Chapter no 18

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

“You’re early!” I blurt when Xaden opens my door Saturday morning to find me on the floor of my room, surrounded by every history text

I own and the two Jesinia loaned me.

Shit, I’m supposed to meet her in less than an hour.

He blinks and shuts the door behind him. “Hello to you, too.”

“Hi,” I respond, my voice softening. The elation of seeing him is tempered by the shadows under his eyes. “Sorry, I just wasn’t expecting you to make it until noon, if they even let you come and— You look… exhausted.” Even his movements are slower. Not by much, but I notice.

“That’s what every man wants to hear.” He sets his swords by the door and drops his pack right next to them. Like it’s where they go. Like this room is partly his, too. Like his room at Samara feels like it’s mine. Neither of us has ever asked for separate quarters.

Maybe I can’t fully trust him, but I also can’t stand to be away from him. “I didn’t say you aren’t beautiful. I implied that you need a nap.” I nod

toward my empty bed. “You should sleep.”

His slow smile stops my heart. “You think I’m beautiful?”

“Like you don’t already know that.” I roll my eyes and flip the page in The Journey of the First Six, a Secondhand Account, averting my gaze. “I also think you smell like you’ve been flying for twelve hours.” It’s not

exactly true, but maybe it will check the already enormous ego I just inflated.

“Gods, I missed you.” He laughs and rips off his flight jacket, revealing the short sleeves of his summer uniform and indecently toned arms.

I breathe through the impulse to forget every single worry for a couple of hours by laying him out over this floor and try like hell to concentrate on the text in front of me.

“Think anyone will report me for using the bathing chamber?” He’s already rummaging through his pack.

“I don’t think anyone would report you for cold-blooded murder around here, let alone taking a bath.”

“Lieutenants aren’t exactly supposed to be sleeping in cadets’ quarters when they visit,” he tells me. “We’re breaking a few rules.”

“Never bothered you before.” Letting his assumption that he’s sleeping here slide, I glance up from the book and immediately regret it when I see that he’s shirtless. Gods help me if he strips off anything else.

“Didn’t say it bothered me now.” He stands, his arms full of fresh clothes from his pack. “Just don’t want to see you punished for my actions. I thought they were going to find a way to send you on maneuvers today, or just lock you away.”

“Me too.” Awareness spreads through every part of my body as I lock eyes with him. “I’m sure they’ll find a dark cellar for you next week, so we should try to enjoy this one.”

“You and I have different definitions of the word ‘enjoy.’” He gestures to the books scattered on my floor.

“Not really.” I scan the page quickly and flip to the next. “I think spending the day tangled up in that bed together would be enjoyable, but since you drew your line, here I am with boring, sexless books.”

“Say those three little words, and I’ll have you naked in seconds.” He looks at me with so much heat that I do a double take when I glance up, my breath catching.

“I want you.” All day. Every day.

“Those are not the three words I need.” He slides into my mind like a caress. “And why aren’t your shields up?”

“Well, those are the words you get without full disclosure.” I rip my gaze away. “And it’s just us in here.”

“Hmmm.” He gives me a look I can’t decipher. “I’ll be right back.”

“You don’t really smell,” I whisper, loath to let him out of my sight for even a second.

“Get any closer, and you’ll take that back.” He leaves, and I do my best to concentrate on the book in front of me and not the thought that he’s about to be naked down the hall.

All I have to do is be honest with him about how I feel, and I can have him. His body, at least. But isn’t that all I really had before? Ironic that it’s my truthfulness that can put me out of my own misery when it’s his candor I crave. I guess in that way, we’re alike, both wanting more than the other person is willing to risk.

A few minutes later, he walks back in and the room feels instantly smaller, or maybe it’s the jump in my heart rate making it feel harder to breathe and not the lack of air.

“That was quick.” I’ve only read another twenty pages or so but I don’t bother hiding the two books I need to return. It’s not like he’d know which are mine and which are borrowed. The less I have to hide, the better.

“I could make so many innuendos, but I’ll refrain.” He tosses his things into his pack, then sinks into the armchair and leans forward, bracing his forearms on spread knees. He picks a book up off the floor. “Where are all the books from? You didn’t have this many last year.”

“Mostly from my old room in the main college.” I skim the current page and sigh. This book is mostly scribe-centric stories about the Great War that are heavily redacted, with one vague passage about discovering the ability to extend the wards. “I crated them before Parapet and thought my mother would have shipped them off to storage, but it appears she is more sentimental than Mira or I thought. They were right where I left them.” It had been a surprising discovery. Nothing had been touched in my old room,

like I was expected back at any minute. “Really, you should get some sleep.”

