Chapter no 37

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

Bold choice to move so far from what you perceive as the safety of the wards,” the Sage says, holding me immobile, my feet just inches from

the frozen ground of my own personal torture chamber.

I’m trapped in this fucking nightmare again, but at least I made it farther across the sunburned field this time.

“Of course, again,” the dark wielder hisses, his face contorting into a sneer. “You will never be free of me. I will hunt you to the ends of the Continent and beyond.”

Throat working, I struggle to relax, to calm my heart and change my breathing in hopes of waking myself up. But it’s only my mind that knows this isn’t real. My body is very much locked into the illusion.

“You can only hunt me to the wards,” I croak.

“Yet you sleep beyond them.” A grotesque smile tilts his cracked mouth. “And the longest night has yet to pass.” He reaches for a poison-tipped dagger—

I blink, my heart slamming against my ribs for the second it takes for me to shed the vivid nightmare and recognize my surroundings.

This isn’t a wind-torn field or a cold, blood-soaked cell in Basgiath—it’s Xaden’s light-filled bedroom in Aretia. Big windows, thick velvet drapes, wall-to-wall bookshelves, massive bed. I’m safe. Varrish isn’t waiting on the other side of the door to break me again because he’s dead. I killed him.

I’m still alive.

For the first time in days, there’s no pain when I breathe in, or when I stretch under the thick down comforter, or even when I twist away from the sun-drenched window to face Xaden.

Now, this is a view I could be more than happy to wake up to for the rest of my life.

He’s asleep on his stomach, his arms folded under his pillow, his hair falling over his forehead, his perfectly sculpted lips parted slightly. The covers only rise to the small of his back, leaving me with miles of inked skin to admire. I almost never get to see him like this, never get to simply look at him, and I take advantage of every single second, studying the angles of his muscled arm, up to his rounded shoulder, and across the faint silver of the lines that mark his back. He’s always more than enough to elevate my pulse, but asleep and fully unguarded, he steals my breath.

Gods is he beautiful. And he loves me.

The black fabric of my thin-strapped nightgown bunches slightly as I shift up onto my knees, and the comforter falls away when I reach for him. I trace the silver scars with my fingertips and don’t bother counting the lines. There are a hundred and seven of them, representative of the marked ones he took responsibility for to give them a chance at life in the quadrant.

For all that he says he isn’t soft, isn’t kind, he’s also the only man I know whose back is covered in promises made for other people. Even if his reasoning was preparing for this war we’re about to wage, he still risked his own life by vouching for them.

He risked his life to free me. Dain and I never would have made it out of there alive without him.

Alive. I’m alive.

And that’s exactly how I want to feel.

I lean forward and press my lips to his warm skin, kissing the scar closest to me, wishing I could undo the damage my mother did to him.

“Mmm. Violet.” His sleep-rough voice makes my lips curve and my blood heat. His muscles ripple as he stirs awake, and I take my time, kissing

a slow path up the expanse of his back.

He inhales sharply, his arms tensing when I reach the place his neck meets his shoulder. Rolling, he flips to his back and pulls me astride in one smooth motion.

“Good morning.” I smile, settling my hips over his. My breath catches at the feel of him beneath me, hard and ready.

“I could get used to waking up like this.” He looks at me with a hunger that mirrors my own, and his hand slides from my hip, over the curve of my waist, and up between the peaks of my breasts to cup the side of my neck gently, carefully.

“Me too.” My pulse quickens as I lean down and set my lips to his throat. “But we shouldn’t get used to it,” I tell him between kisses, working my way to his chest. “They’ll probably put me with the other cadets tonight.”

Last night, this had been the most private place for Brennan to mend me, and I’d wanted to sleep next to Xaden too badly to argue against his suggestion of staying after I’d finally gotten the chance to bathe.

“This is my house.” He spears his fingers into my hair, his other hand flexing on my hip when I ghost my lips over the three-inch scar above his heart. “And I sleep where you sleep, which is preferably in this very large, very comfortable bed. You should still be sleeping.”

