Raven bounced up from the floor, where she had been reading a book about various spirit beasts, and joined her brother at the window.
“Wow!” Raven didn’t need to act her astonishment this time; nobody could see Sky City for the first time without being impressed.
The city truly lived up to its name. Four mountain peaks stood fairly close to each other as they stretched towards the sky. The center peak was the tallest, with the three slightly lower peaks surrounding it. Around the foot of the mountains spread a large city, several kilometers in every direction, but the city wasn’t limited to the ground.
Making its way up the mountains, several layers of settlements extended between the peaks, suspended over nothing but air. A great waterfall flowed down the middle peak, branching out into smaller waterfalls at every new level. Despite being covered by higher settlements, even the lowest levels had no problems getting plenty of sunlight since the distances between them were so great. Hundreds of Everest Hawks were constantly traveling between the different levels and the surrounding city.
The Sky City was located slightly further south than the Nightingale Prefecture. As a result spring had come further here and dark green greenery wove its way up the mountains and intermingled with both the houses around and on the mountain. As their cabin drew closer to the city, Hoatzin nudged Raven’s shoulder and pointed to the top of the center peak.
“That must be the imperial palace, Indigo Cloud Palace!”
Raven lifted her gaze and noticed an extravagant structure sitting on a plateau above the massive waterfall. The Indigo Cloud Palace’s stone walls shone with a light blue shimmer amidst the otherwise dark stone surrounding it. Large portions of the palace protruded daringly out over the plateau’s edge, defying both gravity and logic. It was many times larger than the Nightingale mansion, with multiple towers extending towards the skies.
Raven wondered if not most residents of her home city would fit within.
“Raven, come here.”
Just as the cabin got close enough for Raven to start seeing people milling about in the city, her mother called out to her. Raven reluctantly turned away from the window and obediently walked over to her mother. Besra placed a simple veiled ornament on Raven’s head.
“You have to be careful not to drop this, little Raven.”
“Yes, mother!” Raven would not make that mistake again. . . .
Not soon after, the cabin swayed slightly and with a soft thud it came to a stop. Outside of the cabin Raven could hear the roaring sounds of rushing water.
‘We must have landed quite close to the waterfall. . . .’
Raven glanced back towards the window, but before she could move to look out, the cabin door opened and a familiar guard bowed in the doorway.
“My Lady Besra, young master, young mistress. We have arrived at the imperial residence, Indigo Cloud Palace.” The guard moved out of the way and Besra stood up to walk out, motioning to Raven and her brother to follow.
Once outside, Raven noticed that the cabin had been placed on a specially constructed landing area, protruding from the middle peak’s mountain wall. Several similar platforms could be seen on both sides of the one they were on. At the end of them all were the foundations of the awe-inspiring imperial palace she had seen from the sky. This close it looked even more daunting, as if it were challenging heaven itself with its high towers and ornate walls, reaching endlessly upwards.
Besra walked towards the palace, closely followed by her two children. Hoatzin had grabbed Raven’s hand, keeping her close to him as they approached the palace. Excitement filled their eyes, but Raven noticed a tinge of nervousness beneath the surface within her brother. How could he not be nervous? He was about to meet the Emperor for the first time.
‘My dear brother . . . he hides his nervousness so well and strives to comfort me at the same time. He will grow into a fine man one day!’
Of course Hoatzin wanted to comfort her, if he was nervous, his little sister must be even more so. However, in her past life Raven had been sent to assassinate both kings and emperors numerous times, so why be nervous only to meet one?
Raven and her family were flanked on both sides by palace guards – their own guards would have to wait by the cabins until the emperor gave them permission to enter – but I’iwi followed the family five steps behind them, carrying a small wooden box.
Finally Raven’s mother reached the end of the platform. Slightly lifting her gown, she curtsied gracefully; her knees almost hitting the ground as she spoke with a lowered head.
“Lady Besra of the Nightingale Prefecture pays her respects to Sky Empress Nene.”
Behind her Raven copied her mother perfectly while Hoatzin bowed deeply. I’iwi kneeled behind them.
“We pay our respects to the Empress!” the children echoed in unison.
“Oh my! Dear Besra, we are childhood friends! No need for all this formality.”
