Flight of the Five Swans

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Fear Chapter 2

Cliodne

“Checkmate.”

Cliodne stared at the board in consternation. Back in Kyoria, she had been the undefeated chess master since the age of six. Her sisters had long stopped trying to challenge her, and even Ty hesitated when she invited him to play. Defeat in chess was an unpleasant feeling that she had never really experienced before coming to Deturus.

Correction: She’d never experienced defeat before playing against Soran.

She blew at her bangs and glanced up at her opponent. Lord Soran tossed his white-blond hair out of his eyes and lounged in his chair, a crooked, somewhat cocky smile on his face. As eldest nephew to the as-yet unmarried Deturian king, Soran was King Einor’s heir and closest advisor. He had personally taken it upon himself to ensure that Cliodne’s stay was both comfortable and productive since her arrival at the palace nearly five months prior. In fact, it was largely due to Soran’s natural diplomacy that trade negotiations had been completed so swiftly, as Deturian custom typically did not favor fast action of any kind—though Cliodne herself would not have labeled a two-year endeavor as fast by any means. Soran had become Cliodne’s almost constant companion, escorting her on rides through the forest and outlying villages, recommending all manner of books for her to read, and thoroughly thrashing her in their now-daily chess matches.

So maybe he wasn’t entirely diplomatic after all.

Cliodne leaned back as well, mirroring Soran’s unconcerned position.

“I completely missed that knight.” She said ruefully.

Soran began replacing the chess pieces in their proper starting places on the board. “You were too distracted by the queen.” His green eyes darted up to meet Cliodne’s, holding her gaze a split second more than necessary before glancing back down at his busy hands. Cliodne cocked her head and narrowed her eyes. This wasn’t the first time she’d suspected Soran of flirting with her and to be perfectly honest, she didn’t know how she felt—nor what to do about it. Eralie had always been the romantic one, or Raia.

“And speaking of queens…” Soran began. Cliodne felt a slight twinge of panic. “Has your sister responded to our invitation yet?”

Cliodne almost laughed out loud. “Well, Eralie’s not the queen just yet, though I do believe it’s only a matter of time before Father makes it so. But I didn’t write to her, I wrote to Father. And no, I’ve no response from anyone yet.”

“Pity.”

Cliodne set to work helping Soran set up the pieces for another game. As she contemplated her first move, the door to the drawing room opened and admitted the robust figure of King Einor. Tall yet sturdy, the king of Deturus’s implacable expression concealed a heart of gold and deeply generous nature—as well as a rather wicked sense of humor. He was around her father’s age, and had been one of Kyoria’s closest allies for a number of years.

“I knew I’d find the two of you in here.” He boomed, his twinkling eyes making up for the lack of smile gracing his face. “I hope I’m not interrupting.”

Cliodne stood and curtseyed. “Not at all, your Highness. Perhaps this is my cue that I’ve humiliated myself enough for today.”

King Einor laughed, a full chortle as robust as he was. Lord Soran merely smiled, and though she knew her joke had been rather weak, Cliodne was disappointed. In five months, she had yet to hear Soran laugh. He smiled, certainly, and his smiles seemed genuine, but she had yet to see anything amuse him even to the point of chuckling.

King Einor was still chortling as he reached into his vest and handed Cliodne an envelope made of heavy parchment. Cliodne knew from where it had originated even before seeing the Kyorian royal seal stamped into the wax.

“It must be my father’s response!” she said excitedly, taking the envelope. The temptation to rip it open was great, but Cliodne refrained, calmly accepting the silver letter opener offered by King Einor.

She scanned the contents quickly, highly aware of King Einor and Soran’s gazes as she did so. A smile crossed her face.

“Father says that he can’t make it—I expected that—but my sisters would like to come!”

King Einor smiled one of his rare smiles, a clear indication that he was happy at the news. Soran seemed to hold his breath a moment, then asked her, “All of them?”

Cliodne glanced at the page again. “Well, Eralie has said she won’t be coming, but Father advises us to be prepared to welcome her all the same, as ‘things might change’.”

Lord Soran chuckled.

Cliodne started, glancing at him in surprise. King Einor didn’t seem to think anything amiss. “And welcome them, we shall!”

Soran clapped a hand onto the king’s shoulder. “I’ll send for a bottle of champagne, shall I? This is a cause for celebration!”

King Einor chuckled, “It’s a bit early for champagne, m’boy. It’s not past three.”

But Soran was not to be deterred. “A glass of wine, then, Uncle! Just enough to make a toast.” He strode over to the door to hail a servant and pass along his request. Cliodne folded her letter and tucked it into her sleeve. She would reread it more thoroughly when she was alone.

King Einor turned to Cliodne and clasped her by the shoulders. “Princess Cliodne, I want to thank you personally for all of your hard work. With this new treaty, my people will soon be clothed in the finest fabrics Kyoria has to offer, and your buildings adorned with the loveliest of our Deturian stained glass!”

Cliodne glowed at the praise, and while she knew humility was supposed to be a virtue, she couldn’t help feeling proud of their success. She had not had an easy time of it, to be sure. While Kyoria and Deturus had been allies for over a century, the exchange of goods between the two nations had always proven complicated due to the different customs of negotiation. In general, Deturians saw the citizens of Kyoria as impatient and impetuous when it came to trade, while Kyorians felt that those from Deturus were laboriously slow in decision-making. In years previous, negotiating trade agreements such as theirs had always taken a minimum of five years to complete. Yet here they were after less than two years with an agreement that pleased everyone.

Cliodne felt she had good reason to be proud.

King Einor released her and turned to stare at the chessboard and the chess pieces still waiting for the move that Cliodne would no longer be making that day. He picked up the white queen, and rubbed his finger over the face of it.

“You know, Cliodne,” he started, “Your father once spent an entire year here in Deturus when we were kids. He was a good friend—still is—and he’s a great man. And you’re just like him.”

He coughed, slightly. Cliodne could not raise her gaze from the white queen in his hand. She felt moved, but also slightly awkward.

“What I’m trying to say is that I’d be proud to count you among my family.” The king concluded. Cliodne smiled and clasped his hand—still holding the chess piece—between both of her own.

Lord Soran reentered the drawing room, his crooked smile firmly in place.

Immediately behind him was a manservant holding a tray with a wine bottle and three glasses. Cliodne didn’t recognize the servant, which surprised her; she had been studiously attempting to learn the names and faces of all those working in the Deturian palace, and she was disappointed at this sign that she had clearly missed someone—possibly even multiple someones. The man placed the tray on a small side table near the chessboard and moved to pour the wine, but was waved away by Lord Soran. He backed away from the table, but Cliodne noticed that he did not leave the room. Rather, he took a place by the door, standing with his arms behind his back as though guarding it from intruders.

Lord Soran poured the wine himself, filling each glass halfway with the ruby-colored liquid.

“I believe that’s more than what we’d need for a toast.” Cliodne observed ruefully. King Einor chuckled and nodded at her, but Soran took no notice. He handed two of the glasses to Cliodne and the king before grabbing the third for himself.

Lord Soran raised his glass in the air. “A toast!” He glanced at the two of them, and then back at the silent manservant by the door. “To changing times!”

As Cliodne took a sip, sounds of shouting broke out in the corridor outside, followed by the metallic chime of swords.

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