Chapter no 54

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

The days and nights blended together in a messy blur of preparations. We worked, and slept, and ate, and worked. The caves grew more crowded as Vale and Jesmine collected the soldiers they had

available in the north. In what felt like a miracle, we only ended up with four dead from fights between the Hiaj and the Rishan. I was amazed the body count was that low—though we did, apparently, have a few gouged-out eyes and ripped-off ears, too. Still, compared to the bloodbath we were expecting, it was practically camaraderie.

We moved out fast. Raihn and I had made the trip north very quickly, but it would take us a little longer to move with this many people. Jesmine and Vale had also set up a rendezvous point outside of Sivrinaj, so that the troops summoned from the farther reaches of the House of Night could move directly toward the city. Vale had some Rishan friends who had significant fleets, too, from their lands on the western shores of the House of Night, who would be circling the Ivory Seas to flank us from the ocean.

Would it be enough?

This was the question on all our minds, unspoken, as we gathered our troops and set out across the deserts. We moved shockingly fast for such a large group of people. The wings helped, but what helped more was the sense of urgency in the air.

The Hiaj were ready to finally reclaim their throne, even if they had to do it alongside the Rishan. And the Rishan were just as eager to get the Bloodborn out of this kingdom.

They actually cared about this.

That didn’t really hit me until we were halfway across the desert. It was nearly sunrise. We’d have to stop soon. Jesmine said as much to the rest of us, flying as we headed up the group, and Vale had remarked, “They aren’t ready.”

I glanced behind me at the warriors who followed, flying in swift, neat formation—Rishan on one side, Hiaj on the other.

Despite the hours of travel, despite the sky tinted the dim pink of near-sunrise, Vale was right. They weren’t ready to stop. One look at them, and I could see it in their faces: driven determination.

It actually startled me.

I’d never expected more from them than resigned loyalty. Never thought that they could give me, a half-human, more than that, let alone when asked to walk beside an enemy they’d fought for thousands of years.

And yet…

My eyes flicked to Raihn’s, and I saw the same amazement, same disbelief, in his face.

“It’s cloudy,” he said. “We can keep going for a little longer. If they don’t want to stop yet, who the hell am I to complain?”

He dipped a little closer to me after that—just close enough for the tip of his wing to nudge mine, the feathers tickling. As if to silently say, Well, would you look at that?

We squeezed out maybe an extra half hour of travel that morning. Nothing significant. And yet, when we did finally settle down in our shelters, I couldn’t help marveling at how far we’d come.

I still wasn’t sure if it would be enough. But Goddess, it was something, wasn’t it?



HAD NEVER LOOKED at the silhouette of Sivrinaj from this far away before. I’d memorized that skyline from my bedroom window over the years— every spire or dome, every path the sun took over the sky above it. I seared that shape into my soul. I could’ve drawn it from memory.

But perspective did change things.

From out here in the deserts, the smooth silver waves of the dunes rolled in the foreground instead of the distance. The harsh blocks of the slums framed the city in squares of washed-out, dusty gray. The Moon Palace stood to the east, looming over the skyline, deceptively peaceful for a place that had, not long ago, claimed so much blood. And then the castle

—my home, my prison, my target—loomed far ahead, distance reducing it to the smallest of them all.

The castle was not the tallest building in Sivrinaj. But it had always felt like it to me. Larger than anything in life could be.

From out here, it was just another building. Tonight, we would march for that city.

We were ready. Vale and Jesmine’s troops had met us here. Our army had tripled in size since we’d left the cliffs. This stretch of desert had now been transformed into a sea of tents and makeshift shelters to hide from the strongest hours of sun.

We were ready, I told myself. We had to be ready.

“You should be getting some rest,” a familiar voice said behind me. “I hear it’s a big night.”

I peered over my shoulder to see Raihn peeking through the flap of the tent.

I put my finger to my lips. “You’ll wake Mische.”

No one got their own tent. We’d rather spend our energy carrying weapons than supplies. That meant the warriors—us included—were packed three or four to a tent for the hours we were forced to rest. Raihn and I spent that time wedged in with Mische and Ketura, trying to sleep while also dodging Mische’s flailing limbs.

Raihn slipped from the tent, closing the flap behind him. When my eyebrows jumped, he raised his hands. “Relax. I’m in the shade.”

He was. Kind of. The tent blocked the strongest of the light, and it was a hazy day today. The shadows were long now, sunset approaching.

Still seemed like an unnecessary risk. But then again, I also knew there was no point trying to tell Raihn to avoid the sun.

I scooted backward, so I was sitting beside him. He squinted out over the horizon, taking in the same view of Sivrinaj that I’d just been admiring.

“Looks small from out here,” he murmured. I nodded.

