Akari threw her blankets aside, moving faster than she did in the heat of battle. Bursts of adrenaline urged her to run, but running was no use here. She'd faced Martials this weekend, but this was far, far worse.
A month ago, she would have sooner walked home at midnight than fall asleep in a Gold's lair. When had she gotten so careless?
"Good morning, Miss Zeller." Kalden's mother sat as if she were posing for a portrait—a practiced blend of grace and nonchalance. She wore her hair in an intricate knot, adorned with several golden pins that looked as sharp as daggers. Her golden badge hung over a crisp white blouse, reflecting the single light above the bar.
Akari swallowed before finding her voice, "Good morning, Mrs. Trengsen." The formality tasted strange on her tongue, but now wasn't the time to forget her manners.
The older woman studied her for several more heartbeats, but not with disdain the way some other Golds might. Rather, she seemed to take in every detail of Akari's appearance. Her Shokenese features reminded Akari of Kalden. But while Kalden's features were still soft with youth, his mother's were hard lines as if they'd been carved from stone.
Finally, her gaze settled back on Akari's eyes, waiting for an explanation.
"Sorry I fell asleep," Akari stammered, then she reached for the story they'd given Frostblade. "I work for Kalden, and—"
"Don't be so coy, Miss Zeller." Mrs. Trengsen's lips curled up in amusement. "You've been over here fifteen times since that first visit in Hexember. Honestly, I'm surprised you don't have your own toothbrush by now."
Shit. How much did she know?
The older woman leaned back in her chair, crossing one tanned leg over the other. "I'm feeling generous right now, so I'll spare you the misery of uncertainty. I know you've been learning Mana Arts with my son. He provides a computer with internet access, and you help him find technique manuals on the dark web."
Akari said nothing, but her heart pounded even harder. Who could have told her this? Emberlyn? That girl had swooped in like a vulture on day one, and she'd even been there when they'd fought the arkions.
"I also know you met with the fugitive this weekend in White Vale, and that you witnessed her fight against the Martials."
The adrenaline turned to ice in Akari's veins, and she felt suddenly empty. "Darren or Maelyn told you, didn't they?"
The older woman shook her head. "Not every story ends in a dramatic betrayal, Miss Zeller. My son has two excellent informants—both loyal to a fault."
Akari frowned. "Then who?"
"You've spent all this time with Golds," Mrs. Trengsen said, "and you still don't understand?" She held up a fist and began counting on extended fingers. "The gatekeeper outside this neighborhood. The security guard who escorts you around Elegan High, ever since that day you were caught hacking in the computer lab. The healer outside the tunnels, the first time you fought the arkions. A hotel worker in the Hunter's Guild. They all work for me."
Of course Kalden's mother had her own spies. More likely, her spies had spies, and this had all be trickling up the chain of command. The worst part was, Akari had seen this coming weeks ago when she'd realized how good Darren and Maelyn were.
"But you didn't stop us," Akari said. "Don't tell me you approve."
Mrs. Trengsen gave a sad smile. "Parenting has an element of natural selection. My son is intelligent, but he can't learn from mistakes he's unaware of. This makes subtlety his greatest blind spot, and I wouldn't change a thing."
She leaned forward. "Do I approve of him learning Mana Arts? No. But there are worse crimes than sampling forbidden fruit. I've already pushed away one son—a mistake I'd rather not repeat."
"I've answered your questions," Mrs. Trengsen said. "Now I'd like an honest answer in return. Why did you meet with the fugitive in White Vale?"
So, she didn't know everything. Akari scrambled for a clever answer. Unfortunately, she wasn't feeling clever right now. Maybe Kalden could have outmaneuvered his mother here, but he'd been dealing with Golds his entire life.
Then again, even Kalden hadn't dared lie to Frostblade that day in the hotel bar.
Akari cleared her throat. "We wanted technique manuals like you said. The fugitive needed money, so she traded us videos in exchange for cashing in her bounties."
"What else?" Mrs. Trengsen's gaze seemed to imply she already knew the answer.
