Chapter no 57

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

The irony of meeting at Athebyne is not lost on me, nor is the fact that this is the second time I’m visiting the outpost on the edge of the Esben mountain range after finding out Xaden Riorson has hidden pertinent

information from me.

I spent last night in the library, which was probably in the best interest of everyone as I continue to muddle through my thoughts. Intentions. What-thefuck-ever.

Today, I’m bleary-eyed and restless, with more questions than answers. But as I glance over at Xaden landing on Sgaeyl’s back, his face tense and drawn, I can recognize that telling me, whether or not he wanted to, was the ultimate gesture of trust.

And this time, I’m not the last to know. I’m the first. Maybe it makes me completely, utterly foolish, but somehow that makes a difference, even if I haven’t had the opportunity to tell him that…or the opportunity to interrogate his ass about how many of my intentions he’s read.

I’m just not sure how many this-times I have in me, no matter how much I love him.

Our riot of ten lands in the clearing over the ridgeline from the outpost at noon—a full hour before we’re due to meet—and four of the dragons back into the cover of the forest immediately, hiding in the shelter of the

enormous evergreen trees that surround the field. The other six stand wing to wing, ready to launch at a moment’s notice.

“You’re sure they won’t be able to tell they’re here?” I ask Tairn, putting my flight goggles into my pack before sliding down Tairn’s foreleg. Landing on the frozen ground makes me wince. I’d woken up this morning with a hundred-yearold text stuck to my cheek and a throbbing ache in my neck.

“Not exactly, but there’s no snow at this elevation to carry tracks. Dragons only sense each other mind-to-mind when we allow it. As long as they stay downwind, the others will know they’re here but won’t be able to identify how many or who has come.”

“That’s not exactly comforting.” Especially given who insisted on traveling with us. I stretch my arms up at the sun and roll my neck carefully to ease the stiffness in my muscles. After fighting Solas yesterday and accidentally sleeping on a table in the library last night, my body has had it with me, and I can’t blame it.

“You are not a child in need of comfort.”

True, which only serves to remind me of the enraged adolescent I have waiting for me at home in Aretia. After telling her there would be no logical way to explain her presence even if Tairn carried her, which she was adamantly opposed to, Andarna cursed Tairn’s entire family line, then blocked us both and went to practice with the elders.

Tairn’s only response had been a muttered expletive about the moods of adolescents.

It doesn’t escape my notice that Sgaeyl stands between Teine and Fann, Ulices’s cantankerous Green Swordtail, not next to Tairn, which either explains or is a result of his surly mood this morning.

Mom and Dad are fighting, and everyone knows it.

Xaden crosses in front of Fann, completely unbothered by her snort of insult at his proximity, and peels off his gloves as he approaches me.

“You didn’t come to bed last night.” His brow furrows as he makes a quick study of my face, then shoves the gloves into his pocket, and I mirror his motions just in case we’ll need to wield.

Then I reinforce my shields.

“I was in the library with Dain, poring over Warrick’s journal to see what I got wrong. We both fell asleep on one of the tables, until Jesinia and a few others joined us for more study.” I meet his gaze, then look away before I start pelting him with questions or do something even more foolish like forgive him before getting answers.

“I thought Jesinia didn’t speak Old Lucerish?” He barely glances at the riders who walk by and gather in front of Fann. We’ve brought three from Mira’s unit in addition to members of the Assembly.

“She doesn’t, but Sawyer’s smitten, and the others were determined to help in any way they could.” Even Cat, Maren, and Trager had joined in a show of support.

“Did you find anything?”

The dragons raise their heads at a sound coming from the other side of the clearing, and the way they quickly lower them tells me everything I need to know. Early or not, this meeting is about to start.

“No,” I answer, keeping my eyes on the trees and fighting the apprehension trying to knot in my throat. The breath of life of the six and the one combined and set the stone ablaze in an iron flame. What did I miss? “If I had, you’d know it.”

“Would I?” His tone tightens.

“You would.” My gaze jumps to lock with his. “I appreciate you not trying to talk me out of coming.”

“I learned my lesson at Cordyn.” He searches my face but doesn’t reach for me. “Let me in. If only for a second, please let me in.”

