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Chapter no 43

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

Ihad no idea where we were going.

It was impossible to fly well with Raihn’s weight dragging me down, even though he did try—unsuccessfully—to help. But that was

probably for the better. We dropped low quickly, hiding between the buildings of Sivrinaj while I frantically tried to keep us airborne. I managed to get us to the edge of the human districts before we crashed down on cobblestone streets.

Raihn, despite his injuries, somehow managed to get up quickly, limping along the walls of crumbling brick buildings. As soon as I got to my feet, I tucked myself under his arm to help support him.

I squinted up at the brightening, cloudless sky above. “We need to get you inside,” I said. “Fast.”

I looked around, searching for an empty building to take shelter in, but Raihn kept dragging us forward, jaw clenched.

“I know where we’re going,” he said.

“Your apartment? You’ll never make it. We’ll find—” “We’re going,” he snapped.

I was ready to argue with him again, but he shot me a look—stony, determined—that made my mouth close.

In these hazy minutes between night and dawn, it was quiet on both sides of Sivrinaj—vampire and human. But soon, I knew, we would attract attention in the human districts under a rising sun. We made it a block and a half before I spotted the first set of eyes peering through a bedroom window, hidden hastily when I met them.

“People will see you,” I muttered. “We have to find somewhere faster.”

“No.” The word came between clenched teeth. Raihn was moving slower, leaning heavily on the walls—and clinging, with limited success, to the shadows they cast—but he still dragged himself forward. “We’re close. One more block.”

Mother, I didn’t know if we would make it that far.

It felt like an age later that the building came into view, and I felt his breath of relief at the sight. But by then, dark burns marked his cheekbone on one side, slowly spreading across his face.

His steps were so, so slow. I was caving beneath his weight. The sun was rising higher.

“You’re close,” I said quietly. “A little farther.” We were so fucking close.

And then, mere feet away from the door, he collapsed.

I dropped to my knees beside him, dragging him as far into the shade of the buildings as I could. Every inch was difficult—he was heavy, and I was hurt.

“Get up,” I said, trying and failing to hide how scared I was. “Get up, Raihn. We’re so close.”

He grunted and tried to stand. Failed, falling back against the wall.

What was I going to do? I couldn’t carry him. The sun encroached quickly. I tried to shove him as far into the shade as his hulking body could fit.

A door opened and closed, and my hands went to my sword— I looked up to see a large, balding man standing over us.

He looked familiar, though at first, I didn’t recognize him. Then it hit me: the man from the apartment building. The one who was always asleep at the desk.

My mouth opened, but I didn’t know what to say—whether to snarl at him to stay away or beg him for help. No disguises today. We were so obviously vampires. So obviously helpless.

A million possibilities ran through my mind as to what a human would do when faced with two stranded predators.

The man spoke before I could. “I’m no fucking fool. I know who you are.”

He approached, then paused when I visibly flinched away, positioning myself between him and Raihn.

His eyes were… kinder than I’d expected. “You got nothing to be afraid of. Neither of you.”

He nudged past me, knelt down, and grabbed Raihn’s left arm. “You take the right,” he said.

He was helping us.

Goddess, he was actually helping us.

I did as he said, supporting Raihn’s right side. Between the two of us, and Raihn using the last of his strength to assist us, we got him into the apartment building. The keeper kicked the door shut behind us, yanking the curtains closed with his free hand.

The moment the sun was gone, Raihn let out a sigh of relief. “Better,” he managed. “Much better.”

“Sh,” I said. I didn’t want him wasting his energy on words when there was still a staircase to tackle.

But without the sun, he immediately had more strength, mostly able to get himself up the stairs, even if he had to lean on us for support. When we made it into the apartment, he immediately sank onto the bed.

The human man stood in the doorway, arms crossed. Raihn lifted his gaze to him. “Thank you.”

But the man just held up a dismissive hand. “This place has changed. Don’t think that people here don’t know why.” He glanced between us. “I don’t know what happened here, but—it’s none of my business. Let me just say, I hope that things continue the way they have been. And if getting you up here helps make that happen…” He shrugged and stepped back from the door. “I’m gone for the day and locking up behind me. If anyone asks, I didn’t see a thing.”

