As she drew closer, Raven started sorting out the girls around her brother in her mind; she had been introduced to all of them earlier and some of them she liked, some she didn’t.
Once she was no more than a pace away, she stopped and instead started tapping her right foot lightly on the blue marble floor. Her mouth was twisted into a small pout. Hoatzin lifted his gaze almost immediately and a brief moment of relief flooded his face when he saw her, until he noticed that his sister seemed upset.
“Little Sister!” He tried smiling at her as he gently pushed his way through the horde of girls.
“Brother, you liar!” Raven’s voice was low and shaky.
Only the girls standing in the group would be able to hear it over all the noise, but they could clearly hear the heartbreak in her voice. The girls immediately felt that the little child was truly upset; Raven’s tiny hands had even turned deathly pale as they tightly clutched the fabrics of her skirt.
“What is wrong, little Sister?” her brother probed.
“You promised! You said my gift was most important, so it would be the first you accepted!”
The other girls glanced at the table behind Hoatzin. They had all given him small tokens of congratulations; it was customary for girls to bring gifts to the Sky Academy banquets. They hoped to gain favor with the youngsters who were no doubt bound for greatness in the future. After all, graduates from Sky Academy were likely to be mid and possibly even high Spirit Champions; such rare experts were very good husband material and Hoatzin had shown enormous potential.
The gifts weren’t expensive, but they were suitable conversation starters and adequate reminders of an evening well spent later on. However, if they now became a source of discontent for Hoatzin, their purpose would backfire.
Hoatzin looked at his sister in confusion. He had made no such promise. What was she up to?
Just as he was going to ask her, Raven body shook lightly and she spoke again.
“You promised! Is …is Sister no longer important?” Her voice broke slightly at the end and a single tear slid down her pearly white cheek.
Hoaztin started to panic. His sister was crying! He had never seen her cry before and now it seemed as if he was the cause of it. A couple of the girls around him noticed his distress and moved over to comfort Raven.
“There, there,” a gray robed girl consoled her. “Your brother is not at fault. He was just being polite to us.”
Raven seemed to pause and think this over. Her hands gained some color as they slightly released their cramped clutch of her clothing.
“Lady Cara is right – we shouldn’t have been so forward. Here, we will leave you two alone so you can give him your gift.” Another girl chipped in and motioned for the rest of the girls to back away.
“…Thank you,” Raven replied in a still shaking voice.
Raven’s head was lowered, as if staring on the floor, but in reality she observed the girls as they stepped away from the pair of siblings. Some of them looked at her with sympathy, and perhaps even admiration for her devotion to her brother, while others frowned with discontent at having been interrupted. Not surprisingly, Raven noticed that her first impressions of them all had been spot on.
Tentatively, Hoatzin reached out his hand to dry of the falling tear on Raven’s cheek only to realize that the girl’s previously frowning mouth was now stretched into a wide grin.
“Hihi, they fell for it.” Raven giggled softly enough for only her brother to hear. “Now I have Brother all to myself!”
Hoatzin blinked as he stared at his sister with round eyes.
“You…” Her brother was speechless; he could not believe it. His little sister had effortlessly convinced not only the other girls that she was very upset, but him too.
Raven smiled and, standing on her toes, gave her brother an affectionate hug.
“I’m quite impressive too, right?” she said, giggling.
Before Hoatzin had a chance to collect himself and give a reply, Raven backed away a bit and fiddled slightly with the folds of her gown, fishing out a small bracelet. Raven had made it herself by intertwining multiple brown leather straps with strands of dark green silks. She had learned how to make them a very long time ago – back then it had been one of the few normal hobbies she and her fellow female assassins had; making bracelets for each other.
“Congratulations on getting accepted.” She positively beamed as she handed her brother her gift.
He shook off his earlier confusion. It was after all not the first time he had seen his sister coax others according to her will; for one thing, she had done it to their father in order to join Hoatzin on his journey. Instead, he looked at the intricate bracelet in her hand.
“You made this?” Hoatzin asked as he took the bracelet. He had not seen her working on it.
“Mhm!” Raven placed her hands behind her back and swayed slightly. “You like it?”
Hoatzin smiled widely as he tugged the bracelet over his right hand and tightened it around his wrist.
“I do. The green is the same as yours and Father’s eyes, the brown like Mother’s and mine. Like this I will carry you with me even when we are separated.” He reached out his hand to pat Raven on her head but stopped himself when he realized that her head ornament would allow no such thing. Instead he embraced her tightly.
“Thank you, little Raven,” he whispered in her ear before breaking the embrace.
The two siblings began chatting happily with each other, unconcerned by the feast around them. Just as they started on the topic of the other new students and their results, Raven felt as if someone was observing her closely. She looked around and saw that, at this moment, the young Javelin was staring at her intently.
The blond took a deep breath before he started to stride over with resolute steps.
