Chapter no 27

The Serpent and the Wings of Night

I had never seen Vincent like this.

He was waiting for me when I arrived. Even in the shadows, the red on his wings painted his silhouette in

crimson. The top three buttons of his shirt were undone, revealing his Heir Mark. The wisps of smoke that unfurled from delicate red ink lines pulsed with his heartbeat.

It was unusual for Vincent to leave his wings and his Mark visible, but those things, intimidating as they were, were not what made my stomach clench when I saw him.

Vincent was always calm—cruel when he needed to be, yes, but always elegantly restrained. Now, one look at his face, and I saw a foreign version of him, one that let rage simmer right at the surface of his skin. Normally, his temper was a smooth black sea, a tranquil surface hiding the horrors that lurked far beneath. Now, it shivered with building waves and circling fins.

I had never seen anything but safety when I looked at Vincent. But tonight, something in me recoiled at the sight of him—as if the eight-year-old version of myself insisted, It looks just like your father, but it isn’t him.

Then he turned to me, and his eyes softened, and when his shoulders relaxed with a long breath of relief, mine did too.

No one who looked at me like that could be anything less than my father. And Goddess, I was relieved to see him.

He looked me up and down. “You’re unhurt?” I nodded.

“You avoided the worst of the attack?”

I caught the truth in my teeth. Sure did, because I was off killing vampires in the human districts with my Rishan partner! That would go over well.

I said, “Yes. I got lucky.”

“I never wanted you to see times like these. I knew they would come, but I never wanted you to see them.”

“It’s the Rishan?” I asked, quietly. “You’re sure?”

For some reason, I heard Raihn’s voice from earlier today, speaking with such certainty: The Rishan didn’t do this.


“Have they attacked elsewhere?”

His throat bobbed. “Yes. But in some ways, it is a blessing. It has been too long since I’ve had an opening to wipe them out once and for all. This time, I will not waste it.”

He turned fully to me, the light falling over his face. It illuminated a constellation of red-black spatters over his shirt and throat—vampire blood. Darkness smeared his wrists, too, just at the boundary of his sleeve cuffs, and lingered under his fingernails. He’d probably hastily wiped his hands and face before coming here, but if he was trying to hide from me what he’d been doing these last two days, he failed miserably.

Fear, sudden and powerful, clenched in my chest.

I had lost Ilana. I didn’t know if I could survive losing Vincent, too.

If the Rishan were indeed advancing, he would be their primary target. Every Rishan rebel in the House of Night understood that winning their war meant killing either a

million Hiaj vampires… or only one: Vincent. He had no children—he knew intimately just how dangerous powerful offspring were. This meant the Hiaj clan had no Heir without him. No one to inherit the Hiaj Nightborn clan’s power. No one to wield it.

When war broke out between the clans, killing the Heir and every person who could possibly inherit their power became the ultimate goal.

This, after all, was exactly what Vincent had done two hundred years ago. He had used his gift from Nyaxia—his prize for winning the Kejari—to enhance his own power and strip the Rishan Heir line of theirs. And then Vincent had used that immense strength to kill every Rishan that had any connection to their line, and kill every Hiaj that came before him in his own. Every Nightborn King, after all, was crowned on a throne of corpses.

I watched Vincent’s gaze go distant, as if he, too, was thinking about that day, and an awful thought twisted in my stomach.

The Rishan had rebelled before, but never like this. This was fighting to win.

“Do you think they have an Heir again?” I asked.

Vincent had killed the entire Heir line two centuries ago. But Nyaxia, cold-hearted bitch that she was, refused to let either clan die out. She liked her children squabbling. She would gift an Heir Mark to another Rishan, one day. The last time that had happened, it had taken more than three hundred years. Still, two hundred didn’t seem impossible.

If the Rishan had an Heir line again, they were much more dangerous than if they didn’t. They’d been known to have small rebellions in the past—like the one that brought me to Vincent—but those were headless skirmishes, driven by nothing but anger and revenge. They couldn’t have ruled even if they had won.

But if there was a Rishan Heir again? Everything changed.

