Chapter no 5

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

Riders party as hard as we fight.

And we fight pretty damned hard.

The gathering hall is more raucous than I’ve ever seen it by the time the sun begins to set that evening. Cadets gather around-or in Second Wing’s case, on top of-tables overflowing with food and pitchers of sweet wine, frothy ale, and a lavender lemonade that clearly has its fair share of distilled liquor.

Only the dais table is empty. For this one moment, there are no wingleaders, no section leaders, not even a squad leader in sight. Other than the stars on the fronts of our shoulders that denote our years at Basgiath, we’re all equal tonight. Even the newly anointed lieutenants who wander in to say their goodbyes aren’t in our chain of command.

There’s a pleasant buzz in my head, courtesy of the lemonade and the two silver stars on my shoulder.

“Chantara?” Rhiannon asks, leaning forward to look past me and lifting her brows at Ridoc, who is seated on my other side. “Out of every privilege that comes with being a second-year, that’s what you’re looking forward to? It’s only a rumor.”

The village that supplies Basgiath has always been open to second-years from the Healer Quadrant, Scribe Quadrant, and Infantry Quadrant, but not ours. We’ve been banned for nearly a decade after a fight led to a local bar burning down.

“I’m just saying I heard they might lift the ban finally, and we’ve been stuck with this dating pool for the last year,” Ridoc states, using his cup to motion around the hall, which is mostly behind us. “So even the possibility of getting leave to spend a few hours in Chantara every week is definitely what I’m looking forward to the most.”

Nadine grins, her eyes sparkling as she gathers the hair she dyed purple this evening in one hand so it doesn’t fall into the pitcher, and leans over the table to clink her glass against Ridoc’s cup. “Hear, hear. It is getting a little…” She wrinkles her button nose, glancing past Sawyer at the other squads in our wing. “Familiar around here. I bet by third year it will feel downright incestuous.”

We all laugh, none of us stating the obvious. Statistically speaking, a third of our class won’t survive to see our third years, but we’re this year’s Iron Squad, having lost the fewest cadets between Parapet and Gauntlet, so I’m choosing to think positively tonight and every night of the next five days, during which our only duty will be to prepare for the arrival of the first-years.

Rhiannon pulls one of her braids under her nose and furrows her brow like Panchek as she mock-lectures, “You do know that trips to Chantara are for worship only, cadet.”

“Hey, I never said I wouldn’t stop by the temple of Zihnal to pay the God of Luck my respects.” Ridoc puts his hand over his heart.

“And not because you’re praying to get a little lucky while the other cadets are in town,” Sawyer comments, wiping the foam from his ale off his freckled upper lip.

“I’m changing my answer,” Ridoc says. “Being able to fraternize with other quadrants anywhere in our downtime is what I’m looking forward to.”

“What is this downtime you speak of?” I joke. We might have a few more empty hours here and there compared to first-years, but there’s a slew of harder courses headed for us.

“We have weekends now, and I’ll take whatever time we get.” His grin turns mischievous.

Rhiannon leans forward on her elbows and winks at me. “Like you’ll be using every second you can get with a certain Lieutenant Riorson.” My liquor-flushed cheeks heat even more. “I’m not-” A resounding boo sounds around the table.

“Pretty much everyone saw you show up to formation in his flight jacket before War Games,” Nadine says. “And after this morning’s display? Please.” She rolls her eyes.

Right. The display after he told me that he’d always keep secrets from me.

“Personally, I’m looking forward to letters,” Rhiannon says, clearly jumping in to save me as Imogen and Quinn arrive, sliding in next to Nadine. “It’s been way too long since I’ve been able to talk to my family.”

We share a small smile, neither of us mentioning that we snuck out of Montserrat to see her family a few months ago.

“No chore duty!” Sawyer adds. “I will never scrub another breakfast dish again.”

I’ll never push another library cart with Liam.

“I’m going with his answer,” Nadine agrees, sliding the pitchers of alcohol toward Imogen and Quinn.

A couple of months ago, Nadine wouldn’t even acknowledge Imogen’s presence because of her rebellion relic. It gives me hope that the new lieutenants who bear the same mark might not face discrimination at their new duty stations, but I saw firsthand at Montserrat how the wings look at marked ones-like they were the officers who perpetuated the rebellion, not their parents.

Then again, given what I know now, everyone is right not to trust them. Not to trust me.

“Second year is the best,” Quinn says, pouring ale from the pitcher into a pewter mug. “All the privileges and only some of the responsibility of the third-years.”

“But fraternizing between quadrants is definitely the best perk,” Imogen adds, forcing a smile and wincing before touching her finger to the split in her lip.

“That’s what I said!” Ridoc fist pumps the air.

“Did your lip get split while you guys…” Nadine asks Imogen, her voice trailing off as the table goes quiet.

