Chapter no 50

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

I wasn’t used to flying for this long. My wings ached. More than ached

—they burned. My body was depleted. As the only human—fine, half-human—my stamina wasn’t as strong as the vampires’, and a week of

nonstop travel was beginning to get to me, especially since I had never done this much flying at once.

I was grateful, at least, that I didn’t need to carry anyone. Raihn carried Mische, and Vale carried Lilith for the latter half of the trip. As a Turned Nightborn vampire, Lilith did have wings, which were a beautiful speckled amber that matched the color of her hair. But she wasn’t a strong flier yet, and while she did her best to fly for most of the trip, eventually it was just faster for Vale to carry her.

I could see Raihn watching me too closely, looking for signs that I needed the same. But I was the Heir of the Hiaj vampires. I wouldn’t let anyone carry me anywhere if I could help it. I could deal with a little pain, even if it had me cursing silently to myself every time we landed or took off.

When the wall of sandy stone emerged from the darkness, the moonlight illuminating a patchwork of cave structures, I practically wept with relief.

“Is that it?” I asked. “That’s it, right?” Mother help me, please let that be it.

“That,” Raihn said, sounding as relieved as I felt, “is it.”

My legs felt like jelly when we landed, nearly collapsing beneath me in the soft sand. Goddess, the idea of flopping over in it honestly sounded appealing. We had only rested during the strongest hours of direct sunlight, even traveling—albeit slowly—when the sun was weak enough that the

vampires could shelter themselves with layers of protective clothing. I was exhausted.

But I locked my legs and forced myself upright. I’d never seen the cliffs before—they really were an incredible sight, bone-white stone rising from the desert sands, punctured with holes and openings that led into an elaborate cave system. They were taller than I’d imagined, stretching all the way up to the sky like they were reaching for the moon. They looked oddly like bones—a flat expanse of ivory skull and eye sockets.

Most people stayed away from this area. The heat and humidity were brutal out here, and the cliffs a perfect habitat for hellhounds and demons. What’s more, it was highly isolated out in Hiaj territory, a hundred miles from the nearest city.

What reason would anyone have to be out here? Unless, of course, you were a fugitive.

“Well, I think this is you, princess,” Raihn said, hands on his hips. “Go on over and shout hello. We’ll kill whatever runs out at you.”

I approached the nearest opening, squinting into the dark. I conjured Nightfire in my palm, though the white flame did little to illuminate that darkness—unending darkness, the kind that swallowed up light itself. It reminded me of Vincent’s wings. Reminded me, I supposed, of my own.

“I don’t know about that,” Mische said from behind me. “Looks… ominous.”

“I wouldn’t go in that way,” a smooth voice called from above, distant against the desert breeze.

I looked up to see a slender figure standing in the mouth of an upper tunnel, leaning against the wall. She wore all tight-fitting black—Nightborn leathers—and her ash-brown hair, bound in a single long braid, flew out with the wind.

“Demons everywhere,” Jesmine said. “Better to come up this way, Highness.”



WASNT TOTALLY convinced that Jesmine and Raihn weren’t going to stab each other to death the moment they were left alone. After seeing the wounds on Raihn’s back, I honestly wouldn’t have blamed him if he did. But as Jesmine led us through the tunnels and into the settlement she’d built here with those that remained of the Hiaj army, she was surprisingly respectful of him, despite a few wary glares.

The tunnels were dark and hot. I imagined that baking clay must feel a whole lot like this. But they were also hidden, and they were shelter. It was no wonder that I’d had such a hard time communicating with Jesmine, even through Vincent’s mirror. Aside from the fact that the thing would never be perfectly cooperative with my blood, Jesmine was in such a remote location that I had to imagine we were stretching the range of that magic.

Remote, in this case, was good. Remote was exactly what we needed.

It was unnerving to see what had happened to the Hiaj army over these last few months. What I had always known as an all-powerful regime of warriors had now been reduced to a few hundred men and women sheltering in caves. Others, Jesmine explained, had dispersed into the kingdom, taking shelter elsewhere after the armory battle—while her most loyal forces remained here, hiding, waiting.

The caves were dim for my human eyes, though they were sparsely lit with Nightfire lanterns. Warriors had erected tents in the offshoot tunnels, claiming some semblance of privacy for themselves, while common areas had been staked out in the main paths. It stank in here, the heat rotting the carcasses of the vampires’ prey—foxes, wolves, the occasional deer, and even a demon or two, though I couldn’t imagine how repulsive that must’ve been. Surely an act of total desperation. I’d been trained to recognize hungry vampires my entire life, and these ones were hungry indeed, their eyes tracking me as Jesmine lead us through the camps.

