The knocks on the door of his room awakened him. What was wrong with the people of this tavern? Couldn’t they mind their own business and leave him in peace?
Akira closed his eyes and tried to resume his sleep, but the knocks sounded again on his door. “Get lost!” Akira cried.
The female commanding voice startled him. Can’t be. At once, he pushed the blanket, jumped out of bed, and scurried to the door to open for the last person he wanted to see right now. “Mother? How did you find me?”
The fortyish lady wearing the Seijo tutors’ yellow cloak peered at him, one hand on her waist. “We are not going to have this conversation in the corridor, are we?”
For a week, he hadn’t returned home to avoid this very conversation. Reluctantly, he let his mother into his room and closed the door behind her.
The lady in the yellow cloak sat on the edge of the bed, looking judgingly at the small wardrobe and the mirror next to it. “What are you doing in this rathole?”
Only Kim knew he was in this ‘rathole.’ “Didn’t you ask the one who revealed my whereabouts to you?”
“I want to hear the answer from you, son.”
Akira puffed, groping for the answer his mother never wanted to hear. “I failed you, Mother. I will never be a Red Cloak.”
“That’s what I heard,” Akira’s mother pointed out impassively. “So, what are you going to do next? Spend the rest of your life hiding in this hole with your shame?”
My shame. His mother’s words sank deep into his heart. Her support was not something he needed for the time being. Should he bother to defend his hurt pride?
“Say something,” his mother demanded. “Don’t tell me I gave birth to a boy who grew to become as helpless as his father.”
Akira was unable to take any more of her nonsense. “You know what? I’m sick of you bringing him up whenever something wrong happens. Why do I have to carry the burden of his despicable deeds?”
“Why did I?” his mother snapped. “My entire life was ruined because of someone else’s despicable deeds! After more than two decades of service in the Foundation School, they tried to release me from duty, claiming that I wasn’t qualified to teach anymore. Do you know why? Because an adulterer’s wife could never be a role model for younger generations!”
Akira was too young when his father was publicly executed for his sin. His mother had never told him about her troubles with the school. “Who were they?” he asked. “The school supervisors?”
“Them, fellow tutors, and pupils’ parents,” she said bitterly. “I struggled to defend my position there, and I barely kept it. But they made it clear to me that this was the farthest I could get. The orange cloak was something I had to forget about because I was blamed for a sin I never committed.”
The orange cloak was the highest tier any Seijo outside the Imperial Court could ever dream of. It meant for his mother what the red cloak meant for him.
“Nobody has the right to judge anybody except the Light Himself,” Akira said.
“We are nothing but sinners who judge other sinners.” His mother grimaced. “It’s not right, but that’s the reality that we have to deal with.” She rose to her feet, approached Akira, and held his cheeks with both hands. “I had to fight to earn my place, Akira. So, instead of fretting about the reason why your life has become like this, ask yourself what you must do to change it the way you deserve.”
The prestige of the red cloak; Akira was aware that many mothers in Koya—other than the one holding his face right now—were obsessed with the idea of seeing their sons and daughters wear this distinguished attire. The attire of the Light’s soldiers in the holy war to liberate their occupied homeland. But in Akira’s mother’s case, it wasn’t all about the honor of fighting the Goranians.
He would dare say it was never about the Light’s holy war.
“I did whatever it took to earn my place too, Mother.” Akira gently put his mother’s hands down, away from his face. “I worked really hard, read every book, studied every potion and jumun, implemented everything I had learned in the trials. What else was I supposed to do?”
“A few more things. For a starter: Did you talk to your tutor or anybody at Sun Castle to understand why you were not raised to a Red Cloak? Did you ask them when the next trials are? What you need to improve to pass them?”
His mother’s presence of mind was not bad. “You stated every step I should consider except going directly to my uncle. Don’t you want me to talk to him?” He leaned toward her. “Don’t you want to talk to your brother?”
“My brother,” she echoed in self-contempt. “He was never there for his sister. He always looked down upon me because I was a Seijo, not a Mahono like him. I’m not going to beg him after all these years.”
Mages were only wed to mages; a law the emperors had enforced to ensure sorcery would never perish. But that didn’t prevent Akira’s Mahono grandparents from giving birth to a Seijo daughter. Mother was their malformed child.
