Chapter no 4

Fourth Wing (The Empyrean Book 1)

“Elena Sosa, Brayden Blackburn.” Captain Fitzgibbons reads from the death roll, flanked by two other scribes on the dais as we stand in silent formation in the courtyard, squinting into the early sun.

This morning, we’re all in rider black, and there’s a single silver fourpointed star on my collarbone, the mark of a first-year, and a Fourth Wing patch on my shoulder. We were issued standard uniforms yesterday, summer-weight tight-fitted tunics, pants, and accessories after Parapet was over, but not flight leathers. There’s no point handing out the thicker, more protective combat uniforms when half of us won’t be around come Threshing in October. The armored corset Mira made me isn’t regulation, but I fit right in among the hundreds of modified uniforms around me.

After the last twenty-four hours and one night in the first-floor barracks, I’m starting to realize that this quadrant is a strange mix of we-might-dietomorrow hedonism and brutal efficiency in the name of the same reason.

“Jace Sutherland.” Captain Fitzgibbons continues to read, and the scribes next to him shift their weight. “Dougal Luperco.”

I think we’re somewhere in the fifties, but I lost count when he read Dylan’s name a few minutes ago. This is the only memorial the names will get, the only time they’ll be spoken of in the citadel, so I try to concentrate, to commit each name to memory, but there’s just too many.

My skin is agitated from wearing the armor all night like Mira suggested, and my knee aches, but I resist the urge to bend down and adjust the wrap I managed to put on in the nonexistent privacy of my bunk in the first-year barracks before anyone else woke up.

There are a hundred and fifty-six of us in the first floor of the dormitory building, our beds positioned in four neat rows in the open space. Even though Jack Barlowe was put in the third-floor dorms, I’m not about to let any of them see my weaknesses. Not until I know who I can trust. Private rooms are like flight leathers-you don’t get one until you survive Threshing.

“Simone Casteneda.” Captain Fitzgibbons closes the scroll. “We commend their souls to Malek.” The god of death.

I blink. Guess we were closer to the end than I thought.

There’s no formal conclusion to the formation, no last moment of silence. The names on the scroll leave the dais with the scribes, and the quiet is broken as the squad leaders all turn and begin to address their squads.

“Hopefully you all ate breakfast, because you’re not going to get another chance before lunch,” Dain says, his eyes meeting mine for the span of a heartbeat before he glances away, feigning indifference.

“He’s good at pretending he doesn’t know you,” Rhiannon whispers at my side.

“He is,” I reply just as softly. A smile tugs at the corners of my mouth, but I keep my expression as bland as possible as I soak in the sight of him. The sun plays in his sandy-brown hair, and when he turns his head, I see a scar peeking from his beard along his chin I’d somehow missed yesterday.

“Second- and third-years, I’m assuming you know where to go,” Dain continues as the scribes wind their way around the edge of the courtyard to my right, headed back to their quadrant. I ignore the tiny voice inside me protesting that it was supposed to be my quadrant. Lingering on what could have been isn’t going to help me survive to see tomorrow’s sunrise.

There’s a mutter of agreement from the senior cadets ahead of us. As first-years, we’re in the back two rows of the little square that makes up Second Squad.

“First-years, at least one of you should have memorized your academic schedule when it was handed out yesterday.” Dain’s voice booms over us, and it’s hard to reconcile this stern-faced, serious leader with the funny, grinning guy I’ve always known. “Stick together. I expect you all to be alive when we meet this afternoon in the sparring gym.”

Fuck, I’d almost forgotten that we’re sparring today. We only have the gym twice a week, so as long as I can get through today’s session unscathed, I’m in the clear for another couple of days. At least I have some time to get my feet under me before we’ll have to handle the Gauntlet-the terrifying vertical obstacle course they told us we’ll have to master when the leaves turn colors in two months.

If we can complete the final Gauntlet, we’ll walk through the natural box canyon above it that leads to the flight field for Presentation, where this year’s dragons willing to bond will get their first look at the remaining cadets. Two days after that, Threshing will occur in the valley beneath the citadel.

I glance around at my new squadmates and can’t help but wonder which of us, if any, will make it to that flight field, let alone that valley.

Don’t borrow tomorrow’s trouble.

“And if we’re not?” the smart-ass first-year behind me asks.

I don’t bother looking, but Rhiannon does, rolling her eyes as she turns back forward.

