Chapter no 58

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

“Stubborn asshole,” I mutter, turning just before the auditorium and heading to the sparring gym. Talking to Brennan has gotten me

exactly nowhere over the last week, and his quick, effective dismissal of my genuine plea for him to reconsider the Assembly’s position on the Samara problem has my blood boiling.

I push the doors open a little harder than necessary and find the sparring gym to be as empty as I’d expect at ten at night in the middle of a weekend, and dimly lit by the cool glow of mage lights hovering above each individual mat.

Xaden stands on the mat in the very center of the gym, feet apart and arms folded across his chest, wearing sparring gear and that carefully constructed mask of indifference he’s known for.

“I thought you were kidding when I got your note.” I close the door behind me, then focus on the lock and turn my hand in midair, channeling just enough power to hear the bolt slide home with a satisfying click. “I haven’t seen you in a week, and this is where you want to meet?”

He’d been sent to monitor Draithus right after our return from Athebyne. “Figured we’d be fighting. What better place for that than the sparring gym?” He stands completely still, waiting for me to come to him. His usual

swords are missing, but he has two daggers strapped to his hip.

“You now have a warded bedroom,” I remind him, stepping onto the mat. Though I’m not sure how strong those wards are given that our method for raising Aretia’s wards was obviously flawed.

We now have a warded bedroom,” he corrects me, his gaze sweeping over me hungrily as I walk forward, stopping only a couple of feet away from him.

I can’t blame him when I’m doing exactly the same, drinking in every detail of his appearance. Whether or not I’m still pissed about his latest reveal, I’ve missed him every minute he was gone, just like always. “What exactly are we fighting about? The Assembly voting to leave Navarre to fend for itself? Or the secret you kept from me again?”

His jaw flexes. “The majority voted once we returned, and though the details of that vote are classified, I’ll break regulation and tell you that I lost.”

“Oh.” The sharpest edge of my anger dulls. “And you’d rather discuss the second issue in here? Where anyone can walk in and hear us?”

“Unless there’s a full inntinnsic around, no one can hear us like this.” He gestures to the empty gym. Extending a hand, he crooks his fingers at me. “Come on. I know you’re pissed, and no, I don’t need the bond between us to catch on to that. It’s in every line of your face, the purse of your lips, the tension in your shoulders.”

I purposefully relax my posture. “You’re right, you don’t need the bond.” “See? Still pissed.” He moves so quickly I barely have a chance to get

my hands up before he sweeps my feet out from underneath me.


He topples with me, bracing my fall with one hand and catching his weight with the other. The wind may not have been knocked out of me, but I’m breathless all the same. My hands brace on his chest, and his face is inches from mine, filling my vision and blocking out the world around us.

“I’m not sparring with you.”

“Why?” His brow knits in confusion. “You have a better teacher? I have heard that Emetterio is teaching you a variety of new techniques, since venin adapt to our fighting styles so quickly.”

“He is. But I’m not sparring with you because I really want to kick your ass.” I shake my head, my braid catching slightly on the mat beneath me.

“Oh, you think you can hurt me.” His slow grin makes me narrow my eyes.

I shift a hand and whip a dagger from a sheath at my ribs, putting it against the warm skin of his throat, right along the swirling lines of his relic. “I don’t need to dignify that comment with a response.” Fuck him. I make sure my shields are down so he hears it.

His eyes flare with something that looks like pride, and he leans into the blade.

I retreat just enough that it doesn’t draw blood. Guess we both just proved our point.

“You’re capable of hurting me in ways I’m not sure you’ve even begun to fathom, Violet. I might be skilled enough to land a death blow, but you alone have the power to fucking destroy me.” His hand slides out from behind my back to help bolster his weight. “Now, we can talk here, or we can see if Sgaeyl and Tairn are done fighting and fly through this snowstorm to the nearest vacant peak, but make no mistake, we’re going to work this out.”

I slide the blade back into its sheath, then lift my hand to his chest again. “On a sparring mat?” His heart beats beneath my fingertips, strong and steady, unlike mine, which pounds like a drum. I’ve had a week to process, a week to wish he was around so I could yell at him, but also a week to ruminate on the logical reasons why he wouldn’t have told me.

The foremost of them being that he values his life.

