Ten days passed without any major changes in Javelin’s condition. Raven had felt how the consuming force of the Phoenix Death Lotus had slowly faded, day by day, until its presence was gone. Still, Javelin had yet to regain his consciousness.
Raven suspected that it was because his own soul prism had yet to re-form any of his spirit connections. However, she knew it wouldn’t be long before the boy woke up and she felt very conflicted about it. Would he remember everything? Would he hold it against her? Raven wasn’t sure she wanted to know.
Something she didn’t feel conflicted about, however, was the sea of people who were gathered not too far from her current position.
Thousands of people had arrived in the large ceremonial courtyard at Cloud Indigo Palace and were waiting eagerly for what was to come. Anyone who was anything in Sky City was there – including everyone from the two current Prefecture Lords down to the higher ranking members of the city’s more outstanding Guilds.
Raven glanced out a window indifferently. Ever since her spirit connections exceeded 350 and she started sensing people’s spirit presence, Raven didn’t really care for large groups of people; there was simply too much sensory stimuli around. She was however aware of her duties as Raven Nightingale and would not shy away from today’s event simply out of discomfort.
In fact, she had to admit that there were a couple of people whose reactions she was quite looking forward to. A sly smile crept across her face.
Outside, a strong summer breeze swept across the waiting crowds. The sun stood high in the sky, but at these altitudes even the brightest rays had to struggle to bring heat to the gathered people on the palace courtyard.
“I’m leaving!” grunted Martin disapprovingly for the hundredth time, earning him yet another slap at the back of his head before he could even attempt to move. He and Lark were standing next to their father, the Prefecture Lord of Blood Griffin Prefecture, who dished out the punishment for acting out of line.
No further comments were made by the middle-aged Prefecture Lord, but Martin clicked his tongue begrudgingly. “Who cares about a long-lost pampered little sissy?” he whispered into his twin’s ear and ducked before his father could smack him over the head again. When no swing came he straightened and continued his monologue to Lark. “We should sneak out of here and find out what’s going on with Javelin and Raven!”
“Shh,” Lark hissed to his brother. Nervously, he scanned the crowd, looking for a familiar face.
“Don’t shush me!” retorted Martin, barely remembering to keep his voice down. “It’s been almost three weeks and we still don’t know what’s happened to them! How can you be so calm!?”
Only now did Lark stop his searching, giving Martin a steady glare. “I’m not calm, brother – you know I’m not.” Martin lowered his head slightly and Lark turned his attention back to the crowd. “You know I want new information about those two as much as you do, but this is the first public announcement since the staged rebellion. It is not likely it will all be about the Nightingale heiress – perhaps we will learn something here.”
Martin only snorted as a reply, but stopped arguing about leaving, nevertheless.
Lark’s gaze continued to scan the gathered crowed, but he couldn’t find who he was looking for, no matter how hard he tried. Just as he was about to give up, a small flash of silver pulled Lark’s attention to a slender man leaning against one of the pillar at the other end of the courtyard. He was quite far off, but even at this distance Lark recognized the man’s silver-blue hair.
‘Limpkin?’ he wondered and frowned; the Assassin Guild usually never bothered with events like this. Lark’s gaze shifted slightly to take in the people standing next to the famous assassin and got an even bigger surprise. Lark nudged his brother with his elbow and indicated for Martin to look across the courtyard. “Twin, look! Aren’t they Raven’s uncles – standing there next to Limpkin, the assassin?”
Martin followed his brother’s gaze and after narrowing his eyes to see better, he blinked in shock. Lark was right – it was Uncle Hog and the other three mercenaries who had raised Raven – but how come they were here? They neither had the lineage nor the social status to attend.
Suddenly, a bugle’s monotone sound called everyone’s attention to the stage at the far end of the courtyard. A plump man in his late fifties walked up to the podium that had been erected at the center of the stage and cleared his throat.
“Your Royal Highness’, ladies and gentlemen, I present his Majesty, Sky Emperor Mallard Bateleur, and her Majesty, Sky Empress Nene.”
“Long live the Sky Emperor! Long live the Sky Empress!” everyone called and bowed deeply. Normally, these people wouldn’t be quite this formal around their otherwise lenient Emperor-pair, but, in light of recent events, no one dared to be lax in their show of respect.
There was a ruffle of fabric on the stage and a moment later the Emperor’s warm voice filled the large courtyard with ease.
“Please rise,” he urged and waited until the crowd had complied. Standing next to his empress, Emperor Mallard looked out at his subjects with air of regal benevolence. Both monarchs were draped in lavish golden fabrics, signifying the importance of today’s events.
