My heart beats fast enough to keep time with a hummingbird’s wings as we walk across the courtyard toward the dais, Xaden two steps ahead of the rest of us. He moves without fear, his shoulders straight and head high, anger manifesting in every purposeful stride, every tight line of his body.
I lift my chin and focus on the platform ahead as gravel crunches beneath my boots, the sound muffling more than one gasp from the cadets on my left. I might not have Xaden’s confidence, but I can fake it.
“You’re…not dead.” Captain Fitzgibbons, the scribe assigned to the Riders Quadrant, stares with wide eyes beneath his silver brows, his weathered face turning the same pale cream of his uniform as he fumbles with the death roll, dropping it.
“Apparently not,” Xaden replies.
It’s almost comical how Commandant Panchek’s mouth hangs open as he turns toward us from his seat on the dais, and within seconds, my mother and Colonel Aetos stand, blocking his view.
Jesinia steps forward, her brown eyes wide under her cream hood as she fetches the death roll for Captain Fitzgibbons. “I’m happy you’re alive,” she signs quickly before grabbing the roll.
“Me, too,” I sign back, a sick feeling taking hold. Does she know what her quadrant is really teaching her? Neither of us had a clue during the months and years we studied together.
Colonel Aetos’s cheeks grow increasingly red with every step we take, his gaze skimming our party of eight, no doubt taking note of who’s here and who isn’t.
My mother locks eyes with me for one heartbeat, a side of her mouth tilting upward in an expression I’m almost scared to call…pride, before she quickly masks it, resuming the professional distance she’s maintained impeccably for the last year. One heartbeat. That’s all it takes for me to know that I’m right. There’s no anger in her eyes-no fear or shock, either.
She wasn’t in on Aetos’s plan. I know it with every fiber of my being.
“I don’t understand,” Fitzgibbons says to the two scribes behind him, then addresses Panchek. “They aren’t dead. Why would they have been reported for the death roll?”
“Why were they reported for the death roll?” my mother asks Colonel Aetos, her eyes narrowing.
A cold breeze blows past, and though it’s a momentary relief from the stifling heat, I know what it really means-the general is pissed. I glance skyward, but there’s only blue as far as I can see. At least she hasn’t summoned a storm. Yet.
“They’ve been missing for six days!” Aetos seethes, his voice rising with each angry word. “Naturally we reported them dead, but obviously we should have reported them for desertion and dereliction of duty instead.”
“You want to report us for desertion?” Xaden walks up the stairs of the dais, and Aetos backs up a step, fear flashing across his eyes. “You sent us into combat, and you’re going to report us for desertion?” Xaden doesn’t need to shout for his voice to carry across the formation.
“What is he talking about?” my mother asks, looking between Xaden and Aetos.
Here we go.
“I have no idea,” Aetos grinds out.
“I was directed to take a squad beyond the wards to Athebyne and form the headquarters for Fourth Wing’s War Games, and I did so. We stopped to rest our riot at the nearest lake past the wards, and we were attacked by gryphons.” The lie rolls off his tongue as smoothly as the truth, which is both impressive…and infuriating, because he doesn’t have a single fucking tell.
My mother blinks, and Aetos’s thick brows furrow.
“It was a surprise attack, and they caught Deigh and Fuil unaware.” Xaden pivots slightly, as though he’s telling the wings and not leadership. “They were dead before they ever had a chance.”
An ache unfurls in my chest, stealing my breath. The cadets around us murmur, but I stay focused on Xaden.
“We lost Liam Mairi and Soleil Telery,” Xaden adds, then looks over his shoulder at me. “And we almost lost Sorrengail.”
The general pivots and, for a second, looks down at me like she’s not just my commanding officer, with worry and a touch of horror in her eyes.
She looks at me like she’s just…Mom.
I nod, the pain in my chest intensifying.
“He’s lying,” Colonel Aetos accuses. The certainty in his voice makes my head swim with the possibility that we might not pull this off, that we might be killed where we stand before we have the chance to convince my mother.
“I’m only behind the ridgeline,” Tairn tells me.
“Breathe,” Garrick whispers. “Or you’ll pass out.” I inhale and focus on steadying my heartbeat.
“Why the hell would I lie?” Xaden tilts his head and looks down at Colonel Aetos with pure disdain. “But surely if you don’t believe me, then
General Sorrengail can discern the truth from her own daughter.” That’s my cue.
