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Iron Flame: Part 1 – Chapter 16

We’re back in enough time for me to visit the Archives, so I do just that. If I can’t see Xaden, I may as well spend my time researching. It’s late afternoon before I can get cleaned up and make my way down there, and it makes me smile to see Jesinia working at one of the tables with Aoife.

Aoife looks up at the sound of my bootsteps, prompting Jesinia to, as well. They both wave and I return the gesture.

I pause at the study table, setting down my book to return as the two have a quick discussion before Aoife rises and heads to the back of the Archives. Then Jesinia walks over, carrying what looks to be the notebook Aoife brought along during the land navigation exercise.

“What are you doing in here on a Sunday?” I sign as she reaches the study table.

She puts the notebook down on the scarred oak surface and lifts her hands to sign. “Helping Aoife transcribe her account into the official report to be filed. She’s taking a quick break. Want to see what she chronicled?” She picks up the notebook and offers it to me.

“Absolutely.” I nod, then take the notebook and skim Aoife’s neat handwriting. It’s amazingly accurate, with little details I’d missed, like the two infantry cadets who’d offered to be the healers’ aides because that’s their job for the squad. They have designated roles for each mission. I set it down on top of the book I’m returning to sign. “This is incredible.”

“Glad to hear it’s accurate.” She glances over her shoulder, as if checking to see if we’re alone, which we are. “The tricky thing is to capture the truth and not just an interpretation. Stories can change depending on who tells them.”

If she only knew. How does someone like Jesinia graduate to become whatever Markham has evolved into? “Can I ask… What book did Jacek request that got him hauled away and killed?” I sign before I think better of it.

Her eyes widen. “He was killed?”

I nod. “A few days after we saw Markham take him.”

Her face turns the same shade as her robes. “He was looking for an account of a border attack that doesn’t exist. I told him there’s no such record, but he came back three times, certain there was because he’d had family killed in the event. I recorded the request and sent it up my chain of command, thinking it would help him, but…” She shakes her head and drops her hands, blinking back tears.

“It’s not your fault,” I sign, but she doesn’t respond, and it hits me that I could have been hauled away by Markham last year, but I wasn’t. And there’s only one logical explanation. I glance around us quickly to make sure we’re still alone. “Last year, you didn’t record when I asked for a book that doesn’t exist in your records.”

Her eyes widen.

“Did you?” My hands tremble as I sign. Shit. This is a bad idea. She’ll be in danger if I bring her into this. But she’s also the best person who can help me find what I’m looking for, and we only have months.


“Why?” I have to know. Everything hinges on her answer.

“At first, because I didn’t want to be embarrassed that I couldn’t find it.” Her nose scrunches. “Then because…I couldn’t find it.” She looks over her shoulder at the empty Archives. “We should have a copy of almost every tome in Navarre here, yet you told me you’d read one that we don’t have.”

I nod.

“And then I looked up wyvern.” She spells out the individual letters because there’s no sign for the winged creatures. “And nothing. We have no recorded folklore like what you read.”

“I know.” My heart thrums faster. We’re venturing into dangerous territory. Her brow knits under her hood. “If you were any other rider, I would have considered that you have a faulty memory and got the title wrong, or even the subject matter. But you’re…you.”

I sign slowly so she doesn’t miss a word. “The title wasn’t wrong. I found my copy.”

She takes a deep breath. “Which means our Archives are incomplete. There are books in existence we have no record of.”

“Yes.” And now we’re talking treason. I can’t tell her too much, not just for her own safety but in case…in case I’m wrong about her.

“I sent requests to other libraries looking for a wider collection of folklore, but the responses made it clear we have the most comprehensive selection.” Her forehead wrinkles in concern.

“Yes.” Gods, she’s catching on without me even having to tell her. “Does anyone know what you were doing?”

“I implied that it was a personal passion to collect forgotten folklore from the border regions.” She winces. “And then I implied that I was considering compiling a new tome as my third-year endeavor to graduate. I lied.” Her mouth tightens, and she drops her hands.

“I’m doing a lot of that lately.” Once I’m sure we’re still alone, I continue. “Have you recorded any that I’ve asked for this year?”


Great Dunne. If she’s caught breaking regulation, she won’t just be denied the adept path; she’ll be expelled from the college—or worse. She’s already risking so much on my account, if she’s telling the truth.

“You’re looking for something. I knew it the second you lied about preparing for a debate.” She searches my eyes. “You’re a horrible liar, Violet.”

I laugh. “I’m working on it.”

“Can you tell me what you’re looking for? I won’t record your requests, not if you’re thinking the same thing I am.”

“Which is?”