“Then I won’t have to be concerned with learning your name, since it will be read off tomorrow morning,” Dain answers with a shrug.

A second-year ahead of me snorts a laugh, the movement jangling two small hoop earrings in her left lobe, but the pink-haired one stays silent.

“Sawyer?” Dain looks at the first-year to my left.

“I’ll get them there.” The tall, wiry cadet whose light complexion is covered with a smattering of freckles answers with a tight nod. His freckled jaw ticks, and my chest pangs with sympathy. He’s one of the repeats-a cadet who didn’t bond during Threshing and now has to start the entire year over.

“Get going,” Dain orders, and our squad breaks apart around the same time the others do, transforming the courtyard from an orderly formation to a crowd of chatting cadets. The second- and third-years walk off in another direction, including Dain.

“We have about twenty minutes to get to class,” Sawyer shouts at the eight of us first-years. “Fourth floor, second room on the left in the academic wing. Get your shit and don’t be late.” He doesn’t bother waiting to confirm we’ve heard him before he heads off toward the dormitory.

“That has to be hard,” Rhiannon says as we follow the crowd toward the dorms. “Being set back and having to do this all over again.”

“Better than being dead,” the smart-ass says as he passes us on the right, his dark-brown hair flopping against the brown skin of his forehead with every step the shorter cadet takes. His name is Ridoc, if I remember correctly from the brief introductions we went through before dinner last night.

“That’s true,” I reply as we head into the bottleneck that’s formed at the door.

“I overheard a third-year say when a first-year survives Threshing unbonded, the quadrant lets them repeat the year and try again if they want,” Rhiannon adds, and I can’t help but wonder how much determination it would take to survive your first year and then be willing to repeat it just for the chance you might one day become a rider. You could just as easily die the second time around.

A bird whistles to the left, and I look over the crowd, my heart leaping because I immediately recognize the tone. Dain.

The call sounds again, and I narrow it down to somewhere near the door to the rotunda. He’s standing at the top of the wide staircase, and the second our eyes lock, he motions toward the door with a subtle nod.

“I’ll be-” I start saying to Rhiannon, but she’s already followed my line of sight.

“I’ll grab your stuff and meet you there. It’s under your bunk, right?” she asks.

“You don’t mind?”

“Your bunk is next to mine, Violet. It’s not a hassle. Go!” She gives me a conspiratorial smile and shoulder bumps me.

“Thank you!” I smile quickly, then wade across the crowd until I break free at the edge. Lucky for me, there aren’t many cadets headed into commons, which means there aren’t any eyes on me once I slip inside one of the four giant doors of the rotunda.

My lungs pull in a sharp breath. It looks like the renderings I’ve seen in the Archives, but there is no drawing, no artistic medium, that can capture just how overwhelming the space is, how exquisite every detail. The rotunda might be the most beautiful piece of architecture not only in the citadel but in all of Basgiath. The room is three stories tall, from its polished marble floors to the domed glass ceiling that filters in the soft morning light. To the left are two massive arched doors to the academic wing, echoed by the same on the right, leading to the dorms, and up a half dozen steps, there are four doorways in front of me that open into the gathering hall.

Equally spaced around the rotunda, shimmering in their various colors of red, green, brown, orange, blue, and black, stand six daunting marble pillars carved into dragons, as if they’d come crashing down from the ceiling above. There’s enough room between the snarling mouths at the base of each to fit at least four squads in the center, but it’s empty right now.

I pass by the first dragon, chiseled from dark-red marble, and a hand grips my elbow, pulling me back behind the pillar where there’s a gap between the claw and the wall.

“It’s just me.” Dain’s voice is low and quiet as he turns me to face him. Tension radiates from every line of his frame.

“I figured, since you were the one birdcalling me.” I grin, shaking my head. He’s been using that signal since we were kids living near the Krovlan border while our parents were stationed there with the Southern Wing.

His brow furrows as his gaze scans over me, no doubt looking for new injuries. “We only have a few minutes before this place is packed. How is your knee?”

“It hurts, but I’ll live.” I’ve had far worse injuries and we both know it, but there’s no use telling him to relax when he’s obviously not going to.

“No one tried to screw with you last night?” Concern creases his forehead, and I fold my arms to keep from smoothing the lines with my fingers. His worry sits on my chest like a stone.

“Would it be so bad if they did?” I tease, forcing my smile to widen.

He drops his arms to his sides and sighs so hard, the sound echoes in the rotunda. “You know that’s not what I mean, Violet.”

