“So do you think you’ll get promoted to principal after the season?” Her shoulder wedging her phone against her ear, Bryce toed off her shoes at her apartment door and strode for the wall of windows. Syrinx, freed of his leash, ran for his food bowl to await his dinner.
“Doubtful,” Juniper said, her voice soft and quiet. “Eugenie is really killing it this year. I think she’ll be tapped for principal next. I’ve been a little off in some of my solos, I can feel it.”
Bryce peered out the window, spotted Hunt precisely where he said he’d wait until she signaled that she was safe and sound in her apartment, and waved. “You know you’ve been awesome. Don’t pretend that you’re not killing it, too.”
Hunt lifted a hand and launched skyward, winking at her as he flew past the window, then headed to the Munin and Hugin.
He hadn’t been able to convince her to join his triarii companions at the bar, and had made her swear on all five gods that she wouldn’t leave her apartment or open the door for anyone while he was gone.
Well, for almost anyone.
From their brief conversation, she’d gleaned that Hunt was invited often to the bar, but had never gone. Why he was going tonight for the first time … Maybe she was driving him nuts. She hadn’t sensed that, but maybe he just needed a night off.
“I’ve been doing all right, I guess,” Juniper admitted.
Bryce clicked her tongue. “You’re so full of shit with that ‘all right’ crap.”
“I was thinking, B,” Juniper said carefully. “My instructor mentioned that she’s starting a dance class that’s open to the general public. You could go.”
“Your instructor is the most in-demand teacher in this city. No way I’d get in,” Bryce deflected, watching the cars and pedestrians stream past below her window.
“I know,” Juniper said. “That’s why I asked her to save you a spot.” Bryce stilled. “I’ve got a lot going on right now.”
“It’s a two-hour class, twice a week. After work hours.” “Thanks, but I’m good.”
“You were, Bryce. You were good.”
Bryce clenched her teeth. “Not fucking good enough.”
“It didn’t matter to you before Danika died. Just go to the class. It’s not an audition—it’s literally just a class for people who love to dance. Which you do.”
“Which I did.”
Juniper’s breath rattled the phone. “Danika would be heartbroken to hear you don’t dance anymore. Even for fun.”
Bryce made a show of humming with consideration. “I’ll think about
“Good,” Juniper said. “I’m sending you the details.”
Bryce changed the subject. “You wanna come over and watch some
trashy TV? Beach House Hookup is on tonight at nine.” Juniper asked slyly, “Is the angel there?”
“He’s out for beers with his little cabal of killers.” “They’re called the triarii, Bryce.”
“Yeah, just ask them.” Bryce turned from the window and aimed for the kitchen. Syrinx still waited at his food bowl, lion’s tail waggling. “Would it make a difference if Hunt was here?”
“I’d be over a Hel of a lot faster.”
Bryce laughed. “Shameless.” She scooped Syrinx’s food into his bowl. His claws clicked as he pranced in place, counting each kibble piece. “Unfortunately for you, I think he’s hung up on someone.”
“Unfortunately for you.”
“Please.” She opened the fridge and pulled out an assortment of food. A grazer’s dinner it was. “I met a mer the other day who was so hot you could have fried an egg on his ten billion abs.”
“None of what you said makes any sort of sense, but I think I get the point.”
Bryce laughed again. “Should I get a veggie burger warmed up for you, or what?”
“I wish I could, but—” “But you have to practice.”
Juniper sighed. “I’m not going to be made principal by lounging on a couch all night.”
“You’ll get injured if you push yourself too hard. You’re already doing eight shows a week.”
The soft voice sharpened. “I’m fine. Maybe Sunday, okay?” The only day the dance company didn’t perform.
“Sure,” Bryce said. Her chest tightened, enough that she said, “Call me when you’re free.”
Their goodbyes were quick, and Bryce had barely hung up when she dialed another number.
Fury’s phone went right to audiomail. Not bothering to leave a message, Bryce set down her phone and pried open the container of hummus, then leftover noodles, then some possibly rotten pork stew. Magic kept most of the food in her fridge fresh, but there were rational limits.
Grunting, she dumped the stew into the trash. Syrinx frowned up at
“Even you wouldn’t eat that, my friend,” she said. Syrinx waggled his tail again and bounded for the couch. The silence of her apartment grew heavy.
