Chapter no 9

Fourth Wing (The Empyrean Book 1)

I’m so completely screwed.

Xaden steps forward-all six-foot-everything of him-dressed in midnight fighting leathers and a tight-fitted short-sleeve shirt that only seems to make the shimmering, dark rebellion relics on his skin seem like an even bigger warning, which I know is ridiculous but somehow true.

My heartbeat kicks up to a full gallop, as if my body knows the truth my mind hasn’t quite accepted yet. I’m about to have my ass kicked…or worse.

“You are all in for a treat,” Professor Emetterio says, clapping his hands. “Xaden’s one of the best fighters we have. Watch and learn.”

“Of course you are,” I mutter, my stomach twisting like I’m the one who’s been snacking on walwyn fruit peels.

A corner of Xaden’s mouth rises in a smirk, and the gold flecks in his eyes seem to dance. The sadistic ass is enjoying this.

My knees, ankles, and wrist are wrapped, the white cloth protecting my healing thumb a startling contrast against my black leathers.

“A little out of her league, don’t you think?” Dain argues from the side of the mat, tension radiating from every word.

“Relax, Aetos.” Xaden looks over my shoulder, his gaze hardening toward where I know Dain is standing, where he always stands when I’m on the mat. The look Xaden gives him makes me realize he’s been taking it easy on me in the glaring department. “She’ll be in one piece when I’m finished teaching her.”

“I hardly think it’s fair-” Dain’s voice rises.

“No one asked you to think, squad leader,” Xaden fires back as he moves to the side, discarding every weapon on his body-and there’s a lot of them -and handing them to Imogen.

The bitter, illogical taste of jealousy fills my mouth, but there’s no time to examine that particular oddity, not when there’re only seconds before he’s in front of me again.

“You don’t think you’ll need those?” I ask, palming my own blades. His chest is massive, with wide shoulders and heavily muscled arms alongside. A target this big should be easy to hit.

“Nope. Not when you brought enough for the both of us.” A wicked smile curves his mouth as he stretches out his hand and curls his fingers in a come-hither motion. “Let’s go.”

My heart beats faster than the wings of a hummingbird as I take a fighting stance and wait for him to strike. This mat is only twenty feet in either direction, and yet my entire world narrows to its confines and the danger within.

He’s not in my squad. He can kill me without punishment.

I fling a dagger straight at his ridiculously well-sculpted chest. He fucking catches it and clucks his tongue. “Already seen that move.” Holy shit is he fast.

I have to be faster. It’s the single advantage I have-that’s my only thought as I move forward in a swipe-and-kick combo Rhiannon’s drilled into me over the past six weeks. He artfully dodges my blade and then captures my leg. The earth spins and I slam onto my back, the sudden impact driving the air from my lungs.

But he doesn’t go for the kill. Instead, he drops the dagger he’s caught and kicks it off the mat, and a second later, when air squeaks into my lungs, I lunge up with the next blade, going for his thigh.

He blocks my strike with his forearm, then grips my wrist with his opposite hand and plucks the knife out of my hand, leaning down so his face is only inches from mine. “Going for blood today, are we, Violence?” he whispers. Metal hits the mat again and he kicks it past my head and out of my reach.

He’s not taking my daggers to use against me; he’s disarming me just to prove he can. My blood boils.

“My name is Violet,” I seethe.

“I think my version fits you better.” He releases my wrist and stands, offering me a hand. “We’re not done yet.”

My chest heaves, still recovering from the way he’s knocked the wind out of me, and I take the offering. He tugs me to my feet, then twists my arm behind my back and yanks me against his hard chest, pinning our joined hands before I have a chance to get my balance.

“Damn it!” I snap.

There’s a tug at my thigh and another of my daggers is pressed to my throat as his chest rests against the back of my head. His forearm is locked across my ribs, and he might as well be a statue for all the give there is in his frame. There’s no use slamming my head back-he’s so tall that I’d only annoy him.

“Don’t trust a single person who faces you on this mat,” he warns in a hiss, his breath warm against the shell of my ear, and even though we’re surrounded by people, I realize he’s quiet for a reason. This lesson is just for me.

“Even someone who owes me a favor?” I counter, my voice just as low. My shoulder starts to protest the unnatural angle, but I don’t move. I won’t give him the satisfaction.

He drops the third dagger he’s taken from me and kicks it forward-to where Dain stands, the other two already in his hand. There’s murder in his eyes as he glares at Xaden.

“I’m the one who decides when to grant that favor. Not you.” Xaden releases my hand and steps back.

I whirl, punching for his throat, and he knocks my hand aside.

“Good,” he says with a smile, deflecting my next blow without so much as a hitch to his breath. “Going for the throat is your best option, as long as it’s exposed.”

