Chapter no 21

Fourth Wing (The Empyrean Book 1)

“This really isn’t necessary.” I glance sideways at Liam as we make our way toward the door of the Archives. The cart doesn’t even squeak anymore. He fixed that the very first day.

“So you’ve told me for the last week.” He shoots me a grin, revealing a dimple.

“And yet you’re still here. Every day. All day.” It’s not that I don’t like him. To my absolute annoyance, he’s actually…nice. Courteous, funny, and ridiculously helpful. He makes it difficult to loathe his constant presence, even though he leaves wood shavings in little piles everywhere he goes- which is everywhere I go now. The guy is constantly whittling with that smaller knife of his. Yesterday he finished the figurine of a bear.

“Until otherwise ordered,” he says.

I shake my head at him as Pierson jolts upright at the Archives doors, straightening his cream tunic. “Good morning, Cadet Pierson.”

“You as well, Cadet Sorrengail.” He offers me a polite smile, which dies as he glances at Liam. “Cadet Mairi.”

“Cadet Pierson,” Liam responds, as if the scribe’s tone hadn’t completely changed.

My shoulders tense as Pierson hurries to open the door. Maybe it’s just that I haven’t been around marked ones before Basgiath, but the outright hostility toward them is becoming glaringly, uncomfortably obvious to me.

We walk into the Archives and wait by the table just like every other morning.

“How do you do that?” I ask Liam in a hushed whisper. “Handle when people are that rude without reacting?”

“You’re rude to me all the time,” he teases, drumming his fingers on the handle of the cart.

“Because you’re my babysitter, not because…” I can’t even say it.

“Because I’m the son of the disgraced Colonel Mairi?” His jaw ticks, his brow furrowing for a heartbeat as he looks away.

I nod, my stomach sinking as I think back over the last few months. “I guess I’m really no better, though. I hated Xaden on sight, and I didn’t know a single thing about him.” Not that I do now, either. He’s infuriatingly good at being completely inaccessible.

Liam scoffs, earning us a glare from a scribe near the back corner. “He has that effect on people, especially women. They either despise him for what his father did or want to fuck him for the same reason, just depends on where we are.”

“You actually know him, don’t you?” I crane my neck to look up at him. “He didn’t just pick you to shadow me because you’re the best in our year.”

“Just now catching on, huh?” A grin flashes across his face. “I would have told you that on the first day if you hadn’t been so busy huffing and puffing about the pleasure of my company.”

I roll my eyes as Jesinia approaches, her hood up over her hair. “Hey, Jesinia,” I sign.

“Good morning,” she signs back, her mouth curving in a shy smile as her gaze darts up to Liam.

“Good morning.” He signs with a wink, clearly flirting.

It shocked me to my toes that first day that he knew how to sign, but honestly, I’d been a little judgy just because I didn’t want a shadow.

“Just these today?” Jesinia asks, inspecting the cart.

“And these.” I reach for the list of requests amid their obvious glances and hand it to her.

“Perfect.” Her cheeks flush and she studies the list before putting it in her pocket. “Oh, and Professor Markham left before his daily report arrived to teach your briefing. Would you mind taking it over?”

“Happy to.” I wait until she’s pushing the cart away from us, then smack Liam’s chest. “Stop it,” I whisper out loud.

“Stop what?” He watches her until she turns the corner at the first set of shelves.

“Flirting with Jesinia. She’s a long-term-relationship woman, so unless that’s what you’re looking for…just…don’t.”

His eyebrows hit his hairline. “How does anyone think long-term around here?”

“Not everyone is in a quadrant where death is less of a chance and more of a foregone conclusion.” I breathe in the scent of the Archives and try to absorb a little of the peace it brings.

“So you’re saying that some people still try to make cute little things like plans.”

“Exactly, and those some people is Jesinia. Trust me, I’ve known her for years.”

“Right. Because you wanted to be a scribe when you grew up.” He scans the Archives with an intensity that almost makes me laugh. As if there’s any chance someone is going to lunge out of the shelves and come after me.

