Chapter no 45

The Serpent and the Wings of Night

We barely made it halfway through.

It was an impossible task. Every time I had him, I discovered a new piece of him I wanted to claim. It

was the opposite of satisfaction. With each climax, I only desired more. By the time we found ourselves crawling into the bed out of sheer exhaustion, I had come up with far, far more than a single night’s worth of fantasies.

Yet I found myself not minding as I drifted too easily to sleep in his arms. And now, as I lay nose-to-nose beside him, watching the heavy fall of his lashes against his cheek and the steady rhythm of his sleeping breaths, I thought, It was worth it, to witness him this way.

I ran my fingers over the swell of muscle of his shoulder, down his back.

Mother. I hoped he had no clue how transfixed I was by him.

His eyes opened. The moment they landed on me, the smile warmed his lips immediately, like he was relieved that none of it had been a dream.

“Don’t tell me it’s time to go.” “We have a few more hours.”

He stretched. “Wonderful. Not ready for death just yet.

Maybe after I watch you come one more time I will be.”


The pit in my stomach, the one I had desperately been trying to ignore, grew larger.

Before, I could drown all those unpleasant thoughts beneath our shared mindless, carnal pleasure. But as I’d watched him sleep, alone, all those fears seeped into the silence.

We joked about death because we had to. But it wasn’t a joke. It was real, and it was coming for us. And the thought of death getting anywhere near Raihn made me feel sick.

For so long, he and I had danced around each other’s pasts. It didn’t behoove either of us to learn too much about the other. The less we knew, the easier it would be to carve each other out of our lives with a single well-placed strike of our blades, like a cancer excised.

But in this moment, I came to the horrifying realization that I would never be able to carve Raihn from my heart. He had embedded too deep. Roots through stone.

And as I had watched him sleep, I couldn’t help but see Ilana’s face float through my mind. There were so many things I hadn’t asked her, too. And when she died, I had to bury myself in broken, incomplete shards of her life, because it was all I had.

I wanted more of him than that. More of his body. More of his soul, too.

I said softly, “You told me before that you had a lot of people relying on you.”

Raihn’s smile faded. “I do.” “Who?”

“I’d rather have more sex than this conversation. Glad your pillow talk is about as pleasant as your bedside manner, princess.”

I smiled weakly, a little embarrassed. But his fingers caressed my cheek in a way that said, perhaps, he understood. And maybe he felt some of what I did, this masochistic urge to hack out little pieces of our heart for

each other, because he said, “Do you want the short answer? Or the long one?”

“The long one.”

What I didn’t add: I want to listen to you talk for as long as possible.

Raihn looked away, silent for a long moment, as if he had to prepare himself.

“The man who Turned me,” he said, “was a very powerful person. When I was human, I was a guard, and I took a job securing a trading ship from Pachnai to Tharima. Our boat was too small to be making a journey that long. We got caught in a storm and it flung us right to the shores of the House of Night. Snared on Nyaxia’s Hook.”

I knew the term—it referred to a little rocky hook of land that jutted out from the southern shores of the House of Night. The currents were very strong, and though I’d never seen it, I’d heard stories that the horizon there was littered with the remnants of shattered ships.

“I had no idea where I was when it happened. We were off course. It was dark. Most of the others died. I was close to it, too. Literally dragged myself to shore.”

His eyes fell straight ahead, not to the wall, but to the past.

“Luck,” he said. “Luck saved me. Or damned me. I was mostly dead by the time I found him. I’d seen a lot of death, even then, but when it’s breathing down your throat, it’s different. When he asked me if I wanted to live… what kind of a question was that? I was thirty-two years old. Of course I fucking wanted to live. I had a—I had a life.”

The dismay in that sentence. I felt it in my heart, too. I had a life.

“A family?” I whispered.

“A wife. A child coming. A lot of future to live for. I was willing to do anything for it.”

He said this with such rueful resentment, as if he hated his former self for thinking it.

I wondered if he thought of that version of his life as often as I thought of a different version of mine.

“So I accepted. I thought he was saving me. I traded away my broken humanity in favor of immortality. Or so I thought. But then…” His throat bobbed. “He didn’t let me leave.”

“Didn’t let you—?”

