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BRAXTON

 

Swiftly lifting my arm, my sword crashed against Harrison’s black spear, blocking his attack, and I spun to the right on my heel, seeing him whirl in the other direction. Our weapons collided again a moment before either of us could strike the other’s thigh, and then we swung high. The sweet song of metal clashing against metal danced in our ears, mixed with our exhilarated laugher.

Left, high, low, right, we met each other blow against blow, our movements coming faster and faster, muscles aching and burning with the force of each combination in the most amazing way. The strategic maneuvers were now a part of me, and I loved that what I had once learned during child play with my father, was now making me the man I was always meant to be.

“Gods!” Harrison yelped when I suddenly leapt forwards, sword aimed high and ready to come down on his neck. Ducking just in time to avoid the hit, he spun on his knee, rising behind me to thrust his blade into my back. I whirled, landing just as my sword crashed against his spear.

“Woohoo!”

“That’s how you do it!”

“No mercy!”

Penelope, Elijah, and Islay shouted, applauding our efforts and laughing with the other Elevated Warriors, just as Harrison and I stumbled to a stop. Sweat dampened our bodies from exhaustion—we had been going for about an hour, neither of us able to best the other.

Grinning, Harrison wiped the sweat from his forehead, and offered me his hand. “Good round, Brother.”

“Agreed.” I smirked, lifting my hand. “High five!”

“High what?”

“You know, high five.” I shook my hand in the air. “You lift your hand and slam it against mine.”

Harrison frowned. “Why would I want to hit your hand?”

“No, it’s like a clap. Like in celebration.”

“You want me to hit you because I’m happy?”

“No, it’s not hitting, it’s like clapping—you know what? Never mind.” Defeated, I shook his hand, and lifted the bottom of my shirt to wipe my face clean.

Harper and Arlo threw a sly glance at the shirt I wore under the armor, and I was sure they wondered why I always covered myself, but they respected me enough to never ask. I truly appreciated that.

“Okay, who’s next?” Asher asked, glancing at the girls to see who wanted to fight me.

Each day, since I began my Elevated Warrior training, I’d spent the mornings with Kingston and the Dragons, while each afternoon was spent sparring with these guys. They took turns between helping me practice each isolated movement over and over so it could be more fluent and precise, and sparring together. Every one of them had different styles of attack, even when using the same maneuvers. It had been challenging but also interesting, and well, kind of fun.

It was probably the oddest thing for me to admit, but I finally felt like I was in my own skin… I belonged.

“Nobody?” I challenged them when no one lifted their hand.

They glanced at each other, like they were trying to figure out who was next. “I am pretty sure we all took turns with you this week already,” Arlo offered, pointing at her friends with a finger, as though matching each of them to a day. I usually sparred with two each afternoon.

“Nah, you all are just scared.”

Chuckling, Harper shrugged from where she and Elijah stood—their arms crossed while partly resting their weight against a large boulder. “Fine, I’ll give you another chance. But please don’t cry this time, okay? It’s very unbecoming,” she joked, and everyone laughed.

My lips twitched. “Hey, I wasn’t crying. You got dirt into my eye.”

Asher laughed at that, and I narrowed my eyes at him.

“What about you? We haven’t sparred once since I joined you guys.”

“You are not ready for me yet, Braxton,” he reasoned, taking a bite of the cookie-shaped energy bar.

My mouth dropped. “Oh, excuse me, Mr. Bad-ass.”

Wrapping the bar, he shook his head, amused, while Harper and the others snickered, but he didn’t even bother to respond.

“Oh, that does it!” I pretended to get pissed, marching towards him while pushing up my sleeves. “Get your ass over there, and prepare for it to be pounded, hard.”

Asher arched a challenging brow at me, taken aback by my statement, while everyone else kind of choked.

“Kick! I meant to kick!” I blurted, mortified. “Okay, bad choice of words. Really bad choice of words. I regretted it the second I said it, but you know what I meant.”

Laughter erupted from the others, and part of me thought Elijah and Harrison might actually pee themselves. They were mocking me so hard. Rolling my eyes, I walked back, scowling at Asher.

Highly amused, like he was indulging a bratty child, Asher stood in the middle of the circle—fashioned by cream stones along the Elevated Warriors’ training garden.

