Chapter no 2

House of Sky and Breath

Bryce tried not to shiver with delight when Hunt knocked her with a wing while they walked up the sagging stairs to Ruhn’s house.

A small get-together, Ruhn had said when he’d called to invite them to swing by after the ballet. Since the thought of her mother grilling her again about her job, sex life, and princess status was sure to drive her to drink anyway, Bryce and Hunt had dumped her parents back at their hotel, changed at the apartment—Hunt had insisted on that part with a grumbled I need to get the fuck out of this suit—and flown over here.

The entire Old Square had apparently turned up as well: Fae and shifters and people of all Houses drank and danced and talked. On the pathetic excuse for a front lawn, a cluster of green-haired river nymphs and fauns both male and female played cornhole. A cluster of Fae males behind them—Aux members, from their muscles and stick-up-the-ass posture— were engaged in what looked like an absolutely riveting game of bocce.

The arid day had yielded to a whisper-sweet night, warm enough that every bar and café and club in the Old Square—especially around Archer Street—teemed with revelers. Even with the booming music erupting from Ruhn’s house, she could make out the thump of the bass from the other houses along the street, the bar at the corner, the cars driving by.

Everyone was celebrating being alive. As they should be.

“Fury and June are already here,” Bryce called to Hunt over the noise as they strode up the rickety, beer-splattered steps into Ruhn’s house. “June said they’re in the living room.”

Hunt nodded, though his focus remained fixed on the partying crowd. Even here, people noted from all directions as the Starborn Princess and the Umbra Mortis arrived. The crowd parted for them, some even backing away. Bryce stiffened, but Hunt didn’t halt his easy pace. He was accustomed to this shit—had been for a while now. And though he was no longer officially the Shadow of Death, people hadn’t forgotten what he had once done. Who he’d once served.

Hunt aimed for the living room to the left of the foyer, the ridiculous muscles along his shoulders shifting with the movement. They were put on near-obscene display by the black tank top he wore. Bryce might have survived the sight of it, had it not been for the white sunball hat, twisted backward the way Hunt usually wore it.

She preferred that hat to the fancy suit, actually.

To her shock, Hunt didn’t protest when a reveling air sprite floated past, crowning him and then Bryce with glow-stick necklaces made from firstlight. Bryce removed the plastic tube of light and looped it into a bracelet snaking up her arm. Hunt left his hanging over his chest, the light casting the deep muscles of his pectorals and shoulders in stark relief. Gods spare her.

Hunt had only taken one step into the living room when Tristan Flynn’s voice boomed from the foyer behind them: “The fuck, Ruhn!”

Bryce snorted, and through the crowd she spied the Fae lord at one end of the beer pong table on which he’d painted an image of an enormous Fae head devouring an angel whole.

Ruhn stood at the other end of the table, both middle fingers raised to his opponents, his lip ring glinting in the dim lights of the foyer. “Pay up, assholes,” her brother said, the rolled cigarette between his lips bobbing with his words.

Bryce reached a hand for Hunt, fingers grazing his downy soft wings. He went rigid, twisting to look at her. Angels’ wings were highly sensitive. She might as well have grabbed him by the balls.

Face flushing, she jabbed a thumb toward her brother. “Tell June and Fury I’ll be there in a sec,” she called over the noise. “I want to say hi to Ruhn.” She didn’t wait for Hunt to reply before wending her way over.

Flynn let out a cheer as she appeared, obviously well on his way to being smashed. Typical Tuesday night for him. She considered sending a

photo of his wasted ass to his parents and sister. They might not sneer so much at her, then.

Declan Emmett appeared slightly more sober as he said from Flynn’s side, “Hey, B.”

Bryce waved, not wanting to shout over the crowd gathered in what had once been a dining room. It had recently been transformed into a billiards and darts room. Absolutely fitting for the Crown Prince of the Valbaran Fae, Bryce thought with a half smile as she sidled up to the male beside her brother. “Hi, Marc.”

The towering leopard shifter, all sleek muscle beneath his dark brown skin, peered down at her. His striking topaz eyes sparkled. Declan had been seeing Marc Rosarin for a month now, having met the tech entrepreneur during some fancy party at one of the big engineering companies in the Central Business District. “Hey, Princess.”

Flynn demanded, “Since when do you let Marc get away with calling you Princess?”

“Since I like him better than you,” Bryce shot back, earning a clap on the shoulder from Marc and a grin from Ruhn. She said to her brother, “A small get-together, huh?”

Ruhn shrugged, the tattoos along his arms shifting. “I blame Flynn.” Flynn lifted his last beer up in acknowledgment and chugged.

