Chapter no 32

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

The castle looked different. I couldn’t remember if it had been this way when we’d left, or if it had changed in the time we had been away. Either could be true. Before, I was in such a haze of grief and

anger that I could barely process the world around me.

Now, as I wandered around the twilight-empty halls of the castle, I wondered if it had always been this… bare. So different than when my father had ruled this place, all the Hiaj art stripped away. I’d expected that they would quickly be replaced with Rishan art, Rishan trophies, Rishan artifacts—all the same preening signals of power, just with a different kind of wing.

But Raihn hadn’t done that. He’d left the walls bare. The whole castle was empty, as if trapped in the space between an exhale and an inhale.

Maybe that was what drove me out into the human district that night. Nothing about my home looked familiar anymore, so perhaps I was looking for something familiar out in those dilapidated streets—after all, they had forged me just as much as the castle had.

Or maybe I just really needed to go kill something that deserved it. I’d accept that answer to.

But when I got there, the human districts had changed too. They were… quiet.

I hadn’t been out here in months, not since Raihn and I had come during the Kejari. In the past, whenever I’d neglected my duties for more than a couple of weeks, the district would be crawling with vampires. I expected to find a killing field ripe for a harvest.

Instead, perplexingly, I found no one at all. Not a single hunting vampire. Nothing.

After a few hours, I sighed and leaned against the wall. Reluctantly, I slid my blades into their sheaths.

Was I actually disappointed that I wouldn’t find anyone to kill tonight?

That was selfish of me. I should be glad.

was glad.

And confused. A little suspicious.

A welcome gust of wind cooled the sweat on my skin. It sent a wooden sign across the street clattering against the brick building. My gaze fell to it

—to the sign that read, Sa d r ’s, but perhaps had once said, Sandra’s.

A familiar, shitty little pub.

I rubbed my dry tongue against the roof of my mouth. Suddenly, the taste of cold, foamy, absolutely fucking terrible beer sounded… strangely appealing.

I stood up, stretched, and decided I could handle a detour.



DIDNT KNOW what the hell I was thinking.

I kept my leathers buttoned all the way up to my throat—more than far enough to hide my Heir Mark—and drew my hood up tight. My wings were gone. I had no sharp canines. Most importantly, I wasn’t a vampire.

And yet, I still felt so out of place. Every time someone casually glanced my way, I had to resist the urge to run.

The pub was packed—even more than it had been when I’d come here with Raihn. It smelled of sweat and beer and burning candles. Voices all melded together into a single rush of laughs and jokes and flirtations and ill-fated bets on cards.

I had been surprised the first time I came here, to see how relaxed the patrons were. It had seemed foolish for a human in Obitraes to do anything but live in constant fear.

Now, they seemed even more carefree. And this time… maybe I couldn’t fault them for it. I’d spent hours wandering these streets in search

of dangers to protect them from and had found none.

Maybe that was worthy of celebration.

Still, their behavior felt foreign to me. If some tiny part of me had come here searching for familiarity, I hadn’t found it. I had some human blood, but I was nothing like these people—even if a part of me wished I was.

“Hey, pretty girl, you here alone?” a young, copper-haired man said, sidling up to me, and I shot him a dagger stare that made him make a face and immediately turn away.

I realized after he left that I’d had my hands on my blades. For fuck’s sake. What was I doing here?

You don’t belong here, little serpent, Vincent whispered in my ear. Here among the mice.

Even in my head his voice was so disgusted by them, so dismissive. I could hear it so clearly, because I’d heard that tone from him countless times in life.

It set my teeth on edge. My fingers tightened at my sides.

Fear is a collection of physical responses.

I forced my breath to slow, my heart rate to lower. If Raihn could do it, I could certainly do it.

I managed to fight my way to the bar by wielding some mixture of appropriately stomped feet, pointy elbows, and my ability to be small enough to slip between the hulking bodies of sweaty bearded men.

Ugh. Humans did sweat so much more than vampires.

When I made it to the bar and the barkeep, a wiry old man with deep set, tired eyes, turned to me, I froze.

Seconds passed. The barkeep looked increasingly pissed with every one. “Well?” he pressed. “We’re busy, kid.”

“Beer,” I choked out finally. The barkeep stared flatly at me. “One…one beer?” I tried.

“Two beers,” a deep, very amused voice corrected from behind me.

Familiar warmth encircled me as a large body leaned against the bar beside me. I recognized him long before I looked at him.

How the hell did he find me here?

Raihn murmured in my ear, “You brag about winning the Kejari, but you don’t know how to order a beer?”

My face heated.

“Not a very useful skill,” I grumbled. “Really? I’ve found it very useful.”

