Chapter no 34

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King


Raihn’s words echoed in my head long after our meeting and into the days beyond. They lingered behind my every thought as I went

through the motions of my routine—training, pacing, eating, reading. Raihn stayed out of my way for those next weeks, probably because he—like just about everyone else—was preoccupied pulling this ridiculous wedding together. The Nightborn castle was abuzz with chaotic energy, dozens of servants running around to sweep away the remaining evidence of the coup’s disorganized mess and replace it with grand symbols of Rishan power—fit for a bloodthirsty, powerful king of one of the most bloodthirsty, powerful empires in the world.

The day before the wedding, I wandered the deserted halls of the castle on my own. It was eerily quiet, after the near-constant flurry of activity these last two weeks. On the eve of the wedding, the work had been done. Everyone was holed up.

I relished the quiet of these hours.

I wandered into various libraries, sitting rooms, meeting rooms, studies. Places I had never been allowed when this place was really my home. All were empty—until I rounded a corner into one of the libraries, dimly lit with the faintest dregs of sunlight beneath the velvet curtains, and stopped short.

I immediately backed away, but a smooth voice said, “You don’t have to leave.”

“Sorry,” I said. “Didn’t mean to interrupt.”

The scent of cigarillo smoke pooled in a room this small. Vincent would’ve been appalled to have it staining the pages of these books.

Septimus gave me a pleasant smile. The fire was lit, backlighting his silhouette, making his platinum hair seem downright golden.

“Not at all.” He gestured to the other chair. “We haven’t gotten to catch up in a while. Join me.”

I didn’t move, and he chuckled. “I don’t bite, dove. I promise.”

It wasn’t exactly Septimus’s bite that I was afraid of. Actually, the days when teeth were my biggest worry now seemed a little quaint.

His clothes were disheveled, his shirt unbuttoned just enough to reveal a hint of darkness at his chest. His eyes seemed more golden than usual, more threads of amber in the silver, though perhaps that was just the reflection of the fire and the darkness that bracketed them.

“You look tired,” I said.

“Does Raihn like you because you have such a way with flattery?” He gestured to the chair again. “Sit. Soak up the quiet before this place becomes a hellscape of peacocking nobles tomorrow.”

I hated to agree with Septimus, but—ugh.

Still, it was my curiosity more than anything that brought me across the room. And, fine, maybe it was a little craving for mortal pleasures that led me to accept when he offered me a cigarillo. I turned down the match, though, lighting it myself with a little spark of Nightflame.

His eyebrows rose slightly. “Impressive.”

“You watched me fight in the Kejari and lighting a cigarillo is what impresses you?”

“Sometimes the little things are harder than the big things.”

He slid the matches back into his pocket. I watched his hands in the movement. Watched the tremble of his little finger and ring finger on his left hand. Constant, now.

Bloodborn curses. Was that a sign of his? The symptoms varied. Some were near-universal—the red eyes, the black-scarlet veins underneath thinning skin. The insanity, of course, at the very end. Everyone knew that the Bloodborn turned into little more than animals—like demons, stuck in a perpetual state of frenzied bloodlust, incapable of thought or emotion. But even that was often whispered about. The Bloodborn were protective and secretive. They hid their weaknesses well.

“It’s nice to see you wandering about on your own,” he said. “Out of your cage, for once.”

“I’m not caged.”

“Maybe not now. But you were. A pity. Raihn is the only one around here who recognizes what he has in you. Vincent certainly didn’t.”

Strange, how so much of my own mental narrative lately had been stewing in anger over Vincent’s behavior, but even the slightest comment against him from someone else, and I was biting back defenses in my teeth.

“I have a blunt question for you,” I asked, and Septimus looked a little delighted.

“I love blunt questions.”

“Why are you here? Why are you helping Raihn?”

He exhaled smoke through his nostrils. “I told you what my goal is.” “God blood.” I let the words drip with sarcasm.

“Oh, such venom. Yes, dove. God blood.”

“So you can what? Flaunt your power to all the other Houses? You’d risk fucking with the gods for that?”

At that, he laughed—a sound like a snake slithering through the brush.

“Tell me, Oraya,” he said, “how did it feel to grow up a mortal in a world of immortals?”

