Chapter no 73

House of Earth and Blood

The last Summit Hunt had attended had been in an ancient, sprawling palace in Pangera, bedecked in the riches of the empire: silk tapestries and sconces of pure gold, goblets twinkling with precious stones, and succulent meats crusted in the rarest spices.

This one was held in a conference center.

The glass and metal space was sprawling, its layout reminding Hunt of a bunch of shoeboxes stacked beside and atop each other. Its central hall rose three stories high, the stairs and escalators at the back of the space adorned with the crimson banners of the Republic, the long pathway leading to them carpeted in white.

Each territory in Midgard held their own Summit every ten years, attended by various leaders within their borders, along with a representative of the Asteri and a few visiting dignitaries relevant to whatever issues would be discussed. This one was no different, save for its smaller scope: Though Valbara was far smaller than Pangera, Micah held four different Summit meetings, each for a separate quadrant of his realm. This one, for the southeastern holdings—with Lunathion’s leaders at its heart—was the first.

The site, located in the heart of the Psamathe Desert, a good five-hour drive from Crescent City—an hour for an angel at top flying speeds or a mere half hour by helicopter—had its own holding cells for dangerous Vanir.

He’d spent the last five days there, marking them by the shift in his food: breakfast, lunch, dinner. At least Sandriel and Pollux had not come to taunt him. At least he had that small reprieve. He’d barely listened to the Hammer’s attempts to bait him during the drive. He’d barely felt or heard anything at all.

Yet this morning, a set of black clothes had arrived with his breakfast tray. No weapons, but the uniform was clear enough. So was the message: he was about to be displayed, a mockery of an imperial Triumphus parade, for Sandriel to gloat about regaining ownership of him.

But he’d obediently dressed, and let Sandriel’s guards fit the gorsian manacles on him, rendering his power null and void.

He followed the guards silently, up through the elevator, and into the grand lobby itself, bedecked in imperial regalia.

Vanir of every House filled the space, most dressed in business clothes or what had once been known as courtly attire. Angels, shifters, Fae, witches … Delegations flanked either side of the red runner leading toward the stairs. Fury Axtar stood among the crowd, clad in her usual assassin leathers, watching everyone. She didn’t look his way.

Hunt was led toward a delegation of angels near the staircase— members of Sandriel’s 45th Legion. Her triarii. Pollux stood in front of them, his commander status marked by his gold armor, his cobalt cape, his smirking face.

That smirk only grew as Hunt took up his position nearby, wedged between her guards.

Her other triarii were nearly as bad as the Hammer. Hunt would never forget any of them: the thin, pale-skinned, dark-haired female known as the Harpy; the stone-faced, black-winged male called the Helhound; and the haughty, cold-eyed angel named the Hawk. But they ignored him. Which, he’d learned, was better than their attention.

No sign of the Hind, the final member of the triarii—though maybe her work as a spy-breaker in Pangera was too valuable to the Asteri for Sandriel to be allowed to drag her here.

Across the runner stood Isaiah and the 33rd. What remained of its triarii. Naomi was stunning in her uniform, her chin high and right hand on the hilt of her formal legion sword, its winged cross guard glinting in the morning light.

Isaiah’s eyes drifted over to his. Hunt, in his black armor, was practically naked compared to the full uniform of the Commander of the 33rd: the bronze breastplate, the epaulets, the greaves and vambraces … Hunt still remembered how heavy it was. How stupid he’d always felt decked out in the full regalia of the Imperial Army. Like some prize warhorse.

The Autumn King’s Auxiliary forces stood to the left of the angels, their armor lighter but no less ornate. Across from them were the

shifters, in their finest clothes. Amelie Ravenscroft didn’t so much as dare look in his direction. Smaller groups of Vanir filled the rest of the space: mer and daemonaki. No sign of any humans. Certainly no one with mixed heritage, either.

Hunt tried not to think of Bryce. Of what had gone down in the lobby.

Princess of the Fae. Bastard princess was more like it, but she was still the only daughter of the Autumn King.

She might have been furious at him for lying, but she’d lied plenty to him as well.

Drummers—fucking Hel, the gods-damned drummers—sounded the beat. The trumpeters began a moment later. The rolling, hateful anthem of the Republic filled the cavernous glass space. Everyone straightened as a motorcade pulled up beyond the doors.

