Chapter no 11

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

A smile curving my lips, I brace my hands on the top of my head and walk off the stitch in my side as Imogen and I finish our post-run

cooldown a few mornings later, entering the courtyard a full half hour before breakfast is set to be served.

He wrote me a letter, and I’ve read it so many times I already have it memorized. There’s nothing remotely dangerous in it, no secrets of the revolution or clues on how to help, but it’s not like he can risk those by putting them in writing. No, this is even better. It’s just about him. It’s little details, like the fact that he used to sit on the roof of Riorson House during the rebellion in hopes his father would come home and tell him it was all over.

“You’ve been grinning like a drunkard for the last three mornings,” Imogen complains, ducking to check under the dais as we pass by. “How is anyone that happy at sunrise?”

Can’t blame her. I’ve been on edge since assessment day, too. So are Bodhi and Eya.

“No nightmares the last few days, and no one’s up at this hour trying to kill me.” My hands fall to my side. I made it a little farther between walking breaks this time.

“Yeah, because that’s the reason.” She rolls her neck. “Why don’t you take him back already?”

“He doesn’t trust me.” I shrug. “And I can’t really trust him. It’s complicated.” But damn do I miss catching glimpses of him every day. Saturday can’t get here soon enough. “Besides, even if two people have unmatched chemistry, that doesn’t mean they should be in a relationship beyond anything physical—”

“Oh, no.” She shakes her head, then tucks a strand of pink hair behind her ear. “I was finishing a conversation. Not starting one. I’m down for running and weight training with you, but you have friends to talk about your sex life with. Remember? The ones I’m watching you actively avoid at every opportunity?”

Not going there.

“And we aren’t friends?” I question.

“We’re…” Her face scrunches. “Coconspirators with a vested interest in keeping each other alive.”

That only makes me smile bigger. “Oh, don’t go getting soft on me now.”

Her gaze narrows as she looks past me, toward the outer wall. “What in Dunne’s name would a scribe be doing in the quadrant at this hour?”

I startle at the sight of Jesinia waiting in one of the shaded alcoves, tucked away like she’s trying to hide. “Relax. She’s a friend.”

Imogen dishes out a heaping dose of side-eye. “You’re pretty much hiding from the second-years but befriending scribes?”

“I’m distancing myself so I don’t have to lie to them, and I’ve been friends with Jes— You know what? I don’t owe you an explanation. I’m going to see what my friend needs.” I increase my pace, but Imogen matches it. “Hi,” I sign to Jesinia as we near the alcove. This particular one has a tunnel that leads straight into the dormitory. “Everything all right?”

“I came to find you—” Her brow puckers under her hood as her gaze shifts to Imogen, who’s sizing her up like she would an opponent.

“I’m fine,” I tell Imogen, signing at the same time. “Jesinia isn’t going to try to kill me.”

Imogen tilts her head, her gaze dropping to the cream satchel Jesinia carries.

“I’m not going to try to kill her,” Jesinia signs, her brown eyes widening. “I wouldn’t even know how.”

“Violet knew how to kill just fine on a scribe’s education,” Imogen replies, her hands moving quickly.

Jesinia blinks.

I lift my brows at Imogen.

“Fine,” she replies, signing as she backs away. “But if she comes at you with a sharpened quill, don’t blame me.”

“Sorry about her,” I sign once Imogen turns her back to us. “People are trying to kill you?” Jesinia’s brow knits.

“It’s Thursday.” I move into the alcove so my back isn’t to the courtyard. “I’m always happy to see you, but what can I help you with?” Scribe cadets almost never enter the Riders Quadrant unless they’re assisting Captain Fitzgibbons.

“Two things,” she signs as we both sit on the bench, then reaches into her satchel, pulls out a tome, and hands it to me. It’s a copy of The Gift of the First Six and looks to be hundreds of years old. “You said you wanted an early accounting of the first riders when you returned the other books,” she signs. “This is one of the earliest I could find that’s allowed to be removed from the Archives. Preparing for another debate?”

