Chapter no 3

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

The flight field at Basgiath is still dark and appears deserted when we approach in the hour before sunrise, hugging the landscape of the

mountains, the riot doing what they can to stay out of sight.

“That doesn’t mean someone won’t spot us landing,” Tairn reminds me, his wings beating steadily despite having flown the last eighteen hours nearly straight through from Aretia. The window of time we have to get Andarna to the Vale without her being spotted is slim, and if we miss it, we’ll put every hatchling in danger.

“I still don’t understand why the Empyrean would ever agree to let dragons bond human riders, knowing they’d have to guard their own young not only against gryphon fliers but the very humans they’re supposed to trust.”

“It’s a delicate balance,” Tairn replies, banking left to follow the geography. “The First Six riders were desperate to save their people when they approached the dens over six hundred years ago. Those dragons formed the first Empyrean and bonded humans only to protect their hatching grounds from venin, who were the bigger threat. We don’t exactly have opposable thumbs for weaving wards or runes. Neither species has ever been entirely truthful, both using the other for their own reasons and nothing more.”

“It never occurred to me to hide anything from you.”

Tairn does that weird thing that makes his neck appear boneless, swinging his head around to level slightly narrowed eyes at me for a heartbeat before turning his attention back to the terrain. “I can do nothing to remedy the last nine months besides answer your worthwhile questions now.”

“I know,” I say quietly, wishing his words were enough to cut through the acrid taste of betrayal I can’t seem to wash out of my mouth. I’m going to have to let it go. I know that. Tairn was bound by his mating bond to Sgaeyl, so at least he had a reason to keep everything he did from me, and it’s not like I can blame Andarna for being a kid who followed his lead.

Xaden is another matter entirely, though.

“We’re approaching. Get ready.”

“Guess we should have worked on rolling dismounts earlier in the year,” I joke, gripping the pommel of my saddle tight as Tairn banks, my weight shifting right with him. My body is going to punish me for the hours in the saddle, but I wouldn’t trade the feel of the summer wind against my face for anything.

“A rolling dismount would tear you limb from limb on impact,” he retorts.

“You don’t know that,” Andarna counters with what seems to be her new default form of conversation-telling Tairn he’s wrong.

A growl rumbles through Tairn’s chest, vibrating the saddle beneath me and the harness that holds Andarna to his chest.

“I’d watch it,” I tell her, biting back a smile. “He might get tired and drop you.”

“His pride would never allow it.”

“Says the dragon who spent twenty minutes refusing to put on her harness,” Tairn fires back.

“All right, kids, let’s not argue.” My muscles tighten, and the strap across my thighs digs in as Tairn dives, skimming the edge of Mount Basgiath, bringing the flight field into view again.

“Still deserted,” Tairn notes.

“You know, rolling dismounts are a second-year maneuver.” Not necessarily one I want to master, but that doesn’t change the requirements.

“One you won’t be participating in,” Tairn grumbles.

“Maybe I’ll take her if you won’t,” Andarna chimes in, the last word ending in a dragon-size yawn.

“Maybe you should work on your own landings before taking our bonded on a flight to meet Malek?” This is going to be a long year.

My stomach plummets as he drops into the box canyon known as the flight field.

“I will drop Andarna in the Vale and then return and circle nearby.”

“You need rest.”

“There will be no rest if they decide to execute the eight of you on the dais.” The worry in his voice clogs my throat. “Call out if you even suspect it will not go your way.”

“It will,” I assure him. “Do me a favor and tell Sgaeyl that I need to talk to Xaden on the walk in.”

“Hold on tight.”

The ground rushes to meet us, and I reach for the strap across my thighs, my fingers working the buckle as Tairn flares his wings to rapidly slow our descent. My momentum throws me forward as he touches down, and I force my ass back in the seat before yanking the belt off.

“Get her out of here,” I tell him as I scramble for his shoulder, ignoring every muscle that dares to ache.

“Do not take unnecessary risk,” he says as I slide down his foreleg at the steep incline Andarna’s position forces him to keep.

My feet slam into the ground and I stumble forward, catching my balance. “Love you, too,” I whisper, turning long enough to pat his leg and Andarna’s before running forward to get the hell out of their way.

