Chapter no 52

House of Earth and Blood

Bryce’s blood roared as she sprinted through the Old Square, down rain-soaked streets, all the way to Five Roses. The villas glowed in the rain, palatial homes with immaculate lawns and gardens, all fenced with wrought iron. Stone-faced Fae or shifter sentries from the Auxiliary were posted at every corner.

As if the residents here lived in abject terror that the peregrini and few slaves of Crescent City were poised to loot at any moment.

She hurtled past the marble behemoth that was the Fae Archives, the building covered in drooping veils of flowers that ran down its many columns. Roses, jasmine, wisteria—all in perpetual bloom, no matter the season.

She sprinted all the way to the sprawling white villa covered in pink roses, and to the wrought-iron gate around it guarded by four Fae warriors.

They stepped into her path as she skidded to a halt, the flagstone street slick with rain.

“Let me in,” she said through her teeth, panting.

They didn’t so much as blink. “Do you have an appointment with His Majesty?” one asked.

“Let me in,” she said again.

He’d known. Her father had known there were tests to assess what had killed Danika and had done nothing. Had deliberately stayed out of it.

She had to see him. Had to hear it from him. She didn’t care what time it was.

The polished black door was shut, but the lights were on. He was home. He had to be.

“Not without an appointment,” said the same guard.

Bryce took a step toward them and rebounded—hard. A wall of heat surrounded the compound, no doubt generated by the Fae males before her. One of the guards snickered. Her face grew hot, her eyes stinging.

“Go tell your king that Bryce Quinlan needs a word. Now.”

“Come back when you have an appointment, half-breed,” one of the sentries said.

Bryce smacked her hand against their shield. It didn’t so much as ripple. “Tell him—”

The guards stiffened as power, dark and mighty, pulsed from behind her. Lightning skittered over the cobblestones. The guards’ hands drifted to their swords.

Hunt said, voice like thunder, “The lady wants an audience with His Majesty.”

“His Majesty is unavailable.” The guard who spoke had clearly noted the halo at Hunt’s brow. The sneer that spread across his face was one of the most hideous things Bryce had ever seen. “Especially for Fallen scum and half-human skanks.”

Hunt took a step toward them. “Say that again.”

The guard’s sneer remained. “Once wasn’t enough?”

Hunt’s hand fisted at his side. He’d do it, she realized. He’d pummel these assholes into dust for her, fight his way inside the gates so she could have a chat with the king.

Down the block, Ruhn appeared, wreathed in shadow, his black hair plastered to his head. Flynn and Declan followed close behind him. “Stand down,” Ruhn ordered the guards. “Stand the fuck down.”

They did no such thing. “Even you, Prince, are not authorized to order that.”

Ruhn’s shadows swirled at his shoulders like a phantom pair of wings, but he said to Bryce, “There are other battles worth fighting with him. This isn’t one of them.”

Bryce stalked a few feet from the gate, even though the guards could likely hear every word. “He deliberately chose not to help with what happened to Danika.”

Hunt said, “Some might consider that to be interference with an imperial investigation.”

“Fuck off, Athalar,” Ruhn growled. He reached for Bryce’s arm, but she stepped back. He clenched his jaw. “You are considered a member of this court, you know. You were involved in a colossal mess. He decided the best thing for your safety was to let the case drop, not dig further.”

“As if he’s ever given two shits about my safety.”

“He gave enough of a shit about you to want me to be your live-in guard. But you wanted Athalar to play sexy roomie.”

“He wants to find the Horn for himself,” she snapped. “It has nothing to do with me.” She pointed to the house beyond the iron fence. “You go in there and tell that piece of shit that I won’t forget this. Ever. I doubt he’ll care, but you tell him.”

Ruhn’s shadows stilled, draping from his shoulders. “I’m sorry, Bryce. About Danika—”

“Do not,” she seethed, “ever say her name to me. Never say her name to me again.”

She could have sworn hurt that even his shadows couldn’t hide flashed across her brother’s face, but she turned, finding Hunt watching with crossed arms. “I’ll see you at the apartment,” she said to him, and didn’t bother to say more before launching back into a run.

It had been fucked up to not warn Hunt whom she was summoning. She’d admit it.

But not as fucked up as the Fae tests her father had declined to provide access to.

Bryce didn’t go home. Halfway there, she decided she’d head somewhere else. The White Raven was shut down, but her old favorite whiskey bar would do just fine.

