The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

The cruel truth is that it is harder to survive when you have something to care about.

The slave and the queen have little in common. When they talk, it

is often about the king, long conversations to help themselves cope with his behavior and moods. Most often, though, they do not talk at all, instead using their meager time together to retrace ugly touches with tender ones, replace pain with pleasure, like plants desperate for water.

One cannot underestimate the power of such a thing. It is enough to build a connection that deceptively resembles love.

And who is to say it isn’t? It feels like love. It tastes like love. It consumes him like love.

Perhaps these two people would not have found any reason to be with each other in any other world.

But in this one, they became each other’s only reason to live.

The slave quickly learned that it was far harder to care about something than it was to care about nothing. For the first decades of his imprisonment, he curated his apathy like an art. Now, in a matter of weeks, it shatters. Every strike hurts more because of the way she reacts to it. Every debasement is more shameful because she witnesses it. Every act of violence against her sends him closer to a line he knows he will not be able to return from—no matter how she begs him for restraint.

Who wins? she asks him, tears in her eyes. Who wins if he kills you?

So the years pass, and the slave does not fight.

But that kind of hatred never fades. It just festers. For years, decades. It consumes his heart like a fungus, until he can no longer remember a life

before it.

The king grows more paranoid, more desperate for power, as rumblings of rebellion build in the distance. The Kejari approaches, an open door for all the king’s greatest enemies. As the world beyond his walls spirals further from his control, his desire to control the world within them grows more merciless. He requires constant distraction. Constant reminders of his own power.

The fungus grows.

The idea starts as a little knot of rot buried deep within. It spreads so quickly that even the slave cannot tell when it becomes more than a fantasy

—only that one day, it is no longer a possibility, but an inevitability.

The slave starts paying attention to the whispers of the city. He learns of a promising Hiaj warrior, a man who makes no secret of his brutal commitment to his brutal intentions.

The first trial of the Kejari, the slave is allowed to attend alongside the king.

He sits behind the queen and watches her adjust her hair to hide the bruises around her throat.

He watches the bloody colosseum below as the blond vampire hacks apart his enemies with the same ferocity he would use to hack apart the world and take what he wants from it.

He watches the king, and the fear he tries to pretend does not exist. And the slave, at last, sees an opportunity.

The kingdom is already drenched in oil.

He is more than willing to provide a match.

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