Step by step, I ascend the stairs of the thick, wooden platform to stand at Xaden’s left side. Sweat drips down the back of my neck as the morning sun beats against my flight leathers.
“Cadet Sorrengail?” My mother folds her arms and looks at me with expectation.
The weight of the quadrant’s attention makes me clear my throat. “It’s true.”
“Lies!” Aetos shouts. “There’s no way two dragons were brought down by a drift of gryphons. Impossible. We should separate them and interrogate them individually.”
My stomach pitches.
“I hardly think that’s necessary,” the general responds, an icy blast blowing back the flight-loosened tendrils of my hair. “And I would reconsider your insinuation that a Sorrengail isn’t truthful.” Colonel Aetos stiffens.
“Tell me what happened, Cadet Sorrengail.” Mom cocks her head to the side and gives me the look-the one she used all throughout my childhood to unravel the truth when Brennan, Mira, and I would join ranks to hide any mischief.
“Selective truth,” Xaden reminds me. “Tell no lies.” He makes it sound so fucking easy.
“We flew for Athebyne, as ordered.” I look her straight in the eyes. “As Riorson said, we stopped at the lake about twenty minutes out so we could water the dragons and dismounted. I only saw two of the gryphons appear with their riders, but everything happened so damned fast. Before I could even get a grasp on what was happening…” Hold it together. I brush my hand over my pocket, feeling the ridges of the little carving of Andarna Liam had been working on before he died. “Soleil’s dragon was killed, and Deigh was gutted.” My eyes water, but I blink until my vision clears. Mom only responds to strength. If I show any sign of weakness, she’ll dismiss my account as hysterics. “We didn’t stand a chance beyond the wards,
“And then?” Mom asks, completely unemotional.
“Then I held Liam as he died,” I state, quick to hide the quiver in my chin.
“There was nothing we could do for him once Deigh passed.” It takes me a second to shove the memories, the emotion, back into the box they have to stay in for this to work. “And before his body was even cold, I was stabbed with a poison-tipped blade.”
Mom’s eyes flare, and she jerks her gaze away.
I turn my focus to Colonel Aetos. “But when we sought help in Athebyne, we found the entire outpost deserted and a note that Wingleader
Riorson could choose to keep watch over a nearby village or race to Eltuval.”
“Here’s the missive.” Xaden reaches into his pocket and pulls out the orders from War Games. “Not sure what the destruction of a foreign village had to do with War Games, but we didn’t stick around to find out. Cadet Sorrengail was dying, and I chose to preserve what remained of my squad.”
He hands the crumpled orders to Mom. “I chose to save your daughter.” She snatches the orders and stiffens.
“It took us days to find someone capable of healing me, though I don’t remember being healed,” I tell them. “And the second my life was out of danger, we flew back here. We arrived about half an hour ago, as I’m sure
Aimsir can verify.”
“And the bodies?” Aetos asks.
Oh shit. “I…” I have no fucking clue other than Xaden telling me they’d buried Liam.
“Sorrengail wouldn’t know,” Xaden answers. “She was delirious from the poison. Once we knew there was no help to be found at Athebyne, half the riot flew back to the lake and burned the bodies of both riders and dragons while I took the other half to find help. If you’re looking for proof, then you can find it either about a hundred yards from the lake, in the clearing to the east, or in the fresh scars on our dragons.”
“Enough.” Mom pauses, no doubt confirming with her dragon, then turns slowly toward Colonel Aetos, and though he has a few inches on her, he suddenly appears smaller. Frost blooms on the surface of the dais. “This is your handwriting. You emptied a strategically invaluable outpost beyond the wards for War Games?”
“It was only for a few days.” He has the good sense to retreat a step.
“You told me the games were at my discretion this year.”
“And clearly your discretion lacks common fucking sense,” she retorts. “I’ve heard everything I need to hear. Correct the death roll, get these cadets into formation, and commence graduation so the new lieutenants can get to their wings. I expect to see you in my office in thirty minutes, Colonel
Relief nearly takes my knees out from under me. She believes me.
Dain’s dad stands at attention. “Yes, General.”
“You survived a knife wound after being thrown into combat as a firstyear,” she says to me.
She nods, a satisfied half smile curving her mouth for all of a heartbeat. “Maybe you’re more like me than I gave you credit for.”
