Chapter no 8

Fourth Wing (The Empyrean Book 1)

The women’s hall is quiet as I dress for the morning, the sun barely peeking above the horizon in the far windows. I take the dragon-scale vest from where I left it to dry on the hanger at the end of my bed and slip it on over my short-sleeve black shirt. It’s a good thing I’ve gotten pretty adept at tightening the laces behind my back, since Rhiannon isn’t in her bed.

At least one of us is getting a few much-needed orgasms. Pretty sure there’s a person or two scattered with their partners among the full bunks in here, too. The squad leaders talk a good game about enforcing curfew, but no one really cares. Well, except Dain. He cares about every rule.

Dain. My chest tightens, and I smile as I finish braiding my hair into a crown. Seeing him is the best part of my day, even the moments when he’s anything but personable in public. Even in the moments where he’s consumed with trying to save me from this place.

I grab my bag on the way out, passing by rows of empty beds that belonged to the dozen women who haven’t survived to see August, and shove open the door.

There he is.

Dain’s eyes light up as he pushes off the wall of the hallway where he’s obviously been waiting for me. “Morning.”

I can’t help the smile that curves my lips. “You don’t have to escort me to duty every morning, you know.”

“It’s the only time I get to see you when I’m not your squad leader,” he counters as we walk down the empty hallway, past the halls that will lead to our rooms if we survive Threshing. “Trust me, it’s worth getting up an hour early, though I still can’t figure out why you’d choose breakfast duty over every other assignment.”

I shrug. “I have my reasons.” Really, really, really good reasons. Though I do miss the extra hour of sleep I’d had before we chose our assignments last week.

A door on the right flies open, and Dain darts in front of me, dragging me behind him with his arm so I face-plant into his back. He smells like leather and soap and-

“Rhiannon?” he snaps.

“Sorry!” Rhiannon’s eyes widen.

I slip out of Dain’s hold and move to his side so I can see her. “I wondered where you were this morning.” A grin spreads across my face as Tara appears next to her. “Hey, Tara.”

“Hey, Violet.” She gives me a wave, then heads down the hallway, tucking her shirt into her pants.

“We have curfew for a reason, cadet,” Dain lectures, and I fight the urge to roll my eyes. “And you know that no one is supposed to be in the private dorms until after Threshing.”

“Maybe we were just up early,” Rhiannon counters. “You know, like you are right now.” She glances between the two of us with a mischievous smirk.

Dain rubs the bridge of his nose. “Just…get back to the dorms and pretend you slept there, will you?”

“Absolutely!” She squeezes my hand as she passes by.

“Way to go,” I whisper quickly. She’s had a thing for Tara since we got here.

“I know, right?” She backs away with a smile, then turns to push through the hall doors.

“Monitoring the sex lives of first-years was not what I had in mind when I applied to be a squad leader,” Dain mutters, and we continue toward the kitchen.

“Oh, come on. Like you weren’t a first-year yourself last year.”

He lifts his brows in thought and eventually shrugs. “Fair point. And you’re a first-year now…” His eyes slide my way as we near the arched doorways that lead to the rotunda, and his lips part like he’s going to continue, but he looks away, pivoting to open the door for me.

“Why, Dain Aetos! Are you asking me about my sex life?” I let my fingers trail along the exposed fangs of the green dragon pillar and bite back a smile as we walk by.

“No!” He shakes his head, then pauses in thought. “I mean…is there a sex life to ask about?”

We climb the steps that lead into commons, and I turn just before the door to face him. He’s two steps below me, putting us at eye level. “Since I got here?” I tap my chin with my finger and smile. “That’s none of your business. Before I got here? Still none of your business.”

“Another fair point.” His mouth curves into a grin that makes me wish it was his business, though.

I turn around before I do something utterly foolish like make it his business. We continue into commons, walking past the empty study tables and the entrance to the library. It’s nothing as awe-inspiring as the scribes’ Archives, but it has every tome I’ll need for studying here.

“Are you ready for today?” Dain asks as we near the gathering hall. “For the challenges to start this afternoon?” My stomach knots.

“I’ll be all right,” I assure him, but he moves in front of me, halting my steps.

“I know you’ve been practicing with Rhiannon, but…” Worry lines his forehead.

“I’ve got it,” I promise, looking into his eyes so he knows I mean it. “You don’t have to worry about me.” Last night, Oren Seifert’s name was posted next to mine right where Brennan said it would be. He’s a tall blond in First Wing with tolerable knife skills but one hell of a punch.

