Chapter no 12

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

For the first time in weeks, I did not dream of Vincent.

Instead, I dreamed of Raihn, and the way his face looked as he died, and the way my blade felt sliding into his chest.

I dreamed it over, and over, and over again.



OPENED my eyes to a familiar cerulean glass ceiling. Raihn’s dead face faded away into scattered silver-painted stars.

I tried to move but my body didn’t cooperate, rewarding me with a sharp pain in my side.

“Not yet.”

My chest ached. It hurt to hear Raihn’s voice. It took me a minute to muster up the courage to turn my head—I half expected to see him the way I saw him in my nightmares. Dead, my blade in his chest.

But no, Raihn was very much alive. He was beside my bed, leaning over me. I realized that the sharp pain in my side was because he was dressing my wound, and—


I shifted uncomfortably as I realized that I was topless, save for the bandages wrapped around my chest.

Raihn chuckled. “You were at your most seductive.”

I wished I had a barbed retort for that, but my brain felt like my thoughts were moving through sludge.

“You’ve been given some drugs,” he said. “Give it a minute.” Mother, my head hurt.

I remembered the attack. Running to the armory. My blade pressed to Raihn’s chest, for the second time.

You want to do it, so do it.

And I didn’t. Couldn’t. Even with his heart right there for the taking.

I could have ended all of this. Could have taken back my father’s throne. Could have avenged his death.

I swallowed, or tried to. As if sensing it, Raihn finished securing the bandage to my side and then handed me a glass.

“Water,” he said.

I stared at it, and he scoffed.

“What? You think this is when I’d poison you?”

Honestly? Yes. I’d escaped. I’d fought him. I could only assume that they didn’t know my part in what had happened, or else I’d be chained up in a dungeon right now.

Raihn laughed softly—a sound so oddly warm I felt it run up my spine. “That face,” he said, shaking his head. “Just drink, alright?”

I was very, very thirsty. So I did.

“Amazing what a close call some foot soldier’s arrow can be,” he muttered.

Raihn was bandaged up, too. He winced a little as he stood—I took a little pride in that, at least. He’d been healed, and well, but the remnants of Nightfire burns remained on his cheeks, and stains of dark blood bloomed through the fabric around his torso from the gash I’d opened.

I swallowed and finally felt like I could speak.

“You don’t have more important things to do than play nursemaid?” “As always, you have such a strange way of saying ‘Thank you.’”

“I’m just…”


He raised an eyebrow. “What if I told you all the nurses are afraid of you? The Nightfire queen who just tried to take down the Rishan army.”

“I’d say that’s smart of them.”

Stupid of me to play along with this. This pretend version of what we’d been in the Kejari.

My head was killing me. I sat up, hissing an inhale at the pain that shot up my side. Raihn was right. That one soldier got a hell of a shot in.

“It was enhanced with blood magic,” Raihn said, as if he could read my mind.

Fucking Bloodborn.

That final piece of what had happened—the Bloodborn reinforcements arriving—fell over me like a blanket of cold dread. Jesmine’s men were well matched against the Rishan—an equal fight we might have won. But the Bloodborn tipped the scales. They were efficient and brutal.

Raihn stood at my bedchamber window, looking out over the nighttime cityscape of Sivrinaj. I wondered if perhaps he was staring at the Hiaj bodies now no doubt staked through the city walls.

He said nothing, so I said nothing. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of asking.

He turned around after a long moment, staring at me, his hands in his pockets. He looked tired. None of his kingly finery. He looked just like he had when we’d shared an apartment in the Moon Palace. Familiar. The version of him I had thought I knew.

His face was hard, tired.

“I know you want to ask, so I’ll tell you. We didn’t capture any Hiaj. We cleared out a few dozen dead bodies. Just as many Rishan as Hiaj, which should be satisfying to you. Just as it should be satisfying to know that the armory was destroyed. We lost enough valuable weaponry that it’ll take us the better part of a year to replenish the stores.”

I tried not to have any reaction.

It wasn’t satisfying. I’d sacrificed bodies we didn’t have for this. It was something, but it was closer to a draw than the victory I’d craved.

And here I still was. Captive. Captive… but, oddly, alive.

