Chapter no 21

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

I’ve decided rolling dismounts might be the death of me yet.

Thursday morning begins with my arm in a sling that’s secured around my ribs with a strap, immobilizing my shoulder, thanks to yesterday’s maneuvers. Turns out Tairn was right, and though I’m capable of making it to his shoulder, my body doesn’t take the impact of the actual landing very well. We both agreed this time—accommodations will need to be made before graduation.

“How is it feeling today?” Rhiannon asks as we walk into the history class we share with Third Wing on the second floor.

“Like Tairn set me down and I just kept going,” I answer. “It’s not my first sprain. Healers say it should be about four weeks in the sling. I’m giving it two. Maybe.” I’ll be the first on the challenge board after Threshing if I give it much longer than that.

“You could ask Nolon—” Ridoc starts, then stops when he sees the look on my face. “What? Don’t tell me Varrish won’t let you get mended.”

“Not that I’m aware of, no,” I counter as we find our seats. “I put my name on Nolon’s list, but I was told he likely wouldn’t have an opening before it healed naturally.”

Rhi shoots me a look that says told-you-so but I just give my head a quick shake. This is not the place to explore her conspiracy theories—even

if they’re starting to feel more and more like there might be some truth to them. I’ve never known a mender with a waiting list a month long.

Thursdays are my second favorite day of the week. No maneuvers, no RSC, no physics. I unload the heavy textbook and the notes I took on today’s assigned reading, which is more like review for me. There hasn’t been a single thing in this class I hadn’t already studied with my father or Markham—or that I don’t have trouble believing is true now.

Then I take out a few strips of the bright blue fabric Xaden left me and put them in my lap. I’ve got two of the knots in the book down already, and I’m determined to have two more by the time he gets here on Saturday. It’s a ridiculous thing to challenge me on, but that doesn’t mean I’m willing to lose. Even a sling won’t stop me.

“Wonder who’s actually here to teach,” Sawyer says, stepping over the back of his chair from the row behind us and sitting next to Ridoc on my left. “Pretty sure I just saw most of the leadership making a run for the flight field.”

My heart stops. “What?” Only a major attack would empty Basgiath of leadership. I turn in my seat to look out the window behind us, but the view of the courtyard isn’t helping.

“They were running.” Sawyer makes a running motion with his first two fingers. “That’s all I know.”

“Good morning.” Professor Devera walks in, her smile tight as she passes three rows of tables and chairs to get to the front of the room. “I’ll be filling in for Professor Levini. He was called away due to an attack on the Eastern Wing.” She makes a quick study of his cluttered desk, then picks up the book on top. “You’ll hear about it in Battle Brief tomorrow, but so far there’s only one death.” Her throat works before she looks up from the book. “Masen Sanborn. Some of you may have known him, since he’s a recent graduate.”

Masen. Oh my gods, no. His face flashes through my mind, smiling as he pushes his glasses up his nose. It could be coincidence. There’s no logical way an attack would be used to cover up a single death…right?

“Unless they assassinated him during the attack,” I mumble under my breath. We weren’t even friends. I didn’t even know him that well, but out of the ten of us who flew into Resson, now only six are still alive.

“What?” Rhi leans into my space. “Violet?”

I blink quickly and clutch the fabric in my lap. “It’s nothing.” Rhi’s brows lower, but she sits back in her seat.

“I see he has you discussing the second Cygni incursion from year 328.” Devera rubs the back of her neck. “But I honestly don’t see how that has any practical application.”

“That makes most of us,” Ridoc comments, tapping his pen against his textbook, and those around us chuckle.

“But just to say we did,” Devera continues, running a hand up and down a faded scar marring the warm brown skin on her upper arm. “Everyone should know that the end result of the four-day temper tantrum was Cygnisen being absorbed into the Kingdom of Poromiel, where they’ve been for the last three hundred years. History and current events are tied because one influences the other.” She glances up at the map on the wall that’s about a fifth of the size of the one in the briefing room. “Can anyone tell me the differences between Poromiel’s provinces and ours?”

The room is quiet.

“This is important, cadets.” Devera moves to the front of Professor Levini’s desk and leans back against it. When no one answers, she gives me an arch look.

“Poromiel’s provinces maintain their individual cultural identities,” I answer. “Someone from Cygnisen is more likely to label themselves as a Cygni instead of Poromish. As opposed to our provinces, who unified under the protection of the first wards, chose the common language, and blended the cultures of all six provinces into one cohesive kingdom.” I recite it nearly verbatim from Markham’s book.