“I always worry about you.” Dain’s hands curl into fists.

“Don’t.” I shake my head. “I can handle myself.” “I just don’t want to see you get hurt again.” My ribs squeeze my heart like a vise.

“Then don’t watch.” I take his calloused hand in mine. “You can’t save me from this, Dain. I’m going to be challenged once a week just like every other cadet. And it’s not going to stop there. You can’t protect me from Threshing, or the Gauntlet, or Jack Barlowe-”

“You need to lay low with that one.” Dain grimaces. “Avoid that pompous ass whenever you can, Vi. Don’t give him an excuse to come after you. He’s already responsible for too many names on the death roll.”

“Then the dragons are going to love him.” They always go for the vicious ones.

Dain squeezes my hand gently. “Just steer clear of him.”

I blink. The advice is so different from Xaden’s throw-a-few-daggers-athis-head approach.

Xaden. The knot of guilt that’s been lodged in my stomach since last week grows a fraction bigger. By code, I should tell Dain about seeing marked ones under the oak tree, but I won’t, not because I told Xaden that I wouldn’t but because keeping the secret feels like the right thing to do.

I’ve never kept a secret from Dain in my life.

“Violet? Did you hear me?” Dain asks, lifting a hand to cradle my face.

Jerking my gaze to his, I nod and repeat, “Steer clear of Barlowe.”

He drops his hand and shoves it into a pocket of his pants. “Hopefully he’ll forget all about his little vendetta against you.”

“Do most men forget when a woman holds a knife to their balls?” I cock an eyebrow at him.

“No.” He sighs. “You know, it’s not too late to sneak you down to the scribes. Fitzgibbons will take you-”

The bells ring, marking quarter past five and saving me from another session of Dain begging me to run away to the Scribe Quadrant.

“I’ll be all right. I’ll see you at formation.” I give his hand a squeeze, then walk away, leaving him as I make my way to the kitchen. I’m always the first here, and today is no exception.

I pocket the vial of dried, powdered fonilee berries from my satchel and get started as the other workers come in, sleepy-eyed and grumbly. The powder is nearly white, nearly invisible as I take my place in the serving line an hour later, and completely undetectable as I sprinkle it over Oren Seifert’s scrambled eggs when he approaches.

“Keep the temperaments of each specific breed in mind when you decide which dragons to approach and which to run from at Threshing,” Professor Kaori says, his serious, dark eyes slashing toward his nose as he studies the new recruits for a beat, then he changes the projection he’s conjured from a Green Daggertail to a Red Scorpiontail. He’s an illusionist and the only professor in the quadrant with the signet ability to project what he sees in his mind, which makes this class one of my favorites. He’s also the reason I knew exactly what Oren Seifert looked like.

Do I feel guilty about blatantly misleading a professor about why I needed to find another cadet? No. Do I think it’s cheating? Also no. I was doing exactly what Mira suggested and using my brain.

The Red Scorpiontail in the center of our circled tables is a fraction of its actual size, six feet tall at most, but it’s an exact replica of the actual firebreather waiting in the Vale for Threshing.

“Red Scorpiontails, like Ghrian here, are the quickest to temper,” Professor Kaori continues, his perfectly trimmed mustache curving as he smiles at the illusion like he’s the dragon himself. We all take notes. “So if you offend him, you’re-”

“Lunch,” Ridoc says from my left, and the class laughs. Even Jack Barlowe, who hasn’t quit glaring at me since his squad took over their quarter of the room a half hour ago, snorts.

“Precisely,” Professor Kaori responds. “So what’s the best way to approach a Red Scorpiontail?” He glances around the room.

I know the answer, but I keep my hand to myself, heeding Dain’s advice to lay low.

“You don’t,” Rhiannon mutters next to me, and I huff a laugh under my breath.

“They prefer that you approach from the left and from the front, if possible,” a woman from one of the other squads answers.

“Excellent.” Professor Kaori nods. “For this Threshing, there are three Red Scorpiontails willing to bond.” The image changes in front of us to a different dragon.

“How many dragons are there in total?” Rhiannon asks.

“A hundred for this year,” Professor Kaori answers, changing the image again. “But some might change their minds during Presentation in about two months, depending on what they see.”

My stomach hits the floor. “That’s thirty-seven fewer than last year.” Maybe even fewer if they don’t like the look of us after we have to parade by them for their perusal two days before Threshing. Then again, there’s usually fewer cadets after that particular event anyway.

