Chapter no 38

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

The orchestra, as was common at Nightborn parties, was enhanced with magic, the music layered to inflate through every crevice of the massive room. It made the sound deep and rich, filling me up from

the inside.

In this moment, the music swelled, sweeping up into the beat of the next arrangement. It was a slow, dramatic song, with a rhythm that echoed the beat of a heart, all seductive strings and aching organ notes. A dance designed to be an excuse to bring two bodies together.

Raihn slipped one hand into mine, the other settling at the small of my back. I flinched a little at his touch against my bare skin, but hid it quickly.

The dance was a challenge. The same part of myself I’d unleash at the start of every Kejari trial rose up to meet it.

I’d sell the hell out of this thing.

Raihn swept me into our first steps. Clumsy at first—just for a half step or two. But it surprised me how quickly we fell into a rhythm, even with our bodies this close together. The steps that had seemed ridiculous and unintuitive when fed to me by Cairis’s dance instructor now felt like instinctive responses to each of Raihn’s movements.

“See?” he murmured in my ear. “Look at that. You’re a natural.” “I’m just stubborn,” I replied. “Don’t like to pass up a challenge.”

He chuckled, a low, breathy sound. “Good. If you’re going to play the game, can’t quit just when it starts to get interesting.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, too sweetly.

Raihn pulled away just enough to raise a skeptical brow at me, just as he launched me into a twirl, caught me, dipped me. When I arched my back, a

shiver rippled up my spine as his fingertips traced the shape of my Mark— just brushing the swell of my breasts.

“Oh? Then what’s this?” he murmured.

He straightened, sending me deeper into his embrace. The warmth and size of his body enveloped mine. The rhythm of the music had slowly begun to accelerate, mimicking the rush of a seduction. Maybe it was the pace of it, and the matching cadence of our steps, that reduced the rest of the ballroom to nothing more than inconsequential blurs, cocooning us together.


I wished he’d picked a different song.

“The mantle was uncomfortable,” I said. “I decided not to wear it.” His lips curled. “You’re such a shit liar, princess.”

Another dip. I returned from it viciously, like a counter to a strike. It turned out the two of us did know how to move together, after all. Our footsteps matched each other’s like blades, a mirror to countless sparring sessions.

“Maybe I’m tired of hiding,” I said.

“Some kings in my position might call that a threat.”

The beat grew faster, faster. What had begun as slow and seductive now was the racing heart of the moments before a kiss. When he pulled me back to him, the full length of my torso pressed to his, our bodies battling to keep up with each other’s next step.

I’d been physically close to Raihn since the wedding. More than I’d wanted to—every time we sparred, every time we flew together. And yet it was this dance, fully clothed, that felt so… sexual. Like the push and pull of the night we had been together, our flesh fighting for dominance, finding agonizing pleasure in every defeat or victory.

And when he watched me now, I felt it just as I had then. Like nothing in his centuries of existence mattered more than making sure he wrung every shred of pleasure from me.

Another spin. Another violent crash into his arms, too fast to stop myself, too fast to keep our noses from nearly touching. I felt the slight, silent shudder in his exhale and wondered if it was from exertion. Felt the brush of hardness against my lower stomach and knew it wasn’t.

“A threat?” I said. “Could’ve sworn you liked the dress.”

Dip. This time he lowered with me, forcing my body to arch against his.

“Oh, I do,” he murmured. “The dress is an act of war. But you’ve always looked fucking fantastic in blood.”

His mouth brushed the angle of my jaw as we straightened. My entire being responded to that brief touch, awareness limiting to skin-against-skin. “You don’t go into battle without armor,” I said. “This is all just another

trial, right? Just as much of a fight as the Kejari.” He chuckled, scarlet eyes sparkling.

“Damn right it is. So who’s the enemy?”

I laughed, short and rough with effort, as he launched me into another series of steps. Our dance had gotten vicious now, quick, like a battle gone brutal.

“What’s so funny?” he asked.

I tilted my head up to whisper into his ear. “Everyone is the enemy.