“Come at me, Bro! Come at me.” I taunted, my sword in hand, slowly circling the commander who had become my friend in the short time I’d been with the guard. Fletcher, Arlo, and Flinn snickered—they were getting used to my “odd” way of speaking.

The bastard sighed without a worry in the world. His gaze fell to his left hand, and he began to inspect his nails as though they contained the secrets of the universe. I wasn’t stupid, I knew he wanted me to land the first blow; I had seen him fight with Kingston in the demonstrations held for me, and I’ve already gotten a sense of his style. Asher liked playing with the adversary's mind, letting them think that they had the upper hand, and then, bam! He had them for breakfast.

“What? You chicken?” I threw the insult at him, slowly making my way around him.

“Why would I be an animal, and what does that have to do with fighting you?” he asked confused, though he didn’t bother to turn and face me.

I sighed. “No, you are not a literal chicken, you are just—ugh, forget it. You are terrible at smack talk.”

Sometimes I felt like all the others did was laugh at everything I said…

“Maybe you should close your eyes,” Elijah suggested to his commander. “Then Brax will finally have an advantage over you.” Mocking me, he winked.

“See? That’s a perfect example of smack talk!” I threw my arms in the air. “Get it together, Asher.”

Elijah chuckled, pulling Harper to him. Her back pressed against his chest as he wrapped his arms around her, resting his chin over her shoulder. She naturally leaned into him, letting him hold her. I’d learned that they had been together for a year, so she was used to his affectionate gestures in public.

The sight distracted me for a second, wishing that everyone knew about Evie and me so we could be together—out in the open like Harper and Elijah, instead of hiding each night.

Harper’s lips twitched in amusement, but she had the decency not to laugh at me. “Don’t listen to them, Brax. You can do this.” After her vote of confidence, she continued to munch on a handful of mixed seeds.

“Thanks,” I snorted, but soon began to scowl when Asher’s eyes actually closed. “Oh, you are such an asshole.”

He grinned.

“You pound that ass, Braxton!” Fletcher shouted, and I grunted. I was never going to live that down. Stupid words.

Penelope, Harrison, and Islay chuckled, while Hanna just shook her head, continuing to polish the curved blade of her spear. That weapon was her one true love. Frowning, I decided to focus on my adversary, and took two more steps, finally finding a strategy I thought would work.

“Watch your back…” Harper warned the instant I lifted my arm.

My back? Asher was in front—the metal handle of his spear slammed against my spine the next second, and I stumbled forward from the force, falling to my knees. I had barely registered the action when his weapon pressed against my neck, lifting my chin as he locked me in place. The bastard’s eyes were still closed.

“When the fuck did you move?” I croaked.

Applause and shouts of excitement erupted around us, and I watched Asher’s eyes reopen—his eyebrows wiggling at me. I swore the man was a freaking ghost sometimes—he blurred through his movements similarly to how Kingston did. I wanted to learn to do that so badly. Twirling the spear behind him, he walked to the front, offering me a hand.

I took it—glaring at him. “No need to say I told you so,” I huffed.

His lips quivered, but he shook his head. “You have worked really hard so far, Brax, and it shows. But there is one thing you keep forgetting.”

“What?” I frowned, feeling him place a hand on my shoulder.

“You can’t rush this. Learning to fight like we do it’s a process, and I’ve only been training you for a bit over three weeks. This is more than just learning to use a weapon, or mastering attack combinations. You are essentially teaching your body new reflexes that go against your natural instincts, reactions that contradict anything you have felt for the past eighteen years. You are retraining your senses. It takes time, and the more you accept that, the easier it will come to you.”

Training against my nature… The phrase resonated with me. Just, what exactly was my nature?

Letting out a resigned sigh, I nodded. Asher was right. “I just want to prove myself to you guys, to Kingston. I want you to know that—”

“We know, and so does he,” he assured, patting my cheek then let go.

“Hey, guys!” Charlotte called, approaching the garden with Aaron, Quinn and Edward.

“Oh, hi, sweetie.” I smiled at her and Quinn, then nodded to the guys. “Hey, dude.”

“We are sorry to intrude,” Aaron muttered, fully intimidated by Asher and the other Elevated Warriors behind us. “Um, we were wondering if you might, um, perhaps—”

“We were wondering if you are almost done?” Quinn asked, glaring at Aaron. When she cleared her throat, slightly fidgeting, I realized she was as intimidated by the royal guard as Aaron was, she just hid it better.