Tairn whips his head to the right, where Sgaeyl lands with brutal efficiency, her rider dismounting in the same manner. “The wingleader approaches.”

He’ll only be my wingleader for another few hours if we live through this.

Xaden gives Tairn a wide berth to launch as he walks toward me.

Sgaeyl takes off next, followed by the rest of the riot. Guess we’re on our own now.

I lift my goggles to the top of my head and unzip my jacket. July at Basgiath is muggy as hell, even this early.

“You actually told Tairn to tell Sgaeyl that you wanted to talk to me?” Xaden asks as the sun’s first rays color the tips of the mountains purple.

“I did.” I run my hands across my sheaths, checking to make sure my daggers weren’t displaced during flight as we walk out of the flight field slightly ahead of the others, heading toward the steps that will bypass the Gauntlet and lead us back to the quadrant.

“You remember that you can…” He taps the side of his head and walks backward in front of me. I clench my fists to keep from brushing a lock of dark, windblown hair off his forehead. A few days ago, I would have touched him without reservation. Hell, I would have threaded my fingers through his hair and pulled him in for a kiss.

But that was then, and this is now.

“Talking that way feels a little too…” Gods, why is this so hard? It feels like every inch I sacrificed for in the last year when it comes to Xaden has been erased, putting us back at the starting line of an obstacle course I’m not sure either one of us ever chose to run. I shrug. “Intimate.”

“And we’re not intimate?” He lifts his brows. “Because I can think of more than one occasion that you’ve been wrapped around-“

I jolt forward and cover his mouth with my hand. “Don’t.” Ignoring the explosive chemistry between us is hard enough without him reminding me what we feel like together. Physically, our relationship-or whatever we are -is perfect. Better than perfect. It’s hot as hell and more than addictive. My entire body warms as he kisses the sensitive skin of my palm. I drop my hand. “We’re walking into what’s certainly going to be a trial, if not an execution, and you’ve got jokes.”

“Trust me-not joking.” He turns as we reach the steps and heads down first, glancing back over his shoulder at me. “Surprised that you’re not icing me out, but definitely no jokes.”

“I’m angry with you for keeping information from me. Ignoring you doesn’t solve that.”

“Good point. What did you want to talk about?”

“I have a question I’ve been thinking about since Aretia.”

“And you’re only now telling me?” He reaches the bottom of the steps and shoots an incredulous look at me. “Communication is not your strength, is it? Don’t worry. We’ll work on it along with your shielding.”

“That’s…ironic coming from you.” We start up the path to the quadrant as the sun steadily rises on our right, the light catching on the two swords Xaden has strapped to his back. “Does the movement have any scribes it can count as friends?”

“No.” The citadel looms ahead of us, its towers peeking over the edge of the ridgeline the tunnel runs through. “I know you grew up trusting a lot of them-“

“Don’t say anything else.” I shake my head. “Not until I can protect myself from Dain.”

“Honestly, I’ve considered scrapping the plan and just throwing him off the parapet.” He means it, and I can’t blame him. He’s never trusted Dain, and after what happened during War Games, I’m about ninety-nine percent sure I can’t trust him, either. It’s that one percent, constantly screaming at me that he used to be my best friend, that’s the kicker.

The one percent that makes me question if Dain knows what was waiting for us at Athebyne. “Helpful, but I’m not sure it will have the trust us effect we’re going for.”

“And do you trust me?”

“You want the uncomplicated answer?”

“Given our limited alone time, that’s preferable.” He stops at the tall doors that lead into the tunnel.

“With my life. After all, it’s your life, too.” The rest depends on how open he is with me, but now probably isn’t the time for a state-of-ourrelationship talk.

I swear there’s a flash of disappointment in his eyes before he nods, then looks back for the other six, who are quickly catching up. “I’ll make sure Aetos keeps his hands to himself, but you might have to play along.”

“Give me a shot at handling it first. Then you can do whatever it is you think will work.” The bells of Basgiath interrupt, announcing the hour. We have fifteen minutes until formation will be called for graduation.

Xaden’s shoulders straighten as the others reach us, his expression shifting into an unreadable mask. “Everyone clear on what’s about to happen?”

