Chapter no 41

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

“Where you left me?” I whisper under my breath at Xaden as we walk across the guarded lawn, passing by a half dozen more fliers on

our way to a row of open doors made entirely of glass. How utterly impractical and sublimely gorgeous. “Like I’m some kind of pet who should stay curled up on your bed because you said so?”

Fuck him.

“The thought isn’t entirely unpleasant,” he fires back.

I breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth to keep my power from rising, refusing to unpack the conduit from my bag.

“Save it for behind closed doors, lovebirds,” Brennan orders from directly behind us. “We need a united front.”

“I can’t believe you brought her here,” Xaden retorts, shooting an icy glare at Brennan.

“I can’t believe you think you outrank me,” Brennan says, his tone sharpening.

“I do in every way but one.” Xaden looks forward, anger radiating from every line of his body.

“The one is all that matters,” Brennan counters.

“They really grow grass ornamentally?” Mira changes the subject as we approach two guards in crimson uniforms near the door.

“You should see the butterfly garden,” Xaden says, nodding to the guard on the right as we pass through the open doorway.

Wait. Why aren’t we being escorted by fliers? And how the hell does Xaden know this place has a butterfly garden?

“How long have you been here?” I ask, entering the palace. And holy shit, what a palace.

Every surface seems to shimmer, the white marble interior reflecting not only natural light but a soft glow of white mage lights far overhead and deep into the structure, where I can make out several seating groups of low-backed furniture. The ceilings are the height of Sgaeyl, the space divided by not only columns thick as Tairn’s legs, with murals intricately carved into each circular block, but a wide staircase that must lead to the next story.

Pretty sure if I were to call out my name loudly enough, it would echo back in here, if not for the crowd of people in many different forms of attire milling about near a set of graduated pillars in various shades of black. Brown is definitely the dominant clothing color, and we are definitely the topic of conversation as we pass by.

“We landed a few hours ago,” Xaden answers. “We changed direction as soon as Sgaeyl felt Tairn on the move.”

You will not be happy with the welcome we’re about to receive. That’s what Tairn said when we landed.

“You and I are going to have a discussion,” I send his direction. “You promised.”

“I promised not to tell, not that she couldn’t sense me.”

Fucking dragon semantics.

“Is that…a pool?” Mira stares at the winding turquoise path that curves around the staircase and disappears out onto the terrace.

“You get used to them,” Xaden remarks, leading us over a flat, marble bridge wide enough for two people. “Just be careful if you’ve been drinking. No railings.”

“We won’t be here long enough to drink.” Brennan’s words slow with our steps as a group of a dozen people descends the staircase in front of us.

But Xaden’s been here often enough to drink? To have fallen into this pool?

“Here we go.” Xaden’s voice lowers. “Try not to set the place on fire.”

Two crimson-uniformed guards station themselves at opposite ends of the curling bannister, and a tall, dark-haired man in a deep blue tunic with gold brocade walks forward, looking over us with rapt fascination. His uniform is tight about the waist, his flushed cheeks soft and round.

“Viscount,” Xaden addresses him. “This is Cadet Violet Sorrengail and her sister, Lieutenant Mira Sorrengail. I believe you and Lieutenant Colonel Aisereigh are already acquainted.”

“We are.” He flashes impossibly white teeth as he smiles at me, etching deep lines into his forehead and at the edges of his eyes. “But it’s you I am most curious about, Violet.” The unnerving amount of glee in his gaze makes it nearly impossible to stand still as he studies me, drawing out his words until he finishes his perusal. “Is it true that you call lightning from the sky?”

“I do.” I keep my focus on the viscount, but I feel the weight of his entourage staring behind him.

“How wonderful!” He clasps his hands in front of his chest, his rings twinkling with heavy gemstones.

“Shall we—” Brennan starts.

“It’s poor etiquette to discuss business until dinner. You know the rules, Riorson,” Tecarus says, glancing Xaden’s way. “They certainly can’t attend as they are. They’ll need to be dressed suitably, as will you.”

