If Jack wants to kill me, he needs to get in line. Besides, I have a feeling Xaden Riorson is going to beat him to it.
“Not today,” I respond to Jack, the hilt of my dagger solid in my hand, and I somehow manage to suppress a shudder as he leans over and breathes in. He’s scenting me like a fucking dog. Then he scoffs and walks off into the crowd of celebrating cadets and riders that’s gathered in the sizable courtyard of the citadel.
It’s still early, probably around nine, but already I see there aren’t as many cadets as there were candidates ahead of me in line. Based on the overwhelming presence of leather, both the second- and third-years are here as well, taking stock of the new cadets.
The rain eases into a drizzle, as if it had only come to make the hardest test of my life even harder…but I did it.
I made it.
My body begins to tremble, and a throbbing pain erupts in my left knee -the one I slammed on the parapet. I take a step, and it threatens to give out on me. I need to bind it before anyone notices.
“I think you made an enemy there,” the redhead says, casually shifting the lethal crossbow she wears strapped along her shoulder. She glances at me over the scroll with a shrewd look in her hazel eyes as she looks me up and down. “I’d watch your back with that one if I were you.”
I nod. I’m going to have to watch my back and every other part of my body.
The next candidate approaches from the parapet as someone grips my shoulders from behind and spins me.
My dagger is halfway up when I realize it’s Rhiannon.
“We made it!” She grins, giving my shoulders a squeeze.
“We made it,” I repeat with a forced smile. My thighs are shaking now, but I manage to sheath my dagger at my ribs. Now that we’re here, both cadets, can I trust her?
“I can’t thank you enough. There were at least three times I would have fallen off if you hadn’t helped me. You were right-those soles were slick as shit. Have you seen the people around here? I swear I just saw a secondyear with pink streaks in her hair, and one guy has dragon scales tattooed up his entire biceps.”
“Conformity is for the infantry,” I say as she loops her arm through mine and tugs me along toward the crowd. My knee screams, pain radiating up to my hip and down to my foot, and I limp, my weight falling into Rhiannon’s side.
Where did this nausea come from? Why can’t I stop shaking? I’m going to fall any second now-there’s no way my body can remain upright with this earthquake in my legs or the whirring in my head.
“Speaking of which,” she says, glancing down. “We need to trade boots. There’s a bench-“
A tall figure in a pristine black uniform steps out of the crowd, charging toward us, and though Rhiannon manages to dodge, I stumble smack into his chest.
“Violet?” Strong hands catch my elbows to steady me, and I look up into a pair of familiar, striking brown eyes, flared wide in obvious shock.
Relief sweeps through me, and I try to smile, but it probably comes out like a distorted grimace. He seems taller than he was last summer, the beard that cuts across his jaw is new, and he’s filled out in a way that makes me blink…or maybe that’s just my vision going hazy at the edges. The beautiful, easygoing smile that’s starred in way too many of my fantasies is far from the scowl that purses his mouth, and everything about him seems a little…harder, but it works for him. The line of his chin, the set of his brow, even the muscles of his biceps are rigid under my fingers as I try to find my balance. Sometime in the last year, Dain Aetos went from attractive and cute to gorgeous.
And I’m about to be sick all over his boots.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he barks, the shock in his eyes transforming to something foreign, something deadly. This isn’t the same boy I grew up with. He’s a second-year rider now.
“Dain. It’s good to see you.” That’s an understatement, but the trembles turn to full-on shakes, and bile creeps up my throat, dizziness only making the nausea worse. My knees give out.
“Damn it, Violet,” he mutters, hauling me back to my feet. With one hand on my back and the other under my elbow, he quickly guides me away from the crowd and into an alcove in the wall, close to the first defensive turret of the citadel. It’s a shady, hidden spot with a hard wooden bench, which he sits me on, then helps me out of my rucksack.
Spit floods my mouth. “I’m going to be sick.”
“Head between your knees,” Dain orders in a harsh tone I’m not used to from him, but I do it. He rubs circles on my lower back as I breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth. “It’s the adrenaline. Give it a minute and it’ll pass.” I hear approaching footsteps on the gravel. “Who the hell are you?”
