Flight of the Five Swans

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Fate Chapter 33

Raia

The shawls were almost finished. Raia had completed the fourth shawl several days ago, and was now over halfway finished with the fifth and final garment for her sisters. She progressed much quicker in her work now, as she was interrupted far less often than she had been before. Ayden had cut back on his visits to the garden since the day Raia had given him the butterbur root tonic for his mother—the same day in which Raia had tried to confide in him about her sisters and their curse.

The same day that he hadn’t believed her.

It had been a blow, to be sure. She had dared to dream that sharing her tale with Ayden would have lessened her burden a little. By telling Ayden, Raia had hoped to gain an ally who might help with the last leg of her task. But apart from her initial hurt at his reaction, she could not really blame Ayden for his disbelief of her story. Raia understood that even what little she had told him couldn’t help but seem impossible to someone who hadn’t actually experienced the events firsthand. She had experienced them herself, and yet she sometimes still found herself doubting the validity of her own memory, particularly in her dreams.

Then she would wake, and she would remember.

But soon, Raia would have proof that the story that she had told Ayden had been true. One more day spent knitting—two at the most—and the nettle shawls would finally be ready; her sisters would regain their human forms once more. Of course, Raia knew that she—that all of them—would have a great deal of explaining to do following the transformation. Yet she was not overly worried about this. Raia had great faith in Cliodne’s diplomatic silver tongue. She was sure that her elder sister would be able to explain away the strangeness of their entire situation. In fact, Raia wouldn’t put it past her to negotiate for peace with Ithcar at the same time. And if that failed, Petra and Thaleia would simply concoct one of their foolproof escape plans to get all six of the princesses safely home to Kyoria.

But first, Raia had to finish the last shawl.

It was late afternoon when Raia saw Ayden walking towards her from the palace. She raised one hand in greeting. Despite the awkwardness that had lingered between them over the last several days, she still felt happy at the sight of him coming to seek her out. There was another, slightly shorter figure walking behind him. Though the other’s man face was in shadow, Raia assumed that it was Jhonatan, come to bring her another invitation from the queen. Queen Melani’s health had improved as a result of switching to Raia’s butterbur root tonic, and she had since expressed her gratitude on several occasions with requests that Raia join her for afternoon tea. Raia enjoyed the short visits in spite of the time they took away from her knitting. The queen had no end of fascinating and amusing stories to tell, many of them about Ayden as a boy. Raia was becoming fonder of the older woman with every passing day, and eagerly looked forward to their little chats.

Raia placed her knitting down on the bench beside her as the two men drew closer. She smiled warmly at Ayden, and was slightly surprised when he did not return her silent welcome. Then the second man stepped out from behind the Ithcarian prince, and Raia’s smile transformed into a look of utter horror.

Soran.

His hair was just as blond as ever, presenting a stark contrast to Ayden’s dark locks. And that infernal cocky smile still curled his lips. Raia stared in stunned incredulity at the familiar hateful figure. She could have sworn she saw a triumphant twinkle in his eye as he looked at her.

How had he found her?

“I’m glad that I’ve found you, my dear.” Soran said, his voice smooth. Raia’s mouth gaped open, and she felt at a complete loss for words. Even if she had been able to speak in that moment, she doubted her ability to articulate any words whatsoever. Ayden’s voice inserted itself into the heavy silence that followed Soran’s greeting.

“Svana,” he said, his voice low. “Prince Soran claims that you are, in fact, one of the princesses of Kyoria. He says that your name—your real name—is Raia. Is this true?”

Raia had the horrible feeling that at any moment, the situation would veer completely out of her control, if it hadn’t already. Nevertheless, she could no longer lie to Ayden about her identity. She looked him straight in the eyes and nodded once. Yes. She was Raia, princess of Kyoria.

The shock and hurt that filled Ayden’s eyes proved almost too much for Raia to bear. Not for the first time since they’d met, she longed for the voice that she could not use, so that she could explain everything to him.

“So it’s true.” He whispered, and there was a hint of betrayal in his voice. “You lied to me. You’re Kyorian.”

Again, Raia nodded, but Ayden seemed not to even see her as he continued, his voice slowly rising.

“You implied that you were Deturian. You told me you were Deturian! And now you’re engaged to him?”

At that, Raia’s mouth dropped open again, and she only just barely choked back a gasp.

“We were to be married months ago.” Soran said smoothly. “But my fiancée got cold feet before the big day.” He caught Raia’s gaze, a wicked gleam in his own eyes. “I’m so glad you’re safe, my dear.”

Raia violently shook her head, looking at Ayden in desperation, but she had no voice with which to refute Soran’s lies. A hurt expression covering his face, Ayden refused to meet Raia’s eyes. Her heart sank and she felt panic claw at the inside of her chest. After everything, after all they had been through together, he believed Soran.

She supposed that Soran’s version was less impossible for Ayden to swallow than her tale of enchanted swans.

Words, angry and forceful, rose up into her throat and pushed to be released, but Raia held them back. She could not, she would not let all of her hard work—and her sisters’ months-long sacrifice—go to waste. Not when she was so close to breaking their curse once and for all.

Soran exuded the triumph of his victory. “Come, my dear.” He ordered Raia. She felt a frisson of fear. Though he attempted to make his voice sound gentle, Raia could hear a hint of steel in his words. “Gather your swans and we shall be on our way straightaway.”

“No.”

Both Soran and Raia started at the sudden interjection from Ayden. Raia looked at him hopefully and this time, he met her gaze for a few moments before fixing his eyes on Soran.

“No.” He repeated, his voice stern. “You have only just arrived, Your Highness, and you have yet to present yourself to the king, as is the Ithcarian tradition.”

