Hoatzin stood at the front end of the stage. Raven couldn’t see his face from the balcony she was on but she noticed that his fists were clenched in determination.
‘Good luck brother!’ Raven prayed.
“Don’t resist!” Elder Kagu shouted his instructions for the eighth time and the air was once more filled with thousands of spirit orbs. Once they had entered the children, Elder Kagu spoke yet again. “You have five minutes, starting… now!”
The exam began. It only took a heartbeat before the first light shot out of Hoatzin. A faint murmur spread throughout the crowd. So far, no one had been this fast with the first expulsion.
The seconds flew by and as the one minute mark came and went Hoatzin had managed to push nine orbs out of him. Raven sighed a breath of relief. If he kept this up her brother would pass the exam with flying colors, perhaps even beat cousin Dunlin!
Raven had averted her gaze from her brother for a moment to observe the other participants and she noticed a blond youth standing right below her at the far right-hand side of the stage. By now, everyone else had managed to expel at least one or two orbs, but not this boy. Not even one orb of light rotated around him, but as Raven looked closer she realized that even though the lights from the spirit orbs were still within him, seven sparks seemed to shine brighter than the rest and they vibrated ever so slightly.
At this moment a tenth orb flew out of her brother at the other end of the stage, momentarily switching Raven’s attention to the front. When she looked back at the blond youth she witnessed how yet another spark slowly began to glow stronger within him.
‘Could it be…?’
Raven kept observing her brother and the blond boy closely. Every time Hoatzin managed to expel a new orb, one more spark would brighten within the blond.
‘It can’t be… Is he moving a new orb closer to his skin every time he sees my brother expel one?’
Once ten sparks had increased in luminescence within the boy, they simultaneously shook once and then slipped out of him. Everyone in the hall noticed the sudden increase in light at the back of the stage, and a faint murmur spread throughout the hall. At this moment Hoatzin had twelve orbs rotating slowly around him and the audience watched with intense stares as he and the blond boy continued to expel orb after orb.
Raven noticed that even if the boy now pushed out the spirit orbs rather than keeping them just under his skin, he still paced himself after her brother’s progress; as soon as the previous orb left the blond a new spark would intensify and then wait patiently under his skin until Hoatzin managed to release his next orb.
By the time only one minute remained, Hoatzin had managed to remove a staggering 33 spirit orbs and more were still coming. Raven was overjoyed by her brother’s achievements but at the same time perplexed by the blond youth. He had 31 spirit orbs flying around him and a thirty-second spark that shone brighter than the rest within him; why wasn’t he expelling it right away? He clearly had the skill to do so, but instead he matched his pace to her brother…
While Raven pondered this, time went on and before she knew it Elder Kagu’s voice filled the hall.
“Time is up.” Elder Kagu waved his hand and collected all the orbs back to him.
Silence filled the hall. How did it go? In the end there had been too many orbs flying around the participants on stage to tell clearly what the results were.
“Two confirmed passes: Hoatzin Nightingale, 40 orbs cleared, and Javelin Hake, 38 orbs cleared.”
The gathered crowd started applauding vigorously at the elder’s report and even the previously indifferent elder himself seemed quite pleased with these results. He felt joy at the fact that two geniuses had appeared this time, and the Dunlin kid wasn’t half bad either.
“The two of you can follow the attendant out. The rest of you, take your seats in the audience,” Elder Kagu instructed.
On stage Hoatzin turned to look for the other person who had also passed. Seeing this, the blond walked over to him, reaching out a hand in greeting. Clasping hands they said something to each other that Raven couldn’t hear and then turned to follow the attendant off the stage.
Just as they reached the end of the stage Hoatzin saw Raven standing above them at the railing of her balcony. He paused and waved happily to her. The blond Javelin Hake stopped as well and followed Hoatzin’s gaze. When his eyes landed on the dressed-up Raven he seemed to freeze in place.
