With a silk handkerchief, Akira wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead, making his way through the narrow, thronged streets of Oyoto. The shadows of the tall building blocks were surely a relief on this humid day, but what he needed right now was a cool, refreshing bath. And the day was just starting.
The people he stalked past were certainly not happy, but nobody dared to protest once they caught a glimpse of his pink mantle. Yes, all Koyans answered to the Emperor, but the mages in particular belonged to him. We are his own people. And the people of His Eminence were not to be delayed or even bothered.
Kim seemed to be struggling to keep up with him. “You are walking too fast, cousin,” she said.
“We must catch that one before someone else takes it.” He pointed to the stagecoach coming down the main road, a line of passengers waiting for their turn at the station.
“You are not asking me to run, are you?” Kim scoffed from behind him.
Akira doubled his pace as he strode beside the waiting line. “Hells and demons! A mage,” he heard an old woman mumbling, but he ignored her. If she wanted to complain, then she should address His Eminence who honored the laws his holy predecessors had issued.
The thirtyish man and his wife at the front of the waiting line pretended they hadn’t noticed the mage coming through, and opened the door of the stagecoach that had just arrived at the station. Holding the reins of his two horses, the coachman wagged a firm finger at the couple, then pointed at Akira who was right behind them. “You know the rules. Wait for the next ride,” the coachman instructed the man and his wife.
“But he was not here when you arrived!” the lady protested, but her wise husband held her hand, whispered into her ear, and gently pulled her away. Now the way was clear for Akira to hop on, but he had to wait for Kim to join him. Come on, cousin, he wanted to urge her. We have an angry waiting line here.
Giving the disgruntled folks a quick apologetic smile, Kim strode past them until Akira let her into the stagecoach first. “Sun Castle,” he said to the coachman before he closed the door and sat opposite Kim inside.
His cousin groaned, stretching her tired legs. “Father had better find us a house closer to the station.”
“Your father could have made our journey much easier if he wanted.”
“You know him.” She curled her tiny nose, a smile slipping from her small mouth. “He would never let me use his carriage until I earn it.”
That rigid bald head. Wasn’t being the Archmage’s daughter enough to earn a stupid carriage? “We will earn it,” Akira said confidently.
“Speak for yourself.” She sighed. “I don’t think I will pass the last trial.”
Akira was aware of Kim’s struggle with herbs and potions. Her estimates were never accurate. A clumsy girl, she always was. “Even if you don’t, I believe you deserve another chance. It wasn’t fair to try you in your first six months. It took me two years to get the quantities right.”
Folding her arms, Kim shook her head, a smile of contempt across her face. “You don’t know, do you?”
Not sure what she was talking about, he asked, “Know what?”
“What these rushed trials were all about,” Kim said, and then she bit her lower lip, as if she regretted saying too much. “I presumed that tutors would share more details with their senior students.”
Though Kim was only one year younger than him, Akira was four years her senior at Sun Castle. “What details, Kim?”
Cornered in this carriage for at least a couple of hours, Kim should realize that it was too late now to keep hiding what she knew.
“All right,” she finally said after a moment of awkward silence. “Father didn’t tell me everything, but before heading to Sun Castle three days ago, he said something about a very big meeting there. A meeting to which every mage in Koya will be summoned.”
Wait a minute. That was not what he thought the letter he had received from his tutor was about. “I thought we were urgently called to Sun Castle to hear our results.”
Kim leaned forward toward him, her voice low when she said, “His Eminence himself is going to be there, Akira. We are summoned for something graver than the announcement of our results.”
The Emperor? He rarely went outside the walls of his magnificent palace in the heart of Oyoto, his capital. The only people who had the honor of seeing him were the members of his court, his Imperial mages, and the guards of the… “Blast!” he exclaimed, feeling that smile tugging at his lips. “Do you know what it means if what you say is true?”
Kim shook her head, squinting at him inquisitively.
“We are going to see the Emperor, Kim,” Akira went on. “Today, we are donning our red mantles.”
