It started as practice. Just a little game, a little exercise. Something I needed to prove to myself. I wasn’t sure when it had evolved into sport—my shameful, secret
Some might find it stupid for me, a human, to hunt at night, when I was at a considerable disadvantage compared to my prey. But the night was when they acted, and so it was when I did, too.
I pressed to the wall, the dagger clenched tight in my hands. The night was warm, the kind when the sun’s heat clung to the steamy humidity of the air long after sunset. The smell hung in a thick, rotten cloud—rancid food from the trash in the alleys, yes, but also decaying meat and sour blood. The vampires didn’t care to clean up after themselves here, in the human districts of the House of Night.
Humans were supposed to be safe here, within the walls of the kingdom—citizens, if inferior ones, weaker than the Nightborn in every way. But that second truth too often rendered the first irrelevant.
The man was a Hiaj, his wings tucked in close to his back. Apparently he wasn’t much of a magic user, because he didn’t spirit them away for easier hunting. Or maybe he
just enjoyed the effect that they had on his prey. Some of them were showy like that. They liked to be feared.
From the rooftop, I watched the man stalk his target—a little boy, perhaps ten, though small from obvious malnourishment. The boy was in the fenced-in dirt yard of a clay house, bouncing a ball against the dust over and over again, oblivious to death creeping up on him.
It was so, so stupid for this boy to be out at night alone. But then again, I knew better than anyone how growing up in constant danger could wear upon a person. Maybe this family had kept their children inside after dark every single day of the last ten years. It only took one lapse, one distracted mother who forgot to call him back, one grumpy child who wasn’t ready to come inside for dinner. Just one night in a lifetime.
It happened so often.
But it wouldn’t happen tonight. When the vampire moved, so did I.
I dropped from the rooftop down to the cobblestones. I was quiet, but vampire hearing was impeccable. The man turned, greeting me with icy eyes and a curled lip that revealed a glint of sharp ivory.
Did he recognize me? Sometimes they did. I didn’t give this one the chance.
It was practically routine, by now. A system I’d honed to perfection on hundreds of nights just like this one.
Wings first. Two slashes, one through each—enough to keep him from flying. With Hiaj vampires, that was easy. The membranous skin was delicate as paper. Sometimes I would catch Rishan vampires instead, and that was a bit more challenging—their feathered wings were harder to puncture—but I had refined the technique. This step was important, and that was why it came first. I needed to keep them here on the ground with me. I made the mistake of skipping it once, and almost didn’t survive to learn the lesson.
I couldn’t be stronger than them, so I had to be more precise. No time for mistakes.
The vampire let out a sound between a gasp of pain and a snarl of rage. My heartbeat had become a rapid drum, blood close to the surface of my skin. I wondered if he smelled it. I spent my entire life trying to hide the flush of my blood, but right now, I was glad for it. It made them stupid. This fool wasn’t even armed, yet he still threw himself at me without a care in the world.
I loved it—really, truly loved it—when they underestimated me.
A blade to the side, beneath the ribs. Another to the throat. Not enough to kill. Enough to make him falter.
I pushed him against the wall, one blade skewering him to keep him still. I’d coated the edges with Dhaivinth—a fast-acting paralytic, potent though short-lived. It would only work for a few minutes, but that was all I needed.
He only managed a couple scratches across my cheek with razor-tipped fingers before his movements began to weaken. And just when I saw his eyes blink fast, like he was trying to wake himself up, I struck.
You have to push hard to make it through the breastbone.
I did—hard enough to crack the bone, to open the passage to his heart. Vampires were stronger than me in every way—their bodies more muscular, movements swifter, teeth sharper.
But their hearts were just as soft.
The moment my blade punctured their chest, I always heard my father’s voice.
Don’t look away, little serpent, Vincent whispered in my ear.
I didn’t. Not then, and not now. Because I knew what I’d see there in the darkness. I knew I’d see the beautiful face of a boy I once loved very much, and exactly how it looked when my knife slid into his chest.
