Air steals the heat from my cheeks, and I pull my goggles into place as Tairn flies for the border with forceful wingbeats. “To avoid jumping
to conclusions like last year, she’s your ex, isn’t she?” I ask Xaden, hoping my mental voice sounds a hell of a lot steadier than I feel.
“How do you— Never mind, that’s not important. Yes.” He speaks slowly, like he’s choosing his words with the utmost care. “We were over before I met you.”
It shouldn’t matter. I have exes, too. It’s not like we’ve really discussed our sexual or romantic history, right? Of course, neither of them is a gryphon flier who looks like…that, but still. There’s no logical reason for me to feel this ugly twist of irrational—
Shit. What is this? Jealousy? Anxiety? Insecurity?
“All three,” Tairn responds in utter annoyance. “To which I will remind you that not a single dragon chose her. You were selected by two. Pull yourself together.”
His metric is sound but has little to do with what I’m feeling.
“But at one point Xaden chose her.” I lean into the right bank as Tairn hugs the face of the mountain, continuing to climb.
“And at one point, you thought gruel was a satisfactory meal, until you grew some teeth and found the rest of the world’s food waiting. Now cease this line of thinking. It does not serve to make you stronger.”
Easy for him to say.
Silence envelops me for the rest of the flight, and I breathe a little easier once we cross Navarre’s wards. Then guilt settles like a stone in my gut. We’re safe behind our shields, but the drift we just armed won’t sleep with the same certainty.
We land in the field, and I dismount after unbuckling, sliding down Tairn’s foreleg.
“Be ready to go in the morning,” Tairn orders. “Perhaps returning quickly will soften your inevitable punishment for leaving abruptly.”
Because no one punishes dragons.
“I doubt it, but we can try.” I lift my flight goggles as Tairn walks off with Sgaeyl, their tails swishing in rhythm. It’s a little thing, but it makes me smile.
Xaden approaches, then winds his arm around my waist and tugs me to his firm chest before tipping my chin up with his thumb and forefinger so our gazes meet. Worry lines the space between his brows. “Are we going to have to spend our last few hours together talking about Cat?”
“No.” I wind my arms around his neck. “Not unless you’d like to spend them talking about my previous lovers.”
His focus drops to my mouth. “I would much rather choose our previous option number two, where we head up to my bedchamber and use our time judiciously.”
“Solid plan,” I agree, my body heating at the mere suggestion. “But we are going to have to talk about Viscount Tecarus.”
“Fuck.” He looks away. “I’d almost rather talk about our exes.” His focus shifts back to mine. “Who are your exes? Do I know them?”
“Tecarus.” I arch an eyebrow. “Now. I know you want to keep your secrets, but you told me you’d give me information if it could affect my decisions, and I have a nagging suspicion what’s going on has to do with me.” I trail my fingers down the side of his neck with his relic, simply because I can’t help but touch him. “So I’m asking you: what does Tecarus want for the luminary—the one device that could complete your forge—that you’re unwilling to give?”
His grip tightens around my waist, pulling me even closer. “Besides weaponry and a private army?” He pauses, war waging in his eyes before he sighs. “You’re the first lightning wielder in over a century. He swears he’ll let us take it to Aretia if he can see you wield.”
I blink. “That part seems easy enough.”
“It’s not. Our first deal fell apart when I discovered he was only willing to let us use the luminary, not take it, which would have meant stationing dragons in Cordyn. And secondly, I don’t trust him to stop at seeing you. He’s known for collecting precious things and keeping them against their will.” His thumb grazes my lower lip, sending a shiver of awareness through me. “I won’t risk it. Won’t risk you.”
“Doesn’t seem like it’s your risk to take,” I say softly. He needs that luminary, but maybe if I can get the wards up, that will buy us some time.
“I told you in Aretia—I would rather lose this entire war than live without you.” He skims my jawline with his fingers before dropping his hand.
“I didn’t really think you meant it when you said that.” The ache in my chest damn near explodes. I love this man with every beat of my reckless heart, which would be his if he’d simply stop keeping all his secrets and let me know him.
“You have to trust me again at some point.” His mouth tightens. “Going to Cordyn isn’t up for discussion. Brennan is already negotiating for different terms.”
“But I’m right here. You cannot protect me from every—” I glance over at the weight he slides into the deep sheath at my shoulder, the sheath that’s only there because I’m wearing his flight jacket. “What is that?” But I already know. The alloy in the hilt flashes in the moonlight before it disappears, tucked against my arm.
