Asa woke up with the feeling that something was very, very wrong.
And it had something to do with Kellan.
She scrambled out of bed, bursting out of the door just in time to crash into Zara, who asked her, “Do you have the feeling that something’s—”
“Wrong with Kellan, yes,” Asa said, running to Kellan’s room. The guards gave her puzzled glances, but she paid them no mind and pushed at the door.
It was locked.
“Why is the door locked?” she asked the guard.
They frowned. “I don’t know, my lady.”
Asa growled. “Kellan!” she called. “Are you okay?”
There was no reply, and the worry in Asa’s heart flared.
“Get this door open,” she snapped at the guards, and they started banging at it and trying to get it to open. It finally gave way under their pushed and burst open.
Asa and Zara both rushed in. For a minute, it was too dark to see anything, but then Asa’s eyes adjusted and she took in the room.
There had clearly been a fight. The signs of a struggle were apparent—the nightstand had been knocked over; the glass was in shards upon the floor; and Kellan’s knife lay abandoned beside it.
There was blood on it.
Zara panicked. “Blood,” she said, her voice shrill.
Then Asa saw Kellan. He lay on the floor on his side; it was almost as if he was sleeping. But he was too limp, and his skin was too pale.
Both the girls crashed to their knees beside him, not caring about anything the guards might think. Asa turned him over, calling out his name.
But he was completely unconscious.
As Asa drew her hand away from his torso, it came away wet and sticky.
“Blood,” Zara said again, her voice rising.
Asa felt her own hysteria building, but she pushed it back, focusing instead on the problem at hand. She pushed away Kellan’s soiled shirt, flinching when saw the stab wound. Though it looked fresh, it had to be about two or three hours old.
That’s bad, she thought. Then she noticed that he knees were steadily growing wetter—she was kneeling in a pool of blood.
Revulsion rose up, sharp and nauseating. She took a deep breath, then forced herself into action.
“Get the doctor right now!” she yelled at the guards, then turned back.
“Give me that,” she said to Zara, gesturing to Kellan’s coat, which lay on the floor. Without any qualms about getting it dirty, she pressed it to the wound with every ounce of strength she had.
“Raise his legs,” she told Zara. “We’ve got to wake him up.”
But Kellan was already stirring. He twitched, and his face twisted in pain, hand drifting to his stomach.
Asa caught his wrist. “Don’t, Kellan.”
At her voice, he opened his eyes, staring up at her. His pupils were unnaturally blown, and his speech was slow and slurred when he said, “Asa?”
“Kellan,” she said.
Kellan looked to Zara. Then he made as if to sit up, but when he faltered, gasping, then Zara helped him. He took a moment to catch his breath, then opened and somehow—impossibly—he smiled.
And it was so very convincing, too.
Kellan looked down at his torso, where Asa’s hand pressed his coat to his wound.
“Oh dear,” he complained. “You’ve gone and ruined my new coat.”
Asa rolled her eyes. “It was either you or the coat.”
“Very well,” Kellan relented. “It was a bit suffocating, I suppose.”
Then he smiled and rested his hand on Asa’s. His breaths were still a little too fast, a little too harsh. His hand was cold and clammy, and as Asa took him in, she noticed a sheen of sweat on his brow. She glanced down and saw that his fingernails were slightly blue.
“Kellan,” Asa said, acting on a hunch. “Can you hear me?”
It took him a moment to process her words, then he snapped irritably, “Of course I can hear you.”
He baulked at his own anger. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to...”
He closed his eyes, his hand clenching around Asa’s. The other drifted to his temple. She frowned at him.
“Just got a little dizzy,” he said, wincing. “Had a little too much to drink.”
“You’re in shock,” Asa said. “You’ve lost a lot of blood.” She looked to Zara. “Check on the doctor, will you? What’s taking that idiot guard so long, I don’t know.”
“Gently,” Kellan said softly, patting her hand as Zara ran off. In her anger, she had unconsciously put too much pressure. Kellan smiled at her. “Let me.”
Asa glared at him. “You stay put.”
Kellan laughed. “Doctor’s orders?” He laughed again, though it was rough and breathless. “But I don’t want those pretty hands getting dirty.”
Asa glared at him. “These pretty hands want to slap you,” she retorted. “You stay put, Kellan.”
“You know,” Kellan said after a second, “I really would, but I think I might faint, so you may want to catch me if I do.”
Asa looked at him, alarmed, but then scowled. “Don’t you dare pass out on me, young man.”
“I’m older than you,” he murmured, eyes closed.
