Opening a portal could be exhausting for the uninitiated. How about opening thirty on a single day?
I could be doing it all wrong. There must be an easier way to teleport all those Skandivians than escorting them one by one through the void, Akira thought, barely standing at the portal site, where he was about to start one last passage through the void to go back to Sun Castle. Was there a possibility that nobody there had noticed his absence for an entire day?
Missing sessions, be they studying or sparring, never went without consequences. And in the case of someone like Akira—someone who was a suspect in the chemistry study incident—the sanction could be exaggerated.
But right now, that sanction was the least of Akira’s concerns. It shouldn’t be a concern in the first place. With the information he had gathered from the Hokydoan smuggler, he should think of his reward.
What reward, you petty fool? If all that Natsu said was true, then the Third Crossing, and consequently, our entire holy cause, would be in grave danger.
Akira would kill to get some sleep, but first, he had to get out of the island of Hokydo. After draining the red balya decoction he carried with him, he became able to muster his focus and bind what remained of his anerjy with Earth’s pulling force. The shimmering portal opened with its usual cracking noise, and hurriedly, Akira stepped into it. Just a few days ago, he would have never believed what he was capable of now. What could be a better exercise than teleporting thirty people in a couple of hours? I still have a lot to learn, though, he reflected, gazing at the dozen portals on the other end of the void. Perhaps he should find a veteran Red Cloak to teach him how to avoid opening irrelevant portals.
When all this mess was over.
Akira crossed the luminous oval that took him back to the Portal Yard at Sun Castle. Quiet and abandoned, just like he had left it yesterday.
Or that was what he thought until he heard a firm voice from behind him commanding, “Don’t move.”
Akira froze in his place, and cautiously, he glanced over his shoulder. He couldn’t recognize that mustached Red Cloak, but he was sure he hadn’t seen him before. And since it was unlikely for Akira to come across a new mentor after spending four years here, he could safely presume that the thirtyish mage behind him was a battlemage.
“I’m Kungwan Sen’s nephew, and I must see him now,” said Akira, doing his best to sound confident.
“It’s your lucky day, then,” the battlemage coldly said. “He demands to see you too.”
Akira wasn’t exactly expecting a warm reception upon his return. But to be taken straightforwardly to the Archmage himself? “May I ask why he does?”
“You may ask him yourself,” the battlemage curtly replied. “Now move.”
* * *
The fact that his uncle, the Archmage, had been waiting for him was a little bit unsettling, although the old man was surely the right person to inform of the suspicious news from Hokydo. Jihoon was a logical option too; he was the most tutor Akira would trust. The only doubt Akira had was how Jihoon would react, though. Either he would do nothing, or worse, he would divulge the secret to the wrong people. I didn’t shake hands with a smuggler from Hokydo to end up expelled from Sun Castle.
The battlemage escorted Akira to Kungwan’s office. Without saying a word, the Red Cloak knocked on the door, opened it, then motioned for Akira to enter. “Shouldn’t we get his permission first?” Akira asked hesitantly, the battlemage casting him a hard look. “Fine. But I will tell him it was you who made me barge into his office.” When the battlemage puffed impatiently, Akira felt that his caution could be exaggerated a little bit.
The moment Akira set foot in the office, he sensed the tension in the room. Sitting behind his desk, Kungwan Sen let his quill fall on the document he was writing, his glowering eyes fixed on Akira as the latter advanced warily. There is nothing to fear, Akira, he reminded himself. Just tell him all you know, and your unauthorized absence will be nothing.
“What were you thinking?” Kungwan blustered, before Akira could figure out where to start.
“Uncle Kungwan, I can explain—”
“You know, this is the problem,” Kungwan cut him off, an accusing finger pointed at him. “You and Kim do not understand that I’m not your family in this castle. We are all soldiers here, and I mean by ‘we’ every single person in Sun Castle. That has been the norm for decades. But when you or my silly daughter commit something foolish, they remember that you two and I are related.”
