It had been several days since Raihn and I had gone to the human districts, so when Mische holed herself up in her room working on some new spell, we took the
opportunity to return. I expected that the districts would be full of vampires treating it as a hunting ground, given our absence. But instead, Raihn and I disposed of only two very drunk vampires attempting to pick off a couple of children and then found ourselves roaming aimlessly around the empty streets.
“Hm,” Raihn said, after an hour of fruitless wandering. “Maybe we’ve built more of a reputation for ourselves than we expected.”
“Even more terrifying than we thought,” I said. “We’re doing our jobs too well.”
My cheeks tightened. I was so satisfied that it took me an embarrassingly long time to notice Raihn staring at me.
My smile disappeared, and he laughed. “There she is.” “What?” I snapped.
“You just looked so pleased with yourself.” I shrugged.
Fine. I was pleased with myself.
“We could go to the western quarter,” I suggested.
“Mmm.” He slid his hands into his coat pockets and looked around, as if with sudden realization of where we
“Is that agreement?” “I have a better idea.”
He set off down a side street, leaving me in the middle of the road.
“Where are you going?” I called after him.
He glanced over his shoulder, eyes crinkled. “I’m getting a drink. You coming?”
“YOU MEAN to tell me that you—a human—come to this district almost every night, stab whatever poor vampire bastards you come across, become mysterious savior to the innocent human civilians, and yet, despite spending almost half your fucking life here, you’ve never interacted with these people? Never gone to a pub? Never said a quick hello to one of your rescue-ees? Nothing?”
He said it like it was ridiculous, and that offended me.
“I wasn’t here for that.” I glowered at him. The effect of the glare was somewhat diminished by the fact that he was so much taller than me and walking so fast that I had to awkwardly half-run to keep up with him. “We’re not here for that.”
“Oh, hush, princess. We’ve been working so hard there’s no one left to kill.”
“Then we should go back to the Moon Palace.”
“I don’t want to go back to the Moon Palace. I want the most absolutely fucking disgusting beer in town. I want foamy, sour, piss beer. And the place to get it is less than a block away. Ah ha!” His face lit up, and he jabbed his finger across the street as we rounded a corner, pointing to a
rickety, half-rotted wooden sign that seemed to have once read “Sandra’s,” but now looked more like “Sa d r ’s.”
“This place,” he said, striding towards it, “has been here for almost a century, and—”
I grabbed his arm just as he was about to open the door. The movement was much rougher than I’d intended, a weak puff of shadow unfurling from my fingertips, my nails digging into the leather of his coat.
He stopped, brow furrowed, and looked down at my white-knuckled hand. Then at my face. His expression changed… softened.
“What’s wrong, Oraya?” “I—”
I didn’t even know how to answer that question. I let go of him, clamping my hands together in front of me so he wouldn’t see that they trembled.
I leveled my voice. “This is a building full of humans.” “Yes. And?”
And you are made to kill them.
And if you lose control, I don’t know if I could stop you alone.
“I’m not putting them at risk so you can drink some garbage beer,” I said coldly.
He let out a short laugh. “I want beer, not blood. Besides, why would I go on a hunting rampage after spending the last week and a half with you killing everyone who did just that?”
So fucking dismissive. “It isn’t that simple.” “Why the hell not?”
“Because if we put someone like you in a packed room of humans, it might not be a matter of you deciding anything,” I spat. “I know what bloodlust looks like, Raihn.”
A momentary wave of something I couldn’t decipher— something that almost, almost resembled compassion—
flitted across his face, quickly replaced once again with amusement.
“You’re worried about my self-control? How sweet.” He leaned close enough that I felt his words skitter over my cheek. I didn’t know why I didn’t move.
“I have plenty of self-control, Oraya,” he murmured. “Don’t you worry about me.”
Goosebumps rose on the back of my neck.
Yet the shiver that rolled over my flesh wasn’t the familiar shiver of fear. That, at least, was a physical response I knew how to regulate. This… this startled me. My instinctual desire wasn’t to back away, but to pull closer. I froze. My body didn’t know how to react to this, reaching for fear and finding something else entirely— something much more dangerous.
A long moment passed—or maybe it had just been a second or two—and I stepped away, shooting him a glare.
“That doesn’t matter. Besides, what if they recognize what you are?”
“I won’t be flashing any dazzling grins, and they’ll be none the wiser.”
“No,” I hissed. “It’s a stupid idea.”
The wrinkle between his brows deepened, then disappeared as he gave me a sly smirk.
“Oh. I see.”
