Nerin rubbed his tired eyes with the heel of his palm. He’d gotten very little sleep the night before. Princess Sharina had kept them moving constantly as they tried to find a way out of Ishmar. He’d never gone so long without sleep and walking was becoming an effort. But he understood the Princess’s need to escape. It was also his need.
He could have easily left them at any time during the night, found the nearest guard and demanded to be taken back to the palace to sleep. But he didn’t want to see his brother. His brother the murderer. His brother the traitor. Nerin didn’t want to look into his eyes and see the monster he really was.
He’d been blind to it. Somehow, he hadn’t seen what his brother had been trying to do. Not until it was too late anyway. And even then it had taken Isiah confronting him about it for him to actually do something. He’d been so sure that Harudan wouldn’t do anything and he’d been so wrong.
If he turned around and went back to the palace, he could find out what Harudan planned to do. But there was no way he could face him. Getting the Princess to safety was more important. It was treason, but it was the truth.
They were heading north, towards the Neverending Sea. Isiah wanted to head west and it seemed to be the better idea, but Princess Sharina still wanted to go across the border. They hadn’t spoken much on it during the night, but even Nerin could tell that the Princess hadn’t been happy when she’d heard Isiah’s words.
Escaping Ishmar had been easier than he had thought. It’d been pitch dark for the majority of the night and they’d stuck mainly to discreet alleyways and the more empty streets. It got harder and harder as the night wore on and the streets slowly emptied, but by that time, they’d reached the outskirts of the city.
People had eyed Sharina warily. Not even the hood could hide the darkness of her skin and the bright white of her hair. Every time they saw guards, they turned down a random street to avoid them. It made the trek out of Ishmar even longer. A lot of the streets were filled with crates and occasionally they would walk past a person sleeping between them. Nerin hadn’t even known there’d been a homelessness problem in the city.
There wasn’t anything he could about it until he decided to go back to his brother, which wouldn’t be for a while. Instead, he’d walked past them in silence and tried to swallow the anxiety that formed in his throat.
Eventually, the buildings had petered off, slowly turning into small farms and tiny houses that the lower class lived in. All the lights had been turned off, but they’d still walked off the roads just in case someone came by. No one had, luckily for them, and they’d been able to escape into the woods beyond Ishmar without issue.
The woods were thick and the Princess and Isiah had decided not to take any of the paths. It was safer and it made sense, but the lack of set path made Nerin nervous. He had no idea where they were going. He’d never even been outside the palace much before. All he knew was that they were heading north.
If he could either figure out where he was or convince Isiah and Sharina to listen to him, he could go to his summer home. It wasn’t his summer home per se, it was his uncle’s laboratory and home, but it would be safe there for him. He wouldn’t have to deal with Harudan and Princess Sharina would be safe there too. He wanted to ask, but he was so tired.
Hours they had been walking. They were nowhere near Ishmar anymore. Surely they would be safe enough to rest for a couple of hours. But even as he thought the words, he knew it was a lie. It had taken them far longer than they’d planned to get out of Ishmar and they were only a few hours from the massive city. People could still easily find them.
So he allowed himself to run on no sleep, praying to Sol and Lune that he would not pass out as they walked. It was obvious that Isiah and Sharina were just as tired as him, but still, they kept walking. They weren’t going to stop until they could be sure it was safe.
In his exhaustion, his powers weakened and the cold morning air bit at his skin. The clothes they’d bought were warm, but not warm enough for the awful winter that lay ahead of them. The awful winter that they would be walking in. One look at Princess Sharina told him that she was suffering and he wished he had enough energy to keep them both warm. His powers were strong enough to do it, but only when he was well-rested.
“Please,” he gasped as they took a break underneath the shade of a huge tree. “I just need an hour of sleep and I can keep going.”
The Princess shook her head. “We can’t. We have to keep going,” she said. Nerin groaned and closed his eyes anyway. Just a few minutes was all he needed, then he could keep going. But someone shook him awake and pulled him to his feet.
“A couple more hours, Nerin, then we can sleep,” Isiah promised him, but he doubted they would make it that far. They’d pass out in a few minutes if they kept going, he could feel it.
It was another half an hour before even Princess Sharina gave up thinking they could go any further. It would have been a good idea to climb a few trees just in case, but none of them had the energy. They passed out underneath a fallen tree and slept for what felt like forever. Nerin awoke to the Princess shaking him a couple of hours later.
“Come on, I know you’re still tired, but we can’t waste any more time,” she said and pulled him to his feet. “We need to figure out how to get to the border.”
Nerin frowned and stopped next to a berry bush. “I thought we were going west,” he said.
Princess Sharina shook her head. “You and Isiah can go west. It sounds safe for you two, but I need to go home. The mountains are in the complete opposite direction.”
Isiah made a noise. It seemed it was the first he was hearing of the Princess’s plans. “That’s a bad idea. They could easily find you if you go to the border, you know that,” he said and wrung his hands together. “Going west with me is safer.”
“And travelling on your own is dangerous,” Nerin argued, but the words sounded weak in his ears. If Sharina was going to split off from them, maybe he could too. “The Askari haven’t been welcome here in years.”
“I’ll be fine. I know how to fight,” Sharina replied.
“And if the guards catch you?” Isiah asked.