Jesinia will be pissed if I miss our appointment.

Colonel Daxton’s Guide to Excelling in the Scribe Quadrant,” he reads from the spine.

“That one wasn’t as useful as I thought it would be the first time I read it,” I joke.

“I would say not.” He sets the book down and then tilts his head, reading the book I have open in front of me. “The Journey of the First Six, a Secondhand Account.”

“Yes.” My pulse leaps, and my stomach gets the same weightless feeling that usually comes when Tairn makes a steep dive. I should have hidden the damned books.

“Or maybe you want him to know,” Tairn interjects.

“Go…be busy.”

“A class assignment?” Xaden’s eyes narrow when I don’t answer.

“For research.” For some reason I can’t fathom, I draw the line at outright lying to him.

“I don’t remember anything about the First Six being…” A tick of his jaw later, his gaze jumps to mine. “You’re hiding something from me.”

Shit. He knows. Or he guesses. That was fast.

“Violet?” It’s practically a growl. He definitely knows. “Why are you researching the First Six?”

“For Aretia.” I shut the book. There’s nothing in it that’s going to help, anyway.

Xaden draws a deep breath, and shadows extend from under the chair, rolling over his feet like a dark fog.

“For you, really.” The admission is soft.

He stills so completely that I’m not sure he’s even breathing.

“Brennan told you we have a wardstone.” His words are clipped, controlled. The shadows begin moving like hands, gathering all the books around me but the one I’m holding and stacking them. “I’m going to fucking kill him.”

“Why? Because he’s more forthcoming with me than you are?” I close the book. “Relax, it’s not like he gave me your journal or something.”

“I don’t keep one, but that would have been far preferable,” he snaps. “Digging around for information on Navarre’s most classified defense will get you killed.”

“Civilians are fleeing for our borders, no one in Navarre knows the truth, and Aretia needs to defend itself—to protect the people I’m guessing you’re prepared to take in when venin inevitably reach Tyrrendor.” I clutch the old tome to my chest. “You are going to take people in, aren’t you?”

“Of course we are.”

“Good.” At least my faith isn’t misplaced. I glance over my shoulder at the clock on my desk. Twenty minutes until I have to return the book.

“But it’s weapons that are going to defend Tyrrendor.”

“I beg to differ, and I’ll keep researching until I figure out how the First Six put these wards in place so we can duplicate the process in Aretia.” I tilt my chin at him.

“No one knows how it was originally done, only how to maintain them.” He rises from the chair, and his shadows follow as he paces, a barometer for his mood. “It’s a lost magic, and you can’t deny that it was probably lost on purpose.”

“Someone knows,” I counter, tracking his movements. “There’s no chance that someone didn’t leave a record somewhere in case they fail. We aren’t going to destroy the only thing that could save us. We would hide it, but we wouldn’t destroy it.”

“And how the hell do you propose finding that record without letting the scribes know what you’re up to?” he challenges, turning at the edge of my bed with his hands laced behind his neck and pinning me with a stare that might have sent me running last year.

The click of my teeth is audible as I snap my mouth shut.

He takes one deep breath, then another, closing his eyes. “The book you’re clutching like a newborn. It’s not one of yours, is it?”

“It’s currently in my possession.”

“Violet.” I can practically feel him counting to ten in his head for patience.

“Fine. I borrowed it from the Archives. Are you really going to yell at me for trying to help?”

“Who knows?” The question is so soft that I almost wish he would just yell. He’s always at his most lethal when he’s calm like this.

“A friend.”

His eyes snap open. “There’s a reason we don’t fuck around in the Archives. That’s the beating heart of the enemy.” His gaze bores into mine. “We don’t have any friends there.”

“Well, I do.” I stand slowly. “And I’m going to be late to return the book if I don’t head down there now. So why don’t you get some sleep while I


“I’m coming with you.”

“The hell you are.” I slip the book into the borrowed bag. “You’ll scare her witless. I haven’t told her anything about you, or Aretia, or what’s going on outside our borders, so relax.”

Go figure, he doesn’t. “She just knows you’re researching classified material. I’m not going to relax knowing that you’ve put yourself in danger.”

“You’re in danger every single day.” Anger flushes my skin. Someone knocks on the door, and he sighs before jerking it open.

