The only building in Koya that rivaled the sheer size of the Imperial Palace was Sun Castle. But even in such a vast building, where all of its people woke up, had their meals, attended their sessions, and sleep at the same time, it was unlikely not to run across your cousin for three whole days.
Unless she didn’t want to.
Right after breakfast this morning, Akira decided to look for her in her dorm room. The girls standing by the door gave him a judging look when he strode toward them, and that was when he realized that he should slow down a little bit. “I don’t mean to barge in like…” He cleared his throat, asking himself what on earth he was saying right now.
“You are looking for Kim, aren’t you?” One of the girls was decent enough to relieve his embarrassment. When he nodded, she continued, “She has just packed and left.”
The girl’s lips curled into a mocking smile. “You didn’t know she was leaving today? Or you didn’t know she was leaving in the first place?”
The ‘decent’ girl was not as decent as Akira had presumed, it turned out. “When did she leave?” he asked, unable to conceal the anger in his tone.
“A few minutes ago.” She shrugged. “You might…”
Akira didn’t wait for the girl to finish and sprinted away from her and her friends, ignoring their irksome laughter. Nothing preoccupied his mind as he rushed down the stairs except his unhinged cousin. He would understand her inclination for seclusion after the recent incident she was accused of, but avoiding him of all people? To the extent of leaving Sun Castle without even telling him? Well, Akira wouldn’t settle down until he got some answers.
The first thing he heard upon reaching the courtyard was the sound of clopping hooves. “WAIT!” he yelled, running after the carriage passing through the open gate of the castle. The carriage didn’t stop, though, forcing Akira to chase it outside the gate. To his surprise, the guards showed some understanding by not standing in his way.
Akira caught up with the carriage as it halted not too far away from the walls of the castle. Mad with fury, he resisted the urge to punish the coachman with a fireball for this uncalled morning sprint. After a second thought, he reminded himself that the poor man was just obeying the orders of his passenger.
The daughter of Kungwan Sen, the Archmage of Sun Castle and Head of the Imperial Court.
While Akira was about to shout at Kim, his cousin jumped off the carriage, scowling. “What are you doing, you idiot?”
Kim’s move took him off guard for a second. He was the one who should be chiding her, not the opposite. “What is your problem?” he snapped.
Kim gripped Akira’s hand and walked him away from the carriage until they were out of earshot. “I’m doing my best to keep you out of this, but you insist on framing yourself with your hands.”
“Frame myself? I’m not accused of anything.”
“I was told bits of your impressive performance during the investigation. Still, not everybody believes you are totally innocent.” Kim glanced over her shoulder at the coachman to make sure he was not following them. “That you might not have helped me burn the chemistry study, but somehow you were involved. That’s why I have been staying away from you, you fool!”
The casual way she mentioned burning the chemistry study worried him. “Wait a second. You…did it for real?”
Kim furrowed her brow. “You mean setting that damned hall on fire? I wish I did,” she scoffed. “Unfortunately, someone else beat me to it.”
His cousin had lost her mind indeed. “This is not you, Kim. You are the one who loathes destruction.”
“After seeing what I saw in that hall, I wouldn’t mind causing some little destruction to prevent a greater one.” She attempted a sardonic smile. “Obviously, someone else wasn’t glad about that place either and took an action.”
His cousin might not be lying about not setting the chemistry study on fire, but something was not right about her. Something that made him feel she was not telling him all that she knew.
She is the one who is not totally innocent.
“Kim, please, tell me: What happened exactly that night? What made them accuse you?”
Kim heaved a sigh before she walked Akira a little farther from the carriage and its coachman. “I wasn’t planning to burn the entire room; it was only the Tree of Amagesdon that I came for. I wanted to destroy every document—or chemical if necessary—related to it.”
“So, your sickness during that day…?”
“I was pretending, yes. Sneaking into the study was easier when there were fewer people in the castle.”
“Minjun was there to look after you.” Akira couldn’t utter the name without showing his aversion. “How did you get past him?”
“It wasn’t that hard.” Kim shrugged. “After he made sure I was ‘stable,’ he left to see to his business. That was when I made my move and sneaked into the study. It took me quite some time to search the whole place, and all I found was a bunch of scrolls mentioning the Tree of Amagesdon, nothing about the components and the formula. So, I kept scanning for a while until I heard the footsteps of someone entering the study very cautiously, as if he wasn’t supposed to be in that place.” She smiled wryly. “Like me.”
“You didn’t see him, did you?”
“No, but I saw the fire he set.” The satisfaction in Kim’s tone when she said that was a little bit awkward for Akira. “The whole act didn’t take more than a few seconds. Footsteps then fire.”
“You were inside the study when it was set on fire?” Akira exclaimed.
She shrugged. “It wasn’t too hard for me to make my way out of it.”
Of course, Akira forgot; she was a Red Cloak after all. With a simple jumun, she could figure this out. “You could have saved the study as well, but you didn’t,” he rebuked her.
“Why would I?” She curled her lips in disdain. “Actually, I wouldn’t have forgiven myself if I did.”
His cousin was beyond saving. “You didn’t say that in the investigation, did you?”
“It was unnecessary,” she scoffed. “Seeing me emerge from the burning hall was enough to condemn me.”
“Were there witnesses?” Akira had a guess already.
Of course. “How convenient!”
