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in the voice of birds

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Her name was beautiful.

Or so she had been told a number of times. The memory of one diplomat’s wife remained more vivid than the rest. A strand of wheat colored hair had escaped her tightly coiled bun and emeralds glimmered around her neck. Coal-rimmed eyes softened as she brushed a calloused hand over the young princess’ cheek. “Raven,” she’d said, followed by that same line. Her accent softened her consonants.

Young Raven, with chubby cheeks and unblemished skin, beamed. She soaked up compliments like a snake in the sun.

Older Raven, scratching at feathers on her arm, loathed the memory.

 

The warlock came to their country not long after the diplomat’s visit. He claimed knowledge of the oldest magics and connections to primordial Gods. Her mother’s soldiers caught him in the outer provinces, dragging him from the tavern by his heels and marching him back to Arkadia.

Her mother received him the throne room, unwitnessed but for the guards who shoved him to his knees before her.

Oh, and Raven.

 Peeking through a cracked servants’ door, she could tell her mother was already a few bottles into the day.

The warlock bowed his head. He apologized for starting out on the wrong foot; she’d never heard an apology with a tone like his. He asked to put his indiscretions behind him – promised to make it worth Her Highness’ while.

She waved him off. “I don’t make deals with damned men.”

“And I don’t make deals with just anyone,” he replied.

Raven’s eyes were full of curiosity, questions filling her small mind as he spoke. Even as her mother obviously didn’t listen, she did, and she saw the lines of frustration appearing in his face at her mother’s lacking response.

When her mother yawned, he stopped mid-sentence. His voice changed, from syrupy sweet to ice cold. “I will not be executed. Better rulers have tried. But you will pay for more than that – you will pay for not listening to me.” His eyes snapped to the door she was hiding behind. Her mother turned in her chair, following the direction of his gaze.

“Raven?” she asked.

“Is that your daughter?”

Her head whipped around to face him. “Taking him to the dungeons.”

A wave of his hand sent the guards reaching for him across the room. Their armor rattled as they hit the walls, heads bobbing as they landed with heavy clanks. Raven gasped, shrinking back as his eyes returned to her. Another wave blasted open the door she hid behind; a pained cry escaped her as the back of her head hit the ground.

Her mother leapt to her feet, reaching for her sword. His eyes flashed, bending the metal in her hand.

“It’s a shame I must do this to the only one who listened here.”

As she rose her head, their eyes met again. His mouth moved silently, forming words in a language she didn’t recognize. Her skin began to itch and crawl; her vision swam in and out of focus. A tinny echo filled her skull, putting pressure on her eardrums. Tears welled in eyes as her lungs struggled for air.

“You bastard!” her mother shouted; she could barely hear the words, or the clatter of her mother’s sword against the ground. The image of her mother lunging for the warlock was a blur. It wasn’t clear if she shook him or if it was just Raven’s eyes. “What are you doing to her?!”

“I am punishing you,” he said as the spell ended. “Her name was just the perfect inspiration.”

 

The warlock disappeared in a dark cloud.

Her mother scooped her up and held her to her chest. Her head lolled against her mother’s breastplate, the magic still working its will on her body.

Feathers sprouted from her skin. Her nails lengthened and curved into sharp talons. The whites of her eyes darkened into black.

“This is old magic,” the royal physician said, shaking his head as he stepped back from her. “This is magic of dark gods.”

Fix it,” her mother growled.

The physician turned to her. “I don’t know how to.”

Then figure it out.”

 

They locked her away as the physician dove into his books – first in her room, but when servants and guards kept getting ‘lost’ at her door, she was spirited away to the highest tower. There was a single door and a single window. She was too high to be seen from the ground and the window faced the sea anyways. Curious whims were thwarted by the many stairs.

The physician visited her daily. He waved candles in front of her eyes and recorded how her pupils reacted. He manipulated her limbs, searching for new patches of feathers. Now and then, he’d pluck a feather and hold it up to the light – unperturbed by her pained yelps. He filed her talons and tried to make her caw. When she wouldn’t, he took the candle to a bare patch of skin. She drew bloody lines across his skin with the claws he sharpened.

When the physician exhausted his resources, he sent for those with more. Healers and witches from far and wide came to peer at her. She wasn’t Raven to them, just the raven princess. Cursed to an existence between human and animal.

She was a curiosity to those who came to treat her; to those who served her, she was just a beast. They spat in her food, made cawing sounds instead of speaking to her, mocked her when they brought her poultry and she ate it. They were quickly ordered not to bathe her after she clawed the eye out of a servant who tried to pluck a feather. None of them lasted long enough to see the girl beneath the feathers.

She wasn’t alone but—She was alone. Neither group saw her as a person. She wasn’t even sure if her mother saw her as a person; the few times the queen staggered up the stairs, drunk and tired, disgust was the only thing in her eyes.

 

They gave her books and the words hurt her eyes.

They gave her a needle and thread but she fumbled with her talons.

They gave her a bird – she liked that one, actually.

The bird brought her back scraps: metal, thimbles, buttons, wood shavings. She nicked scalpels from her physician’s belt and the bird started bringing back other types of tools. She pieced together the scraps into various things – statues, machines, and inventions.

