Chapter no 28

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

The thing about being two riders in an assumed relationship who happen to be bonded to a mated pair of dragons is that no one thinks twice

about a midnight flight to get away, and there is no better view of the stars on the Continent than from Tairn’s back.

“I still do not approve,” Tairn lectures as we cross the barrier of the wards a little after midnight.

“And yet, we’re still flying,” I counter, shaking off the feeling of wrongness that sinks further into my bones with every wingbeat. From experience, I know it’ll pass once we’ve been out beyond the wards long enough for my senses to adjust.

“Only because I vowed to let you make your own choices after Resson, not because I agree with you.” He follows the slope of the peak, banking left to skim the landscape. Tonight’s full moon means keeping a low profile. “This is an unnecessary risk.”

“One Xaden and Sgaeyl take all the time.” I stop fighting the wind and lean forward as he dives, grinning into the wind.

“The shadow wielder is not my concern.”

“Sgaeyl is.” The saddle’s straps dig into my thighs, a constant reminder that I can’t keep my seat without it.

“Sgaeyl would never be taken down by something as puny as a gryphon.”

He scoffs. “And as for losing the shadow wielder, she would be emotionally inconvenienced, that is true.”

I scoff at his bluster. “An emotional inconvenience? Is that what I am to you?” If so, then we don’t need to worry that my death would cause Tairn’s, or Sgaeyl’s and Xaden’s.

“You’re currently a prize annoyance.”

The wind steals my laughter, and I brace as we approach what looks to be a forested valley. The edge of the nearest ridgeline glows with the light from a Poromish village, but I’m not sure which one.

Tairn flares his wings, and gravity catches up with us, forcing me deeper into the saddle in the instant before he lands at the edge of a dark lake, jostling every bone in my body. Before I can get my bearings, he swings, leaving me grasping for the pommel as he puts his back to the water, facing the open meadow.

“That was abrupt.” Good thing I’m still strapped in.

“Next time, you fly and I’ll ride.” His head sweeps from left to right as Sgaeyl lands next to us, Xaden on her back.

“He’s still pissed that I came along,” I tell Xaden, reaching for the buckle.

“You’ve gotten strong enough to handle Aetos,” Xaden says, already moving for Sgaeyl’s shoulder. Moonlight catches on his swords as he dismounts.

“I’m more worried about the company the lieutenant keeps than Aetos,”

Tairn growls. “And don’t even think of dismounting, Silver One.” “I’m sorry?” I pull the leather through the first loop.

“Undo that strap and I’ll launch.” His head swivels, eerily snakelike, to glare at me over his shoulder.

My jaw drops. “You can’t be serious,” I whisper in a hiss.

“Try me.” His golden eyes narrow into slits. “I agreed to come to the drop-off. I did not agree to endanger your life when we are easily within a wyvern’s flight from Zolya. I, too, remember what happens to dismounted riders.”

“You’re being an overprotective ass.” Not that he doesn’t have a point.

Maybe I’m not the only one with bad dreams.

“I am a credit to my line.” He swings his head forward, completely dismissing me.

“Don’t worry, you’ll be able to hear everything from up there.” Xaden’s voice carries from where he stands just ahead of Tairn and Sgaeyl.

“Says the guy whose dragon isn’t putting him in the corner,” I grumble.

“I could have refused the rendezvous. This is a compromise.” Tairn chuffs. “They’re approaching.”

It’s on my tongue to fire back, but I close my mouth when I hear the wingbeats of gryphons. The sound is softer than those of dragons, less enunciated. Like a gale wind instead of a drumbeat.

Seven gryphons—a full drift—land in the clearing ahead and walk forward, their formidable heads darting left and right as they glance between Tairn and Sgaeyl. The gryphons are about a foot taller than Xaden, and though I can’t make out colors well in the moonlight, I can see their razor-sharp beaks just fine from here.

“Please tell me you recognize them,” I say to Xaden, my heart pounding. Power rises under my skin and charges the air around me.

“I do. You will in a minute, too,” he replies as if we’re meeting friends at the local tavern.

Tairn lowers his head in a gesture I recognize as both a threat to them and a favor to me, allowing me to see the rest of the approach.

The gryphons, half eagle and half lion, halt about twenty feet away, and three of their fliers dismount, leaving the pairs at the edges ready to fly at a moment’s notice.

Our trust is as thin as December ice. One misstep and the fracture will have deadly consequences.

