Chapter no 19

House of Earth and Blood

Bryce shouldered the canvas bag, surveying the Viper Queen. “Nice outfit.”

The serpentine shifter smiled, revealing bright white teeth—and canines that were slightly too elongated. And slightly too thin. “Nice bodyguard.”

Bryce shrugged as those snake’s eyes dragged over every inch of Hunt. “Nothing going on upstairs, but everything happening where it counts.”

Hunt stiffened. But the female’s purple lips curved upward. “I’ve never heard Hunt Athalar described that way, but I’m sure the general appreciates it.”

At the near-forgotten title, Hunt’s jaw tightened. Yes, the Viper Queen had likely been alive during the Fall. Would have known Hunt not as one of the 33rd’s triarii or the Shadow of Death, but as General Hunt Athalar, High Commander of all the Archangel Shahar’s legions.

And Bryce had strung him along for two days. She glanced over a shoulder, finding Hunt assessing the Viper Queen and the four Fae males flanking her. Defectors from her father’s court—trained assassins in not just weapons, but the queen’s specialty: venoms and poisons.

None of them deigned to acknowledge her.

The Viper Queen tilted her head to the side, the razor-sharp bob shifting like black silk. On the ground below, patrons milled about, unaware that their ruler had graced them with her presence. “Looks like you were doing some shopping.”

Bryce gave a half shrug. “Bargain hunting is a hobby. Your realm is the best place for it.”

“I thought your boss paid you too well for you to stoop to cutting costs. And using salts.”

Bryce forced herself to smile, to keep her heartbeat steady, knowing full well the female could pick up on it. Could taste fear. Could likely taste what variety of salt, exactly, sat in the bag dangling from her shoulder. “Just because I make money doesn’t mean I have to get ripped off.”

The Viper Queen glanced between her and Hunt. “I heard you two have been spotted around town together.”

Hunt growled, “It’s classified.”

The Viper Queen arched a well-groomed black eyebrow, the small beauty mark just beneath the outer corner of her eye shifting with the movement. Her gold-painted nails glinted as she reached a hand into the pocket of her jumpsuit, fishing out a lighter encrusted with rubies forming the shape of a striking asp. A cigarette appeared between her purple lips a moment later, and they watched in silence, her guards monitoring every breath they made, as she lit up and inhaled deeply. Smoke rippled from those dark lips as she said, “Shit’s getting interesting these days.”

Bryce pivoted toward the exit. “Yep. Let’s go, Hunt.”

One of the guards stepped in front of her, six and a half feet of Fae grace and muscle.

Bryce stopped short, Hunt nearly slamming into her—his growl likely his first and last warning to the male. But the guard merely gazed at his queen, vacant and beholden. Likely addicted to the venom she secreted and doled out to her inner circle.

Bryce looked over her shoulder at the Viper Queen, still leaning against the rail, still smoking that cigarette. “It’s a good time for business,” the queen observed, “when key players converge for the Summit. So many ruling-class elites, all with their own … interests.”

Hunt was close enough to Bryce’s back that she could feel the tremor that ran through his powerful body, could have sworn lightning tingled over her spine. But he said nothing.

The Viper Queen merely extended a hand to the walkway behind her, gold nails flashing in the light. “My office, if you will.”

“No,” Hunt said. “We’re going.”

Bryce stepped closer to the Viper Queen. “Lead the way, Majesty.”

She did. Hunt was bristling at her side, but Bryce kept her eyes on the swaying, glossy bob of the female ahead of them. Her guards kept a

few feet behind—far enough away that Hunt deemed it safe to mutter, “This is a terrible idea.”

“You were bitching this morning that I wasn’t doing anything of value,” Bryce muttered back as they trailed the Viper Queen through an archway and down a back set of stairs. From below, roaring and cheers rose to meet them. “And now that I am doing something, you’re bitching about it, too?” She snorted. “Get your shit together, Athalar.”

His jaw tightened again. But he glanced at her bag, the block of salt weighing it down. “You bought the salt because you knew it’d attract her attention.”

“You told me that it’d take weeks to get a meeting with her. I decided to bypass all the bullshit.” She tapped the bag, the salt thumping hollowly beneath her hand.

“Cthona’s tits,” he muttered, shaking his head. They exited the stairwell a level down, the walls solid concrete. Behind them, the roar of the fighting pit echoed down the corridor. But the Viper Queen glided ahead, passing rusty metal doors. Until she opened an unmarked one and swept in without so much as looking back. Bryce couldn’t help her smug smile.

