Chapter no 1

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

My father lived in the hazy moments before I opened my eyes every day, caught between waking and dreaming.

I treasured those moments, when my nightmares had faded but

they’d yet to be replaced with the grim shadow of reality. I would roll over in silk sheets and draw in a deep inhale of that familiar scent—rose and incense and stone and dust. I was in the bed I had slept in every day for fifteen years, in the room that had always been mine, in the castle I had been raised in, and my father, Vincent, the King of the Nightborn, was alive.

And then I would open my eyes, and the inevitable cruel clarity of consciousness would roll over me, and my father would die all over again.

Those seconds between sleep and waking were the best of the day. The moment when the memory returned to me was the worst.

Still, it was worth it. I slept whenever I could, just to claw those precious seconds back. But you can’t stop time. Can’t stop death.

I tried not to notice that those seconds grew fewer each time I woke. This morning, I opened my eyes, and my father was still dead.


Whoever was knocking on the door did so with the impatience of someone who had been at it for longer than they’d like.

Whoever was knocking.

I knew who was fucking knocking. I didn’t move.

couldn’t move, actually, because the grief had seized every one of my muscles. I clenched my jaw, tighter, tighter, until it hurt, until I hoped my

teeth cracked. My fists were white-knuckled around the sheets. I could smell the smoke—Nightfire, my magic, eating away at them.

I had been robbed of something precious. Those hazy moments where everything was as it had been.

I slipped from sleep with the image of Vincent’s decimated body still seared into my mind, just as dead and just as mutilated in my sleeping moments as it was in my waking ones.

“Wake up, princess!” The voice was so loud that even with the door closed, it boomed through the room. “I know those catlike senses of yours. You think I don’t know you’re awake? I’d rather you let me in, but I’ll barge in if I have to.”

I hated that voice.

I hated that voice.

I needed ten more seconds before I could look at him. Five more—



I threw back the covers, leapt from my bed, crossed the room in a few long strides, and threw open the door.

“Knock on that door,” I breathed, “one more fucking time.”

My husband smiled at me, lowering his raised fist, which had indeed been ready to knock one more fucking time. “There she is.”

I hated that face.

I hated those words.

And I hated most of all that when he said them now, I could hear the hidden undercurrent of concern—could see the way his smirk stilled as he took me in, feet to eyes, in quick but thorough evaluation. His gaze paused at my hands, drawn into fists at my sides, and I realized I was clutching a scalded scrap of silk in one.

I wanted to use it to threaten him, remind him that the silk could be him if he wasn’t careful. But something about the flicker of concern over his face, and all the things it made me feel, killed that fire in my stomach.

I liked anger. It was tangible, and strong, and it made me feel powerful. But I felt anything but powerful when I was forced to recognize that

Raihn—the man who had lied to me, imprisoned me, overthrown my kingdom, and murdered my father—genuinely cared for me.

I couldn’t even look at Raihn’s face without seeing it spattered with my father’s blood.

Without seeing how he’d once looked at me, like I was the most precious thing in the world, the night we had spent in bed together.

Too many emotions. I stomped them down viciously, even though it physically hurt, as if swallowing razor blades. Easier to feel nothing.

“What?” I asked. It was a deflated question, not the verbal strike I wanted it to be.

I wished I didn’t notice the slight disappointment on Raihn’s face.

Worry, even.

“I’ve come to tell you to get ready,” he said. “We have guests.” Guests?

My stomach churned at the thought—the thought of standing in front of strangers, feeling them stare at me like a caged animal, while struggling to keep myself together.

You know how to control your emotions, little serpent, Vincent whispered in my ear. I taught you that.

I flinched.

Raihn’s head cocked, a wrinkle deepening between his brow. “What?”

Fuck, I hated that. Every time, he saw it. “Nothing.”

I knew Raihn didn’t believe me. He knew I knew it. I hated that he knew I knew it.

I stomped that down, too, until that emotion was just another numb buzz in the background, coated over with another layer of ice. It took constant effort, keeping them that way, and I was grateful I could focus on that.

Raihn stared expectantly at me, but I said nothing. “What?” he said. “No questions?”

I shook my head.

“No insults? No refusal? No argument?”

