Raven and her mercenary uncles ate their dinner, and Hoatzin his nuts, with much merriment. It had been a while since they ate food not cooked by one of them – something none of them excelled in – which put them all in a good mood. Eventually the discussion turned towards the remaining leg of their journey, and Hog started by explaining the situation.
“We are now fairly close to Sky City now, only one last mountain range left and we will reach it. By foot it should take one to two months to cross it, depending on the weather.”
“Isn’t the spring entrance exams for Sky Academy on the last day of the fifth month of the year?” Dove asked, then added, “that is barely fifty days from now.”
“Yes, so it might be a bit tight, if we get unlucky.”
“Should we fly then?” asked Emu.
“Excellent idea!” Saltmarsh chipped in before Hog could reply, “the city is at its best from above and the brat still hasn’t experienced travelling by Everest Hawks. He’ll get teased for being a country bumpkin if we leave it at that.”
“Don’t involve me in your schemes, Uncle,” said Raven in a flat voice, ignoring the offended look Saltmarsh faked with exaggeratedly poor acting, “and I won’t get teased for anything.”
“We could,” Hog ignored them both and answered Emu instead, “but until we know for sure that Raven is given a scholarship, we should save as much money as possible.”
“How could this little brat of ours not get a scholarship?” Saltmarsh had already forgotten that he had intended to act offended and happily swung an arm around Raven’s shoulders, his free hand rubbing the top of her head wildly.
Barely a second later Hoatzin was in the air, bombarding the mercenary with sharp claws – calling them talons would be incorrect but they were nonetheless very effective.
“Sorry, Tzin.” Saltmarsh let go of Raven right away.
The rest of the group was used to this scenario by now so Hog simply raised his voice slightly and continued.
“Since we want to spare the expenses, I suggest we rent a couple of Mountain Steeds and go the last stretch on horseback. What do you think?”
“Well..” Dove started answering the question but Raven zoned out from the conversation; it was important for her to reach Sky City in time for the exams but she didn’t really care how she got there. She was confident the mercenaries would solve the details on their own.
Instead Raven focused her attention on the few other conversations being held in the building.
“Darling, why don’t we book room with a deluxe bed tonight?” A greasy sounding man urged his companion.
“How bold!” His female answered but her giggles indicated that she was quite pleased with his suggestion.
‘Boring.’ thought Raven.
“Look at this!” a young voice bellowed out – the man wasn’t in fact speaking very loudly, but to Raven, who was currently focusing most of her attention on listening, the voice was nearly deafening. “I got it last night.”
Judging by the movements of the presence belonging to the voice, the man seemed to be showing off something on his shoulder to the person next to him.
“Nice tattoo!” Laughed the latter, just as loudly as the first one, and smacked his friend on the shoulder, drawing out a grunt in pain for hitting the fresh tattoo.
‘Insignificant.’ This was yet an other conversation that Raven felt little interest in.
“Did you hear about the bandit massacres taking place in Woodland Valley, of Black Talon Prefecture?” said an elderly man on the floor above them. His voice sounded cracked and full of dust.
“Yeah – serves them bandits right though,” answered a voice with a similar antique feeling, “heard the same thing started happening in the Griffin Caves not too long ago.”
‘Really?’ Raven tilted her head pensively to the side, recalling the Sky Empire’s geography in her head, ‘the Griffin Caves are close to the ground passage between Rock Wren Prefecture and Blood Griffin Prefecture. . . . Is it a coincidence, or has Fenris perhaps moved there? But why then are rumors of killings in Woodland Valley still circulating. . . .’
Before she could ponder this any further, the rat-like man, who had led her and her group to this restaurant, walked in within her range out on the street. Next to him walked a busty woman, who’s pale white spirit essence gave of a very stern feeling. The pair’s pace was brisk, much due to the woman, and rat man had to half-run to keep up with her.
“Won’t you tell me a bit more?” He pleaded excitedly, “you can’t give my news like that and then not give me any more details!”
They would soon reach the entrance to the restaurant but the woman showed no signs of slowing down.
“I have already told you more than I should,” she sounded a bit annoyed, but then added, “for free.”
“Oh, come on, Tringa, for old times sake!” The man groaned, but his voice dropped to a whisper, “You tell me the empress has been accused of treason, but nothing more – even you can’t be that cruel.”
Raven tensed, nearly dropping the glass she’d been drinking from.
‘Treason? That’s absurd!’
“They are called old times for a reason,” the woman paused outside of the building, “now a days, you have to pay with money like everybody else if you want information.”
With that, the woman turned and entered the stone building directly opposite of the restaurant. The thick stone walls made it difficult for Raven to sense what was going on inside the building, but the little she did sense, combined with the nondescript sign outside, gave Raven the general gist of the place.
‘A low Spirit Novice works at a brothel?’ Raven was intrigued by the realization. ‘Interesting, I wonder if spirit essence can be used to intensify the experience?’
Brothels weren’t outlawed in the Sky Empire, as they were in large parts of Raven’s previous world, but since people were generally supposed to live in monogamy here such places were still frowned upon. Consequently, discretion was important.
Raven knew, however, that sex wasn’t the only thing for sale at brothels – neither in this world nor her old one. Few people knew so much about people in power and what they were up to as the women, and men, who bedded them.
“Brother,” Raven spoke to Hoatzin mentally, “have you ever been to a brothel?”
The bird nearly choked on the nut he was eating.
“Of course not!” Hoatzin retorted. “How could you even suggest such a thing? I would never set foot in such a place!”