“Don’t look so fucking satisfied,” Hunt hissed. “We might not even walk out of this place alive.” True. “I’ll ask the questions.”


They glowered at each other, and Bryce could have sworn lightning forked across his eyes. But they’d reached the door, which opened into— She’d been expecting the plush opulence of Griffin Antiquities hidden behind that door: gilded mirrors and velvet divans and silk drapes

and a carved oak desk as old as this city.

Not this … mess. It was barely better than the stockroom of a dive bar. A dented metal desk occupied most of the cramped space, a scratched purple chair behind it—tufts of stuffing poking out of the upper corner, and the pale green paint peeled off the wall in half a dozen spots. Not to mention the water stain gracing the ceiling, made worse by the thrumming fluorescent firstlights. Against one wall stood an open shelving unit filled with everything from files to crates of liquor to discarded guns; on the opposite, stacked cardboard boxes rose above her head.

One glance at Hunt and Bryce knew he was thinking the same: the Viper Queen, mistress of the underworld, feared poisons expert and ruler of the Meat Market, claimed this hovel as an office?

The female slid into the chair, interlacing her fingers atop the mess of papers strewn across the desk. A computer that was about twenty years out of date sat like a fat rock before her, a little statue of Luna poised atop it, the goddess’s bow aimed at the shifter’s face.

One of her guards shut the door, prompting Hunt’s hand to slide toward his hip, but Bryce had already taken a seat in one of the cheap aluminum chairs.

“Not as fancy as your boss’s place,” the Viper Queen said, reading the disbelief on Bryce’s face, “but it does the trick.”

Bryce didn’t bother agreeing that the space was far from anything befitting a serpentine shifter whose snake form was a moon-white cobra with scales that gleamed like opals—and whose power was rumored to be … different. Something extra that mixed with her venom, something strange and old.

Hunt took a seat beside her, twisting the chair frontward to accommodate his wings. Roaring from the fighting pit rumbled through the concrete floor beneath their feet.

The Viper Queen lit another cigarette. “You’re here to ask about Danika Fendyr.”

Bryce kept her face neutral. To his credit, Athalar did, too.

Hunt said carefully, “We’re trying to get a clearer picture of everything.”

Her remarkable eyes narrowed with pleasure. “If that’s what you want to claim, then sure.” Smoke rippled from her lips. “I’ll spare you the bullshit, though. Danika was a threat to me, and in more ways than perhaps you know. But she was smart. Our relationship was a working one.” Another inhale. “I’m sure Athalar can back me up on this,” she drawled, earning a warning glare from him, “but to get shit done, sometimes the Aux and 33rd have to work with those of us who dwell in the shadows.”

Hunt said, “And Maximus Tertian? He was killed on the outskirts of your territory.”

“Maximus Tertian was a spoiled little bitch, but I would never be stupid enough to pick a fight with his father like that. I’d only stand to gain a headache.”

“Who killed him?” Bryce asked. “I heard you pulled in your people.

You know something.”

“Just a precaution.” She flicked her tongue over her bottom teeth. “Us serps can taste when shit is about to go down. Like a charge in the air. I can taste it now—all over this city.”

Hunt’s lightning grumbled in the room. “You didn’t think to warn anyone?”

“I warned my people. As long as trouble doesn’t pass through my district, I don’t care what goes on in the rest of Lunathion.”

Hunt said, “Real noble of you.”

Bryce asked again, “Who do you think killed Tertian?”

She shrugged. “Honestly? It’s the Meat Market. Shit happens. He was probably coming here for drugs, and this is the price he paid.”

“What kind of drugs?” Bryce asked, but Hunt said, “Toxicology report says there were no drugs in his system.”

“Then I can’t help you,” the shifter said. “Your guess is as good as mine.” Bryce didn’t bother to ask about camera footage, not when the 33rd would have already combed through it.

The Viper Queen pulled something from a drawer and chucked it on the desk. A flash drive. “My alibis from the night Tertian was killed and from the days before and during Danika and her pack’s murders.”

Bryce didn’t touch the tiny metal drive, no bigger than a lipstick tube.

The Viper Queen’s lips curved again. “I was at the spa the night of Tertian’s murder. And as for Danika and the Pack of Devils, one of my associates threw a Drop party for his daughter that night. Turned into three days of … well, you’ll see.”

