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Saira took as deep of a breath as she could. The iron lacings encircling the bodice of her gown were important but by no means comfortable. Her fingers twisted the folds of the silk skirt, brushing the knife concealed underneath. Iron, of course. The metal was cold. She allowed herself a small smile as she sniffed the air.
Fragrances floated past her, roses and lilies from the edges of the room filling the air with a too-sweet smell. Saira blinked twice and focused her eyes on the air around her. Slowly, the drifting scents took on colors. Pink from the flowers. Yellow from the food piled on tables. Green from the fresh, cold air out the open windows.
There. There it was. A hint of blue.
To make sure, Saira stepped delicately towards the drift. No one had yet noticed her. She had a few moments to herself before she would be required to dance. The blue scent was faint, but clearly there. For a moment, Saira focused on nothing but the smell. She closed her eyes and breathed.
Spicy-sweet, intoxicating, she allowed the scent to flood her. Moments like these were her favorite. She was the most driven, the best at the sight of scent, and sometimes the adrenaline of the hunt overtook her logical precision.
Only for a moment. She tore away from the smell and allowed the colors to fade. She couldn’t risk being overwhelmed while dancing- or, Ara forbid, while killing. Turning to the dance floor, her eyes roved over the waltzing people.
At the head of the room sat King Adra niy’Ata shi’Ara and his wife, Queen Layea niy’Serra shi’lowborn. Their son, Prince Asherai niy’Adra shi’Ara, was Saira’s age. Before she’d been taken into the hunters, she’d been the daughter of Layea’s chambermaid and Adra’s blacksmith, and she’d harbored a secret friendship with Asherai. That was, of course, nearly a decade ago. Now Saira was eighteen.
The court was filled with the most beautiful people from any of the Provinces, dressed in the most fashionable clothing a seamstress could create. It would be easy to hide here, as a faerie. This was why tonight’s hunt belonged to Saira. Only the best could attend a royal ball and hunt and kill a faerie without causing a disruption among the rest of the partygoers.
A voice behind her snapped her out of her scanning. Saira turned to see who’d asked her to dance- and was pleasantly surprised. A boy, about her age, dressed in a finely cut suit of green cloth that matched his eyes. He seemed familiar, and she felt a little thrill run up her spine. No- no, the cloth was blue, his eyes were blue- then tinted violet-
His clothing was magikal. Perhaps his eyes were as well. She made a note of that. Perhaps he was the faerie she was hunting. If so, she’d find out very soon. She curtsied and took his hand.
Ash smiled at the girl in front of him. She’s new to court. His eyes flicked over her face, assessing her. He’d seen her type before, quick-eyed and subtly smirking. She felt familiar. She’s clever. He walked with her to the dance floor, watching as her eyes scanned the room. Alert. But why? His gaze traveled up and down her arm, noting that she was more muscular than most girls at court. Strong. Her eyes met his. Not shy. She pulled him into the set for the next waltz. His hand reached for her waist.
He felt the burning in his skin as soon as his fingers touched her bodice. Iron. She’s a faerie-hunter. Of course she is. Her eyes were intent on his face, and he smiled, pulling her closer. His fingers tightened around her waist, increasing his agony, but hopefully fooling her into thinking he wasn’t in extreme pain already.
Saira smiled back at the boy, secretly disappointed. He was undeniably gorgeous, with those entrancing eyes and his dark hair and soft-looking lips. She’d thought he had to be a faerie when she first saw him. She began planning how to gracefully escape his company as soon as the dance was over, running through polite excuses in her head, but she never quite finished a plan. It was almost as if she didn’t want to get away. His eyes kept catching her off-guard. There was definitely something different about him, and she had been almost certain he was the one she’d been sent to kill.
Perhaps he was a faerie, and he was bluffing his way through the pain of his hand on her waist to throw her off his scent. She had to see if he could lie. She batted her eyelashes. “What brings you to this lovely party?” She asked innocently. A basic question, one he could easily respond truthfully to, but one that may lead to more detailed small talk. Perhaps she could catch him in some way- force him to be rude to her.
He laughed. “I must find a bride.”
She raised an eyebrow. Aha. Now, I can test him. If he says yes, he’s lying. If he tries to talk his way out of it, or says no, he’s a faerie. Of course, I’d have to ask another question, just to be sure. It wouldn’t do to kill a human at a royal ball. She smiled at him coyly. “And are you looking for someone like me?”
