Chapter no 11

The Serpent and the Wings of Night

My wounds were even deeper than I’d feared, the one in my thigh continuing to bleed despite many tight bandages. The arrow must have been cursed, and

who knew whatever venom the demons’ claws held. Both of my injuries were so severe that Vincent’s potion would only heal one. After a long internal debate, I used it on the cut in my side, which seemed at most risk for infection.

That still left me in rough shape, though. I needed to see Vincent. Surely, he’d meet me tonight—he was protective, and after seeing me in the ring, he’d want to know I was alright. I prayed he had been able to get his hands on more medicine, though I knew it was unlikely. Fuck. If he hadn’t, I didn’t know what I—

“Beautiful place you’ve claimed for yourself.”

I stiffened so abruptly at the sound of the voice that I was greeted with a wave of pain. Grabbing my blades, I rose and turned. It was hard to get to my feet. Dawn was still hours away. And I was in no shape to fight. Not that I wouldn’t try.

“How fitting. Every living thing in this depressing, dead castle, all in one place.” Raihn wandered to the center of the greenhouse, pausing at the long-dry fountain at its center. He gazed up at the faceless statue, then out the

windows, and then at last, his eyes fell to me—the corner of his mouth twisting into an almost-smile.

“Get out,” I snarled.

“I brought you something.” “Get out.

“That’s rude.” He sat down on the edge of the fountain. I half expected the ancient stone to crumble under his weight—he was truly a wall of a creature, big enough to even look it when surrounded by gods-damned demons. And yet, he moved with surprising grace, like he knew his body well. He lounged with one foot propped up on the stone, elbow braced against it, while the other leg stretched out before him. He looked utterly casual—so casual I knew it was calculated.

Then he glanced up to the star-scattered sky, and something momentary shifted in his face. I knew how to read expressions well. Those of vampires were always muted, frozen by centuries of dull immortality, and my survival depended on my ability to find meaning in every twitch. But that brief expression struck me—both because it was a glimpse of something unusually raw, and because I could not even begin to decipher it.

Then his stare fell back to me, the smirk returned, and once again I was looking at a vampire, toying with me in terms I was innately familiar with.

A performance. This was someone who cared very much about what people thought of him. I knew that much already from his little outburst at the feast, goading that poor bastard into attacking him so he had an excuse to be the first to draw blood.

He swung his legs down and leaned forward. With that movement, I twitched backwards, drawing a step closer to the wall.

“What?” he said. “Do I smell?” “I told you to get out.”

“You think I came here for a meal? That’s my grand intention?”

His intention was worth shit. Vampires had notoriously poor self-control when confronted with human blood. My life would be a lot safer if protecting me was just a matter of Vincent threatening painful and horrible death upon anyone who hurt me. Coming after me was a logically unwise decision. They all knew it would result in their execution… or worse. But they might not even decide to do it, they might just be overcome by—

The memory was as sharp as ever—lips on my throat, a kiss deepening to a nip deepening to a vicious stab of pain

“What was that?”

I jerked back to reality. Mother, the blood loss must be getting to me, to let my mind wander off like that. Raihn still wore that little smirk, but now a wrinkle of curiosity deepened between his dark brows.

“Where did you go?”

That unnerved me more than I’d ever admit aloud—the fact that he saw whatever had just changed on my face.

“I told you,” I spat, “to get—”

“What are you going to do? Stab me?”

He looked pointedly at my blades. Daring me. Mocking me, because we both knew I couldn’t, not in this state.

“That thigh looks bad. It’s a little poetic, isn’t it?” He touched his thigh—still bandaged.

Sure. Fucking poetic.

“I brought you something for that.”

He reached into his pack and pulled out a blue crystal bottle, contents thrumming with a light shimmer.

Mother. At the sight, I almost leapt for it just on impulse. How had he found that, if even Vincent was struggling to get his hands on it?

Raihn placed the potion on the stone beside him, then rested his forearms on his knees and watched me.