Professor Kaori’s dark eyebrows rise. “Yes, Cadet Sorrengail, it is, and twenty-six fewer than the year before that.”

Fewer dragons are choosing to bond, but the number of riders entering the quadrant has remained steady. My mind whirls. Attacks at the eastern borders are increasing, according to every Battle Brief, and yet there are fewer dragons willing to bond in order to defend Navarre.

“Will they tell you why they won’t bond?” another first-year asks.

“No, jackass,” Jack scoffs, his icy-blue gaze narrowing on the cadet. “Dragons only talk to their bonded riders, just like they only give their full name to their bonded rider. You should know that by now.”

Professor Kaori sends Jack a look that shuts the first-year’s mouth but doesn’t stop him from sneering at the other cadet. “They don’t share their reasons,” our instructor says. “And anyone who respects their life won’t ask a question they’re not willing to answer.”

“Do the numbers affect the wards?” Aurelie asks from where she sits behind me, tapping her quill against the edge of her desk. She’s never happy sitting still.

Professor Kaori’s jaw ticks twice. “We’re not sure. The number of bonded dragons has never affected the integrity of Navarre’s wards before, but I’m not about to lie to you and say that we’re not seeing increased breaches when you know from Battle Brief that we are.”

The wards are faltering at a rate that makes my stomach tense every time Professor Devera starts our daily Battle Brief. Either we’re weakening or our enemies are getting stronger. Both possibilities mean the cadets in this room are needed more than ever.

Even me.

The image changes to Sgaeyl, the navy-blue dragon bonded to Xaden.

My stomach pitches as I remember the way she looked right through me that first day.

“You won’t have to worry about how to approach blue dragons, since there are none willing to bond this Threshing, but you should be able to recognize Sgaeyl if you see her,” Professor Kaori says.

“So you can fucking run,” Ridoc drawls.

I nod along while others laugh.

“She’s a Blue Daggertail, the rarest of the blues, and yes, if you see her without her bonded rider, you should…definitely find somewhere else to be. Ruthless does not begin to describe her, nor does she abide by what we assume to be what the dragons consider law. She even bonded the relative of one of her previous riders, which you all know is typically forbidden, but Sgaeyl does whatever she wants, whenever she wants. In fact, if you see any of the blues, don’t approach them. Just…”

“Run,” Ridoc repeats, raking his hand through his floppy brown hair.

“Run,” Professor Kaori agrees with a smile, the mustache above his top lip quivering slightly. “There are a handful of other blues in active service, but you’ll find them all along the Esben Mountains in the east, where the fighting is most intense. They’re all intimidating, but Sgaeyl is the most powerful of them all.”

My breath catches. No wonder Xaden can wield shadows-shadows that can yank daggers out of trees, shadows that can probably throw those same daggers. And yet…he let me live. I shove the kernel of warmth that thought gives me far, far away.

Probably just to screw with you, a monster playing with his prey before pouncing.

“What about the black dragon?” the first-year next to Jack asks. “There’s one here, right?”

Jack’s face lights up. “I want that one.”

“Not that it’s going to matter.” Professor Kaori flicks his wrist and Sgaeyl disappears, and a massive black dragon takes her place. Even the illusion is bigger, making me crane my neck slightly to see its head. “But just to appease your curiosity, since this is the only time you’ll ever see him, here is the only other black besides General Melgren’s.”

“He’s huge,” Rhiannon says. “And is that a clubtail?”

“No. A morningstartail. He has the same bludgeoning power of a clubtail, but those spikes will eviscerate a person just as well as a daggertail.”

“Best of both worlds,” Jack calls out. “He looks like a killing machine.”

“He is,” Professor Kaori answers. “And honestly, I haven’t seen him in the last five years, so this image is more than a little outdated. But since we

have him up here, what can you tell me about black dragons?”

“They’re the smartest and most discerning,” Aurelie calls out.

“They’re the rarest,” I add in. “There hasn’t been one born in the last… century.”

“Correct.” Professor Kaori spins the illusion again, and I’m met with a pair of glaring yellow eyes. “They’re also the most cunning. There’s no such thing as outsmarting a black dragon. This one is a little over a hundred, which makes him about middle-aged. He’s revered as a battle dragon among their kind, and if not for him, we probably would have lost during the Tyrrish rebellion. Add to it that he’s a morningstartail, and he’s one of the deadliest dragons in Navarre.”

