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"ROYAL ASSASSIN" SEASON 3, EPISODE 12"


ROYAL ASSASSIN

Season 3

Episode 12


The Blackbeak Clan was the last to fully assemble at the Ferian Gap.


As a result, they got the smallest and farthest rooms in the warren of halls carved into the Omega, the last of the Ruhnn Mountains and the northernmost of the sister-­peaks flanking the snow-­blasted pass.


Across the gap was the Northern Fang, the final peak of the White Fangs, which was currently occupied by the king’s men—­massive brutes who still didn’t know quite what to make of the witches who had stalked in from every direction.


They’d been ­here for a day and Manon had yet to glimpse any sign of the wyverns the king had promised. She’d heard them, even though they ­were ­housed across the pass in the Northern Fang. No matter how deep you got into the Omega’s stone halls, the shrieks and roars vibrated in the stone, the air pulsed with the boom of leathery wings, and the floors hissed with the scrape of talon on rock.


It had been five hundred years since all three Clans had assembled. There had been over twenty thousand of them at one point. Now only three thousand remained, and that was a generous estimate. All that was left of a once-­mighty kingdom.


Still, the halls of the Omega ­were a dangerous place to be. Already she’d had to pull apart Asterin and a Yellowlegs bitch who hadn’t yet learned that Blackbeak sentinels—­especially members of the Thirteen—­didn’t take lightly to being called soft-­hearted.


There had been blue blood splattered on their faces, and though Manon was more than pleased to see that Asterin, beautiful, brash Asterin, had done most of the damage, she’d still had to punish her Second.


Three unblocked blows. One to the gut, so Asterin could feel her own powerlessness; one to the ribs, so she’d consider her actions every time she drew breath; and one to the face, so her broken nose would remind her that the punishment could have been far worse.


Asterin had taken them all without scream or complaint or plea, just as any of the Thirteen would have done.


And this morning, her Second, nose swollen and bruised at the bridge, had given Manon a fierce grin over their miserable breakfast of boiled oats. Had it been another witch, Manon would have dragged her by the neck to the front of the room and made her regret the insolence, but Asterin . . .


Even though Asterin was her cousin, she ­wasn’t a friend. Manon didn’t have friends. None of the witches, especially the Thirteen, had friends. But Asterin had guarded her back for a century, and the grin was a sign that she ­wouldn’t put a dagger in Manon’s spine the next time they ­were knee-­deep in battle.


No, Asterin was just insane enough to wear the broken nose like a badge of honor, and would love her crooked nose for the rest of her not-­so-­immortal life.


The Yellowlegs heir, a haughty bull of a witch named Iskra, had merely given her offending sentinel a warning to keep her mouth shut and sent her down to the infirmary in the belly of the mountain. Fool.


All the coven leaders ­were under orders to keep their sentinels in line—­to suppress the fighting between Clans. Or ­else the three Matrons would come down on them like a hammer. Without punishment, without Iskra making an example of her, the offending witch would keep at it until she got strung up by her toes by the new High Witch of the Yellowlegs Clan.


They’d held a sham of a memorial ser­vice last night for Baba Yellowlegs in the cavernous mess hall—­lighting any old candles in lieu of the traditional black ones, wearing what­ever hoods they could find, and going through the Sacred Words to the Three-­Faced Goddess as though they ­were reading a recipe.


Manon had never met Baba Yellowlegs, and didn’t particularly care that she’d died. She was more interested in who had killed her, and why. They all ­were, and it was those questions that ­were exchanged between the expected words of loss and mourning. Asterin and Vesta had done the talking, as they usually did, chatting up the other witches while Manon listened from nearby. No one knew anything, though. Even her two Shadows, concealed in the dark pockets of the mess hall as they’d been trained to do, had overheard nothing.


It was the not knowing that made her shoulders tight as Manon stalked up the sloped hallway to where the Matrons and all the Coven leaders ­were to assemble, Blackbeak and Yellowlegs witches stepping aside to let her pass. She resented not knowing anything that might be useful, that might give the Thirteen or the Blackbeaks an advantage. Of course, the Bluebloods ­were nowhere to be seen. The reclusive witches had arrived first and claimed the uppermost rooms in the Omega, saying they needed the mountain breeze to complete their rituals every day.


