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Authors: Nicole MacDonald

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BOOK: Feel the Burn
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‘It’s hard for him, for us,’
thought Loushka.
‘I hate not being able to fly at will.’

We sat watching on the upper deck and I pulled my knees up, tucking my arms around them while I watched the dragon. Sito landed in the water between our ship and Sian’s, not far from where Loushka and I sat. Kerak trotted up a moment later, feathers rustling and mane bristled with excitement. He leaned out, talons clinging to the side of the ship and called to his friend. Sito called back, an unusual warbling trill that sounded like an attempt at words.

‘Good morning, Your Highness.’

Sito’s deep voice entered my mind and the earnest tone of sympathy caused an unwelcome sting of tears. I swallowed and tipped my head back, staring at the sky while trying to blink them away.

‘Good morning, Sito,’
I thought, grateful that I didn’t sound like a frog while speaking via telepathy.

‘I’m sorry about the Prince.’

I didn’t respond, struck again by the knowledge that there was no good response to that statement.

‘You should link with Sian again. She misses you.’

And with that he launched into the air, returning to his ship. I watched Sian’s deep blue energy shroud the dragon, lowering him to the deck so he didn’t go through it.

‘Why haven’t you linked yet?’
Loushka thought.

I shrugged.

‘I don’t know. I just don’t need anyone else in my head yet.’

‘They only want to help, Cat. They love you.’

I sighed and reached out to tug a loose thread from the bottom of my pants, toying with the length.

‘I know. But I feel hypocritical.’

Loushka didn’t answer at first, instead shuffling closer until her beak rested by my leg and I reached out to rub the nubs at the top.

‘Don’t over-think it, Cat,’
advised the griffon.
‘Just let them feel they’re helping you. Remember, they did hear and see some of what you and I saw that morning.’

Oh yuck, I hadn’t thought of that. A shudder ran through my shoulders and my stomach shrank at the memories of what I’d seen. I hated thinking that others had seen him at such a vulnerable moment, it wasn’t how I’d want them to remember him.

‘They need to help you, Cat,’
Loushka thought encouragingly.

Wrapping my arms over her beak I gazed into those gorgeous dark ochre eyes, the slashes of pupils flickering at my close proximity.

‘Yeah. I’ll do it soon but I’m not ready yet.’

When I dressed for bed that evening it dwelled on my mind again. I did miss the girls, so very much, but it just felt safer to keep a distance. I didn’t think I could handle their sorrow as well as my own. In a few days, I thought, once I get a better hold on my emotions.

* * *

‘The sailors, those Draoths, they’re very unusual looking,’
I thought to Loushka, receiving nothing but a grunt in response from the dozing griffon. A cold wind blew and I shivered, tucking in tighter against Loushka, her mane smothering the cold out. We sat in our usual spot on the upper deck at the head of the ship and I watched those sailors. They seemed impervious to the cold, wearing shorts that reached their knees and nothing else while they moved agilely around the ship’s decks and masts. Ignatius had told me the other night that these galleys were made in the normal Draoth style and they reminded me of the paintings of Chinese junk ships I’d seen in my Grandad’s house on Earth. I’d never seen a ship with five masts before and the closest I’d ever got to a real sailing ship on Earth was a brief tour of the Spirit of Adventure, in the Wellington harbor as a five year old. I couldn’t get over the contrast in size between that ship and this galley. Still, with the four to five hundred soldiers and allies aboard, it really didn’t feel that much bigger. Set out in a zig-zag pattern the five masts could turn within their reinforced sheaths and it allowed the concertina style sails to catch even the slightest breeze. The immense lengths of sail could fold up many times and even I, a novice sailor, could see the advantages of this. But the skill required to work the numerous ropes holding everything in place astounded me. The Draoths dealt to the task with ease.

I shifted against Loushka’s side, trying to get comfortable and absently watched one of the sailors who looked a funny color. Usually a shade of green, this Draoth looked the color of dirty white clay and his skin too appeared almost cracked.

‘Loushka,’
I thought in alarm, pushing at the sleepy griffon’s neck.
‘What’s wrong with that sailor?’

While the griffon grumbled, shaking her head and twisting to see, the sailor tied a rope around his waist and then leaped overboard. I sat bolt upright with a horrified gasp.

To my open-mouthed astonishment the other Draoths watching laughed and jeered, teasing the sailor. Feeling indignant on that sailor’s behalf I stood, intending to climb down but something caught the back of my pants and jerked. I landed on my ass with a muffled curse. Loushka unhooked her beak from the waistband of my pants.

