The Firebird Prince

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“Is everything okay?”

Kellan glanced about him to ensure no-one was listening, then said, “I wanted to thank you.”

Arkan frowned, puzzled. “For what?”

“With your mother,” Kellan said quietly, and understanding dawned on Arkan.

“Oh,” he said.

Kellan smiled at a passerby as he said, “I understand why she might not like me. My comments to her were insensitive and brash; I should not have said them.”

“She shouldn’t have accused you like that, either,” Arkan cut in. “Neither of you was justified, but...she was more at fault. Your anger was completely understandable, especially under the influence of the poison.”

“Yes, it did make my temper quicker,” Kellan agreed, almost subconsciously rubbing his forearm. He seemed too catch himself and stopped. “But I still want to apologize to her. Do you know where she might be?”

Arkan gestured to a cluster of ladies in the corner. “She’s with her friends,” he said. “I’m warning you, she’s not happy with you. I tried to talk some sense into her, but she wouldn’t listen.

“That’s alright,” Kellan said. “I’ll deal with it.”

“Anything else?”

Kellan hesitated. “I hope there are no hard feelings between us anymore?” he said, and Arkan paused while he greeted a noble, wondering how to answer.

“I was...a bully,” he said slowly. “I suppose I was jealous. But I realise how foolish that was. You are the King, and I’m happy where I am.”

Kellan studied him. “Are you sure?”

Arkan nodded.

“I’m glad to hear that,” Kellan said with a smile. “Now that I’m King, I’m going to need you by my side.”

Surprised, Arkan frowned. “You mean...?”

“I’m going to give you Valika Nyasi to manage. It’s vulnerable to attacks from the Kuori Mountains, and if’s properly fortified, then Shohona Grad will be safe as well. I’ll have one less thing to worry about.”

Speechless, Arkan said, “Of--of course.”

How had he ever hated this boy? He, the Prince of Nothing, had just been handed one of the most important issues of the country to handle. That was trust. Suddenly, Arkan didn’t care about how power he did or didn’t have.

“You can manage everything from right here; you don’t even have to leave,” Kellan said as if Arka needed any convincing. “Will you accept this?”

“Of course I will,” Arkan said. “Thank you.”

Kellan smiled. “Good then, Arkan, Duke of Valika Nyasi.”

Arkan laughed. “That actually sounds extremely weird.”

“It suits you,” Kellan said, with a wink. Arkan grinned back. But it faded as he caught Alina’s eye. She was looking at him with Kellan with clear disapproval; Arkan raised his eyebrows, silently beckoning her towards them.

She excused herself from her friends and glided towards them.

“Ah, there she comes,” Kellan said quietly, hoisting a pleasant smile onto her face.

“Doesn’t look happy,” Arkan muttered.

Kellan, still smiling pleasantly, said, “With me, people rarely are.”

Before Arkan could reply, Alina reached them and offered Kellan a stiff curtsy, her eyes icy where they were trained on him.

Kellan smiled, showing no signs of offense, and took her hand, kissing her knuckles. That surprised Arkan--with the position of King, he was no longer obliged to show her any respect.

But if Kellan was nothing if not charming.

“You’ve planned this all quite extravagantly, my Lady,” Kellan said. “Everything is simply divine.”

“Yes,” Alina said, offering no thanks, “especially that crown on your head.”

Kellan laughed. If Alina’s veiled jabs made him uncomfortable, he did not show. “It makes up for its beauty with its weight, unfortunately.”

Alina gave him a frozen smile. “We will see if you are able to endure it.”

Kellan’s smile faltered ever so slightly, but he inclined his head and said, “Indeed.”

“Giving a seventeen-year-old so much power is not advisable,” she said lightly. “I pray you do not mess this up.”

Kellan laughed, clearly forced. “That’s the question everyone is asking, is it not?”

Another mocking smile. “Rahim did not.”

This time, Kellan did flinch. “He was the best King Karam could have hoped for,” he agreed quietly, then hesitated. “I want to apologize for my behaviour yesterday. It was disrespectful and I overstepped.”

“Yes,” Alina said, “you did.”

There was a slightly awkward silence; Arkan gave his mother a look. Her eyes turned flinty.

