Chapter no 52

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

I’ll admit it. I had been staring.

It was impossible not to. He looked like a Mother-damned painting, standing there with that uncannily teal water pooled around his waist,

the blue algae glow settling into every line of his form, tinting his wings with yet another shade in their already endless complexity. And then, of course, there was his Heir Mark—glowing red in the darkness, the whorls of shadowy strokes stretching across the muscled expanse of his back, trailing down his spine all the way into the water.

I hadn’t looked at that Heir Mark closely since the night of the final trial. I found it almost as striking now as I had then, though in a very different way.

He turned and glanced at me over his shoulder, one eyebrow quirked. “Water’s fantastic.”

I just said, “Turn around.”

He paused before obeying. “There are other caves,” he said, “if you want privacy.”

Respectfully. He understood that just because he’d seen me naked before, didn’t mean he was entitled to see me again.

But I stripped off my rancid leathers, leaving them in a heap beside his. It was so comfortably warm down here, just hot enough to raise a sheen of sweat to my skin, and yet it still felt fresh and clean and comfortable. And the water itself—Goddess, when I stepped into it, I practically moaned.

He chuckled. “I made that sound, too.” Still, he kept his back turned.

I dunked my head under the water, swimming submerged for a few strokes before surfacing again near Raihn. The water here was up to his waist and my ribcage. His hair clung in wet whorls to his upper back, water pearling into beads on his tan skin. I found myself struck by the scent of him. He’d always had a distinctive smell, but lately, even beneath the disgusting scent of grime, it had gotten overwhelming to me—a constant, lingering awareness whenever he was in my proximity. I’d chalked that up to the fact that we all probably smelled something fierce while traveling, though I’d never noticed anyone else’s scent like Raihn’s. But, even with the sweat and sewage washed away, it was just as strong—the sky and the desert, even when submerged in water.

Was this, I wondered, what vampires felt like all the time? This aware?

My eyes fell to his Heir Mark. The red ink pulsed with the slow, steady beat of his heart, faint wisps of red smoke rolling from each stroke. The scarred flesh beneath it was raised and rough, though the lines of the Mark were smooth and clear. Once he’d claimed his power from Nyaxia, nothing could have kept that Mark hidden. I couldn’t even imagine how badly he must have burned himself all those years ago to hide it to begin with.

The Mark stretched across his back, all the phases of the moon rendered in delicate brushstrokes, framed by spirals of smoke. The spear traveled down his spine, fitting perfectly between his wings, down to the dimpled small of his back. Until now, I hadn’t realized just how similar his Mark was to mine. The arrangement was different, but we both had the smoke, the moons, the same elegant red strokes.

Strange, that these Marks supposedly branded us as innate enemies.

And yet, they were obvious mates to each other.

My fingertips traced the lines, following them across his upper back, around his wings, down his spine. I couldn’t help but wince a little at the rough texture of the scar beneath them. Mother, that must have been terrible.

His shoulders stilled for a moment at my touch.

“What do you think?” he said. “Suit me? I don’t actually get to look at it too often.”

His voice was flippant. And yet I heard what lingered beneath it. Knew that there was nothing flippant about Raihn’s feelings towards this Mark.

“It’s beautiful.”

He scoffed slightly.

“You don’t like it,” I said. Not a question. It was true.

He glanced over his shoulder again, giving me a glimpse of his profile, before turning ahead.

“You’re too perceptive for someone with such bad people skills.” Then, after a moment, “It reminds me too much of him. Doesn’t seem fair, sometimes, for him to have marked me this permanently. I don’t want anything of his on me.”

“It’s not his. It’s yours.”

My fingertips ran up his spine again, this time following the swirls of smoky red. I had never met Neculai, never seen his Mark, but I couldn’t imagine this one on anyone other than Raihn. Every small detail of it seemed crafted to complement his body, the flow of his muscles, the shape of his form, even bending and reforming around his scars.

“Your skin,” I murmured, pushing aside tendrils of wet hair to follow the strokes near his neck. “Your body. Your Mark.”

He didn’t say anything for a long moment. I was very conscious of the way goosebumps rose on his flesh beneath the trail of my touch.

“May I turn around, princess?” he asked. The tone was teasing. The question was real.

