“What are you doing here?”
Arkan jumped violently, shooting up from his chair. He relaxed when he saw Asa. “Oh, it’s you.”
Asa raised an eyebrow.
Arkan gestured vaguely, before saying, “I was just...looking for some quiet.”
It was nearly dawn, and he seemed to realise the stupidity of his sentence a moment after he said it. He winced. “I mean--”
“I didn’t know you liked to read,” Asa said.
“No, I don’t much,” Arkan said, frowning at the book on his desk. “I...um. I couldn’t sleep.”
Asa leaned against a bookshelf. “Why not?”
Again he gestured vaguely, eyes still on his desk. “Stuff.”
It was unusual, seeing him so...normal. Usually, he was uptight and formal, immaculately dressed and neat. Now his hair was in dishevelled disarray as if he had run his fingers through it again and again. He was in a simple white shirt and trousers--a far cry from his normal crisp uniform.
“Why are you up so early?” Arkan asked her.
Asa shrugged. “This is the only time I can have some peace and be alone.”
Arkan frowned. “If you want me to go...”
“No, stay,” she said, crossing her arms. “Let’s talk.”
Confused, he asked, “About?”
She eyed his hair and said, “Something’s clearly making you uneasy.”
He went slightly red and sat back down onto his chair. “No.”
She raised her eyebrows. “I live with Kellan,” she said. “You think I’ll fall for your lies?”
He laughed. “You have a point.”
A beat passed, then she said, “Well?”
His eyes grew uneasy, and he shifted. “It’s nothing, really,” he said. “I’m just tired from all the excitement and...well, you know.”
She hummed, then said, “You’ve been unusually nice lately.”
A forced laugh. “Do you want me to go back to being Prince Grumpy?”
“No. I’m just asking what changed.”
He studied the table, uneasy again, then said quietly, “I accepted things.”
She nodded, not pushing further. “I’m glad about that.”
He grimaced. “My mother isn’t.”
Asa frowned. “How so?”
Arkan shrugged. “She hates Kellan, as you know. Now that I don’t, she isn’t happy I’m on his side and not hers.” He sighed. “I don’t know why she thinks that. Of course, I’m on her side. Can’t there be one side? Is it either Kellan or her? I’m with both, however.”
“And she doesn’t take well to that?”
“No,” Arkan said significantly with a slight laugh. “No, she doesn’t. She’s been angry at me ever since I stood up to her for Kellan.” His mouth twisted. “She doesn’t deserve my betrayal.”
Asa scoffed. “That’s your mother talking.”
“She’s right, anyway,” Arkan argued. “She’s grieving too. She just lost her husband--again.” Emotion flashed through his eyes. “My father walked out on her. Rahim was her salvation. And now she’s lost him too.” He traced a finger along the spine of his book. “Who’s she got left? Me. And if I leave her alone...”
“You’re making the right choice--”
“Am I? I don’t even know. She’s my mother. I can’t just...disobey her. She needs me.”
“Arkan,” Asa said firmly. “Listen to me. I’ve seen how she behaves with you--as if you’re her servant. She orders you around, yells at you, demands respect and love when she gives none back.”
His eyes snapped to her. “She loves me.”
She said nothing, watching him silently. The unspoken hung between them: does she?
He gripped the table tightly, repeating, “She loves me, Asa. She doesn’t--she doesn’t treat me like her servant. I deserve her yelling and lectures; she only does it when I’m wrong.”
“She always does it,” Asa said. “Do you really think you’re always wrong?”
He swallowed hard. “Maybe I am.”
Asa sighed tightly. “You know that’s not true.”
Defensively, Arkan said, “What are you trying to say?”
“I’m saying that you don’t have a healthy relationship with her. She gaslights you--abuses--”
Asa wondered if she had gone too far, but pressed on. “I said she abuses you.”
Arkan shot up, his eyes blazing. His fists convulsed at his sides. His throat worked, but then he said angrily, “This conversation is over.”
Asa grimaced as he stalked from the room. She’d expected him to react badly because her news hadn’t been in any way pleasant. But she’d been noticing it for a long, long time--subconsciously, if not otherwise. She just had never spoken up about it.
Asa sighed to herself. If only the victim himself would see it.
She looked to her left as hesitant footsteps approached. Arkan stepped out from behind the bookshelf, his hands twisted into each other, his face flushed. There was a haunted quality to his downcast eyes as he asked quietly, “Do you really mean it?”
Asa pursed her lips. “You can’t say I’m wrong, can you? You know it yourself.”
Arkan’s shoulders rose and fell with a breath. “But—” He looked at her with despair in the line of his mouth, eyes almost pleading. “But it’s not like that, Asa.”
Gently, she asked, “Then what is it like?”
For a moment, Arkan seemed to struggle with words, but then he said, “She just yells sometimes. Every parent does that. Every parent gets angry and gives orders. She’s—she’s not just my mother, she’s my queen, too, it’s only—”
“You’re rambling,” Asa interrupted. Arkan released a trembling breath and rubbed his hand over his eyes. A pang of sympathy went through Asa.
“Sit down,” she said quietly. Arkan obeyed. Asa sat too, studying him.
“I know this isn’t easy,” she said. “But there are patterns to your behaviour—both you and your mother’s. The signs are there, and I might be wrong, but...I don’t think I am.”
“But abuse,” Arkan said hoarsely, his voice catching on the last word. “Isn’t that extreme?”
Asa sighed. “Maybe,” she said, letting him have that tiny hope. “But think on it, the next time she treats you badly.”
“Save me, Asa.”
She smiled at Kellan’s groan as he dropped into the couch beside her, sprawling across it with careless abandon. He pulled off his crown with unnecessary force and with a look of annoyance, tossed it onto the chair beside him.
“Very kingly,” she said, eying him.
He grumbled, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. “My head hurts,” he complained. “How can anyone be expected to wear that around all day? It’s so ridiculously heavy.”
“It is made of solid gold,” Asa said. Kellan gave her a look.
She rolled her eyes. “Remind me why you’re so cranky?”
“I’m not,” Kellan said a bit sullenly. “I’m just irritated. I met with some of the court today and they made it very clear of what they think of me.”
Asa raised her eyebrows. “And what do they think of you?”
“That I’m a spoiled bastard, for one,” Kellan said. “I’m not, am I?”
She smiled sweetly. “Not at all.”
He rolled his eyes. “Their eyes all to clearly told me they think I’m just a child,” he said, and Asa raised her eyebrows.
“Really?” she asked, pointedly looking at how he was draped across his chair and then at the discarded crown. Kellan made a face.
“Oh, shut up, Asa.”
She grinned to herself. “As you order, my King.”
“Thank God you’re not a traitor on top of a prick,” he said, then pushed to his feet with a great heave, grabbing his crown in a smooth lunge. “Well, I’ve got to go. My schedule is far too cramped to be right, but that’s how it is.”
“Enjoy,” she said, knowing full well that he wouldn’t. He flipped her off with a dismissive wave, stuffing his hands into his pockets as he strode out.
But just as he exited to room, he paused.
Everything had suddenly gone unnaturally still, as if the air itself was holding its breath.
A scream rent through the silence, echoing around the castle. Both of them froze.