Chapter no 28

The Serpent and the Wings of Night

“…Called and called and he didn’t come.”

I blinked away the remnants of my dream. My

neck hurt fiercely, wedged at an awkward angle against the arm of the chair.

Across the room, a broad silhouette sat before Mische’s bed, backlit by the lanterns.

“Why didn’t he come?” she whimpered, over and over. “I can’t get him to answer. I can’t, I—”

Raihn murmured, “Don’t worry about that right now.” “How can I worry about anything else? How can I—”

“Worry about getting better. Just rest. Can you do that?” “I—”

But the silhouette shifted, his hand going to her face— perhaps using magic—and Mische went silent.

I struggled to fight the haze of sleep. Vampire venom was a sedative. The Ministaer’s, old as he was, hit me hard. I ignored the spinning room and pushed myself upright.

Raihn rose, very slowly. Something was odd about the movement, but I couldn’t place what. He turned, just enough to show me the profile of his face. He raised a finger to his lips, then nodded to the door to the next room.

When I stood, the floor tilted so sharply I was sure I’d topple over. Somehow I managed to follow Raihn into the adjoining bedroom. When I closed the door behind me, the

shock was enough to jerk me from the remnants of my haze.

The back of Raihn’s shirt, once white linen, was soaked through with blood. The stains bloomed over his back like flowers—some patches of dry near-black, some streaks of stiffening burgundy, some blotches of fresh dark crimson. It covered the full expanse of his form, plastering the fabric to his flesh and dousing the tips of his hair.

“Fuck,” I whispered.

He let out a light scoff, then seized, as if the expression had hurt. “Yes.”

“I—what—what happened?”

What a stupid fucking question. As if I didn’t know exactly what would happen to the Rishan in questioning.

Raihn kept his back to me. His arms lifted, the movement stiff and stilted.

“How is Mische?” he asked. “She’s been—”

As if he hoped the answer would distract him, he yanked his shirt off over his head.

“—the same.” The words deflated.

Raihn’s body went rigid with pain for several long seconds.

Fuck,” I whispered.

Fu-u-u-u-ck,” he agreed, in a ragged hiss.

There was so much blood on his back that at first, I couldn’t even tell what I was looking at. Only the harsh side-lighting of the lanterns cut through it, orange light defining the borders of the brutal wounds. The two gashes were symmetrical, running down each side of his back from the curve of his shoulder, over his shoulder blades, all the way to the dips at the base of his spine. They were deep, the flesh split in layer-by-layer—deep enough that I could have sworn I saw the movement of muscle as his back shifted.

Not a single strike. Nothing quick. No, the skin had been carefully flayed away, a fine network of wounds fanning out in all directions from the cuts.

Another mark ran down the center of his back, too—a large diamond-shaped patch of mottled flesh over his shoulders, which then continued down his spine. The blood covered so much that I wasn’t sure if it was a part of his fresh injuries or something older.

I was speechless, even though I shouldn’t have been. It wasn’t the first time I had seen the results of torture. I knew that the Nightborn Guard was relentless. Trained to wield pain as just another weapon.

And yet, a dizzying bolt of rage speared me at the sight of it. Rage, and strange betrayal, and a single sentence: I told him not to break him.

And Vincent had looked me in the eye and agreed.

How old were the freshest of these wounds? How many had been inflicted after I had spoken to him? Did he know he was lying to me when he said it?

These questions shook me, hard, one after the other like arrows. Immediately, the voice in the back of my head smoothed over the sharpest of their accusations—he has a million other things on his mind; he had nothing to do with it; he had to do what was right for his kingdom.

But deep, deep inside my heart, somewhere I wouldn’t look at too closely, I could feel it. A crack.

“Your wings,” I choked out. “Are they—”

Raihn gave me a weak smirk over his shoulder. “This happened because I refused to reveal my wings. Made the right choice, don’t you think?”

The relief at this was short-lived.

