Ilami stared at Seya’s hand and considered. From what she had observed about the interaction between female friends, it was normal for them to hold hands. Still, she didn’t have a girl friend before entering the academy – even Aleveri never held her friend – so she didn’t know how to react. She did know pulling back her hand would be rude, so she let it be. She looked up to Felaris.
‘I guess that’s it,’ Ilami said, rising. ‘I’ll keep in touch.’ For some reasons, she couldn’t wait to get out of the room. Perhaps the awkwardness she felt with Sensa was one of them.
When she reached the door, Felaris called her. Ilami turned.
‘My brother – don’t you know anything about him?’ she asked. Her voice was lower and a bit shaky. She didn’t look at Ilami and instead stared at the floor.
‘I – I don’t,’ Ilami said, her chest feeling like a weight was on it. ‘I don’t believe Alyosha has anything to do with his death, but – but I’m not close with my brother, so I don’t know for sure.’ She wanted to apologize, but she suspected Felaris had heard it many times and wouldn’t appreciate one coming from her. ‘We’ll solve this mystery, Felaris. And avenge Arafel.’ She didn’t know why she said the last part.
Felaris just nodded. Ilami left. The sadness radiating from Felaris at the end was too poignant for Ilami. She felt it strongly and didn’t like how it overwhelmed her. The sight of Zivil flashed in her mind, prompting her to shake her head. Deaths. They seemed to follow her as days passed – maybe they wouldn’t stop.
As she was about to reach her room, Mr. Haifei walked towards her. From another direction, Jaxin approached her as well. The sight of them both aroused her suspicion. Did she do something wrong in fighting class? Was Jaxin about to deliver a bad news to her? She couldn’t escape them, of course, but she preferred to meet Mr. Haifei instead of Jaxin. The latter’s presence made the air tasted bitter, what with his cold treatment towards her earlier.
When both of them were in front of her, Mr. Haifei spoke up. ‘Jaxin, I have an issue to discuss with Miss Ilami about her performance in my class. I hope I can borrow her for now.’
Smiling, Jaxin shook his head. ‘I’m afraid that is something I cannot allow, Mr. Haifei. Principal Venaria herself instructed me to bring Young Mistress to her. I’m sure you understand she doesn’t make requests easily unless they are of utmost importance.’
A dark shadow flashed across Mr. Haifei before he wore a smile with ease. ‘Of course. My discussion with her can wait.’ He turned to Ilami. ‘See me at my office after your meeting with Principal Venaria.’
A heavy boulder fell in Ilami’s stomach. She was expecting Mr. Haifei to take her with him, but you simply couldn’t refuse Mother’s will. After he left, she turned to Jaxin and immediately said, ‘Urgh.’ She folded her arms. ‘What do you - wait. What does Mother want from me?’
‘Her Ladyship thinks it’s time to properly attend to the trouble you have stirred in the Restricted Area,’ Jaxin said, maintaining his neutral expression and composed posture. ‘If you can follow me.’
As they walked to Mother’s office, Jaxin brought up an issue Ilami didn’t want to talk about. ‘I apologize for being somewhat harsh to you the other day,’ he said, with a voice still composed but had the quiet intensity to it.
What’s the point of apologizing if you’re going to do it again later? Ilami kept her silence. She really didn’t want to talk to him now.
Jaxin looked at her and whispered, ‘You have to understand I’m just following Her Ladyship’s order. What you have done in the Restricted Area could lead to your suspension - and even the status of being the principal’s daughter wouldn’t save you from it.’
If he wanted to talk about it, fine. ‘Look,’ she said, staring ahead of their way, ‘you can do whatever Mother tells you to do. It still doesn’t mean you’re being loyal to the right person. She asked me to kill someone, Jaxin! Why would you serve someone like that? And you know what kind of books the Restricted Area has. It seems to me the academy has an interest on experimenting innocent people and let the failed ones to die. Like what happened with Dayel and Arafel.’
Hearing the names, Jaxin’s stare sharpened. ‘You believe the rumors.’