The barkeep returned with two mugs of foamy brown liquid, and Raihn slid a couple of coins to him with a jerked half-nod of thanks. It had been long enough since I’d seen this version of him that it was jarring all over again. He wore a dark cloak and a slightly yellowed white shirt unbuttoned distractingly too low, his hair messy and unbound. Everything about his body language mirrored those around us. Casual, rough, unpolished.

Unmistakably human.

Still, I noticed he kept his hood up this time. Maybe he trusted his disguise a little less than he used to.

He took the two mugs and gestured to a little semi-secluded table across the room, not far from the spot he and I had sat the first time we came here. The place was so crowded that he practically had to fight his way through— though, of course, he managed to do it with a lot less overt aggression than I had.

Helped to be huge, apparently.

“Why are you here?” I asked, as soon as we were at our table.

His brow twitched. “You planned on drinking alone? How depressing.” “Were you following me?”

He set the mugs down and raised his palms. “Easy, viper. I’m here for the same reasons you are. The seductive allure of piss beer. Good to know it’s grown on you.”

He smiled, and I didn’t.

“So it’s just a god-chosen coincidence that you’ve shown up here?”

“Your sarcasm is so subtle, princess. Elegant and refined. Like fine wine. Or this beer.” He took a swig, made a face, and let out a refreshed sigh. “What, you think I’ve been spying on you?”

“That’s exactly what I think.”

“So what if I have? You think Mische is that shitty of a bodyguard, that you could slip out into the human districts and no one would know?”

Embarrassingly, it hadn’t even occurred to me that Mische had seen me


“So you were tailing me,” I said.

“No. I knew you could handle yourself. This part, you and I ending up

here at the same time… that actually is luck. I come here a lot. Missed it while we were gone.”

I did have to admit I believed that. A part of Raihn existed out here that didn’t exist in the Nightborn castle. Maybe… maybe just like a part of me existed here that couldn’t there, too.

I sipped my beer and winced at the bitter taste. “Ugh.”

“Hasn’t gotten better with time, huh?” “No.”

And yet, I took another sip. I wasn’t sure how something could taste so good and so bad at once.

“So.” He took another swig of beer. “It’s been quite awhile since you had a nighttime patrol out here. How’d it go?”

I knew a leading question when I heard one. The way Raihn was watching me out of the corner of his eye as he drank his beer told me enough.

My eyes narrowed. His brow raised.

I leaned across the table.

He leaned back against the bench, hands behind his head.

“If I didn’t know better,” he said, “I’d say that expressive face of yours is accusing me of something.”

“What happened out here?” “What do you mean?”

Oh, Mother damn him. He was playing with me. “You know what,” I said. “It’s…”

“Quiet,” he provided. “Peaceful.” “There’s no one to kill.”

He chuckled and leaned closer, his face only a few inches from mine, and murmured, “You sound so disappointed, my murderous queen.”

My gaze fell to his mouth as he said that—fell to the little smile that curled its edge, something softer and more playfully affectionate than his usual performative smirks.

I knew the way that smile felt against my lips. Knew how it tasted.

This thought struck me without permission, visceral and uncomfortable. Even more uncomfortable than that was the longing that came with it, a sudden, deep pang, like the drawing of a bow across the mournful string of a violin.

I leaned back, putting a few more inches of distance between us.

“No,” I said. “It’s a good thing. It’s just—”

“The place should be filled with criminals by now, since you, the heroic savior of the human districts, have been a little distracted.”

I glowered, because I knew he was teasing me, but nodded anyway. “Yes.”

He took an aggressively casual sip of beer. “Has it occurred to you that maybe the human districts now have another protector?”

“You?” I didn’t bother to hide my disbelief. “What, you’re telling me that you sneak out here every night to go inflict vigilante justice on these poor bastards?”

On one hand, it was ridiculous. Raihn was the Nightborn King, after all

—not as if he should have the time to go skulking around in the human districts every night. Then again… was it really any more unbelievable than that person being me?

He set down his mug.

“You’re thinking too small, princess.” His voice was low, like he didn’t want to be heard. “You talk about vigilante justice, but I don’t need vigilante anything anymore. That’s what it means to rule a kingdom. It means the ability to change things.”

The little curl still clung to the corner of his mouth, like a permanent shield, but his eyes were serious. Vulnerable, even.

Realization slowly dawned. “You—”

“I made the necessary commands and the necessary changes to make sure that the human districts are, and always will be, safe. Yes.”

“How? It was always forbidden to hunt in the human districts, but—” “But it happened anyway. Why?”

I didn’t answer.

