Chapter no 21

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

“Not much still exists,” Evelaena slurred as she led me down dark, crumbling hallways. There were almost no torches, and my human sight struggled to avoid the uneven tiles and cracks in the

floor—coupled with the fact that an extremely drunk Evelaena had attached herself to me, it took a lot of concentration just to keep myself putting one foot in front of the other.

“But I kept it,” Evelaena went on, as she dragged me around a corner. “I kept all of it. I thought he might… thought he might come back someday. Here!”

Her face lit up, and she jerked away from my grasp. In the darkness, I tripped over a raised slab of stone and had to catch myself against the wall. Evelaena flung open the door. Golden light bathed her face.

“Here!” she said. “Here it all is.”

I followed her into the room. It, unlike all the hallways that we’d come down, was lit with a steady, golden glow—sconce lanterns lined the walls, all lit as if awaiting the imminent return of its occupant. The room was small, but immaculate—the only place in this entire castle that seemed to be, truly, in one piece. A neatly made bed with blankets of violet velvet. A desk, with two golden pens, a closed leather-bound book, a single pair of gold wire-framed glasses. An armoire, one door open, two lone, fine jackets hanging within. On the coffee table, a single spoon, a single saucer. One shoe, neatly placed at the corner of the room.

I stood there staring at it all as Evelaena flung her arms out and spun around.

“Is this it?”

I was grateful that she was too drunk to hear the complicated emotion in my voice.

“All that remains, yes,” she said. “He didn’t leave much behind, all those years ago. Much of it was lost when…” Her gleeful smile faded. A shadow fell over her. “When it all happened.”

She turned to me abruptly, her big blue eyes watery and glistening under the lantern light. “A mistake, surely,” she said. “That he would destroy so much when he left. This is why I kept all of this. Some of it took years to find in the dirt and rubble. I kept it. Cleaned it. Put it here, to wait for him.”

She picked up the single shoe, her finger dancing along the edge of the laces.

I paused at the desk, and the strange collection of random items atop it. One of them was a little ink drawing of Lahor—at least, what I thought was Lahor, but the perspective was from an angle I didn’t recognize, looking down at the city from the east.

“Is there anyone else here who knew him back then?” I asked.

“Here? Living here? In this house?” Evelaena seemed confused by the question.

“Yes. Or… well, anyone. Any of…” I settled on, thinking this would go over well, “any more of our family.”

The records didn’t speak of anyone else. But hell, Lahor was very, very isolated. Who knows?

She stared blankly at me, then burst into high, manic laughter. “Of course not. There’s no one else here. He killed them all.”

I didn’t know why I wasn’t expecting this answer. I stilled, not sure how to respond.

She paused. Turned. Peered over her shoulder at me.

“Everything here changed that day,” she said. “The day he left.”

Evelaena was much younger than Vincent had been. And yet, I hadn’t done the exact math—had assumed she was born after Vincent’s ascension. But that was a hasty assumption. It hit me just how hasty it had been when I looked into her eyes now.

“You were there.” I meant it as a question. It came out as a statement.

She nodded, a slow smile spreading over her face. “I was,” she whispered, conspiratorially, like we were telling ghost stories. “He did it before he left for the Kejari. Set up all the pieces. Even then, everyone knew he would win. Especially him. So he had to set up everything

beforehand. Get rid of everyone who stood in his way.” She touched the wall, like stroking the arm of an old friend. “Lahor was beautiful a long time ago. Kings lived here. It is a safe place. These walls sheltered kings during the reign of our enemies. Perhaps they will do so again, one day.” Her gaze slipped back to me, amused. “All the little kings were here, and one king slaughtered all the rest.”

Little kings.

Vincent had always spoke so dismissively about his own rise to power, and all the things he had done to facilitate it. But none of it was simple. None of it was small.

“I hid here,” Evelaena said. “Here?”

“Here.” She pointed—to the bed. “Underneath it. I was so small, but I remember.” She tapped her temple. “He did the older ones first, then the children. His father, my father, their sisters. He probably thought he needed to do those when his strength was up, because it would be difficult. I think my father gave him a good fight.”

She spoke of all of this dreamily, calmly, as if speculating on history rather than the deaths of her family.

“Then he came here. He got Georgia, Marlena, Amith.” “Children?” I asked quietly.

“Oh, yes. So many of us. And then there were none.”

“Why did he let you live?” I asked. “Because your birth position couldn’t threaten him?”

Evelaena laughed, like I’d just said something very charming and foolish. “Birth position didn’t matter. My uncle was a very thorough man.”