‘There’s no need to panic, Cat. Just watch for a moment.’

I turned and scowled at her, rubbing my sore backside and twisted back in time to see the sailor climb aboard.

‘What happened to him?’
I thought, thoroughly confused. This sailor had glossy dark green skin.

‘That’s not the same sailor!’

Loushka chuckled at my accusing tone.

‘Yes it is, Cat. They have to have dips to refresh their skin. Those out the water the longest fade to that sandy color.’

We watched when another sailor with sandy skin tied the rope around his waist and jumped overboard. I shuddered at the thought of leaping from that height.

‘They’re lucky they don’t kill themselves!’

Loushka huffed while she settled back down.

‘They do it at home all the time, Cat. The islands in Nalauth are very steep and they leap from those cliffs. This is nothing.’

Still seems crazy to me, I thought and got up from my spot by Loushka.

‘Where are you going?’

‘I thought I might have a closer look.’

The sailors I settled near shot quizzical looks my way but after a brief pause to bow continued with their tasks. They worked on the sail at this end and I realized that the sail on either end of the ship had a different shape to the central ones. The end sails were triangular and folded three times to the inner corner, while the middle sails folded multiple times. Used for steering, along with the ship’s wheel, these triangle sails looked much more similar to the sails on Earth, with a boom that swung out in either direction depending on the rope pulled. The Draoths handled these various ropes like the strings on a harp, creating their own melody of movement and they kept the ship going at a good speed. I watched when a Draoth shinned up the mast closest to me, staring in fascination at his broad flat feet with barely distinct toes and freaky looking toenails. It looked like the flippers you wore when snorkeling, with the claws of a wolf, but far more dexterous than those flippers. The Draoth gripped the mast and climbed up it with ease, hanging on with just his feet while he reached out to adjust the sail with both hands. His leg muscles bulged when he hung upside down, clenching to the mast with his calves and casually stretched out, nearly horizontal, to untangle a rope. I stared in amazement.

‘Impressive aren’t they.’

I twisted in surprise at Belsesus’ deep voice. I hadn’t even heard the centaur approach. The Lieutenant looked sterner, older than when I’d trained at the castle with him. I suppose I do too, I thought grimly. For an instant I saw Alek beside the centaur and I squeezed my eyes shut, counting to ten while forcing the pain down. When I opened them, Belsesus stared out at the ship on the left of us.

‘Who’s on that one?’ I asked, my voice only a little shaky.

He turned, his chartreuse eyes conveying an odd mix of expressions; sympathy, regret and coldness. It wasn’t something I associated with the teasing attitude he’d had when training me.

‘Lieutenant Chaieth, and Daron, Sian, Nesha, and Sito.’

‘And on the right?’

‘The ship starboard to ours has Lieutenant Larvaste, Sabyn, Loi, and Tomiar.’

I nodded and twisted to look. The sense of absence from the girls both distressed and soothed me. I missed their voices and company but at least my pain couldn’t hurt them. As long as they’re linked with each other, I can manage on my own for a while longer. As I thought that I extended an arm and watched when, with no effort—just a slight shift in thoughts—flames flowed beneath the pale skin. I stared in fascination at the flames tracing down to my fingers and an instant later my arm appeared molten. I flexed the fingers, watching them bend and twist like normal but all the while they flamed, blurring the edges. Belsesus watched with a cautious expression, his eyes curiously flat.

‘Your necklace, it isn’t reacting?’

I glanced down in surprise, having forgotten the lorus crystal Elena gave to each of us. It hung between my breasts like a chunk of ordinary stone, not flickering in the slightest.

Interesting.

*~*~*

Chapter Five

The first few days aboard seemed to both drag and fly by. Waking each morning brought an instant of ridiculous hope with Ignatius watching me from the table and looking, to my sleep blurred eyes, just like Alek. It didn’t help that my dreams were a mess of memories of Al and Yakov. After the brutally clear truth registered again in my mind I ate breakfast with Ignatius, and occasionally Kassie. I spent the days with Loushka, often joined by Kassie and Kerak. We watched the allies and soldiers practice. Occasionally the Lieutenants or Leseach would join us and dissect the performance of whoever sparred on the large main deck. With so many things to distract me, I managed to keep the really bad moments to a minimum; just the mornings and evenings in the cabin, when Ignatius would kindly leave me alone for a quarter hour.

