The Firebird Prince

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Aryan had a really bad feeling.

Ahad had left around midday, and yet he had still not returned--nor had the Princesses. This day had been damned to suck from the morning; Aryan had been in a horrible mood all day, and Ahad’s indifference had irritated him even further. And now Ahad and the Princesses were missing, and the King had returned unsuccessful from his hunt.

And now he was pacing, fiddling with his collar. As time had passed, minute after minute, anxiety had taken root in his eyes. He kept his gaze at the window, where the sprawling courtyard could be seen, subconsciously searching for his sisters.

“They’ll come back, sire,” Aryan tried, even though he found it hard to believe it himself.

Kellan’s attention snapped to him, sudden as if he had forgotten he was there, and he visibly forced himself to still. “Yes, yes,” he said distractedly. “Ahad is with them, right?” He shook his head. “And yet I cannot shake this fear.”

Ahad, you better not mess up. Ahad never did--but what if, this time, he had?

“Do you want to search for them?”

Kellan closed his eyes, his shoulders hunched. He dragged a hand over his face. “Send out some men.” There was a haunted, apprehensive quality to his voice that had Aryan asking:

“Sire, are you alright?”

“Always,” Kellan said; a memorized, rehearsed answer. He glanced at the door. “Don’t go yourself,” he said, his voice strange. “We could need you here.”

Puzzled. Aryan frowned, but then inclined his head. “Of course, sire. I’ll go send some men out.” Maybe, he supposed, this was Kellan’s way of asking him to stay with him.

Kellan nodded, his eyes on the window again, faraway. Aryan bit his lip, trying to keep his own worry from overwhelming him, and slipped out the door. Prince Arkan was standing, hand outstretched towards the door. Arkan bowed to him, then turned to the guard at the door and quickly relayed the King’s message. As the guard ran off, Aryan turned back to the door.

And saw Arkan punch Kellan in the face.

His jaw dropped, and he watched, speechless, as Kellan recoiled in shock, hand reaching up. Arkan’s fists were balled, his shoulders tense.

“What the hell, Arkan?” Kellan sputtered in disbelief.

Arkan said something in a low, furious voice, and Kellan’s face twisted with confusion.

“What are you talking about?”

Arkan’s hand jerked as if he intended to punch him again, but then he said, “Tell me it’s not like that.”

Kellan looked at him as if Arkan had sprouted horns. “Of course it isn’t, Arkan. What’s gotten into you?”

“Into me?” Arkan demanded. “You’re the one who’s changed, Kellan.”

The barest hints of anger crept into Kellan’s expression. “You need to calm down.”

Arkan crossed his arms. Aryan couldn’t see his face, but his fury was plain in his posture: in the way his feet were planted, in the way his shoulders were bunched. “I’m perfectly fine the way I am. It’s high time someone knocked some sense into you.”

Kellan looked ready to retort, but he only said in a level voice, “I don’t understand where this is coming from.” He didn’t seem to have noticed Aryan, who still stood gaping at the door.

“This is about you lying. I can’t believe it, Kellan. If you really gave me that position just to earn my favour, why couldn’t you just say so? And now you think I’m incompetent?”

It was Kellan’s turn to gape. “Did your mother tell you all of this?” he asked, more disbelieving than angry.

“So what if she did?”

“She gets you every time, doesn’t she?” Kellan shook his head, anger starting to light his eyes. “And you fall for it every single time.”

Arkan took a threatening step forward, but Kellan held his ground. “You will not insult my mother,” the Prince said furiously.

“I don’t need to,” Kellan said. “For God’s sake, Arkan, open your eyes.”

“It’s you who needs to wake up,” Arkan spat. “My mother is right. You’’re just jealous that I have her and you don’t.”

Aryan and Kellan both flinched. “Stop this madness, Arkan.”

“Who do you think you are? Do you think you’re some kind of fairytale king? Hunting monsters, saving people? You’ve saved no-one, Kellan. You just destroy. Where were you when Father died? Asa and Zara and my mother had to watch him die--”

“Arkan,” Kellan said, his eyes wide, his voice strangled, “stop.”

Arkan only advanced a step. “You couldn’t protect him,” he said quietly. “You think you can protect your entire country?”

Kellan shook his head, stepping back. “Enough,” he said, but his voice was shaking.

“You know what I wish?” Arkan said. “What my mother wishes? We wish you’d died instead of Rahim.”

Kellan seemed to stop breathing; there was a flash of fury in his eyes, and between one blink and the next, he drew his dagger and pressed it against Arkan’s throat. Aryan swallowed, breathing hard, transfixed in horrified fascination.

“Think before you speak,” Kellan said in a cold, deadly voice that did not belong to him. “I am your King, and I can have you killed.”

Arkan blinked, shocked at the threat. “Kellan--”

There was genuine fear in his voice, and it seemed to register--Kellan jerked back, dropping his dagger as if burned. Arkan was frozen to the spot, utterly still.

“Oh, God,” Kellan gasped, hands pressing against his forehead. “God, Arkan--”

But Arkan was retreating slowly, his breathing audibly shallow, and Aryan stumbled out of the way as he practically ran from the room, his hand rising to his mouth. Aryan stared at him for a moment, then back to his King, who had his eyes screwed shut, his nails digging hard into his wrist. His breathing was forced, his skin dangerously pale.

His fingers kept pushing at his sensitive skin, harder and harder, till beads of blood welled up, creeping down Kellan’s skin. The bright, scarlet colour stood out in startling contrast with Kellan’s white skin, visible even across the room. Aryan wondered briefly if Kellan realised he was hurting himself before it dawned on him that he might want to.

The thought made him sick, and he lurched forward, unable to see Kellan hurting himself--unable to watch his king hurt himself. It reminded of the habit Ahad had had, when he was young and newly orphaned--traumatised and afraid and alone. He would hurt himself, again and again, hiding it until Aryan inevitably found out. He remembered the horror and confusion he had felt--how could a person do that to himself?

But now, he knew.

As he stepped towards him, Kellan’s eyes snapped open and Aryan froze, expecting a reprimand. But Kellan only flushed a deep red, jerking his hand away and wiping it on his trousers. “Commander,” he said, his eyes going blank, and Aryan was amazed at how steady his voice was.

“Sire,” Aryan managed; there was no hiding the fact that he had seen the entire thing. “Sire--forgive me.”

Kellan’s chest rose and fell once, quickly, in a sort of suppressed gasp. He shook his head, sinking into his throne--it dwarfed him, made him seem like a mere child--which he was, Aryan realised, his heart heavy; he was a child, a boy, so devastatingly young. “I held a knife to his throat,” he said through his fingers, his voice choked and edging on frantic. “I almost killed my brother.”

Aryan was so used to Ahad and his phobia, that he hesitated before touching Kellan; even then, it was a light, unsure touch on the shoulder. “Hold on, sire,” he said, closing his eyes. “We have to keep going, no matter what.”

Kellan said nothing, and Aryan swallowed hard before sitting on the ground, letting his King know he was there, that he was by his side in his battle. For a long, long time, they sat there, and Aryan’s chest grew increasingly tight. His heart pounded, and every beat seemed to pulse his name. Ahad. Ahad. Ahad.

And so the night dragged on, and the Princesses remained lost to the darkness.

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