Then, before I knew what was happening, she reached for the straps of her dress and slid them off her shoulders. The light fabric pooled around her waist, leaving her torso and breasts bare—and revealing a star-shaped scar right between them.

“He didn’t let me live,” she said. “He dragged me out from under there and put his sword through my chest. I lay right here beside my brother and sister’s bodies. I thought my playmates and I would go to the next world together.” She smiled serenely. “But the Mother was with me that night. The Mother chose me to live.”


I asked, “How old were you?”

“Five summers, perhaps.” My throat thickened.

I knew what Vincent was capable of. It shouldn’t have shocked me— disgusted me—to think of him slaughtering children when he slaughtered the rest of his family. And yet, the knowledge that this was the truth hiding behind his nonchalant non-answers, behind his matter-of-fact acceptance…

I have never hidden from you, Vincent whispered in my ear, the fact that power is a bloody, bloody business, my little serpent.

No. But it had taken me far too long to look closely at what that meant. “I’m sorry that happened to you,” I said quietly.

Evelaena’s strange solemnity broke, melting back to her wine-dipped euphoria. A grin spread across her bloodstained mouth. “I’m not. It all went as the Mother wanted it to. And it wasn’t so very horrible, considering all that we gained.”

It was horrible, though. It was so horrible I had to bite my tongue hard to keep from saying so.

“I know he knew that, too,” she said. “That I survived for a reason. To look after Lahor. Someone needed to. But he was so very busy. I never received any answers to my letters.”

Her gaze fell back to me, piqued with interest I’d spent my entire life learning how to recognize. “Strange, how no one knew that his blood ran in yours.”

She took a step closer, and I took a step backward.

“How strange of him,” she murmured. “To let a daughter live, the closest link to his line, when so many had been sentenced to death for much lesser crimes.” Her eyelashes fluttered. Another step—she was now so close I could feel her body heat from her bare skin, vampire-delicate.

“Half human, yes?” she whispered. “I can smell it.” Her fingers reached for my cheek, my jaw, my throat—

My hand fell to my blade. “Step back, Evelaena.”

Her nose brushed mine, eyes lifting as her full lips curled. “We’re family.”

If I had to take her down now, I’d have to stab her right in the center of her chest—right over the scar that my father had left on her when she was only a child. What sickening poetic justice.

I didn’t want to kill Evelaena—at least, not yet. We hadn’t even come close to getting what we came here for, and who knew what chaos killing the lady of the house would unleash.

I said firmly, “Step back.” She didn’t move.

“There you are.”

I never thought I would ever again be grateful to hear that voice. And yet, here I was.

Raihn leaned against the doorframe, taking in the scene with an expression that told me I was absolutely going to hear more about this when we were alone.

Evelaena turned to Raihn, approaching him. She didn’t bother to cover herself. Actually, by the way she was looking at him—with that still-insatiable hunger—it seemed very intentional not to do so.

I found this more irritating than I had any right to.

His gaze flicked over her impassively before returning to me. “Dawn’s coming,” he said. “Forgive me if I need to steal my wife away, Lady Evelaena.”

Evelaena ignored him, her hand going to his chest. I watched the press of her fingers against him and had a hard time looking away.

“Tell me, usurper,” she murmured. “How did my uncle’s dying breath feel? I have so wondered.” Her fingertips rose, dancing over the bridge of his nose, the hollow of his cheekbone. “Was it cold against your face? Or warm?”

But gently, politely, Raihn took Evelaena’s wrists and moved them away, instead slipping a wine glass into her grasp.

“I didn’t take any pleasure in that death,” he said.

And his gaze flicked over her shoulder at the end of that sentence— spoken so solemnly, with far more truth than I expected.

He held his hand out to me. “Come to bed.”

Evelaena stepped aside, still staring at Raihn with a blank, indecipherable look on her face. I placed my hand in Raihn’s.

And then I jumped as Evelaena burst out into uproarious laughter.

She laughed and laughed and laughed. She laughed as she threw her head back and drained her glass of wine, and she didn’t stop as she turned away and staggered back down the hall, not even bothering to put her dress back on.

As her voice faded down the hall, Raihn shot me a silent, wide-eyed,

are-you-hearing-this? look.

He leaned close and murmured, “I almost wished I didn’t interrupt, just to see where that was going to go. Wasn’t sure if she was going to seduce you or eat you.”

Honestly, I wasn’t, either.

“I had it under control,” I said.

He squeezed my hand, and it was only then that I realized I was shaking. He pressed his other hand over mine, as if to still the tremors, before letting go.

“I can’t wait to get out of here,” he muttered.

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