Chapter no 49

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

“I feel like you’re the only one who isn’t surprised,” Imogen says as we stand in the courtyard after formation the next morning.

“We’re the strongest squad. They’re the strongest drift. I don’t know how the rest of you are surprised.” I shrug, glancing over at Cat’s drift, who all seem to be turning various shades of purple and green from yesterday’s challenges.

Same goes for our squad.

“Here we go.” Rhiannon hands six of us familiar green patches.

“Do we really have to give them these?” Ridoc’s lip curls at the patch we worked our asses off for, the patch the first-years fought to hold on to.

“Yes,” Rhiannon chides. “It’s the right thing to do. As of this moment, they’re part of our squad, whether we like it or not.”

“I choose to not,” Sloane remarks. Laughing, I run my thumb over the patch.

“I’ll take one to Cat,” Rhiannon says quietly. “You don’t have to—”

“I’ve got it.” I give her what I hope is a reassuring smile. “Let’s do this.” “Let’s do this,” she repeats. “Second squad, time to move.”

We cross the frost-covered courtyard together, and I tap the dagger at my left hip, making sure it’s right where I left it.

Xaden loves me. He chose me. I will be the most powerful rider of my generation.

Cat only has the power I choose to give her, with or without my dagger. The six fliers tense as we approach.

“I think they’ve chosen to not as well,” Sloane mutters to Aaric.

Cat narrows her eyes on Sloane, and I step between them, offering Cat the patch. “Welcome to Second Squad, Flame Section, Fourth Wing, also known as the Iron Squad.”

Similar greetings are given around us, but I keep my eyes locked on Cat as she stares at the patch like it might bite her. “Take the patch.”

“What are we supposed to do with them?”

“We sew them onto our uniforms,” Ridoc answers from beside me, making a back-and-forth motion with his hand to simulate pulling a needle through his uniform—as though explaining a patch to children.

“Why…?” Her gaze sweeps over us, catching on the different patches like she’s never noticed them before.

I point to my collarbone. “Rank.” Then my shoulder. “Wing. Iron Squad. Signet. Patches are earned, not given. Riders, and fliers now, choose whatever location they want for every patch besides wing and rank, none of which are worn on flight leathers, which is probably why you never saw Xaden wearing them. He generally abhors patches.” There. That wasn’t so bad. I can be civil.

“I knew that.” She snatches the patch out of my hand. “I’ve known him for years.”

Rhiannon lifts a brow from my other side.

I note the twinge of jealousy that she’s been privy to parts of his life that I haven’t, but there’s no rage, no sour jolt of insecurity, and no self-loathing. I fucking love my daggers for a whole new reason.

Her eyes widen slightly as if she senses that she can’t touch me, then narrow into malicious slits. Civility is definitely not on her agenda.

“Like I said.” I offer her a bright smile. “Welcome to the quadrant’s only Iron Squad.” Pivoting, I hook my arm through Rhiannon’s, and we start to walk away with the rest of the riders in our newly enlarged squad.

“Being in the same squad doesn’t change the fact that it’s still my crown,” she blurts.

“Let’s feed her to Sgaeyl,” Rhiannon whispers as we pause.

I look at Cat over my shoulder. “Did you know that Tyrrendor hasn’t had a crown in more than six hundred years? Turns out they melted them all down to forge the unification crown, so good luck with that.”

“It’s going to be fun making your life as miserable as you’ve made mine.”

Oh, fuck civility.

“Gods, she really can’t help herself, can she?” Rhiannon says under her breath.

“Cat, stop it,” Maren chastises. “You’re being ugly. I’ve told you over and over that she didn’t drop Luella. She fell. It’s as simple as that.”

“You’re welcome to try and make me miserable,” I tell Cat, letting go of Rhiannon to walk back to the flier. “Oh! And one more thing.” I lower my voice just slightly, well aware of every head within our squad that turns our direction.

“What?” she snaps.

“That trick you mentioned? You know, with the fingers?” A slow smile spreads across my face. “Thanks.”

Cat’s eyes bulge.

Imogen laughs so hard she snorts as I walk back to Rhiannon. “Damn. Just…damn.” Rhi claps a few times.

“I fucking love you.” Ridoc throws his arm around my shoulders. “Anyone hungry? I woke up somewhere I hadn’t exactly planned on and missed breakfast.”

“I would,” I tell him, “but I have plans in the library.”

“The library? Then me too,” Sawyer chimes in, following quickly. “I’ll go with,” Rhiannon says with a nod.

“If the three of you are going, then so am I,” Ridoc adds.

“You guys don’t have to come with me,” I say once we’re halfway through the foyer.

“Oh, we needed to get away from Cat.” Ridoc waves me off. “You’re just the excuse.”

“Her abilities are…horrifying,” Sawyer concludes. “What if she decides to make me hate you?”

