“Father!” Arowana quickly chided as she moved to Raven’s side. The disapproval of her father’s behavior was clear in both her face and voice. “How can you call the future Prefecture Lord of the Nightingale Prefecture a minx in front of her own Crown Prince?”
“A minx is a minx,” the Emperor replied offhandedly; “the audience doesn’t change that.”
“But Raven is my friend!” Arowana stomped her foot, her silver-blue hair bouncing wildly. “Insult her again and I won’t speak with you for a week!”
The Emperor’s eyes twitched, his face paling slightly. “No-nonsense!” he scoffed. “As if I wou-. . .”
“Two weeks!” Arowana upped the stakes.
The words Emperor Hamlet had intended to say got stuck in his throat and he paled even further. He coughed twice before obediently dropping the matter and allowing Raven and Javelin to enter the viewing section.
“Two weeks?” Raven asked Arowana once all greetings were over and they sat in their seats. A touch of amusement even reached her cold eyes.
“Having seven brothers but no sisters has its perks,” Arowana explained with a wink.
“I bet it does.” Raven smiled. Arowana might seem sweet and harmless on the surface, but Raven recognized her kind well.
The Emperor Hamlet’s fatherly love allowed Arowana to control her father on an even tighter leash than Empress Nene controlled her husband, Emperor Mallard. Meanwhile, it seemed like neither her nor Crown Prince Argus had informed anyone present about her identity as the assassin Singer. Raven suspected that Arowana was carefully taking into account what information and tactics would help her claim the throne – and when to use it to its fullest.
All this made it even more clear how strongly the Sea Empire Emperor felt about following his late father’s wishes. How come Arowana hadn’t managed to break off the marriage agreement on her own otherwise?
“How goes the tournament?” Raven asked, changing the subject and ignoring the glances that Arowana had started shooting between her and Javelin.
The sun was already high in the sky and, on the stage, only nineteen graduates remained – none of whom were Canis Tanuki. For the moment, no fighting was going on as the nineteen participants were spread across the stage, seemingly waiting for something.
“Hmm, oh, well it’s gone almost as expected.” Arowana replied a bit distractedly. “There has been no pill-popping today, and so far the lower academies’ students have actually shown great promise. However, Lady Tanuki has yet to show up so now that the seeded Sea Academy students are expected to join the fights, the tournament has been paused.” Arowana hesitated slightly. “Raven, has something happened between you and Javelin? The two of you seem . . . distant.”
Raven felt Javelin tensing next to her but she only smiled at Arowana, a subtle bitterness hidden deep in her eyes. “It’s just an old argument between friends,” she said, not entirely lying.
Javelin snorted, but said nothing.
It was clear that Arowana wanted to ask more, but, at that moment, an attendant arrived. He was escorting none other than Saint Major Hake, Javelin’s mother.
“What is your report, Saint Major?” the Emperor asked as soon as Tetra had preformed the customary courtesies.
“I’m afraid the earlier reports were accurate, Your Majesty. During the second hour of the day, Lady Canis Tanuki had a mental breakdown and attacked her own servants. She managed to kill two of them before the ambassador’s guards decided to break into her room. Another two were severely wounded when they then tried to restrain her.”
“Her current condition?”
Tetra shook her head. “I have examined her, but the damage is to her soul prism and seems to be . . . self-inflicted; whenever I manage to somewhat lessen the injuries, they reappear within seconds.”
The Emperor’s gaze turned serious. “Could this have been caused by an attack from an intruder?”
“It is possible; some of the guards reported feeling an intense sense of dread just before Lady Tanuki started screaming, but . . .” Tetra hesitated.
“Well, I contacted one of the Earth Empire Healers who are currently in charge of looking after her brother, the young master Tanuki, and the symptoms she described were basically identical to those Lady Tanuki are displaying now.”
“What are you implying?” Emperor Hamlet asked, frowning.
“Considering that the same symptoms have been found in both siblings but at different times and places . . . I believe the initial reports of an accident in the wilderness causing young master Tanuki’s mental break are false. It is more likely a . . . hereditary illness.”
Next to the Emperor, Limpkin glanced at Raven, a slight smile appearing on his lips. Meanwhile, Tetra Hake saw that the Emperor still wasn’t convinced so she continued explaining her reasoning; “I have seen similar symptoms in children who have been put through too traumatizing experiences in attempts to strengthen their souls. Perhaps . . .”
“Enough.” The Emperor suddenly cut her off. “I understand what you are trying to say, but Councillor Tanuki is on his way and should be arriving any day now. No more mention of your theories.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Tetra replied with a respectful curtsy. “What should I tell the captain of the city guards about the possible intruder?”
Emperor Hamlet was silent for a moment. “The city guards have enough on their hands and the Earth Ambassador’s own guards should be able to deal with it; let’s not interfere.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
Although the Emperor’s tone was harsh and dismissive, his words still indicated that he believed that Tetra was right and only wished to avoid a scandal. Traumatizing children to improve the strengths of their souls was a criminal offense in all three nations. Letting your children experience the world early was one thing, but the level of torture required to cause such damage as Tetra had described was something entirely different.
Tetra curtsied again and was about to leave when she caught sight of her son. She smiled widely and started wishing him luck with his upcoming challenge when her face suddenly fell. Tetra looked from Javelin to Raven and back again before finally glaring murderously at Raven.
