Finished Chapter 38
The hardest part thus far, Thaleia decided, about having a wing instead of an arm—aside from the simple fact that she had a wing instead of an arm—was how complicated it made the task of getting dressed. Not to mention how humiliating.
Of the dresses provided them, only one had armholes big enough for Thaleia to fit her wing through. Even then, it took help from both Raia and Cliodne to settle the fabric over her shoulder so that it did not pull uncomfortably on her feathers. What was more, Thaleia needed their help again when it came to fastening her dress. She found it absolutely impossible to do up her buttons one-handed, though this was not from lack of trying. She twisted and turned her one human arm every which way, but to no avail. All she was able to accomplish on her own was to gain a sore shoulder in the attempt.
“Don’t worry, Thaleia.” Cliodne told her as she tied the sash of Thaleia’s gown. “Once we’re home, we’ll figure out a way to customize your clothes so you’ll be able to do this on your own. Right, Raia?”
Raia nodded thoughtfully, her brow furrowed in concentration as she examined the gown that Thaleia had just donned. She cocked her head and huffed, exasperated. “If I only had a needle and thread, I think I could do it now!”
“No need.” Cliodne said, knotting the sash with a flourish. “All done.”
Thaleia looked down at her feathered appendage and flexed her muscles. Her wing arced gracefully, but Thaleia still found it very hard to reconcile herself to the thought that this part was attached to her. Permanently.
“The short sleeves won’t make it easy to hide your feathers.” Eurielle mused, her tone doubtful.
Thaleia shrugged, and then straightened her shoulders defiantly.
“I won’t need to hide them.” She said. “It’s a part of me now. And I’ll show it off…proudly.”
Thaleia knew that all of her sisters must have noticed her slight hesitation, but none remarked on it. Cliodne placed a hand on her right shoulder and squeezed it in silent encouragement.
Once the princesses were dressed, they did not have much longer to wait before the bedchamber door opened once more. A servant—one whom Thaleia actually recognized from her time as a swan—entered the room, bowing deeply to the princesses. His eyes widened when he caught sight of Thaleia’s wing, but he quickly mastered his expression. When he spoke, he addressed himself almost solely to Raia, and Thaleia remembered with a jolt that her twin both knew and was known by the Ithcarians much more than she or any of the other sisters.
“Milady, the king has summoned all of you to the throne room.”
“But I thought we were going to eat first!” Thaleia heard Eurielle complain to Petra in a low hiss. Cliodne shushed her, yet Thaleia could not help but agree with her youngest sister. At that moment, she felt hungry enough to eat a whole horse, cow, and pig besides.
“Thank you, Jhonatan.” Raia said, wringing her hands nervously in front of her. “We will follow you directly.”
Jhonatan bowed again and led the way out of the room. The six sisters followed, and were immediately flanked in the hallway by several Ithcarian guards. Thaleia glanced out the corner of her eyes at the members of their sudden escort. She counted only four men guarding the six of them, and was momentarily confused—not to mention a bit indignant. Did King Naaman think so little of them that he did not even consider them challenge enough for a guard apiece? Then Thaleia remembered the skill that the Ithcarian guards had displayed in the courtyard when dispatching Soran’s men. Added to that was the fact that she and her sisters were unarmed and still weak following their ordeal. However much she hated to admit it, Thaleia realized that in light of their situation, even four of King Naaman’s men probably would be more than enough guards to escort the six princesses to the throne room without incident.
The six princesses fell into their normal positions on entering the throne room, lining up by age from eldest to youngest. Cliodne led the way, her chin raised gracefully. Thaleia recognized the look in her eyes. She knew that her older sister was ready to employ every bit of diplomacy she’d gained over the last three years in order to ensure all of the princesses’ safe return to Kyoria.
Yet a surprise was waiting for them in the throne room. King Naaman and Prince Ayden both stood on the dais talking to a man with gray-streaked auburn hair and beard. Even from afar, the man was instantly recognizable to all of the princesses.
Thaleia gasped, and unbidden tears sprang into her eyes.
“Father!” she cried out, forgetting all decorum. She hiked her dress above her ankles with her right hand and rushed forward madly, Eurielle beside her and the other princesses not far behind. Thaleia launched herself into her father’s arms, nearly knocking him over with her exuberance. Her mismatched appendages encircled his body in a mighty hug, and she heard the Ithcarian royals behind him gasp at the sight of her swan wing. Yet Thaleia could not bring herself to care. None of them—not even Petra—could refrain from shedding at least a few tears at the unexpected sight of their father in the Ithcarian royal palace. Gustave’s eyes were wet as well as he touched all of his daughters’ heads in turn.