Religious fanatics with their noses in the wind, was what Mother Blackbeak had always called them. But it had been their insane devotion to the Three-­Faced Goddess and their vision of the Witch Kingdom under Ironteeth rule that had mustered the Clans five centuries ago—­even if it had been the Blackbeak sentinels who’d won the battles for them.


Manon treated her body as she would any other weapon: she kept it clean and honed and ready at any time to defend and destroy. But even her training ­couldn’t keep her from being out of breath when she reached the atrium by the black bridge that connected the Omega to the Northern Fang. She hated the expanse of stone without even touching it. It smelled wrong.




It smelled like those two prisoners she’d seen with the duke. In fact, this ­whole place reeked like that. The scent ­wasn’t natural; it didn’t belong in this world.


About fifty witches—­the highest-­ranking coven leaders in each Clan—­were gathered at the giant hole in the side of the mountain. Manon spotted her grandmother immediately, standing at the bridge entrance with what had to be the Blueblood and Yellowlegs Matrons.


The new Yellowlegs Matron was supposedly some half ­sister of Baba, and she certainly looked the part: huddled in brown robes, saffron ankles peeking out, white hair braided back to reveal a wrinkled, brutal face mottled with age. By rule, all Yellowlegs wore their iron teeth and nails on permanent display, and the new High Witch’s ­were shining in the dull morning light.


Unsurprisingly, the Blueblood Matron was tall and willowy, more priestess than warrior. She wore the traditional deep blue robes, and a band of iron stars circled her brow. As Manon approached the crowd, she could see that the stars ­were barbed. Not surprising, either.


Legend had it that all witches had been gifted by the Three-­Faced Goddess with iron teeth and nails to keep them anchored to this world when magic threatened to pull them away. The iron crown, supposedly, was proof that the magic in the Blueblood line ran so strong that their leader needed more—­needed iron and pain—­to keep her tethered in this realm.


Nonsense. Especially when magic had been gone these past ten years. But Manon had heard rumors of the rituals the Bluebloods did in their forests and caves, rituals in which pain was the gateway to magic, to opening their senses. Oracles, mystics, zealots.


Manon stalked through the ranks of the assembled Blackbeak coven leaders. They ­were the most numerous—­twenty coven leaders, over which Manon ruled with her Thirteen. Each leader touched two fingers to her brow in deference. She ignored them and took up a spot at the front of the crowd, where her grandmother gave her an acknowledging glance.


An honor, for any High Witch to acknowledge an individual. Manon bowed her head, pressing two fingers to her brow. Obedience, discipline, and brutality ­were the most beloved words in the Blackbeak Clan. All ­else was to be extinguished without second thought.


She still had her chin high, hands behind her back, when she spotted the other two heirs watching her.


The Blueblood heir, Petrah, stood closest to the High Witches, her group in the center of the crowd. Manon stiffened but held her gaze.


Her freckled skin was as pale as Manon’s, and her braided hair was as golden as Asterin’s—­a deep, brassy color that caught the gray light. She was beautiful, like so many of them, but grave. Above her blue eyes, a worn leather band rested on her brow in lieu of the iron-­star crown. There was no way of telling how old she was, but she ­couldn’t be much older than Manon if she looked this way after magic had vanished. There was no aggression, but no smile, either. Smiles ­were rare amongst witches—­unless you ­were on the hunt or on a killing field.


The Yellowlegs heir, though . . . Iskra was grinning at Manon, bristling with a challenge that Manon found herself aching to meet. Iskra hadn’t forgotten the brawl between their sentinels in the hallway yesterday. If anything, from the look in Iskra’s brown eyes, it seemed that the brawl had been an invitation. Manon found herself debating how much trouble she’d get into for shredding the throat of the Yellowlegs heir. It would put an end to any fights between their sentinels.


It would also put an end to her life, if the attack ­were unprovoked. Witch justice was swift. Dominance battles could end in loss of life, but the claim had to be made up front. Without a formal provocation from Iskra, Manon’s hands ­were tied.


