Chapter no 8

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

Conscription Day looks a little different on this side of it. I lean over the crenelations of the tower in the main war college and take note of the length of the line as the bells ring the ninth hour, but I avoid noticing the features of the individual candidates as they file in, starting up the long,

winding staircase that will bring them to the parapet.

I don’t need any more faces in my nightmares.

“They’re starting up the stairs,” I tell Rhiannon, who stands poised with a quill and the roll.

“They look nervous,” Nadine says, leaning recklessly far over the edge of the tower to see the candidates lined up stories below.

They aren’t the only ones. I’m four steps away from Dain and his memory-stealing hands that could pluck every secret from my head.

I lock my shields in place just like Xaden taught me and fantasize about shoving Dain off the tower.

He’s made one attempt to talk to me, which I quickly shut down. And the look on his face? What the hell kind of right does he have to look… heartbroken?

“Weren’t you nervous?” Rhiannon asks Nadine. “Personally, I wouldn’t have made it across without Vi here.”

I shrug and hop onto the wall, taking a seat to the left of Rhi. “I only gave you a little more traction. You had the courage and balance to make it


“It’s not raining like it was during our Parapet.” Nadine looks up at the cloudless July sky and wipes the sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand. “Hopefully more of them make it across.” She glances my way. “You’d have thought your mother would have held off the storm last year, considering you were crossing.”

“Clearly you don’t know my mother.” She wouldn’t call the storm to kill me like a coward, but she sure as hell wouldn’t stop it to save me, either.

“Only ninety-one dragons have agreed to bond this year,” Dain says, leaning back against the wall beside the entrance to the parapet. He’s in the exact position Xaden was in last year and has the same exact insignia on his shoulder— wingleader. The asshole gets Liam and Soleil killed and is promoted as a reward. Go figure. “More candidates making it across isn’t going to equal more riders.” He glances my way but quickly averts his gaze.

Nadine opens the wooden door at the top of the turret and glances down the stairwell. “They’re about halfway up.”

“Good.” Dain pushes off the wall. “Remember the rules. Matthias and Sorrengail, your jobs are only to take the final roll before Parapet. Don’t engage—”

“We know the rules.” I brace my hands on the wall beside my thighs and wonder for the tenth time since I woke up this morning when Xaden will arrive today.

Maybe then I can address the three books on the craft of weaving fabric into traditional Tyrrish knots he left for me—strips of fabric included—on the desk of my new room on the second-year floor. It’s not like I need a hobby.

But the note Xaden left on the stack of books? The one that read I meant what I said on the parapet. Even when I’m not with you, there’s only you. That needed no explanation.

He’s fighting.

“Fine,” Dain says, drawing out the word as he stares at me. “And Nadine


“I don’t have a job.” Nadine shrugs and picks at the strings of her uniform where she cut the sleeves off. “I was just bored.”

Dain frowns at Rhiannon. “Running a tight ship there, squad leader.” What an ass.

“There are no regulations about four riders on the turret during Parapet,” she counters. “Don’t even get me started this morning, Aetos.” She looks up from her perfectly numbered scroll and raises a finger. “And if you even think about telling me to call you wingleader, I’ll remind you that Riorson did a hell of a job without needing everyone to supplicate themselves to him.”

“Because he scared the shit out of everyone,” Nadine mutters. “Well, everyone except Violet.”

I fight my smile and lose as Dain tenses, clearly at a loss for words.

“Since it’s only us,” Rhiannon says, “what do you know about the new vice commandant?”

“Varrish? Nothing besides the fact that he’s a complete hard-ass who thinks the quadrant has gone soft in the years since he graduated,” Dain answers. “He’s friends with my father.”


“Yeah, it’s a real daydream around here,” Rhiannon responds sarcastically.

After Resson, I’m starting to realize that there’s a purpose to pushing us to the point of breaking. Better to shatter in here than get your friends killed once we leave.

“Here they come,” Nadine says, moving out of the way as the first candidates reach the top, their chests heaving from the climb.

“They look so young,” I tell Tairn, shifting my weight on the wall and wishing I’d been a little more careful wrapping my left knee this morning. Sweat has already loosened the brace, and the slipping fabric annoys the shit out of me.

