Chapter no 16

House of Sky and Breath (Crescent City, #2)

“I’m sorry,” Ruhn blurted, gaping at the Avallen Prince in the doorway, “you’re what?” Bryce’s gaze darted between her brother and their cousin. Ithan was sniffing delicately toward Cormac, clearly putting together who stood before them.

“Agent Silverbow?” Tharion demanded.

Ruhn went on, “Does your father know about this? Does my father?” Bryce swapped a glance with her brother. They could use this. Maybe she’d get out of the engagement—

Cormac’s face darkened with menace. “No. Nor will they ever.” Threat rumbled in every word.

Bryce might have joined in on the interrogation, had the star on her chest not flared through the fabric of her dress. She clapped a hand over it.

Trust Aidas to reveal Cormac’s secret and then bail. Bryce had a strong feeling that the Prince of the Chasm had also let Cormac through the wards using his unholy power.

Fucking demon.

Cormac bristled as he glared around the room. “What the fuck do you know about Sofie Renast?”

Bryce pushed her hand harder against her chest, grinding against her sternum as she countered, “What the fuck do you know about Sofie Renast, Agent Silverbow?”

Cormac whirled on her, stalking closer. “Answer me.”

Hunt casually stepped into his path. Lightning danced over his wings.

Alphahole to the core, yet it warmed something in her.

Tharion slumped onto the couch, an arm slung lazily along the back cushions, and peered at his nails. He drawled to Cormac, “And you are?”

Shadows ran down Cormac’s arms, trailing like smoke from his shoulders. Like Ruhn’s shadows—only darker, more feral somehow. Some small part of her was impressed. The Avallen Prince growled, “Cormac Donnall. I’ll ask one more time, mer. What do you know about Sofie?”

Tharion crossed an ankle over a knee. “How do you know I’m mer?” Solas, was Tharion riling him for the Hel of it?

“Because you reek of fish,” Cormac spat, and Tharion, gods bless him, lifted an arm to sniff his armpit. Ithan chuckled. Most Vanir could detect when a mer was in their humanoid form by that scent of water and salt—not an unpleasant one, but definitely distinct.

Hunt and Ruhn weren’t smiling. She had to admit her brother cut a rather imposing figure. Not that she’d ever tell him that.

Tharion smirked at Cormac. “I’m guessing Sofie is your … girlfriend?” Bryce blinked. Cormac let out a snarl that echoed into her bones.

“Impressive,” Hunt murmured to Bryce, but she didn’t feel like smiling. Cormac had turned on her once again. “You know Sofie.”

“I don’t—didn’t,” Bryce said, stepping to Hunt’s side. “I never heard of her until yesterday, when he came to ask some questions.” She shot a look at Tharion, who held up his long-fingered hands. “But I now have a Hel of a lot of my own questions to ask, so can we all just … sit down and talk? Instead of this weird standoff?” She shut the apartment door, and then claimed a seat at one of the stools by the kitchen counter, kicking off her heels beneath it. Ruhn slid onto the one at her left; Hunt perched on the one to the right. Leaving Cormac standing in the middle of the great room, eyeing all of them.

“Why do your shadows appear different from Ruhn’s?” Bryce asked Cormac.

That’s the first thing you want to know?” Hunt muttered. She ignored him.

“How do you know Sofie?” was Cormac’s only reply.

Bryce rolled her eyes. “I already told you—I don’t know her. Tharion, can you put him out of his misery?”

Tharion crossed his arms and settled into the couch cushions. “I was asked to confirm her death.” Bryce noted that Tharion’s answer could be

interpreted as ensuring a dangerous rebel was dead. Smart male.

“And did you?” Cormac’s voice had gone low. His body shook, as if he was restraining himself from leaping upon Tharion. Embers sparked in his hair.

But Hunt leaned back against the counter, elbows on the stone. Lightning snaked along his wings; his face was deathly calm. The embodiment of the Umbra Mortis. A thrill shot through Bryce’s veins as Hunt spoke. “You have to realize that you’re not getting any other answers or leaving here alive without convincing us of some key things.”

