The Firebird Prince

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"It's an honour to meet you, Prince Kellan."

Kellan turned to the voice with a smile, to see two young men dressed in military uniform. One had red hair and clear, hazel eyes—his face open and friendly, his build slim but incredibly fit. He had about an inch on Kellan in height and had clear-cut defined features. He looked to be around Arkan's age, maybe a bit older.

The other, appearing slightly younger, was as austere-looking as his companion looked open. He had serious, ash grey eyes with light brown hair that was neatly cut to a military length. He wore supple leather gloves, which surprised Kellan—it was not regulation to wear any kind of gloves.

Kellan noted that both wore the badges of commanders, though they seemed too young to be of that high rank. Though Kellan wasn't one to speak—he was going to be king at age seventeen.

He smiled and shook the first one's hand as he offered it to him. "My name is Aryan, sire," he said. "I'm a commander in your army." He glanced at his partner, but he said nothing, only studied Kellan in a way that made him want to squirm.

After an awkward lapse, Aryan gave him a slight nudge and said, "This is Ahad, my fellow commander."

"I would introduce myself," Kellan said in turn, "but I can see you already know my name."

Aryan smiled, and Kellan found that he had taken an instant liking to him. "Indeed," he said, then grew serious. "I would like to offer my deepest condolences for your father," he said. "I knew His Majesty personally, and feel great pain over his loss."

Kellan inclined his head. "Many thanks."

"That said, sire," Aryan added, "I'd like you to know that I will fully support you, should you become King. As will Ahad."

Almost imperceptibly, Ahad inclined his head. Kellan acknowledged them with a nod.

"I'm very grateful," he said.

"I know how hard this time p must be for you," Aryan said. "I've been in a situation much like yours." He glanced for a mere second at Ahad, who looked away, his eyes flickering. Kellan wondered about the implications behind the exchange, but then Aryan distracted him by saying, "If you need anything, sire, don't forget to ask."

Kellan smiled and assured him that he wouldn't, and then they excused themselves, and before Kellan had even a minute to breathe, someone else was approaching him.

"Prince Kellan." It was one of the nobles he knew from childhood, but not one he had ever liked much. He was much older now, but his halk-like eyes were the same, watching everything like a predator.

Kellan grasped for his name but found he could not remember. So he settled for smiling as he shook his hands and accepted his condolences.

"I would like to introduce you to my daughter," the man said and beckoned a girl forward. She was strikingly pretty, with long black hair and beautiful, multicoloured eyes.

She curtsied, then seemed to stumble and trip on the edge of her long dress. She began to fall, but Kellan caught her. For a moment, she looked confused, then seemed to realise what was happening. Her cheeks flamed a bright red, and Kellan smiled, setting her upright again.

"Are you alright, my dear lady?"

She curtsied again, blushing even harder, and stammered out, "Yes, thank you, my lord."

Kellan reigned in his amused smile. "May I know your name?"

"Farah, my Prince," she said, not meeting his eyes.

"What a beautiful name," Kellan said, and she blushed again.

"Thank you, sire." She looked a little stunned, so Kellan offered her his glass of water.

"It's lovely to make your acquaintance," he said. "I'm sure..." He trailed off, noticing a figure in the corner of the room. He frowned to himself, then remembered Farah and jerked his attention back to her. Pulling up a smile, he said apologetically, "Forgive me, my lady, but I must leave you. Please, sit down. I'll be back in a second."

Farah's father looked rather offended, but Kellan paid him no mind, weaving his way through the crowd.

But when he got to the corner of the room, no-one was there except a few girls talking to each other. Kellan realised he was smiling and schooled his face into an easy smile again.

As he walked away, he was vaguely aware of the girls behind him giggling, and one of them said, "I like his hair. All golden and curly."

Kellan smiled to himself and made his way back to where had left Farah. As he rejoined her, apologizing for his absences, Asa caught his eye from across the room where she stood with Zara. She raised her eyebrows, glance at Farah.

