The Firebird Prince

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Kellan’s heart was racing.

He wiped his sweaty palms on his trousers, taking a deep, steadying breath. Something in him was anxious, agitated.

The feeling was getting increasingly familiar.

He didn’t know how to calm himself, didn’t know why he was on edge all the time. It was like he was always expecting something to go wrong, for him to mess up, looking for danger even when there was none.

That’s the definition of paranoia, his brain said. You know it.

Somehow, knowing made him feel worse.

Again he breathed deeply. His hands were shaking, so he set down his pen, trying to still himself. But as he lifted his hand away, it hit the inkpot and knocked it over; ink spilt everywhere.

Kellan sucked in a breath, pushing to his feet and pushing the documents aside. He set the pot upright, but his hands were trembling so hard that he dropped it, staining the table again.

His heart was pounding even faster, a manic song in his ears. He backed away, trying to breathe, and his legs gave way and he sank to the floor, unravelling fast. He pressed his ink-streaked fingers to his face, breathing in short, harsh bursts.

Not now, he pleaded himself. Not now.

He dug his nails into his eyes, chest heaving. Logically, he knew he couldn’t give in to the panic, but that was easier said than done.

God, he couldn’t breathe.

"No, no, no,” Kellan murmured, repeating it over and over again under his breath. “No, no, no, no.”

Suddenly, there was a hand on his back and he flinched, surprised and momentarily afraid.

“Breathe,” said a gentle voice, and Kellan immediately recognised it, faster than he would have recognised even Zara or Asa’s—

“Kellan,” Fariq said again, his hand a steady, comforting weight on his back. “Breathe.”

As Kellan struggled to obey, careful fingers pulled his hands from his face, pressing them against Fariq’s chest. Fariq took a deep breath, his firm chest rising with it. “Feel that, Kellan? Breathe with me, child. In, and out. It’s easy.”

It’s easy. Kellan dazedly matched his breathing with the movement of Fariq’s chest and felt a portion of his panic drain away. It seemed to sap his energy too and he slumped, eyes still closed.

Fariq shifted, then Kellan felt his arms around him, drawing him into his chest. For a moment Kellan was surprised, then he let out a sigh, eyelids fluttering. He had forgotten what it was like to be hugged—to be held, and he melted into the embrace, his tension falling away.

Something was comforting about Fariq’s silence; he asked no questions, said nothing, just quietly sat and held him. Kellan breathed him in—he smelled like home, like sea air and dry grass, like wafts of porridge and tang of steel.

Reluctantly, Kellan pulled away, even though he didn’t want to. Embarrassed, he avoided Fariq’s eyes, who sighed and sat back.

“Stress?” he asked quietly, and Kellan nodded.

“And grief, I can imagine.”

Kellan dragged a hand through his hair and nodded again. Fariq could smell his lies a mile away. And Kellan was too tired to go the extra mile.

“Listen to me,” Fariq said, and Kellan hesitantly looked at him. His eyes were kind--there was no judgement in them, and suddenly, Kellan realised how much he had needed it. “You are allowed to grieve, Kellan. You are allowed to take a break, to give yourself rest. You’re a brilliant young man, but you don’t see that--and unless you do, you can’t give your best to anyone.”

“I’m trying,” Kellan said raggedly. “I--I can’t do it.”

“Why not?”

“It’s--there’s always so much pressure and stress, and balancing everything is impossible. I can’t sleep, I can’t focus. I’m letting everyone down, making promises I’m unable to keep. I was trained ten years for this, yet I...I just can’t do it.”

Softly, Fariq said, “And what proof do you have of that? From what I’m seeing, you’re doing just fine handling Karam.”

Kellan laughed bitterly. “Really?”

“Yes,” Fariq said firmly.

“Then why,” Kellan said resentfully, “are there attacks and assassination attempts almost every day? Why are traitors able to get so far into the castle that they what they’ve been doing? Poisoning our food, leaving messages on our walls--is that protection? That’s inefficiency, and it only started when I replaced my father.”

“It’s not because of you,” Fariq said. “It’s because of the transition. Every new King faces these problems, and your enemies are just taking advantage of your inexperience. But that’s not your fault. Your father struggled too, and so did every King before him.”

Kellan forced himself to nod. “Yeah,” he said, “Thanks.”

“You know, King Kellan,” Fariq said at length, “You really are remarkably like your father.”

Kellan laughed, raggedly. “You’ve said that before.”

“I mean it more this time. Your father was just like this: he too thought he carried the weight of the world. But he learned to love himself--a lesson that you, it seems, have yet to master.”

“If only that was part of Tarbiyat,” Kellan said quietly.

Fariq sighed. “Unfortunately, no-one can teach us these lessons except ourselves.”

Kellan shook his head with a mirthless laugh. Then, desperate to change the subject, he glanced up at Fariq and said, “I know I’ve asked you before, but still...why do you never smile?”

“Because I reserve my smiles for moments worth them.” His eyes were amused, kind. “Like when you, my dear boy, finally learn to accept yourself.”

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