There’s a knock at my door as I take an armful of clothes from the skeletal remains of what used to be my armoire.
“Come in,” I call out, dumping them on the bed.
The door opens and Xaden walks in, his hair windblown like he’s just come from the flight field, and my pulse jumps.
“I just wanted-” he starts, then pauses, surveying the wreckage of my room from last night. “Somehow I’d convinced myself today that we hadn’t done that much damage, but…”
He looks at me, and we both crack a smile.
“Look, this doesn’t have to be awkward or anything.” I shrug, trying to ease the tension. “We’re both adults.”
His scarred brow rises. “Good, because I wasn’t going to make it that way. But the least I can do is help you clean up.” His attention shifts to the armoire, and he winces. “I swear it didn’t look quite that ruined in the darkness when I left this morning. Turns out you set more than a few trees on fire last night, too. Took two water wielders to get them out.”
My cheeks heat. “You took off early.” I try to make my tone as nonchalant as possible as I walk toward my desk-which miraculously survived-and bend down to gather a few of my books we’d knocked to the floor.
“I had a leadership meeting and needed to get an early start.” His arm brushes against mine as he leans down and picks up my favorite book of fables, the one Mira slipped into my rucksack once we’d gotten back to Montserrat that night.
“Oh.” My chest lightens. “That makes perfect sense.” I stand, putting my texts on the desk. “So it wasn’t because I snore or anything.”
“No.” A corner of his mouth rises. “How did training with Carr go?” Nice subject change.
“I can wield, but I can’t aim, and it’s completely exhausting.” My mouth purses, thinking back to the first strike I wielded. “You know, you were kind of an asshole on the flight field yesterday.”
His grip tightens on the book. “Yes. I told you what I thought you needed to hear to get through the moment. I know you don’t like other people to see you vulnerable, and you…”
“Were vulnerable,” I finish.
He nods. “If it makes you feel better, I couldn’t keep anything down after the first time I killed anyone, either. I don’t think less of you for having a reaction like that. Just means you still have your humanity.” “So do you,” I say, gently taking the book from him.
Says the man who has one hundred and seven scars on his back. “It’s not. Not to me.”
He looks away, and I know he’s going to have his defenses up any second now.
“Tell me something real,” I say, desperate to keep him with me.
“Like what?” he asks, just like he did before when we were flying, when he left me sitting on that mountain when I had the nerve to ask about his scars.
“Like…” My mind races, looking for something to ask. “Like where you went the night I found you in the courtyard.”
His brow furrows. “You’re going to have to be more specific than that. Third-years get sent away all the time.”
“You had Bodhi with you. It was right before the Gauntlet.” I nervously run my tongue over my lower lip.
“Oh.” He picks up another book and sets it on the desk, clearly stalling while he decides whether or not he’ll open up to me.
“I would never tell anyone anything you tell me,” I promise. “I hope you know that.”
“I know. You never told a soul about what you saw under the tree last fall.” He rubs the back of his neck. “Athebyne. You can’t know why or ask anything else, but that’s where we were.”
“Oh.” That definitely wasn’t what I expected, but not out of the ordinary for cadets to run something to an outpost. “Thank you for telling me.” I move to put the book back and see that the binding is definitely worse for wear after we knocked the antique tome off the desk last night. “Damn.” I open the back cover and see that it’s split at the binding.
Something is peeking out.
“What is that?” Xaden asks, looking over my shoulder.
“Not sure.” Balancing the heavy book with one hand, I tug what looks to be a stiff piece of parchment free from where it’s been tucked behind the binding. Gravity shifts as I recognize my father’s handwriting, and it’s dated just a few months before his death.
By the time you find this, you’ll most likely be in the Scribe Quadrant. Remember that folklore is passed from one generation to the next to teach us about our past. If we lose it, we lose the links to our past. It only takes one desperate generation to change history-even erase it.
I know you’ll make the right choice when the time comes. You have always been the best of both your mother and me.
