Chapter no 77

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

I thought it would be more of an adjustment than it was. The Coriatis bond, it turned out, was the easy part. Yes, it was a little odd to get used to. It wasn’t as if I could read Oraya’s mind, or communicate

without speaking, or feel everything she felt—and hell, what fun would that be, anyway, to take all the mystery out of things? It was more that I was now constantly, innately aware of her. A biological attunement to her presence, her state, her emotions.

Right now, though, I didn’t need any kind of magical goddess-gifted heart bond to know that Oraya was pissed.

She was wearing that a-cat-is-pissing-on-my-leg-and-you’re-the-cat face. My favorite of the diverse library of Oraya faces. Her arms were crossed over her chest, her foot tapping impatiently. We were in the meeting room, me leaning back in my chair, Oraya bolt upright in hers. Ketura, Vale, Lilith, Jesmine, and Mische sat scattered around the table. Mische was half-slumped across the desk, Lilith was eternally thoughtful, Ketura and Vale were both visibly annoyed, and Jesmine was, of course, ever the ice queen.

“He has to be somewhere,” Oraya said.

“I’m sure he is somewhere,” Jesmine said, pursing her lips. “Snake that he is. But that somewhere is not in the House of Night.”

“Did you check—”

“We checked everywhere,” Ketura said, throwing her notes down. “Everywhere.”

Ketura’s frustration, I knew, wasn’t with Oraya. It was with herself. She hated losing.

“He must have retreated with the rest of the Bloodborn,” Jesmine said. “Was quick about it, apparently.”

None of this surprised me.

I wanted Septimus in captivity as much as anyone else. But I was under no illusions that he was about to let himself be caught easily. He was far too smart for that, as much as I hated to give him the credit.

These last few weeks had been a blur, establishing the fragile legs of our new kingdom and eliminating the final parasites of the old one. The Bloodborn, at least, had been easy to get rid of—the minute the goddesses showed up, they apparently knew nothing good was happening and began their retreat. By the time the fighting had stopped and Jesmine and Vale had retrieved Oraya and I, most of the Bloodborn troops were already on their way out of the kingdom.

No one objected to letting them go. Good riddance. The only one we wanted was Septimus.

But he, it seemed, had been the first to leave. Though Jesmine and Vale both gave orders to have him detained immediately, before Oraya and I had even awoken, he had simply disappeared. And these last few weeks had been no more fruitful, not even as our guards tore through all potential strongholds and searched fleets of departing Bloodborn soldiers.

Septimus was long, long gone.

Vale let out a sigh and rubbed his temples. “Let him slink away with his tail between his legs. If that’s how he needs to deal with his defeat, so be it. We have plenty of other traitors to prosecute, and at least those won’t start a war.”

He tapped the parchment in front of him, black with dozens—hundreds

—of names.

Another war,” Jesmine corrected, and Vale sighed again.

“Yes. Let’s avoid another war. Especially one with another House.”

Mische shifted uncomfortably in her seat. I knew she was thinking about the House of Shadow.

We’d been lucky so far. Not a word from them about their prince. If that changed, our strategy was to pin it on Simon, let them believe that justice had already been served.

Risky. But it was the best we had.

Mische, I knew, thought about this possibility more than she let on.

“We did find someone else,” Ketura said, jerking my attention back to the meeting. “In the latest set of raids.”

I blinked, turning to her. “Someone important?”

Her face hardened, like she’d just smelled something very unpleasant. “Someone I think you might want to talk to.”



CAIRIS LOOKED HORRIBLE. Then again, it would be a little disappointing if he didn’t, after hours of questioning by Ketura and Vale’s men.

He looked up through the bars, a ray of moonlight falling over his face as he squinted up at me through a swollen eye.

“Oh.” His mouth twisted into a wry smirk, a pathetic recreation of his typical smile. “Hello. Sorry I won’t be very useful. I already told them everything.”

“I figured as much.”

