“That,” Cairis muttered, “was a shit show.” “I don’t think it went that badly.”
Ketura closed the door behind us. The room was
simultaneously too empty and so messy you couldn’t think in it. It had been a library before—a room devoted to displaying items that were very beautiful, very old, or very expensive, and usually all three. Ketura had commanded most of the castle be stripped—for information, for traps—and some poor servant had gotten halfway through pulling the books off the shelves before she decided that this particular room was the only acceptable base of operations.
Now, it was a haphazard disaster—the shelves on one side bare, piles of books shoved into a corner. The long table at the center of the room was covered with notes and maps and books and a few discarded glass goblets from the night before, congealing red crusted at their bottoms.
Vincent had been in power for two-hundred years. There was a lot of clutter to strip away.
I was secretly grateful for it.
The night the Kejari ended, I had flown here with a pit of dread in my stomach. I’d had more than enough distractions—Oraya’s unconscious body in my arms, Vincent’s blood all over my hands, an Heir Mark burning on my back, and an entire fucking kingdom on my shoulders. And yet, I’d still paused at the doors of this castle, the memory of the past chasing me.
Maybe that made me a coward.
But two hundred years was a long time. The place looked very different under Vincent’s rule. It was enough to disguise the worst of the memories,
night-to-night. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to visit some wings at all.
I dragged a seat out and sat down heavily, propping my heels up on the corner of the table. The chair groaned slightly under my weight. I let my head fall back and stared at the ceiling—silver tiles, etched with Hiaj wings. Ugh.
“What were you going to do if Vale didn’t show up when he did?” Cairis asked. “Slaughter them all?”
“Doesn’t sound like a bad idea,” I said. “It’s what the great Neculai Vasarus would have done.”
“You aren’t him.”
Something about his tone made my head snap up. He said that like it was a bad thing.
That thought sickened me. For some reason, my mind drifted back to the night of the wedding, and the promise I had made Oraya when I’d practically begged her to work with me.
We’ll rip apart the worlds that subjugated both of us, and from the ashes we’ll build something new.
I’d meant every word of it.
But Oraya had just looked at me with hatred and disgust, and hell if I could blame her for that. And now here I was picking blood out from under my fingernails, deciding how to best make myself just like the man who had destroyed me.
She could always see right through the bullshit.
A knock rang out, thankfully interrupting that line of conversation. Ketura opened the door, and Vale stepped in. He paused and bowed his head to me as he closed the door behind him.
Sometimes, it’s the little things that make the reality of a situation hit you.
Vale’s over-the-top declaration of fealty hadn’t done it. But this, this casual little half bow, the exact same one he used to give Neculai—it made me feel as if I was two centuries in the past, my former master standing right behind me.
Ketura had wanted Vale as my Head of War. She was good at execution, but we needed someone strategic. And Cairis had insisted that it be someone with noble blood—someone respected by all the people who wouldn’t respect me. “To legitimize you,” he’d said.
Legitimize. I had a blessing from a goddess and an ugly magical tattoo I couldn’t get rid of. Yet it was Vale who was going to give me “legitimacy.”
It was hard for me to forget. No, Vale had never participated in the depravity quite like the others did. Maybe he thought consensual lovers were more enthusiastic. Maybe he inflicted enough bloodshed at work that it wasn’t what he wanted to do for fun.
Didn’t make him a saint. And it didn’t mean that he didn’t still look at me as a slave.
“I apologize for my lateness today,” he said. “Storms over the seas.”
“You can’t control the wind. And I’m sure your wife probably needed time to recover.”
“From the Turning,” I clarified. Then smiled. “Congratulations, by the way.”
Vale’s eyes hardened, gleaming like those of a guard dog barely tethered.
Did he think I was threatening her? It’s what Neculai would have done.
But no. I just didn’t like that Vale had Turned some human woman and dragged her over here. I didn’t like it at all.
“It went as well as it could have,” he said. “She’s resting. A bit seasick on the journey. I wanted to get her settled.”
His expression softened, and that… that, I wasn’t quite expecting. It looked oddly close to actual affection.
I wasn’t sure if that made me feel any better. Neculai had loved Nessanyn, his wife. Hadn’t saved her from anything.
