Chapter no 17

Fourth Wing (The Empyrean Book 1)

After sleeping in the crowded barracks for the last two months, it’s weird, and oddly decadent, to have my own room. I’ll never take the luxury of privacy for granted again.

I close my door behind me as I limp into the hallway.

Rhiannon’s door, across the small hall from mine, opens and I see Sawyer’s tall, lean frame come out. He runs his fingers through his hair, and when he sees me, his eyebrows rise and he freezes-his cheeks almost as red as his freckles.

“Good morning.” I grin.

“Violet.” He forces an awkward smile and walks off, headed toward the main hallway of the first-year dormitory.

A couple from Second Wing holds hands as they come out of the room next to Rhiannon’s, and I offer them a smile as I lean back against my door and wait, testing my ankle by rolling it. It’s sore, just like every time I sprain it, but the brace and my boot hold it in place well enough to keep my weight on it. If I were anywhere else, I would call for crutches, but that would just put another target on my back, and according to Xaden, I already have a big enough one as it is.

Rhiannon walks out of her room and smiles as soon as she sees me. “No more breakfast duty?”

“I was told last night that all the less desirable duties were being handed off to the unbonded so our energy can be redirected for flight lessons.” Which means I’ll have to find another way to weaken my opponents before challenges. Xaden’s right. I can’t always count on taking every enemy down with poison, but I’m not going to ignore the only advantage I have here, either.

“One more reason for the unbonded to hate us,” Rhiannon mutters.

“So, Sawyer, huh, Rhi?” We start down our hallway, passing a few other rooms before meeting up with the main corridor that leads to the rotunda. Have to say, the first-year rooms aren’t as spacious as the second-years’, but at least we both got ones with windows.

A grin curves her lips. “I felt like celebrating.” She darts a quick side-eye at me. “And why have I not heard of you celebrating?”

We melt into the crowd moving toward the gathering hall. “Haven’t found anyone I want to celebrate with.”

“Really? Because I heard that you and a certain squad leader had a moment last night.”

My gaze whips toward hers, and I nearly stumble over my feet.

“Come on, Vi. The entire quadrant was out there, and you don’t think someone saw you?” She rolls her eyes. “You’re not going to get a lecture from me. Who gives a shit if it’s frowned upon to be in a relationship with a superior officer? There’s no regulation, and it’s not like any of us is guaranteed to live through the day.”

“Solid points,” I admit. “But it’s…” I shake my head, searching for the right words. “It’s not like that with us. I’d always hoped it would be, but when he kissed me-there was nothing there. Like. Nothing.” It’s impossible to keep the disappointment out of my voice.

“Well, that’s shitty to hear.” She hooks her arm through mine. “I’m sorry.”

“Me too.” I sigh.

A door opens farther down the hall, and Liam Mairi walks out with his arm wrapped around the waist of another first-year who bonded a Brown Clubtail. Looks like everyone was celebrating last night except me.

“Good morning, ladies.” Ridoc forces his way through the crowd and slings an arm around each of our shoulders as we enter the rotunda. “Or should I say, riders?”

“I like the sound of riders,” Rhiannon replies, shooting a smile in his direction.

“It has a certain ring to it,” Ridoc agrees.

“It’s definitely better than dead. Where’s your relic?” I ask Ridoc as we pass through the columns of carved dragons and take the steps into commons.

“Right here.” His arm falls off my shoulders, and he shoves the sleeve of his tunic up to reveal the brown mark of a dragon silhouette on his upper arm. “You?”

“Can’t see it. It’s on my back.”

“That will keep you safer if you’re ever separated from that massive dragon of yours.” His eyes dance. “I swear, I thought I was going to shit myself when I saw him on the field. What about yours, Rhi?” “Somewhere you’ll never see,” she responds.

“You wound me.” He slaps his hand over his heart.

“I highly doubt that,” she retorts, but there’s a smile on her face. We move through commons and into the gathering hall, then make our way through the line for breakfast.