“I bet he powers one hell of a signet. How do you approach him?” Jack asks, leaning forward in his seat. There’s pure avarice in his eyes, mirrored by his friend next to him.

That’s the last thing this kingdom needs, someone as cruel as Jack bonding to a black dragon. No thank you.

“You don’t,” Professor Kaori answers. “He hasn’t agreed to bond since his previous and only rider was killed during the uprising, and the only way you’d ever be near him is if you’re in the Vale, which you won’t be, because you’d be incinerated before you ever got through the gorge.”

The pale redhead across the circle from me shifts in her seat and tugs her sleeve down to cover her rebellion relic.

“Someone should ask him again,” Jack urges.

“It doesn’t work that way, Barlowe. Now, there is only one other black dragon, which is in service-”

“General Melgren’s,” Sawyer says. His book is closed in front of him, but I can’t blame him. I’d hardly be taking notes, either, if this was the second time I’d gone through this class. “Codagh, right?”

“Yes.” Professor Kaori nods. “The eldest of their den and a swordtail.”

“But just for curiosity’s sake.” Jack’s glacial-blue gaze doesn’t stray from the illusion of the unbonded black dragon still being projected. “What signet ability would this guy gift his rider?”

Professor Kaori closes his fist, and the illusion disappears. “There’s no telling. Signets are the result of the unique chemistry between rider and dragon and usually say more about the rider than the dragon. The stronger the bond and the more powerful the dragon, the stronger the signet.” “Fine. What was his previous rider’s?” Jack asks.

“Naolin’s signet was siphoning.” Professor Kaori’s shoulders fall. “He could absorb power from various sources, other dragons, other riders, and then use it or redistribute it.”

“Badass.” Ridoc’s tone has more than a little hero worship.

“He was,” Professor Kaori agrees.

“What kills someone with that kind of signet?” Jack asks, crossing his arms over his thick chest.

Professor Kaori glances at me for a heartbeat before looking away. “He attempted to use that power to revive a fallen rider-which didn’t work, because there’s no signet capable of resurrection-and depleted himself in the process. To use a phrase you’ll become accustomed to after Threshing, he burned out and died next to that rider.”

Something in my chest shifts, a feeling that I can’t explain and yet can’t shake.

The bells ring, signaling the hour is up, and we all begin to gather our things. The squads filter out to the hallway, emptying the room, and I rise from behind my desk, shouldering my satchel as Rhiannon waits for me by the door, a puzzled expression on her face. “It was Brennan, wasn’t it?” I ask Professor Kaori.

Sadness fills his gaze as he meets mine. “Yes. He died trying to save your brother, but Brennan was too far gone.”

“Why would he do that?” I shift the weight of my satchel. “Resurrection isn’t possible. Why would he essentially kill himself when Brennan was already gone?” A stampede of grief tramples my heart, stealing my breath. Brennan never would have wanted anyone to die for him. That wasn’t in his nature.

Professor Kaori sits back against his desk, pulling at the short, dark hairs of his mustache as he stares at me. “Being a Sorrengail doesn’t do you any favors in here, does it?”

I shake my head. “There are more than a few cadets who would like to take me-and my last name-down a peg.”

He nods. “It won’t be like that once you leave. After graduation, you’ll find that being General Sorrengail’s daughter means others will do just about anything to keep you alive, even pleased, not because they love your mother but because they either fear her or want her favor.”

“Which was Naolin?”

“A little bit of both. And sometimes it’s hard for a rider with a signet that powerful to accept his limits. After all, bonding makes you a rider, but resurrecting someone from the dead? Now, that makes you a god. I somehow don’t think that Malek takes kindly to a mortal treading on his territory.”

“Thank you for answering.” I turn and start toward the door.

“Violet,” Professor Kaori calls out, and I pivot to look back. “I taught both your siblings. A signet like mine is too useful here in the classroom to let me deploy with a wing for long. Brennan was a spectacular rider and a good man. Mira is shrewd and gifted in the seat when it comes to riding.” I nod.

“But you’re smarter than both of them.”

I blink. It’s not often I get compared to my brother and sister and somehow come out on top.

“From what I’ve seen of you helping your friend study in commons every night, it seems you might be more compassionate, too. Don’t forget that.”

“Thank you, but being smart and compassionate isn’t going to help me when it comes to Threshing.” A self-deprecating laugh escapes. “You know more about dragons than anyone else in the quadrant, probably anyone else on the Continent. They choose strength and shrewdness.”

