Chapter no 20

Fourth Wing (The Empyrean Book 1)

“Oren Seifert.” Captain Fitzgibbons finishes reading the death roll and closes the scroll as we stand in formation the next morning, our breath creating clouds in the chilled air. “We commend their souls to Malek.”

There’s no room for sorrow in my heart for six of the eight names, not when I’m shifting my weight to soothe the ache of black-and-blue along my ribs and ignoring the way other riders stare at the ring of bruises I wear around my throat.

The two others on today’s list are third-years from Second Wing, killed on a training operation near the Braevick border, according to breakfast gossip, and I can’t help but wonder if that’s where Xaden had been before coming to my rescue last night.

“I can’t believe they tried to kill you while you were sleeping.” Rhiannon’s still seething at breakfast after I told our table what happened.

Maybe Xaden is fighting to keep last night’s events a secret, to hide what a liability I really am to him, because no one else in leadership knows. He didn’t say a single word after I told him who unlocked the door, so I have no clue if he believes me or not.

“Even worse, I think I’m getting used to it.” Either I have kick-ass compartmentalization skills or I really am acclimating to always being a target.

Captain Fitzgibbons makes some minor announcements, and I tune him out as someone strides our way, cutting through the space between the Flame and Tail Sections of our wing.

Just like it always does, my stupid, hormone-driven heart stutters at the first sight of Xaden. Even the most effective poisons come in pretty packages, and Xaden’s exactly that-as beautiful as he is lethal. He looks deceptively calm as he approaches, but I can feel his tension as if it’s my own, like a panther prowling toward his prey. The wind ruffles his hair, and I sigh at the completely unfair advantage he has over every man in this courtyard. He doesn’t even have to try to look sexy…he just is.

Oh shit. This feeling right here-the way my breath catches and my entire body draws tight when he’s near-is why I haven’t taken anyone to bed or celebrated like the rest of my perfectly normal friends. This feeling is why I haven’t wanted anyone…else.

Because I want him.

There aren’t enough curse words in the world for this.

His gaze locks with mine just long enough to quicken my pulse before he addresses Dain, ignoring Fitzgibbons’s announcements behind him.

“There’s a change to your squad roll.”

“Wingleader?” Dain questions, his spine straightening. “We just absorbed four from the dissolution of the third squad.”

“Yes.” Xaden looks to the right, where Second Squad, Tail Section stands at attention. “Belden, we’re making a roll change.” “Yes, sir.” The squad leader nods once.

“Aetos, Vaughn Penley will be leaving your command, and you’ll be gaining Liam Mairi from Tail Section.”

Dain’s mouth snaps shut, and he nods.

We all watch as the two first-year riders exchange places. Penley’s only been with us since Threshing, so there’s no heartfelt goodbye from our original squad, but the other three grumble.

Liam nods at Xaden, and my stomach twists. I know exactly why he’s being put under Dain’s command. The guy is massive, as tall as Sawyer and as built as Dain, with light-blond hair, prominent nose, blue eyes, and the sprawling rebellion relic that begins at his wrist and disappears under the sleeve of his tunic gives his mission away.

“I do not need a bodyguard,” I snap at Xaden. Am I out of line speaking to a wingleader that way? Absolutely. Do I care? Not one bit.

He ignores me, facing Dain. “Liam is statistically the strongest first-year in the quadrant. He has the fastest time up the Gauntlet, hasn’t lost a single challenge, and is bonded to an exceptionally strong Red Daggertail. Any squad would be lucky to have him, and he’s all yours, Aetos. You can thank

me when you win the Squad Battle in the spring.”

Liam steps into formation behind me, taking Penley’s place.

“I. Do. Not. Need. A. Bodyguard,” I repeat, a little louder this time. I could give two fucks who hears me.

One of the first-years behind me gasps, mortified by my audacity, no doubt.

Imogen snorts. “Good luck with that approach.”

Xaden walks past Dain and stands directly in front of me, leaning into my space. “You do, though, as we both learned last night. And I can’t be everywhere you are. But Liam here”-he points back to the blond Tyr -“he’s a first-year, so he can be in every class, at every challenge, and I even had him assigned to library duty, so I hope you get used to him,


“You’re overstepping.” My nails bite into my palms.

