Chapter no 27

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

I opened my eyes from a mercifully dreamless sleep. My head was throbbing, and my body hurt even worse.

Coarse linen rubbed against my cheek. I was in a plain little

bedchamber. A desk, a chair, a crooked table. Behind me, someone was moving around. I could hear the snap of a fire, and the hiss of something boiling, and the smell of something delicious.

I tried to roll over and was met with a stab of pain so sharp I let out a little strangled sound that was intended to be a “fuck” but instead sounded more like “ffermmkk.”

Footsteps circled the room, approaching me.

“Well look at you,” Raihn said. “So bright and cheerful when you wake up.”

I tried to say, “Fuck you,” and coughed instead. “Oh, I still heard that.”

He sat at the edge of my bed. It was so rickety that his considerable weight made the entire thing shift to one side.

I choked out, “Where are we?”

“One of the Crown homes in the east. It’s, uh… seen better days. But it’s safe. Quiet. And closer than Sivrinaj.”

“How long have we been here?” “Little less than a week.”

I started, and Raihn raised his hands. “We kept you sedated for a while.

Trust me, that was for the best.”

I didn’t love the idea of Raihn’s men carting around my unconscious body for a week.

As if he could read my face, he said, “Don’t worry. It was just me.”

That did feel like a relief, though I didn’t want to examine too closely why.

“Where are the others?”

“Mische is here. The Bloodborn are in Lahor with Ketura and her guards, getting it under control.”

Lahor. It all came back with overwhelming detail. The fire and Evelaena and the sword and—

“I killed Evelaena,” I said, not quite intending to speak aloud. “She—” “Strung you up in a basement. Yes. I know.”

The basement.

The tower. The sword. The—

Panic. I touched my chest, eyes going wide. “I found something in the tower. I found—” “This?”

He reached for the bedside table and withdrew a carefully wrapped object about the size of his hand, flat and circular. He opened the cloth covering, revealing the moon pendant. The last time I’d seen it, it had been covered in Evelaena’s blood, but now it was pristine.

“You were crawling for it when I found you. Even half-dead.” He quickly covered it and set it back on the table, wincing and rubbing his hand. “The minute I tried to touch it, I realized what it was.”

“I don’t know if I do know what it is. Just that it’s…” “Special.”

His. It was his. More than that. It was… It has to do with whatever Vincent was trying to hide.”

This certainty came to me with an unexpectedly strong flood of satisfaction. There was so little I understood about my father. Finding even one puzzle piece seemed like a triumphant victory, even if it only led to more questions.

“Probably,” Raihn said. “All the better that Septimus doesn’t know about it. I’m glad it’s here, with us, instead of with him.”

He seemed shockingly unconcerned with it. My eyes narrowed.

“I’m surprised it’s still here, and that you didn’t fly off to Sivrinaj with it. This was what you were looking for, wasn’t—”

“You were fucking dying,” he snapped. “I had more important things to worry about than your father’s games.”

He clamped his mouth shut, like he’d just said something he didn’t intend to. “That’ll burn,” he muttered, and rose to go stir the pot over the stove.

More important things.

He returned, carrying a plate piled with steaming meat and vegetables. “Here. Eat.”

“I’m not hungry,” I said, even as my mouth watered. “It’s delicious. You want it. Trust me.”


But my stomach rumbled. I had to admit, the smell was… incredible. I took a bite and almost melted back into the bed.

Mother fucking damn him.

I took another bite, and another.

“Was I right?” Raihn said, infuriatingly smugly. “Mm,” I said, between bites.

“I’ll take that as, ‘Delicious, Raihn. Thank you for this meal cooked with love, and also for saving my life.’”

A joke. It was a joke.

Still, my chewing slowed. I set aside the plate—already almost half empty—and turned to Raihn with a hard stare.

He must have thought I ran away. It would’ve been a reasonable assumption.

“You came to find me,” I said.

His smile faded. “Is that really so surprising?” “I thought you’d think I just—”

“Oh, I did think.”

“But you still came after me. Why?”

He let out a sound between an exhale and a scoff. “What?” I said.

“I just—nothing. Just turn around so I can check your wings.” My wings.

The thought made the blood drain from my face. Oh, Goddess. I’d been so disoriented, the pain so constant, that the terrible reality of what had happened to them hadn’t yet sunk in.

They had been nailed through. Many times.

He settled behind me. “Give me some room back here.”

I obeyed, wincing as I edged forward on the bed, my legs folded beneath me. He let out a breath through his teeth, and my stomach turned.

My new wings—the only gift of these last horrible months. Shredded. I choked out, bracing myself for the answer, “How do they look?”

