Chapter no 56

The Serpent and the Wings of Night

I was escorted to the throne room at nightfall the next day. I listened to the door click four times before it swung open. Raihn stood there, Cairis at his side.

“Four locks?” I said as we walked through the halls.

Cairis trailed far behind. I wondered if I should expect him to always be lingering near us, now. “How flattering.”

“I know better than to underestimate you.” “Where are we going?”

He gave me an odd look, like this was an obvious question. “To work, of course.”

“Why? Aren’t I your prisoner?”

Another strange look—this one I couldn’t quite decipher. “You aren’t my prisoner,” he said. “You’re my queen.”

I had grown up in this palace. I knew every crevice. I had slipped through each secret hallway in the bright hours of day, when no one could disturb me. But everything was different now. New faces in the hall. Paintings torn from the walls. The face of my father shredded and disfigured, just as it had been in life.

Raihn led me to the throne room. There were so many people here. All Rishan. All of them looked at me with utter disgust. I knew what it was to walk into a room and know that everyone there wanted to kill me. That is what it was to be prey in a world of predators.

This was different.

These people wanted to kill me not because I was weak, but because I was powerful.

Raihn excused himself to go speak to Ketura, who shot me a wary glare when his back was turned. I walked through this familiar-unfamiliar room. I crossed it until I reached the double doors that overlooked the ballroom.

All the paintings—paintings of Hiaj legend and royalty— had been destroyed, smashed to pieces over the marble floor.

Only one still remained, that small painting I had always so admired: the Rishan man, falling, reaching for a savior that would not reach back.

“I am so glad we have the opportunity to work together once again.”

The hairs rose on the back of my neck. The smell of tobacco smoke wafted over me. I turned to see Septimus leaning on the opposite doorframe.

I didn’t feel like playing today.

“Work together,” I said. “What a polite way of talking about slaughtering a kingdom.”

“Slaughter? That’s harsh.”

“It’s what you want, isn’t it? Looks like it, from what I’ve seen.”

He exhaled a puff of smoke. “Then you’re not looking at much of anything, are you? Perhaps the same impulses that drive my people are the ones that drive you to murder in your human slums. After all, your people weren’t the only ones used as pawns in our goddess’s little games.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, because something about the pointed stare, full of anger he mostly managed to hide, reminded me of that first trial—of the look of horror on the Bloodborn contestant’s face as he realized that he was fighting monsters that had once been his people. Both the humans and the Bloodborn had been used and discarded.

“You didn’t hesitate to use Angelika as a pawn, either.” “Angelika was a good friend of mine, and the sacrifice

she made for her kingdom will live on far longer than she has.”

I asked bluntly, “How did you know this would work?” “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Raihn made your deal”—caved to your blackmail—“to save me. Yet for him to hold up his end, he had to win the Kejari. Why would you think he would kill me after he had saved me?”

Septimus smirked. Exhaled smoke. “I didn’t. He’s clearly a romantic.”

I kept my face blank, but did not understand this answer.

He chuckled and straightened. “I told you I don’t make bets that I can lose. And every bet I’ve made on you has been a winning one, dove.”

He offered me the box of cigarillos. I shook my head.

“I hope you can find it in your heart to call me a friend,” he said, as he slipped the box into his pocket. “You may find we have more in common than you think. We’re the only ones here who know what it’s like to fight against time. Counts for a lot in this world, doesn’t it?”

He sauntered away without another word, just in time for Raihn to return to my side. He eyed Septimus’s departing form warily.

“What was that about?” “Nothing.”

Raihn looked unconvinced. He took my arm. I stiffened and pulled away, but followed him as he walked.

“What now?” I said.

He led me into the ballroom. To our right, floor-to-ceiling windows displayed a tableau of Sivrinaj, domes and spires gleaming beneath the star-dusted sky. The night was still hazy with smoke and white with fire, bright as inverted sunshine spilling across the ballroom’s marble floors.

“Good question” Raihn said. “Guess we have to build a kingdom.”

On the surface, his voice held the lilt of a flippant joke. It did little to mask the blatant fear beneath it.

I was afraid, too.

Afraid of the enemies beyond these walls, and within them. The enemies that surrounded Raihn, and the ones that surrounded me. The allies ready to betray us both.

Afraid of the fire consuming the kingdom that raised me, and for the countless innocent humans who would be caught within it.

Afraid of the danger of the future, and the secrets of the past.

Raihn took my hand.

And this time, I let him.

Our eyes met at the same moment, united in our mutual terror—united in all the ways we were the same, even if we weren’t ready to admit it. For one moment, it was all laid bare.

My friend. My enemy. My lover. My captor. King and slave. Human and vampire.

And perhaps the only other person who had ever really understood what it was like to have a heart that bled both red and black.

I hated him. And I loved him.

And I couldn’t even try to deny how beautiful he was, with his life-marked face doused in the flickering light of our world falling to ash.

“And what about you?” he murmured. His thumb stroked my cheek, traced the line of my jaw. “Are you going to kill me, Oraya?”

He said it just as he had a lifetime ago, as dawn encroached on an alleyway in the human slums. And just like that night, I didn’t pull away from his touch.

Instead, I pressed my palm flat to his chest. Behind him, my kingdom burned.

I thought, Maybe.

“Not tonight,” I said.

You'll Also Like