The trio walks toward Xaden through the knee-high mountain grass, and I recognize the one in the center almost immediately as the veteran that came upon us at the lake, then fought with us in Resson. Her face is a little more drawn, and she has a new scar down the side of her neck that disappears into her uniform, but that’s definitely her.

But the man on her left isn’t the same. He’s a little shorter, a little more wiry than her stocky companion had been, and there’s no malice under those slashing eyebrows when he glances past Xaden and up to me before quickly looking away.

I can’t help but wonder if the man she’d been with at the lake was killed in the attack.

“Riorson,” the woman calls out, pausing about ten feet from Xaden. “Syrena,” Xaden says, lifting two bags and then setting them on the ground before him. The message is clear: if they want them, they’ll be coming closer to Tairn and Sgaeyl.

Syrena sighs and then motions the others forward.

The younger woman walking on Syrena’s right is dressed in a paler shade of brown than the others. She looks to be my age and shares enough of Syrena’s features that they could be related—cousins, maybe…or even sisters. They have the same straight noses, full mouths, lithe builds, and glossy black hair that contrasts their fair skin, though the younger one’s is plaited in a simple braid over her shoulder. Her eyes are slightly larger, and her cheekbones are a little higher than Syrena’s. She’s the kind of beautiful that would normally lead to positions in a king’s court or on stage in the theaters of Calldyr.

My chest tightens. The way she looks at Xaden isn’t just doe-eyed. There’s an unmistakable longing there, a hunger that has me blinking. It’s like she’s been trudging through a desert and he’s the oasis.

She looks…like how I feel.

“Good to see you made it through the unfortunate assault on Samara,” Syrena says as they reach Xaden.

“You want to explain what the fuck that was about?” Xaden’s tone ventures into less-than-friendly territory. “Because one of your gryphons nearly took me out. If we didn’t have a mender nearby in the Eastern Wing, I’d be down an arm because I hesitated, thinking it might be one of you.” He glances at the other woman. “I thought we were on the same side, but I won’t hesitate if it happens again.”

I lean forward in the saddle, but there’s not much give. Being up here, where I can only guess at what his expression might be, is torturous. Energy crackles in my fingertips, but I hold steady, keeping ready in case this drop doesn’t go according to plan.

“I can’t control every drift, Riorson,” Syrena responds. “And I’m not going to blame other drifts in other chains of command who have to follow orders. We need more weapons than what you can supply. There are enough daggers in that outpost to arm a hundred fliers—”

“Those are powering our wards.” His hands curl into fists at his sides. “Our wards? Since when do you sympathize as Navarrian? And at least

you have wards, Xaden,” the girl on the right argues.

“For now.” Xaden looks in her direction for a split second before returning to face Syrena.

That tone. The way she used his name… They definitely know each other.

“The attacks have to stop, Syrena,” Xaden continues. “In your chain of command or not, the second I hear of fliers actually stealing daggers from outposts or any Navarrian wards being weakened by flier thievery, I’ll cut off what shipments we do have coming your way.”

I suck in a deep breath at his threat.

“You’ll condemn us to death.” Her shoulders straighten.

“You’ll condemn us all to death if you take down the only wards standing between the venin and the hatching grounds at Basgiath,” I say. “It’s our only forge for weaponry, and there’s enough raw magic in that range to feed them for a century. They’d be unstoppable.”

Every head lifts my direction.

“You’re drawing attention.” Tairn growls at the fliers, and they immediately look away.

“I never said I’d sit here silently.”

“Nice to meet you without Riorson’s face attached to yours, Sorrengail,” Syrena says, her gaze diverted from Tairn. Smart woman. “Though I’m guessing he still doesn’t trust us completely if he’s got you on the back of

that enormous dragon of yours.”

Xaden remains quiet.

“I’m glad you made it through Resson,” I respond with a smile. Not that she can see it.

But the younger flier does. She stares up at me in an unsettling mix of shock and…shit, I think that’s malice narrowing her eyes.

“My last name isn’t winning any friends to your left,” I say to Xaden.

“Ignore her.”

“We made it through thanks to you and that incredible lightning you wield,” Syrena says.

Another rumbling growl works up Tairn’s throat as his head pivots right and he bares his teeth.

Syrena glances at the younger flier and then blanches. “You know better than to stare at a dragon, Cat!”

Cat. It’s a fitting name for the way she’s sizing me up.

“Wasn’t staring at the dragon,” the woman replies just loud enough that I barely make out the words. But she shifts her glare, aiming it at Xaden. “She’s striking, I’ll give you that.”

What the fuck?