Raven had lifted a delicate hand to wave back to her brother, but when she saw Javelin’s reaction, the hand instead moved to cover her already veiled mouth, stifling a giggle. Hoatzin of course noticed this and looked back at the boy next to him. Seeing the baffled expression on the boy’s face, Hoatzin laughed and rolled his eyes as he nudged Javelin in the side. This yanked the blond back to reality. The tip of his ears turned bright red, and the young Javelin scratched the back of his neck as he sheepishly followed Hoatzin of the stage.
‘Hehe, could that be what it means to be “lovestruck”?’ Raven released the giggle. ‘How adorable.’
Raven had occasionally used her feminine charms to get close to targets in her old life but this was the first time seeing it in such a pure and innocent form. Previously there had always been an underlying surge of savage lust for her to play on. But this youth had obviously not yet turned nine and was too young for that sort of thing. His attention was pure adoration.
The remaining group didn’t give any big surprises, but one more managed to pass the exam, and thus a total of 9 children managed to get accepted into the Academy this year.
None of the new students were girls. In fact, none of the applicants had been girls. This was to be expected, though, since Sky Academy was mostly an academy for Divine Martial Skills practiced mainly by boys. There was a special branch for Healing Skills but they held their exams separately and the criteria to pass were different as well.
“Little Raven, what do you think of your brother?” Besra spoke for the first time since the exams started.
Raven turned to look at her mother, who couldn’t hide the pride she felt over her son from her face. Raven nodded happily.
“Big brother is the best! A lot better than cousin Dunlin!”
A trace of worry flashed across Besra’s face before it returned to the pleased expression from before.
“Indeed he was. Your father will be overjoyed when he hears of little Hoatzin’s results.” Besra stood up. “Come little Raven, we must leave for the banquet so we can congratulate your big brother properly.”
I’iwi walked over to the door and opened it to let Lady Besra and her daughter out. Raven’s mother started walking towards the opening, but before she reached the door she paused and glanced out across the stage. Besra then crouched down in front of her daughter and whispered softly in Raven’s ear.
“And my darling little Raven, you are still young but tonight is important for you, too. Perhaps your future husband will be present at the banquet, so be on your best behavior. You must honor your father and brother by finding a good man to marry.” Besra stood once more. “It is never too early to start looking.”
With a knowing smile on her face, Besra turned and walked out the door. Shocked, Raven was frozen in place for a few seconds before she shrugged and followed after her mother.
‘I should have guessed this would be coming… I’m a female of noble birth, of course I’ll get a fiancé at a young age! But to “start looking” at the age of three… isn’t that pushing it a bit?’
It really wasn’t, though. As a female child of two parents both being spiritualists, she herself would have a higher chance of giving birth to spiritualists. This, in combination with her father being a prefecture lord, meant that she was “prime meat”, so to speak. It was only out of respect for her own wishes that she hadn’t been betrothed to someone the moment she was born.
Raven, her mother and their maid were flown back to the Indigo Cloud Palace by a majestic Everest Hawk.
Once back in the palace, they were led to one of the mid-sized dining halls were the banquet would take place. It was large enough to feel quite grand but still not too large considering the limited amount of people who would attend the banquet. “Limited” is of course only a relative term. In reality over one hundred people would be present at the event.
Apart from representatives from the clans of the young nobles who passed the exam and the new students themselves, important elders from Sky Academy would also attend. Prior, and present, students from noble clans would also be present. It was supposed to be a celebration for the new students, but Raven suspected it would become more of a bragging contest among the various noble clans present.
The main noble clans, that is to say the three prefecture clans and of course the imperial family, were at least officially all on very good terms. This did however not stop them from competing with each other whenever they got the chance. Raven’s father detested the mood at these types of gatherings and she suspected that the reason he had stayed at home was to avoid the whole event.