“Oh!” Rhiannon steps back, almost bumping into Ridoc. “I didn’t realize you were here today, Lieutenant Riorson.” She glances over at me. “Vi, we were going to ask if you wanted to come to Chantara with us—”

“She’s busy,” Xaden responds, clasping my hand. “Don’t be an ass.” I yank my hand from his.

“Whoa.” Ridoc’s eyebrows rise as I turn toward Xaden.

“I’ve done exactly what you asked. I kept everything from my friends.” I glare into the depths of his soul. “So don’t be an asshole to them.”

“Exactly what I’ve asked?” He leans down, bringing his face within a breath of mine. “By keeping your research a secret?”

My jaw drops. “Are you really going to stand here and compare secrets with me?”

“It’s not the same.” He winces.

“It’s exactly the same!” I grip the strap of the bag to keep from jabbing him in the chest with my finger. How fucking dare he. “I’m researching the wards for you.”

“Why do you think I’m so angry?” The tension in his eyes, his posture, his tone equals mine.

“Because you don’t like being on the other side of secrets.”

“What the hell is going on?” Sawyer asks from the hallway.

“I…uh…” Ridoc scratches the top of his head. “I think they’re fighting.”

“That has… How long have you been hiding this from me?” Xaden questions.

“They’re not even…speaking,” Rhiannon mutters.

“I haven’t hidden shit from you. I’ve simply told you selective truths.”

He draws back like I’ve hit him.

“Sorry, guys.” I turn to my friends. “Trust me, there’s nothing I would rather do than go to Chantara with you, but unfortunately, I have to run an errand. Next weekend?”

“You’ll be in Samara.” Xaden folds his arms across his chest.

How is it possible to both love someone and loathe them all in the same moment?

Rhiannon looks between the two of us, then settles her attention on me. “Then the weekend after,” she suggests quietly.

I nod.

Her brow knits in wordless question.

“I’m fine. I promise. You guys have a great time.” I force a smile. “I’ll let you know if I need your help burying a body later.”

Ridoc sputters into a cough, and Sawyer pounds him on the back.

“I think she might mean you,” Rhiannon says as she gives Xaden an arch look.

“I’m certain she does.”

“Let’s go,” Sawyer says, leading the three of them out of the doorway.

“I’ll do it, too,” Rhiannon says over her shoulder. “I’ve never moved anything as big as you, but I bet my signet could put you in the ground without even disturbing the dirt if I’m pissed enough.” She shoots a look at him before walking down the hallway.

Xaden sighs and closes the door. “You have some loyal friends.”

“I do,” I agree. “Just remember you said that when it comes time to tell them what’s going on under their noses.”

His answer is barely a grunt. “I have to go—”

“I’m pissed that you hid it from me,” he interrupts. “But I’m livid that you’ve put your life at risk for me. That’s not something I can handle.”

“It’s not at risk. I can trust her.” I reach for the door handle, and he steps aside. His mouth tightens with anger, but it’s the flash of fear in his eyes that makes me pause. If I had a way of knowing he was just a little safer in Samara, I would want it. Even if he’s being an ass. “Fine. You can come with me if you agree not to scare her.”

“I can’t control her feelings.” He scoffs. I arch a single brow.

“I just want to meet her.” He lifts his hands, palms outward.

“So you can see if she’s trustworthy? By looking at her? Even you aren’t that powerful.” I open the door and step out into the hallway. “Let’s go.”

“I’ll know. I’m an incredible judge of character.” He walks out after me, pulling the door closed.

“Your ego really is boundless.” We start down the hall and turn right into the central corridor. “And just because I’m letting you come doesn’t mean I’m not still pissed at you.”

“Same.” He puts his hand on the small of my back when we pass a group of cadets.

“You don’t have to touch me for them to think you have a reason to be here. Everyone knows that we…”

“Knows that we what? You’ve been pretty damned clear that we’re not together.”

Wait…is that hurt in his voice? I hate the way my ire dulls. It’s easier to live in the anger.

We head down the central staircase, winding our way past the ground floor, where most cadets branch off, and into the sublevel of the quadrant.

It’s a maze of tunnels down here, but I know my way well enough.

“You would never sit here and do nothing when you could help. Asking me to do differently is just…insulting,” I whisper to him once I know we’re alone in the tunnels. “I’m smart enough to handle myself in the Archives.”

