Chapter no 68

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

Simon was looking right at those ruins.

It was like he knew. How? Maybe melding pieces of a god’s corpse into your flesh gave you some inexplicable awareness of other

terrible magic. Maybe what Simon had made a part of himself now called wordlessly to its mate.

I couldn’t explain it, and I wouldn’t try. But when I got close enough to see that—the little turn of his head, the greedy glint of interest in his eyes— everything else fell away.

It was just like the wedding, when I’d seen Simon talking to Oraya and suddenly not a single other thing in the world mattered. My singular purpose became getting between him and that door.

I dove for him, and didn’t slow as we careened into each other like stars colliding in the night sky.

My sword was out, my hold on my magic loose, ready to unleash everything I had. And when Simon turned to me in that final moment, his blade lifting to meet mine, his own magic swelling, we were nearly evenly matched.

The burst of power—light and darkness, red and black, stars and night

—obliterated us.

My ears popped. Every sound grew muffled and distant, as if underwater. My eyes, wide open through the whole thing, railed against the intensity of it, leaving the world in spotted outlines as the magic faded.

The two of us hurtled through the air, our courses thrown by the staggering force we’d just unleashed. In the background, several warriors

plummeted to the ground, limp and broken-winged, unlucky enough to be caught in the indirect impact of our blows.

I didn’t have time to count how many were mine, and how many were


Didn’t have time to think about anything but Simon.

When he smiled at me through the onslaught of steel and magic, he

looked just like Neculai. Just like the version of him that I’d seen in the Halfmoon trial, in the darkness before the battle began. The same version I saw in my nightmares, still, all these Goddess-damned years later.

Never again.

I moved on instinct now, meeting every blow, every dodge, relishing every time my blade struck flesh. I’d learned to communicate with my fighting strategies over the years, make each match a performance. Not tonight.

Tonight, I just fought to kill.

I twisted my body as Simon evaded one of my lunges, using his follow-through against him, spearing one of his wings.

It wasn’t the first time I’d hit him. But it was the first time I’d surprised him.

He lurched, and I smiled at the way he blinked in shock, like he didn’t fully believe I’d gotten him until he was dipping sideways in the air.

I didn’t waste the moment.

My next strike went to his side, exposed as he fought to right himself, arm lifted to reveal the weakest point of his armor—right beneath his armpit.

The sensation of the blade piercing his flesh was the most satisfying thing I’d experienced all night—second, maybe, only to the snarl of pain he let out next.

It was totally worth what came after.

He grabbed me as I yanked my sword free, spraying black blood over my face, holding me by the neck of my armor with an iron grip. The world rushed around us, the sky behind him a smear of bloody bodies and distant blurred stars.

He wrenched me close, so close spittle sprayed my face when he spoke. “This kingdom was never made for people like you,” he growled. “Who

do you think you are? You think you can become him? You?

Fucking incredible, how it all just snapped together in such perfect clarity.

My worst fear for so damned long. Neculai looking into my eyes and telling me that my crown cursed me to become just like him, or that I would lose it because I couldn’t be.

Simon was right. He was everything Neculai’s successor should have been.

And that would be exactly what would destroy him.

I smiled at him. I leaned closer, gripping his shoulder, forcing my head to his ear. The man even smelled like Neculai, that sickening mix of blood and withered roses that followed me on my darkest nights.

“You’re right,” I said. “I’m just a Turned slave. All I’ll ever be.”

And just as Simon turned his face to me, confused, I slipped my free hand through the opening in his armor, grabbed the twisted, ragged edge of the metal forged into his skin, and pulled.

He unleashed a roar of agony. The world went white.

Everything disappeared for a few horrible seconds. I lost my grip on my senses.

When I regained them again, Simon and I were rushing toward the ground.

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