Chapter no 75

House of Earth and Blood

Ruhn had anticipated that the Summit would be intense, vicious, flat-out dangerous—each moment spent wondering whether someone’s throat would be ripped out. Just as it was at every one he’d attended.

This time, his only enemy seemed to be boredom.

It had taken Sandriel all of two hours to tell them that the Asteri had ordered more troops to the front from every House. There was no point in arguing. It wasn’t going to change. The order had come from the Asteri.

Talk turned to the new trade proposals. And then circled and circled and circled, even Micah getting caught in the semantics of who did what and got what and on and on until Ruhn was wondering if the Asteri had come up with this meeting as some form of torture.

He wondered how many of the Asterian Guard were sleeping behind their masks. He’d caught a few of the lesser members of the various delegations nodding off. But Athalar was alert—every minute, the assassin seemed to be listening. Watching.

Maybe that was what the Governors wanted: all of them so bored and desperate to end this meeting that they eventually agreed to terms that weren’t to their advantage.

There were a few holdouts, still. Ruhn’s father being one, along with the mer and the witches.

One witch in particular.

Queen Hypaxia spoke little, but he noticed that she, too, listened to every word being bandied about, her rich brown eyes full of wary intelligence despite her youth.

It had been a shock to see her the first day—that familiar face in this setting, with her crown and royal robes. To know he’d been talking to his

would-be betrothed for weeks now with no fucking idea.

He’d managed to slip between two of her coven members as they filed into the dining hall the first day, and, like an asshole, demanded, “Why didn’t you say anything? About who you really are?”

Hypaxia held her lunch tray with a grace better suited to holding a scepter. “You didn’t ask.”

“What the Hel were you doing in that shop?”

Her dark eyes shuttered. “My sources told me that evil was stirring in the city. I came to see for myself—discreetly.” It was why she’d been at the scene of the temple guard’s murder, he realized. And there the night Athalar and Bryce had been attacked in the park. “I also came to see what it was like to be … ordinary. Before this.” She waved with a hand toward her crown.

“Do you know what my father expects of you? And me?”

“I have my suspicions,” she said coolly. “But I am not considering such … changes in my life right now.” She gave him a nod before walking away. “Not with anyone.”

And that was it. His ass had been handed to him.

Today, at least, he’d tried to pay attention. To not look at the witch who had absolutely zero interest in marrying him, thank fuck. With her healing gifts, could she sense whatever was wrong inside him that would mean he was the last of the bloodline? He didn’t want to find out. Ruhn shoved away the memory of the Oracle’s prophecy. He wasn’t the only one ignoring Hypaxia, at least. Jesiba Roga hadn’t spoken one word to her.

Granted, the sorceress hadn’t said much, other than to assert that the House of Flame and Shadow thrived on death and chaos, and had no quarrel with a long, devastating war. Reapers were always happy to ferry the souls of the dead, she said. Even the Archangels had looked disconcerted at that.

As the clock struck nine and all took their seats in the room, Sandriel announced, “Micah has been called away, and will be joining us later.”

Only one person—well, six of them—could summon Micah away from this meeting. Sandriel seemed content to rule over the day’s proceedings, and declared, “We will begin with the mer explaining their shortsighted resistance to the building of a canal for the transportation of our tanks and the continuation of the supply lines.”

The River Queen’s daughter bit her bottom lip, hesitating. But it was Captain Tharion Ketos who drawled to Sandriel, “I’d say that when your

war machines rip up our oyster beds and kelp forests, it’s not shortsighted to say that it will destroy our fishing industry.”

Sandriel’s eyes flashed. But she said sweetly, “You will be compensated.”

Tharion didn’t back down. “It is not just about the money. It is about the care of this planet.”

“War requires sacrifice.”

Tharion crossed his arms, muscles rippling beneath his black long-sleeved T-shirt. After the initial parade and that first day of endless meetings, most of them had donned far less formal wear for the rest of the talks. “I know the costs of war, Governor.”

Bold male, to say that, to look Sandriel dead in the eye.

Queen Hypaxia said, her voice soft but unflinching, “Tharion’s concern has merit. And precedent.” Ruhn straightened as all eyes slid toward the witch-queen. She, too, did not back down from the storms in Sandriel’s eyes. “Along the eastern borders of the Rhagan Sea, the coral and kelp beds that were destroyed in the Sorvakkian Wars two thousand years ago have still not returned. The mer who farmed them were compensated, as you claim. But only for a few seasons.” Utter silence in the meeting room. “Will you pay, Governor, for a thousand seasons? Two thousand seasons? What of the creatures who make their homes in places you propose to destroy? How shall you pay them?”

“They are Lowers. Lower than the Lowers,” Sandriel said coldly, unmoved.

“They are children of Midgard. Children of Cthona,” the witch-queen said.

Sandriel smiled, all teeth. “Spare me your bleeding-heart nonsense.”

Hypaxia didn’t smile back. She just held Sandriel’s stare. No challenge in it, but frank assessment.

To Ruhn’s eternal shock, it was Sandriel who looked away first, rolling her eyes and shuffling her papers. Even his father blinked at it. And assessed the young queen with a narrowed gaze. No doubt wondering how a twenty-six-year-old witch had the nerve. Or what Hypaxia might have on Sandriel to make an Archangel yield to her.

Wondering if the witch-queen would indeed be a good bride for Ruhn—or a thorn in his side.

Across the table, Jesiba Roga smiled slightly at Hypaxia. Her first acknowledgment of the young witch.

“The canal,” Sandriel said tightly, setting down her papers, “we shall discuss later. The supply lines …” The Archangel launched into another

speech about her plans to streamline the war.

Hypaxia went back to the papers before her. But her eyes lifted to the second ring of tables.

To Tharion.

The mer male gave her a slight, secret smile—gratitude and acknowledgment.

The witch-queen nodded back, barely a dip of her chin.

The mer male just casually lifted his paper, flashing what looked like about twenty rows of markings—counting something.

Hypaxia’s eyes widened, bright with reproach and disbelief, and Tharion lowered the paper before anyone else noticed. Added another slash to it.

A flush crept over the witch-queen’s cheeks.

His father, however, began speaking, so Ruhn ignored their antics and squared his shoulders, trying his best to look like he was paying attention. Like he cared.

None of it would matter, in the end. Sandriel and Micah would get what they wanted.

And everything would remain the same.

Hunt was so bored he honestly thought his brain was going to bleed out his ears.

But he tried to savor these last days of calm and relative comfort, even with Pollux monitoring everything from across the room. Waiting until he could stop appearing civilized. Hunt knew Pollux was counting down the hours until he’d be unleashed upon him.

So every time the asshole smiled at him, Hunt grinned right back.

Hunt’s wings, at least, had healed. He’d been testing them as much as he could, stretching and flexing. If Sandriel allowed him to get airborne, he knew they’d carry him. Probably.

Standing against the wall, dissecting each word spoken, was its own form of torture, but Hunt listened. Paid attention, even when it seemed like so many others were fighting sleep.

He hoped the delegations who held out—the Fae, the mer, the witches—would last until the end of the Summit before remembering that control was an illusion and the Asteri could simply issue an edict regarding the new trade laws. Just as they had with the war update.

A few more days, that was all Hunt wanted. That’s what he told himself.

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