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PART ONE - the demons in plain sight

Chapter Text

Manon didn't mind waking up early. It was something she had become so accustomed to over the years, it felt so natural. Plus, her heightened senses made it hard to wake past the moment the night sky changed from a deep blue to a slightly lighter deep blue. Witches didn't need as much sleep as humans, which is why she left Dorian asleep.

She stayed in his arms; Manon didn't have anything to do this morning. She was staying in Adarlan for the rest of the week. The Witch Kingdom always seemed to be stronger without her anyway. Manon sighed into the silence, adjusting herself in Dorian's grip. No matter what she did, it felt wrong. She loved Dorian; she really did — there was no way for Manon to deny that — but it always felt weird with him. She told herself it was because she had never let herself open up like this to anyone, to let herself care for someone. Manon didn't like lying to herself, but she forced herself to believe it. Dorian wasn't bad at all, there was no reason for her to not love him.

The sun slowly rises out the window. The sky morphed from dark to a bright spring day. There was still snow in Adarlan, it glistened off the rooftops of Rifthold. The Witch Kingdom would have more, it certainly did when she left last. Then again, it depended on where you were. In the North, winter could last a solid 8 months; in the South, you'd be lucky to see a snowflake. Manon usually stayed in between the two, the cold there was enough for her to not want to venture up north. She actually was putting it off. Soon, Manon would have to unite the witches there, but she was already having issues with united the issues in the main populace.

Dorian stirred as the light finally found his face. Manon wondered how he slept through the brightness before it directly affected him. He hummed sleepily, bringing her closer. "Good morning, Witchling." Manon felt herself smile, but like always it didn't feel so natural. Nothing about her was, she dismissed it as not being used to feeling things.

"You can't stay in bed all day," she said.

It was a given that Dorian grinned. "Of course I can, I'm king."

Manon rolled her eyes, turning out of his grip. He whined half sarcastically. "You've already taken up nearly my whole morning, I have work to do."

Dorian sighed. "Fine, if you insist that much." He pushed himself up to sit. "Though, I request you join me for dinner."

Manon nearly laughed. She did that every night, whether he asked in the morning or not. "We'll see," she said, pulling on her clothes and leaving the room without a trace that she spent the night there.

The guards paid her no mind, the ones stationed at the bottom of the tower gave her a small nod, but that was it.

She headed to her temporary office. It wasn't as big as Dorian's, and it certainly wasn't like the one she had in the Witch Kingdom, but it worked. Manon didn't find need for anything else.

She brushed through the papers, no word back from her advisors. However, Manon found one letter that she had not been expecting. It was sent to the Witch Kingdom and seems to have been redirected to Rifthold.

Interested, Manon took a seat, opening the blue seal. Lochan. The familiarity of the name made Manon smile.

Dear Manon,

I hope this letter finds you well. We have not talked in so long, I assumed it to be best to write to you.

I miss your company, but I understand us both are very busy nowadays. Since we cannot see each other face-to-face, I would like to be able to message you like this. If you don't care for this, I will not be disappointed if I don't get a letter in return.

When you have the time, I would like if you could find a way to visit me in Perranth. Or I could maybe visit you in the Witch Kingdom. We could arrange something should that time ever come.

With love, your friend,

Elide Lochan

Manon had first thought she was hallucinating, obsessively reading the letter repeatedly. As if there was nothing else she could read.

It was only a letter.

But it was from Elide.

Manon would be lying if she said she didn't miss her friend. Elide had been some sort of light when Manon was at her darkest.  The fact she wanted to remain in contact made her truly smile. Not the same one she had around Dorian.

As soon as everything in her mind made sense — and she wasn't panicking — Manon put down Elide's letter. She picked up her own piece of paper and dipped her pen in ink.

Dear Elide,

I must thank you for reaching out to me. I have missed you as well. While it would be preferable for us to see each other, I will settle for writing to you for the time being.

I'm sorry if this arrives later than you expected, I happened to be in Adarlan when you sent it, so my advisors had to send it to me from the Witch Kingdom. However, do know that I would love nothing more than to be able to communicate with you, even if it's like this.

With love, your friend,

Manon Blackbeak

The word love was almost too difficult to write, there was a drop of ink from her hesitation, but Manon loved Elide like Elide loved her: friends, just as the last two words said. She folded the paper into thirds and placed it in a blank envelope. Manon scribbled Elide's address and sealed it with a blue wax seal. An interesting colour, no doubt, but if Elide liked it enough to seal her letter with it, Manon would too.

On her way to dinner, Manon dropped it off to be sent.

✧ ✧ ✧

Manon made her way to the dining hall. For once, it was only Dorian sitting at the table. She made her way to her opposing chair, Dorian smiled at Manon.

"No Lord to join us today?" Usually, Dorian would have some sort of guest. It felt odd to have the room so empty and so quiet.

"Not tonight, a rare occasion, I know." He read the look on Manon's face; it was a bit scary how he could do that so perfectly. "My mother is with Hollin visiting a new boarding school."

"Another one?" said Manon, a bit surprised.

