Chapter no 35

The Serpent and the Wings of Night

I was surprised that Raihn could already fly. Vampires healed very quickly, and the wounds on his back had become scabbed over and bumpy with fresh pink scar

tissue. Still, I had thought he was weeks away from being able to use his wings. He insisted he was fine, but I didn’t miss the wince when he conjured them, nor the way his whole body seized up when he launched us into the sky.

“You alright?” I asked, after a while.

“Perfect,” he replied, like he didn’t even know why I was asking.

We flew for a long, long time—hours. The first time Raihn had flown with me, the attack had overshadowed all but the faintest glimmer of the joy of it. Now, with nothing else to distract me, I couldn’t help but revel in it. I loved how fast we moved, the weightlessness, the freedom. I loved the way the landscape spread out beneath us, the world that had trapped me now reduced to nothing but inconsequential miniature figurines. I loved the way the air smelled, the way it rushed around my face.

I loved everything about it.

I felt Raihn shift—felt the warmth of his breath against my cheek. I glanced back at him to see him twisting his head to look at me. It put our faces very close, his nose only a few inches from mine.

His eyes sparkled with amusement. “You’re grinning like a little child.”

I scowled, and he chuckled. “Oh, never mind. There she is.”

I rolled my eyes and looked back to the landscape below. We had flown beyond the inner city, now out to the sprawling settlements in the dunes.

“You enjoy flying,” he said.

I couldn’t even try to deny it. “I do.”

Understatement. Mother, if I had those wings, you’d have to drag me down.

“That’s unusual,” he said. “Most who can’t fly hate it the first few times.”

“You carry around a lot of wingless women?” “A few. Most of them vomited on me.”

“Still could happen. Don’t let your guard down.”

“I figured your stomach is probably as strong as your will.”

I craned my neck to eye him. “And how strong is that?” He grinned and leaned close as he said into my ear,

“Pure fucking steel. Obviously.” Obviously.



WE LANDED AT A FARMSTEAD. The settlement was beyond even the farthest reaches of Sivrinaj, out beyond the dunes. We had passed a little township not far from here, but the house that Raihn brought us to was long past the nearest populated street. It was a small but fine building, crafted of sandy-gray brick. Grass spread out in all directions, creamy gold even beneath the cold moonlight. To the left, horses grazed. To the right, pastures held sheep, goats, and one

mule that trotted over to inspect us with obvious trepidation.

When Raihn set me down, I nearly collapsed. My knees were wobbly and uncooperative. But I paid more attention to Raihn’s wince as he spirited his wings away.

He caught me watching him.

“Stop it with that face, princess.” “I’m not making a face.”

He heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Are you really not aware that you are always making a face?”

He strode to the door and I followed, suddenly very conscious of my facial muscles. He was wrong. I was definitely not always making a face.

The door opened. A tall, slender man with a mop of strawberry-gold hair stood there, revealing sharp canines with a broad grin. “Raihn! What a nice surprise. Mische will be elated. And—”

His eyes, blue as the sky, fell to me over Raihn’s shoulder. The smile shifted as he stepped aside to let us in

—shifted into something surprised and not altogether friendly.

“Oh. Well. This is… I think I know who you are.” What a greeting. I didn’t like his tone.

Raihn shook his head and touched my back. “Terrific hospitality, as always,” he grumbled, and maybe I imagined the reassuring stroke of his fingertips as he led me inside.

The interior of the house matched the exterior—simple, but clean. Well-made, but not ornate. A woman with ash-brown hair bound in a sweeping knot atop her head approached through the door to what looked like a kitchen, then stopped short.

“Oraya,” Raihn said, “this is Cairis.” He gestured to the blond man, who waved with a hesitant smile. Then he motioned to the brunette. “And this is Ketura.”

He offered no further explanation of who they were or what his relationship was to them.

Ketura didn’t move or speak. Didn’t even blink. “Where’s Mische?” Raihn said. “Upstairs?”

He was already on his way up, his hand on my arm, putting me before him. All so very casual, but I knew what he was doing. Growing up with Vincent, I was very familiar with what protection looked like.

“Second room to the right,” Cairis called after us, but neither followed.

The door was slightly ajar. Raihn knocked, then pushed it open. Mische was in bed, surrounded by fluffy white sheets and blankets, gazing out the window with an untouched book on her lap.

When she saw Raihn, her face lit up with an effervescent grin. She sat up quickly, like she was preparing to launch herself out of bed. Raihn took two quick steps closer, as if he saw the same thing I did and was preparing to catch her before she accidentally hurled herself to the ground.

“Don’t you dare—” he started, but the minute he was within reach, she leapt up and threw her arms around his neck so forcefully he let out an oof.

