Chapter no 102

House of Flame and Shadow (Crescent City, #3)

Bryce stood in the foyer of the Autumn King’s villa, surveying the field of flashing cameras, the haughty Fae nobility, and the confused-looking guards glancing between her and the crowd.

For the occasion, she’d chosen a pink dress that she knew drove Hunt to distraction. It had been either that or leggings and a T-shirt, and given that she wanted to avoid anything taking away from what she was actually doing, she’d opted for formal.

Of course, settling on the pink dress had been an ordeal in itself. There was now a giant heap of clothing in her bedroom for her to put away when she got home, which was incentive enough to draw this out for as long as possible.

But she took one look at Sathia and Flynn’s sneering parents, the Lord and Lady Hawthorne having recently returned from Avallen, and decided to Hel with waiting. To Hel with all the other Fae nobility who had gathered at her invitation this morning.

She’d set foot in the city late last night, had gone right to the ruins of Asphodel Meadows, and called for this meeting the next day.

She would have done it last night, but Hunt had told her to take the time to sort out what she wanted to say. To let Marc get the paperwork ready.

The leopard shifter and Declan now stood beside the desk that had been hauled into the foyer, Ruhn and Flynn with them.

She glanced to Hunt, and he nodded subtly. It was time.

So Bryce stepped up to the desk and said to the cameras, to the Fae aristocrats, “I’ll make this short and sweet, for all the busy nobles here who have to get back to champagne lunches and spa treatments.”

Silence, and a frantic clicking of cameras. The videographers pressed in closer, angling their mics to pick up her every breath. One of the camera guys—a draki male—was smirking.

But Bryce kept her gaze on the cameras, on the world listening. “This is my first and only decree as the Fae Queen of Valbara and Avallen: the royal houses are ended.”

She ignored the gasps and protests, and tapped the paperwork on the desk. “I’ve had the documents drawn up. Allow me to be perfectly clear: I am not abdicating either throne. I am no longer queen, but with this document, no one shall ever wear the crown again. The Fae monarchy is abolished. Forever.”

From the corner of her eye, she could see Hunt grinning broadly. She wished her mom was here, but they’d decided that Ember Quinlan’s presence might cause too much speculation that her human mother had pushed her to do this.

“I am donating all the Autumn King’s residences in this city,” Bryce said, gesturing to the elegant space around them, “to house those displaced by the attack on Asphodel Meadows. This villa in particular will be used to house children orphaned by the massacre.”

One of the Fae nobles choked.

“As for the royal properties elsewhere—in Valbara and on Avallen—they will be sold to anyone who can stomach their tacky-ass decor, and the profits will go toward rebuilding Asphodel Meadows.”

Bryce picked up the golden fountain pen she’d swiped from the Autumn King’s study after chucking all his prisms into the trash. She planned to dismantle the orrery and sell it for scrap metal. She knew enough about how light traveled and formed—how it could break apart and come back together. She never wanted to learn another thing about light again, even her own.

“The Asteri are gone,” Bryce said to the listening world, “and the Fae kingdoms with them. In their place, we will build a government built on equality and fairness. This document grants me the right to represent the Fae in the building of such a government. And nothing more.”

“Traitor,” hissed a Fae noble who Bryce could have sworn had sneered at her once in a restaurant, years ago.

Bryce hummed to herself, flipping the Autumn King’s beloved pen between her fingers. “You guys shouldn’t have granted your royals such absolute power in your quest to keep everyone else down in the dirt.” She leaned over the documents. “Maybe then you could have stopped me from doing this.”

The golden pen touched paper, ink blooming on the parchment.

“But you’re in the mud with the rest of us now,” Bryce said to the Fae as she signed her name. “Better get used to the smell.”

Thus, with the stroke of the Autumn King’s golden pen, the royal bloodlines of the Fae were wiped from existence.

Ruhn flicked on the lights in the apartment—for however long the place would even have power. “Bryce is going to throw a fit, but I swear it was the only one available furnished on short notice,” he said to Lidia as they stepped inside the home literally a floor below Bryce’s.

