Young Argus Bateleur, the twenty-year-old crown prince of Sky Empire, was secretly wincing inside as he gazed out on the gathered crowd in the island arena. He was seated in the most lavish section of the arena which was solely reserved for members of the imperial family and their honored guests.
In front of him was a huge fighting stage that had currently been separated up into ten smaller stages. The graduation tournament for the Sea Empire’s spiritualists was about to begin, but this was not the reason Argus was feeling apprehensive. He glanced over at the young girl seated next to him. She was the only daughter of this nation’s emperor and, as far as Argus was considered, the girl was practically an angel; her smile was sweetness itself and her silver-blue hair and softly tanned made her look like an exotic fairy. Even her temperament was befitting of a divine being.
Granted, Lady Arowana was a bit young – soon to be fourteen – but compared to the Nightingale kid. . . . A shudder ran down Argus’ back.
‘What is mother thinking?’ he grumbled inwardly as he waved to a group of young women who had been staring for quite a while now. His off-handed wave caused the women to break out in bashful giggles before they quickly scurried off, their faces pink.
“My, aren’t you a charmer.”
“Huh?” Argus had been too wrapped up in his mother’s ridiculous suggestion to register what had been said. With an apologetic smile, he turned is attention to the angel-like girl by his side. “What did you say, Lady Arowana?”
The girl giggled lightly, her laughter sounding serene in comparison to the other women’s. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say that you – Sky Prince Argus Bateleur – are nervous about something. . . . Feeling apprehensive about meeting a certain someone perhaps?”
Lady Arowana gave him a playful wink and Argus snorted, missing the slightly conflicted emotions in the girl’s aquamarine eyes.
“What is there to be nervous about? Whatever my mother has promised her, Lady Nightingale is still a Sky Empire citizen. If I order her to do something, she must comply – even if that order is to leave me alone.”
Lady Arowana gave him an odd look, mirroring the doubt Argus felt at his own words. His mother was, despite her amicable appearance, not easy to deal with and she almost always got what she wanted. It was no real secret that while Emperor Mallard held the throne, few decision would be made without first getting the Empress quiet consent.
The last time Argus had spoken to her, his mother had insisted that he should ‘take good care of young Lady Nightingale’ and that a ‘girl of her caliber was very rare’. Argus was no idiot and knew his mother well; she might as well have ordered him to consider the girl as his betrothed on the spot.
Argus couldn’t help but shudder again; the girl was only ten! Plus, judging by the fact that she had managed to stay hidden as a boy for over five years, it had to mean that neither her appearance nor temper was very lady-like. . . . Argus had only seen the young Lady Nightingale once before and that was back when her family was still alive. At the time, he had been too young to really care about girls and the like, but had still been impressed by how pretty and grown-up she had seemed.
Argus sighed. How much hadn’t the little girl been forced to change, just to survive. . . . He definitely pitied her, but to marry because of it was out of the question!
“Well, am glad you feel that way, Sky Prince, because here she comes.” Arowana whispered in Argus’ ear right before she bounced off from her chair and rushed to the entrance of the closed-off section they were seated in. “Raven,” she called happily, embracing someone roughly her own height. “You came!”
“How could we not, when your attendant asked so nicely?”
The voice that replied was cold and while it clearly belonged to a young girl, there was this odd, suppressing air to it. Argus leaned forward in his chair to get a better look, but Arowana’s wide dress blocked his view. All he could see was the surprisingly vigorous boy whom Argus barely recognized as Javelin Hake, standing protectively behind whomever Arowana was pampering.
‘Wait, Javelin Hake . . . and what did Lady Arowana say, just before?’ Argus had a bad premonition.
“Oh, Raven, I love your sense of humor! So dark and sarcastic,” Arowana laughed melodically. “Come, I have someone to introduce you to, or well, ‘introduce’ might not be the right word for it. . . .”
Argus watched as Lady Arowana turned around on the spot, her silver-blue braids falling over her shoulders as she moved. Pulling her companion behind her, she walked all the way up to Argus’ side before finally stepping aside, revealing the pale-skinned youth behind her.