Hoatzin had followed his sister’s gaze and when Javelin came close enough, he smiled and greeted the boy.
“Fellow student Hake! How do you like the banquet?” Hoatzin was nothing if not polite.
“Hoatzin, please, call me Javelin. We will be living together for a long time – let us be friends!”
“Very well, Javelin.” Hoatzin glanced at his sister. “Let me introduce my little sister, Raven Nightingale.”
Raven curtsied deeply with her small mouth smiling tenderly below her veil.
“Raven Nightingale greets young master Javelin Hake,” she spoke with a sweet voice.
Javelin stared for a moment at the vision before him. Up close, and with her veil slightly lifted, Raven was even more mesmerizing to him than she had been from afar. He might only be seven but he had a mature soul, and in this very soul he felt a change, as if he had found something her never knew he had lost.
“Javelin?” Hoatzin snickered as he called his new friend.
Startled, Javelin immediately bowed deeply, his ears red as tomatoes.
“Young Lady Nightingale, it’s my pleasure!” Javelin spoke a bit louder than he had intended and a few guests turned to look at the spectacle. Most smiled knowingly before returning to their conversations.
Raven stifled a giggle as she observed the youth in front of her. He now wore the same grey robes as Hoatzin did, but his blonde hair shone all the more brightly in contrast to it. In the dancing light of the candle fire, streaks of gold and silver shimmered ever so often in the short, wavy hear. A thin braid extended from the nape of his neck down to his shoulder blades. His hair was quite striking and Raven guessed that it would be even more so in sunlight.
As Javelin straightened and nervously scratched the back of his head, Raven realized that his hair was, however, not his most striking feature. Shining brightly in the youth’s face were the most wondrous and peculiar eyes Raven had ever seen. They were like two supernovas; an amazing fusion of light and dark blues, violets and even some streaks of gold swirled together as if they contained entire galaxies within. Those eyes, in combination with his golden blonde hair and slightly suntanned skin made him rather handsome, even though his features were still quite childish.
‘This boy will be very dangerous when he grows older…’ Raven mused.
While Raven was studying Javelin, the boy reached within his robes and pulled out a small cylinder made of pressed, green paper. He paused only for a second before stretching it out to Raven.
“Young Lady Nightingale, please accept this small token of appreciation. I can think of no one more fitting for it.”
Raven and Hoatzin stared at Javelin in surprise. He was giving her a gift during his celebration banquet? Wasn’t this the wrong way around?
Raven hesitated to take it but Hoatzin pushed her forward.
“Take it,” Hoatzin urged. He had a good impression of the boy and Javelin seemed to have taken a fancy to his sister. Why back away just because his behavior was uncommon?
Raven curtsied sightly and reached out to take the scroll.
“Thank you, young master Hake. This one is most gra…” But just as she lifted the cylinder from Javelin’s outstretched hand she could feel the spirit essence stored within it. She froze in place.
“This…” She stared with astonishment on the cylinder. It looked very plain on the outside, except for two golden words etched onto its side: Twilight Lullaby. She raised her head to look at Javelin.
“This is too much! How can this one possibly accept such a precious gift?”
Javelin stared back. How could she tell right away what it was? He naturally knew what was inside but he had no way of telling without opening the cylinder and its name should not be known in this empire… Raven, however, had more spirit connections than he could possibly imagine, so of course she could tell.
Javelin didn’t ponder on it for long, though; he simply pushed the cylinder into Raven’s hands.
“It’s my gift to give. Take it.” He smiled at her before he turned to the very confused Hoatzin. “I will see you later, Hoatzin.”
With that, he just walked of into the crowd. Raven was still frozen in place, looking towards where the boy had disappeared.
“Little Sister, what’s wrong?”
Startled, Raven quickly tucked the cylinder into the folds of her gown. She glanced around her before she answered him in a low voice.
“A Divine Skill – Brother, he just gave me a Divine Skill! I’m not sure but it ought to be at least a level six skill and goes by the name Twilight Lullaby.”
“What!?” Hoatzin’s reaction was strong and Raven had to hush him.
“Are you sure?” he asked in a lower voice. “A level six skill is truly precious, how could he give it to you just like that?”
“I don’t know, but brother, you had better be a good friend to him in the future.”
“Yes, very much so.”
The two siblings were both quite affected by the exchange. Even though Hoatzin assumed that Raven was too young to use the skill at the moment, it was still a very precious gift that would no doubt benefit his sister greatly in the future. As he saw it, Raven wasn’t likely to cultivate very far so a level six skill, if it was a healing one, would put her ahead among her peers by leaps and bounds. If it was a martial one it would perhaps become a lifesaving trump card for her. He would have to repay the favor Javelin had granted his sister, one way or the other.