I blinked at him, already offended by whatever he was about to say next.
The smirk broadened to a grin. “You’re scared. You’re
scared of a bunch of humans.”
“No I’m not.” I said it just too-loud and too-quickly enough to confirm his suspicions.
I wasn’t scared. Scared wasn’t the right word. It was just… wrong. I belonged out here, hidden—not in there, with them. Maybe my blood was human, but I’d abandoned that part of myself a long time ago. Raihn seemed confident
that he could pass as one of them, but hell, I didn’t know if
“What are you so nervous about?” he said. “You’re human too, for fuck’s sake.”
I scowled. “Not really.”
He made a face. “Ix’s tits. I wish you could have seen your expression just then. I’m glad you’re so proud of your heritage.”
Before I could stop him, he threw open the pub door and dragged me inside.
THE PUB WAS in the basement, and wobbly stairs directly within the door led us down into the dim throng. Humans gathered at mismatched wooden tables on mismatched wooden stools, leaning close and chatting bawdily over games of cards or mugs of mead. The walls were made of stone and clay, tiny windows at the top revealing peeks of the streets. Lanterns along the walls drenched the whole room in warm orange light. At the pub’s center was a square counter, where a barkeep poured drinks and slid food to waiting patrons. The air was thick with a unique scent that blended beer, sweat, and bread.
It was dark and crowded inside. I wondered whether business had picked up considerably since Raihn and I started patrolling the streets again, because it seemed unthinkable to me that this many people had felt comfortable being out after dark when such dangers loomed within those shadows. Or maybe they just no longer cared. These people didn’t even seem afraid.
It was so… so wildly different than anywhere I’d ever been before. I had spent a little time in vampire pubs in the
inner city, briefly and out of nothing more than stupid teenage curiosity. They were plenty grimy and depraved, but everyone was so much more restrained, even in the throes of debauchery. Vampires behaved as if every emotion, every impulse, took a bit longer to reach the surface of their skin. But humans? Humans laid it bare. They were loud and expressive and unapologetic.
This struck me, strange and confusing. My humanness had been the reason why I’d spent a lifetime dimming myself. For these people, it was the reason they burned brighter.
It was so utterly foreign that I was certain—certain— that everyone would stop to stare at us the minute we crossed the threshold.
It didn’t happen.
I glanced at Raihn, hand moving to the hilt of my blade, watching for signs of bloodlust. With so many sweaty humans packed into this small a space, the scent of blood must be overwhelming. But his nose didn’t so much as twitch.
I’d been skeptical when he said he could pass as human. Much more separated vampires and humans than the teeth and the wings—their entire demeanors were different. Vampires simply moved like predators, all silent grace and calculated finesse. And Raihn, though he was an unusual vampire, still had that in spades.
Until he just… didn’t.
The moment we walked into the pub, Raihn… changed. The way he stood changed, growing a little more relaxed and lopsided. The way he walked changed, his steps a little more meandering. The way he held his face changed, predatory stillness replaced with laid-back ease. Everything about the way he held himself grew a little rougher, a little less polished.
And just like that, Raihn was human. A very tall human, yes—a human that no one would want to fuck with—but
He jerked his chin towards the back of the room, took hold of my arm, and led me to an unoccupied little booth in the corner. Then he announced that he was going to get us the shittiest beer the place had and was gone before I could say anything else.
I watched him in awe as he cut through the crowd. Everything, from how he gently touched people’s shoulders to move them out of the way, to the half-nod of greeting he gave the keeper, to the lumbering swagger of his walk back to the table—beer in hand—was immaculate.
He placed a large, chipped glass mug full of foamy mud-brown liquid in front of me, then took his own and slid into the seat beside me. The booth was a small half-circle with a wobbly table at its center. He took up roughly three-quarters of the seating space. He leaned against the wall, limbs sprawled, threw his head back, and took several long gulps of his drink.
“Fucking horrific,” he said affectionately, as he slammed the mug down on the table. “It’s perfect.”
“Impressive,” I said.
“Thank you. I’ve had plenty of practice drinking terrible alcohol.”
“Not that.” I gestured broadly to him, up and down. “That.”
His eyebrow twitched. “I’ve had a lot of practice on my physique, too. I didn’t think you’d noticed.”
I scoffed, then leaned closer. “You are a very good actor, is what I mean. You look very…”
He shrugged and took another drink. “Makes sense.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Maybe I was right to distrust you in the beginning. You have so many different versions of yourself.”
