The elements in the environment weren’t optimal for cultivating darkness or earth elemental spiritual energy, but the sapling was adept at converting different types of spiritual energy. The change in environment was still beneficial for John, as it allowed him to continue to familiarize himself with elements less common around his home. That included solitary training as well as sparring with various juniors of the brandles, Keahi, and of course Matayal herself. The latter was still ahead of John in cultivation, but he was able to put up a much better showing than before without Matayal having to lower her use of energy to his level.
Though both John and Matayal now used single handed swords, their styles were only vaguely similar. In the most general sense, they contrived to create openings in their opponents that they could take advantage of, but that was true of all forms of combat. John’s style was taught by Brage, an earth element cultivator and swordmaster. His style focused on aggressive techniques to disrupt an enemies’ footing and then take advantage with a heavy slash. Matayal’s style appeared more defensive, focusing on good footwork and well timed counter-thrusts. Even where her defensive movements were insufficient, the water element excelled at absorbing impacts and dispersing the force away from the body. Earth’s defensive abilities could soak large hits, but the user still had to withstand the impacts.
As they fought, John had the feeling he could defeat Matayal if he went all out. He was fairly certain he was intended to feel that, because while he had secret techniques and ones too dangerous for normal sparring, she should as well. Perhaps she was even holding back in terms of energy, because she had higher tier totems than him as well as being at the latter part of mid Foundation Phase. He decided that must be it. Water didn’t hide things as completely as darkness, but there were always things lurking under the surface.
While John wasn’t privy to all of the events in motion, he was given free reign to wander the grounds as he pleased. Netanel was quite insistent that he truly meant that, private rooms of clan members exempted. Not that John had any interest in snooping through people’s things.
Sometimes he overheard things quite by coincidence. At least, he thought so at first. The clan buildings favored wide open yards, but there were wards in place that could prevent snooping. Yet he still overheard without even making an attempt.
First was a meeting with the Kekoa clan. “Very well,” Netanel’s voice drew his attention as he passed by one of many possible meeting areas. “In the coming months we will send some of our juniors to the Kekoa clan for some educational sparring.”
“I am glad to hear it,” came a grandmotherly voice. “Both of our clans could benefit from the arrangement.”
“Yes. I am certain that will be the case.”
If John didn’t know the voice- and didn’t sense Netanel’s energy- he would have assumed someone else was speaking. It was formal and stiff. Given what he knew, that meant they were not actually on friendly terms.
The second time, he was quite certain that the wards had been active until he got close. He hadn’t even sensed anyone’s energy, but then he could- and hear as well. Was he unconsciously doing something to circumvent the wards? No. He also wasn’t terribly close. So he listened, hoping to glean some useful information.
“-should work together to secure control of the area.”
“I am aware of how this will benefit the Kauhane clan,” Netanel said flatly, “But I am uncertain how this would be beneficial to myself or my clan.”
“The resources of the island-”
“Are quite distant and not terribly significant,” Netanel interrupted. “What is it you actually want?”
“We simply thought it would be better to work together with a local power. Interacting with foreign influences will only weaken Pualani.”
“An interesting thought,” Netanel’s tone of voice didn’t betray any actual interest, “But the Brandle clan is quite secure in our position here. We do not need to make marginally beneficial commitments.”
It seemed that the Kauhane clan likely wasn’t pleased with the Tenebach clan’s presence. He could understand why he was allowed to hear, though honestly Netanel could have just as easily spoken to his grandfather.
So far most of the interactions had been from local clans, but later John heard about or interacted with others. He wondered which of the issues that came up would affect himself or the Tenebach clan the most. The answer came as he was laying under a nice tree in the garden. Though he could vaguely be said to be cultivating, he was mostly just lazing around. His fiddling with the various elements around him and circulating spiritual energy were just because he found it interesting. Higher intensity cultivation sessions filled most days, and a short break was quite appreciated.
He sensed two figures approaching. One was clearly Netanel- the old man’s power was quite distinctive and he’d gotten quite familiar with him during the weeks the Tenebach clan had been staying on Pualani. The other figure was a surprise, similarly powerful somewhere in mid to late Soul Expansion. It was hard to tell exactly with his passive perception, and actively scanning some sort of elder seemed inappropriate. That didn’t mean he had to cover his ears, though. Netanel’s energy brushed over him but he made no attempt to divert their path away or cover their conversation, which was as much approval as he could ask for.
“-quite a long trip from the other side of the Shimmering Islands, I’m sure,” Netanel actually kept his tone more pleasant, but John didn’t sense the sincerity of his more casual self. “I wonder what could bring you all the way here, Setiawan?”
There was a little bit of back and forth pleasantries before the question actually got an answer from the other. “We have a sort of proposition for you. The Brandle clan has grown strong under your leadership. Even with your limited numbers, you maintain the position as one of the contenders for the primary clan in the Shimmering Islands. However, your roots are still shallow. It would be beneficial to form an alliance between the Brandle and the Wibawa.”
