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Authors: Nicole MacDonald

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BOOK: Feel the Burn
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‘If you ever genuinely want a chance to be an advisor, you will need to learn to exercise diplomacy with citizens of realms other than just Elion,’ Rashid called after him in a pointed tone.

The lack of a link between them felt painfully obvious while they sat in silence. Kassie watched Cat’s face, trying to read her expressions. Normally she had such a transparent face but the flat, grief lined expression masked any thoughts.

‘Cat,’ Kassie asked gently. ‘How are you?’

Her friend’s lips went pencil thin, eyes narrowing and she shot a furious look at Kassie, who cringed.

‘I’m sorry! I get that you’re in pain. Probably better than anyone else.’ Kassie slid her hand across the table, fingers brushing Cat’s hand. Cat’s anger vanished, green eyes somber and she made an apologetic shrug at Kassie who flicked her fingers in response.

‘Doesn’t matter,’ Kassie said quietly. ‘Are YOU okay?’

About to respond, Cat stopped when the door rattled and the handle turned. Ignatius shoved awkwardly through, holding a tray loaded with food.

‘Sorry it took so long.’

Kassie sat back, watching while the Lieutenant set the tray on the table and attempted to engage Cat in conversation. Something isn’t quite right, she thought, feeling irked at the disconcertion the scene before her caused. The endearing persona Ignatius put on with Cat wasn’t new, he’d done it since finding out her heritage. All the girls, Cat included, had had a chuckle at the Lieutenant’s expense. But now… Kassie watched when Ignatius placed a hand on Cat’s shoulder, squeezing lightly. Not in the way you might expect a man—a military man—to do it, Kassie thought. He does it with affection.

Yakov would have done the same, pointed out the rational voice in her mind, and Kassie winced at the reminder of the advisor’s demise. Yes, but Yakov loved Cat, he loved all of us. He was our stand-in dad, Kassie thought and she bowed her head to hide the tears that trickled out. Rest in peace darling man.

‘Kass?’

Blinking Kassie looked up; meeting Cat’s anxious, questioning gaze and Kassie shook her head, not wishing to make Cat cry again.

‘Nothing.’

The tilt of the head and sympathetic gaze suggested that Cat guessed, and Kassie gave a sad shrug, eyes flicking to the windows. She rolled her lips together, letting the grief wash out and in like the tide, the emotion so familiar it offered a sense of comfort. The sound of dishes clinking made them both glance back to the Lieutenant, clearly out of his comfort zone as he attempted to serve the food. A squeeze to her hand made Kassie glance to Cat, whose eyes looked almost normal for an instant when they crinkled in amusement, before assuming a calm appearance. Both of them straightened in their seats.

I clenched my insides when the smell of food hit my stomach hard. Kassie didn’t hesitate, reaching for a sandwich and I saw Ignatius’ brow flicker as he resisted frowning. It brought Yakov to mind and the sudden sorrow made my head ache. Leaning an elbow on the table I rubbed firmly across my forehead, hoping to release some of the tension, and reached for a platter. The mouthful of hot pastry promptly made me regret it, my stomach churning when the food hit. I set the rest on a plate Ignatius had shoved my way and reached for a glass of water instead. The cool liquid helped my head too and I sat back in the chair, surveying the room while the other two ate, ignoring their concerned glances. In the daylight, with the fresh sea breeze wafting through the room, it felt too bright and real for Alek not to walk in. A certain tension prickled over my skin while one part of my mind refused to believe it, to believe she’d taken him from me. Even after the excruciating agony, a small part of me willed the door to open and for him to stride in, his handsome face alight with adventure. Moments ticked by while I stared at the door, an unpleasant and unfamiliar sensation of loneliness spreading through me. The thud of my heart echoed in my chest, making my head throb while I watched that door which didn’t open. A sob slipped out unintentionally. Kassie and Ignatius jerked in surprise, twisting my way. I pressed fingers to my lips and shook my head, more tears squeezing out.

‘Sorry.’

