Chapter no 21

The Serpent and the Wings of Night

Raihn brought me across the city. It took us nearly a half an hour to travel there on foot—he offered to fly us, but I refused so vehemently that he put his hands

up in an apparent plea of mercy—and we walked in silence. I still needed to keep my teeth gritted against everything that might escape if I opened my mouth.

This end of the district was more spread out, patches of dirt and even a few gardens spacing out the clay buildings. There was no part of the human district that didn’t reek of poverty, but this area, at least, felt a bit more like people were trying to build lives here. Poor, yes. Run-down, of course. But… full of warmth, in some strange way.

Bittersweet grief twinged in my chest. I’d never noticed before that maybe something existed here that did not exist in the inner city. Things that lived and moved and reminded me so much of Ilana.

It was night, which meant it was quiet here, residents remaining dutifully indoors. Still, Raihn and I were careful to cling to the shadows, traveling in alleyways rather than the main streets. He peered around the corner between two buildings, then spread his wings and leapt up to the flat roof. He offered me his hand, but I ignored it and climbed up on my own, earning a light scoff and a shake of the head.

He led me to the edge of the roof, then sat, swinging his legs over and spiriting his wings away. “Look.”

I didn’t know what he was trying to show me. Before us were buildings that looked like all the other buildings we’d passed, and deserted streets that looked just like all the other streets we’d walked.


“Sit. Get lower.”

I crouched down. Even with my legs under me, I was still shorter than Raihn was seated. He pointed, and I craned my head to follow his gesture.

“Through that window. Over there.”

The next building over had large glass windows split into many reinforced panes. Lanterns had been lit within, drenching the interior in soft, warm light. Moving bodies cast shadows across the interior—there were many people in that room, at least six that I could see through the window, most of them children.

“Right in the middle,” Raihn said softly.

A little girl with dark hair. She sat on the floor, alone, ignoring the other children. Her head was bowed, and even if it wasn’t, she was too far away for me to see her face, anyway.

But it was her. It was her.

A shaky breath escaped me without my permission. The wave of sheer relief left me dizzy. I pressed my hands to the clay roof just so I wouldn’t topple over the edge.

“How?” I choked out.

“I have my ways.” I could hear the smirk in Raihn’s voice. “Very dangerous, very clever, very impressive ways.”

I wasn’t about to validate his preening, but… it was impressive. I couldn’t even fathom how he had managed to pull it off. Just getting the child out of the colosseum alive was practically a miracle.

“Who—who are these people? Where is this?”

“A home for children who don’t have anyone else. Took me a while to find the right place. I couldn’t locate her family. I thought maybe they could.”

I swallowed thickly. They would not find this girl’s family. She didn’t have a family anymore.

“That’s a fairytale,” I said.

He let out a sour, humorless chuckle. “You really just… don’t ever let up, do you? You never accept a win?”

Did he think I didn’t want it to be a win? Did he think I didn’t want to believe that it could happen?

But before I could speak, he added gently, “Maybe you’re right. But she’s alive. That’s something.”

And I was grateful for that—I truly was. If I tried to tell him so, I would reveal too much. Yet, I wanted it to feel more like a victory. I wanted her life to be worth more than it was. Instead, she would grow up here, in a place where she would be constantly hunted, alone.

I wished saving her was as simple as keeping her heart beating. Mother, I wanted that. But would she remember that someone tried? That someone thought her life should be worth something more?

Without thinking, I rubbed the ring on my little finger. “She should never have been there,” I muttered.

“No,” Raihn agreed.

The sheer hatred in his voice caught me off guard, unexpected enough to jerk me from my thoughts.

My gaze snapped to him. “Why were you following me?” He raised his hands. “Easy, viper.”

“That isn’t an answer.”

“You were coming into the districts as I was leaving. I was curious. Maybe even a bit concerned, if you won’t take too much offense to my saying that.” His voice turned more serious. “But I’m glad I did. I’m pleasantly surprised by this turn of events, actually. I—” He shook his head. “I didn’t think you had it in you.”

“Why? Because I’m Vincent’s princess?”

He winced but didn’t disagree.

I stared at him for a long moment, eyes narrowed. “I don’t understand.”


“Pleasantly surprised. You said you were pleasantly surprised.”

“And I meant it.”

“It doesn’t make sense.”

“Why? Because I’m Rishan trash?”

If he expected me to wince like he had, I didn’t. I just stared, unblinking, unapologetic.

He sighed. “The ones you’re killing? They deserve it.

They’ll never stop otherwise.” “But they’re vampires.” “Yes.”

“And these are humans.” “I can see that.”

A pause as I tried and failed to articulate my disbelief.

He sighed again, as if this discussion was exhausting him. “Is that so incomprehensible?”

Yes. Incomprehensible. It just… defied a certain world order in the House of Night. Hell, in all of Obitraes.

“Of course it is,” I said.

This response seemed to irritate him. “It’s that unbelievable that I have respect for human life?” he snapped. “I used to fucking be one of them.”

My mouth had been half-open with some snippy retort that I immediately forgot. I closed it, stunned into silence.

Raihn’s rust-red eyes crinkled with amusement. “It’s satisfying to shock you, princess.”

“You’re Turned.” “I am.”

Turned vampires were very rare, especially in Sivrinaj. The few that managed to survive the process usually didn’t adjust well to their new existence. And the vampires of the

House of Night—notoriously territorial—were never all that inclined to turn their food into their peers to begin with.

It had never even occurred to me that Raihn could be Turned. And yet, so much now made sense. The unusual ragged edge to his appearance. His decidedly un-vampiric sense of humor. And the performances—the constant performances, like he had something to prove. Like he’d had to learn how to wear different faces.

