Chapter One ~ 7650 words. [Prologue]
Summary: A princess meets her prince, a grand ball approaches, and a secret lingers just beneath the surface.
A/N: Ah, the dreaded first chapter, where all the characters and situations must be introduced. Therefore, I apologize in advance if this chapter proves a little boring. IT GETS MORE EXCITING IN THE NEXT CHAPTER, I SWEAR. Also! Please make sure that you've read this post before starting. It's pretty vital background information. Anyway, enjoy! <33
- - -
They appeared at once, feathers swallowing up the sky in endless black, red eyes glittering like thousands of blood-colored stars. Her eyes watered, her legs trembled, her body felt heavy -- far too heavy -- and someone was crying out “run!”, but the screeching creatures clamored in vicious unison; tore into her skin as though it were nothing more than lace. Help, she prayed, the word clawing its way through her a thousand times over. Blood soaked the ground beneath her body, bubbled in her throat, and she was drowning, drowning in it all --
-- but then she was warm, enveloped in a pair of monstrous wings. For the briefest of moments, she found comfort in the embrace, only for crooked claws to emerge through all the feathers and grip her by the wrists.
Your heart, a voice rumbled, and the tip of one wing traced a cold line down the curve of her chest. Give it to me.
She found her voice, and it echoed as an endless roar. The ravens above cried out in fear, scattered, revealing forbidden gasps of blue sky overhead. The wings around her trembled, dragged her closer -- give it to me, the voice demanded once more, desperate -- but she wrenched away. The wings crumpled away beneath her and then she was falling, falling, falling --
- - -
-- falling right off the edge of the bed, so fast that she didn’t even have enough time to cry out before her back hit the floor with a thud.
She blinked, once, twice, the ceiling wavering in her hazy gaze. Her hands were still clutched to her chest, she realized, as if her heart would steal right out of her skin if she dropped them, and for a frightening moment, she was sure the wings were still wrapped around her, trapping her, suffocating her -- but as she glanced down, she realized it was just the sheets, tangled around her legs. With a sigh, she unclenched them and lifted both up above her head in a stretch. Thank goodness.
She had about two seconds of peace before a large face with blinking, wide blue eyes overshadowed her own.
“Time to wake up-zura!”
Ahiru groaned, yanking the sheets up over her head. This, of course, never did any good in deterring Uzura, who merely maneuvered her toy drum in front of her and began banging away.
“Ahiru!” she yelled, matching each word to a stern beat. “Time to WAKE UP-ZURA!”
“I am, Uzura, I’m awake, I’m just,” a yawn betrayed her words, “a little tired. I had a bad dream --”
“Ohhhh.” Without any sort of warning, Uzura gripped a small hand on the sheet’s edge, pulled hard enough to reveal a mane of red hair. “About what-zura?”
Relenting, Ahiru sat up straight, her braid pooling down the curve of her shoulder. “No, you don’t want to know, it was scary, too scary for little -”
“Was it about ravens-zura?”
Ahiru stiffened; searched Uzura’s wide eyes for some kind of deeper understanding, but the little girl just stared back, innocent. “How did you know that?”
She shrugged and rapped a few quick beats on her drum. “Ravens are scary-zura!”
Ahiru opened her mouth to say something more, but the creaking of the door as it opened caught both girls’ attention. Uzura ran to greet whoever it was; Ahiru stood and gathered up the sheets around her thin form, trying her best to shake the last few fringes of the nightmare away. No reason to keep thinking about it, she told herself, and put on a warm smile as her caretaker and closest confidante of the past twelve years stepped into the room. Morning light gathered in her curled hair.
“Ahiru won’t get up,” Uzura whined, tugging on her mother’s colorful skirt. “She fell on the floor-zura!”
Ahiru giggled into her hand, then threw the crumpled sheets back onto the bed, smoothing the creases to the best of her efforts. She knew the servants would take care of it once she left, but she didn’t like to burden them with more work than necessary. After all, it’d been her own clumsy fault in the first place. “Good morning, Miss Edel,” she said with as much cheer as she could muster.
“Now, now, Uzura, calm yourself,“ Edel said, patting the swell of her daughter’s hair before moving towards the closet. “Though you are running out of time, Ahiru. Mustn’t be late.“
Her elegant fingers quickly selected a garment, laid it out on a nearby chair for Ahiru to take. This was the routine, after all -- wake, dress, and out into the castle for daily activities. It had been that way for as long as Ahiru could remember, and she grabbed the dress without complaint. “You’re expected in the ballroom soon.”
