I looked around for something, anything, I could use as a weapon.
That would be too easy, apparently.
“Are you going to come out from under that,” Raihn asked, “or are you going to make me get you?”
My jaw clenched so hard it shook.
Suddenly I felt just like I had in the Moon Palace, when he had taunted me in the greenhouse. I was cornered then, and I was cornered now.
I rose and turned to face him. My hands curled at my sides. I wished I didn’t see the flicker of disappointment in Raihn’s eyes at my concession.
He leaned against the doorframe, surveying me, that brief reveal disappearing beneath the smirk at his mouth, his performance reassumed.
I said nothing.
“I know you’re very good at sneaking around places you aren’t supposed to be,” he went on. “Should I feel lucky you don’t have your blades on you this time?”
He touched his thigh, calling back the first time we had met—when he’d grabbed me in an attempt to save my life, and I’d thanked him for it by driving my dagger into his leg.
What did he think he was doing here? Playing with me like nothing had changed between us. Like we were still just two contestants in the Kejari, reluctant allies.
My voice was hard and sharp. “Somewhere I’m not supposed to be?
This is my home.”
I was never very good at seeming cold and collected when my emotions were thrashing under the surface of my skin. Vincent had reminded me of it often.
Raihn saw the truth.
His smirk disappeared.
“I know that,” he said. No hint of teasing this time.
“No, you don’t,” I shot back. “You don’t understand that because you’re keeping me a prisoner here.”
“You’re not a prisoner. You’re—”
You’re my queen, he always said.
Bullshit. I couldn’t stand it anymore.
“Stop,” I snapped. “Just—just STOP. Stop with the lies. Stop with the willful ignorance. You lock me in my room every night. You sleep in the next apartment so you can guard me—”
Raihn moved abruptly—two steps forward so he was up against the other side of the desk, leaning close to me.
“I am trying to keep you alive, Oraya,” he said, voice low. “And it’s hard fucking work, alright? I know none of it is ideal. But I’m trying.”
I wanted to say, So what? Let it happen, if it’s so hard to stop it. Let them kill me.
You’re better than that, little serpent, Vincent whispered in my ear. “How benevolent of you,” I shot back. “How selfless.”
Raihn’s palms now pressed to the table, and he looked directly into my eyes.
“Do you think I want any of this?” he spat. “Do you think I want to listen to you sob every night?”
The blood drained from my face.
At my expression, his mouth thinned. I could practically hear him silently scolding himself for saying it.
I knew there was a possibility that he heard me. I knew that Raihn had always seen everything I didn’t want him to. But fuck, to hear it acknowledged—it violated some unspoken contract. My cheeks warmed.
I took a step back, suddenly desperate to put more space between us, and Raihn matched it forward. His gaze was steady and unblinking—as inescapable as if he’d grabbed me and pinned me to the wall.
“I made you an offer,” he murmured. “The night we—”
A stutter to his voice. I heard what he didn’t say: The night we were married.
Neither of us ever acknowledged that. Our marriage.
“I made you an offer that night. And it still stands. It always will.” Another step back. Another step closer.
“I hate this place.” He exhaled the words, ragged, like he’d torn them from deep in his chest. “I hate these people. I hate this castle. I hate this fucking crown. But I don’t hate you, Oraya. Not even a little.” His face softened, and I so wanted to tear my eyes away and didn’t. “I failed you. I know that. I’m probably still—” He shook his head a little, as if to shut himself up. “But you and I are the same. There is no one I would rather have help me build a new version of this kingdom. And honestly, I… I don’t know if I can do it without you.”
I finally allowed my gaze to fall from Raihn’s face. Allowed it to drift down, to the desk between us, scattered with Vincent’s notes and plans. Raihn now leaned over that desk, his palms pressed down on those papers. All evidence of my father’s kingdom and how much he had loved it.
My father’s kingdom. My kingdom.
The faint pulse of my Heir Mark over my throat and chest burned stronger now. Itched, like an acid bite.
At least that will get some of them out of our way, Raihn had said, so fucking casually, when talking about the people who now relied on me.
“You don’t want a Hiaj’s help,” I spat. “You’re too busy killing all of us.”
“Us?” Raihn’s scoff was immediate, vicious, like he couldn’t even stop himself. “When the hell did it become ‘us?’ They never treated you like you were one of them. They treated people like you like fucking livestock. They disrespected you, they—”
“You killed my father!”
The words burst out of me. The accusation, the ugly truth, had been pressing up beneath the underside of my skin for weeks. Every time I looked at Raihn, they screamed in my ears. All those accusations: You killed my father, you lied to me, you used me.
They drowned out every word he said to me.
They silenced him immediately, and then hung there between us, palpable and cutting as razor blades.
“You. Killed. My. Father.”
I didn’t even realize I was speaking aloud this time, the words scraping from between my clenched teeth.
With each word, I relived it—Raihn’s magic flaring as he pinned Vincent to the wall. Vincent’s body falling, nothing more than a pile of broken flesh.
Silvery smoke unfurled around my clenched fists. My shoulders rose and fell heavily. My chest hurt—Goddess, my chest hurt so, so much. I’d let out too much and now I struggled to wrangle it all back under control.
For a long, horrible, silent moment I was so sure I was going to fall apart. Raihn at last moved around that desk, approaching me slowly, watching me so steadily I could feel it even when I squeezed my eyes shut.
Like he was waiting. Like he was ready.
“I am so sorry, Oraya,” he murmured. “I’m just—I’m so sorry that it all happened this way. I’m so sorry.”
The worst part was, I couldn’t even doubt that he meant it.
Sorry. I remembered the first time Raihn had apologized to me, plainly, like it had been a simple truth, and how it had meant so much to me that it rearranged my entire world a little to hear it spoken that way. I’d felt like I’d been given a gift I had been waiting so long for—for someone to validate my feelings that way, to concede to me even at the expense of their own pride.
I’d been so desperate to hear those words from my father.
I’d finally gotten them in his final breaths. I love you. I’m sorry.
And did they change anything? Did they mean anything, in the end?
What fucking good did a few words do?
I opened my eyes and met Raihn’s. His face was so starkly honest, so raw, that it startled me. I could see that he was opening a door for me, coaxing me through. Ready to take my hand and guide me there.
“But you’d do it again,” I said. I slammed that door shut.
“I am trying to save so many lives,” he said.
Helplessly. Like he didn’t know what else to tell me.
Well, what else was he going to tell me but the truth?
I fucking hated that I understood that, in some dark corner of myself. Raihn had made a bargain he had died trying to avoid fulfilling. Raihn had thousands of people relying on him. Raihn had his obligations tattooed onto his flesh.
But I’d been denying for too long that I had my own obligations seared into my skin, too. And I’d just listened to Raihn talk about killing the people who now relied on me. Talk of a new kingdom was one thing. But it was talk. Because I’d just watched him put on a performance to gain the favor of the very same people who abused him.
We wanted to talk about hard decisions?
Raihn took another step closer. “Oraya, listen…”
But I jerked backwards. “I want to go back to my room.” It was impossible to miss the disappointment in his eyes. “Take me back or let me walk there myself,” I spat.
To his credit, he knew when there was no arguing with me. He didn’t say another word as he opened the door and walked silently a step behind me, all the way back to my room.