I will not die today.
The words become my mantra, repeating in my head as Rhiannon gives her name to the rider keeping tally at the opening to the parapet. The hatred in Xaden’s stare burns the side of my face like a palpable flame, and even the rain pelting my skin with each gust of wind doesn’t ease the heat-or the shiver of dread that jolts down my spine.
Dylan is dead. He’s just a name, another soon-to-be stone in the endless graveyards that line the roads to Basgiath, another warning to the ambitious candidates who would rather chance their lives with the riders than choose the security of any other quadrant. I get it now-why Mira warned me not to make friends.
Rhiannon grips both sides of the opening in the turret, then looks over her shoulder at me. “I’ll wait for you on the other side,” she shouts over the storm. The fear in her eyes mirrors my own.
“I’ll see you on the other side.” I nod and even manage a grimace of a smile.
She steps out onto the parapet and begins walking, and even though I’m sure his hands are full today, I send up a silent prayer to Zihnal, the god of luck.
“Name?” the rider at the edge asks as his partner holds a cloak over the scroll in a pointless attempt to keep the paper dry.
“Violet Sorrengail,” I answer as thunder cracks above me, the sound oddly comforting. I’ve always loved the nights where storms beat against the fortress window, both illuminating and throwing shadows over the books I curled up with, though this downpour might just cost me my life. With a quick glance, I see Dylan’s and Rhiannon’s names already blurring at the end where water has met ink. It’s the last time Dylan’s name will be written anywhere but his stone. There will be another roll at the end of the parapet so the scribes have their beloved statistics for casualties. In another life, it would be me reading and recording the data for historical analysis.
“Sorrengail?” The rider looks up, his eyebrows rising in surprise. “As in General Sorrengail?”
“The same.” Damn, that’s already getting old, and I know it’s only going to get worse. There’s no avoiding the comparison to my mother, not when she’s the commander here. Even worse, they probably think I’m a naturally gifted rider like Mira or a brilliant strategist like Brennan was. Or they’ll take one look at me, realize I’m nothing like the three of them, and declare open season.
I place my hands on either side of the turret and drag my fingertips across the stone. It’s still warm from the morning sun but rapidly cooling from the rain, slick but not slippery from moss growth or anything.
Ahead of me, Rhiannon is making her way across, her hands out for balance. She’s probably a fourth of the way, her figure becoming blurrier the farther she walks into the rain.
“I thought she only had one daughter?” the other rider asks, angling the cloak as another gust of wind blows into us. If it’s this windy here, my bottom half sheltered by the turret, then I’m about to be in for a world of hurt on the parapet.
“I get that a lot.” In through my nose, out through my mouth, I force my breathing to calm, my heart rate to slow from its gallop. If I panic, I’ll die. If I slip, I’ll die. If I… Oh, fuck it. There’s nothing more I can do to prepare for this.
I take the lone step up onto the parapet and grip the stone wall as another gust hits, knocking me sideways against the opening in the turret.
“And you think you’ll be able to ride?” the asshole candidate behind me mocks. “Some Sorrengail, with that kind of balance. I pity whatever wing you end up in.”
I regain my balance and yank the straps of my pack tighter.
“Name?” the rider asks again, but I know he’s not talking to me.
“Jack Barlowe,” the one behind me answers. “Remember the name. I’m going to be a wingleader one day.” Even his voice reeks of arrogance.
“You’d better get going, Sorrengail,” Xaden’s deep voice orders.
I look over my shoulder and see him pinning me with a glare.
“Unless you need a little motivation?” Jack lunges forward, his hands raised. Holy shit, he’s going to shove me off.
Fear shoots through my veins, and I move, leaving the safety of the turret as I bolt onto the parapet. There’s no going back now.
My heart beats so hard that I hear it in my ears like a drum.
