The muscles in Raven’s hands twitched slightly as she glanced over towards the hall’s main doorway. Striding in with an entourage of three solemn-looking clan elders, Anhinga passed through the open doors solemnly. She was dressed from head-to-toe in black velvet, even wearing a thin black veil over her face; clearly, she wanted to no one to forget that she was in mourning.
When Anhinga entered, Empress Nene’s face overflowed with pity and sadness as she hurried to greet the now childless mother.
“My dear Lady Talon,” she called out even before she had reached Anhinga’s side. Once within reach, Nene threw royalty and titles out the window as she instantly pulled the woman into a tight embrace, wholeheartedly hugging Anhinga.
“I am so, so very sorry for your loss! Just the thought of anything happening to my son . . . and in such a ghastly way. . . .” Nene’s voice was slightly unsteady as warm tears ran down her cheek. Five steps behind her, Raven was silently impressed by the Empress’ display of compassion; she had heard Nene speaking her mind about Raven’s aunt and it was clear that there was no true sympathy for the woman.
Anhinga seemed to be slightly taken aback by the Empress’ sudden show of affection, but she adapted quickly and actually chose to return the embrace, seemingly letting go of some of her pent-up sorrow in Nene’s arms. Those present who knew both sides of the story, couldn’t help but find the pair’s act rather comical.
The hug didn’t last very long and once the two backed away from each other, the remaining people in the audience hall made their way forward to express their condolences – this included Gadwall, who was officially present as a representative for Sky Academy.
Of course, the servants in the room made no attempts to speak with the grieving Prefecture Lord and Anhinga didn’t even glance at them, so Raven had no problem hiding her identity. Not that Raven’s disguise would fall under scrutiny; the maid uniforms shawl covered all her hair and as long she kept her eyes – and killing intent – down, no one was likely to notice her unique eye color, thus hiding her most prominent feature.
Eventually most had said what they wanted to say to Anhinga and the audience hall grew quiet. This was the moment the attendants had been waiting for, so it didn’t take long before the emperor’s doors were swung open and Emperor Mallard entered. As always, he was wearing golden robes that made him look very regal, but with more black details this time – also a sign of respect for the dead.
“Emperor,” the collected greeting towards Mallard rang out in unison as everyone bowed respectfully to their ruler, Anhinga and Gadwall included.
“Rise,” he answered sounding a bit sad, “I’ll have none of this today.” Mallard’s gaze landed on Anhinga and her group. “You have my deepest condolences for your loss, Lady Talon.”
Anhinga only nodded in return.
Mallard sat down on the large throne close by the door he had entered through and Nene was quick to join him, standing elegantly poised on his right side. “Well, then,” he said and looked out over the people present, most of which were members of Sky Empire’s Council. “Myself and Lady Talon have called you here to discuss the matters concerning the death of Black Talon Prefecture’s heir, Dunlin Talon. As all of you are aware, Dunlin was killed in the wilderness a few weeks back and while the body has yet to be recovered, we can no longer put off informing the public. It is my op-”
“Emperor Mallard,” Anhinga suddenly interrupted.
“Lady Talon?” Mallard didn’t seem very upset by being interjected.
“Although the public announcement of my son’s death is indeed important, that is something the Emperor and I could have decided on our own. It is not why I wished for the esteemed members of the Council to be present today.”
‘Here we go,’ thought Raven as Mallard raised an eyebrow in surprise, indicating for Anhinga to elaborate.
“What I wish to discuss is how we will act against his killer,” Anhinga said with a firm voice which indicated that she had a specific person in mind.
“Lady Talon, you know who killed your son?” Empress Nene sounded both amazed and happy at the news. “That is wonderful! Tell us and we shall bring them to justice!”
“Indeed – I do know, but matters are not that straightforward.” Anhinga looked away, seemingly reluctant to speak further, but before she could be prompted to do so, Anhinga’s face snapped back up again. “Emperor, Councillors, I ask you: if someone plotted against our kingdom, worked against us and even went as far as targeting our next generation of leaders, what would your response be?”
“Retaliation, naturally!” answered one of the Council members without hesitation. He was a seasoned man who acted as the army’s representative in the Council; he was not one to back down from a fight.
Noticing several people nodding in agreement, Anhinga continued; “And if the person plotting against us wasn’t a person at all, but rather a nation, what then?”
The same man was about to answer again when the emperor slammed down his fist on his armrest, effectively halting the man’s response. To the side, Raven’s eyes narrowed.
“What is this about, Lady Talon?” Mallard asked, gravely.