“I’m Rhiannon. I’m Violet’s…friend.”
I stare at the gravel under my mismatched boots and will the meager contents of my stomach to stay put.
“Listen to me, Rhiannon. Violet is fine,” he commands. “And if anyone asks, then you tell them exactly what I said, that it’s just the adrenaline working out of her system. Understand?”
“It’s no one’s business what’s going on with Violet,” she retorts, her tone just as sharp as his. “So I wouldn’t say shit. Especially not when she’s the reason I made it across the parapet.”
“You’d better mean that,” he warns, the bite in his voice at odds with the ceaseless, comforting circles he makes on my back.
“I could ask you just who the hell you are,” she retorts.
“He’s one of my oldest friends.” The trembles slowly subside, and the nausea wanes, but I’m not sure if it’s from timing or my position, so I keep my head between my knees while I manage to unlace my left boot.
“Oh,” Rhiannon answers.
“And a second-year rider, cadet,” he growls.
Gravel crunches, like Rhiannon has backed up a step.
“No one can see you here, Vi, so take your time,” Dain says softly.
“Because puking my guts up after surviving the parapet and the asshole who wanted to throw me off it would be considered weak.” I rise slowly, sitting upright.
“Exactly,” he answers. “Are you hurt?” His gaze rakes over me with a desperate edge, like he needs to see every inch for himself.
“My knee is sore,” I admit in a whisper, because it’s Dain. Dain, whom I’ve known since we were five and six. Dain, whose father is one of my mother’s most trusted advisers. Dain, who held me together when Mira left for the Riders Quadrant and again when Brennan died.
He takes my chin between his thumb and forefinger, turning my face left and right for his inspection. “That’s all? You’re sure?” His hands run down my sides and pause at my ribs. “Are you wearing daggers?”
Rhiannon takes my boot off and sighs in relief, wiggling her toes.
I nod. “Three at my ribs and one in my boot.” Thank gods, or I’m not sure I’d be sitting here right now.
“Huh.” He drops his hands and looks at me like he’s never seen me before, like I’m a complete stranger, but then he blinks and it’s gone. “Get your boots switched. You two look ridiculous. Vi, do you trust this one?” He nods toward Rhiannon.
She could have waited for me at the security of the citadel walls and thrown me off just like Jack tried to do, but she didn’t.
I nod. I trust her as much as anyone can trust another first-year around here.
“All right.” He stands and turns toward her. There are sheaths at the sides of his leathers, too, but there are daggers in each of them, where mine are still empty. “I’m Dain Aetos, and I’m the leader for Second Squad, Flame Section, Second Wing.”
Squad leader? My brows jump. The highest ranks among the cadets in the quadrant are wingleader and section leader. Both positions are held by elite third-years. Second-years can rise to squad leaders, but only if they’re exceptional. Everyone else is simply a cadet before Threshing-when the dragons choose who they will bond-and a rider after. People die too often around here to hand out ranks prematurely.
“Parapet should be over in the next couple of hours, depending on how fast the candidates cross or fall. Go find the redhead with the roll-she’s usually carrying a crossbow-and tell her that Dain Aetos put both you and Violet Sorrengail into his squad. If she questions you, tell her she owes me from saving her ass at Threshing last year. I’ll bring Violet back to the courtyard shortly.”
Rhiannon glances at me, and I nod.
“Go before someone sees us,” Dain barks.
“Going,” she answers, shoving her foot into her boot and lacing it quickly as I do the same with mine.
“You crossed the parapet with an equestrian boot too big for you?” Dain asks, glaring down at me with incredulity.
“She would have died without trading mine.” I stand and wince as my knee objects and tries to buckle.
“And you’re going to die if we don’t find you a way out of here.” He offers his arm. “Take it. We need to get you to my room. You need to wrap that knee.” His eyebrows rise. “Unless you found some miracle cure I don’t know about in the last year?”