“How did you know that?” I lower my voice as a group of second-years passes, their expressions somber as they debate the merits of two different historians.

“I did my research on you after I was…you know…assigned.” He shakes his head. “I’ve seen you practicing this week with those blades of yours, Sorrengail. Riorson was right. You would have been wasted as a scribe.”

My chest swells with more than a little pride. “That remains to be seen.” At least challenges haven’t resumed. Guess enough of us are dying during flight lessons to hold off on killing more through hand-to-hand. “What did you want to be when you grew up?” I ask, just to keep the conversation going.

“Alive.” He shrugs.

Well, that’s…something.

“How do you know Xaden anyway?” I’m not foolish enough to think that everyone in the province of Tyrrendor knows one another.

“Riorson and I were fostered at the same estate after the apostasy,” he says, using the Tyrrish term for the rebellion, which I haven’t heard in ages.

“You were fostered?” My mouth drops open. Fostering the children of aristocrats was a custom that died out after the unification of Navarre more than six hundred years ago.

“Well, yeah.” He shrugs again. “Where did you think the kids of the traitors”-he flinches at the word-“went after they executed our parents?”

I look out over the sprawling shelves of texts, wondering if one of them holds the answer. “I didn’t think.” My throat catches on that last word.

“Most of our great houses were given to nobles who had remained loyal.” He clears his throat. “As it should be.”

I don’t bother agreeing with what’s obviously a conditioned reply. King Tauri’s response after the rebellion was swift, even cruel, but I was a fifteen-year-old girl too lost in her own grief to think mercifully on the people who’d caused my brother’s death. The burning of Aretia, which had been Tyrrendor’s capital, to the ground had never sat well with me, though. Liam was the same age. It wasn’t his fault his mother had broken faith with Navarre. “But you didn’t go with your father to his new home?”

His gaze swings toward mine, and his brow furrows. “It’s hard to live with a man who was executed on the same day as my mother.”

My stomach sinks. “No. No, that’s not right. Your father was Isaac Mairi, right? I’ve studied all the noble houses in every province, including Tyrrendor.” Had I gotten something wrong?

“Yes. Isaac was my father.” He tilts his head, looking toward the area where Jesinia disappeared, and I get the distinct feeling he is over this conversation.

“But he wasn’t a part of the rebellion.” I shake my head, trying to make sense of it. “He isn’t on the death roll of the executions from Calldyr.”

“You read the death roll from the Calldyr executions?” His eyes flare.

It takes all my courage, but I hold his stare. “I needed to see that someone was on it.”

He draws back slightly. “Fen Riorson.”

I nod. “He killed my brother at the Battle of Aretia.” My mind scrambles, trying to harmonize what I’ve read and what he’s saying. “But your father wasn’t on that roll.” But Liam was-as a witness. Mortification sweeps over me. What the hell am I doing? “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”

“He was executed at our family’s house.” His features tighten. “Before it was given to another noble, of course. And yes, I watched as they did it that time, too. I already had the rebellion relic by then, but the pain was the same.” He looks away, his throat working. “Then I was sent to Tirvainne to be fostered by Duke Lindell, the same as Riorson. My little sister was sent elsewhere.”

“They separated you?” My jaw practically unhinges. Neither fostering nor separating siblings is mentioned in any text I’ve read about the rebellion, and I’ve read a ton.

He nods. “She’s only a year younger than me, though, so I’ll get to see her when she enters the quadrant next year. She’s strong, quick, and has good balance. She’ll make it.” The edge of panic in his tone reminds me of Mira.

“She could always choose another quadrant,” I say softly, hoping it will soothe him.

He blinks at me. “We’re all riders.”


“We’re all riders. It was part of the deal. We’re allowed to live, allowed a chance to prove our loyalty, but only if we make it through the Riders Quadrant.” He stares at me in bewilderment. “You don’t know?”

“I mean…” I shake my head. “I know that the children of the leaders, the officers, were all forced into conscription, but that’s all. A lot of those treaty addenda are classified.”