“Now that ­we’re assembled,” the Blueblood Matron—­Cresseida—said, drawing Manon’s attention, “shall we show you what ­we’ve been brought ­here to do?”


Mother Blackbeak waved a hand to the bridge, black robes billowing in the icy wind. “We walk into the sky, witches.”


The crossing of the black bridge was more harrowing than Manon wanted to admit. First, there was the miserable stone, which throbbed beneath her feet, giving off that reek that no one ­else seemed to notice. Then there was the screeching wind, which battered them this way and that, trying to shove them over the carved railing.


They ­couldn’t even see the floor of the Gap. Mist shrouded everything below the bridge—­a mist that hadn’t vanished in the day they’d been ­here, or the days they’d hiked up the Gap. It was, she supposed, some trick of the king’s. Contemplating it led only to more questions, none of which she bothered to voice, or really care about all that much.


By the time they reached the cavernous atrium of the Northern Fang, Manon’s ears ­were frozen and her face was raw. She’d flown at high altitudes, in all kinds of weather, but not for a long while. Not without a fresh belly of meat in her, keeping her warm.


She wiped her runny nose on the shoulder of her red cloak. She’d seen the other coven leaders eyeing the crimson material—­as they always did, with yearning and scorn and envy. Iskra had gazed at it the ­longest, sneering. It would be nice—­really damn nice—­to peel off the Yellowlegs heir’s face one day.


They reached the gaping mouth into the upper reaches of the Northern Fang. ­Here the stone was scarred and gouged, splattered with the Triple Goddess knew what. From the tang of it, it was blood. Human blood.


Five men—­all looking hewn from the same scarred stone themselves—­met the three Matrons with grim nods. Manon fell into step behind her grandmother, one eye on the men, the other on their surroundings. The other two heirs did the same. At least they agreed on that.


As heirs, their foremost duty was to protect their High Witches, even if it meant sacrificing themselves. Manon glanced at the Yellowlegs Matron, who held herself just as proudly as the two Ancients as they walked into the shadows of the mountain. But Manon didn’t take her hand off her blade, Wind-­Cleaver, for a heartbeat.


The screams and wing beats and clank of metal ­were far louder ­here.


“This is where we breed and train ’em until they can make the Crossing to the Omega,” one of the men was saying, gesturing to the many cave mouths they passed as they strode through the cavernous hall. “Hatcheries are in the belly of the mountain, a level above the forges for the armory—­to keep the eggs warm, you see. Dens are a level above that. We keep ’em separated by gender and type. The bulls we hold in their own pens unless we want to breed ’em. They kill anyone in their cages. Learned that the hard way.” The men chuckled, but the witches did not. He went on about the different types—­the bulls ­were the best, but a female could be just as fierce and twice as smart. The smaller ones ­were good for stealth, and had been bred to be totally black against the night sky, or a pale blue to blend into daylight patrols. The average wyvern’s colors they didn’t care about so much, since they wanted their enemies to drop dead from terror, the man claimed.


They descended steps carved into the stone itself, and if the reek of blood and waste didn’t overwhelm every sense, then the din of the wyverns—­a roaring and screeching and booming of wings and flesh on rock—­nearly drowned out the man’s words. But Manon stayed focused on her grandmother’s position, on the positions of the others around her. And she knew that Asterin, one step behind her, was doing the same for her.


He led them onto a viewing platform in a massive cavern. The sunken floor was at least forty feet below, one end of the chamber wholly open to the cliff face, the other sealed with an iron grate—­no, a door.


“This is one of the training pits,” the man explained. “It’s easy to sort out the natural-­born killers, but we discover a lot of them show their mettle in the pits. Before you . . . ladies,” he said, trying to hide his wince at the word, “even lay eyes on them, they’ll be in ­here, fighting it out.”


“And when,” said Mother Blackbeak, pinning him with a stare, “will we select our mounts?”


The man swallowed. “We trained a brood of gentler ones to teach you the basics.”


A growl from Iskra. Manon might also have snarled at the implied insult, but the Blueblood Matron spoke. “You don’t learn to ­ride by hopping on a war­horse, do you?”


