Chapter no 13

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

It took five hours for the Viper Queen to deign to meet Ithan.

Five hours, plus the fact that Ithan had opened the door to the hallway where two Fae assassins stood posted and threatened to start ripping apart the warehouse.

Then and only then was he escorted here, to her office.

He’d left Flynn, Dec, Marc, and Tharion quietly debating not only how the fuck they’d get out of the Meat Market, but also whether to trust the Hind. The sprites, shocked by her mention of their lost queen, had retreated into Tharion’s bedroom with Sigrid. The dragon hadn’t yet emerged from her own.

But Ithan had had enough of debating, of asking questions. He’d never been good with that shit. Maybe it was the athlete in him, but he just wanted to do something.

It didn’t matter if they could trust the Hind or not. If she could get them to Pangera, closer to their friends … he’d take that. But he had to get one friend out first.

Ithan sat in an ancient green chair in a truly derelict office, watching the Viper Queen type key by key into a computer that could have doubled as a cement block.

A statue of Luna sat atop that computer, arrow pointed at the Viper Queen’s face. A few more deliberate click-clacks of her long nails on the keyboard, and then her green eyes slid to Ithan.

“So what was all the yelping about?”

Ithan crossed his arms. On the desk itself sat a statuette of Cthona, carved from black stone. In one arm the goddess cradled an infant to her bare breast. In the other, she extended an orb—Midgard—out into the room. Cthona, birther of worlds. He touched it idly, gathering his courage.

“I want to discuss what you’re going to do about Sabine,” he said.

The Viper Queen leaned back in her seat, sleek bob swaying. “As far as I know, when Amelie Ravenscroft woke up from having her throat cut by my guards, she tracked down the Prime Apparent, dragged her carcass home, and has been feeding Sabine a steady diet of firstlight to regenerate her. She’s already back on her feet.”

Ithan’s blood curdled. “So Sabine recovered quickly.”

The Viper Queen cocked her head. “Were you hoping otherwise?”

He didn’t answer. Instead, he asked, “And you’re going to hand Sigrid and me over to her?”

The Viper Queen opened a drawer, pulled out a silver tin of cigarettes, and lifted one to her mouth. “Depends on how nicely you ask me not to, Holstrom.” The cigarette rose and fell with the words. She lifted a lighter and ignited the tip, taking a long drag.

“What’ll it take?”

Smoke rippled from her mouth as the Viper Queen sized him up. Her tongue darted over her purple lower lip. Tasting—scenting. The way snakes smelled.

“Let’s introduce ourselves first. We’ve never met, have we?”

“Hi. Nice to meet you.”

“So testy. I thought you’d be a big old softy.”

He flashed his teeth. “I don’t know why you’d assume that.”

She took another long drag of her cigarette. “Did you not go against Sabine’s orders and lead a small group of wolves into Asphodel Meadows to save humans? To save the most vulnerable of the House of Earth and Blood?”

He growled. “I was doing a nice thing. There wasn’t much more to it than that.”

The Viper Queen exhaled a plume of smoke, more dragon than the one upstairs. “That remains to be seen.”

Ithan challenged, “You sent your people to help that day, too.”

“I was doing a nice thing,” the Viper Queen echoed mildly. “There wasn’t much more to it than that.”

“Maybe you’ll feel inclined to do the nice thing today, too.”

“Buying or selling, Holstrom?”

Ithan leashed the wolf inside howling at him to start shredding things. “Look, I don’t play games.”

“Pity.” She examined her manicured nails. “Sabine doesn’t, either. All you wolves are so boring.”

Ithan opened his mouth, then shut it. Considered what she’d said, what she’d done. “You don’t like Sabine.”

Her lips curved slowly. “Does anyone?”

He clenched his hands into fists. “If you don’t like her, why let her go?”

“I’d ask the same of you, pup. You had her down—why not finish the kill?” Ithan couldn’t help the way his body tensed. “Of course,” the Viper Queen went on, “the Fendyr heir—Sigrid, is it?—should be the one to do it. Don’t you wolves call it … challenging?”

“Only in open combat, when witnessed by pack-members of the Den. If Sigrid had killed Sabine last night, it would have been an assassination.”


A chill skittered down his spine. “You want Sabine truly dead.” She said nothing. “Is this your cost, then? You want me to kill—”

“Oh, no. I wouldn’t dare tangle in politics like that.”

“Just drugs and misery, right?”

Again, that slow smile. “What would your dear brother say if he knew you were here with the likes of me?”

Ithan wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of a reaction. “Tell me what it’ll take to get all of us out of here.”

“A fight.” She extinguished her cigarette. “Just one fight. From you. A private event,” the Viper Queen purred. “Only for me.”

“Why?” Ithan demanded.

“I place a high value on amusement. Especially my own.” She smiled again. “One fight for safe passage—and Ketos’s freedom. You win, and it’s all yours. Nothing more required beyond that.”

