Chapter no 8

The Serpent and the Wings of Night

Vincent was exactly where we had agreed. I snuck out of the Moon Palace just before dawn, waiting as long as I could for the other contestants to retreat back to

their rooms. After the feast was over, we had started to somewhat warily explore the rest of the Moon Palace and discovered hundreds of fully furnished and stocked suites throughout it. Most had claimed rooms as their own, some by themselves and some in partnerships or groups for protection.

Still, I remained in my greenhouse. No walls or locks would protect me as well as those windows could. Besides, I found something oddly comforting in the way the greenery wrapped me in an embrace. The plants were fragile and alive and impermanent—just like me—and yet, they’d still managed to reclaim the ancient structure. It was a little inspiring.

When the sky was tinted red, I made my journey. The Ministaer had been honest. The Moon Palace did not lock us in. Vincent met me beyond the gates, beneath the steps where the slab paths gave way to the silty mud of the riverbank. Stone bridges arced overhead, leading to the city.

Vincent had described this spot to me before the Kejari began. “It’s private,” he had told me. “It will be our meeting place.”

Here, under the shadow of the bridge, I felt like I stood upon the boundary between two worlds. To my right, the Moon Palace loomed, ancient and foreboding. To my left, Sivrinaj rose into the sky, silhouetted by the near-full moon. No one cared what happened here, in this little shadowy crevice that was a part of neither.

How did Vincent know about this place? Had he met someone here when he was a contestant in his own Kejari, two hundred years ago? Did he have… well, a Vincent? Someone who had trained him, guided him? A member of the family he had killed in his rise to power?

Or another mentor who told him to do it?

I knew better than to ask those sorts of questions. Maybe when I became Vincent’s equal—his Coriatae—I finally would.


I wasn’t expecting the sound of Vincent’s voice to hurt as it did—an ache right in the center of my chest. I turned to see him approaching from beneath the shadow of the bridge. When the moonlight fell across his face, my throat grew suddenly thick.

I’d been strong before this. There was no time to grieve, no time to be frightened, when I had to focus singularly on survival. But now the sight of him, the sheer familiarity of his face, took me back sixteen years. I was a child again, hiding in the space between the wall and the dresser, and Vincent was the only safe person in the world.

Ilana was gone. Dead. I had only him.

He looked me up and down. His face was stone-still. “Are you injured?”


He lifted his chin to my hand. “That?”

I’d forgotten about it. “Nothing. Just a little cut.”

“You need your hands.”

He beckoned, and I rested my hand in his palm. He gently removed the bandage—purple silk. I had to fight the sting in my eyes as I watched it shimmer beneath the moonlight, now covered in blood. The rest of Ilana’s scarf was in my pocket. I’d tried to salvage as much of it as I could, though so much of it was now stained and torn.

Vincent frowned at it—not at my wound, but the fabric. “Where did you get this?”

“I found it. In the Moon Palace.”

I didn’t even have to try to lie anymore. They came so easily.

“Hm.” He withdrew a bottle from his pocket, then dripped a few drops of the shimmery, silver-blue liquid onto my palm. A puff of smoke unfurled from the cut, the sound echoing the hiss I drew through my teeth.

“Don’t whine.”

I did not miss the hint of affection in the chastisement. “I never whine.”

And he probably did not miss the slight crack in my voice.

The wound on my hand was now just a puffy pink-white scar. He replaced the bandage and handed me the bottle. “Take care of that. I don’t know when I will be able to get you more. I’ll try.”

Medicine that was safe for humans was, understandably, difficult to come by in the House of Night. Vincent needed to trade for them from the human kingdoms in the south and the east. The stuff was precious as gold. More, actually

—gold did nothing to stop bleeding.

“It was earlier than I thought,” Vincent said. “My year, we started the night before the full moon. Not two. I suppose they like to keep things interesting. It makes no difference.”

It made a difference to Ilana. One more night, and she would have been out of the city, safe—if unhappy—in the

human districts.

If I allowed my grief to show, he didn’t seem to notice it.

He unhooked two sheathed weapons from his belt. “Here.”

He tossed them into my arms. I caught them deftly, then slid one from the black leather scabbard—blinking in stunned awe at what was revealed.

The swords were—they were—

I couldn’t speak. Couldn’t find words.

They were short and delicate, designed for dual wielding, as I preferred. They were impossibly light for their size. The blades curved gracefully, polished black steel with red marks etched into the flat—long swirls of decorative smoke and stark, staccato glyphs locked in a dance. The hilts—silver, topped with two interlocking moons—welcomed my hands as if they had been waiting for me my entire life.

And yet, it felt wrong to even touch them.

“They should serve you well,” Vincent said. “Light. The right size. I gave the smith all your measurements. They’re designed specifically for you.”

“These are…”

Perfect. Stunning. Eye-wateringly expensive, yes, but it wasn’t just about the money. The weapons were the epitome of the deadly artistry the Nightborn were known for, wielded only by the most esteemed House of Night warriors. Hundreds and hundreds of hours of craftsmanship had gone into creating these. Centuries of expertise in blacksmithing and magic. An entire civilization’s skill, right here in my hands.

