The Firebird Prince

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“Symptoms are black blood, dizziness—and what more did you say, Kellan? Extreme weakness—”

“Asa,” Kellan said, catching her hands as she reached for yet another book on the shelf. “Stop.”

Zara watched as her sister frowned at him. “I can’t stop. I won’t—”

“Listen to me,” Kellan said gently, and Zara wondered how he was so calm. “I need you to stop, okay? You aren’t going to find anything.”

“You don’t know that,” Asa said.

“I do,” Kellan cut in. “This isn’t normal, Asa; it’s probably magic, and you know there’s no known cure for magic poisons.” He hesitated. “No possible cures, at least.”

Zara always felt so ignorant in the presence of her siblings. Still, she was too curious to be embarrassed and asked, “What’s the impossible cure, then?”

“Getting whoever did this to take it back,” Asa said grimly. “And since you don’t remember who did it...” She slammed a book onto the table. “We have no way of tracking this imbecile down.”

Kellan put a comforting hand on her shoulder. She turned to him, and very uncharacteristically, pulled him into a hug almost violently. Kellan stiffened with surprise, but then awkwardly patted her back.

“You idiot,” she said, voice muffled as she buried her face in his chest. “You self-sacrificing idiot.”

Kellan huffed a laugh, but it was imbued with sadness. “I’m sorry, Asa. This shouldn’t be happening to either of you.” He gave Zara an apologetic smile, reaching out and clasping her hand. “You don’t deserve all this suffering.”

“Idiot,” Asa said again, sounding near tears. “You’re the one who gets hurt every ten hours, one way or another.”

Kellan laughed. “Guess I’m too handsome for even pain to pass me by.”

Asa snorted. “Or too ugly.”

“Nah,” Kellan said cheerfully. “I’m not ugly. Everyone likes me.”

Asa muttered her reluctant assent. “Especially those daughters,” she complained as she pulled away, rolling her eyes.

“Oh, those things,” Kellan said emphatically, shaking his head with mock disgust. “Absolutely unbearable.”

“Tell me about it,” Asa said, annoyed. Kellan shot Zara an amused smile.

As she smiled back, she noticed how pale he was. He’d been keeping them both distracted with jokes or silly comments, keeping their attention away from the little gestures of discomfort he let slip--a pained look as he shook out his arm: an uneasy glance at the limb; a slight catch in his voice. It was tactic that was expected of him and literally everyone knew he’d be using, but it was also so effective that it fooled them every time.

She decided to let him keep his pride and said nothing.

Asa huffed. “You did that to distract me, didn’t you?”

Kellan frowned. “No...” Then he smiled. “Come on. Take a break. Zara, take her outside to the garden. I authorise you to use force.”

Zara grinned and saluted him. “Yes, Your Highness!”

Asa spluttered. ”You’re the one I’m trying to save!”

“I’ll save myself,” Kellan said gently, as if that was what he was expected to do. “You go and give yourself a break, Asa. This much stress isn’t good for your skin, you know.”

Asa scoffed, flicking her hand over her shoulder. “Nothing can ruin my skin.”

“Sure,” Kellan laughed. “I’m supposed to gloat about my beauty, not you. Zara, will you do the honours?”

Asa scowled, glaring at her. “I’m not budging.”

Kellan shrugged. “Neither am I.”

“Looks like we’re at an impasse,” Asa said, smirking.

“I wouldn’t be so sure. Zara?”

She grinned, thoroughly enjoying the scene. “You got it.” She put an arm around Asa. “Come on, grumpy old lady. Let’s go get you some rest.”

“Kellan’s the one that needs rest!” Asa protested, but she huffed and went along with Zara anyway.

As they left, Zara glanced back at Kellan. His cheery expression had vanished, replaced with tired one. He sat down in the chair rather heavily, cradling his arm against his chest with the other. WIth a sigh, he dropped his head onto the desk with a quiet thump.

Zara looked away and swallowed, then said to Asa, “He’ll be alright.”

It was more to convince herself than Asa, though.

He’ll be alright.

At least she had to believe it...because it was clear Asa and Kellan didn’t. We hope, she thought, or we stumble.

Dinner was uncomfortably quiet.

Alina and Arkan ate in focused silence; Asa looked too tired to say anything. The air was awkward, and so Zara refrained from attempts at small talk. Kellan picked at his food, unusually quiet. He had out on a pair of gloves to hide the black lines, which had drawn a confused glance from Arkan, but no questions.