“This drive contains footage of you at a three-day orgy?” Hunt demanded.

“Let me know if it gets you hot and bothered, Athalar.” The Viper Queen took another hit of the cigarette. Her green eyes drifted toward his lap. “I hear you’re one Hel of a ride when you pause the brooding long enough.”

Oh please. Hunt’s teeth flashed as he bared them in a silent snarl, so Bryce said, “Orgy and Hunt’s bedroom prowess aside, you’ve got a salt vendor in this market.” She tapped the bag balanced on her knees.

The Viper Queen tore her eyes from a still-snarling Hunt and said sharply to Bryce, “I don’t use what I sell. Though I don’t think you live by that rule over at your fancy gallery.” She winked. “You ever get sick of crawling for that sorceress, come find me. I have a stable of clients who’d crawl for you. And pay to do it.”

Hunt’s hand was warm on her shoulder. “She’s not for sale.” Bryce leaned out of his grip, throwing him a warning glare.

The Viper Queen said, “Everyone, General, is for sale. You just have to figure out the asking price.” Smoke flared from her nostrils, a dragon

huffing flames. “Give me a day or two, Athalar, and I’ll figure out yours.”

Hunt’s smile was a thing of deadly beauty. “Maybe I’ve figured out yours already.”

The Viper Queen smiled. “I certainly hope so.” She stubbed out the cigarette and met Bryce’s stare. “Here’s a pro tip for your little investigation.” Bryce stiffened at the cool mockery. “Look toward where it hurts the most. That’s always where the answers are.”

“Thanks for the advice,” Bryce gritted out.

The shifter merely snapped her gold-tipped fingers. The office door opened, those venom-addicted Fae males peering in. “They’re done,” the Viper Queen said, turning on her antique of a computer. “Make sure they get outside.” And don’t go poking about.

Bryce shouldered the block of salt as Hunt snatched up the flash drive, pocketing it.

The guard was smart enough to step away as Hunt nudged Bryce through the door. Bryce made it three steps before the Viper Queen said, “Don’t underestimate the obsidian salt, Quinlan. It can bring over the very worst of Hel.”

A chill snaked down her spine. But Bryce merely lifted a hand in an over-the-shoulder wave as she entered the hall. “Well, at least I’ll be entertained, won’t I?”

They left the Meat Market in one piece, thank the five fucking gods— especially Urd herself. Hunt wasn’t entirely sure how they’d managed to walk away from the Viper Queen without their guts pumped full of poisoned bullets, but … He frowned at the red-haired woman now inspecting her white scooter for damage. Even the helmet had been left untouched.

Hunt said, “I believe her.” No way in Hel was he watching the video on that flash drive. He’d be sending it right over to Viktoria. “I don’t think she had anything to do with this.”

Quinlan and Roga, however … He hadn’t yet crossed them off his mental list.

Bryce tucked the helmet into the crook of her arm. “I agree.”

“So that brings us back to square one.” He suppressed the urge to pace, picturing his kill count still in the thousands.

“No,” Bryce countered. “It doesn’t.” She fastened the bag of salt into the small compartment on the back of her scooter. “She said to look where it hurts most for answers.”

“She was just spewing some bullshit to mess with us.”

“Probably,” Bryce said, fitting the helmet over her head before flicking up the visor to reveal those amber eyes. “But maybe she was unintentionally right. Tomorrow …” Her eyes shuttered. “I’ve got to do some thinking tomorrow. At the gallery, or else Jesiba will throw a fit.”

He was intrigued enough that he said, “You think you have a lead?” “Not yet. A general direction, though. It’s better than nothing.”

He jerked his chin toward the compartment of her scooter. “What’s the obsidian salt for?” She had to have another purpose for it. Even if he prayed she wasn’t dumb enough to use it.

Bryce just said blandly, “Seasoning my burgers.”

Fine. He’d walked into that. “How’d you afford the salt, anyway?” He doubted she had ten grand just sitting around in her bank account.

Bryce zipped up her leather jacket. “I put it on Jesiba’s account. She spends more money on beauty products in a month, so I doubt she’ll notice.”

Hunt had no idea how to even respond to any of that, so he gritted his teeth and surveyed her atop her ride. “You know, even a scooter is a dumb fucking thing to drive before making the Drop.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

“You should take the bus.”

She just let out a barking laugh, and zoomed off into the night.

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