Chapter no 43

The Serpent and the Wings of Night

Had the castle changed, or had I?

Before, this place had always made me feel so small, like I was too weak and impermanent to live

somewhere of such grand, enduring strength. But maybe I’d mistaken brutality for strength and stagnancy for agelessness.

How, exactly, had I not noticed that its elegant scent of rose was just a little rancid? How had I not noticed that it masked the sour smell of rotting blood, like the whole damned building had been soaked in it? The flowers that adorned every table were withered at the edges, the wallpaper stained with faint death-brown blooms of old blood, the plaster cracked with the stress fractures of a kingdom that had gotten too heavy.

There were many vampires here, far more than I was accustomed to seeing roaming the halls. All Vincent’s warriors. It was wartime, after all. They stopped to stare at me as I passed. I didn’t even notice if their nostrils twitched. Didn’t even give a fuck if they did.

I’d never once gone to Vincent’s office without being invited. Now, I didn’t even knock as I threw open the door.

Jesmine was there, arms folded and red-tipped fingers playing thoughtfully at red-painted lips as she observed a

military map pinned to the wall. Her amethyst eyes slid to me and shone with curiosity.

“Oraya. How lovely to—” “Where is he.”

A demand, not a question.

Her perfect lips closed. The only sign of surprise. “Meetings. Busy times, as you—”


“He’ll be done—”

“I need to speak to him now, Jesmine. Tell me where or go get him for me.”

Her flicker of annoyance became a flame of irritation. She looked like she was running two calculations in her head, the first being, “Should I kill Oraya today?” and the second being, “Does she, as Vincent’s daughter, outrank me, as his general?”

“I don’t want to fight with you,” I spat. “If you want to, it won’t end well for either of us, but I’ll do it. So which is it?”

Apparently, she decided that the answer to the second question was too close to call, and thus decided that the answer to the first was, Not today. She said, “I’m the king’s chief general, not his errand girl, but I’ll indulge you,” and left the room.

I waited. Vincent’s office was usually meticulously neat, but tonight, it was a mess—open books and papers and maps everywhere, all spattered with black and red. My hands were shaking. Shaking with anger? With grief? Or maybe with fear. Not of Vincent, but of what he might say to me.

The door opened.

Vincent came alone. His clothing was more disheveled than usual, the collar of his jacket crumpled on one side, his sleeves pushed up to his elbows. A few strands of fair hair fell into his face. His Heir Mark pulsed at a slightly faster rate than before, as if his slow heartbeat had quickened a beat since I’d last seen him.

He closed the door behind him and stood before it for a long moment, just staring at me.

I knew how to read Vincent by now, and I knew that his annoyance fought with his relief—as if Vincent the king and Vincent the father waged a silent battle behind his eyes.

“What are you doing here?” he said. That was Vincent the king.

“You made it back from the Crescent trial.”

And that—that thankful exhale—was Vincent the father. He stepped closer, a strange uncertainty flickering over his face. Maybe he saw the difference in my expression, too.

“Salinae.” My voice was hard and too rough. “You destroyed Salinae.”

A hint of confusion. “I—”

“I saw it. It was the location of the fourth trial.”

He tried to hide his wince. I could practically hear him utter the curse: Nyaxia and her fucking sense of humor.

And yet that little flinch, the expression he mostly succeeded at hiding, hurt the most, because it confirmed what I didn’t want to believe.

I let out a pained, ugly laugh. “You weren’t going to tell me.”

And why wouldn’t he hide it? Just a few weeks until I was out of the Kejari, one way or another. I was isolated. He thought I didn’t even spend time with the other contestants.

“I have to make difficult decisions,” Vincent said. “This is war. The Rishan were a threat. They attacked our eastern outposts. I needed a strong—”

“You were going to let me believe that they were still out there. That I could still go after them.”

Was it better or worse that he didn’t even deny it? “There was no use in you knowing the truth.”

“Just like there was no use in keeping them alive? Easier to just kill them all?”

His face hardened.

Vincent the father stepped back. Vincent the king stepped closer.

“The decisions that I make for my people and my kingdom are beyond your judgment.”

“For your people?”

I was lucky I was drunk on my own anger and hurt, or else I never would have been able to speak to him this way. Even now, the shock on his face had a part of me shrinking back. But another part of me liked it the same way I liked it when my blade hit a mark.