“By a minute,” Asa scoffed; nevertheless, she shifted to Kellan’s back and let him lean against her. He let out a long breath, but didn’t move. Asa’s anxiety flared.
“Do you want to bleed out, Kellan?” she said sharply, to snap him out of his trance and disguise her mounting worry. “Keep pressure on it!”
He jerked, eyes opening. “You needn’t yell,” he said petulantly, but obediently pressed his hand to his torso.
Asa ignored him, growling underneath her breath, ”Where is that doctor?"
Kellan didn’t reply. Asa cast a worried glance at his wound; the cloth over it was completely soaked through, staining Kellan’s hands with blood. He had gone almost completely limp, his eyes closed again.
“Kellan,” Asa said urgently, snapping her fingers in front of his face. He startled, his eyes opening.
“Tell me what happened,” Asa ordered.
“Told you,” Kellan said, his voice tired. “Assassin.”
Asa panicked. “Assassin?! You never told me that!”
Kellan frowned. “What else did you expect? That I fell and impaled myself on my own knife?”
“Maybe!” Asa said, harried. “God, these people are ruthless!”
“Which reminds me,” Kellan said, sighing heavily, “whoever they are, they killed both Mother and Father.”
Asa buried her face into her hands. “Any other details I should know?”
Kellan was silent for a long while. Asa could feel every harsh breath he took, how his body was shaking. He was in worse pain than he was letting on.
Curse her, she couldn’t bring herself to voice her concern. Instead, she said, “You know, you’re less tough than you look.”
Kellan sighed. “Am I?”
“Tough people would be up and about by now,” Asa said, not really meaning it. “And yet you lay here in my arms like a damoiseau in distress.”
“And you’re my knightess in shining armour?”
“That’s right,” Asa said. “You should toughen up.”
Kellan somehow managed to laugh. Any reply he might have made was cut off by the door opening. Arkan strode in, followed by Zara.
“Where’s the doctor?” Asa demanded.
Zara ran a hand over her face. “Dead.”
Asa flinched. “What?”
“Seems like this assassin does not want any chance of Kellan surviving,” Arkan said grimly. “All palace doctors, even their apprentices—all were dead in their beds.”
Asa sighed and closed her eyes. She was about, to speak, but Kellan cut her off.
“Calm down,” he said, suddenly alert. “It’s not like all the doctors in the entire country have died, right? Send out people to get a doctor. In the meantime,” he added, pushing off from Asa with a wince, “Asa can treat me as best she can.”
“Me?” Asa said incredulously. “I have some medical knowledge—but not near enough to actually—”
“You can do it,” Kellan said shortly, hand pressed to his torso as he pulled himself to his feet, aided by Zara. “Arkan, double guards over every door. Soldiers should be alerted immediately. We don’t want another attempt.”
Arkan nodded. “Will do.”
Asa could see his reluctance, but she was grateful that he was for once setting his own feelings aside and had his priorities straight.
“Zara, get Asa whatever she needs. And it’s high time we had some proper light in here.”
Arkan, who stood nearest to the fireplace, lit the candles quickly.
“Thank you. Now go, quickly.”
Zara nodded and quickly disappeared into the corridor. As Arkan left, Kellan said to him, “Send Commanders Aryan and Ahad to me. I need to talk to them.” Kellan paused. “The most important thing. The people are not to know about this, not even a single thing. Understood?”
Arkan nodded and strode out of the room. Kellan turned to Asa.
“Look,” he said. “I know you’re not professionally trained or anything, but you’ve always had a knack for excelling at everything you try. You can do this, too. I believe it.”
“I don’t,” Asa muttered.
“Live up to your namesake,” Kellan said, leaning against the footboard of his bed.
Asa the First. She had been the greatest Healer of history, making countless discoveries and saving countless lives. Her real name was unknown, but she had been given the name Asa, which meant healing.
“I’ve been trained in medicine, too,” Kellan said. “Wherever you falter, I’ll guide you.”
“Okay,” Asa said at last. “Get on the bed, then.”
Kellan obliged, and as he settled in, Asa said, “You know, I didn’t mean it when I said
“You know,” Asa said, “I didn’t mean it when I said you weren’t tough. You...you’re going to be a good King.”
Kellan gave her an odd look. “I know. I’m not an idiot.”
Asa rolled her eyes. “Very well, then.”
“It’s too bad that women can’t rule,” Kellan remarked. “And a pity that even the king can’t change that law.”
“If we were able to rule,” Asa said, “Karam would be a lot better off.”
Kellan laughed. “Are you calling men stupid?”
“Maybe.” Asa shrugged. “But you have to admit. There’s a reason why the most powerful piece in chess is the queen.”