“Where’s Athalar?” Declan asked.

“With June and Fury in the living room,” Bryce said.

Ruhn waved his greeting to a passing partier before he asked, “How was the ballet?”

“Awesome. June killed her solos. Brought the house to its feet.” She’d had chills along her entire body while her friend had danced—and tears in her eyes when Juniper had received a standing ovation after finishing. Bryce had never heard the CCB so full of cheering, and from Juniper’s flushed, joyous face as she’d bowed, Bryce knew her friend realized it, too. A promotion to principal was sure to come any day now.

“Hottest ticket in town,” Marc said, whistling. “Half my office would have sold their souls to be there tonight.”

“You should have told me,” Bryce said. “We had a few extra seats in our box. We could have fit them.”

Marc smiled appreciatively. “Next time.”

Flynn began reracking the beer pong cups, and called to her, “How are Mommy and Daddy?”

“Good. They fed me a bottle of milk and read me a bedtime story before I left.”

This earned a chuckle from Ruhn, who had once again become close with Ember. Her brother asked, “How many interrogations since they got here last night?”

“Six.” Bryce pointed to the foyer and living room beyond. “Which is why I’m going to go have a drink with my friends.”

“Open bar,” Declan said, gesturing magnanimously behind him.

Bryce waved again, and she was off. Without Hunt’s imposing form, far fewer people turned her way. But when they did … pockets of silence appeared. She tried to ignore them, and nearly sighed with relief when she spied a familiar pair of horns atop a head of gracefully curling hair tucked into Juniper’s usual bun. She was seated on the stained living room sectional, thigh to thigh with Fury, their hands interlaced.

Hunt stood before them, wings held at a casual angle as he talked with her friends. He looked up as Bryce entered the living room, and she could have sworn his black eyes lit.

She reined in her joy at the sight as she plopped onto the cushions beside Juniper, cuddling close. She nuzzled June’s shoulder. “Hi, my talented and brilliant and beautiful friend.”

Juniper laughed, squeezing Bryce. “Right back at you.” Bryce said, “I was talking to Fury.”

Juniper smacked Bryce’s knee, and Fury laughed, observing, “Already acting like a prima donna.”

Bryce sighed dramatically. “I can’t wait to see June throw temper tantrums about the state of her dressing room.”

“Oh, you’re both horrible,” Juniper said, but laughed along with them. “One, I won’t even have a dressing room to myself for years. Two—”

“Here we go,” Fury said, and when June made a noise of objection, she only chuckled and brushed her mouth over the faun’s temple.

The casual, loving bit of intimacy had Bryce daring a glance toward Hunt, who was smiling faintly. Bryce avoided the urge to fidget, to think about how that could so easily be them, cuddling on the couch and kissing. Hunt just said, voice gravelly, “What can I get you, Quinlan?” He inclined

his head toward the bar in the rear of the room, barely visible with the crowds mobbing the two bartenders.

“Whiskey, ginger beer, and lime.”

“You got it.” With a mockery of a salute, Hunt stalked off through the crowd.

“How’s the whole no-sex thing going for you, Bryce?” Fury asked wryly, leaning forward to peer at her face.

Bryce slumped against the cushions. “Asshole.”

June’s laugh fizzled through her, and her friend patted her thigh. “Remind me why you two aren’t hooking up?”

Bryce peered over the back of the couch to make sure Hunt still stood at the bar before she said, “Because I am a fucking idiot, and you two jerks know that.”

Juniper and Fury snickered, the latter taking a sip of her vodka soda. “Tell him you’ve changed your mind,” the merc said, resting the glass on her black leather-clad knee. How Fury could wear leather in this heat was beyond Bryce. Shorts, T-shirt, and sandals were all she could endure with the sizzling temperatures, even at night.

“And break our bargain before Winter Solstice?” Bryce hissed. “He’d never let me live it down.”

“Athalar already knows you want to break it,” Fury drawled. “Oh, he totally knows,” Juniper agreed.

Bryce crossed her arms. “Can we not talk about this?” “Where would the fun be in that?” Fury asked.

Bryce kicked Fury’s leather boot, wincing as her gold-sandaled foot collided with unforgiving metal. “Steel toes? Really?”

“This is a veritable frat party,” Fury said, smirking. “There might be some asses to kick if someone makes a move on my girlfriend.”

Juniper glowed at the term. Girlfriend.

Bryce didn’t know what the Hel she was to Hunt. Girlfriend seemed ridiculous when talking about Hunt fucking Athalar. As if Hunt would ever do anything as normal and casual as dating.