“Really?” Ahiru sighed, her feet already aching at the mere thought. “But Miss Edel, everyone always comes to watch me practice, and I’m -- I’m not very good --”
“Now don’t say that. You’re improving every day. After all, dancing is an art --”
“The last time I practiced with someone, I nearly broke one of his toes,” Ahiru lamented, half-smiling as she tugged the dress up and over her head, smoothing the creases down the front as it fell against her chest. Edel waved towards the mirror, and Ahiru moved into place as Uzura banged away blithely on her drum across the room, watching the chirping birds gathering outside the window. “He still can’t walk without limping. Maybe I should go and apologize again --”
“A very complicated art,” Edel insisted, smoothing Ahiru’s bangs, tucking away stray tendrils of hair. “Don’t worry. A little practice won’t make anything worse.”
She fingered Ahiru’s thick braid briefly. “So long,” she commented, almost to herself, and Ahiru couldn’t help but grin at her reflection in the mirror.
“I like it long,” she said. “I think I’ll just let it grow forever. I can use it for measuring, or for a pillow, or--” she noticed the window casting a glint along the floor beside her and laughed as a thought came to mind, “--I could throw it out the window and people could climb up.”
Edel just sighed, nose wrinkling as she twisted the braid down Ahiru’s neck. “That’ll have to do, then.”
Ahiru aimed to move, but was startled by Edel’s gentle hands on her shoulders, holding her in place before the mirror. A brief moment passed, and a ghost of a smile appeared on the woman’s lips.
“You make a lovely princess,” she whispered.
“The birds want to come in-zura!” Uzura cried out, lifting up her drumstick to tap on the glass panes. A handful of chirping birds hovered just outside.
“Oh, of course,“ Ahiru squeaked in response, reaching for the bowl of seed beneath her chair. “They must be starving! I’ll be right there, Uzura…”
“Yes, wait until I’ve left, please,” Edel said, a little paler as she took a few hasty step backwards. “Let us go, Uzura…”
But the little girl nudged the pane open herself with both drumsticks, laughing all the while. “They want to say good morning-zura!”
Both caretaker and princess turned with identical looks of surprise, but it was far too late to stop the handful of boisterous, hungry birds that invaded the room, obviously meaning to wish Ahiru a very good morning.
- - -
“One, two, step, one, two, step, one, two…wait, that‘s not….”
“Keep going, you’re almost there!”
“Don’t give up, Ahiru! Even if you never actually improve, it’s wonderful watching you fail and try and fail again!”
Ahiru did, wobbling on the balls of her feet as she bent back. For a brief, shining moment, she held herself in the air, so stiffly that it really felt as though strong arms were holding her, supporting her -- but then her shoes squeaked and slipped on the ballroom floor, and she fell, landing in a heap.
After a hazy moment, Pique appeared over her, nose wrinkling. “Uh, I didn’t actually mean for you to dip back by yourself. I was just calling out the next step.”
“Oh,” Ahiru groaned, pulling herself upright with a hoarse laugh. “That’s right. I probably need a partner to hold me for that, huh?“ Sighing, she lifted her skirt to reveal white slippers, sliding one off and stretching her toes. “Did it look any better?”
Pique hesitated, but whatever she meant to say next was soundly cut off by Lillie’s gasp as the blonde rushed forward and caught Ahiru in a painful embrace.
“Oh, not at all, Ahiru, not at all! Don‘t fret, though, I’m here to comfort you over your complete lack of ability!”
“Ah…thank you?” Ahiru gasped in response.
Truth be told, after Edel and Uzura, Pique and Lillie were Ahiru’s closest friends. They were two daughters of noble families living within the castle walls with whom she had played alongside through childhood. They could sometimes be a little too excitable (and in Lillie’s case, a little too depressing), but they were her friends, nonetheless, and Ahiru was sure the ballroom would seem much too big and lonely at that moment without them there.
“Maybe I should take a break,” Ahiru sighed, but was unceremoniously dragged to her feet in Lillie’s iron grip.
“Yes, yes, a break, some time for your fragile heart to heal! I brought biscuits!”
So the three girls carefully bent their long skirts beneath their knees, sat against the marble wall, and ate. Pique and Lillie chatted, round mouths filled with bread, but Ahiru instead found herself staring out into the endless length of the ballroom, sunlight casting elegant shadows along the floor, so clear and smooth that she could see her own face reflected in its surface. What would the ballroom look like, filled with people in fancy clothing, with music, with dancing? For a lingering moment, she could almost see it -- women laughing, lifting their gowns as they were pulled into their partner’s arms, led in a sweeping circle. And there she was even, in the center of it all, feet tiptoeing through the steps, dancing with...
“Say,” Pique spoke up through mouthfuls of biscuit, and the image faded away, leaving only a quiet room once more. “Why doesn’t he ever practice with you?”
Pique and Lillie shared a startled look. “Your lovely prince, of course,” Lillie chirped, waving a flamboyant hand in the air.