“I personally think the quadrant was chosen to give us the best chance of rising in rank, but others…” He grimaces. “Others think it’s because the death rate is so much higher for riders, so they were hoping to kill us all off without having to do it themselves. I’ve heard Imogen say they originally figured the dragons have unimpeachable honor, so they’d never bond a marked one in the first place, and now they don’t quite know what to do with us.”

“How many of you are there?” I think of my mother and can’t help but wonder how much of it she knows, how much of it she agreed to when she became the commanding general of Basgiath after Brennan’s death.

“Xaden’s never?” He pauses. “Sixty-eight of the officers had kids under the age of twenty. There are one hundred and seven of us, all who carry rebellion relics.”

“The oldest is Xaden,” I murmur.

He nods. “And the youngest is almost six now. Her name is Julianne.”

I think I’m going to be sick. “Is she marked?”

“She was born with it.”

I understand it was done by dragon, but what the fucking hell?

“And it’s all right that you ask. Someone should know. Someone should remember.” His shoulders rise and fall as he breathes deeply. “Anyway, is it hard for you to be in here? Or is it more of a comfort thing?” Subject change noted.

I take in the rows of tables, slowly filling with scribes readying themselves for work, and imagine my father among them. “It’s like coming home, but not. And it’s not that it’s changed-this place never changes. Hell, I think change is the mortal enemy of a scribe. But I’m starting to

realize that I’ve changed. I don’t quite fit here. Not anymore.”

“Yeah. I get that.” Something in his voice tells me he really does.

It’s on the tip of my tongue to ask what the last five years were like for him, but Jesinia reappears, the cart laden with the requested tomes.

“I have everything here for you,” she signs, then gestures to the scroll on top. “And that is for Professor Markham.”

“We’ll make sure he gets it,” I promise, leaning forward to take the cart. My high collar shifts, and Jesinia gasps, her hand flying to cover her mouth.

“Oh gods, Violet. Your neck!” Her hand movements are sharp, and the sympathy in her eyes makes my chest tighten. “Sympathy” isn’t a word found in our quadrant. There’s rage, wrath, and indignation…but no sympathy.

“It’s nothing.” I put my collar back in place, covering the ring of yellowing bruises, and Liam reaches across me, taking the cart. “We’ll see you tomorrow.”

She bobs her head and wrings her hands as we turn for the door. Pierson closes it after we pass into the hallway.

“Riorson taught me to fight during the years he was at Tirvainne.” Liam’s change of subject is appreciated and no doubt intentional once again. “I’ve never seen anyone move the way he does. He’s the only reason I made it through the first round of challenges. He might not show it, but he takes care of his own.”

“Are you trying to sell me on his finer points?” We make the ascent, and I note with some satisfaction that my legs feel strong today. I love the days when my body cooperates.

“You are slightly stuck with him for…” He makes a face. “Well, forever.”

“Or until one of us dies,” I joke, but it falls flat as we round the corner and take the path past the Healer Quadrant. “How can you do this anyway? Guard someone whose own mother oversaw the wing that captured yours?” I’ve wanted to ask the question all week.

“Wondering if you can trust me?” He flashes another easy grin.

“Yes.” The answer is simple.

He laughs, the sound echoing off the tunnel walls and glass windows of the clinic. “Good answer. All I can say is that your survival is essential to Riorson’s, and I owe him everything. Everything.” He looks me straight in the eye for that last word, even as the cart hits a raised stone in the paved corridor.

The scroll on top tumbles to the floor, and I wince at the dull ache in my ribs as I hurry to retrieve it and it unrolls along the slight slope of the passage.

“Got it.” The thick parchment isn’t eager to roll back into place, and I catch a sentence that makes me pause.

The conditions at Sumerton are of particular concern. A village was ransacked and a supply convoy looted last night- “What does it say?” Liam asks.

“Sumerton was attacked.” I flip the scroll to see if it’s marked as classified, but it isn’t.

“On the southern border?” He looks as confused as I feel.