Kellan grinned at her, then returned his attention to Farah.

"Are you enjoying the dinner, my lady?" he asked.

"Yes, sire," she said nervously.

Kellan gave her a dazzling, charming smile. "Please, do call me Kellan."

She blushed, and then Asa walked over. She curtsied to him, as was procedure—he was of a higher rank than her as Crown Prince—and then looked to Farah.

"Lord Abbas wants to see you, brother," she said. "I'll entertain Farah."

Kellan raised his eyebrows. "You know her?" he asked, as he walked past her.

"In passing," Asa said, then made a face. Kellan laughed softly, then went off to find Lord Abbas. AS he walked, he thought he saw a flash of a shadow from the corner of his eye, but when he turned, there was nothing.

Puzzled, he watched for a minute, waiting for it to reappear, but it didn't. Shaking it off, Kellan resumed walking, accepting handshakes from people he passed and taking their condolences with a smile on his face that made him feel like a fraud. Very few of them were genuine in their grief. Most of them were clearly of the opinion that he was unfit to rule. Foolish boy, they said in the way they looked down at him, they way their lips curled. You think you can rule? You're a mere child.

By the time he had met everyone and it was time for dinner, Kellan wanted to punch someone. He felt his exhaustion pulling at him, but he kept it from his face as he sat down at his place at the head of the table, with his siblings beside him. On either side, the nobles and guests sat on long tables covered with food. They were all looking at him expectantly. Obligingly, Kellan stood up, knowing he was expected to say a few words.

"Lords and ladies," he said in a loud, clear voice, a smile on his face. "Family and friends. First of all, I would like you to know how I delighted I am to be here with all of you, home after ten years. My father, the late King Rahim, passed away just today, and his death came as a blow to all of us. But we will not despair. Whoever dared to strike at us and take out King's life will be found and punished." He paused, not allowing any of his own building grief to show on his face. "But let us not dwell on such serious matters. For now, enjoy the delicious cooking of our chefs. Please," he said, spreading his arms. "dig in."

As he sat down, Arkan leaned over and said, "Dig in?"

Kellan gave him a look, smiling all the while. Arkan rolled his eyes slightly and went back to his food. Asa ate lightly and with dignity, while Zara literally dug in. Kellan smiled at the sight, and then looked around at the room.

I'm going to have to rule these people very soon.

Anxiety burned in his chest. Would he be able to do it? A lot of people doubted him. What if they were right? Suddenly, his collar seemed suffocating, and Kellan only just restrained himself from tugging on it.

Believe, Kellan told himself.

He looked down at his food; he didn't have much of an appetite, but he couldn't possibly let the others know. So he piled his plate with food and began to eat with enthusiasm that was equal to Zara's, but much more dignified.

"Juice, my lord?" a waiter asked, and Kellan held up his empty glass. The waiter filled it, then bowed and retreated.

Kellan felt like running away to his room—after ten years with no one other than Fariq and himself for the most part, such a big crowd felt slightly alien. But he forced himself to keep eating and chatting with everyone around him, all with a big, cheerful smile on his face.

When the dinner finally wrapped up and people started taking their leave, Kellan stood and said goodbye to everyone. At last, the room was empty save for he and his siblings.

"That was exhausting," Asa said. "I hate parties."

Me too, Kellan almost said, but he smiled and said, "Ever the introvert, aren't you?"

"Well, I loved it," Zara said. "The food was simply amazing."

Kellan closed his eyes, feeling a headache pulse behind his eyes. Suddenly, a nasty bout of dizziness eashed over him and he had to brace a hand against the wall to steady himself as it gradually receded.

"Are you okay, brother?" Asa asked, and Kellan made a dismissive gesture.

"Just tired," he said. "We should all retire, don't you think?"

Asa and Zara both curtsied. "Good night."

"You needn't do that," Kellan said. "Good night."

They hugged, and then went to their bedrooms.

