The king did not know then that his greatest love would also be his ruination—nor that either would come in the form of a tiny, helpless human child.
She was a lone flutter of life in an endless expanse of decay, the only living mortal for a hundred miles. The child was perhaps four, perhaps eight—it was hard to tell, because she was so, so small, even by human standards. Just a frail little creature with slick black hair that curtained wide gray eyes.
Somewhere, buried beneath charred beams and crumbled stone, the girl’s family likely lay crushed beyond recognition. Or perhaps their ravaged bodies had been left out in the night, taken by predators just like the ones that stalked the child now, looking down at her with the interest that a hawk afforded a rabbit.
The humans, of course, were nothing more than that in this world—prey, pests, or often both.
The three winged men landed before her, smiling at their luck. Immediately, the little girl struggled against the debris that pinned her. She recognized what they were— recognized their pointed teeth and black, featherless wings, and perhaps she even recognized the uniforms they wore, the deep purple of the Hiaj Nightborn King. Perhaps
the men who had burned her home had worn uniforms just like these.
But she could not run. Her clothing was torn and hopelessly tangled in the ruins around her. She was too small to shift the stones.
“Look at this. A little lamb.” The men approached. As one of them reached out for her, she snarled at him, catching his fingertips between small, blunt teeth.
The soldier hissed and yanked his hand away, while his companions laughed.
“A lamb? More like a viper.”
“Or a garden snake,” another scoffed.
The bitten soldier rubbed his hand, wiping away a few droplets of crimson-black. He started for the child. “Doesn’t matter,” he grumbled. “They taste the same. And I don’t know about you bastards, but I’m hungry after such a long night.”
But then a shadow fell over them all.
The men stilled. They lowered heads in reverent bows. The cool air shivered, the darkness twisting around their faces and wings like a blade caressing a throat.
The Hiaj king did not utter a single word. He did not need to. The moment he made his presence known, all of his warriors fell into silence.
He was not the physically strongest vampire. He was not the fiercest warrior nor the wisest sage. But they said he was blessed by the goddess Nyaxia herself, and anyone who had ever met him would swear it to be true. Power seeped from his every pore, and death stained his every breath.
His soldiers said nothing as he stepped over the wreckage of the little home.
“The Rishan have been eradicated from the area,” one of them chanced, after several long moments. “The rest of our men have traveled north and—”
The king lifted his hand, and the warrior went quiet.
He kneeled down before the little girl, who glowered at him. So young, he thought. Her life, a mere handful of years, was nothing compared to his centuries of existence. And yet, she drew upon such intense hatred as she glared at him, her eyes as bright and silver as the moon.
“She was found here?” the king asked. “Yes, sire.”
“Is she the reason for the blood on your hand?”
A wave of poorly suppressed snickers from the other soldiers.
“Yes, sire.” The answer was slightly bashful.
They thought he was mocking them. No. This had nothing to do with them.
He reached for the girl, and she snapped at him. He let her bite—did not move his hand, even as her teeth, tiny as they were, sank deep into his bony index finger.
She looked him straight in the eye, unblinking, and he returned that stare with mounting interest.
This was not the stare of a panicked child who didn’t know what she was doing.
This was the stare of a creature who understood she was confronting death itself, and still chose to spit in its face.
“A little serpent,” he murmured.
The men behind him laughed. He ignored them. It was not a joke.
“Are you all alone?” he said softly.
The girl did not answer. She could not speak with her teeth clamped around his flesh.
“If you release me,” he said, “I will not hurt you.”
The girl did no such thing, still glaring at him as black blood dribbled down her chin.
The corner of the king’s lips curled. “Good. You should not trust me.”
He pried his finger free, then carefully extracted the girl from the wreckage as she thrashed. Even in the throes of her violent resistance, she was utterly silent. And it was
only once he picked her up—Goddess, she was so light, he could have held her with a single hand—that he realized how injured she was, her torn clothing soaked with blood. The sweet scent of it permeated his nostrils as he tucked her against his chest. She teetered on the precipice of unconsciousness, but she resisted it, her entire body tense.
“Rest, little serpent. No harm will come to you.”
He stroked her cheek, and she tried to bite again, but a spark of magic trailed his fingertips. With that whisper of night came a dreamless sleep too heavy for even this vicious little thing to fight.
“What do you want us to do with her?” one of the soldiers asked.
The king strode past them. “Nothing. I will take her.”
A beat of silence. Though he could not see them, the king knew they were exchanging confused glances.
“Where?” one asked, at last. “Home,” the king replied.
The child slept, one hand clenched tight around the silk fabric of the king’s shirt—fighting still, in this small way, even in sleep.
Home. He would take her home.
Because the king of the Hiaj vampires—conqueror of the House of Night, blessed of the Goddess Nyaxia, and one of the most powerful men to have walked this realm or the next—saw a fragment of himself in this child. And there, right beneath the clenched fist of her palm, something warm and bittersweet stirred in his chest at the sight of her. Something more dangerous than hunger.
Hundreds of years later, historians and scholars would look back upon this moment. This decision that, one day, would topple an empire.
What a strange choice, they would whisper. Why would he do this?
After all, vampires know better than anyone how important it is to protect their hearts.
And love, understand, is sharper than any stake.