Chapter no 14

The Serpent and the Wings of Night

“That was a foolish decision. I taught you better than to serve yourself to your enemies that way.”

I hadn’t seen Vincent this appalled by my actions

in nearly a decade.

I had no choice, I wanted to say, but I swallowed those words before they made it to my lips. I knew better. Vincent believed that you always had a choice, and if you found yourself in a position where you didn’t, you’d made a very poor one earlier that put you there. Either way, you had no one to blame but yourself.

“I need an ally for the Halfmoon, and he’s a good one,” I said instead.

“He is a Rishan.”

“So are a third of the contestants in there.”

“Think about why a Rishan would want to get close to you, Oraya. You.”

He paced. Vincent only paced when he was nervous, but even that was a smooth, deliberate movement. Three long steps, and a sharp turn, exactly the same length, exactly the same rhythm.

He was tense. I was tense. It was a bad combination, and I knew it from the moment I saw him. He had worked hard over the years to grind my emotional impulsivity out of me. But the stress of the competition, my injury, and the

choice I’d been forced to make brought my nerves to the surface. Beneath all of it lay my grief over Ilana’s death; never acknowledged but still raw and bleeding, amplifying every negative emotion.

All of that meant I had to watch my voice and my words very carefully.

“I have,” I said. “He thinks that allying with me will mean advantages from you. As far as selfish motivations go, I can accept that one. Better that than him keeping me around for a quick meal if food gets scarce.”

Step, step, step, turn, as Vincent pivoted sharply to me. “And it will.”

I almost shivered at that thought. “At least when that happens, I have protection.”

Protection.” His lips curled into a sneer—he threw the word at me as if I’d just said something revolting.

My teeth clenched, biting down on my response. Did he think I wasn’t well aware of all the caveats and weaknesses of that word in this place? There was no such thing as protection—not in the Kejari, not in the House of Night, and not in all of Obitraes. There was no such thing as safety, and there was certainly no such thing as trust, not for anyone other than the person who stood before me.

But my irritation faded under a rising tide of concern as I watched my father pace. Watched his hand run through his hair in his only forever-clear tell.

“What happened?” I asked, quietly.

Rebel activity from the Rishan? That might explain why Vincent was so sensitive to the thought of me allying with a Rishan, no matter who it was. Or… maybe more threats from the House of Blood. That would be even more disturbing.

I didn’t know why I even bothered to ask. Predictably, Vincent looked away and said nothing. A single muscle twitched in his cheek, signaling his annoyance.

Concern knotted in my stomach as I thought of Angelika’s sneer and the way she had looked at me, and as I thought of Raihn, a Rishan vampire. In theory, the Kejari was an isolated tournament, in which each contestant stood on equal footing. But in practice? It was just an extension of the tensions and conflicts of the outside world.

“If things are happening out here that could affect what’s happening in there, I need to know about it,” I said.

“You need to focus on staying alive. Nothing else.” “I am focusing on staying alive.”

“By throwing yourself into the grip of a Rishan? I taught you better.”

Before I could stop myself, I spat, “Would you rather I have let myself bleed to death? I needed to act, and I tried to come to you for help and you weren’t there.”

The words shot from my lips too quickly to stop, sharp as the blades he had given me the last time we met. His eyes snapped to me, revealing a momentary glimmer of hurt that quickly hardened to ice.

I regretted my words right away. I pushed too hard. The change in him was stark and immediate, as if the same features were now a mask worn by an entirely different person.

Vincent, my father, loved me above all. But Vincent, the Nightborn King, was too ruthless to allow the slightest challenge, love or no.

“You think I haven’t been doing everything I can to help you?” he said coldly.

“I do,” I said. “Of course I do.”

“I gave you those blades to help you become someone who deserves to wield them. If you don’t want that—”

“I do.”

The last time he sounded this way, he left my room and did not speak to me again for a week. I was a little ashamed of the sudden, desperate panic that seized me at the idea of him withdrawing like that now.

That foreign hardness in his expression did not soften.

He turned away, silhouetted against Sivrinaj’s skyline.

“I apologize,” I said, past a lump in my throat. “I know you’re doing everything that you can. I shouldn’t have implied otherwise.”

And I meant it. I had overreacted to his overprotective grumbling. I owed everything that I was to Vincent, and I never forgot that.

Several long, tense seconds passed. I let out an involuntary exhale when he turned back to me and his expression was no longer that of a disrespected king, but of my concerned, tired father.