It’s odd to be on this side of it, and I startle at the sight of the guy behind the counter.

It’s Oren.

He glares at me with a hatred that trickles like ice down my spine. I skip his station, opting for fresh fruit that I know can’t be tampered with, just in case he decides to take my approach to conflict and poison me.

“Asshole,” Ridoc mutters behind me. “I still can’t believe they tried to kill you.”

“I can.” I shrug, taking my chances with a mug of apple juice. “I’m the weakest link, right? Unfortunately for me, that means people are bound to try and take me out for the good of the wing.” We head toward the Fourth Wing section and find a table with three extra seats.

“Mind if we-” Ridoc starts.

“Absolutely! It’s yours!” A couple of guys from Tail Section scurry off the bench.

“Sorry, Sorrengail!” the other says over his shoulder as they find another table, leaving this one empty.

What the hell?

“Well, that was really fucking weird.” Rhiannon rounds the other side of the table, and I follow, putting our backs to the wall as we step over the bench and sit, setting our trays in front of us.

I’m half tempted to give my underarms a whiff to see if I smell.

“Even weirder?” Ridoc remarks, gesturing across the hall toward First Wing.

Following his line of sight, my eyebrows lift. Jack Barlowe is being squeezed out of his table. He’s forced to stand as others take his seat.

“What the hell is going on?” Rhiannon bites into a pear and chews.

Jack moves to another table-whose occupants won’t make room for him -and then finds a place two tables down.

“How the mighty have fallen,” Ridoc notes, watching the same show I am, but there’s no satisfaction in watching Jack struggle. Feral dogs bite harder when they’re cornered.

“Hey, Sorrengail,” the stocky girl from First Wing I beat in my second challenge says with a tight smile as she walks past our table.

“Hi.” I wave awkwardly as she walks away, then turn to whisper to Ridoc and Rhiannon. “She hasn’t spoken to me since I took one of her daggers in that challenge.”

“It’s because you bonded Tairn.” Imogen blows her pink hair out of her face and throws her leg over the bench across from us to sit, pushing up the sleeves of her tunic and revealing her rebellion relic. “The morning after Threshing is always a clusterfuck. Power balance shifts, and you, little

Sorrengail, are now about to be the most powerful rider in the quadrant. Anyone with common sense is going to be scared of you.”

I blink, my pulse elevating. Is that what’s going on? I look around the hall and take note. Social groups have split up, and some of the cadets I would have considered threats are no longer sitting where they usually do.

“Which is why you’re now sitting with us?” Rhiannon arches a brow at the second-year. “Because I can count on one hand the number of nice words you’ve said to any of us.” She holds up a fist with zero fingers raised.

Quinn-the tall second-year in our squad who hasn’t bothered to so much as look our way since Parapet-takes a seat next to Imogen, and Sawyer arrives, sitting on Rhiannon’s other side. Quinn tucks her blond curls behind her ears and brushes her bangs out of her eyes, her round cheeks rising as she smiles at something Imogen says. Have to admit, the hooped piercings that line the shells of both her ears are pretty awesome, and among her half dozen patches, it’s the dark-green one-the same color as her eyes-with two silhouettes that’s most intriguing. I should have studied up on what all the patches mean, but according to what I’ve heard, they change every year.

I’m personally a fan of the first ones we’ve been given. I had to sew the flame-shaped patch with the emblem for Fourth Wing and the centered, reddish number two with great care, being sure to only stitch the fabric of my corseted armor, since it’s not like any needle is going to penetrate the scales.

My favorite patch, though, is the one beside the Flame Section one. We’re the squad to have the most surviving members since Parapet, this year’s Iron Squad.

“You weren’t interesting enough to sit with before,” Imogen responds, then bites into a muffin.

“I usually sit with my girlfriend in Claw Section. Besides, no use getting to know you when most of you die,” Quinn adds, tucking her curls away

again, just to have them spring forward. “No offense.” “None taken?” I start on my apple.

I nearly spit it out when Heaton and Emery, the only third-years in our squad, flank Imogen and Quinn on the bench across from us.

