Chapter no 25

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

Oraya hadn’t come back to our rooms.

I watched her up there for almost an hour, just sitting in that tower staring at the horizon. I’d give her space when she wanted it

—I owed her that, didn’t I?—but that didn’t mean that I was about to leave her unguarded. I remained until my exposed skin stung and my eyes began to ache, but eventually, I had no choice but to get back to the room.

When I left, Oraya had still been at the top of that tower.

I peered between the curtains for the fifteenth time this morning, wincing as the sun hit still-tender burns.

Even in stolen, three-second glances, Lahor managed to look even more pathetic in the daylight. Downright grotesque. At least at night, there was a kind of ancient romanticism to it, the moonlight suggesting outlines of what it might have looked like, long ago.

But there was nothing sentimental about Lahor in daylight. Just corpses and debris. Starving humans creeping around in the ruins, trying to rob starving vampires. Starving demons attempting to use the sunlight to hunt their prey, flinging their fellow beasts out into the deadly light, letting it cook them alive.

And Oraya was still out there. “What’re you doing?”

Mische’s voice was sleep-slurred. I glanced over my shoulder and closed the curtains to see her rubbing her eyes, blinking blearily at me. Her hair had only gotten wilder as it had grown longer. One side was now comically smooshed up against the side of her head.

“Oh, you know,” I said, keeping my voice casual in my deliberate non-answer.

“Past sunrise.” “Mm.”

Mische glanced around, blinking sleep away. Realization dawned on her. “Where’s Oraya?”

I didn’t answer. Peered through the curtains again. Winced and flicked them closed.

That was all the answer Mische needed. All at once, she was awake. “She’s gone?”

“We—had gone out sightseeing.” “We?”

I shot Mische a glare. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I’m just surprised she wanted to go anywhere with you.” “I—”

I cornered her.

I abandoned that train of thought.

“It doesn’t matter,” I muttered. “I was with her for a while. But then she wanted to be alone. So I gave her what she wanted.”

“But she still hasn’t come back?” Mische said hesitantly.

A few seconds of silence. The possibility hung in the air, obvious, even if neither of us would state it right away.

Mische whispered, “You don’t think she…”

Ran. Betrayed you.

Oraya would have had the perfect opening for it. An unfamiliar city. The cover of daylight. No guards here that would stop her. Brand new wings to carry her away.

I swallowed, rubbing the center of my chest.

Tonight, I had seen her smile—really smile—for the first time in more than a month. And Goddess, it did something to me. It was like witnessing a rare natural phenomenon.

And when I’d watched her fly tonight, alight with such joy, only one thought had rang out in my mind:

I never knew something could look so beautiful flying away.

I peered through the curtains and imagined Oraya fading off into the distance of that sun-bleached blue sky, never to be seen again. Imagined her finding some new, wonderful life, somewhere so far from here.

“You think she—she left?” Mische asked, finally, like it took her all this time just to put words to it.

I thought of Oraya curled up with her knees to her chest in those ruins, those sobs coming out of her like deep water drawing from a rift in the earth.

My fingers tightened around the curtains at the thought of it. Did Oraya run?

I fucking wished she had.

But the pit of tension in my stomach said, Something isn’t right.

“No,” I said. “No, I don’t think so.”

I closed the curtains and turned back to Mische. “Let’s go.”

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