Looking at the current Melanthina, busy with handling clan affairs, John would hardly recognize the mischievous young woman she had once been. And while he expected some amount of change to come with maturity, John wasn’t quite sure he liked the exact way things had turned out. Nik, meanwhile, John was used to seeing haggard. But that exhaustion was supposed to come from dealing with Melanthina, not other things.
This wasn’t even a problem of him not contributing anymore. The business of Melanthina hadn’t dropped since he returned, perhaps even increasing slightly. And frankly, John didn’t even see the point. Oh, he understood that the clan had affairs that needed to be managed, but the way things were being handled showed a lack of experience. Not that he should expect any different, but that meant it was his responsibility to provide some advice.
John caught his daughter as she hurried down a corridor to her office. “I need to meet with you and Nik,” he said straightforwardly.
“Of course,” Melanthina said. “We could do… tomorrow evening? No, maybe in two days.”
“It will have to be sooner than that,” John said. “This evening.”
“I don’t know if-”
“Don’t make me drop into whatever meeting you are participating in and drag you kicking and screaming out of there. Because I will,” John said with a wry smile.
Melanthina frowned. “Can you even…?”
John just began to circulate his cultivation, elements building upon each other. “Shall we find out?”
“Ugh, fine,” Melanthina shook her head. “We can shuffle some things around.”
“Good,” John said. “And don’t worry. I won’t be burdening you with more work.”
The meeting was in Melanthina’s office, but at least when John approached the two inside weren’t sitting in formal positions around the desk. Instead, Melanthina and Nik were sitting on a couch inside, Nik nearly passed out with his head on Melanthina’s lap. When he entered, Nik immediately sat up and faced him.
“No need to put on a show for me,” John said. “Honestly, that’s half of what I’m here to talk about.”
“What do you mean?” Melanthina asked.
“Look, I understand your transition into the duties of the clan head wasn’t as good as it should have been,” John said. “But I remember you being a smart little girl.”
Nik frowned, “Are you saying she is being foolish now, somehow?”
John didn’t either affirm nor deny that. “Have you heard the turn of phrase ‘work smarter, not harder?’” John looked at the two of them. Now that he thought about it, it was entirely possible they hadn’t. This was not the same world, after all, and he certainly didn’t remember it being common.
“I don’t know if I have,” Melanthina admitted. “But it’s easy to understand the point. It doesn’t immediately lead to any practical uses, though.”
John nodded. “Remember when you were a little girl, performing the bare minimum amount of your responsibilities to not get in trouble? Or convincing others to do things for you.”
Melanthina’s eyes flicked away at the second part. Perhaps she thought she’d been more subtle about it. “I am not a child anymore. I understand my responsibility to the clan, and how important my position is.”
“I appreciate that,” John said. “But I must ask which is more important… our clan, or others?”
“The Tenebach clan, of course. Family. Then our allies, then others.”
“A decent hierarchy,” John said. “But it could be a bit more granular. Regardless, the point of what I am saying is to improve efficiency perhaps you should be cutting a few corners.”
“How many people did you meet with today?” John asked.
“It was supposed to be a dozen. But eight… or nine counting you,” Melanthina said.
“How many of those could have been one meeting, or just not happened?” John asked.
“It is important to maintain our relations,” Melanthina argued. “Putting things off or not providing sufficient attention can lead to troubles down the road.”
“That is true,” John admitted. “But not everyone is equally important. And in a way, you need to let people know that while making them feel good for being acknowledged at all. This is what councils and grand balls are for. To make people feel included and represented, but only as much as they need to be. How many Quartz Clans have you met with this week?”
“Three,” Nik helpfully provided.
“And none of them were the important ones,” John continued. “You need to pare down what is actually important and what is not. And you,” John turned to Nik, “Need to follow suit. You’ve done well taking on duties to support Melanthina, but ultimately that led to you trying to do more individually rather than managing the same level of duties. You need to free up some time, and then you need to spend it together.”
“Of course we want to,” Melanthina said. “But it’s just so busy this year. Next year we can-”
“You can what?” John interrupted. “Finally spend the time together you’ve been meaning to? The two of you spent more time together as rivals than you have as married individuals. You may live in the same manor, but are you actually together more than Matayal and I were, living in two different clans? Don’t assume that next year will be less busy. Or that it will even happen at all,” John wanted to make that point very clear.
Nik and Melanthina looked at each other, with Nik making the move to slide closer to her on the couch and take her hand. “But what can we actually do?” Nik asked. “We’re trying to expand the influence of the Tenebach clan.”
“There are none in the Stone Conglomerate who do not respect us and the Order of the Amber Heart. The rest of our alliance is also well regarded. The most important factor is time, and you should give it that while taking some for yourselves. And don’t forget how that will benefit the clan, too. It won’t do anyone any good if you overload yourselves and damage your cultivations. Especially for the two of you, that is a serious concern. In the other direction, keeping a clear mind and letting your cultivations develop will allow other things to naturally fall into place.”
“I understand,” Melanthina said. “But we can’t just break off the commitments we’ve already made without causing bigger problems.”