“Yep.” Asher slapped my back, resting an arm over my shoulder. “He did great today, so he’s all yours.” His attention shifted to Charlotte. “Where are you guys headed?”

“To the other side of the mountain. The cerasus seeds are dried already, so we need Brax to tell us what is next.”

Excitement filtered through me. For the past several days, we had worked together to harvest as many coffee cherries as we could from the grove Evie allocated to us. A few people from the kitchen and the market volunteered to help us too, intrigued by the process and what we were going to do with them. Now that the beans were sorted, soaked, and dried, we were almost there.

“Cool. Now we just have to roast them, then we can finally brew. Where is everyone, at the grove?”

“Yeah. All waiting,” Edward added.

“Do you mind if we join you?” Asher asked, glancing at me.

“Wait, you guys want to come with us?” Aaron asked, shocked, and Harper chuckled, pulling Elijah with her on her way towards us.

“I mean, we are the leaders of the Skyborne Legion, but sure, we could donate some time to the recruits. Why, not?” she teased.

“Stop being mean,” Elijah chided, humor sparkling in his eyes, and bumped her shoulder with his.

“I’m just teasing.” Harper gave him an evil grin. Letting go of her boyfriend, she hooked her arm with Aaron’s. “Come on. Show me the way.”

Aaron’s eyes bulged, and he kind of stopped breathing.

Shaking his head, Elijah stopped beside me. “What am I going to do with her?” A defeated sigh left him. “She’s not going to be happy until she gives the poor boy a heart attack.”

“Yeah, he’s crushing on her, hard,” I agreed. “It means he likes her,” I added when Elijah glanced at me like I had grown a second head.

His lips twitched. “You say the oddest things.”

My gaze shifted ahead when Vyper landed, the earth shaking a bit beneath our boots from his weight. A grin stretched my lips and I lifted my arms, calling him to me while the others continued to walk.

“Hey there,” I greeted, scratching his chin and jaw just the way he liked it.

Vyper’s eyes closed, thoroughly enjoying my attention, and he lowered his head even more so I could reach the horn on his forehead. It was his weak spot. I swore that at one point he almost purred. Smirking, I stroked the base of his horn, seeing the beginning of a smile spread across his mouth. It wasn’t often that he smiled without suggesting he might have you for dinner, or that he was planning to throw you from three hundred feet above the ground, so I appreciated the sweet moment while it lasted.

…And then it was gone. His brow crinkled, a rumbling growl igniting in his throat.

My gaze flew up to notice a stow away rushing down his forehead to get to me, and I chuckled just as the bronze Dragon baby jumped off Vyper, landing in my open arms.

“Hey, my friend. Did you catch a ride with Vyper? Yes, you did…” I asked in a coddling voice, scratching his neck and chest when he turned in my hold, giving me his belly. Sometimes I swore Dragons were like very scary, huge versions of puppies. Except for the babies of course. Those were always cute.

Snorting, Vyper lifted his chin, looking away from me like I had insulted him. It was hard not to laugh, but I did my best. He was very protective of me, even jealous, and having to “share me” with Tharion as well as the baby hadn’t helped things much. He was still having a hard time accepting the changes that had occurred in the past several days, but we were managing.

“Oh, come on. Don’t be mad at me. You know you are my first, and because of that, I love you the most.” Cuddling the baby against my chest, I lifted a hand towards Vyper.

His yellow eye opened, throwing a side-glance at me, but he still lowered his head so I would caress him again.

Grinning, I patted his cheek. “Come on, time for us to go make coffee.” Stepping onto his wing, I jumped twice until I landed on his neck, and we began to fly out of the mountain. “I’ll meet you guys over there!” I yelled towards the others below us, seeing them nod while they got onto their Dragons and horses. Aaron, Charlotte, Edward, and the others rode with them.

When we landed on the outside of the mountain at the north end, I found our helpers all stood along the entrance to the grove, chatting excitedly about what they were working on for so long, and patiently waiting.

Jumping, I went down along Vyper’s wing like it was a slide at the park, and saw the others chuckle at my unconventional ways. As I approached, the bronze baby settled on my shoulder, so I could focus on the large section of earth where the green coffee seeds spread, resembling a thick carpet.

