Flight of the Five Swans

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Fate Chapter 31

Raia

Raia spent the rest of the afternoon in the Ithcarian palace gardens with both Ayden and her sisters as company. Following the initial joy of their reunion, the swan princesses returned to the pond, and Raia retreated to sit on a nearby bench overlooking the water. There, she silently watched her sisters swimming and diving happily for a couple minutes, before taking out her knitting. Ayden took the spot beside her on the bench, and the two sat in a comfortable silence that was now becoming familiar after the days spent walking together on the road.

Eventually, however, Raia found her progress in knitting impeded by the introduction of conversation between Ayden and herself—for the first time, a two-sided conversation. Her new chalk and slate made a difference in finally providing each of them with a way to ask—and answer—questions that they were burning to ask the other, though both steered clear of any kind of queries that might resemble an interrogation. Rather, their conversation began by identifying the many different plant species that were found in the Ithcarian gardens—a topic that always held a distinct interest for Raia. From there, their subjects jumped to music and art, and eventually to recounting amusing anecdotes from their respective childhoods; Raia was careful not to reveal anything too specific when writing down stories from her own youth. And while she felt a distinct guilt at the impetus their conversation presented to her knitting, she could not regret the conversation itself. In truth, Raia reveled in the opportunity to communicate once more with another person—even if she was limited to writing rather than speaking.

Ayden did not ask her for her real name again—though Raia was sure that he wished to—and she was glad of this. She felt that it might just have been harder to refuse Ayden’s request than it had been to sidestep the king’s demand. Despite his title and his status, King Naaman was still a complete stranger to her—not to mention a possible enemy. Ayden was neither.

The sun had just begun to set when their tête-à-tête was interrupted by a messenger sent to find them. Raia recognized the man as the same person who had handed her the slate and chalk from the king. Ayden also seemed to know the man well. He jumped to his feet at the sight of the servant, and greeted him by name.

“Jhonatan!” he said, and Raia was alarmed to hear a hint of trepidation in his voice. “Is something wrong?”

Jhonatan bowed to the Ithcarian prince. “Not at all, Your Highness.” He said, shaking his head in response to Ayden’s question. “I have merely been sent by your mother to request your presence—and that of your guest’s—in the queen’s chambers before dinner. She wishes to welcome the new arrival personally to the palace.” Here, Jhonatan acknowledged Raia’s presence with a bow, a slight hint of curiosity in his gaze.

Raia turned startled eyes on Ayden. When he had spoken of his mother before, she had gotten the impression from the sadness in his voice that Ayden’s mother had died in his childhood, as hers had. Evidently, this was not the case.

Ayden hesitated in his response. “Mother seemed quite tired when I left her before…” His statement was phrased more like a question. Hearing the worry evident in his voice, Raia felt a stab of comprehension, confirmed almost immediately by Jhonatan’s response.

Jhonatan straightened his shoulders. “She has instructed me to inform you that the physician has already come and gone, and that she is expecting the two of you momentarily.”

Raia saw Ayden’s eyes narrow. “That doesn’t answer my question.” He said, his tone a bit suspicious.

“As you say.” Jhonatan bowed once more. “But the queen has also asked me to tell you that if you and your guest do not come to her, then she will come to you.”

“Fine.” Ayden sounded resigned, though Raia detected a hint of amusement in his voice as well. “Tell Mother she wins. We will come straightaway.”

He glanced apologetically at Raia as Jhonatan took his leave to deliver the message back to the queen. Raia felt a laugh bubble in her chest, and she put her hand over her mouth to prevent the sound from bursting out. She found herself almost looking forward to meeting the Ithcarian queen. On top of her own curiosity at meeting Ayden’s mother, Raia also suspected from the sound of this conversation that the woman in question was surely a force to be reckoned with.

Seeing the humor in her eyes, Ayden shook his head. “You can laugh.” He warned her, his voice playful once more. “But I assure you, you don’t know who you’re dealing with. Mother always seems to be two steps ahead. She’s excellent at chess, I can tell you that.”

Raia glanced back over her shoulder once more at the pond, where her sisters swam obliviously. She felt a sting of sadness. Cliodne was the chess-master of the sisters, though she would certainly not be up to defeating anyone at the game in her current state.

Ayden led the way down the garden paths back towards the palace. Raia followed, tucking her knitting back into her pouch, but keeping the new slate and chalk ready in her hands. She had a feeling she was going to be subject to yet another interrogation, this time by the mother, rather than the father.

