As soon as the sentence was spoken, Javelin’s body stiffened. Slowly turning his head, Javelin already knew which face would great him, but that didn’t stop him from hoping he was wrong. He wasn’t; walking towards them was none other than Limpkin, the master assassin of Sky City’s Assassin Guild.
Contrary to the man’s customary black robes, Limpkin now wore the traditional sea-green robes that marked him as a member of the Sea Empire nobility. He seemed so different from usual that, had it not been for his characteristically grey-blue hair and eyes, Javelin might not even have recognized him. What’s more, as Javelin looked from his current fiancée to the smiling Limpkin, he couldn’t help but feel a bit foolish; with such rare eyes and hair, the family bond should have been obvious to him, even though the pair looked so different in other aspects.
Then again, the Emperor’s brother was known as Lord Pelecus and had, just like all other imperial heirs, been required to earn his title on his own. However, Lord Pelecus had never held any aspirations on the throne and had instead chosen to leave the nation to roam the world. This relieved quite a deal of pressure and worry from his older brother, the current Emperor, who could claim the throne uncontested.
Consequentially, very few knew how the man looked or even his true name. The Emperor had nonetheless made sure that his people knew of his younger brother’s martial prowess, earning ‘Lord Pelecus’ a formidable reputation. Naturally, the details of where and why hadn’t been given, but the fact that Limpkin could defeat people of a higher cultivation than himself without any formal training was impressive enough.
“Uncle!” Arowana happily sprung to her feet and gave the 30-or-so-year-old man a big hug. “You have been gone so long – how cruel of you to not come visit me as soon as you returned!”
“Forgive me, little niece,” Limpkin smiled sheepishly. “I have been gone so long that I got lost.”
Arowana giggled sweetly; she didn’t seem convinced, but neither did she seem to care for the truth. “Uncle, let me introduce you to the crown prince of the Sky Empire, Argus Bateleur.” She indicated towards Argus. “Sky Prince, this is my father’s half-brother Bival Limpkin Pelecus – he has been living in your empire off and on for the past twenty years or so.”
The appropriate greetings were exchanged, but before Argus could inquire more about Limpkin’s confounding past, the latter moved on, heading for Raven. Complicated emotions arose in Javelin as he watched the man approach Raven and give her a deep bow.
“It’s been too long,” Limpkin said, giving Raven a coquettish wink.
‘Lecher!’ Javelin screamed in his mind, clenching his fists, but, thinking about it, he suddenly realized that Limpkin was actually rather close to Raven in age, years-remembered-wise at least. The notion bugged Javelin incredibly, but what bugged him even more was that Raven laughed! On the surface, it was a cold laugh, but Javelin knew Raven too well and felt her amusement at Limpkin’s presence as if it were his own – it wasn’t, though; definitely not!
“Indeed, it has been too long,” Raven agreed, her smile growing. “Tell me, Limpkin, is Emperor Mallard aware of the fact that one of his empire’s best assassins is in fact the brother of a neighboring nation’s Emperor?”
Limpkin laughed. “No more than my brother knows that the Sky Empire’s best assassin is currently only undergoing her fourth year of spiritualist training – at his old academy no less.”
“In other words, both will know before nightfall . . . if they didn’t already.” Raven chuckled, and Javelin saw her looking meaningfully at Arowana and Sky Prince Argus. The former smiled back as sweetly as ever, whilst the latter looked at Raven and Limpkin with wide eyes. Limkpin’s second identity must have been quite the shock. Moreover, it would seem that Empress Nene hadn’t told Argus all the details about Raven – or perhaps she didn’t even know all of it herself. . . .
“Surely you jest!?” the prince eventually managed to ask and Limpkin sighed.
“Alas, you have called our bluff. . . . To claim that I am one of the best in Sky City is indeed a bit of a stretch. . . . Many of my latest kills were, after all, not actually mine.” He shook his head and then paid no further attention to the flabbergasted prince. “I still can’t wrap my head around how young and beautiful you are, Singer.”
“Nor I how an Emperor’s brother can be so . . . loose,” Raven countered, also giving no further explanation of their relationship to the Sky Prince.