Kungwan’s fury was over something beyond Akira’s mistake, his nephew’s mistake. “Who are they, Kungwan Sen?”
His uncle heaved a deep sigh, his eyes dropping down to the parchment on his desk. After a moment of eerie silence, he turned to Akira. “I didn’t choose to be the Head of the Imperial Court, and I never wanted to, but it happened nevertheless. And that did gall a bunch of Blue Cloaks.” He nodded his chin toward Akira. “You’ve become old enough to understand; I saw that already during your investigation.”
Akira was flattered that the Archmage was sharing this with him. “Is Hanu causing problems to you in the court?”
Kungwan smiled nervously. “In the beginning, she tried to convince the Emperor that I would be more of an Archmage than a Court Head.”
Tried? “I will take it that she didn’t succeed.”
“Not yet.” Kungwan shot him a blaming look. “But thanks to the recent unfortunate events—Lan’s death and the fire incident—I seem to be losing control over my own turf. And now you? I can’t even control my own family. How am I supposed to lead this nation in one of the most critical moments of its history?”
“Trust me, Uncle.” Akira knew it was a risk to utter the word, let alone stress it, but he took his chances anyway. “You will thank me if you just listen—”
“Thank you?” Kungwan retorted. “For what? Your absenteeism? Or stealing our material?”
Akira had borrowed some chemicals and herbs to gear himself up for Natsu’s quest. Had Kyong Sen identified the missing items this fast? “Please, give me a chance to explain. The matter is much graver than a few missing vials—”
“It is not!” Kungwan put in, slamming his palm across the desk. “You think I’m oblivious to your desperation to prove your worth? I knew, even before their announcement, that the trials results would frustrate you more than the rest of your peers. But I never expected you to take it that far. To involve my silly daughter in your foolishness.” He wagged a firm finger at Akira. “You are the one who should have been expelled, not her!”
Hells and demons! The course this conversation was taking didn’t bode well at all. “There is a huge misunderstanding here.”
“You might fool my daughter, but not me, boy!” Kungwan gnashed his teeth. “We know about the experimental potion you have produced without our approval.”
Experimental potion? Was that how they referred to the potion he had prepared on his own to boost his stamina ten times more than red balya does? “I created the formula of that potion.”
“That formula belongs now to the Empire. It shall be used to serve a holy mission, not some absurd boyish ventures.”
When would the stubborn old man listen? “I didn’t make any absurd boyish ventures,” Akira said, with an edge to his voice.
“Really? Then why did you prepare an extremely powerful stamina-boosting potion before teleporting outside Sun Castle? Did you go to the outskirts or even to Hokydo Island so that you could assault some outlaws at their dens? Isn’t it all about achieving a personal victory that might heal your hurt pride?”
His uncle’s interpretation of the whole matter was all wrong. Is that so? Why do you feel as if punched in the face, then? “This is not about me.” Akira cleared his throat, his voice not convincing himself even. “This is about—”
A knock on the door interrupted him, Jihoon Sen entering without receiving the Archmage’s permission. While Akira was wondering what was wrong with the people of this place, the beefy mentor announced, “Hanu is here.”
“What?” Kungwan snapped. “How could she come here without informing us beforehand?”
“Should we tell her to wait until you are ready for her?”
“No, don’t do that.” Kungwan pushed to his feet, the legs of his chair scraping against the floor. Pointing a firm finger at Akira, he demanded, “Stay here. Nobody shall see or talk to you until I’m done with you.”
Kungwan closed the door behind him as he followed Jihoon outside the office. He didn’t say a word to me, Akira thought, a little bit irked that his mentor had ignored his presence completely. Is he mad at me too?
It could be Hanu’s surprising visit, though, Akira reflected, recalling Kungwan’s reaction upon hearing the news. Her uncalled visit did hit a nerve in him, more than my ‘crime’ did. Not that Akira was surprised—not after his uncle had bluntly complained about her to him. He just couldn’t imagine the extent to which the enmity between the former Head of the Imperial Court and the current had reached.
