Tharion needed a new job.
Honestly, even years into the position, he had no idea how he’d wound up in charge of the River Queen’s intelligence. His schoolmates probably laughed every time his name came up: a thoroughly average, if not lazy, student, he’d gotten his passing grades mostly through charming his teachers. He had little interest in history or politics or foreign languages, and his favorite subject in school had been lunch.
Maybe that had primed him. People were far more inclined to talk over food. Though anytime he’d tortured an enemy, he’d puked his guts up afterward. Fortunately, he’d learned that a cold beer, some mirthroot, and a few rounds of poker usually got him what he needed.
And this: research.
Normally, he’d tap one of his analysts to pore over his current project, but the River Queen wanted this kept secret. As he sat before the computer in his office, all it took was a few keystrokes to access what he wanted: Sofie Renast’s email account.
Declan Emmet had set up the system for him: capable of hacking into any non-imperial email within moments. Emmet had charged him an arm and a fin for it, but it had proved more than useful. The first time Tharion had used it had been to help track down his sister’s murderer.
The sick fuck had emailed himself photos of his victims. Even what Tharion had done to him afterward hadn’t erased the image seared into his brain of his sister’s brutalized body.
Tharion swallowed, looking toward the wall of glass that opened into clear cobalt waters. An otter shot past, yellow vest blazingly bright in the river water, a sealed tube clenched between his little fangs.
A creature of both worlds. Some of the messenger otters dwelled here, in the Blue Court deep beneath the Istros, a small metropolis both exposed and sealed off from the water around them. Other otters lived Above, in the bustle and chaos of Crescent City proper.
Tharion couldn’t ever move Above, he reminded himself. His duties required him here, at the River Queen’s beck and call. Tharion peered at his bare feet, digging them into the cream shag carpet beneath his desk. He’d been in human form for nearly a day now. He’d have to enter the water soon or risk losing his fins.
His parents found it odd that he’d chosen to live in one of the dry glass-and-metal buildings anchored into a sprawling platform at the bottom of the river, and not near them in the network of underwater caves that doubled as apartments for the mer. But Tharion liked TV. Liked eating food that wasn’t soggy at best, cold and wet at worst. He liked sleeping in a warm bed, sprawled over the covers and pillows, and not tucked into a seaweed hammock swinging in the currents. And since living on land wasn’t an option, this underwater building had become his best bet.
The computer pinged, and Tharion pivoted back to the screen. His office was in one of the glass-domed bubbles that made up the Blue Court Investigative Unit’s headquarters—the River Queen had only allowed their construction because computers had to stay dry.
Tharion himself had been forced to explain that simple fact.
His queen was almighty, beautiful, and wise—and, like so many of the older Vanir, had no idea how modern technology worked. Her daughter, at least, had adapted better. Tharion had been instructed to show her how to use a computer. Which was how he’d wound up here.
Well, not here in this office. But in this place. In his current life.
Tharion skimmed through Sofie Renast’s email archive. Evidence of a normal existence: emails with friends about sports or TV or an upcoming party; emails from parents asking that she pick up groceries on her way home from school; emails from her little brother. Emile.
Those were the ones that he combed through the most carefully. Maybe he’d get lucky and there’d be some hint in here about where Sofie was
On and on, Tharion read, keeping an eye on the clock. He had to get in the water soon, but … He kept reading. Hunting for any clue or hint of where Sofie and her brother might have gone. He came up empty.
Tharion finished Sofie’s inbox, checked the junk folder, and then finally the trash. It was mostly empty. He clicked open her sent folder, and groaned at the tally. But he began reading again. Click after click after click.
His phone chimed with an alert: thirty minutes until he needed to get into the water. He could reach the air lock in five minutes, if he walked fast. He could get through another few emails before then. Click, click, click. Tharion’s phone chimed again. Ten minutes.
But he’d halted on an email dated three years ago. It was so simple, so nonsensical that it stood out.
Subject: Re: Dusk’s Truth
The subject line was weird. But the body of her email was even weirder.
Working on gaining access. Will take time.
That was it.
Tharion scanned downward, toward the original message that Sofie had replied to. It had been sent two weeks before her reply.
From: BansheeFan56 Subject: Dusk’s Truth
Have you gotten inside yet? I want to know the full story.
