Chapter no 33

The Serpent and the Wings of Night

Alright, fine. I’d admit it. The piss beer was starting to grow on me. I didn’t hate it. Maybe… maybe I even enjoyed it.

But still, I didn’t make the face that Raihn did when he drank it. Like he was coming as close as he’d ever get to the gods themselves.

He finished his gulp and lowered his mug. His brow furrowed as he met my eyes.

“What’s that face for, princess?”

“My face? I was thinking about your face.” His brows notched lower. “What about it?”

I was supposed to say some cutting insult here. I had been prepared with those words on the tip of my tongue. But just in that moment, the moonlight fell over his features in just the right way, and I swallowed all of them.

Because I realized that I couldn’t say anything about Raihn’s face. I had memorized every single line, every twitch of expression.

That realization sat heavy in my stomach. I swallowed a gulp of beer instead of answering.

We sat on the flat rooftop of an abandoned house. Raihn had spirited me off to his favorite terrible pub with his favorite terrible beer. Even with my humanness and his excellent acting skills, we couldn’t exactly sit around in

there without attracting too much unwanted attention while dressed like this, so we came out here instead.

I liked it. We had a nice vantage point to watch the streets while remaining hidden from prying eyes. Maybe all our hard work had paid off, because it seemed like people were actually living their lives out here. Or maybe I had just learned to appreciate it more. Humans left little marks of their lives everywhere. Flowers in window boxes, toys left in yards, a series of shoes on the doorstep that painted the image of a family.

I had never noticed these things before, and certainly never found beauty in them. Now, I tucked each one away like little secret gifts.

Raihn let out a groan, let his head fall back against the wall, and loosened another button of his jacket. It was the third one, leaving it open down to his sternum and revealing a long triangle of muscled flesh that I tried not to look too closely at.

Just as I tried not to notice the way his eyes lingered on my skin when I lifted my beer.

Just as I tried not to notice that I enjoyed it—the weight of that gaze, heavy as a touch.

“It’s a relief to be away from that stuffy place,” he said. “Much more pleasant out here.”

“You barely even spent any time in there.” “Only enough to wait for you.”

He clamped his mouth shut right at the end of the sentence—like he didn’t expect it to sound the way it did.

Once again, I carefully did-not-notice this.

“Besides,” he went on, “I couldn’t exactly wander around socializing wearing this ridiculous outfit.”

I didn’t know what that meant.

“Why?” I took a sip of beer. “Does it offend your fashionable sensibilities?”

“It’s about two hundred years out of style.” Raihn scoffed and shook his head, his smile souring. “The Moon

Palace has a cruel sense of humor.”

I didn’t know what that meant, either, but before I could ask, Raihn’s eyes fell back to me. They started at my face and slid down. I sat with my legs folded beneath me, the silk of my dress bunched around my upper thigh on the left side, where the skirt slit. His gaze traveled from my eyes to my mouth, down my throat, shoulder, side, all the way down the bare curl of that leg.

It lingered there, on my thigh, and I didn’t so much as breathe as I watched his lips curl.

“Dangerous,” he said.

Yes, I agreed, silently.

“But resourceful.” His smile broadened, and I realized he was talking about my blade—strapped around my upper thigh.

I exhaled. “I had to be creative.”

“I’d be disappointed if you didn’t walk into that party armed to the teeth.”

“You’re armed, too.”

I lifted my chin to his sword, which had been strapped across his back. I had to notice, now, when Raihn was armed. That sword could kill me with a single strike.

He shrugged.

“What’s this?” he asked, motioning to his throat.

My own fingers mimicked the movement, and I brushed Ilana’s scarf. The reminder of it made a knot of grief—and anger—tighten in my stomach.

“It belonged to a friend.”

Sometimes I resented the fact that Raihn so often heard the things I didn’t say. Right now, though, maybe I was a little relieved by it.

“A human friend,” he said. “Yes.”

“The one from that night?”

We both knew which night he was talking about.

They’re dead, little human.