Gods-damn. He meant it. Bryce’s heart thundered.

“So take a breath,” Hunt said to the prince. “Calm yourself.” The angel smiled, showing all his teeth. “And listen to the lady’s advice and sit the fuck down.”

Bryce pressed her lips together to keep from smiling. But Cormac—he did indeed take a breath. Another. Bryce glanced at Ithan, but his attention remained on Cormac as the prince breathed, studying his every movement like he was an opponent on the sunball field.

Ruhn, however, met her stare, surprise lighting his features. He said into her head, I did not see this coming.

Bryce might have replied, but the shadows on Cormac’s arms faded. His broad shoulders relaxed. Then he stalked to the dining table and sat. His eyes were clear—calmer.

The star on her chest winked out as well. As if reassured that all was well.

“Good,” Hunt said in that take-no-shit tone that did funny things to her insides. “First things first: How’d you get in? This place is warded to Hel and back.”

“That cat—or not-cat. That somehow knew who—what I am.” A glimmer of displeasure in his face hinted that the prince was only leaving that question aside for the moment. “It left a gaping hole in the wards.”

Hunt nodded, like this wasn’t a big fucking deal. “And why did you come here, at this exact moment?” He’d gone into full-on interrogation mode. How many times had he done this in the 33rd?

Cormac pointed to Tharion. “Because I believe we’re hunting for the same person: Emile Renast. I want to know what you know.”

Bryce couldn’t stop her low sound of surprise. But Tharion’s face remained stony. The expression of the River Queen’s Captain of Intelligence. He asked, “Did Pippa Spetsos send you?”

Cormac barked a laugh. “No. Pippa is the reason Emile fled the


“So who sent you to find Emile?” Hunt asked.

“No one,” Cormac said, taking another long breath. “I was sent to this city for another reason, for many reasons, but this matter of finding Emile

…” His jaw worked. “Sofie and I were close. I helped her free Emile from Kavalla. And before she …” He swallowed. “I made her a promise—not only as one agent to another, but as a … friend. To look after Emile. I failed her. In every way, I failed her.”

Either he’s an amazing actor, Ruhn said into her head, or he was in love with Sofie.

Agreed, Bryce said.

“Why did Emile run from Pippa?” Tharion asked.

Cormac ran his hands through his blond hair. “He was afraid of her. He’s wise to be. Pippa is a fanatic on a fast track to promotion into Ophion Command. With so many of our bases recently destroyed, Ophion is nervous enough to start considering her ideas—and I worry they’ll soon start following her as well. There are no lines she and her unit of Lightfall soldiers won’t cross. Did your news over here get wind of that story about the leopard massacre a year ago?”

Bryce couldn’t stop her shudder. Ithan said quietly, “Yeah.”

Cormac said, “That was Pippa’s idea, carried out by Lightfall. To use those Vanir kids and babies to lure their parents out of their hidden dens— and then kill them all. Simply for sport. For the Hel of it. Because they were Vanir and deserved to die. Even the children. She said it was part of cleansing this world. Working their way up to the top: the Asteri. Hence the Lightfall name.”

Hunt looked to Tharion—who nodded gravely. Apparently, the Captain of Intelligence had heard that, too.

Cormac went on, “Pippa sees Emile as a weapon. The night of the escape, he took down those imperial Omegas, and she was practically beside herself with excitement. She spooked him with her eagerness to get him onto a battlefield, and he fled on an escape boat before I could

convince him that I was there to help. The boy sailed to the nearest port, then stole another boat.”

“Resourceful kid,” Ithan muttered.

“I tracked him as far as these shores.” Cormac jerked his chin at Tharion. “I saw you in the marshes at the abandoned boat. I figured you were on his trail as well. And I watched you find the remains of the Lightfall soldier’s body—so you must have at least guessed that Pippa wants Emile for her Lightfall unit. If she catches him, she’ll drag him back to Ophion’s main base and turn him into a weapon. Into exactly what the Asteri feared when they hunted down the thunderbirds centuries ago.”

