Chapter no 20

House of Earth and Blood

Look toward where it hurts the most.

Bryce had refrained from telling Athalar how accurate the Viper Queen’s tip had been. She’d already given him her list of suspects—but he hadn’t asked about the other demand he’d made.

So that’s what she’d decided to do: compile a list of every one of Danika’s movements from the week before her death. But the moment she’d finished opening up the gallery for the day, the moment she’d come down to the library to make the list … Nausea had hit her.

She turned on her laptop instead, and began combing through her emails with Maximus Tertian, dating back six weeks. Perhaps she’d find some sort of connection there—or at least a hint of his plans for that night.

Yet with each professional, bland email she reread, the memories from Danika’s last days clawed at the welded-shut door of her mind. Like looming specters, they hissed and whispered, and she tried to ignore them, tried to focus on Tertian’s emails, but—

Lehabah looked over from where she’d sprawled on the tiny fainting couch Bryce had given her years ago—courtesy of a dollhouse from her childhood—watching her favorite Vanir drama on her tablet. Her glass dome sat behind her atop a stack of books, the plumes of a purple orchid arching over it. “You could let the angel down here and work together on whatever is causing you such difficulty.”

Bryce rolled her eyes. “Your fascination with Athalar is taking on stalkerish levels.”

Lehabah sighed. “Do you know what Hunt Athalar looks like?” “Considering that he’s living on the roof across from my apartment,

I’d say yes.”

Lehabah hit pause on her show, leaning her head against the backrest of her little fainting couch. “He’s dreamy.”

“Yeah, just ask him.” Bryce clicked out of the email she’d been reading—one of about a hundred between her and Tertian, and the first where he’d been mildly flirty with her.

“Hunt’s handsome enough to be on this show.” Lehabah pointed with a dainty toe toward the tablet propped before her.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think the size differences between you and Athalar would work in the bedroom. You’re barely big enough to wrap your arms around his dick.”

Smoke swirled around Lehabah at her puff of embarrassment, and the sprite waved her little hands to clear it away. “BB!”

Bryce chuckled, then she gestured to the tablet. “I’m not the one who’s bingeing a show that’s basically porn with a plot. What’s it called again? Fangs and Bangs?”

Lehabah turned purple. “It’s not called that and you know it! And it’s

artistic. They make love. They don’t …” She choked. “Fuck?” Bryce suggested dryly.

“Exactly,” Lehabah said with a prim nod.

Bryce laughed, letting it chase away the swarming ghosts of the past, and the sprite, despite her prudishness, joined her. Bryce said, “I doubt Hunt Athalar is the making love type.”

Lehabah hid her face behind her hands, humming with mortification.

Just to torture her a bit more, Bryce added, “He’s the type to bend you over a desk and—”

The phone rang.

She glanced at the ceiling, wondering if Athalar had somehow heard, but—no. It was worse.

“Hi, Jesiba,” she said, motioning Lehabah back to her guardian’s perch in case the sorceress was monitoring through the library’s cameras.

“Bryce. Glad to see Lehabah is hard at work.”

Lehabah quickly shut down the tablet and did her best to look alert.

Bryce said, “It was her midmorning break. She’s entitled to one.” Lehabah threw her a grateful glance that cut right to the bone. Jesiba just began rattling off commands.

Thirty minutes later, at the desk in the gallery showroom, Bryce stared toward the shut front door. The ticking of the clock filled the space, a steady reminder of each second lost. Each second that Danika and the

pack’s killer roamed the streets while she sat in here, checking bullshit paperwork.

Unacceptable. Yet the thought of prying open the door to those memories …

She knew she’d regret it. Knew it was probably ten kinds of stupid.

But she dialed the number before she could second-guess it. “What’s wrong.” Hunt’s voice was already sharp, full of storms. “Why do you assume something’s wrong?”

“Because you’ve never called me before, Quinlan.”

This was stupid—really fucking stupid. She cleared her throat to make up some excuse about ordering food for lunch, but he said, “You found something?”

For Danika, for the Pack of Devils, she could do this. Would do this.

Pride had no place here. “I need you to … help me with something.” “With what?” But before his words finished sounding, a fist banged

on the door. She knew it was him without pulling up the camera feed.

She opened the door, getting a face full of wings and rain-kissed cedar. Hunt asked wryly, “Are you going to give me shit about coming in or can we spare ourselves that song and dance?”

“Just get inside.” Bryce left Hunt in the doorway and walked to her desk, where she hauled open the bottom drawer to yank out a reusable bottle. She drank straight from it.

