Bryn is back for her senior year at the Institute for Excellence, also known as shape-shifting dragon school. She isn't sure which is scarier, the life-force sucking dragons stalking campus or the fact that she's officially betrothed to Jaxon, a guy who will never love her. Not that she could ever love him, either... That's just ridiculous.
Senior year should be fun. Her parents are alive, she's finally fitting in, and she's learning how to be a Medic. But what's with Jaxon giving her strange looks? He runs hot and cold, and he doesn't even have the excuse of being a hybrid fire-and-ice-breathing dragon like her. One minute they're having a great time and the next, she wants to blast a fireball at his head. The marriage contract of doom looms over them--unless this match not made in heaven kindles a flame...
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It had been three months since the Rebel dragons had attacked campus ... three months since Rhianna had died ... three months since Bryn had released Valmont from being her knight ... three months since it felt like she'd had her heart ripped out of her chest ... three months since anything had seemed normal or right or good in the world.
Summer had passed by in a flash. There had been far too many funeral pyres and not enough contact with her friends or her parents. Despite Bryn's intentions to hang out with Clint and Ivy, her grandparents had kept her hopping from one Blue event to another. And the singular constant at these events had been Jaxon. Not that she hated her former nemesis, but she didn't want to spend all her free time with him, either. Whenever they were together, her grandparents constantly mentioned their impending marriage of doom. She had finally mastered the art of not flinching when people brought up her marriage contract to Jaxon, although she sometimes experienced a tic in her left eye.
Then there was the problem of her parents, or rather, how the Directorate was dealing with her parents. All hybrids and disenfranchised dragons had been shuttled off to a town on the far side of the forest. Sanctuary seemed like an ironic name for the old mining town with rundown cabins. Of course they were building better housing, but that would take time. It was a place where mixed-Clan dragons didn't have to hide their true identity, so maybe the name wasn't a bad choice after all.
Once her parents had settled in, she'd hoped to spend time with them. That hadn't happened because until the Directorate decided that all the dangerous rebels had been rooted out, the citizens of Sanctuary weren't allowed to leave their new town. Which made the place more like a free-range prison. Bryn had been allowed to call her parents, but not visit them in person.
"Bryn, are you ready?" Her grandmother pushed her bedroom door open. "We leave for the Institute in fifteen minutes."
The Institute for Excellence was a school for shape-shifting dragons that masqueraded as an expensive boarding school.
"I'm all packed." Bryn pointed at the suitcases by the door. "But I'm not sure I want to go."
"It's your senior year," her grandmother said. "Not that you'll understand this at your age, but enjoy it, because the older you become the faster time flies. It feels like these past three months went by in the blink of an eye."
"They did," Bryn agreed.
"I know you're disappointed about not being able to visit your mother, but I think that might change in the next few weeks."
"Really?" It was about damn time.
"The Directorate has finished their background checks on almost all of the dragons living in Sanctuary. The students have been cleared to return to school."
That was great news. For the first time, she wouldn't be the only hybrid at school. Of course, she might still be the only Red-Blue hybrid because the middle class and the elite didn't mix very often. On a different note, her parents should have been cleared of suspicion from day one. They hadn't had anything to do with dragons since they'd run away to escape their arranged marriages. Bryn found it ironic that she was legally bound to marry the son of the man her mother had rejected all those years ago. Not that she faulted her mom, because Jaxon's father, Ferrin, was the most loathsome asshat on the planet. Still, fate seemed to have a twisted sense of humor.
"We should go," her grandmother said. "You don't want to keep Jaxon waiting."
Bryn managed not to roll her eyes. but couldn't help muttering, "I'm sure he's counting the minutes since he's last seen me."
* * *
Bryn was thrilled to find Clint and Ivy, her best friends, waiting for her outside the Blue dorm. After spending all summer with the golden-skinned, blond-haired Blue Clan, it was refreshing to see her friends from the Black Clan — dark-haired, ivory-skinned dragons with tattoos and wild hair. She hugged Ivy. "I missed you guys."
"We missed you, too. You were hardly ever there when we called," Ivy said. "What in the heck were you doing?"
"Socializing," Bryn said. "Which means networking, and smiling, and nodding while trying to keep up the facade that I fit in with the Blue Clan."
"Sounds dead boring," Clint said.
"There was usually food, so that was the one saving grace." Bryn opened the door of the Blue dorm. "Come in with me while I put my things away."
"Now that you're all upper class, shouldn't you have a maid do that for you?" Ivy teased.
"I volunteered to take care of this myself," Bryn said. Her grandparents had maids, and cooks, and staff who took care of normal everyday life activities. "I'd rather put my own things away so I know where they are." Plus sitting back and watching someone do something she herself was capable of made her uncomfortable.
Clint and Ivy followed her inside. Most of the students in the first-floor lounge glanced her way and nodded in acknowledgement, which was weird. Last year at this time few of them would have spoken to her except to insult her.
"That was different," Ivy said as they climbed the steps to the second floor.