“You know,” he said casually, “I heard some of the others talking before the first round. Betting on who would survive. Your name was worth shit, because everyone was so sure you’d be the first to die.”

He paused, waiting for a reaction, and I refused to give him one.

“But I thought better,” he went on. “I knew you were one to watch. That you weren’t just some ordinary human. The great Nightborn King’s human pet.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d been referred to that way, and it wouldn’t be the last, but I still bristled. I was in so much pain that it was more difficult than usual to keep my temper at bay.

Calm down, Oraya. Anger means an accelerated heart

rate. A higher heart rate means your scent is stronger. Give them nothing.

It wasn’t as if I didn’t know exactly what he was doing. Baiting me, just like he had baited that man at the feast. If I was the serpent, he was poking me with a stick to see when I’d snap it in two.

“Did he teach you how to fight like that? He must have, right?” He nodded to my weapons, still braced in front of me. “He gave you those, obviously. Nightborn craftsmanship. The good shit.”

“Are you deaf, or just stupid?” “You’re unfriendly.”

What did he think he was accomplishing here? Did he think I was so easy to manipulate? Did he think I didn’t know what this was?

“Why are you here?” I snapped. By now, I struggled to hide the labor of my breathing and maintain the strength in my voice. “For entertainment? I’m boring as shit, I promise you.”

“I can see that.”

“Stop playing with me. I don’t have the patience.”

Again, the corner of his mouth lifted in a grim, satisfied smirk. “Or time,” he said flatly, his eyes falling to my wounded thigh.

My jaw snapped closed. His gaze flicked back to mine, and for a long moment we just stared at each other, locked in a wordless conversation.

I knew it was the truth. He knew I knew it. I hated that he knew I knew it.

“Then stop wasting it,” I spat out, at last. “What do you want?”

“Who will you ally with for the Halfmoon trial?”

I blinked. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting—more games, maybe—but it wasn’t that.

It was a good question. An important question. The choice of ally for the Halfmoon trial was a critical strategic decision. It needed to be someone strong enough to keep you in the top fifty percent of contestants during the Halfmoon, but not too strong, because they then became your greatest competition in the final two trials.

While the exact nature of the trial changed in every Kejari, those three important elements remained constant: the fact that it required cooperation, that it resulted in the death of half the participants… and that many, many contestants would be killed in their sleep immediately after it, most often by former allies who decided they were more risk than reward.

Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t keep the wince from flitting across my nose.

Raihn let out a low chuckle. “I thought so.” Then he said, with no hesitation, “Ally with me.”

My eyebrows shot up.

Vincent had often chided me for my poor control over my facial expressions, and at this one, Raihn laughed again.

“Ally with… you,” I said. “Me and Mische.”

Mische. Was that the name of the short-haired girl? The one with the fire?

“We claimed a room near the top of the towers,” he went on. “It’s secure. Big—a whole apartment. Safe. Or safer than this place, at least.”

This didn’t feel right. “Why?” “Because you impressed me.” “Bullshit.”

His brows twitched in the faintest hint of surprise, like he was genuinely not expecting this answer.

“Excuse me?”

“You haven’t said a single true thing since you strode in here, so I’ll be honest for both of us. I’m a human. We both know that makes me the weakest one here. You have your pick of fifty stronger vampires you could ally with. And you expect me to believe you want me?”

He examined a cut on his ring finger. “Only forty, now, actually. Look, you beat warriors that outclassed you many times over tonight. You and I…” His gaze raised back to me. “We worked well together, didn’t we? And I like an underdog.”

Bull. Shit.” I jabbed one of my blades at him for

emphasis with each word. “Do other people fall for this? Give me one honest thing, or get out, like I’ve been telling you to since you showed up.”

I didn’t trust anyone in this place. But I especially didn’t trust someone who pursued me under such blatantly false pretenses. The very fact that he wanted to ally with me made him the least trustworthy one here, because no sane person would want to do such a thing. And I could handle selfish motivations—I expected them—but not when I didn’t know what they were.