Vampires were the children of the goddess of death. So it was a bit funny to me that they feared it just as much as humans did. I watched them every time, and I saw the terror settle over their faces as they realized it was coming for them.
At least in this, we were the same. At least we’re all fucking cowards in the end.
Vampire blood was darker than human blood. Almost black, as if darkened layer over layer by human and animal blood consumed over the course of centuries. Once I let the vampire fall, I was covered in it.
I stepped back from the body. It was only then that I saw the family staring at me—I was quiet, but not quiet enough to avoid notice when I was practically on their doorstep. The boy was now clutched tight in his mother’s arms. A man was with them, too, and another child, a younger girl. They were thin, their clothes plain and threadbare, stained from long days of work. All four of them stood in the doorway, eyes locked on me.
I froze, like a stag caught by a tracker in the forest.
Strange, that it was these starving humans, not the vampire, that turned me from the hunter to the hunted.
Maybe it was because when I was with vampires, I knew what I was. But when I looked at these humans, the lines grew blurry and ill-defined—like I was observing a twisted reflection of myself.
Or maybe I was the reflection.
They were like me. And yet, I could find nothing in common between us. I imagined that if I opened my mouth to speak to them, we wouldn’t even understand the noises each other made. They looked like animals to me.
The ugly truth was that perhaps a part of me was disgusted by them, the same way I was disgusted by all my own human flaws. And yet another part of me—maybe the part that remembered I had once lived in a house just like this one—longed to venture closer.
I wouldn’t, of course.
No, I wasn’t a vampire. That much was abundantly clear, every second of every day. But I wasn’t one of them, either.
A shock of cold struck my cheek. I touched it and my fingers came back wet. Rain.
The drops disrupted our breathless silence. The woman stepped forward, as if to say something, but I had already slipped back into the shadows.
I COULDN’T RESIST the detour. Normally, I would have scaled the castle directly to my room in the western towers. Instead, I climbed east, jumping the garden walls and heading to the servants’ quarters. I slipped in through the window, which overlooked an overgrown bush of indigo blue blossoms that flushed silver in the moonlight. As soon as my feet touched the floor, I cursed, nearly toppling over as what felt like a pile of liquid fabric slid beneath my boots over the smooth wood.
The laugh sounded like the caw of a crow, devolving quickly into a cacophony of coughs.
“Silk,” the old woman croaked. “The best trap for little burglars.”
“This place is a fucking disaster, Ilana.”
“Bah.” She rounded the corner and peered at me through narrowed eyes, drawing in a deep, rattling inhale of her cigar and letting the smoke out through her nose. She was dressed in cascading chiffon dyed in waves of color. Black-and-gray streaked hair piled atop her head with admirable volume. Gold pendants dangled from each earlobe, and her wrinkled eyes were painted with shades of gray-blue and a generous lining of kohl.
Her apartment was just as colorful and chaotic as she was—clothing and jewels and bright paint strewn about every surface. I had come in through her living room window, which I now pulled closed against the rain. The place was tiny, but far nicer than the clay, crumbling slums in the human district.
She looked me up and down, rubbing her neck. “I take no criticisms from a drowned rat like you.”
I glanced down at myself and blanched. Only now, in the warm lantern light, did I realize what a mess I was.
“You’d never guess you were pretty under all of that, Oraya,” she went on. “Dead set on making yourself look as unappealing as possible. Which reminds me! I have something for you. Here.”
With knobby, arthritic hands, she fished through a crumpled pile beside her, then tossed a fistful of fabric across the room to me. “Catch.”
I caught it in my fist, then unfolded it. The band of silk was nearly as long as I was tall, and a stunning deep violet with edges embroidered in gold.
“Made me think of you.” Ilana leaned against the doorframe and took another puff of her cigar.
I didn’t ask where she had gotten something like this.
Age had not made her fingers any less deft—or sticky.