Surprisingly, it was Arkan who spoke. Addressing Kellan, he said, “How are you feeling? Are you better?”

They hadn’t told either him or Alina about the poison, but Kellan gave no indication of hiding the secret or harbouring any guilt. “I’m good as ever,” he answered, suddenly cheerful. It was unsettling how he seemed to switch from mood to mood.

Arkan smiled, and Asa squinted at him suspiciously. “Since when are you all cozied up to Kellan?”

Arkan blinked and visibly struggled for an answer. Coming to his rescue, Kellan said brightly, “Is that really a question worth asking, Asa? Even Prince Grumpy can’t resist my charm.”

“That is not proper language,” Alina said sharply. “You will not address you older brother like that.”

For a split second, there was surprise on Kellan’s face, but he recovered a moment later and smiled. “My apologies,” he said. “I did not mean to offend you.”

The Queen sniffed in barely concealed disdain, and the table fell into a strained silence again.

Arkan cleared his throat. “So,” he began awkwardly. “ kidnapped?”

Kellan made a dismissive gesture. “Commanders Aryan and Ahad were quick in finding me. And I did gain some important intel.”

“Such as?”

“Well, for one,” Kellan said. “The assassin’s name is Araysh. He has a sister named Nina. And--”

“He’s out for revenge,” Arkan said grimly, and Kellan nodded.

“Typical, really,” Asa said. “Why can’t they leave well enough alone?”

“If you look at it, though,” Kellan said, “we’re looking for revenge too. Then what reason sets us apart? Why are we right and he wrong?”

“Are you saying that Rahim deserved death?” Alina demanded. In unison, Arkan, Asa and Zara’s jaws dropped.

“No!” Kellan said almost violently, shocked. “How dare you?”

The Queen sat up. “You will not speak to me like that.”

“And you will not insinuate I somehow deem my father deserving of murder,” Kellan said, angrier than Zara had ever seen him. “I will have you remember: he was my father long before he was your husband.”

“And I will have you remember,” Alina retorted, “that I am still your Queen.”

“That means nothing to me,” Kellan said, clenching his fists. “You will be removed from that position soon enough.”

“Even if you do not give me my due as the Queen,” Alina said haughtily, “I am still your mother, and I will have some respect.”

“My mother was Haniya,” Kellan said quietly. “And she was worth millions of you.”

“She was weak,” the Queen said furiously, and Kellan stood up, his chair grating on the ground.

“What did you say?” he said in a very, very quiet voice.

Alina barely flinched. “Your mother was weak,” she said, and Asa gripped Zara’s hand tight, her mouth thin with anger. “She was a entitled spoilt daughter who could not even keep the food she ate in her stomach.”

Kellan slammed his fists on the table. “Be silent,” he shouted. “You will not slander my mother’s name! You—”

“Kellan,” Zara muttered under her breath, and he abruptly fell silent.

A variety of emotions flashed across his face: momentary confusion, then realisation that turned into remorse. He took a step back and dropped his eyes to the floor, his hand tight around his posioned arm. His cheeks were flushed, their colour a feverish red.

“Forgive me,” he said quietly, not looking up. “My anger got away from me.”

“An apology is not enough,” Alina said, and Kellan ducked his head. His breathing had become shaky.

“I understand,” he said. “What do you order, my Queen?”

There was a smug look in Alina’s eyes. “Admit to me that I am superior to Haniya.”

Kellan flushed redder, and Asa’s shoulders tensed. “Isn’t that a little—”

“Silence, Asa,” Alina said, not bothering to look at her. Asa fell silent, seething.

Kellan’s breathing was oddly unsteady. His eyes were still trained on the floor, so Asa couldn’t see his face, but there was something about his posture that scared her.

And it wasn’t humiliation.

“She—” Kellan cut off, his hand convulsing around his arm. His voice cracked.

“Go on,” Alina said coldly.

Kellan took a shallow breath. He put a hand on the chair, almost as if to steady himself.

“Something’s wrong,” Asa said worriedly, standing up.

“Asa, sit down,” Alina said. “He’s just being dramatic.”

Zara doubted that was the case. Kellan’s breathing had become laboured and heavy, and he had suddenly gone pale. He was leaning almost completely against the chair, as if unable to hold himself up.

“Kellan?” Zara asked in concern, ignoring Alina. She stood up as well. “Are you alright?”

Kellan made an inarticulate sound, cradling his arm against his stomach. The dark lines were now dark enough to be faintly visible even beneath the gloves.

Oh, no, Zara thought, and just as she was about to speak, Kellan collapsed.

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