Chapter no 2

The Serpent and the Wings of Night

Once the rain started, it came on fast. Typical of the House of Night. Vincent joked often, in his dry, sardonic way, that this country never did anything

halfway. The sun either assaulted us with unrelenting heat, or it retreated completely beneath many layers of dusky, red-gray clouds. The air was arid and so hot you swore it would bake you alive, or cold enough to make your joints crack. Half the time, the moon hid within the haze, but when it was visible, it gleamed like polished silver, its light so intense it made the dips and hills of the sand resemble the waves of the ocean—or what I’d imagined such a thing would look like.

It did not rain often in the Nightborn kingdom, but when it did, it was a downpour.

By the time I made it back to the Palace, I was soaked. My path up the side of the building was treacherous, each grip of stone slippery and water-slicked, but it wasn’t the first time I’d made the journey in the rain and it wouldn’t be the last. When I finally vaulted into my bedchamber, many stories above the ground, my muscles burned with the effort.

My hair was dripping wet. I wrung it out, sending a symphony of droplets spattering to the velvet bench beneath the window, and turned to the horizon. It was so

hot that the rain summoned a silver cloud of steam over the city. The view from up here was very different than the one from the rooftop in the human quarter of the city. That had been an expanse of clay blocks, a painting of varying shades of brown squares beneath the moonlight. In the heart of Sivrinaj, though—in royal Nightborn territory— every glance overflowed with sumptuous elegance.

The view from my window was a symmetrical sea of undulating curves. The Nightborn drew their architectural inspiration from the sky and moon—metal-capped domes, polished granite, silver that cradled indigo stained glass. From up here, the moonlight and rain caressed an expanse of platinum. The ground was so flat that even though Sivrinaj was a massive city, I could still glimpse the dunes in the distance beyond its walls.

Eternity gave vampires so many years to perfect the art of dark, dangerous beauty. I’d heard that the House of Shadow, across the Ivory Sea, crafted their buildings the way they crafted blades, each castle an intricate set of pointed spires sprawling with blood-kissed ivy. Some claimed theirs was the most exquisite architecture in the world—but I didn’t know how anyone could say that if they saw the House of Night as I did, from this room. It was even stunning in daylight, when no one here but me could witness it.

I carefully closed the window, and I had barely finished latching it when the knock sounded at my door. Two raps, quiet but demanding.


I was lucky I hadn’t gotten here just a few minutes later. It had been risky to go out tonight, but I couldn’t help myself. My nerves were too strained. My hands had to do something.

I hastily removed my coat and tossed it into a discarded pile of clothes in the corner, then grabbed my robe and

wrapped it around myself. It would be enough to cover the blood, at least.

I rushed across the room and opened the door, and Vincent didn’t hesitate before striding in.

He gave my room a cold, judgmental once over. “It’s a mess in here.”

Now I knew how Ilana felt. “I’ve had bigger things to worry about than cleaning.”

“Keeping a tidy space is important for mental clarity, Oraya.”

I was twenty-three, and he still lectured me that way.

I touched my forehead, as if he had just bestowed upon me information that rearranged my universe. “Fuck. It is?”

Vincent’s moon-silver eyes narrowed at me. “You’re an insolent brat, little serpent.”

He never sounded more affectionate than when he was insulting me. Maybe it meant something that both Ilana and Vincent cradled their tenderness in harsh words. They were so different from each other in every other sense. But maybe this place made all of us that way. Taught us to hide love in sharp edges.

Now, for some reason, that rebuke made my chest clench. Funny, the things that make the fear finally bubble to the surface. I was scared, even if I knew better than to give voice to it. And I knew Vincent was, too. I saw it in the way his smirk slipped away as he looked at me.

Some might think that Vincent was not frightened of anything. I did for a long time. I grew up watching him rule

—watching him seize absolute respect from a society that respected nothing.

He was my father in name alone. Perhaps I didn’t have his blood, or his magic, or his immortality. But I had that ruthlessness. He had cultivated it in me, one thorn at a time.