Xaden nods once.

“You know the rules?” I ask Xaden. “Exactly how many times have you been here?” And what part of our uniforms isn’t suitable for dinner?

“I don’t exactly keep count.”

“Don’t worry if you haven’t brought anything fit for the occasion,” Tecarus says to me. “I took the liberty of having a selection of clothing pulled from my best collection once Riorson told me you were inbound. My niece will see you properly attired, won’t you, Cat?” he calls back over his shoulder.

My stomach hits the sparkly marble floor. You have to be fucking kidding me.

“Of course, Uncle.” Catriona steps down from the front row of the entourage, dressed in a purple, long-sleeved gown that shows her elegant figure to its best advantage. I’d thought she was beautiful from a distance, but up close, her features are truly so flawless that she’s completely, utterly…devastating.

Suddenly, I understand exactly why Xaden’s been here too many times to keep count.

“I didn’t expect you to be here,” Xaden says to Cat in that clipped, cold tone he uses when annoyed as they lead us down another hallway two

stories above where we entered.

“Where did you think I’d be after dark wielders destroyed Zolya and took up residence at Cliffsbane?” Cat questions, pausing in front of one of the dozen doors in this wing.

Mira shoots me a look, lifting her eyebrows as we stop in the middle of the hallway, Brennan only a few feet behind.

Later, I mouth at her.

Cat reaches for the golden handle. “Why don’t you take Aisereigh to dress for dinner while these two wash up?” She gives Xaden a longing look, and my eyebrows rise. Is she seriously eyeing him up in front of me? “We kept your room exactly how you left it, of course.” She opens the door, revealing a sizable bedchamber with two large beds and a matching gold brocade sofa between them, then walks inside, leaving Mira and me to follow.

Wait. He has a room here?

What else has he not told me? Or what haven’t I asked might be the better question.

“Why don’t you come get dressed in my room?” Xaden asks, and it doesn’t sound like a suggestion.

“Your room? I think I’d like a little space.” Heat simmers beneath my skin, and I breathe deeply to keep the power caged. Now is not the time to lose control, not that I have it to begin with.


I turn in the doorway to face Xaden and grasp the door handle, lifting my brows at him as Mira edges around me into the chamber.

“I’m the next door down,” he assures me, then glances over my shoulder. “Close enough to hear you scream.”

“Good to know.” I force a smile and his eyes narrow.

“Surely you can’t be worried that she’s in any danger from me?” I roll my eyes at the incredulity in Cat’s tone.

“Violet can—” Xaden starts.

“Violet can handle herself,” I interrupt, startling Xaden.

“I never wanted you to have to. Not here.” He lowers his head and his voice, narrowing the conversation to the two of us, anger and all. “Tecarus might want to keep you, but every other flier in this palace will happily slit your throat—and Mira’s—in the name of revenge against your mother. Brennan’s anonymity is all that saves him here. You have no idea how much danger you’re in, the lengths I’ve gone to in order to keep you safe—”

“Stop keeping me safe!” I immediately regret raising my voice with Cat in the room and try to steady my ire with a deep breath. “You never would have pulled this bullshit last year. You never held me back, never caged me in the name of protecting me. You were the one telling me to find another way on the Gauntlet, watching me fight off other cadets at Threshing—”

“I wasn’t in love with you then.” His hand grasps the nape of my neck, and his thumb skates over the pulse in my throat. “During Gauntlet, Threshing…I had no idea what you would become to me.” And he couldn’t kill me thanks to the deal he made with Mom—the deal he still hasn’t trusted me with. “I sure as hell hadn’t sat by your bedside for three days, knowing my life—if it even existed beyond yours—would mean nothing

without you in it.” The gold flecks in his eyes catch the light, and I can’t help but blink at what I see there.

“You’re…scared, aren’t you?” I grasp the door’s edge to keep from reaching for him.

“Of losing you? More like terrified. And when Sgaeyl told me Tairn was headed this direction I nearly lost my fucking mind.”

