The Firebird Prince

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Ahad was almost bored.

He was trained enough to be almost completely silent as he trailed behind the young Princesses, and his natural talent (of which there was a lot) made up for the rest. He understood King Kellan’s worry, though--but maybe they both were paranoid.

Well, being paranoid had only saved his skin in the past.

It had not, however, saved his skin from Aryan’s scoffs. It was incredible, really, how he could be so easygoing and unsuspecting even though he was a certified commander of the army, and had seen enough to be scarred for life. Ahad couldn’t fathom how he managed to keep his innocence about him; if he was being honest, it made him envious.

But he was not being honest.

Ahad was almost amused by the way Aryan was apparently mad at him, giving him the silent treatment as if they were five-year-olds. Though his silence had only befitted Ahad; he was constantly praying for a reprieve from Aryan’s incessant babbling, and this served as a fitting substitute.

He suspected telling Aryan that would only make him madder, so maybe he would tell him.

Once, a comrade had asked him why he stuck with Aryan if he annoyed him so much, and Ahad had said darkly, “I don’t stick with him. He doesn’t let me go.”

His friend had laughed at him, and Ahad could see why. It must seem that Ahad stuck with Aryan despite his apparent irritation; he lived with him, fought with him, was almost always with him. But Aryan always found an excuse to drag Ahad along with him, and now he wondered if it was his way of protecting him.

He snorted to himself. As if I need any protecting.

Almost absently, he glanced again ahead, where the Princesses were faintly visible through the leaves. Princess Zara’s clear laugh rang out, and Ahad found himself grinning before he baulked and pulled it right off his face. Her laugh was contagious in its joy, but Ahad had no business sharing in it.

But then he paused. Leaves were rustling, and not from the wind; Ahad drew his sword halfway, wary and alert. But then the noise stopped, and after a moment, he relaxed again.

The princesses, instead of entering the city as it drew nearer, wandered along the outskirts, chatting and giggling. Princess Zara seemed to be in extremely good spirits, while Asa sounded amused at best, which reminded Ahad of Aryan and himself when they had been younger.

Not that Ahad would ever wish his life on anyone, much less Princess Asa. (And, of course, not that Asa was anywhere near genius as he was.)

If Aryan was ere, he probably would have tripped over the log that lay hidden in the mud. As Ahad stepped over it, he shook his head, half-fond. Somehow, Aryan found a way to be one of the best commanders in the country--after Ahad of course--and an idiotic oaf at the same time. It wasn’t like he couldn’t help it; he had, more than once, voiced his pride at his silliness.

To himself, Ahad rolled his eyes.

The Princesses stopped at a point, settling into the grass; they had brought snacks along. Ahad hung back, hidden from view but close enough to see and hear them clearly.

He kept a sharp eye on their surroundings, scanning for movement. Years of patrolling had made this easy; while his thoughts roamed, his focus did not waver. And when there was the barest crunch of a footstep, Ahad was tense, hand around his weapon, peering into the bushes.

The footsteps halted, then there was a metallic scraping: a blade being drawn. Ahad drew his own, holding it out, retreating closer to the princesses. His brain was hyper-focused, and it sensed danger.

At the last moment--nearly too late--Ahad caught sight of the man, his bow drawn and his arrow notched, pointed towards--

He sprinted, not hesitating for even a second, and Asa had only a second to notice him before he was pushing her down; the man’s bowstring twanged.

“Get back,” Ahad ordered to the princesses. He scrambled back to his feet, holding out his sword, one hand stretched out to his side to keep the Princesses back. He retreated a step, then winced sharply; sudden pain shot through his thigh. The Princesses’ eyes were transfixed on his leg, and he realised he had been hit. Ahad forced out a breath and without giving himself time to think otherwise, broke the arrow shaft and threw it aside.

“Back,” he said again, keeping his voice steady through sheer force of will. The girls obeyed hastily, and Ahad kept his eyes trained on the man as he stepped out of the shadows, discarding his bow. For a moment, Ahad thought he was alone, but then at least a dozen more men stepped out as well, surrounding them. Ahad swore under his breath, readjusting his grip on his sword.

Neither of the Princesses had weapons, so had pulled his dagger out and tossed it to Asa. “Defend her,” he said and turned back, just as the men rushed at them.

Steel collided with steel, and as Ahad pushed against his opponent, a wild part of him said, Here we go.

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