Chapter no 25

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

We race out of the cave and into the morning air, the rising sun hitting us in the face. Throwing up our hands to shield our eyes, we run forward into the knee-high grass that spans the distance from the cliffs to the


“Where did you get those knives?” Rhiannon asks when we’re halfway to the line of oaks.

“Xaden.” It doesn’t even occur to me to lie. “He had them made for me


“Well, this is an unexpected delight,” Professor Grady says from behind


We spin, and I draw two daggers. I’d rather visit Malek than go back into

that chamber. But I will…for the final exam. “Think about that later,” Tairn commands. “I’m fine, thanks for asking.”

“Of course you are. I chose well.”

Professor Grady grins and sets down his mug as he rises from the chair that sits a few feet away from the door against the rocky cliffside.

Rhiannon strides forward, lifting her sword in attack position with her right arm and extending her left hand. “We’ll take that patch now.”

Dain doesn’t look me in the eye at any point over the next few days, and I don’t make the effort to talk to him. What could I even say? Thank you for doing the only decent thing and not violating my privacy?

“I’m just saying that spending every weekend flying for Samara or holed up in your room with Riorson isn’t good for you,” Ridoc says as we climb the staircase of the academic wing with the crowd headed for Battle Brief.

“As opposed to…” I glance over at him and wince. His cheek is still black and blue.

Thanks to Nolon, there’s not a mark on me. It’s anything but fair.

We lost a first-year, Trysten, to Gauntlet practice while we were in interrogation and missed the formation where they called his name on the death roll, too. That isn’t fair, either.

“Being a normal second-year and spending some time blowing off a little steam every now and then,” Sawyer answers for Ridoc from my other side. Ever since the interrogation, my squadmates have barely let me out of their sight.

“I’m fine,” I tell them both. “This is just what happens when mated dragons bond to riders in different years.” Twenty-four hours from now, I’ll be in the saddle on my way to Xaden.

“It’s why they usually don’t do it,” Ridoc mutters.

“First Squad lost someone,” Rhiannon says, coming up behind us as we reach the second floor. “They just came out of interrogation about an hour ago. Sorrel’s name will be on the death roll tomorrow.”

My heart drops. The interrogation assessment has now taken two second-years.

“The girl with the kick-ass bow skills?” Sawyer gapes at Rhiannon as she scoots between us.

“Yeah,” she says quietly.

A scribe cadet walks by, but I can’t see who it is with the hood up. That’s odd. Usually they’re only in the quadrant for death roll or whenever Markham needs extra people.

“Did she break?” Ridoc asks. “Or did they break her?”

“I don’t—” Rhiannon’s words stop short, and so do we when two First Wing squads move off the wall and into our path. “Can we help you?”

They’re all second-years. I drop my hands to my sides, close to my daggers. “You guys escaped, right?” Caroline Ashton asks, lowering her voice. “That’s what people are saying about the new patch.” She taps beside her own shoulder, where we now wear a circular, silver patch with a black key.

“It’s a classified patch,” Sawyer says.

“We just want to know how you did it,” Caroline whispers as the crowd pushes by us on the side to get to the briefing room. “Rumor is, it took them an entire day to reset the interrogation room after you guys.”

The fact that she calls it a room and not rooms lets me know no one is really talking.

“All we can tell you is the same advice you’ve already been given. Don’t break,” Rhiannon tells them.

“Stick together,” I add, holding Caroline’s gaze even when she narrows it on me.

“Shouldn’t you all be in Battle Brief?” Bodhi asks, his voice booming as he comes up behind us. One look sends the other squads scurrying for the door.

“Tairn told me he felt Sgaeyl get very angry last night,” I say over my shoulder to Bodhi as we continue walking. “Anything I should know about?”

“Not that I’m aware of.” We separate as we walk through the wide double doors into the briefing room.

My squadmates and I start down the steps, but something is off. The usual hum of the briefing room is approaching a roar of murmurs and outright exclamations as cadets pick up what look to be leaflets lying on every seat.

“What’s happening?” Ridoc asks.

