"Any news?" Kalden asked his informants. The three of them sat in his alchemy lab—a smaller space attached to his bedroom. Kalden wore his gloves and goggles as he leaned over a lotus petal, cutting out the stems and veins.
"News about who?" Darren asked.
"You know who," Maelyn replied. Even with his back turned, Kalden still heard the smirk in her voice. "That's the third time he's asked since yesterday."
"Yeah?" Kalden snipped another piece of flower with his steel scissors, adding it to the mortar bowl on his left. "I'll stop once she takes the deal."
Darren cleared his throat, "She spent an hour in the library today."
"Stalker," Maelyn muttered.
"Says the girl who knows her cup size."
"I know it's smaller than yours," she replied in a singsong voice.
"Ah, jealousy. Not the best color on you, Miss Sanako."
Kalden ignored them as he set aside his finished petal and began cutting another. Even after all these years, he never understood their use of 'stalker' as an insult. Weren't they both professional stalkers?
"Anyway," Darren said. "She was reading High-Stakes Negotiation by Patrik Koss, Beyond the Moons by Kazu Nobira...."
Interesting. Kalden had skimmed the first book for a business class at Elegan Community College—it was a practical guide written by an ex-Martial hostage negotiator. The second book was all court gossip and autobiographies from Shoken's Reisei Era. There was even a chapter in there about Clan Trengsen.
"So she's considering the deal," Kalden broke in, "and she wants to turn it to her advantage?" That sounded like the Akari he knew. He also knew she'd take his mother's money and spend it on mana potions, regardless of her promises.
"And Unbreakable," Darren finished.
Kalden's blood froze. Unbreakable was a book about soul oaths. Shokenese rulers had once exchanged these oaths when one enemy surrendered to another, with the losing party swearing never to take up arms against the victor. Basically, it was Shoken's equivalent to the Espirian hostage exchanges.
"Damnit," Kalden said as he dropped his tools on the smooth white table. "I never thought my mother would go that far."
Sure, he knew about these oaths from history classes, but only in a theoretical sense. Golds these days just signed contracts like civilized people. There were exceptions, though, especially with an enemy who had nothing to lose. If Akari swore an unbreakable oath, she would lose her Mana Arts forever. She might get physically sick if she tried to cycle. Her soul might close up like a plugged drain, or she might simply lose her will to fight. The exact symptoms varied, but the result was always the same.
Kalden winced to imagine his friend beaten and broken like that. She was normally so intense—so focused on everything she did. Even now, with her world falling apart, she hadn't stopped fighting.
"We don't know what your mom's planning," Maelyn said. "No one mentioned oaths before."
"That's even worse." Kalden spun around in his chair. "What if she meant to surprise Akari after she'd already committed?"
Darren shrugged. "Or we're all jumping to conclusions. Akari clearly got the idea from Beyond the Moons."
Kalden narrowed his eyes as he thought. "When you play Crowns, you have to assume your opponent will make the best possible move. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. My mother's smart enough not to take Akari's word."
To make matters worse, Kalden's mother would hold the power to release Akari from her oath, and she could hold that over her head forever—promising her future Mana Arts time in exchange for favors. Most likely, those favors would relate to hacking.
Kalden cursed again. "She plans to make Akari her tool. She even mentioned sending her to school for computer science."
He hadn't seen the signs until now. He'd assumed his mother would treat her fairly—the way she dealt with Silvers and Golds. But Akari had seen it coming. She'd tried to tell him yesterday, but he'd ignored her.
"Did I give her the right advice?" Kalden asked.
"Of course," Maelyn said at once. "Your mom could make her life a living hell if she wanted to."
"Plus," Darren said, "She would have gotten herself killed on the streets."
"If her foster parents actually kick her out," Maelyn said. "I have my suspicions about that one."
Kalden stared at his glass alchemy tubes, feeling suddenly sick. Akari refused to trade freedom for safety. He could respect that choice, and he'd definitely been too harsh when they parted. Akari had lashed out first, but Kalden was the first friend she'd made in years. She'd been fighting for so long, she never learned how to treat the people she cared about.
He turned back to his desk and began grinding up the leaf fragments in his mortar and pestle.
"How goes the world's hardest potion?" Maelyn asked in a not-so-subtle attempt to cheer him up.
"I thought it was a pill," Darren said.