He gave me a sad, knowing look. “Because no one actually cared. Because no one enforced those laws. No one guarded the perimeters after dark. No one punished those who disobeyed. Well… no one except for you.”

A sour knot formed in my stomach. I thought of those districts I would hunt, night after night, always catching at least one more culprit. Thought of what my father had showed me, mere days before he died. All those humans soaked in blood, pinned to the table. Nothing but food.

“You mean Vincent,” I said. “He was happy to just let the human districts be preyed upon.”

Even now, I half expected to hear his voice in my ear—an explanation, a defense, a rebuke. But there was nothing. Not even my imaginary version of my father could justify his choice.

And that’s exactly what it had been. A choice.

Raihn was an unpopular king who had been in power for mere months, all of them tumultuous, and he had still managed to make the human districts far safer than they were before.

Vincent just never cared to. Even with his human daughter, he never cared to.

“Not just Vincent,” Raihn said. “All of them. Neculai was no better.” I swallowed thickly.

“He always told me,” I said, “that nothing could be done.”

Nothing could be done about so many things. My family in Rishan territory. The humans in the human districts, even the human districts of Sivrinaj. Even my powerlessness could only be solved with a wish from Nyaxia.

A wry smile flitted across Raihn’s mouth. “They have a way of bending reality, don’t they? Making it exactly what they say it is.”

My knuckles were white around my mug. The words flowed over my tongue before I could stop them. “I feel like—like such a fucking idiot. Because I never questioned any of it.”

I didn’t want to see the pity in Raihn’s eyes. I kept my gaze glued to the table as he murmured, “I never questioned any of it, either. For a hell of a lot longer than twenty years. But that’s what happens when one person gets to shape your entire world. They can make it into whatever they want, and you’re stuck inside those walls, whether they’re real or not.”

How could he sound so calm about it? I was desperate for calm.

“And they just get to die?” I spat. “They just get to escape the consequences?”

The hatred in my words took me by surprise. I should have been ashamed to think such a thing—that Vincent’s bloody death had been the easy way out, cheating us all out of answers.

I wasn’t, and that scared me.

My eyes flicked up to meet Raihn’s. Warm and red in the dim lantern light, they held no hint of the pity I’d expected. Instead, they were fierce

and steadfast.

“No,” he said. “We get to use the power we got from them to make this kingdom into something they fucking despise. What’s the point of any of this if there’s nothing to actually fight for?”

There had always been a snide, petty part of myself that had doubted whether Raihn’s grand declarations were just another performance for my benefit.

In this moment, I knew he was telling the truth. I knew it because the determination—the spite—in his eyes mirrored the glimpses of it I saw in myself.

It was a sudden realization, a truth snapping into place to reveal an uncomfortable portrait. The simple thing had always been to hate Raihn, to tell myself that he was my enemy, my captor, my conqueror.

But Vincent had spent my entire life telling me convenient lies. Maybe I didn’t have the stomach for it anymore.

Maybe the complicated truth was that Raihn was more like me than anyone ever had been. Rishan Heir or no.

He leaned a little closer. Those eyes drifted from mine—running over my forehead, my nose, my lips.

He murmured, “We need to talk about—”

SMACK, as his forehead whacked against mine, making me see stars.

“Fuck,” I hissed, jerking back and rubbing my head. Raihn did the same to his as he peered over his shoulder, annoyed, as the same young man who had approached me earlier held up his hands apologetically.

“Sorry, sorry!” He took in Raihn’s considerable size, then made the very nervy decision to clap him on the shoulder. “That was an accident. Crowded in here. Didn’t mean to get in your—”

Then the man’s face changed. The smarmy smile faded. His eyes widened, and just kept going, until they were comically perfect circles.

He stumbled backwards, nearly tripping over two of his companions. “Highness,” he breathed.

My heart sank.


Raihn’s face fell as the boy dropped clumsily to his knees, his hands raised.

“My king, I apologize. I—I apologize. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Raihn ducked his head, wincing, as if he could make the boy unsee what he had recognized. But it was too late.

And just like that, the room turned.

It took a few seconds for people to realize, but once they did, the silence spread through the crowd like the blanketed fall of night. Soon every set of eyes was trained on Raihn, all wide, all terrified.

And for one moment, Raihn’s gaze fell back to me—utterly devastated. Just a glimpse, before he quickly swept it away under a mask of nonchalant ease.

He rose and raised his palms. “No harm done,” he said. “Didn’t mean to cause a commotion.”

He glanced around at the room, now pin-drop silent, half the patrons on their knees and the other half looking too terrified to even make themselves bow.

“We should go,” he muttered to me, and took my hand.

I didn’t even pull away as he led me out the door, the crowd parting around us like they couldn’t get away fast enough.

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