“That our Archives are incomplete, either by ignorance…” She breathes deeply. “Or intention.”

“Helping me could hurt you.” My stomach sinks. “Get you killed. It’s not fair to bring you into something dangerous.”

“I can handle myself.” She lifts her chin, and her next gestures are sharp. “Tell me what you need.”

What can I tell her without endangering her further? Or risking our exposure? I have no idea if she’s capable of shielding Dain or any memory reader from her mind. So clearly nothing about battles or venin. But that’s not what I need, anyway. “I need the most comprehensive texts you have about how the First Six built the wards.”

“The wards?” Her eyes flare.

“Yes.” It’s the simplest request that could be messily explained by wanting to research how to strengthen our defenses…if she tells. “But no one can know I’m asking, that I’m researching. More than my life depends on it. The older the text, the better.”

She looks away for what feels like the longest minute of my life. She has every right to pause, to think, to realize just how badly this could go for both of us. This isn’t a slip of memory, simply forgetting to record a request from a friend. This betrays her quadrant, her training. Her eyes meet mine. “I can’t risk Aoife seeing right now, but I’ll find you this week with the first tome I’m thinking of. One is all I can risk going missing. Saturdays are usually the day I work the Archives, when it’s quiet. Bring it back then and I’ll give you another if the first doesn’t have what you need. Only Saturdays.” She lifts her brows as she signs those last two words.

“When it’s quiet.” I nod in understanding, my stomach flipping with a mixture of hope and fear that I’m going to get her hurt…or worse. Glancing over her shoulder, I see Aoife walking our way. “Aoife is coming,” I sign, keeping my hands where the other scribe can’t see them. “Thank you.”

“But there’s something I want in return,” she signs quickly, angling her back so Aoife won’t see.

“Name it.”

“You think Sloane has a shot?” Rhi asks on Monday as we watch the first round of challenges be called out.

My stomach churns with nausea like I’m the one who’s going to be summoned to the mat. Fuck, I’d actually feel better if it was my name I knew they were going to call instead of Sloane’s.

“She’ll win,” I answer truthfully.

I pocket the latest letter Xaden left me on my bed—I’ve already read it four times—as Aaric takes his place on the mat. I glance around and see Eya waiting with First Squad and offer a fast smile, which she returns. Ever since she helped me after my near burnout, we’ve developed a weird sort of relationship. We’re friendly, if not friends, at least.

Turns out Xaden has known Eya since they were ten, according to the letter. Her mother was active in the government of Tyrrendor, holding a council seat even though she was a rider, which is uncommon. In fact, most of the aristocracy chooses to serve in the infantry, just like Xaden’s father, because riders are discouraged from holding their family’s seats. Not only are our commissions lifelong instead of the few years an infantry officer can agree to, but too much power in one person terrifies any king.

“You forgive him yet for whatever it is he lied to you about?” Rhi darts a meaningful look at my pocket, then folds her arms and glares at a pair of first-years shoving each other near the edge of the mat. “Stop fucking around!”

They instantly halt.

“Impressive.” I grin, but it falls quickly. “And it’s hard to talk something out with him when we only see each other once a week.”

“Fucking first-years,” she mutters, then glances over at me. “That’s a good point. But you should get some time this weekend. Hey, did Ridoc tell you he saw Nolon yesterday?”

“He just said he had to take one of the first-years to the infirmary,” I say, raising one eyebrow in question.

“Trysten.” She nods. “He’s the one with the floppy hair that never quite stays out of his eyes.”

“Whatever his name is. The guy who shattered his forearm.” I don’t want to know his name. I already feel responsible for Sloane—who is currently swaying back and forth nervously across the mat. Emotionally attaching to any more first-years is just reckless. “Ridoc said that Nolon couldn’t even see them until after dinner, and there were only a handful of other cadets in the infirmary.”

“And when he walked out of that secretive room he’s got with Varrish in the back of the infirmary, he was with an air wielder who looked just as haggard,” Ridoc chimes in as he sidles up between us. “So clearly Nolon isn’t doing his best work. Guy needs a month off.”

Aaric delivers a punch to his opponent’s jaw that makes the guy’s head snap back.

“I give that a seven,” Ridoc heckles from the sidelines.

“Out of ten? Solid eight,” Sawyer counters from the other side of Rhiannon. “Perfect form.” Then he lowers his voice and adds just for the four of us, “And I’m still going with the torture theory. I bet they’ve got gryphon riders in there or something.”

“You think he’s really torturing people back there?” Rhiannon says, lowering her voice even more.