Without another word, Mom walks between me and the edge of the dais, leaving us with Colonel Aetos as she heads down the stairs. The frost dissipates instantly, and I hear her footsteps on the gravel behind us as the colonel turns on Xaden and me.
More like her? That’s the last thing I want to be.
“You will not get away with this,” Aetos hisses but keeps his voice low.
“Get away with what, exactly?” Xaden responds, equally quiet.
“We both know you weren’t taken off-mission by gryphons.” Spit flies from his mouth.
“What else could have possibly delayed us and slaughtered two dragons and their riders?” I narrow my eyes and let all my rage shine through. He got Liam and Soleil killed. Fuck him. “Surely, if you think there’s another threat out there, you’d want to share that information with the rest of the quadrant so we could adequately train to face it.”
He glares at me. “You’re such a disappointment, Violet.”
“Stop,” Xaden orders. “You gambled and you lost. You can’t expose what you think the truth is without…well, exposing it, can you?” A cruel smile tilts Xaden’s lips. “But personally, I think this is all easily solved by a missive to General Melgren. Surely he saw the outcome of our battle with the gryphons.”
Satisfaction courses through me at the way the colonel’s features slacken.
Thanks to their rebellion relics, Melgren can’t confirm anything when there are three or more marked ones involved, and Aetos apparently knows it.
“I assume we’re dismissed?” Xaden asks. “Not sure if you’ve noticed, but the entire quadrant is watching rather intently. So unless you’d like me to keep them entertained by retelling what happened to us-“
“Get. In. Formation.” He grinds the words out through clenched teeth.
“Gladly, sir.” Xaden waits for me to descend the steps, then follows.
“It’s settled,” he tells Garrick. “Get everyone back in formation.”
I glance over my shoulder and see Fitzgibbons shaking his head in confusion as he adjusts the death roll, and then I walk over to my squad between Imogen and Xaden.
“You don’t have to escort me back,” I whisper, ignoring the stares of every cadet we pass.
“I promised your brother I’d handle the other Aetos.”
“I can handle Dain.” A swift kick to the balls wouldn’t be uncalled for, would it?
“We tried your way last year. Now we try mine.”
Imogen lifts her eyebrows but doesn’t say anything.
“Violet!” Dain breaks formation, moving toward us as we reach Second Squad, Flame Section. The worry and relief that etch the lines of his face make power prickle in my hands.
“You cannot kill him here,” Xaden warns.
“You’re alive! We’d heard-” Dain reaches for me, and I recoil.
“Touch me and I swear to the gods, I’ll cut your fucking hands off and let the quadrant sort you out in the next round of challenges, Dain Aetos.” My words earn more than a couple of gasps, but I don’t give a shit who hears me.
“Violence, indeed.” The hint of amusement in Xaden’s tone doesn’t reach his face.
“What?” Dain stops dead in his tracks, his eyebrows shooting up into his hairline. “You don’t mean that, Vi.”
“I do.” I rest my hands alongside the sheaths at my thighs.
“You should take her at her word. In fact…” Xaden doesn’t bother to lower his voice. “If you don’t, I’ll take personal offense. She made her choice, and it wasn’t you. It will never be you. I know it. She knows it. The whole quadrant knows it.”
Oh, just kill me now. Heat flushes my cheeks. Getting caught in his flight jacket before War Games is one thing. Outing us in public-when I’m not sure there is an us-is another.
Imogen grins, and I consider the merits of elbowing her in the side.
Dain glances left and right, his face flushing so scarlet I can see the color under the scruff of his light-brown beard as everyone looks on. “What else? You going to threaten to kill me, Riorson?” he retorts, the disgust on his face so similar to his father’s that my stomach sours.
“No.” Xaden shakes his head. “Why should I, when Sorrengail is perfectly capable of doing that herself? She doesn’t want you to touch her. Pretty sure everyone in the quadrant heard her. That should be enough for you to keep your hands to yourself.” He leans in, his whisper barely reaching my ears. “But in case it’s not, every time you think of reaching for her face, I want you to remember one word.” “And what is that?” Dain seethes.
“Athebyne.” Xaden pulls back, and the pure menace in his expression sends a shiver along my skin.
Dain’s spine stiffens as Colonel Panchek calls the formation to attention.
“No response? Interesting.” Xaden’s head tilts to the side as he studies Dain’s face. “Get back in formation, squad leader, before I lose all pretense of civility on behalf of Liam and Soleil.”
