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Chapter no 1

House of Sky and Breath

For a Tuesday night at the Crescent City Ballet, the theater was unusually packed. The sight of the swarming masses in the lobby, drinking and chatting and mingling, filled Bryce Quinlan with a quiet sort of joy and pride.

There was only one reason why the theater was so packed tonight. With her Fae hearing, she could have sworn she heard the hundreds of voices all around her whispering, Juniper Andromeda. The star of tonight’s performance.

Yet even with the crowd, an air of quiet reverence and serenity filled the space. As if it were a temple.

Bryce had the creeping sensation that the various ancient statues of the gods flanking the long lobby watched her. Or maybe that was the well-dressed older shifter couple standing by a reclining statue of Cthona, the earth goddess, naked and awaiting the embrace of her lover, Solas. The shifters—some sort of big cats, from their scents, and rich ones, judging by their watches and jewelry—blatantly ogled her.

Bryce offered them a bland, close-lipped smile.

Some variation of this had happened nearly every single day since the attack this past spring. The first few times had been overwhelming, unnerving—people coming up to her and sobbing with gratitude. Now they just stared.

Bryce didn’t blame the people who wanted to speak to her, who needed

to speak to her. The city had been healed—by her—but its people …

Scores had been dead by the time her firstlight erupted through Lunathion. Hunt had been lucky, had been taking his last breaths, when the firstlight saved him. Five thousand other people had not been so lucky.

Their families had not been so lucky.

So many dark boats had drifted across the Istros to the mists of the Bone Quarter that they had looked like a bevy of black swans. Hunt had carried her into the skies to see it. The quays along the river had teemed with people, their mourning cries rising to the low clouds where she and Hunt had glided.

Hunt had only held her tighter and flown them home.

“Take a picture,” Ember Quinlan called now to the shifters from where she stood next to a marble torso of Ogenas rising from the waves, the ocean goddess’s full breasts peaked and arms upraised. “Only ten gold marks. Fifteen, if you want to be in it.”

“For fuck’s sake, Mom,” Bryce muttered. Ember stood with her hands on her hips, gorgeous in a silky gray gown and pashmina. “Please don’t.”

Ember opened her mouth, as if she’d say something else to the chastised shifters now hurrying toward the east staircase, but her husband interrupted her. “I second Bryce’s request,” Randall said, dashing in his navy suit.

Ember turned outraged dark eyes on Bryce’s stepfather—her only father, as far as Bryce was concerned—but Randall pointed casually to a broad frieze behind them. “That one reminds me of Athalar.”

Bryce arched a brow, grateful for the change of subject, and twisted toward where he’d pointed. On it, a powerful Fae male stood poised above an anvil, hammer raised skyward in one fist, lightning cracking from the skies, filling the hammer, and flowing down toward the object of the hammer’s intended blow: a sword.

Its label read simply: Unknown sculptor. Palmira, circa 125 V.E.

Bryce lifted her mobile and snapped a photo, pulling up her messaging thread with Hunt Athalar Is Better at Sunball Than I Am.

She couldn’t deny that. They’d gone to the local sunball field one sunny afternoon last week to play, and Hunt had promptly wiped the floor with her. He’d changed his name in her phone on the way home.

With a few sweeps of her thumbs, the picture zoomed off into the ether, along with her note: Long-lost relative of yours?

She slid her phone into her clutch to find her mother watching. “What?” Bryce muttered.

But Ember only motioned toward the frieze. “Who does it depict?”

Bryce checked the sliver of writing in the lower right corner. “It just says The Making of the Sword.”

Her mother peered at the half-faded etching. “In what language?”

Bryce tried to keep her posture relaxed. “The Old Language of the Fae.” “Ah.” Ember pursed her lips, and Randall wisely drifted off through the

crowd to study a towering statue of Luna aiming her bow toward the heavens, two hunting dogs at her feet and a stag nuzzling her hip. “You stayed fluent in it?”