I slide down his body, my hands roaming and stroking as I kiss every ridge of the incredible abdominals that tighten beneath my mouth. His eyes are my favorite part of him, but damn if the chiseled line above his hip that disappears into his waistband isn’t a close second. I follow it with my tongue.

“Violet.” Xaden’s voice is low.

I melt, instantly liquid when he says my name like that, and right now is no exception.

“Good plan.” I slide my hand under his waistband and wrap my fingers around the thick length of him. How is every inch of this man perfect? There has to be a flaw somewhere.

“You’re not recovered enough for the things I want to do to you,” he growls.

My core clenches at the warning, the promise—whatever it is, I want it.

I want him.

“Yes, I am. All mended, remember?” The craving for him overpowers any lingering exhaustion. A heady sense of power floods my system when I stroke my thumb over the head of his cock and his hips buck in response. There’s nothing sexier than watching his control fray, nothing hotter than knowing I’m the one who brings him to the breaking point.

And I need him to do exactly that—break—to lose the gentle kisses and cautious touches and take me with the full force of what he’s capable of. No holding back. No soft and slow.

“Are you trying to kill me?” His grip tightens in my hair, and I drag my gaze to his, finding a satisfying, wild glint in his eyes.

Need coils low in my stomach, my body remembering what follows that kind of look. He hasn’t even touched me and I’m already aching.

“Yes,” I answer honestly, then lower my head, keeping our eyes locked as I swirl my tongue around his tip. His guttural moan sets my blood on fire, and I wrap my hand around his base and take him deep.

“Violet.” His eyes slam shut, and he throws his head back, his neck working as it arches, his body tensing like he’s fighting the pleasure of it even as his hips jerk for more. “That feels so fucking good.”

I hum in approval and work him harder, flicking my tongue along the ridge where he’s most sensitive with every bob of my head.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck.” He tugs at my hair, his breaths coming faster and faster. “You have to stop. Or I’m going to lose it on you.” His stomach flexes as he lifts his head to watch me. “And I’m not sure I can be gentle.”

“Lose it.” Sounds excellent to me. “I don’t want gentle.” “Mending bones isn’t instant. You’re still heal—”

I suck him deeper.

He growls. “You really want this?” “I want you feral.”

The thought barely leaves my head before he pounces, lifting me off him and rolling me to my back. Then his mouth is on mine, kissing me hard and deep. It’s all tangled tongues and nipping teeth, carnal and fierce and exactly what I need.

He slides his hand up my inner thigh, and then his fingers are right there, pushing my underwear to the side to stroke and tease before dragging them down my legs. I yank my nightgown over my head as he strips his sleeping pants off.

Yes. Gods, yes. He’s all I can see, all I feel as he settles back between my thighs, the head of his cock nudging my entrance. His hand strokes over my newly mended ribs and his eyes flare, his gaze jumping to mine. “We should—”

“Please, Xaden.” I cup his cheek. “Please.”

He lifts my hand and kisses the palm, then the place on my forearm that had been fractured. His brow knits for a heartbeat as he scans my body, like he’s looking for the safest places to touch me, like he can still see every bruise, every break.

My stomach knots at the thought that he might stop. “Feral,” I remind him in a whisper.

His gaze finds mine, and the way he smiles, raising the corner of his mouth into that arrogant smirk I love so much, makes my heart pound. Gripping my hips, he flips me over, then yanks my ass into the air, setting me on my knees.

“You will tell me if it’s too much.” It’s not a request. I nod, my fingers tangling in the sheets.

Then he lines us up and rolls his hips, pushing in and in and in, until he’s so deep that I can feel him everywhere. I moan at the stretch, the fit, the utter perfection of him, muffling the sound in my pillow.

He grabs the pillow and throws it to the floor. “I want them to hear,” he says, withdrawing slowly, stroking every inch of me, then slamming home again. “Gods, you’re fucking perfect.”

I cry out. He feels so damned good. “There are hundreds of people in this palace of a house.” How I can string together more than two words is

beyond me.

He leans over my back, then drags his teeth across the shell of my ear.

“And I want them all to know you’re mine.”

I don’t argue with his logic. I can’t. Not when he slides almost all the way out of me, then snaps his hips, driving out every thought. He sets a hard, deep rhythm, turning me into pure, burning pleasure.