My brow furrows, and I pass the letter to Xaden, flipping through the book. The tales are all familiar, and I can still hear my father’s voice reading every word, as if I were still a child curled on his lap after a long day.
“That’s cryptic,” Xaden remarks.
“He got a little…cryptic in the years after Brennan died,” I admit softly. “Losing my brother made my father even more reclusive. I only really got to spend time with him because I was always in the Archives, studying to be a scribe.”
The pages flutter as I flip through stories of an ancient kingdom that spanned from ocean to ocean and a Great War among three brothers who fought to control the magic in this mystical land. Some of the fables tell stories of the first riders who learned to bond with dragons and how those bonds could turn on the rider if they tried to consume too much power. Others talk of a great evil that spread across the land as man became corrupted by dark magic and turned into creatures known as venin who created flocks of winged creatures called wyvern and scourged the land of all magic in the thirst for more power. Another talks about the dangers of wielding power from the ground instead of the skies, as one could easily start drawing magic from the earth and eventually be driven mad.
One of the purposes of the fables is to teach children about the dangers of too much power. No one wants to become a venin; they’re the monsters that hide beneath our beds when we have nightmares. And we certainly never want to try to control magic without a dragon to ground us. But that’s all they are, children’s bedtime stories. So why did my dad leave me this cryptic note-and hide it inside the book?
“What do you think he was trying to tell you?” Xaden asks.
“I don’t know. Every fable in this book is about how too much power corrupts, so maybe he felt someone in leadership was corrupt.” I glance up at Xaden and joke, “I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if General Melgren ripped a mask off one day and revealed he was a terrifying venin. That man has always given me the creeps.”
Xaden chuckles. “Well, let’s hope not that. My dad used to say venin were biding their time in the Barrens and one day were coming to get us-if we didn’t eat our vegetables.” He glances out the window to his left, and I know he’s remembering his father. “He said one day there would be no magic left in the kingdom if we weren’t careful.”
“I’m sorry-” I start, but when he tenses, I decide a subject change is what he really needs. “So, which mess should we tackle first?”
“I have a better idea of how to spend our night,” he says as he puts another pile of clothes on my bed.
“Oh?” I glance over and catch his eyes darkening as he stares at my mouth. My pulse immediately quickens, the thought of touching him sending a burst of energy through me.
Don’t fall for me…
His words from last night cut a sharp contrast to the way he’s looking at me now.
I take a step backward. “You said not to fall for you. Did you change your mind?”
“Absolutely not.” His jaw tenses.
“Right.” I don’t expect that to hurt as much as it does, which is part of the problem. I’m already too emotionally involved to separate out the sex, no matter how phenomenal it is. “Here’s the thing. I don’t think I can separate sex from emotion when it comes to you.” Well, shit, now I’ve said it. “We’re already too close for that, and if we hook up again, I’m going to eventually fall for you.” My heart pounds at the rushed confession, waiting for his response.
“You won’t.” Something akin to panic flares in his eyes, and he crosses his arms. I swear I can actually see the man building his defenses against
his own feelings. “You don’t really know me. Not at my core.” And whose fault is that?
“I know enough,” I argue softly. “And we’d have all the time in the world to figure it out if you’d stop acting like such an emotional chickenshit and just admit that you’re going to fall for me, too, if we keep this up.” There’s no way he would have designed that saddle, spent all that time training me to fight and fly, if he didn’t feel something. He’s going to have to fight for this, too, or it will never work.
“I have absolutely no intention of falling for you, Sorrengail.” His eyes narrow and he enunciates every word, like I could possibly take that any other way.
Fuck. That. He let me in. He told me about his scars. He had an arsenal crafted for me. He cares. He’s just as wrapped up in this as I am, even if he’s shitty at showing it.
“Ouch.” I wince. “Well, it’s apparent that you’re not ready to admit where this is going. So yeah, I think it’s best we agree that this was just a onetime thing.” I force my shoulders to shrug. “We both needed to blow off some steam, and we did, right?”
“Right,” he agrees, apprehension lining his forehead.
