Chapter no 14

House of Earth and Blood

Ruhn Danaan stood before the towering oak doors to his father’s study and took a bracing, cooling breath.

It had nothing to do with the thirty-block run he’d made from his unofficial office above a dive bar in the Old Square over to his father’s sprawling marble villa in the heart of FiRo. Ruhn let out a breath and knocked.

He knew better than to barge in.

“Enter.” The cold male voice leached through the doors, through Ruhn. But he shoved aside any indication of his thundering heart and slid into the room, shutting the door behind him.

The Autumn King’s personal study was larger than most single-family houses. Bookshelves rose two stories on every wall, crammed with tomes and artifacts both old and new, magic and ordinary. A golden balcony bisected the rectangular space, accessible by either of the spiral staircases at the front and back, and heavy black velvet curtains currently blocked the morning light from the tall windows overlooking the interior courtyard of the villa.

The orrery in the far back of the space drew Ruhn’s eye: a working model of their seven planets, moons, and sun. Made from solid gold. Ruhn had been mesmerized by it as a boy, back when he’d been stupid enough to believe his father actually gave a shit about him, spending hours in here watching the male make whatever observations and calculations he jotted down in his black leather notebooks. He’d asked only once about what his father was looking for, exactly.

Patterns was all his father said.

The Autumn King sat at one of the four massive worktables, each littered with books and an array of glass and metal devices. Experiments

for whatever the fuck his father did with those patterns. Ruhn passed one of the tables, where iridescent liquid bubbled within a glass orb set over a burner—the flame likely of his father’s making—puffs of violet smoke curling from it.

“Should I be wearing a hazmat suit?” Ruhn asked, aiming for the worktable where his father peered through a foot-long prism ensconced in some delicate silver contraption.

“State your business, Prince,” his father said shortly, an amber eye fixed to the viewing apparatus atop the prism.

Ruhn refrained from commenting about how the taxpaying people of this city would feel if they knew how one of their seven Heads spent his days. The six lower Heads were all appointed by Micah, not elected by any democratic process. There were councils within councils, designed to give people the illusion of control, but the main order of things was simple: The Governor ruled, and the City Heads led their own districts under him. Beyond that, the 33rd Legion answered only to the Governor, while the Aux obeyed the City Heads, divided into units based upon districts and species. It grew murkier from there. The wolves claimed the shifter packs were the commanders of the Aux—but the Fae insisted that this distinction belonged to them, instead. It made dividing—claiming— responsibilities difficult.

Ruhn had been heading up the Fae division of the Aux for fifteen years now. His father had given the command, and he had obeyed. He had little choice. Good thing he’d trained his entire life to be a lethal, efficient killer.

Not that it brought him any particular joy.

“Some major shit is going down,” Ruhn said, halting on the other side of the table. “I just got a visit from Isaiah Tiberian. Maximus Tertian was murdered last night—in exactly the same way that Danika and her pack were killed.”

His father adjusted some dial on the prism device. “I received the report earlier this morning. It appears Philip Briggs wasn’t the murderer.”

Ruhn stiffened. “You were going to tell me when?”

His father glanced up from the prism device. “Am I beholden to you, Prince?”

The bastard certainly wasn’t, his title aside. Though they were close in depth of power, the fact remained that Ruhn, despite his Starborn status and possession of the Starsword, would always have just a little less than his father. He’d never decided, after he’d gone through his

Ordeal and made the Drop fifty years ago, whether it was a relief or a curse to have come up short on the power ranking. On the one hand, had he surpassed his father, the playing field would have tipped in his favor. On the other, it would have established him firmly as a rival.

Having seen what his father did to rivals, it was better to not be on that list.

“This information is vital. I already put out a call to Flynn and Declan to amp up patrols in FiRo. We’ll have every street watched.”

“Then it does not appear that I needed to tell you, does it?”

His father was nearing five hundred years old, had worn the golden crown of the Autumn King for most of that time, and had been an asshole for all of it. And he still showed no signs of aging—not as the Fae did, with their gradual fading into death, like a shirt washed too many times.

