Chapter no 9

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

I knew something was wrong before the explosion hit.

I was no stranger to gazing longingly out this bedchamber window. An entire life locked in this room had that effect. But these last couple

of weeks, I’d been doing more than gazing. I’d been waiting.

Waiting for a mass exodus of Bloodborn and Rishan soldiers. Waiting for a mass exodus that didn’t come.

The Bloodborn left a few days ago, and though it wasn’t quite the scale of movement that I’d been expecting by the way I’d heard them talking, it was enough to keep me hopeful. I’d thought the Rishan would be following tonight.

But hours passed, and the Rishan didn’t move. A knot of unease tightened in my stomach as I watched and waited, growing with every passing minute. I tried to use the mirror again, this time to warn Jesmine, but was met with nothing but misty clouds in my pool of blood. Apparently, she’d already moved. The attack was already underway.

Soon, I was pacing the length of the windows, eyes glued to the armory in the distance, mind racing.

Jesmine was a strong, competent general, I told myself. She wouldn’t have moved unless she had verified that she had a path to success. And the conditions of the night were ideal. Cloudy, to hide Hiaj flying in the skies. Many of the Bloodborn had left. That was something. It just wasn’t the skeleton force that I’d been expecting. Unless I’d missed something.

But Vincent whispered in my ear, You know better, little serpent, than to be willfully ignorant.

No. He was right. I stopped at the window, fingertips pressed to the glass. Something had changed. The Bloodborn that had pulled out certainly wouldn’t be enough to take a city like Misrada.


The explosion wiped away all my thoughts.

It was loud—so powerful I felt it in the pads of my fingers against the glass, even from across the city. A burst of shimmery smoke erupted from the distant armory in a plume of white and blue.

I watched, breathless, as the flare of light burst, then dimmed. I hadn’t seen anything quite like it since…

Since the attack on the Moon Palace, many months ago.

Jesmine. Fucking brilliant. Petty. But brilliant. She’d used magic wielders to recreate the destruction of the Moon Palace, creating a violent distraction. I didn’t blink as distant silhouettes plummeted through the clouds and smoke—countless Hiaj, diving down into the wreckage.

The sight chilled me down to my bones. I needed to get down there.

I needed to get down there right now.

The explosion had triggered an eruption of activity in the halls beyond my chamber. I ran to my door and leaned against it, listening to the frantic sound of distant running footsteps and shouting voices. Then I pounded at the oak, so hard my fist began to ache.

Whoever was on the other side took a long time to open it, like they weren’t sure whether it was a good idea.

A young Rishan man with wavy blond hair and a look of general bewilderment on his face stood there, looking as if he was immediately regretting his decision.

I blinked. “You aren’t Ketura.”

When I had a guard, it was most often her. “No,” he said. “I’m Killan.”

If Ketura wasn’t here, that meant that she had been pulled away somewhere else. Perhaps she was already at the armory.


“Let me through,” I said, already moving, but Killan clumsily blocked my path. I craned my head to see several more soldiers, donning armor, rushing down the hall.

“I am your queen,” I snarled. “Let me pass.”

Let’s see if all Raihn’s you-aren’t-a-prisoner-you’re-a-queen bullshit actually meant anything.

“I can’t do that, Highness,” Killan said. “I’ve been instructed to guard you. It’s dangerous out there.”

I’ve been instructed to guard you, the boy said, like I didn’t see his nostrils flaring when I got too close. He wasn’t equipped to guard anything. He didn’t even know how to resist the smell of human blood.

If this was all that was left in this castle, that meant they were really desperate.

I took a step backwards. Two.

Killan loosened a visible exhale of relief.

Remember who you are, Vincent whispered.

What the hell was I doing, asking this boy for permission to leave?

Letting him think he could guard me?

I’d won the Goddess-damned Kejari. I’d won battles against vampire warriors twice my size and ten times my age. I was the daughter of Vincent of the Nightborn, the greatest king to rule the House of Night, and I was his rightful Heir, and I was better than this.

Mother, I had missed anger. I embraced it now like welcoming an old lover back into my arms.