"He's actually getting better at not being expelled, believe it or not."

Manon chuckled as she took a sip of her wine. Or, at least, she had assumed it was wine. "What servant did you kill for my meal, Princeling?" she teased. It was obvious by the taste it was sheep blood, not human.

"None," he said with a satisfied smirk. "I thought you would be able to tell the difference."

"Try to actually trick me with sheep blood next time. Perhaps I'll let you leave dinner with your head still on your neck."

Dorian laughed freely. "Are you threatening a king, Witchling?"

"I wouldn't dare," said Manon, taking another sip of her blood.

"At least I don't have to worry about my carpets being stained, then." Priorities, Manon thought with amusement.

Servants brought in their food. It was the same food but seasoned differently, Manon's was more bitter but multiple clashes of flavour, while Dorian only knew what salt and pepper was. Even Adarlan's top chefs couldn’t say the difference between oregano and paprika. Terrasen was worse. Technically, Witches didn't season either, but that was because of the curse and lack of food. At least their meat tasted good.

They ate in silence, it wasn't something uncomfortable or weird, it was surprisingly quite nice. Manon thought back to the letter from Elide, it sparked some kind of joy in her, one she couldn't quite put her finger on. For once, she didn't hate the feeling. It felt warm inside her cold heart. A warmth Manon was willing to welcome.

✧ ✧ ✧

 

It was weeks later when Manon got a response. This time, she had been in the Witch Kingdom to receive it.

Dear Manon,

If I'm being honest, I was a bit worried that you weren't going to respond, but when I got your letter back, I was overjoyed. Life has really been boring without you dragging me into any and every problem you come across. (Don't take that in a bad way, I quite enjoy our past adventures.) It's unfortunate this is how we must communicate, but as you said, I'll settle for it.

Now, for the important part: actually having conversations. I've never been good at those, I'm getting better. Apparently, people start it with asking people how they are, but you aren't one to talk about feelings—and, truthfully, neither am I. Though I'm definitely better than you when it comes to it.

Could you start the discussion instead? My mind ran blank. I hope I'm not being too strange, I'm just excited, that's all.

With love, your friend,

Elide Lochan

It was sealed with the same deep blue wax seal. Now that Manon was thinking about it, maybe it symbolized the blue blood – witch blood. They were both witches, and – while not literally – Elide’s blood ran blue as well. Yes, that made sense.

Manon didn’t hesitate to sit down and write her own reply. This time, she did not reread the letter as many times as last time. Instead, Manon kept it open on the corner for reference.

Dear Elide,

As you wish, I will start our conversation. I’ve heard people also talk about the weather, but by the time you get this, it will be a much different climate, not to mention we are in different areas of the continent. I’m sure you don’t want to hear about what I’ve killed, so I’ll go with a simpler topic: what has your life been like living with Lorcan? Last I heard, you two were engaged, how come I haven’t gotten a wedding invitation yet? I promise I won’t cause a fuss, no matter how much I dislike the Fae bastard, you’re good for him. Or, rather, too good for him, but I made a vow with myself to not talk you out of being with him, and as every witch does, I will keep that vow.

Though, please remember, if he ever does anything you can’t tolerate, do not hesitate to kick him out and stay in the Witch Kingdom. The doors are always open, especially for you.

With love, your friend,

Manon Blackbeak

This, she was overthinking about. She shouldn’t, really. It should count as nothing; some letters between friends should never be stressful. Perhaps Manon let this whole “feelings” ordeal get too close to her head rather than keep it in her non-existent heart.

Not non-existent anymore, that dreadful voice in the back of her head reminded her.

Manon had been feeling things for almost over a year now, and still, it was so unwanted. Every inch of her wanted to rebel against it, to let her return to the ruthless and naïve witch she was before. The Witch Kingdom didn’t need a ruthless and naïve queen. Ruthless at times? Sure, it was what was needed to be a Monarch. Ruthless forever and always? No, she didn’t need to be. Even the cruelest queens and kings in history had some sort of care for those close. She suspected even Erawan felt something once.

That was a bad thought. Erawan didn’t deserve to feel things, especially ones like love or even guilt.

Still, whenever Manon glanced in a mirror, the gold eyes would remind her of him. Of her grandmother. Of her previous legacy. The Blackbeaks praised gold eyes (more so the black eyes with gold flecks) as if they were a sign of the Three Faced Goddess herself. There was no reason for it, nor any actual proof why they were better.

She sighed and folded the letter. Bronwen entered the room, glancing at the very few papers on Manon’s desk. Unlike Dorian, she liked keeping her space tidy. It also meant her workload of the day was done.

Bronwen looked down at the drying seal. “Dark blue?” she asked in a partially surprised manner.

“Yes,” answered Manon, taking the still open letter of Elide’s and adding it to an almost-empty drawer.

Bronwen chuckled. “Someone special?”

Manon had no idea where she was going with this. “It’s private,” she simply said.

“I’m very aware,” Manon heard Bronwen mutter under her breath. She was gone before Manon could question her.