My chest tightens with every heartbeat as I hold his gaze. Exactly how much of this is mine to forgive? It’s his secret. But I can’t help wondering how much he’s read into my own intentions. That’s the part that has me hesitant, no matter how much I love him.

“Violet?” It’s the blatant plea in his tone that has me lowering my shields just enough to feel our bond connect, and the resulting relief on his face is palpable. “If you decide to tell them what I am as punishment for the crimes I’ve committed against you, I’ll understand.”

“You want to discuss this now, of all times?” I lift my eyebrows at him.

“I wanted to discuss this last night, but apparently you were busy working to save Tyrrendor.” His attention shifts to the trees, and Tairn’s shadow races across the brittle prairie grass, winding around us.

“Are you complaining?” Our hands brush as we both turn to face whomever is coming through those trees.

“About you choosing the safety of my home over fighting with me?” He scowls but laces his fingers with mine. “No, but—”

Mira approaches from behind Xaden, her stride confident, though two lines of worry are etched between her brows.

I squeeze his hand, then let go.

“I need to know something.” I run my hands down my hips, counting the blades sheathed there, all six of them. “Did you ever use your signet to glean information to influence my feelings in any way?”

“Never.” He shakes his head, but his hands clench at his sides and the muscle in his jaw pops. “But I have always lacked a certain element of self-control when it comes to you, and our bond makes it way too easy for you to send your intentions without even realizing it.”

Death would be preferable to the embarrassment that accompanies that revelation.

“I could torch him if you would like,” Tairn offers. “But you do seem attached.”

Heat flushes up my neck and stings my cheeks, reminding me of the times my scalp would prickle in his presence. “You knew I wanted to kiss you that night by the wall…”

Gods, I can’t even finish the question.

The tops of the trees begin to sway. They’ve brought dragons.

“Yes.” He glances at me. “And you have my most sincere apology. Had I known what we would become”—he shakes his head—“fuck, I probably still would have done it.”

“Do you still do it?” I have to know.

“No. I stopped the moment you were more to me than the general’s daughter, the moment I realized the harm Dain had done—and that I was no

better than he was.”

Except Xaden hadn’t brokered the information he’d stolen and been responsible for killing Liam and Soleil. Yet I’ve made some kind of peace with Dain, haven’t I?

Maybe I’m becoming complacent with betrayal because it’s fucking


“I’m not going to turn you in,” I say quickly, looking up at him as Mira comes within hearing distance. “But we’ll be fighting about this later.” I lift my brows.

The muscle in his jaw ticks like he wants to say more, but he only adds,

“I will make myself available to you.”

“You ready for this?” Mira asks, crossing in front of Xaden to stand beside me.

“No,” I reply to Mira. “Are you?”

“No.” She rests her hand on the pommel of the shortsword sheathed at her hip. “But she’ll never know that.”

“I want to be you when I grow up.” A smile tugs at my lips despite the anxiety quickening my breaths.

“You’ll be better than me,” she counters, then looks over the top of my head to talk to Xaden. “By the way, you couldn’t convince him to stay in Aretia?”

“I don’t wield emotions, and members of the Assembly don’t take well to being tied down and restrained.” He reaches back over his shoulder and draws one of the swords strapped to his back with his left hand, leaving his right free to wield. “If you’re looking to influence mindwork, find a flier.”

I barely keep myself from jabbing him at his clever semantics, because the man clearly specializes in mindwork.

“Here we go,” Mira mutters as seven figures dressed in black step into the clearing.

I palm a dagger in my right hand and crack open the door to the Archives, letting power trickle into me.

Melgren walks at the center, his beady eyes shifting down our line of Aretian riders. I don’t need Cat’s gift to heighten his anger. He wears rage

like it’s a part of his uniform.

I force myself to glance at the other members of their chosen party, only recognizing three, two of whom were Mom’s aides at one point or another.

“Colonel Fremont—second on the left—is a very powerful air wielder,”

I tell Xaden. “He can suck the air straight out of your lungs.”

“Thank you.” Shadows rise in front of the three of us, curling in blade-like fingers at the level of our knees.

Then my gaze falls on Mom.

