The Pearl and Rose was everything Bryce hated about this city.
But at least Danika now owed her fifty silver marks.
The bouncers had let her stride past them, up the three steps, and through the open bronze-plated doors of the restaurant.
But even fifty silver marks wouldn’t put so much as a dent in paying for this meal. No, this would be firmly in the gold zone.
Reid could certainly afford it. Given the size of his bank account, he likely wouldn’t even glance at the check before handing over his black card.
Seated at a table in the heart of the gilded dining room, under the crystal chandeliers dangling from the intricately painted ceiling, Bryce went through two glasses of water and half a bottle of wine while she waited.
Twenty minutes in, her phone buzzed in her black silk clutch. If Reid was canceling on her, she’d kill him. There was no fucking way she could afford to pay for the wine—not without having to give up dance classes for the next month. Two months, actually.
But the messages weren’t from Reid, and Bryce read them three times before chucking her phone back in her purse and pouring another glass of very, very expensive wine.
Reid was rich and he was late. He owed her.
Especially since the upper echelons of Crescent City were entertaining themselves by sneering at her dress, the skin on display, the Fae ears but clearly human body.
Half-breed—she could nearly hear the hateful term as they thought it. They considered her a lowly worker at best. Prey and dumpster fodder at worst.
Bryce took out her phone and read the messages a fourth time.
Connor had written, You know I’m shit with talking. But what I wanted to say—before you tried to get into a fight with me instead, by the way—was that I think it’s worth it. You and me. Giving us a shot.
He’d added: I’m crazy about you. I don’t want anyone else. I haven’t for a long while. One date. If it doesn’t work, then we’ll deal with it. But just give me a chance. Please.
Bryce was still staring at the messages, her head spinning from all that gods-damned wine, when Reid finally appeared. Forty-five minutes late.
“Sorry, babe,” he said, leaning in to kiss her cheek before sliding onto his chair. His charcoal-gray suit remained immaculate, his golden skin glowing above the collar of his white shirt. Not one dark brown hair on his head was out of place.
Reid had the easy manners of someone brought up with money, education, and no doors locked to his desires. The Redners were one of the few human families who had risen into Vanir high society—and dressed for the part. Reid was meticulous about his appearance, down to the very last detail. Every tie he wore, she’d learned, was selected to bring out the green in his hazel eyes. His suits were always impeccably cut to his toned body. She might have called him vain, had she not put such consideration into her own outfits. Had she not known that Reid worked with a personal trainer for the exact reason that she kept dancing
—beyond her love for it—making sure her body was primed for when its strength might be needed to escape any would-be predator hunting the streets.
Since the day the Vanir had crawled through the Northern Rift and overtaken Midgard eons ago, an event historians called the Crossing, running was the best option if a Vanir decided to make a meal of you. That is, if you didn’t have a gun or bombs or any of the horrid things people like Philip Briggs had developed to kill even a long-lived, quick-healing creature.
She often wondered about it: what it had been like before this planet had found itself occupied by creatures from so many different worlds, all of them far more advanced and civilized than this one, when it was just humans and ordinary animals. Even their calendar system hearkened to the Crossing, and the time before and after it: H.E. and V.E.—Human Era and Vanir Era.
Reid lifted his dark brows at the mostly empty bottle of wine. “Nice choice.”
Forty-five minutes. Without a call or a message to tell her he’d be late.
Bryce gritted her teeth. “Something came up at work?”
Reid shrugged, scanning the restaurant for high-ranking officials to hobnob with. As the son of a man who had his name displayed in twenty-foot letters on three buildings in the CBD, people usually lined up to chat with him. “Some of the malakim are restless about developments in the Pangeran conflict. They needed reassurance their investments were still sound. The call ran long.”
The Pangeran conflict—the fighting Briggs so badly wanted to bring to this territory. The wine that had gone to her head eddied into an oily pool in her gut. “The angels think the war might spread here?”
Spying no one of interest in the restaurant, Reid flipped open his leather-bound menu. “No. The Asteri wouldn’t let that happen.”
“The Asteri let it happen over there.”
His lips twitched downward. “It’s a complicated issue, Bryce.” Conversation over. She let him go back to studying the menu.
