Chapter no 33

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

Raihn didn’t talk for a long time when we returned to the city streets. He was walking fast and I matched his pace, not sure where we were going. He adjusted his hood, looking straight ahead, not so much as

glancing at me.

But he didn’t have to.

I felt a pang of sympathy for him. He had few pieces of his human identity left. I knew how much he valued the shards he could salvage. As much as he tried to pretend it was all about shitty beer, I knew otherwise.

I shouldn’t care. I knew I shouldn’t care. Yet I just kept walking beside him.

“Sorry,” he muttered, finally, once we had walked a couple of blocks. “It’s nothing.”

It wasn’t nothing. Not really.

“I guess I can’t go back there for a while,” he said. “But at least…” He stopped short, and I realized that we’d come to the same boardinghouse he’d brought me to before. He flashed me a wry smirk, barely visible under the shadow of his hood. “At least we have some other safe havens.”

The man at the front desk was, once again, asleep—at which I could’ve sworn Raihn breathed a sigh of relief. He led me up to his apartment. The place looked the same as it had the last time we were here, though a little messier—more papers scattered over the desk, a used wine glass beside the basin, the bedsheets a little rumpled.

I eyed those bedsheets longer than I meant to.

Raihn sat down at the edge of the bed and fell back over it, sprawling out as if collapsing from exhaustion. Then he caught my eye and grinned.

“What?” he said. “You want to join me?”

A teasing prod, of course. And yet I could imagine it so clearly. How his body had felt beneath me. How he’d smelled. How he’d tasted.

What he’d sounded like when he came. How he’d held me when I did.

I hated him for touching me the way he had back at the cottage. Just brought all those unwelcome thoughts back to the surface.

“You ever have companions up here?” I asked.

What the hell?

Why did I even ask that?

I made a mental note to never drink again.

His smile broadened, brow furrowing. “What?” “Nevermind.”

“Are you asking if I fuck other women in this bed?” “Nevermind,” I grumbled, turning away.

But he caught my hand, fingers gently intertwining with mine—not pulling, though, just hanging there between us.

“I’m married,” he said. “In case you forgot.”

Despite myself, I almost smiled. “A difficult marriage. No one would blame you for seeking some easy pleasure.”

What are you doing, Oraya?

He scoffed. “Easy pleasure. Like there’s such a thing.” His fingers drew a little tighter—pulling my palm closer, drawing my fingers between his, the slide of his rough skin against mine sending uncomfortable shudders through other parts of my body.

His eyes didn’t leave mine.

“I like a little fight,” he murmured. “Besides, she’s ruined me for all others. My own fucking fault, though. I knew it from the beginning.”

His hood had fallen back, dark red hair fanning behind him on the bedspread. His shirt, partially unbuttoned, revealed a triangle of his defined chest and a hint of dark hair. The muscles of his throat shifted as he swallowed, perfectly in time with the slight shudder in my breath—like he sensed my desire, and was reacting to it.

He was lonely. I was lonely. Both of us were mourning the worlds we’d thought we’d known.

At least this time, I was willing to admit to myself that I was tempted. Maybe that was why I was willing to dangle my fingertips close to the


“Hard pleasure, then,” I said.

“Only good if it hurts,” he replied.

I took a step closer to the bed, so my legs were pressed against the mattress—Raihn’s knee between them, nearly brushing the apex of my thighs.

I’m fucking exhausted. So tired of pretending.

Even then I’d been pretending. Pretending I didn’t feel what he did. The hunger.

He sat up slowly, the movement making his knee slide forward. I could have stepped away, but I didn’t. Instead I settled onto it, pulling myself partially onto his lap—the pressure of his leg, and the roughness of his clothing and mine, sending a little spark of pleasure up my spine.

I lifted our intertwined hands, tilted so his thumb was facing me, and before I knew what I was doing, lowered my mouth to it.

His skin was salty and clean. Even his hands held that scent of him— that scent of the desert and warmth. I slid my tongue over the rough pad of his thumb, drawing a slow exhale from Raihn. I held his gaze, unblinking, and he didn’t relinquish it, meeting the challenge. He wasn’t even breathing.