Kassie snorted and in a quick move dragged her chair closer to mine, a slim arm wrapping behind my back and her head on my shoulder. The silence and her closeness soothed and I leaned my head against hers, a shuddering sigh running through me. We sat listening to nothing when a sound, a voice, broke into my mind and I gasped, making Kassie and Ignatius jump.

Ignatius was on his feet in an instant, a hand on Catherine’s chair when her face—whiter than a ghost—went vacant and she drew her hands to her mouth, her eyes looking tragic again.

‘What? Your Highness, what’s happened?’

His heart pounded, body tense as he stared at her, willing her to answer.

Catherine’s eyes met his and the vacant expression vanished.

‘Loushka!’

The mention of Alek’s griffon surprised Ignatius; he had assumed the link between the red-maned griffon and Catherine would have dissolved with the others’. Catherine shoved her chair back, the wood screeching, and made for the door. Ignatius lunged after her with a curse.

‘Princess, wait!’

He hadn’t wanted the soldiers or allies to see her yet, not until she looked calmer and more like their sovereign, but she didn’t slow, racing down the corridor. He hit the stairs a moment after her and took them two at a time, just managing to catch her arm before she reached the top and stepped onto the deck. In a swift and not unexpected move she spun and hit his hand away, eyes blazing.

Lifting both hands he spoke quickly.

‘I’m sorry! Just take a moment, please. You look a little wild and this is the first time everyone has seen you since it happened. You need to be composed.’

Those lovely green eyes filled with tears and her hands shook while she nodded, making an attempt to neaten the red locks that didn’t appear brushed. Guilt at making her cry caused him to step closer and stroke a hand over the hair, trying to contain the excessive volume that it had swelled to from her dash here. Catherine jerked back and he tensed.

‘I’m sorry,’ he repeated softly.

She shook her head, eyes blinking frantically and hissed in a rough whisper, ‘Please don’t be nice. Be stern! Be stern!’

Ignatius looked shocked at first and I pressed my lips tight, trying to keep the tears back while Loushka’s plaintive sobs sounded in my head. He can’t look at me like that if he wants me presentable, I thought, irrationally angry at the sympathy in the Lieutenant’s eyes. Kassie, right behind him, touched his arm and muttered something while I squeezed my eyes tight and focused on my breathing, body taut as I forced the grief back down. Opening my eyes I found Ignatius staring at me with a far more familiar look of annoyance and impatience.

‘Pull yourself together! Stand tall. Be angry if you need, but tears are NOT allowed. Do you understand?’

That growled order helped and I nodded, hands clenched in tight fists.

‘Yes.’

Ignatius glared at me and offered his hand like he would offer a sword in practice; straight up, no nonsense. Taking it, I stepped through the hatch into the bright sunlight.

*~*~*

Chapter Two

‘Catherine’s awake.’

Sito’s statement made Sian dodge Centaur Cavalry Lieutenant Chaieth’s strike, making a neat jump to the side.

‘Can you see her? Is she awake?’

The enormous tan dragon sat high on his haunches, eliciting a surprised yelp from the soldiers, allies and sailors alike when the ship pitched at the sudden shift in weight. Unable to get a good grip with his hooves on the smooth boards of the deck, Chaieth slid slowly past Sian, his hindquarters nearly scraping the deck while he attempted to halt the slide. The disgruntled expression on the burly Aswaran Lieutenant’s face almost made her smile.

‘Sito, can you look without sitting up? Chaieth’s about to go overboard.’

‘Oops!’

The dragon dropped back to all fours and the ship made a rough sway when it leveled out, causing Chaieth to grab at the rail. Sito looked sheepishly at her and Chaieth, his big brown eyes apologetic.

‘Sorry.’

With a good natured shrug, Chaieth waved the apology aside and glanced at Sian with a questioning look, his dark tawny eyes narrowed.

‘All good? Shall we continue?’

‘In a moment. Sito just said Cat’s awake.’

All those within hearing distance turned to listen, surprising her for a moment. Sian frequently forgot that though Sito could speak to any he chose with his gift of telepathy, when he spoke to Sian no others could hear, their link allowing privacy like the men of the Griffon Guard had with their griffons. Sian’s intimate link with Daron meant she could also hear Nesha, a beautiful dark griffon with blue undertones who this moment sat up, sleepily looking their way from across the wide deck.