She walks at Melgren’s side, cutting through the field with quick, efficient steps, her attention split between Mira and me. The closer she comes, the more apparent her exhaustion. Deep bruises mark the space under her eyes, contrasting with her paler-than-normal complexion, even though the lines from her flight goggles indicate she’s spending time in the sky.

Mira tilts her chin and smooths her expression into a mask I envy and do the best to emulate.

The dragons follow, led out of the forest by Melgren’s dragon, Codagh. The utter nightmare of a black dragon immediately lowers his head as he stalks forward, and his golden eyes narrow at me—no, at Tairn standing behind me. Fuck, I’d almost forgotten just how big he is, easily five feet taller than Tairn, numerous battle scars marking his chest scales and wings.

Mom’s dragon, Aimsir, follows, prowling toward us at the same time the other five make their appearance, an orange, two reds…and a blue.

Tairn steps forward and lifts his head to hover over mine, a menacing rumble working its way up his throat.

“Don’t drool on me,” I joke, but it falls flat.

The Navarrian riders walk to the center of the field, and when Ulices moves, so do we, leaving ten feet of empty field between our lines. Swords and daggers gleam within easy reach on both sides.

“And here I was thinking you were dead, Ulices,” Melgren starts, forcing a smile that’s mostly bared teeth.

“And here I was hoping you were,” Ulices counters, using his height to look down his nose at Melgren.

“No such luck,” Melgren replies. “What happened to meeting at the outpost?” He gestures back toward the trees. “We have refreshments waiting if you’d care to—”

“Probably poisoned,” Tairn adds, but he sounds slightly distracted, as if holding more than one conversation at once, probably because he is.

“We don’t,” Xaden interrupts. “Speak your piece, Melgren.”

Melgren’s gaze jumps to Xaden. “We never should have let you into the quadrant.”

“Regrets are truly a bitch, aren’t they?” Xaden cocks his head. “Let’s get to it. You may have nothing better to do with your day, but we’re busy fighting for our Continent.”

“Nothing better?” Melgren snaps, his face blotching. “Do you know the destruction you caused by dropping those wyvern on the outposts? The lengths we went to in order to keep it quiet? The civilians we had to—” He stops himself, breathing deeply and straightening his shoulders. “You almost tore down centuries of work, of tightly woven defensive strategy designed to protect the people within our borders.”

“But only the people within your borders,” Mira accuses. “Fuck everyone else, right?”

Mom’s eyes flash with barely leashed reprimand.

“Yes.” Melgren turns that unnerving stare on my sister. “When you abandon ship in the middle of a hurricane, you save those you can in the dinghy, then cut the hands off anyone else who tries to climb aboard so they don’t pull you under.”

“You’re a callous asshole,” she fires back. “Thank you.”

“Are we here for a reason?” Xaden asks. “You know, besides the evil villain lecture?” Sunlight glints off the blade of his sword as he shifts his grip.

“We let you go,” Melgren answers, glancing between Ulices and Xaden. “Let you take half the Riders Quadrant cadets without so much as a fight. Let her go”—his withering gaze slides over mine, and I lock my muscles to

keep from shuddering—“after she brutally murdered the vice commandant. Ever stop to think about why?”

My stomach clenches.

“I personally try not to think about you,” Xaden replies, outright lying, but damn does he pull it off.

“You can’t afford to lose the riders necessary to fight us,” Ulices answers. “We’re too expensive to keep, especially with the number of riders

—and the riot—who chose to leave you.”

“Perhaps.” Melgren tilts his head. “Or perhaps I let you.” My grip tightens on my dagger.

“Perhaps”—the general draws out the word—“I knew we’d need you for a coming battle.”

Highly unlikely. Who would they possibly be fighting behind the wards? “I’ll meet Malek before I fight for Navarre again,” Ulices snarls.

“You were always too quick to make important decisions,” Melgren says with a sigh, patting his chest. “That’s why I didn’t mourn your loss.”

Damn. That was harsh.

“This meeting is over—” Ulices starts, red rising up his neck and splashing onto his cheeks.

“They’re going to overrun us at Samara,” Melgren interrupts. Everyone quiets.