“You haven’t begun to see overstepping,” he warns, his voice dropping low, sending a shiver down my spine. “Any threat against you is a threat against me, and as we’ve already established, I have more important things to do than sleep on your floor.”

Heat flushes up my neck and stains my cheeks. “He is not sleeping in my room.”

“Of course not.” He freaking smirks, and my traitorous stomach dips. “I had him moved into the one next to yours. Wouldn’t want to overstep.” He turns on his heel and walks away, headed back to his place at the front of our formation.

“Fucking mated dragons,” Dain seethes, keeping his eyes forward.

Fitzgibbons finishes his announcements and steps to the back of the dais, which would usually signal the end of formation, but Commandant Panchek takes the podium. He makes it a habit to avoid morning formation, which means something is up.

“What’s going on with Panchek?” Rhiannon asks at my side.

“Not sure.” I take a deep breath, wincing at the pain in my ribs.

“It has to be something big if he’s fumbling with a Codex up there,” Rhiannon says.

“Quiet,” Dain orders, glancing back over his shoulder at us for the first time this morning. He does a double-take, his eyes flaring wide as he catches sight of my neck. “Vi?”

He hasn’t spoken to me since our fight yesterday. Gods, how has it been less than twenty-four hours when I feel like a completely different person?

“I’m fine,” I assure him, but he’s still staring at my throat, locked in shock. “Squad Leader Aetos, people are staring.” We hold way more than our share of the attention as Commandant Panchek begins to speak at the podium, telling us that there’s another matter to handle this morning, but Dain won’t look away. “Dain!”

He blinks, jerking his gaze to mine, and the apology in those soft brown eyes clogs my throat. “Is that what Riorson meant by last night?” I nod.

“I didn’t know. Why didn’t you tell me?” Because you wouldn’t believe me, even if I did. “I’m fine,” I repeat, nodding toward the dais. “Later.” He turns, but the motion is reluctant.

“It has been brought to my attention as your commandant that a breach of the Codex has occurred,” Panchek calls out over the courtyard.

“As you know, breaches of our most sacred laws are not to be tolerated,” Panchek continues. “This matter will be addressed here and now. Will the accuser please step forward.”

“Someone’s in trouble,” Rhiannon whispers. “Think Ridoc finally got caught in Tyvon Varen’s bed?”

“That’s hardly against the Codex,” Ridoc murmurs from behind us.

“He’s the executive officer for Second Wing.” I send a pointed look over my shoulder.

“And?” Ridoc shrugs, grinning without a touch of remorse. “Fraternizing with command is frowned upon, not unlawful.”

I sigh, facing forward. “I miss sex.” I really do, and it’s not just the physical gratification, either. There’s a sense of connection in those moments that I crave, a momentary banishment of loneliness.

The first is something I’m sure Xaden would be more than capable of providing, if he ever thought of me that way, but the second? He’s the last person I should be craving, but lust and logic never seem to go hand in hand.

“If you’re looking for a little fun, I’m happy to oblige-” Ridoc starts, shoving his floppy brown hair off his forehead with a wink.

“I miss good sex,” I counter, smothering a smile as someone walks from the front of formation toward the dais, indistinguishable through the rows of the squads ahead of us. “Besides, apparently you’re spoken for.” Have to admit, it feels good to tease a friend about something so trivial. It’s a tiny slice of normalcy in an otherwise macabre environment.

“We’re not exclusive,” Ridoc counters. “It’s like Rhiannon and what’sher-name…”

“Tara,” Rhiannon offers.

“Will you all shut the hell up?” Dain barks in his superior-officer voice.

Our mouths snap shut.

Mine drops open again when I realize it’s Xaden climbing the steps to the dais. My stomach lurches as I suck in a tight breath. “This is about me,” I whisper.

Dain glances back at me, confusion furrowing his brow before whipping his attention toward the dais, where Xaden now stands at the podium, somehow managing to fill the entire stage with his presence.

From what I remember reading, his father had that same magnetism, the ability to hold and capture a crowd with nothing but his words…words that led to Brennan’s death.