“Sure as hell not in our bedroom.” His knee separates mine. “We don’t fight in there.”

“Since when?” That’s the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever heard. It’s the only private space we have in this entire house.

“Since right now. I just made that rule. No fighting in our bedroom.” “That’s not how this works.”

“Sure it is.” He drops his gaze to my mouth. “We make the rules when they come to us. Go ahead, make one.”

“A rule?” I draw my leg up, bracing my foot on the ground so I’ll have leverage if I want it, but the movement also drags my inner thigh up the side of his hip, and damn if that doesn’t instantly summon an ache he’s in prime position to ease.


“We don’t keep secrets. No more ask me. No more tests to see who’s in and who’s out of this relationship. It’s full disclosure between us…” I take a steadying breath and map out the golden flecks in his eyes just in case it’s the last time. “Or it’s nothing.”


“I’m serious.” My hand slips up his chest to the juncture of his shoulder and his neck. “Even though I know you were right. I wasn’t asking the right questions because I was afraid of the answers—and maybe I still am, given the fact that you’re never completely open with me. Almost everyone in my life has kept secrets from me because I didn’t ask the right questions, didn’t look further than face value, and I understand that there will be times you can’t tell me everything—that’s the nature of what we do as riders—but I need you to stop setting me up for failure by insisting I figure out what there is to ask.”

“Done.” He nods. “I just…” A muscle in his jaw flexes.

“You just?” My fingers slide up the warm column of his neck and into his hair.

“I need to know you’ll be here. That no matter what happens, you’ll come back so we can talk it out or fight it out.” His gaze drops to my mouth, then skims over my features.

My heart clenches, and I slide my hand along his chest, around his ribs, to his back, and then I hold on. “Done.”

The lines between his brows smooth. “I need you to know that no matter what information I hold, you trust me, love me enough to realize I’d never let it hurt you. I’m not the easiest person to know, but I’ve learned my lesson, believe me. Even if it’s classified, I won’t withhold any information that affects your agency.” He swallows, then balances his weight on one

arm and runs the back of his hand down the side of my cheek. “I need to know you won’t run, that you know you’ll never have to.”

“I love you,” I whisper. “You could throw my entire world into upheaval, and I would still love you. You could keep secrets, run a revolution, frustrate the shit out of me, probably ruin me, and I would still love you. I can’t make it stop. I don’t want to. You’re my gravity. Nothing in my world works without you.”

“Gravity,” he whispers, a slow, beautiful smile curving his mouth.

“The one force we can never escape,” I tease. Then my smile falls. “I mean it, though.” I lift my brows at him. “You have to let me all the way in, or all the love in the world won’t hold this together. I am a person who needs information to center myself.”

“Done,” he whispers. “Want to know about my father? My grandfather and Sgaeyl? The rebellion?”

Maybe something easier. “Where’s your mother?” He startles but quickly masks the reflex.

“No one talks about her,” I continue. “There are no paintings, no references to her being at the Calldyr executions. Nothing. It’s like you were hatched and not born.”

The moment stretches between us.

“She left when I was young. Their marriage contract said an heir had to survive to the age of ten, and then she was free to go, which is what she did. I haven’t seen or heard from her since.” His voice sounds like he dragged it across broken glass.

“Oh.” My hand splays wide on his chest. “I’m sorry.” Now I feel like shit for asking.

“I’m not.” He shrugs. “What else do you want to know? Because I can’t do this again. I can’t go through months of uncertainty fighting to get you back, not knowing if I’ve fucked up the only thing that really matters in my life.” His eyes close briefly. “Not that I won’t if that’s what you need.”

“When did it manifest?” I slide my hand up to his neck. “The signet?” “About a month after the shadows did. I’d already seen Carr kill

another first-year for reading minds, so when it hit, I held my shit together

and went to Sgaeyl, and when Carr asked if I’d had any other strange abilities emerge, since they knew Sgaeyl had bonded one of my relatives, I lied my ass off. And when my ability to control shadows seemed stronger than they’d expected, they had no reason to dig deeper.” A corner of his mouth tilts upward. “It helps that rider of record was thought to be a great uncle, not my grandfather.”

“She’s really the only one who knows?”

“She’s it. She made me promise not to tell anyone. She thinks anyone who knows will have me killed—or use me as a weapon.”

