Vincent had taught me how to stay alive. That meant learning how to fight, yes, but it also meant learning how to flee.
My father had created a castle perfect for a man who knew, one
day, his greatest threats could come from within his own house. The tunnels were extensive, confusing, and disjointed. Septimus was aware of some of them—my own foolishness had seen to that. But he couldn’t know all of them, let alone guard them.
The hard part would be making it there.
I was certain that Vincent had created multiple avenues into and out of the castle. Unfortunately, he hadn’t trusted me with any of them—in hindsight, it made sense that he didn’t want to give me ways to sneak away from him. Still, he’d given me instructions on one way out. One way that was so unpleasant, he could feel confident that I wouldn’t use it unless my life was in imminent danger.
Much had been written over the years about the Lituro River. Visitors had spun plenty of poetry about the way it wound through the dunes like a streak of silver paint beneath the moonlight. Some claimed it represented the lifeblood of Nyaxia herself.
I imagined that maybe, out there in the desert, it was indeed a thing of majestic beauty.
However, in the heart of Sivrinaj, it was as much piss as it was water.
Sewage had to go somewhere. In the city, most figured it was easiest for it to go right into the river. Hell, many people decided to skip the washroom altogether and put it there directly.
Many, many, many people.
I was certain of this as the water—if it could be called that—swallowed me up.
I couldn’t hear much underwater, but I certainly could make out Raihn’s appalled, garbled curse as the piss water surrounded us.
I forced my eyes open and then immediately regretted it. I couldn’t see anything under there, anyway.
Our heads broke the surface at the same time. Raihn shook his hair out like a dog, sending spatters of rancid liquid over my face.
I wrinkled my nose. “Ugh. Watch it.”
“What? Is that too much piss for you?” He pointedly looked around. “Not sure that’s the problem, princess.”
I flicked a handful of water at him. Despite his attempted dodge, it caught him squarely in the cheek, which I appreciated. He scowled, but didn’t protest, like he knew that he deserved it.
I lifted my chin to motion down the river—where the back of the castle stood, looming over us in shadow. We’d picked a secluded area of the river, bordering the human districts, to jump in without being seen, but the activity up ahead was visible even from this distance—a smattering of torches and Nightfire, and the thrum of distant voices. Even the castle was unusually well-lit, the windows pulsing firelight that revealed hints of distant silhouettes within.
It reminded me of the way this city had looked the night of the Kejari’s finale—the night Raihn had taken over.
“I won’t be able to see underwater,” I said. “It’s straight ahead. Then to the left once we get closer to the castle. One of the grates leads inside and connects to the tunnels. Stay close to me.”
“One of the grates?” he repeated. I understood his point—the castle was enormous, and had a dozen sewage grates on its western side alone.
I was so young when Vincent had showed me this, and it had been from the inside out, not outside in. I didn’t remember exactly which one. Luck would, hopefully, be on our side.
I winced. “I’ll… have to try a few.”
He laughed softly. “It’s not fun if it’s too easy.” That was one way of looking at it.
“Ready?” he said.
I glanced down at the rancid muck.
No. No I was not.
I was glad that Raihn had packed a few different sets of leathers for my grand escape. I’d have to burn these.
But aloud I just said, “Absolutely.” Together, we ducked beneath the water.
I WASN’T the best swimmer. Raihn was fast, but he had to keep stopping to let me catch up to him. Worse, I couldn’t see anything—even in the few seconds I could force my eyes open at a time, I saw nothing but cloudy darkness. Raihn and I stole silent gulps of air at the longest intervals possible, especially as we approached the castle. Guards were everywhere, both Rishan and Bloodborn, though they appeared to be wildly disorganized. Most rushed around yelling at each other rather than standing watch.
They were, we pieced together, trying to find Raihn, and they were certain they’d do so out in the city as he attempted to flee—not at their doorstep as he came crawling back to the castle.
Fair assumption. This was not what most rational people would do. Let alone by swimming through sludge.
And it was, indeed, sludge by the time we made it to the castle, the liquid too thick to be called “water,” sticking to my skin and hair every time we rose to take a precious gulp of air. The smell was so putrid that even those seconds above the surface weren’t such a treat anymore, no matter whether I breathed through my nose or mouth. I could taste it.
At one point, I caught Raihn eyeing me, a pursed smile at his lips, like he was trying very hard not to laugh. I scowled at him, and he shook his head. Even silent, though, I could hear the words: That fucking face.