‘Has she seen Loushka yet?’
Nesha thought, his tone concerned.

‘Hasn’t Loushka said?’
Sian thought in surprise.

‘She’s not speaking to any of us.’

Daron appeared to the side of the griffon, a hand on the huge beast’s neck beneath Nesha’s expansive dark mane. Though he stared her way Sian could see his eyes were distant, the lines of pain visible in the way he stood. She closed her eyes as frustration welled, her hands shaking. Still he refused to talk and while she understood it, it made for a lonely time. Rubbing both hands on her thighs to try and release the tension she looked at Chaieth and gave a short nod.

‘I’m ready, let’s get into it.’

Training provided an outlet for the anxiety that resulted from the absolute frustration of being able to do nothing. Daron walked to the railing and she couldn’t help watching, her heart aching while she wished to somehow soothe his pain. The stunned look of disbelief and the sense of pain and despair he had been projecting since that awful morning ate at her. Until the moment that Cat’s link to Alek was severed, Sian and the other girls had been forced to witness as that witch tortured Alek. Sian’s skin crawled at the memory of those involuntary shrieks of pain from him. At first she hadn’t even recognized them as human, let along the screams of a man who was like a brother, both to her and Daron. Even now, the faint scent of singed skin seemed stuck in her nostrils and she rubbed her nose, shaking her head, stomach feeling like it shrank at the memory of the smell.

God, I hope Cat’s okay, she thought. Or as okay as you can be at such a time.

Without the link to her, Sian couldn’t even offer comfort. It made the distance between the four ships feel like miles. Pausing mid-stroke, she rolled her shoulders in an attempt to loosen the tense muscles, then shook her head at Chaieth.

‘I need to work on punching.’

The centaur studied her and she averted her eyes, looking off to the horizon.

‘If you like,’ Chaieth consented gracefully and turned, calling for volunteers. Sian jogged across the wide expanse of deck and climbed the stairs to the second deck, a couple of General Guard soldiers and a Hotorethite joining her.

* * *

Greeting everyone—trying to force a smile or at least a pleasant expression while allies and soldiers expressed their sorrow and sympathy—proved to be a challenge. Ignatius’ iron like grip on my arm tightened when I wrinkled my nose and clenched my teeth while trying to resist crying. A swift jerk by the Lieutenant made me pivot abruptly toward him and he bent his head, mouth to my ear.

‘Catherine, everyone understands how you are feeling, but please! Act like Royalty. Be like stone if you have too; just stop acting like a child! Alek would not have approved.’

The stern, annoyed tone made me want to twist away and flee even though that really would be poor behavior. I gulped, lips trembling, and shamefully met his eyes. The tight hold he had on me meant fleeing wasn’t an option and the flat, unimpressed expression in his eyes left me with two decisive thoughts of action.

One; using the hold he had on my arm, pull him down, and knee him in the nuts. Wouldn’t solve anything but might make me feel better.

Two; buck up, greet everyone appropriately then get to Loushka’s side. No blood shed required. Closing my eyes and breathing in slowly, a sudden image of Alek popped into my mind. He flashed that cheeky smile I loved and winked.

‘Just a little patience, kitten.’

The dark quiet that settled over her unnerved him, the sense of unease almost making Ignatius back off. Then it passed and Catherine opened her eyes giving him a calm, flat look.

‘Please introduce me to the rest of them, Ignatius.’

He ignored the lack of warmth in that sentence and gently squeezed her arm, relaxing his hold.

‘Good girl. You can do this.’

I did get some comfort in the familiar faces of those joining us from the General Guard and the Centaur Cavalry and the allies provided a fantastic distraction. Not knowing what to expect, it fascinated me to be able to put names to faces. Ignatius introduced me to the Draoths, who were the sailors on this ship. I caught a fleeting expression of surprise from the Lieutenant when I greeted the men pleasantly, and wondered why, but let the thought go and greeted the next Draoth in line. Their skin was smooth and hairless, dark green on the backs of their arms, legs and head, while their underside and faces were a lighter tan. It looked similar to the skin a dolphin had—thick and hardy. Their dark, nearly black eyes were somewhat disconcerting and so too was the flash of pointy teeth when I greeted another. Then I realized what surprised Ignatius.