“Sky Prince Bateleur, let me present one of your future prefecture lords, Lady Raven Nightingale and her companion, Javelin Hake – son of Admiral Hake, whom I know you already know.”
Argus stared, wide-eyed, at the young girl in front of him. How could anyone ever have believed that she was a guy!? Her skin was pale as ivory, her midnight-purple hair long and braided to perfection. She was wearing the same navy blue robes that all Sea Academy students wore, but on her they looked anything but ordinary – they looked . . . regal.
Forest-green irises met his gaze, holding profound wisdom he’d previously only seen in his uncle’s eyes, and although Raven Nightingale was shorter than him, Argus had a distinct feeling of being small in her presence.
Was she a beauty? Definitely, but if Arowana was an angel, then Lady Nightingale was a devil; strong and seducing.
“Lady Nightingale greets Crown Prince Argus Bateleur,” the girl said with an elegant and deep curtsy.
Argus blinked. What was he thinking? She was only a kid!
“Greetings, Lady Nightingale,” Argus forced out with a cough as he got to his feet. “It is nice to finally meet you again. My mother has told me much about you . . . and what you’ve been through.”
An odd look of – was it amusement? – flashed across Raven’s green eyes, but before Argus could properly place it, both Javelin and Arowana had stepped in between them.
“Come now, Prince Argus,” Arowana said with an adorable pout on her face. “I called Raven here to watch the tournament with us – Javelin too, until it is time for his fights. Let us not talk about such sad things!”
“My apologies, Lady Arowana,” Argus said, not being able to stop himself from smiling towards the girl’s sweet face. “I shall leave all talking until later,” he assured, gesturing to four empty seats behind him.
His sentiment was clear and Arowana’s pout quickly turned into a smile. She merrily pulled at Raven’s arm, getting her to sit down next to her in the two middle seats. Before Argus even had a chance to consider where he was going to sit, Javelin had taken the other seat on Raven’s side. Argus wasn’t really surprised by this behavior though; he had long since heard the rumors about the boy’s wish to call off his engagement to Arowana, as well as the supposed reason behind it.
Argus didn’t really have the opportunity to consider what he thought of this though because at that moment, there was finally some movement on the stage below. An elderly man whom Argus recognized as one of the Sea Emperor’s attendants had walked out and, with a booming voice, he explained the rules of the upcoming tournament.
Usually the Sea Emperor himself would do this, but since the competition had been made larger, the emperor would not be present for all three days of the tournament. After all, it was the graduates’ fights that would be most interesting. Looking around the arena, it was clear that the emperor wasn’t alone in his opinion since many seats were still left empty.
Despite this, the cheers when the elderly attendant declared the beginning of the tournament were simply deafening. Quickly, the first batch of twenty students took the stage, with pairs heading for their assigned sections in an orderly fashion. These were about a third of the students who had been sixth-graders while the graduates had yet to leave their academies. Javelin Hake belonged to this group too, but, since he was an advanced student from Sea Academy, he had a seeded spot in the tournament and wouldn’t be fighting until the seventy-something children from the other academies had been narrowed down to roughly six participants.
As expected, there were a couple of taunts thrown into the air by participants and audience members alike, before a loud gong rang out, indicating that the students had fifteen minutes to defeat their opponent. At once, spirit essence started to flow like crazy around the students on stage as they valiantly charged forward. The majority of the kids fighting were low Adepts, with some high Novices and some mid Adepts mixed in among them. By Imperial Academy standards, this wasn’t much to brag about, but the mid Adepts were actually rather skilled for their age.
After all unseeded sixth grade representatives had fought once, they were allowed to rest for a while, whilst the seventh graders took over. The quality leap in spirit essence wasn’t very large, but there were clear improvements in how the older students used the spirit essence they had at hand, making the fights a bit more interesting to watch.
“He’s actually pretty good,” commented Arowana and nodded towards one of the few mid Adepts representing the seventh grade. The boy in question was fighting on the stage right in front of them and was using two short swords and lightning based Divine Skills, a rather unusual combination among the Sea Empire spiritualists.
