Akari shifted in her seat, staring down at her hands on the metal table. Almost twelve hours had passed since the battle, and rays of sunlight speared through the room's barred windows. This added some color to her otherwise gray surroundings.
Last night had been a mess of healers, police, and interrogations, and Akari hadn't slept for a minute of it. She'd tried closing her eyes in her cell, but her thoughts wouldn't stop racing.
How could she sleep after everything that had happened? A group of Mana Artists had almost murdered her. What's more, she just saw Kalden and Maelyn get shot by metal mana—hard enough to draw blood.
Were they alright? No one would tell her.
Footsteps echoed down the corridor outside. Akari sat up straighter, and her cuffs scraped against the table. Unlike ordinary handcuffs, these bands had no chains or hinges connecting them. And while most cuffs were stainless steel, these were made of impedium.
Whenever Akari cycled mana to her hands or feet, one of the four cuffs repelled it like a magnet, sending it back to her soul. For a non- Artist, this restriction might go unnoticed. But she'd been cycling for more than a hundred days straight. Blocking her mana now felt as unnatural as holding her breath. It made her want to cycle harder and harder. After a whole night of this, her body felt like a wrung-out rag.
Her captors hadn't even removed the cuffs when she slept or showered. A layer of padding protected her skin, so they weren't nearly as uncomfortable as most restraints. Still, that only made her more nervous.
How much longer would this last?
The door opened across the room, and her foster father stepped inside. Mazren wore his usual work clothes—a button-down shirt tucked into a pair of khaki pants. A Silver badge hung from a cord around his neck, reflecting the morning sun like a mirror.
Akari cleared her throat. "Kalden and Maelyn—are they okay?" Mazren had a few friends here in the police force. Maybe they'd told him something?
He paused for a moment, then nodded. "The healers got to everyone right away. No serious injuries."
Akari released a breath and sank back in her seat. She'd known they'd be fine, but that wasn't the same as hearing someone confirm it. Being alone had a way of making her thoughts spiral into darkness.
Mazren lowered himself into the chair opposite her, then slid a cardboard Jumpstart mug across the table. "Here. Figured you'd need this."
"Thanks," Akari said as she opened the plastic top and inhaled the steam. It smelled like their regular dark roast, but she wasn't complaining. Any caffeine was a gift from the Angels.
After a brief silence, her foster father spoke again. "So ... you're a Mana Artist."
"They told you everything?" Akari guessed.
He nodded, running a hand through his light brown hair. "Read the report while I was waiting."
That meant he already knew about the videos and the dark web. Akari had been carrying her flash drive when they'd captured her, so she couldn't hide that part of the story. Besides, it wasn't a crime to learn Mana Arts, even for a Bronze like her.
"I knew something was up with you," he said, "but I never knew it was this big. All those nights you didn't come home, plus that hunting trip..." Another pause. "What made you want to do this?"
Akari shrugged. Even if she knew how to answer that, she wasn't in the mood to bare her soul. "What else happened last night? No one's told me anything."
Mazren appeared to gather his thoughts for a moment. "I guess they talked to everyone separately. Kalden Trengsen's story matched up with yours. He says Frostblade and her friends attacked you, and you defended yourself. His retainers said the same."
Akari gave a quick nod, feeling a surge of hope in her chest. At first, she'd feared the police would believe Emberlyn's story and ignore everything else. Just like the day she'd been banned from the computer lab. But if they talked to Kalden, she might actually have a chance.
"Emberlyn Frostblade even admitted to attacking you," Mazren went on.
Akari almost coughed on her coffee. "Seriously?"
"Yeah. She refused to talk at first, but her lawyer encouraged her to cooperate."
Mazren went on to summarize Emberlyn's interrogation. In her words, she'd been 'testing' Akari to see if she really knew Mana Arts. Things escalated after that. Emberlyn's retainer—Kazo Shiro—had hit Akari as she retreated over the ice. Emberlyn had wanted to pull Akari out, but Alton Tusk had objected, insisting they wouldn't get caught if they just left her.
The testing part sounded like bullshit, too. Emberlyn had clearly known what to expect, even if she'd underestimated Akari at first. The rest was possible though. Akari had assumed Emberlyn hit her from behind, and she'd told the detective that. However, when the man pressed her for more, she'd been forced to admit she hadn't seen it happen.
Akari felt her shoulders sag as everything settled in. "They're gonna get away with this, aren't they?"
"Frostblade and Tusk will be fined for the damages," Mazren said.
"Fined?" Akari blurted out. "They're richer than the Angels! What good will fines do?"
"The school board will decide whether they stay in the Mana Arts program. Things don't look good for Tusk on that front..." He trailed off and gave a helpless shrug. "But you're right. It's not fair. It never is with these people."
Akari clenched her hands into fists. She tried cycling her mana, but the cuffs repelled the movement in all four limbs, sending back waves of pain. Talek. She should have seen this coming. A Gold could technically go to prison for murdering a Bronze, but that would only happen if they'd killed her in cold blood, in front of a live audience. Anything else was too complicated for real justice.
