Annie and Lee were just children when a brutal revolution changed their world, giving everyone—even the lowborn—a chance to test into the governing class of dragonriders.
Now they are both rising stars in the new regime, despite backgrounds that couldn’t be more different. Annie’s lowborn family was executed by dragonfire, while Lee’s aristocratic family was murdered by revolutionaries. Growing up in the same orphanage forged their friendship, and seven years of training have made them rivals for the top position in the dragonriding fleet.
But everything changes when survivors from the old regime surface, bent on reclaiming the city. With war on the horizon and his relationship with Annie changing fast, Lee must choose to kill the only family he has left or to betray everything he’s come to believe in. And Annie must decide whether to protect the boy she loves… or step up to be the champion her city needs.
From debut author Rosaria Munda comes Fireborne, a gripping adventure that calls into question which matters most: the family you were born into, or the one you’ve chosen. Available October 15th from G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers.
The ministry would like to remind Antigone sur Aela of the intensely public nature of the obligations of riders of the Fourth Order, and to urge her to consider carefully whether she believes her vows to serve the state would be best honored by pursuing such a public role.
THE FOURTH ORDER
Before he met the girl, the boy in the orphanage moved like a sleepwalker. Tasteless meals, hard beds on cold nights, the bullying and the beatings—he passed through all of it unseeing. Let them bully him. Let them beat him. They were nothing. Their language was the one he had listened to as he watched his family die.
Instead of listening, he remembered. He remembered his family around him, his sisters’ laughter, his brother’s teasing, his mother’s voice. A world of light and warmth, great fireplaces tended by servants, ornate glass windows overlooking the Firemouth, chandeliers hanging low over tables piled high with food. He remembered the sight of his father at court, resplendent as he received his subjects. He remembered lifting aloft, the city falling below, his father’s arm steadying him as the wings of his stormscourge beat the air. Her name was Aletheia, and sometimes, his father allowed him to bring her scraps from the table.
“One day,” his father told him, his arm around him as the highlands of Callipolis stretched below Aletheia’s wings, “this will be yours, if a dragon Chooses you. You will learn to rule, just as I did.”
“Did your father teach you?”
“What he could. But much of it came naturally to me, Leo. Just as it will for you. We were born to rule, just as the peasants were born to serve.”
He found that he could live in these memories for hours. And when they ran out, he invented futures: a dragon he would be Chosen by, dragonfire he would have power over, the people who had taken everything from him helpless and awaiting punishment. He imagined making them pay.
When he did this, it kept the real world, and the other memories, out. Nothing hurt so much as being forced back to the present.
That was what happened when he met the girl.
He could see through the doorway that it was one child against two larger ones. The girl struggled. It was all familiar.
But then, for the first time since he’d come to the orphanage, he found himself walking toward the violence rather than away from it.
He pulled a kitchen knife out of his pocket as he approached. The words in the other language came slowly, but they were there. “Go away.”
At the sight of his knife, they fled.
As he knelt beside the girl, he realized he recognized her: She shared courses with him at school, despite the fact that she was at least a year younger than him and his classmates. She had scrawny limbs, scraggly red-brown hair, and clothes that were well-worn even by orphanage standards. He was struck, as he looked at her, by how small she seemed.
It was the first time he had ever found himself thinking this about someone else: In his family, he had been the smallest.
“You shouldn’t have fought them,” he said. “They only make it harder for you when you fight them. They only hurt you more—”
He stopped himself.
The girl shrugged and looked up at him, her face wet with tears, and he saw a bitter ferocity and determination there that he recognized.
“Sometimes, I can’t not fight,” she said.
No amount of practice prepares you for the sight of the arena’s stands completely full, banners flapping in the wind, trumpets sounding the Anthem of the Revolution as the drums keep time. Aela and I delight together in the searing blue horizon, the sharp late-spring breeze, the city cheering below us as we perform the opening ceremony. Moments like this, it hits me like it did the first time: that the life I have begun to think of as routine is, in fact, extraordinary. Today, in the stands below, the people are watching commoners like themselves ride dragons. It’s the kind of thing that can’t help making you feel proud of your country.
Even if it turns out that your country is not so proud of you.
But as that thought threatens to overwhelm, I feel Aela’s body, warm through the saddle, her presence soft at the back of my mind. Hold. Be still. Not now. For as long as I can remember, Aela has been able to temper the feelings I couldn’t. Even in the very beginning, when I was still a child with lingering nightmares of dragonfire. With Aela, they fell away. A dragon’s comfort for a dragon’s crimes. What would people from my village think? What would my parents have thought, my brothers and sisters? Questions I’ve never had answered, but when I’m with Aela, they don’t matter anymore.
Together with Lee sur Pallor, we lead the aurelian squadron over the heads of the audience while the shimmering skyfish dart back and forth across the arena above us. As we practiced this morning, Cor keeps the stormscourge squadron high, their ash safely out of range of citizens in the stands below.