This is exactly what I needed—for him to take me, to consume me, to breathe life into me.

His fingers dig into my hips, pulling me into every driving thrust, and there’s no way to rock back, to gain leverage, to force him to quicken his pace. I can only accept what he gives, surrender completely, and simply feel.

He winds me up, building the coiling pressure within me tighter and tighter, my cries filling the room along with his growls and whispered words of praise.

It just gets better, hotter, sweeter, until there is no world outside him, no existence beyond us. All that matters is the next thrust.

“Xaden.” His name on my lips is a plea as the tension spirals so tight it borders on pain, power rising within me, white-hot and uncontrollable.

His hand rises along my stomach to my sternum, then lifts me upright so my back meets his chest. I turn my head, tangling my fingers in his hair, and he fuses our mouths, kissing me breathless while he drives into me again and again and again, his movements growing less and less controlled.

He’s close.

“You’re alive.” His voice wraps around my mind as his fingers dip between my thighs and slide over my clit. “Alive and strong and mine.”

Gods, he knew what I needed without me even telling him. My thighs lock, then tremble. It’s too much and exactly enough.

“And you’re mine.” I gasp for breath, my pulse racing as he strokes me right over the edge.

And I fall. I absolutely shatter. Light flashes and is quickly snuffed by cooling darkness as wave after wave of bliss rolls over me.

He locks his arms around me, holding me close as he shudders, tumbling into his own release.

We stay like that, wrapped around each other in every way possible, our breaths ragged as we come back to reality.

A reality in which I wasn’t remotely quiet. My cheeks flush even hotter.

“You want me to sleep in here with you?” I ask once I can form words. “Every night.” He kisses me softly.

“You might not be able to ward it yet, but you’d better sound shield this room today.” I lift my brows so he knows I mean it.

His mouth curves into a heart-stopping smile. “Already done.” I roll my eyes. “Of course it is.”

By the time we emerge from Xaden’s room an hour later, there are cadets


“This is… ” Words fail as we descend the right side of the sweeping double staircase to the foyer.

“Noisier than the last time we were here,” Xaden supplies, glancing over the crowd. Some riders stand in groups while others sit along the walls.

Every single one of them wears an expression that’s a variation of exactly how I’m feeling right now—what the hell did we do? Aretia wasn’t ready for this, and yet I brought them anyway.

Xaden may have risked the revolution by coming for me, but I smacked a giant target on it.

“Can we even fit all these riders here?” I ask Xaden as we pick our way through the mayhem.

“There are a hundred barracks rooms between the top three floors,” he tells me. “And that doesn’t account for the family quarters on the second. The question is if they’re all serviceable. Not everything has been repaired and rebuilt.”

“Violet!” Rhiannon waves from where she stands with our squad, waiting in front of the archway that leads into the great hall. Her gaze sweeps over me. “You look better.”

“I feel better,” I assure her, noticing that Imogen isn’t with them. “What’s going on?”

“I was hoping you’d know.” She glances over our squad, then leans in, lowering her voice. “They took a quick roll last night, put us in our rooms, and fed us breakfast this morning, but that was an hour ago. Now we’re just… ” She gestures to the foyer. “Waiting.”

“I think we may have caught them off guard,” I admit, guilt hollowing my stomach.

“Let’s go find out exactly how off guard,” Xaden says. “We’ll get some answers for you, Rhiannon.” He gestures toward a hallway. “We need to meet with the Assembly.”

“If you could just make that sound a little less foreboding.” I pause when we pass Aaric.

He’s standing off to the side of the squad, his arms folded over his chest, watching everything and everyone around him. “What now, Sorrengail?” he asks, his mouth tightening.

“He isn’t asking about the schedule,” Xaden says.

“Picked up on that.” I glance from Xaden to Aaric. “Your secret is safe with us.”

“So presumptuous.”

I shoot Xaden a glare. “It’s up to you if you want to tell anyone about your family. Right, Riorson?”

A muscle in Xaden’s jaw ticks, but he nods. “You swear it?” Aaric bites out.