“I’m glad you killed that depraved bitch. If she’d been alive when I got there…”

He didn’t need to finish the sentence. My throat was thick. “So it’s bad?”

“She nailed you to the fucking wall.”

“I couldn’t spirit them away. I couldn’t—”

“It’s hard to do. Harder than getting them out, and nearly impossible if they’re injured, even for those who were born with them. I should have made sure I taught you that before I left you. That was stupid of me.”

His voice softened at that, and I winced at it.

“I don’t need pity. Tell me the truth.” My words wavered a little, despite my best efforts. “They’re ruined, right?”


Horrible silence.

The bed shifted. Raihn leaned around me, turning my head by my chin so I was looking into his face.

“That’s what you think? That you’ll never fly again?” My face must have said enough.

I might’ve expected his expression to soften, but instead, it grew harder, like I’d offended him.

“You’re made for the sky, Oraya. Never let anyone take that away from you. Of course you’ll fly again.” He released me and returned to my back. Under his breath, he muttered, “Like I’d ever let that happen.”

My exhale was shaky with relief. “So they’ll heal?”

“It’ll take some time, but they will heal. They already look a hell of a lot better than they did.”

They will heal. I had never heard three more beautiful words. Raihn said them like he’d will it into truth if he had to.

I heard rummaging behind me, and the sound of something unscrewing

—a jar, maybe? I tried to look over my shoulder with limited success. “What’s that?”

“Medicine. You’re due.”

I couldn’t turn enough to see what Raihn held—at least not without more pain than I was interested in—but I eyed the slight glow against the bedside table. It was good stuff, whatever he’d gotten.

There was a long, awkward silence. “Do you mind if I—?” he asked.

Touch me. He’d have to touch me.

“I could get Mische if you want,” he said, “She’s out right now, but—” “No,” I said curtly. “It’s fine. You’ve already been doing it, anyway.”

“It’s going to hurt, probably.” “It’s fi—”

My body seized. My vision went white. “Fuck,” I breathed.

“Thought it would be better if you didn’t have warning.”

Oh, I recognized that line. I half-smiled, half-grimaced as he moved on to another cut.

“So this is revenge,” I said. “I understand now.”

“Got me. You did a good job patching up my back, though. I’ll return the favor. Promise.”

A lump rose in my throat as I thought about that night for the first time in months—the night Jesmine had tortured Raihn for hours in the wake of the attack against the Moon Palace. So much about the memory now felt… different. More complicated.

“Must have been hard for you that night,” I said. “Getting stitched up or getting tortured?”

“The questioning. You didn’t break.”

Jesmine’s methods were… thorough. Honed to perfection for their intended purpose, and that purpose was getting information out of unwilling participants.

“I wasn’t lying,” he said. “I wasn’t responsible for the attack on the Moon Palace.”

I peered over my shoulder and shot him a flat look.

He huffed a laugh. “I guess I’ve earned that face. But I’d come too far to let one woman with a knife bring me down.” Then, after a pause, “Well. That woman with a knife. Met another one who was a whole different story.”

I bit my lip as he applied another well-timed dab of medicine, but the pain was a welcome distraction.

“So has it been worth it?” I asked. “Being the Nightborn King.” His hands paused. Then resumed.

“Does it count as bad bedside manner if you’re the one in bed? Trying to make us both equally uncomfortable?”

I shrugged and immediately regretted the way the movement jostled my wings.

“Fine,” he said. “I’ll keep it interesting for you, since I know you need the distraction. Was it worth it? I saved the Rishan people from two centuries of subjugation. I took back what was rightfully mine. I got revenge upon the man who killed thousands of my people. I even get to wear a crown in front of the pricks who once treated me as a slave.”

All things I expected him to say. All things that I knew were true.

“That’s what I would say to anyone else who asked,” he said. “But it’s not anyone asking. It’s you. And you deserve the truth, if you want it.”

He moved on to another wound. I barely felt it.

I’d regret it if I let him keep going. I knew that whatever he said to me would hurt. Would be complicated.

And yet, I said, “One honest thing.”

“I don’t know if it was worth it.” The words came fast, low, in a rough exhale, like they’d been pressing on the backs of his teeth for far too long. “The night Neculai lost his throne, I just wanted to burn it all down. I never wanted… this. Feels like it’s all cursed. This crown. Maybe the only way to survive as a ruler of this place is to become just like the ones who came before you. And that—that terrifies me. I’d kill myself before I let that happen, and I hope that if I couldn’t, you’d do it instead.”

It was more of a confession than I expected. I had to force the lightness into my voice as I said, “I already did that, remember?”

He laughed humorlessly. “I told you that you should have let me stay dead.”

