Chapter no 71

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

My father stood before me.

The room had grown dim and hazy, as if coated in a thick fog.

Nothing felt real except for the foggy, gray nothingness.

Foggy, gray nothingness, and him.

I had dreamt of Vincent countless times. But this version of him felt so much more real than even the most vivid of them. The fine details of his face struck me like a knife to the chest—all the things I didn’t realize I’d forgotten, like the slight crookedness to his nose or the way his hair favored the left side over the right. The version of him in my mind was generic, sanded down by months of absence, even as my grief clung to him.

I said, mostly because I needed to remind myself, “You’re not real.” None of this was real.

Vincent smiled sadly at me. “Aren’t I?”

Mother. His voice.

“I’m real in every way that matters,” he said.

“You’re a dream. A hallucination. I’ve lost a lot of blood and—”

“I left so much of myself here, in this room.” Vincent’s eyes lifted, as if taking in this place beyond what was shrouded in darkness. “More than I ever had intended to give it. And all of that still remains, even if I do not. Isn’t that real, little serpent?”

It seemed so, so real.

“I’m inventing you,” I whispered. “Because you’re what I want to see.”

He lifted one shoulder in a delicate half-shrug. It was such a familiar movement, it made my breath stutter. “Perhaps,” he said. “Does it matter?”

In this moment, it felt like it didn’t.

He stepped closer, and I took a step back. He froze, momentary pain crossing his face.

“The things you’ve seen here have so tainted your image of me? I meant to give this place all my greatest achievements, my greatest ambitions. Instead, it became a monument to all my greatest mistakes.”

So many mistakes in the end. Never you.

Vincent’s final words flitted through my mind. He flinched, as if he heard them too.

“So many mistakes in the end,” he murmured. “I never wanted you to see this version of me.”

“I never wanted to see you this way.”

And Goddess, I meant it. Sometimes I envied myself from a year ago, who’d known, beyond any doubt, that her father loved her. Yes, it was the only thing she could believe in, but that, at least, was solid, immovable.

Losing my trust in Vincent was more than losing trust in a single person. It had broken something within me, destroyed my ability to put that trust into anyone else.

Pain flashed over his face, there and gone again so quickly, I thought it might be a trick of the light. The idea that this version of him could be a figment of my own mind slipped further away. If it was a hallucination, it was such a perfect one that it might as well be real.

And with him standing right in front of me, the anger that I’d been suppressing for months bubbled up to the surface.

“You lied to me,” I ground out. “My entire life, you told me the world was a cage. But it was you that put me there. You manipulated me from the time I was—”

“I saved you,” he snapped, lurching closer.

Then he winced, as if he had to clamp down on his anger, force it back. “You kidnapped me,” I choked out. “You killed my mother and you—” “I did not kill her.”

“Yes you did!” My voice boomed through the room, echoing off the stone ceilings. “You went to Salinae that night knowing she lived there. You destroyed it knowing—”


No. I’d had enough of this. “No more lies. I’ve had almost twenty years worth of them. I’m done. Done.”

Vincent snapped his jaw shut. A muscle twitched in his cheek, as if flexing with the force of withheld words.

The room seemed to grow a little more solid, the fog thinning. He turned to the column, laying his hand against it. He drew in a breath and let it out slowly, his shoulders lowering.

“This magic,” he said, more calmly, “is a living thing. And this, the center, is the most demanding piece of all. I’ve had to come back over the years, feed it more of myself to keep the spells strong. It’s the most important one, and yet the weakest, because I had to get a different sorcerer to help me finish it. After—”

After she left. He didn’t say it. Didn’t need to.

His gaze slipped over his shoulder. The anger was gone. Only sadness remained. Suddenly, my father looked so breathtakingly old. Not the old of wrinkled skin or graying hair, but the old of sheer exhaustion, right from the soul.

“Do you want to see, little serpent,” he murmured, “what memory it took from me?”

No, I almost said.

I didn’t want to see it.

But I’d come too far to turn back now. Swallowed too many lies to turn away the truth.

