Kalden had known Emberlyn for longer than he could remember. They'd grown up as playmates, and they'd even attended many of the same schools, despite the way their parents moved around in his early years.
And yes ... there had even been serious talk of a marriage to unite their clans.
Talk. On second thought, maybe 'assumptions' was a more accurate word. After all, no one had ever asked Kalden what he wanted. When they were twelve, he'd told her he loved her. Mostly because twelve-year-old Kalden was an idiot who'd been desperate to have his first kiss.
Now, Emberlyn held him to those words as if they were a lifelong promise.
She wore white leather armor today, with black and gold trim that highlighted all her curves. Unlike Kalden's own armor, every piece of hers fit together like a puzzle, from her boots to her gloves. Her blond hair hung beside her face in a long braid, and she'd tucked her white helmet beneath her left arm.
Three more young men stepped up beside her. Kalden couldn't make out their faces beneath their helmets. Instead, he relaxed his eyes until he saw the mana glowing in their souls. One was undoubtedly Gold, and the other two looked like Silvers.
Kalden's thoughts raced as the four of them approached. How should he handle this? Lie low and let Maelyn do the talking? Blood still covered his visor, so they wouldn't recognize his face. Still, he'd scanned their souls, so it was safe to assume they'd done the same to him.
There was also a chance Emberlyn had known about Kalden's hunting trip, and that she'd planned this whole encounter. In that case, lying low would just make him look more suspicious.
Plan B, then.
Kalden yanked off his helmet and gave her a wide grin. He didn't even need to fake it considering he'd just stared death in the eye. "Well, if I'd known the other hunters were this lovely, I'd have come down here years ago."
Her violet eyes widened for a split-second. Either she hadn't known it was him, or she was an excellent actress. Regardless, he wasn't out of trouble yet.
"Kalden Trengsen." Her hips swayed as she stepped closer, matching his smile. "The rugged look suits you well."
"Didn't expect to find you here," Kalden said as he gestured to the dead matriarch. "But I'm glad you came. Certain things require a real Artist's touch."
"I train here every Azulday," she replied "But in all that time, I've never seen you."
Every Azulday, huh? Kalden shot a look at his two informants who had already begun harvesting cores. Either Emberlyn was lying right now, or this was a major oversight on their part. He intended to find out which before the day's end.
"First time for me," Kalden said. "I heard this was a beginner's area"—he gave her armor a meaningful look—"but maybe I was misinformed?" Best to keep the conversation focused on her as much as possible.
"Oh, it is," Emberlyn said with a dismissive wave. "These fine gentlemen and I go hunting further in. In fact, these arkions probably meant to set a trap for me." She stepped over and rested a white boot on the matriarch's head. "There's only one path into the Hollows. Suppose I've gotten predictable."
Yeah, there's an empty boast. Emberlyn might be years beyond him in skill, but he couldn't imagine her training in the most dangerous place on the island. Although, her father was always a harsh teacher with ridiculous expectations. Kalden might not put it past the man to send her down there once or twice.
Her golden braid whipped over her shoulder as she spun to face him again. "But you? Fighting? Whatever would your mother say?"
All three of her minions had the grace and foresight to remain silent at this comment. Instead, they all got to work rolling over the giant arkion to remove her core.
"My mother isn't fond of Mana Arts." Kalden raised his steel rod and let it rest on his shoulder. "Lucky for her, Maelyn's the only real Artist here. My rod and I are just along for the ride."
Emberlyn's lips made a thin line as she eyed his companions.
Damnit. He'd meant to shift the focus off himself again. Only this time, he'd put his companions in the spotlight. He should have said something about not wanting to rely on his future wife to protect him. As much as he hated to lead her on, that would have been the superior tactic.
He followed Emberlyn's gaze to Maelyn, Darren, and Akari who were still harvesting cores.
"A Bronze?" Emberlyn blurted out. "I didn't know they let those down here."
Once again, she seemed genuinely surprised to see Akari here. Another point against his stalker theory.
To Akari's credit, she didn't look up or give any indication that she'd heard the other girl.
"Well," Emberlyn continued, "unless you brought a twelve-year-old boy along, I'd say that's Akari Zeller behind that helmet." She met Kalden's eye again and raised two thin eyebrows.
Behind her, two metallic blades shot out from her companion's fingertips, slicing through the matriarch's chest like butter. The crystal that rolled out was twice the size of a manaball—a full sixteen inches in diameter.
"Someone has to carry all these cores," Kalden said with a shrug.
"Still seems a bit undignified," Emberlyn said as she played with her braid. "If you can't afford a Silver packman, some might whisper that you've fallen under hard times."
He gave her a condescending smile. "I'm Kalden Trengsen. I'll decide what's undignified and what's not. Besides, what's that quote your father's so fond of? 'What's the point of being Gold if we play by others' rules?'"
She didn't have an answer for that, but her violet eyes darted back and forth between Kalden and Akari. She knew something was going on, but she couldn't call him out on it directly. Above all, Emberlyn wanted things to work out between them. That wouldn't happen, of course. He'd told her as much, but she wouldn't accept it. Her own father had starved her of attention and love, and now she craved it to the point of desperation.
Well, that was a weakness he could exploit. Just as their arkion foes were weakest when they struck, Emberlyn would predictably chase after him.
Kalden saw her next moves in his mind's eye, as clear as pieces on a Crown's board. If he made her feel irrelevant, she would react with hostility. She would either tell his mother he was here, or she would blackmail him. Even if Kalden's lie about combat training was plausible, there was no way his mother would approve of Akari in any capacity.
On the other hand, if he gave her what she wanted...
"Tell you what," Kalden said, "I'm a bit tired right now, but what if you and I get drinks this week? Then we can talk about all the politics and philosophy we want."
As expected, her eyes brightened at that. And while her smile still held some stiffness, she forced it away with practiced ease. "That's right. You're finally sixteen, aren't you?"
As if the legal drinking age had ever applied to Golds. Kalden grinned and inclined his head. "Name the time and place, and I'll see you there."
"I'll let you know." She ran a hand over his shoulder as she walked past him into the darkness. "Just don't die before then, alright?"
Unfortunately, that wouldn't be the end of it. She knew his secrets now. And when a Gold knew your secrets, they ceased being secrets at all. His days of practicing Mana Arts with Akari were numbered. Soon, he'd have to decide whether he could truly defy his mother, or if he'd resume his duties to the clan. There would be no middle ground.