“So the next time I see you, I’ll just act as cool as you are right now and pretend that I’m not remembering what it feels like to have you sliding inside me.” Warm and hard. He really does have an incredible body, but he doesn’t get to dictate what I do with my heart.
He stalks forward with a smirk, his gaze warming every inch of my body. “And I’ll just pretend that I’m not remembering the feel of your soft thighs around my hips or those breathy little sounds you make right before you come.” His teeth rake over his lower lip, and it takes all my willpower not to suck that lip into my mouth.
“And I’ll ignore the memory of your hands biting into my hips, pinning me to the armoire so you could take me deeper, and your mouth on my throat. Easy.” My lips part as I retreat, my heart jumping in the best way when he follows, backing me against the wall.
His hand rests next to my head as he leans into my space, his lips curving into a half smile. “Then I guess I’ll ignore the memory of how hot and slick you feel around my cock, and how you cry out for more until all I can think about is how to push every physical limit to be exactly what you need.”
Shit. He’s better at this game than I am. Heat flushes my skin. I want him closer. I want exactly what I had last night. But I want more. His breath hits my lips in ragged pants, and I’m in no better condition.
Fuck it. I can have him, right? I can take exactly what he’s offering and enjoy every single minute. We can shred every piece of furniture in this room and then move to his. But where will that leave us in the morning?
Right here, both wanting and only one of us brave enough to take, and I deserve more than a relationship that’s only on his terms.
“You want me.” I put my hand on his chest and feel his heart pounding.
“And I know that scares you even though I want you just as badly.” He stiffens.
“But here’s the thing.” I hold his gaze, knowing he could bolt at any second. “You don’t get to dictate how I feel. You might give the orders out there, but not in here. You don’t get to tell me we can fuck but I can’t fall for you. That’s not fair. You can only respect what I choose to do. So we’re not doing this again until I want to risk my heart. And if I fall, then that’s my problem, not yours. You’re not responsible for my choices.”
His jaw clenches once. Twice. And then he pushes off the wall, giving me space. “I think that’s for the best. I’m graduating soon, and who knows where I’ll end up. Besides, you and I are chained together because of Sgaeyl and Tairn, which complicates…everything.” He retreats one step at a time, the distance more than just physical. “Besides, with all that pretending, I’m sure we’ll eventually forget last night ever happened.”
The way we’re looking at each other tells me neither of us is ever going to forget. And he can avoid it all he wants, but we’re going to end up right here time and again until he’s willing to recognize what this is. Because if there’s one thing I know for certain, it’s that I’m going to fall for this man- if I haven’t already-and he’s halfway there, too, whether he realizes it or not.
Turning my back on him, I walk to the shattered halves of my throwing target and pick them up before heading back across my room. “I never figured you for a liar, Xaden.” I shove the halves at his chest. “You can get me a new one when you’re ready to come to your senses. Then we’ll blow off some steam.” I throw the aggravating man out.
“Did you hear that King Tauri is celebrating Reunification Day here?” Sawyer asks as he swings his leg over the bench beside me at lunch.
“Really?” I attack my roasted chicken with zeal. Since I’ve been training every day with Carr, my appetite somewhat resembles a bottomless pit. At least he only drags me to that mountaintop for an hour a day, but still, by the time breakfast comes, I’m ravenous.
After a month, I still can’t aim lightning for shit. But I’m up to about twenty strikes an hour, so that’s an improvement. Glancing down the tables, I catch Xaden’s eye as he eats with the leadership on the dais.
He looks scrumptious this morning. Even the broody little cloud that follows him everywhere has a certain appeal as he rolls his eyes at something Garrick says.
“Don’t look at me like that.” “Like what?” I arch an eyebrow.
His gaze flashes to mine. “Like you’re thinking about the sparring gym last night.”
“Well, duh,” Rhiannon says across from me. “That’s why Devera has about five hundred black dress uniforms in commons right now. Where the king travels, so does the party.”
“Well, now that you mention it.” My tongue flicks over my lower lip, remembering how his hips pinned mine to the mat after everyone had left for the night. How close we both came to giving in to the pulsing need between us.