“Make Xaden hate you?” Rhiannon’s eyebrows rise. “She can’t.” I shake my head.

“Or make you instantly horny for some random flier, and then you’re not the only one in that bed when Xaden rotates back,” Ridoc muses. “Her signet—or whatever they call it—is fucking terrifying.”

“She can only amplify the emotions you already have,” I explain to them.

“We could kill her.” Sawyer reaches for the door handle. “All the fliers are still struggling with the altitude, and their gryphons are still sleeping half the day, according to Sliseag, so they’re probably at their weakest.”

We all fall quiet, not out of shock but because we actually consider it for a few seconds. At least, I do. “We can’t kill her. She’s our squadmate.”

Wait, is that really the only ethical line there?

“You sure?” Sawyer tilts his head. “Say the word and we’ll bury a body.

We still have a couple of hours before we’re due in Battle Brief.”

“Good idea. I could use a snack.” Andarna’s tone is indecently excited.

“We do not eat our allies,” Tairn lectures.

“You never let me have any fun.”

I crack a genuine smile. “I appreciate the offer.”

We walk into the library, and I breathe in deeply. The scent in the two-story room is different than the Archives. Parchment and ink still smell the same, but there’s no earthy undertones because we’re aboveground, with light streaming in through the windows. Only the shelves of the first floor are filled with books, but I’ve made it my personal mission to see that the second floor looks the same within the next decade.

Stone may not burn, but books do.

“What are we doing here, anyway?” Ridoc asks as I swing my pack off my shoulder, picking the first empty table I see to rest it on. He gestures at Sawyer, who is scanning the back of the library. “I mean, we all know what he’s doing here.”

“Finding my center.” My answer earns me two very perplexed looks. “Tecarus sent some books back for me with Xaden after the weapons run yesterday, probably still hoping to get on my good side.” One by one, I remove the six books he gifted, stacking them on the table and placing the protective bag with Warrick’s journal on top. “Krovlish is not my strong suit.”

“Krovlish isn’t anyone’s—”

I grin as Sawyer cuts off mid-sentence at the sight of Jesinia. “Good morning,” he signs at me. “Is that right?”

“You’ve got it.”

He takes off in her direction.

“Would have been more fun my way. She’s got a great sense of humor,” Ridoc mumbles.

“He’s learning to sign!” Rhiannon smiles and sits on the edge of the table. We shamelessly turn to watch Sawyer greet Jesinia.

“And he’s already coming back?” Ridoc’s brow furrows.

I glance at the clock. “He only knows about four phrases, but he’s catching on.”

“So is Krovlish Jesinia’s specialty?” Rhi asks, picking up the top book, which is an accounting of the first emergence of the venin after the Great War. At least, I think it is.

“No.” I shake my head as the library door opens exactly at seven thirty.

Right on time as always. “It’s his.”

“Seriously?” Ridoc mutters as I walk away from the table.

“You asked to see me?” Dain folds his arms across his chest. “Of your own volition? No orders or anything?”

For a second, I hesitate. Then I remember that he stabbed Varrish, he called the formation to split the quadrant, and when the truth came to light, he chose exile with a group of people who despise him because it was the right thing to do. “I need your help.”

“All right.” He nods without waiting for an explanation.

And just like that, I remember why he used to be one of my favorite people on the Continent.

“That’s not the word for rain,” Dain says the next day, tapping a symbol in Warrick’s journal with the bottom of his pen as we sit in the

wardstone chamber, our backs against the wall, our legs stretched out in front of us. The noon sun beats down on us, but it’s still cold enough to see my breath.

“I’m pretty sure it is.” I lean in, studying the journal that’s equally balanced on his leg and mine.

“Did you ask Jesinia?” he asks, turning from the ward-centered entries of the journal back to the beginning.

“She thought it was rain, too.”

“But she specializes in Morrainian, right?” He tilts his head and studies the first entry.

My eyes widen, jumping to his profile.

“What?” He glances at me, then abruptly turns his attention back to the journal. “Don’t look so shocked that I remember Jesinia’s specialization. I listen when you talk.” He flinches. “At least I used to.”

“When did you stop?” The question leaves my mouth before I can catch


He sighs and shifts his position slightly, just enough to tell me he’s

nervous. Two years in the quadrant couldn’t rid him of that tell. “I don’t know. Probably when I said goodbye to you on Conscription Day. Mine, of course, not yours.”

“Right. You said hello to me on mine.” A smile tugs at my lips. “Actually, I think you asked what the hell I was doing there.”

