"Mr. Frostblade." Kalden dipped his head in a shallow bow, pressing his fist into his open palm.

Like most State Martials, Emberlyn's father wore a dark suit jacket and a crisp white dress shirt beneath. He was Espirian like his daughter. But while Emberlyn had long golden hair, his was a darker shade of brown, cut short and receding around the temples.

"No need for that." The older man strode past Kalden as smoothly as if he'd been invited.

He paused a second later when he saw Akari standing in front of the sink. "Ah. I didn't realize you had company."

Akari shuffled back, looking more afraid now than she'd looked all day in the Contested Area. He didn't blame her, either.

Kalden fumbled for an explanation, but what could he say? An informant would have her own hotel room. Even if she visited her employer, she wouldn't do it fresh from the shower and dressed for bed.

Frostblade turned back to Kalden, not sparing Akari a second glance. "We need to talk," he said. "In private."

"Of course," Kalden stammered. "When—"

"The rooftop bar," he replied. Despite the late hour, his tone seemed to suggest sooner rather than later.

"Perfect," Kalden said. "Can I have five minutes to get ready?"

Frostblade gave a curt nod. "I'll head up now and wait for you."

And with that, the older man turned and strode out of the room.

Kalden shut the door behind him, leaning on the wooden frame to catch his breath.

"Shit," Akari muttered. "Was that who I think it was?"

"Yeah," Kalden said with a shaky nod. "That was Emberlyn's father. The Martial."

"What's he want with you?"

Kalden made a slow zipping motion across his mouth, then shot a wary glance at the walls on either side. The Martials knew where he was staying. That meant they could plant a Sound Artist in an adjacent room to listen in. Such things were obviously illegal without a warrant, but then ... they'd spent over eight hours with Relia today. A lot could happen in that time.

Damnit. What did Frostblade want? Why did they 'need to talk'? At first, Kalden had assumed this was about Akari and him sharing a room, but the older man had seemed surprised to find her here. That shock could have been faked, but...

Deep breaths, Kalden told himself. For now, he didn't know if Frostblade's visit was personal or professional. His demeanor suggested the latter, but that was normal. This man talked to his own daughter as if she were a cadet under his command.

Kalden's thoughts raced as he moved to get ready. Guessing Frostblade's exact motive would be unproductive. Just like in a game of Crowns, he'd have to consider every possible move from his opponent and plan accordingly.

He didn't have time for a full shower, but he washed his hands and face in the sink, removing any obvious signs of dirt or raptor blood. After that, he changed into his other set of clothes, brushed his teeth, and combed his hair.

If this were any other time, he would have expected Akari to make fun of him for putting so much effort into his appearance. But she stood in silence, not even cracking a smile.

She knows what's at stake. They'd both worried about a Martial interrogation since before they set out for White Vale. Now, it was finally happening. And no matter what he did, the power dynamic favored Frostblade in more ways than one.

Still, Kalden would take every advantage he could get.

The elevator reached the rooftop a few minutes later. A glass dome covered the entire restaurant, and the floor vents blasted out warm air. Snowflakes clung to the glass like white dust, while others blew in swirls against the night sky.

Kalden had assumed "rooftop bar" was just a description. But no, the black and white sign actually said, "The Rooftop Bar" in thin capital letters. Not the most inspired name, but he'd seen worse.

A long granite bar dominated the far wall, and circular tables filled the space between them. He made his way past the other patrons until he found Frostblade sitting in the back corner with a sound suppressor on his table.

No sooner had Kalden sat down than a thin Shokenese man approached them with a pair of menus.

Frostblade held up his hand before their server could speak, "Hightown Park, neat."

Clearly, this man had experience dealing with impatient Golds because he took the interruption in stride as he turned to Kalden, "And for you, sir?"

Hightown Park was a single malt whisky—probably older than Kalden was. Having recently turned sixteen, Kalden still hadn't mastered the art of ordering expensive drinks to impress his fellow Golds. Instead, he went with his father's favorite scotch.

"Ace of Fire with a water back, please."

The server gave a brisk nod and stepped outside their sound Construct.

"You seem nervous," Frostblade said with a knowing smile.

"Do I?" Kalden did his best to mirror the older man's expression, clasping his shaking hands on the table.

"Is this about that Bronze in your hotel room?"

Kalden blinked. Akari hadn't been wearing her badge. Unless he'd looked at her mana directly? If so, that was—

"She left her badge on top of her backpack," Frostblade explained.

"Ah," was all Kalden could say. He'd prepared several explanations, ranging from the full truth to variations of it. Unfortunately, the Martial had decades more experience with these sorts of talks. He'd kept his first few moves vague, leaving awkward silences for Kalden to fill. He saw the tactic for what it was. But as with most skilled opponents, seeing their tactics wasn't enough to stop them.

"She works for me," he finally said. "But my mother doesn't know about her. That's why we shared a room tonight."