His jaw flexes, and his grip tightens on his fork. “Seriously. I can’t think when you look at me like that.”
“Really? I figured those were for graduation?” Ridoc questions.
Imogen scoffs. “Like anyone dresses up for graduation. It’s basically a giant formation where Panchek says, Look, you lived. Good job. Come get
your assignments and then pack your shit and leave.” Everyone laughs at her spot-on imitation.
“You’re the one with the ridiculous rule about not falling for each other,” I remind him.
“You’re still looking.” He forces his attention back to his plate.
“You make it hard to look away.” I miss his mouth on my skin, the feel of his body pressed against mine. I miss the look on his face when he watched me come undone. But I miss the feeling of him curled around me in sleep more.
“I’m over here keeping my hands and memories to myself because you asked me to, and you’re fucking me with your eyes. That’s not playing fair.” I drop my fork and everyone at the table turns to stare.
“You all right over there?” Rhiannon asks, her eyebrows rising.
“Yep.” I nod, ignoring the flush of heat creeping up my neck. “I’m great.”
Liam sets his glass down and glances between Xaden and me, shaking his head as he fights a smile. Of course he knows what’s going on. He’d have to be completely oblivious not to, considering he helped Xaden and Garrick move in the new armoire.
“Told you to stop staring.” There’s laughter in his voice, but his face is as expressionless as ever.
I tap my fork on my plate in pure frustration. You know what? Fuck this. Two can play at this game. “If you’d just man up and admit there’s something between us, I would strip down to my skin so you could see every single inch of me. And once I had you begging, I’d drop down to my knees, undo those flight leathers you’re wearing, and wrap my lips around-” Xaden chokes.
Every head in the dining hall turns his way, and Garrick pounds on his back until Xaden waves him off, taking a drink of his water.
I grin, which earns me about six looks of confusion from our table and one set of rolled eyes from Liam.
“You’re going to be the death of me.”
We’re only ten days away from graduation, and I’m counting every single one of them. That’s when we’ll find out how far Xaden is being sent from Basgiath. Most brand-new lieutenants are given midland posts, manning the forts along the roads that lead to the border outposts, but someone with Xaden’s power? I don’t even want to think about how far he’ll be.
Or why he still hasn’t admitted there’s something between us. Or even hinted that at least he didn’t regret that one night. I’d take that.
Don’t fall for me…
I feel a familiar prickle along my scalp, and I know Xaden has filed into the Battle Brief room with the rest of the remaining cadets and leadership.
Professor Devera jumps right into today’s brief, but I find it difficult to pay attention.
Today marks six years since Brennan was killed. He’d be a captain by now, or maybe even a major, given the way his career had taken off. Maybe he’d be married. Maybe I’d be an aunt. Maybe our father’s heart wouldn’t have given out that first time from the strain of losing him or that final time that spring two years ago.
“Take me to bed,” I mentally blurt out, then sink down in my seat a little.
I don’t regret it, though. Today of all days, I need a distraction.
“It might be awkward in front of all these people.”
I can’t see him from where I know he’s sitting at the top of the Battle Brief room, but his words feel like a caress on the back of my neck. “Might be worth it.”
“And what would you have done differently?” Devera asks, scanning the crowd.
“I would have asked for reinforcements if I’d known the wards were weakening in the area,” Rhiannon answers.
“I haven’t changed my mind, Violence. There’s no future for us.”
“And when no reinforcements are available?” Devera asks, arching a brow. “You have noticed that the graduating classes from the Riders Quadrant are diminishing every year, while the uptick in attacks has cost us another seven riders and their dragons this year, haven’t you? It takes at least a full company of infantry to make up for the loss of one rider.”
“Graduation is ten days away.” The approaching deadline has me on edge.
“I would have temporarily pulled riders from the midland posts to help rebuild the wards,” Rhiannon answers.
“Don’t remind me.”
“Excellent.” Devera nods.
“Are you seriously going to leave Basgiath without-” Without what? Declaring his undying…lust?
