Chapter no 37

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

It surprised me, just how unafraid I was.

I’d gotten through the church’s ball wearing nearly as little clothing as this, yes, but I thought that there would be something different about

walking into this particular party, in this palace, so similar to all the parties I’d never been allowed to attend. Always reminded that they were nothing more than traps for me.

But I walked into that ballroom with my throat exposed, and I didn’t feel afraid. The vampires stared at me, and I didn’t feel afraid. I showed off the Mark I was supposed to hide, and I didn’t feel afraid.

Maybe it was because there was something different in the way they looked at me now—not like another blood vendor or a curious forbidden delicacy.

They looked at me like I was an actual threat, and I liked that.

My eyes found Raihn immediately, even through this massive crowd, like somehow I’d already known exactly where he’d be.

He was staring right at me—staring with an intensity that made my step falter a little. He was dressed much like he had been the day he’d had to receive the nobles, which was to say, uncomfortably polished. Our outfits, of course, complemented each other’s, his silver-trimmed, dark-blue jacket an obvious mate to my gown. His image was perfectly befitting that of the powerful Nightborn King.

It looked fake.

But not his stare. That was… too revealing. He shouldn’t be looking at me like that here. Not with all these people watching.

I recognized those with him right away—House of Shadow royalty. I wasn’t about to interrupt that.

I turned away, breaking our stare. Strange how all these eyes on me meant nothing to me. But Raihn’s… my fingers fell to my chest, over my quickening heartbeat.

“Gods!” Mische was beside me in a flurry of gold and the scent of lavender. “You look incredible!

She was holding a glass of blood in one gloved hand and some kind of meat-and-blood filled pastry in the other. She looked like the embodiment of sunshine—so dazzling it actually stunned me.

Her eyes were round as she looked me up and down and leaned close. “Is this… did Cairis pick this?”

“The dress? Yes.” “But the—”

She stared pointedly down at my chest—my Mark.

“The top piece was uncomfortable,” I said. “I decided not to wear it.” A sly smile spread over her lips. “You’ve got such balls. I love it.”

I took in Mische’s dress, the gold shifting and glittering under the Nightfire lights. It was so… un-vampiric. So unabashedly her. I couldn’t imagine a single other soul wearing it as well.

“You look good, too,” I said, even though good was too weak a word for


My gaze slid across the room again over her shoulder—to where Raihn

was talking to the Shadowborn prince. The prince’s eyes kept wandering away from him and landing on Mische.

Poor Raihn. Such an important conversation, and he couldn’t even keep the man’s attention. Then again, could anyone blame him?

“Looks like the dress has earned you some admirers.” I nodded to the prince across the room, and Mische turned to follow my stare—

—And froze.

Her smile faded. Her cheeks, normally flushed, went ashen beneath speckles of gold.

The difference in her was so sudden and stark that it had me startled. “What’s wrong?”

She didn’t answer. Didn’t move.

I touched her shoulder, as if to physically pull her out of her trance. “Mische,” I said. “What’s wrong?”

I let more concern creep into my voice than I’d meant to.

She turned abruptly back to me. “Nothing. Nothing. I just—I suddenly have a headache. I think I need a drink.” She set down her nearly full glass and turned away, then turned back to me, like she couldn’t decide which direction to go. Her eyes were wide and frantic. “Don’t tell Raihn I’m—just tell him I—I needed more food.”


But she’d slipped back into the crowd before I could get her name out. I started to go after her, but someone caught my shoulder. I jerked away and turned around, a snarled word already halfway to my lips.

Standing before me was Simon—Raihn’s troublesome Rishan noble.

I recognized him right away, even though we’d never met. He strongly resembled the brother Raihn had killed during that first meeting. But even aside from that, his real tell was that his entire being reeked of vampiric noble entitlement. I knew the type well.

He extended a hand.

“May I have a dance?” he asked.

I’d already taken two strides away from him, my back to the wall. “I don’t dance with people who touch me without permission.”

Raihn had to kiss this man’s ass, maybe, but I sure as hell didn’t. Besides, I had a role to play: I’m the brute king, and you’re the prisoner wife who hates him.