The only people we’re missing are Dain and Cianna, who are eating with leadership as usual.

“I thought Seifert would bond,” Heaton says to Emery across the table, as though we’ve caught them mid-discussion. The normally red flames in their hair are green today. “Other than losing to Sorrengail, he nailed every challenge.”

“He tried to kill Andarna.” Shit. Maybe I should have kept that to myself.

Every head at the table turns toward me.

“My guess would be that Tairn told the others.” I shrug.

“But Barlowe bonded?” Ridoc questions. “Though from what I’ve heard, his Orange Scorpiontail is on the smaller side.”

“She is,” Quinn confirms. “Which is why he’s struggling this morning.”

“Don’t worry-I’m sure he’ll make up for his lack of social standing in other ways,” Rhiannon mutters, her gaze narrowing on my tray. “You have to have some protein, Vi. You can’t just survive on fruit.”

“It’s the only food I can be sure isn’t tampered with, especially with Oren behind the counter.” I busy myself with peeling an orange.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Imogen scrapes three pieces of sausage onto my plate. “She’s right. You’re going to need all your strength to ride, especially with a dragon as big as Tairn.”

I stare at the sausage. Imogen hates me just as much as Oren does. Hell, she’s the one who broke my arm and ripped out my shoulder on assessment day.

“You can trust her,” Tairn says, and I startle, dropping the orange.

“She hates me.”

“Stop arguing with me and eat something.” There’s zero room for debate in his tone.

My gaze rises to meet Imogen’s, and she tilts her head, staring back in challenge.

I use my fork to cut the link, then pop it into my mouth and chew, focusing on the conversation at the table again.

“What’s your signet?” Rhiannon asks Emery.

Air rushes down the table, rattling the glasses. Air manipulation. Got it. “That’s epic.” Ridoc’s eyes widen. “How much air can you move?” “None of your business.” He barely spares him a glance.

“Sorrengail, after class is out today, you’re mine,” Imogen says.

I swallow my current bite. “I’m sorry?”

Her pale green eyes lock on mine. “Meet me in the sparring gym.” “I’m already working with her on sparring-” Rhiannon starts.

“Good. We can’t afford her to lose any challenges,” Imogen retorts. “But I’m going to help you with weights. We need to strengthen the muscles around your joints before challenges resume. That’s the only way you’ll survive.”

The hairs rise on the back of my neck. “And since when do you care about my survival?” This isn’t a squad thing. It can’t be. Not when she didn’t give a shit before.

“Since now,” she says, gripping her fork in her fist, but it’s the lightningfast glance toward the dais at the end of the hall that gives her away. Her concern isn’t coming from the goodness of her heart. Something tells me it’s an order. “Squads are about to be condensed at morning formation. We’ll be down to two in every section,” she continues. “Aetos kept the highest number of his first-years alive-hence the patch-so he’ll be allowed to retain his squad, but we’ll probably gain a few when they strip the squads from those who weren’t as successful.”

As discreetly as I can, I look to my right, past the other Fourth Wing tables and to the dais where Xaden sits with his executive officer and the section leaders, including Garrick, whose shoulders look like they should take up at least two seats. It’s Garrick who looks my way first, his forehead lining with… What is that? Worry? Then he looks away.

The only reason he’d be remotely worried-he knows. He knows my fate is tethered to Xaden’s.

My gaze snaps to Xaden, and my chest tightens. So. Freaking. Beautiful. Apparently my body doesn’t care that he’s as dangerous as they come in the quadrant, because heat rushes through my veins, flushing my skin.

He’s using a dagger to peel an apple, removing the rind in one long curl, and the blade continues its path as his eyes lift, locking with mine.

My whole head tingles.

Gods, is there any part of my body that doesn’t physically react to the sight of him?

He glances toward Imogen and back to me, and that’s all it takes for me to know for certain. He’s ordered her to help train me. Xaden Riorson is now in the business of keeping his mortal enemy alive.