Raven on the other hand was even more overjoyed. She barely cared what level the skill was, or even what it did, at the moment. She would finally be able to start using her spirit essence for something more than simply strengthening herself – it was quite hard for her to hide her excitement enough to keep participating in the banquet. She would never forget this gift. Never.
The evening’s banquet continued without any more big events. Eventually the night came to an end and the guests said their farewells and returned to their lodgings. The new students would have one last night with their families, so they did not move into their dorms tonight. Raven and Javelin both bowed deeper than necessary to each other before parting.
Raven was very eager to return to her room so that she could study her first Divine Skill and paid little notice to anyone else as they left. If she had, she would no doubt have been shocked by the vicious expression on her cousin Dunlin’s face as he watched her family leave. He had never fancied them, but there was more to it now.
Dunlin had been sure that a spirit control of 35 would be enough to steal the limelight from his cousin, the precious prefecture heir. He had even used a secret Divine Skill his mother had given him that had increased his control by four levels to assure his own glory. The technique was impossible to detect from the outside and even the Elder Kagu had not noticed anything. But it had still not been enough!
At first he had just been mad but as the evening progressed, and more and more people proclaimed Hoatzin as the ‘genius that upheld the honor of the Empire’, Dunlin’s mood had gone from bad to worse. To him, this night had been nothing but a huge embarrassment! He had even failed at provoking the Griffin twins into joining Dunlin in despising the Nightingale boy.
“Why should we be upset?” Lark had replied. “Is it not a good thing that we have gotten such a skilled classmate? No doubt his skill will rub off on us as well.”
“Hopefully your pride won’t have the same effect,” Martin had filled in.
The twins had laughed as they walked away. With seething eyes Dunlin had watched them walk straight across the room to happily greet the oh-so-important Hoatzin and his pipsqueak of a sister.
“Just you wait! We’ll see how high and mighty you will act once we’re done with you,” Dunlin cursed as he followed the rest of his clan to their residence. His parents had not joined him for the event, but they would hear of it from him.
In one of the grander guest suites the young Javelin sat on his knees on the floor. A very furious Admiral Hake was pacing back and forth in front of him.
“What did you say you did!?”
“I gave the young Lady Nightingale the Twilight Lullaby,” Javelin repeated calmly. He had known this was coming.
“How could you be so stupid!?” his father spat. “Your mother gave you that skill to give to your fiancée once you return! How could you give it to some random girl you’ve just met? She’s not even from our Sea Empire!” The usually stiff admiral was practically boiling with rage.
“Mother told me to give it to a woman I cherish and wish to protect, and that is what I have done.” Javelin kept his calm as he spoke with a sincere face.
The older man stopped his pacing and stared at his son in disbelief. After a long while he let out a heavy sigh.
“Seriously, I don’t know what to do with you sometimes… It’s lucky little Miss Arowana hadn’t been told to expect it.” He sat down on a nearby chair.
Javelin twitched slightly at the mention of his fiancée.
“Father, about that….”
“Not a word more,” the admiral cut him off. Javelin did as he was told and stayed silent.
“At least you did as you were told during the exam… But to think they had a youngster with such good spirit control… They are quite lucky.” Devario Hake finally smiled slightly. “Perhaps this exchange will be beneficial after all.”
Javelin remained silent but his thoughts went to the young Hoatzin he had met earlier. During the exam Javelin had been told to get, at most, a result one step below the best scoring child of the Sky Empire; just as Raven had guessed, Admiral Hake did not want to stir up any trouble. But Javelin had indeed been surprised when he noticed Hoatzin in his group.
Hoatzin had expelled the first orb with astounding speed and even though Javelin would indeed have bested him if he had gone all out, it would not have been by much. Probably only by one step! After all, the more orbs you expel the harder it gets. If the difference in control between the level 35 and 40 was a doubling, then the same could be said for the distance between 40 and 41.
But what had surprised Javelin the most was that, when he spoke with Hoatzin right after the exam, he learned that Hoatzin had been doing fairly straightforward training; Hoatzin had achieved his level of control simply by persistence. Javelin on the other hand had gone through quite a different training regime.
Since the day he was born he had followed his father and older brother on the various excursions his father did for the Sea Empire’s navy. He had already witnessed, first-hand, vicious battles and deception between both enemies and allies alike. By following his father, he had managed to form his first spirit connection shortly after his fifth birthday and had only needed two years to form the next three. He had even experienced a few life-or-death situations that pushed his spirit control to evolve even more rapidly.
It was a risky tactic that could easily backfire, but both he and his older brother had gained a lot from it.
As Javelin pondered the achievements of Hoatzin Nightingale, he couldn’t help letting his thoughts wander to the fairy-like figure of Hoatzin’s sister. He had only spoken to her once, and not much had been said, but he already felt a longing for her in his young heart. He was too young to truly understand the concepts of love, but he still had no doubts that the longing would not pass until he met her again.