“I never said you weren’t brilliant. I never even said your plan wasn’t brilliant. I said you’re putting yourself in danger and I’m just asking you to be honest with me.” Mage lights flicker on as we make our way toward the covered bridge that spans the canyon between the Riders Quadrant and the main college. “Varrish pushed you to near-fucking-burnout, and you didn’t tell me that, either.” His jaw works. “Or that you wielded in the middle of the courtyard after Battle Brief.”

“How did you know?” I hadn’t mentioned Varrish in the letter I’d left for him.

“You didn’t think Bodhi would tell me?” His shadows stream forward, opening the door, and we head across the enclosed bridge. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the casual way he uses his power.

“I hoped he wouldn’t,” I admit.

“That’s the shit you need to tell me, Violet.”

“What would you have done? Flown back here and killed him? He’s the vice commandant.”

“I debated it.” He opens the next set of doors the same way.

“Bodhi has miraculously found reasons for our squad to miss maneuvers,” I tell him as we walk into the main campus, passing the infirmary.

“And how long is that going to work? We’re twice as likely to find a solution if you tell me what’s going—” Xaden’s head snaps forward and he grabs me by the waist, stopping in the middle of the hallway.

But we’ve already been seen.

“Put your shields back up.”

“It’s Nolon,” I point out but raise them anyway as guilt nips at me for letting them fall in the first place. I keep hoping for the moment Xaden promises is coming, where it’s second nature, but so far, it’s maximum effort to keep them in place.

“Nolon?” My jaw drops at how much weight the mender has lost. His skin hangs as loosely as his black uniform, and his eyes are missing their usual spark when he tries to smile at me.

“Violet. It’s good to see you.” He glances at Xaden, his gaze falling to the arm wrapped protectively around my waist. “Did you draw back because you’re under the assumption that I’m going to harm the young woman I’ve been mending for the last six years, Riorson? Or is it that you think no one knows that you two spend all your time together on the days either of you has leave? Because I assure you, I would never endanger Violet, and everyone already knows.”

I step out of Xaden’s arms. “What are you doing standing in the middle of the hallway? You look like you’re ready to drop.”

“You’re on it with the compliments today.”

Clearly, I need better shields if it’s that easy for Xaden to slip in again.

“Waiting for someone.” Nolon scratches a few days’ growth of beard on his jaw. “And I suppose I could use some rest. It’s hard work, mending a soul. Been at it for months now.” His smile lifts on one side, but I can’t tell if he’s joking or not. “You’ve been well so far this year? I haven’t been called to mend you.”

“I’m all right. I subluxated my shoulder a couple of weeks ago and—” I don’t know if he’s as close to Varrish as my friends have hypothesized. The thought gives me pause and keeps me from mentioning the burnout. “And I’ve been really good about keeping my knees wrapped. No broken bones yet, either.”

“Good.” Nolon nods as the door behind us opens. “That’s good.”

“I’m here!” Caroline Ashton races forward, passing us on the left. “Sorry I’m late!”

“Punctuality is appreciated,” Nolon lectures her before looking my way. “Do us both a favor and stay healthy, Violet.”

“I will,” I promise.

Caroline shoots a quick glare in my direction, and they disappear into the infirmary, the door closing softly behind them.

“She didn’t look hurt,” I note as Xaden and I start toward the Archives again.

“No, she didn’t,” Xaden agrees. “Must be visiting another cadet from First Wing. Nolon looks like he’s about to burn out himself. Have there been more injuries than usual?”

“Not that I’m aware of. Ridoc thinks they’re using Nolon for interrogations.” My face crinkles. “But I’m not sure if he was serious or not. It’s hard to tell with Ridoc.”

“Hmm.” That’s all he says as we descend, the tunnels slanting downward toward the lowest point of Basgiath. The deeper we go, the cooler the air becomes, and the sharper a pang I recognize as grief resonates in my chest.

“What are you thinking? Your face just fell,” Xaden notes quietly as we pass by the stairs that lead up to the main campus.


“You can’t expect more than one-word answers from me and not give the same.”

He has a point.

“My father loved this place. He was ecstatic when my mother was assigned here because it meant that he’d have the full resources of the Archives.” I smile at the memory. “Not that he didn’t love maintaining the records and libraries at the outposts we were stationed at, but to a scribe, this place is the pinnacle of a career. It’s their temple.” We round the last curve, bringing the vault-style door into view. The circular entrance is ten feet across and guarded by a singular scribe, who’s asleep in his chair.

“A well-guarded one.” Xaden shoots a disgusted look at the sleeping scribe.