Reports of the territory across the Haldren Sea were grim: the human resistance was prepared to wipe themselves out rather than submit to the Asteri and their “elected” Senate’s rule. For forty years now, the war had raged in the vast Pangeran territory, wrecking cities, creeping toward the stormy sea. Should the conflict cross it, Crescent City, sitting on Valbara’s southeastern coast—midway up a peninsula called the Hand for the shape of the arid, mountainous land that jutted out—would be one of the first places in its path.
Fury refused to talk about what she saw over there. What she did over there. What side she fought for. Most Vanir did not find a challenge to more than fifteen thousand years of their reign amusing.
Most humans did not find fifteen thousand years of near-slavery, of being prey and food and whores, to be all that amusing, either. Never mind that in recent centuries, the Imperial Senate had granted humans more rights—with the Asteri’s approval, of course. The fact remained that anyone who stepped out of line was thrown right back to where they’d started: literal slaves to the Republic.
The slaves, at least, existed mostly in Pangera. A few lived in Crescent City, namely among the warrior-angels in the 33rd, the Governor’s personal legion, marked by the SPQM slave tattoo on their wrists. But they blended in, for the most part.
Crescent City, for all that its wealthiest were grade A assholes, was still a melting pot. One of the rare places where being a human didn’t
necessarily mean a lifetime of menial labor. Though it didn’t entitle you to much else.
A dark-haired, blue-eyed Fae female caught Bryce’s cursory glance around the room, her boy toy across the table marking her as some sort of noble.
Bryce had never decided whom she hated more: the winged malakim or the Fae. The Fae, probably, whose considerable magic and grace made them think they were allowed to do what they pleased, with anyone they pleased. A trait shared by many members of the House of Sky and Breath: the swaggering angels, the lofty sylphs, and the simmering elementals.
House of Shitheads and Bastards, Danika always called them. Though her own allegiance to the House of Earth and Blood might have shaded her opinion a bit—especially when the shifters and Fae were forever at odds.
Born of two Houses, Bryce had been forced to yield her allegiance to the House of Earth and Blood as part of accepting the civitas rank her father had gotten her. It had been the price paid for accepting the coveted citizen status: he’d petition for full citizenship, but she would have to claim Sky and Breath as her House. She’d resented it, resented the bastard for making her choose, but even her mother had seen that the benefits outweighed the costs.
Not that there were many advantages or protections for humans within the House of Earth and Blood, either. Certainly not for the young man seated with the Fae female.
Beautiful, blond, no more than twenty, he was likely a tenth of his Fae companion’s age. The tanned skin of his wrists held no hint of the four-lettered slave tattoo. So he had to be with her through his own free will, then—or desire for whatever she offered: sex, money, influence. It was a fool’s bargain, though. She’d use him until she was bored, or he grew too old, and then dump his ass at the curb, still craving those Fae riches.
Bryce inclined her head to the noblewoman, who bared her too-white teeth at the insolence. The Fae female was beautiful—but most of the Fae were.
She found Reid watching, a frown on his handsome face. He shook his head—at her—and resumed reading the menu.
Bryce sipped her wine. Signaled the waiter to bring over another bottle.
I’m crazy about you.
Connor wouldn’t tolerate the sneering, the whispering. Neither would Danika. Bryce had witnessed both of them rip into the stupid assholes who’d hissed slurs at her, or who mistook her for one of the many half-Vanir females who scraped a living in the Meat Market by selling their bodies.
Most of those women didn’t get the chance to complete the Drop— either because they didn’t make it to the threshold of maturity or because they got the short end of the stick with a mortal life span. There were predators, both born and trained, who used the Meat Market as a personal hunting ground.
Bryce’s phone buzzed, right as the waiter finally made his way over, fresh bottle of wine in hand. Reid frowned again, his disapproval heavy enough that she refrained from reading the message until she’d ordered her beef-with-cheese-foam sandwich.
Danika had written, Dump the limp-dicked bastard and put Connor out of his misery. A date with him won’t kill you. He’s been waiting years, Bryce. Years. Give me something to smile about tonight.
Bryce cringed as she shoved her phone back into her bag. She looked up to find Reid on his own phone, thumbs flying, his chiseled features illuminated by the dim screen. Their invention five decades ago had occurred right in Redner Industries’ famed tech lab, and vaulted the company into unprecedented fortune. A new era of linking the world, everyone claimed. Bryce thought they just gave people an excuse not to make eye contact. Or be bad dates.
