In the midmorning light, the Istros River gleamed a deep blue, its waters clear enough to see the detritus sprinkled among the pale rocks and waving grasses. Centuries of Crescent City artifacts rusted away down there, picked over again and again by the various creatures who eked out a living by scavenging the crap hurled into the river.
Rumor had it that city officials had once tried to institute heavy fines for anyone caught dumping things in the river, but the scavengers had caught wind of it and put up such a fuss that the River Queen had no choice but to shut the bill down when it was officially proposed.
Overhead, angels, witches, and winged shifters soared by, keeping clear of the misty gloom of the Bone Quarter. Last night’s rain had cleared to a pleasant spring day—no hint of the flickering lights that often drifted beneath the river’s surface, visible only once night fell.
Bryce frowned down at a crustacean—some type of mammoth blue crab—picking its way along the floor beside the quay’s stone block, sorting through a pile of beer bottles. The remnants of last night’s drunken revels. “Have you ever been down to the mer-city?”
“No.” Hunt rustled his wings, one brushing against her shoulder. “Happy to stay above the surface.” The river breeze drifted past, chill despite the warm day. “You?”
She rubbed her hands down her arms along the smooth leather of Danika’s old jacket, trying to coax some warmth into them. “Never got an invite.”
Most never would. The river folk were notoriously secretive, their city beneath the surface—the Blue Court—a place few who dwelled on land would ever see. One glass sub went in and out per day, and those on it traveled by invitation only. And even if they possessed the lung
capacity or artificial means, no one was stupid enough to swim down. Not with what prowled these waters.
An auburn head of hair broke the surface a couple hundred yards out, and a partially scaled, muscled arm waved before vanishing, fingers tipped in sharp gray nails glinting in the sun.
Hunt glanced to Bryce. “Do you know any mer?”
Bryce lifted a corner of her mouth. “One lived down the hall my freshman year at CCU. She partied harder than all of us combined.”
The mer could shift into fully human bodies for short periods of time, but if they went too long, the shift would be permanent, their scales drying up and flaking away into dust, their gills shrinking to nothing. The mer down the hall had been granted an oversize tub in her dorm room so she didn’t need to interrupt her studies to return to the Istros once a day.
By the end of the first month of school, the mer had turned it into a party suite. Parties that Bryce and Danika gleefully attended, Connor and Thorne in tow. At the end of that year, their entire floor had been so wrecked that every one of them was slapped with a hefty fine for damages.
Bryce made sure she intercepted the letter before her parents got it out of the mailbox and quietly paid the fine with the marks she earned that summer scooping ice cream at the town parlor.
Sabine had gotten the letter, paid the fine, and made Danika spend the whole summer picking up trash in the Meadows.
Act like trash, Sabine had told her daughter, and you can spend your days with it.
Naturally, the following fall, Bryce and Danika had dressed as trash cans for the Autumnal Equinox.
The water of the Istros was clear enough for Bryce and Hunt to see the powerful male body swim closer, the reddish-brown scales of his long tail catching the light like burnished copper. Black stripes slashed through them, the pattern continuing up his torso and along his arms. Like some sort of aquatic tiger. The bare skin of his upper arms and chest was heavily tanned, suggesting hours spent near the surface or basking on the rocks of some hidden cove along the coast.
The male’s head broke the water, and his taloned hands brushed back his jaw-length auburn hair as he flashed Hunt a grin. “Long time no see.”
Hunt smiled at the mer male treading water. “Glad you weren’t too busy with your fancy new title to say hello.”
The mer waved a hand in dismissal, and Hunt beckoned Bryce forward. “Bryce, this is Tharion Ketos.” She stepped closer to the concrete edge of the quay. “An old friend.”
Tharion grinned at Hunt again. “Not as old as you.” Bryce gave the male a half smile. “Nice to meet you.”
Tharion’s light brown eyes glittered. “The pleasure, Bryce, is all mine.”
Gods spare him. Hunt cleared his throat. “We’re here on official business.”
Tharion swam the remaining few feet to the quay’s edge, knocking the crustacean into the drifting blue with a careless brush of his tail. Planting his talon-tipped hands on the concrete, he easily heaved his massive body from the water, the gills beneath his ears sealing in as he switched control of his breathing to his nose and mouth. He patted the now-wet concrete next to him and winked at Bryce. “Take a seat, Legs, and tell me all about it.”
Bryce huffed a laugh. “You’re trouble.” “It’s my middle name, actually.”