His gaze shifted to Hunt. “You asked why I came here, at this exact moment? Because when the mer kept returning here, I figured you lot might be involved somehow—some of the very people I was sent here to meet. I hoped Emile might even be here.” Again, his jaw tightened. “If you know where Emile is, tell me. He’s not safe.”

“I don’t understand,” Ruhn said. “You and Pippa are both in Ophion, yet you’re trying to find Emile to … keep him out of Ophion’s hands?”


“Won’t Ophion be pissed?”

“Command will never know of my involvement,” Cormac said. “I have other tasks here to complete.”

Bryce didn’t like the sound of that for one moment. She slid off the stool, taking a step toward the dining table. Her mouth began moving before she could think through her words. “You expect us to trust you about all of this when you were so fucking obsessed with a stupid piece of metal that you wanted to kill my brother?” She flung a hand in the general direction of Ruhn and the Starsword in his grip.

Ruhn grunted with surprise as Cormac retorted, “That was fifty years ago. People change. Priorities change.”

But Bryce took one step closer to the dining table, not caring if Cormac deemed it a challenge. “Fae don’t change. Not you old-school losers.”

Cormac glanced between her and Ruhn with palpable disdain. “You Valbaran Fae are such babies. Did you not learn something of yourself, your destiny, Prince Ruhn, because of me nipping at your heels?”

“You put a sword through Dec’s gut,” Ruhn said mildly. “I’d hardly call that nipping.”

Tharion cut in, “Assuming we buy your story, why would a Fae Prince join Ophion?”

Cormac said, “I joined because I felt it was right. The details are unnecessary.”

“Not if you might be working for the Asteri,” Bryce said.

“You think I’d turn you over to the Asteri?” Cormac laughed, dead and cold. “I wouldn’t wish that fate on anyone. The dungeons beneath their crystal palace are darker and deadlier than the Pit.”

Hunt said icily, “I know. I was there.”

Bryce hated the shadows in his eyes. Ones she’d do anything to help heal. Do anything to avoid renewing. Team Survive at All Costs—that was her team. She didn’t care if that made her a coward.

Cormac went on, ignoring Hunt, “Sofie was an Ophion agent because the Asteri butchered her family. Her human family, and her thunderbird ancestors. All she wanted was to find her brother. Everything she did was for him.”

Tharion opened his mouth, but Bryce lifted a hand, cutting him off as she said to Cormac, “Tharion came by yesterday to ask about a connection between someone I … knew and Sofie. He was being super shady”—a glare from Tharion at this—“so I managed to get some answers out of him, mainly that he’s looking for Emile for the River Queen.”

Cormac narrowed his stare on Tharion. “What does your queen want with the boy?”

Tharion shrugged.

Ruhn murmured, “Nothing good, I bet.”

Tharion rumbled a warning growl at Ruhn, but Bryce continued, “I don’t care about the politics. Emile’s a kid, and lost—I want to find him.” And get answers about Danika knowing Sofie, but … that could wait for a moment. She wanted to feel Cormac out first.

Indeed, the Avallen Prince’s eyes softened a bit—with gratitude.

Could be faking that, Ruhn observed to her.

Could be, but my gut says he isn’t, Bryce replied before she angled her head and asked Cormac, “The Hind’s a pretty big deal. She went to all that trouble to kill Sofie just for freeing her brother? Or was it because Sofie’s a thunderbird?”

Cormac’s hands curled into fists at his side. “The Hind went to all that trouble because Sofie, as collateral to make sure the Ophion boat showed up for Emile, had gathered vital intel on the Asteri, and made sure Command knew it.”

“What?” Hunt blurted, wings twitching.

“What kind of intel?” Tharion asked, face darkening.

Cormac shook his head. “Sofie was the only person who knew it. She just mentioned to me that it was something big—war-changing. That Ophion would kill to have it. And our enemies would kill to contain it.”