So it’d be another few centuries of this. Playing prince. Having to knock on a door and wait for permission to enter. Having to kneel and obey.

Ruhn was one of about a dozen Fae Princes across the whole planet Midgard—and had met most of the others over the decades. But he stood apart as the only Starborn among them. Among all the Fae.

Like Ruhn, the other princes served under preening, vain kings stationed in the various territories as Heads of city districts or swaths of wilderness. Some of them had been waiting for their thrones for centuries, counting down each decade as if it were mere months.

It disgusted him. Always had. Along with the fact that everything he had was bankrolled by the bastard before him: the office above the dive bar, the villa in FiRo adorned with priceless antiques that his father had gifted him upon winning the Starsword during his Ordeal. Ruhn never stayed at the villa, instead choosing to live in a house he shared with his two best friends near the Old Square.

Also purchased with his father’s money.

Officially, the money came from the “salary” Ruhn received for heading up the Fae Auxiliary patrols. But his father’s signature authorized that weekly check.

The Autumn King lifted the prism device. “Did the Commander of the 33rd say anything of note?”

The meeting had been one step short of a disaster.

First, Tiberian had grilled him about Bryce’s whereabouts last night, until Ruhn was about one breath away from beating the shit out of the

angel, Commander of the 33rd or no. Then Tiberian had the balls to ask about Ruhn’s whereabouts.

Ruhn had refrained from informing the commander that pummeling Maximus Tertian for grabbing Bryce’s hand had been tempting.

She’d have bitten his head off for it. And she’d been able to handle herself, sparing Ruhn the political nightmare of setting off a blood feud between their two Houses. Not just between Sky and Breath and Flame and Shadow, but between the Danaans and the Tertians. And thus every Fae and vampyr living in Valbara and Pangera. The Fae didn’t fuck around with their blood feuds. Neither did the vamps.

“No,” Ruhn said. “Though Maximus Tertian died a few hours after having a business meeting with Bryce.”

His father set down the prism, his lip curling. “I told you to warn that girl to stay quiet.”

That girl. Bryce was always that girl, or the girl, to their father. Ruhn hadn’t heard the male speak her name in twelve years. Not since her first and last visit to this villa.

Everything had changed after that visit. Bryce had come here for the first time, a coltish thirteen-year-old ready to finally meet her father and his people. To meet Ruhn, who had been intrigued at the prospect of finding he had a half sister after more than sixty years of being an only child.

The Autumn King had insisted that the visit be discreet—not saying the obvious: until the Oracle whispers of your future. What had gone down had been an unmitigated disaster not only for Bryce, but for Ruhn as well. His chest still ached when he remembered her leaving the villa in tears of rage, refusing to look back over her shoulder even once. His father’s treatment of Bryce had opened Ruhn’s eyes to the Autumn King’s true nature … and the cold Fae male before him had never forgotten this fact.

Ruhn had visited Bryce frequently at her parents’ place over the next three years. She’d been a bright spot—the brightest spot, if he felt like being honest. Until that stupid, shameful fight between them that had left things in such shambles that Bryce still hated his guts. He didn’t blame her—not with the words he’d said, that he’d immediately regretted as soon as they’d burst from him.

Now Ruhn said, “Bryce’s meeting with Maximus preceded my warning to behave. I arrived right as she was wrapping up.” When he’d gotten that call from Riso Sergatto, the butterfly shifter’s laughing voice unusually grave, he’d sprinted over to the White Raven, not giving

himself time to second-guess the wisdom of it. “I’m her alibi, according to Tiberian—I told him that I walked her home, and stayed there until well after Tertian’s time of death.”

His father’s face revealed nothing. “And yet it still does not seem very flattering that the girl was at the club on both nights, and interacted with the victims hours before.”

Ruhn said tightly, “Bryce had nothing to do with the murders. Despite the alibi shit, the Governor must believe it, too, because Tiberian swore Bryce is being guarded by the 33rd.”

It might have been admirable that they bothered to do so, had all the angels not been arrogant assholes. Luckily, the most arrogant of those assholes hadn’t been the one to pay Ruhn this particular visit.

“That girl has always possessed a spectacular talent for being where she shouldn’t.”