I struggle to draw my next breath. Surely he didn’t mean to say that. I look at Mom, and my knees weaken at the subtle nod she gives me. Even Mira tenses.

“I’ve seen it,” Melgren continues. “They come for us on solstice, and they win.”

Shit, he said exactly what he meant. A chill races up my spine as the blood drains from my face. If Samara falls, if any of the outposts do, wyvern would have unfettered access to parts of Navarre the ward extensions have protected for the last six hundred years.

Without the outposts, Basgiath’s wards would rebound to their natural limits, only a few hours’ flight, reaching nowhere near the border.

“How?” Ulices challenges, and the riders from Mira’s unit exchange disbelieving looks.

“Do me a favor,” I say to Xaden. “Forget feeling guilty about reading my intentions and please read theirs.”

“Everyone but the major on the right is shielded, but she’s scared shitless and intends to do whatever she needs to get us to agree,” he answers, shifting so his hand brushes the back of mine. “Oh, and she wants to eat after this meeting, and argue with your mother over her supposed affection for her daughters. Now put your shields up and block me—and everyone else—out.”

Holy shit. No wonder inntinnsics aren’t allowed to live. Xaden is both a jaw-dropping weapon and a frightening liability. I do as he suggests, only leaving space for Tairn and the opaque, glimmering bond I feel with Andarna, even at this distance.

How isn’t how it works.” Melgren folds his arms across his chest, and Codagh bares his dripping teeth. “All that matters is that we lose on solstice.”

They lose. If the wards are breached, there’s no way to estimate the death toll. Every Navarrian civilian between the border and the wardstone’s natural limitations will be in mortal danger.

“Silver One?”

“I’m fine.” But I’m not.

“If you’ve already seen the outcome, then what the hell do you expect us to do about it?” Ulices challenges, lifting his hands as he shrugs.

My head turns in his direction, but I bite my tongue before I can reply that he obviously expects us to help.

“Change the outcome by fighting at our side.” Melgren frowns like he’s being forced to swallow rotten fruit. “In the battle I see, none of you are there.” He glances at Xaden.

“And we’re not going to be.” Ulices shakes his head. “We don’t fly for you.”

No, we fly for… Wait, who do we fly for? Not just Aretia, or even Tyrrendor. And if we’re willing to fight to defend the civilians of Poromiel,

why wouldn’t we fight to defend Navarrians, too?

“No, but you do fly for the Empyrean,” Mom interjects. “Dragonkind won’t stand aside if the hatching grounds in the Vale are compromised.”

“Your mother is presumptuous to speak on behalf of dragonkind,” Tairn mutters.

If the hatching grounds are compromised. Losing one outpost won’t take down the entire system, and half your riot left with us,” I remind her.

“And you’re proud of that? What you caused may very well be the reason we lose this battle!” the box-framed captain beside Mom snarls, lifting his shortsword in my direction.

I flip my dagger, pinching the tip in readiness to throw, but shadows jolt forward, knocking the sword from the captain’s hand and putting him on his ass.

Xaden clicks his tongue and wiggles his pointer finger. “No, no. I’d hate to lose the spirit of civility, wouldn’t you? We were all getting along so nicely.”

“Godsdamned traitor,” the captain spits out, fumbling for his sword before finding his feet. “Malek will meet you for your crimes.”

Mom sheathes a dagger I never saw her draw, her focus flicking between the captain and Xaden.

“Tried that. He didn’t want me—or any of us, remember?” Xaden scratches his relic with his empty hand.

“Enough,” Melgren shouts. “I don’t expect you to ally yourself with us for nothing. Fight for us at Samara, and I have it on King Tauri’s word that we will respect the independence of your riot…and the city you’ve taken refuge in.”

The breath freezes in my lungs. “Does he know about Aretia?” “I can’t tell.”

“We will not conscript your citizens for our army, nor will we drag your people into a border war you have no chance of winning.” Melgren shrugs.

“If you truly thought that, you would have invaded the second we left.” Mira sounds like she’s bored. “Unless you saw the battle didn’t go your way.”

“This is the only offer.” Melgren ignores Mira, focusing on Ulices. “If you are not our allies, then you are our enemies.”