Keep your eyes on the stones ahead of you and don’t look down. Mira’s advice echoes in my head, but it’s hard to heed it when every step could be my last. I throw my arms out for balance, then take the measured mini strides I practiced with Major Gillstead in the courtyard. But with the wind, the rain, and the two-hundred-foot drop, this is nothing like practice. The stones beneath my feet are uneven in places, held together by mortar in the joints that make it easy to trip, and I concentrate on the path ahead of me to keep my eyes off my boots. My muscles are tight as I lock my center of gravity, keeping my posture upright.
My head swims as my pulse skyrockets.
Calm. I have to stay calm.
I can’t carry a tune, or even decently hum, so singing for a distraction is out, but I am a scholar. There’s nowhere as calming as the archives, so that’s what I think of. Facts. Logic. History.
Your mind already knows the answer, so just calm down and let it remember. That’s what Dad always told me. I need something to keep the logical side of my brain from turning around and walking straight back to the turret.
“The Continent is home to two kingdoms-and we’ve been at war for four hundred years,” I recite, using the basic, simple data that has been drilled into me for easy recall in preparation for the scribe’s test. Step after step, I make my way across the parapet. “Navarre, my home, is the larger kingdom, with six unique provinces. Tyrrendor, our southernmost and largest province, shares its border with the province of Krovla within the Poromiel kingdom.” Each word calms my breathing and steadies my heart rate, lessening the dizziness.
“To our east lie the remaining two Poromiel provinces of Braevick and
Cygnisen, with the Esben Mountains providing a natural border.” I pass the painted line that marks halfway. I’m over the highest point now, but I can’t think about that. Don’t look down. “Beyond Krovla, beyond our enemy, lie the distant Barrens, a desert-“
Thunder cracks, the wind slams into me, and I flail my arms. “Shit!”
My body sways left with the gale, and I drop to the parapet, holding on to the edges and crouching so I don’t lose my footing, making myself as small as possible as the wind howls over and around me. Stomach churning, I feel my lungs threaten to hyperventilate as panic seizes me at knifepoint.
“Within Navarre, Tyrrendor was the last of the bordering provinces to join the alliance and swear fealty to King Reginald,” I shout into the howling wind, forcing my mind to keep moving against the very real threat of paralyzing anxiety. “It was also the only province to attempt secession six hundred and twenty-seven years later, which would have eventually left our kingdom defenseless had they been successful.”
Rhiannon is still ahead of me, at what I think is the three-quarters point. Good. She deserves to make it.
“The kingdom of Poromiel mainly consists of arable plains and marshlands and is known for exceptional textiles, endless fields of grain, and unique crystalline gems capable of amplifying minor magics.” I spare only a quick glance at the dark clouds above me before inching forward, one foot carefully placed in front of the other. “In contrast, Navarre’s mountainous regions offer an abundance in ore, hardy timber from our eastern provinces, and limitless deer and elk.”
My next step knocks a couple of pieces of mortar loose, and I pause as my arms wobble until I regain my balance. I swallow and test my weight before moving forward again.
“The Trade Agreement of Resson, signed more than two hundred years ago, ensures the exchange of meat and lumber from Navarre for the cloth and agriculture within Poromiel four times a year at the Athebyne outpost on the border of Krovla and Tyrrendor.”
I can see the Riders Quadrant from here. The enormous stone footings of the citadel rise up the mountain to the base of the structure, where I know this path ends if I can just get there. Scraping the rain from my face with the leather on my shoulder, I glance back to see where Jack is.
He’s stalled at just after the quarter mark, his stocky form standing still… like he’s waiting for something. His hands are at his sides. The wind seems to have no effect on his balance, lucky bastard. I swear he’s grinning across the distance, but it could just be the rain in my eyes.
I can’t stay here. Living to see the sunrise means I have to keep moving. Fear can’t rule my body. Squeezing the muscles of my legs together for balance, I slowly let go of the stone beneath me and stand.
Arms out. Walk.
I need to get as far as possible before the next gust of wind.
I look back over my shoulder to see where Jack is, and my blood chills to ice.
