Death smelled like salt and blood and wood and rot.
And it hurt.
Darkness embrace her, it hurt like hell. The Ancient Ones had lied that it cured all ills, if the slice of pain across her abdomen was any indication. Not to mention the pounding headache, the sheer dryness of her mouth, the burning sting in the other cut on her arm.
Perhaps the Darkness was another world, another realm. Perhaps she’d gone to the hell-realm the humans so feared.
She hated Death.
And Death could go to hell, too—
Manon Blackbeak cracked open eyelids that were too heavy, too burning, and squinted against the flickering lantern light that swayed upon the wood panels of the room in which she lay.
Not a real bedroom, she realized by the reek of salt and rocking and creaking of the world around her. A cabin—on a ship.
A small, dingy one, with barely space for this bed, a porthole too small for her shoulders to even squeeze through—
She bolted upright. Abraxos. Where was Abraxos—
“Relax,” drawled a too-familiar female voice from the shadowed space near the foot of the bed.
Pain flared in Manon’s belly, a delayed response to her sudden movement, and she glanced between the white bandages that now scratched against her fingers and the young queen, lounging in the chair by the door. Glanced between the woman and the chains now around Manon’s wrists,
around her ankles—anchored into the walls with what appeared to be freshly drilled holes.
“Looks like you owe me a life debt once more, Blackbeak,” Aelin Galathynius said, cold humor in her turquoise eyes. Elide. Had Elide made it here—
“Your fussy nursemaid of a wyvern is fine, by the way. I don’t know how you wound up with a sweet thing like that for a mount, but he’s content to sprawl in the sun on the foredeck. Can’t say it makes the sailors particularly happy—especially cleaning up after him.”
Find somewhere safe, she’d told Abraxos. Had he somehow found the queen? Somehow known this was the only place she might stand a chance of surviving?
Aelin braced her feet on the floor, boots thudding softly. There was a frank sort of impatience with any sort of bullshit that had not been there the last time Manon had seen the woman. As if the warrior who had laughed her way through their battle atop Temis’s temple had lost a bit of that wicked amusement but gained more of the cunning cruelty.
Manon’s belly gave a throb of pain that made her bite her lip to keep from hissing.
“Whoever gave you that wound wasn’t joking,” the queen said. “Trouble at home?”
It wasn’t the queen’s business, or anyone else’s. “Let me heal, and then I’ll be on my way,” Manon rasped, her tongue a dried, heavy husk.
“Oh, no,” Aelin purred. “You’re not going anywhere. Your mount may do whatever he pleases, but you are now officially our prisoner.”
Manon’s head started spinning, but she forced herself to say, “Our?”
A knowing little smile. Then the queen rose gracefully. Her hair was longer, face leaner, those turquoise eyes hard and haunted. The queen said simply, “Here are the rules, Blackbeak. You try to escape, you die. You hurt anyone, you die. You somehow bring any of us into trouble … I think you get where I’m going with this. You step one foot out of line, and I’ll finish what we started that day in the forest, life debt or no. This time I don’t need steel to do it.”
As she spoke, gold flames seemed to flicker in her eyes. And Manon realized with no small thrill, even with her pain, that the queen could indeed end her before she’d get close enough to kill.
Aelin turned for the door, her scarred hand on the knob. “I found iron splinters in your belly before I healed you. I suggest you don’t lie to whoever can tolerate being around you long enough to get the full story.” She jerked her chin toward the floor. A pitcher and cup lay there. “Water’s next to the bed. If you can reach it.”
Then she was gone.
Manon listened to her steady footsteps fade. No other voices or sounds beyond the lap of waves against the ship, the groan of the wood, and— gulls. They had to still be within range of the coast, then. Sailing to where
… she’d have to figure that out.
Once she healed. Once she got out of these irons. Once she got onto Abraxos.
But to go where? To whom?
There was no aerie to receive her, no Clan who would shield her from her grandmother. And the Thirteen … Where were they now? Had they been hunted down?