“Oh, they’re all me.” Now it was his turn to give me that look—the kind that picked me apart. “Meanwhile, you look like someone has shoved you in a pen with a bunch of lions. Do you actually have your hand on your blade right now?”
I yanked my fingers away from the hilt at my hip and placed my hands on the table. “No.”
“You’re safe, Oraya. Relax.”
It could have sounded dismissive, but his voice was unexpectedly tender.
You are safe. I could not remember the last time those words were uttered to me. It was never true, after all. And strangely enough, even though these people were so much less dangerous than the predators that surrounded me every day, I felt more exposed here than ever.
I looked out across the room. “Did you used to come to places like this? When you were…”
“Human? Yes. Often.” His gaze slipped out over the room. “They looked quite a bit different back then, though. A lot of time has passed.”
“How much time?”
A pause. “A couple of hundred years.”
He said it very casually, but I knew that pause. It was the same kind of pause I made when he asked me how long I had been coming to the human districts. He knew exactly how long it had been—years, days, minutes.
“But I still come to places like this regularly. I get a bit exhausted by vampires, sometimes.”
“Do you miss it? Humanity?”
It was only after the question left my lips that I realized how oddly intimate it was. I thought he wouldn’t answer. He was silent, watching the patrons laugh and drink.
“I miss the sun,” he said at last.
And for a moment, he wore the same expression that he did when I would come back to the apartment at dawn to find him looking out the window, long after the light would have been eating at his skin.
I didn’t know why I felt the urge to pull away from that uncomfortable question, as if I’d prodded a wound. I took a sip of my beer. Thick bitterness flooded my mouth. I made a face, and Raihn laughed.
“Ugh. That’s disgusting.” “Disgusting and amazing.” “Just disgusting.”
“You have no taste, princess.”
Despite myself, I chuckled. Maybe he had a point, because I took another sip.
“Mische probably also used to be human,” I remarked.
A warm smile curled the corner of his mouth. “She makes it obvious, doesn’t she?”
“I haven’t met another vampire like her.” “Nor have I.”
“Were you the one who—”
The warmth disappeared from Raihn’s face. “No,” he said, sharply enough to cut off the rest of the question and any further follow up on that topic, then took a long drink.
I watched him closer than I allowed myself to let on.
Raihn had told me that he wanted to ally with me because he was curious about me. And I hated to admit this
—even to myself—but I was curious about him, too. It had been a long time since I found myself wanting to know more about someone, even if it was only because they were so confusing.
He set down his drink—already mostly empty—and we sat in silence, observing the patrons.
Eventually I asked, “Why did you enter the Kejari?”
Such an obvious question, and yet none of us had ever asked it of each other. It was like once we entered the Moon Palace, the outside world and the circumstances that had brought us there ceased to exist.
“I have a lot of people depending on me, and Turned Rishan from the slums don’t get many options.” He shook
his head. “Never make deathbed promises, Oraya. Always bites you in the ass.”
Turned Rishan from the slums. I was often so focused on the suffering of the humans within the House of Night that it was easy to forget that vampires suffered here, too. I’d thought that most would enter the Kejari for the glory of it, but maybe it was really desperation fueling all of us.
“Family?” I asked.
“In a sense. And I exhausted all other avenues. Joining this fucking barbaric spectacle was not high up on my list of things I wanted to do with my pathetic never-ending life.” His mouth twisted into a wry smile. “I wouldn’t even be here if Mische didn’t force me into it.”
My eyebrows leapt.
He chuckled and took another drink. “Look at that face. You thought I was the—what was your word?—brute who Turned Mische, carted her around Obitraes for a few hundred years, then dragged that poor, innocent little sunshine sprite halfway across the world to the bloodthirsty Kejari tournament, is that it?”
“Yes,” I said, without hesitation. “Absolutely.”
“That fucking girl.” He shook his head. “No, this was all her idea. And she knew I’d never let her do it alone.”
I struggled to reconcile this information with the version of Mische that I knew. Tried to imagine the girl who put flowers all over the apartment and giggled uproariously whenever anyone made a sound that vaguely resembled flatulence dragging Raihn to the Kejari.
I had wondered many times over these last weeks why both of them were here. They clearly loved each other deeply—neither, I was certain, would be willing to hurt the other. But then again, it wasn’t unheard of for close friends to enter together, if their interests aligned. Two chances at victory were better than one.
“Then… why is she here?” I asked.
“Because she’s a manipulative little thing,” he grumbled, as if to himself.
“Right. Like someone else I know. Trying to get me drunk so you can ask all kinds of invasive questions.” He took a drink and shot me a wary glare. He set down his mug, and with every second of silence, I grew more surprised.