“The Emperor knows that I have been looking into my son’s death, as any mother would, but what I uncovered is far beyond me, or even my Talon Clan. . . .” Anhinga paused, and this time she really needed urging along before she continued. “I believe the Earth Empire is behind my son’s death.”
“What!?” several Council members expressed their shock immediately. “Preposterous!”
“I know it is hard to digest – I felt the same – but the evidence doesn’t lie.”
At once, numerous voices started speaking their opinions but Mallard raised his hand and silence spread once more.
“These are serious accusations, Lady Talon.” The Emperor stared intently at Anhinga, but she remained composed.
“I know, your Majesty,” she answered.
“What is this evidence you speak of?”
“As your Majesty knows, Jack Tanuki often kept company with my son and was last seen leaving the academy together with Dunlin. His location has not been confirmed since.”
The Emperor neither denied nor confirmed this but Anhinga clearly took his silence as confirmation and continued her story.
“When I visited the room my Dunlin shared with that vile boy, I found this.” Upset, Anhinga pulled out a bunch of papers and threw them on the ground. “Letters! Letters with detailed instructions for Jack to lure my poor son out into the wilderness and . . .” Anhinga’s voice faltered and one of the clan members she had arrived with hurried to her side – comforting her.
At the emperors command, a servant stepped forward and picked up the letters and handed them to him. Mallard flipped through the papers while the other people present watched with anticipation, eager to learn if what Anhinga said was true.
“This is indeed serious,” the emperor said eventually, leaning back in his throne. “Here I have letters which really do suggest that Jack Tanuki was asked to use his friendship with Dunlin to secretly kill him while away from the city. . .”
Several shocked gasps rang out in the hall and, even with Anhinga’s face hidden, Raven could feel the woman’s glee. ‘Too soon, aunt,’ Raven snickered privately.
“And yet,” the emperor continued as he withdrew a new piece of paper from within a spacial ring; “here is another letter – or distress call rather – sent by Jack Tanuki himself, claiming that Dunlin was the one trying to kill him.” As the last words left his mouth the Mallard focused his eyes intently on Raven’s aunt.
There was an even larger intake of air in the room but the noise was drowned out by Anhinga’s shouting.
“Lies!” she bellowed, stomping her feet on the marble floor. “My son would never do such a thing! Clearly that is only a murderer’s attempt to shift blame elsewhere!”
“Perhaps, but I’m afraid it is word against word at the moment; both sets of evidence are equally hard to prove.”
“How can you say that, your Majesty? My son is dead! If he was trying to kill the Tanuki boy, how come it’s my son that died while the other has fled the country?” In rage Anhinga tore off her black veil, revealing tear-soaked makeup. It looked quite dramatic but Mallard seemed unfazed.
“Now you are making hasty assumptions, Lady Talon,” he said. “Jack Tanuki has been found, hiding in a collapsed cave.”
Both Anhinga and Gadwall failed to hide their surprise at this piece of news, but only Raven took note off the confusion in the vice headmaster’s eyes.
‘He really expected Jack to be dead?’ Raven pondered in her mind. ‘Does he have a reason for this?’
“Where is he?” Anhinga asked as soon as she recovered her wits, skillfully hiding the panic she was starting to feel. “I want to look my son’s killer in the eyes and demand some answers!”
Mallard shook his head. “That will be hard; the boy has yet to arrive back in the city but my understanding is that he is far from lucid. Whatever he experienced out there seems to have broken him.”
Both relief and disappointment flashed across Anhinga’s eyes, no doubt conflicted between the need to prove Jack guilty and the will to actually find out what happened to her son.
“Emperor,” a stout man suddenly spoke out, asking if he could speak. He was one of the nation’s nine Councilors and Anhinga looked pleased by his wish to voice his opinion, but Raven knew it wouldn’t last long. The man’s loyalty had originally been bought by her aunt, but Raven had recently bought it back, adding some additional ‘incentive’ as well.
“Emperor, there is something that strikes me as a bit odd,” said the man once he had gotten the approval to speak. “I’ve been informed that Lady Talon learned of her son’s death due to a certain . . . delivery to her house. If young Tanuki has truely gone mad – for whatever reason – how would he have been able to arrange such a . . . package?”
“You . . !” Anhinga was about to explode with rage at the man’s mention of her son’s remains but managed to contain it. “He had help, obviously!” she argued instead, grasping at straws.
The Councilor shook his head. “I do not doubt that a third party was involved – after all, if young Tanuki didn’t kill Dunlin, someone else must have – but abandoning a mentally broken companion while running away himself? It doesn’t seem likely.”
“I agree,” said another Councillor. “Especially considering that distress letter and the sk-. . . ehem, delivery. If they wished to shift the blame on Dunlin himself, wouldn’t it have been better if both Jack and Dunlin disappeared at the same time?”