The corner of my mouth twitched. “Queen. Remember?” I could hear the smile. “Of course. My queen.”

The “my” made it something more than a joke. “I’ll allow it,” I said.

He turned.

His gaze drank me in slowly, starting at my hair, my eyes, my face, and then trailing down over my shoulders—lingering at my breasts, peaked and wet, exposed above the water that pooled around my ribcage.

But he lifted his eyes to my Mark, over my throat, shoulders, and chest. He reached out to touch it, his fingertip tracing the lines just as mine had done to his. I wanted to hide the way it made my skin pebble—made my breath grow a little uneven.

His eyes were heavy lidded, unblinking. With the blue reflection of the water and the algae, they looked almost purple.

“Can’t imagine it looked this good on Vincent,” he murmured.

I wondered if he was seeing the same thing in my Mark that I had just seen in his—all the ways it complemented my specific form. I hadn’t

noticed that before. Like Raihn, I had seen the Mark as something that belonged to someone else, superimposed onto my skin.

It wasn’t until right now, looking at it through the lens of Raihn’s, that I considered the differences. The way the wings across my chest were a little smaller, more delicate, than Vincent’s, following the shape of my clavicle. The way the smoke speared down between my breasts, following the lines of my body and mine alone.

“I never thought it looked right on me,” I admitted.

Like it was a costume. Something that never should have been given to


“I think it suits you perfectly.” His touch trailed down—down between

my breasts, feather-light over the sensitive skin.

“You said it yourself. Your title. Queen. This Mark belongs to you.” His lips curled. “Your skin. Your body. Your Mark.”

Somehow, it didn’t sound like a platitude when Raihn said it. It sounded like the truth.

His gaze lifted, those deep red eyes piercing mine. His touch stalled, lingering on my chest.

“Did you mean it?” he said. “What you told Jesmine.” He didn’t need to specify what he was talking about.

When we reclaim our kingdom, I intend to rule beside him as such.

I felt, all at once, much more naked than I had thirty seconds ago.

“I’m not going to risk my life and the lives of what little army I have left just to put your ass back on that throne without taking some of it for myself,” I said.

Somehow, I could tell he knew my dismissive tone was a little forced. He rasped a low laugh.

“Good,” he said. “I’d be disappointed otherwise.”

“It has nothing to do with you,” I said, before I could stop myself.

An infuriating, stubborn smile clung to his mouth. “Mhm. Of course not.”

“I’m still not sure that you’re not going to fuck me over,” I grumbled— just because I felt like it was what I should say, even if the truth of it was now obvious, even to me.

But his thumb came to my chin, gently tipping my face back to him. His stare was steady, uncomfortably direct.

“I am not going to fuck you over,” he said.

Firmly. Like it was nothing more and nothing less than fact. It felt like fact, when he said it like that. And the truth was, I believed him.

I didn’t want to give him that satisfaction, though. So I narrowed my eyes.

Again, you mean,” I said. “Fuck me over again.” His lips twitched. “That face. There she is.”

Then the smirk faded, revealing something so much more serious, something I wanted to wriggle away from. I didn’t, though—I met his stare, let his thumb hold my chin.

It was frightening to give someone your trust.

More frightening still to give it for a second time, after they broke it the first.

“One honest thing,” I murmured.

And he didn’t hesitate as he said softly, “Never, Oraya. Never again. And not just because I don’t have a chance in hell of taking Sivrinaj back without you. But because I wouldn’t want to, anyway.”

I thought of what was ahead—two armies that hated each other now forced to work together to take on a greater evil. For a moment, I couldn’t help but consider what myself from a year ago would say if presented with all of this.

She would fucking laugh.

No. She would refuse to believe it altogether. That version of Oraya literally would not be able to comprehend any of it. Not Vincent’s death, or his lies. Not the Heir Mark on her skin, or her wish to a goddess, or the idea of allying with the Rishan Heir.

She certainly would never believe that I could be standing here now, naked, in front of Raihn—not only a vampire, not only a Rishan, but her greatest enemy—and not feel even a little bit afraid.

At least, not afraid for her physical safety.

Another fear settled, though, deep under my skin. “Do you really think we can do this?” I murmured. He contemplated this.

