Chapter no 80

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

I’d admit it. I now thoroughly enjoyed the taste of piss beer. Raihn and I sat on a rooftop in the human districts, trailing our fine clothing all over the dirty clay roof, and watched the sky over the blocky buildings,

the party reduced to a sparkling smear of light in the distance.

Raihn took an enthusiastic swig of beer. “This,” he said, “is much better.”

I agreed.

It was even worth the mild commotion that we’d caused getting the beer

—crowns and all. At least the public reaction out here was more “dumbstruck awe” than “pant-pissing terror” these days. We’d been able to escape quickly afterwards, slipping off onto a quiet, shadowy rooftop in a near-abandoned block.

I took a gulp of my own. It burned a little going down. Probably doing some kind of lasting damage.

“I have to say,” I said, “it’s grown on me.”

“It’s the Coriatis bond. It gives you good taste.”

I chuckled. I watched him take another sip, transfixed by the wave of utter contentment that fell over his face.

Mother, I just—I loved watching him.

The last time he and I had come up here in our fineries, escaping a stuffy party to go drink on a slum rooftop, I’d had every intention of killing him. The moment I had realized I couldn’t was one of the most frightening of my life.

And this moment now—as it hit me, all at once, just how staggeringly much he meant to me—came in close second.

His eyes slipped to me. “What’s that face for, princess?”

I stared down into my beer, watching the reflection of the stars in the foamy darkness.

I didn’t answer right away. “Do you ever feel afraid?”

It went against decades of training for me to even ask that question, and reveal the weakness that lay beneath it. Even now. Even with Raihn, my husband, my bonded, whose heart was literally linked to mine.

What was wrong with me?

I wouldn’t have blamed Raihn if he’d laughed at me. But he didn’t. His face was steady and serious. “Everyone feels afraid.”

“It feels…” I struggled to find the right word.

I had lost everyone I had ever loved. And even those loves had been laced with so much pain, so much complication. My love for Vincent, tangled up in his lies and controlling disapproval. My love for Ilana, hidden in shadows and sharp words. My love for my mother, stolen from me entirely.

The love I felt now, for Raihn, was… terrifying in its ease.

I was afraid that something would come to rip it away from me.

I was afraid that I would destroy it myself, by not knowing how to feel something so right.

“It feels like a trap,” I whispered. “The…” “Happiness,” he finished.

I didn’t confirm it, even though he was right. It felt like a ridiculous thing to admit.

“You’ve been fighting your entire life, Oraya,” he murmured. “It makes sense. I feel it too.”

My gaze snapped up. “You do?”

He scoffed. “You think I’m not terrified every time I look at you?” He touched my face—tracing the curve of my cheek, down to the point of my chin, his smile softening. “Fuck, of course I am. You have my heart.”

You have my heart.

Those words struck me hard—so true, on so many different levels. Raihn had my heart, no matter how long I had denied that. He’d had it in every sense of the word, long before I asked a goddess to bind it to him. And the Coriatis bond, powerful as it was, was still no less frightening than the love I felt for him. Hell, maybe the love scared me even more.

To give someone that much of yourself. To give someone the power to destroy you.

I could understand it—why Vincent never learned how to do it. I could understand how it would be easier to never feel that kind of vulnerability.

And yet.

I pressed Raihn’s palm to my face, leaning into his touch.

And yet. There was such safety in that vulnerability, too. The ultimate paradox.

But that made sense for us, didn’t it? Raihn and I were paradoxes.

Human and Rishan and Hiaj. Slaves and royalty.

“I know we’ll still have to fight,” he said. “But we’ll never have to do it alone again. That counts for something.”

It counted for everything.

I smiled against his hand. “You’re an alright ally.”

He laughed, full and bright and alive, and Mother, I would never in my life hear anything else so beautiful.

I pulled away and turned back to the horizon. The sky was starting to turn pink.

“Sunrise soon,” I said. “We should be getting inside.” But Raihn shook his head. “Not yet.”

I gave him a skeptical stare, and he shrugged. “It’s not going to kill me. I promise. Besides.” He pointed up, to the crooked metal awning above him, and made a point of scooting back flush against the wall. “Look. I’m in the shade.”

I wasn’t convinced. “That’s a stupid idea.”

“Please, princess. Just a few minutes. You go out there and feel the sunrise. Maybe I’ll feel it too. Bond and all that. I’ll stay in the shade and then we can go a block away to the apartment and I can make passionate love to you for the next seven hours.”

My eyes narrowed. He smirked.

“It’s appealing to you,” he said. “I can tell.” Goddess damn him.

Then his face lit up. “Look.”

I turned to see the sun scorching the horizon. The sky became a blazing fire of reds and pinks and purples as the orb of brilliant light rose above the sands of the dunes.

My heart caught in my throat.

I rose and stepped from beneath the awning, into the red-orange light of the infant sun. The warmth suffused my skin, bathing me in it.

I’d never much enjoyed the sunlight. For most of my life, I’d avoided it. Just another reminder of how I was different—inferior—to the beings that surrounded me.

Now, that seemed outrageous.

I spread my arms out and closed my eyes, soaking it into my skin. “It’s something,” I said. “Isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Raihn said softly. “It’s really something.”

But when I glanced over my shoulder back at him, he wasn’t looking at the sun at all.

My chest tightened, overflowing. “So?” I said. “Do you feel it?”

“I’m not sure.” He held out a hand. “Come here.”

I obeyed, crawling back under the awning. And as soon as I was in arm’s reach, his hands were all over me, his lips on my shoulder, my arms, my throat, my chest.

“Yes,” he murmured. “I think I feel it now.”

I let my eyelids flutter closed. Let myself be surrounded by him, as he kissed the dawn off my skin. My husband. My ally. My lover.

Facing a new day beside me.

And as that golden sun crested the horizon, as a new year broke, as his lips found mine, my answer rose to the surface of my skin like the moon rising in the night sky.

And not a single part of me doubted it as I whispered into his kiss, “I feel it, too.”

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