Apart from the near death experience with the Panthera Drakes, the rest of the Lunar Trials passed relatively uneventfully.
Raven and the boys had harvested everything of use from the twelve spirit beasts before climbing a tall tree where the Everest Hawk had picked them up and taken them to the campsite by the gigantic tree in the middle of the valley. The look on Dunlin’s face when they arrived, torn and bloodied but seemingly unscathed, had been utterly priceless – and it had only improved when their haul was presented in exchange for merit points. Then again, Dunlin hadn’t been alone in being shocked beyond belief by that haul. . . .
Following their display of hunting prowess, the four youths had happily remained at the large tree, spending the final thirty hours of the Lunar Trial quietly cultivating. There had been no need to bother about the actual trial anymore; for the first grader Raven, the merit points from only one Panthera Drake would be more than enough to guarantee a solid first place in her grade and, no matter how much they insisted, she took no more than that. The remaining points were split evenly between the three boys and although Dunlin managed to engage his friends from higher grades to help him win in the end, it made little difference to Javelin and the Twins; they were much too curious about Raven’s plan.
Once the three moon-lit nights had come to pass, all students were flown back to the Academy where a small award ceremony for the best achieving students was held. Surprisingly enough, Regulus, the smallest and weakest boy in Raven’s Spirit Control Class, received an honorary award for saving the life of one of his classmates by performing a – for a martial student – fairly advanced healing skill in the nick of time.
After the ceremony was over, all students were given a day off before classes would start up again. Raven and the boys left the academy, heading for the Griffin Clan’s city dwellings on the noble’s Mansion Tier. As they expected the Griffin estate was mostly empty, except for a handful of servants; there was a council meeting up at the imperial palace so not only the Griffin’s own council member but also all other nobles had taken the opportunity to visit Indigo Cloud Palace, if only for the food and view.
As instructed by Raven, the twins harshly ordered all the servants to leave the second the four of them arrived, barging in fuming with anger. They made a show of barricading themselves in the estate’s library, slamming the doors so hard that it could be heard even by the servants who had already left the premises.
Since both Lark and Martin were generally very considerate of their servants and rarely threw any kind of tantrums, their current behavior really stood out and the servants quickly started talking among themselves.
“Something must have happened. . . .” said one servant to an other, who in turn nodded solemnly. “We’d better inform Lord Griffin’s aid about this.”
Inside the library, Raven smiled mysteriously; she had been listening for the servant’s reactions, and it had turned out just like she expected it to.
“What was that for?” asked Lark, displeased, as he slumped down in a large armchair. Acting angry wasn’t hard for him, he just had to think of Dunlin and it would flare up uncontrollably, but he didn’t like taking it out on the staff.
Raven was silent for a moment as she waited for the last few servants’ presences to move out of earshot before she gave her reply. “It’s to give us an unknowing ally,” she said, smiling mischievously.
“An unknowing ally?” echoed the twins.
“We have agreed to make things hard for Dunlin by undermining the Talon Clan, right? Well, we won’t be able to do that on our own – we’re only children after all – but let me ask you this: if your father, Prefecture Lord Griffin, learns that Dunlin knowingly almost had you killed, what would he do?”
The eyes of the three boys widened.
The Red Griffin Prefecture was, area-wise, smaller than the other two Prefectures and had very few mines, but when it came to the empire’s defenses it was undeniably considered the most vital one. The reason was that out of all the soldiers in the army, nearly eighty percent originated from the Red Griffin Prefecture. It was a prefecture made of fighters, and as such they were perhaps not known for their patience. Lord Griffin was infamously short tempered, especially when it concerned the safety of his family.
“Father would kill him,” concluded Martin.
“Indeed,” agreed Javelin.
“So . . . why aren’t we telling father directly?” wondered Lark and the other boys seemed to share his confusion.
“While I would love seeing Dunlin smashed to death by Lord Griffin in a fit of rage, we have no actual proof of Dunlin’s intentions . . .” Raven started to explain but Martin cut her off before she could finish.
“So what? Father would believe us over that bastard!”
“I know he would, Martin, that’s the problem. If your father, a prefecture lord, attacks the only heir of another prefecture, without proper cause, it would likely be the beginning of a civil war. Possibly worse, if Javelin’s father gets involved as well. . . .”
Realization filled the youth’s eyes but it quickly returned to confusion. “Then why the charade at all?” asked Javelin.
“Arousing suspicion; as long as all of your parents only suspect that something vile happened during the trials, I doubt they would act so rashly as to run off killing people. Instead, they will likely to try investigate the matter on their own. The Talons being who they are, this will undoubtedly cause the former’s opinions of the latter to drop over time.”