I shake my head and take his arm.
“Damn it, Violet. Damn it.” He tucks mine discreetly against his side, grabs my rucksack with his empty hand, then leads me into a tunnel at the end of the alcove in the outer wall I hadn’t even seen. Mage lights flicker on in the sconces as we pass and extinguish after we go by. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
“Well aware.” I let myself limp a little, since no one can see us now.
“You’re supposed to be in the Scribe Quadrant,” he seethes, leading me through the tunnel in the wall. “What the hell happened? Please tell me you did not volunteer for the Riders Quadrant.”
“What do you think happened?” I challenge as we reach a wrought-iron gate that looks like it was built to keep out a troll…or a dragon.
He curses. “Your mother.”
“My mother.” I nod. “Every Sorrengail is a rider, don’t you know?”
We make it to a set of circular steps, and Dain leads me up past the first and second floor, stopping us on the third and pushing open another gate that creaks with the sound of metal on metal.
“This is the second-year floor,” he explains quietly. “Which means-” “I’m not supposed to be up here, obviously.” I tuck in a little closer. “Don’t worry-if someone sees us, I’ll just say that I was overcome with lust at first sight and couldn’t wait another second to get you out of your pants.”
“Ever the smart-ass.” A wry smile tugs at his lips as we start down the hall.
“I can throw in a few oh, Dain cries once we’re in your room just for believability,” I offer, and actually mean it.
He snorts as he drops my pack in front of a wooden door, then makes a twisting motion with his hand in front of the handle. A lock audibly clicks.
“You have powers,” I say.
It’s not news, of course. He’s a second-year rider, and all riders can perform lesser magics once their dragons choose to channel their power… but it’s…Dain.
“Don’t look so surprised.” He rolls his eyes and opens the door, carrying my pack as he helps me inside.
His room is simple, with a bed, dresser, desk, and wardrobe. There’s nothing personal about it other than a few books on his desk. I note with a tiny burst of satisfaction that one is the tome on the Krovlan language that I gave him before he left last summer. He’s always had a gift for languages. Even the blanket on his bed is simple, rider black, as if he might forget why he’s here while sleeping. The window is arched, and I move toward it. I can see the rest of Basgiath across the ravine through the clear glass.
It’s the same war college and yet an entire world away. There are two more candidates on the parapet, but I look away before I can feel invested just to watch them fall. There is only so much death one person can take in a day, and I’m at my fucking maximum.
“Do you have wraps in here?” He hands me the rucksack.
“Got them all from Major Gillstead,” I answer with a nod, plopping down on the edge of his expertly made bed and starting to dig through my pack. Luckily for me, Mira is an infinitely better packer than I am, and the wraps are easy to spot.
“Make yourself at home.” He grins, leaning back against the closed door and hooking one ankle over the other. “As much as I hate that you’re here, I have to say it’s more than nice to see your face, Vi.”
I look up, and our eyes meet. The tension that’s been in my chest for the last week-hell, the last six months-eases, and for a second, it’s just us. “I’ve missed you.” Maybe it’s exposing a weakness, but I don’t care. Dain knows almost everything there is to know about me anyway.
“Yeah. I’ve missed you, too,” he says quietly, his eyes softening.
My chest draws tight, and there’s an awareness between us, an almost tangible sense of…anticipation as he looks at me. Maybe after all these years, we’re finally on the same page when it comes to wanting each other. Or maybe he’s just relieved to see an old friend.
“You’d better get that leg wrapped.” He turns around to face the door. “I won’t look.”
“It’s nothing you haven’t seen before.” I arch my hips and shimmy my leather pants down past my thighs and over my knees. Shit. The one on the left is swollen. If anyone else had taken that stumble, they would have ended up with a bruise, maybe even a scrape. But me? I have to fix it so my kneecap stays where it’s supposed to. It’s not just my muscles that are weak. My ligaments that hold my joints together don’t work for shit, either.
“Yeah, well, we’re not sneaking away to swim in the river, are we?” he teases. We grew up together through every post our parents had been stationed at, and no matter where we were, we always managed to find a place to swim and trees to climb.