And with that, he shut the door, leaving Raihn and I alone.

I glanced at Raihn. His throat bobbed, but then he collected himself and turned to me, surveying me up and down. I was holding my abdomen. The wounds that I was in too much of a frenzy to pay attention to before were now far more noticeable. But they wouldn’t kill me.

Raihn stood and hobbled across the room. I jumped to my feet.

“Where the hell are you going?”

“Ix’s tits, princess. Just across the room. I’m fine. Just the sun that was getting me.”

That wasn’t true. Though, at least he could move. That was something.

He shot me a bemused look as he opened a desk drawer, rummaging through it. “Sit down and stop glowering at me like that.”

“Why?”

He laughed. “Is that really too much of a command?”

I sat, reluctantly, as he returned and sat beside me. His breath was heavy and rattled slightly. Blood stained the bedspread already—mine, his.

He undid his coat an extra button. It was now ripped and stained, his hair wild around his face, his sleeves pushed up to his elbows. My once-fine dress was torn and soaked in blood.

Everything refined about our appearances from earlier tonight had been washed away in bloodshed.

“Thank you,” he said softly. “Thank you for coming for me.”

My throat was tight. I didn’t like when he talked like that. Reminded me too much of the way he thanked me after I’d let him drink from me. Too genuine.

“Simon talked about you like you were—” My lip curled. “Like you were nothing. Fuck him.”

A brief smile ghosted over Raihn’s lips, a little pained, because we both knew that my distaste for Simon was not the only reason why I had saved Raihn. But he didn’t push me.

“I have something for you,” he said, and held out a small, unassuming package, wrapped in plain fabric.

I didn’t take it.

“It’s not going to bite you,” he said. “I’ve owed you a wedding gift for quite some time.”

“And you think this is the time for gifts?”

The corner of his mouth tightened. “I think this is the perfect time for gifts.”

I wasn’t sure why I still hesitated. Like that little twinge in his voice made me think that whatever this was, it was going to hurt.

I took the package, laid it in my lap, and unwrapped it.

A time-stained notebook and a loose pile of parchment fell free.

With a slightly shaky hand, I took the top paper and unfolded it, revealing a scribbled portrait in faded ink—a woman with dark hair, gazing off into the distance, face partially tilted from the viewer. It was old, the ink blotchy, a few drops of water damage blooming on the page. It reminded

me of another faded ink drawing—a ruined skyline in a city far away from here.

“What—what is this?” I asked

“I think,” Raihn said softly, “this is your mother.”

A part of me already knew it. And still, the words cracked open my chest, releasing a wave of emotion I wasn’t prepared for.

Vincent had drawn this. It was his hand—I recognized that drawing style.

Vincent had drawn her.

I set aside the portrait gently. Beneath it was a tarnished silver necklace with a little black stone charm. I held up the necklace and placed the stone next to my hand—next to the ring I wore on my little finger. A perfect match.

My chest ached fiercely. I set down the necklace on top of the portrait.

The notebook remained in my lap, unopened. “How?” I choked out.

I couldn’t bring myself to look at him.

“Slowly, that’s how. The castle held hundreds of years’ worth of records and notes. Vincent wrote a lot down, but not much of it made sense.”

That sounded right. Vincent had liked to write, but was also paranoid about sharing information. Whatever notes he would have left behind would have been intentionally vague, difficult to understand by anyone other than him.

“I took everything that was from around twenty-four years ago,” Raihn went on. “Tackled a little of it every day. Just me. No one else knows.”

Mother, the time that must have taken. Combing through all those hundreds or thousands of notes himself.

My eyes stung.

I picked up another piece of paper. This one was a letter—or an incomplete piece of one. It wasn’t Vincent’s handwriting, which I knew now by heart. This was messier and softer, the letters upright and looping.

“Who—” The word was strangled, so I had to stop and start again. “Who was she?”