“Reid,” she said. He just held up a finger.
Bryce tapped a red nail on the base of her wineglass. She kept her nails long—and took a daily elixir to keep them strong. Not as effective as talons or claws, but they could do some damage. At least enough to potentially get away from an assailant.
“Reid,” she said again. He kept typing, and looked up only when the first course appeared.
It was indeed a salmon mousse. Over a crisp of bread, and encaged in some latticework of curling green plants. Small ferns, perhaps. She swallowed her laugh.
“Go ahead and dig in,” Reid said distantly, typing again. “Don’t wait for me.”
“One bite and I’ll be done,” she muttered, lifting her fork but wondering how the Hel to eat the thing. No one around them used their fingers, but … The Fae female sneered again.
Bryce set down the fork. Folded her napkin into a neat square before she rose. “I’m going.”
“All right,” Reid said, eyes fixed on his screen. He clearly thought she was going to the bathroom. She could feel the eyes of a well-dressed angel at the next table travel up her expanse of bare leg, then heard the chair groan as he leaned back to admire the view of her ass.
Exactly why she kept her nails strong.
But she said to Reid, “No—I’m leaving. Thank you for dinner.” That made him look up. “What? Bryce, sit down. Eat.”
As if his being late, being on the phone, weren’t part of this. As if she were just something he needed to feed before he fucked. She said clearly, “This isn’t working out.”
His mouth tightened. “Excuse me?”
She doubted he’d ever been dumped. She said with a sweet smile, “Bye, Reid. Good luck with work.”
But she had enough gods-damned self-respect not to let him explain, not to accept sex that was merely okay basically in exchange for meals at restaurants she could never afford, and a man who had indeed rolled off her and gotten right back on that phone. So she swiped the bottle of wine and stepped away from the table, but not toward the exit.
She went up to the sneering Fae female and her human plaything and said in a cool voice that would have made even Danika back away, “Like what you see?”
The female gave her a sweeping glance, from Bryce’s heels to her red hair to the bottle of wine dangling from her fingers. The Fae female shrugged, setting the black stones in her long dress sparkling. “I’ll pay a gold mark to watch you two.” She inclined her head to the human at her table.
He offered Bryce a smile, his vacant face suggesting he was soaring high on some drug.
Bryce smirked at the female. “I didn’t know Fae females had gotten so cheap. Word on the street used to be that you’d pay us gold by the armful to pretend you’re not lifeless as Reapers between the sheets.”
The female’s tan face went white. Glossy, flesh-shredding nails snagged on the tablecloth. The man across from her didn’t so much as flinch.
Bryce put a hand on the man’s shoulder—in comfort or to piss off the female, she wasn’t sure. She squeezed lightly, again inclining her head toward the female, and strode out.
She swigged from the bottle of wine and flipped off the preening hostess on her way through the bronze doors. Then snatched a handful of matchbooks from the bowl atop the stand, too.
Reid’s breathless apologies to the noble drifted behind her as Bryce stepped onto the hot, dry street.
Well, shit. It was nine o’clock, she was decently dressed, and if she went back to that apartment, she’d pace around until Danika bit her head off. And the wolves would shove their noses into her business, which she didn’t want to discuss with them at all.
Which left one option. Her favorite option, fortunately. Fury picked up on the first ring. “What.”
“Are you on this side of the Haldren or the wrong one?”
“I’m in Five Roses.” The flat, cool voice was laced with a hint of amusement—practically outright laughter, coming from Fury. “But I’m not watching television with the pups.”
“Who the Hel would want to do that?”
A pause on the line. Bryce leaned against the pale stone exterior of the Pearl and Rose. “I thought you had a date with what’s-his-face.”
“You and Danika are the worst, you know that?”
She practically heard Fury’s wicked smile through the line. “I’ll meet you at the Raven in thirty minutes. I need to finish up a job.”
“Go easy on the poor bastard.” “That’s not what I was paid to do.”
The line went dead. Bryce swore and prayed Fury wouldn’t reek of blood when she got to their preferred club. She dialed another number.