Were we speaking another language?

It only registered when I turned to speak to Kassie then back to the line, a subtle hum in my ears before I tuned into what the Draoth in front of me said. For a moment I gaped at him, my brain disbelieving at this fantastic ability. How the heck had that happened?

‘It’s the spell,’ Kassie murmured in my ear, evidently understanding my expression.

Stumbling over my words while internally marveling at the ease of speaking another language I made a mental note to thank Sian. The only language I’d ever excelled at was English, and that too was debatable at times. This would make parts of life here so much easier! I glanced around, eyes wide and a half smile on my lips before it hit.

I couldn’t tell him. He wasn’t here, and he never would be.

I don’t know why, but in that moment it felt so raw I had to twist away. Kassie stepped forward and I hugged her tight, an awful sense of desperation clutching me. Rumal stood behind her and my eyes locked on his. He stepped close, a large hand on either side of my face and pressed his forehead to mine.

‘Breathe, Cat,’ he whispered gently. ‘Just breathe.’

His strange energy swelled out, but it wasn’t the golden light I sought and I nodded, pulling back, the pounding of my heart slowing. Rumal’s gold eyes swirled while he watched me and the pain in them made me turn. I could barely deal with my own grief; I couldn’t handle seeing theirs too.

Well, at least you’ll be able to understand all those aboard, my rational voice thought in a firm tone and I nodded, swallowing hard. I forced the closest thing to a smile I could and turned back to greet those remaining in the line. The introductions passed quickly enough and finally, Ignatius led me to Loushka.

Rumal watched while Cat wept with Loushka, the girl looking small beside the griffon whose neck she hugged. The tension that rose from all those observing the princess made the air almost crackle and with terse words allies and soldiers set into weapons practice. Despair and anger ran through Rumal’s veins and he closed his eyes, unable to watch Loushka without expecting to see Alek near. For so many years now, they’d fought along side one another. It didn’t feel real yet. To protect the heir to the throne had sounded like a pain in the ass when Rumal had first been informed of his role by Elena. The five year difference between him and the scrawny, lanky kid with that mop of black hair had seemed like decades at first. But Alek had worked damn hard at holding up his position in the Griffon Guard.

I can’t believe I won’t be seeing you again, friend, Rumal thought, sorrow making his body feel heavy and tired. But I swear that I’ll keep your girls safe. That witch won’t get them.

A faint click of talons alerted Rumal to Kerak’s approach and the griffon sat on his haunches beside Rumal, tail swishing over the deck.

‘What happens now?’

Rumal closed his eyes, fury welling within.

‘I don’t know, Kerak.’

The tan griffon glanced his way, the orange gold undertones of his growing mane catching in the sunlight.

‘This isn’t good.’

Anger simmered close to the surface and Rumal resisted replying, not trusting his temper. Instead he caught Rashid’s eye and jerked his head toward the stairs, walking that way with the Lieutenant following.

Kassie watched when Rumal went below and glanced at Kerak who looked forlornly after the man, wings drooping.

‘Did I say something wrong?’

‘No. We’re just hurting, Kerak. Everyone reacts differently.’

‘I wish we could visit the others.’

With a sympathetic smile, Kassie reached to rub under the griffon’s chin and scratched around his neck, where the newly grown mane itched.

‘Me too. It’s not fun being stuck on the ship.’

‘I wonder what Sito’s doing?’

‘Probably sleeping.’

Kerak huffed a sigh then rubbed his chin affectionately over Kassie’s head.

‘You should go see if Rumal’s okay. I’m going to see if Loushka’s talking to me yet.’

She watched the griffon saunter to the front, climbing the stairs to the platform where Cat and Loushka were cuddled. She turned and headed downstairs.

BOOK: Feel the Burn
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