Almost everyone present nodded in agreement and Raven’s lips twitched slightly. Although few on her side knew the entire story surrounding Dunlin’s death and the Talon Clan’s betrayal, Raven had made sure that they had just the right amount of information and incentive they needed to speak up against Anhinga. The woman would find it hard to convince them of anything.
“There is also the matter of the documents in the boy’s dorm room,” the stout Councillor spoke once more. “Wouldn’t someone skilled enough to fake a friendship to kill someone, not also be smart enough not to keep such sensitive material lying around in their combined room? Do not take this the wrong way Lady Talon, but I would be more inclined to believe that you are trying to frame Jack than the other way around.” He then laughed and quickly added, “not that I’m saying that Lady Talon would ever stoop so low.”
Hearing this Raven almost started laughing. Part of the reason why her aunt had managed to buy that man’s loyalty had been due to a false accusation Anhinga had made about his family. Clearly he knew exactly how low ‘Lady Talon’ was capable of stooping.
Containing her laughter, Raven glanced over at Gadwall. Apart from his surprise at Jack’s survival, the man hadn’t been reacting in any way that wasn’t expected of Sky Academy’s Vice Headmaster.
‘How long will he stay neutral, I wonder. . . ?’
The conversations about pushing blame about grew more intense as those still loyal to Anhinga started voicing their opinions but most of their arguments were quickly shot down. Eventually the Emperor sighed heavily, causing all others to quiet down.
“I do not know what happened to the two boys in the wilderness, and it is apparent that both sides are trying to blame the other. This is a very important matter and must be investigated closely before a verdict can be reached.” The emperor looked at Anhinga with some measure of sympathy. “If Lady Talon has provided false evidence, then now is the time to say it. I am sure that it was only done in the heat of the moment, by a mother grieving her lost son.”
When Mallard had mentioned the need of a thorough investigation, Raven heard Anhinga’s pulse shoot through the roof. Since there were no sane witnesses to her cousin’s death it was likely that any investigations would take quite some time to complete, time Anhinga didn’t have. Besides, there was no guarantee that the results would help her achieve her goal. However, when presented with the opportunity to come clean, Anhinga was still quick to reject it. In fact, she rather seemed to have found her footing again.
Slightly bowing her head, Anhinga spoke solemnly; “Indeed, there is a possibility that the papers in my son’s room are just as fake as Jack’s accusations against my boy. I apologize for being hasty in my conclusions. However,” Anhinga straightened her back and faced the emperor; “I can assure you it was not done by me. Truth be told, I have kept a close eye on what has been going on in the Sky Empire ever since I took over after my brother and I have noticed several occasions where innocent people have been framed for crimes they didn’t commit. My son’s death is perhaps only another case of this.”
“What do you mean, Lady Talon?” one of the secretly Talon-loyal Councilors asked, playing his role as confused official masterfully.
‘Ugh, this is why I hate politicians. . . .’ sulked Raven. She was a manipulative person herself but for an assassin of her caliber that was a necessary feature, for political leaders it was rather a bug.
Unaware of Raven’s internal monologue, Anhinga had no qualms about answering the Councilor’s question. “There has been quite a few occasions when high officials have been accused of crimes they didn’t commit. Like the merchant accused of smuggling soul ore to the Earth Empire, only to later have it proven that he had been home sick the entire time. There is also the marshal accused of stealing military plans and selling them on the black market, who was later freed when a servant was caught with them. Also, we cannot forget how our own Empress Nene was framed for treason a few years back. . . .”
Once more Raven found herself pushing back laughter. ‘Those were all accusations stemming from you that I resolved. To think that my aunt would try to use them to her favor now!’ Raven shook her head mentally. ‘Well, it’s actually not that bad a plan on her part. However. . . .’ The corner of Raven’s lips curled into a small smile, but that smile quickly froze because of what Anhinga had to say next.
“Clearly someone is trying to bring chaos to our empire and break us from within!” Anhinga’s eyes grew moist yet again. “Actually, I have reason to believe that perhaps the death of my poor brother and his family was the first step. . . .”
Intense killing intent flashed in Raven’s eyes and instantly it seemed as if the temperature in the entire room dropped several degrees but, almost as quickly as it had flared up, Raven managed to suppress her emotions and the cold chill dissipated. Few present registered the event as anything more than a shudder, but not everyone was fooled; a handful of them were now staring intently at the Empress’ maid-in-waiting with disbelief, but Raven didn’t care.
She was boiling with rage.
‘How dare that bitch use and lie about my family’s death, yet again!?’
Raven would not let this pass. Not this time.