The Firebird Prince

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I’ve got them.

The Princesses’ scent was potent here; they had to be somewhere near. Nina changed back into herself and peered into the darkness.

When the order to search for the Princesses had come, she had slipped away quietly, heading to search on her own. Saiya had enhanced senses, so she had been able to pick up the scent of the Princesses even after the tracks had led them to a dead end.

Now, Nina found herself in the middle of the woods, unexpectedly near the castle. Nina wondered if the Princesses were moving towards the palace, but that...didn’t completely check out. What had taken them so long?

"Ow, Zara!”

Nina tensed at the exclamation, realising a moment later it had been Princess Asa. Relieved, she trudged towards the sound.

“Sorry, Asa,” Zara said; she sounded tired and breathless, and Nina sped up.

“Princesses!” she called, and the sounds stopped abruptly. “It’s Nina, I’m here to help. Where are you?”

They seemed to hesitate, then Zara said, “Over here!”

Nina jogged through the bushes to them and found Asa leaning on Zara, wincing. They were both pale and looked exhausted, and Nina looked them over, saying, “Are you hurt?”

“Sprained ankle,” Asa said tightly.

Zara looked ready to pass out. She sighed. “Thank God you found us.”

Nina took Asa’s weight, saying, “It’s okay now. I’ll get you back. What happened?”

“We got kidnapped,” Zara said, while Asa trudged on silently.

“I was told Commander Ahad would be with you.”

The sisters exchanged a guilty look. “He...couldn’t make it,” Zara said cautiously, and Nina blinked.

“He’s dead?”

“No,” Zara said hastily. “We were escaping, but the men were on our tail, and he told us to run. He...never came back. I think he got caught.”

Nina sighed. “Your safety will be enough. Commander Ahad can take care of himself. He’s expected to.” A harsh reality, but a reality all the same.

The rest of the trip was spent in silence, until they ran into a unit of soldiers, still searching for the girls. The Princesses were seated on horses and rushed to the palace. By the time they reached the castle, the sun was peeking out on the horizon.

The exhaustion was clear on the girls’ faces, and for a moment Nina thought Zara would burst into tears, but she just grinned at Asa as the rode up to the doors.

“I’ll escort them inside,” Nina said, and the soldiers nodded and dispersed. She helped Asa off the horse, noticing how she winced while landing. Her ankle was still swollen, though it had been wrapped in what looked like ripped strips of cloth.

The guards opened the great doors for them, and slowly they made their way inside. Zara ran past them, heading straight for the throne room, and shouted, “Kellan!”

She didn’t bother to wait for the guards to open the door and shoved them open herself. Kellan, who had been standing talking to Aryan, turned towards the door.

The relief on his face was instant and overwhelming. “Oh, my god,” he said, as Zara tackled him with a hug. “Zara—”

“I’m okay,” Zara said, hugging him tighter. “I’m okay, Kellan.”

“Thank God,” Kellan said closing his eyes. “Thank God.” He looked over Zara’s shoulder shoulder to Asa, who smiled tiredly.

“Asa,” he said, suddenly worried. “What’s wrong?—are you—”

Asa pulled away from Nina as Kellan pulled her close to him, looking her over. “Just a sprain,” she said, clasping her brother’s hand. “I’m fine, Kellan.”

“Thank God,” Kellan said again, hugging them both at the same time. “You’re okay, you’re okay.”

Asa nodded, and Zara laughed. “What I am is tired,” she said. “Should we go?”

“Yeah,” Kellan said. “Yeah, let’s go.”

He looked over to Nina, and smiled gratefully. “Thank you,” he said earnestly, and Nina inclined her head.

“I’ll take care of everything, sire,” Aryan said, stepping forward. “You go and rest.”

“Thank you,” Kellan said again, and the three siblings walked off, hands still clutched together.

Aryan turned to Nina, and his expression turned worried. “You—is Ahad—?”

Ah, yes—Nina remembered the two were brothers. She grimaced. “I’m sorry,” she said, and Aryan paled. “The Princesses said he got caught while they were escaping. I...I’m not sure whether he’s alive.”

Aryan exhaled sharply, closing his eyes as emotion warred on his face. Nina watched uncomfortably, wishing she had something comforting to say.

“I’m sorry,” she said again, awkwardly, and Aryan shook his head. He sighed, running a hand through his hair, then opened his eyes.

“Ahad had his orders,” he said quietly. “He had to protect the Princesses, and he did. It is our responsibility as soldiers to deal with the consequences.”

Nina nodded. “That it is.”

Aryan took a deep breath, then asked, “How are you settling in? I hope the men aren’t giving you too much trouble.”

Nina shrugged. “I understand their animosity,” she said. “There’s a long history of hatred behind us, and I get that they’re not comfortable with my presence among them.”

“I’m glad to hear that.”

“I’ve let them know that I won’t condone any disrespect, though. I answer to the King and so do they, and they should put aside their petty hurt and recognize we fight a common enemy. But again--it’ll take time.”

Aryan smiled. “If only everyone was as level headed as you.”

Nina smirked. “The world would be so much better off with only me in it.”

Aryan chuckled, then grew serious again, staring at a wall with a faraway look in his eyes. Nina frowned.

“Commander Ahad seems like he can take care of himself,” she said pointedly, and Aryan shifted. “He’s not one to give up, right?”

“No,” Aryan said after a pause. “But...” His mouth pressed into a thin line, his eyes studying the carpeted floor. “This is a tough time of the year for him.”

"He’s tough,” Nina said. “At least, it seems like it.”

“That’s just it,” Aryan said, quietly. “It seems like it. And with Ahad, you never know what lurks underneath.”

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