“Except Tyrrendor,” someone from the left remarks. Third Wing. “They never quite got the ‘unified’ message, did they?”

My stomach sinks. Asshole.

“No.” Devera points her finger at the guy. “That’s what we’re not going to do. It’s comments like that that threaten the unity of Navarre. Now, Sorrengail brought up a good point that I think some of you are missing. Navarre chose the common language, but who was it common to?” She calls on someone from Tail Section.

“The Calldyr, Deaconshire, and Elsum provinces,” the woman answers. “Correct.” Devera’s gaze sweeps over us just like it does in Battle Brief

when she expects us to not only think through the answers but come up with the questions ourselves. “Which means what?”

“The Luceras, Morraine, and Tyrrendor provinces lost their languages,” Sawyer answers, shifting in his seat. He’s from Luceras, along the bitterly cold northwestern coastline. “Technically they gave them up willingly for the good of the Unification, but other than a few words here and there being assimilated, they’re dead languages.”

“Correct. There is always a cost,” Devera says, enunciating every word. “That doesn’t mean it’s not worth it, but not being aware of the price we pay to live under the protection of the wards is how rebellions happen. Tell me what the other costs have been.” She folds her arms and waits. “Come on. I’m not telling you to commit treason. I’m asking for historical facts in a history class of second-year riders. What was sacrificed in the Unification?”

“Travel,” someone from Claw Section answers. “We’re safe here, but we’re not welcome beyond our borders.”

Nor is anyone welcome past ours.

“Good point.” Devera nods. “Navarre might be the largest kingdom on the Continent, but we are not the only one. Nor do we travel to the isles anymore. What else?”

“We lost major parts of our culture,” a girl with a rebellion relic winding around her arm answers from two rows ahead. Tail Section, I think. “Not just our language. Our songs, our festivals, our libraries… Everything in Tyrrish had to be changed. The only unique thing we kept were our runes because they’re in too much of our architecture to justify changing.”

Like the ones on my daggers. The ones on the columns of the temple in Aretia. The ones I’m currently weaving in my lap.

“Yes.” Somehow Devera makes that word sound both sympathetic and blunt at the same time. “I’m not a historian. I’m a tactician, but I can’t imagine the depth of what we lost knowledge-wise.”

“The books were all translated into the common language,” someone from Third Wing argues. “Festivals still happen. Songs are still sung.”

“And what was lost in translation?” the Tyrrish girl ahead of me asks. “Do you know?”

“Of course I don’t know.” His lip rises in a sneer. “It’s a dead language to all but a few scribes.”

I drop my gaze to my notebook.

“Just because it’s not in Tyrrish doesn’t mean you can’t walk into the Archives and read whatever translated Tyrrish book you want.” It’s his haughty, arrogant tone that pricks my temper.

“No, actually you can’t.” I drop the fabric in my lap. “For starters, no one can just walk into the Archives and read whatever they want. You have to put in a request that any scribe can deny. Secondly, only a portion of the original scribes spoke Tyrrish, meaning it would have taken hundreds of years to translate every text, and even then, there are no historical tomes older than four hundred years in our Archives that I know of. They’re all sixth, seventh, or eighth editions. Logic dictates that she’s right.” I gesture up to the girl a few rows ahead. “Things are lost in translation.”

He looks ready to argue.

“Cadet Trebor, if I were you, I would consider the fact that Cadet Sorrengail has spent more time in the Archives than anyone else in this room, and then I would carefully consider an intelligent response.” She arches a brow.

The guy from Third Wing shoots a glare in my direction and sits back in his chair.

“We lost our folklore,” Rhiannon says. Every muscle in my body locks.

Devera cocks her head to the side. “Go on.”

“I’m from a border village near Cygnisen,” Rhiannon says. “A lot of our folklore came from the other side of the border, probably as a result of the Migration of The First Year, and as far as I know, none of it’s written. It only survives as an oral history.” She glances my way. “Violet and I were actually talking about this last year. People raised in Calldyr or Luceras or other provinces aren’t raised with that same folklore. They don’t know the stories, and generation by generation, we’re losing it.” She looks left, then right. “I’m sure all of us have similar stories, depending on where we grew up. Sawyer knows stories Ridoc doesn’t. Ridoc knows stories Violet doesn’t.”

“Impossible,” Ridoc counters. “Violet knows everything.” Sawyer laughs and I roll my eyes.

“All excellent points.” Devera nods, a satisfied smile curving her mouth. “And what did the Migration of The First Year give us?”