‘I think their deaths are more than some accidents,’ Ilami said, pleased with how on-guard Jaxin looked. She wanted to tell him she would still continue to find out the exact nature of their deaths, but she stopped herself. In this academy, Jaxin wasn’t her friend. He was, first and foremost, Mother’s servant. ‘If this continues, this place is going to have a very bad reputation.’
Jaxin turned his eyes forward to the door of Mother’s office. ‘Her Ladyship is going to solve this,’ he said, his composition back to normal. ‘She’s more than what you think she is. Here we are.’ He left her before she could say another word.
Ilami entered Mother’s office and saw Mother looking up to her. Mother wasn’t doing anything; she sat there expecting Ilami’s arrival.
‘What were you doing in the Restricted Area?’ Mother said as soon as Ilami took her seat. ‘You could have died in there!’
‘Why would you care?’ Ilami shot back. ‘I’ve killed Zivil for you; I’m expendable now. You don’t need to waste your time making me the perfect student in this academy. I don’t want any of it. This place is toxic enough as it is.’
‘Behave, child,’ Mother said. ‘You might not believe this, but I still care for you as a mother. The dead Seshier was instructed to guard the Restricted Area by all means, including killing any intruder. Do not make troubles you cannot handle.’
‘Do you want to speak about troubles?’ Ilami said, feeling her blood boiling. ‘How about Dayel? How about Arafel? Aren’t those the troubles you can’t handle? Do you know Arafel’s sister, Felaris, has a grudge on me? On Alyosha - heck, on our family as a whole? Why don’t you tell me Zivil, the man I was forced to kill, was Dayel’s father? Why - why do you put me in this hell?’
Pouring everything she felt on Mother was satisfying. And yet, she could sense her tears threatening to come at full force. When she wasn’t focused on solving the mystery of those deaths, she pondered about what she had done. Killing Zivil when he couldn’t harm her. Putting her friends at risk by infiltrating the Restricted Area, resulting one of them in the brink of death while the other unconscious for Natural knew how long. Felaris only agreed to help her because they shared the common goal. She suspected Felaris would go back to hating her once this matter was over. Gael wasn’t in his best state and the only way she could make sure of his safety was why by keeping him away from troubles. If she told Mother about all of these, could Mother understand? She doubted it.
‘Dayel’s and Arafel’s deaths are accidents,’ Mother said. ‘Felaris’s hatred on us is unfounded.’
‘Is it, really?’ Ilami said, forcing her tears to go away. ‘She’s a clever girl - one of the best Fighter students at my age. I don’t think she’s going to accuse Alyosha - a member of the famous XieZhi’s family - for her brother’s death for no reason.’
‘Felaris comes from the Ashav family and, like us XieZhis, is one of the Great Houses. We don’t want to have any grudge on her family and Alyosha is smart enough to know that.’
Knowing that doing something is bad doesn’t mean you won’t do it, Ilami thought. She knew it was useless to argue about this matter with Mother. From her observation, adults were all self-righteous - Jaxin was one, for example. ‘Is this why I’m here? For you to scold?’
Mother kept her silence for a few seconds before shaking her head. ‘No. I have something far important to talk you about.’ She reached for a few pieces of paper at the corner of the table and inspected them. ‘I have rearranged your extra fighting lessons. Instead of Gael, Mr. Haifei will be teaching you how to conjure spells of various functions. He has agreed with the payment for that. After my recent meeting with Gael, I don’t think the boy is suitable for the responsibility right now.’
‘But you weren’t asking me to learn from him just for the sake of learning,’ Ilami said, surprised with this news. ‘You wanted me to supervise him.’
Mother waved in dismissal. ‘I have taken care of that part. You do not need to worry about it. Just focus on your study and aim to be the best in the upcoming test. You can leave now.’
Ilami did that gladly. Still, she felt trouble with the new lesson schedule. Gael didn’t just teach her about spells - he was also part of the infiltration group. Mr. Haifei would complicate her investigation with Felaris and her friends. She wouldn’t have any reasonable excuse for him to skip some of the lessons. Also, what did Mother mean about the issue with checking on Gael? How was it solved? Ilami sighed, realizing more questions had started to pop up instead of answers. What a mess this academy was.