"Pass the toro," Kalden's mother said from across the table.
He reached out and grabbed the plate of marbled tuna belly. Their chef had draped the thin slices over balls of white rice and topped each one with a pinprick of wasabi. If nothing else, Kalden ate a lot better when his family was home.
Sure, he could have kept the cooks around on the weekends, but he preferred to fend for himself those days. Most of his peers would starve to death if they landed in the real world, stripped of their luxuries and wealth. He refused to be one of them.
Besides, he and Akari couldn't have any witnesses. As far as scandals go, things didn't get much juicier than a secret meeting between a Gold and Bronze of the opposite sex.
His mother grabbed two pieces of tuna with her chopsticks. As always, Sakara Trengsen wore her hair in an intricate knot, held in place with several golden pins. In all Kalden's sixteen years of life, he'd never once seen her without her makeup—whether it was first thing in the morning or the dead of night.
Midwinter had come and gone, and social events had dominated their lives for the past few weeks. But things were finally quieting down as they settled into the New Year. Tonight, it was just Kalden, his mother, stepfather, and his stepsister was home from Ironhaven University.
Kalden hadn't been able to practice Mana Arts with so many people around. Instead, he'd spent his free time doing research on the dark web. He'd seen Akari do this half-a-dozen times now, and it wasn't that hard.
But aside from those brief excursions, he'd attended every one of his family's events without complaint. He also spent two hours each day with a private tutor, preparing for his last semester at Elegan High.
All warfare was based on deception, and he wouldn't give his mother a reason to suspect him.
The television echoed from the other room. His stepfather—Genkai—had left the news on before dinner.
"They were talking about him at IHU," Hana said, seemingly in response to the TV. His stepsister had jet black hair like the rest of them, but she'd dyed the front with several streaks of electric blue. She also had bright blue eyes—a rare trait among Shokenese.
"Who?" Kalden looked up from his plate. "The fugitive?" People had been surprisingly close-lipped about this during the holiday parties. But that was typical in Gold society. 'Gossip is for Silvers,' his grandfather used to say. Not that Golds didn't gossip. They just pretended not to.
Hana nodded as she slurped up a mouthful of noodles.
"Do they say where he came from?" Kalden asked. He'd already heard Akari's theories on the matter, and she made some interesting points. He'd wanted to broach the subject with his own family over the break, but there hadn't been a good time.
"No one's even seen him," Hana replied. "But he's ridiculously strong. He killed two Gold Martials up in Keylas, then sent another ten soldiers—"
"He put two Martials in the hospital," Genkai corrected his daughter. "No one's died yet." The older man sat at the head of the ebony table—the same place Kalden's father used to sit. However, the seat never fit him as well. Genkai might be on Arkala's ruling council, but Kalden's father had been a famous general. Even his mother would never think of comparing the two
"Yeah." Hana shrugged. "Anyway, people say he's down in White Vale now—hiding somewhere in the forest and living off mana beasts. A few more Martials have gone looking for him, but no one's come back."
Kalden had already heard most of this, so he pressed on, "But where did he come from? Any guesses?"
"Probably Teras or Zoron," his stepfather muttered into his wine glass.
Kalden furrowed his brow. "But I thought Keylas was the only way through the mana wall."
"A common misconception," he said with a shake of his head. "There are several openings in the wall. Any boat can travel between them, assuming they have a few Water Artists to hold back the tides."
Kalden weighed his next words carefully. There was no easy way to say them though, so he just blurted them out, "What if he came from outside the Archipelago?"
"The world beyond is a barren wasteland," his mother said. "You know this."
"I know that's the official story."
"And unless you spend your time with conspiracy theorists, the official story is all that matters."
A few weeks ago, that had been enough for Kalden. A few weeks ago, he'd trusted the experts to tell him the truth, and he'd seen no need to question it.
Then Akari had done Mana Arts, and everything changed.
When he'd first offered her this deal—to use his computer to access the dark web—he'd expected her to fail. He'd planned to gently distance himself from her as soon as she realized the futility of her plans.
Then she'd proven him wrong and conjured a Missile. In a single moment, she'd defied dozens of science textbooks and more than a thousand pieces of state propaganda.
And then there was her plan to become a Silver. That seemed even crazier than a Bronze learning Mana Arts. And yet ... the Grandmaster had spoken of advancement between ranks. He'd said it so casually too, as if it wasn't an earth-shattering revelation.
Kalden refused to believe that a couple of teenagers had made discoveries that eluded their top scientists. This meant someone was keeping secrets. Even from Golds.
"What do you think is out there?" Hana asked him from across the table.
"Until I see some evidence," Kalden said, "it's too soon to say. All I can do is ask questions."
"There was an expedition," his stepfather broke in. "Ten years ago, a ship traveled to the shores of Cadria with a team of scientists and Mana Artists. More than half of them died along the way, and the survivors found nothing but a wasteland."