Lidia smiled, though, surveying the apartment that was the mirror image of Bryce’s layout save for the furniture. She approached the white, gleaming kitchen. “It’s lovely—really. I’ll get the money wired to your account.”

“Nah,” Ruhn said. “Consider it a thank-you present. For bailing me out of the dungeons.”

Lidia turned from the kitchen, brows high. “I think we’re even by now. After … everything.” After that shit with Pollux, which he knew would haunt his dreams for a long fucking time.

But there would be joy to light the dark memories. When he’d gone with her to return the boys to their parents, Ruhn had been content to watch the happy reunion, especially as Lidia was hugged with equal welcome and love by the boys’ parents. As the boys had, in their own ways, made it clear that Lidia would be welcome in their lives.

Brann, he had no doubt, would be the easier one. But Ace …

Ruhn smiled to himself at the memory of how Ace had looked over at Ruhn before leaving, his dark eyes knowing. Sharp. As if to say, Take care of my mom.

Ruhn had answered into the kid’s mind, She can take care of herself, but I will.

Ace’s eyes had widened in shock, and he’d stumbled a step, but—with an assessing, impressed glance at Ruhn—had continued to the transport pod.

Ruhn and Lidia had spent one night in his shithole house, aching to fuck each other within an inch of their lives but all too conscious of his friends a thin wall away, before he’d called up a realtor and asked about finding an apartment. Immediately. With a few specific requests.

“The bedroom over there’s got two beds in it,” he said, pointing across the great room. “For your boys.”

Her eyes were lined with silver as she faced the guest bedroom.

That had been Ruhn’s main demand to the realtor: find an apartment with a guest room that had two beds. “They can visit whenever they—and you—want.”

Her smile was so soft and hopeful that his heart ached. But she walked to the couch in front of the TV and sat down, as if testing it out. Testing out this house, this life.

“I think their dads will want to keep them close for a while after what happened,” Lidia said, “but yes … I would love for them to be here sometimes.”

Ruhn sank beside her on the couch. “They’re going to raise Hel when they’re older.”

“I’m fine with that, so long as it’s not literally.” Lidia sighed. “I’ve had enough of demons for a while, however friendly.”

Ruhn chuckled. “Me too.”

For a few minutes, they sat in companionable silence, the apartment—their apartment—settling in around them.

“I can’t believe we’re alive,” Lidia said at last.

“I can’t believe the Asteri are gone.”

The past few days had been such a whirlwind that he hadn’t really processed all that had happened. Or the current state of the world.

Lidia said carefully, “Your sister and Athalar’s intentions are good, but it’s going to take a lot more than one meeting with a bunch of world leaders to sort out an entirely new system of government. Or dismantle slavery.”

“I know. Bryce knows.”

“Are you … What do you plan to do?”

It was a loaded question, but Ruhn answered, “I’ll help her. I’ll head up the Aux with Holstrom, I guess. Since the Fae throne’s gone as of this morning.” It had been a wonder to behold—Bryce standing in front of the crowd of cameras and nobles, ending the monarchies with a stroke of a pen. Their father’s favorite pen, no less.

Ruhn had never been so proud to be Bryce’s brother.

He smiled slightly. “The Oracle was right in a lot of ways, I guess.” Lidia lifted a brow. “It wasn’t just that the crown would go to Bryce, but that she’d end it. The Danaan royal line is finished.”

Lidia clicked her tongue. “You’re not dead or childless, after all.”

“Not yet,” Ruhn said, laughing again. All that time spent dreading the prophecy, worrying over his fate …

Lidia looked at him, in that way that no one else on Midgard did—like she saw him. “Are you prepared to not be a prince anymore, though? To be … normal?”

“I think so,” he said, nudging her knee with his own. “Are you?”

“I have no idea. I don’t even know what normal is,” Lidia admitted.

Ruhn took her hand, linking their fingers. “How about we figure it out together, then?”

“How to be normal?”

“How to live a normal life. The normal, adult apartment’s a good start. For both of us.” No more veritable frat house living.

But wariness flooded her eyes. “My life is complicated.”

“Whoever said normal isn’t complicated?” he countered. “All I know is that whatever tomorrow or next year or the next millennium has in store for this world, I want to face it at your side.”