“Yep,” Bryce said. Then added, “It’s come in handy.”

“I’d imagine so.” Ember tucked back a strand of her black hair.

Bryce moved to the next frieze dangling from the distant ceiling on near-invisible wires. “This one’s of the First Wars.” She scanned the relief carved into the ten-foot expanse of marble. “It’s about …” She schooled her expression into neutrality.

“What?” Ember stepped closer to the depiction of an army of winged demons swooping down from the skies upon a terrestrial army gathered on the plain below.

“This one’s about Hel’s armies arriving to conquer Midgard during the First Wars,” Bryce finished, trying to keep her voice bland. To block out the flash of talons and fangs and leathery wings—the boom of her rifle resounding through her bones, the rivers of blood in the streets, the screaming and screaming and—

“You’d think this one would be a popular piece these days,” Randall observed, returning to their sides to study the frieze.

Bryce didn’t reply. She didn’t particularly enjoy discussing the events of the past spring with her parents. Especially not in the middle of a packed theater lobby.

Randall jerked his chin to the inscription. “What’s this one say?”

Keenly aware of her mother marking her every blink, Bryce kept her stance unaffected as she skimmed the text in the Old Language of the Fae.

It wasn’t that she was trying to hide what she’d endured. She had talked to her mom and dad about it a few times. But it always resulted in Ember

crying, or ranting about the Vanir who’d locked out so many innocents, and the weight of all her mother’s emotions on top of all of hers 

It was easier, Bryce had realized, to not bring it up. To let herself talk it out with Hunt, or sweat it out in Madame Kyrah’s dance classes twice a week. Baby steps toward being ready for actual talk therapy, as Juniper kept suggesting, but both had helped immensely.

Bryce silently translated the text. “This is a piece from a larger collection—likely one that would have wrapped around the entire exterior of a building, each slab telling a different part of the story. This one says: Thus the seven Princes of Hel looked in envy upon Midgard and unleashed their unholy hordes upon our united armies.”

“Apparently nothing’s changed in fifteen thousand years,” Ember said, shadows darkening her eyes.

Bryce kept her mouth shut. She’d never told her mom about Prince Aidas—how he’d helped her twice now, and had seemed unaware of his brothers’ dark plans. If her mom knew she’d consorted with the fifth Prince of Hel, they’d have to redefine the concept of going berserk.

But then Ember said, “Couldn’t you get a job here?” She gestured with a tan hand to the CCB’s grand entrance, its ever-changing art exhibits in the lobby and on a few of the other levels. “You’re qualified. This would have been perfect.”

“There were no openings.” True. And she didn’t want to use her princess status to get one. She wanted to work at a place like the CCB’s art department on her own merit.

Her job at the Fae Archives … Well, she definitely got that because they saw her as a Fae Princess. But it wasn’t the same, somehow. Because she hadn’t wanted to work there as badly.

“Did you even try?”

“Mom,” Bryce said, voice sharpening. “Bryce.”

“Ladies,” Randall said, a teasing remark designed to fracture the growing tension.

Bryce smiled gratefully at him but found her mother frowning. She sighed up at the starburst chandeliers above the glittering throng. “All right, Mom. Out with it.”

“Out with what?” Ember asked innocently.

“Your opinion about my job.” Bryce gritted her teeth. “For years, you ragged on me for being an assistant, but now that I’m doing something better, it’s not good enough?”

This was so not the place, not with tons of people milling about within earshot, but she’d had it.

Ember didn’t seem to care as she said, “It’s not that it’s not good enough. It’s about where that job is.”

“The Fae Archives operate independently of him.”

“Oh? Because I remember him bragging that it was pretty much his personal library.”

Bryce said tightly, “Mom. The gallery is gone. I need a job. Forgive me if the usual corporate nine-to-five isn’t available to me right now. Or if CCB’s art department isn’t hiring.”

