Finished Chapter 36
Following Raia’s startling pronouncement, King Naaman’s face darkened with a sudden anger that surprised Cliodne. The Deturian guards seemed to recognize the sudden precariousness of their situation—not to mention that of their ruler. The soldiers who had previously been guarding Raia now leapt forward to defend Soran from any who might have believed the accusations made by the Kyorian princess. This action, Cliodne realized with a smirk of satisfaction, was perhaps the worst thing that they could have done. It all but confirmed Soran’s guilt—even in the eyes of his own men.
Ayden stepped in front of Raia, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword as he regarded the Deturian royal with newfound suspicion. Soran met his gaze evenly, taking no notice of his own guards protecting him. Cliodne shivered, seeing the cold fury in his familiar blue eyes. She bunched her sisters close to her side, gathering them to her with her wings. No, her arms, she reminded herself. She no longer had wings or feathers. She was free. They were free.
But for how long?
Not breaking his gaze with Ayden, Soran raised his voice to address King Naaman directly, his tone smooth and placating.
“It is clear that there has been some misunderstanding, Your Highness!” He called out, and Cliodne was certain that she was the only one who noticed the latent anger in his voice. “But our countries are at peace. Let us not make quarrel between us.”
Kind Naaman hesitated, his arm raised in the air. Cliodne’s heart caught in her throat at his apparent uncertainty. Surely after such an accusation—not to mention witnessing the astonishing transformation of birds into humans—the Ithcarian king wouldn’t simply allow Soran to leave with them all?
Ayden seemed to be thinking along the same lines as she. He glanced over his shoulder, his eyes falling first on Raia standing behind him, then on the imposing figure of King Naaman.
That one word was all it took. The king gave a decisive nod and gestured at the entire group of foreigners—Deturian and Kyorian, alike. His shouted orders filled the courtyard, voice firm and unyielding. “Guards! Take them into custody! All of them! I need answers here!”
Cliodne felt a small stab of relief that she couldn’t entirely explain—a relief that was clearly not shared by everyone. As the Ithcarian guards stepped forward to seize them all, Soran shouted an order that Cliodne could not make out. His intention was soon made more than clear, however, as the Deturian soldiers all over the courtyard drew their swords. Evidently, Soran was not willing to be taken without a fight. His men leapt forward to meet the Ithcarian soldiers, their blades meeting with a loud clatter.
Fear filled Cliodne’s breast, and she pulled her sisters even closer to her side. All of the princesses were momentarily frozen in place, watching the skirmish with wide eyes. Were they about to witness still more bloodshed as a result of Soran’s treachery?
Yet this battle was nothing like the massacre of their own retinue several months prior. Soran had come to Ithcar with the full intention of spiriting Raia and the five swans away ‘peacefully’. He had clearly not anticipated needing to fight for his prize. He had not come prepared for a battle. A mere glance was enough to see that Soran’s men were severely outnumbered by Ithcarian guards—not to mention outclassed. Cliodne was in awe of the skill displayed by King Naaman’s soldiers, who proved to be masters at the art of disarming their opponent without killing them. Many of the Deturians’ swords were taken from them within the first several minutes of fighting, leaving them alive but vulnerable.
And then it was over. Cliodne blinked at the suddenness of it all as the last of Soran’s men was seized and led away. Then she gasped, her dismay immediately echoed by Raia and Callia. Both of her sisters seemed to have realized the same thing as she at the same time. Cliodne saw Raia put her hand to Ayden’s sleeve, and then pointed to where Soran had previously been standing. But the Deturian royal had disappeared. The skirmish between his own men and King Naaman’s guard, however short, had provided distraction enough for the Deturian royal to slip away, most likely back to the safety of his own accursed castle.
Ayden cursed, sheathing his sword once more. “Father!” He called over his shoulder. “The sorcerer has fled!”
Cliodne hid a relieved smile at his choice of words. One person, at least, had taken Raia’s accusations to heart.
King Naaman huffed in frustration, and then addressed the nearest of his guards. “See that he is found before he leaves Ithcar. I believe that he has much to answer for.”
The soldier bowed. Gesturing for several other men to follow him, the small group hurried in the direction of the stables to gather horses for their pursuit.
The Ithcarian king huffed again, then furrowed his brows as his eyes fell on Cliodne and her sisters. Cliodne straightened her shoulders, and met King Naaman’s gaze head-on, willing regality in her stance despite her unfortunate state of dress. For the first time, Raia stepped out from her place behind Ayden, joining the other Kyorian princesses. As one, the six princesses curtseyed deeply to the Ithcarian king. With one hand, Cliodne held her tattered skirt with practiced fingers as she bent. The other hand she used to steady Thaleia by the shoulder, who still seemed a bit unsteady on her newly human legs.
Glancing up once more, Cliodne was certain that she saw King Naaman’s eyes soften slightly. She bulked up her courage to address the Ithcarian ruler, yet Raia was the first to speak.
“King Naaman. Prince Ayden.” She said, nodding towards first the former, then the latter. Cliodne noticed that her voice was even softer than usual from its lack of use over the last several months. “Please allow me to present my sisters to you.”
Comprehension immediately filled Ayden’s face as he looked over the five of them, with their ragged clothes and bare feet. Again, the princesses curtseyed and again, Cliodne steadied Thaleia to her right as they rose. Raia opened her mouth to offer more polite platitudes or even to begin explaining their situation, but she did not have the chance to speak. The sound of a single trumpet erupted from the guard tower at the palace gates, and King Naaman’s face registered satisfaction at the signal.
“At last.” He muttered as an aside to Ayden. “We will have answers from all.”
Ayden made no response, and Cliodne doubted that he had even heard his father at all. His eyes were fixed on Raia as though determined to catch her eye. Yet Raia seemed just as determined to avoid his gaze. She kept her head lowered.
King Naaman waved yet another of his men forward and gestured to the Kyorian princesses. “Show them to the west corridor chamber. And for heaven’s sake, give them something to wear, and to eat.”
Though her stomach growled in response at his words, Cliodne was nevertheless surprised. Did the king not want to hear their story? Yet she made no argument as the Ithcarian guards stepped towards her and her sisters. Both Petra and Eurielle seemed inclined to protest the king’s orders, and Cliodne flashed them a warning look. She would not have put it past either of them to attempt to fight their way out, but resistance would most certainly not help their case at the moment. Thaleia, on the other hand, seemed unnaturally lethargic, and Cliodne felt a stab of concern for her sister. It was most unlike her.
Yet they were given no time for further worry. The six princesses were led immediately back into the Ithcarian palace and to Raia’s old bedchamber. As the chamber door was closed behind them to shut them in once more, the distant trumpet sounded again.