"It's a pill," Kalden confirmed. 'Hardest' might be a stretch, though. The pill treated krustoplegia—a chronic disease that caused mana to crystalize inside a person's channels. Not only was this extremely painful, but it also led to paralysis in the affected areas. Being a Mana Artist helped the condition, but that only delayed the inevitable, and most people didn't survive until puberty.
With enough of these pills, they might make it until their late teens.
On the bright side, no living person actually had this condition, but refining this pill had become a rite of passage among alchemy students. Kalden had already messed up his first few attempts. Most of the reagents carried toxic mana, and the trick was getting the right ratios. Too much, and the pill would kill the patient. Too little, and it wouldn't break down the crystalizing mana. This was why he'd separated the stems and veins from the rest of the leaf, organizing the pieces based on their mana potency.
"Well," Maelyn drew out the word as she spoke. "How goes the world's hardest pill?"
Kalden shrugged as he worked. "Even if I succeed, does it matter? I can't make the world better with alchemy."
"You're too young to have an existential crisis," she said with a sigh. "Wait 'til you're thirty, at least."
"Kalden was born thirty," Daren said.
"Hey," Maelyn said, "he used to be kind of fun."
Darren hummed in consideration. "Alright, we'll say he grew up at around ... ten or eleven."
They talked for another few minutes as Kalden finished grinding up the different leaf fragments, combining them to make a mixture with roughly 22% toxicity. He'd lose three-quarters to the refining process, leaving him with just over 5%. Safe for human consumption, but still strong enough to break down crystal mana.
Eventually, Darren circled back to Kalden's original question. "Tons of philosophers have tried answering that question already. Most of us won't really change the world, but we can still try to live our best lives. Mastery has its own intrinsic values, so it always helps to be good at your craft. Then you use that craft to help your community and leave the world better than when you came in."
Maelyn pointed a thin finger toward Darren. "He makes some good points. And if you don't feel like your alchemy adds value, you can always switch things up. Make potions to heal blind kittens or something."
"Blind kittens." Darren chuckled. "That'll piss off Mrs. Trengsen."
"And what if we're missing something else?" Kalden said. "Something just as important as everything Darren said?"
Fragments of the Grandmaster's first video echoed through his thoughts. What if we're denying ourselves what it means to be human?
Maelyn's expression turned more serious. "You talked like this before. Before you became..." she trailed off as if the last word were forbidden.
"A Mana Artist." Kalden removed his gloves and tossed them in the wastebasket. "My mom knew the whole time. No sailing around the storm now."
"Right. You thought Mana Arts would make you happy. Did it?"
"It did," Kalden muttered. He hadn't realized it before, but these past few months had felt right. Kalden didn't believe in fate, destiny, or following your passion into the sunset. But he'd chosen Mana Arts himself, while his mother had chosen alchemy. That difference meant something.
Before anyone could respond, someone knocked on his bedroom door.
"That'll be Little Miss Frostblade," Maelyn said absently
"What?" Kalden stood up and glanced toward the door. "How in Talek's name—"
Darren nodded. "She was watching you and Akari fight like an old married couple yesterday. I'm surprised she waited this long."
Kalden shook his head as he passed from his lab into the main room. Unless those two had Emberlyn's knock memorized, this could just as easily be his mother, stepfather, or a household staff member."
"Come in," he hollered.
Sure enough, Emberlyn Frostblade stepped inside. She wore a shapely red top that fell to her knees, and he couldn't tell if it was a dress or a sweater. Maybe both? As always, her blonde hair fell in waves past her shoulders, circling her matching badge.
Her violet eyes scanned Kalden's bedroom before settling on his informants. She smiled at them both, "Would you give us a minute, please?"
"We were just leaving," Darren said, and the pair stepped out behind Emberlyn. Maelyn caught Kalden's gaze in the doorway, raising her eyebrows in her trademark 'I told you so' face.
Once they'd left, Emberlyn met Kalden's eyes again, "I haven't heard from you in a while."
"Yeah." Kalden made a vague gesture toward his open lab. "I've been busy with school." Remembering his manners, he strode past his bed and desk to where a mini-fridge sat in the corner. "Would you like a drink?"
"Sure. Do you still have that bottle of Koreldon Violet I gave you?"
Kalden knelt down and removed the bottle out from the fridge's bottom shelf, filling two glasses with the dark purple liquid.
"I heard you were in White Vale," Emberlyn said, "the same time my father fought the fugitive."
Kalden stepped forward and handed her a glass. "He told you about our talk?"