A muscle feathered in Vincent’s jaw in a way that told me he had been thinking a lot about that very question.

“It is possible. If there is one, we will find out.” Fuck.

“If it is the case,” he went on, “I’ll need you, once we are bonded. We will have the freedom and the power to invade their territories. Liberate them.” He gave me a sad smile. “I know how long you’ve wanted that. My only regret is that it has to be under such circumstances.”

The thought dizzied me. A lifetime of fear and caution, and finally, the opportunity to leave my mark on the world, not with broken fingernails but with teeth that could bite just as deep as theirs.

My parents were dead. Whatever other family I may have probably was, too. I knew that. And maybe… maybe a part of me hoped they were, because by the time I made it to them, I would be less like them than ever. But at least by then, I would be able to do more than pick off individual vampires in the night.

I could be something. Do something.

I swallowed the unexpected wave of emotion and gave Vincent a weak smirk.

“If I win.”

He didn’t return the smile. “You will win, Oraya.”

Sometimes I didn’t know what I had done to earn that kind of faith. I wished I was as certain as he was.

The Halfmoon trial was days away. The grim reminder of the present crashed down over my dreams of the future. As if Vincent realized this too, he reached into his pocket, withdrawing a small vial of silver liquid. “More poison, for your blades. I haven’t been able to get more medicine for you. Next time.”

I winced and tried not to show it. Giving the last of my medicine to Mische might have been a mistake. I’d have to fight with the burn. Then again, I’d fought with worse.

I watched Vincent as he looked to the sky, deep in thought.

He seemed to have softened a bit since our visit began, but I was still wary of bringing up my next request. I knew how cold Vincent’s wall of ice could be if he felt challenged. It always thawed for me—eventually—but I did not want to go into the Halfmoon trial on bad terms with him.

Still… I had to try.

“There is one other thing,” I said carefully. “There’s a girl. One of my allies for the Halfmoon. She was injured very badly in the attack, but the Ministaer rejected her withdrawal from the Kejari. She won’t survive the trial.”

His lips thinned. “Unfortunate. Just more blood that the Rishan will have on their hands.”

“Is there something you could do? To help her withdraw?”

His eyes flicked to me, his stare suddenly sharp. “Why?” “She’s my ally, and she’s too weak to fight.”

“Then let her die in the ring. Abandon her when the trial begins.”

I fished through my memory of hundreds of hours spent studying the Kejari. “We don’t know what the trial is. It could be something that links our fates. If she dies, I die. That has happened before. The sixth Kejari. The fourteenth.”

Two. Two out of twenty. Still, he hesitated at this. I knew that even those odds were far too great for him.

After a moment of thought, he said, “Kill her tonight.

Then she’s no longer your problem.”

I tried so hard to keep my expression neutral. Still, the shock struck me hard.


Not long ago, there would have been nothing shocking about that proposition. Actually, even more shocking now was that it hadn’t even crossed my mind to kill Mische.

And most shocking of all was that the very thought filled me with revulsion.

Vincent narrowed his eyes just enough to show that he had noticed my change in behavior.

“What’s the objection? The Kejari allows killing between the contestants this year. If she’s that injured, she is useless to you as an ally in the trial itself, and only a danger afterwards if she somehow managed to survive. It’s the clean, simple solution.”

I tried desperately to come up with an argument against this and failed. And now, Vincent was watching me closely. I couldn’t push back more. It would make him question so much about me.

Even now, the fact that I was having this struggle made me question so much about myself.

“No objection,” I said. “You’re right. But I still have one other problem.”

I was pushing. I was pushing hard. But I let the words come anyway.

“That leaves me with only one other ally. And you have him.”

“I do?” Vincent looked back to the sky, as if his mind was already beginning to drift. “Questioning is Jesmine’s task.”

I blinked, taken aback despite myself. Vincent had always been my only pillar of certainty, the only thing in my life that earned absolute trust. And yet… his ignorance felt… disingenuous.

“He was taken with the others today,” I said.