* * *
From a mile, both Akira and Kim could see the torchlit walls and towers of the colossal fort perched on a crag in the hills facing the western coast of Koya. As the two cousins got closer to Sun Castle, their coachman had to slow down as they encountered more stagecoaches and carriages on the road paved through the woods. Half a mile away from their destination, the path uphill was too packed they were forced to halt.
“Why aren’t they moving?” Kim wondered.
Akira craned his neck outside the window of the stagecoach. Supervised by three Imperial Mages, dozens of soldiers clad in lamellar armors were inspecting everybody and everything passing through the gate of the mighty castle. “Exaggerated security measures for the sake of the important visitor.” He turned to Kim. “Would you mind a little walk?”
Kim clambered out of the stagecoach and gave the coachman a handful of clinking dragons. Grateful, the coachman inclined his head toward the sweet girl, and then he wheeled his horses to go the other way downhill.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Akira rebuked his cousin, both of them walking uphill past the line of coaches.
“Being exempted from paying him doesn’t mean that I’m not allowed to reward the poor fellow for his services.”
“You and your soft heart,” he scoffed, shaking his head. “Mother used to say that soft hearts only attract the darkest souls to prey on in this world.”
Kim raised her eyebrows, as if shocked that her ‘heartless’ aunt actually said something like that.
Two soldiers stopped them when they reached the gate. “Name,” one of them demanded, the other holding a book in his hand. This must be the roster of attendees.
“That’s the Archmage’s daughter,” one of the Red Cloaks answered on Akira and Kim’s behalf. “And that’s my student Akira. Let them pass.”
Akira approached his beefy tutor and bowed to him. “Jihoon Sen.”
Jihoon was the hugest mage in Sun Castle, and arguable the nicest. He should have been Kim’s tutor instead of the dreadful Tashihara. “A good day to show up on time,” Jihoon said, not in his usual warm tone, though. It’s the blasted big meeting. Surely, it loomed large in the minds of all Sun Castle folks.
“Has His Eminence arrived yet?” Akira asked his tutor, almost whispering.
“Just go to the courtyard and wait,” Jihoon urged both Akira and his cousin, then left them behind him to resume his supervision duty today.
The courtyard was bustling with activity when Akira and Kim arrived. A dais was set, atop of which a magnificent seat was placed, the top of its back chiseled into a golden dragon’s head, the armrests into two massive wings. Down the right side of the dais was a row of chairs lined in an angle that would face both the Emperor—no doubt, that seat was his—and the audience that already thronged the courtyard. Most of the attendees wore the pink cloak, but Akira was aware that pink wasn’t always the label of a novice. Mages with a limited capacity of channeling anerjy would don the pink until they died.
Most of the mages sat on the ground, waiting for the big meeting to begin. Upon seeing Kim, a few fellow Pink Cloaks pushed to their feet and went to ask her if she knew anything about this gathering. For certain, she disappointed them with her useless answers. It was hard to imagine how strict the Archmage could be, even with his own daughter.
“Stop this hubbub right now,” a slim, dark-haired Red Cloak commanded, and at once, Kim’s friends dispersed and returned to their places. Akira had never had a conversation with that mage before, but he knew him very well. Who in Sun Castle hadn’t heard about Minjun Sen, the youngest mage ever to put on the red mantle?
Minjun Sen stood right before Kim, his hands clasped behind his back when he said, “Your father must be proud of you today.”
Kim grinned, obviously not understanding what Minjun was implying. She was not pretending to be secretive with her friends; she is really that clueless, Akira wanted to tell him, but he wouldn’t expose his silly cousin.
“You know I was your age when I was declared an Imperial Mage,” Minjun continued. Now Akira felt like an idiot.
“I’m eighteen. I heard you were even younger than that when they raised you,” Kim said to Minjun. I’m invisible now.
“Eighteen?” Minjun furrowed his brow. “You say you joined Sun Castle two years later than you should?”
Kim shrugged. “Father didn’t believe I was ready for this place then.” She wasn’t indeed. The Archmage’s daughter had failed in the final academic tests of the Foundation School two years in a row.