“You-. . .”
“Mother,” Javelin interrupted, actually standing up to block his mother’s view of Raven. “Let me escort you to the messenger outpost.”
Without waiting for his mother’s response, Javelin took her arm under his and walked off.
Still in her seat, Raven watched Javelin leave, her expression unreadable. Next to her Arowana nudged an elbow into Raven. “Look at him, all protective. I guess I was really overreacting.”
Raven glanced at the smiling girl next to her but said nothing. There could be a lot of reasons for Javelin’s actions, but protecting her was surely not one of them.
Since there was no longer any reason to wait for Canis, the Emperor instructed the arena officials to start the second phase of the graduates’ battles. Naturally, Canis’ absence caused a minor uproar of murmurs to fill the arena but since the remaining graduates soon started fighting, their Divine Skills quickly made it hard to hear anything but explosions of force and wild cheers.
Raven’s face tensed slightly. There were at least twice as many people in the arena as there had been on the first day and, compared to what the lower grades managed to kick up, the spirit essence torrents the graduates caused were immense. All in all, it was more stimulation for Raven’s senses than she wanted. She could filter out the sounds and smells but not the spirit essence fluctuations that tugged at her spirit connections.
It was so bad that Raven almost didn’t notice Limpkin slipping into the seat Javelin had left vacant by her side. “The midnight Singer sings again,” he said in a low voice. “One of these days, you have to teach me this insanity-skill of yours, it seems really handy.”
Raven glanced over at Limpkin before returning her gaze towards the fighting stage.
“Oh, come on, you have had the brother of an emperor running errands for you for years. The least you can do is give me a new skill imprint.”
“I thought you were repaying your debt,” Raven replied without looking away from the stage.
Limpkin clicked his tongue. “True . . . but I did it so well.” He winked at Raven but she ignored him.
“What is your number?” she suddenly asked.
Limpkin blinked in surprise and then shrugged. “A few thousand,” he answered, not needing to ask what number she was referring to.
“Let me know when you’ve reached a few ten thousand.”
For a moment, Limpkin stared at Raven in shock before he broke out in laughter. “If you don’t want to teach me, just say so! No need to-. . . .”
The words got stuck in his throat; Raven had turned head. Her blood-red eyes were glaring emotionlessly at Limpkin, but what her eyes lacked in emotion they compensated for with bloodlust.
With a forced smile, he got up from Javelin’s chair and backed away. On his way back to his seat, Arowana must have noticed her uncle’s stiff expression because Raven heard her whisper to Limpkin that he shouldn’t take anything Raven said today to heart. “She had a fight with Javelin,” the girl explained.
Raven clenched her fists, unwilling to admit that she was more high-strung than usual.
“Brother,” she called out in her mind, opting to think about something else. “Would you mind giving the Earth Empire Ambassador’s mansion a visit? I want to know when father Tanuki arrives.”
“. . . What about Javelin’s fight? I would like to see it.”
“. . .”
“Fine, I will go,” Hoatzin agreed without further pushing but, as he spread his wings, Raven grabbed one of his legs, preventing him from taking to the air.
“Nevermind,” said Raven, rubbing her temples with her free hand. “The Emperor will likely be informed of the Councillor’s arrival before the man even sets foot in the Ambassador’s Mansion anyway. You might as well stay here and watch the show.”
Hoatzin relaxed his wings and sat back down on Raven’s shoulder. The two of them watched the fighting teenagers in silence, and even after the nineteen graduates had been reduced to five, not a word had been spoken.
“Sister?” Hoatzin suddenly probed, getting an absentminded hum in response. “Do you think I will be able to take human shape soon?”
Raven blinked, surprised by the sudden question. She looked down on the fiery red bird on her shoulder, wondering what had brought it on but, seeing his intense stare at the fighting stage, Raven smiled. Hoatzin was soon sixteen years old, yet had spent almost half of his life as a bird. Normally, he wouldn’t mention it, but how could he not yearn to become human again? To be able to fight and prove his strength just like the graduates were doing now.
“Don’t worry, big brother,” Raven comforted, ruffling the red feathers on the top of his head. “You are just a hair away from becoming a Spirit Champion, and you have been gaining more and more from the Day of Light ceremonies every year; it’s only a matter of time.”
“How much time?” Hoatzin pressed, looking up at Raven with sad eyes.
“. . . .”
What answer could she give? She didn’t know. Hoatzin needed to become a peak Champion before regaining his human form but while he would soon become a low Champion, even Raven had needed three years to go from a low Champion to a mid Champion, not to mention reaching the cultivation realm’s peak. Realistically, it would be naive to think that Hoatzin could reach his goal any time soon.
“Let’s ask Fenris about it the next time we see him,” Raven said eventually. “Perhaps he knows some way to speed up the process.”
Hoatzin snorted. “I would rather stay as a bird. I do not trust that man, Raven, and neither should you.”
Far above the arena, a little girl with silvery vulpine ears sat with crossed legs on a fluffy cloud, her equally silvery tail whipping up the cloud behind her. A mischievous smile revealed her fanged teeth as she fiddled with a set of purple rings.
On either side of her stood two brass-clad men, each with two imposing spears on their backs. Both men looked at the little girl with fear-stricken adoration.
“I wouldn’t trust him either, little birdy,” the beast-girl laughed, “but orders are orders and you will get my help, like it or not.”