The sweetest voice Raven had ever heard filled the air and a pearly white hand reached out to pull Besra to her feet. Raven straightened to see a petite woman in a gold-shimmering gown warmly embrace her mother. Even though her face looked very young, the woman’s hair was pure white and flowed like water over her shoulders.
“As you wish, Nene.” Besra laughed as she answered the embrace wholeheartedly.
Behind Raven’s veil a small, dark-violet eyebrow rose.
‘To think my mother has this good a relationship with the Empress. . . . Quite impressive!’
“I know Mallard usually greets the Prefecture Lords but when I heard you were coming I begged him to let me do it.” Empress Nene smiled mischievously as she backed away from Raven’s mother.
Besra glanced questioningly at her imperial friend. “Begged? You?”
“Haha, well, ‘forced’ sounds so harsh.” A saint couldn’t look more innocent.
Raven immediately got a good impression of the woman. She had an impressive nobility about her that remained even as she joked with Raven’s mother. She had no doubt been raised for her role since birth, but no haughtiness was present at all.
Besra chuckled and waved a hand signaling I’iwi to move forward.
“I have a gift for you.”
“Keep it for now,” Nene interrupted. “Let me take you to your quarters. There we can talk undisturbed and you can hand me this gift of yours.”
She nodded to one of her attendants before grabbing Besra by the arm and walking off into the palace. Hoatzin and Raven glanced at each other before hurrying after the pair of ladies.
After Raven and her family were shown to the spacious suite they would use while in Town the empress ordered her attendants to inform the emperor of their arrival and then leave. The moment the servants left, Nene had pulled Raven’s mother into a nearby sofa and started chatting about everything between heaven and earth.
Soon after a middle-aged, sturdily built, man in golden robes strode into the room and before Besra or her children had time to stand and welcome him, Emperor Mallard laughed and waved for them to remain seated.
“Any childhood friend of my wife’s is a childhood friend of me. No need for formality in private.” With that he simply sat down and joined the conversations.
Like this the days passed. Empress Nene would arrive every day to talk with Raven’s mother, sometimes joined by her husband, sometimes alone. Raven grew really fond of the imperial couple. They were very friendly, and seemed just and fair rulers; Raven could understand why the people loved them.
Once a day, Hoatzin would head out to join their family guards’ training sessions and Raven would keep him company. She had hoped to be able to sneak off and explore her surroundings a bit more, but Verdin and Rook were on duty even here so there was nothing she could do.
One week later, to the day, Besra and Raven rose extra early in the morning. Today was finally the day when the young applicants would have their entrance exams in hope of earning a place at the Imperial Academy of Divine Arts. After the examinations concluded, a minor banquet would be held at the palace for all children of nobles and foreign dignitaries that might have passed. Since Raven and her mother were going to attend all of this, they had to dress as tradition demanded from the start.
But dressing according to tradition took time. Simply putting on the gowns was complicated, not to mention getting the head ornaments in place; to make it in time, Besra had to work on Raven’s hair at the same time as I’iwi worked on Besra’s.
As the minutes turned into hours the delicate ornaments were slowly woven into place by interlocking braids, while some hair was left to hang freely down their backs. Once the coiffure was done, the multiple layers of the gowns were draped around the two ladies. All together it took nearly four hours to get ready. The results, however, were quite spectacular.
Raven looked at her reflection in the large mirror in her mother’s chamber and sighed slightly in appreciation. The extravagant dress in light blue silks, together with the exquisitely arranged hair and veiled head-ornament, made Raven look like a combination of the spirit beast Water Nymphs she had read about in her books and the elegant geishas of her old world. When she moved bells tingled in her hair and the thin fabrics of her gown swayed slightly. The free, floor-long, hair down her back rested on the long hem of the dress that swept the ground as she walked.
The traditional dress came even more into its right when worn by Raven’s mother. On Besra, the dress perfectly showed off her supple waist and emphasized her firm bosom, without becoming too provocative. Standing next to each other, one was a goddess, the other a fairy.
“I’iwi, go bring my son.”
I’iwi bowed and left the room and soon after returned with Hoatzin in tow. He was wearing the same green robes as always; since he was attending the exams he would not need to change until afterwards. If he passed he would change into the Academy’s uniforms. As he caught sight of Raven and his mother pride filled his happy face.