Of course he would. Xaden is a master of containing his emotions, which is probably why he’s so fixed on containing mine, too. Or is there some other reason he’s holding himself back that I’m not considering? The sex was great. Our chemistry? Explosive. We’re even…friends, though the constant ache in my chest tells me it’s gone far beyond that. If he could just be an asshole, then I’d write that night off as just sex-ridiculously mindblowing sex-and move on. But he’s not being an ass…not usually at least, and now I understand why he takes his job so seriously. He shoulders the responsibility for every marked one in here.
“Whatever you’re thinking can wait until there’s not a room of people between us,” he says.
“What else do you have for me?” Devera continues, calling on a secondyear.
It’s been a month and a half since we destroyed my room-and we’ve managed to keep our hands off each other, even though one night wasn’t enough to satisfy either of us, if the tension-filled evenings on the sparring mats are any indication. Of course, we both know anything more would only further complicate an already overly complicated situation.
But surely he’s not relieving this sexual tension that stretches taut between us-with someone else. Surely. The insidious thought spreads with a sickening quickness.
I stop listening as my stomach twists at an all-too-real possibility. “Is there someone else?”
“I’m not having this discussion with you right now. Pay attention.”
It takes everything I have not to turn around and yell at him. If I’ve spent every night tossing and turning in my sheets alone while he-
“That’s a good idea, too, Aetos.” Devera smiles. “A very wingleader answer, if I might say so.”
Oh gods, Dain’s ego is going to be unbearable today during sparring if Devera keeps complimenting him.
Sparring… I clasp my pen a little too hard as I remember the way Imogen looked at Xaden that night. Shit. That would make sense. She carries a rebellion relic, and definitely isn’t the daughter of the woman who killed his father, so she has that going for her, too. “Is it Imogen?” I’m going to be sick.
“For fuck’s sake, Violence.”
“Is it? I know we said we weren’t going there again, but-” I’m kicking myself for telling him I wanted more now, and for the fact that I should be paying attention instead of fighting with Xaden. “At least tell me.” “Sorrengail,” Xaden snaps.
I freeze, feeling the weight of every gaze on me.
“Yes, Riorson?” Devera prompts.
He clears his throat. “If reinforcements were unavailable, I would have asked for Mira Sorrengail to temporarily transfer. The wards are strong at Montserrat, and with her signet, she could reinforce the weaknesses until other riders could arrive to strengthen those wards.”
“Good idea.” Devera nods. “And what riders are the most logical choice to help rebuild the wards in this particular mountain pass?” “Third-years,” I answer.
“Go on.” Devera tilts her head at me.
“Third-years are taught to build wards, and at this point in the year, they’re leaving anyway.” I shrug. “May as well send them early so they can be of use.”
“Point fucking made.”
I slam my shield down and block him out.
“That’s a logical choice,” Devera says. “And that’s all we have for today. Don’t forget that you should be preparing for the last exercise of War Games before graduation. Also we expect each and every one of you in the courtyard in front of Basgiath tonight at nine for fireworks to celebrate Reunification Day. Dress uniforms only.” She lifts her brows at Ridoc.
He shrugs. “What else would I be wearing?”
“One never knows what you’ll come up with,” Devera says, dismissing us.
“Anything I need to know about what’s going on between you and…” Liam raises his eyebrows at me as we gather our things.
“Absolutely nothing is going on between us. Not one damn thing,” I insist. If Xaden doesn’t want to see if there might be more between us, message received. I turn to Rhiannon. “So are you excited to finally be able to write to your sister in ten days?”
She grins. “I’ve been writing her once a month since we got here. Now I’ll finally get to post them.”
At least one good thing is coming with graduation. We’ll all be able to talk to our loved ones again.
Later that night, I adjust the sash across the bodice of my black dress uniform and tuck a loose strand of my hair back into the pretty arrangement Quinn helped me with earlier before meeting Rhiannon in the hallway.