Kim tilted her head. “You can’t be inferring that he is the one who did it. Whether you like him or not, Minjun is one of the highly regarded mages in Sun Castle for a reason. His dedication to the Light’s holy quest is unquestionable.”
She might change her mind if she learned about Akira’s conversation with Minjun the night Lan had died. But anyway, Akira didn’t believe it was about the Third Crossing, to begin with. “What if that fire incident was not meant to be an act of sabotage to hinder the preparations of the War of the Last Day?”
Kim didn’t seem convinced. “What else would it be done for?”
“Making the Archmage look bad by framing his daughter.” Actually, both the fire incident and Lan’s death were enough to serve such a purpose.
Kim wrinkled her fair forehead, and for a few seconds, she seemed to be ruminating on Akira’s question. “I’m not saying this because he is my father, but I can’t think of anybody who has problems with him. All mages of Sun Castle are loyal to their Archmage.”
Akira stared at her. “A man who has no enemies is a man who does nothing.” A sudden idea crossed his mind, so he asked, “And who said anything about the dedicated mages of Sun Castle?” He leaned forward toward Kim. “What if the whole matter was from someone outside the castle?” A familiar feminine figure came to Akira’s mind. “Someone whose objective is to show the Emperor that the Archmage is losing control over the castle after he has become Head of the Imperial Court.”
“Hanu!” Kim’s eyes widened. “Hells and demons! You might be right.” She scratched her chin reflectively. “But you know what? She wouldn’t be able to execute her scheme without allies inside Sun Castle.”
His cousin’s assumption made sense. “I saw her at Lan’s funeral. Is she friends with any of his parents?”
“She is Wei’s cousin,” she said, then shook her head. “But I never heard about any disputes between the man and Father.”
“Perhaps there weren’t any previous ones. But that wouldn’t matter for the time being if he blamed your father for the death of his son.”
“This is insane.” Kim bit her lower lip as she kept shaking her head. “Hanu is a devious woman. If she is behind this, then Father is in great danger.” She stared at Akira for a moment before she added, “You might be as well.”
Really? That was a little bit surprising. “Because I’m his nephew?”
“Because you could be part of his plans. That would make you a hurdle to Hanu one way or another.”
Akira couldn’t help chuckling. “Me? Part of Kungwan Sen’s plans?”
“I know nothing.” She gnashed her teeth. “But the night I was searching the chemistry study, I found one of your documents there. You wrote an essay about how to produce extremely powerful stamina-boosting potions using only local herbs.”
Akira had to admit he was flattered to hear that. “My essay was about several kinds of potions, not just stamina-boosting ones.”
“I’m not surprised that Father is only interested in the latter.” Kim dug into her pocket, then she took out a small purple flower and showed it to him. “Does this give you any clue? This is the only whole flower I found in the study. The rest were a few petals scattered all over the floor.”
Akira scrutinized the flower he gently took from her hand. “That’s a cherry blossom. What does it do here?”
Kim cast him a studying look. “Doesn’t it have anything to do with your potions?”
No, but the flower, which was about to wilt, evoked an idea in Akira’s mind. “I thought you were disgruntled about my beliefs as well as your father’s plans,” he teased her.
Kim didn’t look amused when she said, “That’s where you and I differ, Akira.” She leaned forward toward him. “For me, it’s family that comes first, not faith.”
Akira nodded pointedly toward the carriage behind her. “Is that why you are leaving your family?”
“It’s Father’s decision, not mine. He wants me to leave before he announces my expulsion from Sun Castle.”
Akira couldn’t get it. “If you are not guilty of an act of sabotage, then you must stay. But if you are…”
“Death will be my sanction, then.” Kim smiled nervously. “But that’s not what I’m expelled for. I’m punished for manipulation—my pretense of sickness, you know—and sneaking into the study and thus violating the rules of the lofty Sun Castle.”
Given Kim’s current situation, Akira wouldn’t consider this bad news. “What about burning the study? Who is taking the blame?”
“Until this moment? Nobody.” Kim shrugged. “The investigations are not over yet.”
They wouldn’t be over before Kim went as far as possible from this place, Akira reckoned. Well played, Uncle. The heartless Archmage cared about his daughter after all.
“You are not returning home, I suppose?”
Kim grinned. “You are smart enough to understand that I must not tell you. It’s better this way.” She paused, and silence reigned over the place for a moment. Both of them knew it was time to bid each other farewell, but neither of them wanted to be the first to say goodbye.
“I know you’re not fond of the old man that much,” Kim broke the silence, averting her eyes, “but would you watch over him for me, please?”
Fortunately, I don’t loathe him as much as Mother does. He nodded without saying a word. She did the same, pressing her lips together as she walked back to her carriage.
And that was their farewell. At least, I got a flower. He contemplated the cherry blossom in his hand, then buried it in his pocket before he headed back to the lofty Sun Castle. A storm of irrelevant questions overwhelmed his mind as he stalked past the guards posted at the gate. He needed somebody to exchange his thoughts with, but that somebody was getting away from here as fast as possible. Yes, they had their differences, but she was always blunt about them, and that was why she was the only person he felt comfortable with. Even with his mother, he had to weigh every word before it might slip out of his mouth; a stress Kim never put on him.
Akira hurried toward the main building, where the first session of the day was about to start. Later, he should pay a visit to the plants’ section in the library. Because if he remembered right, cherry blossoms only grew on the southern hills of the island of Hokydo. Why would anyone bother bringing flowers of no use from there?