Lethe was open and serving. Which was good, because her leg throbbed mercilessly and her feet were blistered from running in her stupid flats. She took them off the moment she hopped onto the leather stool at the bar, and sighed as her bare feet touched the cool brass footrest running the length of the dark wood counter.

Lethe hadn’t changed in the two years since she’d last set foot on the floor that lent itself to an optical illusion, painted with black, gray, and white cubes. The cherrywood pillars still rose like trees to form the carved, arched ceiling high above, looming over a bar made from fogged glass and black metal, all clean lines and square edges.

She’d messaged Juniper five minutes ago, inviting her for a drink. She still hadn’t heard back. So she’d watched the news on the screen above the bar, flashing to the muddy battlefields in Pangera, the husks of mech-suits littering them like broken toys, bodies both human and Vanir sprawled for miles, the crows already feasting.

Even the human busboy had stopped to look, his face tight as he beheld the carnage. A barked order from the bartender had kept him

moving, but Bryce had seen the gleam in the young man’s brown eyes. The fury and determination.

“What the Hel,” she muttered, and knocked back a mouthful of the whiskey in front of her.

It tasted as acrid and vile as she remembered—burned all the way down. Precisely what she wanted. Bryce took another swig.

A bottle of some sort of purple tonic plunked onto the counter beside her tumbler. “For your leg,” Hunt said, sliding onto the stool beside hers. “Drink up.”

She eyed the glass vial. “You went to a medwitch?”

“There’s a clinic around the corner. I figured you weren’t leaving here anytime soon.”

Bryce sipped her whiskey. “You guessed right.”

He nudged the tonic closer. “Have it before you finish the rest.” “No comment about breaking my No Drinking rule?”

He leaned on the bar, tucking in his wings. “It’s your rule—you can end it whenever you like.”

Whatever. She reached for the tonic, uncorking and knocking it back.

She grimaced. “Tastes like grape soda.” “I told her to make it sweet.”

She batted her eyelashes. “Because I’m so sweet, Athalar?” “Because I knew you wouldn’t drink it if it tasted like rubbing


She lifted her whiskey. “I beg to differ.”

Hunt signaled the bartender, ordered a water, and said to Bryce, “So, tonight went well.”

She chuckled, sipping the whiskey again. Gods, it tasted awful. Why had she ever guzzled this stuff down? “Superb.”

Hunt drank from his water. Watched her for a long moment before he said, “Look, I’ll sit here while you get stupid drunk if that’s what you want, but I’ll just say this first: there are better ways to deal with everything.”

“Thanks, Mom.” “I mean it.”

The bartender set another whiskey before her, but Bryce didn’t drink.

Hunt said carefully, “You’re not the only person to have lost someone you love.”

She propped her head on a hand. “Tell me all about her, Hunt. Let’s hear the full, unabridged sob story at last.”

He held her gaze. “Don’t be an asshole. I’m trying to talk to you.”

“And I’m trying to drink,” she said, lifting her glass to do so.

Her phone buzzed, and both of them glanced at it. Juniper had finally written back.

Can’t, sorry. Practice. Then another buzz from Juniper. Wait—why are you drinking at Lethe? Are you drinking again? What happened?

Hunt said quietly, “Maybe your friend is trying to tell you something, too.”

Bryce’s fingers curled into fists, but she set her phone facedown on the glowing, fogged glass. “Weren’t you going to tell me your heartbreaking story about your amazing girlfriend? What would she think about the way you manhandled me and practically devoured my neck the other night?”

She regretted the words the moment they were out. For so many reasons, she regretted them, the least of which being that she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about that moment of insanity on the roof, when his mouth had been on her neck and she’d started to completely unravel.

How good it had felt—he had felt.

Hunt stared her down for a long moment. Heat rose to her face.

But all he said was “I’ll see you at home.” The word echoed between them as he set another purple tonic on the counter. “Drink that one in thirty minutes.”

Then he was gone, prowling through the empty bar and onto the street beyond.

Hunt had just settled onto the couch to watch the sunball game when Bryce walked into the apartment, two bags of groceries in her hands. About fucking time.

Syrinx flung himself off the couch and bounded to her, rising onto his back legs to demand kisses. She obliged him, ruffling his golden fur before looking up at where Hunt sat on the couch. He just sipped from his beer and gave her a terse nod.

She nodded back, not quite meeting his eyes, and strode for the kitchen. The limp was better, but not wholly gone.

He’d sent Naomi to monitor the street outside that fancy whiskey bar while he hit the gym to work off his temper.