Clint yawned. "Less talking and more coffee ... and bacon. I feel the distinct need for bacon."
As if on cue, Bryn's stomach growled. "Breakfast sounds good." When they reached her room, Bryn unlocked it with her key. She stepped across the threshold and stared at the couch where she had spent so much time with her knight and former boyfriend Valmont. A spot in her chest ached as the bittersweet memories assaulted her. "I wonder if my grandmother would care if I bought a new couch."
"I could accidentally electrocute that one for you." Clint produced a ball of lightning in his hand.
"I might take you up on that." Bryn carried her suitcases into her room.
"Have you heard from Valmont?" Ivy asked as she followed Bryn.
"No and it's probably better that way." She pointed at the room across the hall from hers. "I still think of that as Rhianna's room."
"When you add Valmont and Rhianna together this dorm room has way too many emotional memories," Ivy said. "Why don't you ask if you can move to a new one?"
"I couldn't do that, because that would show weakness. At least that's what my grandfather would say."
"Blue Clan logic is weird," Clint said.
"You have no idea. The day after all the funerals, my grandmother scheduled me for this whirlwind of events where I had to spend time with Jaxon. When I asked why we were acting like we hadn't just lost people we cared about, she said that was the point. It was our job to show we were strong enough to go on and the Rebels hadn't won."
"That is some screwed up logic," Ivy said. "Black dragons binge-watch television, eat ice cream, and cry their way through several boxes of Kleenex."
"That's what I did after all the stupid parties ... when I was alone in my room," Bryn said. "I'm betting that's what all the other Blues secretly do but they'd never admit it." "I never thought I'd ask this question," Clint said. "But how is Jaxon coping?"
"For the first month after Rhianna's funeral, he barely spoke to anyone, which I understood. Then he went through a robot phase where he talked but showed zero emotion. As of a few days ago, he's sort of back to his normal self but with a hair-trigger temper which makes him loads of fun to be around."
"I wish life would go back to normal," Ivy said.
"I'm not sure what normal is anymore." Bryn's stomach growled.
"You need to be fed," Clint said. "and that is normal."
A knock sounded on Bryn's door.
Please don't let that be Jaxon. And that thought made her feel like a bad person. She opened the door and, of course, there stood Jaxon. "Hello, what's going on?"
"If you'd invite me inside, rather than leaving me standing in the hall, I could tell you," Jaxon said.CHAPTER 2
Bryn tamped down on her instinct to snark back and waved Jaxon into the room. He spotted Clint and Ivy and frowned.
"Bryn," he said. "We need to talk."
Nope. "We were heading down to breakfast. Whatever it is, it can wait until after I've had coffee and bacon."
"No. It can't." When he spoke to her using his holier-than-thou my-father-is-Speaker-for-the-Directorate tone, she remembered why she had once shot a fireball at his head.
"Do you really want to come between me and my coffee?" Bryn asked.
"Fine. Then I'll accompany you to the dining hall and we'll eat breakfast together." Jaxon said this like he was issuing a challenge.
She could see where this was going. He'd insist on joining them if she didn't give him his way. At this point she'd rather hear him out than spend breakfast with him. "You have five minutes to speak your mind, and then you'll go away so I can eat in peace with my friends. Deal?"
"Deal." Jaxon glanced at Clint and Ivy. "Do you mind?"
"Do we mind what?" Clint asked, like he didn't realize Jaxon wanted to speak with Bryn alone.
"Why don't you guys go to the dining hall and save me a seat?" Bryn said, just to move them along.
"Sure. We'll fly from your terrace." Ivy grabbed her boyfriend and pulled him down the hall.
Once they were gone, Bryn said, "What's on your mind?"
"I think you should change rooms."
That wasn't what she expected him to say. "I'd love to change rooms, but is that what my grandfather would want me to do?"
Jaxon's gaze traveled toward the door where Rhianna used to live when she was Bryn's roommate. "If it was just due to your knight, I'd agree, but I believe he'd understand why I'd wish for you to relocate."
When he put it that way — more about Rhianna and his feelings than about her not wanting to be reminded of Valmont, it made sense. "If you put in the request rather than me, I'd be more than happy to move."
"Thank you." His upper-class Blue demeanor slipped. "Being back here at school ... there are so many memories ... it's harder than I thought it would be."
And now she felt like a total jerk for giving him crap. With a normal person, Bryn's first instinct would be to hug him. She didn't think Jaxon would be okay with that maneuver, though, so she settled for touching him on the shoulder. "Let me know if there's anything I can do to help."
* * *
Bryn caught up with Clint and Ivy in the dining hall and explained Jaxon's request.
Ivy opened her mouth to speak and then stopped, blinking her eyes furiously. "I can't even talk about the attack without crying. God forbid if something had happened to Clint ... I have no idea how Jaxon is holding himself together."
"It's our senior year," Clint said. "And not to sound petty, but I never imagined death and destruction would be a part of my high school experience."