I wasn’t sure why I did what I did next. My body just acted without me. I bit.

He let out a hiss of surprise, but the spark in his eyes wasn’t one of pain or anger.

I let more of my weight fall onto his knee, my hips shifting. Hot, salty, iron-tinted liquid flowed over my tongue.

Raihn’s blood was… was…

Mother, it was exquisite. Even the few drops that rolled over my tongue were intoxicating, sweet and savory and rich, seductive as wine and sugar.

It staggered me, the rush of it sending me spiraling. Before I could stop myself, my tongue pressed against his skin again, cheeks hollowing.

Raihn’s other hand had migrated to my shoulder, then my throat, then my face, his other thumb now stroking my cheek. My eyes closed, as if my entire body wanted to focus more fully on the pleasure of it. And yet, I knew he was watching me.

He let out a low, rough chuckle. I felt it shiver through my entire body

—my core, my spine. The sound jerked me back to this world, pulling me

from the haze of his blood.

I released him and jerked back. Perhaps I was half vampire, but my teeth weren’t especially sharp—the gash I’d opened was far less graceful than the two delicate little scars he’d placed on my throat, an ugly jagged line of pearling red-black.

My embarrassment rose to the surface too, congealing like his blood. What the hell had I just done?

If Raihn was surprised, or offended, he didn’t show it. “You have a little…”

His other thumb swept over my lower lip, pressing over the plump curve of it. His smile faded into thoughtfulness as it lingered there.

“You’re full of surprises, princess,” he murmured.

Mother, I was never ever ever drinking alcohol again.

I released his hand abruptly and he quickly darted it to my back to keep me from falling backwards, since I was still precariously balanced on his knee, my weight now entirely supported on him.

“Easy. Let’s not get too overwhelmed.” “I don’t know why I—I didn’t mean—”

His brow twitched with amusement. “It’s alright to be curious.” “I don’t know why I just did that.”

My face was warm, which was even more embarrassing.

He shrugged. “Sometimes it’s no use to question our more primal instincts. You’re half vampire, Oraya. You’re still learning the ways that affects you.”

I’d known it for months, and it still hadn’t gotten any less jarring to hear it said aloud. It didn’t help that Raihn looked so… amused about the whole thing.

“So… good, I take it?” he said.

I couldn’t bring myself to say aloud that good was not a strong enough word.

I had tasted Raihn’s blood before—when we’d fucked, and again, during the wedding. Even then, I had been surprised by its appeal. And then with the blood at Evelaena’s party…

“I—” I cleared my throat. “I tasted blood by accident. At Evelaena’s ball. And it was…”

That had probably been human. Taken from someone who had no choice in it. Taken from someone who had paid for it with their life.


My face must have grown solemn, because Raihn’s did, too. “You liked

“I didn’t think—”

“Half vampires are rare. All of them have different traits. It makes sense

that blood would taste good to you.” His thumb stroked my cheek again— an easy motion, like he was doing it without thinking. “It doesn’t have to mean anything. It’s just how your body reacts. Doesn’t mean you support it, or that you have to drink it.”

“You tasted… different.”

A pained smirk flitted across his mouth. “Mm. That can happen.”

I didn’t even know what question to ask, or if I could find the right words—if I even wanted to hear it confirmed aloud.

You did taste… different, Raihn had told me. I thought it was because of how I feel about you.

As if he saw me putting those pieces together, he murmured, “It doesn’t have to mean anything. Just your body.”

Fucking figured that my body had to react to Raihn, of all people. Just had to make this situation even more complicated than it already was.

He removed his hand from my back and examined his thumb, still bloody.

“But if you wanted to experiment,” he said, “we could do that in better ways than this.”

He lifted his chin a little, as if to present his throat.

I scoffed. “You’d offer me your throat? That’s stupid of you.”

“Maybe. But you do have a fucking exquisite mouth, and an even better tongue.”

Goddess. Now he was definitely teasing me. “Oh, fuck you,” I muttered.

“And there she is,” he chuckled.

I let out a breath, trying to shake away the lingering sensation of Raihn’s taste and his overwhelming proximity. I felt like his scent now covered me, like condensation clinging to glass.