Her expression softened. She leaned closer, brushing a strand of his hair back with her free hand.

They weren’t the Hind and a Crown Prince of the Fae. Weren’t Day and Night. Right then, there, they were simply Lidia and Ruhn. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

But Ruhn got to his feet and walked to the kitchen, opening the fridge. The other request he’d made of the realtor: stock the fridge with one thing and one thing only.

Maybe the veritable frat house wasn’t entirely gone. He walked back to the couch and handed Lidia a beer.

“As promised, Day,” he said, twisting off the cap on his bottle. “One beer.”

She looked at the bottle, pure delight shining on her face. She twisted the cap off her own beverage, but got to her feet and clinked her bottle against his before drinking. “To a normal life, Ruhn.”

Ruhn leaned in to kiss her, and Lidia met him halfway. And the love and joy in him glowed brighter than starlight as he said against her mouth, “To a normal life, Lidia.”

It would take the wolves of the Den a few days to come back from where they’d been lying low. But they were coming back.

Ithan didn’t know if it was Amelie’s order or if Perry had asked them, but everyone was returning. Perhaps just to see how shitty he’d be at leading them as Prime.

Or to assess the dynamic without the Fendyrs.

Or to get their stuff before the firstlight power grid failed and chaos reigned.

Ithan stood in the command center of the Aux headquarters, Flynn and Dec across from him, the former eyeing Perry with an interest Ithan didn’t entirely appreciate.

Perry was blushing, and Ithan didn’t appreciate that, either.

But Ruhn and Lidia walked in before Ithan could say anything stupid, and the former Fae Prince said, “So, first things first: I think it sucks that we save the world and still have to be back at work two days later.”

Perry laughed, and … okay, maybe Ithan liked the sound.

But Lidia said, grave and yet serene, “I’m expecting a report tonight regarding the status of the firstlight power grid and how we might stop it from failing. Lunathion’s engineers have been meeting with the Ocean Queen to learn how she powers her ships without it and will present those findings to us. But in the meantime, we need to start assessing allies inside the city and out of it. Celestina’s still dealing with Ephraim, trying to garner his support, but the other Archangels are going to start jockeying for power. If we don’t want to fall back into the old ways, we need a solid plan.”

“Shouldn’t Athalar be here for this?” Flynn said.

“He’s on his way,” Ruhn said. “With Bryce. But they told us to start without them.”

Dec and Flynn made kissing noises at each other, and Ithan laughed, Perry joining him.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Not the being Prime part, that part he didn’t particularly like, but this new future. It’d probably be batshit crazy for a while, and they’d have no shortage of enemies, but …

They’d also have each other. A pack. Of all Houses.

Which was why they were here. No more splintered Aux, divided among Houses and species. They’d lead by example. Starting today.

So Ithan said to Lidia and Ruhn, to Flynn and Dec and Perry, “Whatever these assholes want to throw at us, we’ll throw right back at them.”

“Spoken like a true sunball captain,” Dec teased.

Ithan said, “Yeah.” He let the word settle, and for a moment he felt it—that urge to set foot on the field, to grip that ball in his hands. A glimmer, and it was gone, but … after years of nothing, he felt it. Wanted it. So Ithan grinned and added, “I am.”

“That was Hypaxia on the phone,” Bryce said in the sunny, open atrium of the elegant town house that would soon be the new Griffin Antiquities.

Hunt, unpacking a statue of Thurr from a crate, asked over a winged shoulder, “What’d she say?”

“That if she can find a way to stabilize the antidote, we could have it rolling out to everyone by the Spring Equinox. That is, if we still have power by then. She wants more of your lightning, by the way. She’s already out of this batch of antidotes.”

Bryce and Hunt had both gotten doses. The surge of magic that had resulted had been intense enough that apparently a whole new island had risen in Avallen—as if the island was now bound to her very soul. As if she and Midgard were, as Jesiba had claimed, bound together, Archesian amulet or no.

And thanks to Hunt, there had been a day straight of thunderstorms. Of course, he was fined by the city for illegal and improper weather manipulation, but He blew his magical load didn’t really seem to hold sway when Bryce tried to explain it to the authorities.