Hunt sucked in a breath as Jesiba Roga emerged first, clad in a thigh-length black dress cut to her curvy body, ancient gold glittering at her ears and throat, a diaphanous midnight cape flowing behind her on a phantom wind. Even in towering high heels, she moved with the eerie smoothness of the House of Flame and Shadow.

Maybe she’d been the one who told Bryce how to sell her soul to the ruler of the Sleeping City.

The blond sorceress kept her gray eyes on the three flags hanging above the stairs as she moved toward them: on the left, the flag of Valbara; on the right, the insignia of Lunathion with its crescent moon bow and arrow. And in the center, the SPQM and its twin branches of stars—the flag of the Republic.

The witches came next, their steps ringing out. A young, brown-skinned female in flowing azure robes strode down the carpet, her braided black hair gleaming like spun night.

Queen Hypaxia. She’d worn her mother’s gold-and-red crown of cloudberries for barely three months, and though her face was unlined and beautiful, there was a weariness to her dark eyes that spoke volumes about her lingering grief.

Rumor had it that Queen Hecuba had raised her deep in the boreal forest of the Heliruna Mountains, far from the corruption of the Republic. Hunt might have expected that such a person would shy from the gathered crowd and imperial splendor, or at least gape a little, but her chin remained high, her steps unfaltering. As if she had done this a dozen times.

She was to be formally recognized as Queen of the Valbaran Witches when the Summit officially began. Her final bit of pageantry before truly inheriting her throne. But—

Hunt got a look at her face as she neared.

He knew her: the medwitch from the clinic. She acknowledged Hunt with a swift sidelong glance as she passed.

Had Ruhn known? Who he’d met with, who had fed him research about the synth?

The mer leaders arrived, Tharion in a charcoal suit beside a female in a flowing, gauzy teal gown. Not the River Queen—she rarely left the Istros. But the beautiful, dark-skinned female might as well have been her daughter. Probably was her daughter, in the way that all mer claimed the River Queen as their mother.

Tharion’s red-brown hair was slicked back, with a few escaped strands hanging over his brow. He’d swapped his fins for legs, but they didn’t falter as his eyes slid toward Hunt. Sympathy shone there.

Hunt ignored it. He hadn’t forgotten just who had brought Bryce to the barge that night.

Tharion, to his credit, didn’t balk from Hunt’s stare. He just gave him a sad smile and looked ahead, following the witches to the mezzanine level and open conference room doors beyond.

Then came the wolves. Sabine walked beside the hunched figure of the Prime, helping the old male along. His brown eyes were milky with age, his once-strong body bent over his cane. Sabine, clad in a dove-gray suit, sneered at Hunt, steering the ancient Prime toward the escalator rather than the steps.

But the Prime halted upon seeing where she planned to bring him.

Drew her to the stairs. And began the ascent, step by painful step.

Proud bastard.

The Fae left their black cars, stalking onto the carpet. The Autumn King emerged, an onyx crown upon his red hair, the ancient stone like a piece of night even in the light of morning.

Hunt didn’t know how he hadn’t seen it before. Bryce looked more like her father than Ruhn did. Granted, plenty of the Fae had that coloring, but the coldness on the Autumn King’s face … He’d seen Bryce make that expression countless times.

The Autumn King, not some prick lordling, had been the one to go with her to the Oracle that day. The one to kick a thirteen-year-old to the curb.

Hunt’s fingers curled at his sides. He couldn’t blame Ember Quinlan for running the moment she’d seen the monster beneath the surface. Felt its cold violence.

And realized she was carrying its child. A potential heir to the throne

—one that might complicate things for his pure-blooded, Chosen One son. No wonder the Autumn King had hunted them down so ruthlessly.

Ruhn, a step behind his father, was a shock to the senses. In his princely raiment, the Starsword at his side, he could have very well been one of the first Starborn with that coloring of his. Might have been one of the first through the Northern Rift, so long ago.

They passed Hunt, and the king didn’t so much as glance his way.

But Ruhn did.

Ruhn looked to the shackles on Hunt’s wrists, the 45th’s triarii around him. And subtly shook his head. To any observer, it was in disgust, in reprimand. But Hunt saw the message.

I’m sorry.

Hunt kept his face unmoved, neutral. Ruhn moved on, the circlet of gilded birch leaves atop his head glinting.