Shit. What do I say to that? “My plan to raise the wards failed, and you need the luminary. I’m not going to sit tucked away in Aretia just because you’re worried something will happen to me. If I did, I wouldn’t be the woman you fell in love with.”

“Your first attempt at translation fails, so you sneak off with your siblings into enemy territory?” His anger is palpable, matching mine as he lifts his head. “Make no mistake—this is enemy territory.”

“We both know we need the luminary, and I wouldn’t have had to sneak if you’d been remotely reasonable. We could have had it months ago.” I take a step back into the room, leaving him in the hallway. Months ago would have prevented the attacks on the outposts and so many deaths.

“Reasonable?” His voice drops to that icy-calm timbre. “For looking for another way before serving you up to Tecarus? Let’s get one thing straight. If I ever see a way to keep you safe? I’ll take it.”

The fuck he will. “Do you know who you sound like right now?” “Please, enlighten me.” He folds his arms across his chest.

“Dain.” I shut the door in his face.

“Thank you,” I tell Zara, the lady’s maid we’ve been assigned, as I smooth the lines of my waist, awestruck she was able to find multiple gowns in my size on such short notice. Even the lightweight black slippers on my feet fit. “You’re sure this is how everyone dresses for


“With the viscount? Every night.”

How…impractically beautiful.

“Done.” Zara motions to the opening, and I step out from behind the dressing screen.

Mira chose the black velvet gown with the square neckline and sheer, gauzy sleeves, but I know it was the deep pockets that sold her. I can’t help but grin as I see her tuck two of her daggers into the folds.

“I don’t think I’ve seen you out of uniform in years.”

“Well, it’s black, so close enough.” She grins as I move to peek in the mirror. “You look gorgeous.”

“The dress is spectacular.” I’ve never worn anything like it, and it suits my mood perfectly. The bodice, which plummets in a deep V to the base of my ribs, is made of woven, black leaves, never bigger than the size of my palm, narrowing above the swells of my breasts to single vines that drape tiny leaves over my shoulders and down the sides of my back, leaving the majority of my spine and all of my relic exposed. “What kind of material is this?” I ask Zara, fingering the sheer black fabric that falls from my waist to the floor in a multitude of layers. Were it just the one, the gown would be see-through.

“It’s Deverelli silk,” Zara says. “So fine it’s nearly transparent.”

“From the isle?” It’s softer than any fabric I’ve ever touched. “You still trade with them?” Navarre hasn’t in centuries.

She nods. “We did until the last few years, but the merchants think it’s too dangerous to come here now. Anyway, the viscount likes to keep the most exquisite of objects for himself.”

“So, it’s true the viscount collects rare objects?” Mira asks, coming to stand behind me.

“He does.”

“What about people?” I ask softly.

Her eyes flare. “Only if they agree to be collected.”

“Kidnapping isn’t his thing?” I take the sheath and alloy-hilted dagger Mira hands me, then reach into the long slit at my thigh to fasten it against my leg. Hopefully one weapon is enough to make it through dinner. If the

viscount doesn’t abduct people, then why was Xaden so scared to bring me here?

Someone knocks.

“No.” Zara shakes her head and walks toward the door. “He won’t lock you away, but he will make you a proposal that will tempt you to be collected. Singers, weavers, storytellers—they all eventually remain,” she says as she opens the door.

There’s nothing Tecarus could offer me, but Xaden must think there is. “You went with black?” Cat stares from the doorway.

“I’m a rider.”

“Of course.” She tilts her head to the side. “I just would have chosen something more colorful. Xaden always laments how…monotone everything is at Basgiath. There’s still time to change if you would like.” Her smile is anything but kind.

And that’s it. I officially loathe her.

“Xaden doesn’t lament anything.” An ugly, insidious flame ignites in my stomach, and it takes every ounce of restraint I have to keep from flicking a dagger at her snide head. Or at least close to it. “And are you capable of having a discussion that doesn’t revolve around him?”