Raven obediently followed her mother as Besra made her rounds, greeting the other guests that had already arrived. Keeping her mother’s orders in mind, Raven deliberately kept her movements as soft and fluid as humanly possible. As a result most ladies present seemed stiff in comparison; Raven moved as if floating on air and every time her mother introduced her to a new person the bells in her hair would jingle softly as she curtsied with so much grace that even her own mother started having doubts about her age and lineage – could a human child really be so graceful?
Raven’s veil had been lifted slightly to allow her to eat and drink. Her eyes were still covered, but her small mouth was not. This gave her an even more mysterious and fairy-like air. Raven exploited this feature to the utmost as she smiled, grinned and laughed her way around the hall.
She almost never spoke, but somehow everyone that greeted her got the best possible impression; she would smile silently in front of an old Elder from the Academy in one instant and then grin wholeheartedly at a noble youth in the next. She easily adapted her demeanor depending on the people around her.
‘Haha, what is humanity if not predictable,’ she thought to herself as she moved around the hall.
Raven knew what kind of people she was among. The fabric of this world might work differently from that of her old world, but the humans living in it did not. With her background she could tell in an instant what the people she met thought was proper conduct and behave accordingly.
‘Brother did so well during his exam, I must be a fitting complement!’
Both her mother, whom Raven accompanied, and maid I’iwi, who stood quietly observing at the back of the room, were struck by the same thought their husband, or correspondingly Lord, had just over a month ago: ‘What an odd little daughter!’ Others might not have noticed the subtle variations in Raven’s behavior, but they did.
At this point, the grand doors at the far end of the banquet hall swung open. The people in the hall quieted down and bowed slightly as they saw the emperor striding in through the doorway. He was flanked by his wife and the blond warrior in sea-green uniform who Raven had noticed before. Once inside, Emperor Mallard came to a halt and gazed out over the people gathered.
“Greetings, everyone! I’m glad to see so many of you here today to congratulate our newest generation of talented spiritualists. This year we have particularly talented boys entering our Sky Academy – I really look forward to the future they will bring.” He laughed merrily as he spoke.
“The new students will join us shortly, but before that I would like to introduce you all to a new friend of mine, Admiral Devario Hake of the Sea Empire.” Mallard placed his imperial hand on the blond man’s shoulder. The admiral seemed to stiffen slightly under the weight of the hand. Raven guessed that he was not used to be treated in such a friendly manner by his own emperor, let alone a neighboring one.
“Admiral Hake is here to support his son, who today passed the entrance exams with outstanding results. I am of course referring to the second-ranked student, young Javelin Hake!” The emperor’s smile widened as he patted the admiral’s shoulder passionately. “Even though our young Hoatzin Nightingale managed to hit the one in a thousand mark of forty expelled orbs, considering your son’s age, it is hard to say who has the most potential.”
Admiral Hake simply nodded.
Raven’s eyes widened slightly under her veil. ‘A foreigner! Is that the reason he didn’t push himself to best brother?’
“The young Javelin attending our Sky Academy is part of a newly formed exchange program between the three great empires, so treat him well in the future.” Mallard finally let go of admiral Hake, who seemed to relax a bit.
“Now then, Elder Kagu, would you introduce our guests of honor?”
From beyond the doorway the Elder from the exam walked in followed by five youths. The youths had all changed into the dark grey uniforms of Sky Academy consisting of simple grey robes with an all-white version of the Spirit Star on their chest. The group stopped in front of Emperor Mallard.
“With pleasure, your Highness.” The elder bowed before he gestured to the students behind him. “This year, four out of the nine students who passed the exams are of noble birth,” the elderly man reported. “Including our foreign student of course,” Elder Kagu added hastily. “In the order they passed we have first the twins Lark and Martin Griffin of the Red Griffin Prefecture.” Hearing their names, two red-headed boys, who looked identical to each other, stepped forward.
“We greet our elders!” they shouted in perfect unison as they bowed deeply.
“The young misters will turn nine in four months and both have a spirit control level of 33.”
The gathered group clapped politely and those who happened to stand close enough to Lord Griffin congratulated him on the achievements of his sons.