“Yeah.” I nod. “It’s another high-altitude attack, too, if I remember my geography correctly. It says a supply convoy was looted.” I read a little further. “And the community storage in nearby caves was ransacked. But that doesn’t make sense. We have a trade agreement with Poromiel.”

“A raiding party, then.”

I shrug. “No clue. Guess we’ll hear about it in Battle Brief today.” Attacks along our southern borders are rising, all with the same description. Mountain villages are being torn apart wherever the wards weaken.

Immense, incredible hunger strikes, my stomach gnawing on emptiness that demands to be appeased with the blood of-

“Sorrengail?” Liam looks over at me, concern etched between his brows.

“Tairn’s awake,” I manage to say, clutching my stomach like I’m the one who craves a flock of sheep. Or goats. Or whatever he decides for the morning. “Good gods, please go eat something.”

“The same could be suggested to you,” he snarls.

“Such a morning person, aren’t you?” The hunger dissipates, and I know it’s because he’s dampening the bond in that moment because I can’t. His emotions only flow into me when they override his control. “Thank you.


“Still sleeping. She’ll be out another few days after using that much power.”

“Does it ever get any easier?” I ask Liam. “Being tackled by what they’re feeling?”

He winces. “Good question. Deigh keeps pretty good control of himself, but when he’s angry?” Liam shakes his head. “It’s supposed to help once they start channeling and we have the power to shield them out, but you know Carr isn’t going to bother with us until that happens.”

I’d already assumed Liam didn’t have his abilities yet, considering he’s with me in every single class, but it’s comforting to know he’s still in the waning population of powerless riders with me. While Andarna has given me her gift for stopping time, I’m pretty sure using it isn’t going to be a regular occurrence, especially if it takes her days to recover.

“So Tairn hasn’t channeled to you, either, right?” Liam asks, a look of uncertainty, vulnerability on his face.

I shake my head. “I think he has commitment issues,” I whisper.

“I heard that.”

“Then stay out of my head.”

Another wave of paralyzing hunger assaults me, and I nearly crush

Markham’s scroll in my hand. “Don’t be an ass.” I swear I hear him chuff a chuckle in response.

“We’d better hurry or we’ll miss breakfast.”

“Right.” I finish rolling the scroll and put it back on the cart.

“I want to be like the cool kids,” Rhiannon grumbles as first-years from Second and Third Wings pour out of the stairwell of the turret that leads up to Professor Carr’s classroom that afternoon, further clogging the hallway on our way to Battle Brief.

“We will,” I promise, linking my arm through hers. Have to admit, there’s more than a little twinge of jealousy in my chest.

“You may be cool, but you will never be as cool as I am!” Ridoc pushes past Liam and throws his arm over my shoulder.

“She’s talking about everyone who’s already channeling,” I explain, juggling my books so I don’t drop them. “Though at least if we’re not channeling, we’re not stressed about manifesting a signet before the magic kills us.” The relic in the center of my back tingles, and I can’t help but wonder if Andarna’s gift has triggered that clock for me.

“Oh, I thought we were discussing how I just owned that physics test.”

He grins. “Definitely the highest score in the class.”

Rhiannon rolls her eyes. “Please. I scored five points higher than you.”

“We stopped counting your grades months ago.” He leans forward slightly. “Your grades in that class make it unfair for the rest of us.” He looks between our shoulders. “Wait. What did you get, Mairi?” “Not getting into the middle of this,” Liam responds.

I laugh as we break apart, entering the bottleneck of cadets to get into the briefing room.

“Sorry, Sorrengail,” someone says, stepping out of the way and tugging their friend with them as we enter the tiered classroom.

“Nothing to be sorry about!” I call out, but they’re already headed up a few rows. “I’m never going to get used to that.”

“It definitely makes getting places easier,” Rhiannon teases as we descend the steps that curve along the massive turret.

“They show the appropriate level of deference,” Tairn grumbles.

“To what they think I’ll be, not who I am.” We find our row and walk to our seats, sitting as a squad among the first-years.

“That shows excellent forethought.”