I lower my eyes to my lemonade. The alcohol doesn’t numb the ache of guilt that sits heavily on my shoulders. Maybe Xaden’s right. If I can’t lie to my friends, maybe I should start keeping my distance so I don’t get them killed.

“Yeah,” Imogen says, glancing my way, but I don’t look up.

“I still can’t believe you guys saw action,” Ridoc says, all playfulness dying. “Not War Games-which were already scary as shit with Aetos stepping in for Riorson-but real, actual gryphons.”

I grip my glass tighter. How am I supposed to sit here and act like I’m the same person when what happened in Resson has changed every single thing about what I believe?

“What was it like?” Nadine inquires softly. “If you guys don’t mind us asking?”

Yes, I fucking mind.

“I always knew gryphon talons were sharp, but to take down a dragon…” Sawyer’s voice drifts off.

My knuckles whiten and power simmers beneath my skin as I remember the angry red veins beside that dark wielder’s eyes as she came for me on Tairn’s back, the look in Liam’s when he realized Deigh wasn’t going to make it.

“It’s natural to wonder,” Tairn reminds me. “Especially when your experience could prepare them for battle in their eyes.”

“They should mind their own business,” Andarna counters, her voice gruff as though settling into sleep. “They’re all better off not knowing.” “Guys, maybe now isn’t-” Rhiannon starts.

“It fucking sucked,” Imogen says before throwing back her drink and slamming her glass on the table. “You want the truth? If it wasn’t for Riorson and Sorrengail, we’d all be dead.” My gaze jerks to hers.

It’s the closest thing to a compliment she’s ever given me.

There’s no pity in her pale green eyes as she stares back, but there’s no defensive snark, either. Just respect. Her pink hair falls away from her cheek as she tilts her head at me. “And as much as I wish none of it had happened, at least those of us who were there truly know the horror of what we’re up against.”

My throat tightens.

“To Liam,” Imogen says, lifting her glass and defying the unwritten rule that we don’t speak of the dead cadets after their name is read from the roll.

“To Liam.” I lift mine, and everyone at the table does the same, drinking to him. It’s not enough, but it has to be.

“Can I offer a word of advice going into your second year?” Quinn says after a quiet moment. “Don’t get too close to the first-years, especially not until Threshing tells you how many of them might actually be worth getting to know.” She grimaces. “Just trust me.” Well, that’s sobering.

The shimmering shadow of my connection with Xaden strengthens, curling around my mind like a second shield, and I glance over my shoulder to see him across the hall, leaning against the wall next to the door, his hands in the pockets of his flight leathers. Garrick is talking to him, but his eyes are locked on mine.

“Having fun?” he asks, pushing through my shields with annoying ease.

A shiver of awareness rushes over my skin. Mixing alcohol and Xaden is definitely not a good idea.

Or is it the best idea?

“Whatever is going through that beautiful mind, I’m here for it.” Even from this distance, I can see his gaze darken.

Wait. He’s in flight leathers, dressed to leave. My heart slumps, taking a little of my buzz with it.

He nods toward the door.

“I’ll be right back,” I say, setting my cup on the table and wobbling a little as I stand. No more lemonade for me.

“I certainly hope not,” Ridoc mutters. “Or you’ll destroy all my fantasies when it comes to that one.”

I roll my eyes at him, then make my way across the chaotic room to Xaden.

“Violet.” His gaze rakes over my face, lingering on my cheeks.

I love the way he says my name. Sure, it’s the alcohol overruling my logic, but I want to hear him say it again.

“Lieutenant Riorson.” There’s a silver line at his collar showing his new rank, but no other markings that could give away his identity in case he falls behind enemy lines. No unit designation. No signet patches. He could be any lieutenant in any wing if not for the relic that marks his neck.

“Hey, Sorrengail,” Garrick says, but I can’t peel my eyes from Xaden long enough to glance his way. “Good job today.”

“Thanks, Garrick,” I respond, moving closer to Xaden. He’ll change his mind and let me all the way in. He has to.

“Gods, you two.” Garrick shakes his head. “Do us all a favor and figure your shit out. I’ll meet you at the flight field.” He smacks Xaden’s shoulder and walks off.

“You look…” I sigh, because it’s not like I’ve ever been successful lying to him, and the fuzziness in my head isn’t helping. “Good in officer flight leathers.”

“They’re almost exactly like cadet ones.” A corner of his mouth lifts, but it’s not quite a smile.

“Didn’t say you didn’t look good in those, too.”

“You’re…” He tilts his head at me. “Drunk, aren’t you?”

“I’m pleasantly fuddled but not entirely sloshed.” That makes exactly no sense, but it’s accurate. “Yet. But the night is young, and I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but we have nothing to do for the next five days except prepare for the first-years and party.”