Talek. Nothing got past her, did it? This was the sort of Gold who Emberlyn Frostblade aspired to be. Emberlyn had threatened her multiple times, and Akari always told the girl to screw herself. Meanwhile, Kalden's mother had her spilling secrets without lifting a finger.
Akari reached for her water bottle and unscrewed the top. "She tried to convince us she came from the outside world. The Martials captured her master, and she's trying to leave."
She left out the part where Relia had tried to recruit them, and she prayed that Kalden's mother wouldn't press her for more. The omission left her cheeks burning, but she hid it by taking a long drink.
"Things are escalating," Mrs. Trengsen said. "And I've shared this much so you know who you're dealing with."
Yep. Here comes the threat...
"I'd like you to give up Mana Arts, and end your association with Kalden. In return, I'm prepared to give one goldnote per month for the next six years, along with a letter of recommendation to the university of your choice. That money should cover your tuition, along with your other expenses."
"Seriously?" Akari blurted out. The woman made it sound like Akari was some tramp who'd lured her beloved son into a life of crime. For Talek's sake, this whole thing had been Kalden's idea.
"Seriously," Mrs. Trengsen confirmed. "You can study computer science if you'd like—put this business behind you and become a productive member of society."
"And if I refuse your offer?" Akari asked. "Let me guess—I turn up dead of 'natural causes'?"
The older woman furrowed her brow. "You seem to have a low opinion of me, Miss Zeller. First you insult my intelligence, now my integrity. Meanwhile, I've shown you nothing but respect."
Akari winced. She'd always imagined Kalden's mother as some power-hungry control freak. But the woman had only gotten involved now to protect her son. Not from some imaginary danger, but from the conflict between Relia and the Martials.
She also hadn't treated Akari as lesser because of her rank. Not once.
"You think my son is a paragon of compassion while the other Golds enjoy watching you suffer?" Mrs. Trengsen raised a thin eyebrow. "Who do you think raised Kalden?"
Once again, Akari didn't reply.
"I don't operate with violence," she continued. "And nothing will happen if you refuse my offer today. However, if you insist on seeing my son again, I will take steps to impede your efforts."
Somehow, her calm indifference made the last part even more sinister. At the same time, she also made it sound so reasonable, as if Akari were being childish for even considering other options.
Maybe she was right? Maybe this was the smarter choice, but Akari didn't want the Trengsen's money. Free handouts led to expectation, and expectation was a seed for tyranny.
Was this the reason no Bronze had ever reached Silver? Because they traded their ambitions for a life of comfort? Because they silenced themselves on a Gold's demand?
"You have reservations," Mrs. Trengsen said. "Care to share?"
"You wouldn't understand," Akari replied.
"No?" She cocked her head to the side. "Then correct me if I'm wrong. You despise this society and the fact that you're judged for your birth mana. You think if you accept this deal, you'll become just another cog in the machine."
Shit. Akari hadn't yet put her thoughts to words, but that was uncanny.
Her expression must have betrayed her, because Kalden's Mother gave a knowing nod. "I may be a wealthy Gold, Miss Zeller, but I can put myself in your shoes. If I'd been born a Bronze, then a part of me would rather break than bend."
Akari raised an eyebrow. "You're telling me I should refuse you?"
"Think carefully," Mrs. Trengsen said, "how does this crusade of yours end? Do you think you'll lead a revolution and overthrow this corrupt society? Perhaps your conspiracy theories tell of an evil mastermind pulling strings from the shadows?" She shook her head. "My husband and I live on top of the food chain, and even we're powerless to shape things in our image. We live in a web of organized irresponsibility. We all hold it together—from the wealthiest Golds to the poorest Bronze."
She rose from her chair, signaling an end to the conversation. "Even if your goals are less ambitious than that, this world will never accept a Bronze Mana Artist. Better to learn that lesson now while you still can."
Akari stared down at her hands, and the now empty bottle she held. "Can I have a week to think about it?"
Her lip quirked in amusement. "I'll give you twenty-four hours."
"Forty-eight," Akari countered as she stood from the sofa.
Mrs. Trengsen nodded once and pulled out a black business card. "You can reach my assistant at this number. In the meantime, my driver waits out front to take you wherever you'd like. Go with him, or walk. The choice is yours."