Ruhn controlled the anger thrumming through him, his shadow magic seeking to veil him, shield him from sight. Another reason his father resented him: beyond his Starborn gifts, the bulk of his magic skewed toward his mother’s kin—the Fae who ruled Avallen, the mist-shrouded isle in the north. The sacred heart of Faedom. His father would have burned Avallen into ashes if he could. That Ruhn did not possess his father’s flames, the flames of most of the Valbaran Fae, that he instead possessed Avallen abilities—more than Ruhn ever let on—to summon and walk through shadows, had been an unforgivable insult.

Silence rippled between father and son, interrupted only by the ticking metal of the orrery at the other end of the room as the planets inched around their orbit.

His father picked up the prism, holding it up to the firstlights twinkling in one of the three crystal chandeliers.

Ruhn said tightly, “Tiberian said the Governor wants these murders kept quiet, but I’d like your permission to warn my mother.” Every word grated. I’d like your permission.

His father waved a hand. “Permission granted. She’ll heed the warning.”

Just as Ruhn’s mother had obeyed everyone her entire life.

She’d listen and lie low, and no doubt gladly accept the extra guards sent to her villa, down the block from his own, until this shit was sorted out. Maybe he’d even stay with her tonight.

She wasn’t queen—wasn’t even a consort or mate. No, his sweet, kind mother had been selected for one purpose: breeding. The Autumn King had decided, after a few centuries of ruling, that he wanted an heir.

As the daughter of a prominent noble house that had defected from Avallen’s court, she’d done her duty gladly, grateful for the eternal privilege it offered. In all of Ruhn’s seventy-five years of life, he’d never heard her speak one ill word about his father. About the life she’d been conscripted to.

Even when Ember and his father had their secret, disastrous relationship, his mother had not been jealous. There had been so many other females before her, and after her. Yet none had been formally chosen, not as she was, to continue the royal bloodline. And when Bryce had come along, the few times his mother had met her, she’d been kind. Doting, even.

Ruhn couldn’t tell if he admired his mother for never questioning the gilded cage she lived in. If something was wrong with him for resenting it.

He might never understand his mother, yet it didn’t stop his fierce pride that he took after her bloodline, that his shadow-walking set him apart from the asshole in front of him, a constant, welcome reminder that he didn’t have to turn into a domineering prick. Even if most of his mother’s kin in Avallen were little better. His cousins especially.

“Perhaps you should call her,” Ruhn said, “give the warning yourself. She’d appreciate your concern.”

“I’m otherwise engaged,” his father said calmly. It had always astonished Ruhn: how cold his father was, when those flames burned in his veins. “You may inform her yourself. And you will refrain from telling me how to manage my relationship with your mother.”

“You don’t have a relationship. You bred her like a mare and sent her out to pasture.”

Cinders sparked through the room. “You benefited quite well from that breeding, Starborn.”

Ruhn didn’t dare voice the words that tried to spring from his mouth. Even as my stupid fucking title brought you further influence in the empire and among your fellow kings, it still chafed, didn’t it? That your son, not you, retrieved the Starsword from the Cave of Princes in Avallen’s dark heart. That your son, not you, stood among the long-dead Starborn Princes asleep in their sarcophagi and was deemed worthy to pull the sword from its sheath. How many times did you try to draw the sword when you were young? How much research did you do in this very study to find ways to wield it without being chosen?

His father curled a finger toward him. “I have need of your gift.”

“Why?” His Starborn abilities were little more than a sparkle of starlight in his palm. His shadow talents were the more interesting gift. Even the temperature monitors on the high-tech cameras in this city couldn’t detect him when he shadow-walked.

His father held up the prism. “Direct a beam of your starlight through this.” Not waiting for an answer, his father again put an eye to the metal viewing contraption atop the prism.

It ordinarily took Ruhn a good amount of concentration to summon his starlight, and it usually left him with a headache for hours afterward, but … He was intrigued enough to try.

Setting his index finger onto the crystal of the prism, Ruhn closed his eyes and focused upon his breathing. Let the clicking metal of the orrery guide him down, down, down into the black pit within himself, past the churning well of his shadows, to the little hollow beneath them. There, curled upon itself like some hibernating creature, lay the single seed of iridescent light.

