The Firebird Prince

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“But I don’t understand.”

“Understand what?”

Kellan jumped slightly, looking up to find Arkan leaning against the door frame. Hastily, he moved his hand to cover the scrap of paper he was holding--the note from the girls’ kidnapper, behind which he had scrawled, Farah’s mother.

“Nothing,” he lied. “Just why I’m so handsome, you know?” Kellan faked confusion. “It’s not humanly possible, yet here I stand.”

Arkan rolled his eyes. “I’m outta here.”

Kellan grinned, then asked, “You alright? You look a little pale.”

Arkan became uncomfortable, so Kellan quickly tacked on, “Oh, I know. You’re swooning at my beauty.”

Arkan bristled. “Am not.”

“Are too.”

“Am not!”

“I don’t blame you,” Kellan said airily. “I am the most gorgeous thing in all of Karam.”

Arkan pressed his hands to his face. “Oh, my God, Kellan. How do you fit that big head of yours into your crown?”

“Oh, it expands, you see,” Kellan said very seriously.

Because it’s so very awed of you?”

Kellan threw his hands up dramatically. “Finally someone gets it.”

Arkan shook his head, half-grinning and half-exasperated. Kellan subtly slipped the paper into his pocket as Arkan asked, “Fariq was asking after you at lunch.”

Kellan winced. “Oh, dear, he was? I hope he wasn’t worried.”

Arkan eyed him. “You weren’t at breakfast either. Or lunch.”

“Well, today was a very busy day.”

“You had two meetings,” Arkan said, a touch accusatory. Kellan forced himself not to shift. “And both in the morning.”

“Attending meetings is not all a King has to do, you know.” He struggled to keep hostility out of his voice, and thankfully succeeded. He did not want another fight bubbling up so soon. He forced a smile, though it seemed inappropriate in the current situation. “The kidnapping agitated the soldiers, and they only grow more restless with Commander Ahad still missing.”

Arkan’s face softened. “Yeah, I heard about that.” He grew concerned. “What do you think about it? Could he be...dead?”

Kellan’s mouth twisted. “Aryan is convinced that he isn’t. I, however, am not so sure. What would F--” he caught himself, then corrected, “What would the kidnappers want from him? They’ve lost Asa and Zara, their biggest bargaining chip.”

“So if they demand a ransom for the Commander, you won’t give it?”
Kellan shrugged, though he felt a twinge of guilt. “Depends.”

“I can imagine his family wouldn’t be too happy to hear that,” Arkan said slowly. “Are they...are they okay?”

Kellan grimaced. “He doesn’t have a family,” he said. “They were killed a long time ago. Now, all he has is Aryan. And he’s...well, he’s a soldier. He’s dealing with it.”

“But...he’s one of our best soldiers, Kellan,” Arkan said. “You can’t just give up on him.”

“And I won’t,” Kellan said. “We’re working hard to identify the kidnappers, and if Ahad is alive, we’ll get him out. Though I suspect he might be able to do so himself.”

“How long will you wait?”

Feeling uncomfortably judged, Kellan said, “As soon as we get a sign.” He allowed himself to close his eyes, just for a brief second. “I know what you’re thinking, Arkan. But I need to look at the bigger picture, too. I can’t afford to lose money if I don’t absolutely have to.”

Arkan looked doubtful, but he nodded. “I understand,” he said.

Kellan inclined his head. I’m glad to hear that.

There was silence for a moment, then Arkan blurted, “Mother’s mad at me.”

Kellan blinked, then frowned. “Why?”

Arkan looked uncomfortable again, before he said, “Our...fight came up,” he said, and Kellan’s heart missed a beat. What would the girls think? What would Fariq think of him--holding a knife to his brother’s throat? “I told her I apologized, and she was...upset.”

Kellan suspected that was an understatement. He sighed. “Oh, Arkan. I’m so sorry. I hate coming between you and your mother. It’s all my fault--”

“No,” Arkan said, with surprising force. “No, you’re not to blame. She needs to see herself for who she is, and accept her mistakes. I’m over following her like a lapdog. I don’t know why she hates you so much.”

Kellan knew, though. He bit his lip, looking to the floor.

“Kellan?” Arkan asked. “You know why, don’t you?”

“Well, I have a suspicion,” Kellan said evasively. He did not offer further information.

“And that suspicion is?”

Kellan hesitated. “I have been told I look a lot like Father,” he said, not looking at Arkan. “Alina really misses him, doesn’t she? God knows, they were in love. Maybe when she sees...this--” he gestured at his face-- “she sees her husband.”

Arkan was silent for a beat. “But--”

“We’re not that alike?” Kellan asked. “Well, I haven’t seen my father in a long time.” His voice was bitter, and sudden pain swelled in his chest, grief seizing him. He sucked in a breath, caught by surprise. “But the hair, the eyes,” he forced himself to say, so that Arkan wouldn’t suspect anything was amiss, “I barely have any of my mother’s features. I’m like a carbon copy of my father. Maybe...maybe you don’t see it, but she does.”

Again, silence, and Kellan struggled to regain his composure. He had thought he was over it, over the pain, over the grief. But now it was coursing through him again, making his throat constrict.

“But even so,” Arkan said suddenly, and Kellan suppressed his flinch, “she isn’t right to treat any of us like this.”

Kellan was tired of the subject already. “Yeah,” he said quietly; it was the only word he could get out. He stared at his desk, aware of Arkan’s gaze on him.

“You know the feeling,” he said, quietly, not able to help himself, “when everything is mostly okay, and things are good, and everyone’s safe and happy, and you’re supposed to be happy, too, but you just can’t?” He struggled with himself for a second, emotion gripping him again. “I’m just stuck--stuck in this loop of misery, and no matter what I do, I can’t break out of it. It’s ungrateful and weak and ridiculous, and yet I can’t help it.”

Arkan was silent.

“And what’s more,” Kellan added, “you have a reason to be unhappy, and you’re still able to get over it. Alina’s able to deal with her grief. God, even the girls are dealing with it better than I am. And I just--I can’t--” Kellan inhaled sharply. “I’m being weak,” he said, shaking his head, “and making a fuss out of nothing, when I have no reason to be like this. I shouldn’t even be complaining right now.”

He didn’t look up, afraid of the judgement that would be on Arkan’s face. But his brother was quiet, before he said, ”Life.”

Kellan huffed a bitter laugh. “I couldn’t have put it better myself.”
“Well, I’ll say this,” Arkan said.

“Everyone deal with pain differently, but Kellan--I don’t think you’re dealing with it at all. And until you do, this misery of yours won’t go away. Just keep your chin up, yeah?”

Kellan nodded, not saying anything.

“You should go to sleep now,” Arkan said. “And for what it’s worth, just know that your sisters are happy, and you’re part of the reason. Hold onto that.”

Kellan didn’t think Arkan knew how much that had helped. Feeling considerably better, he smiled at Arkan. “Thank you, Arkan.”

Arkan grinned sheepishly, jokingly saluting. “Anything for you, my King.”

As he left, Kellan smiled to himself, and thought, My sisters are happy, and that’s enough for me.

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