But then it was quiet. Dorian opened his eyes to find Sorscha, clever, steady, wonderful Sorscha, standing there, biting her lip. She took one step—toward him, not away, for once. “Did it—”
Dorian was on his feet so fast the chair rocked behind him, and had her face between his hands a heartbeat after that. “Yes,” he breathed, and kissed her. It was fast—but her face was flushed, and her eyes wide as he pulled back. His own eyes were wide, gods be damned, and he was still rubbing his thumb against her soft cheek. Still contemplating going back for more, because that hadn’t been nearly enough.
But she pulled away, returning to her work. As if—as if it hadn’t been anything, other than an embarrassment. “Tomorrow?” she murmured. She wouldn’t look at him.
He could hardly muster the words to tell her yes as he staggered out. She’d looked so surprised, and if he didn’t get out, he was likely to kiss her again.
But maybe she didn’t want to be kissed.
Standing atop a viewing platform on the side of the Omega, Manon watched the first Yellowlegs coven of the day take the Crossing. The plunge down followed by the violent sweep up was stunning, even when it was the Yellowlegs riders astride the wind.
Leading them along the sheer face of the Northern Fang was Iskra. Her bull, a massive beast named Fendir, was a force of nature in himself. Though smaller than Titus, he was twice as nasty.
“They suit each other,” Asterin said from beside Manon. The rest of the Thirteen were in the sparring room, instructing the other covens in hand-to-hand combat. Faline and Fallon, the green-eyed demon-twins, were undoubtedly taking some pleasure from torturing the newest sentinels. They thrived on that sort of thing.
Iskra and Fendir swept over the uppermost peak of the Northern Fang and vanished into the clouds, the other twelve riders trailing in tight formation. The cold wind whipped at Manon’s face, beckoning to her. She was on her way to the caverns to see Abraxos, but she’d wanted to monitor the Yellowlegs Crossing first. Just to make sure they were truly gone for the next three hours.
She looked across the span of the bridge to the Fang and its giant entryway. Screeching and roaring echoed from it, reverberating across the mountains. “I want you to keep the Thirteen occupied for the rest of the day,” Manon said.
As Second, Asterin was the only one of the Thirteen with any sort of right to question her, and even then, it was only in very limited circumstances. “You’re going to train with him?” Manon nodded. “Your grandmother said she’d gut me if I let you out of my sight again.” Golden hair twining about her in the wind, Asterin’s face, with its now-crooked nose, was wary.
“You’re going to have to decide,” Manon said, not bothering to bare her iron teeth. “Are you her spy or my Second?”
No hint of pain or fear or betrayal. Just a slight narrowing of her eyes. “I serve you.”
“She’s your Matron.”
“I serve you.”
For a heartbeat, Manon wondered when she’d ever earned that kind of loyalty. They weren’t friends—at least, not in the way that humans seemed to be friends. Every Blackbeak already owed her their loyalty and obedience as the heir. But this . . .
Manon had never explained herself, her plans, or her intentions to anyone except her grandmother. But she found herself saying to her Second, “I’m still going to be Wing Leader.”
Asterin smiled, her iron teeth like quicksilver in the morning sun. “We know.”
Manon lifted her chin. “I want the Thirteen adding tumbling to their hand-to-hand training. And when you can handle your wyvern on your own, I want you in the skies when the Yellowlegs are aloft. I want to know where they fly, how they fly, and what they do.”
Asterin nodded. “I already have the Shadows watching the Yellowlegs in the halls,” she said, a glimmer of rage and bloodthirst in those gold-flecked black eyes. When Manon raised a brow, Asterin said, “You didn’t think I’d let Iskra off so easily, did you?”
Manon could still feel the iron-tipped fingers digging into her back, shoving her into the pit. Her ankle was sore and stiff from the fall, her ribs bruised from the beating she’d taken from Titus’s tail. “Keep them in line. Unless you want your nose broken a second time.”
Asterin flashed a grin. “We don’t move without your command, Lady.”
Manon didn’t want the overseer in the pen. Or his three handlers, all bearing spears and whips. She didn’t want any of them for three reasons.
The first was that she wanted to be alone with Abraxos, who was crouched against the back wall, waiting and watching.
The second was that the human smell of them, the beckoning warmth of the blood pulsing in their necks, was distracting. The stench of their fear was distracting. She’d debated for a good minute whether it would be worth it to gut one of them just to see what the others would do. Already, men were going missing from the Fang—men who were rumored to have crossed the bridge to the Omega and never returned. Manon hadn’t killed any of the men here yet, but every minute alone with them tempted her to play.
And the third reason she resented their presence was that Abraxos loathed them, with their whips and spears and chains and their hulking presence. The wyvern wouldn’t move from his spot against the wall no matter how viciously they cracked their whips. He hated whips—not just feared, but actually hated. The sound alone made him cringe and bare his teeth.
They’d been in the pen for ten minutes, attempting to get close enough to get him chained down and saddled. If it didn’t happen soon, she’d have to go back to the Omega before the Yellowlegs returned.
“He’s never taken a saddle,” the overseer said to her. “Probably won’t.” She heard the unspoken words. I’m not going to risk my men getting it on him. You’re just being proud. Pick another mount like a good girl.