“You had better be ready now.” Minjun barely smiled, his voice as he added, “Our lives won’t be the same after that seer has gone to Gorania.”
“What seer?” Akira asked, unable to resist his curiosity.
Only now did Minjun notice that Akira existed. “Who are you?”
Hearing this question after spending four years in Sun Castle did hurt Akira’s pride.
“That’s my cousin Akira.” Kim spared him the trouble of introducing himself, breaking this brief moment of awkward silence. “His mother, my aunt, is one of the renowned tutors in the Foundation School.”
“Akira, yes; I remember the name.” Minjun nodded, managing a smile at Akira. “Jihoon Sen raves about your potion-making skills. But don’t tell him I told you that.”
Well, the Red Cloak’s praise took Akira by surprise, and it did make him feel better a little bit. Wait. Is he just complimenting me because I’m the Archmage’s nephew?
Akira harrumphed. “I’m honored that Jihoon Sen—”
“If you excuse me,” Minjun interrupted him, and hurried to answer the call of one of the senior Red Cloaks.
Could Akira’s first conversation with Minjun Sen have gone worse?
“Did you hear what he said?” Kim asked Akira in a low voice.
“I don’t mean to brag, but Jihoon’s praise didn’t surprise me.” Come to think of it, Akira found it disappointing that Minjun mentioned nothing about the rest of his capabilities. Potion-making skills? His mother was a Seijo—a person who lacked the ability to channel anerjy—and yet, she could even craft more potent potions if she just studied and practiced as hard as he did.
“I’m talking about the seer, Akira.” Kim leaned forward toward him. “That doesn’t bode well.”
“Why do you say so? What if that seer has brought good news at last? Isn’t that we have been waiting for?”
“Speak for yourself.” Kim scowled. “Blood and ruin is not something I have been looking forward to.”
Akira looked around to make sure nobody was paying attention to the mumblings of his silly cousin. “Even your father’s position won’t protect you if someone hears this nonsense.” Actually, her father’s position itself would be in jeopardy. How would the Emperor react if he learned that the daughter of his Archmage didn’t approve of the Last Day? The holy war all Koyans had been preparing for to reclaim the homeland they had lost to the so-called Goranians?
A bunch of Red Cloaks spread themselves across the courtyard, commanding everybody to line up. Guards and Imperial Mages secured the perimeter of the meeting venue, and shortly after, members of the Imperial Court showed up, sauntering in their bright, light-blue cloaks save for Hanu Sen. The short, gray-haired lady, who had been in charge of the Imperial Court for a decade, wore the only dark-blue cloak in Koya. None of the members assumed their seats down the dais until she claimed hers first.
Yes, colors did matter in Koya.
“I can’t see Father.” Kim stood on her tiptoes, fretting.
“He will come, don’t worry.” The Archmage always had a seat in the Imperial Court, and that made him the only person in Koya who had two cloaks of different colors. “Perhaps he is going to attend this meeting as an Imperial Mage, not a member of the court. After all, this gathering is held at his own playground.”
The bald fiftyish man didn’t disappoint Akira, and indeed, he came clad in the Imperial Mages’ red cloak. Instead of joining the members of the court, he led the Imperial Mages guarding His Eminence, the Emperor of Koya. For many Pink Cloaks here, if not all of them, it was their first time to lay their eyes on the Light’s chosen man to lead this nation. Now Akira understood why bald heads were so popular among Red Cloaks and members of the court.
The nameless Emperor was younger than Akira had imagined. His lean frame and clean-shaven face made him look Minjun Sen’s age. With graceful steps, he strode toward the courtyard and ascended the dais, his Imperial Mages surrounding him till he assumed his magnificent seat. After that, they split themselves into two groups; one forming a line behind the Emperor, the other down the dais facing the audience. All members of the court, as well as every mage in the courtyard, were kneeling until His Eminence gave them his gracious permission to be at ease.
