Overflowing with secret amusement, Raven watched as the two Griffin twins tried to wrap their head around what they had obviously figured out by now. She had expected their reaction to be comical, but this was better than anticipated.
Out of the two, Lark was clearly handling the revelation better – he was shocked, but still seemed to have his wits about him. Martin, on the other hand. . . . His face was turning blue from lack of breathing.
“Haha, this is priceless!” Hoatzin’s laughing voice echoed in her mind.
“Indeed,” Raven agreed with a faint smile and stepped forward to speak. Her clear voice easily reaching everyone in the crowd; “What my eloquent friend is so delicately pointing out is that I, Raven Nightingale, have spent the last couple of years at Sky Academy – disguised as the male student Raven Night.”
Shocked gasps came from the crowd. There might have been rumors of the Nightingale heiress studying at Sky Academy, but to hear it confirmed was something else. Add to the mix that Raven Night was somewhat of a celebrity at Sky Academy – the wondrous preteen prodigy who had managed to become the Headmaster’s disciple – and everyone was beyond flabbergasted. Yet, even more shocking, Raven Night was supposed to be a boy!
“She cross-dressed as a boy – for nearly four years!?”
“How is that even possible? She must have had roommates. . . .”
Murmurs spread through the crowd and, as if hearing other’s reactions made it more real, Martin’s face turned from blue to green and then white. Even Lark looked a bit pale. Raven could only assume that they were thinking back on their years together and all the things they had done under the assumption that Raven was a boy. Things like trying to get her to swim naked in the grand garden’s pond at Sky Academy, whining about how annoying all girls were, and executing a bunch of pranks most women would find highly offensive.
“Perhaps they knew?” someone suddenly whispered, unsuccessfully, to his neighbor, who was standing fairly close to the Griffin twins. “Tsk, tsk, an unmarried noblewoman sharing a room with men. . . . Outrageous!”
“I understand she had to lay low,” the neighbor answered, shaking his head; “but who would want to marr-. . .”
The sentence was never finished; a sharp slap had landed on the speaker’s cheek, quickly followed by a heavy punch to his gut. The man toppled over in pain, gasping for air.
“Watch your mouth! That is our friend you’re talking about!” Martin roared, his face still a bit sickly.
“I’m only . . .” the man started, but Lark cut him off; “. . . slandering a future Prefecture Lord?”
On stage Raven’s lips curled into a slight smile. She had to hand it to the twins; they might have been shaken by the revelation of Raven’s true identity, but they were loyal friends and had acted quickly in her defense nonetheless.
Not that she needed defending.
The man was about attempt to refute again when Raven’s cold voice cut trough the air like a knife. “So much for not wallowing in the past. . . .”
Instantly the floored man turned deathly pale, together with some of the others who had spoken rashly just moments earlier. Raven’s single sentence instantly brought them back to the Emperor’s speech – those had been his words!
Had not the Emperor and Empress explicitly told them to not talk badly about Raven’s past? What would they do if the Emperor took their offhanded remarks as disobeying an imperial decree?
Noticing the crowds reaction, Raven didn’t bother to push harder; today was about building bridges, not burning them. “I do not blame your skepticism,” she said, her voice significantly softer. “I agree that my methods were slightly unorthodox, but, at the time, my survival took priority. I hope all of you can forgive this one for acting rashly.
Raven curtsied deeply on stage, causing the bells in her hair to jingle. The sound was slightly different from when she had entered, but no one noticed; they were too busy watching Raven’s elegant movements. How could someone so young, who could only have had a few years of training with her mother, move so smoothly? And why did it seem like Raven was sparkling?
“If I didn’t know better, I would think my sister was a vain person,” Hoatzin commented smugly. “What would the creators of your Divine Skills think if they knew you where using them for such parlor tricks?”
“They’d be impressed by my ingenuity?” Raven offered without really believing it. She had been using a combination of Divine Skills ever since she walked on stage. She new the importance of theatrics well and what better way that to and a bit of mysterious sound-effects? However, as a martial artist herself, Raven did indeed feel a bit conflicted about using high-level martial skills the way she did at the moment, but, as they say, all is fair in war.
Nevertheless, it still hurt a bit to use skills like the Sonic Sword’s sixth level skill, the Dance of Bells, and the fifth level defense skill Thunder Breath – two otherwise deadly moves – simply for some chiming bells and glimmering skin. . . .
Raven kept her posture bent for quite a while before the Emperor impatiently stomped his foot in the ground, snapping people out their daze. The crowd hurried to assure Raven that there was nothing for them to forgive. Pleased, Raven straightened out and smiled. It was a smile that could topple nations. Instantly the last remaining critics forgot their reservations and felt that the young Lady Nightingale was the sweetest thing alive – definitely someone you should protect rather than gossip about.
Sweeping her gaze over the courtyard, Raven’s eyes landed on Limpkin and her four adopted mercenary uncles, and couldn’t help but suppress a snicker. Limpkin hid it better than the twins had, but not well enough; Raven could clearly see his surprise.
‘Judging by his expression, I guess he figured out the Singer connection,’ she concluded, revelling in his shock. ‘Not surprising considering our training spars; he should recognize the Dance of Bells.’
As for the four mercenaries, they were beaming with pride, looking up at her with wide smiles on their faces. Raven had spoken with them about her true identity a few days ago, not even leaving out what she had asked Fenris to do to them. It was safe to say that they had been shocked by it all, but, surprisingly enough, they hadn’t gotten mad at her.