I frowned down at myself. At the bandages around me, then at the bottles of medicine on the bedside table.

“It would’ve been convenient for you to let me die,” I said.

Raihn crossed his arms over his chest. His brow twitched. “Would’ve been convenient for you to kill me in that armory,” he said simply. “Why didn’t you? You had your shot.”

Good question, little serpent, Vincent whispered. Why? You had the perfect opening.

The truth was, I didn’t know what had stopped my hand. Or at least, I told myself I didn’t know, because that was easier than acknowledging the uncomfortable possibilities.

I didn’t answer.

Raihn’s face shifted, sliding into seriousness. He looked out the window, as if lost in thought. It was an odd expression, like there was something he wanted to say, but couldn’t—like a darker thought had just crossed his mind.

“There are some things we need to talk about,” he said. I didn’t like the sound of that.

“Things like what?”

“Later.” His eyes fell to me for a moment longer, then he broke our stare and went to the door.

“Rest. I’ll be back in a bit to come get you.” “Get me?” I asked. “And bring me where?”

But he just replied, “Like I said. We have some important things to discuss.”

And he was gone without giving me another glance.



RAIHN DID, as promised, come back a few hours later. I was sore and my head hurt fiercely, but I’d managed to get myself up and dressed. I wore my leathers, even though the stiff fabric against my still-tender wound made me wince.

Even when this castle had been Vincent’s, I’d worn my leathers every day. I never allowed myself to forget that I was surrounded by predators, even in my own home. But lately, I’d been lax. Lazy. The beasts that circled me now were more bloodthirsty than ever, but I’d been so foolishly consumed with my own grief that I’d let myself flop around in silk and cotton, practically offering myself up to them.

No more.

When Raihn came to get me, he looked me up and down with a raised brow.

“Hm,” he said.


“Nothing. You just look ready for battle.”

I gave him a flat glare as we started down the hall. “Where are we going?” I asked.

“Just somewhere private to talk.” “My room isn’t private?”

I couldn’t quite figure out the strange look he gave me at that. “I’m not bringing Septimus to your room.”

My brows leapt. I almost stopped walking. “We’re meeting with Septimus.”


I snuck a glance at his profile. He was staring straight ahead, face tense.

Unease stirred in my stomach. Something wasn’t right here. Raihn wasn’t going to execute me. If he was going to, he already would have. He wouldn’t have wasted the medicine or the time to heal me. Torture, though… torture was not out of the question. Maybe Raihn himself wouldn’t do it. But Ketura certainly would, or any of his other generals, if they knew of my role in the armory attack. It was what any king would do

—would have to do—if faced with a traitor inside their own house.

On instinct, my hands went to my hips. Of course, I had no blades.

Raihn didn’t say another word as he led me down the hall, then down a set of stairs and into the next wing, where he opened a door at the end of the corridor.

It was a small space, maybe once a study or sitting room. It was hard to tell, because like most of the rooms in this castle, it had been stripped bare, the bookshelves now empty and not yet repopulated. A single round table sat at its center.

Septimus was there already, not bothering to rise when we entered. Vale stood nearby, his arms crossed, watching me the way a falcon eyed prey, and Cairis rose from his chair when the door opened.

Cairis smiled at me and pulled out one of the empty chairs across from Septimus. “Sit.”

Septimus gave me a small smile that didn’t reach his eyes as I obeyed.

Vale sat beside Cairis, but Raihn remained standing—behind me, and only a couple of feet from my chair, so I could feel his presence but not see him. It made me wildly uncomfortable.

Everyone was staring at me. I was used to being stared at, but not like this—like I was an object of curiosity.

Septimus placed something at the center of the table. A little cluster of shards of glass, stacked on top of each other, silver sigils etched into its surface.


The device I’d found in Vincent’s study.

“This probably looks familiar to you,” Septimus said. I tried very hard not to react.

I didn’t speak, teeth gritted against the sudden certainty that I was about to be tortured. This was why Raihn had kept me alive.

Behind me, his voice shivered down my spine.

“I don’t think we need to ask stupid questions that we all know the answers to, right?” His voice was low, rough. Teasing, with a dark edge. “Oraya doesn’t like games.”