“It’s an honor to be blessed with two so beautiful women in my family! The very flowers of heaven would seem dull in your presence.” He might be young, but Hoatzin knew to compliment beauty when he saw it.
Besra just smiled.
“Come, it is time to leave for the exam.”
Together the four of them left the suite and the Indigo Cloud Palace.
“Lady Nightingale, this way, if you please.”
A middle-aged attendant bowed deeply before slowly leading the way down a narrow corridor. Raven and the two women with her had entered the main auditorium of the great Imperial Sky Academy of Divine Arts. Hoatzin had already left them to join the rest of the applicants in another area.
The attendant opened a door at the end of the corridor. He bowed elegantly once again as Besra and Raven passed by him, walking out on their personal viewing balcony. I’iwi nodded politely to the attendant before closing the door quietly behind them. On the balcony there were two rows of comfortable chairs and a small table with drinks on it, all of it facing out towards the stage below. On the other side of the stage was the common viewing area, where family and friends of the other applicants were allowed to watch the exams.
‘It would seem as if we are as much a part of the entertainment as the examinations. . . .’ Raven mused to herself.
Probably up to two thousand people could be seated below, but today nearly half of the seats were empty. Raven noticed that quite a lot of the people below stared up at them with curious eyes, some even pointed or nodded in their direction whilst whispering something to their neighbors.
Usually prefecture lords only attended the entrance examinations if an heir was present. For example, Rock Wren Prefecture had no lord or lady present today since their heirs were older and already attended Sky Academy.
“All rise for their Imperial Highnesses, Sky Emperor Mallard Bateleur and Sky Empress Nene!”
A loud voice echoed through the hall and everyone present, including Raven and her mother, rose to their feet and looked up at the balcony directly above the one Raven was in. This was the arrangement, the three prefectures each had a personal balcony above the stage and the imperial family had theirs above those three.
The couple Raven had come to know a bit over the past week walked out on the imperial balcony, with Nene’s hand resting on her husband’s arm. With them standing next to each other Raven couldn’t help but notice how different they looked; they were actually almost each other’s opposites. While Empress Nene was lithe and petite, Emperor Mallard was muscular and tall. Where one had white hair that flowed like water in the wind, the other had pitch black hair trimmed too short for the wind to move it very much at all.
‘Like Yin and Yang. . . .’ Raven finally made the connection and chuckled softly to herself.
Behind them walked a very muscular man with wavy blonde hair. He wore a sea green silk jacket with two rows of buttons down the front. He looked very imposing but Raven noticed that his right hand kept grabbing at his hip.
‘He is a warrior, then. . . .’ Raven recognized the nervous tic, almost impossible to stop, of a swordsman moving around without his weapon.
Emperor Mallard led his wife to one of the foremost chairs on the balcony and had her sit down. He gave a light nod to Raven’s mother and then another off towards the balcony to their left. Leaning out, Raven noticed that a man she recognized as Lord Griffin, the prefecture lord of Red Griffin Prefecture, sat on the left-side balcony. His hair was red and wild, like a raging fire – the man looked very much like a stereotypical Norse warrior of Raven’s old world.
After the two nods, his Imperial Highness indicated for the blond man who had accompanied him to take the chair to his left before he sat down himself. The rest of the hall followed suit.
Out on the stage walked a bearded elderly man in a light grey scholar’s robe. Over his right chest was an embroidery of the same nine-pointed star that Raven had seen on the floor in the Spirit Hall over three years ago. Even though she hadn’t entered the Hall again she had since learnt that it was the symbol representing all spiritualists, the Spirit Star. Elders and students at various spirit schools would have the emblem on their uniforms.
Once at the center of the stage the elderly man bowed towards the Emperor before turning to face the majority of the crowd.
“Welcome to the annual entrance exams for the Imperial Sky Academy of Divine Arts!” his strong voice echoed out into the hall. “I am Elder Kagu, and I will administer today’s final exam.” He paused and gazed out over the audience.
“All applicants have been checked and they have all passed the first requirement; establishing their spirit cores before the age of nine. But, as you know, Sky Academy has even higher requirements before accepting new students.”