“I have no clue.” I blink as Aaric elbows his opponent in the throat with a quick jab that even Xaden would respect. “I would think they’d use the main interrogation chambers if they were doing something like that. The ones beneath the school.”

“That’s a fucking nine,” Sawyer calls out.

“Nine!” Ridoc agrees, throwing up his hands with all of his fingers spread out except a thumb.

I laugh, then gasp as Aaric breaks his opponent’s nose with the heel of his hand, ending the match. Emetterio declares him the winner, and the first-year has the decency to make it off the mat before dropping his hand away from his gushing nose.

That’s a lot of blood.

Sawyer and Ridoc break out in applause, both shouting scores.

“Gods, can that one fight.” Rhi nods slowly in approval as Aaric takes his place in the squad.

“Well, when you’ve had the best tutors,” I whisper, grateful he’s one secret she knows about.

“Daddy hasn’t come looking for him?” She glances my way.

“Apparently not.”

Challenges around us come to an end, and the professors call out the next batch.

“Sloane Mairi and Dasha Fabrren,” Emetterio calls out.

“Hey, Rhi?” I swallow. Squads shift, but ours keeps our mat. That’s the benefit of holding the reigning Iron Squad patch from last year.


“Remember how I said Sloane was going to win?”

“Yes, I remember a comment from ten minutes ago,” she teases. A couple of our first-years pat Sloane on the back and offer what I hope are words of encouragement as she walks out onto the mat in front of us.

“Right. Well…” Shit, if I tell her, will she feel honor-bound to report me? She wouldn’t, and that’s the problem. She’d help me break into the fucking Archives if I wanted.

If you can’t lie, distance yourself. But this is another thing I don’t have to lie to her about.

Dasha joins Sloane on the mat, her shiny black hair braided in a single line from the tip of her forehead to the nape of her neck. She’s petite and still has the pallor of a first-year who hasn’t seen enough sun, but she’s nothing close to the shade of green Sloane is turning.

There’s a slight crimson tint to Dasha’s lips that lets me know she had one of the frosted pastries from the tray I’d placed on her squad’s breakfast table before they arrived this morning. Now that I’m looking, all of the members of her squad have that same hue to their mouths.

Oh well. It wasn’t like I knew which one Dasha would eat.

“If you’re going to change your mind and say she’s going to lose, then don’t tell me.” Rhiannon shakes her head. “I’m nervous about this one.”

“Me too,” Imogen says, taking the empty spot on my right.

“That makes three of us,” Quinn says next to her. “She’s not just a first-year.”

“No,” I agree, noting that even Dain is watching from the next mat over. And to think, last year, I’d actually hoped I’d be in a relationship with him. “Rhi.” I lower my voice. “She’s not going to lose.”

Her gaze narrows. “What are you going to do?”

“If you don’t know, you don’t have to feel guilty about reporting it. Just trust me.” I slide my hand into my pocket as nonchalantly as possible and uncork the small glass vial as the two girls nod, each taking a fighting stance.

Rhi searches my eyes, then nods as well, turning back to the match.

The first-years circle each other on the mat, and I carefully turn the vial in my hand, letting what I know to be a colorless powder fall from the glass into the creases between my palm and fingers. I withdraw my hand in a fist, keeping it tight at my side as Dasha delivers her first blow, a punch straight to Sloane’s cheek.

The blonde’s skin splits.

“Fuck,” Imogen mutters. “Come on, Mairi, hands up!”

Someone screams from the mat behind us, and we all look over our shoulders to see a first-year staring lifelessly up at his opponent. Shit. Killing an opponent during a challenge isn’t cheered. But it also isn’t punishable. More than one grudge has been settled on these mats in the name of strengthening the wings.

I suddenly feel a lot less guilty about my plans.

The girls circle again, and Dasha kicks high, catching Sloane on the unmarked side of her face so hard that her head snaps sideways, and then her body follows, turning as she falls to the mat, landing on her back.

“That was faster than I expected,” Rhi notes, worry lacing her tone.

“Me too.” I lift my closed fist to my mouth and shift my weight, making sure that I look as worried as I feel as Dasha follows Sloane down to the floor. The pair is only a few feet away, so at least I won’t have to skirt my way around the mat. “Crouch,” I say under my breath to Imogen.

She drops without question. “Come on, Mairi!”

I lower myself, too, panic creeping up my throat at the look on Sloane’s dazed face as Dasha lands another punch, then another, and another. Blood spatters the mat.

Yeah, that’s enough.

I wait for Dasha to exhale, then open my palm slightly and cough. Hard.

She breathes in and gets one more hit.

Then she shakes her head and her eyes glaze over.

“Get up, Sloane!” I yell, looking her dead in the eye.