If Javelin hadn’t been busy being upset about Limpkin’s presence in general, he would perhaps have felt a bit bad for Argus. He had, after all, just learned that Limpkin the assassin was actually the aloof and rarely seen brother of the Sea Empire’s Emperor, and also that the infamous assassin not only knew but actually looked up to Raven Nightingale, the nine-year-old prefecture lord-to-be! Javelin could practically hear the cogs turning inside Argus’ head, but sympathy for other men was far from what Javelin was inclined to feel right now.
“I hear you’re not allowed into the tournament,” Limpkin continued, “Do you feel like blowing off some steam with me? I’ve not been defeated in a while and I think it would do wonders for my cultivation breakthrough.”
Plenty of people could see Limpkin talking intimately with Raven, but only those within the imperial viewing section could hear what was said. Even so, seeing a full-grown man – who was clearly part of the imperial family – speak so informally with a young girl caused quite a stir. Quickly, the already growing rumors about Raven were spurred on, gaining new heights.
Raven chuckled, ignoring both the crowd’s remarks and her crown prince’s disbelieving stare. “Maybe later. Both today and tomorrow I have quite the spectacle to look forward to.”
“Oh?” Limpkin raised an eyebrow, clearly intrigued. “Interesting. . . . Niece, would you give me your seat? I would like to speak some more with miss Singer here.”
Arowana was just about to respond when Javelin cut her off. “Lady Nightingale!” he barked through clenched teeth.
“Huh?” Only now did Limpkin look over at Javelin; his gaze seemed confused, but there was mocking humor there too, which he didn’t quite manage to hide. If he even wanted to.
“Her name is Lady Nightingale to you,” Javelin pushed, moving to get up on his feet, but Raven gripped his arm, forcing him to sit back down.
“Calm down, Javelin,” she cautioned in his mind. “He is the Emperor’s brother and may therefore call me – a young prefecture heir to a neighboring empire – as informally as he wishes. Besides, we might need his help later.”
Javelin clenched his jaw, but remained seated. Limpkin seemed to notice his internal struggle and laughed. “Don’t worry kid, I’m not interested in preteens; I have some morals.”
“Uncle!” Arowana chided at the same time as Javelin shot the man a murderous look. Limpkin didn’t seem to care about either reprisal, though, and instead took the seat Arowana had left free for him.
“So, what is this entertainment you have planned?” he asked.
Raven smiled coldly, choosing not to go into too much detail and just told Limpkin to wait. He seemed to have no objections to the lack of information and focused instead on explaining how he ended up in Sky Empire. It was a fascinating story – with palace intrigues, illegitimate affairs and battles for the throne that Javelin didn’t believe in for a second; the current emperor had gotten his title very peacefully this time around.
The tale was no doubt meant to inspire awe, but Javelin only felt vexed. In his mind, he could still see Limpkin and Raven swirling around like spirit whirlwind gone mad on the Combat Abyss’ fighting stage back in Sky City. The pure joy in Raven’s eyes at finding a worthy opponent had been bewitching to behold. . . .
Silently, Javelin clenched his fists until his knuckles turned white.
Seated in a dark corner of her father’s room, Canis was currently biting her nails. They had initially been perfectly formed, slightly pink and beautifully glossy, but not much remained of them now and there were even some traces of blood on several of her fingertips.
All through the night, she had heard people attempting to break into her father’s chamber – scratching at the windows, rattling doors, shifting shadows – but so far, no one had managed to make their way into the room. It had been calm for perhaps an hour or so and faint rays of sunlight seeped in through the tightly closed curtains, but Canis refused to let her guard down. As the captain of her guard, Setter had been her closest aide and she knew him well. If he had betrayed her, then there was nowhere she was entirely safe.
A loud shout came from outside the room, causing Canis’ body to twitch slightly as her sunken eyes darted towards the door. She recognized the voice – it was her healer, brought from the Earth Empire – but could she be trusted?
“Lady Tanuki,” the woman repeated, “I have a message from your father!”
