Chapter no 8

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

From the first moment I had seen Septimus, I’d hated him.

I’d known exactly who he was, and even if I didn’t know him by reputation, his appearance—which screamed Untrustworthy

Bloodborn Royalty in every way—would have given it away quickly.

When he’d sidled up to me during the Kejari, I’d wanted nothing to do with him. But he was like a virus, or an unpleasant odor. The fucker just kept coming back.

It was casual enough, at first. He would linger too long wherever Mische and I happened to be, in the days immediately preceding the Kejari. In the beginning, I’d thought he was doing what most Bloodborn nobles did during the tournament: taking advantage of the fact that they were actually allowed to interact with the other Houses, and figuring out where they could exert their influence.

Easy enough to dismiss.

But then, maybe the third or fourth time he cornered me, I began to get suspicious. And I’d already decided I didn’t like him by the time he had pulled me aside and told me, I know who you are.

That was enough to spook me. I’d ripped apart my own inner circle trying to figure out how he knew—still, to this day, I didn’t know how he had found out. But that was when the pressure began.

You can’t do this by yourself. The Rishan aren’t strong enough. Doesn’t matter if you win.

You’ll need help.

Let me help you. Let us help each other.

I told him to go fuck himself. I never considered taking the deal. I’d learned a long, long time ago the danger of someone offering you everything you’ve ever wanted.

But then he noticed Oraya.

And I still remembered the exact moment I knew he understood he could use her against me: that moment at the Halfmoon ball, when he’d called her by Nessanyn’s name.

I denied him right up until the end. Right up until he was dangling Oraya’s life in front of me. And then I broke.

When you’ve lived through certain things, you know how to recognize someone who’s desperate. Septimus, I knew, was desperate—in a dangerous kind of way, the kind he was very good at keeping far away from the surface. He’d do absolutely anything to get what he wanted, and what scared me was, I still wasn’t entirely sure what that was.

Desperation made for a terrible deal.

This thought was at the forefront of my mind as I sat in my office with him and Vale, listening to Septimus tell us, oh-so-casually, about how he couldn’t send Bloodborn troops to Misrada, after all.

Vale was not happy. He wasn’t bothering to hide exactly how not happy he was.

“That’s unacceptable,” he said.

Septimus’s stupid fucking face arranged into that stupid fucking smirk. “I understand why you feel that way,” he said, “but the nature of the

matter is what it is. I can’t bend time and space, sadly. Desdemona confirmed it multiple times. We just can’t get the forces there in time. We’ll have to make the move later.”

“So let me make sure I understand.” Vale leaned across the desk. “We now have to reschedule an operation that we’ve had planned for weeks on account of your shit generals’ poor foresight? With a day’s notice?”

Septimus’s smirk faltered. I’d noticed that he was perfectly happy to accept whatever insults you wanted to lob his way, but he didn’t like it much when you disrespected those who worked under him.

He let out a puff of smoke through his nostrils. “My shit generals are doing most of the work putting down this little rebellion of yours. Maybe if your own forces were willing to fight for you, it would have been handled faster.”

Vale looked like he was close to blows. Against my better instincts, I shot him a warning glance. Vale held that stare for a moment—fought it, because even after these last weeks, he still wasn’t really ready to accept me as his superior—before shaking his head and leaning back in his chair.

“This is what I did not miss about this job,” he muttered, as if he couldn’t help himself. “Working with incompetence.”

Septimus chuckled. Then his gaze slid to me. “You’re terribly quiet, Highness.”

I had indeed been quiet. I’d been watching Septimus, thinking about this suspiciously neat little last-minute rescheduling of his. There was more to it than he was saying. I had no doubts there, even if I didn’t know how or why.

I’d been so busy thinking that I’d neglected my role. I wanted Septimus to keep on dismissing me as the brutish, Turned king. Let him keep thinking I was someone he could take advantage of.

My returning smile was more of a baring of teeth. “What would you like me to say?”

Septimus shrugged, as if to say, You tell me.

“Do you want me to bitch at you for your poor planning and your carelessness?”

Again, he shrugged. “If you wish.”

“Why would I waste my breath? I already wasted enough of it planning this offensive with you. Maybe I don’t feel like giving you any more of my time.”

He cocked his head, staring me down a little too thoughtfully for my comfort.