“A more unified culture,” a girl from Tail Section answers. “Not only within our provinces but throughout the Continent. And it allowed those in what’s now Poromiel a chance to live under the safety of the wards if they chose to move.”

One year. That’s all Navarre gave before we closed our borders.

And if you couldn’t afford to move your family, couldn’t risk the treacherous journey… Nothing about war, or the aftermath, is kind.

“Correct,” Devera says. “Which means there’s every chance that when you fly against a drift, you could encounter a distant relative. The question we must all ask ourselves as we enter service is: are our sacrifices worth it to keep the citizens of Navarre safe?”

“Yes.” The answer is muttered all around me, some riders saying it louder than others.

But I keep quiet, because I know it’s not only Navarre paying the price

—it’s everyone outside our wards.

The gym buzzes with anticipation that afternoon as the combat professors call the first names of the day to the mats. These will be the last challenges for months. The first-years will have the Gauntlet to worry about starting next week, then Presentation and Threshing. And the

second-years will start disappearing by the squad for a few days at a time so they can teach us how to take torture.

Fun times.

A squad from Tail Section is called to our mat.

“I really hope I get called to the mat today.” Ridoc bounces on his toes. “I’m in the mood to kick some ass.”

“That makes one of us.” I tighten the strap of my sling over my armor. Looking across the mat, I nod to Imogen, lifting my eyebrows as she talks with Sloane.

She nods back with a smile, telling me wordlessly that Sloane is ready to take on her opponent today. Rhiannon and Sawyer are doing the same with the other first-years, checking in as names are called out around the gym. I glance Aaric’s way, but as usual, he’s completely, totally focused, tuning out everything around him as he stares at the mat.

“How bad do you think the attack on the Eastern Wing is? It has to be something massive to call out half the leadership all day long,” Ridoc muses.

Big enough to kill Masen.

“Speculating is only going to fuel rumors,” Dain says, taking the empty place on my left side.

Fuck. I’ve managed not to have to interact with him for weeks. I step closer to Ridoc and lock every brick of my shields in place.

“As opposed to not noticing that most of the professors flew out of here like the wards have fallen?” Ridoc asks.

“The wards haven’t fallen.” Dain barely spares him a glance, crossing his arms. “You’d know if they had.”

“You think we’d be able to feel it?” Ridoc asks.

“We would have been called out, too,” I say. “And the dragons would have told us.”

“Can’t you ask your mom?” Ridoc tilts his head.

“The woman who knew I was missing for a week, then told me to get back in formation when she realized I’d survived my first combat mission? Yeah, I’m sure she’ll be forthcoming with all the information.” I give him a sarcastic thumbs-up.

The first pair is called to the mat, and I’m simultaneously horrified and grateful I don’t know the first-year’s name.

“You finally going to talk to me?” Dain asks.

“No.” I don’t give him the courtesy of even looking at him and, to be sure he gets the point, I move to Ridoc’s other side, putting him between us. “Come on, Violet.” He walks behind Ridoc, then squeezes in between

Quinn and me. “You have to be ready at some point. We’ve been friends since you were five.”

“We’re no longer friends, and I’ll be ready to talk when the sight of you doesn’t make me want to bury my knife in your chest all the way to the fucking hilt.” I walk away before I act on the urge to stab the memory-stealing asshole.

“You cannot keep running away from me!”

I lift my middle finger and round the corner of the mat, taking the spot next to Rhiannon.

“What was that about?” she asks, wincing when our first-year takes a punch to the kidneys.

“Dain being an asshole, as usual.” Sometimes the best answer is the simplest.

Our first-year kicks out, catching Tail Section directly in the mouth, and blood sprays.

“I don’t get it.” She shoots me a confused look, leaning in to murmur so Dain doesn’t overhear. “I figured the thing at graduation was him and Riorson dick-measuring, but you don’t speak to Aetos anymore. I thought he was your best friend. Sure, you two grew apart last year, but to not even be on speaking terms?”

“Was.” My gaze tracks Dain as he walks around the mat to Professor Emetterio. “He was my best friend.” For fifteen years, there was no one

closer. I’d thought he was going to be my everything.

“Look. I’ll hate him on principle if that’s what we’re doing. No problem with that. But I know you, and you don’t cut people out like that unless they hurt you. So tell me, as your friend: Did he hurt you?” she asks quietly. “Or is this something else we aren’t talking about?”

My throat clenches. “He stole something from me.”

