The office of admiral Hake was oddly quiet. Arowana stood just inside the doorway, smiling silently, seemingly unfazed by the awkward atmosphere in the room.
Raven was looking closely at Javelin, feeling . . . a bit irked.
“You are engaged to your nation’s princess and you didn’t think that was worth mentioning?” Hoatzin asked, voicing the question Raven had chosen not to ask. Javelin twitched noticeably. “Of course the emperor is unwilling to cancel the marriage – it’s his own daughter we are talking about!”
“No, I-. . .”
“Arowana!” Remora’s slightly strained outburst interrupted Javelin, effectively breaking the silence in the room. The young woman rushed to the princess’ side, taking the latter’s hands in her own. “Don’t listen to my brother’s words; he is just a bit . . . swept away by finally winning a skirmish against myself and Cisco,” Remora said with a not-so-subtle wink. She then leaned in closer and whispered quietly, intending the words for Arowana’s ears only; “The two of you have liked each other forever – it’s that mai-. . . that girl who has turned him against you!”
Hearing Remora’s words, Arowana leaned to the side, her big round eyes looking curiously at Raven. Meeting her gaze, Raven showed no outwardly reaction to Arowana’s stare but was secretly surprised by the lack of hostility in the princess’ eyes. There was also something about the girl’s presence that felt oddly familiar. . . .
‘It feels like . . . no, impossible!’ Raven discarded her theory even before she finished forming it.
Eventually, Arowana broke eye contact with Raven and instead turned to speak with Javelin’s parents. “Admiral, Saint Major, I was wondering if I could have a few words with my reluctant husband-to-be? In private, please.”
“Naturally,” Tetra replied before anyone else had a chance to object. She indicated for everyone to clear the room while she herself walked over to Raven, preparing to take the latter with her as she left.
“Oh, that’s okay, madam Hake – Raven Nightingale may stay,” Arowana intervened, her voice still as sweet as honey.
There was a flash of surprise in Tetra’s eyes, but she hid it quickly. Remora’s emotional control, on the other hand, was not as refined. She just was about to protest loudly when Tetra shot her daughter a reproving look, efficiently stifling the girl’s comments. Begrudgingly, Remora followed her mother out of the room, closing the door behind them as they went.
Once alone, Arowana gingerly moved over to the room’s only window and silently watched the movements of the sea outside, causing another awkward silence to descended on the room. Javelin stood, his face lowered and staring at his feet, unsure what to say now that his fiancée was actually present. Even Hoatzin contributed to the stiff mood as he kept glaring at Arowana’s back, clearly not impressed by the girl.
“She smells fishy,” he suddenly said to Raven causing her to almost burst out laughing at his comment.
“Don’t they all?” Raven asked, teasingly. “They practically live in the ocean. . . .”
Hoatzin snorted. “Do not pretend that you are unaffected by this, sister. You might or might not have feelings for Javelin, but you are stuck with him nevertheless. If he marries Arowana, you will be stuck with her too.”
“Well, I hadn’t thought of that. . . ,” Raven replied with ill-faked ignorance. She then swiftly raised two fingers and perfectly caught Hoatzin’s beak, which had just been about to stab into her neck. “I’m only teasing, brother; I have no intentions of being tethered to this girl. I am, however, interested in seeing how Javelin will handle the situation.”
That said, Raven still held on to Hoatzin’s beak, and quite firmly too. Consequentially, Hoatzin was forced to flap his wings rather harshly in order to break free and the sudden noise was perhaps what Javelin needed. “Your highness wished to speak with us. . . .” he suddenly said, questioning the reason.
Arowana spun around on the spot, her silver-blue hair swinging out behind her as she moved. “Javelin, please, we’ve known each other since before we could walk, at least call me by my given name!” She pouted slightly as she spoke and rocked, back and forth, on the heels of her feet, all of it significantly intensifying her cuteness. “Besides, I have yet to earn my royal title, so ‘your highness’ is a bit premature. . . .”
‘So it’s true,’ mused Raven, quietly to herself.
She had heard that the Sea Empire had a rather peculiar approach to inherited titles, but seeing is believing. The Sea Empire had hereditary lineages, just like the Sky and Earth Empires did, but the title transfer wasn’t automatic and instead had to he earned by proving one’s use for the empire. Even the emperor’s children were no exception. This system did, however, not mean that anyone could gain a noble title; one still needed the right bloodline to be eligible.
In the spacious office, Javelin instinctively raised his hand to scratch the back of his neck. “Sorry, A-. . . Arowana,” he muttered, not totally resigned to the intimacy of the act.
Satisfied, Arowana ignored Javelin and instead faced Raven.
“So this is Raven Nightingale,” she said with a smile and walked up to Raven, grabbing both of the latter’s hands in her own. “It’s nice to finally meet you! I’m Arowana Pelecus, third daughter of Sea Emperor Hamlet Pelecus and Empress Ilisha. I’m fourteen next year, I specialize in healing and I’m sure that you and I will become the very best of friends!”
Arowana’s eyes sparkled with heartfelt warmth as she rapidly made her own introductions. Raven couldn’t help but secretly cringe; either this girl was the best con-artist alive, or she was honestly sweeter than sugar – and way too pure for Raven’s tastes.
However, Raven showed none of her thought on her face as she smiled back, albeit a bit colder. “The pleasure is mine.”
Somehow, Arowana managed the impossible feat of turning her already sweet grin even sweeter. “You really are like he said; cool and elegant.”
“He?” Raven’s eyes twitched slightly. ‘Was I right after all?’
