“Aren’t you going to ask what happened?” the prince said, peering up at her.
“It’s not my place to ask—and unless it’s relevant to the injury, it’s nothing I need to know.” It came out colder, harder than she meant. But it was true.
Efficiently, she patched up his hand. The silence didn’t bother her; she’d sometimes spent days in the catacombs without speaking to anyone. She’d been a quiet child before her parents had died, and after the massacre in the city square, she’d become even more so. It wasn’t until she’d come to the castle that she found friends—found that she sometimes liked talking. Yet now, with him . . . well, it seemed that the prince didn’t like silence, because he looked up at her again and said, “Where are you from?”
Such a tricky question to answer, since the how and why of her journey to this castle were stained by the actions of his father. “Fenharrow,” she said, praying that would be the end of it.
“Where in Fenharrow?”
She almost cringed, but she had more self-control than that after five years of tending gruesome injuries and knowing that one flicker of disgust or fear on her face could shatter a patient’s control. “A small village in the south. Most people have never heard of it.”
“Fenharrow is beautiful,” he said. “All that open land, stretching on forever.”
She did not remember enough of it to recall whether she had loved the flat expanse of farmland, bordered on the west by mountains and on the east by the sea.
“Did you always want to be a healer?”
“Yes,” she said, because she was entrusted to heal the heir to the empire and could show nothing but absolute certainty.
A slash of a grin. “Liar.”
She didn’t mean to, but she met his gaze—those sapphire eyes so bright in the late afternoon sun streaming through the small window. “I did not mean any offense, Your—”
“I’m prying.” He tested the bandages. “I was trying to distract myself.”
She nodded, because she had nothing to say and could never come up with anything clever anyway. She drew out her tin of disinfecting salve. “For your lip, if you don’t mind, Your Highness, I want to make sure there’s no dirt or anything in the wound so it—”
“Sorscha.” She tried not to let it show, what it did to her to have him remember her name. Or to hear him say it. “Do what you need to do.”
She bit her lip, a stupid nervous habit, and nodded as she tilted his chin up so she could better see his mouth. His skin was so warm. She touched the wound and he hissed, his breath caressing her fingers, but didn’t pull back or reprimand or strike her as some of the other courtiers did.
She applied the salve to his lip as quickly as she could. Gods, his lips were soft.
She hadn’t known he was the prince the day she first saw him, striding through the gardens, the captain in tow. They were barely into their teenage years, and she was an apprentice in hand-me-down clothes, but for a moment, he’d looked at her and smiled. He’d seen her when no one else had for years, so she found excuses to be in the upper levels of the castle. But she’d wept the next month when she spied him again, and two apprentices had whispered about how handsome the prince was—Dorian, heir to the throne.
It had been secret and stupid, this infatuation with him. Because when she finally encountered him again, years later while helping Amithy with a patient, he did not look at her. She had become invisible, like many of the healers—invisible, just as she had wanted. “Sorscha?”
Her horror achieved new depths as she realized she’d been staring at his mouth, fingers still in her tin of salve. “I’m sorry,” she said, wondering whether she should throw herself from the tower and end her humiliation. “It’s been a long day.” That wasn’t a lie.
She was acting like a fool. She’d been with a man before—one of the guards, just once and long enough to know she wasn’t particularly interested in letting another one touch her anytime soon. But standing so close, his legs brushing the skirt of her brown homespun dress . . .
“Why didn’t you tell anyone?” he asked quietly. “About me and my friends.”
She backed away a step but held his stare, even though training and instinct told her to avert her eyes. “You were never cruel to the healers—to anyone. I like to think that the world needs . . .” Saying that was too much. Because the world was his father’s world.
“Needs better people,” he finished for her, standing. “And you think my father would have used your knowledge of our . . . comings and goings against us.”
So he knew that Amithy reported anything unusual. Amithy had told Sorscha to do the same, if she knew what was good for her. “I don’t mean to imply that His Majesty would—”
“Does your village still exist? Are your parents still alive?”
Even years later, she couldn’t keep the pain from her voice as she said, “No. It was burned. And no: they brought me to Rifthold and were killed in the city’s immigrant purge.”
A shadow of grief and horror in his eyes. “So why would you ever come here—work here?”
She gathered her supplies. “Because I had nowhere else to go.” Agony flickered on his face. “Your Highness, have I—”
But he was staring as if he understood—and saw her. “I’m sorry.”
“It wasn’t your decision. Or your soldiers who rounded up my parents.”
He only looked at her for a long moment before thanking her. A polite dismissal. And she wished, as she left that cluttered tower, that she’d never opened her mouth—because perhaps he’d never call on her again for the sheer awkwardness of it. She wouldn’t lose her position, because he wasn’t that cruel, but if he refused her services, then it might lead to questions. So Sorscha resolved, as she lay that night in her little cot, to find a way to apologize—or maybe find excuses to keep the prince from seeing her again. Tomorrow, she’d figure it out tomorrow.
