Raven stood in silence, watching the charred body by her feet. Hoatzin was perched on his sister’s shoulder since a while back.
“So it is done,” he said eventually, but Raven just nodded slowly in response. “I feel . . .” Hoatzin’s voice trailed off, unsure of what to say.
‘Tired. . . ,’ thought Raven with a sigh, but she kept her sentiments to herself.
“Lieutenant,” she called out into the darkness.
After a moment’s pause, a well-toned man in his forties walked out from behind a tree. “You knew I was here,” said the man, half disbelieving, half impressed.
The corner of Raven’s lips twitched slightly. How could she not have known? She had noticed him following her the moment she left Sky City and recognized his spirit presence from the palace.
Raven glanced over her shoulder before gazing up towards the partially hidden moon above her. “Empress Nene would never have let me go if you weren’t,” she said, only half honest. “I must thank you and your men for gathering up the loose ends behind me – it benefited my cause.”
The lieutenant blinked, thoroughly surprised this time. “You-. . .”
“Knew? Yes.” Giving no further explanation, Raven’s eyes eventually abandoned the white moon that she couldn’t really see and turned to leave. “Let’s go, Lieutenant, people are awaiting our return.”
She walked off without waiting for a response, leaving the speechless lieutenant behind. He glanced down at the disfigured corpse on the ground and thought back on the trail of selective carnage that Raven had left behind her as she moved through the bandit campsites.
The battle-hardened lieutenant couldn’t help but shudder; were these really the actions of a small, preteen girl?
Two days later, Raven once more stood in silence – watching her feet – but the reason was very different this time. Hoatzin sat on her shoulder and kept shooting glances between his sister and the furious woman who faced her; Empress Nene.
“How could you do something so dangerous?” Nene reprimanded angrily.
Raven knew that it wasn’t this that was the problem but she still said, “Empress Nene, it wasn’t that dangerous; your personal guard was accompanying me. . . .”
“Aunt Nene!” shouted the empress, slightly veering off topic. “But I am not talking about that! Why did you not contact me from the start? I would have helped you – I would have kept you safe!”
Nene’s rage subsided and she sank down on her knees in front of Raven, putting her eye-level slightly below the latter’s. She looked up at Raven with eyes filled with both pity and guilt.
While Raven had been hunting down Anhinga, Headmaster Swan had told his niece almost everything he knew about Raven’s narrow escape from her first encounter with the Phoenix Death Lotus and her subsequent journey to the capital. He even told the empress about Raven’s hidden actions against the Talon clan.
Whenever Nene considered the frightened four-year-old setting off on her own into the wilderness, she couldn’t help but feel both bewildered and depressed. Bewildered that the four-year-old Raven had been mature and strong enough to not only attempt it, but also pull it off. Depressed that she had needed to do it.
Raven didn’t answer. “I wanted to kill those bastards myself” didn’t seem like the right thing to say at this point and Raven knew that as long as she kept quiet, Empress Nene would come to her own conclusions about her reasons.
Faced by Raven’s silence, Nene’s face twisted with sorrow. She forcefully pulled Raven into her embrace, forcing Hoatzin to take flight or risk being crushed. Warm tears flowing down the empress’ cheeks.
“S-sorry . . .” she wept, her voice half swallowed by her tears and Raven’s eyes widened slightly in surprise. She hadn’t expected her mother’s childhood friend to care for her so strongly. Feeling a bit awkward in the woman’s embrace, Raven was, for once, unsure of what she should do next.
“I am so sorry, little Raven!” Nene continued and a slight shudder ran through Raven’s body. “I am sorry you felt alone – that you could not trust anyone! I-I should have journeyed to the Nightingale prefecture the moment I . . .” Nene’s voice trailed off.
Raven stared blankly into the distance. How long had it been since someone called her ‘little Raven’ with so much love? Raven clenched her fists. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes but not before a streak of tears could escape them.
“Sister. . . ?” Hoatzin’s concerned voice brought her back to her senses.
“I’m okay, big brother,” she assured him with a weak smile. “It just dawned on me that it’s really over. . .”
Suddenly a dark flash crossed Raven’s eyes as she remember the departed Gadwall. ‘Almost, at least,’ she thought, but said nothing. After all, who knew if she would be alive to do anything about it.
Wiping away her tears, Raven patted the still crying empress on her back. “It’s okay, Aunt Nene, I’m not alone now.”
Nene looked up at Raven, the woman’s pale and beautiful face by no means ruined by her tears. “You are right,” she said, forcing a smile. “You are not alone anymore! I shall speak with Mallard and have you adopted into the family . . . or better yet, you could marry my son – I know you haven’t met him, but he is only ten years older than you and he is very kind – and handsome. What do you think?”
It is fortunate that Hoatzin didn’t have anything in his mouth or he would have spit it out in shock. Raven on the other hand blinked in surprise a few times before she started laughing heartily.
‘What a straightforward woman!’ she thought. ‘I’m impressed!’
“Do you not like the idea?” Nene asked, pouting slightly.