“Well. I’m glad you made it.” I gestured to the table and the maps strewn across it. “Plenty to catch you up on, as you can see.”
THE CONSENSUS, after hours of talking, was that we were in deep shit.
Vale thought it was stupid that I had taken Septimus’s deal.
He thought it was very stupid that I had done so without negotiating his terms.
And he thought it was monumentally stupid that I had kept Oraya alive.
I dismissed these criticisms as casually as I could manage. I couldn’t justify why I had made those decisions without revealing more than I wanted to about my true motivations—motivations that held none of the vicious cruelty they wanted to see from me.
Still, the reality of our situation was bleak. The Hiaj were not backing down. They held on to several key cities. Two hundred years of power had made their forces strong. Vincent, even at the height of his power, hadn’t rested. He’d continued building his strength and whittling down the Rishan until we had almost nothing left.
That meant our brute strength relied almost completely on the Bloodborn. And yes, the bastards were efficient at what they did. They had bodies, and they were willing to throw them at anything. With the Bloodborn’s help, we’d managed to beat back many of the biggest Hiaj strongholds.
But it also meant that if Septimus decided to withdraw, we would be fucked. The Rishan forces just weren’t capable of holding up against the Hiaj alone.
Vale did not hide his frustration with this situation. A couple of centuries away from polite society had made him even more blunt than he used to be, which was saying something. Still, I had to admit that he was good at what he did. He ended the meeting with a list of recommendations to strengthen our position, and when we disbanded, he was already following Ketura out the door with a list of questions about our armies.
Cairis, though, lingered after Vale and Ketura were gone. I hated that— the hovering. He used to do it back then, too, when he was going to try to whisper something in someone’s ear and make it seem like it had all been their idea.
I sighed. “I don’t need to be handled. Just say it.”
“Fine. I’ll be straightforward. That went badly. We already knew the nobles hated you. Now—”
“Nothing was going to stop them from hating me. Actually, maybe we should’ve thought of that as a test. Which noble would bow willingly?”
“If it was a test,” Cairis said drily, “then no one passed.” “Exactly. So let’s just execute them all.”
He gave me a long, steady stare, like he was trying to decide if this was a joke.
It was not. I raised my eyebrows, a silent, Well?
“Do you have people to install in their places?” he said. “I could find someone.”
He leaned across the table, weaving his fingers together. “Who? Do tell.”
I hated when Cairis was right about things. He was just so damned smug about it.
“I’m just saying that you need to be careful.” His voice lowered, as if to evade prying ears. “We already rely far too heavily on the Bloodborn.”
Understatement. Septimus practically had me bent over his desk.
“The last thing we need,” he went on, “is to destroy the loyalty of the scant forces we do have. Appearances are everything. Which brings me to…” He cleared his throat. “Her.”
I rose, my hands stuffed in my pockets, and paced the room. “What about her?”
A beat of silence that said, You know what.
Cairis seemed to be choosing his words with uncharacteristic care. “She is a danger to you.”
“She can’t act against me.”
“She won the Kejari, Raihn.”
My hand found its way to my chest—right where her dagger had pierced it. There was no scar, no mark. There wouldn’t be—with Oraya’s wish, the act had been undone. I could’ve sworn I felt it sometimes, though. Right now, it pulsed with a vicious throb.
But I hid all that as I turned to him with a smug smirk. “You can’t say it doesn’t look good, to have Vincent’s daughter leashed at my side.”
I’d always been a good mimic. I slipped a little of Neculai’s cruelty into my voice, just like I had that day in the ring, when I justified letting Oraya live with a litany of atrocities.
Cairis’s face was stone, unconvinced.
“After what he did to Nessanyn,” I added, “don’t you think we deserve that satisfaction?”
He flinched at the mention of Nessanyn. Just like I knew he would. Just like I often did, when old memories caught me off guard.
“Maybe,” he admitted, after a long moment. “But it doesn’t do anything to help her now.”
I swallowed and turned to the wall of books, pretending to admire the trinkets on the shelves.
I didn’t like to think about Nessanyn. But I’d been doing it a lot these last few weeks. She was everywhere in this castle. All of it was everywhere here.
I couldn’t help Nessanyn when she was alive. I couldn’t help her when she was dead. And here I was, just using her memory to manipulate the people around me.