“I would have been there,” he said, “if I could.”

It was the closest I’d ever get to an apology. I had never seen Vincent apologize to anyone for anything, ever. But one had to learn how to hear what lingered in between the words. Just like he never told me he loved me, but I heard it in every stern instruction. And now, even though he did not say he was sorry, I heard it in the slightly lower cadence of his voice in that single sentence.

You had to bend, with people like Vincent. Reach for what they wouldn’t give you themselves.

“I know,” I murmured.

He gave me a long, searching look. “You need to win this.”

He said it not with tenderness, but straightforward firmness. A directive.

“I know.”

He reached out and touched my cheek.

I flinched, just because it was so unexpected. I could barely remember the last time that Vincent touched me other than to strike me in the sparring ring. And yet, a part of me wanted to lean into that small caress.

When I was very young, he used to hug me, sometimes. One of my earliest memories was laying my head against Vincent’s shoulder and experiencing the sudden jolt of

realization that I felt safe. Even so young, I knew how rare it was—I felt it then like a sigh of relief, as if I’d been unknowingly holding my breath since the day my house had collapsed around me.

It had been a long, long time since I’d felt that way. One day love became not an offering of safety, but a reminder of everything cruel and dangerous in the world.

He pulled his hand away and stepped back. “Keep your ally,” he said. “But keep those teeth ready, little serpent. Watch his back, but don’t let him see yours. Because the minute you turn it, he will kill you. Use him. But never allow him to use you.”

All things I was acutely aware of. I nodded.

He reached into his pocket, then handed me another little vial of healing potion.

“Guard it,” he said. “I don’t know when I’ll be able to get more.”

I slipped the potion into my pack and slipped off into the night.

It was much more useful than a hug, anyway.



ENCOUNTERED no one else on my way back to the Moon Palace. The hours this close to dawn were often quiet— most vampires had retreated to their homes by now, preparing for sleep, and the route I took was secluded.

Still, just as I was preparing to scale the walls of the Palace grounds, I paused.

I peered over my shoulder to see nothing but silent cobblestone paths and the murky, untamed outline of overgrown rose vines. Not a hint of movement. Not a single sound.

Yet, the hairs rose on the back of my neck, as if coaxed to attention by the touch of watchful eyes.

I shuddered, turned back to the wall, and hoisted myself over it.



BY THE TIME I made it up all the stairs, dawn peeked over the horizon. When I opened the apartment door, I was surprised to see that the curtains had been parted, and Raihn’s considerable form filled the space between them. He leaned against the window, one arm braced to the glass.

“Where were you?” he asked, without turning.

“That’s not your concern.” I closed the door and crossed the sitting room.

“It’s a little my concern, isn’t it? Allies and all.”

Mother, I hated that word and all he seemed to think it implied.

I said, pointedly, nothing as I went to the hall. His face tilted just enough to watch me. The silver of the moonlight had started to flush with the pink promise of the sun, outlining the strong angle of his cheekbone to his jaw, bleeding down to the muscle of his throat.

Those muscles tightened slightly as he gave me a rueful almost-smile.

“You don’t give an inch, do you?” My eyes flicked coldly up his body.

“Do you? Or is an inch all you have to offer?”

Petty. Stupid. I didn’t even know why I said it, except that when he let out a low laugh, I found it oddly satisfying. “Sleep well,” he said. “I hope the knife under your pillow

doesn’t give you a crick in your neck.” “I’m used to it.”

“Good. We’ll start training tomorrow. Need to prepare for the next trial.”

Fuck. The next trial. I had barely recovered from the last one, and I’d lost precious days to my recovery. We had only two weeks to prepare. And the thought of training with Raihn—and somehow managing to do that without inadvertently showing him too much—made me a little ill.

“I’m thrilled,” I said flatly, and began to return to my room. But at the last moment, I looked back over my shoulder. It was right on the cusp of daybreak. The cast on Raihn’s face was now golden—the definitive light of the sun. And still, he didn’t move, face to the horizon.

I couldn’t stop myself from asking. “Doesn’t that hurt?” He didn’t so much as look at me. “Not too bad yet.” Bizarre.

It was all I could do to bother myself with this vampire’s stupid self-destructive habits. I went back to my room. I threw open the curtains to let the light flood in, then dragged the desk chair to the door and wedged it firmly beneath the handle.

Sleep took me fast. I dreamed of goddesses and trials and sharpened teeth, and exactly how Nightborn steel might feel sliding deep into my back.

You'll Also Like