The exchange of Roshan would be taking place at the Quartz clan. This time, it was one of those John was familiar with instead of a new one. This particular Quartz clan was on amicable terms with the Tenebach clan, situated in the northeast of the Stone Conglomerate. Raghu had taken over as the sect head, and was close to reaching the mid Consolidated Soul Phase. One generation prior and he would have been considered something special. Now, he was hardly above average for those born into a clan of any size.
This exchange needed to go smoothly. Not because John hoped it might lead to future peaceful interactions- he was quite certain that if ordered Roshan would fight against him again. Sparing the life of a Consolidated Soul Phase cultivator was leaving a serious threat alive. However, Roshan’s life should hopefully cause more damage than his death would.
In truth, the exchange was in the Molten Sea’s favor. The resources agreed upon for his release were extremely modest, considering the wealth of the region. However, John hadn’t wanted to push too hard in the negotiations. Even if future conflicts were all but inevitable, he wasn’t certain he wanted things to escalate immediately. This would mollify them for some time. And Roshan was going to complain about Asgeirr, and driving a wedge between the Molten Sea and the Righteous Flame League would be useful. Even if they didn’t completely cut them off, if it made them hesitant to provide support once or twice… it could more than make up for Roshan’s continued involvement.
John was more cautious with bringing along backup, though most would not be directly present. Along with Crystin, he had two dozen more guards including a few early Consolidated Soul Phase individuals. However, if the Molten Sea came with a force that was even close to matching them, he had no intention to stay and fight. Roshan would die, and he would retreat into the Stone Conglomerate. If the Molten Sea was foolish enough to give chase at that point, he could call in some favors from surrounding groups.
But all of his worries appeared to be for naught, at least in this particular instance. A relatively modest group of three Consolidated Soul Phase cultivators and twice that many Soul Expansion Phase cultivators was what arrived to retrieve Roshan, led by a man with stark gray hair.
As the host and vaguely neutral party, Raghu was present for the encounter, John and the elder approaching each other while their guards stood back on either side of the meeting hall. Raghu fulfilled his formal obligations. “Today, we are here with Elder Aksel of the Flowing Flames, as well as the Tenebach clan head for an exchange. Roshan will be returned to his sect in exchange for agreed upon resources.”
As Roshan was already visible on the Tenebach clan’s side, the first thing to be brought forward was a chest, opened to display liquid flame. Part of the exchange was the chest itself that could contain such a thing, though the condensed mixture of energy was not as hot or as volatile as true flame or molten rock. After confirming that it was the right amount, John gestured for them to bring forward Roshan. Two weaker disciples carried forward the chest, passing Roshan to leave it with John.
“The matter is resolved,” Raghu declared. “Let the parties depart from neutral ground in peace.”
John almost thought Elder Aksel would leave without saying anything, but the man spoke briefly before he turned about. “One might wonder what greater value you gain from this exchange, but the Flowing Flames will remember the return of our disciple.”
In a way, that was the most valuable part of the whole deal. Because it brought to mind that while the Molten Sea appeared to be one monolithic entity, they were part of a region as varied as any other country. They might act together for a purpose, but they still had their own factions. Unfortunately, John knew little about their internal politics. They weren’t terribly open to outsiders… but it was at least an avenue to approach in the future.
When the news came of his sister’s engagement, Tirto couldn’t help but be happy for her. Specifically, for how she had come to accept what she really wanted. Tirto liked Nik, too. He wouldn’t have let Ursel push her towards accepting her true feelings if they didn’t think he was actually a good match. There was, of course, the slight issue of elemental compatibility. In normal circumstances, it wasn’t really an issue. The vast majority of pairings worked out. Any of the four core elements with each other were either the same or one of them supported the other, or was allied with the other. Light and air or fire and darkness with earth or water were also allied. More rarely, one might see light or darkness with opposite allied elements, which wasn’t great for cultivation but also not necessarily dangerous.
Then there was light and darkness. But both Nik and Melanthina were the kind of fools who would turn the explosive danger into an advantage rather than a detriment. They even already had totems to bridge the gap. Beyond that, well, it was their personal cultivation.
Tirto had to admit that Nik wasn’t the greatest in terms of social situations. He’d put in the effort to learn, but he was a whole lifetime behind politics. But he also wasn’t going to be leading the Tenebach clan, he was just marrying in. For that, his martial capabilities were generally sufficient to cover him. Though Tirto was a little bit concerned about children. On the other hand, he and his siblings were exceptions for having elemental affinities before they were born and with opposite elements the two should be even more likely to have children that were unattuned. Right? He didn’t actually know, and he only knew what he did about unusual cultivator births because he was one of them. His sisters barely knew more than he did.
Children. Some day, he would have children. Somehow, that was more terrifying than the leviathan. Actually, that wasn’t really a fair comparison. Tirto was far too comfortable with the might of the leviathan, and though it should have still been terrifying it wasn’t. He just didn’t know if he was ready for the responsibility.
On the other hand, he wasn’t in any rush. He was just eighteen now, and just because Nik and Melanthina got engaged at the earliest practical time didn’t mean he had to. There was also the factor that Emilia was two and a half years younger than him, so there was plenty of time to get used to the idea. And they didn’t have to immediately have children, though it was a necessary duty. Unlike the Tenebach clan the Brandle clan didn’t have strict traditions- Matayal’s parents simply happened to die before having a second child. Though Tirto understood not wanting messy lines of succession.