“They choose for reasons they don’t see fit to share with us.” He pushes off his desk. “And not all strength is physical, Violet.”

I nod, because I can’t find any appropriate words for his well-intentioned flattery, and head over to meet Rhiannon at the door. The only thing I know for certain right now is that compassion isn’t going to help me on the mat after lunch.

I’m so nervous I could puke as I stand at the side of the wide black mat, watching Rhiannon beat the ever-loving shit out of her opponent. It’s a guy from Second Wing, and it takes almost no time for her to get him into a headlock, cutting off his air supply. It’s a move she’s tried her best to drill into me over the last couple of weeks.

“She makes it look so easy,” I say to Dain as he stands at my side, his elbow brushing mine.

“He’s going to try to kill you.”

“What?” I glance up, then follow his line of sight two mats over.

Dain’s glaring daggers at Xaden across the mat, a look of sheer boredom on his face as Rhiannon squeezes the neck of the Second Wing first-year tighter.

“Your opponent,” Dain says softly. “I overheard him and a few friends. They think you’re a liability to the wing thanks to that Barlowe kid.” His gaze shifts to Oren, who’s sizing me up like a damned plaything he’s planning on breaking.

But there’s a greenish twinge to his complexion that makes me grin.

“I’m going to be fine,” I recite, because that’s my fucking mantra. I’m stripped down to the dragon-scale vest that’s starting to feel like a second skin and my fighting leathers. All four of my daggers are sheathed, and if my plan goes correctly, I’ll have one more to add to my collection soon.

The Second Wing first-year passes out, and Rhiannon rises victorious as we clap. Then she leans over her opponent and removes the dagger at his side. “Looks like this is mine now. Enjoy your nap.” She pats him on the head, which makes me laugh.

“Not sure why you’re laughing, Sorrengail,” a sneering voice calls out from behind me.

I turn around and see Jack standing with his feet apart against the woodplanked wall about ten feet away, wearing a smile that can only be described as evil.

“Fuck off, Barlowe.” I gift him the middle finger.

“I honestly hope you win today’s challenge.” His eyes dance with a sadistic glee that makes me queasy. “It would be a shame for someone else to kill you before I get the chance. But I wouldn’t be surprised. Violets are such delicate…fragile things, you know.” Delicate, my ass.

He’d probably think twice about plotting your murder if you threw a few daggers at his head.

I unsheathe both daggers from my ribs and flick them in his direction in one smooth movement. They land right where I intended-one nearly nicking his ear and the other an inch beneath his balls.

Fear widens his eyes.

I shamelessly grin and wiggle my fingers in a wave.

“Violet,” Dain hisses as Jack maneuvers around my blades, stepping away from the wall.

“You’ll pay for that.” Jack points at me and stalks off, but the rise and fall of his shoulders is a little choppy.

I watch his back retreat, then retrieve my daggers, sheathing them at my ribs before returning to Dain’s side.

“What the hell was that?” he seethes. “I told you to lay low when it comes to him, and you…” He shakes his head at me. “You just piss him off even more?”

“Laying low wasn’t getting me anywhere,” I say with a shrug as Rhiannon’s opponent is carried off the mat. “He needs to realize I’m not a liability.” And I’ll be harder to kill than he thinks.

There’s no ignoring the prickle at my scalp, and I let my gaze shift to meet Xaden’s.

My heart does that damn stuttering thing again, as if he’d sent shadows straight through my ribs to squeeze the organ. He lifts his scarred brow, and I swear there’s a hint of a smile on his lips as he leaves, walking over to observe the Fourth Wing cadets at the next mat.

“Badass,” Rhiannon says as she moves to my other side. “I thought Jack was going to shit himself.” I smother a smile.

“Stop encouraging her,” Dain chastises.

“Sorrengail.” Professor Emetterio glances at his notebook and raises one bushy black brow before continuing. “Seifert.”

Swallowing back the panic that threatens to creep up my throat, I step onto the mat opposite Oren, who’s definitely looking green now.

Right on time.

I’ve prepared the best I can, wrapping my ankles and my knees just in case he goes for the legs.

“Don’t take this personally,” he says as we start to circle, both our hands raised. “But you’ll only be a hazard to your wing.”

He charges at me, but his footwork is sluggish and I spin away, landing a punch to his kidney before bouncing back on my heels and palming a dagger.

“I’m no more a hazard than you are,” I accuse.

His chest heaves once and sweat dots his forehead, but he shakes it off, blinking rapidly as he reaches for his own knife. “My sister is a healer. I’ve heard your bones snap like twigs.”