Simon’s smile—a cryptic curve of his lips that seemed to hint at all kinds of unspoken secrets—didn’t falter. “It was rude of me to do that without introducing myself. I’m—”

“I know who you are.”

Delight sparked in his eye. “Did your husband tell you about me? How flattering. We’ve known each other for a very long time.”

I made a noncommittal noise of agreement and began to turn away, but he caught my arm, pulling me back.

I yanked it away.

“Do not,” I snarled, “touch me.”

But if he was fazed, he didn’t show it. “Like everyone else, I admit I wondered why he kept you alive. Now, seeing you up close, I think I understand.”

I didn’t like this man. I didn’t like the way that his very presence made me feel like I had a year ago—like a piece of meat to be consumed, an

indulgence to be coveted. I gave him a smile that was more of a baring of teeth.

“I’m the exotic prize,” I said, my voice dripping with sarcasm.

Simon laughed. “You are. Rishan kings have always enjoyed collecting beautiful, curious things.” His gaze slipped back to Raihn, still engaged with his conversation across the room, and it shocked me how the way he looked at Raihn was exactly the same as the way these nobles had always looked at me—the same hunger, the same entitlement.

As if Raihn felt that stare as much as I did, he glanced over at us.

His haughty false smile for the Shadowborn prince’s benefit fell away.

“Not so very long ago,” Simon murmured, conspiratorially, “Raihn was the pretty exotic thing. Did he ever tell you about that? Probably not.”

I’d spent my whole life as a pawn in petty games of power. I knew how to recognize when I was standing in the center of a board. Simon was using me to toy with Raihn. Using me to humiliate him, two hundred years later, as revenge because Raihn had the audacity to become something more powerful than him.

I despised him.

Simon’s fingertip grazed my bare shoulder. I caught his wrist.

Not what a subservient slave queen would do. Not that I gave a fuck anymore about that.

“He told me all I needed to know,” I said, and I found a little satisfaction in the momentary flicker of Simon’s smile—a how-dare-you falter.

Good. How fucking dare I, indeed.

Suddenly, a large form was between us, one hand on my shoulder.

The smile that Raihn gave Simon was barely even the facade of anything but a threat—wide enough to expose the sharpest points of his teeth.

“She’s mine,” he said. “I don’t share.”

I’d never heard Raihn’s voice like that—like the grinding of bars barely holding against something much worse.

He didn’t give Simon the chance to say anything more. Instead he swept his arm around my shoulders and led me away, towards the center of the ballroom.

Feeling possessive? I wanted to say, but before I could, he growled, “Stay the fuck away from him. If you want to hurt me, do it in other ways.”

It was perhaps the only time Raihn had spoken to me like that—in a command. And yet, though my instinct was to lash out at him for talking to me that way, something else beneath the hardness of his tone made me pause.

I stopped walking and looked at him, and he did the same. His expression was a stone wall. Then something shifted. Softened. Did I imagine that he looked almost apologetic?

He glanced around the room, as if remembering all over again where we were. He straightened his spine and smoothed out his expression.

He extended his hand. “Dance with me.” “I’m a bad dancer.”

His mouth tightened, like this reaction was amusing. “I thought Cairis prepared you for this.”

I wasn’t sure if anyone could call whatever Cairis did “preparation.” He’d sent someone in to give me a few cursory dance lessons—“So you don’t embarrass us all!”—and I’d let them snap at me for a few hours before I chased them out of my room.

A choked snicker escaped Raihn’s lips. “Oh, that face tells me exactly how that must have gone.”

“I’m a bad dancer,” I grumbled again.

He stepped closer, his voice lowering. “Maybe. But you move beautifully. And you move even better with me. And I need an excuse for why I’ve just been standing in the middle of the room fighting with you.”

“I thought you wanted me to fight with you in public. I thought I was supposed to be the pissed-off Hiaj captive.”

“In that case,” he murmured, taking my hand, “just keep wearing that face and we’ll be fine.”

His touch was so gentle in contrast to the roughness of his hands. Warm

—warmer than it seemed like a vampire should be. But then again, Raihn’s skin had always seemed a little warmer than most.

Every primal instinct within me screamed, “Danger!” at that touch. Yet when he began to move, I moved with him.

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