Ahiru flushed a soft red and quickly became enamored with the half-eaten biscuit in her hands. “I don’t know. I’m sure he doesn’t need to practice, he’s probably really good --”
“He’s probably really good at everything,” Pique piped in. “Have you seen him? He‘s perfect --”
“Perfect enough to balance out all of Ahiru’s imperfections! Surely a match made in heaven!”
“I passed him in the hallway the other day. He even talked to me --”
“Really?” Ahiru spoke up at once, curious. “What is he like?”
It was only after both girls shot bewildered glances in her direction did she realize how strange that question sounded. With surprising speed, she averted her eyes back to her last few bites of biscuit and laughed as she lifted them to her lips. “These are really good, Lillie, who made--”
“You don’t know?” Pique’s mouth was hanging open. “You’re getting married in a few months, and you don‘t know what he‘s like!?”
“We just --” Ahiru faltered briefly. “Everything’s just been really busy, and he lives all the way on the other side of the castle, so we don’t pass each other in hallways, and we -- well, we haven’t exactly had a chance to speak just yet, but soon --”
“You haven’t spoken to him?”
“No, I did! I have! Once, I said, ‘good morning’, and he said ‘good morning to you too’ and it was very nice...”
“Bound eternally to a handsome stranger for the sake of the kingdom! Oh, Ahiru, you really are a true saint --”
Just then, footsteps echoed outside the ballroom’s entrance. A handful of voices melded together, sounding excited. Lillie pressed a hand to her mouth, and all three girls looked to one another, unsure of what to say, all too aware of who it could be. Ahiru averted her gaze to her lap, praying that just this once, it could be an innocent servant passing through or a group of children playing chase...
The figures hurried in, little more than a blur of frenzied color across the room.
“Let’s pretend we’re having an enormously important conversation,” Lillie whispered, leaning forward, and the other two girls followed suit. Still, out of the corner of her eye, Ahiru watched as a man standing towards the front lifted a hand and pointed straight at her.
“Yes, that’s her. The one with the braid.”
“She looks so small! So hard to believe she’s sixteen.”
“I never thought I’d live to see her blessed face!”
“It’s really quite miraculous. I never did lose faith like the others.”
“Her name is Ahiru? So unique...”
“Yes, I’ve heard it means ‘duck’. Hardly a fitting name for a princess, really. The Queen, bless her soul, would never have selected such a thing, so who--”
“It is the name she gave as her own when she was brought here as a child, I’m told. They feel it would be wrong to try and convince her to take another...”
“Is it true, what they say? That she spent the first five years of her life as a prisoner of the ravens?”
“Yes, quite true. It doesn’t seem to have had any strong side-effects on her, though.”
“Quite good, quite good --”
Eventually, the group filed out and quickly disappeared down another hallway, leaving only silence. The three girls leaned back against the wall with similar sighs; only after a moment did Ahiru realize how tightly her fingers were gripped on the loose cloth of her skirt.
“They‘ve got some nerve,” Pique muttered, shoving the last piece of biscuit into her mouth. “Treating you like some kind of sideshow attraction.”
“It’s okay. I‘m used to it,” Ahiru waved it off, half-heartedly wiping away a few crumbs from the corners of her lips. What had they been talking about before being interrupted? She tried hard to remember, desperate to be distracted from the less-than-desirable thoughts racing through her head. Lillie, bless her, finally spoke up, smiling once more.
“Oh, the prince,” the blonde gasped, clapping her hands together. “That’s right! The wonderfully unknown stranger!”
“I still can’t believe it,” Pique piped in. “What have you been doing all this time? If I was you, I‘d be following him around night and day --”
“I, ah -- I don’t know!” Ahiru shrugged, her face a pleasant pink shade. “I’ve been learning, and practicing dancing, and…lots of other things! There hasn‘t been time!”
“Well, there will be soon, what with the ball in a few days. You’ll be dancing --”
“-- and maybe he’ll learn to forgive you when you step on his feet!”
“And then you’ll get married, and all the ravens will disappear --”
“ -- as the wonderfully bleak prophecy foretells!”
“It’s pretty great, really, all beautiful and epic --”
“-- not to mention all the colorful ways it could end in heartbreak!”
Ahiru stared at Lillie, who merely stared back with wide eyes, eyelashes fluttering as she blinked once, twice. “What do you mean?” She asked, startled by the word.
Lillie smiled, as brightly as a normal person would if talking about an adorable kitten or a field of flowers. “You don’t see it, Ahiru? So many lovely possibilities for ruin! What if the prince turns out to be dreadful, and you, the poor princess, are doomed to spend forever at his side?”