“At first, it was because I was sick. Turning is… I hope to any god that you never know, Oraya. I really do. I fought hard to live, but clawing my new self out of the old took weeks. Months. But after that, I realized—”

He bit down hard on his words, swallowed. I slid my palm to the bare skin of his chest in silent reassurance, and his hand fell over mine, pressing hard enough that I could feel his heartbeat—quick with the memory of the past, despite the careful restraint of his voice.

“I wasn’t the only person he Turned. Not the only vampire he took. He chose…” His head tilted slightly to the opposite wall, as if he didn’t want me to see his face. “He had his tastes, alright? He was very, very old. And once someone has been alive for the better part of a millennium, it gets hard to find excitement in the world. Fulfilling their various hungers gets difficult. Entertaining those they seek to influence, keeping their attention, gets difficult. People become… nothing more than sources of amusement. And when they’re that powerful, when they have that much control over every living being, you don’t have any choice but to let them do what they want to you.”

Horror curdled in my stomach. Oh, Mother.

When I had first met Raihn, he had seemed like an immovable pillar of strength—first physical strength, and then emotional strength. The idea that anyone had ever used him that way… the idea that anyone had made him feel the level of shame that I heard now in his voice, all these years later…

And yet, so much now made sense. That Raihn knew so implicitly all the things I didn’t say. Knew what it felt like to be so powerless, to be used in ways beyond your control. Knew how to recognize the scars of a past, whether on a throat or on a heart.

It seemed patronizing to tell him I was sorry. What good did my pity do him?

Instead I said, “I am fucking furious for you.”

No, I wouldn’t give him my pity. But I’d give him my rage.

The hint of a smile creased the corners of his eyes. “There she is.”

“I hope he’s dead. Tell me he’s dead.”

If not, I’d hunt him down and kill him myself.

“Oh, he’s dead.” A wince flinched across his features. “I’m… ashamed of what I let myself become, back then, once the fight was stomped out of me. There was no shortage of ways to numb myself. He won, so I took them. I hated vampires. And for seventy years, I hated myself, because I had become one of them.”

Fuck. I couldn’t. hated them, too.

“But… I wasn’t alone, either. There were others in the same position as me. Some Turned, some Born. Some of them were shells of who they used to be, like me. Some I formed an… uneasy kind of kinship with. And some…”

I wasn’t sure how I knew. Maybe it was something about the faraway mist over his eyes, and the fact that I’d only seen that expression once before.

“Nessanyn,” I murmured.

“Nessanyn. His wife. Every bit as much of a prisoner of him as I was.”

A lump rose in my throat. “And you fell in love with her?”

I admit there was a little twinge of jealousy at the thought—why?—but that aside, I hoped he had. Because I knew, firsthand, that having someone to love could help someone survive impossible situations.

He didn’t answer for a long time, like he really had to consider this. “I did,” he answered, finally. “And loving her saved me, because by that time, I didn’t think there was a single gods-forsaken thing in the entire shitty world that mattered, until suddenly, Nessanyn mattered. And the difference between nothing mattering and one thing mattering is a big one.”

I was grateful to her for that. That she had helped him survive.

“But she and I were very different people. If we’d met in another life…” He shrugged. “I don’t know if we would have paid any attention to each other. The only thing we had in common was him. But he was our entire lives, so that was enough. Together we were able to craft something that was just ours. She was the first kind vampire I’d ever met. Just a good, decent person. And through her, I met others. It just… changed everything.” He looked away, as if embarrassed. “It sounds silly. It sounds like nothing. But…”

“It’s not nothing. It’s not silly.”

I spoke more sharply than I had intended.

I was so fucking angry on his behalf. Angry that this had happened to him. Angry that anyone had dared tell him that any of it, any shred, was silly or shameful or undeserving of anything other than righteous fury.

“How did you get out?” I asked.

“The world he had built was collapsing under its own weight. All that cruelty was catching up to him. I saw it happening, and I knew it was the only chance I’d have to get out. I begged Nessanyn to go, too. Begged her to save herself. But she refused.”

I couldn’t fathom this. “Why?

“You’d be amazed what people can be loyal to.”

“She would rather die with the man who tortured her than live?”