Hunt rolled his eyes. But Bryce sat beside the male, apparently not caring that the water would surely soak into the green dress she wore beneath the leather jacket. She pulled off her beige heels and dipped her feet in the water, splashing softly. Normally, he’d have dragged her away from the river’s edge, and told her she’d be lucky to lose just the leg if she put a foot in the water. But with Tharion beside them, none of the river’s denizens would dare approach.
Tharion asked Bryce, “Are you in the 33rd or the Auxiliary?” “Neither. I’m working with Hunt as a consultant on a case.”
Tharion hummed. “What does your boyfriend think of you working with the famed Umbra Mortis?”
Hunt sat down on the male’s other side. “Real subtle, Tharion.” Yet Bryce’s mouth bloomed into a full smile.
It was a near-twin to the one she’d given him this morning, when he’d popped his head into her room to see if she was ready to leave. Of course, his eyes had gone directly to the left nightstand. And then that smile had turned feral, like she knew exactly what he was wondering about.
He certainly had not been looking for any of her sex toys when he’d opened up the linen closet last night. But he’d spied a flash of purple sparkles, and—fine, maybe the thought had crossed his mind—he’d just pulled down the box before he could really think.
And now that he knew where they were, he couldn’t help but look at that nightstand and imagine her there, in that bed. Leaning against the pillows and—
It might have made sleeping a shade uncomfortable last night.
Tharion leaned back on his hands, displaying his muscled abdomen as he asked innocently, “What did I say?”
Bryce laughed, making no attempt to hide her blatant ogling of the mer’s cut body. “I don’t have a boyfriend. You want the job?”
Tharion smirked. “You like to swim?”
And that was about as much as Hunt could take with only one cup of coffee in his system. “I know you’re busy, Tharion,” he said through his teeth with just enough edge that the mer peeled his attention away from Bryce, “so we’ll keep this quick.”
“Oh, take your time,” Tharion said, eyes dancing with pure male challenge. “The River Queen gave me the morning off, so I’m all yours.”
“You work for the River Queen?” Bryce asked. “I’m a lowly peon in her court, but yes.”
Hunt leaned forward to catch Bryce’s stare. “Tharion’s just been promoted to her Captain of Intelligence. Don’t let the charm and irreverence fool you.”
“Charm and irreverence happen to be my two favorite traits,” Bryce said with a wink for Tharion this time.
The mer’s smile deepened. “Careful, Bryce. I might decide I like you and bring you Beneath.”
Hunt gave Tharion a warning look. Some of the darker mer had done just that, long ago. Carried human brides down to their undersea courts and kept them there, trapped within the massive air bubbles that contained parts of their palaces and cities, unable to reach the surface.
Bryce waved off the awful history. “We have a few questions for you, if that’s all right.”
Tharion gestured lazily with a claw-tipped, webbed hand. The markings on the mer were varied and vibrant: different coloring, stripes or specks or solids, their tails long-finned or short or wispy. Their magic mostly involved the element in which they lived, though some could summon tempests. The River Queen, part mer, part river-spirit, could summon far worse, they said. Possibly wash away all of Lunathion, if provoked.
She was a daughter of Ogenas, according to legend, born from the mighty river-that-encircles-the-world, and sister to the Ocean Queen, the reclusive ruler of the five great seas of Midgard. There was a fifty-fifty
chance the goddess thing was true of the River Queen, Hunt supposed. But regardless, the residents of this city did their best not to piss her off. Even Micah maintained a healthy, respectful relationship with her.
Hunt asked, “You see anything unusual lately?”
Tharion’s tail idly stirred the sparkling water. “What kind of case is this? Murder?”
“Yes,” Hunt said. Bryce’s face tightened.
Tharion’s claws clicked on the concrete. “Serial killer?” “Just answer the question, asshole.”
Tharion peered at Bryce. “If he talks to you like that, I hope you kick him in the balls.”
“She’d enjoy it,” Hunt muttered.
“Hunt has learned his lesson about pissing me off,” Bryce said sweetly.
Tharion’s smile was sly. “That is a story I’d like to hear.” “Of course you would,” Hunt grumbled.
“Does this have to do with the Viper Queen pulling in her people the other week?”
“Yes,” Hunt said carefully.
Tharion’s eyes darkened, a reminder that the male could be lethal when the mood struck him, and that there was a good reason the creatures of the river didn’t fuck with the mer. “Some bad shit’s going down, isn’t it.”
“We’re trying to stop it,” Hunt said.
The mer nodded gravely. “Let me ask around.”
“Covertly, Tharion. The less people who know something’s happening the better.”
Tharion slipped back into the water, again disturbing the poor crab who’d clawed his way back to the quay. The mer’s powerful tail thrashed, keeping him effortlessly in place as he surveyed Hunt and Bryce. “Do I tell my queen to pull in our people, too?”
