Chapter no 53

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

I was glad that Oraya and I had made the most of our time alone, because we didn’t get any more of it after that. Everyone understood that time was of the essence. The faster we struck, the better our

chances at seizing Sivrinaj while Simon’s hold over it was still shaky. Jesmine and Vale clearly hated each other, but they made surprisingly effective allies. Both now understood what it was like to be the underdog, and both understood the mindset of the upper class. They emphatically believed that now was not the time to try something risky and sneaky—this was the time for a dramatic show of strength. The only language, they insisted, that Simon and those who followed him would understand.

I hated having to speak that language. But I wasn’t too obsessed with the moral high ground to not stoop to their level. No point in thinking about the chances. Oraya and I had defeated worse odds before—seven times, in fact, in seven trials. How much harder could this possibly be?

The answer, it turned out, was much harder.

I was a good fighter, but before these last few months I’d had virtually no experience in battles—not fighting them, and certainly not leading them. Jesmine and Vale, however, excelled at the ruthless strategy of warfare. The moment Oraya and I had given the commands, they leapt into action. Immediately, we were swept into a whirlwind of preparations—plans, maps, strategies, weapons, inventories, rosters of soldiers and diagrams of loyal forces. Letters were sent. Maps were drawn. Tactics were plotted.

We would prepare for a week, and then we would march, the forces that Jesmine and Vale had summoned joining us along the way. We’d move quick, before Simon’s army would have the time to head us off. It was a

convenient incidental benefit that we wouldn’t have time to doubt ourselves, either.

Hell, Oraya and I had been throwing ourselves against impossible odds for close to a year now. Why stop now? And in a way, it was oddly invigorating—to do something that felt right and earned again. To do it beside Oraya. It made a lot of things seem easier.

Both of us were grateful for the distraction of work. Maybe we wanted to avoid thinking too hard about what might happen after the battle—about how the Rishan and the Hiaj and the other kingdoms and hell, even Nyaxia herself, might react to the prospect of the Rishan and Hiaj Heirs ruling together. It sounded ridiculous. I know everyone thought it was. Strangely enough, only Vale seemed to take the alliance as settled law. Everyone else tip-toed around it, accepting it but not hiding their skepticism. Even Ketura pulled me aside at one point, asking—ever blunt—“Do you really think she’s not going to bury a blade in your back the minute she has that throne?”

Maybe I was a fool for it, but no, I didn’t. Oraya had passed up so many opportunities to kill me. If she was going to do it, she’d have done it by now.

And if she did… fuck, maybe I deserved it.

That would be a problem for future Raihn. Present Raihn had more than enough to deal with. Everyone wanted to talk to us. Everyone needed something.

The one person I tried hardest to pin down, though, was the one person who was the best at evading me.

I finally caught her near dawn one day, as she was crawling back to her little tent. I flicked her on the back of the head through bronze curls.

“You’re coming for a walk with me.”

Mische turned around, startled. Her eyes went round in surprise, then scrunched in something resembling a wince.

She winced when she saw me. Winced. “I have to—”

“I don’t want any bullshit excuses, Mische.” I pointed to the path ahead. “Walk. With me. Now.”

“Is that an order?”

“Is that an attitude? You’ve been spending too much time with Oraya.” No smile at that. No returning joke. She just said nothing.

Concern twisted in my stomach.

I held out my hand to help her up. “Let’s go.” “Don’t you have work to do?”

“It can wait.”

I didn’t move my hand. Just stared at her.

Mische and I had been friends for a very, very long time. She knew when there was no point arguing with me.

She let out a sigh and took my hand.



“JESMINE SAID there are demons out here,” Mische said. “We shouldn’t go too far.”

Mische and I wandered through the more secluded paths in the cliffs, out of earshot of the camps. It was dark here, though not so dark our eyesight couldn’t make out what it needed to. Better yet, it was quiet.

I’d missed quiet.

Meanwhile, Mische seemed so uncomfortable she was practically trying to speed walk through our stroll.

I scoffed. “As if I believe you’re afraid of demons.” “Why wouldn’t I be afraid of demons?”

“I don’t know, Mish. Maybe because you ran off and joined the Kejari like it was another day of the week.”

That sounded a lot more bitter than I intended it to. Thought I was at a point where I could joke about Mische’s actions. Guess not.

Maybe I wasn’t the only one, because instead of giving me some kind of smart-ass retort, she buried her hands in her pockets and kept walking.

“That was different,” she muttered.

It took me a second too long to understand what she meant. I kept pace beside her, my eyes slipping down—to the scars visible where her sleeve rode up.