“I just don’t get why you couldn’t work something out with Jesiba. She’s still got that warehouse—surely she needs help with whatever she does there.”

Bryce refrained from rolling her eyes. Within a day of the attack on the city this spring, Jesiba had cleared out the gallery—and the precious volumes that made up all that remained of the ancient Great Library of Parthos. Most of Jesiba’s other pieces were now in a warehouse, many in crates, but Bryce had no idea where the sorceress had spirited off the Parthos books—one of the few remnants of the human world before the Asteri’s arrival. Bryce hadn’t dared question Jesiba about their current whereabouts. It was a miracle that the Asteri hadn’t been tipped off about the contraband books’ existence. “There are only so many times I can ask for a job without looking like I’m begging.”

“And we can’t have a princess do that.”

She’d lost count of how often she’d told her mom she wasn’t a princess. Didn’t want to be, and the Autumn King sure as shit didn’t want her to be, either. She hadn’t spoken to the asshole since that last time he’d come to see her at the gallery, right before her confrontation with Micah. When she’d revealed what power coursed through her veins.

It was an effort not to glance down at her chest, to where the front of her gauzy, pale blue dress plunged to just below her breasts, displaying the star-shaped mark between them. Thankfully, the back was high enough to hide the Horn tattooed there. Like an old scar, the white mark stood out

starkly against her freckled, golden-tan skin. It hadn’t faded in the three months since the city had been attacked.

She’d already lost count of how many times she’d caught her mom staring at her star since arriving last night.

A cluster of gorgeous females—woodland nymphs, from their cedar-and-moss scents—meandered past, champagne in hand, and Bryce lowered her voice. “What do you want me to say? That I’ll move back home to Nidaros and pretend to be normal?”

“What’s so bad about normal?” Her mother’s beautiful face blazed with an inner fire that never banked—never, ever died out. “I think Hunt would like living there.”

“Hunt still works for the 33rd, Mom,” Bryce said. “He’s second in command, for fuck’s sake. And while he might appease you by saying he’d love to live in Nidaros, don’t think for one minute he means it.”

“Way to throw him under the bus,” Randall said while keeping his attention on a nearby information placard.

Before Bryce could answer, Ember said, “Don’t think I haven’t noticed things between you two are weird.”

Trust her mom to bring up two topics she didn’t want to talk about in the space of five minutes. “In what way?”

“You’re together but not together,” Ember said bluntly. “What’s that about?”

“It’s none of your business.” It really wasn’t. But as if he’d heard her, the phone in her clutch buzzed. She yanked it out and peered at the screen.

Hunt had written, I can only hope to have abs like those one day.

Bryce couldn’t help her half smile as she peered back at the muscular Fae male on the frieze before answering. I think you might have a few on him, actually …

“Don’t ignore me, Bryce Adelaide Quinlan.”

Her phone buzzed again, but she didn’t read Hunt’s reply as she said to her mother, “Can you please drop it? And don’t bring it up when Hunt gets here.”

Ember’s mouth popped open, but Randall said, “Agreed. No job or romance interrogations when Hunt arrives.”

Her mother frowned doubtfully, but Bryce said, “Mom, just … stop, okay? I don’t mind my job, and the thing between me and Hunt is what he

and I agreed on. I’m doing fine. Let’s leave it at that.” It was a lie. Sort of.

She actually liked her job—a lot. The private wing of the Fae Archives housed a trove of ancient artifacts that had been sorely neglected for centuries—now in need of researching and cataloging so they could be sent on a traveling exhibit next spring.

She set her own hours, answering only to the head of research, an owl shifter—one of the rare non-Fae staff—who only worked from dusk to dawn, so they barely overlapped. The worst part of her day was entering the sprawling complex through the main buildings, where the sentries all gawked at her. Some even bowed. And then she had to walk through the atrium, where the librarians and patrons tended to stare, too.

Everyone these days stared—she really fucking hated it. But Bryce didn’t want to tell her mom any of that.