Dain pales and has the decency to look away before stepping back into his place at the head of our squad.
Xaden’s gaze meets mine for a heartbeat before he walks to the front of Fourth Wing.
I should have known going for Dain’s pride would include a spectacle.
The squad shuffles, making room for Imogen and me in our usual places, and my face heats at the blatant stares from my friends.
“That was…interesting,” Rhiannon whispers at my side, her eyes puffy and red.
“That was hot,” Nadine comments from in front of us, standing beside Sawyer.
“Love triangles can get so fucking awkward, don’t you think?” Imogen says.
I shoot a glare over my shoulder at her for going along with Xaden’s implication-or assumption, but she shrugs unapologetically.
“Gods, I missed you.” The blue streak in Quinn’s short blond curls bobs as she shoulder-bumps Imogen. “War Games sucked. You didn’t miss much.”
Captain Fitzgibbons steps forward on the dais, sweat dripping down his face as he continues from where we interrupted, reading names from the death roll.
“Seventeen so far,” Rhiannon whispers. The final test for War Games is always deadly, ensuring only the strongest riders move on to graduation- but Liam was the strongest of our year, and that didn’t save him.
“Soleil Telery. Liam Mairi,” Captain Fitzgibbons calls out.
I struggle to force air through my lungs and fight the sting in my eyes as the rest of the names blur together until the scribe finishes the roll, commending their souls to Malek.
None of us cry.
Commandant Panchek clears his throat, and though there’s no need to magically amplify his voice over the small numbers we’ve been whittled down to over the last year, he can’t seem to help himself. “Beyond military commendations, there are no words of praise for riders. Our reward for a job well done is living to see the next duty station, the next rank. In keeping with our traditions and standards, those of you who have completed your third year will now be commissioned as lieutenants in the army of Navarre. Step forward when your name is called to receive your orders. You have until morning to depart for your new duty stations.”
Starting with First Wing, the third-years are named section by section, and each collects their orders before leaving the courtyard.
“It’s kind of underwhelming,” Ridoc whispers from my other side, earning a glare from Dain as he looks over his shoulder from two rows ahead.
“Just saying, surviving three years of this place should come with a lifetime supply of ale and a party so good you can’t remember it.” He shrugs.
“That’s for tonight,” Quinn says. “Are they…handwriting those orders?”
“For the third-years they thought were dead,” Heaton says from the back row.
“Who do you think is going to be our new wingleader?” Nadine whispers from behind me.
“Aura Beinhaven,” Rhiannon answers. “She was instrumental in Second Wing’s win for War Games, but Aetos didn’t do too badly filling in for
Heaton and Emery are called up from our squad.
I glance at the others, remembering the first-years who started with us but won’t finish. The first-years who either lie buried at the foot of Basgiath in endless rows of stones or were taken home to be put to rest. The secondyears who will never see a third star on their shoulders. The third-years like Soleil who were certain they’d graduate only to fall.
Maybe this place is exactly what the gryphon flier had called it-a death factory.
“Xaden Riorson,” the commandant calls out, and my pulse leaps as Xaden strides forward to take his orders, the last third-year in formation.
Nausea grips my stomach, and I sway. He’ll be gone by morning. Gone. Telling myself that I’ll see him every few days because of Tairn and Sgaeyl’s mating bond doesn’t quell the panic quickening my breaths. He won’t be here. Not on the mat, testing and pushing me to be better. Not in Battle Brief or on the flight line.
I should be happy for the space, but I’m not.
Panchek resumes his place at the podium, running his hands down the trim lines of his uniform as though smoothing away any wrinkles.
“I’ll find you before I go.” Xaden’s voice cuts through my shield and spiraling thoughts, then fades as he walks out of the courtyard and into the dormitory.
At least we’ll get to say goodbye. Or fight our goodbyes. Whatever.
“Congratulations to the new lieutenants,” Panchek says. “The rest of you will report to central issue to turn in your uniforms-yes, you may keep your earned patches-and pick up your new ones. From this moment, seconds are now third-years and firsts are now second-years, with all the privileges that entails. New command designations will be posted in commons this evening. You are dismissed.”
A resounding cheer goes up in the courtyard, and I’m grabbed into a hug by Ridoc, then Sawyer, then Rhiannon, and even Nadine.
We made it. We’re officially second-years.
Out of the eleven first-years who came through our squad during the year, both before and after Threshing, the five of us are the only ones left standing.