The last time I had stood in this room with these people, I’d been a slave.
Sometimes, I wondered if they remembered me. I was nothing to
them back then, of course. Another faceless body, something more akin to a tool or a pet than a sentient being.
These people, of course, knew who I was now. Knew what my past held. But I couldn’t help but wonder, as they filed into the vast, beautiful throne room, whether they actually remembered me. They certainly didn’t remember all those little mundane cruelties, to them just another part of another night. I remembered, though. Every humiliation, every violation, every strike, every casual agony.
I remembered it all.
And now here I was, standing before the Rishan nobility, with a Goddess-damned crown on my head.
My, how things had changed.
Not as much as I wished, though. Because secretly, even after all this time, I was still terrified of them.
I hid the truth with a performance that was so carefully curated—a fucking impeccable mimicry of my former master. I stood on the dais, my hands behind my back, my wings out, my crown perfect, my eyes cold and cruel. That last part wasn’t difficult. The hatred, after all, was real.
The nobles had been called from every corner of Rishan territory. They were old power. Most of them had been in power when Neculai was king. They were as finely dressed as I remembered, swaddled in silk garments so intricate that it was obvious some poor slave had spent weeks toiling over
every stitch of embroidery. Their faces held the same haughtiness, the same elegant ruthlessness that, I knew by now, was shared by all vampire nobility.
That was the same.
But a lot was different, too. Two hundred years had passed. And maybe those two hundred years hadn’t marked their bodies, but they were hard years, and those hard years had certainly marked their souls. These were the handful of powerful Rishan who had survived a violent coup and then two centuries of Hiaj rule. They’d lorded over the ruins that Vincent had allowed them to keep.
And now they were here, standing before a king they already hated, ready to fight like hell for their pile of bones.
The worst of privilege. The worst of oppression. I lifted my chin, smirk at my lips.
“What a somber bunch,” I said. “I’d think you’d all be happier to be here, considering the circumstances of the last two centuries.”
I’d intended to make my voice sound like his. A perpetual threat. Only thing these people understood.
Still, it was a little shocking to hear it coming out of my mouth.
I loosened my grip on my magic, letting wisps of night unfurl around my wings—highlighting, I knew, the streaks of red feathers. Reminding them who I was, and why I was here.
“Nyaxia has finally seen fit to restore us to rule,” I said, pacing along the dais with slow, lazy steps. “And with the power she has granted me, I will lead the House of Night into a stronger era than ever before. I have reclaimed this kingdom from the Hiaj. From the man who murdered our king, raped our queen, decimated our people, and took our crown for two hundred years.”
I was so deeply aware of Oraya’s stare, digging into my back as I listed Vincent’s misdeeds. I was constantly conscious of Oraya, actually, through this entire act—knowing she could see right through it.
But I couldn’t show distraction. Instead, I let my lip curl in disgust.
“Now, I will make the House of Night once again something to fear. I will restore it to what it used to be.”
Every I was carefully chosen, reminding them with every sentence of my role.
I’d watched Neculai give some version of this speech countless times, and I’d watched these people lap it up like kittens at milk.
But no matter how good my acting was, I was not Neculai.
They just stared at me, the silence heavy not with reverence but with skepticism—and just a little bit of disgust.
Despite the Mark, the crown, the wings, they still saw a Turned slave. Fuck them.
I paced the dais, staring them down. I stopped short when I saw a familiar face—a man with ash-brown hair speckled with gray at his temples, and sharp dark eyes. I recognized him immediately—faster than I’d like—because the memories came in an unwelcome, violent slash. That face, and hundreds of nights of suffering.
He resembled Neculai, in some ways. The same hard-angled features, and the same cruelty in them. That made sense. They were cousins, after all. He’d been bad. Not the worst. That prize went to his brother, Simon,
who, I noticed with a quick scan of the room, was not here today.
I paused before him, head cocked, smirk at my lips. I just couldn’t help myself.