“I need you to be able to defend yourself no matter what happens.
You’re not the only one with bad dreams, you know.”
My lips part. “Xaden,” I whisper, sliding my hands to his face and scratching my palms on the stubble of his cheeks. “I’m a lightning wielder. I’m never defenseless against venin.”
“You’ll have to keep it hidden, of course.” His voice turns gruff. “Sew a deeper sheath into wherever you’re most comfortable.”
I nod. Right now, there’s almost no chance anyone could spot it unless it was facing outward or they knew where to look, anyway.
“Anything else we need to discuss?” he asks. A grimace wrinkles my nose.
“Other than the battle of Zolya getting leaked in Battle Brief and Markham playing it off as propaganda?” My mouth twists.
He simply stares at me this time.
“Or the fact that Nolon’s spent months saving Jack Barlowe’s life?” I turn out of his arms, and we start walking toward the outpost with its burning torches along the outer battlements. “Oh, and Varrish punched my shoulder out of socket during interrogation after Dain refused to use his signet on me.”
“Don’t worry,” I say over my shoulder, tugging him along. “We escaped. They tried using this new elixir on us that dulls our connections to our dragons and our signets, but I remembered how it smelled from land nav, so
we avoided that one.”
“Signet-blocking elixir?” His voice rises.
“It’s fine. If I can get my hands on the solution, I can probably figure out an antidote.” I glance at him. “Or Brennan can.”
His gaze bores into mine. “What happened to us working on that whole communication thing?”
“I could make you ask questions for the information.” I flash a sarcastic smile. “Did I mention that Dain challenged me?” I’m definitely not asking about the ridiculous statement he dropped on me about my mother. Dain doesn’t deserve my headspace. “Shit, I should probably tell you about Aaric, too.”
Xaden sighs. “So much for option number two.”
There’s an odd hope that fills me as Tairn and I land on the flight field at Basgiath the next afternoon. Maybe it’s that I finally feel like Xaden and I are really, honestly trusting each other with more than just our
bodies, even if he’s not giving me full access.
And his body is most definitely a perk. I’m deliciously sore from more than just the flight as I dismount Tairn at the edge of the field to avoid the incoming landings as First Wing goes through third-year maneuvers.
Shit, I should have slipped the dagger into my pack before landing.
Dragons and their riders are everywhere.
“With all these dragons present, I have no doubt that Varrish and Aetos have been alerted to your return,” Tairn warns me.
“I’ll face my punishment,” I respond, scratching the dull scales of his chin. “You need to hydrate. You’re all dried out from the flight.”
“Our departure was more my fault than yours. I will not stand for you to bear my punishment.”
“Stop being sweet. It’s disturbing.” I pat his scales one more time and heft my bag higher on my shoulder. “It’s been a couple of weeks. Do you think Andarna will wake anytime soon?” I miss her.
“There’s no way to tell,” he says quickly. Too quickly.
Suspicion finds home between my brows. “Is there something you aren’t telling me?”
“Every adolescent enters the sleep for whatever amount of time their body needs. Hers apparently requires more than most.”
And until the last couple of weeks, she’s been waking up every time I’m distraught. Fuck. “Should I worry?”
“Worrying changes nothing. She is guarded by the elders and is sleeping safely.”
Hmm. “I’ll tell you if my punishment includes death or inconvenience.” “I will already know, as I am continuously with you,” he grumbles.
“Forced to bear witness to the awkwardness that is twenty-one-year-old humans.”
“I’ll strive to make it less awkward.”
“Could you do so, I would think you would have done it already.” He waits until I walk in front of him, heading for the stairs by the Gauntlet, and then he launches, his wings gusting wind at my back.
I can’t help but look to the left as I descend the steps. Our squad is practicing the deadly obstacle course that cost Trysten his life while we were in interrogation practice.
Aaric and Visia have already made it to the top—no surprise there—but the others are struggling. I have yet to learn any more of their names, but so far, we’ve only lost two.
Sloane bites her lower lip as she watches a girl with blue-black hair fumble along the spinning log on the fourth ascent…and fall. My heart lurches into my throat, but she grasps one of the vertical ropes along the course.
“Take that one at a run,” I tell Sloane as I walk by. “Hesitate and you’ll fall.”
“I didn’t say I need your help,” she mutters back.
“Your brother won the Gauntlet patch last year. No one expects you to fill those shoes, but try not to die, will you?” I say over my shoulder, not bothering to stop. It’s not like she’s going to let me help, and I can’t save her from this. She’ll make it or she won’t.