Allies. That’s the logical answer.

“I think we’ll sit this one out,” Ulices says dismissively, as though he’s rejecting an offer of tea. “A kingdom who never comes to the aid of others doesn’t deserve aid in their time of need. Personally, I think you all deserve whatever the dark wielders do to you.”

I blink, everything in my body rebelling at the sentiment that civilians deserve to die because their leadership failed them, no matter who that leadership is.

“And you speak for your rebellion?” Melgren’s attention slides to Xaden. “Or does the heir apparent?”

Xaden doesn’t rise to the bait, nor does he argue against Ulices’s statement. But he’s going to, right?

The color drains from Mom’s face as she looks between Mira and me, past us, and for the first time in my life, I see her wobble, like someone has knocked her off her center.

Bootsteps sound behind me, but I can’t tear my gaze away from the emotions crossing Mom’s face in rapid succession long enough to look to see who it is, and honestly, I don’t need to.

“We rule by committee,” Brennan announces, his arm brushing mine as he stops between Mira and me. “And I think I’m safe in speaking for the quorum when I say that we do not defend kingdoms who sacrifice neighboring civilians”— his head turns toward Mom, and her eyes bulge

—“let alone their own children so they can hide safely behind their wards. You will not escape the suffering you’ve forced the rest of the Continent to endure.”

“Brennan?” Mom whispers, and the urge to cross the line and hold her upright is almost too strong to fight.

“For fuck’s sake, Brennan,” Mira whispers.

“When all three of your children stand against you, perhaps the time has come for self-reflection. This meeting is officially over,” Brennan states, his gaze locked on our mother. “Your hatching grounds are not in danger, and

our riot has their own to protect now.” He places his hand over his heart. “I mean this with every fiber of my body. We deny your offer of peace and happily accept war, since it sounds like you won’t survive another two weeks to fight it.” He pivots and walks away, leaving our mother to stare slack-jawed at his retreating back.

Is that all there is to it? With Suri and Kylynn in the woods behind us, the Assembly truly has a quorum, but Xaden hasn’t spoken.

“Right.” Xaden nods, tension straining the muscles of his neck. “If I were you, I’d try calling on the allies who helped win the Great War in the first place— oh, wait. You cut off contact with them centuries ago. I suppose this really is farewell.”

I glance up at him and quickly school my features to mask my surprise. They’re really going to leave them to die. We are going to leave them to die. Wrath shines in Melgren’s narrowed eyes. “We’re done here. Do what you need to say goodbye,” he says to my mother before leaving the field, walking toward the trees as Codagh moves with him, slinking backward and baring his teeth in warning for anyone foolish enough to attack his

rider’s back.

All the Navarrian riders beside Mom follow.

“Brennan,” Mom whispers again, her shoulders folding inward as she covers her mouth with her hand. Her eyes water, and the pain I see there makes me look away.

Our riders make quick work of mounting, leaving only Xaden, Mira, and me on the field.

“Why did you want to see Violet and Mira?” Xaden asks, his tone devoid of sympathy.

“He’s alive?” Mom asks Mira, her voice faint in what I think has to be shock.

“Obviously,” she replies, folding her arms.

Mom’s gaze shifts to me, like I’m going to give her a different answer. “He’s the one who mended me after I took a venin blade in my side.”

Her eyes sharpen. “You’ve known for months?”

“It’s appalling to be left in the dark, isn’t it, Mom?” Mira snaps. “To feel lied to, perhaps even betrayed, by your own family no less.”

“Mira,” I chastise.

“She sacrificed you, too, Violet,” Mira reminds me. “Maybe she put you into the Riders Quadrant to save you from being killed as a scribe once you learned the truth, or maybe she did it to kill you before you could learn the truth and tear her precious war college to the ground”—she glances sideways at me—“which you did, if you remember.”

Mom straightens her shoulders and lifts her chin, pulling herself together with astonishing, enviable speed. “I need a word with my daughters,” she says to Xaden.

He arches his scarred brow, then looks to me for my decision.

I nod. If what Melgren says is true and she’s called to the front lines, this might be the last time I see her. The thought sickens my stomach. It’s one thing to leave her, to cut any and all contact, and quite another to leave her to her death.