“Early this morning,” he begins, his deep voice carrying over the formation, “a rider in my wing was brutally, illegally attacked in her sleep with the intent of murder by a group primarily composed of unbondeds.”

A collection of murmurs and gasps fills the air, and Dain’s shoulders stiffen.

“As we all know, this is a violation of Article Three, Section Two of the Dragon Rider’s Codex and, in addition to being dishonorable, is a capital offense.”

I feel the weight of a dozen glances, but it’s Xaden’s I feel most of all.

His hands clench the sides of the podium. “Having been alerted by my dragon, I interrupted the attack along with two other Fourth Wing riders.” He dips his chin toward our wing, and two riders-Garrick and Bodhi- break formation, then climb the steps to stand behind Xaden, their hands at their sides. “As it was a matter of life and death, I personally executed six of the would-be murderers, as witnessed by Flame Section Leader Garrick Tavis and Tail Section Executive Officer Bodhi Durran.”

“Both Tyrs. How convenient,” Nadine, one of our new additions to the squad, says from the row behind Ridoc and Liam.

I look back over my shoulder and pin her with a glare.

Liam keeps his eyes forward.

“But the attack was orchestrated by a rider who fled before I arrived,” Xaden continues, his voice rising. “A rider who had access to the map of where all first-years are assigned to sleep, and that rider must be brought to swift justice.”

Shit. This is about to get ugly.

“I call you to answer for your crime against Cadet Sorrengail.” Xaden’s focus shifts to the center of the formation. “Wingleader Amber Mavis.”

The quadrant draws a collective breath before an uproar rips through the crowd.

“What the hell?” Dain bites out.

My chest tightens. Gods, I hate it when Dain proves me right.

Rhiannon reaches for my hand, squeezing tight in support as every rider in the courtyard’s attention pivots between Xaden, Amber…and me.

“She’s a Tyr, too, Nadine,” Ridoc says over his shoulder. “Or are you only biased against marked ones?”

Amber’s family stayed loyal to Navarre, so she wasn’t forced to watch her parents executed and wasn’t marked by a rebellion relic.

“Amber would never.” Dain shakes his head. “A wingleader would never.” He turns completely to face me. “Get up there and tell everyone that he’s lying, Vi.”

“But he’s not,” I say as gently as I can.

“It’s impossible.” His cheeks flush a mottled shade of red.

“I was there, Dain.” The reality of his disbelief hurts so much more than I expected, like a blow to my already battered ribs.

“Wingleaders are beyond reproach-”

“Then why are you so quick to call our own wingleader a liar?” My brows rise in challenge, daring him to say what he’s so careful to keep quiet.

Behind him, Amber steps forward, separating herself from the formation. “I have committed no such crime!”

“See?” Dain swings his arm, pointing toward the redhead. “Put a stop to this right now, Violet.”

“She was with them in my room,” I say simply. Shouting won’t convince him. Nothing will.

“That’s impossible.” He lifts his hands, as though ready to cup my face.

“Let me see.”

The shock of what he intends to do has me stumbling backward. How have I forgotten that his signet allows him to see others’ memories?

But if I let him see my memory of Amber’s participation, it will also show him that I stopped time, and I can’t let that happen. I shake my head and take another step back.

“Give me the memory,” he orders.

Indignation lifts my chin. “Touch me without permission, and you’ll spend the rest of your life regretting it.” Surprise ripples over his features.

“Wingleaders.” Xaden projects his voice over the chaos. “We need a quorum.”

Both Nyra and Septon Izar-the wingleaders for First and Second Wing -climb the stairs to the dais, passing by Amber as she stands utterly exposed in the courtyard.

A familiar chaos fills the air, and we all look toward the ridgeline as six dragons curve along the mountain, flying straight for us. The biggest among them is Tairn.

In a matter of seconds, they reach the citadel and hover over the courtyard walls. Wind from the strong beats of their wings blasts through the courtyard. Then, one by one, they land on their perch, Tairn at the center of the grouping.

Every line of his frame exudes menace as his talons crush the masonry under his grip, and his narrowed, angry eyes focus on Amber.