Slowly, I joined him at the obelisk. I lifted my hand, and laid it over his.



THE NIGHT IS COLD, the only heat from raging fires that burn the city of Salinae.

I do not feel either. As I fly over the city, a shell of what it once was, I feel nothing but satisfaction. It has been a hard year. I’ve worn this crown for close to two centuries. Few Nightborn kings—few Obitraen kings, in general—manage to cling to power for so long. I have known this for a long time. But lately, my enemies have been stirring in the shadows. I feel them surrounding me at every party, every meeting. I feel their eyes on me when I am alone in my bedchamber and when I stand before my people.

Power is a bloody, bloody business.

I have gotten soft these last few years.

But the time for softness is over. I need to carve away my weaknesses like rotting flesh. And there is one particular necrosis that I’ve allowed to plague me for too long, because I’ve been weak. Too weak to give up my little fantasies about a woman—a human woman—who scorned me, and the bizarre comfort I got from the idea that she was still alive somewhere, and my shameful commitment to a promise I once made to her.

Lately, I’ve been having dreams. Dreams of her. Dreams of myself, driving my sword through my father’s chest. Dreams of a silver-eyed little boy thrusting a blade through my heart.

I didn’t come to Salinae to kill her.

I tell myself this, though I don’t know why. No previous Nightborn king would hesitate to kill such an obvious liability.

You’re too soft, my own father whispers to me, and I know he’s right.

I don’t need to kill her, I tell myself. I only need to kill the child. The child is the danger. She is inconsequential.

But when I fly over the Salinae human districts, burning and burning with Nightfire, and I land before the pile of ruin that used to be a house, I’m not expecting the intensity of emotion that spears me.

I stare at the house—what once was a house—for a long moment.

I smell no life. I hear no heartbeat. Once, I could sense her from across the room—across the castle—like her body itself called to me, making its presence constantly known.

Her absence now is even more overpowering. A great hole that has opened up in my soul.

Regret, fierce and unrelenting, tears me up.

Three of my soldiers surround the remains of the house, but they haven’t yet seen me. I consider flying away. Every part of me wants to turn away from this wreckage and lock it somewhere I don’t have to think about it.

But the absence of the heartbeat I was looking for made me miss the one that remained. The three Hiaj below were circling something, their interest piqued with hunger.

I can, at least, finish what I came here for.

I land. One of the soldiers is cursing and rubbing his bloody hand. “A lamb?” he mutters. “More like a viper.”

Then the warriors notice me and hurry to bow. I don’t pay attention to them.

Because by then, I have seen you.

You are a lone flicker of light in an expanse of death. The only living thing in this pile of rubble.

In my dreams, my child is a mirror of myself. It is my own face I see when I think of dying by my Heir’s hand.

But you, little serpent, look so much like your mother.

I kneel before you. You are so very small. Surely small for your age, though I’m not sure exactly how old that is. Time can be strange for vampires. Your mother has lingered with me for so long that sometimes, I can’t remember how long it has been since she left.

You have long, slick black hair that covers your face, and freckles over your nose that blend with the smears of blood and soot, wrinkling as you sneer at me. They make me think of another time, long ago.

But those eyes.

You have my eyes. Silver as the moon, round and full of steel rage. The rage is mine, too. The fearlessness.

I reach for you, and though I can hear in your heartbeat that you’re afraid, you don’t hesitate to snap at me, sinking your little teeth deep into my finger.

I will not lie to you, little serpent.

I was expecting to kill you that night.

But what I was not expecting was to love you so devastatingly much.

It hits me so suddenly, so overwhelmingly, that I don’t even have time to brace myself against it.

You glare at me, like you’re ready to go down fighting even against one of the most powerful men in the world, and I smile a little, despite myself.

It takes me a minute to recognize the sensation in my chest. Pride.

I think of my own father and the way he spent my entire life crippling me out of fear of what I would become. Think of the night he casually threw my newborn baby brother out the window to the demons.

It is incomprehensible to me that my father ever felt for me the way I feel in this moment.

Surely no one ever has.