“Sure. If it makes you more comfortable, we can discuss how your mother has perpetuated a lie that’s cost thousands of Poromish lives, some of which your own sister is responsible for taking.”

My brows rise. Did she really just—

Mira catches my eye, confirming that she did. “I was going to remind you that it’s probably bad manners to stab our hostess, but you know what?” She shrugs. “Fuck it. We don’t need a luminary.”

Cat blinks at Mira.

“Stop being a wretch, Cat.” Syrena steps into the doorway, dressed in a navy-blue formal tunic that’s hemmed asymmetrically to a higher line in the front and embroidered with gold feathers. “Nice to see you off your dragon, Sorrengail. Is Riorson hiding somewhere in there, or did he actually let you out of his sight?”

“Good to see you, Syrena.” A smile curves my mouth at her teasing tone, and the fire in my stomach dissipates a little. “And he does get a bit protective, doesn’t he?”

“He wouldn’t be if he thought you were strong enough to stand at his side,” Cat counters.

Never mind. It flares brighter than ever, hot, nauseating, and annoyingly strong.

Syrena levels a look at Cat that almost makes me pity her. Almost.

“Syrena, this is my sister, Mira.” I change the subject.

Syrena’s mouth tightens as she studies Mira. “Your reputation precedes you. I had friends at Strythmore.”

Well, shit. From tense to…tenser.

“I have no remorse for winning battles.” Mira sheathes the next dagger at her waist in plain sight. “And if you’re Syrena Cordella, then your reputation reaches across the border as well.”

“Dining amid hundreds of fliers that root for your death, and you choose to wear a gown?” Syrena arches a brow. “Where is the shrewd judgment I’ve heard so much about?”

“I can kill just as easily in a gown as leathers. Want to see?” Only a fool would call Mira’s expression a smile.

Syrena laughs, her shoulders shaking. “Ah, I see why little Sorrengail is so tough if she had to grow up with you. Let’s get going. The men are already there.”

I shoot Mira a look once the fliers’ backs are turned, and she shrugs unapologetically.

We move into the hallway, and regret stabs deep at my choice of gowns when I see Cat’s in the light. Her hair is pinned in an intricate style and she’s wearing a bold, red silk that leaves her shoulders bare and matches the color she’s painted on her lips.

Suddenly, I feel a little washed out.

Doubt makes my steps unsteady. Maybe I should have gone with color. Maybe she was telling the truth and Xaden is sick of all the black. Maybe

she knows him better than I do.

“You all right?” Mira asks as the fliers lead us down the hall, making us the most unlikely foursome to ever walk the Continent.

“Yes.” I roll my shoulders, trying to shake off the feeling. What the hell is wrong with me? I never judge myself against other women when it comes to how we look. How we fight? Sure. Ride? Definitely. But nothing ever as shallow as…appearance.

Being pretty doesn’t save you at Basgiath.

“I hear you have an older brother,” Mira says to Syrena when we reach the first staircase.

I keep the marble bannister in a death grip as we start down. The last thing I’m going to do is trip and fall in front of Cat.

“You’re thinking of Drake,” Syrena says over her shoulder. “Same last name, but he’s our cousin, and come to think of it, you’re just his type. He likes women who might actually kill him.”

“Too bad I don’t go for gryphon fliers,” Mira responds as we round the corner to the next flight of stairs.

“Yeah, he’d probably draw the line at a dragon rider.” Syrena laughs, but it’s short-lived. “He’s with the nightwing drift in the north, along the Braevick border.”

I don’t know their unit terminology, but the Braevick border means he’s on the front line.

We make it to the middle terrace—the one we first arrived at this afternoon— and they turn left, away from the winding pool of water and past a line of guards.

“Did Zara not know how to attend your hair?” Cat asks with a pitying glance back at me as we approach a guarded set of double doors. “Surely, she could have come up with something a little more refined than just leaving it down like that. I thought you always wore it up in case of a fight?”

How does she know that? I’ve had enough.

“It would be a pity to kill her now. I’m hunting ten minutes away and I’d miss the show,” Tairn says.