Juniper poked Bryce in the arm. “I mean it. Remind me why you guys still need to wait for solstice to do the deed.”

Bryce slouched, sinking down a few inches, her feet sending the empty beer cans under the coffee table clattering. “I just …”

That familiar buzz of power and maleness that was Hunt filled the air behind her, and Bryce shut her mouth a moment before a plastic cup of amber liquid garnished with a wedge of lime appeared before her. “Princess,” Hunt crooned, and Bryce’s toes curled—yet again. They seemed to have a habit of doing that around him.

“Do we get to use that term now?” June perked up with delight. “I’ve been dying—”

“Absolutely not.” Bryce swigged from her drink. She gagged. “How much whiskey did you have the bartender put in here, Athalar?” She coughed, as if it’d do anything to ease the burn.

Hunt shrugged. “I thought you liked whiskey.”

Fury snorted, but Bryce got to her feet. Lifted the cup toward Hunt in a silent toast, then lifted it to June. “To the next principal dancer of the CCB.”

Then she knocked back the whole thing and let it burn right down to her soul.

Hunt let himself—just for one fucking second—look at Bryce. Admire the steady, unfaltering tap of her sandaled foot on the worn wood floor to the beat of the music; the long, muscled legs that gleamed in the neon firstlights, her white shorts offsetting her summer tan. No scars remained from the shit that had occurred this spring, aside from that mark on her chest, though the thick scar from years ago still curved along her thigh.

His fierce, strong, beautiful Bryce. He’d done his best not to gape at the shape of her ass in those shorts as they’d walked over here, the sway of her long hair against her lower back, the ample hips that swished with each step.

He was a stupid fucking animal. But he’d always been a stupid fucking animal around her.

He’d barely been able to focus on the ballet earlier—on June’s dancing

—because Bryce had looked so … delicious in that blue dress. Only her parents sitting a few feet in front of him had kept him from thinking too much about sliding his hand up her thigh and underneath that gauzy material.

But that wasn’t part of the plan. Earlier this spring, he’d been fine with it. Aching for her, but fine with the concept of getting to know each other

better before sex entered the equation. Yet that ache had only gotten worse these past months. Living together in their apartment was a slow kind of torture for both of them.

Bryce’s whiskey-colored eyes shifted toward him. She opened her mouth, then shut it at whatever she beheld in his expression.

The memory of those days following Micah’s and Sandriel’s demises cooled his rising lust.

Let’s take things slow, she’d requested. I feel like we tumbled into all of this, and now that things are getting back to normal, I want to do this right with you. Get to know you in real time, not while we’re running around the city trying to solve murders.

He’d agreed, because what else could he do? Never mind that he’d come home from the Comitium that night planning to seduce Quinlan within an inch of her life. He hadn’t even gotten to the kissing part when she’d announced she wanted to hit the brakes.

He knew more lay behind it. Knew it likely had something to do with the guilt she harbored for the thousands of people who hadn’t been saved that day. Allowing herself to be with him, to be happy … She needed time to sort it out. And Hunt would give it to her. Anything Bryce wanted, anything she needed, he’d gladly give it to her. He had the freedom to do so now, thanks to the branded-out tattoo on his wrist.

But on nights like these, with her in those shorts … it was really gods-damned hard.

Bryce hopped up from the couch and padded over to him, leaving Juniper and Fury to chat, Fury busy reloading the arts page of the Crescent City Times for the review of Juniper’s performance. “What’s up?” Hunt said to Bryce as she took up a place beside him.

“Do you actually like coming to these parties?” Bryce asked, gesturing to the throng, firstlight glow stick around her wrist gleaming bright. “This doesn’t disgust you?”

He tucked in his wings. “Why would it disgust me?”

“Because you’ve seen all the shit that’s happening in the world, and been treated like dirt, and these people …” She tossed her sheet of hair over a shoulder. “A lot of them have no idea about it. Or just don’t care.”

Hunt studied her tight face. “Why do we come to these parties if it bothers you?”

“Well, tonight we’re here to avoid my mom.” Hunt chuckled, but she went on, “And because I want to celebrate June being a genius.” She smiled at her friend on the couch. “And we’re here because Ruhn asked me to come. But … I don’t know. I want to feel normal, but then I feel guilty about that, and then I get mad at all these people who don’t care enough to feel guilty, and I think the poison-testing pill you no doubt put in my whiskey had some sort of sad-sack potion in it because I don’t know why I’m thinking about this right now.”