Raven suppressed her laughter. “Empr-. . . Aunt Nene, it’s not that I don’t like the idea, but I already have a family; I will always be a Nightingale. As for marrying your son, I have lost too many loved ones . . . I would like my marriage to be out of love,” she answered but secretly added, ‘as if I’d ever marry willingly.’
Nene seemed to mull over Raven’s words for a while before she nodded in agreement. She then looked over the bland clothes Raven were wearing. “At least let me get you some clothes fitting for a lady – you are a prefecture heiress after all.”
Despite her personal preferences, Raven didn’t bother putting up a fight; she had to let the empress win on some points. “As long as I don’t have to wear the veil. . . .” she conceded, but Nene obviously didn’t feel like compromising.
“Of course you have to wear a veil,” the woman countered; “you are an unmarried noblewoman!”
Raven gave the empress a sidelong glance. “It’s not like my face is a secret anymore, Aunt Nene. I haven’t been wearing one at the Academy, for example.” She didn’t point out that the Fox’s Veil she usually used would have changed people’s perception of her face and appearance quite a lot.
“That-. . .” Empress Nene wasn’t sure how to respond. She couldn’t deny that the purpose of the veil had been turned somewhat obsolete after three years of living in a dorm with others, not to mention that Raven had shared her room with a boy. . . . Nene’s skin turned ghostly pale. A boy! “Um, Raven, tell me: that Javelin, he . . . he hasn’t . . .”
Raven started laughing again, but Nene didn’t relax because of it. “No, Aunt Nene, he has been a perfect gentleman,” Raven added to assure the worried empress.
“He knew?” Nene asked with wide eyes.
“After a while, yes. He has helped me out on numerous occasions.”
Only now did Nene breathe a sigh of relief, but her face quickly turned grave again. “How is he now?” she asked.
“Alive, for the time being. Senior Fenris says he might be able to save him, but it will be hard.”
Nene nodded slowly, a complicated look in her eyes. She had heard the reports; soon after the imposter known as Vice Headmaster Smew Gadwall had been chased away by the mysterious ‘Spirit Legend Fenris’, almost every child in the Advanced Martial Classes at Sky Academy had suddenly fallen ill.
The best healers in the country had been sent to find the cause, but even when they learned that it was the Phoenix Death Lotus that was behind it all, there was nothing they could do. Half a day later, fourteen of the nation’s brightest hopes for the future were dead. It was a huge blow for Sky Empire and Emperor Mallard was naturally beside himself with rage, but what difference did that make?
Of the infected children, only Javelin remained alive – somehow sustained by Fenris. Naturally, several pleas had been made for him to give the same treatment to the other children but he had blatantly refused. “I can only save this one,” he had said, pointing at Javelin, and then ignored any further attempts at conversation altogether.
“Do you know what he will do?”
“No,” Raven replied truthfully. She was not about to tell the Empress about the risks involved; if she did, Nene was likely to stop her from trying.
At this point, there was a light knock on the double doors to the Empress’ chamber before they slowly were inched open. “May we enter, Nene?”
“Of course,” Nene answered, finally smiling as she looked over at the door. Seconds later the Emperor walked in, closely followed by the Empress’ uncle, Headmaster Swan.
Raven gave the pair a polite bow. “Emperor Mallard, Master Swan.”
“No need for that, young Lady Nightingale. From what Eider has been telling me, we owe you not only for saving my Sky Empire but potentially the entire continent; we should be the ones bowing.” With that he gave Raven a respectful nod that wasn’t quite a bow, but still more than an emperor would give anyone but his ancestors.
“Thank you for indulging in my selfish request, Emperor Mallard,” Raven started but Nene cut her off. “Uncle Mallard,” she corrected.
Both the Emperor and Raven gave Nene a sidelong glance, clearly not quite resigned to such an intimate address. Seeing the Empress determined gaze, Mallard sighed lovingly.
“Right,” said Raven, understanding that the Emperor had given in. “Thank you, Uncle Mallard, for following my lead on dealing with the Talon clan.”
Mallard could only smile weakly. What reason had there been for him to refuse? The things which Raven had asked him to do had far better results than any of the strategies his council had suggested at the time. With only a bit of false information and a handful of well-timed raids, Mallard had subdued the entire Talon rebellion in less than four days. It was like Raven had given him all the right strings and simply tugging at them caused the net to constrict around his enemies.
At first he had thought that Headmaster Swan must have been behind it, but the latter had denied all involvement, putting all the credit in Raven’s lap.
“Speaking of the Talon clan; the Nightingale prefecture will naturally be reinstated and returned to its rightful master,” Mallard said, opting for a change of subject.
“Thank you, Uncle Mallard,” Raven replied with another bow. “My father would be glad to know that his prefecture is restored. However, I am young, and not fit for ruling a prefecture.”
Mallard frowned. Normally, an emperor might feel hesitant about handing over the leadership of a third of his lands to a soon to be ten-year-old, but hadn’t Raven already proven that her tactical mind was way beyond her years?
“You are the rightful heir,” the Empress urged. “You will grow into it, Raven.”
