Flight of the Five Swans

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Fate Chapter 30

Ayden

Ayden’s face broke into a smile at Svana’s acceptance of their hospitality. Despite her not having anywhere else to go, he had still half expected her to refuse their offer—and that was the very last thing that he wanted. He cleared his throat.

“As that is now settled…” he said, shooting a half-questioning glance at his father to make sure that the king had no more questions that he wanted to ask of their new guest. King Naaman shook his head and gestured to several of his advisors to approach. Ayden and Svana were forgotten for the moment.

Ayden stepped closer to the silent girl, speaking for her ears alone. “I am sorry about that whole…charade.” He told her. “But it is necessary. It is Ithcarian custom, so it is necessary. For now, at least.”

Svana shrugged, then looked at him with a hopeful expression. She made a small gesture with her hands that resembled wings, and Ayden understood immediately. She was asking after her swans. He possibly should have been surprised, but he wasn’t. Not in the slightest.

“They’ll be in the gardens. I’ll bring you to them now.” Ayden said, taking Svana’s arm and leading her out of the receiving room.

Once out of the stodgy room, Ayden allowed his voice to gain the comfortable playfulness that he had adopted with her over the last several days. “I’m sure they’ll be delighted to see you at least, if not me. Though I think they are starting to like me a bit.” He shrugged, his face impish. “Or tolerate me. Same thing, right?”

For a moment, Ayden thought that Svana might actually burst out laughing at his weak joke. She clapped one hand over her mouth as if she were trying to stifle any sound that might emerge, and her eyes were brimming with mirth. Ayden felt rather pleased, though also a bit mystified as to why she would need to cover her mouth. If Svana was unable to speak, shouldn’t that mean that she couldn’t laugh either—at least, not audibly? Ayden shrugged off the question as unimportant at the moment, though it bore thinking about for the future. He simply did not know enough about her condition to be positive about what she could and couldn’t do.

Svana positively lit up when they stepped into the palace gardens, which were a veritable work of art—and a source of deep pride to Ayden’s entire family. For centuries, Ithcarian rulers had been cultivating different species of flora from around the world; the collection of plants in the royal gardens was unmatched by any in the surrounding kingdoms. Yet despite the beauty around him, Ayden found it hard to tear his eyes away from Svana’s face. He found it more enjoyable to witness her enjoyment in seeing the gardens for the first time with entirely new eyes. She seemed to recognize the incredible significance of their extensive collection, and her awe was boundless. Her smoky gray eyes shone in wonder, and an excited flush lent an extra color to her cheeks.

Ayden found the sight most distracting—far more distracting than the plants could ever be.

But if Svana seemed in awe of the palace gardens, she was positively overcome at the sight of her pet swans. The moment that the pond came into view, Ayden saw her eyes flood with tears, and she rushed forward towards the white figures of her beloved birds. The thin material of her skirts swished around her ankles as she all but ran the last thirty meters to the water’s edge. Ayden jogged to catch up with her and was glad that he had, simply to witness the sight of their reunion. Svana’s swans immediately rushed to greet her the moment they noticed her approaching the pond, and Ayden was touched—and a little surprised—at the seeming intensity of the emotions that the birds displayed. Not for the first time, he recognized something almost human in their reactions.

Svana’s joy at their reunion was palpable, though Ayden did not think that they had been separated from the birds for longer than an hour at the most. Still, tears streamed down the mute girl’s cheeks, and she touched the birds’ heads and wings as though she were afraid they might disappear at any moment from under her fingers.

Again, Ayden found it hard to tear his eyes away from the sheer happiness shining out of Svana’s face. Clearly, there was something about her swans that pierced through all of the protective barriers that Svana had erected. He was pleased to be present to witness this initial crumbling of the barriers around her, and he determined to see her open up even more—to him, as well as her swans.

Ayden stepped closer towards the pond, approaching the strange grouping slowly and cautiously. The last thing he wanted at this point was yet another swan bite to the kneecaps. Not only were both of his legs still quite sore enough from previous bites, but Ayden also wanted to avoid marring the poignant reunion between Svana and her birds.

Drawing level with Svana, he spoke softly. “See?” he told her, crouching down beside her. “I told you they would be glad to see you.”

Svana looked at him, her heart in her eyes. Then she glanced down, and Ayden noticed for the first time that she still held the slate and chalk that his father had provided for her in the receiving room. He felt of thrill of excitement. At last, they might actually be able to communicate. Svana scrawled on the slate, and then held it up so that Ayden could read the words she had written there.

Thank you Ayden.

Ayden met her eyes once more and inclined his head. “You’re welcome.” He said simply.

Svana turned back to caress her swans once more, and Ayden glanced at the birds as well. He recognized the swan sitting nearest him as the one that had listened so intently when he had played the rhaita the last couple of nights. She was the smallest bird of the bunch, and had a peculiar way of cocking her head so that she appeared perpetually curious. This was also the same swan, Ayden was sure, that had taken to riding on Undertow’s rump when they had still been walking the path.

On a whim, Ayden reached out a hand and placed it gently on the smallest bird’s back, stroking the soft feathers in the same manner that Svana often did. Svana herself froze in shock at the sight, and the other birds seemed almost as surprised as she was. Ayden felt the swan shiver under his palm, and he made ready to jerk his hand away should the bird seem inclined to attack him with her beak. But she didn’t.

Instead, the swan nestled closer to Ayden. She bumped at him gently with her head, as though requesting that he kindly continue his ministrations. Ayden complied, feeling a distinct sense of awe and triumph. It was a small victory, this sign of acceptance.

But it was a victory all the same.

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