He blinked twice, biting the inside of his cheek. I couldn’t tell if he was insulted or if he was fighting back laughter.

Finally, he said, “All the other decent fighters that are people I could actually tolerate are already allied.”



“Not enough. Keep going. You already have your friend.

Why invite another?”

“I’m curious about you. Can you blame me? Everyone is. Vincent’s little human princess, kept in a glass palace where everyone could look but never touch.” He glanced around, smiling wryly at the greenhouse’s crystal walls. “Are you missing your glass castle, princess?”

I wouldn’t let him bait me, not even if I did find myself shifting in irritation at that characterization.

But the mention of Vincent triggered a wave of understanding. This, at least, made sense. Maybe it was the first thing out of Raihn’s mouth that I actually believed.

“Vincent can’t help me in here.” “I doubt that very much.”


Vincent. It was about Vincent. The offer of alliance had nothing to do with me. Raihn thought that if he allied with the king’s little human princess, it would earn him advantages afforded to no one else in here… and prevent other contestants from getting them first.

I didn’t like it, and it wasn’t true, but at least it made sense.

I scoffed but didn’t argue. Instead I said, “And?” He looked confused. “And?”

“Why else?”

Another long stare. Another wordless conversation. I’d forgotten what it was like to talk to someone whose face communicated so much.

There was one more thing—one more key reason why I was the ideal ally. We both knew it. He knew I knew it. He hated that I knew he knew it.

But I’d asked for honesty, and I wanted him to say it.

He was clearly weighing this, deciding which answer was the right one to pass the test. At last, he said, “And you’ll be easy to kill, when the Halfmoon is over.”

It was legitimately satisfying to just hear someone say it out loud.

“But until then,” he added, quickly, “no harm will come to you. I can promise you that.”

I heard Vincent’s voice in a sixteen-year-old memory:

I am the only person who will ever make that promise and keep it.

“What makes you think I need your protection?” To his credit, he didn’t laugh at me.

“You’re a skilled fighter. Better than I thought you’d be.” He rose from the fountain and took a few slow steps closer, never breaking eye contact, his large, scar-nicked hand open on one side, the other clutched tight around the healing potion. With each step, I drew backwards.

“But you are still human,” he said quietly. “And that means that in here, you are prey. You’ll always be prey. No matter how good you are with those fancy weapons.”

The truth, of course. But maybe he didn’t realize that I knew how to be prey. I’d been doing it my entire life.

He was right. I would need to ally with someone for the Halfmoon, and then I would need to kill them afterwards. Maybe I could ally with him, allow him to protect me, and spend that time learning his fighting styles and weaknesses

—preparing myself to kill him as soon as it was over. He could underestimate me, and I could use that against him.

But allying now? This was early. The Halfmoon trial, the midpoint of the tournament, was six weeks away. That was a long time to stay in close proximity to not one, but two vampires, without getting killed. A long time to allow him to learn my strengths and weaknesses, too.

“No,” I said. “Tempting offer, though.”

He took another step closer, and again, I matched the distance back.

“What was it that you asked of me? An honest thing? I was honest with you, so now you be honest with me. Do you really think you’ll survive another night here? It’s almost dawn now, but after that? Your scent is all over the Moon Palace right now. I could smell you even from the east tower. And let me tell you, you smell fucking delicious. You need to stop that bleeding, fast.”

My eyes fell to the potion tightly gripped in his hand. Hearing it all acknowledged out loud made me uneasy. But so did having him this close to me. I did not like that he was pushing me into this so forcefully. The reasons he had given me didn’t warrant that, which made the ones he didn’t far more concerning.

“No,” I said.

“You’ll bleed to death, or they’ll kill you.”

He started to step closer, and I ignored the horrific rip of pain as I leapt away, blades raised anew.

“I will stab you again if you come even a single step closer to me,” I snarled. “Get out.

He raised his hands.

“As you wish, princess. Suit yourself.”

He made sure I watched as he slipped the potion back into his pack, then gave me one last smile and turned to the door.

“Top of the eastern tower. If you change your mind.”

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