Xaden backs away without another word, only offering his back once he passes by Tairn’s claw.

“What do you want?” Mira asks.

“I’m not sure that matters at the moment.” Mom unbuttons her flight jacket with trembling fingers. “But I want most—what I’ve always wanted

—is for my children to live. Whatever wards you’ve raised from the instructions in Warrick’s journal will fail.”

Mira stiffens. “Our wards are fine.” She lies just as effortlessly as Xaden.

“They’re not.” Mom delivers a full lecture with a simple look. “Cut open the bodies of the wyvern who died crossing your border yesterday.”

My lips part.

“Whyever would you think I’d be ignorant of activities on your border, Violet? Ignorant of where my daught—children are?” She shakes her head and dresses me down with a quick, cutting glance that makes me instantly feel like I’m five again before turning to Mira. “You remember what the

carcasses of the wyvern looked like at Samara? The ones Riorson so kindly delivered?”

Mira nods.

“The stones used to create them were nothing but cold, marked rocks.” Stones? Do dark wielders have runes?

“Yes. I was there.” Mira’s tone sharpens.

“If you don’t believe me, then check the wyvern you killed yesterday.” “And then what?” I ask.

“Fix your wards.” She pulls a leather notebook from her jacket, and my eyes widen with recognition. “If you don’t, they’ll decline over time to nothing. Your father told me once that his research showed that Warrick never wanted anyone else to hold the power of the wards. He wanted Navarre to eternally hold the upper hand. But Lyra thought the knowledge should be shared.”

“Warrick lied,” I whisper. But about what?

She hands me the journal I’d been tortured for stealing, then nails my soul to the ground with the intensity of her gaze. “You have the heart of a rider but the mind of a scribe, Violet. I’m trusting you not only to protect yourself, but to protect Mira and”—she swallows hard—“Brennan.”

I open the journal long enough to recognize the language as Morainian. My heart sinks for a second, but I close the journal, undo the buttons of my jacket, and slide it into my inner pocket. Translating this one will be all on Jesinia. Morainian is one of the dead languages I can’t read.

She looks longingly over my shoulder, then glances at both Mira and me in turn. “You don’t have to understand my choices. You simply have to survive. I love you enough to bear the weight of your disappointment.” Before either of us responds, she turns on her heel and walks past Aimsir and disappears into the woods.

“Think she’s full of shit?” Mira asks. “I think the fliers can wield.”

“Good point.”

On the flight back to Aretia, Mira and I break away from formation and head for the nearest wyvern carcass within our borders. Xaden stays true to

his lesson-learned proclamation and doesn’t argue when we separate from the riot.

A half hour—and some creative knife work on Mira’s part—after locating the pair of wyvern bodies, Mira draws back a polished chunk of what appears to be onyx marked with a complex rune I couldn’t even begin to replicate.

And the damned thing is humming.

Oh shit. Is this why wyvern have suddenly reappeared? Did someone give the venin runes?

As if the stone has called to its partner, the carcass twenty feet away shudders, and our heads whip toward the giant, golden eye that blinks open.

“Fuck, no,” Mira whispers, drawing her sword.

But I’m already an open gate to Tairn’s power, and when I throw out my palms, it rips free, unleashed by my panic. Lightning cracks, flashing my vision to white and hitting its mark.

The blast knocks Mira and me backward, slamming us against the cold, stiff body of the wyvern behind us. Pain ripples down my spine, but everything seems to be where it’s supposed to as my ass hits the ground beside my sister.

We both sit in stunned silence, watching the now-smoking, charred wyvern for signs of movement.

“You’re sure lightning kills them?” Mira asks after a few tense minutes. “Certain,” I answer. “Thank Dunne the dark wielders didn’t stick around

longer to see that.” The cliffside would be littered with reanimating wyvern. She slowly turns her head to look at me, keeping an eye on the body.

“No pressure, but if you don’t figure out what Warrick lied about, we’re all fucked.”

“Right.” Because I did such a great job the first time. And I don’t even know Morrainian. I’ll have to rely fully on Jesinia to translate and compare the two. I draw a shaky breath. “No pressure.”

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