“I do,” I promise.

It’s all I get to say before Xaden takes my hand and tugs me down the wide hallway, where the crowd finally thins.

“I think I may have fucked up,” I whisper, apprehension growing with each step we take.

We may have fucked up,” he says, squeezing my hand and stopping us in front of a tall wooden door with more than a few angry, raised voices behind it. “Doesn’t mean we weren’t right.”

“The last time we were here, the people in that room wanted to lock me up as a security threat.” My chest tightens. “I’m starting to think maybe they were right.”

“Only four of them did,” he says, his fingers poised on the black metal door handle. “And I guarantee they’re more pissed at me than they are you. I didn’t exactly answer their summons last night after Brennan mended you.” He pulls open the door, and the raised voices become almost shrill as I follow him in.

“You’ve exposed everything we’ve worked for!” a woman shouts. “Without so much as a vote from this council!” a man agrees.

“I made the call,” Xaden says once we’re clear of the doorway. “You want to yell? Yell at me.”

Six members of the Assembly look our way from their chairs at the long table, as Bodhi, Garrick, and Imogen stand in front of them as if on trial. We’re all that’s left of the squad that fought in Resson.

“We’re happy to address your choices, Lieutenant Riorson,” Suri says. “Though I’m not sure what the general’s daughter is doing here.”

“Well, the general’s son is right here,” Brennan counters from the other end of the table as Xaden and I walk forward, putting ourselves between Garrick and Imogen.

“You know what I meant,” the woman fires back, shooting Brennan a frustrated look.

The massive, empty armchair Xaden had sprawled across at our last meeting has been moved near the others. Guess they’re still waiting on someone. I glance at the high, intricately constructed back and the figure of a sleeping dragon perched on its pointed tip, then do a double take. In this lighting, I realize that one half is a rich, polished walnut, and the other has a black sheen to it, as if someone polished and sealed burned firewood… as if the chair has been half burned.

Because it probably was.

“And I think I know why she’s here.” Hawk Nose glares with his one eye like I’m something that needs to be scraped away from his boot, but at least he doesn’t reach for the sword at his side when he looks pointedly at our joined hands.

I pull mine from Xaden’s grasp.

He sighs like I’m his biggest problem and snatches it back. “What’s done is done. You can stay in here and chastise us all day, or you can figure out what to do with the hundred riders we brought you.”

“You didn’t bring us riders—you brought us cadets!” Suri shouts, pounding her fist on the table. “What the hell are we supposed to do with them?”

“Such theatrics are above you, Suri.” Felix scratches his beard and all but rolls his eyes at her. “Though the question is valid.”

“I’d suggest you call a formation and divide them into equal wings, for starters,” Xaden suggests, his tone dripping with boredom. “Though they may prefer to stay intact. From what I’ve seen, Fourth Wing has the largest numbers.”

“Because you were their wingleader,” Brennan states. “They were used to following you.”

“And Aetos,” Xaden replies begrudgingly. “He’s the one who called the formation after killing the vice commandant.”

“Aetos is another matter.” Battle-Ax runs her finger over the flat side of her weapon like it’s habit. “He’s confined to quarters until we can ascertain his loyalty, as are the scribes.”

“Cath is enough to vouch for Dain’s loyalty,” I argue. “And Jesinia is the only reason we have Warrick’s journal.” My hand tightens on Xaden’s when all six of the riders startle with surprise. “You do still have Warrick’s journal, right?”

“You have a journal from Warrick?” Battle-Ax leans forward. “As in First Six Warrick?”

“I do. Jesinia helped Violet and her squad steal the journal for instructions on how to use the wardstone,” Xaden says, turning his gaze on Brennan. “And she was right. It contains cryptic instructions in Old

Lucerish that need detailed, precise translation, but it’s better than nothing. I was supposed to bring it to you but got sidetracked by her capture.”

“Dad never taught me Old Lucerish, only Tyrrish,” Brennan says to me, lines forming between his brows, and a quiet woman with shiny black hair and wideset eyes keeps her diamond-sharp gaze on him. “But if you can translate it, then there’s a chance we can secure—”

“Secure?” Hawk Nose snaps. “You bring a hundred riders and two hundred dragons here and have the nerve to say that word?” His eyes narrow on me. “You may as well have handed Melgren a map of our location. Or was that what she was truly after?”

