Chapter no 7

Fourth Wing (The Empyrean Book 1)

“Damn it,” I mutter as my toe catches a rock, and I stumble in the waisthigh grass that grows alongside the river beneath the citadel. The moon is nice and full, illuminating my way, but it means I’m sweating to death in this cloak to keep hidden, just in case anyone else is out here wandering after curfew.

The Iakobos River rushes with summer runoff from the peaks above, and the currents are fast and deadly this time of year, especially coming out of the steep drop of the ravine. No wonder that first-year died when he fell in yesterday during our downtime. Since Parapet, our squad is the only one in the quadrant not to lose anyone, but I know that’s unlikely to last much longer in this ruthless school.

Tightening my heavy satchel over my sling, I move closer to the river, along the ancient line of oaks where I know one vine of fonilee berries will be coming into season soon. Ripe, the purple berries are tart and barely edible but, picked prematurely and left to dry, will make an excellent weapon in the growing arsenal that nine nights of sneaking out has given me. This was exactly the reason I brought the book of poisons with me.

Challenges start next week, and I need every possible advantage.

Spotting the boulder I’ve used as a landmark for the past five years, I count the trees on the riverbank. “One, two, three,” I whisper, spotting the exact oak I’ll need. Its branches spread wide and high, some even daring to reach out over the river. Lucky for me, the lowest is easily climbable, even more so with the grass oddly trampled underneath.

A twinge of pain shoots up through my shoulder as I slip my right arm out of the sling and begin to climb by moonlight and memory. The pain quickly fades to an ache, just like it has every evening while Rhiannon has been kicking my ass on the mat. Hopefully tomorrow Nolon will let me out of the annoying sling for good.

The fonilee vine looks deceptively like ivy as it winds up the trunk, but I’ve scaled this particular tree enough times to know this is the one. I’ve just never had to climb the damn thing in a cloak before. It’s a pain in my ass. The fabric catches on almost every branch as I move upward, slowly and steadily, climbing past the wide branch where I used to spend hours reading.

“Shit!” My foot slips on the bark and my heart stutters for a heartbeat while my feet find better holds. This would be so much easier during the day, but I can’t risk being caught.

Bark scrapes my palms as I climb higher. The tips of the vine leaves are white at this height, barely visible in the mottled moonlight through the canopy, but I grin as I find exactly what I’ve been searching for.

“There you are.” The purple berries are a gorgeous, unripe lavender. Perfect. Digging my fingernails into the branch above me, I manage to keep from wobbling long enough to retrieve an empty vial in my satchel and uncork it with my teeth. Then I pluck just enough berries off the vine to fill the glass and shove the stopper back in. Between these, the mushrooms I’ve already hunted tonight, and the other items I’ve collected, I should be able to make it through the next month of challenges.

I’m almost down the tree, only a handful of branches to go, when I spot movement beneath me and pause. Hopefully it’s just a deer.

But it’s not.

Two figures in black cloaks-apparently tonight’s disguise of choice- walk under the protection of the tree. The smaller one leans back against the lowest limb, removing her hood to reveal a half-shaved head of pink hair I know all too well.

Imogen, the squadmate who nearly ripped off my arm ten days ago.

My stomach tightens, then knots as the second rider slips off his own hood.

Xaden Riorson.

Oh shit.

There’s maybe fifteen feet between us and nothing-and no one-out here to stop him from killing me. Fear clenches my throat and holds tight as I white-knuckle the branches around me, debating the merits of holding my breath so he can’t hear me versus falling out of the tree if I faint from lack of oxygen.

They begin speaking, but I can’t hear what they’re saying, not with the river rushing by. Relief fills my lungs. If I can’t hear them, they can’t hear me, either, as long as I sit tight. But all it takes is for him to look up, and I’ll be toast, literally if he decides to feed me to that Blue Daggertail of his. The moonlight I was thankful for a few minutes ago has now become my biggest liability.

Slowly, carefully, quietly, I move out of the patchy moonlight to the next branch over, cloaking myself in shadow. What is he doing out here with Imogen? Are they lovers? Friends? It’s absolutely none of my business, and yet I can’t help but wonder if she’s the kind of woman he goes for-one whose beauty is only outmatched by her brutality. They fucking deserve each other.