Finally, the Emperor started speaking again; “as you know, much has happened in our great empire as of late . . . and even more has been speculated about.” Mallard paused for a moment, his eyes showing a hint of his disapproval. “However,” he continued, once more seemingly content with the crowd, “let us not wallow in the past. If this Emperor had to concern himself with every person who believes he knows better than us, when would we find the time to rule?”
Everyone in the courtyard drew in a sharp breath of air and both Griffin twins couldn’t help but glance up at their father, whose forehead had turned moist with cold sweat. The Emperor might seem fairly happy at the moment, but he never refered to himself in third person unless he was seriously upset.
The warning was clear: know your place, or bear the consequences.
Emperor Mallard hadn’t said much, but the underlying meaning of his words were not missed. With this one sentence he not only reproved the people for spreading rumors they had no base for, but also took a swipe at those whose conscience wasn’t entirely clear with regards to the Talon rebellion.
There was silence in the courtyard. No one dared speak and while the Emperor was smiling happily, the oppressive feeling in the air was anything but jovial.
Lord Griffin couldn’t help but shift his balance slightly. He had done nothing wrong lately, in fact, thanks to his sons Lord Griffin had been one of those who had actively worked against the Talon Clan – although he didn’t realize its importance at the time. Nonetheless, under the stifling atmosphere in the palace courtyard, he still felt a bit guilty – imagine how those who’d actually done something were feeling at this moment. . . .
It only took a few second before a handful people in the crowd bowed so deeply their heads almost hit their knees. “The Emperor is wise!” they shouted, almost in unison. “Forgive our ignorance!”
Everyone else in the courtyard were quick to follow suit so no one noticed the cold flash in the Emperor’s eyes when he saw the behavior of the first people. His eyes darted to the side, meeting the gaze of one of his aids, before he happily spoke to the crowd again. “What’s this? I believe I said that we should put all this behind us?”
A sigh of relief spread through the gathered people – the emperor had stopped referring to himself in third person – but as they straightened up again, some couldn’t help but notice that those who had been quickest to apologize were no longer among them.
“Now,” continued the Emperor as if nothing had happened, “while I wish for us to put our past behind us, we must never forget it. Many brave and loyal souls have perished by the nefarious deeds of the Talon Clan, the worst of which no doubt the deaths of this nation’s brightest students. . . .” Mallard’s speech trailed off a bit, but he soon regained his composure, his voice becoming more grand and imposing with every word that followed. “However,” he said, “even in these times, our future is far from lost!”
The Emperor looked out over the courtyard, seemingly establishing eye contact with every single person present. “Every one of you here has a vital role in this nation’s future. You are Sky Empire’s backbone, and together I know we are strong!”
“Hear, hear!” someone shouted and several cheers rang out from within the crowd.
“Together, we can conquer any enemy!” Mallard shouted.
“Hear, hear!” the crowd answered.
“Together, we can make this nation greater than ever before!” the Emperor shouted once more, this time clasping his wife’s hand in his and raising them both to the skies.
Empowering cheers exploded throughout the entire courtyard and Emperor Mallard watched the elated people in front of him with a pleased smile on his face. It was perhaps not his most well-polished speech, but sometimes that was to be preferred; sometimes, you had to be a bit corny.
Eventually, the Emperor raised his free hand to silence the crowd.
“Many scars remain among us,” he said, his voice sounding grave. “The first challenge we face will be dealing with the damage done to the once stable prefecture that the traitors stole from a noble and loyal family – the Nightingale Clan!”
“It will be a long and hard road; the Talon Clan seized the Nightingale Prefecture by murder and deception, and, once theirs, the prefecture’s state was gravely neglected by its false rulers. Returning prosperity to the region will not be easy.”
“Yet, I wish – no, I demand to see the Nightingale Prefecture re-formed and, with your aid, returned back to its former glory! Will you help?” The Emperor bellowed his question and crowd replied with affirmative cheers. It was a hollow promise, naturally, but at least the intention was there.
“By now, you all know that not all of the Nightingale’s head family fell to the Talon Clan’s vicious plans. The youngest heir survived, and – through miraculous effort and the intervention of four brave men – she made her way to the capital. For over three years, she has escaped the watchful eye of the Talons and can, today, finally reclaim her title as heir to the Nightingale Prefecture!”
“Huzzah!” the crowd cheered and the Emperor had to wait a while before he could continue his speech.
“Although young, Lady Nightingale’s cultivation and intellect is far beyond her years. She will continue her studies for a while longer, but I hope your judgment won’t be clouded by her age and that you will work hard with both her and her chosen representative. Together, we can restore the Nightingale Prefecture. Together, we can restore our nation!”