“I wish I could stay to see what you do with all that time.” He looks me over lazily, his gaze heating as though he’s remembering what I look like naked, and my pulse leaps. “Walk out with me?”

I nod, then follow him into commons, where he grabs his rucksack from beside the wall and slings it over his shoulders casually, as if there aren’t two swords hanging from the back of it.

A group of cadets hovers around the announcements board like the new leadership list is going to appear at any second and they might be erased from it if someone discovers they’re not watching.

Yep, there’s Dain in the center of them.

“You aren’t waiting for tomorrow morning to leave?” I ask Xaden, keeping my voice low as we cross the stone floor of the expansive space.

“They prefer wingleaders to vacate their rooms first, since the new guys like to move in quickly.” He glances at the crowd around the announcement board. “And since I’m guessing you’re not offering a place in your bed-“

“I’m not nearly drunk enough to make that lapse in judgment,” I assure him as he opens a door to the rotunda. “I told you, I don’t sleep with men I don’t trust, and if you’re not offering full disclosure…” I shake my head and immediately regret it, nearly losing my balance.

“I’ll earn your trust as soon as you realize you don’t need full disclosure. You only have to have the guts to start asking the questions you actually want answers to. Don’t worry about the bed. We’ll get back there. The anticipation is good for us.” He smiles-really fucking smiles-and it almost makes me rethink my decision.

“I tell you we’re not together because you won’t give me the one thing I need-honesty-and you counter with ‘it’s good for us’?” I scoff and walk down the stairs and past two of the marble pillars in the rotunda. “The arrogance.”

“Confidence is not arrogance. I don’t lose the fights I pick. And we’re both allowed to have boundaries. You’re not the only one who gets to set the rules in this relationship.”

I bristle at the implication that I’m the problem here. “And you’re picking a fight with me?” The world tips slightly when I look up at him.

“Picking a fight for you. There’s a difference.” His expression hardens as his gaze jerks left, toward the approach of Colonel Aetos and a rider wearing the rank of major.

“Riorson. Sorrengail.” The colonel’s mouth quirks into a sarcastic smile.

“So lovely to see you both tonight. Leaving for the Southern Wing so soon?

The front will be lucky to have such a capable rider.”

My chest tightens. Xaden isn’t going to a mid-guard wing like most lieutenants. He’s being sent to the front?

“I’d say I’ll be back before you can miss me,” Xaden replies, his hands loose at his sides, “but word has it you pissed off General Sorrengail enough to be reassigned to a coastal outpost.”

The colonel’s face blotches. “I might not be here, but you won’t be as often, either. Only once every fortnight, according to your new orders.”

What? My stomach pitches, and it takes every ounce of control I have not to reach out and steady myself.

The major slides his hand into the breast pocket of his perfectly pressed dress uniform and pulls out two folded missives. His black hair is perfectly combed, his boots perfectly shined, his smile perfectly cruel.

Power rises within me, responding to the threat.

“Where are my manners?” Colonel Aetos says. “Violet, this is your new vice commandant, Major Varrish. He’s here to tighten the ship, as they say. We seem to have gotten a little lax with what we allow around here. Naturally the quadrant’s current executive commandant will still see to operations, but Varrish’s new position only answers to Panchek.”

“Cadet Sorrengail,” I correct the Colonel. Vice commandant? Fucking great. “The general’s daughter,” Varrish responds, looking me over in clear appraisal, his attention snagging on every dagger I have within reach. “Fascinating. I’d heard you were too fragile to survive a year in the quadrant.”

“My presence would suggest otherwise.” What a dick.

Xaden takes both missives, careful not to touch Varrish’s hands, then gives me the one that has my name scrawled across the front. We crack Melgren’s personal wax seals at the same moment, then unfold the official orders.

Cadet Violet Sorrengail is hereby given two days of leave once every fourteen days to be used only to fly with Tairn directly to and from Sgaeyl ‘s current duty station or location. Any other absence from classes will be considered a punishable offense.

I grit my teeth to keep from giving the colonel the reaction he so obviously wants and carefully fold the orders, slipping them into the pocket at my hip. My guess is Xaden’s say the same, and rotating our leaves puts us at every seven days. Tairn and Sgaeyl are never apart for more than three days. A week? They’ll be in a near-constant state of pain. It’s unfathomable.

“Tairn?” I reach out for him.

He roars so loudly it rattles my brain.

“Dragons give their own orders,” Xaden says calmly, pocketing his papers.

“Guess we’ll see.” Colonel Aetos nods, then turns his gaze to mine. “You know, I was worried about our earlier conversation until I remembered something.”

“And what is that?” Xaden asks, clearly losing patience.

“Secrets make for poor leverage. They die with the people who keep them.”

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