I fasten the wrap at the top of my knee, then wind and secure the joint in the same way I’ve done since I was old enough for the healers to teach me. It’s a practiced motion that I could do in my sleep, and the familiarity of it is almost soothing, if it didn’t mean I was starting in the quadrant wounded.
As soon as I get it fastened with the little metal clasp, I stand and tug my leathers back up over my ass and button them. “All covered.”
He turns and glances over me. “You look…different.”
“It’s the leathers.” I shrug. “Why? Is different bad?” It takes a second to close my rucksack and haul it up and over my shoulders. Thank you, gods, the ache in my knee is manageable with it bound like this.
“It’s just…” He shakes his head slowly, teasing his lower lip with his teeth. “Different.”
“Why, Dain Aetos.” I grin and walk toward him, then grasp the door handle at his side. “You’ve seen me in swimwear, tunics, and even ballgowns. Are you telling me it’s the leather that does it for you?”
He scoffs, but there’s a slight flush to his cheeks as his hand covers mine to open the door. “Glad to see our year apart hasn’t dulled your tongue, Vi.”
“Oh,” I toss over my shoulder as we walk into the hallway, “I can do quite a few things with my tongue. You’d be impressed.” My smile is so wide that it almost hurts, and just for a second, I forget that we’re in the Riders Quadrant or that I’ve just survived the parapet.
His eyes heat. Guess he’s forgotten, too. Then again, Mira’s always made it clear that riders aren’t an inhibited bunch behind these walls. There’s not much reason to deny yourself when you might not live through tomorrow.
“We have to get you out of here,” he says, shaking his head like he needs to clear it. Then he does the hand thing again, and I hear the lock slide into place. There’s no one in the hallway, and we make it to the stairwell quickly.
“Thanks,” I say as we start descending. “My knee feels way better now.”
“I still can’t believe your mother thought putting you into the Riders Quadrant was a good idea.” I can practically feel the anger vibrating off him next to me as we walk down the stairs. There’s no banister on his side, but he doesn’t seem to mind, even though a single misstep would be the end of him.
“Me neither. She announced her decree about which quadrant I’d choose last spring, after I passed the initial entrance exam, and I immediately started working with Major Gillstead.” He’ll be so proud when he reads the rolls tomorrow and sees that I’m not on them.
“There’s a door at the bottom of this stairwell, below the main level, that leads to the passage into the Healers Quadrant farther up the ravine,” he says as we approach the first floor. “We’ll get you through that and into the Scribe Quadrant.”
“What?” I stop as my feet hit the polished stone landing at the main floor, but he continues downward.
He’s already three steps beneath me when he realizes I’m not with him. “The Scribe Quadrant,” he says slowly, turning to face me.
This angle makes me taller than he is, and I glare down at him. “I can’t go to the Scribe Quadrant, Dain.”
“I’m sorry?” His eyebrows fly up.
“She won’t stand for it.” I shake my head.
His mouth opens, then shuts, and his fists clench at his sides. “This place will kill you, Violet. You can’t stay here. Everyone will understand. You didn’t volunteer-not really.”
Anger bristles up my spine, and my gaze narrows on him. Ignoring who did or did not volunteer me, I snap, “One, I’m well aware of what my chances are here, Dain, and two, usually fifteen percent of candidates don’t make it past the parapet, and I’m still standing, so I guess I’m beating those odds already.”
He backs up another step. “I’m not saying you didn’t just kick absolute ass by getting here, Vi. But you have to leave. You’ll break the first time they put you in the sparring ring, and that’s before the dragons sense that you’re…” He shakes his head and looks away, his jaw clenching.
“I’m what?” My hackles rise. “Go ahead and say it. When they sense I’m less than the others? Is that what you mean?”