While the crowd cheered loudly, the Emperor looked over at his wife with a loving smile. Empress Nene returned the gesture with a smile of her own before she took a step forward, causing the courtyard to instantly quiet down. When she spoke her voice was sweet yet assertive.
“We know that you are all eager to meet the young heiress. However, bear in mind that the past few years have been very hard on her and she has been forced to take drastic measures to survive. . . . Because of what she has been through, the Emperor has waived young Lady Nightingales requirement to wear a veil – I only ask that if you recognize her from somewhere else, please don’t put it against her.”
The Empress paused, her eyes moist with emotion. “Her . . . her mother, Lady Besra Nightingale, was a dear friend of mine. . . . With her gone, both the Emperor and I feel for the young Lady Nightingale’s well-being as if she was our own. I hope you will do the same.”
Quiet murmurs spread through the crowd and the Griffin twins’ father raised a surprised eyebrow. What was the Empress actually implying? After a moments contemplation, Lord Griffin’s large hands clasped Martin and Lark’s shoulders firmly. “Hear that? You better be kind to the young lady!” he ordered and then, mostly to himself, quietly mumbled, “she is a good candidate. . . .”
Martin and Lark glanced at each other and rolled their eyes. They knew what their father was hinting at, but that didn’t mean they approved.
Noticing the crowds reaction, the Empress laughed sweetly. “We shall not keep you waiting any longer,” she said with a smile. “I present to you young Lady Raven Nightingale, daughter and heiress to Lord Maleo Nightingale.”
The Empress gracefully lifted her hand, indicating the side of the stage where a double-door led to the inner compartments of the palace. Moments later the doors were pulled open by the two servants standing next to them, revealing the darkness within.
The entire courtyard plummeted into silence, expectantly observing the opening. No matter how much the Emperor disapproved, the rumors surrounding the young heiress had been circulated and if it was one thing that united almost all of the people in the crowd, it was their curiosity. Would she be a young beauty like her mother or had the flames disfigured her? Was she cold and vicious or sweet and benevolent? Everyone wanted to know and even Martin found himself staring at the dark hallway behind the stage doors.
At first, nothing happened, but just as people started fidgeting a bit, the rhythmic sound of soft bells seeped out from within the darkness. The clang wasn’t loud, but it echoed throughout the courtyard, creating a very mystical effect. The sound grew clearer and clearer until, finally, a figure emerged from within the shadows.
Walking with regal grace, a roughly one and a half meter tall girl stepped out on the stage. She wore the traditional light blue dress with copper embroideries that was reserved for the nobility of Nightingale Prefecture and her midnight purple hair was arranged in intricate braids, partially hidden by the lavish ornament that donned her head.
Several bells adorned that ornament, but if anyone would have paid close enough attention, they would have noticed that the bells weren’t actually moving – the soft bell sounds came from somewhere else. As it were, no one was paying attention to her hair. Instead, every pair of eyes focused on the girl’s face.
Her complexion was pale and her features elegant, albeit a bit frail due to her age, but what drew everyone’s attention were her eyes. Deep red and with a cold, yet not directly dismissive look, the girl’s eyes were like rubies in a field of snow.
She was young alright – seemingly in her mid to late teens – but she still had the entire audience mesmerized to the point of folly. The Griffin twins were no exception. They stared, dumbfounded, at the girl and didn’t even realize that, a few steps behind her, a young man – whom they ought to have recognized – was rolled out, unconscious in a wheelchair.
As the Nightingale heiress gracefully moved to the center of the stage, her gaze traveled through the gathered crowd in the courtyard, pausing momentarily every now and then. Suddenly, the girl’s eyes met Martin and Lark’s and the two twins could have sworn that they saw an amused smile flash momentarily across the girl’s face. They blinked in surprise. Why did this girl feel so familiar? They had only met her briefly once before and at that time she had been veiled.
The girl reached the center of the stage, bowed to the Emperor-pair, and then turned, with calm elegance, to face the crowd. She opened her mouth to speak, but she only managed to say one word before a loud scream cut her off.
At once, everyone turned to face the source of the sound and found two wide-eyed twins, staring up at Raven Nightingale with their jaws dropped. Martin’s trembling hand was pointing towards the stage as he struggled to form any kind of sentence; “R-Raven . . . he . . . y-you . . !”
On stage, a mischievous glint glowed in Raven’s eyes and on a nearby roof, a small red bird seemed to be having a fit as it wheezed with laughter.