Power surges within me.

“Control it. Now,” Tairn demands, all trace of sarcasm gone.

Swallowing hard, my fingernails biting into my palms, I fight the urge to blast her. What is it about Cat that brings out the irrational in me? “How sweet of you to worry about me, but you’re not the one I’m picking a fight with tonight,” I assure Cat.

“With Xaden?” Her eyes narrow, then drip with false sympathy. “If you don’t already know that he’s not the kind of man who gets flustered or loses control, then there’s really no hope for you. Save yourself the energy, because he’ll simply think any fight you pick is childish.”

Shit. She’s right. What am I doing? Xaden doesn’t get flustered, and definitely not by me.

Wood groaning as it splits, then shatters. The sound of daggers clattering to the floor. The feel of my heart pounding, my breath stuttering as bliss settles in the marrow of my bones. “I’ve never lost control like that.” The flash of memory rocks me to my core, clearing my head just long enough to breathe around the insufferable jealousy I feel toward a woman I don’t even know.

The guards nod at the fliers and move to open the doors.

“Give it a rest.” Syrena’s tone sharpens at her sister. “You’re all of a year older than Violet, and it’s been longer than that since you two were together. He’s just a man, but she’s the best weapon we have against the dark wielders.”

“Are you all right?” Mira asks, her worried gaze skimming my face. “No,” I whisper. “But I don’t know what’s wrong, either.”

The doors swing open, and we walk into the largest dining room I’ve ever seen. The glass doors that line the back wall are propped open to the terrace despite the threatening clouds darkening the sky. A humid evening breeze flickers the candles along the table as the guards shut the door behind us. There must be over fifty people at the long, ornately decorated table that runs the length of the space.

And every single one of them has turned to look at the four of us.

My gaze finds Xaden’s in under a second, and it’s not because he’s seated at the center of the table, or because he’s one of only two men dressed in black, or even because he’s turned around as if he sensed me coming—which he probably did. I locate him within a heartbeat because he’s the center of my gravity.

As pissed as I am that he lectured me, that he refused to bring me, that there are years of history behind both of us we haven’t discussed, that the tunic he’s walking toward me in isn’t just tailored to perfection but obviously made for him, it doesn’t change the fact he’s a fucking magnet for my heart.

“That dress…” His gaze sweeps over me and heats with an intensity that makes my cheeks flush, my pulse race. “You’re playing dirty, Violence.”

But why is he headed for me when the obvious choice is the woman in red just a few feet away?

“I’m still really damned angry with you.” I lift my chin, just as furious with myself for getting into this position, for feeling whatever all this bullshit is.

“Feeling is mutual.” He slides one hand into my hair, then sucks a breath through his teeth when his fingers meet skin at the base of my spine. “But it’s possible to be angry while still madly, wildly, uncontrollably in love with me.”

His mouth crashes into mine in the same instant the world goes dark around us, blocking out everything—everyone—but Xaden. We might as well be the only people in the entire province. My body ignites. Gods, the chemistry between us is the only thing stronger than the anger. There’s only the press of his lips parting mine, the quick, thorough claiming of his tongue, the jolt of instant need that has me gripping the fabric of his tunic as he kisses me breathless.

Just like that, the hottest of my jealousy, the infuriating insecurity that had me second-guessing myself is gone. It’s as if the wall of shadow he’s thrown up—

“What did you do?” I break the kiss, breathing deeply, and he leans his forehead against mine, keeping us cocooned in total darkness.

“What I should have done the second I saw you this afternoon.” His hand tightens in my hair, tugging slightly. “And probably shocked Cat enough to make her stop fucking with your head.”

“What do you mean?”

“She has the gift of heightening the emotions of the people around her, and she’s exceptionally powerful. If you hadn’t blocked me out all evening, I would have told you sooner.”

My jaw hangs for a heartbeat before I snap it closed. First at the knowledge that I actually managed to block him out, and second—no wonder I can’t get a grip on myself. She’s been waging a war I didn’t even realize we were in. Wait. He would have told me sooner? He’s had weeks to tell me.