“So did you,” he replies with a low growl. He’s been pissy for the past two days, and I can’t blame him. He’s torn between doing exactly what he wants— flying to Sgaeyl—and seeing me punished for his actions.

The first candidate’s gaze swings from Nadine’s purple hair to the crown of mine, showing all its silver in my usual coronet braid. “Name?” I ask.

“Jory Buell,” she says, struggling to catch her breath. She’s tall, with good boots and what looks to be a balanced pack, but her exertion is going to work against her on the parapet.

“Step up,” Dain orders. “Once you’re on the other side, you’ll give your name to the roll keeper.”

The girl nods as Rhiannon jots her name down in the first slot.

All of the advice Mira gave me last year races through my mind, but I’m not allowed to give it. This is a whole other kind of challenge, to stand by and do nothing while these candidates risk their lives trying to become…us.

For many of them, we’ll be the last faces they see. “Good luck.” That’s all I’m allowed to say.

She starts across the parapet, and the next candidate steps up to take her place. Rhiannon takes down his name, and Dain waits until Jory is a third of the way across before letting the boy start.

I watch the first few candidates, my heart in my throat as I remember the terror and uncertainty of this day last year. When a candidate slips at the quarter mark and falls, the ravine below swallowing the last of his screams, I stop watching to see if they make it to the other side. My heart can’t take it.

Two hours in, I’m asking their names with zero intention of remembering them, but I take note of the especially aggressive ones, like the bull of a guy with a deeply cleft chin who charges across, tossing the scrawny red-haired candidate struggling at the midway point without hesitation.

A little piece of me dies watching the cruelty of it, and it’s a struggle to remember that every single candidate is here by their own choice. They’re all volunteers, unlike the other quadrants, which take conscripts who pass the entrance exam.

“Jack Barlowe Junior,” Rhiannon notes under her breath. I don’t miss the way Dain flinches and looks my way.

Blowing out a slow breath, I turn toward the next in line, trying to forget how Barlowe put me into the infirmary last year. I shiver at the memory of the way he forced pure energy into me through his hands that day on the mat, rattling my bones.

“Nam—” I start, but the word dies on my tongue as I stare in shock at the candidate standing far above me. He’s taller than Dain but shorter than Xaden, with a muscular build and strong chin, and though his sandy-brown hair is shorter than the last time I saw him, I’d recognize those features, those eyes, anywhere. “Cam?”

What the hell is he doing here?

His green eyes flare with surprise, then blink with recognition. “Aaric… Graycastle.”

His middle name I recognize, but the last? “Did you just make that up?” I whisper at him. “Because it’s awful.”

“Aaric. Graycastle,” he repeats, his jaw flexing. He lifts his chin with the same arrogance I’ve seen in every single one of his brothers and especially his father. Even if I didn’t recognize him from the dozens of times our parents’ lives have tossed us into the same room, those startling green eyes mark him the same way my hair does me. He’s not going to fool anyone who’s ever met his father or any of his brothers.

I glance over at Dain, who openly stares at Cam—Aaric.

“You sure about this?” Dain asks, and the concern in his eyes gives me a glimpse of my Dain again, but it’s short-lived. That version of Dain, the one I could always depend on, died the day he stole my memories and set us on a collision course with venin. “You cross that parapet, and there’s no going back.”

Aaric nods.

“Aaric Graycastle,” I repeat to Rhiannon, who writes it down but clearly knows something is up.

“Does your father know?” Dain murmurs to Aaric.

“It’s none of his business,” he replies, stepping up to the parapet and rolling his shoulders. “I’m twenty.”

“Right, because that’s going to make a difference when he realizes what you’re doing,” Dain retorts, ripping his hand through his hair. “He’ll kill us all.”

“Are you going to tell him?” Aaric asks.

Dain shakes his head and looks to me like I have an answer for any of this when he’s the fucking wingleader.

“Good, then do me a favor and ignore me,” he says to Dain. But not me.

“We’re Second Squad, Flame Section, Fourth Wing,” I tell Aaric. Maybe I can convince the others to keep it to themselves if they recognize him.