She had been used her entire life. Now she was being used in death, too.
Cairis wanted me to be just like Neculai. He didn’t even know how close he was to getting that wish.
I withdrew my hands from my pockets. Some of Martas’s blood still remained under my fingernails.
“Don’t you hate them?” I said.
I’d meant for the question to sound more lilting, more casual, than it really did.
Because Cairis had been there for all of it, too. Just another one of Neculai’s pets.
And yet now he could sit here and advocate for an alliance with the people who had inflicted unimaginable degradation upon us. It genuinely amazed me.
“Of course I hate them,” he said. “But we need them. For now. Who wins if you kill them all and we lose the House of Night to Septimus? Not us. She used to say that, too, remember?” I turned to see a soft, distant smile on his face—a rare expression from him. “‘Remember who wins.’”
He said it fondly, but my teeth ground.
Yes, I remembered. Couldn’t even count how many times I got right up to the edge, just about to strike back. And whenever it happened, Nessanyn would stop me. Don’t let them win, she would beg, her big brown eyes deep and damp. Who wins if he kills you?
“I remember,” I said.
Cairis shook his head, a sad smile at his lips. “We were all a little in love with her, right?”
Yes, we were all a little in love with Nessanyn. I had been the one sleeping with her, but all of us loved her. How could you not, when she was the only kindness you knew? The only one who treated you like a person instead of a collection of body parts?
“So think about that,” he said. “That’s what I do. Whenever I feel it, I ask myself, Who wins?”
He said it like it was some great proverb, some enlightening wisdom. “Hm,” I said, thoroughly unconvinced.
I DIDN’T REALLY SLEEP MUCH these days.
The castle had an entire wing that was intended to be the king’s residence. I’d visited it nearly a full week after the takeover, putting it off for as long as I could. The decorations were different, and yet so much was the same.
I’d walked through all the rooms in silence.
I paused at a doorway, at a dent carved into the dark wood—a dent I remembered being made with Ketura’s head, centuries ago, then barely even visible beneath the blood. I could still feel the marks where her teeth had dug into the trim.
I’d paused, too, at Vincent’s bureau. It had all been pulled apart, his clothes strewn across the room. The top was adorned with little trinkets that were probably worth more than most estates. But mixed in among those treasures were little aged pieces of paper with handwriting that I recognized as Oraya’s—though in the clumsy curls of a child. All were studies, it looked like. Notes on fighting stances.
The corners of my mouth had tightened. Of course, even as a little girl, Oraya would have taken her studies seriously. Endearing. So fucking endearing.
And then, just as quickly, the smile faded. Because apparently, I wasn’t the only one who thought so, if Vincent had held onto these tattered papers for all these years.
No, I didn’t stay in the king’s wing.
My suite was right next to Oraya’s. Both had multiple rooms, but our bedchambers shared a wall. It was a bad habit, but every time I returned to the room, I hesitated at that wall. Tonight was no exception.
When Oraya cried, it was this horrific, violent sound. Silent at first, and then the silence would shatter into the jagged inhale of a sob, like she was suffocating herself and her body rebelled for air. It sounded like a wound tearing open.
The first time I’d heard it, I made an excuse to go over there—pounded on the door and pulled some bullshit request out of my ass when she opened it. I couldn’t even remember what had come out of my mouth.
Come on, fight with me. Let me distract you.
But Oraya had just looked so empty. Like it was physically painful to be in my presence in that moment. Like she was begging for mercy.
Now, I placed my hand against our shared wall and listened, against my better judgment.
And there it was.
I swallowed thickly. My fingers curled into a fist against the brocade wallpaper.
One wall. Thin enough that I could hear through it. Might as well be iron.
Don’t you dare stop fighting, princess, I’d told her, the night before the final trial. It would break my damned heart.
And I had been so fucking smug when I’d wrung that fight out of her in that last battle.
Well, she wasn’t fighting now.
I didn’t go to her room anymore. I’d make sure that headache tea was sent to her the next evening. I’d make sure she had what she needed. But what she needed, right now, certainly wasn’t me.
I got into bed, but didn’t sleep. Nessanyn’s words floated through my mind, this time with a cynical tinge that was distinctly mine.
Well, Nessanyn sure as fuck didn’t. And Oraya didn’t, either.