“And what about that? Would that have been worth it?”

Another question I immediately knew I shouldn’t have asked. Another wound, another stab of pain.

“To die, rather than killing you?” he said quietly. “Yes. That would have been worth it. Even I had to draw a line somewhere. And you’re the line, Oraya.”

Mother, I was a fucking masochist. Asking questions with answers I didn’t know what to do with.

He cleared his throat, as if to scrape away the uncomfortable sincerity of those confessions. “I need to adjust your wings. Can you lift them a little?”

I tried to do so, wincing. What I’d intended to be a stretch became an awkward lurch, and the bed creaked as Raihn’s weight fell back.

“Careful, princess. You’re going to take my eye out.” “They don’t listen to me,” I snapped.

“You’re just adjusting to having two new, giant limbs stuck to your back. When I first got mine, I could barely even walk properly. Just kept drifting to the sides because the weight threw me off.”

I couldn’t help it. That image made me chuckle.

“Sure, laugh,” he grumbled. “We’ll see what your walking looks like soon. Here. Alright if I help?”

I hesitated, then nodded.

“It’s hard at first to figure out how to isolate the right muscles. But…” Gently, so gently, his hands moved to the underside of my wings, where they met my back. “You’re stiff. If you relax your muscles, they won’t fall off. I know it feels like they will.”

His hands slid up, applying gentle pressure along the way, coaxing them to spread. My instinct was to move them myself, but Raihn said, “Don’t you dare. I don’t want to get stabbed in the eye again. Just… relax.”

Another stroke, at that tight knot of muscle. I twitched as his thumb ghosted over my skin.

He stopped immediately. “Did that hurt?”

I didn’t answer right away. “No.”

No. It was the opposite of hurt. Awkwardly so. “Do you want me to stop?”

Say yes.

But it had been more than a month since I had felt safe. Longer than that since a touch had felt… comforting.

I found myself answering, “No.”

He resumed, slow, running along the muscle. Even through the thin layer of my shirt, I could feel the warmth of his hands. The roughness of his callouses.

“Just let go of it,” he said softly. “Let me support the weight of them.

I’ve got you.”

As if he could hear the inner fight I was having with my subconscious. And slowly, slowly, with the help of his hands braced beneath my wings, the muscles relaxed.

“There you go,” he said. “Not so hard.”

I didn’t speak, mostly because I didn’t have words for how good it felt to have someone else bear some of that burden. I hadn’t realized how heavy it was until the weight was lessened.

Suddenly, I was exhausted.

Raihn’s touch traveled farther up—where the limb gave way to the delicate, softer skin of the wing.

I stiffened. Right away, he withdrew his hands. “Did I hurt you?” I was so grateful he couldn’t see my face. It felt hot.

“No. It—it’s fine.”

He hesitated. Then his hands fell back to my wings, light and gentle. “Open for me,” he said.

I didn’t even have to tell my body to obey. They just… unfolded beneath that barely-there touch, like flower petals.

“Beautiful,” Raihn murmured, as his fingertips ran all the way up the soft, sensitive underside.

This time, the pleasure was unmistakable. No longer hidden beneath the surface, no longer ignorable. This was intense, a shiver that ran up my spine

—up my inner thighs, into my core. Like his mouth had once felt on my throat or my earlobe.

Like desire incarnate, echoing in my entire being. My exhale trembled.

Touch had become something consistently violent, consistently painful. Not this. This was…

Fuck, it was dangerously good.

In Raihn’s sudden stillness, I knew he had realized what I was feeling. “Good?” he asked, voice thick.

Asking for permission. Because like me, he knew that this was far more treacherous than pain. Pain was simple. Pleasure was complicated.

If I told him to stop, he would, without question. And if I was a stronger person, I would have done just that.

I wasn’t a stronger person. I was weak. “Yes,” I said. “Don’t stop.”

He let out a tiny sound that sounded unintentional, almost a groan. His fingers continued their dance, fingernails slightly dragging against the underside of my skin, my body acutely aware of every stroke—like he knew where all of my nerve endings were and exactly how to caress them.

My breath was growing shallow, my face flushed.

He hit upon an especially sensitive spot, and I let out an involuntary, choked sound—a whimper.

He laughed softly. “There, huh?”

Goddess. Yes. There.

He lingered in that spot, swirling around it. The pleasure rolled over my entire body, every nerve reacting to those little touches—wanting more. Begging for it. My teeth clenched, biting back whimpers. I didn’t know why I tried. Surely he could hear my heartbeat.

Smell my arousal.

When he dragged his fingernails across my skin, the almost-moan that slipped from my teeth was too sudden to control.

