Raven watched the red-headed Lark, and his handful of flowers, disappear between the white, wooden buildings of the southern peak and sighed. “Daffodils, huh?” she muttered.
“Did you say something, sister?” asked Hoatzin, who once more sat perched on her shoulder.
“Nothing of importance,” she replied and started walking towards the houses where the Elders lived.
“Weren’t you going to ask Lark why he was acting weirdly today?” Hoatzin was surprised that his sister had let the twin leave so easily.
“I don’t think I need to anymore. . . .” was her only remark and no matter how Hoatzin pried, Raven would say no more on the subject.
It didn’t take long before Raven reached the Elders’ dormitory, located on the far southern side of the mountain peak. As she approached the building a lopsided smile surfaced on her face for a moment, before being suppressed back to her normal cold expression. She had noticed that on the other side of the dorm gates waited a familiar presence, who seemed on the verge of pacing. When the sound of Raven’s footsteps reached him, he stirred and briskly moved to open the gates.
However, Raven was closer to the gate doors than the person expected, so he was forced to jump back a few steps in order to avoid banging into her.
“Greetings, Elder Willow,” said Raven with a courteous bow.
“Junior Night?” Willow’s disappointment wasn’t very well hidden as he looked around outside expectantly. “Is it only you today?”
“Yes, Elder Willow, only me.” Raven’s eyes locked onto the young man. “Elder Willow must be really eager to see those daffodils. . . .”
“Huh? Ah, yes! They are great for medical brews, after all.”
“And poisonous ones too,” thought Raven to her brother. Outwardly she simply grunted, seemingly unconvinced. “M-hmm. . . Unfortunately, there was a small incident on the way here, so Lark had to head back to his dorms.” Consern filled the Elder’s face so Raven quickly added, “Lark is fine, but the plants require a new pot.”
“I see. . . .” Willow seemed relieved, yet disappointed at the same time.
Both were silent for a while, before Raven cleared her throat.
“I’ve heard that it can take up to seven years for Frost Bell Daffodils to mature completely.” Her blood-red eyes suddenly turned very serious as her intense gaze drilled into those dazzlingly green eyes of his. “Surely, Elder Willow would never attempt to harvest anything before it matures, lest it might turn . . . poisonous.”
Momentarily the young elder was completely stunned. He first looked confused, then shocked – and somewhat scared – but eventually he sobered and met Raven’s gaze with matching intensity. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”
With that, the serious flare in Raven’s eyes died down and she bowed deeply. “This junior apologizes! Naturally, a teenage genius-teacher like Elder Willow already knows about this. Please forgive this one’s insolence!”
Now Willow looked confused again, and slightly disturbed too. He reached out a hand to force Raven up-right again. “Please Junior Night, no need to be so formal out of class – I’m not that much older than you. . . .”
Willow’s otherwise ivory face turned cherry blossom pink. “Haha, of course – I forgot. You really don’t look your age, Junior Night,” he laughed nervously and looked around again. “Um, may I help you with something?”
“As a matter of fact yes,” said Raven as if nothing had happened. “Yesterday, Dunlin Talon and Jack Tanuki were missing from the Advanced Class and Elder Wyrmouth took it out on all of us. I would like to know what the punishment for these two will be for violating school rules.” Raven knew the usual punishment for skipping class – no new Divine Skills for a month and a 100 point deduction from the merit points – but that was not why she asked.
Willow sighed. “I’m sorry to hear that Elder Wyrmouth punished all of you, but Juniors Talon and Tanuki will not receive any additional punishment – they were given a free pass.”
Raven frowned. “Free pass? By whom?”
“Like all free passes it was only signed by the Headmaster’s office – the requesting teacher isn’t listed.”
“Great,” thought Raven dejectedly to Hoatzin, who still perched on her shoulder, “yet another issue to be solved by gaining access to that office. . . .”
“I see,” she said out loud. “Then I thank Elder for his assistance.” Raven bowed yet again and then walked of. Behind her, Elder Willow stared at her departing figure with a complex gaze.
“Now what?” asked Hoatzin.
“Now I sleep.”
Time flies when there are too many things that need to be done. Over the next few weeks, all of Raven’s waking hours were spent either in class, in the Divine Library or in the Assassin Guild’s record rooms. While Raven took classes and researched the Talon spiritualists, Hoatzin flew around the city, checking up on various leads they unearthed, concerning everything from Empress Nene’s supposed treason to the mystery ‘Elder W’. Hoatzin needed no sleep in his current state but Raven also only slept a few hours every three days or so. She couldn’t help herself – the thought of her aunt and cousin, living their pompous lives, unfazed by their betrayal kept Raven pushing herself forward.