Atreus begins his speech after we’ve landed and dismissed our dragons. Even at a distance from the Palace Box, it’s impossible to miss Atreus’s presence, his close-cut steel-gray hair, his confident pose that more than makes up for his simple, muted garb. The only thing lost is the way his gaze makes you feel powerful. Important. Needed. When we first met him, as children freshly Chosen by the new regime’s hatchling dragons, a shiver went down my spine when he said my name. Bound for the first time to Aela’s, in drakonym, like a dragonlord’s. Antigone sur Aela, make your vows.
What would it have been like, I can’t help wondering, to receive a note of good luck from him this morning, instead of one of caution from the Ministry of Propaganda? What did Lee feel as he read those words? And is that why, standing beside me, he is able to look so unabashedly confident as he regards the waiting crowd—
But confidence has never been something Lee’s been short on, notes from Atreus or no. That’s been apparent from the beginning.
A lot of things have been apparent from the beginning, with Lee.
“Men and women of Callipolis,” Atreus proclaims, “welcome to the quarterfinal Firstrider Tournament. Ten years ago, you made a historic choice. You chose to test everyone equally, to choose the best among you to become dragonriders, and to train them to lead. To bring Callipolis into a new era of greatness, of air power in the service of what is right. Of virtuous leaders and just rule. For the years between the old way of dragons and the new, you have allowed me to be your steward. Now I ask you to look to your future. To your Guardians. Four of whom today will become semifinalists for Firstrider, and members of the Fourth Order.
“In a few years I will say: May the most virtuous Guardian rule. But today, I say: May the best riders win.”
The cheering goes up, resounding. It sets my blood on fire.
On the way back up to the Eyrie, I crane my neck to search the crowds in the Bronze stands. But there’s still no sign of anyone from my village.
Maybe they didn’t come.
It’d mean a lot to the people in your village if you made Fourth Order, Lee said this morning.
It’s funny how much the thought of it mattering to them matters to me.
I’m so absorbed straining for a sight of them that I practically stumble into Darius, my match opponent, descending from the bleachers in the Gold section. He’s blond, tall, well-built like a statue of white marble. He has friends with him, other patrician boys who’ve tested Gold. I know most of them by sight; Guardians attend many of their classes with the Gold students— they’re our future peers, coworkers—underlings. Many of the officials I do rounds with when I tour the Inner Palace and other branches of government are their parents.
And all of them would love for Darius sur Myra to make the Fourth Order.
Darius sees me, stops dead, and then gestures at the stone archway we’re both about to walk through, the picture of gentility. “After you, Annie.”
Dragons. I’ll throw it. I’ve got to throw it. What were my vows for, if not obedience to the will of the state? And the state wants this boy. It hurts but I don’t blame them. I just went cold from the thought of mere schoolchildren talking about me, didn’t I? Darius isn’t my favorite person but he’s decent, he’d do a fine job—
Duck and Power are up next; Darius and I will close the tournament.
On the Eyrie, Duck, who is now rigid with nerves, submits to his brother’s check-over of his suit and his murmured advice. Power’s stormscourge is large enough that he doesn’t have to worry about fire conservation and precision; Eater pretty much never runs out. Duck’s best strategy is to move, move, move, and hopefully wear them down.
“And no—bloody—spillovers,” Cor hisses.
Most of the time, the line between our emotions and our dragons’ is dim, subliminal. But with violent flares of emotions, the walls break down, and you share everything. Spilling over can be a rider’s greatest advantage or greatest weakness. Some riders, like Power, spill over on purpose; Lee and I don’t, though I’m more comfortable sharing minds with my dragon than Lee is. Duck’s the sort of rider who spills over easily and shouldn’t. In his and Certa’s case, it never ends well. They lose control.
Duck and Power walk down the ramp; Lee goes to stand beside Cor and Crissa, and though I don’t usually seek his company when he’s with the other two squadron leaders, I find myself moving toward him as if pulled. Stress reaction, orphanage behavior—I diagnose it even as I let myself do it. When he sees me approaching, he breaks away to join me at the Eyrie’s edge. Side by side, we lean against the rail to watch.
Duck and Power assume position overhead. There’s silence on the Eyrie again, as there was for Lee’s match, but this time it’s silence of a different kind. Even Rock and Lotus have forgone making bets.
And then it begins. Power sur Eater attacks; Duck sur Certa retreats; and then Duck sets off, Power in pursuit. But Power must figure out Duck’s strategy soon enough, because we hear him shout: “Running? Brings me back to the good old days, Dorian!”
“Tune him out, Duck,” Lee murmurs, his gray eyes fixed on Duck’s mother-of-pearl skyfish, his fingers tight on the Eyrie railing.
But Duck has never been good at tuning Power out. Sure enough, a telltale ripple goes through his skyfish. Not something the audience would notice, but we can tell it’s the first sign of a spillover.
And then Duck makes a jackknife turn and fires. Power dodges; the ash passes harmlessly over his shoulder; and he takes advantage of the close range to fire himself. He hits Duck on the leg, full heat.
The audience gasps in appreciation and the bell rings to mark the penalty; but on the Eyrie, muttering has broken out with a different realization. Duck’s opening was wide; Power could have made a kill shot. Instead, Power went for a full-heat penalty.