Dain opens his mouth.

“Not today,” I tell him, shaking my head. He snaps his mouth shut.

Aaric adjusts his pack and starts across the parapet, and I can’t bring myself to watch.

“Who was that?” Rhiannon asks.

“Officially? Aaric Graycastle,” I tell her.

She lifts a brow, and guilt settles in my stomach.

There are too many secrets between us already, and this is something I can give her. Something she deserves to know, since I just directed him to our squad. “Between us?” I whisper, and she looks over at me with an arched brow. “King Tauri’s third son.”

“Oh shit.” She looks over her shoulder at the parapet.

“Pretty much. And I can guarantee his father doesn’t know what he’s doing.” Not with how he felt after Aaric’s older brother died during his Threshing three years ago.

“Should make for an easy year,” Rhiannon says sarcastically, then beckons the next person without missing a beat. “Name?”

“Sloane Mairi.”

My head whips in her direction, and my heart jumps into my throat. Same blond hair, though it’s currently tangling in the breeze past her shoulders. Same sky-blue eyes. Same rebellion relic winding around her arm. Liam’s little sister.

Rhiannon stares.

Dain looks like he’s seen a specter.

“With an ‘e’ on the end,” Sloane says, moving toward the steps and tucking her hair behind her ears nervously. It’s going to blow right back in her face with the next gust of wind, temporarily blinding her on the parapet, and I can’t let that happen.

I promised Liam I’d watch out for her.

“Stop.” I jump off the wall, then yank out the small leather band I keep in the front pocket of my uniform and hand it to her. “Tie your hair back first. Braid is best.”

Sloane startles.

“Vi—” Dain begins.

I glare over my shoulder at him. He’s the reason Liam isn’t here to protect Sloane himself. Rage courses through my veins, heating my skin. “Don’t you dare say another word, or I’ll blast you off this turret, Aetos.” Power crackles through my hands without being called and erupts overhead, streaking across the sky horizontally.


He sits, muttering something about losing every fight today.

Sloane takes the leather from me slowly, then braids her hair—simple and quick—tying it with the band and eyeing me the entire time with the three inches she has on me.

“Arms out for balance,” I tell her, nausea rolling through me at the risk she’s about to take. “Don’t let the wind sway your steps.” They were Mira’s words, and now they’re mine. “Keep your eyes on the stones ahead of you and don’t look down. If the pack slips, ditch it. Better you lose it than your life.”

She glances up at my hair, then down at the two patches sewn onto my summer uniform right above my heart. One is the Second Squad patch we won during the Squad Battle last year and the other is a bolt of lightning that branches off in four different directions. “You’re Violet Sorrengail.”

I nod, my tongue tying. I can’t think of the right words to say about how sorry I am for her loss. Anything that comes to mind isn’t enough.

Her expression shifts, and something that looks a lot like hatred fills her eyes as she leans down, her voice quieting so that I’m the only one who hears her say, “I know what really happened. You got my brother killed. He died for you.”

I can actually feel the blood drain from my face as I blink away the memory of Deigh crashing into the wyvern who’d come for Tairn, sending Liam flying across my saddle. He’d been so heavy that my shoulders had almost dislocated trying to keep him from falling.

“Yes.” I can’t deny it and I don’t look away. “I’m so sorry—”

“Go straight to hell,” she whispers. “And I really mean that. I hope no one commends your soul to Malek. I hope he rejects it. Liam was worth a dozen of your kind, and I hope you spend eternity paying for what you cost me, what you cost all of us.”

Yep, that look in her eyes is definitely hatred.

My heart abandons my body and lands somewhere in the vicinity of her recommendation.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Tairn says.

“It was.” And if I don’t pull my shit together right now, I’ll fail Liam all over again. “Feel free to hate me,” I say to Sloane, stepping aside and clearing the way to the parapet. “Just do me a favor and put your fucking arms out so you don’t see Liam before I do. Do it for him. Not me.” So much for the caring, gentle mentor I’d hoped to be for her.

She jerks her gaze from mine and steps up.

The wind kicks up and she wobbles, sending my heart rate spiking. “What in the angry-Mairi was that about?” Rhiannon asks.