He gently cupped it with a mental palm, stirring it awake as he carefully brought it upward, as if he were carrying water in his hands. Up through himself, the power shimmering with anticipation, warm and lovely and just about the only part of himself he liked.

Ruhn opened his eyes to find the starlight dancing at his fingertip, refracting through the prism.

His father adjusted a few dials on the device, jotting down notes with his other hand.

The starlight seed became slippery, disintegrating into the air around them.

“Just another moment,” the king ordered.

Ruhn gritted his teeth, as if it’d somehow keep the starlight from dissolving.

Another click of the device, and another jotted note in an ancient, rigid hand. The Old Language of the Fae—his father recorded everything in the half-forgotten language their people had used when they had first come to Midgard through the Northern Rift.

The starlight shivered, flared, and faded into nothing. The Autumn King grunted in annoyance, but Ruhn barely heard it over his pounding head.

He’d mastered himself enough to pay attention as his father finished his notes. “What are you even doing with that thing?”

“Studying how light moves through the world. How it can be shaped.”

“Don’t we have scientists over at CCU doing this shit?”

“Their interests are not the same as mine.” His father surveyed him. And then said, without a hint of warning, “It is time to consider females for an appropriate marriage.”

Ruhn blinked. “For you?”

“Don’t play stupid.” His father shut his notebook and leaned back in his chair. “You owe it to our bloodline to produce an heir—and to expand our alliances. The Oracle decreed you would be a fair and just king. This is the first step in that direction.”

All Fae, male and female, made a visit to the city’s Oracle at age thirteen as one of the two Great Rites to enter adulthood: first the Oracle, and then the Ordeal—a few years or decades later.

Ruhn’s stomach churned at the memory of that first Rite, far worse than his harrowing Ordeal in so many ways. “I’m not getting married.”

“Marriage is a political contract. Sire an heir, then go back to fucking whomever you please.”

Ruhn snarled. “I am not getting married. Certainly not in an arranged marriage.”

“You will do as you are told.” “You’re not fucking married.” “I did not need the alliance.” “But now we do?”

“There is a war raging overseas, in case you weren’t aware. It worsens by the day, and it may very well spread here. I do not plan to enter it without insurance.”

Pulse hammering, Ruhn stared at his father. He was completely serious.

Ruhn managed to say, “You plan to make me marry so we have solid allies in the war? Aren’t we the Asteri’s allies?”

“We are. But war is a liminal time. Power rankings can easily be reshuffled. We must demonstrate how vital and influential we are.”

Ruhn considered the words. “You’re talking about a marriage to someone not of the Fae.” His father had to be worried, to even consider something so rare.

“Queen Hecuba died last month. Her daughter, Hypaxia, has been crowned the new witch-queen of Valbara.”

Ruhn had seen the news reports. Hypaxia Enador was young, no more than twenty-six. No photos of her existed, as her mother had kept her cloistered in her mountain fortress.

His father went on, “Her reign will be officially recognized by the Asteri at the Summit next month. I will tie her to the Fae soon after that.” “You’re forgetting that Hypaxia will have a say in this. She might

very well laugh you off.”

“My spies tell me she will heed her mother’s old friendship with us

—and will be skittish enough as a new ruler to accept the friendly hand we offer.”

Ruhn had the distinct feeling of being led into a web, the Autumn King drawing him ever closer to its heart. “I’m not marrying her.”

“You are the Crown Prince of the Valbaran Fae. You do not have a choice.” His father’s cold face became so like Bryce’s that Ruhn turned away, unable to stomach it. It was a miracle no one had figured out their secret yet. “Luna’s Horn remains at large.”

Ruhn twisted back to his father. “So? What does one have to do with the other?”

“I want you to find it.”

Ruhn glanced to the notebooks, the prism. “It went missing two years ago.”

“And I now have an interest in locating it. The Horn belonged to the Fae first. Public interest in retrieving it has waned; now is the right time to attain it.”