This isn’t the man who begged my forgiveness for keeping secrets, and it sure as hell isn’t the one who vowed to earn back my trust in Aretia. No, this Xaden is the wingleader who slaughtered every attacker in my bedroom without breaking a sweat or losing a minute of sleep over it afterward.

“We’re ready,” Garrick says, rolling his neck like he needs to warm up before combat.

“Ready.” Masen nods, adjusting the glasses on his nose.

One by one, they agree.

“Let’s do it.” I lift my chin.

Xaden stares long and hard at me, then nods.

My stomach twists when we enter the tunnel, mage lights flickering on as we pass. The other door is already open when we make our way through, and I don’t argue when Xaden plasters himself to my side. There’s every chance we’ll be arrested as soon as our feet touch the quadrant, or worse, killed, depending on what everyone knows.

Power rises within me, thrumming beneath my skin, not quite burning but ready if I need it, but no one appears as we cross into the rock-filled courtyard. We have minutes until this space fills with riders and cadre.

The first riders we encounter walk out of the dormitory and into the courtyard with cocky swaggers and Second Wing patches on their uniforms.

“Look who’s finally here? Bet you thought you had the games locked down, didn’t you, Fourth Wing?” a rider with hair dyed forest green says with a smirk. “But you didn’t! Second Wing took it all when you didn’t show!”

Xaden doesn’t bother looking their direction as we pass.

Garrick lifts his middle finger from my other side.

“Guess this means no one knows what really happened,” Imogen whispers.

“Then we have a shot of this working,” Eya replies, and the sunlight glints in the piercing in her eyebrow.

“Of course no one fucking knows,” Xaden mutters. He looks up to the top of the academic building, and I follow his line of sight, my heart clenching at the image of the fire blazing in the pit on top of the farthest turret. No doubt waiting for offerings to Malek-belongings of the cadets who didn’t make it through War Games. “They’re not going to out themselves over us.”

At the entrance to the dorms, we all exchange a look, then break apart wordlessly according to the plan. Xaden follows me down the corridor and into the little hallway I’ve called home for the last nine months, but it’s not my room I’m interested in.

I glance left and right to be sure no one sees us as Xaden opens Liam’s door. He motions at me, and I slip under his arm and into the room, triggering the mage light overhead.

My chest threatens to cave with the weight of grief as Xaden shuts the door behind us. Liam slept in that bed a matter of nights ago. He studied at that desk. He worked on the half-finished figurines on the bedside table.

“You have to be quick,” Xaden reminds me.

“I will,” I promise, going straight for his desk. There’s nothing there besides his books and a selection of pens. I check his wardrobe, the dresser, and the chest at the foot of his bed, coming up empty-handed.

“Violet,” Xaden warns me quietly, standing guard at the door.

“I know,” I say over my shoulder. The second Tairn and Sgaeyl arrived in the Vale, every dragon would know they’d returned, which means every member of the quadrant’s leadership knows we’re here, too.

I lift the corner of the heavy mattress and sigh with relief, snatching the twine-bound stack of letters before letting the bedding fall back into place.

“Got them.” I will not cry. Not when I still have to hide them in my room.

But what will happen if they come to burn my things next?

“Let’s go.” Xaden opens the door, and I walk into the hallway at the same moment Rhiannon-my closest friend in the quadrant-walks out of her room with Ridoc, another of our squadmates.

Oh. Shit.

“Vi!” Rhi’s mouth drops open and she lunges, grabbing onto me and pulling me into a hug. “You’re here!” She squeezes tight, and I let myself relax into the embrace for the length of a heartbeat. It feels like forever since I’ve seen her, not six days.

“I’m here,” I assure her, gripping the letters in the crook of one arm and wrapping the other around her.

She squeezes my shoulders, then pushes me back, her brown eyes scanning my face in a way that makes me feel like complete shit for the lie I’m going to have to tell. “With what everyone was saying, I thought you were dead.” Her gaze rises over my head. “Thought you both were.”

“There was also the rumor that you got lost,” Ridoc adds. “But considering who you were with, we were all betting on the dead theory. I’m glad we were wrong.”

“I promise I’ll explain later, but I need a favor now,” I whisper as my throat closes.