Hunt shut the door after himself. “A little early to be drinking, isn’t


She didn’t bother to correct him, just took another sip and slid into

her chair.

He eyed her. “You gonna tell me what this is about?”

A polite but insistent thump-thump-thump came from the iron door down to the library. Hunt’s wings snapped shut as he turned his head toward the heavy metal slab.

Another tap-tap-tap filled the showroom atrium. “BB,” Lehabah said mournfully through the door. “BB, are you all right?”

Bryce rolled her eyes. Cthona spare her. Hunt asked too casually, “Who is that?”

A third little knock-knock-knock. “BB? BB, please say you’re all right.”

“I’m fine,” Bryce called. “Go back downstairs and do your job.”

“I want to see you with my own eyes,” Lehabah said, sounding for all the world like a concerned aunt. “I can’t focus on my work until then.”

Hunt’s brows twitched toward each other—even as his lips tugged outward.

Bryce said to him, “One, hyperbole is an art form for her.” “Oh, BB, you can be so terribly cruel—”

Two, very few people are allowed downstairs, so if you report to Micah about it, we’re done.”

“I promise,” Hunt said warily. “Though Micah can make me talk if he insists.”

“Then don’t give him a reason to be curious about it.” She set the bottle on her desk, and found her legs were surprisingly sturdy. Hunt still towered over her. The horrible twining thorns tattooed across his brow seemed to suck the light from the room.

But Hunt rubbed his jaw. “A lot of the stuff down there is contraband, isn’t it.”

“Surely you’ve realized most of the shit in here is contraband. Some of these books and scrolls are the last known copies in existence.” She pursed her lips, then added quietly, “A lot of people suffered and died to preserve what’s in the library downstairs.”

More than that, she wouldn’t say. She hadn’t been able to read most of the books, since they were in long-dead languages or in codes so clever only highly trained linguists or historians might decipher them, but she’d finally learned last year what most of them were. Knew the Asteri and the Senate would order them destroyed. Had destroyed all other copies. There were normal books in there, too, which Jesiba acquired mostly for her own uses—possibly even for the Under-King. But the ones that Lehabah guarded … those were the ones people would kill for. Had killed for.

Hunt nodded. “I won’t breathe a word.”

She assessed him for a moment, then turned to the iron door. “Consider this your birthday present, Lele,” she muttered through the metal.

The iron door opened on a sigh, revealing the pine-green carpeted staircase that led straight down into the library. Hunt almost crashed into her as Lehabah floated up between them, her fire shining bright, and purred, “Hello.”

The angel examined the fire sprite hovering a foot away from his face. She was no longer than Bryce’s hand, her flaming hair twirling above her head.

“Well, aren’t you beautiful,” Hunt said, his voice low and soft in a way that made every instinct in Bryce sit up straight.

Lehabah flared as she wrapped her plump arms around herself and ducked her head.

Bryce shook off the effects of Hunt’s voice. “Stop pretending to be shy.”

Lehabah cut her a simmering glare, but Hunt lifted a finger for her to perch on. “Shall we?”

Lehabah shone ruby red, but floated over to his scarred finger and sat, smiling at him beneath her lashes. “He is very nice, BB,” Lehabah observed as Bryce walked down the stairs, the sun-chandelier blinking to life again. “I don’t see why you complain so much about him.”

Bryce scowled over her shoulder. But Lehabah was making mooncalf eyes at the angel, who gave Bryce a wry smile as he trailed her into the library’s heart.

Bryce looked ahead quickly.

Maybe Lehabah had a point about Athalar’s looks.

Bryce was aware of every step downward, every rustle of Hunt’s wings mere steps behind her. Every bit of air that he filled with his breath, his power, his will.

Other than Jesiba, Syrinx, and Lehabah, only Danika had been down here with her before.

Syrinx stirred enough from his nap to see that they had a guest—and his little lion’s tail whacked against the velvet sofa. “Syrie says you can brush him now,” Lehabah told Hunt.

“Hunt is busy,” Bryce said, heading for the table where she’d left the book open.

“Syrie talks, does he?”

“According to her, he does,” Bryce muttered, scanning the table for

—right, she’d put the list on Lehabah’s table. She aimed for it, heels sinking deep into the carpet.

“There must be thousands of books in here,” Hunt said, surveying the towering shelves.

“Oh yes,” Lehabah said. “But half of this is also Jesiba’s private collection. Some of the books date all the way back to—”

Ahem,” Bryce said.

Lehabah stuck out her tongue and said in a conspiratorial whisper to Hunt, “BB is cranky because she hasn’t been able to make her list.”

“I’m cranky because I’m hungry and you’ve been a pain in my ass all morning.”