“That’s not --”
“Or what if the prophecy is mistaken and the ravens are to stay forever, destroying so much beautiful, meticulous planning as though it were little more than flimsy paper?”
“I don’t think --”
“Or...oh, oh! What if you were to fall madly in love with someone else? Destined never to be with the truest love of your life, your fate forever tied to the prince! Oh, I’m getting chills!”
Lillie fell on her back, erupting in a fit of gasping giggles. Ahiru and Pique shared a skeptical look.
“That’s...I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Ahiru finally managed to say. The thought danced around in her head, so silly, so ridiculous.
Pique nodded in firm agreement. “Why would you ever want someone else?”
She’d been taking a break for long enough, Ahiru realized. She pulled her skirt up to her ankles, slid her slippers back over the pale tips of her toes, and stood. The ball was only a few days, she realized. She had to be ready, had to be wonderful and perfect and everything the prince had ever dreamed of. With a deep breath, she lifted her hands into the air, gripping a man’s imaginary hand and shoulder once more. One, two, step, one...was that right?
Her two friends rose up as well to watch, crumbs tumbling off their skirts to the floor. Lillie still looked enthralled with her bleak thought, eyes bright. “Oh Ahiru, you’re just so cute when you’re being an optimist,” she cooed, reaching her arms out as though to catch her in another back-breaking hug when she danced by. “When another man steals away your fragile, fragile heart, I’ll be sure to comfort you!”
“Okay, that’s enough,” Pique said, eyes narrowing. “Go on, dance!”
Ahiru did, all the while imagining the room filled with a sea of smiling faces, encouraging her on. She imagined her prince, guiding her ever so softly, holding onto her as she fell back in his arms. Perhaps for moment, just a moment -- she’d even feel graceful.
One, two, step, one, two, step...
- - -
It was true, Ahiru realized, alone with her thoughts as she traipsed through hallway after hallway. After another few hurried rounds of dance practice with Pique barking commands, Lillie clapping at every misstep, and so much spinning that her head had felt fit to explode by the end, her two friends had been met by their respective servants and asked to return to their rooms so as to join their families for an afternoon meal. Ahiru knew Edel and Uzura would be sitting down to eat around this time too and wondering where she was, but at the moment, she didn’t have much of an appetite. Instead, she chosen to go for a walk.
Because even though she’d never thought about it, never even considered how strange it really was, her friends’ words had been true: she was getting married in a few months to a complete stranger.
It wasn’t as though she had necessarily been kept away from the prince. Their paths just hadn’t had the chance to cross all too often. It didn’t sound strange when you knew why, she insisted, as though having to defend her behavior to some unseen voice of reason. The castle was enormous beyond belief, with countless other families making their homes within its massive walls, and the prince’s quarters just happened to be on the opposite side of the building. Besides, they were both kept busy, what with daily lessons of history and numbers and language, with fittings and dance practice and all sorts of other things!
And even though she didn’t quite know him, she knew of him. Edel had told her many things over the years, about snippets she had gathered from various servants or nobles who were familiar with him. For instance, he was soft-spoken, but always sure. His favorite time of the day was early morning. He enjoyed reading, had all sorts of interesting books.
His name was something elegant and royal, but apparently he had never liked it, so he didn‘t answer to it if it could be helped. He preferred to be called something simpler -- Mytho.
She said the name out loud, listening to the way it echoed along the sloping walls, taking note of the way it felt in her mouth. Nice, she thought, and smiled without meaning to. Sunlight was pooling on the floor before her from an open window, and she stopped to listen to the birds’ pleasant chirping for a moment. It looked like there was a nest just above, she realized. A flash of woven brown poked out at the top of the window, and she leaned out to see further, excited at the idea of babies --
-- and almost if she had called the prince into existence herself, there he was, beneath her, white hair blinding in the afternoon sun. He stood upright in the grass, perched at the edge of a small pond towards the edge of the forest. A few splashing ducks were gathered in the water next to him, she could see, and she realized that he was feeding them, watching how their little wings rose up and skidded the water with excitement as he drew his hand over them again and again.
Ahiru smiled. How sweet of him, she thought, but realized just a moment later how strange it was that he was outside. Weren’t neither of them allowed to leave the walls of the castle alone? That had been a rule she’d been told too many times to count over the years.
The thought lingered uneasily for a moment before she shook it away, too caught up in the fact that her prince was close enough to see, to hear. She could talk to him, she realized. All she had to do was go outside and say ‘hello’ or ‘how are you doing?’ or ‘nice day, isn’t it?” or something equally pleasant, and then they would begin to talk, get to know each other, maybe even…
She hurried back the way she’d come at once.
