Feel the Burn Page 64

Calmly, without the obvious intensity of the other Mì-runach, Aidan pushed Brannie back and said to the others, “Come, brothers. Let’s leave kin to speak alone.”

“But we’re supposed to protect her ladyship.”

“Of course you are. From outside the door.”

“Yes, but—”

“Now.”

Snarling and muttering, the rest of the Mì-runach walked out, the royal-born Aidan winking at Gaius before he closed the doors behind them.

“So,” he finally asked his sister, “how’s it been going while I was gone?”

Before Aggie could answer, Lætitia walked into the throne room. “It’s about time you returned,” she announced. “You have an empire to run and you can’t be—”

Aggie’s face turned red and she snarled at their aunt, “Get. Out.”

Lætitia spun on her heel and headed back to the door. “I’m leaving of my own volition, but this discussion isn’t over!”

Gaius smiled down at his sister. “So . . . did you miss me?”

“Oh, shut up.”

The Riders reached their destination four days later, and it seemed that Tatyana’s information had been correct. In another day or so, these men they watched from the safety of the trees would be attacking a nearby temple.

Now would be the real test of her team, a team she’d actually planned from the beginning.

Kachka knew the Anne Atli well enough to know that she would never allow Kachka to take any of the favored warriors. But Kachka had never wanted the favored warriors. They would be difficult and untrustworthy. At least to her. Their loyalty, unto death, would be to the Anne Atli.

So, Kachka needed more . . . unusual choices. Marina. The Khoruzhaya siblings. Tatyana. They all had skills and, Kachka was sure, their dreams were of a life outside the Outerplains.

Now, this moment, would prove whether she’d been right.

All that game playing was how one got what one needed from the Riders. Ask for what you wanted directly and the Anne Atli would fall all over herself denying it to you. So Kachka had feigned annoyance, regret, disappointment. But when Zoya and Nina had been forced on her—she’d no longer had to fake anything.

They could be her ultimate downfall.

She could only hope that she could make this work despite those two. Right now, she had to focus on what was in front of her.

Brutal men, brought in for one singular purpose. Killing a group of women bent on doing nothing more than worshipping a goddess of their choice in solitude.

They needed nightfall and to regroup before they did anything else, so Kachka signaled for them to back up and silently leave the area until they could figure out their next—

“Oy! What are you doing?”

The man had quietly come up behind them and Kachka turned, her sword pulled, but an arrow went through his open mouth. He dropped back and Kachka looked at her cousin.

Tatyana cringed as she lowered her bow. “Sorry. I panicked.”

In order to keep their privacy, Gaius and Aggie went to their favorite private garden deep within the palace.

The servants brought them fresh fruits and wine before silently leaving. Once the door was closed, and they were left alone, Aggie hugged Gaius again.

“If you had died,” she explained, “I would have been really pissed at you.”

Gaius stretched out on a lounge chair before popping a grape into his mouth. “Me, too. I do like living. And I’m so good at it.”

Aggie dropped onto his stomach—hard—and while ignoring his yelp of pain, she reached over and grabbed her own bunch of grapes.

“So,” she asked around the fruit, “did you have a good time with the crazy queen?”

“She wasn’t that bad. At least not this time. She actually remembered me!”

“She’s only met you two thousand times.”

“Don’t exaggerate, Aggie. More like one thousand.”

“Still.” His sister sized him up. “It must have gone well. You seem . . . unnaturally relaxed. For you, I mean.”

Gaius grinned. “What can I say? I met a very nice girl.”

“You? You met a nice girl?”

“She’s lovely. Sweet. Charming. Royal born perhaps.”

Aggie’s eyes narrowed. “I’m sure Auntie Lætitia will like that.”

“Oh, when it comes to prospective mates for her favorite nephew, this girl is just what Auntie Lætitia has been hoping for. . . .”

No longer unseen, Zoya moved first, charging into the middle of the camp and swinging her axe, randomly chopping off heads and body parts.

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