For a moment, Raia was sure that Soran was going to refuse the request out of hand, but he seemed to think better of it. After all, flouting the traditions of the country that they were currently in was no small matter.

“Very well.” He said with a smile, though an audible tightness in his voice evidenced his displeasure at the delay. “I shall pay my compliments to the king your father immediately, while my beloved packs.”

Raia’s skin crawled at Soran’s use of the phrase ‘my beloved’. She shivered in disgust. Ayden glanced at her again, and she wondered whether he had noticed her reaction. She caught his gaze and attempted to plead with him using only her eyes.

Please. Think of something.

Ayden shook his head. For one brief but disappointing moment, Raia thought that he was responding to her unspoken request for help. When Ayden spoke, however, she realized that he was still addressing Soran.

“I’m sorry, Your Highness,” he said, not sounding very sorry at all. “But the king my father is meeting with several of his advisors today, and has asked not to be disturbed. But you may present yourself to him at supper shortly, and start your journey tomorrow. I will ask for rooms to be prepared for you and your men.” Ayden’s tone left absolutely no room for argument, though Raia knew that Soran longed to do just that. She felt a moment’s relief.

One night. Ayden had bought her one night, and she could have kissed him for it. She made mental calculations, glancing surreptitiously at her knitting out of the corner of her eye. One night just might be enough for her to finish the final shawl needed to break her sisters’ curse. And when her sisters were human once more, Raia would no longer be bound by silence. She could spill all, and beg Ayden for his help.

Soran bowed in acquiescence to Ayden’s suggestion, a slightly sour expression marring his face. When he spoke, Raia was alarmed to see that his eyes were fixed intently on her.

“As you wish.” He said, his gaze never leaving Raia. “As long as I am granted a private audience with my fiancée before the dinner hour.”

Longing to protest, Raia shot another horrified glance at Ayden. She silently willed him to refuse on her behalf, to invent some reason—any reason—why such a meeting might be considered improper. But he did not, or could not. Though his jaw tightened as indication of his displeasure at the request, Ayden made no objection. He bowed and strode quickly down the path, looking for all the world as though he could not get away fast enough.

Alone in the gardens with Soran, Raia raised her chin and looked the sorcerer straight in the eye. Though he looked somewhat surprised at her newfound backbone, his face still radiated a cockiness that told Raia that Soran was sure that he had her—and her sisters—cornered once more. She gritted her teeth, thinking of the shawls stuffed in the pouch on the bench behind her.

‘Let him think that.’ Raia told herself. ‘Don’t let him see the knitting. He might guess.’

Soran clasped his hands behind his back and regarded her with his head cocked curiously. His voice was condescending when he spoke. “Did you think you could escape me, little bird?” he asked her. “When whispers of you are flying all around?”

Raia mentally cursed all of the rumors that her presence had ignited. If only the Ithcarians weren’t such gossips!

Soran’s gaze shifted to the five swans swimming in the pond behind Raia. His eyes sharpened. “I’m pleased to see that no harm has come to your other sisters, either. I suppose you’ve noticed long ago the effect leaving my lake has had, haven’t you?” He looked into her eyes, and his mouth curled almost maliciously. “They aren’t really your sisters anymore now, are they?”

Raia’s jaw clenched, and she glared at the man. Soran laughed, obviously amused by her newfound heat.

“Fear not, little bird.” He said. “Once they are on the lake again, the spell will revert once more, with no side effects.” Soran paused and pretended to consider the issue a moment. “Well, not many, at least.”

His detestable laughed spilled over the gardens again, and it was only the sudden appearance of Jhonatan that prevented Raia from launching herself at the sorcerer with nails bared. Jhonatan immediately seemed to notice that something was off about the interaction between Raia and Soran. There was a silent question in his eyes as he addressed the two of them.

“Dinner is prepared, Your Highness, milady,” he said, bowing. “And the king and prince await your presence.”

Raia felt Soran grip her arm tightly, and she struggled a bit in his grasp. Soran’s voice was smooth as he responded. “Excellent! We shall follow you to the dining room, then.”

Fingers digging into her arm almost painfully, Soran propelled Raia forward. She felt a bit panicked when she realized that the nettle shawls were still in the pouch lying on the bench behind her and for a moment, she considered fighting Soran’s grasp so that she could gather her supplies. But no. Raia couldn’t take the chance of Soran recognizing the significance of the nettle shawls if he were to see them. She would collect the knitting when Soran retired to his room. She only had one more night in the Ithcarian castle, one more night before she and her sisters became Soran’s prisoners again. One more night to finish the task, and to break the spell.

Yet Soran seemed determined not to let Raia escape from his clutches again. He did not let her out of his sight, insisting on escorting his ‘fiancée’ to her chamber immediately following dinner with the king and Prince Ayden. Raia was given no opportunity to break away and collect the supplies that she needed from the garden.

There was a knowing smile on Soran’s face as they stopped outside the door to her bedchamber.

“If you need anything at all,” he told her, “Just knock on your door from the inside, and your guard will be happy to help you.”

Raia’s heart clenched, and then sank. She should have known that Soran would insist on posting a guard at her door.

Soran opened the bedchamber door wide to admit her, and Raia was forced to walk inside. Her mind raced, trying in vain to come up with an alternate plan to reclaim her knitting before she was shut inside her room for the night. She came up blank.

Soran paused before closing the door. Smiling impishly, he said, “Sleep well, my dear.”

The door closed behind him, and Raia heard the distinctive sound of a lock behind turned. She was trapped inside her room without her needles, without her yarn, without anything.

Collapsing into a chair, Raia buried her face in her hands, weeping tears of disappointment and despair.

Soran had won.

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