Chapter no 54

The Serpent and the Wings of Night

I woke up with a start. Sweat plastered my clothing to my skin.

I know this ceiling. Silver stars on cerulean glass. I

pushed myself up. The familiarity of this place hurt so much my breath hitched.

My room. The chambers I had spent the last sixteen years of my life in. I had left here only a few short months ago, but I returned a different person.

The girl who had lived here was a child. Now I was… I didn’t even know anymore.

The events of the trial came back to me in flashes, each twist driving a stake deeper and deeper into my heart. I pressed my hand to my chest and squeezed my eyes shut.

I saw Vincent’s bloodied face. Saw Raihn killing him.

I let out a shaky exhale that sounded suspiciously close to a sob.

But no. I wouldn’t cry. I would not fucking cry.

I leapt out of bed. My leathers were gone. So were my blades. I wore only loose silk pants and a light camisole, both in midnight blue.

Fine. At least I could move in it. I could find something to fight with, could find a window to smash. I could—I could

I glimpsed myself in the mirror, and froze.

Darkness shadowed my eyes, making their silver moon-bright, just as Vincent’s had been. My cheeks were bruised and hollow. Someone had healed me, but remnants of cuts and burns still painted my bare arms.

And the Mark— The Mark—

I had to stare at it for a long moment, because my mind couldn’t reconcile what I was seeing. I’d thought there must have been some misunderstanding, some confusion.

But no. It was an Heir Mark, unmistakable, carved onto my flesh. It adorned my throat, like Vincent’s had. A circle at the base of my neck, cradled by the inner curve of my clavicle. I realized after a long moment of staring at it that it depicted all phases of the moon layered on top of each other. Beneath it, smoke lines unfurled like petals cradling a rose, extending up my neck and over the width of my shoulders. The smoke came to four points on each side— like the talons of Hiaj wings.

It was dark in here. The glow of the crimson lines seemed particularly intense. It pulsed with the quickening of my heartbeat. Wisps of faint red smoke peeled from each line of ink.

I clasped my hands together. Tight, tight, tight—like if I could force them to stop shaking, I could force myself into composure. I could not afford to be anything but composed.

Yet my mind could form only one word:


How could this be? I was human. Click, as the doorknob unlocked. I whirled around.

When the door opened and Raihn stepped inside, I was ready. I threw myself on him.

I had no weapons. And my magic—even in this new, awakened state—refused to come when my rage called for it. Perhaps they had drugged me, dampened it somehow.

Fine. I had my teeth and fingernails. I attacked him like an animal.

Maybe Raihn had been expecting this, because he countered me immediately. I slipped his grasp four times before finally he restrained me by brute force alone and shoved me to the bed.

He pressed his whole weight over me. His face was inches away, our noses nearly brushing.

“Calm down, Oraya. I’m not going to—” Calm down?

Calm down?

He winced at his own words. “Just—Oraya, I—”

I turned my head and sank my teeth into his arm as hard as I could.

He hissed a curse as I spat his blood onto the bedspread. I still couldn’t get free. The weight of his body, and the white-knuckled hold he had on my shoulder with his other arm, kept me from moving.

“I have so much to explain to you,” he said, “if you’ll let me. Oraya—stop fighting me.”

“Why?” I shot back. “To make it easier for you to rape me?”

Another wince.

“I said what I had to say to save your life,” he hissed. To save my life.

Like I had saved his.

I had chosen him over my own father, over my own power, and now Vincent was dead and the Hiaj had been overthrown and the fucking House of Blood was in Sivrinaj

I had fucked up. I had fucked up so, so badly. And I wanted to claw Raihn’s eyes out for that. Mother, I wanted it more than anything.

But I wanted answers more.

I gritted my teeth. Lowered my chin. Raihn eyed me warily.

“If I let you go,” he said, “will you attack me?”

I genuinely could not bring myself to promise that I wouldn’t.

“I’ll try not to.”

“I made sure that every single thing that could possibly be used as a weapon had been removed from this room.”

“I’m sure you missed something.”

The smile that twisted the corner of his mouth seemed more mournful than amused. “Glad to know you’re still in there, princess.”