Arowana nodded, but then narrowed her eyes peevishly. “I’m not telling you who he is though. . . .”
“Who is she talking about?” Javelin asked, mentally.
“Not entirely sure. . . ,” Raven replied truthfully. She gave Javelin a pensive look; if her theory was correct, then how come he didn’t know? “But if my guess is right, then I don’t think you’re going to like it.”
“Who do you think it is then?” Javelin pushed, but, almost as if realizing that something secret was going on in their gazes, Arowana moved to stand in between them.
“Enough with the lovey-dovey soul gazing; he is still my fiancé, after all,” she prompted, not sounding as mad as her words would indicate.
“I’m running out of time, so let us get down to business, shall we?” Arowana’s cute eyes suddenly turned serious as she turned to face her betrothed. “Javelin, I know that you do not wish to marry, and, to be frank, I am not too fond of the idea either. Do you agree with me that we should cancel our engagement?”
Raven wasn’t alone in being surprised by Arowana’s sudden frankness; Javelin looked as though he had just been told that he’d won the lottery but was still unable to believe it.
“Do you not agree?” Arowana pushed when no reply came.
“I agree, of course I agree!” Javelin rushed to give his answer, almost as if afraid that the girl would change her mind if he gave her too much time to think about it.
Arowana giggled. “I might not want to marry you, but do you have to look so desperate to get away from me?”
Javelin’s face flushed red and he couldn’t help but steal a glance at Raven. Arowana followed his gaze and smiled knowingly, but she quickly turned serious again.
“However, Javelin, you know as well as I do that our engagement was agreed upon by our grandfathers; our fathers will not go against it lightly.”
“I know,” Javelin sighed, “but if neither of us want to marry, wouldn’t that be enough to . . .” Arowana’s pointed look caused him to drop the notion. “I guess not. . . .”
Raven could feel Javelin’s dejection and pitied his situation. “Lady Arowana,” she intervened, “since you’ve come here today, I’m assuming that you have a plan?”
“Just Arowana, please,” the girl corrected before she got to the point at hand. “I have thought of a way, but . . . I’m not sure if it’s possible to pull off. . . . It will depend solely on Javelin’s skill and determination.”
“What do you have in mind?” Javelin asked without hesitation, meeting Arowana’s intense stare.
“You know of the yearly graduation tournaments for all the spiritualist academies of Sea Empire, right?”
“I do,” Javelin nodded, but his brow furrowed into a slight frown. “It is held every year and the winner gets a free pick at what position they want within the nation – most pick the Dragon Sea Guard. What of it?”
“Why not participate, win, and then ask to be removed from the position as my fiancé?”
Javelin’s frown deepened. “I don’t think it works that way. . . . Besides, I’m only starting the seventh grade this year – I can’t participate.”
“Well, as luck would have it, this year is the thirtieth anniversary of my father’s graduation from Sea Empire and I kind of managed to convince him to let grades six and up participate as well.” Arowana was smiling again. “To gain some extra experience and all.”
Raven secretly smiled; judging by what she had seen of Arowana so far, she could guess that the girl had her father wrapped around her little finger. In fact, Raven felt that it was rather impressive that the Emperor had resisted breaking off the engagement under his daughter’s insistence. . . .
“Say that Javelin does participate and ends up winning, how likely is that Emperor Hamlet will agree to his request?” Raven asked.
“Father will have no choice but to agree,” Arowana assured and withdrew a paper roll from her sleeve. “Read this. It’s the tournament’s victory deed; it says that the emperor must agree to any requested position or duty which doesn’t involve overstepping seniority or bloodline privileges.” She handed the roll to Raven. “All Javelin has to do is ask to be a monk or something and the engagement will be off.”
Raven unfurled the roll as she suppressed a smirk. The girl’s reasoning was simplistic and a bit naive, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t work. Looking over the document in her hand, Raven did indeed see a way out of the engagement.
“This might actually work,” she said and held out the scroll to Javelin. “You should try.”
Javelin was momentarily stunned. His eyes darted back and forth between the two girls.
“Are you serious?” he asked them both, and received two synchronized nods in reply. “You want me to, not only participate in the graduation tournament, but also to win it?” Another set of nods. “You do realize that the top graduates of Sea Academy are early mid Champions!?”
Raven smiled and waved the scroll in her hand. “It says here that the tournament isn’t until later this autumn; there is plenty of time for . . . training.”
The corner of Javelin’s eyes twitched as he involuntarily swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry.
Far away, on the cold stone floor of a sparingly furnished office, a very nervous attendant sat on his knees. In front of him on the floor were tens of scrolls – each filled to the brim with data his underlings had collected – but he still feared that it wouldn’t be enough.
“All other students and elders are accounted for?” asked the black-haired man seated behind the room’s only desk.
“Yes, Councilor Tanuki,” replies the attendant, lowering his head. “Apart from Protector Aves Swan and students Raven Nightingale, Javelin Hake, as well as Martin and Lark Griffin, all others’ stories check out. If the perpetrator was from Sky Academy, it has to be one of those.”
Councilor Tanuki tapped his fingers on the desk in front of him. “Where are they now?”
“The Griffin twins are still at Sky Academy and have been under very strict guard lately. As for the other three, well, Councilor met them on their way to the Sea Empire. According to my sources, they arrived at Admiral Hake’s fort manor yesterday.”
The attendant didn’t say anything else and the councilor just kept tapping his fingers against his desk. After some contemplation, Councilor Tanuki’s fingers suddenly stopped.
“Send for my daughter.”