Chapter no 8

House of Earth and Blood


Bryce Quinlan stumbled from the White Raven’s bathroom, a lion shifter nuzzling her neck, his broad hands grabbing at her waist.

It was easily the best sex she’d had in three months. Maybe longer than that. Maybe she’d keep him for a while.

Maybe she should learn his name first. Not that it mattered. Her meeting was at the VIP bar across the club in … well, shit. Right now.

The beat of the music pounded against her bones, echoing off the carved pillars, an incessant summons that Bryce ignored, denied. Just as she had every day for the past two years.

“Let’s dance.” The golden-haired lion’s words rumbled against her ear as he gripped her hand to drag her toward the teeming throng on the ancient stones of the dance floor.

She planted her feet as firmly as her four-inch stilettos would allow. “No, thanks. I’ve got a business meeting.” Not a lie, though she would have turned him down regardless.

The corner of the lion’s lip twitched as he surveyed her short-as-sin black dress, the bare legs she’d had wrapped around his waist moments ago. Urd spare her, his cheekbones were unreal. So were those golden eyes, now narrowing in amusement. “You go to business meetings looking like that?”

She did when her boss’s clients insisted on meeting in a neutral space like the Raven, fearful of whatever monitoring or spells Jesiba had at the gallery.

Bryce never would have come here—had so rarely come back here at all—on her own. She’d been sipping sparkling water at the normal bar within the club, not the VIP one she was supposed to be sitting at on the

mezzanine, when the lion approached her with that easy smile and those broad shoulders. She’d been in such need of a distraction from the tension building in her with each moment in here that she’d barely finished her glass before she’d dragged him into the bathroom. He’d been all too happy to oblige her.

Bryce said to the lion, “Thanks for the ride.” Whatever your name is. It took him a blink to realize she was serious about the business meeting. Red crept over his tanned cheeks. Then he blurted, “I can’t pay


It was her turn to blink. Then she tipped her head back and laughed. Just perfect: he thought she was one of the whores in Riso’s employ.

Sacred prostitution, Riso had once explained—since the club lay on the ruins of a temple to pleasure, it was his duty to continue its traditions.

“Consider it on the house,” she crooned, patting him on the cheek before she turned toward the glowing golden bar on the glass mezzanine hovering over the cavernous space.

She didn’t let herself look toward the booth tucked between two age-worn pillars. Didn’t let herself see who might now be occupying it. Not Juniper, who was too busy these days for more than the occasional brunch, and certainly not Fury, who didn’t bother to take her calls, or answer messages, or even visit this city.

Bryce rolled her shoulders, shoving the thoughts away.

The jaguar shifters standing guard atop the illuminated golden staircase that linked the VIP mezzanine with the converted temple pulled aside their black velvet rope to let her pass. Twenty glass stools flanked the solid gold bar, and only a third of them were occupied. Vanir of every House sat in them. No humans, though.

Except for her, if she even counted.

Her client was already seated at the far end of the bar, his dark suit tight over his bulky frame, long black hair slicked back to reveal a sharp-boned face and inky eyes.

Bryce rattled off his details to herself as she sauntered up to him, praying he wasn’t the sort to mark that she was technically two minutes late.

Maximus Tertian: two-hundred-year-old vampyr; unwed and unmated; son of Lord Cedrian, richest of the Pangeran vamps and the most monstrous, if rumor was to be believed. Known for filling bathtubs with the blood of human maidens in his frosty mountain keep, bathing in their youth—

Not helpful. Bryce plastered on a smile and claimed the stool beside his, ordering a sparkling water from the bartender. “Mr. Tertian,” she said by way of greeting, extending her hand.

The vampyr’s smile was so smooth she knew ten thousand pairs of underwear had likely dropped at the sight of it over the centuries. “Miss Quinlan,” he purred, taking her hand and brushing a kiss to the back of it. His lips lingered just long enough that she suppressed the urge to yank her fingers back. “A pleasure to meet you in the flesh.” His eyes dipped toward her neck, then the cleavage exposed by her dress. “Your employer might have a gallery full of art, but you are the true masterpiece.”