And then the atrium seemed to inhale. To pause.

The angels did not arrive in cars. No, they dropped from the skies.

Forty-nine angels in the Asterian Guard, in full white-and-gold regalia, marched into the lobby, spears in their gloved hands and white wings shining. Each had been bred, hand-selected, for this life of service. Only the whitest, purest of wings would do. Not one speck of color on them.

Hunt had always thought they were swaggering assholes.

They took up spots along the carpet, standing at attention, wings high and spears pointing at the glass ceiling, their snowy capes draping to the floor. The white plumes of horsehair on their golden helmets gleamed as if freshly brushed, and the visors remained down.

They’d been sent from Pangera as a reminder to all of them, the Governors included, that the ones who held their leashes still monitored everything.

Micah and Sandriel arrived next, side by side. Each in their Governor’s armor.

The Vanir sank to a knee before them. Yet the Asterian Guard—who would bow only for their six masters—remained standing, their spears like twin walls of thorns that the Governors paraded between.

No one dared speak. No one dared breathe as the two Archangels passed by.

They were all fucking worms at their feet.

Sandriel’s smile seared Hunt as she breezed past. Almost as badly as Micah’s utter disappointment and weariness.

Micah had picked his method of torture well, Hunt would give him that. There was no way Sandriel would let him die quickly. The torment when he returned to Pangera would last decades. No chance of a new death-bargain or a buyout.

And if he so much as stepped out of line, she’d know where to strike first. Who to strike.

The Governors swept up the stairs, their wings nearly touching. Why the two of them hadn’t become a mated pair was beyond Hunt. Micah was decent enough that he likely found Sandriel as abhorrent as everyone else did. But it was still a wonder the Asteri hadn’t ordered the bloodlines merged. It wouldn’t have been unusual. Sandriel and Shahar had been the result of such a union.

Though perhaps the fact that Sandriel had likely killed her own parents to seize power for her and her sister had made the Asteri put a halt to the practice.

Only when the Governors reached the conference room did those assembled in the lobby move, first the angels peeling off for the stairs, the rest of the assembly falling into line behind them.

Hunt was kept wedged between two of the 45th’s triarii—the Helhound and the Hawk, who both sneered at him—and took in as many details as he could when they entered the meeting room.

It was cavernous, with rings of tables flowing down to a central floor and round table where the leaders would sit.

The Pit of Hel. That’s what it was. It was a wonder none of its princes stood there.

The Prime of Wolves, the Autumn King, the two Governors, the River Queen’s fair daughter, Queen Hypaxia, and Jesiba all took seats at that central table. Their seconds—Sabine, Ruhn, Tharion, an older-looking witch—all claimed spots in the ring of tables around them. No one else from the House of Flame and Shadow had come with Jesiba, not even a vampyr. The ranks fell into place beyond that, each ring of tables growing larger and larger, seven in total. The Asterian Guard lined the uppermost level, standing against the wall, two at each of the room’s three exits.

The seven levels of Hel indeed.

Vidscreens were interspersed throughout the room, two hanging from the ceiling itself, and computers lined the tables, presumably for

references. Fury Axtar, to his surprise, took up a spot in the third circle, leaning back in her chair. No one else accompanied her.

Hunt was led to a spot against the wall, nestled between two Asterian Guards who ignored him completely. Thank fuck the angle blocked his view of Pollux and the rest of Sandriel’s triarii.

Hunt braced himself as the vidscreens flicked on. The room went quiet at what appeared.

He knew those crystal halls, torches of firstlight dancing on the carved quartz pillars rising toward the arched ceiling stories above. Knew the seven crystal thrones arranged in a curve on the golden dais, the one empty throne at its far end. Knew the twinkling city beyond them, the hills rolling away into the dimming light, the Tiber a dark band wending between them.

Everyone rose from their seats as the Asteri came into view. And everyone knelt.

Even from nearly six thousand miles away, Hunt could have sworn their power rippled into the conference room. Could have sworn it sucked out the warmth, the air, the life.

The first time he’d been before them, he’d thought he’d never experienced anything worse. Shahar’s blood had still coated his armor, his throat had still been ravaged from screaming during the battle, and yet he had never encountered anything so horrific. So unearthly. As if his entire existence were but a mayfly, his power but a wisp of breeze in the face of their hurricane. As if he’d been hurled into deep space.