A few hours later, after the squads are rearranged and the death roll is read, all the first-year riders in Fourth Wing stand in our newly issued flight leathers, waiting in front of our dragons on the flight field. The uniform is thicker than our usual one, with a full jacket I’ve buttoned over my dragonscale armor.

And unlike our regular uniforms, whatever we choose them to be, flight leathers bear no insignia besides our rank at our shoulder and any leadership designation. No names. No patches. Nothing that could give us away if we’re separated from our dragons behind enemy lines. Just a lot of sheaths for weapons.

I try not to think about possibly fighting in the war effort one day and focus on the organized chaos evolving on the flight field this morning. I can’t miss the way the other cadets look at Tairn or the wide berth the other dragons give him. Honestly, if I had those teeth bared at me, I’d back away, too.

“No you wouldn’t, because you didn’t. You stayed and defended Andarna.” His voice fills my head, and I can tell from his tone there are places he’d rather be.

“Only because there was a lot going on at the moment,” I respond.

“Andarna isn’t coming this morning?”

“She has no need for flight lessons when she can’t bear you.”

“Good point.” Though it would have been nice to see her. She’s quieter in my head, too, not as meddlesome as Tairn.

“I heard that. Now pay attention.”

I roll my eyes but focus on what Kaori is saying from the center of the field. His hand is up, using common lesser magic to project his voice so we can all hear.

God help us when Ridoc figures out how to do that. I bite back a smile, knowing he’ll find some way to annoy the shit out of every rider in the quadrant, not just his squad.

“…and at only ninety-two riders, you are our smallest class to date.”

My shoulders dip. “I thought a hundred and one were willing to bond, plus you?”

“Willing doesn’t mean they found worthy riders,” Tairn answers.

“And yet two of you chose me?” With forty-one unbonded? That’s quite the insult.

“You’re worthy. At least I think you are, but you apparently don’t pay attention in class.” He chuffs and a warm puff of steam blasts the back of my neck.

“There are forty-one unbonded riders who would kill to be standing where you are,” Kaori continues. “And your dragons know that your bond is at its weakest point right now, so if you fall, if you fail, there’s a good chance your dragon might let you if it thinks the unbonded will be a better choice.”

“Comforting,” I mutter.

Tairn makes a noise that reminds me of a scoff.

“Now, we’re going to mount, then follow a series of specific maneuvers your dragons already know. Your orders are simple today. Stay in your seat,” Kaori finishes. Then he turns and breaks into a sprint, racing the dozen feet toward his dragon’s foreleg and making the vertical climb to mount.

Just like the last obstacle on the Gauntlet.

I swallow, wishing I hadn’t eaten so much for breakfast, and turn to face

Tairn. To my left and right, other riders are doing the same mounting maneuver. There’s no way I can pull that off normally, let alone with my ankle still healing.

Tairn dips his shoulder and makes his leg into a ramp for me.

Defeat just about swallows me whole. I’ve bonded the biggest-and certainly grumpiest-dragon in the quadrant, and yet he has to make accommodations for me.

“They’re accommodations for me. I’ve seen your memories. I’m not about to have you sticking daggers into my leg to climb up. Now let’s go.”

I snort but make the ascent, shaking my head as I navigate his spikes to find the seat. My thighs ache from yesterday, and I wince as I get into position, gripping the pommel of scales.

Kaori’s dragon launches into the sky.

“Hold tight.”

I feel the same bands of energy clamp around my legs, and Tairn crouches a millisecond before he hurls us skyward.

The wind tears at my eyes as my stomach falls away, and I risk holding on with one hand to lower my flight goggles. Immediate relief.

“We had to go second?” I ask Tairn as we fly out of the canyon and higher into the mountain range. I get it now, why I didn’t see the dragons training often even though I’ve basically grown up at Basgiath. The only people around us are other riders. “Everyone is going to see when I slide right off.”

“I only agreed to follow Smachd because his rider is your instructor.”