“896 children have applied for the exam this year. Most likely fewer than ten will pass.” Elder Kagu continued and at his words a sharp intake of air could be Heard throughout the hall.
‘Only ten? So few. . . .’ Raven was quite surprised. She knew getting in would be hard but ten out of nearly a thousand was far worse than she had expected.
“The final exam is a simple test of control.” a small light-spark popped out of the man’s hand and came to rest in his palm. “Every child will be filled with one hundred small orbs of my spirit essence. They will then have five minutes to use their own spirit essence to force them out. From years of experience I can tell you that eight out of nine will be able to expel up to ten orbs. One in ten is likely to manage up to twenty. One in a hundred might succeed in expelling thirty. This is the bar they must pass to get accepted into the Sky Academy.”
The requirements to get accepted were really very high. Raven and her brother had almost a 100% chance of being born with a crystallized soul thanks to both of their parents being fairly skilled spiritualists, but as crystallization mainly was an inherited trait the likelihood of being born with this feature if both your parents were non-spiritualists was close to nonexistent.
Of the four million inhabitants of Sky Empire, only 40,000 would have the potential to become spiritualist during their lifetimes. To then be able to form a spirit core before the age of nine almost always required access to a spirit hall that would allow the first spirit connection to form early. This reduced the pool to roughly 20,000 people. Statistically, at any given moment, fewer than 2,000 of these would be between the ages of five and nine. To have nearly 900 children with their cores formed present at the same time was already more than usual. Still, only ten were likely to be accepted.
“We will test the children in groups of a hundred. Let the first group come in.”
The doors to the side of the stage swung open and the hundred children swarmed in, but Raven quickly saw that her brother was not among them. Elder Kagu watched as the children formed ten neat rows.
“Remember, use of any Divine Skill is strictly forbidden.” He looked sternly at the youths on stage. Raven could clearly feel him using spirit essence to apply increased mental pressure on the group. Many swallowed and started sweating under this pressure.
“Don’t resist.” The elderly man shouted and thousands of small orbs of light streamed out of the Elder, swirling swiftly around the children before splitting up and surging into the waiting participants. The spectators could see how every child now had one hundred small dots of light spread out over their bodies, clearly visible through both skin and clothing. The whole ordeal was quite beautiful to watch, actually.
“You have five minutes, starting . . . now!”
On Elder Kagu’s mark every child on stage closed their eyes, focusing on the foreign spirit essence within them. As they did, some the dots started moving slowly, clearly under the influence of the children. Soon the first sparks of light were forced out of their hosts. Once outside, the small orbs started circulating around the child it had come from.
As the minutes passed, more and more light filled the stage, but as the five-minute mark came, none had reached the thirty-orb limit. Elder Kagu stopped the exam by simply retracting all orbs back to himself and then asking the children to leave the stage and take a seat in the audience instead. While the failed children walked off the stage, their faces filled with regret, the next group walked in and once more formed ten neat rows.
This process was repeated once more before the first success came; in the third group a pair of identical twins both managed to expel 33 orbs and thus earned a place at the academy. From the balcony to their left Raven heard a content chuckle.
“Good, very good!”
It was Lord Griffin that had spoken, and looking back at the two twins Raven could clearly see the family resemblance.
‘First pass and with margins. . . . Good for them.’ Raven smiled slightly behind her veil. Being the first to pass any exam would always leave a good impression. Naturally the prefecture lord would be extra happy for the luck of his heirs.
Raven turned her attention back to the stage. Four more groups came and went, each producing one successful applicant, resulting in a total of six passes as the eighth group was asked to take the stage. Most had just barely passed, but one applicant had amazed the crowds by removing an impressive 35 spirit orbs. To Raven’s dismay she recognized the boy as her eldest cousin Dunlin, son of aunt Anhinga.
If his mother was annoying to deal with, Dunlin was a virtual pest. He was one month older than Hoatzin and he was spoiled to the core. He lived under the impression that everyone either adored him or was too ignorant to know better. Raven hoped that someone, anyone, would perform better than him. At least that would be a thorn in the side of his otherwise rosy life. But as the eighth group filled the stage, Raven abandoned her current train of thoughts.
Because at the very front of this group stood a very familiar face, Hoatzin.