Fuck, I feel like Xaden of all people.
“You’ve angered the leadership, Sorrengail,” Emetterio says as I approach, the sun reflecting off his freshly shaved and oiled head.
“It couldn’t be helped,” I say quietly, pausing at his side.
He glances sideways at me. “I do not have favorites. That would be foolish in this place.”
“But if I did.” He lifts his forefinger at me. “And I’m not saying I do. But if I did, I would suggest to that favored student that she stresses the undimmable bond of her legendary battle dragon and forgets any mention that perhaps strengthening her mental shields could have saved her from such a rash decision when it came to departing without leave.” He lifts both of his dark brows at me. “But, I would also hope that another favored
student—were I to have such a thing—would be teaching you stronger shield techniques so it doesn’t happen again.” His gaze drops to my collar, where there’s a single silver line of lieutenant’s rank.
“I get the point.” A smile curves my mouth. “Thank you for caring, Professor Emetterio.”
“I never said I did.” He turns his attention to the Gauntlet, where Sloane has just crossed the fourth ascent.
“Right. Of course not.” I grin as I walk away, taking the rocky path to the quadrant, then fight the fear of my upcoming punishment. If Varrish tries to kill me, I’ll fight. If he wants to torture me, I’ll deal with it. Or maybe I should go straight to Panchek?
The path is crowded as another squad passes by for their turn at Gauntlet practice, and I stop stressing about stashing the dagger in my bag. At this rate, I’ll make it to my room without anyone seeing the alloy-hilted dagger.
By the time I reach the second-year floor, I’ve gone through about a dozen different scenarios of how to turn myself in.
Professor Kaori looks up from his book as he walks toward me in the main corridor, his brows furrowed in concentration, and I wave before turning into the little hallway that houses my squad’s chambers.
I stop short, my heart seizing for the length of what should be two beats when I see them.
“There she is.” Varrish’s greasy voice lifts the hairs on the back of my neck as he and his two henchmen push off the wall and head my way. “We’ve been waiting for you, Sorrengail.”
“I was going to wash the flight off and then present myself for judgment.” Close. I’m so fucking close to the safety behind my door.
“Oh, so you do realize you were absent without leave,” Varrish says, his smile anything but reassuring. The trio passes by my door and Rhiannon’s across the hall, then approaches Sawyer’s to my left and Ridoc’s to my right.
“Of course.” I nod.
Rhiannon’s door opens silently, and she peeks her head out, her eyes flying wide.
I subtly shake my head in warning, and she nods, ducking back inside and closing her door almost all the way. Good. I don’t want them looping her in on my punishment as soon as she inevitably tries to defend me as my squad leader.
“Bag,” Varrish orders.
Oh. Fuck. At least I didn’t stash the dagger in there. My mistake might just save my life.
Nora holds out her hand, and I slip my bag from my shoulder and hand it over.
“You couldn’t be bothered to wear your own uniform?” Varrish eyes Xaden’s rank on my collar. “You do know that impersonating a commissioned officer is against the Codex, do you not?”
Nora dumps my bag onto the stone floor, breaking the binding on my history book. Ouch. “Look, she has another one here.” She hands Bodhi’s jacket to Varrish.
“Collecting them, are we?” Varrish takes the jacket without looking my direction. His focus is on the bag with the other two riders’.
He’s going to take Xaden’s jacket. I fucking know it. Panic wells in my throat, threatening to cut off my oxygen. I glance up at Rhi, locking eyes with her through the slit she’s left in her door.
She cocks her head to the side silently, and I look pointedly to the dagger sheathed at my shoulder before lifting my brows at her.
“It’s just books, some flight goggles, and the jacket,” Nora says.
“A jacket that isn’t hers,” Varrish corrects her. “Just like the one she’s wearing.”
Rhiannon’s door squeaks, but she manages to close it before they swing their gazes her way.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. I’m on my own. The dagger is more than enough to implicate me if he knows what it is, and if he doesn’t, Markham will. But worse, it will implicate Xaden. They’ll kill all the marked ones for what they’ll perceive as his betrayal.
“Check the one she’s wearing,” Varrish orders. “Since it’s clearly not regulation.”
“I’m sorry,” Professor Kaori says as he comes up behind me. “Did I just hear you order your…aides, or whatever it is you’re calling them, to strip a cadet?”
“It’s a jacket. She’s in violation of Article Seven, Section Three, which states that impersonating a commissioned officer—” Varrish starts.