Manhandled. The word had lingered. Along with the truth: he hadn’t thought about Shahar for a second while they’d been on the roof. Or in the days following. And when he’d had his hand wrapped around his cock in the shower that night, and every night since, it hadn’t been the Archangel he’d thought of. Not even close.

Quinlan had to know that. She had to know what wound she’d hit.

So the options had been to yell at her, or to exercise. He’d picked the latter.

That had been two hours ago. He’d cleaned up all the obsidian salt, walked and fed Syrinx, and then sat on the couch to wait.

Bryce set her bags onto the counter, Syrinx lingering at her feet to inspect every purchase. In between plays, Hunt stole glances at what she unpacked. Vegetables, fruits, meat, oat milk, cow’s milk, rice, a loaf of brown bread—

“Are we having company?” he asked.

She yanked out a skillet and plunked it on the burner. “I figured I’d make a late dinner.”

Her back was stiff, her shoulders straight. He might have thought she was pissed, but the fact that she was making dinner for them suggested otherwise. “Is it wise to cook when you’ve been pounding whiskey?”

She shot him a glare over a shoulder. “I’m trying to do something nice, and you’re not making it easy.”

Hunt held up his hands. “All right. Sorry.”

She went back to the stove, adjusted the heat, and opened a package of some sort of ground meat. “I wasn’t pounding whiskey,” she said. “I left Lethe soon after you did.”

“Where’d you go?”

“Out to a storage unit near Moonwood.” She began gathering spices. “I stashed a lot of Danika’s stuff there. Sabine was going to chuck it, but I took it before she did.” She dumped some ground meat in the skillet and gestured to a third bag she’d left by the door. “I just wanted to make sure there was no hint of the Horn there, anything I might not have noticed at the time. And to grab some of Danika’s clothes—ones that were in my bedroom that night that Evidence didn’t take. I know they already have clothes from before, but I thought … Maybe there’s something on these, too.”

Hunt opened his mouth to say something—what, exactly, he didn’t know—but Bryce went on. “After that, I went to the market. Since condiments aren’t food, apparently.”

Hunt brought his beer with him as he padded to the kitchen. “Want help?”

“No. This is an apology meal. Go watch your game.” “You don’t need to apologize.”

“I acted like an asshole. Let me cook something for you to make up for it.”

“Based on how much chili powder you just dumped into that pan, I’m not sure I want to accept this particular apology.”

“Fuck, I forgot to add the cumin!” She whirled toward the skillet, turning down the heat and adding the spice, stirring it into what smelled like ground turkey. She sighed. “I’m a mess.”

He waited, letting her gather her words.

She began cutting an onion, her motions easy and smooth.

“Honestly, I was a bit of a mess before what happened to Danika, and …” She sliced the onion into neat rings. “It didn’t get any better.”

“Why were you a mess before she died?”

Bryce slid the onion into the skillet. “I’m a half-human with a near-useless college degree. All my friends were going somewhere, doing something with themselves.” Her mouth quirked to the side. “I’m a glorified secretary. With no long-term plan for anything.” She stirred the onion around. “The partying and stuff—it was the only time when the four of us were on equal footing. When it didn’t matter that Fury’s some kind of merc or Juniper’s so amazingly talented or Danika would one day be this all-powerful wolf.”

“They ever hold that against you?”

“No.” Her amber eyes scanned his face. “No, they would never have done that. But I couldn’t ever forget it.”

“Your cousin said you used to dance. That you stopped after Danika died. You never wanted to follow that road?”

She pointed to the sweep of her hips. “I was told my half-human body was too clunky. I was also told that my boobs were too big, and my ass could be used as an aerialport landing pad.”

“Your ass is perfect.” The words slipped out. He refrained from commenting on just how much he liked the other parts of her, too. How much he wanted to worship them. Starting with that ass of hers.

Color bloomed on her cheeks. “Well, thank you.” She stirred the contents of the skillet.

“But you don’t dance for fun anymore?” “No.” Her eyes went cold at that. “I don’t.”

“And you never thought of doing anything else?”

“Of course I have. I’ve got ten job applications hidden on my work computer, but I can’t focus enough to finish them. It’s been so long since I saw the job postings that they’re probably filled by now anyway. It doesn’t even matter that I’d also have to find some way to convince Jesiba that I’ll keep paying off my debt to her.” She kept stirring. “A

human life span seems like a long time to fill, but an immortal one?” She hooked her hair behind an ear. “I have no idea what to do.”

“I’m two hundred thirty-three years old, and I’m still figuring it out.” “Yeah, but you—you did something. You fought for something. You

are someone.”

