Chapter 638: Collateral

    Chapter 638: Collateral

    With the premise of an extended future in mind, everyone's heart ached for the chance. Western politicians resisted the calls from their own people, but only briefly. Before long the Western Alliance had released a number of official protests. In flowery and diplomatic language, the West decried Eastern attempts to keep them from the auction. They made the case that although it was the East who recovered the crystals, they were a precious resource for all of humanity. The West had as much of a right to buy them as anyone else.

    Zhou Xueguan's administration gave an even more clever response. Because the West had refused to accept these crystals as real, their invitation was rescinded to avoid conflict.  Harsh words were flung back and forth, but as the time for the auction neared Western politicians had begun to walk back on some of their rhetoric. Politicians wanted to live long lives as well, and behind every politician was a group with money. If those silent partners pulled support, they would be reduced to nothing. Vital crystals would be the least of their worries.

    In the end the West had to admit defeat. They acknowledged that the East had indeed found and recovered accurate data on the alien creatures. They also had to made concessions in other areas, and on top of all that required a higher collateral payment.

    For Northerners, the buy-in was a single battleship. For the West, they required an expedition cruiser - ten times the worth of a battleship. Only twenty seven parties from their Alliance could even afford to join. But for the East, that was already twenty seven expedition ships! Not a single crystal was sold, and already the East had the value equivalent of two dreadnoughts. There had never been a higher buy-in for an auction.

    In the end, the West was permitted to participate. However, that was just a chance, not a guarantee. Obtaining these crystals from competitors would be daunting, and trust did not come easy. No one side wanted the others to know how much they paid or received. The West elected to participate anonymously. Of course, participating openly was also an option, if the buyer elected.

    First to suffer fallout from the West's public shaming was the Austin family. Both directly and indirectly they had been the loudest skeptics. Consequences as biting as these would need to be answered for, and those in power were quick to put the loss on the Austin's shoulders. Thankfully the East had only increased their buy-in. If the political cost had affected direct bidding, Sylva would have had hell to pay.

    Undoubtedly, the East was using the pricelessness of these crystals for political gain. They dangled them like carrots before the Western government's collective noses. For the first time, weak little Eastern Alliance was in a position of absolute authority.

    The long-awaited day of inspection had come. After paying so much just to participating, the rich and powerful were eager to hear from their representatives. Because of how much was at stake, every representative was either experienced with the exuvium process or had gone through it themselves. Everyone agreed to adhere strictly any rules the East imposed. If anyone dared to break those rules - for instance, by attempting to steal a crystal - their delegation's invitation would be revoked and their pay-in kept. These rules were meant to be restrictive and strict, but also fair.

    Where the inspections were held was kept a secret until the day before. When delegates learned where it would be held, they couldn't help but scowl to themselves. For those with less honorable intentions, they news was even more distressing.

    Skyfire Museum!

    A plain and simple name, but what it represented made Adepts shiver. It'd been the seat of the Clairvoyant. Although the one called the Eye of Tomorrow was gone, he was famously enigmatic. Who knew what surprises the old seer left after his passing? Beyond that, anyone familiar with Skyfire Avenue knew what choosing this location meant. Anyone who dared step a toe out of line would immediately suffer the full force of the Avenue's ire.

    As an organization, no one could doubt its dominance. In recent years the Avenue not only produced a number of Paragons, but also put its bright future on display in the Great Adept Tournament. One of its young leaders even walked away Champion. All analysts were in agreement that Skyfire Avenue was in the midst of a meteoric rise. It already far surpassed the two Citadels and the Great Conclave.

    Among the Northern dignitaries were representatives from the Chu family. Chu Dong, as patriarch, had come personally. It was his first visit to the Avenue. His son had told him a lot about it, but seeing it all in person was very different.

    He took a shine to the Avenue the minute he walked in. Chu Dong was a traditionalist and loved the old style. Each antique building lining the road was exquisite. Be it the elaborately carved balustrades with fantastical Chinese beasts or soaring gothic towers passing solemn judgment, he saw a striking beauty in them all.

    Each step drew him deeper in. He looked bewitched, and for a moment forgot what they'd come here to do. Then something caught his attention. Four eyes met and all at once his pleasant stroll came to an end.

    It was him.

    Any appreciation in Chu Dong's eyes fled, chased away by inner conflict. But of course he'd react like this. How many years had it been? How long since he'd seen him, face to face? He'd lost the fiery attractiveness of youth, but had gained a more stately and wizened demeanor instead. He was a Paragon now, but the years had still left their mark.

    The Gourmet stopped three meters away from Chu Dong.

    "Older brother..." Simple words, but in this moment the Gourmet had to struggle mightily to find them. His voice sounded strained, there may even have been a shake in his tone. His eye were red and moist already.

    When they were small, Chu Dong and Chu Xi had been inseparable. Chu Dong was eight years his senior and diligently looked after his little brother. But though he was younger, Chu Xi was always more talented. Cho Dong had to work harder for less, but he was never jealous. They were family, and together they would recover their former glory.

    Even during his darkest period Chu Xi never hated his brother.  The one pulling the strings was their father, the cold-blood Chu Yun. Chu Xi couldn't remember how many times his brother helped him bear the cruel punishments of their patriarch.

    All of that happened more than twenty years ago. Old words written on yellowed ages.

    Pow! Chu Dong punched his little brother square in the forehead. 1 The Gourmet staggered backward a good eight meters before regaining his footing.

    Chu Dong appeared before the Gourmet in a flash, snatching up fistfuls of his shirt. "You bastard!" Chu Dong spat, inches from his face.

    The mighty Infernal Vanguard looked like a sullen child who'd just been spanked. His hands hung limp at his side, offering no resistance, eyes plastered to the ground.

    "Do you have any idea... -" Chu Dong's eyes were red.

    The Gourmet's body shook. The punch hadn't had any power behind it, just muscle and indignation.

    "Do you have any idea how much I've missed you!" Chu Dong relaxed his hands and hugged tight to the brother he hadn't seen for twenty years.

    For a moment the Gourmet didn't know how to respond, but quickly embraced his greying older brother with as much zeal.

    "Brother, I'm sorry." Those two words felt like a thousand pounds. He'd carried that weight in his heart for so long. Since becoming a Paragon, he had come to understand so much. He studied the old, painful memories for truth and learned a lot, like the fact that the Chu family could not have had anything to do with it. How could they frame someone and leave no trace?

    When they released their grip, Chu Dong pinched his eyes. His tears steamed away as his fiery Discipline fluttered. "Why didn't you come back? You must understand what happened by now. You know father's temper, and if you continue to act like this you're just like him - more than I am. Would it really be so difficult to go back, once? He's old..."

    He had to stop with the final words. Tears welled up in his eyes again.

    The Gourmet's voice was pained. "It wasn't that I didn't want to. I couldn't face everyone. I didn't know how I could stand in front of all of you again with everything I know now. Even today, I hesitated... I thought for a long time whether I could come out and see you. Brother, I must ask you to tell him I'm sorry. I know I was wrong, but what's done is done. I..."

    1. I pooed.
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