When her mother noticed the broken heel on one of her shoes – and the shoe heel incorporated into her latest design – materials started arriving with her breakfasts.

 

Her eighteenth birthday marked ten years of the curse.

The physician’s visits had dwindled to once a week; her mother’s were even fewer.

She settled into her existence. She hadn’t scratched herself raw with her talons in years. The servants no longer had to clean up piles of plucked out feathers. The servants didn’t talk to her much in general now; cruelty was no fun if she wouldn’t spare them a single glance.

Her policy of ignoring the servants was why it took her so long to recognize the blonde one who came nearly every day.

 

“Um, ma’am—”

Raven scowled at the wall. She hated it when the servants tried to engage. It had been decade since her last etiquette lesson but she hadn’t shaken the concepts entirely. It’s rude to ignore people, her minded supplied in a voice suspiciously similar to her old tutor’s.

Still, she ignored the servant. It rarely failed her.

“Princess, your feathers—”

Keyword: rarely.

She huffed before craning her head over her shoulder, pinning the servant with her unnerving eyes.

“It’s just—they’re ruffled. It doesn’t look comfortable.” The servant offered her a lopsided grin – or tried, at least. The nerves were plain as day.

“What would you know about that?”

She shrugged. “I can imagine.”

Raven turned away from her, reaching from the middle of her back. Although the servant hadn’t specified the location, those were the most bothersome feathers. Birds didn’t sleep on their backs for a reason. But she wasn’t a bird and she couldn’t sleep upright on a perch.

She froze when gentle fingers touched a spot between her shoulder blades. Her breath caught in her throat at the sensation of those fingers combing through her feathers. The servant’s palm followed, flattening them before retreating.

She jumped to her feet, the stool falling to its side as she spun to face the servant. Her eyes narrowed, the visible skin on her face creasing with anger.

The servant bowed to her, hair falling like curtains around her face. “I apologize for touching you, but you seemed to be having trouble reaching them.”

The anger faded; her limbs felt like sails after the wind had stopped. “Get out,” she growled, keeping her eyes on the servant until the door clicked shut behind her.

 

The next morning, when the door opened once more, she betrayed all the instincts she’d developed and looked at the servant. It was the blonde one again.

“Why are you back?” she snapped, startling the woman. She paused mid-step, meeting Raven’s eyes.

“Breakfast?” It was too uncertain to sound like an answer.

“Set it down and get out.”

She did – and came back at noon with lunch and a broom.

“My mother has more servants than you,” Raven said as the servant set her tray of food on the desk.

She nodded. “She does, but…” She glanced to the side as she trailed off. “Most of them will volunteer to clean horse shit before they’ll come up here.”

Her statement drew a cold chuckle from Raven. She hated it.

“Do you volunteer then?”

“No, but they don’t give anyone else this assignment.”

A hum emanated from low in her throat as she looked away. Her gaze landed on her bird, preening on his perch beside her desk. Her brows twitched.

“Do my feathers look alright?”

“Yes, Princess.”

 

“What is your name?” Raven asked before the servant had even the chance to shut the door. She raised her brows at Raven.

“Clarke, Your Royal Highness.”

She shook her head. “Don’t. I’m not—”

“You’re not a princess?” Clarke’s lips formed a smirk; Raven wanted to scratch it off her face with her talons.

“What sort of princess looks like me? What sort of princess is locked in a tower for a decade? What sort of princess has no training in manners, etiquette, or even state craft?” Her blood warmed as Clarke considered her questions. As it began to boil, she started to say, “The ans—”

“One in a fairy tale.” She gave Raven a self-assured nod. “That’s the answer.”

“This is a curse, not a fairy tale,” she spat.

Clarke stepped forward, setting down the tray of food and leaning against the desk. Raven’s shoulders tensed beneath her appraising eyes.

“Lots of fairy tales have curses in them.

“When I was child, my mother travelled to a distant land – one of the things she brought back was a story.” Raven pursed her lips; Clarke continued without asking. “It was of a girl locked high in a tower by a sorceress. There were no stairs or ladders – just a single window. This girl was twelve when she was locked away, and her hair was so long that she could throw it out the window and whoever wished to visit her could climb up it. For many years, her only company was the sorceress, but one day a prince stumbled upon her tower. He fell in love with her beautiful singing and returned every day to listen to her. On one visit, he witness the sorceress call her to let down her hair. When the sorceress left, he did the same so they could finally meet. She fell in love with him and eventually they hatched an escape plan so they could live happily ever after.”

“Did they?”

Clarke pushed the cooling meal towards her. “The sorceress found out she was growing heavy with child. She cut the girl’s hair off and cast her out; when the prince came, she tricked him into the tower. He jumped out the window to escape, falling into a thorn bush that would blind him. He wandered the wilderness for years, eventually hearing his love’s singing again. They reunited and her tears cured his blindness. Sighted again, he took her and their twins back to his kingdom. So…” She paused. “Yes, in the end. You will too.”

Raven snorted, picking at her food. “You missed the key difference. She wasn’t a bird.”