Kellan's room was comfortingly dark and it soothed his nerves, though the headache and slight dizziness remained. He shrugged off his coat and then collapsed onto the bed, too tired to properly undress and change.

He was half asleep when he heard a soft scraping noise but couldn't place it. He sat up, and immediately, severe nausea and dizziness assailed him, sending him reeling and clutching at his head in an attempt to steady himself. His headache reached a crescendo, blood pulsing behind his eyes in a steady thud, thud, thud.

The scraping increased, then suddenly stopped. Kellan managed to regain his composure and sat panting, unsure of what had happened. He pushed off the bed and reached for his glass of water at the nightstand, taking a long, bracing drink.

But then he froze. Something was wrong.

Then he realised it: he wasn't alone.

Kellan's hand went to his dagger, but it was too late; a figure hurled itself at him and they both went sprawling on the floor. The nightstand fell with a crash, and Kellan's hit head the floor in a cacophony of light. He managed to get his hand around his dagger and stabbed blindly, but his blade clove through thin air.

"None of that, Prince Kellan," a voice said—it was male and faintly familiar, but Kellan couldn't place it. A hand clasped itself around his wrist and twisted, forcing Kellan to drop the dagger. It pinned his wrist against the floor and Kellan tried to twist free, but the grip was so strong it seemed humanly impossible.

His other hand groped for something—anything—that he might use to defend himself, and his hand closed around his glass of water. He hurled it with as much strength as he had at his opponent, and it shattered against his temple in a shower of glass.

Taking advantage of his attacker's momentary distraction, Kellan scrambled to his feet and yelled, "Guards!"

"They won't hear you," his opponent growled, getting to his feet. It was still too dark to make out his features. "And now you've pissed me off."

"Guards!" Kellan shouted again. "What do you mean they won't hear me?" he hissed.

His opponent merely laughed. "In your dying moments, is that really your priority?"

Kellan said nothing, scanning for his knife. But it was too dark to see it. It was too dark, Kellan thought, for it to be normal.

He and his opponent circled each other, waiting to see who would strike first. Then his opponent moved lightening fast—Kellan begun to suspect he wasn't even human—and too late Kellan realised that it was a feint, and as he dodged, his opponent moved with him, using Kellan's momentum to push him up against the wall. There was a whistling sound and Kellan felt like he had punched in the stomach, all the wind knocked out of him.

Suddenly, everything went very very still. It was like Kellan's senses had been heightened—he was hyper-aware of his attacker's loud, fast breathing, and of his own, rapid and shallow.

His eyes searched the other's: they gleamed like a cat's in the dark, dark and smug.

Then, very slowly, he looked down.

His opponent's hands were wrapped around his knife, and Kellan's own were wrapped around his—he could feel every callus. But—

For a second, the image didn't quite compute with his brain. Then he realised it—he had been stabbed.

It was as if the realisation jogged something in his brain; the silence shattered and all of the sounds poured in again. Kellan's knees turned to jelly, and all of a sudden, the pain kicked in.

"Your own weapon," his opponent sneered, "turned against you."

But Kellan barely heard him—all he could feel was the agony in his stomach; his hands clenched around his opponent's, body truing to curl into a fetal position. His own breaths seemed too harsh to him—they sawed in and out of his lungs, tearing and burning.

A laugh cut through his agony—the knife twisted, and all that left Kellan was a pathetic, breathless keen; he had not even the breath to scream.

"Look at you," his opponent said, disdain clear in his voice. "I'm going to watch you die, killed by me—just as I killed your father, and your mother before."

"Guards," Kellan gasped, too in pain to fully realise the weight of his wo. "G—guards!"

His opponent laughed, a clear, dark thing. "Weather this on your own," he advised, and stepped back. Kellan's knees gave out completely, his vision going black.

Outside, guards were suddenly banging at the door; he faintly heard his opponent back away to the window—and then inexplicably, he jumped out. Then Kellan's world faded completely.

The last thing he heard was the screech of an eagle.

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