The Firebird Prince

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They sprinted.

They did not know where Zara was, so they ran for her room, paying no mind to servants who watched them, wide-eyed. Kellan did not care what they might think.

In his worry, he’d clenched his hand around his crown and it dug into his skin, painful enough that he thought he might have drawn blood.

He did not care about that, either.

Asa and Kellan skidded to a stop before her door, nearly falling over each other. Asa scrambled to the door and pushed it open, shouting, “Zara!”

Kellan was right behind her.

Seeing Zara in her room, upright and seemingly uninjured, was the best thing he had seen for a long, long time. His shoulders sagged and he asked sharply, “What’s wrong?”

Because something all too clearly was. Zara was pale, her face completely bloodless, as she raised a shaking hand and pointed to her wall.

Kellan followed her hand and sucked in a sudden breath. Beside him, Asa went just as pale as her sister. Because on the stones, written in—in blood, were the words, You’re next, Princess.

A death threat.

“Kellan,” Zara said, her breathing panicked, “Kellan, I’m scared.”

Even though his own heart was pounding hard enough that he thought he’d throw up, Kellan clasped her hand, patting it with his own. “It’s alright, Zara. You know nothing will happen to you as long as I’m here.”

His words came out strange, and Zara remained unconvinced and terrified, eyes transfixed on the wall. Kellan tugged her away, stepping in front of her so that she couldn’t see the writing anymore.

Asa. He had to comfort her, too. He turned to her and found her trying to calm herself, a hand pressed to her chest.

“Let’s go out,” he said gently, trying to hide that he was equally shaken. The girls followed him outside, and he signalled to a nearby guard.

“Get the wall cleaned,” he said. “Do not breathe a word of this to anyone, or I will have your head.”

At this time, threats were necessary.

And along with the fear, there was also pure fury rising in him—how dare they threaten his sister like that? How dare they betray them, how dare they put Zara’s life in danger, how dare they, how dare they.

His anger would win out against fear.

He didn’t care if Araysh had a reason for doing all of this. He didn’t give a damn, because as soon as it came to the safety of his sisters—

Kellan would not accept any excuses.

He hissed out a breath through his teeth; he had to remain calm. He turned to Zara and allowed an ember of fury to burn in his eyes.

“I will destroy them,” he said forcefully. “They overstepped, and now there are no more chances I can give.” He clenched his fist around his crown, his anger rising despite himself. “Just let that bastard show his face again. I’ll--”

“Kellan,” Asa cut in. “Calm down.”

“Tell me you won’t let them hurt me, Kellan,” Zara said, still pale.

“I promise,” Kellan said without missing a beat. “I swear on my life, I’ll crush them beneath my feet.”

He clenched his jaw, taking a deep breath through his nose. Time to take action. “Summon my commanders immediately,” he snapped at a hovering guard. He ran off quickly, and Kellan turned to his sisters.

“I want you to go to your room,” he said. “Keep your wits about you and your weapons close. Until we neutralise this threat, you’re not to step foot out of the castle.”

His tone was sharp, but they nodded without offense. To Asa, Kellan added, “Keep her safe. Wherever she goes, you go with her. Stick together; don’t be alone. Can you do that?”

Again, they gave him assent. Kellan watched them walk away to Asa’s room, studying his crown. He allowed himself a moment, then raised his hands and rested the crown on his head again.

There was business to take care of.

Briskly, he strode to the throne room, where his commanders were waiting already. The bowed to him as he took his place at the head of the table and cast a look over them.

Two chairs remained empty. “Where are Commander Aryan and Ahad?”

“You gave them the day off, sire,” one of them answered.

Kellan clenched his jaw. “This is an emergency,” he said, trying to rein in his anger. “Get them here at once.”

But before anyone could move, Ahad walked in himself.

A flicker of surpirse crossed his face as he took in the assembled commanders, but then he looked to Kellan and said, “Sire. I have news.”

“Speak,” Kellan said.

Ahad inclined his head, calling over his shoulder, “Come in.”

And in strode Nina.

His commanders started exclaiming with alarm--Nina’s fae heritage was all too obvious. Kellan frowned and demanded, “What is this?”

To his surprise, Nina knelt and murmured, “My King. I am at your service.”

His commanders gaped. Kellan snapped his gaze to Ahad and said, “Explain.”

“In a moment, sire.” Ahad called again outside, and Aryan entered, dragging a very familiar figure behind him.

The shock was enough to make Kellan’s eyes go wide; his commanders shot up in their seats. Kellan took a sharp breath. “Araysh.”

The assassin wasn’t moving; he was either unconscious or dead. Kellan wasn’t sure which one he preferred. He stood slowly, eyes flicking between the fae siblings, at a loss of what to say.

“What,” he managed at last, “is going on?”

Aryan let Araysh fall to the floor. He did not move a muscle.

Nina rose. “If I may?”

Distractedly, Kellan nodded. “Go on.”

“My King,” Nina began, “as you know, my loyalties lie with you. Araysh convinced ne to take him to my parents’ graves. I agreed, but tricked him into passing by the Commanders’ house. I deliberately made noise, and they found us. I know what he’s done to you, and he’s done a lot to me as well.” She took a breath. “I wanted him to pay for his actions, and by bringing him to you, gain your trust.”

Kellan let that sink in for a brief minute, then said, “Is he dead?”

Nina glanced at her brother, and Kellan could have sworn that grief flashed across her face. “They put him into the cell,” she said, and Kellan nodded—every soldier’s house had a reinforced iron room. It serves as both a cell or a saferoom, depending on the situation. “He was wounded, too—I presume he must have collapsed, and the iron did the rest of the work.”

Kellan restrained his wince. A slow, painful death. And a cruel one. A sliver of unease curled in his heart. “I want to see he’s really dead.”

Nina stepped out of the way. Kellan slowly walked to the body, and for a moment studied it. Araysh’s skin was bloodless, and he kneeled beaide it, pushing away his revulsion.

First he held up his wrist, pressing his thumb into the tender part. No pulse pushed against it. Next he held his finger under his nose; no air blew against his finger. He snapped his fingers above Araysh’s face—there was no reaction. He was utterly still, eyes closed, body limp, dead.

And Kellan didn’t know how to feel. But if he was honest, relief was the loudest emotion.

“Good,” he said. “This is...pleasant news.” He looked up at Aryan. “Bury him in the forest,” he said. “Give him a proper farewell.” He owed that to him, at least.

As Aryan left with Araysh, Kellan turned to Nina.

“Do you need anything?” he asked. “You will be given anything you want.”

Nian smiled. “Thank you, sire, but I only want one thing from you.”

“Say it, and it is yours.”

Nina met his eyes, looking dead-serious. “I want to work for you.”

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