I sat with my back to the base of the bed, watching the morning sun create patterns on the floor. Ignatius had gone to collect breakfast. It gave me fifteen minutes at the most to indulge the ever encroaching sorrow. It feels so strange, I thought to myself again, to be surrounded by those I know and love, yet to feel so utterly alone. It felt insane to realize that I’d only been on this planet for close to a year, I felt so absolutely tied to everything. While I missed those left behind on Earth, I knew, intrinsically, that Gar’nyse was home.

But without you nothing seems to matter.

I pulled my knees up and spread another of his shirts over them, leaning my chin on the soft fabric. His spicy, intoxicating scent calmed me even though I cried.

Never thought I’d find you. Meant to be single my whole life. Sianny and I would have been the crazy old cat ladies of the street, living in some ancient decrepit house.

I giggled, remembering those silly conversations between Sian and me. A sigh slipped out. I had never imagined it possible that another person, a male, would have such a hold on me. The concept of being alone didn’t scare me but the knowledge that I would never again feel totally complete without him, did.

I thought I was complete, until I met you.

The sound of footsteps then a rap on the door snapped me out of it.

‘Princess?’

Folding the shirt I stood, calling for him to enter. Ignatius entered with a breakfast tray and I returned the shirt to a trunk. After breakfast we walked to the main deck, stopping short when Leseach and one of the Hotorethites clashed in front of us.

Ignatius watched Catherine observe the melee before them in amusement, her cheekbones jutting out and the hint of a dimple appearing, but no smile graced her lips. He missed her smiles. The joy that shone through her delight made her glow more beautifully than her energy. Appearing to feel his eyes on her, Catherine turned and glanced quizzically at him. Ignatius nodded toward the sparring pair.

‘The Northerner will be well known by the end of this crossing.’

Catherine snorted.

‘At this rate she’ll be a legend.’

They moved to a seat to watch. Ignatius felt a sense of admiration while he watched Leseach spar. She is an excellent fighter, he thought, though he’d never admit it verbally. The Hotorethite, a Nyjen, had exceptional skills like all of the Nyjen class did, and handled the hooked short blades signatory to his rank. The versatility of the weapons; the hook giving the ability to rip an opponents weapon, shield or even limbs away; the needle-like tip of the sword that could pierce most armor; the embedded tooth at the butt of the blade—often slammed through an opponents skull—then of course, the actual blade of the sword. You didn’t fight a Nyjen warrior and anticipate success. A quick death, maybe, if you hadn’t annoyed them too much. With one of those blades in each hand and the natural speed, strength and agility of their elvish blood, it made the Nyjens formidable warriors. Watching Leseach spar with the elves fascinated him. In the beginning the Nyjens held back against the Northerner—it wasn’t the best idea. It only gave Leseach time to better understand their methods and improve her own.

I watched in amazement while Leseach laid into the Hotorethite before us. Ignatius watched in amusement, a smirk spreading while Leseach more than held her ground. I’d never seen her fight like this before. Normally in practice with us she used the weapons provided but now she fought with her own, curious looking weapons. Made of wood from a tree in the North and about the same length as the freaky short swords the Hotorethite held. The two lengths of wood looked nearly like the practice swords but more rounded with a sharp point at either end. The oddest thing about the swords—the wood healed itself—and the Hotorethite appeared exceedingly puzzled that his swords couldn’t cut through Leseach’s weapons. I knew the blades the Hotorethite wielded were sharp yet they only penetrated Leseach’s weapons an inch or so and in a few hours those cuts healed over with no help.

Unlike the fighters before us.

Leseach snarled when a blade sliced her upper arm and she slammed the pointed end of the weapon in her other hand through the Hotorethite’s shoulder. The violet eyes of the dark skinned warrior glowed for an instant and he threw Leseach back with a sudden shout, using an energy he utilized with his voice. I felt the zing before he released it and the sound alerted the other Hotorethites, causing those not already watching to come over. Wow, I thought in fascination, Elena told us some of the gifts that creatures could be born with, but she never mentioned any like this. Leseach leaped to her feet, oblivious to the blood running down her arm, dripping from her elbow and lunged at the man again. He too ignored his injury while he fought. I watched the two, not realizing I frowned until Ignatius questioned me.

I gestured the man. ‘Why isn’t he using his gift? If it works so well?’

Ignatius leaned close, his mouth to my ear so not to shout over the noise.

‘Because he’s practicing. If he were actually fighting Leseach he’d just blast her with his voice and take advantage of that. The Nyjens are incredible fighters, but without a gift Leseach is better. Now they’ve realized that they’re using her to learn from,’ Ignatius winked, flashing a dimpled quirk of a smile. ‘Just don’t tell Leseach I said so.’

I nearly laughed and smirked cheekily at him. ‘Are you getting soft, Ignatius?’