Bryn stirred sugar into her cup of coffee while she thought about something. "My grandmother says our job is to remember the ones we lost while moving forward and trying to make the most of what and who we still have."
"Okay. Let's talk about what we have." Clint pulled out his class schedule with a flourish.
"That's not what I meant." Bryn laughed. "But go on."
"Give me yours so we can compare," Clint said.
She and Ivy both passed over their class lists and watched as Clint lined them up on the table.
"We have Mr. Stanton for Advanced Elemental Science first hour. Ivy and I have History second hour. Bryn you have Beginning Quintessential Medicine."
"I can't wait to start learning Quintessential medicine for real." Everything she'd done up to that point had been based on a small amount of training and a lot of instinct. The results hadn't always been optimal.
"Third hour we have Basic Movement," Clint said. "Next is lunch and then all of us end the day with Proper Decorum."
"How many more forks can there possibly be?" Bryn asked.
"Maybe we'll learn something exciting this year," Ivy said. "Like how to fold napkins into origami swans."
Bryn sipped her coffee and tried to be subtle about checking out her fellow students because her grandmother had been on her all summer about staring at people. The tables seemed emptier than normal. Orientation wasn't until tomorrow, so some students might not arrive until then ... still, it seemed like they were missing a third of the normal crowd.
"Why do you think we're missing so many students?" There had been casualties among the students, but not this many.
"Some students finished their college degrees so they won't be coming back," Ivy said. "Plus Orientation officially starts tomorrow, so maybe some students aren't coming until then."
"Not to sound ungrateful to my grandparents for all that they've done, but I couldn't wait to come back to school." Bryn leaned in close and spoke in a quiet voice. "I spent every waking minute with Blues, and I had to constantly be on my best behavior, which was exhausting. I mean, why does anyone care if you put your elbows on the table?" To make a point Bryn put both her elbows on the table.
"You're such a rebel," Ivy said.
"I've been going on about myself," Bryn said. "Tell me about your summer."
"It was pretty good," Clint said, "but it felt like there was a layer of sadness and disbelief floating in the air."
Ivy sighed. "I keep feeling like I can't relax or have fun because that would be disloyal to the dragons who are no longer with us."
Bryn had heard the phrase survivor's guilt but hadn't really understood it until now. "During the battle, if I had been faster ..." She blinked her eyes rapidly to hold back tears. "If I'd managed to intercept the second dragon attacking Jaxon, then Rhianna would still be here."
"You can't think like that," Ivy said. "Rhianna did what she did out of love."
Clint put his arm around Ivy's shoulders. "I'd sacrifice myself to protect Ivy and she'd do the same for me. It was Rhianna's choice."
Bryn nodded because her throat felt too thick to speak. Several nights a week, since the attack on campus, her brain had replayed the battle. Over and over again she'd seen Rhianna fall from the sky. What Clint said was true. Rhianna had thrown herself between Jaxon and the second attacker because saving him meant more to her than her own life.
It was a sad realization that there was no one in the world who cared about her like that, and there probably never would be. She and Jaxon were legally bound together by a marriage contract, but she had no delusions about him ever truly caring for her — or she for him — as anything more than a friend.
"Let's talk about something happier," Ivy said. "We're supposed to be celebrating the beginning of our senior year."
"I'd love to do something fun," Bryn said. "What are our options?"
"We could go to Dragon's Bluff," Ivy said. "And shop for cool stuff for your new room."
Dragon's Bluff was a town populated by humans descended from knights. The town had a symbiotic relationship with dragons and the Institute. They protected the dragon's secret and in return their businesses prospered. But there was more to it than that. Every person in Dragon's Bluff carried a latent magic spell in their blood. If they stepped up to defend a dragon, to protect them from a perceived threat, they were transformed into a knight and became magically bonded to that dragon. Valmont, a waiter in Dragon's Bluff, had performed an act of chivalry and become Bryn's knight. The magical dragon-knight bond she'd had with him had been wonderful, but then they'd fallen in love which had been awesome at first, until everything had gone to hell.
"I managed to avoid seeing Valmont all summer. I don't think I'm ready to see him yet," Bryn said. She may have broken their dragon-knight bond but that was only after he'd broken her heart.
"Are you over him?" Ivy asked.
"I don't know." Bryn played with her napkin while she thought about the question. Part of her life felt empty without him and she missed what they'd had together, but thinking of him no longer caused her physical pain. "I think I am."
"If you saw him with another girl, how would you feel?" Clint asked.
"If you'd asked me that three months ago I would have wanted to roast him, but now I think it would just make me a little sad. I guess that's an improvement."
Clint sat up straight and muttered, "Incoming."
Bryn turned and saw Zavien striding her way. He was no longer the spiky-haired rebel who'd impressed her so much when she'd first come to school. He wore his dark hair short, and his cheekbones were more pronounced than she remembered, as if he'd been ill and lost weight. Dark circles stood out under his eyes.
He approached their table, like he wasn't sure if he was welcome. "Bryn, can we talk?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Burning Bright"
Copyright © 2018 Chris Cannon.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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