Nightfire roared to my fingertips and tore up my forearms.

It wasn’t hard to deal with Killan. The boy had probably never even hit another living thing with that sword, and he certainly wasn’t prepared for me to be the first. The touch of Nightfire had him gasping in pain, bloodless wounds opening over his arms where I grabbed him and flung him against the wall. He tried to fight back, weakly, but I knocked his sword from his grasp, sending it clanging to the marble floor.

It felt so good to fight again. So good I wanted him to push back harder.

I wanted more of a challenge.

I wanted to hurt a little.

But Killan didn’t offer much of a fight. No, he just panted, his heart beating fast—Mother, how could I hear that heartbeat so clearly?—as I pressed my forearm to his throat, Nightfire nibbling at his skin.

My foot reached to the left and dragged his sword back. I reached down to grab it, and Killan tried to slip my grasp.

Useless. Seconds and I had him back against the wall, this time with his own sword poised at his chest.

He looked so afraid.

That used to bring me a lot of satisfaction. To see them afraid. A few brief moments where they felt the kind of powerlessness I had felt my entire life.

For a moment, I felt satisfaction in it now, too.

If it feels this good to have one person look at you this way, little serpent, Vincent murmured, imagine how good it feels to see a kingdom look at you like this.

A shiver ran up my spine. A person could lose themselves in that kind of power. And I wanted to, as long as it made me feel something other than weak.

But the uncomfortable truth was that Killan was not one of my targets in the human slums. Killan was barely more than a child, tasked with a job he wasn’t ready for.

Kill him, Vincent insisted. He will tell the others you’re gone.

Voices down the hall. Distant footsteps. Fuck. No time. I lifted my sword arm.

“Please,” Killan begged. “I—”


I slammed his head against the wall.

His body went limp. He was bigger than me, and physically stronger, but he hadn’t been expecting that. It was difficult to knock out a vampire. He wouldn’t be unconscious for long. I dragged him into my bedroom and locked it behind me—all three clicks.

The footsteps were growing closer. The castle seemed to have come alive with anxiety. Distant shouts rang out, harsh with command.

I only had a few minutes. If that.

I grabbed Killan’s sword and his hooded military cloak, and I ran.



I’D HAVE GIVEN anything in this moment for wings. Even if I did have the stamina to sprint across Sivrinaj—a ridiculous thought—it still would have taken far too long to make it to the armory on foot.

I needed a horse.

Horseback travel wasn’t especially common in the House of Night, given that wings were often much more efficient. They were typically only used by humans—or by the Nightborn Guard.

Which meant I had to sneak my way down to the stables. Killan’s cloak was a shit disguise when anyone could smell my human blood, but it was better than nothing. It was only thanks to the utter chaos in the castle that I’d managed to make it to the ground floor undetected. Uniformed figures ranging in rank from Nightborn Guard members to common foot soldiers, barely more than servants, flooded the halls.

It was easy enough to lose myself in this, slipping all the way down to the stables. A number of horses had been tacked and lined up, and I grabbed the first one I saw, a little chestnut mare. I briefly considered the possibility of trying to blend in, but I didn’t have the luxury of time. The minute anyone saw my face or got close enough to smell me, they’d know exactly who I was. Worse, as I hoisted myself onto the horse and leaned down to adjust my cloak, I glimpsed my chest and cursed.

My Mark.

I was wearing a camisole, not my usual leathers, which left my upper chest exposed. The cloak covered some of the red ink, but not all of it.

Fine. Speed it was.

My horse was uncomfortable, as if sensing that it was being separated from its herd for unsavory purposes. Horses in Obitraes tended to be especially flighty creatures. This one danced anxiously as I urged it from the stable doors, ducking my head to hide beneath my hood. The heat of the night, arid and thick, startled me. It took me a moment to realize that it was probably because I hadn’t even been outside in weeks.

Raihn’s words from one of our first meetings now rang through my head:

Vincent’s little princess, locked up in her glass castle, where everyone can look but never touch.

What a fucking hypocrite.

“Hey! You, boy! Where are you supposed to be?”

