Chapter no 61

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

I opened my eyes

Some innate part of me expected to see the cerulean of my chamber’s ceiling at the castle. Smell the familiar scent of rose and


But no. The ceiling was old, haphazard wooden boards. The room smelled like lavender and the burnt wood of a fireplace.

So unfamiliar, and yet… so recognizable, in a way I couldn’t place. Like the scent called to a version of myself I’d long ago forgotten.

I turned my head and was greeted with a wave of truly agonizing pain. But—I was alive.

I was actually alive.

As pieces of the battle came back to me—Simon’s monstrous face leaning over me—that seemed like a fucking miracle.

My eyes focused. I was in a tiny bedroom, lying in an old, beaten-down bed, covered with a quilt that was obviously homemade. Before me was a closed, slightly crooked wooden door, with a little wooden chair sitting beside it.

And in that chair—that tiny, rickety chair, comically overflowing it— was Raihn.

He snored slightly, his head tipped back against the wall, skewed at a painful-looking angle. His arms were crossed over his chest. He wore plain cotton clothes that looked within one sneeze of bursting open at the seams. Dark, dried bloodstains marred the cream fabric, and his forearms were wound in tight bandages.

My eyes prickled. I stared at him, the image growing slowly blurry. My chest was so tight. I didn’t think it had anything to do with my injuries.

I sniffed, and Raihn had been sleeping so lightly that that sound was enough to send him jerking awake with comical verve, nearly throwing himself off the chair as he reached for the sword that wasn’t there.

I couldn’t help it. I laughed. The sound was horrible—a gasping rasp. Raihn barely managed to right himself. Then his gaze fell to me.

He went utterly still.

And then, with a single swift movement, he was on his knees beside my bed, hands cradling my face like he wanted to make sure I was real.

You’re alive, I wanted to say, but all I could choke out was, “Did I scare you?”

I was smiling, laughing a little, though the sound was almost a sob. And soon Raihn was laughing too, and he kissed my face—my forehead, my brows, my nose, and finally, my mouth, leaving the taste of tears on my lips.

“Don’t you ever do that to me again,” he said. “Never fucking again.” The door opened.

A woman stood in the frame, holding a mortar and pestle in one hand, like she’d rushed over so fast she hadn’t even had the time to put down what she was doing.

“I heard—”

But then her eyes found mine, and the words died.

I couldn’t speak either. Nor could I look away. Because Goddess, she looked so familiar—so familiar that everything else fell away. Those green eyes reminded me so much of someone I used to know.

She let out a long breath.

“You’re awake,” she said, at the same time that I said, “I know you.” Those eyes crinkled with a sad smile.

“I didn’t think you would remember me.”

I didn’t know if I did remember her, exactly. It was more like… recognizing an innate familiarity.

“I… you’re…”

My words trailed off. I wasn’t sure what I was trying to say, or how to name what I was feeling.

She stepped into the room and closed the door behind her. “I’m Alya,” she said. “I’m your aunt.”



ALYA, brusque and businesslike, insisted upon examining me before we talked about anything more. So while she checked my pulse and re-dressed my bandages, Raihn answered all the questions he already knew I would ask.

We hadn’t been here long, he told me, only a day. The others had retreated to the rendezvous point outside of Sivrinaj, in one of the cities that the Hiaj had managed to maintain control of, but it was just a matter of time until Simon would go after them there. They were licking their wounds, too, and would fall back farther to the cliffs when given the command.

The battle, in short, had been a fucking disaster.

Yes, we’d managed to destroy most of the defensive measures around Sivrinaj, and if nothing else, we’d managed to kill a large number of Simon’s forces. But he’d killed plenty of ours, too.

And what Septimus had done to Simon… the pendant, the teeth

Mother, had I imagined that? It felt like a dream. A Goddess-damned nightmare.

Where the hell did we go from here? “We have to go back,” I said.

“Not until you can travel,” he said. “I feel—”


Shockingly enough, I actually did feel fine. Dizzy, yes. Weak. But… miraculously healed, all things considered. Alya was behind me, administering medicine to a wound on my back. It hurt, making me draw in a hiss through my teeth.

But pain was manageable. Pain wasn’t death.

I looked down at my arms, where I knew I’d been wounded badly. Only faint red marks remained, scabbing over with dark red.

Raihn followed my gaze, a faint smile twisting his lips. “It turns out your aunt is a hell of a healer.”