Asher and the others joined us then, walking to the grove.

A slow smirk made its way to my lips when I saw Evie arriving with her guardian, and strange nerves twisted my gut when she smiled at me, but I just nodded to her in greeting. My smile swiftly vanished when Kingston’s scowl sent a silent threat towards me. Sighing, I faced the others.

“Thank you, everyone. Now, I need all of you to please give us some room,” I called, motioning to Vyper to come to my side while the others stepped back—creating a wide perimeter. Lifting my finger, I gave him a pointed look. “Remember, slow and steady does it. Just like we practiced. This isn’t a competition between you and Tharion to see who can burn shit the fastest. Because we all know he can. They don’t call him Fire Fury for nothing.”

Huffing, and making sure to give me the evil eye, Vyper stepped forwards, lowering his head while inhaling a big breath. The next moment, a stream of red fire erupted from his mouth. That was definitely not the way humans roasted coffee, but it couldn’t hurt to take a few shortcuts.

Steady and with caution, he guided the flowing flame over the seeds, engulfing the entire carpet, and immediately ceased. With a renewed breath, Vyper blew fresh air onto them, cooling them once more, until only a few wisps of heat lifted from them. I didn’t need to touch them to see the seeds had gone from green to a beautiful brown, but I walked closer, taking a handful of them to inspect.

An eerie silence fell over everyone present while they waited for the verdict.

After carefully turning the beans in my palm, I lifted them to my face. The familiar semi-sweet but strong aroma of coffee immediately hit my nose and my mouth watered. Jackpot. The scent brought with it memories from my mornings at the Subway, and my chest constricted with the thoughts, but they didn’t diminish the happiness I felt. I supposed that I was still figuring out a way to reconcile the two sides of who I was.

“We did it!” I yelled, lifting my hand to show everyone the result, and shouts of elation rose around me.

Some people cheered, clapped, or even jumped, hugging each other with huge smiles. Their excitement coursed through me with the sight, and I appreciated the moment to the highest. They hadn’t even seen the full result of what they had achieved, but they were still so happy that their hard work had paid off, and eager for what came next. It was so refreshing to see.

“Okay, everyone, time to reap the fruit of your labor,” I announced, smiling when rows and rows of people began to walk to the carpet, eagerly stuffing the burlap sacks each of them had made with the coffee beans.

Two of the cooks began to fill their barrels to be taken into the castle.

Turning around, I glanced up at Vyper to find him glaring at me, expectantly. “Great job, buddy. That was perfect. High five!” I lifted my arm in the air, smacking my own hand so he would see what I meant.

Frowning, Vyper inspected my hand for a second, but feeling the happiness inside me, he lifted his too, slamming it against mine. He did it lightly, but I still staggered back, ending up on my ass. Chuckles escaped me while the guard, Evie, and even Kingston laughed.

“Well done. But next time with a little less force, please.”

Vyper snorted, clearly pleased he had put me on my ass, but I could tell he was proud he had done a good job. When he offered me his finger, I held onto it and let him pull me off the floor.

“You know, Tharion would have never been able to pull off such a precise and careful job with his fire breath.”

That caused a full-blown smirk to tilt Vyper’s mouth, and I reached for his jaw, stroking it just as Evie made her way towards me. Her approach captured my full attention, and I was suddenly hypnotized by her. My eyes fell to her exposed waist, admiring the way her hips seemed to dance in the sapphire silk top and low-rise skirt she wore.

Is it getting hot in here?

I swallowed as my pulse instantly began to race.

 

CHAPTER 2

 

EVANNA

 

“Are you okay?” My hand almost lifted to Braxton’s cheek, but I quickly chided myself, remembering we were surrounded by my kin and not alone in my room. It was getting harder and harder to act detached around him. I just wanted to be with him.

His nose wrinkled when I stopped before him, and the hint of a smile made his lips quiver. “Just a bit, um, flustered by my beautiful princess’ presence. Nothing else.”

My eyes narrowed at him with his naughty whisper, my cheeks warming just as Kingston stopped beside us, scowling at my secret mate. When I dared a glance up at him, his scowl shifted to me, making me chuckle. I knew he liked Braxton, but he would probably cut off his own tongue before he admitted it.