“Violet.” Xaden’s tone drops.

“We can trust her,” I promise, looking back at him. “Ridoc too.” Xaden looks anything but pleased. Guess we really are home.

“What do you need?” Rhi asks, concern furrowing her brow.

I step back, then push the letters into her hands. Her family doesn’t always obey the custom of burning everything, either. She’ll understand. “I need you to keep these for me. Hide them. Don’t let anyone…burn them.” My voice breaks.

She glances down at the letters, and her eyes widen before her shoulders curve inward and her face crumples.

“What are tho-” Ridoc starts, looking over her shoulder and falling silent. “Shit.”

“No,” Rhiannon whispers, but I know she’s not denying me the favor. “Not Liam. No.” Her gaze slowly rises to meet mine.

My eyes burn but I manage to nod, clearing my throat. “Promise you won’t let them have these when they come for his things if I’m not-” I can’t finish.

Rhiannon nods. “You’re not hurt, are you?” She scans me again, blinking at the line of stitchwork on my flight jacket, where the hole from the venin’s blade was repaired in Aretia.

I shake my head. I’m not lying. Not really. My body is perfectly healthy now.

“We have to go,” Xaden says.

“I’ll see you guys at graduation.” I give them a watery smile but take a step toward Xaden. The more space my friends have from me, the safer they’ll be for the foreseeable future.

“How do you do it?” I whisper at Xaden as we turn the corner into the crowded main corridor of the first-year dorms.

“Do what?” His arms hang loose at his sides as he continuously scans the people around us, and he puts his hand on my lower back like he’s worried we might get separated. We’re in the thick of the rush, and for every person too busy to notice us, there’s another who does a double take when we cross paths. Every marked one we see gives Xaden a subtle nod, signaling that they’ve been warned by the others. “Lie to the people you care about?” Our gazes collide.

We pass one of the busts of the First Six and follow the flow of the crowd past the wide spiral staircase that connects the higher-years’ dorms.

Xaden’s jaw clenches. “Vi-“

I lift my hand and cut him off. “It’s not an insult. I need to know how to do it.”

We break away from the crush of cadets headed out the door to the courtyard, and Xaden strides purposefully for the rotunda, yanking open the door and ushering me through. I step away from the hand he places on my lower back.

Zihnal must be smiling on us, because the room is blessedly empty for the second it takes Xaden to tug me behind the first pillar we come to. The red dragon hides us from anyone who might pass through the space that connects all wings of the quadrant.

Sure enough, voices and footsteps fill the vaulted chamber a moment later, but no one sees us behind the massive pillar, which is exactly why this is our chosen meeting place. I glance around Xaden, noting the emptiness behind the pillars that flank us. Either everyone else is on the other side of the rotunda, or we’re the first to arrive.

“For the record, I don’t lie to the people I care about.” Xaden lowers his voice as he faces me, the intensity in his eyes pinning my back to the marble pillar. He leans in, consuming my field of vision until he’s all I see. “And I sure as hell have never lied to you. But the art of telling selective truths is something you’re going to have to master or we’ll all be dead. I know you trust Rhiannon and Ridoc, but you can’t tell them the truth, as much for their sakes as for ours. Knowing puts them in danger. You have to be able to keep the truth compartmentalized. If you can’t lie to your friends, you keep your distance. Understand?”

I tense. Of course I know that, but hearing it said so blatantly drives the situation home like a knife to my stomach. “I understand.”

“I never wanted you put in this position. Not with your friends and especially not with Colonel Aetos. That was one of the many reasons why I never told you.”

“How long did you know about Brennan?” It might not be the right time, but suddenly it’s the only time.

He exhales slowly. “I’ve known about Brennan since his death.”

My lips part and something heavy shifts, easing a weight in my chest that’s been there since Resson.


“You didn’t dodge the question.” Have to admit, I’m a little surprised. “I promised you some answers.” He leans forward. “But I can’t promise you’ll like what you hear.”

“I’ll always prefer the truth.” Some answers?

“You say that now.” A wry smile twists his lips.

“I always will.” The sounds of boots shuffling behind us as students report for formation reminds me that we’re not entirely alone, but I need Xaden to hear this. “If the last few weeks have shown you anything, it should be that I don’t run from truth, no matter how hard it is or what it costs.”