“Damn it.” He rakes his hand over his close-cropped light-brown curls. “Stop putting words in my mouth. You know what I mean. Even if you survive to Threshing, there’s no guarantee a dragon will bond you. As it was, last year we had thirty-four unbonded cadets who have just been sitting around, waiting to restart the year with this class to get a chance at bonding again, and they’re all perfectly healthy-“
“Don’t be an asshole.” My stomach falls. Just because he might be right doesn’t mean I want to hear it…or want to be called unhealthy.
“I’m trying to keep you alive!” he shouts, his voice echoing off the stone of the stairwell. “If we get you to the Scribe Quadrant right now, you can still ace their test and have a phenomenal story to tell when you’re out drinking. I take you back out there”-he points to the doorway that leads to the courtyard-“it’s out of my hands. I can’t protect you here. Not fully.”
“I’m not asking you to!” Wait…didn’t I want him to? Wasn’t that what Mira suggested? “Why would you tell Rhiannon to put me in your squad if you just wanted to sneak me out the back door?”
The vise around my chest squeezes tighter. Next to Mira, Dain is the person who knows me best on the entire damned Continent, and even he thinks I can’t hack it here.
“To make her leave so I could get you out!” He climbs two steps, shortening the distance between us, but there’s no give in the set of his shoulders. If determination had a physical form, it would be Dain Aetos right now. “Do you think I want to watch my best friend die? Do you think it’ll be fun to see what they’ll do to you, knowing you’re General Sorrengail’s daughter? Putting on leathers doesn’t make you a rider, Vi. They’re going to tear you to shreds, and if they don’t, the dragons will. In the Riders Quadrant, you either graduate or die, and you know that. Let me save you.” His entire posture droops, and the plea in his eyes shreds some of my indignation. “Please let me save you.”
“You can’t,” I whisper. “She said she’d haul me right back. I either leave here as a rider or as a name on a stone.”
“She didn’t mean it.” He shakes his head. “She can’t mean that.”
“She means it. Even Mira couldn’t talk her out of it.”
He searches my eyes and tenses, as if he sees the truth of it there. “Shit.” “Yeah. Shit.” I shrug, like it’s not my life we’re talking about here.
“All right.” I can see him mentally changing gears, adapting to the information. “We’ll find another way. For now, let’s go.” He takes my hand and leads me to the alcove we disappeared from. “Get out there and meet the other first-years. I’ll go back and enter from the turret doorway. They’ll figure out we know each other soon enough, but don’t give anyone ammunition.” He squeezes my hand and lets go, walking away without another word and disappearing into the tunnel.
I grip the straps of my rucksack and walk into the dappled sunlight of the courtyard. The clouds are breaking, and the drizzle is burning off as the gravel crunches beneath my feet on my way toward the riders and cadets.
The massive courtyard, which could easily fit a thousand riders, is just like the map in the archives recorded. Shaped like an angular teardrop, the rounded end is formed by a giant outer wall at least ten feet thick. Along the sides are stone halls. I know the four-story building carved into the mountain with the rounded end is for academics, and the one on the right, towering over the cliff, is the dorms, where Dain took me. The imposing rotunda linking the two buildings also serves as the entrance to the gathering hall, commons, and library behind it. I quit gawking and turn in the courtyard to face the outer wall. There’s a stone dais on the right side of the parapet, occupied by two uniformed men I recognize as the commandant and executive commandant, both in full military dress, their medals winking in the sunlight.
It takes me a few minutes to find Rhiannon in the growing crowd, talking to another girl whose jet-black hair is cut just as short as Dain’s.
“There you are!” Rhiannon’s smile is genuine and full of relief. “I was worried. Is everything…” She lifts her eyebrows.
“I’m good to go.” I nod and turn toward the other woman as Rhiannon introduces us. Her name is Tara, and she’s from the Morraine province to the north, along the coast of the Emerald Sea. She has that same air of confidence Mira does, and her eyes dance with excitement as she and Rhiannon talk about how they’ve both obsessed over dragons since childhood. I pay attention but only enough to recall details if we need to form an alliance.
An hour passes, then another, according to the Basgiath bells, which we can hear from here. Then the last of the cadets walks into the courtyard, followed by the three riders from the other turret.