Wait. Had I just called Braxton my mate?

Braxton bent low to grab another handful of coffee beans from the pile near him, their wonderful aroma awakening my senses. A thick layer of them extended the length of the terrain before us while our people claimed their fair shares. The moment he stood, he popped one into his mouth, carefully chewing it.

“May I?” I asked, reaching for one and putting it in my mouth before he had a chance to answer.

“Wait!”

His warning arrived too late. I expected the sweet and invigorating taste from the drink he had prepared for me in the Mirror World, instead, I got a bitter and pungent flavor that made my eyes water. EW. Turning, I spit the seed as far from me as I could, wiping my tongue with the back of my hand.

“That tastes horrible!”

Everyone halted around us with my reaction, but laughter burst out of Braxton, and he, too, wiped tears from the corner of his eyes, except for a very different reason.

“It’s not funny!” I scolded. “Why does it taste so bad? I thought it would be sweet and decadent.”

“Because this is just the bean. We still have to brew it, and then I have to mix it with caramel before it can taste like the drink you loved.”

Confused, I blinked. “That’s a lot of steps before it can taste good.”

“Yep.” He chuckled.

“But you put it in your mouth.”

Brax grinned. “That is because I’m used to tasting the raw bean to confirm its quality.” He shrugged and faced the others. “Don’t worry, it’s perfect. Just as we want it to be for brewing.”

Sighing in relief, our people took their sacks filled to the brim and began to gather beside us.

“Shall we?” Brax asked me, motioning to our rides, and I nodded.

“Let’s return to the castle. Braxton has set up an area in the dining hall for everyone to be able to prepare their brew.”

Once we entered the communal dining area, we all walked towards the tables that had been set up along the far wall. Pots of steaming water rested on them, and there was sugar, milk, spoons, and a few other components Brax had prepared with the help of the kitchen staff. People began to form a line to wait for their turn while Brax headed straight for the tables.

Taking one of the bags he had filled, he threw them into one of the grinders normally used to break the cerasus seeds, and make the energy treats for the warriors. A fine powder fell onto the bowl below it. He then used one of the thin cloths he had cut into circles and filled it with several spoons of it. The kitchen staff set up at the other tables followed his every step, finally pouring the hot water onto it, and filling up jug after jug with the steaming brew.

Smiling, he gestured for everyone to start coming forwards, pouring cups for each of them and teaching them to add milk, sugar, or simply taste the drink in its original form. Oohs and ahhs rose into the air with each sip. Wonderous smiles illuminated many of the faces. Some looked surprised, others even shocked as they threw back the whole cup at once, and instantly reached for more. Laughter slowly spread over the hall as groups took a jug with them to the dining tables and sat down to enjoy the fruit of their hard work—tasting something they never even knew existed, yet it had been within our reach the entire time.

Unadulterated joy danced in the entire space, filtering into my pores, and when I glanced up at my guardian, I knew he felt it too. The handsome smile on his lips said as much. Walking to the first table, I grinned at Braxton while he mixed the caramelized sugar with milk, forming a sauce of sorts and pouring it into the coffee and milk already placed in a couple of cups.

“Here you go.” He offered one of them to me, handing the other to Kingston. “It won’t be exactly like the one you tried, but it’s the best I can do at the moment.” He nervously cracked his knuckles, anticipating our verdict.

Kingston and I clinked our cups together and took the first wholesome sip. Holy gods! That was better than I remembered. The drink wasn’t frozen like the one I had last enjoyed, but I dared say it was even better this way. It was hot and delightfully creamy. Thin caramel threads floated in its depths, mixing on my tongue while I drank, making me savor each taste. I kind of wanted to lay back on a cloud and float away into a rainbow; it tasted like pure bliss.

“It is absolutely delicious, Braxton.” I barely got the words out before I took another drink.

When my attention turned to my guardian, I found him handing the cup to Braxton, demanding more. Chuckling, he immediately prepared more, making sure to add extra caramel while Kingston encouraged him to keep pouring.