Ember said, “Fine. You know I just worry.”

Something in Bryce’s chest softened. “I know, Mom. And I know …” She struggled for the words. “It really helps to know that I can move back home if I want to. But not right now.”

“Fair enough,” Randall chimed in, giving Ember a pointed glance before looping his arm around her waist and steering her toward another frieze across the theater lobby.

Bryce used their distraction to take out her phone, and found that Hunt had written two messages:

Want to count my abs when we get home from the ballet?

Her stomach tightened, and she’d never been more grateful that her parents possessed a human sense of smell as her toes curled in her heels.

Hunt had added, I’ll be there in five, by the way. Isaiah held me up with a new case.

She sent a thumbs-up, then replied: Pleaaaaaase get here ASAP. I just got a major grilling about my job. And you.

Hunt wrote back immediately, and Bryce read as she slowly trailed her parents to where they observed the frieze: What about me?

“Bryce,” her mom called, pointing to the frieze before her. “Check out this one. It’s JJ.”

Bryce looked up from her phone and grinned. “Badass warrior Jelly Jubilee.” There, hanging on the wall, was a rendering of a pegasus—though

not a unicorn-pegasus, like Bryce’s childhood toy—charging into battle. An armored figure, helmet obscuring any telltale features, rode atop the beast, sword upraised. Bryce snapped a photo and sent it to Hunt.

First Wars JJ, reporting for duty!

She was about to reply to Hunt’s What about me? question when her mom said, “Tell Hunt to stop flirting and hurry up already.”

Bryce scowled at her mom and put her phone away.

So many things had changed since revealing her heritage as the Autumn King’s daughter and a Starborn heir: people gawking, the hat and sunglasses she now wore on the street to attain some level of anonymity, the job at the Fae Archives. But at least her mother remained the same.

Bryce couldn’t decide whether that was a comfort or not.

Entering the private box in the angels’ section of the theater—the stage-left boxes a level above the floor—Bryce grinned toward the heavy golden curtain blocking the stage from sight. Only ten minutes remained until the show began. Until the world could see how insanely talented Juniper was.

Ember gracefully sank into one of the red velvet chairs at the front of the box, Randall claiming the seat beside her. Bryce’s mother didn’t smile. Considering that the royal Fae boxes occupied the wing across from them, Bryce didn’t blame her. And considering that many of the bejeweled and shining nobility were staring at Bryce, it was a miracle Ember hadn’t flipped them off yet.

Randall whistled at the prime seats as he peered over the golden rail. “Nice view.”

The air behind Bryce went electric, buzzing and alive. The hair on her arms prickled. A male voice sounded from the vestibule, “A benefit to having wings: no one wants to sit behind you.”

Bryce had developed a keen awareness of Hunt’s presence, like scenting lightning on the wind. He had only to enter a room and she’d know if he was there by that surge of power in her body. Like her magic, her very blood answered to his.

Now she found Hunt standing in the doorway, already tugging at the black tie around his neck.

Just … gods-damn.

He’d worn a black suit and white shirt, both cut to his powerful, muscled body, and the effect was devastating. Add in the gray wings framing it all and she was a goner.

Hunt smirked knowingly, but nodded to Randall. “You clean up good, man. Sorry I’m late.” Bryce could barely hear her dad’s reply as she surveyed the veritable malakim feast before her.

Hunt had cut his hair shorter last month. Not too short, since she’d staged an intervention with the stylist before the draki male could chop off all those beautiful locks, but gone was the shoulder-length hair. The shorter style suited him, but it was still a shock weeks later to find his hair neatly trimmed to his nape, with only a few pieces in the front still unruly enough to peek through the hole in his sunball hat. Tonight, however, he’d brushed it into submission, revealing the clear expanse of his forehead.

