The Firebird Prince

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Compared to the insides, the appearance of the mansion looked like an abandoned cottage.

Zara took a minute to take everything in: the room was huge and magnificent, with a glittering chandelier hanging from the high roof and twisting stairs that led to a sort of balcony. Everything was a pure white, with swirls of pale blue here and there. Paintings--of the sea, all of the sea--hung on the walls, their frames an intricate gold. It was nowhere near the palace, but the grandness took her aback; who was their captor?

She glanced and Asa, who was limping, her face twisted with pain as she was forced to put weight onto her foot. Zara swallowed in guilt; it was her that had pushed Asa off the wagon, otherwise, her sister would have been alright.

As they entered; much of the party fell away, staying outside, and only their leader entered with them, flanked by two men. He kept an eye on Ahad as if expecting him to attack any second, but the commander only scanned their surroundings with focused intent, appearing unbothered by his injuries.

Though under the many candles burning in the walls, he looked washed-out, flushed but pale at the same time. Zara looked away before he could catch her staring; she suspected he would not like it.

The leader noticed them staring, and said, “Your room won’t be this grand, I’m afraid. Move along, now.”

At the next step, Asa yelped, drawing in a quick, pained breath; she clutched at Zara, shifting her weight off her foot as if she couldn’t bear it any longer.

“You alright?” Zara asked thickly, and Asa shook her head, mouth pursed tightly.

“It’s not a long way off,” the leader said irritably. “Don’t be a crybaby, please.”

“You will respect the Princesses,” Ahad said quietly, coldly.

“You’re in no place to make demands.” The man jerked his chin towards a door. “Come on.”

Zara shuffled forward, letting Asa lean on her, and wondered if she should make a run for it. Then she asked herself why she hadn’t already. But--Asa was injured; she couldn’t run. The men would catch up, too soon. But Ahad could defend them, couldn’t he?

But as she glanced at him again, she wondered if he hadn’t already because he was in more pain than he was letting on. Despite herself, a bolt of resentment shot through her; if he was so tough, why didn’t he man up to do this for them?

The thought, honestly, appalled her.

Her thoughts kept her occupied until she was jolted out by the loud sliding of a lock, and before she could gain her bearings, the man was pushing them in; Asa cried out breathlessly, sending Zara tumbling with her.

“Bastards!” Ahad shouted as the man slammed the door shut, flooding the room with almost complete darkness. Zara scrambled to Asa, gripping her hand tight.

“Asa, I’m so sorry,” she said, as Asa tried to rein in her agony. “Shoot, I wish I could do something.”

She shook her head, squeezing her hand back. “It’s not your fault,” she said, dragging in a long breath. Then she winced. ”Ow.”

Ahad leaned against the wall, surveying his wound with a pinched look. Then he noticed Zara watching and his face fell into indifference; it was like Kellan’s incredible control, only so much colder.

Asa recovered then, muttering, “What is this place?”

Zara looked around; the room appeared empty. But Ahad crossed the room and held something up, saying, “I think it’s a store. There are boxes here. But...” He paused. “Nothing useful. Just...paint.”

Asa sighed. “Kellan was right. This was a horrible idea.”

“Kellan didn’t approve?” Zara asked.

“Why do you think he sent him after us?” Asa said, jerking his head to Ahad, who surveyed her with a stony look. “I thought he was being paranoid. And now we’re stuck here.”

Zara realised that strangely, she didn’t feel afraid, even though the situation was looking pretty bleak. Kellan will come for us.

“Who had a mansion in the middle of the woods?” Asa said. “It’s grand enough to be a castle. Jerk’s mistress must be rich.”

“Jerk?” Zara repeated, laughing despite herself.

Asa shrugged. “Had to give him a name.”

“Very creative, Asa,” Zara teased. Asa merely flipped her off, then sighed again. “Dang it, this hurts.”

Zara grimaced.

“You should keep walking around, Princess,” Ahad said. “Keep exercising your ankle.”

“No,” Asa said. “I’m just going to go to sleep.”

Ahad shook his head to himself, but said nothing further.

Asa snuggled against Zara, who absently patted her head, before Asa flapped at her hand, scowling. “I’m not a baby,” she said irritably. “Stop that.”

Zara giggled. “Sorry.”

They lapsed into silence, and Zara closed her eyes, trying to sort her brain out. Thank God she didn’t have to think of a way out--both Asa and Ahad were better equipped for that than her. She would just whatever they told her; she trusted Asa with her life, and with Ahad, she had no choice.

The commander was now sitting against the wall, eyes closed, brow creased. Zara sighed to herself, looking around the room again. But it was too dark to make out details, apart from grey walls and a heavy door that was no doubt bolted from outside.

But as she stared at it, footsteps approached the door, and the lock slid back slowly. Ahad jerked up, tense. The door opened with a loud squeak, and the next moment, there was a crash, as if the person had dropped a lot of things. Zara’s head jerked towards the doors hard, it gave her whiplash. And for a moment, she could only blink.

The person was similarly shocked, it seemed. It was a girl--her hair tied up in a messy, loose bun, dressed in a plain dress that was spattered in paint. Even Ahad couldn’t hide his surprise as they all stared at her.

Asa found her tongue first. “What are you doing here?”

“’s my home...” the girl stammered, and realization clicked into place. A mansion fit for a princess--or a noble’s daughter. Boxes filled with paint supplies-- a girl’s paint supplies. Everything suddenly made sense, because--

Because the girl standing in the door was Farah.

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