We split as the hallway grows too crowded, and I continue up and up the stairs, climbing to the fifth floor, then nodding to Rhi and Tara as
I pass by the open door to Rhi’s room. Clearly, by their wide smiles, they don’t know yet, and I decide to give them a few more minutes of blissfully ignorant happiness and keep walking down the long hallway to the back stairs.
The service stairway is dark, but mage lights wink on as I climb the steep, wrought-iron spiral staircase to its end. I open the door with lesser magic, then step out onto the narrow walkway that runs along the apex of the roofline and close it behind me.
Xaden sits on the edge of the small defensive turret thirty feet away, and the only shadows surrounding him are the ones the dying afternoon light casts. If I didn’t feel his turmoil saturating the bond between us, I’d think he was up here for the view, the very picture of control.
Step by careful step, I cross the eastern line of the roof, careful not to let the breeze rip the plate from my hand or screw with my balance.
“What did I tell you about risking your life in order to talk to me?” he asks, his gaze focused on the town below.
“I’d hardly call that risking my life.” I set the plate on the wall, then climb up to sit next to Xaden. “But I do now understand how you’re so damn good at Parapet.”
“Been practicing since I was a kid,” he admits. “How did you know I was up here?”
“Other than being able to track you through the bond? You told me in a letter that you’d sit up here waiting for your father to come home.” I reach for the plate, then hold it in front of him. “I know chocolate cake isn’t going to fix this, but in my defense, I got it for you when I’d just thought you’d had a shit day, before I knew what really happened.”
He glances at the slice, then leans in and brushes his mouth over mine before grabbing it. “I’m not used to people taking care of me. Thank you.”
“Get used to it.” The cold seeps into my leathers from the wall beneath us, and I note the heavy gray clouds moving in from the west. “It’s already snowing up the pass. I bet we get seven inches tonight.”
“Maybe more if you’re good.” A corner of his mouth lifts as he cuts into the cake with the fork.
“You’re making dick jokes?” I brace my hands on the top edge of the wall.
“You’re talking about the weather.” He takes a bite, then cuts another one and hands me the fork.
“I was being considerate and giving you the option of not talking about what happened. Would you rather I talk about how translating is going with Dain?” I take the offered bite and give the fork back. Damn, no wonder he loves this cake. It’s better than anything we had at Basgiath.
“I’d rather you stop being considerate and ask.” His gaze locks with mine.
I swallow, getting the feeling he’s not just talking about today’s loss. “Were you there?”
“Yes.” The fork clicks against the plate as he sets it in his lap. “Tairn didn’t tell me.”
“I think Sgaeyl somehow blocked him out.” He cocks his head to the side. “Pretty sure we’re both blocked out right now, which means—”
“They’re fighting.” There’s a hard wall beyond my own shields.
“Garrick and I flew in from Draithus once Emery put out the call, but by the time we got there…” He shakes his head. “Imagine Resson, but about
ten times the size. Ten times the number of civilians.”
“Oh.” The cake settles in my stomach like ash, and we both fall quiet. A long moment passes before I rise to the challenge in his eyes and ask, “What are you up here thinking about?”
“We’re outmatched.” He looks away and flexes his jaw. “Outmatched and spread too fucking thin to be anything but a nuisance to them. We can’t communicate fast enough. We aren’t effective or any kind of real barrier when we’re sending out riots of three.” His gaze shifts eastward. “They can take the rest of Poromiel—take us—whenever they want, and I have no clue why they don’t. We have no idea how many of them are assembling in Zolya or where the fuck all these wyvern are hatching from. There’s no plan except hold the line, and the line isn’t holding.”
“We weren’t ready.” I look out over the rapidly growing town, noting the dozens of new roofs under construction and the uncountable number of chimneys letting out smoke from the homes within.
“We never could have been ready,” he counters, lifting the fork, then stabbing it into the cake. “So don’t go adding this to the list of things you blame yourself for. Even if we’d waited to come after the forge was running, after we had enough riders to imbue the alloy and temper runes for the daggers…” His shoulders dip in a sigh. “I’ll never say this in front of the others, but we’re fifty years too late.”
The next breath I take is heavy and strained by the tightness in my ribs.
“What do we do about it?” Besides the obvious—Dain and I have to translate faster, just in case there’s any actual hope of raising the wards. We already know that one of the symbols I translated originally was incorrect. Rain isn’t rain. It’s flame. Which, of course, helped us not at all.
“What we do isn’t my decision. Your brother’s the tactician, and Suri and Ulices command the army.” He shoves a bite into his mouth.
“It’s your city.” His province, really.
“The irony is not lost on me.” He hands me another forkful of cake, but this bite has lost its sweetness and goes down like sand. “Your sister ordered me off the field.”
My eyebrows rise.