“Yes,” he said finally. “Yes. I do.”

He traced my Heir Mark again, a line of concentration between his brows.

“At the very least,” he said, “I sure as hell believe that you can.” I wanted to laugh at him.

I wanted to weep.

Because I knew he meant it.

My fingertips touched his chest—damp skin, rough with various little scars and the soft texture of dark hair. Right over his heart, where my blade had pierced that night.

“Funny, how things change.”

He tipped my chin up. And I didn’t have time to move or react before he kissed me, slow and deep, his soft tongue gently caressing mine as my lips parted for him like leaves opening toward the sun.

It was the kind of kiss that made doubts wither. The kind that made it easy not to think about difficult realities—even if it hinted at a more frightening one that I hadn’t yet accepted.

Our mouths parted, but our noses still touched, as he murmured, “Been wanting to do that constantly for the last week.”

Goddess, me too. I wasn’t sure what had changed the night we were together, but it was like my body had awakened to a whole new sense. It was a little shameful, actually, how I craved him. I was constantly aware of his proximity, his scent, his gaze. I could feel it when he looked at me, even when I didn’t meet his eyes. And every time we had lain beside each other in our sparse, very much non-private moments of rest, I had to stop myself from closing the distance between us.

It was dizzying. It was terrifying. It was addictive. I hated it. Fucking hated it.

…But maybe also liked, just a little bit, that he felt it too. I could practically sense his heartbeat, slow but quickening, hot beneath his skin. And I could very literally sense his cock, hardening in the space between us, nudging my hip.

I took a certain satisfaction in the fact that his desire was so much more physically obvious than mine. I could pretend my peaked breasts were from the cooling water on my skin. Could pretend my own quickening heart was from the anticipation of what we were about to do.

Yet something about his shaky breath over my lips told me he knew the truth, too.

I moved a little closer, hardened nipples brushing the hair of his chest. “That wasn’t what you were really thinking about.”

His lips curled. I could taste that smile as he kissed me again, this time softer, nipping at my lip.

“One of the things,” he admitted. “Not all of them.”

His hand lowered to my breast, his thumb circling the peak. It responded to him immediately, tightening beneath his touch, my breath hitching.

“Don’t think I’m the only one,” he murmured. Another kiss.

“You’re arrogant,” I said.

Even as I was chasing his lips again. Chasing that kiss like an addict.

Practically grinding myself against him.


But I didn’t feel ashamed.

“A little,” he replied, before cupping my face and kissing me again— this time harder, more viciously, something much more akin to the storms of our other torrential trysts. And I let it sweep me away, my desire devouring my pride as his arms folded around me and mine encircled his neck, pulling myself flush against him.

The nagging need that I’d been managing to ignore for the past week was suddenly all-consuming. Utterly devastating.

And hell if I even cared. It was better to be lost in this than to be lost in all our difficult concerns.

His hands glided over wet skin, like he was eager to refamiliarize himself with my body. My thighs parted, the warm water agonizing against my growing need, and my legs folded around his waist. He cradled me, lifting me up, making it easier for me to cling to him. His head craned, allowing me to control our kisses, fervent and unbroken.

My slit met the rigid length of him, and I let out a little strangled sound against his mouth.

“Fuck, Oraya,” he breathed, the words butchered as my back met stone. I needed him. Goddess, I needed him now. No more waiting.

But he paused, pulling back slightly, eyes meeting mine. “This alright?” he said, in panting breaths.

At first, I wasn’t even sure what he was asking.

Then I realized: I was pinned here, between his body and the rocks.

Every other time we’d been together, he had been so careful to make sure he never trapped me. Make sure I always was free to get away if I wanted to.

Not long ago, the idea of ever having sex with anyone again in a position where I couldn’t extract myself immediately was inconceivable. And yet, here I was. Not even noticing that he’d trapped me, with a rapid heartbeat that had nothing at all to do with fear.

I reached around his body, dragging my fingernails down his back— lingering at the delicate flesh and soft feathers where his wings met his skin.

It was a guess, really, as to whether he felt those nerve endings the way that I did. But his entire body reacted to that touch. His breath shuddered. His wings—those majestic wings—shivered, unfolding slightly, big enough to cocoon us both in a sheet of black-red. His cock twitched, hips pushing a little against me in a movement that seemed totally involuntary.