They each held the power of a sacred star, each could level this planet to dust, yet there was no light in their cold eyes.

Through lowered lashes, Hunt marked who else dared to lift their eyes from the gray carpet as the six Asteri surveyed them: Tharion and Ruhn. Declan Emmet. And Queen Hypaxia.

No others. Not even Fury or Jesiba.

Ruhn met Hunt’s stare. And a quiet male voice said in his head, Bold move.

Hunt held in his shock. He’d known there were occasional telepaths out there among the Fae, especially the ones who dwelled in Avallen. But he’d never had a conversation with one. Certainly not inside his head. Neat trick.

A gift from my mother’s kin—one I’ve kept quiet. And you trust me with this secret?

Ruhn was silent for a moment. I can’t be seen talking to you. If you need anything, let me know. I’ll do what I can for you.

Another shock, as physical as his lightning zapping through him.

Why would you help me?

Because you would have done everything in your power to keep Bryce from trading herself to Sandriel. I could see it on your face. Ruhn hesitated, then added, a shade uncertainly, And because I don’t think you’re quite as much of an asshole now.

The corner of Hunt’s mouth lifted. Likewise.

Is that a compliment? Another pause. How are you holding up, Athalar?

Fine. How is she?

Back at work, according to the eyes I have on her.

Good. He didn’t think he could endure any more talk of Bryce without completely falling apart, so he said, Did you know that medwitch was Queen Hypaxia?

No. I fucking didn’t.

Ruhn might have gone on, but the Asteri began to speak. As one, like they always did. Telepaths in their own regard. “You have converged to discuss matters pertaining to your region. We grant you our leave.” They looked to Hypaxia.

Impressively, the witch didn’t flinch, didn’t so much as tremble as the six Asteri looked upon her, the world watching with them, and said, “We formally recognize you as the heir of the late Queen Hecuba Enador, and with her passing, now anoint you Queen of the Valbaran Witches.”

Hypaxia bowed her head, her face grave. Jesiba’s face revealed nothing. Not even a hint of sorrow or anger for the heritage she’d walked away from. So Hunt dared a look at Ruhn, who was frowning.

The Asteri again surveyed the room, none more haughtily than Rigelus, the Bright Hand. That slim teenage boy’s body was a mockery of the monstrous power within. As one the Asteri continued, “You may begin. May the blessings of the gods and all the stars in the heavens shine upon you.”

Heads bowed further, in thanks for merely being allowed to exist in their presence.

“It is our hope that you discuss a way to end this inane war. Governor Sandriel will prove a valuable witness to its destruction.” A slow, horrible scan through the room followed. And Hunt knew their eyes were upon him as they said, “And there are others here who may also provide their testimony.”

There was only one testimony to provide: that the humans were wasteful and foolish, and the war was their fault, their fault, their fault, and must be ended. Must be avoided here at all costs. There was to be no sympathy for the human rebellion, no hearing of the humans’ plight. There was only the Vanir side, the good side, and no other.

Hunt held Rigelus’s dead stare on the central screen. A zap of icy wind through his body courtesy of Sandriel warned him to avert his eyes. He did not. He could have sworn the Head of the Asteri smiled. Hunt’s blood turned to ice, not just from Sandriel’s wind, and he lowered his eyes.

This empire had been built to last for eternity. In more than fifteen thousand years, it had not broken. This war would not be the thing that ended it.

The Asteri said together, “Farewell.” Another small smile from all of them—the worst being Rigelus’s, still directed at Hunt. The screens went dark.

Everyone in the room, the two Governors included, blew out a breath. Someone puked, by the sound and reek from the far corner. Sure enough, a leopard shifter bolted through the doors, a hand over his mouth.

Micah leaned back in his chair, his eyes on the wood table before him. For a moment, no one spoke. As if they all needed to reel themselves back in. Even Sandriel.

Then Micah straightened, his wings rustling, and declared in a deep, clear voice, “I hereby commence this Valbaran Summit. All hail the Asteri and the stars they possess.”

The room echoed the words, albeit half-heartedly. As if everyone remembered that even in this land across the sea from Pangera, so far from the muddy battlefields and the shining crystal palace in a city of seven hills, even here, there was no escaping.

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