“Don’t,” Xaden replies, his tone dipping to that icy calm before addressing Syrena. “Sorrengail is right. You take down our wards, and there’s nothing stopping them from draining the hatching grounds. They’d be impossible to engage, let alone defeat.”

“So you’d rather we die while you sit protected behind the very weapon that could save our civilians?” the man asks like he’s requesting the weather report.

“Yes.” Xaden shrugs.

My eyebrows hit my hairline.

“This is a war,” Xaden continues. “People die in wars. So, if you’re asking if I’d rather your people die than mine, then obviously my answer is yes. It’s foolish to think we can save everyone. We can’t.”

I inhale sharply at the reminder that the man I get behind closed doors isn’t the one the rest of the world knows. It’s not the first time I’ve heard

him express the sentiment. He feels the same way about the marked ones who won’t work to save themselves at Basgiath.

“Still an asshole, I see.” Cat folds her arms.

“We’ve lost riders to the venin, too,” he counters. “We’re fighting with you. But I’m not sacrificing the safety of our movement or our civilians for yours. If that makes me an asshole, then so be it. We’re not just sitting behind our wards,

either. I’m risking my life, risking the lives of the people I care about, to get you weaponry from Basgiath and to complete our own forge to keep providing that weaponry so we’re ready when both dark wielders and Navarre inevitably come for us. Which they will.”

“Completing a forge?” Cat chances another glare in my direction. “Viscount Tecarus would strongly argue with that statement. You’ve had not one but two chances to acquire the luminary, and it’s not like you haven’t had what he’s asked for both times.”

“Out of the question,” Xaden bites out.

“You’re willing to let our entire kingdom fall prey to these monsters because you’re what?” Cat asks, cocking her head at Xaden. “Smitten? Please. I know you better than that.”

“Cat!” Syrena snaps.

My stomach lurches. “What the hell is she talking about?” Ludicrous as it might be, I think…it’s me. What the hell would I have to do with a Poromish viscount?

“Nothing of any consequence.” Xaden’s tone is anything but comforting.

Tairn chuffs.

“We’ll be discussing this later,” I warn Xaden, adding it to a never-ending list.

“You know nothing where she’s concerned.” Xaden shakes his head once at Cat before turning back to Syrena. “The forge is our highest priority. As soon as we secure a luminary, we’ll be operational and able to supply you in full. We have the rest of the material we need to begin, and that’s all you get to know, because you’re right, Syrena. I don’t trust you.

Until then, there are twenty-three daggers in these bags.” He points to the bags at his feet.

“Twenty-three?” Syrena asks, lifting a brow.

“I need one of them.” There’s no apology in his words or tone. “Take them or leave them. Either way, Garrick will see your next shipment is delivered at the appointed location.” He backs away, keeping his face toward them. “It’s near Athebyne. I’m not hiding it from you, just not repeating it in front of the rest of her drift.”

“I appreciate the honesty.” It’s surprising and refreshing.

“You have maybe a year until they’re on your border,” Syrena says.

My stomach sours as I remember that Brennan thinks we have way less than that. I need to delve deeper into researching the wards as soon as I’m back at Basgiath.

“We’re all that stands between them and you. You know that, right? Or are you still hiding your heads in the don’t-tell-us-too-much-in-case-we’reinterrogated sand like you were last year?”

“We know,” Xaden responds. “We’ll be ready.”

Syrena nods. “I’ll do what I can to lessen the attacks on the outposts, but until you can openly say you’re supplying us, it’s like asking our forces to believe in specters. They don’t trust you like I do.”

“How you stop them is your business. I meant what I said.” He tilts his head. “Come for our wards, and I’ll watch you die.”

We need to get them under wards of their own. It’s the most logical path. Sgaeyl huffs a blast of steam, and the male flier startles, then comes for the two bags and pivots, handing one to Syrena on his way back to the remainder of the drift.

“Thank you,” Syrena says to Xaden before glancing up at me. “Tell your dragon he’s still the scariest fucking thing I’ve ever seen, Sorrengail.”

“I would, but it would just inflate his ego,” I reply, settling back in the saddle as Xaden runs up Sgaeyl’s foreleg to mount. “Stay alive, Syrena. I’m starting to like you.”

She flashes me a smirk of a smile, then turns toward the other flier. “Let’s go, Catriona.”

Catriona. Cat.

The way my stomach hollows has nothing to do with Tairn’s sudden launch into the night sky and everything to do with remembering what Bodhi said weeks ago.

I’ve never seen him care like this, and that includes Catriona.

Oh gods. The way she’d looked at him wasn’t just longing—it was memory.

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