One friend—that was what her social circle had become. Fury had
made it clear she had no interest in bothering with her anymore.
So now, with her solitary friend too busy with her career to hang out on a reliable schedule, especially in the upcoming summer months when the company performed throughout the week … Bryce supposed she was down to zero.
Bryce half-heartedly ate the hummus, dipping slightly slimy carrots into the spread. The crunch of them filled the silence of the apartment.
That too-familiar surge of self-pity came creeping in, and Bryce chucked the carrots and hummus in the garbage before padding for the couch.
She flipped through the channels until she found the local news. Syrinx peered up at her expectantly. “Just you and me tonight, bud,” she said, plopping down next to him.
On the news, Rigelus, Bright Hand of the Asteri, appeared, giving some speech on new trade laws at a gilded podium. Behind him, the five other Asteri sat enthroned in their crystal chamber, cold-faced and radiating wealth and power. As always, the seventh throne sat empty in honor of their long-dead sister. Bryce changed the channel again, this
time to another news station, blasting footage of lines of human-built mech-suits going toe-to-toe with elite Imperial Legions on a muddy battlefield. Another channel showed starving humans lined up for bread in the Eternal City, their children wailing with hunger.
Bryce switched to a show about buying vacation houses unseen and watched without really processing it.
When was the last time she’d read a book? Not for work or research, but for pleasure? She’d read loads before everything with Danika, but that part of her brain had just turned off afterward.
She’d wanted to drown out any sort of calm and quiet. The blaring television had become her companion to drive the silence away. The dumber the show, the better.
She nestled into the cushions, Syrinx curling up tightly against her leg as she scratched at his velvet-soft ears. He wriggled in a request for more.
The silence pushed in, tighter and thicker. Her mouth dried out, her limbs going light and hollow. The events at the Den threatened to begin looping, Ithan’s cold face at the forefront.
She peered at the clock. Barely five thirty.
Bryce blew out a long breath. Lehabah was wrong—this wasn’t like that winter. Nothing could ever be as bad as that first winter without Danika. She wouldn’t let it.
She stood, Syrinx huffing with annoyance at being disturbed.
“I’ll be back soon,” she promised, pointing toward the hall and his crate.
Throwing her a baleful look, the chimera saw himself into his cage, yanking the metal door shut with a hooked claw.
Bryce locked it, reassuring him again that she wouldn’t be out for long, and slipped back into her heels. She’d promised Hunt she would stay put—had sworn it on the gods.
Too bad the angel didn’t know that she no longer prayed to any of them.
Hunt had drunk all of half a beer when his phone rang.
He knew exactly what had happened before he picked up. “She left, didn’t she?”
Naomi let out a quiet laugh. “Yeah. All glammed up, too.” “That’s how she usually is,” he grumbled, rubbing his temple.
Down the carved oak bar, Vik arched a graceful eyebrow, her halo shifting with the movement. Hunt shook his head and reached for his
wallet. He shouldn’t have come out tonight. The offer had been thrown to him so many times these past four years, and he’d never gone, not when it had felt so much like being in the 18th again. But this time, when Isaiah had called with his standard caveat (I know you’ll say no, but …) he’d said yes.
He didn’t know why, but he’d gone. Hunt asked, “Where’d she head?”
“I’m tracking her now,” Naomi said, the wind rustling on her end of the line. She hadn’t asked questions when Hunt had called her an hour ago to ask that she guard Bryce—and give up her spot in tonight’s hangout. “Looks like she’s headed toward FiRo.”
Maybe she was seeking out her cousin for an update. “Stay close, and keep your guard up,” he said. He knew he didn’t need to say it. Naomi was one of the most talented warriors he’d ever encountered, and took no shit from anyone. One look at her tightly braided black hair, the colorful tattoo that covered her hands, and the array of weapons on her muscled body and most people didn’t dare to tangle with her. Maybe even Bryce would have obeyed an order to stay put, if Naomi had been the one to give it. “Send me your coordinates.”
“Will do.” The line went dead.
Hunt sighed. Viktoria said, “You should have known better, friend.” Hunt ran his hands through his hair. “Yeah.”
Beside him, Isaiah swigged from his beer. “You could let Naomi handle her.”