“My sixteenth great-grandfather built this stronghold, not only to deter the Goranians from invading our western coasts,” the Emperor began, his voice deep yet loud and clear. “This place was meant to be a beacon for every Koyan, to instill hope in their hearts, to assure them that we never forgot, and we will never forget, the glorious mission awaiting us.” He paused for a moment, then he continued, “In other circumstances, I would say ‘Awaiting us and our descendants.’ But with the news that I recently received, I have come here to confirm to you all that it is only our mission. Our descendants will be born there, in the homeland our ancestors were forced to abandon centuries ago.”
That was quite a huge announcement. An announcement worthy of the presence of His Eminence himself. The War of the Last Day was a big topic the likes of Akira’s mother had been teaching to Koyan younglings for hundreds of years. If the Emperor really meant what he said—of course, he meant it. He was the Light’s voice on earth, mind you—then from now on, the Last Day would finally exist outside the books and scrolls of tutors and scholars.
“Lately, my meetings with the Imperial Court were centered around nothing but our preparations for the Last Day,” the Emperor continued, his voice firm. “It was disappointing to learn that, as we speak now, we are still not ready to achieve a crucial victory against the Goranians. While that has been our status for long, it won’t be acceptable anymore. We must deal with the fact the Goranians could be amassing their armies for a Third Crossing soon.”
Alright. The beginning of the Emperor’s speech misguided Akira somehow. A Third Crossing? That would be a nightmare if it happened.
“Starting from this moment, we are at war,” His Eminence declared. “And for this war, I will need a fully dedicated court to accelerate our preparations before it is too late. By the power vested in me by the Light Himself, I hereby announce Kungwan Sen as the Head of the Imperial Court.”
“Your father.” Akira turned to Kim, hoping nobody heard his low voice. Speaking in the presence of His Eminence without his permission was not a deed to be taken lightly, but Akira couldn’t simply keep his lips sealed. The news he had just heard was not only great for Kim and her father; it was an unprecedented event in Koya’s recorded history. Kungwan Sen would be the first Archmage to lead the Imperial Court.
The Emperor signaled Kim’s father to stand next to him and address the audience. The new head of the court started with a diplomatic introduction, thanking His Eminence for entrusting him with such a huge responsibility, acknowledging Hanu Sen for her wise leadership during her tenure. After he was done with the formalities, he addressed his ‘people.’ “Putting me in the highest position a Koyan citizen could ever reach is not just an honor for mages; it’s a reminder to all us of the great mission we are destined to fulfill. Starting from this day, and until we celebrate our victory in the War of the Last Day, nothing will be expected from each and every one of us less than perfection. Whether you are called to fight at the frontline, or organize the books in the library here, you will do it the best way possible.”
Kungwan Sen motioned for one of his cloaked assistants to hand him a scroll. “You heard what His Eminence just said; we don’t have what it takes to defeat the Goranians for good. And that urged us to make the trials sooner this year. For the upcoming war, we need as many Red Cloaks as possible, and we need to prepare them fast. That’s why we were so meticulous about choosing our new Imperial Mages. We wanted to make sure that their merciless training would enhance them, not break them.”
Akira’s stomach was in knots as the Archmage opened the scroll to read the names of the new Red Cloaks. “We chose nine candidates based on their performance in the last trials. We also took into consideration their tutors’ evaluation reports during their entire tenure at Sun Castle.”
Come on. Say the blasted names. Akira bit his lower lip, waiting for the Archmage to announce the first new Red Cloak. Was it taking too long? Or was it Akira’s anxiety that rendered him impatient?
You will be our salvation, I know that, Akira recalled his mother’s words to him the first day he donned the pink cloak.
“Fumiko Kaito,” the Archmage began.
You will be the one who abolishes the disgrace your father has brought to this family.
No one will even remember that this sinner even existed…
…after you become the holy scourge of Light to the eternally-damned Goranians.
Trust the seer’s vision, Akira.
The War of the Last Day is sooner than we think.
And you can’t be just part of it.
You must be one of its heroes.
Hearing the name of the eighth candidate brought Akira back to the current moment. To the courtyard. Where the Archmage was about to announce the last mage to join the heroes of the Last Day. Akira’s mother would never forgive her son if he didn’t…
“And Kim Kungwan.”