Ash smiled as charmingly as he could, his mind racing. Faeries couldn’t tell lies. She had to be testing him. He cleared his throat, preparing to gently tell her no, trying to figure out a way to escape as soon as he said it.
“Yes.” He said, to his own surprise. He laughed to hide his shock. I can’t lie- so that must be the truth. I can’t be looking for someone like her. She’s a faerie-hunter. She means to kill me. But apparently I am. The music finished with a flourish. “Would you care to walk on the terrace?” He asked her.
Saira’s smile slipped when she heard him lie. She sighed, ready to turn the gorgeous boy down- but then she allowed her sight of scent to open for a brief moment. The aura of blue surrounded the boy, and the scent overwhelmed her. It seemed to pulse, and she went dizzy. She moaned and fell into his arms.
The boy scooped her up easily and carried her out the door onto the terrace. She didn’t even try to struggle. His arms were warm and strong, and she closed her eyes, allowing the intoxicating smell to fully take over.
Ash knew that this was the worst decision he could’ve made. Here he was, carrying a girl into the garden maze alone- knowing that the girl was here to kill him. Sure, she was beautiful, but so was every other girl in the room. Why did the only dangerous one have to capture his attention?
He found a hidden bench and sat down, holding her on his lap. She moaned again and buried her face in his neck. She was almost unconscious, not able to realize what she was doing. His fingers stroked her back, avoiding the iron lacings. What happened to her? Why did she fall? At that moment, he didn’t even mind that she was here to kill him. He was worried about her- and she was so warm and soft-
Saira’s eyes fluttered between open and closed, blue and black. She struggled to pull herself back into control. Reining in her sight of scent took more effort now than it ever had before, but she managed to sober up.
That was when she realized where they were. In the garden maze, alone. He was holding her on his lap- and she realized she was holding onto him, too. And she liked it. She knew she had a job, but for a moment, she just wanted to stay in his arms. She pulled away slowly, doing her best to still act scent-drunk, her fingers fumbling over the folds of her skirt.
They closed on the hilt of the knife. As quickly as she could, she whipped the knife out and slashed at him. He yelped and pushed her off of him, the knife barely missing his throat. She rolled to her feet and lunged at him again, not caring that her gown was covered in dirt. He grabbed her around the waist, letting loose a cry of pain from the iron as they went crashing through a hedge. You deserve the pain, faerie. He popped to his feet and took off running. She followed, kicking off her slippers as she ran.
They turned corner after corner, the boy just barely out of Saira’s reach, until they came to a dead-end pavilion overlooking the river. She advanced with the knife. He backed up until he reached the balustrade at the edge of the drop into the river. She allowed herself a smile.
Then she rushed at him.
Ash neatly stepped out of the girl’s way, placed his hand on her back, and pushed.
Saira was falling- and then she hit the water. Her dress pulled her down into the depths. She struggled, trying to swim through the black water, but her gown was too heavy. Her eyes fluttered closed, seeing only the dark.
Ash’s eyes widened as he realized the girl wasn’t swimming to the surface. Shaking his head at his own foolishness, he pulled off his magikal coat and dove in after her. She’d fallen unconscious, and he could tell that her waterlogged iron-laced gown was too heavy for him to pull her up.
Her hand clasped her iron knife. Ash grabbed it and sliced through the front of her dress, ignoring the intense pain from the pure iron. He let the iron-laced dress drop to the river bottom and wrapped his arms around her. Her petticoats still dragged at the water, but he could make it to the surface. He dropped the knife and started kicking upwards.
Saira awoke in a sandy alcove, her petticoats clinging to her body. Her head was pounding with the scent of faerie. She wrestled her sight of scent into submission and opened her eyes to find the boy leaning over her, stroking her hair away from her face. Scrambling back, she pulled her knees to her chest.
“Why did you save me, faerie?” She asked, her voice breaking. His eyes roved over her face, and when they met hers, she flinched at the intensity of his gaze.
Ash stared at the girl, trying to figure out why he saved her and how he had lied about wanting to marry someone like her. He realized that he had no answer for her, and if he spoke, a truth might be told which he didn’t want to hear. Finally, he decided to counter her question with one of his own. “Who are you?”
“My name is Saira.” She said quietly. “I’m a faerie-hunter.”