Yet as I grew older, I learned that being ruthless was not the same thing as being fearless. I was afraid constantly,

and so was Vincent. The man who was afraid of nothing was afraid for me—his human daughter raised in a world designed to kill her.

Until the Kejari. A tournament with the ability to change everything.

Until I won, and it freed me. Or I lost, and it damned me.

Vincent blinked, and we both made the mutual, silent decision not to voice such thoughts. He looked me up and down, as if noticing my appearance for the first time. “You’re wet.”

“I took a bath.” “Before training?” “I needed to relax.”

Well, that was true. I just decided to do it in a very different way than soaking in a lavender bath.

Even that statement came a little too close to acknowledging the reality of our situation for Vincent’s comfort. His mouth slanted, and he ran a hand through pale blond hair.

His tell. His only one. Something was weighing on him.

It could be about me and the impending trials, or… I couldn’t help but ask.

“What?” I asked, quietly. “Trouble with the Rishan?” He was silent.

My stomach dropped. “Or the House of Blood?”

Or both?

His throat bobbed, and he shook his head. Yet that little movement was enough to confirm my suspicion.

I wanted to ask more, but Vincent’s hand fell to his hip, and I realized he had brought his rapier.

“Our work is more important than such boring things. There will always be another enemy to worry about, but you only have tonight. Come.”

VINCENT WAS as ruthless an instructor as he was a ruler, meticulous and thorough. I’d gotten used to this, but still, the intensity of it caught me off-guard tonight. He didn’t give me time to think or hesitate between strikes. He used his weapon, his wings, the full force of his strength—even his magic, which he rarely employed in our training sessions. It was as if he was trying to show me exactly what it would be like if the King of the Nightborn vampires wanted me dead.

But then again, Vincent had never held back with me. Even when I was a child, he never let me forget how close death lingered. Every falter was met with his hand at my throat—two fingertips pressed to my skin, mimicking fangs.

“You’re dead now,” he would say. “Try again.”

I didn’t let him get those fingers to my throat this time. My muscles screamed, already tired from my last encounter, but I dodged every blow, slipped every grip, met every strike with my own. And finally, after countless, exhausting minutes, I had him against the wall, one finger to his chest—the point of my blade.

“You’re dead here,” I panted.

And thank the Mother for it, because I wouldn’t have survived another fucking second of this match.

The corner of Vincent’s lip curled in pride for only a moment. “I could use Asteris.”

Asteris—among the most powerful of the Nightborn vampires’ magical gifts, and the rarest. Pure energy said to be derived from stars, manifested as blinding black light capable of killing instantly at full force. Vincent’s mastery of it was peerless. I’d once witnessed him use it to level an entire building of Rishan rebels.

Vincent had tried, over the years, to teach me how to wield magic. I could make a few little sparks. Pathetic compared to the lethal skill of a vampire magic user—from the House of Night or any other.

For a moment, the thought of this—a fresh reminder of all the ways I was inferior to the warriors I was about to face—made me dizzy. But I pushed this uncertainty away quickly. “Asteris wouldn’t matter if I’d already killed you.”

“Would you be fast enough? You always struggled to get to the heart.”

You have to push hard to make it through the breastbone.

I blinked back the unwelcome memory. “Not anymore.”

My finger was still pressed to his chest. I was never entirely sure when our sparring sessions ended, so I never let up before the match was called. He was only a few inches from me—a few inches from my throat. I never, ever allowed any other vampire this close. The smell of my blood was overwhelming to them. Even if a vampire wanted to resist it—and they so rarely did—they might not be able to control themselves.

Vincent had carved these lessons into me. Never trust.

Never yield. Always guard your heart.

And when I had disobeyed, I had paid for it dearly.

But not with him. Never him. He had packed my bleeding wounds countless times without revealing even a hint of temptation. Had guarded me when I slept. Had cared for me at my weakest.

That made it easier. I spent my entire life afraid, forever conscious of my weakness and inferiority, but at least I had a single safe harbor.

Vincent’s eyes searched my face.

