Finished Chapter 40
Several days later, Ayden stepped into the gardens and walked down the well-known path towards the pond. He felt a hint of relief when he came into view of the water. There was only one figure sitting in their standard place on the bench.
While Ayden would never have dreamed of reinstating the swan curse on Raia’s sisters, he could not deny that having them around in human form made it more complicated to get an audience alone with Raia before their departure. Not to mention adding King Gustave’s presence into the mix. He made it downright impossible.
Yet at that moment, Ayden knew for a fact that the rest of the Kyorian royal party were readying themselves for their journey back to Kyoria that day. King Gustave was overseeing the packing up of their carriage, and Ayden had counted at least four of the princesses milling around in the courtyard as well, though he could not tell their names. While the women all looked and acted very different from one another, Ayden had quite simply become too accustomed to them in their swan forms. He had thus far found it difficult, even overwhelming, to learn the princesses apart from each other in their human forms—aside from Raia, of course. Ayden did not think it likely that he would ever confuse her with any of her sisters—even her twin.
A mere glance around the courtyard had been enough for Ayden to realize that Raia was not milling among the other members of her family. Somehow, Ayden had known that he would find her in the gardens one last time. And here she was. Raia did not turn to look at him as he sat down beside her on the bench. She kept her gaze firmly fixed on the reflective surface of the pond, now empty of its former avian inhabitants. For a long moment, neither spoke. Then Raia broke the silence.
“About that night—“ she began, and Ayden knew instinctively to which night she was referring: the night that Soran had arrived, when Ayden had all but suggested that they run away—together. The night that she had turned him down, refused him so that she could stay with her swans.
No. With her sisters.
“I know.” Ayden said, interrupting her before she could do anything so foolish as to apologize. If anything, he felt that of the two of them, he surely had more reason to apologize than she did. He hadn’t believed her story when she’d initially tried to tell it. He’d laughed it off as a joke or a fairy tale that she had invented. Oh, how wrong he had been!
Ayden shifted on the bench slightly. “And…that one afternoon…” he started to say. But this time, Raia interrupted him.
“I know.” She said matter-of-factly, the tone of her voice sounding throaty. Just as Ayden had yet to get used to Raia’s sisters as humans instead of swans, he had also not yet become entirely accustomed to actually hearing Raia speak. While it felt like a special treat every time he heard the sound of her voice, he still found himself itching to write messages to her as they had done before, when he had believed her to be mute.
Raia cleared her throat and then looked at him for the first time. “So you know,” she said, her words mushing together as she rushed to get them all out at once. “I just need to stay with my sisters…for now. Just for now.”
Ayden looked into her gray eyes. His heart clenched—a feeling that had slowly become more and more familiar in the time since he had met her. He nodded, his eyes softening. “I understand.” He told Raia. Ayden hesitated before saying rather reluctantly, “It seemed as though they were all about ready in the courtyard.”
Raia nodded and rose to her feet, glancing around the Ithcarian gardens one last time. The two of them walked silently back down the garden path towards the castle doors, making their way to the entryway and into the front courtyard.
The other members of the Kyorian royal family were gathered in a cluster at the bottom of the palace stairs. King Gustave had already mounted his horse, while the other five princesses stood waiting their turn to climb into the spacious Kyorian carriage. King Naaman stood regally off to the side, inclining his head politely as each princess embarked. With a jolt of surprise, Ayden saw that his mother, Queen Melani, was also present to see the Kyorian royal party off on their journey. She sat in a wheeled chair beside her husband with the ever-present Jhonatan standing behind her.
Ayden and Raia appeared at the top of the palace steps, drawing the gaze of nearly all of those gathered in the courtyard. One of Raia’s sisters broke away from the rest and mounted the stairs towards them. Ayden could not help but recognize and identify Thaleia from the rest of the sisters. Not only was she was Raia’s twin, she had also been the sole princess left with a feathery remnant of the swan curse. The fabric of her cape did not quite cover the feathers of her left arm, making the feature almost impossible to miss
“There you are!” Thaleia exclaimed, slowing down as she approached the two of them. “I was just about to come find you.” While she spoke to the both of them, Ayden knew that she was mostly addressing her sister. Thaleia glanced at Ayden quickly before asking Raia, her tone serious, “Are you coming?”
Raia nodded affirmatively, and Thaleia’s face filled with noticeable relief. She looked again at Ayden, and her expression was slightly friendlier than it had been mere moments before. “Keep in touch, Ayden.” She told him in complete sincerity. “Really. We won’t bite. Anymore, at least.”
An impish light filled her eyes at this joke. Ayden could not help but remember the many bites he had received from the sisters when they had yet been swans. In fact, he highly suspected Thaleia to have been the most likely culprit for the majority of those injuries, though he had yet to inquire as to whether his suspicions were correct. He nodded at Thaleia with a small smile, and the Kyorian princess scampered back down the stairs towards the carriage. Raia followed her twin more slowly, descending the stairs to meet the Ithcarian royal couple at the bottom. Ayden followed her slight figure with his eyes before walking down the steps to join her.
He reached the bottom just as Raia was saying her goodbyes to his parents. She curtsied respectfully to King Naaman, then crouched slightly and enveloped Queen Melani in a gentle hug. Finally, she turned at last towards Ayden, and Ayden knew that the time had come for them to say their goodbyes as well.
He hesitated slightly before pulling out a small slate and chalk from the inside pocket of his vest. Ayden scrawled a short message on the slate with the bit of chalk, and then held it up so that Raia might read the words, as she had done countless times over the past several weeks to communicate with him.
May I write?
Raia smiled on reading the short message. Without responding, she took the slate and chalk from Ayden, erasing what he’d written in order to write her own response.
Ayden reclaimed the materials once more to pen another question.
And will you write back?
“Every time.” Raia said out loud, holding his gaze. She spoke at a volume only just above a whisper, as though trying to ensure that he would be the only one to hear her, though his parents stood but a few steps away at most. Her father was even closer, if that was possible—a fact that made Ayden rather nervous. Still, Ayden felt a distinct feeling of relief at her confirmation, however shy Raia seemed to be in giving it. This was not to be their goodbye—at least, not their final goodbye. They would write each other. They would keep in touch, and possibly even arrange a visit. Ayden felt rather hopeful at the thought.
Raia drew a deep breath and stepped up on her toes, brushing Ayden’s cheek lightly with her lips. “Goodbye,” she whispered in his ear. Then, cheeks flushed at her own daring, she turned hastily away from him and climbed into the Kyorian royal carriage with her other sisters.
The door closed behind her. King Gustave inclined his head towards them all once more before nudging his mount forward. The Kyorian carriage rolled after him towards the palace gates. Ayden watched it until all traces of the carriage—and of Raia inside—had disappeared completely from view.
Once the carriage was gone, Ayden turned to his parents. A hint of a smile played around Queen Melani’s mouth, as though she already knew exactly what he was planning to say.
“You must excuse me, Mother, Father.” Ayden said to them, bowing deeply. “I have a letter to write.”