“You win,” Xaden whispers. Shadows fall away as quickly as they appeared as he lifts his head, locking his eyes with mine.

“I haven’t even started fighting with you.” I drop my hands from his chest and throw the new rush of power rising within me into my shields. How the hell did she get past them in the first place? If they blocked out Xaden, surely they’re strong enough for her.

“Fine. We can fight as much as you want later tonight. Just know that you’ve already won. I heard what you were saying.” His grip softens in my hair, and he slides his hand to the nape of my neck. “I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you. Sorry that I’ve been overreacting since pulling you out of that interrogation chamber—hell, since Resson. When Sgaeyl told me they were torturing you, and I couldn’t get to you…” His eyes close for a second, and when they open, the fear I spotted earlier is front and center. “I can’t fucking breathe when you’re in danger, but that’s not your fault. I should have brought you here when you asked me to.”

My lips part and I blink, certain I misheard him.

“Now it’s your turn. Can you admit that you should have waited for me to bring you so we could have formulated a plan?” His fingers trail deliciously up my bare back.

“No.” I shiver at the touch. “I’m sorry for not telling you but not sorry for coming. We need that luminary now.”

A corner of his mouth quirks up. “Figured.”

“If you two wouldn’t mind joining us? You’re essential to this evening’s discussion,” the viscount states over the hushed room, mild annoyance in his tone.

Oh. Every single person is out of their seats, waiting for us by the open glass doors.

“Be ready for anything,” Xaden says before turning toward Tecarus. “I make no apologies.” He laces his fingers with mine, and we walk around the table toward the crowd where Tecarus waits. “Maintaining control is nearly impossible around Violet.”

My face heats. What the hell? Did he hear her out there? That’s impossible.

Cat stiffens next to her uncle, her face falling like Xaden’s just delivered a killing blow in a battle I hadn’t realized they were in.

“So I’ve heard.” Tecarus motions to follow him outside, and we do, stepping onto a marble patio, Mira and Brennan filing in closely behind us. “Word traveled fast when you ruined that little war college of yours for her.” Tecarus tips his wineglass my direction as if saluting me. “Split your quadrant right down the middle. Bravo. Been trying to take that place down for years, and you did it in what? Six days?”

Guilt settles on my chest with the weight of a dragon.

“Five.” Xaden’s hand tightens on mine as we cross the patio, coming to the top of a wide staircase—no. Not a staircase: seats. The entire north side of the sloping hill has been carved into rows, forming an oval-shaped outdoor arena the depth of Tairn’s height and twice his length.

“Five days.” Tecarus shakes his head in disbelief, then turns to me. “Marvelous. Now, I assume you’d like to discuss acquiring the luminary I have in my possession?”

“And I assume you’ve brought us out here to see me wield before you open yourself to discussion?” I ask as the thick, rain-scented wind blows my hair back. We’re minutes, if not less, from a downpour.

“It’s only prudent that I see what you’re capable of before entering into negotiations for such a valuable item.” He motions toward the mage light–

illuminated arena.

“Seems fair.” My hand slips from Xaden’s, and I reach for my power.

“Oh, not from up here.” Tecarus shakes his head as others join us, lining the edge of the patio, drinks in hand. “Down on the field. It’s a performance after all, isn’t it? Would be a shame to waste the gaming arena, since it took me years to construct. It’s quite special. All the stone was quarried from Braevick, from east of the Dunness River. Oh look, they’re wheeling out your target.”

Target? Oh shit.

A foursome of uniformed guards pushes a metal chest the size of an armoire into the middle of a grassy field in the base of the arena. I can’t even hit the trio of boulders Felix pointed me at, and I’m supposed to hit that chest? This is going to be over before discussions even begin.

“You might recognize the Rybestad chest, Xaden. It’s the very one your father brought me when we were in negotiations for what some might consider a greater treasure.”

“That chest belonged to your father?”

