The Firebird Prince

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Kellan dozed off for the rest of the journey, which Arkan was incredibly thankful for. He hadn’t stopped yammering, about something or the other, till Arkan had to physically restrain himself from slapping him to get him to shut up.

As they passed into Lin Odun, Karam’s capital city, Arkan got the sudden feeling that something was really, really wrong. The streets were deserted, other than a few people looking subdued and sad. The shops were all closed, the houses’ windows shuttered, the doors shut.

At a particularly hard jolt, Kellan jerked awake. Arkan was almost impressed by how fast he was fully alert and composed, easy smile back at his lips, hair ruffled just right.

“Ah,” he said, smiling out of the window, “how I’ve missed this view. Lin Odun, the city of Kings. Bustling streets, vendors calling, and at the very horizon...” He looked up, where the faint silhouette of the palace was visible. “Home.”

“Not so bustling now, is it?” Arkan pointed out, still frowning. “I wonder what’s wrong.”

Kellan frowned back. “One would think someone’s died,” he said, then stiffened.

“What is it?” Arkan said, but Kellan wasn’t listening to him anymore. He pulled something out of his pocket and when he uncurled his fists, five little diamonds lay in his palm, all deep red. Four of them were bright as if illuminated from the inside, but the fifth was dull.

Kellan stared at it, his smile vanished, his face gone pale.

“Kellan,” Arkan snapped, anxiety burning. “What is it?”

Kellan gave no sign that he’d heard, staring at it with unmasked horror.

“Kellan!” Arkan shouted.

“They’re attached to your life forces,” Kellan said after a second. “The smallest Zara’s, and the biggest...”

Arkan’s mouth went dry. “The King.”

Kellan nodded numbly, then shook his head, suddenly angry. “No,” he said fiercely, fisting his hands. “This isn’t right. He can’t be... He’s alright.”

Just then, their carriage pulled to a stop, and there was a knock on the door. Kellan fell silent, breathing heavily, as they both looked to the door.

“Come in,” Arkan said warily.

The door opened, and a guard stepped in. His posture was respectful and a little bit scared, his hands behind his back, head bowed.

“Speak,” Kellan said sharply.

“My Princes,” the guards stammered. “The--King Rahim is--is dead, your Highnesses. He was--he was poisoned during his morning meal, and it--it proved fatal.”

There was complete silence. Kellan and Arkan stared at the guard, frozen. The Kellan blinked and pulled himself together so suddenly that it was freaky.

“Thank you, Ishmael--that’s your name, yes?” He waited until the guard had nodded, looking shocked at being recognized. “Ishmael. You can go now.”

“Sire,” Ishmael said, bowing. He then proceeded to flee the carriage. Kellan watched the closed door, his face inscrutable.

Arkan didn’t know how to feel. Rahim was his stepfather, but he didn’t love him like he loved his mother. He didn’t want to grieve, but he was.

Kellan took a deep breath, closing his eyes. His fists clenched and unclenched convulsively. Arkan watched him, waiting for the moment he’d break.

But all Kellan was run a hand over his face and through his hair. Then he smiled at Arkan, who was too stunned to react. Kellan laughed. “Why are goggling at me like that?”

Arkan looked away as the carriage started moving again. “I’m not.”

He watched from the corner of his eye as Kellan looked out of the window, still smiling, which was wholly inexplicable. He’d just gotten the news that his father, someone who he hadn’t seen even once in ten years, was dead, and here he was, smiling as if he’d been told the funniest joke in Karam.

Maybe he’d just a very good actor.

Arkan had no doubts about that. Kellan had been trained in acting--it was essential in diplomacy, after all. But was even the greatest actor ever able to mask such grief? Arkan had no idea what Kellan was thinking, and it didn’t sit well with him.

“Kellan,” Arkan said suddenly, “you are aware of the gravity of the situation, aren’t you?”

Kellan gave a shallow laugh, and for the first time, there was pain in his voice. “I’m aware.”

Baffled, Arkan fell silent. The rest of the journey was spent in silence, awkward and heavy.

At last, they reached the castle, and the brothers stepped down from the carriage. Kellan stared at the majestic building as if drinking it all in. Then the door opened and a figure came running out, straight towards Kellan.

Kellan noticed it just before Zara crashed into him, arms around his neck, sobbing uncontrollably. He staggered back, nearly falling before he regained his balance and hugged Zara back so hard Arkan thought they’d break each other’s ribs.

“Zara,” he breathed, like an incantation.

“Kellan,” Zara sobbed. “I missed you so much.”

“Me too,” Kellan said, pulling away and scanning her tear-stained face. He gave a weak laugh. “You’re all grown up.”

Zara burst into fresh tears.

“Hey, don’t cry,” Kellan said, hugging her again. “Everything’s alright.”

“How can you say that?” Zara wailed. “Father’s dead, Kellan. He’s never coming back, he’s-- nothing’s ever going to be alright again.”

Kellan gripped her shoulders. “Hey,” he said. “That’s not you speaking. Where’s my bouncy, happy Zara gone?”

Arkan shifted uncomfortably. People were watching; even the guards kept glancing towards them. Arkan nudged Kellan, and his brother understood what he was saying.

“Let’s go inside,” Kellan said to Zara, putting an arm around her and leading her towards the door. It opened and Asa stepped out, looking as out together as Zara was dishevelled.

“Asa!” Kellan exclaimed. “Seriously, girls, have I been away for ten years or twenty?”

Asa smiled slightly. “Kellan.”

Kellan put his other arm around her, and they walked inside, Arkan trailing them.

“Just as I wanted it,” Kellan said happily. “All of us, together at last.”

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