That little amused smile faded, leaving behind something rawer and more rueful. “Centuries, and it never gets any less repulsive. Never fucking fades.”

I wanted to say, Good.

I hoped I still found it repulsive when I became like them. That I never abandoned that piece of myself. And yet, so many times I’d thought it seemed like a small price to pay, to shed my humanity like the discarded skin of a snake.

Even if here and now, the idea sickened me.

I was quiet. I would never give voice to any of those thoughts.

“How long have you been doing this?” Raihn asked, at last.

“I don’t know,” I lied. “A few years.”

Six years, two months, and fourteen days.

“And I have to assume our great Nightborn savior doesn’t know.”

I shot him a warning glance.

He laughed just enough to reveal a glimpse of pointed teeth.

“You know, part of the reason why I wanted to ally with you was because of that look. That fucking face. It’s just so… so…” He clamped his lips shut, and his features twitched as if he was getting ready to mimic me and then— wisely—thought better of it. “Forget it.”

I could have let it lie there. Yet, I found myself replying, curtly, “No. Vincent doesn’t know.”

Why did I say that? Did I want to prove something to him? Prove that I was more than Vincent’s obedient pet?

“It would cause political problems,” I went on. “It’s better for everyone this way.”

Absolutely true. Vincent couldn’t condone, even tacitly, my activities here. Just like he couldn’t condone any official action in Rishan territory on my behalf. I would be free to act on my own when I was strong enough to do so without being killed.

I refrained from adding that Vincent would also probably lock me up in my room indefinitely if he had known about my little hobbies.

“Right.” Raihn sounded unconvinced.

The breeze captured loose strands of both of our hair— mine raven-black, his dark red. It was welcome in this heat. I lifted my chin to it, relishing the cooling sweat on my cheeks as I gazed out to the horizon—the crumbling bland blocks of the human district, static and angular in contrast to the rolling dunes. The Nightborn castle dwarfed all of it. From this spot, three different worlds collided: prey, predator, and the gods.

“It is admirable, Oraya,” Raihn said, after a long silence. “What you did in the ring. What you do here.”

I blinked in surprise. I didn’t look at him, didn’t respond

—waited for him to add a correction, or a diminishment. But he didn’t. He just made the straightforward compliment, and let it stand.

It felt strange.

“And I’m sorry for my behavior before the trial,” he went on. “It was… I was thinking of things that had nothing to do with you. I was having a bad day.”

This stunned me even more than the compliment. Even if I could practically hear Mische feeding him the words.

Again, I waited for a but, a diminishment, but it did not come. I allowed myself to look at him, and silence stretched out between us.

Finally, I said, “Do you want me to say I’m sorry now?

Because I’m not.”

He laughed. Not a chuckle or a scoff—a laugh, full and deep and shockingly loud. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had heard someone laugh like that. Myself included. Not since… not since Ilana.

“That fucking face,” he said, shaking his head. “No, I was not waiting for you to apologize. I’d be disappointed if you did.”

“I have no regrets. I’d throw you out that window again.”

“Oh, I know, princess. I know.”

He pushed the wayward strands of his hair away from his face, the smile still clinging to his lips and moonlight outlining the angles of his profile. The sudden, overwhelming realization hit me that he was actually very handsome. I was always surrounded by beautiful people— and learned long ago, the hard way, how important it was to numb myself to that—but in this moment, just for a split second, Raihn’s beauty struck me like a blow, so unexpected and staggering my breath caught in my throat. His wasn’t the refined elegance of vampires, perfect cheekbones and perfect lips and perfect, glittering eyes. No, it was rougher, more lived-in. More alive.

Suddenly all those features that had seemed like so much—that carried the marks of a life, unlike vampire perfection that sanded them away—were magnificently captivating.

I looked away fast, shoving this observation away.

“I have an idea,” he said. “Fuck training in that apartment. Let’s train here.”

My brow furrowed. “Here?”

“Here. Doing this. I already learned more about your style in the last two hours than I have in the last ten days, just by watching you work tonight.”

I bristled at that, every instinct rebelling against being observed. But I begrudgingly had to admit he was right. If we were going to work together, we needed to understand each other.

“Think about it,” he said. “We can learn how to fight together and actually do something fucking useful. And…” The corner of his mouth curled. “It’ll be more fun, don’t you think?”

Every part of me wanted to say no, like a child desperate to protect her secret hideaway. But I had only barely survived two trials, and my ability to make it through the third hinged on working with Raihn.

And my ability to kill him afterwards hinged on my understanding of him, too.

My gaze drifted back to that window. The lights had mostly gone out, save for a single lantern that now dimly outlined the little girl’s sleeping form, now tucked into bed, barely visible.

This district had been crawling with vampires tonight. One month away from my project, and so much effort undone. How many humans had died in the last month because I wasn’t here? How many more could live if I had help?

“Alright,” I said. “Fine. We’ll do it.”

I almost took it back just because Raihn looked so smugly pleased with himself.

He leaned closer, a curious look glinting in his eye. “Do you remember when you asked me for one honest thing?”

I nodded.

“One honest thing, Oraya. We have three weeks until the Halfmoon trial. Are we really going to work together?”

I understood what he was really asking me. Whether I would cooperate with him. Whether I would allow us to work together.

What have you done to earn my trust? I had spat at him.

Trust was still a precious and dangerous thing.

Whatever I was giving him now wasn’t quite that. But…

I looked down to that sleeping girl. Then to Raihn. I noticed for the first time that we were sitting quite close to each other, less than an arm’s length apart.

I noticed this, and I did not move. “Yes,” I said. “I think so.”

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