My lips thinned. A wave of concern passing through me. And with it, frustration.

“Mische.” I stopped and touched her shoulder. She stopped walking, but seemed reluctant to look at me.


“What do you mean, ‘what?’ I’ve put up with you every day for fucking decades. Enough.”

“Enough of what?”

“You’ve been avoiding me since—” “I haven’t been avoiding you.”

“Oraya told me about the prince.”

Mische’s mouth remained open for a moment, her half-spoken words dying on her lips, before she closed it.



This fucking girl. Mother help me.

“What?” she said. “You’re angry. I know. It’s a big political problem and—”

I scoffed. Actually scoffed, because what the fuck else was I supposed to say?

“I’m not mad about the prince.”

“Well, obviously you’re mad. So what the hell are you mad about?” “Something is wrong with you and you won’t tell me what it is.”

It was more direct than I should have been. Maybe I was worn down after months of trying to help someone who hadn’t wanted to be helped. Between Mische and Oraya, it was exhausting.

She and I stared each other down, silent. Mische’s eyes were big and stubborn. Most of the time, they looked pretty and doe-like. People often said that Mische’s eyes were her prettiest feature. But they didn’t see her pissed off. Then, they were downright terrifying.

She wasn’t quite there, yet, but I could see the shadow of it, and that was bad enough.

As if she should be giving me that look. When I was the one following her around getting snapped at for the great crime of worrying about her.

And I was worried about her.

“Enough with the bullshit,” I said. But the words came out soft—as soft, I supposed, as I meant them. “Tell me what happened.”

“I thought Oraya told you already.”

Oraya didn’t tell me why you’ve been avoiding me for a week, I wanted to say. She didn’t tell me why you were put in that apartment instead of in the dungeons. She didn’t tell me why you look so broken.

“Oraya told me about a dead prince,” I shot back. “I don’t give a fuck about that. I’m asking about you.”

Mische stopped walking, then turned around. The anger drained from her face, leaving behind something childlike and conflicted that reminded me so much of the way she had looked when I first found her, it made my chest physically hurt.

“She didn’t tell you?”

“Do I need to talk to Oraya now to find out what’s going on inside that head of yours?”

Mische didn’t answer. Instead, she leaned against the wall, slid down it, and perched on a pile of rock, her head in her hands.

The guilt was immediate.

I sat down next to her, even though the rocks were so low to the ground that I ended up ridiculously curled up on myself. I peered at her face between tendrils of honey hair.

“Mish,” I murmured. “I—” “It was him.”

The three words came out in a single breath. So fast they ran together and it took a minute for me to untangle them.

“Him,” I repeated.

And she lifted her head, and she looked at me with those big eyes filled with rage and tears, and I just fucking knew.

Every shred of my frustration fell away. Every single emotion, every thought, every sensation disappeared, save for the utter all-consuming rage.

Him?” I said, again. She nodded.

The image of the Shadowborn prince unfolded in my mind. The Shadowborn prince, who I’d invited into my castle. I’d talked to him. Laughed with him. Fed him fucking delicacies.

And then, that memory was replaced by another one. Mische, as I had found her all those years ago. Pale and thin and sun-scorched, vomit crusted to her lips, left in the dirt like a discarded toy.

When she was in the throes of her fever, she’d just kept saying, over and over again, “What’s happening? What’s happening?”

She had been so damned young. Practically a child. And she had been so, so afraid.

That had been a long time ago.

But I never forgot it. Not really. I still saw that version of her sometimes, even though I knew she’d hate it if she knew that. I saw it the night of the Moon Palace attack, when I’d scraped her up off the floor among all that Nightfire. I saw it every time I glimpsed the burn scars on her arms. And I saw it now.

And that man—that fucking monster—had done that to her. I had smiled at that prick.

“I shouldn’t have killed him,” Mische was saying, though I was so furious I barely heard her. “It was careless, I—”

“What the fuck do you mean, you shouldn’t have killed him?” My fists were clenched so tight they shook. I probably looked ridiculous, hunched over on this stupid little rock, shaking like a madman. “I’d say should have killed him, but I’m glad you got to be the one to do it.”

She averted her eyes, staring at the ground. “I just—snapped.”

“Why didn’t you tell me? The minute he walked through the door, Mische, I—”

“I didn’t know,” she said weakly. “I didn’t know who he was. Not until I saw his face.” She shuddered. “I used to think a lot about what it would be like to meet him again. But I used to be afraid I wouldn’t remember. It was all fuzzy. I was so sick.”

