Left alone in the dark, candlelit study, Anhinga sat in a daze. Every once in a while a shudder ran down her spine as a menacing figure flashed by in her mind. Most knew him as Smew Gadwall, vice headmaster of the Imperial Sky Academy of Divine Arts, but she knew better; Gadwall, or Elder W as he was referred to in secret, was far from the unfailingly kind and curious teacher everyone thought he was.
“Did I make a mistake. . . ?” Anhinga murmured softly to herself.
Without prompting, her memories returned to that first meeting, six years ago.
It had been an unusually warm summer day with no cool breezes to help against the smoldering heat. It was so warm that some citizens actually opted to discard their robes, instead walking around in only the white linens of their undergarments. In most places such brazen behavior might cause people to frown or grow upset, but Nightingale City was, despite its size, a very accepting place so nobody seemed to care.
Well, almost nobody; Anhinga absolutely detested such boorish attitudes.
Nonetheless, apart from the heat and the consequences thereoff, the day was like any other; Anhinga’s pliable husband was away from the house – off to inspect the day’s ore mine transactions – while she herself planned to spend the day visiting the finer merchant stores of Nightingale City.
Walking down the tidy city streets, Anhinga basked in the jealous stares she got from the general public as she passed them by and, even more so, she loved the unconditional reverence every single shopkeeper met her with as she entered a new store. The attention confirmed what Anhinga already knew; she was someone above all else, someone of importance.
The day had progressed just fine for Anhinga until she reached her favorite dress maker’s store. When she entered, the store had been empty of customers and as usual Anhinga asked to see every new fabric that had arrived while the shop attendants fawned over her every word. Half way through the fabrics the stores door opened and, just as Anhinga was about to order her personal maid to shoo away the newcomers, a familiar voice caused her perky mood to instantly sour.
“Why, if it isn’t my dear sister! I wondered if I might meet you here.”
Even before turning to look, Anhinga knew what she would see; her brother, Maleo, most likely accompanied by either his wife or his daughter, or both.
“Brother,” she said with a faked smile as she turned her body slightly so she could see the man standing in the doorway. Anhinga’s eyes then fell on the small girl standing by her brother’s legs and couldn’t help but be amazed by how quickly the child was growing; Raven Nightingale was only three years old but her height was already closer to that of a six-year-old and her temperament seemed even more mature.
Secretly Anhinga sneered. She didn’t like her young niece and was just about to ignore the child and return her attention to the fabrics that had been laid out for her when the shop attendants, who had been attending her, smiled widely and swarmed to the door.
“Young mistress Nightingale,” they greeted, eagerly bending down to the little imps level. “How nice it is to see you again!”
With that, Anhinga’s presence in the shop was completely forgotten; the shop keepers were so busy fussing over her brother’s child that they didn’t even notice Anhinga leaving, her face dark.
“Blast it all,” hissed Anhinga as she stormed down the street outside, forcing several citizens on the street to hurry out of her way. “The bloody toddler gets more respect than I do!”
Fuming and frustrated, Anhinga turned a corner, momentarily separating herself from the entourage of servants behind her, when suddenly the temperature around her dropped drastically. Shocked by the change, Anhinga almost slammed into the dark figure who stood right in the middle of the road.
Normally, Anhinga would go ballistic over such behavior, but something about this man’s presence told her that it would be wiser for her to be quiet. For a moment, none of them said anything and it wasn’t until the figure shifted his stance slightly that Anhinga snapped out of her trance. At once she wondered why her servants hadn’t caught up with her yet. She got the urge to look over her shoulder to look for them but before she could act on it the figure spoke, his voice distorted and otherworldly.
“You desire power and status,” he said, not asking for any confirmation. “I can help you gain both, if you are willing to help me in return.”
Thinking back on it now, Anhinga was a bit amazed by how quickly she had accepted the stranger’s offer. Perhaps she had thought that is was nothing more than a joke on his part, but when the requests and rewards had started coming, Anhinga had been quick to accept them both.
At first it had been small things, like spreading a false rumor here and there – something she did naturally everyday anyway. However, somewhere along the way, Anhinga had gone from instigating petty slander to planning full-out rebellion, without her even really realizing when it happened.
The strong silhouette of her protective brother surfaced once more in her mind. When they were small, really small, Anhinga and Maleo had been very close. Despite her being a couple of years younger, her brother had always stood up for Anhinga, determined to protect her from all harm. Initially, Anhinga had found this trait endearing, but as the years passed and she noticed how differently her parents treated her and Maleo, and that feeling turned into resentment. Why could she, the oldest, not be given all the privileges of the prefecture’s heir?
By the time Maleo was fully grown and had a family of his own, that family too became a hindrance for Anhinga’s plans, and she hadn’t even hesitated before having them killed, permanently removing the threat. She hadn’t regretted it then, and in a way she still didn’t, but things hadn’t been going Anhinga’s way for a very long time now and she was starting to feel tired. So very tired.
Anhinga thought of her lost son and suddenly she missed her brother, she missed the once small but always steady arms that insisted on protecting her.
“Brother. . . .” she breathed, but as soon as the word left her, Anhinga clicked her tongue angrily. What was the point of thinking of the past now? She was on the way to become the supreme ruler of an entire continent!
Two months. As long as total war broke out within two months, Gadwall would be able to act directly and the world would be hers!