Xaden is among them. It’s not just his height that makes him stand out in this crowd but the way the other riders all seem to move around him, like he’s a shark and they’re all fish giving him a wide berth. For a second, I can’t help but wonder what his signet is, the unique power from the bond with his dragon, and if that’s why even the third-years seem to scurry out of his way as he strides up to the dais with lethal grace. There are ten of them in total up there now, and from the way Commandant Panchek moves to the front, facing us-
“I think we’re about to start,” I say to Rhiannon and Tara, and they both turn to face the dais. Everyone does.
“Three hundred and one of you have survived the parapet to become cadets today,” Commandant Panchek starts with a politician’s smile, gesturing to us. The guy has always talked with his hands. “Good job. Sixty-seven did not.”
My chest clenches as my brain spins the calculation quickly. Almost twenty percent. Was it the rain? The wind? That’s more than average. Sixtyseven people died trying to get here.
“I’ve heard this position is just a stepping stone for him,” Tara whispers.
“He wants Sorrengail’s job, then General Melgren’s.”
The commanding general of all Navarre’s forces. Melgren’s beady eyes have always made me shrivel every time we’ve met during my mother’s career.
“General Melgren’s?” Rhiannon whispers from my other side.
“He’ll never get it,” I say quietly as the commandant welcomes us to the Riders Quadrant. “Melgren’s dragon gives him the signet ability to see a battle’s outcome before it happens. There’s no beating that, and you can’t be assassinated if you know it’s coming.”
“As the Codex says, now you begin the true crucible!” Panchek shouts, his voice carrying over the five hundred of us that I estimate are in this courtyard. “You will be tested by your superiors, hunted by your peers, and guided by your instincts. If you survive to Threshing, and if you are chosen, you will be riders. Then we’ll see how many of you make it to graduation.” Statistics say about a quarter of us will live to graduate, give or take a few on any year, and yet the Riders Quadrant is never short volunteers. Every cadet in this courtyard thinks they have what it takes to be one of the elite, the very best Navarre has to offer…a dragon rider. I can’t help but wonder for the smallest of seconds if maybe I do, too. Maybe I can do more than just survive.
“Your instructors will teach you,” Panchek promises, his hand sweeping to the line of professors standing at the doors to the academic wing. “It’s up to you how well you learn.” He swings his pointer finger at us. “Discipline falls to your units, and your wingleader is the last word. If I have to get involved…” A slow, sinister smile spreads across his face. “You don’t want me involved.
“With that said, I’ll leave you to your wingleaders. My best advice? Don’t die.” He walks off the dais with the executive commandant, leaving only the riders on the stone stage.
A brunette woman with wide shoulders and a scarred sneer stalks forward, the silver spikes on the shoulders of her uniform flashing in the sunlight. “I’m Nyra, the senior wingleader of the quadrant and the head of the First Wing. Section leaders and squad leaders, take your positions now.”
My shoulder is jostled as someone walks by, pushing between Rhiannon and me. Others follow suit until there are about fifty people in front of us, spaced out in formation.
“Sections and squads,” I whisper to Rhiannon, in case she didn’t grow up in a military family. “Three squads in each section and three sections in each of the four wings.”
“Thank you,” Rhiannon answers.
Dain stands in the section for Second Wing, facing me but averting his eyes.
“First Squad! Claw Section! First Wing!” Nyra calls out.
A man closer to the dais raises his hand.
“Cadets, when your name is called, take up formation behind your squad leader,” Nyra instructs.
The redhead with the crossbow and roll steps forward and begins calling names. One by one, cadets move from the crowd to the formation, and I keep count, making snap judgments based off clothing and arrogance. It looks like each squad will have about fifteen or sixteen people in it.
Jack is called into the Flame Section of First Wing.
Tara is called into the Tail Section, and soon they start on Second Wing.
I let loose a thankful sigh when the wingleader steps forward and it isn’t Xaden.
