Heart of Flames – Nicki Pau Preto

VERONYKA KICKED AS HARD as she could at Tristan’s face. Τey were in the training yard, and the evening sun was casting purple shadows across the stronghold walls, setting the golden phoenix statue atop the temple ablaze with light. Τe dinner bell had rung, and the rest of the apprentices and masters had εnished their training for the day. Τose who remained were packing up and putting away practice weapons or watching idly as Veronyka and Tristan circled each other. Τey were sparring, and though Veronyka hated the attention, she’d told Tristan she wouldn’t quit for the day until she’d beaten him once. So far, she was zero for five, and she was getting tired. Tristan dodged her kick as easily as he’d dodged the others, stepping out of range while Veronyka stalked after him. “Why don’t we pick this up tomorrow?” he asked, panting slightly. Only just slightly. Meanwhile, Veronyka was a sweating, gasping mess. She wanted to answer him—no, they couldn’t wait until tomorrow. Τe εnal details from the attack on the Eyrie had trickled in over the past few weeks, putting numbers and names to the deaths, damages… and the missing. And this was just the start. Τings were going to get worse before they got better; the empire wouldn’t forget them aδer such a narrow defeat… and Veronyka had to be ready. She’d been practicing as hard as she could, pushing herself in ζying and weapons and yes, combat.

It was her weakest skill and therefore required the most effort and attention. Veronyka had to make sure that when the empire returned—when the next battle was fought—she wouldn’t be sidelined. And the only way to guarantee that didn’t happen was to become a Master Rider. To pass the very tests Tristan had struηled with weeks before—and had trained months to conquer. Despite her skill in ζying and her powerful animal magic, Veronyka was so far behind in combat, so utterly out of her element, that it was all she could do to remain on her feet. But she wouldn’t give up. Couldn’t. In response to Tristan’s oΦer to quit for the day, Veronyka tightened her mental walls and kicked again. Because it wasn’t just the combat that had Veronyka struηling. She couldn’t εght Tristan like she could the others, because while her shadow magic was always reaching for minds and hearts, when it came to Tristan, it was like water being sucked down a whirlpool.

She had to actively εght it, aware that every touch, every moment of eye contact, might be the thing that broke them both wide open. It was like fighting two opponents at once. Tristan shook his head with a slight smirk, leaping effortlessly out of reach. Veronyka swallowed, her throat dry as the sand under her feet, and tried to focus. For weeks now, the combat lessons had been her worst, the things she dreaded most of all. Τere was no one for her to match up with, no one the same size and skill level. So she took a constant beating. Her only advantages were her speed and the fact that she was a small target. She was also unpredictable. Not on purpose, but from lack of expertise.

Occasionally, it worked in her favor, catching her opponents off guard. Everyone except for Tristan. When they sparred, sometimes it felt like he was the one with shadow magic. He anticipated her moves so easily, was able to counterstrike ζawlessly, and adapted almost instantly to everything she threw at him. Of course, if she really wanted to win, she could open her mind to him and anticipate his every thought and movement. Like she had during the attack on the Eyrie. Τeir connection had been heady and powerful, but then they’d been working together to achieve a goal. She’d also lost consciousness when she’d let their bond get away from her outside the breeding enclosure the day before that. It was too dangerous, and it was also exactly the kind of thing her sister, Val, would do. Veronyka shook her head.

Τe more she opened herself to him, the more she opened herself to Val —and that was the last thing she needed right now. Veronyka just had to get one win under her belt for the day, one win so she could go to dinner with her head held high. Most εghts ended by a person getting hit with a pin or hold, taking too much damage to continue, or being shoved from the ring. So far, Tristan had managed to pin her three times and knock her out of the chalk the other two. As he regained his balance across the ring, Veronyka studied him. Underneath the padding he wore his usual training gear, the εtted tunic and worn leather as much a part of him as his curling brown hair and dimpled smile. Τere was a diΦerence in him, though, a sense of surety that wasn’t there before. Τe battle for the Eyrie had changed him—it had changed them all— and he seemed more conεdent in himself now, though the only diΦerence in his outward appearance was a strip of red-dyed leather that wrapped around his biceps, indicating his position as a patrol leader, and a fine white scar that split his bottom lip—a souvenir from the attack. “Come on, Tristan,” called Anders from the sidelines, grinning widely. “Put this apprentice in her place.