“Seriously?” Her gaze pierces mine. “Then report him for a violation of the Codex. He shouldn’t be our wingleader.”

If only she knew what her last wingleader had been stealing.

“It’s more complicated than that.” How much can I tell her without it being too much?

Our first-year pulls off a quick comeback, getting his opponent’s leg into a bow-and-arrow submission maneuver. It’s a quick tap-out after that.

We all clap. So far, we’re looking like the squad to beat again this year, especially with the way Aaric is racking up the wins.

Emetterio looks at Dain, then clears his throat. I breathe deeply, waiting for him to call Sloane’s name. “You’re sure?” Emetterio asks.

“It’s within my rights as wingleader.” He disarms, unclipping his sheaths and dropping them at the edge of the mat.

What the actual hell?

“Not denying that.” Emetterio rubs a thick hand across his shaved head. “Next match is Dain Aetos against Violet Sorrengail.”

My stomach hits the floor. If my shields slip, I could doom everyone in Aretia and every marked one in the quadrant.

Imogen’s eyes aren’t just wide—they’re huge as she looks at me, backing away from the mat before quickly disappearing. Where is she going? It’s not like she can run and get Xaden to interfere like last year. I’m on my own.

“No fucking way.” Rhiannon shakes her head. “She’s wounded.” Maybe not entirely on my own.

“And since when does that matter?” the other squad leader counters. Breathe. I need to breathe.

“This is bullshit.” I look Dain in the eyes when I say it, and he simply folds his arms across his chest. There’s no getting out of this. He’s a wingleader. He can challenge whomever he wants whenever he wants, just like Xaden had last year. Ironically, I’d been in far less danger the first time Xaden had taken me to my back on the mat. Then, I’d been gambling with just my life, but this could get the people I care about killed.

“Keep your shields in place,” Tairn warns. His agitation rolls through me, prickling the hair on my neck.

Dain steps out on to the mat, completely disarmed, but I’ve seen him spar. He’s not Xaden, but he’s deadly enough without any weapons, and I’m down an arm.

“You shouldn’t do this!” Bodhi shouts as he runs at us, skidding to a stop next to me. Imogen isn’t far behind. Ah, she’d run to find the closest person to Xaden possible. Makes sense. “She’s in a fucking sling, Aetos.”

“Last time I checked, you’re a section leader.” Dain narrows his eyes on Bodhi. “And your cousin isn’t her wingleader anymore. I am.”

The muscles in Bodhi’s neck bulge. “Xaden’s going to fucking kill him,” he whispers.

“Yeah, well, he isn’t here. It’s fine,” I lie, reaching for my first dagger. “Just remember who trained me.” I’m not talking about hand-to-hand, and from the look Bodhi gives me, he knows it, too.

“Keep the daggers if that makes you feel better, Cadet Sorrengail,” Dain says, finding the center of the mat.

My eyebrows shoot up.

“You know she’s good enough to kill you from here with those,” Bodhi reminds him.

“She won’t.” Dain cocks his head at me. “I’m her oldest friend.


“And this is certainly friendly behavior,” Rhiannon counters.

Taking a fortifying breath, I secure every brick in my shields just like Xaden taught me and step out onto the mat, palming one of my daggers in my free hand. If it comes between killing Dain and saving Xaden, there’s no choice.

Emetterio signals the beginning of the match, and Dain and I circle each other.

“Reach for my face, and I’ll cut you open,” I warn him.

“Deal,” he responds a second before he lunges for me, going for the torso.

I know his moves and easily dodge the first attempt, spinning out of reach. He’s fast. Being chosen as wingleader wasn’t all nepotism. He’s always been good on the mat.

“You’re faster this year.” He smiles like he’s proud of me as we circle again.

“Xaden taught me a few things last year.”

He winces, then attacks, swinging for my torso again. I flip my dagger so the blade runs perpendicular to my forearm as I duck under his jab, then punch upward, clipping him under the jaw without cutting him.

“Fuck yes!” I hear Ridoc cheer, but I don’t take my eyes off Dain.

Dain blinks, then rotates his jaw. “Damn.” This time, he comes at me faster. It’s harder to duck and dodge his swings without my arm to balance, but I hold my own until he catches me unaware and sweeps my feet out from under me with his.

My back slams into the mat and pain erupts in my shoulder, so sharp that stars swim in my vision and I cry out. But damn if my blade isn’t at Dain’s throat when he pins me with a forearm at my collarbone a heartbeat later.

Shields. I have to keep my shields up.