She’s unbound her hair from its usual braided, protective style, and the tight coils form a beautiful halo around her face, which she’s dusted with gold-tinted blush. Her chosen option of sleek, tailored dress pants and a cross-body doublet that cuts across her torso on the diagonal looks phenomenal on her taller frame. “Hot,” I say with a nod as she tugs on her sash.
I went with the high neck, sleeveless option to hide my armor and the flowing, floor-length skirt with the slit up the thigh, which Devera told me was for mobility in case of attack. Personally, I’m not against the flash of thigh it gives when I move, especially with all the work I’ve put in to strengthen my legs with Imogen. My sash is simple, the same black satin as everyone else’s, with my name embroidered just beneath my shoulder and the star of a first-year.
“I heard there’s going to be a mob of infantry guys there,” Nadine says as she joins us.
“Don’t you prefer a little brain with your brawn?” Ridoc slides right in, Sawyer at his side.
“You did not try to leave without me!” Liam shouts as he runs forward, darting through the crowd as we move toward the staircase that leads to Basgiath’s main campus.
“I was hoping you’d been given the night off,” I answer truthfully as he reaches my side. “Don’t you look handsome.”
“I know.” He preens sarcastically, straightening his sash over a midnightblack doublet. “I’ve heard healer cadets have a thing for riders.”
“Hardly.” Rhiannon laughs. “As often as they have to put us back together? I bet they’re more into scribes.”
“What are scribes into?” Liam asks me as we descend the stairs in a sea of black, taking the path we tread every morning toward the Archives. “Seeing as you were almost one of them?”
“Usually other scribes,” I answer. “But I guess riders, in my father’s case.”
“I’m just excited to see some people who aren’t riders,” Ridoc says, holding open the door so we can pass through the tunnel. “It’s getting kind of incestuous around here.”
“Agreed.” Rhiannon nods.
“Oh, whatever. You and Tara have been on again, off again all year,” Nadine says, then blanches. “Shit. Are you off again?”
“We’re taking a breather until Parapet,” she says, and we enter the Healer Quadrant.
“Hard to believe we’ll be second-years in a little more than two weeks,” Sawyer says.
“Hard to believe we’ve survived,” I add. There was only one name on the death roll this week, a third-year who didn’t come back from an overnight mission.
By the time we make it to the courtyard, the party is in full swing. There’s a blend of pale blue for the healers, cream for the scribes, and the navy-blue uniforms of the infantry more than overwhelming the scattered black uniforms. There must be a thousand people or more in here.
Mage lights hang above us in the form of a dozen chandeliers, and drapes of rich velvets cover the stone walls of Basgiath, transforming the functional outdoor space into a ballroom of sorts. There’s even a string quartet playing in the corner.
“Where are you?” I ask Xaden, but there’s no answer.
We all seem to scatter as we enter, but Liam stays at my side, as tense as the string on my crossbow. “Tell me you’re wearing your armor under all that.”
“You think someone is going to knife me in front of my mother?” I gesture to the exposed balcony where Mom appears to be holding court, surveying her domain. Our gazes collide and she whispers something to the man next to her, disappearing from view.
Nice to see you, too.
“I think if anyone was going to knife you, now would be the time, especially knowing that killing you has a good chance of ending Fen Riorson’s son.” His voice tightens.
That’s when I notice the stares of the officers and cadets around us. They’re not gawking at my hair or the name on my sash. No, their gazes widen at Liam’s wrist and the visible swirls of his rebellion relic.
I hook my arm through his and lift my chin. “I’m so sorry.”
“There is absolutely nothing for you to be sorry about.” He gives my hand a reassuring pat.
“Of course there is,” I whisper. Oh gods, everyone is here to gather in celebration of the end of what he and the others call the apostasy. They’re celebrating his mother’s death. “You can go. You should go. This is…” I shake my head.
“I go where you go.” His hand tightens over mine.
A boulder lodges in my throat, and I scan the crowd, instinctively knowing that he’s not here. There’s no Garrick, no Bodhi, no Imogen, and definitely no Xaden. No wonder he was in such a shit mood today.
