A whip snapped behind them, and there was a roar—of pain and fear.
Manon stopped dead.
Abraxos was huddling against the wall.
Iskra stood before him, whip bloody from the line she’d sliced down his face, narrowly missing his eye. Her iron teeth shining bright, Iskra smiled at Manon as she raised the whip again and struck. Abraxos yelped.
Asterin and Sorrel weren’t fast enough to stop Manon as she hurtled past and tackled Iskra.
Teeth and nails out, they rolled across the dirt floor, flipping and shredding and biting. Manon thought she might be roaring, roaring so loud the hall shook. Feet slammed into her stomach, and the air shot out of her as Iskra kicked her off.
Manon hit the earth, spat out a mouthful of blue blood, and was up in a heartbeat. The Yellowlegs heir slashed with an iron-tipped hand, a blow that could have severed through bone and flesh. Manon ducked past her guard and threw Iskra onto the unforgiving stone.
Iskra groaned above the shouts of the swarming witches, and Manon brought her fist down onto her face.
Her knuckles howled in pain, but all she could see was that whip, the pain in Abraxos’s eyes, the fear. Struggling against Manon’s weight, Iskra swiped at her face. Manon reeled back, the blow cutting down her neck. She didn’t quite feel the stinging, or the warm trickle of blood. She just drew back her fist, knee digging harder into Iskra’s chest, and struck. Again. And again.
She lifted her aching fist once more, but there were hands at her wrist, under her arms, hauling her off. Manon thrashed against them, still screaming, the sound wordless and endless.
“Manon!” Sorrel roared in her ear, and nails cut into her shoulder—not hard enough to damage but to make her pause, to realize there were witches everywhere, in the pit and in the viewing platform, gaping. Sword raised, Asterin was standing between her and—
And Iskra, on the ground, face bloodied and swollen, her own Second’s sword out and poised to meet Asterin’s.
“He is fine,” Sorrel said, squeezing her tighter. “Abraxos is fine, Manon. Look at him. Look at him and see that he’s fine.” Breathing through her mouth thanks to her blood-clogged nose, Manon obeyed, and found him crouching, eyes wide and on her. His wound had already clotted.
Iskra hadn’t moved an inch from where Manon had thrown her onto the floor. But Asterin and the other Second were growling, ready to launch into another fight that might very well rip this mountain apart.
Manon shook off Sorrel’s firm grip. Everyone went dead silent as Manon wiped her bloody nose and mouth on the back of her wrist. Iskra snarled at her from the floor, blood from her broken nose leaking onto her cut lip.
“You touch him again,” Manon said, “and I’ll drink the marrow from your bones.”
The Yellowlegs heir got a second beating that night from her mother in the mess hall—plus two lashes of the whip for the blows she’d given Abraxos. She’d offered them to Manon, but Manon refused under the guise of indifference.
Her arm was actually too stiff and aching to use the whip with any efficiency.
Manon had just entered Abraxos’s cage the next day, Asterin on her heels, when the Blueblood heir appeared at the stairway entrance, her red-haired Second close behind. Manon, her face still swollen and eye beautifully black, gave the witch a tight nod. There were other pens down here, though she rarely ran into anyone else, especially not the two heirs.
But Petrah paused at the bars, and it was then that Manon noticed the goat’s leg in her Second’s arms. “I heard the fight was something to behold,” Petrah said, keeping a respectful distance from Manon and the open door to the pen. Petrah smiled faintly. “Iskra looks worse.”
Manon flicked her brows up, though the motion made her face throb.
Petrah held out a hand to her Second, and the witch passed her the leg of meat. “I also heard that your Thirteen and your mounts only eat the meat they catch. My Keelie caught this on our morning flight. She wanted to share with Abraxos.”
“I don’t accept meat from rival clans.”
“Are we rivals?” Petrah asked. “I thought the King of Adarlan had convinced us to fly under one banner again.”
Manon took a long breath. “What do you want? I have training in ten minutes.”
Petrah’s Second bristled, but the heir smiled. “I told you—my Keelie wanted to give this to him.”
“Oh? She told you?” Manon sneered.
Petrah cocked her head. “Doesn’t your wyvern talk to you?”
Abraxos was watching with as much awareness as the other witches. “They don’t talk.”
Petrah shrugged, tapping a hand casually over her heart. “Don’t they?”
She left the goat leg before walking off into the raucous gloom of the pens.
Manon threw the meat away.
“Tell me about how you learned to tattoo.”
Hunched over the wooden table in Rowan’s room a night after their encounter with the creature in the lake, Celaena looked up from where she held the bone-handled needle over his wrist. “If you don’t answer my questions, I might very well make a mistake, and . . .” She lowered the tattooing needle to his tan, muscled arm for emphasis. Rowan, to her surprise, let out a huff that might have been a laugh. She figured it was a good sign that he’d asked her to help shade in the parts of his arm he couldn’t reach himself; the tattoo around his wrist needed to be re-inked now that the wounds from her burning him had faded. “Did you learn from someone? Master and apprentice and all that?”
