The Firebird Prince

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Even though all three of the triplets were delighted to see each other, Zara sensed the rift between them all too clearly. They’d been apart for ten years, and that changed things. Zara and Asa had grown closer than ever, and Kellan felt like a stranger.

At seven, he’d been a devil, naughty and uncontrollable. Now he was charming, polite and painfully mannered, even if his humour remained. Zara felt like she had to get to know him all over again.

As she and Asa left the dining chambers, she said to Asa, “His mood is disconcerting. Isn’t he sad at all?”

Asa gave here a look. “He is, idiot. Can’t you see it, the way his smile falters when he thinks no-one’s looking? He’s acting like he’s fine, but he isn’t.”

Zara studied the floor. “Just like Father.”

Asa smiled sadly. “Yeah.”

Zara laughed. “Look at you,” she said. “Brash, impulsive Princess Asa comforting her sister. A rare sight.”

Asa punched her playfully. “Shut up.”

Zara smiled. Asa was normally distant and aloof, but with her, she was easygoing and playful. She loved it.

Then Kellan joined them, the serious look on his face vanishing as soon as he saw them. He smiled and said, “So, girls, what do you want to do now?”

“You should rest,” Asa said. “You must be tired.”

Kellan looked at her suspiciously, but there was a smile on his lips. “Is it just me, or are you trying to get rid of me?”

Asa snorted in a very un-Princessy way. “For God’s sake, Kellan.”

Kellan winked. “I’m not very tired,” he said. “I dozed off on the way. But if you want me to leave you alone, I’ll pretend I’m not offended and go lick my wounds in private.”

“I don’t see any wounds.”

Kellan turned around to the source of the question and smiled impossibly wide. “Nico! Wow, you’re almost unrecognisable!” He opened his arms for a hug, but all Nico did was raise an eyebrow.

“Oh, don’t be a pussy,” Kellan said, dragging him into a hug. “How are you?”

“Keep your hands to yourself,” Nio said shortly, pulling away forcefully.

Kellan gave him a look. “Why so unenthusiastic? The Nico I know would have suffocated me with a hug.”

“You don’t know me anymore.” Nico said, shaking his black hair out of his eyes, even though it was completely fine. He was always impeccable in appearance; in all the time Zara had known him, she didn’t think he was ever messy. It was almost creepy.

Kellan smiled instead of being offended, and said, “Why don’t I start, then? How about you get me up to speed?”

Nico crossed his arms, and Zara braced herself.

“I lost my best friend,” Nico said, completely without emotion. “Then my parents both died. I got kicked out of my house because I couldn’t afford the taxes, and I had to live homeless, in the streets, before your father offered me a home here. Now I live in a small cottage a little far off and work here to earn my bread and board.”

“Well,” Kellan said, “you’ve had a busy decade. But,” he added, raising an eyebrow. “You didn’t lose your best friend. I’m back!”

Nico gave him a dead stare. “You’re not my best friend.”

Kellan made an offended face. “Aw,” he complained, “did you go and get another best friend while I was gone? I’m hurt.”

Nico flicked an invisible speck of dust from his sleeve and adjusted his coat so it was just right. That was another habit of Nico’s: he fiddled a lot with things. Even if it was a centimetre crooked, he had to straighten it.

He’s weird, Zara thought.

“Listen,” he said impatiently after he was done, “please drop the act. Ten years is a long time, and we both know very well that everything’s changed. We are not best friends anymore; we are strangers now. I came here to pay my regards to your father and greet you once you returned, merely for manners’ sake. I can’t afford to dawdle. Excuse me now, Prince Kellan.” He bowed and turned away, striding back to the guest chambers.

The three stared after him, taken aback by the brutal honesty. Then Kellan muttered, “Arkan told me he was a jerk. He was right.”

Zara looped an arm through his. “Don’t let him get you down.”

Kellan smiled at her, cheerful again. “Never,” he said. “Shall we go to my room?”

“Yes!” Zara said. “Nobody’s even touched it since you left, except for the cleaning maids. It’s just as you left it.”

“Really?” Kellan scrunched his nose. “Cue embarrassing memories of being seven-years-old.”

Zara laughed and they walked to Kellan’s room. On the way, Zara gave Asa a questioning look; she’d been so quiet that Zara had almost forgotten she was there. Asa waved her hand in a dismissive gesture.

All of a sudden, both Asa and Kellan said in unison, “Moonflower poison!”

Then they both looked at each other and said, "What did you say?"

Zara crossed her arms. "Am I missing something?"

But they ignored her, frowning at each other. "What did you just say?" Asa asked again.

"Moonflower," Kellan said. "Its poison. Father's symptoms match it."

Asa nodded vigorously. "The confusion and paranoia--"

Kellan nodded too, eager. "Moonflower messes with the brain--"

"The paralysis--"

"It freezes your muscles--"

"The choking--"

"It clogs your throat!" They both were getting excited, grinning at each other, then seemed to realize what they were talking about and sobered.

Zara watched them with half-bemusement, half-amusement. She snorted. "Nerds."

They startled as if suddenly remembering she was there. Asa gave her a look, then turned back to Kellan.

"But who would have moonflower? It's the hardest poison to procure."

Kellan smiled grimly. "This assassination wasn't just a hit and run," he said, looking at them head-on. "There's someone bigger behind this, and that someone is powerful and rich. They can buy anyone they want, get their hands well into the palace."

"What does that mean for us?"

Kellan exhaled tensely. "We have a rival, sisters. We're going to have to watch out."

Asa crossed her arms. "Isn't this a perfect opportunity for them to strike? No ruler, we're all laid back and celebrating that you're back, and on the other hand, distracted because of Father's death."

"There's a feast tonight in your honour," Zara added. "You think there'll be any trouble?"

"I don't think so," Kellan said. "They'll know security will be ramped up, especially because there's been an assassination so recently. Still, we'll be on our toes."

Zara said after a moment, "Will you be King now?"

Kellan was quiet for a long time, studying the floor. Then he heaved a great breath and said, "I don't know."

"You don't really have a choice," Asa said quietly, ever the outspoken.

"I know," Kellan said, a little tersely.

"Arkan won't be happy," Zara remarked. "Neither will his mother. They hate you."

Kellan laughed. "I'm aware," he said, smiling again.

"You have been training for this all your life," Asa said.

Kellan smiled at her. "Don't worry, Asa," he said. "I won't mess up."

"That's not what I meant," Asa said, exasperated.

Kellan grinned. "I know, I know," he said then mused, "King Kellan, huh? That's got a nice ring to it."

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