I set it on my lap and choose my words carefully. My gut tells me I can trust her, but after Dain, I’m not sure I can depend on my intuition, and knowing isn’t safe for her, anyway. “Studying. And thank you, but you didn’t have to bring it. I would have come to you.”

“I didn’t want you to have to wait for me to be on Archives duty, and you told me you run every morning…” She takes several deep breaths, which usually means she’s composing her thoughts. “And I hate to admit it, but I need help,” she signs before pulling a ragged tome out of the bag and handing it to me.

I take it to free up her hands, noting the worn edges and loose spine.

“I’m trying to translate this for an assignment, and I’m struggling with a couple of sentences. It’s in Old Lucerish, and from what I remember, it’s one of the dead languages you can read.” Her cheeks flush pink as she

glances back over her shoulder at the mage-lit tunnel, as if another scribe might see us. “I’ll be in trouble if anyone knows I’m asking for help. Adepts shouldn’t ask.”

“I’m good at keeping secrets,” I sign, my face falling as I remember using the language to pass secret messages with Dain when we were kids.

“Thank you. I know almost every other language.” Her motions are sharp, and her mouth tenses.

“You know far more of them than I do.” We share a smile, and I flip open the tome to the bookmark, taking in the swirling strokes of ink that make up the logosyllabic language.

Jesinia points to a sentence. “I’m stuck there.”

I quickly read from the beginning of the paragraph to be sure I have it right, then sign the sentence she’s looking for, spelling out the last word— the name of an ancient king who lived a thousand years before Navarre existed.

“Thank you.” She writes the sentence down in the notebook she’s brought with her.

Ancient king. I flip to the first page of the book, and my shoulders sag. It bears a date from twenty-five years ago.

“It’s hand-copied from an original,” Jesinia signs. “About five years before the quadrant received the printing press.”

Right. Because nothing in the Archives is older than four hundred years except the scrolls from the Unification. Sweat cools on the back of my neck as I translate a few more sentences for her from various pages, surprised at how much I still remember after not practicing for a year, then hand the tome back when I finish the last sentence she has marked.

If I hurry, I can bathe the sweat off and still catch breakfast.

“We’re working on removing all the dead languages from the public section of the Archives and translating them for easier reading,” she signs with an excited smile, then puts her things away. “You should come by and see how much we’ve accomplished.”

“Riders aren’t allowed past the study table,” I remind her.

“I’d make an exception for you.” She grins. “The Archives are almost always empty on Sundays, especially with most third-years cycling home for break.”

A scream rends the air, and my head shoots up. Across the courtyard, a second-year from Third Wing is dragged from the academic building, between two older riders, followed by Professor Markham.

What in Amari’s name?

Jesinia pales and sinks farther into the shadows of the alcove as he’s hauled into the dormitory building, where the tunnels beneath lead across the canyon and into the main campus of Basgiath. “I think,” she signs, starting to breathe raggedly. “I think that’s my fault.”

“What?” I turn to face her fully.

“That rider requested a book yesterday, and I recorded the request.” She leans toward me, panic growing in her eyes. “I have to record the requests. It’s—”

“Regulation,” we both finish signing at the same time. I nod. “You didn’t do anything wrong. What was the book?”

She glances toward the doors where the rider disappeared. “I should go.

Thank you.”

It’s only the fear in her eyes that keeps me from asking her again before she rushes off, leaving me staring at the tome in my lap, realizing how dangerous my “research project” really is.

“Wait for me!” Rhiannon calls out later that day, jogging up through the crowd of riders as we reach the steps beside the Gauntlet,

where most of us are bottlenecked as we wait for our turn to climb up to the flight field.

“We’re still here!” I wave before my gaze returns to moving restlessly over the people closest to us, watching their hands, their weapons. I trust my squadmates implicitly, but no one else. All it takes is a well-timed stab in a crowd, and I could bleed out without even knowing who’d killed me.

“This isn’t right,” Sawyer mutters, refolding our homework map for RSC. “I can’t get number four no matter how many times I count the little elevation lines.”

“That’s north,” I tell him, tapping the bottom of the folded monstrosity. “You’re looking at the wrong sector for question four. Trust me, I had to ask Ridoc for help last night.”