Pacing around the vast office, Akira couldn’t help mulling over his uncle’s last command to him. He could have just asked Akira to wait for his return so that they could resume their urgent conversation as soon as possible. But no, that was not a priority, Akira believed. First it was that battlemage who had been assigned to watch over the Portal Yard to bring Akira upon his return to Kungwan Sen. And then, there was this clear statement: Nobody shall see or talk to you.
Was the Archmage so ashamed of his irresponsible nephew he wanted to hide him for the time being? Or forever?
You are the one who should have been expelled, not her! Maybe that was what this closed meeting was all about.
Akira was trapped here. That grand Kungwan-Hanu encounter would not end any time soon. At least a couple of hours later, Akira guessed. And surely, leaving Kungwan’s office was not an option. It would be another crime to add to Akira’s record, if the battlemage posted outside allowed him in the first place. He was still out there, wasn’t he?
Bored, and also curious, Akira found his feet taking him closer to the desk, the Archmage’s desk. This is wrong, Akira, he told himself, but what could possibly be the harm of skimming an unfinished document?
A letter to the Emperor?
Alright. Akira was unable to resist his curiosity now. Instead of having a quick look from the opposite side, he moved around the desk and stood right in front of his uncle’s seat.
From the Light’s humble servant Kungwan Okimoto to the Light’s shadow on Earth His Eminence the Emperor of Koya,
I beg your forgiveness for my delay in answering your call. All I ask is two more weeks to settle all the pending matters in Sun Castle. After that, I will be honored to serve Your Eminence by your side as long as it takes.
I almost decided on my successor. But first, I must make sure…
Obviously, that was the point when Kungwan had dropped his quill upon Akira’s arrival. But there was no need to read more to understand what this letter was about. His uncle was going to cede his position as the Archmage and move to the Imperial Palace to be fully dedicated to his role as the Head of the court.
Were Akira and Kim to blame for this? Should anybody be blamed in the first place? Maybe that should have been the right arrangement from the beginning. Juggling both responsibilities in full was not a simple task, even for the great Kungwan Sen.
Akira’s curiosity was getting the better of him; he was aware of that, his eyes fixed on the few parchments stacked next to Kungwan’s incomplete letter. No harm done, he told himself, picking up one particular parchment with extreme care. A letter with a broken seal.
The Emperor’s Seal.
Without thinking of the consequences, Akira allowed himself to scan the short letter. It was not that interesting, though. Just an invitation. No, an order to the Archmage to present himself to His Eminence at the Imperial Palace, urgently. The brief letter mentioned nothing about any ‘pending matters’ or Kungwan’s resignation, though. But plainly, these topics were discussed elsewhere.
Growing more comfortable in his uncle’s office, Akira checked more documents on the desk, but he didn’t find anything intriguing. Just a couple of official papers that had Kungwan’s seal on it: an approved coin dispense form, a signed supplies request from Kyong Sen, a proposal of a new training schedule for the newly-joining battlemages…
Akira stopped browsing. If I’m caught checking those useless documents, I’ll be punished to no avail, he thought, turning to the magnificent library behind Kungwan’s desk. Sorcery, history, chemistry, herbs, the human body, world geography, philosophy, even poetry; there was not a single topic these books didn’t cover. Had his uncle had to read all of them to become an Archmage?
Any books of these would do to kill the time, but Akira was not in the mood of reading. He would find similar books in the castle library if he wanted. But a rare chance to wander the Archmage’s office? No way would he miss that.
Akira kept his ears open to any sound coming from outside the office as he ambled toward the closed door of an antechamber. Bad idea, Akira. If Kungwan was keen that nobody else read those documents, he would have put them in the drawers for instance. But this room? It was closed for a reason. And Akira should respect…
WHAT. IS. THIS?
Akira hoped that his eyes were playing tricks on him, but he became certain they were not when he picked up that thing from the ground.
A petal of a cherry blossom flower.