“We need to find who did this, Oraya. And our enemies among the Kejari contestants are obvious suspects. I’m sure he will be returned in one piece before the trial, just like all the others, once Jesmine is confident of his innocence.”

Our enemies among the Kejari contestants. I knew what Vincent did to his enemies.

“Of course. I just… I need him. The Halfmoon is the deadliest of the trials, and my survival depends on him.”

Vincent’s gaze leapt to me. “I know full well how dangerous the Halfmoon is,” he snapped. “Do you think I’m not aware? Do you think I don’t think about you, and that trial, and how deadly it is constantly?” His mouth curled into a sneer that eerily echoed the one he had worn during his death-drenched speech. “Do you know what would make it more dangerous, little serpent? If you were paired with an ally who was merely waiting for the right time to stab you in the back.”

“He needs me to survive that trial, too.” “And after?”

“And after, I’m ready to kill him when I need to.” I spoke with definitive force, but the statement settled strangely on my tongue. “But right now, I need him.”

The man who stared back at me was the king, not the father. His face was cold and hard. I took another step.

“He didn’t do this, Vincent.” “How can you know that?”

“Because—” Mische. I didn’t know how to explain that to him. “Trust me. He didn’t.”

“Trust.” A scoff. “Do you understand how dangerous that word is?”

It was insulting that he even asked me such a thing. I had so many reasons to distrust Raihn. And maybe… maybe I had allowed myself to forget that more frequently than I should have.

But this… that look on his face when he saw the Palace burning… I might not trust Raihn. But I trusted that.

“Don’t break him,” I said. “Question him, fine. But don’t break him. Please.”

Vincent stared stonily at me. For one terrifying moment, I wondered if maybe I had done the exact opposite of what I should have—if perhaps my plea made him more suspicious than even Raihn’s Rishan blood ever could.

He lowered his head and sighed. “Fine.” When he turned back to me and his face fell into the light, he suddenly looked exhausted, his worry etched deep into every pinched line of his expression. “But this is wartime. We are surrounded by those who would like to see us dead. Don’t forget those teeth of yours, little serpent. You will need them.”



NYAXIAS TEMPLE had to be the grandest building in Sivrinaj, a city of grand buildings, save only for the Nightborn castle and the Moon Palace. Nyaxia, of course, had many temples throughout the three Houses—every major city and even minor townships throughout the House of Night had one. But each House, in their capital, had one great tribute to their creator and Dark Mother. I’d heard that the House of Shadow’s was a single black steel spire reaching up to the night sky, twice the height of even their grandest castles.

I rarely—fine, never—went to the Nightborn temple, located in the perfect geographic center of Sivrinaj. It was the first building to be constructed here. When Sivrinaj had been built, the Nightborn—young vampires, created by Nyaxia less than a year before—had been rebuilding their kingdom after it had been obliterated by the human nations to the east. They had nothing but the bones of a dead society, fresh immortality, and infant magic that they didn’t understand.

And yet, the first thing they did was build a fucking church. Not shelter. Not hospitals. A church. What a priority.

I hated it here.

Everything seemed to echo and hush at once. Far above me, silver metalwork and enchanted stained glass painted a night sky, the platinum stars slowly drifting across it. The light in here was cool and dim—all of it Nightflame, safely contained in hundreds upon hundreds of little crystal dome lanterns, which cast lazy mandalas across the ground.

It was silent. Speaking was forbidden on the main floors of the church. Nyaxia’s acolytes gathered around the curved walls, faces inches from the fresco-painted plaster, as still and soundless as statues—meditating, apparently, on their utmost adoration of their goddess.

Sometimes I thought Nyaxia must have a hell of a sense of humor. Did she word it that way, I wondered? Go build a temple to show me how much you love me. Make it nauseatingly beautiful. And then go inside of it and stare at the wall for fifteen hours at a time.

Of course, Nyaxia had many other fanatical devotees, and many of them were much more interesting—and dangerous—than the dark acolytes. I hoped I went my entire life without encountering the worst of them.

Boring as they might be, at least the poor bastards had excellent discipline. They didn’t even turn their heads as I walked by, even though I was bleeding—and, however I might want to deny it, nervous—which meant I probably smelled mouthwatering to them.