“Ugh. This is some infantry bullshit.” He shoves the map into his pocket.

“Why won’t you just accept that I am a land navigation god and ask for help like everyone else?” Ridoc teases Sawyer as Rhi catches up to us. “Finally! You’d think leadership would be on time.”

“Leadership was in a meeting,” Rhi replies, holding up a collection of missives. “And leadership was given the mail!”

Hope leaps up, replacing the hypervigilance for a second before I can squash it.

“Ridoc,” Rhiannon says, handing over a letter. “Sawyer.” She turns, giving him the next one. “Me.” She flips that one to the back. “And Violet.”

He wouldn’t, I remind myself before taking the letter from her, yet I can’t help but hold my breath as I open the unsealed flap of the envelope.


Sorry it took me so long to write. I only just realized the date. You’re a second-year!

My shoulders droop, which is just…pathetic.

“Who’s it from?” Rhiannon asks. “You look disappointed.”

“Mira,” I answer. “And no, not disappointed…” My words trail off as we move forward in line.

“You thought it would be a different lieutenant,” she guesses correctly, her eyes softening in sympathy.

I shrug, but it’s hard to keep the frustration out of my voice. “I know better.”

“You miss him, don’t you?” She drops her voice as we shuffle closer to the steps.

I nod. “I shouldn’t, but I do.”

“Are you two together?” she whispers. “I mean, everyone knows you’re sleeping together, but something’s off with you.”

I glance ahead, making sure Sawyer and Ridoc are engrossed in their letters. This is a truth I can easily give her. “Not anymore.”

“Why?” she asks, confusion etching her forehead. “What happened?”

I open my mouth, then shut it. Maybe the truth isn’t that easy. What the hell am I supposed to tell her? Gods, when did this all become so complicated?

“You can tell me, you know.” She forces a smile, and the hurt I see behind it makes me feel like total and complete shit.

“I know.” Lucky for me, we start up the steps, giving me a chance to think.

We reach the top, walking into the box canyon of the flight field, and my heart swells at the sight of the dragons organized in the same formation we stand at in the courtyard. It’s a beautiful, terrifying, humbling kaleidoscope of power that steals the breath from my lungs.

“This is never going to get old, is it?” Rhiannon says as we follow Ridoc and Sawyer across the formation, her smile overtaking her face.

“I don’t think so.” We share a look, and I break. “Xaden wasn’t honest with me,” I say quietly, feeling like I owe my best friend something true. “I had to end it.”

Her eyes flare. “He lied?”

“No.” My grip tightens on Mira’s letter. “He didn’t tell me the entire truth. He still won’t.”

“Another woman?” Her brows rise. “Because I will absolutely help you annihilate that shadow-wielding asshole if you guys were exclusive and he


“No, no.” I laugh. “Nothing like that.” We pass by Second Wing’s dragons. “It’s…” There go my words again. “It’s…complicated. How are you and Tara? I haven’t seen her around much.”

She sighs. “Neither of us has enough time for the other. It sucks, but maybe it will ease up next year when neither of us are squad leaders anymore.”

“Or maybe you’ll be wingleaders.” The thought makes me bite back a smile. Rhi would be a fantastic wingleader.

“Maybe.” There’s a bounce to her step. “But in the meantime, we’re free to see whoever we want. What about you? Because if you’re single, I have to say that a couple of the guys in Second Wing somehow got hotter after War Games.” Her eyes sparkle. “Or we could secretly visit Chantara this weekend and hook up with some infantry cadets!” She holds up a finger. “Healers might be all right, too, but I draw the line at scribes. The robes don’t do it for me. Not that I’m judging if that’s your thing. I’m just saying that we are second-years and our options for blowing off steam are endless.

A random stranger might be what I need to flush Xaden out of my system, but it isn’t what I want.

She studies my face like I’m a puzzle that needs to be solved as we continue down the field. “Shit. You’re hung up on him.”

“I’m…” I sigh. “It’s complicated.”

“You said that already.” She tries to school her expression, but I catch the flash of disappointment when I don’t elaborate. “Mira have anything to say about the front?”

