“Is it wise to simply leave him free, sir?”
Kellan sighed. Ahad’s disapproval had been palpable since they’d ran, and Kellan had been waiting for when he’d voice it.
“It’s the right thing to do, Commander,” he said. “His sister will keep him in check.”
Ahad clearly disagreed, but he had restraint enough to remain silent.
“There, sire,” Aryan said. “Our horses.”
“Good,” Kellan said. He was so tired, he thought he’d pass out any second. And his wound—well, it didn’t exactly make anything better, and Kellan would rather not think about the poison that was still in his veins.
Kellan’s shoulders relaxed slightly. Now that his mind wasn’t occupied with thoughts of run, run, run, the first thing he said was, “Are my sisters alright?”
“Merely shaken, sire,” Aryan said. “None of them are injured.”
That’s a relief. “What’s the situation at the castle?”
“The raiders are either dead or prisoners. Nasir got away, though we’re interrogating his men to find out their safehouses and camps.”
Kellan nodded as he heaved himself up on the horse. “Good work.”
Aryan got on behind him, and Kellan noticed his wince. He frowned and said, “Are you injured?”
Aryan grunted. “Just a scratch, my Prince.”
“Are very many soldiers wounded?”
“No, sir,” Aryan said, as Kellan nudged the horse into a walk. Ahad followed. “The Royal guard took the brunt of it. About ten have been killed.”
Kellan grimaced. “Give them a suitable funeral. And tell their families they died with honor.”
Quietly, Aryan said, “Yes, sir.”
For a minute, everyone was quiet, and Kellan sensed a subdued air around the commanders. Hesitantly, he asked, “Were they your friends?”
The reply came a while later. “Not friends, sire,” Aryan said, and Ahad jerked on his horse’s reins. “Brothers.”
Kellan’s arm had started aching again.
Uneasily, he glanced at his hand as he led his horse into the castle gates. The black lines, which had faded previously, had gone dark again. He subtly pulled his cuff forward onto his hand, hoping that Aryan wouldn’t notice.
As a pulse of pain went through it, Kellan dragged in a breath, willing himself to push through it.
As he rode into the courtyard, he saw some men cleaning the ground with water. The water turned red with blood, and Kellan grimaced and turned his eyes away.
A stable boy ran over and took the reins of the horses, leading it into the courtyard. Kellan and the others got off.
As Kellan’s feet hit the ground, a wave of dizziness washed over him and he instinctively braced his hand against Aryan to steady himself, disoriented for a blurry moment.
“Sire, are you alright?” Aryan asked, still as he steadied Kellan.
Fighting for control, Kellan stepped away. “I apologize.”
“You’re looking pale, my Prince. Do you want me to escort you inside?”
“I’ll be fine,” Kellan said with a convincing smile. “You go and attend to yourselves. Take it easy, Commanders. Let yourself grieve.”
Aryan looked reluctant, but he inclined his head and let go.
Kellan turned towards the castle and took a deep breath, stopping himself from rubbing his arm as it throbbed.
Slowly, he walked up to the gates. As he passed through the door, the guards said, “Glad to have you back, sir.”
Kellan offered him a tired smile. “Glad to be back.”
He stepped inside into the quiet hall and thought, closing his eyes, Thank God, a moment of peace.
But even that seemed unattainable. Footsteps came running into the hall and Zara shrieked, “Kellan!”
Kellan almost grimaced, but he forced himself to smile at his sisters as they ran in.
“Zara,” he said, relieved that she seemed okay. She attacked him with a hug, arms so tight that Kellan found it hard to breathe.
“Easy,” he said with a forced laugh. His arm flared suddenly with pain, and he hissed in a quick breath, pulling away.
Zara looked slightly hurt, so Kellan said apologetically, “I’m just tired.” His head swam and he added, “I think I’ll go rest a little.”
Zara frowned. “But I want to stay with you for a bit.”