“She was a dreamer. Kind, but soft. She’d rather escape to the world she dreamed of than fight for this one.” Then

he winced, as if offended on her behalf by the harshness of his own words. “It isn’t that simple. But in the end, she died in the rubble of his world right alongside him. I got out, and she didn’t.”

“Did you ever go back to find your wife? Your—your child?”

He brushed the scar on his cheekbone. The upside-down

V. “I tried. It didn’t go very well. Seventy years is a long time. I didn’t consider myself a vampire, but I wasn’t human anymore.”

I disliked how familiar that felt. I had human blood and a vampire heart. He’d had a human heart and vampire blood. The world left no room for either.

“I spent a long time traveling. When I was human, I became a guard so I could see the world. That and… well, look at me.” He gestured to himself with a half-smile. “What else was I going to do with myself? I could choose between blacksmith and soldier, and only one of those didn’t require me to stare at horses’ asses all day.”

“You could’ve been a chef,” I countered, and when he laughed—an actual laugh—the sound of it loosened something in my chest.

“Maybe I should have. Just spent my whole life fattening up a simple, happy wife and having a simple, happy family, and I’d be long in the ground getting much more rest than I do now.”

It did seem nice. It also seemed… smaller than him.

“But the truth is, I didn’t even get to travel much when I was human,” he went on. “So when I was free, I went everywhere. The whole of the House of Night. All the islands. The House of Shadow, House of Blood—”

House of Blood? No one went to the House of Blood.

“It was about as morbid as you’d expect,” he said, at my raised eyebrows. “I even traveled the human lands. Realized I could pass, if I was careful. But… after awhile, I think I realized I was running. They were with me

everywhere. Him reminding me of everything fucked up about the world. Her reminding me of all the good I had abandoned in it. And then, when I came back to Obitraes, I found Mische.”

Those words held so much more weight now that I understood his background. “Oh.”

“Mische reminded me of her, in some ways. The good, and the flaws. Both of them saw so much beauty in the world. But they also both had that… that fucking naiveté. That willful ignorance of what it takes to actually make that kind of reality.”

He paused for a long moment of thought.

“Those seventy years with him had been… bad. But I met a lot of good people who were suffering, too. People that Nessanyn was trying to care for, even when she was drowning. Rishan people, who were now more trapped than ever. And I should have fought for them when it all collapsed, but I didn’t. I didn’t know how—or maybe I did and wished I didn’t.”

I thought with new horror of the hundreds of wings pinned on the wall. Thought of the ashes of Salinae.

“So you came here.”

“I didn’t think those responsibilities were mine for a long time. Mische disagreed. She forced my hand. Entered the Kejari first. Knew I wouldn’t let her do it alone.”

My brows leapt. Entering the Kejari just to force him to do it… to call it extreme was an understatement. She very well could have been sacrificing her life.

I must have made a face, because Raihn let out a dark, humorless laugh. “I was ready to fucking kill her myself. Stupidest thing she possibly could have done. And mark my words, I would have found a way to get her out. One way or another.” His face softened. “But that’s Mische. Impulsive as shit. But always, always well-intentioned. More than she has any right to be, after all she’s seen. Sometimes foolishly so. I love Mische like a sister, but… I worry about

her. The world isn’t flowers and sunshine. She doesn’t realize—”

“—that you have to fight hard enough to leave a mark,” I finished. “That it isn’t easy to clean.”

His eyes fell to me. The familiarity of them, like a mirror, struck me deep. “Exactly.”

The world was not easy or straightforward. Goodness was never pure or simple.

When I first met Raihn, I thought we would never understand each other. But now, for the first time, I felt like someone was really seeing me—seeing the world as I did.

I became aware of the warmth of his skin under my palm, the thrum of his heartbeat. If I were to kill him, I would need to put my blade right there. Replace this caress with a strike.

And maybe… maybe I couldn’t do it. Maybe I didn’t want to. Raihn had people to save. Mine were gone. Who deserved this more?

I couldn’t voice this. But I had never been able to hide my darkest thoughts from him, not even when I needed to the most. He saw right through me.

“But then,” he said softly, “I met someone who still managed to find defiance where I thought it didn’t exist anymore.”