“We had some help,” she added. “From his blood.”

Everyone was speaking as if this was all very normal. But the normalcy of it was the most confusing of all.

Aunt. Goddess help me. I didn’t even know where to start. “How did you know to bring me here?” I asked Raihn.

His smile faded—like he was slipping back into that memory.

“Honestly?” he said. “I don’t have a damned clue. I knew the name from your mother’s letters, and the city. I knew whoever had written them was a healer. And I was—I was desperate. I didn’t know where to go. Not sure why I ended up here.”

Behind me, Alya let out a low laugh. “Fate,” she said. “It’s beyond mortal understanding.”

I wasn’t sure if she was joking or not. She had a flat affectation that sounded like it could be either blunt seriousness or dry humor. Still… either way, I couldn’t help but agree with her.

She lifted my left arm, checking a bandage around my shoulder. “You’re lucky he thought to bring you here,” she said. “Nyaxia’s magic wouldn’t have been able to help you nearly as well.”

“What magic is this?” I asked.

“Acaeja’s. Vampire magic alone wouldn’t have been able to save you.”

Alya let my arm fall and stood, repositioning herself at the foot of the bed so I could see her. She had a steady, piercing gaze. I didn’t like it. It felt like she could see far too much of me.

That stare slid away, like it made her uncomfortable, too. “Never thought some twenty-five-year-old letters from my sister would lead us here. I’ll tell you that much.”

Vincent’s lies had shattered my belief in fate. But the fact that Raihn had found those letters, this name, this place—the fact that he’d thought to bring me here, of all places, when in his panic—

It felt something like it.

Raihn looked a little pale. I wondered if he was having the same thoughts, about luck and all the ways ours could have been different. I touched his hand without thinking, sliding over his rough skin. He flipped his palm up, fingers closing loosely around mine.

My eyes fell to the bedspread, and Alya’s weathered, bony hands sitting atop it. The sight struck me with another dizzying wave of familiarity.

Those hands.

I remembered holding those hands, long ago.

Yours are so much more wrinkly than mama’s. That’s not very polite, Oraya.

“I lived with you,” I blurted out.

Alya’s brow twitched. Only the faintest hint of surprise. “I didn’t think you would remember that. You were very, very young.” She looked around the little bedroom. “You were born here, actually. In this room. That… that was a hard day. Wasn’t sure if either of you would make it. I was doing everything I could to heal you both, but…”

She blinked, as if clearing away the past. “I haven’t felt that way in a long, long time. Not until he showed up yesterday. Brings back… a lot of memories.”

Goddess, I never thought I would ever have someone look at me the way she was now. With the nostalgic affection of a shared past.

I had so many questions. “How did—why—” And then, finally, “My mother…”

My voice trailed off. I didn’t even know what I wanted to know first. Everything. Anything.

A smile softened the hard lines of Alya’s mouth. “She was wonderful.

And she was obnoxious.”

“She was an acolyte of Acaeja, too.”

I didn’t know why I was so eager to say that—to demonstrate that I knew something about her.

“Yes. It was her idea, actually. We were both young, growing up here, in the human districts of Vartana. And this life is a hard one, for humans in Obitraes. Vartana isn’t as bad as Sivrinaj or Salinae, but there are limits to what a human can do with their lives in this kingdom. Alana never accepted that, though. She was ambitious. A dangerous quality for someone in her position. She was blessed with a touch for magic, and rather than pursuing the arts of Nyaxia, knowing she could never be more than passable at it, she decided to go in a different direction.”

“Acaeja,” I said, and Alya nodded.

“Yes. The only other god that would allow their gifts to be used by someone in Obitraes, even a human. But it was about more than that for Alana. She liked that Acaeja was the Goddess of Lost Things. She felt like we were all lost. Needed someone to guide us back. Eventually, I came to believe it, too, and studied alongside her.”

Without meaning to, I’d started leaning across the bed, as if to get close enough to absorb the words into my skin. With each one, I painted color into that old ink portrait of my mother.

“So my mother was… a healer?” I asked.

“No, I was always the better healer. She didn’t have the patience for it. Besides, I think it was too small for her. She wanted something big. Something grand. She experimented with sorcery, with seering.” Alya laughed a little. “I always used to be after her for choosing the most useless skills to focus on. She told me they’d be useful one day, just wait.”

