Chapter 15

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Sam had a million questions to ask Braeden, but they had no time to spare, not with the smell of smoke thick in their nostrils. The fire drakes must have breathed flames onto the ship once more, because the acrid smell had grown worse, seeping in through the cracks in the ceiling above.

"Hurry," the guard begged them, and so they did, scrambling up the companionway to the deck, first Azi, then the emperor, then Braeden, with Sam and the guard taking up the rear. From the narrow nook at the bottom of the companionway, Sam worriedly watched Braeden climb up the rope ladder. He favored his left arm, letting it hang limp to the side, using only his right arm and legs to swing himself upwards. At least he was here, in front of her. Alive. He'd come back for her after all.

But he'd brought trouble with him.

Shoving that thought aside, Sam grabbed hold of the ladder and climbed up after him. She poked her head through the opening and breathed in a lungful of smoke. Wheezing and eyes watering, she managed to haul herself up onto the deck next to Braeden and the others. Once her eyes stopped watering, she took in the state of the ship. The mizzenmast's sails were riddled with gaping holes scorched around the edges. The lowest sail on the foremast was still burning, and the ship's crew were frantically working to put out the fire, dousing it with buckets of seawater. While there was a lot of coughing and wheezing, no one aboard the ship appeared to be seriously hurt.

Sam spotted Kameko hanging back with the imperial guard at the stern of the ship. Kameko held a bow loosely in one hand and pressed a spyglass to her face with the other, head tilted back as far as it would go. Sam followed her gaze, looking up.

Mother above. The sight of one fire drake had been something. The sight of two soaring through the skies, as graceful as hawks and a thousand times more deadly, was both awesome and frightening. Whereas the fire drake Braeden rode in on had been a dark shadow, a purple so deep it was nearly black, they were vibrantly colored, one patterned cerulean blue and silver and the other striped scarlet and gold. Under the harsh light of Emese's sun, they possessed a terrible, mesmerizing sort of beauty not meant for this world. It was almost a shame to kill them.

"Holy Gods," breathed the emperor, gaping up at them, all arrogance wiped from his face.

Sam had almost forgotten he was there. "Shouldn't you go below deck, Your Highness? It isn't safe up here."

Emperor Kazan glared at her. "I will not hide behind my men like a coward. I can fight as well as any of them."

"She meant no offense, Majesty," Braeden broke in. "In Thule, kings command armies, but they themselves do not fight."

"Huh," said the emperor, sounding genuinely befuddled. "How can a man who has never fought himself lead an army to victory?"

Azi shushed them with a wave of his hand. "We can discuss Thulian politics another time, my liege. After the demons are dead." Running his fingers through his beard, he muttered, "Why do they not attack in earnest?"

Sam had been wondering the same thing. The fire drakes dipped and swooped in circles around the ship—rather like vultures that hadn't yet decided whether or not they were prey. Sparks flew from their nostrils, dotting the blue sky with flecks of orange and gold. Sam held her breath as the blue-and-silver scaled demon dropped in low, its talons scraping the top of the mainmast, showering them with tiny wood shavings. Archers shot feather-tipped arrows towards it, but it was already soaring higher and the arrows missed their mark.

"There," said Braeden, pointing at the blue fire drake. "See those black strings hanging from its muzzle? Those are reins."

"What are you saying, boy?" demanded Azi.

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