Juniper was breathless when she picked up on the fifth ring, right before it went to audiomail. She must have been in the studio, practicing after-hours. As she always did. As Bryce loved to do whenever she had a spare moment herself. To dance and dance and dance, the world fading into nothing but music and breath and sweat. “Oh, you dumped him, didn’t you?”
“Did motherfucking Danika send a message to everyone?”
“No,” the sweet, lovely faun replied, “but you’ve been on your date for only an hour. Since the recap calls usually happen the morning after
“We’re going to the Raven,” Bryce snapped. “Be there in thirty.” She hung up before Juniper’s quicksilver laugh set her cursing.
Oh, she’d find a way to punish Danika for telling them. Even though she knew it’d been meant as a warning, to prepare them for any picking
up the pieces, if necessary. Just as Bryce had checked in with Connor regarding Danika’s state earlier that evening.
The White Raven was only a five-minute walk away, right in the heart of the Old Square. Which left Bryce with enough time to either really, truly get into trouble, or face what she’d been avoiding for an hour now.
She opted for trouble.
Lots of trouble, enough to empty out the seven hard-earned gold marks in her purse as she handed them over to a grinning draki female, who slipped everything Bryce asked for into her waiting palm. The female had tried to sell her on some new party drug—Synth will make you feel like a god, she said—but the thirty gold marks for a single dose had been well above Bryce’s pay grade.
She was still left with five minutes. Standing across from the White Raven, the club still teeming with revelers despite Briggs’s failed plan to blast it apart, Bryce pulled out her phone and opened the thread with Connor. She’d bet all the money she’d just blown on mirthroot that he was checking his phone every two seconds.
Cars crawled past, the bass of their sound systems thumping over the cobblestones and cypresses, windows down to reveal passengers eager to start their Thursday: drinking; smoking; singing along to the music; messaging friends, dealers, whoever might get them into one of the dozen clubs that lined Archer Street. Queues already snaked from the doors, including the Raven’s. Vanir peered up in anticipation at the white marble facade, well-dressed pilgrims waiting at the gates of a temple.
The Raven was just that: a temple. Or it had been. A building now encased the ruins, but the dance floor remained the original, ancient stones of some long-forgotten god’s temple, and the carved stone pillars throughout still stood from that time. To dance inside was to worship that nameless god, hinted at in the age-worn carvings of satyrs and fauns drinking and dancing and fucking amid grapevines. A temple to pleasure
—that’s what it had once been. And what it had become again.
A cluster of young mountain-lion shifters prowled past, a few twisting back to growl in invitation. Bryce ignored them and sidled over to an alcove at the left of the Raven’s service doors. She leaned against the slick stone, tucked the wine into the crook of her arm, braced a foot on the wall behind her as she bobbed her head to the music pouring out of a nearby car, and finally typed: Pizza. Saturday night at six. If you’re late, it’s over.
Instantly, Connor began typing in reply. Then the bubble paused.
Then started again.
Then finally, the message came.
I’ll never keep you waiting.
She rolled her eyes and wrote, Don’t make promises you can’t keep. More typing, deleting, typing. Then, You mean it—about the pizza? Do I look like I’m joking, Connor?
You looked delicious when you left the apartment.
Heat curled in her, and she bit her lip. Charming, arrogant bastard. Tell Danika I’m going to the Raven with Juniper and Fury. I’ll see you in two days.
Done. What about what’s-his-face? REID is officially dumped.
Good. I was getting worried I’d have to kill him.
Her gut churned.
He quickly added, Kidding, Bryce. I won’t go alphahole on you, I promise.
Before she could answer, her phone buzzed again.
Danika, this time. HOW DARE YOU GO TO THE RAVEN WITHOUT ME. TRAITOR.
Bryce snorted. Enjoy Pack Night, loser.
DO NOT HAVE FUN WITHOUT ME. I FORBID YOU.
She knew that as much as it killed Danika to stay in, she wouldn’t leave the pack. Not on the one night they all had together, the night they used to keep the bonds between them strong. Not after this shitstorm of a day. And especially not while Briggs was on the loose, with a reason to get back at the whole Pack of Devils.