I sat down in the chair before the bars, elbows on my knees. Behind me, Oraya slipped into the room too, lingering in the shadows against the wall.

I found it satisfying the way his face dropped with actual fear when he saw her. She found it satisfying, too—I sensed it alongside my own.

“So what, then?” he said. “You’ve come here to execute me yourself?” He stood up, as if to prepare himself to meet death standing.

“No,” I said. “My time’s too valuable for that.”

Confusion flitted over Cairis’s face. “Then what?”

“Ketura and Vale wanted to execute you.” I nodded back toward Oraya. “Your queen wanted to execute you.”

Bloodthirsty little thing that she was.

“But,” I said, “I managed to convince them otherwise.” His brow furrowed. “You—”

“I wanted to make sure I saw your face when the man you betrayed saved your life,” I said. “And I also wanted to make sure you knew it was no mercy. Actually, the queen that wanted to kill you was probably the merciful one.”

I stood, my silhouette casting a shadow over Cairis’s form. I towered over him. He wasn’t a small man, either—but he seemed it, now.

I supposed he always had been.

But how could he be anything but?

He’d spent his entire life in fear. He’d learned to survive by bending his spine to fit into his cages. For a while, he’d been able to make himself into something more.

For a while.

But as soon as he found himself staring down the possibility of being a slave again, he just couldn’t go back. No values were strong enough to supplant that fear.

I wasn’t sure if it made it better or worse that I understood it. He lowered his eyes. There was shame—real shame—in them. “I deserve to be executed,” he said.

“You do. That’s why you won’t be. That, and…” I cocked my head and smiled at him, wide enough to reveal my fangs. “I think you might be useful, one day. So you’ll be locked up in Tazrak. Spend a decade or four there, until I decide if I need you for something. People who have something to prove are the most useful kind.”

His eyes rose to meet mine again, round. His mouth opened, but nothing came out.

“If you’re considering whether or not to thank me,” I said. “I think the answer is probably no.”

He shut his mouth. But he still said, a moment later, “Thank you.”

I chuckled. I started to turn away, but he said, “Do you really think you’re going to be able to make this work?”

I stopped. Oraya and I exchanged a glance. I turned around. “This?” I questioned.

I saw it on Cairis’s face, the moment he saw Oraya’s back—the Heir Mark, visible above the low back of her blouse, before she, too, turned back to him.

His eyes widened.

I laughed softly and pulled open the top two buttons of my jacket— revealing my Mark, too.

“They’re new,” I said. “Like them?” “You did it,” he breathed.

The shock on his face was so satisfyingly genuine. Either he’d been living in true isolation wherever he’d been hiding out, or he’d heard the rumors and thought we were lying. Either option amused me.

“We did,” Oraya said. He paled.

“What?” I said. “Realizing now you picked the wrong side?”

I was only half joking, because Cairis really did look like he was questioning everything he’d held as truth. He had played by the rules of Neculai’s game, right up to the end, thinking it was the only strategy that could ever win.

And here we were, crowns on our heads, having blown the entire board to bits.

He said softly, “Yes. I am.”

“You’re lucky for it,” I said. “Simon would’ve had you skinned by now.”

I started to turn away, but he again called out, “Wait.” Now I was getting impatient.

I turned back, brows raised expectantly.

“Septimus isn’t done,” he said, then raised his hands, as if in preemptive defense. “I’ve told Ketura everything I know. I don’t have any more facts. I just… It’s a feeling. I know it. He’s doing something big, Raihn. I don’t know what it is. But don’t let your guard down.”

My smirk faded. Oraya and I exchanged another glance. She raised her brows in a way that said, See? Didn’t I tell you?

I gave her a flat stare that said, Yes. You told me.

“Well,” I said to Cairis. “We’ll be ready for him. Whenever he decides to show up.”

The truth. What else could we offer?

I closed the door behind us as we left, leaving Cairis alone in the dark.

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