“Who are your people, exactly?” I snapped. “Are they the ones whose ashes are in that city? Those were my people, Vincent. And I—”

“I did what was right for my kingdom.”

“Salinae is part of your kingdom. Half a million people. I could have been one of them. It could have been me in those slums—”

“It was never going to be you.”

He always said that. But how could he not understand? It was pure chance that brought me to him that night, all those years ago. The fibers of fate twist a different way, and I never make it here at all.

“I am human, Vincent. I am human.” I said it twice, just because he never liked to hear it, never liked to acknowledge it. “I was born in Salinae, to human parents, to a family who—”

Vincent’s restraint rarely buckled. Now, it outright shattered, the wave of his temper unleashed.

Family. What does that word mean? That you were yanked from between human legs? You don’t even remember them. If they had lived, they would not remember you. Perhaps they’d be grateful you were gone. What would you have been to them? Another unwanted child to keep alive? Or maybe another lost one to grieve, when the world inevitably crushed you.”

Each word buried deep in my chest, skewering another unspoken fear.

His lip curled with disgust. “And yet this is your dream? This is the life you long for? And what does that make me? The cruel man who ripped you away from—what, this great life of love? Is that how you see me? As a captor?”

I swallowed a writhing twist of guilt. Even through my anger, my impulse was to apologize to him—No, I’m sorry, that isn’t what I meant. I love you and I’m grateful and thank you for saving me.

But then, he strode to the door and threw it open so hard that the silver knobs banged against the wall. “Look,” he snarled.

He grabbed my wrist and dragged me down the hall to the railing that overlooked the feast hall. It was crowded, busy with men and women wearing the deep violet uniforms of Vincent’s Hiaj army. Long tables were set up below, dotted with overflowing plates. Most of the plates were untouched, though. Because instead, the warriors fed on the humans.

There were a dozen in that room alone. Some lying on the table, heads lolling, barely conscious. A few, clearly drained, slumped discarded against walls. Some had been bound to the table with rope. One man, who must have struggled fiercely, was pinned to the table with daggers piercing his flesh.

My chest burned. Stomach churned. I couldn’t breathe. Even swallowing would make me vomit. How long? How long had he been doing this? I wanted to deny it. Wanted to pretend I didn’t see it. This brutality was so much worse than anything I had witnessed in this castle before.

But it made sense, didn’t it? How does one feed one of the biggest armies in the world? How does one keep morale up when waging an endless war? How does one entice warriors who value nothing more than blood?

A nice perk of wartime, isn’t it? Endless death.

And perhaps it did not happen out in the open like this before. But maybe, like so much else, it had rotted beneath the surface, and I had chosen not to see it.

“Look, Oraya.” Vincent’s fingernails bruised my arm. “Look at them. These aren’t people. They are livestock. You never would have allowed yourself to be one of them, because you are better than them. I made you better. I gave you teeth and claws. I made your heart steel. Do not pity them. They are less than you.”

I couldn’t tear my gaze from the humans below. Their blood ran over the tables in rivers of crimson.

He was right. I would never be human like they were. Just as I would never be human like the people I saved in the slums, or the ones who occupied the pub I went to with Raihn.

Just as I never would be as human as Ilana.

And maybe that was a blessing in some ways. A curse in others. Maybe Vincent had stolen something precious from me as he stripped away my humanity.

And I’d fucking let him.

Not only that, but I’d done such a wonderful job deceiving him that he thought I would see what he did when he showed me this sea of savagery.

My eyes stung. I wrenched my hand from his grip, turning away from the feast and retreating down the hall. “You lied to me.”

“I indulged your childhood fantasies, knowing that one day you’d grow past them.”

He thought I would become like him, and I would no longer care, just as he no longer cared. But he was wrong. I thought of Raihn, who had been a vampire for more than two hundred years and yet still so clearly mourned his humanity with every heartbeat.

Suddenly, I mourned my humanity, too. I mourned it the way I mourned Ilana.

I stopped short just within Vincent’s office door. I turned to him, let out a trembling breath.

“Why do you want me to be your Coriatae?” I asked.

I knew the answer. Vincent wanted me in the Kejari, wanted me to become his Coriatae, because it was the only way to turn me into something acceptable for him to love.

My father loved me. I knew this. But he loved me in spite of what I was. Loved the parts of me that he could make like him.

