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Chapter no 28

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

“Those fucking bastards,” I muttered. “Mhm,” Mische agreed.

I read the letter again, fingers crumpling the parchment around

Vale’s words.

The tentative peace after my performance at the nobles’ meeting could only get us so far, apparently. There had been rumblings of unrest near Sivrinaj, with some of the smaller Rishan nobles not only refusing to send their troops, but actively undermining Vale’s efforts.

I had my fair share of flaws, but naiveté wasn’t one of them. I knew that sooner or later—probably sooner—this was going to happen.

Vale didn’t directly spell out that he thought Simon Vasarus was responsible. But I knew what my suspicions were. Figured, we’d deal with Oraya’s spurned would-be Heir and then have to go deal with mine.

“So.”

One word, and I already was dreading what Mische was going to say next.

“What was that?” she asked, very casually. “What?” I said, even though I knew what. “What I walked in on.”

I had a headache. I didn’t want to think about what that had been, mostly because I myself didn’t know. I didn’t want to think about Oraya’s moans, or her skin, or that brief moment of vulnerability. Or the hurt in her eyes.

“Nothing,” I grumbled.

“Didn’t look like nothing.”

“It was a mistake.” All of it.

You made me do what you couldn’t, she’d said—with actual tears in her eyes, an expression so raw and open. She had no idea, I was certain, how transparent she was, all that pain floating right to the surface.

I felt so stupid. So unimaginably stupid.

Until this moment, I hadn’t realized what I’d done. Here I was thinking that I’d made this great noble sacrifice. Thinking that I had saved her—or tried to, even if my plan had gone… differently than I’d hoped.

I hadn’t. I’d just given her something else to have nightmares about. “I’m going to leave tomorrow,” I said. “At sundown.”

I didn’t look up from the letter—an attempted signal of I-don’t-want-to-talk-about-it to Mische—but of course, it went ignored. I could still feel her disapproving stare.

“Raihn—”

“Nothing to say, Mish.”

“Bullshit.” Then again, for emphasis, “Bull. Shit.”

“You’ve got a way with words. Anyone ever tell you that?”

“Look at me.” She snatched the letter from my hands, stepping in front of me. Her eyes were so big that I could practically see fire reflected in them, sometimes, when she was really pissed.

“So what’s your plan?” she said. “What’s the next step?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” I thrust a palm at the letter. “Go behead all of my enemies and see if there’s a kingdom left when I’m done, I suppose.”

“First of all, you aren’t going to be able to do anything with all of this power until you stop resenting it.”

I made a choking sound that was almost a laugh. It took every shred of my self-control to keep my mouth fucking shut because nothing good was about to come out of it.

Stop resenting it.

I loved Mische—loved her deeply—but the fact that she could even say that with a straight face infuriated me. Of course I resented it. I’d been forced into this position—forced into it partially by her.

“And second,” she went on, her face and voice softening, “you can’t just run away from her. She needs you.”

I scoffed again at that. This time, the sound was more pained than angry. “She needs someone, Raihn,” Mische said. “She’s… she’s really alone.”

That part… that was true. Oraya did need someone. I sighed. “I know. But—”

But that person should not be me.

It felt silly to voice that. I couldn’t bring myself to, not in those words, even though it now seemed clearer than ever.

“Don’t abandon her,” Mische said. “She isn’t Nessanyn. It’s not going to end the same. She’s stronger than that.”

I shot Mische a warning look. Strange how even after hundreds of years, the mere mention of Nessanyn’s name was like a finger against a crossbow trigger, sending a bolt of regret through my chest.

“No. Oraya isn’t like Nessanyn.” “And you aren’t Neculai.”

“Damn right I’m not,” I muttered, though I sounded less convinced than I’d like. I wasn’t like him. So why did I feel him shadowing my every move these last few months?

“Let her in, Raihn,” Mische said, softly.

I rubbed my temple. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” “Bullshit. Yes you do.”

I caught my snappish response in my teeth—isn’t that a little hypocritical coming from you, the girl who locks up every time anyone tries to ask you anything fucking real?

But that was a childish response. None of this was about Mische. Maybe it wasn’t even about Oraya.

“Everyone has abandoned her,” Mische murmured, her eyes sad. “Everyone.”

“I’m not abandoning her.” My words were sharper than I’d meant for them to be. “I made vows. I’m not doing that.”

Your soul is my soul. Your blood is my blood. Your heart is my heart.

I’d been struck by it even that night, the way those words felt rolling over my tongue. With so much weight.

It would be so much easier if this was the game that I tried too hard to convince everyone else it was. But I knew, deep down, the truth of what this was. I could lie to everyone else, but I wasn’t good at lying to myself, not even when I wished I could.

I turned away, studying the rolling dunes outside the window, my arms over my chest. The view was beautiful, but within a few seconds it blurred to the image of Oraya’s pained face. Her face the night of the Kejari. Her

face on our wedding day. Her face when she’d sobbed at the top of that tower in Lahor. Her face just now, on the verge of tears.

I had fucked up.

From the first moment I’d seen Oraya, ready to throw herself into a pack of drugged vampires to save her blood vendor friend, I’d been fascinated by her. I told myself it was just curiosity at first—totally practical interest in Vincent’s human daughter.

That pretense didn’t last long. No, I’d never been very good at lying to myself. Never even bothered trying to tell myself that the only reason I kept Oraya around was because of what she could offer me.

“I thought I could,” I said, finally, not looking away from the dunes. My voice caught in my throat a little. “Thought I could—I don’t know.”