The room buzzes with energy as riders file in, and I can’t help but notice that no one has to stand anymore. Our numbers have decreased exponentially in the last four months. The number of empty chairs is sobering. We lost another first-year yesterday when he got too close to another rider’s Red Scorpiontail on the flight field. One second he was standing there, and the next he was a scorched patch of earth. I kept as close to Tairn as possible the rest of the session.

My scalp prickles, but I fight the urge to turn around.

“Riorson just got here,” Liam says from the seat to my right, breaking from the little dragon figurine he’s carving and looking up the rows toward the third-years.

“Figured.” I hold up my middle finger and keep my eyes forward. Not that I don’t like Liam, but I’m still pissed at Xaden for assigning him.

Liam snorts and grins, flashing his dimple. “And now he’s glaring. Tell me, is it fun pissing off the most powerful rider in the quadrant?”

“You could try it yourself and find out,” I suggest, opening my notebook to the next empty page. I can’t turn around. I won’t. Wanting Xaden is fine.

It has to be. Indulging the impulses it gives me? That’s asinine.

“That’s going to be a no from me.”

I lose the battle with my self-control and look over my shoulder. Sure enough, Xaden is seated in the top row next to Garrick, mastering the art of looking bored. He gives Liam a nod, which Liam returns.

I roll my eyes and face forward again.

Liam concentrates on his carving, which looks a lot like his Red Daggertail, Deigh.

“I swear, you’d think there were assassination attempts on me during every class with the way he makes you shadow me.” I shake my head.

“In his defense, people are fond of trying to kill you.” Rhiannon sets out her supplies.

“One time! It’s happened one time, Rhi!” I adjust my posture to keep my weight off my bruised ribs. They’re wrapped tight, but leaning against the back of my seat isn’t an option.

“Right. And what would you call that whole thing with Tynan?” Rhiannon asks.

“Threshing.” I shrug.

“And Barlowe’s constant threats?” She arches a brow at me.

“She has a point there,” Sawyer chimes in, leaning forward from the seat next to Rhiannon’s.

“They’re just threats. The only time I’ve actually been targeted was at night, and it’s not like Liam here is sleeping in my bedroom.”

“I mean, I’m not opposed-” he begins, his knife hovering over the piece of wood.

“Don’t even start.” I whip my head to face him and can’t help but laugh.

“You are a shameless flirt.”

“Thank you.” He grins and goes back to carving.

“It wasn’t a compliment.”

“Don’t mind her, she’s just sexually frustrated. Makes a girl crabby.” Rhiannon writes the date down on her empty page and I follow suit, dipping my quill into my portable inkpot. Those easy, mess-less pens some of the others can already use is just another reason I can’t wait to channel. No more quills. No more inkpots.

“That has nothing to do with it.” Gods, could she have said that a little louder?

“And yet I don’t hear you denying it.” She smiles sweetly at me.

“I’m sorry I don’t make the cut,” Liam teases. “But I’m sure Riorson would be fine with my reviewing a couple candidates, especially if it means you’ll stop flipping him off in front of his entire wing.”

“And how exactly would you be reviewing candidates? What will you be scoring?” Rhiannon asks, one eyebrow raised above her wide grin. “This I have to hear.”

I manage a straight face for all of two seconds before laughing at how horrified he suddenly looks. “Thanks for the offer, though. I’ll make sure to run any potential liaisons by you.”

“I mean, you could watch,” Rhiannon continues, blinking innocently at him. “Just to be sure she’s fully covered. You know, so no one…sticks it to her.”

“Oh, are we telling dick jokes now?” Ridoc asks from Liam’s side.

“Because my entire life has led up to this very moment.” Even Sawyer laughs.

“Fuck me,” Liam mutters under his breath. “I’m just saying that since you’re protected at night now-” We laugh harder, and he blows out a deep breath.

“Wait.” I stop laughing. “What do you mean I’m protected at night? Because you’re next door?” My smile vanishes. “Please tell me he’s not making you sleep in the hallway or something obnoxious.”

“No. Of course not. He warded your door the morning after the attack.” His expression clearly says I should know this. “I’m guessing he didn’t tell you?”