“Martas,” I said pleasantly. “It’s a surprise to see you here. I could have
sworn my invitation was addressed to your brother.”
“He couldn’t make the journey,” Martas said blandly. Downright dismissively. And there was no mistaking the way his eyes flicked up my body, the twitch of disgust at his lip.
The room was utterly silent. Harmless words on the surface. But everyone here knew what an insult they were.
Simon was one of the most powerful Rishan nobles that still remained alive—hell, the most powerful. But he was still just a noble. When a king summons, you fucking come.
“Really?” I said. “That’s a shame. What was so important?”
Martas—that snake—actually looked me straight in the eye, and said, “He’s a very busy man.”
A dark, bloodthirsty pleasure seeped through my careful composure.
“I suppose you’ll have to swear fealty on his behalf, then.” I lifted my chin, staring down my nose at him, smiling broadly enough to reveal my fangs. “Bow.”
I knew exactly what was about to happen.
Simon and Martas had believed that they had a clear path to the throne. They were the king’s only remaining relatives—surely, they must have thought, Simon would find an Heir Mark on his skin when Neculai died, as Neculai’s oldest next-of-kin.
But unfortunately for them—unfortunately for me—Nyaxia wasn’t so predictable.
The pricks had probably spent the last two hundred years assuming that no one had the Mark at all. Must have been an unpleasant shock a few weeks ago, when I revealed mine and then summoned them to Sivrinaj to kneel before the Turned slave they’d abused for seventy years.
They had no intention of doing so, and I knew that. Martas did not move.
“I cannot,” he said.
One might have expected a gasp through the room, a ripple of murmurs.
No. The crowd was silent. No one was surprised.
“My brother only swears his fealty to the rightful king of the House of Night, and I bow only to that man,” Martas went on. “You are no king.” The sneer at his lip twitched again. “I’ve seen the way you’ve defiled yourself. I can’t bow to someone who has done such things. Nor to someone who stands on a dais beside a Bloodborn prince.”
What a way to phrase it. It was almost fucking elegant, the way he made this about some non-existent moral code—as if I’d chosen anything that had happened all those years ago, and as if he hadn’t been one of the ones holding me down.
I nodded slowly, considering them. I smiled at him. It was now entirely genuine. I couldn’t have suppressed it even if I’d wanted to.
Bloodlust hammered through my body with every heartbeat, taking over.
And then Martas said, words growing faster, hand thrust to the dais, “You say you’ve freed us from the Hiaj, but I see Vincent’s whore sitting right next to your throne.”
His eyes flicked over my shoulder. Landing, I knew, on Oraya.
I knew that look. Hatred and hunger and desire and disgust, all rolled together. “Fine if you want to fuck her,” he snarled. “But look at her. So untouched. Not a scratch on her. All you need is a mouth and a cunt. Why did you bother keeping the rest?”
My smile disappeared.
I no longer found it fun to toy with him.
I had been keeping everything about this meeting calculated, deliberate.
But now I moved on nothing but impulse.
“I appreciate your honesty,” I said calmly. “And I appreciate Simon’s.”
I stepped down the stairs in two long strides and placed my hands gently on either side of Martas’s face. He really did look so damned similar to how he had centuries ago.
Maybe people never changed.
I had felt different ever since Nyaxia restored the power of the Rishan heir line. I’d felt something change in me from the moment Neculai died, but I’d been able to stifle that power, subdue it into something easier to control and less likely to draw attention. But ever since that night, my magic had surged back with an uncontrollable force, like Nyaxia’s gift had ripped open a new vein of it.
It was actually something of a relief to use it at full force again. I let it go.
Asteris was both exhausting and exhilarating to use. It felt like the raw power of the stars bursting through my skin, tearing through my body.
It tore through Martas’s, too.
The room went white, then black, then snapped back into an unpleasant sharpness.