Xaden turns away from the river, as though he’s looking for someone, and sure enough, more riders arrive, gathering under the tree. They’re all dressed in black cloaks as they shake hands. And they all have rebellion relics.

My eyes widen as I count. There are almost two dozen of them, a few third-years and a couple of seconds, but the rest are all firsts. I know the rules. Marked ones can’t gather in groups larger than three. They’re committing a capital offense simply by being together. It’s obviously a meeting of some sort, and I feel like a cat clinging to the leaf-tipped limbs of this tree while the wolves circle below.

Their gathering could be completely harmless, right? Maybe they’re homesick, like when the cadets from the Morraine province all spend a Saturday at the nearby lake just because it reminds them of the ocean they miss so much.

Or maybe marked ones are plotting to burn Basgiath to the ground and finish what their parents started.

I can sit up here and ignore them, but my complacency-my fear-could get people killed if they’re down there scheming. Telling Dain is the right thing to do, but I can’t even hear what they’re saying.

Shit. Shit. Shit. Nausea churns in my stomach. I have to get closer.

Keeping myself on the opposite side of the trunk and sticking to the shadows that wrap around me, I climb down another branch with sloth-like speed, holding my breath as I test each branch with a fraction of my weight before lowering myself. Their voices are still muffled by the river, but I can hear the loudest of them, a tall, dark-haired man with pale skin, whose shoulders take up twice the space of any first-year, standing opposite Xaden’s position and wearing the rank of a third-year.

“We’ve already lost Sutherland and Luperco,” he says, but I can’t make out the response.

It takes two more rungs of branches before their words are clear. My heart pounds like it’s trying to escape my ribs. I’m close enough for any one of them to see if they look hard enough-well, everyone except Xaden, since his back is turned toward me.

“Like it or not, we’re going to have to stick together if you want to survive until graduation,” Imogen says. One little hop to the right and I could repay that callous shoulder maneuver she pulled on me with a quick kick to her head.

I just happen to value my own life more than I want revenge at the moment, so I keep my feet to myself.

“And if they find out we’re meeting?” a first-year girl with an olive complexion asks, her eyes darting around the circle.

“We’ve done this for two years and they’ve never found out,” Xaden responds, folding his arms and leaning back against the limb below my right. “They’re not going to unless one of you tells. And if you tell, I’ll know.” The threat is obvious in his tone. “Like Garrick said, we’ve already lost two first-years to their own negligence. There are only forty-one of us in the Riders Quadrant, and we don’t want to lose any of you, but we will if you don’t help yourselves. The odds are always stacked against us, and trust me, every other Navarrian in the quadrant will look for reasons to call you a traitor or force you to fail.”

There’s a muttered assent, and my breath hitches at the intensity in his voice. Damn it, I don’t want to find a single thing about Xaden Riorson admirable, and yet here he is, being all annoyingly admirable. Asshole.

Have to admit, it would be nice if a high-ranking rider from my province gave a shit if the rest of us from the province lived or died.

“How many of you are getting your asses handed to you in hand-tohand?” Xaden asks.

Four hands shoot into the air, none of which belong to the spiky-blondhaired first-year standing with his arms crossed, a head taller than most others. Liam Mairi. He’s in Second Squad, Tail Section of our wing and already the top cadet in our year. He practically ran across the parapet and destroyed every opponent on assessment day.

“Shit,” Xaden swears, and I would give anything to see his expression as he lifts a hand to his face.

The big one-Garrick-sighs. “I’ll teach them.” I recognize him now. He’s the Flame Section leader in Fourth Wing. My direct superior above Dain.

Xaden shakes his head. “You’re our best fighter-”

“You’re our best fighter,” a second-year near Xaden counters with a quick grin. He’s handsome, with tawny brown skin crowned by a cloud of black curls and a litany of patches on what I can see of his uniform under his cloak. His features are close enough to Xaden’s that they might be related. Cousins, maybe? Fen Riorson had a sister, if I remember correctly. Shit, what was the guy’s name? It’s been years since I read the records, but I think it started with a B.

“Dirtiest fighter, maybe,” Imogen snarks.

Most everyone laughs, and even the first-years crack a smile.

“Fucking ruthless is more like it,” Garrick adds.

There’s a general consensus of nods, including one from Liam Mairi.