The man almost sagged with relief. “Once you’re comfortable with the flying—”


“We ­were born on the back of the wind,” said one of the coven leaders in the back. Some grunts of approval. Manon kept silent, as did her Blackbeak coven leaders. Obedience. Discipline. Brutality. They did not descend to boasting.


The man fidgeted and kept his focus on Cresseida, as if she ­were the only safe one in the room, even with her barbed crown of stars. Idiot. Manon sometimes thought the Bluebloods ­were the deadliest of them all.


“Soon as you’re ready,” he said, “we can begin the selection pro­cess. Get you on your mounts, and start the training.”


Manon risked taking her eyes off her grandmother to study the pit. There ­were giant chains anchored in one of the walls, and enormous splotches of dark blood stained the stones, as if one of these beasts had been pushed against it. A giant crack spider-webbed from the center. What­ever hit the wall had been tossed hard.


“What are the chains for?” Manon found herself asking. Her grandmother gave her a warning look, but Manon focused on the man. Predictably, his eyes widened at her beauty—­then stayed wide as he beheld the death lurking beneath it.


“Chains are for the bait beasts,” he said. “They’re the wyverns we use to show the others how to fight, to turn their aggression into a weapon. ­We’re under orders not to put any of ’em down, even the runts and broken ones, so we put the weaklings to good use.”


Just like dog fighting. She looked again to the splotch and the crack in the wall. The bait beast had probably been thrown by one of the bigger ones. And if the wyverns could hurl each other like that, then the damage to humans . . . Her chest tightened with anticipation, especially as the man said, “Want to see a bull?”


A glimmer of iron nails as Cresseida made an elegant gesture to continue. The man let out a sharp whistle. None of them spoke as chains rattled, a whip cracked, and the iron gate to the pit groaned as it lifted. And then, heralded by men with whips and spears, the wyvern appeared.


A collective intake of breath, even from Manon.




“Titus is one of our best,” the man said, pride gleaming in his voice.


Manon ­couldn’t tear her eyes away from the gorgeous beast: his mottled gray body covered in a leathery hide; his massive back legs, armed with talons as big as her forearm; and his enormous wings, tipped with a claw and used to propel him forward like a front set of limbs.


The triangular head swiveled this way and that, and his dripping maw revealed yellow, curved fangs. “Tail’s armed with a venomous barb,” the man said as the wyvern emerged fully from the pit, snarling at the men down there with him. The reverberations of the snarl echoed through the stone, into her boots and up her legs, right into her husk of a heart.


A chain was clamped around his back leg, undoubtedly to keep him from flying out of the pit. The tail, as long as his body and tipped with two curved spikes, flicked back and forth like a cat’s.


“They can fly hundreds of miles in a day and still be ready to fight when they arrive,” the man said, and the witches all hissed in a breath. That sort of speed and endurance . . .


“What do they eat?” asked Petrah, freckled face still calm and grave.


The man rubbed his neck. “They’ll eat anything. But they like it fresh.”


“So do we,” said Iskra with a grin. Had anyone but the Yellowlegs heir said it, Manon would have joined in with the other grins around her.


Titus gave a sudden thrash, lunging for the nearest man while using his magnificent tail to snap the raised spears behind him. A whip cracked, but it was too late.


Blood and screams and the crunch of bone. The man’s legs and head tumbled to the ground. The torso was swallowed down in one bite. The smell of blood filled the air, and every single one of the Ironteeth witches inhaled deeply. The man in front of them took a too-­casual step away.


The bull in the pit was now looking up at them, tail still slashing against the floor.


Magic was gone, and yet this was possible—­this creation of magnificent beasts. Magic was gone, and yet Manon felt the sureness of the moment settle along her bones. She was meant to be ­here. She’d have Titus or no other.


Because she’d suffer no creature to be her mount but the fiercest, the one whose blackness called to her own. As her eyes met with the endless dark of Titus’s, she smiled at the wyvern.


She could have sworn he smiled back.
____________


CLICK ON THIS LINK TO READ EPISODE 13

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