“Doesn’t fit the pattern so far,” Hunt said, “but it wouldn’t hurt to give a warning.”
“What should I be warning her about?”
“An old-school demon called the kristallos,” Bryce said softly. “A monster straight from the Pit, bred by the Star-Eater himself.”
For a moment, Tharion said nothing, his tan face going pale. Then, “Fuck.” He ran a hand through his wet hair. “I’ll ask around,” he promised again. Far down the river, motion drew Hunt’s eye. A black boat drifted toward the mist of the Bone Quarter.
On the Black Dock, jutting from the city’s bright shoreline like a dark sword, a group of mourners huddled beneath the inky arches, praying for the boat to safely bear the veiled pine coffin across the water.
Around the wooden vessel, broad, scaled backs broke the river’s surface, writhing and circling. Waiting for final judgment—and lunch.
Tharion followed his line of sight. “Five marks says it tips.” “That’s disgusting,” Bryce hissed.
Tharion swished his tail, playfully splashing Bryce’s legs with water. “I won’t bet on your Sailing, Legs. I promise.” He flicked some water toward Hunt. “And we already know your boat is going to tip right the fuck over before it’s even left the shore.”
Behind them, an otter in a reflective yellow vest loped past, a sealed wax message tube held in its fanged mouth. It barely glanced their way before leaping into the river and vanishing. Bryce bit her lip, a high-pitched squeal cracking from her.
The fearless, fuzzy messengers were hard to resist, even for Hunt. While true animals and not shifters, they possessed an uncanny level of intelligence, thanks to the old magic in their veins. They’d found their place in the city by relaying tech-free communication between those who lived in the three realms that made up Crescent City: the mer in the river, the Reapers in the Bone Quarter, and the residents of Lunathion proper.
Tharion laughed at the naked delight on Bryce’s face. “Do you think the Reapers fall to pieces over them, too?”
“I bet even the Under-King himself squeals when he sees them,” Bryce said. “They were part of why I wanted to move here in the first place.”
Hunt lifted a brow. “Really?”
“I saw them when I was a kid and thought they were the most magical thing I’d ever seen.” She beamed. “I still do.”
“Considering your line of work, that’s saying something.” Tharion angled his head at them. “What manner of work is that?”
“Antiquities,” Bryce said. “If you ever find anything interesting in the depths, let me know.”
“I’ll send an otter right to you.”
Hunt got to his feet, offering a hand to help Bryce rise. “Keep us posted.”
Tharion gave him an irreverent salute. “I’ll see you when I see you,” he said, gills flaring, and dove beneath the surface. They watched him
swim out toward the deep heart of the river, following the same path as the otter, then plunge down, down—to those distant, twinkling lights.
“He’s a charmer,” Bryce murmured as Hunt hauled her to her feet, his other hand coming to her elbow.
Hunt’s hand lingered, the heat of it searing her even through the leather of the jacket. “Just wait until you see him in his human form. He causes riots.”
She laughed. “How’d you even meet him?”
“We had a string of mer murders last year.” Her eyes darkened in recognition. It’d been all over the news. “Tharion’s little sister was one of the victims. It was high-profile enough that Micah assigned me to help out. Tharion and I worked on the case together for the few weeks it lasted.”
Micah had traded him three whole debts for it.
She winced. “It was you two who caught the killer? They never said on the news—just that he’d been apprehended. Nothing more—not even who it was.”
Hunt let go of her elbow. “We did. A rogue panther shifter. I handed him over to Tharion.”
“I’m assuming the panther didn’t make it down to the Blue Court.” Hunt surveyed the shimmering expanse of water. “No, he didn’t.”
“Is Bryce being nice to you, Athie?”
Seated at the front desk of the gallery showroom, Bryce muttered, “Oh please,” and kept clicking through the paperwork Jesiba had sent over.
Hunt, sprawled in the chair across the desk from her, the portrait of angelic arrogance, merely asked the fire sprite lurking in the open iron door, “What would you do if I said she wasn’t, Lehabah?”
Lehabah floated in the archway, not daring to come into the showroom. Not when Jesiba would likely see. “I’d burn all her lunches for a month.”
Hunt chuckled, the sound sliding along her bones. Bryce, despite herself, smiled.
Something heavy thumped, audible even a level above the library, and Lehabah zoomed down the stairs, hissing, “Bad!”
Bryce looked at Hunt as he sifted through the photos of the demon from a few nights ago. His hair hung over his brow, the sable strands gleaming like black silk. Her fingers curled on the keyboard.
