Chapter no 6

The Serpent and the Wings of Night

I waited until the sun was so strong beads of sweat gathered on the back of my neck before I crept from my hiding place. In daylight, the greenhouse looked like a

relic from a past world—fittingly, maybe, because in a way it was. The plants had long ago broken free from their elegant containments. Bright, spiky, red leaves burst from between crumbling cracks of stone. Vines strangled faceless worn statues. Ivy crawled up the patinaed metalwork all the way up to the curved glass overhead, encircling a single missing panel—as if demanding release.

I stared up at that one gaping glimpse of the sky for a long moment. It was unreachable, at the very top of the highest point of the dome. Not that it mattered. The walls weren’t what kept us here—our oath to Nyaxia did, and she would kill us if we tried to evade it.

It was silent in the Moon Palace. After the chaos of the night before, whoever survived appeared to have holed up, resting and preparing before the official start of the trials. Still, I kept my blades ready. Vampires would probably not come into the greenhouse during daylight hours, but they would have no problem moving about so long as they didn’t sun themselves in the windows.

Either I had been hallucinating last night or the legends about the Moon Palace were indeed true, because the

layout of the building was now very different. The door to the greenhouse revealed a long hallway that led to a great room, which opened up all the way to the top of the Palace

—countless stories. I looked up to see balcony after balcony after balcony rising above me, climbing so high and growing so small that they resembled little decorative wisps of silver near the distant domed ceiling. Grand mosaics covered the floor. The tiles were sharp, as if they had been shattered rather than cut. Some were bleached shades of ivory. But most were red… bloodstained. Burned brown a century old, and deep black even older. The stains from last night were sickeningly bright in contrast, even as they now dried down to a rusty crimson.

I didn’t know how I knew where to go. Perhaps once again, the Palace led me where it pleased. I traveled up the stairs, not down, even though I could have sworn I had been climbing the night before. When I hit the third floor, the smell hit me—rotting flesh and death. A pool of congealing blood seeped from around the corner.

I followed the smell and the blood.

Some of the doors up here had been barred. Perhaps these rooms had been claimed by my fellow contestants. I was careful not to wake anyone as I moved past lifeless carcasses.

I found the one I was looking for on the balcony, where the maze of hallways gave way to a great open space that overlooked the drop to the first floor below and the dizzying height of the full tower above. She was not the only human there. Three other corpses were strewn over the tile, some missing limbs or defaced far beyond recognition.

And Ilana…

She didn’t even look human anymore. Didn’t even look like a corpse. She just looked like meat. I recognized her only because I had known her so well. They had mostly left her bright clothing on, tattered and torn, the blue now

purple with her blood. Not that any blood was left in her mutilated body at all, at this point. They had made sure of that. They didn’t let any of it go to waste.

Once, as a child, I watched a pack of wolves rip apart a deer. They were starving—everyone and everything was starving, back then. They didn’t even wait until the poor thing was dead before they tore it to pieces. That was how vampires acted in bloodlust. That was what they had done to my friend.

I kneeled beside her. Her face was mostly missing, but I cradled it anyway.

You were supposed to leave. You were supposed to leave, you stupid, stubborn old bitch.

But then again, Ilana had never done what she was supposed to. Had never done what this world told her she needed to. It was what had drawn me to her from the beginning.

I had been fourteen. I had at last settled into my unsteady place in the world, but had also begun to feel the chafe of its boundaries. Vincent never allowed me anywhere near his parties, but that night, while he was off entertaining at some diplomatic event, I slipped downstairs even though I knew it was foolish. I went outside, keeping walls between me and the guests, and stole glances through the windows at the party within. It was from such a distance that I could only glimpse moving bodies, but I was too cautious to go any closer.

“What are you so afraid of, creeping around like a rat over there?”

Ilana’s voice—already rough and hoarse, even all those years ago—had made me jump. She watched me, a cigar in her fingers and amused grin at her lips.

Right away, I had known she wasn’t a vampire. Ilana had always been so brightly, vividly human. I had seen it from that very first moment, and it was what had transfixed me.

I had shied away into the shadows, and she scoffed.

“You’re too young and pretty to be so frightened of the world. It’s so rare I meet an interesting human around here. Come, come.”

I’d hesitated, knowing that I shouldn’t, that Vincent would not approve. But I had not so much as spoken to another human since coming to Sivrinaj, and the few blood vendors I’d seen in the halls were silent wraiths with empty faces. Nothing like the woman before me now.

I was too curious. I went to her that night, and then many others. Ilana became my little rebellion. I cultivated a friendship with her, finding comfort in all the ways she was like me and all the ways I wished I could be more like her. She had made a tiny, tiny part of me believe that there was another version of a human life than the one I lived.

Now, as I stared down at her corpse, all her vivacious tenacity snuffed out, the fragile remnants of that belief shattered.

There was no other version of humanity. Ilana should have been more afraid. She was human, and that meant she was worth nothing here. The Kejari had started early. The moon had been almost full, but not quite. Twelve hours were the difference between her safety and her death.

A fucking animal’s death. Because that was all she had been to them.

A tiny, muffled sound made my head snap up. Silently, I rose and peered around the corner to see a figure slumped against the wall. The vampire was so listless that at first I thought he was dead, but no—he was sleeping. Red dribbled down his chin and the front of his once-blue shirt. He hadn’t bothered to hide his wings. He was Rishan, his dark-brown feathers surrounding him like a blanket.

The others, apparently, had fled. Or perhaps this one gorged himself on his own, and that was why he slept so unnaturally soundly. His gluttony was stupid. Overeating made vampires sluggish.

He didn’t even stir when I approached. Nor did he move when I took my dagger and plunged it into his chest— pushing hard until the cartilage cracked, pushing until the blade pierced his heart.

Then, his eyes finally snapped open. Good.

I liked to watch it when they realized death was coming for them. This one pissed himself when he went. I pulled him close, caressed his face with my red-stained hands, and made sure Ilana’s blood marked him as I let him slump down in a puddle of his own cowardice.

I had never despised my humanity so much. The weakness had been Ilana’s death sentence. We were so fragile, so weak, that even this piece of shit vampire wiped out a whole life as if it meant nothing.

My hands shook. My heartbeat pounded in my ears, numb and distant, as if my rage and grief bubbled beneath a sheet of ice on the brink of shattering.

I returned to Ilana and fished through her pockets. First, I pulled out a familiar balled-up scarf of purple silk. I stared at it, fighting a lump in my throat, before tucking it into my own pack. Then I returned for her box of matches. She never went anywhere without them.

Her body was so dry, skin so papery. She burned easily, accepting the flame like another brightly colored silk.

I left her on that balcony and went back downstairs to the greenhouse. The Moon Palace was dark, the open air of the great room rising all the way up to the top. The fire lit all of it. In the greenhouse, I drew my knees to my chest and watched that glow flicker beyond the double doors, as my friend burned and burned and burned.

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