Vincent’s jaw tightened. Again, a glimpse of the silent battle between king and father. He closed the door behind us and leaned against it. “Because I want you to fulfill your greatest potential,” he said, at last. “I want you to be strong. I want you to be powerful. And I want—I want you to be my daughter. In every sense. Because you are more like me than you ever have been like them, little serpent.”

He was right, and I hated it.

My voice was strangled, on the verge of breaking. “Today, I am ashamed of that.”

The words hit Vincent like a blow to his heart. Hurt careened across his face for a split second, replaced immediately by ice-frigid anger.

Vincent the father disappeared.

Vincent the king approached me, rage rising in his silver eyes with every slow, predatory step.

“Ashamed?” he said quietly. “Ashamed? I gave you everything. I made you all that you are. I could have killed you. Many said I should have. And you… you say that you are ashamed of me?

I was a decent fighter, but no one was as good as Vincent. When he grabbed my arm, I didn’t have time to move. And I was too shocked to, anyway, when he wrenched it, hard, and slammed me against the wall. He was so close that I could see every pulsing line of his Heir Mark, every glowing wisp of magic unfurling from each stroke of ink, just as harsh as the hateful lines on his face.

“What would you rather be, then, if you don’t want to be my daughter?” His fingernails bit into my skin, tighter, tighter—drawing blood. “Do you want to be my enemy, instead? Is that what you’d prefer?”

I had never, ever been afraid of Vincent before. I was now.

Because now, he didn’t look at me like I was his daughter. He didn’t even look at me like I was human. No, this was worse.

He looked at me like I was a threat.

“Let me go, Vincent.” I tried to keep the waver from my voice and failed. “Let me go.”

But maybe the waver saved me, because Vincent the king disappeared all at once, and Vincent the father was appalled with himself.

A wave of horror fell over his face. He looked down at his own hand, wrapped tight around my arm, red blood and purple bruises pearling at his grip.

He released me and took several steps back. He ran his hand through his hair.

He was shaking. “Oraya, I—I—”

He wouldn’t say he was sorry. The Nightborn King apologized to no one. And if he was going to, I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to hear anything he had to say ever again.

A part of me thought he would stop me as I threw open the door.

But he didn’t.



THERE WERE MORE out here than ever now. With Raihn and I unable to come to the human districts since the Halfmoon, the place was crawling with vampires. They were lazy. Easy to kill.

Before, I’d found this satisfying. At least I could ease the unpleasant thoughts in my head with the plunge of a blade into a chest over and over again. Now, it just made me angrier. They thought so fucking little of us that they didn’t even think they needed to be careful. Whatever joy I found in the dying light of their eyes was fleeting, each one a weaker rush than the last.

I killed my fourth for the night in an alleyway close to the pub that Raihn and I would frequent. It had been a very long night. It was probably close to dawn.

I couldn’t bring myself to care. Not about any of it.

I didn’t toy with this one. I went straight for the heart. He was so afraid that he pissed himself in the end. I stepped slightly to the left to avoid the puddle at his feet.

He’d been going for a child. A little girl. He was preparing to go through the window for her. That was rare. I didn’t often see them ready to crawl into houses for their prey.

The body sank to the ground. I kneeled over him as he lay limp in the dirt, ready to pull my blade out.

He thought he was entitled to these people. Their houses weren’t homes, just dens to be rooted out. Chicken coops to stick his hands into and pull out whatever he wanted. Maybe the haze of death over these recent weeks had made them believe that there was no such thing as protection, no such thing as consequences.

They are livestock, Vincent had hissed at me.

Only now did it occur to me that maybe that’s exactly what humans here were. The human districts weren’t for protection. They were breeding grounds. Because it would be a fucking shame if no more humans lived in the House of Night, wouldn’t it? Just think of all that blood.

My knuckles were white around the handle of my blade, which still protruded from my victim’s chest.

This piece of shit felt it for five seconds. For five seconds in a lifetime of centuries, he felt that powerlessness. When it had been bred into us, tattooed into our souls, for our entire brief pitiful existences.

I was done hating myself for all my human weaknesses. No, I hated them for it.

I pulled out my dagger, but instead of sheathing it, I brought it down again. Flecks of black blood spattered my face. Withdrew. Again. Again. Again. Each strike met less resistance as bones cracked and flesh parted.

I hated them, I hated them, I HATED THEM I HATED—

“Oraya! Stop!”