“Shit, isn’t that exactly what I did?” The second we were with Melgren, I’d asked—

“No,” he whispers, lifting a hand and brushing the backs of his fingers along my cheek. “You asked me for the good of the mission, but you’d never use it for personal gain.” He leans in, resting his forehead against mine. “Tell me we’re all right. Tell me this didn’t break us.”

“Promise you won’t use it on me again.” I hold his gaze and curl my fingers into the fabric of his shirt.

“I promise,” he whispers, then kisses me softly. “Now, do you want your presents?”

“Presents?” I arch my body up against his.

“You lost two of your daggers fighting Solas. I had two new ones made.” A slow smile spreads across his face. “Just have to disarm me, and they’re yours.”

I slide my hand down his chest and do just that.

December nineteenth. I write the date on the next blank sheet of parchment in my notebook, then stare. We’re two days away from

solstice, and still the Assembly won’t budge. But it’s only an eight-hour flight to Samara, so I’m holding on to the hope that we’ll do the right thing. “Anything in Lyra’s journal?” Rhiannon asks as she slides into the seat

next to me at Battle Brief.

Nearly every head in our squad turns toward me, and the weight of their expectations forms a pit in my stomach. It’s the same question every day, and I don’t have an answer.

“I told you guys, once she finishes, I’ll let you know.” It only took one frustrating day trying to translate and failing before I handed it over to Jesinia.

I haul my new conduit out of my pack and set it in my lap. Felix gave them to every second- and third-year last week, and theirs are out, too, the riders imbuing shiny pieces of alloy for daggers with every spare second and ounce of energy they have. But mine has a special addition I asked him for after our battle with Solas: a strap of a bracelet to keep from losing it in combat. It’s long enough to let the orb slide into my palm, but keeps it strapped to my arm in case I need to free myself for hand-to-hand.

The fliers have been working on carving shimmering maorsite arrowheads to fill their quivers as well.

Over the last two weeks since our meeting with Melgren, the atmosphere has changed from war college to straight up war. There’s a nervous energy in the house that reminds me of the charge in the air just before a storm. All second-and third-years are being instructed in runes, and even I can admit, Cat is still the best of our year. She’s the only one of us who’s mastered a tracking rune, capable of tracking someone else’s rune. Mind-blowing.

Our forge is glowing nonstop to produce weapons, and every rider has been pulled from the coastal outposts and pushed to the border regions, both with Navarre and Poromiel.

“Settle down!” Professor Devera orders from the center of the stage as Brennan joins her, and the theater quickly falls quiet. “That’s better.”

Ridoc puts his feet up on the chair ahead of him, and Rhiannon swats them down, leveling a behave-or-else look at him.

“What?” he grumbles, sitting up straight. “You’ve heard the death roll for the last week. No losses to discuss.”

“As most of you know, we have no new attacks to report,” Devera begins, and Ridoc shoots Rhi an I-told-you-so raise of his brows. “But what

we do have is an updated map we think is over ninety percent accurate, thanks to flying patrols.”

She turns toward the giant map of the Continent and lifts her hands. Red flags begin moving in an undeniable pattern, pulling away from known strongholds and gathering to the east.

Most settle directly across the border from Samara, while a few red flags spread out along our border.

“They’ve left Pavis,” Ridoc notes, leaning forward.

“They’ve left…everywhere in the south,” Sawyer adds. “And the Tyrrish border, too.”

The north, in the provinces of Cygnisen and Braevick, is still spattered with red.

“But not Zolya.” Maren sighs a few seats down on the left, and Cat presses her lips in a tight line next to her.

They obviously don’t know our wards aren’t operating at full strength.

“What can you ascertain from their reported movements?” Devera asks,turning back around to face us.

Brennan folds his arms in front of his chest and looks down at his feet before lifting his gaze to us. I know that look. He’s feeling guilty.


“They’re preparing for the battle Melgren foresaw,” a rider from Third Wing calls out.

At least the Assembly isn’t keeping Melgren’s request a secret—just how they individually voted in regard to taking action on it.

“Agreed,” Devera says, nodding in his direction. “It’s hard to get an accurate count, but we estimate upward of five hundred wyvern.” She glances at Brennan and, when he doesn’t speak, continues. “And there are dark wielders among them.”