I shake my head. I just…can’t.

Then the stubborn girl finally extends her arms and starts walking. I don’t look away. I watch every damned step she takes like my future is tied to hers. My breath freezes when she stumbles halfway across, and my lungs don’t fully expand until I see her reach the other side.

“She made it,” I whisper up to Liam. Then I take the next name.

Seventy-one candidates fall from the parapet, according to the rolls. That’s four more than our year.

An hour after the numbers are calculated, the quadrant assembles in typical formation—three columns per wing—and the roll keeper calls name after name, dividing the first-years into squads.

Our squad is nearly full and there’s still no sign of Sloane.

I looked for her in the courtyard earlier, but either she’s hiding from me… or she’s hiding from me. That’s the only logical answer.

Nadine, Ridoc, and I wait behind eight first-years shifting their weight, the living embodiment of anxiety. Aaric stands with impossibly perfect posture but keeps his head down next to a red-haired girl whose complexion is full-on green in the row ahead.

The fear radiating off them is palpable. It’s in every drop of sweat sliding down the stocky guy’s neck two rows ahead, in every bitten nail the brunette spits out onto the gravel next to him. It’s coming out of their pores.

“Is it me, or is this fucking weird?” Ridoc asks from my right.

“Fucking weird,” Nadine agrees. “I kind of want to tell them that it’s going to be okay—”

“It’s not polite to lie,” Imogen says from behind us, where she stands with Quinn, who looks downright bored as she trims the ends of her blond curls with a dagger. “Don’t get attached. They’re all dragon fodder until Threshing.”

The stocky-looking guy with deep umber skin looks over his shoulder, shooting a wide-eyed look at Imogen.

She stares him down and makes a circle with her forefinger, wordlessly telling him to turn around. He does.

“Be nice,” I whisper at her.

“I’ll be nice once I think they might stick around,” she replies.

“I thought you said it’s not polite to lie,” Ridoc counters with a grin, shaking his head in a way that makes the collar of his uniform move, but

not the tall spikes he’s somehow gelled his dark hair into today.

I blink, then lean closer to him, staring at the side of his neck. “What is… Did you get a tattoo?”

He smiles and pulls at his collar, showing off the inked tip of a swordtail on the warm brown skin of his neck, ending near the base of his collar. “It wraps to my shoulder, to Aotrom’s relic. Badass, right?”

“Badass.” Nadine nods in appreciation. “Absolutely,” I agree.

Visia Hawelynn is called to our squad. Her name is oddly familiar, and when she appears, moving into formation two rows ahead, I remember why. A burn scar sprawls from her collar to her hairline, curving along the right side of her face. She’s a repeat. She survived angering an Orange Daggertail at Threshing last year, but barely.

Sloane is called to First Wing.

“Shit,” I mutter. How the hell am I supposed to help her in an entirely different wing?

“I’d consider that a blessing,” Nadine says quietly. “She didn’t seem to be a fan.”

Dain steps forward on the dais to talk to Aura Beinhaven, the senior wingleader, and the daggers she has strapped to her upper arms glimmer in the sunlight as she nods her head in response. He glances my way, then crosses over to the roll-keeper at the edge of the dais and she pauses, lifting her pen to scribble something on the roll.

“Correction!” she calls out over the crowd. “Sloane Mairi to Second Squad, Flame Section, Fourth Wing.”

Yes! My shoulders dip in pure relief.

Dain walks back to his position, ignoring the reproachful stare from Vice Commandant Varrish, and his composure slips for the second it takes for him to shoot me an indecipherable look. What? Is Sloane supposed to be some kind of peace offering?

The roll-keeper moves on, placing the first-years in their squads.

Sloane appears a minute or two later, and my relief is short-lived when she opens her mouth. “No. I refuse. Any squad but this one.”


Rhiannon moves from her place at the front of our squad and gives Sloane a look that makes me glad I’m never on Rhi’s bad side. “Does it look like I give a shit what you want, Mairi?”

“Mairi?” Sawyer looks back through the lines of first-years that separate us, and a new patch on his shoulder makes me smile. He’s a fantastic choice for Rhi’s executive officer.