No doubt several generations of Nightborn kings rolled in their graves to think of such a weapon wielded by an adopted human girl. I felt as if I was tainting these simply by touching them.

“These are…” I started again.

“They are yours,” Vincent said quietly.

As if he heard everything I didn’t say.

I swallowed my wave of emotion—Mother, Oraya, get a fucking hold on yourself—and affixed the sheaths to my belt. Perhaps I didn’t deserve these yet. But I would, one day. Once I won.

“Thank you,” I said.

Vincent glanced again to the sky. “You should go. The sun is coming.”

He was right. The last thing I needed was to get disqualified for being late back to the Moon Palace. I nodded. But before I could turn, he caught my arm, gripping so hard his fingernails dug into my flesh.

“I won’t tell you to be careful, Oraya. I won’t tell you because I know you are. I taught you to be. Resilient. Clever. Fast. Focused. Vicious. You must be all of it now. You have no room for weakness or missteps.”

Emotions rarely showed on Vincent’s face. But now I caught a glimpse—only a glimpse—of some strange tenderness shivering across the cold muscles of his expression, gone before either of us could or would acknowledge it.

“I will,” I said.

“You must be better than they are.”

And just as Vincent heard what I didn’t say, I heard his unspoken words here, too: To make up for what you are not.

There was no room for weakness in the Kejari, but mine was entwined in my own human flesh. I blinked and saw Ilana’s body, so easily destroyed. I fought back the wave of nausea, the stab of pain. Those were weaknesses, too.

Instead, I made my grief into anger. I made it steel. “I know,” I said. “I am.”

He was still for a long moment, then released me.

“The blades hold poison,” he said. “There’s enough in them to last you awhile. You can refill it through the hilt.”

This, I knew, was Vincent telling me that he loved me. No one had ever said those words to me—at least, not that I could ever remember. But he communicated it a thousand ways over the years, most of them coated in death. I love you. Here’s how you stay alive. Here’s how you make sure that no one can hurt you.

For vampires, that was the ultimate gift.

I nodded, lifted my hand in a silent goodbye, and we parted without another word.



CUT my return closer than I should have, but at least it meant that the Palace was quiet when I got back. I was trying to figure out whether I was hallucinating or if the layout of the place had changed—again—when I rounded a corner and nearly ran into a wall.

No—not a wall. A person.

I reacted fast, putting several strides between me and the figure before I even looked at their face. My blades were out in seconds. Mother, these things were light.

I lifted my gaze to see dark red eyes drinking me in.

At the feast, even from across the room, I’d thought this man seemed unlike most other vampires I’d met. Up close, there was no doubt about it. Raihn’s features were strong— almost unpleasantly so, like each held too much personality to be combined in such a way. While time left marks on humans, in vampires it simply sanded away imperfections, leaving them with beauty as finely honed as a Nightborn blade. But this man’s face certainly seemed to hold evidence of the life he had lived—a scar marking his left cheek in two lines arranged in an upside-down V, one

eyebrow that seemed a little higher than the other, hair that was left in unruly waves.

That stare now casually moved down my body, then to my blades, which were poised and ready to strike. His left eyebrow, the one that seemed permanently, ever-so-slightly raised, quirked even higher.

“Are those new? Thank the Mother you didn’t have those last night. I wouldn’t have a leg anymore.”

“Get out of my way.” “Where were you?”

I tried to walk past him, but he placed his hand on the opposite wall, blocking my path with a thick, muscled arm clad in leather, right at face-height.

“I know where you were. You were visiting the Nightborn King. That’s you, isn’t it? His human?” He cocked his head. “You’re very famous, you know. Even in the borderlands. A real curiosity.”

I tried to duck under his arm to continue to the greenhouse, but he moved it down to block my path. Then he nodded down to his leg.

“You stabbed me.” “You grabbed me.”

“I was trying to save your life.”

I shouldn’t even engage. I could practically hear Vincent’s voice in my ear: Think about what you have to gain from an interaction. The answer is usually nothing.

But my ego spoke first. I made a show of looking myself up and down.

“I don’t think so. I escaped, and I look alive to me.” That eyebrow twitched again. “For now.”

He said this as if it was very amusing.

But only now, a moment too late, did my mind circle back to what he had said—I was trying to save your life.

That night, I’d been so distraught, I hadn’t even given myself time to think about who had grabbed me—or why. It

only sank in now that he had been trying to help me, or at least, appeared to be.

That was… strange. So strange, it did nothing to endear him to me. Far from it. I was certain he hadn’t done it out of the kindness of his benevolent heart.

“What do you want?” I demanded.

“I want an apology. For stabbing me. Especially given that I could have turned you over to your victim’s brother, and didn’t.” He leaned a bit closer, and I matched the movement by stepping back. “Because you did kill that bastard, didn’t you?”