“I just want to talk to you,” he whispers, his face inches from mine.

The pain is nothing compared to the ice-cold fear of having his hands this close to me.

“And I just want you to leave me the fuck alone.” I hold my knife steady right where he can feel it. “It’s not an idle threat, Dain. You will bleed out on this mat if you even think of taking a single one of my memories.”

“That’s what Riorson meant when he said Athebyne, isn’t it?” he asks, his tone just as soft as his eyes—those familiar eyes I’ve always been able to count on. How the hell did we end up here? Fifteen years of the closest

friendship I’ve ever known, and my knife could end him with a flick of my wrist.

“You know damn well what he meant,” I reply, keeping my voice down. Two lines appear between his brows. “I told my father what I saw when

I touched you—”

“When you stole my memory,” I correct him.

“But it was a flash of a memory. Riorson told you he’d gone to Athebyne with his cousin.” He searches my eyes. “Second-years don’t get leave for that kind of flight, so I told my father. I know you were attacked on the way there, but I had no way of knowing—”

“You said I’ll miss you.” It comes out in a hiss. “And then you sent me to die, sent Liam and Soleil to their deaths. Did you know what was waiting for us?”

“No.” He shakes his head. “I said ‘I’ll miss you’ because you chose him. I told you I knew things about him, that he had reasons you don’t know about to hate you, and you still chose him. I knew I was saying goodbye to any chance of us on that field. I had no clue gryphons were waiting to ambush you.”

“If you expect me to believe that, then you sorely misjudged me, and I know every reason Xaden has to hate me, and none of them matter.”

“You know about the scars on his back?” he challenges, and I contemplate cutting into his throat to get him off me.

“The hundred and seven for the marked ones he’s responsible for? Yes.

You’re going to have to do better than—”

“Do you know who carved those wounds into his skin?” I blink, and—fuck him—he sees it, the flash of doubt.

“Tap out!” Sawyer shouts from the edge of the mat.

“My hand is a little busy at the moment,” I respond without looking away from Dain.

“Violet—” Dain starts.

“You may have been my oldest friend, my best friend, but that all died the day you violated my privacy, stole my memory, and got Liam and Soleil

killed. I will never forgive you for that.” I press just hard enough for the blade to scrape against the stubbled skin of his upper throat.

His eyes flare with something that looks like devastation. “Your mother did it,” he whispers and slowly rises, first to his knees, removing his forearm from my collarbone, and then to his feet. “She wins,” he says as he walks off the mat. “I tap out.”

He didn’t mean that. There’s no way my mother sliced into Xaden a hundred and seven times. Dain’s just trying to get under my skin. I lie there for a handful of breaths, calming my racing pulse. Then I sheathe my blade and roll, gaining my feet awkwardly.

Emetterio calls the next challenge, and I walk off the mat and take my place between Rhiannon and Bodhi like nothing happened.

“Violet?” The question in Bodhi’s eyes makes me shake my head in reply.

“He didn’t touch me.” Every secret in my head is safe.

Bodhi nods, then leaves our mat as Aaric faces off against a guy from Tail Section who looks like he might actually have a shot of ending Aaric’s winning streak.

“Walk with me,” Rhiannon demands, her jaw tense. “Now.” “Are you pulling rank on me?”

“Do I have to?” She folds her arms across her chest.

“No. Of course not.” I sigh, then follow her to the edge of the gym.

“Was that about the something he stole?” Rhiannon asks. “Because whatever it was, it wasn’t about defeating you.”

“Yes,” I answer, rolling my neck as the aftereffects of the adrenaline roll through me, nausea taking the lead.

She waits for me to add to my answer, and when I don’t, she sighs. “You’ve been off all day. Is it because of the attack?”

“Yes.” I glance over her shoulder and glimpse Imogen watching us.

Does she know Masen’s dead?

“Are you really going to make me pry answers out of you?” Her arms fall to her sides. “I swear to Amari, if you answer with a yes one more time…”

I say nothing instead.

“I heard what you said in history, you know.” She drops her shoulders. “You said something about an assassination.”

Fuck. “Yeah, I guess I did.”

She studies me, her gaze flickering between my eyes. “Who else besides Masen is dead that went to Athebyne with you?”

My gaze collides with hers, and my heart starts to pound. “Ciaran. He was in Third Squad.” I’m not telling her anything that isn’t easily answered by anyone else.

“And you were attacked on assessment day. Imogen’s been targeted twice since Parapet, too. So were Bodhi and Eya.” Her gaze narrows. “Dain has one of those classified signets,” she whispers. “What did he steal, Violet?”