“Your brother happens to be also the Archmage, who has the upper hand in every decision made at Sun Castle,” Akira reminded his mother. “Doesn’t that make you believe that returning to that place to question my results would be futile?”
His mother wagged a firm finger. “Don’t you dare tell me it’s futile before you fight the fight. What worse could happen to you, boy?”
“Nothing, most probably.” He shrugged. “But I know for sure that nothing good would happen either.”
“So, this is your next big move?” His mother curled her nose, gesturing at the cracked walls of his small room. “Don’t you understand that they will definitely expel you from Sun Castle if you disappear like that without notice? Do you think this will pass without repercussions on you? On me?” Fidgeting, she returned to the edge of the bed and sat, her eyes on the floor. “I won’t only be the adulterer’s widow; I will be the Mother of the Rejected.”
His mother wouldn’t relent until he did as she asked; Akira should know better. She will blame me forever for her misery, he thought. Silencing her is worth it.
“Fine.” Akira rubbed his face with both hands, then forced a smile. “I will go back to Sun Castle and see what went wrong.”
Without asking, his mother opened the wardrobe, took the pink cloak out of it, and put it in Akira’s hands. “You are going now.”
* * *
Akira had never loathed his pink cloak as he did today. Wrong. I hated it the most the day Kungwan Sen, my dear uncle, announced the names of the new Red Cloaks.
The tavern he had been staying in was in the heart of the capital. Finding a coach here implied skipping a long waiting line of irked travelers—longer than the one at the station near Kim’s house. Except that they were not so angry today. Actually, they urged him to go ahead. I lock myself up for one week, and I find a different country on my first day out.
To Akira’s surprise, the smiles on the travelers faces vexed him—they just didn’t seem right. What happened to the angry murmurs and the eyes shooting daggers at him; his usual routine whenever he went to seek a ride at a station?
The first woman in the line made way for the young mage to take her turn. When the stagecoach arrived, Akira turned to the first four people. “There is a plenty of room inside.” He motioned for them to get inside as he clambered to sit next to the coachman.
“I will be flogged for this, Master Mage,” said the coachman politely.
“If any guard stops us, I will tell him I asked for it.” He looked at the travelers who assumed their seats already. “And take them to their destinations first. My stop is the farthest anyway.”
The hesitant coachman took some time to decide. This simpleton must be wondering if I’m testing him, Akira reckoned. “It’s alright, good man,” he reassured the coachman. Let’s go.”
The stagecoach went through the packed streets of the Craftsmen Quarters, which was arguably the noisiest district in Oyoto, if not across the entire Koyan Empire. But cramming all smithies and carpentry workshops into the same neighborhood was a move the restless capital needed; it might have granted the majority of this populous city some peace. May the Light help the folks who live here.
The coachman had dropped two passengers at their destinations when he surprised Akira and asked, “So, when will it happen?”
“What will happen?”
The coachman’s eyes widened in excitement when he said, “The Third Crossing. Come on, Master Mage. You can’t pretend you know nothing about it.”
When had the rumors leaked outside the walls of Sun Castle? “Perhaps I do,” Akira scoffed. “You seem glad about it, though.”
“You have no idea, Master Mage.” The coachman smacked his lips. “It is relieving to know that all these centuries of suffering will be over soon.”
“You live in the capital and talk about suffering? What would the folks from Hokydo say, then?”
The coachman cast Akira a judging look. “Forgive me, young Master, but you’re a mage. You know nothing about prices and taxes because you never need to pay. You know nothing about the good folks who move from this city every day because of its ever-increasing cost of living.”
Taxes was a big problem in Oyoto, Akira knew, but it wasn’t necessary to brag about his knowledge right now. Because as the coachman had just said: the likes of Akira never went through the struggle of affording anything. That’s why they hated us. We have been privileged for doing nothing.
But that wouldn’t be the case with the Third Crossing. Now Akira understood what those smiling faces at the waiting line were for. We are their saviors.
Except that he wasn’t. Those ignorant folks couldn’t imagine how huge the difference between the Pink Cloaks and the real saviors of the Koyan nation was.
“Wars come at a cost.” Akira borrowed this piece of wisdom from some book he didn’t remember its name.
“Our people have already been paying its cost in vain. About time we reaped something.”