He still had his wings, yes. But conjuring them with these wounds, right where they would connect to his body… it would be agonizing, if not impossible, until they healed.

I swallowed thickly.

“That needs to be treated,” I said.

“Mische has a pouch of supplies in her pack.” He started to turn, then winced and gave me an apologetic look. “Could you—”

I nodded and went to the next room, grabbing Mische’s bag and returning. Raihn was exactly where I left him, like moving even slightly was too much for him.

“Could you—could you kneel in front of the bed, maybe?” I said. “You could lean on it.”

“You implying I can’t keep myself upright, princess?”

I wasn’t implying anything. The minute I started stabbing, I was certain he’d double over and rip all the stitches out. Even if he had the pain tolerance of a statue. Statues would fucking crumble at that.

Apparently my face had changed, because he rasped a laugh. “I concede. Fine. You got me. You’re right.”

“I could try to find some alcohol,” I offered.

“I’ll be sending you off into the human districts to bring me some of that piss beer after this.”

“You’d have earned it,” I said, and meant it.

He chuckled again—Mother, I almost felt bad for making him do that—and slowly turned around.

The torture, it seemed, had been limited to his back. A small mercy for him. There wasn’t a scratch on the front of his torso, though little scars nicked his skin, clearly much older than tonight. Warm light cascaded over the swells and valleys of his flesh—illuminating the landscape of his muscular form and highlighting every raised or pitted scar.

In any other moment, I might have wished I could freeze time there. He looked like a painting. Beautiful, but also interesting, every expanse of skin whispering of another story, another past.

The strange, irrational, overwhelming urge to step closer—to touch him—hit me in a wave, crashing and then mercifully subsiding.

I swallowed and pushed away those thoughts. “Kneel there. I’ll sit behind you.”

He obeyed, each movement slow and stiff. So painfully different than his typical grace. He kneeled at the edge of the bed and leaned against it, his arms crossed over the bedspread.

I sat behind him. Up close, the wounds looked even worse.

I let out a hiss through my teeth. How could I even begin to close these?

“That sounds promising,” Raihn said.

“I just—I’m sorry for what I’m about to do to you.”

“I’m glad your bedside manner is about as delicate as I would have expected.”

I didn’t even crack a smile.

I rummaged through the medical box. Mische had everything in here—disinfectants, needles, string, bandages, even little splints. I pulled out the disinfectant and hoped that it was magically enhanced in some way.

“You want a warning?” I asked. “Probably not—FUCK.”

His hands clenched the bedspread as I poured the disinfectant over his back.

“I figured you were least expecting it then.” “You figured right,” he grunted.

I strung the needle, eyeing his wounds. I felt like I was preparing for a whole other trial.

Trials. The thought of the word made my chest clench. Vampires healed much, much faster than humans. But… fuck, how could he compete like this?

“You’ve got to talk to me through this,” Raihn said. “A whole conversation. Then you’ll be in as much pain as I am.”

I choked out a laugh at that, though I quickly tried to disguise it as a scoff.

“I have to stitch you up and talk to you?”

No warning, he’d said.

So I didn’t give him any as I began stitching.

His entire body tensed. The bedspread shifted as he clutched it tighter.

“You alright?” I asked. “Define ‘alright.’”


He scoffed. “Glad you have such high standards.”

I didn’t want to ask. But I had to, even though I already hated the answer I knew was coming. “What did they ask you?”

“Ask. You make it sound so polite—fff.” He hissed as I made another stitch. “They wanted to know what I knew about the attack.” His voice took on an exaggerated flat, hard edge, mimicking Jesmine’s. “Was I sympathetic to the Rishan cause? Did I know of the assailants? Had I ever summoned Nightborn demons before? Was I aware of an organized Rishan rebellion? Mostly, they wanted to know if I destroyed the fucking Moon Palace.”

Did you? I almost asked. Vincent’s words echoed in my ears. I had little reason to trust Raihn.