- - -
Of course, this was easier said than done, for when Ahiru finally made it to the grassy clearing, watched as the prince crumbled a piece of bread in his hands and dropped it over the water, laughing when the ducks fought over it -- her eloquent introduction was suddenly gone, replaced by nothing more than a string of rambling thoughts in the back of her head. What was she supposed to say? She didn’t want to look silly! This was going to be her first real impression on him, after all!
She stood still for a minute, hands twisting in the folds of her dress. Mytho didn’t seem to notice he wasn’t alone; he only kneeled down to pat the head of one of the smaller ducks, oblivious to her. What should she do? Should she tap him on the shoulder? Just say hello? No, that might startle him, she didn’t want to do that, he could trip and fall in the water, and then he’d be all wet and angry and he’d hate her before she even had a chance to say anything else, that would be really bad, but what should --
She looked up from her mess of tangled fingers to see Mytho standing straight, turned towards her, and she realized in that moment, blood rushing to her face, that she had been mumbling under breath the entire time. He met her gaze, and the sun caught in his eyes, coloring them such a brilliant gold that she found herself at a loss for breath.
Five long seconds later, she realized that she was staring.
“I-I’m sorry!” she managed to choke out. “I didn’t mean -- I can see you’re busy, really busy, I’m probably disturbing -- I’m definitely disturbing you, you were having a nice time here alone and I just had to go and ruin it and I’m really sorry, so I’ll just --”
“No,” Mytho said, voice warm. “Stay. It’s nice to have company.”
He gestured her closer, and at a loss, she walked to the water’s edge. The ducks began to quack in unison at her presence, clamoring at the tips of her shoes. “They seem to like you,” Mytho commented, throwing the last of the bread into the water. “Do you like animals, Ahiru?”
Words were having a difficult time reaching her tongue, instead getting jumbled in the deepest part of her throat over and over again. “Um, I -- that is, I -- yes. Yes, I do, of course,” she finally choked out, and as if to cement it, bent down to smooth a few brown feathers on the back of the duck closest to her.
Mytho seemed pleased. “Now I can say that I know something about you.”
Desperate words sprung from her mouth of their own accord, unable to refrain from apologizing for another moment. “I, um, I meant to talk to you all these times, but I’m always too far away and you usually look busy, and I just didn’t want to bother you if that was the case, but now that sounds so silly, because here we are and you don’t know me and I don’t know you --”
Her voice trailed off as Mytho took hold of her hand, gripping it gently.
“Well then, let’s start now,” he said, bringing it to his mouth, kissing her knuckles. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Ahiru was fairly sure if she grew any redder, her head was going to implode.
Mytho turned back to the pond, then, and looked up as if to watch the clouds passing overhead.
“We’re not even supposed to be out here, you know,” he chuckled. “The rules and such. Sometimes, though, I just need to see the sky.”
Ahiru nodded; realized for the first time just how nice the sun felt on the back of her neck, how soft and calm everything seemed out here in the open. Why weren’t they allowed to leave the castle again? She couldn’t remember.
A wave washed over the pointed tips of her shoes, and beside her, Mytho stiffened but soon relaxed just as easily. “Look,” he whispered, gesturing a careful hand towards the pond. Ahiru did, and promptly caught her breath.
Ash-colored wings curled up and out, feathered tips tracing spiraling shapes on the water’s surface as the creature landed. For a moment, as its quivering form bent to meet the pond, Ahiru thought it some sort of dark angel. Looking closer, though, she could see a startling red beak amidst all the feathers, a pair of blinking, beady eyes and realized, as the ducks shied away from the newcomer, that it was a swan -- as black as a moonless night.
“Oh my,” Ahiru breathed. Beside her, she could see that Mytho was just as entranced. The swan lifted its long neck towards them and almost seemed to shyly wonder over to their side of the pond. Mytho fumbled in his pocket, finally producing a handful of bread crusts.
“This swan has been coming here for a few years now,” he commented, letting the crusts fall from his palm onto the bank. “I like to think it keeps coming back to see me, however silly that might sound.”
“No, no, it’s lovely,” Ahiru whispered, not wanting to disturb the swan as it began to peck at the crusts. She had to resist the urge to reach out and stroke its glimmering feathers. “I’ve never seen a black swan before. I didn’t know they even existed --”
“I’ve never seen another. Almost makes me think it’s one of a kind.” Mytho held out his hand, then, and after a moment, the swan closed the gap between them and allowed him to pet its curved head. “It’s very gentle.”
Ahiru nodded, and having finally worked up enough courage, reached out a careful hand to stroke one its wings -- only for the swan to pull away from her touch, honking almost apprehensively before fleeing to the other side of the pond.
“Well, I like animals,” Ahiru laughed. “But I guess they all don’t like me!”
That wasn’t funny in the least, she realized, embarrassed. Why had she said that? Stupid, stupid, stupid...