“You should keep it. I don’t wear this sort of stuff. You know that.”
Day to day, I wore only black, plain clothing that attracted little attention and allowed me free range of movement. I didn’t ever wear anything bright (as it would draw unwanted eyes), flowing (as it would allow someone to grab me), or restrictive (as it would impede my ability to fight, or flee). I wore my leathers most of the time, even in the oppressive heat of the summer. They were protective and unobtrusive.
Sure, maybe I admired pretty things just as much as any other. But I was surrounded by predators. Vanity came
second to survival.
Ilana scoffed. “I know that you love it too, rat. Even if you’re too afraid to wear ’em. Damned shame. Youth is wasted on the young. Beauty, too. It’s a good color for you. Dance around naked in your bedroom with it for all I care.”
My brow quirked as I eyed her hoard of colors. “Is that what you do with yours?”
She winked. “All that and more. And don’t pretend you don’t, too.”
Ilana had never been to my room, and yet she knew me well enough to know that I did, indeed, have a single drawer stuffed with little, colorful trinkets that I had collected over the years. Things that were too pointlessly ostentatious to wear in this life, but that, perhaps, I could dream of wearing in another.
No matter how much I tried to explain it to her, Ilana didn’t understand my caution. She’d made it clear many times over that she was done—“Done!” she proclaimed— with caution.
I honestly didn’t know how the old bat had survived this long, but I was grateful for it. The humans I had seen in the slums this morning were nothing like me, and the vampires that surrounded me even less so. Only Ilana lingered somewhere in between, just like I did.
Albeit for very different reasons.
I had been raised in this world, but Ilana had joined it of her own volition ten years ago. As a young teenager, I had been fascinated by her. I had met few other humans. I didn’t realize then that Ilana was, even among humans, somewhat… unique.
Ilana touched her neck again. I realized the cloth clenched in her fist wasn’t red, or at least, it hadn’t started that way. I stepped closer and noticed the wounds on her throat—three sets of two. Then the bandage on her wrist, which covered up Nyaxia-knew how many more.
My face must have changed, because she hacked another laugh.
“A big dinner tonight,” she said. “I was paid well for it. Paid, to have handsome men suck on my neck all night. My younger self would be thrilled.”
I couldn’t bring myself to even crack a smile.
Yes, I had no idea how Ilana had survived this long. Most voluntary human blood vendors—of which there were few— were killed within a year of their work. I knew too well exactly how little self-control vampires had when hunger was involved.
Some things Ilana and I would never agree on.
“I won’t be around for awhile,” I said, changing the subject. “I just wanted to let you know, so you don’t worry.”
Ilana’s face went still. Even in the dim light, I saw her pale two shades. “That bastard. You’re doing it.”
I didn’t want to have this conversation, even though I knew it was coming.
“You should think about leaving the inner city temporarily,” I went on. “Going to the districts. I know you hate it, but at least there—”
“It’s the Kejari, Ilana. It’s not safe here for you. For any human outside the protected district.”
“‘Protected district.’ Those slums. There’s a reason why I left. They reek of misery.” Her nose wrinkled. “Misery and piss.”
I didn’t miss the irony of saying this when I was covered in blood after returning from that place.
“Bah. Safety is overrated. What kind of life is that? You want me to leave when the most exciting event in two centuries is about to happen on my doorstep? No, sweetheart. I’m not doing that.”
I had told myself that I would stay calm—had known that Ilana would probably not listen to me. Still, I couldn’t keep
the frustration from my voice.
“You’re being foolish. It’s just a few months. Or even a few days! If you were to leave just for the opening—”
“Foolish!” she spat. “Is that him talking? Is that what he calls you, whenever you want to do anything outside his control?”
I let out a breath through clenched teeth. Yes, Vincent would call me foolish if I was refusing to protect myself for no good reason. And he’d be right for it, too.