The words stayed in her head for too long that night: I’m very aware, what did that mean? Unless Bronwen could read upside down – which had quite a surprisingly high possibility – she didn’t know how she would’ve known who Manon was talking to. And if she did, she didn’t know enough to create a guess about what exactly they were talking about. It’s not like Manon gave her enough time to read the entire letter from Elide, upside down no less.

She let out a breath to the dark silence. Sleep sometimes got difficult, and it wasn’t as though she could stop that in any way. Manon gave up on rest and walked to Abraxos’ stable. Like her, he was far from sleep. Wyverns sometimes got restless, not often, but luckily Manon came in at the perfect time.

No one was awake, the pen wasn’t even lit. Manon didn’t care, she worked better in darkness. Her hand found Abraxos’ head, petting it for only a moment. While Manon didn’t always enjoy it, he needed attention.

She climbed on top of him, her hands found the iron spikes of his back. There was no rope needed, only the place for her to sit comfortably. Without a word, Abraxos brought Manon into the sky. The feeling of the cold fresh air felt rejuvenating and free, she honestly could stay up there for hours, only Abraxos couldn’t stay in the air for that long consistently – unless Manon was willing to drop several hundred feet in the air. That wasn’t preferable in the slightest. She took one more breath, before veering Abraxos to where she usually went. A vacant mountain in the west.

According to legends and history books, it’s where the ruins of Morla rest. Manon never saw anything of the sort. There was one higher than the rest, from there you could overlook the rest of the mountains to the ocean; on the other side, you could see the Jungle of Morla. Then, of course, there was the silent volcano on the other side of the ridge. There were very few records on what Morla was exactly. Who had lived there? Why was it in ruins? What was so important about it? Manon remembered being very interested in it once, but there were three books she found with only slight mentions of the civilization.

It was a part of her domain, she realized very long ago. Her and Ansel hadn’t worked out perfect borders quite yet, but there was a cove not too far away. Half was Manon’s, the other was Ansel’s. From there on, it got wonky. They had a meeting coming up about it, she was still a bit skeptical about it. The Queen of the Western Wastes was cunning and could cheat her way into a deal she did not deserve. Thankfully, Manon was older and smarter – and willing to create proper business. There was no way either of them could rule the entire land mass, and so far their arrangements have been fine.

She felt a chill creep up her spine. It was technically spring, but the snow took a few weeks to completely go – even longer in the north, especially in the mountains.

Manon dismounted Abraxos, and sat by the cliffside, her legs dangled off the edge. It would be seen as dangerous, but Manon was not scared. As a matter of fact, she was calmed by the distant view of the ocean. The water looked black, now reflecting the night sky. It was hard to see the stars on the glossy water, but the moon’s shine was clear. A white blob moving along the waves, it reminded Manon of her hair.

Abraxos came beside her, resting himself in a curled ball. Manon let out a silent chuckle, seeing her small creature of death act sleepy like a child. She found a comfortable place to lean on against him, herself finding a sudden urge to sleep.

Manon closed her eyes and found good dreams to greet her.

✧ ✧ ✧

Like before, the change of light woke Manon up. In turn, she woke up a very cranky Abraxos.

“You can still sleep when we get back, all right?”

He was pleased with that deal.

The ride back seemed shorter than the way there. The Witch Kingdom was nothing grand. The buildings had been abandoned for so long, they were starting to rebuild. Her home didn’t look like a usual palace, but it was just as grand – at least it would when they finished rebuilding. For now, the half was more than fine.

Manon left Abraxos back in his pen, where he very quickly found a place to continue his rest. She walked through the hallways without a question from anyone. There was barely any staff working in the building anyway. There wasn’t too much need for servants, and traditionally those roles would go to humans they decided not to kill – with pay, of course, they weren’t complete monsters. Even Crochans had very few witches that would be servants or cooks.

There were also no guards. Any witch learnt how to fight, no matter if they were Ironteeth or Crochan.

However, despite the silence of a nearly empty castle (aside from the covens she had as advisors), there was still someone running towards her.

“Ma’am,” said a witch, with a small bow. Manon thought twice before correcting her, that there was no need to bow to her. Manon wanted to be that kind of queen, a Crochan one. But between the backlash from the Ironteeth who claimed Manon was a traitor and a liar and the amount of Crochans who would not trust her, she couldn’t be that sort of queen. Not yet anyway. “A letter.” The young witch handed it to Manon and went off to wherever she came from.

At first, Manon thought it was from Elide, a very early letter, but it was the only person Manon had heard from in a while, so it wasn’t the craziest assumption. However, the handwriting was different, and it was sealed in red, not blue. Then there was the seal: Galathynius.

Definitely not Elide. Manon used her iron nails to rip the envelope.

Dear Queen Manon Blackbeak,

I, Aelin Ashryver Whitethorn Galathynius, invite you to Orynth for a meeting between the nations. It has been over a year since Erawan was defeated, we need to have some proper action done for Erilea, with all the reformed governments.

I am looking forward to your cooperation and attendance.

Sincerely,

Queen Aelin Ashryver Whitethorn Galathynius of Terrasen