My gaze swept the dining hall filled with my gleeful kin, seeing more and more of them arrive and head to a table. My guard sat nearby with two jugs of the special brew. For a moment, I had a glimpse of the kingdom we would all enjoy once the war was over, because even if only for a sun-hour, my people had no fears. There were no troubles or burdens, no traumas of the terrors afflicting the world around them. They were just a giant family sitting together, chatting, laughing, and sharing a moment of peace as they enjoyed something new.

“Thank you,” I whispered to Braxton, blinking the emotion out of my eyes.

“It’s nothing,” he answered with a dismissive wave, not noticing the true effect his action had. “Soon enough, they’ll all have caffeine addictions and then you won’t be so glad I did it.” Chuckling, he took a sip of his own cup, leaving the table to stand near us.

Strands of my hair swayed as I shook my head. “It’s more important than you think; look.”

His gaze followed mine to the rows and rows of faces illuminated by smiles.

“I can’t recall the last time my kin were this joyful. All of them, together.”

“It’s been a long time since something new—something good—happened to them,” Kingston added, taking in the room with the same thoughtful eyes I had.

“You did this,” I assured Braxton, glancing at him again. “In your own, unique way, you have provided something to better their way of life, to make them happy. I assure you, all of them cherish it far more than you can imagine.”

The emotion I felt finally settled into Braxton’s gaze and he nodded, accepting our praise, but not saying a word about it. Turning, he busied himself preparing more drinks, and helping the kitchen staff in providing coffee to everyone who still waited.

A new smile captured my lips when I exchanged a glance with Kingston. It was about time that everyone got to see the Braxton I knew, especially my guardian. Much like Brax, Kingston remained silent, thoughtful, but when his eyes moved past me and his scowl returned, I knew something wasn’t right.

Turning, I noticed Lachlan walking toward us, and I rolled my eyes. “No more, Kingston. We are having a good day. Let us leave the resentments behind.”

His body relaxed when my palm rested on his arm, and letting out a burdened breath, he nodded. Taking a deep breath, I prepared to heed my own advice, just as my old friend stopped several feet from us and fully bowed.

“Princess Evanna, Chief.” He straightened, facing the man who had once been his mentor. “I would like to request a brief audience with the princess.”

A bit taken aback by the formality of Lachlan’s request, my guardian glanced at me, but I nodded. “You may approach.”

Familiar and warm, a soft smile stretched Lachlan’s lips as he stepped forwards, but it was soon shadowed by the regret shining in his eyes.

“I’m truly sorry.” His head shook slightly as though he knew words weren’t enough. “I know I’ve said that before, but I was still wrapped up in what occurred. I felt ashamed, betrayed, and angry because of the repercussions of my actions. At being stripped of my spear and title, cast aside like I hadn’t given my entire life in servitude to you—” His jaw tightened with the words, showing the hurt he carried, but he shook his head, letting it go. “I was having trouble dealing with all of it.”

“And how do you feel now?” I inquired, assessing the man I had once known to be loyal and true.

“Just ashamed,” he confessed, dropping his gaze from mine.

“Nevertheless, it were your thoughtless actions that provoked all of it.” Kingston loomed over him with the reminder. His honey eyes bore into Lachlan’s, making sure he knew he might be forgiven, but his mistake would not be forgotten.

“I know.” My old friend agreed, meeting his intense gaze. “I made a mistake, and I realize that the fault lies only with me. It is the reason I come here today, to say truly, deeply, I am sorry. I hope that you can find a way to forgive my faults and give me another chance.”

He directed the statement at my guardian, knowing he would not get anywhere with me until he forgave him. Kingston, however, glanced at me, letting him know that I was the one who truly needed to forgive, and he might consider it after.

Movement from my left briefly caught my attention, and with a side-glance, I noticed Braxton’s muscles tense. A similar scowl to Kingston’s captured his expression while he watched our meeting. Bewildered, I frowned at his reaction, until my eyes shifted to find a half-insulted Willow, sitting at the guard’s table. She was talking to Penelope, Asher, and Harrison while she drank from the brew, clearly not happy to see who stood before me.

“Princess Evanna…”

My attention returned to Lachlan to see him bow his head slightly.

“I was conceited and blind. I took our friendship for granted and allowed myself to believe that it was my right to speak, without stopping for a moment to think of how or where I was doing it. I let unwarranted pride create a division between us, and because of it, I ruined the relationship we shared.”

When his eyes lifted, true regret engulfed his features, and my chest constricted at the sight.