Then the smile went cold. “I suppose that turned out to be true. When word got around that Vincent was looking for seers.”

She said Vincent’s name like a curse, something dirty to be expelled. My eagerness snuffed out like a candle, leaving behind only dread.

So many things I needed to know.

So many things I did not want to hear.

“No one could stop her,” Alya went on. “She wanted something more than this place, this life. So she went to Sivrinaj and offered herself up to him. She told us this was her chance at becoming something important. Money. Safety. Not just for her, she said, but for all of us.” She shook her head. “I begged her not to go,” she murmured. “But there was no reasoning with her.”

I clasped my hands together, knuckles white. My body had gone rigid, like I was bracing for a blow. Maybe Raihn sensed this, because he put his hand on my back, and Mother, I was so grateful for that single steadying touch.

I had cursed Vincent in my own head countless times. Screamed into my pillow in rage and hurt over the things he had done to me, the lies he had told me.

And yet, he was still my father. I loved him. I missed him. I treasured what little pieces of goodness I had left in my memories of him. I didn’t want to sacrifice them to what Alya was about to tell me.

But I wanted the truth more.

“What happened?” I whispered.

Alya laughed softly. “What happened? She fell in love. That’s what happened. She was a pretty young woman with big dreams who had grown up in poverty. He was a handsome vampire king who made her feel—” She hesitated here, looking for the right word. “He gave her something she’d

never had before. He gave her a purpose. Of course she fell in love with him. How could she not?”

I let out a shaky breath.

“What did he want her for?” I asked. “What were they working on together?”

“I didn’t know at the time. I only got pieces, sometimes, when she would write to me for advice. I gathered she was trying to restore something that had been lost, or perhaps create something new. Something very powerful. But she was extremely secretive.” Alya’s eyes flicked to Raihn. “But now, after hearing about Vincent’s supposed experimentations… I suspect she was helping him harness this god blood.”

I blinked in surprise, then glanced at Raihn, who shrugged. “We got to talking,” he said. “While you were out.”

“I didn’t pry too much about it at the time,” Alya said. “I didn’t care about the machinations of a vampire king. I cared about my sister. She lived with him for years. And at first… she seemed happy. That was all that mattered to me. She came here with him, once.”

My brows leapt.

Now that—that was beyond the wildest bounds of my imagination. Vincent, here? In a shack in the human district of a little town that barely made it onto maps?

Alya laughed bitterly. “I made that face, too, when he showed up at our door. And it was—Weaver, it was a strange visit.”

“What was he like, back then?”

I couldn’t help but ask. Couldn’t stop myself.

She thought for a moment before answering. “I had suspected for a long time what was happening between them. But that night was when I was certain. She looked at him like he was the sun. And he looked at her like she was the moon.”

My heart clenched at this—at the thought that maybe they had actually loved each other.

Why did it make me so happy, to believe that?

But Alya’s face darkened. “But he looked at us like we were nothing. He looked at our life like it was repulsive. And that’s when I knew. Maybe he loved her in a way. But he could never love her for what she really was. Loving everything in her but her humanity wasn’t loving her at all. Even if he wished it was. Even if he wanted it with all his being.”

My heart clenched. Her words slid straight through the weakest spots of the armor that I’d been nursing for months—hell, years.

Alya saw the pain on my face.

“Vincent was a complicated man,” she murmured. “He was lonely. I think perhaps a part of him genuinely wanted to love her. But he had been alive for a very long time in a very cruel world. He had turned himself into something incapable of such a love in order to survive it.”

“So what changed?” I choked out. “How did she leave?” “She left,” Alya said softly, “because of you.”

A suspicion that hurt to hear confirmed.

“We had been hearing from her less and less over those last couple of years. I thought she was just preoccupied with her new, exciting life. But then, one day, she turned up at my doorstep and told me she was pregnant. She told me she left Vincent, and she wasn’t going back.”

Alya let out a shaky breath. “I was terrified. I thought, ‘Weaver help us, she’s about to lead an enraged vampire king to our doorstep, and he’s going to kill us all.’ But she said he wouldn’t come after her, and… he didn’t.”

My brow furrowed. “He didn’t?”

Even in my best possible memories of my father, he was never good at letting go of what he considered his.

“Months passed. And then years. And he never came.” This baffled me. “Why?”

“That, I can’t answer. Like I said, maybe he wanted to love her. Maybe he was trying his best. For a while.”