Tharion scratched his head, opened another window, and searched for
Nothing. No record of a movie or book or TV show. He did a search on the email system for the sender’s name: BansheeFan56.
Another half-deleted chain. This one originating from BansheeFan56.
Subject: Project Thurr
Could be useful to you. Read it.
Sofie had replied: Just did. I think it’s a long shot. And the Six will kill me for it.
He had a good feeling he knew who “the Six” referred to: the Asteri. But when Tharion searched online for Project Thurr, he found nothing. Only news reports on archaeological digs or art gallery exhibits featuring the ancient demigod. Interesting.
There was one other email—in the drafts folder.
BansheeFan56 had written: When you find him, lie low in the place I told you about—where the weary souls find relief from their suffering in Lunathion. It’s secure.
A rendezvous spot? Tharion scanned what Sofie had started to reply, but never sent.
Thank you. I’ll try to pass along the info to my
She’d never finished it. There were any number of ways that sentence could have ended. But Sofie must have needed a place where no one would think to look for her and her brother. If Sofie Renast had indeed survived the Hind, she might well have come here, to this very city, with the promise of a safe place to hide.
But this stuff about Project Thurr and Dusk’s Truth … He tucked those tidbits away for later.
Tharion opened a search field within Declan’s program and typed in the sender’s address. He started as the result came in.
Tharion burst from his office, sprinting through the glass corridors that revealed all manner of river life: mer and otters and fish, diving birds and water sprites and the occasional winding sea serpent. He only had three minutes before he had to be in the water.
Thankfully, the hatch into the pressurization chamber was open when he arrived, and Tharion leapt in, slamming the round door behind him before punching the button beside it.
He’d barely sealed the door when water flooded his feet, rushing into the chamber with a sigh. Tharion sighed with it, slumping into the rising water and shucking off his pants, his body tingling as fins replaced skin and bone, his legs fusing, rippling with tiger-striped scales.
He pulled off his shirt, shuddering into the scales that rippled along his arms and halfway up his torso. Talons curled off his fingers as Tharion thrust them into his hair, slicking back the red strands.
Tharion glanced at the digital clock above the air lock door. He was free to return to human form now, but he liked to wait a good five minutes. Just to make sure the transformation had been marked by the strange magic that
guided the mer. It didn’t matter that he could summon water from thin air— the shift only counted if he submerged completely in the currents of wild magic.
Danika Fendyr had known Sofie Renast. Had swapped emails during a six-month window leading up to Danika’s death, all relating to something about Dusk’s Truth and this Project Thurr, except that one detailing a secure spot.
But had Danika Fendyr known Emile as well? Had Emile been the person Sofie had meant to pass along the safe location info to? It was a stretch, but from what the River Queen had told him, everything Sofie had done before her death had been for her brother. Why wouldn’t he be the person she was eager to hide, should she ever get him free from Kavalla? The trouble now was finding them somewhere in this city. Where the weary souls find relief from their suffering, apparently. Whatever that meant.
Tharion waited until five minutes had passed, then reached up with a muscled arm to hit the release button beside the air lock door. Water drained out, clearing the chamber, and Tharion remained seated, staring at his fins, waving idly in the air.
He willed the change, and light shimmered along his legs, pain lancing down them as his fin split in two, revealing his naked body.
His pants were soaked, but Tharion didn’t particularly care as he shoved his legs back into them. At least he hadn’t been wearing shoes. He’d lost countless pairs thanks to close calls like this over the years.
With a groan, he eased to his feet and opened the door once more. He donned one of the navy windbreakers hanging from the wall for warmth, BCIU written in yellow print on the back. Blue Court Investigative Unit. It was technically part of Lunathion’s Auxiliary, but the River Queen liked to think of her realm as a separate entity.
He checked his phone as he stalked down the hall toward his office, skimming the field reports that had come in. He went still at one of them. Maybe Ogenas was looking out for him.
A kingfisher shifter had called in a report three hours ago—out in the Nelthian Marshes. A small, abandoned boat. Nothing unusual, but its registration had snagged his eye. It had made berth in Pangera. The rest of the report had Tharion hurrying to his office.