Tirto wanted to talk to Emilia about all of this, but he also kind of… didn’t? He didn’t quite get that, but he’d figure it out eventually. She was often around, so it wasn’t as if he had to rush things. Speaking of which, “Do you ever get tired of being here, Emilia?”
“Why should I?” she asked.
“Well, it’s… more difficult for you to cultivate,” Tirto pointed out. “Fire supports water, not really the other way around.”
Before Emilia could reply, someone else butted into the conversation. “Yeah it’s awful,” Verusha complained. “We should make you come with us sometimes! Beaches get boring after like a week, and they’re too cold!”
Emilia cleared her throat. “Verusha. I have no intention of dragging about my future husband as I please. I personally find it quite comfortable here.”
“That’s just because you’re too boring to have opinions!”
Tirto took a deep breath. He needed to relax. Verusha was just volatile because she was a teenager. And because of her father, probably. And being a fire cultivator was likely a contributing factor. “You don’t have to be here, you know.”
“Of course I do! If I hang out back at the Milanovic clan I get approached by all sorts of weirdos. They’ll say things like ‘Verusha, you need to be more ladylike to attract a suitor’ but also ‘Verusha, you’re not old enough to climb Zolvolj’. So it’s easier to sneak up on the way back.”
“That’s where you’ve been disappearing to?” Emilia frowned.
“Nnnnnoooo? Nope. I’ve been doing completely normal training stuff.” Verusha took a deep breath, “And also, people keep complaining about my hair. They say things like ‘why isn’t your hair green anymore?’ and all I can say is why is your hair still green?!”
Tirto looked directly at Verusha. “… Was it not always blue?”
“It was red yesterday!” Verusha waved her arms wildly.
“Okay?” Tirto tilted his head. He was quite uncertain as to why it mattered.
“Were you not paying attention?”
“It’s just hair,” Tirto said.
“It’s not just hair!” Verusha complained. “Hair is important!”
“Then why do you not like people asking about it?”
“Because… because… ugh!” Verusha stormed away.
The calmness returned. Tirto looked towards Emilia, who just smiled back slightly. “She’s just at that age now.”
“You were a lot more… restrained?” Tirto suggested. “Even Melanthina was… less. For everything not involving Nik.”
“Nobody is going to be quite the same,” Emilia explained. “Not even siblings.”
“Well, obviously,” Tirto shrugged. “Soo… why isn’t her hair green?”
“I’m not quite sure,” Emilia admitted. “It is green sometimes, though. It changes with her emotions, I think. It didn’t happen until she properly began cultivating, and it’s more frequent since she’s reached the second and third rank. But it could also just be the time. It’s unclear. Perhaps because of her forcing herself into cultivating earlier than she should.”
“I’d ask why she insisted, but she’s Verusha so…” Tirto shrugged. “She’s just like that, I guess.”
“Well, yes,” Emilia nodded. “But sometimes she’s… more.”
“Oh yeah? Any idea what causes it.”
“I do have some ideas,” Emilia admitted. “But like the hair, I don’t know if anything is the actual cause, or just a coincidence.”
She was aware of the heavy club swinging towards her head, but she ignored it. This was a great time to get in a strike of her own, and her stone club came down on her opponent’s shoulder. At the same time, a club hit the side of her helmet. Its momentum was negated with just a slight tilt of her head. Her own attack hit solidly, forcing her opponent to step back.
“Haha, gotcha,” Ursel grinned. “Bet you weren’t expecting this when you gave it to me, were you?” Ursel stepped forward. “Today, the student defeats the maaaa-” Somehow, her face was in the dirt. She pushed herself out of the dirt, rising to her knees. “Dammit, I don’t know how you did that trick but-” Instead of taking its position under her feet, the whole world decided to spin again, toppling her onto her back.
*Clink* *Clink* *Clink*
That was the sound of a stone club tapping on her face. “You done?”
“No I can still-” Ursel twisted her body, and her head only went deeper into the ground. “How are you even doing this?”
“I’m literally not doing anything,” Renato said.
“Have a concussion and ruptured eardrums, I think.” The world did a dozen flips as she was pulled to her feet. “Focus on your body.”
“Uuuuuugh,” Ursel said. “It’s not fair. That shouldn’t have done anything.”
“And why not?” Renato asked.
“Because I’m wearing mountain steel and my skin is basically invincible!”
“I don’t see how any of those things would stop this. Were you defending with your energy?”
“Well, I… didn’t need it.”
Renato sighed, “Clearly you did. I’m regretting giving you this armor now.”
“Nooo, don’t! I love it. It’s great. I get the lesson!” Ursel spoke wildly. “I guess I can’t do that until I finish Super Diamond Defense.”
“Don’t tell me you’re naming a technique that.”
“I forbid it.” Renato said. “Why not Hill defense or something?”
“Because hills suck!” Ursel said. “And, uh… I don’t want it to be limited to Soul Expansion Phase or whatever.” She grimaced. “I guess I need to focus more on internals…” she muttered to herself. “What kind of rocks can I eat…?”
Renato popped a healing pill in her mouth, which she automatically began to dissolve, then patted her on the shoulder. “If your technique actually goes anywhere, come to me for help with naming.”