Oh please.

Bryce ducked her head, making herself smile. “You say that to all the girls.”

“Only the mouthwatering ones.”

An offer for how this night could end, if she wanted: being sucked and fucked. She didn’t bother to inform him she’d already had that particular need scratched, minus the sucking. She liked her blood where it was, thank you very much.

She reached into her purse, pulling out a narrow leather folio—an exact replica of what the Raven used to hand out steep bills to its most exclusive patrons. “Your drink’s on me.” She slid the folio toward him with a smile.

Maximus peered at the ownership papers for the five-thousand-year-old onyx bust of a long-dead vampyr lord. The deal had been a triumph for Bryce after weeks of sending out feelers to potential buyers, taunting them with the chance to buy a rare artifact before any of their rivals. She’d had her eye on Maximus, and during their endless phone calls and messages, she’d played him well, drawing upon his hatred for other vampyr lords, his fragile ego, his unbearable arrogance.

It was an effort now to suppress her smile as Maximus—never Max

—nodded while he read. Giving him the illusion of privacy, Bryce pivoted on the stool to peer at the teeming club below.

A cluster of young females adorned in firstlight glow-stick halos danced together near a pillar, laughing and singing and passing a bottle of sparkling wine among them.

Bryce’s chest tightened. She’d once planned to have her Drop party at the Raven. Had planned to be as obnoxious as those females down there, partying with her friends from the moment she emerged from the Ascent until she either passed out or was kicked to the curb.

The party, honestly, was what she’d wanted to focus on. What most people tried to focus on. Rather than the sheer terror of the Drop ritual itself.

But it was a necessary rite. Because the firstlight grid’s power was generated by the pure, undiluted light each Vanir emitted while making the Drop. And it was only during the Drop that the flash of firstlight appeared—raw, unfiltered magic. It could heal and destroy and do everything in between.

Captured and bottled, the first glow was always used for healing, then the rest of it was handed over to the energy plants to fuel their lights and cars and machines and tech; some of it was used for spells, and some was reserved for whatever shady shit the Republic wanted.

The “donation” of the firstlight by each citizen was a key element of the Drop ritual, part of why it was always done in a government center: a sterile room, where the light from the person making the Drop was gobbled up during the transition into immortality and true power. All tracked by the Eleusian system, able to monitor every moment of it through vibrations in the world’s magic. Indeed, family members sometimes watched the feeds in an adjacent room.

The Drop was the easy part: falling into one’s power. But once the bottom was reached, one’s mortal body expired. And then the clock began counting down.

Mere minutes were allowed for the race back up to life—before the brain shut down permanently from lack of oxygen. Six minutes to start barreling down a psychic runway along the bottom of one’s power, a single desperate shot at launching skyward toward life. The alternative to successfully making that leap: tumbling into an endless black pit and awaiting death. The alternative to getting enough momentum on that runway: tumbling into an endless black pit and awaiting death.

Which was why someone else had to act as an Anchor: a beacon, a lifeline, a bungee cord that would snap their companion back up to life once they leapt off the runway. To make the Drop alone was to die—to reach the bottom of one’s power, to have one’s heart stop beating upon hitting that nadir. No one knew if the soul continued living down there, lost forever, or if it died along with the body left in life.

It was why Anchors were usually family—parents or siblings—or trusted friends. Someone who wouldn’t leave you stranded. Or a government employee who had a legal obligation not to do so. Some claimed those six minutes were called the Search—that during that time,

you faced the very depths of your soul. But beyond that, there was no hope of survival.