My throat tightened. Defiance. He made it sound so noble.

“A stupid dream,” I choked out. “As if gutting a few vampire scumbags in the alleys means anything. As if it changes anything.”

Stop.” The word was a sharp rebuke. “You found a way to defend your world when everyone told you that you shouldn’t. Do you know how fucking hard that is? How rare? I wish I had fought the way you do. That is strength.”

Was it strength to lash out against a steel wall? Or did that make me just another naive dreamer?

“I don’t know why I’m doing any of this anymore.” My hand wandered to the pile of my clothes on the other end of the bed, fingertips playing at the hilt of my blade. I withdrew it, observing the dark steel in the lantern light. Orange dripped along the swirls etched into its length.

I’d been so honored to wield this weapon. But how many like it had been used to murder people with blood like mine?

How badly did I have to injure myself, I wondered, for Nyaxia to accept my withdrawal?

Raihn could defeat Angelika. He could certainly defeat Ibrihim. And he could seize that wish and use the goddess’s power to help those who needed him.

As if he could hear my thoughts, he grabbed my hand, tight.

“Look at me, Oraya.”

I didn’t want to—I would see too much, he would see too much—but I did anyway.

“You are more than what he made you,” he said. “Do you understand? That isn’t the strength. The shit he tried to carve out of you is. You have every reason to keep going. Now more than ever. And I say this knowing—knowing how stupid it is for me, of all people, to say it.”

He wasn’t talking about the Kejari. He was talking about something bigger. And his fingers clutched mine, trembling, as he hissed, “So don’t you fucking dare stop fighting, princess. It would break my damned heart.”

My eyes stung.

I wouldn’t admit it. But it would break mine if he did, too.

“Then you’d better not, either,” I said. “Swear that to me. We’re in this now. We knew what we were getting into. Nothing has changed.”

Everything had changed.

But Raihn paused, then inclined his chin. “Deal. If we fight, then we fight to the end. Whatever end that may be.

Whoever’s blood needs to spill to win it.”

I thought I would feel better, like we had restored some piece of our relationship to what it was before.

I didn’t. We hadn’t.

I glanced to the curtain-draped windows. The light beneath them was now scarlet.

“The sun’s going down,” I said. “Don’t you want one last look?”

And Raihn didn’t hesitate—didn’t look away from me once—as he answered, “No,” and kissed me.



HAD NEVER SO dreaded nightfall.

It came nonetheless. I was expecting the little thread of shadow in our room, Nyaxia’s beckoning hand, but the sight still made my breath burn in my lungs. When it appeared, Raihn and I rolled out of bed and put our armor back on without a word.

Before we left the room—left it for the final time—we stopped and looked at each other.

“It has been a pleasure, princess,” he said.

I watched his lips curl. Mother, those perfect lips.

I thought about kissing him one last time. Thought about winding my arms around his neck and never letting go. Dragging him back to bed and refusing to leave. At least we’d die happy when Nyaxia struck us down.

I did none of those things.

I didn’t know how Raihn could possibly call me brave. I was a fucking coward.

“It’s been…” I shrugged. The smirk crinkled my eyes without my permission. “Tolerable. I guess.”

He laughed. “There she is,” he said, and opened the door.



ANGELIKA AND IBRIHIM were already waiting with the Ministaer. Ibrihim did not look at us. Angelika’s typically hard face was even harder than usual, her eyes sharp as daggers as she watched us approach. They were rimmed with red.

The curse? Or had she spent the last day weeping over Ivan’s death?

The door appeared as it always did, with little fanfare. The Ministaer wished us luck and ushered us through. Ibrihim went first. He could barely walk. His wings hung down behind him, broken dead weight.

Next, Angelika.

And then it was only us.

Everything I couldn’t say threatened to drown me. Words weren’t enough. Yet without my permission, just before we crossed the threshold, I grabbed Raihn’s hand— squeezed it hard, hard, hard—and oh, Mother, I couldn’t let him go, I couldn’t do this.

Our steps slowed. No one else would have noticed it, this split-second of hesitation. But for me, a million possibilities lived in that moment.

Fantasies. Fairytales. Useless dreams.

I smashed them on the marble ground, pulled my hand away, and walked through the threshold.

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