
John fully burst out laughing. “Ambitious. I hadn’t considered that option. But you don’t happen to have one now, do you?”
“No,” Tirto admitted.
“Let’s say you start now. How many years would you have to devote to it? Would either of them wait that long?”
“… I don’t know,” Tirto admitted.
“I’ll never accept it unless you can prove to me that such a technique fully duplicates your consciousness, so you can focus on them as they deserve,” John said. Even with everything he’s seen and heard, anything approaching true clone techniques never really advanced past controlling a mass of spiritual energy in a vaguely remote location- while taxing the primary consciousness more than simply double. But even so, he was seriously speaking with his son about it.
“I get it,” Tirto sighed. “I just don’t want to lose either of them.”
“Who says you will?” John asked. “Perhaps I’ve failed as a father, but let me say this clearly. You don’t have to have sex with a woman to have a close relationship with her. And if you trust them to make good choices, any future partner of theirs will be mature enough to trust you to draw proper boundaries.”
“Right.” Tirto smiled, “Though I don’t know if I’d trust Verusha to make good choices.”
“It’s true,” John shrugged. “She fell in love with you, after all.”
“Hah.” Tirto’s laugh of acknowledgement led to a longer moment of silence between them. “I’d rather go fight the leviathan alone than make this decision.”
“Too bad,” John said. “It’s dead now, so this is your only option.”
“Uuuugh. What do I do?”
“Pick one. Or… perhaps neither of them,” John noted.
“That thought is so much worse.”
After another week of agonizing, Tirto was fairly certain his father would do something horrible to him if he continued to do nothing. He’d already gone over all of the options, and he’d come to the unfortunate conclusion that he thought would cause the least damage. He couldn’t even say that it would be the best for everyone involved, because it sure didn’t feel like it. Though logically he knew that trying to hold onto things as they were would be worse.
Tirto arrived outside a particular door. He hesitated. If he went through with this, he expected things to truly be over. He couldn’t just take things back. That would hurt everyone involved even more. As it was, Verusha was going to try to kill him.
He knocked on the door.
“Tirto?” came the voice from inside. “Come in.” He opened the door to see Emilia. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “Did you receive ill news?” She held out her arms.
While he would have normally liked to snuggle up against her to make himself feel better, that was exactly the sort of thing he shouldn’t be doing here. “I have to tell you something,” Tirto said. “Something that will hurt you. But I think it will hurt even more if I don’t say it.”
Emilia waited in silence. She trusted him. Tirto knew that, which was why it would hurt to break his promise. Even implicit as it was, it was well known and practically universally accepted.
“I intend to formally break off our marriage.” Tirto tried to continue speaking, but it was difficult. “I believe that going through with it would only hurt both of us.” It would be so much easier to leave it at that, then turn around and leave. He wouldn’t have to see her face any longer. But this wasn’t something he could just decide on his own. After all, it didn’t involve just himself. “It’s difficult to explain. To say it to you, at least. I’ve thought about it so much that the words almost don’t mean anything.”
Emilia sat in silence. In a way, she was supportive even in that moment.
“I love you. You mean so much to me. I could list so many wonderful things about you. I want to have you in my life forever. But… slowly, I’ve come to realize something. It’s not quite… the kind of love it should be. Because I’ve developed that kind of love for someone else without even realizing it at first.”
She knew. It was clear from her face. Her face couldn’t help but express how she felt… yet Tirto could feel wisps of spiritual energy around her face. Evaporation away her tears, so he didn’t even have to see them.
“I love you. I’ll always appreciate your support. You never pushed me too far. But at the same time… you also didn’t really push me to become better. And I don’t think that’s what I need. Furthermore… you don’t need someone who simply relies on you and provides a mediocre level of affection in return. We might be happy together. We would have, if I didn’t have to think about her.”
Emilia sat in front of him silently.
“Please say something,” Tirto’s throat tightened.
“I cannot refute any of your words. Or deny the truth of how you feel. I know.”
“… I wish you could tell me I was wrong.”
“Me too,” Emilia said.
“Am I a terrible person for needing to ask for your support now?”
“You could never be terrible,” Emilia said.
“I could have been.”
She shook her head. “That would have been someone else. You would have made the right decision eventually. And yes, I will support you. But I honestly can’t predict how she will react.”
“I can’t decide if I should wait.”
“Wait for what?” Emilia asked. “She will attempt to kill you immediately after you tell her we are not getting married. That is also the best time to tell her why. Or perhaps immediately thereafter when you’ve subdued her.”
Tirto snorted. “So, what, you think I should beat up your sister and then propose to her? How romantic.”
“It wouldn’t work for me,” Emilia shrugged. “But we’re more than a little bit different.”