Chapter no 17

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

“Does anyone else feel like they’re about to wake up from a bad dream?” Ithan’s question echoed into the fraught silence of the apartment.

Bryce checked the clock on her phone. Had it really been less than an hour since she’d walked down the teeming lunchtime streets with Ruhn? She rubbed idly at her star, still glowing faintly, and said to no one in particular, “I need to get back to the archives.”

Ruhn exclaimed, “After all that, you’re going back to work?”

But she strode across the room, throwing Hunt a glance that had him following. He always got her like that—they didn’t need Ruhn’s fancy mind-speaking to communicate.

She halted by the front door. None of Cormac’s power lingered—not even a wisp of shadow. Not one ember. For a heartbeat, she wished she had the serenity of Lehabah to return to, the serenity of the gallery and its quiet library.

But those things were irrevocably gone.

Bryce said as calmly as she could to the males watching her, schooling her face into neutrality, “We just had a bomb dropped into our lives. A bomb that is now ticking away. I need to think. And I have a job that I’m contractually obligated to show up to.”

Where she could close her office door and figure out if she wanted to run like Hel from that bomb or face its wrath.

Hunt put a hand on her shoulder, but said nothing. He’d leapt in front of a bomb for her months ago. Had shielded her body with his own against the

brimstone missile. There was nothing he could do to shield her from this, though.

Bryce couldn’t bear to see the worry and dread she knew would be etched on his face. He knew what they were walking into. The enemy and odds they faced.

She pivoted to Tharion instead. “What do you want to do, Tharion? Not because the River Queen is pulling your puppet strings—what do you want?”

“This apartment, for starters,” Tharion said, leaning his head back against the cushions, muscled chest expanding as he heaved a breath. “I want to find answers. Regardless of my orders, I want the truth of what I am facing—the enemy at my front as well as my back. But I’m inclined to believe Cormac—he didn’t display any signs of lying.”

“Trust me,” Ruhn growled, “he’s more skilled than you know.” “I don’t think he was lying, either,” Hunt admitted.

Bryce rubbed at her neck—then straightened. “Any chance that Dusk’s Truth is somehow related to the Lightfall squadron?”

Tharion arched a brow. “Why?”

Hunt picked up her thread immediately. “Lightfall. Also known as dusk.”

“And Project Thurr … thunder god … Could it be related to the thunderbirds?” Bryce went on.

“You think it involved some kind of intel about Pippa’s Lightfall squadron?” Ruhn asked.

“It seemed to be some sort of groundbreaking info,” Tharion said. “And Thurr … It could have had something to do with the thunderbird stuff. Sofie sounded afraid of the Asteri’s wrath in her reply to Danika … Maybe it was because she was afraid of them knowing she had the gift.”

“These are all hypotheticals,” Hunt said. “And big stretches. But they might lead somewhere. Sofie and Danika were certainly well aware of the threats posed by both Lightfall and the Asteri.”

Ithan said, “Can we go back to how the Prince of the Chasm was sitting on my lap?”

“You’ve got a lot to catch up on,” Hunt said, chuckling darkly. “Be glad you weren’t here for the first summoning.”

Bryce elbowed him. “I really do have to return to work.”

Ruhn asked, “You don’t think we should go to the Bone Quarter to look for Emile and Sofie?”

Bryce winced. “I’m not going to the Bone Quarter to look for anyone

unless we’re absolutely certain that they’re there.”

“Agreed,” Tharion said. “It’s too dangerous to go on a whim. We’ll keep investigating. Maybe Danika meant something else by weary souls.”

Bryce nodded. “None of us talks to anyone else. I think we all know we’re going to be roasted on a spit if this leaks.”

“One word from Cormac and we’re dead,” Ruhn said gravely.

“One word from us,” Hunt countered, “and he’s dead.” He jerked his chin at Bryce. She finally met his stare, finding only razor-sharp calculation there. “Grab a gun.”

Bryce scowled. “Absolutely not.” She gestured to her tight dress. “Where would I hide it?”

“Then take the sword.” He pointed to her bedroom hallway. “Use it as some sort of accessory. If anyone can pull it off, you can.”

Bryce couldn’t help her glance at Ithan. It gave away everything.

“You never gave Danika’s sword back after the attack this spring?” the wolf asked a shade quietly.