“I could tell, what with the iron dress, the knife, and the whole trying-to-kill-me thing.” He raised an eyebrow. “Did you say Saira? My name is Ash. It’s nice to meet you.” He stretched out his hand, trying to ignore the way her wet petticoats clung to her body.
Saira reached out her hand, trying to figure out why Ash was such a familiar name. Her fingers touched his, and his hand closed around hers. She shook his hand politely, trying to place him- and then his eyes shifted to dark brown and she knew.
“Prince Asherai.” She whispered. “It’s been a long time.”
“Saira.” He leaned a bit closer to her, his eyes searching her face. “You’re- you’re my Saira. From when we were young.”
She nodded, her eyes wide. He pulled her hand gently, and she let him pull her into his arms. Ash held Saira close. Memories of their shared childhood flooded him, and he realized that young Saira had been his only true friend. “Do you remember the time you decided I needed a haircut and you cut off almost all of my hair?” He said teasingly. “You were in such trouble.”
Saira laughed. Ash marveled at how her smile seemed to strip the intensity away from her face. This was the Saira he remembered. “Completely disgraced.” She snickered. “It was worth it. You looked hilarious. I treasure that memory.” She paused for a moment. “What about the time we snuck into the kitchen and ate all of the shortbread for the ball Queen Layea was throwing?”
“Yes!” He cried out. “And we got sick in my bathroom afterwards. We were only five or so.” His arms tightened a bit around Saira, and she leaned into him more with a little sigh.
“I don’t remember getting sick, only sneaking around the palace with you. Even then, I was a little huntress, on the quest for sweets.”
Ash sobered quickly, drawn back to the memory that she was supposed to murder him.“You’re a faerie-hunter now. Why?” He asked gently, his fingers stroking her back again.
Saira’s eyes flicked to his face, then away again. “My father was a blacksmith. He accidentally gave an iron-handled sword to a faerie in disguise, and the faerie killed him in anger.”
“Vengeance, then.” Ash sighed. “So you mean to kill me to repay my kind for your father’s murder?” Saira buried her face in his neck and mumbled something. Ash gently pulled away enough for him to hear her.
“No.” She said, venom dripping in her voice. “It’s my mother’s death that haunts me most. She was a chambermaid for your mother, but she helped my father in the forge when she had spare time. The faerie killed her too. I saw her die. It's the nightmare that haunts my sleep. I was hidden under the bed- she'd told me to hide there and not make a noise- and the light left her eyes before I was able to come take her hand. She was innocent of giving iron to a faerie, but she was killed for the mistake anyway. I was eight. The hunters adopted me, gave me a new family, a new home, and I joined their ranks. I did as they told me. I had nowhere else to go. That’s all there is to it.”
Ash’s breath caught in his throat. “You could have come to me.”
She laughed again, this time a tight, intense little chuckle. “Your parents would never have let the orphan daughter of a blacksmith and a chambermaid join you in the palace.” She tried to shrug, as if she didn’t care, but she ended up snuggling up next to him with a sniff.
His grip on her waist tightened. Although the memory of the iron burns still haunted his palms, he could not let her go. He had to hold her close to him. He could feel his heartbeat pounding, his face flushing, nervous and trembling but certain of what he was about to say. She was here for a reason, and he already knew what it was.
He was looking for a bride. Ash was looking for someone like her. No, not someone like her. He had been looking for her, and now she was here. His Saira.“Saira, you could leave this behind. Become part of my family. Marry me. I’ll find the faerie who did this and punish them. Just don’t leave me again. You don’t have to be this vengeant killer. You can be my bride.”
Saira reached up and stroked his hair, pulling his face towards her. Their lips met, and she kissed him, hard. He kissed her back almost desperately, holding her tightly against him as he laid back in the sand. Saira let her sight of scent loose and lost herself in the sensation of being with Ash, of kissing him, smelling him, touching him, tasting him. Her fingers trailed over his chest, his side- and then she found what she was looking for.
Reining in her sight of scent, she slipped his own blade in between his ribs and thrust it into his chest. He gasped, and she smiled. His fingers trailed down her cheek as he died.
“The faeries killed my parents. Now this is all I can be.” She whispered. She dipped her finger in his blood and tasted it. It was even better than the kissing, even better than letting her sight of scent loose. She hoisted the Prince’s corpse over her shoulder to carry him to her home.