Still, the way they looked at me, even on the cusp of starving, was… different now. They noticed my human blood. Smelled it. That was biology. But they didn’t look at me as prey anymore. Maybe the red ink on my chest had something to do with that.

Jesmine took us to her private dwelling—a collection of objects stored in a dead-end enclave, covered with a demon-hide flap. She’d stacked a few crates to create seats and pushed several more together for some semblance of a desk, upon which she’d spread a number of papers, most of them scribbled and bloodstained. It reminded me of what Vincent’s office had

looked like, near the end—chaos. This, I supposed, was what it looked like to lose a war.

Jesmine settled on top of the desk, long legs crossed. Up close, in more light, I could see that her once-fine leathers were now in rough shape, the fabric torn and patched. Several buttons were undone, revealing the top of the long scar between her breasts.

I’d admit it: I hadn’t thought much of Jesmine when Vincent promoted her, seeing little more than her sultry voice and low-cut dresses and delicate, well-tended beauty. Now, looking at her like this, my image of her from back then seemed laughably two-dimensional. I wasn’t sure that I liked Jesmine, but it was hard to deny that I respected her.

She looked us up and down, one by one—me, Raihn, Mische, Ketura, Vale, Lilith.

Then she said, “You all look like you crawled out of a sewer.” “Fitting observation,” Vale grumbled.

Mother, I couldn’t wait to get out of these clothes. I’d gotten used to my own stench, but I had no doubt that it was putrid. Probably like someone who had drenched themselves in shit and then moved nonstop across the baking-hot desert for a week.

A little smile curled at the corner of Jesmine’s mouth.

“I’m well aware of the tunnels,” she said. “Probably smart of you to use the most unpleasant one.”

I didn’t want to admit to her that the real reason we had picked the “unpleasant one” was because Vincent hadn’t trusted me enough to show me any others.

“We made it here alive,” I said. “That counts for something.”

“I’d say it counts for everything.” She leaned forward, her violet eyes like Nightsteel in the darkness. Her face was such a perfect mask of deadly beauty that it stunned me.

“Now please, Highness,” she said, “tell me we’re about to take back our damned kingdom.”

In response, I found myself smirking.

“Why else would we come all this way?”



HAD TOLD Jesmine some of what had happened when I contacted her before the rescue, and her own sources—still extensive, and still very effective, despite her current circumstances—had apparently filled in more. But I briefed her on all of it just the same. She listened in silence, expression growing harder and hatred sharper. By the end, her fury was palpable.

“And now a Bloodborn prince and a Rishan imposter sit on the throne of the House of Night,” she spat. “Vincent would be appalled.”

Vincent would also be appalled to see me standing here alongside the Rishan Heir. Actually, a lot of my behavior these last few weeks would have appalled Vincent. But I tried not to think about that at this particular moment.

“Not for much longer,” I said. “How many men do you have here? How many more could you call back?”

Jesmine’s lips thinned. It took her a moment to answer, like it pained her to admit this. “We’ve lost many. I don’t have enough to retake Sivrinaj directly. Not with the Bloodborn there.” Her gaze fell to Vale. “Though if you wanted me to get rid of the Rishan, that would be another thing.”

Vale made a wordless sound of disgust, his nose wrinkling, and Jesmine laughed softly.

“Vale Atruro,” she purred. “What an honor to meet a legend. What were you, Neculai’s… third-best general?”

“First best, now,” he said tightly. “Others are dead.” “Such a shame,” she muttered.

I wasn’t sure who would get my bet if the two of them lunged at each other.

“Trust me, you’ll be grateful to have him.” Raihn gave her a wolfish grin—the kind designed to expose fangs. “Vale, how many Rishan men can you get? Loyal ones, I mean. Simon doesn’t have them all.”

Vale gave Jesmine a chilling smile. “Enough to take what little remains of the Hiaj.”

Jesmine practically hissed, and Raihn sighed.

“You know what I’m asking,” he said.

Vale’s gaze slipped back to Raihn, slipping into serious thought. After a long moment, he said, “A thousand. Maybe more.”

Raihn looked back to Jesmine, brows arched. “Well look at that. A thousand here. A thousand there. Sounds like an army to me. Maybe even a good enough one to take back Sivrinaj.”

Ketura looked sickened by this idea. “An army of Hiaj and Rishan?”

“An army of whoever the hell is willing to help us get the Bloodborn out of this kingdom and the crown out of Simon’s hands,” Raihn said. “Does anyone here object to that?”

A long silence. No one voiced it, but we could all feel plenty of objection in the air.

