The days rolled by, and the weekend finally came. Kalden's neighborhood sat on the northeast side of town—just a fifteen-minute train ride from the Cliftons' house.
Trusting him might be a gamble, but so was the entire world of Mana Arts. That much, Akari knew from the stories. Even Grandmasters put their lives in danger on a daily basis. Ambient mana was strongest in places like the Hollows where the mana beasts and spirits roamed free. Or—in the case of Arkala—the Contested Territory.
Either way, you couldn't advance without danger.
But then, maybe those were just legends? For all she knew, her first real lessons would contradict those.
The train pulled into the station just after noon, and she followed the raised crosswalk over a busy boulevard. From there, she followed her hand-drawn map down a smaller street lined with trees on either side.
A wall of pale gray bricks surrounded Cerulean Beach Estates, and security cameras hung from the pillars every ten yards.
Talek. This was even more pretentious than she'd expected. The neighborhood wasn't even near a beach. Did they just stick that word in there to make it sound fancier?
Akari walked for another block until the stone wall opened into a pair of ornamented steel gates—one for pedestrians and one for cars. A short, white building sat between them, sort of like a tollbooth.
The guard was busy with a brown delivery truck, so Akari stepped up to the pedestrian side and scanned her badge on the terminal outside the window. Several seconds passed, then the larger gate pivoted inward to let in the truck.
Akari's heart rate doubled as the guard turned to examine a small computer screen. Was he going to turn her away? Was this place only for Golds? Kalden hadn't even mentioned a gate. Then again, the guards probably recognized his car and rolled out a red carpet as soon as they saw him coming. And like a typical Gold, he'd drive on through thinking that was normal.
And ... did this mean she couldn't leave the neighborhood whenever she wanted to? Being alone in Kalden's house was bad enough, but—
Akari jumped as the window slid open.
"Ah, Miss Zeller." The guard had a stuffy Espirian accent as if he'd been plucked right out from a movie. "Mr. Trengsen is expecting you at one o'clock. Do you require a shuttle to his estate?"
Akari gaped. "Um, no. Thanks."
"Very good." The man gave a curt nod. "If you take a right at the fountain up ahead, his house is the brown one at the end of the street." He pressed some unseen button and the smaller gate pivoted inward. "Have a pleasant day."
Akari thanked the man again and shuffled through the gate. On the other side, she spotted a simple blue button labeled "open" and the chains loosened around her lungs. At least that meant she wasn't trapped in here.
Still, it was creepy enough that they'd made her scan her badge. Between that and the security cameras, they probably knew exactly who was in the neighborhood at any given time. Her school used a similar method to track attendance.
The walk to Kalden's house was longer than she'd expected. In most neighborhoods, the houses were built somewhat close together. Not only were these bigger than four Silver houses combined, but they had another whole house-length between them.
Every lawn and sidewalk was spotless to the point of looking fake. Almost as if each yard were posing for a magazine picture, holding its breath and straining to smile. It was autumn for Talek's sake. There were supposed to be crunchy leaves on the ground.
But at the same time, each house had a lot more personality than she'd imagined. Geometric white cubes comprised the structure to her left, and mirror-like windows covered their faces from edge to edge.
The house opposite that one looked more like an ancient castle, with stone crenelations around the balconies, and green vines curling around the windows.
As for Kalden's house, it stood four stories high, tapering as it grew. The red roofs stuck out several feet from the main structure, curling up at the corners. Sort of like ... a pagoda? Was that the right word? This Shokenese building style was rare on Arkala, but she'd seen pictures from her history class.
Akari half-expected another stuffy butler to answer when she knocked. To her surprise, it was Kalden himself who opened the door. She'd never realized just how tall he was until now. In their previous meetings, he'd always been sitting on some kind of makeshift throne. Here, her head barely reached his shoulder.
Stupid full-blooded Shokenese and their long legs. Akari's own mother had been taller than her by several inches. That meant that somewhere out there, she had a short father to blame.
"Hey," Kalden said as he opened the door wider. "Come on in."
It was strange to see him out of his school uniform. Instead, he wore dark-wash jeans, and a dark blue button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. A steel mana rod hung from his belt, just like the one she'd lost in Tidegate
Akari had still worn her school skirt and leggings here today. The only jeans she owned were full of holes, and she knew she'd feel awkward enough in a Gold's house without dressing like a street urchin.
She kicked off her Traverse shoes by the door and stepped across the polished wooden planks. From there, she followed Kalden under a wooden archway into the main area.
The first thing she noticed was the massive waterfall. In the freaking living room of all places.
"Seriously?" Akari approached the balcony railing and craned her neck to see the top. Apparently, the entire middle of the house was hollow, because the water fell from one of the upper levels before gathering in the basement below.
"Like it?" Kalden asked from behind her.
Akari gave him a flat look. Sure, it looked cool, but she couldn't imagine the time and money this took to maintain. All the surrounding plants seemed real, and she was surprised the floors didn't get dirtier than this.
But then, who was she kidding? These were Golds. They probably had an entire team of servants to do that for them.
"I'm surprised you don't have a solid gold statue of yourself," Akari finally said.
"I do," he said with a straight face. "We hang toilet paper from it in the guest bathroom."
"You want a tour of the house?" he asked.
"I'm good," she said with a shrug. "I'd rather get straight to business."
Kalden nodded, then slid open a bamboo door that revealed a set of stairs.
The basement didn't feel like a basement at all. A bar sat in one corner of the main area, stocked with more types of alcohol than she'd seen in most restaurants. They also passed what looked like a training dojo and gymnasium.
Kalden slid open another door and led her into a family room with leather sofas arrayed around a giant TV. The computer sat nestled in a corner on a long wooden desk.
"So no one even uses this?" Akari asked as she plopped down in the plush leather chair. At first, her feet couldn't reach the floor, and she had to adjust the lever on the bottom.
"Just me," he said. "My mom and step-dad have their own offices upstairs."
Of course they do. Not that Akari was complaining. She'd rather not cover her trail as much as she did at school.
After adjusting the monitor to her height, she reached out and gave the keyboard a few experimental taps. The keys were loud and heavy, and she nodded in approval.
Kalden pulled up another chair beside her. Great. He probably planned to watch her the whole time. A part of her had hoped he would just lead her to the office and let her do her own thing. That had always been a dream, though.
On the bright side, at least she wouldn't have to watch the clock every ten seconds or strain her ears for people in the hallway.
What would Kalden's mom say if she came home right now and found a Bronze in her house? Akari had also never been alone with a boy like this before, and that seemed like another thing most parents freaked out about.
Focus on your goal, she told herself.
After making a few more adjustments to the desk, she unzipped her backpack and pulled out her hacking notebook. Dozens of encoded lists filled the pages, and she flipped through the half-organized mess until she found the section she needed.
The Dark Web.