“Well it’s a good thing you have wings then,” said Raven sarcastically before she started explaining what she just had heard outside.
“There is no way Empress Nene would betray the Empire,” exclaimed Hoatzin as he flew up to Raven’s shoulder, “the information must be false!”
“I agree that it is unlikely, but perhaps not all of the information is incorrect,” Raven shifted around the few remaining pieces of food on her plate, seemingly sunken into deep thought, “we need to know more.”
“Fine,” the bird even managed to sigh, “I’m guessing you want me to fly in there, find this Tringa and listen to her conversations.”
“Yes,” Raven replied but to herself she thought, ‘but I’m guessing you’ll have to listen to more then just conversations though.’
Hoatzin extended his wings and flew off. No one remarked his departure – the bird had come and gone as it pleased over the last year anyway – and after about half an hour, Hog paid the waitress for the food and the group left the restaurant. By now, the sun had already set, and small fires had been lit along the streets to light the way in the darkening evening.
A few blocks away, they found a suitable inn and acquired two rooms for the night; Raven and Hog shared one room, while the other three shared the second one. Due to her age, Raven was as usual sent to bed early. This was despite her argument that, for a peak Spirit Novice – the level of cultivation the four mercenaries thought she had – a long night’s sleep wasn’t really necessary.
“Brats need sleep, and that’s final.” would be Saltmarsh’s reply every time the argument rose.
“Pleeeease, Uncle Dove. . . . ,” would be Raven’s response, but not even her best puppy-eyed plea to the essentially softhearted Dove ever had any positive effect.
So, Raven went to bed as commanded but, as always, decided to spend the night cultivating regardless. The breathing technique Raven had snatched from the dying bandit wasn’t really suited for cultivating lying down but she didn’t want to draw Hog’s attention, so it would have to do.
Raven cultivated the entire night. Every once in a while, Hoatzin’s control over his voice and thoughts would slip and they poured into Raven’s mind. She could help but chuckle at how his thoughts changed during the night; there had been disgust, surprised interest, shock, wonder and even some hints of arousal. The boy was soon to be twelve year old and even though he had little prior experience regarding what he might see at a brothel, once the initial shock had passed, he found himself eager to . . . learn more.
It wasn’t until dawn broke, and Hog already had left his and Raven’s room for breakfast, that the little white body of Hoatzin’s flew in through the window and landed, unsteadily, on the table next to Raven’s bed.
Raven opened her eyes and stared into her brother’s, whose pupils seemed to still be slightly dilated.
“Was it an informative night?” she wanted to smirk at him but she kept her face innocent.
“You didn’t mind spending the night at a brothel?” Now Raven let the smirk grow on her face.
“No, not at all! It was . . .” Hoatzin faltered as he realized how excited he had sounded.
“It was . . . what?” Raven teased.
“Uhm, it . . . it was a good way to find out what information Tringa had about Nene, ah, I mean the Empress, Empress Nene.”
If Hoatzin’s spirit body had been capable of blushing, Raven had no doubt that her brother’s face would have gone from snowy white to bright pink by now. She decided to let him of the hook with only a snort.
“Then what did you learn?” Raven asked instead, but couldn’t restist adding, “about the Empress, I mean.”
Hoatzin’s small bird body straightened.
“Well, according to Tringa, and some of her . . . uh, guests, the Empress has indeed been accused of treason. The charge is: Caught red-handed consorting with the enemy.”
Raven frowned as Hoatzin continued.
“No one seems to know who this supposed enemy is, but, as a result the queen has been placed under house arrest in one of the towers at Indigo Cloud Palace.”
“House arrest? Not imprisonment or execution?” Raven interrupted.
“No, house arrest. Supposedly, Tringa is related to one of Empress Nene’s maids so she is quite sure of it. The general guess seems to be that the Emperor is too fond of the Empress to be able to do anything worse. . . .”
“Did they say anything about when the house arrest started?”
“A month or so ago. They have been trying to keep it quiet.”
“It won’t be for much longer. . . .” Raven said, more to herself than to her brother.
Raven sat, quiet, for a very long time as she turned this new information over and over in her head. After nearly twenty minutes she sighed heavily, climbed out of the bed and stretched her body.
“Well, there isn’t much we can do about it now.” she indicated for Haoatzin to sit on her shoulder and moved to walk out of the room.
“That’s it?” Hoatzin sounded shocked, “that’s all you have to say?”
“But there really isn’t much we can do about it, at the moment.” Raven walked out of the room so she switched to talking to her brother mentally, “there are no official reports and we are in the wrong city to make our own inquires.”
Before Hoatzin had a change to object she continued, “Considering what we know of Empress Nene’s personality, it is likely that she has been framed. Even more so if we add what happened to our family into the mix.”
“With the aid of the foreign ‘Elder W’ they attempted to murder us all, hoping to gain control over the prefecture, but why would this foreigner help them at all? Clearly there was something that our father wouldn’t agree to, that Aunt and Uncle would.”
Hoatzin’s bird eyes lit upp with understanding, “the borderline treason mother talked about?”
“Yes, precisely. I suspect it wasn’t so borderline after all.” Raven passed through the dining hall doorway and sank down next to her self appointed uncles, whom were currently halfway through their meal.
“Then, what do we do?”
“We travel to Sky City, I enroll at the Academy and then we spend every moment we can spare trying to find out what’s actually going on within this empire.” Raven replied with a cold flare in her deep red eyes.
The flare was gone as soon as it had arrived and, with the strained smile that had sort of become her trademark over the past year, she looked up at Hog.
“Can you pass me the bread, Uncle Hog?”