Warmth spattered over me. A dull THUMP cut through the silence, as a broken, crushed body fell to the floor in a pile of silk.
The light faded, revealing a sea of shocked, silent faces. I held Martas’s head, the features twisted into satisfying confusion. Now, that was a new expression for him.
A few people near the front of the crowd took several quick steps back to avoid the pool of black blood spreading over the marble. There was no screaming, no hysterics. Vampires, even vampire nobles, were well accustomed to bloodshed. They weren’t horrified, no, but they were surprised.
Maybe it was unwise to murder the brother of my most powerful noble.
In this moment, I didn’t care. I felt nothing but satisfaction. I wasn’t built for this bullshit—the preening, the parties, the politics. But this? The killing?
I was good at that. Felt good to give it to someone who deserved it.
I glanced over my shoulder. I wasn’t sure why—I did it without thinking.
The look on Oraya’s face struck me. Satisfaction. Bloodthirsty satisfaction.
The first time in weeks I’d seen something that looked like fight in her eyes. Goddess, I could’ve fucking wept for it.
There she is, I thought.
And something about the way she stared at me, right in the eyes, speared through my costume and my performance. I could practically hear her saying it, too: There he is.
I turned back to the crowd, stepping backwards up the dais steps.
“I am the Nightborn King,” I said, voice low and deadly. “Do you think I’m going to beg for your respect? I don’t need your respect. Your fear will do. Bow.”
And I let the head fall with a sickening wet thump, rolling down the stairs right into his former body. Fittingly, the position it had fallen into did indeed resemble a bow of prostration.
The nobles stared. The world held its breath.
I held my breath, and tried desperately not to show it.
I was walking a very thin line here. Vampires respected brutality, but only from the right people. I wasn’t one of the right people. Maybe I never would be.
If one or two refused to bow, I could handle that. But Heir Mark or no, I needed some loyalty from my nobles, especially if I ever wanted to get out from beneath Bloodborn control. If all of them refused—
The door burst open, the slam against the walls splitting the silence like a sword through flesh.
Vale stood in the doorway.
I never thought I would be relieved to see that man. But Ix’s tits, I had to physically stop myself from letting out a sigh of relief.
He took in the scene—me, the crowd, the advisors, Martas’s bloody body—and immediately strung together what he’d just walked into.
He strode purposefully into the room, so fast his long dark waves flew out behind him. The crowd parted for him. A woman followed him, then lingered at the back of the crowd, looking around the throne room with wide, curious eyes, curly chestnut hair piled atop her head.
“My king,” Vale said, as he approached the dais. “I apologize for my tardiness.”
Before me, he immediately dropped into a smooth kneel—right at the center of the crowd, right into the pool of Martas’s seeping blood.
“Highness.” His voice boomed through the throne room. He knew exactly what he was doing—knew to make himself as visible as possible. “You have my sword, my blood, my life. I swear to you my loyalty and my service. It is my greatest honor to serve as your Head of War.”
A strange echo of the past in those words. The last time I’d heard Vale say them, it was to Neculai. Inwardly, I cringed at hearing them directed at me.
Outwardly, I accepted them as if they were nothing but what was expected.
I lifted my gaze to the others, waiting.
Vale was a noble. He was respected. He’d just tipped some precarious scale.
Slowly at first, and then in a wave, the other nobles lowered into bows.
This was exactly what I’d wanted. Needed. And yet, the sight made me so viscerally uncomfortable. I was all at once very conscious of the crown on my head, worn by centuries of kings before me, kings who were cursed to rules of cruelty and paranoia. Kings I had killed, directly or indirectly, just like they had killed the ones who came before them.
I couldn’t help myself. I glanced over my shoulder again—just for a split second, barely long enough for anyone to notice.
Oraya’s eyes skewered me. Like she was seeing that little shard of dark honesty, stripped bare.
I looked away quickly, but that stare stayed with me, anyway.