“Perhaps you are correct,” Netanel stated simply. “Your stability could be useful. What manner of alliance would you propose?”
“It is quite traditional to have an alliance of marriage between the main branches,” Setiawan Wibawa suggested.
“It is indeed traditional. How unfortunate that I only have a single grandchild, and she is already engaged to be married.”
“Then it sounds like it is not too late. My grandson Anwar is a fine candidate.”
“Such decisions are not to be made lightly,” Netanel responded. “It would be inappropriate to act like a fickle clan.”
With that, they were moving out of John’s range of hearing. Sneaking after them would likely be difficult.
So many guests came to visit, though few of them actually stayed with the clan. None of those whose conversations he’d been allowed to overhear. However, he was even more certain that he was being sought out when he felt Netanel approaching as he sat in the waves, feeling the motion of the water as it washed over him, along with carried sand.
“Sounds like you’ve had quite a few visitors lately!” came and energetic but still clearly older female voice. “Any proposing marriage to young Matayal? My grandson could use some anchoring points in his life.”
“Kusuma. You already know.”
“Tch. Fine. I won’t push for that. Though if any of her cousins are interested… at least think about it. So who’s the lucky young man?”
“That would be Fortkran Tenebach. Right over there, in fact.”
John supposed remaining still at that would be somewhat suspicious, so he turned to face them and rose to his feet. “Greetings to the two seniors. You mentioned me?”
The older woman had long hair that moved with an unseen breeze. She shared a look with Netanel and raised an eyebrow. “This some kind of stuck up brat?”
“Nah,” Netanel shrugged, “He’s just good at disguising himself.” Netanel clapped the woman on the back. “This is Kusuma Mulyani. We’re old friends.” Netanel frowned. “Speaking of which, if you’re serious about that we need to make sure none of your grandsons are my grandsons.”
A bolt of lightning struck Netanel from the clear skies. It did little more than make his hair stand on end, but John felt the power from his position. He doubted he would have still been standing, and perhaps not even alive.
“Listen you old dolt. You may not have taken any precautions, but I did.” Kusuma’s hair coiled over him, lightning arcing between the strands. Then it settled down, and she smiled as she turned back to John. “I’ve heard of you. At least, a few things. I knew your grandfather, back in the day. Same as this guy.”
“I’m sure you have some interesting stories,” John grinned. “I’d love to hear them sometime.”
“Oh, I don’t know if it would be appropriate for an old woman like me to talk about your grandfather behind his back. But maybe I could be convinced.” Her energy swept over John like a wind. Gently, but thoroughly. “Kind of weak, honestly. Not a match for Anwar, with that split cultivation.”
John grimaced at the blatant and harsh review of his abilities. “I don’t know much about Anwar, but I am confident in my own cultivation path.”
“Is that so?” she asked. “Doesn’t look like much. And I doubt anything you’ve got will make up for the difference in totems. I’m predicting a loss for sure.”
“Is there something I don’t know about?” John asked. “Or is this merely speculation?”
“Oops.” Kusuma covered her mouth with her hand in a way that indicated nothing was at all accidental. “My my, I’ve let slip something. That kid’s certain to challenge you to a duel in the coming days, once he gets his ass in ‘optimal condition’.”
“Why?” John asked. He had some ideas, but he wasn’t entirely sure.
“For Matayal’s hand.”
“I don’t see how I have anything to do with that,” John said. “I’m the fourth most relevant person in that arrangement.”
“Oh? Fourth how?” Kusuma asked, her hair wiggling and rubbing against itself like curious fingers.
“Netanel and my grandfather made the arrangement, and Matayal herself certainly has an opinion. I’m at best the next most important to that.”
Kusuma managed something akin to a girlish giggle. “Oh, I like this one. Say kid, I have a few granddaughters…”
“Careful,” Netanel said. “They might be related to you.”
“Most of them aren’t!” Kusuma coughed. “That is to say, I’m sure it wouldn’t become an issue.”
“I will have to decline,” John didn’t know a proper casual method to refuse. “I’m honestly not certain about being involved with one woman, let alone more.”
“I guess you don’t have to take after your grandfather in every way,” Kusuma grinned. “Though the way you carry yourself certainly reminds me of him.”
“Is that so?” John wondered what she meant by that. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“It’s the confidence. Even if you don’t always have something to be confident about.”
John didn’t have anything to say to that, and since he figured preparing for a duel he’d probably have to fight seemed more important than hearing about old stories he wasn’t sure he wished to be privy to, he chose to excuse himself from the situation. He wondered when he would be strong enough to be able to shrug off political obligations, but decided the answer was probably never. The stronger he got, the more he would matter to others, even if he didn’t want to.