“Liam’s sister,” I tell him. His jaw slackens.

“No shit?” Ridoc glances between Sloane and me.

“No shit,” I respond. “Oh, and if you haven’t noticed, she already hates me.”

“I cannot be in the same squad as her!” Sloane glares at me with pure hate-fire in her eyes, but hey, her hair is still braided, so I’m calling that a win. She might loathe me, but maybe she’ll listen at least enough to stay alive.

“Stop disrespecting your squad leader and get in formation, Sloane,” Imogen hisses. “You’re acting like a spoiled aristocrat.”

“Imogen?” Sloane startles.

“Get. In. Formation,” Rhiannon orders. “I’m not asking, cadet.”

Sloane pales and steps into line in front of Nadine, taking our last first-year slot.

Rhiannon slides past Nadine and leans in close. “Pretty sure that girl wants you dead,” she whispers. “Any particular reason I should know about? Should I see if we can trade her to another squad?”

Yeah. I got her brother killed. He was sworn to protect me, and he lost his dragon—and his life—keeping that promise. But I can’t say that any more than I can tell her there are venin beyond our borders.

My stomach twists at the idea of having to lie to her.

Selective truths.

“She blames me for Liam’s death,” I say quietly. “Let her stay. At least if she’s in the squad, Codex says she can’t kill me.”

“You sure?” Her brow furrows.

“I promised Liam I’d take care of her. She stays.” I nod.

“Between Aaric and Sloane, you’re collecting strays,” Rhiannon warns quietly.

“We were strays once, too,” I answer.

“Good point. Now look at us. Alive and everything.” A slight smile curves her lips before she returns to her place in formation.

The noon sun beats down on the courtyard, and it hits me how far back we are from the dais, where the wingleaders wait with Commandant Panchek. Tufts of his hair catch in the morning breeze as he takes in the formation with wide, assessing brown eyes. This is the height of enrollment this year. We’ll start dying pretty much immediately.

But not me. I’ve danced with Malek more than my fair share over this last year and told him to fuck right off every single time. Maybe Sloane is right and he doesn’t want me.

“You’re agitated.” There’s worry in Tairn’s tone.

“I’m fine.” That’s what we’re all supposed to be, right? Fine. Doesn’t matter who dies next to us or who we kill during training—or war. We’re fine.

The ceremony finally starts with Panchek’s ominous-yet-pompous welcome to the first-years and our new vice commandant, and then Aura delivers a surprisingly inspirational talk about the honor of defending our people before Dain takes the lead, clearly trying to step into Xaden’s boots.

But he’s no Xaden.

The sound of wingbeats and the gasps of first-years fill the air, and I breathe deeply as six dragons—five belonging to the wingleaders and a one-eyed Orange Daggertail I don’t recognize—land on the courtyard walls behind the dais.

That orange looks temperamental, his gaze darting over the formation as his tail twitches, but none of them are as menacing as Sgaeyl or as terrifying as Tairn. I glance down and pick a piece of stray lint off my dark uniform.

First-year shrieks echo off the stone walls as the dragons’ claws flex, digging into the stonework. A heavy rock falls, missing the dais by a mere

matter of feet, and yet not a single rider up there flinches. Now I understand how Dain was so blasé about all of this last year.

There’s not a single dragon up there who would risk Tairn’s wrath by torching me. Are they beautiful to behold? Absolutely. Daunting? Sure. There’s even a slight elevation in my pulse. And yeah, Aura’s Red Clubtail is eyeing the cadets like lunch, but I know it’s mostly to see if she can weed out the weak—

The redhead directly ahead of me vomits, puke splattering the gravel, then Aaric’s boots, as she bends at the waist and heaves, emptying the contents of her stomach.


Sloane wobbles, and she shifts her stance like she’s about to bolt. That’s a bad idea.

“Don’t move and you’ll be fine, Mairi,” I say. “They’ll torch you if you run.”

She stiffens but her hands curl into fists.

Good. Pissed is better than scared right now. Dragons respect anger.

They exterminate cowards.

“Let’s hope the rest aren’t sympathetic pukers,” Ridoc mutters and wrinkles his nose.

