Chapter no 23

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

I was going to die.

I was going to die I was going to die I was going to die.

That one reality, a certainty, cycled through my mind with every

heartbeat as the world rushed around me, nothing but smears of color and darkness and nothingness. My limbs flailed vainly.

One second. Two. Free fall. Might as well have been a lifetime. Raihn’s voice rose over the rushing air. “You can do this, Oraya!” He sounded so certain. I wanted to laugh at him.

He shouted, “Look at the sky!

I forced my eyes open. Forced them up—to the starry velvet above. It was jarringly still. So close I felt like I could reach out and touch it.

I realized that the air, even while plummeting, did have a rhythm to it, like a pulse I could align with my own. I stretched out my limbs, drew in a breath—let the violent rush of the sky fill my lungs, even though the force of it burned my chest.

I let myself become a part of it.

And then, time seemed to stretch and slow. The direction of the air shifted. My stomach dropped, leveled out.

Behind me, Raihn let out a wordless whoop—a sound I barely heard over the rush of wind in my ears and my own thrumming heartbeat, a heartbeat that grew faster and stronger as I tilted my face toward the stars.

And then looked down.

The world was no longer rushing closer. Instead, it all spread out beneath me, ruins and sand nothing but abstract shapes in the moonlight.

Mother,” I whispered. My voice was shaking.

Maybe I was already dead, and I was hallucinating. I didn’t want to move, in case it all shattered.

Raihn swooped down beside me, and I chanced a glance at him. He was grinning with pure, childlike joy. That smile—it made my stomach clench.

“Fucking amazing, right?” he said.

And it was his reaction that made it actually sink in.

I couldn’t do anything but grin and nod. Yes. Yes, it was fucking amazing.

I was fucking flying.

The reality of this hit me all at once, immovable and confusing, and suddenly I was thinking too hard about the wings that I swore I must have been hallucinating, and the air beneath them, and these new unfamiliar muscles that I had no idea how to control—

Raihn’s eyes went wide. He lurched toward me, hand outstretched. “Oraya, watch—!”

Everything went black.



VINCENT SMELLED LIKE INCENSE, a scent that was clean and old at once, elegant as preserved rose petals. It reminded me of very expensive things one shouldn’t touch, but it also reminded me of safety. My father, in his strange way, was both of those things—distant and comfortable.

Vincent rarely touched me. But now, he grabbed my shoulders and hoisted me up, holding me firmly as I shook away the fuzziness from my senses.

“What in the name of the Mother were you thinking?”

My head hurt. I rubbed my eyes, and opened them again to see Vincent’s staring directly into mine, silver ice-cold.

He shook me once, firmly. “Never do that. Never. How many times have I told you that?”

He was always calm and reserved, but I knew how to read my father. These rare moments when his fear for me slipped through his constant stoicism shook me down to my bones. I was only eleven years old. Vincent

was the beginning and end of what I knew. When he was afraid, I was terrified.

I looked up at the balcony above. “I was just trying to climb—”

Never do that.” He grabbed my wrist and lifted it, as if for emphasis. His fingers were long, wrapping easily around my arm. “Do you know how breakable your bones are? How quickly your skin tears? It would be so easy for this world to take you away forever. Don’t give it reason to.”

My jaw was tight, my eyes burning. The truth of my father’s words sat heavy in my stomach, leaden with my embarrassment.

Of course, he was right.

I had seen Vincent leap from that very balcony and fly off into the night.

I’d seen him fall farther and land on his feet without a scratch.

But Vincent was a vampire, and I was human. He was strong, and I was weak.

“I understand,” I said.

I’d always been bad at hiding my emotions. Vincent’s face softened. He dropped my arm and touched my face.

“You are too precious to be taken away by such a mundane danger, my little serpent,” he said gently. “I wish it were different.”