“No one tried to kill me last night, Dain, or even hurt me.” I lean back against the wall and take some weight off my knee. “Pretty sure we were all too tired and relieved to be alive to start slaughtering one another.” The barracks fell quiet pretty quickly after lights out. There was something to be said for the emotional exhaustion of the day.

“And you ate, right? I know they usher you out of the dorms fast when the bells chime for six.”

“I ate with the rest of the first-years, and before you even think about lecturing me, I rewrapped my knee under my covers and had my hair braided before the bells sounded. I’ve been keeping scribe hours for years, Dain. They’re up an hour earlier. It makes me want to volunteer for breakfast duty, actually.”

He glances at the tight, silver-tipped braid I’ve pinned into a bun against the darker hair near the crown of my head. “You should cut it.” “Don’t start with me.” I shake my head.

“There’s a reason women keep it short here, Vi. The second someone gets ahold of your hair in the sparring ring-“

“My hair is the least of my concerns in the sparring ring,” I retort.

His eyes widen. “I’m just trying to keep you safe. You’re lucky I didn’t shove you into Captain Fitzgibbons’s hands this morning and beg him to take you out of here.”

I ignore the bluster of a threat. We’re wasting time, and there’s one piece of information I need from Dain. “Why was our squad moved from Second

Wing to Fourth yesterday?” He stiffens and looks away.

“Tell me.” I need to know if I’m reading into a situation that doesn’t exist.

“Fuck,” he mutters, ripping his hand over his hair. “Xaden Riorson wants you dead. It’s common knowledge among the leadership cadre after yesterday.”

Nope. Not overreacting.

“He moved the squad so he has a direct line to me. So he can do whatever he wants and no one will question a thing. I’m his revenge against my mother.” My heart doesn’t even jump at the confirmation of what I already knew. “That’s what I thought. I just needed to be sure my imagination wasn’t running away with me.”

“I’m not going to let anything happen to you.” Dain steps forward and cups my face, his thumb stroking over my cheekbone in a soothing motion.

“There’s not much you can do.” I push off the wall, stepping out of his reach. “I have to get to class.” Already, there are a few voices echoing in the rotunda as cadets pass through.

His jaw works for a second, and the lines are back between his eyebrows. “Just do your best to keep a low profile, especially when we’re in Battle Brief. Not like the colors in your hair don’t give you away, but that’s the one class the entire quadrant takes. I’ll see if one of the second-years can stand guard-“

“No one is going to assassinate me during history.” I roll my eyes. “Academics are the one place I don’t have to worry. What is Xaden going to do? Pull me out of class and run me through with a sword in the middle of the hallway? Or do you honestly think he’ll stab me in the middle of Battle Brief?”

“I wouldn’t put it past him. He’s fucking ruthless, Violet. Why do you think his dragon chose him?”

“The navy-blue one who landed behind the dais yesterday?” My stomach twists. The way those golden eyes assessed me…

Dain nods. “Sgaeyl is a Blue Daggertail, and she’s…vicious.” He swallows. “Don’t get me wrong. Cath is a nasty piece of work when he gets riled-all Red Swordtails are-but even most dragons steer clear of Sgaeyl.”

I stare at Dain, at the scar that defines his jaw and the hard set of his eyes that are familiar and yet not.

“What?” he asks. The voices around us grow louder, and there are more footsteps coming and going.

“You bonded a dragon. You have powers I don’t even know about. You open doors with magic. You’re a squad leader.” I say the sentences slowly, hoping they’ll sink in, that I’ll truly grasp how much he’s changed. “It’s just hard to wrap my head around you still being…Dain.”

“I’m still me.” His posture softens, and he lifts the short sleeve of his tunic, revealing the relic of a red dragon on his shoulder. “I just have this now. And as for the powers, Cath channels a pretty significant amount of magic compared to some of the other dragons, but I’m nowhere near adept at it yet. I haven’t changed that much. As for lesser magic powered through the bond of my relic, I can do the typical stuff like open doors, crank up my speed, and power ink pens instead of using those inconvenient quills.”

“What’s your signet power?” Every rider can do lesser magic once their dragon begins channeling power to them, but the signet is the unique ability that stands out, the strongest skill that results from each unique bond between dragon and rider.

Some riders have the same signets. Fire wielding, ice wielding, and water wielding are just a few of the most common signet powers, all useful in battle.