That loyalty was why they loved Danika, why they fought so fiercely for her, went to the mat for her again and again when Sabine publicly wondered if her daughter was worthy of the responsibilities and status as second in line. The power hierarchy among the wolves of Crescent City was dictated by dominance alone—but the three-generation lineage that made up the Prime of the wolves, Prime Apparent, and whatever Danika was (the Apparent Prime Apparent?) was a rarity. Powerful, ancient bloodlines was the usual explanation.
Danika had spent countless hours looking into the history of the dominant shifter packs in other cities—why lions had come to rule in Hilene, why tigers oversaw Korinth, why falcons reigned in Oia. Whether the dominance that determined the Prime Alpha status passed through families or skipped around. Non-predatory shifters could head
up a city’s Aux, but it was rare. Honestly, most of it bored Bryce to tears. And if Danika had ever learned why the Fendyr family claimed such a large share of the dominance pie, she’d never told Bryce.
Bryce wrote back to Connor, Good luck handling Danika. He simply replied, She’s telling me the same about you.
Bryce was about to put her phone away when the screen flashed again. Connor had added, You won’t regret this. I’ve had a long while to figure out all the ways I’m going to spoil you. All the fun we’re going to have.
Stalker. But she smiled.
Go enjoy yourself. I’ll see you in a few days. Message me when you’re home safe.
She reread the conversation twice because she really was an absolute fucking loser, and was debating asking Connor to skip waiting and just meet her now, when something cool and metal pressed against her throat.
“And you’re dead,” crooned a female voice.
Bryce yelped, trying to calm the heart that had gone from stupid-giddy to stupid-scared in the span of one beat.
“Don’t fucking do that,” she hissed at Fury as the female lowered the knife from Bryce’s throat and sheathed it across her back.
“Don’t be a walking target,” Fury said coolly, her long onyx hair tied high in a ponytail that brought out the sharp lines of her light brown face. She scanned the line into the Raven, her deep-set chestnut eyes marking everything and promising death to anyone who crossed her. But beneath that … mercifully, the black leather leggings, skintight velvet top, and ass-kicking boots did not smell of blood. Fury gave Bryce a once-over. “You barely put on any makeup. That little human should have taken one look at you and known you were about to dump his ass.”
“He was too busy on his phone to notice.”
Fury glanced pointedly at Bryce’s own phone, still clenched in a death grip in her hand. “Danika’s going to nail your balls to the wall when I tell her I caught you distracted like that.”
“It’s her own damn fault,” Bryce snapped.
A sharp smile was her only response. Bryce knew Fury was Vanir, but she had no idea what kind. No idea what House Fury belonged to, either. Asking wasn’t polite, and Fury, aside from her preternatural speed, grace, and reflexes, had never revealed another form, nor any inkling of magic beyond the most basic.
But she was a civitas. A full citizen, which meant she had to be something they deemed worthy. Given her skill set, the House of Flame
and Shadow was the likeliest place for her—even if Fury was certainly not a daemonaki, vampyr, or even a wraith. Definitely not a witch-turned-sorceress like Jesiba, either. Or a necromancer, since her gifts seemed to be taking life, not illegally bringing it back.
“Where’s the leggy one?” Fury asked, taking the wine bottle from Bryce and swigging as she scanned the teeming clubs and bars along Archer Street.
“Hel if I know,” Bryce said. She winked at Fury and held up the plastic bag of mirthroot, jostling the twelve rolled black cigarettes. “I got us some goodies.”
Fury’s grin was a flash of red lips and straight white teeth. She reached into the back pocket of her leggings and held up a small bag of white powder that glittered with a fiery iridescence in the glow of the streetlamp. “So did I.”
Bryce squinted at the powder. “Is that what the dealer just tried to sell me?”
Fury went still. “What’d she say it was?”
“Some new party drug—gives you a godlike high, I don’t know.
Fury frowned. “Synth? Stay away from it. That’s some bad shit.” “All right.” She trusted Fury enough to heed the warning. Bryce
peered at the powder Fury still held in her hand. “I can’t take anything that makes me hallucinate for days, please. I have work tomorrow.” When she had to at least pretend she had some idea how to find that gods-damned Horn.
Fury tucked the bag into her black bra. She swigged from the wine again before passing it back to Bryce. “Jesiba won’t be able to scent it on you, don’t worry.”
Bryce linked elbows with the slender assassin. “Then let’s go make our ancestors roll over in their graves.”