Vincent’s body hit the railing and fell to the sand, a long drop from the balcony.
I didn’t know what sounds I was making, only that
they were ragged and animalistic and violent. It was the Nightfire that made them finally let me go. In a sudden burst, it engulfed me.
Not that I noticed, or cared.
I stumbled down the steps. Crossed the sand in several long strides. I collapsed next to Vincent.
He was still alive, barely. But it was a testament to his power that he even managed to survive these few seconds. His body had been destroyed—skin replaced with scalded flesh, bones rearranged and crushed, that elegant cold face twisted and blood-smeared. His eyes, moon-silver, were brighter than ever peering through that gore.
Growing up, I had thought Vincent was untouchable. He could not bleed. He could not break. He certainly could not die.
But the man before me was broken in every way. A collection of destroyed muscle and tissue, and a heart that was just as soft as mine in the end.
His eyes glistened. One mangled hand reached for me. I grabbed it.
“I am so sorry, my little serpent.” Each word was hard-fought. “I was going to—I was going to tell—”
I just kept shaking my head. Tears marked little pools of clean skin on Vincent’s face. I managed one garbled word: “Stop.” Stop speaking. Stop dying. Stop leaving me.
But he didn’t.
“I love you. I loved you from the first moment.” Bubbles of blood formed at the corners of his mouth. His gaze drifted past me, to the night sky. Then it dragged back to me—the movement slow, laborious, like he was working very hard to make sure I was the last thing he saw. “So many mistakes in the end,” he choked out. “Never you.”
For the rest of my life, I would wish I had said something to my father as he died in my arms. He was a terrible person in so many ways. And yet I loved him.
I loved him.
I told him so three seconds too late, when his eyes had gone blank.
The grief tore me apart in its jaws. So much worse than I ever thought it would be.
I preferred anger.
Blue-white flames consumed my vision. Every muscle coiled. I guarded Vincent’s body like a wolf over her den—a serpent over her nest.
Something had been ripped open inside of me, and whatever had been within that carefully guarded box was too much for me to control. Pain and sorrow and fury poured through me, poured and poured and—
In the distance, I heard shouting. It grew closer. Someone grabbed me.
I fought them on instinct, railed against their hold. I couldn’t grip my own magic—the dam of my restraint had shattered, leaving it gushing in uncontrollable waves. Flames roared at my hands, my arms, peeled from my skin.
It was Raihn who finally dragged me back.
I hated that I knew it was him right away. Knew him by scent and touch alone as he pulled me back against him, arms around my shoulders.
“He’s gone, Oraya,” he murmured into my ear.
They’re dead, little human, he had said to me, the first time he had met me.
They’re dead. They’re all dead.
I’d dropped my blades somewhere. I had no weapons. Only my flames, which were so far beyond my control that I could have burned the colosseum to the ground. But if they hurt Raihn, he didn’t show it. He spun me around, held me firm by my arms.
“Breathe, Oraya. Come back to me. Please.” He said this like he cared.
Like he fucking cared.
I hated him. I was ready to die for him and he killed my father, and he lied to me, and he—he—
And yet the sight of Raihn’s pain, of the skin on his cheeks slowly scorching, made me draw in a gulp of air.
He gave me a weak smile. “You’re safe.”
I never wanted him to say those words to me ever again.
People surrounded us now. Rishan warriors clustered in the arena. Dimly, I recognized Cairis watching us nearby, sword in hand, and Ketura not far beyond him. When did all these people get here?
I couldn’t orient myself. Something I could not name was so—so different. The flames slowly ebbed. Yet I still felt like I was burning from within. I struggled to breathe. My chest hurt—my neck hurt.
As the Nightfire withered, Raihn’s eyes lowered to my throat.
Horror fell over his face. “Oraya, what is—”
“Fuck.” Cairis stepped closer, his eyes wide. “Is that—
I looked down at myself.
Red ink had spread over my chest.
Cairis gasped, “She’s a fucking Heir.”