"An expedition," Kalden echoed. "And what was the name of the ship? How many passengers did it carry? Has anyone ever met them?"
He'd learned about these 'expeditions' in school, and heard about them on the news. It was a story everyone told each other, but no one ever bothered to dig deeper. Once you did, it was almost impossible to find details.
Genkai furrowed his brow in annoyance. "Obviously, I can't give you those facts off the top of my head. No more than I can prove our planet isn't flat."
"Spatial Artists have teleported to the moons," Kalden retorted. "They've taken pictures of our planet, and we've all seen them."
"Pictures can be faked," Hana chimed in.
"Even before those pictures," his stepfather said, "There was overwhelming evidence. And that's my point. I can't prove it here at the dinner table, but I could with enough time."
"What brought this on?" Kalden's mother asked. "Have you been talking to conspiracy theorists like your uncle?"
Conspiracy theorist. Again with that phrase. Quiet acceptance was the default approach, and just questioning the official story was enough to get you labeled. He'd once asked Akari why she'd never befriended the other Bronze, and this had been her reason. They were all too quick to accept their lot in life.
"I'm trying to keep an open mind," Kalden countered. "Aren't I training to be a scientist? Shouldn't I try to disprove what I believe is true?"
His mother held his gaze for several seconds as she took a long swallow of her wine. "Only when it's relevant. Knowledge without action achieves the same end as ignorance. And some questions are more dangerous than others. Surely, I don't need to remind you how."
She wielded his older brother's name like a weapon, trying to guilt him into silence.
Kalden blew out a slow breath. "I miss him too, Mother, but it's been three years. And just because I'm curious doesn't mean I want to follow him."
"And you still haven't answered my question," she said.
Kalden took a trick from his mother's book, raising his wineglass to his lips while he studied her expression. Did she know? Unlikely. Her tone seemed more curious than accusatory.
Damnit. If only Maelyn were here. She could infer a dozen things from a single glance.
Kalden shrugged and leaned back in his chair. "Like Hana said, this fugitive is stronger than anyone else in the Archipelago. It makes you wonder what else is out there—if there are other places that don't follow the same rules."
His mother drew her lips to a thin line, and Kalden saw his blunder. He'd brought Mana Arts into this, which was always a sensitive subject with her. Not only had Kalden's father been killed in battle, but she also blamed Mana Arts on Sozen's disappearance.
He continued quickly, "It made me curious, and I did some more research. I find it odd that no one asks the most basic questions. If the outside world is a wasteland, then what happened to it? And how did we end up here in the Archipelago? Why were these islands the only place to survive the destruction?"
"We know what happened," Hana spoke up. "There was a war between Mana Artists."
"And we already lived here when it happened," Genkai added. "That's why we don't fully understand it."
Kalden had read conflicting stories about that. Some people on the dark web claimed they remembered Espira, Cadria, and Shoken. They had dreams of their old lives, just as Kalden did. Sometimes, those dreams felt even clearer than his own memories. As if those were his real past, and the childhood he remembered was a lie.
However, those theories about Knowledge Artists and memory loss were outlandish, even for him.
"This lack of knowledge should make us more curious," he told his stepfather. "But no one seems to care about the outside world. There could be other civilizations out there, and we would never know."
"They're all gone," Genkai said with a firm shake of his head. "I still remember the day it happened. We lost all contact beyond the mana wall. Every radio wave went silent, and we never saw another passing boat or airship. No one's keeping secrets here. The state has no incentive to lie."
His mother cleared her throat as a few staff members shuffled into the dining room. For a long moment, they sat in silence with no sound but the clattering of dishes, and the rush of the waterfall.
The staff left a few seconds later, closing the door toward the kitchen.
His stepfather leaned forward again. "I understand being curious. Especially when you're too young to remember when things were different—"
"But questions can lead to action," his mother cut in. "And how many more people need to die at sea before realizing we're trapped here?"
Kalden had to disagree with his mother there. Yes, explorers risked their lives. But that was their choice, wasn't it? His ancestors had explored and colonized half the world. Now they sat here, sitting on the shoulders of those who came before them, with more technology than most of human history. And what did they do with it? They sat in fear.
His mother fixed him with her gaze. "As a Gold, your words matter more than most, and the world watches your every move. A single question from your lips can sow the seeds of order or chaos."
Kalden gave a slow nod, retreating for now. Even if his arguments were better researched—which they weren't yet—he wouldn't convince anyone tonight. Not when it was three against one.
Some of what his mother and stepfather said seemed logical, but not everything.
Genkai claimed there were no secrets. But if that were true, then why was the uncensored dark web so different from the rest of the island? Why were the Grandmaster's lessons so different from the state's Mana Arts program? Why did they know so much about ancient history, but so little of the past few decades?
For now, Kalden intended to keep digging. One way or another, he'd find out the truth.