No, no, no. It can’t be true. My uncle? The Archmage? He is the one who is supposed to lead us in the…How could he…?
Akira needed a moment to pull himself together. That purple petal didn’t necessarily imply that Kungwan was the mysterious masked mage who had struck a deal with Natsu the smuggler. It could mean that the mysterious mage had recently come to the Archmage’s office. Very recently, Akira thought, contemplating the clean floor of the office, recalling a particular part of Natsu’s account in their last encounter. “He was supposed to meet me on that hilltop, but you showed up first. I guess my message didn’t reach him that fast.”
The masked mage had been here, in this very office, today, right after his return from a fruitless journey to the abandoned hilltop. Natsu’s absence must have frustrated him.
That should limit the list of suspects. But first, he had to inquire about those who had met the Archmage here…
What if…? Akira was unable to dismiss this shocking idea from his head. Only one way could silence this inner voice of doubt.
The door of the antechamber was not locked, which was surprising and somehow relieving a little bit. If he has something to hide, he will surely lock the door, he thought, stepping warily into the dark, windowless room. Despite his exhaustion, Akira managed a small fireball and kept it floating between his hands until he found a torch attached to the wall. A single torch was enough to illuminate the antechamber, which was much smaller than the office. Unlike what Akira had assumed, this wasn’t designed for the Archmage’s private meetings.
This was simply the Archmage’s bedroom. What were you thinking, Akira? The Archmage should utilize his precious time efficiently.
In the center of the chamber was a square dining table, where his meals were brought to him every day, Akira could imagine. And next to the bed was a wardrobe and a hanger on which nothing was hung. Seems he was in a hurry today, he thought as he spotted a cloak, which was thrown on the bed carelessly. He even stumbled on a boot when he approached his uncle’s bed. Too clumsy for the wisest mage of Sun Castle.
Hoping he was wrong, Akira turned the boot upside down to scrutinize its sole. As he didn’t find any purple petals stuck to the boot, he heaved a deep sigh of relief. It didn’t prove his uncle’s innocence, though. But at least, there wasn’t anything that would definitely incriminate…
“Hells and demons!” Akira muttered, pulling the cloak that hid a big part of a mask. He grabbed the thing and held it next to the torch to have a clearer view.
Crimson. Like the one Natsu saw on the mage’s face.
* * *
Running away had never been a tempting idea like it was now.
After extinguishing the torch of the antechamber and closing its door, Akira dragged his feet to one of the chairs opposite his uncle’s desk. Head down, he leaned his elbows on his thighs as he sat. Lost. Terrified. Furious.
“With the help of two of his mages, he wants me to transport more than a hundred crates to Shezar; a coastal city at the southeastern corner of Gorania.” Akira was recalling what Natsu had recounted to him about her masked hirer. “If I succeed, he will pay me fifty thousand golden dragons.”
Everything about Natsu’s account was bizarre, starting with the destination. Why Shezar? Why not a much closer port like Dibal? Or even Yetsuda? And fifty thousand golden dragons? Akira didn’t have the least clue about the treasury of Sun Castle, but he doubted it could be much bigger than this insane sum.
And that had led him to one logical question. “If he is a Red Cloak—as you say—why would he pay for something he could do without charge? The whole Turtle Fleet is under our disposal. For the sake of our holy mission, the Emperor would never…” The look of contempt on her face had made him feel like a fool. “Hells and demons! He is not transporting our gear. He is stealing them!”
“Forgive me if I didn’t care.” Natsu had shrugged. “With this fortune, my family won’t have to work for the next two generations.”
“You can’t accept that job, Natsu.”
Natsu would never be glad to do as Akira had asked. “Say I don’t want to accept it. How could I even say no to a man who could summon a sea demon? He doesn’t need to pay me, to begin with. He could simply command me, and I will have no choice but to obey.”
That mage didn’t need to pay her indeed. He was just draining the resources of Sun Castle. That massive act of sabotage dwarfed the infamous fire incident.