She nodded, taking a small, delicate sip. Her eyes never left his, and hints of pain and betrayal flashed around the edges. Had Frostblade mentioned Akari? Probably. He had no reason to keep that a secret.
They stuck to small talk over the next few minutes, and Emberlyn continued probing for information. She asked if he'd witnessed the fight, and Kalden admitted that he had. His mother had already warned him that Frostblade knew, which meant Emberlyn might know too. Still, she avoided direct questions about Akari or Relia, and Kalden didn't offer anything.
Eventually, a silence fell between them, and Emberlyn turned to face the sliding door. Snowflakes clung to the glass surface, and several inches had gathered on the stone balcony beyond.
"What happened to us?" she asked as she watched the falling snow. "We used to be so close."
"We went our separate ways after high school." Kalden glanced at her reflection in the window. "Once you started training as a Mana Artist ... always figured you'd find people more your speed."
"Is that what you think?" She turned and met his eyes. "You think I want to marry a man like my father? You treat people well, and you think things through. I'd take that over muscles and raw power any day."
As usual, Emberlyn always put him on a pedestal in her mind.
"Besides," she continued, "I never wanted to be a Combat Artist. That was all my father's idea." She took another drink and shook her head. "He's obsessed with getting stronger, but he already maxed out his mana. Now he spends his days feeling like a failure."
"He actually admitted that to you?"
"Talek, no." Emberlyn laughed into her glass. "But he studies advancement. That's why he's obsessed with catching the fugitive. Someone that strong must have more mana than a Gold, right? Maybe one of those 'Master' ranks from the history books?"
Obviously, that wasn't the only reason he chased her. Relia had been more than willing to explain herself to anyone who would listen.
The Martials really don't know what was going on, either?
Relia had called this place a prison. The Martials might be the guards, but they certainly weren't the wardens. They were all trapped in this web together, ruled by their own obsessions.
"Do you ever have dreams?" Kalden asked her. "About a different life?"
Emberlyn furrowed her brow at the sudden change of topic. At first, he might have taken that look for skepticism or confusion. But no ... that wasn't it. It was more like he'd asked her a too-personal question.
Kalden almost apologized and changed the subject, but his curiosity got the better of him. Some radical theories on the dark web claimed these dreams were memories of past lives, but Kalden had his doubts. Modern science had found countless links between the mind and body, and these links refuted most classic reincarnation myths.
Other theories called the dreams lost memories. This had seemed unlikely at first, but now he wasn't so sure. Knowledge Artists could find and share memories, but Kalden also remembered Relia's lesson about life mana.
If you can give something, you can take it.
Could someone do that on a large scale, leaving them all obsessed with things they couldn't have? It made him feel insignificant. It also served as a cold reminder that even Relia barely scratched the surface of a Mana Artist's potential.
Several more seconds passed, but Emberlyn didn't seem inclined to answer. Still, he saw the conflict in her eyes, and in the rise and fall of her chest. Time for an exchange, then.
"I dream of being a Mana Artist," Kalden said. "Like the dreams Sozen had before he disappeared."
Emberlyn blinked, but she hardly seemed surprised. "Always the same ones?"
"Always." Even as the words left his mouth, images of an Espirian city flashed in his mind's eye, and Kalden shared bits and pieces of it
In the dream, he stood like a general amid a field of other Combat Artists. He saw every detail of the battle. And with his Mana Arts, he didn't just command Missiles and Constructs the way his soldiers did. He felt the battlefield itself. He felt tactics and strategies as if they were tangible things. He commanded soldiers like pieces on a Crowns board, sending commands directly into their minds.
These last few weeks, he'd even dreamt of Akari. She was an absolute terror on the field— impossibly fast as if she were hacking reality itself. This part, he obviously left out of his descriptions.
Emberlyn took a deep breath. "In my dream, you and I are together. Only ... you're the Mana Artist, and I'm the alchemist. Real-life feels backwards when I wake up. Like we're trapped here, and the dream is a glimpse outside the cage."
Kalden took a step closer until they stood side-by-side in front of the wide glass window. The sun was setting beyond the trees in his backyard, just low enough to break through the ceiling of dark winter clouds.
Emberlyn rested her head on his shoulder. He felt her body heat against his and he inhaled the floral scent of her perfume.
Kalden hadn't mentioned his desire to learn Mana Arts before tonight. And yet ... she hadn't been surprised. She'd even dreamt of the same thing, which seemed to imply she'd already known.