“Very well.” He pushed my hand away. I went to the edge of the ring, wincing as I rubbed a wound he’d opened on my arm. He barely glanced at the blood.

“You have to be careful of that when you’re in there,” he said. “Bleeding.”

I wrinkled my nose. Goddess, he must be worried.

Telling me such basic things. “I know.” “More than usual, Oraya.”

“I know.”

I took a swig of water from my canteen, my back to him. My eyes instead traced the frescoes on the wall—beautiful and terrible paintings depicting razor-teethed vampires writhing in a sea of blood beneath silver stars. The arrangement stretched the entire room. This private training ring was reserved for Vincent and his highest-ranking warriors, and it was more disgustingly ornate than any place meant for spit, blood, and sweat should be. The floor was soft ivory sand replaced from the dunes every week. The fresco covered the circular, windowless walls—a single, panoramic tableau of death and conquering.

The figures depicted in it were Hiaj vampires, with bat-like wings ranging in shade from milky-pale to ash-black. Two hundred years ago, those wings would have been the feathered wings of the Rishan, the rival Nightborn clan perpetually battling for the throne of the House of Night. Since the goddess Nyaxia created vampires more than two thousand years ago—since before then, some even claimed

—the two sects waged constant war. And with every turn in the tide, every new bloodline on the throne, this fresco would change—wings painted and erased, painted and erased, dozens of times over thousands of years.

I glanced over my shoulder at Vincent. He had left his wings out, which was rare. Usually he spirited them away with his magic, unless it was some diplomatic event that required him to flaunt his Hiaj power. They were long enough that the tips nearly brushed the floor, and black—so black it defied nature, as if the light seeped into his skin and died there. But even more striking were the streaks of red. Crimson ran down his wings like rivulets of water,

collecting at the edges and at each pointed tip. When Vincent’s wings were spread, they looked as if they were outlined in blood, vivid enough to cut through even the most unforgiving darkness.

The black was unusual, but not unheard of. The red, though, was unique. Each Hiaj or Rishan Heir bore two marks—red on their wings, and another on their body— which appeared when the previous Heir died. Vincent’s Mark was at the base of his throat, just above his clavicle. It was a mesmerizing, ornate design that resembled a full moon and wings, wrapping around the front of his neck in crimson as vibrant as a bleeding wound. I had only seen it a couple of times. He usually covered it beneath high-collared jackets or black silk wrapped tight and neat around his neck.

When I was younger, I had once asked him why he didn’t leave it visible more often. He’d just given me a serious stare and blandly remarked that it was unwise to leave one’s throat exposed.

That answer shouldn’t have surprised me. Vincent was well aware that usurpers lurked around every corner, both outside his walls and within them. Every new king, Hiaj or Rishan, was crowned upon a mountain of corpses. He had been no exception.

I turned away from the painting, just as he said softly, “It’s nearing a full moon. You should have a few more days, but it could begin any time. You need to be ready.”

I swallowed another gulp of water. Still, my mouth tasted ashy. “I know.”

“The start could be anything. She likes it to be… unexpected.”

She. Mother of night, shadow, blood—mother of all vampires. The goddess, Nyaxia.

At any moment, she could trigger the start of the once-in-a-century tribute that the House of Night staged in her honor. A savage tournament of five trials over four months,

resulting in only one winner, and granting the most precious prize the world has ever known: a single gift from the Goddess herself.

Vampires from across Obitraes would travel to participate in the Kejari, drawn by the promise of wealth or honor. Dozens of the most powerful warriors from all three houses—the House of Night, the House of Shadow, and the House of Blood—would die in pursuit of this title.

And, most likely, so would I.

But they were fighting for power. I was fighting for survival.

Vincent and I both turned to each other at the same time. He was always pale, his skin nearly matching his silver eyes, but now he seemed a downright sickly shade.

His fear made my own unbearable, but I fought it down with a promise. No. I had trained my entire life for this. I would survive the Kejari. I would win it.

Just like Vincent had before me, two hundred years ago.

He cleared his throat, straightening. “Go change into something decent. We’re going to look at your competition.”

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