“You must not fear him, Natsu. Once I return to Sun Castle, I shall tell the Archmage. He will know what to do.”
“You really think the Archmage would believe you, young man?” Natsu had asked skeptically.
“I don’t mean to brag,” Akira had scoffed. “But he is my uncle.”
Except that his uncle was not exactly whom he thought, it turned out.
Akira had to flee; that he knew. Where he should hide was not something he could easily figure out. He was not just escaping from Sun Castle. He was escaping from his uncle; the man he never loved, but always respected for everything he represented. The holy mission his mother had been preparing for. The ultimate aspiration Akira had been pursuing. Simply, Akira’s entire life.
And it was all based on a lie.
Akira could wield a jumun and stun whoever guarding the door outside. But even if he pulled that off and made it to the Portal Yard, he would tempt every mage in Koya to chase him for the rest of his life. A miserable life, that could be. More miserable than his current one.
You could do better than this, Akira. If he managed to compose himself until his uncle’s return, resumed their meaningless conversation, and concluded it on good terms, Akira would easily walk out the door of this damned office and head back to the Portal Yard without provoking anybody to follow him.
When the door of the office was open, Akira realized that he didn’t prepare himself for that ‘meaningless’ conversation. Hopefully, he forgets, Akira thought, staring at his uncle who entered the room. Without saying a word to the nephew he had detained in his office for an hour, Kungwan returned to his seat behind the desk, a scowl on his face. His meeting with Hanu didn’t go well, I surmise.
Or maybe his uncle was still wondering why his smuggler hadn’t come to the meeting she had requested.
Kungwan exhaled, then said, “I know what you might be thinking, but I was helping you by holding you here.”
Despite all Akira had seen just a few minutes ago, he was still unable to digest the fact this man, of all the men in the world, was a traitor to his nation. A traitor to the Light. Did Akira misinterpret the clues he had gathered? Clues? He sought a smuggler because he wanted to avoid the coastguards. He chose a destination that nobody would expect. If he had the Emperor’s approval, he wouldn’t keep that matter a secret.
Who else knows about this? “You said you were helping me.” Akira feigned a brief smile. “I just wonder how.”
Kungwan clasped his fingers together, leaning his elbows on the desk. “I was preventing you from saying anything that could be used against you. Hanu has eyes and ears here.”
Does Kim know what you really are? “In Sun Castle?”
“You said it yourself once, remember? We shouldn’t presume that everybody here is glad to see me occupying the Archmage’s seat. I guess some will find it really convenient to ally themselves to the lady who is surely not happy to see me occupying the seat of the Head of the Imperial Court.”
Akira didn’t like that implicit menace in the Archmage’s tone. “You are not going to lock me up for good, are you, Uncle?”
“I won’t, unless you deserve it.” Kungwan peered at him. “Now tell me: What did you do on your little adventure?”
Akira pretended that he was hesitant about telling him. “Alright, I admit it.” He exhaled, head down. “I was seeking a personal victory needed. I wanted to prove my worth; that I’m not less than any of the Red Cloaks you recently picked.”
Akira paused intentionally, prompting Kungwan to ask, “And did you eventually find what you were seeking?”
Akira sighed. “I just spent a night on the road.” He managed a nervous smile. “I was lucky enough to come across four bandits to beat.”
A hint of a wry smile tugged up one side of Kungwan’s mouth. “Was beating four bandits worth stealing from Sun Castle?”
“Well. I saved a man and his wife, to say the least.” Akira had just invented this story. But did his lying skills impress his uncle?
“Is becoming a guardmage what you want?”
Akira shrugged. “What if that makes me less useless?”
“You are not useless here,” Kungwan snapped. “Never underestimate a role you play in a great cause.”
For a second, Akira almost believed the act his uncle was putting. Seriously, this old man didn’t fail to impress him. In a different way this time.
“I’m not going to expel you, Akira,” Kungwan went on. “But I’m quite certain you understand that I can’t allow you to go unpunished.”