“Sabine can fight me for it,” Bryce said, and ignored Hunt’s order to take the blade from its resting place in her closet. Bryce twisted the knob. “Let’s take the day. Agree not to fuck each other over on this, pray Cormac isn’t a lying sack of shit, and then reconvene tomorrow night.”

“Done,” Tharion said.

Bryce stepped into the hall, Hunt on her heels, and heard Ithan sigh behind her. “This was not how I expected my day to go,” the wolf muttered to Tharion before ratcheting up the volume on the TV.

Same, Bryce thought, and shut the door.

Hunt’s head spun as he and Bryce rode the elevator down to the apartment lobby. He’d been free for a few glorious months, only to wind up right back on the cusp of another rebellion.

The same war, Aidas had claimed. Just by a different name, with a different army. Hunt’s hands slicked with sweat. He’d seen how this war turned out. Felt its cost for centuries.

He said to Bryce, unable to stop the trembling that now overtook him, the sense that the elevator walls were pushing in, “I don’t know what to do.”

She leaned against the rail. “Me neither.”

They waited until they were out on the street, keeping their voices down, before Hunt continued, words falling out of his mouth, “This isn’t something we can jump into for the Hel of it.” He couldn’t get a breath down. “I’ve seen wrecked mech-suits with their human pilots hanging out of the cockpit, organs dangling. I’ve seen wolves as strong as Ithan ripped in two. I’ve seen angels decimate battlefields without setting foot on the ground.” He shuddered, picturing Bryce among all that. “I … Fuck.”

She looped her arm through his, and he leaned into her warmth, finding himself frozen despite the hot day. “This sounds more like … spying than battle-fighting or whatever.”

“I’d rather die on the battlefield than in one of the Hind’s interrogation rooms.” I’d rather you die on a battlefield than in her hands. Hunt swallowed. “Sofie was lucky that the Hind dumped her and was done with it.” He halted at an alley, tugging Bryce into its shadows with him.

He let himself look at her face: pale enough that her freckles stood out, eyes wide. Scared. The scent hit him a moment later.

“We were never going to be allowed to live like normal people,” Bryce breathed, and Hunt ran a hand through her hair, savoring the silken strands. “Trouble was always going to come find us.”

He knew she was right. They weren’t the sort of people who could live ordinary lives. Hunt fought past the shaking in his bones, the roaring in his mind.

She lifted a hand, and her warm palm cupped his cheek. He leaned into her touch, reining in a purr as her thumb brushed over his cheekbone. “You really don’t think Cormac is luring us into a trap with this claim that Sofie knew some vital intel—the bait being that Danika was involved in some way?”

“It’s possible,” Hunt admitted. “But there was clearly a connection between Danika and Sofie—the emails prove it. And Cormac seemed pretty damned shocked to learn that Sofie was potentially alive. I think he believed the intel on the Asteri had died with Sofie. I wouldn’t blame him for wondering if it could be in play once more.”

“You think there’s any chance Sofie told Emile before they were separated?”

Hunt shrugged. “They were in Kavalla together—she might have found an opportunity to tell him. And if he doesn’t have the intel, and Sofie is alive, he might know where Sofie is headed right now. That makes Emile a pretty valuable asset. For everyone.”

Bryce began counting on her fingers. “So we’ve got Ophion, Tharion, and Cormac all wanting to find him.”

“If you want to find him, too, Bryce, then we need to navigate carefully.

Consider if we really want to get involved at all.”

Her mouth twisted to the side. “If there’s a chance that we could discover what Sofie knew, what Danika guessed—separate from Cormac, from this shit with that Pippa woman and whatever the River Queen wants

—I think that intel is worth the risk.”

“But why? So we can keep the Asteri from fucking with us about Micah and Sandriel?”

“Yeah. When I met up with Fury this morning, she mentioned that Danika knew something dangerous about her, so Fury learned something big about Danika in return.” Hunt didn’t get the chance to ask what exactly that was before Bryce said, “Why not apply the same thinking to this? The Asteri know something dangerous about me. About you.” That they’d killed two Archangels. “I want to even the playing field a bit.” Hunt could have sworn her expression was one he’d glimpsed on the Autumn King’s face as she went on, “So we’ll learn something vital about them. We’ll take steps to ensure that if they fuck with us, the information will leak to the broader world.”

“This is a deadly game. I’m not convinced the Asteri will want to play.” “I know. But beyond that, Danika thought this intel might be important

enough to send Sofie after it—to risk her life for it. If Sofie is dead, then someone else needs to secure that information.”