That’s what’s funny.”

“I’ve seen you survive worse odds.”

The force of the next spin flung me against him, the speed of the music forcing me to keep up. The pace was frantic, exhausting, but I wasn’t about to surrender.

His fingers played at that little dip in my spine, right where my skin met the fabric, as if trying to stop himself from sliding beneath it. I could feel it in the strain of his muscles that I knew better than to think was from exertion alone—no, Raihn was strong. Moving was nothing for him.

Holding himself back, though? That was hard.

And worst of all, I knew he sensed it in me, too. The same desire that he’d brought to the surface of my skin the night he had touched my wings, and the night I had tasted his blood.

And that, I knew, was what drove him wildest of all, earning the lust in his eyes, the flare of his nostrils.

“So should I be afraid?” he murmured, the smile fading on his lips. “Are you going to kill me, princess?”

An echo of the past. A shade of the future. I thought of Septimus’s offer.

It would be so easy, to drag Raihn to a dark corner of this crowded ballroom, kiss him, drag his hand between my legs, let him feel my desire for him. I could take him away. Let him slide this dress off my body. Let him spear me against the wall, fuck me while I sank my teeth into his throat to dull my screams.

And what a distraction it would be, when I buried the knife strapped to my upper thigh into his chest. Right where I did it last time.

It would be the perfect time to make a move, with all the power of the Rishan here to be slaughtered.

The music rose to its crescendo. I leaned close so he could hear me over the roar. “I already did. I don’t know why you keep giving me chances.”

The room was so loud, his voice so low, and yet I heard nothing but his words: “I’d spend a lifetime at the tip of your blade, and it would have been worth it.”

I blinked. Something in his voice snapped me out of the haze of our flirtatious game. I pulled away just enough to look at him, a question on my lips, even though I couldn’t articulate exactly what it was.

But Raihn just smirked at me. “Grand finale. Ready?”

The music was deafening now, throbbing in every curve of my body, drowning out words and thoughts. Before I could protest, he launched me into the finale of the dance, and I was in too deep now to let us falter here— my pride, if nothing else, dictated that. The end was frenetic and savage, and I threw myself into it with all the fury of our battles—and just like he had the final night of the Kejari, he met every step, never faltering.

And in the end, I was back in his arms, inches from falling before he caught me, my back arched in a graceful dip.

The last notes of the song swelled through the ballroom. My breath was heavy. Raihn’s hand was planted firmly between my shoulder blades, mine around his neck. A few loose strands of his hair tickled my cheek.

Everyone was staring at us.

As the rush faded, it sank in what we must look like.

“That was stupid,” I said. “Cairis will be pissed at both of us.”

Raihn grinned. It was such a disarmingly pure expression, like it didn’t belong in a place like this at all. “So what? Let them talk.”

He helped me back to my feet, but the movement was a little off-balance. He half-stumbled as he straightened. I caught his shoulder to steady him.

“Took that much out of you?” I muttered. “You’re out of shape.” “Maybe more than I thought.”

But I couldn’t keep the wrinkle from my brow. I left my hand on his arm. He was swaying slightly—I could feel it, even if it wasn’t visible. Was

he drunk? Raihn was a big man. That would take a lot of alcohol, far more than I’d seen him drink tonight.

“Are you alright?” I whispered.

He hesitated before shooting me another easy smile. “Perfect.”

I pulled my hand away and stepped back. Raihn did the same, assuming, once again, his role of Nightborn King. It was such a smooth transition, such a perfectly rendered disguise, that no one else would notice the slight stumble in his next step, nor the flicker of confusion across his face.

But I did.

I started to follow him, but Cairis swooped in. He, unsurprisingly, looked irritated.

“Excuse me, Highness. I need to speak with you.”

With a firm hand on Raihn’s shoulder, he ushered him away. A protest caught in my throat—even though I didn’t know why I wanted to stop him, or what made me so uneasy.

Even if I’d gotten the words out, it wouldn’t have mattered. The crowd swallowed them immediately, and Raihn didn’t look back.

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