Chapter no 51

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

I could not fucking wait for a bath. It was hard to play the convincing role of the confident Rishan king to a bunch of my greatest enemies while coated in two-week-old shit.

Jesmine’s second, a straight-backed, wary-eyed woman who looked like

she was debating whether to stab us with every step, showed us to the springs. It was amazing that such a thing could exist out here in the desert— I had to admit that the House of Night, for all its many faults, was a place of great natural wonder. The springs were located deep in the tunnels, where the dry air turned damp and steamy. The water was a perfect teal blue, illuminated by shocks of bright light running up the cave walls—which seemed far too beautiful to just be minerals and algae. The caves separated down here, running into many little offshoots. Convenient for privacy, which I think everyone was glad for after so much nonstop travel together.

“Well,” Mische sighed, the moment our guide left us, “this is amazing.” She stretched out her arms, as if already imagining diving in.

I watched her out of the corner of my eye. I knew Mische, and I knew that something had been wrong since we left Sivrinaj. Hell, I could tell from the moment I saw her in the dungeons—those big eyes practically bursting with tears. Not a hint of those, of course, during the journey. It would be easy to mistake Mische’s outgoing attitude for emotional openness. She may be chatty, but she was damned good at hiding all the things that mattered.

Oraya had told me about the Shadowborn prince—that Mische had been the one to kill him. It was a diplomatic headache, but one I could put off dealing with for a while. I was more concerned about what Oraya didn’t tell

me. And I knew there was something. Her stilted, “You should talk to Mische, when you can,” said that well enough.

But Mische made sure I never got that chance. We had been moving so fast that I’d barely gotten a private moment with her since we fled, and every time I tried, in our rare moments of rest, to speak to her alone, she’d run off with some harried, half-baked excuse.

Now, I turned to her. “Mische, before you go—”

“Later,” she said, without so much as looking at me. “Bath now.” And she was gone into one of the caves before I had time to argue with her.

I wished I could say I was surprised.

Ketura and Lilith excused themselves immediately too, clearly just as eager to wash themselves off. Vale, though, lingered for a long, awkward moment as I gathered the clothes our guide had brought.

I peered over my shoulder.

“If your goal is to make this as uncomfortable as possible,” I said, “you’ve achieved it.”

Vale’s jaw tightened. He still said nothing. Still didn’t move, either.

Amazing. The man’s wife was off naked in some hot water after a week of travel and zero privacy, and he was still standing here. I dreaded to think what this would be about.

“What, Vale?”

“I wanted to—” His gaze slipped away, examining an apparently fascinating pile of rocks. “I appreciate the rescue.”

So this was what a noble looked like when they had to say “thank you.” “You’re more useful to me out here than you are in there,” I said,

hoping this was the end of that conversation.

But he still lingered. His eyes snapped back to me. “I’m no fool. I know that you must have wondered. But if you need confirmation of where my loyalties lie, I hope finding my wife in that prison cell gave them to you.”

Ah. Now I understood.

I straightened and turned to him. Vale’s chin raised slightly, all traces of his earlier uncertainty now gone. Even covered in shit, he was every bit the Nightborn noble.

Sometimes, vampires’ agelessness seemed like a cruel joke. Two hundred years had passed since my time under Neculai’s control. And yet I looked the same, and Vale looked the same. Every time I looked at him, I saw him as he was then. I saw him just watching as it all happened. Maybe

if he’d had lines to his face or gray hair or aging eyes, I might’ve found it easier to forget that this was the same person.

But there he was. Vale. One of Neculai’s nobles.

And yet, I knew that what he was telling me was the truth. I’d known it from the moment I opened Lilith’s cell door and saw him run to her. If Vale had remained loyal in the face of threats against her… that was true loyalty.

I gave him a rueful half smile. “You can’t blame a man for wondering.”

He pursed his lips. “No. I can’t. What you said before the wedding was the truth.”

I didn’t show my surprise, but it struck me anyway. Even as a king, I never thought I’d hear anything even close to “you’re right” from Vale.

“Things are…” His gaze momentarily flicked down the path Lilith had followed, before returning to me. “Things are different than they were. In those days, I was more committed to the House of Night than I was to anything. It was the only love I knew. I let it define me, and that meant letting Neculai define me. I did not question the things he did, or the way he treated those beneath him. What my king said was truth. And when he treated his Turned slaves as possessions, I didn’t question that, even if I didn’t agree with it.”

It was harder than I wished it was to hear this. I didn’t like addressing that time directly—not ever, but especially not with Vale, of all people. It just made me painfully conscious of everything he had seen.

“And to be clear,” he went on, “I didn’t agree with it. Not then. Not now. But you were right. Not agreeing was not enough. I was complacent. And if it had been Lilith—”

“It never will be,” I said.

He inclined his chin. “I know that as long as you are king, it never will be.”

As long as you are king.

We both knew neither of us could say the same for Simon. Or Septimus. I’d never thought of Vale as the romantic type. Back in Neculai’s court,

he had been just like all the others—maybe not as abusive, but just as power hungry. Even when I’d called on him to fight for me, I’d figured it would be his pride and ambition alone that brought him back. Two hundred years ago, his vision for the House of Night had been simplistic in the way all vampire aspirations were: Be bigger, be stronger, and above all, be more powerful.

Maybe now he was looking for something more. Maybe he had found it.

It didn’t make me forget who he had once been. But it made me respect the person he had become a little bit more.

And perhaps that was why I found myself saying something a little dangerous to him. Something that undermined the image I presented even to my most “trusted” inner circle.

“Any kingdom that Oraya rules,” I said carefully, “would also be safe for Lilith. If it comes to that.”

Vale stiffened, and I briefly wondered if I’d made a mistake by saying this. Hundreds of years had cemented his hate for the Hiaj.

But maybe people could indeed change.

Because Goddess help me, Vale’s face did soften with reluctant understanding.

“If it comes to that,” I said again. The message clear:

If I die, and you want this kingdom to be what you dream it could be, then support her.

Vale nodded.

“I understand,” he said.

And then he bowed. Not just a little polite one, like he had often given me since arriving here. A deep bow, one that lingered for several seconds, offering true fealty. Not for any audience. Just for us.

A strange feeling came over me at this sight. A weight on my shoulders, heavy and dizzying.

He straightened. We regarded each other for a few awkward seconds, as if both readjusting to this freshly re-established power dynamic.

Being a king was bizarre.

“If that’s all,” I said, “I’d like to go wash the sewage off of myself.” Vale almost smiled. Almost. “Likewise.”



FOUND a secluded offshoot in the caves and stripped down. My clothes practically cracked when I peeled them off, leaving flakes of dried-up Goddess-knew-what on the damp stone ground. These leathers were a back-

up set from my apartment in the human districts, and they fit poorly, too tight around my shoulders and chafing at my wings during all the flying. I let out a borderline-sexual groan of pleasure to get them off my body.

There was nothing borderline about the noise I made when I walked into that pool, though. Ix’s fucking tits. Paradise did exist, and it was here. The water was still and hot and clear. It didn’t even smell, not even a little.


I conjured my wings and stretched them out in the water, lowering myself to submerge them completely, flexing the weary muscles. Then I dunked my head under the surface and remained there, submerged in blissful warm darkness, until my lungs started to ache.

When I came up again, I was aware of her immediately. That smell. Steel and Nightfire and a hint of spring.

I didn’t even have to turn around. “Enjoying the view, princess?”

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