His father tapped a finger on the table. Something had riled him. Ruhn considered what he’d seen on his father’s schedule this morning when he’d done his cursory scan of it as commander of the Fae Auxiliary. Meetings with preening Fae nobility, a workout with his private guard, and— “The meeting with Micah went well this morning, I take it.”

His father’s silence confirmed his suspicions. The Autumn King pinned him with his amber eyes, weighing Ruhn’s stance, his expression, all of it. Ruhn knew he’d always come up short, but his father said, “Micah wished to discuss shoring up our city’s defenses should the conflict overseas spread here. He made it clear the Fae are … not as they once were.”

Ruhn stiffened. “The Fae Aux units are in just as good shape as the wolves are.”

“It is not about our strength of arms, but rather our strength as a people.” His father’s voice dripped with disgust. “The Fae have long been fading—our magic wanes with each generation, like watered-down wine.” He frowned at Ruhn. “The first Starborn Prince could blind an

enemy with a flash of his starlight. You can barely summon a sparkle for an instant.”

Ruhn clenched his jaw. “The Governor pushed your buttons. So what?”

“He insulted our strength.” His father’s hair simmered with fire, as if the strands had gone molten. “He said we gave up the Horn in the first place, then let it be lost two years ago.”

“It was stolen from Luna’s Temple. We didn’t fucking lose it.” Ruhn barely knew anything about the object, hadn’t even cared when it went missing two years ago.

“We let a sacred artifact of our people be used as a cheap tourist attraction,” his father snapped. “And I want you to find it again.” So his father could rub it in Micah’s face.

Petty, brittle male. That’s all his father was. “The Horn has no power,” Ruhn reminded him.

“It is a symbol—and symbols will always wield power of their own.” His father’s hair burned brighter.

Ruhn suppressed his urge to cringe, his body tensing with the memory of how the king’s burning hand had felt wrapped around his arm, sizzling through his flesh. No shadows had ever been able to hide him from it. “Find the Horn, Ruhn. If war comes to these shores, our people will need it in more ways than one.”

His father’s amber eyes blazed. There was more the male wasn’t telling him.

Ruhn could think of only one other thing to cause this much aggravation: Micah again suggesting that Ruhn replace his father as City Head of FiRo. Whispers had swirled for years, and Ruhn had no doubt the Archangel was smart enough to know how much it’d anger the Autumn King. With the Summit nearing, Micah knew pissing off the Fae King with a reference to his fading power was a good way to ensure the Fae Aux was up to snuff before it, regardless of any war.

Ruhn tucked that information aside. “Why don’t you look for the Horn?”

His father loosed a breath through his long, thin nose, and the fire in him banked to embers. The king nodded toward Ruhn’s hand, where the starlight had been. “I have been looking. For two years.” Ruhn blinked, but his father went on, “The Horn was originally the possession of Pelias, the first Starborn Prince. You may find that like calls to like— merely researching it could reveal things to you that were hidden from others.”

Ruhn hardly bothered to read anything these days beyond the news and the Aux reports. The prospect of poring over ancient tomes just in case something jumped out at him while a murderer ran loose … “We’ll get into a lot of trouble with the Governor if we take the Horn for ourselves.”

“Then keep it quiet, Prince.” His father opened his notebook again.

Conversation over.

Yeah, this was nothing more than political ego-stroking. Micah had taunted his father, insulted his strength—and now his father would show him precisely where the Fae stood.

Ruhn ground his teeth. He needed a drink. A strong fucking drink.

His head roiled as he headed for the door, the pain from summoning the starlight eddying with every word thrown at him.

I told you to warn that girl to stay quiet. Find the Horn.

Like calls to like.

An appropriate marriage. Produce an heir.

You owe it to our bloodline.

Ruhn slammed the door behind him. Only when he’d gotten halfway down the hall did he laugh, a harsh, rasping sound. At least the asshole still didn’t know that he’d lied about what the Oracle had told him all those decades ago.

With every step out of his father’s villa, Ruhn could once more hear the Oracle’s unearthly whispering, reading the smoke while he’d trembled in her dim marble chamber:

The royal bloodline shall end with you, Prince.

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