A litany of swear words is mumbled throughout the theater.

“And why is it we’re not engaging?” someone from First Wing asks. “Because we’re spiteful,” Quinn says from behind me.

“What was that, cadet?” Devera calls her out.

Quinn shifts in her seat, but when I glance back, her head is held high. “I said because we’re spiteful,” she repeats, louder this time.

“Nailed it,” Rhi says under her breath.

Brennan clears his throat. “We’re not engaging because the Assembly voted and decided that the casualty rate among riders and fliers would be far too great. A battle this size could annihilate our forces, leaving the rest of the Continent undefended.”

I shake my head at just how familiar that reasoning sounds.

“Some of us have family in Navarre,” Avalynn says, a row in front of me with the other first-years in our squad. “Are we supposed to just sit back and wait to hear if they die?”

“They should have left,” a rider retorts from somewhere in the vicinity of Second Wing.

“Not everyone has the means to pick up their entire lives and move just because a war is coming, you elitist prick,” Avalynn counters, her voice rising.

She has a point, and the mutters of agreement throughout the wings rise in volume and pitch.

“This is not what Battle Brief is for!” Devera shouts.

We quiet down, but the energy has shifted, and it’s not in a positive direction.

“Let’s spin this another way,” Brennan says. “If you were Melgren, what would you be doing right now?”

“Shitting myself,” Ridoc answers.

Brennan rubs the bridge of his nose. “Other than that?”

“Bolstering the wards,” Rhiannon offers. “As long as they remain at full power, this is all just bluster on the part of the enemy.”

“Excellent point, Cadet Matthias.” Brennan nods.

“So he has to choose between arming his forces or keeping the power supply concentrated in the armory?” That question comes out of First Wing. “Another excellent point,” Brennan agrees. “What’s the problem with

arming the forces?”

“Spreading out the daggers lessens the efficacy as a power supply for the wards,” Rhiannon replies. “Even if the energy isn’t actively being spent killing dark wielders, the wards are still weaker.”

“Right.” Brennan looks straight at me. “And what would you choose to do, Cadet Sorrengail?”

“Besides actually fight to defend innocent civilians?” The words are out of my mouth before I can think twice about calling my brother out in public.

“If you were Melgren.” His head tilts, and from that look, I know I’m going to get the mother of all lectures after this.

I study the map for a heartbeat. “I’d have pulled every dagger from the coastal outposts to reinforce and boost the power supplies at the border outposts. They’re powerless once they cross the wards. Wyvern die. Venin can’t channel. That leaves them with hand-to-hand combat—”

“Or artillery,” Cat adds.

“Exactly.” I glance at her and nod. “As long as the Navarrian forces can physically repel the dark wielders and keep them from scattering the power supply in the armory, then there’s no real danger of incursion.”

“And that’s exactly my point.”

“But Melgren saw them being defeated,” a flier from Second Wing says. “Let’s run with that thought.” Devera gestures at the map. “Should the

wards at Samara fall, what would happen?”

“They’d have a direct line to the hatching ground,” someone answers.

“No,” I reply. “That portion of the wards would fall back to its natural distance, about a three- or four-hour flight from Basgiath, just like ours. The power supplies in the outposts extend the wards, they don’t create them, so while a large piece of Navarre would be unprotected—” Blinking, my gaze finds my brother’s.

He nods.

Melgren was bluffing, banking on us not fully understanding how the wards work. He used a scare tactic to get us to agree to fight.

“Did you want to finish that thought, cadet?” Devara asks.

My mind spins as my heart lurches into my throat. I stare at the map, at the thin line of the border that remains uncrossed by what appears to be an undefeatable legion of the enemy, and a thought so terrifying I can barely reach for it begins to take hold. “How old is this information?”

“I’m sorry?” Devera’s brows rise.

“How long have they been sitting on the border?” I clarify, my nails biting into the palms of my hands as I tighten my fists, pushing down the fear threatening to consume me.

She glances at Brennan, who replies, “They’ve been there for three days.

This morning’s report confirms they haven’t moved.” Oh gods.

“We act now.” Tairn’s voice rumbles through my head.

I stuff everything into my bag as Devera calls on another rider to answer a question.

“What are you doing?” Rhi asks in a whisper, and I notice almost every member of my squad has turned to watch.