The human district may be a slum, but at least humans there had the veneer of protection. Here? I didn’t know what would happen to Ilana, or any human within the inner city, once the Kejari began. Especially one that had already signed away their blood.
I’d heard stories about how humans had been used in these tournaments. I didn’t know what was true and what was exaggeration, but they made my stomach turn. Sometimes I wanted to ask Vincent, but I knew he’d think I was concerned for myself. I didn’t want him to worry over me any more than he already did. And… he didn’t quite know exactly how close Ilana and I had gotten over these last few years.
There were a lot of things Vincent didn’t know. Parts of myself that didn’t line up with his vision for who I was. Just as there were things about me that Ilana would never understand.
Still, I didn’t know what I would do without either of them. I had no family here. Whoever was in that house with me when Vincent found me had been killed. If any distant relatives remained, they were trapped somewhere I couldn’t reach; at least, not until I won the Kejari. But I had Vincent, and I had Ilana, and they had become everything that I imagined a family to be, even if neither of them could understand every contradictory part of me.
Now, as the possibility of losing Ilana seemed suddenly far too tangible, fear clenched my heart and refused to
“Ilana, please.” My voice was oddly choked. “Please, just go.”
Ilana’s face softened. She stuffed her cigar into an overflowing ashtray and came close enough that I could count the wrinkles around her eyes. Her leathery hand caressed my cheek. She smelled like smoke and too-pungent rose perfume—and blood.
“You’re sweet,” she said. “Prickly, but sweet. In an acidic sort of way. Like… like a pineapple.”
Despite myself, the corner of my mouth twisted. “A
What a ridiculous word. Knowing her, she probably made it up.
“But I’m tired, sweetheart. Tired of being afraid. I left the district because I wanted to see what it was like here, and it has been exactly as much of an adventure as I thought it would be. I risk my life every day to be here. As do you.”
“You don’t have to be stupid about it.”
“It becomes a rebellion not to care. I know you know that as well as I do. Even if you stuff the colors into the back of your dresser.” She shot a pointed look to my bloodstained clothes. “Even if you hide it in the shadows of the district’s alleyways.”
“Please, Ilana. Just for a week, even if it isn’t for the full Kejari. Here.” I thrust out the scarf. “Take this garish thing and give it to me when you come back, and I even promise I’ll wear it.”
She was silent for a long moment, then took the silk and tucked it into her pocket. “Fine. I’ll leave in the morning.”
I let out a sigh of relief.
“But you. You, stubborn rat…” Her hands came to my face, squishing my cheeks between them. “You be careful. I won’t lecture you about what he’s making you do—”
I pulled away from her shockingly strong grip. “He’s not
making me do anything.”
“Bah!” I had moved just in time, because the scoff was so vicious it sent flecks of spittle flying. “I don’t want to watch you become one of them. It would be—” Her jaw snapped shut, and her eyes searched my face, a wave of unnervingly intense emotion passing over her expression. “It would be fucking boring.”
It wasn’t what she wanted to say, and I knew it. But Ilana and I had that sort of relationship. All the raw honesty, all the unpleasant tenderness, hid in the things we didn’t say. Just as I would not say aloud that I was competing in the Kejari, she would not say aloud that she was scared for me.
Still, it startled me to see her on the verge of tears. Only now did I really realize that she only had me. I, at least, had Vincent, but she was alone.
My gaze drifted up to the clock, and I spat a curse.
“I have to go,” I blurted out, retreating to the window. “Don’t drink yourself to death, you old hag.”
“Don’t skewer yourself with that stick up your ass,” she retorted, wiping her eyes, all hints of her earlier vulnerability gone.
Crazy old bitch, I thought, affectionately.
I threw open the window and let the steam of the summer rain hit my face. I didn’t mean to pause— something heavier sat on the tip of my tongue, words I’d only said out loud once before to someone who deserved it less.
But Ilana had already disappeared back into her bedroom. I swallowed whatever I was going to say, and fell back into the night.