“So you’re an in-front kind of guy. Good to know. Remind me to spend some time at temple so I can make multiple appeals to Dunne.” I keep my focus on Kaori, watching for when the maneuvers will start.

“The goddess of strength and war?” Tairn clearly scoffs this time.

“What, dragons don’t think we need the gods on our side?” Shit, it’s cold up here. My gloved hands tighten on the pommel.

“Dragons pay no heed to your puny gods.”

Kaori banks right, and Tairn follows suit, leading us into a steep dive down the face of one of the peaks. I clench with my legs, but I know it’s Tairn keeping me in the seat.

He holds me there through another climb and even a near-spiral of a turn, and I can’t help but notice that he’s taking everything Kaori is doing and making it harder.

“You can’t hold me here the entire time, you know.”

“Watch me. Unless you’d rather be scraped off the glacier below like Gleann’s rider back there?”

I whip my head around to look, but all I see is Tairn’s tail swinging, his massive spikes blocking the view.

“Don’t look.”

“We already lost a rider?” My throat knots.

“Gleann chose poorly. He never bonds strongly anyway.” Oh. My. God.

“If you keep holding me like this, your energy will go into keeping me on instead of channeling when we need power for battle,” I argue.

“It’s a minuscule amount of my power.”

How the hell am I supposed to be a rider if I can’t stay on my damn dragon by myself?

“Have it your way.”

The bands fall away.

“Thank yoooooh shit!” He banks left and my thighs slip. My hands slide. I skid right off his side, my fingers fumbling for purchase and finding none.

Rushing air fills my ears as I plummet toward the glacier, raw fear gripping my heart and squeezing like a vise. The shape of a body below grows bigger and bigger.

I’m yanked upward as Tairn’s claws catch me, harnessing me just like he did during Threshing. He climbs high, then tosses me again, but at least I’m prepared for impact this time as his back rises to meet my falling bottom.

There’s a disgusted roar of something I don’t understand in my head.

“What the hell does that mean?” I scramble for the seat and get myself into position as he flies level.

“The closest translation for humans is probably ‘for fuck’s sake.’ Now. Are you going to stay in your seat this time?” He dips back into formation, and I manage to stay on.

“I have to be able to do this by myself. We both need me to do this,” I argue.

“Stubborn silver human,” Tairn mutters, following Kaori into a dive.

I fall again.

And again.

And again.

Later that evening, after dinner, I make my way to the sparring gym. Everything hurts from how many times I slid off Tairn’s back, and I’m pretty sure there are bruises under my arms from him catching me.

I’m through the rotunda and crossing into the academic wing when I hear

Dain calling my name, jogging to catch up with me.

I wait for that familiar swell of happiness that we might have a minute alone, but it doesn’t come. Instead, there’s a sea of awkwardness that I don’t know how to navigate.

What the hell is wrong with me? Dain is gorgeous and kind and a really, really good man. He’s honorable and my very best friend. So why don’t we have any chemistry?

“Rhiannon said you were headed this way,” he says once he reaches my side, concern knitting his brow.

“I’m going to work out.” I force a smile as we turn the corner where the gym is just ahead of us, the large arched doors open.

“You didn’t get enough during flight today?” He touches my shoulder and stops, so I do, too, pivoting to face him in the empty hallway.

“I definitely fell enough today.” I check the bandage on my arm. At least I didn’t tear open my stitches.

His jaw works. “I honestly thought you’d be all right once Tairn chose you.”

“And I will be,” I assure him, my voice rising. “I just need to strengthen my muscles to stay seated through maneuvers, and Tairn insists on making everything harder than what Kaori is doing.”

“For your own good.”

“Are you always around?” I snap back mentally.

“Yes. Get used to it.”

I fight the urge to growl at the intrusive, overbearing-

“Still here.”

“Violet?” Dain asks.

“Sorry, I’m not used to Tairn butting into my thoughts.”