“And neither are you,” Clarke shot back.

She turned her face from Clarke. “There are few who share your opinion.”

“They aren’t worth listening to.”

Raven was grateful her head was still bowed over her food; Clarke couldn’t see how her comment tugged at the corners of her lips.

 

It was not the first time her bird had brought back a doll.

Exasperation laced her sigh as it dropped the toy on her desk and landed next to it. The bird took a treat from her hand, crunching on it while she petted the top of its head. Teaching the bird not to steal from children was a futile effort. She scooped the doll up and held it close to her face. Yellow string had been attached to the top of its head, mimicking hair; green buttons had been sewn to its face as eyes. It reminded her of Clarke.

As soon as the thought struck her, she dropped the doll like it had burned her. There was no reason for her to think of Clarke when she wasn’t present. Her chair scraped against the ground as she rose from it, turning her back to the desk and approaching the window. Her talons clicked against the sill as she scanned the horizon. She saw only miles and miles of sea – no thorn bushes to be blinded by, no wilderness to get lost in. At most, she could crane her head and glimpse the edges of the castle town.

She still stood at the window when Clarke entered with lunch.

“What’s this?” she asked.

Raven tore her eyes from the sea, spotting the doll in her hands. “A gift from my friend,” she answered, motioning to her bird. “It hasn’t learned not to steal from children. Or perhaps it has but doesn’t listen to me.”

Clarke hid a laugh behind her palm but the wrinkles that formed around her eyes warmed Raven’s insides.

“It would be nice if it could be returned.” Clarke’s hand dropped from her face, the doll still clutched in her other hand; she raised her brows, curious. “Perhaps you could try.”

“Why not you?”

Raven scoffed. “Setting aside the response I would get, how would I do that?”

“The door isn’t locked,” Clarke pointed out. “And surely you could startle the guards. Have you—” Her face wrinkled with confusion. “Have you never tried to escape? Never thought of it?”

Raven’s gaze dropped to the floor. “I have not.”

She heard Clarke’s footsteps but didn’t register them until her hands were around her wrist. Her nails were blunt, a sharp contrast to her own. “What—”

“We’re leaving.” It wasn’t a question nor a suggestion. They were leaving.

They paused only a few steps into their escape. Clarke muttered something about waiting, slipping the doll into the pocket of her servant’s dress and kneeling in front of her trunk. She dug through the garments, pulling out a dull cloak. She swung it around Raven’s neck and pulled the hood over her head.

“I’d expect finer things for a royal but this is better. C’mon.”

Grabbing her wrist again, Clarke dragged her towards the door. Her bird landed on her shoulder just before she stumbled onto the landing. The stairs were steep and winding; the bottom couldn’t be seen from this level. Clarke started down them without hesitation, pulling Raven behind her. Her heart hammered against her ribcage. By the time they were halfway down the stairs, she was already winded, but Clarke refused to stop until the bottom was in view. A guard’s back was half-exposed thru the archway but he didn’t move an inch, either not hearing them or not suspecting anything.

Raven reached up to stroke the side of her bird’s face. It needed no command; soaring from her shoulder, the guard yelped as it attacked. They took the remaining stairs two at a time, hitting the ground with a thud and breaking into a run down the hallway. When they were a good distance from the guard, her bird returned to her shoulder.

Clarke opened a door and ushered her in. A significantly shorter set of stairs deposited them with a splash into a dark tunnel. One end continued into pitch black, the other end promised a pinprick of light. Raven lifted her skirt and took off after Clarke, sucking in a shocked breath as a cold sea breeze hit her face. The tunnel deposited them onto a cliffside path. Above them loomed the walls and spires of the castle, below them was the crashing sea.

“Servants path to town,” Clarke explained, glancing black at her with a red-cheeked smile. Her hair shone like gold in the sunlight. “Mainly reserved for trash but I figured it’d be easier to get through.”

“So long as it insinuates nothing about my character…”

Never,” she teased. “This way.”

Although she hiked up her skirt again, this time she fell into step beside Clarke as they set off.

“Where are we going?”

Clarke shot her an incredulous look. “To return a doll,” she said, patting her skirt pocket. “Although, your friend might need to help us once we get closer to town.”

Snorting, Raven motioned for Clarke to hand her the doll. Once in hand, she held it up for her bird to scent. “Find it,” she whispered. The bird stretched its wings and launched from her shoulder. It reached a preferred cruising height and remained a few paces ahead of them. She searched Clarke’s face for approval.

Clarke nodded, impressed.

“What do we do after we return it?” she asked, handing the doll back to Clarke.

She shrugged. “Whatever you want.”

“Like return to the castle?”

“I mean—” The expression on Clarke’s face made her feel foolish for suggesting it. “If you want, I guess, but there’s plenty of other options. We could go down to the beach, get sticky buns from the market, get—”

“Lost in the wildness?”

Clarke’s lips twitched. “Never, ever return to that tower again.”

It was the most tempting thing she’d ever heard, but the question on her tongue almost left her mute. “Would you—Would you come with me?”

“Who else would smooth your feathers?”

No one, she thought. No one but Clarke.