Chapter no 4

The Serpent and the Wings of Night

I never drank. Vampire alcohol was incredibly strong for humans, and that aside, it was dangerous for me to dull my senses. Vincent rarely did, either—probably for the

same reasons as me. So I was surprised when he brought the wine to my chambers. We took tiny sips and then set it aside, leaving it untouched as we sat in silence, listening to the crackling of the fire.

Finally, he spoke. “I think you are as prepared as you possibly could be.”

He sounded like he was mostly trying to convince himself.

“The others will underestimate you,” he went on. “Use that. It’s a powerful weapon.”

He was right. I had learned long ago that the best weapon I had was my own weakness. I used it to kill almost every night in the slums. Right now, it didn’t feel like enough.

I swallowed past the lump in my throat. I watched my father as he looked to the fire, red light playing over the pale, hard angles of his face. Had he been this nervous the night he offered himself to his own Kejari?

“Is that what you did?” I asked. “Let them underestimate you?”

He blinked, taken aback. I rarely asked him about his time in the Kejari. I rarely asked him about his past at all. Maybe that sip of wine, or my nearly-inevitable impending death, made me a little bold.

“Yes,” he said, after a moment. “And it was likely why I won.”

It seemed laughable now that Vincent was ever someone who could be underestimated. But two hundred years ago, he had just been a young, lesser Hiaj noble. The House of Night was under Rishan control then and seemed like it would remain that way for centuries more.

“Were you nervous?”

“No. I knew what I had to do.”

At my visible skepticism, he lifted one shoulder in an almost-shrug. “Fine,” he admitted. “I was nervous. But I knew the Kejari was my only path to a life worth remembering. Death isn’t frightening when weighed against an insignificant existence.”

An insignificant existence.

Those words hit me unexpectedly hard. Because what existence was more insignificant than this? Living in constant fear, hobbled by my own blood and my own human weakness? I could never be anything this way, fighting so hard to survive that I could never do anything. Could never be anything of worth to… to the people who had nothing but me.

My jaw clenched so hard it trembled. I grabbed my glass and took another sip of wine, mostly because I was desperate to do something with my hands. I could feel Vincent’s eyes on me. Could feel the softening of his gaze.

“You do not have to do this, my little serpent,” he said softly. “I realize only now that perhaps I never told you that.”

It would be a lie to say that I wasn’t tempted to run away—tempted to hide in the space between the dresser and the wall, just as I had when I was a small child. A part

of me still always was hiding, because I was never going to be anything other than prey.

No, that was not a life of significance. It wasn’t even a life at all.

“I’m not backing out,” I said.

I looked down to my hand—to the delicate silver ring on my right little finger. A simple band with a black diamond so small it was no bigger than the band itself.

I’d had it in my pocket when Vincent found me as a child. I liked to think it belonged to my mother. Maybe it was just some worthless trinket. I would probably never know.

Absentmindedly, I rubbed it. Not even that tiny movement escaped Vincent’s attention.

“I would have found them for you, if I could,” he said. “I hope you understand that.”

A pang rang out in my chest. I didn’t like to openly acknowledge my own hopes. It made me feel… stupid. Childish. Even more so to hear Vincent reference them aloud.

“I know.”

“If I ever had an excuse, if there was ever a rebellion—” “Vincent. I know. I know you can’t go there.” I stood and

frowned at him, and his eyes fell to the fire, avoiding mine.

Fuck, it was strange, to see Vincent look something close to—to guilty.

Twenty years ago, Vincent pulled me from the wreckage in the wake of a horrible Rishan rebellion. The city I left behind, or what remained of it, was deep within Rishan territory. The only reason why Vincent had entered it at all decades ago was because the uprising had given him license to, but now? That territory was protected by Nyaxia. A Hiaj king could not breach it outside of wartime between the clans, and though it was ridiculous to call this eternal tension “peace,” my father had no reasonable excuse to invade and find my family.

If any of them had survived. Likely not. Whoever had been in that house when Vincent found me had not survived. But had there been others? Did I have anyone out there searching for me?

I knew the logical answer. Human lives were so fragile. Yet it still didn’t stop the dark corners of my mind from wandering. Wondering where they were. Wondering how they had suffered. Wondering if any of them remembered me.

I didn’t remember them. Maybe that was why I missed them so much. A dream could be whatever you needed it to be, and maybe the twelve-year-old version of myself needed saving them to be the missing piece that would finally make me feel whole.

“Soon,” Vincent murmured. “Soon you’ll be strong enough to go.”


No, Vincent couldn’t act, but I could—if I was something stronger than human. I would need to be stronger, even, than most vampires.

I could do it if I was as strong as Vincent himself.