“Yeah, that one isn’t going to make it if she does that at Presentation,” Imogen whispers.

These first-years would shit themselves if Tairn did so much as a fly-by.

He’s almost twice as big as any of the dragons perched on the wall.

“Didn’t feel like loaning your sheer intimidation skills to this show?” I ask Tairn.

“I do not participate in parlor tricks,” he responds, his derision making me smile as Dain prattles on about something. He’s trying desperately for Xaden’s charisma and coming up woefully short.

“What do you know about Major Varrish’s orange? He looks… unstable.” And hungry.

“Solas is there?” His tone sharpens.

“Is Solas a one-eyed Orange Daggertail?”

“Yes.” He doesn’t sound happy about it. “Do not take your eyes off him.”

Weird, but all right. I can watch the orange glare at cadets out of his one good eye.

“A third of you will be dead by next July. If you want to wear rider black, then you earn it!” Dain shouts, his voice rising with each word. “You earn it every single day!”

Cath digs his red claws into the masonry and leans over Dain’s head, swinging his swordtail behind him in a serpentine motion as he blows a hot breath of steam over the crowd that sours my stomach. Dain really needs to check Cath’s teeth, because there has to be a bone stuck in there decaying or something.

Cries sound in the courtyard, and a first-year to the right—Tail Section

— breaks out of formation and sprints back toward the parapet, racing through the aisles between cadets.

No, no, no.

“We have a runner,” Ridoc mutters.

“Shit.” I cringe, my heart sinking as two others from Third Wing decide to follow his example, their arms pumping wildly as they make a break for it from First Squad of their Tail Section. This isn’t going to end well.

“Looks contagious,” Quinn adds as they race by.

“Fuck, they actually think they’ll make it.” Imogen sighs, her shoulders drooping.

The trio nearly collides directly behind the center of our wing—our section— then bolt toward the opening in the courtyard wall where the parapet lies.

“Eyes on Solas!” Tairn shouts.

I look forward again, watching Solas narrow his one eye to a slit and swivel his head as he draws a full, rumbling breath. Lead fills my chest as I glance back over my shoulder and glimpse the runners nearing the parapet. The dragons didn’t let them get that far last year.

He’s toying with them, and at this angle…

Oh shit.

Solas extends his neck, tilts his head horrifyingly low, and curls his tongue, fire churning up his throat—

“Get down!” I shout, lunging for Sloane and tackling her to the ground as fire blasts overhead, the flames so close that heat singes every patch of exposed skin on my body.

To Sloane’s credit, she doesn’t cry out as I cover as much of her body as I can, curling over her, but the soul-rending screams behind us are unmistakable. I open my eyes long enough to see Aaric laying flat over the redhead under the endless stream of fire.

Tairn’s roar fills my head as lava licks along my arched back.

A scream musters at the base of my throat, but I can’t breathe in this inferno, let alone give it voice.

As quickly as it struck, the heat dissipates, and I fill my lungs with precious oxygen, gasping for breath before shoving off the gravel to my feet. I turn to face the aftermath as the other second- and third-years around me rise.

Those at the back of our section who acted when I shouted are alive. Those who didn’t, aren’t.

Solas took out the runners, one of our first-years, and at least half of Third Squad.

Chaos erupts.

“Silver One!” Tairn demands.

“I’m alive!” I shout back at Tairn, but I know he can feel the pain my adrenaline is masking. The smell—gods, the smell of sulfur and the burned flesh of the dead cadets makes bile rise in my throat.

“Vi, your back…” Nadine whispers, reaching for me and withdrawing her hand. “It’s torched.”

“How bad is it?” I tug at the front of my uniform, and it comes off in my hand, the fabric burned clean through at my back. The armor beneath my uniform stays in place at least.

Ridoc runs his hands over the flattened, singed peaks of his hair, and my gaze darts around, checking on everyone else next. I note that Quinn and Imogen are safe behind us, already rushing to help Third Squad.

Sawyer. Rhiannon. Ridoc. Nadine. We all exchange quick looks that ask and answer the same question. We’re all intact.

I let out a long breath, my head dizzy with relief.