It was only upon making the Ascent and reaching that threshold back to life, brimming with new power, that immortality was attained, the aging process slowed to a glacial drip and the body rendered near-indestructible as it was bathed in all that ensuing firstlight, so bright it could blind the naked eye. And at the end of it, when the Drop Center’s sleek energy panels had siphoned off that firstlight, all any of them were left with to mark the occasion was a mere pinprick of that light in a bottle. A pretty souvenir.

These days, with Drop parties like the one below all the rage, the newly immortal often used their allotment of their own firstlight to make party favors to hand out to their friends. Bryce had planned for glow sticks and key chains that said Kiss My Sparkly Ass! Danika had just wanted shot glasses.

Bryce tucked away that old ache in her chest as Maximus shut the folio with a snap, his reading done. A matching folio appeared in his hand, then he nudged it across the shining gold surface of the bar.

Bryce glanced at the check within—for a mind-boggling sum that he handed over as if passing her an empty gum wrapper—and smiled again. Even as some small part of her cringed at the tiny fact that she wouldn’t receive any part of her commission on the piece. On any art in Jesiba’s gallery. That money went elsewhere.

“A pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Tertian.”

There. Done. Time to go home and climb into bed and snuggle with Syrinx. The best form of celebrating she could think of these days.

But a pale, strong hand landed on the folio. “Going so soon?” Maximus’s smile grew again. “It’d be a shame for a pretty thing like you to leave when I was about to order a bottle of Serat.” The sparkling wine from the south of Valbara started at roughly a hundred gold marks a bottle. And apparently made pricks like him believe they were entitled to female company.

Bryce gave him a wink, trying to pull the folio with the check toward her awaiting purse. “I think you’d be the one feeling sorry if a pretty thing like me left, Mr. Tertian.”

His hand remained on the folio. “For what I paid your boss, I’d think some perks came with this deal.”

Well, it had to be a record: being mistaken for a whore twice within ten minutes. She had no disdain for the world’s oldest profession, only respect and sometimes pity, but being mistaken for one of them had led

to more unfortunate incidents than she liked. Yet Bryce managed to say calmly, “I’m afraid I have another meeting.”

Maximus’s hand slipped to her wrist, gripping hard enough to demonstrate that he could snap every bone inside it with barely a thought.

She refused to allow her scent to shift as her stomach hollowed out. She had dealt with his kind and worse. “Take your hand off me, please.”

She added the last word because she owed it to Jesiba to at least sound polite—just once.

But Maximus surveyed her body with all the male, immortal entitlement in the world. “Some like their prey to play hard to get.” He smiled up at her again. “I happen to be one of them. I’ll make it good for you, you know.”

She met his stare, hating that some small part of her wanted to recoil. That it recognized him as a predator and her as his prey and she’d be lucky to even get the chance to run before she was eaten whole. “No, thank you.”

The VIP mezzanine went quiet, the ripple of silence a sure sign that some bigger, badder predator had prowled in. Good.

Maybe it’d distract the vampyr long enough for her to snatch her wrist back. And that check. Jesiba would flay her alive if she left without it.

Indeed, Maximus’s gaze drifted over her shoulder to whoever had entered. His hand tightened on Bryce’s. Just hard enough that Bryce looked.

A dark-haired Fae male stalked up to the other end of the bar.

Looking right at her.

She tried not to groan. And not the way she’d groaned with that lion shifter.

The Fae male kept looking at her as Maximus’s upper lip pulled back from his teeth, revealing the elongated canines he so badly wanted to sink into her. Maximus snarled in warning. “You are mine.” The words were so guttural she could barely understand him.

Bryce sighed through her nose as the Fae male took a seat at the bar, murmuring his drink order to the silver-haired sylph behind it. “That’s my cousin,” Bryce said. “Relax.”

The vampyr blinked. “What?”

His surprise cost him: his grip loosened, and Bryce stashed the folio with the check in her purse as she stepped back. At least her Fae heritage was good for moving quickly when necessary. Walking away, Bryce

purred over a shoulder, “Just so you know—I don’t do possessive and aggressive.”