Do you want me to argue? I almost asked. But then I’d have to see that little concerned twitch on his face, and I’d have to recognize that he did want me to argue, and then I’d have to feel that complicated emotion, too.

So I just shook my head again.

He cleared his throat. “Alright. Well. Here. This is for you.” He’d been carrying a silk bag, which he now handed to me.

I didn’t ask.

“It’s a dress,” he said.


“For the meeting.”

Meeting. That sounded important.

You don’t care, I reminded myself.

He waited for me to ask, but I didn’t.

“It’s the only one I’ve got, so don’t bother arguing with me about it if you don’t like it.”

So pathetically transparent. He was practically poking me with a stick to see when I’d react.

I opened the bag and glanced down to see a pile of black silk.

My chest tightened. Silk, not leather. After everything, the idea of walking through this castle in anything other than armor…

But I said, “It’s fine.”

I just wanted him to go.

But Raihn now never left a conversation without a long, lingering stare, as if he had a lot to say and it all threatened to bubble up before he left my room. Every single fucking time.

“What?” I asked, impatient.

Mother, I felt like my stitches were popping open, one by one.

“Get dressed,” he said at last, to my relief. “I’ll be back in an hour.”

When he was gone, I closed the door and sagged against it, releasing a ragged exhale. Keeping myself together for those last few minutes was agonizing. I didn’t know how I was going to do it in front of a bunch of Raihn’s cronies. For longer. For fucking hours.

I couldn’t do it.

You will, Vincent whispered in my ear. Show them how strong you are.

I squeezed my eyes shut. I wanted to lean into that voice.

But it faded, as it always did, and my father was dead once more. I put on the stupid dress.



Raihn was nervous.

I wished I didn’t recognize this so easily. No one else seemed to. Why would they? His act was meticulous. He embodied the role of conqueror king just as easily as he had embodied the role of human in the pub, and the role of bloodthirsty contestant, and the role of my lover, and the role of my kidnapper.

But I saw it, anyway. The single muscle tightening at the angle of his jaw. The slightly glazed-over, too-hard focus to his stare. The way he kept touching the cuff of his sleeve, like he was uncomfortable in the costume he wore.

When he returned to my room, I’d stared at him, caught off guard despite myself.

He wore a stiff, fine black jacket with blue trim and a matching sash over his shoulder, striking against the silver buttons and subtle metallic brocade. It was achingly similar to another outfit I’d seen him wear once: the outfit he had worn at the Halfmoon ball, the one that the Moon Palace had provided for him. Even then, though, he’d left his hair unkempt, his chin stubbled, as if the entire thing had been reluctant. Now, he was clean-shaven. His hair was neat and tied up to reveal the top of his Heir Mark over the back of his neck, peeking over the neck of his jacket. His wings were out, revealing the streaks of bright red at their edges and tips. And…


At this, my throat grew so thick I couldn’t swallow—couldn’t breathe. The sight of the crown on Raihn’s head drove a spike between my ribs.

The silver spires sat nestled in Raihn’s red-black waves, the contrast of the two jarring when I had only ever seen that metal against my father’s sleek fair hair.

The last time I had seen that crown, it had been soaked in blood, ground into the sands of the colosseum as my father died in my arms.

Had someone had to pick through what remained of Vincent’s body to get that crown? Had some poor servant had to clean his blood and skin and hair from all those intricate little whorls of silver?

Raihn looked me up and down. “You look nice,” he said.

The last time he had said that word to me, at that ball, it had sent a shiver up my spine—four letters full of hidden promise.

Now, it sounded like a lie.

My dress was fine. Just fine. Plain. Flattering. It was light, finely-made silk that clung to my body—it must have been made for me, to fit that well, though I had no idea how they had known my measurements. It left my arms bare, though it had a high collar with asymmetrical buttons that wrapped around my side.

I was secretly grateful that it covered my Heir Mark.

I avoided looking in the mirror when I changed, these days. Partly because I looked like shit. But also because I hated—hated—to see that Mark. Vincent’s Mark. Every lie, seared into my skin in red ink. Every question I could never answer.

Covering the Mark was, of course, intentional. If I was going to be paraded in front of some kind of important Rishan people, I’d be expected to seem as nonthreatening as possible.


A strange look flickered over Raihn’s face. “It’s not closed.”