Manon’s stomach burned, but she reached for the water. Pain lashed her hard enough that she gave up after a heartbeat.
They had heard, no doubt—what she was. The Thirteen had heard. Not just a half-blooded Crochan … but the last Crochan Queen.
And her sister … her half sister…
Manon stared at the shadowed, wooden ceiling.
She could feel that Crochan’s blood on her hands. And her cape … that red cape was draped over the edge of the bed. Her sister’s cape. That her grandmother had made her wear, knowing who it belonged to, knowing whose throat Manon had slit.
No longer the Blackbeak heir, Crochan blood or no.
Despair curled like a cat around the pain in Manon’s belly. She was no one and nothing.
She did not remember falling asleep.
The witch slept for three days after Aelin reported that she had awakened. Dorian went into that cramped cabin with Rowan and the queen every time
they healed a little bit more of her, observing the way their magic worked, but not daring to try it on the unconscious Blackbeak.
Even unconscious, Manon’s every breath, every twitch, was a reminder that she was a born predator, her agonizingly beautiful face a careful mask to lure the unwary to their doom.
It felt fitting, somehow, considering that they were likely sailing to their own doom.
As Rolfe’s two ships had escorted them down the coast of Eyllwe, they’d kept well away from the shore. A wicked storm had them mooring among the small cluster of islands off Leriba’s waters, and they’d only survived thanks to Rowan’s own winds shielding them. Most of them had still spent the entirely of it with their head in a bucket. Himself included.
They were nearing Banjali now—and Dorian had tried and failed not to think of his dead friend with every league closer to the lovely city. Tried and failed not to consider if Nehemia would have been with them on this very ship had things not gone so terribly wrong. Tried and failed not to contemplate if that touch she’d once given him—the Wyrdmark she’d sketched over his chest—had somehow … awakened that power of his. If it had been a curse as much as a blessing.
He hadn’t had the nerve to ask what Aelin was feeling, though he found her frequently staring toward the coast—even if they couldn’t see it, even if they wouldn’t get close.
Another week—perhaps less, if Rowan’s magic helped—would have them at the eastern edge of the Stone Marshes. And once they were in range
… they’d have to trust Rolfe’s vague directions to guide them.
And avoid Melisande’s armada—Erawan’s armada now, he supposed— waiting just around the peninsula in the Gulf of Oro.
But for now … Dorian was on watch in Manon’s room, none of them taking any risks where the Blackbeak heir was concerned.
He cleared his throat as her eyelids shifted, her dark lashes bobbing up
—then lifting wholly.
Gold sleep-murky eyes met his. “Hello, witchling,” he said.
Her full, sensuous mouth tightened slightly, either in a repressed grimace or smile, he couldn’t tell. But she sat up, her moon-white hair
sliding forward—her chains clanking. “Hello, princeling,” she said. Gods, her voice was like sandpaper.
He glanced at the water jug. “Care for a drink?”
She had to be parched. They’d barely been able to get a trickle down her throat, not wanting to risk her choking or freeing those iron teeth from wherever she kept them.
Manon studied the pitcher, then him. “Am I your prisoner, too?”
“My life debt is paid,” he said simply. “You’re nothing to me at all.”
“What happened,” she rasped. An order—and one he allowed her to make.
But he filled the glass, trying not to look like he was calculating her range in those chains as he handed it to her. No sign of her iron nails as her slim fingers wrapped around the cup. She winced slightly, winced a bit more as she lifted it to her still-pale lips—and drank. And drank.
She drained the glass. Dorian silently refilled it for her. Once. Twice.
When she at last finished, he said, “Your wyvern flew straight as an arrow for us. You tumbled off the saddle and into the water barely fifty yards from our ship. How he found us, we don’t know. We got you out of the water—Rowan himself had to temporarily bind your stomach on the deck before we could even move you down here. It’s a miracle you’re not dead from blood loss alone. Never mind infection. We had you down here for a week, Aelin and Rowan working on you—they had to cut you open again in some spots to get the bad flesh out. You’ve been in and out of it since.”