I gave him a questioning look—how did he know?—and he responded with a faint, humorless smile.

“It smells like the Moon Palace.” Fuck. Fuck, I hated that.

Raihn’s smile faded. “What’s that face for, princess?”

“I just—it shouldn’t smell like that place. It was… hers. It doesn’t belong to them.” I touched the end of the scarf, winding it around my fingers. Like if I clutched it tightly enough, I could feel her hands as she had tried to give it to me. Mother, I wished I had taken it from her then.

And now it seemed like one more demeaning injustice. That the place where she had died erased the final remnants of her life.

It felt ridiculous. No doubt sounded ridiculous, too. And yet his face shifted slightly—shifted in a way that said he understood. He leaned a little closer.

“That isn’t all,” he said. “It also smells like…”

His eyelashes lowered, and again, he moved a bit closer

—only inches between us now.

“Like rose perfume,” he murmured. “And bread. And… cigar smoke.”

I choked a strange sound, involuntarily. So often, I had been jealous of vampires—jealous of their strength, their speed, their power. But never more than I was in this moment. I would have given anything to smell Ilana again. Smell her and that disgusting messy apartment.

“Really?” I said, my voice rougher than I’d intended. “You smell all of that?”

“It’s a bit difficult, over the scent of…” He cleared his throat. “Well. You. But yes, I do. If I try.” His eyes lifted to mine. “It’s all still there, Oraya. The Palace didn’t take everything.”

My fingers tightened around the fabric.

“What was her name?” he asked. “Your friend?” “Ilana.”

I hadn’t actually spoken her name aloud since she died.

The shape of the syllables on my tongue felt like rebellion.

“I’m sorry,” he said softly. “I’m sorry for what happened to her. And I’m sorry that… this is a hard place to grieve.”

A hard place to grieve. What an understatement. There was no room for grief in a place like this. No room for softness or vulnerability. And certainly no room for the kind of anger, messy and undignified, that Ilana’s death had ignited inside me.

“She was a person,” I said, between my teeth. “Not prey.

Not a game. She was—”

Fuck, what wasn’t she? She was silk and cigar smoke and a short temper and a million contradictions; a full life of a thousand other thoughts and dreams and desires for the future—and someone whom I loved, deeply.

I lowered my gaze to the clay of the roof, my hands tight and knuckles white around my mug. I waited for the sting in my eyes to pass.

“Can I ask you a question, Oraya?” Raihn said. “You don’t have to answer, if you don’t want to.”

I nodded.

“When we were bonded in the trial, I felt… I felt a lot of things. Your anger. Fear. The grief.”

My jaw tightened. My instinct was to lash out at him just for acknowledging that he saw those things in me—I so fiercely guarded them. But then, there was no accusation of weakness in his voice. And I’d felt all of that in him, too. Just as potent in his heart as they were in mine, albeit in different ways.

“If you win the Kejari,” he went on, “would you ask Nyaxia to change you?”

I understood exactly what he was asking, and considered not answering. He is Rishan, Vincent whispered in my ear. I couldn’t tell him about binding myself to Vincent, becoming his Coriatae. Those details were far too sensitive.

But Raihn, damn him, saw the crux of my answer on my face, even when I hadn’t said a word.

“Yes,” he said. “You will.”

He sounded oddly disappointed, which I hated.

“Why wouldn’t I ask her to make me something different?” I shot back, a bit too quickly. “Do you have any idea how exhausting it is to live this way? I can’t change anything, be anything, if I’m just stuck being prey.” I clamped my teeth down on my words, then shook my head once. “No. I can’t do that like this. Not how I am now.”

“You can’t?”

I had to force myself to meet Raihn’s eyes. I half thought he was mocking me. But there was nothing feigned in his stare, nothing ingenuine. Only sadness.

In that trial, he had looked at me like I could do anything. Like I was more powerful, more awe-inspiring, than Nyaxia herself. No one had ever looked at me that way before.

And even now, a shade of it lingered.