Across the room, Ithan was wide-eyed. Had any of his training prepared him for this? Had any of hers?

Tharion said, “The Asteri probably sent the Hind to kill her before she could tell anyone else.”

Cormac grimaced. “Yes. But I suspect the Hind knew Sofie could hold out against torture, and decided it was best the information die with her.” He shuddered and said, “They ripped out her nails when she went into Kavalla, you know. She told me that they tore out the nails on one hand, and when they asked her for any information, she held out her other hand to them.” He laughed to himself. “One of the guards fainted.”

“Brave female,” Ithan said softly, earning a thankful nod from Cormac that had Bryce wishing she’d said as much herself. Bryce studied her own manicured nails. Wondered if she’d be able to hold out if it ever came to that.

Cormac again turned to Tharion, his face bleak. “Tell me the Hind at least put a bullet in her head before she sent Sofie down to the deep.”

“I don’t know,” Tharion said. “Her body wasn’t there.” “What?” Shadows rippled from Cormac again.

Tharion went on, “The lead blocks, the chains were there. But Sofie’s body was gone. And the shackles had all been unlocked.”

Cormac shot to his feet. “Sofie is alive?”

Such raw hope filled his voice. Was it from genuine love? Or hope that the intel she carried lived on?

“I don’t know,” Tharion answered. Then he admitted, “But that’s why I came to Bryce. She had a friend who knew Sofie years ago. I’m investigating any connections between them—I’m wondering if it might give us hints about Emile’s whereabouts.” Tharion shrugged. “I have good

reason to believe that a safe meeting place was set up long ago for a scenario like this, and that Emile might be headed there—and Sofie, too, if she’s alive.”

Would Sofie have passed that vital intel to her brother? Bryce found Hunt giving her a Don’t even think about it look.

Cormac said, pacing, “Sofie made the Drop—at an illegal center where it wouldn’t be recorded. I thought that there was a chance she might have survived, but when she didn’t contact me …” His eyes narrowed at the mer. “What else do you know?”

“I’ve told you everything,” Tharion lied, crossing his legs.

Cormac gave a slashing, mocking grin. “And what of Danika Fendyr?”

Bryce stilled. “What about her?” Hunt gave her another look warning her to keep quiet.

Cormac said, “She and Sofie knew each other. She was the one who set up this safe place, wasn’t she?”

“You don’t know any of that for sure,” Hunt said.

“I do,” Cormac said, his gaze still on Bryce, on the star in her chest that had begun to glow dimly again. “It’s why I agreed to marry Bryce.”

Ruhn needed a moment to process everything. He watched his cousin warily.

But Bryce chuckled. “I thought you agreed to marry me because of my winning personality.”

Cormac didn’t smile. “I agreed to marry you because I needed access to you. And to you, cousin,” he said to Ruhn.

Athalar demanded, “You couldn’t just pay a friendly visit?”

“The Avallen Fae and the Valbaran Fae are not friendly. We are allies, but also rivals. I needed a reason to come here. I needed to come here to find Emile—it was a blessing from Urd that Ophion wanted me here for another mission, too.”

Bryce glowered. “Forcing me into marriage seems extreme.” “It’s the only currency I have. My breeding potential.”

Ruhn snorted. He and his cousin had more in common than he’d realized. “Why do you need access to me?”

“Because you can mind-speak, can you not? It’s how you and your friends survived in the Cave of Princes during your Ordeal. You fought as if you were of one mind. You never told my father, but he suspected. suspected. It’s a rare Starborn gift. A skill Ophion needs badly.”

Ruhn said, “What about your cousins—the twins? They can mind-speak.”

“They’re not trustworthy. You know that.”

Athalar cut in, “Don’t let him rope you into whatever this is, Danaan. Searching for Emile independently is one thing. If you let him deliver his pitch, you’re one step away from working with Ophion. The Asteri won’t care whether you agree or reject his ass.” He leveled a look at Cormac. “And let me remind you that Ophion is going up against legions that outrank them in power and size. If one of the Asteri walks onto a battlefield, you’re all done.”

