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King of the Sky

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As per usual, when they return to Phoenicis, Reyson immediately begin his restless pacing. It is market day and Tibarn tries to return to his duties seamlessly, but Reyson has a harder time of letting go of their visit to Goldoa.

“Why would Naesala rile against you like that?”

Tibarn likes the idea of playing unknowing, because that is a subject he’d rather not use words to express. Though Reyson, for good and ill, lays much of his energy on getting to the bottom of things, and Tibarn knows better than to play a silent game with him.

“Naesala chooses his enemies poorly”, Tibarn states, but he does not stray his eyes away from the market – this is where his hawks gather, and he wants them to feel safe. “The old raven has not changed in all the years I’ve known him. I’m aware that he’ll wag his tongue to feel important, and he’s aware that I can punch the heart out of him if he steps out of line. I know you think of him as a friend, but I have not had that… privilege.”

Reyson sighs and fiddles with his sleeves. “I know, I know—but I still don’t understand the change he’s gone through. It did not matter where I came from before a few years ago, every time I came to visit him he’s never once been rude. To listen to him brook insults at you, insults you do not deserve— I will not stand for it!”

“You seem far more offended by this than I”, Tibarn states. Because to him, this offense is just one of many stacked onto a pile of foul-smelling bones to pick with Kilvas.

“Let me talk to him”, Reyson pleads. “If I could get him to stop being a thorn in your side… You’d have one less trouble weighing on your mind.”

Tibarn understands the restlessness, and he knows Reyson always have a pressing need to be of use despite his lack of sturdiness. There are hawks with the same build as him, but they’re also content with carving and gathering and guarding – Reyson is a prince, through and through.

And yet, the thought of him leaving on his own was not a pretty one. It’s ironic how no other place in the entire world is safe, except the gaping, cruel cliffs of Phoenicis.

“I’d rather you didn’t cross the waters on your own”, he finally answers Reyson. “Not with this unrest. I will follow the other kings’ advice, and stay out of both human and raven business for now, but that means I cannot make the waters beyond any safer. These islands are mine to protect. That includes you. If any of the human nations were to decide to turn on Kilvas or Phoenicis the way they did Serenes while you’re gone, I think you know I cannot be at two places at once.”

“But I can take care of myself in a skirmish!” Reyson’s voice carry over the market, and some hawks turn their head to look at him, before they shrug like they think ‘it’s just Reyson shouting again’ and walks on.

Tibarn does not say anything, because whatever his word choice may be in objecting to that statement Reyson would take great offense, and still not heed his advice. Better to spare them both that pain.

“It’s just the Ravens”, Reyson go on, all the more hastily like he’s trying to justify this to himself more than he’s trying to convince Tibarn. “It’ll take a day, not more!”

Tibarn looks at him sternly. “I care for your wellbeing, Reyson. Please heed me when I ask you to stay.”

Reyson does not answer, but Tibarn can see it in his eyes. Reyson is not very good at taking a ‘no’.

He knows the rules of the islands – those who want to leave can leave whenever they feel like it, and come back welcome so long as they haven’t done anything traitorous. The Protector may be called a ‘king’ or ‘queen’, but they have no right to use that power to force any hawk to obedience like the humans’ orders have it. Reyson’s an adult and can do as he wants. That’s all there is to it.

So, when the heron prince is gone the following day, Tibarn doesn’t go after him. Not that it sits right with him to know he’s probably bad-mouthing Naesala in his own home, if he hasn’t drowned on the way there – but he stands true to what he said the day before. He cannot leave his island vulnerable, at least not over this. Reyson will be back, one way or another.

But another day passes. Then another. Then a week.

Tibarn sits on the top of one of the uninhabitable spiral mountains, his feet a feather’s width from a plunge to oblivion (or ‘a minor inconvenience’, same thing, really). He watches the horizon, frustratingly unbroken. There hasn’t been a single ship in his waters, and the calm is getting on his nerves.

A pair of light brown wings flap into his vision, and he nods to acknowledge them as the approaching hawk shifts.

“You know”, Janaff greets him, “in my youth, I met such a strange little nestling right here on this spot.”