“Of course,” I said, “there’s option two. Which is to simply let them have the crown and wait for them to inevitably come root us out. If that sounds more appealing to anyone.”

“Them?” Jesmine said. Her eyes narrowed at Raihn. “What about him? What you describe is exactly what we have been living these last months. Why should I put my soldiers’ lives on the line for his throne?”

“I never considered the Hiaj my enemy,” he said, and she scoffed.

“You considered us an enemy even before you killed our king. You destroyed the Moon Palace. You ask for my help to fight against usurpers, but you’re a usurper yourself.”

Raihn’s jaw tightened. “I told you many times, Jesmine, that I had nothing to do with the attack on the Moon Palace. And you’re such a damned effective torturer, how could I lie?”

This wasn’t going anywhere good.

“Enough,” I said. “This is an order, Jesmine. It isn’t just Raihn’s throne that we’re reclaiming. It’s mine, and I don’t want Simon or the Bloodborn anywhere near it.”

Her eyes flicked between Raihn and I. “So this is a formal alliance.”

It felt a bit odd to hear Jesmine, of all people, putting it in those terms.

“An alliance that goes both ways,” I said. “We help him. He helps us. We take back the throne, and the Hiaj are free again. No more hiding. No more fighting.”

It sounded like a sickly-sweet dream aloud. Jesmine looked at me like I was a toddler espousing the beauty of rainbows.

“And,” I said, “I am queen just as much as he is king. When we’ve reclaimed our kingdom, I intend to rule beside him as such.”

I could feel Raihn’s eyes on me. Could practically hear his voice:

Really, princess? You’re finally taking me up on my offer?

Fine. Apparently I was. And hell, why shouldn’t I? If I was going to ally with him to get Septimus out of this kingdom, I might as well put my ass on that throne, too.

The silence was suffocating. Jesmine didn’t show shock the way most people did. She just stared at me like she kept trying to make puzzle pieces fit together that were incompatible. I could feel it from the others, too—on me, on Raihn. I wondered if this was the first they were hearing about this arrangement, too.

Finally, Jesmine said, “Understood, Highness.”

It would never get less uncomfortable, hearing her call me that. But I tried to take this in stride, as Vincent would have, like it was nothing more than a given—of course a general would obey her queen.

“You will work with Vale and Ketura,” I said. “Devise a strategy for raising our joint army and using it to retake Sivrinaj. The quicker, the better.”

I felt like such an imposter.

But she obediently inclined her head. “Yes, Highness. It will be challenging. But not impossible.”

“Challenging has never scared us before.”

I found myself glancing at Raihn. Because of course, he and I were the “us.” I had never fought beside Jesmine before—never would have been allowed to, and Jesmine would have never deigned to lower herself to it. But Raihn and I… we had done the impossible together countless times over.

The little smile on his face said, There she is.

Then I looked to the rest of our sorry group—all in their dirty and stained fineries from the wedding, more than a week ago, now. Not that they looked much better than Raihn and I, in our ill-fitting, disgusting leathers. A pathetic sight.

“But that can wait a couple of hours,” I said. “Is there somewhere we can…” There was no other way to put it. “…wash the shit off of us?”

Jesmine’s nose wrinkled slightly. “That would be a relief for everyone.

No offense intended.”

None taken.

“There are hot springs in the lower levels of the caves,” she said. “Alliah, my second, can show you. And she’ll find some clothes for you, too. Something less… marinated.”

Thank the fucking Mother for that.

I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Mische audibly groaned at the mention of springs.

“But Highness,” Jesmine said, as the others began to file out of the room, “if I may have just a few more moments of your time.”

I nodded, allowing the others to leave. Only Raihn hesitated, until I gave him a small nod, and he followed the others out.

She waited until the footsteps faded before she stood, her arms crossed over her chest.

“So,” she said. “Is that real?”

I knew what she was asking, and I knew why she was asking it. I would too, in her position.

“Yes,” I said. “It is.”

“Pretty trouble,” she said. “I warned you of that, once.”

Yes, well. Raihn was definitely trouble. Even now, I couldn’t deny that. But maybe he was the kind of trouble I needed. Right now, he was the kind of trouble all my people needed.

I should have had a very diplomatic, queenly response for her. Instead, I just said, “Sometimes we need a little trouble to get shit done.”

A short laugh. “Perhaps.” That smile faded, her face going steely. “You have my full loyalty and respect, Highness. Even if your decisions are not the ones I would make. In light of recent events, I want to make that clear.”

After seeing the way Raihn’s people had rebelled against him, I was so grateful for this, I could’ve hugged her. Yes, I knew this loyalty was borne of nothing but my relation to Vincent, complicated as it may be. But loyalty, no matter the source, was more precious than gold.