I nodded. Even young, I knew a wounded pride was better than a wounded body. Better to be ashamed and alive than overconfident and dead. “Now get ready for bed,” he said, releasing me and rising, turning to his

armchair just within the double doors. “You’re on chapter fifty-two of the histories, if I remember correctly. We’ll do two more tonight before you sleep.”

“Yes, Vincent,” I said, grateful that he was giving me an opportunity to impress him in my studies after my embarrassing little misstep. I rose and took a few steps into the library.


Something prickled at the back of my neck. A strange awareness of realities that didn’t line up.

The realization that this library wasn’t on this floor. That I read the histories when I was fourteen, not ten. That Vincent was…

My chest constricted. Breath withered in my lungs.


“We don’t have to look at it, little serpent,” Vincent’s voice said behind

So gentle.

So sad.

But the truth was the truth. I did have to look at it.

I turned around slowly. Vincent was in his armchair, a book on his lap,

the firelight playing over the familiar planes of his face, a mournful smile at his lips.

I knew that face so well.

Now I grabbed onto the sight of every angle of it, desperately, as if to keep it from slipping away.

“You’re dead,” I said.

My voice now belonged to my adult self, not the version of myself from thirteen years in the past.

“Yes,” he said. “I’m afraid so.”

My shoulders rose and fell faster. Emotion burned in my chest, swallowing everything in its path.

My grief for him. My love for him. My hatred of him. My anger.

My confusion.

All of it wrenched through me at once, too many wildly conflicting thoughts, too many words that I couldn’t form on a tongue that was glued to the roof of my mouth, trapped against a jaw clenched so hard it shook.

He rose, his eyes never leaving mine.

“It’s alright, little serpent,” he whispered. “Ask me. Ask me what you want to know.”

I opened my mouth.



“Wake up, Oraya. Wake up.”

Fear. There was fear in that voice. I recognized the fear before I recognized the words.

The intense kind of fear, the kind that was the flip side of deep affection.

My head pounded. My entire body hurt.

I opened my eyes. Raihn leaned over me, framed against the starry sky.

He let out a visible exhale of relief.

“Awful lot of concern for someone who threw me off the top of a building,” I said.

His exhale became a chuckle.

“I wouldn’t let you fall.” He gave me a lopsided smile. “But I knew you

wouldn’t let you fall, either.” “How long have I—”

“Just for a couple of minutes. You took a nasty hit though.”

I felt like it. I was dizzy enough that I actually took Raihn’s hand when he offered it to me, and pulled myself upright. I felt… strange, like my entire body was off balance. I glimpsed something out of the corner of my eye and turned, and he let out a grunt as he jerked to the side, dodging.

“Careful with those things.”

I craned my neck to look behind me—at them. My wings.

I could only glimpse them, and though I felt their presence on my back, I struggled to isolate the muscles to move them around.

But even at a glimpse…

I stared at them in shock. In silence.

They were Vincent’s wings. Featherless, of course, as all Hiaj wings were. The skin was darker than night, so black light curled up and died within them. The talons were silvery white, like drops of moonlight. And…

And I had the accents of red. Marks of the Hiaj Heir.

Bright, bloody red, running down the wing in delicate streaks, collecting at the edges and along their outline.

I tried to move them and did so, jerkily, in a way that I’m sure looked ridiculous.


My wings.

I turned in a circle as I tried to get a better look at them—watching the way the moonlight fell over them with narrowed eyes, like any angle might

reveal a flaw that would betray my hallucination.

No. They were real.

I was making myself dizzy.

“Take it easy,” Raihn said quietly. “It’ll take a minute to adjust to them.” He spoke so gently, with so much knowing calm. He too, I realized,

would’ve been an adult the first time he conjured his own wings.

My wings.

My wings.

It seemed like a ridiculous joke. Like a fucking miracle. How many times had I dreamed of having them? How many times had I looked at the sky and wished I could reach out to those stars like the vampires did?

My cheeks hurt because I was smiling so hard. I laughed a little, a sound I didn’t mean to make.