"What about me?" Akari finally asked.
"There's been some talk about pressing charges," Mazren said. "But they're having trouble finding a crime. You defended yourself in every version of the story. Three against one."
Akari looked up, feeling her spirits rise again. "And learning Mana Arts isn't illegal, right?"
He shook his head. "Officially, it's impossible for a Bronze to learn. This means there aren't any laws or precedents."
How about that? The propaganda worked in her favor for once. Still, Mazren didn't look hopeful. There must be a catch.
"But the three families want to make an example of you," Mazren explained. "A quiet example, without a trial."
Akari swallowed, still not sure whether to feel relieved or afraid.
He spread out his hands on the table. "If Noella and I keep you under house arrest for the next three years, you can avoid prison time, and keep your record clean."
"And ... house arrest means what?" She'd heard the term on TV, but she'd never gotten an exact definition.
"You can go to school and work," Mazren replied. "Otherwise, you stay within a one-block radius of our house. All other appointments need to be cleared through the Martial's office."
Three years ... just for defending myself?
"Those cuffs you're wearing"—he gestured to the table where she clutched her coffee cup—"they come with built-in trackers. That's how they'll know if you stay within your radius. They'll also get an alert if you remove or tamper with them."
Akari's blood froze, and the impedium felt as heavy as cast iron on her wrists. "The cuffs stay ... the whole time?"
"I'm sorry," he said with a grave nod. "I couldn't do anything about that."
"What if I refuse the deal?" Akari asked
He hesitated. "Apparently, Agent Frostblade has evidence that links you to another crime. He wouldn't say what, but it sounded serious. Do you know what he's talking about?"
Akari pursed her lips, trying to force her features into confusion.
"They can't listen to us in here." Mazren gestured at the door. "Whatever it is, I'll keep it between us."
The meetings with Relia. But she'd never talk about that out loud. Not to the Martials, or to Mazren. Relia Dawnfire was the only person on this island who dared to challenge the status quo. Betraying her would betray everything Akari stood for.
When she didn't answer, Mazren spoke again, "He could be bluffing. but I wouldn't risk it. There's no winning against Golds."
No winning against Golds. Now more than ever, Akari felt the weight of those words in her bones. She hadn't even responded to Mrs. Trengsen's offer, and things had already worked out in the woman's favor. Now, Akari would still lose her Mana Arts, and she wouldn't even get the bribe money for it.
Mazren was right. This game had been rigged against her from the very start. How could you beat opponents who played by entirely different rules?
"So I'd take the deal," he said. "It's the best you'll get."
"And I can live with you for three more years?" Akari asked. "Just like that?"
His face seemed to soften with sympathy. "We were never going to kick you out."
"That's not what your wife said."
He let out a slow breath. "She meant we can't support you forever."
"No," Akari countered. "She was pretty clear. 'The day I turn sixteen.' That's what she said."
"I'll deal with Noella."
"Because I'm responsible for you. I made you feel like you wouldn't be safe next year. That's why you took all these risks, isn't it? That's why you learned Mana Arts?"
Akari shrugged. He was half-right, though. Without the ticking time bomb, she might not have pursued Mana Arts with the same urgency. She could have approached this more slowly, pissing off fewer Golds along the way.
"We'll figure something out," he said. "I promise. I wouldn't ever let you become homeless. I'm sorry I let you think that."
Akari narrowed her eyes at him. "I don't get it. Why are you responsible? We're basically strangers."
He frowned. "You've lived with us almost three years."
"Doesn't mean we know each other." Honestly, she was far closer with Kalden and his friends, and she'd known them a fraction of the time.
"Yeah." He rubbed at his temple. "Guess that's my fault too."
"But why?" Her voice rose for the first time. "Why do you give a shit about some orphan Bronze? You agreed to kick me out before." She smacked her cuffs on the table, and the metallic clang reached every corner of the room. "These give Noella more reasons to hate me."
"She doesn't—" Mazren started to speak, but then he stopped himself.
"Why?" Akari demanded, cramming all her questions into a single word. Why did Mazren care, while Noella hated her? Why had a Silver family taken in a Bronze?
Mazren sat in silence for a long time. She'd never seen a grown man look so unsure of himself. Almost ... afraid?
Akari bore into him with her gaze, studying his Espirian face. She was half-Espirian herself, but she'd inherited most of her mother's Shokenese features, including her dark hair and eyes. But unlike Kalden and Maelyn, Akari didn't have the characteristic tan skin. Her skin was pale—almost as pale as Mazren's.
Her thoughts raced harder as she considered her initial mana count, and how she'd started somewhere in the mid-twenties. Halfway between Bronze and Silver. If her father had been a Gold, then she would have been a Silver. If he'd been a Bronze, she would have started closer to zero.
But no ... she was half-Bronze, half-Silver.
Her heart thundered in her chest, and chills crept up her arms.
