Flight of the Five Swans

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Fate Chapter 28

Ayden

For the first time, Ayden regretted his position sitting behind Svana on the horse’s back, as he couldn’t see her face at all. He knew that she had been surprised when the townspeople had referred to him as “Your Highness” when they had passed, and to be perfectly honest, he had no clue how he would go about explaining why he had kept that particular subject to himself for the past several days.

In fact, he didn’t rightly know himself what his initial motivation had been for keeping his identity—or his title, at least—a secret. Perhaps suspicion? After all, he had found her travelling alone in the forest close to the border, with only a couple of pet swans for protection.

‘Overprotection, more like.’ Ayden thought to himself, ruefully picturing the many bruises that he had accumulated over the last several days as a result of the swans’ vicious bites.

But while he may have initially suspected Svana and her pet swans to have some nefarious purpose for travelling from Deturus into Ithcar, this fear had not lasted long. The longer he accompanied her on the road, the more Ayden had become convinced that the only thing that she sought in coming to Ithcar was help—though he did not know for what. And the more time Ayden spent with her, the more he wanted to be the one to help her.

Which might have become even more difficult, now she had found out that he had been lying to her about his identity—or at least, withholding the truth.

Ayden nodded cordially to the guards who greeted him at the entrance to the palace. Erol and Jarryd were both friends from Ayden’s childhood, having been among those to tutor him in the art of swordplay as a boy. In fact, Ayden knew many of the guards by name, as well as the majority of the servants who worked in the palace. As a child, Ayden had been encouraged to mingle with the palace staff with the expectation that he would report any hint of sedition overheard to his grandfather, King Mikal—though Ayden never actually did. A most suspicious and paranoid ruler, the now late King Mikal had not been known for his mercy. Following Mikal’s death and the ascension of his son—Naaman, Ayden’s father—to the throne barely two years prior, the genuine friendships that Ayden had cultivated as a child had finally been allowed to blossom openly and genuinely. Though strict in many ways, Naaman was also considered to be a just ruler, and was far less paranoid than his father had been.

Reining Undertow to a stop in the middle of the courtyard, Ayden dismounted and then turned to help Svana down from the saddle as well. He marveled at how natural the action felt, especially seeing as how he had not been allowed to touch her—or even approach her—for the first two days of their acquaintance. Her swans had seen to that.

He looked up at the birds now, grinning as he saw them all circling and preparing to land. Despite everything, Ayden felt a certain softness towards Svana’s pets. He didn’t blame them, really, for their protectiveness. If anything, he found it to be endearing, almost…human.

And they did appreciate good music.

There was a small ruckus in the courtyard as the swans descended. A number of people rushed to move out of the way of the large, flapping white wings. Ayden glanced down at Svana, and saw that her eyes were wide and frightened. She barely seemed to notice her beloved pet swans as she looked at the bustling people around her, and at the palace towering over her. Clearly, the girl was not used to seeing such grandeur.

Ayden placed a calming hand on her arm, and Svana’s anxious gaze fixed on him.

“Come.” He told her gently. “I’ll show you to a room where you can…ready yourself to face my father.”

Svana’s eyes widened even more, if that was possible. Ayden could have bitten his tongue clean off. Why hadn’t he told her before—warned her—that he was the prince? She seemed overwhelmed and intimidated by everything now, even him.

He gestured to several servants to approach. They did so eagerly, grinning as they stared between him and Svana. Ayden’s mouth quirked to the side, amused. Knowing the staff as he did, he had no doubt that rumors would soon be flying around the palace about the strangely-dressed girl that he had brought home with him. He knew that he would have a lot of questions to field that evening from several of the servants.

Not to mention from his mother, Queen Melani.

Ayden felt Svana’s arm shake almost unperceptively as he spoke to the servants.

“I will show the lady to the west corridor guest chambers,” he said. “If you would please see that the proper garments are delivered to that chamber, so that Lady…Svana can address the king as soon as possible.” Ayden hesitated at her name, only just remembering that it was not, in fact, her real name. He mentally kicked himself for not pressing Svana to tell him her actual name that morning; he had a feeling that, had he remembered to ask, she just might have written it down for him at last. Now, it would be more difficult—and awkward—to explain his ignorance to his parents.

Ayden shrugged it off, and then nodded his head towards Svana’s swan companions. “Oh, and please show the lady’s…retinue…to the castle gardens. I’m sure that they will enjoy the sizable lake back there.”

Ayden did not stick around to see the servants’ reactions to this strange request. Tugging Svana gently forward, he mounted the steps to show her to her chambers. Svana glanced behind her at her swans, her expression alarmed. Ayden patted her arm reassuringly.

“Don’t worry.” He told her. “They’ll be fine in the gardens. In fact, I’m sure they will be more than happy there. And you can visit them just as soon as you’ve seen the king—it’s custom not to keep him waiting too long.”