And then suddenly— Suddenly—

My chest tightened, bracing against a wave of something much more complicated, something that swallowed my joy in a single gulp.

I drew in another breath and instead of a laugh, this time a strangled sob came out, bubbling up before I could stop it. When I inhaled, it scraped through me like a serrated knife, ugly and gasping, red-hot with the overwhelming, searing intensity of my anger.

I was on the ground again.

I barely heard Raihn gasp my name. Barely felt his hands on my shoulders when he was immediately at my side, crouched next to me.

“What’s wrong, Oraya? What’s wrong?”

He spoke with such raw, vulnerable concern, voice low, comforting.

That concern twisted a knife in my stomach.

I swallowed my next sob and only half-succeeded. “How did you know?”

I wouldn’t lift my head, wouldn’t look at Raihn or allow him to look at me. The words were so disfigured I didn’t know how he even understood them.

“What?” he asked, softly.

“How did you know I could do that?”

“I just… knew. You’re half vampire, and a powerful one. You’re made for flying. And I’ve seen over and over again what you’re capable of. It was just…”


He didn’t need to finish. I understood him.

Raihn, someone who had known me for less than a year, had seen that potential in me. And it was him—my enemy, someone who had every reason to cage me—who opened the door for me to seize that power.

The truth I didn’t want to look at now stared me in the face, impossible to ignore, no matter how tightly I squeezed my eyes shut.

In the darkness, I saw Vincent the night of the Halfmoon ball, when we had danced together. He’d been so uncharacteristically sentimental that night. So affectionate.

I had asked him why he never took me flying.

And I remembered now, as clearly as if he was standing in front of me all over again, what he had said:

The last thing I wanted was for you to think you could and start throwing yourself off of balconies.

I choked out, “He knew.” He knew. He always knew.

It wasn’t about protecting me. He didn’t want me to jump because he didn’t want me to find out I could catch myself.

That night, he had been so sentimental because he knew he was about to order the slaughter of Salinae. He knew he was about to kill any hope I had of finding any family I had left.

He knew, and he knew he was about to lie to me, and he knew he was going to lose me for it.

He knew all of it.

He knew.” The words ripped from my throat, shaking with tears and jagged sobs. “He knew, and he never—he never told me, he never—why?”

Raihn murmured, “No one can answer that question.”

In a fit of rage, my head snapped up, my anger strong enough to drown out my self-consciousness. I probably looked like a wild animal, face ruddy and tear-streaked, mouth twisted into a snarl.

“Don’t fucking pity me,” I hissed. “Give me one honest thing, Raihn Ashraj. I want to hear someone say it.”

I was tired of performances and lies. Tired of dancing around the fucking truth. I craved honesty the way a flower craved sunlight. I even craved the pain of it, driven deep into my heart.

Raihn’s face shifted.

For all his faults, he didn’t pity me. He didn’t hide the truth. “I think Vincent was very afraid of you, Oraya.”

“Afraid?” I let out a choked laugh. “He’s—he was the Nightborn King.

And I’m just—”

“You aren’t ‘just’ anything. You were his Heir. You were the most dangerous person in the world to him. And I think he was terrified of you because of it.”

It sounded unbelievable. Absurd. “Look at this.”

I leapt to my feet, thrusting my hand out to the view of Lahor below us

—this dead, pathetic, broken city, a mere ghost of what it once was.

Just like me.

Raihn had taken half a step back, and I realized, dimly, that Nightfire now engulfed my hands, blazing up my arms. I noticed this very distantly, as if I was standing far outside my body.

Look at what he did to this place,” I ground out. “He killed dozens of people the day he left. He killed children he partially raised. Children that didn’t even truly pose a threat to him. Just because he was that fucking thorough.”

It is important to be thorough and cautious, little serpent.

How many times had he said that to me?

