Focus was as important as stamina for wielding jumuns; Akira had been taught that, but it wasn’t the real reason why mages were prohibited from drinking. Poor Pink Cloaks, like Akira’s humble self, would rarely need to make complex bindings—scrutinizing scrolls and preparing potions required a more basic level of focus. Those inferior mages should drink whenever they wanted, right?
Well, Akira might have changed his mind after tonight’s little ride to the city. All that occupied his head the instant he hopped off the stagecoach that had taken him back to Sun Castle was one idea: to reduce this colossal, stony structure he was gazing at to ashes. Plainly, they are right about banning wine, he thought, waddling toward the locked gate of the castle. A drunken mage is a dangerous being. Be they Red Cloaks or Pink.
The guards posted atop the bulwark glared at Akira, their hands reaching for the crossbows strapped to their backs as he approached. You can’t be seen like this, Akira, he told himself as he straightened his back—or at least, he tried. “I was in the city.” Akira put his fist on his mouth to suppress a belch. “I was attending the funeral. See?” He managed a smile, clutching his cloak. “I’m wearing the white.”
The guards made way for their captain to come and look at the late visitor dubiously, his hands on his waist. “Everybody has returned from the funeral hours ago.”
“Yes, I left them for a short while, but when I came back, I didn’t find anybody waiting for me.” Akira shrugged. “Without my pink cloak, I had trouble finding an unoccupied coach headed here.”
The captain didn’t seem convinced as he smacked his lips. “It’s not up to me to decide anyway. Your tutor is Jihoon Sen, right?”
Akira nodded reluctantly. He was mostly sober, yet a voice in his head—the same voice that tempted him to burn the entire castle down—reminded him that he was a mage. With a single jumun, he could send all these clowns flying to the ground and break their spines. Fortunately, he came to his senses before committing a foolish act that would alarm an army of Red Cloaks to thwart the drunken mage. Not that they would need an army, to begin with; one Red Cloak was enough to defeat him single-handedly.
Fidgeting in front of the locked gate, Akira waited for the guards to summon his mentor Jihoon Sen. The minutes felt like hours, invoking the same insane voice to muddle his head with more reckless ideas. What is taking you too long, big man? he thought, clenching his fist. But when Akira took note of the guards aiming their crossbows at him, he raised his open palms to show them he was standing down now.
Akira sat on the ground as the waiting continued. Is Jihoon punishing me for my late return? he wondered, taking deep breaths to calm himself down. Reminding himself that his punishment would be worse if he turned his back to the castle and went the other way, he brushed aside the idea.
The iron gate squealed as the guards opened it at last. Akira groaned as he rose to his feet and entered, but the mage waiting for him in the courtyard was not his beefy mentor. “You picked quite the night to show your lack of discipline,” said Kyong Sen, his lips making a firm line. “Soon, we shall know whether you are too lucky or totally the opposite.” The tutor of potions and chemistry signaled Akira to follow him as he walked ahead toward the main building. Why were there too many guards posted at its door?
This doesn’t feel right. “Where is Jihoon Sen?” Akira warily asked, walking behind the black-bearded tutor.
“He has a more serious issue to attend to,” said Kyong without looking at him as they both traversed the guarded vestibule. Usually, those soldiers with lamellar armors paid more attention to the walls and the gate. That issue Kyong was referring to was apparently way more serious than the tardiness of one worthless student.
“That more serious issue didn’t harm, Jihoon Sen, right?”
“We shall know after the investigations are over.”
Investigations? What did this irksome tutor hide? “Is it too hard to tell me what has just happened here, Kyong Sen?”
“There was a fire in the chemistry study.” Finally, Kyong deigned to give him a quick glance as they stopped in the thronged hallway. “Wait here until you hear your name.”
Akira was alarmed when he realized that the waiting line ahead of him led to nothing but the office of the Archmage himself. “Am I a suspect?” Akira was totally sober when he dared to catch Kyong by the hand before the latter might leave him at the back of the line. The bearded tutor’s reaction was a hard look that urged Akira to release the hand and apologize.
Kyong didn’t walk away, though. “The investigation shall determine to what extent you have been involved with the primary suspect.” He leaned forward toward Akira. “With your cousin, I mean.”
