Chapter no 42

The Serpent and the Wings of Night

I insisted on walking back to the apartment, even though I could barely move. We were far down the hall by the time Angelika, the fourth and final contestant, stumbled

through the door to the Moon Palace. She must have turned back in an attempt to find Ivan. But she had come back alone. Her wordless scream had echoed in every crevice of the Moon Palace.

That sound was a mirror to something inside of me that I didn’t know how to acknowledge.

I clutched my abdomen. Blood bubbled beneath my fingers. But I didn’t feel it. I only felt the gritty ash of Salinae—or what remained of it.

I thought of thousands of humans burning in Asteris’s power.

I thought of their lungs withering in that toxic smoke.

I thought of a little boy and a little girl that I only distantly remembered—that I only allowed myself to dream might still live, somewhere—and their bodies lying deep, deep beneath the bones of a war they wanted no part of.

Raihn closed the door behind us. I stumbled, nearly falling to my knees, which seemed to jerk him back to the present. He slid his arms around me. I stiffened.

“We need to patch you up,” he said, before I could protest.

I didn’t have it in me to fight. He picked me up, brought me to my bedroom, and lay me down on the bed. Then he went to our packs and rummaged through them.

I stared at the ceiling. Blinked. Saw the ruins on the backs of my eyelids.

Gone. Gone. Gone.

“We have enough medicine for this,” Raihn said, sounding grateful to have both good news and distraction. He returned, sat beside me on the bed, and poured the potion over my abdomen. I didn’t flinch as my open wound hissed and bubbled, flesh melding to flesh.

I knew Raihn’s grief was everything mine was. Everything and more. I wanted to put my hand over that wound in his heart, even when my own threatened to tear me apart.

When he set aside the glass bottle, I let my hand fall over his. It now felt so familiar beneath mine, knobby joints and scars and the coarse suggestion of hair over the back of his hand.

At first he didn’t move. Then he slowly flipped his palm up, closed his fingers around mine, and circled his thumb over my skin.

Just as intimate as his lips on my neck.

I wanted to tell him I was sorry. Sorry for what my father had done to both of our peoples.

This is war, Vincent whispered in my ear. Power demands ruthlessness. What did you expect me to do? Our hearts bleed black.

And the worst thing was, I understood it. I understood it, and still hated it.

“I almost sent Mische there,” Raihn said. “Two weeks later, and she might have been there.”

The thought sickened me even more.

I felt the bedspread shift, his other hand closing into a fist.

“Your father,” he hissed, “is a fucking monster.”

For a moment, I agreed. But just as quickly, a wave of ashamed denial rose up to combat it.

I had to be missing something. Vincent wouldn’t do it unless he had no choice. Not unless the Rishan had already done something worse, or were going to.

He wouldn’t do that to me. Not knowing what I was going to go do. Not knowing why I was in this damned tournament at all.

He wouldn’t.

“There must be a reason. He must have had no choice.”

I hated the way the words tasted. Hated myself for even saying them.

Raihn’s voice was cold and hard. “Five hundred thousand people. Half a million lives. I don’t give a fuck what reason he might have. What explanation could make that acceptable?”

None. There was none.

“We don’t know what happened.”

“I know enough,” he snapped. “I saw the ruins. I could smell the bones in that dust. That’s enough, Oraya. That is enough.”

My fingernails were biting into Raihn’s skin, my knuckles trembling. My jaw ached because I was clenching it so hard.

And when a voice in my head whispered, He’s right.

Isn’t that enough?

It wasn’t Vincent’s voice. It was mine.

The line between anger and sadness is so thin. I had learned that fear can become rage, but rage can so easily shatter into devastation. The fractures spiderwebbed across my heart.

“There has to be something I’m not seeing. He couldn’t have—He wouldn’t—”

“Why not?” Raihn spat, mouth curled into a sneer of hatred. “Rishan lives. Human lives. What the hell are those

worth to him? Why is that so hard for you to believe?”

“Because I was going back for them.” I didn’t mean to say it aloud. But the words were too close to the surface, ready to spill forth. “Because he knew. When I became his Coriatae, I was going to go back, and he knew I—”

Raihn went still. His grip tightened around my hand, then released abruptly as he stood, rod-straight.

“Coriatae?” he said, calmly. My jaw snapped shut.

