Flight of the Five Swans

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Fate Chapter 35

Raia

Raia was still knitting when Soran’s guards arrived to fetch her the following morning just after dawn. Her eyes were bleary from lack of sleep, and her fingers were cramped and tired from the frantic pace that she had kept throughout the night. She could have kissed Soran for fetching her knitting for her the previous evening; thanks to him, Raia had been able to knit all through the night, and now the final shawl was so close to being done. Three, four more rows at the most.

Raia spared a quick glance up at the door when it was opened from the outside. She could not help a sigh of relief when she saw that Soran had not accompanied his men to escort her from her room. While she was convinced that Soran would recognize the significance of her knitting and put a stop to her actions, she highly doubted that any of his men would be aware of what the shawls were intended for. It provided her with a couple more minutes at least to finally finish what she had started so many weeks—so many months—before.

Raia made no argument as she was led from her room. Nor did she openly attempt to stall their progress as they walked towards the entrance hall of the Ithcarian palace, where she assumed that Soran was waiting for them. She was afraid that, were she to make too big of a scene and delay the group of them through the halls, the soldiers might cotton on and rush them all the more. Or Soran himself might get impatient and come to find them. Either way, Raia would lose what little chance she had to knit the last bit of the final shawl. She kept her eyes firmly fixed on her task, though a sense of panic slowly built in her chest as they neared their final destination.

Just three more rows.

A figure stood waiting in the shadows of the entrance hall. Raia’s heart sank. She positioned her hands in a fruitless attempt to cover her knitting, her needles still moving frantically.

Then the figure moved, and she let out her breath in a rush. It was Ayden waiting for them, not Soran. There was still time.

Ayden stepped towards her, and she could not resist a quick glance at his face. Then her eyes dropped back to her work. The disappointment, the pain, in his expression was nearly too much for her to bear. She knew that their short conversation the night before had not gone as Ayden had hoped—to say nothing of the entire situation they found themselves in. Yet still the visual proof of his disappointment felt almost like a physical blow.

“My mother extends her goodbyes.” He spoke softly, his voice slightly stiff. Raia flinched at his tone, so unfamiliar to what she was used to hearing in their interactions. Perhaps he saw—and understood—her reaction, for his voice had lost some of its coldness when he next spoke.

“She regrets not being able to wish you farewell in person, but she wants you to know that you are welcome to write or to visit again should you so desire.”

Raia’s eyesight blurred slightly at a sudden onset of tears. She, too, wished that she could bid the Ithcarian queen farewell in person, but she knew that Soran’s guards would never hear of making a detour, however short it may be. And as soon as they reached the palace courtyard, Soran would whisk her—and her swan sisters—back to Deturus. Then he would use them to lure in the final sister, and drain them all. Any thought of escape would be next to impossible.

Unless she finished the shawls.

Two more rows.

Raia nodded silently at Ayden’s statement, though she did not meet his eyes again. She could almost feel the surprise at her reaction—or lack thereof. Yet he did not speak a word, merely following behind as the guards propelled her forward towards the entryway doors once more.

Raia spared a quick glance up as they exited the castle. Early morning sunshine shown down on the palace yard, which was bustling with men sporting Deturian armor—though on second glance, Raia realized that there were only ten, twenty men at the most. At least three times that many Ithcarian soldiers stood guard around them, along with King Naaman himself. The Ithcarian royal’s face was lined in a deep frown, as though he were most displeased with what he was seeing. Raia’s heart lightened slightly at the sight. Though Ithcar was still technically considered an enemy of her country, Raia knew from firsthand experience that Soran and his men posed the larger threat to all of them. She was glad that King Naaman seemed at least partly cognizant of this fact.

Slightly removed from the rest of the soldiers were four of Soran’s guards, standing with arms outstretched in an odd half-circle formation. Raia saw on second glance that they were surrounding five swans, and attempting to prevent the birds from scattering. Nearby stood a rather large wooden cage. With a stab of anger, she realized that the guards were herding her five feathered sisters into the cage to be transported, though the princesses were not making it easy on them. The birds bit and hissed at the guards in anger, trying to duck under their outstretched arms to escape confinement.

Soran stood watching this strange company, his hands clasped behind his back. Fear clutched at Raia’s throat as the soldiers escorted her over to where he was standing. She knitted madly at the last shawl, frantic tears filling her eyes. Just half a row more and that would be it.

Though he was facing away from them, Soran seemed to sense the presence of the new arrivals, and knew exactly who had arrived. The arrogance was evident in his voice when he spoke, yet Raia realized with no small surprise that he had chosen to address Ayden first.

