Chapter no 23

The Serpent and the Wings of Night

I thought that perhaps if we were very, very lucky, Raihn and I could manage not to kill each other, but I hadn’t expected that we would work well together.

Those first few nights in the districts were far from

perfect. Having a mutual goal that we actually cared about helped, but we still found ourselves tripping over each other. Raihn’s wall of a body managed to get in my way whenever I needed to move fast. His strikes always took our target out of my line of attack at just the wrong moment. In one memorably painful instance, his wing hit me so hard that it flung me into a wall like a swatted fly.

But there was no shortage of targets. The vampires of the inner city had happily turned the district into their hunting ground in my absence. So we continued, breaking down the barrier between us bit by bit.

Five nights in, and I realized we’d gone an entire trip without either of us accidentally—or intentionally—hitting the other.

Six nights, and I realized we hadn’t even stepped on each other’s feet all day.

Seven nights, and we actually managed to complement each other, dismantling one of our targets with seamless efficiency. We’d stopped and stared at each other afterwards, wide-eyed, like we had both witnessed a

miracle and didn’t quite want to jeopardize it by acknowledging it aloud. Of course, after that, we’d gotten in each other’s way for the rest of the night, but I’d take what I could get.

On the eighth night, I fell back and simply watched him work. By then, I’d started to gain an innate understanding of how he moved, and observing him with that in mind crystalized all of my observations into conclusions.

When I first met Raihn, I’d thought that he relied on his size and strength. I had been very, very wrong. All of that was a distraction. He used magic constantly, hidden in each movement and blow, obscured by showy savagery. If someone wasn’t watching closely, they would think he just went at his opponent with a giant Nightsteel sword and won by sheer brute force alone—and they would be underestimating him.

It was much more than that. Those strikes were devastating because he was using his size, his speed, and his magic with each one. There was nothing crude about it

—it was strategic. He knew when to hit, where, and how hard. Calculated.

This dawned on me as I watched him yank his sword from the chest of a limp vampire corpse. He glanced over his shoulder at me, brow quirked.

“What? Like what you see?” “Do you do that on purpose?”

“This?” He gestured to the body, straightened, and wiped his blade. The glowing shadows along its length shuddered as the cloth ran over it. “Yes, I’d say so.”

“The performance. Your fighting style is a performance.

You’re making it look simpler than it is.”

He paused for a moment—maybe in surprise—before turning around.

“You have been watching closely. I’m flattered.” “Why do you hide your use of magic?”

He sheathed his sword and declined to answer. “What’s next? The southern end?”

“Do you want people to think you’re a brute?”

He stopped mid-step, eyebrow twitching in an expression that I now had come to know meant, Oraya said something amusing, probably unintentionally. “A brute?”

I didn’t know what was funny about my word choice. “Yes. Even when you used it in the feast hall that time, it was all power, no finesse.”

“You think I have finesse? That’s flattering. So, southern end?”

“I think you deliberately try to seem like you don’t.”

“Southern end it is.” He started walking. “Perhaps I hide my magic for the same reason you hide yours.”

I had to take three steps to keep up with two of his. “You weren’t entitled to know about my magic. And you aren’t entitled to know why I hid it.”

“Oh, I know why you hid it.”

I had to fight to keep the surprise from my face.

A slow smile spread over his lips. “You hid it because you didn’t know you could do it. You threw me out of a window completely by accident.”

This time—Mother damn my face—the blink of shock happened before I could stop it.

“That’s not—”

“Look, you are many things, princess. But a good actress is not one of them. Now let’s go. We’re losing moonlight.”

Goddess fucking damn him, there were so many things I wanted to say—chief of which, You fucking knew and you still gave me that much shit?—but I shut my mouth, drew my blades, and went after him.

I didn’t know how I felt about that—the fact that he had been observing me just as closely as I observed him.



DIDNT LIKE BEING OBSERVEDAND even less liked being understood—but even I had to admit that it had undeniable benefits. Soon, Raihn and I worked together as if we had known each other for years.