He tapped the slave tattoo on his wrist. “And look where I wound up.”

She turned from the stove. “Hunt, I really am sorry for what I said about Shahar.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Bryce jerked her chin toward Hunt’s open bedroom door, the photo of her and Danika just barely visible on the dresser. “My mom took that the day we got out of the hospital in Rosque.”

He knew she was building to something, and was willing to play along. “Why were you in the hospital?”

“Danika’s senior thesis was on the history of the illegal animal trade. She uncovered a real smuggling ring, but no one in the Aux or the 33rd would help her, so she and I went to deal with it ourselves.” Bryce snorted. “The operation was run by five asp shifters, who caught us trying to free their stock. We called them asp-holes, and things went downhill from there.”

Of course they did. “How downhill?”

“A motorcycle chase and crash, my right arm broken in three places, Danika’s pelvis fractured. Danika got shot twice in the leg.”


“You should have seen the asp-holes.” “You killed them?”

Her eyes darkened, nothing but pure Fae predator shining there. “Some. The ones who shot Danika … I took care of them. The police got the rest.” Burning Solas. He had a feeling there was far more to the story. “I know people think Danika was a reckless partier with mommy issues, I know Sabine thinks that, but … Danika went to free those animals because she literally couldn’t sleep at night knowing they were in cages, terrified and alone.”

The Party Princess, Hunt and the triarii had mocked her behind her back.

Bryce went on, “Danika was always doing that kind of thing— helping people Sabine thought were beneath them. Some part of her might have done it to piss off her mom, yeah, but most of it was because she wanted to help. That’s why she went easy on Philip Briggs and his

group, why she gave him so many chances.” She let out a long breath. “She was difficult, but she was good.”

“And what about you?” he asked carefully.

She ran a hand through her hair. “Most days, I feel cold as it was in here with Aidas. Most days, all I want is to go back. To how it was before. I can’t bear to keep going forward.”

Hunt gazed at her for a long moment. “There were some of the Fallen who accepted the halo and slave tattoo, you know. After a few decades, they accepted it. Stopped fighting it.”

“Why have you never stopped?”

“Because we were right then, and we’re still right now. Shahar was only the spear point. I followed her blindly into a battle we could never have won, but I believed in what she stood for.”

“If you could do it over, march under Shahar’s banner again—would you?”

Hunt considered that. He didn’t normally let himself dwell too long on what had happened, what had occurred since then. “If I hadn’t rebelled with her, I’d probably have been noticed by another Archangel for my lightning. I’d likely now be serving as a commander in one of Pangera’s cities, hoping to one day earn enough to buy my way out of service. But they’d never let someone with my gifts go. And I had little choice but to join a legion. It was the path I was pushed onto, and the lightning, the killing—I never asked to be good at it. I’d give it up in a heartbeat if I could.”

Her eyes flickered with understanding. “I know.” He lifted a brow. She clarified, “The being good at something you don’t want to be good at. That talent you’d let go of in a heartbeat.” He angled his head. “I mean, look at me: I’m amazing at attracting assholes.”

Hunt huffed a laugh. She said, “You didn’t answer my question.

Would you still rebel if you knew what would happen?”

Hunt sighed. “That’s what I was starting to say: even if I hadn’t rebelled, I’d wind up in a sugarcoated version of my life now. Because I’m still a legionary being used for my so-called gifts—just now officially a slave, rather than being forced into service by a lack of other options. The only other difference is that I’m serving in Valbara, in a fool’s bargain with an Archangel, hoping to one day be forgiven for my supposed sins.”

“You don’t think they were sins.”

“No. I think the angel hierarchies are bullshit. We were right to rebel.”

“Even though it cost you everything?”

“Yeah. So I guess that’s my answer. I’d still do it, even knowing what would happen. And if I ever get free …” Bryce halted her stirring. Met his stare unblinkingly as Hunt said, “I remember every one of them who was there on the battlefield, who brought down Shahar. And all the angels, the Asteri, the Senate, the Governors—all of them, who were there at our sentencing.” He leaned against the counter behind them and swigged from his beer, letting her fill in the rest.

“And after you’ve killed them all? What then?”

He blinked at the lack of fear, of judgment. “Assuming I live through it, you mean.”

“Assuming you live through taking on the Archangels and Asteri, what then?”

“I don’t know.” He gave her a half smile. “Maybe you and I can figure it out, Quinlan. We’ll have centuries to do it.”

“If I make the Drop.”

He started. “You would choose not to?” It was rare—so, so rare for a Vanir to refuse to make the Drop and live only a mortal life span.

