Chapter no 36

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

I’d give him this: Cairis was a hell of a party planner. Somehow, within a court plagued by unpopularity, indecision, power struggles, and two ongoing civil wars, he’d still managed to throw together a wedding

celebration that looked as if it was held by the grandest of Nightborn dynasties. He’d transformed the castle into an embodiment of peak Rishan leadership. One would never guess that two weeks ago, the place had been stripped bare, caught awkwardly in the transition of a coup.

No, it now looked just like it had two hundred years ago, just newer— right down to the flower arrangements. Someone else might have been surprised that he’d remembered all that detail, but I understood it. I’d been right there beside him, after all. Lots of time to study the details when you’re desperate for something to distract you through the worst nights.

I couldn’t afford to be distracted right now, even though I wanted to be. Neculai Vasarus would not have been distracted—he’d be reveling in this shit. I wasn’t him, but still, I slipped into the role the same way I slipped into the too-tight jacket Cairis had dressed me in—awkwardly, but with enough confidence to make it look like second nature.

The position of every single muscle was intentional—the straight back, the raised chin, the loose, casual grip on my bloodstained wine glass, the steely stare with which I surveyed the ballroom.

The feast had begun. The nobles had started to arrive. All was, so far, going as it should. I kept waiting for someone to flaunt their disrespect. It didn’t happen.

But Simon Vasarus still had not arrived.

Neither had Oraya, though I’d been assured by an openly irritated Cairis that she was coming. Nothing was easy with that woman. It was kind of comforting.

I leaned against the wall and took a sip from my glass. Human blood, of course—it had to be human blood for an event like this, Cairis was insistent upon that—but all from well-compensated blood vendors, and blended with vampire blood and deer blood. More blood vendors would be joining the feast later in the night to offer fresh delicacies too. I’d tripled their pay when no one was paying attention, and commanded Ketura to keep a close eye on them. I knew she’d do it. Ketura was prickly, but unlike most members of my court, she didn’t seem to view my views on humans to be some sort of semi-endearing, semi-irritating eccentricity to be managed.

I’d rather they not be here at all. But change, I had to remind myself, came in small steps. This party had to convince a lot of important, terrible bastards that I was one of them.

So far, it was looking the part.

The blood was sweet and flat, slightly bitter with the added alcohol. Biology meant that human blood would always taste good to me—no moral stance could change that. It seemed like a fucking injustice that human blood, even taken against someone’s will, would always taste good, while a perfectly seasoned steak now tasted like ash unless it was bloody-rare.

Still, since the Kejari, even human blood didn’t hold the same appeal. It tasted… one-note. Either too savory or too cloying.

Since the Kejari.

No, since a certain cave, and a certain woman, and a slew of tastes and sounds and sensations that I’d probably be chasing for the rest of my damned life.

I swirled the blood around in the glass and my eyes fell to my thumb— the faint jagged mark on the pad, mostly healed.

I didn’t want to admit how many times I’d looked at that mark these last few days.

How many times I’d thought about the exact sensation of Oraya’s tongue against my skin. And fuck, the look of primal pleasure on her face— that was something I could drink up for the rest of my life.

It was pathetic, the things I clung to with her. The soft, hungry press of her tongue. The lash-flutter of pleasure. The moan when I’d touched her

wings, the way her legs had fallen open, the way her back had arched—the way she’d fucking smelled, so aroused, like she—

Ix’s tits. What was wrong with me?

I snapped myself out of that train of thought with another long drink. I wished there was more alcohol in it. I craved beer. Human beer.

Another set of nobles arrived and bowed before me. I gave them impassive stares, polite greetings, and waved them away, accepting their submission as I should—like a king who expected nothing less.

They glided across the ballroom to pay their respects to the couple of honor. Vale accepted their congratulations as I had, while Lilith stood somewhat awkwardly at his side. Cairis had told her, a little rudely, not to talk if she could at all help it, and she was following his orders for the most part. Still, every time a guest walked away, she would whisper in Vale’s ear excitedly—no doubt peppering him with constant questions.

Vale didn’t seem to mind, though. Seventy years with the man and I’d never seen him smile so much.

I watched them, frowning, brow furrowed. “You’re staring.”

Mische’s voice almost made me jump. I glanced at her and did a double take. She grinned, spinning around.

