In two hours, forty-three minutes and seven seconds, someone was going to die.
“I’m not sure I follow,” Prince Kellan said, face carefully neutral.
Nina sighed. She always did hate giving people this particular piece of news, that someone they loved was about to die. And this death...this death was extraordinary in itself.
“I’m sorry,” she said, too used to this to feel sympathy. She might not like it, but she could do nothing about it either.
The Prince studied her, his honey gold eyes serious. “I wasn’t aware you were a Sybil as well as a mystic,” he said.
Ah, yes. The Prince did have a habit of being a sceptic. Smart child.
“I do not claim to be a Sybil,” Nina said, as she always did in reply to the accusation. “But I can see death in your future.” Death, betrayal, and destruction, she thought.
“Right,” Kellan said, leaning back. “Any idea who will die?”
He said it so casually, easy demeanour slipping effortlessly into place, that even Nina was almost fooled. She raised an eyebrow at him, shaking her head. He gave her an easy smile, shrugging.
“What? You expect me to break down sobbing?” He winked, his eyes twinkling. “Maybe you’d like that. Ladies do like the emotional kind.”
Nina almost blushed, then frowned mentally at herself. She raised an eyebrow at him, pushing a black lock of hair out of her face, keeping a haughty lift to her face. The prince was just as rumours described him, then. Effortlessly handsome, too intelligent for his own good, with a habit of flirting with any living thing at all. People even said he could charm a horseshoe of a horse’s foot with his easy grace and sparkling company.
“I see your training hasn’t changed you,” she said dryly.
He laughed. “Why would it? My personality’s stronger than any brutal stress you can put me through.”
Nina rolled her eyes. “Pay up, Your Highness.”
“Please,” he grinned, pulling a wallet on--it was, of course, of the finest leather, embroidered with gold--and pulled out an impeccable, crisp note. He handed it to Nina. “Call me Kellan.”
Nina glanced at the money. “This is more than--”
“Keep it,” he said, no doubt thinking how he was so very generous. Nina smiled sweetly, handing the note back.
“Sorry,” she said, not sorry at all, “but we don’t accept charity.”
Kellan pushed it back into her hand. “Oh, I insist,” he said charmingly and with a dazzling smile, strode out of the room. Nina glared at the money, then pocketed it. Might as well use it if she had it.
From outside, she heard a voice, saying a single word. "Choose.”
She frowned to herself. What’s he doing here?
“Saiya,” she murmured, closing her eyes, “spy, my dear.”
Her alter ego, a sleek white cat, stirred from the depths of her consciousness, rearing to life. Suddenly she was outside, squinting against the sudden light. Then her eyes adjusted, and her vision cleared.
She saw him, leaning against the tent wall, face expressionless as always, clothes impeccable, figure lean and unfairly athletic. Perfect, as always.
Prince Kellan whirled around at his voice, body adapting a defensive stance with practised ease. “What did you say?” he said sharply, hand drifting to his side, where his sword was sheathed.
Araysh pushed off from the tent, graceful as the assassin he was. “Someone’s going to die today,” he said, a hint of a sneer upon his lips. “Who’s it going to be? Choose, Prince Kellan.”
Kellan’s hand closed around the hilt of his sword. Fool, Nina thought, and Saiya hissed in response. Your weapons won’t work on him.
Araysh’s eyes flicked to her; she saw the moment recognition hit him. He did not show signs of shock (why would he? He was always so damn perfect) and instead, just smiled slightly, then focused again at Kellan. It had been so swift, the Prince hadn’t even noticed it.
“I am your Prince, and I demand to know who you are,” he said, lifting his chin. As if pulling rank will have any effect on Araysh, Nina thought. Foolish boy.
Araysh lifted a brow, intimidation incarnate. “Wrong question, Prince Kellan,” he said, in that rich, enchanting, accentless voice, jerking his head to shake away his bangs. “What do they teach you in Tarbiyat?”
Kellan pulled his sword free. “Who’s your boss?”
Araysh chuckled lightly to himself. “That’s better,” he said patronizingly, and the Prince scowled.
“Enough with the games,” he snarled. “Your boss. Who is he?”
“Or she,” Araysh said mildly, glancing at Nina, who scowled to herself. “It doesn’t befit a Prince to be racist, now does it?”
Kellan looked like he was retort with something equally as biting, but then he smiled, the anger disappearing suddenly. “You’re right,” he said and sheathed his sword. “It does not. Besides, your master should be someone to respect, I suppose, if they were able to get a dark elf to work for them.”
Nina and Araysh both flinched at the same time. Kellan smirked and then launched himself onto Araysh, a small dagger in his head. Taken by surprise, Araysh stumbled back into the tent wall. Kellan pinned him there, the knife pressed against his throat.
“You do know,” Araysh said, recovering enough to regain his composure (which is unfair, since he’s pinned against the wall, Nina thought bitterly). “Your weapons won’t work on me.”
“You really must think I’m stupid,” Kellan said pleasantly, shoving the blade with force, enough to make Araysh wince slightly. “You see, this tidy little dagger is made of iron. And I happen to know iron very much does work on dark elves. Want me to test it?”
Araysh glared at him, but it was clear that he was in pain. Iron was a nasty thing for dark elves.
Kellan said hand flexed around the hilt. “Normally, I’m not this cruel, but I don’t normally come across a maniac dark elf.” Then he moved to draw the knife across Araysh’s—
“Wait!” Nina cried, suddenly herself again, morphed back in her panic. Kellan froze, studying her suspiciously, knife still poised against his throat.
