The Firebird Prince

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Araysh fainted half through his journey, which was bad, because he was about ten thousand feet in the air.

Thankfully, he had wards around him that protected him from any major injuries, but when he woke up hurtling towards the ground, that didn’t come to mind. He flailed, trying to change back into an eagle, but he was in too much pain.

His vision flashed, the world a whirl of sharp wind and grey. He barely managed to draw his hands and head into his chest, his burnt hand throbbing.

Then he hit the ground.

He must have blacked out momentarily, but when he came to again, his entire body was aching almost as badly as his hand. He allowed himself a moment to breathe through the pain, curled up on the ground, cradling his hand against his chest.

He had not been expecting that bad of an injury, which made it harder to take. Iron was lethal to faes—even a single touch of the metal would leave a permanent burn. Araysh had taken care not to touch the blade of the Prince’s iron dagger, but he had had to grip the hilt, which was also iron. His hand, as a result, was blistering and red; the pain was nearly unbearable.

He had not slept in two days. He was exhausted and aching, but still he staggered to his feet, knowing he had to get back to the safehouse.

His master would be waiting.

Someone was following him.

Araysh crouched in the shadows, watching everything around him. He couldn’t see his follower—but he could sense someone creeping after him.

As he watched, the bush rustled, and a cat padded out. Its white fur glowed in the night, green eyes gleaming as it studied its surroundings with too much intelligence to be normal.

Araysh grit his teeth, but then hoisted a lazy smirk on his face and casually strolled out.

“Out on a walk, Nina dear?”

She startled—he had always prided himself on being able to sneak up on her; Nina herself was unusually observant, and her senses were only enhanced as Saiya.

He leaned against a tree as she turned back, glaring at him.

“What are you doing here?”

Araysh raised his eyebrows. “The open is my abode.”

Nina snorted. “What a dignified way to say you’re homeless. And why aren’t you flying instead of walking?”

“It’s my choice, is it not?”

“Rubbish,” Nina snarled. “You’re up to something, and I want to know what.”

Well, there was no way he was telling her that, or about his hand. He smirked and said, “I’m just out to take a walk. Whereas you—why are you here? Home is a long way off, Nina,” he added softly. “There are a lot of dangers here.”

She got the threat, and narrowed her eyes. “I can take care of myself,” she said.

“Still,” Araysh said. “Why so far away? The Isles of Zeere are nowhere near.”

She ignored him and said, “What’s wrong with your hand?”

Araysh was surprised she had noticed. He had carefully crossed his arms so it would be out of sight, but Nina had always had a knack of knowing he was injured even when he gave no sign of it.

Still, she had never tried to help him, and Araysh wouldn’t either.

“It’s practically aching with the desire to slap you,” Araysh said.

She grit her teeth, her temper clearly fraying. “Give me a straight answer.”

“No,” Araysh said flatly. “I’m doing what I did for the last—what? ten years? You showing up doesn’t make a difference.”

Nina scowled. “You were coming from the direction of the palace.”

“That’s vague,” Araysh scoffed. “You mean to say I was in the castle?”

“Maybe,” Nina said, studying him, her dark eyes intent.

“Oh, yes,” Araysh said sarcastically. “The Prince and I are best of friends.”

Nina just crossed her arms. “I followed you a lot of the time,” she said. “You’ve been busy.”

“And just why are you following me?”

“After our meeting at home,” Nina said, “I wanted to know what you were up to.”

Araysh barely stopped himself from tapping his foot in impatience. He was getting late; he had to get to the safehouse. And his hand had taken up throbbing again after a brief reprieve. It needed attention.

“Well then,” Araysh said, “find out.”

He changed in a heartbeat, soaring up to heights even Saiya could not see. His hand throbbed in protest and he nearly lost his focus and changed back again, but managed to compose himself at the last second.

Hurry, Araysh.

He was fairly certain that he had lost Nina soon into the journey; there was no way she could see this high so into the night. But Araysh took the long route just in case, doubling back to the safe house.

He changed when he was almost to the ground and dropped the rest of the way, crouching and watching for a minute to ensure no-one was there. Then he jogged the rest of the way to the safe house, which was an unassuming, shabby little cottage.

Araysh was thankful when he found no-one there. He rummaged through his things for something to put on his hand, pressing it against the cool metal of the chair.

The pain was enough that he thought he’d go mad.

His ribs were also bruised, if not broken. There was nothing to wrap them up in—Araysh would have used his jacket, but it was too cold. Instead, he settled for gently rubbing some cream over himself and then sat in wait for his boss.

He was half asleep when the door open; he jolted awake, pulling on the look he knew made him look alert when he wasn’t. But instead of seeing his boss, who he had expected, a man dressed in soldier’s uniform entered. He handed Araysh a sealed letter, visibly quaking in his boots. Well, Araysh wasn’t a world class assassin for nothing.

“Master sent this,” he said. “Couldn’t come himself. Too risky.”

Araysh only nodded, making a dismissive gesture. The man practically fled from the cottage, leaving the door hanging open behind him.

Araysh rolled his eyes but got up and closed it, opening the letter with one hand. He unfolded it. Written on it was one short sentence:

Kill the smart one next.

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