” Τe others laughed and jeered, and Tristan’s jaw clenched. He’d never been great at handling teasing, and since Anders’s taunt was technically directed at her, Tristan was taking it even worse than usual. Veronyka knew the words were meant in fun. Anders and Tristan had only recently been elevated from apprentices, aδer all, but there were others who she suspected enjoyed the heckling with more malice. Latham, another apprentice turned Master Rider, smirked from just behind Anders, a coldly amused glint in his eye, and Fallon’s second-in-command, Darius, whispered behind his hand into his patrol leader’s ear. Many of them had been distant toward her ever since she’d revealed the fact that she was Veronyka, not Nyk, and she could tell they were suspicious of her closeness with Tristan. Even now… the masters rarely trained with the apprentices—at least not like this, one-on-one—but Tristan was helping Veronyka because she’d asked him when her lessons were done. Τe others saw it as favoritism, as special treatment. Maybe even something more. “Shut it, Anders,” Tristan practically growled, tossing his sweat-soaked hair oΦ his forehead in agitation.

“Or stuΦ it at dinner,” Veronyka piped up, trying to defuse the situation. Anders guΦawed, but he didn’t leave. Nobody did. Veronyka and Tristan had sparred together oδen and knew each other’s habits and tendencies probably better than they knew their own. Tristan was a careful εghter, observant and thoughtful about his attacks, learning his opponent before he made a move. But he could be baited. Anders had just proven that. If Tristan could be lured into making a mistake, Veronyka might be able to squeak out of this with a win. Still, she hesitated. While Tristan was calm and disciplined, Veronyka was wild and impatient—and he knew it.

It was usually her fault she lost; Tristan just watched and waited for her to mess up, then capitalized on whatever opening or vulnerability she presented. But in order to bait him, she had to make a move. Because of her short height, Veronyka favored kicks over punches, her legs having a farther reach than her arms. Skirting around him and angling her body, Veronyka prepared for a left kick to Tristan’s ribs. She avoided his eyes—it was the surest way to open a shadow magic connection—and kept her gaze on Tristan’s upper body, the angle of his shoulders and the position of his hands, held loosely at his sides. As soon as her knees bent and her foot leδ the ground, Tristan’s muscles tensed—his right arm tightening, preparing to block the blow, while his shoulders turned, angling his body away from her. But Veronyka didn’t kick. At least, not from her feet. She dropped into a crouch at the last second and swung out her foot with a kick aimed at Tristan’s legs, not his torso. She glanced up in time to see his eyes bug out and his body twist as he tried to adapt.

Veronyka’s foot struck Tristan’s calf, and the crowd that surrounded them oohed as his leg was taken out from underneath him. But rather than falling backward out of the circle—her true goal—or collapsing onto his side, Tristan fell forward. Onto her. She’d only managed to clip one of his legs as he’d tried to leap over her kick, and now Tristan was stumbling toward her, and her only choice was to roll to the side. She missed his impact with the ground by inches, but was defenseless as she tried to get away. He leapt onto Veronyka’s exposed back, slipping his arms around her middle and across her chest. Hands locked together, he gave a hard pull, drawing them both backward into the sand. In the blink of an eye he had turned her attack into his dominant position. As he lay on his back with Veronyka pinned against his chest, Tristan was a heartbeat away from pressing his forearm against her windpipe in a choke hold. She scrambled to the side, making the angle more diΪcult, but Tristan took the new opportunity she presented by throwing his leg over her body and climbing on top of her.