Needless to say, this tight schedule limited the time Raven spent with her younger friends to class-time only. This would have seemed odd to Javelin and the twins, if they also hadn’t been so preoccupied with their own businesses. Javelin was determined to find out more about Singer, and had convinced the other two to help him, under the pretext that it would be beneficial for their fighting prowess to get some pointers from such a skilled fighter. Raven wasn’t sure if the twins actually believed his lie, but they were good friends and supported Javelin nonetheless. Not that Martin was of much help the first week – he had gotten clean-up duties as punishment for his prior behavior during Spirit Control Class.
Unfortunately, neither Raven nor the other youths made any significant progress with their objectives over these five weeks. Raven had been busy reading up on spiritualists, and had therefore not shown up for any more matches. Seeing Javelin’s frustration, the twins had hired someone to tail ‘Singer’ as she came and left the Assassin Guild Hall, but to no avail.
On the other hand, Raven too grew evermore frustrated at the web of intrigue surrounding both the Talons and the Imperial household. Additionally, as she studied the spiritualist records more closely, she realized that there were quite a few spiritualists who had made the same sudden growth in their cultivation as many key members of the Talon Clan, but Raven couldn’t find any real connections between them. To make matters worse, every lead she and Hoatzin had managed to dig up about the Empress just led to another dead end.
Currently, Raven was leaning over a bunch of papers, spread out over the living room table in the house owned by Hog and her other mercenary uncles. The house had become somewhat of a base of operations over the past few weeks and Bill would frequently help her sort through the information she had gathered over the night. He had chosen to remain and serve the last living Nightingale without hesitation, but Bill held a sort of reverent fear towards Raven now, and refused to call her anything but ‘ma’am’.
“Gah!” exclaimed Raven, tossing a bunch of papers into the air with frustration. The sudden movement caused poor Bill to jump in fright, dropping the tray of food he was carrying. Hearing the clashing of plates behind her, Raven sighed. “I’m sorry, Bill,” she said as she slumped down in an armchair, rubbing her temples.
“No worries, ma’am; the mistake was mine.” Bill shook his head and started picking up the things that he had dropped. “Have you made no progress?” he asked as he gathered together the papers Raven had flung about her.
Raven snorted. “Made no progress? I’ve made plenty of progress, but the more I find out, the less I seem to know. . . . Take for example the strange bursts in cultivation I’ve found among a few clans in the records, at first it looked like it was only the Talon’s and their supporters, but the other day I found other cases, which appear to have no connection to the Talons, besides a shared interest in substantial trading with the other empires! If they preferred one of the two empires then that would be something to go on, but they don’t. Even the Talon’s aren’t solely increasing their export to one of them. . . .
“And then we have the mess with the Empress! The deeper we look, the more well-executed all of it seems; they even knew about the Empress’s secret outings, to who-knows-where – outings that the Emperor seems to have taken up instead, by the way – but they missed something as huge as a meeting between all three emperors?” Raven shook her head. “Everything is just a big mess. . . . It’s almost as if someone is deliberately leading us in circles!”
Bill placed the gathered documents on the table next to Raven. “Perhaps someone is, ma’am.”
Raven popped open her eyes and stared at the man in front of her. When she’d first seen him, he had looked very much like the forty-five year old warrior he was; his build had been muscular, his skin leathery brown from exposure to sun and weather, and his hair had been dark and wild. Now, his body felt . . . smaller somehow, and his dark hair was turning whiter with every passing day. Raven’s memories had hit him hard.
Granted, he didn’t zone out as much these days, but he had taken to sleeping in the basement; “so as to not risk someone seeing me through a window,” he’d said, but Raven suspected he was more afraid someone might hear him, screaming out in his sleep.
“What?” asked Bill, squirming slightly under Raven’s intense stare. It unnerved him, sending shivers down his spine and causing bloody images to flash by his eyes.
Raven looked away. “Could that be it?” she murmured. “Could it be that the point is simply to cause disorder and distrust?” Suddenly Raven looked up at Bill again. “Bill, do you know what’s been bugging me all this time?” The grey-haired man shook his head. “Motive. Why would a foreign force help the Talons take over Nightingale prefecture? Why would, presumably the same force, frame Empress Nene for treason?”
“Perhaps they want to get the Emperor dethroned? For being too weak, or something?” suggested Bill.