* * *
Akira’s stomach was in knots when his turn to enter Kungwan’s vast office came. Sitting at the head of the table in the center of the room was none other than the Archmage himself, Jihoon and Tashihara next to each other on the side facing the door, all wearing grim faces.
The Archmage was not looking at Akira when Tashihara beckoned the suspect over, Jihoon folding his arms across his broad chest. “Sit,” demanded the most fearsome lady Akira had ever encountered. Why was he so nervous despite his certainty of his innocence?
“Do you know why you are here, Akira?” Jihoon asked. Despite his attempts to sound impassive, you could sense a hint of empathy in his voice. He hopes that I have nothing to do with this grave accident.
“I was told there had been a fire today.” Akira was not sure if he should reveal all he had heard from Kyong Sen.
“We have our reasons to believe it was your cousin Kim.” Akira couldn’t help stealing a glance at his uncle upon hearing Tashihara utter Kim’s name, and to Akira’s surprise, the Archmage didn’t flinch. “Is it true she shared her intentions with you before the incident?”
The tension was enough to nullify the impact of anything Akira had drunk tonight. The devious lady was dragging him into a trap, and he could see it. “With all due respect, Tashihara Sen; I find it hard to imagine that a sweet, disciplined girl like Kim would do something like that.” He mustered all his courage to add, “You have been her mentor for a while; you should know that very well.”
“We deal with the facts in hand, not our gut feeling,” she countered. “And the facts in hand point to her.”
“What facts, Tashihara Sen?”
“We are the ones who ask, and you are the one who answers,” she firmly said. “Now tell me; of all her peers, can you name one person closer to Kim than you?”
Again, Akira saw the trap, and it was inescapable this time. A yes would just walk him into it. A no would be considered a lie. “Not that I know of.”
Tashihara glowered at him. “Yes or no?”
May the demons take your soul. “No, I can’t.” He leaned both elbows on the table, looking Tashihara in the eye. “What does this prove anyway?”
“Akira,” Jihoon called. “You had better calm down. Stick to answering our questions.”
Akira didn’t wish to argue with his mentor in front of Tashihara and the Archmage, but you shouldn’t back someone to a corner and expect him not to defend himself. “Your ‘questions’ betray nothing but a prejudice against me and Kim, Jihoon Sen. How should I feel calm about that?”
The room grew hushed when Kungwan Sen heaved a deep sigh, both Tashihara and Jihoon staring at their superior in anticipation.
“If there was a prejudice, it would be in the favor of the Archmage’s daughter, not the other way around,” Kungwan Sen spoke at last, his voice flat yet Akira sensed his concealed fury. “You think anyone with enough sanity in this place would be eager to prove her guilty?” He clenched his jaw when he went on, “You think I would do that to my own blood, young man?”
Akira wondered if he was included in his uncle’s ‘own blood,’ but he didn’t dare to ask. “Why do you assume that everybody in this castle is glad you are assuming the seat of the Archmage, Kungwan Sen?”
Tashihara was about to protest, but a firm gesture with Kungwan’s palm silenced her. “Go on,” he commanded, nodding his chin toward Akira.
Now not obliged to stick to Tashihara’s leading questions, Akira should be more relieved. Surprisingly enough, it didn’t eliminate the pressure; it just made it different. The space Kungwan had just allowed was a chance Akira had to seize.
“I don’t know about the facts you all have against Kim, but I believe there is another one you should heed as well.” Akira was addressing the three senior mages, but it was Kungwan Sen who got most of his attention. “Of all people who dined tonight at the same place, the daughter of the newly-appointed Archmage got sick because of the food, so that next day, the day of Lan’s funeral, she would be the only student staying at the castle when the fire incident happened.” Akira paused for effect before he continued cautiously, “Which also makes me wonder why you accuse Kim in particular. As far as I know, there were guards, maidservants…and other mages when the fire started.”
Kungwan Sen gnashed his teeth. “Accusing a Red Cloak is a grave act, son.”
“Your daughter is a Red Cloak too, Kungwan Sen.”
The Archmage slammed his hands across the table. “Except that she was the first one seen coming out of the hall right after it was set on fire.”
That took Akira off guard. Now he understood what facts Tashihara was talking about.
“Who saw her?” Akira asked his uncle.
