The Firebird Prince

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Nina

At the Prince’s remark, Nina’s first instinct was to role her eyes, then she remembered she was fighting her little brother and was supposed to be furious.

But surprisingly, Araysh stepped back immediately, his hands lowering, studying her as if he expected her to still attack him.

“I won’t fight you,” he said, for the hundredth time. “Stop this, Nina.”

All the previous times, Nina had snubbed her, laughing and pushing him to defend himself. But now, something in her told her to stop.

Besides, she had more pressing matters. She turned to the two newcomers, watching them suspiciously.

“Prince Kellan,” one of them said, with stern grey eyes that he kept trained on her. “Are you injured?”

“I’m good,” the boy said, and the other slowly made his way to him.

“Stop right there,” Aryash said, raising his hands again. “Not another step. He’s mine.”

“I’m flattered,” Kellan said, and Nina wondered how Aryash didn’t just let him go out of pure annoyance.

“Shut up,” Araysh said, back to his cold self. He turned his cold eyes to the man the Prince had called Commander Ahad.

“Leave,” he said. “Or I’ll blow this place up with everyone inside.”

“You can try,” Commander Ahad said.

It was interesting to see Aryash’s cold gaze pitted against the Commander’s impassive one, both powerful enough that Nina watched with baited breath to see who would break first.

None of them did. “You have one minute,” Aryash said, not giving way. “You both can leave or be blown to pieces.”

“If we’re getting blown to pieces,” the commander said, just as stubborn, “you are too.”

Aryash narrowed his eyes. “Forty seconds.”

“Aryan,” Ahad said. “You know what to do.”

The other man set his jaw and tensed in anticipation.

“Do not,” Aryash said dangerously, “try and think you can trick me.”

Ahad flashed a shark’s grin. “I’m not trying at all.”

“And I’m not thinking,” Aryan said, and Aryash frowned.

Ahad raised his eyebrows at him, and Aryan raised in hands in surrender, visibly embarrassed. “Sorry, never mind me.”

Ahad rolled his eyes and turned back. “Fight me,” he said. “Do it like a man.”

Araysh scoffed. “You think you can fight me?”

“I’ve fought faes before,” Ahad said. “What’s one more?”

“If you’re sure,” Araysh said, smiling wickedly.

“Oh, I always am.”

The Commander readjusted his grip on his sword, and Aryash struck, clenching his fists so that energy crackled around them. When he’d done that on Nina, she’d frozen for a second. That kind of magic--dark magic--was not natural, even to faes.

Aryan shouted, but Ahad remained unflinching. He smirked--smirked--and as the bolt of lightning reached him, blinding Nina, held up his sword; the metal reflected the light, sending it back towards Aryash.

Her brother had clearly not seen that coming. He ducked just barely in time to not get electrocuted to death, and for a moment, silence reigned.

“Well,” Aryash said, slightly breathless, “that was fun.”

From the corner of her eye, Nina saw Kellan inch towards Aryan, who was sneaking slowly towards him. She contemplated calling them out, but Aryash noticed before she could, and said sharply, “Not. Another. Step.”

Both of them froze, and Kellan’s eye caught Nina’s. He gave her a significant look and mouthed, You owe me.

And well, she did.

Araysh had caught the exchange and was watching her, a silent question in his eyes. Me, they said, or them?

Nina swallowed. It was like the world had paused, waiting for her decision with baited breath. Everyone’s eyes were on her.

Him, she thought, or them?

Aryash, who she hated, who killed people in cold blood, who ran away, who kept so much from her. Aryash: her little brother, an assassin, her family, a freak.

It was him, or Prince Kellan. He had spared her life with honor, treated her with respect even when her true identity was revealed. Even when her link with his father’s killer was revealed.

It was clear then, wasn’t it?

Closing her eyes, Nina took a deep breath. She took out her knife. Aryash’s eyes flickered with uncertainty, and that stopped her momentarily, but then she pushed away her unease.