For a while.

Those words hung in the air for several long seconds. Alya’s gaze lingered at the wall behind me, as if this next part was too painful to let me see in her eyes.

“When she met Alcolm, and they got married… That’s when she started to get scared. For us. For you. For Alcolm. He had family in Salinae. She thought it would be safer there, in Rishan territory. Farther from Vincent’s reach and eyes.”

Alcolm. I remembered that name too, faintly—remembered it called affectionately between rooms in a too-small cottage. I remembered big, rough hands and an embrace that smelled like fresh chopped wood.

“I thought he was my father,” I said.

“You thought he was your father because he became your father. He treated you just as he treated Jona and Leesan. You were all his children.” A sad smile found her lips. “He was a good man.”


Because all these people were dead now. Murdered, in an explosion that ripped our house apart.

“When I received that letter,” Alya whispered, “it was the worst night of my life.”

I remembered the wings blotting out the sky.

I remembered my mother trying to get me away from the windows—

I had thought it was the night I was saved. The night fate, and only fate, had brought me into Vincent’s arms.

“Did he go there for me?” I asked. I didn’t want to know the answer.

Alya was silent for a long moment. “I can only speculate. I think he went to Salinae to destroy his enemies. But I think he went to that house, that night, for you. Maybe he tried for a long time to let her go. But when the wars started, and his enemies were at his throat, his true nature returned. He couldn’t bring himself to leave his back exposed.”

I couldn’t breathe.

Did you kill them for me, Vincent?

Vincent, of course, was silent. He could never answer the hard questions.

“Why did he let me live?” I whispered.

I didn’t even mean to say it aloud. But the question was always there, nagging at my soul like a piece of loose thread.

If he came there that night for me, why wouldn’t he kill me?

That would be the logical choice. I was a danger to be mitigated. A wound to be cauterized. He had enemies. He had power to protect—power threatened by no one so much as it was threatened by me.

Did he go there that night intending to identify a body, or make sure he left one behind if I was still alive?

If so… why did he change his mind?

“I can’t answer that, Oraya,” Alya said softly. “I’m afraid no one will ever be able to.”

The truth. But such an agonizing one.

“I thought you were dead,” she went on, “for a long time. He kept you very quiet for the first few years. But then when you got a little older, people began to talk about you. The king’s human daughter. I knew it had to be you. Ever since then, I’ve been following you. During the Kejari I had friends in Sivrinaj send me updates every trial. And then these last few months…”

She let out a long, slow breath. Her hand fell over mine. “I never thought I would see you again,” she choked out, the emotion in that one sentence overwhelming, like it all poured forth at once.

Me neither, I wanted to say, but I couldn’t even make myself form words.

“Your mother loved you,” she said. “I hope you never doubted that, no matter what he might have told you. And so did the rest of us. Your siblings. Your stepfather. You were—are—so fiercely, fiercely loved. I always hoped that you felt that wherever you were, even if we couldn’t tell you it directly.”

And this—this was the thing that infuriated me the most. Because I didn’t know. I knew that I was loved by Vincent, and Vincent alone. But he’d erased everyone else. Let me believe that I was alone in this world.

He never deprived me of food or shelter or safety. But he deprived me of that, and it felt almost as horrific.

We sat there in silence for too long, and then Alya rose, that momentary wave of emotion replaced with stoic calm. She went to the dresser, opening the top drawer and rummaging through it. Then she turned back to me, hands cupped.

“She would want you to have this.” She dropped a little glittering coil into my outstretched palm—a chain of silver, small black stones interspersed down its length.

“I noticed the ring,” she added, nodding to my little finger. “I’d never seen the necklace before, though. I didn’t know it was a full set.”

It was, indeed, a full set—my necklace, my ring, and now, the bracelet, the onyx stones perfect mates to each other.

My eyes burned. I closed my hand, tight, relishing the press of the stones against my palm, as if I could still feel my mother’s touch on them if I tried hard enough.

“Thank you,” I murmured.

Alya nodded, hands clasped before her, looking a little awkward. She struck me as someone who was uncomfortable with emotion—maybe a family trait, because I was oddly relieved when she said, “I should check on dinner,” and left us alone.

Raihn didn’t say anything, and I was grateful for it, because I wasn’t ready to speak. Instead, he silently sat at the edge of my bed, arm folding around me, offering me an embrace if I wanted it.