But I didn’t say it aloud. I didn’t because I already knew that the answer was no, and already knew I believed him. Even if Vincent thought I was a fool for it.

“You said you don’t think this was Rishan work.” “No. I don’t.”


“The Rishan aren’t organized anymore. Your dear father has done a wonderful job whittling them down over the last few centuries. They couldn’t get their shit together enough to do this.”

They. Not we. But then, I hadn’t seen Raihn so much as speak to any of the other Rishan contestants here. Not that that was unusual. Vampires were territorial and unfriendly creatures. Hell, most of the Hiaj didn’t talk to each other, either.

“I told them that, too,” Raihn chuckled, then seized, fingers tightening again. “Didn’t seem to believe me.”

I eyed the wounds before me. No, they didn’t. They didn’t believe him for hours and hours and hours. They didn’t believe him, by my estimation, dozens and dozens of times.

I decided to give him good news, because he probably needed it. “The Ministaer accepted Mische’s withdrawal.”

“He what?” He tensed, as if his instinct was to whirl around to look at me and he had to stop himself.

“Nyaxia must have changed her mind.”

He let out a long, long sigh—so relieved he didn’t even flinch at the next stitch.

“You did this,” he said, finally.

I blinked. He thought better of me than I thought, for him to come to that conclusion so quickly. It was… touching.

“No,” I said. “Maybe they realized it just made the most sense.”

“You’re a terrible actress.” I could hear the smile in his voice. Warm enough to ease the sting in my right hand. Almost warm enough to make me forget the way the Ministaer’s lips felt against my skin.

“We can take her somewhere when the sun sets,” I said. “I’ll figure something out. Hopefully she’ll still be too

groggy to argue.”

Three more stitches. I had to pause to wipe my hands with Raihn’s discarded shirt, leaving smears of red-black on the few clean patches left.

Raihn said softly, as if he didn’t mean to speak, “I haven’t seen her like this in a very, very long time.”

“Her wounds are already starting to heal.” “I’m not worried about those. It’s…”

He trailed off. In the silence, Mische’s agonized words echoed in my head.

He left me. I called and called and he wouldn’t come.

Only now did it occur to me that she hadn’t been talking about Raihn.

“Do you know what she was trying to do, when we found her?” he said, voice full of quiet wrath. “She was trying to call upon Atroxus. Her magic failed her and she couldn’t get it back. She was there with those demons and that fucking Nightfire begging her god for help. If she died there, the last thing she heard would have been his silence.”

His fingers tightened around the fabric as I made another stitch.

“I told her it would happen. It hurt her every time she used that magic. And I told her, I fucking told her, that one day he would stop answering. That the God of the Sun wouldn’t keep allowing one of Nyaxia’s children”—he spat the term in disgust—“to draw upon his power. But she just…”

The burns on Mische’s arms. Years’ and years’ worth.

Suddenly so much made sad, morbid sense.

“How was she ever able to do it?” I asked. “Wield that magic?”

“She was a priestess. Before. When she was human.” My brows leapt. “A priestess of Atroxus?”

“Mhm. In Pachnai. Came here for some kind of missionary work. Isn’t that something?” A short laugh, cut off with a wince. “Missionaries coming to preach to fucking vampires. And that’s when it happened. Whoever Turned her just left her there to die. Probably figured he had a nice little eternal slave if she lived, and at least got a decent meal out of it if she didn’t. Decided she was too much trouble when she got sick and left. She didn’t even know what he was doing to her.”

I had long ago grown accustomed to the careless cruelty of the vampires. But it still sickened me to imagine what Mische, a foreigner barely older than a teenager, must have gone through.

I thought again of the Ministaer’s mouth on my skin, just hours ago. Thought of a kiss on my throat, and teeth, and pain—then jerked back to reality when Raihn cursed because I jabbed him a little too hard.

“Sorry.” I steadied my hand. “Who? Who was it?”