Manon flashed her iron teeth at the overseer, her upper lip pulling back just enough to warn him. He backed up a step, whip drooping. Abraxos’s mutilated tail slashed across the ground, his eyes never leaving the three men trying to force him into submission.
One of them cracked the whip, so close to Abraxos that he flinched away. Another snapped it near his tail—twice. Then Abraxos lunged, with both neck and tail. The three handlers scrambled, barely out of reach of his snapping teeth. Enough.
“Your men have cowards’ hearts,” she said, giving the overseer a withering look as she stalked across the dirt floor.
The overseer grabbed for her, but she slashed with iron-tipped fingers and sliced his hand open. He cursed, but Manon kept walking, licking his blood off her nails. She almost spat it out.
Vile. The blood tasted rotten, as if it had curdled or festered inside a corpse for days. She glanced at the blood on the rest of her hand. It was too dark for human blood. If witches had indeed been killing these men, why had no one reported this? She bit down the questions. She would think about it another time. Maybe drag the overseer into a forgotten corner and open him up to see what was decaying inside him.
But right now . . . The men had gone quiet. Each step brought her closer to Abraxos. A line had been marked in the dirt where the safety of the chains ended. Manon took three steps beyond it, one for each face of their Goddess: Maiden. Mother. Crone.
Abraxos crouched, the powerful muscles of his body tense, ready to spring.
“You know who I am,” Manon said, gazing into those endless black eyes, not giving one inch to fear or doubt. “I am Manon Blackbeak, heir to the Blackbeak Clan, and you are mine. Do you understand?”
One of the men snorted, and Manon might have whirled to tear out his tongue right there, but Abraxos . . . Abraxos lowered his head ever so slightly. As if he understood.
“You are Abraxos,” Manon said to him, a chill slithering down her neck. “I gave you that name because he is the Great Beast, the serpent who wrapped the world in his coils, and who will devour it at the very end when the Three-Faced Goddess bids him to. You are Abraxos,” she repeated, “and you are mine.”
A blink, then another. Abraxos took a step toward her. Leather groaned as someone tightened their grip on a coiled whip. But Manon held fast, lifting one hand toward her wyvern. “Abraxos.”
The mighty head came toward her, those eyes pools of liquid night meeting her own. Her hand was still extended, tipped in iron and stained with blood. He pressed his snout into her palm and huffed.
His gray hide was warm and surprisingly soft—thick but supple, like worn leather. Up close, the variation in coloring was striking—not just gray, but dark green, brown, black. It was marred all over by thick scars, so many that they could have been the stripes of a jungle cat. Abraxos’s teeth, yellow and cracked, gleamed in the torchlight. Some were missing, but those that remained were as long as a finger and twice as thick. His hot breath reeked, either from his diet or rotting teeth.
Each of the scars, the chipped teeth and broken claws, the mutilated tail—they weren’t the markings of a victim. Oh, no. They were the trophies of a survivor. Abraxos was a warrior who’d had all the odds stacked against him and survived. Learned from it. Triumphed.
Manon didn’t bother to look at the men behind her as she said, “Get out.” She kept staring into those dark eyes. “Leave the saddle and get out. If you bring a whip in here again, I’ll use it on you myself.”
Muttering and clicking their tongues, the handlers shuffled out and shut the gate. When they were alone, Manon stroked the massive snout.
However the king had bred these beasts, Abraxos had somehow been born different. Smaller, but smarter. Or perhaps the others didn’t ever need to think. Cared for and trained, they did what they were told. But Abraxos had learned to survive, and perhaps that had opened his mind. He could understand her words—her expressions.
And if he could comprehend those things . . . he could possibly teach the other mounts of the Thirteen. It was a small edge, but an edge that could make them Wing Leader—and make them invincible against the king’s enemies.
“I am going to put this saddle on you,” she said, still cupping that snout. He shifted, but Manon grabbed on tight, forcing him to look at her. “You want out of this shithole? Then you’ll let me put this saddle on you to check the fit. And when we’re done, you’re going to let me look at your tail. Those human bastards cut off your spikes, so I’m going to build some for you. Iron ones. Like mine,” she said, and flashed her iron nails for him to see. “And fangs, too,” she added, baring her iron teeth. “It’s going to hurt, and you’re going to want to kill the men who put them in, but you’re going to let them do it, because if you don’t, then you will rot down here for the rest of your life. Understand?”
A long, hot huff of air into her hands.
“Once all that is done,” she said, smiling faintly at her wyvern, “you and I are going to learn how to fly. And then we’ll stain this kingdom red.”
Abraxos did everything she asked, though he growled at the handlers who inspected and poked and prodded, and nearly bit off the arm of the physician who had to dig out his rotted teeth to make way for the iron fangs. It took five days to do it all.
He almost took out a wall when they welded the iron spikes onto his tail, but Manon stood with him the entire time, talking to him about what it was like to ride with the Thirteen on their ironwood brooms and hunt down the Crochan witches. She told the stories as much to distract him as she did to remind the men that if they made a mistake, if they hurt him, her retribution would be a long, bloody process. Not one of them made an error.