The Firebird Prince

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“Whoa, Kellan, slow down.”

Kellan paused, then looked back at Asa and grinned. “Wanna go?”

“I would,” said Asa, eying his bloody knuckles, “but I’m afraid you’ll beat me to a pulp.”

Kellan glanced at his knuckles, then at the dummy who was bleeding sand, and shrugged. “A man’s gotta train.”

“Ha! Since when are you a man?”

Kellan rolled his eyes, trying to catch his breath. “That’s not very fair.”

Asa leaned against the wall. “Well, since twenty-one is the age you legally become an adult, I’d say it’s perfectly fair.”

“I’m still more of an adult than you.”

Asa squinted, inclining her head. “Yeah...that’s debatable.”

“Is it?” Kellan looked at her, smiling, then said, “Prove it.”

Asa scoffed, disinterested. Then she struck with a swift blow to the face, but Kellan stepped aside, grinning.

“Too slow,” he taunted, playing along.

Asa flashed a grin, then tackled him again, all brute force--he stumbled back, almost falling over. But was he had been prepared--he pushed back and with a great heave, sent Asa flailing.

“You know you can’t beat me,” he said, easily.

“Well, it’s not me who had ten years of training,” she said, glaring him as she straightened. “Show off.”

He shrugged, grinning. “Details.”

Rolling her eyes, she struck again, feinting left. But again he reacted too quickly and caught her wrist, twisting her around so that she lost her footing and fell into a heap with a great oof. Asa recovered quickly and crossed her arms, scowling. Kellan held out a hand, and she knocked it away.

“I can get up on my own.”

“Sore loser,” he said in a sing-song voice, and Asa shook her head.

“Idiot,” she said. “I’m out of here.”

“And just where are you going?”

“On a walk,” Asa said. “Zara needs to go out too.”

“A walk?” Kellan said, all joviality fizzling out. “But--”

“You can come along. You haven’t been out in the city for a long time.”

“I have work,” Kellan said. “But I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to go out.”

Asa raised her eyebrows. “Why not?”

He gestured vaguely, his chest suddenly tight. “You know, there could still be threats out there.”

Asa scoffed. “Come on, Kellan. You’re being paranoid.”

He grimaced. “Am I?”

“Yes,” Asa said firmly. “It’s gonna be alright.” She turned to leave, but Kellan caught her arm and said pleadingly, “Just...take a guard, at least.”

She gave him a look. “I really don’t think that’s necessary, Kellan. Trust me. We’ll be fine; it’s just a walk.” Before he could reply, she shook her wrist out of his grip and gave him a reassuring smile. “I promise,” she added, and then left him, heading to Zara.

Kellan clenched his fists, taking a tense breath. She was right--it was just a walk. Then why was he having such strong misgivings about it? God, his paranoia was getting even worse. Kellan shook himself, then sighed, picking up his sword from the group and buckling it to his side. He examined his knuckles--he had been slightly too violent, and they were split and bleeding. He wiped them on his shirt, then began heading towards the castle. If Asa wasn’t going to let him protect them, he would do it without her knowledge.

He headed to where he knew Aryan would be--around the training fields, overseeing the soldiers’ training. Soon he found the soldiers. But Aryan was absent--there was only Ahad, standing by as two soldiers duelled, occasionally putting in a sharp word of advice or criticism.

He would do the job well--Kellan was just as confident in his abilities as he was in Aryan’s, if a slightly less trusting.

They all abruptly stopped as he approached, eying him with confusion before bowing.

Awkwardly, Kellan said, “Please carry on. Commander Ahad, a word?”

He signalled to them to continue and stepped towards Kellan, giving him a wordless look of question.

“My sisters want to go for a walk,” Kellan said quietly. “And while the threat of Araysh has been somewhat eradicated--” He hadn’t yet informed anyone of the reports from the scouts-- “I still worry. Asa does not want any security, but I’d like you to secretly follow them from a distance and ensure their safety.”

“Araysh had a master,” Ahad said, “powerful enough to get a fae to do his bidding. He will have more lackeys, and he will not stop because of Araysh’s death.” He glanced at Kellan. “You fear it will only bolden him further.”

Surprised, Kellan said, “Exactly.”

Ahad nodded. “I will protect them, sire. You have my word.”

Kellan watched him; despite there being no signs at all, he had the feeling that there was more to Ahad, and that made him suspicious.

Ahad registered his silence and folded his arms behind his back. “I know you distrust me,” he said, inscrutable, and Kellan flinched. “I suspect that vocal assurances will not suffice, but I will say all the same: I have no divided loyalties. Let me prove it to you by protecting your sisters.”

Kellan inclined his head, refusing to feel ashamed. “Very well.” He paused, then said, “I don’t see Aryan.”

“I believe he’s in the council room, sire--the general had something to say to him.”

Kellan nodded. “You should head out now; my sisters will be leaving soon. Remember, don’t let them see you.” Asa would get so mad at him.

“You have my word,” Ahad said, then with a sharp nod, strode off towards the castle.

Kellan watched the horizon for a second, then at a sudden noise, looked towards the training fields. A crowd was forming; commotion was rising--with a frown, he clasped his hands behind his back and approached the crowd.

“What’s happening here?” he asked sharply; it was probably two soldiers fighting.

“A scout,” someone shouted from the front, “he’s injured.”

Kellan didn’t have to force his way into the crowd; they parted for him and he saw the soldier on the ground, white-faced with pain as he clutched his arm to his chest. Two soldiers helped him stand and he swayed, looking nauseated.

“Report,” Kellan said briskly, getting the distinct impression that something was off.

The scout visibly attempted to pull himself together, then struggled to speak. “We found him,” he gritted out, and Kellan’s chest grew hot. “He took the others down--all of them are unconscious, but he sent me back here.” He paused to catch his breath. “He threatened your life if you tried to hunt him again, and warned me not to come after him.” He broke off, looking stricken at Kellan’s furious expression, and stammered, “Sire, I had to check on the others--”

“I understand,” Kellan said; his rage was not directed at him the scout. “Get to a medic, now. Afterwards, I will be awaiting a full report. Till then...”

“Should I send a team out, sire?” a man asked; Kellan recognised him as a lieutenant. “We cannot ket the assassin get away.”

“No,” Kellan said, gritting his teeth. His clenched his hand around the hilt of his sword. “This time, I will hunt him myself.”

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