“I have more questions than answers, too. I think her name was—” “Alana.”

My fingers traced the name at the bottom of the letter. And yet, I felt its familiarity in my bones, too, from some time before that. Like I was

remembering the echo of it being said in a little clay house, decades ago.

Then my hand drifted to the top of the letter. To Alya, it read. Vartana.

Eastern districts.

Goddess help me. A name. A place. Vartana was a small city, east of Sivrinaj. The letter itself meant little to me, something that looked to be about healing spells and rituals from a magic I didn’t understand, but— names.

“From what I gathered,” Raihn said, “she lived in the castle for a while. I don’t know how long. At least a year, based on the time differences here.” He tapped the date at the bottom of the ripped-up letter, then the earlier one on the paper beneath it. That one appeared to be a journal entry of some kind—a list of ingredients. Plants. Some I recognized, some I didn’t.

“I think,” he went on, “she was a magic user. A sorceress.” My brow furrowed. “Of which god? Nyaxia?”

Even when I asked the question, I knew the answer. My mother was human. Some humans could wield Nyaxia’s magic, but none of them became especially skilled in it, certainly never more than vampires.

Raihn gently pulled apart the pages, leaving us at the final parchment. This one, unlike the others, wasn’t a letter or journal entry. It was a page torn from a book—a diagram of moon phases. At the bottom was a small, silhouetted symbol—a ten-legged spider.

“That’s a symbol of Acaeja,” he said.

Acaeja—the Goddess of the Unknown and Weaver of Fates.

Realization rolled over me as I thought of what Septimus had said about my father. That he’d searched for the god blood. That he’d used seers to help him do it.

Sun fucking take me.

My eyes snapped to Raihn, and he raised his brows in silent confirmation that he’d had the same thought I did.

“What did she do for him?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I—I wish I knew. Months of searching, and this is all I have.”

He sounded frustrated with himself, embarrassed to be offering me so little. And yet, I felt downright gluttonous with all I’d just been given.

I had a name. Goddess, I had a face.

And I had a million questions and a million possibilities.

I picked up the first parchment again—the drawing. My fingertips traced the old ink lines.

He drew this. He drew herWhy, Vincent?

Did you love her? Did you kidnap her? Both?

But I heard no voice in my head. Why would I even be able to conjure a fake version of him that was anything but secretive, when that was all he had ever given me in life?

Or maybe his voice had left me, because he knew I didn’t want to hear anything he had to say.

My eyes stung, my throat tight. My thumb caressed that parchment, back and forth. Raihn’s presence beside me felt far too close and yet not close enough.

“She looks like you,” he murmured.

Something about the way he said that hurt. With such admiration. Like there was no greater compliment.

I traced the cascade of dark hair over her shoulder, the straight angle of her nose, the eerily familiar thoughtful downturned slope of her mouth.

“I wish I could give you more,” he said softly. “More than a name.

More than a few scraps of paper.”

“Why?” I choked out. “Why did you do this?” I knew. In my heart, I already knew.

Raihn drew in a long breath, and loosed it slowly. “Because you deserve so much more than what this world has given you. And I know—I know I was a part of that. I took away your ability to get those answers. This isn’t enough. I know it isn’t. But…”

His voice trailed off, a little hopelessly, like he was reaching for words but couldn’t find any. I couldn’t find any, either, past the painful gratefulness that swelled in my chest, pulling tight. Yes, Raihn was right. He had taken away my ability to look Vincent in the eye and demand answers.

But even this, mere scraps of a past, was more than my father had ever given me. It meant something. It meant more than I wished it did.

I could feel Raihn’s stare, even though I kept my gaze dutifully to the bedspread, ashamed of what he might see within it.

“There’s something else,” he said.

A faint rustling sound as he reached into his pocket. Then he placed a velvet pouch on my lap. It was heavy for its size, a faint metallic jangle ringing from within as it settled.

Money.

My eyes shot up to meet his. A mistake, because the sadness on his face was so bare, so open, that it startled me.

“What—” I started.