Fury makes me kick out again in the same pattern, muscle memory taking over, and he captures that leg again, this time snatching the dagger sheathed there and dropping it to the mat before he lets me go, cocking a disappointed eyebrow at me. “I expect you to learn from your mistakes.” He kicks it away.

I only have five left, all sheathed at my ribs.

Gripping one and putting my hands up defensively, I begin to circle him, and to my absolute annoyance, he doesn’t even bother facing me. He just stands there in the center of the mat, his boots planted and his arms loose as I move around him.

“You going to prance or are you going to strike?” Fuck him.

I punch forward, but he dips and my knife sails over his shoulder, missing him by six inches. My stomach drops as he grips my arm, yanking me forward and flipping me around the side of his body. I’m airborne for a heartbeat before I smack into the mat, my ribs taking the impact.

He cranks my arm into a submission hold and white-hot pain shoots down the limb as I cry out, dropping the dagger, but he’s not done. No, his knee is in my ribs and, though he holds my arm captive with one hand, the other plucks a dagger from its sheath and flings it toward Dain’s feet before taking another and holding it to the tender area where my jaw meets my neck.

Then he leans closer. “Taking out your enemy before the battle is really smart; I’ll give that to you,” he whispers, his warm breath brushing the shell of my ear.

Oh gods. He knows what I’ve been doing. The pain in my arm is nothing compared to the nausea churning in my stomach at the thought of what he might do with that knowledge.

“Problem is, if you aren’t testing yourself in here”-he scrapes the dagger down my neck, but there’s no warm trickle of blood, so I know he hasn’t cut me-“then you’re not going to get any better.”

“You’d rather I die, no doubt,” I fire back, the side of my face pressed into the mat. This isn’t just painful, it’s humiliating.

“And be denied the pleasure of your company?” he mocks.

“I fucking hate you.” The words are past my lips before I can shut my mouth.

“That doesn’t make you special.”

The pressure releases from my chest and arm as he gets on his feet, kicking both daggers toward Dain.

Two more. I only have two more, and now my indignation and anger far outweigh my fear.

Ignoring Xaden’s outstretched hand, I gain my feet and his lips curve into an approving smile. “She can be taught.” “She’s a quick learner,” I retort.

“That remains to be seen.” He backs up two steps, putting a little space between us before crooking his fingers at me again.

“You’ve made your damn point,” I snap loud enough that I hear Imogen gasp.

“Trust me, I’ve barely gotten started.” He folds his arms and leans back on his heels, clearly waiting for me to move.

I don’t think. I just act, going low and kicking out the backs of his knees.

He goes down like a tree, the sound more than satisfying, and I pounce, trying for a headlock. Doesn’t matter how big someone is-they still need air. Catching his throat in the crook of my elbow, I squeeze.

Instead of going for my arms, he twists, grabbing ahold of the backs of my thighs so I lose my leverage and our bodies careen into a roll. He comes out on top.

Of course he does.

His forearm rests against my throat, not cutting off air but definitely capable of it, and his hips have mine pinned, my legs useless on either side of his as he lies heavily between my thighs. He’s unmovable.

Everything around us fades as my world narrows to the arrogant glint in his gaze. He’s all I can see, all I can feel.

And I can’t let him win.

I slip one of my last daggers free and go for his shoulder.

He seizes my wrist and pins it above my head.

Shit. Shit. SHIT.

Heat rushes up my neck and flames lick my cheeks as he lowers his face so his lips are only inches away from mine. I can make out every speck of gold in his onyx eyes, every bump and ridge of his scar.

Beautiful. Fucking. Asshole.

My breath catches and my body warms, the traitorous bitch. You are not attracted to toxic men, I remind myself, and yet, here I am, getting all attracted. I have been since the first second I saw him, if I feel like being honest.

He pushes his fingers into my fist, forcing it open, then sends the blade skittering across the mat before letting go of my wrist.

“Get your dagger,” he orders.

“What?” My eyes fly wide. He has me defenseless and in the kill position already.

“Get. Your. Dagger,” he repeats, taking my hand in his and retrieving the last blade I have. His fingers curl over mine, clasping the hilt.

Fire races along my skin at the feel of his fingers lacing with mine.

Toxic. Dangerous. Wants to kill you. Nope, doesn’t matter. My pulse still skitters like a teenager.

“You’re tiny.” He says it like an insult.

“Well aware.” My eyes narrow.

“So stop going for bigger moves that expose you.” He drags the tip of the dagger down his side. “A rib shot would have worked just fine.” Then he guides our hands around his back, making himself vulnerable. “Kidneys are a good fit from this angle, too.”

