Chapter no 32

The Serpent and the Wings of Night

If the church was beautiful in silence, it was downright stunning in movement. I showed up late intentionally— if I was going to let myself out in vampiric society

practically in my underwear, I’d do it once everyone had already eaten, thank you very much—and by then, the feast was well underway.

It put even the debauchery of Vincent’s parties to shame.

It was stunning, of course. Every glass surface and window of the church had been illuminated with blue and purple lights, which hovered near the ceiling. Music reverberated from every corner and crevice. Though there was only one orchestra, magic enhanced its performance, each note echoing over and over again until the sound swelled to fill the magnificent domed roof. Ivy vines bearing red and black flowers encircled every pillar. One side of the space had been turned into a dance floor, while the other held three long tables. Upon them, a selection of food sprawled that dwarfed the feast on the first night of the Kejari—I made a note to myself to make sure I stole some of that later.

But even more gruesomely impressive than the food was the sheer amount of blood. There was so, so much blood. Bowls of it at every seat, every table. Flavored blood.

Alcoholic blood. Blood in every possible presentation— baked into food, offered in carafes, presented in golden basins. Goblets were never far from reach. Drunken partygoers had already adorned the tablecloth and floor with splashes of red.

My stomach turned in a way that surprised me.

I should have been grateful—with this much available, I was as safe as I ever would be surrounded by so many vampires. And I was no stranger to what vampire feasts often looked like.

So why did this bother me? Why did I find myself thinking so much more about where it all might have come from?

I stepped into the room and passed several of my fellow contestants sprawled out in their chairs, already having gorged themselves on all manners of delicacies. I wondered if this was intentional. Perhaps this was the last blood any of them would be seeing for quite some time.

The other guests paid more attention to me than I ever would have tolerated before. I felt their eyes and had to remind myself not to shrink beneath them, acutely aware of every expanse of bare skin I now left on display. When a pack of five vampires blatantly swiveled their heads after me, staring with a terrifying mix of curiosity, hunger, and wariness, the primal part of me that had been trained my entire life to avoid this very scenario actually considered leaving.

Instead, I touched the scarf on my neck—touched the stain of my friend’s blood.

You are no fucking coward, Oraya, I heard her whisper. No. I was not.

I looked around for Raihn, but—

Light footsteps approached, and I turned to meet them before they got too close. Vincent stood before me, a tight smile at the corner of his mouth.

I hadn’t seen him in this much light since the Kejari started—not up close. He wore black, his jacket open at the neck to reveal most of his Heir Mark. His wings were out, too, the red at their edges especially striking under this lighting. I wondered if he ever hid them now, or if he needed to make sure they were always visible, with his rule under attack.

It wasn’t the clothing, or the Mark, or the wings that shocked me, though. It was his face. His eyes looked uncannily bright, just because the darkness beneath them was so pronounced. Every plane of his expression was sharp and pinched, as if he’d set each feature in stone. And yet, the control in it was cracking. I sensed it before. Now, it was chillingly stark.

It all softened, of course, when he saw me.

I stiffened, two impulses warring with each other.

I looked at him and saw the way he had seemed ready to hurl himself into that pit during the trial.

And… I looked at him and saw Raihn’s back. Heard the lie he had told me.

I hadn’t had the chance to wrestle my anger into something I could cage, and showing Vincent untamed emotions was a dangerous prospect.

Still, he seemed so, so relieved to see me. He took in my appearance, a faint wrinkle of confusion passing over his brow.

“What are you wearing?” “Something different.”

My words were curt. I didn’t feel like explaining. “It’s unwise.”

Unwise to expose so much of myself. Unwise to draw attention. Unwise to wear anything other than armor.

“I know,” I said.

He didn’t seem to know what to do with that. He gave me an odd look, like he was just noticing something new

about me. Maybe in the same way I had just noticed something new about him.

Vincent was never the type to drop a topic, so I was mildly surprised when he let his expression smooth and instead offered me his hand. “A dance?”

“A dance?”

My nose scrunched up without my permission, and he gave a dry chuckle of amusement. “Such an outrageous prospect?”

“I—” I stopped myself before I let myself speak. Still, my face was, as always, too expressive. He glimpsed the anger I didn’t want to show him, anyway.

“Something bothers you.”

“I saw what your men did to Raihn.” “Raihn?”

“My ally.”

His face fell. “Ah.”

“You—” I had to choose my words carefully. “You told me you wouldn’t break him.”

“Nothing about him seemed broken,” Vincent said simply. “I didn’t witness Jesmine’s methods, but I saw him fight well in that trial.”

Fought well in spite of the relentless torture he had endured.

I said nothing, because I didn’t trust myself to. Even what I’d already revealed, I thought, would be too much. But contrary to my expectations, Vincent merely seemed weary and sad.

