“Why is it,” her grandmother said by way of greeting, pacing the room, teeth always out, “that I have to hear from gods-damned Cresseida that your runty, useless wyvern hasn’t made the Crossing? Why is it that I am in the middle of a meeting, planning these War Games so you can win, and the other Matrons tell me that you aren’t allowed to participate because your mount will not make the Crossing and therefore isn’t allowed to fly in the host?”
Manon glimpsed the flash of nails before they raked down her cheek. Not hard enough to scar, but enough to bleed.
“You and that beast are an embarrassment,” her grandmother hissed, teeth snapping in her face. “All I want is for you to win these Games—so we can take our rightful place as queens, not High Witches. Queens of the Waste, Manon. And you are doing your best to ruin it.” Manon kept her eyes on the ground. Her grandmother dug a nail into her chest, cutting through her red cloak, piercing the flesh right above her heart. “Has your heart melted?”
“No,” her grandmother sneered. “No, it cannot melt, because you do not have a heart, Manon. We are not born with them, and we are glad of it.” She pointed to the stone floor. “Why is it that I am informed today that Iskra caught a gods-damned Crochan spying on us? Why am I the last to know that she is in our dungeons and that they have been interrogating her for two days?”
Manon blinked, but that was all the surprise she let show. If Crochans were spying on them . . . Another slice to the face, marring the other cheek.
“You will make the Crossing tomorrow, Manon. Tomorrow, and I don’t care if you splatter yourself on the rocks. If you live, you had better pray to the Darkness that you win those Games. Because if you don’t . . .” Her grandmother sliced a nail across Manon’s throat. A scratch to set the blood running.
And a promise.
Everyone came this time to watch the Crossing. Abraxos was saddled, focus pinned on the cave mouth open to the night beyond. Asterin and Sorrel were behind her—but beside their mounts, not astride them. Her grandmother had gotten wind of how they planned to save her and forbidden it. It was Manon’s own stupidity and pride that had to pay, she’d said.
Witches lined the viewing platform, and from high above, the High Witches and their heirs watched from a small balcony. The noise was near deafening. Manon glanced at Asterin and Sorrel and found them looking stone-cold fierce, but tense.
“Keep to the walls so he doesn’t spook your wyverns,” she told them. They nodded grimly.
Since grafting the Spidersilk onto Abraxos’s wings, Manon had been careful not to push him too hard until the healing was absolutely complete. But the Crossing, with its plunge and winds . . . his wings could be shredded in a matter of seconds if the silk didn’t hold.
“We’re waiting, Manon,” her grandmother barked from above. She waved a hand toward the cave mouth. “But by all means, take your time.”
Laughter—from the Yellowlegs, Blackbeaks . . . everyone. Yet Petrah wasn’t smiling. And none of the Thirteen, gathered closest along the viewing platform, were smiling, either.
Manon turned to Abraxos, looking into those eyes. “Let’s go.” She tugged on the reins.
But he refused to move—not from fear or terror. He slowly lifted his head—looking to where her grandmother stood—and let out a low, warning growl. A threat.
Manon knew she should reprimand him for the disrespect, but the fact that he could grasp what was occurring in this hall . . . it should have been impossible.
“The night is waning,” her grandmother called, heedless of the beast that stared at her with such rage in his eyes.
Sorrel and Asterin exchanged glances, and she could have sworn her Second’s hand twitched toward the hilt of her sword. Not to hurt Abraxos, but . . . Every single one of the Thirteen was casually reaching for their weapons. To fight their way out—in case her grandmother gave the order to have Manon and Abraxos put down. They’d heard the challenge in Abraxos’s growl—understood that the beast had drawn a line in the sand.
They were not born with hearts, her grandmother said. They had all been told that. Obedience, discipline, brutality. Those were the things they were supposed to cherish.
Asterin’s eyes were bright—stunningly bright—and she nodded once at Manon.
It was that same feeling she’d gotten when Iskra whipped Abraxos—that thing she couldn’t describe, but it blinded her.
Manon gripped Abraxos’s snout, forcing his gaze away from her grandmother. “Just once,” she whispered. “All you have to do is make this jump just once, Abraxos, and then you can shut them up forever.”
Then, rising up from the deep, there came a steady two-note beat. The beat of the chained bait beasts, who hauled the massive machines around. Like a thudding heart. Or beating wings.
Louder the beat sounded, as if the wyverns down in the pits knew what was happening. It grew and grew, until it reached the cavern—until Asterin reached for her shield and joined in. Until each one of the Thirteen took up the beat. “You hear that? That is for you.”
For a moment, as the beat pulsed around them, phantom wings from the mountain itself, Manon thought that it would not be so bad to die—if it was with him, if she was not alone.
“You are one of the Thirteen,” she said to him. “From now until the Darkness cleaves us apart. You are mine, and I am yours. Let’s show them why.”
He huffed into her palms as if to say he already knew all that and that she was just wasting time. She smiled faintly, even as Abraxos cast another challenging glare in her grandmother’s direction. The wyvern lowered himself to the ground for Manon to climb into the saddle.
The distance to the entrance seemed so much shorter in the saddle than on foot, but she did not let herself doubt him as she blinked her inner lid into place and retracted her teeth. The Spidersilk would hold—she would consider no other alternative. “Fly, Abraxos,” she told him, and dug her spurs into his sides.