I swallow, refusing to think of other things that are a good fit at this angle.

He leads our hands to his waist, his gaze never leaving mine. “Chances are, if your opponent is in armor, it’s weak here. Those are three easy places you could have struck before your opponent would have had time to stop you.”

They’re also fatal wounds, and I’ve avoided those at all costs.

“Do you hear me?” I nod.

“Good. Because you can’t poison every enemy you come across,” he whispers, and I blanche. “You’re not going to have time to offer tea to some

Braevi gryphon rider when they come at you.”

“How did you know?” I finally ask. My muscles lock, including my thighs, which just happen to still be bracketing his hips.

His eyes darken. “Oh, Violence, you’re good, but I’ve known better poison masters. The trick is to not make it quite so obvious.”

My lips part, and I bite back a retort that I was careful not to be obvious.

“I think she’s been taught enough for the day,” Dain barks, reminding me that we’re far from alone. No, we’re a damned spectacle.

“He always that overprotective?” Xaden grumbles, pressing up from the mat a few inches.

“He cares about me.” I glare at him.

“He’s holding you back. Don’t worry. Your little poisoning secret is safe with me.” Xaden arches a brow as if to remind me that I’m the keeper of one of his secrets, too. Then he guides our hands back to my ribs and slides the ruby-hilted blade back into its sheath.

The move is unnervingly…hot.

“You’re not going to disarm me?” I challenge as he releases his grip and pushes up more, removing his weight from my body. My ribs expand as I take my first full breath.

“Nope. Defenseless women have never been my type. We’re done for today.” He stands, then walks away without another word, taking his weapons from Imogen as I roll to my knees. Every part of my body aches, but I manage to stand.

There’s pure relief in Dain’s eyes when I reach his side to retrieve the daggers Xaden took from me. “You all right?”

I nod, my fingers trembling as I rearm myself. He’s had every chance, and every reason, to kill me, and now he’s let me walk away twice. What kind of game is he playing?

“Aetos,” Xaden calls out from across the mat.

Dain’s head snaps up and his jaw locks.

“She could use a little less protection and a little more instruction.” Xaden stares Dain down until he nods.

Professor Emetterio calls the next challenge.

“I’m just surprised he let you live,” Dain says later that night in his room as his thumbs dig into the muscle between my neck and shoulder.

It hurts so deliciously, it was well worth the pain of sneaking up here.

“I hardly think he’d command respect by snapping my neck on the mat.” His blankets are soft against my belly and chest as I lay on his bed, bare from the waist up except for the constricting band around my breasts and ribs. “Besides, that’s not his way.”

Dain’s hands pause on my skin. “Because you know what his way is?”

The guilt of keeping Xaden’s secret makes my stomach drop. “He told me he didn’t see a reason to kill me himself when the parapet would do it,” I answer truthfully. “And let’s face it, he’s had plenty of chances to take me out if he really wanted.”

“Hmm.” Dain hums in that thoughtful tone of his, continuing to work out my stiff and aching muscles as he leans over from the side of his bed. Rhiannon drilled me for another two hours after dinner, and I was barely able to move by the end of it.

Guess I wasn’t the only one Xaden scared this afternoon.

“Do you think he could be plotting against Navarre and still have bonded Sgaeyl?” I ask, my cheek against his blanket.

“I did at first.” His hands move down my spine, pressing into the knots that made lifting my arms almost impossible that last half hour of training tonight. “But then I bonded Cath, and I realized that dragons would do anything to protect the Vale and their sacred hatching grounds. There’s no way any dragon would have bonded Riorson or any of the separatists if they weren’t honest about protecting Navarre.”

“But would a dragon even know if you were lying?” I turn my head so I can see his face.

“Yeah.” He grins. “Cath would know because he’s in my head. It’s impossible to hide something like that from your dragon.”

“Is he always in your head?” I know it’s against the rules to ask-almost everything about bonds are off-limits for discussion, given how secretive dragons are, but it’s Dain.

“Yeah,” he answers, his smile softening. “I can block him out if I need to, and they’ll teach you that after Threshing-” His expression falls.

“What is it?” I sit up, sliding one of his pillows across my chest and leaning back against the headboard.

“I talked to Colonel Markham this evening.” He walks over and pulls his chair out from his desk and takes a seat, then rests his head in his hands.

“Did something happen?” Fear races down my spine. “Is it Mira’s wing?”

“No!” Dain’s head snaps up, and there’s so much misery in his eyes that I swing my feet off the bed. “It’s nothing like that. I told him…that I think Riorson wants to kill you.”

I blink, sitting fully back onto the bed. “Oh. Well, that’s not really news, is it? Everyone who’s read a history of the rebellion can put two and two together, Dain.”