Hunt huffed a laugh. “Sad-sack potion?”

“You know what I mean!” She glared. “This really doesn’t bug you?”

“No.” He assessed the party raging around them. “I prefer to see people enjoying their lives. And you can’t assume that because they’re here, it means they don’t care. For all you know, a lot of them lost family and friends this spring. Sometimes people need stuff like this to feel alive again. To find a kind of release.”

Wrong word. He sure as fuck hadn’t found release recently, other than by his own hand. He tried not to think about whether Bryce had opened the drawer in her left nightstand, where she kept her toys, as often as he’d jacked off in the shower.

Four months left until Winter Solstice. Only four.

Bryce nodded, her mind clearly still on the conversation at hand. “I guess I just … Sometimes I catch myself enjoying a moment, and worry I’m enjoying it too much, you know? Like something could come along and ruin all of this if I let myself have too much fun or get too accustomed to feeling happy.”

“I know the feeling.” He couldn’t stop himself from letting his fingers curl in the ends of her hair. “It’s going to take time to adjust.”

He was still adjusting, too. He couldn’t get used to walking around without a pit in his stomach as he wondered what horrors the day would bring. Being in charge of himself, his future … The Asteri could take it all away again, if they wished. Had only let him live because he and Bryce were too public to kill—the Asteri wanted them to lie low forever. And if they didn’t … Well, Rigelus had been very clear on his call to Bryce months ago: the Bright Hand of the Asteri would kill everyone Bryce and Hunt cared about if they stepped out of line. So lying low it would be.

Hunt was happy to do precisely that. To go to the ballet and these parties and pretend that he’d never known anything different. That Bryce didn’t have the Horn tattooed into her back.

But each morning, when he donned his usual black armor for the 33rd, he remembered. Isaiah had asked him for backup right after Micah’s death, and Hunt had gladly given it. He’d stayed on as Isaiah’s unofficial commander—unofficial only because Hunt didn’t want the paperwork that came with the real title.

The city had been quiet, though. Focused on healing. Hunt wasn’t going to complain.

His phone buzzed in the back pocket of his black jeans, and he fished it out to find an email from Isaiah waiting for him. Hunt read it and went still. His heart dropped to his feet and back up again.

“What’s wrong?” Bryce peered over his shoulder.

Hunt passed her the phone with a surprisingly steady hand. “New Archangels have been chosen for Micah’s and Sandriel’s territories.”

Her eyes widened. “Who? How bad are they?”

He motioned for her to read Isaiah’s email, and Bryce, that firstlight glow stick still coiled around her wrist, obeyed.

Roll out the welcome mat, Isaiah had written as his only comment on the forwarded email from the Asteri’s imperial secretary announcing the new positions.

“They’re not bad,” Hunt said, staring blankly at the revelers now gathering around a Fae male doing a keg stand in the corner. “That’s the problem.”

Bryce’s brows bunched as she scanned the email. “Ephraim—he currently shares Rodinia with Jakob. Yeah, he seems decent enough. But he’s going to northern Pangera. Who … Oh. Who the Hel is Celestina?”

Hunt frowned. “She’s stayed out of the spotlight. She oversees Nena— population, like, fifty. She has one legion under her command. One. She doesn’t even have a triarii. The legion is literally controlled by the Asteri— all watchdogs for the Northern Rift. She’s a figurehead.”

“Big promotion, then.”

Hunt grunted. “Everything I’ve heard about her sounds unusually nice.” “No chance it’s true?”

“Where Archangels are concerned? No.” He crossed his arms.

Fury said from the couch, “For what it’s worth, Athalar, I haven’t heard anything bad, either.”

Juniper asked, “So this is promising, right?”

Hunt shook his head. This wasn’t a conversation to have in public, but he said, “I can’t figure out why the Asteri would appoint her here, when she’s only handled a small territory until now. She must be their puppet.”

Bryce tilted her head to the side, looking at him in that stark, all-seeing way that made his balls tighten. Gods, she was beautiful. “Maybe it’s just a good thing, Hunt. So many shitty things have happened to us that we might not trust when something actually is good. But maybe we got lucky with Celestina’s appointment.”

“I’m inclined to think Urd’s dealing us a decent hand,” Juniper agreed.

Fury Axtar said nothing, her eyes shining as she thought. The merc would likely be the only one to fully grasp the workings of the Asteri. Not that she’d ever reveal the details of her dealings with them.

