The laugh was low and deep, rough and smooth at the same time—quiet, and yet it commanded the room. It was the first thing to seep through my addled mind;
the first thing to cut through my hazy consciousness.
I rolled over. My body protested with a symphony of aches, but that was nothing compared to before. The absence of pain was jarring.
As I blinked away sleep, the first thing I saw was wings
—deep black, the gloss of the feathers reflecting warm strokes of lantern light. I hadn’t had the time in the ring to properly admire Raihn’s wings, but they were—as much as I hated to admit it—quite beautiful. I saw Rishan wings much less often than I saw Hiaj ones, and never any as uniquely colored as these—deep black, with that oil-slick sheen of reds and purples and blues.
Raihn crouched before Mische, who sat atop a coffee table. He held her foot, which he leaned over with what seemed like intense concentration, a roll of bandages in his other hand.
“I told you to stop moving, Mische,” he muttered. “It’s taking too long.”
“You can stay still for two fucking minutes.”
His words were rough. And yet, the tone of them was so much softer—tender, even.
Mische heaved a long-suffering sigh and squirmed like an impatient child.
I blinked again and the rest of the room came into focus. We were in what looked to be the common space of an apartment—a very, very nice one, albeit a couple of centuries out of date. Lanterns lined the walls, lit with a mix of fire and blue-white light that flickered over brocade wallpaper in a strange contrast of warmth and coolness. A wall of thick velvet curtains covered the eastern half of the room—all windows, if I had to guess. Grand furniture was arranged artfully throughout, crafted of deep mahogany wood or generously marbled black stone and upholstered with silky brocade. All of it appeared to be a relic from another age in style, but looked as pristine as if it had been made yesterday.
“I told you, it’s fine! It won’t slow me down a—oh! Oh!”
Mische leapt to her feet with such excited verve that she came delightfully close to kicking Raihn in the face.
“What did we just talk about?” he muttered as he dodged, and Mische paid him no mind as she darted across the room to me. My head was still spinning, but I lurched away from her nonetheless.
She froze, raising her hands.
“Oh. I’m sorry! I know—he told me. Slow.” She shrugged, letting out an awkward laugh.
He told me. I bristled at that. What might that have looked like? She’s a weak little human, terrified of everything, so treat her like a wounded animal.
Raihn looked away, muttering a curse.
“How are you feeling?” Mische asked. She settled down on the floor, folding her legs beneath her and resting her palms on her knees—like she needed to physically restrain herself from running over to me. Her eyes were too large for her face, almost comically out of proportion with her small nose and forever-upturned mouth. Yet, somehow, she
was still strikingly beautiful. Then again, vampires always were.
“Better,” I answered, after a long moment.
Mische grinned. “Oh, good! I’m Mische. So excited to finally meet you.”
“We have met. At the feast.”
“Well, I mean, really meet. Raihn told me all about the trial. And how it was your idea to find the pack leader. That saved my ass, so thank you.” She laughed and shook her head, as if the recent near-death experience was a fond distant memory.
I’d never met another vampire who behaved anything like this. Even at their most outgoing, they were reserved. And yet, I couldn’t shake the sense that she did remind me of someone. Not a vampire, I realized after a moment, but a human. She reminded me of Ilana.
Sure, Mische had none of Ilana’s biting edge. But she had that same loud, unapologetic flair. She was… unabashedly colorful. What was the relationship, I wondered, between her and Raihn? They were both odd by vampire standards, but in ways that could not possibly be more different from each other.
She rose and spread her arms, gesturing to the room. “Welcome to our home. Isn’t it stunning? Well… maybe you don’t think so. I’m sure it’s nothing compared to the Nightborn castle. But we’ve never been anywhere like this before. Or—well, I suppose Raihn has, but I—”
“Give her a sun-damned minute before you talk her to death, Mische.”
Raihn slid his hands into the pockets of his jacket—long, black, simple, and slightly too small at the shoulders—and approached me, a smug smile that made me bristle spreading over his lips.
“You changed your mind quickly, didn’t you?” “I didn’t have a choice.”
“So we saw.”
“And thank the gods you did come here,” Mische breathed. “You would’ve died.” Her face hardened. “Those Bloodborn shits. He tried to rip you to pieces, didn’t he?”
Thank the gods, she had said. Not the Goddess.
“I have a gift for you,” Raihn said, very casually, “to welcome you to our little family.”
Mische grinned. It was jarring to see such a sunny and cheerful expression punctuated by those sharp canines.