And Mother, I wanted it. I let myself slide into his arms with so little hesitation, I would have been ashamed of myself a month ago. But Goddess, how nice that touch felt, stable and secure and solid. Safety, even when nothing about this world—past or future—was safe right now.

I let my head fall against his shoulder. Let my eyelashes flutter closed, as I breathed in his scent deep. Sweat and the sky and the desert.

The former maybe a bit stronger than the latter.

I said against his skin, “You haven’t bathed since you’ve gotten here, have you?”

He let out a snort. “Ix’s tits, princess. What a charmer you are.” “I’m in your armpit. I can’t not notice.”

“I had more important things to worry about than bathing. Besides, I hear some women find a natural musk attractive. Try to have that attitude.”

I wasn’t about to confirm it, but I did find it a little attractive. Or at least, strangely comforting.

He asked softly, “You alright?”

Alright. What did that word even mean? By any definition, I thought the answer must be no. I’d almost died. I’d led the people who followed me into a bloodbath. I’d lost my kingdom for the second time.

I pulled away just enough to give Raihn a hard look that said, What the fuck kind of a question is that?

He sighed. “Fine. I earned that.”

I laid my head against his shoulder again. “You’ve talked to the others.” “A few letters to Vale. Not much. But the mirror survived the attack, so


So I could talk to Jesmine. Thank the Goddess for that. I was glad I’d

kept it on me.

Except, that wave of relief was followed by one of nausea.

What was I even going to tell her? They needed orders. They were waiting at the rendezvous point, counting the minutes until Simon went

after them.

“How many did we lose?” I asked.

Raihn’s slight hesitation told me more than his answer. “They were still counting, the last I heard from them.”

A lot.


He went on, “We could consider a surrender, but—”

Surrender? To a Rishan noble prick and a Bloodborn snake? No. Never. I scoffed. “Fuck, no. I’d rather die fighting.”

No, I was sick of this. I’d spent a lifetime bowing before my supposed status as a weak human. Fuck if I’d die that way, too.

Raihn chuckled softly. “Glad you see it that way, too.” “We need to go back.”

Back to Jesmine and Vale. Back to the armies relying on us, and quickly.

His thumb swept over my shoulder. “I’d tell you to rest longer, but I know better.”

“Would you sit around if you were the one stuck here? This is my fight too.”

“It is,” he said, and I wondered if I imagined that he sounded a little proud.

“Besides,” I said, “I don’t know how much more time we have before Simon and Septimus go after them to finish the job. We need to do something before that.”

The mention of Simon’s name conjured a viscerally vivid image—his monstrous form looming over Raihn, looming over me, that mangled collection of steel and teeth nailed into his chest.

Mother, the look in his eyes—

I knew better than anyone that vampires could be monstrous creatures. I’d witnessed the worst of bloodlust, which reduced them to little more than animals. But whatever Simon had become was a far cry from typical vampire brutality. He had turned himself into something that should not exist at all.

Or more accurately, I suspected, Septimus had turned him into such a thing.

And I had the terrible feeling that what Raihn and I had witnessed— power that put both of our Heir magics to shame—was only a fraction of

what it was capable of.

I knew that Raihn and I were having these same thoughts, in the silence that followed.

Finally, he said, “Here. Let me put that on for you.”

He took the bracelet from my still-open palm and gently fastened it around my right wrist—the same hand that bore my mother’s old ring. I flipped my palm over when he was done, looking at the two of them together.

“Perfect match,” Raihn said. “You’ve completed the set.”

They did look nice together. But more than that, it felt good to have one more connection to the past that had been taken from me.


A sudden shock jolted through me. I gasped, lurching upright, pressing my hand to my chest.

My hand—My chest—

“What?” Raihn was already half-standing, one hand on my arm, ready to call for Alya. “What is it?”

I didn’t even know how to answer that question. I felt… strange. The last time I’d felt this way, it was when I’d looked down to see the Heir Mark tattooed over my chest. My breath came in rapid gasps. My hand, my throat—“burning” wasn’t quite the right word, but they—

I forced my hand away from my throat, splaying it out flat, doing my best to hold it steady through the tremors.

Raihn and I stared down at it. “Well, fuck,” he whispered.

Fuck, indeed.

Inked over the back of my hand, in a triangle formed between the ring and the bracelet, was a map.

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