That was still a shock, too: no tattoo. No sign of the years of torment the angel had endured beyond the stamped over the slave’s tattoo on his right wrist, marking him a free male. Not a full citizen, but closer to it than the peregrini.

The mark was hidden by the cuff of his suit jacket and the shirt beneath, and Bryce lifted her gaze to Hunt’s face. Her mouth went dry at the bald hunger filling his dark, angular eyes. “You look okay, too,” he said, winking.

Randall coughed, but leafed through the playbill. Ember did the same beside him.

Bryce ran a hand down the front of her blue dress. “This old thing?” Hunt chuckled, and tugged on his tie again.

Bryce sighed. “Please tell me you’re not one of those big, tough males who makes a big fuss about how he hates getting dressed up.”

It was Ember’s turn to cough, but Hunt’s eyes danced as he said to Bryce, “Good thing I don’t have to do it that often, huh?”

A knock on the box door shut off her reply, and a satyr server appeared, carrying a tray of complimentary champagne. “From Miss Andromeda,” the cloven-hoofed male announced.

Bryce grinned. “Wow.” She made a mental note to double the size of the bouquet she’d planned to send to June tomorrow. She took the glass the satyr extended to her, but before she could raise it to her lips, Hunt halted her with a gentle hand on her wrist. She’d officially ended her No Drinking

rule after this spring, but she suspected the touch had nothing to do with reminding her to go slow.

Arching a brow, she waited until the server had left before asking, “You want to make a toast?”

Hunt reached into an inner pocket of his suit and pulled out a small container of mints. Or what seemed like mints. She barely had time to react before he plopped a white pill into her glass.

“What the Hel—”

“Just testing.” Hunt studied her glass. “If it’s drugged or poisoned, it’ll turn green.”

Ember chimed in with her approval. “The satyr said the drinks are from Juniper, but how do you know, Bryce? Anything could be in it.” Her mom nodded at Hunt. “Good thinking.”

Bryce wanted to object, but … Hunt had a point. “And what am I supposed to do with it now? It’s ruined.”

“The pill is tasteless,” Hunt said, clinking his flute against hers when the liquid remained pale gold. “Bottoms up.”

“Classy,” she said, but drank. It still tasted like champagne—no hint of the dissolved pill lingered.

The golden sconces and dangling starburst chandeliers dimmed twice in a five-minute warning, and Bryce and Hunt took their seats behind her parents. From this angle, she could barely make out Fury in the front row.

Hunt seemed to track the direction of her attention. “She didn’t want to sit with us?”

“Nope.” Bryce took in her friend’s shining dark hair, her black suit. “She wants to see every drop of Juniper’s sweat.”

“I’d think she saw that every night,” Hunt said wryly, and Bryce waggled her eyebrows.

But Ember twisted in her seat, a genuine smile lighting her face. “How are Fury and Juniper doing? Did they move in together yet?”

“Two weeks ago.” Bryce craned her neck to study Fury, who seemed to be reading the playbill. “And they’re really good. I think Fury’s here to stay this time.”

Her mom asked carefully, “And you and Fury? I know things were weird for a while.”

Hunt did her a favor and made himself busy on his phone. Bryce idly flipped the pages of her playbill. “Working things out with Fury took some time. But we’re good.”

Randall asked, “Is Axtar still doing what she does best?”

“Yep.” Bryce was content to leave her friend’s mercenary business at that. “She’s happy, though. And more important, June and Fury are happy together.”

“Good,” Ember said, smiling softly. “They make such a beautiful couple.” And because her mom was … well, her mom, Ember sized up Bryce and Hunt and said with no shame whatsoever, “You two would as well, if you got your shit together.”

Bryce slouched down in her seat, lifting her playbill to block her red-hot face. Why weren’t the lights dimming yet? But Hunt took it in stride and said, “All good things come to those who wait, Ember.”

Bryce scowled at the arrogance and amusement in his tone, throwing her playbill into her lap as she declared, “Tonight’s a big deal for June. Try not to ruin it with nonsensical banter.”