I was talking so fast I could barely breathe, my words rough-hewn by anger. “So why would he let me live, if I was so dangerous? Why didn’t he kill me the day he found me? Instead of—instead of taking me home and lying to me for almost twenty years. Why wouldn’t he just kill me instead of caging me, instead of breaking me—”

Suddenly, Raihn was right in front of me, so close the Nightfire surely had to burn. If it hurt, he didn’t show it. His hands gripped my shoulders, tight.

“You are not broken.” I’d never heard him sound so furious, though his voice didn’t rise at all. “You are not broken. Oraya. Do you understand me?”

No. I didn’t. Because I was broken. Just like Lahor was broken. I was just as broken as this city and its ruins and ghosts. Just as broken as Evelaena and her two-hundred-year-old scar and her twisted obsession with the man who gave it to her. What fucking right did I have to judge her for that when I was no different?

Vincent had ruined me. He had saved me. He had loved me. He had stifled me. He had manipulated me. He had made me everything that I was. Everything that I could be.

Even the greatest parts of my power, the parts he never wanted me to find, were his.

And now here I was, poring over every wound he gave me. And no matter how much they hurt, I never wanted them to heal, because they were his.

And I missed him too much to hate him the way I wanted to. And I hated him most of all for that.

All at once, exhaustion fell over me. My flames shriveled away. Raihn still held my shoulders. He was so close that our faces were only inches apart. It would be so easy to lean forward and fall against his chest. If this was the version of him I had known in the Kejari, maybe I would have done that. Let him support me for a little while.

But it wasn’t.

“Look at me, Oraya.”

I didn’t want to. I shouldn’t. I’d see too much. He’d see too much. I should pull away from him.

Instead, I lifted my head, and Raihn’s stare, red as dried blood, nailed me to the wall.

“I spent seventy years trapped by the worst of vampire power,” he said. “And I spent so much of that time trying to make them make sense. But they don’t. Rishan. Hiaj. Nightborn. Shadowborn. Bloodborn. Hell, fucking gods. It doesn’t matter. Neculai Vasarus was—” His throat bobbed. “Evil doesn’t even cover it. And for a long time, I thought he didn’t love anything. I was wrong. He did love his wife. He loved her, and he hated that he loved her. He loved her so much he choked the life out of her.”

Raihn’s eyes had drifted far away—drifted somewhere in the past that I knew, just from the look on his face, hurt him to stare at directly.

“There’s nothing they’re more afraid of than love,” he murmured. “They’ve been taught their entire lives that every true connection is nothing but a danger to them.”

“That’s ridiculous.” “Why?”

Because I was still stuck on this—on this idea that Vincent had been afraid of me. This idea that went against everything I had ever known.

His mouth twisted into a wry smirk. “Love is fucking terrifying,” he murmured. “I think that’s true no matter who you are.”

I stilled.

There was something about the way he said that—the closeness of him, the steadiness of his stare—that jolted me back to my senses.

What was I doing?

Why was I showing him this? Raihn was my kidnapper. He had lied to me. He had used me.

Raihn had murdered my father.

And now he was lecturing me about the sanctity of love?

He was right. Love was terrifying. To be so vulnerable to another person. And I’d—

I stopped that thought.

No. Whatever I had felt for Raihn was not love.

But it had been vulnerable. More vulnerable than I ever should have let myself become.

And look at how I’d paid for it.

Look at how my father had paid for it.

My anger, my grief, drained away. In its place was the thick burn of shame.

I yanked away from Raihn’s touch and tried not to notice the flicker of disappointment on his face.

“I’d like to be alone,” I said.

My voice was harsh. A finality.

Silence. Then he said, “It’s dangerous out here.” “I can handle it.”

He paused. Unconvinced, I knew.

I wouldn’t look at him, but I knew if I did, he’d have that look on his face—that fucking look, like he wanted to say something that would be too earnest, too real.

“Just go,” I said. It sounded more like a plea than I wanted it to. But maybe that was what made him listen.

“Alright,” he said softly, and the sound of his wings faded off into the night.

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