“Wait,” Nina repeated. “Don’t kill him.”
Kellan said nothing, but stayed still, watching her.
Nina tried to steady her thundering heart. “Please,” she said. “I... He’s my brother.”
Kellan’s eyebrows rose. Araysh smiled to himself, hiding his fear better than Nina ever could. Nina suddenly wished she hadn’t spoken.
“Your brother,” Kellan repeated.
“Yes,” Nina said. “Forgive him. He can be—” She glared at Araysh, who gave her a smug smile. “He can be weird sometimes.” Understatement, she thought. He’s a freak.
“You’re a dark elf?”
Nina curled her fingers into fists. “Yes.”
Araysh chuckled, which made Nina glare and Kellan give him a warning shove. He was still watching Nina closely; she could almost hear his mind working rapidly. She knew what he was thinking.
Being a dark elf was a crime in itself. Any spotted were to be killed at the spot, which was why they were so rare, the little of them left in hiding. The Prince, of all people, a patriot through and through, would not let them go. Even if he wouldn’t kill them himself, he would hand them over to his father, who would definitely not spare them.
Nina did not want to die.
“You’re aware,” Prince Kellan said slowly, “that your being here is illegal?”
Nina closed her eyes and bit back a sigh. “I know, Your Highness,” she said.
Kellan seemed to be considered something, then he stepped away from Araysh. “Do you have a family to support?” he asked, and Araysh’s face darkened just a bit.
“My parents, sire,” Nina said respectfully, wondering if she was making a mistake by revealing the existence of yet more elves, or if she was doing them a favour by tapping into the Prince’s sympathy.
“Very well,” Kellan said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out his wallet. Nina looked at him blankly.
The Prince handed her a couple of notes, which Nina frowned at.
“You are to leave your mystic tent,” Kellan said. “Make do with that money till you find another safe job. I am sparing you this once, but if I ever see you again, I will not be as merciful.”
A weight left Nina’s shoulders. “Thank you, my Prince.”
Kellan smiled, demeanour changing again. “Don’t mention it. Keep your brother under your check, will you? Don’t want him getting into trouble.”
“I will, sire,” Nina assured, at which Araysh snorted very elegantly.
“Oh, and--Nina?” the Prince said. “Was the prophecy--” he made exaggerated air quotes, which almost made her roll her eyes-- “was it true?”
Nina ducked her head. “It was, sire,” she said, and Araysh smirked.
Kellan nodded and smiled in clear dismissal. Nina grabbed Araysh’s arm--with force enough to be painful, which was absolutely necessary--and dragged him along with her. He walked beside her with an infuriating smile, calm and graceful and so Araysh that it was killing her.
“What is wrong with you?” she hissed once they were out of earshot and sight of the Prince. “What are you doing here?”
“Am I not allowed to visit my family?” Araysh asked smoothly, smiling at her. “I missed you, big sister.”
“Oh, stop it,” she snapped. “We all know you’re not welcome.”
Araysh’s expression became dark. “I want to see Mother and Father.”
“For what?” Nina said. “Money? You’re not going to get a smile from them, much less even a single coin.”
“I don’t want money,” Araysh said, and there was steel in his voice. “I just want to see them.”
Nina crossed her arms, silent for a second. “You can’t.”
“Nina,” Araysh snapped. “I am their son. I deserve to--”
“You’re not their son,” Nina cut in harshly, anger flaring. “You’ve never been. You’re a freak.”
Araysh’s face shuttered. “It was not my fault I was born that way.”
Nina raised her eyebrows. “Really? And what of the events after?”
“If you care to remember,” Araysh said heatedly, composure snapping, “it was you, my family, who cut me off, who treated me like an outcast. Would you blame an innocent baby--who could do nothing other than cry at the time--of being born with a different alter ego? Would you blame me for wanting to get of the home where everyone looked at me like I was a freak? That’s rich.”
Nina glared at him. She crossed her arms a little tighter, trying to look as if she wasn’t hugging herself. “You can’t,” she repeated, and Araysh opened his mouth again, “because both of them are dead.”
Araysh fell silent immediately, his face caught in a rare moment of shock. “Dead,” he repeated numbly.
“You would know,” Nina said, voice hostile, “if you deigned to visit even once in ten years.”
Araysh looked away, staring at a patch of ground to his right. Then he asked, “How? When?”
“They were caught by the king’s guard,” Nina said, “two years ago.” She watched as horror settled onto her brother’s features, hating him for pretending to care.
“Don’t pretend you care,” she spat. “Don’t pretend you’re going to grieve for them.”
Araysh’s shoulders hunched. He said nothing, turning away so that Nina couldn’t see his face. His fists clenched at his sides, posture tense and angry.
Then his body relaxed, and when he turned back, his face was set in that infuriating smirk again. “My, Nina,” he said, gleeful and malicious, “did you lie to the Prince? I didn’t think you had it in you.”
Anger cracked through her. “Are you being serious right now? Dang it, Araysh. Get out of my sight before I do something to you.”
Araysh smirked. “It was nice seeing you too, big sister,” he said, and then changed.
Elves, specifically dark elves, had alter egos they could transform into. Saiya’s family had cats for alter egos, but Araysh had broken that rule. He’d been born with an eagle for an alter ego--a completely different animal--so he had always been different. A freak.
Saiya watched as Araysh morphed into a majestic eagle, his feathers streaked with a deep brown. The bird spread his wings, and then her brother was gone, quickly becoming a dot against the sky.