Sgaeyl is perched to the right, taking her position behind Xaden. She’s just as terrifying as she was that first day, but back then I’d never imagined I’d bond a dragon even more frightening…to everyone but me. Nyra’s Red Scorpiontail looms behind her as well, and Septon’s Brown Daggertail mirrors the stance to the left. On the ends, puffing blasts of steam, are Commandant Panchek’s Green Clubtail and Amber’s Orange Daggertail.

“Shit’s about to get real,” Sawyer says, breaking formation to stand at my side, and I feel Ridoc at my back.

“You can stop this all right now, Violet. You have to,” Dain implores. “I don’t know what you saw last night, but it wasn’t Amber. She cares too much about the rules to break them.”

And she thinks I broke them by using my dagger on the last ascent of the Gauntlet.

“You’re using this to get your revenge on my family!” Amber shouts at

Xaden. “For not supporting your father’s rebellion!” That’s a low fucking blow.

Xaden doesn’t even acknowledge it as he turns to the other wingleaders.

He isn’t demanding proof like Dain. He believes me, and he’s ready to execute a wingleader on nothing more than my word. As surely as if they’re a physical structure, I feel my defenses crack on Xaden’s behalf.

“Can you see my memories?” I ask Tairn. “Share them?”

“Yes.” His head snakes left and right ever so slightly. “A memory has never been shared outside of a mating bond. It’s considered a violation.”

“Xaden’s up there fighting because I told him it was her. Help him.” And gods, I admire him for it. I take a deep breath. “Only what they need to see.”

Wanting and admiring? I’m so screwed.

Tairn chuffs and every dragon besides Sgaeyl stiffens on the wall, even Amber’s. The riders are quick to follow, silence filling the courtyard, and I know they know.

“That spineless wretch,” Rhiannon seethes, her hand squeezing mine even tighter.

Dain pales.

“Believe me now?” I hurl it like the accusation it is. “You’re supposed to be my oldest friend, Dain. My best friend. There’s a reason I didn’t tell you.”

He staggers backward.

“The wingleaders have formed a quorum and are in unanimous agreement,” Xaden announces, flanked by Nyra and Septon while the commandant hangs back. “We find you guilty, Amber Mavis.”

“No!” she shouts. “It is no crime to rid the quadrant of the weakest rider! I did it to protect the integrity of the wings!” She paces in panic, looking to everyone-anyone for help.

As a whole, the formation moves backward.

“And as is our law, your sentence will be carried out by fire,” Nyra states.

“No!” Amber looks to her dragon. “Claidh!”

Amber’s Orange Daggertail snarls at the other dragons and lifts a claw.

Tairn swivels his massive head toward Claidh, his roar shaking the ground beneath my feet. Then he snaps his teeth at the smaller orange, and she retreats, her head hanging as she grips the wall again.

The sight breaks my heart, not for Amber but for Claidh.

“Do you have to?” I ask Tairn.

“This is our way.”

“Please don’t,” I beg, forgetting to think the words. It’s one thing to punish Amber, but Claidh will suffer as well.

Maybe I could talk to Amber. Maybe we can still work through our issues. Maybe we can find common ground, turn our anger to friendship or at least casual indifference. I shake my head, my heart pounding in my throat. I did this. I was so focused on whether anyone would believe me, I didn’t stop to think what might happen if they did.

I turn to Xaden and beg again, my voice breaking by the end. “Please give her a chance.”

He holds my gaze but doesn’t so much as show a flicker of emotion.

“I let someone live once, and he almost killed you last night, Silver One,” Tairn says. Then, as if this is all that really matters in the end, “Justice is not always merciful.”

“Claidh,” Amber whimpers, the courtyard so unbelievably silent that the sound carries.

The formation splits at the center.

Tairn leans low, extending his head and neck past the dais toward where Amber stands. Then his teeth part, he curls his tongue, and he incinerates her with a blast of fire so hot, I can feel it from here. It’s over in a heartbeat.

A gruesome scream rends the air, shattering a window in the academic wing, and every rider slams their hands over their ears as Claidh mourns.

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