“I know what has happened cannot be changed. But if you could find it in your heart to forgive me, I vow to try my hardest to earn your trust again, and win the friendship you once extended.”

Taking a slow breath, I considered his words, recognizing the nature behind them. “Let us move past this,” I finally offered, seeing an enraged Willow march her way towards me. It was like she felt me forgiving him and wanted none of it.

“We shall move past this,” my guardian reiterated. “But let it never, ever, happen again.”

A slow smile began to stretch Lachlan’s lips with hope, but he didn’t let it take over. Instead, he nodded, a relieved breath sinking his chest. “I swear it.”

Leaving us for a moment, Kingston intercepted Willow—surely explaining to her that we shouldn’t spoil the glee our people enjoyed this day. One they hadn’t experienced in years.

My attention returned to Braxton, noticing the way his jaw clenched harshly with each glance he threw towards us. He was fuming, that much was clear, but I wasn’t sure why. He hadn’t been raised in our world, so it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps mated women were not supposed to speak to unclaimed men.

Brows wrinkling, I immediately discarded the notion, not only because it seemed absurd, but because there was no scenario where I would ever allow a man to tell me who I could speak to or not. It was the first reason I had never wanted to be paired before I met him.

With a heavy sigh, I resolved myself to speak to him tonight, and find out what it was that bothered him to such intensity.

Lachlan stepped back when Willow walked past Kingston, stopping before us.

Her chin lifted with indignation as she held both hands before her. “I have been informed that both the princess and the Chief of Battle have forgiven your indiscretions, and that I should consider doing the same.”

“I know I wronged you too, and for that I’m sorry, Willo—”

Lachlan’s words halted when her hand crashed against his face, thrusting it to the side from the force of her slap. Gasps reverberated all around us, mixing with my own while I watched, shocked.

Willow, however, just sighed contentedly, and wiped both hands over her skirt. “There. Forgiven.” Straightening, she whirled around, onyx strands flying as she did, and made her way back to the table.

“Just like old times,” Lachlan mumbled, rubbing his cheek, and Kingston lost it.

Laughter erupted from him, spreading like wildfire among everyone who had witnessed the exchange, and returning glee to the hall. Kingston’s gaze followed my best friend until she sat next to Penelope again, and he lifted his cup at her. Chuckles escaped me too and Lachlan grinned, glad that everything seemed to be behind us.

Taking a sip of my caramel drink, I noticed Braxton wildly smirking behind the table, like Willow was now his favorite person in the world. He really didn’t like Lachlan, did he? I was going to have to talk to him about that. I didn’t want any animosity between them.

“Have you tasted one yet?” I asked, motioning to the coffee jugs. “It was Braxton’s effort that made it possible.”

“No, not yet. Talking to you was my only purpose here. Your friendship and trust are all that matters to me, Princess. It’s all that I’ve ever held dear.” His small smile, affirmed the sincerity in his words, and a reassuring breath flowed through me.

I knew I had done the right thing by forgiving him, and the truth was, part of me missed him. “You should try one.” I nodded to the table where Brax stood. “You can thank me later.”

Grinning, Lachlan nodded, and took the drink one of the cooks offered him. “Thank you.”

“Would you like to join us for a little while?” My hand gestured to the table where the guard sat with Willow, and Kingston huffed beside me, returning to his grumpy self. “It will only be a short time, I have duties to uphold,” I assured.

Receiving a nod from Lachlan, the three of us walked to the table, but before we took our seats, Asher threw a sly glance at our guest. “I hope you don’t assume your title will be given back to you. You have been replaced, and if I may say so myself, I’m better suited for it than you ever were.”

“Oooh. That has to have hurt.” Harrison hissed like had burned himself, making the others snicker.

“No, I would never expect that, and I know exactly how capable you are. I fought side by side with you.” Lachlan shook his head, disappointed with himself. “You earned that position, Brother. There is no doubt in my mind.”

“I’m not your brother. Not anymore,” Asher asserted calmly, but there was venom in his voice.

I glanced at all of them, displeased. “Lachlan has apologized. He has been given a second chance so I would like you all, at the very least, to respect that. Even if you can’t offer him the same.”