“Not sure.” I glance through the letter, reading it quickly. “She’s been reassigned to Athebyne. She says the food is only a step above our mother’s cooking.” That gets a laugh out of me as I flip the page over, but it dies quickly when I see the thick black lines that eliminate entire paragraphs. “What the…” I flip to the next page, finding more of the same before she signs off, hoping to fly over to Samara during one of my upcoming trips.

“What’s wrong?” Rhiannon looks up from her own letter as we continue walking, passing by Third Wing’s dragons.

“I think it’s been redacted.” I flash it at her so she can see the black lines, then look around to make sure no one else notices.

“Someone censored your letter?” She looks surprised. “Someone read

your letter?”

“It was unsealed.” I stuff it back into the envelope. “Who would do that?”

Melgren. Varrish. Markham. Anyone on Aetos’s orders. My mother. The options are endless. “I’m not sure.” It’s not a lie, not really. I slip the envelope into the internal pocket of my flight leathers and then cringe as I button up the jacket. It’s too fucking hot for these things down here, but I know I’ll be grateful for the extra layer in a few minutes once we’re airborne.

A red in the second row huffs a blast of steam in warning at a cadet from Third Wing who gets too close, and we all hurry along.

Tairn is the largest dragon on the field by far, and he looks completely and utterly bored as he waits for me, the metal of my saddle glistening against his scales in the sun. I can’t help but sigh in disappointment that Andarna isn’t with him as his forelegs come into view.

“Hey, has Tairn said anything about another black dragon in the Vale?” Ridoc asks me over his shoulder as we make it past Claw Section, coming to Tairn first, who’s standing in the lead position despite Rhiannon and Sawyer outranking me.

It’s all I can do to not trip over my feet. “I’m sorry?”

“I know, it sounds ludicrous, but when we walked by Kaori back there, I swear I heard him say something about another black dragon being spotted. The guy was practically jumping with excitement.”

“Tairn?” If the professor of dragonkind knows about Andarna, we’re screwed.

“Only a few dragons saw her before she entered the caves for the Dreamless Sleep. You try keeping her hidden and see how it goes for you.”


“Maybe it’s Tairn they’re seeing,” I say to Ridoc. Not a lie. “Or an elder?”

“Kaori thinks it’s a new one.” His eyebrows rise. “You should ask him.” “Huh.” I swallow. “Yeah, I can do that.” Still not lying.

The three continue on, mounting their dragons.

Tairn dips his left shoulder for me but then straightens. “On your left,”

he warns as a shape approaches from behind.

I whip around quickly to face the threat and secure my shields in place.

Varrish saunters toward me, his arms locked behind his back, and the major must be inhuman because there’s not a dot of sweat on his high forehead. “Ah, Sorrengail, there you are.”

As if Tairn is hard to miss.

“Major Varrish.” I leave my hands at my thighs, where I can grab hold of my daggers easily, wondering what his signet might be. I’ve never seen a signet patch on him. Either he’s cocky like Xaden and thinks his reputation precedes him or he’s part of the classified-signet club.

“Quite the necklace you have there.” He points to the greenish bruises on my throat.

“Thank you. It was expensive.” I lift my chin. “Cost someone their life.” “Ah, that’s right. I recall hearing you were nearly done in by a first-year.

Good to see that the embarrassment didn’t finish the job he started. But I guess you’re probably used to barely squeaking by alive, seeing how frail you’re rumored to be.”

I officially loathe this man, but at least I know Tairn will eat him whole if he tries to attack me on the field.

He leans left, making a show of looking around me. “I thought you were bonded to two dragons?”

“I am.” Sweat slides down my spine.

“And yet, I only see one.” He looks up at Tairn. “Where’s your little gold one? The feathertail I’ve heard so much about? I was hoping to see her for myself.”

A growl rumbles up Tairn’s throat, and he angles his head over me.

Saliva drips in giant globs, hitting the ground in front of Varrish.

The major tenses but maintains a perfect mask of amusement as he steps back. “Always has had a temper, this one.”

“He likes his space.”

“I’ve noticed he likes you to have yours, too,” he comments. “Tell me, Sorrengail, how do you feel about the way he gives you…oh, shall we say, an easier path to take than your fellow cadets?”