He’s turned his back on me and is facing the next candidate, who wobbles dangerously as he approaches. Jack grabs the gangly boy by the straps of his overpacked rucksack, and I watch, shock locking my muscles, as Jack throws the scrawny candidate from the parapet like a sack of grain.
A scream reaches my ears for an instant before fading as he falls out of sight.
“You’re next, Sorrengail!” Jack bellows, and I jerk my gaze from the ravine to see him pointing at me, a sinister smile curving his mouth. Then he comes for me, his strides eating up the distance between us with horrifying speed.
“Tyrrendor encompasses the southwest of the Continent,” I recite, my steps even but panicked on the slick, narrow path, my left foot slipping a little at the beginning of each step. “Made up of hostile, mountainous terrain and bordered by the Emerald Sea to the west and the Arctile Ocean to the south, Tyrrendor is nearly impenetrable. Though separated geographically by the Cliffs of Dralor, a natural protective barrier-“
Another gust slams into me, and my foot slips off the parapet. My heart lurches. The parapet rushes up to meet me as I stumble and fall. My knee slams into the stone, and I yelp at the sharp bite of pain. My hands scramble for purchase as my left leg dangles off the edge of this bridge from hell, Jack not far behind now. Then I make the gut-twisting error of looking down.
Water runs off my nose and chin, splattering against the stone before falling to join the river gushing through the valley more than two hundred feet below. I swallow the growing knot in my throat and blink, fighting to steady my heart rate.
I will not die today.
Gripping the sides of the stone, I brace as much of my weight as I can trust on the slick stones to hold and swing my left leg up. The ball of my foot finds the walkway. From here, there aren’t enough facts in the world to steady my thoughts. I need to get my right foot under me, the one that has better traction, but one wrong move and I’ll find out just how cold that river is beneath me.
You’ll be dead on impact.
“I’m coming for you, Sorrengail!” I hear from behind me.
I shove off the stone and pray my boots find the pathway as I burst to my feet. If I fall, fine, that would be my error. But I’m not about to let this asshole murder me. Best to get to the other side, where the rest of the murderers wait. Not that everyone in the quadrant is going to try to kill me, just the cadets who think I’ll be a liability to the wing. There’s a reason strength is revered among riders. A squad, a section, a wing is only as effective as its weakest link, and if that link breaks, it puts everyone in danger.
Jack either thinks I’m that link or he’s an unstable asshole who just enjoys killing. Probably both. Either way, I need to move faster.
Throwing my arms out to the side, I focus on the end of the path, the courtyard of the citadel, where Rhiannon steps to safety, and I hustle despite the rain. I keep my body tight, my center locked, and for once am grateful I’m shorter than most.
“Will you scream the whole way down?” Jack mocks, still shouting, but his voice is closer. He’s gaining on me.
There’s no room for fear, so I block it out, envisioning shoving the emotion behind locked iron bars in my mind. I can see the end of the parapet now, the riders who wait at the entrance to the citadel.
“There’s no way someone who can’t even carry a full rucksack passed the entrance exam. You’re a mistake, Sorrengail,” Jack calls out, his voice clearer, but I don’t chance losing my speed to check how far he is behind me. “It’s really for the best that I take you out now, don’t you think? It’s so much more merciful than letting the dragons have at you. They’ll start to eat you leg by rickety leg while you’re still alive. Come on,” he cajoles. “It will be my pleasure to help you out.”
“The fuck you will,” I mutter. There are only a dozen feet left to the outside of the citadel’s enormous walls. My left foot slips, and I wobble, but I only lose a heartbeat before I’m moving forward again. The fortress looms behind those thick battlements, carved into the mountain in an L-shaped formation of tall stone buildings, built to withstand fire, for obvious reasons. The walls that surround the citadel’s courtyard are ten feet thick and eight feet tall, with one opening-and I’m just. About. There.
I bite back a sob of relief as stone rises up on both sides of me.
“You think you’ll be safe in there?” Jack’s voice is harsh…and close.