Septimus gave a weak shrug. “Fair. It’s not a question, then, Highness.

You do recognize this device. You recognize it because you used it.”

Give them nothing, Vincent said.

I kept a careful grip on my nerves, my heartbeat. I was locked in a room with monsters. Fear is a collection of physical responses.

I could practically feel Raihn breathing behind me. I wished he would stand somewhere else.

“You don’t even know what this is, do you?” Septimus said. “This mirror, my Queen, was created specifically for King Vincent. Your father.”

I wondered if hearing those words—even hearing Vincent’s name— would ever stop aching.

“It’s a communication device, and a very useful one, as it can be used to look in on certain individuals no matter where they are in Obitraes— perhaps even anywhere in the world, even if you don’t know their location. An excellent way to keep discreet communication in times of war. Very powerful. Rare. Some poor sorcerer toiled over this for a long time.” Amber-threaded, silver eyes crinkled with that perpetual charming smirk. “Vincent likely gave his blood to make this thing.”

“And?” I said, coldly.

“And,” Septimus said, “you were able to use it.” “I don’t know what you mean,” I said.

His laugh was lower now, colder.

“We don’t need to pretend.”

And there was just something about the way he said it…

Something about the snide little tone to his voice that made me think of the two open locks to my room.

Vincent’s study, the only open door in the entire wing. And this device, sitting right there, ready to be found.

Would Vincent ever have left such a valuable object out on his desk?

Even in the throes of warfare? Especially in the throes of warfare?

Watch that face of yours, Vincent whispered to me, but it was too late.

The sparkle of satisfaction in Septimus’s eyes said he saw my realization.

“Every bet I’ve placed on you has been a winning one, dove,” he said. “Over and over again.”

Raihn abruptly stepped out from behind me, crossing the table to stand across from me. His hands clasped behind his back, his face hard despite the smile at his lips—a strangely joyless expression.

“You’re lucky, princess,” he said. “It turns out, you’re not just a traitor.

You’re also useful.”

I’d been manipulated. Was Raihn a part of that, then? Using my grief and my captivity against me? Of course he was. After everything, that shouldn’t have been surprising. It certainly shouldn’t have hurt.

“Most offspring aren’t able to use blooded instruments of their parents, or vice versa,” Septimus said. He ran his fingertip back and forth along the glass shard, spreading black blood along its edge. Unlike when I had done the same, the device didn’t react at all.

I watched it with my jaw set, far too transfixed. I wanted to take his hand off for rubbing his tainted Bloodborn blood on my father’s property.

“The fact that you were able to actually use this, and communicate information to your general… that’s unusual and impressive,” he went on. “Perhaps it’s because of your Heir Mark. Who can truly understand the magic of the gods?”

I didn’t know why it made me so uncomfortable to hear this. To think about all the connections I still had to Vincent—the connections that he had told me my entire life didn’t exist. Part of me wanted to cling to whatever I had left of him, wear it as a badge of pride.

Another part of me hated him for it.

I shut those complicated thoughts away. “So you plan to what, cut me open and start dripping my blood all over Vincent’s possessions? As if I

haven’t had vampires lusting after my blood my entire life. Creative.”

Septimus chuckled, the way one would laugh at the antics of a small child.

“Not all of Vincent’s possessions. Just some of them.”

“Your father had a lot of secrets,” Raihn said quietly, in a tone that meant so much more than the words alone.

My biting response died on my tongue, because even I couldn’t argue with the ugly truth of that. Too many secrets.

Then Septimus said something that I truly—down to my bones—was not expecting.

“You’re familiar, I assume, with the story of Alarus and Nyaxia?” I—what?

“Of course I’m familiar,” I said. “Is there a soul in Obitraes who isn’t?” What the fuck could that possibly have to do with anything?

“I don’t like to judge,” Septimus said, lifting one shoulder. “So you must know, then, that Alarus is the only major god ever to have been killed.”

“Get to the point, Septimus,” Raihn grumbled. But even as he scolded Septimus, he was watching me.

Septimus raised his hands, in a lazy fair enough.