She opened her mouth to say something less silly; her first breath easily overpowered by a sharp voice from behind.
“What are you doing?”
Both Mytho and Ahiru turned, startled. A man stood towards the edge of the clearing. Ahiru noted the type of clothes he wore, the sword sheathed at his side -- one of the knights, she realized. He met her gaze for the briefest of moments: he looked almost startled by her presence -- his eyes were a deep, riveting green -- but then his expression quickly soured, and he approached the two so quickly that Ahiru stumbled a few steps backwards, frightened.
Mytho frowned. “We were just --”
“I don’t want to hear your excuses,” the man cut him off. “You weren’t thinking, as usual.”
“A few minutes out in the open aren’t going to be the death of me, Fakir.”
The knight turned, then, fixing Ahiru with a cold stare.
“H-Hello,” she stammered, gathering up her skirt in a pitiful sort of curtsy. “I’m --”
“I know who you are,” he snapped. “And apparently, you’re just as idiotic as he is.”
Ahiru found herself at an utter loss for how to respond to such a comment; could only blink up at him, eyes wide as she searched her thoughts for a suitable retort. Mytho, thankfully, interjected.
“Stop it, Fakir,” he said, placing a cautious hand on Ahiru’s arm. “We’re less than twenty feet from the doors. We’ve only been here for a few minutes. Your protection isn’t necessary for such simple trips outdoors, I’m sure.”
“Y-Yes, he’s right!” Ahiru suddenly found her voice, forcing her lips to curve into a comforting smile in the hopes that it would calm his anger. “We only wanted to feed the ducks. We’re right here! What could happen?”
She had said it so pleasantly, but the knight’s scowl deepened, if that was possible, and with two quick steps, he had closed the gap between them, so close that his tall frame blotted out the sun.
“What could happen?” He repeated, voice low. Before she could say a word, he’d taken her by the wrist and yanked her in a stumbling circle so that she was facing away from him, out into the endless groves of trees, leaves large and curling in the heat of late summer. “Those,” he said, gesturing a stiff hand towards them.
All Ahiru could see was a mess of green and brown. Besides, she found herself much more concerned with his painful grip on her arm. “You’re hurting me --”
“Look,” he demanded.
She did, reluctantly searching every inch so that she would be sure not to miss anything. Nothing but trees, trees, more trees -- but then a speck of black amidst all the color caught her attention, and she squinted, trying to make it out. It seemed to tremble, shifting to and fro, and she noted there was more than one: identical dark blurs near it. It wasn’t until one of them rose out from the green, spreading its wings, that she understood.
At least five of them, lingering near the tips of the trees. They shifted the folds of their wings from time to time, curved heads all turned the same direction. They were all watching, and the notion of it struck a cold fear from the fringes of her thoughts all the way down to her quivering feet.
They were staring straight at her.
They’re so far away, you can’t even tell what they’re looking at, she insisted, begging herself to calm down, but it didn’t matter, not at all, because she could feel their startling eyes intruding on her own, could feel their claws tearing at her skin, just like the dream, always like the dream --
The darkening thought was shattered as the knight wrenched her back around to face him once more.
“Ravens don’t give a damn what you think,” he said, and Ahiru felt her heart give a vicious heave. “They don’t give a damn if it’s only been five minutes. They’ll rip you to shreds, and the only one you’ll have to blame is your moronic self.”
“Fakir, that’s enough --” Mytho insisted, but the knight ignored him. He took the prince’s wrist with his free hand and proceeded to drag the two back across the length of the clearing, back to the door alongside the massive castle walls, still left ajar with Ahiru’s hasty exit.
Ahiru’s wrist, meanwhile, ached under his iron grip, and her terror dissipated just as quickly as it’d appeared, replaced instead with bubbling indignation “Why are you saying such awful things? You can’t -- you can’t talk to us this way,” she insisted, dragging her heels in protest. Beside her, Mytho seemed to have relented, keeping pace. “I’m the princess, and he’s the prince, and you -- you can’t treat us like this! I‘ll tell the Council, I will--”
They reached the door, and with a stiff yank, the knight sent both of them stumbling across the stone floor of the hallway; stepped back out into the sun.
“We deserve an apology,” Ahiru heard herself say, anger forcing words to her mouth, her free hand massaging her wrist. “You have no right to --!”
He turned away, one hand on the metal handle. “Stay inside,” he ordered, and pulled the door shut behind him with a resounding thud.
Furious, Ahiru yanked on the handle, but it wouldn’t budge, and she resorted to pounding her fists against the wood. “Wait! Come back here and apologize! Come back!”
Nothing. With a shrill sigh, she slumped down to her knees, shirt crumpling against the gray stone beneath her. What was his problem, anyway?