“Gold,” he said. “The material matters more than the currency. Anyone in any of the human nations will take it from you. It’s enough to last you. I was going to send more if you ever needed it, but—”

I stood abruptly, pushing the paper and the pouch off my lap and onto the bed.

“I don’t—”

“Just let me fucking talk, Oraya.” Then, more softly, “Just… please.

Please let me say this to you.”

I wanted to look away from him, now, but I couldn’t. Those rust-red eyes, glistening a little too much beneath the lantern light, held me captive.

“At the mouth of the Lituro, near the outskirts of the human districts, a man is waiting for you right now. He has a boat. He’ll take you to the trading islands off the coast. There, you can get on a ship going anywhere in the world.”

My lips parted.

It had all been prepared. A man waiting for me. The money. This notebook, wrapped and ready, waiting for me.

Raihn had never intended to make my freedom dependent upon the support of the House of Shadow.

He was always going to let me go.

“I—” I choked out, but he stood, barely wincing at his injuries, unblinking eyes never leaving mine.

Go,” he breathed. “Go somewhere far away. Go to the human nations. Go learn about your magic. I’d tell you to go become something fucking incredible, Oraya, but you already are, and this place doesn’t deserve you. It never has. And I sure as fuck don’t.”

I opened my mouth again, but Raihn’s words came faster now, stronger, like he was pulling them from somewhere deep within.

“I never apologized to you the way I should have. Because everything you’ve ever said about me has been right. Because you’ve always seen the

Goddess-damned truth, even when I was ashamed of it. What I did to you was—it was unforgivable.” He spat the word, as if disgusted by himself. His fingertips brushed his chest, right where my blade had once pierced his skin. Because I knew, exactly, where that mark had been. “So I won’t ask for your forgiveness. I’m not going to stand here and tell you how sorry I am. What fucking good does that do for you? I don’t want to ask you for anything. I want to give you what you should have had a long time ago. Because you…”

The air seemed to have left the room—left my body, leaving me standing there, frozen, not breathing, not speaking, as he stepped closer. Closer. My chin tipped up to maintain our eye contact.

Mother, those eyes. They looked like fire now, glistening, wet with tears that didn’t quite overflow.

“You are everything,” he choked out, voice ragged. “Everything. So go, Oraya. Go.”

My throat was thick. I swallowed past the lump, my jaw tight. All I could think was: Fucking fool.

If he had the House of Shadow as allies, that would be one thing. But Raihn had no allies anymore. Not the Bloodborn. Not even the Rishan. He needed the power I could give him more than ever, now. It was his only chance at making it back to the throne, and certainly his only chance at keeping it.

He needed me more than he ever had.

“You have nothing but me,” I said. “And yet, you’d let me go?”

“I have nothing but you,” he murmured. “So I am letting you go.”

The words left me dizzy, like the entire world had shifted in a direction my body didn’t know what to do with. Raihn was so close to me that I could feel his body heat, a sensation that now felt as familiar to me as my own skin. And I could see the way his jaw worked and muscles strained, as if uniting against a primal force that begged to close the distance between us.

How did I recognize that so easily? Why did it feel so familiar?

I was silent for a long moment.

Then I reached around him, snatched the pouch of coins from the bed, and thrust it against his chest, hard enough to make him let out a surprised oof.

“I can’t fucking believe you,” I snarled.

His face shifted in the beginnings of surprise.

“Everything has just gotten interesting,” I said, “and you think I’m just going to run away? When there’s a fight to fight? When that piece of shit has my crown?” I stepped closer, even though it was dangerous, even though that put us so close that our bodies were nearly aligned, my head tipped up to hold his stare, a sneer over my nose.

“Fuck you, Raihn,” I whispered. “Fuck you.” He took me in for a long moment, unblinking.

And we broke that suspended silence at the same time.

I didn’t know who moved first. The kiss was like a thunderstorm over the summer desert—a torrent that swept in all at once, obliterating the heat, so all-consuming that suddenly you remember nothing but the rain.

All at once, he was everywhere.

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