The Firebird Prince

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Kellan

Morning came slowly and painfully.

Despite his lightheadedness and exhaustion, Kellan couldn’t manage to fall asleep. It was one of those nights when no matter how hard he tried, sleep wouldn’t come.

He tried to move about, but whenever he so much as stirred, Asa—who sat vigil at his side—would jerk awake, glaring at him until he settled back with a promise not to try again.

“You needn’t tire yourself,” Kellan said. “Go to your room and get some rest. Proper rest.”

“I know for a fact that the moment I leave the room, you’ll attempt to get out of bed again,” Asa said, rolling her eyes. “I’m not an idiot.”

“I never said that,” Kellan said. “But if you don’t show face soon or if your maids don’t find you in your room, then someone is bound to suspect that something us up.”

Asa sighed. “Fine, I guess. But—” here she levelled a glare at him again— “don’t you dare try to be a hero.”

He looked at her innocently, playing along. “A hero?”

“You know what I mean,” Asa snapped in exasperation, and Kellan laughed even though it hurt. “You’ll ignore the injury and the pain, pretend you’re fine because you don’t ‘want to be a burden’ or ‘worry us’. You’ll smile through it—God damn your excellent acting skills—and probably end up collapsing, or worse.”

Another laugh left Kellan. Trust Asa to be blatantly cruel.

“If that happens,” Asa added before he could say anything, “mind you, I’m not tending to your injuries.”

“Noted,” Kellan said dryly.

“Don’t try to stand up or walk,” Asa said.

“I won’t,” Kellan promised, even though he knew it wasn’t true. “But I will have to attend funerals. Then we have my crowning.”

A pang of—of something went through him. Being a King has it luxuries - but they were by far outweighed by the negatives. To be crowned King, you first had to lose one of your family members. With that grief, you had to take on that enormous burden that; left even adult men stressed and exhausted, reduced to a mere shell of themselves.

He didn’t think Karam had ever had had such a young king - the youngest had been Mirza, who had been crowned when he was thirty-three, Kellan was only half that age.

He laid his doubts aside and smiled at Asa, who squinted suspiciously at him, then said, “So you’ve decided to take on the crown?”

Kellan gave an easy shrug. “Better do it now before any challengers get any ideas,” he said.

“Right,” Asa said, still surveying him in suspicion. Then she shook her head and said, “I sincerely hope you don’t mess this up.”

“I never said that,” Asa said, and Kellan snorted.

“Anyway,” Asa said, standing, “I’ll be going now. Remember my instructions.”

“Yes, Doctor,” Kellan said teasingly. “Now leave me alone already, would you?”

Asa curtsied, the show of respect ruined by the roll of her eyes, and left.

The moment she closed the door behind her, Kellan let out a groan of frustration, pain and grief all wrapped together. He looked down at his wound and felt hi supper lip curl in disgust. All those years of brutal training, of Again, Prince Kellan’s, of practising till he collapsed - was all that for nothing? He couldn’t even defend himself from a lowlife assassin.

But then...he hadn’t been very lowlife. The way he had moved - his strength, his speed, it was too unnatural, too inhuman. The way the guards hadn’t been able to hear the struggle or his shouts - that had been magic, Kellan was sure of it. Kellan suspected it had been a dark elf. Then he remembered how, just before passing out, he had the screech of an eagle.

That would normally be nothing unusual - except that the city of Lin Odun didn’t have eagles. It was much too hot for them, even if the winters.

Kellan knew dark elves had alter-egos they could turn into. He had to be one who could turn into an eagle.

Ah. The one that had confronted him at the mystic’s tent - he had been a dark elf. No wonder his voice had seemed familiar.

Kellan grit his teeth. Who is his master?

“Nico Davinson, sire,” a voice called out from outside, and the door opened. Kellan was startled out of his thoughts as Nico entered, impeccably dressed as always.

“Nico!” he said. “What brings you here?”

“I just came to check on you, Prince Kellan,” Nico said. “I heard about the attack.

“Oh, I’m fine,” Kellan assured him cheerfully, wondering how he knew if this all was supposed to be top-secret. “If you’re worried about security, rest--assured, I’ve doubled guards nearly everywhere.”

" I’m not worried about myself,” Nico said. His brow furrowed slightly. “Are you really okay, Kellan?”

Taken aback by his sudden concern, Kellan frowned, then smiled. “Always. What’s a little stab wound?”

Nico smiled; it lit his features pleasantly. “Promise?” he said, sticking out his hand. Kellan grinned and bumped fists with him, then shook his hand. It was something they would do when making promises, back when they were children.

Nico drew his hand back and said, “I think I’ll leave after your crowning. I’ve stayed long enough.”

“You’re always welcome, ” Kellan said.

“Thank you,” Nico said, “But I’ve got some things I have to do.”

“Very well,” Kellan acquiesced. “But do visit often.”

Nico inclined his head. Behind him, there was a sharp knock on the door and the guard called out, “Commanders Aryan and Ahad, sire.”

“Let them in,” Kellan said.

The entered and bowed. Aryan looked deeply exhausted, but if Ahad felt the same, he did not indicate. They both looked grave.

“Tell me,” Kellan said immediately.