“Here we fucking go,” Imogen says under her breath.

“Violet risked her life to help us,” Xaden responds. “And nearly lost it doing so.”

“She should be confined and questioned,” Hawk Nose suggests.

“Go near my sister, and I’ll cut out your other eye, Ulices,” Brennan warns, leaning forward and glaring down the table. “She’s been questioned enough for two lifetimes.”

“That doesn’t change the fact that she’s ruined us!” Battle-Ax declares. “We’ve already doubled patrols to the border, which leaves no one here to fight should Melgren launch an attack on us.” She swings a finger at Felix. “And don’t start with your Melgren doesn’t know we’re here. All the rebellion signets on the Continent can’t hide a riot the size of a thunderhead. We have no wards, no forge, and children running amok in the hallways!”

“Cadets who are acting with more composure than you are.” Xaden tilts his head. “Get a grip.

“Melgren isn’t coming. Even if he knew where we are—which he doesn’t—he can’t risk his forces coming after us when the kingdom is reeling from wyvern carcasses we left up and down the border. Half the riders he plans on having in three years are here. He might want to kill us, but he can’t afford to. And as for Violet”—he lets go of my hand and rips at the buttons of his flight jacket, then tugs his neckline down, exposing the scar on his chest—“if you want to confine her, question her, then it’s me

you start with. I bear the responsibility for her and any decision she makes. Remember?”

Gravity shifts as I stare at that thin silver line and its precise edges. It’s… gods, it’s the same length as the ones on his back. Xaden isn’t responsible for just the marked ones anymore; he’s responsible for me. Responsible for my choices, my loyalties—not to Navarre, like the marked ones, but to Aretia.

Imogen tried to tell me that day on the flight field, but I didn’t pick up on it.

“When did you do that?” I ask.

“About two seconds after I put you in Brennan’s arms after Resson.”

My gaze falls to the floor as they continue to shout in Tyrrish. I brought the cadets here. I was the one who got caught stealing Lyra’s journal. I’m the one who forced Xaden’s hand, forced them all into this situation.

“Then you will consider them my guests.” Xaden’s words drag me out of my self-pity. Shadows fill the floor and curl around the dais. “I do not ask permission of you—of anyone—to bring guests into my own home.” Xaden’s tone cools to glacial.

Garrick swears under his breath and rests his hand on the hilt of one of his swords.

“Xaden—” Ulices starts.

“Or did you forget that this is my house?” Xaden tilts his head to the side and stares at them in the same way Sgaeyl studies prey. “My life is tethered to Violet’s, so if you want me in that fucking chair, you’ll accept her.”

Ulices’s skin blotches while I feel the blood rush from mine.

His chair. The empty one. He’s the seventh.

Holy shit. I knew this was his house, of course, but it never really registered. This is all Xaden’s. No noble has claimed the duchy of Aretia. They all think the land is ruined, or worse—cursed. It’s all his.

“Fine,” the quiet woman says, her voice soft and calm. “We will trust Violet Sorrengail. But that doesn’t help us arm the drifts without an operational forge. In winning this first battle with Navarre by taking half the Riders Quadrant, you may have lost us this war.”

“And what do we do with all these cadets?” Battle-Ax asks wearily, rubbing the bridge of her nose. “Gods, you brought us Aetos and scribes. It’s not like we can send them out to battle wyvern and venin.”

“I also brought you four professors, and it’s not like you’re without your share of knowledge,” Xaden replies. “I’ve already questioned the scribes. They can be trusted, and Cath vouches for Aetos. As for the other cadets, I suggest you get them back into class.”

Something… shimmers, curling around the Archives I keep in my head.

“Violet.” Her soft voice rattles me to my very core, and I grasp Xaden’s arm to stay upright. Relief, joy, wonder—it all weakens my knees and stings my eyes.

For the first time in months, I feel whole.

A smile spreads across my face. “Andarna.”

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