Hunt lifted his head. “We need more intel on Sabine. The fact that she swapped the footage of the Horn’s theft from the temple is suspicious, and what she said in the observation room that night is pretty suspicious, too, but they don’t necessarily mean she’s a murderer. I can’t approach Micah without concrete proof.”
She rubbed the back of her neck. “Ruhn hasn’t gotten any leads on finding the Horn, either, so that we can lure the kristallos.”
Silence fell. Hunt crossed an ankle over a knee, then stretched out a hand to where she’d discarded Danika’s jacket on the chair beside him, too lazy to bother hanging it. “I saw Danika wearing this in the photo in your guest room. Why’d you keep it?”
Bryce let out a long breath, thankful for his shift in subject. “Danika used to store her stuff in the supply closet here, rather than bothering to go back to the apartment or over to the Den. She’d stashed the jacket here the day …” She blew out a breath and glanced toward the bathroom in the back of the space, where Danika had changed only hours before her death. “I didn’t want Sabine to have it. She would have read the back of it and thrown it in the trash.”
Hunt picked up the jacket and read, “Through love, all is possible.”
Bryce nodded. “The tattoo on my back says the same thing. Well, in some fancy alphabet that she dug up online, but … Danika had a thing about that phrase. It was all the Oracle told her, apparently. Which makes no sense, because Danika was one of the least lovey-dovey people I’ve ever met, but …” Bryce toyed with the amulet around her neck, zipping it along the chain. “Something about it resonated with her. So after she died, I kept the jacket. And started wearing it.”
Hunt carefully set the jacket back on the chair. “I get it—about the personal effects.” He seemed like he wasn’t going to say more, but then he continued, “That sunball hat you made fun of?”
“I didn’t make fun of it. You just don’t seem like the kind of male who wears such a thing.”
He chuckled again—in that same way that slid over her skin. “That hat was the first thing I bought when I came here. With the first paycheck I ever received from Micah.” The corner of his mouth turned upward. “I saw it in an athletic shop, and it just seemed so ordinary. You have no idea how different Lunathion is from the Eternal City. From anything in Pangera. And that hat just …”
“Yeah. It seemed like a new beginning. A step toward a more normal existence. Well, as normal an existence as someone like me can have.”
She made an effort not to look at his wrist. “So you have your hat— and I have Jelly Jubilee.”
His smile lit up the dimness of the gallery. “I’m surprised you don’t have a tattoo of Jelly Jubilee somewhere.” His eyes skimmed over her, lingering on the short, tight green dress.
Her toes curled. “Who says I don’t have a tattoo of her somewhere you can’t see, Athalar?”
She watched him sort through everything he had already seen. Since he’d moved in, she’d stopped parading about the apartment in her underwear while getting dressed, but she knew he’d spotted her through the window in the days before. Knew he realized there was a limited, very intimate, number of places where another tattoo might be hidden.
She could have sworn his voice dropped an octave or two as he asked, “Do you?”
With any other male, she would have said, Why don’t you come find out?
With any other male, she would have already been on the other side of the desk. Crawling into his lap. Unbuckling his belt. And then sinking down onto his cock, riding him until they were both moaning and breathless and—
She made herself go back to her paperwork. “There are a few males who can answer that question, if you’re so curious.” How her voice was so steady, she had no idea.
Hunt’s silence was palpable. She didn’t dare look over her computer screen.
But his eyes remained focused on her, burning her like a brand.
Her heart thundered throughout her body. Dangerous, stupid, reckless—
Hunt let out a long, tight breath. The chair he sat in groaned as he shifted in it, his wings rustling. She still didn’t dare look. She honestly didn’t know what she’d do if she looked.
But then Hunt said, his voice gravelly, “We need to focus on Sabine.”
Hearing her name was like being doused with ice water.
Right. Yes. Of course. Because hooking up with the Umbra Mortis wasn’t a possibility. The reasons for that started with him pining for a lost love and ended with the fact that he was owned by the gods-damned Governor. With a million other obstacles in between.
She still couldn’t look at him as Hunt asked, “Any thoughts on how we can get more intel on her? Even just a glimpse into her current state
Needing something to do with her hands, her too-warm body, Bryce printed out, then signed and dated, the paperwork Jesiba had sent. “We can’t bring in Sabine for formal questioning without making her aware that we’re onto her,” Bryce said, at last looking at Hunt.
His face was flushed, and his eyes … Fucking Solas, his black eyes glittered, wholly fixed on her face. Like he was thinking of touching her.
“Okay,” he said roughly, running a hand through his hair. His eyes settled, the dark fire in them banking. Thank the gods.
An idea dawned upon her, and Bryce said in a strangled voice, her stomach twisting with dread, “So I think we have to bring the questions to Sabine.”