Tashihara cleared her throat, and on Kungwan’s behalf, she answered, “That’s none of your—”
“Minjun Sen did,” Kungwan cut her off.
Akira never liked the former prodigy of Sun Castle. “And you believe him while you doubt your own daughter?”
“Here, I’m the Archmage. My own daughter is there at home.”
“Whom do you trust more, Kungwan Sen?”
Akira’s uncle inhaled deeply. “Minjun Sen has always been devoted to our sacred cause. There is no reason why he might do something like that.”
“Kim didn’t have a reason either.”
“Kim has always had her own beliefs about the Last Day, Akira, and you know that.” Kungwan wagged a firm finger. “Don’t you dare lie in my face and pretend she never told you.”
The foolish girl! Has she shared her brilliant thoughts with her father? “I don’t understand,” Akira shook his head, astonished, “why are you so desperate to prove her guilty?”
“If she is the one who did it, then she deserves to be punished,” Kungwan said firmly. “That’s the code we live by.”
Kungwan’s ruthlessness was not something Akira was unfamiliar with, but in such a situation? With his own daughter? The old man has lost his mind.
“Akira.” Jihoon was back after a while of watching his master. “Do you agree with Kim that the Last Day could be a threat to the entire human race?”
Again, more traps, and this time, it was Akira’s kind mentor. “I never said she said that in the first place.”
Tashihara leaned forward toward him. “You agree with that belief or not?”
For this question in particular, his mentor could vouch for him, but Akira was now aware he had no allies in this room. “Of course not. I have been striving to wear the red mantle so that I can be part of the army fighting the Light’s holy war one day.” He gestured toward Jihoon Sen. “You may ask him, and he will tell you if I’m telling the truth.”
Ignoring his last statement, Tashihara asked him, “What do you know about the Tree of Amagesdon?”
On a regular day, Akira would boast about his knowledge, but tonight? With these people? He would hurt Kim if he showed that he knew much more than he should. “What tree is this?”
Jihoon peered at Akira. “Hiding the truth is as useless as lying, young man. So, do us and yourself a favor; we are having a long night already.”
How does he know if I’m hiding something? “And I can’t wait to walk out of this room, Jihoon Sen. So please, tell me what you want to hear.”
Jihoon fixed him with his gaze. “Something that you can say without affecting your pulse.”
Hells and demons! Akira had heard about the sensors, but he never knew that his mentor was one of them. Continuing this charade of ignorance was absurd now.
“It’s an ancient weapon that we are going to use in the Third Crossing.” Akira shrugged as he went on, “That’s all I know.”
Tashihara cast him a studying look. “Didn’t she tell you that it can destroy an entire city as big as Oyoto in a blink of an eye?”
“No, she didn’t.” She wanted to, but she didn’t have the time. All she had told him was something about the Light not being pleased with such ‘atrocity.’
Akira noticed that slight nod Jihoon gave to the Archmage. “I’m done with this session,” said Kungwan firmly, waving dismissively at Akira. As none of Tashihara or Jihoon protested—as if they could commit such a crime, to begin with—Akira pushed to his feet, bowed to the respectable mages, and took his leave.
“What do you think of this, Akira?” Kungwan Sen asked from behind Akira before the latter might reach the door. “A weapon that reduces a whole city with all of its people to ashes. Do you think the Light would approve of burning the innocent children, women, and elders with their blazed homeland?”
Akira’s investigators were saving their most baneful trap for last. A trap by the Archmage himself. What they didn’t know was that it was actually the easiest. “We don’t question the Light’s will,” Akira answered confidently. “And if they are innocent as you say, Kungwan Sen, then we are just sending their souls to the Light’s eternal paradise.”
Kungwan raised his eyebrows before he exchanged a quick look with Jihoon, the mage with the sensors’ abilities. “Of all the answers we heard today,” Jihoon glanced at Akira, “this one was by far the most truthful.”
Tashihara pressed lips together, surely not thrilled by Jihoon’s statement.
“You are free to go, son,” Kungwan said, a hint of a smile on his face. “We are proud we have someone like you at Sun Castle.”
Akira would have never imagined himself saying that, but this interrogation could be the best thing that had ever happened to him since he joined Sun Castle.