Lehabah floated off Hunt’s finger to rush to her table, where she plopped on her doll’s couch and said to the angel, who looked torn between wincing and laughing, “BB pretends to be mean, but she’s a softie. She bought Syrie because Jesiba was going to gift him to a warlord client in the Farkaan mountains—”


“It’s true.”

Hunt examined the various tanks throughout the room and the assortment of reptiles within them, then the empty waters of the massive aquarium. “I thought he was some designer pet.”

“Oh, he is,” Lehabah said. “Syrinx was stolen from his mother as a cub, then traded for ten years around the world, then Jesiba bought him to be her pet, then Bryce bought him—his freedom, I mean. She even had proof of his freedom certified. No one can ever buy him again.” She pointed to the chimera. “You can’t see it with him lying down like that, but he’s got the freed brand on his front right paw. The official and everything.”

Hunt twisted from the gloomy water to look Bryce over. She crossed her arms. “What? You did the assuming.” His eyes flickered. Whatever the fuck that meant.

She tried not to look at his own wrist, though—the SPQM stamped there. She wondered if he was resisting the same urge; if he was contemplating whether he’d ever get that one day.

But then Lehabah said to Hunt, “How much do you cost to buy, Athie?”

Bryce cut in, “Lele, that’s rude. And don’t call him Athie.”

She sent up a puff of smoke. “He and I are of the same House, and are both slaves. My great-grandmother fought in his 18th Legion during their rebellion. I am allowed to ask.”

Hunt’s face wholly shuttered at the mention of the rebellion, but he approached the couch, let Syrinx sniff his fingers, then scratched the beast behind his velvety ears. Syrinx let out a low growl of pleasure, his lion’s tail going limp.

Bryce tried to block out the squeezing sensation in her chest at the sight of it.

Hunt’s wings rustled. “I was sold to Micah for eighty-five million gold marks.”

Bryce’s heel snagged on the carpet as she reached Lehabah’s little station and grabbed the tablet. Lehabah again floated over to the angel. “I

cost ninety thousand gold marks,” Lehabah confided. “Syrie was two hundred thirty-three thousand gold marks.”

Hunt’s eyes snapped to Bryce. “You paid that?”

Bryce sat at the worktable and pointed to the empty chair beside hers. Hunt followed obediently, for once. “I got a fifteen percent employee discount. And we came to an arrangement.”

Let that be that.

Until Lehabah declared, “Jesiba takes some out of each paycheck.” Bryce growled, reining in the instinct to smother the sprite with a pillow. “BB will be paying it off until she’s three hundred. Unless she doesn’t make the Drop. Then she’ll die first.”

Hunt dropped into his seat, his wing brushing her arm. Softer than velvet, smoother than silk. He snapped it in tight at the touch, as if he couldn’t bear the contact. “Why?”

Bryce said, “Because that warlord wanted to hurt and break him until he was a fighting beast, and Syrinx is my friend, and I was sick of losing friends.”

“I thought you were loaded.”

“Nope.” She finished the word on a popping noise. Hunt’s brow furrowed. “But your apartment—”

“The apartment is Danika’s.” Bryce couldn’t meet his gaze. “She bought it as an investment. Had its ownership written in our names. I didn’t even know it existed until after she died. And I would have just sold it, but it had top-notch security, and grade A enchantments—”

“I get it,” he said again, and she shrank from the kindness in his eyes.

The pity.

Danika had died, and she was alone, and—Bryce couldn’t breathe.

She’d refused to go to therapy. Her mother had set up appointment after appointment for the first year, and Bryce had bailed on all of them. She’d bought herself an aromatherapy diffuser, had read up on breathing techniques, and that had been that.

She knew she should have gone. Therapy helped so many people— saved so many lives. Juniper had been seeing a therapist since she was a teenager and would tell anyone who would listen about how vital and brilliant it was.

But Bryce hadn’t shown up—not because she didn’t believe it would work. No, she knew it would work, and help, and probably make her feel better. Or at least give her the tools to try to do so.

That was precisely why she hadn’t gone.

From the way Hunt was staring at her, she wondered if he knew it— realized why she blew out a long breath.

Look toward where it hurts the most.

Fucker. The Viper Queen could go to Hel with her pro tips.

She turned on Lehabah’s electronic tablet. The screen revealed a vampyr and wolf tangled in each other, groaning, naked—

Bryce laughed. “You stopped watching in the middle of this to come bother me, Lele?”

The air in the room lightened, as if Bryce’s sorrow had cracked at the sight of the wolf pounding into the moaning vampyr female.