The power of one Asteri, the holy star glowing within them, could level an entire army.

Hunt went on, “And if the Asteri catch wind that Agent Silverbow is trying to recruit Ruhn, we’ll all be taken in for questioning. If we’re lucky. If not, we’ll be executed.”

“You didn’t seem to have such concerns when you rebelled, Fallen Angel,” Cormac said.

“I learned the hard way,” Hunt said through his teeth. Bryce stepped closer to him, fingers brushing his. “I’d prefer to protect my friends from learning that lesson.”

It shouldn’t have meant something to Ruhn, for Athalar to consider him a friend. But it did.

Hunt continued, “You’re not only insane to tell us this—you’re reckless. We could sell you out in a heartbeat.”

Tharion added, “Or you’re an Asteri mole seeking to entrap us.”

Cormac drawled, “Trust me, I don’t bandy about this information to just anyone.” He sized up Athalar. “You might have made foolish mistakes in the past, Umbra Mortis, but I shall not.”

“Fuck you.” That one came from Bryce, her voice low and deadly.

Ruhn said to Cormac, hoping to take the temperature down a few degrees, “I’m not going to get involved with you or Ophion. I won’t risk it. So don’t even ask me to do whatever it is you want me to use my … mind-

stuff for.” He hated that his cousin knew. That Tharion was now watching him with a mixture of surprise, awe, and wariness.

Cormac laughed bitterly. “You can’t risk your friends and family? What about the countless friends and family in Pangera who are tortured, enslaved, and murdered? I saw you entering this apartment earlier, and assumed you were assisting Captain Ketos in looking for Emile. I thought convincing you to help me might be that much easier. But it seems all of you wish to put your own lives before those of others.”

“Fuck off,” Hunt growled. “Did you see what happened here this spring?”

“Yes. It convinced me of your … compassion.” He said to Bryce, “I saw that you raced to Asphodel Meadows. To the humans.” He glanced at Ithan. “You too. I thought it meant you’d be sympathetic to their greater plight.” He again addressed Bryce. “That’s why I wanted to get near you. You and Danika saved this city. I realized you two were close. I wanted to see if you might have any insights—I’ve long suspected that Danika might have arranged a rendezvous spot for Sofie.” He faced Tharion. “Where do you believe the meet-up point would be?”

“Nowhere good,” Tharion muttered. Then he added, “You’ll get the details when we’re good and ready to tell you, princey.”

Cormac bristled, flames sparking in his hair again, but Bryce cut in, “How did Danika and Sofie meet?” Apparently, Ruhn realized, this trumped everything else for his sister.

Cormac shook his head. “I’m not sure. But from what Sofie told me, Danika suspected something about the Asteri, and needed someone to go in to confirm those suspicions. Sofie was that person.”

Bryce’s eyes were bright—churning. It didn’t bode well.

Bryce’s brows knit, though. “Danika died two years ago. Sofie had this intel for that long?”

“No. From what I’ve gathered, three years ago, Danika needed Sofie to go in to get it, but it took Sofie that long to gain access. Danika died before Sofie could ever pass the information to her. When she finally got it, she decided to use it to manipulate Ophion into upholding their bargain to go help rescue Emile.”

“So Danika worked for Ophion?” Ithan asked. The wolf’s face was a portrait of shock.

“No,” Cormac said. “She was connected to them, but didn’t report to them. As far as I understood from Sofie, Danika had her own agenda.”

Bryce watched Cormac, her head angled to the side. Ruhn knew that look.

Bryce was planning something. Had definitely already planned something.

Bryce stepped closer to Cormac. The padding of her bare feet was the only sound. Ruhn braced himself for whatever was about to come out of her mouth. “For what it’s worth, I don’t think Aidas is in the habit of allowing Asteri loyalists into my apartment.”

“Aidas.” Cormac started, face paling. “That cat was the Prince of the Chasm?”