His laugh has a hard, sarcastic edge. “She ordered me. I had killed one of them and was retrieving my dagger—another problem, I might add— when the second one channeled right behind Sgaeyl. If she’d launched a second later, this cake would have gone to waste.” He sets the fork down.
My heart starts to pound erratically. There’s not a mark on him, and yet I’d almost lost him without even knowing he’d been that close to never coming home again. The thought is so unfathomable that I’m stunned silent. “She swept me up in a claw, but your sister saw what happened and that’s when she called it a loss. Not because Nyra died, or the three fliers from the footwing drift, or because we only had five dragons left.” He shakes his head. “She called it because I was with them, and she wouldn’t
“Is that what she told you?” The first flakes of snow descend. “She didn’t have to tell me. It was pretty fucking obvious.”
“Then you don’t know—”
“I do,” he counters, then immediately closes his eyes. “I know. And through the anger and the horror of watching all those civilians flee, watching them die, I realized she treated me like every marked one has treated you since Threshing. Like you’re just a vulnerable extension of me.” “I don’t think anyone would ever mistake you for vulnerable.” I reach
for his hand and lace our fingers. “But yes.”
He finds my gaze and closes his hand around mine. “I’m sorry.”
“Thank you, but as annoying as it is, I get it. We’re tethered.” I shrug. He kisses me quiet, hard, and quick. “For the rest of our lives.”
By the time a week passes, no one bats an eye at the sight of Dain and me huddled at a library table long after most cadets have found their beds for the night. We’re still meeting at noon as well, and Xaden stops in when he can to help imbue the stone. And that little strand of lightning
Felix has pushed me to sustain? Turns out that can imbue, too.
Desperation sinks her claws into me by the week after. We have nearly the entire journal translated, but the passage about raising the wards still isn’t different enough from my first, failed interpretation to act on. We definitely get that Warrick insists that once the blood from one of the six powerful riders is used on one stone, it can’t be used on the other he’s referenced carving.
“Have you noticed his phrasing is so much more casual in the rest of the journal compared to the one section we actually need to understand?” Dain rubs his eyes and sits back in his chair beside me. “Like he’s deliberately fucking with us from the grave.”
“True.” There are only four entries left. What in Malek’s name will we do if the answer isn’t in one of those? “He has no issue doling out advice on authoring the Codex—
“Or detailing whatever mess of relationships the six of them got into.” Dain nods, cracking a huge yawn.
“Exactly.” I glance over at him. “You should get to bed.”
“You should, too.” He glances over at the nearby clock. “It’s almost midnight. I’m sure Riorson is wondering—”
“He’s not here.” I shake my head and sigh with entirely too much self-pity. “His squad is watching over Draithus this week. But you really should get some sleep. I’m only going to stay another few minutes.”
His brow knits.
“Go,” I urge him with a reassuring smile. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He sighs but nods and pushes his chair back, standing, then stretching his arms above his head. “Don’t tell him I said so”—he drops his arms
—“but the way I’ve heard he wants to reorganize the combat squads by strengths, since the active riders don’t have a full wing to pull from, is brilliant.”
“I’ll be sure not to tell him,” I promise, a corner of my mouth tugging upward.
Dain takes his pack off the table. “See you tomorrow.” I nod, and he walks out.
The library is comfortably quiet as I pour over the next entry, translating into what we call our draft journal. “The air has grown cold enough,” I say out loud as I write the words into the draft journal, “to see my blood in the mornings.”
I blink, then stare at the symbol for “blood.” My mind spins at the possibility, and then I turn back to earlier entries, just to be sure. Every single time we translated the symbol “blood”…the word breath fits even better. We have the wrong word.
The blood of life is actually the breath of life, and setting the stone ablaze in an iron flame…
I close the journals and sit back in my chair. The six doesn’t refer to riders.
“They’re dragons,” I say out loud in the empty library. Dain. I should tell—
No. He’ll act only on the rules, not taking the ethics into account.
There’s only one person I trust to always do the right thing.
I stuff my things into my pack, sling it over my shoulders, and race out of the library, then climb four flights of stairs. My heart races as I knock on Rhiannon’s door.
“Hey,” she says when she opens the door, her bright smile faltering when I don’t return it. Without another word, she steps back, ushering me into her room.
I glance at the spartan decor as I start to pace the length of the room, taking in two plain desks, two doorless armoires, and two beds with simple black sheets that have been awkwardly shoved into a space obviously meant for one—the result of the fliers’ arrival. A single window illuminates the room with morning light. We’re due in formation shortly.
“That one is supposed to be yours,” Rhi says, gesturing to the bed on the right. “Just in case you ever want a night away from Riorson.”
I press my lips between my teeth, searching for the right words as I wear a path in Rhiannon’s floor. “I need to tell you something.”
Stopping suddenly in the middle of the room, I turn toward her. “I know how to raise the wards. I’m just not entirely sure we should.”