Only when Mytho stepped up to a window further down the hallway, his form overwhelmed by sunlight as it flooded in, did she remember he was there. At once, she rose again, embarrassed by her hasty behavior.
“Don’t mind him,” Mytho said, obviously noting her angry look. She tried to allow her face to soften, but couldn’t, still looking to the door over and over again, unable to let the incident go. Never, never in her entire life had she been treated so horribly, like she was an idiot, like her opinion didn‘t matter in the least! Just who did he think he was to say such things to her?
She had to ask. “Who was that?”
“His name is Fakir. I’ve known him a few years now. He and a few other knights were assigned by the Council to watch over us while the others are busy keeping the ravens themselves away.” Mytho smiled. “So you can imagine his reaction when I began sneaking outside. He’s usually not that...volatile, though. Perhaps because now he thinks you’ve gotten into the act as well.”
“But we were right there,” Ahiru insisted, gesturing a stiff finger out the window. “We barely left! I don’t see why he has to be such a jerk about it --”
“Don’t let it get to you. He means well, I promise.”
Ahiru didn‘t say anything to that, so she crossed her arms instead, shaking her head as though maybe all of her anger would sink out through her ears.
For a quiet moment, she stood there beside Mytho as he lingered at the window, watching the black swan swim circles around the length of the pond. Ahiru couldn’t bring herself to look further on towards the forest. She couldn’t bear to see if the ravens were still waiting, watching, an unsettling fear clinging to the fringes of her every thought.
“There’s a bright side,” he said, and his hand grazed her shoulder. “Just think. In a few months, they’ll be gone. We’ll be able to go outside whenever we want.”
He was right, Ahiru remembered, a whole new wave of fresh nervousness and excitement flooding in. The marriage. In a few months, they would be married, and the ravens, they -- they would be gone!
“And meanwhile,” Mytho continued, and as he turned, she realized just how close they were to one another, “we have the ball in two days.” He took her limp hand, but didn’t lift it, instead rubbing his finger on the low of her wrist. “I’m looking forward to it.”
“M-Me too!” Ahiru squeaked, refusing to think back on her slew of failed dance lessons. It wouldn’t matter if she couldn’t perfect the waltz before then, would it? Her prince was everything everyone had told her he was: kind, gentle, understanding. He would understand, right? They would dance, and everyone would say how lovely they were, and even if she stepped on his toes, he would be sure to forgive her, because in a few months, they’d be living happily ever after…
Mytho took her other hand, then, and rose both up into the shallow air between them: almost as if he was preparing her to lead her in a dance that very moment, there in the hushed hallway. “We’ll dance the night away,” he said, and Ahiru nodded, face pink with excitement, thinking that for once, everything was perfect, just--
She took a step back, her heel digging into a curve within the stone.
“Did you say night?”
Mytho blinked. “Yes?”
“But we won’t -- the ball’s not at night. It’s during the day.”
His grip on her hands loosened. “They told me it was to be at night. After all the shops in town have closed.”
A dull horror was beginning to swell in the back of Ahiru’s head. “N-No, my caretaker, Miss Edel, she told the Council that it had to be during the day, she spoke to them about it, I’m sure --”
“The last I heard of it, the invitations had already gone out, and it’s not meant to begin until after sunset.” Mytho looked perplexed. “Is something wrong?”
Is something wrong? This was it, wasn’t it? The question she’d been fearing for as long as she could remember; the enormous problem she’d been struggling to escape ever since she was first told just what a dire problem it was. She'd managed to hide it away in the back of her mind for quite some time, too caught up in this dreamlike first meeting, in her elaborate fantasies of costumes and music and dancing...
But if the ball was to be at night...
...then she would not be there.
“Ahiru? What’s the matter?”
She looked up, then, to her prince, with eyes golden and wavering, with genuine concern evident in every part of his face. He would understand, wouldn’t he? If he could forgive her for taking so long to approach him, if he could forgive her for bad manners, for awful jokes, for poor dancing, then surely he could accept something she couldn’t help, a...deformity she’d been born with and had lived with for so many years...right?
Just say it! At night, I --- at night, I always am --
Her throat closed up. The words died away.
Both hands slipped easily out of his grip, and she backed away. Her footsteps clattered and echoed all through the hallway.
“I can’t,” she murmured.
“But why?” Mytho asked, approaching her with arms open -- but once more, she stepped back and turned away.
The words rattled out, incoherent. “I can’t come -- I won’t be -- please tell them -- I’m sorry!”
And then she was running, skirt bunched in the trembling lines of her palms, each breath heavy in her lungs. She ran as fast as she could, as far away as was possible -- because no matter how wonderful Mytho was, no matter how lovely any ball would be, no matter how miraculous and freeing and world-saving their marriage would prove in the end...
