Feel the Burn Page 100

“A feast?” the dragon asked, eyeing Gaius. “For an Iron?”

“The queen has an alliance with King Gaius now, Jarlath.” She briefly glanced at him. “Remember?”

“Why so much food?”

“To celebrate.”

“Did anyone taste it yet?”

“It is bland,” Zoya said, even while she continued to eat.

“Not for flavor, barbarian. For poison.”

The Southlanders immediately spit out their food, but Kachka and her Riders kept eating, as did Gaius.

“You’re not worried about poison?” Lord Jarlath pushed, staring at Gaius.

He swallowed before replying, “The first thing every Sovereign’s mother does is to protect her hatchlings from poison. Mostly because the best poisoners in the world are from the Quintilian Provinces.”

“How do they protect you?” Cinnie asked.

“They poison you. With a whole . . . host of things. You throw up a lot when you’re a Sovereigns youth, but eventually . . . it passes. And you’re either dead or you have a cast-iron stomach.” He smiled. “As it turns out, we have a very healthy population in the Sovereigns Empire.”

Jarlath looked at Kachka. “And you?”

“We are Daughter of Steppes,” she said with shrug. “You do not survive Outerplains without strength.”

“But poison—”

“We had an Anne Atli who was poisoned by enemies once. It took her thirty years to die and she ruled with steel fist entire time.” Kachka briefly pursed her lips. “Yet many still saw her as weak for dying at all. Poison is for . . .” Kachka looked over the table of Southlanders. “You people.”

Brannie snorted but quickly dropped her head.

Lip curling, Lord Jarlath asked, “Who are you?”

Annnnd Gaius introduced all of them again.

“And this, Lord Jarlath, is Nina Chechneva, the Unclaimed,” Gaius finished.

But unlike his mate, Lord Jarlath didn’t even attempt the basic rules of Southland and Sovereign Empire etiquette. He seemed greatly focused on his eldest son, watching him the entire time Gaius was speaking.

“Why aren’t you eating, boy?” Jarlath asked Ainmire.

Blinking slowly, Ainmire looked up from his untouched food, and glanced around the table as if he’d never seen any of them before. Not even his own kin. “What?”

“What’s wrong with you?” Harkin asked.

“Nothing. Why?”

“You seem . . . strange.”

“I’m just glad to be back with my family.”

“How long were you gone?” Brannie asked.

“Ummm . . . three, four years.”

“You were sent off for training? Like Aidan?”

“No,” the dragon replied. “I just . . . left.”

“I see.” Brannie looked back at her plate and whispered to Gaius, “My mum gets upset when she doesn’t hear from Celyn in two days.”

“Your mother obviously pampers him.”

Eyes wide, Brannie adamantly replied, still in whispers, “I know! But she doesn’t see it. He’s just a big, fat baby!”

“Why are you back?” Ainmire asked Aidan.

“For the love of my family,” he replied and, in response, his family blankly stared at him. “It’s been so long, I just had to see you all again.”

When there was still nothing, Brannie muttered, “Wow.”

The silence stretched on so Gaius turned to Lord Jarlath and said, “Perhaps when we have done eating, Lord Jarlath, you and I can talk for a few minutes.”

The Southland royal shook his head while picking at his food. “No.”

Brannie suddenly sat up in her seat, the playful, goofy Brannie gone, and Captain Branwen the Awful of Her Majesty’s Army now present. And pissed off.

“Lord Jarlath,” she admonished, her voice no longer that of an annoyed baby sister. “King Gaius is a very close ally to Queen Rhiannon, which means that all lords of her queendom give him the utmost respect and consideration. That, my lord, includes you.”

“My dear—”

“Quiet!” Jarlath barked at his wife before focusing on Branwen. “Who are you? Some pet of the queen?”

“I’m Branwen the Awful. Captain of the First and Fifteenth Companies.”

“You’ve heard of them, haven’t you, Father?” Aidan asked, his grin wide. “The nicknames for those companies, I believe, are Destroyers and On Pain of Death. And if I also recall correctly, Captain, your Uncle Bercelak was also once Captain of the Destroyers and On Pain of Death, but he never commanded them together. That means you have quite the body count to your name. Oh! And in case you’re wondering, Father. That’s Bercelak of the Cadwaladrs. Just like his sister and Branwen’s mother, General Ghleanna the Decimator.”

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