Rhiannon and I are both called to Second Squad, Flame Section, Second Wing. We get into formation quickly, lining up in a square. A quick glance tells me that we have a squad leader-Dain, who isn’t looking at me-a female executive squad leader, four riders who look like they might be second- or third-years, and nine first-years. One of the riders with two stars on her uniform and half-shaved, half-pink hair has a rebellion relic that winds around her forearm, from her wrist to above her elbow, where it disappears under her uniform, but I look away so she won’t catch me staring.
We’re silent as the rest of the wings are called. The sun is out in full now, beating into my leathers and scorching my skin. I told him not to keep you in that library. Mom’s words from this morning haunt me, but it’s not like I could have prepared for this. I have exactly two shades when it comes to the sun, pale and burned.
When the order sounds, we all turn to face the dais. I try to keep my gaze on the roll-keeper, but my eyes jerk right like the traitors they are, and my pulse leaps.
Xaden watches me with a cold, calculating look that feels like he’s plotting my death from where he stands as the wingleader for Fourth Wing.
I lift my chin.
He cocks his scarred eyebrow. Then he says something to Second Wing’s wingleader, and then every wingleader joins in on what’s obviously a heated discussion.
“What do you think they’re talking about?” Rhiannon whispers.
“Quiet,” Dain hisses.
My spine stiffens. I can’t expect him to be my Dain here, not under these circumstances, but still, the tone is jarring.
Finally, the wingleaders turn around to face us, and the slight tilt to Xaden’s lips makes me instantly queasy.
“Dain Aetos, you and your squad will switch with Aura Beinhaven’s,” Nyra orders.
Wait. What? Who is Aura Beinhaven?
Dain nods, then turns to us. “Follow me.” He says it once, then strides through formation, leaving us to scurry after him. We pass another squad on the way from…from…
The very breath freezes in my lungs.
We’re moving to Fourth Wing. Xaden’s wing.
It takes a minute, maybe two, and we take our place in the new formation. I force myself to breathe. There’s a fucking smirk on Xaden’s arrogant, handsome face.
I’m now entirely at his mercy, a subordinate in his chain of command. He can punish me however he likes for the slightest infraction, even imaginary ones.
Nyra looks at Xaden as she finishes assignments, and he nods, stepping forward and finally breaking our staring contest. I’m pretty sure he won, considering my heart is galloping like a runaway horse.
“You’re all cadets now.” Xaden’s voice carries out over the courtyard, stronger than the others. “Take a look at your squad. These are the only people guaranteed by Codex not to kill you. But just because they can’t end your life doesn’t mean others won’t. You want a dragon? Earn one.” Most of the others cheer, but I keep my mouth shut.
Sixty-seven people fell or died in some other way today. Sixty-seven just like Dylan, whose parents would either collect their bodies or watch them be buried at the foot of the mountain under a simple stone. I can’t force myself to cheer for their loss.
Xaden’s eyes find mine, and my stomach clenches before he looks away.
“And I bet you feel pretty badass right now, don’t you, first-years?” More cheers.
“You feel invincible after the parapet, don’t you?” Xaden shouts. “You think you’re untouchable! You’re on the way to becoming the elite! The few! The chosen!”
Another round of cheers goes up with each declaration, louder and louder.
No. That’s not just cheering, it’s the sound of wings beating the air into submission.
“Oh gods, they’re beautiful,” Rhiannon whispers at my side as they come into view-a riot of dragons.
I’ve spent my life around dragons, but always from a distance. They don’t tolerate humans they haven’t chosen. But these eight? They’re flying straight for us-at speed.
Just when I think they’re about to fly overhead, they pitch vertically, whip the air with their huge semitranslucent wings, and stop, the gusts of wing-made wind so powerful that I nearly stagger backward as they land on the outer semicircular wall. Their chest scales ripple with movement, and their razor-sharp talons dig into the edge of the wall on either side. Now I understand why the walls are ten feet thick. It’s not a barrier. The edge of the fortress is a damned perch.
My mouth drops open. In my five years of living here, I’ve never seen this, but then again, I’ve never been allowed to watch what happens on Conscription Day.