Ember patted Bryce’s knee before twisting back to face the stage.

Hunt drained his champagne, and Bryce’s mouth dried out again at the sight of the broad, strong column of his throat working as he swallowed, then said, “Here I was, thinking you loved the banter.”

Bryce had the option of either drooling or turning away, so rather than ruin her dress, she observed the crowd filtering into their seats. More than one person peered toward her box.

Especially from the Fae boxes across the way. No sign of her father or Ruhn, but she recognized a few cold faces. Tristan Flynn’s parents—Lord and Lady Hawthorne—were among them, their professional snob of a daughter Sathia sitting between them. None of the glittering nobility seemed pleased at Bryce’s presence. Good.

“Tonight’s a big deal for June, remember,” Hunt murmured, lips quirking upward.

She glowered. “What?”

Hunt inclined his head toward the Fae nobility sneering across the space. “I can see you thinking about some way to piss them off.”

“I was not.”

He leaned in to whisper, his breath brushing her neck, “You were, and I know it because I was thinking the same thing.” A few cameras flashed from above and below, and she knew people weren’t snapping photos of the stage curtain.

Bryce peeled back to survey Hunt, the face she knew as well as her own. For a moment, for a too-brief eternity, they stared at each other. Bryce swallowed, but couldn’t bring herself to move. To break the contact.

Hunt’s throat bobbed. But he said nothing more, either.

Three fucking months of this torture. Stupid agreement. Friends, but more. More, but without any of the physical benefits.

Hunt said at last, voice thick, “It’s really nice of you to be here for Juniper.”

She tossed her hair over a shoulder. “You’re making it sound like it’s some big sacrifice.”

He jerked his chin toward the still-sneering Fae nobility. “You can’t wear a hat and sunglasses here, so … yeah.”

She admitted, “I wish she’d gotten us seats in the nosebleed section.”

Instead, Juniper—to accommodate Hunt’s wings—had gotten them this box. Right where everyone could see the Starborn Princess and the Fallen Angel.

The orchestra began tuning up, and the sounds of slowly awakening violins and flutes drew Bryce’s attention to the pit. Her muscles tensed of their own volition, as if priming to move. To dance.

Hunt leaned in again, voice a low purr, “You look beautiful, you know.” “Oh, I know,” she said, even as she bit her lower lip to keep from grinning. The lights began dimming, so Bryce decided to Hel with it.

“When do I get to count those abs, Athalar?”

The angel cleared his throat—once, twice—and shifted in his seat, feathers rustling. Bryce smiled smugly.

He murmured, “Four more months, Quinlan.” “And three days,” she shot back.

His eyes shone in the growing darkness.

“What are you two talking about back there?” Ember asked, and Bryce replied without tearing her gaze from Hunt’s, “Nothing.”

But it wasn’t nothing. It was the stupid bargain she’d made with Hunt: that rather than diving right into bed, they’d wait until Winter Solstice to act

on their desires. Spend the summer and autumn getting to know each other without the burdens of a psychotic Archangel and demons on the prowl.

So they had. Torturing each other with flirting was allowed, but sometimes, tonight especially … she really wished she’d never suggested it. Wished she could drag him into the coat closet of the vestibule behind them and show him precisely how much she liked that suit.

Four months, three days, and … She peeked at the delicate watch on her wrist. Four hours. And at the stroke of midnight on Winter Solstice, she would be stroking—

“Burning fucking Solas, Quinlan,” Hunt grunted, again shifting in his seat.

“Sorry,” she muttered, thankful for the second time in an hour that her parents didn’t have the sense of smell that Hunt possessed.

But Hunt laughed, sliding an arm along the back of her chair, fingers tangling in her unbound hair. He seemed contented. Assured of his place there.