“Yeah, well, it cost me you.” My whole body tenses and his eyes slam shut. “Shit. I shouldn’t have said that.” He opens them again, shaking his head, and the abject misery there makes my heart clench. “I know it was the not telling you. I get it. But when the lives of everyone around you depend on how well you can lie, it’s not easy to realize it’s the truth that will save you.” A sigh moves his shoulders. “If I could do it all again, I’d do it differently, I promise, but I can’t, so here we are.”

“Here we are.” And I’m not even sure where here is. I shift my weight.

“But as long as you meant what you said about telling me everything-” He flinches, and my heart sinks.

“You are going to tell me everything once I can properly shield, right?” It’s all I can do not to grab onto him and start shaking. Hard. “That’s what you promised in your bedroom.” He is not doing this to me. “‘Anything you want to know and everything you don’t.’ Those were your words.”

“Everything about me.”

Oh, fuck me, he is doing this to me. Again.

I shake my head. “That is not what you promised.”

Xaden starts to take a step toward me, but I lift my chin, daring him to touch me right now. Smart man that he is, he keeps his feet planted.

He runs a hand through his hair and sighs. “Look, I will answer any question you want to ask about me. Gods, I want you to ask, to know me well enough to trust me even when I can’t tell you everything.” He nods like those words had been included in the original promise when we both know damn well they weren’t. “Because you didn’t fall for an ordinary rider. You fell for the leader of a revolution,” he whispers, the sound so soft it barely carries to my ears. “To some degree, I’m always going to have secrets.”

“You have to be kidding me.” I let anger rush to the surface in hopes it will burn away the heartrending pain of his words. Brennan’s been lying to me for six years, letting me mourn his death when he’s been well-the-fuck alive the whole time. My oldest friend stole my memories and possibly sent me to die. My mother built my entire life on a lie. I’m not even sure what parts of my education are real and which are fabricated, and he thinks I’m not going to demand total, complete honesty from him?

“I’m not kidding.” There’s zero apology in his tone. “But that doesn’t mean I won’t let you in like I promised. I’m an open book when it comes to


“Whatever you want.” I shake my head. “And that’s not going to work for me. Not this time. I can’t trust you again without full disclosure.


He blinks as though I’ve actually managed to stun him.

“Full. Disclosure,” I demand like any rational woman staring down the man who kept her brother’s life a secret from her, let alone an entire war. “I can forgive you for keeping me in the dark before today. You did it to save lives, possibly even mine. But it’s complete and total honesty from now on, or…” Gods, am I going to have to say it?

Am I really about to issue an ultimatum to Xaden-fucking-Riorson?

“Or what?” He leans in, his eyes sharpening.

“Or I’ll get busy unfalling for you,” I spit out.

Surprise flares in his eyes a second before a corner of his mouth lifts into a smirk. “Good luck with that. I tried it for a good five months. Let me know how it works out for you.”

I scoff, at a complete loss for words as the bells chime, announcing the beginning of formation.

“It’s time,” he says. “Keep your shields up. Block everyone out like we practiced on the way here.”

“I can’t even keep you out.”

“You’ll find I’m harder to block than most.” His smirk is so infuriating, I ball my hands just to give my fists something else to do.

“Hey, I hate to interrupt what’s obviously a moment,” Bodhi whispers loudly from my left. “But that was the last bell, so that’s our cue to get this nightmare started.”

Xaden shoots a glare at his cousin, but we both nod. He doesn’t do his friends the dishonor of asking if they accomplished their missions as all eight of us walk into the center of the rotunda.

My stomach jumps into my throat as the death roll sounds from the courtyard. “I will not die today,” I whisper to myself.

“I really fucking hope you’re right about this,” Garrick says to Xaden as we face the open door. “It would be unfortunate to make it all three years and then die on graduation day.”

“I’m right.” Xaden walks out and we all follow, stepping into the sunlight.

“Garrick Tavis. Xaden Riorson.” Captain Fitzgibbons’s voice carries over the formation as he reads from the death roll.

“Well, this is awkward,” Xaden calls out.

And every head in the courtyard turns our direction.

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