A few cadets scream.
Guess everyone wants to be a dragon rider until they’re actually twenty feet away from one.
Steam blasts my face as the navy-blue one directly in front of me exhales through its wide nostrils. Its glistening blue horns rise above its head in an elegant, lethal sweep, and its wings flare momentarily before tucking in, the tip of their top joint crowned by a single fierce talon. Their tails are just as fatal, but I can’t see them at this angle or even tell which breed of dragon each is without that clue.
All are deadly.
“We’re going to have to bring the masons in again,” Dain mutters as chunks of rock crumble under the dragons’ grips, crashing to the courtyard in boulders the size of my torso.
There are three dragons in various shades of red, two shades of green- like Teine, Mira’s dragon-one brown like Mom’s, one orange, and the enormous navy one ahead of me. They’re all massive, overshadowing the structure of the citadel as they narrow their golden eyes at us in absolute judgment.
If they didn’t need us puny humans to develop signet abilities from bonding and weave the protective wards they power around Navarre, I’m pretty sure they’d eat us all and be done. But they like protecting the Vale- the valley behind Basgiath the dragons call home-from merciless gryphons and we like living, so here we are in the most unlikely of partnerships.
My heart threatens to beat out of my chest, and I absolutely agree with it, because I’d like to run, too. Just thinking that I’m supposed to ride one of these is fucking ludicrous.
A cadet bolts out of Third Wing, screaming as he makes a run for the stone keep behind us. We all turn to look as he sprints for the giant arched door at the center. I can almost see the words carved into the arch from here, but I already know them by heart. A dragon without its rider is a tragedy. A rider without their dragon is dead.
Once bonded, riders can’t live without their dragons, but most dragons can live just fine after us. It’s why they choose carefully, so they’re not humiliated by picking a coward, not that a dragon would ever admit to making a mistake.
The red dragon on the left opens its vast mouth, revealing teeth as big as I am. That jaw could crush me if it wanted, like a grape. Fire erupts along its tongue, then shoots outward in a macabre blaze toward the fleeing cadet.
He’s a pile of ash on the gravel before he can even make it to the shadow of the keep.
Heat from the flames blasts the side of my face as I jerk my attention forward. If anyone else runs and is likewise executed, I don’t want to see it. More screaming sounds around me. I lock my jaw as hard as I can to keep quiet.
There are two more gusts of heat, one to my left and then another to my right.
Make that seventy.
The navy dragon seems to tilt its head at me, as if its narrowed golden eyes can see straight through me to the fear fisting my stomach and the doubt curled insidiously around my heart. I bet it can even see the wrap binding my knee. It knows I’m at a disadvantage, that I’m too small to climb its foreleg and mount, too frail to ride. Dragons always know.
But I will not run. I wouldn’t be standing here if I’d quit every time something seemed impossible to overcome. I will not die today. The words repeat in my head just like they had before the parapet and on it.
I force my shoulders back and lift my chin.
The dragon blinks, which might be a sign of approval, or boredom, and looks away.
“Anyone else feel like changing their mind?” Xaden shouts, scanning the remaining rows of cadets with the same shrewd gaze of the navy-blue dragon behind him. “No? Excellent. Roughly half of you will be dead by this time next summer.” The formation is silent except for a few untimely sobs from my left. “A third of you again the year after that, and the same your last year. No one cares who your mommy or daddy is here. Even King Tauri’s second son died during his Threshing. So tell me again: Do you feel invincible now that you’ve made it into the Riders Quadrant? Untouchable?
No one cheers.
Another blast of heat rushes-this time directly at my face-and every muscle in my body clenches, preparing for incineration. But it’s not flames…just steam, and it blows back Rhiannon’s braids as the dragons finish their simultaneous exhale. The breeches on the first-year ahead of me darken, the color spreading down his legs.
They want us scared. Mission accomplished.
“Because you’re not untouchable or special to them.” Xaden points toward the navy dragon and leans forward slightly, like he’s letting us in on a secret as we lock eyes. “To them, you’re just the prey.”