“Perhaps,” Raven neither agreed or disagreed.
“Sister, what are you doing? The Empress is right – Nightingale Prefecture is rightfully yours!”
Raven glanced at her brother, who once more sat perched on her shoulder. “You mean it’s yours, right?” she said to him with a smile and before he could object, Raven turned her attention back to the Emperor. “It is not that I object, it’s just that I would like to focus on my cultivation and schooling at the moment. I think you all would agree that a prefecture is better kept in the hands of a trusted warden until its true heir is ready for the responsibilities, am I right?”
Naturally, no one objected. The Emperor had already been thinking of appointing a warden to handle daily matters unofficially, so making it official wasn’t that big a change. None of them caught the second meaning in Raven’s words.
“Do you have anyone in mind, ” Mallard asked more out of courtesy than anything else.
“In fact, I do,” said Raven and fished out a file of documents from within her spacial ring. She handed the file to the Emperor with an enigmatic smile.
“I wonder if he will feel honored or discarded by this,” she heard Hoatzin question in her mind when he recognized the file.
“Both, I suspect.”
The last days of the week after the incident in Indigo Cloud Palace’s audience hall passed surprisingly peacefully in Sky City, especially considering the major rebellion that had been stifled.Plenty of rumors about the whole affair where circling, but thanks to the Emperor’s quick and assertive reaction, little was actually known about what had happened.
The Talon clan had rebelled, that much was known. They had claimed power by killing their own relatives and then tried to kill the Emperor to gain even more power. Their plot had failed miserably, but not before they managed to murder most of the nation’s most promising spiritualist talents.
It was not strange that the general public turned against the Talon Clan, condemning them to the deepest parts of Hell.
The Nightingale Clan’s head family, on the other hand, quickly turned into a saintly existence. They were martyrs, who had sacrificed themselves to save the nation, and the rumor that the daughter had managed to survive was the most discussed topic in the city.
Some said she was saved by a passing group of mercenaries. Others said she was kidnapped by slave-traders just before the Talon’s executed their plans, thereby saving her and condemning her at the same time. There were even those who claimed that young Lady Nightingale wasn’t young at all, but rather an estranged older daughter who had returned as a seasoned assassin only to find her family slaughtered and vowing revenge.
Most found these rumors ridiculous, but much information about the young Lady Nightingale was traded on the streets of Sky City; who knew what was true and not?
The most widely accepted rumor, however, was that the young heiress had somehow managed to enroll at Sky Academy in secret, and many wanted to visit the academy to learn if it was true. Unfortunately, they were all barred at the entrance.
Supposedly out of respect for the dead Sky Academy students, the entire academy had closed down and all students were sent home for a month of closed mourning – whether they wanted to or not.
Most students had welcomed this order wholeheartedly. Sky Academy was not a large institution; loosing fourteen youths at once meant more than a 10 percent decrease in students for the Martial Division and there wasn’t a single child who hadn’t lost a class mate or friend in the process.
There were however two students who had to be forcefully removed from the school grounds; the Griffin twins.
On Raven’s request, both her own and Javelin’s status had not been announced, so no one knew if they were alive or dead. Naturally, the Griffin twins had been reluctant to leave with so little information, but Raven still felt it was for the best.
“Better give them a few days of uncertainty, rather than false hope,” Raven had answered Hoatzin when he asked why she wouldn’t just tell them the truth.
Now Hoatzin watched as Raven stood in the hallway outside her and Javelin’s dorm room. Her hand was on the handle, but she was hesitating to open the door.
“You don’t have to do this, sister,” he finally pleaded. “I’m sure Javelin would understand.”
Raven glanced at him and smiled an unusually warm smile.
“If he is anything like the man I knew, forget understanding – he would insist that I don’t do it. It’s only . . .” Raven paused and retracted her hand from the door. Carefully, she lifted down her brother from her shoulder and held him in front of her face. “I’m sorry, Hoatzin. It is not fair to you that I insist on doing this.”
Hoatzin blinked, slightly surprised at what she said, but he didn’t disagree with her.
“This is something I must do – I owe him that much – but it is only because I know that you are strong enough that I can do it,” Raven continued, her eyes so full of certainty that Hoatzin almost believed her. Almost.
Raven raised Hoatzin to her mouth and kissed him on the head. “Thank you, Hoatzin,” she whispered, only barely keeping her voice steady.
“What for?” he grunted, unwilling to let his sister do what she wanted.
“For loving me.”
The words stabbed at him like a knife and in his soul Hoatzin did what his body could not; he cried.
Raven must have noticed his distress because she chuckled lightly and rubbed his feathery head. “Don’t look at me like that, big brother. I’m not so easily killed.”
Hoatzin could only manage a light nod.
His sister smiled back at him in response. “Well then, let’s get this over with,” she said and opened the door.
“Are you ready?” Fenris voice greeted them on the other side.
“No!” Hoatzin wanted to yell, but he didn’t.
“I am,” replied Raven, “but for what?”
A mysterious smile crept across Fenris’ face.
“To become Soul Bound.”