The moment the hands touched my shoulders, I whirled, lashing out before I could stop myself.

I came into this world fighting. I’d leave it fighting. And I’d fight to cover every soft spot or vulnerability, and right now, I felt as if my entire body—my entire soul—was a raw wound to be protected.

I wanted to fight.

But of course, Raihn knew that. And of course, he knew me well enough to counter my every move, until finally my back hit the wall, my arm in his grasp.

He bent over me, one hand to the wall over my shoulder, the other holding my arm, firmly but gently.

The relief in his gaze shook me. He jerked his head to the body, now little more than bloody pulp. “I appreciate your thoroughness, but I think he’s dead.”

His eyes softened as they flicked back to me.

I really did try not to notice, or care, that they drank me in the same way he drank in sunshine.

“It’s almost dawn,” he said. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.”

He didn’t ask, Are you alright?

But I heard it in his tone, anyway.

I was not alright. I didn’t want such softness. It prodded too close to everything I was trying to protect.

His fingers shifted, encroaching on the marks that Vincent’s nails had left on my arm. They hurt more than a wound so small should have. I winced slightly—barely a twitch—but Raihn still saw it. His gaze fell to my arm. Hardened.

“Where did this come from?” “What does it matter?”

“It matters. Him?”

I hesitated a moment too long before saying, “Some piece of shit in the slums.”


His lip curled. Pure hatred. As if those few little bloody marks were just as great of a crime as the destruction of Salinae.

I hated that.

I didn’t deserve to be defended that way. And still— despite everything—I hated to see the disgust on his face. I was offended on Vincent’s behalf.

I yanked my arm away. “You’ve done worse to me yourself. I’m not a princess to be protected. No matter what you like to call me.”

“I know.”

Two words, and yet, so much judgment in that expressive face of his. I knew how to see through all the masks now, and beneath it, everything was always laid out bare. Too bare.

“Stop,” I hissed. “Stop what?”

“Don’t look at me that way.” “How am I looking at you?”

I pushed past him. I didn’t know how to answer that. Too many ways. I saw multitudes in Raihn’s eyes when he looked at me.

“Like you pity me.”

He scoffed. I refused to look at him, but I could hear the twist of a sneer on his lips. “You think I pity you? I don’t pity you, Oraya. I just think you deserve better.”

That sounded a hell of a lot like pity to me. And if it wasn’t pity, it was something else—something more real— and that, I hated even more.

I whirled around. “Why are you here?”

My tone was downright vitriolic. It was undeserved. He had done nothing but be kind to me. But I only knew how to fight.

Still, the hurt on his face disarmed me. Then his jaw went tight. “I know what this is, and I’m not doing this with you. If you want to get kicked out of the Kejari because you don’t make it back to the Moon Palace before dawn, fine. I’ll let you.”

“Good. It’ll be easier for you. Maybe you deserve the win more than I do, anyway. Why do you care?”

Raihn had already started to walk away. My voice was weaker than it had been. The look of hurt on his face had sapped the venom from my bite. Now I was that little child all over again, lashing out at monsters with feeble, human teeth.

He stopped. Turned back slowly. “Why do I care?” he repeated, indignant.

The thing was, I knew it was a ridiculous question. And it shouldn’t have been, because Raihn had every reason to just let me spiral and get myself disqualified or killed. I was his enemy in every sense of the word—the daughter of the king he hated, raised in the clan that destroyed his, rival to a title that only one could win.

He took a step closer, unblinking. “Why do I care?” he rasped, again. “Are you a fucking fool, Oraya?”

I wasn’t expecting the desperation in his voice. Like he was pleading for help.

He scoffed. “Or maybe I am.” No. We both were.

Because I knew exactly why Raihn cared. And I knew that I cared in all the same ways. I didn’t breathe. I let my blade slide back into its sheath.

No, a weapon couldn’t protect me from this. I wasn’t sure if I wanted it to, anymore, even though my heart was open and bleeding and so very pitifully, humanly delicate.

Still, as the moonlight fell over his face, I drank in every angle of it. I had come to know it so well, and yet I discovered something new and captivating in it every time I looked at him. Now, so much of it held pain and grief.

I ached for him. And I was so, so tired of loss.

I wasn’t sure what I intended to do or say when I approached him.

But I threw my arms around his neck and kissed him.

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