I stood up, grateful to put some space between us.

“You said there was something we needed to talk about,” I said. “Why are we here?”

His face twisted into a scowl. “Ugh. You want to talk work.”



SAT on the little dining table across the room while Raihn talked. He leaned casually against the bedframe—somehow the thing supported his weight—and managed to look completely nonplussed by our entire interaction, which I couldn’t tell if I found admirable or annoying.

“So,” he said. “The wedding.”

“So you’re going to tell me what that’s actually about?” He gave me a half smile. “That obvious, huh?”

I shrugged. “Call it intuition.”

“We have problems, as you know. The Bloodborn.”

“No matter my commands, they haven’t been letting up on their viciousness,” he said. “Some areas have been totally devastated by their actions.”

“Hiaj areas.”

“They’re all my kingdom.” He cocked his head. “So you’ve been keeping track of things.”

I shrugged again. It was my kingdom, too. It was my job to pay attention.

“And we’re no closer to finding this… god blood.”

I thought of the pendant, safely wrapped and hidden in my locked bedchamber. Mysterious as it was, it hadn’t actually given us any information, no matter how many books we read or spells Mische and I threw at the thing. We had, embarrassingly, no clue what it even was.

Raihn winced. “No. It doesn’t seem like it. On top of that, I had to rush back to Sivrinaj because of rebellion from a few of the Rishan nobles. As you know.”

He tried to hide his annoyance—deeper than annoyance—and failed. I watched him with a wrinkle between my brows.

“They really hate you.”

He scoffed. “Of course they do. Many of these people were friends of Neculai’s, and they saw me…”

Did he know that he always bit off his words whenever he talked about those days? His eyes slipped away, staring at the floor.

“They were never going to accept me as king,” he said. “It’s just some of the smaller ones, for now. But the one I’m really concerned about has been too quiet. Simon Vasarus.”

I recognized that name. “You killed his brother, that first meeting.”

“The very same.” Raihn’s gaze flicked away. The look on his face—it was too familiar. He didn’t need to outright tell me who this man was to him. I understood.

“He’s coming to the wedding,” Raihn went on, and that tone, too, told me everything I needed to know. He didn’t just hate this man—he was afraid of him.


“Because he has a bigger army than I do, and I need to make nice with him until I have a better solution.” His lip curled, the disgust palpable in his voice.

A better solution. Me. Of course. “The god blood,” I said.

He let out a long breath, pacing to the desk. He pressed his palms to the wood and leaned over it for a long moment, as if deep in thought.

“I’ve invited the House of Shadow to this party,” he said.

My brows leapt. I’d seen Shadowborn royalty a few times. It was rare to invite them to Nightborn events, but not unheard of. Raihn was a new king. It would make sense that he would be extending these kinds of diplomatic ties—and that the Shadowborn would be interested in indulging their curiosity.

“The Shadowborn King hates the House of Blood as much as we do,” he said. “He doesn’t want the Bloodborn taking over the House of Night and creeping closer to his borders. The Shadowborn might be the quietest of the Houses, but they’re formidable warriors, too. And their mind magic…” He shrugged, as if to say, What else is there? “They’re powerful. I’ve made the connection to the Shadowborn King personally. He’s sending one of his sons. If I’m able to pull the right strings, present the right image, I could gain their alliance.”

It was a stretch. True alliances between the Houses were rare. Vampires were independent and self-serving creatures. But then again, if anything could motivate an alliance between the Houses of Shadow and Night, it would be aggression from the House of Blood.

“That’ll be some tricky political maneuvering,” I said.

Raihn laughed wryly. “Don’t I know it. But Cairis is right. The wedding is an opportunity to present an image. And I do know the power of that.”

That, I knew, was true.

“I need outside assistance. Need the image of a strong alliance. The Rishan…” He shook his head, jaw tight. “The old nobles won’t be convinced by anything other than a major show of force. I need to show them I’m just as powerful as Neculai was.”

“What does Cairis think of this plan?”

“He knows that I’ve invited the House of Shadow, but doesn’t know why. No one knows.”

I blinked in surprise—at the reveal, and that he was willing to share that with me.