Dorian didn’t feel like mentioning that he’d been the one who’d jumped into the water. He’d just … acted, as Manon had acted when she’d saved him in his tower. He owed her nothing less. Lysandra, in sea dragon form, had caught up to them moments later, and he’d held the water-heavy Manon in his arms as he’d climbed onto the shifter’s back. The witch had been so pale, and the wound on her stomach … He’d almost lost his breakfast at the sight of it. She looked like a fish who’d been sloppily gutted.
Gutted, Aelin had confirmed an hour later when she held up a small sliver of metal, by someone with very, very sharp iron nails.
None of them had mentioned that it might have been punishment—for saving him.
Manon was assessing the room with eyes quickly clearing. “Where are we.”
“On the sea.”
Aelin had ordered he not give her any information about their plans and whereabouts.
“Are you hungry?” he asked, wondering what, exactly, she might eat. Indeed, those gold eyes slashed to his throat.
“Really?” He lifted a brow.
Her nostrils flared slightly. “Only for sport.” “Aren’t you … partially human, at least?”
“Not in the ways that count.”
Right—because the other parts … Fae, Valg … It was Valg blood that had shaped the witches. The very prince that had infested him shared blood with her. From the black pit of his memory, images and words slithered out
—of that prince seeing the gold eyes Dorian now met, screeching at him to get away … Eyes of the Valg kings. He said carefully, “So would you consider yourself more Valg than human, then?”
“The Valg are my enemy—Erawan is my enemy.” “And does that make us allies?”
She revealed no indication either way. “Is there a young woman in your company named Elide?”
“No.” Who in hell was that? “We’ve never encountered anyone with that name.”
Manon closed her eyes for a heartbeat. Her slender throat bobbed. “Have you heard news of my Thirteen?”
“You’re the first rider and wyvern we’ve seen in weeks.” He contemplated why she’d asked, why she’d gone so still. “You don’t know if they’re alive.”
And with those iron shavings in her gut…
Manon’s voice was flat and cold as death. “Tell Aelin Galathynius not to bother using me for negotiations. The Blackbeak Matron will not acknowledge me, either as heir or witch, and all you will get out of it is revealing your precise location.”
His magic flickered. “What happened after Rifthold?”
Manon lay back down, angling her head away from him. Spindrift from the open porthole caught in her white hair and set it shimmering in the dim
cabin. “Everything has a price.”
And it was those words, the fact that the witch had turned her face away and seemed to be waiting for death to claim her, that made him croon, “I once told you to find me again—it seems like you couldn’t wait to see my handsome face.”
Her shoulders stiffened slightly. “I’m hungry.” He smiled slowly.
As if she’d heard that smile, Manon glared. “Food.”
But there was still an edge—a too-fragile edge limning every line of her body. Whatever had happened, whatever she had endured … Dorian draped an arm along the back of his chair. “It’s coming in a few minutes. I’d hate for you to waste away into nothing. It’d be a shame to lose the most beautiful woman in the world so soon into her immortal, wicked life.”
“I am not a woman,” was all she said. But hot temper laced those molten gold eyes.
He gave her an indolent shrug, perhaps only because she was indeed in chains, perhaps because, even though the death she radiated thrilled him, it did not strike a chord of fear. “Witch, woman … as long as the parts that matter are there, what difference does it make?”
She eased into a sitting position, disbelief and exhausted outrage on that perfect face. She bared her teeth in a silent snarl.
Dorian offered a lazy grin in return. “Believe it or not, this ship has an unnatural number of attractive men and women on board. You’ll fit right in. And fit in with the cranky immortals, I suppose.”
She glanced toward the door moments before he heard approaching footsteps. They were silent until the knob turned, revealing Aedion’s frowning face. “Awake and ready to rip out throats, it seems,” the general said by way of greeting. Dorian rose, taking the tray of what looked to be fish stew from him. He wondered if he should test it for poison from the look Aedion was giving Manon. She glared right back at the golden-haired warrior.