“It’s Article Two, actually,” I interrupt, folding my arms across my chest. The shoulder has way more give to it than what I’d expect, but I’m not foolish enough to draw attention to it by glancing down again. “And it says impersonating a commissioned officer is a punishable offense, not wearing someone’s flight jacket. As you can see, I’m not wearing anyone’s name tag, nor am I claiming to be someone I’m not.”
“She has you there, Vice Commandant.” Kaori tucks his book under his arm. “And since when do we search cadets’ bags?”
“Since I took over as vice commandant.” Varrish lifts his head, standing to his full height. “This doesn’t involve you, Kaori.”
“Nevertheless, I’ll be staying,” Kaori retorts. “Power must always be kept in check, don’t you think, Major Varrish?”
“Are you accusing me of abusing my power where this cadet is concerned, Colonel Kaori?” Varrish moves to step toward us, but my bag is in the way.
“Oh, no.” Kaori shakes his head. “I think you abuse your power in general.”
It takes every muscle in my body to keep my features schooled.
Varrish’s eyes narrow on Kaori before turning to me. “I will have that flight jacket.” He holds out his hand.
I undo the buttons, begging my fingers not to tremble, and hand it over. Varrish goes through every. Single. Pocket.
I don’t need to warn Tairn—I can already feel his quiet presence in the back of my mind.
“Hmm.” Kaori leans my direction and cocks his head, sweeping his gaze over my uniform. “Her name tag here clearly says Sorrengail, and I note two of her squad patches. Doesn’t seem to be impersonating anyone to me.”
“She is…” Varrish’s face blotches as he comes up empty on the jacket. “She is still due to face court-martial for departing campus without leave
“Oh.” Kaori nods. “That explains it. You haven’t talked to Panchek this afternoon. I turned in my expert opinion that Sorrengail not be punished for what was clearly the choice of her dragon. Her very powerful, very worried, very mated dragon. Panchek agrees. She’s clear of all charges.”
“I’m sorry?” Varrish drops Xaden’s jacket on the floor on top of Bodhi’s, and his henchmen stand.
“Come now,” Kaori says as if he’s talking to a child. “We can hardly expect a second-year to shield out the overpowering emotions of her dragon when even we struggle as officers, let alone one as strong as Tairn.”
“Maybe you struggle,” Varrish snips, losing his customary slick indifference. “Some of us do not bow to the whims of our dragons. In fact, we influence them.”
“Well, that’s certainly a theory worth contemplating.” Kaori pauses, waiting for a reply that doesn’t come. “Odd. Would that mean you influenced Solas when he set fire to that squad of bonded riders after Parapet?”
Varrish glances between us. “We’re done here.”
The trio sidesteps the mess they made of my things and pushes by Professor Kaori.
“You’re making enemies, Sorrengail,” Kaori says softly after waiting until they’ve left.
“Not sure I made that one, Professor,” I tell him honestly, dropping to the ground and shoving my things back in the bag. “Pretty sure he came that way.”
“Hmm.” He watches me as I stand. “Either way, be careful there.” He gives me a cautious look and then disappears down the hallway.
I squeeze the jacket between my hands, finding a very empty sheath. Oh gods.
“Get in here!” Rhiannon hisses, all but yanking me into her room and slamming the door shut behind me.
Ridoc and Sawyer rise from where they’re seated at the window and close their physics books, exchanging a look before coming toward us.
“I didn’t want you caught up in—” My words die when she holds the dagger up, grasping the tip. “Holy shit!” My jaw drops, then rises in an awestruck smile. “You just pulled that through the wall! I thought you couldn’t do that yet!”
“I can’t!” she rebuts. “Well, couldn’t, I guess. Not until right now. Not until I thought whatever this is had a chance of getting you killed from the look you gave me.”
“You’re incredible!” I glance at the guys. “She is, right?”
“Enough about the signet!” Her voice rises with tension. “What is this?
And why did you need them not to find it?”
“Oh. Right.” I take a single step forward, and she hands me the dagger. A thousand possibilities, all varying degrees of the truth, run through my mind. But I’m so sick of lying to her, to them. Especially when attacks are increasing and keeping them in the dark will only hurt them. “The dagger.”
Gods, I hope Xaden forgives me for this.
She’s my closest friend and she just saved not only my ass but the lives of every marked one in this college. She deserves better from me. She deserves the truth. They all do.
“Violet?” she pleads.
I swallow the lump in my throat and meet her gaze. “It’s for killing venin.”