Maximus snarled again, but he’d seen who her “cousin” was. He didn’t dare follow.

Even when the world thought they were only distantly related, one didn’t fuck with the relatives of Ruhn Danaan.

If they had known Ruhn was her brother—well, technically her half brother—no male would ever go near her. But thankfully, the world thought he was her cousin, and she was glad to keep it that way. Not just because of who their sire was and the secrecy that she’d long ago sworn to maintain. Not just because Ruhn was the legitimate child, the fucking Chosen One, and she was … not.

Ruhn was already sipping from his whiskey, his striking blue eyes fixed on Maximus. Promising death.

She was half-tempted to let Ruhn send Maximus scurrying back to his daddy’s castle of horrors, but she’d worked so hard on the deal, had tricked the asshole into paying nearly a third more than the bust was worth. All it would take was one phone call from Maximus to his banker and that check in her purse would be dead on arrival.

So Bryce went up to Ruhn, drawing his attention from the vampyr at last.

Her brother’s black T-shirt and dark jeans were tight enough to show off the muscles Fae went to pieces over, and that plenty of people on the VIP level were now ogling. The tattooed sleeves on his golden-skinned arms, however, were colorful and beautiful enough to piss off their father. Along with the line of rings in one arched ear, and the straight black hair that flowed to his waist save for one shaved side. All painting a glaring billboard that said Fuck You, Dad!

But Ruhn was still a Fae male. Still fifty years older than her. Still a domineering dick whenever she ran into him or his friends. Which was whenever she couldn’t avoid it.

“Well, well, well,” Bryce said, nodding her thanks to the bartender as another sparkling water appeared before her. She took a swig, swishing the bubbles to rinse away the lingering taste of lion and alphahole. “Look who decided to stop frequenting poseur rock clubs and start hanging with the cool kids. Seems like the Chosen One’s finally getting hip.”

“I always forget how annoying you are,” Ruhn said by way of greeting. “And not that it’s any of your business, but I’m not here to party.”

Bryce surveyed her brother. No sign of the Starsword tonight—and, glancing at him, beyond the telltale physical heritage of the Starborn line, little declared that he’d been anointed by Luna or genetics to usher their people to greater heights. But it had been years since they’d really spoken. Maybe Ruhn had crawled back into the fold. It’d be a shame, considering the shit that had gone down to pull him out of it in the first place.

Bryce asked, “Is there a reason why you’re here, other than to ruin my night?”

Ruhn snorted. “Still happy playing slutty secretary, I see.”

Spoiled prick. For a few glittering years, they’d been best friends, a dynamic duo against Motherfucker Number One—aka the Fae male who’d sired them—but that was ancient history. Ruhn had seen to that.

She frowned at the packed club below, scanning the crowd for any sign of the two friends who trailed Ruhn everywhere, both pains in her ass. “How’d you get in here, anyway?” Even a Fae Prince had to wait in line at the Raven. Bryce had once delighted in watching preening Fae assholes be turned away at the doors.

“Riso’s my buddy,” Ruhn said. “He and I play poker on Tuesday nights.”

Of course Ruhn had somehow managed to befriend the club’s owner. A rare breed of butterfly shifter, what Riso lacked in size he made up for with sheer personality, always laughing, always flitting about the club and dancing above the crowd. Feeding off its merriment as if it were nectar. He was picky about his close circle, though—he liked to cultivate interesting groups of people to entertain him. Bryce and Danika had never made the cut, but odds were that Fury was in that poker group. Too bad Fury didn’t answer her calls for Bryce to even ask about it.

Ruhn bared his teeth at Maximus as the glowering vamp headed toward the golden steps. “Riso called me a few minutes ago and said you were here. With that fucking creep.”