“Yep,” Bryce said. “And I think Aidas brought you here as a gift to me.” Athalar blinked at her, but Bryce went on, “Talk all you like about tracking Tharion here, and wanting to recruit Ruhn, but don’t for one minute think that Aidas wasn’t involved in your being here at the exact moment he told me to learn about my powers.” She crossed her arms. “What do you know about the Starborn gifts?”

Cormac said nothing. And Ruhn found himself saying, half in dread that Bryce was right, “I told you the other night that our cousin here was obsessed enough with the idea of getting the Starsword that he learned everything he could about Starborn powers. He’s a veritable library of information.”

Cormac cut him a glare. But he admitted, “I did spend … much of my youth reading about the various gifts.”

Her lips curled upward. “Rebel prince and bookworm.” Athalar looked at her like she’d lost her mind. “I’ll make a deal with you.”

Hunt growled his objection, but Ruhn’s mind churned. This was the Bryce he knew—always angling for the advantage.

“No interest in helping out of the goodness of your heart, Princess?” Cormac taunted.

“I want out of this marriage,” Bryce said smoothly, running a finger over the counter’s edge. Ruhn pretended not to see Athalar’s shudder. “But I know that if I end our engagement too soon, my … sire will send along someone who isn’t as motivated to work with me.” Truth. “So we’ll team up with Tharion here to find Emile. And I’ll even help you find out

whatever intel it was that Danika wanted Sofie to learn. But I want this engagement ended when I say it’s time. And I want you to teach me about my magic. If not, good luck to you. I’ll be sure to point Pippa and her Lightfall unit right in your direction.”

Hunt smirked. Ruhn avoided doing the same. Tharion just tucked his arms behind his head. Only Ithan seemed surprised. Like he’d never seen this side of Bryce.

“Fine,” Cormac said. “But the engagement will only be broken once my work here for Ophion is done. I need the reason to be in Valbara.”

Ruhn expected Bryce to object, but she seemed to think it over. “We do need the cover to be seen together,” she mused. “Otherwise, anyone who knows what a piece of shit you are would wonder why the Hel I would stoop to hang with you. It’d be suspicious.”

Hunt coughed into his shoulder.

Ruhn blurted, “Am I the only one here who thinks this is insane?” Ithan said, “I think we’re all dead meat for even talking about this.”

But Hunt rubbed his jaw, solemn and weary. “We need to talk this over before deciding.” Bryce’s hand brushed over his once more.

Ruhn grunted his agreement and said to his cousin, “You’ve dropped a shit-ton of information on us. We need to process.” He gestured toward the door in dismissal. “We’ll contact you.”

Cormac didn’t move an inch. “I require your blood oath not to say a word of this.”

Ruhn barked a laugh. “I’m not making a blood oath. You can trust us.

Can we trust you?”

“If I can trust cowards who like painting their nails while the rest of the world suffers, then you can trust me.”

Bryce said wryly, “Going in hard with the charm, Cormac.” “Swear a blood oath. And I’ll leave.”

“No,” Bryce said with surprising calm. “I have a manicure in ten minutes.”

Cormac glowered. “I’ll require your answer tomorrow. In the meantime, I am entrusting my life to you.” His eyes slid to Ruhn’s. “Should you wish to hear my pitch, I’ll be at the bar on Archer and Ward today. Your services would be … greatly valued.”

Ruhn said nothing. The fucker could rot.

Cormac’s eyes narrowed with cold amusement. “Your father remains unaware of your mind-speaking gifts, doesn’t he?”

“Are you threatening me?” Ruhn snarled.

Cormac shrugged, walking toward the door. “Come meet me at the bar and find out.”

“Asshole,” Ithan murmured.

Cormac paused with his hand on the knob. He sucked in a breath, the powerful muscles of his back rippling. When he looked over his shoulder, the amusement and threats were gone. “Beyond Sofie, beyond Emile … This world could be so much more. This world could be free. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want that.”

“Hard to enjoy being free,” Hunt countered darkly, “if you’re dead.”

Cormac opened the door, stepping into the swirling shadows. “I can think of no better reason to yield my life.”

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