“This isn’t fair to you.” I glare at the infantry officer who has the nerve to look appalled at the sight of Liam’s wrist.
“I highly doubt you enjoy celebrating the anniversary of your brother’s death, either.” Liam holds himself with a dignity I could never imagine.
“Brennan would hate all of this.” I gesture to the crowd. “He was more about getting the work done than celebrating its completion.”
“Yeah, sounds like-” His words die, and I squeeze his arm tighter as I note the separating crowd before us.
King Tauri walks at my mother’s side, and from the direction of his wide, toothy smile, he’s headed this way. A purple sash crosses his doublet, pinned to his chest by a dozen medals he’s never won from a hundred battlefields he’s never stepped foot on.
Mom’s medals are all earned, and they adorn her black sash like jewelry as it drapes across her high-necked, long-sleeve dress uniform.
“Go,” I hiss at Liam in a whisper, forcing a smile for my mother’s sake as General Melgren joins them. Melgren may be brilliant, but he’s also unnerving as fuck to be around.
“When your greatest danger approaches? I think not.” His spine straightens.
I’m going to rip Xaden’s gorgeous head off for forcing Liam through this.
“Your Majesty,” I murmur, dropping a foot behind me like Mira taught and bending as I bow my head, noting that Liam has bowed at the waist.
“Your mother tells me you’ve bonded with not one but two exceptional dragons,” King Tauri says, smiling under his mustache.
“Yes, she is quite confident in your power,” Melgren adds, his smile icy as he stares at me in blatant appraisal.
“I would not say the same at this time,” I answer with a polite smile. I’ve spent enough time around egotistical generals, politicians, and royalty to know when to be humble. “I’m still learning how to wield.”
“Don’t be so modest, daughter,” Mom chides. “From what her professors say, they’ve only seen a gift this powerful a few times in the last decade, in Brennan and the Riorson boy.”
That boy is a twenty-three-year-old man, but I know better than to correct her and put an even bigger target on Xaden’s back.
“And your gift?” King Tauri asks Liam.
“Farsight, Your Majesty,” Liam responds.
Melgren’s eyes narrow on Liam’s exposed rebellion relic, then rise to his sash. “Mairi, as in Colonel Mairi’s son?”
I squeeze his arm tighter against mine in silent support, and Mom notices.
“Yes, General. Though I was mostly brought up by Duke Lindell at Tirvainne.” His jaw flexes, but that’s the only physical sign of his discomfort.
“Ahh.” King Tauri nods. “Yes, Duke Lindell is a good man, a loyal man.” The superiority in his air makes me want to snatch the medals off his chest.
“I have him to thank for my fortitude, Majesty.” Liam plays the game well.
“Yes, you do.” Melgren nods again, his gaze scanning the crowd. “Now tell me, where is the Riorson boy? I always like to lay eyes on him once a year and make sure he’s not causing trouble.”
“No trouble,” I answer, earning a swift glare from Mom. “He’s our wingleader, actually. He saved my life when we were on the front lines at Montserrat.” By making me leave instead of staying to help, but still, he deserves the credit for me not distracting Mira and getting her, myself, and Tairn killed. Xaden’s done more than save me. He believed me when I told him Amber led the unbondeds to my room. He had an entire arsenal of daggers crafted just for me. He designed a saddle for Tairn so I can ride into battle with my peers. He’d protected me when I needed and taught me to defend myself so I wouldn’t require protection forever.
And when others are quick to stand in front of me, Xaden always stands at my side, trusting me to hold my own.
But I don’t say any of that. What’s the point? Xaden wouldn’t give a fuck what these people think of him-so I won’t, either. Instead, I just continue to offer a simpering smile, seemingly in awe of the powerful men before me.
“Their dragons are mated,” Mom offers, her smile chilling. “So she’s grown quite close to him out of necessity.”
Out of lust and need and the ache in my chest I’m terrified to define, but sure, necessity works.
“That’s excellent.” King Tauri beams. “It’s good to have a Sorrengail on lookout for us. You’ll let us know if he decides to, oh, I don’t know.” He laughs. “Start another war?”