“I am a wartime king leading my people through dark times,” he said. “And Jesmine is a general who knows how to do whatever it takes to protect her kingdom. And sometimes those tasks require unpleasant actions. I won’t deny that.” He extended his hand to me again, a weak, soft smile at his lips. “But tonight I’m just a father who, twelve hours ago, was certain he’d just watched his daughter die.

So please, little serpent. Indulge me. Let me be that man for just a few minutes.”

I swallowed, hesitating.

Living this life had required me to learn how to be many contradictory things at once. It forced me to divvy my mind up into many little rooms, each containing a different part of myself. Now, the beast of my anger calmed enough for me to lock it away safely within its cage. It was not gone. It was not satisfied. But it was restrained.

“I don’t know how to dance,” I said, at last.

“That’s fine. We can pretend I’m a better father, and that I taught you such things like I was supposed to.”

I softened. Fuck it.

I took his hand, and Vincent led me to the dance floor. We stayed off to the side—far away from the borderline-orgy that was happening in the center of the room, which would have been a very awkward place to be with my father.

“You taught me more useful things than dancing, at least,” I said.

He spun me into position. Maybe I didn’t know how to dance, but I did know how to move, and I certainly knew how to follow his lead. All of this resulted in far less awkward stumbling than I would have expected.

“And you learned them well,” he said. “That and more, if what I saw last night was any indication.”

The pride in his voice lit an echoing flicker of warmth in my chest. Despite myself, my cheeks tightened.

It still felt like a fever dream. I wasn’t completely sure what I had done, or how I had done it. But I knew one thing: I had felt powerful, truly powerful, for the first time in my entire life.

Vincent laughed softly. “Don’t hide that pride. It is well deserved.”

“I didn’t know I could do that,” I admitted.

Did he know? Did he suspect I was capable of that kind of power?

“Never be ashamed of exceeding expectations,” he said. “Even mine.”

I had never even considered that it was possible to do such a thing. Vincent’s expectations were the mold I was poured into—there was nowhere for me to go, nothing for me to be, but what he made me. I understood young that the harsh words and the strong hands were necessary. He was trying to keep me safe, and one mistake would be all it took to destroy my fragile mortal life.

Vincent would never apologize to me for what he had done to Raihn. Maybe he shouldn’t. Maybe, under his circumstances, he didn’t do anything wrong.

But tonight, he would pretend it hadn’t happened. And maybe, for tonight, I could keep following his lead, just as I had for the last fifteen years.

Yet, I couldn’t help but prod. Just a little.

“The Rishan?” I asked, very casually. “Anything new?”

“Always. I’ll be traveling again soon, gone for a few weeks. But let’s not talk about such dark things. For now, I’m here.”

He swept me around the dance floor, and I was reminded suddenly and vividly of one time when I was still small enough for him to carry me in one arm and he showed me what it was like to fly—just a little, just from the balcony to the ground. One time and never, ever again.

I told him this, and for some reason, the smile that twitched at his lips made my heart ache.

“I recall,” he said softly. “It was the first time I saw you smile since I had brought you here.”

“I didn’t remember that part.” “I never forgot it.”

I thought of what it had been like to fly with Raihn— even under such awful circumstances, still so freeing and exhilarating.

“Why didn’t you ever do it again? Take me flying?”

The smile faded. “The last thing I wanted was for you to think you could and start throwing yourself off of balconies.”

Because it was always about protecting me. Always.

As if he, too, had the same thought, he said, “It never gets…” His voice trailed off, like the words grew too big or complex to fit into syllables. His eyes went far away. His steps even slowed.

A spike of concern. “Vincent?”

His eyes returned, blinked, fell to mine.

“I can’t take credit for everything that you’ve become, Oraya. Even if sometimes I wish I could. But if I’m responsible for just one small piece of that, it will have been the greatest accomplishment of my life.”

We both had stopped moving, and I was grateful for it, because I would have tripped over my feet in pure shock.

He had never, ever spoken this way to me. Not once. Not ever.

“In desperate times, one thinks about all the things they haven’t said. And yesterday, when I saw you fall, I realized that perhaps I had never said that to you. It occurred to me that perhaps you didn’t know—that you did not know how much I—”

Vincent, the Nightborn King, the man who had never met a threat he could not defeat, seemed to bow beneath the words he struggled to choke out. “It was important for me to tell you that. That’s all.”

My lips parted, but I didn’t know what to say.

Sometimes people would call me Vincent’s pet, as if I was some passing distraction or source of amusement. And though I never questioned that he loved me, in his own way, sometimes I would still wonder. He had lived my lifetime ten times over. He was more than three hundred years old, and I had only been a part of that for less than twenty years.

The wave of warmth I felt at his words dimmed quickly to cold fear.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “What happened?”