This would be my wish from Nyaxia, if I won the Kejari: to become Vincent’s Coriatae. His heart-bound. A Coriatis bond was a powerful thing—verging on legendary—only granted a handful of times in history, and only forged by Nyaxia herself. It would strip away my humanity, making me a vampire without the risks of Turning, which ended in death more than half of the time. And it would bind my soul to Vincent’s, his power becoming mine, and mine becoming his. Not that I had much to offer him, of course. It was a testament to his love for me that he was willing to offer me such a gift at all.

As his Coriatae, I would be powerful enough to save the family that had birthed me and to become a true daughter to the man that raised me. I would be one of the most

powerful people in the House of Night. One of the most powerful people in the world.

And no one would ever underestimate me, ever again. “Soon,” I agreed.

He gave me a faint smile, then rose. “Are you ready?” “Yes.” But the word was ash in my mouth.

I had attempted to pray to Nyaxia many times over the years. I never felt much of anything—maybe because, as a human, I wasn’t truly one of her children. But as Vincent brought the bowl and the jeweled dagger, as he slit my hand and let my weak, human blood roll into the hammered gold, the hair prickled at the back of my neck. Vincent whispered prayers in the ancient tongue of the gods, his thumb pressed to my wound to squeeze drop after drop into the offering.

His eyes flicked up to meet mine.

“Nyaxia, Mother of Ravenous Dark, Womb of Night, of Shadow, of Blood. I give you Oraya of the Nightborn. She is the daughter my heart gave me, just as my heart made me your son. Her presence in the Kejari is the greatest gift I will ever offer you.” Perhaps I imagined that his voice had thickened, ever-so-slightly. “Save, perhaps, for her victory.”

Fuck. I was not expecting that this would be so difficult. No, I wasn’t much of a devotee. But now I felt the

Goddess here, taking the offering of my blood and promising me only more blood in return. I wondered if she might just keep taking, and taking, and taking, until my poor mortal veins had nothing left to give.

The words that would bind my fate hung thick as smoke in the air.

“I offer myself to you, Nyaxia. I offer you my blood, my blade, my flesh. I will compete in the Kejari. I will give you my victory, or I will give you my death.”

And then the final, sealing words: “Aja saraeta.

Take my truth.

Aja saraeta,” Vincent echoed, his gaze never leaving mine.

Drip, drip, drip, as my blood slowly drained away.

IT WAS PROBABLY ONLY the work of those tiny sips of wine that I was able to sleep at all. Eventually, dawn loomed, and Vincent retired. I lay in bed, staring at the stars painted on my ceiling. The wound on my hand throbbed. It would likely be another few days before the Kejari began, but my offering made it feel suddenly real in a way it never had before.

It was nearly sundown again by the time sheer exhaustion forced my eyes to close, my blades tucked beside me. Just in case.

When sleep took me, restless and anxious, I dreamed of safety.

I barely remembered my old life. But dreams were so good at filling in memories moth-eaten by time. It was a smear of sensations, like paints too-watered-down. A little clay house with cracked floors. An embrace in strong arms, a scraggly cheek, and the scent of dirt and sweat. Bloodless food—sickeningly sweet, absent of the iron tang— crumbling over my tongue.

I dreamed of a tired voice reading me a story and taking for granted that there would be a happy ending because I did not know of any other kind.

I hated these dreams. It was easier not to remember these things, and the fact that they always ended the same. The moonlight streamed through windows locked tight.

When the vampires came, wings upon wings upon wings blotted out those streaks of silver.

The two other little bodies scrambled out of bed to look at the sky. I was too afraid. I pulled the blankets over my head.

Put out the fire, quick, the woman hissed. Before— Crack. Crack. CRACK.

I squeezed my eyes shut as the screams started, far away, rising closer and closer.

As the clay around me began to tremble and shake—as the floors split and the walls collapsed and the woman screamed, and screamed, and screamed—



The screaming followed me as I woke—so much of it that my ears couldn’t separate the voices, couldn’t make sense of where my dream ended and reality began.

My eyes opened, and met only an impenetrable wall of black. Complete, utter darkness, so thick it choked me. My hands flew out, grasping at nothing.

My first disoriented thought was, Why did my lanterns go out? I never let my lanterns go out.

And then, too slowly, I realized I was not in my room. The scent of must and blood burned my nostrils. My palms pressed to the ground. Hard, dusty tile.

The painful reminder of the fresh wound of my offering cut through my addled mind. Dread rose as I pieced it together.

No. It was too early. I should have had a few more days, I should have had—

The memory of Vincent’s voice unfurled in my mind:

It could happen at any moment. She likes to do something unexpected.

I pushed myself upright. Panic spiked, but I forced it into submission. No, I could not afford to panic. Because this was it.

This was it.

The Kejari had begun.

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