She glanced at her parents, sitting with similar closeness, and couldn’t help but smile. Her mom had taken a while to act on her desires with Randall, too. Well, there’d been some initial … stuff. That was as much as Bryce let herself think about them. But she knew it had been nearly a year before they’d made things official. And they’d turned out pretty damn well.

So these months with Hunt, she cherished them. As much as she cherished her dance classes with Madame Kyrah. No one except Hunt really understood what she’d gone through—only Hunt had been at the Gate.

She scanned his striking features, her lips curving again. How many nights had they stayed up, talking about everything and nothing? Ordering in dinner, watching movies or reality shows or sunball, playing video games, or sitting on the roof of the apartment building, observing malakim and witches and draki dart across the sky like shooting stars.

He’d shared so many things about his past, sad and horrible and joyous. She wanted to know all of it. And the more she learned, the more she found herself sharing, and the more she …

Light flared from the star on her chest.

Bryce clapped a hand over it. “I shouldn’t have worn this stupid dress.”

Her fingers could barely cover the star that was blaring white light through the dim theater, illuminating every face now turned her way as the orchestra quieted in anticipation of the conductor’s approach.

She didn’t dare look toward the Fae across the space. To see the disgust and disdain.

Ember and Randall twisted in their seats, her dad’s face scrunched with concern, Ember’s eyes wide with fear. Her mom knew those Fae were sneering, too. She’d hidden Bryce from them her whole life because of how they’d react to the power that now radiated from her.

Some jackass shouted from the audience below, “Hey! Turn off the light!” Bryce’s face burned as a few people chuckled, then quickly went silent.

She could only assume Fury had been nearby.

Bryce cupped both hands over the star, which had taken to glowing at the worst fucking times—this was merely the most mortifying. “I don’t know how to turn it off,” she muttered, making to rise from her seat and flee into the vestibule behind the curtain.

But Hunt slid a warm, dry hand over her scar, fingers grazing her breasts. His palm was broad enough that it covered the mark, capturing the light within. It glowed through his fingers, casting his light brown skin into rosy gold, but he managed to contain the light.

“Admit it: you just wanted me to feel you up,” Hunt whispered, and Bryce couldn’t help her stupid, giddy laugh. She buried her face in Hunt’s shoulder, the smooth material of his suit cool against her cheeks and brow. “Need a minute?” he asked, though she knew he was glaring daggers at all the assholes still gawking. The Fae nobility hissing about the disgrace.

“Should we go?” Ember asked, voice sharp with worry.

“No,” Bryce said thickly, putting a hand over Hunt’s. “I’m good.” “You can’t sit there like that,” Ember countered.

“I’m good, Mom.”

Hunt didn’t move his hand. “We’re used to the staring. Right, Quinlan?” He flashed Ember a grin. “They won’t fuck with us.” An edge laced his smile, a reminder to anyone watching that he wasn’t only Hunt Athalar, he was also the Umbra Mortis. The Shadow of Death.

He’d earned that name.

Ember nodded again approvingly as Randall offered Hunt a grateful dip of the chin. Mercifully, the conductor emerged then, and a smattering of applause filled the theater.

Bryce inhaled deeply, then slowly exhaled. She had zero control over when the star flared, or when it stopped. She sipped from her champagne, then said casually to Hunt, “The headline on the gossip sites tomorrow is going to be: Horndog Umbra Mortis Gropes Starborn Princess at Ballet.”

“Good,” Hunt murmured. “It’ll improve my standing in the 33rd.”

She smiled, despite herself. It was one of his many gifts—making her laugh, even when the world seemed inclined to humiliate and shun her.

His fingers went dark at her chest, and Bryce heaved a sigh. “Thanks,” she said as the conductor raised his baton.

Hunt slowly, so slowly, removed his hand from her chest. “Don’t mention it, Quinlan.”

She glanced sidelong at him again, wondering at the shift in his tone. But the orchestra began its lilting opening, and the curtain drew back, and Bryce leaned forward breathlessly to await her friend’s grand entrance.

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