We had learned each other’s fighting styles and learned where to leave openings to accommodate each other. It took nonstop work, from the moment the sun set to the moment the horizon bled pink with impending sunrise. It took many bruises, snapped insults, and aching muscles. And we still had a long, long way to go.

But Raihn, I begrudgingly had to admit, had been right the night he had first approached me to ally: we made a good team.

After we returned from the districts, I would spend time with Mische each day, too, practicing magic use. That went… less well. At least Raihn and I made measurable progress every day, even on our worst outings. My magic, though, was a volatile, unpredictable beast. Sometimes, with Mische’s tutelage, I managed to coax little wisps of shadow or Nightfire to my fingertips. Other nights, even asking for sparks was too much. And not once did I come even close to summoning the kind of power I’d used to throw Raihn out the window.

I was grateful that we did this work in my bedchamber, where Raihn couldn’t see. I never would have gotten over the humiliation.

“You’re already defeated before you even start,” Mische said, after one long night in which I failed to summon my magic at all, even weakly. “It knows when you have a bad attitude.”

“I don’t have a bad attitude,” I grumbled.

“You’re scared of it and it’s scared of you,” she chirped. “You just have to, you know… seize it! Let your heart open!” She flung out her arms wide, beaming, as if this was a triumphant and completely reasonable instruction.

I gave her a deadpan stare, sighed, and then proceeded to fail fifteen more times until I gave up in exhausted rage.

The truth was, despite my grumbling, I admired Mische. It wasn’t her fault that my magic was too temperamental to be useful. She was a patient and dedicated teacher, and her grasp of magic was incredible. She manipulated flame and light as if they were an extension of her body, with carefree effortlessness. It was mind-boggling.

I’d thought I might be able to learn from Mische because she, too, drew from magic that traditionally fell beyond her domain. But all I learned was that she was apparently some kind of anomaly of nature, because she didn’t seem to have to try at all.

One time, when my curiosity got the better of me, I asked her, “How did you even start doing this? The fire?”

“It’s just… in me.”

“Right. But… how? How did you know that? How did you find it?”

She looked blankly at me, brow furrowed, as if I’d just asked her to describe how she began breathing. “It’s just there. And yours is, too.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Oh, it is!” she insisted. It was not.

Vincent wasn’t much help, either. His advice was the opposite of Mische’s—doled out in scant instruction about muscle control and form and, above all, focus focus focus. I saw him only a handful of times over those weeks, and less as time went on. Sometimes, I was too busy to go to our meeting spot. Other times, I would wait for him for an hour and he would never appear. With each visit, he was more

distracted and distant, and the knot in my stomach grew tighter.

I wasn’t stupid. I knew something was happening, something bad that he didn’t want to reveal to me. Whenever I gently inquired, he told me I needed to focus on the Kejari in a tone that left no room for negotiation and that I knew better than to challenge.

So I did as he said. I focused, and I trained.

In the second week of preparation, Raihn and I forwent our nightly trip to the districts to train with Mische in the apartment instead. Developing a rhythm with Raihn had been the hard part. But once we forged the foundation of our partnership, it was easy to fit Mische in. She was fast and flexible, responding intuitively to wordless cues. After only a handful of clumsy starts, the three of us fell into a balanced team.

That night, halfway through the session, Mische stopped short. She backed against the wall and crouched down with her hands pressed together, eyes round.

I faltered mid-movement. “What’s wrong?” I asked, alarmed. “Did I hurt you?”

“No, no.” She shook her head, a grin spreading across her mouth. “It’s just… gods, look at you two! It’s amazing!”

“There’s no bonding like bonding over murder,” Raihn said dryly.

“I’m just so proud,” she sighed—and I was still trying to figure out whether she was joking or not as he rolled his eyes and beckoned to her. “You’re just trying to get an extra break. Let’s go, Mische.”

Together, we refined the teamwork we had discovered, night after night after night. Every morning, I collapsed into bed exhausted. Every night, I woke up sore and ready to do it all over again.

On the sixteenth night, in the brief seconds before sleep took me, I thought, This might actually work.

It might actually work.

And maybe—maybe—I even liked it.

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