When I didn’t answer, he took another drag of his cigarillo. “I’ll guess. Your dear father always made sure you knew exactly how weak you were. Exactly how good your blood smelled. Exactly how fragile your skin was. You probably spent your entire short life cowering in fear. Yes?”

“Watch it,” I hissed.

“You’re insulted.” He leaned forward, eyes glinting amber in the firelight. “Don’t be. I respect fear. Only the foolish don’t.”

I scoffed, inhaling my cigarillo, enjoying the burn through my nostrils. Septimus’s brow twitched. “You don’t believe me?”

“I’m not so sure you believe you.”

He chuckled, his gaze slipping to the fire. “I’d like to tell you a story.” “A story.”

“An entertaining one, I promise. Full of all the darkest pleasures.”

Despite myself, I was curious. He arched his brows at me, taking my silence as tacit approval.

“Once upon a time,” he began, “there was a kingdom of ruin and ash. The kingdom was beautiful once, a very long time ago. But then, some two

thousand years ago, the people of this grand kingdom pissed off their goddess, and… well, that’s not the sad tale I’ll tell you tonight.”

The smirk faded from his lips. With the firelight reflecting so harshly on the cut panes of his face—hollower, maybe, than they were a few months ago—he resembled a statue.

“No,” he said. “I’ll tell you a tale of a prince of the House of Blood.” Oh. About himself. That figured.

“The kingdom of the House of Blood had suffered for two millennia now, its people destined to die early deaths that afford them little dignity,” he went on. “The Bloodborn are a proud people. They don’t allow outsiders to witness the ugliest parts of themselves. But trust when I tell you that the death of a Bloodborn curse is an ugly one. While the other two vampire kingdoms thrived, building empires on the backs of their goddess-gifted immortality, this kingdom clawed its way along, trapped in a cycle of endless life and eternal death. Surviving, but little more.”

I took another drag of my cigarillo. Septimus’s was untouched now, dangling between his fingertips.

“But,” he said, “some time ago, the king fell in love. The king’s lover was young and optimistic. Despite the woes of her kingdom, she believed that things could change. The king… he was no romantic. It’s no easy task, understand, to rule over the dust of a crumbling nation. He was a powerful man, but power could not stop his people from dying or his kingdom from withering or the other vampires from spitting in his face.” A wry, humorless smile twisted his lips. “But love. A powerful drug. Not enough to convince him. Not enough to make him the optimist his young wife was. But enough to make him think a dangerous word: Maybe.

“So the king married his lover, and not long after, she was with child. It is during this time that, as is often tradition with royal families, the king and queen visited a seer.”

I leaned forward a little, curious. I’d heard that the House of Blood often employed seers, though not much about what they often learned from them.

“But insight from seers, as you might know, can be a bit… spotty. While it’s tradition for expecting highborn women in the House of Blood to visit a seer, the results of those sessions are usually vague, ego-stroking affairs— predictions of great skill or loyalty or intelligence, that kind of thing. So this

was, perhaps, what the king and queen were expecting when they visited the seer that night. Instead, what they got was a prophecy.”

I scoffed. I couldn’t help myself. Septimus laughed and raised his palm. “I know. They have quite a reputation. But this seer was trustworthy—

while her predictions were somewhat vague, they were never untrue. When she completed her ritual, she was shaken. She told them that their son would either save the House of Blood, or end it. The king was troubled by this news, but the queen was ecstatic. She barely heard the foreboding warning, only the hope for the future. Her son was destined to save their kingdom.”

I stared flatly at him. “So we’re sitting here so you can tell me all about how you’re the destined savior of the Bloodborn.”

The corner of his mouth curled. “You don’t know how to enjoy the twists and turns of good storytelling, dove.” He cleared his throat, and continued. “Months pass, and soon the House of Blood has a new little prince. The king and queen adored their son. They showered him with everything a child could want.”

I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. It was practically unheard of for vampire parents to treat their children with obvious love. I’d witnessed the Bloodborn literally disassemble their opponents in battle. The thought that their leaders could be so softly affectionate… it was foreign to me.

“The years passed, and the boy was raised to be loyal, strong, intelligent, insightful. He was trained in the arts of magic, of war, of battle, of courtly manners. He was… the very best of us.”