Melgren is fully capable of seeing the outcome of any such absurdity, and yet he stares at Liam and me with unnerving focus.
My entire body tenses. “I can assure you, he’s loyal.”
“So where is he?” King Tauri scans the courtyard. “I asked that they all be here, all marked ones.”
“I just saw him a little earlier.” I smile through the not-quite lie. Battle Brief was earlier. “I’d check the edges? He’s not much for parties.”
“Oh, look! There’s Dain Aetos!” Mom says, nodding somewhere behind my shoulder. “He’d be so humbled if you said hello,” she prompts the king.
“Of course.” The three of them walk off, leaving Liam and me standing in complete silence as we pivot to watch them so we don’t accidentally turn our backs on the king. I feel like I’ve just survived certain death, or at least some kind of natural disaster.
“I’m going to kill him for making you come to this,” I mutter under my breath as Dain greets the king with perfect manners. “Xaden didn’t make me come.” “What?” My gaze jumps to his.
“He’d never ask this of me. Never ask it of anyone. But I told him I would keep you safe, and that’s what I’m doing, keeping you safe.” He flashes a crooked smile.
“You are a good friend, Liam Mairi.” I rest my head on his arm.
“You saved my life, Violet. The least I can do is grin and bear it through a fucking party.”
“I’m not sure I can grin and bear it.” Not with the way people constantly glance at his wrist, like he’s the one who personally led the army to the border.
Dain smiles as the king takes his leave, then glances over his shoulder, meeting my gaze and heading our way.
He grins, and it’s all too easy to remember how many events just like this we’ve attended together over the years. His touch is gentle when he cups my cheek. “You look beautiful tonight, Vi.”
“Thank you.” I smile. “You look fabulous yourself.”
His hand falls away as he turns to Liam. “Has this one tried to escape yet? She’s always hated these things.”
“Not yet, but the evening is young,” Liam replies.
Dain must read the tense lines of Liam’s face, because his smile slips when he looks back at me. “The staircase is about five feet to our right. I’ll distract while you slip away.”
“Thank you.” I nod in thanks, offering him a soft smile. “Let’s get out of here,” I say to Liam.
Once we’re out of the party and back in the Riders Quadrant, I walk straight into the courtyard and ground, letting power swirl around and through me. I sense the golden energy from Andarna, the blazing power from Tairn that connects me to Sgaeyl, and finally, the shimmering shadows of Xaden.
I open my eyes, tracing the ebb and flow of that shimmering shadow, and I know he’s somewhere in front of me.
“Liam, you know I adore you, right?”
“Well, that’s nice-”
“Go away.” I walk straight ahead through the courtyard.
“What?” Liam catches up to me. “I can’t just leave you out here by yourself.”
“No offense, but I can fry this entire place with a lightning bolt if I want to, and I need to see Xaden, so go.” I pat his arm and keep striding toward the feeling, using it to guide me.
“I mean, your aim is shit according to you, but I get the rest!” he calls out, falling behind.
I don’t bother with a mage light as I pass the area where we usually stand in formation and keep walking toward the figures lounging against the only opening in this godsforsaken wall. There’s only one place Xaden can be.
“Tell me he’s not out there,” I say to Garrick and Bodhi, whose features I can barely see in the moonlight.
“I could tell you that, but I’d be lying,” Bodhi remarks, rubbing the back of his neck.
“You’re not going to want to see him. Not tonight, Sorrengail,” Garrick warns with a grimace. “Self-preservation is a thing. Notice we’re not with him, and we’re his best friends.”
“Yeah, well, I’m his…” I open my mouth and shut it a few times because…fuck if I know what I am to him. But the longing that holds my heart hostage, this driving need to be at his side because I know he’s suffering, no matter if it means throwing myself headfirst into uncertainty… I can’t deny what he is to me. I kick off the leather slippers of my dress uniform-they’re more of a hazard than anything, and in this wind? Well, we’ll see how it goes. “I’m just…his.”
For the first time since last year, I step up onto the parapet.