Save her.

Those weren’t the right words. Oraya didn’t need to be saved. She just needed a soul beside her on the dark walk to her own potential. Someone to protect her until she was strong enough to save herself.

I settled on, “I thought I could help her. Keep her safe.” “You can. You are.”

“I don’t know about that.” I turned. Mische had fallen back into the armchair, her knees drawn up to her chin, her eyes wide and rapt. No one listened quite like Mische.

“I hurt her,” I choked out, “so fucking badly, Mish.” The wrinkle between Mische’s brows softened.

“You did,” she said softly. “So what are you going to do about it?”

I had thought I’d known the answer to that question. I’d give her everything that had been taken away from her. I’d hand her the power that Vincent had tried to keep away from her her entire life. I’d protect her. Defend her. Arm her.

It felt like the only right thing. And the world didn’t deserve Oraya— but what a magnificent thing she could become.

I wanted to see that. What the hell was the point of any of this if I couldn’t do that? Right this one wrong?

But now, doubt crept into the dark corners of those thoughts. Maybe I shouldn’t be the one doing any of those things.

I turned back to the window.

“I’m going back to Sivrinaj on my own,” I said. “Oraya shouldn’t travel that fast yet. I’ll have some of Ketura’s men escort you two back later.”

Mische leapt up. “What? You are not heading back there alone, Raihn.” “Work on her magic with her. You’re better at that than me, anyway.

And when Ketura gets here, she can teach her how to disappear her wings.” “Raihn—”

“I don’t have time to wait, Mische,” I snapped. Then I let out a breath, and said, more gently, “Do this for me, alright? Watch out for her. Like you said. She needs someone.”

Mische’s face softened, though I could still see the conflict in it—torn between letting it go and pressing.

“Alright,” she said at last, though she didn’t sound convinced.

 

 

 

I LEFT AS SOON as night fell the next day. I said goodbye to Mische, who vocally and emphatically disagreed with my decision to leave early. I shut down the argument fast.

When I went to Oraya’s door, no one answered my knock.

She was in there, of course. Nowhere else for her to go. And anyway, I could smell her. I could always smell Oraya’s blood, the pulse of it. I could hear her in there, too—faint rustling of blankets on the bed.

I knocked again.

Third time, I decided, I’d just let it go. I knocked one more time, and— “What?”

Downright vitriolic. I couldn’t help but let a little smile tug at the corner of my mouth. There she is.

I opened the door and peered in. She sat on the bed with a book, cross-legged, her wings slightly unfolded behind her.

I took a careful assessment of her in that split-second—eyes, skin, wings, wounds.

The wounds looked better than they had the night before. Wings looked a bit more relaxed, too. I’d practically ached on her behalf yesterday, just feeling the strain of those muscles. The tension, I was sure, long predated

the wings. Oraya was always trying so hard to bear all that armor. I knew she’d been holding those shields up for twenty years.

I was staring. Oraya looked unamused. “What?” she barked, again.

I smiled at her. “You’re so charming, princess.” She stared at me.

“I’m leaving,” I said.

She blinked twice, a little too fast. Her face changed, grumpiness shifting to—

My brow twitched.

“Look at that face,” I said. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were worried.”

“Why?” she asked, voice tight. “Where are you going?” “Back to Sivrinaj.”

“Why?”

I gave her a tight smile that was more of a baring of teeth. “Because Rishan nobles are fucking pricks.”

Could practically hear Cairis scolding me for even giving her that much information—information that could be used against me.

Her expression shifted again. Disapproval. Hell, maybe hatred. She tried to tamp it down and failed, of course.

“Oh.”

“Mische is staying here with you, and some of the guards.” I nodded to her wings. “Keep those out for now. Ketura will be here in a few days. She can teach you how to get rid of them. Not hard once you get the hang of it.”

She stared at me, wrinkle between her brows, saying nothing. “Try to contain your excitement at my departure,” I said flatly.

I glanced at the table. An empty bowl sat there—scraped clean. I couldn’t help feeling some satisfaction at that.

Oraya still said nothing.

I wasn’t quite used to her being so quiet.

“Well, that’s it,” I said. “Take care of yourself. See you in a few weeks.” I started to close the door, but she said, “Raihn.”

I stopped mid-swing. Peered back in. She had leaned forward slightly, her lips pressed together, as if in protest against whatever thrashed behind them.

“Thank you,” she said. “For fixing my wings.”

My fingers tightened around the door frame.

As if that was something to thank me for. Common decency.

“Like I said, you were made for the sky,” I said. “Would be an injustice to let that be taken away.”

The faintest hint of a smile brushed her mouth, a glimmer of sun through the clouds.

Then it faded as her eyes went distant. I wondered if she was thinking of Vincent.

She blinked that expression away fast.

“Safe travels,” she said flatly, turning back to her book. I gave her a faint smile. “Thanks.”

I left around midnight that night, armed to the teeth with two of Ketura’s guards with me. Not enough, Vale would’ve said, but I’d rather leave the rest for Oraya and Mische. Both of them were forces to be reckoned with, certainly, but Oraya was injured and Mische… well, it seemed like I saw more burn scars on her arms every time I looked at her.

I looked back one last time before we flew away. Immediately, my eyes floated up—to the second floor of the little cottage, where a set of moon-silver eyes stopped my heart in its tracks, just like they did every damned time.

Oraya leaned against the window frame, arms crossed. When my gaze met hers, she lifted one hand in an almost-wave.

It felt like some kind of small victory.

I waved goodbye to her, and then I was gone.

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