“With all the respect I hold for you, Princess, I must speak. Lachlan might have repented to you, but he didn’t apologize to us,” Harper clarified, her green eyes bore into the man who was once her comrade.

Sighing, he addressed the guard. “She’s right. I owe them an apology too. When I did what I did, I broke the brotherhood we all shared, a bond I thought we would always have, and for that, I’m truly very sorry.”

They all nodded, but I knew that it would take more than that to repair their broken bond.

Taking my seat, with Kingston sitting next to me, I watched Lachlan walk to Asher’s side, but before he could pull out the chair, Asher’s arm blocked him. “That seat is taken. You have been replaced in more ways than one.” Looking past me, his eyes reached their target. “Braxton!”

Lachlan’s back lurched straight, hands tightening around the cup he held when he watched Braxton walk towards us.

My mate stopped before Lachlan, silently waiting for him to move, but their gazes locked in challenge, chest puffing like Dragons defending their territory. They had to be kidding. What was it with those two? Gods, a rivalry between them was the last thing I needed.

Jaw clenching, my old friend stepped back, conceding the place to Braxton, though it seemed to cost him more than it should. He took the chair at the other side of the table, right across from my mate, eyes locking together when they both sat. Willow and I exchanged a perplexed glance, and we weren’t the only ones.

Asher smirked, pleased with himself for pushing Lachlan away and I sighed, knowing this was going to be more difficult than I expected.

The tension grew among us when an eerie silence descended on our table, isolating us from the otherwise chatty ambient. Only a few moments passed before he rose to his feet, begrudgingly pulling his attention from Braxton to look at me. “Thank you for the unique drink, Princess. It was an experience.”

When he began to walk away, I stood, going after him. “Lachlan, wait!”

“I deserve it,” he countered, anticipating my words once he stopped to look at me. “It’s going to take more than my apology for them to forgive what I did, and I’m fine with that. I’m prepared to weather the storm.”

Nodding, I offered him a kind smile, assessing him for a moment. “Were you sincere when you said my trust and friendship was all that mattered to you?”

“Of course,” he answered without hesitation, taking a step closer. “I’ll do anything it takes, I—”

“Good, because I need you to contact our spy inside the Crimson Fortress.”

“Nikau?”

I nodded. “The sooner the better.”

Blinking, he considered it. “It will be risky after the two encounters with Azazel.”

“I know, but I still need you to do it.”

“Of course. Do you need information on the Warlock King’s whereabouts or plans?”

“No. I know he has been raiding the caves along the desertlands during the past few weeks, desperate to find us. What I want is my people back. It’s been over six months since our last rescue mission, and they have waited long enough.”

“Send at least three black ravens,” Kingston instructed next to me, after catching up to us. Each bird would indicate to Nikau that he should gather the slaves in groups of fifty. “And a white one to let him know they should be ready to be transported in five days’ time.”

“Hopefully, he will be able to prepare as many women, kids, and the elderly as he can find.” I paused when he nodded to us, seeing the eagerness to prove himself once more in our eyes.

“We’ll begin to plan the mission at once.” Throwing a look over his shoulder, my guardian focused on our table. “Penelope, Elijah, come.” When his gaze returned to Lachlan, he scowled. “You will make contact tonight, and you are not going alone.”

“Yes, Chief. But I could take my own men.”

Kingston shook his head. “This is how you earn my trust back.”

“Chief? Elijah asked wearily when he and Penelope arrived, considering the situation like they thought their old friend had done something wrong.

“Prepare to travel to the outlands with Lachlan tonight. You are to send a message to our contact in the Dark Empire for a rescue mission soon.”

Excitement and purpose visibly captured their beings. “Of course, Chief,” Penelope answered, and began to walk with Elijah, expecting for the Commander of the Battlesky Clan to follow.

With a final nod, he turned to leave with them.

“Lachlan.” My call once again stopped him, and I looked straight into the eyes of the man I had considered a good friend for so long. “You understand the issue was never that you disagreed with me. I am not as conceited as to think that my opinion is the only one that is right, or that matters. It was what you did about it that broke my heart.”

Pain filtered into his expression as he nodded, jaw constricting with the recognition of my words. “And that is what I am most disappointed about. I should have never done that to you. Not to you.”

With that, he bowed to me fully and turned on his heel, exiting the hall to carry out my orders.

~*~

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