He grumbled something unconvincingly disapproving and didn’t pull away. She finally released him, and when she turned to me, her smile somehow managed to get wider.

The last remnants of my uncertainty disappeared. She just looked so happy.

I rubbed my wrist without meaning to.

Mische looked like she was about to jump up to hug me, too, but that was a step too far for me. I settled instead for an awkward wave.

“Feeling better?”

“Well, I am now!” she breathed.

While she was clearly still in some pain, bubbly enthusiasm imbued her every word. Raihn and I sat at the edge of her bed while she told us all about her time here— about Cairis’s daily card games and Ketura’s lessons in

gardening, about the names she had given all the chickens, about the way she was sure, totally sure, she was slowly winning over the heart of the cranky mule out in the pasture.

“I have no doubts,” Raihn said, at that, and I tried not to be offended when he gave me a sly, pointed smirk. “You seem to be good at winning the hearts of ill-tempered creatures.”

Goddess. And to think he’d actually complimented me just an hour ago.

Mische asked us a million questions about the Halfmoon trial, too, to which I gave stilted answers that Raihn enhanced with far more animated interjections. Her eyes got wider with every sentence.

“Gods above,” she gasped, when we reached the end. “That shy magic of yours came through for you! I told you! It was in you.”

I wondered if I imagined the little twitch of sadness, hastily hidden, when she said that. My gaze lingered on the burn scars peeking beneath her sleeve.

I shrugged. “It was luck.”

“No, it was incredible,” Raihn said, as I avoided his gaze.

We sat with Mische for a long time, conversation wandering past the trials and to other frivolities. I didn’t speak much, leaving it to Mische and Raihn, which was fine with me. Even after having lived with them, I was struck all over again by the easy warmth of their interactions. Two people who were utterly comfortable with each other.

Eventually, Raihn looked out the window to the sky. “Getting late,” he said, sounding a little dejected. “We should go. It’ll take a while to get back.”

He rose, and this time, he didn’t give Mische a chance to throw herself at him before he swept her up in an embrace, holding her tight.

“Get better, alright?”

“Alright,” she said into his shoulder. “Be safe. Kick their asses.”

“You know it.”

I shifted awkwardly, averting my gaze. It seemed like the kind of moment I shouldn’t intrude on.

Then Raihn pulled away, kissed her on the top of her head, and bid her one more goodbye before going to the door. I choked out an uncomfortable goodbye of my own and went to follow him when Mische said, “Oraya.”

I turned.

“You too,” she said softly. “Take care of yourself, alright?

Stay safe.”

Guilt twinged in my chest—because I had just watched Raihn make the same promise to her, and soon, the two of us could not both keep it. Watching him with her, it was hard not to wonder if perhaps he deserved it more.

“Of course,” I said.

“Thank you for coming. It… really meant a lot to me.” She gave a tiny smile. “It meant a lot to him, too.”

She held out her hand. It wasn’t a hug—maybe she knew that would be a step too far for me. Still, I found myself reaching back. Her fingers were warm for a vampire, her touch soft and gentle. She squeezed my hand.

A lump rose in my throat.

“I hope you feel better soon,” I said. “I’m just… I’m glad you made it out.”

“Me too.”

She released me, gave me a little wave, and I closed her door behind me. When I reached the top of the stairs, I paused. Hushed voices rose from below. Serious voices.

I couldn’t help myself. I told myself I wasn’t eavesdropping, exactly. I was just… failing to announce myself.

I moved very, very slowly down the steps, staying near to the wall to keep them from creaking under my weight. I stopped just out of view of the door to the dining room. I

could just glimpse the shape of Raihn’s shoulder at the edge of the doorframe.

“Vale is on his way now,” Cairis was saying. “Even bringing his new wife, if you can imagine that.”

He sounded like a gossiping housewife.

“Wife?” Raihn seemed surprised. “From Dhera? Who—” “Human. Or was, at least.”

Cairis said it in a tone of voice that implied a pointed look and a long sip of tea.

A long silence. I could barely see Raihn, and yet I knew he stiffened at that. His disapproval wafted thick as smoke.

“Interesting,” he said dryly.

“Interesting, indeed,” Cairis chirped. “Don’t you think so, Ketura?”


Then, so quietly I barely could hear it, “She should not be here.”

“She’s a friend,” Raihn said. “No, she isn’t.”

“She is a friend, Ketura, and you need to remember that.”

My brow twitched. That was something I’d never quite heard in Raihn’s voice before—command.

“Do you know what he’s doing out there right now?” Ketura hissed. “You should see it, Raihn. What he’s done to Genra and Isca. You should see how many people he’s killed.”

My mouth went dry. Genra and Isca—Rishan cities. One was even close to the district I had been born in, Salinae. The one that might still hold some of my bloodline, if anyone from my old life had survived the night Vincent had found me.

