The Firebird Prince

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“One more time.”

Kellan groaned to himself, not moving to get up from where he was collapsed. He’d been training for so long now, he could no longer muster the energy to even think.

“Prince Kellan,” Instructor Fariq snapped. “One more time.”

Kellan closed his eyes, forcing himself up. Just one more day, he thought. Then I’ll be out of here.

He readjusted his grip on his sword and straightened. Fariq’s face was in its normal expression: impassive disappointment (was he ever happy? Kellan had no idea, and he’d spent ten years in his house).

“I expected better,” Fariq said in his stern voice, and Kellan almost started to mouth his words. It was the same thing, again and again, so repeated that Kellan had memorized it.

“Yes, sir,” he said tiredly. “I’ll do better next time.”

Fariq stared at him, and Kellan realised he’d interrupted him. In his exhaustion, he hadn’t even heard him say something further.

“Sorry,” Kellan said immediately.

Fariq watched him, his piercing eyes seeing right through Kellan. Kellan put on a lopsided smile. “That’s the fifth time I’ve caught you staring at me,” he said, raising his eyebrows pointedly. “Does it mean what I think it does?”

Immediately, Fariq’s expression became flat. He was always so utterly unamused by Kellan’s antics that it was funny.

“I’m handsome, aren’t I?” Kellan said, ruffling his golden hair, posture relaxed despite his shaking muscles. “The Golden Prince of Karam.”

“Prince Kellan,” Fariq cut in with a sigh. “You have been distracted today. That will not do.”

Kellan forced himself to laugh. “Oh, you know why?” he said, tone light. “I saw this beautiful display of swords today in town. Haven’t been able to stop thinking about them.” He put a dreamy look on his face. “I think I’m in love.”

Fariq grunted. Kellan grimaced mentally. He had half been hoping he would see through it so that he could tell him the real reason. Despite wanting to, Kellan couldn’t bring himself to initiate the conversation.

All of a sudden, he stiffened. Oh my God. Oh no. Shoot. Shoot, shoot, shoot.

It had been more five hours, much more time than the warning Nina had given him, and Kellan had completely forgotten.

“You’re dismissed,” Fariq said, then cut off. “Prince Kellan?”

Kellan waved a hand in his direction, gesturing he was alright. “I just need some sleep,” he said cheerfully, though he couldn’t breathe. He fled from the room, trying to look composed, and ignored it when Fariq called out after him.

He scrambled to his room and snatched his bag up, fingers fumbling with the latch. He finally managed to open it and dug around in it, cursing himself for keeping it so messy. His heart beat a thundering song in his ears, panic rushing like a river.

His fingers closed around a small box, almost at the bottom. Kellan pulled it out with frantic speed, prying it open almost violently. Please, please, please.

Five tiny diamonds spilled onto his palms; all of them blood-red, glowing as if from the inside.

Kellan deflated so fast he choked on his exhale. It was as if a physical weight had left his shoulders, leaving him slumped, staring at the diamonds. It was the best sight he’d ever seen, watching all of them glowing surely, telling him that all five of his family members were alive and well. The adrenaline drained away, his heartbeat thundering from relief instead of fear.

Kellan counted them all one by one, just to be sure.

The tiniest one. Zara. His triplet sister, with her passion for eating as much as she could (and then an entire meal more), her bright smiles, and her habit of making friends with everyone she met. His sunshine.

Another one, almost imperceptibly larger than Zara’s. Asa, the middle triplet. She was the serious one, with no tolerance whatsoever of her sibling’s frolics. Always neat, always tidy. Smart as smart could be. His rock.

The one bigger than that was Arkan’s. He was the triplet’s step-brother, seven years older than them. After Kellan’s mother had died, the King had needed another Queen, and he had married Arkan’s mother. Arkan had been thirteen at the time, and the triplets had been six. Kellan didn’t know much about him. He’d left for Tarbiyat (the royal heir’s training) a year after Arkan had joined his family, and even in the year together, Arkan had been too quiet and shy to talk much. Before, they’d been strangers living in opposite ends of the country. Now, they were strangers in the same family. But he still was family, so Kellan cared. He was the brother Kellan had never had.

The second biggest: his step mother’s, Arkan’s mother. Kellan didn’t much like her, though he’d never say that out loud. She was too overbearing, had his father too wrapped around her little finger. It was the same with her as with Arkan; Kellan didn’t really know her, so he refrained from judging.

Then, the biggest, the last but never the least, the King of Karam. His father, his strong, loving father, who cared more about his children than anything else. If there was someone Kellan had missed the most and was looking forward to seeing, it was him.

Oh, how he had missed them. Ten years, and not a single visit, not a single letter. It was not allowed. In Tarbiyat, the student went through complete isolation for ten years, cut off from the outside world completely, except for rare trips to the town. It was constant studying, education in every aspect that a King might need to know to rule. The only way Kellan had known that his family were fine was from the diamonds, which his mother had gifted him before she’d died. Hers had long since gone dark, but Kellan still kept it, in a far pocket of his bag. He’d had another made for his stepmother, not ready to replace Mother with her. It was wrong.

Kellan carefully placed them back in their box and returned it to his bag. Then he slumped onto the bed, holding his head in his hands. The exhausted shakes returned, making his body tremble, and so he lay down, ignoring the fact that he hadn’t eaten. His anxiety had taken his appetite from him.

So this so-called prophecy was really all a joke.

But what if it wasn’t?

Was it a harmless prank? Was it a move by the enemy? Had Kellan been right to spare the dark elves? Something about Nina’s brother had seemed off. Was it just paranoia? Or was Kellan’s fear valid? Was his family still in danger? Was he?

There were so many questions, yet Kellan could answer none of them.

I’m afraid, Kellan realised.

In his head, Fariq spoke. Being afraid is not something you should be ashamed of, Prince Kellan. Without fear, there is no courage. Be afraid, and then be brave.

Fear out. Courage in.

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