“Garrick is our best fighter, but Imogen is right up there with him, and she’s a hell of a lot more patient,” Xaden notes, which is just ludicrous considering she didn’t seem too patient while breaking my arm. “So the four of you split yourselves up between the two of them for training. A group of three won’t draw any unwanted attention. What else is giving you trouble?”

“I can’t do this,” a gangly first-year says, rolling his shoulders inward and lifting his slim fingers to his face.

“What do you mean?” Xaden asks, his voice taking on a hard edge.

“I can’t do this!” The smaller one shakes his head. “The death. The fighting. Any of it!” The pitch of his voice rises with every statement. “A guy had his neck snapped right in front of me on assessment day! I want to go home! Can you help me with that?”

Every head swings toward Xaden.

“No.” Xaden shrugs. “You’re not going to make it. Best accept it now and not take up more of my time.”

It’s all I can do to smother my gasp, and some of the others in the group don’t bother trying. What. A. Dick.

The smaller guy looks stricken, and I can’t help but feel bad for him.

“That was a little harsh, cousin,” the second-year who looks a little like Xaden says, lifting his eyebrows.

“What do you want me to say, Bodhi?” Xaden cocks his head to the side, his voice calm and even. “I can’t save everyone, especially not someone who isn’t willing to work to save themselves.”

“Damn, Xaden.” Garrick rubs the bridge of his nose. “Way to give a pep talk.”

“If they need a fucking pep talk, then we both know they’re not flying out of the quadrant on graduation day. Let’s get real. I can hold their hands and make them a bunch of bullshit empty promises about everyone making it through if that helps them sleep, but in my experience, the truth is far more valuable.” He turns his head, and I can only assume he’s looking at the panicked first-year. “In war, people die. It’s not glorious like the bards sing about, either. It’s snapped necks and two-hundred-foot falls. There’s nothing romantic about scorched earth or the scent of sulfur. This”-he gestures back toward the citadel-“isn’t some fable where everyone makes it out alive. It’s hard, cold, uncaring reality. Not everyone here is going to make it home…to whatever’s left of our homes. And make no mistake, we are at war every time we step foot in the quadrant.” He leans forward slightly. “So if you won’t get your shit together and fight to live, then no.

You’re not going to make it.”

Only crickets dare to break the silence.

“Now, someone give me a problem I can actually solve,” Xaden orders.

“Battle Brief,” a first-year I recognize says softly. Her bunk is only a row away from Rhiannon’s and mine. Shit…what’s her name? There are too many women in the hall to know everyone, but I’m certain she’s in Third Wing. “It’s not that I can’t keep up, but the information…” She shrugs.

“That’s a tough one,” Imogen responds, turning to look at Xaden. Her profile in the moonlight is almost unrecognizable as the same person who shredded my shoulder. That Imogen is cruel, vicious even. But the way she’s looking at Xaden softens her eyes, her mouth, her whole posture as she tucks a short strand of pink hair behind her ear.

“You learn what they teach you,” Xaden says to the first-year, his voice taking a hard edge. “Keep what you know but recite whatever they tell you to.”

My brow furrows. What the hell does he mean by that? Battle Brief is one of the classes taught by scribes to keep the quadrant up-to-date on all nonclassified troop movements and battle lines. The only things we’re asked to recite are recent events and general knowledge of what’s going on near the front lines.

“Anyone else?” Xaden asks. “You’d better ask now. We don’t have all night.”

It hits me then-other than being gathered in a group of more than three, there’s nothing wrong with what they’re doing here. There’s no plot, no coup, no danger. It’s just a group of older riders counseling first-years from their province. But if Dain knew, he’d be honor bound to-

“When do we get to kill Violet Sorrengail?” a guy toward the back asks.

My blood turns to ice.

The murmur of assent among the group sends a jolt of terror down my spine.

“Yeah, Xaden,” Imogen says sweetly, lifting her pale green eyes to him. “When do we get to finally have our revenge?”

He turns just enough for me to see his profile and the scar that crosses his face as he narrows his eyes at Imogen. “I told you already, the youngest

Sorrengail is mine, and I’ll handle her when the time is right.”

He’ll…handle me? My muscles thaw with the heat of indignation. I’m not some inconvenience to be handled. My short-lived admiration of Xaden is over.