“Then we have Dunlin Talon of the Nightingale Prefecture.” The twins stepped back and Dunlin instead took a step forward.
“This humble student greets his honorable elders!” he shouted and bowed far deeper than necessary.
Underneath her veil Raven rolled her eyes. ‘Seriously, this brat… Humble? He doesn’t know the meaning of the word.’
Surprised by the extravagant outburst, Elder Kagu blinked twice before resuming his report. “Ah, yes… Young mister Talon is nine in two months and has a spirit control level of 35.”
Once again polite applauds spread through the hall.
“Thirdly, and with the highest score, is Hoatzin Nightingale of the Nightingale Prefecture.”
As Dunlin moved back, and Hoatzin moved forward to greet the assembly, Raven caught Dunlin sneering at her brother’s back. He made little to no attempt to hide his contempt.
“I greet my elders!” Hoatzin bowed appropriately.
“Young mister Hoatzin will turn nine in three months and has a truly amazing spirit control level of 40,” Elder Kagu continued.
At this, shocked breaths could be heard before thunderous applause filled the hall. Clearly not everyone had been present during the examinations and many were deeply impressed by his achievement. The difference between 35 and 40 might not seem much, but the difficulty of expelling the orbs rose exponentially with each step; achieving 40 required nearly twice as much effort as achieving 35 and perhaps ten times as much as achieving 30.
The praise to Raven’s mother flowed endlessly and eventually Elder Kagu had to ask people to quiet down.
“Yes, a truly amazing achievement,” Elder Kagu agreed. “It has been nearly ten years since we had a student with the same potential.”
Hoatzin’s ears had turned slightly red by the time the elder spoke again. He was not used to so much praise.
“Well then,” the elder continued. “Finally we have our exchange student, Javelin Hake.”
The blond Javelin walked forward and bowed respectfully. “I greet my elders!”
“Although he fell slightly short in his spirit control compared to young mister Nightingale, his age is quite impressive. Young mister Hake turned seven only two months ago.”
‘He is only seven? This Javelin keeps surprising me… Impressive!’ Raven eyed the blond youth with increased interest.
Murmurs started spreading in the hall that were soon covered by hesitant clapping. As the applause grew stronger and a few guests even started to compliment the admiral, Raven glanced around the room.
‘Ah, that is perhaps the reason he held himself back. His age is intimidating enough. If he got the highest score as well, some would think that the Sky Empire had lost face to this little boy. His admiral father would not want him to cause an international incident.’ Raven looked back to Javelin who had returned to his place in the line. ‘I wonder what his true level of control is…’
“A very talented bunch indeed!” Emperor Mallard spoke once more and the applause quickly died down. “Come! Let us feast and get to know these young ones a little!”
And with that the banquet started for real. The guests ate, drank and chatted while soft chamber music played in the background. Most were discussing the new students and comparing their achievements with previous students, usually pointing out similar or stronger talents within their own clans in the process. “Oh, right! Do you remember person so-and-so from our clan, wasn’t he also very young when he was accepted.” or “I recall person such-and-such from your clan, didn’t he also get 40? Whatever happened to him?” were common phrases throughout the evening.
Besra urged Raven to join up with her brother before she herself wandered off to talk with Empress Nene. The urging was rather unnecessary as Raven wanted to congratulate her brother in person as soon as possible.
Raven didn’t have to look hard for her brother; Hoatzin stood at a table not too far away, surrounded by a large group of young girls. Most of the girls wore the noble’s gown of their prefectures whereas one or two wore the dark grey uniforms of the Academy. All of them wore veils, just like Raven, indicating that they were unwed and of noble birth.
‘Hoho, someone has become popular all of a sudden.’ Raven smiled as she observed her brother trying to handle the girls around him. The redness of his ears had by now started to spread to his cheeks.
‘Hmm, this will be fun.’ Raven let the smile on her face fade as she approached the group. Mischief twinkled in her hidden eyes.