Gods, she’s putting it together too quickly. She’s also owed as much of the truth as I can give her. “A memory,” I say slowly.

Her eyes flare. “He can read memories.” I nod. “No one is supposed to know.”

“I can keep a secret, Violet.” Hurt flashes across her features, and I feel another thread of our friendship unravel as though I’d pulled it myself.

A chorus of cheers goes up behind us, but neither of us looks.

“I know.” It’s barely a whisper. “And I trust you implicitly, but not every secret is mine to tell.” Dread digs its claws into my stomach. She’s going to figure it out—it’s only a matter of time. And then her life will be in as much jeopardy as mine.

“Dain stole one of your memories,” she repeats. “And now you think the other riders with you during War Games are being picked off.”

“Stop,” I beg her. “Do us both a favor and just…” I shake my head. “Stop.”

Her brow knits. “You saw something you weren’t supposed to, didn’t you?”

She tilts her head to the side, then looks away.

I stop breathing. I know that look. She’s thinking. “Is that the memory he stole?”

“No.” I inhale. Thank gods she’s off the mark with that one. Movement to the right catches my attention, and I glance over to see Aaric walking our way, cradling his left wrist. “Shit. I think he’s hurt.”

“What killed Deigh?” Rhiannon asks.

Suddenly, there’s not enough oxygen in the room, on the entire Continent, but I manage to pull air through my lungs as I face her. “You already know that part of the story.”

“Not from you,” she says quietly, her brown eyes crinkling at the edges as she narrows them. “You were holding Liam, and then you had to fight. That’s what you said. What. Killed. Deigh?” The whispered words cut me to the quick. “Was it another dragon? Is that what happened out there?”

“No.” I shake my head emphatically, then turn as Aaric reaches us. “Finally lose?”

He scoffs. “Of course not. But I did break my wrist. I’m supposed to come tell you,” he says to Rhiannon.

“I’ll take him to the infirmary,” I tell her.

“Violet—” she starts, her tone indicating that she doesn’t think our conversation is over, but it is. It has to be.

“Stop.” I turn my back on Aaric and lower my voice. “And don’t ever ask me that question again. Please don’t make me lie to you.”

Her head draws back, and she stares at me in stunned silence.

“Let’s go,” I say to Aaric, then start walking to the exit, shoving what just happened with Rhi into what’s quickly becoming an overfull box.

He catches up, his long legs covering the distance quickly. The corridor of the academic wing’s first floor is deserted when we enter, and our booted footsteps echo against the windows.

“So where does your father think you are?” I ask as we turn toward the rotunda, trying to take my mind off everything I just let slip to Rhiannon and everything I didn’t.

“He thinks I’m on my twentieth-birthday tour,” Aaric answers, rubbing his hand over his square jawline and light-brown scruff, disgust curling his upper lip. “Drinking and fucking my way across the kingdom.”

“Sounds like way more fun than what we’re doing here.” I push the door open with my good arm.

“What part of this isn’t fun?” he asks, walking ahead and opening the next door with his unbroken hand. “Between the two of us, we have a full set of functioning arms.”

I crack a smile as we enter the dormitory corridor. “Ever the charmer, aren’t you, Cam—” I wince. “Aaric. Sorry. It’s been a hell of a long day.” And all I want is to tell Xaden about it, but he won’t be here for two more days.

We head down the steps, and though Aaric is roughly the same height as Xaden, he shortens his stride so I can keep up easily.

“She’s catching on, isn’t she?” he says when we reach the tunnels.

The hairs on the back of my neck lift as I look up at Aaric. “Catching on to what, exactly?”

“They haven’t hidden it all away as well as they think they have.” His jaw flexes. “It’s easy to figure out if you know what you’re looking for. Personally, it was the daggers my guards started carrying that tipped me off.” He shoots a look at me. “The ones with the little metal discs.”

My heart pounds so loudly I can hear it in my ears. Daggers. Metal discs.

“The guards were the hardest to slip, too,” he says with a grimace. “They won’t tell my father they’ve lost me until they absolutely have to. I’m just hoping it’s after Threshing. He can’t do shit after Threshing. Dragons don’t even answer to kings.”

“Oh shit.” My chest feels like it’s caving in as I grab hold of his good arm, halting our steps before the tunnel. “You know, don’t you?”

He lifts a brow, the mage lights catching on those royally green eyes. “Why else would I be here?”

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