He laughed then and it transformed his face; the stern lines vanished and his brows lifted, his eyes looking lighter all of a sudden. It took five years off him, easy.

Catherine stared at him with an expression that made his throat feel tight all of a sudden, her eyes warm. Ignatius shrugged, unable to think of words but returned that warm look. They both turned their attention back to the fight. It looked like the Nyjen had the upper hand when he hooked Leseach’s bandi sword, but the Northerner wasn’t out yet. Ignatius watched in admiration when she let her arm loose, her grip on the bandi sword easy and it allowed the hook to slip straight off even while the Nyjen attempted to correct his move. Then, with an abrupt twist of the Nyjen’s arm using the tense hold he had on his sword against him, she hurled him to the ground. A smattering of applause from those watching broke the tension in the air and Catherine stood to go heal the fighters.

Later, after the Princess retired to her room for her evening solitude, Ignatius took the time to talk with Belsesus and the chiefs of the Nyjens, the Ihali and others. Discussing past battles, methods and techniques that brought victory offered a sense of comfort. Part way into a discussion of a different technique Ignatius realized he’d left the Princess for longer than usual and excused himself from the room, heading for the kitchen. Walking toward Leseach’s room, keeping a cautious eye on the mug of nellor, he jolted in surprise at the sound of a male’s voice
 
and nearly dropped the mug.

‘Do you find it difficult to be so far from the North?’

Rashid, Ignatius realized, and he moved silently to the corner just before Leseach’s door, stealing a look. Rashid stood just within the Northerner’s doorway. Leseach kept a safe distance between them, watching Rashid with a still but threatening gaze. The Lieutenant didn’t appear concerned, smiling pleasantly at the woman who considered him with a mix of conflicting expressions.

‘It isn’t difficult. I have my orders and I obey.’

A grin broke out while he watched the two, drawn to the irresistible spectacle as Rashid calmly asked questions, ignoring the way the Northerner paced like a confused lioness, unsure of her prey. Ignatius watched the exchange for a little longer before clearing his throat and stepped into the room with a nod to Rashid.

‘Lieutenant.’

Rashid stared at him for a moment, the brief flicker of a frown on his brow before he turned and inclined his head to Leseach then exited without a word.

‘Good evening,’ Ignatius said, unable to prevent a smirk. The Northerner’s eyes locked on his and any confusion in them vanished, replaced with anger and annoyance.

‘Lieutenant,’ she snapped with a toss of her head, turning her back on him. ‘You’re late.’

The moment of admiration he’d had for her while watching the alien fight the Nyjen vanished and a very real urge to put her in her place hit. Ignatius plunked the mug on the table and stood back, crossing his arms while resolutely ignoring her. Rustling in the medicine basket she kept by her bed, Leseach found the vial of poison he’d given her and walked to the table, her eyes dark as she muttered.

‘Some men need to be taught their place.’

With a derisive snort, Ignatius retaliated, ‘And some females should be taught theirs.’

She turned on him in an instant, striped eyes narrowing and the pupils grew sharper. She stepped close, her angular face only a foot from his.

‘Do try,’ she snarled.

His fingers bit into his arms while he glared but resisted making a move. Rashid’s annoying comment about diplomacy echoed and he breathed hard through the nose while envisioning lashing out with a fist and knocking that bloody creature back several feet. The desire only increased when she gave her own derisive snort and turned her back on him again, stirring the poison into the nellor.

‘Human males, pathetic creatures. So easy to kill.’

A sense of calm and amusement rose at that and now feeling in control Ignatius stepped to the table and lifted the mug with a mocking bow to Leseach.

‘Anytime you have the desire to test that theory, let me know.’

Walking to the Princess’ room gave him the breather he needed to compose himself and after rapping on the door, he opened it, finding her at the table like usual.

‘You’re late,’ she commented.

Funny how the same words from her lips seemed far less offensive, coy almost, with the sideways hint of smile and sensual green eyes.

‘Apologies, Highness.’

The next morning I sat in my usual spot with Loushka, watching the choppy waves with a dubious stomach.

Really hope I don’t get seasick…

I watched everyone on the main deck, spying Kassie and Rumal tucked into a discreet alcove by the covered entrance to the decks below. Rumal caressed Kassie’s hair while they stared over at Loi and Sabyn’s ship. Watching the way they moved together, the constant touches, always aware of the other, produced a hollow sense of longing. In some ways it felt like Alek sat with me constantly and I directed my thoughts to him while the often present but unwelcome tears crept down my cheeks.

BOOK: Feel the Burn
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