“The first time I saw Sivrinaj,” he said, “it was when I was dragging myself out of the ocean. I thought I’d crossed into another world. Even the biggest cities I’d been to were nothing like this. I thought, Thank the fucking gods. I’m saved.

I shuddered a little. Raihn, of course, had not been saved. He’d been walking into his own prison.

It was hard to imagine that version of him. The sailor from nowhere, who had never seen anything as grand as Sivrinaj’s castle. Just a broken, frightened human man who didn’t want to die.

I could remember so clearly the way Raihn’s voice had cracked when he’d told me this story the first time.

He asked me if I wanted to live, he had told me. What the hell kind of a question was that? Of course I wanted to live.

“Do you wish you’d said no?” I murmured.

I didn’t even need to specify what I was talking about. He took a long time to respond.

“I cursed myself for that answer,” he said at last, “for a long, long time. Death would have been better than those next seventy years. But… maybe there’s something to be said for the years that came after that.” His eyes flicked to me, crinkling slightly with an almost-smile. “Maybe even the years that come after this one.”

The corner of my mouth twitched. His brow flattened. “What’s that face for?”

“Nothing. It’s just… a very optimistic thing for you to say.”

He threw his hands up. “Well fuck, if we can’t be even a little optimistic, what are we doing any of this for?”

It was, I had to admit, a fair point.

“So you think we can do this,” I said, my gaze slipping back to the city. “Tomorrow.”

Optimism wasn’t exactly what I got from his long silence. “We’d better,” he said.

“It’s just quiet,” I said. “It’s…” “Unnerving.”

Yes. Unnaturally quiet, even for the daytime. I would have expected to see more activity visible in Sivrinaj. More barricades, maybe, or more troops stationed beyond the boundaries of the city. But even when we had arrived here, at dawn, it had been still.

“They’re bracing for us,” Jesmine had said. “They don’t have enough men. They need to use what they can to keep the inner city safe, not run out and meet us out here, leaving their other sides exposed.”

Logically, that made sense. Vale had agreed. Still… something about it made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

“You’d better not be going soft on me, princess,” Raihn said, nudging my shoulder. “What, you’re scared? You? The steel-nerved Hiaj queen?”

I glared at him, and he chuckled. “That’s better.”

“I’m not scared. I’m just…”

I looked back at the city. Then at him. Then at the city. Alright. Maybe I was scared.

I settled on, “I feel the way I felt before the last trial.”

Not afraid, exactly. Not afraid for myself, at least. I wasn’t afraid of a sword through my own gut. But I was afraid of letting my kingdom fall. I was afraid of all I could lose.

I glanced back to Raihn, his face now serious as he gazed out over the skyline, pink sunset light outlining his profile, and suddenly, that fear cut even deeper.

His eyes flicked to mine, and I saw that fear reflected back at me, like a mirror to my own. It stirred a complicated knot of emotions in my stomach, words that I didn’t know how to untangle.

He swept a stray strand of hair behind my ear.

“I always admired that about you,” he said. “That you fought even when you were afraid. Don’t you dare stop now. No matter what happens.”

I gave him a wry smile. “You said that then, too.”

Don’t you dare stop fighting, princess. It would break my damned heart.

“I remember. And it did break my heart when you stopped.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. I settled on, “Well. At least we’re fighting now.”

A faint laugh. “We sure fucking are.”

“It will be enough.” I hoped it didn’t sound like I was reassuring myself, even though I was. “A show of strength. That’s all they respond to.”

Without meaning to, I touched my Mark.

They will never respect you unless they fear you, little serpent, Vincent whispered in my ear. Show them something to be afraid of.

It had been a while since I’d heard his voice, even in my head. The sound of it left me a bit off-balance.

As if he’d seen it—because of course he’d seen it—Raihn’s hand lingered at my lower back, a steadying touch.

“They won’t stand a chance,” he said.

But did I imagine that he, too, sounded uncertain?

I turned a little, intending to face him, but the movement just pressed me against his arm. I ended up leaning against his shoulder, laying my head on it.

It was just… nice, to soak up these last few minutes of private companionship. It was different than having sex with him. Different, even, than sleeping beside him. It was somehow more intimate.

His arm folded around me. His face tilted, and when he spoke, I could feel his breath on my forehead. “Just want you to know, Oraya,” he murmured, “that you were the best part of it. The best part of all of it.”

My chest clenched violently, so sudden and sharp it felt like the aftermath of a blow. The earnestness of what he’d just said cut me open.

But worse still was how much it sounded like a goodbye.

I said, voice tighter than I intended, “You accuse me of going soft when you’re spewing that sappy bullshit?”

He laughed, and I scowled. But I still didn’t move, settling more comfortably against his body. And when his hand moved down to mine, I threaded my fingers through his like it was the most natural thing in the world.

I wasn’t sure how long we stayed like that. Just watching the minutes tick by until the end of it all.

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