For five minutes Anhinga’s wailing continued unceasingly. It might not seem like a long time, but one can do a lot in five minutes and for the robbed mother it felt like an eternity. Losing a child is an unimaginable sorrow for anyone, but for Anhinga – who basically only cared for herself and her son – the pain became even more acute.
The shock of her son’s death was simply too much and somewhere along the way Anhinga’s mind grew muddled; she kept screaming without truly remembering why.
Naturally, several servants heard their lady’s wailing and the braver of them rushed to the bedroom, but when they saw the leathery shell of their young master sprawled over the floor, most of them either joined in the screaming or fainted on the spot.
Eventually the Talon Mansion’s head steward arrived. He was an elderly fellow who had served the Talon head family for over fifty years and he had seen enough in his life to do what needed to be done; although slightly pale faced, he walked up to his mistress with resolute steps and gave her a firm slap.
The crisp sound of hand-hitting-cheek rang out in the room and instantly all the wailing stopped.
For a moment Anhinga looked confused, blinking awkwardly as she tried to wrap her head around what had just happened. The steward said nothing, waiting patiently for what he knew would follow. Barely a heartbeat later, immense rage boiled up within Anhinga and – without so much as a word – she lashed out with a spirit essence infused arm.
As if made by sharpened steel, Anhinga’s arm passed effortlessly through the stewards neck, beheading him in one fell sweep.
Blood sprayed everywhere as the devoted steward’s decapitated body collapsed on the floor, his head rolling off into a corner of the room.
Silence held the room for only half a second before the no longer shell-shocked Anhinga started barking out commands. Servants were sent to do everything from contacting the elders in Sky City to catching the Stormbird that had delivered the black box moments ago.
Forcing themselves into action, none of the servants dared to disobey or be the least bit careless in fulfilling Angina’s requests so they quickly scurried off in every direction possible. Left completely unattended to, the corpse of the loyal steward – who had silently gone to his death – remained, slowly seeping out blood on the red marble floor.
Not capable of looking further at her son’s empty sack of peeled skin, Anhinga had some servants cover it with a blanket, instead turning her attention to the black box and the other items that had been within it.
Despite her boundless rage, Anhinga did a surprisingly thorough job of it and after confirming the authenticity of her son’s medallion, Anhinga inspected the silky bundle of hair but, although it felt familiar to her, she couldn’t place it. When she looked over the actual box though, Anhinga’s face – which had reddened with hate – suddenly paled as if she had seen a ghost.
Her eyes darted from the inside of the lid to the bundle of midnight purple hair and her lips started to tremble in dread and disbelief; she now knew where she recognized it from…
“Nightingale…” she breathed, her voice no more than a whisper, before collapsing to the floor.
Meanwhile, in an elegantly decorated chamber, deep within the Indigo Cloud Palace of Sky City, Empress Nene leaned on her husband’s arm as she patiently waited for him to read through the reports she had given him.
It had been less than two days since she had finally gotten the confirmation of what she had since long suspected: the Talon Clan had been involved in the death of her dear childhood friend, Bersa, and her family. What she hadn’t expected was that Eider Swan had then continued to stack several other accusations against the clan in question to the point where, had it been anyone else who brought the news, Nene would have scarcely believed them. However, the old headmaster was someone the empress trusted with her life, so she had believed him right away.
Nonetheless, just because Empress Nene had complete faith in the information Eider brought her, wouldn’t mean her husband would. Thus, Nene had spent the past thirty hours mobilizing her entire spy network to help confirm what she had already been told.
Surprisingly enough, it hadn’t been very hard; it was as if hundreds of people had simultaneously felt the full weight of their consciousness bear down on them and, after only a few casual questions, were more than happy to confess the various ways they had assisted the Talon Clan in their nefarious ways.
Once again, Empress Nene felt as if the situation was a bit too extreme to be true, but the evidence provided could not be refuted.
As her beloved husband and Emperor, slowly flipped through the hefty report on his desk, Nene was watching him closely. She had always been able to tell what Mallard was thinking simply by the movement of his facial muscles but perhaps her current anxiousness clouded her judgment because at the moment she couldn’t tell at all.
Nene waited, but while she might look patient and calm on the outside, her true emotions were far from it and she was eager for answers. Besra had been Nene’s best, perhaps even only, friend and her death had taken the empress hard. Now, knowing the truth, Nene’s previous sorrow had transformed and she was seething with anger; she wanted justice for her friend!
With a heavy sigh, Mallard put down the report. He leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes.
Eventually Nene’s patience ran out, so she called out to her husband tentatively. “Honey?”
“Mmm,” Mallard stared at the ceiling, a thick atmosphere surrounding him.
“What are your thoughts?”
At this Mallard gave his wife a sidelong glance with a weak smile on his lips. “You can’t tell?” Nene only held her gaze, ignoring his half-hearted joke. Mallard sighed again.