Lehabah burned ruby. “I wanted to meet Athie,” she muttered, slinking back to her couch.

Hunt, as if despite himself, chuckled. “You watch Fangs and Bangs?”

Lehabah shot upright. “That is not what it’s called! Did you tell him to say that, Bryce?”

Bryce bit her lip to keep from laughing and grabbed her laptop instead, bringing up her emails with Tertian on the screen. “No, I didn’t.”

Hunt raised a brow, with that wary amusement.

“I’m taking a nap with Syrie,” Lehabah declared to no one in particular. Almost as soon as she said it, something heavy thumped on the mezzanine.

Hunt’s hand went to his side, presumably for the gun there, but Lehabah hissed toward the railing, “Do not interrupt my nap.”

A heavy slithering filled the library, followed by a thump and rustle.

It didn’t come from Miss Poppy’s tank.

Lehabah said to Hunt, “Don’t let the books sweet-talk you into taking them home.”

He threw her a half smile. “You’re doing a fine job ensuring that doesn’t happen.”

Lehabah beamed, curling along Syrinx’s side. He purred with delight at her warmth. “They’ll do anything to get out of here: sneak into your bag, the pocket of your coat, even flop up the stairs. They’re desperate to get into the world again.” She flowed toward the distant shelves behind them, where a book had landed on the steps. “Bad!” she seethed.

Hunt’s hand slid within easy reach of the knife at his thigh as the book, as if carried by invisible hands, drifted up the steps, floated to the shelf, and found its place again, humming once with golden light—as if in annoyance.

Lehabah cast a warning simmer toward it, then wrapped Syrinx’s tail around herself like a fur shawl.

Bryce shook her head, but a sidelong glance told her that Hunt was now staring at her. Not in the way that males tended to stare at her. He said, “What’s up with all the little critters?”

“They’re Jesiba’s former lovers and rivals,” Lehabah whispered from her fur-blanket.

Hunt’s wings rustled. “I’d heard the rumors.”

“I’ve never seen her transform anyone into an animal,” Bryce said, “but I try to stay on her good side. I’d really prefer not to be turned into a pig if Jesiba gets pissed at me for fucking up a deal.”

Hunt’s lips twitched upward, as if caught between amusement and horror.

Lehabah opened her mouth, presumably to tell Hunt all the names she’d given the creatures in the library, but Bryce cut her off, saying to Hunt, “I called you because I started to make that list of all of Danika’s movements during her final days.” She patted the page she’d started writing on.

“Yeah?” His dark eyes remained on her face.

Bryce cleared her throat and admitted, “It’s, um, hard. To make myself remember. I thought … maybe you could ask me some questions. Help get the … memories flowing.”

“Ah. Okay.” Silence rippled again as she waited for him to remind her that time wasn’t on their side, that he had a fucking job to do and she shouldn’t be such a wimp, blah blah.

But Hunt surveyed the books; the tanks; the door to the bathroom at the back of the space; the lights high above, disguised like the stars painted across the ceiling. And then, rather than ask her about Danika, he said, “Did you study antiquities at school?”

“I took a few classes, yeah. I liked learning about old crap. I was a classical literature major.” She added, “I learned the Old Language of the Fae when I was a kid.” She’d taught herself out of a sudden interest in learning more about her heritage. When she’d gone to her father’s house a year later—for the first time in her life—she’d hoped to use it to impress him. After everything went to shit, she’d refused to learn another language. Childish, but she didn’t care.

Though knowing the most ancient of the Fae languages had been helpful for this job, at least. For the few Fae antiquities that weren’t hoarded in their glittering troves.

Hunt again surveyed the space. “How’d you get this job?”

“After I graduated, I couldn’t get a job anywhere. The museums didn’t want me because I didn’t have enough experience, and the other art galleries in town were run by creeps who thought I was … appetizing.” His eyes darkened, and she made herself ignore the rage she beheld there on her behalf. “But my friend Fury …” Hunt stiffened slightly at the name—he clearly knew her reputation. “Well, she and Jesiba worked together in Pangera at some point. And when Jesiba mentioned that she needed a new assistant, Fury basically shoved my résumé down her throat.” Bryce snorted at the memory. “Jesiba offered me the job because she didn’t want an uptight priss. The work is too dirty, customers too shady. She needed someone with social skills as well as a little background in ancient art. And that was that.”

Hunt considered, then asked, “What’s your deal with Fury Axtar?” “She’s in Pangera. Doing what Fury does best.” It wasn’t really an


“Axtar ever tell you what she gets up to over there?”