“And now,” he said, “you’re waiting for me to ask you why you’re doing this.”
“A bit,” I admitted.
A human in the Kejari? Anyone would be curious. “Well, I won’t. I know already.”
My brows rose. “Oh, you do?”
“I’ll admit that before, I was wondering. I was thinking, ‘Why would this human put herself in a situation where she was surrounded by predators? Near certain death?’” He smirked. “Or, more accurately, ‘Why would Vincent put her in this situation?’ Easy, viper.” He raised his hands at the glare I shot him. “I know. But I was curious about a lot. Like, why were you here at all? You’re an adult. Vincent clearly doesn’t keep you literally locked up. Why did you remain in the House of Night, instead of crossing the Bone Seas to the human nations, where you could live a real life?”
A real life, he said, as if my life wasn’t real.
The truth was, it had barely even occurred to me that it was an option to leave the House of Night—leave Vincent. Only once, when I was seventeen years old, did I consider it. Ilana had raised the idea. It was shortly after… after. Those days were a blur of grief and pain. But I could still remember exactly how she had looked that day—so uncharacteristically serious, so worried. She had taken my face in her rough hands, pulled me so close I could smell the cigar smoke on her breath, and looked directly into my eyes. “You don’t have to live this way, my love,” she had
said. “I made this choice, but you didn’t. You can choose another life, in another world, where you’d be just a person.”
I had only stared at her blankly before turning away.
The thought was incomprehensible. Where else could I possibly exist but the House of Night?
“I don’t want to leave,” I said.
“I see that now, after watching you here. You don’t see yourself as human at all, do you? So why would you leave to go live with them?”
I didn’t like that tone at all. “There are problems that need to be solved here. I’m not running away from that. This is my home. Maybe it’s a home that hates me, but it’s my home.”
This kingdom was a part of me, and I, whether it wanted me or not, was a part of it. I was the daughter of its king, blood or no. The bones of my parents were buried in this country. No matter how many times the House of Night bruised my skin or my heart, I would stay. Just as all the humans who lived here—who did not have a choice but to live here—would stay.
This was where I belonged. Here. Not some foreign human land half a world away.
Raihn examined me, a thoughtful expression on his face. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen that look, and every time, it made me uncomfortable. Like he was letting a facade drop for just these few rare, quiet moments, and revealing just how much he analyzed the world around him, typically hidden beneath violence and swagger.
I didn’t especially like being the subject of that analysis. “You have balls, princess,” he said. “I will give you that.”
Then he leaned across the table—so small compared to his frame that even that slight movement put him right in front of me.
“Here’s the other thing I have never understood about you. Vincent.”
I drew back, already defensive, every muscle tensed at the mere mention of his name.
“You’re just some human girl,” Raihn went on. “And the King of the Nightborn, well-known to be a cold, ruthless bastard, just… has a moment of compassion and decides to take you in? Why?”
His brow furrowed, and his eyes searched my face, like he was really looking for an answer to this question—and like he was already concerned on my behalf for what that answer might be. I glimpsed something in that expression, the faintest edge of something strangely familiar, gone in seconds.
“Of course,” he continued, “I know some vampires have a taste for human sex, but—”
“Vincent is my father,” I cut in, disgusted.
“Right. At least if he was fucking you, I could make sense of it. But by all accounts, including yours, he’s not. So…”
If I wasn’t so offended, I would find it a bit funny that Raihn had the exact same thought about me and Vincent that I’d had about him and Mische.
“Mische is your family, even if she isn’t your blood. It shouldn’t be so hard for you to understand that.”
“I understand it. I just didn’t think our oh-so-great-and-powerful divine king did.”
“Because you know him so well.” I scoffed. “Of course you think poorly of him. You’re Rishan. He unseated your people from the throne.”
“I’m sure the two dozen extended family members of his that he executed to take that throne feel somewhat strongly about his commitment to familial bonds, too.”
Oh, please. As if every vampire king didn’t have to kill to get that power. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was reality.
“And how many people are you about to kill to fulfill those ‘responsibilities’ you talked about?” I smirked at him,
gesturing to myself. “And you still took in a human stray, didn’t you?”
He finished the last of his beer.
“Oraya, there is nothing stray about you. I think you know precisely where you’re going, even when you don’t know you do.”
And I was about to ask him what, exactly, that was supposed to mean—
—But then the floor shook in an abrupt lurch, and the crowd drew in a sudden gasp as the explosion rang out loud enough to make the world tremble.