Mazren had been the one to want her as a foster child. He'd been civil to her this entire time, while his wife had been hostile. And he was sitting here now, offering her a place to live for three more years.
Akari swallowed, finding her throat suddenly dry. When she tried to speak, she couldn't bring herself to ask the real question on her tongue.
"You knew me," she said, "before I came to live with you. You were looking for someone specific."
His head moved in an almost imperceptible nod. "Sixteen years ago, I was with a woman named Emiri Zeller."
Her mother's name.
Akari closed her eyes, feeling the room spin around her. She'd prepared for this in her mind, but that did little to soften the blow.
She'd dreamt of her father since she was a child. He was always a powerful Mana Artist from the outside world—someone like Relia's master. Akari had seen herself as the heir to some ancient clan with ancient bloodline techniques.
She'd never spoken of this dream aloud. Most days, she hardly even dared to imagine it. Even so, that spark of hope had given her the courage to go on. It made her believe the rules on this island didn't apply to her—that she would be the first Bronze among thousands to advance to Silver.
But real life didn't work like a Mana Arts movie. If this were a movie, she would have discovered her bloodline technique and saved herself from drowning last night.
But she wasn't special. Her parents were both ordinary, and so was she.
Akari looked back at Mazren and found her eyes blurry with tears. She removed her glasses and wiped them dry with the back of her hand.
"I'm sorry," Mazren said with a heavy sigh. "I should have told you this before."
"No," Akari said. "I get why you kept it a secret. As a foster parent, you weren't so bad. For a real parent, you were pretty shitty."
He winced at that, and Akari fought down the urge to elaborate. Did he know her school uniforms were the only real clothes she had? Did he know Noella hit her on the days they were alone, and that she used her Healing Arts to hide the cuts and bruises?
But no ... saying that would make her feel like a victim. She'd had enough of that lately. Besides, Mazren wouldn't believe her. Without the scars to prove it, Akari even doubted herself sometimes.
"That's not why I kept it a secret," he explained slowly. "I could lose my job for admitting that publically. Noella knows, but that's it. No one else does. Not the social workers ... not Elyna ... not even my parents."
"Trust me." Akari rubbed at her eye again. "I get it. Bronze shouldn't act like real people, and they sure as hell shouldn't sleep with Silvers or Golds."
Emberlyn had tried to kill her for getting too close to Kalden. And for Talek's sake, they were just friends.
Mazren stared down at his hands. "It's too late for me to make things right, but I'm trying my best."
Akari stared at the wall, unable to reply. She still couldn't reconcile this man with the powerful Mana Artist from her dreams. And despite the evidence, a part of her refused to believe it was true.
"How'd you meet my mom?" she asked after a long silence.
"Bullshit," Akari said. "If she was a random hookup, you can tell me. Won't break my heart or anything."
Still, he didn't explain, and Akari's mind went to darker places.
Mazren must have seen the worry in her eyes because he held up his hands defensively. "No, it was nothing like that! I'm sorry, it was—we cared about each other. I even have memories of meeting her in the diner where she worked. But I don't trust them."
Akari grimaced. "You don't trust your own memories?"
"It's complicated, like I said. Those memories only showed up four years ago—after I found out I had another daughter. It was like my mind was filling in the gaps—trying to make sense of something it couldn't."
Akari blinked. Mazren's words sounded crazy, but a part of her understood his meaning. Her own memories from the last few years were clear as glass, but everything before that was a blur. A few things stood out amongst the sea of chaos—she remembered her mother's face, and she remembered her bedroom with the Midwinter lights hanging around the ceiling. She even remembered a neighborhood boy teaching her how to fight.
But what about the rest of her life? She could remember elementary school if she tried, but those memories felt different—almost artificial. Akari hadn't considered that difference until now, but she agreed with Mazren. They didn't feel trustworthy.
"So what do you remember?" Akari asked.
"Nothing specific," Mazren said. "But far too many feelings to fit in one night. I loved her. I know I did."
"What about Noella?" Akari asked. "You've been married for eighteen years. I'm fifteen. Doesn't take a math genius to realize you cheated on her."
"I didn't cheat on her," Mazren said with surprising confidence. "Or ... maybe I did. I don't know. I can't imagine myself doing that, but the past is vague. Sometimes ... this life feels like a lie, and the truth is something I can't see."
Akari nodded, still clutching her coffee cup. "Then you know why I became a Mana Artist."
He stayed with her until it was time to leave, then they left the police station together. Akari was glad to put that place behind her, but her cuffs weighed her down with every step. She might be leaving one prison, but this island had walls she couldn't see.
Akari had thought she could even the playing field with Mana Arts, but everything she'd learned since then had proven her wrong. No one would ever accept a Bronze, no matter how hard she tried.
First, they would try to break her like Kalden's mother had. And if she kept resisting, they would try to kill her again.
But why fight back when the rules were rigged against her? The only solution was to leave. To think beyond this island, and find something greater.
Relia Dawnfire had offered her a chance to do exactly that. Now Akari just had to find her.