What side of history do I want to be on?

Another breath. She squared her shoulders, then rounded on Aryash, her knife pointed at him. He flinched, and Nina said to the others, “Run. I’ll keep him busy.”

Prince Kellan smiled as Aryan swiftly cut him loose, and then they ran. Nina turned to her brother.

“Nina,” he said, sounding hurt.

“Araysh,” she said coldly, and he went silent.

She glared at him, and suddenly, he glared back, all signs of hurt gone.

“Fine,” he said, a snarl in his words. “You’ve chosen your side.”

“Yes,” she said, “I have.”

“What are you going to do now?” Aryash sneered. “You think your dear prince is going to take you into his castle with love and admiration? You think he’ll be your ally, your protector? Who’s going to save you from me, Nina?”

Nina smiled. “I am fully capable of protecting myself.”

Araysh scoffed. “Really? You’ve made a bad decision, Nina. You really--”

“You’re stalling.”

Confusion fluttered across Aryash’s face. “What?”

Nina smirked. “You’re stalling, Araysh. If you’re really going to hunt me down, do it now.”

She had got him. He seemed to struggle with himself, then said, obviously lying, “It’s no fun that way.”

Nina laughed. “Really, Araysh? That’s the best you can do?” She shook her head. “Come on Fight me.”

“You would not survive,” he said, but there was tension in his posture.

Nina felt anger stirring in his gut. “The clock is ticking, Aryash. Either you fight me, or I will.”

He grit his teeth and looked at her. “Why? Just walk away, Nina.”

“No,” she said irritably, “why don’t you? Because it’ll hurt your pride?”

“Shut it,” he snarled.

“I won’t,” she said. “Why, does it hurt?”

“Nina,” he started, raising a threatening finger.

“Come on,” she snapped, spreading her arms. “Come at me. Prove you’re better than me.”

He stopped, then turned away, shoulders tense and hand clenched around his knife. Nina’s anger flared hotter.

“Face me, Araysh,” she shouted, pushing him around. He looked at her, jaw clenched and eyes hard. “Fight me!”

For a long while, he was silent. Then he averted his eyes and said quietly, “I will not.”

Nina scoffed. “You’re weak.”

“No,” Aryash said, eyes bright with something Nina couldn’t place. “I’m not weak. I’m just trying, Nina. I’m trying to make you hate me less. What have I done? I just want to avenge Mother and--”

“Are you still giving me that nonsense, Aryash?”

“It’s not nonsense!” he said loudly. “No matter how much they hated me, no matter many times I felt like unloved and alone, because of them--they’re my parents, Nina, and you’re my sister. I love them; God damnit, I love them. I can’t help it. And--their death hit me, Nina. I came back to reconcile with them--and you told me they were dead and then refused me my grief--what was I supposed to do? Will you refuse me my right to avenge them, too. Don’t you want to?”

Nina was quiet for a while, then said, “I wanted to, at first. But it’s not worth it.”

Araysh stared at her. “What?”

Nina shook herself. “Nothing,” she snapped. “Get out of here, Aryash. I won’t fight you this time. But stay out of my way, and stop whatever insane stuff you’re doing. If I find out you’re still trying to kill the royal family or if you even cause harm to one hair on their heads, I’ll come for you.”

Araysh inhaled sharply. “You can’t expect me to--”

“I can, Araysh,” Nina snapped, “and I will. Now, go, for God’s sake.” She took a deep breath. “And don’t hang on to hope. I meant what I said. I’m not your sister anymore, and you’re not my brother.”

“Then what are we?” Aryash said qu9etly.

A rush of uncertainty went again through her, but she steeled herself and looked Araysh in the eyes. Then what are we? She knew the answer, and even though she didn’t like it much, it was true. We are destined to be this way.

“What are we, Nina?” Aryash asked her again, and she closed her eyes.

“Enemies.”

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