A long, slow roast. Power’s going to draw this out.
The two of them back out of range while Duck opens the coolant shafts on the leg of his flamesuit, a temporary pain reliever that will delay his reaction to the burn. Then they reset and advance again. By now, Duck has unmistakably spilled over; Certa is twitching at odd moments, her movements uncoordinated. Whatever emotions Duck is experiencing are now reverberating, dragon-size, between the two of them. Power scores his second penalty hit barely a minute later, this time across Duck’s arm and side. Again, avoiding a kill shot even though he had the opening; again, full heat.
I’m beginning to feel sick to my stomach.
Stormscourge fire. Nothing burns so bad.
I can feel memories rising like a coming storm. Predictable.
I should have seen it coming, the one way this morning could get harder. Not this, not now, of all times—
But once it starts happening, it always keeps happening. And so I clutch the rail and will the world around me to stay in focus.
I can feel Lee’s eyes, which should be on the match, on me instead.
Behind us, Cor says, “Master Goran, call a foul.”
“It’s not a foul to make a kill shot and miss, Cor.”
Cor rounds on our drillmaster. His voice is shaking. “Power is playing with his prey before he eats it.”
Goran’s tension with the three squadron leaders has never exactly been a secret, though none of them has ever acknowledged it: Atreus, not Goran, appointed three lowborn riders, one of them female, to leadership positions within the corps two years ago.
“Power has done nothing illegal,” Goran says.
Cor makes a choking sound. He turns from Goran. Crissa lays a hand on his arm.
“I’m going to fetch the medic,” she says. “Why don’t you come with me?”
He shrugs her off. “No.”
I’m pretty sure my face is showing nothing, betraying nothing, but all the same Lee has stepped closer to me so our sides are touching and places his hand beside mine on the rail. A silent invitation, where no one will see it but me. For a second, I fight the urge. But the world is going in and out; the memories are closing in; the thought of Duck up there, hurting, with no way out, threatens to overwhelm. I give in. Seizing Lee’s hand and holding, focusing on his grip. I’m pretty sure my nails are digging into his skin, but he doesn’t pull away, only returns the pressure. I don’t look at him.
Overhead, Duck seems to have abandoned—or perhaps forgotten—his original strategy of keeping distance. He and Power are circling each other, Duck’s skyfish rippling with their shared emotions. Within seconds, Power takes his third and final shot. Though it need only be a partial hit to finish the match, he makes it a kill shot anyway. Duck is engulfed in thick black smoke. When it clears, his silhouette is stiff on his dragon. They descend slowly behind Power and Eater to the Eyrie. Power dismounts. He’s smiling.
“Hope he’s all right,” he says. “That came out a bit more forcefully than I intended—”
Cor launches for him with a wordless cry. Lee’s hand tears free of mine to help hold him back.
Goran and the medic cut the straps tying Duck’s boots to his stirrups and ease him from Certa’s back. Her gaze is vacant: the expression of a dragon whose rider is unconscious. I take in the sight of Duck’s limp figure, the smell of smoke, and feel the panic roll over me in cold waves.
Nothing burns like stormscourge fire.
Lee steps forward and then, when he realizes I am moving with him, turns and catches me across the waist, holding me back. He turns me toward him, seeking my eyes.
“I have to—”
I’m straining to get past him, unable to speak, barely able to see Duck for what I can no longer fight remembering. The memories of stormscourge fire engulfing my whole world while I watched and could do nothing.
Then Lee’s blazing eyes find mine. The world stills. Everything else falls away.
“I’ll take care of him. You need to go.”
At first I don’t understand. And then it comes rushing back: my match. I still have a match.
A match that I’m not supposed to win. A match that no one in my village came to see. A match that, if I win, will thrust me into the kind of spotlight that makes me ill to imagine.
The ministry would like to remind Antigone sur Aela of the intensely public nature—
—vows to serve the state—
I look from Cor, as Crissa strains to hold him back, to Duck, unconscious as the medic removes his armor; to Power, watching with a satisfied smile. Then I look to the cave mouth, where Darius waits for me, wrist lifted to his mouth to summon his stormscourge as his family and friends watch from the Gold stands.
And then all those things fade away, and all that is left is a single thought:
Like hell am I throwing this match.
I look up at Lee and nod. Whatever he’s searching my eyes for, he seems to find. His hands drop from my shoulders and I turn from him to walk toward the cave mouth.
“Annie,” says a different voice.
I stop again. Goran’s hand has taken my shoulder. I look back at him.
“Remember what the ministry wrote you about,” Goran says.
He towers over me, broad-shouldered in his uniform, the figure that for years I’ve associated with the sour taste of my own inadequacy. For a moment I feel a clarity that’s piercing and bright. The kind I usually only feel with Aela, except this time, I find it alone. Crystalized within it is an anger I had forgotten I possessed.
I turn my back on him without a word.
Excerpted from Fireborne, copyright © 2019 by Rosaria Munda