“Don’t be so quick to throw away your humanity, Oraya,” he said. “You might find you miss it once it’s gone.”

And maybe my human eyes were weak in the darkness compared to his, but the shadow wasn’t enough to hide the twinge across his face that he pretended wasn’t there.

“Those parts of yourself are never really gone,” I said quietly.

“Sometimes, I’m not sure about that.”

“You don’t think I see how hard you’ve worked to hold onto your humanity? You’re more human than I am, Raihn. You’ve kept every part of it that makes you value the things in this shitty world that no one else here does. You’ve kept the compassion. It doesn’t matter if your blood runs black now. That hasn’t changed you.”

Such a raw compliment tasted strange on my lips. It was so uncomfortably earnest. But I said it because I knew he needed to hear it.

And… I said it because it was true.

Raihn went very still and very silent. And slowly, so slowly, his gaze lifted to me.

Before, he had looked at me like I was a goddess, and I had thought I couldn’t feel more powerful than I did in that moment.

I was wrong.

Because now he looked at me like I was more than that

—like I was human. Somehow, that meant more.

I had to force the smirk to my mouth. “What’s that face for?”

I expected a dry chuckle, a verbal nudge to my ribs. But he remained stone serious, a wrinkle deepening between his brows.

My smirk faded. “What?” “Nothing.”

“Give me one honest thing, Raihn Ashraj.”

After a long moment of silence, he finally spoke.

“I’ve lived through some injustices in the last couple of centuries. Seen some fucking travesties. But one of the biggest, Oraya, is that anyone taught you that you should become anything other than exactly what you are.”

My hands went numb. My fingers were so tight around my mug that they trembled. The words split me from throat to navel, pulled me open and touched my most fragile parts.

My mind emptied of thought for several long seconds.

And then only one returned:

I will need to kill this person, and I don’t know if I can.

It was a mercy that Raihn didn’t wait for a response. He just stood and extended his hand to me. “Let’s walk for a while.”



THE SKY WAS GROWING FAINTLY rosy with the promise of dawn. We walked in the southern end of the district, slowly wandering closer and closer to the Moon Palace.

I hated time. I always had—it was forever a marker of the gulf between me and the vampires that surrounded me

—but never more than I did right now, as this night slipped through my fingers.

Any minute now, Raihn would try to kill me. Or I would have to kill him. As our conversation grew slower, the silence between our words longer, I knew that promise was sinking into us both.

Finally, he stopped in a darkened side street. Rocky steps led down to the bank of the Lituro River. We stood exactly on the boundary between our worlds—the inner city directly across the water, the human district behind us—the sun warning of its arrival. He paused and looked out over the view—first to our left, to the skyline of Sivrinaj, and then the right, to the human district and the dunes rolling beyond them.

Then he stretched and reached for the buckle of his scabbard, which cut across his chest.

I tensed and stepped back. My hand reached for my blade, still strapped to my thigh. One thought: This is it.

But he just unbuckled the strap. “Here. Put this over there for me, will you? My back is still fucking killing me, and this thing is heavy.”

My brow furrowed. “What? Why?” “Just put it over there.”

He spoke so casually, like there was nothing at all unusual about what he was asking me to do.

I took the scabbard from him. I didn’t know how he carted this thing around all the time—it was, indeed, outrageously heavy, so much so that I had to strain all my muscles to keep from letting it slip.

I did as he asked and laid it against the wall.

Raihn wandered two steps away, leaving me closer to his weapon than he was.

It was all so nonchalant. But I know this was a performance. I’d spent months now studying Raihn’s every move. This was just like his fighting style. The magic hidden in brutish strikes.

I just didn’t understand why. I watched him, waiting for the trick.

He turned to me, then loosened another two buttons of his jacket, exposing several more inches of his bare chest. He leaned against the wall, then pulled apart the fabric, looked down at himself, and frowned.

“I got a nasty cut at the trial. Even the healing didn’t help it much.”

“You… what?”