I traveled up staircase after staircase, winding my way up the floors of the church until I reached the top. The set of double doors, crafted from ancient carved wood, loomed over me.

I looked down at my hands. They were trembling.

Fuck that. No. If I was going in there, I wouldn’t let it show for a moment—not for a single damned second—that I was frightened.

Fear is a series of physical responses.

I shook away the shiver on my skin and slowed my breathing to force my heart to do the same. I touched the

hilts of my blades—both freshly filled with Vincent’s poison

—just to remind myself how easy it was to reach them.

I knocked on the door and opened it when I was called within.

It had been nearly a year—the last equinox festival— since I had seen the Ministaer this close. It shocked me all over again. When I was younger and I first heard the Ministaer speak, I questioned whether it was possible he was really two thousand years old. One look at him up close put those doubts to rest.

No, there were no wrinkles on his face, save for a couple of harsh lines at the corners of his eyes. But all of him just looked worn—everything too sharp and smooth at once. His skin was papery-thin, veins visible where it stretched tight over his jutting cheekbones, his tight lips, the lids of his dead-white eyes. They say that vampires’ blood gets darker as they age. The Ministaer’s must have been pure black.

He rose as I entered.

“Oraya. Daughter of the Nightborn. Welcome.”

The muscles drew taut around his mouth, but it was a twitchy, uneven movement. Fitting for someone who hadn’t known humanity in two millennia.

Yet he recalled my name immediately. I shuddered.

“What do you have to offer Nyaxia this eve?” he asked. I kept my face carefully neutral.

“You—” I had to correct myself. “Nyaxia rejected a request for withdrawal from the Kejari. One of my allies.”

The Ministaer’s expression did not change. “Nyaxia has her reasons.”

“I come to you, Ministaer, to see if there is anything one could do to change her mind on this matter.”

The Ministaer stared at me. His eyes—solid, milky white

—didn’t allow me to track their movement, but I knew he was looking me up and down. Goddess fucking damn him, I hated this man. Everything about him repulsed me.

“Is there anything,” I said, drawing out the word, “anything at all, that I can offer Nyaxia that would ease the loss of this contestant?”

The Ministaer was silent for a long moment, and I thought that maybe I’d misjudged him. Then I stepped closer, and his nostrils twitched.

There it was. Hunger.

“Perhaps an offering of blood would suffice,” he said. “To compensate for the lost blood offering of the contestant.”

Every part of me recoiled at the way he looked at me. Despite myself, my heartbeat quickened. He must have felt it, because I glimpsed his dry, fleshy tongue dart out to slide along his lower lip.

“A small blood offering, then.” I could barely choke out the words. “Human blood.”

“Human?” The Ministaer made a strange sound that sounded like a laugh from someone who had never heard one before. But that grotesque smile disappeared as I extended my wrist, veins up, over his desk.

His eyelids fluttered. Lust. Pure lust.

He cradled my hand, placing his palm beneath mine. His skin was too smooth, too cold—exactly the same temperature as the rest of the air.

“Ah, this is far better,” he purred.

I could not fucking believe I was doing this. My other hand crept to my weapon. Rested there.

Just in case.

I said, “Drink.”



THE MOMENT I closed the door of our chambers, I collapsed onto an armchair. My wrist stung, the pain burning up my

arm. I’d offered the right one—my non-dominant hand—but it was the same hand that my Nightfire wound was on, making that entire arm now a mangled mess of pain. My head was fuzzy, senses venom-smeared.

Raihn had still not returned, which I did not like.

I slumped further into the armchair and looked across the room. Mische slept, but even unconscious, little twitches of pain spasmed across her face.

I made a pragmatic decision.

If Mische died, Raihn would never be able to compete. And I couldn’t tell Vincent that I wouldn’t kill her without earning—perhaps rightfully—his doubt. I did the only thing I could do.

I told myself this as my vision faded around Mische’s sleeping form.

Told myself it even though I knew, somewhere deep inside, that I wouldn’t have been able to thrust that knife into her chest.

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