I had to be grateful for the sewage, though—at least it disguised our scents, especially mine. Even when we swam mere feet away from soldiers on the streets above, we passed undetected.
When we finally reached the turn where the river met the castle’s aqueducts, I thanked the Goddess under my breath. We had to fight a
surprisingly strong current to make it up to the castle, since the channels had been constructed at a slight downward angle to ensure the constant outward flow of waste. Clinging to the side, allowing the stone wall to shield me, I poked my head above the water to examine the grates ahead.
I could not even remotely remember which one led into the tunnels.
I dove again, throwing myself against the first set of iron bars. Raihn swam beside me, helping me pull at the metal.
Not the first. Nor the second. When we rose for another quick breath, the voices of the soldiers were even closer.
Fuck. The longer we stayed in one place, the greater our risk of being seen. I didn’t know how much longer we had here before someone would wander too close.
Please, Vincent, this had better be the one.
We slipped under the water and threw ourselves against the next set of bars.
And maybe the Goddess or my dead father were looking out for us, after all, because this one ground into movement immediately.
The door was awkward, designed to be pushed out from the inside instead of entered from the outside. Raihn held it open for me to wiggle through, and I did the same for him as he squeezed between the metal rods. No easy feat against this current, stronger than ever this close to the castle sewers.
Inside, Raihn had to grab my arm and use his body mass to keep me from getting swept away. By the time the tunnel started to rise, we were practically dragging ourselves along the slime-slicked walls. My muscles screamed. My lungs burned, desperate for air. I clutched the strap over my chest, suddenly very afraid that the current would sweep the Taker of Hearts off my back.
When the floor finally rose and we could stand, I choked out, “Thank the Mother.”
“That,” Raihn muttered, “was fucking vile.”
He wiped sludge from his face as I leapt out of the water and dragged myself up a steep step at the side of the tunnel. The air was hot and stagnant, and it absolutely reeked of shit.
It was still a Goddess-damned perfumery compared to where we’d just come from.
Raihn followed me, the two of us now standing on a raised pathway along the edge of the sewer. It was very dark in here. I conjured a little ball of Nightfire in my palm, and blue light bathed Raihn’s face.
“What?” he said.
Here he was. The Nightborn King. Drenched, wearing ill-fitting, cheap leathers, face completely covered in shit save for the domino mask of “clean” skin he’d wiped around his eyes.
He read my face and sighed. “Because you look so fucking fantastic, princess. Ix’s tits. Let’s get going. Where’s this tunnel?”
That was a good question. I shuffled along the wall, hand pressed to the brick—rough, old, slimy. More or less how one would expect stone that had been marinating in centuries worth of wet excrement to feel.
“It was around here somewhere,” I muttered, feeling around the bricks. “Under one of these arches—”
My fingertips snagged on something. At first, I thought it was just a crack in the bricks, but a second pass and a closer look with the Nightfire revealed otherwise—no, it was an outline.
“Here,” I said.
“I’ve got it.” Raihn threw his weight against the door. He strained against it for a few seconds, face contorted, before giving up and leaning against the wall. “You’re sure this opens in this direction?”
Fuck. I certainly hoped it did. Otherwise, we were screwed.
Vincent was so thorough. I couldn’t imagine that he would go through the trouble of creating such an elaborate path out unless he also planned to use it as an emergency path back in, too, if he needed it.
But… only if he needed it.
“He’d have made sure that only he could use it,” I said. “Maybe I…”
On a hunch, I grabbed my blade from my hip and swiped the tip over my palm, opening a delicate river of red. Then I pressed the bleeding wound to the door, cringing slightly at the sting of the slimy surface against the cut.
My first thought was, I am definitely going to get an infection from this.
My second was, This isn’t going to work.
But those words barely had crossed my mind before the door opened before us with a growl of grinding stone, revealing a narrow, dark tunnel lit
with Nightflame lanterns.
That was… quick. And easier than I had thought it would be. Easier than using my blood to operate Vincent’s magic ever had been before.
I stared down at my bloody palm. I could feel Raihn’s gaze on me— making the same observation, no doubt.
“Looks like the door wasn’t just for him,” he said. I swallowed thickly.
Did you really think, Vincent whispered in the back of my mind, that I wouldn’t account for you, too, my little serpent?
I flinched. Once, I’d craved his voice so fiercely. Now, it brought with it a wave of complicated emotions.