Kellan pulled up a smile that felt forced even to himself. “I want to, too,” he said earnestly. “It’s just—”
“Kellan,” Zara said petulantly, “please. So much has been going on, we haven’t even been able to spend time together!”
She was as stubborn as him. With an uneasy laugh--he had to get away before the poison took hold again--he said, “Perhaps another time, Zara--”
Zara crossed her arms and scowled.
Save me, Asa, Kellan pleaded silently, giving her a look. But she only shrugged, an amused expression on her face. Unable to read him just when he needed her to.
“No fair,” Zara said. “When are we going to have time if not now? You’ll be King, and then you know what happens. It’ll consume your whole time.”
Kellan sighed. “I really have to go, Zara.”
“And do what?”
Sleep, Kellan thought, for a million years.
“Rest,” he said, reluctantly admitting to his weakness. “I don’t feel very good.”
Zara glared at him. “You just don’t want to spend time with me,” she said crossly.
Kellan laughed incredulously, wondering what was up with her. “That’s really not--”
“Come on,” Asa said. “We’ll do something relaxing like feed the ducks. It’ll make you feel better.”
The pain was mounting, and with it, Kellan’s patience frayed. Trying to rein it in, he wiped his sweaty palms on his trousers, stuffing his right hand into his pocket. “Later,” he said, almost a plea, “I promise--”
“Kellan,” Asa said, giving him a look. With a glance at Zara, she mouthed, She needs you to be here.
And I need you to give me some time, Kellan thought. Haven’t I earned it?
Kellan had begun to feel dizzy again, his arm hurting fit to break. Push it down, Kellan thought, taking a deep breath. Zara needs you.
He forced a smile, saying, “Alright. I’m sorry. What do you want to do?”
Zara brightened up in an instant. “Let’s go to the back garden and talk.”
“Okay,” Kellan said quietly, and Asa gave him a grateful look.
How could he ever say no to that face?
“Come on,” Kellan said, putting an arm around each of them, Zara on his left and Asa to his right.
He smiled at Zara, and she smiled back. Behind him, Asa gasped.
"Kellan,” she said, horrified, “what happened to your hand?!”
Time froze around him. Too late, he realized his mistake.
In his absentmindedness, he had put his arm around her, exposing his hand, which was lined even more darkly now.
“Dirty,” he said quickly, pulling his hand into himself, shielding it with his other hand. “It’s just dirty.”
“That’s not dirt, Kellan,” Asa said, her voice an octave higher than usual. She made to grab his arm, but Kellan jerked away, taking a step back.
“Asa,” he said, a silent warning in his voice. “It’s nothing.”
“Don’t lie, Kellan,” Asa snapped; but beneath her anger, Kellan could see her worry.
“I’m not lying,” he said defensively, heart pounding. “It’s just dirt.”
“Zara,” Asa said, and taking him by surprise, Zara grabbed his arm and pulled it away.
“Don’t--!” Kellan protested, but it was too late.
“Oh, my God,” Asa said, hushed, as she hesitantly touched the black lines. They twisted and writhed and sudden agony shuddered through Kellan. He shouted, his knees going weak as he clutched at his wrist.
“Don’t,” he panted, and Asa jerked her finger away. “Don’t touch it.”
“Kellan,” Zara said breathlessly, fear in every syllable, “what is that?”
Kellan swallowed hard, unable to say anything.
“Kellan,” Asa said, pleading.
“Poison,” Kellan said before he could stop himself. “I don’t know where it came from, but I noticed it during the attack. It...it makes me go dizzy and unable to move and it hurts...bad. I’ve read all there is to read about poisons, but...this is something else.”
Zara wrung her hands. “But...it has a cure, right?”
Kellan looked away, the words lodged in his throat. Probably not.
Asa understood his silence and inhaled sharply, pressing a hand to her face.
“Oh, Kellan,” she said, despair in her voice, “now what?”