“Excuse me?” Her voice sharpened. It had nothing to do with the fact that she highly doubted the diplomatic club owner had used those terms. Riso was more the type to say, She’s with someone who might cause the dancing to cease. Which would have been Riso’s idea of Hel.

Ruhn said, “Riso can’t risk tossing Tertian to the curb—he implied the prick was being handsy and you needed backup.” A purely predatory gleam entered her brother’s eyes. “Don’t you know what Tertian’s father does?”

She grinned, and knew it didn’t reach her eyes. None of her smiles did these days. “I do,” she said sweetly.

Ruhn shook his head in disgust. Bryce leaned forward to grab her drink, each movement controlled—if only to keep from taking the water and throwing it in his face.

“Shouldn’t you be home?” Ruhn asked. “It’s a weekday. You’ve got

work in six hours.”

“Thanks, Mom,” she said. But getting home and taking off her bra did sound fantastic. She’d been up before dawn again, sweat-soaked and breathless, and the day hadn’t improved from there. Maybe she’d be exhausted enough tonight to actually sleep.

But when Ruhn made no move to leave, Bryce sighed. “Let’s hear it, then.”

There had to be another reason why Ruhn had bothered to come— there always was, considering who had sired them.

Ruhn sipped from his drink. “The Autumn King wants you to lie low. The Summit meeting is in just over a month, and he wants any loose cannons tied down.”

“What does the Summit meeting have to do with me?” They occurred every ten years, a gathering of Valbara’s ruling powers to debate whatever issues or policies the Asteri ordered them to deal with. Each territory in the Republic held its own Summit meeting on a rotating schedule, so that one occurred in the world each year—and Bryce had paid attention to exactly zero of them.

“The Autumn King wants everyone associated with the Fae on their best behavior—rumor says the Asteri are sending over some of their favored commanders, and he wants us all looking like good, obedient subjects. Honestly, I don’t fucking care, Bryce. I was just ordered to tell you to not … get into trouble until the meeting’s over.”

“You mean, don’t do anything embarrassing.”

“Basically,” he said, drinking again. “And look: beyond that, shit always gets intense around the Summit meetings, so be careful, okay? People come out of the woodwork to make their agendas known. Be on your guard.”

“I didn’t know Daddy bothered to care about my safety.” He never had before.

“He doesn’t,” Ruhn said, lips thinning, the silver hoop through the bottom one shifting with the movement. “But I’ll make him care about it.”

She considered the rage in his blue eyes—it wasn’t directed at her. Ruhn hadn’t yet fallen in line, then. Hadn’t bought into his Chosen One greatness. She took another sip of water. “Since when does he listen to you?”

“Bryce. Just stay out of trouble—on all fronts. For whatever reason, this Summit is important to him. He’s been on edge about it—beyond the whole everyone-needing-to-behave-themselves bullcrap.” He sighed. “I haven’t seen him this riled since two years ago …”

The words trailed off as he caught himself. But she got his meaning.

Since two years ago. Since Danika. And Connor.

The glass in her hands cracked. “Easy,” Ruhn murmured. “Easy.”

She couldn’t stop clutching the glass, couldn’t get her body to back down from the primal fury that surged up, up—

The heavy crystal glass exploded in her hands, water spraying across the golden bar. The bartender whirled, but kept away. No one along the bar dared look for more than a breath—not at the Crown Prince of the Valbaran Fae.

Ruhn gripped Bryce’s face with a hand. “Take a fucking breath.”

That horrible, useless Fae side of her obeyed the dominance in his command, her body falling back on instincts that had been bred into her, despite her best attempts to ignore them.

Bryce sucked in a breath, then another. Gasping, shuddering sounds. But with each breath, the blinding wrath receded. Eddied away.

Ruhn held her gaze until she stopped snarling, until she could see clearly. Then he slowly released her face—and took a deep breath of his own. “Fuck, Bryce.”

She stood on wobbling legs and adjusted the strap of her purse over her shoulder, making sure Maximus’s outrageous check was still inside. “Message received. I’ll lie low and act my classiest until the Summit.”

