Chapter no 3

The Serpent and the Wings of Night

Vincent had said this was a feast to welcome travelers to the House of Night ahead of the start of the Kejari. But that was an understatement. The event wasn’t a

“feast” so much as it was a display of shameless, exuberant gluttony.

Well, that was fitting, wasn’t it? The Kejari only happened once every hundred years, and hosting it was the House of Night’s greatest honor. During the tournament, Sivrinaj welcomed guests from every corner of Obitraes, including all three Houses. It was an important diplomatic event, especially for nobles from the House of Night and House of Shadow. No one was quite as eager for a visit from the House of Blood—there was a reason why none of the Bloodborn had been invited to this event—but Vincent would never pass on the opportunity to peacock before the rest of vampire high society.

I came to this part of the castle so rarely that I had forgotten just how striking it was. The ceiling was a high dome of stained glass, gold-dyed stars scattered across cerulean blue. The moonlight spilling through it danced over the crowd in whorls. Half a dozen long tables had been set, now holding only the remnants of what had certainly, hours ago, been an incredible banquet. Vampires

enjoyed all forms of food for pleasure, though blood— human, vampire, or animal—was necessary for their survival. The food still sat, long cold, on the tables, while the blood dotted plates and tablecloths in dribbles and spatters of drying crimson.

I thought of the wounds on Ilana’s throat and wrist and wondered which stains were hers.

“Everyone already ate.” Vincent offered me his arm, and I took it. He put me between himself and the wall. Everything about his demeanor was coolly casual, but I knew this was a very intentional decision—the arm, and my placement. The former reminded the rest of the room that I was his daughter. The latter physically protected me from anyone who might, in bloodlust, make an impulsive decision they’d regret.

Vincent didn’t usually allow me to these types of events

—for obvious reasons. He and I both understood that a human in a ballroom of hungry vampires was a bad idea for everyone involved. On the rare occasions that I did go out into vampiric society, I attracted flagrant attention. Today was no exception. All stares fell to him as he entered. And then they shifted to me.

My jaw locked and muscles stiffened.

Everything about that felt wrong. To be so visible. To have so many potential threats to watch.

With dinner done, most had moved to the dance floor, a hundred or so guests milling about dancing or gossiping as they sipped glasses of red wine—or blood. I recognized the familiar faces of Vincent’s court, but there were also plenty of foreigners. Those from the House of Shadow wore heavy, tight-fitting clothing, the women adorned in corsets and clingy, velvety gowns, the men donned in stiff, minimalist jackets—all very different from the House of Night’s flowing silks. I also saw a few unfamiliar faces from the House of Night’s outer reaches, people who lived not in the inner city but perhaps lorded over districts far to the west

of the deserts, or in the House of Night’s island territories in the Bone Seas.

“I’ve been watching for bandages.” Vincent ducked his head and spoke quietly to me, low enough that no one else could hear. “Some have already made their blood gift.”

To Nyaxia—to signal their entry into the Kejari. My opponents.

“Lord Ravinthe.” He nodded to an ashy-haired man locked in enthusiastic conversation across the ballroom. During one of his gesticulations, I caught a flash of white on his hand—black-red soaked fabric, covering a wound.

“I fought with him long ago,” Vincent said. “His right knee is bad. He hides it well, but it pains him greatly.”

I nodded and carefully filed this information away as Vincent continued to take me around the room. Maybe to someone who wasn’t paying attention, we might have looked like we were just taking a leisurely walk, but with every step, he pointed out other contestants, telling me all he knew about their background or weaknesses.

A slight, fair-haired Shadowborn woman with sharp features.

“Kiretta Thann. I met her long ago. She’s a weak swordswoman but a strong magician. Guard your thoughts around her.”

A thick, tall man whose eyes had immediately found me the moment we entered the room.

“Biron Imanti. The worst bloodlust I’ve ever seen.” Vincent’s lip curled in disgust. “He’ll go after you, but he will be so stupid about it that it should be easy for you to use that against him.”

We finished one lap about the ballroom and started another. “I saw a few others. Ibrihim Cain. And—”


Vincent’s brow twitched. “Many will enter the Kejari solely because they feel they have no other option.”