"Don't worry." Frostblade's laugh was almost amiable. "You're not engaged to my daughter yet, despite what she may think."

Kalden released a breath, though the storm hadn't fully passed.

"In the meantime," he continued, "what's the point of being Gold if we can't have our way from time to time? Just don't get her pregnant, and there's no harm done."

While relationships with Bronze had always been discouraged, pregnancies were considered far worse. Now that Kalden knew more about Mana Arts, he saw the issue in an entirely new light. In most cases, the child would be born a Silver. But there was a small chance of getting a Bronze with high mana levels.

Someone like Akari.

Such a person could learn Mana Arts with the right training. And when that happened, people would question the entire system.

The conversation paused as their server appeared with three glasses, placing each on the granite tabletop

Once they were alone again, Frostblade brought his own glass to his lips. "But like I said, I didn't come here to judge you. You know why I'm in White Vale."

"You're hunting the fugitive," Kalden said as he took a sip from his own glass. It didn't taste as good as he'd imagined—the smoke overshadowed the hints of salt and spice.

"What do you know about her?" the older man asked.

Kalden coughed on his drink and immediately wiped his mouth dry on his napkin. "Her?"

"The fugitive is a woman," he explained without inflection.

Kalden had to clear his throat several more times, then he took a long drink from his water. "The media seems to disagree. I take it you know something they don't?"

"Many things," he replied. "Can you guess why we've let them spread misinformation?"

"You're luring her into a false sense of security," Kalden guessed. And it's working. As far as Relia was concerned, no one in White Vale had seen her. She might not have shown her face in the Hunter's Guild otherwise.

"You have a good mind for tactics." Frostblade raised his glass to him. "The Contested Area is too large for us to cover, and squads of smaller agents don't stand a chance against her in a straight fight. We need her to come to us."

"And why are you sharing this plan with me?" Kalden asked.

"Because. I think you've seen her."

Ice ran through Kalden's veins, but he forced his face into a calm expression before he furrowed his brow. "You don't think the girl in my room..."

"No." Frostblade gave a dismissive wave. "But we spotted the fugitive in the dining hall today around lunchtime."

Damnit. That's how Frostblade knew he was here. He'd checked the security cameras in the Hunter's Guild.

The older man took another drink, but he kept his eyes trained forward. Kalden mirrored his opponent's motion as he considered his next move. Most likely, Frostblade would ask if he'd interacted with anyone else during lunchtime.

Kalden could deny it, but then his opponent would retort with various pieces of evidence, catching him in any number of lies. He and Akari had arrived in the dining hall within minutes of Relia, and they'd ordered lunch immediately after she left. True, there might have been three or four other tables in that corner, but it wouldn't be hard to compare the number of patrons to the number of tables. In fact, the Martials might have interrogated those other patrons already.

Most importantly, another Martial had been sitting across the dining hall, and he'd likely seen the whole thing. Denying the talk would be Kalden's worst possible move.

What would an innocent person say?

"I was there around noon," Kalden offered. "Someone approached my table and sat down—an Espirian girl, college-aged." He avoided mentioning her red hair for now. Most security cameras didn't film in color. There was a chance—however small—that they didn't know that detail.

Frostblade raised an eyebrow. "What did she want?"

"She tried to sell us zylusk cores," Kalden replied. "I don't remember how much she wanted, but she claimed it was some fraction of the real price.

"And you didn't think to report that?" Frostblade asked.

"I thought about it," Kalden said. "Honestly though, I figured it was just some local trying to scam tourists. I never thought..." He blinked several times, trying to look as overwhelmed as he felt.

"...that you'd just met the most dangerous person on Arkala," the Martial finished for him.

"Right." Kalden dug his elbows into the table, clinging to it like a raft in a storm. "If my mother finds out about this, that's the last time she lets me travel on my own."

Frostblade rolled his eyes at that last comment, which was the intended effect. He took another drink and continued, "The Guild has received similar reports of a girl trying to sell them zylusk cores. But those reports happened outside the walls. Clearly, she's getting more desperate. That's exactly how we want her. Lost and desperate, but with a false sense of safety."

That described Relia surprisingly well. For all her power and skill as a Mana Artist, he couldn't imagine a happy ending for her.

Frostblade drained the rest of his glass. "You're heading home tomorrow I assume?"

"That's right," Kalden said.

"Well, if you see her again, don't play the hero and go after her. You'll just get yourself killed." And with that, he left a silvernote on the table as he stood to leave. "Enjoy the rest of your evening."

Kalden leaned back in his chair as the Martial stepped toward the elevator.

Damnit. Now how were they supposed to make that exchange with Relia tomorrow morning?

A note from David Musk

Heading up north this weekend, so I made sure to finish the chapter before we left!

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About the author

David Musk

Bio: Hey everyone. I'm a web developer and fantasy writer from Grand Rapids, MI.

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