“If you mean to ask how I feel about how he stopped the needless execution of bonded riders by your dragon after Parapet, then I’d have to say that I feel pretty good about it. I guess it takes one bad-tempered dragon to keep another civil.”

“Remind him that I threatened to digest him alive.” “I don’t think that would go well for me,” I reply.

“It would be fun to watch him eat the pompous one.” Andarna’s voice is groggy.

“Go back to sleep,” I lecture. She’s not due to wake for another month, Tairn said.

Varrish’s eyes narrow momentarily on mine, and then he smiles, but there’s nothing kind or happy about it. “About your little feathertail—”

“She can’t bear a rider.” Not lying, since she hasn’t flown since waking in Aretia. “I fly with Tairn, but she’ll go through maneuvers on the easier days.”

“Well, see to it that she flies with you next week, and you can consider that an order.”

Another growl sounds from Tairn.

“Dragons don’t take orders from humans.” Power rises within me, humming beneath my skin and making my fingers buzz.

“Of course not.” His grin widens like I’ve said something funny. “But you do, don’t you?”

“Impudent human,” Tairn seethes.

I lift my chin, knowing there’s nothing more I can say about this without disciplinary action.

“It’s ironic, don’t you think?” Varrish asks, retreating one step at a time. “From what Colonel Aetos told me, your father was writing a book on feathertails— dragons which hadn’t been seen in hundreds of years—and then you ended up bonded to one.”

“Coincidental,” I correct him. “The word you meant to say is ‘coincidental.’”

“Is it?” He seems to ponder, backing away and passing by Bodhi. My stomach turns. “Is it?”

“I know nothing of your father’s research,” Tairn promises. But Andarna has gone silent.

“Riders!” Kaori projects his voice across the field as Bodhi reaches my side. “Third-years have joined us today for a very special reason. They’ll be demonstrating a running landing.” He gestures to the sky.

Cath is on approach from the west, the Red Swordtail blocking out the sun for a second as he dives for the field.

“He’s not slowing down,” I murmur. Part of me hopes Dain falls off. “He will,” Bodhi promises. “Just not by much.”

My jaw slackens. Dain rides crouched on Cath’s shoulder, his arms out for balance as Cath drops to fly level with the field. The beats of Cath’s wings slow only slightly the closer he gets, and I hold my breath when Dain slides down Cath’s leg to perch on his claw while his dragon is still flying.

Holy. Shit.

“This is unadvisable for you,” Tairn says.

“For anyone with a heartbeat,” I counter.

Cath flares his wings subtly, enough to drop speed, and Dain jumps as he passes by the professors. He hits the sunburned grass at a run, dispelling the momentum from Cath’s flight within a few yards, and comes to a stop.

The third-years cheer, but Bodhi remains silent at my side.

“And that is why Aetos is a wingleader,” Kaori calls out. “Perfect execution. This approach is the most efficient landing for when we need to engage in ground combat. By the time this year is over, you’ll be able to land like this on any outpost wall. Pay close attention, and you’ll be able to complete this safely. Try your own method, and you’ll be dead before you hit the ground.”

The fuck I will.

“Adaptation will be necessary,” Tairn decrees.

“For today, we’re going to practice the basics of moving from the seat to the shoulder,” Kaori instructs.

“How are we adapting to that?” I ask Tairn.

“I didn’t say we would.” He chuffs. “The dragon-watcher will adapt his request, or I’ll have an early lunch.”

This maneuver is totally, completely pointless in the kind of war we need to fight.

“Kaori doesn’t know what’s out there,” I say softly to Bodhi. “What makes you so sure?” He glances my way.

“If he did, he’d be teaching us faster ways to get off the damned ground, not land on it.”



ell him that we’re still working on the next shipment,” Bodhi tells me as we walk through the moonlit flight field a little before

midnight a few nights later.

“Shipment of what?” I ask, adjusting my pack on my shoulders.

“He’ll know what I’m talking about,” he promises, wincing as his fingers graze the dark bruise on his jaw. “And tell him it’s raw. They’ve had the forge burning night and day, so we haven’t been able to—” He flinches. “Just tell him it’s raw.”