He let me go.

I scrambled to my feet, putting several strides between us. I noticed him watch the distance widen. I wondered if he was thinking the same thing I was—of how I used to move that way every time we were in the same room together.

I wondered if I imagined that he looked a little sad.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a pang of it, too. Because the person I had trusted was Raihn. This man… I didn’t even know who he was.

His gaze lingered on me. Lingered on my throat. “How?” he said softly.

It seemed almost shameful to say that I didn’t know. I didn’t want to admit aloud how little I knew about the two men who had become so close to me.

“You first,” I said.

“I never lied to you.”

He spoke so quickly, like he’d been waiting for days to say this to me.

What a fucking joke.

“What does that even mean?” I sneered. “That you chose your truths so fucking carefully? That you picked each word to shield the things you wouldn’t say to me?”

He raised his palms, as if to say, Fair enough.

“I wasn’t ready to confront any of this, either. Trust me.” “Say words that actually mean something,” I snapped.

“Everything I told you was the truth,” he said. “There was just… more.”

“What does that—”

“The man who Turned me was Neculai Vasarus. King Neculai.”

My jaw snapped shut.

The Rishan king. The king that Vincent had murdered and usurped.

“I betrayed him,” Raihn bit out. “The day that Vincent won the Kejari. I arranged for Vincent to get the keys to the strongholds. Handed over everything he needed to destroy the entire fucking kingdom in exchange for the safety of the innocents. He never met me in person. Never knew my name. Never saw me. But I knew it was all already going to fall apart. I just thought… maybe I could pour some oil on the fire. Burn it faster, and keep it from taking all of us with it. I hated it all that much.”

I couldn’t speak.

“But I should have known better,” he said. “I got the fuck out before Neculai could figure out what I’d done, thinking I’d arranged for the safety of those who needed it. I tried to get Nessanyn to come with me. She wouldn’t. So I left her behind. I left all of them behind. Trusting Vincent’s word.” His face went hard, hateful. “We know how that worked out.”

Rape her the way he raped our queen, Raihn had said.

Bile rose in my throat. Vincent was no saint. But surely he wouldn’t—he couldn’t have—

“Did he—”

Raihn seemed to know exactly what I was thinking. “I don’t know. All I know is that Nessanyn was one of the last to die.”

I was going to throw up.

By some miracle, I didn’t. I kept my face perfectly still.

“I was far away by the time I saw this.” He touched his back—his Mark. “It never occurred to me that it could

happen. I wasn’t Neculai’s blood relative, of course. Not Born. Turned. I thought Heirs could only be Born, and I was content to let the entire bastard line of them die out. But in the absence of a Born Heir, apparently, a Turned one counted.” His mouth twisted into a wry, disgusted smile. “How fucking poetic. The Turned nobody, handed the power of an entire kingdom by the man who enslaved him.”

A chill ran up my spine.

“I wanted no part of it. The first thing I did was try to get rid of the Mark. Nearly killed myself burning it off. I didn’t want to rule this place. And I certainly didn’t want to take his title.” He looked around, a wrinkle forming over his nose—I wondered if he was seeing a different version of this room, from two hundred years in the past. “I didn’t even want to come back to this castle. Too many bad memories. So Vincent sealed away the Rishan line’s power, and he ruled, and I ran.” His eyes fell back to me. “Until.”

Until it caught up to him. His guilt over those Nessanyn had wanted him to protect. Mische, and her desire to use his power to build something better.

All this bloodshed over a fucking fairytale.

“So the Kejari was to you what it was to Vincent,” I said.

A path to steal a crown.

Raihn, to his credit, did not deny it. “Yes.”

“And me?” I choked out. “Is that what I was, too?” He looked as if I had struck him. “No, Oraya. No.” “I don’t believe you.”

“What do you want me to tell you? That I didn’t choose you as an ally because of your relationship with Vincent? Yes. I did. And everything else I told you was true, too. That I thought you would be easy to kill after. That I would learn from you, and then get rid of you after the Halfmoon, and it would all be easy. As if I shouldn’t have known from the minute you stabbed me that nothing would be easy with you.”