“Talon Clan?” Martin cut in again, “I know Dunlin is a psycho prick but that can’t be blamed on his clan, can it?”
Raven gave Martin a pointed stare. “Where do you think he got that pheromone coated piece of ore from, if not from his clan? Besides, let’s face it, if nothing big happens, the Talon Clan will be Dunlin’s not too far off in the future. . . .”
The three boys sat in silence for a moment before finally Javelin spoke up. “Are you suggesting that we should try to topple the Talon Clan?” he asked in a steady voice.
“In due time, yes. Or do you prefer a third of this empire to be controlled by Dunlin?”
The silence descended once more. This time it lasted for several minutes and Raven watched the boys around her intently for any signs of wavering; having them help her bring down the Talon’s, although for other reasons than her own, would be a great help to her, but she had to be certain of their state-of-mind. They were after all still young, and even with the maturity being raised as future rulers had brought them, taking on an entire clan was no playing matter; if they hesitated too much or agreed too readily, Raven would break off their involvement immediately.
Eventually the boys seemed to have come to some sort of conclusion. They looked up at each other and simultaneously nodded their heads in agreement.
“Let’s do this!” they said with conviction while Raven smiled slightly; she could tell that although they still had some reservations, they were unlikely to back down anytime soon.
“Then let me walk you through what I have in mind,” said Raven and motioned for the boys to come closer.
The time went on and in the blink of an eye, early summer had turned to autumn, and autumn had turned to winter. In the mountain capital city of Sky Empire the winter snow lay like a thick blanket over every inch of surface.
In the lavishly ornamented tea-parlor of the Talon Clan’s Sky City mansion sat two elderly men, sipping tea. The two of them were so old that their skin looked like dried up raisins but, despite their age, there was an air of authority around them; no one would doubt that these two men were men of power.
They sipped their tea in contemplative silence as they watched the plentiful snowflakes slowly falling to the ground of the garden outside the window. It was so quiet that their heart beats could almost be heard.
Suddenly, a light knock disturbed the silence. The sound could not be considered more than a whisper, but in comparison to the previous soundlessness of the room, the knock was almost deafening.
The two men twitched, anger filling their faces.
“You better have a very good reason for this,” said one, his voice incredibly raspy, as a young man walked into the room nervously. The youth bowed deeply.
“This one humbly apologizes for the interruption, Councilor Talon, Clan Elder, but Clan Elder wished to be informed the moment this arrived.” The youth placed a rolled up piece of parchment on the low table between the two men and hurriedly left; he had long since learned that it was best to be far away when the letters like this one were delivered.
The shriveled up faces of the two men darkened. The Clan Elder gave his companion a questioning look and the latter nodded. The scroll was unrolled and the Elder read its content.
“The trade failed again!” he spat and slammed his fist down, causing the fragile table to instantly crumble. “This is the third time our offer has been refused!”
The tea cup in the councilor’s hand shattered. “So it is definite now, someone is working against us!”
For months now, the Talon Clan’s economy and social standing in Sky City had been doing increasingly bad. It had all started with the unfortunate deaths and disappearances of some of their key partners within the government. This had been considered unfortunate at the time – especially considering how much money had been spent on winning these over – but considering the Assassin Guild’s activities, it was not unheard of.
After that, things were quiet for a while, and the matter was practically forgotten, when out of nowhere one business partner after the other started backing out of their bargains – even to the point where they would pay back the Talon Clan any money they owed them on the spot.
However, even this could be considered a stroke of bad luck since, as it was, this all coincided with the Emperor’s announcement that it was proven that Empress Nene had been framed and an extensive manhunt for the culprit was commenced. Naturally, all these watchful eyes meant that state officials would be less willing to have skeletons in their closets, so to speak. The Talon Clan had no other choice but to try and make the best of the situation, but found comfort in knowing that the situation would at least be the same for every clan trying to make . . . more favorable deals at the moment.
The last couple of weeks though, had been an utter nightmare. The Talon’s Sky City branch had been asked to find someone willing to transport a large shipment of soul ore that the head family had sold to an eager buyer, outside of the empire.
Initially, the Talons had assumed that the hardest part would be finding someone willing to basically smuggle thousands of golds worth of Soul Ore to another empire, but that hadn’t been the case. However, every merchant group they had spoken to so far had changed their minds when they realized who their employers were. According to the reports, the merchants “turned pale with fear and ushered us out without another word”.
To make matters worse, it would seem like the Griffin Clan had somehow picked up on their activities and were now asking questions about why the merchants kept refusing the Talons; worst case scenario, the Griffins might learn from the merchants what – and more importantly where – the Talon Clan were trading.