I found Ibrihim across the room. He was a young vampire, barely older than I, with an unusually meek demeanor. As if he could feel my stare, his gaze flicked to me from beneath a mop of curly black hair. He gave me a weak smile, revealing mutilated gums jarringly absent of canine teeth. Beside him was his mother, a woman as brutally aggressive as her son was quiet—and the source of his wounds.

It was a story too common to be tragic. About ten years ago, when Ibrihim was on the cusp of adulthood, his parents had pinned him down, removed his teeth, and hobbled his left leg. I had been thirteen or so when it happened. Ibrihim’s face had been a mess of swollen, bruised flesh. Unrecognizable. I had been horrified, and I didn’t understand why Vincent wasn’t.

What I didn’t realize then was that vampires lived in constant fear of their own family. Immortality made succession a bloody, bloody business. Even Vincent had murdered his parents—and three siblings—to gain his title. Vampires killed their parents for power, then crippled their own children to keep them from doing the same. It satisfied their egos in the present and secured the future. Their line would continue… but not a moment before they were ready for it.

At least the Kejari would give Ibrihim a chance to regain his dignity or die trying. Still…

“He can’t possibly think he could win,” I muttered.

Vincent gave me a sidelong glance. “Everyone here probably thinks the same of you.”

He wasn’t wrong.

An overwhelming cloud of lilac scent wafted over us.

“There you are, sire. You had disappeared. I had been starting to get concerned.”

Vincent and I turned. Jesmine approached us, carefully tossing a wave of smooth ash-brown hair over a bare shoulder. She wore a rich red gown that, while simple,

clung to the lush shape of her body. She, unlike most of the Hiaj here, left her wings visible—they were slate gray, and her gown dipped low enough in the back to frame them with painterly drapes of crimson. The dress was deep cut to reveal generous cleavage and a mottled white scar that ran up the center of her sternum.

She was never shy about displaying either—her cleavage, or the scar. Not that I could blame her. Her cleavage was objectively impressive, and as for the scar… rumor had it she’d survived a staking. If I’d done that, I’d flaunt that mark every damned day.

The corner of Vincent’s mouth quirked. “The work never ends. As you know.”

Jesmine raised her crimson glass. “I do indeed,” she purred.

Oh, sun fucking take me.

I didn’t know how I felt about Vincent’s newly promoted head of the guard. It was rare for a woman to achieve such a rank in the House of Night—only three women had served in that position in the last thousand years—and I approved of that on principle alone. But I had also been trained my entire life to be distrustful. Vincent’s previous head of the guard had been a scraggly, scar-riddled man named Thion, who had served for two hundred years. I didn’t like him, but at least I knew he was loyal.

But when Thion grew ill and eventually died, his top general, Jesmine, had been the natural choice to replace him. I didn’t have anything against her, but I didn’t know her, and I certainly didn’t trust her.

Maybe I was just territorial. Vincent seemed to like her. He leaned a bit closer. “You look lovely,” he murmured. Really like her.

Despite myself, a hint of my scoff slipped from my lips. At the sound, Jesmine’s amethyst eyes slipped to me. She was new enough that she still regarded me with blatant curiosity rather than the somewhat long-suffering

annoyance of the other members of Vincent’s tiny inner circle.

Her gaze slowly moved up my body, taking in my stature and my leathers, drinking in each feature of my face. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was being lecherous. Which would be… well, flattering, if it wasn’t so often a precursor to an attempt on my throat.

“Good evening, Oraya.” “Hello, Jesmine.”

Her nostrils flared—a subtle movement, but I saw it immediately. I stepped back, my hand moving to my dagger. Vincent noticed too, and ever-so-slightly shifted to put his body between mine and hers.

“Give me an update on the House of Blood,” Vincent said to her, shooting me a look that commanded me to go. I drifted back towards the door, away from the rest of the crowd.

It was almost enough distance from the party guests to let me breathe a little easier. Almost.