It didn’t make sense. He’d hidden these paths from me, along with my magic, my blood, and my past. And yet—he had loved me enough, too, to offer me this safety precaution alongside his own.
So did he trust me, or not? Or did even he not know?
“I don’t know,” I said curtly. “Maybe it’s just recognizing his blood in me. Let’s go. It’s this way.”
I drew my father’s sword from my back, trying and failing to ignore the overwhelming wave of his presence that hit me the moment my hand closed around the hilt, and started walking before Raihn could say anything else.
Not that he tried.
THE TUNNELS WERE POORLY MAINTAINED, narrow, and winding, a side effect of them being kept in absolute secrecy—they’d been built around the existing infrastructure of the castle by an extremely limited team of workers, and then never maintained afterward because Vincent did not want to risk a single soul knowing about them. After a hundred years or so, they were starting to show their wear. Even though Raihn and I were already under the castle, it took a good long while of walking before the tunnels began to look a bit more like the hallways I’d grown more familiar with.
Soon, we scaled sets of crooked stairs, leading us up into the building itself. Muffled, harried voices echoed through the walls—all of them
frantic, even if we couldn’t make out the words.
“Sounds like they’re having a wonderful time,” Raihn muttered, as the unintelligible voices of warriors yelling at each other faded away behind us. “Not sure that you’re in a good position to go judging someone else’s
coup,” I said, “seeing how yours has gone so damned well so far.” He laughed softly. “Fair point.”
We reached the top of this set of stairs, the tunnel now splitting off into two directions. I kept my voice low, conscious of how thin the walls could be in some parts of this ancient building.
“We’re behind the second-floor library right now.” I pointed to the left path. “That one’s yours. It will take you to the dungeons. Just go down, and to the right.”
Raihn eyed the other path. “And that’s yours?”
I nodded. It would take me up to the upper floors of the castle—up to my rooms.
My rooms, where I had hidden Vincent’s pendant.
Only I knew the convoluted path up to the top level of the castle. Only I could carry Vincent’s blood-bound artifacts. So that meant I had to be the one to go up to get it—because, of course, we couldn’t leave that in Simon or Septimus’s possession. We may not know what it was, but we knew it was too important to lose.
Which meant that Raihn would need to go to the dungeons to rescue Mische by himself, at least temporarily, until I could join him.
We’d talked this through at length. We couldn’t both go to both places, which would attract attention too quickly. Our only chance at achieving both goals was splitting up, albeit temporarily.
Still, now that our paths diverged, I couldn’t help but hesitate—my eyes lingering on Raihn’s body, where I knew his leathers hid evidence of still-healing wounds.
Despite myself, I was starting to doubt that this was a good idea. “Are you sure you can do this?” I said.
His brow twitched. “Are you worried about me?” “I’m being practical.”
“I’ll be just fine. I can handle a few of Simon’s guards. I’m the Nightborn King, remember?”
“I remember having to save your ass from ‘a few of Simon’s guards’ about thirty-six hours ago.”
His smirk faltered, like this was a legitimate sore spot for him. Raihn may try to play the unflappable king, but I knew he really, really didn’t like to lose. “That wasn’t a fair fight,” he said. “They drugged me. And surprised me. I look forward to the rematch.”
I was unconvinced.
“Besides,” he said, “if it all goes poorly, I just need to stay alive for a few minutes until you can come save me all over again, and I’ll even let you gloat about it all you damn well please.”
It was a little appealing. A little. Still, I couldn’t shake the knot of unease in my stomach.
Maybe Raihn felt some of what I did, too, as he gazed over my shoulder to the right path, stairs disappearing into shadow.
“Be quick,” he said. “In and out. Simon doesn’t deserve the honor of killing you.”
I scoffed, like this prospect was ridiculous. My bravado, though, was a little less convincing than Raihn’s. Yes, I’d killed dozens when rescuing Raihn. Yes, I’d won the Kejari. But I still had a lifetime’s worth of fear of vampires ground into me. A hard thing to leave behind.
“Stop wasting time,” I whispered, and started to turn away, but he caught my arm.
When I looked back at him, there was no more teasing in his face. No false confidence. His hand reached out to brush the angle of my chin, so briefly I didn’t even have time to react to the touch.
“Careful, princess,” he murmured. “Alright?”
I held that stare for a moment longer than I meant to. “You too,” I said. “Be careful.”
And with that, we each slipped into our own shadows.