He let out a sound that was a shade of a laugh. “Maybe that was why I picked you, too. Because right away, I liked you, princess. I was curious about you. You reminded me of me. Someone different. After a few hundred years, everyone seems the same. Not you. Not from that first night. So no, no part of that was a lie, Oraya. Trust me, it would be simpler if it was.”

My chest hurt so much.

I wanted him to be lying. It would be easy if he was lying. Easy to hate him if our friendship, our… relationship, had been nothing but a performance.

But I knew it wasn’t, even before I asked. It had all been real.

“Why is the House of Blood within our walls?” I asked.

Raihn did not want to answer this question. I knew how he looked, by now, when he was ashamed of something he was about to say.

“It takes manpower to win a war,” he said. “Heir or no. The Hiaj were never going to go down without a fight, even if I killed Vincent. And he knew that, too. He’d been careful to whittle down the Rishan population over the last couple of centuries. If I was going to do this, I needed warriors. Many of them. Septimus knew that.”

My palms were cold and sweaty.

“I resisted,” he said. “I don’t even know how he found out who I was. I don’t know how he knew what I was planning. I ripped apart my own inner circle looking for whoever the source was. And he was insistent that the House of Blood could help. One favor, he told me, and the full force of the House of Blood was mine. I told him to go fuck himself. I thought we would have enough. But then…”

Then the strike on the Moon Palace. So neatly blamed upon the Rishan. Giving Vincent full permission to kill them indiscriminately.

“The attacks.”

Raihn nodded. “Once Vincent was set loose on the Rishan, it was over. Before it would have been difficult, but maybe—maybe—possible. After that? There was no way.”

“Did Septimus—”

“Frame the Rishan?” His face hardened. “I can’t prove it. But I think the bastard created a problem he would be the only solution to. I tried every other way. Everything. And even when every other option was exhausted, I still told him no. Until…”

Everything clicked together at once.

The final trial. Angelika coming after me—only me. The way Raihn had looked past me, up to the stands.

That little nod.

“You fucking idiot,” I choked out. Raihn stepped closer, and I let him.

“I was ready to let it all go for you,” he murmured. “Do you know that, Oraya? I was ready to let my kingdom fall for you. You should have let me stay dead.”

Because if he was gone, there was no one to honor the Bloodborn’s deal.

He made a dead man’s bargain to save me knowing that he would not deliver on it. I hadn’t imagined it. He had pulled my wrist. He had helped usher my knife into his heart.

Until I had brought him back.

He took another step. And again, I let him.

“That is,” I rasped, “the stupidest plan I have ever heard.”

And again, a humorless smile flitted over his lips. “Maybe,” he admitted. “Desperate men do desperate things. And I—I believed in you, Oraya. I believed if you won, you would seize power in your own way. I believed that you would use it to accomplish all the same things I wanted to do, and probably do it better, anyway. And you wouldn’t even need to sell your own gods-damned kingdom

to animals to do it.” The smile twisted, becoming something of a grimace. “So was it really a stupid plan?”

Yes. He put far too much faith in me. Just some nobody human.


The word set my world off-kilter. Of their own accord, my fingers moved to my throat.

Raihn’s eyes followed them. “Did you know?”

I knew him well by this point. It was almost comforting that I could hear the hint of betrayal in the question. Betrayal! That was rich. Like had deceived him.

“It must be a mistake. I don’t know how… I just…” I shook my head. “I’m just… human.”

As the words left my lips, I heard the echo of how I had hurled them at Vincent. I am human!

It was never going to be you, he had told me, so many times. You are not like them.

I thought of that refrain with fresh meaning, now.

“You smell me. You’ve—” I choked on these words. “You’ve tasted me. You would know, wouldn’t you? If I wasn’t?”

“I would.” The wrinkle deepened between Raihn’s brows. “But maybe… maybe half human. You did taste… different. I just thought it was because… well…”

In any other circumstance, maybe I would have enjoyed seeing him fumble over his words like this.

He settled on, “Because of how I feel about you.” Oh, for fuck’s sake.

I felt dizzy. I had not intended to sit, but I found myself leaning against the windowsill.

Half human.