The door to the queen’s chamber was immense, made of a polished dark wood that echoed dully when Ayden knocked on it. Raia felt a tad nervous as she entered behind him through the doorway. Her nerves dissipated immediately, however, upon seeing the figure of the Ithcarian queen sitting upright in her bed. Just as King Naaman had not been as Raia had pictured for an Ithcarian ruler, so the queen did not exactly fulfill Raia’s expectations, either. She was not an altogether imposing figure sitting in her bed, but the expression in her eyes negated any seeming impression of frailty. The woman was dark—dark-haired, dark-skinned, and dark-eyed. Her features were as delicate as her son’s were strong. She had large eyes and finely shaped brows, which were furrowed slightly in an expression that Raia suspected indicated that the queen was in a great deal of pain. Despite this, the woman’s full lips were already pulled upwards in a welcoming smile that was entirely genuine.

Raia liked her instantly.

“Come closer child, so I can see you!” the queen said, beckoning with her hand for Raia to approach the bed. Ayden nudged her forward from behind, but Raia needed no such prompting. She felt no hesitation whatsoever in approaching the bedridden queen. She pulled up one of the hard-backed chairs to the side of the bed and sat down gracefully, sensing the queen’s gaze all the while.

Ayden kissed his mother on the forehead in greeting before likewise pulling up a chair on the opposite side of the bed from where Raia sat. Still, the queen did not look away from Raia. Raia felt as though the older woman was appraising her from head to toe, and she struggled to keep her face calm and devoid of any of the anxiousness that she might be feeling.

Finally, the queen smiled, seemingly satisfied with what she had seen in Raia’s eyes and expression.

“Oh, you’re a good one, I can tell.” She said, patting Raia’s hand lightly with her own. Raia smiled at the words, gratified by the compliment.

“I am Melani, queen of Ithcar. And I believe you are already acquainted with my son.” The queen gestured towards Ayden, and Raia spared him a quick glance before turning her attention once more to his mother.

The queen gestured at the slate and chalk in Raia’s hands. “I am glad that Naaman found you a way to communicate. It must be difficult enough coming to a new place, without being able to talk about it!”

Raia nodded mutely, fiddling with the chalk. The queen continued, her voice gentle. “Now, I won’t keep you long, as I’m sure that you must be hungry after your journey. I’m not able to join you, of course.” She gestured to her bed with a wry expression on her face. “But I wanted to be sure to meet my son’s new…friend…sooner rather than later.”

Her gaze flashed towards Ayden for a moment, and Raia glanced his way as well. She was a mite surprised to see that his face was slightly red as though from embarrassment. Raia felt her own face heat in response. Then the queen was addressing her again, and she met the older woman’s gaze once more.

“Now Ayden has told me that he calls you by the name Svana, because of the lovely birds that accompany you. But I would like to ask you, my dear, by what name you prefer I call you?”

Raia smiled slightly. She had been expecting the question. She bent her head, and scrawled her response onto the slate.

Svana is fine.

Queen Melani read the words, and then glanced once more at her son. Ayden shrugged his shoulders, and Raia could have sworn that the queen’s expression turned almost stern, as though Ayden had somehow disappointed her in some way. But the older woman’s smile was as warm as ever when she turned back to Raia.

“Then Svana it shall be.” Queen Melani said, the white of her teeth contrasting sharply against the dark brown of her skin. Her smile was lovely, and the warmth in her expression and tone brought to mind memories of Raia’s own mother, who had died so long ago.

Then a spasm of pain flashed across the queen’s face, and she gasped in response. Ayden shot to his feet and leaned over his mother, his expression worried. Raia froze, uncertain what to do. But Queen Melani recovered quickly from her pain, as though she were accustomed to such feelings. She waved away her son’s attempts to help her.

“It’s nothing, Ayden.” She scolded, her voice almost impatient. “The kitchen is just a bit late with my tonic, that’s all.”

The worried look in Ayden’s eyes did not dissipate, and despite having only just met the queen herself, Raia shared his anxiety. The two remained by the queen’s bedside until her tonic arrived. As Queen Melani drank deeply from the goblet handed her by the servant, Raia caught the distinctive smell of valerian root as one of the ingredients used in the liquid. Her fears were confirmed.

Raia and Ayden took their leave once the queen’s eyes began drooping from the effects of the tonic. Raia did not notice the stares of passing servants as she followed Ayden through the castle towards the dining room where—she assumed—they would be supping that evening. Though her feet moved automatically beneath her, her mind remained centered on the room that they had just left, as well as its occupant. She did not know the details of the queen’s ailment, but it was more than evident that the older woman experienced moments of intense pain. The mere use of valerian root in her nightly tonic proved that. Sympathy welled up in her chest, and she felt an overwhelming desire to help the situation as best she could.

Raia pursed her lips thoughtfully. ‘I wonder if they’ve tried butterbur root instead.’ She made a mental to search the gardens on the morrow for the pale pink blooms. Ithcarian or not, if Raia could help the queen, then she would.

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