Tibarn smiles at him. “I cannot imagine who.”

“I hope that kid is doing well.” Janaff sits down. “He seems to be a little bit weighed down by a lot of things.”

“I’m not fond of being in the dark”, Tibarn admits, scratching his ear. “There’s no news, then?”

“Well…” Janaff bobs his head and bites a nail. “I have not seen anything suspicious, apart from the Kilvas manor being completely empty – and even getting a glimpse of that place is hard because some ravens don’t take it well that I’m hanging around, you know.” He shows off a fresh tear on his arm, but then snaps his fingers. “Ulki’s got some interesting tales, on the other hand. He’s caught the royal geezer, Nealuchi, whimpering and muttering to himself about Reyson, and I can confirm that the old bastard is walking on eggshells and preparing a journey. Something about that is telling both of us that the prince isn’t out on some vacation.”

Ever since the flames of Serenes, there’s been a place room for deep and complete darkness within Tibarn. Such fury is usually reserved for the humans that would raise their bows against his shipless crew, but now it spreads from the very center of him and all the way to his fingertips.

“The blasted raven knows he’s under my protection”, Tibarn says, and it comes out like a growl at the back of his throat. “I care nothing for peace if he’s harmed one of us.”

Janaff has no time for answer, before Ulki sweeps down to join them.

“Ocean scouts have spotted a raven”, he says. “A very gray one.”

Tibarn narrows his eyes. “That wouldn’t be the old geezer Naeluchi, would it? Speak of the demons, and they appear.”

Ulki doesn’t fold his wings, ready to take off again. “I believe it is him, but he’s alone. Naesala is usually with him. Maybe this is just a messenger.”

Janaff cracks his knuckles. “If he isn’t, we’ll make him one by beating answers out of him. Right, Tibarn?”

Tibarn gets to his feet. He wants to say yes, but keeps it contained. “If the royal raven nanny crosses the ocean alone, there’s clearly something he wants to tell us. But prepare for it to be a trap. Assemble all of Phoenicis to the great caves! We’ll give the old bird a welcome befit of his kind.”

 

---

 

Nealuchi is bent and crooked enough as it is, but in the halls of the hawks, he shrinks so far down he might as well be crawling on the floor.

“Is that it?” Tibarn rumbles, and there are whispers through the caves. He does not care how many of his people choose to attend this gathering; he is not one to keep secrets.

Nealuchi has only had time to gasp out a few coherent sentences, but it is enough for Tibarn. It is more than enough. Reyson is in Begnion, in the grubby hands of human scum that would dare to hold him captive—

“Wait, there's more!” Nealuchi croaks. “The prince—the prince has escaped Duke Tanas’ villa, and last I heard he’s taken refuge in Serenes—but the Duke has sent his men to fetch him back—and oh, it is a disaster, a disaster for all bird tribe… We have not a moment to waste!”

The old raven looks like nothing more than a dark puddle on the rocks at this point, but the puddle still speaks.

“Please, O king of hawks! Reach out your mighty talons, strike down these wretched humans, and rescue Prince Reyson. I implore you, Your Majesty, take wing at once!”

Tibarn has never minded flattery when such compliments are deserved and spoken by an equal, but bootlicking, he instantly realizes, is very different. And disgusting.

“If it concerns you so”, he grumbles, “why is Naesala himself not here?

“That...er... His Highness must not be seen here at this time... It's—“ The old raven yelps as Tibarn picks him up by the wings, forcing him to look him in the eye.

“It's all very complicated...” he peeps, wise enough not to fight the hold.

“I care not for excuses”, Tibarn says, and it takes all his restraint not to shake Nealuchi. “If anything happens to Reyson, blood will be spilled.”

The assembled hawks around them let hear their agreement, fists in the air and wings tense.

“Oh, no”, Nealuchi squeals and waves his arms in some sort of protest. “Please! There's no cause for worry. Duke Tanas treats his works of art with a delicacy so extreme that it could best be called...abnormal. He would never let any harm befall Prince Reyson....He probably can't even bring himself to touch him. The king himself told me so. That is the only reason he accepted this proposal—“

Ulki is the quickest to cut in. “Proposal?”