“Why don’t you come find out?” I force a smile and wait for him to charge again, because that’s what he does. I’ve had three sessions to watch him from a few mats over. He’s a bull, all power and no grace.

His entire body rolls like he’s going to vomit, and he covers his mouth with his empty hand, breathing deeply before standing straight again. I should attack, but instead I wait. And then he charges, his blade held high in a striking position.

My heart pounds as I wait the torturous heartbeats it takes for him to reach me, my brain somehow convincing my body to hold my ground until the last possible second. He swings his knife downward, and I dodge to the left, nicking his side with my blade in the process, then turn and deliver a kick to his back, sending him sprawling.


He falls to the mat, and I take immediate advantage, digging a knee into his spine just like Imogen had with me and putting my blade to his throat. “Yield.” Who needs strength when you have speed and steel?

“No!” he shouts, but his body undulates under mine, and he retches, bringing up everything he’s eaten since breakfast and splattering it across the mat to the side of us.

So fucking gross.

“Oh my gods,” Rhiannon calls out, disgust dripping from her tone.

“Yield,” I demand again, but he’s heaving in earnest now and I have to pull my knife away so I don’t accidentally slit his throat.

“He yields,” Professor Emetterio declares, his face contorted in revulsion.

I sheathe my blade and climb off him, dodging the puddles of sick. Then I take the dagger Oren dropped a few feet back as he continues to vomit. The knife is heavier and longer than my others, but it’s mine now, and I earned it. I sheathe it in an empty place at my left thigh.

“You won!” Rhiannon says, clasping me in a hug as I walk off the mat.

“He’s sick,” I say with a shrug.

“I’ll take being lucky over being good any day,” Rhiannon counters.

“I have to find someone to get this cleaned up,” Dain says, his own complexion turning peaked.

I won.

Timing is the hardest thing about my plan.

I win the next week when a stocky girl from First Wing can’t concentrate long enough to throw a decent punch thanks to a few leighorrel mushrooms and their hallucinogenic properties that somehow wind up in her lunch. She gets in a good kick to my knee, but it’s nothing a few days in a wrap won’t heal.

I win the week after that when a tall guy from Third Wing stumbles because his large feet temporarily lose all feeling, courtesy of the zihna root that grows on one outcropping near the ravine. My timing is off a little, though, and he lands a few good punches to my face, leaving me with a split lip and a bruise that colors my cheek for the next eleven days, but at least he doesn’t break my jaw.

I win again the next week when a buxom cadet’s vision turns blurry midmatch, on account of the tarsilla leaves that found their way into her tea. She’s fast, tossing me to the mat and delivering some overwhelmingly painful kicks to my abdomen that leave colorful contusions and one distinct boot print on my ribs. I almost broke down and went to see Nolon after that one, but I gritted my teeth and wrapped my ribs, determined not to give the others a reason to weed me out like Jack or any marked ones wanted.

I earn my fifth dagger, this one with a pretty ruby in the hilt, the last challenge in August when I take a particularly sweaty guy with a gap between his front teeth to the mat. The bark of the carmine tree that finds its way into his waterskin makes him sluggish and ill. The effects are a little too similar to the fonilee berries, and it’s just a shame that the entire Third Squad, Claw Section of Third Wing is suffering the same stomach upset. Must be something viral, at least that’s what I say when he finally yields to my headlock after dislocating my thumb and nearly breaking my nose.

Come early September, there’s a spring in my step as I walk onto the mat. I’ve taken down five opponents without killing any of them, something a quarter of our year can’t say after almost twenty more names have been added to the death roll the last month for the first-years alone.

I roll my sore shoulders and wait for my opponent.

But Rayma Corrie from Third Wing doesn’t step forward this week like she’s supposed to.

“Sorry, Violet,” Professor Emetterio says, scratching his short black beard. “You were supposed to challenge Rayma, but she’s been taken to the healers because she can’t seem to walk in a straight line.”

Peels of the walwyn fruit will do that when ingested raw…say, like when they’re mixed into the icing of your morning pastry.

“That’s”-shit-“too bad.” I wince. You served it to her too early. “Should I just…” I start, already backing up to get off the mat.

“I’m happy to step in.” That voice. That tone. That prickle of ice along my scalp…

Oh no. Hell no. No. No. No.

“You sure?” Professor Emetterio asks, glancing over his shoulder.


My stomach hits the floor.

And Xaden walks onto the mat.

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