He scoffs, then leans his head back against the wall and looks skyward. “I was so pissed…and scared. I finally made it to second year, gained the privilege of visiting other quadrants so I might be able to see you, and instead of being tucked away safely with the scribes, you show up dressed in black for the Riders Quadrant on your mother’s orders, so dizzy that I

still have no idea how you made it across the parapet.” His throat works as he swallows. “All I could think was that I’d just survived a year of hearing my friends’ names called on the death roll, and I was going to make damn sure yours wasn’t. And then you hated me for trying to give you what you’d always told me you wanted.”

“That’s not why I hated—” I press my lips in a tight line. “You wouldn’t let me grow up, and you were so fucking pigheaded that you knew what was right for me. You were never like that as a kid.”

He laughs, the self-deprecating sound echoing in the chamber. “Are you the same person you were when you crossed the parapet?”

“No.” I shake my head. “Of course not. First year hardened me in ways…” I catch his look, complete with raised eyebrows. “Oh. Guess it changed you, too.”

“Yeah. Living only by the Codex will do that to you.”

“Part of me wonders if that’s why they push it on us so hard. They transform us into their perfect weapons, teach us to critically think about everything except the Codex and the orders they give.”

He scratches the brown scruff of his beard and looks down at the journal. “Where are your translations for the beginning? Maybe we can compare the symbols.”

“I skipped ahead to the ward entries, seeing as that’s what we needed.”

He blinks. “You…skipped? You, out of all people, didn’t read a book from start to finish?” The flash of a smile he tries to hide hits me somewhere in the vicinity of my stomach, reminding me of the days when he’d been my best friend, and suddenly this is too much.

I scramble to my feet, dust my leathers off, and walk toward the stone.

“Vi,” he says quietly, but the cavernous space amplifies it so he may as well be shouting. “We finally going to talk about what happened?”

The stone is the same empty cold under my hand as it was the night I failed to raise the wards. “Do you know how to imbue?” I ask, ignoring his question.

“Yes.” His sigh feels strong enough to knock the wardstone over, and when I glance over my shoulder, I see him set the journal down on my pack

and rise to his feet. Seconds later, he’s standing next to me. “I’m sorry, Violet.”

“It feels like it should be imbued, don’t you think?” I drag my fingertips over the biggest of the etched circles. “Reminds me of the way raw alloy feels. Empty.”

“I’m sorry for the role I played in their deaths. I’m so fucking sorry—”

“Did you steal my memories every time you touched my face last year?” I blurt out, letting the cold seep into my palm.

Silence fills the chamber for a long moment before he finally responds softly. “No.”

I nod and pivot to face him. “So just when you needed information you couldn’t ask me for.”

He lifts his hand and puts it against the stone mere inches from mine, splaying his fingers wide. “I did it by accident the first time. I was just so used to touching you. And you’d gotten close to Riorson, and my father had pretty much bragged about the way your mother cut into him. I knew he had to be after revenge, but you wouldn’t listen to me—”

“He was never out for revenge. Not with me.” I shake my head.

“I know that now.” He squeezes his eyes shut. “I fucked up.” A deep breath later, he opens them. “I fucked up and trusted my dad when I should have trusted your judgment. And there’s nothing I can say or do that’s going to bring them back—bring Liam back.”

“No, there isn’t.” My eyes water, and I force out a grimace of a smile that quickly falls.

“I’m so sorry, Violet.”

“It’s not all right,” I whisper. “I don’t know how to even start making it all right. I just know that I can’t think about Liam and look at you at the same time without…” I shake my head. “I don’t want to hate you, Dain, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to—” My attention shifts to my hand. My very warm hand next to his on the stone. “Are you imbuing the stone?”

“Yes. I thought that’s what you wanted.”

“It is.” My head bobs. “How long do you think it would take to fully imbue something this big?”

“Weeks. Maybe a month.”

I move my hand, then return to my pack and crouch to stuff everything inside. “I need your help with the journal. And that’s not fair, because I need to know that we won’t talk about this—about Liam and Soleil—again. At least not until I have a lot more distance.” Once it’s all put away, I stand, facing Dain again.

His shoulders droop, but his hand is still on the stone. “I can do that.”

“Thank you.” I glance up at the overcast sky stories above us. “I’m usually free for about a half hour this time of day.”

“Me, too, and I’ll work on imbuing the stone.”

“I’ll ask Xaden to help, too.” I slip my arms through the straps and settle the pack on my shoulders.

His hand falls from the stone. “About Riorson—”

My entire body tenses. “Be very careful with your words.”

“Are you in love with him?” he asks, his voice breaking on the last word as he pivots to face me fully. “Because Garrick and I heard the end of what he said in the interrogation chamber, and trust me, might be in love with him after that declaration, but are you? Really and truly?”

“Yes.” I hold his stare long enough that he knows I mean what I say. “And that’s never going to change.”

Dain’s jaw flexes and he nods once. “Then I’ll trust him as much as you do.”

I nod back slowly. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” “Tomorrow,” he agrees.

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