“It’s not your responsibility, Bryce.” “It is.”

He wasn’t going to touch that one. Not yet. “And what about the kid?” “We find him, too. I don’t give a shit if he’s powerful—he’s a kid and

he’s caught up in this giant mess.” Her eyes softened, and his heart with them. Would Shahar have cared about the boy? Only in the way Ophion and

the River Queen seemed to: as a weapon. Bryce asked, head tilting to the side, “And what about Cormac’s talk of freeing the world from the Asteri? That doesn’t hold any weight with you?”

“Of course it does.” He slid a hand over her waist, tugging her closer. “A world without them, without the Archangels and the hierarchies … I’d like to see that world one day. But …” His throat dried up. “But I don’t want to live in that world if the risk of creating it means …” Get it out. “If it means that we might not make it to that world.”

Her eyes softened once more, and her thumb stroked over his cheek again. “Same, Athalar.”

He huffed a laugh, bowing his head, but she lifted his chin with her other hand. His fingers tightened on her waist.

Bryce’s whiskey-colored eyes glowed in the muted light of the alley. “Well, since we’re dabbling in some seriously dangerous shit, now’s probably as good a time as any to admit I don’t want to wait until Winter Solstice.”

“For what?” Fuck, his voice had dropped an octave.

“This,” she murmured, and rose onto her toes to kiss him.

Hunt met her halfway, unable to contain his groan as he hauled her against him, lips finding hers at the same moment their bodies touched. He could have sworn the fucking world spun out from under him at the taste of her—

His head filled with fire and lightning and storms, and all he could think of was her mouth, her warm, luscious body, the aching of his cock pressing against his pants—pressing against her as her arms twined around his neck.

He was going to kick that wolf out of the apartment immediately.

Hunt twisted, pinning her against the wall, and her mouth opened wider on a gasp. He swept his tongue in, tasting the honeyed spice that was pure Bryce. She wrapped a leg around his waist, and Hunt took the invitation, hefting her thigh higher, pressing himself against her until they were both writhing.

Anyone might walk by the alley and see them. Lunchtime workers were streaming past. All it would take was one peek down the alley into the dusty shadows, one photograph, and this whole thing—

Hunt halted.

One photo, and her engagement to Cormac would be off. Along with the bargain Bryce had crafted with him.

Bryce asked, panting hard, “What’s wrong?”

“We, ah …” Words had become foreign. All thought had gone between his legs. Between her legs.

He swallowed hard, then gently backed away, trying to master his jagged breathing. “You’re engaged. Technically. You have to keep up that ruse with Cormac, at least in public.”

She straightened her dress, and—shit. Was that a lilac lace bra peeking out from the neckline? Why the fuck hadn’t he explored that just now? Bryce peered down the alley, lips swollen from his kisses, and some feral part of him howled in satisfaction to see that he had done that, he had brought that flush to her cheeks and wine-rich scent of arousal to her. She was his.

And he was hers. Utterly fucking hers.

“Are you suggesting we find a seedy motel instead?” Her lips curved, and Hunt’s cock throbbed at the sight, as if begging for her mouth to slide over him.

He let out a strangled noise. “I’m suggesting …” Hel, what was he suggesting? “I don’t know.” He blew out a breath. “You’re sure you want to do this now?” He gestured between them. “I know emotions are high after what we’ve learned. I …” He couldn’t look at her. “Whatever you want, Quinlan. That’s what I mean to say.”

She was silent for a moment. Then her hand slid over his chest, landing upon his heart. “What do you want? Why is it only what I want?”

“Because you were the one who mentioned waiting until solstice.” “And?”

“And I want to make sure that you’re fully on board with ending our … agreement.”

“All right. But I also want to know what you want, Hunt.”

He met her golden stare. “You know what I want.” He couldn’t stop his voice from lowering again. “I’ve never stopped wanting it—wanting you. I thought it was obvious.”

Her heart was thundering. He could hear it. He glanced down at her ample chest and beheld a faint glimmering. “Your star …”

“Let’s not even get started on this thing,” she said, waving a hand at it. “Let’s keep talking about how much you want me.” She winked.

Hunt slung an arm around her shoulders, steering her back toward the bustling avenue. He whispered in her ear, “Why don’t I just show you later?”

She laughed, the star’s glow fading in the sunlight as they emerged onto the baking streets, and she slipped on her sunglasses and hat. “That’s what I want, Hunt. That is definitely what I want.”

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