Veronyka squirmed, kicking and taking wild swings at his head, forcing him to duck and cover, but he still managed to get into position, his thighs on either side of her hips as he straddled her. Being close like this caused Veronyka’s mental barriers against him to shake and tremble. Her magic wanted him, reached for him oδen, seeking any excuse to strengthen their link. Τere were certain triηers—eye contact, touch, and sensory details like smell and sound—that weakened her walls one stone at a time. Add them all together, and it was an assault her mind couldn’t withstand. He lowered his head toward her chest, making it impossible for her to strike him as he got inside her guard. He was adjusting his position, regaining his balance, her wildly ζailing legs no longer unseating him. His heavy breath rang in her ears, his chest rising and falling and pressing against her own. His damp tunic and sweat-curled hair smelled of soap and salt and sunshine—smelled of Tristan—and Veronyka tried her best to jerk away. But he was holding her fast, and when she liδed her face and their eyes met, the stones of her mental walls came crumbling down.

Τe link between them burst open, as swiδ and certain as river water cascading through a dam. Her magic surged, and her mind filled with his thoughts, so loud and clear that they drowned her own. He was aware of her in the same way she was aware of him. Her smell, her feel—all of it put Tristan on high alert, but not for the same reasons his presence rattled her. Well, not entirely. It wasn’t just shadow magic she protected against, wasn’t just a mental connection she feared. Heedless of the consequences, Veronyka shoved at Tristan’s chest, twisting and squirming— panicked and desperate for escape. But her recklessness made her vulnerable, as she’d known it would. She realized with frustration that she’d exposed herself to an arm lock, and her breath hitched as she waited for Tristan to seize the chance. All he had to do was shiδ his weight, reposition himself so they were perpendicular to each other, then grab her wrist and pull against his chest, hyperextending the elbow.

A simple move; a second’s work. Only, he didn’t. Tristan was frozen, and Veronyka frowned at him a moment before bucking her hips, sending him oΦ-balance and slipping to the side. She squirmed out from underneath him and turned around, watching as he got slowly to his feet. Silence had descended over the training yard, heavy with confusion. Tristan had let her go, had let the chance to pin her pass him by. He’d even let her get back to her feet. He was panting now, sand stuck to the sweat coating his forearms and legs. Their eyes met again, but she didn’t need their mental connection to confirm her suspicions. He’d wanted to shelter her from the pain and humiliation of losing in front of all the others.

He’d wanted to protect her. It reminded her of when he’d tried to keep her out of the εghting during the attack on the Eyrie; it reminded her of Commander Cassian keeping the Riders locked up safe while the world around them fell apart. Worst of all, it made her think of Val, always supposedly “protecting” her, so thoroughly and so εercely that Val wound up hurting Veronyka far worse than if she’d just let Veronyka know the truth, if she’d just treated her as an equal. Anders and the others were watching, and there was no way they’d missed his hesitation. Tristan had gone easy on her, and they all knew it. With something like a snarl, Veronyka lunged for Tristan. He had no choice not to εght her now, no opportunity to waver. He absorbed her attack, using her momentum against her. Twisting his upper body—and hers along with it—he threw her over his hip, sending her flat to her back on the sand. Τe wind was knocked from her lungs, and as she struηled to her feet, she saw the chalk line underneath her.

She’d been tossed from the ring. Veronyka let her head fall back to the ground, her eyes squeezed shut. Zero for six. Later, Veronyka took out her frustration in the saddle. It was what she did most nights when she couldn’t sleep. As an apprentice, she was supposed to sleep in the barracks inside the stronghold, and Xephyra inside the Eyrie. Τat separation was a part of Rider training, meant to strengthen the bond over distance, but Veronyka hated it. She always slept better next to Xephyra and had tried to sleep inside the Eyrie more than once, but was usually shooed oΦ by Ersken, who did late-evening and earlymorning rounds. Veronyka and Tristan oδen spent time at night on the ledge outside his rooms, cleaning armor or just hanging out with their bondmates. One time Veronyka accidentally fell asleep there aδer Tristan had gone in to bed, and it hadn’t been Ersken who’d discovered her, but the commander himself.