“Didn’t you already learn that lesson, Imogen?” the look-alike Xaden chides from halfway down the circle. “What I hear, Aetos has you scrubbing dinner dishes for the next month for using your powers on the mat.”

Imogen’s head snaps in his direction. “Her mother is responsible for the execution of my mom and sister. I should have done more than just snap her shoulder.”

“Her mom is responsible for the capture of nearly all our parents,” Garrick counters, folding his arms over his wide chest. “Not her daughter.

Punishing children for the sins of their parents is the Navarrian way, not the Tyrrish.”

“So we get conscripted because of what our parents did years ago and shoved into this death sentence of a college-” Imogen starts.

“In case you didn’t notice, she’s in the same death sentence of a college,” Garrick retorts. “Seems like she’s already suffering the same fate.”

Am I seriously watching them debate over whether I should be punished for being Lilith Sorrengail’s daughter?

“Don’t forget her brother was Brennan Sorrengail,” Xaden adds. “She has just as much reason to hate us as we do her.” He pointedly looks at Imogen and the first-year who raised the question. “And I’m not going to

tell you again. She’s mine to handle. Anyone feel like arguing?” Silence reigns.

“Good. Then get back to bed and go in threes.” He motions with his head, and they slowly disperse, walking away in groups of threes just like he ordered. Xaden is the last to leave.

I draw a slow breath. Holy shit, I just might live through this.

But I have to be sure they’re gone. I don’t move a muscle, even when my thighs cramp and my fingers lock as I count to five hundred in my head, breathing as evenly as possible to soften the beats of my galloping heart.

Only when I’m sure I’m alone, when the squirrels scurry past on the ground, do I finish climbing from the tree, jumping the last four feet to the grassy floor. Zihnal must have a soft spot for me, because I’m the luckiest woman on the Continent-

A shadow lunges behind me and I open my mouth to scream, but my air supply is cut off by an elbow around my neck as I’m yanked against a hard chest.

“Scream and you die,” he whispers, and my stomach plummets as the elbow is replaced by the sharp bite of a dagger at my throat.

I freeze. I’d recognize the rough pitch of Xaden’s voice anywhere.

“Fucking Sorrengail.” His hand yanks back the hood of my cloak.

“How did you know?” My tone is outright indignant, but whatever. If he’s going to kill me, I’m not going down as some simpering little beggar. “Let me guess, you could smell my perfume. Isn’t that what always gives the heroine away in books?”

He scoffs. “I command shadows, but sure, it was your perfume that gave you away.” He lowers the knife and steps away.

I gasp. “Your signet is a shadow wielder?” No wonder he’s risen so high in rank. Shadow wielders are incredibly rare and highly coveted in battle, able to disorient entire drifts of gryphons, if not take them down, depending upon the signet’s strength.

“What, Aetos hasn’t warned you not to get caught alone in the dark with me yet?”

His voice is like rough velvet along my skin, and I shiver, then draw my own blade from the sheath at my thigh and raise it as I spin toward him, ready to defend myself to the death. “Is this how you plan to handle me?”

“Eavesdropping, were we?” He arches a black brow and sheathes his dagger like I couldn’t possibly pose a threat to him, which only serves to piss me off even more. “Now I might actually have to kill you.” There’s an undertone of truth in those mocking eyes.

This is just…bullshit.

“Then go ahead and get it over with.” I unsheathe another dagger, this one from beneath my cloak where it was strapped in at my ribs, and back up a couple of feet to give me distance to throw them-if he doesn’t rush me.

He pointedly looks at one dagger, then the other, and sighs, folding his arms across his chest. “That stance is really the best defense you can muster? No wonder Imogen nearly ripped your arm off.”

“I’m more dangerous than you think,” I flat-out bluster.

“So I see. I’m quaking in my boots.” The corner of his mouth rises into a mocking smirk.

Fucking. Asshole.

I flip the daggers in my hand, pinching them at the tips, then flick my wrists and fire them past his head, one on each side. They land solidly in the trunk of the tree behind him.

“You missed.” He doesn’t even flinch.

“Did I?” I reach for my last two blades. “Why don’t you back up a couple of steps and test that theory?”

Curiosity flares in his eyes, but it’s gone in the next second, masked by cold, mocking indifference.