“It’s a good sign. Means your bond is strengthening. And honestly, I’m not sure why he’s giving you a hard time with maneuvers. It’s not like there’s any aerial threat out there besides gryphons, and we all know one breath of fire means those birds are goners. Tell him to ease up on you.” “Tell him to mind his own business.”

“I’ll…uh…do that.” I bite back a laugh. “Take it easy on him. He’s my best friend.”

Tairn snorts.

A sigh rips from Dain’s lips, and he palms my face gently, his gaze dropping to my lips for a heartbeat before he steps back. “Look. About last night…”

“The part where you told me Xaden would get me killed if I bonded Tairn? Or the part where you kissed me?” I fold my arms across my chest, careful with my right.

“The kiss,” he admits, his voice lowering. “It…it never should have happened.”

Relief courses through me. “Right?” I crack a smile. Thank gods he feels the same way. “And it doesn’t mean we’re not friends.”

“The best of friends,” he agrees, but his eyes are heavy with a sadness I don’t understand. “And it’s not that I don’t want you-”

“What?” My eyebrows rise. “What are you saying?” Are our wires somehow crossed?

“I’m saying the same thing you are.” Two lines appear between his brows. “It’s incredibly frowned upon to have a physical relationship with anyone in our chain of command.”

“Oh.” Yeah, that definitely isn’t what I’m saying.

“And you know how hard I’ve worked to be a squad leader. I’m determined to be a wingleader next year, and as much as you mean to me…” He shakes his head.

Oh. This is all about politics for him. “Right.” I nod slowly. “I get it.” It shouldn’t matter that the only reason he isn’t pursuing me is rank, and it honestly doesn’t. But it definitely makes me lose a little respect for him, which is something I never expected.

“And maybe next year, if you’re in a different wing, or even after graduation,” he starts, hope lighting up his eyes.

“Sorrengail, let’s go. I am not sitting around all night,” Imogen calls from the doorway, her arms folded across her chest. “If our squad leader is done with you, that is.”

Dain rears back, glancing between Imogen and me. “She’s training you?” “She offered.” I shrug.

“Squad loyalty and all that. Blah, blah.” Imogen offers a smile that doesn’t reach her eyes. “Don’t worry. I’ll take good care of her. Bye, Aetos.”

I toss Dain a quick smile and walk away, refusing to look over my shoulder to see if he’s still there. She quickly follows after me, then leads me toward the corner on the left where glass meets stone and pushes open a door I’ve never taken the time to notice before.

The room is lit with mage lights and full of a variety of wooden machinery with racks and ropes and pulleys, benches with levers, and bars attached to the wall.

And on the other side, doing push-ups on a mat, is one of the first-year Tyrs I saw in the woods that night, Garrick crouched down next to her, urging her on.

“Don’t worry, Sorrengail,” Imogen coos in a saccharine-sweet tone. “There’s only three of us in here. You’re perfectly safe.”

Garrick turns, his gaze meeting mine even as he continues calling off reps for the other first-year. He nods once, then goes back to his task.

“You’re the only one I worry about,” I say as she leads me to a machine with a polished wooden seat and two cushioned squares that meet in front of it at knee height.

She laughs, and I think it’s the first genuine sound I’ve heard her make. “Fair point. Since we can’t work that ankle of yours or your arms until they heal, we’re going to start with the most important muscles you have for staying on a dragon.” She glances down my body and sighs with obvious distaste. “Those weak-ass inner thighs.”

“You’re only doing this because Xaden is making you, right?” I ask, parking my ass in the seat of the machine with the cushioned wood between my knees as she makes adjustments.

Her eyes meet mine and narrow. “Rule number one. He’s Riorson to you, first-year, and you never get to question me about him. Ever.”

“That’s two rules.” I’m starting to think my first guess about them is right. With that kind of fierce loyalty, they have to be lovers.

I am not jealous. Nope. That pit of ugliness spreading inside my chest isn’t jealousy. It can’t be.

She scoffs and pulls a lever that puts immediate tension on the wood, and they rush outward, separating my thighs. “Now get to work. Push them back together. Thirty reps.”

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