“No matter how it began, those two years we traveled together were real,” Hog had explained when she asked why.
“Yeah, it was only two years worth of memories you added – what’s the harm?” Dove had added with a smile. “Ain’t it worth it to gain a niece as awesome as you?”
At that point Saltmarsh had reached out and grabbed Raven around her neck, rubbing down on her scalp. “To think that the little brat was a little lass. . . . I’m ashamed of my girl-sniffing sensor!”
The others had shaken their heads. “You should be. . . .” Emu reprimanded. “It is totally okay for you to give him a kick, Raven,” he added. And she had.
Raven felt her smile momentarily becoming a real one as she thought back on the conversation. She had to admit – she was quite fond of her adopted uncles. They were neither the strongest nor the smartest, but they were entertaining.
Suddenly, an all too familiar prickling sensation filled Raven’s mind. It was gone almost as fast as it had come, but she knew without even checking that Javelin had finally reformed his first spirit connection. She could also feel vitality returning to his soul prism. He was waking up, and soon.
‘Now this is the same crappy timing Eric had. . . .’ Raven mused and glanced over her shoulder at the boy in the wheelchair. She had no idea what he would be like when he woke up, but she sure as hell wouldn’t let it be on a stage in front of thousands of people.
“Thank you for your understanding.” Raven curtsied to the crowd again, although quickly this time. No more beating around the bush. “I think we can all agree that, considering my age and experience, I am currently unfit to rule a Prefecture. As such, a warden has been appointed to administer the Nightingale Prefecture for now. Let me introduce you to Warden Bill, a long time Nightingale loyalist who has aided me greatly ever since I arrived in this city.”
A somewhat confused Bill stepped away from the wheelchair with Javelin, which he had been pushing, and approached Raven. It wasn’t that he was unprepared for this, but he had expected Raven to speak a bit longer.
“He’s waking up,” Raven whispered so only Bill could hear it. For a split second Bill didn’t understand who ‘he’ was but realization quickly dawned. Bill’s expression immediately turned serious.
“Go,” he whispered back, “I’ll handle the rest.”
Raven smiled softly. Bill had come a long way from the terrified wreck he had been when she saved him. After over two years of rehabilitation and constant counseling from Raven concerning the memories he had gotten from her, Bill had emerged stronger than ever. His soul prism had strengthened greatly and his mentality improved. Even his cultivation had been rocketing upwards – it was likely Bill would become a Spirit Champion sometime soon.
“Stay with Bill, brother,” Raven urged Hoatzin as Bill stepped forward to address the crowd. Meanwhile, Raven gave the required bows to the Emperor and Empress, indicating that she was about to leave. They, just like Bill, were initially confused by Raven’s behavior, but when they saw her starting to leave with the wheelchair they could guess what was going on – they had after all been warned it could happen.
Needless to say, the crowd was not as understanding about Raven’s sudden departure, but even as she left the stage, Raven could hear Bill handling the situation.
Raven upped her pace. For the first time in days, she could sense emotions stirring within Javelin . She felt his confusion and fear, but also a strange fuzzy feeling she couldn’t quite place. Underneath Javelin’s closed eyelids his eyes were moving back and forth as if he was watching a movie.
‘He’s dreaming?’ Raven speculated as she hurried towards the guest room that had been prepared for them. ‘About what, I wonder. . . .’
I was dreaming. I knew I was because my arms were thin like twigs and no matter how hard I ran, I didn’t seem to get very far. I knew I was dreaming, and yet, it felt so real.
Moments earlier, I had been in some odd corridor, made of white steel, when I suddenly heard a loud bang and something whizzed past my left ear so quickly I couldn’t even register what it was. Normally I would want to stay and fight, but this time, my instincts had told me to run – so I did. Now I was running through deep snow, in the darkness, as fast as my too weak legs would carry me.
Behind me, constant bangs threatened to shatter my eardrums and those unbelievably fast . . . things kept flying past me. Clearly someone was trying to hit me and even though I didn’t know with what, I could tell that a hit would be fatal.
Why was this happening to me? I didn’t know. Even in all that chaos, I kept getting the feeling that there was something I should be protecting, but I couldn’t figure out what.
Suddenly an uncharacteristically large bang echoed out behind me and I knew in my heart that, whatever it was that was coming for me, I was now done for. I expected the impact to hit me in the back, but it didn’t. Instead, something hard yet soft slammed into my side, pushing me to the ground. In the same instant, a flurry of snow and fire exploded a few meters away, clearly just missing me.
“Professor Solar, I take it?”
An inappropriately calm voice drew my attention away from the blast. Lying above me, shielding me, was a woman. Her hair and eyes were black as night, her skin was almost as white as the snow around us. I blinked. I knew I had never seen this woman before, but somehow her gaze still seemed so familiar.
More explosions forced the woman to duck in closer, pressing herself tighter to me. I felt the ground vibrating beneath us, or was it my imagination?
“Are you professor Eric Solar?” she asked again and I found myself nodding yes although I shouldn’t.
An almost savage smile formed on her slightly blue lips. She pulled out an oddly shaped, long, lump of metal from a strap on her thigh and pointed it out into the darkness of the surrounding trees. Suddenly flashes of fire spurted from the front of the object, accompanied by three silent: *pop*, *pop*, *pop*. After that, no more explosions came. The woman looked down on me again, still close enough for me to feel her warm breath on my cheek.
“Hello, professor Solar,” she said, the nearby flames reflecting in her still smiling eyes. “I’m Raven Night, and I’m your new bodyguard.”