I cannot describe the depth of that emotion, nor the intensity of the terror that comes with it, bound together so inextricably. I came here to

excise my greatest weaknesses, and instead, I now offer up my heart to it.

From that moment, little serpent, I could not entertain the possibility of killing you.

I’ll do the next best thing, I tell myself. I will raise you. I will protect myself from you by protecting you from a world that would teach you how to kill me.

It can be different, I tell myself, than how it was with my father and me. It can be different than how it was with her.

I pick you up. You’re so tiny and fragile in my arms. Even though you’re terrified of me, you cling to my neck, like some part of you knows exactly who I am.

I’m already more afraid than I ever have been.

Afraid of you and what you could do to me. Afraid of the world that could kill you so easily. Afraid of myself, gifted with another fragile heart that I know I cannot keep.

But, my little serpent, it is the most wonderful fear.

Every minute with you is, even if I already regret all the mistakes I know I will make.



DREW IN A GASP. My chest hurt. The air burned.

I was on my knees now.

I forced my eyes open through the noxious smoke. No—not smoke. Magic of some kind, thick and red, shimmering in a million colors at once.

Maybe that was why tears streaked down my cheeks. Maybe not.

Vincent was kneeling beside me. His hand was on my shoulder, but I couldn’t feel his touch, and for a moment that devastated me.

No matter how real he felt, no matter how real he looked, he was gone. He smiled sadly at me.

“I tried, Oraya,” he murmured. “I tried.”

I understood the depth of what he was admitting in those two words. Centuries worth of brutality ingrained into him, revered above all else.

Millennia worth of generations of bloody ends and bloody beginnings.

I had never seen Vincent admit weakness before. And those words were a concession of so many failures.

And yet, I was still so angry at him.

“It wasn’t enough,” I choked out, fractured with an almost-sob.

His throat bobbed. “I know, little serpent,” he murmured. “I know.” He tried to stroke my hair, but I felt nothing.

Because Vincent was dead.

All of it was true at once. That he had saved me. That he had crippled me. His selfishness and his selflessness.

That he had tried. That he had failed.

And that he had loved me, anyway.

And I would carry all of that forever, for the rest of my life. And he would still be dead.

I forced myself to my feet. I turned to Vincent. His image, once so sharp, was starting to fade.

He looked to the obelisk.

“I think,” he said, “this is what you came here for.”

I followed his gaze. The pillar had opened, revealing a cavity full of rippling crimson light.

And there, at its center, was a little vial, floating, self-contained, in the air. The liquid within contained impossible multitudes of color, shifting and changing with every passing second. Purple and blue and red and gold and green, all at once, like the range of shades in a galaxy.

“The blood of Alarus,” I whispered.

“Your mother and I gave up so much to distill this.” His gaze found mine again. “But we gained so much, too.”

“What do I do with it? Do I drink it or—or wield it—”

“You can drink it. Only a little bit. Or you can put it in your blades. It will find a way to give you its power, however you wield it. Your blood is the catalyst.”

“What will it do to me?”

I thought of Simon, and his bloodshot, empty eyes. Those teeth that had taken more from him than they had given.

“It will make you powerful,” Vincent said. “What else?”

“I cannot say.”

There was a reason, I knew, why he had never used the blood. It was a power so great it could only be an absolute last resort.

I reached into the compartment and closed my hand around the vial.

It took a moment to realize the scream that sliced the air was mine. Everything disappeared but the pain for several long seconds. I was dripping with sweat when, inch by inch, I withdrew it from the obelisk.

Vincent’s form now flickered. The light that imbued the carvings shuddered and skipped.

“Go,” he said. “You don’t have much time.” His voice sounded so far away.

He gave me a gentle smile. “Don’t forget those teeth of yours, little serpent.”

And Goddess, despite everything, I hesitated. Despite everything, I was not ready to let him go.

I would never be ready to let him go. “I love you,” I said.

Because it was still true. After everything, it was still true.

I didn’t wait for him to say it back to me. I wiped the tears from my cheeks and turned away.

The image of Vincent withered away into darkness. I didn’t look back.

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