He would never be able to see her at night.
She didn’t look back.
- - -
Well, that had been a pleasant conversation.
That was Mytho’s first thought as he slipped out of the conference hall, still rumbling with angry voices, with slamming books and fluttering papers and fists pounding on tables. He leaned against the decorated door for a moment and ran his hands through his hair as he waited to see if they would calm down.
The rumblings grew even louder, if that was possible. Mytho sighed, took to walking the darkening hallways instead. It seemed like he’d been spending his time there a lot lately, unwilling to stay for very long in his prison of a room while unable to find too many opportunities for sneaking out into the open.
The Council wasn’t usually prone to such explosive bouts of anger. He’d always thought the group of men to be as wise and rational as they come -- and why not? They’d been placed in charge of the kingdom ever since his mother‘s death, and it would stay that way until his eighteenth birthday, when he would finally assume control himself. In fact, they’d seemed downright quiet recently, their time spent keeping the castle safe by appointing knights and guards to various positions of security, keeping a watch on the ravens in case of any suspicious patterns or appearances. Things had been relatively calm for some time, though. There hadn’t been a major attack in over five years. The land hadn’t seen blood since then.
That had to be why, Mytho realized. The Council had gotten so comfortable over time that one small bump in their plans -- such as, the princess being unable to attend the festivities meant to serve as her grand introduction to the kingdom -- sent them into a wild fit.
He’d tried to explain. He’d told them Ahiru’s words: her caretaker, Adel or something of the sort, was supposed to have informed them of the need for the ball to take place during the day. Apparently, the Council hadn’t bothered to listen, going through with their original plans and sending out the invitations for after sunset. Many of the prominent villagers that wished to attend wouldn’t close their shops until then.
What would they do? Probably storm up to Ahiru’s room first thing in the morning and demand that she be present. After all, his explanation for the refusal had been vague -- and how could it not have been?
I can’t come -- I won’t be -- please tell them -- I’m sorry!
The thought plagued him. Just what was keeping her away? His mind had considered all sorts of possibilities, ranging from rational to magical. In the end, though, nothing really made sense. Nothing would until he heard the true reason from Ahiru herself.
Could it really be so bad that she couldn't bring herself to tell him?
He didn’t want to consider it to be anything negative. He decided, with a sigh, to put it out of his mind for the time being.
It was only then that he noticed the darkening hallway, and he paused a moment to glance out a small window. The sun had become little more than a purpling line on the horizon, the sky cold with swirling blue. Down the road, the sloping roofs of the village all seemed to settle beneath the groves of trees, every dirt path empty. Directly beneath him: the still pond, a perfect half-moon reflected in its surface.
A dark form obscured the light; looking closer, he saw it to be the swan. It was still there, tracing its wide wings over the surface, kicking up water as it lifted its body once, then again, almost as if it was playing a game with itself, almost as if it was dancing --
What happened next, Mytho could never explain to anyone.
The swan began to shake, so violently that the moon’s reflection was shattered into a thousand blurry fragments. For a frightening moment, he thought the animal to be growing in size, the wings curling in on themselves, curved head and beak lifting up to the sky almost in desperation, and then --
Black feathers trembled then parted, revealing alabaster skin, the gentle curves of a back, and two heaving shoulders. Feathers melted into a head of raven-colored hair. Both wings crumpled in on themselves, and, as if nothing but a scrap of loose clothing, slid off the skin into the shallow pond, giving way to two thin arms that rose to the sky, hands open, fingers splayed.
Mytho found himself unable to move.
The swan -- no, woman, it was a woman -- turned, then. In one fluid motion, her arms had dropped to her side, her body outlined by little more than moonlight. Her head rose, and she looked to the castle, to the windows. To him.
He had to be dreaming.
He stumbled back away from the window, rubbed his eyes and shook his head. Short of breath, he approached once again, gripping the stone edge hard with both hands, leaning out as far as he could to see the pond once more --
Mytho blinked, scanning the surrounding forests.
Nothing but an illusion.
Yes, he thought with a weak laugh, hands held so tightly to the stone that his knuckles gleamed white. That was it. After all, he really hadn’t been getting enough sleep as of late. That was the problem. That was why he saw magical, impossible things. It would have to be remedied at once, of course. More sleep. He wouldn’t wait a moment longer.
He hurried to his room without another thought.
The water rippled. A black feather floated on its surface, lingering in the moon’s outline before being whisked away by the wind, lost to the night.
A/N: That's all for today! Remember, I won't be posting the next few updates at princesstutu, so if you want to keep up with future additions this story, please friend beyondfate (this journal)! New chapter next Friday! <33
As always, comments are very much appreciated. :D