“But I accept your apology,” she said stiffly.

Kellan bowed his head. “Thank you.”

Alina sniffed and turned away, striding back to her friends. Arkan sighed to himself.

“She hates me, doesn’t she?” Kellan murmured.

Arkan snorted. “Oh, yes.”

Kellan chuckled, his eyes roving over the crowd, searching. He was distracted, however, as Arkan nudged his arm and said, “Who’s that?”

Kellan followed his line of sight. Arkan jerked his head to who he meant.

“She kept staring at you,” he said lightly, reigning in his wicked smirk.

“Oh.” Kellan smiled, amused, and said, “That’s Farah.”

“First name basis, huh?”

Kellan gave him an incredulous look. “Arkan!”

Arkan smirked. “Isn’t her father kind of evil?”

Kellan frowned. “He’s ambitious, for sure. But evil? Besides, I wouldn’t stain her name just because of her father’s.”

Arkan laughed. “Right, right...and you’d do that for anyone, huh?”

“Of course I would,” Kellan said easily, unperturbed by his teasing.

Arkan patted his shoulder. “Keep dreaming, brother.”

Kellan only rolled his eyes.

“She looks like she wants to come talk to you,” Arkan said, significantly. “Maybe I should go...?”

“Please don’t,” Kellan said firmly, sighing. “It’s incredibly awkward whenever she tries to talk to me.”

“Really?” Arkan said with a raised eyebrow. “I’d have thought you of all people would know how to carry a conversation.”

Kellan snorted in a very dignified way.

“Especially with girls,” Arkan said, teasing.

“Talking to Zara and Asa is very easy,” Kellan agreed, not rising to his playful jabs. Arkan grinned to himself. “But I have to seem like I’m good at socialising, no? I am the Prince after all.”

Arkan frowned at him. ”King, Kellan.”

An odd expression flashed through Kellan’s face, and his shoulders tensed. “So it is,” he said quietly.

Scrambling to keep the conversation light, Arkan said, “Oh, look, she’s coming over.”

Kellan’s mood recovered instantly; his smile was back in place, even if it seemed slightly forced. “Try not to embarrass me, yes? It won’t work.”

“Why,” Arkan said jokingly, “don’t you like her?”

Kellan scoffed. “It’s not that,” he said. “She’s fine. Nothing more.”

“But look at those eyes,” Arkan said. “She’s so very pretty.”

“So is Asa,” Kellan retorted, rolling his eyes again. “So is Zara.”

Arkan grinned. “Sure.”

Kellan closed his eyes, the skin around them pinched. He took a deep breath and said, “Please stop, Arkan.”

Taken aback, Arkan said, “Sorry.”

Kellan grimaced, then somehow smiled again as Farah reached them and gave them each a curtsy.

“My lady,” Kellan said. “You look very beautiful today.”

Farah glanced down at her lavender dress and blushed, then said, “Thank you, sire.”

She glanced up at his crown and said, “Congratulations, my King. May it be easy on you.”

Kellan inclined his head. “Thank you.”

“My father pledges his allegiance to you, my lord. So do I. You will have our full support.”

Kellan smiled and nodded, then said, “Could he not come?”

“He’s with his sister, sire,” Farah said. “She’s sick, and he’s visiting her for a few days.”

“I see,” Kellan said. “I will pray she gets better soon. Is there anything I can do to help?”

Farah curtsied again. “No, thank you, sire. If we need assistance, I will let you know.”

“Ask for it, and it is yours,” Kellan promised.

“Thank you, my King.” Farah curtsied again, then took her leave.

A teasing remark sprung up on his tongue, but he remembered Kellan’s request to stop, and held it back. He studied his brother, and noted how even so soon. stress was already showing--in the line of his mouth, the forced brightness of his eyes.

Arkan knew first-hand how badly it had affected Rahim, leading to him withdrawing and going quiet. When Alina would try to help him, he would blow up uncharacteristically, before apologising and withdrawing into himself again.

It was a cycle of constant stress, and if it affected strong, grown men so much, what would it do to Kellan?

Mother was right, he thought. Such an immense burden was not meant for such young shoulders.

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