I sat up straighter. “I don’t see what else there is to talk about.” I waved my hand at him dismissively. “I have actual work to do, if you’re done.”

A brief, cold smile, as Septimus rose. “Quite done.”



IT WAS NOW BAFFLING to me that the first time I’d laid eyes on Sivrinaj’s skyline, I’d thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I’d

thought it looked like nothing less than salvation.

What a fucking joke.

That view had looked a lot like this one, from the roof of the armory on the outskirts of the city. It had been night then, too, the city drenched in moonlight. I supposed there was a certain architectural appeal to it, all those domes and towers and spires, marble and ivory and silver. The kind of thing you could only admire until you’d seen firsthand the blood that had been spilled to build it, and the rot that festered underneath.

“You shouldn’t be out here, Highness,” Vale said, for the fourth time in the last fifteen minutes. The words didn’t change, but his tone did, growing increasingly frustrated.

“I heard you the first time.”

He let out a grunt of wordless disapproval.

I turned around, taking in the rest of the landscape. The armory was located right where the city limits gave way to the desert—smooth rolling dunes to the north, rocky inclines down to the sea to the south. It was a foggy, overcast night, which I didn’t like. Poor visibility to the ocean. Poor visibility above.

I glanced over the rail to the city streets below. To the west were the human districts, blocky patches of tan and gray. Just beyond them, the slums of the vampire territories of the city. A few haphazard barriers, clumsy constructions of wood and stone, still remained in some of the streets. The remnants of the Hiaj’s attempts, in the days after the coup, to claw back some sections of the city. Failed attempts. But they’d put up a fight.

And I never forgot that they were still fighting.

It was a quiet night, now. But these kinds of things always happened on quiet nights.

It had been a quiet night when the Moon Palace was attacked. It had been a quiet night before Neculai’s kingdom fell.

And it was especially quiet here now, given that Septimus had pulled away his Bloodborn forces, leaving the Rishan here to guard the armory, scattered and disorganized due to a last-minute change in orders.

Nothing was supposed to happen tonight, thanks to Septimus’s decision.

But I just thought about Septimus, and that little fucking smirk, and his very casual change of plans.

People, especially Nightborn and Shadowborn nobles, were far too quick to dismiss the Bloodborn as mindless beasts. They were bloodthirsty bastards, but they were smarter than anyone gave them credit for. If they weren’t hobbled by the curse, which cut down their numbers and their lifespans, I had no doubts they could’ve taken over Obitraes. Hell, maybe the world.

It was upper-class arrogance to underestimate them, and I didn’t have the luxury of that.

“I want more guards here,” I told Vale.

A lesser general would have told me I was being overly cautious. But Vale, to his credit, didn’t question me.

“What do you suspect?” he asked quietly. “I…”

I don’t know.

Damn my pride, but I wasn’t about to say those words aloud, especially not to Vale.

It was the truth, though. I didn’t have a concrete theory. I didn’t think Septimus would openly turn against us—at least, not yet. He’d locked himself into this alliance, too. He’d have to work harder at getting out of it than this.

But sometimes, there’s just something in the air.

I sniffed and shot Vale a wry smirk. “You smell that?” “What?”


I leaned back against the stone wall, my hands in my pockets. “I’ll stay here tonight.”


“Pull whoever we can spare from their posts throughout the rest of the city. Put them here.”

A pause. I could tell that he wanted to call me stupid for staying here personally, even if—especially if—I suspected something might happen.

But he just said, “As you wish, Highness.”

And without another argument, he spread his silver wings and launched into the sky with a whoosh. I lifted my chin and stared after him as he disappeared into the soupy mists.

I settled at the stone lip of the wall and unsheathed my sword. It had been a while, but there was a comforting familiarity to the way my muscles

had to move to wield it. I lay the blade over my lap, taking in the dark steel, the faint red smoke rolling from the blade. I knew it by heart. Like an old friend.

I almost wanted something to go wrong tonight. Give me something to kill. I missed it. It was simple, easy, straightforward. The opposite of these last few weeks.

At least, it used to be.

The memory of Vincent’s face in his final moments flitted across my mind, unwelcome. Nothing simple about that.

I pushed that thought away, leaning back and watching the thick clouds drift across the sky. Waiting for something. Even if I didn’t know what.

Let them come.

I was looking forward to it.

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