I remembered that well. That first year, after Mische had recovered, she’d had an intense, paranoid fear that any man she met could have been the one who Turned her. She didn’t remember her maker’s face or name, so, in a cruel twist of fate, that meant he was everywhere—every passing stranger on the street.

“Well.” She laughed darkly. “I knew. I knew it right away.”

I was quiet. It hurt—actually hurt—to think that Mische hadn’t been spared that. I hated Neculai, and what I hated most of all was the innate connection I’d had to him as the man who Turned me. He made himself the center of my entire world not only because my survival hinged solely on him, but also because he had literally created me.

Some intrinsic bond—no, shackle—existed in that relationship for vampires. It made you feel small and dirty and ashamed.

I hated that Mische knew what that was.

“He knew me, too, I think,” she said. “Well. Not really. I don’t think he remembered me. But he… noticed me. Maybe he smelled himself on me.”

And she had been up in that apartment. Given to him, probably, by either Simon or Septimus, who noticed his interest in her—who wanted to bribe him to stick around and witness their grand ascension to power. Maybe buy themselves an ally.

I didn’t even want to ask. Didn’t want to make her relive the answer.

But I had to.

“Mish, did he—”

“No,” she said quickly. “No. Maybe… maybe he would have, but…” But he ended up with Mische’s sword through his heart.


And yet it didn’t feel like that much of a comfort. He’d already violated her in so many other ways.

“You should have told me,” I said. “The minute you knew.”

She gave me a skeptical glance, a little pitying. “You needed him, Raihn.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It does matter. You know it matters.”

“And let’s say I had won his alliance. Then what were you going to do? What was your plan? Just stay in that castle with him for Goddess-knows how long, and suffer through it?”

Mische sighed. Suddenly, she looked so tired. “Maybe,” she said. “I don’t know. He is—was—important, Raihn. I’m not a child. You’re trying to do something big. And even though you won’t give me shit about it, I know I pushed you into it.” She touched her chest, letting out a wry laugh. “And I’m supposed to get in the way of that, now? Me? You sacrificed for this. You gave up Oraya, and I know—I know what that meant to you. You gave up your life. I wasn’t going to stand in the way.”

You gave up Oraya.

Those four words hit me in the chest like arrows, one after the other, too quick to catch my breath.

I had fucked up.

Because Mische was right. I had sacrificed in the name of power. I thought my sacrifices were my own, but that wasn’t true. Oraya had suffered the weight of them. Mische had suffered the weight of them.

And now she thought—genuinely believed—that she was less important than that cause.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said softly. “Alliances. War. Politics. It does not matter. Alright?”

“That’s not—”

“Let me talk,” I snapped. “Don’t you fucking dare regret it for a second, Mish. The House of Shadow wants to come for us? Let them come. It will have been worth it.”

I meant it, even though I also didn’t want to think about the consequences. At least we had some time before we had to deal with that. As far as the House of Shadow knew, their prince died in the care of Simon Vasarus, not me. We were trying to retake the throne quickly. Whatever diplomatic issues this might cause… we could save that for the next war.

Tomorrow’s headache. Not today’s.

And even tomorrow, I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to be sorry.

“Besides,” I said, “maybe we’ll all be dead by then and it won’t matter.”

A smile twitched at the corner of her mouth. “Have you seen what this army looks like? Seems like a ‘probably,’ not a ‘maybe.’”

I scoffed. “And this from the optimistic one.”

She laughed. It was weak, but it was a laugh. I’d take it. “Sorry. I’m tired.”

Tired. Long-term tired. I understood right away what she meant.

She stared off into the darkness of the tunnels. If I listened carefully, I could still hear the sounds of the camp far in the distance, echoing down the hall. A constant reminder, even out here, of what was coming.

I watched her profile, so uncharacteristically mournful. “I’m sorry, Mische,” I said quietly.

She started to shake her said, but I said, again, “I’m sorry for all of it.”

I’m sorry that it happened to you. I’m sorry that I couldn’t stop it. I’m sorry you had to fight this alone. I’m sorry that I didn’t get to help you kill that fucking bastard. I’m sorry you felt like you couldn’t tell me.

I’m sorry I made you feel like it wouldn’t matter if you did.

Her face softened. “It’s alright.”

“No. It isn’t. But it will be.” I paused, then added, “Maybe. If we’re lucky.”

She laughed softly, then laid her head against my shoulder. “I think we’re lucky,” she murmured.

I wasn’t convinced, but I sure as fuck hoped so.

I had a million things to do. But I wasn’t ready to go. We remained there, in silence, for a few minutes longer.

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