She added more vegetables and seasoning to the pan before throwing a packet of instant rice into the microwave. “I don’t know. I’d need an Anchor.”

“What about Ruhn?” Her cousin, even if neither of them would admit it, would take on every beast in the Pit itself to protect her.

She threw him a look dripping with disdain. “No fucking way.” “Juniper, then?” Someone she truly trusted, loved.

“She’d do it, but it doesn’t feel right. And using one of the public Anchors isn’t for me.”

“I used one. It was fine.” He spied the questions brimming in her eyes and cut her off before she could voice them. “Maybe you’ll change your mind.”

“Maybe.” She chewed on her lip. “I’m sorry you lost your friends.” “I’m sorry you lost yours.”

Bryce nodded her thanks, going back to stirring. “I know people don’t get it. It’s just … a light went out inside me when it happened. Danika wasn’t my sister, or my lover. But she was the one person I could be myself around and never feel judged. The one person that I knew would always pick up the phone, or call me back. She was the one person who made me feel brave because no matter what happened, no matter how bad or embarrassing or shitty it was, I knew that I had her in

my corner. That if it all went to Hel, I could talk to her and it would be fine.”

Her eyes gleamed, and it was all he could do to not cross the few feet between them and grab her hand as she continued. “But it … It’s not fine. I will never talk to her again. I think people expect me to be over it by now. But I can’t. Anytime I get anywhere close to the truth of my new reality, I want to space out again. To not have to be me. I can’t fucking dance anymore because it reminds me of her—of all the dancing we did together in clubs or on the streets or in our apartment or dorm. I won’t let myself dance anymore because it brought me joy, and … And I didn’t, I don’t, want to feel those things.” She swallowed. “I know it sounds pathetic.”

“It’s not,” he said quietly.

“I’m sorry I dumped my baggage in your lap.”

A corner of his mouth turned up. “You can dump your baggage in my lap anytime, Quinlan.”

She snorted, shaking her head. “You made it sound gross.”

“You said it first.” Her mouth twitched. Damn, if the smile didn’t make his chest tighten.

But Hunt just said, “I know you’ll keep going forward, Quinlan— even if it sucks.”

“What makes you so sure of it?”

His feet were silent as he crossed the kitchen. She tipped back her head to hold his stare. “Because you pretend to be irreverent and lazy, but deep down, you don’t give up. Because you know that if you do, then they win. All the asp-holes, as you called them, win. So living, and living well—it’s the greatest fuck you that you can ever give them.”

“That’s why you’re still fighting.”

He ran a hand over the tattoo on his brow. “Yes.”

She let out a hmm, stirring the mixture in the pan again. “Well then, Athalar. I guess it’ll be you and me in the trenches for a while longer.”

He smiled at her, more openly than he’d dared do with anyone in a long while. “You know,” he said, “I think I like the sound of that.”

Her eyes warmed further, a blush stealing across her freckled cheeks. “You said home earlier. At the bar.”

He had. He’d tried not to think about it.

She went on, “I know you’re supposed to live in the barracks or whatever Micah insists on, but if we somehow solve this case … that room is yours, if you want it.”

The offer rippled through him. And he couldn’t think of a single word beyond “Thanks.” It was all that was necessary, he realized.

The rice finished cooking, and she divvied it into two bowls before dumping the meat mixture on top of it. She extended one to him. “Nothing gourmet, but … here. I’m sorry for earlier.”

Hunt studied the steaming heap of meat and rice. He’d seen dogs served fancier meals. But he smiled slightly, his chest inexplicably tightening again. “Apology accepted, Quinlan.”

A cat was sitting on her dresser.

Exhaustion weighed her eyelids, so heavily she could barely raise them.

Eyes like the sky before dawn pinned her to the spot.

What blinds an Oracle, Bryce Quinlan?

Her mouth formed a word, but sleep tugged her back into its embrace.

The cat’s blue eyes simmered. What blinds an Oracle?

She fought to keep her eyes open at the question, the urgency.

You know, she tried to say.

The Autumn King’s only daughter—thrown out like rubbish.

The cat had either guessed it at the temple all those years ago, or followed her home to confirm whose villa she had tried to enter.

He’ll kill me if he knows.

The cat licked a paw. Then make the Drop.

She tried to speak again. Sleep held her firm, but she finally managed, And what then?

The cat’s whiskers twitched. I told you. Come find me. Her eyelids drooped—a final descent toward sleep. Why? The cat angled its head. So we can finish this.

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