“No. But you can hoist a few duties onto your grandfather over the next month or two. People shouldn’t feel scoffed to not meet the clan head, but rather lucky to meet a powerful Consolidated Soul Phase cultivator. I’ll remain around here to help guide you until things settle down a bit as well.” This was probably partially his fault, even though he intended to simply encourage them. “And don’t think I will be disappointed if a few people walk away with less than a perfect appraisal of how they were treated. Many other clans of lesser import won’t deign to meet with some of these people at all. And of course, everyone should still be treated with respect… it just doesn’t have to all happen on an individual level. I’m sure you can figure out how to manage the expectations of those who are truly important,” John said. “And don’t be ashamed to shirk your responsibilities a little. You may be the clan head, but you are still young. And you, Nik, will be responsible for keeping her- and yourself- less busy in the future. Just threaten to drag her out into the gardens.”
“I’m not sure if I can consistently fulfill that threat…” Nik pursed his lips.
“Then you’ll simply have to find some time to train yourself without her. I doubt Melanthina would let herself fall behind, so she’ll have to steal back some time. Remember, the most important thing the two of you can be doing is spending time with each other. Beyond that, making sure the clan doesn’t fall apart is the only truly necessary result.”
With that, John left them behind, hopefully to retire early together. These things had to be dealt with a little bit at a time, and he had to watch to make sure his advice wasn’t causing things to get worse after a temporary reprieve like this time.
On the front of his own cultivation, John was thinking about Ursel’s recent focus on body tempering. He’d certainly found Diamond Defense to be quite valuable in the past, tipping the scales where other things were approximately equal. John knew he wasn’t focused enough on the earth element to replicate the full effects of her more recent training, augmenting her bones and probably a little bit of everything else. But that wasn’t his style anyway.
He began to think about how he might achieve useful results for other elements, though the Tenebach clan’s records were limited for things that weren’t earth or darkness. And as for darkness, he found no body tempering guides… but he couldn’t say he hadn’t experienced anything. After all, the blessing ceremony came with an enhanced ability to see in the dark. An affinity with the darkness element would tend to do that, but John had the feeling there was more to it than just that.
Ciaritzal was easily found in the constructed tunnels beneath the Tenebach clan. The guardian beast was no longer concealed in a distant cave, but immediately present with the clan at all times. Not everyone could or should go see him on a whim, but John was one of those that had the status and personal connection with Ciaritzal.
“It is good to see you visiting more frequently. There was a short time where you seemed lost to me,” Ciaritzal said.
“It was three years, more or less,” John said. “Far too long.”
“The blink of an eye,” Ciaritzal said. “But still uncomfortable to have no contact.” He paced around John, his body inexact in definition even with John’s ability to see in the darkness. “I sense you come to me for a reason, this time.”
“There’s always a reason,” John shrugged. “Sometimes seeing you is the reason, but this time it is to rely on your wisdom. I have the feeling that the Tenebach clan’s ability to see in the darkness isn’t just a result of the enhanced darkness affinity of the ceremony. Or rather, that there is another layer to it.”
“Perhaps,” Ciaritzal said. “Perhaps not.”
“You don’t need to be mysterious, you know,” John said.
Ciaritzal’s form shrugged. “The mystery is more a feature of my own memory. Things have been done a certain way for a very long time. I am certain all of the reasons were explained from my own experience and the expertise of the early Tenebach clan that snatched me away from the Society of Midnight. What is it you truly want?” Ciaritzal asked.
“I am interested in tempering my body with each element. The ability to see in the darkness is quite useful, but I wonder if there is something more. Could I pierce the veil of true darkness like your own?”
“Certainly you could,” Ciaritzal said, moving behind John and speaking with his head just over his shoulder. “But would that be your most desired result?”
“Is there something wrong with it? I am certain we will clash with other darkness cultivators once more.”
“Indeed. But it is merely a small weakness to have the partial concealment of your foes. Is it not worse to be unable to see at all? Most commonly due to the harshness of the light.”
“Do you know a way to accomplish that?”
“Do I?” Ciaritzal asked. “Who do you take me for? Some sort of floofy light element bird? Of course not. But I am certain it could be done, and I would not mind hearing of your methods should you manage it.”
John laughed. “So I have to do it myself, then. Though perhaps that wouldn’t be a bad thing. I have quite a bit to learn about attuning myself to the light element, if I am to ever reach the Exalted Soul Phase.”
“And here you were not long ago concerned about reaching the Ascending Soul Phase. Or perhaps having permanently crippled yourself.”
John shrugged, “What can I say? It’s better to have a goal in mind.”
“I am glad to hear it. I also have one small piece of advice. It is not something I can accomplish personally, but I would suspect that having your eyes resist the light would be best accomplished with as little active darkness element as possible. Or you might get… a strong reaction.”
John could imagine it now, filling his eyes with darkness element only to have a flash of light spark an annihilating reaction. “A wise point. A more passive result is preferable anyway.”
John’s mind was filled with ideas. He knew the vast majority of them wouldn’t pan out, if any of them did at all at his current point. But simply having paths to test, progress to be made either through success or elimination of failures, that was the joy of cultivation.