Filled with determination, the woman turned her attention to the plentiful piles of documents and memory orbs on the study table. If she wanted to achieve her goal, Anhinga needed to find out why everything was suddenly falling apart.
Meticulously, Anhinga started to go through every piece of information that had been gathered, but as she worked her newfound vigor slowly faded, her face growing paler with every new case she looked into.
“Why . . .” Anhinga’s hands were shaking violently and the last memory orb slipped out of her unsteady grip, crashing into a million pieces on the marble floor. “It . . . it must be my imagination, right?”
When the purple hair had arrived together with her son’s ‘remains’, and when Anhinga had seen the crude bird carved into the box’s lid, her mind had instantly traveled to the Nightingale Clan’s little treasure, Raven Nightingale, whose unique hair color was hard to find anywhere else. Still, the notion had only stayed with her for a moment because there were simply too few who knew about Anhinga’s involvement in the ordeal – in fact, her family and Gadwall excepted, everyone else who knew anything at all had been killed to keep them silent!
Since then, Anhinga had told herself that the hair and the bird could be nothing more than an unfortunate coincidence, but could she still do that? Every single file on the clamored table seemed to have something that would pull Anhinga’s mind to the Nightingale family and their demise.
Sometimes the connection was in the target itself – like with the previously very Nightingale-loyal merchant family who had all been slaughtered in their beds by a ‘random robber’. That family’s so called loyalty had quite easily been bought by Anhinga long before the Nightingale’s demise, and they had then played a large part in quickly changing the ‘Nightingale Prefecture’ into the ‘Black Talon Prefecture’.
Other times, the scene of the crime itself was the indicator – like in the Rapesco family house, where Anhinga’s bandit leaders would come to do business. The entire house was stripped bare and, on the door facing the street, a wounded nightingale-like bird was painted with pig’s blood, marking the house as a place of greed and ill-fortune.
For others, all of these things might seem random and irrelevant, causing the Talon Clan investigators to mark them down as mere oddities, but for Anhinga it was different. For her every detail screamed at her guilty conscience, forcing her to remember what she had done.
“S-someone knows?” The woman couldn’t help but anxiously dart her eyes across the room, half expecting someone to be watching her – it had essentially only been a nervous tic but, in the corner of her eyes, Anhinga caught sight of a small piece of paper slipping in through the crack at the bottom of the room’s only door.
Anhinga stared blankly at the note for a while within her an inexplicably foreboding sensation welled up lodging itself in her throat; she didn’t want to take a closer look at that piece of paper. . . .
Nonetheless, she eventually got to her feet and walked over to the door. When she picked up the note and flipped it over only one word was written on it with fine, curvy letters: Yes.
White as a ghost, Anhinga slammed open the door, but the corridor outside was empty, save for a faint echo of a young girl’s playful laughter disappearing into the distance.
In the darkness outside the Talon’s city mansion a few leaves fell to the ground as a black figure soundlessly appeared in the dense foliage of an old tree.
Raven glanced back at the house she had just left with a cold grin.
‘It’s too late to regret your actions now, aunt. . . . You made your bed long ago – it’s time for you to sleep in it.’
With a powerful yet silent burst of spirit essence, Raven’s body flickered and disappeared into the night.
Barely three days later, about a dozen or so people were gathering in the grand Audience Hall of the deep-blue Indigo Cloud Palace, high above the layers of Sky City. Today was the day Emperor Mallard and Anhinga had agreed to meet and discuss the matter of the murder of young Dunlin.
Originally it had been stipulated that the meeting should be a rather private affair – kept mostly between the two people previously mentioned – but, on Anhinga’s request, it had been expanded and more people were requested to attend, last-minute.
If one was not aware of the situation, this development would seem a bit odd, but it did however suit Raven’s intentions just perfectly. Initially she had been hard pressed to figure out a way, not only to be present today, but also have the opportunity to speak if need be. That little problem was swiftly solved when the group expanded.
Naturally, even as the sole disciple of headmaster Swan, Raven was not qualified to attend such a meeting regardless of its size, but Empress Nene was – and where Empress Nene went, at least one trusted maid would always follow.
Today that ‘maid’ was Raven.
Wearing the traditional maids uniform – that for Raven looked like a fusion between a nun’s habit and a french maid costume – Raven stayed constantly five steps behind the Empress as the two of them entered the Audience Hall. Raven kept her head lowered as her other senses painstakingly mapped out the situation in the room.
At the moment, neither the Emperor nor Anhinga had arrived, but Raven knew it wouldn’t be long until they showed up. With graceful movements, Empress Nene headed for one of the people who had already arrived and Raven smiled secretly to herself.
“Uncle,” the empress greeted with a warm smile. “It’s been too long.”
“Silly girl,” the other responded with much love in his voice; “we saw each other only yesterday!”
The smile on Empress Nene’s face didn’t waver. “Isn’t that too long ago, Uncle Eider?”
Headmaster Swan chuckled. “Indeed,” he replied and gave Raven a quick glance.
Before she had met her mother’s childhood friend again, Raven had found it a bit odd that Swan had managed to persuade the Empress to bring in a total stranger as her trusted maid, and to such an important meeting at that, but the instant Raven sensed the latter’s presence she had realized the truth; the two of them were blood related.
‘It would seem like the prematurely snow-white hair is a Swan-family trait,’ Raven mused as she stole a sidelong glance at the uncle-niece pair, but her relaxed attitude faded in the very next second; Anhinga was about to arrive.