Then there are the signets that make a rider extraordinary.

My mother can wield the power of storms.

Melgren can see the outcome of battles.

I can’t help but wonder again what Xaden’s signet is-and if he’ll use it to kill me when I least expect it.

“I can read a person’s recent memories,” Dain admits quietly. “Not like an inntinnsic reads minds or anything-I have to put my hands on the person, so I’m not a security risk. But my signet’s not common knowledge. I think they’ll use me in intelligence.” He points to the compass patch beneath his Fourth Wing one on his shoulder. Wearing that sigil indicates that a signet is too classified. I just didn’t notice it yesterday.

“No way.” I smile, taking a calming breath as I remember Xaden’s uniform didn’t have any patches on it.

He nods, an excited smile shaping his mouth. “I’m still learning, and of course I’m better at it the closer I am to Cath, but yeah. I just put my hands on someone’s temples, and I can see what they saw. It’s…incredible.”

That signet will more than set Dain apart. It will make him one of the most valuable interrogation tools we have. “And you say you haven’t changed,” I half tease.

“This place can warp almost everything about a person, Vi. It cuts away the bullshit and the niceties, revealing whoever you are at your core. They want it that way. They want it to sever your previous bonds so your loyalty is to your wing. It’s one of the many reasons that first-years aren’t allowed to correspond with their family and friends, otherwise you know I would have written you. But a year doesn’t change that I still think of you as my best friend. I’m still Dain, and this time next year, you will still be Violet.

We will still be us.”

“If I’m still alive,” I joke as the bells ring. “I have to get to class.”

“Yeah, and I’m going to be late to the flight field.” He motions toward the edge of the pillar. “Look, Riorson is still a wingleader. He’ll be after you, but he’ll find a way to do it within the rules of the Codex, at least when people are watching. I was…” His cheeks flush. “Really good friends with Amber Mavis-the current wingleader for Third Wing-last year, and I’m telling you, the Codex is sacred to them. Now, you go first. I’ll see you in the sparring gym.” He smiles reassuringly.

“I’ll see you.” I smile back and turn on my heel, walking around the base of the massive pillar into the semi-crowded rotunda. There’re a couple dozen cadets in here, walking from one building to another, and it takes a second to get my bearings.

I spot the academic doors between the orange-and-black pillars and start that way, blending into the crowd.

The hairs on the back of my neck stand up and a chill races down my spine as I cross the center of the rotunda, then my steps halt. Cadets move around me, but my eyes are drawn upward, toward the top of the steps that lead to the gathering hall.

Oh shit.

Xaden Riorson is watching me with narrowed eyes, the sleeves of his uniform rolled up his massive arms that remain folded across his chest, the warning in his relic-covered arm on full display as a third-year next to him says something that he blatantly ignores.

My heart jumps and lodges in my throat. There’s maybe twenty feet between us. My fingers twitch, ready to grab one of the blades sheathed at my ribs. Is this where he’ll do it? In the middle of the rotunda? The marble floor is gray, so it shouldn’t be that hard for the staff to get the blood out.

His head tilts, and he studies me with those impossibly dark eyes, like he’s deciding where I’m most vulnerable.

I should run, right? But at least I can see him coming if I hold this position.

His attention shifts, glancing to my right, and he lifts a single brow at me. My stomach pitches as Dain emerges from behind the pillar.

“What are you-” Dain starts as he reaches me, his brow furrowed in confusion.

“Top of the steps. Fourth door,” I hiss, interrupting him.

Dain’s gaze snaps up as the crowd thins out around us, and he mutters a curse, not-so-subtly stepping closer to me. Fewer people mean fewer witnesses, but I’m not foolish enough to think Xaden won’t kill me in front of the whole quadrant if he wants.

“I already knew your parents are tight,” Xaden calls out, a cruel smile tilting his lips. “But do you two have to be so fucking obvious?” The few cadets who are still in the rotunda turn to look at us.

“Let me guess,” Xaden continues, glancing between Dain and me. “Childhood friends? First loves, even?”

“He can’t hurt you without cause, right?” I whisper. “Without cause and calling a quorum of wingleaders because you’re a squad leader. Article Four, Section Three.”

“Correct,” Dain answers, not bothering to lower his voice. “But you’re not.”

“I expected you to do a better job of hiding where your affections lie, Aetos.” Xaden moves, walking down the steps.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

“Run, Violet,” Dain orders me. “Now.”

I bolt.

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