The Firebird Prince

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“King Kellan! A word, please.”

Kellan turned to the soldier and said, “Speak.”

“My lord,” the man said, out of breath, “I have just received the news. Our scouts reported that they have seen a fae resembling Araysh near the forest.”

“Araysh?” How is that possible? “Are you sure?”

“Yes, sire. He was seen near the creek. Our scouts did not engage, but are waiting for your signal.”

Kellan nodded. “Bring him in.” He couldn’t risk Araysh deciding to turn back on them again. But is it really him? And how can it be? “And don’t let him get away.”

“Sire,” the soldier said and then sprinted away.

Kellan grimaced, then straightened his shoulders and spun on his heel, stuffing his hands into his pockets. He quickly walked to Arkan’s room and knocked impatiently.

“Come in.”

Kellan opened the door and without preamble, announced, “You’re coming sparring with me. Come on.”

Arkan made a face. He was lounging in his chair, a book in his hands. “Hard pass, sorry.”

“Come on,” Kellan said. “I need to...hit something.”

“And since when did I become something?”

“Since you became all cosy with me,” Kellan said easily. “Your fault.”

Arkan shook his head. “Sorry, Kellan.”

Kellan frowned--there was something beyond that playful refusal. Alina. “Oh, I get it,” he said, suddenly irritated. “You’re being a momma’s boy again.”

Arkan’s eyebrows shot into his hair. “Excuse me?”

Kellan almost retorted, then checked himself, running a hand through his hair. “Ah, sorry. The councilmen were idiots today and it’s messing with me.”

“Hm,” Arkan said suspiciously.

“Seriously,” Kellan groaned, shaking his head. He wanted to collapse into Arkan’s bed and bemoan about his problems, but he merely said, “Please, Arkan. I’m going to go completely mad.”

“They were that bad?” Arkan said, laughing.

“No,” Kellan said, waving his hands restlessly. “It’s everything. There’s so much...I’m already exhausted.”

“It’s been barely four days since you became King,” Arkan said.

“I know.”

Arkan sighed. “Alright. I’ll come spar.”

Kellan shook his head. “You stick with your mother. It’s not worth it. I’ll go punch my wall and break my hand so I don’t have to all that paperwork.”

“You...are kidding, right?” Arkan asked cautiously.

Kellan gave him a significant look. “I might not,” he said, then added with a sigh, “See you around. I’m going to go cool down before Zara rips me apart again.”

He made to step out, but Arkan stopped him. “Wait, wait, wait. Explain. Now.”

Kellan gestured vaguely. “She’s mad at me for not having time for her. I don’t blame her.” He shrugged. “But still, I don’t look forward to that conversation.”

Arkan winced. “Good luck.”

Kellan laughed dryly. “Thanks.”

Kellan closed the door behind him and went to his own room, letting himself collapse into the chair. He blew out a breath and massaged his temples, trying to shake the irritation and weariness off.

“Oh, Father,” he said to the air, “how did you ever do this?”

He half expected a reply, then made a face, marvelling at his own idiocy. “God,” he muttered under his breath. “This sucks.”

Purposefully ignoring the stack on papers on the desktop, he rested his elbows on the desk and buried his face in his hands. All he could think of were bad things, negative feelings—how Zara was mad at him, how everyone expected so much from him; that his head hurt, his back hurt, his heart ached. There were so many things to be grateful for, and yet Kellan was too ungrateful to acknowledge them.

He dug his nails into his scalp, wishing he could just stop thinking for just a moment. Abruptly, he straightened and picked up his pen, drawing the pile of papers towards him. He was aware, logically, of what he was doing: burying himself in work to avoid thinking about his problems. But even so, even knowing, on a rational level, that it was wrong and unhealthy, he could not stop.

At most, it would impact his happiness. And did his happiness really matter? No, it did not—not as long as his country was happy, not as long as his people were happy, and most of all, not if it meant his sisters were happy.

Time drifted as Kellan moved from one document to the next, from one report of bad news to the next. His headache built but he ignored it, letting himself be consumed by his work. It was better than letting his thoughts drive him crazy.

But then, all of a sudden, emotion overwhelmed him, making it hard to breathe. He pressed his hands against his chest, eyes wide as the wave of feeling faded, and Kellan realised what it had been—grief.

He loosened a ragged breath, resting his forehead on his folded arms. A deep breath in, a deep breath out. He couldn’t cry. He was done grieving. He was—

But there was that feeling again—like someone had tied and knot around his chest and yanked tight; like there was a noose around his neck; like someone had gripped his heart and was squeezing hard. Kellan fought hard to breathe; he couldn’t lose control, not when he had to be brave in front of Zara, not when she was expecting him to be there for her.

“God,” he said, his voice raw and hoarse, “God, I miss you, Father.”

Another breath. “I wish you were here.”

“Who says I’m not?”

Kellan jumped violently, shooting to his feet. For a moment he stared, unable to comprehend what he was seeing. Somehow, he managed, "Father?”

Rahim smiled, and said, “Hello, son.”

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