“I wish I fucking knew. I don’t even know what House she is. She won’t tell me. If I found out…”

He let out a low breath that made all sorts of wordless promises.

Fuck, I’d help.

“The thing that kills me,” Raihn said, “is that the bastard didn’t even know or care that he was taking literally everything from her. Didn’t even give enough of a shit to drag her to civilization before leaving her to die. And now…”

And now the final vestige of her humanity was gone. “They don’t care,” I said softly. “They never care.”

“No. They never fucking care. And sometimes—” He tensed. Maybe because of the stitch. Maybe not. “Sometimes I’m ashamed to call myself one of them.”

I don’t want to watch you become one of them, Ilana had said to me.

And until now—until this exact moment—I hadn’t even thought about it as giving something up. Not until I heard the ache in Raihn’s voice that had nothing to do with the wounds on his back.

“What was it like?” I asked. “Turning?”

“Ix’s tits. Your bedside manner really is awful, princess.”

I could hear the expression on his face. My mouth tightened. Almost a smile.

I didn’t think he would answer, but he said, “It feels like death. I don’t remember most of it.”


“Now that’s a question I can’t answer in a moment like this.” The cadence of a joke. The edge of a rebuke. Fair enough.

I finished the last two stitches, then admired my handiwork.

“How does it look?” he asked.

I answered honestly. “Fucking awful.” He sighed. “Terrific.”

Blood still covered the rest of his back. I took the towel and gently wiped it away—from his shoulders, his sides, and finally, down the middle of his spine.

There, I paused, the cloth half raised. I had been right— the mark down the center of his back was a scar, a big one, far older than the marks from tonight. It carved a large triangle across his upper back, then trailed all the way down its center. A burn, maybe?

“How did you get this?”

“No, no, no. That isn’t how this works.” With a grunt of pain, he rose. “I don’t need to be distracted anymore, which means that I don’t have to answer your questions.”

I stood, too, wincing as I stretched the stiff fingers of my right hand. He turned to me, the corner of his mouth quirked, clearly about to say something insulting—but then he noticed me rubbing my bandaged wrist, and his face changed.

The smirk was gone. “What’s that?”

“Nothing. A little cut.” “What happened, Oraya?”

The intensity of his voice struck me in places I didn’t expect.

“Nothing happened,” I said, tucking my hand away. “It’s from the attack.”

His eyes searched my face, unblinking. They looked redder than ever in the firelight, reflecting the orange of the lanterns behind me. He didn’t believe me, but he didn’t say so.

I reached into the medicine bag and pulled out a little glass bottle of tablets. I took his hand and placed the vial in

it. “Here. They won’t heal you, but at least they’ll help the pain enough for you to sleep.”

I didn’t know why I didn’t remove my hand. Nor why I didn’t step back, even though he was so close—close enough his body heat surrounded me.

I swallowed. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry that he did this to you.”

“It isn’t your fault.”

Still. I felt it, even if I didn’t know why.

And I still didn’t move when he said, “One honest thing, Oraya. Do you want a different partner for the Halfmoon trial?”

I knew why he was asking. Because now it was just me and him. Because his back was destroyed. Because he couldn’t use his wings.

“You could find one,” he went on. “People died in the attack. They left partners behind. I would understand.”

It surprised me that the answer was so clear, so immediate.

“Too late for that. You’re stuck with me.”

I watched his lips curl. The smile looked real. Different than the smirks.

“The human and the cripple,” he murmured. “The others should be trembling in pure fucking terror.”

I surprised myself by returning it. “They’d better.”

My hand still lay over Raihn’s calloused palm. His fingers curled around mine, as if in silent agreement.

One more day.

When the Halfmoon was over, we would be enemies. Maybe this felt something like intimacy, but soon, we would try to kill each other.

I never forgot that.

Tonight, though, my soul was heavy—with Raihn’s torture and Mische’s past, with Vincent’s lies and the dark

memories stirred by the Ministaer’s mouth on my skin. Maybe I was weak. Maybe I was foolish.