Secure on both sides by the walls, I run the last ten feet, my heart pounding as adrenaline pushes my body to its max, and his footsteps charge behind me. He lunges for my pack and misses, his hand hitting my hip as we reach the edge. I hurtle forward, jumping the twelve inches off the elevated parapet down to the courtyard, where two riders wait.
Jack roars in frustration, and the sound grips my heaving chest like a vise.
Spinning, I rip a dagger from its sheath at my ribs just as Jack skids to a halt above me on the parapet, his breath choppy and his face ruddy. Murder is etched in his narrowed, glacial blue eyes as he glares down at me…and where the tip of my dagger now indents the fabric of his breeches-against his balls.
“I think. I’ll be safe. For right. Now,” I manage between ragged breaths, my muscles trembling but my hand more than steady.
“Will you?” Jack vibrates with rage, his thick blond brows slashing down over arctic blue eyes, every line of his monstrous frame leaning my way. But he doesn’t take another step.
“It is unlawful for a rider to cause another harm. While in a quadrant formation or in the supervisory. Presence of a superior-ranking cadet,” I recite from the Codex, my heartbeat still in my throat. “As it will diminish the efficacy of the wing. And given the crowd behind us, I think it’s clear to argue that it’s a formation. Article Three, Section-“
“I don’t give a shit!” He moves, but I hold my ground, and my dagger slices through the first layer of his breeches.
“I suggest you reconsider.” I adjust my stance just in case he doesn’t. “I might slip.”
“Name?” the rider next to me drawls, as if we’re the least interesting thing she’s seen today. I glance in her direction for a millisecond. She pushes the chin-length, fire-red strands of her hair behind her ear with one hand and holds the roll with the other, watching the scene play out. The three silver four-point stars embroidered on the shoulder of her cloak tell me she’s a third-year. “You’re pretty small for a rider, but it looks like you made it.”
“Violet Sorrengail,” I answer, but a hundred percent of my focus is on Jack again. The rain drips off the lowered ridge of his brow. “And before you ask, yes, I’m that Sorrengail.”
“Not surprised, with that maneuver,” the woman says, holding a pen like Mom uses over the roll.
It might be the nicest compliment I’ve ever been given.
“And what’s your name?” she asks again. Pretty sure she’s asking Jack, but I’m too busy studying my opponent to glance her way.
“Jack. Barlowe.” There’s no sinister little smile on his lips or playful taunts about how he’ll enjoy killing me now. There’s nothing but pure malice in his features, promising retribution.
A chill of apprehension lifts the hairs on my neck.
“Well, Jack,” the male rider on my right says slowly, scratching the trim lines of his dark goatee. He’s not wearing a cloak, and the rain soaks into the bevy of patches stitched into a worn leather jacket. “Cadet Sorrengail has you by the actual balls here, in more ways than one. She’s right. Regs state that there’s nothing but respect among riders at formation. You want to kill her, you’ll have to do it in the sparring ring or on your own time. That is, if she decides to let you off the parapet. Because technically, you’re not on the grounds yet, so you are not a cadet. She is.”
“And if I decide to snap her neck the second I step down?” Jack growls, and the look in his eyes says he’ll do it.
“Then you get to meet the dragons early,” the redhead answers, her tone bland. “We don’t wait for trials around here. We just execute.”
“What’s it going to be, Sorrengail?” the male rider asks. “You going to have Jack here start as a eunuch?”
Shit. What is it going to be? I can’t kill him, not at this angle, and slicing off his balls is only going to make him hate me more, if possible.
“Are you going to follow the rules?” I ask Jack. My head is buzzing, and my arm feels so damned heavy, but I keep my knife on target.
“Guess I don’t have a choice.” A corner of his mouth tilts into a sneer, and his posture relaxes as he raises his hands, palms out.
I lower my dagger but keep it palmed and ready as I move sideways, toward the redhead keeping roll.
Jack steps down into the courtyard, his shoulder knocking mine as he walks by, pausing to lean in close. “You’re dead, Sorrengail, and I’m going to be the one to kill you.”