“Who is that?”
“Fariq. He’s Kellan’s tutor, apparently.”
Arkan hummed, then said, “He’s old.”
Asa snorted. “Seriously?” She leaned in. “He taught Father too, you know.”
“Really?” Arkan said, interested. “Then he is old.”
Asa grinned. “I suppose so.”
Arkan gave the man another once over from where he sat across the table, beside Kellan. Fariq was listening to Zara with an amused expression—not quite smiling, but close. His sister seemed to have become good friends with the man already and was talking endlessly about something or the other. Kellan occasionally piped in, laughing. It was strange to see him like that.
Despite himself, Arkan found it hard not to join in in the joviality. But as he opened his mouth—to relate an embarrassing story about Zara literally having bitten off more than she could chew—his mother caught his eye and raised her eyebrows. Arkan’s gut twisted, and he looked away, sinking low in his chair.
Beside him, Asa cleared her throat. “I told you,” she murmured. “She’s forcing you to choose.”
Arkan pretended he hadn’t heard her and instead muttered, “Where is my dinner?”
As if on cue, waiters entered with trays laden with food and set the dishes on the table. As the did, Kellan looked at Arkan and mouthed, Are you okay?
Silently, Arkan nodded, then glanced at Alina to make sure she hadn’t seen. But from the way her mouth had tightened, and the way she pointedly ignored Arkan, he knew she had. His appetite had vanished; he sat but made no move to serve himself.
“Eat, Arkan,” Alina said, voice laced with venom. Arkan swallowed, tasting ash, and shook his head.
“I’m not hungry.”
“You’re already so weak,” she pressed, taunting. Arkan’s cheeks warmed, and the air grew awkward; everyone was silent, wincing.
“I...I’m not hungry,” Arkan said quietly, not knowing what else to say.
“Then you may excuse yourself from the table.”
Arkan flinched, hands curling in his lap. Awkwardly, Asa cleared her throat. “He doesn’t have to leave.”
“Am I his mother, or are you, dear?”
Asa bristled, clearly meaning to retort, but Arkan cut in before she could. “It’s okay. I...excuse me.” Avoiding looking at anyone, he pushed his chair back and got to his feet, walking as fast as he could from the room. Humiliation clung to him, and he felt frustrated tears press against his eyes.
When he got to his room, only then did he realise that he still had his spoon in his hand; he flung it at the wall, breathing hard. He paced to and fro, his muscles clenched, the word weak circling his head. Over and over again.
Arkan clenched his jaw to the point that it hurt, and shook his head. I’m not weak, he thought. I’m not weak.
He forced himself to close his eyes and just focused on breathing, trying to calm down. It wasn’t even a big deal--he wasn’t even affected. It was okay, it was normal.
It’s okay, it’s normal.
Asa’s voice wouldn’t stop echoing. She’s forcing you to choose.
And how could he stop it? By choosing.
Even as he thought that, a strong force of refusal rose up in him. I will not become a bully again.
But—but did he have a choice? He couldn’t possibly leave his mother, couldn’t disobey her when she needed him most. He had to listen to her, follow her, even if he didn’t like it one bit.
Sitting down heavily before his desk, he took the picture frame in his hands—a portrait of his mother and himself, caught mid-laugh. He was young in that picture, about five or six years old, before his father had left them, before the triplets had even been born.
Things had been better then.
I choose you, Mother, Arkan thought, tracing a finger along her face. I just hope it’s enough.