But even though I knew I should pull away, I didn’t.

No, I drank up Raihn’s touch like one last gulp of wine.

A secret, shameful vice.



MISCHE WANTED TO STAY. Even in her half-conscious, delirious state, she protested as Raihn carried her from the Moon Palace. He had some friends, he told me, who would take her away from Sivrinaj and care for her until she recovered. I was secretly glad she was not only leaving the Kejari, but leaving Sivrinaj entirely. I couldn’t shake the feeling that things here would get far worse before they got better.

She was conscious when I said goodbye to her. She gave my hand a weak squeeze when I approached—and I let her, even though I didn’t like goodbyes.

“Take care of yourself,” I told her.

“You too. Keep feeding that shy magic.” Her weak smile softened. “And… keep an eye on him, alright?”

She didn’t need to specify who.

“He acts tough, but he needs someone. And he likes you.”

No, he doesn’t, I wanted to say. He shouldn’t. The worst possible thing he could do is like me.

But I just gave Mische my best attempt at a comforting smile and said, “Rest. Get better quickly.”

To which she gave me an equally weak, but much brighter, wave. “I’ll see you soon.”



WE WERE SUMMONED only hours later. Raihn and I didn’t speak to each other on the walk there—what was there to say? We only nodded at each other in grim acceptance of our task.

We all stood in awkward silence in the great room. The only sounds were the hushed whispers shared between teammates. I looked around the room, carefully memorizing who had paired with who. Three House of Blood contestants stood together. Beside them, Angelika and her partner, a slight blood magic user by the name of Ivan. Ibrihim had managed to find a partner, a Shadowborn man, who had also been badly injured in the last trial. Apparently no one else would have them. Neither looked pleased.

They weren’t the only ones who appeared to have paired up out of sheer necessity. Four other Rishan contestants now partnered with each other—presumably out of last-minute changes, dumped by their previous partners after Jesmine’s torture. I eyed them and tried not to show it, a knot in my stomach.

Their backs were sealed beneath layers of armor, but they moved stiffly, and I could imagine what they looked like. Still, they didn’t seem to be in as much pain as Raihn, who couldn’t even get into his own armor. I had to strap the leather over his back while he gripped the edge of the bureau and cursed through teeth so tight I was sure he’d crack them. He hid it now, though, and well, tucking every wince and slow movement away. This was not the time to show weakness.

I saw it anyway.

Vampires healed fast, but his wounds had improved only a little. I was disappointed, but not surprised. Nightborn soldiers wielded all kinds of tricks—poison, magic, whatever it took—to inflict as much pain as their task warranted. Raihn’s, apparently, had warranted it all.

As I watched the other Rishan, I couldn’t help but wonder if his had been worse. If he had been kept longer, tortured more, because of his connection to me.

He nudged my arm, snapping me from my thoughts. “We’re famous,” he muttered, motioning to the other side of the room, where several Hiaj contestants stared.

We did make one of the more… unusual pairs.

“They’re jealous,” I said flatly, and he chuckled. “We’ll give them a show.”

Mother, I hoped so.

We all waited in silence—prepared to be spirited away at any moment. But instead, a string of Nyaxia’s acolytes filed into the room. Each bore a silver goblet. They stopped at each set of allies, offering them the cup.

They didn’t say a word—ours didn’t even lift his eyes— but the unspoken message was clear: drink.

Raihn took the goblet first, making a face of disgust as he swallowed. “Unpleasant, but not poison,” he said, after a moment, and passed it to me.

The liquid was dark red, nearly black, and thick. Faint smoke rolled from its surface. It smelled slightly musty. I couldn’t even begin to imagine its purpose. I’d studied every Kejari, and none included a start like this.

I drank. Ugh. Raihn was right. It was disgusting.

I glanced at him after handing the goblet back to the acolyte, and the corner of his mouth curled. “Good lu—”

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