“Celestina wants to meet what remains of Micah’s triarii when she arrives. Apparently, there’s going to be some sort of restructuring,” Hunt said as Bryce handed back his phone. “Whatever that means. The press release won’t go live until tomorrow morning. So keep it quiet.” The three females nodded, though he had a feeling Fury wouldn’t keep her word. Whoever she answered to, whatever valuable clients she served, would likely hear before dawn.

Bryce hooked her red hair behind her pointed ears. “When’s Celestina coming?”

“Tomorrow evening.” His throat constricted.

Juniper and Fury fell into quiet conversation, as if to grant them privacy. Bryce, catching their drift, lowered her voice. “You’re a free male, Hunt. She can’t order you to do anything you don’t want to do.” Her warm fingers wrapped around his wrist, thumb brushing over the branded-out SPQM. “You chose to reenlist in the 33rd. You have the rights of a free citizen. If you don’t like her, if you don’t want to serve her, then you don’t need to give her a reason in order to leave. You don’t need her permission.”

Hunt grunted his agreement, though he still had a fucking knot in his chest. “Celestina could make life very difficult for us.”

Bryce held up a hand. Starlight radiated, turning her skin iridescent. A drunk asshole nearby let out an ooooooh. Bryce ignored him and said, “I’d

like to see her try. I’m the Super Powerful and Special Magic Starborn Princess, remember?” He knew she was joking, but her mouth thinned. “I’ll protect you.”

“How could I forget, oh Magically Powerful and Super Special … whatever you said.”

Bryce grinned, lowering her hand. She’d been meeting with Ruhn once a week to explore her magic—to learn more about what lay within her veins, fueled by the power of so many. Her magic only manifested as starlight—a purely Fae gift. No shadows, like Ruhn possessed, or fire, like her father. But the sheer force of her power came from all those who’d given a droplet of their magic to the Gates over the years. All combined to make some kind of fuel to increase the potency of her starlight. Or something like that. Bryce had tried to explain it—why the magic manifested as a Fae talent—but Hunt didn’t care where it came from, so long as it kept her safe.

The magic was protection in a world designed to kill her. From a father who might very well want to eliminate the threat of a daughter who surpassed him in power, if only by a fraction.

Hunt still had trouble fathoming that the female standing beside him had become more powerful than the Autumn King. Hunt’s power technically still outranked hers, and her father’s, but with the Horn etched in her back, who really knew the depths of Bryce’s power? Considering Rigelus’s order to lie low, it wasn’t like Bryce could explore how the Horn affected her magic, but given what it had done this spring … He doubted Bryce would ever be tempted to experiment with it anyway.

He caught Axtar watching Bryce, but the merc said nothing.

So Hunt continued, only loud enough to indicate that he wanted Fury and Juniper to also hear, “I don’t know what this Celestina thing is about, but the Asteri do nothing out of the kindness of their hearts.”

“They’d need hearts to do that,” Juniper whispered with uncharacteristic venom.

Fury’s voice lowered. “The war is getting worse in Pangera. Valbara is a key territory full of vital resources. Appointing someone who all reports claim is nice seems idiotic.”

Juniper raised her brows. Not at the claim about the Asteri, Hunt guessed, but that Fury had willingly mentioned the war overseas. The merc

rarely, if ever, talked about it. What she’d done over there. What she’d seen. Hunt, having fought in many of those battles, had a good idea of both.

“Maybe they really do want a puppet,” Juniper said. “Someone who’s a figurehead, so they can order all of Valbara’s troops overseas with no resistance.”

Fury tucked a strand of her hair behind an ear. From all appearances, Axtar seemed human. But she was definitely Vanir—of what breed, what House, Hunt had no idea. Flame and Shadow seemed likeliest, but more than that, he couldn’t guess. The merc said, “Even Micah might have resisted that order.”

Bryce’s face paled at the bastard’s name. Hunt repressed the urge to fold a wing around her. He hadn’t told her of his own nightmares—of being forced to watch, over and over, as Micah brutalized her. And the nightmares of how she’d raced through the streets, demons from Hel’s darkest pits swarming her. Of brimstone missiles shooting for her in the Old Square.

“We can guess all night,” Bryce said, mastering herself. “But until you have that meeting tomorrow, Hunt, we won’t know. Just go in there with an open mind.”

“You mean, don’t start a fight.” His mouth twitched to the side. Fury snickered.

Bryce put a hand on her hip. “I mean, don’t go in there playing Scary Asshole. Maybe try for an Approachable Asshole vibe.”

Juniper laughed at that, and Hunt chuckled as well. Unable to stop himself from knocking Bryce with a wing for the second time that night, he promised, “Approachable Asshole it is, Quinlan.”

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