“It was one of the most valuable items he owned.” Xaden tenses. “I’ll walk her down.”

“No,” Tecarus says, his voice devoid of emotion. Both our heads turn in his direction.

“How would I know what she’s capable of without you?” Tecarus’s eyes narrow on Xaden. “My offer is simple. As long as you don’t step foot into the arena, Riorson, and she doesn’t leave the field until she strikes the target, we’ll open discussions for your luminary. Take the deal or leave it.”

“We’ll leave—” Xaden starts, his voice clipped.

“Deal.” I look up at Xaden. “You don’t have to protect me from my own signet. If he wants me to blow up your father’s chest, I’ll blow up your father’s chest.”

His gaze narrows for a second, and then he sighs. “Point made.”

I gather the layers of my skirts in my hands and start down the steps. Nerves tighten my ribs, but I shake them off. If I wield enough strikes, certainly one of them will hit.

Wasn’t that what got us through Resson before Andarna arrived?

“I’m coming,” Mira announces from behind me. “It’s not like I have anything to do with her signet,” she yells back at Tecarus as she catches up to me.

The viscount doesn’t argue.

“And mine isn’t effective this far from the wards,” she finishes in a whisper. “I tried earlier and nothing happened.”

“Don’t worry. We don’t need you to shield. Just dodge the chest if it explodes,” I respond, giving her a tight smile. “What greater treasure was your father negotiating for?” I ask Xaden once we’re about halfway down the sand-colored stone. I can’t even imagine how long it would have taken to quarry enough stone to build this, let alone bring it back from the edge of Braevick.

“An alliance my father made that I officially denied last year. The chest is priceless. If he wants you to destroy it with lightning, then this is more a statement about me and less about you.”

“Why am I not surprised?” My hands crush the delicate silk of my gown as I put the pieces of a sickening puzzle together. “Would that alliance have anything to do with Cat?”

The hesitation I feel along our bond answers before he does.


“That information would have been valuable before arriving.” To say the fucking least. No wonder she despises me. I’m not self-centered enough to think I’m the reason he called off whatever alliance they had, but I’m definitely a barrier to resuming it now. Her uncle wants me to blow up the very symbol of whatever it is they’d agreed upon.

“Still fighting. Got it.”

Mira and I reach the grass as the first raindrops fall.

“We should have worn leathers,” she mutters, keeping pace with me.

“I can’t aim,” I tell her quietly, pausing what feels like twenty feet from the chest, just close enough to see runes carved into the thick doors. “Carr focused on quantity over quality, and Felix and I just started lessons, so this might take a while.”

Two of the guards move to the front of the chest that’s taller and thicker than both of them. Thank Amari it’s huge. A bigger target will be easier to hit. A guard pulls a small item from his pocket that I can’t quite make out from here.

“I don’t think they’re interested in how long it will take.” Mira nods to the top of the arena. Dozens of bow-wielding gryphon fliers have surrounded the top row of seats, all with arrows nocked our direction. “They’re probably worried you’ll strike Tecarus instead of the target.”

“Right. No pressure.” Lifting my hands, I reach for Tairn’s power. Funny how the normally brutal heat of it is a comfort after so many days under Varrish’s torture without it. “You guys might want to move,” I call out to the guards as the stocky one in front holds his fist to the front of the chest like he thinks he has a shot at stopping it if the giant iron box shifts and topples onto him…or like he has a key.

A shiver of apprehension skates along my spine.

“The Arctile Ocean to the south is known for calm, warm waters and what were once lucrative trade routes,” I recite, calming my racing heart.

“You still do that?” Mira lifts her brows at me. “Only when I’m—”

The double doors of the chest burst open, sending both guards sprawling across the ground with startling force as a man jolts forward and falls to his hands and knees on the grass. His maroon tunic and trousers are tattered, like he’s been kept prisoner for weeks.

“What the fuck?” Mira mutters.

His head jerks up to look at us, and my heart seizes with pure, immovable terror.

Distended red veins branch out from bloodshot eyes. “Violet!” Xaden roars.


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