Fuck, he should have brought Marc with him—he’d have thought this through, would have spotted any pitfalls a mile off.

But Ithan knew if he walked out, if he went to get someone else, the option would be off the table. It came down to him, and him alone.

“I fight, and you’ll let us all go. Immediately.”

Her chin dipped. “I’ll even provide a car to take you wherever you want to go.”

One fight. He’d fought plenty in his life. “I’m not taking your venom,” Ithan said.

“Who said I was offering?” Her lips curled.

“You’ll let Tharion free of that, too,” Ithan added. “No more enthralling bullshit.”

“I’m offended, Holstrom. It’s a sacred bond amongst my kind.”

“Nothing is sacred to you.”

The Viper Queen lifted a finger and turned the statuette of Luna toward him, the arrow now pointing his way. “Oh?”

“The trappings mean nothing if you don’t follow it up with actions.”

Another little smile. “So self-righteous.”

Ithan held her stare, letting her see the wolf within, whatever bones of it remained.

There had to be a catch. But time was running out—and he didn’t see an alternative to getting out of this mess.

“Fine,” Ithan said. “One fight.”

“It’s a deal,” the Viper Queen crooned. She rose and stalked to the door, body moving with sinuous grace. “The fight’s at ten tomorrow night. Your friends can come watch, if they want.” She opened the door, an order to leave. Ithan obeyed, and she pulled out yet another cigarette tin—this one gold—and flicked it open. He was passing over the threshold when she said, “I’ll give you a worthy opponent, don’t worry.”

The Viper Queen smirked. And then added before she slammed the door shut in his face, “Make your brother proud.”

Lidia Cervos brushed out her hair, seated at her vanity in her ornate room in the Asteri’s palace. A monstrosity of gold silk, ivory velvet, and polished oak overlooking the seven hills of the city. The perfect room for the pampered, loyal pet of the Asteri.

No one had thought twice or even questioned her when she’d gone to Lunathion earlier to deliver a message to Celestina and make a pit stop at the Meat Market to pick up some “party favors.” Even Mordoc hadn’t cared.

But her allies believed she was their enemies’ faithful pet, too.

So here she was. Alone. Praying that Declan Emmet and his friends would meet her. Praying that she’d correctly judged the Sprite Queen, many levels below.

The door to the bathroom opened, steam rippling out, and Pollux emerged, wholly naked and gleaming from the shower.

“You’re not dressed?” he asked, frowning at her dove-gray silk dressing robe. The frown deepened as his eyes drifted over her hair, still down and unstyled. “We’re leaving in fifteen minutes.”

Here it was—the beginning of an intricate dance.

“My cycle is starting,” she said, putting a hand to her lower abdomen. “Make excuses for me.”

Pollux slicked back his blond hair and stalked over to her, his heavy cock swinging with each step. His white wings dripped a trail of water over the cream carpet. “Rigelus personally asked us to be there. Take a tonic.”

“I did,” she said, letting a bit of her temper show. It wasn’t a lie. She had taken a potion—one of her emergency contraceptives, lest her usual plan fail. It had jump-started her cycle two weeks ahead of schedule.

Right on cue, Pollux sniffed, scenting her blood. “You’re early.”

He knew, because he didn’t like to fuck her when she was bleeding. She’d come to cherish her cycle. Pollux usually tormented someone else that week.

She met his stare, if only because his cock was in her face and she had little interest in looking at it for another second of her existence. The tonic did its job in that moment, and nausea churned in her gut—along with a slice of pain.

She didn’t have to fake her wince. “Tell Rigelus I apologize.”

Pollux observed her without an ounce of mercy. To the contrary—his cock thickened. A cat enjoying the suffering of its dinner.

But she ignored it, going back to the mirror. A broad, powerful hand stroked down her hair, brushing it aside. Then lips found her neck, his tongue flicking beneath her ear. “I hope you’ll feel better soon.”

Lidia made herself lift a hand to his hair. Run her fingers through the damp strands and let out a low sound. It might have been pain or lust. To the Malleus, it was all the same. He pulled back, a hand pumping his cock as he headed into the dressing room, wings glowing white behind him.

She was in their bed—a great mass of down pillows and silken sheets—when Pollux left fifteen minutes later, wearing a tux with devastating effect. Such a beautiful exterior, this monster.

“Lidia,” the Hammer purred, possession in his rich voice, and then he was gone.

She lay in bed, fighting past the twisting in her gut, the nausea that wasn’t solely from her cycle. Only after ten minutes had gone by did she rise from the mattress.

She hurried into the bathroom, still humid from Pollux’s shower—usually so hot she wondered if he was trying to scald the evil from himself—and pulled out the bag of feminine hygiene products that she knew he’d never open. As if touching a tampon might make his cock shrivel up and drop off.