He gestured to his throat, and I realized that he meant the dress—in addition to the clasps in the front, there were buttons in the back, too, and I’d only managed to make it halfway up.

“Do you want me to—” “No.”

I blurted it out fast, but in the seconds of silence that followed, I realized that I had no choice.

“Fine,” I said, after a moment.

I turned around, showing my greatest enemy my bare back. I thought to myself, wryly, that Vincent would be ashamed that I was doing such a thing.

But Mother, I would take a dagger over Raihn’s hands—would rather feel a blade than his fingertips brushing my skin, far too gently.

And what kind of a daughter did it make me, that despite everything, some part of me craved an affectionate touch?

I drew in a breath and didn’t let it out until he fastened the last button. I waited for his hands to move away, but they didn’t. Like he was thinking about saying something more.

“We’re late.”

I jumped at the sound of Cairis’s voice. Raihn pulled away. Cairis leaned against the doorframe, eyes slightly narrowed, smiling. Cairis was

always smiling, but he was also always watching me very, very closely. He wanted me dead. That was fine. Sometimes I wanted me dead, too.

“Right.” Raihn cleared his throat. Touched the cuff of his sleeve. Nervous. So nervous.

A previous version of myself, the one buried beneath the dozens of layers of ice I put between my emotions and the surface of my skin, would have been curious.

Raihn glanced over his shoulder at me, mouth twisting into a smirk, shoving his emotions down the same way I did.

“Let’s go, princess. We’ll give them a show.”



THE THRONE ROOM had been cleaned up since the last time I was here— artwork and decor replaced, floors cleared of the broken pieces of Hiaj artifacts. The curtains were open, revealing the silver-shrouded silhouette of Sivrinaj. It was calmer than it had been a few weeks ago, but little sparks of light occasionally burst through the night in the distance. Raihn’s men had gotten most of the inner city under control, but I could see clashes throughout the outskirts of Sivrinaj from my bedroom window. The Hiaj were not going down without a fight—not even against the House of Blood.

A twinge of something far beneath that ice—pride, maybe. Worry. I wasn’t sure. It was so hard to tell.

My father’s throne—Raihn’s throne—sat upon the center of the dais. Cairis and Ketura took up their places behind it, against the wall, dressed in their best fineries. Ever the dutiful guards. I assumed I would be there, too, in the single chair perched there. But Raihn took one look at it, cocked his head, and then dragged it up to place it beside the throne.

Cairis looked at him like he’d just lost his mind.

“You sure about that?” he said, quietly enough that I knew I wasn’t intended to hear.

“Sure am,” Raihn replied, turned to me, then motioned to the chair while taking his own, not giving Cairis the chance to disagree. Still, the

advisor’s pursed lips said more than enough. As did Ketura’s ever-present dagger glare.

If I was supposed to be moved by this show of… of generosity, or kindness, or whatever the fuck this was supposed to be, I wasn’t. I sat and didn’t look at Raihn.

A servant poked her head in through the double doors, bowing as she addressed Raihn. “They’re here, Highness.”

Raihn glanced at Cairis. “Where the fuck is he?”

As if on cue, the scent of cigarillo smoke drifted through the air. Septimus strode in through the hall, ascending the dais in two long, graceful strides. He was followed by his two favorite Bloodborn guards, Desdemona and Ilia, two tall, willowy women who looked so similar I was certain they must be sisters. I’d never heard either of them speak.

“Apologies,” he said breezily.

“Put that out,” Raihn grumbled.

Septimus chuckled. “I hope you intend to be more polite to your own nobles than that.”

But he obeyed—putting out the cigarillo on his own palm. The smell of smoke was replaced by that of burning flesh. Cairis wrinkled his nose.

“That’s nice,” he said drily.

“The Nightborn King asked me to put it out. It would be rude not to.”

Cairis rolled his eyes and looked like he was trying very hard not to say anything else.

Raihn, on the other hand, just stared across the room at those closed double doors, as if burning straight through them to what lay beyond. His face was neutral. Cocky, even.

I knew better.

“Vale?” he asked Cairis, voice low.

“He should’ve been here. Boat must be late.” “Mm.”

That sound might as well have been a curse. Yes, Raihn was very, very nervous.

But his voice was calm and breezy as he said, “Then I guess we’re ready, aren’t we? Open the doors. Let them in.”

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