“I need to find Xaden.” I sling my pack over my shoulders and slip my arms through the straps, preparing to stand. “It’s not Samara.”

“All right.” Rhiannon puts her things away, and the rest of the squad follows her lead. “We’re coming with you.”

There’s no time to argue, so I nod and we all file out, earning us a few shouted protests from Devera, but the sound only blurs into the roaring in my ears as my thoughts spin faster and faster.

The hallway is relatively empty, since every cadet is at Battle Brief, making for a quick exit from the western wing of the house.

“Where are you?” I ask down the bond.

“In a strategy meeting in the Assembly chamber,” Xaden answers.


I’m headed your way. I need you.” We pass the doors to the history classroom and then the great hall.

“Is anyone going to tell us why we just walked out of Battle Brief?” Cat asks, a few steps behind me.

“Violet has a look in her eyes,” Rhiannon explains, keeping up at my side.

“The same one she had before the Squad Battle last year,” Sawyer says. “She’s onto something, and from our experience, you just roll with it,”

Rhiannon finishes.

Xaden walks out of the Assembly chamber and heads straight for me, meeting us in the middle of the hallway. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s not Samara we have to worry about.”

“Why?” He keeps his eyes on me despite the shuffling of my squadmates.

“Because they’re sitting there waiting,” I explain. “They’ve been waiting for three days. Why?”

“If I knew their thought process, this war would be over,” he replies.

“Melgren says they’re overrun on solstice. That’s the day after tomorrow.” Gods, we’re going to have to move quickly.

He nods.

“Wyvern aren’t going to take down the wards at Samara. They can’t fly past them. Plus, smaller hordes were moved along the full border. I think Samara is just a distraction. I think they’re waiting for them all to fall.”

His eyes flare for a heartbeat.

“The battle can’t take place somewhere else,” Sawyer argues. “Melgren would see it.”

“Not if we’re there,” Sloane counters. “Melgren can’t see the outcome if three of us are there, remember?” She holds up her forearm, where her relic winds above the edge of her sleeve.

“Exactly.” My fingernails bite into my palms. “He can’t see the real fight if we’re there. He has all his forces concentrating on Samara, when they should be—”

“At Basgiath,” Xaden finishes my thought, his eyes searching mine. “The Vale.”


“Do you want to go back?” he asks. “Of course we do,” Ridoc answers.

“I wasn’t asking you.” Xaden holds my gaze. “Do you want to go?”

Do I? Navarre has lied to their people—lied to us—for six hundred years.

“They would never come to our aid,” Sloane says.

“They’ve definitely never come to ours,” Cat agrees.

They’ve let Poromish civilians die time and again, safely tucked behind their wards, pulling the blindfold over Navarrian citizens’ lives.

“The hatching grounds are there,” Rhiannon argues.

“We have our own here,” Trager counters. At least I think it’s Trager, since I can’t seem to look away from Xaden.

He’s the stable ground beneath my feet as my mind spins faster and faster, my squadmates voicing contradicting opinions that match my own thoughts.

“My family is in Morraine,” Avalynn pleads.

The voices behind me blur as they truly begin to argue.

“We’d have to leave almost immediately,” Xaden says, his voice cutting through the noise.

“They lied to us. Executed your father. Tortured me.” I force myself to stop counting their transgressions before they overwhelm my conscience.


“I keep thinking about the infantry cadets, and the healers, and even the scribes.

People like Kaori stayed behind, those who just want to defend their homeland.” Reaching forward, I grasp onto his arms to hold steady as the argument rages around us, and I get the distinct impression by the increase in volume that we’re not the only squad out here anymore.


“If we don’t go, we’re no better than they are, leaving their civilians to die when we might be the very weapons they need.” My grip tightens on him.

“Do you want to fight?” he asks, leaning down as the argument lessens around us, everyone waiting to hear what I say next, probably. “Say the

word, and I’ll take it to the Assembly. And if they won’t support it, we’ll go with whomever will. I go where you go.”

The thought of risking my friends, losing them, has my stomach churning. I don’t want to put Tairn and Andarna into danger. I would rather die than gamble with Xaden’s life. But is there really a choice? Going might risk death, but staying risks us becoming just like our enemy.

“We have to.”

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