The stagecoach halted to drop the last two passengers. The coachman gestured toward the empty seats behind Akira, but the young mage insisted on resuming the journey next to him. After a week of seclusion, Akira could make use of some company.
“What makes so you sure you will reap anything good from that war?” Akira asked.
“We may not be well educated like you, Master Mage, but our grandparents told us the tales they had heard from their grandparents about our Old Koya; our real homeland, which was twenty times bigger than the wretched islands we have been trapped on for centuries. Don’t tell me our life won’t be better there!”
The difference in areas between their current homeland and Old Koya—the continent its people called Gorania—was not accurate, yet not much exaggerated. Those vast, rich lands across the Koyan Sea were enough to change the Koyans’ lives forever. Seijo mothers will be allowed to give birth to siblings, to say the least.
“I was talking about our chances in beating the Goranians,” said Akira. “What makes you believe that our victory is guaranteed.”
“We have mages, the Goranians don’t. In fact, I wonder why we have waited for too long to wage war on them.”
“Because our emperors wanted to avoid a fate similar to the one we suffered in the Second Crossing.” Obviously, some Koyans had forgotten what their ancestors had narrated about their previous two wars against the Goranians. After a failed first attempt to invade the Koyans’ continent, the Goranians had learned their lesson and crushed the Koyans in their second campaign, forcing them to abandon their homeland until this day. Although we had mages back then, too.
“You say we are not ready yet, Master Mage?” the coachman asked warily, making Akira wish he could take all his questions back. I just wanted to understand, not to make you question the Emperor’s decision. Questioning anything His Eminence did or said was a grave action that would never pass without a befitting sanction.
“Of course, we are, but I have my reasons to know that.” Akira didn’t flinch. “I was just curious to hear yours.”
For the sake of safety, Akira steered the conversation toward the humid weather and the mosquitos infesting the western coast of the island, particularly Sun Castle, and the trick worked. After that, he let the coachman blabber on about his persistent great-grandfather who had made a bold move and left his parents in Hokydo to start on his own in the great city of Oyoto. For the rest of the journey, Akira didn’t pay much attention to the coachman’s prattle.
Akira did his best to avoid any familiar faces as he entered the castle. While his attempt wasn’t a complete success, he managed to evade any long conversations with the few colleagues he ran into by not falling into the trap of stopping to greet them. They might judge him for that, they might understand later. Truth be told, he didn’t care.
His mentor, Jihoon Sen, was reading a book in his office when Akira reached it. “Took you too long to show up.” Jihoon put the book on the desk he was sitting behind, the faint smile on his puffy face not concealing the rebuking tone of his voice.
“I…I…” Akira should have prepared better than this for his meeting with Jihoon. “I just needed some alone time to reflect.”
“Good.” Jihoon nodded approvingly. “And what did you conclude from this reflecting?”
Aware that would seem rude, Akira couldn’t help smiling mockingly. “That I did everything right to earn the damned red cloak.”
Jihoon glared at him, probably for the first time since Akira knew him. “I should punish you for your insolence, young man. The only thing that holds me from doing so is my understanding of your frustration.”
Akira was lucky that his mentor was someone soft like Jihoon. If he acted the same way with the dreadful Tashihara, she would expel him at once. She promoted Kim, though. “With all due respect, Jihoon Sen. You can never imagine how frustrated I am.”
“I said ‘I understand your frustration,’ but that doesn’t mean I accept it.” Jihoon gestured toward the chair on the opposite side of the desk. “Sit.”
What Akira needed now was an explanation for his result, not a lecture about good behavior, but he shouldn’t test Jihoon’s patience more than that. Without objecting to his mentor’s last statement, Akira did what Jihoon asked him to do, and waited for him to speak.
The beefy tutor heaved a sigh. “Do you know how we lost in the Second Crossing?”
Seriously? The question sounded so basic Akira felt offended. A student in the Foundation School could give a lecture about the old wars between the ancestors and the Goranians. Is he testing me now? “Was my score in the history test this low, Jihoon Sen?”
The beefy tutor tilted his head, waiting for Akira’s answer.
“Alright.” Akira couldn’t believe he was doing this right now. “The Goranians flanked our army and launched a suicide attack at our mages. They lost half of their army in that charge, but still, they outnumbered our soldiers who had lost the protection our mages had been providing them.”
“That’s a passage from a history book, not the answer to my question.” Jihoon didn’t seem impressed at all. “Can’t you infer why we lost?”
