The Firebird Prince

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Arkan

Upon entering the castle, Arkan left the triplets in the hallway, hastening to his mother. She must have been so affected by Rahim’s death...and Arkan hated it when his mother was unhappy.

He found her in her chambers, sitting on her bed, staring at the wall, pale as death.

Arkan winced. Bad analogy.

“Mother?” he said, kneeling in front of her and clasping her hands. They were cold as ice, and she did not indicate that she had heard him.

“Mother,” Arkan repeated. “Talk to me.”

She blinked, slowly, as if waking up and then looked at him. “Arkan?”

“Mother,” Arkan said in relief. “I’m here.”

“But Rahim’s not,” she said, and that distant look returned to her eyes. She looked at the wall again. “He never will be.”

Arkan took a deep breath against the grief that sliced through his body. “He’ll always be in your heart, Mother,” he attempted, sitting beside her. “And now...now you can be Queen.”

His mother frowned. “Queen,” she repeated.

“Yes,” Arkan said eagerly, glad she was distracted. “Queen Alina! You can have all the power you’ve ever wanted, everything you were ever denied. You be the Queen, and I’ll be your heir.”

She laughed bitterly. “I can’t be queen. All I could ever be is queen consort, and that’s over. You can’t be Crown Prince. You’re not of royal blood.”

Arkan grimaced, bitterness sweeping through him. So much for hoping she wouldn’t remember that.

His mother’s fingers curled into themself. “That cursed boy will become King now,” she said. “He’ll ruin the kingdom in a day.”

“That’s the point!” Arkan said. “We can’t let Kellan destroy Karam. Surely there’s a way to save it. Surely there’s a way you can save it!”

His mother laughed again, derisively. “Ah, Arkan, ah,” she sneered, and Arkan flinched. “So desperate for power. Do you think I don’t see through your gilded words?”

“I meant it!” Arkan exclaimed. “I only want the best for the kingdom!”

She smiled. “Don’t think me a fool, son,” she said and got to her feet. “Now I must go and receive my stepson.”

She swept out of the rooms in a flurry of silk and gems, and Arkan was left alone in her room, seething.

Collect yourself, he told himself harshly. She’s your mother.

Schooling his features into the normal cool disdain, he strode out after his mother. They found the triplets in the throne room, sitting on the three steps leading to the throne, Kellan’s arm around both of them. Zara was still sniffling; Asa was sitting with her head hanging; and Kellan was still inexplicably merry, trying to cheer his sisters up.

When Arkan’s mother entered, he looked up and smiled even more brightly. He got to his feet and bowed, which was standard procedure, but one Arkan didn’t deign to follow. He didn’t like bowing to everyone in his family; it only reminded him that he had the lowest rank among them.

“My lady,” Kellan said, taking her hand and placing a light kiss on it.

“Prince Kellan,” she said, a tad icily. She had never much liked Kellan, and Arkan suspected the feeling was mutual. But Kellan gave no reaction; he smiled charmingly and said, “You look dazzling, Your Highness.”

“Thank you,” Arkan’s mother said. She glanced at the two girls; her expression changed from cool to concerned in a heartbeat. She stepped towards them and gently lifted their faces.

“My girls,” she said worriedly. “You know I hate to see you cry. Come here. Come here.”

AS she comforted them, Arkan turned to Kellan and raised an eyebrow.

Kellan gave him a questioning look.

“I see you’re not very affected,” Arkan said. “Surprising, since you just lost your father.”

Almost imperceptibly, Kellan flinched, though it was so minuscule, only the very observant could’ve noticed. Then he gave an Arkan an easy smile, which meant nothing, because all of Kellan’s smiles were easy.

“I see you aren’t either,” he said, which wasn’t an answer, but had Arkan expected a straight one? “Knowing you, you’ll be thinking about who will occupy the throne, not who did.”

Arkan scowled at the blatant insult. “Know your place,” he said angrily.

“I outrank you,” Kellan said, eyes cold. “I can say what I want.”

Arkan reigned his anger in and smiled coldly, aware of his mother watching. “Of course, my Prince,” he said stiffly, and turned away.

His mother, with her arms still around the girls, gave him a frown and Kellan a cold look, then said pleasantly, “I believe it’s time for dinner.”

Kellan’s mood changed in the blink of an eye, returning to perfectly charming. “Of course,” he said, and allowed her to go first. Arkan followed her without waiting for him, just because he could.

The table was already laid out, and everyone took their seats. The empty chair at the head of the table was glaringly empty, and Arkan noticed how all three of the triplets were consciously avoiding looking at it.

“That chair’s been waiting for you for so long,” Zara said, a shadow of her usual smile reemerging.

“So have I,” Kellan joked. “The one thing I missed was the food.”

Asa rolled her eyes. “Typical.”

Kellan grinned at her, helping himself to ridiculously large amounts of everything. The three kept a steady buzz of conversation through the meal, and Zara was soon herself again.

When they were done, Zara said, “Come on, Kellan!”

Kellan smiled at her. “Just a second, Zara. I’ll catch up to you, alright? Go on.”

Taking the cue, Zara and Asa left the table. When they were out of earshot and sight, Kellan set down his knife and fork, quickly becoming serious.

“If I may, my Lady,” he said, “I want to know the entire circumstances surrounding my father’s death.”

Arkan’s mother took a minute to collect herself, eyes darting to the empty chair, then sighed. “It happened at breakfast,” she said quietly. “We were all eating and he suddenly froze up, as if he was paralyzed. He seemed to think we were his enemies; he even tried to attack us. But he couldn’t move. And then, it was as if he was choking...we called for the doctor, but it was too late.”

Kellan closed his eyes, ducking his head. Then he said, “Have you found the assassin?”

“The guards are interrogating the staff as we speak,” she said. “So far, we’ve got nothing.”

Kellan released a slow breath. “Anything unusual that you might have noticed? Anyone you haven’t seen before, a new staff member--?”

“Why would I notice such things?” Arkan’s mother asked. “As I said, all staff members will be questioned. They’ll weed out the traitor.” She paused. “And the only unusual thing was that Nico was over.”

Kellan looked up. “Nico was here?”

“He is here. Must be in the guest chambers. He wanted to see you, but he said he’d come himself, and that he wasn’t to be disturbed.”

Kellan nodded. “If you excuse me,” he said, “I must go to my sisters.”

Arkan’s mother inclined her head, and Kellan bowed and left.

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