“I doubt everything in this report is true,” he said and tapped the bundle of papers in front of him; “but even if more than half of it is false, it would still be enough to charge the Talon Clan with high treason.”
A expectant glimmer filled Nene’s eyes. “Then..?”
Mallard sighed a third time. “They must be dealt with. Did old man Eider give any suggestions?”
Nene smiled warmly. “He wouldn’t dare,” she said, but at the same time she pulled out a second bundle of papers, this one noticeably slimmer than the first. “We did however spend some time brainstorming the possible courses of action.”
Briefly, a doting smile flashed across the Emperor’s face; he knew as well as Nene did that the so called list of options only contained plans Eider approved of. The smile was however short lived. Mallard accepted the papers but before he even started looking over them yet another sigh escaped him.
“Am I such a hopeless emperor?” he asked no one in particular. “Am I so weak that my country would collapse, not from without, but from within?”
Nene gave her husband a sympathetic look. From what Eider Swan had said, or rather had not said, Nene could guess that there had perhaps been more going on behind the scenes this time around – that there were forces beyond their control at large – but since he hadn’t said it outright, Nene also knew that there must to be a reason for his secrecy.
Nene placed a loving hand on Mallard’s arm and leaned her head on his shoulder. “You are not weak, Mallard, you are strong.” The Empress’ voice was steady and earnest as she spoke candidly. “For five years they’ve been planning this, yet the people of your empire are still on your side; they still love and support you wholeheartedly. That is not weakness.”
Mallard gazed down on his wife, his previous depression already somewhat eased. With a gentle hand he lifted her chin off his shoulder and gave her a loving kiss.
Suddenly the doors to the Emperor’s chamber slammed open and an extremely hurried servant rushed in.
“Your Imperial Excellency!” he called and fell down on one knee immediately, seemingly oblivious to the intimate moment he had ruined. “There is an urgent message from Lady Anhinga Talon; it concerns her son!”
Breaking off the kiss, Emperor Mallard glanced from his wife to the servant and back again.
He didn’t say anything but inwardly Mallard couldn’t help but be a bit curious; Dunlin had been mentioned on several accounts in the report, the last occasion being a distress call from Jack Tanuki claiming that the former was trying to kill him. The Headmaster had assured them that he had already sent Elders search for the missing boys, but due to the distances being so large it would be some time before they would learn anything about what exactly happened.
Yet currently Lady Talon had pressing information regarding her son – was this only a coincidence?
“This should be interesting,” Mallard muttered.
The days that followed were odd, to say the least; on the surface very little in Sky Empire seemed to have changed, but underneath that quiet surface nothing was the same.
The message Anhinga had sent the Emperor had informed him of the Talon prefecture heir’s death in the wilderness. Not unsurprisingly the exact details about Dunlin’s demise were not disclosed, but Anhinga made very clear that she would do anything in her power to find the culprit as fast as possible – demanding a promise that the Emperor wouldn’t interfere.
Although truly surprised by the young heir’s death, the Emperor had still played the role of oblivious ruler masterfully and had sent a reassuring message back right away, offering to aid in anyway possible to find out what had happened to the poor boy.
The Emperor had also taken the opportunity to graciously announc that he would personally lead a memorial for the deceased on the first day of mourning which, by Sky Empire standards, was six weeks after a person’s death.
Although insisting that the whole thing should be kept quiet Anhinga had still jumped at the offer and was already making her way to the capital, no doubt with ulterior motives in mind.
While the manor of Dunlin’s death – and in fact even the death itself – was a well kept secret that few knew about, the secret about the Talon Clan’s betrayal was even more well kept.
The Imperial couple, on the other hand, were buried in preparations to deal with the treacherous clan and secretly mobilizing their army to prepare against the growing bandit threat that could boil over at any minute.
Headmaster Swan had, long since, sent trusted elders off to the cave where Raven and Javelin had left Jack while he himself contacted his counterparts in the other Imperial academies so he could warn them about what was to unfold in the near future, advising them to take any news from the Sky Empire with a pinch of salt.
However, as all of them were doing their best to move covertly in the darkness, someone else was moving even deeper in the darkness, below everyone’s radars.
Day in and day out, Raven used every bit of intelligence she had gathered over the years to manipulate what was happening to the extreme. She killed, bribed or threatened her way through the imperial capital – whichever brought the best result – while leaving small tell-tale signs of the Nightingale Clan’s insignias as she went along.
For more reasons than one, Raven wanted the Talon Clan to fall fast and hard, and no one could do a better job of it than her.
Two weeks later, Javelin sat on his own meditating in the Sky Academy’s grand garden. It had been almost fourteen days since he even saw Raven, but while he couldn’t help but feel a bit powerless, Javelin had still accepted that there was nothing he could do about it – not until he was stronger.
Thus, Javelin trained.
“Student Hake,” a calm voice interrupted Javelin’s concentration.
“Elder Gadwall,” Javelin replied respectfully to the teacher standing in front of him.