“It didn’t…it didn’t burn through your armor,” Nadine says. “Good.” Thank gods for dragon scales.

“Are you hurt?” I ask Sloane as she stumbles, staring in shock at the carnage of Third Squad as Aaric helps the redhead to her feet. “Sloane! Are you hurt?”

“No.” She isn’t shaking her head as much as she is flat-out trembling.

“Get back into formation!” Panchek’s voice amplifies over the mayhem. “Riders do not balk at fire!”

The fuck we don’t. Whoever didn’t balk is dead.

Dain’s wide eyes meet mine. He’s either as surprised by what happened as I am or a really good actor. All the wingleaders must be, because they look equally stricken.

Looking back at what remains of Third Squad, I see Imogen staring at a pile of cinder. As if she can feel me staring, she slowly drags her numbed gaze to mine.

“Now!” Panchek demands.

She staggers forward and I meet her halfway, grabbing hold of her elbows. “Imogen?”

“Ciaran,” she whispers. “Ciaran’s dead.”

Gravity, logic, whatever it is that keeps me grounded shifts. There’s no way that was…intentional, is there? “Imogen—”

“Don’t say it,” she warns, glancing around us.

We make it back into formation as Major Varrish moves to the front of the dais, appearing completely unfazed that his dragon just took out riders who hadn’t broken formation, some of them bonded.

“It is not only the first-years who earn their leathers at Basgiath!” he shouts, and I swear he’s speaking directly to me. “The wings are only as strong as their weakest rider!”

Rage overwhelms my senses, scalding hot and undeniably not mine.

A girl with blackish-blue hair two rows ahead makes a run for it, running from our squad, and my heart stops when Solas leans forward again despite a snap from Cath on the right, the orange’s mouth opening.

Oh. Gods.

I’m considering tackling her to the ground myself when a set of wingbeats as familiar as my own heartbeat sounds behind me. And the anger consuming my every breath, overruling my emotions, turns to something deadlier—wrath.

Tairn lands on the wall behind us, his wings flaring so wide one nearly touches the dormitory as he takes out the top row of stones next to the parapet. First-years scream, running for their lives.

“Tairn!” I shout with more than a little relief, but there’s no breaking through the absolute fury coursing through him. My attention whips back and forth between Tairn and the dragons behind the dais.

The wingleaders’ dragons all rear back, including Cath, but Solas holds his ground, his tongue curling when Tairn’s chest expands.

“You do not have the right to burn what is mine.” His words consume all my mental pathways as Tairn lets loose an earth-shattering roar in Solas’s direction. Everyone slams their hands over their ears, including me, my entire body vibrating with the sound, hot air blasting the back of my neck.

The wingleaders’ dragons take a step to the side of the wall as the roar ends, away from the Orange Daggertail, but Solas stands firm, his eye narrowing to a golden slit.

“Holy shit,” Nadine whispers. That about sums it up.

Tairn extends his neck forward, high above our squad, then snaps his teeth together loudly in Solas’s direction in a clear threat.

My heart races so fast it practically hums.

Solas lets loose a short, rasping snarl, then swings his head in a serpentine motion. His claws grip and ungrip the edge of the wall, and I hold my breath until he launches skyward, his wings beating quickly as he retreats.

Tairn lifts his head, watching the flight before he turns his attention to the dais and exhales a sulfur-laced gust of steam, blowing Varrish’s thick black hair.

“I think he got the message,” I say to Tairn.

“If Solas comes near you again, he knows I will devour his human whole and let him rot within me while his heart still beats, and then I’ll take the eye I so graciously left him.”

“That’s…graphic.” I’m not touching the question of their history with waves of anger still rolling off Tairn like a thunderstorm.

“The warning should be effective. For now.” He retracts, drawing back for power before he leaps from the wall, his wingbeats kicking up the gravel around us as he takes off.

Panchek returns to the podium, but his hand isn’t exactly steady as he swipes at the thinning hair on his head, the medals on his chest. “Well then, where were we?”

Varrish glares at me, his hatred a palpable taste in my mouth, and I know that even if he hadn’t been an enemy before, he sure as Dunne is now.

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