Inside the bag lay a burner phone. A different one arrived in a box of tampons every month. She ran the shower again, blocking out any identifying noises that could be picked up from the palace’s cameras on the walls outside or by anyone on the other end of the line. Then she dialed.

An operator answered. “Fincher Tiles and Flooring.”

She shifted her voice into a lilting, sweet croon. “I’m looking for custom ash-wood floors, seven-by-seven pieces?”

“One moment, please.”

Another ring. Then another female said, “This is Custom Ash-Wood Floors, Seven by Seven.”

Lidia let out a small breath. She had only called once before, long ago. They’d sent her burner phone after burner phone, in case of an emergency. Each month she’d destroyed them, unused.

Well, this was an emergency.

“This is Daybright,” she said in her normal voice.

The female on the line sucked in a breath. “Solas.”

Lidia continued quickly, “I need all agents mobilized and ready to move in three days.”

The female on the line cleared her throat. “I … Agent Daybright, I don’t think there’s anyone to mobilize.”

Lidia blinked slowly. “Explain.”

“We’ve taken too many hits, lost too many people. And after the death of Agent Silverbow, a good number abandoned the cause.”

“How many are left?”

“A couple hundred, perhaps.”

Lidia closed her eyes. “And none can be spared right now to—”

“Command’s put an end to all missions. They’re going into hiding.”

“Patch me through to Command, then.”

“I … I’m not authorized to do that.”

Lidia opened her eyes. “Tell Command I’ll speak to them and only them. This information is something that might buy them a shot at survival.”

The dispatcher paused, considering. “If it’s not—”

“It is. Tell them it’s about something they’ve wanted to do for a very long time.”

Another pause. Thinking through all she knew, probably. “One moment.”

It was the work of a few minutes to get the human male on the phone. For Lidia to use the passcodes to identify herself and verify her identity, as well as his. To explain the plan she’d slowly been forming. For Ophion to survive another day, yes … but even more so, for their unwitting help in making sure Ruhn survived.

Two days. Lidia left him with a time, a start location, and an order to be ready. There’d be no missing the signal. She could only hope Ophion would show up as the commander had promised.

Lidia ended the call, and crushed the phone in her fist until only shards of plastic and glass remained. Then she opened the bathroom window, pretending to air out the steam as the tiny pieces blew into the starry night.

Bryce faced another river, this one waist-deep and frigid. But at least the star kept pointing ahead this time, no swimming required. They splashed through the water in silence, Bryce’s still-bleeding hands stinging at the river’s kiss, and she shivered as they emerged on the other side.

“So that eight-pointed star,” Nesta said into the quiet as they began walking again, shoes squishing, “it’s a symbol of the Starborn people in your world. It means nothing else?”

“Why all the questions about it?” Bryce asked through chattering teeth. Azriel walked a few steps behind, silent as death, but she knew he was listening to every word.

Nesta went silent, and Bryce thought she might not answer, but then she said, “I had a tattoo on my back—recently. A magical one, now gone. But it was of an eight-pointed star.”


“And the magic, the power of the bargain that caused the tattoo to appear … it chose the design. The star meant nothing to me. I thought maybe it was related to my training, but its shape was identical to the scar on your chest.”

“So we’re obviously destined to be best friends,” Bryce teased. Nesta didn’t smile or laugh. Bryce asked, “Is that … is that why you volunteered to come to get me?”

“I’ve been in the Fae realms long enough to know that there are forces that sometimes guide us, push us along. I’ve learned to let them. And to listen.” Nesta smirked. “It’s why I didn’t kill you for following your starlight into the river. You were doing the same thing.”

Bryce’s chest tightened. The female had a story to tell, and one Bryce would, in any other circumstance, like to hear. But before she could even consider asking, something massive and white appeared ahead. A skeleton of enormous bones.

“The Wyrm?” Bryce asked, even as she realized it wasn’t. This thing was different, with a body like a sobek’s. Each tooth was as large as Bryce’s hand.

“No,” Azriel said from behind them, the rushing river muffling his soft words. “And I don’t think the Wyrm ate it, if its skeleton is intact like this.”

“Do you know what it is?” Bryce asked.

“No,” Azriel said again. “And part of me is glad not to.”

“You think there are more down here?” Nesta asked Azriel, scanning the dark.

“I hope not,” Azriel answered. Bryce shuddered and took the opportunity to continue onward, leading the way, leaving those ancient, terrifying bones far behind.

The river was still a thunderous roar when the carvings changed. Normally, they were full of life and action and movement. But this one was simple, clearly meant to be the sole focus. Something of great importance to whoever had carved it.

An archway had been etched, stars glimmering around it. And in that archway stood a male figure, the image created with impressive depth. His hand was upraised in greeting.

And Bryce might have looked closer, had the Middengard Wyrm not exploded from the river behind them.

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