“Why not?”

He didn’t answer right away.

“The Rishan rebels,” he said, finally, “knew more than they should have. Little things. Nothing major. It’s circumstantial. But I know how to trust my gut.”

My brow furrowed as realization dawned on me. “You think you have a traitor.”

He gave me a look that I knew meant confirmation. “Do you know who?” I asked.

Again, he didn’t answer. But my brain was moving now. Raihn’s inner circle was so small. Cairis and Ketura… he must trust them completely, because he had left Mische in their care at her most vulnerable, the ultimate expression of his confidence. And Mische, of course, would never betray Raihn.

That left…

“Vale,” I said. “You think it’s Vale.”

Vale was a noble. Vale had known Raihn two hundred years ago, when he was nothing but Neculai’s slave. Vale had seen Raihn at his weakest. In vampire society, it was hard to come back from that.

Raihn said nothing. But again, I could see the confirmation he didn’t say aloud.

“What will it take?” I said. “To convince the House of Shadow to ally with you? They won’t want to give you that kind of power. Not enough to go up against the House of Blood and your own little traitors.”

“They won’t skimp. Not when it comes to putting the Bloodborn in their place. And if I manage to gain the respect of the other Houses, that should be enough to make my own detractors shut up.” His brow twitched. “And earn the respect of the Hiaj, maybe, with your help.”

I scoffed. “You’re a dreamer.”

“Couldn’t have made it this far if I wasn’t.”

He was giving me a certain look that I immediately recognized—like he was sizing me up for something. It reminded me of the Kejari, and the look on his face before he’d asked me to be his ally.

My eyes narrowed.

He let out a short laugh. “What’s that face for? What did I do?” “When you look at me like that, I know to brace myself.”

He touched his chest. “Ouch. You were about to be very happy about what I was going to say next, actually.”

“I doubt that.”

“Let’s call it a challenge.” He stopped a few paces short of me, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Here’s the thing, princess. Once I have the support of the House of Shadow, Septimus’s strange little side projects won’t matter as much. Which means, I won’t need you anymore.”

I blinked at him in surprise. I wasn’t sure if I was hearing what I thought I was.

“We get through the wedding,” he said. “You help me present the image of the powerful Rishan conqueror. I gain the support of the House of Shadow. And if I do that, then you’re free.”


The word stuck in my mind, like sap in the gears of a machine. I just stared at him.

I had never been beyond the boundaries of the House of Night. Hell, up until less than a year ago, I had never even been beyond the borders of Sivrinaj, at least not in a time I could remember. My life had always been one of confinement—confinement in my room, in my fragile human body, in Vincent’s rules and expectations, in… in whatever this was, between Raihn and I.

I’d heard of this. Animals who had been held in captivity for so long they didn’t know what to do with an open door.

“The Hiaj are just as much my subjects as the Rishan are, and the humans,” Raihn said softly. “I’ll treat them fairly. I hope I’ve shown you

that I would.”

As much as I hated to admit it to myself, he had.

“This place has taken everything from you, Oraya. Even things it had no business asking for, when you were far too young to give them. You’re young. You’re beautiful. You’re powerful. You could do whatever you want. You could build whatever life you dreamed of.” I forced my gaze up from the table to meet his. “You deserve to be happy.”


The thought was laughable. I didn’t even know what happiness meant.

“What if you let me go and I just turn around and wage my own war on you?”

He laughed. “A valid possibility.”

More than valid. It would be the only course of action expected of me by those that followed me.

“It’s stupid of you to let me go.”

“Some people have been saying it was stupid of me to keep you alive at all. I guess I’m a stupid man.”

I stared at him, brow furrowed, jaw set, picking apart his casually pleasant expression as if I could make sense of this by peeling back every layer of his skin.

“I don’t understand,” I said, finally.

It was the only thing I could think to say, and it was embarrassingly true.

“Think on it. See where that vicious imagination of yours takes you.” He leaned closer—and I couldn’t be sure, but maybe I imagined the slight sadness in his eyes, hidden beneath the crinkles of his amused smile. “Freedom, Oraya. You should’ve had it your whole life, but better late than never.”

You'll Also Like