Every one of my senses is on high alert, but the shadows around me don’t slide in as he moves backward, his eyes locked with mine. His back hits the tree, and the hilts of my daggers brush his ears.

“Tell me again that I missed,” I threaten, taking the dagger in my right hand by the tip.

“Fascinating. You look all frail and breakable, but you’re really a violent little thing, aren’t you?” An appreciative smile curves his perfect lips as shadows dance up the trunk of the oak, taking the form of fingers. They pluck the daggers from the tree and bring them to Xaden’s waiting hands.

My breath abandons me with a sharp exhale. He has the kind of power that could end me without him having to so much as lift a finger -shadow wielding. The futility of even trying to defend myself against him is laughable.

I hate how beautiful he is, how lethal his abilities make him as he strides toward me, shadows curling around his footsteps. He’s like one of those poisonous flowers I’ve read about from the Cygnis forests to the east. His allure is a warning not to get too close, and I am definitely too close.

Switching my grip to the hilts of my daggers, I prepare for the attack.

“You should show that little trick to Jack Barlowe,” Xaden says, turning his palms upward and offering me my daggers.

“I’m sorry?” This is a trick. It has to be a trick.

He moves closer, and I lift my blade. My heart stumbles, the beat irregular as fear floods my system.

“The neck-snapping first-year who’s very publicly vowed to slaughter you,” Xaden clarifies as my blade presses against his cloak at the level of his abdomen. He reaches under my own cloak and slides one blade into the sheath at my thigh, then pulls back the side of my cloak and pauses. His gaze locks onto the length of my braid where it falls over my shoulder, and I could swear he stops breathing for a heartbeat before he slides the remaining dagger into one of the sheaths at my ribs. “He’d probably think twice about plotting your murder if you threw a few daggers at his head.”

This is…this is…bizarre. It has to be some kind of game meant to confuse me, right? And if so, he’s playing it really fucking well.

“Because the honor of my murder belongs to you?” I challenge. “You wanted me dead long before your little club chose my tree to meet under, so I imagine you’ve all but buried me in your mind by now.”

He glances at the dagger poised at his stomach. “Do you plan on telling anyone about my little club?” His eyes meet mine, and there’s nothing but cold, calculating death waiting there.

“No,” I answer truthfully, suppressing a shiver.

“Why not?” He tilts his head to the side, examining my face like I’m an oddity. “It’s illegal for the children of separatist officers to assemble in-” “Groups larger than three. I’m well aware. I’ve lived at Basgiath longer than you.” I lift my chin.

“And you’re not going to run off to Mommy, or your precious little Dain, and tell them we’ve been assembling?” His gaze narrows on mine.

My stomach twists just like it did before I stepped out onto the parapet, like my body knows that whatever action I take next will determine my lifespan. “You were helping them. I don’t see why that should be punished.” It wouldn’t be fair to him or the others. Was their little meeting illegal? Absolutely. Should they die for it? Absolutely not. And that’s exactly what will happen if I tell. Those first-years will be executed for nothing more than asking for tutoring, and the senior cadets will join them just because they helped. “I’m not going to tell.”

He looks at me like he’s trying to see through me, and ice prickles my scalp.

My hand is steady, but my nerves tremble at what the next thirty seconds might bring. He can kill me right here, toss my body into the river, and no one will know I’m gone until they find me downstream.

But I won’t let him end me without drawing his blood first, that’s for damn sure.

“Interesting,” he says softly. “We’ll see if you keep your word, and if you do, then unfortunately, it looks like I owe you a favor.” Then he steps away, turns, and walks off, heading back toward the staircase in the cliff that leads up to the citadel.

Wait. What?

“You’re not going to handle me?” I call after him, shock raising my brows.

“Not tonight!” he tosses over his shoulder.

I scoff. “What are you waiting for?”

“It’s no fun if you expect it,” he answers, striding into the darkness. “Now, get back to bed before your wingleader realizes you’re out after curfew.”

“What?” I gawk after him. “You’re my wingleader!”

But he’s already disappeared into the shadows, leaving me talking to myself like a fool.

He didn’t even ask what was in my satchel.

A slow smile spreads across my face as I tuck my arm back into my sling, sighing with relief as the weight is taken off my shoulder. A fool with fonilee berries.

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