The Firebird Prince

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Nina

“Shoot, shoot, shoot,” Nina muttered, scrambling through the bushes. She acted like she was alarmed. “Somebody saw us.”

Araysh glanced back at the window, from which the figure had retreated but light still shone. Nina saw him frown.

“If you hadn’t been so loud--” Nina hissed, feigning annoyance, and Araysh rolled his eyes.

“Here we go again,” he muttered.

Nina glared at him but said nothing further as they ran through the bushes, trying to be quiet as possible.

“Maybe we should change,” she said. “We’ll be faster and silent.”

Araysh gave her a curt nod.

“On three,” Nina whispered. “One, two--”

“Stop!” a voice shouted behind them, and Araysh cursed.

Nina recognised it, and a sliver of triumph slid through her gut.

“It’s the commander,” Araysh growled. “Out of all people.”

“Shoot,” Nina lied again. “Change, Araysh, hurry.”

He nodded, but just as he took a breath to focus, there was a twang and thud, and he stumbled into Nina, shouting out.

“They have arrows,” he said through grit teeth. “I can’t change--they hit my arm.”

“They?”

“Both of them,” Araysh said. “They’re gaining fast. You change, Nina. I’ll hold them back.”

Maybe she should have hesitated before she agreed and changed, much quicker as Saiya ran through the grass, and left him. With her enhanced hearing, she could her Araysh’s uneven pants as he sprinted, his steps loud to her even though he was near-silent to humans.

Maybe she should have felt bad about purposefully leading him into this trap.

But she didn’t.

And it was his fault, after all.

She heard the whistle of an arrow just before it whizzed past her, narrowly missing. Saiya hissed and ran faster.

Araysh’s cry of pain was nearly lost to the wind--had he been hit again? Something curdled in Nina’s stomach.

She wanted to help him.

Damn you, she told herself, but turned and ran back to Araysh all the same. But she was too slow; their chaser reached him before she could and tackled him to the ground. He went down hard, the sound of the arrow shaft snapping audible even over Araysh’s shout.

Nina hesitated, caught between decisions--should she run and spare herself, or risk her life and look like she had tried to save him? Either way, she could pretend she was hunting him too, couldn’t she?

If it had been any other person, she would not have faltered. Was he so deserving of death?

There is no place in my heart for doubts.

Nina steeled herself and resumed running. She changed just before she reached them. pulling out her knife and plunging downwards. But the commander dodged--well, he had made her work easier--and the blade sunk into Araysh’s arm instead, just below his arrow-wound.

Araysh’s eyes went wide, snapping to her; they were dilated and wild, and there was betrayed realisation in them as he looked at her.

She feigned horror at what she had done.

Before he could react, she was being pulled up by the commander, away from Araysh. The other pointed his sword at Araysh and ordered, “Get up.”

Hand pressed just below his wounds, Araysh did so slowly, wary eyes on the blade. He did not look at Nina as he pulled out the knife with a choked grunt, dropping it onto the ground in front.

“Hands where I can see them,” Commander Ahad ordered--Araysh raised them in surrender.

“You with him?” Aryan murmured into Nina’s ear. “Ally or enemy?”

Nina swallowed the bitter taste in her mouth and said, “I”m with you.”

A muscle in Araysh’s jaw ticked and Aryan’s eyes narrowed, but Ahad said, “She’s not lying.”

The hand on her shoulder relaxed and then withdrew. “Good choice,” Aryan said, stepping back. Nina offered him a wan smile.

Araysh clenched his fists but didn’t move. “Yes, very good choice, Nina,” he said with a bitter sneer.

She glared at him, but Ahad shut him up before she could. “You stay silent,” he said imperiously. “Aryan, escort him to the house, will you?”

He nodded and approached Araysh. Beyond baring his teeth, he could do nothing with of the blade still at his throat. As Aryan twisted his arms behind his back and pushed him to walk, Nina felt a twinge of guilt.

But she had already pushed away and dismissed any misgivings; she would not back down now. What was done was done.

No place for doubts.

As Aryan forced Araysh forward, Ahad fell into step with Nina; he asked, “What was your plan?”

“He asked me to take him somewhere,” she whispered back. “I tricked him into taking this path. I guessed that your house was somewhere here.” She shrugged. “I got lucky.”

“Just so you know,” Ahad said not very mildly, “double-cross us, and it’ll be you dying on the floor, not us.” He raised an eyebrow at her. “Understand?”

He sounded deadly serious, and Nina said honestly, “Completely.”

Ahad nodded. “We’ll take you to the King tomorrow, along with your errant brother. You’d make a good spy.”

“How did you know I wanted to work for the King? And...as a spy?”

Ahad didn’t smirk. “I know a lot of things.” There was no arrogance in those words. Just cold, icy truth.

There was no further conversation as they reached the commanders’ house; they doubled back instead of leaving from the front door. From the back door they entered the kitchen, small and unimpressive, but with the distinct expression of home.

“Go on,” Aryan grunted, pushing Araysh into a small room that looked like the store. It was small and had no window or light; Araysh ground his heels into the ground and said, “I’m not going in there.”

“Yes, you are,” Aryan said firmly, giving him another shove. But Araysh shook his head.

“I am not.”

Another shove which caused Araysh to stumble a step forward, but still he pushed back. “Don’t make me go in there.”

“Don’t be a baby,” Aryan said and with a final push, sent Araysh stumbling into the room, catching himself against the wall. Immediately, Araysh hissed and jerked his hand back from the wall, and Nina’s stomach dropped with understanding. It’s iron.

The bitter taste rose again in her mouth, but she tore her eyes away from Araysh and closed her eyes.

There is no place in my heart for doubts.

And her heart was with the King.

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