“Oh, yes!” She reached into one of the chests pushed against the far wall, and when she turned back around, I had to stop myself from recoiling.
It was a head.
A man’s head, the skin pale and wan, the hair mostly gray and streaked with some ash-brown. His ears were pointed, as were his teeth, visible through the perpetual snarl that graced his lips even in death.
I’d hardly gotten a good look at the vampire that attacked me, but I had to assume this was him.
My stomach lurched with sudden nausea. The memory came, as it always did, in brief, all-consuming flashes.
I have a gift for you.
I blinked hard, shaking away the past. Then carefully ironed my expression back into one of cold disinterest.
“And what the hell am I supposed to do with that?” Raihn shrugged. “I don’t know. Gloat?”
“How satisfying,” I said dryly. “He certainly looks like he can now appreciate my superiority.”
Mische’s grin faded. Raihn’s lips thinned in wry disapproval.
“I’ve saved your life twice now and presented you with the head of your enemy, and this isn’t enough? You’re a demanding little thing, aren’t you?”
“All of those ‘gifts’ have been self-serving. I helped you survive in that ring, too. And I’m sure you loved killing this one.”
An odd expression twitched over his face, quickly discarded in favor of an easy smile.
“That’s why we’re allies. Because our interests are mutually beneficial.”
I tried not to show that the word “allies” chilled me down to my bones. Only now did the full consequences of my actions hit me. I had been forced to make a decision out of base desperation, and now, I was trapped here with these two.
Mische still held the head, though she now looked down at it with a slight pout.
“He really was an ass.” She sighed. “Even before. He would have died eventually, anyway. You practically gutted him.”
“Must’ve been quite a fight,” Raihn added, “judging by the state of both of you.”
I chanced a couple of steps closer to Mische, examining the head. Even for vampires, the pale gray tinge to his skin was unusual, as was the vibrant red that rimmed his sightless eyes. A spiderweb of black-crimson veins crawled up his throat. They were visible on his neck, his jaw, at the corners of his mouth and eyes. And even in death, they seemed to… pulse.
“What?” Raihn said. “You’ve never seen a Bloodborn curse up close before?”
I disliked that he found it so easy to read my face. “It was bloodlust,” I said.
“It was a hell of a lot more than that.”
He sounded strangely serious. Perhaps even grim. When I tore my eyes away from the head to look at him, the smirk had faded from his lips.
Then he noticed my stare, and just like that, it returned. “His days were numbered either way. A mercy. This was
the least painful way he could’ve gone. Anyway.” The smirk
became a crooked grin. “I’m glad you came to your senses. Mische, you want to get rid of that thing now?”
Mische nodded and tucked the head under her arm as she headed for one of the doors in the back of the room. “I’ll be right back. Then I’ll give you a tour, Oraya.”
RAIHN AND MISCHE REALLY DID MANAGE to find a prime
location. The apartment was huge, featuring a study, a kitchen, an office, four bedrooms (each with their own adjoining washrooms), and, of course, that grand sitting room—all of which were luxuriously ornate, even compared to the Nightborn castle. All citizens of the inner city were accustomed to seeing the Moon Palace stand watch over Sivrinaj in blessed monument to Nyaxia, but it was only now that I actually stopped to think about how it had gotten there or why. Had people lived here once? If so, why was it abandoned in favor of the Nightborn castle? This place was almost as big and every bit as grand.
Mische showed me to my room—“We gave you the one with the most windows!” she announced, “for, you know, obvious reasons!”—and left me to my own devices to clean up and get some rest. My bedchamber, like all the rooms in this place, was beautifully ornate in an ancient, outdated sort of way—even if, strangely, there wasn’t a speck of dust anywhere.
The curtains were a heavy, deep blue velvet, with silver braided pulls. I hauled them open with considerable effort. The window revealed a near-perfect mirror of the view from my room in the Nightborn castle. In the distance, its silhouette was reduced to a series of vicious peaks and moon-silver domes. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d
seen it from so far away. Buildings that were small in the distance from my bedroom window were now so close I could see every imperfection… of which there were many. Yes, the architecture was grand, but gold paint flaked and carvings crumbled. Stress fractures crawled like ivy over stone walls and cracks severed stained-glass windows. All marks of decay that were invisible from my room in Vincent’s castle.
I had always assumed that the ugliness of Sivrinaj was confined to the human districts. It had never occurred to me that perhaps the inner city was rotting in its own way, too.