An adolescent-sized life vest with Bodegraven written on its back had been found in the boat. No one remained on board, but a scent lingered. Human, male, young.
What were the odds that a life jacket from the same ship Sofie Renast’s brother had been on had appeared on a wholly different boat, near the very city the emails between her and Danika had indicated was safe to hide in?
Emile Renast had to have been on that boat. The question was: Did he have reason to suspect that his sister had survived the Hind? Were they currently en route to be reunited? Tharion had a few guesses for where Danika’s cryptic instructions might imply—none of them good. He might have no idea what his queen wanted with either Sofie or Emile, enough that she’d wanted the former alive or dead, but he had little choice in following this lead.
He supposed he’d forfeited the right to choices long ago.
Tharion took a wave skimmer up the Istros, aiming for the marshland an hour north of the city. The river cut along the coast here, wending between the swaying, hissing reeds. Along one seemingly random curve, the small skiff had been driven up onto the grasses, and now tilted precariously to one side.
Birds swooped and soared overhead, and eyes monitored him unblinkingly from the grasses as he slowed the wave skimmer to examine the boat.
He shuddered. The river beasts nested in these marshes. Even Tharion had been careful about what watery paths he took through the grasses. The sobeks might know better than to fuck with the mer, but a female beast would go down snapping for her young.
A thirteen-year-old boy, however gifted, would be a rich dessert.
Tharion used his water magic to guide him right up to the boat, then hopped aboard. Empty cans of food and bottles of water clanked against each other with the impact of his landing. A sweep of the sleeping area below revealed a human, male scent, along with blankets and more food.
Small, muddy footprints marked the deck near the steering wheel. A child had indeed been on this boat. Had that child sailed from Pangera all
the way here alone? Pity and dread stirred in Tharion’s gut at all the abandoned trash.
He turned on the engine and discovered plenty of fuel—indicating that the boat hadn’t run out of firstlight and been ditched here. So this must have been an intentional landing. Which suggested that Sofie must have passed that information about the meeting spot along to Emile after all. But if he’d discarded the boat here, in the heart of sobek territory … Tharion rubbed his jaw.
He made a slow circle of the reeds around the boat. Listening, scenting. And—fuck. Human blood. He braced himself for the worst as he approached a red-splattered section of reeds.
His relief was short-lived. The smell was adult, but … that was an arm. Ripped away from the body, which must have been dragged off. Trauma to the biceps in line with a sobek bite.
Fighting his roiling stomach, Tharion crept closer. Scented it again.
It was fresher than the boy’s scent on the boat by a day or so. And maybe it was a coincidence that there was a human arm here, but Tharion knew the dark gray of the torn sleeve that remained on the arm. The patch of the golden sun bracketed by a gun and a blade still half-visible near the bite.
The Ophion insignia. And the additional red sinking sun above it … Their elite Lightfall squadron, led by Pippa Spetsos.
Carefully, as silently as he could, Tharion moved through the reeds, praying he didn’t stumble into any sobek nests. The human scents were more numerous here. Several males and a female, all adult. All coming from inland—not the water. Ogenas, had Pippa Spetsos herself led the unit here to get the boy? They must have tried to creep up on the boat from the reeds. And apparently one of them had paid the ultimate price.
Ophion had sent their best unit here, despite their numerous recent losses. They needed Lightfall in Pangera—and yet they were expending resources on this hunt. So they likely weren’t seeking the boy out of the goodness of their hearts. Had Emile abandoned the boat here not because Sofie had told him to, but because he’d sensed someone on his tail? Had he fled to this city not only to find his sister at the arranged spot, but also to get free of the rebels?
Tharion retraced his steps back to the boat, scanning it again. He slung himself belowdecks, pulling aside blankets and garbage, skimming, scanning—
There. A marked-up map of the Valbaran coast. With these marshes circled. These marshes … and one other marking. Tharion winced. If Emile Renast had fled on foot from here to Crescent City …
He pulled out his phone and dialed one of his officers. Ordered them to get to the marshes. To start at the boat and work their way by land toward the city. And bring guns—not just for the beasts in the reeds, but for the rebels who might be following the kid.
And if they found Emile … He ordered the officer to track him for a while. See who he met up with. Who the boy might lead them to.
If the boy had even walked out of these marshes alive.