Do not, Vincent whispered in my ear, tell him this.

But I had already let Raihn see too much. As I always had. As he always did. And he could not un-hear what I said, what I had just shown him this time.

Coriatae?” His voice had the same danger to it as the sound of a blade being pulled from a scabbard. “You were going to ask Nyaxia for a Coriatis bond?

Judgment bit into every syllable, a sharp prod to all my weeping wounds.

“I’m not strong enough to go as I am now,” I snapped. “And he knew that as well as I did.”

Raihn only laughed, dark and humorless. “A fucking Coriatis bond. You were going to become Vincent’s Coriatae and march into Salinae to liberate your human kin. You were going to bind yourself to him so you could go be a hero.”

Was he mocking me? Or was the dream so outlandish that the words just sounded like a mockery aloud?

I said, “We all do what we have to—”

“You’re too damned smart for this, Oraya. Do you know how many humans were left in Salinae? Almost none. Because your father had been taking them, just like he took all of Salinae’s resources, for the last twenty fucking years.”

Resources. Like humans were fruit or grain. No. That wasn’t true.

“Rishan territory was protected. He couldn’t—”

“Protected,” Raihn spat. “Like the human districts are ‘protected?

The truth of his words slipped through the plates of my armor like a too-sharp blade.

When my fingers tightened, I could feel that gritty ash of what had once been Salinae against my palms.

I had never seen Raihn like this. His rage pulled taut every line of his form. It wasn’t like when I’d seen him in a bloodlust—that had been unnerving, but this was petrifying. He’d just gone utterly still, every angle of his body rigid, even his breathing too-steady. Like every thread of muscle needed to unite against holding back whatever wild thing thrashed within, visible only in the rising fire of his rust-red eyes.

“He sent you into the Kejari,” he said, “with a promise of being a hero, all so he could fucking use you? That’s what this is for?”

He’s making you do this, Ilana had told me.

I was so, so angry at Vincent. More angry than I had ever been. Yet, so quickly I jumped to his defense, like every attack against his character struck me, too.

I leapt to my feet, rewarded by a stab of pain in my freshly healed abdomen. “Use me?” I scoffed. “He’s giving me his power. Giving me—”

“You cannot possibly be this naive. Giving you his power and taking yours. Making a deal with a goddess so you can never hurt him. Never act against him. And sending you into this depraved cesspit to do it. What a saintly, loving father—”

My weapons were out before I could even stop myself. “Enough,” I hissed. “Enough.”

Vincent had given me everything.

He had taken me in when he never had to. He had cared for me when no one else did. He had made me a stronger version of myself, even when I didn’t want to be. He had turned me into something worth fearing.

And above all, he had loved me.

I knew this. There was nothing Raihn could say to convince me that he didn’t. Vincent’s love was truth like the moon was truth.

Raihn didn’t even look at my blades. His eyes only met mine. He took one step closer. “He killed them all,” he said quietly—and just for a fractured moment, the rage in his eyes shattered to grief. Grief for the Rishan, his people. Grief for the humans, mine. And grief for me. “He killed all of them. They were nothing to him but tools or obstacles. It doesn’t matter what he promised you. What he told you. That is the truth.”

The sight of Raihn’s sadness hit too deep. I shook my head, the words sticking in my throat.

“You need to ask yourself some hard questions. Why is he afraid of you, Oraya? What does he get from this?”

Afraid of me. Bullshit. What could Vincent ever hope to gain from me? What could this plan be other than a gesture of his love—to make me every bit as strong and powerful as he was? I was a human. I had nothing to offer him.

Yet Raihn’s concern for me, too raw to be false, hit the places I could not protect. His hand lifted, as if to brush my cheek. A part of me longed for that touch. Longed to let myself fall apart and let him keep me together.

Instead, I jerked away.

“I can’t,” I choked out—even though I knew he deserved more. “I—I just can’t.”

I threw the door open, and he let me go.

He didn’t come after me as I walked down the hall, each step fast and purposeful. I kept going until I left the Moon Palace. And I kept going straight past Vincent’s meeting place.

No, I was done waiting for my father to come to me.

Done waiting to meet on his terms.

This time, I was going to him.

I walked, and walked, and walked, until I reached Vincent’s castle.

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