The new power in their veins, as if returned from what the Asteri had taken, required some getting used to. And new training. Bryce could teleport in one jump between the city and her parents’ house now. Which was … good and bad.

Good, because she could see Cooper whenever she wanted, and steal him away to the city for a hint of real fun. Bad, because her parents now expected her and Hunt for weekly dinners. Bryce had negotiated it down to monthly, but she knew Ember would be making a full-court press for at least once every two weeks.

But all of it depended on what they did next—if the firstlight power grid could hold. If it’d collapse. If they’d all have to start over again, squatting over fires in the darkness. But she—they—would proceed as usual. Let the geniuses and scientists find a way to save them this time.

“Well,” Hunt said, “if Hypaxia needs someone to go beat the shit out of the Redners, I’m game. They’re creeps.” The former witch-queen had reluctantly partnered with Redner Industries, hoping to mass-produce the antidote.

“Scary Asshole, Part Two?”

“Happily.” He turned from the crate to where Bryce was shelving books on the towering built-in unit behind her desk.

The books. The Parthos collection. No longer in darkness and hiding, but here, in the daylight, for anyone to come see. She couldn’t bear to keep them locked away.

Thankfully, she’d found three new employees to help her manage the unwieldy collection. Sasa, Rithi, and Malana currently perched on a takeout container, watching an episode of Veiled Love on Hunt’s phone where he’d propped it up against his water bottle.

They’d never replace Lehabah, but it filled something in her heart to see them. To hear Syrinx, snoring beneath her new desk, in the little nest of blankets he’d made down there. Like something had finally slid into place. Like she was exactly where she was meant to be.

“So,” Hunt said, going back to unloading all the crates Hypaxia had sent over from the House of Flame and Shadow. Apparently, Jesiba had been anticipating this transfer of ownership—she’d made Ithan pack most of the artifacts up.

Bryce thought Jesiba would appreciate the Godslayer Rifle now mounted behind Bryce’s desk. As much a warning to anyone who might try to steal the books as in honor of the priestess who’d guarded them for so long. That is, if the fire sprites didn’t roast any would-be thief.

She didn’t know where Irithys had gone, and she still wished to talk to the queen, to tell her about Lehabah, but from what Sasa had said, it sounded as if the Sprite Queen was now traveling the world, intent on freeing every last one of her people. Especially those who might be held by owners averse to the new worldwide ban on slavery.

“So … what?” Bryce asked Hunt, sliding a tome onto the shelf.

“So … are you gonna talk about the whole no-more-Fae-monarchy thing?”

“What’s there to talk about?” Bryce said. “I sent out my decree. It’s over. No longer my problem.”

“Others might not see it that way.”

“That’s why, Athalar …,” she began, shelving another book that tried to wriggle out of her hands. She smacked it back over and shoved it onto the shelf. “That’s why we’re going to establish a Fae democracy. A senate, and all that crap. So the Fae can go complain to them about their problems.”

“A senate and all that crap, huh?” Hunt said. “Sounds real official.”

She turned toward him. “And what about you? How come you get to walk away from the 33rd and the angel stuff, but somehow I can’t bail on the Fae drama?”

“I didn’t make magic islands come flying out of the ocean and resurrect a whole territory.”

“Well, Avallen’s different,” she sniffed.

“You just don’t want to lose your new vacation home,” he teased, crossing the room toward her. She let him crowd her against the bookshelf, loving his size and strength and the wall of power that was pure Hunt.

“Maybe I don’t,” she said, not backing down an inch. “But until the Fae can show me that they’ll share Avallen with everyone, it’s mine.” She’d debated sending the Parthos books there, to the Avallen Archives, but she wanted them close. Wanted them accessible to everyone, not locked away on a remote island. “Or, at least, it’s my responsibility,” she amended.

“Yeah, well, Baxian’s dying to get off the island and back into civilization, so maybe look into hiring a caretaker.” Fury and June had already returned to Crescent City. There was only so much medieval living her friends could take, apparently. But Baxian had stuck it out.