"Remember that day in the tunnels," Kalden began, "when you saved us from that arkion matriarch?"
"Of course." She lifted her head to take another sip of wine.
"My mother sent you, didn't she?"
"She did." Emberlyn stared down at her glass, swirling the remains. "She knew you were learning Mana Arts, and she wanted someone to keep you safe."
So ... she'd known since the beginning too. Had his mother also sent her to interrogate Akari that day in school? Kalden couldn't think of a tactful way to ask, and he certainly wouldn't be the one to bring up Akari if he could help it.
"And you're telling me this now?" he asked. "Just like that?"
"I'd never work against you..." Emberlyn pivoted her head to the side, and her nose grazed his neck. "Even for her." He felt the heat of her breath on his skin, followed by her soft lips.
Kalden's own breath caught in his throat, but he fought down a dozen urges. If he turned his own head, he could press his lips to her forehead and inhale the scent of her hair. If he raised his arm, he could wrap it around her waist and feel the curve of her hip.
Instead, he took a slow step to the side. "I'm sorry."
"For what?" Emberlyn kept her voice soft—completely at ease.
His heart continued to race, and he took a moment to gather his thoughts. "I've taken advantage of you since we were kids. I've led you on when it was convenient for me—when I wanted something from you. You say that I treat people well, but I'm just as bad as my mother."
Emberlyn's face went completely still, but she hung on every word.
"I'm sorry," he repeated, "but I don't feel the same way you do."
Emberlyn looked like she wanted to cry, but she clenched her jaw and hardened her eyes. "Why?"
Kalden frowned. "What?"
"Why am I not good enough for you?"
"It's not about that." He raked in a deep breath. "Can I help how I feel?"
"You said you loved me once. Was that a lie?"
"I was a child when I said that."
"Was it a lie?" she repeated.
"Then what changed?"
Kalden gave a helpless shrug. "I don't know."
"Of course you do. Some guys really are that clueless about their feelings, but not you. You're different."
"All the same," he replied. "You act like I owe you an explanation, but I don't. We were never actually engaged."
"You don't owe me," Emberlyn said. "But I'm still asking. If I've done something wrong, I'd rather know."
Damnit. Kalden drained the rest of his glass. It was hard to deny her that simple request, but she wouldn't like the answer.
"It's the way you treat people," he said. "Especially people you consider beneath you."
"Who?" Emberlyn blinked several times, clearly expecting a different answer. "Your retainers? I've never—"
He shook his head. "Golds and Silvers aren't the only people."
"No one's saying Bronze aren't people," Emberlyn said, eyes wide and innocent. "But I guess I don't interact with enough..."
"Your dishonesty is another thing," Kalden said before he could stop himself. "When you put on a show for me, it's impossible to know the real you."
She swallowed as if her throat were dry. "I want to change—to do better."
"I know you can if you try," he replied with as much sincerity as he could muster. "When you do, I hope you find someone who makes you happy."
Her eyes hardened like a freezing pond. "Like how you found Akari Zeller?"
There it was. Maelyn and Darren were right, as usual.
Kalden drew in a deep breath. "So that's the real reason you're here."
Emberlyn crossed her arms, waiting for an answer.
"I don't know what rumors you've heard," Kalden said, "but she—"
"She attacked me first," Emberlyn broke in, "that day I 'mistreated' her. She also claimed you two 'made out' in that supply closet."
"That's not true," Kalden said.
"Of course not—she was taunting me like she always does. But I'm the one who mistreats people, right?"
Kalden spread out his hands. "I'm not taking anyone's side here. And I swear to Talek, there's nothing romantic between Akari and me."
Emberlyn raised an eyebrow.
"I saw you two yesterday," Emberlyn snapped. "Can you look me in the eye and tell me she doesn't mean something to you?"
He hesitated, and Emberlyn took a step back as if she'd been slapped. "That's what I thought." And with that, she spun on her heel and stomped out the door.
As far as Kalden knew, he would never even see Akari again, but Emberlyn didn't know that. By the time he thought to mention it, her driver was already pulling out of his neighborhood.
Kalden stepped down the wooden staircase, past the waterfall, and into the kitchen where he found Darren and Maelyn. They both sat on the counter eating what looked like bowls of chocolate ice cream.
Time to find out which one is the best professional stalker.
"Didn't go well?" Darren asked.
"No." Kalden shook his head as he stepped forward. "Now I need to know—where's Akari Zeller right now?"