The Princess scoffed. “They won’t.”
Nerin cleared his throat and both people looked at him. “If she’s going east, then does that mean I can go south?” he asked.
Isiah looked troubled by his words, his eyebrows furrowing and his lips turning down in a concerned frown. “Why do you want to go south? Ishmar is that way,” he said.
“Past Ishmar is my summer home. My uncle and his apprentice live there. It’s a laboratory,” he explained. “I don’t want to go home, but if you two are splitting off then there’s no point in following you. I won’t cross the border.”
“You’re a child, Nerin, you can’t go on your own,” Isiah said and ran a hand through his hair. “It’s easier for all of us if we go west. We don’t have to stay there for long, just long enough for us to lose the trail of the guards. Then we can take you to the border, Princess.”
Nerin shook his head and took a step backwards. “You were my escort, you take me,” he said, hating how much he sounded like a child.
“He can’t,” Sharina said, raising an eyebrow at him. She shivered at the harsh breeze that blew through the trees and pulled her coat tighter around her. “Your brother will have sent guards there to find you. If it’s your summer home, it will be the first place he’d look. If you go there, you might as well be condemning yourself back to Ishmar. And you’ll get Isiah killed.”
He hadn’t thought of that in his exhaustion. He and Isiah were friends of sorts, and he wasn’t going to get a friend killed because of his childish thoughts. There’d been enough death in the last day to fill a lifetime. He didn’t want to see anymore. And he certainly didn’t want to go home.
West he would go until he was ready to return home and face what his brother had done. He didn’t know what he would do when he returned. There was nothing he could do to stop the coming war and his brother had taken too much after their father. Maybe there was nothing he could do at all. But a journey west would give him time to think it over.
Part of him still wanted to see his uncle. He was a scientist, different from Nerin’s father, far more sensible. After all the issues with Minisia, he’d moved out of the castle and transformed the family’s summer home into a laboratory for his experiments. He lived there with his apprentice, who Nerin had never really liked much, but it would still be better than Ishmar.
But he couldn’t. The Princess was right. Anyone he took with him would be killed and he would be taken home the instant he arrived. Harudan knew him well, he would send people to the summer home to wait for him. Whatever waited for them in the west would have to do.
All that was left was to convince Princess Sharina to come with them. If it was too dangerous for them to go to the summer home, it was even more dangerous for any of them to head for the border. It was the most obvious place they would go. If Harudan was smart, which he was, he would have already sent guards to search the roads to the border.
He rubbed at his eyes again and shivered in the cold. He had a little bit of energy left to spare, he could warm himself up a little. “Princess, it would be best if you came west with us then. You would be caught and killed if you go to the border on your own,” he said, taking a deep breath and standing straight.
The Princess glared at him. “My people need me, Prince,” she growled. “There will be war, thanks to your brother, and I must be there for it. My family needs to know that I am alright and I need to get away from your toxic country. And I won’t be needing your help.”
“And if you are killed before you get there because you didn’t wait for things to die down? What then?” he asked.
Isiah took a step back when Sharina stormed forward, obviously not going to help him convince her. “Wait for things to die down? This is war, Nerin, it isn’t going to just die down!” she yelled.
“But it would be safer,” he replied, struggling to keep his voice calm. “It would only be for a few days and then we’ll take you to the border. We’re just going to wait somewhere they’ll never find us until they give up looking. You’re right, there’s a war coming. Dealing with that will soon be more important than finding you. It will only be a matter of time.”
He could see her thinking it over. The gears turned in her mind and Nerin realised then that her earlier agreement in Ishmar had just been to get them away from the nearby guards. Her plan had always been to head for the border. She probably hadn’t heard a word they’d said in the city.
“Alright,” she finally muttered and ran a hand down her face. “I don’t want to and I hardly trust you right now, but you’re right.”
Isiah finally spoke again, face contorted in anger. “Hardly trust us? We tried to warn you! You were the one who didn’t listen!” he cried. Nerin hissed and glanced around them. They were in the middle of nowhere, but that didn’t mean they weren’t alone. Someone could be listening in on them. The guards from Ishmar could have caught up to them in their sleep.
“You’re Ishini!” the Princess yelled.
“What does that matter? We’re the ones who saved your life! You’d be dead if it weren’t for us and you know it!” Sharina froze at Isiah words and turned away in silence. To Nerin, their races didn’t matter. He wasn’t going to distrust someone because of the colour of their skin. It made no sense.
Ahead of him, Isiah took a deep breath and walked off, pushing past the thin branches of the trees. He looked over his shoulder and gestured for Nerin to follow. With tired and stumbling steps, he did but didn’t take his eyes off the glowering Princess. “Come on, Sharina, you know we’re right. It’s safer for you this way. All we want is for you to be safe.”
The Princess said nothing, but after a second she followed him, twigs snapping under her boots. Nerin breathed out a sigh of relief and shot a smile to Isiah, who looked more nervous than anything else. At least things were looking up a little. They had a plan and food to last them a couple of days.
Vishera might not be a happy place in the days to come, but at least he wouldn’t be going through it alone. He wasn’t the only one who’s trust had been ruined, but they would be able to deal with it together, he hoped. It would just take time, a lot of time. Hopefully, enough time to come to terms with that Harudan did.