“Right? Cairis let me pick it out myself.”

She looked like a literal ray of sunshine. Metallic gold fabric wrapped around her body, the skirt layered and flaring more than typical House of Night style usually dictated. It had no embroidery, no accents, but what it lacked in decoration it made up for in that brilliant color, extra striking against the bronze of her skin. It was sleeveless, the neckline open. She wore a pair of long black gloves that reached her upper arms—I couldn’t help but linger on those, knowing why she was wearing them.

Even her face glittered—gold over her eyelids and dotting on her cheeks, complementing her freckles.

I’m sure she expected some kind of dismissive joke. But maybe I was an old sap after all, because I couldn’t bring myself to make one. It had been a while since I’d seen Mische shining. It was nice.

So I said, honestly, “You look fantastic, Mish.” She beamed, cheeks glittering.

“I do, right?”

I chuckled. “So humble.”

She shrugged. “Why should I be humble?” Hell, why should she?

She looked me up and down. “You look… uh… kingly.”

Her tone, rightfully, did not indicate that to be a compliment. “That’s the idea.”

“I think it’s nice. I mean, it’s very polished. You look really… clean.”

I was very conscious of all the eyes on me. It was too easy to be myself with Mische. My words could be casual, but my body language had to stay consistent—I was the Nightborn King.

And yet, at this, I had to clench my jaw hard to swallow my laugh. “Clean,” I choked.

Mische threw up her hands in a gesture of, Well, what the hell do you want me to say?

“You do.”

“Thank you, Mische. When I have all these nobles blowing smoke up my ass, it’s nice to have you to bring me back down.”

She patted my shoulder. “You’re welcome.”

Then she followed my gaze—to Vale and Lilith, now whispering and chuckling to each other like they were the only ones in this ballroom.

A soft smile spread over Mische’s lips. “They’re cute,” she said. “Mm. Cute.”

Maybe. I wasn’t sure I was convinced yet.

Her eyes narrowed. “What’s the grunting for?” “Nothing.”

She knew, of course. For a moment, we both watched them. “I think it’s real,” she declared at last. “I think he loves her.” I gave her a look. She gave me one back.

“What? You think that because he did some bad things two hundred years ago, he’s not capable of love?”

Capable of loving a Turned woman? Capable of loving a human? I fucking doubted it. Even if the evidence before me was, I’d admit, disconcertingly compelling.

“Maybe,” I said.

“I’ve got to believe in love, Raihn. The world is sad enough.”

My eyes slipped to the other side of the ballroom, to the one painting that still remained from Vincent’s reign. That lone Rishan man, falling to

his death, reaching for something that was never going to reach back.

I made a noncommittal sound and then cleared my throat, straightening my back.

“I don’t need to be nannied over,” I said, motioning to the banquet tables. “Go eat. If I know you, you’ve been mentally undressing that feast since you walked into the room.”

She giggled. “Maybe a little.”

She moved to kiss me on the cheek, and I quickly moved away, disguising the movement as me picking up my wine glass again.

Because Simon Vasarus had just walked into this party, and suddenly, I was infinitely aware of every appearance.

Still, even with that distraction, the flicker of hurt on Mische’s face twisted in my gut.

“I have to be careful,” I muttered, casting a pointed look. She followed my gaze, and her face hardened.

“Is that him?”

The words were cold with hatred.

I didn’t answer. I rearranged every muscle into the careful facade—a facade, I distantly realized, of Neculai. I didn’t allow myself to look directly at Simon. But I could feel his stare on me. Could feel him approaching. Sensed his proximity like I was being stalked.

I hated that he made me feel that way.

“Go,” I said to Mische, more firmly than I meant to, but suddenly the last thing in the world that I wanted was for Simon to notice her existence.

She slipped away to the banquet table, and I remained, perfectly nonchalant, as Simon and his wife, Leona, approached me. The room seemed to quiet—everyone knew what they were witnessing. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Cairis move so-very-casually into position behind me. Vale’s gaze, too, seared through me like a spear.


That voice, and that word, brought me back two-hundred years. The way he’d used it on Neculai—always with such syrup-sweet deference, always a thank you for some gift or some invitation or some feast. Sometimes a thank you for me.

At last, I allowed my gaze to turn to them.