What was the trick Akira was missing? Jihoon’s question couldn’t be as straightforward as it seemed. “The Goranians were too many.”
“Our mages got exhausted before they could defeat the Goranian horde.” Jihoon leaned forward toward Akira. “Because that’s what we do, Akira. Our stamina is not infinite.”
Akira didn’t like the direction the conversation was headed to. “We were talking about my frustration. What does this brief history lesson have to do with it?”
“In your last trial, you did extremely well in most of the aspects. Your performance in the potions’ test in particular was the best I had ever seen from a student in a while.”
A slap on the face was coming after all this praise, Akira knew. “But?”
“Your jumuns were far below the expected level, son.” Jihoon pressed his lips together. “I’m sorry to be the one telling you this, but you can never become a Red Cloak. It’s not your fault, but it’s something you can do nothing about.”
Akira had come to Sun Castle, expecting to hear some lame excuses about the results of his trial. But a clear statement like the one he had just heard from his mentor? That was really devastating.
“Is that because of my parents?” It was rare for Seijo parents to give birth to a mage. And even if it happened by chance, their child wouldn’t be as powerful as the offspring of two Mahono parents. That was why it was forbidden for a Mahono to wed a Seijo. And that was why two Mahono parents were allowed to give birth to siblings. Because Koya needs as many powerful mages as possible.
“We only assess our candidates for their capabilities, not for their parents.”
“Are you sure you did, Jihoon Sen? Because I remember very well that I wielded every jumun you and the other respectable assessors asked me to.” Telekinesis, telekinetic slapping, binding with air to create fire and wind, binding with water to freeze it; he hadn’t failed in a single one.
“Wielding jumuns is what makes a mage, Akira. How you wield them decides who gets the red mantle and who keeps the pink one.”
Nonsense, Akira almost blustered. Nothing but meaningless, empty words. “Those who passed the trials; how differently did they wield their jumuns, may I ask?”
“Their jumuns were more efficient than yours,” Jihoon said flatly. “You understand what that means? They swiftly wielded more powerful jumuns while channeling less anerjy than you did. Is it clear now why we chose them over you?”
Akira was at loss for words. All that crossed his mind right now was all those years of studying and practicing in this damned castle. In his dreams, they were supposed to lead him to a moment totally different from this one. How would you feel when you realize that you have wasted your life chasing a mirage?
Jihoon sighed, his voice tone warmer as he went on, “I know how you badly want to have a significant role in the Last Day.” He paused to demand Akira’s attention, and he did. “Trust me, Akira; you can, even if you are not a Red Cloak. You don’t need to be one in the first place.”
Akira was sick of Jihoon’s blather. “Jihoon Sen, your reconciliation is not what I have come for today. I’m here, so that you tell me what I should do to—”
“I don’t have to reconcile you or anybody, Akira,” Jihoon cut him off, a gentle smile on his round face though. “I’m just a tutor who is impressed with your deep understanding of chemistry together with your unparalleled potion-making skills. Kungwan Sen himself read your essay about the potions that could be produced from herbs and plants that grow here on Koya, and he did approve of your work.”
Akira was now confused. Yes, he believed in the brilliance of his work, but seriously, what was the significant role a potion maker could play in the War of the Last Day? “I remember the speech Kungwan Sen gave last week. It was all about Red Cloaks…not the likes of me.”
“It seems that you’ve learned nothing from the ‘brief history lesson’ you loathe.” Jihoon leaned back in his seat and took a deep breath. “The Third Crossing will fail if we don’t improve the potions our Red Cloaks use to boost their stamina in battle. It is one of our main priorities now; developing more potent potions that do not damage our bodies.” He rested his head on the hands clasped behind the nape of his neck. “That’s why we need your brilliant mind more than we need your jumuns.”
Despite all Jihoon was saying, Akira still believed that the stamina issue and the dire need for new potions were a bit exaggerated. “You once said in a lecture that one Red Cloak could defeat a thousand men on his own,” he reminded his tutor. “How many more should a mage defeat in order to win this war?”
Jihoon unclasped his hands and leaned his elbows on the desk, looking down for a moment. “You don’t understand, Akira.” He sighed for the third time. “When the Third Crossing happens, we will have to worry about beings that are way more dangerous than mortal humans.”