“I’m starting to feel a lot like a letter.” I shoot a glare at him for a second. That’s all I’m willing to look away from the uneven terrain for. There’s no chance I’m risking a sprained ankle before a twelve-hour flight.

“You’re the best way of getting information to him,” he admits. “Without actually knowing anything.”

“Precisely.” He nods. “It’s safer this way until you’re capable of shielding from Aetos at all times. Xaden was supposed to continue teaching you last visit, but then…”

“I got strangled.” At least I’ve only been attacked once so far this year, but challenges open back up in a week.

“Yeah. It kind of fucked with his head.”

“I imagine that dropping dead randomly would have been inconvenient to him,” I mutter, half listening. Shit. Challenges open up in a week. It’s time to start checking the list the cadre keeps so I can go about my poisoning ways again.

“You know it’s not like that for him,” he says in a lecturing tone that reminds me of Xaden. “I’ve never seen him—”

“Let’s not do this.” “—care like this—” “No really. Stop.”

“—and that includes Catriona.”

My gaze whips toward him. “Who the hell is Catriona?”

He winces and presses his lips in a thin line. “What are the chances that you’ll forget I said that between here and Samara?”

“None.” I stumble on a rock, or my feelings, but manage to catch my balance. Physically, at least. My thoughts? Those are tripping over themselves down the path of wondering who Catriona is. An older rider? Someone from Aretia?

“Right.” He rubs the back of his neck and sighs. “Not even the tiniest bit of a chance? Because the thing about the deal you two have with your dragons is that he’ll be back here next week, and I’m not remotely in the mood to have my ass kicked after fending off another assassination attempt.”

I grab his arm and stop walking. “Another assassination attempt?”

He sighs. “Yeah. Second time someone tried to jump me in the bathing chamber this week.”

My eyes widen as my heart hammers in my chest. “Are you okay?”

He has the gall to grin. “I completely eviscerated some asshole out of Second Wing while naked and only got a bruise. I’m fine. But back to why you shouldn’t mention that comment to my rather moody cousin you’re sleeping with—”

“You know what?” I start walking to the middle of the field again. If he doesn’t want to process assassination attempts, then we have nothing else to

say. “I don’t know you nearly well enough to discuss who I am or am not sleeping with, Bodhi,” I throw over my shoulder.

He shoves his hands in his pockets and leans back on his heels. “You make a fair point.”

“I made the only point.” Tairn’s silhouette blocks the moon for a heartbeat before he lands ahead of us.

Bodhi grins sheepishly. “Your dragon has arrived in time to save us from the awkwardness of this conversation.”

“Let’s get going,” Tairn all but snaps. I try not to take it personally. He’s been insufferable for days now, but I can’t blame him. I can feel his physical pain like a knife to my own chest when he overpowers my emotions.

“He’s in a rush,” I tell Bodhi. “Thanks for walking me out—”


“Well, fuck.” Bodhi swears under his breath as mage lights flicker on behind us, lighting up the field the same way they had the night we flew for War Games.

“Cadet Sorrengail, you will delay your launch.” Varrish amplifies his voice across the field.

We turn and see him flanked by two other riders, walking our way. Tairn growls in answer.

Bodhi and I exchange a glance, but we both remain silent as the trio approaches.

“What do we do if they try to stop us?” I ask Tairn.



“I didn’t expect you to leave until morning,” Varrish says, flashing an oily smile as the two other riders flank us. The stripes on their uniforms declare them as first lieutenants, the same as Mira, one rank above Xaden.

“It’s been a fortnight. I’m on leave.”

“So you are.” Varrish blinks at me, then looks at the female lieutenant on my left. “Nora, search her bag.”

“I’m sorry?” I put a step between me and the woman.

“Your bag,” Varrish repeats. “Article Four, Section One of the Codex states—”

“That all cadet belongings are subject to search at the discretion of command,” I finish for him.

“Ah, you know your Codex. Good. Your bag.”

I swallow, then roll my shoulders, letting the pack slip off my back before holding it out to the left, never taking my eyes from Varrish. The first lieutenant takes the rucksack from my hand.