My eyes settled on a little flash of blocky darkness against the horizon. From my room at Vincent’s palace, I saw the dunes in the distance, graceful and silent. But from this one, that far-off view was instead of the human slums, partially hidden beyond the silhouetted grandiosity of the Nightborn castle.
I didn’t know why the sight of those two things, so stark in contrast, made me so uncomfortable.
I pulled the curtains closed again.
“YOU GOT this from the feast hall?” “Uh-huh!”
Mische threw a cherry in her mouth and chewed, clearly savoring it, before swallowing—pit and all. She and Raihn picked at food, but mostly drank two large goblets of blood. The plate of food Mische presented me was far more than I could ever eat, artfully arranged by color—berries and meats and cheeses, piled high.
I eyed them both as they sipped their blood. Mische had clearly wanted me to sit across the table from her, but I moved to the end of the table instead. It just felt more comfortable to put some distance between us. Give myself time to react if either of them made a move.
I lifted my chin to their glasses. “What kind is that?” Raihn took a sip and smacked his lips. “Deer. I think.”
I couldn’t tell if I was relieved or not that it wasn’t human. I didn’t like to think about where it might be coming from, but at least if the others were getting it from the decanters, they wouldn’t be quite as tempted to get it from me. There was, after all, nothing quite like human blood for them.
It wasn’t the only kind that sufficed. Deer, horse, cow, or pig’s blood was the most common. Chicken or crow blood was the cheapest, though it was nutritionally poor and apparently tasted horrible. In Vincent’s court, horse blood was often cured and flavored into delicacies. But even the finest of substitutions didn’t compare to human blood. The upper class had it often, harvested or consumed straight from blood vendors like Ilana had been.
“There wasn’t any left,” I said. “When I went down there earlier.”
“We know,” Raihn replied.
We were silent for a long, awkward moment, all very aware of what that could mean. At least for now, contestants could leave the Moon Palace in search of more. But I had a feeling that the leash would tighten, sooner or later.
“We have plenty for us, though!” Mische said brightly, breaking the tension and holding up a very full decanter, sloshing the red, thick liquid within. “Took as much of it as we could carry before the others got to it.”
“And food, too,” Raihn added. “For you.”
I could be grateful for that, at least, on both counts.
Though their kindness made me uncomfortable.
One of the candles in the candelabra at the center of the table remained unlit. Mische frowned at it, then snapped her fingers. A little fragment of flame sparked at her fingertip, which she used to light the candle with a satisfied smile.
I watched in fascination. It was just as surprising here, up close, as it had been to see in the ring. My curiosity won out. “That isn’t Nyaxia’s magic.”
Just like I’d thought. And yet the confirmation didn’t make it any less unbelievable. While each of the thirteen gods could be called on for various forms of magic, none of the twelve deities of the White Pantheon allowed their powers to be drawn upon by vampires. Vampires, after all, were Nyaxia’s children, and the White Pantheon despised Nyaxia.
Mische read my face.
“It is perfectly possible for a vampire to wield magic from beyond Nyaxia’s domain,” she said, in a tone that implied she’d given this explanation many times before. “It just takes the right talents, that’s all.”
She seemed proud of herself. But I didn’t miss the disapproval on Raihn’s face as he sipped his blood at this exact moment—as if to stop himself from saying something he’d regret.
“What about you?” she asked. “Do you wield magic?”
I hesitated before answering. Maybe I didn’t want them to know that I did, even if my magic was basically worthless anyway. An advantage was an advantage. But I was silent for a moment too long. Mische grinned and leaned closer. “You do! I can feel it. It’s shy though, huh?”
Shy. That was rich. I considered calling it that next time Vincent made a disparaging comment about the weakness of my magic. Don’t judge it. It’s just shy!
He’d love that.
“Only a little,” I said. “Useless things. It’s never done anything for me.” My gaze slid to Raihn. “And what about you?”
“Oh, same,” he said, taking another sip of blood. “Useless things.”
As if we hadn’t all seen him use it to kill a man mere days ago.
Mische giggled, clearly finding Raihn more amusing than I did.
My eyes narrowed. “Useless things like Asteris?”
The corner of his mouth quirked. “Exactly like that.”
I jumped. My gaze snapped to the front door, which shook with the force of each knock.
Raihn barely glanced at it. “Now that sounds like something we shouldn’t answer.”
“Raihn Ashraj, OPEN. THIS. FUCKING. DOOR.”