“Do you think I should be concerned?” I didn’t move.

He rolled his eyes at me. “Honestly. Just come here.”

I did. He held open the lapels of his jacket, his head tilted back against the wall—a broad triangle of bare skin, and his throat, completely exposed to me.

Me, who was armed.

While his sword was over there, out of his reach.

All at once, I understood what this was. What we were doing.

He was offering himself to me. He was presenting me a perfect opening. He knew it. I knew it. We both knew the other knew it.

I could kill him right now. It would take so little. I would plunge the blade right there, right in the center of that perfect expanse of skin. His blood would probably be

warmer than the others I killed—I didn’t know why I thought that, only that I was almost positive it would be true. I wondered if he would clutch me as it ended. How his final breath would feel over my face.

“Well?” he said. “What do you think?” I stepped closer.

Our bodies were nearly flush. The smell of him surrounded me. It hit me, what that element of it I hadn’t been able to place was.

He smelled like the sky. He smelled the way air felt as it rushed around you, freeing and terrifying and the most beautiful fucking thing you’ve ever experienced.

My fingertips touched his chest. His skin was warm. He had a few scars here, too, and a smattering of dark hair that was softer than I expected it to be. The sudden urge to flatten my palm against his skin, run my hands across all those different textures, nearly overwhelmed me.

I’d envied vampires my entire life. But now, for the first time, I felt a sharp pang of sympathy for them.

Because suddenly, I understood what it was like to be hungry.

It was fucking excruciating.

“Hm,” I said flatly. “Looks serious.”

“I was concerned you might think so.”

I dragged my stare away from his chest, up the elegant cords of muscle of his throat, up to his lips—all promise, etched into the delicate curve of a smile that communicated so many things he didn’t say.

I imagined that if I killed him here, that smile would linger.

“Your heart is beating fast,” he murmured. “You must be very concerned for my well-being.”

I let out a shaky breath that I tried to pass off as a laugh.

And I didn’t move—couldn’t move—my fingers still brushing his skin, as his hand lifted to my face. I let him touch me, too. Let the immaculate rough brush of his

knuckles caress my cheek, then unfold over the angle of my jaw. His thumb lingered, slowly moving over the curve of my mouth, my lower lip.

“Or are you afraid?”

The smile had faded. It was a real question.

And the answer petrified me, because I was not afraid, and that was the most terrifying thing of all.

I could open his shirt, slide my hands over the expanse of his chest, and thrust my poison blade right here—right into his heart. He could tear away this ridiculous delicate spiderweb of a dress and cut me open.

The two of us could burn each other up.

My eyes lifted to his. I had never looked at them at such a distance before. I realized they looked red because they were comprised of so many different threads of color— near-black and honey-gold and coffee-brown and even little glints of bright crimson. So many disparate pieces that shouldn’t fit together. Just like him. Just like me.

And it was there, in his eyes, that I found the truth that should have broken me.

Yes, we could kill each other here. We were offering ourselves to each other.

But neither of us would.

“No,” I whispered. “I’m not afraid.”

I didn’t notice my lips had curled until his thumb moved, tracing the shape of that smile as if it was something worthy of reverence.

“Are you going to kill me, Oraya?”

I didn’t run. Didn’t move. Instead, I lay my palm flat against his chest.

I surprised even myself when I replied, “Not tonight.”

His hand slid from my face and swept a stray strand of black hair from my cheek, smoothing it to the side. But instead of withdrawing, his fingers tightened around my hair—clutching it, but not pulling, as if he was trying to convince himself to let me go and failing.

“You might destroy me anyway.”

I saw it here, in this moment. Want. Desire.

And I knew what it was for vampires to desire someone like me. I knew it so well that it should have sent me running.

But even more frightening than his desire was mine. I felt that call echoing in my own pulse. It was so strong that when he finally released me—when I finally backed away from him and turned away without another word—I had to resist the urge to lick his touch from my fingertips.

Maybe it would taste as metallic and hot as blood.

You'll Also Like