Nealuchi turns deathly pale, and does not add anything else except for some incoherent stammering.

“Hold it!” Janaff seethes, stepping forwards with a finger of accusation a feather away from Nealuchi’s eyes. Tibarn lets it happen. Every single heart in this cave is hammering with fury for Reyson’s sake, and it is not right to leave them out of it. “You crows set the prince up?!

“S-set up? Set up? Oh, no, no! Well...not exactly. Um...” The assembled hawks slip closer, flocking around the raven like he’s nothing but pray, and Nealuchi curls himself up in a ball. “Please don't hurt me!”

Pleads do not reach Tibarn. He lifts Nealuchi higher, unable to withhold his anger.

“So that's the truth of it, eh?” Tibarn roars. “Naesala treated Reyson—one of us—like a piece of merchandise and sold him, to a human! Like a trinket!”

Every hawk in the hall is as wild with anger as he is at the audacity, and all Nealuchi can do is crawl into an even smaller ball and whimper a series of ‘oh dear’s.

Tibarn fans his wings out and raises a hand.

“Brothers, sisters!” he calls into the cave, “stay your talons! I do not need the help of a mob to break an old sack of bones, should I wish for him to break!”

The crowd answers with cheers and calls – they may want to see blood, but they know the call is ultimately his to make. Is the raven a threat the Protector needs to eliminate, or not?

Tibarn takes his duty seriously. There’s no use in killing this bird – it’d do nothing but worsen what is already a political chaos.

Nealuchi is not catching up on that signal, however. He’s still trying to hide, hanging from his wings.

“Please don’t hurt me”, he repeats. “I… I didn’t know, His Highness keeps much to himself, but he wanted to save Reyson himself as soon as the payment was done, I cannot imagine anything else—“

“Claiming ignorance does not grant you innocence”, Tibarn shoots back. Say what he likes about Reyson’s talent for words, it has most definitely rubbed off on him after twenty years. “Your king can fall and drown for all I care, but Reyson trusted him! Naesala spit on that trust, and I cannot forgive it!”

“Goes to show that no crow is a friend to us”, Janaff scoffs.

“I hear you well, young hawk”, Nealuchi peeps – he’s relaxed his protective stance a little bit, but his eyes are still wide. “But our nation has… its own issues.”

“Like that’s news”, another hawk scoffs from the front lines of the mob.

Nealuchi cringes slightly at the aggression. He’s come here expecting to die, Tibarn can tell. Suppose that makes him braver than most ravens, then.

“P-please”, he stammers. “This is not the time to yell at a tired old man. The humans, they’re— You must hurry to Prince Reyson’s side. Once he’s safe, you can tear me limb from limb if you wish, but please, go to him, please!”

“This begging is unseemly and unwanted”, Tibarn says and lowers Nealuchi back down on the cave floor. “But you’re right in one thing—we’re done here. Return to Kilvas or wherever your accursed king resides, and tell him that when this is over and Reyson is safe, King Tibarn of Phoenicis will be paying him a visit.”

Nealuchi is about to start another series of ‘y-yes, oh thank you, o king of—‘ but he’s not allowed to finish. Tibarn throws him, and he wobbles in the air before he regains control of his wings and flaps desperately out of the cave, and toward the horizon.

Janaff, his feathers evening out, sighs and leans back a little. “I know he deserves it”, he mutters. “But in hindsight I kind of feel bad for badgering the old coot.”

“Is there a plan of action?” Ulki asks, his arms crossed. As usual, he speaks when there is silence around him.

Tibarn doesn’t think there is much ‘planning’ to do, so he does not bother forming an answer.

“Ylva!” he shouts instead.

The former queen and protector is there, just as he’d known she’d be, and she steps forth, polishing her wings in a comfortable, relaxed manner. She knows exactly how to appear perfectly capable, even at her age.

“Can I entrust you with protecting this island as you once have, while I’m not here to do so?” Tibarn asks.

The late queen grins at him. “I may be just as old as that raven, but it will be a while yet before you can take me by the wings and throw me, young King.”