Cairis and Ketura were Rishan, then. I didn’t need to see their wings to know it from the way they spoke.

“I’m aware.”

“And yet you still walk through that door with her?

Bringing Vincent’s human whore to—”

Do not,” Raihn said sharply, “speak about her that way.”

Immediate silence.

“I apologize.” She did not sound very sorry at all.

I took one more step, and the floorboard groaned, giving away my presence. All three sets of eyes turned to me: Raihn’s pleasantly casual, Cairis’s blatantly curious, and Ketura’s razor-edged.

I cleared my throat and hurried down the rest of the stairs.

“We need to get back,” Raihn said to me. “Make sure we don’t get stuck on the wrong side of the Moon Palace when dawn comes.”

Then, to Ketura and Cairis, “Give Mische the food. I’ll be back sometime soon.” And he offered nothing else before he ushered me out the door, scooped me up in his arms, and launched both of us into the sky.

We flew in silence for some time.

“You were listening to all of that, weren’t you?” he said, at last.

Of course he knew. I didn’t bother denying it. “You made it easy.”

“Ketura is worried and angry. Like many people are, right now. So she’s a bit… sensitive.”

He sounded like he was choosing his words very deliberately.

“If I got all upset about being called Vincent’s pet, or whore, or whatever else they want to call me, I’d have no one to blame for it but myself. Hell, you called me that.”

Raihn was quiet for a long moment. We both knew he couldn’t argue.

“Ketura’s wife is in Salinae,” he said. “She’s scared for her. These are uncertain times.”

Salinae. The mention of the name made my chest ache— sympathy, followed by something more bitter.

I, too, worried for Salinae.

“I’m from there,” I said. “Salinae.” “You are?”

“That’s where Vincent found me. In the human districts there. It was when he was putting down a rebellion. I’d like…” I paused. I’d never voiced this aloud before. Not to anyone other than Vincent. Not even Ilana got this naive, fragile little dream of mine.

I rubbed the ring on my little finger.

“I’d like to go back one day,” I said. “See if anyone that knew me then is still there. Family, or… whoever. I don’t know.”

A momentary silence. I couldn’t bring myself to look at him. “What?” I said. “You think it’s a fairytale?”

Fairytale. Just like I had said about his hopes for the little girl he had saved, the one who reminded me so much of myself.

“No,” he said. “I think whatever family you have left would be damned lucky to have you.”

My cheeks tightened. But I shrugged away from the uncomfortable compliment.

“Who are they?” I asked, changing the subject. “Cairis and Ketura?”

“Friends,” he said.

I craned my neck to give him a skeptical look, which he must have felt, because he returned it. “What?”

They weren’t “friends.” I knew that right away. At first I wasn’t sure why, until I realized that I now knew what Raihn looked like when interacting with people he considered friends. Mische. Even… even, maybe, me.

At my flat stare, he chuckled.

“Alright, fine. They’re… maybe a better term would be old colleagues. I wouldn’t want to drink a beer with them, but I do trust them.”

That, I believed. I couldn’t imagine him sending Mische off in such a vulnerable state to anyone he didn’t trust absolutely.

Still… colleagues. Was that the right word? Ketura had apologized so quickly, even when she clearly was begrudging it.

“Did you command them?”

Raihn seemed a bit startled by that, and I found it satisfying. It was nice that I could still surprise him the way he continued to surprise me.

“Yes,” he said. “I did. You’re good, princess.” “When?”

“Long time ago. We were… ah… private guards of a sort.”

Now that was an interesting thought. I knew many vampire lords who had their own personal military forces. They went everywhere trailed by a series of stone-faced, hulking warriors. I could hardly imagine Raihn as one of them. They were so blankly generic, and he was so… not.

“Of a sort?” I pressed.

“Closest term I have for it,” he replied, in a way that shut down any further questioning.

We lapsed into silence. I watched the dunes and tiny towns roll by beneath us, glistening silver under the caress of the moon.

Eventually, Raihn said, unprompted, “I don’t think that about you anymore.”


“That you’re Vincent’s pet, or whore, or whatever. Maybe I did in the beginning, but not anymore. I just… I want you to know that.”

My throat thickened a bit.

Such a stupid thing, yet it was oddly validating—oddly comforting—to be defined by something other than my relationship to Vincent. And I knew, for better or worse, that Raihn meant what he said.

“You want me to thank you for not calling me a whore?” I said flatly.

He scoffed and shook his head. “Fuck you, too, Oraya.

Ix’s tits. I try to say a nice thing.” “So charming.”

“I won’t do it again, I promise.”

I made a show of rolling my eyes. But as our conversation faded, I nestled a little deeper into Raihn’s embrace.

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