“Yeah, well, I told him about Barlowe, too, and Seifert.” He rubs his hand over his hair. “Don’t think I didn’t notice the way Seifert shoved you into the wall before formation this morning.” He lifts his brows at me.

“He’s just pissed that I took his dagger at that first challenge.” I squeeze the pillow tighter.

“And Rhiannon told me you found crushed flowers on your bed last week?” He stares me down.

I shrug. “They were just dead flowers.”

“They were mutilated violets.” His mouth tightens and I go to him, resting my hands on his head.

“It’s not like they came with a death note or anything,” I tease, stroking his soft brown hair.

He looks up at me, the mage lights making his eyes a little brighter above his trim beard. “They’re threats.”

I shrug. “Every cadet gets threatened.”

“Every cadet doesn’t have to wrap their knees every day,” he fires back.

“The injured ones do.” My brow furrows, annoyance taking root in my chest. “Why would you tell Markham about it anyway? He’s a scribe, and there’s nothing he would do even if he could.”

“He said he’d still take you,” Dain blurts, his hands flying to my hips, holding me in place when I try to step away. “I asked him if he’d allow you into the Scribe Quadrant for your own safety, and he said yes. They’d put you with the first-years. It’s not like you’d have to wait until next

Conscription Day or anything.”

“You what?” I twist, breaking my hold, and back away from my best friend.

“I saw a way to get you out of danger, and I took it.” He stands.

“You went behind my back because you think I’m not cutting it.” The truth of the words tightens around my chest like a vise, cutting off my air instead of holding me together, leaving me weak and breathless. Dain knows me better than anyone, and if he still thinks I can’t do this after I’ve made it this far…

Tears well in my eyes, but I refuse to let them fall. Instead, I tuck my chin and grab my dragon-scale vest, pull it over my head, then wrench the laces together at the small of my back and tie them.

Dain sighs. “I never said I don’t think you can cut it, Violet.”

“You say it every day!” I snap. “You say it when you walk me from formation to class, which I know makes you late for flight line. You say it when you yell at your wingleader when he takes me to the mat-”

“He had no right to-”

“He’s my wingleader!” I shrug my tunic over my head. “He has the right to do whatever he wants-including execute me.”

“And that’s why you need to get the hell out of here!” Dain laces his fingers behind his neck and begins to pace. “I’ve been watching, Vi. He’s just toying with you, like a cat plays with a mouse before the kill.”

“I’ve held my own so far.” My satchel is heavy with books as I settle it over my shoulder. “I’ve won every challenge-”

“Except today when he wiped the floor with you time and again.” He grasps my shoulders. “Or did you miss the part where he took every weapon so you knew exactly how easy it is to defeat you?”

I raise my chin and glare at him. “I was there, and I’ve survived almost two months in this place, which is more than I can say for a fourth of my year!”

“Do you know what happens at Threshing?” he asks, his tone dropping.

“Are you calling me ignorant?” Rage bubbles in my veins.

“It’s not just about bonding,” he continues. “They throw every first-year into the training grounds, the ones you’ve never been to, and then the second- and third-years are supposed to watch as you decide which dragons to approach and which to run from.”

“I know how it works.” My jaw clenches.

“Yeah, well, while the riders are watching, the first-years are taking out their vendettas and eliminating any…liabilities to the wing.”

“I’m not a damned liability.” My chest tightens again, because deep down I know, on the physical level, that I am.

“Not to me,” he whispers, a hand rising to cradle my cheek. “But they don’t know you the way I do, Vi. And while the first-years like Barlowe and Seifert are hunting you, we’ll have to watch. I’ll have to watch, Violet.” The break in his voice takes the anger right out of me. “We are not allowed to help you. To save you.”


“And when they gather the bodies for the roll, no one’s going to document how that cadet died. You’re just as likely to fall under Barlowe’s knife as a dragon’s talon.”

I breathe through the jolt of fear.

“Markham says that he’ll put you through the first year without telling your mother. By the time she finds out, you’ll already be inducted as a scribe. There’s nothing she can do after that.” He lifts his other hand so he’s holding my face between both palms, tipping it up toward his. “Please. If you won’t do it for yourself, then do it for me.”

My heart stutters, and I sway, his reasoning tugging me toward exactly what he’s suggesting. But you’ve made it this far, a part of me whispers.

“I can’t lose you, Violet,” he whispers, resting his forehead against mine.

“I just…can’t.”

I squeeze my eyes shut. This is my way out, and yet, I don’t want to take it.

“Just promise me you’ll think about it,” he begs. “We still have four weeks until Threshing. Just…think about it.” The hope in his tone and the tender way he holds me cuts through my defenses.

“I’ll think about it.”

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