The following day she didn’t expect the messenger who arrived after breakfast, asking for the name of her village. And when she hesitated, he said that the Crown Prince wanted to know.
Wanted to know, so he could have it added to his personal map of the continent.
Of all the spaces in the Omega, the mess hall was by far the most dangerous.
The three Ironteeth Clans had been divided into rotating shifts that kept them mostly separated—training with the wyverns, training in the weapons room, and training in mortal warfare. It was smart to separate them, Manon supposed, since tensions were high, and would continue to run high until the wyverns were selected. Everyone wanted a bull. Though Manon fully expected to get one, perhaps even Titus, it didn’t keep her from wanting to punch out the teeth of anyone who even whispered about coveting a bull of her own.
There were only a few overlapping minutes between their three-hour rotations, and the coven leaders did their best to keep them from running into each other. At least Manon did. Her temper was on a tight leash these days, and one more sneer from the Yellowlegs heir was likely to end in bloodshed. The same could be said of her Thirteen, two of whom—the green-eyed twins Faline and Fallon, more demon than witch—had gotten into a brawl with some Yellowlegs idiots, unsurprisingly. She’d punished them just as she’d punished Asterin: three blows each, public and humiliating. But, like clockwork, fights still broke out between other covens whenever they were in close quarters.
Which was what made the mess hall so deadly. The two daily meals were the only time they all shared together—and while they kept to their own tables, the tension was so thick Manon could slice it with her blade.
Manon stood in line for her bowl of slop—that was the best name she could give the doughy goop the mess hall served—flanked by Asterin, with the last of the Blueblood witches in the line ahead of her. Somehow, the Bluebloods were always first—first in line for food, first to ride the wyverns (the Thirteen had yet to get airborne), and likely to get first pick of the beasts. A growl rumbled deep in her throat, but Manon pushed her tray along the table, watching the pale-faced server heap a grayish-white ball of food into the bowl of the Blueblood in front of her.
She didn’t bother to note the details of his features as the thick vein in his throat pulsed. Witches didn’t need blood to survive, but humans didn’t need wine, either. The Bluebloods were picky about whose blood they drank—virgins, young men, pretty girls—but the Blackbeaks didn’t particularly care one way or another.
The man’s ladle began shaking, tip-tapping along the side of the cauldron.
“Rules are rules,” drawled a voice to her left. Asterin let out a warning snarl, and Manon didn’t have to look to know that the Yellowlegs heir, Iskra, lurked there. “No eating the rabble,” the dark-haired witch added, shoving her bowl in front of the man, cutting the line. Manon took in the iron nails and teeth, the calloused hand so blatantly making a show of dominance.
“Ah. I was wondering why no one’s bothered to eat you,” Manon said.
Iskra shouldered her way farther in front of Manon. Manon could feel the eyes in the room shifting toward them, but she reined in her temper, allowing the disrespect. Mess hall posturing meant nothing. “I hear your Thirteen are taking to the air today,” said the Yellowlegs heir as Manon received her own ration.
“What business is it of yours?”
Iskra shrugged her toned shoulders. “They say you were once the best flier in all three Clans. It would be a shame if it were just more gossip.”
It was true—she’d earned her spot as coven leader as much as she’d inherited it.
Iskra went on, sliding her plate along to the next server, who spooned some pale root vegetable onto her slop. “There’s talk of skipping our training rotation so we can see the legendary Thirteen take to the skies for the first time in a decade.”
Manon clicked her tongue in pretend thought. “I also heard there’s talk that the Yellowlegs need all the help they can get in the sparring room. But I suppose any army needs its supply drivers.”
A low laugh from Asterin, and Iskra’s brown eyes flashed. They reached the end of the serving table, where Iskra faced Manon. With their trays in hand, neither could reach for the blades at their sides. The room had gone silent, even the high table at which the three Matrons sat.
Manon’s gums stung as her iron teeth shot from their slits and snapped down. She said quietly, but loud enough for everyone to hear, “Any time you need a lesson in combat, Iskra, you just let me know. I’d be happy to teach you a few things about soldiering.”
Before the heir could reply, Manon stalked across the room. Asterin gave Iskra a mocking bow of the head, followed by identical gestures from the rest of her Thirteen, but Iskra remained staring at Manon, simmering.
Manon plunked down at her table to find her grandmother smiling faintly. And when all of Manon’s twelve sentinels were seated around her, Thirteen from now until the Darkness embraced them, Manon allowed herself a smile, too.
They were going to fly today.
As if the open cliff face weren’t enough to make the two gathered Blackbeak covens shift on their feet, the twenty-six tethered wyverns in a tight space, none of them that docile, made even Manon twitchy.
But she showed no fear as she approached the wyvern at the center. Two lines of thirteen stood chained and ready. The Thirteen took the first. The other coven took the one behind. Manon’s new riding gear was heavy and awkward—leather and fur, capped with steel shoulder-guards and leather wrist-braces. More than she was used to wearing, especially with her red cloak.