“Not sure,” I answer as we bypass the first cadets in our row and find our way to our seats.

I pick up the half sheet of parchment on my chair and flip it over as my squadmates do the same.

My knees weaken as I read the headline.



Two days ago.

My hand trembles, and I twist around toward the back of the room, my gaze jumping from one third-year to the next until I find Bodhi and Imogen.

“Oh gods,” Rhiannon whispers beside me.

Bodhi and Imogen exchange a panicked look, and then our gazes collide. What the hell are we supposed to do? Bodhi’s tense shake of his head tells me he doesn’t know, either.

Drawing the least amount of attention to myself seems prudent, so I turn back to face the map and slide into my seat.

“Is this real?” Sawyer asks, turning over the parchment to examine it.

“Looks…real?” Ridoc scratches the back of his neck as he sits. “Is this some kind of test to see if we can discern official proclamation leaflets from propaganda?”

“I don’t think so,” Rhiannon says slowly, staring at me.

But my eyes are locked on the recessed floor and Professor Devera, who has just been handed a leaflet.

Please be who I think you are.

Her eyes widen, but I only see them for a second before she turns to face the map, her head tilted back. I’d bet my life that she’s staring right where I am now, at the little circle at the foot of the Esben Mountains along the Stonewater River that marks where Zolya stands—stood. It’s maybe a four-hour flight from our border.

“Violet?” Rhiannon’s voice rises, like it’s not the first time she’s called my name.

“What is all the commotion this morning?” Markham shouts over the briefing room as he descends the steps. Someone hands him a leaflet.

“What do you think?” Rhiannon asks.

I glance from my squadmate’s furrowed brows to the leaflet and force the roaring in my ears to quiet as I make a quick study of the parchment. “Parchment looks like ours, but I’ve never personally seen any made outside the border. Typeset is standard to every printing press I’ve ever seen. There’s no seal, Navarrian or Poromish.” I run my thumb over the larger, scrolling block letters of the headline, smudging the ink. “It’s less than twenty-four hours old. The ink hasn’t cured.”

“But is it real?” Sawyer repeats his earlier question.

“The chances of someone hauling in all these leaflets from the border are next to nothing,” I tell him. “So if you’re asking if it was printed in Poromiel—”

My head jerks up, and I see Markham’s face blotch red as he says something to Caroline Ashton on the aisle. She jumps from her seat and runs up the stairs, disappearing through the door.

“It was printed here,” I whisper, fear twisting my stomach into knots.

Whoever did it is as good as dead if they left any trace.

“So it’s not real.” Sawyer lifts his eyebrows, the freckles on his forehead disappearing into the grooves of his skin.

“Just because it’s printed here for public dissemination doesn’t mean what’s on it isn’t real,” I explain, “but it also doesn’t mean that it is.”

“We wouldn’t do this,” Sawyer argues. “There’s no way we send a riot to annihilate a city of civilians.”

“Attention!” Markham shouts, his footsteps thudding as he strides down the steps.

The noise doesn’t dissipate.

“If someone was trying to get news out, they’d send one leaflet like this to the printing press to be approved by scribes,” I tell my squadmates quickly, knowing our time is short. “Once approved, it would take hours to set the blocks to print unless multiple scribes worked on it. But this isn’t official. There’s no seal. So either it’s fake and printed for just this class— which is a lot of work—or it’s real…and not approved.” It’s exactly what I would say if I didn’t know the truth, and to be honest, I’m not certain this leaflet is the truth.

“Riders!” Devera yells, turning to face us. “Quiet!”

The room falls silent.

Markham’s at the front of the classroom now, his features schooled in a mask of serenity as he stands beside Professor Devera. If I didn’t know him better, I’d say he was almost enjoying the chaos, but I do, and he’s rubbing his forefinger against his thumb.

No matter what he says next, this wasn’t his plan.

“Apparently”—he gestures to us, his palm facing upward—“we are not ready for today’s exercise. We were going to follow up on our discussion about propaganda, but I can see now that I overestimated your ability to judge a simple printing like this without hysteria.” The insult is delivered in unemotional monotone.