His suspicious look—and curious glance at his son’s closed door—told her she’d better get out of there quick and avoid such a run-in in the future. People already gave them strange looks for their close friendship, which had begun when she was a stable boy and now culminated with her being a girl, an apprentice with a full-grown mount, and his underwing. She didn’t need the rumor that she slept outside his door like a lovesick puppy dog added to the mix. Veronyka had slept in the barracks ever since, and instead focused on strengthening her bond to Xephyra, particularly pushing their ability to communicate. Not only did they constantly test their range, but Veronyka also pushed her phoenix to use words when communicating rather than just thought and feeling. It was partly to keep their link strong and secure while they were separated, but also because of what had happened with Val aδer Xephyra’s death. It sickened Veronyka to know that not only had Val manipulated Veronyka’s connection to her bondmate to control Xephyra, but that Veronyka herself hadn’t felt Xephyra’s return because she’d blocked all thoughts of her phoenix to ease her own pain. If she’d been open, if their bond had been stronger and their ability to communicate more honed… maybe Veronyka would have known about Xephyra’s resurrection sooner. Τey practiced all day, sending words to each other whenever they were apart—eating or sleeping or distracted by other things—but the best test of their bond always came when they practiced together. Exercises like the obstacle course Tristan had done to εnish out his apprenticeship were such an example, but Veronyka wasn’t there yet in her training.

Besides, she and Xephyra both preferred flying. Veronyka waved to the perimeter guards and the Rider on patrol—currently Beryk—but everyone was well used to her late-night ζights by now. She and Xephyra soon arrived at their destination, a practice course called Soth’s Fury. Τe series of caves were εlled with tight, narrow spaces that tested a Rider’s ability to maneuver at high speeds, and they’d installed targets throughout to make a challenging run for any would-be warrior to hit them with arrow or spear. Veronyka loved Soth’s Fury, and she and Xephyra were getting better and better at navigating its darkest depths. Ready? Veronyka asked as they approached the mouth of the caves. Xephyra didn’t reply so much as give a surge of excitement and adrenaline. An obvious yes, but Veronyka pushed her to communicate more clearly. Words, Xephyra, Veronyka pressed. Xephyra huffed beneath her.

Aeti, she said at last. Veronyka rolled her eyes, εghting back a grin. Whenever Xephyra grew tired of Veronyka’s constant pushing, she rebelled. In this instance, choosing to reply in ancient Pyraean rather than common Trader’s Tongue. You think this is funny? Veronyka asked, going for stern but not quite managing it. Τere was no hiding your emotions from your own bondmate, after all. Sia, Xephyra replied smugly. Τat was a northern Arborian dialect that she’d picked up from Anders, who sang old Arborian songs to the other Riders and translated them for anyone who’d listen. Most people didn’t, but apparently Xephyra did. Are you finished? Veronyka asked, the gaping mouth of the entrance drawing steadily nearer.

Verro. Τat was… Ferronese, maybe? How Xephyra had picked that up, Veronyka had no idea. She couldn’t help it; she laughed as they dove down into the dark. Veronyka had ζown through the caverns many times and felt comfortable there, despite the dank echoes and shiδing shadows that made it a somewhat spooky place. Τere were targets positioned at intervals within the caves, providing a variety of diΦerent shots for a mounted archer to hit. Τey were metallic, so they reflected sunlight—or phoenix fire—but were still difficult to spot, not to mention the fact that some were better suited to a spear throw or even a short sword or daηer, if the Rider was daring enough to fly so close. And Veronyka was. Her favorite part of the course was a stretch of targets that alternated between those she could hit on phoenix-back and those she could only hit on foot—partially obscured by rocky outcrops or tilted at an impossible angle. To get them all, the Rider must leap from their phoenix’s back, run across uneven rocky ground to strike the target, then leap back onto their bondmate to grab their bow and continue on to the next target. It was nearly impossible, and required pinpoint precision and top-notch communication.