She winced. The angel had been keeping the Fae in line since she and Hunt had left Avallen in his hands, taking good care of any and all refugees who made it there. Danika would have been proud. Bryce had made sure to tell the Helhound that—and about seeing his mate in the afterworld. He’d been silent enough during that call that she knew he was crying, but all he had said to Bryce was “Thank you.”

“Okay, okay,” Bryce said to Hunt. “Set up a democracy, find a new babysitter for Avallen, play Scary Asshole with you … Anything else for me to do? In addition to starting my new business?” She gestured to the soon-to-be-open gallery.

“How about hiring a sexy assistant?”

She didn’t miss the heat in his eyes. The spark.

She bit her lip. “Sexy assistant, huh? You cool with going from the Umbra Mortis to fetching my coffee?”

“If it comes with the perk of kinky office sex, I’m cool with anything,” Hunt growled, nipping at her ear.

“Oh, the position definitely comes with kinky office sex,” she purred.

She felt the hardness of him push into her hip before he said, low and wicked, “Sprites—go find somewhere else to be for a while.”

They grumbled, but zoomed out to the stairs, all blushing a bright pink. Syrinx dashed after them, yelping.

Bryce didn’t care where they went. Not as Hunt pressed his cock against her center, and she writhed. “Get on the desk,” he said, voice like gravel.

Her blood thrummed through her. “We’re already late for our meeting with Ruhn and the others at the Aux.”

“They can deal.” His voice was pure, unrelenting sex. Her knees wobbled.

But Bryce had only taken one step toward the desk when her phone rang. Baxian.

“Call back later,” Hunt said, coming to stand behind her. Sliding his hands up her thighs, bunching her skirt as he went. Yes—fuck yes.

Hunt’s phone rang. Baxian again.

“Maybe we should … answer,” Bryce said, though she almost didn’t, considering that Hunt had a fistful of her skirt in one hand and her bare ass palmed in his other—

Hunt groaned and reached for his phone, answering with a snapped “What.”

With her Fae ears, Bryce could hear perfectly clearly as Baxian asked, “Where’s your mate?”

It was the low note of panic and urgency that had Hunt putting him on speakerphone and saying, “We’re both here.”

Baxian let out a shuddering breath, and Bryce’s arousal vanished, cold dread filling her gut. If something had happened already, an attack on Avallen—

“I …” Baxian choked on the word. “There are about two dozen of them.”

Bryce swapped a confused glance with Hunt and asked, “Them?”

Baxian let out a laugh that verged on hysteria. “I swear, it’s like they sprang out of the earth, like they were hibernating or hiding there, I don’t fucking know—”

“Baxian,” Bryce said, heart thundering. “What is it?”

“Flying horses. Horses with wings.”

Bryce blinked slowly. “Horses … with wings.”

“Yes,” Baxian said, his voice rising. “They’re flying around and trampling everything and eating all the crops and I think you might need to come here because they seem to be the sort of thing that might belong to a Super Magical Fancy Starborn Princess …”

Bryce looked at Hunt, pure wonder flooding her.

“There are flying horses in Avallen,” Hunt said, eyes as wide as her own, pure joy sparking there.

“In Silene’s account,” Bryce breathed, “she talked about her mother having flying horses. How some came here … and there were depictions of them in the Cave of Princes and Morven’s castle. I thought they’d all been killed, but maybe …” Bryce shook her head. “Is it possible?” Had Helena somehow secretly kept them alive, suspended, waiting until it was safe again?

She didn’t care. Not right now. “There are flying horses in Avallen,” Bryce repeated to Hunt. “There are pegasuses in Avallen.”

“Please come help me,” Baxian said miserably.

“We’ll be there by dawn,” Bryce said, and hung up for Hunt. She met her mate’s blazingly bright eyes. No more shadows, no more halo, no more pain. Never again. “Rain check on the desk sex?”

“For Jelly Jubilee in the flesh?” Hunt grinned. “Anything.”

Bryce threw her arms around his neck, kissing him thoroughly, then dashed for the door.

There was an angel in her office, and a pegasus herd on Avallen. And the Asteri were gone and the dead were free … and though she knew there was work to do to heal Midgard, the world was out there. Life was out there.

So Bryce and Hunt ran out to live it.


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