Ayden left Svana in her new chambers with the promise to send someone to fetch her directly once she was ready to greet the king. He then hurried to his father’s chambers, thinking to prepare the king for the subsequent meeting as well. He was determined to ensure that it would go as smoothly as possible.

Knocking lightly on the door, Ayden entered his parents’ bedchamber with the same anxious anticipation as he always felt. His worry faded, however, at the sight of his mother sitting upright in her bed. Queen Melani’s face was tired, but her eyes were clear save for only a hint of pain. She was clearly having a good day.

Sitting in his usual position at his wife’s bedside, King Naaman rose to his feet on seeing Ayden enter through the doorway. Relief filled his face at the sight of his son.

“Son!” he exclaimed, striding over to the door and embracing the prince. “We’d been wondering where you’d got to!”

Queen Melani beckoned to the two men to come closer to her bed so that she could grasp Ayden’s hand with her own. Her voice was surprisingly strong for her appearance, with a hint of the same humor that Ayden had inherited. “You see, Naaman? I told you there was nothing to fear!”

Naaman let out a dry laugh.

“‘Just a couple days,’ you’d said! It’s been a week, at least!” He held his son by the shoulders. “Did you run into trouble? Get lost? You are your mother’s son, after all.”

Queen Melani laughed at that as well. Ayden’s sense of direction was the best in the kingdom—yet another trait that he had inherited from her, in fact. However, the king’s skills at navigation were a different story, not to mention a poorly kept secret.

Ayden smiled and shook his head at the two of them. “Nothing like that.” He said. “I just…I got tied up as an…escort of sorts.”

Queen Melani cocked her head to the side and looked at her son. Despite being bedridden for the last decade or so, her eyes had lost none of their sharpness; they missed very little.

“Escort?” she asked. “To whom?”

Ayden hesitated slightly. “I met her close to the Deturian border. I believe her to be Deturian, as well.”

An appraising look came into the queen’s eyes at Ayden’s use of the feminine pronoun. The king, however, seemed to consider the nationality of their visitor to be more relevant.

“Deturian?” he mused curiously. “We have no quarrel with Deturus. Our citizens have always travelled freely across the border there. Has she a specific purpose for coming here?”

“I…don’t know.”

At this, both Naaman’s eyebrows shot up. “Don’t know?” he asked his son, surprised. “Hasn’t she said? Haven’t you asked?”

Ayden shook his head. “She’s mute.”

Queen Melani let out a tiny sigh of commiseration. Ayden was encouraged at this sign of compassion, so similar to his own feelings in regards to Svana’s situation.

“She has been shown to the west corridor chamber.” He said, addressing both of his parents, but keeping his eyes fixed on his mother’s. “I believe her to have been travelling a great while, all alone.”

Queen Melani seemed to understand exactly what Ayden was trying to say. Her eyes softened, and her expression became knowing.

Naaman huffed, considering. “I suppose I can send for a scroll and quill when she presents herself.”

Ayden shrugged noncommittally. “Thus far, she has refused to write anything down. I’m not entirely sure she can.”

The king’s brow furrowed at this new complication. Ayden watched with a slightly anxious expression as his father began to pace the room a bit. He stopped and faced the prince one more. “Have you at least found out her name?” he asked.

Ayden coughed slightly, embarrassed that the question had arisen so soon, before he could remedy his ignorance.

“Well, I’ve been calling her Svana.” He told his parents.

“Svana?” His mother sounded curious. “That’s a lovely name. But is it not her own?”

Again, Ayden shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know.” He said. “I don’t think so. I named her that because when I met her, she was travelling with…swans. Five of them. I’ve asked for them to be shown to the pond in the gardens.”

Ayden thought that if his parents’ faces became any more surprised, their eyebrows would disappear forever into their hairlines. King Naaman opened his mouth several times as if to speak, but seemed to be at a loss as to what to say. Finally, he seemed to come to a decision.

“Well.” He said at last. “I’ll send for the quill all the same. If she can write enough to answer our questions, so much the better. If not…” he shrugged, and then exited the room, kissing his wife on the forehead before leaving.

Ayden made to leave as well, thinking to be present at the meeting between his father and Svana, so as to provide the girl with a familiar and friendly face. He also noticed with a slight hint of alarm that tiny lines had appeared between his mother’s eyebrows—a sure indication that the ever-present pain with which she dealt was worsening once more. He kissed her forehead as his father had done, feeling the slight heat of fever and the saltiness of sweat on his lips as they made contact with her skin. Making a mental note to send the court physician to his mother’s chamber, Ayden strode across the room to leave.

“Ayden.”

At his mother’s voice, Ayden turned to face her once more, his hand resting on the hard wood of the door. Her voice was slightly weaker than it had been before, but the tone was as firm as ever—almost conspiratorial.

“Try to learn the girl’s name—her real name. That’s always a good first step.”

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