“He what?”

“He warded your door,” Liam says, quieter this time. “So only you can open it.”

Shit. I don’t know how to feel about that. It’s more than slightly controlling, and way out of line, but also…sweet. “But if he’s the one who warded it, then he can get in, too, right?”

“Well, yeah.” Liam shrugs as Professors Markham and Devera walk down the stairs, heading for the front of the room. “But it’s not like Riorson is going to kill you.”

“Right. You see, I’m still adjusting to that little change of heart.” I fumble my quill and it falls to the ground, but before I can lean over, the shadows beneath the arm of my desk lift the instrument like an offering. I pluck it out of the shadows and look back at Xaden.

He’s locked in conversation with Garrick, not paying me a speck of attention.

Except, apparently, he is.

“If we can get started?” Markham calls over the room, and we fall silent as he places the scroll Liam and I had delivered to him before breakfast on the podium. “Excellent.”

I write Sumerton down at the top of the page and Liam trades his knife for a quill.

“First announcement,” Devera says, stepping forward. “We’ve decided that not only will the winners of this year’s Squad Battle receive bragging rights-” She grins like we’re in for a treat. “But they’ll also be given a trip to the front lines to shadow an active wing.” Cheers break out all around us.

“So if we win, we get a chance to die sooner?” Rhiannon whispers.

“Maybe they’re trying a reverse psychology thing.” I glance at the others around us who are clearly overjoyed and worry about their sanity. Then again, most everyone in this room can stay on their dragon.

“So can you.”

“Don’t you have better things to do with your day than listen in on my self-loathing?”

“Not particularly. Now pay attention.” “Stop butting in and maybe I can,” I counter.

Tairn chuffs. One day I might be able to translate that sound, but it’s not today.

“I know the Squad Battle doesn’t commence until spring,” Devera continues, “but I figured that news would give you all the proper motivation

to apply yourselves in every area leading up to the challenges.” Another cheer resounds.

“And now that we have your attention.” Markham lifts his hand and the room quiets. “The front lines are relatively quiet today, so we’re going to

take this opportunity to dissect the Battle of Gianfar.”

My quill hovers above my notebook. Surely he didn’t say that.

The mage lights rise to the Cliffs of Dralor that separate Tyrrendor, lifting the entire province thousands of feet above the rest of the Continent, before shining brightest on the ancient stronghold along the southern border. “This battle was pivotal to the unification of Navarre, and though it happened more than six centuries ago, there are important lessons that still impact our flight formations to this day.”

“Is he serious?” I whisper to Liam.

“Yeah.” Liam’s grip bends his quill. “I think he is.”

“What made this battle unique?” Devera asks, her eyebrows raised. “Bryant?”

“The stronghold was not only set for a siege,” the second-year says from high above us, “but was equipped with the first cross-bolt, which proved lethal against dragonkind.”

“Yes. And?” Devera prompts.

“It was one of the final battles where gryphons and dragons actually worked alongside each other to annihilate the army of the Barrens,” the second-year continues.

I glance left and right, watching the other riders begin to take notes. Surreal. This is just…surreal. Even Rhiannon is writing intensely.

None of them knows what we do, that an entire village of Navarrians was ransacked last night along the border and supplies looted. And yet, we’re discussing a battle that happened before the convenience of indoor plumbing was invented.

“Now, pay close attention,” Markham lectures. “Because you’ll be turning in a detailed report in three days and drawing comparisons to battles from the last twenty years.”

“Was that scroll marked classified?” Liam asks under his breath.

“No,” I respond just as quietly. “But maybe I missed it?” The battle map doesn’t even show activity near that mountain range.

“Yeah.” He nods, scratching his quill against the parchment as he begins to take notes. “That has to be it. You missed it.”

I blink, forcing my hand through the motions of writing about a battle I’ve analyzed dozens of times with my father. Liam’s right. That’s the only possible explanation. Our clearance isn’t high enough, or maybe they haven’t finished gathering all the information needed to form an accurate report.

Or it had to have been marked classified. I just missed it.

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