“He has some skill,” agreed Argus, before looking over the girl’s head at Raven. “Do you agree, Lady Nightingale?”
Raven only gave him a quick glance before returning her attention to the fighting stage. “Javelin,” she said, prompting the boy to speak.
“He has good control over his swords and his Divine Skills work in his favor, but he prefers his right foot too much,” Javelin analyzed and then gestured to a stage further away. “The high Novice over there is a harder opponent; he wastes no spirit essence whatsoever, and every opening he shows seems deliberate.”
Surprised, Argus turned his attention to the high Novice in question and quickly found that Javelin’s insights had been spot on. While he himself had overlooked the kid due to his low cultivation, Javelin had not fallen to prejudice. Impressed, Argus looked back at the admiral son with new eyes.
“Never underestimate the underdog,” Raven suddenly said with an enigmatic smile. In the next moment, the high Novice stepped in really close to his opponent and, a heartbeat later, the latter lay on his back – defeated.
“Well said, Raven! Well said!” Arowana giggled happily, looking very pleased. Argus smiled a bit pitifully at the two girls. He had been informed about Arowana’s secret intentions for this tournament and couldn’t help but feel a bit bad for the girl.
He could very much relate to the wish of wanting to choose your own husband or wife, but while it was true that underestimating your opponent could be deadly, there was just no way that Javelin Hake could win the entire tournament as a high Adept. Sure, he had heard rumors about Arowana’s uncle – who supposedly could defeat even mid champions while himself still being a peak Adept – but the man was by all means considered a battle legend. There was just no way for a teenager to have that sort of fighting experience.
However, Argus chose to keep quiet about his scruples. He saw no reason to shatter their dreams when they would find out on their own soon enough.
For nearly four hours, the one-on-one battles continued and by noon, most people had been eliminated from the tournament. Food and drinks had been served in the private section that Argus and his companions were seated in, so they ate and talked while they watched the tournament that was growing more intense by the minute.
“Javelin,” Raven suddenly said without taking her eyes of the handful battles still going on in front of her.
“Yes,” answered Javelin after a moment’s silence and, with a face filled with determination, the boy got up from his seat and left.
“Javelin?” Arowana looked at the parting boy in confusion and then turned to Raven, seemingly worried. “Is he going to get ready for his fights? Are you not going to wish him luck?”
Raven gave the girl a sidelong glance. “No need,” she said as she turned her attention back to the stage. “He knows my sentiments.”
A wide smile spread on Arowana’s face. “So romantic!” the girl practically squealed as she snuggled up against Raven. In his seat, Argus rolled his eyes. ‘Girls. . . .’ he thought with a shrug, but at the same time he couldn’t help but be a bit impressed by the way Javelin and Raven interacted.
They had said very little to each other during the few hours he had been with them, and yet, they seemed to be very in-sync. On several occasions they passed each other food and drink without asking, and when they did talk, they always seemed to understand what the other wanted to know with very few words.
“Ouch,” Argus yanked back his hand after a stabbing pain seared through it. He looked down to see four red pricks on his skin – markings from the prongs of a fork no doubt.
“You shouldn’t stare at other’s things,” Arowana hissed angrily, somehow still managing to sound cute. “It’s rude.”
“So is calling people ‘things’,” Raven offhandedly commented as she popped a red berry into her mouth – seemingly unfazed by Arowana’s pronged attack against her nation’s future ruler.
“I wasn’t. . . .” started Argus angrily, but the two girl’s both turned their heads towards him at the same time, giving him blank looks. Argus quickly found himself conceding. “My apologies, ladies,” he muttered.
At once, Arowana’s face bloomed into a sweet smile. “You’re forgiven,” she said, leaning over, while Raven just resumed her observations of the ongoing tournament.
Below, the final fights of the current round were coming to an end. Soon it would be time for the first Sea Academy students to make their appearance, but Argus wasn’t really paying attention at the moment.
‘Why did they suddenly become so united against me?’ he wondered privately as he rubbed his still stinging hand. He felt quite wronged!