Like a roaring star, he thundered down the long shoot, and Manon moved with him, meeting each gallop of his powerful body, each step in time with the beat of the wyverns locked in the belly of the mountain. Abraxos flapped his wings open, pounding them once, twice, gathering speed, fearless, unrelenting, ready.
Still, the beat did not stop, not from the wyverns or from the Thirteen or from the Blackbeak covens, who picked it up, stomping their feet or clapping their hands. Not from the Blueblood heir, who clapped her sword against her dagger, or the Blueblood witches who followed her lead. The entire mountain shook with the sound.
Faster and faster, Abraxos raced for the drop, and Manon held on tight. The cave mouth opened wide. Abraxos tucked in his wings, using the movement to give his body one last shove over the lip as he took Manon with him and plunged.
Fast as lightning arcing across the sky, he plummeted toward the Gap floor.
Manon rose up into the saddle, clinging as her braid ripped free from her cloak, then came loose from its bonds, pulling painfully behind her, making her eyes water despite the lids. Down and down he fell, wings tucked in tight, tail straight and balanced.
Down into hell, into eternity, into that world where, for a moment, she could have sworn that something tightened in her chest.
She did not shut her eyes, not as the moon-illuminated stones of the Gap became closer, clearer. She did not need to.
Like the sails of a mighty ship, Abraxos’s wings unfurled, snapping tight. He tilted them upward, pulling against the death trying to drag them down.
And it was those wings, covered in glimmering patches of Spidersilk, that stayed strong and sturdy, sending them soaring clean up the side of the Omega and into the starry sky beyond.
To their credit, the sentries didn’t jump when Rowan shifted beside them atop the battlement wall. They had eyes keen enough to have detected his arrival as he swooped in. A slight tang of fear leaked from them, but that was to be expected, even if it troubled him more than it had in the past. But they did stir slightly when he spoke. “How long has she been down there?”
“An hour, Prince,” one said, watching the flashing flames below.
“For how many mornings in a row?”
“This is the fourth, Prince,” the same sentry replied.
The first three days she’d slipped from bed before dawn, he’d assumed she’d been helping in the kitchens. But when they’d trained yesterday she’d . . . improved at a rate she shouldn’t have, as if overnight. He had to give her credit for resourcefulness.
The girl stood outside the ward-stones, fighting with herself.
A dagger of flame flew from her hand toward the invisible barrier between two stones, then another, as if racing for the head of an opponent. It hit the magic wall with a flash of light and bounced back, reflected off the protective spell encircling the fortress. And when it reached her, she shielded—swift, strong, sure. A warrior on a battlefield.
“I’ve never seen anyone . . . fight like that,” the sentry said.
It was a question, but Rowan didn’t bother to answer. It wasn’t their business, and he wasn’t entirely certain if his queen would be pleased with the demi-Fae learning to use their powers in such a way. Though he fully planned to tell Lorcan, his commander and the only male who outranked him in Doranelle, just to see whether they could use it in their training.
The girl moved from throwing weapons to hand-to-hand combat: a punch of power, a sweeping kick of flame. Her flames had become gloriously varied—golds and reds and oranges. And her technique—not the magic, but the way she moved . . . Her master had been a monster, there was no doubt of that. But he had trained her thoroughly. She ducked and flipped and twisted, relentless, raging, and—
She swore with her usual color as the wall sent the punch of ruby flame back at her. She managed to shield, but still got knocked on her ass. Yet none of the sentries laughed. Rowan didn’t know if it was because of his presence or because of her.
He got his answer a heartbeat later, as he waited for her to shout or shriek or walk away. But the princess just slowly got to her feet, not bothering to brush off the dirt and leaves, and kept practicing.
The next corpse appeared a week later, setting a rather wretched tone for the crisp spring morning as Celaena and Rowan ran for the site.
They’d spent the past week fighting and defending and manipulating her magic, interrupted only by a rather miserable visit from some Fae nobility traveling through the area—which left Celaena in no hurry to set foot in Doranelle. Thankfully, the guests stayed for one night, hardly disrupting her lessons.
They worked only with fire, ignoring the drop of water affinity that she’d been given. She tried again and again to summon the water, when she was drinking, while in the bath, when it rained, but to no avail. Fire it was, then. And while she knew Rowan was aware of her early morning practicing, he never lightened her training, though she could have sworn she occasionally felt their magic . . . playing together, her flame taunting his ice, his wind dancing amongst her embers. But each morning brought something new, something harder and different and miserable. Gods, he was brilliant. Cunning and wicked and brilliant.
Even when he beat the hell out of her. Every. Damn. Day.
Not from malice, not like it had been before, but to prove his point—her enemies would give no quarter. If she needed to pause, if her power faltered, she died.
So he knocked her into the mud or the stream or the grass with a blast of wind or ice. So she rose, shooting arrows of flame, her shield now her strongest ally. Again and again, hungry and exhausted and soaking with rain and mist and sweat. Until shielding was an instinct, until she could hurl arrows and daggers of flame together, until she knocked him on his ass. There was always more to learn; she lived and breathed and dreamt of fire.