I do hate you.
I knew Oraya hated me. Who could possibly blame her for that? I didn’t know why it bothered me so much to hear it. Bothered me
enough that it overshadowed my victory.
I’d gotten her to agree to something she essentially had no choice but to do. And I wasn’t stupid—I knew that there was a good chance that the entire time, she’d be waiting for her moment to kill me. I knew that perhaps that’s exactly what she told herself as she took my hand and agreed to our deal.
It was a gamble for both of us.
But she’d had her blade right there in that armory, right at my heart, and she hadn’t taken the shot.
That was something.
And the truth was, my… complicated personal feelings for Oraya aside, I needed her. Without her, I had no chance of getting out from under Septimus’s grasp. Maybe a small, pathetic part of me had also been grateful for that—grateful to have any excuse to have her as an ally again, even a reluctant one.
Oraya didn’t say anything as we flew back to my chambers. It was embarrassing how much carrying her reminded me of what our relationship used to be before I razed it. I could feel how terrified she was the entire time. That heart rate, her breathing, the heat at her skin.
All the comfort we’d built, destroyed.
As soon as I let her down at my window, she backed away from me. I wondered if she knew she had a pattern to the way she did that—three long, quick steps back, like she couldn’t wait to put as much distance between us as possible.
I remained on the ledge, relishing the breeze against the backs of my wings for a little longer. I let Oraya back all the way across the room before I stepped inside. She didn’t want me any closer, and I’d respect that.
“We’ll need to get started right away,” I said. “Tomorrow, probably. As soon as I let them all know that you’ve agreed.”
“Them?” she said.
“Vale, Cairis, Ketura. Septimus and his goons.”
It was hard to miss the way she stiffened at the mention of all those names.
“They won’t bother you,” I said. “I’ll handle your training.” Her brows lowered. “Training?”
“What, did you think you were going to wield legendary god power and overthrow the most vicious vampire house without getting back into shape?”
Her brows lowered again. “I’m in great shape. Don’t know about you, though. That fight was a little too easy.”
Ix’s tits, it was hard not to laugh at that face. I raised my palms.
“Fine. I admit it. You keep me on my toes, too. I’ve never been better than I was when I was with you.”
That sentence tasted disgustingly earnest rolling off my tongue. Oraya heard it, too, shifting uncomfortably.
“One more thing,” she said. “What’s that?”
“You’re going to stop locking me in my room.” My brows rose. “Oh, I am?”
“Yes. You are.”
“And why is that?”
“Because we’re supposedly allies again, and allies don’t lock each other up every night.”
“I have some allies I certainly wish I could lock up,” I remarked.
“You can frame it as a concession you had to make to get me to do this willingly. That’s reasonable. And true.”
My brows rose. “Is it?” “It is.”
Leaving Oraya unguarded was a bad idea for a lot of reasons. The obvious ones, of course—because she was the Hiaj Heir, and had acted against me less than a week ago, and had every reason to sneak around gathering information and finding ways to pass it off to the people who were trying to kill mine.
But none of those reasons bothered me as much as the others—not protecting my crown from Oraya, but protecting Oraya from my crown.
“This castle isn’t a safe place, princess,” I said. “Not even for me. Especially not for me. And that goes double for you. You sure you really want that?”
“You keep telling me that I’m a queen, not a prisoner. So prove it. No one locks queens up in their bedchambers.”
Neculai had locked Nessanyn up.
That was a sudden, unwelcome thought.
I pushed it away, deciding that this was a fair point. Besides, everything with Oraya was a risk. Always had been.
“Fine,” I said, with a half-shrug. “Done. No more locks.”
Her shoulders lowered slightly with relief. I liked seeing that. “Then I’m going to bed,” she said.
“Good. You’ll need the rest before we get started.”
She went to the door and opened it. And before I could stop myself, the word was coming up my throat.
She turned back. Even from across the room, her steel gaze cut deep. A pang pulsed in my chest.
I didn’t even know what I’d intended to say.
You won’t regret this?
The former was patronizing. The second was a promise I couldn’t make.
I’d lied to Oraya enough. I didn’t want to do it again.
Finally, I settled on, “I always meant it. The offer I made you.”
There is no one I would rather have ruling this kingdom beside me than you.
I saw in her face that she knew exactly what I was talking about. “I know,” she said, after a long moment, and left.
AFTER ORAYA WAS GONE, I spent a few minutes standing at the window, watching the sun rise over Sivrinaj, the smoky sky turning purple, then pink. The familiar burning at my skin started slow at first, as it always did, and it was almost fully dawn by the time I reluctantly pulled away.
A message had been left for me while I was gone. I picked up the parchment and read it. For a long time, I just stared at it. Then I cursed, shoved it into my pocket, and threw open the door.
I went downstairs, all the way down to the guest wing, staring straight ahead until I reached the one closed door. I pounded on it, not bothering to be polite, continuing even when there was no answer.
“Gods, have a little patience!” a light, cheerful voice came from inside, with a rush of footsteps.
The door swung open.
The moment it did, I said gruffly, “You aren’t supposed to be—”
But I barely even got those words out before Mische’s face split into a grin that I saw for all of half a second before she threw herself at me.
And damn if it wasn’t good to see a friendly face.
Mische threw her arms around my neck and hugged me like she’d thought she’d never see me again. And of course, I hugged her back, because what was I, a monster?
Her hair had gotten longer, now near her shoulders. The caramel curls still smelled like sweat and the desert from her travel.
“You aren’t supposed to be here,” I said. “Told you not to come.” I tried to sound very mean and failed.
“Oh, fuck you,” Mische said affectionately, the way someone would say, I missed you too, idiot.