“Promise me you’ll be on your best behavior.” I grip his elbow so he knows I mean it. “She’s an old friend.”

“So was Aetos.”

I narrow my eyes.

“If she’s a true friend, then she has nothing to worry about.”

“Look, if she was going to turn me in, she would have done it when I requested The Fables of the Barren last year,” I tell him as we cross into the Archives.

“You. What?” His jaw flexes, and he breathes deeply when we reach the table. The Archives are empty again, thank Zihnal, but that’s why Jesinia chose Saturdays.

“Before Mira gave me the book at Montserrat, I requested it. And I didn’t think anything of it at the time. But no one showed up at my door. No one hauled me off and divested me of my head. Because we. Are. Friends.”

He remains silent as Jesinia approaches, her gaze widening as she looks between us.

Her steps slow.

“He’s with me,” I sign, offering a smile. “Stop scaring her.” “I’m just standing here.”

“That’s enough. Trust me.”

“Did you find what you were looking for?” she signs back, nervously biting her lip, her focus darting to Xaden.

“No.” I hand the bag over to her, and she slings the strap over her shoulder. “They’re all too recent…and vague.”

Her lips purse in thought.

“Maybe we should shift to something about the history of wards in general?” I suggest.

“Give me a couple of minutes. I have an idea.” “Thank you for helping us,” Xaden signs.

Jesinia nods, then disappears into the rows of bookshelves. “You can sign,” I whisper at him.

“You speak Tyrrish,” he replies. “One is far less common than the other.”

We stand there in awkward silence, our argument still festering—at least on my part. I never know how he’s feeling, which is one of our problems.

By using that one word with Jesinia—us—he’s linked himself to me. If she turns me in, he’ll be dragged down, too.

“Try these two,” Jesinia signs when she returns, then hands over the bag. “Also, I returned yours. Thank you for letting me read it.”

“What did you think about it?” I ask, unnervingly aware that Xaden is watching.

Whatever she says next will seal her fate with him.

“Solid folklore with good stories.” She tilts her head to the side. “It was a limited printing, clearly done on a press, but not so limited that there wouldn’t have been one submitted to the Archives at publication.” The look she gives me is full of expectation. “It’s an…odd subject matter to leave out of the Archives, don’t you think?”

I swallow hard. “I do.” Xaden tenses beside me.

“As I said,” she continues. “Intriguing. I’ll see you Saturday after next?”

I nod, and we leave after thanking her again, passing Nasya, who has started to snore in his seat.

We’re halfway through the tunnels before Xaden speaks.

“Tell me what other book is in the bag.” Guess the argument is still festering inside him, too.

“It’s The Fables of the Barren.” There’s no point lying to him.

“You gave that to her? Why?” Xaden’s head slants in my direction, and he stops in the middle of the tunnel, grasping my elbow gently as fear flashes in his eyes.

“I loaned it to her, and because she asked.”

“With that text, she could have turned you in.” Anger burns in his eyes.

“And if I report that she’s not recording my requests, she’ll be at Markham’s mercy.” I grip the strap of the bag a little tighter. “Trust has to go both ways to mean anything.”

“Both ways, but you’re shutting me out while I’m trying my damnedest to open up to you.”

Says the man who’s never so much as told me he loves me. If he does. Gods, I’m so sick of having to make the first move when it comes to this

man. And today isn’t the day to open myself up to that rejection, too.

“Sure, as long as you can keep your secrets. Has it ever occurred to you that this”—I gesture between us—“is all because you don’t trust me?” I take a step backward. “You expect complete, blind faith without giving it. It. Goes. Both. Ways.”

“I’m the one who doesn’t trust you?” Shadowcurl around his ankles, following him as he pivots, heading up the tunnel. “I’ll see you later. I have to find Bodhi.”

He’s heading off on revolution business, no doubt, and leaving me behind. Again.

“That’s all you have to say?” I call out, frustration locking my muscles. “No good can come of the things I want to say right now, Violet,” he

says over his shoulder. “So, instead of digging a deeper hole with words I’ll regret later, I’m going to take some space and do something productive, because this isn’t.”

It’s on the tip of my tongue to tell him that he doesn’t get to choose when we have a fight, but he asked for space, and I can do the mature thing and give it to him.

When I wake in the morning, the other half of my bed hasn’t been slept in and his things are gone. I can’t stop my chest from tightening at the thought that he’s headed back to the front lines, that either of us could be killed at any moment, and the last words we said to each other were in anger.

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