“But how?” Cliodne asked, her voice choked.
It was King Naaman who answered. “Your father is here as Kyorian ambassador. We are meant to sign a peace treaty between Ithcar and Kyoria.”
Thaleia’s eyes widened, and the utter shock of the news—however welcome—seemed to have dried all her tears.
“A treaty?” Raia’s voice was low as she addressed her query not to King Naaman or even her father, but to Ayden. He nodded in confirmation, and Thaleia noticed the way his eyes softened when he looked at her twin. She felt a small hint of panic, which grew even more on seeing a similar expression reflected on Raia’s face.
King Naaman raised his eyebrows and looked directly at Raia when he spoke.
“Though I must add that your presence here in Ithcar almost halted the negotiations outright. The revelation of your identity last night was…shall I say, most…suspicious.”
Thaleia bristled at the king’s words, but Raia did not seem to take even the slightest offense. She curtseyed to the Ithcarian royal. “I apologize for the subterfuge, Your Highness,” she said, her voice calm yet rueful. “I felt it to be necessary at the time.”
King Naaman’s gaze left Raia and fell on her sisters.
“I have my suspicions why that could be.” He mused, his eyes lingering on Thaleia’s white wing. “But I must admit to being curious as to the whole story.”
“I think we all are.” Ayden interjected pointedly, and King Naaman nodded at him.
“But,” he continued. “I believe that this story and all other explanations can just as well be told over lunch.”
Thaleia felt herself getting teary-eyed once more at the offer of food. Eating like a bird for the last several months had done nothing to abate her appetite; on the contrary, she felt as hungry as she could ever remember feeling before.
King Naaman clapped his hands twice, and a slew of servants entered the throne room. While most carried platters filled with cold meats, cheeses and fruit, several of the workers brought in low stools for the guests to sit on. It was a most peculiar form of dining that Thaleia had not yet experienced. Still, she found no reason to complain. Indeed, she sighed with relief upon seeing the kinds of food on the trays; all looked relatively easy to eat using only one hand.
“I apologize for the eclectic picnic.” King Naaman told them, likewise accepting a low stool in order to eat among them. “Our normal dining table is not quite large enough, and our chef unprepared to accommodate seven royal guests—five of whom are entirely unexpected.”
Though simple, the fare was delicious. Giving his daughters time to enjoy their meal, Gustave took to explaining his sudden arrival in Ithcar prior to pressing them for their story.
“We have been negotiating peace since before you all left for Deturus.” He told them. “Though in secret at the start, in case negotiations proved unsuccessful.” He glanced at the Ithcarian king, and King Naaman nodded once. Gustave continued.
“We agreed to terms just over a month ago and as mentioned, I’ve come to sign. I’ve only just arrived this morning, and from what I’ve already heard, I clearly missed an…interesting display just prior to my arrival.”
“In truth,” Gustave said with a rather heavy sigh, “I’m getting a bit old for these kinds of trips, but our official ambassador,” He touched Cliodne’s head of curls once more, “was unavailable at the time. Enjoying herself in Deturus—or so I’d assumed.”
The princesses stopped eating at that, glancing down at their plates as though they had all suddenly lost their appetites.
“But clearly,” Ayden interjected softly, finishing Gustave’s thought. “That was not entirely the case.”
“Yes,” Gustave continued, eying his daughters with great concern. “Imagine my surprise when I was immediately greeted upon arriving here at the palace with an interrogation as to why my daughters were also here…and in secret!”
The Ithcarian king did not so much as blink. “As I said, most suspicious.” Naaman said, popping a marinated olive into his mouth. He swallowed. “Though from your father’s account, combined with the testimonies of the Deturian guards we have taken into custody and the events of this morning, I believe that I have developed a reasonable suspicion as to what may have transpired to lead us all here. Now, all that remains,” he said, eyebrows rising as he looked down at the six princesses expectantly. “Is to determine whether or not my suspicions are correct.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Thaleia noticed her father and several of her sisters shoot a quick glance at her wing. Then Cliodne cleared her throat and—responding to King Naaman’s implicit request—began to recount their story.