Ruhn scowled and slid off the stool with familiar Fae grace. “Let me walk you home.”

“I don’t need you to.” Besides, no one went to her apartment. Which wasn’t technically even her apartment, but that was beside the point. Only her mom and Randall, and occasionally Juniper if she ever left the dance studio, but no one else was allowed inside. It was her sanctuary, and she didn’t want Fae scents anywhere near it.

But Ruhn ignored her refusal and scanned the bar. “Where’s your coat?”

She clenched her jaw. “I didn’t bring one.”

“It’s barely spring.”

She stomped past him, wishing she’d worn boots instead of stilettos. “Then it’s a good thing I have my alcohol sweater on, isn’t it?” A lie. She hadn’t touched a drink in nearly two years.

Ruhn didn’t know that, though. Nor did anyone else.

He trailed her. “You’re hilarious. Glad all those tuition dollars went to something.”

She strode down the stairs. “At least I went to college and didn’t sit at home on a pile of Daddy’s cash, playing video games with my dickbag friends.”

Ruhn growled, but Bryce was already halfway down the staircase to the dance floor. Moments later, she was elbowing her way through the crowds between the pillars, then breezing down the few steps into the glass-enclosed courtyard—still flanked on two sides by the temple’s original stone walls—and toward the enormous iron doors. She didn’t wait to see if Ruhn still trailed before she slipped out, waving at the half-wolf, half-daemonaki bouncers, who returned the gesture.

They were good guys—years ago, on rougher nights, they had always made sure Bryce got into a taxi. And that the driver knew exactly what would happen if she didn’t get home in one piece.

She made it a block before she sensed Ruhn catching up, a storm of temper behind her. Not close enough for someone to know they were together, but near enough for her senses to be full of his scent, his annoyance.

At least it kept any would-be predators from approaching her.

When Bryce reached the glass-and-marble lobby of her building, Marrin, the ursine shifter behind the front desk, buzzed her through the double doors with a friendly wave. Pausing with a hand on the glass doors, she glanced over a shoulder to where Ruhn leaned against a black-painted lamppost. He lifted a hand in farewell—a mockery of one.

She flipped him off and walked into her building. A quick hello to Marrin, an elevator ride up to the penthouse, five levels above, and the small cream-colored hallway appeared. She sighed, heels sinking into the plush cobalt runner that flowed between her apartment and the one across the hall, and opened her purse. She found her keys by the glow of the firstlight orb in the bowl atop the blackwood table against the wall, its radiance gilding the white orchid drooping over it.

Bryce unlocked her door, first by key, then by the finger pad beside the knob. The heavy locks and spells hissed as they faded away, and she stepped into her dark apartment. The scent of lilac oil from her diffuser

caressed her as Syrinx yowled his greeting and demanded to be immediately released from his crate. But Bryce leaned back against the door.

She hated knowing that Ruhn still lurked on the street below, the Crown Fucking Prince of Possessive and Aggressive Alphaholes, staring at the massive floor-to-ceiling wall of windows across the great room before her, waiting for the lights to come on.

His banging on the door in three minutes would be inevitable if she refused to turn on the lights. Marrin wouldn’t be stupid enough to stop him. Not Ruhn Danaan. There had never been a door shut for him, not once in his entire life.

But she wasn’t in the mood for that battle. Not tonight.

Bryce flicked on the panel of lights beside the door, illuminating the pale wood floors, the white plush furniture, the matching white walls. All of it as pristine as the day she’d moved in, almost two years ago—all of it far above her pay grade.

All of it paid for by Danika. By that stupid fucking will.

Syrinx grumbled, his cage rattling. Another possessive and aggressive alphahole. But a small, fuzzy one, at least.

With a sigh, Bryce kicked off her heels, unhooked her bra at last, and went to let the little beast out of his cage.

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