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Chapter no 35

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

The dress was indecent.

Cairis had picked it, surely. Everything about the design was flawlessly deliberate. The patriotic colors of the House of Night, blue

and purple rendered in layers of rich, rippling silk. The asymmetrical neckline, which echoed the style of Rishan men’s jackets—matching, I was sure, Raihn’s. The silver trim and metal accents, chains over my shoulders and hanging down my back. The long train. The tight cut, revealing too much.

And of course, the mantle, tight dark fabric that went over my shoulders, buttoning all the way up to my throat—designed, clearly, to hide my Heir Mark.

Cairis sent in half a dozen young women to help me dress and attend, it seemed, to every part of my body—my hair, my skin, my eyes, my lips. I protested at first, practically snarling at the first poor girl who came at me with a brush. But they were persistent, and eventually I came to realize it wasn’t worth fighting. I let them surround me in a flurry, and when they were done, they left just as suddenly, leaving me swaying in front of the mirror.

I should have hated the version of myself I saw. I wasn’t so sure that I did.

Without the mantle, the gown was even more revealing than the one I’d worn at the Halfmoon ball, which had scandalized me at the time. I toyed with that mantle now, picking at the intricate silver embroidery. Beautiful, of course. And the Oraya of not long ago would have appreciated it—

something thick to cover my arms and chest and throat, one more layer between my heart and the rest of this brutal world.

I undid the buttons one by one and let the fabric fall from my shoulders. My Heir Mark pulsed, glowing slightly in the dimness of the room.

Maybe my human eyes, much more sensitive to the difference between light and darkness, were more aware of that than those of my vampire counterparts. It seemed to fit the dress so perfectly, the neckline framing the wings of red ink across the span of my shoulders, the plunging V revealing the spear of smoke between my breasts.

It would be safer to wear the mantle.

Cover my throat. Cover my Mark. Make myself small and unnoticeable. The cynical part of me could say that Raihn’s circle wanted me to cover it because it made him seem more powerful, but I knew the truth was more complicated than that—knew that the Mark also posed a significant risk to me, a target painted right over my heart in a room full of stakes.

And maybe a part of myself was happy to hide it, ashamed of what this Mark meant—even as I still longed so fiercely for the man who had worn it before me.

Even though that man would have hidden it from me my entire life.

It had been a long time since I’d really looked at myself in the mirror. My body was starting to look healthy again, the muscles more defined on my shoulders and arms, the high slit of the skirt revealing a graceful swell of thigh. I turned around and looked at my back. The dress dipped low without the mantle’s cape, leaving it bare. The firelight played over the topography of my skin—tight over newly-developed muscles, stronger than they ever had been even at my peak physical fitness, marred by a few scars from a lifetime of fighting.

I was as strong as I was before. Stronger, even. My body showed it.

I faced forward again, running my gaze from my feet to my face. My face—serious and stoic. Big silver eyes. Low dark eyebrows. Cheeks that were starting to fill out. A mouth that was too thin and serious.

I looked like him.

The resemblance struck me all at once, suddenly undeniable. The coloring was all different, of course, my hair night-black compared to Vincent’s blond. But we had the same icy pallor to our skin. The same flat brow, the same silver eyes.

He spent an entire fucking lifetime lying about what was plainly painted on my face.

But then again, that was our entire relationship. He’d raised me to look at the bars of my cage and call them trees.

And then, finally, my eyes drifted down, past the curve of my jaw, to the very exposed column of my throat. To the two sets of scars there—one I had asked for, one that I hadn’t.

When I went to the door, I left the mantle on the floor.

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