“Now what?” growled the Clan Elder as he crumpled up the scroll and tossed it onto the smoldering embers of the open fire place behind him – the flames had long since burnt out, but the dry parchment gave them new life and the flames burst up, swallowing the ball of paper in the blink of an eye. “Our Lady will be arriving in a few days and she will be expecting results!”
“We have no choice,” rasped the councilor, “if we have found no information regarding this by the Day of Light, we must request assistance from him.”
“Is that really necessary?” The clan elder did not seem to like the idea; “he . . . will not be pleased. . . .”
“Then let us make sure we find something before then.”
The two elderly men shared a oddly honest look with each other, fear apparent in both their eyes, before they got up from the floor and left the tea-parlor.
What neither of them cared to notice was the little white bird, perched on their windowsill; it had observed them with unusually keen eyes the entire time. As the pair left, the white bird spread its small wings and flew off to another window.
A half a kilometer above – and slightly to the south of – the former Nightingale estate on the Mansion Tier, sat a small but lean youth in the snow-covered garden of the Sky Academy. Despite the deep snow, various flowers defied the cold weather and stretched crystalline petals towards the meek sun rays that were making a brief mid-day appearance.
Seemingly as unaffected by the cold as the flowers, the youth had been meditating here for almost two hours now, dressed in nothing but the flimsy dark grey student uniform. Oddly enough, even with the rather heavy snowfall, not a single flake could be seen on the youth’s robes.
Further down the garden, a second youth was approaching, only this one was clothed to the teeth with thick grey pelts to keep the cold out; two striking eyes of varying blues were barely visible through the long strands of fur.
“Night!” he called once close enough. “I should have figured I’d find you here. . . . You’re insane man!”
Raven opened her blood red eyes and gave the furred youth a bemused look. “You know, Javelin, as a spiritualist who prefers water based Divine Skills this type of body tempering would be extremely beneficial for you. Why do you keep refusing to let me teach it to you?”
Javelin snorted. “And spend hours in temperatures that would freeze even Fire Water within five minutes? No thank you.”
Raven almost giggled, almost.
“Javelin! You exaggerate – it would take at least ten minutes!” she accused with a straight face. Javelin stared at her, mouth agape, for a moment before he burst out laughing.
“Haha, when you put it that way . . .” Javelin rolled his eyes melodramatically.
“Suit yourself,” sighed Raven. She was well aware of Javelin’s distaste for the cold weather – it was too big a difference from the tropic climate more common in his homeland – but she wasn’t lying about the technique being useful. It was a pure martial arts technique from her old world and was designed to refine the body’s muscles to become tougher and leaner.
Raven had tried to find a Divine Skill or breathing technique in the academy’s library that built on the same principles but had yet to find one, and considering how many scrolls she had read by now, it was unlikely she ever would. Instead Raven had chosen to experiment a bit with it on her own, and had to her delight gotten some insights – not to the point where it could be considered a new Divine Skill, but still.
“So, why have you braved the weather to find me?” she asked Javelin, “I thought we were all going to meet up for dinner.”
“Yeah, but the twins received a letter from their father. Apparently he’s coming for the festivities after the Day of Light so they need to prepare some stuff at their mansion. I figured I might as well help. Will you join us?”
Raven considered this for a moment. Since the boys had started working with her to make things a bit rougher for the Talons, Raven had grown increasingly fond of them. They were young, yes, but surprisingly mature for their age – especially Javelin, whose actual age kept slipping her mind. Although Raven hadn’t asked them to do anything truly dangerous, rather focusing their efforts towards spreading the right rumors at the right moments, the boys had performed their part wonderfully.
As a result, the “dirty work” Raven performed behind the scenes had become a lot easier. Especially when it came to convincing the Emperor to publicly announce the Empress’ innocence before they knew who did it – that would never have worked as smoothly if not for Lord Griffin’s insistence that it might be an inside job, meaning that being public about it might minimize the damage.
The only problems had risen with regards to Javelin’s near obsession with meeting Singer. Ever since Raven admitted to “knowing” the skilled assassin, Javelin had kept asking about meeting her. So far Raven had managed to push it into the future, but she knew that wouldn’t work forever. On the plus side, whenever her suggestions were questioned, Raven would claim that it originated as advice from Singer and the boys would agree right away.
“Sorry, Javelin. I actually got a message from my uncles – they are back from their mission, so I should visit them first,” lied Raven. While it was true that the four mercenaries who had taken her to Sky City had returned, they had done so days ago and Raven had already visited them once.
For a moment, an odd light seemed to flash across Javelin’s eyes, but it was gone so fast that Raven assumed she’d imagined it. “Okay,” he said and started turning to walk away. “Then I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” called Raven after him as he left, but her mind trailed off; ‘soon Brother will be able to stabilize his body! Only a few more days. . . .’