His sisters were in trouble.
Kellan couldn’t feel his heartbeat anymore; it was pounding too fast. The search party had come back unsuccessful, and now it had been so long, and still, there was no news of his sisters. Every time he thought of it, his heart plunged into deeper terror, his brain went even more frantic.
His hands were twitching--twitching with the need to search every nook and cranny, to get his sisters back. He wanted to tear the world apart because his sisters could be in pain, they could be calling out for him, they could be afraid, hurt, they could be--
Kellan realised he wasn’t breathing and forced in air, even though it felt like he would choke on his own panic.
“I’m going out myself,” he said, for what he was sure was the hundredth time. “Maybe they missed something, maybe--”
“Sire,” Aryan said quietly, wearily. He had sat by Kellan the entire time, talking him through his panic, and he looked as exhausted as Kellan felt. “You know you can’t leave. If the people find out, they’ll think something is wrong.”
“But something is wrong,” Kellan insisted: he could not stop pacing, to and fro, until he thought he would wear a hole in the carpet. But that wasn’t important. “My sisters are missing. Damn what people think. I don’t care what happens.”
Even as he said it, he realised how selfish that sounded. He had sworn an oath to protect Karam no matter what, and now here he was, putting himself above his people.
But damn it, how could he not?
Kellan took a deep breath, shaking his head. He had to get himself together, make a proper plan to find Zara and Asa before it was too late. “Okay,” he said, keeping his voice level. “What do we know? We can track them to see where they went. But then--why didn’t your scouts find anything?”
“They said they lost the tracks, sire,” Aryan said. “I don’t know--maybe it rained, or someone passed over the path.”
Kellan had to take another breath to keep his temper in check. Incompetent bastards! he wanted to shout. I don’t care what you have to do, just find them!
“Who’s our best tracker?”
Aryan’s mouth twisted. “Ahad.”
Kellan swallowed, his mouth tasting like clay. He had almost forgotten about the commander. “What about you?”
Apologetically, Aryan said, “My strengths lie more in combat, sire.”
Kellan heaved a sigh, rubbing a hand over his eyes. “Right.” His mind was in shambles; he could not think straight. All he could think about was Asa and Zara, Asa and Zara, Asa and Zara.
“Why don’t you go and rest,” Aryan said, gentle. “I’ll get them back, sire. You don’t have to worry.”
Kellan gave him a distracted look. “What? No, I can’t rest. My sisters are in trouble, I can’t just--God, I can’t even think.”
He was making Aryan uncomfortable, he could sense it. He shook his head again. “Tell your soldiers to search the city. I want my sisters found. Until then, no-one returns.”
Relieved to have been given a clear command, Aryan bowed and took his leave.
Kellan closed his hands, wringing his hands, wondering how his life had spiralled out of control so quickly. It had already been hanging by a thread, ready to snap, and this had done it.
And again, he was failing to deal with it properly.
He snapped his eyes as Alina strode in, her face set in stony rage. Kellan mentally braced himself but kept his apprehension out of his expression as he turned to meet her, hands clasped behind his back. “Alina.”
“Where are my daughters?” The question was abrupt and demanding; Alina’s eyes were colder than ice, filled with hate.
“My soldiers are searching for them,” Kellan said smoothly. “I’m sure we’ll find them soon.”
“You say it as if you’re not worried.”
Kellan smiled. “Knowing my sisters,” he lied, “they probably fell asleep during their walk.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“There is nothing to worry about, Alina,” Kellan said, keeping his voice pleasant. “I’m sure they are fine.”
“Then how,” Alina said, brandishing her fist, “do you explain this?”
Kellan realised she had a paper clenched in her hand and anxiety cracked through him. “May I see that?” he asked, trying not to seem as worried as he felt. Stiffly, Alina handed it to him, and Kellan smoothed out the paper with hands that he kept still through sheer force of will. There were only a few lines on the paper, written in an elegant hand that was no doubt a woman’s.
We have your sisters. Give us ten thousand gold coins, and we will return them to you unharmed. Disobey, and the next message will not be of words, but something much worse. You have till dawn. Leave the money by the banks of Lake Dostar, and we will bring the Princesses to you.
It was, of course, unsigned--but Kellan barely noticed. The world had narrowed down to one sentence: We have your sisters.
Oh, God, he thought, half-hysterically. They have my sisters.
“Well?” Alina asked with barely contained rage, and Kellan remembered where he was.
For once, he was at a loss of what to say. Something calming--something that would soothe her temper and her worry, something confident and Kellan. But all he could think of was his overwhelming terror.
“This...” Kellan floundered. “I--”
“Speechless?” Alina demanded coldly, stepping forward. She was tall enough to tower over him--taller than even Aryan. For the first time, Kellan was afraid of her, and what she might do in her anger. “I want my daughters back. And if there’s a hair on their heads that’s in the wrong place, it’ll be you who’ll face my wrath.”
“I’ll get them back,” Kellan said, a tad breathless. “I swear I’ll get them back.”
Alina stepped back. “You’d better.”
Kellan inhaled deeply, thinking, she would leave, but then she said, “Do not think I’m unaware of what you did to my son.”
Kellan repressed his flinch. So much for hoping. “I have my deepest regrets about that.”
“Really?” she asked. “And I presume your anger got away from you?”
Cautiously, Kellan said, “It did.”
“You held a knife to his throat.”
I’m aware, Kellan almost said. “I apologize.”
Alina scoffed: a soft, delicate thing. “You might be King,” she said, “but you have no right to do that to your brother.”
Kellan was about to snap. “I know.”
“Good,” Alina said softly. “I want to see you act on it.”
Kellan took a breath, reigning in his frustration. “Right now, I have my sisters to worry about.”
It was the wrong thing to say. “Arkan is to be no-one’s second priority,” she warned. “I want to see you give him your full attention.”
Like you do? Kellan wanted to scoff. But he merely nodded, too tired to argue.
“But,” Alina said, her voice a breathy warning, “do not attempt to influence him.”
Kellan couldn’t resist the incredulous look her gave her. “Whatever you say.” And if there was some sarcasm in his voice, that wouldn’t hurt anybody.
Alina regarded him with a cold look, then turned and glided out of the room.
Kellan gritted his teeth, clenching his fists. God, he hated that woman. Arkan’s voice echoed in his head: You’re just jealous I have her and you don’t.
And if he was being honest, Kellan knew it had hit home.
For the first time in a long time, he wished his mother was here. His father had done his best to make up for her absence, but still, a mother had a special place, and that had long gone unfilled. And now that void pulsed again, painfully.
Zara and Asa had Alina. Arkan had Alina. But who did he have?
It does not matter, Kellan said to himself. It does not matter.
He shook his head, as if that would shake the thoughts away. Right now, only Asa and Zara matter.
And if they were hurt, he would tear the world apart. He did not need Alina’s warnings for that.
Hold on, girls, he thought. I’m coming for you.