Dasha falls back on her ass, blinks rapidly, her head wobbling as if she’s been at the pub for the evening.

Sloane rolls to her side and plants her palms on the mat.

“Now,” I order her.

Anger fills her eyes, and she lunges forward toward Dasha.

Dasha’s fist curls, but her swing doesn’t make contact as Sloane buries her shoulder in Dasha’s stomach. At that angle, she had to have knocked the breath out of her.

Good. She only has another moment. Maybe two.

Sloane scrambles behind Dasha and then yanks her up and into the weakest chokehold I’ve ever seen. But hey, if it works.

“Yield!” Sloane demands.

Dasha bucks upward, her strength and focus returning.

“Yield!” Sloane yells this time, and I hold my breath.

Gods, if I judged wrong and Dasha gains the upper hand again…

Dasha finally drops her hand to the mat and taps twice.

My shoulders droop in pure relief as Emetterio calls the match.

“What did you do?” Imogen whispers without looking at me.

“What needed to be done.” We both stand as the first-years do, but unlike them, we don’t stumble as we gain our feet.

“You sound like Xaden,” Imogen says.

My gaze swings toward her.

“Relax. It’s a compliment.” She smiles. “Liam is immeasurably grateful right now.”

I swallow past the lump in my throat.

“Not half bad,” Rhiannon says, glancing sideways at me before watching Sloane take her place with the rest of the first-years in our squad. “Not good, either.”

“I’ll give the match a six,” Ridoc comments. “I mean, she didn’t lose, so clearly that rates above a five.”

The next pair takes the mat.

Once today’s challenges are over, I look at Imogen and nod toward Sloane before heading that direction. “Give me a second,” I say over my shoulder to Rhiannon.

Imogen jogs to catch up.

“Mairi,” I say as we round the corner of the mat, crooking my finger at her.

Sloane lifts her chin in the air, but at least she comes. This isn’t exactly the kind of discussion I want to scream across the gym.

“Ouch.” Imogen points to her right eye as she approaches. “That’s going to swell shut.”

“I won, didn’t I?” Her voice shakes.

“You won because I took Dasha out for you.” I keep my voice low and spread my palm wide open, where there’s a trace amount of the shimmering powder left on my skin.

“No.” She shakes her head. “I won that fair and square.”

“Gods, do I wish that were true.” I huff out a breath. “Ardyce powder, when combined with an earlier dose of ground lillybelle, disorients someone for a minute—maybe two, depending on the dose. Similar to being drunk. Alone, they’re mildly upsetting to the stomach. Together?” I lift my eyebrows. “They kept you alive.”

Sloane’s mouth opens and shuts once. Twice.

“Damn.” Imogen grins, rocking back on her heels as cadets shuffle past, heading for the door. “Is that how you got through those first challenges last year? Devious, Sorrengail. Fucking brilliant, but devious.”

“I did that for your brother,” I tell Sloane, keeping eye contact even though the hatred shining through hers hurts like hell. “He was one of my closest friends, and I promised him while he was fucking dying that I’d look after you. So here I am, looking after you.”

“I don’t need—”

“Wrong tactic,” Imogen lectures. “‘Thank you’ is appropriate.”

“I’m not thanking her,” she seethes, her eyes narrowing on me. “He’d be here if not for you.”

“That’s some bullshit!” Imogen snaps. “Xaden ordered—”

“You’re right,” I interrupt. “He would. And I miss him every single day. And because of the love I have for him, it’s okay that you hate me. You can think whatever you need to about me if it gets you through the day, Sloane. But you’re going to train. You’re going to accept help.”

“If it’s Malek’s will that I join my brother, then so be it. Liam didn’t need help,” she retorts, but there’s a touch of fear in her eyes that lets me know most of this is bluster. “He made it on his own.”

“No, he didn’t,” Imogen argues. “Violet saved his life during War Games. He fell off Deigh’s back, and it was Violet and Tairn who flew after him and caught him.”

Sloane’s lips part.

“Here’s the deal.” I take a step closer to Sloane. “You’re going to train so you don’t get yourself killed. Not with me. I don’t need to be part of your development era. But you will meet with Imogen every single day if that’s what she wants, because I have something you want.”

“I highly doubt that.” She crosses her arms, but the effect is ruined by the rapid swelling of her eye.

“I have fifty of the letters Liam wrote for you.”

Her eyes widen.

“Oh shit.” Imogen’s head jerks toward mine. “Seriously?”

“Seriously.” I don’t look away from Sloane. “And at the end of every week that you attend and participate in whatever Imogen thinks you need, I’ll give one of them to you.”