“I considered that and it wouldn’t be too far fetched. Since the people of Sky Empire are very fond of the Imperial family, it would be hard to bring about a shift in power without first discrediting them, but if that’s the case, then why hasn’t the rumors about the treason been spread more violently? Why hasn’t the Empress been slandered at every street corner in the city?” Raven got up and walked over to the small tinted window in the room.
“Although most people know by now that the Empress has been accused of treason, almost no one believes it to be true, even without any clear statements from the Imperial Court. So then, what was the point behind it all? Clearly it wasn’t to entice the masses. Besides, a coup d’état doesn’t explain all this,” said Raven and turned to gesture at the papers on the table.
“A what?” Bill looked confused.
Raven sighed. “Forcefully seizing the throne,” she explained, and as Bill nodded in understanding, she continued; “if they wanted to remove the emperor, then strengthening the Talon Clan, as their substitute, would be a viable course of action. Even strengthening your own country’s supporters in general would make perfect sense. However, if these conspirators are the source behind these sudden increases in cultivation levels, why give the boon to both Earth and Sea supporters? The treaty between these three empires states that if one breaks the peace, then the other two would join forces in retaliation. If you mean to side-step that agreement, all the two empires need to do is attack; Sky Empire wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“To cover their tracks perhaps? Make it seem like it’s the other empire that’s planning an uprising?”
“Possibly, but then they would want to hide their own advances, and if I can find out about both sides being strengthened, simply by looking at these – low level – records and listening in on a couple of secret conversations, then I’m certain that the Emperor’s Spy Masters can do the same.” Raven looked out the window again. “Rather, it’s . . . as if they’re trying to be discovered, at least to some degree.”
“What could they hope to achieve with that?”
Raven was silent for a moment. She had seen a similar tactic been used before, in fact, she had used it herself; divide and conquer. It focused on destabilizing one or more countries by sowing seeds of mistrust and paranoia in their governments. It would be a slow process, but with time it would gain momentum and eventually mere whispers could set off a chain reaction of chaos.
When Raven spoke, her voice was grave and foreboding; “In the long run? Full on war.”
The room once more fell into silence. Outside, the soft patter of rain could be heard as the dark clouds in the equally dark night sky started to release their pent up water.
After a long while, Bill asked; “then, who’s behind it, ma’am?”
Raven sighed and gazed towards the sky. “I don’t know, Bill.”
The rain kept falling with growing intensity, and by midnight the heavy rain fell like spears towards the ground, drenching whoever was desperate enough to venture outside within seconds.
In a house located very close to the base of the Sky City’s central peak lived a family of six; three children, ranging from the ages of five to nine, their two parents, as well as the father’s own mother. As far as a commoner’s family goes, this sextet was fairly well off; the father had a stable job managing accounts for Soul Ore trades made between Sky Empire and its two neighbors. It was perhaps not the most glamorous job a spiritualist could have, but it kept a mid Spirit Novice like himself, and his family, living in quiet luxury, with no worries in the world. Of course, the bribe he had accepted from the Talon’s did help.
At the moment, the father of the house was the only person still awake, he sat by the living room fireplace reviewing this months ledgers. It had been a hectic month, made even worse be the sudden disappearance of one of his colleagues.
The heavy rain outside drowned out the crackling of the flames, but also the silent footsteps behind him. Out of nowhere, a flash of lightning lit up the night sky, tightly followed by the rumbling noise of nearby thunder. In that sudden light the father happened to glance up at the wall next to him, and his eyes widened in shock; the shadow of a person was standing next to his.
Immediately, the man started circulating the little spirit essence he had, readying his defenses. However, before he even has the opportunity to stand up, a small but firm hand pushed down on his shoulder with a thumb pressing heavily at the point right above his collarbone. Foreign and murderous spirit essence flowed into him like a flood, forcefully repressing his own. As the man felt his body stiffen against his will, a surprisingly small female figure leaned around his chair, and her two blood-red eyes met his own and in that instant, all notions of fighting back left the father of three for good.
The girl raised her slender other hand and held a pale finger to her lips.
“Shh. . . .” she hushed. “We have some things to talk about, you and I.” The girl’s voice was uncannily soft and in stark contrast to the overwhelming blood-lust in her calm eyes. “I’d absolutely hate for us to disturb your sleeping family. . . . You’ll keep it down, right?”
The father could only stare at the cloaked girl in fear. Before his eyes flashed images of his two sons, playing with wooden swords in the summer heat, while his youngest and only daughter sang songs with his wife.
“Well?” The girl asked again as the already abundant killing intent she displayed increased, as did the pressure above his collarbone. With a whimper, the accountant father nodded frantically.
A devilish smile spread on the girl’s face.