The deep female voice boomed from beyond the door, so loud it might as well have been coming from inside the apartment. If the banging kept up, surely it would be in a matter of minutes.
Mische glanced to Raihn. He narrowed his eyes at her.
They had an unspoken conversation.
He groaned. “Why is it always me? Why is it never your
name they’re screaming through the sun-cursed door?” She smiled sweetly. “Because I’m nice and pretty.”
“I’m nice and pretty,” he grumbled. He rose, grabbed his sword from where it lay haphazardly on the coffee table, and unsheathed it in one smooth movement. Then he stalked to the door and threw it open, giving whoever was on the other side no time to react before the sword was in their face.
And immediately, that sword was met with the cold metal edge of an axe. Bearing it was the woman who led
the House of Blood contestants… and she was furious.
Up close, she might’ve been the most muscular woman I’d ever seen, nearly as tall as Raihn and broad enough to fill the doorway. The defined cut of her arms, exposed in her sleeveless armor, flexed as she deflected the full force of Raihn’s blow—and if the strain of his was any indication, he wasn’t holding back, either.
“Where is he?” Angelika snarled.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m not like that Rishan piece of shit you killed during the feast. I’m not falling for your games. Where is he?”
I hovered near the door, my own weapons out, but I wasn’t about to jump into that unless I had to. Mische seemed shockingly blasé, watching with obvious interest but little concern.
Apparently, Angelika didn’t especially want or need an answer from Raihn, because instead of waiting for one, she struck. And Raihn was ready for it. He deflected her blow and used the force of it to push both of them out into the hallway, away from the entrance to the apartment.
When they fought, it was like watching two forces of nature collide. Angelika was vicious, every movement woven with sheer power. The light of the hall illuminated the scars up and down her arms—she was a blood magic wielder.
If she used such magic against Raihn, though, it didn’t seem to affect him—save, perhaps, for a minuscule lurch when her weapon met his. He was a breathtakingly skilled warrior. Damn near an artist. In the trial, I’d been too distracted to notice just how good he was. He moved with incredible grace for such a large person. Each strike or dodge or step blended into each other like steps to a dance. The puffs of darkness around his sword intensified with every swing, leaving streaks of night behind every blow and wrapping the two of them in ribbons of shadow.
Yet Angelika was just as good, just as strong, just as fast. They were evenly matched, both trembling under the force of each other’s power. By the nature of my position in life, I’d gotten very good at sizing up predators—at recognizing killers. And right now, I was watching two ruthlessly efficient ones toy with each other.
With one forceful thrust against her axe, Raihn pushed her away. “It’s his own damned fault. And you know it, too.”
“It was the human,” she shot back. “I know it was.”
“He was out of his mind. Went after her in the greenhouse, of all places.”
Angelika had been ready to strike again, but at this, she paused. Lowered her axe, just a fraction of an inch.
Raihn did not lower his. But he didn’t strike, either. “In daylight, Angelika.”
“The greenhouse,” she repeated.
“He was long gone,” Raihn said. “He got himself killed. Hell, you should be thanking us. We saved you from a very unpleasant task.”
“Watch yourself,” she hissed.
“What? Would you rather he lived long enough to get used by this place? Like those poor bastards we fought in the ring?”
Angelika flinched. Her fingers lifted—paused, briefly, at her throat. She didn’t speak for a long moment, and I tensed, waiting to see if she would move again.
“I’d rather kill her in the trials than kill her here,” she said, at last, voice low and thick with promise—and at this, her eyes fell to me, hard with hatred. Her nostrils flared. I became very conscious of the rapid pace of my heartbeat.
“And as for you.” That glare settled on Raihn. “You… you’re lucky it’s not your time yet. Remember right now exactly how lucky you are.”
Then she simply lowered her axe and stalked away.
We waited until she was long gone before any of us moved. Raihn was the first to speak.
“I probably should’ve killed her.”
“You say that like you would have won,” I said. He let out a low chuckle. “Oh, I would have won.”
His rose-colored gaze slid to me, and I became aware all at once of how close he was standing—close enough that I could smell him, a scent that reminded me of saffron and heat beating down over the desert, and something else, something I couldn’t quite place.
Goosebumps rose at my skin, instincts rebelling against allowing someone this close. I took several casual steps back, and Raihn’s stare drifted back to where Angelika had disappeared down the stairs.
“Still. Her? She’s a problem. She’s the one to watch.”
“I feel sorry for her,” Mische said softly, and offered nothing more.