Because that was the only reason why he would talk like this. If something awful was about to happen or had already.

But he just shook his head and swept me back into our dance steps. “Nothing. I’ve just become a sentimental old man. And I look forward to the day I don’t have to worry about outliving you.”

A streak of brightness over his shoulder caught my eye— a familiar form I would now know anywhere, even from across the room. Raihn was leaving through the doors that led to the patio, wearing a black silk jacket with a deep violet sash that hung down his back, his hair unbound in those messy red-black waves. I only glimpsed him before he was gone.

I brought my attention back to Vincent quickly, but not quickly enough. He’d noticed my distraction. He gave me a half-smile as the music faded, then swelled again.

“One more song,” he said, quietly, “and then I’ll let you go, my little serpent.”

My chest tightened with a swell of emotion I couldn’t place. Eerily similar, perhaps, to grief. The strange sensation that something existed here, in this dance, that I didn’t want to relinquish—a sense that once I let this moment slip away, it would be gone forever.

It was a silly thought. I didn’t know why it crossed my mind.

Still, I slid my hand back into his. This time, I took the first step. “One more song,” I agreed.



THE NIGHT WAS HOT. By the time I wandered to the patio, sweat slicked my skin, and the humidity outside did little to cool it. When our next dance ended, Vincent had stepped out of his role as my father and stepped back into the role of the Nightborn King, ruler of a wartime nation. He was commandeering and serious as he wandered off to Jesmine, speaking with her in a hushed, hurried voice—the kind that I knew better than to eavesdrop on.

Gardens surrounded the church, sprawling even though it was in the center of the inner city, where space came at a premium—and it was doubly extravagant, because in the House of Night, water was even more rare. But what didn’t our goddess deserve? Nothing was more important than Nyaxia, and Nyaxia deserved the most stunning gardens on the continent.

Well, practicality aside, she certainly got them. Silver and blue flowers spread before me in blankets of color. It was so disgustingly beautiful it just seemed excessive, all of it immaculately shaped and pruned and weeded and watered. Marble tile paths circled the clusters of greenery in functionally impractical but artistically beautiful designs. From above, they would shape the sigil of the House of Night.

Figured. They’d create something for her that only she, and they, could appreciate.

Movement to the left caught my eye. A cluster of silver stood among the bushes at a neighboring path—all dressed in deep red. I recognized Angelika immediately. It was impossible not to. She wore a draped gown of deep red fabric—sleeveless, showing off her sculpted muscles—with her silver hair falling down her back in a braid. Beside her was Ivan. Both of them had their heads bowed in serious conversation with a third figure, whose back was to me.

That figure, as if sensing my stare, turned to look over his shoulder.

Recognition speared me.

The man I’d spoken to that night by the river. The man who had given me the cigarillos. He was Bloodborn. Standing next to the other House of Blood contestants, it seemed so wildly obvious, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed it before.

He lifted his hand dismissively to Angelika and Ivan in a way that made it clear that not only was he Bloodborn, he was also powerful—because Angelika, the type of person who seemed like she didn’t take orders from anyone, fell back to the rest of the party without another word.

“You did it yet again,” the man said as he approached me. Now that I knew to listen for it, I could hear the House of Blood accent—so faint, like he’d stomped it out over the course of decades, reducing it to just the hint of a melodic lilt beneath each word. “You won me quite a lot of money. But I’m afraid after that display, the odds against you won’t be quite as favorable to your few believers. Shame. Plenty of benefit in being underestimated.” He lifted a shoulder and let it fall. “I should have brought you more cigarillos. I’m afraid I’m all out.”

My eyes slid to him. I let them rest there for a long moment, taking him in now that I was seeing him in the light. He looked Bloodborn in every sense. His eyes, the pupils slightly slitted against the lantern light, held those telltale strings of crimson and gold. The red marks at his throat lingered just beneath the edge of his collar, which was high and stiff in burgundy fabric of the traditional House of Blood style, simple and tailored. Before I hadn’t been able to tell if his hair was blonde or silver, and now I realized that it was both—ashy blond-gray with shocks of near-white.

The corner of his mouth tightened.

“It’s a little insulting to be stared at that way. But then, I suppose that’s often your reality, isn’t it?”

“Just wondering how I missed the fact that you’re Bloodborn.”

“Ah. You’re right. We shared such a lovely moment, and yet I never properly introduced myself to you.” He extended his hand. “Septimus, of the House of Blood.”

I didn’t take it. Instead, I stepped back to compensate for the way he had leaned closer, which he seemed to find amusing. He withdrew his hand—unshaken—and slipped it into his pocket. “I see. You don’t take an empty hand. Smart. Did your father teach you that?”

The hair prickled at the back of my neck.