I scoffed.

He frowned. “What?” “I’m not a fool.”


“You wanted him to give you an excuse. You just wanted to swing your cock around.”

Because in the House of Night, everything was a power game. His spectacle at the feast? That was a performance.

Well, fine. I’d rather have my enemies looking at him than looking at me. But that didn’t mean I had to put up with it. Maybe he was curious about me. Maybe he just liked to toy with his food. I didn’t need to know why he was playing the game to know I had nothing to win.

I raised my blade. “Now let me pass.”

He arched his brows. “I ask for an apology, and I get threats.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t aim higher.”

He looked pointedly down at himself. “A little higher, or a lot higher?”

That was almost funny. It caught me a bit off guard. It was rare that vampires made jokes. Hundreds of years withered away a sense of humor. When I was fifteen or so, I gave up on trying to make Vincent understand. I was lucky I’d had Ilana to—

The casual thought of her triggered a stab of pain so intense it took my breath away.

“Let me pass,” I snapped.

He gave me a strange look. “What was that?”

That caught me a bit off guard, too. That he noticed the brief emotion I had allowed to flinch over my face.

Let me pass.” “Or what?”

“Or I’ll stab you again.” “How much higher?”

For a moment, I actually considered doing it. Maybe this was the best opportunity I’d get, right now, when he was acting like it was all a big fucking joke. What a luxury that must be.

It was only the thought of that flash of black, then white

—Asteris, I was sure of it—that stilled my hand.

Instead, I made a dramatic show of looking him up and down—lingering at his thigh and trailing up to the crotch of his leather pants, and said, “A little.”

I ducked under his arm. This time, he chuckled softly and didn’t try to stop me.



THE MOON GLEAMED bright and full, hanging heavy with challenge. The minutes since it rose had been tense and still. From my place in the greenhouse, I couldn’t hear a single sound from the Moon Palace halls.

It was nearly midnight when the ghostly thread of shadow appeared again, summoning us from our rooms. I followed it to the great hall, where the Ministaer had addressed us all the night before. The room slowly filled with people as more and more threads of shadow joined

mine, until no more arrived and the shadows dissipated, leaving us all standing in awkward silence.

Everyone had taken the last day to prepare. Contestants were armed with new, freshly cleaned weapons, leather armor strapped tight to their bodies. Some wore protective sigils at their throats or etched into the armor itself. I noted those carefully—it didn’t necessarily mark them as magic wielders, but it did make the possibility more likely. Magic would be an ugly surprise in the ring.

Overnight, some had already formed little factions. The House of Blood contestants, of course, stayed together. Now, there was little doubt that the tall, muscular woman was their leader, as I’d suspected. The others listened, rapt, as she whispered to them in hushed command. Her mostly-silver hair was now bound up in a long braid, the tight pull of it emphasizing her sharp cheekbones and strong brow. As she turned to speak to one of her companions, I noticed a faint crimson crawling up from beneath the collar of her white leather armor.

Her curse. I’d never met a Bloodborn vampire before, but I’d heard that red marks on their skin signaled the end stages of it. If that was true, this woman was far along. The next step would be insanity. And beyond that…

Well, people murmured about what the House of Blood’s curse did to them. Turned them into little more than animals in the end.

I shuddered and looked away.

Some of the other contestants had formed little groups overnight, too—probably seeing the temporary value of strength in numbers. Almost certainly, too, thinking ahead to the Halfmoon trial. It was the only trial structure that was the same every year: in which contestants would need to fight in teams or partners, and half the field would be eliminated.

My eyes found Raihn at the other side of the room. Beside him was the cheerful woman with the short hair.

She leaned close, whispering excitedly, while he surveyed the room.

What an odd pair.

Only a few now remained notably set back from the rest of the group: me, several members of the House of Shadows—known for their staunch independence—and Ibrihim, who was one of the last to reach the great room, visibly limping on his mangled foot.

The Kejari was no place for pity. Still, I felt it anyway as I watched him hobble down the hall. I knew better than anyone that no one should be dismissed out of hand. But it was hard to imagine any version of today’s events that wouldn’t end in Ibrihim’s death.

The minutes passed. We waited in tense silence.

I unsheathed my blades, adjusting my grip around the hilts.

I’d studied each of the twenty Kejaris that came before this, and I had thought long and hard about what this trial could be. The first trial usually represented Nyaxia’s departure from her home in the White Pantheon. She had ventured out beyond the borders of her land and was attacked by beasts during her midnight walk. They pursued her for miles, and in her panic, she grew impossibly lost. Sometimes, the trial involved blinding contestants, as Nyaxia was blinded during her attack. Sometimes, it required contestants to run and fight over treacherous terrain. But most often, it involved beasts—sometimes many, sometimes one.

The long silence gave way to uncomfortable whispers of confusion. Eventually, one of the Hiaj contestants asked what we were all wondering:

“So what now? Are we supposed to—” The Moon Palace simply disappeared.

You'll Also Like