Septimus did not look away from the fire. The expression on his face was hard to read—mournful, angry, affectionate, all at once.

The realization fell over me: he wasn’t talking about himself, after all.

“The decades passed, and soon, the Bloodborn prince was ready to take up his mantle as the god-chosen hero of the House of Blood. So he gathered his best general and his best men, and he went off on his mission—to find Nyaxia, prove his people’s loyalty, and earn back her love for the House of Blood.

“He did, in the end, find the land of the gods. And he and his men did complete several trials to earn Nyaxia’s affections, though they cost him many lives. And then he scaled the most treacherous mountains of the gods to find his goddess one final time, to beg for her forgiveness for the sins of

his great-great-great-great-grandfathers, to swear his fealty to her, and to free the House of Blood from its curse.”

Septimus’s face had gotten colder, crueler, the smile at his lips looking as if it had been chipped from ice. He leaned closer, the remnants of his last drag blowing in my face with his next words.

“And do you know, dove, what that miserable cunt did then?” He didn’t wait for an answer. Didn’t breathe. Didn’t blink.

“She laughed at him,” he said. “And then she killed him.” The words came down like the blade of a guillotine.

“She left his general alive—though forever tainted—and sent him back to the House of Blood with the prince’s head.”

Septimus’s eyes slipped back to the fire. “I have only heard my mother cry once,” he murmured. “Only once.”

Understanding dawned on me. “He was your brother,” I said.

“One of them. My parents were unusually fertile for a vampire couple. I had seven siblings. Six brothers. One sister.”


He let out a humorless laugh. “The sister is alive. Not that that’s much comfort to my parents. Maybe they’re still off in the House of Blood right now, trying to make another male heir. Still hoping that prophecy of theirs might come true somehow.”

He lifted his cigarillo to his lips.

“Do you know what that makes me, dove? That makes me the last resort. So, you see…” A wry smirk, and he let out a long, slow stream of smoke. “I understand what it feels like to not have time. You and I, we don’t get centuries to play our games like they do. And I think it makes us better. More ruthless. More willing to do what needs to be done.”

He moved closer, still—so close that I felt the urge to lean back in my chair, put some more distance between me and the hungry look in his eye.

“And I am willing to do whatever needs to be done.”

I didn’t like the way he was looking at me. I’d learned young to recognize when vampires were looking at me with desire—though this wasn’t about desire for my blood or my body. This, somehow, seemed even more dangerous.

“I should be going,” I said. “Get some rest before—” I started to rise, but Septimus caught my arm.

“My bet has always been on you, Oraya,” he said. “And if I have to choose, my bet will stay with you. All I ask for is loyalty.”

I fought hard to keep my face still. To reveal nothing.

Septimus was choosing his words carefully. But I knew what he was offering me. Knew what he was implying.

And for better or for worse, I knew that if I accepted his offer, he would hand me the crown to the House of Night. Yes, it would be a dangerous offer, the crown attached to more puppet strings than even Raihn’s.

My father, I knew with sudden certainty, would have taken this deal.

Months ago, I would have denied that. I had looked at the deal Raihn made and snidely, haughtily declared that Vincent never would have lowered himself to such a thing. Never mind that Vincent had proven himself more than capable of taking extreme measures. Never mind that Raihn had been backed into a position where he had no other options— backed into that position to save me.

I couldn’t consider those things then. It was easier to ignore uncomfortable truths. Now, uncomfortable truths were the only kind that remained.

Vincent would have taken the deal. Used the Bloodborn like a weapon to cut out Raihn’s knees from beneath him. Sold whatever he needed to sell to get power. Dealt with the consequences later.

He had, after all, already done such things before.

A few months ago, I wanted nothing more than I wanted to be Vincent.

Run his kingdom. Be worthy of his blood. Win back his crown.

I looked down at Septimus’s hand, slender fingers curled around the cigarillo. His little finger was tucked in, mostly hidden, but I could see the tremors nonetheless. Both hands, now.

“I know better than to make a deal with a desperate man,” I said. “Besides, you’re right. I am tired of being caged. I recognize bars when I see them.”

I stood and put out my cigarillo in the ashtray, not breaking Septimus’s silver-gold stare.

“Thanks for this,” I said. “See you at the wedding.”

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