“We’re vampires. We know death better than any other. And we all know that any being that dies leaves something behind. Bones. Blood. Magic. Offspring.” Septimus gave me a knowing half smile. “And that goes for gods, too. As what we leave behind holds some of our power, so, too, do a god’s remains.”

Despite myself, my curiosity was getting the better of me, just because what he was saying was so… bizarre. “You’re talking about finding Alarus’s… corpse?”

“I think Alarus is much more than a corpse by now. I think his remains, whatever they are, have spread throughout Obitraes.”

“What makes you think so?”

He smiled. “I found some. In the House of Blood.”

I didn’t even have words. My lips parted and nothing came out.

“Teeth,” he added, answering the question I was too shocked to ask. “Just a few.”


I choked out, “And what the fuck does one do with the teeth of the God of Death?”

“Not much, perhaps. But we could do a lot with his blood.” “His blood.”

This was ridiculous.

“Yes,” Septimus said simply. “I suspect that some of it remains in the House of Night, and that it could be very, very useful if found. And I suspect your dear old father knew that, too.” He leaned across the table, long fingers intertwined, smirk slowly spreading into a grin. “I think he knew it, and he harnessed it, and he hid it. And now you get to find it for us.”

I stared at him for a long moment. It was so ludicrous I couldn’t even find words—this idea that Vincent, ever practical, ever logical, might have once searched for fucking god blood.

“Do you actually want me to justify this with an answer?” I said.

“The Nightborn King once had a bit of a reputation. An affinity for seers.” Septimus placed a long emphasis on the word seers. The meaning of it wasn’t lost on me.

Nyaxia’s magic offered little in the way of seering, though it was said some Shadowborn sorcerers could do something close. So when vampires were interested in magic beyond Nyaxia’s capabilities, they had to work with humans who followed other gods—usually Acaeja, the Goddess of the Unknown, and the only god of the White Pantheon to have a somewhat civil relationship with Nyaxia.

Some Obitraen kings through the years kept pet seers, whether of Acaeja or some other god. There were many useful things a king could do with such magic. But I couldn’t imagine Vincent being one of those rulers

—a vampire so desperate for power that he’d throw coins at some gray magic wielder. He wasn’t especially religious, but he was also nothing if not loyal to Nyaxia and the power that she gave him.

“I still don’t understand what you’re asking me to—”

“We aren’t asking anything,” Septimus said. Downright politely, which made me even angrier. “If Vincent found this god blood, he no doubt would have safeguards in place to make sure that only he could use it. Which means that we need you.”

This was all fucking outlandish. I didn’t know why they bothered asking


I crossed my arms, lifting my chin. “I refuse.”

“Step back and look at this situation, Oraya,” Raihn said. His voice was cold, calm—unlike him. He leaned closer, his palms pressed to the table. I couldn’t look away from his eyes, rust-red.

“You betrayed the King of the House of Night,” he said. “You told the Hiaj general to attack the armory that night. You acted against your own kingdom. That’s not a small thing.”

Acted against my own kingdom.

Those words, and the haughty tone in which he said them, pissed me


I rose, slowly, and leaned across the table to match his movements,

looking straight into his eyes.

“Is it treason,” I spat, lip curling, “to act against a usurper? Or is that just an Heir defending her crown?”

Raihn’s mouth twitched, just a little. “Good question, princess,” he said. “Depends on who wins.”

There he is, I thought.

This was real.

Then his smirk disappeared, that mask of rage back. The mask of the Nightborn King.

“Make no mistake, you’re lucky to be alive,” he said. “And the only reason we have to keep you that way is that blood of yours. So think long and hard about turning down this offer.”

“I don’t need to. You want me to open my wrists for you and give you my father’s blood so you can go find a weapon to wipe out my people?”

The thought sickened me. Actually sickened me.

“You don’t have a choice,” Raihn said, and this time, I almost laughed in his face.

Because with that little slip of his mask moments ago, now I knew—this was the act, and I wasn’t afraid of what Raihn pretended to be.

“No,” I said. “I will not do it. If you want to kill me and take my blood that way, then fine.”

Silence for several long seconds, as we stared each other down. Finally, Septimus chuckled.

“It’s been a few weeks of high emotions,” he said. “Give her some time to think it over, Highness. It’s always so much less fun to force.”

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