A gruff voice startled me. I urged my horse into a trot onto the city streets, tugging my hood higher.

“Boy!” the voice called again, but I kicked my horse into a canter, leaving his shouts behind me.

The human districts. I knew those streets better than any vampires did. I could cut through and make it to the other end of the city faster through roads that weren’t congested with soldiers and checkpoints.

I dug my heels in, the canter becoming a gallop as we swung down a quiet, dark side street. But just around the corner the beast abruptly spooked, rearing back and nearly sending me tumbling to the cobblestones. I barely managed to right myself, rubbing the mare’s neck and uttering hushed comforts.

It was so dark that at first my feeble human eyesight couldn’t make out the figure in front of me. But then—

They stepped closer, hands raised. A ray of moonlight fell across the swoop of his hair—silver—and the curve of a nonchalant smile.

“Didn’t mean to spook you,” he said. “My evening stroll got a bit chaotic.”



I inclined my head, hiding it farther beneath the shadow of my hood.

Would it matter, though, to vampire eyesight? To vampire smell?

“Apologies,” he said. “You have important things to do, don’t you? I think it’s that way, though. All kinds of barricades down this road.”

I nodded, still struggling to keep my face hidden.

Septimus tucked one hand into his pocket and brushed past me, patting my horse’s shoulder as he did.

“Good luck out there. Looks like some nasty business.”

I released an exhale as he passed, unwilling to question my luck even if I had the time to. Maybe he’d dismissed me. Or maybe he’d recognized me. Even if he had, I couldn’t let myself stop to think too hard about what that meant.

I had a task, and a clear road ahead of me. I kicked my horse back into a canter.

I took the left path.



THE ATTACK WAS a near-perfect mimicry of the attack on the Moon Palace. I had to admire Jesmine’s commitment to her pettiness. As far as she knew, Raihn had been responsible for the Moon Palace attack. To her, this would be justice. And Mother, she was damned good at her job. It was amazing what she’d managed to execute. It felt like I was galloping into the underworld itself.

Nightfire smoke had a very particular smell—one that seemed to burn your nostrils from the inside out. The stench of it was overpowering by the time I crossed the second bridge from the human districts back into the vampire territories of Sivrinaj. I was at the outskirts of the city at this point, and as soon as I turned the corner to the first main road leading to the base, I cursed to myself.

The scene before me was one of pure carnage. The searing white of Nightfire stung my eyes. It consumed most of the armory.

It seemed that Jesmine had decided—probably wisely—that retaking and holding the base was impossible so close to the heart of Sivrinaj. So destroying it would have to do.

But they were far from unopposed. Rishan soldiers surrounded me, casters fighting back the flames, warriors charging into the bloodshed. On the roof, barely visible through the Nightfire light, warriors tangled. I jerked my horse backwards as a bloody, mangled Hiaj body landed at its feet with a sickening wet thump.

I stared down at him. He blinked at me. His face was covered in blood, shapeless in a way that implied most of his bones had been broken. A brief flicker of recognition sparked in his eyes, and his mouth opened, but no sound came out.

For a horrible moment, I was looking at my father’s body, mangled just like this one, trying to speak to me in his final moments and failing.

My head snapped up as a distant scream rang out—the kind that set the hairs upright on the back of my neck.

I recognized that sound immediately. It was the same sound that had pierced the air during the Moon Palace attack.

Demons. Jesmine had gotten her hands on a summoner.

My horse had heard that scream too, and it was extremely uninterested in going anywhere near it. It reared up in a violent, sudden lurch, then bucked, and I had to throw myself off its back as it bolted back into the darkened streets of the city.

I let out a barrage of grunts as I rolled against the cobblestones. I cursed and pushed myself up to my feet, groping around until I found Killan’s sword again. It was a clumsy, unremarkable weapon. I didn’t like fighting with traditional swords—they were big and awkward and didn’t move as fast as I did—but something pointy was something pointy.

I staggered to my feet and set my sights on the burning armory. The doors had been blown open. An entire quarter of the building was simply missing.

Jesmine would be inside. My soldiers would be inside.

I was running into the flames before I gave myself time to think about


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