That would make me Vincent’s biological daughter.

No. There was no way. It just… it didn’t make any sense. “I can’t be,” I forced out. “He found me. He… he just

found me.”

Raihn asked, quietly, “Why was he there, that night?”

“Because it was a rebellion, and he—” “But why did he come to that house?”

My head hurt. My heart hurt. “I don’t know. It was just… just…”



I hadn’t realized how much I had leaned on that. That fate had brought me to Vincent’s embrace. It was my blessing, because the will of Nyaxia had saved me that night. And my curse, because such a fragile thread separated me from so many more tragic futures.

I had not realized how heavy that word had weighed upon my past, and the way I looked at it, until suddenly it was gone. Suddenly fate was replaced with secrets and whispers and questions I would likely never get answers to. Because Vincent, my father—my father in spirit, and in blood—was dead.

“What was it that he said to you?” Raihn asked. “As he…”


It was the kind of question one asked when they already knew the answer. Already knew what it meant.

I was going to tell you, Vincent had said.

Ask yourself why he’s afraid of you, Raihn had spat at me, before the final trial.

In a world of immortals, there was nothing more dangerous than an heir.

I felt sick.

I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand any of it. If I was Vincent’s daughter, and he knew who I was, why would he keep me at all?

Why wouldn’t he kill me?

Raihn stepped closer again, whispering, “Breathe, Oraya.” And only then did I realize that I was shaking so violently I nearly fell off the windowsill.

“We will find the answers,” he said. “We’ll do the wedding, and—”

Wedding. Oh, Mother.

“I’m not marrying you,” I spat. “Yes, you are.”

“Fuck you. I am not.

A muscle feathered in his cheek.

“It’s the only way I can keep you alive. If you’re not my wife, you’re my enemy. And I can’t justify letting you go.”

“What a fucking hypocrite you are,” I snarled. “You, who was so fucking appalled by Vincent’s bonding.”

Raihn flinched. He knew I was right.

I turned my head enough to look out the window. I knew this view so well. I tracked the evolution of an ancient city from this window every single night, every morning.

Now, it was a kingdom wailing through its death throes. The night sky was bright with red and white—Nightfire. Little streaks of light trailed through the distant streets. Bloodborn soldiers, invading my home. I knew that if I pressed my ear to the glass, I would be able to hear the screams of those below.

“Good thing you freed us from that tyrant,” I spat. “Everything looks so much more peaceful now, doesn’t it?”

Raihn closed the gap between us in two strides. His hand pressed to the glass as he bowed over me, one palm cupping the side of my face in a touch that couldn’t decide if it was a comfort or a threat.

“Think about this. Power is a bloody business. You know that as well as I do. We have teeth, you and I. Now is the time to use them. We’ll rip apart the worlds that subjugated both of us, and from the ashes we’ll build something new. And there is no one I would rather have beside me to do that with than you, Oraya. No one.” His voice lowered to a plea. His gaze dipped—to my mouth—before flicking back to my eyes. “And when I leave this room, and come back with a priestess, you will marry me. You will do it because I

can’t kill you. I tried. I can’t. A world without you would be a dark, depressing place. And I’ve already inflicted enough pain without committing that fucking injustice, too. So let me save you.

Now it was my turn to know he was right—to know that he meant every word of what he said—and hate it.

Anger made things easy.

Love made things complicated.

“Is this you begging me to save myself? And what if I refuse, just like she did?”

In that moment, I thought maybe I would. Maybe I’d die, just like Nessanyn, solely because he wanted me to live. Sheer spite.

“You won’t.” His nose was inches from mine. The words warmed my mouth. Low and smooth.

“How do you know that?”

“Because you’re smarter than her. You have more than a dream. You have vision.”

The admiration in his voice hurt, because I knew it was real.

My eyes flicked up to meet his. I took in all those stunning threads of color. All those pieces of him that did not fit together.

I thought for one long moment that he might kiss me.

Even worse, I thought I might kiss him back.

Instead, his lips ghosted over my forehead. Barely a touch.

Then he straightened. “I’m getting the priestess. Every second we put this off, you’re in danger.”


Before I could protest, he was gone.

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