He made a returning sound, too, something between a growl and a groan, and suddenly I was slumped back against him, the hard muscle of his body against my back.

“I dream about that sound.” His mouth was so close to my throat. I could feel his voice vibrate on my flesh, right against the scar that he’d left. “Do you know that?”

His fingers danced along my wings again, and I barely even tried to hide my moan this time.

My breasts ached, sensitive against the fabric of my shirt. I wanted the clothing gone—mine, his. I wanted his skin. I wanted his breath. Mother, I craved that. I craved it so much that right now, I couldn’t even hate myself for wanting him so much.

And yet, I didn’t want it to go any further than this. This touch, his mouth near my throat, and his body close to mine.

“When I went into that room,” he murmured, “I thought you were dead.

I thought I lost you, Oraya. I thought I lost you.”

His voice was far too raw, like an open wound, cracked and bleeding. It touched me in places I didn’t expect. Places more sensitive than his hands on my wings.

He was my enemy. He would kill me if he had the chance.

He was my enemy.

“Would be a relief for you,” I said. “A lot of problems solved.”

He went rigid. Suddenly, his hand was at my face, tilting my head back to meet his eyes. They were furious.

“Stop saying things like that.” “Why?” I whispered.

Knowing I was taunting him.

Knowing I was, once again, asking a question I didn’t want the answer


His forehead lowered. Our faces were so close—I could feel his breath,

shallow and quick.

“Because I’m so tired, Oraya.”

His mouth brushed over the tip of my nose. Almost a kiss. Not quite.

“I’m so tired of pretending. Tired of pretending I don’t think about you every night. That I’ve ever wanted anything—”

His throat bobbed, and he closed his eyes, as if he needed a moment to collect himself. His fingers found that spot on my wings again, dragging across it so agonizingly slowly, and I let out a trembling breath that made him lean a little closer, like he wanted to capture that sound on his lips.

“I’m exhausted, princess,” he groaned. “So damned tired.”

It sounded like a plea—like he was begging me for an answer, a solution. And I hated that I recognized it because I felt it too.

It was exhausting, to be this sad all the time. To feel so angry. To resist, constantly. Just as tiring as carrying the wings on my back.

A part of me wanted to give in. Let myself feel something more than nothingness or sadness or anger. Let him touch me, taste me, fill me. Fuck him until I didn’t feel anything but pleasure.

It had worked before. For a little while. But so much had changed since then.

Because when I closed my eyes, I wouldn’t see pleasant visions of Raihn’s naked body or his kisses or his affection.

I would still see his bloodied form on the ground. I would still see him killing my father.

I would still see my blade in his chest.

I pulled away, just enough to put some distance between us, and I saw Raihn’s expression settle into serious understanding—a mirror of my own realization, reality seeping in.

The haze of pleasure and comfort was starting to fade. I already mourned it.

“I was selfish,” he murmured. “The day we had together, I was willing to let you use me to escape. I did that knowing that if you knew the truth of why I was there, you’d hate me for it. And that—that was wrong. I thought I’d die in that ring, and it would be over, and you would never know. But


It was amazing, how fast it happened. Like a flame drenched in frigid water.

The sudden wave of anger was coldly all-consuming.

“And what the hell was that supposed to be?” I said. “Was that supposed to be a mercy? You dying for me?”

His face shifted, a line between his brows. “I—”

“I dream about my blade going into your chest every fucking night, Raihn.”

Too much. Don’t show him this.

But it was too late. The words poured out of me, hot and scalding.

“You made me kill you,” I ground out. “You made me do what you couldn’t do. For the second time in my life I—”

I bit down on those words, so hard my teeth drew blood from my tongue. I turned away. But it was too late to avoid seeing the realization fall over Raihn’s face, as he touched his chest, right where my blade had pierced it.

Shame flooded me. I’d almost—

Mother, what the hell kind of daughter did that make me? What kind of queen?

“Oraya,” Raihn started, and I cringed, bracing for his words. But then a knock rang out at the door.

He didn’t move. I could feel his eyes staring into my back. Another knock, louder.

“Raihn?” Mische’s voice came from the hall. “Are you in there?” Still silence.

Then, he finally rose. I didn’t look up, though I heard the door open, and Mische’s bright greeting. “Oh! You’re up!”

I couldn’t look at her. I didn’t want her to see this, too. “What is it?” Raihn’s voice was hushed.

A beat of silence, as Mische, undoubtedly, put things together.

“It’s from Vale,” she said, matching his tone. “There’s… a problem in Sivrinaj.”

Raihn let out an exhale that was a wordless curse.

“I know, right?” she sighed. “Those fucking bastards.”

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