“I have a feeling that would result in them unleashing Hel together, and I’d still need to go end their fun.”
Vik and Isaiah chuckled, and Hunt dropped a silver mark on the bar. Viktoria held up a hand in protest, but Hunt ignored it. They might all be slaves, but he could pay for his own damn drink. “I’ll see you two later.”
Isaiah raised his beer in salute, and Viktoria gave him a knowing smile before Hunt elbowed his way through the packed bar. Justinian, playing pool in the back, lifted a hand in farewell. Hunt had never asked why all of them preferred the tight quarters of the street-level bar to one of the rooftop lounges most angels frequented. He supposed he wouldn’t get the chance to learn why tonight.
Hunt wasn’t surprised that Bryce had bailed. Frankly, the only thing that surprised him was that she’d waited this long.
He shouldered through the leaded glass door and out onto the muggy street beyond. Patrons drank at reclaimed oak barrels, and a raucous
group of some sort of shifter pack—perhaps wolves or one of the big cats—puffed away on cigarettes.
Hunt scowled at the reek that chased him into the sky, then frowned again at the clouds rolling in from the west, the heavy scent of rain already on the wind. Fantastic.
Naomi sent over her coordinates in Five Roses, and a five-minute flight had Hunt arriving at one of the night gardens, just beginning to awaken with the fading light. Naomi’s black wings were a stain against the creeping darkness as she hovered in place above a fountain filled with moon lilies, the bioluminescent flowers already open and glowing pale blue.
“That way,” Naomi said, the harsh planes of her face gilded by the soft light from the plants.
Hunt nodded to the angel. “Thanks.”
“Good luck.” The words were enough to set him on edge, and Hunt didn’t bother saying goodbye before soaring down the path. Star oaks lined it, their leaves glittering in a living canopy overhead. The gentle illumination danced on Bryce’s hair as she ambled down the stone path, night-blooming flowers opening around her. Jasmine lay heavy in the twilight air, sweet and beckoning.
“You couldn’t give me an hour of peace?”
Bryce didn’t flinch as he dropped into step beside her. “I wanted some fresh air.” She admired an unfurling fern, its fronds lit from within to illuminate every vein.
“Were you going somewhere in particular?” “Just—out.”
“I’m waiting for you to start yelling.” She continued past beds of night crocuses, their purple petals shimmering amid the vibrant moss. The garden seemed to awaken for her, welcome her.
“I’ll yell when I find out what was so important that you broke your promise.”
“Nothing is important.”
She said the words with enough quiet that he watched her carefully. “You all right?”
“Yeah.” Definitely no, then.
She admitted, “The quiet bothers me sometimes.” “I invited you to the bar.”
“I didn’t want to go to a bar with a bunch of triarii.” “Why not?”
She cut him a sidelong glance. “I’m a civilian. They wouldn’t be able to relax.”
Hunt opened his mouth to deny it, but she gave him a look. “Fine,” he admitted. “Maybe.”
They walked in silence for a few steps. “You could go back to your drinking, you know. That ominous-looking angel you sent to babysit me can handle it.”
“She looks intense.” “She is.”
Bryce threw him a hint of a smile. “You two …?”
“No.” Though Naomi had hinted about it on occasion. “It’d complicate things.”
“Were you on your way to meet your friends?”
She shook her head. “Just the one friend these days, Athalar. And she’s too busy.”
“So you were going out alone. To do what?” “Walk through this garden.”
“I knew you’d send a babysitter.”
Hunt moved before he could think, gripping her elbow.
She peered up into his face. “Is this the part where you start yelling?”
Lightning cracked through the sky, and echoed in his veins as he leaned closer and purred, “Would you like me to yell, Bryce Quinlan?”
Her throat bobbed, her eyes glowing with golden fire. “Maybe?” Hunt let out a low laugh. Didn’t try to stop the heat that flooded him.
“That can be arranged.”
All of his focus narrowed on the dip of her eyes to his mouth. The blush that bloomed over her freckled cheeks, inviting him to taste every rosy inch.
No one and nothing existed but this—but her.
He never heard the night-dark bushes behind him rustling. Never heard the branches cracking.
Not until the kristallos crashed into him and sank its teeth into his shoulder.