When you’re young, fear is debilitating. Its presence clouds your mind and senses. Now, I had been afraid for so long, so ceaselessly, that it was just another bodily function to regulate—heartbeat, breath, sweat, muscles. Over the years, I’d learned how to hack the physicality of it away from the emotion.

The bitter taste of jealousy coated my tongue as I leaned against the doorframe, watching the partygoers. I paid special attention to those Vincent had pointed out as Kejari contestants. With the exception of Ibrihim, who sat quietly at the table, most seemed carefree, dancing and drinking and flirting the night away. When dawn came, would they fall asleep entangled with one or three partners, sleep soundly, and not give a single thought to whether they would survive long enough to wake again?

Or would they finally know what it was like to lie awake staring at the ceiling, feeling their deathly goddess over

their skin?

My eyes fell to the other side of the room.

The figure was so still that my gaze nearly passed right by. But something strange about them made me pause, even if at first, I didn’t quite know why. After several seconds of observation, I realized it wasn’t any single thing, but a collection of little ones.

He stood at the opposite side of the ballroom, far beyond all the debauchery of the dance floor, his back to me. He stared at one of the many paintings that adorned the wall. I couldn’t see the details from this distance, but I knew the painting well. It was the smallest in the ballroom, the canvas narrow and long, star-dotted indigo blue at the top that gradually darkened to deep red. It depicted a lone figure: a Rishan vampire, falling, frozen halfway to his death in the center of the frame. His nude body was mostly covered by dark feathered wings splayed out around him, save for a single outstretched hand, reaching desperately for something that he could see but we could not.

Few pieces of Rishan artwork remained in the castle after the rise of the Hiaj. Most of it had been either destroyed or repainted to depict Hiaj vampires. I didn’t know why this one survived. Perhaps it was deemed appropriate to keep because it portrayed a Rishan doomed, falling to the depths of hell even as he grasped for the sky.

This piece got little attention compared to the majestic epics around it, celebrations of bloody justice or triumphant victory. It was quiet. Sad. The first time I saw it, when I was only a child, my chest had tightened. I knew what it felt like to be powerless. And this single fallen Rishan, cradled by wings that could not fly, reaching for a savior who would not reach back… it was the only indication I’d ever seen that vampires could know what it was like to be powerless, too.

Maybe that was why I found myself intrigued by this figure—because he was looking at this painting, when no

one else ever did. He was tall—taller than even most other vampires—and broad. He wore a deep purple jacket cut tight against his frame, a bronze sash wrapped around his waist. That, too, was a little off. The style was similar to the bright silks that all the other Nightborn wore, but the cut was a bit too sharp, the contrast a bit too bold. His hair was dark red—nearly black—and fell across his shoulders in rough waves. An unusual length, neither the flowing nor cropped styles favored by the House of Night’s court.

I could count on one hand the number of Nightborn vampires from beyond Sivrinaj that I’d met. Maybe the styles were different in the outer reaches of the kingdom. Still…

He glanced over his shoulder, directly at me. His eyes were rust-red, a striking enough color to be visible even from across the room. His gaze was casually curious. Still, the intensity of it skewered me.

Something was strange here, too. Something— “Have you tried these?”

Fuck.” I jolted.

I hadn’t heard the woman approach, which was both embarrassing and dangerous. She was tall and willowy, with freckles scattered over bronze skin, wide dark eyes, and a halo of cropped black curls around her head. She grinned, a meat pastry dripping pink juices onto her fingertips as she held it out to me.

“This is delicious.”

I didn’t much like vampires saying the word “delicious” while standing that close to me. I took two smooth steps away.

“I’m fine.”

“Oh, you’re missing out. It’s—” “Oraya.”

Vincent never shouted. His voice was strong enough to cut across any room. I looked over my shoulder to see him

at the arched entryway to the ballroom, nodding down the hall in an unmistakable message: Let’s go.

He didn’t have to tell me twice. I didn’t bother bidding the woman a goodbye as I strode after him, more than grateful to leave this pit of claws and teeth.

Still, I found myself casting one more glance back to that painting. The man was gone. The fallen Rishan just grasped at open air, abandoned once again.

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