He gave her a rather incredulous look. “Yes, master and apprentice and all that. In the war camps, we had a commander who used to tattoo the number of enemies he’d killed on his flesh—sometimes he’d write the whole story of a battle. All the young soldiers were enamored of it, and I convinced him to teach me.”
“With that legendary charm of yours, I suppose.”
That earned her a half smile at least. “Just fill in the spots where I—” A hiss as she took the needle and little mallet and made another dark, bloody mark in him. “Good. That’s the right depth.” With his immortal, fast-healing body, Rowan’s ink was mixed with salt and powdered iron to keep the magic in his blood from wiping away any trace of the tattoo.
She’d awoken that morning feeling . . . clear. The grief and pain were still there, writhing inside her, but for the first time in a long while, she felt as though she could see. As though she could breathe.
Focusing on keeping her hand steady, she made another little mark, then another. “Tell me about your family.”
“Tell me about yours and I’ll tell you about mine,” he said through gritted teeth as she kept going. He’d instructed her thoroughly before he had let her take the needles to his skin.
“Fine. Are your parents alive?” A stupid, dangerous question to ask, given what had happened with his mate, but there was no grief in his face as he shook his head.
“My parents were very old when they conceived me.” Not old in the human sense, she knew. “I was their only child in the millennia they’d been mated. They faded into the Afterworld before I reached my second decade.”
Before she could think more on that interesting, different way of describing death, Rowan said, “You had no siblings.”
She focused on her work as she let out the thinnest tendril of memory. “My mother, thanks to her Fae heritage, had a difficult time with the pregnancy. She stopped breathing during labor. They said it was my father’s will that kept her tethered to this world. I don’t know if she even could have conceived again after that. So, no siblings. But—” Gods, she should shut her mouth. “But I had a cousin. He was five years older than me, and we fought and loved each other like siblings.”
Aedion. She hadn’t spoken that name aloud in ten years. But she’d heard it, and seen it in papers. She had to set down the needle and mallet and flex her fingers. “I don’t know what happened, but they started saying his name—as a skilled general in the king’s army.”
She had failed Aedion so unforgivably that she couldn’t bring herself to blame or detest him for what he’d become. She’d avoided learning any details about what, exactly, he’d done in the north all these years. Aedion had been fiercely, wildly loyal to Terrasen as a child. She didn’t want to know what he’d been forced to do, what had happened to him, to change that. It was by luck or fate or something else entirely that he had never been in the castle when she was there. Because not only would he have recognized her, but if he knew what she had done with her life . . . his hatred would make Rowan’s look pleasant, probably.
Rowan’s features were set in a mask of contemplation as she said, “I think facing my cousin after everything would be the worst of it—worse than facing the king.” There was nothing she could say or do to atone for what she’d become while their kingdom fell into ruin and their people were slaughtered or enslaved.
“Keep working,” Rowan said, jerking his chin at the tools sitting in her lap. She obeyed, and he hissed again at the first prick. “Do you think,” he said after a moment, “your cousin would kill you or help you? An army like his could change the tide of any war.”
A chill went down her spine at that word—war. “I don’t know what he would think of me, or where his loyalties lie. And I’d rather not know. Ever.”
Though their eyes were identical, their bloodlines were distant enough that she’d heard servants and courtiers alike pondering the usefulness of a Galathynius-Ashryver union someday. The idea was as laughable now as it had been ten years ago.
“Do you have cousins?” she asked.
“Too many. Mora’s line was always the most widespread, and my meddlesome, gossiping cousins make my visits to Doranelle . . . irksome.” She smiled a little at the thought. “You’d probably get along with my cousins,” he said. “Especially with the snooping.”
She paused her inking and squeezed his hand hard enough to hurt anyone but an immortal. “You’re one to talk, Prince. I’ve never been asked so many questions in my life.”
Not quite true, but not quite an exaggeration, either. No one had ever asked her these questions. And she’d never told anyone the answers.
He bared his teeth, though she knew he didn’t mean it, and glanced meaningfully at his wrist. “Hurry up, Princess. I want to go to bed at some point before dawn.”
She used her free hand to make a particularly vulgar gesture, and he caught it with his own, teeth still out. “That is not very queenly.”
“Then it’s good I’m not a queen, isn’t it?”
But he wouldn’t let go of her hand. “You have sworn to free your friend’s kingdom and save the world—but will not even consider your own lands. What scares you about seizing your birthright? The king? Facing what remains of your court?” He kept his face so close to hers that she could see the flecks of brown in his green eyes. “Give me one good reason why you won’t take back your throne. One good reason, and I’ll keep my mouth shut about it.”
She weighed the earnestness in his gaze, his breathing, and then said, “Because if I free Eyllwe and destroy the king as Celaena, I can go anywhere after that. The crown . . . my crown is just another set of shackles.”
It was selfish and horrible, but it was true. Nehemia, long ago, had once said as much—it was her most ardent and selfish wish to be ordinary, without the weight of her crown. Had her friend known how deeply those words had echoed in her?