“No. And I like it to stay that way. My dad told me enough stories about what it’s like. I don’t enjoy imagining what Fury sees and deals with.” Blood and mud and death, science versus magic, machines versus Vanir, bombs of chemicals and firstlight, bullets and fangs.

Randall’s own service had been mandatory, a condition of life for any non-Lower in the peregrini class: all humans had to serve in the military for three years. Randall had never said it, but she’d always known the years on the front had left deep scars beyond those visible on him. Being forced to kill your own kind was no small task. But the Asteri’s threat remained: Should any refuse, their lives would be forfeit. And then the lives of their families. Any survivors would be slaves, their wrists forever inked with the same letters that marred Hunt’s skin.

“There’s no chance Danika’s murderer might have been connected to


“No.” Bryce growled. She and Fury might be totally fucked up right

now, but she knew that. “Fury’s enemies weren’t Danika’s enemies. Once Briggs was behind bars, she bailed.” Bryce hadn’t seen her since.

Searching for anything to change the topic, Bryce asked, “How old are you?”

“Two hundred thirty-three.”

She did the math, frowning. “You were that young when you rebelled? And already commanded a legion?” The angels’ failed rebellion had been two hundred years ago; he’d have been incredibly young—by Vanir standards—to have led it.

“My gifts made me invaluable to people.” He held up a hand, lightning writhing around his fingers. “Too good at killing.” She grunted her agreement. Hunt eyed her. “You ever killed before?”


Surprise lit his eyes. But she didn’t want to go into it—what had happened with Danika senior year that had left them both in the hospital, her arm shattered, and a stolen motorcycle little more than scrap.

Lehabah cut in from across the library, “BB, stop being cryptic! I’ve wanted to know for years, Athie, but she never tells me anything good


“Leave it, Lehabah.” The memories of that trip pelted her. Danika’s smiling face in the hospital bed beside hers. How Thorne carried Danika up the stairs of their dorm when they got home, despite her protests. How the pack had fussed over them for a week, Nathalie and Zelda kicking the males out one night so they could have a girls-only moviefest. But none of it had compared to what had changed between her and Danika on that trip. The final barrier that had fallen, the truth laid bare.

I love you, Bryce. I’m so sorry. Close your eyes, Danika.

A hole tore open in her chest, gaping and howling.

Lehabah was still grousing. But Hunt was watching Bryce’s face. He asked, “What’s one happy memory you have with Danika from the last week of her life?”

Her blood pounded through her entire body. “I—I have a lot of them from that week.”

“Pick one, and we’ll start with that.” “Is this how you get witnesses to talk?”

He leaned back in his seat, wings adjusting around its low back. “It’s how you and I are going to make this list.”

She weighed his stare, his solid, thrumming presence. She swallowed. “The tattoo on my back—she and I got it done that week. We got stupid drunk one night, and I was so out of it I didn’t even know what the fuck she put on my back until I’d gotten over my hangover.”

His lips twitched. “I hope it was something good, at least.” Her chest ached, but she smiled. “It was.”

Hunt sat forward and tapped the paper. “Write it down.”

She did. He asked, “What’d Danika do during that day before you got the tattoo?”

The question was calm, but he weighed her every movement. As if he were reading something, assessing something that she couldn’t see.

Eager to avoid that too-aware look, Bryce picked up the pen, and began writing, one memory after another. Kept writing her recollections of Danika’s whereabouts that week: that silly wish on the Old Square Gate, the pizza she and Danika had devoured while standing at the counter of the shop, swigging from bottles of beer and talking shit; the hair salon where Bryce flipped through gossip magazines while Danika had gotten her purple, blue, and pink streaks touched up; the grocery store two blocks down where she and Thorne had found Danika stuffing her face with a bag of chips she hadn’t yet paid for and teased her for hours afterward; the CCU sunball arena where she and Danika had ogled the hot players on Ithan’s team during practice and called dibs on them

… She kept writing and writing, until the walls pressed in again.

Her knee bounced relentlessly beneath the table. “I think we can stop there for today.”

Hunt opened his mouth, glancing to the list—but her phone buzzed.

Thanking Urd for the well-timed intervention, Bryce glanced at the message on the screen and scowled. The expression was apparently intriguing enough that Hunt peered over her shoulder.

Ruhn had written, Meet me at Luna’s Temple in thirty minutes.

Hunt asked, “Think it’s got to do with last night?” Bryce didn’t answer as she typed back, Why?

Ruhn replied. Because it’s one of the few places in this city without cameras.

“Interesting,” she murmured. “You think I should give him a heads-up that you’re coming?”

Hunt’s grin was pure wickedness. “Hel no.” Bryce couldn’t keep herself from grinning back.

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