Suddenly, I feel fifteen again, my self-worth determined by this man’s opinion of my intellect and control.

“Damn.” Ridoc sags in his seat. “That’s…harsh.”

“That’s Markham,” I say quietly. “You think only riders can be vicious?

Words are just as capable of eviscerating someone as a blade, and he’s a master.”

“On the off chance that we actually did this and someone leaked the information?” Rhiannon asks, glancing my way. “You know him better than

we do. What’s his next move?”

“First, I don’t think we’d target civilians across the border.” That’s the truth. We just won’t do anything to help them, either. “But if he didn’t print the leaflets, he’ll discredit, deflect, then distract.”

“As it is, we have two much more pressing matters to discuss,” Markham lectures, his tone still cool. “So, you will now pass all pieces of propaganda to the left, where they will be collected to discuss on a day when you’re capable of being rational.”

A ripple passes over the room as everyone hurries to do as he asks. I’m reluctant to let mine go, but it’s not worth drawing attention.

Professor Devera folds hers with quick, precise movements and pockets


“Honestly.” Markham shakes his head. “You should have been able to

spot those leaflets as propaganda within seconds.”

Discredit. I have to admit, he’s good. The stacks reach the ends of the rows, and then the cadets hand them forward, the pile growing and growing as it descends toward the floor.

“When, in the history of Navarre, have we ever flown a riot comprised only of blue dragons?” He looks us over like we’re children. Like we’ve been found wanting.

Clever. He’s so fucking clever. With the leaflets collected, every cadet in the room will question the exact wording. Every cadet except the riders who know the meaning of that entire paragraph came down to the placement of the word fire.

“But as I said.” Markham claps his hands together and sighs. “We’ll return to this lesson when we’re ready. Right now, our first order of business is here, and celebration is in order.”

Deflection complete. Cue distraction.

“I wasn’t sure this day would come, which is why I hope that you’ll forgive us for keeping the months of Colonel Nolon’s hard work a secret. We didn’t want to disappoint you if he could not pull off what will arguably be the greatest achievement of any mender in our history.”

Didn’t want to disappoint us? I barely manage to keep from rolling my eyes.

Markham raises his hand toward the doorway and smiles. “He was crushed under the weight of a mountain a few months ago, but Nolon has mended bone after bone to return him to your quadrant.”

Crushed under the weight of a mountain? It can’t be. My stomach hollows, and the noise of the room muffles under the sound of my own blood rushing through my ears to the cadence of a drum.

“No fucking way,” Ridoc says, breaking through my panic.

“Tairn?” I can’t bring myself to look.

“Checking now.” The clipped, tense tone reminds me of Resson.

“Join me in welcoming back your fellow rider, Jack Barlowe!” Markham claps. The entire briefing room joins in, the loudest cheers coming from First Wing as two figures walk down the stairs.

Breathe. In. Out. I force air through my lungs as Rhiannon grasps my hand and holds tight.

“It’s him,” Rhiannon says. “It’s really him.”

“You brought down an entire cliff on his unhinged ass.” Sawyer claps slowly, but it’s only for show. “How the fuck was there anything left to mend?”

Dragging my gaze left, I finally work up the courage to look.

Same bulky frame. Same blond hair. Same profile. Same hands that nearly killed me during a challenge last year…before I killed him during War Games the first time my signet flared.

He turns a few rows down, walking past other second-years as Caroline Ashton escorts him back to his squad. It all makes sense now. The secrecy. Her visiting the infirmary. Nolon’s exhaustion.

Jack pivots as he reaches an empty seat, turning slowly and nodding as the applause carries on. The look on his face is almost humble, like a man who’s received a second chance he definitely doesn’t deserve, and then he pivots, looking up the rows to find me.

Glacial blue eyes meet mine. Any doubt I had dies a swift death. It’s him. My pounding heart jumps into my throat.

“Maybe he learned his lesson?” Rhiannon’s voice pitches high with empty hope.

“No,” Ridoc says, letting his hands fall to his lap. “He’s definitely going to try to kill you. Again.”

You'll Also Like