I didn’t like this man. I didn’t like the way he spoke, I didn’t like the stupid little smirk on his face, and I especially did not fucking like that he seemed to think he was playing with me.

“There you are.”

I chose not to think about exactly how relieved I was to hear Raihn’s voice. Nor did I want to think about the fact that Raihn stopped very close to me—so close our shoulders touched—and my only impulse was to move closer.

I glanced at him and had to remind myself to look away.

He looked magnificent. His clothing was different than the style most of the other Nightborn men, Rishan or Hiaj, wore here. His jacket was cut close to his body, tailored as if it had been made for him. The lapel fastened straight up-and-down, rather than asymmetrically like most Nightborn fashion did now, the buttons bright silver moons. Dark silver embroidery lined his collar and the cuffs of his sleeves, and a sweeping cape of violet draped across his chest and hung over one shoulder.

It was… a lot. The Moon Palace had apparently seen fit to spoil him. Yet despite all the finery, his face and hair were as rough and unkempt as ever.

Septimus smiled. “Raihn. I was just congratulating your partner on her victory. You two were remarkable.”

I had to hide my surprise. Septimus addressed him by his first name. As if they knew each other.

I could practically feel the air curdle. Raihn’s expression went hard, every muscle rearranging into what I knew by now was utter distaste.

“Thanks,” he said, in a tone that didn’t bother to hide it. “Now, this is an interesting thought…” Septimus’s eyes

flicked between the two of us. “Now that I can’t place my bets on the two of you together, I wonder who I should put my silver on next time? Someone uneducated might think it would be easy for you to kill her, Raihn, but I think Nessanyn has a good chance of—oh, I’m sorry.” Another one of those smiles. “It’s Oraya, isn’t it? I’ve always been bad with names.”


I narrowed my eyes, my hands drifting to my blades, which I’d secured on my thighs. A goad, obviously, even if I didn’t understand what it meant. And the strike hit its target, because Raihn’s entire form went rigid, the shift in energy so abrupt I felt it without even looking at him.

“You should be paying more attention to your own dogs.” He turned away, his hand on my back—my very, very bare back—as he grumbled, “Let’s go.”

“Have a lovely night,” Septimus called after us.

We walked down the garden paths without looking back.

Raihn was still visibly tense.

“Sorry,” he said. “I should have rescued you from him sooner.”

“You know him?”

“Unfortunately. He’s been sidling up to every contestant to see what he can wring out of them. Surprised you made it this far without getting the brunt of it, too.”

“Who is he?”

“One of the princes of the House of Blood. Every Bloodborn contestant is in the Kejari at his behest.”

“Why is he here?”

I had wondered why the Bloodborn bothered to enter the Kejari at all. Even Nyaxia herself was hostile to

Bloodborn vampires. Two thousand years ago, the House of Blood was her favored kingdom, but when they turned against her in a squabble over the gifts she’d chosen to give them, she cursed them instead. Now, she offered the House of Blood no love whatsoever. A Bloodborn vampire had won a Kejari only one time—more than a millennium ago—and Nyaxia had been reluctant to even grant her a wish.

I wasn’t sure if I imagined the beat of hesitation before Raihn answered. “The House of Blood wants power more than anything. Even small alliances go a long way.”

That made sense. All Houses were welcome in the Kejari. It was probably the only time that Bloodborn royalty was ever able to freely interact with other vampire kingdoms.

“He sees a lot of opportunity with the House of Night being at war with itself, the fucking vulture,” he muttered, as if to himself.

We walked a few more paces in silence as I mulled this over.

I became aware of Raihn’s stare—even without looking at him, I could feel it, starting at my feet and trailing up, lingering on every expanse of bare skin.

I stopped walking. Then turned to face him. We stood close enough that I had to tilt my chin up a bit to make eye contact with him. I noticed this for the first time in weeks. When had I stopped thinking about the size discrepancy between us? When had it stopped being a threat and started being… oddly comforting?

“You look nice,” he said, in a tone of voice that made nice sound like a million other promises, each of which shivered over my flesh.

I asked, “Who’s Nessanyn?”

A flinch—of surprise, or maybe discomfort?—flitted across his face.

“An old friend who deserves more respect than to be used as some prick’s pathetic attempt at intimidation.” His eyes hardened. “Be careful with him. He’s a dangerous person.”

“Some would call you a dangerous person.”

The corner of his mouth curled. “Not with you.”

I hoped he didn’t hear whatever strange thing my heart did at that—the sudden tightness in my chest.

His gaze lifted past me, to the church and the party happening within its walls.

“I hate being here,” he said. “Do you want to go somewhere more fun?”

I knew it was stupid to agree.

And yet, I didn’t regret it at all when I answered without hesitation, “Fuck, yes. Please.”

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