“You may leave, Cadet Durran,” Varrish says.

Bodhi moves closer to my side, and the male lieutenant takes a step closer as well, the mage lights catching the signet patch—fire wielding—on his uniform. “As Cadet Sorrengail’s section leader, I am the next in her chain of command. And as Article Four, Section Two of the Codex states, her discipline falls to her chain of command before being brought to cadre. I would be negligent in my duty were I to leave her in potential possession of…whatever it is you’re looking for.”

Varrish narrows his eyes as Nora empties my bag onto the ground. So much for a clean change of clothing.

Tairn lowers his head behind me, angling slightly to the side and growling deeply in his throat. At this angle, he can scorch two of them without touching Bodhi or me, which would only leave one for us to dispatch if we have to.

Anger prickles along my spine, and I fist my hands like that’s going to actually help me contain the burst of power crawling through my veins.

“Was that really necessary?” the other lieutenant asks.

“He said search,” Nora replies before looking up at Varrish. “Clothing,” she says, flipping the pieces over. Her hands tremble when she glances in Tairn’s direction. “Second-year physics text, land navigation manual, and a hairbrush.”

“Give me the book and the manual.” Varrish holds his hand out to Nora. “Need a refresher?” I ask, suddenly grateful I left my copy of The Gift of

the First Six in my room, not that it’s taught me anything besides the fact

that the First Six weren’t the first riders—they were simply the first to survive.

Varrish doesn’t respond as he flips through the pages, no doubt looking for scrawled secrets in the margins. His jaw flexes when he doesn’t find any.

“Satisfied?” I drum my fingers along the sheaths at my thighs.

“We’re done here.” He tosses the book onto the pile of clothing. “See you in forty-eight hours, Cadet Sorrengail. And don’t forget—since your feathertail decided not to join you for formation again, I will be pondering your punishment for dereliction of duty while you are gone.”

And with that threat, the trio walks away, the mage lights winking off one by one as they pass, leaving us in the dark again except for the circle of light directly above us.

“You knew that was going to happen.” I glare at Bodhi before crouching in front of my discarded things, packing them back into the bag. “That’s why you insisted on walking me out.”

“In addition to the very real attempts on all of our lives—Imogen and Eya were attacked today, too, coming out of a briefing for third-years—we suspected they’d search you but wanted to confirm,” he admits, dropping down to help.

They could have died. My heart stutters in my chest, and I quickly fold that fear into the box where I’ve decided to hide all my feelings this year. Well, all emotions except one: anger.

“You used me as a test?” I jerk the fastener on the pack closed and shove my arms through the straps, hoisting it to my shoulders. “Without even telling me? Let me guess—it was Xaden’s idea?”

“It was an experiment.” He grimaces. “You were the control.” “Then what the fuck was the variable?”

The bells ring out, the sound faint from here.

“Check Tairn. It’s midnight. You should get going,” Bodhi says. “Every minute you stay is one fewer that Tairn gets with Sgaeyl.”


“Stop using me like I’m some kind of game piece, Bodhi.” Each word is sharper than the last. “You two want my help? Ask for it. And don’t fucking start on me about my shielding abilities. That’s no excuse to send me into something unprepared.”

He looks abashed. “Fair point.”

I nod, then mount the ramp Tairn creates by dropping a shoulder. Moonlight and what little mage light reaches this height is more than sufficient for me to find the saddle. I could navigate the spikes of Tairn’s back in the darkest night. I proved that in Resson.

There are already two packs twice the size of mine secured behind the saddle.

“Good thing they didn’t search me,” Tairn says.

“Are we carrying…” I blink twice.

“We are,” he confirms. “Now get in the saddle before they change their minds and I’m forced to incinerate your leadership. Later I’ll have more than a few words for the wingleader about not preparing you, trust me.”

Taking a second to secure my pack, too, I settle in for the flight, dragging the leather across my thighs and strapping in.

“Let’s get to them,” I say once I’m buckled.

Tairn backs up a few steps, no doubt to keep Bodhi clear, and then launches into the night, every wingbeat taking us closer to the front lines… and Xaden.

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