“I wanted to speak to you, too,” I said. “About something that Septimus has been working on.”

She listened as I told her about Septimus’s claims of the existence of god blood in the House of Night—and his claims that Vincent had known, and perhaps even harnessed it. I told her about the pendant I had recovered from Lahor, and the unfortunate fact that it was likely now in Septimus’s

clutches. With every sentence, her brows rose slightly higher—the only change in her expression.

“Do you think this could be real?” I said. “Did Vincent tell you about


Because surely, if he was going to entrust knowledge of a secret,

powerful weapon to anyone, it would have been Jesmine, his Head of War


But she was quiet, a regretful expression passing over her features—like a distant reflection over glass.

“Your father,” she said finally, “was a very secretive man.”

I wasn’t expecting this shade to her voice—sad, and a little vulnerable. “But he trusted you,” I said. “Didn’t he?”

She laughed, short and humorless. “Trusted me. Yes, perhaps. As much as he trusted anyone.”

I was confused by this. Because when he was alive, I had envied Jesmine and Vincent’s closest advisors. I had envied them because they had a level of respect from him that I thought was beyond my reach. At least, until I won the Kejari and bound myself to him, matching his strength with a Coriatis bond.

My confusion must have shown on my face, because her brow quirked. “This surprises you.”

“I just… I always thought that you two had a…” I wasn’t sure how to word it.

“You thought because I was his Head of War, and because he was fucking me, he told me things.”

I wasn’t going to put it that way, exactly, but… “Well, yes,” I said.

A pained flinch, there and gone again in less than a second. “Me too,” she said. “For a while.”

The tone in her voice was so uncomfortably familiar. I’d always assumed she’d gotten some part of him I never could—not the sex, of course, but the trust. It had never occurred to me that she was chasing him, too. Hell, it had never even occurred to me that she had even cared enough to want that intimacy from him.

The question slipped out before I could stop it. “Did you love him, Jesmine?”

I half expected her to laugh at me for asking. It seemed like far too personal a question. But instead, she seemed to actually consider this.

“I loved him as my king,” she said at last. “And perhaps I could have loved him as a man, too. I did in some ways. Maybe I wanted to in more. But he could not have loved me.”

Why? I wanted to ask. Because Jesmine seemed like the epitome of everything a man like Vincent should love. Beautiful. Brilliant. Deadly. Powerful. If he had ever chosen to marry, I couldn’t have imagined a better match for him.

A tight smile flitted across her lips.

“Loving someone else is a dangerous thing,” she said. “Even for vampires. More dangerous still for a king. Vincent knew that. He was never going to open himself up to more weakness. And he already had exposed himself enough with the love he had for you.”

The words struck deep, and I wasn’t prepared. My jaw tightened. A raging monsoon of emotions knotted in my chest, all of them contradictory.

I so desperately craved to hear that Vincent had loved me.

And yet, I was so angry to hear it, too. Yes, maybe he had loved me. But he had still lied to me. He had still isolated me. He had still hurt me.

Maybe he had loved me. Maybe I got what Jesmine wanted and never could have. Was I supposed to be grateful for that alone?

What if I couldn’t be?

I just said, “Well. You said it. He was a secretive man.”

Jesmine nodded slowly, in a way that said, shamefully, she understood.

Then she cleared her throat. “So no,” she said. “He never talked to me about this… god blood. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have it. On the contrary, I think it seems like exactly the sort of thing he would do. If it existed, he would have found it.”

“If that’s true,” I said, “then I sure as hell hope he hid it well.

Somewhere Septimus and Simon can’t find it. Even if the pendant—”

I winced, as I did every time I thought of that damned pendant, cursing myself for ever letting it leave my sight.

Jesmine’s lips thinned, clearly imagining all the same terrible scenarios that I was.

Defeating Septimus and Simon would already be a challenge. If they had any surprises for us, we would be fucked.

“Vincent was a very cautious person,” she said. “Especially when it came to weapons. If he had it, he never would have left it accessible by a single key, no matter how well-hidden that key was. And even still, I think he would have multiple failsafes. Split it into multiple locations, for example.”

Goddess, I hoped so. At this point, I wasn’t even holding out hope of finding this god blood—if it existed—myself. I just wanted to make sure Septimus didn’t have it.

“Here’s hoping he hid it well,” I muttered, and Jesmine laughed bitterly. “Men and their secrets,” she said. “We spend a lifetime trying to unravel them, and once they’re gone, we’re still at their mercy. Yes. Better hope

Vincent hid his well.” In-fucking-deed.

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