Aedion said, “I would have shot you and your runt of a wyvern clean out of the sky if given my way. Be grateful my queen finds you more useful alive.”
Then he was gone.
Dorian set the tray within Manon’s reach and watched her sniff at it. She took a slow, cautious bite—as if letting it slide into her healing belly and seeing how it settled there. As if indeed testing it for poison. While she waited, Manon said, “You don’t give orders on this ship?”
It was a focused effort not to bristle. “You know my circumstances. I am now at the mercy of my friends.”
“And the Queen of Terrasen is your friend?”
“There is no one else I’d want guarding my back.” Other than Chaol, but … it was no use even thinking about him, missing him.
Manon at last took another bite of her fish stew. Then another. And another.
And he realized she was avoiding speaking to him. Enough so that he asked, “It was your grandmother who did that to you, wasn’t it?”
Her spoon stilled in the chipped wooden bowl. Slowly, she turned her face toward him. Unreadable, a face crafted of nightmares and midnight fantasies.
“I’m sorry,” he admitted, “if the cost of saving me that day in Rifthold was … was this.”
“Find out if my Thirteen are alive, princeling. Do that, and I am yours to command.”
“Where did you last see them?”
Nothing. She swallowed another spoonful.
He pushed, “Were they present when your grandmother did that to you?”
Her shoulders curved a bit, and she scooped another spoonful of cloudy liquid but didn’t sip. “The cost of Rifthold was the life of my Second. I refused to pay it. So I bought my Thirteen time to run. The moment I swung my sword at my grandmother, my title, my legion, was forfeit. I lost the Thirteen while I fled. I do not know if they are alive, or if they have been hunted down.” Her eyes snapped to his, bright from more than the steam of her stew. “Find them for me. Learn if they live or if they have returned to the Darkness.”
“We’re in the middle of the ocean. There won’t be news of anything for a while.”
She went back to eating. “They are all I have left.”
“Then I suppose you and I are both heirs without crowns.”
A humorless snort. Her white hair shifted in the sea breeze. Dorian rose and walked to the door. “I’ll do what I can.”
Again, that name. “Who is she?”
But Manon was back at her stew. “Just tell Aelin Galathynius that Elide Lochan is alive—and looking for her.”
The conversation with the king took everything out of her. Once that food was in her belly, once she’d downed more water, Manon lay back in bed and slept.
And slept. And slept.
The door banged open at one point, and she had the vague recollection of the Queen of Terrasen, then her general-prince, demanding answers about something. Elide, perhaps.
But Manon had lain there, half awake, unwilling to think or speak. She wondered if she would have stopped bothering to breathe, if her body hadn’t done it all on its own.
She had not realized how impossible the survival of the Thirteen might indeed have been until she was practically begging Dorian Havilliard to find them for her. Until she had found herself desperate enough to sell her sword for any news of them.
If they even wanted to serve her after everything. A Blackbeak—and a Crochan.
And her parents … murdered by her grandmother. They had promised the world a child of peace. And she had let her grandmother hone her into a child of war.
The thoughts swirled and eddied, sapping her strength, muting colors and sounds. She awoke and saw to her needs when necessary, ate when food was left, but she let that heavy, meaningless sleep take hold.
Sometimes, Manon dreamed that she was in that room in the Omega, her half sister’s blood on her hands and in her mouth. Sometimes, she stood beside her grandmother, a witch fully grown and not the witchling she’d
been at the time, and helped the Matron carve up a handsome, bearded man who begged for her life—his offspring’s life. Sometimes, she flew over a lush green land, the song of a western wind singing her home.
Often, the dream was that a great cat, pale and speckled like old snow on granite, sat in the cabin with her, its long tail slashing back and forth when it noticed her glazed attention. Sometimes, it was a grinning white wolf. Or a calm-eyed golden mountain lion.
Manon wished they’d put their jaws around her throat and crunch down. They never did.
So Manon Blackbeak slept. And so she dreamed.