“All of his things were burned,” Sloane sputters. “They were sacrificed to Malek as they should be!”

“I’ll definitely apologize to Malek when we meet,” I assure her. “If you want his letters, you’ll train for them.”

Her face turns a mottled shade of red. “You’d keep my brother’s letters from me? If they still exist, they’re mine. You really are a piece of work.”

“In this case, I think Liam would more than approve.” I shrug. “It’s up to you, Sloane. Show up, train, live, and get a letter a week. Or don’t.” Without waiting for whatever snarky response she can come up with, I turn and leave, walking back toward where Rhiannon is waiting with the upper years of our squad.

“You. Are…” Imogen shakes her head as she catches up to me. “I see it now.”

“What?” I ask.

“Why Xaden fell for you.”

I scoff.

“Truthfully.” She puts her hands up. “You’re fucking clever. Way more clever than I gave you credit for. I bet you keep him constantly annoyed.” A smile beams across her face. “How glorious.”

I roll my eyes at her.

“And you got Sloane to agree to show up tomorrow morning after chores,” she tells me. “It was a risky move, but it worked.”

Now I’m the one smiling.

Jesinia brings me The Unabridged History of the First Six the next day, which is not only a three-hundred-year-old text but marked Classified in the endpapers, and I keep my side of the deal, handing over The Fables of the Barren.

Then I hide away at every available second to read her book, when we’re not being lectured by Professor Grady about our inability to check our egos or getting what feels like pointless Battle Briefs.

But while it goes into detail about the complex interpersonal relationships of the First Six, and even a little of their battle experience during the Great War, it simply labels the enemy as General Daramor and our allies as the isle kingdoms.

Not exactly helpful.

The book Jesinia gives me on Saturday is The Sacrifice of Dragonkind, by one of Kaori’s predecessors, and goes into why Basgiath was chosen for the location of the wards.

“Green dragons, especially those descending from the line of Cruaidhuaine, have an especially stable connection to magic, which some believe is a result of their more reasonable, defensive nature,” I repeat in a whisper as I pack to head to Samara that night.

There’s absolutely nothing that could ruin my evening. Not when I’m about to see Xaden in the morning.

My eyes widen when I open the door and find Varrish standing there instead of Bodhi, flanked by his two henchmen, and immediately remind myself to thank Xaden for the wards that deny him entry. A quick step backward puts me out of his reach.

“Relax, Sorrengail.” He smiles like he didn’t nearly kill me with his little punishment. “I just came by to check your pack and walk you out to Tairn.”

I slip my pack from my shoulders and hold it out to him, careful not to let him touch my skin so he can’t slip through the wards. Then I keep my eyes locked on his henchmen as they dump my belongings instead of glancing to my bookcase to be sure my classified tome is hidden.

“It’s clear,” the woman says, and she’s kind enough to put my things away.

“Excellent.” Varrish nods. “Then we’ll just escort you to your dragon. You can’t be too careful around here, given the rash of attacks these last few weeks.” He tilts his head. “Funny that most seem to be focused on those of you who disappeared during War Games, don’t you think?”

“Not sure I’d ever call assaults ‘funny,’” I reply. “And I don’t need the escort.”

“Nonsense.” He steps back and gestures into the hallway. “We wouldn’t want anything to happen to the daughter of the commanding general.”

My heart bolts at an unsustainable rhythm.

“It’s not a suggestion.” His smile slides.

I check my sheaths to be sure my daggers are in place, then walk into the hallway, feeling the tug of Xaden’s wards as I leave their safety. Every step I take for the next fifteen minutes is careful, deliberate, and I make sure I’m never within arm’s reach or striking distance.

“I noticed your squad didn’t have flight maneuvers this week,” Varrish says as we approach Tairn on the flight field.

“I’ll snack if he makes a move,” Tairn promises, and I start to breathe normally.

“We had a few injuries that needed to recover after running landings.”

“Hmm.” He gestures toward Tairn as if inviting me to ride my own dragon. “Well, it was noted, as you’ll soon see. I guess I’ll meet your little golden next week.”


“She is safe within the deepest stage of the Dreamless Sleep. You should be able to see her in a few weeks,” Tairn says.

“That’s what you said last week. I mount quickly, my pulse settling as I strap into the saddle. “Before last year, I never would have considered that the safest place in the world was on the back of a dragon.”

“Before last year, I might have seen you as an appetizer.” He rolls his shoulders and launches.

When I get to Samara, I understand why Varrish warned that I’d see why he’d noted our lack of flight maneuvers.

I might be here, but Xaden is on twenty-four-hour duty in the operations center.

And I don’t have clearance.


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