“I must thank you, Crown Prince,” he said loftily, “For taking such excellent care of my fiancée and her…menagerie.”

Raia felt Ayden stiffen beside her at Soran’s taunt, for a taunt it most surely was.

“I assure you that the pleasure was ours.” Ayden said, his voice as cold as Raia had ever heard it. “Indeed, Princess Raia may consider herself free to return should ever she desire a visit…or seek refuge.”

Ayden sounded as though he were gritting the words out through his teeth, yet Raia did not glance up to witness his expression. She could not spare the time. Soran had yet to look her way, but Raia still knew that she had only seconds before his gaze would finally turn towards her. Seconds in which to finish knitting, only seconds to break her sisters’ curse.

Just a couple more stitches.

And then her time was up. Raia sensed, rather than saw, Soran begin to turn towards her as he addressed her at last, his voice full of malevolent triumph.

“Come, my dear, we must be on our—what are you doing?”

Soran’s tone had changed in an instant to furious comprehension, yet Raia hardly noticed. With one last deft twist of her needle, she tied off the fifth and final shawl.

Done.

Raia reached into her now-bulging pillow pouch and struggled to take out the other four shawls that she had completed. Yet as she had suspected, Soran had instantly recognized what Raia’s knitted shawls were meant to accomplish—and he proved faster than she. At the first sight of her knitting, he had leapt forward, grasping one firm hand onto her arm in a vice grip, his face contorted in a snarl. Raia winced at the pain as his fingers dug into her arm; she knew that the force would likely leave her with bruises the following day. She gritted her teeth and yanked away from him with all of her strength, fighting to free her arm from his grasp. She bit at her lips to refrain herself from letting out an angry cry at the persistence of his grip.

“Hey!” Ayden cried for her, shock and indignation filling his voice at Soran’s seemingly sudden roughness. He started forward to pull Soran away from her, but the Deturian guards moved to block his path. Meanwhile, their outburst was slowly drawing the gaze of the other people milling around the palace yard, including King Naaman, his men…and the soldiers guarding Raia’s five swans sisters.

Sensing the guards’ distraction, the five swans made their move, squawking and flapping their wings violently to break free of their forced confinement. While four of the swans targeted the men surrounding them, Thaleia—dear, protective Thaleia—launched herself directly at the struggling figures of Soran and Raia. There was pure murder in the deep black eyes of the bird as she streaked past the guards, her gaze fixed on her targeted enemy. And though Thaleia was thrown back as soon as she had connected with Soran’s ever-present protective bubble, her attack had not been in vain. For a second—just a split second—Soran was distracted.

That second was all Raia needed.

Yanking her arm free from Soran’s grasp, Raia reached deep into her pouch and pulled out the shawls of nettle yarn, knitted so painstakingly over the last several months. She did not take the time to separate the shawls from each other, but merely flung them high into the air over where her sisters stood, praying that each bunch of fabric would find its mark.

Raia’s eyes followed the fluttering fabrics as they slowly descended over her swan sisters. The swans froze in place, seemingly sensing the import of the moment. Only Thaleia remained in motion, battering herself against Soran’s invisible shield a second time, then a third. Raia’s heart caught in her throat, and her hands rose to cover her mouth, holding back a desperate cry.

The shawl, Thaleia, the shawl!

As though she had heard Raia’s unspoken plea, Thaleia dove again, not at Soran, but rather towards the fifth and final shawl as it fell. She slipped under the woven fabric.

All noise seemed as though it had been suddenly stricken from the world. Then Raia’s skirts swirled around her as a rushing wind filled the courtyard. The wind was followed by a luminous golden light, as though sunset and sunrise had collided at that very moment. All those in the courtyard cried out and shut their eyes against the brilliance of the flash, throwing their arms over their faces to block the glare.

And then as suddenly as it had appeared, the light had gone.

Those standing in the courtyard uncovered their eyes and glanced around once more. They let out silent exclamations of surprise. Five extra people stood exactly where the five swans had been previously. All were young women, their ages ranging from late teens to early twenties. They were all thin and gaunt, dressed in tattered rags of the highest quality material. They wobbled where they stood, their feet bare and dirty. The Ithcarian royalty and their guards gaped at the new arrivals, astounded by the suddenness of their appearance.

And then the utter silence was broken by Raia’s own voice. Weak and croaked from lack of use, her voice grew stronger with every word as she pointed at Soran and yelled her accusations.

“Sorcerer! Kidnapper! Murderer! Murderer!”

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