“No sign f the assassin, sire,” Aryan said. “There are no tracks, no nothing. It’s as if he flew away.”

“That’s because he did,” Kellan said and explained how he knew, and of his meeting at the mystic’s tent.

“I let him go,” he said. “I thought he would be of no consequence.”

“Mercy to the cruel,” Ahad murmured, “is cruelty to the innocent.”

" I agree,” Kellan said grimly. “Any other incident worth mention?”

“The families of the doctors prefer private funerals, sire,” Aryan said. “They turned down your offer.”

“Meaning?”

“In veiled words, sire, they indicated that you were not welcome.”

Sighing, Kellan asked, “Will they be possible hostiles?”

“I don’t think so, sire,” Aryan said. “They are mourning, but they do not hold it against you.”

“Good,” Kellan said, then turned to Ahad. “How goes the interrogation?”

“Bring him in,” Ahad called to someone outside. Two guards walked in, dragging a white-faced young man between then. He couldn’t have been much older than Kellan. The guards deposited him beside Ahad, who gave him a look of disgust.

“This scum admitted to poisoning the King’s food,” he said. “As well as lacing your cup with the drug.”

“Please,” the young man said desperately, attempting to get onto his feet. Ahad gripped his collar and held him down.

“You will be silent before the Prince,” he hissed, giving him a rough shake.

Kellan held up a hand. “Let him speak.”

Ahad’s mouth pressed into a thin line, but he fell silent and released him.

Kellan turned a cold gaze to the man, who went impossible paler. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

“Sire,” he said, almost frantic. “Please. I know nothing - I simply found an envelope addressed to me - it had money in it, and some instructions. Please, sire, forgive me - I have my family to feed, sire - my mother and my siblings -”

“How do I know,” Kellan said quietly, “that you’re not lying?”

“He’s not,” Ahad said, and Kellan raised an eyebrow at him.

“How can you be so sure?”

“Sire, if I may,” Aryan said respectfully. “Ahad can always tell. If he’s saying that this scum isn’t lying, then he’s not.”

Kellan studied Ahad suspiciously, but his expression was disturbingly inscrutable. After a brief moment, he said, “Very well. What other information have you got?”

“He burned the envelope and note as instructed to,” Ahad said. “Another dead end. We’ve got nothing.”

Kellan blew out a breath. “Have his house inspected for clues. As for you—” he looked to the young man— “what to do about you?”

He trembled visibly.

“What’s your name?”

“Zain, sire,” he stammered.

“Zain,” Kellan said. “You’re aware that reason is answerable by death?”

Zain’s trembling increased to the point where his boots started to clack against the floor. “I--I know, sire.”

Kellan stared at him coldly. “Then you know what m decision is.” Before he could see Zain’s reaction, he turned away. “Take him away.”

The guards dragged him away, struggling and pleading. Kellan refused to give in to the guilt growing in his chest. Mercy to the cruel in cruelty to the innocent.

Aryan looked slightly affected. so Kellan said, “Break the news to his family gently. Let him stay his last night with them. And make sure they’re always properly supported by the Crown.”

Aryan and Ahad bowed and they both made to leave, but Kellan stopped them, saying, “Aryan, I’d like to talk to you alone.”

Ahad glanced back, then his eyes shifted to Nico and borrowed, before flickering away. Nico murmured his goodbyes and they both left, the tension between them palpable.

Once they had closed the door behind them, Kellan turned to Aryan. “I found it rather odd for had to vouch for Zain’s honesty,” he said. “And with such surety.” He raised his eyebrows, leaving the real question hanging--is he to be trusted?

Aryan, to his credit, didn’t miss a beat. “I know he’s...unlikeable sometimes,” he said slowly, “and I’d be lying if I said that a cold exterior hides a soft inside--”

“It doesn’t?”

Aryan’s lips lifted in a brief smile. “Far from it. A cold exterior masks an even more icy interior. But sire, he may be cold and aloof, but he’s not evil. And once you impress him enough to gain his loyalty, he’ll never doublecross you if you don’t doublecross him.”

“And what exactly have I done to gain his loyalty?”

Aryan was silent for a long while as if considering his words. “Ahad’s had a hard time nearly all his life,” he then said carefully. “Your father helped him through it. If it wasn’t for the King, Ahad probably wouldn’t have gotten thought it. Ahad’s much too loyal to him to be involved in his assassination.”

Kellan made a noise of assent. Something about Aryan made him want to trust him, and it all seemed perfectly reasonable. King Rahim had been, after all, a particularly kind monarch. He smiled and said. “Good. Serious things aside, I can’t help but wonder...are you two related in any way? You’re almost always together.”

Aryan smiled again. “We grew close over the years as we rose through the army’s ranks, even if Ahad doesn’t like to show it. He’s like my brother, though we’re not related.”

“And you vouch for him with absolute surety?”

Without a second of hesitation, Aryan said, “I do, sire.”

“Very well,” Kellan said. “You can leave now.”

Aryan bowed, then left. Kellan closed his eyes, allowing himself to sink into his pillows. A headache started to throb behind his eyes.

But before he could get even a minute of relaxation, the door burst open, and Zara stumbled in.

“Raiders,” she gasped, and fainted.

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