Veronyka gripped her reins as they barreled through the narrow opening. Τey weren’t true reins— they didn’t lead to a bridle and bit in Xephyra’s mouth like a horse’s reins did—but were meant to act as handholds and restraints, allowing inexperienced Riders to remain safely attached to their mounts during ζight, and for more advanced ζyers, they allowed a Rider to stand or reposition themselves. Veronyka had seen Fallon, the second patrol leader, ζy upside down, using his reins to hold his body tight to his phoenix, defying gravity. Veronyka was usually a no-nonsense ζyer during lessons and drills, but aδer her failure in the ring today, she was determined to push herself and try her hand at some theatrical acrobatics of her own. Τey moved swiδly into the labyrinthine caves, the stony walls closing in on them. Τey were smooth and high, like columns of dripping wax, while spiky stalagmites rose from the ground, some so large they had to be dodged as they whipped past. Τe shadows grew thick and cool around them, while trickles of water could be heard in the distance, remnants of some long-ago river rush. Veronyka withdrew her bow, and through the bond she told Xephyra which targets she wanted and in what order, loosing arrow aδer arrow into the metallic bull’s-eyes. Since it was pitch-black in the caverns, Xephyra emitted a faint glow to light the way. Soth’s Fury was divided into three courses in varying levels of diΪculty, and though she knew it was foolish, Veronyka followed the most challenging route, each target marked by a circle of vivid purple paint around its edge like the tips of Xephyra’s plumage.

While the start was easy enough, the course became more diΪcult with every target they passed. Up ahead, the stretch of concealed targets loomed, and Veronyka braced herself. Telling Xephyra to slow her pace ever so slightly, Veronyka tightened her handhold and carefully pulled her feet from the stirrups until she was squatting on Xephyra’s back. Her phoenix ζapped her wings as little as possible, keeping her ζight steady, but still Veronyka wobbled and struηled for balance. Τe εrst concealed target appeared, tucked into a crevice above a narrow ledge and hidden behind a stalagmite that jutted from the ground. Veronyka braced herself, waiting. Now, she said to Xephyra, leaping to the right as her phoenix ζew leδ, just missing the stalagmite by inches. Veronyka slipped and stumbled as she tried to regain her footing, but she couldn’t slow down— momentum was all that was keeping her on such a scant foothold. She careened forward, whipping out a daηer and hitting the target with a resounding thud, before hurtling past it and leaping out into the empty air of the cavern. But then Xephyra was there, as Veronyka had known she would be.

She slammed hard into the saddle, but even the pain couldn’t dim the feeling of triumph coursing through her veins. Xephyra swung her neck around to look at Veronyka, and her dark eyes danced with fiery pleasure. Good? she asked, turning back around and soaring gracefully between rocky spires. Aeti, Veronyka replied, and Xephyra crooned. Aδerward, they sat on their favorite slab of stone and watched as the sun began to rise in the distance. Veronyka leaned against Xephyra, her body exhausted and her thoughts still, εnally εnding the peace she failed to get alone at night. Aδer a while something stirred in the back of her mind, and Veronyka knew that Tristan was awake. Just like that, her peace was shattered. Everything about her bond to Xephyra made Veronyka feel better, stronger, and more alive. Her bond to Tristan did too.

But she couldn’t let it. Being bonded to another human was dangerous…. Veronyka had learned that lesson the hard way. She kept trying to forget about it, kept hoping that it would resolve itself or fade into the background. Tristan deserved to know that a magical link existed between them that gave her insight into his thoughts and feelings, but it was hard to face telling him that without any words of comfort or reassurance. Why, yes, Tristan, I can hear your thoughts and sense your feelings—and no, I have no idea how to stop it. You’re scared? Me too.

.

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