Hesitating for a moment longer, Canis eventually got up from her safe corner and approached the door. She opened it just enough to let the woman outside stretch forward a small, black orb – a voice recording sent by instant delivery. Canis slammed the door shut behind her and tossed the black orb to the ground. It rolled across the room until it finally came to rest by the opposite wall. Moments later, her father’s stern voice filled the dark room.
“Canis Tanuki, I am very disappointed in you! The ambassador tells me that you have locked yourself into my room and won’t come out – and why? Because some little girl turned your loyal guards against you? Preposterous!” There was the sound of a table being slammed down on in the background. “I don’t know what’s happened over there, but it is now almost certain that both the Nightingale bitch and the Hake brat were involved in your brother’s . . . accident! Stop freaking out like some little girl and get your ass out of that room so you can avenge your own flesh and blood!” Another slam. “I leave today – don’t let me be even more disappointed in you when I arrive!”
The black orb vibrated violently before suddenly shattering; the message was over. Canis’ body shuddered and some clarity returned to her blood-shot eyes; her father was expecting things of her but looked down on her for being weak, for being female.
“Everyone is planning against me, yet I get yelled at for being cautious!? Well, I’m not weak, and I’ll prove it!” Canis cursed loudly and swirled around on the spot, instantly swinging open the doors to the hallway.
The stout Healer who had handed her the orb was still waiting outside and lit up when she saw Canis voluntarily leaving her father’s room; she looked like shit, but at least the determination and ruthless superiority in the young woman’s gaze were as the Healer was used to.
“Let’s go!” Canis commanded and headed straight towards the Ambassador Mansion’s own docks, the Healer making haste to follow close behind.
“She is here,” Hoatzin suddenly informed Raven via their mental link, just as the first batch of eliminating matches had concluded. “Canis just arrived at the dock nearest to the capital, together with a Healer and a few people from the Earth Empire Embassy.”
“How does she seem to you?” Raven asked and after a moment’s pause – no doubt from Hoatzin flying in closer for a better look – came the reply: “Hung over and high-strung.”
Raven smiled and told her brother to stay with Canis, before leaning over so that she could whisper into Limpkin’s ear. “If you want to see the spectacle up close, then I suggest you invite Canis Tanuki here.”
Limpkin raised a quizzical eyebrow, but he had spent enough time sparring with Raven to know her temperament rather well. With a quirky smile forming on his lips, Limpkin asked one of the attendants to summon Canis as his guest.
While they waited, Raven glanced at Javelin. She could feel his discontent and growing unease. Raven knew it was because of Limpkin, but told herself there was little she could do about it – the man had more right to be there than any of them.
Time ticked on and Canis still didn’t arrive, but while Limpkin considered her rude, Raven – and even the sulking Javelin – found themselves hard-pressed not to laugh at Hoatzin’s descriptive narration of what was holding her up. Apparently, Canis didn’t trust that the attendant was who he said he was and she had required definite proof of his identity before reluctantly agreeing to follow him.
Once she arrived, Raven saw for herself the weary look in the girl’s eyes and smiled coldly. They weren’t bloodshot nor sunken – the Healer had most likely taken care of that – but mental fatigue was near impossible to cure, or hide for that matter.
“Have a seat, miss Tanuki,” Limpkin instructed, sounding more regal than he had so far. “I was told this year’s graduation tournament was rather extraordinary, but I am fairly unimpressed so far. I figured you might care to join us and offer some further insight, from a foreigner’s perspective.
Had Canis been at her best, she would no doubt have managed to indifferently do as she was told – take a seat and converse politely about the ongoing battles – but she was far from her peak condition. Instead, she glared viciously at Raven and Javelin, her hate and killing intent so apparent that even a fool wouldn’t have missed it.
Lady Arowana and Crown Prince Argus both showed some brief surprise at the young woman’s obvious declaration of war, but they were well-versed in politics, so they quickly hid it. Limpkin merely raised an eyebrow and glanced at the guards standing further back, indicating for them to stay where they were.
A good while later, Canis managed to break off her murderous glare and sat down on an empty seat behind Raven and Javelin. She did her best to act normal, but failed miserably.
“I see what you mean,” whispered Limpkin to Raven. “This could get interesting.”
‘You don’t know the half of it,’ thought Raven, a glimmer of red flashing past her eyes.