Simon was old now. He had been almost as old as Neculai back in those days, and centuries had passed since then. Still, he was a vampire, not

human—his age showed only in a few streaks of silver in his hair, in the distant, ageless coldness in his eyes. He’d survived some hard times. Maybe he was leaner than he was back then, but then again, it was never his size that made him a threat.

His hair was longer now, falling to his shoulders. He kept the beard, in similar style to Neculai, even after all these years—a few flecks of gray mixed in with the brown. He’d gotten new clothes for this occasion, it seemed. He was well dressed, as was Leona, a tall, slender, raven-haired woman at his arm.

Even though I had braced myself, seeing them so close drew forth a violent reaction—a physical sensation that seized me in a firm, sudden grip. It had been a long time since I had experienced fear this way, so primally. I wrenched it back immediately, but maybe it was too late—for a

moment I was so fucking sure he had to have smelled it on me.

I shoved that fear down deep, deep, and poured my hatred all over it. I thought of Oraya and her furious face and the way she spat in the eyes of things that could kill her with a flick of their fingers.

I couldn’t lie to myself and say I had all that courage. But I could pretend I did.

I gave Simon and Leona a pleasant, lazy smile. “Welcome, Simon. Been awhile. I’m glad you could make the journey at last.”

I could practically feel Cairis’s glare at the back of my head for that snipe. But hell, let Simon deal with a little bait. See if he snaps.

“It’s an honor to be here tonight,” he said. And then they bowed.

Low bows. Proper bows.

The entire room seemed to exhale. I regarded him coldly as he rose.

I was supposed to hope that Simon did not remember me very well. And maybe he didn’t—I was just one slave after all, one unremarkable body to be used. For the sake of my position as king, it was in my best interest to hope that these powerful people didn’t remember those days as well as I did

—that they did not remember what I looked like on my knees.

Pettily, a part of me now hoped he did remember, and I hoped he was thinking about it just now, when he bowed to me.

“Apologies that we haven’t made it to Sivrinaj sooner, Highness,” he said. “An old man gets stuck in his old ways.”

Neculai still would’ve killed him without thinking twice for spurning his invitations, and I really, really hated that I didn’t have that option.

My voice came out in a low, cold growl as I said, “You’re very fortunate I’m in a forgiving mood.”

A damn near perfect mimicry of Neculai.

Simon betrayed nothing, but I didn’t miss a faint flicker on Leona’s face. Just a hint of disgust.

Cairis touched my shoulder, pulling me away. “Look,” he murmured. I glanced at the entrance, where the servants now gave polite bows.

The House of Shadow.

It was easy to recognize them immediately—by the dark, heavy, tight-fitting clothing, the wisps of shadow that followed their movements.

This was the real test. I straightened and left Simon and Leona without another word, crossing the room to receive the Shadowborn prince.

We bowed to each other—his a little deeper than mine.

The prince was older than I was, but he was very boyish in appearance. His hair was chestnut-brown and slightly curly, puffed up in a way that suggested it had evaded many attempts at styling, or maybe that he’d spent a very long time getting it to look that way.

I cleared my thoughts, eternally conscious of the Shadowborn’s mind abilities.

“You throw an incredible party,” he said, as he straightened. “My father will be disappointed he couldn’t make the trip.”

“No expense too great for my general’s wedding.”

“I have to admit, I expected to see… well, not to be morbid.” He chuckled, shaking his head. “I expected to see something much drearier. We hear stories.”

The Shadowborn were known for being cold and unfriendly, but I wasn’t sure what to make of this man’s overly familiar attitude—though the entourage with him certainly seemed to fit the stereotype much more than he did.

I kept my smile pleasant and cocky and just the right amount of cruel.

“We had our pests,” I said. “Nothing we couldn’t put down. I’m sure you’ve had your own in the past.”

“Of course,” he said cheerfully. “Never needed the Bloodborn to help us with ours, though.”

I almost let my surprise show at that, catching myself just in time.

“Like I said.” I lowered my voice. “We have our pests. The Bloodborn had their uses, but—”

I glimpsed movement over the prince’s shoulder, at the entrance. I allowed myself to get distracted.

How could I fucking not?

I could’ve sworn that I wasn’t the only one—that the room went damn near silent.

Or maybe I imagined it.

Maybe I just imagined that the entire world stopped when my wife walked into the ballroom.

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