I smirked. “I know I’m still in control.”

His eyebrow quirked. “No objections,” he murmured, and kissed me again.

Just as I tilted my hips, opened my thighs, and he sank into me. Goddess fucking help me.

He hit so deep from this angle, that very first thrust setting my body alight like a match.

I didn’t realize I’d made a sound until his mouth covered mine and he whispered, “Careful. Others are close.”

Oh, I heard that taunt in his voice—saying that just as he swirled his hips, grinding against my clit.

I bit down on my moan, and choked out, “Then you’ll have to be so

quiet, won’t you?”

I dragged my fingers down his back again—giving him the same challenge he gave me, and relishing the slight growl that came from low in his throat.

He didn’t have a retort for me. I had unleashed him. Just as I’d wanted.

Just as I needed.

All that pent-up tension, from the battle and the travel and a week spent in agonizing, untouchable proximity, burst free.

He kissed me hard, viciously, as his strokes took me—seizing full advantage of the control he had in this position, unrelenting, fast, deep.

This wouldn’t last long. Not for me, not for him. That was fine—we were too impatient for that. Who knew how long we had left to live. We would burn ourselves hot and quick.

And Mother, I loved it.

My skin was so warm, the pleasure so intense, I thought I might die here in it. And Goddess, what a fucking way to go. Moans and screams and pleas and curses bubbled up in my throat, driven closer to the surface with every one of his thrusts.

I needed more, needed release. I tilted my hips to urge him deeper, though there was nothing I could do but take him—and I did, gladly, openly, clinging to him and clawing at his back for support.

His mouth broke from mine, moving to my ear.

“This,” he rasped, breath hot and ragged. “This is what I was thinking about, Oraya. I missed you.”

I missed you.

Strange, how much those words hit me—how much I understood them, even if I couldn’t bring myself to say them back.

I missed you.

A week without touching him, and I missed him. Months without his friendship, and I missed him.

It wasn’t about a week. It wasn’t even about sex.

It was about everything before that. Repairing some chasm that had opened in our relationship. Finding, terrifyingly, how much we had mourned what had been lost in that gap.

I had missed him, too.

But I couldn’t voice it. And I was grateful that he didn’t give me the chance to, anyway, because his strokes were unrelenting, the pleasure building to a crescendo that was—Goddess it was—it was so much that it almost hurt, and—

I tightened my legs around him, pulling him against me, forcing him to go up in flames with me.

I buried my face against his shoulder when I climaxed, stifling my scream against his skin, because I couldn’t choke it down anymore. Distantly, with the crescendo of pleasure, I felt a brief stab of pain—pain, as his teeth sank into the space between my neck and shoulder. Not feeding— stifling himself, too, his groan instead ringing out in shudders across my flesh.

In the wake of it, I felt weak and dizzy. And yet, so very at peace. The water was warm.

That was the first sensation that returned. All this pleasant warmth. Warmth of the water. Warmth of Raihn’s body, surrounding me. Warmth everywhere.

He kissed the mark he’d left on my shoulder. “Sorry.” “I think I scratched up your back.”

A breathy chuckle. “Good.”

That’s how I felt, too. Good. Let us leave something on each other’s corpses.

He drew back enough to look at me, tracing my face. He had little beads of water in his lashes, which glittered as his eyes crinkled in an almost-smile.

It occurred to me that this might be the only time I got to be alone with Raihn before we threw ourselves into a mission that would probably kill one or both of us. The thought made a lump of unspoken words rise in my throat.

Instead, I kissed him—hard enough that there was no use for words, anyway.

I felt him start to harden again within me, my thighs tightening around him.

I whispered against his lips, “We might not get privacy again.”

Because the moment we left this bath, we would be leaders again. We would be reclaimers of a lost kingdom. We would need to think about the future. There would be no time for the present.

I wasn’t ready to leave.

He smiled softly. “Mm. Probably not.”

My hips rolled against him, breath hitching at the now-rigid length inside me.

Goddess fucking help me. How did he do that? “Might as well take advantage,” I murmured.

“Just practical,” he said, swallowing the words in his next kiss, and that was the last we spoke.

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